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   Chapter 3 MADAME DE K.

Monsieur, Madame, and Bebe -- C By Gustave Droz Characters: 10807

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


It is possible that you know Madame de K.; if this be so, I congratulate you, for she is a very remarkable person. Her face is pretty, but they do not say of her, "Ah, what a pretty woman!" They say: "Madame de K.? Ah! to be sure, a fine woman!" Do you perceive the difference? it is easy to grasp it. That which charms in her is less what one sees than what one guesses at. Ah! to be sure, a fine woman! That is what is said after dinner when we have dined at her house, and when her husband, who unfortunately is in bad health and does not smoke, has gone to fetch cigars from his desk. It is said in a low tone, as though in confidence; but from this affected reserve, it is easy to read conviction on the part of each of the guests. The ladies in the drawing room do not suspect the charming freedom which characterizes the gossip of the gentlemen when they have gone into the smoking-room to puff their cigars over a cup of coffee.

"Yes, yes, she is a very fine woman."

"Ah! the deuce, expansive beauty, opulent."

"But poor De K. makes me feel anxious; he does not seem to get any better. Does it not alarm you, Doctor?"

Every one smiles 'sub rosa' at the idea that poor De K., who has gone to fetch cigars, pines away visibly, while his wife is so well.

"He is foolish; he works too hard, as I have told him. His position at the ministry-thanks, I never take sugar."

"But, really, it is serious, for after all he is not strong," ventures a guest, gravely, biting his lips meanwhile to keep from laughing.

"I think even that within the last year her beauty has developed," says a little gentleman, stirring his coffee.

"De K.'s beauty? I never could see it."

"I don't say that."

"Excuse me, you did; is it not so, Doctor?"

"Forsooth!"-"How now! Come, let us make the distinction."-"Ha, ha, ha!" And there is a burst of that hearty laughter which men affect to assist digestion. The ice is broken, they draw closer to each other and continue in low tones:

"She has a fine neck! for when she turned just now it looked as if it had been sculptured."

"Her neck, her neck! but what of her hands, her arms and her shoulders! Did you see her at Leon's ball a fortnight ago? A queen, my dear fellow, a Roman empress. Neck, shoulders, arms-"

"And all the rest," hazards some one, looking down into his cup. All laugh heartily, and the good De K. comes in with a box of cigars which look exceptional.

"Here you are, my friends," he says, coughing slightly, "but let me recommend you to smoke carefully."

I have often dined with my friend De K., and I have always, or almost always, heard a conversation similar to the preceding. But I must avow that the evening on which I heard the impertinent remark of this gentleman I was particularly shocked; first, because De K. is my friend, and in the second place because I can not endure people who speak of that of which they know nothing. I make bold to say that I alone in Paris understand this matter to the bottom. Yes, yes, I alone; and the reason is not far to seek. Paul and his brother are in England; Ernest is a consul in America; as for Leon, he is at Hycres in his little subprefecture. You see, therefore, that in truth I am the only one in Paris who can-

"But hold, Monsieur Z., you must be joking. Explain yourself; come to the point. Do you mean to say that Madame de K.-oh! dear me! but that is most 'inconvenant'!"

Nothing, nothing! I am foolish. Let us suppose that I had not spoken, ladies; let us speak of something else. How could the idea have got into my head of saying anything about "all the rest"? Let us talk of something else.

It was a real spring morning, the rain fell in torrents and the north wind blew furiously, when the damsel, more dead than alive--

The fact is, I feel I can not get out of it. It will be better to tell all. Only swear to me to be discreet. On your word of honor? Well, then, here goes.

I am, I repeat, the only man in Paris who can speak from knowledge of "all the rest" in regard to Madame de K.

Some years ago-but do not let us anticipate-I say, some years ago I had an intimate friend at whose house we met many evenings. In summer the windows were left open, and we used to sit in armchairs and chat of affairs by the light of our cigars. Now, one evening, when we were talking of fishing-all these details are still fresh in my memory-we heard the sound of a powerful harpsichord, and soon followed the harsh notes of a voice more vigorous than harmonious, I must admit.

"Aha! she has altered her hours," said Paul, regarding one of the windows of the house opposite.

"Who has changed her hours, my dear fellow?"

"My neighbor. A robust voice, don't you think so? Usually she practises in the morning, and I like that better, for it is the time I go out for a walk."

Instinctively I glanced toward the lighted window, and through the drawn curtains I distinctly perceived a woman, dressed in white, with her hair loose, and swaying before her instrument like a person conscious that she was alone and responding to her own inspirations.

