The Thief

by Guy De Maupassant

“Certainly,” Dr. Sorbier exclaimed, who, while appearing to be thinking of something else, had been listening quietly to those surprising accounts of burglaries and of daring acts which might have been borrowed from the trial of Cartouche; “certainly, I do not know any viler fault, nor any meaner action than to attack a girl’s innocence, to corrupt her, to profit by a moment of unconscious weakness and of madness, when her heart is beating like that of a frightened fawn, when her body, which has been unpolluted up till then, is palpitating with mad desire and her pure lips seek those of her seducer; when her whole being is feverish and vanquished, and she abandons herself without thinking of the irremediable stain, nor of her fall nor of the painful awakening on the morrow.

“The man who has brought this about slowly, viciously, and who can tell with what science of evil, and who, in such a case, has not steadiness and self-restraint enough to quench that flame by some icy words, who has not sense enough for two, who cannot recover his self-possession and master the runaway brute within him, and who loses his head on the edge of the precipice over which she is going to fall, is as contemptible as any man who breaks open a lock, or as any rascal on the look-out for a house left defenseless and without protection, or for some easy and profitable stroke of business, or as that thief whose various exploits you have just related to us.

“I, for my part, utterly, refuse to absolve him even when extenuating circumstances plead in his favor, even when he is carrying on a dangerous flirtation, in which a man tries in vain to keep his balance, not to exceed the limits of the game, any more than at lawn tennis; even when the parts are inverted and a man’s adversary is some precocious, curious, seductive girl, who shows you immediately that she has nothing to learn and nothing to experience, except the last chapter of love, one of those girls from whom may fate always preserve our sons, and whom a psychological novel writer has christened The Semi-Virgins.

“It is, of course, difficult and painful for that coarse and unfathomable vanity which is characteristic of every man, and which might be called malism, not to stir such a charming fire, to act the Joseph and the fool, to turn away his eyes, and, as it were, to put wax into his ears, like the companions of Ulysses did when they were attracted by the divine, seductive songs of the sirens, just to touch that pretty table, covered with a perfectly new cloth, at which you are invited to take a seat before any one else, in such a suggestive voice, and are requested to quench your thirst and to taste that new wine, whose fresh and strange flavor you will never forget. But who would hesitate to exercise such self-restraint if, when he rapidly examined his conscience, in one of those instinctive returns to his sober self, in which a man thinks clearly and recovers his head; if he were to measure the gravity of his fault, think of his fault, think of its consequences, of the reprisals, of the uneasiness which he would always feel in the future, and which would destroy the repose and the happiness of his life?

“You may guess that behind all these moral reflections, such as a gray-beard like myself may indulge in, there is a story hidden, and sad as it is, I am sure it will interest you on account of the strange heroism that it shows.”

He was silent for a few moments as if to classify recollections, and with his elbows resting on the arms of his easy chair, and his eyes looking into space, he continued in the slow voice of a hospital professor, who is explaining a case to his class of medical students, at a bedside:

“He was one of those men who, as our grandfathers used to say, never met with a cruel woman, the type of the adventurous knight who was always foraging, who had something of the scamp about him, but who despised danger and was bold even to rashness. He was ardent in the pursuit of pleasure, and a man who had an irresistible charm about him, one of those men in whom we excuse the greatest excesses, as the most natural things in the world. He had run through all his money at gambling and with pretty girls, and so became, as it were, a soldier of fortune, who amused himself whenever and however he could, and was at that time quartered at Versailles.

“I knew him to the very depths of his childish heart, which was only too easily penetrated and sounded, and I loved him like some old bachelor uncle loves a nephew who plays him some tricks, but who knows how to make him indulgent towards him, and how to wheedle him. He had made me his confidant far more than his adviser, kept me informed of his slightest tricks, though he always pretended to be speaking about one of his friends, and not about himself, and I must confess that his youthful impetuosity, his careless gaiety and his amorous ardor sometimes distracted my thoughts and made me envy the handsome, vigorous young fellow who was so happy at being alive, so that I had not the courage to check him, to show him his right road, and to call out to him, ‘Take care!’ as children do at blind man’s buff.

