I have received the following letter. Thinking that it may be profitable to many readers, I make it my business to communicate it to them:
“Paris, November 15th, 1886.
“Monsieur, — You often treat either in the shape of short stories or chronicles, of subjects which have relation to what I may describe as ‘current morals.’ I am going to submit to you some reflections which ought, it seems to me, to furnish you with the materials for one of your tales.
“I am not married; I am a bachelor, and, as it seems to me, a rather simple man. But I fancy that many men, the greater part of men, are simple in the way that I am. As I am always, or nearly always, a plain dealer, I am not well able to see through the natural cunning of my neighbors, and I go straight ahead, with my eyes open, without sufficiently looking out for what is behind things and behind people’s external behavior.
“We are nearly all accustomed, as a rule, to take appearances for realities, and to look on people as what they pretend to be; and very few possess that scent which enables certain men to divine the real and hidden nature of others. From this peculiar and conventional method of regarding life come the result that we pass, like moles, through the midst of events; and that we never believe in what is, but in what seems to be, that we declare a thing to be improbable as soon as we are shown the fact behind the veil, and that everything which displeases our idealistic morality is classed by us an exception, without taking into account that these exceptions all brought together constitute nearly the total number of cases. There further results from it that credulous good people like me are deceived by everybody and especially by women, who have a talent in this direction.
“I have started far afield in order to come to the particular fact which interests me. I have a mistress, a married woman. Like many others, I imagined (do you understand?) that I had chanced on an exception, on an unhappy little woman who was deceiving her husband for the first time. I had paid attentions to her, or rather I had looked on myself as having paid attention to her for a long time, as having overcome her virtue by dint of kindness and love, and as having triumphed by the sheer force of perseverance. In fact, I had made use of a thousand precautions, a thousand devices, and a thousand subtle dallyings in order to succeed in getting the better of her.
“Now here is what happened last week: Her husband being absent for some days, she suggested that we should both dine together, and that I should attend on myself so as to avoid the presence of a man-servant. She had a fixed idea which had haunted her for the last four or five months: She wanted to get tipsy, but to get tipsy altogether without being afraid of consequences, without having to go back home, speak to her chambermaid, and walk before witnesses. She had often obtained what she called ‘a gay agitation’ without going farther, and she had found it delightful. So then she promised herself that she would get tipsy once, only once, but thoroughly so. She pretended at her own house that she was going to spend twenty-four hours with some friends near Paris, and she reached my abode just about dinner-hour.
“A woman naturally ought not to get fuddled except when she has had too much champagne. She drinks a big glass of it fasting, and before the oysters arrive, she begins to ramble in her talk.
“We had a cold dinner prepared on a table behind me. It was enough for me to stretch out my arms to take the dishes or the plates, and I attended on myself as best I could while I listened to her chattering.
“She kept swallowing glass after glass, haunted by her fixed idea. She began by making me the recipient of meaningless and interminable confidences with regard to her sensations as a young girl. She went on and on, her eyes rather wandering, brilliant, her tongue untied, and her light ideas rolling themselves out endlessly like the blue telegraph-paper which is moved on without stopping by the bobbin and which keeps extending its length to the click of the electric apparatus which covers it with unknown words.
“From time to time she asked me:
“‘Am I tipsy?’
“‘No, not yet.’
“And she went on drinking.
“She was so in a little while, not so tipsy as to lose her senses, but tipsy enough to tell the truth, as it seemed to me.
“To her confidences as to her emotions while a young girl succeeded more intimate confidences as to her relations with her husband. She made them to me without restraint till she wearied me with them, under this pretext, which she repeated a hundred times: ‘I can surely tell everything to you. To whom could I tell everything if it were not to you?’ So I was made acquainted with all the habits, all the defects, all the fads and the most secret fancies of her husband.
“And by way of claiming my approval she asked: ‘Isn’t he a flat? Do you think he has taken a feather out of me? eh? So, the first time I saw you, I said to myself: “Let me see! I like him, and I’ll take him for my lover.” It was then you began mashing me.’
“I must have presented an odd face to her eyes at that moment, for she could see it, tipsy though she was; and with great outbursts of laughter, she exclaimed: ‘Ah! you big simpleton, you did go about it cautiously; but, when men pay attention to us, you dear blockhead, you see we like it, and then they must make quick work of it, and not keep us waiting. A man must be a ninny not to understand, by a mere glance at us, that we mean “Yes.” Ah! I believe I was waiting for you, you stupid! I did not know what to do in order to make you see that I was in a hurry. Oh! yes, flowers, verses, compliments, more verses, and nothing else at all! I was very near letting you go, my fine fellow, you were so long in making up your mind. And only to think that half the men in the world are like you, while the other half, ha! ha! ha!’
“This laugh of hers sent a cold shiver down my back. I stammered: ‘The other half — what about the other half?’
“She still went on drinking, her eyes steeped in the fumes of sparkling wine, her mind impelled by the imperious necessity for telling the truth which sometimes takes possession of drunkards.
“She replied: ‘Ah! the other half makes quick work of it — too quick; but, all the same, they are right. There are days when we don’t hit it off with them; but there are days, too, when it all goes right, in spite of everything. . . . My dear, if you only knew how funny it is — the way the two kinds of men act! You see, the timid ones, such as you, you never could imagine what sort the others are and what they do, immediately, as soon as they find themselves alone with us. They are regular dare-devils! They get many a slap in the face from us, no doubt of that, but what does that matter? They know we’re the sort that kiss and don’t tell! They know us well, they do!’