"My Fernand, go, seek glo-o-o-ry," she was singing at the top of her voice. The singing appeared to me mediocre, but the songstress in her peignoir interested me much.

"Gentlemen," said I, "it appears to me there is behind that frail tissue"-I alluded to the curtain-"a very handsome

woman. Put out your cigars, if you please; their light might betray our presence and embarrass the fair singer."

The cigars were at once dropped-the window was even almost completely closed for greater security-and we began to watch.

This was not, I know, quite discreet, but, as the devil willed it, we were young bachelors, all five of us, and then, after all, dear reader, would not you have done the same?

When the song was concluded, the singer rose. It was very hot and her garment must have been very thin, for the light, which was at the farther end of the room, shone through the fabric. It was one of those long robes which fall to the feet, and which custom has reserved for night wear. The upper part is often trimmed with lace, the sleeves are wide, the folds are long and flowing, and usually give forth a perfume of ambergris or violet. But perhaps you know this garment as well as I. The fair one drew near the looking-glass, and it seemed to us that she was contemplating her face; then she raised her hands in the air, and, in the graceful movement she made, the sleeve, which was unbuttoned and very loose, slipped from her beautifully rounded arm, the outline of which we distinctly perceived.

"The devil!" said Paul, in a stifled voice, but he could say no more.

The songstress then gathered up her hair, which hung very low, in her two hands and twisted it in the air, just as the washerwomen do. Her head, which we saw in profile, inclined a little forward, and her shoulders, which the movement of her arms threw back, presented a more prominent and clear outline.

"Marble, Parian marble!" muttered Paul. "O Cypris! Cytherea! Paphia!"

"Be quiet, you donkey!"

It really seemed as if the flame of the candle understood our appreciation and ministered specially to our admiration. Placed behind the fair songstress, it illuminated her so perfectly that the garment with the long folds resembled those thin vapors which veil the horizon without hiding it, and in a word, the most inquisitive imagination, disarmed by so much courtesy, was ready to exclaim, "That is enough!"

Soon the fair one moved forward toward her bed, sat down in a very low armchair, in which she stretched herself out at her ease, and remained for some moments, with her hands clasped over her head and her limbs extended. Just then midnight struck; we saw her take her right leg slowly and cross it over her left, when we perceived that she had not yet removed her shoes and stockings.

But what is the use of asking any more about it? These recollections trouble me, and, although they have fixed themselves in my mind-very firmly indeed, I can assure you-I feel an embarrassment mingled with modesty at relating all to you at length. Besides, at the moment she turned down the clothes, and prepared, to get into bed, the light went out.

On the morrow, about ten o'clock in the evening, we all five again found ourselves at Paul's, four of us with opera-glasses in our pockets. As on the previous evening, the fair songstress sat down at her piano, then proceeded slowly to make her night toilette. There was the same grace, the same charm, but when we came to the fatal moment at which on the preceding night the candle had gone out, a faint thrill ran through us all. To tell the truth, for my part, I was nervous. Heaven, very fortunately, was now on our side; the candle continued to burn. The young woman then, with her charming hand, the plump outlines of which we could easily distinguish, smoothed the pillow, patted it, arranged it with a thousand caressing precautions in which the thought was suggested, "With what happiness shall I now go and bury my head in it!"

Then she smoothed down the little wrinkles in the bed, the contact with which might have irritated her, and, raising herself on her right arm, like a horseman, about to get into the saddle, we saw her left knee, smooth and shining as marble, slowly bury itself. We seemed to hear a kind of creaking, but this creaking sounded joyful. The sight was brief, too brief, alas! and it was in a species of delightful confusion that we perceived a well-rounded limb, dazzlingly white, struggling in the silk of the quilt. At length everything became quiet again, and it was as much as we could do to make out a smooth, rose-tinted little foot which, not being sleepy, still lingered outside and fidgeted with the silken covering.

Delightful souvenir of my lively youth! My pen splutters, my paper seems to blush to the color of that used by the orange-sellers. I believe I have said too much.

I learned some time afterward that my friend De K. was about to be married, and, singularly enough, was going to wed this beautiful creature with whom I was so well acquainted.

"A charming woman!" I exclaimed one day.

"You know her, then?" said someone.

"I? No, not the least in the world."

"But?"

"Yes-no, let me see; I have seen her once at high mass."

"She is not very pretty," some one remarked to me.

"No, not her face," I rejoined, and added to myself, "No, not her face, but all the rest!"

It is none the less true that for some time past this secret has been oppressing me, and, though I decided to-day to reveal it to you, it was because it seems to me that to do so would quiet my conscience.

But, for Heaven's sake, let me entreat you, do not noise abroad the affair!

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