At that time (George Kervelen said) I was living in furnished lodgings in the Rue des Saints-Pères.
When my father had made up his mind that I should go to Paris to continue my law studies, there had been a long discussion about settling everything. My allowance had been fixed at first at two thousand five hundred francs, but my poor mother was so anxious, that she said to my father that if I spent my money badly I might not take enough to eat, and then my health would suffer, and so it was settled that a comfortable boarding-house should be found for me, and that the amount should be paid to the proprietor himself, or herself, every month.
Some of our neighbors told us of a certain Mme. Kergaran, a native of Brittany, who took in boarders, and so my father arranged matters by letter with this respectable person, at whose house I and my luggage arrived one evening.
Mme. Kergaran was a woman of about forty. She was very stout, had a voice like a drill-sergeant, and decided everything in a very abrupt manner. Her house was narrow, with only one window opening on to the street on each story, which rather gave it the appearance of a ladder of windows, or better, perhaps, of a slice of a house sandwiched in between two others.
The landlady lived on the first floor with her servant, the kitchen and dining-room were on the second, and four boarders from Brittany lived on the third and fourth, and I had two rooms on the fifth.
A little dark corkscrew staircase led up to these attics. All day long Mme. Kergaran was up and down these stairs like a captain on board ship. Ten times a day she would go into each room, noisily superintending everything, seeing that the beds were properly made, the clothes well brushed, if the attendance were all that it should be; in a word, she looked after her boarders like a mother, and better than a mother.
I soon made the acquaintance of my four fellow-countrymen. Two were medical and two were law students, but all impartially endured the landlady’s despotic yoke. They were as frightened of her as a boy robbing an orchard would be of a rural policeman.
I, however, immediately felt that I wished to be independent; it is my nature to rebel. I declared at once that I meant to come in at whatever time I liked, for Mme. Kergaran had fixed twelve o’clock at night as the limit. On hearing this she looked at me for a few moments, and then said:
“It is quite impossible; I cannot have Annette awakened at any hour of the night. You can have nothing to do out-of-doors at such a time.”
I replied firmly that, according to the law, she was obliged to open the door for me at any time.
“If you refuse,” I said, “I shall get a policeman to witness the fact, and go and get a bed at some hotel, at your expense, in which I shall be fully justified. You will, therefore, be obliged either to open the door for me or to get rid of me. Do which you please.”
I laughed in her face as I told her my conditions. She could not speak for a moment for surprise, then she tried to negotiate, but I was firm, and she was obliged to yield; and so it was agreed that I should have a latchkey, on my solemn undertaking that no one else should know it.
My energy made such a wholesome impression on her that from that time she treated me with marked favor; she was most attentive, and even showed me a sort of rough tenderness which was not at all unpleasing. Sometimes when I was in a jovial mood I would kiss her by surprise, if only for the sake of getting the box on the ears which she gave me immediately afterwards. When I managed to duck my head quickly enough, her hand would pass over me as swiftly as a ball, and I would run away laughing, while she would call after me:
“Oh! you wretch, I will pay you out for that.”
However, we soon became real friends.
It was not long before I made the acquaintance of a girl who was employed in a shop, and whom I constantly met. You know what such sort of love affairs are in Paris. One fine day, going to a lecture, you meet a work-girl going to work arm-inarm with a friend. You look at her and feel that pleasant little shock which the eye of some women gives you. The next day at the same time, going through the same street, you meet her again, and the next, and the succeeding days. At last you speak, and the love affair follows its course just like an illness.
Well, by the end of three weeks I was on that footing with Emma which precedes a fall. The fall would indeed have taken place much sooner had I known where to bring it about. The girl lived at home, and utterly refused to go to an hotel. I did not know how to manage, but at last I took the desperate resolve to take her to my room some night at about eleven o’clock, under the pretense of giving her a cup of tea. Mme. Kergaran always went to bed at ten, so that we could get in by means of my latchkey without exciting any attention, and go down again in an hour or two in the same way.
After a good deal of entreaty on my part, Emma accepted my invitation.
