The sea was brilliant and unruffled, scarcely stirred, and on the pier the entire town of Havre watched the ships as they came on.
They could be seen at a distance, in great numbers; some of them, the steamers, with plumes of smoke; the others, the sailing vessels, drawn by almost invisible tugs, lifting towards the sky their bare masts, like leafless trees.
They hurried from every end of the horizon towards the narrow mouth of the jetty which devoured these monsters; and they groaned, they shrieked, they hissed while they spat out puffs of steam like animals panting for breath.
Two young officers were walking on the landing-stage, where a number of people were waiting, saluting or returning salutes, and sometimes stopping to chat.
Suddenly, one of them, the taller, Paul d’Henricol, pressed the arm of his comrade, Jean Renoldi, then, in a whisper, said:
“Hallo, here’s Madame Poincot; give a good look at her. I assure you that she’s making eyes at you.”
She was moving along on the arm of her husband. She was a woman of about forty, very handsome still, slightly stout, but, owing to her graceful fullness of figure, as fresh as she was at twenty. Among her friends she was known as the Goddess on account of her proud gait, her large black eyes, and the entire air of nobility of her person. She remained irreproachable; never had the least suspicion cast a breath on her life’s purity. She was regarded as the very type of a virtuous, uncorrupted woman. So upright that no man had ever dared to think of her.
And yet for the last month Paul d’Henricol had been assuring his friend Renoldi that Madame Poincot was in love with him, and he maintained that there was no doubt of it.
“Be sure I don’t deceive myself. I see it clearly. She loves you — she loves you passionately, like a chaste woman who had never loved. Forty years is a terrible age for virtuous women when they possess senses; they become foolish, and commit utter follies. She is hit, my dear fellow; she is falling like a wounded bird, and is ready to drop into your arms. I say — just look at her!”
The tall woman, preceded by her two daughters, aged twelve and fifteen years, suddenly turned pale, on her approach, as her eyes lighted on the officer’s face. She gave him an ardent glance, concentrating her gaze upon him, and no longer seemed to have any eyes for her children, her husband, or any other person around her. She returned the salutation of the two young men without lowering her eyes, glowing with such a flame that a doubt, at last, forced its way into Lieutenant Renoldi’s mind.
His friend said, in the same hushed voice: “I was sure of it. Did you not notice her this time? By Jove, she is a nice tit-bit!”
But Jean Renoldi had no desire for a society intrigue. Caring little for love, he longed, above all, for a quiet life, and contented himself with occasional amours such as a young man can always have. All the sentimentality, the attentions, and the tenderness which a well-bred woman exacts bored him. The chain, however slight it might be, which is always formed by an adventure of this sort, filled him with fear. He said: “At the end of a month I’ll have had enough of it, and I’ll be forced to wait patiently for six months through politeness.”
Then, a rupture exasperated him, with the scenes, the allusions, the clinging attachment, of the abandoned woman.
He avoided meeting Madame Poincot.
But, one evening he found himself by her side at a dinner-party, and he felt on his skin, in his eyes, and even in his heart, the burning glance of his fair neighbor. Their hands met, and almost involuntarily were pressed together in a warm clasp. Already the intrigue was almost begun.
He saw her again, always in spite of himself. He realized that he was loved. He felt himself moved by a kind of pitying vanity when he saw what a violent passion for him swayed this woman’s breast. So he allowed himself to be adored, and merely displayed gallantry, hoping that the affair would be only sentimental.
But, one day, she made an appointment with him for the ostensible purpose of seeing him and talking freely to him. She fell, swooning, into his arms; and he had no alternative but to be her lover.
And this lasted six months. She loved him with an unbridled, panting love. Absorbed in this frenzied passion, she no longer bestowed a thought on anything else. She surrendered herself to it utterly — her body, her soul, her reputation, her position, her happiness — all she had cast into that fire of her heart, as one casts, as a sacrifice, every precious object into a funeral pier.
He had for some time grown tired of her, and deeply regretted his easy conquest as a fascinating officer; but he was bound, held prisoner. At every moment she said to him: “I have given you everything. What more would you have?” He felt a desire to answer:
“But I have asked nothing from you, and I beg of you to take back what you gave me.”
Without caring about being seen, compromised, ruined, she came to see him every evening, her passion becoming more inflamed each time they met. She flung herself into his arms, strained him in a fierce embrace, fainted under the force of rapturous kisses which to him were now terribly wearisome.
He said in a languid tone: “Look here! be reasonable!”
