Story type: Literature
MR. PETITBRY, Chamber Counsel.
To Madame Nina de B., at her Aunt’s house, in Moulins
Madame, conformably to the wishes of Madame your aunt, I have looked into the matter in question. I have noted down one by one all the different points and submitted your grievances to the most scrupulous investigation. Well, on my soul and conscience, I do not find the fruit ripe enough, or to speak plainly, I do not consider that you have sufficient grounds to justify your petition for a judicial separation. Let us not forget that the French law is a very downright kind of thing, totally devoid of delicate feeling for nice distinctions. It recognizes only acts, serious, brutal acts, and unfortunately it is these acts we lack. Most assuredly I have been deeply touched while reading the account of the first year of your married life, so very painful to you. You have paid dearly for the glory of marrying a famous artist, one of those men in whom fame and adulation develop monstrous egotism, and who under penalty of shattering the frail and timid life that would attach itself to theirs, must live alone. Ah! madame, since the commencement of my career, how many wretched wives have I not beheld in the same cruel position as yourself! Artists who live only by and for the public, carry nothing home to their hearth but fatigue from glory, or the melancholy of their disappointments. An ill-regulated existence, without compass or rudder, subversive ideas contrary to all social conventionality, contempt of family life and its happiness, cerebral excitement sought for in the abuse of tobacco and strong drink, without mentioning anything else, this constitutes the terrible artistic element from which your dear Aunt is desirous of withdrawing you; but I must repeat, that while I fully comprehend her anxiety, nay her remorse even at having consented to such a marriage, I cannot see that matters have reached a point calculated to warrant your petition.
I have, however, set down the outlines of a judicial memorandum, in which your principal grievances are grouped and skilfully brought into prominence. Here are the principal divisions of the work:
1 deg.. Insulting conduct of Monsieur towards Madame’s family.–Refusal to receive our Aunt from Moulins, who brought us up, and is tenderly attached to us.–Nicknames such as Tata Bobosse, Fairy Carabossa, and others, bestowed on that venerable old maid, whose back is slightly bent.–Jests and quips, drawings in pen and pencil of the aforesaid and her infirmity.
2 deg.. Unsociableness.–Refusal to see Ma-dame’s friends, to make wedding calls, to send cards, to answer invitations, etc.
3 deg.. Wanton extravagance.–Money lent without acknowledgment to all kinds of Bohemians.–Open house and free quarters, turning the house into an inn.–Constant subscriptions for statues, tombs, and productions of unfortunate fellow artists.–Starting an artistic and literary magazine!!!
4 deg.. Insulting conduct to Madame.–Having said out loud when alluding to us: “What a fool!”
5 deg.. Cruelty and violence.–Excessive brutality on the part of Monsieur.–Rage on the slightest pretext.–Breakage of china and furniture.–Scandalous rows, offensive expressions.
All this, as you see, dear Madame, constitutes a somewhat respectable amount of evidence, but is not however sufficient. We lack assault with violence. Ah! if we had only an assault with violence, a tiny little assault before witnesses, our case would be grand! But now that you have put a hundred and fifty miles between your husband and yourself we can scarcely hope for an incident of this kind. I say “hope” because in the present state of affairs, a brutal act on the part of this man would be the most fortunate thing that could befall you.
I remain, Madame, awaiting your commands, your devoted and obedient servant,
PS.–Violence before witnesses, of course!
To Monsieur Petitbry, in Paris
What, Sir! have we come to such a pass as this! Is this what your laws have made of antique French chivalry! So then, when a misunderstanding is often sufficient to separate two hearts for ever, your law courts require acts of violence to justify such a separation. Is it not scandalous, unjust, barbarous, outrageous? To think that in order to regain her freedom, my poor darling will be obliged to run her neck into the halter, to abandon herself to all the fury of that monster, to excite it even. But no matter, our mind is made up. An assault with personal violence is necessary. Well! we will have it. No later than to-morrow, Nina will return to Paris, How will she be received? What will take place there? I cannot think of it without a shudder. At this idea my hand trembles, my eyes become dimmed. Ah! Monsieur. Ah! Monsieur Petitbry. Ah!
