As we sat chatting after dinner, a party of men, the conversation turned on women, for lack of something else.
One of us said:
"Here's a funny thing that happened to me on, that very subject." And he told us the following story:
One evening last winter I suddenly felt overcome by that overpowering sense of misery and languor that takes possession of one from time to time. I was in my own apartment, all alone, and I was convinced that if I gave in to my feelings I should have a terrible attack of melancholia, one of those attacks that lead to suicide when they recur too often.
I put on my overcoat and went out without the slightest idea of what I was going to do. Having gone as far as the boulevards, I began to wander along by the almost empty cafes. It was raining, a fine rain that affects your mind as it does your clothing, not one of those good downpours which come down in torrents, driving breathless passers-by into doorways, but a rain without drops that deposits on your clothing an imperceptible spray and soon covers you with a sort of iced foam that chills you through.
What should I do? I walked in one direction and then came back, looking for some place where I could spend two hours, and discovering for the first time that there is no place of amusement in Paris in the evening. At last I decided to go to the Folies-Bergere, that entertaining resort for gay women.
There were very few people in the main hall. In the long horseshoe curve there were only a few ordinary looking people, whose plebeian origin was apparent in their manners, their clothes, the cut of their hair and beard, their hats, their complexion. It was rarely that one saw from time to time a man whom you suspected of having washed himself thoroughly, and his whole make-up seemed to match. As for the women, they were always the same, those frightful women you all know, ugly, tired looking, drooping, and walking along in their lackadaisical manner, with that air of foolish superciliousness which they assume, I do not know why.
I thought to myself that, in truth, not one of those languid creatures, greasy rather than fat, puffed out here and thin there, with the contour of a monk and the lower extremities of a bow-legged snipe, was worth the louis that they would get with great difficulty after asking five.
But all at once I saw a little creature whom I thought attractive, not in her first youth, but fresh, comical and tantalizing. I stopped her, and stupidly, without thinking, I made an appointment with her for that night. I did not want to go back to my own home alone, all alone; I preferred the company and the caresses of this hussy.
And I followed her. She lived in a great big house in the Rue des Martyrs. The gas was already extinguished on the stairway. I ascended the steps slowly, lighting a candle match every few seconds, stubbing my foot against the steps, stumbling and angry as I followed the rustle of the skirt ahead of me.
She stopped on the fourth floor, and having closed the outer door she said:
"Then you will stay till to-morrow?"
"Why, yes. You know that that was the agreement."
"All right, my dear, I just wanted to know. Wait for me here a minute, I will be right back."
And she left me in the darkness. I heard her shutting two doors and then I thought I heard her talking. I was surprised and uneasy. The thought that she had a protector staggered me. But I have good fists and a solid back. "We shall see," I said to myself.
I listened attentively with ear and mind. Some one was stirring about, walking quietly and very carefully. Then another door was opened and I thought I again heard some one talking, but in a very low tone.
She came back carrying a lighted candle.
"You may come in," she said.
She said "thou" in speaking to me, which was an indication of possession. I went in and after passing through a dining room in which it was very evident that no one ever ate, I entered a typical room of all these women, a furnished room with red curtains and a soiled eiderdown bed covering.
"Make yourself at home, 'mon chat'," she said.
I gave a suspicious glance at the room, but there seemed no reason for uneasiness.
As she took off her wraps she began to laugh.
"Well, what ails you? Are you changed into a pillar of salt? Come, hurry up."
I did as she suggested.
Five minutes later I longed to put on my things and get away. But this terrible languor that had overcome me at home took possession of me again, and deprived me of energy enough to move and I stayed in spite of the disgust that I felt for this association. The unusual attractiveness that I supposed I had discovered in this creature over there under the chandeliers of the theater had altogether vanished on closer acquaintance, and she was nothing more to me now than a common woman, like all the others, whose indifferent and complaisant kiss smacked of garlic.
I thought I would say something.
"Have you lived here long?" I asked.
"Over six months on the fifteenth of January."
"Where were you before that?"
"In the Rue Clauzel. But the janitor made me very uncomfortable and I left."
And she began to tell me an interminable story of a janitor who had talked scandal about her.
But, suddenly, I heard something moving quite close to us. First there was a sigh, then a slight, but distinct, sound as if some one had turned round on a chair.
I sat up abruptly and asked.
"What was that noise?"
She answered quietly and confidently:
"Do not be uneasy, my dear boy, it is my neighbor. The partition is so thin that one can hear everything as if it were in the room. These are wretched rooms, just like pasteboard."
I felt so lazy that I paid no further attention to it. We resumed our conversation. Driven by the stupid curiosity that prompts all men to question these creatures about their first experiences, to attempt to lift the veil of their first folly, as though to find in them a trace of pristine innocence, to love them, possibly, in a fleeting memory of their candor and modesty of former days, evoked by a word, I insistently asked her about her earlier lovers.
