The Bondels were a happy family, and although they frequently quarrelled about trifles, they soon became friends again.
Bondel was a merchant who had retired from active business after saving enough to allow him to live quietly; he had rented a little house at Saint-Germain and lived there with his wife. He was a quiet man with very decided opinions; he had a certain degree of education and read serious newspapers; nevertheless, he appreciated the gaulois wit. Endowed with a logical mind, and that practical common sense which is the master quality of the industrial French bourgeois, he thought little, but clearly, and reached a decision only after careful consideration of the matter in hand. He was of medium size, with a distinguished look, and was beginning to turn gray.
His wife, who was full of serious qualities, had also several faults. She had a quick temper and a frankness that bordered upon violence. She bore a grudge a long time. She had once been pretty, but had now become too stout and too red; but in her neighborhood at Saint-Germain she still passed for a very beautiful woman, who exemplified health and an uncertain temper.
Their dissensions almost always began at breakfast, over some trivial matter, and they often continued all day and even until the following day. Their simple, common, limited life imparted seriousness to the most unimportant matters, and every topic of conversation became a subject of dispute. This had not been so in the days when business occupied their minds, drew their hearts together, and gave them common interests and occupation.
But at Saint-Germain they saw fewer people. It had been necessary to make new acquaintances, to create for themselves a new world among strangers, a new existence devoid of occupations. Then the monotony of loneliness had soured each of them a little; and the quiet happiness which they had hoped and waited for with the coming of riches did not appear.
One June morning, just as they were sitting down to breakfast, Bondel asked:
"Do you know the people who live in the little red cottage at the end of the Rue du Berceau?"
Madame Bondel was out of sorts. She answered:
"Yes and no; I am acquainted with them, but I do not care to know them."
"Why not? They seem to be very nice."
"This morning I met the husband on the terrace and we took a little walk together."
Seeing that there was danger in the air, Bendel added: "It was he who spoke to me first."
His wife looked at him in a displeased manner. She continued: "You would have done just as well to avoid him."
"Because there are rumors about them."
"Oh! rumors such as one often hears!"
M. Bondel was, unfortunately, a little hasty. He exclaimed:
"My dear, you know that I abhor gossip. As for those people, I find them very pleasant."
She asked testily: "The wife also?"
"Why, yes; although I have barely seen her."
The discussion gradually grew more heated, always on the same subject for lack of others. Madame Bondel obstinately refused to say what she had heard about these neighbors, allowing things to be understood without saying exactly what they were. Bendel would shrug his shoulders, grin, and exasperate his wife. She finally cried out: "Well! that gentleman is deceived by his wife, there!"
The husband answered quietly: "I can't see how that affects the honor of a man."
She seemed dumfounded: "What! you don't see? --you don't see? --well, that's too much! You don't see! --why, it's a public scandal! he is disgraced!"
He answered: "Ah! by no means! Should a man be considered disgraced because he is deceived, because he is betrayed, robbed? No, indeed! I'll grant you that that may be the case for the wife, but as for him--"
She became furious, exclaiming: "For him as well as for her. They are both in disgrace; it's a public shame."
Bondel, very calm, asked: "First of all, is it true? Who can assert such a thing as long as no one has been caught in the act?"
Madame Bondel was growing uneasy; she snapped: "What? Who can assert it? Why, everybody! everybody! it's as clear as the nose on your face. Everybody knows it and is talking about it. There is not the slightest doubt."
He was grinning: "For a long time people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. This man loves his wife and speaks of her tenderly and reverently. This whole business is nothing but lies!"
Stamping her foot, she stammered: "Do you think that that fool, that idiot, knows anything about it?"
Bondel did not grow angry; he was reasoning clearly: "Excuse me. This gentleman is no fool. He seemed to me, on the contrary, to be very intelligent and shrewd; and you can't make me believe that a man with brains doesn't notice such a thing in his own house, when the neighbors, who are not there, are ignorant of no detail of this liaison--for I'll warrant that they know everything."
Madame Bondel had a fit of angry mirth, which irritated her husband's nerves. She laughed: "Ha! ha! ha! they're all the same! There's not a man alive who could discover a thing like that unless his nose was stuck into it!"
