Original Short Stories, Volume 6.
Guy de Maupassant
Part 2 out of 3
"'He, the young man, was fond of my--my lover, almost as fond of him as I
was myself, for he had been equally cherished and cared for by both of
us. He used to call him his 'dear friend,' and respected him immensely,
having never received from him anything but wise counsels and an example
of integrity, honor, and probity. He looked upon him as an old loyal and
devoted comrade of his mother, as a sort of moral father, guardian,
protector--how am I to describe it?
"'Perhaps the reason why he never asked any questions was that he had
been accustomed from his earliest years to see this man in my house, at
my side, and at his side, always concerned about us both.
"'One evening the three of us were to dine together--this was my chief
amusement--and I waited for the two men, asking myself which of them
would be the first to arrive. The door opened; it was my old friend.
I went toward him, with outstretched arms; and he pressed my lips in a
long, delicious kiss.
"'All of a sudden, a slight sound, a faint rustling, that mysterious
sensation which indicates the presence of another person, made us start
and turn round abruptly. Jean, my son, stood there, livid, staring at
"'There was a moment of atrocious confusion. I drew back, holding out my
hand toward my son as if in supplication; but I could not see him. He
"'We remained facing each other--my lover and I--crushed, unable to utter
a word. I sank into an armchair, and I felt a desire, a vague, powerful
desire, to flee, to go out into the night, and to disappear forever.
Then convulsive sobs rose in my throat, and I wept, shaken with spasms,
my heart breaking, all my nerves writhing with the horrible sensation of
an irreparable, misfortune, and with that dreadful sense of shame which,
in such moments as this, fills a mother's heart.
"'He looked at me in a terrified manner, not venturing to approach, to
speak to me, or to touch me, for fear of the boy's return. At last he
"'I am going to follow him-to talk to him--to explain matters to him. In
short, I must see him and let him know----"
"'And he hurried away.
"'I waited--waited in a distracted frame of mind, trembling at the least
sound, starting with fear and with some unutterably strange and
intolerable emotion at every slight crackling of the fire in the grate.
"'I waited an hour, two hours, feeling my heart swell with a dread I had
never before experienced, such anguish that I would not wish the greatest
criminal to endure ten minutes of such misery. Where was my son? What
was he doing?
"'About midnight, a messenger brought me a note from my lover. I still
know its contents by heart:
"'Has your son returned? I did not find him. I am down here. I do not
want to go up at this hour."
"'I wrote in pencil on the same slip of paper:
"'Jean has not returned. You must find him."
"'And I 'remained all night in the armchair, waiting for him.
"'I felt as if I were going mad. I longed to run wildly about, to roll
on the ground. And yet I did not even stir, but kept waiting hour after
hour. What was going to happen? I tried to imagine, to guess. But I
could form no conception, in spite of my efforts, in spite of the
tortures of my soul!
"'And now I feared that they might meet. What would they do in that
case? What would my son do? My mind was torn with fearful doubts, with
"'You can understand my feelings, can you not, monsieur?
"'My chambermaid, who knew nothing, who understood nothing, came into the
room every moment, believing, naturally, that I had lost my reason. I
sent her away with a word or a movement of the hand. She went for the
doctor, who found me in the throes of a nervous attack.
"'I was put to bed. I had brain fever.
"'When I regained consciousness, after a long illness, I saw beside my
"'My son? Where is my son?
"'He made no reply. I stammered:
"'Dead-dead. Has he committed suicide?
"'No, no, I swear it. But we have not found him in spite of all my
"'Then, becoming suddenly exasperated and even indignant--for women are
subject to such outbursts of unaccountable and unreasoning anger--I said:
"'I forbid you to come near me or to see me again unless you find him.
"He did go away.
"'I have never seen one or the other of them since, monsieur, and thus I
have lived for the last twenty years.
"'Can you imagine what all this meant to me? Can you understand this
monstrous punishment, this slow, perpetual laceration of a mother's
heart, this abominable, endless waiting? Endless, did I say? No; it is
about to end, for I am dying. I am dying without ever again seeing
either of them--either one or the other!
"'He--the man I loved--has written to me every day for the last twenty
years; and I--I have never consented to see him, even for one second; for
I had a strange feeling that, if he were to come back here, my son would
make his appearance at the same moment. Oh! my son! my son! Is he dead?
Is he living? Where is he hiding? Over there, perhaps, beyond the great
ocean, in some country so far away that even its very name is unknown to
me! Does he ever think of me? Ah! if he only knew! How cruel one's
children are! Did he understand to what frightful suffering he condemned
me, into what depths of despair, into what tortures, he cast me while I
was still in the prime of life, leaving me to suffer until this moment,
when I am about to die--me, his mother, who loved him with all the
intensity of a mother's love? Oh! isn't it cruel, cruel?
"'You will tell him all this, monsieur--will you not? You will repeat to
him my last words:
"'My child, my dear, dear child, be less harsh toward poor women! Life
is already brutal and savage enough in its dealings with them. My dear
son, think of what the existence of your poor mother has been ever since
the day you left her. My dear child, forgive her, and love her, now that
she is dead, for she has had to endure the most frightful penance ever
inflicted on a woman."
"She gasped for breath, trembling, as if she had addressed the last words
to her son and as if he stood by her bedside.
"Then she added:
"'You will tell him also, monsieur, that I never again saw-the other.'
"Once more she ceased speaking, then, in a broken voice, she said:
"'Leave me now, I beg of you. I want to die all alone, since they are
not with me.'"
Maitre Le Brument added:
"And I left the house, monsieurs, crying like a fool, so bitterly,
indeed, that my coachman turned round to stare at me.
"And to think that, every day, dramas like this are being enacted all
"I have not found the son--that son--well, say what you like about him,
but I call him that criminal son!"
All were crowding around M. Bermutier, the judge, who was giving his
opinion about the Saint-Cloud mystery. For a month this in explicable
crime had been the talk of Paris. Nobody could make head or tail of it.
M. Bermutier, standing with his back to the fireplace, was talking,
citing the evidence, discussing the various theories, but arriving at no
Some women had risen, in order to get nearer to him, and were standing
with their eyes fastened on the clean-shaven face of the judge, who was
saying such weighty things. They, were shaking and trembling, moved by
fear and curiosity, and by the eager and insatiable desire for the
horrible, which haunts the soul of every woman. One of them, paler than
the others, said during a pause:
"It's terrible. It verges on the supernatural. The truth will never be
The judge turned to her:
"True, madame, it is likely that the actual facts will never be
discovered. As for the word 'supernatural' which you have just used, it
has nothing to do with the matter. We are in the presence of a very
cleverly conceived and executed crime, so well enshrouded in mystery that
we cannot disentangle it from the involved circumstances which surround
it. But once I had to take charge of an affair in which the uncanny
seemed to play a part. In fact, the case became so confused that it had
to be given up."
Several women exclaimed at once:
"Oh! Tell us about it!"
M. Bermutier smiled in a dignified manner, as a judge should, and went
"Do not think, however, that I, for one minute, ascribed anything in the
case to supernatural influences. I believe only in normal causes. But
if, instead of using the word 'supernatural' to express what we do not
understand, we were simply to make use of the word 'inexplicable,' it
would be much better. At any rate, in the affair of which I am about to
tell you, it is especially the surrounding, preliminary circumstances
which impressed me. Here are the facts:
"I was, at that time, a judge at Ajaccio, a little white city on the edge
of a bay which is surrounded by high mountains.
"The majority of the cases which came up before me concerned vendettas.
There are some that are superb, dramatic, ferocious, heroic. We find
there the most beautiful causes for revenge of which one could dream,
enmities hundreds of years old, quieted for a time but never
extinguished; abominable stratagems, murders becoming massacres and
almost deeds of glory. For two years I heard of nothing but the price of
blood, of this terrible Corsican prejudice which compels revenge for
insults meted out to the offending person and all his descendants and
relatives. I had seen old men, children, cousins murdered; my head was
full of these stories.
"One day I learned that an Englishman had just hired a little villa at
the end of the bay for several years. He had brought with him a French
servant, whom he had engaged on the way at Marseilles.
"Soon this peculiar person, living alone, only going out to hunt and
fish, aroused a widespread interest. He never spoke to any one, never
went to the town, and every morning he would practice for an hour or so
with his revolver and rifle.
"Legends were built up around him. It was said that he was some high
personage, fleeing from his fatherland for political reasons; then it was
affirmed that he was in hiding after having committed some abominable
crime. Some particularly horrible circumstances were even mentioned.
"In my judicial position I thought it necessary to get some information
about this man, but it was impossible to learn anything. He called
himself Sir John Rowell.
"I therefore had to be satisfied with watching him as closely as I could,
but I could see nothing suspicious about his actions.
"However, as rumors about him were growing and becoming more widespread,
I decided to try to see this stranger myself, and I began to hunt
regularly in the neighborhood of his grounds.
"For a long time I watched without finding an opportunity. At last it
came to me in the shape of a partridge which I shot and killed right in
front of the Englishman. My dog fetched it for me, but, taking the bird,
I went at once to Sir John Rowell and, begging his pardon, asked him to
"He was a big man, with red hair and beard, very tall, very broad, a kind
of calm and polite Hercules. He had nothing of the so-called British
stiffness, and in a broad English accent he thanked me warmly for my
attention. At the end of a month we had had five or six conversations.
"One night, at last, as I was passing before his door, I saw him in the
garden, seated astride a chair, smoking his pipe. I bowed and he invited
me to come in and have a glass of beer. I needed no urging.
