One December evening three months afterward Count Muffat was strolling in the Passage des Panoramas. The evening was very mild, and owing to a passing shower, the passage had just become crowded with people. There was a perfect mob of them, and they thronged slowly and laboriously along between the shops on either side. Under the windows, white with reflected light, the pavement was violently illuminated. A perfect stream of brilliancy emanated from white globes, red lanterns, blue transparencies, lines of gas jets, gigantic watches and fans, outlined in flame and burning in the open. And the motley displays in the shops, the gold ornaments of the jeweler’s, the glass ornaments of the confectioner’s, the light-colored silks of the modiste’s, seemed to shine again in the crude light of the reflectors behind the clear plate-glass windows, while among the bright-colored, disorderly array of shop signs a huge purple glove loomed in the distance like a bleeding hand which had been severed from an arm and fastened to a yellow cuff.
Count Muffat had slowly returned as far as the boulevard. He glanced out at the roadway and then came sauntering back along the shopwindows. The damp and heated atmosphere filled the narrow passage with a slight luminous mist. Along the flagstones, which had been wet by the drip-drop of umbrellas, the footsteps of the crowd rang continually, but there was no sound of voices. Passers-by elbowed him at every turn and cast inquiring looks at his silent face, which the gaslight rendered pale. And to escape these curious manifestations the count posted himself in front of a stationer’s, where with profound attention contemplated an array of paperweights in the form of glass bowls containing floating landscapes and flowers.
He was conscious of nothing: he was thinking of Nana. Why had she lied to him again? That morning she had written and told him not to trouble about her in the evening, her excuse being that Louiset was ill and that she was going to pass the night at her aunt’s in order to nurse him. But he had felt suspicious and had called at her house, where he learned from the porter that Madame had just gone off to her theater. He was astonished at this, for she was not playing in the new piece. Why then should she have told him this falsehood, and what could she be doing at the Varietes that evening? Hustled by a passer-by, the count unconsciously left the paperweights and found himself in front of a glass case full of toys, where he grew absorbed over an array of pocketbooks and cigar cases, all of which had the same blue swallow stamped on one corner. Nana was most certainly not the same woman! In the early days after his return from the country she used to drive him wild with delight, as with pussycat caresses she kissed him all round his face and whiskers and vowed that he was her own dear pet and the only little man she adored. He was no longer afraid of Georges, whom his mother kept down at Les Fondettes. There was only fat Steiner to reckon with, and he believed he was really ousting him, but he did not dare provoke an explanation on his score. He knew he was once more in an extraordinary financial scrape and on the verge of being declared bankrupt on ‘change, so much so that he was clinging fiercely to the shareholders in the Landes Salt Pits and striving to sweat a final subscription out of them. Whenever he met him at Nana’s she would explain reasonably enough that she did not wish to turn him out of doors like a dog after all he had spent on her. Besides, for the last three months he had been living in such a whirl of sensual excitement that, beyond the need of possessing her, he had felt no very distinct impressions. His was a tardy awakening of the fleshly instinct, a childish greed of enjoyment, which left no room for either vanity or jealousy. Only one definite feeling could affect him now, and that was Nana’s decreasing kindness. She no longer kissed him on the beard! It made him anxious, and as became a man quite ignorant of womankind, he began asking himself what possible cause of offense he could have given her. Besides, he was under the impression that he was satisfying all her desires. And so he harked back again and again to the letter he had received that morning with its tissue of falsehoods, invented for the extremely simple purpose of passing an evening at her own theater. The crowd had pushed him forward again, and he had crossed the passage and was puzzling his brain in front of the entrance to a restaurant, his eyes fixed on some plucked larks and on a huge salmon laid out inside the window.
At length he seemed to tear himself away from this spectacle. He shook himself, looked up and noticed that it was close on nine o’clock. Nana would soon be coming out, and he would make her tell the truth. And with that he walked on and recalled to memory the evenings he once passed in that region in the days when he used to meet her at the door of the theater.
He knew all the shops, and in the gas-laden air he recognized their different scents, such, for instance, as the strong savor of Russia leather, the perfume of vanilla emanating from a chocolate dealer’s basement, the savor of musk blown in whiffs from the open doors of the perfumers. But he did not dare linger under the gaze of the pale shopwomen, who looked placidly at him as though they knew him by sight. For one instant he seemed to be studying the line of little round windows above the shops, as though he had never noticed them before among the medley of signs. Then once again he went up to the boulevard and stood still a minute or two. A fine rain was now falling, and the cold feel of it on his hands calmed him. He thought of his wife who was staying in a country house near Macon, where her friend Mme de Chezelles had been ailing a good deal since the autumn. The carriages in the roadway were rolling through a stream of mud. The country, he thought, must be detestable in such vile weather. But suddenly he became anxious and re-entered the hot, close passage down which he strode among the strolling people. A thought struck him: if Nana were suspicious of his presence there she would be off along the Galerie Montmartre.
After that the count kept a sharp lookout at the very door of the theater, though he did not like this passage end, where he was afraid of being recognized. It was at the corner between the Galerie des Varietes and the Galerie Saint-Marc, an equivocal corner full of obscure little shops. Of these last one was a shoemaker’s, where customers never seemed to enter. Then there were two or three upholsterers’, deep in dust, and a smoky, sleepy reading room and library, the shaded lamps in which cast a green and slumberous light all the evening through. There was never anyone in this corner save well-dressed, patient gentlemen, who prowled about the wreckage peculiar to a stage door, where drunken sceneshifters and ragged chorus girls congregate. In front of the theater a single gas jet in a ground-glass globe lit up the doorway. For a moment or two Muffat thought of questioning Mme Bron; then he grew afraid lest Nana should get wind of his presence and escape by way of the boulevard. So he went on the march again and determined to wait till he was turned out at the closing of the gates, an event which had happened on two previous occasions. The thought of returning home to his solitary bed simply wrung his heart with anguish. Every time that golden-haired girls and men in dirty linen came out and stared at him he returned to his post in front of the reading room, where, looking in between two advertisements posted on a windowpane, he was always greeted by the same sight. It was a little old man, sitting stiff and solitary at the vast table and holding a green newspaper in his green hands under the green light of one of the lamps. But shortly before ten o’clock another gentleman, a tall, good-looking, fair man with well-fitting gloves, was also walking up and down in front of the stage door. Thereupon at each successive turn the pair treated each other to a suspicious sidelong glance. The count walked to the corner of the two galleries, which was adorned with a high mirror, and when he saw himself therein, looking grave and elegant, he was both ashamed and nervous.
Ten o’clock struck, and suddenly it occurred to Muffat that it would be very easy to find out whether Nana were in her dressing room or not. He went up the three steps, crossed the little yellow-painted lobby and slipped into the court by a door which simply shut with a latch. At that hour of the night the narrow, damp well of a court, with its pestiferous water closets, its fountain, its back view ot the kitchen stove and the collection of plants with which the portress used to litter the place, was drenched in dark mist; but the two walls, rising pierced with windows on either hand, were flaming with light, since the property room and the firemen’s office were situated on the ground floor, with the managerial bureau on the left, and on the right and upstairs the dressing rooms of the company. The mouths of furnaces seemed to be opening on the outer darkness from top to bottom of this well. The count had at once marked the light in the windows of the dressing room on the first floor, and as a man who is comforted and happy, he forgot where he was and stood gazing upward amid the foul mud and faint decaying smell peculiar to the premises of this antiquated Parisian building. Big drops were dripping from a broken waterspout, and a ray of gaslight slipped from Mme Bron’s window and cast a yellow glare over a patch of moss-clad pavement, over the base of a wall which had been rotted by water from a sink, over a whole cornerful of nameless filth amid which old pails and broken crocks lay in fine confusion round a spindling tree growing mildewed in its pot. A window fastening creaked, and the count fled.
