When M. Antoine Leuillet married the Widow Mathilde Souris, he had been in love with her for nearly ten years.
M. Souris had been his friend, his old college chum. Leuillet was very fond of him, but found him rather a muff. He often used to say: “That poor Souris will never set the Seine on fire.”
When Souris married Mdlle. Mathilde Duval, Leuillet was surprised and somewhat vexed, for he had a slight weakness for her. She was the daughter of a neighbor of his, a retired haberdasher with a good bit of money. She was pretty, well-mannered, and intelligent. She accepted Souris on account of his money.
Then Leuillet cherished hopes of another sort. He began paying attentions to his friend’s wife. He was a handsome man, not at all stupid, and also well off. He was confident that he would succeed; he failed. Then he fell really in love with her, and he was the sort of lover who is rendered timid, prudent, and embarrassed by intimacy with the husband. Mme. Souris fancied that he no longer meant anything serious by his attentions to her, and she became simply his friend. This state of affairs lasted nine years.
Now, one morning, Leuillet received a startling communication from the poor woman. Souris had died suddenly of aneurism of the heart.
He got a terrible shock, for they were of the same age; but the very next moment, a sensation of profound joy, of infinite relief of deliverance, penetrated his body and soul. Mme. Souris was free.
He had the tact, however, to make such a display of grief as the occasion required; he waited for the proper time to elapse, and attended to all the conventional usages. At the end of fifteen months he married the widow.
His conduct was regarded as not only natural but generous. He had acted like a good friend and an honest man. In short he was happy, quite happy.
They lived on terms of the closest confidence, having from the first understood and appreciated each other. One kept nothing secret from the other, and they told each other their inmost thoughts. Leuillet now loved his wife with a calm trustful affection; he loved her as a tender, devoted partner, who is an equal and a confidante. But there still lingered in his soul a singular and unaccountable grudge against the deceased Souris, who had been the first to possess this woman, who had had the flower of her youth and of her soul, and who had even robbed her of her poetic attributes. The memory of the dead husband spoiled the happiness of the living husband; and this posthumous jealousy now began to torment Leuillet’s heart day and night.
The result was that he was incessantly talking about Souris, asking a thousand minute and intimate questions about him, and seeking for information as to all his habits and personal characteristics. And he pursued him with railleries even into the depths of the tomb, recalling with self-satisfaction his oddities, emphasizing his absurdities, and pointing out his defects.
Every minute he kept calling out to his wife from one end to the other of the house:
“Here am I, dear.”
“Come and let us have a chat.”
She always came over to him, smiling, well aware that Souris was to be the subject of the chat, and anxious to gratify her second husband’s harmless fad.
“I say! do you remember how Souris wanted, one day, to prove to me that small men are always better loved than big men?”
And he launched out into reflections unfavorable to the defunct husband, who was small, and discreetly complimentary to himself, as he happened to be tall.
And Mme. Leuillet let him think that he was quite right; and she laughed very heartily, turned the first husband into ridicule in a playful fashion for the amusement of his successor, who always ended by remarking:
“Never mind! Souris was a muff!”
They were happy, quite happy. And Leuillet never ceased to testify his unabated attachment to his wife by all the usual manifestations.
Now, one night when they happened to be both kept awake by the renewal of youthful ardor, Leuillet, who held his wife clasped tightly in his arms, and had his lips glued to hers, said:
“Tell me this, darling.”
“Souris — ‘tisn’t easy to put the question — was he very — very amorous?”
She gave him a warm kiss, as she murmured:
“Not so much as you, my duck.”
His male vanity was flattered, and he went on:
“He must have been — rather a flat — eh?”
She did not answer. There was merely a sly little laugh on her face, which she pressed close to her husband’s neck.
He persisted in his questions:
“Come now! Don’t deny that he was a flat — well, I mean, rather an awkward sort of fellow?”
She nodded slightly.
“Well, yes, rather awkward.”
He went on:
“I’m sure he used to weary you many a night — isn’t that so?”
This time, she had an access of frankness, and she replied:
He embraced her once more when she made this acknowledgment, and murmured:
“What an ass he was! You were not happy with him?”
“No. He was not always jolly.”
Leuillet felt quite delighted, making a comparison in his own mind between his wife’s former situation and her present one.
He remained silent for some time: then, with a fresh outburst of merit, he said:
“Tell me this!”
