Jacques de Randal, having dined at home alone, told his valet he might go, and then he sat down at a table to write his letters.
He thus finished every year by writing and dreaming. He made for himself a sort of review of things that had happened since last New Year’s Day, things that were now all over and dead; and, in proportion as the faces of his friends rose up before his eyes, he wrote them a few lines, a cordial “Good morning” on the 1st of January.
So he sat down, opened a drawer, took out of it a woman’s photograph, gazed at it a few moments, and kissed it. Then, having laid it beside a sheet of note-paper, he began:
“My dear Irene. — You must have by this time the little souvenir which I sent you. I have shut myself up this evening in order to tell you.”
The pen here ceased to move. Jacques rose up and began walking up and down the room.
For the last six months he had a mistress, not a mistress like the others, a woman with whom one engages in a passing intrigue, of the theatrical world or the “demi-monde, but a woman whom he loved and won. He was no longer a young man, although he was still comparatively young for a man, and he looked on life seriously in a positive and practical spirit.
Accordingly, he drew up the balance sheet of his passion, as he drew up every year the balance sheet of friendships that were ended or freshly contracted, of circumstances and persons that had entered into his life.
His first ardor of love having grown calmer, he asked himself with the precision of a merchant making a calculation, what was the state of his heart with regard to her, and he tried to form an idea of what it would be in the future.
He found there a great and deep affection, made up of tenderness, gratitude, and the thousand subtle ties which give birth to long and powerful attachments.
A ring of the bell made him start. He hesitated. Would he open? But he said to himself that it was his duty to open on this New Year’s night, to open to the Unknown who knocks while passing, no matter whom it may be.
So he took a wax candle, passed through the antechamber, removed the bolts, turned the key, drew the door back, and saw his mistress standing pale as a corpse, leaning against the wall.
“What is the matter with you?”
“Are you alone?”
“You are not going out?”
She entered with the air of a woman who knew the house. As soon as she was in the drawing-room, she sank into the sofa, and, covering her face with her hands, began to weep dreadfully.
He knelt down at her feet, seized hold of her hands to remove them from her eyes, so that he might look at them, and exclaim,
“Irene, Irene, what is the matter with you? I implore of you to tell me what is the matter with you?”
Then, in the midst of her sobs she murmured,
“I can no longer live like this.”
He did not understand.
“Live like this? What do you mean?” . . .
“Yes. I can no longer live like this. . . . I have endured so much. . . . He struck me this afternoon.”
“Who, your husband?”
“Yes, my husband.”
He was astonished, having never suspected that her husband could be brutal. He was a man of the world, of the better class, a clubman, a lover of horses, a theater goer, and an expert swordsman; he was known, talked about, appreciated everywhere, having very courteous manners, a very mediocre intellect, an absence of education and of the real culture needed in order to think like all well-bred people, and finally a respect for all conventional prejudices.
He appeared to devote himself to his wife, as a man ought to do in the case of wealthy and well-bred people. He displayed enough of anxiety about her wishes, her health, her dresses, and, beyond that, left her perfectly free.
Randal, having become Irene’s friend, had a right to the affectionate hand-clasp which every husband endowed with good manners owes to his wife’s intimate acquaintances. Then, when Jacques, after having been for some time the friend, became the lover, his relations with the husband were more cordial, as is fitting.
Jacques had never dreamed that there were storms in this household, and he was scared at this unexpected revelation.
“How did it happen? tell me.”
Thereupon she related a long history, the entire history of her life since the day of her marriage, the first discussion arising out of a mere nothing, then accentuating itself with all the estrangement which grows up each day between two opposite types of character.
Then came quarrels, a complete separation, not apparent, but real; next, her husband showed himself aggressive, suspicious, violent. Now, he was jealous, jealous of Jacques, and this day even, after a scene, he had struck her.
She added with decision, “I will not go back to him. Do with me what you like.”
Jacques sat down opposite to her, their knees touching each other. He caught hold of her hands.
“My dear love, you are going to commit a gross, an irreparable folly. If you want to quit your husband, put wrongs on one side, so that your situation as a woman of the world may be saved.”
She asked, as she cast at him a restless glance:
“Then, what do you advise me?”
“To go back home and to put up with your life there till the day when you can obtain either a separation or a divorce, with the honors of war.”
“Is not this thing which you advise me to do a little cowardly?”
“No; it is wise and reasonable. You have a high position, a reputation to safeguard, friends to preserve, and relations to deal with. You must not lose all these through a mere caprice.”
She rose up and said with violence,
“Well, no! I cannot have any more of it! It is at an end! it is at an end!”