"He received me with the most punctilious English courtesy, sang the
praises of France and of Corsica, and declared that he was quite in love
with this country.
"Then, with great caution and under the guise of a vivid interest, I
asked him a few questions about his life and his plans. He answered
without embarrassment, telling me that he had travelled a great deal in
Africa, in the Indies, in America. He added, laughing:
"'I have had many adventures.'
"Then I turned the conversation on hunting, and he gave me the most
curious details on hunting the hippopotamus, the tiger, the elephant and
even the gorilla.
"'Are all these animals dangerous?'
"'Oh, no! Man is the worst.'
"And he laughed a good broad laugh, the wholesome laugh of a contented
"'I have also frequently been man-hunting.'
"Then he began to talk about weapons, and he invited me to come in and
see different makes of guns.
"His parlor was draped in black, black silk embroidered in gold. Big
yellow flowers, as brilliant as fire, were worked on the dark material.
"'It is a Japanese material.'
"But in the middle of the widest panel a strange thing attracted my
attention. A black object stood out against a square of red velvet. I
went up to it; it was a hand, a human hand. Not the clean white hand of
a skeleton, but a dried black hand, with yellow nails, the muscles
exposed and traces of old blood on the bones, which were cut off as clean
as though it had been chopped off with an axe, near the middle of the
"Around the wrist, an enormous iron chain, riveted and soldered to this
unclean member, fastened it to the wall by a ring, strong enough to hold
an elephant in leash.
"'What is that?'
"The Englishman answered quietly:
"'That is my best enemy. It comes from America, too. The bones were
severed by a sword and the skin cut off with a sharp stone and dried in
the sun for a week.'
"I touched these human remains, which must have belonged to a giant. The
uncommonly long fingers were attached by enormous tendons which still had
pieces of skin hanging to them in places. This hand was terrible to see;
it made one think of some savage vengeance.
"'This man must have been very strong.'
"The Englishman answered quietly:
"'Yes, but I was stronger than he. I put on this chain to hold him.'
"I thought that he was joking. I said:
"'This chain is useless now, the hand won't run away.'
"Sir John Rowell answered seriously:
"'It always wants to go away. This chain is needed.'
"I glanced at him quickly, questioning his face, and I asked myself:
"'Is he an insane man or a practical joker?'
"But his face remained inscrutable, calm and friendly. I turned to other
subjects, and admired his rifles.
"However, I noticed that he kept three loaded revolvers in the room, as
though constantly in fear of some attack.
"I paid him several calls. Then I did not go any more. People had
become used to his presence; everybody had lost interest in him.
"A whole year rolled by. One morning, toward the end of November, my
servant awoke me and announced that Sir John Rowell had been murdered
during the night.
"Half an hour later I entered the Englishman's house, together with the
police commissioner and the captain of the gendarmes. The servant,
bewildered and in despair, was crying before the door. At first I
suspected this man, but he was innocent.
"The guilty party could never be found.
"On entering Sir John's parlor, I noticed the body, stretched out on its
back, in the middle of the room.
"His vest was torn, the sleeve of his jacket had been pulled off,
everything pointed to, a violent struggle.
"The Englishman had been strangled! His face was black, swollen and
frightful, and seemed to express a terrible fear. He held something
between his teeth, and his neck, pierced by five or six holes which
looked as though they had been made by some iron instrument, was covered
"A physician joined us. He examined the finger marks on the neck for a
long time and then made this strange announcement:
"'It looks as though he had been strangled by a skeleton.'
"A cold chill seemed to run down my back, and I looked over to where I
had formerly seen the terrible hand. It was no longer there. The chain
was hanging down, broken.
"I bent over the dead man and, in his contracted mouth, I found one of
the fingers of this vanished hand, cut--or rather sawed off by the teeth
down to the second knuckle.
"Then the investigation began. Nothing could be discovered. No door,
window or piece of furniture had been forced. The two watch dogs had not
been aroused from their sleep.
"Here, in a few words, is the testimony of the servant:
"For a month his master had seemed excited. He had received many
letters, which he would immediately burn.
"Often, in a fit of passion which approached madness, he had taken a
switch and struck wildly at this dried hand riveted to the wall, and
which had disappeared, no one knows how, at the very hour of the crime.
"He would go to bed very late and carefully lock himself in. He always
kept weapons within reach. Often at night he would talk loudly, as
though he were quarrelling with some one.
"That night, somehow, he had made no noise, and it was only on going to
open the windows that the servant had found Sir John murdered. He
suspected no one.
"I communicated what I knew of the dead man to the judges and public
officials. Throughout the whole island a minute investigation was
carried on. Nothing could be found out.
"One night, about three months after the crime, I had a terrible
nightmare. I seemed to see the horrible hand running over my curtains
and walls like an immense scorpion or spider. Three times I awoke, three
times I went to sleep again; three times I saw the hideous object
galloping round my room and moving its fingers like legs.
"The following day the hand was brought me, found in the cemetery, on the
grave of Sir John Rowell, who had been buried there because we had been
unable to find his family. The first finger was missing.
"Ladies, there is my story. I know nothing more."
The women, deeply stirred, were pale and trembling. One of them
"But that is neither a climax nor an explanation! We will be unable to
sleep unless you give us your opinion of what had occurred."
The judge smiled severely:
"Oh! Ladies, I shall certainly spoil your terrible dreams. I simply
believe that the legitimate owner of the hand was not dead, that he came
to get it with his remaining one. But I don't know how. It was a kind
One of the women murmured:
"No, it can't be that."
And the judge, still smiling, said:
"Didn't I tell you that my explanation would not satisfy you?"
A TRESS OF HAIR
The walls of the cell were bare and white washed. A narrow grated
window, placed so high that one could not reach it, lighted this sinister
little room. The mad inmate, seated on a straw chair, looked at us with
a fixed, vacant and haunted expression. He was very thin, with hollow
cheeks and hair almost white, which one guessed might have turned gray in
a few months. His clothes appeared to be too large for his shrunken
limbs, his sunken chest and empty paunch. One felt that this man's mind
was destroyed, eaten by his thoughts, by one thought, just as a fruit is
eaten by a worm. His craze, his idea was there in his brain, insistent,
harassing, destructive. It wasted his frame little by little. It--the
invisible, impalpable, intangible, immaterial idea--was mining his
health, drinking his blood, snuffing out his life.
What a mystery was this man, being killed by an ideal! He aroused
sorrow, fear and pity, this madman. What strange, tremendous and deadly
thoughts dwelt within this forehead which they creased with deep wrinkles
which were never still?
"He has terrible attacks of rage," said the doctor to me. "His is one of
the most peculiar cases I have ever seen. He has seizures of erotic and
macaberesque madness. He is a sort of necrophile. He has kept a journal
in which he sets forth his disease with the utmost clearness. In it you
can, as it were, put your finger on it. If it would interest you, you
may go over this document."
I followed the doctor into his office, where he handed me this wretched
man's diary, saying: "Read it and tell me what you think of it."
I read as follows:
"Until the age of thirty-two I lived peacefully, without knowing love.
Life appeared very simple, very pleasant and very easy. I was rich.
I enjoyed so many things that I had no passion for anything in
particular. It was good to be alive! I awoke happy every morning and
did those things that pleased me during the day and went to bed at night
contented, in the expectation of a peaceful tomorrow and a future without
"I had had a few flirtations without my heart being touched by any true
passion or wounded by any of the sensations of true love. It is good to
live like that. It is better to love, but it is terrible. And yet those
who love in the ordinary way must experience ardent happiness, though
less than mine possibly, for love came to me in a remarkable manner.
"As I was wealthy, I bought all kinds of old furniture and old
curiosities, and I often thought of the unknown hands that had touched
these objects, of the eyes that had admired them, of the hearts that had
loved them; for one does love things! I sometimes remained hours and
hours looking at a little watch of the last century. It was so tiny, so
pretty with its enamel and gold chasing. And it kept time as on the day
when a woman first bought it, enraptured at owning this dainty trinket.
It had not ceased to vibrate, to live its mechanical life, and it had
kept up its regular tick-tock since the last century. Who had first worn
it on her bosom amid the warmth of her clothing, the heart of the watch
beating beside the heart of the woman? What hand had held it in its warm
fingers, had turned it over and then wiped the enamelled shepherds on the
case to remove the slight moisture from her fingers? What eyes had
watched the hands on its ornamental face for the expected, the beloved,
the sacred hour?
"How I wished I had known her, seen her, the woman who had selected this
exquisite and rare object! She is dead! I am possessed with a longing
for women of former days. I love, from afar, all those who have loved.
The story of those dead and gone loves fills my heart with regrets. Oh,
the beauty, the smiles, the youthful caresses, the hopes! Should not all
that be eternal?
"How I have wept whole nights-thinking of those poor women of former
days, so beautiful, so loving, so sweet, whose arms were extended in an
embrace, and who now are dead! A kiss is immortal! It goes from lips to
lips, from century to century, from age to age. Men receive them, give
them and die.
"The past attracts me, the present terrifies me because the future means
death. I regret all that has gone by. I mourn all who have lived; I
should like to check time, to stop the clock. But time goes, it goes, it
passes, it takes from me each second a little of myself for the
annihilation of to-morrow. And I shall never live again.
"Farewell, ye women of yesterday. I love you!
"But I am not to be pitied. I found her, the one I was waiting for, and
through her I enjoyed inestimable pleasure.
