“What a joke!” the bandmaster said, twirling his moustache with the foolish smile of a good-looking man, who dangles after women’s petticoats, in order that he may get on all the quicker.
His comrades’ equivocal allusions puzzled him, though they flattered him like applause, and he stealthily looked in the large mirrors at the new lyres embroidered in gold on the collar of his tunic. They fascinated him by their glitter, and half intoxicated by the doubtful champagne that he had drunk during dinner, and by the glasses of chartreuse and of Bavarian beer which he had imbibed afterwards, and excited by the songs, he was indulging in his usual dreams of success.
He saw himself on the platform of a public garden, standing before his musicians in a flood of light, and he fancied already that he could hear the whispers of women, and feel the caress of their look upon him.
He would be invited even into the drawing-rooms of the Faubourg Saint Germain, which was so difficult of access. With his handsome, pale face, and his wonderful manner of playing Chopin’s music, he would penetrate every where, and perhaps some romantic heiress would fall in love with him, and consent to forget that he was only a poor musician, the son of small shopkeepers, who were still in trade at Bayeux.
Lieutenant Varache, who was stirring the punch, shrugged his shoulders, and continued in a bantering voice:
“Yes, Monsieur Parisel, they are sure to ask you whether you have just joined the regiment, or whether you have a mistress . . . ”
“What do I know?”
“But they say that you have, and that her eyes grow so bright when she speaks to you, that a man would forfeit three months’ pay for a glance of them, by Jove!”
Another traced her likeness in a few words, and described her as if she had been some knick-knack for sale at an auction. Her hair came low on her forehead like a golden net, her skin was dazzlingly white, while her bright eyes threw out glances that were like those flashes of summer lightning which dart across the sky on a calm night in June.
Her delicate figure, and she did not look very strong, recalled a plant that has grown too rapidly. She was a droll creature, on the whole, who at times looked as if she had made a mistake in the door, who buried herself in the shade, hid herself, and did not surrender either her heart or her body, and only left the impression of a statue on the bed in which she slept, who appeared delighted with the ignoble business she carried on, and who allured men, and surpassed the common streetwalkers in shamelessness.
Parisel, however, was not listening to them any longer.
He was terribly vexed at meeting with such a common-place adventure at the first start, and to come across that girl on his road, who would make him loose, and soil him with unclean love. She would lower him, and bring him down to the level of rollicking troopers, who are welcome guests in houses of bad character.
“Well,” one of them said suddenly, “suppose we go and finish the night at that establishment; it will be far jollier, and the chief will not be obliged to cudgel his brains to remember the name of the girl he loves!”
The officers pushed open the door of the saloon, where a servant was lighting the chandelier, and Marchessy called out in a loud voice, and amidst bursts of laughter:
“Here, Lucie! We have brought your sweetheart to you!”
She came in first, slowly, and wrapped in a transparent muslin dressing-gown, and stopped, as if the beating of her heart were choking her. The bandmaster did not move or say a word; he resembled a duellist, who sees his adversary advancing towards him and taking aim at him, and who is waiting for death.
Great drops of perspiration rolled down his face, and all the blood had left it, while the woman looked at him, and did not appear to recognize him, although her eyes wore a look of triumphant pleasure, and when he started back, and turned his head away, she said to him, in a mocking voice:
“What, my dear, are you not going to kiss me, after a whole year? . . . I must have altered very much, very much indeed . . . Do not my mouth, and this mark by the side of my ear, bring something to your mind?”
And Varache, who had just lit a cigar, muttered: “Are you going to act a play until tomorrow?”
Then Lucie threw herself on to a sofa, and with her chin in her hands, and in the posture of a chimera on the look out for the pleasures she wishes, continued gravely:
“We lived at the end of a quiet street behind the cathedral, a street in which pots of carnations stood on the window ledges, through which the seminarists went twice a day, as if it had been a procession, and where I was bored to death. Our parents’ shop was cold and dark; my mother thought of nothing but of going to all the services, and of attending the novenas, while my father bent over the counter. There was nobody to pet me, to advise me, or to teach me what life really was, and besides that, I had the instinctive feeling that they cared for nobody in this world but my brother.
“The first kiss that touched my lips nearly sent me mad, and I had not the force to resist or to say no. I did not even ask the man who seduced me to marry me, to promise me what men do promise girls. We met in a booth at the fair, and I used to go to meet him every evening in a meadow bordered by poplar trees. He had a situation as clerk or collector, I believe, and when he was sent to another town, I was already three months in the family way. My people soon found it out, and forced me to acknowledge everything, and they locked me up like a prisoner who wished to escape from jail.
“My brother was home for his holidays — do you remember now, Monsieur Parisel? He had just been appointed second head clerk, was reckoning on still further speedy advancement, and was bursting with pride. He was harder and more inexorable than the two old people towards me, poor forsaken girl as I was, although they had never left their home. He spoke about his future, which would be compromised, of the disgrace which would fall on all the family, went into a rage, arid pitied neither my tears nor my prayers, and treated me with the cruelty of a hangman.
“And they sent me a long way off, like a servant who has committed a theft, and condemned me to be confined at a farm in a village, where the peasants treated me harshly. The child died, but the mother lived through everything.
“One does not have good luck very frequently, confound it, and the only thing that I could do was to return evil, to strike at the coward whom I hated, to dishonor and to lower his name, to stick to the fellow who strutted about in his uniform, and who had won the game, from garrison to garrison, as if I had been vermin. That is why I, of my own accord, came to this house, where one belongs to everybody, and have become almost more vicious than any of the other girls, and why I have told you this unentertaining story.
“I say, you fellows, who will pay ten francs for the bandmaster’s sister? Upon my honor, you will not regret your money!”
His comrades got Parisel out of the house. He resisted for a week, but then sold everything he had, borrowed the money to pay Lucie’s debts, and tried in vain to free himself from that weight, and to get her expelled from the town, but she always returned. She was as implacable towards him as a gerfalcon that is devouring its prey, and as the adventure had got wind, and was even talked about at the soldiers’ mess, and as the scandal increased every day, the colonel forced the bandmaster to resign.
When Lucie heard the news, she looked vexed, and, said spitefully:
“I had hoped that he would have blown his brains out!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58