I knew she was telling me lies. What did it matter? Among all these lies I might, perhaps, discover something sincere and pathetic.
"Come," said I, "tell me who he was."
"He was a boating man, my dear."
"Ah! Tell me about it. Where were you?"
"I was at Argenteuil."
"What were you doing?"
"I was waitress in a restaurant."
"'The Freshwater Sailor.' Do you know it?"
"I should say so, kept by Bonanfan."
"Yes, that's it."
"And how did he make love to you, this boating man?"
"While I was doing his room. He took advantage of me."
But I suddenly recalled the theory of a friend of mine, an observant and philosophical physician whom constant attendance in hospitals has brought into daily contact with girl-mothers and prostitutes, with all the shame and all the misery of women, of those poor women who have become the frightful prey of the wandering male with money in his pocket.
"A woman," he said, "is always debauched by a man of her own class and position. I have volumes of statistics on that subject. We accuse the rich of plucking the flower of innocence among the girls of the people. This is not correct. The rich pay for what they want. They may gather some, but never for the first time."
Then, turning to my companion, I began to laugh.
"You know that I am aware of your history. The boating man was not the first."
"Oh, yes, my dear, I swear it:"
"You are lying, my dear."
"Oh, no, I assure you."
"You are lying; come, tell me all."
She seemed to hesitate in astonishment. I continued:
"I am a sorcerer, my dear girl, I am a clairvoyant. If you do not tell me the truth, I will go into a trance sleep and then I can find out."
She was afraid, being as stupid as all her kind. She faltered:
"How did you guess?"
"Come, go on telling me," I said.
"Oh, the first time didn't amount to anything.
"There was a festival in the country. They had sent for a special chef, M. Alexandre. As soon as he came he did just as he pleased in the house. He bossed every one, even the proprietor and his wife, as if he had been a king. He was a big handsome man, who did not seem fitted to stand beside a kitchen range. He was always calling out, 'Come, some butter —some eggs—some Madeira!' And it had to be brought to him at once in a hurry, or he would get cross and say things that would make us blush all over.
"When the day was over he would smoke a pipe outside the door. And as I was passing by him with a pile of plates he said to me, like that: 'Come, girlie, come down to the water with me and show me the country.' I went with him like a fool, and we had hardly got down to the bank of the river when he took advantage of me so suddenly that I did not even know what he was doing. And then he went away on the nine o'clock train. I never saw him again."
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Oh, I think Florentin belongs to him."
"Who is Florentin?"
"My little boy."
"Oh! Well, then, you made the boating man believe that he was the father, did you not?"
"Did he have any money, this boating man?"
"Yes, he left me an income of three hundred francs, settled on Florentin."
I was beginning to be amused and resumed:
"All right, my girl, all right. You are all of you less stupid than one would imagine, all the same. And how old is he now, Florentin?"
"He is now twelve. He will make his first communion in the spring."
"That is splendid. And since then you have carried on your business conscientiously?"
She sighed in a resigned manner.
"I must do what I can."
But a loud noise just then coming from the room itself made me start up with a bound. It sounded like some one falling and picking themselves up again by feeling along the wall with their hands.
I had seized the candle and was looking about me, terrified and furious. She had risen also and was trying to hold me back to stop me, murmuring:
"That's nothing, my dear, I assure you it's nothing."
But I had discovered what direction the strange noise came from. I walked straight towards a door hidden at the head of the bed and I opened it abruptly and saw before me, trembling, his bright, terrified eyes opened wide at sight of me, a little pale, thin boy seated beside a large wicker chair off which he had fallen.
As soon as he saw me he began to cry. Stretching out his arms to his mother, he cried:
"It was not my fault, mamma, it was not my fault. I was asleep, and I fell off. Do not scold me, it was not my fault."
I turned to the woman and said:
"What does this mean?"
She seemed confused and worried, and said in a broken voice:
"What do you want me to do? I do not earn enough to put him to school! I have to keep him with me, and I cannot afford to pay for another room, by heavens! He sleeps with me when I am alone. If any one comes for one hour or two he can stay in the wardrobe; he keeps quiet, he understands it. But when people stay all night, as you have done, it tires the poor child to sleep on a chair.
"It is not his fault. I should like to see you sleep all night on a chair—you would have something to say."
She was getting angry and excited and was talking loud.
The child was still crying. A poor delicate timid little fellow, a veritable child of the wardrobe, of the cold, dark closet, a child who from time to time was allowed to get a little warmth in the bed if it chanced to be unoccupied.
I also felt inclined to cry.
And I went home to my own bed.