"I was sauntering in Paris on a bright, sunny morning, with a happy heart
and a high step, looking in at the shop windows with the vague interest
of an idler. All at once I noticed in the shop of a dealer in antiques a
piece of Italian furniture of the seventeenth century. It was very
handsome, very rare. I set it down as being the work of a Venetian
artist named Vitelli, who was celebrated in his day.
"I went on my way.
"Why did the remembrance of that piece of furniture haunt me with such
insistence that I retraced my steps? I again stopped before the shop, in
order to take another look at it, and I felt that it tempted me.
"What a singular thing temptation is! One gazes at an object, and,
little by little, it charms you, it disturbs you, it fills your thoughts
as a woman's face might do. The enchantment of it penetrates your being,
a strange enchantment of form, color and appearance of an inanimate
object. And one loves it, one desires it, one wishes to have it. A
longing to own it takes possession of you, gently at first, as though it
were timid, but growing, becoming intense, irresistible.
"And the dealers seem to guess, from your ardent gaze, your secret and
"I bought this piece of furniture and had it sent home at once. I placed
it in my room.
"Oh, I am sorry for those who do not know the honeymoon of the collector
with the antique he has just purchased. One looks at it tenderly and
passes one's hand over it as if it were human flesh; one comes back to it
every moment, one is always thinking of it, wherever ore goes, whatever
one does. The dear recollection of it pursues you in the street, in
society, everywhere; and when you return home at night, before taking off
your gloves or your hat; you go and look at it with the tenderness of a
"Truly, for eight days I worshipped this piece of furniture. I opened
its doors and pulled out the drawers every few moments. I handled it
with rapture, with all the intense joy of possession.
"But one evening I surmised, while I was feeling the thickness of one of
the panels, that there must be a secret drawer in it: My heart began to
beat, and I spent the night trying to discover this secret cavity.
"I succeeded on the following day by driving a knife into a slit in the
wood. A panel slid back and I saw, spread out on a piece of black
velvet, a magnificent tress of hair.
"Yes, a woman's hair, an immense coil of fair hair, almost red, which
must have been cut off close to the head, tied with a golden cord.
"I stood amazed, trembling, confused. An almost imperceptible perfume,
so ancient that it seemed to be the spirit of a perfume, issued from this
mysterious drawer and this remarkable relic.
"I lifted it gently, almost reverently, and took it out of its hiding
place. It at once unwound in a golden shower that reached to the floor,
dense but light; soft and gleaming like the tail of a comet.
"A strange emotion filled me. What was this? When, how, why had this
hair been shut up in this drawer? What adventure, what tragedy did this
souvenir conceal? Who had cut it off? A lover on a day of farewell, a
husband on a day of revenge, or the one whose head it had graced on the
day of despair?
"Was it as she was about to take the veil that they had cast thither that
love dowry as a pledge to the world of the living? Was it when they were
going to nail down the coffin of the beautiful young corpse that the one
who had adored her had cut off her tresses, the only thing that he could
retain of her, the only living part of her body that would not suffer
decay, the only thing he could still love, and caress, and kiss in his
paroxysms of grief?
"Was it not strange that this tress should have remained as it was in
life, when not an atom of the body on which it grew was in existence?
"It fell over my fingers, tickled the skin with a singular caress, the
caress of a dead woman. It affected me so that I felt as though I should
"I held it in my hands for a long time, then it seemed as if it disturbed
me, as though something of the soul had remained in it. And I put it
back on the velvet, rusty from age, and pushed in the drawer, closed the
doors of the antique cabinet and went out for a walk to meditate.
"I walked along, filled with sadness and also with unrest, that unrest
that one feels when in love. I felt as though I must have lived before,
as though I must have known this woman.
"And Villon's lines came to my mind like a sob:
Tell me where, and in what place
Is Flora, the beautiful Roman,
Hipparchia and Thais
Who was her cousin-german?
Echo answers in the breeze
O'er river and lake that blows,
Their beauty was above all praise,
But where are last year's snows?
The queen, white as lilies,
Who sang as sing the birds,
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
Ermengarde, princess of Maine,
And Joan, the good Lorraine,
Burned by the English at Rouen,
Where are they, Virgin Queen?
And where are last year's snows?
"When I got home again I felt an irresistible longing to see my singular
treasure, and I took it out and, as I touched it, I felt a shiver go all
"For some days, however, I was in my ordinary condition, although the
thought of that tress of hair was always present to my mind.
"Whenever I came into the house I had to see it and take it in my, hands.
I turned the key of the cabinet with the same hesitation that one opens
the door leading to one's beloved, for in my hands and my heart I felt a
confused, singular, constant sensual longing to plunge my hands in the
enchanting golden flood of those dead tresses.
"Then, after I had finished caressing it and had locked the cabinet I
felt as if it were a living thing, shut up in there, imprisoned; and I
longed to see it again. I felt again the imperious desire to take it in
my hands, to touch it, to even feel uncomfortable at the cold, slippery,
irritating, bewildering contact.
"I lived thus for a month or two, I forget how long. It obsessed me,
haunted me. I was happy and tormented by turns, as when one falls in
love, and after the first vows have been exchanged.
"I shut myself in the room with it to feel it on my skin, to bury my lips
in it, to kiss it. I wound it round my face, covered my eyes with the
golden flood so as to see the day gleam through its gold.
"I loved it! Yes, I loved it. I could not be without it nor pass an
hour without looking at it.
"And I waited--I waited--for what? I do not know--For her!
"One night I woke up suddenly, feeling as though I were not alone in my
"I was alone, nevertheless, but I could not go to sleep again, and, as I
was tossing about feverishly, I got up to look at the golden tress. It
seemed softer than usual, more life-like. Do the dead come back? I
almost lost consciousness as I kissed it. I took it back with me to bed
and pressed it to my lips as if it were my sweetheart.
"Do the dead come back? She came back. Yes, I saw her; I held her in my
arms, just as she was in life, tall, fair and round. She came back every
evening--the dead woman, the beautiful, adorable, mysterious unknown.
"My happiness was so great that I could not conceal it. No lover ever
tasted such intense, terrible enjoyment. I loved her so well that I
could not be separated from her. I took her with me always and
everywhere. I walked about the town with her as if she were my wife, and
took her to the theatre, always to a private box. But they saw her--they
guessed--they arrested me. They put me in prison like a criminal. They
took her. Oh, misery!"
Here the manuscript stopped. And as I suddenly raised my astonished eyes
to the doctor a terrific cry, a howl of impotent rage and of exasperated
longing resounded through the asylum.
"Listen," said the doctor. "We have to douse the obscene madman with
water five times a day. Sergeant Bertrand was the only one who was in
love with the dead."
Filled with astonishment, horror and pity, I stammered out:
"But--that tress--did it really exist?"
The doctor rose, opened a cabinet full of phials and instruments and
tossed over a long tress of fair hair which flew toward me like a golden
I shivered at feeling its soft, light touch on my hands. And I sat
there, my heart beating with disgust and desire, disgust as at the
contact of anything accessory to a crime and desire as at the temptation
of some infamous and mysterious thing.
The doctor said as he shrugged his shoulders:
"The mind of man is capable of anything."
ON THE RIVER
I rented a little country house last summer on the banks of the Seine,
several leagues from Paris, and went out there to sleep every evening.
After a few days I made the acquaintance of one of my neighbors, a man
between thirty and forty, who certainly was the most curious specimen I
ever met. He was an old boating man, and crazy about boating. He was
always beside the water, on the water, or in the water. He must have
been born in a boat, and he will certainly die in a boat at the last.
One evening as we were walking along the banks of the Seine I asked him
to tell me some stories about his life on the water. The good man at
once became animated, his whole expression changed, he became eloquent,
almost poetical. There was in his heart one great passion, an absorbing,
irresistible passion-the river.
Ah, he said to me, how many memories I have, connected with that river
that you see flowing beside us! You people who live in streets know
nothing about the river. But listen to a fisherman as he mentions the
word. To him it is a mysterious thing, profound, unknown, a land of
mirages and phantasmagoria, where one sees by night things that do not
exist, hears sounds that one does not recognize, trembles without knowing
why, as in passing through a cemetery--and it is, in fact, the most
sinister of cemeteries, one in which one has no tomb.
The land seems limited to the river boatman, and on dark nights, when
there is no moon, the river seems limitless. A sailor has not the same
feeling for the sea. It is often remorseless and cruel, it is true; but
it shrieks, it roars, it is honest, the great sea; while the river is
silent and perfidious. It does not speak, it flows along without a
sound; and this eternal motion of flowing water is more terrible to me
than the high waves of the ocean.
Dreamers maintain that the sea hides in its bosom vast tracts of blue
where those who are drowned roam among the big fishes, amid strange
forests and crystal grottoes. The river has only black depths where one
rots in the slime. It is beautiful, however, when it sparkles in the
light of the rising sun and gently laps its banks covered with whispering
The poet says, speaking of the ocean,
"O waves, what mournful tragedies ye know--
Deep waves, the dread of kneeling mothers' hearts!
Ye tell them to each other as ye roll
On flowing tide, and this it is that gives
The sad despairing tones unto your voice
As on ye roll at eve by mounting tide."
Well, I think that the stories whispered by the slender reeds, with their
little soft voices, must be more sinister than the lugubrious tragedies
told by the roaring of the waves.
But as you have asked for some of my recollections, I will tell you of a
singular adventure that happened to me ten years ago.
