A WISE MAN
Blérot had been my friend since childhood; we had no secrets from each other, and were united heart and soul by a brotherly intimacy and a boundless confidence in each other. He used to tell me his most intimate thoughts, even the smallest pangs of conscience that are very often kept hidden from our own selves. I did the same for him. I had been the confident of all his love affairs, as he had been with mine.
When he told me that he was going to get married I was hurt, as though by an act of treason. I felt that it must interfere with that cordial and absolute affection which had united us. His wife would come between us. The intimacy of the marriage-bed establishes a kind of complicity, a mysterious alliance between two persons, even when they have ceased to love each other. Man and wife are like two discreet partners who will not let anyone else into their secrets. But that close bond which the conjugal kiss fastens is broken quickly on the day on which the woman takes a lover.
I remember Blérot’s wedding as if it were but yesterday. I would not be present at the signing of the marriage contract, as I have no particular liking for such ceremonies. I only went to the civil wedding and to the church.
His wife, whom I had never seen before, was a tall, slight girl, with pale hair, pale cheeks, pale hands, and eyes to match. She walked with a slightly undulating motion, as if she were on board a ship, and seemed to advance with a succession of long, graceful courtesies.
Blérot seemed very much in love with her. He looked at her constantly, and I felt a shiver of an immoderate desire for her pass through his frame.
I went to see him a few days later, and he said to me:
“You do not know how happy I am; I am madly in love with her; but then she is—she is—” He did not finish his sentence, but he put the tips of his fingers to his lips with a gesture which signified “divine! delicious! perfect!” and a good deal more besides.
I asked, laughing, “What! all that?”
“Everything that you can imagine,” was his answer.
He introduced me to her. She was very pleasant, on easy terms with me, as was natural, and begged me to look upon their house as my own. But I felt that he, Blérot, did not belong to me any longer. Our intimacy was cut off definitely, and we hardly found a word to say to each other.
I soon took my leave, and shortly afterwards went to the East, returning by way of Russia, Germany, Sweden, and Holland, after an absence of eighteen months from Paris.
The morning after my arrival, as I was walking along the boulevards to feel the air of Paris once more, I saw a pale man with sunken cheeks coming toward me, who was as much like Blérot as it was possible for an emaciated tubercular man to resemble a strong, ruddy, rather stout man. I looked at him in surprise, and asked myself: “Can it possibly be he?” But he saw me, uttered a cry, and came toward me with outstretched arms. I opened mine and we embraced in the middle of the boulevard.
After we had gone up and down once or twice from the Rue Drouot to the Vaudeville Theatre, just as we were taking leave of each other,—for he already seemed quite done up with walking,—I said to him:
“You don’t look at all well. Are you ill?”
“I do feel rather out of sorts,” was all he said.
He looked like a man who was going to die, and I felt a flood of affection for my dear old friend, the only real one that I had ever had. I squeezed his hands.
“What is the matter with you? Are you in pain?”
“A little tired; but it is nothing.”
“What does your doctor say?”
“He calls it anæmia, and has ordered me to eat no white meat and to take tincture of iron.”
A suspicion flashed across me.
“Are you happy?” I asked him.
“Yes, very happy; my wife is charming, and I love her more than ever.”
But I noticed that he grew rather red and seemed embarrassed, as if he was afraid of any further questions, so I took him by the arm and pushed him into a café, which was nearly empty at that time of day. I forced him to sit down, and looking him straight in the face, I said:
“Look here, old fellow, just tell me the exact truth.”
“I have nothing to tell you,” he stammered.
“That is not true,” I replied, firmly. “You are ill, mentally perhaps, and you dare not reveal your secret to anyone. Something or other is doing you harm, and I mean you to tell me what it is. Come, I am waiting for you to begin.”
Again he got very red, stammered, and turning his head away, he said:
“It is very idiotic—but I—I am done for!”
As he did not go on, I said:
“Just tell me what it is.”
“Well, I have got a wife who is killing me, that is all,” he said abruptly, almost desperately as if he had uttered a torturing thought, as yet unrealised.
I did not understand at first. “Does she make you unhappy? She makes you suffer, night and day? How? What is it?”
“No,” he replied in a low voice, as if he were confessing some crime; “I love her too much, that is all.”
I was thunderstruck at this unexpected avowal, and then I felt inclined to laugh, but at length I managed to reply:
“But surely, at least so it seems to me, you might manage to—to love her a little less.”
He had got very pale again, but finally he made up his mind to speak to me openly, as he used to do formerly.
“No,” he said, “that is impossible; and I am dying from it, I know; it is killing me, and I am really frightened. Some days, like to-day, I feel inclined to leave her, to go away altogether, to start for the other end of the world, so as to live for a long time; and then, when the evening comes, I return home in spite of myself, but slowly, and feeling uncomfortable. I go upstairs hesitatingly and ring, and when I go in I see her there sitting in her arm-chair, and she says, ‘How late you are,’ I kiss her, and we sit down to dinner. During the meal I think: ‘I will go directly it is over, and take the train for somewhere, no matter where’; but when we get back to the drawing-room I am so tired that I have not the courage to get up out of my chair, and so I remain, and then—and then—I succumb again.”
I could not help smiling again. He saw it, and said: “You may laugh, but I assure you it is very horrible.”
