How many trifling occurrences, things which have left only a passing impression on our minds, humble dramas of which we have got a mere glimpse so that we have to guess at or suspect their real nature, are, while we are still young and inexperienced, threads, so to speak, guiding us, step by step, towards a knowledge of the painful truth!
Every moment, when I am retracing my steps during the long wandering reveries which distract my thoughts along the path through which I saunter at random, my soul takes wing, and suddenly I recall little incidents of a gay or sinister character which, emerging from the shades of the past, flit before my memory as the birds flit through the bushes before my eyes.
This summer, I wandered along a road in Savoy which commands a view of the right bank of the Lake of Bourget, and, while my glance floated over that mass of water, mirror-like and blue, with a unique blue, pale, tinted with glittering beams by the setting sun, I felt my heart stirred by that attachment which I have had since my childhood for the surface of lakes, for rivers, and for the sea. On the opposite bank of the vast liquid plate, so wide that you did not see the ends of it, one vanishing in the Rhone, and the other in the Bourget, rose the high mountain, jagged like a crest up to the topmast peak of the “Cats’s Tooth.” On either side of the road, vines, trailing from tree to tree, choked under their leaves their slender supporting branches, and they extended in garlands through the fields, green, yellow, and red garlands, festooning from one trunk to the other, and spotted with clusters of dark grapes.
The road was deserted, white, and dusty. All of a sudden, a man emerged out of the thicket of large trees which shuts in the village of Saint–Innocent, and, bending under a load, he came towards me, leaning on a stick.
When he had come closer to me, I discovered that he was a peddler, one of those itinerant dealers who go about the country from door to door, selling paltry objects cheaply, and thereupon a reminiscence of long ago arose up in my mind, a mere nothing almost, the recollection simply of an accidental meeting I had one night between Argenteuil and Paris when I was twenty-one.
All the happiness of my life, at this period, was derived from boating. I had taken a room in an obscure inn at Argenteuil, and, every evening, I took the Government clerks’ train, that long slow train which, in its course, sets down at different stations a crowd of men with little parcels, fat and heavy, for they scarcely walk at all, so that their trousers are always baggy owing to their constant occupation of the office-stool. This train, in which it seemed to me I could even sniff the odor of the writing-desk, of official documents and boxes, deposited me at Argenteuil. My boat was waiting for me, ready to glide over the water. And I rapidly plied my oar so that I might get out and dine at Bezons or Chatou or Epinay or Saint–Ouen. Then I came back, put up my boat, and made my way back on foot to Paris with the moon shining down on me.
Well, one night on the white road I perceived just in front of me a man walking. Oh! I was constantly meeting those night travelers of the Parisian suburbs so much dreaded by belated citizens. This man went on slowly before me with a heavy load on his shoulders.
I came right up to him by quickening my pace so much that my footsteps rang on the road. He stopped and turned round; then, as I kept approaching nearer and nearer, he crossed to the opposite side of the road.
As I rapidly passed him, he called out to me:
“Hallo! good evening, monsieur.”
“Good evening, mate.”
He went on:
“Are you going far?”
“I am going to Paris.”
“You won’t be long getting there; you’re going at a good pace. As for me, I have too big a load on my shoulders to walk so quickly.”
I slackened my pace. Why had this man spoken to me? What was he carrying in this big pack? Vague suspicions of crime sprang up in my mind, and rendered me curious. The columns of the newspapers every morning contain so many accounts of crimes committed in this place, the peninsula of Gennevilliers, that some of them must be true. Such things are not invented merely to amuse readers — all this catalogue of arrests and varied misdeeds with which the reports of the law courts are filled.
However, this man’s voice seemed rather timid than bold, and up to the present his manner had been more discreet than aggressive.
In my turn I began to question him:
“And you — are you going far?”
“Not farther than Asnieres.”
“Is Asnieres your place of abode?”
“Yes, monsieur, I am a peddler by occupation, and I live at Asnieres.”
He had quitted the sidewalk, where pedestrians move along in the daytime under the shadows of the trees, and he was soon in the middle of the road. I followed his example. We kept staring at each other suspiciously, each of us holding his stick in his hand. When I was sufficiently close to him, I felt less distrustful. He evidently was disposed to assume the same attitude towards me, for he asked:
“Would you mind going a little more slowly?”