Nana was certainly going to come down. He returned to his post in front of the reading room; among its slumbering shadows, which seemed only broken by the glimmer of a night light, the little old man still sat motionless, his side face sharply outlined against his newspaper. Then Muffat walked again and this time took a more prolonged turn and, crossing the large gallery, followed the Galerie des Varietes as far as that of Feydeau. The last mentioned was cold and deserted and buried in melancholy shadow. He returned from it, passed by the theater, turned the corner of the Galerie Saint-Marc and ventured as far as the Galerie Montmartre, where a sugar-chopping machine in front of a grocer’s interested him awhile. But when he was taking his third turn he was seized with such dread lest Nana should escape behind his back that he lost all self-respect. Thereupon he stationed himself beside the fair gentleman in front of the very theater. Both exchanged a glance of fraternal humility with which was mingled a touch of distrust, for it was possible they might yet turn out to be rivals. Some sceneshifters who came out smoking their pipes between the acts brushed rudely against them, but neither one nor the other ventured to complain. Three big wenches with untidy hair and dirty gowns appeared on the doorstep. They were munching apples and spitting out the cores, but the two men bowed their heads and patiently braved their impudent looks and rough speeches, though they were hustled and, as it were, soiled by these trollops, who amused themselves by pushing each other down upon them.
At that very moment Nana descended the three steps. She grew very pale when she noticed Muffat.
“Oh, it’s you!” she stammered.
The sniggering extra ladies were quite frightened when they recognized her, and they formed in line and stood up, looking as stiff and serious as servants whom their mistress has caught behaving badly. The tall fair gentleman had moved away; he was at once reassured and sad at heart.
“Well, give me your arm,” Nana continued impatiently.
They walked quietly off. The count had been getting ready to question her and now found nothing to say.
It was she who in rapid tones told a story to the effect that she had been at her aunt’s as late as eight o’clock, when, seeing Louiset very much better, she had conceived the idea of going down to the theater for a few minutes.
“On some important business?” he queried.
‘Yes, a new piece,” she replied after some slight hesitation. “They wanted my advice.”
He knew that she was not speaking the truth, but the warm touch of her arm as it leaned firmly on his own, left him powerless. He felt neither anger nor rancor after his long, long wait; his one thought was to keep her where she was now that he had got hold of her. Tomorrow, and not before, he would try and find out what she had come to her dressing room after. But Nana still appeared to hesitate; she was manifestly a prey to the sort of secret anguish that besets people when they are trying to regain lost ground and to initiate a plan of action. Accordingly, as they turned the corner of the Galerie des Varietes, she stopped in front of the show in a fan seller’s window.
“I say, that’s pretty,” she whispered; “I mean that mother-of-pearl mount with the feathers.”
“So you’re seeing me home?”
“Of course,” he said, with some surprise, “since your child’s better.”
She was sorry she had told him that story. Perhaps Louiset was passing through another crisis! She talked of returning to the Batignolles. But when he offered to accompany her she did not insist on going. For a second or two she was possessed with the kind of white-hot fury which a woman experiences when she feels herself entrapped and must, nevertheless, behave prettily. But in the end she grew resigned and determined to gain time. If only she could get rid of the count toward midnight everything would happen as she wished.
“Yes, it’s true; you’re a bachelor tonight,” she murmured. “Your wife doesn’t return till tomorrow, eh?”
“Yes,” replied Muffat. It embarrassed him somewhat to hear her talking familiarly about the countess.
But she pressed him further, asking at what time the train was due and wanting to know whether he were going to the station to meet her. She had begun to walk more slowly than ever, as though the shops interested her very much.
“Now do look!” she said, pausing anew before a jeweler’s window, “what a funny bracelet!”
She adored the Passage des Panoramas. The tinsel of the ARTICLE DE PARIS, the false jewelry, the gilded zinc, the cardboard made to look like leather, had been the passion of her early youth. It remained, and when she passed the shop-windows she could not tear herself away from them. It was the same with her today as when she was a ragged, slouching child who fell into reveries in front of the chocolate maker’s sweet-stuff shows or stood listening to a musical box in a neighboring shop or fell into supreme ecstasies over cheap, vulgarly designed knickknacks, such as nutshell workboxes, ragpickers’ baskets for holding toothpicks, Vendome columns and Luxor obelisks on which thermometers were mounted. But that evening she was too much agitated and looked at things without seeing them. When all was said and done, it bored her to think she was not free. An obscure revolt raged within her, and amid it all she felt a wild desire to do something foolish. It was a great thing gained, forsooth, to be mistress of men of position! She had been devouring the prince’s substance and Steiner’s, too, with her childish caprices, and yet she had no notion where her money went. Even at this time of day her flat in the Boulevard Haussmann was not entirely furnished. The drawing room alone was finished, and with its red satin upholsteries and excess of ornamentation and furnirure it struck a decidedly false note. Her creditors, moreover, would now take to tormenting her more than ever before whenever she had no money on hand, a fact which caused her constant surprise, seeing that she was wont to quote her self as a model of economy. For a month past that thief Steiner had been scarcely able to pay up his thousand francs on the occasions when she threatened to kick him out of doors in case he failed to bring them. As to Muffat, he was an idiot: he had no notion as to what it was usual to give, and she could not, therefore, grow angry with him on the score of miserliness. Oh, how gladly she would have turned all these folks off had she not repeated to herself a score of times daily a whole string of economical maxims!
One ought to be sensible, Zoe kept saying every morning, and Nana herself was constantly haunted by the queenly vision seen at Chamont. It had now become an almost religious memory with her, and through dint of being ceaselessly recalled it grew even more grandiose. And for these reasons, though trembling with repressed indignation, she now hung submissively on the count’s arm as they went from window to window among the fast-diminishing crowd. The pavement was drying outside, and a cool wind blew along the gallery, swept the close hot air up beneath the glass that imprisoned it and shook the colored lanterns and the lines of gas jets and the giant fan which was flaring away like a set piece in an illumination. At the door of the restaurant a waiter was putting out the gas, while the motionless attendants in the empty, glaring shops looked as though they had dropped off to sleep with their eyes open.
“Oh, what a duck!” continued Nana, retracing her steps as far as the last of the shops in order to go into ecstasies over a porcelain greyhound standing with raised forepaw in front of a nest hidden among roses.
At length they quitted the passage, but she refused the offer of a cab. It was very pleasant out she said; besides, they were in no hurry, and it would be charming to return home on foot. When they were in front of the Cafe Anglais she had a sudden longing to eat oysters. Indeed, she said that owing to Louiset’s illness she had tasted nothing since morning. Muffat dared not oppose her. Yet as he did not in those days wish to be seen about with her he asked for a private supper room and hurried to it along the corridors. She followed him with the air of a woman familiar with the house, and they were on the point of entering a private room, the door of which a waiter held open, when from a neighboring saloon, whence issued a perfect tempest of shouts and laughter, a man rapidiy emerged. It was Daguenet.