I did not spend a very pleasant day, for I was by no means easy in my mind. I was afraid of complications, of a catastrophe, of some scandal. At night I went into a café, and drank two cups of coffee, and three or four glasses of cognac, to give me courage, and when I heard the clock strike half-past ten, I went slowly to the place of meeting, where she was already waiting for me. She took my arm in a coaxing manner, and we set off slowly towards my lodgings. The nearer we got to the door the more nervous I got, and I thought to myself — “If only Mme. Kergaran is in bed already.”
I said to Emma two or three times:
“Above all things, don’t make any noise on the stairs,” to which she replied, laughing:
“Are you afraid of being heard?”
“No,” I said, “but I am afraid of waking the man who sleeps in the room next to me, who is not at all well.”
When I got near the house I felt as frightened as a man does who is going to the dentist’s. All the windows were dark, so no doubt everybody was asleep, and I breathed again. I opened the door as carefully as a thief, let my fair companion in, shut it behind me, and went upstairs on tiptoe, holding my breath, and striking wax-matches lest the girl should make a false step.
As we passed the landlady’s door I felt my heart beating very quickly, but we reached the second floor, then the third, and at last the fifth, and got into my room. Victory!
However, I only dared to speak in a whisper, and took off my boots so as not to make any noise. The tea, which I made over a spirit-lamp, was soon drunk, and then I became pressing, till little by little, as if in play, I, one by one, took off my companion’s clothes, who yielded while resisting, blushing, confused.
She had absolutely nothing more on except a short white petticoat when my door suddenly opened, and Mme. Kergaran appeared with a candle in her hand, in exactly the same costume as Emma.
I jumped away from her and remained standing up, looking at the two women, who were looking at each other. What was going to happen?
My landlady said, in a lofty tone of voice which I had never heard from her before:
“Monsieur Kervelen, I will not have prostitutes in my house.”
“But, Madame Kergaran,” I stammered, “the young lady is a friend of mine. She just came in to have a cup of tea.”
“People don’t take tea in their chemise. You will please make this person go directly.”
Emma, in a natural state of consternation, began to cry, and hid her face in her petticoat, and I lost my head, not knowing what to do or say. My landlady added, with irresistible authority:
“Help her to dress, and take her out at once.”
It was certainly the only thing I could do, so I picked up her dress from the floor, put it over her head, and began to fasten it as best I could. She helped me, crying all the time, hurrying and making all sorts of mistakes and unable to find either buttonholes or laces, while Mme. Kergaran stood by motionless, with the candle in her hand, looking at us with the severity of a judge.
As soon as Emma was dressed, without even stopping to button her boots, she rushed past the landlady and ran down stairs. I followed her in my slippers and half undressed, and kept repeating: “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!”
I felt that I ought to say something to her, but I could not find anything. I overtook her just by the street-door, and tried to take her into my arms, but she pushed me violently away, saying in a low, nervous voice:
“Leave me alone, leave me alone!” and so ran out into the street, closing the door behind her.
When I went upstairs again I found that Mme. Kergaran was waiting on the first landing, and I went up slowly, expecting, and ready for, anything.
Her door was open, and she called me in, saying in a severe voice:
“I want to speak to you, M. Kervelen.”
I went in, with my head bent. She put her candle on the mantelpiece, and then, folding her arms over her expansive bosom, which a fine white dressing-jacket hardly covered, she said:
“So, Monsieur Kervelen, you think my house is a house of ill-fame?”
I was not at all proud. I murmured:
“Oh, dear, no! But, Mme. Kergaran, you must not be angry; you know what young men are.”
“I know,” was her answer, “that I will not have such creatures here, so you will understand that. I expect to have my house respected, and I will not have it lose its reputation, you understand me? I know. . . . ”
She went on thus for at least twenty minutes, overwhelming me with the good name of her house, with reasons for her indignation, and loading me with severe reproofs. I went to bed crestfallen, and resolved never again to try such an experiment, so long, at least, as I continued to be a lodger of Mme. Kergaran.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53