“I stared at her with the eyes of an Inquisitor, and with a mad desire to make her speak, to learn everything from her. How often had I put this question to myself: ‘How do the other men behave towards the women who belong to us?’ I was fully conscious of the fact that, from the way I saw two men talking to the same woman publicly in a drawing-room, these two men, if they found themselves, one after the other, all alone with her, would conduct themselves quite differently, although they were both equally well acquainted with her. We can guess at the first glance of the eye that certain beings, naturally endowed with the power of seduction, or only more lively, more daring than we are, reach after an hour’s chat with a woman who pleases them, to a degree of intimacy to which we would not attain in a year. Well, do these men, these seducers, these bold adventurers, take, when the occasion presents itself to them, liberties with their hands and lips which to us, the timid ones, would appear odious outrages, but which women perhaps look on merely as pardonable effrontery, as indecent homages to their irresistible grace!
“So I asked her: ‘There are women, though, who think these men very improper?’
“She threw herself back on her chair in order to laugh more at her ease, but with a nerveless, unhealthy laugh, one of those laughs which ends in nervous fits, then, a little more calmly, she replied: ‘Ha! ha! my dear, improper? that is to say, that they dare everything, at once, all, you understand, and many other things, too.’
“I felt myself horrified as if she had just revealed to me a monstrous thing.
“‘And you permit this, you women?’
“‘No, we don’t permit it; we slap them in the face, but, for all that, they amuse us! And then with them one is always afraid, one is never easy. You must keep watching them the whole time; it is like fighting a duel. You have to keep staring into their eyes to see what they are thinking of or where they are putting their hands. They are blackguards, if you like, but they love us better than you do.’
“A singular and unexpected sensation stole over me. Although a bachelor, and determined to remain a bachelor, I suddenly felt in my breast the spirit of a husband in the face of this impudent confidence. I felt myself the friend, the ally, the brother of all these confiding men who are, if not robbed, at least defrauded by all the rufflers of woman’s waists.
“It is this strange emotion, monsieur, that I am obeying at this moment, in writing to you, and in begging of you to address a warning note to the great army of easy-going husbands.
“However, I had still some lingering doubts. This woman was drunk and must be lying.
“I went on to inquire: ‘How is it that you never relate these adventures to anyone, you women?’
“She gazed at me with profound pity, and with such an air of sincerity that, for the moment, I thought she had been soberized by astonishment.
“‘We — But, my dear fellow, you are very foolish. Why do we never talk to you about these things? Ha! ha! ha! Does your valet tell you about his tips, his odd sous? Well, this is our little tip. The husband ought not to complain when we don’t go farther. But how dull you are! To talk of these things would be to give the alarm to all ninnies! Ah! how dull you are! . . . And then what harm does it do as long as we don’t yield?’
“I felt myself in a great state of great confusion as I put this question to her:
“‘So then you have often been embraced by men?’
“She answered, with an air of sovereign contempt for the man who could have any doubt on the subject:
“‘Faith! — Why, every woman has been often embraced. . . . Try it on with any of them, no matter whom, in order to see for yourself, you great goose! Look here! embrace Mme. de X! She is quite young, and quite virtuous. Embrace, my friend — embrace, and touch, you shall see. Ha! ha! ha!’
“All of a sudden she flung her glass straight at the chandelier. The champagne fell down in a shower, extinguished three wax-candles, stained the hangings, and deluged the table, while the broken glass was scattered about the dining-room. Then, she made an effort to seize the bottle to do the same with it, but I prevented her. After that, she burst out crying in a very loud tone — the nervous fit had come on, as I had anticipated. . . .
“Some days later, I had almost forgotten this avowal of a tipsy woman when I chanced to find myself at an evening party with this Mme. de X—— whom my mistress had advised me to embrace. As I lived in the same direction as she did, I offered to drive her to her own door, for she was alone this evening. She accepted my offer.
“As soon as we were in the carriage, I said to myself: ‘Come! I must try it on!’ But I had not the courage. I did not know how to make a start, how to begin the attack.
“Then suddenly, the desperate courage of cowards came to my aid. I said to her: ‘How pretty you were, this evening.’
“She replied with a laugh: ‘So then, this evening was an exception, since you only remarked it for the first time.’
“I did not know what rejoinder to make. Certainly my gallantry was not making progress. After a little reflection, however, I managed to say:
“‘No, but I never dared to tell you.’
“She was astonished:
“‘Because it is — it is a little difficult.’
“‘Difficult to tell a woman that she’s pretty? Why, where did you come from? You should always tell us so, even when you only half think it . . . because it always gives us pleasure to hear.” . . .
“I felt myself suddenly animated by a fantastic audacity, and, catching her round the waist, I raised my lips towards her mouth.
“Nevertheless I seemed to be rather nervous about it, and not to appear so terrible to her. I must also have arranged and executed my movement very badly, for she managed to turn her head aside so as to avoid contact with my face, saying:
“‘Oh no — this is rather too much — too much. . . . You are too quick! Take care of my hair. You cannot embrace a woman who has her hair dressed like mine!’ . . .
“I resumed my former position in the carriage, disconcerted, unnerved by this repulse. But the carriage drew up before her gate; and she, as she stepped out of it, held out her hand to me, saying in her most gracious tones:
“‘Thanks, dear monsieur, for having seen me home . . . and don’t forget my advice!’
“I saw her three days later. She had forgotten everything.
“And I, monsieur, I am incessantly thinking of the other sort of men — the sort of men to whom a lady’s hair is no obstacle, and who know how to seize every opportunity.” . . .
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