It was a small drawing-room, with thick hangings, and with a faint, judicious smell of flowers and scents about it. A large fire was burning in the grate, while one lamp, covered with a shade of old lace, on the corner of the mantel-piece threw a soft light onto the two persons who were talking.
She, the mistress of the house, was an old lady with white hair, but one of those adorable old ladies whose unwrinkled skin is as smooth as the finest paper, and scented, impregnated with perfume as the delicate essences which she had used in her bath for so many years had penetrated through the epidermis.
He was a very old friend, who had never married, a constant friend, a companion in the journey of life, but nothing else.
They had not spoken for about a minute, and they were both looking at the fire, dreaming no matter of what, in one of those moments of friendly silence between people who have no need to be constantly talking in order to be happy together, when suddenly a large log, a stump covered with burning roots, fell out. It fell over the fire-dogs into the drawing-room, and rolled onto the carpet, scattering great sparks all round. The old lady sprang up with a little scream, as if she was going to run away, while he kicked the log back onto the hearth and trod out all the burning sparks with his boots.
When the disaster was repaired, there was a strong smell of burning, and sitting down opposite to his friend, the man looked at her with a smile, and said, as he pointed to the log:
“That is the reason why I never married.”
She looked at him in astonishment, with the inquisitive gaze of women who wish to know everything, that eye which women have who are no longer very young, in which complicated, and often malicious curiosity is reflected, and she asked:
“Oh! that is a long story,” he replied; “a rather sad and unpleasant story.”
“My old friends were often surprised at the coldness which suddenly sprang up between one of my best friends, whose Christian name was Julien, and myself. They could not understand how two such intimate and inseparable friends as we had been could suddenly become almost strangers to one another, and I will tell you the reason of it.
“He and I used to live together at one time. We were never apart, and the friendship that united us seemed so strong that nothing could break it.
“One evening when he came home, he told me that he was going to get married, and it gave me a shock as if he had robbed me or betrayed me. When a man’s friend marries, it is all over between them. The jealous affection of a woman, that suspicious, uneasy, and carnal affection, will not tolerate that sturdy and frank attachment, that attachment of the mind, of the heart, and mutual confidence which exists between two men.
“You see, however great the love may be that unites them, a man and a woman are always strangers in mind and intellect; they remain belligerants, they belong to different races. There must always be a conqueror and a conquered, a master and a slave; now the one, now the other — they are never two equals. They press each other’s hands, those hands trembling with amorous passion; but they never press them with a long, strong, loyal pressure, with that pressure which seems to open hearts and to lay them bare in a burst of sincere, strong, manly affection. Philosophers of old, instead of marrying and pro-creating children who would abandon them as a consolation for their old age, sought for a good, reliable friend, and grew old with him in that communion of thought which can only exist between men.
“Well, my friend Julien married. His wife was pretty, charming, a little, light, curly-haired, plump, bright woman, who seemed to worship him; and at first I went but rarely to their house, as I was afraid of interfering with their affection, and afraid of being in their way. But somehow they attracted me to their house; they were constantly inviting me, and seemed very fond of me. Consequently, by degrees I allowed myself to be allured by the charm of their life. I often dined with them, and frequently, when I returned home at night, I thought that I would do as he had done, and get married, as I now found my empty house very dull.
“They seemed very much in love with one another, and were never apart.
“Well, one evening Julien wrote and asked me to go to dinner, and I naturally went.
“‘My dear fellow,’ he said, ‘I must go out directly afterwards on business, and I shall not be back until eleven o’clock, but I shall be at eleven precisely, and I reckon you to keep Bertha company.’
“The young woman smiled.
“‘It was my idea,’ she said, ‘to send for you.’
“I held out my hand to her.
“‘You are as nice as ever,’ I said, and I felt a long, friendly pressure of my fingers, but I paid no attention to it; so we sat down to dinner, and at eight o’clock Julien went out.
“As soon as he had gone, a kind of strange embarrassment immediately seemed to arise between his wife and me. We had never been alone together yet, and in spite of our daily increasing intimacy, this tête-à-tête placed us in a new position. At first I spoke vaguely of those indifferent matters with which one fills up an embarrassing silence, but she did not reply, and remained opposite to me with her head down in an undecided manner, as if she were thinking over some difficult subject, and as I was at a loss for commonplace ideas, I held my tongue. It is surprising how hard it is at times to find anything to say.