I was living, as I am now, in Mother Lafon's house, and one of my closest
friends, Louis Bernet who has now given up boating, his low shoes and his
bare neck, to go into the Supreme Court, was living in the village of C.,
two leagues further down the river. We dined together every day,
sometimes at his house, sometimes at mine.
One evening as I was coming home along and was pretty tired, rowing with
difficulty my big boat, a twelve-footer, which I always took out at
night, I stopped a few moments to draw breath near the reed-covered point
yonder, about two hundred metres from the railway bridge.
It was a magnificent night, the moon shone brightly, the river gleamed,
the air was calm and soft. This peacefulness tempted me. I thought to
myself that it would be pleasant to smoke a pipe in this spot. I took up
my anchor and cast it into the river.
The boat floated downstream with the current, to the end of the chain,
and then stopped, and I seated myself in the stern on my sheepskin and
made myself as comfortable as possible. There was not a sound to be
heard, except that I occasionally thought I could perceive an almost
imperceptible lapping of the water against the bank, and I noticed taller
groups of reeds which assumed strange shapes and seemed, at times, to
The river was perfectly calm, but I felt myself affected by the unusual
silence that surrounded me. All the creatures, frogs and toads, those
nocturnal singers of the marsh, were silent.
Suddenly a frog croaked to my right, and close beside me. I shuddered.
It ceased, and I heard nothing more, and resolved to smoke, to soothe my
mind. But, although I was a noted colorer of pipes, I could not smoke;
at the second draw I was nauseated, and gave up trying. I began to sing.
The sound of my voice was distressing to me. So I lay still, but
presently the slight motion of the boat disturbed me. It seemed to me as
if she were making huge lurches, from bank to bank of the river, touching
each bank alternately. Then I felt as though an invisible force, or
being, were drawing her to the surface of the water and lifting her out,
to let her fall again. I was tossed about as in a tempest. I heard
noises around me. I sprang to my feet with a single bound. The water
was glistening, all was calm.
I saw that my nerves were somewhat shaky, and I resolved to leave the
spot. I pulled the anchor chain, the boat began to move; then I felt a
resistance. I pulled harder, the anchor did not come up; it had caught
on something at the bottom of the river and I could not raise it. I
began pulling again, but all in vain. Then, with my oars, I turned the
boat with its head up stream to change the position of the anchor. It
was no use, it was still caught. I flew into a rage and shook the chain
furiously. Nothing budged. I sat down, disheartened, and began to
reflect on my situation. I could not dream of breaking this chain, or
detaching it from the boat, for it was massive and was riveted at the
bows to a piece of wood as thick as my arm. However, as the weather was
so fine I thought that it probably would not be long before some
fisherman came to my aid. My ill-luck had quieted me. I sat down and
was able, at length, to smoke my pipe. I had a bottle of rum; I drank
two or three glasses, and was able to laugh at the situation. It was
very warm; so that, if need be, I could sleep out under the stars without
any great harm.
All at once there was a little knock at the side of the boat. I gave a
start, and a cold sweat broke out all over me. The noise was, doubtless,
caused by some piece of wood borne along by the current, but that was
enough, and I again became a prey to a strange nervous agitation. I
seized the chain and tensed my muscles in a desperate effort. The anchor
held firm. I sat down again, exhausted.
The river had slowly become enveloped in a thick white fog which lay
close to the water, so that when I stood up I could see neither the
river, nor my feet, nor my boat; but could perceive only the tops of the
reeds, and farther off in the distance the plain, lying white in the
moonlight, with big black patches rising up from it towards the sky,
which were formed by groups of Italian poplars. I was as if buried to
the waist in a cloud of cotton of singular whiteness, and all sorts of
strange fancies came into my mind. I thought that someone was trying to
climb into my boat which I could no longer distinguish, and that the
river, hidden by the thick fog, was full of strange creatures which were
swimming all around me. I felt horribly uncomfortable, my forehead felt
as if it had a tight band round it, my heart beat so that it almost
suffocated me, and, almost beside myself, I thought of swimming away from
the place. But then, again, the very idea made me tremble with fear. I
saw myself, lost, going by guesswork in this heavy fog, struggling about
amid the grasses and reeds which I could not escape, my breath rattling
with fear, neither seeing the bank, nor finding my boat; and it seemed as
if I would feel myself dragged down by the feet to the bottom of these
In fact, as I should have had to ascend the stream at least five hundred
metres before finding a spot free from grasses and rushes where I could
land, there were nine chances to one that I could not find my way in the
fog and that I should drown, no matter how well I could swim.
I tried to reason with myself. My will made me resolve not to be afraid,
but there was something in me besides my will, and that other thing was
afraid. I asked myself what there was to be afraid of. My brave "ego"
ridiculed my coward "ego," and never did I realize, as on that day, the
existence in us of two rival personalities, one desiring a thing, the
other resisting, and each winning the day in turn.
This stupid, inexplicable fear increased, and became terror. I remained
motionless, my eyes staring, my ears on the stretch with expectation. Of
what? I did not know, but it must be something terrible. I believe if
it had occurred to a fish to jump out of the water, as often happens,
nothing more would have been required to make me fall over, stiff and
However, by a violent effort I succeeded in becoming almost rational
again. I took up my bottle of rum and took several pulls. Then an idea
came to me, and I began to shout with all my might towards all the points
of the compass in succession. When my throat was absolutely paralyzed I
listened. A dog was howling, at a great distance.
I drank some more rum and stretched myself out at the bottom of the boat.
I remained there about an hour, perhaps two, not sleeping, my eyes wide
open, with nightmares all about me. I did not dare to rise, and yet I
intensely longed to do so. I delayed it from moment to moment. I said
to myself: "Come, get up!" and I was afraid to move. At last I raised
myself with infinite caution as though my life depended on the slightest
sound that I might make; and looked over the edge of the boat.
I was dazzled by the most marvellous, the most astonishing sight that it
is possible to see. It was one of those phantasmagoria of fairyland, one
of those sights described by travellers on their return from distant
lands, whom we listen to without believing.
The fog which, two hours before, had floated on the water, had gradually
cleared off and massed on the banks, leaving the river absolutely clear;
while it formed on either bank an uninterrupted wall six or seven metres
high, which shone in the moonlight with the dazzling brilliance of snow.
One saw nothing but the river gleaming with light between these two white
mountains; and high above my head sailed the great full moon, in the
midst of a bluish, milky sky.
All the creatures in the water were awake. The frogs croaked furiously,
while every few moments I heard, first to the right and then to the left,
the abrupt, monotonous and mournful metallic note of the bullfrogs.
Strange to say, I was no longer afraid. I was in the midst of such an
unusual landscape that the most remarkable things would not have
How long this lasted I do not know, for I ended by falling asleep. When
I opened my eyes the moon had gone down and the sky was full of clouds.
The water lapped mournfully, the wind was blowing, it was pitch dark.
I drank the rest of the rum, then listened, while I trembled, to the
rustling of the reeds and the foreboding sound of the river. I tried to
see, but could not distinguish my boat, nor even my hands, which I held
up close to my eyes.
Little by little, however, the blackness became less intense. All at
once I thought I noticed a shadow gliding past, quite near me. I
shouted, a voice replied; it was a fisherman. I called him; he came near
and I told him of my ill-luck. He rowed his boat alongside of mine and,
together, we pulled at the anchor chain. The anchor did not move. Day
came, gloomy gray, rainy and cold, one of those days that bring one
sorrows and misfortunes. I saw another boat. We hailed it. The man on
board of her joined his efforts to ours, and gradually the anchor
yielded. It rose, but slowly, slowly, loaded down by a considerable
weight. At length we perceived a black mass and we drew it on board.
It was the corpse of an old women with a big stone round her neck.
The following adventure happened to me about 1882. I had just taken the
train and settled down in a corner, hoping that I should be left alone,
when the door suddenly opened again and I heard a voice say: "Take care,
monsieur, we are just at a crossing; the step is very high."
Another voice answered: "That's all right, Laurent, I have a firm hold on
Then a head appeared, and two hands seized the leather straps hanging on
either side of the door and slowly pulled up an enormous body, whose feet
striking on the step, sounded like two canes. When the man had hoisted
his torso into the compartment I noticed, at the loose edge of his
trousers, the end of a wooden leg, which was soon followed by its mate.
A head appeared behind this traveller and asked; "Are you all right,
"Yes, my boy."
"Then here are your packages and crutches."
And a servant, who looked like an old soldier, climbed in, carrying in
his arms a stack of bundles wrapped in black and yellow papers and
carefully tied; he placed one after the other in the net over his
master's head. Then he said: "There, monsieur, that is all. There are
five of them--the candy, the doll the drum, the gun, and the pate de
"Very well, my boy."
"Thank you, Laurent; good health!"
The man closed the door and walked away, and I looked at my neighbor.
He was about thirty-five, although his hair was almost white; he wore the
ribbon of the Legion of Honor; he had a heavy mustache and was quite
stout, with the stoutness of a strong and active man who is kept
motionless on account of some infirmity. He wiped his brow, sighed, and,
looking me full in the face, he asked: "Does smoking annoy you,
Surely I knew that eye, that voice, that face. But when and where had I
seen them? I had certainly met that man, spoken to him, shaken his hand.
That was a long, long time ago. It was lost in the haze wherein the mind
seems to feel around blindly for memories and pursues them like fleeing
phantoms without being able to seize them. He, too, was observing me,
staring me out of countenance, with the persistence of a man who
remembers slightly but not completely. Our eyes, embarrassed by this
persistent contact, turned away; then, after a few minutes, drawn
together again by the obscure and tenacious will of working memory, they
met once more, and I said: "Monsieur, instead of staring at each other
for an hour or so, would it not be better to try to discover where we
have known each other?"