Nina’s unhappy Aunt.
R. MARESTANG, ATTORNEY At the Law Court of the Seine.
To Monsieur Henri de B., Literary man in Paris
Be calm, be calm, be calm! I forbid your going to Moulins or rushing off in pursuit of the fugitive. It is more judicious and safer to await her return in your own house, by your fireside. In point of fact, what has taken place? You refused to receive that ridiculous and ill-natured old maid; your wife has gone to join her. You should have expected as much. Family ties are very strong in the heart of such an extremely youthful bride. You were in too great a hurry. Remember that this Aunt brought her up, that she has no other relations in the world. She has her husband, you will say. Ah! my dear fellow, between ourselves we may admit that husbands are not always amiable. I know one more especially who in spite of his good heart is so nervous, so violent! I am well aware that hard work and artistic preoccupations have a good deal to do with it. Be that as it may, the bird has been scared, and has flown back to its former cage. Don’t be alarmed, it won’t stay there long. Either I am very much mistaken or the Parisian of yesterday will soon weary of the antiquated surroundings, and ere long regret the vivacities of her poet. Above all don’t stir.
Your old friend,
To Monsieur Marestang, attorney in Paris
At the same moment with your rational and friendly letter, I received a telegram from Moulins, announcing Nina’s return. Ah! what a true prophet you were! She is coming back this evening, all alone, just as she left me, without the slightest advance on my part. The thing now will be to arrange so easy and agreeable a life for her, that she shall never again be tempted to leave me. I have laid in a stock of tenderness and patience during her week’s absence. There is only one point on which I remain inflexible: I will not again receive that horrible Tata Bobosse, that blue stocking of 1820, who gave me her niece only in the hopes that my modest fame would serve to heighten hers. Remember, my dear Marestang, that ever since my marriage this wicked little old woman has always come between my wife and me, pushing her hump into all our amusements at the theatres, the exhibitions, in society, in the country, everywhere in fact. And you wonder after that, at my having displayed a certain haste in getting rid of her, and packing her off to her good town of Moulins. Indeed, my dear fellow, you have no idea of all the harm those old maids, suspicious and ignorant of life, are capable of doing in a young household. This one had stuffed my wife’s pretty little head full of false, old fashioned, preposterous ideas, trumpery sentimentality of the time of Ipsiboe or young Florange: “Ah! if my lady love saw me!” For her, I was a poate, the poate one sees on the frontispieces of Renduel or Ladvocat, crowned with laurels, a lyre on his hips, and his short velvet-collared cloak blown aside by a Parnassian gust of wind. That was the husband she had promised her niece, and you may fancy how terribly my poor Nina must have been disappointed. Nevertheless I admit that I was very bungling with the dear child. As you say, I wanted to go ahead too rapidly, I frightened her. It was my part gently to modify all that the rather narrowing and false education of the convent and the sentimental dreams of the Aunt had effected, leaving the provincial perfume time to evaporate. However all this can be repaired since she is returning. She is returning, my dear friend! This evening, I shall go and meet her at the station and we shall walk home arm in arm, reconciled and happy.
Henri de B.
Nina de B. to her Aunt in Moulins.
He was waiting for me at the station and greeted me with a smile and open arms, as though I were returning from some ordinary journey. You can imagine that I put on my iciest appearance. Directly I reached home, I shut myself up in my room, where I dined alone, pleading fatigue. After which, I locked myself in. He came to bid me good-night through the key-hole, and to my great surprise, went away on tiptoe without anger or importunity. This morning, I called on Monsieur Petitbry, who gave me detailed instructions as to the way I was to act, the hour, place, witnesses. Ah! my dear Aunt, if you knew how frightened I am as the hour draws near.
His violence is so dreadful. Even when he is gentle like yesterday, his eyes have flashes of lightning. However, I will try and be courageous in thinking of you, my darling Aunt. Besides, as Monsieur Petitbry said to me, it is only a short painful moment to get over, and then we will both resume our former quiet life, so calm and happy.
Nina de B.
