The Old Wives' Tale
Sophia lay awake one night in the room lately quitted by Carlier. That silent
negation of individuality had come and gone, and left scarcely any record of
himself either in his room or in the memories of those who had surrounded his
existence in the house. Sophia had decided to descend from the sixth floor,
partly because the temptation of a large room, after months in a cubicle, was
rather strong; but more because of late she had been obliged to barricade the
door of the cubicle with a chest of drawers, owing to the propensities of a new
tenant of the sixth floor. It was useless to complain to the concierge; the sole
effective argument was the chest of drawers, and even that was frailer than
Sophia could have wished. Hence, finally, her retreat.
She heard the front-door of the flat open; then it was shut with nervous violence.
The resonance of its closing would have certainly wakened less accomplished
sleepers than M. Niepce and his friend, whose snores continued with undisturbed
regularity. After a pause of shuffling, a match was struck, and feet crept across
the corridor with the most exaggerated precautions against noise. There followed
the unintentional bang of another door. It was decidedly the entry of a man
without the slightest natural aptitude for furtive irruptions. The clock in M.
Niepce's room, which the grocer had persuaded to exact time-keeping, chimed
three with its delicate ting.
For several days past Chirac had been mysteriously engaged very late at the
bureaux of the Debats. No one knew the nature of his employment; he said
nothing, except to inform Sophia that he would continue to come home about
three o'clock until further notice. She had insisted on leaving in his room the
materials and apparatus for a light meal. Naturally he had protested, with the
irrational obstinacy of a physically weak man who sticks to it that he can defy the
laws of nature. But he had protested in vain.
His general conduct since Christmas Day had frightened Sophia, in spite of her
tendency to stifle facile alarms at their birth. He had eaten scarcely anything at
all, and he went about with the face of a man dying of a broken heart. The
change in him was indeed tragic. And instead of improving, he grew worse.
"Have I done this?" Sophia asked herself. "It is impossible that I should have
done this! It is absurd and ridiculous that he should behave so!" Her thoughts
were employed alternately in sympathizing with him and in despising him, in
blaming herself and in blaming him. When they spoke, they spoke awkwardly, as
though one or both of them had committed a shameful crime, which could not
even be mentioned. The atmosphere of the flat was tainted by the horror. And
Sophia could not offer him a bowl of soup without wondering how he would look
at her or avoid looking, and without carefully arranging in advance her own
gestures and speech. Existence was a nightmare of self-consciousness.