My neighbor answered graciously: "You are quite right, monsieur."
I named myself: "I am Henri Bonclair, a magistrate."
He hesitated for a few minutes; then, with the vague look and voice which
accompany great mental tension, he said: "Oh, I remember perfectly.
I met you twelve years ago, before the war, at the Poincels!"
"Yes, monsieur. Ah! Ah! You are Lieutenant Revaliere?"
"Yes. I was Captain Revaliere even up to the time when I lost my feet--
both of them together from one cannon ball."
Now that we knew each other's identity we looked at each other again.
I remembered perfectly the handsome, slender youth who led the cotillons
with such frenzied agility and gracefulness that he had been nicknamed
"the fury." Going back into the dim, distant past, I recalled a story
which I had heard and forgotten, one of those stories to which one
listens but forgets, and which leave but a faint impression upon the
There was something about love in it. Little by little the shadows
cleared up, and the face of a young girl appeared before my eyes. Then
her name struck me with the force of an explosion: Mademoiselle de
Mandel. I remembered everything now. It was indeed a love story, but
quite commonplace. The young girl loved this young man, and when I had
met them there was already talk of the approaching wedding. The youth
seemed to be very much in love, very happy.
I raised my eye to the net, where all the packages which had been brought
in by the servant were trembling from the motion of the train, and the
voice of the servant came back to me, as if he had just finished
speaking. He had said: "There, monsieur, that is all. There are five of
them: the candy, the doll, the drum, the gun, and the pate de foies
Then, in a second, a whole romance unfolded itself in my head. It was
like all those which I had already read, where the young lady married
notwithstanding the catastrophe, whether physical or financial;
therefore, this officer who had been maimed in the war had returned,
after the campaign, to the young girl who had given him her promise, and
she had kept her word.
I considered that very beautiful, but simple, just as one, considers
simple all devotions and climaxes in books or in plays. It always seems,
when one reads or listens to these stories of magnanimity, that one could
sacrifice one's self with enthusiastic pleasure and overwhelming joy.
But the following day, when an unfortunate friend comes to borrow some
money, there is a strange revulsion of feeling.
But, suddenly, another supposition, less poetic and more realistic,
replaced the first one. Perhaps he had married before the war, before
this frightful accident, and she, in despair and resignation, had been
forced to receive, care for, cheer, and support this husband, who had
departed, a handsome man, and had returned without his feet, a frightful
wreck, forced into immobility, powerless anger, and fatal obesity.
Was he happy or in torture? I was seized with an irresistible desire to
know his story, or, at least, the principal points, which would permit me
to guess that which he could not or would not tell me. Still thinking
the matter over, I began talking to him. We had exchanged a few
commonplace words; and I raised my eyes to the net, and thought: "He must
have three children: the bonbons are for his wife, the doll for his
little girl, the drum and the gun for his sons, and this pate de foies
gras for himself."
Suddenly I asked him: "Are you a father, monsieur?"
He answered: "No, monsieur."
I suddenly felt confused, as if I had been guilty of some breach of
etiquette, and I continued: "I beg your pardon. I had thought that you
were when I heard your servant speaking about the toys. One listens and
draws conclusions unconsciously."
He smiled and then murmured: "No, I am not even married. I am still at
the preliminary stage."
I pretended suddenly to remember, and said:
"Oh! that's true! When I knew you, you were engaged to Mademoiselle de
Mandel, I believe."
"Yes, monsieur, your memory is excellent."
I grew very bold and added: "I also seem to remember hearing that
Mademoiselle de Mandel married Monsieur--Monsieur--"
He calmly mentioned the name: "Monsieur de Fleurel."
"Yes, that's it! I remember it was on that occasion that I heard of your
I looked him full in the face, and he blushed. His full face, which was
already red from the oversupply of blood, turned crimson. He answered
quickly, with a sudden ardor of a man who is pleading a cause which is
lost in his mind and in his heart, but which he does not wish to admit.
"It is wrong, monsieur, to couple my name with that of Madame de Fleurel.
When I returned from the war-without my feet, alas! I never would have
permitted her to become my wife. Was it possible? When one marries,
monsieur, it is not in order to parade one's generosity; it is in order
to live every day, every hour, every minute, every second beside a man;
and if this man is disfigured, as I am, it is a death sentence to marry
him! Oh, I understand, I admire all sacrifices and devotions when they
have a limit, but I do not admit that a woman should give up her whole
life, all joy, all her dreams, in order to satisfy the admiration of the
gallery. When I hear, on the floor of my room, the tapping of my wooden
legs and of my crutches, I grow angry enough to strangle my servant. Do
you think that I would permit a woman to do what I myself am unable to
tolerate? And, then, do you think that my stumps are pretty?"
He was silent. What could I say? He certainly was right. Could I blame
her, hold her in contempt, even say that she was wrong? No. However,
the end which conformed to the rule, to the truth, did not satisfy my
poetic appetite. These heroic deeds demand a beautiful sacrifice, which
seemed to be lacking, and I felt a certain disappointment. I suddenly.
asked: "Has Madame de Fleurel any children?"
"Yes, one girl and two boys. It is for them that I am bringing these
toys. She and her husband are very kind to me."
The train was going up the incline to Saint-Germain. It passed through
the tunnels, entered the station, and stopped. I was about to offer my
arm to the wounded officer, in order to help him descend, when two hands
were stretched up to him through the open door.
"Hello! my dear Revaliere!"
"Ah! Hello, Fleurel!"
Standing behind the man, the woman, still beautiful, was smiling and
waving her hands to him. A little girl, standing beside her, was jumping
for joy, and two young boys were eagerly watching the drum and the gun,
which were passing from the car into their father's hands.
When the cripple was on the ground, all the children kissed him. Then
they set off, the little girl holding in her hand the small varnished
rung of a crutch, just as she might walk beside her big friend and hold
When Old Man Leras, bookkeeper for Messieurs Labuze and Company, left the
store, he stood for a minute bewildered at the glory of the setting sun.
He had worked all day in the yellow light of a small jet of gas, far in
the back of the store, on a narrow court, as deep as a well. The little
room where he had been spending his days for forty years was so dark that
even in the middle of summer one could hardly see without gaslight from
eleven until three.
It was always damp and cold, and from this hole on which his window
opened came the musty odor of a sewer.
For forty years Monsieur Leras had been arriving every morning in this
prison at eight o'clock, and he would remain there until seven at night,
bending over his books, writing with the industry of a good clerk.
He was now making three thousand francs a year, having started at fifteen
hundred. He had remained a bachelor, as his means did not allow him the
luxury of a wife, and as he had never enjoyed anything, he desired
nothing. From time to time, however, tired of this continuous and
monotonous work, he formed a platonic wish: "Gad! If I only had an
income of fifteen thousand francs, I would take life easy."
He had never taken life easy, as he had never had anything but his
monthly salary. His life had been uneventful, without emotions, without
hopes. The faculty of dreaming with which every one is blessed had never
developed in the mediocrity of his ambitions.
When he was twenty-one he entered the employ of Messieurs Labuze and
Company. And he had never left them.
In 1856 he had lost his father and then his mother in 1859. Since then
the only incident in his life was when he moved, in 1868, because his
landlord had tried to raise his rent.
Every day his alarm clock, with a frightful noise of rattling chains,
made him spring out of bed at 6 o'clock precisely.
Twice, however, this piece of mechanism had been out of order--once in
1866 and again in 1874; he had never been able to find out the reason
why. He would dress, make his bed, sweep his room, dust his chair and
the top of his bureau. All this took him an hour and a half.
Then he would go out, buy a roll at the Lahure Bakery, in which he had
seen eleven different owners without the name ever changing, and he would
eat this roll on the way to the office.
His entire existence had been spent in the narrow, dark office, which was
still decorated with the same wall paper. He had entered there as a
young man, as assistant to Monsieur Brument, and with the desire to
He had taken his place and wished for nothing more.
The whole harvest of memories which other men reap in their span of
years, the unexpected events, sweet or tragic loves, adventurous
journeys, all the occurrences of a free existence, all these things had
remained unknown to him.
Days, weeks, months, seasons, years, all were alike to him. He got up
every day at the same hour, started out, arrived at the office, ate
luncheon, went away, had dinner and went to bed without ever interrupting
the regular monotony of similar actions, deeds and thoughts.
Formerly he used to look at his blond mustache and wavy hair in the
little round mirror left by his predecessor. Now, every evening before
leaving, he would look at his white mustache and bald head in the same
mirror. Forty years had rolled by, long and rapid, dreary as a day of
sadness and as similar as the hours of a sleepless night. Forty years of
which nothing remained, not even a memory, not even a misfortune, since
the death of his parents. Nothing.
That day Monsieur Leras stood by the door, dazzled at the brilliancy of
the setting sun; and instead of returning home he decided to take a
little stroll before dinner, a thing which happened to him four or five
times a year.
He reached the boulevards, where people were streaming along under the
green trees. It was a spring evening, one of those first warm and
pleasant evenings which fill the heart with the joy of life.
Monsieur Leras went along with his mincing old man's step; he was going
along with joy in his heart, at peace with the world. He reached the
Champs-Elysees, and he continued to walk, enlivened by the sight of the
young people trotting along.