From the same to the same
Dear Aunt, I am writing to you from my bed, torn by the emotions of that terrible scene. Who could have supposed that things would take this turn? Nevertheless I had taken every precaution. I had warned Marthe and her sister, who were to come at one o’clock, and I had chosen for the great scene the moment when on leaving the table, the servants are clearing away in the dining-room next to the study. From early morn my plans were laid; an hour of scales and exercises on the piano, the Cloches du Monastere, the Reveries de Rosellen, all the pieces he hates. This did not prevent his working away without betraying the slightest irritability. At breakfast, the same patience. A detestable breakfast, scraps, and the sweet dishes he loathes. And if you had seen my costume! A dress with a cape some five years out of date, a little black silk apron, and uncurled hair! In vain I sought for some signs of irritation, that well-known straight line that Monsieur hollows out between his eyebrows at the least annoyance. Well no! nothing! Really I might have thought they had changed my husband. He said to me in a calm and rather sad tone:
“Ah, you have done your hair in the old way.”
I hardly answered, not wishing to hurry on matters before my witnesses had arrived, and then, strangely enough, I felt somewhat moved and upset beforehand by the scene I was trying to get up. At last, after a few still shorter replies on my part, he rose from the table and went into his own room. I followed him trembling. I heard my friends stationing themselves in the little drawing-room, and Pierre who came and went, arranging the glasses and silver. The decisive moment had arrived. He must now be brought to the needful point of violence, and it seemed to me this would be easy, after all I had done since the morning to irritate him.
When I entered his study I must have been very pale. I felt myself in the lion’s cage. The thought flashed across me: “Suppose he killed me!” He did not present a very terrible appearance, however, leaning back on his divan, a cigar in his mouth.
“Do I disturb you?” I asked in my most ironical voice.
He replied gently:
“No. You see. I am not working.”
“Ah! indeed you don’t work then at all, now?”
He still very mild.
“You are mistaken, my dear. On the contrary, I work a great deal. Only our craft is one in which a great deal of work can be done without having a tool in hand.”
“And what may you be doing at this moment? Ah! yes, I know, your play in verse; always the same thing for the last two years. It is certainly lucky that your wife had a fortune! That allows you to idle at your ease.”
I thought he would have sprung upon me at this. Not a bit of it. He came up to me and took hold of my hands gently:
“Come, is it to be always the same thing? Are we to begin our life of warfare again? If so, why did you come back?”
I confess I felt rather moved by his sad and affectionate tone; but I thought of you, my poor Aunt, of your exile, of his harsh conduct towards us, and that gave me courage. I said to him the bitterest, most wounding things I could think of–I know not what–that I wished to heaven I had never married an artist; that at Moulins, every one pitied me; that I found my friends married to magistrates, serious, influential men, in good positions, while he–If even he made money–But no, Monsieur would work for fame only! and what fame!
At Moulins no one knew him; at Paris, his pieces were hissed. His books did not sell. And so on, and so on. My brain seemed to whirl round as all the malicious words came from me one after the other. He looked at me without replying, in chilly anger. Of course this coldness exasperated me still more. I was so much excited, that I no longer recognized my own voice, raised to an extraordinary pitch, and the last words I screamed at him–I can’t remember what unjust and mad remark it was–seemed to buzz indistinctly in my ears. For a moment, I thought Monsieur Petitbry’s assault with violence was an accomplished fact. Pallid, with set teeth Henri made two steps towards me:
Then suddenly, his anger fell, his face became impassive again, and he looked at me with so scornful, insolent and calm a glance, that my patience came to an end. I raised my hand, and gave him the best box on the ear I ever gave in my life. At the noise, the door opened, and my witnesses appeared solemn and indignant.
“Monsieur! this is infamous!”
“Yes, isn’t it?” said the poor fellow, showing his red cheek.
You can imagine my confusion. Happily, I took the line of fainting, and melting into torrents of tears, which relieved me greatly. At present, Henri is in my room. He watches by me, nurses me, and is really most kind. What can I do? What a checkmate! This will not prove very satisfactory to Monsieur Petitbry.
Nina de B.