“By Jove, it’s Nana!” he cried.
The count had briskly disappeared into the private room, leaving the door ajar behind him. But Daguenet winked behind his round shoulders and added in chaffing tones:
“The deuce, but you’re doing nicely! You catch ‘em in the Tuileries nowadays!”
Nana smiled and laid a finger on her lips to beg him to be silent. She could see he was very much exalted, and yet she was glad to have met him, for she still felt tenderly toward him, and that despite the nasty way he had cut her when in the company of fashionable ladies.
“What are you doing now?” she asked amicably.
“Becoming respectable. Yes indeed, I’m thinking of getting married.”
She shrugged her shoulders with a pitying air. But he jokingly continued to the effect that to be only just gaining enough on ‘change to buy ladies bouquets could scarcely be called an income, provided you wanted to look respectable too! His three hundred thousand francs had only lasted him eighteen months! He wanted to be practical, and he was going to marry a girl with a huge dowry and end off as a PREFET, like his father before him! Nana still smiled incredulously. She nodded in the direction of the saloon: “Who are you with in there?”
“Oh, a whole gang,” he said, forgetting all about his projects under the influence of returning intoxication. “Just think! Lea is telling us about her trip in Egypt. Oh, it’s screaming! There’s a bathing story —”
And he told the story while Nana lingered complaisantly. They had ended by leaning up against the wall in the corridor, facing one another. Gas jets were flaring under the low ceiling, and a vague smell of cookery hung about the folds of the hangings. Now and again, in order to hear each other’s voices when the din in the saloon became louder than ever, they had to lean well forward. Every few seconds, however, a waiter with an armful of dishes found his passage barred and disturbed them. But they did not cease their talk for that; on the contrary, they stood close up to the walls and, amid the uproar of the supper party and the jostlings of the waiters, chatted as quietly as if they were by their own firesides.
“Just look at that,” whispered the young man, pointing to the door of the private room through which Muffat had vanished.
Both looked. The door was quivering slightly; a breath of air seemed to be disturbing it, and at last, very, very slowly and without the least sound, it was shut to. They exchanged a silent chuckle. The count must be looking charmingly happy all alone in there!
“By the by,” she asked, “have you read Fauchery’s article about me?”
“Yes, ‘The Golden Fly,’” replied Daguenet; “I didn’t mention it to you as I was afraid of paining you.”
“Paining me — why? His article’s a very long one.”
She was flattered to think that the Figaro should concern itself about her person. But failing the explanations of her hairdresser Francis, who had brought her the paper, she would not have understood that it was she who was in question. Daguenet scrutinized her slyly, sneering in his chaffing way. Well, well, since she was pleased, everybody else ought to be.
“By your leave!” shouted a waiter, holding a dish of iced cheese in both hands as he separated them.
Nana had stepped toward the little saloon where Muffat was waiting.
“Well, good-by!” continued Daguenet. “Go and find your cuckold again.”
But she halted afresh.
“Why d’you call him cuckold?”
“Because he is a cuckold, by Jove!”
She came and leaned against the wall again; she was profoundly interested.
“Ah!” she said simply.
“What, d’you mean to say you didn’t know that? Why, my dear girl, his wife’s Fauchery’s mistress. It probably began in the country. Some time ago, when I was coming here, Fauchery left me, and I suspect he’s got an assignation with her at his place tonight. They’ve made up a story about a journey, I fancy.”
Overcome with surprise, Nana remained voiceless.
“I suspected it,” she said at last, slapping her leg. “I guessed it by merely looking at her on the highroad that day. To think of its being possible for an honest woman to deceive her husband, and with that blackguard Fauchery too! He’ll teach her some pretty things!”
“Oh, it isn’t her trial trip,” muttered Daguenet wickedly. “Perhaps she knows as much about it as he does.”
At this Nana gave vent to an indignant exclamation.
“Indeed she does! What a nice world! It’s too foul!”
“By your leave!” shouted a waiter, laden with bottles, as he separated them.
Daguenet drew her forward again and held her hand for a second or two. He adopted his crystalline tone of voice, the voice with notes as sweet as those of a harmonica, which had gained him his success among the ladies of Nana’s type.
“Good-by, darling! You know I love you always.”
She disengaged her hand from his, and while a thunder of shouts and bravos, which made the door in the saloon tremble again, almost drowned her words she smilingly remarked:
“It’s over between us, stupid! But that doesn’t matter. Do come up one of these days, and we’ll have a chat.”
Then she became serious again and in the outraged tones of a respectable woman:
“So he’s a cuckold, is he?” she cried. “Well, that IS a nuisance, dear boy. They’ve always sickened me, cuckolds have.”
When at length she went into the private room she noticed that Muffat was sitting resignedly on a narrow divan with pale face and twitching hands. He did not reproach her at all, and she, greatly moved, was divided between feelings of pity and of contempt. The poor man! To think of his being so unworthily cheated by a vile wife! She had a good mind to throw her arms round his neck and comfort him. But it was only fair all the same! He was a fool with women, and this would teach him a lesson! Nevertheless, pity overcame her. She did not get rid of him as she had determined to do after the oysters had been discussed. They scarcely stayed a quarter of an hour in the Cafe Anglais, and together they went into the house in the Boulevard Haussmann. It was then eleven. Before midnight she would have easily have discovered some means of getting rid of him kindly.
In the anteroom, however, she took the precaution of giving Zoe an order. “You’ll look out for him, and you’ll tell him not to make a noise if the other man’s still with me.”
“But where shall I put him, madame?”
“Keep him in the kitchen. It’s more safe.”
In the room inside Muffat was already taking off his overcoat. A big fire was burning on the hearth. It was the same room as of old, with its rosewood furniture and its hangings and chair coverings of figured damask with the large blue flowers on a gray background. On two occasions Nana had thought of having it redone, the first in black velvet, the second in white satin with bows, but directly Steiner consented she demanded the money that these changes would cost simply with a view to pillaging him. She had, indeed, only indulged in a tiger skin rug for the hearth and a cut-glass hanging lamp.
“I’m not sleepy; I’m not going to bed,” she said the moment they were shut in together.
The count obeyed her submissively, as became a man no longer afraid of being seen. His one care now was to avoid vexing her.
“As you will,” he murmured.
Nevertheless, he took his boots off, too, before seating himself in front of the fire. One of Nana’s pleasures consisted in undressing herself in front of the mirror on her wardrobe door, which reflected her whole height. She would let everything slip off her in turn and then would stand perfectly naked and gaze and gaze in complete oblivion of all around her. Passion for her own body, ecstasy over her satin skin and the supple contours of her shape, would keep her serious, attentive and absorbed in the love of herself. The hairdresser frequently found her standing thus and would enter without her once turning to look at him. Muffat used to grow angry then, but he only succeeded in astonishing her. What was coming over the man? She was doing it to please herself, not other people.
That particular evening she wanted to have a better view of herself, and she lit the six candles attached to the frame of the mirror. But while letting her shift slip down she paused. She had been preoccupied for some moments past, and a question was on her lips.