“Why do you say this?”
“Because I don’t care for this road by night. I have goods on my back, and two are always better than one. When two men are together, people don’t attack them.”
I felt that he was speaking truly, and that he was afraid. So I yielded to his wishes, and the pair of us walked on, side by side, this stranger and I, at one o’clock in the morning, along the road leading from Argenteuil to Asnieres.
“Why are you going home so late when it is so dangerous?” I asked my companion.
He told me his history. He had not intended to return home this evening, as he had brought with him that very morning a stock of goods to last him three or four days. But he had been so fortunate in disposing of them that he found it necessary to get back to his abode without delay in order to deliver next day a number of things which had been bought on credit.
He explained to me with genuine satisfaction that he had managed the business very well, having a tendency to talk confidentially, and that the knick-knacks he displayed were useful to him in getting rid, while gossiping, of other things which he could not easily sell.
“I have a shop in Asnieres. ’Tis my wife keeps it.”
“Ah! So you’re married?”
“Yes, m’sieur, for the last fifteen months. I have got a very nice wife. She’ll get a surprise when she sees me coming home to-night.”
He then gave me an account of his marriage. He had been after this young girl for two years, but she had taken time to make up her mind.
She had, since her childhood, kept a little shop at the corner of a street, where she sold all sorts of things — ribbons, flowers in summer, and principally pretty little shoe-buckles, and many other gewgaws, in which, owing to the favor of a manufacturer, she enjoyed a speciality. She was well-known in Asnieres as “La Bluette.” This name was given to her because she often dressed in blue. And she made money, as she was very skillful in everything she did. His impression was that she was not very well at the present moment; he believed she was in the family way, but he was not quite sure. Their business was prospering; and he traveled about exhibiting samples to all the small traders in the adjoining districts. He had become a sort of traveling commission-agent for some of the manufacturers, working at the same time for them and for himself.
“And you — what are you,” he said.
I answered him with an air of embarrassment. I explained that I had a sailing-boat and two yawls in Argenteuil, that I came for a row every evening, and that, as I was fond of exercise, I sometimes walked back to Paris, where I had a profession, which — I led him to infer — was a lucrative one.
“Faith, if I had spondulics like you, I wouldn’t amuse myself by trudging that way along the roads at night — ‘Tisn’t safe along here.”
He gave me a sidelong glance, and I asked myself whether he might not all the same, be a criminal of the sneaking type who did not want to run any fruitless risk.
Then he restored my confidence when he murmured:
“A little less quickly, if you please. This pack of mine is heavy.”
The sight of a group of houses showed that we had reached Asnieres.
“I am nearly at home,” he said. “We don’t sleep in the shop; it is watched at night by a dog, but a dog who is worth four men. And then it costs too much to live in the center of the town. But listen to me, monsieur! You have rendered me a precious service, for I don’t feel my mind at ease when I’m traveling with my pack along the roads. Well, now you must come in with me, and drink a glass of mulled wine with my wife if she hasn’t gone to bed, for she is a sound sleeper, and doesn’t like to be waked up. Besides, I’m not a bit afraid without my pack, and so I’ll see you to the gates of the city with a cudgel in my hand.”
I declined the invitation; he insisted on my coming in; I still held back; he pressed me with so much eagerness, with such an air of real disappointment, such expressions of deep regret — for he had the art of expressing himself very forcibly — asking me in the tone of one who felt wounded “whether I objected to have a drink with a man like him,” that I finally gave way and followed him up a lonely road towards one of those big dilapidated houses which are to be found on the outskirts of suburbs.
In front of this dwelling I hesitated. This high barrack of plaster looked like a den for vagabonds, a hiding-place for suburban brigands. But he pushed forward a door which had not been locked, and made me go in before him. He led me forward by the shoulders, through profound darkness, towards a staircase where I had to feel my way with my hands and feet, with a well-grounded apprehension of tumbling into some gaping cellar.
When I had reached the first landing, he said to me: “Go on up! ’Tis the sixth story.”
