“Bah!” exclaimed Karl Massouligny, “the question of complaisant husbands is a difficult one. I have seen many kinds, and yet I am unable to give an opinion about any of them. I have often tried to determine whether they are blind, weak or clairvoyant. I believe that there are some which belong to each of these categories.
“Let us quickly pass over the blind ones. They cannot rightly be called complaisant, since they do not know, but they are good creatures who cannot see farther than their nose. It is a curious and interesting thing to notice the ease with which men and women can, be deceived. We are taken in by the slightest trick of those who surround us, by our children, our friends, our servants, our tradespeople. Humanity is credulous, and in order to discover deceit in others, we do not display one-tenth the shrewdness which we use when we, in turn, wish to deceive some one else.
“Clairvoyant husbands may be divided into three classes: Those who have some interest, pecuniary, ambitious or otherwise, in their wife’s having love affairs. These ask only to safeguard appearances as much as possible, and they are satisfied.
“Next come those who get angry. What a beautiful novel one could write about them!
“Finally the weak ones! Those who are afraid of scandal.
“There are also those who are powerless, or, rather, tired, who flee from the duties of matrimony through fear of ataxia or apoplexy, who are satisfied to see a friend run these risks.
“But I once met a husband of a rare species, who guarded against the common accident in a strange and witty manner.
“In Paris I had made the acquaintance of an elegant, fashionable couple. The woman, nervous, tall, slender, courted, was supposed to have had many love adventures. She pleased me with her wit, and I believe that I pleased her also. I courted her, a trial courting to which she answered with evident provocations. Soon we got to tender glances, hand pressures, all the little gallantries which precede the final attack.
“Nevertheless, I hesitated. I consider that, as a rule, the majority of society intrigues, however short they may be, are not worth the trouble which they give us and the difficulties which may arise. I therefore mentally compared the advantages and disadvantages which I might expect, and I thought I noticed that the husband suspected me.
“One evening, at a ball, as I was saying tender things to the young woman in a little parlor leading from the big hall where the dancing was going on, I noticed in a mirror the reflection of some one who was watching me. It was he. Our looks met and then I saw him turn his head and walk away.
“I murmured: ‘Your husband is spying on us.’
“She seemed dumbfounded and asked: ‘My husband?’
“‘Yes, he has been watching us for some time:
“‘Nonsense! Are you sure?’
“‘How strange! He is usually extraordinarily pleasant to all my. friends.’
“‘Perhaps he guessed that I love you!’
“‘Nonsense! You are not the first one to pay attention to me. Every woman who is a little in view drags behind her a herd of admirers.’
“‘Yes. But I love you deeply.’
“‘Admitting that that is true, does a husband ever guess those things?’
“‘Then he is not jealous?’
“She thought for an instant and then continued: ‘No. I do not think that I ever noticed any jealousy on his part.’
“‘Has he never-watched you?’
“‘No. As I said, he is always agreeable to my friends.’
“From that day my courting became much more assiduous. The woman did not please me any more than before, but the probable jealousy of her husband tempted me greatly.
“As for her, I judged her coolly and clearly. She had a certain worldly charm, due to a quick, gay, amiable and superficial mind, but no real, deep attraction. She was, as I have already said, an excitable little being, all on the surface, with rather a showy elegance. How can I explain myself? She was an ornament, not a home.
“One day, after taking dinner with her, her husband said to me, just as I was leaving: ‘My dear friend’ (he now called me ‘friend’), ‘we soon leave for the country. It is a great pleasure to my wife and myself to entertain people whom we like. We would be very pleased to have you spend a month with us. It would be very nice of you to do so.’
“I was dumbfounded, but I accepted.
“A month later I arrived at their estate of Vertcresson, in Touraine. They were waiting for me at the station, five miles from the chateau. There were three of them, she, the husband and a gentleman unknown to me, the Comte de Morterade, to whom I was introduced. He appeared to be delighted to make my acquaintance, and the strangest ideas passed through my mind while we trotted along the beautiful road between two hedges. I was saying to myself: ‘Let’s see, what can this mean? Here is a husband who cannot doubt that his wife and I are on more than friendly terms, and yet he invites me to his house, receives me like an old friend and seems to say: “Go ahead, my friend, the road is clear!”