“You haven’t read the Figaro article, have you? The paper’s on the table.” Daguenet’s laugh had recurred to her recollections, and she was harassed by a doubt. If that Fauchery had slandered her she would be revenged.
“They say that it’s about me,” she continued, affecting indifference. “What’s your notion, eh, darling?”
And letting go her shift and waiting till Muffat should have done reading, she stood naked. Muffat was reading slowly Fauchery’s article entitled “The Golden Fly,” describing the life of a harlot descended from four or five generations of drunkards and tainted in her blood by a cumulative inheritance of misery and drink, which in her case has taken the form of a nervous exaggeration of the sexual instinct. She has shot up to womanhood in the slums and on the pavements of Paris, and tall, handsome and as superbly grown as a dunghill plant, she avenges the beggars and outcasts of whom she is the ultimate product. With her the rottenness that is allowed to ferment among the populace is carried upward and rots the aristocracy. She becomes a blind power of nature, a leaven of destruction, and unwittingly she corrupts and disorganizes all Paris, churning it between her snow-white thighs as milk is monthly churned by housewives. And it was at the end of this article that the comparison with a fly occurred, a fly of sunny hue which has flown up out of the dung, a fly which sucks in death on the carrion tolerated by the roadside and then buzzing, dancing and glittering like a precious stone enters the windows of palaces and poisons the men within by merely settling on them in her flight.
Muffat lifted his head; his eyes stared fixedly; he gazed at the fire.
“Well?” asked Nana.
But he did not answer. It seemed as though he wanted to read the article again. A cold, shivering feeling was creeping from his scalp to his shoulders. This article had been written anyhow. The phrases were wildly extravagant; the unexpected epigrams and quaint collocations of words went beyond all bounds. Yet notwithstanding this, he was struck by what he had read, for it had rudely awakened within him much that for months past he had not cared to think about.
He looked up. Nana had grown absorbed in her ecstatic self-contemplation. She was bending her neck and was looking attentively in the mirror at a little brown mark above her right haunch. She was touching it with the tip of her finger and by dint of bending backward was making it stand out more clearly than ever. Situated where it was, it doubtless struck her as both quaint and pretty. After that she studied other parts of her body with an amused expression and much of the vicious curiosity of a child. The sight of herself always astonished her, and she would look as surprised and ecstatic as a young girl who has discovered her puberty. Slowly, slowly, she spread out her arms in order to give full value to her figure, which suggested the torso of a plump Venus. She bent herself this way and that and examined herself before and behind, stooping to look at the side view of her bosom and at the sweeping contours of her thighs. And she ended with a strange amusement which consisted of swinging to right and left, her knees apart and her body swaying from the waist with the perpetual jogging, twitching movements peculiar to an oriental dancer in the danse du ventre.
Muffat sat looking at her. She frightened him. The newspaper had dropped from his hand. For a moment he saw her as she was, and he despised himself. Yes, it was just that; she had corrupted his life; he already felt himself tainted to his very marrow by impurities hitherto undreamed of. Everything was now destined to rot within him, and in the twinkling of an eye he understood what this evil entailed. He saw the ruin brought about by this kind of “leaven”— himself poisoned, his family destroyed, a bit of the social fabric cracking and crumbling. And unable to take his eyes from the sight, he sat looking fixedly at her, striving to inspire himself with loathing for her nakedness.
Nana no longer moved. With an arm behind her neck, one hand clasped in the other, and her elbows far apart, she was throwing back her head so that he could see a foreshortened reflection of her half-closed eyes, her parted lips, her face clothed with amorous laughter. Her masses of yellow hair were unknotted behind, and they covered her back with the fell of a lioness.
Bending back thus, she displayed her solid Amazonian waist and firm bosom, where strong muscles moved under the satin texture of the skin. A delicate line, to which the shoulder and the thigh added their slight undulations, ran from one of her elbows to her foot, and Muffat’s eyes followed this tender profile and marked how the outlines of the fair flesh vanished in golden gleams and how its rounded contours shone like silk in the candlelight. He thought of his old dread of Woman, of the Beast of the Scriptures, at once lewd and wild. Nana was all covered with fine hair; a russet made her body velvety, while the Beast was apparent in the almost equine development of her flanks, in the fleshy exuberances and deep hollows of her body, which lent her sex the mystery and suggestiveness lurking in their shadows. She was, indeed, that Golden Creature, blind as brute force, whose very odor ruined the world. Muffat gazed and gazed as a man possessed, till at last, when he had shut his eyes in order to escape it, the Brute reappeared in the darkness of the brain, larger, more terrible, more suggestive in its attitude. Now, he understood, it would remain before his eyes, in his very flesh, forever.
But Nana was gathering herself together. A little thrill of tenderness seemed to have traversed her members. Her eyes were moist; she tried, as it were, to make herself small, as though she could feel herself better thus. Then she threw her head and bosom back and, melting, as it were, in one great bodily caress, she rubbed her cheeks coaxingly, first against one shoulder, then against the other. Her lustful mouth breathed desire over her limbs. She put out her lips, kissed herself long in the neighborhood of her armpit and laughed at the other Nana who also was kissing herself in the mirror.
Then Muffat gave a long sigh. This solitary pleasure exasperated him. Suddenly all his resolutions were swept away as though by a mighty wind. In a fit of brutal passion he caught Nana to his breast and threw her down on the carpet.
“Leave me alone!” she cried. “You’re hurting me!”
He was conscious of his undoing; he recognized in her stupidity, vileness and falsehood, and he longed to possess her, poisoned though she was.
“Oh, you’re a fool!” she said savagely when he let her get up.
Nevertheless, she grew calm. He would go now. She slipped on a nightgown trimmed with lace and came and sat down on the floor in front of the fire. It was her favorite position. When she again questioned him about Fauchery’s article Muffat replied vaguely, for he wanted to avoid a scene. Besides, she declared that she had found a weak spot in Fauchery. And with that she relapsed into a long silence and reflected on how to dismiss the count. She would have liked to do it in an agreeable way, for she was still a good-natured wench, and it bored her to cause others pain, especially in the present instance where the man was a cuckold. The mere thought of his being that had ended by rousing her sympathies!
“So you expect your wife tomorrow morning?” she said at last.
Muffat had stretched himself in an armchair. He looked drowsy, and his limbs were tired. He gave a sign of assent. Nana sat gazing seriously at him with a dull tumult in her brain. Propped on one leg, among her slightly rumpled laces she was holding one of her bare feet between her hands and was turning it mechanically about and about.
“Have you been married long?” she asked.
“Nineteen years,” replied the count
“Ah! And is your wife amiable? Do you get on comfortably together?”
He was silent. Then with some embarrassment:
“You know I’ve begged you never to talk of those matters.”
“Dear me, why’s that?” she cried, beginning to grow vexed directly. “I’m sure I won’t eat your wife if I DO talk about her. Dear boy, why, every woman’s worth —”
But she stopped for fear of saying too much. She contented herself by assuming a superior expression, since she considered herself extremely kind. The poor fellow, he needed delicate handling! Besides, she had been struck by a laughable notion, and she smiled as she looked him carefully over.
“I say,” she continued, “I haven’t told you the story about you that Fauchery’s circulating. There’s a viper, if you like! I don’t bear him any ill will, because his article may be all right, but he’s a regular viper all the same.”
And laughing more gaily than ever, she let go her foot and, crawling along the floor, came and propped herself against the count’s knees.