“Why don’t you tell your wife?” I asked him. “Unless she be a regular monster she would understand.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It is all very well for you to talk. I don’t tell her because I know her nature. Have you ever heard it said of certain women, ‘She has just married a third time?’ Well, and that makes you laugh as you did just now, and yet it is true. What is to be done? It is neither her fault nor mine. She is so, because nature has made her so; I assure you, my dear old friend, she has the temperament of a Messalina. She does not know it, but I do; so much the worse for me. She is charming, gentle, tender, and thinks that our conjugal intercourse, which is wearing me out and killing me, is natural and quite moderate. She seems like an ignorant schoolgirl, and she really is ignorant, poor child.
“Every day I form energetic resolutions, for you must understand that I am dying. But one look of her eyes, one of those looks in which I can read the ardent desire of her lips, is enough for me, and I succumb at once, saying to myself: ‘This is really the end; I will have no more of her death-giving kisses,’ and then, when I have yielded again, like I have to-day, I go out and walk and walk, thinking of death, and saying to myself that I am lost, that all is over.
“I am mentally so ill that I went for a walk to Père Lachaise cemetery yesterday. I looked at all the graves, standing in a row like dominoes, and I thought to myself: ‘I shall soon be there,’ and then I returned home, quite determined to pretend to be ill, and so escape, but I could not.
“Oh! You don’t know what it is. Ask a smoker who is poisoning himself with nicotine whether he can give up his delicious and deadly habit. He will tell you that he has tried a hundred times without success, and he will, perhaps, add: ‘So much the worse, but I would rather die than go without tobacco.’ That is just the case with me. When once one is in the clutches of such a passion or such a habit, one must give oneself up to it entirely.”
He got up and held out his hand. I felt seized with a tumult of rage, and with hatred for this woman, this careless, charming, terrible woman; and as he was buttoning up his coat to go away I said to him, brutally perhaps:
“But, in God’s name, why don’t you let her have lovers rather than kill yourself like that?”
He shrugged his shoulders without replying, and went off.
For six months I did not see him. Every morning I expected a letter of invitation to his funeral, but I would not go to his house from a complicated feeling of anger against him and of contempt for that woman; for a thousand different reasons.
One lovely spring morning I was walking in the Champs-Elysées. It was one of those warm afternoons which make our eyes bright and stir in us a tumultuous feeling of happiness from the mere sense of existence. Some one tapped me on the shoulder, and turning round I saw my old friend, looking well, stout, and rosy.
He gave me both hands, beaming with pleasure, and exclaimed:
“Here you are, you erratic individual!”
I looked at him, utterly thunderstruck.
“Well, on my word—yes. By Jove! I congratulate you; you have indeed changed in the last six months!”
He flushed scarlet, and said, with an embarrassed laugh:
“One can but do one’s best.”
I looked at him so obstinately that he evidently felt uncomfortable, so I went on:
“So—now—you are—completely cured?”
He stammered, hastily:
“Yes, perfectly, thank you.” Then changing his tone, “How lucky that I should have come across you, old fellow. I hope we shall see each other often now.”
But I would not give up my idea; I wanted to know how matters really stood, so I asked:
“Don’t you remember what you told me six months ago? I suppose—I—eh—suppose you resist now?”
“Please don’t talk any more about it,” he replied, uneasily; “forget that I mentioned it to you; leave me alone. But, you know, I have no intention of letting you go; you must come and dine at my house.”
A sudden fancy took me to see for myself how matters stood, so that I might understand all about it, and I accepted. Two hours later he introduced me to his home.
His wife received me in a most charming manner, and she was, as a matter of fact, a most attractive woman. She looked guileless, distinguished and adorably naïve. Her long hands, her neck, and cheeks were beautifully white and delicate, and marked her breeding, and her walk was undulating and delightful, as if her leg gave slightly at each step.
René gave her a brotherly kiss on the forehead and said:
“Has not Lucien come yet?”
“Not yet,” she replied, in a clear, soft voice; “you know he is almost always rather late.”
At that moment the bell rang, and a tall man was shown in. He was dark, with a thick beard, and looked like a society Hercules. We were introduced to each other; his name was Lucien Delabarre.
René and he shook hands in a most friendly manner, and then we went to dinner.
It was a most enjoyable meal, without the least constraint. My old friend spoke with me constantly, in the old familiar cordial manner, just as he used to do. It was: “You know, old fellow!”—”I say, old fellow!”—”Just listen a moment, old fellow!” Suddenly he exclaimed:
“You don’t know how glad I am to see you again; it takes me back to old times.”
I looked at his wife and the other man. Their attitude was perfectly correct, though I fancied once or twice that they exchanged a rapid and furtive look.
As soon as dinner was over René turned to his wife, and said:
“My dear, I have just met Pierre again, and I am going to carry him off for a walk and a chat along the boulevards to remind us of old times. You will excuse this bachelor spree. I am leaving Mr. Delabarre with you.”
The young woman smiled, and said to me, as she shook hands with me:
“Don’t keep him too long.”
As we went along, arm-in-arm, I could not help saying to him, for I was determined to know how matters stood:
“What has happened? Do tell me!”
He, however, interrupted me roughly, and answered like a man who has been disturbed without any reason.
“Just look here, old fellow; leave me alone with your questions.”
Then he added, half aloud, as if talking to himself:
“After all, it would have been too stupid to have let oneself go to perdition like that.”
I did not press him. We walked on quickly and began to talk. All of a sudden he whispered in my ear:
“I say, suppose we go and see the girls! Eh?”
I could not help laughing heartily.
“Just as you like; come along, old man.”