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- Mademoiselle Fifi - 10/13 -
scale from the deep and hollow tones up to the shrill crowing of young roosters trying to sing.
He even refused to go up when his wife, overcome with sleep, came to get him. Then she went away all alone, because she was an early riser, getting up with the sun, whereas her husband kept late hours, always ready to spend the night with friends. He called to her:--"Put my eggnog near the fire!"--and continued the game. When the travelers saw that they could not get anything out of him, they announced that it was time to retire, and they all went to bed.
They rose quite early again the next morning with a vague hope, a greater desire to be able to proceed on their journey, and a dread of having to spend another day in this wretched little inn. Alas! the horses remained in the stable, the driver was invisible. Having nothing better to do, they went and wandered around the coach.
Luncheon was very gloomy, and there had developed a general coolness toward Boule de Suif, for night, which brings counsel, had somewhat modified their judgment. They almost bore a grudge against the girl for not having surreptitiously gone to the Prussian Officer to afford a pleasant surprise to her companions when they awoke. Nothing more simple! Beside, who would have suspected it? She might have saved appearances by having the Officer say that he had taken pity on their distress. To her it would have been of little consequence.
But nobody as yet gave expression to such thoughts.
In the afternoon, as they were bored to death, the Count proposed to take a walk around the village. Each one wrapped himself up carefully and the small company set off, with the exception of Cornudet, who preferred to remain by the fire, and the good Nuns who spent their days in Church or at the Parish house.
The cold, growing daily more and more intense, bit mercilessly the nose and ears of the strollers; their feet pained them so much that each step was a torture; and when the country opened up before them, it looked so frightfully dismal under the boundless sheet of white, that they all retraced their steps hastily, with souls frozen and hearts heavy.
The four women walked in front and the three men followed them a little behind.
Loiseau, who understood the situation very clearly, inquired suddenly whether that "wench" was going to keep them much longer in such a place. The Count, always courteous, realized that they could not expect such a painful sacrifice from a woman, and that the offer should originate from her. Monsieur Carré-Lamadon remarked that if the French undertook, as it was rumored, a counter-offensive by way of Dieppe, the battle would certainly be fought in Tôtes. This remark made the other two quite anxious--"How about trying to escape on foot?" suggested Loiseau. The Count shrugged his shoulders:--"That is out of the question in this snow, and with our wives! And furthermore we would be pursued immediately, caught in ten minutes and brought back as prisoners, at the mercy of the soldiers"--That was true. There was silence again.
The ladies talked toilette, but a certain constraint seemed to separate them.
Suddenly the Officer appeared at the end of the street. On the snow that bound the horizon, his tall and wasp-like uniformed figure outlined itself; he walked, knees apart, with that motion particular to soldiers who are anxious not to soil their carefully polished boots.
He bowed as he passed the ladies, and looked scornfully at the men who, it must be said to their credit, had enough dignity not to raise their hats, although Loiseau made a move to take off his headgear.
Boule de Suif blushed red to her ears, and the three married women felt greatly humiliated to have been met by the Officer while they were in the company of this girl whom he had treated so unceremoniously.
Then they spoke of him, of his figure and his face. Madame Carré-Lamadon, who had known many officers and who judged them as a connoisseur, found that this one was not so bad looking after all; she even regretted that he was not French, because he would have made a very handsome husband with whom all the women would have fallen in love.
Once back in the inn, they did not know what to do with themselves. Even acrid words were exchanged about insignificant matters. The silent dinner did not last long and each went upstairs to bed, in the hope of sleeping the time away.
The next morning they came down with tired faces and exasperated tempers. The women hardly spoke to Boule de Suif.
A Church bell began to ring; it was for a baptism. Boule de Suif had a child being brought up by peasants in Yvetot. She did not see it even once a year and never gave it a thought; but the idea of the one that was going to be baptized developed a sudden and violent tenderness for her own and she insisted absolutely on going to the ceremony.
As soon as she was gone, those who remained looked at each other, and drew their chairs closer, for they felt that in the end they had to take some decision.--Loiseau had an inspiration: he suggested that they should propose to the officer to keep Boule de Suif only and let the others go.