The discussion was wandering to other topics now. She was exclaiming over the blindness of deceived husbands, a thing which he doubted and which she affirmed with such airs of personal contempt that he finally grew angry. Then the discussion became an angry quarrel, where she took the side of the women and he defended the men. He had the conceit to declare: "Well, I swear that if I had ever been deceived, I should have noticed it, and immediately, too. And I should have taken away your desire for such things in such a manner that it would have taken more than one doctor to set you on foot again!"
Boiling with anger, she cried out to him: "You! you! why, you're as big a fool as the others, do you hear!"
He still maintained: "I can swear to you that I am not!"
She laughed so impertinently that he felt his heart beat and a chill run down his back. For the third time he said:
"I should have seen it!"
She rose, still laughing in the same manner. She slammed the door and left the room, saying: "Well! if that isn't too much!"
Bondel remained alone, ill at ease. That insolent, provoking laugh had touched him to the quick. He went outside, walked, dreamed. The realization of the loneliness of his new life made him sad and morbid. The neighbor, whom he had met that morning, came to him with outstretched hands. They continued their walk together. After touching on various subjects they came to talk of their wives. Both seemed to have something to confide, something inexpressible, vague, about these beings associated with their lives; their wives. The neighbor was saying:
"Really, at times, one might think that they bear some particular ill- will toward their husband, just because he is a husband. I love my wife --I love her very much; I appreciate and respect her; well! there are times when she seems to have more confidence and faith in our friends than in me."
Bondel immediately thought: "There is no doubt; my wife was right!"
When he left this man he began to think things over again. He felt in his soul a strange confusion of contradictory ideas, a sort of interior burning; that mocking, impertinent laugh kept ringing in his ears and seemed to say: "Why; you are just the same as the others, you fool!" That was indeed bravado, one of those pieces of impudence of which a woman makes use when she dares everything, risks everything, to wound and humiliate the man who has aroused her ire. This poor man must also be one of those deceived husbands, like so many others. He had said sadly: "There are times when she seems to have more confidence and faith in our friends than in me." That is how a husband formulated his observations on the particular attentions of his wife for another man. That was all. He had seen nothing more. He was like the rest--all the rest!
And how strangely Bondel's own wife had laughed as she said: "You, too-- you, too." How wild and imprudent these creatures are who can arouse such suspicions in the heart for the sole purpose of revenge!
He ran over their whole life since their marriage, reviewed his mental list of their acquaintances, to see whether she had ever appeared to show more confidence in any one else than in himself. He never had suspected any one, he was so calm, so sure of her, so confident.
But, now he thought of it, she had had a friend, an intimate friend, who for almost a year had dined with them three times a week. Tancret, good old Tancret, whom he, Bendel, loved as a brother and whom he continued to see on the sly, since his wife, he did not know why, had grown angry at the charming fellow.
He stopped to think, looking over the past with anxious eyes. Then he grew angry at himself for harboring this shameful insinuation of the defiant, jealous, bad ego which lives in all of us. He blamed and accused himself when he remembered the visits and the demeanor of this friend whom his wife had dismissed for no apparent reason. But, suddenly, other memories returned to him, similar ruptures due to the vindictive character of Madame Bondel, who never pardoned a slight. Then he laughed frankly at himself for the doubts which he had nursed; and he remembered the angry looks of his wife as he would tell her, when he returned at night: "I saw good old Tancret, and he wished to be remembered to you," and he reassured himself.
She would invariably answer: "When you see that gentleman you can tell him that I can very well dispense with his remembrances." With what an irritated, angry look she would say these words! How well one could feel that she did not and would not forgive--and he had suspected her even for a second? Such foolishness!
But why did she grow so angry? She never had given the exact reason for this quarrel. She still bore him that grudge! Was it? --But no--no--and Bondel declared that he was lowering himself by even thinking of such things.
Yes, he was undoubtedly lowering himself, but he could not help thinking of it, and he asked himself with terror if this thought which had entered into his mind had not come to stop, if he did not carry in his heart the seed of fearful torment. He knew himself; he was a man to think over his doubts, as formerly he would ruminate over his commercial operations, for days and nights, endlessly weighing the pros and the cons.
He was already becoming excited; he was walking fast and losing his calmness. A thought cannot be downed. It is intangible, cannot be caught, cannot be killed.
Suddenly a plan occurred to him; it was bold, so bold that at first he doubted whether he would carry it out.
Each time that he met Tancret, his friend would ask for news of Madame Bondel, and Bondel would answer: "She is still a little angry." Nothing more. Good Lord! What a fool he had been! Perhaps!