“I love you,” and sank on her knees gazing at him for a long time in an attitude of admiration. At length, exasperated by her persistent gaze, he tried to make her rise.
“I say! Sit down. Let us talk.”
“No, leave me;” and remained there, her soul in a state of ecstasy.
He said to his friend d’Henricol:
“You know, ’twill end by my beating her. I won’t have any more of it! It must end, and that without further delay!” Then he went on:
“What do you advise me to do?”
The other replied:
“Break it off.”
And Renoldi added, shrugging his shoulders:
“You speak indifferently about the matter; you believe that it is easy to break with a woman who tortures you with attention, who annoys you with kindnesses, who persecutes you with her affection, whose only care is to please you, and whose only wrong is that she gave herself to you in spite of you.”
But suddenly, one morning the news came that the regiment was about to be removed from the garrison; Renoldi began to dance with joy. He was saved! Saved without scenes, without cries! Saved! All he had to do now was to wait patiently for two months more. Saved!
In the evening she came to him more excited than she had ever been before. She had heard the dreadful news, and, without taking off her hat she caught his hands and pressed them nervously, with her eyes fixed on his, and her voice vibrating and resolute.
“You are leaving,” she said; “I know it. At first, I felt heart-broken; then, I understood what I had to do. I don’t hesitate about doing it. I have come to give you the greatest proof of love that a woman can offer. I follow you. For you I am abandoning my husband, my children, my family. I am ruining myself, but I am happy. It seems to me that I am giving myself to you over again. It is the last and the greatest sacrifice. I am yours for ever!”
He felt a cold sweat down his back, and was seized with a dull and violent rage, the anger of weakness. However, he became calm, and, in a disinterested tone, with a show of kindness, he refused to accept her sacrifice, tried to appease her, to bring her to reason, to make her see her own folly! She listened to him, staring at him with her great black eyes and with a smile of disdain on her lips, and said not a word in reply. He went on talking to her, and when, at length, he stopped, she said merely:
“Can you really be a coward? Can you be one of those who seduce a woman, and then throw her over, through sheer caprice?”
He became pale, and renewed his arguments; he pointed out to her the inevitable consequences of such an action to both of them as long as they lived — how their lives would be shattered and how the world would shut its doors against them. She replied obstinately: “What does it matter when we love each other?” Then, all of a sudden, he burst out furiously:
“Well, then, I will not. No — do you understand? I will not do it, and I forbid you to do it.” Then, carried away by the rancorous feeling which had seethed within him so long, he relieved his heart:
“Ah, damn it all, you have now been sticking on to me for a long time in spite of myself, and the best thing for you now is to take yourself off. I’ll be much obliged if you do so, upon my honor!”
She did not answer him, but her livid countenance began to look shriveled up, as if all her nerves and muscles had been twisted out of shape. And she went away without saying good-bye.
The same night she poisoned herself.
For a week she was believed to be in a hopeless condition. And in the city people gossiped about the case, and pitied her, excusing her sin on account of the violence of her passion, for overstrained emotions, becoming heroic through their intensity, always obtain forgiveness for whatever is blameworthy in them. A woman who kills herself is, so to speak, not an adulteress. And ere long there was a feeling of general reprobation against Lieutenant Renoldi for refusing to see her again — a unanimous sentiment of blame.
It was a matter of common talk that he had deserted her, betrayed her, ill-treated her. The Colonel, overcome by compassion, brought his officer to book in a quiet way. Paul d’Henricol called on his friend:
“Deuce take it, Renoldi, it’s not good enough to let a woman die; it’s not the right thing anyhow.”
The other, enraged, told him to hold his tongue, whereupon d’Henricol made use of the word “infamy.” The result was a duel, Renoldi was wounded, to the satisfaction of everybody, and was for some time confined to his bed.
She heard about it, and only loved him the more for it, believing that it was on her account he had fought the duel; but, as she was too ill to move, she was unable to see him again before the departure of the regiment.
He had been three months in Lille when he received one morning, a visit from the sister of his former mistress.
After long suffering and a feeling of dejection, which she could not conquer, Madame Poincot’s life was now despaired of, and she merely asked to see him for a minute, only for a minute, before closing her eyes for ever.
Absence and time had appeased the young man’s satiety and anger; he was touched, moved to tears, and he started at once for Havre.
She seemed to be in the agonies of death. They were left alone together; and by the bedside of this woman whom he now believed to be dying, and whom he blamed himself for killing, though it was not by his own hand, he was fairly crushed with grief. He burst out sobbing, embraced her with tender, passionate kisses, more lovingly than he had ever done in the past. He murmured in a broken voice:
“No, no, you shall not die! You shall get better! We shall love each other for ever — for ever!”
