Guy de Maupassant
The petite marchioness of Rennedon was still asleep in her snug and scented bedroom. In her big, soft, low bed, under cambric fine as lace, light and caressing as a kiss, she was lying alone and peaceful, deep and happy in a divorcée’s sleep.
Voices woke her, raised in the little blue drawing-room, and she recognized her dear friend, the petite baroness of Grangerie, arguing with the chambermaid, who was barring the door of her mistress. So the petite marchioness rose, drew the bolts, turned the lock, opened the door, and pushed her head through, just her blonde head, half-hidden under a cloud of hair.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked. ‘Why are you here so early? It’s not even nine o’clock!’
The petite baroness, pale, nervous, upset, replied:
‘I must speak to you. A dreadful thing has happened.’
‘Well, come in, then, ma chérie.’
The baroness entered, the two women embraced, and the petite marchioness got back into bed while the chambermaid opened the windows, letting in air and light. When the maid had left, Madame de Rennedon said:
‘Go on, then, tell me what’s happened.’
Madame Grangerie started to cry, shedding those lovely transparent tears that make women even more attractive. She stammered, careful not to rub her eyes in case they reddened: ‘Oh! ma chère, it’s dreadful, dreadful, what’s happened to me! I didn’t sleep a minute last night, not a minute, you know, not a single minute. Look, feel my heart, see how it’s beating.’
And, taking her friend’s hand, she pressed it to her breast, that round firm shield of a woman’s heart, so satisfying to men that they often don’t bother with what’s beneath it. And yes, her heart was beating very hard. The baroness began to tell her story:
It happened yesterday... about four o’clock... or half past four, I can’t be sure. You know my flat well, you know that my little drawing-room, where I always sit, overlooks the Rue Saint-Lazare from the first floor. And you know how I love to sit at the window and watch the world go by. It’s so gay, the district around the station, so bustling, so alive... And I love that! Well, yesterday, I was sitting on the little chair that I’ve had put in the window-recess. The window was open and I was letting my thoughts wander, just enjoying the fresh air. You’ll remember how fine it was, yesterday!
Suddenly I notice that, on the other side of the street, there’s another woman at her window, a woman in red. I was in mauve myself, you know, wearing my pretty mauve dress. I didn’t know this woman, some new tenant, only there a month, and because it’s rained for a month, I hadn’t caught a glimpse of her before. But I realized suddenly that she was a tart. At first I was disgusted and shocked that she was there at her window like me, and then, bit by bit, I found it amusing to watch her. She was leaning on her elbows, watching out for men, and men were looking up at her, all or almost all of them. You’d have said that they were alerted by something as they approached the house, that they smelt something the way dogs smell game, because they raised their heads suddenly and very quickly exchanged a glance with her, like a kind of Masonic question-and-answer.
Her glance said: ‘Do you want it?’
Theirs answered: ‘Too busy!’ or: ‘Another time!’ or: ‘No money!’ or: ‘How dare you, you hussy!’ It was the eyes of respectable family men, making that last reply.
Well, you can’t imagine how droll it was to watch her having her fun, or rather plying her trade! Sometimes she suddenly closed the window and I saw a man going in through the door. She had reeled him in, that one, like an angler taking a fish. Then I started to check my watch. They stayed from twelve to twenty minutes, never more. She really fascinated me in the end, this spider-woman. And she wasn’t bad-looking either, you know.
I asked myself, how does she make herself so easily understood, so quickly, so completely? Does she make a movement with her head or hand as she looks at them?
So I lifted my opera-glasses to see how she did it. Oh! it was quite simple: first a glance, then a smile, then a very small movement of the head that asked: ‘Do you want to come up?’ But so small, so casual, so discreet, that it took a lot of skill to carry off like that.
And I asked myself: Could I do it as well as her, that tiny jerk of the head, both challenging and charming – because it was very charming, the way she did it.
So I went to try it in front of my mirror. Ma chère, I did it better than she did, much better! I was delighted, and I returned to sit at the window.
She wasn’t hooking anybody now, the poor girl, nobody at all. No, she was having no luck at all. How terrible it must be to earn money that way! Terrible, but entertaining too, because, you know, some of them aren’t so bad, the men you see in the street.
Now all of them were passing on my side, not a single one on hers. The sun had moved, you see. They came along one after another, young men, old men, dark, fair, grey, white.
I saw some very nice ones among them, very nice ones indeed, ma chère, much better than my husband, and than yours, your ex-husband that is, since your divorce. Now you can please yourself.
Well, I said to myself, if I made the signal to them, would they understand me, even though I’m a respectable woman? And suddenly I was seized by an insane longing to make the signal, oh such a longing, like one of those pregnant women get... a terrible longing, you know, one of those longings... that you just can’t resist! I have them sometimes like that, you know. It’s so stupid, isn’t it? I think we’re very like monkeys, we women. Someone once told me – it was a doctor who said it – that a monkey’s brain is very like ours. We always have to imitate somebody. We imitate our husbands, while we love them, in the first month after the marriage, and then our lovers after that, our friends, our confessors, when they’re good ones. We adopt their ways of thinking, their ways of talking, their words, their gestures, everything. It’s stupid.
Anyway, when I’m very tempted to do something, I always do it.
