Nathalie De Hauteville was twenty-two years old, and had been a widow for three years. She was one of the prettiest women in Paris; her large dark eyes shone with remarkable brilliancy, and she united the sparkling vivacity of an Italian and the depth of feeling of a Spaniard to the grace which always distinguishes a Parisian born and bred. Considering herself too young to be entirely alone, she had long ago invited M. d’Ablaincourt, an old uncle of hers, to come and live with her.
M. d’Ablaincourt was an old bachelor; he had never loved anything in this world but himself. He was an egotist, too lazy to do any one an ill turn, but at the same time too selfish to do any one a kindness, unless it would tend directly to his own advantage. And yet, with an air of complaisance, as if he desired nothing so much as the comfort of those around him, he consented to his niece’s proposal, in the hope that she would do many little kind offices for him, which would add materially to his comfort.
M. d’Ablaincourt accompanied his niece when she resumed her place in society; but sometimes, when he felt inclined to stay at home, he would say to her: “My dear Nathalie, I am afraid you will not be much amused this evening. They will only play cards; besides, I don’t think any of your friends will be there. Of course, I am ready to take you, if you wish to go.”
And Nathalie, who had great confidence in all her uncle said, would stay at home.
In the same manner, M. d’Ablaincourt, who was a great gourmand, said to his niece: “My dear, you know that I am not at all fond of eating, and am satisfied with the simplest fare; but I must tell you that your cook puts too much salt in everything! It is very unwholesome.”
So they changed the cook.
Again, the garden was out of order; the trees before the old gentleman’s window must be cut down, because their shade would doubtless cause a dampness in the house prejudicial to Nathalie’s health; or the surrey was to be changed for a landau.
Nathalie was a coquette. Accustomed to charm, she listened with smiles to the numerous protestations of admiration which she received. She sent all who aspired to her hand to her uncle, saying: “Before I give you any hope, I must know my uncle’s opinion.”
It is likely that Nathalie would have answered differently if she had ever felt a real preference for any one; but heretofore she seemed to have preferred her liberty.
The old uncle, for his part, being now master in his niece’s house, was very anxious for her to remain as she was. A nephew might be somewhat less submissive than Nathalie. Therefore, he never failed to discover some great fault in each of those who sought an alliance with the pretty widow.
Besides his egotism and his epicureanism, the dear uncle had another passion—to play backgammon. The game amused him very much; but the difficulty was to find any one to play with. If, by accident, any of Nathalie’s visitors understood it, there was no escape from a long siege with the old gentleman; but most people preferred cards.
In order to please her uncle, Nathalie tried to learn this game; but it was almost impossible. She could not give her attention to one thing for so long a time. Her uncle scolded. Nathalie gave up in despair.
“It was only for your own amusement that I wished to teach it to you,” said the good M. d’Ablaincourt.
Things were at this crisis when, at a ball one evening, Nathalie was introduced to a M. d’Apremont, a captain in the navy.
Nathalie raised her eyes, expecting to see a great sailor, with a wooden leg and a bandage over one eye; when to her great surprise, she beheld a man of about thirty, tall and finely formed, with two sound legs and two good eyes.
Armand d’Apremont had entered the navy at a very early age, and had arrived, although very young, to the dignity of a captain. He had amassed a large fortune, in addition to his patrimonial estates, and he had now come home to rest after his labors. As yet, however, he was a single man, and, moreover, had always laughed at love.
But when he saw Nathalie, his opinions underwent a change. For the first time in his life he regretted that he had never learned to dance, and he kept his eyes fixed on her constantly.
His attentions to the young widow soon became a subject of general conversation, and, at last, the report reached the ears of M. d’Ablaincourt. When Nathalie mentioned, one evening, that she expected the captain to spend the evening with her, the old man grew almost angry.
“Nathalie,” said he, “you act entirely without consulting me. I have heard that the captain is very rude and unpolished in his manners. To be sure, I have only seen him standing behind your chair; but he has never even asked after my health. I only speak for your interest, as you are so giddy.”