She said in faint tones:
“Then it is true. You do love me, after all?”
And he, in his sorrow for her misfortunes, swore, promised to wait till she had recovered, and full of loving pity, kissed again and again the emaciated hands of the poor woman whose heart was panting with feverish, irregular pulsations.
The next day he returned to the garrison.
Six weeks later she went to meet him, quite old-looking, unrecognizable, and more enamored than ever.
In his condition of mental prostration, he consented to live with her. Then, when they remained together as if they had been legally united, the same colonel who had displayed indignation with him for abandoning her, objected to this irregular connection as being incompatible with the good example officers ought to give in a regiment. He warned the lieutenant on the subject, and then furiously denounced his conduct, so Renoldi retired from the army.
He went to live in a village on the shore of the Mediterranean, the classic sea of lovers.
And three years passed. Renoldi, bent under the yoke, was vanquished, and became accustomed to the woman’s persevering devotion. His hair had now turned white.
He looked upon himself as a man done for, gone under. Henceforth, he had no hope, no ambition, no satisfaction in life, and he looked forward to no pleasure in existence.
But one morning a card was placed in his hand, with the name — “Joseph Poincot, Shipowner, Havre.”
The husband! The husband, who had said nothing, realizing that there was no use in struggling against the desperate obstinacy of women. What did he want?
He was waiting in the garden, having refused to come into the house. He bowed politely, but would not sit down, even on a bench in a gravel-path, and he commenced talking clearly and slowly.
“Monsieur, I did not come here to address reproaches to you. I know too well how things happened. I have been the victim of — we have been the victims of — a kind of fatality. I would never have disturbed you in your retreat if the situation had not changed. I have two daughters, Monsieur. One of them, the elder, loves a young man, and is loved by him. But the family of this young man is opposed to the marriage, basing their objection on the situation of — my daughter’s mother. I have no feeling of either anger or spite, but I love my children, Monsieur. I have, therefore, come to ask my wife to return home. I hope that today she will consent to go back to my house — to her own house. As for me, I will make a show of having forgotten, for — for the sake of my daughters.”
Renoldi felt a wild movement in his heart, and he was inundated with a delirium of joy like a condemned man who receives a pardon.
He stammered: “Why, yes — certainly, Monsieur — I myself — be assured of it — no doubt — it is right, it is only quite right.”
This time M. Poincot no longer declined to sit down.
Renoldi then rushed up the stairs, and pausing at the door of his mistress’s room, to collect his senses, entered gravely.
“There is somebody below waiting to see you,” he said. “’Tis to tell you something about your daughters.”
She rose up. “My daughters? What about them? They are not dead?”
He replied: “No; but a serious situation has arisen, which you alone can settle.”
She did not wait to hear more, but rapidly descended the stairs.
Then, he sank down on a chair, greatly moved, and waited.
He waited a long long time. Then he heard angry voices below stairs, and made up his mind to go down.
Madame Poincot was standing up exasperated, just on the point of going away, while her husband had seized hold of her dress, exclaiming: “But remember that you are destroying our daughters, your daughters, our children!”
She answered stubbornly:
“I will not go back to you!”
Renoldi understood everything, came over to them in a state of great agitation, and gasped:
“What, does she refuse to go?”
She turned towards him, and, with a kind of shame-facedness, addressed him without any familiarity of tone, in the presence of her legitimate husband, said:
“Do you know what he asks me to do? He wants me to go back, and live under one roof with him!”
And she tittered with a profound disdain for this man, who was appealing to her almost on his knees.
Then Renoldi, with the determination of a desperate man playing his last card, began talking to her in his turn, and pleaded the cause of the poor girls, the cause of the husband, his own cause. And when he stopped, trying to find some fresh argument, M. Poincot, at his wits’ end, murmured, in the affectionate style in which he used to speak to her in days gone by:
“Look here, Delphine! Think of your daughters!”
Then she turned on both of them a glance of sovereign contempt, and, after that, flying with a bound towards the staircase, she flung at them these scornful words:
“You are a pair of wretches!”
Left alone, they gazed at each other for a moment, both equally crestfallen, equally crushed. M. Poincot picked up his hat, which had fallen down near where he sat, dusted off his knees the signs of kneeling on the floor, then raising both hands sorrowfully, while Renoldi was seeing him to the door, remarked with a parting bow:
“We are very unfortunate, Monsieur.”
Then he walked away from the house with a heavy step.
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40