Read MEDITATION VI - OF THE CUSTOM HOUSE. of The Physiology of Marriage‚ Part II., free online book, by Honore de Balzac, on

“But no, madame, no ­”

“Yes, for there is such inconvenience in the arrangement.”

“Do you think, madame, that we wish, as at the frontier, to watch the visits of persons who cross the threshold of your apartments, or furtively leave them, in order to see whether they bring to you articles of contraband?  That would not be proper; and there is nothing odious in our proceeding, any more than there is anything of a fiscal character; do not be alarmed.”

The Custom House of the marriage state is, of all the expedients prescribed in this second part, that which perhaps demands the most tact and the most skill as well as the most knowledge acquired a priori, that is to say before marriage.  In order to carry it out, a husband ought to have made a profound study of Lavater’s book, and to be imbued with all his principles; to have accustomed his eye to judge and to apprehend with the most astonishing promptitude, the slightest physical expressions by which a man reveals his thoughts.

Lavater’s Physiognomy originated a veritable science, which has won a place in human investigation.  If at first some doubts, some jokes greeted the appearance of this book, since then the celebrated Doctor Gall is come with his noble theory of the skull and has completed the system of the Swiss savant, and given stability to his fine and luminous observations.  People of talent, diplomats, women, all those who are numbered among the choice and fervent disciples of these two celebrated men, have often had occasion to recognize many other evident signs, by which the course of human thought is indicated.  The habits of the body, the handwriting, the sound of the voice, have often betrayed the woman who is in love, the diplomat who is attempting to deceive, the clever administrator, or the sovereign who is compelled to distinguish at a glance love, treason or merit hitherto unknown.  The man whose soul operates with energy is like a poor glowworm, which without knowing it irradiates light from every pore.  He moves in a brilliant sphere where each effort makes a burning light and outlines his actions with long streamers of fire.

These, then, are all the elements of knowledge which you should possess, for the conjugal custom house insists simply in being able by a rapid but searching examination to know the moral and physical condition of all who enter or leave your house ­all, that is, who have seen or intend to see your wife.  A husband is, like a spider, set at the centre of an invisible net, and receives a shock from the least fool of a fly who touches it, and from a distance, hears, judges and sees what is either his prey or his enemy.

Thus you must obtain means to examine the celibate who rings at your door under two circumstances which are quite distinct, namely, when he is about to enter and when he is inside.

At the moment of entering how many things does he utter without even opening his mouth!

It may be by a slight wave of his hand, or by his plunging his fingers many times into his hair, he sticks up or smoothes down his characteristic bang.

Or he hums a French or an Italian air, merry or sad, in a voice which may be either tenor, contralto, soprano or baritone.

Perhaps he takes care to see that the ends of his necktie are properly adjusted.

Or he smoothes down the ruffles or front of his shirt or evening-dress.

Or he tries to find out by a questioning and furtive glance whether his wig, blonde or brown, curled or plain, is in its natural position.

Perhaps he looks at his nails to see whether they are clean and duly cut.

Perhaps with a hand which is either white or untidy, well-gloved or otherwise, he twirls his moustache, or his whiskers, or picks his teeth with a little tortoise-shell toothpick.

Or by slow and repeated movements he tries to place his chin exactly over the centre of his necktie.

Or perhaps he crosses one foot over the other, putting his hands in his pockets.

Or perhaps he gives a twist to his shoe, and looks at it as if he thought, “Now, there’s a foot that is not badly formed.”

Or according as he has come on foot or in a carriage, he rubs off or he does not rub off the slight patches of mud which soil his shoes.

Or perhaps he remains as motionless as a Dutchman smoking his pipe.

Or perhaps he fixes his eyes on the door and looks like a soul escaped from Purgatory and waiting for Saint Peter with the keys.

Perhaps he hesitates to pull the bell; perhaps he seizes it negligently, precipitately, familiarly, or like a man who is quite sure of himself.

Perhaps he pulls it timidly, producing a faint tinkle which is lost in the silence of the apartments, as the first bell of matins in winter-time, in a convent of Minims; or perhaps after having rung with energy, he rings again impatient that the footman has not heard him.

Perhaps he exhales a delicate scent, as he chews a pastille.

Perhaps with a solemn air he takes a pinch of snuff, brushing off with care the grains that might mar the whiteness of his linen.

Perhaps he looks around like a man estimating the value of the staircase lamp, the balustrade, the carpet, as if he were a furniture dealer or a contractor.

Perhaps this celibate seems a young or an old man, is cold or hot, arrives slowly, with an expression of sadness or merriment, etc.

You see that here, at the very foot of your staircase, you are met by an astonishing mass of things to observe.

The light pencil-strokes, with which we have tried to outline this figure, will suggest to you what is in reality a moral kaleidoscope with millions of variations.  And yet we have not even attempted to bring any woman on to the threshold which reveals so much; for in that case our remarks, already considerable in number, would have been countless and light as the grains of sand on the seashore.

For as a matter of fact, when he stands before the shut door, a man believes that he is quite alone; and he would have no hesitation in beginning a silent monologue, a dreamy soliloquy, in which he revealed his desires, his intentions, his personal qualities, his faults, his virtues, etc.; for undoubtedly a man on a stoop is exactly like a young girl of fifteen at confession, the evening before her first communion.

Do you want any proof of this?  Notice the sudden change of face and manner in this celibate from the very moment he steps within the house.  No machinist in the Opera, no change in the temperature in the clouds or in the sun can more suddenly transform the appearance of a theatre, the effect of the atmosphere, or the scenery of the heavens.