“Now just fancy, he swears you were still like a babe when you married your wife. You were still like that, eh? Is it true, eh?”
Her eyes pressed for an answer, and she raised her hands to his shoulders and began shaking him in order to extract the desired confession.
“Without doubt,” he at last made answer gravely.
Thereupon she again sank down at his feet. She was shaking with uproarious laughter, and she stuttered and dealt him little slaps.
“No, it’s too funny! There’s no one like you; you’re a marvel. But, my poor pet, you must just have been stupid! When a man doesn’t know — oh, it is so comical! Good heavens, I should have liked to have seen you! And it came off well, did it? Now tell me something about it! Oh, do, do tell me!”
She overwhelmed him with questions, forgetting nothing and requiring the veriest details. And she laughed such sudden merry peals which doubled her up with mirth, and her chemise slipped and got turned down to such an extent, and her skin looked so golden in the light of the big fire, that little by little the count described to her his bridal night. He no longer felt at all awkward. He himself began to be amused at last as he spoke. Only he kept choosing his phrases, for he still had a certain sense of modesty. The young woman, now thoroughly interested, asked him about the countess. According to his account, she had a marvelous figure but was a regular iceberg for all that.
“Oh, get along with you!” he muttered indolently. “You have no cause to be jealous.”
Nana had ceased laughing, and she now resumed her former position and, with her back to the fire, brought her knees up under her chin with her clasped hands. Then in a serious tone she declared:
“It doesn’t pay, dear boy, to look like a ninny with one’s wife the first night.”
“Why?” queried the astonished count.
“Because,” she replied slowly, assuming a doctorial expression.
And with that she looked as if she were delivering a lecture and shook her head at him. In the end, however, she condescended to explain herself more lucidly.
“Well, look here! I know how it all happens. Yes, dearie, women don’t like a man to be foolish. They don’t say anything because there’s such a thing as modesty, you know, but you may be sure they think about it for a jolly long time to come. And sooner or later, when a man’s been an ignoramus, they go and make other arrangements. That’s it, my pet.”
He did not seem to understand. Whereupon she grew more definite still. She became maternal and taught him his lesson out of sheer goodness of heart, as a friend might do. Since she had discovered him to be a cuckold the information had weighed on her spirits; she was madly anxious to discuss his position with him.
“Good heavens! I’m talking of things that don’t concern me. I’ve said what I have because everybody ought to be happy. We’re having a chat, eh? Well then, you’re to answer me as straight as you can.”
But she stopped to change her position, for she was burning herself. “It’s jolly hot, eh? My back’s roasted. Wait a second. I’ll cook my tummy a bit. That’s what’s good for the aches!”
And when she had turned round with her breast to the fire and her feet tucked under her:
“Let me see,” she said; “you don’t sleep with your wife any longer?”
“No, I swear to you I don’t,” said Muffat, dreading a scene.
“And you believe she’s really a stick?”
He bowed his head in the affirmative.
“And that’s why you love me? Answer me! I shan’t be angry.”
He repeated the same movement.
“Very well then,” she concluded. “I suspected as much! Oh, the poor pet. Do you know my aunt Lerat? When she comes get her to tell you the story about the fruiterer who lives opposite her. Just fancy that man — Damn it, how hot this fire is! I must turn round. I’m going to roast my left side now.” And as she presented her side to the blaze a droll idea struck her, and like a good-tempered thing, she made fun of herself for she was dellghted to see that she was looking so plump and pink in the light of the coal fire.
“I look like a goose, eh? Yes, that’s it! I’m a goose on the spit, and I’m turning, turning and cooking in my own juice, eh?”
And she was once more indulging in a merry fit of laughter when a sound of voices and slamming doors became audible. Muffat was surprised, and he questioned her with a look. She grew serious, and an anxious expression came over her face. It must be Zoe’s cat, a cursed beast that broke everything. It was half-past twelve o’clock. How long was she going to bother herself in her cuckold’s behalf? Now that the other man had come she ought to get him out of the way, and that quickly.
“What were you saying?” asked the count complaisantly, for he was charmed to see her so kind to him.
But in her desire to be rid of him she suddenly changed her mood, became brutal and did not take care what she was saying.
“Oh yes! The fruiterer and his wife. Well, my dear fellow, they never once touched one another! Not the least bit! She was very keen on it, you understand, but he, the ninny, didn’t know it. He was so green that he thought her a stick, and so he went elsewhere and took up with streetwalkers, who treated him to all sorts of nastiness, while she, on her part, made up for it beautifully with fellows who were a lot slyer than her greenhorn of a husband. And things always turn out that way through people not understanding one another. I know it, I do!”
Muffat was growing pale. At last he was beginning to understand her allusions, and he wanted to make her keep silence. But she was in full swing.
“No, hold your tongue, will you? If you weren’t brutes you would be as nice with your wives as you are with us, and if your wives weren’t geese they would take as much pains to keep you as we do to get you. That’s the way to behave. Yes, my duck, you can put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
“Do not talk of honest women,” he said in a hard voice. “You do not know them.”
At that Nana rose to her knees.
“I don’t know them! Why, they aren’t even clean, your honest women aren’t! They aren’t even clean! I defy you to find me one who would dare show herself as I am doing. Oh, you make me laugh with your honest women. Don’t drive me to it; don’t oblige me to tell you things I may regret afterward.”
The count, by way of answer, mumbled something insulting. Nana became quite pale in her turn. For some seconds she looked at him without speaking. Then in her decisive way:
“What would you do if your wife were deceiving you?”
He made a threatening gesture.
“Well, and if I were to?”
“Oh, you,” he muttered with a shrug of his shoulders.
Nana was certainly not spiteful. Since the beginning of the conversation she had been strongly tempted to throw his cuckold’s reputation in his teeth, but she had resisted. She would have liked to confess him quietly on the subject, but he had begun to exasperate her at last. The matter ought to stop now.
“Well, then, my dearie,” she continued, “I don’t know what you’re getting at with me. For two hours past you’ve been worrying my life out. Now do just go and find your wife, for she’s at it with Fauchery. Yes, it’s quite correct; they’re in the Rue Taitbout, at the corner of the Rue de Provence. You see, I’m giving you the address.”
Then triumphantly, as she saw Muffat stagger to his feet like an ox under the hammer:
“If honest women must meddle in our affairs and take our sweethearts from us — Oh, you bet they’re a nice lot, those honest women!”
But she was unable to proceed. With a terrible push he had cast her full length on the floor and, lifting his heel, he seemed on the point of crushing in her head in order to silence her. For the twinkling of an eye she felt sickening dread. Blinded with rage, he had begun beating about the room like a maniac. Then his choking silence and the struggle with which he was shaken melted her to tears. She felt a mortal regret and, rolling herself up in front of the fire so as to roast her right side, she undertook the task of comforting him.
“I take my oath, darling, I thought you knew it all. Otherwise I shouldn’t have spoken; you may be sure. But perhaps it isn’t true. I don’t say anything for certain. I’ve been told it, and people are talking about it, but what does that prove? Oh, get along! You’re very silly to grow riled about it. If I were a man I shouldn’t care a rush for the women! All the women are alike, you see, high or low; they’re all rowdy and the rest of it.”
