The four glasses which were standing in front of the diners were now still nearly half full, which is a sign, as a general rule, that the guests are quite so. They were beginning to speak without waiting for an answer; no one took any notice of anything except what was going on inside him, either in his mind or stomach; voices grew louder, gestures more animated, eyes brighter.
It was a bachelors’ dinner of confirmed old bachelors. They had instituted this regular banquet twenty years before, christening it “The Celibate,” and at the time there were fourteen of them, all fully determined never to marry. Now there were only four of them left; three were dead and the other seven were married.
These four stuck firmly to it, and, as far as lay in their power, they scrupulously observed the rules which had been laid down at the beginning of their curious association. They had sworn, hand-inhand, to turn aside every woman they could from the right path, and their friends’ wives for choice, and more especially those of their most intimate friends. For this reason, as soon as any of them left the society, in order to set up in domestic life for himself, he took care to quarrel definitely with all his former companions.
Besides this, they were pledged at every dinner to relate most minutely their last adventures, which had given rise to this familiar phrase amongst them:
“To lie like an old bachelor.”
They professed, moreover, the most profound contempt for woman whom they talked of as an animal made solely for their pleasure. Every moment they quoted Schopenhauer, who was their god, and his well-known essay “On Women;” they wished that harems and towers might be reintroduced, and had the ancient maxim: “Mulier, perpetuus infans,”1 woven into their table-linen, and below it, the line of Alfred de Vigny’s:
La femme, enfant malade et douze fois impure.2
1 Woman is a perpetual child.
2 Woman, a sick child and twelve times impure.
So that by dint of despising women they lived only for them, while all their efforts and all their desires were directed towards them.
Those of them who had married called them old fops, made fun of them, and — feared them.
When they began to feel the exhilarating effects of the champagne, this was the moment that their old bachelor experiences began.
On the day in question, these old fellows, for they were old by this time, and the older they got the more extraordinary good fortune in the way of love affairs they had to relate, were quite inexhaustible. For the last month, to hear them, each of them had played the gallant with at least one woman a day; and what women! the youngest, the noblest, the richest, and the most beautiful!
After they had finished their tales, one of them, he who having spoken first had been obliged to listen to all the others, rose and said:
“Now that we have finished drawing the long-bow, I should like to tell you, not my last, but my first adventure, — I mean the first adventure of my life, my first fall, — for it is a moral fall after all, in the arms of Venus. Oh! I am not going to tell you my first — what shall I call it? — my first appearance; certainly not. The leap over the first hedge (I am speaking figuratively) has nothing interesting about it. It is generally rather a disagreeable one, and one picks oneself up rather abashed, with one charming illusion the less, with a vague feeling of disappointment and sadness. That realization of love the first time one experiences it is rather repugnant; we had dreamt of it as being so different, so delicate, so refined. It leaves a physical and moral sense of disgust behind it, just like as when one has happened to have put one’s hand into some clammy matter and feels in a hurry to wash it off. You may rub it as hard as you like, but the moral feeling remains.
“Yes! but one very soon gets quite used to it; there is no doubt about that. For my part, however, I am very sorry it was not in my power to give the Creator the benefit of my advice when He was arranging these little matters. I wonder what I should have done? I am not quite sure, but I think with the English savant, John Stuart Mill, I should have managed differently; I should have found some more convenient and more poetical combination; yes — more poetical.
“I really think that the Creator showed Himself to be too much of a naturalist . . . too . . . what shall I say? His invention lacks poetry.
“However, what I am going to tell you is about my first woman of the world, the first woman in society I ever made love to; — I beg your pardon, I ought to say the first woman of the world that ever triumphed over me. For at first it is we who allow ourselves to be taken, while, later on — well, then it is quite another matter.
“She was a friend of my mother’s, a charming woman in every way. When such women are chaste, it is generally from sheer stupidity, and when they are in love they are furiously so. And then — we are accused of corrupting them! Yes, yes, of course! With them it is always the rabbit that begins and never the sportsman. I know all about it; they don’t seem to put their fingers near us, but they do it all the same, and do what they like with us, without it being noticed, and then they actually accuse us of having ruined them, dishonored them, humiliated them, and all the rest of it.
“The woman in question certainly had a great desire to be humiliated by me. She may have been about thirty-five, while I was scarcely two-and-twenty. I no more thought of dishonoring her than I did of turning Trappist. Well, one day when I was calling on her, and while I was looking at her dress with considerable astonishment, for she had on a morning wrapper which was open as wide as a church-door when the bells are ringing for service, she took my hand and squeezed it — squeezed it, you know, like they will do at such moments — and said, with a deep sigh, one of those sighs, you know, which come from right down the bottom of the chest: ‘Oh! don’t look at me like that, child!’ I got as red as a tomato, and felt more nervous than usual, naturally. I was very much inclined to bolt, but she held my hand tightly, and putting it onto her well-developed bust, she said: ‘Just feel how my heart beats!’ Of course it was beating, and I began to understand what was the matter, but I did not know what to do. I have changed considerably since then.