Well, he would take the train to Paris, go to Tancret, and bring him back with him that very evening, assuring him that his wife's mysterious anger had disappeared. But how would Madame Bondel act? What a scene there would be! What anger! what scandal! What of it?--that would be revenge! When she should come face to face with him, unexpectedly, he certainly ought to be able to read the truth in their expressions.
He immediately went to the station, bought his ticket, got into the car, and as soon as he felt him self being carried away by the train, he felt a fear, a kind of dizziness, at what he was going to do. In order not to weaken, back down, and return alone, he tried not to think of the matter any longer, to bring his mind to bear on other affairs, to do what he had decided to do with a blind resolution; and he began to hum tunes from operettas and music halls until he reached Paris.
As soon as he found himself walking along the streets that led to Tancret's, he felt like stopping, He paused in front of several shops, noticed the prices of certain objects, was interested in new things, felt like taking a glass of beer, which was not his usual custom; and as he approached his friend's dwelling he ardently hoped not meet him. But Tancret was at home, alone, reading. He jumped up in surprise, crying: "Ah! Bondel! what luck!"
Bondel, embarrassed, answered: "Yes, my dear fellow, I happened to be in Paris, and I thought I'd drop in and shake hands with you."
"That's very nice, very nice! The more so that for some time you have not favored me with your presence very often."
"Well, you see--even against one's will, one is often influenced by surrounding conditions, and as my wife seemed to bear you some ill-will"
"Jove! 'seemed'--she did better than that, since she showed me the door."
"What was the reason? I never heard it."
"Oh! nothing at all--a bit of foolishness--a discussion in which we did not both agree."
"But what was the subject of this discussion?"
"A lady of my acquaintance, whom you may perhaps know by name, Madame Boutin."
"Ah! really. Well, I think that my wife has forgotten her grudge, for this very morning she spoke to me of you in very pleasant terms."
Tancret started and seemed so dumfounded that for a few minutes he could find nothing to say. Then he asked: "She spoke of me--in pleasant terms?"
"You are sure?"
"Of course I am. I am not dreaming."
"And then--as I was coming to Paris I thought that I would please you by coming to tell you the good news."
"Why, yes--why, yes--"
Bondel appeared to hesitate; then, after a short pause, he added: "I even had an idea."
"What is it?"
"To take you back home with me to dinner."
Tancret, who was naturally prudent, seemed a little worried by this proposition, and he asked: "Oh! really--is it possible? Are we not exposing ourselves to--to--a scene?"
"No, no, indeed!"
"Because, you know, Madame Bendel bears malice for a long time."
"Yes, but I can assure you that she no longer bears you any ill--will. I am even convinced that it will be a great pleasure for her to see you thus, unexpectedly."
"Well, then! let us go along. I am delighted. You see, this misunderstanding was very unpleasant for me."
They set out together toward the Saint-Lazare station, arm in arm. They made the trip in silence. Both seemed absorbed in deep meditation. Seated in the car, one opposite the other, they looked at each other without speaking, each observing that the other was pale.
Then they left the train and once more linked arms as if to unite against some common danger. After a walk of a few minutes they stopped, a little out of breath, before Bondel's house. Bondel ushered his friend into the parlor, called the servant, and asked: "Is madame at home?"
"Please ask her to come down at once."
They dropped into two armchairs and waited. Both were filled with the same longing to escape before the appearance of the much-feared person.
A well-known, heavy tread could be heard descending the stairs. A hand moved the knob, and both men watched the brass handle turn. Then the door opened wide, and Madame Bondel stopped and looked to see who was there before she entered. She looked, blushed, trembled, retreated a step, then stood motionless, her cheeks aflame and her hands resting against the sides of the door frame.
Tancret, as pale as if about to faint, had arisen, letting fall his hat, which rolled along the floor. He stammered out: "Mon Dieu--madame--it is I--I thought--I ventured--I was so sorry--"
As she did not answer, he continued: "Will you forgive me?"
Then, quickly, carried away by some impulse, she walked toward him with her hands outstretched; and when he had taken, pressed, and held these two hands, she said, in a trembling, weak little voice, which was new to her husband:
"Ah! my dear friend--how happy I am!"
And Bondel, who was watching them, felt an icy chill run over him, as if he had been dipped in a cold bath.