“Well, what do you say about women?”
“Well, there are no conjurors more subtle in taking us in at every available opportunity with or without reason, often for the sole pleasure of playing tricks on us. And they play these tricks with incredible simplicity, astonishing audacity, unparalleled ingenuity. They play tricks from morning till night, and they all do it — the most virtuous, the most upright, the most sensible of them. You may add that sometimes they are to some extent driven to do these things. Man has always idiotic fits of obstinacy and tyrannical desires. A husband is continually giving ridiculous orders in his own house. He is full of caprices; his wife plays on them even while she makes use of them for the purpose of deception. She persuades him that a thing costs so much because he would kick up a row if its price were higher. And she always extricates herself from the difficulty cunningly by a means so simple and so sly that we gape with amazement when by chance we discover them. We say to ourselves in a stupefied state of mind ‘How is it we did not see this till now?’”
The man who uttered the words was an ex-Minister of the Empire, the Comte de L— — a thorough profligate, it was said, and a very accomplished gentleman. A group of young men were listening to him.
He went on:
“I was outwitted by an ordinary uneducated woman in a comic and thorough-going fashion. I will tell you about it for your instruction.
“I was at the time Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I was in the habit of taking a long walk every morning in the Champs Elysees. It was the month of May; I walked along, sniffing in eagerly that sweet odor of budding leaves.
“Ere long, I noticed, that I used to meet every day a charming little woman, one of those marvelous, graceful creatures, who bear the trade-mark of Paris. Pretty? Well, yes and no. Well-made? No, better than that: her waist was too slight, her shoulders too narrow, her breast too full, no doubt; but I prefer those exquisite human dolls to that great statuesque corpse, the Venus of Milo.
“And then this sort of woman trots along in an incomparable fashion, and the very rustle of her skirt fills the marrow of your bones with desire. She seemed to give me a side-glance as she passed me. But these women give you all sorts of looks — you never can tell. . . .
“One morning, I saw her sitting on a bench with an open book between her hands. I came across, and sat down beside her. Five minutes later, we were friends. Then, each day, after the smiling salutation ‘Good day, Madame,’ ‘Good day, Monsieur,’ we began to chat. She told me that she was the wife of a Government clerk, that her life was a sad one, that in it pleasures were few and cares numerous, and a thousand other things.
“I told her who I was, partly through thoughtlessness, and partly perhaps through vanity. She pretended to be much astonished.
“Next day, she called at the Ministry to see me; and she came again there so often that the ushers, having their attention drawn to her appearance, used to whisper to one another, as soon as they saw her, the name with which they had christened her ‘Madame Leon’ that is my Christian name.
“For three months I saw her every morning without growing tired of her for a second, so well was she able incessantly to give variety and piquancy to her physical attractiveness. But one day I saw that her eyes were bloodshot and glowing with suppressed tears, that she could scarcely speak, so much was she preoccupied with secret troubles.
“I begged of her, I implored of her, to tell me what was the cause of her agitation.
“She faltered out at length with a shudder: ‘I am — I am pregnant!’
“And she burst out sobbing. Oh! I made a dreadful grimace, and I have no doubt I turned pale, as men generally do at hearing such a piece of news. You cannot conceive what an unpleasant stab you feel in your breast at the announcement of an unexpected paternity of this kind. But you are sure to know it sooner or later. So, in my turn, I gasped: ‘But — but — you are married, are you not?’
“She answered: ‘Yes, but my husband has been away in Italy for the last two months, and he will not be back for some time.’
“I was determined at any cost to get out of my responsibility.
“I said: ‘You must go and join him immediately.’
“She reddened to her very temples, and with downcast eyes, murmured: ‘Yes — but — ’ She either dared not or would not finish the sentence.
“I understood, and I prudently enclosed her in an envelope the expenses of the journey.
“Eight days later, she sent me a letter from Genoa. The following week, I received one from Florence. Then letters reached me from Leghorn, Rome, and Naples.
“She said to me: ‘I am in good health, my dear love, but I am looking frightful. I would not care to have you see me till it is all over; you would not love me. My husband suspects nothing. As his business in this country will require him to stay there much longer, I will not return to France till after my confinement.’
“And, at the end of about eight months, I received from Venice these few words: ‘It is a boy.’
“Some time after, she suddenly entered my study one morning, fresher and prettier than ever, and flung herself into my arms.
“And our former connection was renewed.
“I left the Ministry, and she came to live in my house in the Rue de Grenelle. She often spoke to me about the child, but I scarcely listened to what she said about it; it did not concern me. Now and then I placed a rather large sum of money in her hand, saying: ‘Put that by for him.’
“Two more years glided by; and she was more eager to tell me some news about the youngster — ‘about Leon.’
“Sometimes she would say in the midst of tears: ‘You don’t care about him; you don’t even wish to see him. If you know what grief you cause me!’
“At last I was so much harassed by her that I promised, one day, to go, next morning, to the Champs Elysees, when she took the child there for an airing.
