Is there any stronger feeling than curiosity in a woman? Oh! Fancy seeing, knowing, touching what one has dreamt about! What would a woman not do for that? When once a woman’s eager curiosity is aroused, she will be guilty of any folly, commit any imprudence, venture upon anything, and recoil from nothing. I am speaking of women who are really women, who are endowed with that triple-bottomed disposition, which appears to be reasonable and cold on the surface, but whose three secret compartments are filled. The first, with female uneasiness, which is always in a state of flutter; the next, with sly tricks which are colored in imitation of good faith, with those sophistical and formidable tricks of apparently devout women; and the last, with all those charming, improper acts, with that delightful deceit, exquisite perfidy, and all those wayward qualities, which drive lovers who are stupidly credulous, to suicide; but which delight others.
The woman whose adventure I am about to relate, was a little person from the provinces, who had been insipidly chaste till then. Her life, which was apparently so calm, was spent at home, with a busy husband and two children, whom she brought up like an irreproachable woman. But her heart beat with unsatisfied curiosity, and some unknown longing. She was continually thinking of Paris, and read the fashionable papers eagerly. The accounts of parties, of the dresses and various entertainments, excited her longing; but, above all, she was strangely agitated by those paragraphs which were full of double meaning, by those veils which were half raised by clever phrases, and which gave her a glimpse of culpable and ravishing delights, and from her country home, she saw Paris in an apotheosis of magnificent and corrupt luxury.
And during the long nights, when she dreamt, lulled by the regular snores of her husband, who was sleeping on his back by her side, with a silk handkerchief tied round his head, she saw in her sleep those well-known men whose names appeared on the first page of the newspapers as great stars in the dark skies; and she pictured to herself their life of continual excitement, of constant debauches, of orgies such as they indulged in in ancient Rome, which were horridly voluptuous, with refinements of sensuality which were so complicated that she could not even picture them to herself.
The boulevards seemed to her to be a kind of abyss of human passions, and there could be no doubt that the houses there concealed mysteries of prodigious love. But she felt that she was growing old, and this, without having known life, except in those regular, horridly monotonous, everyday occupations, which constitute the happiness of the home. She was still pretty, for she was well preserved in her tranquil existence, like some winter fruit in a closed cupboard; but she was agitated and devoured by her secret ardor. She used to ask herself whether she should die without having experienced any of those damning, intoxicating joys, without having plunged once, just once into that flood of Parisian voluptuousness.
By dint of much perseverance, she paved the way for a journey to Paris, found a pretext, got some relations to invite her, and as her husband could not go with her, she went alone, and as soon as she arrived, she invented a reason for remaining for two days, or rather for two nights, if necessary, as she told him that she had met some friends who lived a little way out of town.
And then she set out on a voyage of discovery. She went up and down the boulevards, without seeing anything except roving and numbered vice. She looked into the large cafés, and read the Agony Column of the Figaro, which every morning seemed to her like a tocsin, a summons to love. But nothing put her on the track of those orgies of actors and actresses; nothing revealed to her those temples of debauchery which she imagined opened at some magic word, like the cave in the Arabian Nights, or those catacombs in Rome, where the mysteries of a persecuted religion were secretly celebrated.
Her relations, who were quite middle-class people, could not introduce her to any of those well-known men with whose names her head was full, and in despair she was thinking of returning, when chance came to her aid. One day, as she was going along the Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin, she stopped to look into a shop full of those colored Japanese knick-knacks, which strike the eye on account of their color. She was looking at the little ivory buffoons, the tall vases of flaming enamel, and the curious bronzes, when she heard the shop-keeper dilating, with many bows, on the value of an enormous, pot-bellied, comical figure, which was quite unique, he said, to a little, bald-headed, gray-bearded man.
Every moment, the shop-keeper repeated his customer’s name, which was a celebrated one, in a voice like a trumpet. The other customers, young women and well-dressed gentlemen, gave a swift and furtive, but respectful glance at the celebrated writer, who was looking admiringly at the china figure. They were both equally ugly, as ugly as two brothers who had sprung from the same mother.