The whole sky was aflame; the Arc de Triomphe stood out against the
brilliant background of the horizon, like a giant surrounded by fire. As
he approached the immense monument, the old bookkeeper noticed that he
was hungry, and he went into a wine dealer's for dinner.
The meal was served in front of the store, on the sidewalk. It consisted
of some mutton, salad and asparagus. It was the best dinner that
Monsieur Leras had had in a long time. He washed down his cheese with a
small bottle of burgundy, had his after-dinner cup of coffee, a thing
which he rarely took, and finally a little pony of brandy.
When he had paid he felt quite youthful, even a little moved. And he
said to himself: "What a fine evening! I will continue my stroll as far
as the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne. It will do me good."
He set out. An old tune which one of his neighbors used to sing kept
returning to his mind. He kept on humming it over and over again. A
hot, still night had fallen over Paris. Monsieur Leras walked along the
Avenue du Bois de Boulogne and watched the cabs drive by. They kept
coming with their shining lights, one behind the other, giving horn a
glimpse of the couples inside, the women in their light dresses and the
men dressed in black.
It was one long procession of lovers, riding under the warm, starlit sky.
They kept on coming in rapid succession. They passed by in the
carriages, silent, side by side, lost in their dreams, in the emotion of
desire, in the anticipation of the approaching embrace. The warm shadows
seemed to be full of floating kisses. A sensation of tenderness filled
the air. All these carriages full of tender couples, all these people
intoxicated with the same idea, with the same thought, seemed to give out
a disturbing, subtle emanation.
At last Monsieur Leras grew a little tired of walking, and he sat down on
a bench to watch these carriages pass by with their burdens of love.
Almost immediately a woman walked up to him and sat down beside him.
"Good-evening, papa," she said.
He answered: "Madame, you are mistaken."
She slipped her arm through his, saying: "Come along, now; don't be
He arose and walked away, with sadness in his heart. A few yards away
another woman walked up to him and asked: "Won't you sit down beside me?"
He said: "What makes you take up this life?"
She stood before him and in an altered, hoarse, angry voice exclaimed:
"Well, it isn't for the fun of it, anyhow!"
He insisted in a gentle voice: "Then what makes you?"
She grumbled: "I've got to live! Foolish question!" And she walked away,
Monsieur Leras stood there bewildered. Other women were passing near
him, speaking to him and calling to him. He felt as though he were
enveloped in darkness by something disagreeable.
He sat down again on a bench. The carriages were still rolling by. He
thought: "I should have done better not to come here; I feel all upset."
He began to think of all this venal or passionate love, of all these
kisses, sold or given, which were passing by it front of him. Love! He
scarcely knew it. In his lifetime he had only known two or three women,
his means forcing him to live a quiet life, and he looked back at the
life which he had led, so different from everybody else, so dreary, so
mournful, so empty.
Some people are really unfortunate. And suddenly, as though a veil had
been torn from his eyes, he perceived the infinite misery, the monotony
of his existence: the past, present and future misery; his last day
similar to his first one, with nothing before him, behind him or about
him, nothing in his heart or any place.
The stream of carriages was still going by. In the rapid passage of the
open carriage he still saw the two silent, loving creatures. It seemed
to him that the whole of humanity was flowing on before him, intoxicated
with joy, pleasure and happiness. He alone was looking on. To-morrow he
would again be alone, always alone, more so than any one else. He stood
up, took a few steps, and suddenly he felt as tired as though he had
taken a long journey on foot, and he sat down on the next bench.
What was he waiting for? What was he hoping for? Nothing. He was
thinking of how pleasant it must be in old age to return home and find
the little children. It is pleasant to grow old when one is surrounded
by those beings who owe their life to you, who love you, who caress you,
who tell you charming and foolish little things which warm your heart and
console you for everything.
And, thinking of his empty room, clean and sad, where no one but himself
ever entered, a feeling of distress filled his soul; and the place seemed
to him more mournful even than his little office. Nobody ever came
there; no one ever spoke in it. It was dead, silent, without the echo of
a human voice. It seems as though walls retain something of the people
who live within them, something of their manner, face and voice. The
very houses inhabited by happy families are gayer than the dwellings of
the unhappy. His room was as barren of memories as his life. And the
thought of returning to this place, all alone, of getting into his bed,
of again repeating all the duties and actions of every evening, this
thought terrified him. As though to escape farther from this sinister
home, and from the time when he would have to return to it, he arose and
walked along a path to a wooded corner, where he sat down on the grass.
About him, above him, everywhere, he heard a continuous, tremendous,
confused rumble, composed of countless and different noises, a vague and
throbbing pulsation of life: the life breath of Paris, breathing like a
The sun was already high and shed a flood of light on the Bois de
Boulogne. A few carriages were beginning to drive about and people were
appearing on horseback.
A couple was walking through a deserted alley.
Suddenly the young woman raised her eyes and saw something brown in the
branches. Surprised and anxious, she raised her hand, exclaiming: "Look!
what is that?"
Then she shrieked and fell into the arms of her companion, who was forced
to lay her on the ground.
The policeman who had been called cut down an old man who had hung
himself with his suspenders.
Examination showed that he had died the evening before. Papers found on
him showed that he was a bookkeeper for Messieurs Labuze and Company and
that his name was Leras.
His death was attributed to suicide, the cause of which could not be
suspected. Perhaps a sudden access of madness!
At four o'clock that day, as on every other day, Alexandre rolled the
three-wheeled chair for cripples up to the door of the little house;
then, in obedience to the doctor's orders, he would push his old and
infirm mistress about until six o'clock.
When he had placed the light vehicle against the step, just at the place
where the old lady could most easily enter it, he went into the house;
and soon a furious, hoarse old soldier's voice was heard cursing inside
the house: it issued from the master, the retired ex-captain of infantry,
Then could be heard the noise of doors being slammed, chairs being pushed
about, and hasty footsteps; then nothing more. After a few seconds,
Alexandre reappeared on the threshold, supporting with all his strength
Madame Maramballe, who was exhausted from the exertion of descending the
stairs. When she was at last settled in the rolling chair, Alexandre
passed behind it, grasped the handle, and set out toward the river.
Thus they crossed the little town every day amid the respectful greeting,
of all. These bows were perhaps meant as much for the servant as for the
mistress, for if she was loved and esteemed by all, this old trooper,
with his long, white, patriarchal beard, was considered a model domestic.
The July sun was beating down unmercifully on the street, bathing the low
houses in its crude and burning light. Dogs were sleeping on the
sidewalk in the shade of the houses, and Alexandre, a little out of
breath, hastened his footsteps in order sooner to arrive at the avenue
which leads to the water.
Madame Maramballe was already slumbering under her white parasol, the
point of which sometimes grazed along the man's impassive face. As soon
as they had reached the Allee des Tilleuls, she awoke in the shade of the
trees, and she said in a kindly voice: "Go more slowly, my poor boy; you
will kill yourself in this heat."
Along this path, completely covered by arched linden trees, the Mavettek
flowed in its winding bed bordered by willows.
The gurgling of the eddies and the splashing of the little waves against
the rocks lent to the walk the charming music of babbling water and the
freshness of damp air. Madame Maramballe inhaled with deep delight the
humid charm of this spot and then murmured: "Ah! I feel better now! But
he wasn't in a good humor to-day."
Alexandre answered: "No, madame."
For thirty-five years he had been in the service of this couple, first as
officer's orderly, then as simple valet who did not wish to leave his
masters; and for the last six years, every afternoon, he had been
wheeling his mistress about through the narrow streets of the town. From
this long and devoted service, and then from this daily tete-a-tete, a
kind of familiarity arose between the old lady and the devoted servant,
affectionate on her part, deferential on his.
They talked over the affairs of the house exactly as if they were equals.
Their principal subject of conversation and of worry was the bad
disposition of the captain, soured by a long career which had begun with
promise, run along without promotion, end ended without glory.
Madame Maramballe continued: "He certainly was not in a good humor today.
This happens too often since he has left the service."
And Alexandre, with a sigh, completed his mistress's thoughts, "Oh,
madame might say that it happens every day and that it also happened
before leaving the army."
"That is true. But the poor man has been so unfortunate. He began with
a brave deed, which obtained for him the Legion of Honor at the age of
twenty; and then from twenty to fifty he was not able to rise higher than
captain, whereas at the beginning he expected to retire with at least the
rank of colonel."
"Madame might also admit that it was his fault. If he had not always
been as cutting as a whip, his superiors would have loved and protected
him better. Harshness is of no use; one should try to please if one
wishes to advance. As far as his treatment of us is concerned, it is
also our fault, since we are willing to remain with him, but with others
Madame Maramballe was thinking. Oh, for how many years had she thus been
thinking of the brutality of her husband, whom she had married long ago
because he was a handsome officer, decorated quite young, and full of
promise, so they said! What mistakes one makes in life!
She murmured: "Let us stop a while, my poor Alexandre, and you rest on
It was a little worm-eaten bench, placed at a turn in the alley. Every
time they came in this direction Alexandre was accustomed to making a
short pause on this seat.
He sat down and with a proud and familiar gesture he took his beautiful
white beard in his hand, and, closing his, fingers over it, ran them down
to the point, which he held for a minute at the pit of his stomach, as if
once more to verify the length of this growth.
Madame Maramballe continued: "I married him; it is only just and natural
that I should bear his injustice; but what I do not understand is why you
also should have supported it, my good Alexandre!"
He merely shrugged his shoulders and answered: "Oh! I--madame."