So I said to myself, let’s see, I’ll try it on one man, only on one, just to see. What could happen to me, after all? Nothing! We’ll exchange a smile, and that will be it, I’ll never see him again. And if I do see him again, he’ll not recognize me, and if he does recognize me, I’ll just deny that I know him. So I start looking out for the right man. I wanted one who was good-looking, very good-looking. Suddenly I see a big fair one, a very handsome young man. You know how I like the fair ones.
I look at him. He looks at me. I smile, he smiles; I make the gesture, oh so subtly, so very subtly. He nods at once and my God, he comes straight in, ma chérie! He comes right in by the main entrance of the flats! You can’t imagine what I felt right then! I thought that I’d go crazy! Oh! what a fright! Just think, he’d speak to the servants, to Joseph, who’s completely devoted to my husband! Joseph would certainly believe that I’d known this stranger for a long time. What could I do, tell me, what could I do? And he’d be ringing the bell very shortly, in the next instant! What could I do, tell me? I thought that it would be best to run and meet him, tell him that it was a mistake, beg him to go away. He’d have pity on a woman, on a poor helpless woman! So I rushed to the door and I opened it just as he was lifting his hand to the bell. I stammered, completely beside myself: ‘Please go away, monsieur, please go away, you’ve made a big mistake, I’m a respectable woman, a married woman! It’s all a mistake, a dreadful mistake, I thought you were one of my friends, you look so much like him. Have pity on me, monsieur!’
So he bursts out laughing, ma chère, and he says:
‘Well, darling! You know, I’ve heard that one before. You’re married, so you’ll charge two louis instead of one. Don’t worry, you’ll get them. Come on, show me the way.’
And in he pushed. He closed the door, and as I stood there, terrified, in front of him, he embraced me, took me by the waist and led me back into the drawing-room, whose door I’d left open.
Once he was in, he had a look around, just like an auctioneer, and said: ‘Well, this isn’t bad, your set-up, it’s very smart. You must be short of cash at the moment to play the window game!’ And me, I started to beg again: ‘Oh! monsieur, please go away, please go away! My husband will be back soon! He’ll be back very soon, he always arrives at about this time! I swear to you that you’ve made a mistake!’
And he replied calmly: ‘Come on, beautiful, enough of that. If your husband comes back, I’ll give him hundred sous to pop across the way for a drink.’
Then he sees Raoul’s photograph on the mantelpiece and asks: ‘Is that him, then, your husband?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s him.’
‘He doesn’t look up to much. And that girl there, who is it? One of your friends?’
It was your photograph, ma chère, you know that one of you in a ball-gown. I didn’t know what I was saying any more, I just stammered, ‘Yes, it’s one of my friends.’
‘She’s very nice. You’ll have to introduce us.’
And right then the clock started to strike five o’clock, and Raoul comes back every day at half past! If he came back before the other left, well, think of it! So... so... I lost my head... completely lost it... I thought... I thought... what... what the best way... was... of... of... getting rid of him as... as quickly as possible... The sooner it was over with... you understand... and... and well... well... since he had to have it... he had to, ma chère... and he wouldn’t have left without it... Well, I... I... I bolted the door of the drawing-room... And that was it.
When she stopped speaking, the petite marchioness of Rennedon burst out laughing, laughing madly, her head buried in her pillow, making the whole bed shake. When she had recovered a little, she asked:
‘And... and... he was a good-looking lad?’
‘Then what are you complaining about?’
‘But... but... look, ma chère, it’s like this... he said... that he’d come back tomorrow... at the same time. And I’m... I’m out of my mind with worry... You’ve no idea how determined he is... and how strong-willed... So what can I do, tell me, what on earth can I do?’
The petite marchioness sat up in her bed to think it over, then she said abruptly:
‘Have him arrested.’
The petite baroness was astonished. She stammered:
‘How? What do you mean? What are you thinking of? Have him arrested? On what pretext?’
‘Oh, it’s quite simple! You go to the chief of police and tell him that some man has been following you about for three months, that he was brazen enough to come to your flat yesterday, that he threatened to come again tomorrow, so you’re asking for the protection of the law. You’ll be given two policemen to arrest him.’
‘But, ma chère, if he spills the beans...’
‘He won’t be believed, you silly thing, after you’ve got your story straight with the chief of police. You’ll be the credible one, you’re a respectable woman, without a stain on your name.’
‘Oh! I wouldn’t dare.’
‘You’ll have to, ma chère, or you’re in big trouble.’
‘But just think what he’ll do... he’ll say what I got up to... when he’s arrested.’
‘So what? You’ll have plenty of witnesses for your good character and you can get a court order against him.’
‘What kind of court order?’
‘He’ll have to pay damages. In a case like this, you have to be merciless!’
‘Oh, yes, speaking of damages.... there’s something that’s worrying me a lot.... a lot, you know... He left me... two louis... on the mantelpiece.’
‘That was all?’
‘It’s not much. I’d have been humiliated by that. Well?’
‘Well, what should I do with the money?’
The petite marchioness hesitated a few seconds, then answered in a serious voice:
‘Ma chère... You’ll have to... you’ll have to... buy a little gift for your husband... It would only be just, after what’s gone on.’
A new translation of Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Le signe’ (1886)