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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Théophile Gautier (1811–1872)

Under the Table

From “Young France”

IT might have been two o’clock in the morning. The candle, unsnuffed, was guttering. The fire was nearly out.

My friend Théodore, leaning on the table with a truly bacchic unconcern, was smoking a short black pipe, nobly blackened, a veritable cutty-pipe, calculated to wake envy in a corporal of the Old Guard.

Now and then he put down his pipe, and gravely lifted his glass over his shoulder, or to the side of his mouth, or poured out from an empty bottle, or let his full glass fall. In short, our friend Théodore was completely drunk.

And that would not have astonished any one who noted the long line of bottles.

Unless he had thrown their contents out of the window, which was unlikely, he must be mathematically and logically dead-drunk. There would have been enough to make a drum-major and two bell-ringers tipsy, and our friend Théodore was alone.

I confess it with a blush, he was alone in spite of the famous adage: He who drinks alone is unworthy to live—an adage religiously followed in every state that pretends to any civilization.

He was alone—that is to say, he seemed to be so; for a deep sigh coming from under the table suddenly revealed a capsized comrade, and made it easier to explain the formidable array of empty and broken bottles that loaded the table.

With an expression of ineffable pity, Théodore let fall from above an uncertain, vacant glance on the shapeless mass moving about in the shadow, and ostentatiously blew out a mouthful of smoke.

“Oh, Théodore, your beastly floor is as hard as a woman’s heart. Give me your hand; I want to get up and have something to drink; I’m thirsty.”

“If you like, I’ll give you your glass,” replied Théodore, feeling sure that he was too far gone to help his comrade up. “How can a man soak himself like that! Fie, the drunkard!” he added, by way of reflection.

“Unnatural being,” rejoined the voice from below, “you won’t help me up? Then fix lamps to people’s heads, so that carriages may not run over them when they fall off the curb because they forgot to water their wine that day. I’ll not be friends with you any more. Ungrateful wretch!”

Théodore, moved and softened by that touching remembrance, determined to attempt the dangerous operation of placing his friend on his chair. But the pious enterprise was not crowned with success. He made a plunge between the table and the seat and disappeared.

For a few minutes dull, stifled grunting might be heard; for Théodore had fallen on top of his friend, and he weighed on him more than remorse. However, after immense efforts, they succeeded in getting into a less uncomfortable position, and quiet was restored.

After a rather long silence—

“Alas!” said Rodrigue.

“What’s the matter, my dear fellow?” said Théodore, with the characteristic amiability of drunkards.

“I’m very unhappy.”

“Is it your sweetheart’s fault?”

“On the contrary, the poor woman’s not capable of that. To my sorrow, she’s the most virtuous creature going.”

Théodore sighed.

“What is virtue, Théodore?”

“How do I know?”

“That’s out of Montaigne, and the most sensible thing you’ve said since you’ve murdered the language God gave you. Brutus defined virtue as a name. In fact, if it is a name, never have six letters met together to form a more insignificant word. Virtue is essentially negative. What is virtue if not to say ‘no’ to everything that is pleasant in life, an absurd struggle with natural inclinations and passions, the triumph of hypocrisy and falsehood over truth. When states were founded on fictions, fictitious virtues were necessary, otherwise they could not have existed. But in a positive age, under a constitutional monarchy, surrounded by republican institutions, it is indecent and ill-bred to be virtuous. Only convicts are virtuous. As for virtuous women, the race is extinct. They are all in the Père-Lachaise or some other cemetery. The epitaphs bear witness to the fact.”

“But you said just now that your sweetheart was virtuous.”

“Curse you! when one says that all women are bad, it is always understood that one’s mother and one’s sweetheart are excepted. So your remark has not even common sense.”

“My Aunt Gryselde,” interrupted Théodore, “was a virtuous woman.”

“My dear fellow, your father and mother neglected to endow you with brains. Your Aunt Gryselde was hump-backed, red-haired, gat-toothed, and squint-eyed. She had no temptations.”

“You’re a materialist, Rodrigue!”

“Of course; so are all intelligent men. So ought you to be, for it’s very evident that there exists some hundred odd pounds of flesh called Théodore; and the existence of his mind is, to say the least of it, problematical, judging from the idiotic conversation we are indulging in.”

“It occurs to me, Rodrigue, that we might as well try to get onto our chairs again.”

“Why? Let us remain on the floor now we’re there. People should follow our example. The world would jog along all the better.”

“So be it, then,” rejoined the other. “It’s more bacchic and more shameless; there’s more character about it. But you commenced by lamenting the virtue of your sweetheart, and it seems that the conversation has wandered dreadfully.”

“My dear fellow, you have no idea what torture I endure, having never experienced anything of the sort yourself. It’s the most unfortunate thing imaginable to love any one who has no vice. The vices of our friends and sweethearts attach us to them, because they afford us the means of flattering them, and making ourselves agreeable to them. You make yourself the slave and purveyor of one of their vices, become necessary to them, and thus the most lasting friendships are formed.”

The two friends turned their backs on each other and snored loudly.

A month afterward they found themselves under the same table, and had a serious conversation, which ended by sending all women to the devil!

From that time they got drunk every day, and thought themselves extremely well off.