“I will let you have it for a thousand francs, Monsieur Varin, and that is exactly what it cost me. I should ask anybody else fifteen hundred, but I think a great deal of literary and artistic customers, and have special prices for them. They all come to me, Monsieur Varin. Yesterday, Monsieur Busnach bought a large, antique goblet of me, and the other day I sold two candelabra like this (is it not handsome?) to Monsieur Alexander Dumas. If Monsieur Zola were to see that Japanese figure, he would buy it immediately, Monsieur Varin.”
The author hesitated in perplexity, as he wanted to have the figure, but the price was above him, and he thought no more about her looking at him than if he had been alone in the desert. She came in trembling, with her eyes fixed shamelessly upon him, and she did not even ask herself whether he were good-looking, elegant or young. It was Jean Varin himself, Jean Varin. After a long struggle, and painful hesitation, he put the figure down onto the table. “No, it is too dear,” he said. The shop-keeper’s eloquence redoubled. “Oh! Monsieur Varin, too dear? It is worth two thousand francs, if it is worth a son.” But the man of letters replied sadly, still looking at the figure with the enameled eyes: “I do not say it is not; but it is too dear for me.” And thereupon, she, seized by a kind of mad audacity, came forward and said: “What shall you charge me for the figure?” The shop-keeper, in surprise, replied: “Fifteen hundred francs, Madame.” “I will take it.”
The writer, who had not even noticed her till that moment, turned round suddenly; he looked at her from head to foot, with half-closed eyes, observantly, and then he took in the details, as a connoisseur. She was charming, suddenly animated by that flame which had hitherto been dormant in her. And then, a woman who gives fifteen hundred francs for a knick-knack is not to be met with every day.
But she was overcome by a feeling of delightful delicacy, and turning to him, she said in a trembling voice: “Excuse me, Monsieur; no doubt I have been rather hasty, as perhaps you had not finally made up your mind.” He, however, only bowed, and said: “Indeed, I had, Madame.” And she, filled with emotion, continued: “Well, Monsieur, if either today, or at any other time, you change your mind, you can have this Japanese figure. I only bought it because you seemed to like it.”
He was visibly flattered, and smiled. “I should much like to find out how you know who I am?” he said. Then she told him how she admired him, and became quite eloquent as she quoted his works, and while they were talking he rested his arms on a table, and fixed his bright eyes upon her, trying to make out who and what she really was. But the shop-keeper, who was pleased to have that living puff of his goods, called out, from the other end of the shop: “Just look at this, Monsieur Varin; is it not beautiful?”
And then everyone looked round, and she almost trembled with pleasure at being seen talking so intimately with such a well-known man.
At last, however, intoxicated, as it were, by her feelings, she grew bold, like a general does, who is going to give the order for an assault. “Monsieur,” she said, “will you do me a great, a very great pleasure? Allow me to offer you this funny Japanese figure, as a keepsake from a woman who admires you passionately, and whom you have seen for ten minutes.”
Of course he refused, and she persisted, but still he resisted her offer, at which he was much amused, and at which he laughed heartily; but that only made her more obstinate, and she said: “Very well, then, I shall take it to your house immediately. Where do you live?”
He refused to give her his address, but she got it from the shop-keeper, and when she had paid for her purchase, she ran out to take a cab. The writer went after her, as he did not wish to accept a present for which he could not possibly account. He reached her just as she was jumping into the vehicle, and getting in after her, he almost fell onto her, and then tumbled onto the bottom of the cab as it started. He picked himself up, however, and sat down by her side, feeling very much annoyed.
It was no good for him to insist and to beg her; she showed herself intractable, and when they got to the door, she stated her conditions. “I will undertake not to leave this with you,” she said, “if you will promise to do all I want today.” And the whole affair seemed so funny to him that he agreed. “What do you generally do at this time?” she asked him; and after hesitating for a few moments, he replied: “I generally go for a walk.” “Very well, then, we will go to the Bois de Boulogne!” she said, in a resolute voice, and they started.