I searched my pockets, and, finding there a box of vestas, I lighted the way up the ascent. He followed me, puffing under his pack, repeating:
“Tis high! ’tis high!”
When we were at the top of the house, he drew forth from one of his inside pockets a key attached to a thread, and unlocking his door he made me enter.
It was a little whitewashed room, with a table in the center, six chairs, and a kitchen-cupboard close to the wall.
“I am going to wake up my wife,” he said; “then I am going down to the cellar to fetch some wine; it doesn’t keep here.”
He approached one of the two doors which opened out of this apartment, and exclaimed:
“Bluette! Bluette!” Bluette did not reply. He called out in a louder tone: “Bluette! Bluette!”
Then knocking at the partition with his fist, he growled: “Will you wake up in God’s name?”
He waited, glued his ear to the key-hole, and muttered, in a calmer tone: “Pooh! if she is asleep, she must be let sleep! I’ll go and get the wine: wait a couple of minutes for me.”
He disappeared. I sat down and made the best of it.
What had I come to this place for? All of a sudden, I gave a start, for I heard people talking in low tones, and moving about quietly, almost noiselessly, in the room where the wife slept.
Deuce take it! Had I fallen into some cursed trap? Why had this woman — this Bluette — not been awakened by the loud knocking of her husband at the doorway leading into her room; could it have been merely a signal conveying to accomplices: “There’s a mouse in the trap! I’m going to look out to prevent him escaping. ’Tis for you to do the rest!”
Certainly, there was more stir than before now in the inner room; I heard the door opening from within. My heart throbbed. I retreated towards the further end of the apartment, saying to myself: “I must make a fight of it!” and, catching hold of the back of a chair with both hands, I prepared for a desperate struggle.
The door was half opened, a hand appeared which kept it ajar; then a head, a man’s head covered with a billycock hat, slipped through the folding-doors, and I saw two eyes staring hard at me. Then so quickly that I had not time to make a single movement by way of defense, the individual, the supposed criminal, a tall young fellow in his bare feet with his shoes in his hands, a good looking chap, I must admit — half a gentleman, in fact, made a dash for the outer door, and rushed down the stairs.
I resumed my seat. The adventure was assuming a humorous aspect. And I waited for the husband, who took a long time fetching the wine. At last I heard him coming up the stairs, and the sound of his footsteps made me laugh, with one of those solitary laughs which it is hard to restrain.
He entered with two bottles in his hands. Then he asked me:
“Is my wife still asleep? You didn’t hear her stirring — did you?”
I knew instinctively that there was an ear pasted against the other side of the partition-door, and I said: “No, not at all.”
And now he again called out:
She made no reply, and did not even move.
He came back to me, and explained:
“You see, she doesn’t like me to come home at night, and take a drop with a friend.”
“So then you believe she was not asleep?”
He wore an air of dissatisfaction.
“Well, at any rate,” he said, “let us have a drink together.”
And immediately he showed a disposition to empty the two bottles one after the other without more ado.
This time I did display some energy. When I had swallowed one glass I rose up to leave. He no longer spoke of accompanying me, and with a sullen scowl, the scowl of a common man in an angry mood, the scowl of a brute whose violence is only slumbering, in the direction of his wife’s sleeping apartment, he muttered:
“She’ll have to open that door when you’ve gone.”
I stared at this poltroon, who had worked himself into a fit of rage without knowing why, perhaps, owing to an obscure presentiment, the instinct of the deceived male who does not like closed doors. He had talked about her to me in a tender strain; now assuredly he was going to beat her.
He exclaimed, as he shook the lock once more:
A voice like that of a woman waking out of her sleep, replied from behind the partition:
“Didn’t you hear me coming in?”
“No, I was asleep! Let me rest.”
“Open the door!”
“Yes, when you’re alone. I don’t like you to be bringing home fellows at night to drink with you.”
Then I took myself off, stumbling down the stairs, as the other man, of whom I had been the accomplice had done. And, as I resumed my journey toward Paris, I realized that I had just witnessed in that wretched abode a scene of the eternal drama which is being acted every day, under every form, and among every class.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53