On reaching the first plank of your antechamber, instead of betraying with so much innocence the myriad thoughts which were suggested to you on the steps, the celibate has not a single glance to which you could attach any significance.  The mask of social convention wraps with its thick veil his whole bearing; but a clever husband must already have divined at a single look the object of his visit, and he reads the soul of the new arrival as if it were a printed book.

The manner in which he approaches your wife, in which he addresses her, looks at her, greets her and retires ­there are volumes of observations, more or less trifling, to be made on these subjects.

The tone of his voice, his bearing, his awkwardness, it may be his smile, even his gloom, his avoidance of your eye, ­all are significant, all ought to be studied, but without apparent attention.  You ought to conceal the most disagreeable discovery you may make by an easy manner and remarks such as are ready at hand to a man of society.  As we are unable to detail the minutiae of this subject we leave them entirely to the sagacity of the reader, who must by this time have perceived the drift of our investigation, as well as the extent of this science which begins at the analysis of glances and ends in the direction of such movements as contempt may inspire in a great toe hidden under the satin of a lady’s slipper or the leather of a man’s boot.

But the exit! ­for we must allow for occasions where you have omitted your rigid scrutiny at the threshold of the doorway, and in that case the exit becomes of vital importance, and all the more so because this fresh study of the celibate ought to be made on the same lines, but from an opposite point of view, from that which we have already outlined.

In the exit the situation assumes a special gravity; for then is the moment in which the enemy has crossed all the intrenchments within which he was subject to our examination and has escaped into the street!  At this point a man of understanding when he sees a visitor passing under the porte-cochère should be able to divine the import of the whole visit.  The indications are indeed fewer in number, but how distinct is their character!  The denouement has arrived and the man instantly betrays the importance of it by the frankest expression of happiness, pain or joy.

These revelations are therefore easy to apprehend; they appear in the glance cast either at the building or at the windows of the apartment; in a slow or loitering gait, in the rubbing of hands, on the part of a fool, in the bounding gait of a coxcomb, or the involuntary arrest of his footsteps, which marks the man who is deeply moved; in a word, you see upon the stoop certain questions as clearly proposed to you as if a provincial academy had offered a hundred crowns for an essay; but in the exit you behold the solution of these questions clearly and precisely given to you.  Our task would be far above the power of human intelligence if it consisted in enumerating the different ways by which men betray their feelings, the discernment of such things is purely a matter of tact and sentiment.

If strangers are the subject of these principles of observation, you have a still stronger reason for submitting your wife to the formal safeguards which we have outlined.

A married man should make a profound study of his wife’s countenance.  Such a study is easy, it is even involuntary and continuous.  For him the pretty face of his wife must needs contain no mysteries, he knows how her feelings are depicted there and with what expression she shuns the fire of his glance.

The slightest movement of the lips, the faintest contraction of the nostrils, scarcely perceptible changes in the expression of the eye, an altered voice, and those indescribable shades of feeling which pass over her features, or the light which sometimes bursts forth from them, are intelligible language to you.

The whole woman nature stands before you; all look at her, but none can interpret her thoughts.  But for you, the eye is more or less dimmed, wide-opened or closed; the lid twitches, the eyebrow moves; a wrinkle, which vanishes as quickly as a ripple on the ocean, furrows her brow for one moment; the lip tightens, it is slightly curved or it is wreathed with animation ­for you the woman has spoken.

If in those puzzling moments in which a woman tries dissimulation in presence of her husband, you have the spirit of a sphinx in seeing through her, you will plainly observe that your custom-house restrictions are mere child’s play to her.

When she comes home or goes out, when in a word she believes she is alone, your wife will exhibit all the imprudence of a jackdaw and will tell her secret aloud to herself; moreover, by her sudden change of expression the moment she notices you (and despite the rapidity of this change, you will not fail to have observed the expression she wore behind your back) you may read her soul as if you were reading a book of Plain Song.  Moreover, your wife will often find herself just on the point of indulging in soliloquies, and on such occasions her husband may recognize the secret feelings of his wife.

Is there a man as heedless of love’s mysteries as not to have admired, over and over again, the light, mincing, even bewitching gait of a woman who flies on her way to keep an assignation?  She glides through the crowd, like a snake through the grass.  The costumes and stuffs of the latest fashion spread out their dazzling attractions in the shop windows without claiming her attention; on, on she goes like the faithful animal who follows the invisible tracks of his master; she is deaf to all compliments, blind to all glances, insensible even to the light touch of the crowd, which is inevitable amid the circulation of Parisian humanity.  Oh, how deeply she feels the value of a minute!  Her gait, her toilet, the expression of her face, involve her in a thousand indiscretions, but oh, what a ravishing picture she presents to the idler, and what an ominous page for the eye of a husband to read, is the face of this woman when she returns from the secret place of rendezvous in which her heart ever dwells!  Her happiness is impressed even on the unmistakable disarray of her hair, the mass of whose wavy tresses has not received from the broken comb of the celibate that radiant lustre, that elegant and well-proportioned adjustment which only the practiced hand of her maid can give.  And what charming ease appears in her gait!  How is it possible to describe the emotion which adds such rich tints to her complexion! ­which robs her eyes of all their assurance and gives to them an expression of mingled melancholy and delight, of shame which is yet blended with pride!

These observations, stolen from our Meditation, Of the Last Symptoms, and which are really suggested by the situation of a woman who tries to conceal everything, may enable you to divine by analogy the rich crop of observation which is left for you to harvest when your wife arrives home, or when, without having committed the great crime she innocently lets out the secrets of her thoughts.  For our own part we never see a landing without wishing to set up there a mariner’s card and a weather-cock.

As the means to be employed for constructing a sort of domestic observatory depend altogether on places and circumstances, we must leave to the address of a jealous husband the execution of the methods suggested in this Meditation.