Then, placing her two hands on her lover’s shoulders, and looking at him straight in the face, she asked,
“Do you love me?”
“Really and truly?”
“Then keep me.”
“Keep you? In my own house? Here? Why you are mad. It would mean losing you for ever; losing you beyond hope of recall! You are mad!”
She replied slowly and seriously, like a woman who feels the weight of her words,
“Listen, Jacques. He has forbidden me to see you again, and I will not play this comedy of coming secretly to your house. You must either lose me or take me.”
“My dear Irene, in that case, obtain your divorce, and I will marry you.”
“Yes, you will marry me in-two years at the soonest. Yours is a patient love.”
“Look here! Reflect! If you remain here, he’ll come tomorrow to take you away, and seeing that he is your husband, seeing that he has right and law on his side.”
“I did not ask you to keep me in your own house, Jacques, but to take me anywhere you like. I thought you loved me enough to do that. I have made a mistake. Good-bye!”
She turned round and went towards the door so quickly that he was only able to catch hold of her when she was outside the room.
She struggled and did not want to listen to him any longer, her eyes full of tears, and with these words only on her lips,
“Let me alone! let me alone! let me alone!”
He made her sit down by force, and falling once more on his knees at her feet, he now brought forward a number of arguments and counsels to make her understand the folly and terrible risk of her project. He omitted nothing which he deemed it necessary to say to convince her, finding even in his very affection for her motives of persuasion.
As she remained silent and cold, he begged of her, implored of her to listen to him, to trust him, to follow his advice.
When he had finished speaking, she only replied:
“Are you disposed to let me go away now? Take away your hands, so that I may rise up.”
“Look here, Irene.”
“Will you let me go?”
“Irene . . . is your resolution irrevocable?”
“Do let me go.”
“Tell me only whether this resolution, this foolish resolution of yours, which you will bitterly regret, is irrevocable?”
“Yes . . . let me go!”
“Then stay. You know well that you are at home here. We shall go away tomorrow morning.”
She rose up in spite of him, and said in a hard tone:
“No. It is too late. I do not want sacrifice; I do not want devotion.”
“Stay! I have done what I ought to do; I have said what I ought to say. I have no further responsibility on your behalf. My conscience is at peace. Tell me what you want me to do, and I will obey.”
She resumed her seat, looked at him for a long time, and then asked, in a very calm voice:
“How is that? What do you wish me to explain?”
“Everything — everything that you have thought about before coming to this resolution. Then I will see what I ought to do.”
“But I have thought about nothing at all. I ought to warn you that you are going to accomplish an act of folly. You persist; then I ask to share in this act of folly, and I even insist on it.”
“It is not natural to change one’s opinion so quickly.”
“Listen, my dear love. It is not a question here of sacrifice or devotion. On the day when I realized that I loved you, I said this to myself, which every lover ought to say to himself in the same case: ‘The man who loves a woman, who makes an effort to win her, who gets her, and who takes her, contracts so far as he is himself, and so far as she is concerned, a sacred engagement. It is, mark you, a question of dealing with a woman like you, and not with a woman of an impulsive and yielding disposition.
“Marriage which has a great social value, a great legal value, possesses in my eyes only a very slight moral value, taking into account the conditions under which it generally takes place.
“Therefore, when a woman, united by this lawful bond, but having no attachment to her husband, whom she cannot love, a woman whose heart is free, meets a man whom she cares for, and gives herself to him, when a man who has no other tie, takes a woman in this way, I say that they pledge themselves towards each other by this mutual and free agreement much more than by the ‘Yes’ uttered in the presence of the Mayor’s sash.
“I say that, if they are both honorable persons, their union must be more intimate, more real, more healthy, than if all the sacraments had consecrated it.
“This woman risks everything. And it is exactly because she knows it, because she gives everything, her heart, her body, her soul, her honor, her life, because she has foreseen all miseries, all dangers, all catastrophies, because she dares to do a bold act, an intrepid act, because she is prepared, determined to brave everything — her husband who might kill her, and society which may cast her out. This is why she is respectable in her conjugal infidelity, this is why her lover, in taking her, must also have foreseen everything, and preferred her to everything whatever may happen. I have nothing more to say. I spoke in the beginning like a man of sense whose duty it was to warn you; and now there is left in me only one man — the man who loves you. Say, then, what am I to do!”
Radiant, she closed his mouth with her lips; she said to him in a low tone:
“It is not true, darling! There is nothing the matter! My husband does not suspect anything. But I wanted to see, I wanted to know, what you would do. I wished for a New Year’s gift — the gift of your heart — another gift besides the necklace you have sent me. You have given it to me. Thanks! Thanks! . . . God be thanked for the happiness you have given me!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11