In a fit of self-abnegation she was severe on womankind, for she wished thus to lessen the cruelty of her blow. But he did not listen to her or hear what she said. With fumbling movements he had put on his boots and his overcoat. For a moment longer he raved round, and then in a final outburst, finding himself near the door, he rushed from the room. Nana was very much annoyed.
“Well, well! A prosperous trip to you!” she continued aloud, though she was now alone. “He’s polite, too, that fellow is, when he’s spoken to! And I had to defend myself at that! Well, I was the first to get back my temper and I made plenty of excuses, I’m thinking! Besides, he had been getting on my nerves!”
Nevertheless, she was not happy and sat scratching her legs with both hands. Then she took high ground:
“Tut, tut, it isn’t my fault if he is a cuckold!”
And toasted on every side and as hot as a roast bird, she went and buried herself under the bedclothes after ringing for Zoe to usher in the other man, who was waiting in the kitchen.
Once outside, Muffat began walking at a furious pace. A fresh shower had just fallen, and he kept slipping on the greasy pavement. When he looked mechanically up into the sky he saw ragged, soot-colored clouds scudding in front of the moon. At this hour of the night passers-by were becoming few and far between in the Boulevard Haussmann. He skirted the enclosures round the opera house in his search for darkness, and as he went along he kept mumbling inconsequent phrases. That girl had been lying. She had invented her story out of sheer stupidity and cruelty. He ought to have crushed her head when he had it under his heel. After all was said and done, the business was too shameful. Never would he see her; never would he touch her again, or if he did he would be miserably weak. And with that he breathed hard, as though he were free once more. Oh, that naked, cruel monster, roasting away like any goose and slavering over everything that he had respected for forty years back. The moon had come out, and the empty street was bathed in white light. He felt afraid, and he burst into a great fit of sobbing, for he had grown suddenly hopeless and maddened as though he had sunk into a fathomless void.
“My God!” he stuttered out. “It’s finished! There’s nothing left now!”
Along the boulevards belated people were hurrying. He tried hard to be calm, and as the story told him by that courtesan kept recurring to his burning consciousness, he wanted to reason the matter out. The countess was coming up from Mme de Chezelles’s country house tomorrow morning. Yet nothing, in fact, could have prevented her from returning to Paris the night before and passing it with that man. He now began recalling to mind certain details of their stay at Les Fondettes. One evening, for instance, he had surprised Sabine in the shade of some trees, when she was so much agitated as to be unable to answer his questions. The man had been present; why should she not be with him now? The more he thought about it the more possible the whole story became, and he ended by thinking it natural and even inevitable. While he was in his shirt sleeves in the house of a harlot his wife was undressing in her lover’s room. Nothing could be simpler or more logical! Reasoning in this way, he forced himself to keep cool. He felt as if there were a great downward movement in the direction of fleshly madness, a movement which, as it grew, was overcoming the whole world round about him. Warm images pursued him in imagination. A naked Nana suddenly evoked a naked Sabine. At this vision, which seemed to bring them together in shameless relationship and under the influence of the same lusts, he literally stumbled, and in the road a cab nearly ran over him. Some women who had come out of a cafe jostled him amid loud laughter. Then a fit of weeping once more overcame him, despite all his efforts to the contrary, and, not wishing to shed tears in the presence of others, he plunged into a dark and empty street. It was the Rue Rossini, and along its silent length he wept like a child.
“It’s over with us,” he said in hollow tones. “There’s nothing left us now, nothing left us now!”
He wept so violently that he had to lean up against a door as he buried his face in his wet hands. A noise of footsteps drove him away. He felt a shame and a fear which made him fly before people’s faces with the restless step of a bird of darkness. When passers-by met him on the pavement he did his best to look and walk in a leisurely way, for he fancied they were reading his secret in the very swing of his shoulders. He had followed the Rue de la Grange Bateliere as far as the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, where the brilliant lamplight surprised him, and he retraced his steps. For nearly an hour he traversed the district thus, choosing always the darkest corners. Doubtless there was some goal whither his steps were patiently, instinctively, leading him through a labyrinth of endless turnings. At length he lifted his eyes up it a street corner. He had reached his destination, the point where the Rue Taitbout and the Rue de la Provence met. He had taken an hour amid his painful mental sufferings to arrive at a place he could have reached in five minutes. One morning a month ago he remembered going up to Fauchery’s rooms to thank him for a notice of a ball at the Tuileries, in which the journalist had mentioned him. The flat was between the ground floor and the first story and had a row of small square windows which were half hidden by the colossal signboard belonging to a shop. The last window on the left was bisected by a brilliant band of lamplight coming from between the half-closed curtains. And he remained absorbed and expectant, with his gaze fixed on this shining streak.
The moon had disappeared in an inky sky, whence an icy drizzle was falling. Two o’clock struck at the Trinite. The Rue de Provence and the Rue Taitbout lay in shadow, bestarred at intervals by bright splashes of light from the gas lamps, which in the distance were merged in yellow mist. Muffat did not move from where he was standing. That was the room. He remembered it now: it had hangings of red “andrinople,” and a Louis XIII bed stood at one end of it. The lamp must be standing on the chimney piece to the right. Without doubt they had gone to bed, for no shadows passed across the window, and the bright streak gleamed as motionless as the light of a night lamp. With his eyes still uplifted he began forming a plan; he would ring the bell, go upstairs despite the porter’s remonstrances, break the doors in with a push of his shoulder and fall upon them in the very bed without giving them time to unlace their arms. For one moment the thought that he had no weapon upon him gave him pause, but directly afterward he decided to throttle them. He returned to the consideration of his project, and he perfected it while waiting for some sign, some indication, which should bring certainty with it.
Had a woman’s shadow only shown itself at that moment he would have rung. But the thought that perhaps he was deceiving himself froze him. How could he be certain? Doubts began to return. His wife could not be with that man. It was monstrous and impossible. Nevertheless, he stayed where he was and was gradually overcome by a species of torpor which merged into sheer feebleness while he waited long, and the fixity of his gaze induced hallucinations.
A shower was falling. Two policemen were approaching, and he was forced to leave the doorway where he had taken shelter. When these were lost to view in the Rue de Provence he returned to his post, wet and shivering. The luminous streak still traversed the window, and this time he was going away for good when a shadow crossed it. It moved so quickly that he thought he had deceived himself. But first one and then another black thing followed quickly after it, and there was a regular commotion in the room. Riveted anew to the pavement, he experienced an intolerable burning sensation in his inside as he waited to find out the meaning of it all. Outlines of arms and legs flitted after one another, and an enormous hand traveled about with the silhouette of a water jug. He distinguished nothing clearly, but he thought he recognized a woman’s headdress. And he disputed the point with himself; it might well have been Sabine’s hair, only the neck did not seem sufficiently slim. At that hour of the night he had lost the power of recognition and of action. In this terrible agony of uncertainty his inside caused him such acute suffering that he pressed against the door in order to calm himself, shivering like a man in rags, as he did so. Then seeing that despite everything he could not turn his eyes away from the window, his anger changed into a fit of moralizing. He fancied himself a deputy; he was haranguing an assembly, loudly denouncing debauchery, prophesying national ruin. And he reconstructed Fauchery’s article on the poisoned fly, and he came before the house and declared that morals such as these, which could only be paralleled in the days of the later Roman Empire, rendered society an impossibility; that did him good. But the shadows had meanwhile disappeared. Doubtless they had gone to bed again, and, still watching, he continued waiting where he was.
