He certainly did not think himself a saint, nor had he any hypocritical pretensions to virtue, but, nevertheless, he thought as highly of himself as much as he did of anybody else, and perhaps, even a trifle more highly. And that, quite impartially, without any more self love than was necessary, and without his having to accuse himself of being self conceited. He did himself justice, that was all, for he had good moral principles, and he applied them, especially, if the truth must be told, not only to judging the conduct of others, but also, it must be allowed, in a measure for regulating his own conduct, as he would have been very vexed if he had been able to think of himself:
“On the whole, I am what people call a perfectly honorable man.”
Luckily, he had never (oh! never), been obliged to doubt that excellent opinion which he had of himself, which he liked to express thus, in his moments of rhetorical expansion:
“My whole life gives me the right to shake hands with myself.”
Perhaps a subtle psychologist would have found some flaws in this armor of integrity, which was sanctimoniously satisfied with itself. It was, for example, quite certain that our friend had no scruples in making profit out of the vices or misfortunes of his neighbors, provided that he was not in his own opinion, the person who was solely, or chiefly responsible for them. But, on the whole, it was only one manner of looking at it, nothing more, and there were plenty of materials for casuistic arguments in it. This kind of discussion is particularly unpleasant to such simple natures as that of his worthy fellow, who would have replied to the psychologist.
“Why go on a wild goose chase? As for me, I am perfectly sincere.”
You must not, however, believe that this perfect sincerity prevented him from having elevated views. He prided himself on having a weakness for imagination and the unforeseen, and if he would have been offended at being called a dishonorable man, he would, perhaps have been still more hurt if anybody had attributed middle-class tastes to him.
Accordingly, in love affairs, he expressed a most virtuous horror of adultery, for if he had committed it, it would not have been able to bear that testimony to himself, which was so sweet to his conscience:
“Ah! As for me, I can declare that I never wronged anybody!”
While, on the other hand, he was not satisfied with pleasure which was paid for by the hour, and which debases the noblest desires of the heart, to the vulgar satisfaction of a physical requirement. What he required, so he used to say, while lifting his eyes up to heaven was:
“Something rather more ideal than that!”
That search after the ideal did not, indeed, cost him any great effort, as it was limited to not going to licensed houses of ill-fame, and to not accosting streetwalkers with the simple words: “How much?”
It consisted chiefly in wishing to be gallant even with such women, and in trying to persuade himself that they liked him for his own sake, and in preferring those whose manner, dress and looks allowed room for suppositions and romantic illusions, such as:
“She might be taken for a little work-girl who has not yet lost her virtue.”
“No, I rather think she is a widow, who has met with misfortunes.”
“What if she be a fashionable lady in disguise!”
And other nonsense, which he knew to be such, even while imagining it, but whose imaginary flavor was very pleasant to him, all the same.
With such tastes, it was only natural that this pilgrim followed and pushed up against women in the large shops, and whenever there was a crowd, and that he especially looked out for those ladies of easy virtue, for nothing is more exciting than those half-closed shutters, behind which a face is indistinctly seen, and from which one hears a furtive: “P’st! P’st!“
He used to say to himself: “Who is she? Is she young and pretty? Is she some old woman, who is terribly skillful at her business, but who yet does not venture to show herself any longer? Or is she some new beginner, who has not yet acquired the boldness of an old hand? In any case, it is the unknown, perhaps, that is my ideal during the time it takes me to find my way upstairs;” and always as he went up, his heart beat, as it does at a first meeting with a beloved mistress.
But he had never felt such a delicious shiver as he did on the day on which he penetrated into that old house in the blind alley in Ménilmontant. He could not have said why, for he had often gone after so-called love in much stranger places; but now, without any reason, he had a presentiment that he was going to meet with an adventure, and that gave him a delightful sensation.
The woman who had made the sign to him, lived on the third floor, and all the way upstairs his excitement increased, until his heart was beating violently when he reached the landing. At the same time, he was going up, he smelt a peculiar odor, which grew stronger and stronger, and which he had tried in vain to analyze, though all he could arrive at was, that it smelt like a chemist’s shop.
The door on the right, at the end of the passage, was opened as soon as he put his foot on the landing, and the woman said, in a low voice:
“Come in, my dear.”
A whiff of a very strong smell met his nostrils through the open door, and suddenly he exclaimed:
“How stupid I was! I know what it is now; it is carbolic acid, is it not?”
“Yes,” the woman replied. “Don’t you like it, dear? It is very wholesome, you know.”
The woman was not ugly, although not young; she had very good eyes, although they were sad and sunken in her head; evidently she had been crying, very much quite recently, and that imparted a special spice to the vague smile which she put on, so as to appear more amiable.
Seized by his romantic ideas once more, and under the influence of the presentiment which he had had just before, he thought — and the idea filled him with pleasure:
“She is some widow, whom poverty has forced to sell herself.”
The room was small, but very clean and tidy, and that confirmed him in his conjecture, as he was curious to verify its truth, he went into the three rooms which opened into one another. The bedroom, came first; next there came a kind of a drawing-room, and then a dining-room, which evidently served as a kitchen, for a Dutch tiled stove stood in the middle of it, on which a stew was simmering, but the smell of carbolic acid was even stronger in that room. He remarked on it, and added with a laugh:
“Do you put it with your soup?”
And as he said this, he laid hold of the handle of the door which led into the next room, for he wanted to see everything, even that nook, which was apparently a store cupboard, but the woman seized him by the arm, and pulled him violently back.
“No, no,” she said, almost in a whisper, and in a hoarse and suppliant voice, “no, dear, not there, not there, you must not go in there.”
“Why?” he said, for his wish to go in had only become stronger.
“Because if you go in there, you will have no inclination to remain with me, and I so want you to stay. If you only knew!”
“Well, what?” And with a violent movement, he opened the glazed door, when the smell of carbolic acid seemed almost to strike him in the face, but what he saw, made him recoil still more, for on a small iron bedstead, lay the dead body of a woman fantastically illuminated by a single wax candle, and in horror he turned to make his escape.
“Stop, my dear,” the woman sobbed; and clinging to him, she told him amidst a flood of tears, that her friend had died two days previously, and that there was no money to bury her. “Because,” she said, “you can understand that I want it to be a respectable funeral, we were so very fond of each other! Stop here, my dear, do stop. I only want ten francs more. Don’t go away.”
They had gone back into the bedroom, and she was pushing him towards the bed:
“No,” he said, “let me go. I will give you the ten francs, but I will not stay here; I cannot.”
He took his purse out of his pocket, extracted a ten-franc piece, put it on the table, and then went to the door; but when he had reached it, a thought suddenly struck him, as if somebody were reasoning with him, without his knowledge.
“Why lose these ten francs? Why not profit by this woman’s good intentions. She certainly did her business bravely, and if I had not known about the matter, I should certainly not have gone away for some time . . . Well then?”
But other obscurer suggestions whispered to him:
“She was her friend! . . . They were so fond of each other! Was it friendship or love? Oh! love apparently. Well, it would surely be avenging morality, if this woman were forced to be faithless to that monstrous love?” And suddenly the man turned round and said in a low and trembling voice: “Look here! If I give you twenty francs instead of ten, I suppose you could buy some flowers for her, as well?”
The unhappy woman’s face brightened with pleasure and gratitude.
“Will you really give me twenty?”
“Yes,” he replied, “and more perhaps. It quite depends upon yourself.”
And with the quiet conscience of an honorable man who, at the same time, is not a fool he said gravely:
“You need only be very complaisant.”
And he added, mentally: “Especially as I deserve it, as in giving you twenty francs I am performing a good action.”
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40