Nathalie begged her uncle’s pardon, and even offered not to receive the captain’s visit; but this he forbore to require—secretly resolving not to allow these visits to become too frequent.
But how frail are all human resolutions—overturned by the merest trifle! In this case, the game of backgammon was the unconscious cause of Nathalie’s becoming Mme. d’Apremont. The captain was an excellent hand at backgammon. When the uncle heard this, he proposed a game; and the captain, who understood that it was important to gain the uncle’s favor, readily acceded.
This did not please Nathalie. She preferred that he should be occupied with herself. When all the company were gone, she turned to her uncle, saying: “You were right, uncle, after all. I do not admire the captain’s manners; I see now that I should not have invited him.”
“On the contrary, niece, he is a very well-behaved man. I have invited him to come here very often, and play backgammon with me—that is, to pay his addresses to you.”
Nathalie saw that the captain had gained her uncle’s heart, and she forgave him for having been less attentive to her. He soon came again, and, thanks to the backgammon, increased in favor with the uncle.
He soon captivated the heart of the pretty widow, also. One morning, Nathalie came blushing to her uncle.
“The captain has asked me to marry him. What do you advise me to do?”
He reflected for a few moments. “If she refuses him, D’Apremont will come here no longer, and then no more backgammon. But if she marries him, he will be here always, and I shall have my games.” And the answer was: “You had better marry him.”
Nathalie loved Armand; but she would not yield too easily. She sent for the captain.
“If you really love me—”
“Ah, can you doubt it?”
“Hush! do not interrupt me. If you really love me, you will give me one proof of it.”
“Anything you ask. I swear—”
“No, you must never swear any more; and, one thing more, you must never smoke. I detest the smell of tobacco, and I will not have a husband who smokes.”
Armand sighed, and promised.
The first months of their marriage passed smoothly, but sometimes Armand became thoughtful, restless, and grave. After some time, these fits of sadness became more frequent.
“What is the matter?” asked Nathalie one day, on seeing him stamp with impatience. “Why are you so irritable?”
“Nothing—nothing at all!” replied the captain, as if ashamed of his ill humor.
“Tell me,” Nathalie insisted, “have I displeased you in anything?”
The captain assured her that he had no reason to be anything but delighted with her conduct on all occasions, and for a time he was all right. Then soon he was worse than before.
Nathalie was distressed beyond measure. She imparted her anxiety to her uncle, who replied: “Yes, my dear, I know what you mean; I have often remarked it myself, at backgammon. He is very inattentive, and often passes his hand over his forehead, and starts up as if something agitated him.”
And one day, when his old habits of impatience and irritability reappeared, more marked than ever, the captain said to his wife: “My dear, an evening walk will do me a world of good; an old sailor like myself cannot bear to sit around the house after dinner. Nevertheless, if you have any objection—”
“Oh, no! What objection can I have?”
He went out, and continued to do so, day after day, at the same hour. Invariably he returned in the best of good humor.
Nathalie was now unhappy indeed. “He loves some other woman, perhaps,” she thought, “and he must see her every day. Oh, how wretched I am! But I must let him know that his perfidy is discovered. No, I will wait until I shall have some certain proof wherewith to confront him.”
And she went to seek her uncle. “Ah, I am the most unhappy creature in the world!” she sobbed.
“What is the matter?” cried the old man, leaning back in his armchair.
“Armand leaves the house for two hours every evening, after dinner, and comes back in high spirits and as anxious to please me as on the day of our marriage. Oh, uncle, I cannot bear it any longer! If you do not assist me to discover where he goes, I will seek a separation.”
“But, my dear niece—”
“My dear uncle, you who are so good and obliging, grant me this one favor. I am sure there is some woman in the secret.”
M. d’Ablaincourt wished to prevent a rupture between his niece and nephew, which would interfere very much with the quiet, peaceable life which he led at their house. He pretended to follow Armand; but came back very soon, saying he had lost sight of him.
