11

A Parisian Affair

Guy De Maupassant

Sparkling, darkly humorous tales of high society, playboys, courtesans, peasants, sex and savagery in nineteenth-century France, from the father of the short story.

‘Nowhere could she discover the dens of iniquity about which she had dreamed…’

A Parisian Affair

Is there any keener sense known to man than woman’s curiosity? There is nothing in the world she would not do in order to satisfy it, to know for certain, to grasp and possess what has hitherto remained in her imagination. What would she not do to achieve that? When her impatient curiosity is at its height, she will shrink from nothing, and there is no folly to which she will not stoop, no obstacle she will not overcome. I refer, of course, to the really feminine woman, the sort who on the surface may appear quite reasonable and objective, but whose three secret weapons are always in a high state of readiness. The first is a kind of watchful, womanly concern for what is happening around her; the second, even more deadly in its effect, is guile disguised as common decency; and the third is the exquisite capacity for deception and infinite variety which drives some men to throw themselves at her feet, and others off the parapets of bridges.

The one whose story I want to tell you about was a little provincial woman who had led until then a boringly blameless life. Her outwardly calm existence was spent looking after her family, a very busy husband and two children whose upbringing, in her hands, was exemplary in every way. But her heart was ravaged by an all-consuming, indefinable desire. She thought constantly about Paris and avidly read all the society pages in the papers. Their accounts of receptions, celebrations, the clothes worn, and all the accompanying delights enjoyed, whetted her appetite still further. Above all, however, she was fascinated by what these reports merely hinted at. The cleverly phrased allusions half-lifted a veil beyond which could be glimpsed devastatingly attractive horizons promising a whole new world of wicked pleasure.

From where she lived, she looked on Paris as representing the height of all magnificent luxury as well as licentiousness. Throughout the long, dream-filled night, lulled by the regular snoring of her husband sleeping next to her on his back with a scarf wrapped round his head, she conjured up the images of all the famous men who made the headlines and shone like brilliant comets in the darkness of her sombre sky. She pictured the madly exciting lives they must lead, moving from one den of vice to the next, indulging in never-ending and extraordinarily voluptuous orgies, and practising such complex and sophisticated sex as to defy the imagination. It seemed to her that hidden behind the façades of the houses lining the canyon-like boulevards of the city, some amazing erotic secret must lie.

And she herself was growing old. She was growing old, never having known a thing about life beyond the hideously banal monotony of regularly performed duties which, by all accounts, was what happily married life consisted of. She was still pretty. The uneventful life she lived had preserved her like a winter apple in an attic. Yet she was consumed from within by unspoken and obsessive desires. She wondered if she would die without ever having tasted the wicked delights which life had to offer, without ever, not even once, having plunged into the ocean of voluptuous pleasure which, to her, was Paris.

After long and careful preparation, she decided to put into action a plan to get there. She invented a pretext, got herself invited by some relatives and, since her husband was unable to accompany her, left for the city alone. The alleged discovery of some long-lost friends living in one of its leafy suburbs enabled her as soon as she arrived to prolong her stay by a couple of days or rather nights, if necessary. Her search began. Up and down the boulevards she walked, seeing nothing particularly wicked or sinful.

She cast her eye inside all the well-known cafés, and each morning her avid reading of the Figaro ’s lonely hearts’ column was a fresh reminder to her of the call of love. But she found nothing that might lead her to the great orgies she imagined actresses and artists enjoyed all the time. Nowhere could she discover the dens of iniquity about which she had dreamed. Without the necessary ‘Open Sesame’ she remained debarred from Ali Baba’s cave. Uninitiated, she stood on the threshold of the catacombs where the secret rites of a forbidden religion were performed. Her petty bourgeois relatives could offer her an introduction to none of the fashionable men whose names buzzed in her ears. In despair, she had almost decided to give up when, finally, happy chance intervened.

One day, as she was walking down the Chaussée d’Antin, she stopped to look at the window of a shop selling Japanese bibelots in such gay, cheerful colours as to delight the eye. She was looking thoughtfully at its amusing little ivories, its huge oriental vases of vivid enamelwork and its strange bronzes, when she heard from within the voice of the proprietor. With low, reverential bows, he was showing a fat, bald-headed little man with grizzled stubble the figure of a pot-bellied Buddha, the only one of its kind, or so he claimed.

With each of the merchant’s utterances, the famous name of his customer sounded like a clarion call in her ears. The other browsers, young ladies and elegant gentlemen, cast oblique, highly respectful glances in the direction of the well-known author who was absorbed in his examination of the figure. One was as ugly as the other. The pair might have been taken for brothers.

‘To you, Monsieur Jean Varin,’ the shopkeeper was saying, ‘I’ll let it go for 1,000. Cost, in other words. To anyone else, it would be 1,500. My artist customers mean a lot to me. I like to offer them a special price. Oh yes, they all come to me you know, Monsieur Jean Varin . . . Yesterday, for example, Monsieur Busnach bought an antique goblet from me . . . and the other day . . . you see those candlesticks over there, aren’t they lovely? Sold a pair like them to Monsieur Alexandre Dumas . . . and I mean . . . that piece you’ve got there . . . if Monsieur Zola saw that, it’d be gone in five minutes, I can assure you, Monsieur Varin . . .’

The writer hesitated, undecided. He was obviously attracted to the figure but not the price. Had he been standing quite alone in the middle of a desert, he could not have been more oblivious of the interest he was arousing. Trembling, she went in. Young, handsome, elegant or not, it was nevertheless Jean Varin himself and on Jean Varin alone she now fixed a bold gaze. Still struggling with himself, he finally replaced the figure on the table.

‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s too expensive.’

The merchant redoubled his efforts.

‘Too expensive, Monsieur Jean Varin? But you know it’s worth two thousand if it’s worth a franc!’

Sadly, as he continued to gaze into the enamelled eyes of the figure, the man of letters replied, ‘I’m sure it is. But it’s too expensive for me.’

At this, wildly daring, she stepped forward and said: ‘Supposing I were to ask. What would it be to me?’

Surprised, the merchant replied: ‘Fifteen hundred, Madame.’

‘I’ll take it.’


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