“And then, again, I felt in the air, I felt in the unseen, something which is impossible for me to express, that mysterious premonition which tells you beforehand of the secret intentions, be they good or evil, of another person with respect to yourself.
“That painful silence lasted some time, and then Bertha said to me:
“‘Will you kindly put a log on the fire, for it is going out.’
“So I opened the box where the wood was kept, which was placed just where yours is, took out the largest log, and put it on the top of the others, which were three-parts burnt, and then silence reigned in the room again.
“In a few minutes the log was burning so brightly that it scorched our faces, and the young woman raised her eyes to me — eyes that had a strange look to me.
“‘It is too hot now,’ she said; ‘let us go and sit on the sofa over there.’
“So we went and sat on the sofa, and then she said suddenly, looking me full in the face:
“‘What should you do if a woman were to tell you that she was in love with you?’
“‘Upon my word,’ I replied, very much at a loss for an answer, ‘I cannot foresee such a case; but it would very much depend upon the woman.’
“She gave a hard, nervous, vibrating laugh; one of those false laughs which seem as if they must break thin glasses, and then she added: ‘Men are never either venturesome nor acute.’ And after a moment’s silence, she continued: ‘Have you ever been in love, Monsieur Paul?’ I was obliged to acknowledge that I certainly had been, and she asked me to tell her all about it, whereupon I made up some story or other. She listened to me attentively with frequent sighs of approbation and contempt, and then suddenly she said:
“‘No, you understand nothing about the subject. It seems to me, that real love must unsettle the mind, upset the nerves and distract the head; that it must — how shall I express it? — be dangerous, even terrible, almost criminal and sacrilegious; that it must be a kind of treason; I mean to say that it is almost bound to break laws, fraternal bonds, sacred obstacles; when love is tranquil, easy, lawful and without dangers, is it really love?’
“I did not know what answer to give her, and I made this philosophical reflection to myself: ‘Oh! female brain, here indeed you show yourself!’
“While speaking, she had assumed a demure, saintly air; and resting on the cushions, she stretched herself out at full length, with her head on my shoulder and her dress pulled up a little, so as to show her red silk stockings, which the fire-light made look still brighter. In a minute or two she continued:
“‘I suppose I have frightened you?’ I protested against such a notion, and she leant against my breast altogether, and without looking at me she said: ‘If I were to tell you that I love you, what would you do?’
“And before I could think of an answer, she had thrown her arms round my neck, had quickly drawn my head down and put her lips to mine.
“Oh! My dear friend, I can tell you that I did not feel at all happy! What! deceive Julien? become the lover of this little silly, wrong-headed, cunning woman, who was no doubt terribly sensual, and for whom her husband was already not sufficient! To betray him continually, to deceive him, to play at being in love merely because I was attracted by forbidden fruit, danger incurred and friendship betrayed! No, that did not suit me, but what was I to do? To imitate Joseph, would be acting a very stupid, and, moreover, difficult part, for this woman was maddening in her perfidy, inflamed by audacity, palpitating and excited. Let the man who has never felt on his lips, the warm kiss of a woman who is ready to give herself to him, throw the first stone at me . . .
“ . . . Well, a minute more . . . you understand what I mean? A minute more and . . . I should have been . . . no, she would have been . . . I beg your pardon, he would have been! . . . when a loud noise made us both jump up. The log had fallen into the room, knocking over the fire-irons and the fender, and onto the carpet which it had scorched, and had rolled under an arm-chair, which it would certainly set alight.
“I jumped up like a madman, and as I was replacing that log which had saved me, on the fire, the door opened hastily, and Julien came in.
“‘I have done,’ he said, in evident pleasure. ‘The business was over two hours sooner than I expected!’
“Yes, my dear friend, without that log, I should have been caught in the very act, and you know what the consequences would have been!
“You may be sure that I took good care never to be overtaken in a similar situation again; never, never. Soon afterwards I saw that Julien was giving me the ‘cold shoulder,’ as they say. His wife was evidently undermining our friendship; by degrees he got rid of me, and we have altogether ceased to meet.
“I have not got married which ought not to surprise you, I think.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58