“But in what direction does he go?”
“Sometimes one way, and sometimes another, but always alone; so your suspicions are unfounded. Be assured, he only walks for exercise.”
But Nathalie was not to be duped in this way. She sent for a little errand boy, of whose intelligence she had heard a great deal.
“M. d’Apremont goes out every evening.”
“To-morrow, you will follow him; observe where he goes, and come and tell me privately. Do you understand?”
Nathalie waited impatiently for the next day, and for the hour of her husband’s departure. At last, the time came—the pursuit is going on—Nathalie counted the moments. After three-quarters of an hour, the messenger arrived, covered with dust.
“Well,” exclaimed Nathalie, “speak! Tell me everything that you have seen!”
“Madame, I followed M. d’Apremont, at a distance, as far as the Rue Vieille du Temple, where he entered a small house, in an alley. There was no servant to let him in.”
“An alley! No servant! Dreadful!”
“I went in directly after him, and heard him go up-stairs and unlock a door.”
“Open the door himself, without knocking! Are you sure of that?”
“The wretch! So he has a key! But, go on.”
“When the door shut after him, I stole softly up-stairs, and peeped through the keyhole.”
“You shall have twenty francs more.”
“I peeped through the keyhole, and saw him drag a trunk along the floor.”
“Then he undressed himself, and—”
“Then, for a few seconds, I could not see him, and directly he appeared again, in a sort of gray blouse, and a cap on his Lead.”
“A blouse! What in the world does he want with a blouse? What next?”
“I came away, then, madame, and made haste to tell you; but he is there still.”
“Well, now run to the corner and get me a cab, and direct the coachman to the house where you have been.”
While the messenger went for the cab, Nathalie hurried on her hat and cloak, and ran into her uncle’s room.
“I have found him out—he loves another. He’s at her house now, in a gray blouse. But I will go and confront him, and then you will see me no more.”
The old man had no time to reply. She was gone, with her messenger, in the cab. They stopped at last.
“Here is the house.”
Nathalie got out, pale and trembling.
“Shall I go up-stairs with you, madame?” asked the boy.
“No, I will go alone. The third story, isn’t it?”
“Yes, madame; the left-hand door, at the head of the stairs.”
It seemed that now, indeed, the end of all things was at hand.
Nathalie mounted the dark, narrow stairs, and arrived at the door, and, almost fainting, she cried: “Open the door, or I shall die!”
The door was opened, and Nathalie fell into her husband’s arms. He was alone in the room, clad in a gray blouse, and—smoking a Turkish pipe.
“My wife!” exclaimed Armand, in surprise.
“Your wife—who, suspecting your perfidy, has followed you, to discover the cause of your mysterious conduct!”
“How, Nathalie, my mysterious conduct? Look, here it is!” (Showing his pipe.) “Before our marriage, you forbade me to smoke, and I promised to obey you. For some months I kept my promise; but you know what it cost me; you remember how irritable and sad I became. It was my pipe, my beloved pipe, that I regretted. One day, in the country, I discovered a little cottage, where a peasant was smoking. I asked him if he could lend me a blouse and cap; for I should like to smoke with him, but it was necessary to conceal it from you, as the smell of smoke, remaining in my clothes, would have betrayed me. It was soon settled between us. I returned thither every afternoon, to indulge in my favorite occupation; and, with the precaution of a cap to keep the smoke from remaining in my hair, I contrived to deceive you. This is all the mystery. Forgive me.”
Nathalie kissed him, crying: “I might have known it could not be! I am happy now, and you shall smoke as much as you please, at home.”
And Nathalie returned to her uncle, saying: “Uncle, he loves me! He was only smoking, but hereafter he is to smoke at home.”
“I can arrange it all,” said D’Ablaincourt; “he shall smoke while he plays backgammon.”
“In that way,” thought the old man, “I shall be sure of my game.”