Mr. Follenvie undertook again to convey the message, but he came down almost immediately. The German, who knew human nature, had kicked him out of his room. He meant to keep everybody as long as his wishes had not been complied with.
Then the vulgar temper of Madame Loiseau broke loose:--"And yet we are not going to die of old age here! Since it is that vixen's trade to carry it on with all men, I think that she has no right to refuse one rather than another. Imagine, she has taken all that she found in Rouen, even coachmen, yes, Madame, the coachman of the Prefecture; I know it for a fact, because he buys his wine of us. And now that it is a question of getting us out of trouble, she is putting on virtuous airs, the drab! I find that the Officer behaves very well. Possibly he may have abstained for a long time, and here we are three of us whom he certainly would have preferred. But no, he is satisfied with the girl who is public property. He respects married women. Think of it, he is the master here. All that he had to do was to say: 'I want' and he might have taken us by force, with the aid of his soldiers."
The two other women shuddered slightly. The eyes of pretty Madame Carré-Lamadon sparkled, and she grew a little pale as if she felt herself already taken by force by the officer.
The men who were arguing among themselves, came near them. Loiseau, excited, wanted to deliver up that "miserable woman," bound hand and foot, to the enemy. But the Count, descended from three generations of Ambassadors, and endowed with the physique of a diplomat, was advocating more tactfulness and persuasion--"We should persuade her"--said he.
Then they conspired.
The women drew close to each other; the tone of their voices was lowered, and the discussion became general, each giving her opinion. It was most correct, besides. The ladies specially found delicate euphemisms, charming subtleties of expression to say the most shocking things. A stranger would have understood nothing, so well were the precautions of language observed. But as the thin veneer of pudor[*], with which every Society woman is provided, covers only the surface, they showed their real selves in this wretched adventure, and were as a matter of fact enjoying themselves immensely, feeling themselves in their element, handling love with the sensuousness of a gourmand cook who prepares supper for somebody else.
[*][Note from Brett: I think this is an excellent, though unintentional, pun. "Pudor" is Spanish for "shame," but this meaning makes the sentence difficult to read (at best), although it does convey the intent. I think that the word intended is "powder," but left the original in case I am wrong]
Their gaiety came back of itself, so amusing after all did the whole incident seem to them. The Count found rather risky witticisms, but so cleverly told that they provoked smiles. In his turn Loiseau fired some broader jokes, which did not shock the listeners; and the thought brutally expressed by his wife preponderated in every one's mind: "Since it is her business, why should the girl refuse this man rather than another?"--The pretty Mme. Carré-Lamadon seemed even inclined to think that in her place she would refuse this one less than any other.
The blockade was carefully prepared, as if they were besieging a fortress. Each agreed to play the part assigned to him or her, the arguments to be used, the maneuvers to be executed. They decided on the plan of attack, the stratagems and the surprise assault to be attempted in order to compel this living citadel to receive the enemy.
Cornudet, however, remained apart, completely unwilling to participate in this plot.
The minds were so tensely absorbed in this scheme that nobody heard Boule de Suif coming in. But the Count whispered a gentle: "Hush!" which caused all eyes to look up. There she stood. There was a sudden silence and a certain embarrassment prevented them first from speaking to her. The Countess having more than the others the habit of drawing-room duplicities, questioned her:--"Was the baptism interesting?--"
The girl, still laboring under her emotion, told everything, described the faces, the attitudes, and even the appearance of the Church. She added:--"It does one so much good to pray sometimes!--"
However, until lunch time the ladies confined themselves to being nice to her with a view to make her feel more confident and amenable to their advances.
As soon as they sat down to luncheon, the preliminary attack was initiated. It was at first a vague discussion about self-sacrifice. They quoted instances from ancient History, such as Judith and Holophern, then, without any reason Lucretia with Sextus, Cleopatra who admitted to her intimacy all the enemy generals and reduced them to slavish servility. Then a fancy History was propounded,
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