“Will you be quite candid — quite candid with me?”
“Well, look here! Have you never been tempted to — to deceive this imbecile, Souris?”
Mme. Leuillet uttered a little “Oh!” in a shamefaced way, and again cuddled her face closer to her husband’s chest. But he could see that she was laughing.
“Come now, confess it! He had a head just suited for a cuckold, this blockhead! It would be so funny! This good Souris! Oh! I say, darling, you might tell it to me — only to me!”
He emphasized the words “to me,” feeling certain that if she wanted to show any taste when she deceived her husband, he, Leuillet, would have been the man; and he quivered with joy at the expectation of this avowal, sure that if she had not been the virtuous woman she was he could have had her then.
But she did not reply, laughing incessantly as if at the recollection of something infinitely comic.
Leuillet, in his turn, burst out laughing at the notion that he might have made a cuckold of Souris. What a good joke! What a capital bit of fun, to be sure!
He exclaimed in a voice broken by convulsions of laughter.
“Oh! poor Souris! poor Souris! Ah! yes, he had that sort of head — oh, certainly he had!”
And Mme. Leuillet now twisted herself under the sheets, laughing till the tears almost came into her eyes.
And Leuillet repeated: “Come, confess it! confess it! Be candid. You must know that it cannot be unpleasant to me to hear such a thing.”
Then she stammered, still choking with laughter.
Her husband pressed her for an answer.
“Yes, what? Look here! tell me everything.”
She was now laughing in a more subdued fashion, and, raising her mouth up to Leuillet’s ear, which was held towards her in anticipation of some pleasant piece of confidence, she whispered — “Yes, I did deceive him!”
He felt a cold shiver down his back, and utterly dumbfounded, he gasped.
“You — you — did — really — deceive him?”
She was still under the impression that he thought the thing infinitely pleasant, and replied.
“Yes — really — really.”
He was obliged to sit up in bed so great was the shock he received, holding his breath, just as overwhelmed as if he had just been told that he was a cuckold himself. At first, he was unable to articulate properly; then after the lapse of a minute or so, he merely ejaculated.
She, too, had stopped laughing now, realizing her mistake too late.
Leuillet, at length asked.
“And with whom?”
She kept silent, cudgeling her brain to find some excuse.
He repeated his question.
At last, she said.
“With a young man.”
He turned towards her abruptly, and in a dry tone, said.
“Well, I suppose it wasn’t with some kitchen wench. I ask you who was the young man — do you understand?”
She did not answer. He tore away the sheet which she had drawn over her head, and pushed her into the middle of the bed, repeating.
“I want to know with what young man — do you understand?”
Then, she replied with some difficulty in uttering the words.
“I only wanted to laugh.” But he fairly shook with rage: “What? How is that? You only wanted to laugh? So then you were making game of me? I’m not going to be satisfied with these evasions, let me tell you! I ask you what was the young man’s name?”
She did not reply, but lay motionless on her back.
He caught hold of her arm and pressed it tightly.
“Do you hear me, I say? I want you to give me an answer when I speak to you.”
Then, she said, in nervous tones.
“I think you must be going mad! Let me alone!”
He trembled with fury, so exasperated that he scarcely knew what he was saying, and, shaking her with all his strength, he repeated.
“Do you hear me? do you hear me?”
She wrenched herself out of his grasp with a sudden movement, and with the tips of her fingers slapped her husband on the nose. He entirely lost his temper, feeling that he had been struck, and angrily pounced down on her.
He now held her under him, boxing her ears in a most violent manner, and exclaiming:
“Take that — and that — and that — there you are, you trollop!”
Then, when he was out of breath, exhausted from beating her, he got up, and went over to the chest of drawers to get himself a glass of sugared orange-water for he was almost ready to faint after his exertion.
And she lay huddled up in bed, crying and heaving great sobs, feeling that there was an end of her happiness, and that it was all her own fault.
Then, in the midst of her tears, she faltered:
“Listen, Antoine, come here! I told you a lie — listen! I’ll explain it to you.”
And now, prepared to defend herself, armed with excuses and subterfuges, she slightly raised her head all tangled under her crumpled nightcap.
And he, turning towards her, drew close to her, ashamed at having whacked her, but feeling intensely still in his heart’s core as a husband an inexhaustible hatred against that woman who had deceived his predecessor, Souris.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53