Three o’clock struck, then four, but he could not take his departure. When showers fell he buried himself in a corner of the doorway, his legs splashed with wet. Nobody passed by now, and occasionally his eyes would close, as though scorched by the streak of light, which he kept watching obstinately, fixedly, with idiotic persistence. On two subsequent occasions the shadows flitted about, repeating the same gestures and agitating the silhouette of the same gigantic jug, and twice quiet was re-established, and the night lamp again glowed discreetly out. These shadows only increased his uncertainty. Then, too, a sudden idea soothed his brain while it postponed the decisive moment. After all, he had only to wait for the woman when she left the house. He could quite easily recognize Sabine. Nothing could be simpler, and there would be no scandal, and he would be sure of things one way or the other. It was only necessary to stay where he was. Among all the confused feelings which had been agitating him he now merely felt a dull need of certain knowledge. But sheer weariness and vacancy began lulling him to sleep under his doorway, and by way of distraction he tried to reckon up how long he would have to wait. Sabine was to be at the station toward nine o’clock; that meant about four hours and a half more. He was very patient; he would even have been content not to move again, and he found a certain charm in fancying that his night vigil would last through eternity.
Suddenly the streak of light was gone. This extremely simple event was to him an unforeseen catastrophe, at once troublesome and disagreeable. Evidently they had just put the lamp out and were going to sleep. lt was reasonable enough at that hour, but he was irritated thereat, for now the darkened window ceased to interest him. He watched it for a quarter of an hour longer and then grew tired and, leaving the doorway, took a turn upon the pavement. Until five o’clock he walked to and fro, looking upward from time to time. The window seemed a dead thing, and now and then he asked himself if he had not dreamed that shadows had been dancing up there behind the panes. An intolerable sense of fatigue weighed him down, a dull, heavy feeling, under the influence of which he forgot what he was waiting for at that particular street corner. He kept stumbling on the pavement and starting into wakefulness with the icy shudder of a man who does not know where he is. Nothing seemed to justify the painful anxiety he was inflicting on himself. Since those people were asleep — well then, let them sleep! What good could it do mixing in their affairs? It was very dark; no one would ever know anything about this night’s doings. And with that every sentiment within him, down to curiosity itself, took flight before the longing to have done with it all and to find relief somewhere. The cold was increasing, and the street was becoming insufferable. Twice he walked away and slowly returned, dragging one foot behind the other, only to walk farther away next time. It was all over; nothing was left him now, and so he went down the whole length of the boulevard and did not return.
His was a melancholy progress through the streets. He walked slowly, never changing his pace and simply keeping along the walls of the houses.
His boot heels re-echoed, and he saw nothing but his shadow moving at his side. As he neared each successive gaslight it grew taller and immediately afterward diminished. But this lulled him and occupied him mechanically. He never knew afterward where he had been; it seemed as if he had dragged himself round and round in a circle for hours. One reminiscence only was very distinctly retained by him. Without his being able to explain how it came about he found himself with his face pressed close against the gate at the end of the Passage des Panoramas and his two hands grasping the bars. He did not shake them but, his whole heart swelling with emotion, he simply tried to look into the passage. But he could make nothing out clearly, for shadows flooded the whole length of the deserted gallery, and the wind, blowing hard down the Rue Saint-Marc, puffed in his face with the damp breath of a cellar. For a time he tried doggedly to see into the place, and then, awakening from his dream, he was filled with astonishment and asked himself what he could possibly be seeking for at that hour and in that position, for he had pressed against the railings so fiercely that they had left their mark on his face. Then he went on tramp once more. He was hopeless, and his heart was full of infinite sorrow, for he felt, amid all those shadows, that he was evermore betrayed and alone.
Day broke at last. It was the murky dawn that follows winter nights and looks so melancholy from muddy Paris pavements. Muffat had returned into the wide streets, which were then in course of construction on either side of the new opera house. Soaked by the rain and cut up by cart wheels, the chalky soil had become a lake of liquid mire. But he never looked to see where he was stepping and walked on and on, slipping and regaining his footing as he went. The awakening of Paris, with its gangs of sweepers and early workmen trooping to their destinations, added to his troubles as day brightened. People stared at him in surprise as he went by with scared look and soaked hat and muddy clothes. For a long while he sought refuge against palings and among scaffoldings, his desolate brain haunted by the single remaining thought that he was very miserable.
Then he thought of God. The sudden idea of divine help, of superhuman consolation, surprised him, as though it were something unforeseen and extraordinary. The image of M. Venot was evoked thereby, and he saw his little plump face and ruined teeth. Assuredly M. Venot, whom for months he had been avoiding and thereby rendering miserable, would be delighted were he to go and knock at his door and fall weeping into his arms. In the old days God had been always so merciful toward him. At the least sorrow, the slightest obstacle on the path of life, he had been wont to enter a church, where, kneeling down, he would humble his littleness in the presence of Omnipotence. And he had been used to go forth thence, fortified by prayer, fully prepared to give up the good things of this world, possessed by the single yearning for eternal salvation. But at present he only practiced by fits and starts, when the terror of hell came upon him. All kinds of weak inclinations had overcome him, and the thought of Nana disturbed his devotions. And now the thought of God astonished him. Why had he not thought of God before, in the hour of that terrible agony when his feeble humanity was breaking up in ruin?
Meanwhile with slow and painful steps he sought for a church. But he had lost his bearings; the early hour had changed the face of the streets. Soon, however, as he turned the corner of the Rue de la Chaussee-d’Antin, he noticed a tower looming vaguely in the fog at the end of the Trinite Church. The white statues overlooking the bare garden seemed like so many chilly Venuses among the yellow foliage of a park. Under the porch he stood and panted a little, for the ascent of the wide steps had tired him. Then he went in. The church was very cold, for its heating apparatus had been fireless since the previous evening, and its lofty, vaulted aisles were full of a fine damp vapor which had come filtering through the windows. The aisles were deep in shadow; not a soul was in the church, and the only sound audible amid the unlovely darkness was that made by the old shoes of some verger or other who was dragging himself about in sulky semiwakefulness. Muffat, however, after knocking forlornly against an untidy collection of chairs, sank on his knees with bursting heart and propped himself against the rails in front of a little chapel close by a font. He clasped his hands and began searching within himself for suitable prayers, while his whole being yearned toward a transport. But only his lips kept stammering empty words; his heart and brain were far away, and with them he returned to the outer world and began his long, unresting march through the streets, as though lashed forward by implacable necessity. And he kept repeating, “O my God, come to my assistance! O my God, abandon not Thy creature, who delivers himself up to Thy justice! O my God, I adore Thee: Thou wilt not leave me to perish under the buffetings of mine enemies!” Nothing answered: the shadows and the cold weighed upon him, and the noise of the old shoes continued in the distance and prevented him praying. Nothing, indeed, save that tiresome noise was audible in the deserted church, where the matutinal sweeping was unknown before the early masses had somewhat warmed the air of the place. After that he rose to his feet with the help of a chair, his knees cracking under him as he did so. God was not yet there. And why should he weep in M. Venot’s arms? The man could do nothing.