“As I remained standing there, with one hand on the soft covering of her heart, while I held my hat in the other, and continuing to look at her with a confused, silly smile — a timid, frightened smile — she suddenly drew back, and said in an irritated voice:
“‘Young man, what are you doing? You are indecent and badly brought up.’
“You may be sure I took my hand away quickly, stopped smiling, and stammering out some excuse, I got up and took my leave as if I had lost my head.
“But I was caught, and dreamt of her. I thought her charming, adorable; I fancied that I loved her, that I had always loved her, and I determined to see her again.
“When I saw her again she gave me a little smile like an actress might behind the scenes. Oh, how that little smile upset me! And she shook hands with a long, significant pressure.
“From that day it seems that I made love to her; at least, she declared afterwards that I had ruined her, captured her, dishonored her, with rare Machiavelism, with consummate cleverness, with the perseverance of a mathematician, and the cunning of an Apaché Indian.
“But one thing troubled me strangely; where was my triumph to be accomplished? I lived with my family, and on this point my family was most particular. I was not bold enough to venture to go to an hotel in broad daylight with a woman on my arm, and I did not know whom to ask for advice.
“Now, my fair friend had often said in joke that every young man ought to have a room for himself somewhere or other from home. We lived in Paris, and this was a sort of inspiration. I took a room, and she came. She came one day in November; I should have liked to put off her visit because I had no fire, and I had no fire because the chimney smoked. The very evening before, I had spoken to my landlord, a retired shopkeeper, about it, and he had promised that he would send for the chimneysweep in a day or two to get it all put to rights.
“As soon as she came in, I said:
“‘There is no fire because my chimney smokes.’
“She did not even appear to hear me, but stammered: ‘That does not matter, I have . . .;’ and when I looked surprised, she stopped short in confusion, and then went on: ‘I don’t know what I am saying; I am mad. . . . I have lost my head. . . . Oh! what am I doing? Why did I come? How unhappy I am! What a disgrace, what a disgrace!’ And she threw herself sobbing into my arms.
“I thought that she really felt remorse, and swore that I would respect her. Then, however, she sank down at my knees, sighing: ‘But don’t you see that I love you, that you have overcome me, that it seems as though you had thrown a charm over me?’
“Then I thought it was about time to show myself a man. But she trembled, got up, ran and hid behind a wardrobe, crying out: ‘Oh! don’t look at me; no! no! If only you did not see me, if we were only in the dark! I am ashamed in the light. Cannot you imagine it? What a dreadful dream! Oh! this light, this light!’
“I rushed to the window; I closed the outside shutters, drew the curtains, and hung a coat over a ray of light that peeped in, and then, stretching out my hands so as not to fall over the chairs, with my heart beating, and felt for her, and found her.
“It was a fresh journey for the two of us then, groping our way, with our hands united, towards the other corner where the sofa stood. I don’t suppose we went straight, for first of all I knocked against the mantelpiece, and then against a chest of drawers, before finding what we wanted. After we sat down I forgot everything, and we almost went to sleep in each other’s arms.
“I was half dreaming; but in my dream I fancied that someone was calling me and crying for help; then I received a violent blow, and opened my eyes.
“‘O— h!’ The setting sun, magnificent and red, shone full into the room through the door, which was wide open, and seemed to look at us from the verge of the horizon, illuminating us both, especially my companion, who was screaming, struggling, and twisting, and trying with hands and feet to get under the sofa, while in the middle of the room stood my landlord by the side of the concierge3 and a chimneysweep, as black as the devil, who were looking at us with stupid eyes.
3 Porter who opens the front door, which is common to all the lodgers, and is closed at night.
“I stood up in rage, ready to jump at his throat, and shouted:
“‘What the deuce are you doing in my room?’
“The chimneysweep laughed so that he let his brush fall on the floor. The porter looked as if he were going out of his mind, and the landlord stammered:
“‘But, Monsieur, it was — it was — about the chimney — the chimney, the chimney which — ’
“‘Go to the devil!’ I roared. So he took off his hat, which he had kept on in his confusion, and said, in a confused but very civil manner:
“‘I beg your pardon, Monsieur; if I had known, I should not have disturbed you; I should not have come. The concierge told me you had gone out. Pray excuse me.’ And they all went out.
“Ever since that time I never draw the curtains but am always very careful to lock the door first.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58