“‘Then I am introduced to a very pleasant gentleman, who seems already to have settled down in the house, and — and who is perhaps trying to get out of it, and who seems as pleased at my arrival as the husband himself.
“‘Is it some former admirer who wishes to retire? One might think so. But, then, would these two men tacitly have come to one of these infamous little agreements so common in society? And it is proposed to me that I should quietly enter into the pact and carry it out. All hands and arms are held out to me. All doors and hearts are open to me.
“‘And what about her? An enigma. She cannot be ignorant of everything. However — however — Well, I cannot understand it.’
“The dinner was very gay and cordial. On leaving the table the husband and his friend began to play cards, while I went out on the porch to look at the moonlight with madame. She seemed to be greatly affected by nature, and I judged that the moment for my happiness was near. That evening she was really delightful. The country had seemed to make her more tender. Her long, slender waist looked pretty on this stone porch beside a great vase in which grew some flowers. I felt like dragging her out under the trees, throwing myself at her feet and speaking to her words of love.
“Her husband’s voice called ‘Louise!’
“‘You are forgetting the tea.’
“‘I’ll go and see about it, my friend.’
“We returned to the house, and she gave us some tea. When the two men had finished playing cards, they were visibly tired. I had to go to my room. I did not get to sleep till late, and then I slept badly.
“An excursion was decided upon for the following afternoon, and we went in an open carriage to visit some ruins. She and I were in the back of the vehicle and they were opposite us, riding backward. The conversation was sympathetic and agreeable. I am an orphan, and it seemed to me as though I had just found my family, I felt so at home with them.
“Suddenly, as she had stretched out her foot between her husband’s legs, he murmured reproachfully: ‘Louise, please don’t wear out your old shoes yourself. There is no reason for being neater in Paris than in the country.’
“I lowered my eyes. She was indeed wearing worn-out shoes, and I noticed that her stockings were not pulled up tight.
“She had blushed and hidden her foot under her dress. The friend was looking out in the distance with an indifferent and unconcerned look.
“The husband offered me a cigar, which I accepted. For a few days it was impossible for me to be alone with her for two minutes; he was with us everywhere. He was delightful to me, however.
“One morning he came to get me to take a walk before breakfast, and the conversation happened to turn on marriage. I spoke a little about solitude and about how charming life can be made by the affection of a woman. Suddenly he interrupted me, saying: ‘My friend, don’t talk about things you know nothing about. A woman who has no other reason for loving you will not love you long. All the little coquetries which make them so exquisite when they do not definitely belong to us cease as soon as they become ours. And then — the respectable women — that is to say our wives — are — are not — in fact do not understand their profession of wife. Do you understand?’
“He said no more, and I could not guess his thoughts.
“Two days after this conversation he called me to his room quite early, in order to show me a collection of engravings. I sat in an easy chair opposite the big door which separated his apartment from his wife’s, and behind this door I heard some one walking and moving, and I was thinking very little of the engravings, although I kept exclaiming: ‘Oh, charming! delightful! exquisite!’
“He suddenly said: ‘Oh, I have a beautiful specimen in the next room. I’ll go and get it.’
“He ran to the door quickly, and both sides opened as though for a theatrical effect.
“In a large room, all in disorder, in the midst of skirts, collars, waists lying around on the floor, stood a tall, dried-up creature. The lower part of her body was covered with an old, worn-out silk petticoat, which was hanging limply on her shapeless form, and she was standing in front of a mirror brushing some short, sparse blond hairs. Her arms formed two acute angles, and as she turned around in astonishment I saw under a common cotton chemise a regular cemetery of ribs, which were hidden from the public gaze by well-arranged pads.
“The husband uttered a natural exclamation and came back, closing the doors, and said: ‘Gracious! how stupid I am! Oh, how thoughtless! My wife will never forgive me for that!’
“I already felt like thanking him. I left three days later, after cordially shaking hands with the two men and kissing the lady’s fingers. She bade me a cold good-by.”
Karl Massouligny was silent. Some one asked: “But what was the friend?”
“I don’t know — however — however he looked greatly distressed to see me leaving so soon.”
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 12:34