And then mechanically he returned to Nana’s house. Outside he slipped, and he felt the tears welling to his eyes again, but he was not angry with his lot — he was only feeble and ill. Yes, he was too tired; the rain had wet him too much; he was nipped with cold, but the idea of going back to his great dark house in the Rue Miromesnil froze his heart. The house door at Nana’s was not open as yet, and he had to wait till the porter made his appearance. He smiled as he went upstairs, for he already felt penetrated by the soft warmth of that cozy retreat, where he would be able to stretch his limbs and go to sleep.
When Zoe opened the door to him she gave a start of most uneasy astonishment. Madame had been taken ill with an atrocious sick headache, and she hadn’t closed her eyes all night. Still, she could quite go and see whether Madame had gone to sleep for good. And with that she slipped into the bedroom while he sank back into one of the armchairs in the drawing room. But almost at that very moment Nana appeared. She had jumped out of bed and had scarce had time to slip on a petticoat. Her feet were bare, her hair in wild disorder, her nightgown all crumpled.
“What! You here again?” she cried with a red flush on her cheeks.
Up she rushed, stung by sudden indignation, in order herself to thrust him out of doors. But when she saw him in such sorry plight — nay, so utterly done for — she felt infinite pity.
“Well, you are a pretty sight, my dear fellow!” she continued more gently. “But what’s the matter? You’ve spotted them, eh? And it’s given you the hump?”
He did not answer; he looked like a broken-down animal. Nevertheless, she came to the conclusion that he still lacked proofs, and to hearten him up the said:
“You see now? I was on the wrong tack. Your wife’s an honest woman, on my word of honor! And now, my little friend, you must go home to bed. You want it badly.”
He did not stir.
“Now then, be off! I can’t keep you here. But perhaps you won’t presume to stay at such a time as this?”
“Yes, let’s go to bed,” he stammered.
She repressed a violent gesture, for her patience was deserting her. Was the man going crazy?
“Come, be off!” she repeated.
But she flared up in exasperation, in utter rebellion.
“It’s sickening! Don’t you understand I’m jolly tired of your company? Go and find your wife, who’s making a cuckold of you. Yes, she’s making a cuckold of you. I say so — yes, I do now. There, you’ve got the sack! Will you leave me or will you not?”
Muffat’s eyes filled with tears. He clasped his hands together.
“Oh, let’s go to bed!”
At this Nana suddenly lost all control over herself and was choked by nervous sobs. She was being taken advaatage of when all was said and done! What had these stories to do with her? She certainly had used all manner of delicate methods in order to teach him his lesson gently. And now he was for making her pay the damages! No, thank you! She was kindhearted, but not to that extent.
“The devil, but I’ve had enough of this!” she swore, bringing her fist down on the furniture. “Yes, yes, I wanted to be faithful — it was all I could do to be that! Yet if I spoke the word I could be rich tomorrow, my dear fellow!”
He looked up in surprise. Never once had he thought of the monetary question. If she only expressed a desire he would realize it at once; his whole fortune was at her service.
“No, it’s too late now,” she replied furiously. “I like men who give without being asked. No, if you were to offer me a million for a single interview I should say no! It’s over between us; I’ve got other fish to fry there! So be off or I shan’t answer for the consequences. I shall do something dreadful!”
She advanced threateningly toward him, and while she was raving, as became a good courtesan who, though driven to desperation, was yet firmly convinced of her rights and her superiority over tiresome, honest folks, the door opened suddenly and Steiner presented himself. That proved the finishing touch. She shrieked aloud:
“Well, I never. Here’s the other one!”
Bewildered by her piercing outcry, Steiner stopped short. Muffat’s unexpected presence annoyed him, for he feared an explanation and had been doing his best to avoid it these three months past. With blinking eyes he stood first on one leg, then on the other, looking embarrassed the while and avoiding the count’s gaze. He was out of breath, and as became a man who had rushed across Paris with good news, only to find himself involved in unforeseen trouble, his face was flushed and distorted.
“Que veux-tu, toi?” asked Nana roughly, using the second person singular in open mockery of the count.
“What — what do I—” he stammered. “I’ve got it for you — you know what.”
He hesitated. The day before yesterday she had given him to understand that if he could not find her a thousand francs to pay a bill with she would not receive him any more. For two days he had been loafing about the town in quest of the money and had at last made the sum up that very morning.
“The thousand francs!” he ended by declaring as he drew an envelope from his pocket.
Nana had not remembered.
“The thousand francs!” she cried. “D’you think I’m begging alms? Now look here, that’s what I value your thousand francs at!”
And snatching the envelope, she threw it full in his face. As became a prudent Hebrew, he picked it up slowly and painfully and then looked at the young woman with a dull expression of face. Muffat and he exchanged a despairing glance, while she put her arms akimbo in order to shout more loudly than before.
“Come now, will you soon have done insulting me? I’m glad you’ve come, too, dear boy, because now you see the clearance’ll be quite complete. Now then, gee up! Out you go!”
Then as they did not hurry in the least, for they were paralyzed:
“D’you mean to say I’m acting like a fool, eh? It’s likely enough! But you’ve bored me too much! And, hang it all, I’ve had enough of swelldom! If I die of what I’m doing — well, it’s my fancy!”
They sought to calm her; they begged her to listen to reason.
“Now then, once, twice, thrice! Won’t you go? Very well! Look there! I’ve got company.”
And with a brisk movement she flung wide the bedroom door. Whereupon in the middle of the tumbled bed the two men caught sight of Fontan. He had not expected to be shown off in this situation; nevertheless, he took things very easily, for he was used to sudden surprises on the stage. Indeed, after the first shock he even hit upon a grimace calculated to tide him honorably over his difficulty; he “turned rabbit,” as he phrased it, and stuck out his lips and wrinkled up his nose, so as completely to transform the lower half of his face. His base, satyrlike head seemed to exude incontinence. It was this man Fontan then whom Nana had been to fetch at the Varieties every day for a week past, for she was smitten with that fierce sort of passion which the grimacing ugliness of a low comedian is wont to inspire in the genus courtesan.
“There!” she said, pointing him out with tragic gesture.
Muffat, who hitherto had pocketed everything, rebelled at this affront.
“Bitch!” he stammered.
But Nana, who was once more in the bedroom, came back in order to have the last word.
“How am I a bitch? What about your wife?”
And she was off and, slamming the door with a bang, she noisily pushed to the bolt. Left alone, the two men gazed at one another in silence. Zoe had just come into the room, but she did not drive them out. Nay, she spoke to them in the most sensible manner. As became a woman with a head on her shoulders, she decided that Madame’s conduct was rather too much of a good thing. But she defended her, nonetheless: this union with the play actor couldn’t last; the madness must be allowed to pass off! The two men retired without uttering a sound. On the pavement outside they shook hands silently, as though swayed by a mutual sense of fraternity. Then they turned their backs on one another and went crawling off in opposite directions.
When at last Muffat entered his town house in the Rue Miromesnil his wife was just arriving. The two met on the great staircase, whose walls exhaled an icy chill. They lifted up their eyes and beheld one another. The count still wore his muddy clothes, and his pale, bewildered face betrayed the prodigal returning from his debauch. The countess looked as though she were utterly fagged out by a night in the train. She was dropping with sleep, but her hair had been brushed anyhow, and her eyes were deeply sunken.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02