“But at the moment when I was leaving the house, I was stopped by a sudden apprehension. Man is weak and foolish. What if I were to get fond of this tiny being of whom I was the father — my son?
“I had my hat on my head, my gloves in my hands. I flung down the gloves on my desk, and my hat on a chair:
“No. Decidedly I will not go; it is wiser not to go.’
“My door flew open. My brother entered the room. He handed me an anonymous letter he had received that morning:
“‘Warn the Comte de L— — your brother, that the little woman of the Rue Casette is impudently laughing at him. Let him make some inquiries about her.’
“I had never told anybody about this intrigue, and I now told my brother the history of it from the beginning to the end. I added:
“For my part, I don’t want to trouble myself any further about the matter; but will you, like a good fellow, go and find out what you can about her?
“When my brother had left me, I said to myself: ‘In what way can she have deceived me? She has other lovers? What does it matter to me? She is young, fresh, and pretty; I ask nothing more from her. She seems to love me, and as a matter of fact, she does not cost me much. Really, I don’t understand this business.’
“My brother speedily returned. He had learned from the police all that was to be known about her husband: ‘A clerk in the Home Department, of regular habits and good repute, and, moreover, a thinking man, but married to a very pretty woman, whose expenses seemed somewhat extravagant for her modest position.’ That was all.
“Now, my brother having sought for her at her residence, and finding that she was gone out, succeeded, with the assistance of a little gold, in making the doorkeeper chatter: ‘Madame D— — a very worthy woman, and her husband a very worthy man, not proud, not rich, but generous.’
“My brother asked for the sake of saying something:
“‘How old is her little boy now?’
“‘Why, she has not got any little boy, monsieur.’
“‘What? Little Leon?’
“‘No, monsieur, you are making a mistake.’
“‘I mean the child she had while she was in Italy, two years ago?’
“‘She has never been in Italy, monsieur; she has not quitted the house she is living in for the last five years.’
“My brother, in astonishment, questioned the doorkeeper anew, and then he pushed his investigation of the matter further. No child, no journey.
“I was prodigiously astonished, but without clearly understanding the final meaning of this comedy.
“‘I want,’ said I to him, ‘to have my mind perfectly clear about the affair. I will ask her to come here tomorrow. You shall receive her instead of me. If she has deceived me, you will hand her these ten thousand francs, and I will never see her again. In fact, I am beginning to find I have had enough of her.’
“Would you believe it? I had been grieved the night before because I had a child by this woman; and I was now irritated, ashamed, wounded at having no more of her. I found myself free, released from all responsibility, from all anxiety, and yet I felt myself raging at the position in which I was placed.
“Next morning my brother awaited her in my study. She came in as quickly as usual, rushing towards him with outstretched arms, but when she saw who it was she at once drew back.
“He bowed, and excused himself.
“‘I beg your pardon, madame, for being here instead of my brother, but he has authorized me to ask you for some explanations which he would find it painful to seek from you himself.’
“Then, fixing on her face a searching glance, he said abruptly:
“‘We know you have not a child by him.’
“After the first moment of stupor, she regained her composure, took a seat, and gazed with a smile at this man who was sitting in judgment on her.
“She answered simply:
“‘No; I have no child.’
“‘We know also that you have never been in Italy.’
“This time she burst out laughing in earnest.
“‘No, I have never been in Italy.’
“My brother, quite stunned, went on:
“‘The Comte has requested me to give you this money, and tell you that it is all broken off.’
“She became serious again, calmly putting the money into her pocket, and, in an ingenuous tone asked:
“‘And I am not, then, to see the Comte any more?’
“She appeared to be annoyed, and in a passionless voice she said:
“‘So much the worse; I was very fond of him.’
“Seeing that she had made up her mind on the subject so resolutely, my brother, smiling in his turn, said to her:
“‘Look here, now, tell me why you invented all this tricky yarn, complicating it by bringing in the sham journey to Italy and the child?’”
She gazed at my brother in amazement, as if he had asked her a stupid question, and replied:
“‘I say! How spiteful you are! Do you believe a poor little woman of the people such as I am — nothing at all — could have for three years kept on my hands the Comte de L— — Minister, a great personage, a man of fashion, wealthy and seductive, if she had not taken a little trouble about it? Now it is all over. So much the worse. It couldn’t last for ever. None the less I succeeded in doing it for three years. You will say many things to him on my behalf.’
“She rose up. My brother continued questioning her:
“‘But — the child? You had one to show him?’
“‘Certainly — my sister’s child. She lent it to me. I’d bet it was she gave you the information.’
“‘Good! And all those letters from Italy?’
“She sat down again so as to laugh at her ease.
“‘Oh! those letters — well, they were a bit of poetry. The Comte was not a Minister of Foreign Affairs for nothing.’
“‘But — another thing?’
“Oh! the other thing is my secret. I don’t want to compromise anyone.’
“And bowing to him with a rather mocking smile, she left the room without any emotion, an actress who had played her part to the end.”
And the Comte de L—— added by way of moral:
“So take care about putting your trust in that sort of turtle dove!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11