She added: "Really. I have often wondered. When I married him you were
his orderly and you could hardly do otherwise than endure him. But why
did you remain with us, who pay you so little and who treat you so badly,
when you could have done as every one else does, settle down, marry, have
He answered: "Oh, madame! with me it's different."
Then he was silent; but he kept pulling his beard as if he were ringing a
bell within him, as if he were trying to pull it out, and he rolled his
eyes like a man who is greatly embarrassed.
Madame Maramballe was following her own train of thought: "You are not a
peasant. You have an education--"
He interrupted her proudly: "I studied surveying, madame."
"Then why did you stay with us, and blast your prospects?"
He stammered: "That's it! that's it! it's the fault of my dispositton."
"How so, of your disposition?"
"Yes, when I become attached to a person I become attached to him, that's
She began to laugh: "You are not going to try to tell me that
Maramballe's sweet disposition caused you to become attached to him for
He was fidgeting about on his bench visibly embarrassed, and he muttered
behind his long beard:
"It was not he, it was you!"
The old lady, who had a sweet face, with a snowy line of curly white hair
between her forehead and her bonnet, turned around in her chair and
observed her servant with a surprised look, exclaiming: "I, my poor
Alexandre! How so?"
He began to look up in the air, then to one side, then toward the
distance, turning his head as do timid people when forced to admit
shameful secrets. At last he exclaimed, with the courage of a trooper
who is ordered to the line of fire: "You see, it's this way--the first
time I brought a letter to mademoiselle from the lieutenant, mademoiselle
gave me a franc and a smile, and that settled it."
Not understanding well, she questioned him "Explain yourself."
Then he cried out, like a malefactor who is admitting a fatal crime:
"I had a sentiment for madame! There!"
She answered nothing, stopped looking at him, hung her head, and thought.
She was good, full of justice, gentleness, reason, and tenderness. In a
second she saw the immense devotion of this poor creature, who had given
up everything in order to live beside her, without saying anything. And
she felt as if she could cry. Then, with a sad but not angry expression,
she said: "Let us return home."
He rose and began to push the wheeled chair.
As they approached the village they saw Captain Maramballe coming toward
them. As soon as he joined them he asked his wife, with a visible desire
of getting angry: "What have we for dinner?"
"Some chicken with flageolets."
He lost his temper: "Chicken! chicken! always chicken! By all that's
holy, I've had enough chicken! Have you no ideas in your head, that you
make me eat chicken every day?"
She answered, in a resigned tone: "But, my dear, you know that the doctor
has ordered it for you. It's the best thing for your stomach. If your
stomach were well, I could give you many things which I do not dare set
before you now."
Then, exasperated, he planted himself in front of Alexandre, exclaiming:
"Well, if my stomach is out of order it's the fault of that brute. For
thirty-five years he has been poisoning me with his abominable cooking."
Madame Maramballe suddenly turned about completely, in order to see the
old domestic. Their eyes met, and in this single glance they both said
"Thank you!" to each other.
The drawing-room was small, full of heavy draperies and discreetly
fragrant. A large fire burned in the grate and a solitary lamp at one
end of the mantelpiece threw a soft light on the two persons who were
She, the mistress of the house, was an old lady with white hair, but one
of those old ladies whose unwrinkled skin is as smooth as the finest
paper, and scented, impregnated with perfume, with the delicate essences
which she had used in her bath for so many years.
He was a very old friend, who had never married, a constant friend, a
companion in the journey of life, but nothing more.
They had not spoken for about a minute, and were both looking at the
fire, dreaming of no matter what, in one of those moments of friendly
silence between people who have no need to be constantly talking in order
to be happy together, when suddenly a large log, a stump covered with
burning roots, fell out. It fell over the firedogs into the drawing-room
and rolled on to the carpet, scattering great sparks around it. The old
lady, with a little scream, sprang to her feet to run away, while he
kicked the log back on to the hearth and stamped out all the burning
sparks with his boots.
When the disaster was remedied, there was a strong smell of burning, and,
sitting down opposite to his friend, the man looked at her with a smile
and said, as he pointed to the log:
"That is the reason why I never married."
She looked at him in astonishment, with the inquisitive gaze of women who
wish to know everything, that eye which women have who are no longer very
young,--in which a complex, and often roguish, curiosity is reflected,
and she asked:
"Oh, it is a long story," he replied; "a rather sad and unpleasant story.
"My old friends were often surprised at the coldness which suddenly
sprang up between one of my best friends whose Christian name was Julien,
and myself. They could not understand how two such intimate and
inseparable friends, as we had been, could suddenly become almost
strangers to one another, and I will tell you the reason of it.
"He and I used to live together at one time. We were never apart, and
the friendship that united us seemed so strong that nothing could break
"One evening when he came home, he told me that he was going to get
married, and it gave me a shock as if he had robbed me or betrayed me.
When a man's friend marries, it is all over between them. The jealous
affection of a woman, that suspicious, uneasy and carnal affection, will
not tolerate the sturdy and frank attachment, that attachment of the
mind, of the heart, and that mutual confidence which exists between two
"You see, however great the love may be that unites them a man and a
woman are always strangers in mind and intellect; they remain
belligerents, they belong to different races. There must always be a
conqueror and a conquered, a master and a slave; now the one, now the
other--they are never two equals. They press each other's hands, those
hands trembling with amorous passion; but they never press them with a
long, strong, loyal pressure, with that pressure which seems to open
hearts and to lay them bare in a burst of sincere, strong, manly
affection. Philosophers of old, instead of marrying, and procreating as
a consolation for their old age children, who would abandon them, sought
for a good, reliable friend, and grew old with him in that communion of
thought which can only exist between men.
"Well, my friend Julien married. His wife was pretty, charming, a
little, curly-haired blonde, plump and lively, who seemed to worship him.
At first I went but rarely to their house, feeling myself de trop. But,
somehow, they attracted me to their home; they were constantly inviting
me, and seemed very fond of me. Consequently, by degrees, I allowed
myself to be allured by the charm of their life. I often dined with
them, and frequently, when I returned home at night, thought that I would
do as he had done, and get married, as my empty house now seemed very
"They appeared to be very much in love, and were never apart.
"Well, one evening Julien wrote and asked me to go to dinner, and I
"'My dear fellow,' he said, 'I must go out directly afterward on
business, and I shall not be back until eleven o'clock; but I shall be
back at eleven precisely, and I reckon on you to keep Bertha company.'
"The young woman smiled.
"'It was my idea,' she said, 'to send for you.'
"I held out my hand to her.
"'You are as nice as ever, I said, and I felt a long, friendly pressure
of my fingers, but I paid no attention to it; so we sat down to dinner,
and at eight o'clock Julien went out.
"As soon as he had gone, a kind of strange embarrassment immediately
seemed to arise between his wife and me. We had never been alone
together yet, and in spite of our daily increasing intimacy, this tete
-a-tete placed us in a new position. At first I spoke vaguely of those
indifferent matters with which one fills up an embarrassing silence, but
she did not reply, and remained opposite to me with her head down in an
undecided manner, as if she were thinking over some difficult subject,
and as I was at a loss for small talk, I held my tongue. It is
surprising how hard it is at times to find anything to say.
"And then also I felt something in the air, something I could not
express, one of those mysterious premonitions that warn one of another
person's secret intentions in regard to yourself, whether they be good or
"That painful silence lasted some time, and then Bertha said to me:
"'Will you kindly put a log on the fire for it is going out.'
"So I opened the box where the wood was kept, which was placed just where
yours is, took out the largest log and put it on top of the others, which
were three parts burned, and then silence again reigned in the room.
"In a few minutes the log was burning so brightly that it scorched our
faces, and the young woman raised her eyes to mine--eyes that had a
strange look to me.
"'It is too hot now,' she said; 'let us go and sit on the sofa over
"So we went and sat on the sofa, and then she said suddenly, looking me
full in the face:
"'What would you do if a woman were to tell you that she was in love with
"'Upon my word,' I replied, very much at a loss for an answer, 'I cannot
foresee such a case; but it would depend very much upon the woman.'
"She gave a hard, nervous, vibrating laugh; one of those false laughs
which seem as if they must break thin glass, and then she added: 'Men are
never either venturesome or spiteful.' And, after a moment's silence,
she continued: 'Have you ever been in love, Monsieur Paul?' I was
obliged to acknowledge that I certainly had, and she asked me to tell her
all about it. Whereupon I made up some story or other. She listened to
me attentively, with frequent signs of disapproval and contempt, and then
suddenly she said:
"'No, you understand nothing about the subject. It seems to me that real
love must unsettle the mind, upset the nerves and distract the head; that
it must--how shall I express it?--be dangerous, even terrible, almost
criminal and sacrilegious; that it must be a kind of treason; I mean to
say that it is bound to break laws, fraternal bonds, sacred obligations;
when love is tranquil, easy, lawful and without dangers, is it really
"I did not know what answer to give her, and I made this philosophical
reflection to myself: 'Oh! female brain, here; indeed, you show
"While speaking, she had assumed a demure saintly air; and, resting on
the cushions, she stretched herself out at full length, with her head on
my shoulder, and her dress pulled up a little so as to show her red
stockings, which the firelight made look still brighter. In a minute or
two she continued:
"'I suppose I have frightened you?' I protested against such a notion,
and she leaned against my breast altogether, and without looking at me,
she said: 'If I were to tell you that I love you, what would you do?'
"And before I could think of an answer, she had thrown her arms around my
neck, had quickly drawn my head down, and put her lips to mine.
"Oh! My dear friend, I can tell you that I did not feel at all happy!