He was obliged to tell her the names of all the well-known women, pure or impure, with every detail about them; their life, their habits, their private affairs, and their vices; and when it was getting dusk, she said to him: “What do you do every day at this time?” “I have some absinthe,” he replied, with a laugh. “Very well, then, Monsieur,” she went on, seriously, “let us go and have some absinthe.”
They went into a large café on the boulevard which he frequented, and where he met some of his colleagues, whom he introduced to her. She was half mad with pleasure, and she kept saying to herself: “At last! At last!” But time went on, and she observed that she supposed it must be about his dinner time, and she suggested that they should go and dine. When they left Bignon’s, after dinner, she wanted to know what he did in the evening, and looking at her fixedly, he replied: “That depends; sometimes I go to the theater.” “Very well, then, Monsieur; let us go to the theater.”
They went to the Vaudeville with an order, thanks to him, and, to her great pride, the whole house saw her sitting by his side, in the balcony stalls.
When the play was over, he gallantly kissed her hand, and said: “It only remains for me to thank you for this delightful day. . . . ” But she interrupted him: “What do you do at this time, every night?” “Why . . . why . . . I go home.” She began to laugh, a little tremulous laugh. “Very well, Monsieur . . . let us go to your rooms.”
They did not say anything more. She shivered occasionally, from head to foot, feeling inclined to stay, and inclined to run away, but with a fixed determination, after all, to see it out to the end. She was so excited that she had to hold onto the baluster as she went upstairs, and he came up behind her, with a wax match in his hand.
As soon as they were in the room, she undressed herself quickly, and retired without saying a word, and then she waited for him, cowering against the wall. But she was as simple as it was possible for a provincial lawyer’s wife to be, and he was more exacting than a pascha with three tails, and so they did not at all understand each other. At last, however, he went to sleep, and the night passed, and the silence was only disturbed by the tick-tack of the clock, and she, lying motionless, thought of her conjugal nights; and by the light of the Chinese lantern, she looked, nearly heart-broken, at the little fat man lying on his back, whose round stomach raised up the bed-clothes like a balloon filled with gas. He snored with the noise of a wheezy organ pipe, with prolonged snorts and comic chokings. His few hairs profited by his sleep, to stand up in a very strange way, as if they were tired of having been fastened for so long to that pate, whose bareness they were trying to cover, and a small stream of saliva was running out of one corner of his half-open mouth.
At last the daylight appeared through the drawn blinds; so she got up and dressed herself without making any noise, and she had already half opened the door, when she made the lock creak, and he woke up and rubbed his eyes. He was some moments before he quite came to himself, and then, when he remembered all that had happened, he said: “What! Are you going already?” She remained standing, in some confusion, and then she said, in a hesitating voice: “Yes, of course; it is morning . . . ”
Then he sat up, and said: “Look here, I have something to ask you, in my turn.” And as she did not reply, he went on: “You have surprised me most confoundedly since yesterday. Be open, and tell me why you did it all, for upon my word I cannot understand it in the least.” She went close up to him, blushing like as if she had been a virgin, and said: “I wanted to know . . . what . . . what vice . . . really was, . . . and . . . well . . . well, it is not at all funny.”
And she ran out of the room, and downstairs into the street.
A number of sweepers were busy in the streets, brushing the pavements, the roadway, and sweeping everything on one side. With the same regular motion, the motion of mowers in a meadow, they pushed the mud in front of them in a semi-circle, and she met them in every street, like dancing puppets, walking automatically with their swaying motion. And it seemed to her as if something had been swept out of her; as if her over-excited dreams had been pushed into the gutter, or into the drain, and so she went home, out of breath, and very cold, and all that she could remember was the sensation of the motion of those brooms sweeping the streets of Paris in the early morning.
As soon as she got into her room, she threw herself onto her bed and cried.
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40