“And one day, after one of those interminable cotillons, where the couples do not leave each other for hours, but have the bridle on their neck and can disappear together without anybody thinking of taking notice of it, the poor fellow at last discovered what love was, that real love which takes up its abode in the very center of the heart and in the brain, and is proud of being there, and which rules like a sovereign and tyrannous master, and so he grew desperately enamored of a pretty, but badly brought up girl, who was as disquieting and as wayward as she was pretty.

“She loved him, however, or rather she idolized him despotically, madly, with all her enraptured soul, and all her excited person. Left to do as she pleased by imprudent and frivolous parents, suffering from neurosis, in consequence of the unwholesome friendships which she contracted at the convent-school, instructed by what she saw and heard and knew was going on around her, in spite of her deceitful and artificial conduct, knowing that neither her father nor her mother, who were very proud of their race, as well as avaricious, would ever agree to let her marry the man whom she had taken a liking to, that handsome fellow who had little besides visionary ideas and debts, and who belonged to the middle classes, she laid aside all scruples, thought of nothing but of belonging to him altogether, of taking him for her lover, and of triumphing over his desperate resistance as an honorable man.

“By degrees, the unfortunate man’s strength gave way, his heart grew softened, his nerves became excited, and he allowed himself to be carried away by that current which buffeted him, surrounded him and left him on the shore like a waif and a stray.

“They wrote letters full of temptation and of madness to each other, and not a day passed without their meeting, either accidentally, as it seemed, or at parties and balls. She had given him her lips in long, ardent caresses, and she had sealed their compact of mutual passion with kisses of desire and of hope. And at last she brought him to her room, almost in spite of himself.”

The doctor stopped, and his eyes suddenly filled with tears, as these former troubles came back to his mind, and then in a hoarse voice, he went on, full of horror of what he was going to relate:

“For months he scaled the garden wall, and holding his breath and listening for the slightest noise, like a burglar who is going to break into a house, he went in by the servants’ entrance, which she had left open, went barefoot down a long passage and up the broad staircase, which creaked occasionally, to the second story, where his mistress’s room was, and stopped there nearly the whole night.

“One night, when it was darker than usual, and he was making haste lest he should be later than the time agreed on, the officer knocked up against a piece of furniture in the ante-room and upset it. It so happened that the girl’s mother had not gone to sleep yet, either because she had a sick headache, or else because she had sat up late over some novel, and frightened at that unusual noise which disturbed the silence of the house, she jumped out of bed, opened the door, saw some one, indistinctly, running away and keeping close to the wall, and, immediately thinking that there were burglars in the house, she aroused her husband and the servants by her frantic screams. The unfortunate man knew what he was about, and seeing into what a terrible fix he had got, and preferring to be taken for a common thief to dishonoring his adored mistress and to betraying the secret of their guilty love, he ran into the drawing-room, felt on the tables and what-nots, filled his pockets at random with valuable gew-gaws, and then cowered down behind the grand piano, which barred up a corner of a large room.

“The servants who had run in with lighted candles, found him, and overwhelming him with abuse, seized him by the collar and dragged him, panting and appearing half dead with shame and terror, to the nearest police station. He defended himself with intentional awkwardness when he was brought up for trial, kept up his part with the most perfect self-possession, and without any signs of the despair and anguish that he felt in his heart, and condemned and degraded and made to suffer martyrdom in his honor as a man and as a soldier, he did not protest, but went to prison as one of those criminals whom society gets rid of, like noxious vermin.

“He died there of misery and of bitterness of spirit, with the name of the fair-haired idol, for whom he had sacrificed himself, on his lips, as if it had been an ecstatic prayer, and he entrusted his will to the priest who administered extreme unction to him, and requested him to give it to me. In it, without mentioning anybody, and without in the least lifting the veil, he at last explained the enigma, and cleared himself of those accusations, the terrible burden of which he had borne until his last breath.

“I have always thought myself, though I do not know why, that the girl married and had several charming children, whom she brought up with the austere strictness, and in the serious piety of former days!”

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