What! deceive Julien? become the lover of this little, silly, wrong-
headed, deceitful woman, who was, no doubt, terribly sensual, and whom
her husband no longer satisfied.
"To betray him continually, to deceive him, to play at being in love
merely because I was attracted by forbidden fruit, by the danger incurred
and the friendship betrayed! No, that did not suit me, but what was I to
do? To imitate Joseph would be acting a very stupid and, moreover,
difficult part, for this woman was enchanting in her perfidy, inflamed by
audacity, palpitating and excited. Let the man who has never felt on his
lips the warm kiss of a woman who is ready to give herself to him throw
the first stone at me.
"Well, a minute more--you understand what I mean? A minute more, and--I
should have been--no, she would have been!--I beg your pardon, he would
have been--when a loud noise made us both jump up. The log had fallen
into the room, knocking over the fire irons and the fender, and on to the
carpet, which it had scorched, and had rolled under an armchair, which it
would certainly set alight.
"I jumped up like a madman, and, as I was replacing on the fire that log
which had saved me, the door opened hastily, and Julien came in.
"'I am free,' he said, with evident pleasure. 'The business was over two
hours sooner than I expected!'
"Yes, my dear friend, without that log, I should have been caught in the
very act, and you know what the consequences would have been!
"You may be sure that I took good care never to be found in a similar
situation again, never, never. Soon afterward I saw that Julien was
giving me the 'cold shoulder,' as they say. His wife was evidently
undermining our friendship. By degrees he got rid of me, and we have
altogether ceased to meet.
"I never married, which ought not to surprise you, I think."
Two years ago this spring I was making a walking tour along the shore of
the Mediterranean. Is there anything more pleasant than to meditate
while walking at a good pace along a highway? One walks in the sunlight,
through the caressing breeze, at the foot of the mountains, along the
coast of the sea. And one dreams! What a flood of illusions, loves,
adventures pass through a pedestrian's mind during a two hours' march!
What a crowd of confused and joyous hopes enter into you with the mild,
light air! You drink them in with the breeze, and they awaken in your
heart a longing for happiness which increases with the hun ger induced by
walking. The fleeting, charming ideas fly and sing like birds.
I was following that long road which goes from Saint Raphael to Italy,
or, rather, that long, splendid panoramic highway which seems made for
the representation of all the love-poems of earth. And I thought that
from Cannes, where one poses, to Monaco, where one gambles, people come
to this spot of the earth for hardly any other purpose than to get
embroiled or to throw away money on chance games, displaying under this
delicious sky and in this garden of roses and oranges all base vanities
and foolish pretensions and vile lusts, showing up the human mind such as
it is, servile, ignorant, arrogant and full of cupidity.
Suddenly I saw some villas in one of those ravishing bays that one meets
at every turn of the mountain; there were only four or five fronting the
sea at the foot of the mountains, and behind them a wild fir wood slopes
into two great valleys, that were untraversed by roads. I stopped short
before one of these chalets, it was so pretty: a small white house with
brown trimmings, overrun with rambler roses up to the top.
The garden was a mass of flowers, of all colors and all kinds, mixed in a
coquettish, well-planned disorder. The lawn was full of them, big pots
flanked each side of every step of the porch, pink or yellow clusters
framed each window, and the terrace with the stone balustrade, which
enclosed this pretty little dwelling, had a garland of enormous red
bells, like drops of blood. Behind the house I saw a long avenue of
orange trees in blossom, which went up to the foot of the mountain.
Over the door appeared the name, "Villa d'Antan," in small gold letters.
I asked myself what poet or what fairy was living there, what inspired,
solitary being had discovered this spot and created this dream house,
which seemed to nestle in a nosegay.
A workman was breaking stones up the street, and I went to him to ask the
name of the proprietor of this jewel.
"It is Madame Julie Romain," he replied.
Julie Romain! In my childhood, long ago, I had heard them speak of this
great actress, the rival of Rachel.
No woman ever was more applauded and more loved--especially more loved!
What duets and suicides on her account and what sensational adventures!
How old was this seductive woman now? Sixty, seventy, seventy-five!
Julie Romain here, in this house! The woman who had been adored by the
greatest musician and the most exquisite poet of our land! I still
remember the sensation (I was then twelve years of age) which her flight
to Sicily with the latter, after her rupture with the former, caused
She had left one evening, after a premiere, where the audience had
applauded her for a whole half hour, and had recalled her eleven times in
succession. She had gone away with the poet, in a post-chaise, as was
the fashion then; they had crossed the sea, to love each other in that
antique island, the daughter of Greece, in that immense orange wood which
surrounds Palermo, and which is called the "Shell of Gold."
People told of their ascension of Mount Etna and how they had leaned over
the immense crater, arm in arm, cheek to cheek, as if to throw themselves
into the very abyss.
Now he was dead, that maker of verses so touching and so profound that
they turned, the heads of a whole generation, so subtle and so mysterious
that they opened a new world to the younger poets.
The other one also was dead--the deserted one, who had attained through
her musical periods that are alive in the memories of all, periods of
triumph and of despair, intoxicating triumph and heartrending despair.
And she was there, in that house veiled by flowers.
I did not hesitate, but rang the bell.
A small servant answered, a boy of eighteen with awkward mien and clumsy
hands. I wrote in pencil on my card a gallant compliment to the actress,
begging her to receive me. Perhaps, if she knew my name, she would open
her door to me.
The little valet took it in, and then came back, asking me to follow him.
He led me to a neat and decorous salon, furnished in the Louis-Philippe
style, with stiff and heavy furniture, from which a little maid of
sixteen, slender but not pretty, took off the covers in my honor.
Then I was left alone.
On the walls hung three portraits, that of the actress in one of her
roles, that of the poet in his close-fitting greatcoat and the ruffled
shirt then in style, and that of the musician seated at a piano.
She, blond, charming, but affected, according to the fashion of her day,
was smiling, with her pretty mouth and blue eyes; the painting was
careful, fine, elegant, but lifeless.
Those faces seemed to be already looking upon posterity.
The whole place had the air of a bygone time, of days that were done and
men who had vanished.
A door opened and a little woman entered, old, very old, very small, with
white hair and white eyebrows, a veritable white mouse, and as quick and
furtive of movement.
She held out her hand to me, saying in a voice still fresh, sonorous and
"Thank you, monsieur. How kind it is of the men of to-day to remember
the women of yesterday! Sit down."
I told her that her house had attracted me, that I had inquired for the
proprietor's name, and that, on learning it, I could not resist the
desire to ring her bell.
"This gives me all the more pleasure, monsieur," she replied, "as it is
the first time that such a thing has happened. When I received your
card, with the gracious note, I trembled as if an old friend who had
disappeared for twenty years had been announced to me. I am like a dead
body, whom no one remembers, of whom no one will think until the day when
I shall actually die; then the newspapers will mention Julie Romain for
three days, relating anecdotes and details of my life, reviving memories,
and praising me greatly. Then all will be over with me."
After a few moments of silence, she continued:
"And this will not be so very long now. In a few months, in a few days,
nothing will remain but a little skeleton of this little woman who is now
She raised her eyes toward her portrait, which smiled down upon this
caricature of herself; then she looked at those of the two men, the
disdainful poet and the inspired musician, who seemed to say: "What does
this ruin want of us?"
An indefinable, poignant, irresistible sadness overwhelmed my heart, the
sadness of existences that have had their day, but who are still debating
with their memories, like a person drowning in deep water.
From my seat I could see on the highroad the handsome carriages that were
whirling from Nice to Monaco; inside them I saw young, pretty, rich and
happy women and smiling, satisfied men. Following my eye, she understood
my thought and murmured with a smile of resignation:
"One cannot both be and have been."
"How beautiful life must have been for you!" I said.
She heaved a great sigh.
"Beautiful and sweet! And for that reason I regret it so much."
I saw that she was disposed to talk of herself, so I began to question
her, gently and discreetly, as one might touch bruised flesh.
She spoke of her successes, her intoxications and her friends, of her
whole triumphant existence.
"Was it on the stage that you found your most intense joys, your true
happiness?" I asked.
"Oh, no!" she replied quickly.
I smiled; then, raising her eyes to the two portraits, she said, with a
"It was with them."
"Which one?" I could not help asking.
"Both. I even confuse them up a little now in my old woman's memory, and
then I feel remorse."
"Then, madame, your acknowledgment is not to them, but to Love itself.
They were merely its interpreters."
"That is possible. But what interpreters!"
"Are you sure that you have not been, or that you might not have been,
loved as well or better by a simple man, but not a great man, who would
have offered to you his whole life and heart, all his thoughts, all his
days, his whole being, while these gave you two redoubtable rivals, Music
"No, monsieur, no!" she exclaimed emphatically, with that still youthful
voice, which caused the soul to vibrate. "Another one might perhaps have
loved me more, but he would not have loved me as these did. Ah! those
two sang to me of the music of love as no one else in the world could
have sung of it. How they intoxicated me! Could any other man express
what they knew so well how to express in tones and in words? Is it
enough merely to love if one cannot put all the poetry and all the music
of heaven and earth into love? And they knew how to make a woman
delirious with songs and with words. Yes, perhaps there was more of
illusion than of reality in our passion; but these illusions lift you
into the clouds, while realities always leave you trailing in the dust.
If others have loved me more, through these two I have understood, felt
and worshipped love."
Suddenly she began to weep.
She wept silently, shedding tears of despair.
I pretended not to see, looking off into the distance. She resumed,
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