Original Maupassant Short Stories, Vol. 6.
by Guy de Maupassant
THAT COSTLY RIDE
The household lived frugally on the meager income derived from the
husband's insignificant appointments. Two children had been born of the
marriage, and the earlier condition of the strictest economy had become
one of quiet, concealed, shamefaced misery, the poverty of a noble
family--which in spite of misfortune never forgets its rank.
Hector de Gribelin had been educated in the provinces, under the paternal
roof, by an aged priest. His people were not rich, but they managed to
live and to keep up appearances.
At twenty years of age they tried to find him a position, and he entered
the Ministry of Marine as a clerk at sixty pounds a year. He foundered
on the rock of life like all those who have not been early prepared for
its rude struggles, who look at life through a mist, who do not know how
to protect themselves, whose special aptitudes and faculties have not
been developed from childhood, whose early training has not developed the
rough energy needed for the battle of life or furnished them with tool or
His first three years of office work were a martyrdom.
He had, however, renewed the acquaintance of a few friends of his family
--elderly people, far behind the times, and poor like himself, who lived
in aristocratic streets, the gloomy thoroughfares of the Faubourg Saint-
Germain ; and he had created a social circle for himself.
Strangers to modern life, humble yet proud, these needy aristocrats lived
in the upper stories of sleepy, old-world houses. From top to bottom of
their dwellings the tenants were titled, but money seemed just as scarce
on the ground floor as in the attics.
Their eternal prejudices, absorption in their rank, anxiety lest they
should lose caste, filled the minds and thoughts of these families once
so brilliant, now ruined by the idleness of the men of the family.
Hector de Gribelin met in this circle a young girl as well born and as
poor as himself and married her.
They had two children in four years.
For four years more the husband and wife, harassed by poverty, knew no
other distraction than the Sunday walk in the Champs-Elysees and a few
evenings at the theatre (amounting in all to one or two in the course of
the winter) which they owed to free passes presented by some comrade or
But in the spring of the following year some overtime work was entrusted
to Hector de Gribelin by his chief, for which he received the large sum
of three hundred francs.
The day he brought the money home he said to his wife:
"My dear Henrietta, we must indulge in some sort of festivity--say an
outing for the children."
And after a long discussion it was decided that they should go and lunch
one day in the country.
"Well," cried Hector, "once will not break us, so we'll hire a wagonette
for you, the children and the maid. And I'll have a saddle horse; the
exercise will do me good."
The whole week long they talked of nothing but the projected excursion.
Every evening, on his return from the office, Hector caught up his elder
son, put him astride his leg, and, making him bounce up and down as hard
as he could, said:
"That's how daddy will gallop next Sunday."
And the youngster amused himself all day long by bestriding chairs,
dragging them round the room and shouting:
"This is daddy on horseback!"
The servant herself gazed at her master with awestruck eyes as she
thought of him riding alongside the carriage, and at meal-times she
listened with all her ears while he spoke of riding and recounted the
exploits of his youth, when he lived at home with his father. Oh, he had
learned in a good school, and once he felt his steed between his legs he
feared nothing--nothing whatever!
Rubbing his hands, he repeated gaily to his wife:
"If only they would give me a restive animal I should be all the better
pleased. You'll see how well I can ride; and if you like we'll come back
by the Champs-Elysees just as all the people are returning from the Bois.
As we shall make a good appearance, I shouldn't at all object to meeting
some one from the ministry. That is all that is necessary to insure the
respect of one's chiefs."
On the day appointed the carriage and the riding horse arrived at the
same moment before the door. Hector went down immediately to examine his
mount. He had had straps sewn to his trousers and flourished in his hand
a whip he had bought the evening before.
He raised the horse's legs and felt them one after another, passed his
hand over the animal's neck, flank and hocks, opened his mouth, examined
his teeth, declared his age; and then, the whole household having
collected round him, he delivered a discourse on the horse in general and
the specimen before him in particular, pronouncing the latter excellent
in every respect.
When the rest of the party had taken their seats in the carriage he
examined the saddle-girth; then, putting his foot in the stirrup, he
sprang to the saddle. The animal began to curvet and nearly threw his
Hector, not altogether at his ease, tried to soothe him:
"Come, come, good horse, gently now!"
Then, when the horse had recovered his equanimity and the rider his
nerve, the latter asked:
"Are you ready?"
The occupants of the carriage replied with one voice:
"Forward!" he commanded.
And the cavalcade set out.
All looks were centered on him. He trotted in the English style, rising
unnecessarily high in the saddle; looking at times as if he were mounting
into space. Sometimes he seemed on the point of falling forward on the
horse's mane; his eyes were fixed, his face drawn, his cheeks pale.
His wife, holding one of the children on her knees, and the servant, who
was carrying the other, continually cried out:
"Look at papa! look at papa!"
And the two boys, intoxicated by the motion of the carriage, by their
delight and by the keen air, uttered shrill cries. The horse, frightened
by the noise they made, started off at a gallop, and while Hector was
trying to control his steed his hat fell off, and the driver had to get
down and pick it up. When the equestrian had recovered it he called to
his wife from a distance:
"Don't let the children shout like that! They'll make the horse bolt!"
They lunched on the grass in the Vesinet woods, having brought provisions
with them in the carriage.
Although the driver was looking after the three horses, Hector rose every
minute to see if his own lacked anything; he patted him on the neck and
fed him with bread, cakes and sugar.
"He's an unequal trotter," he declared. "He certainly shook me up a
little at first, but, as you saw, I soon got used to it. He knows his
master now and won't give any more trouble."
As had been decided, they returned by the Champs-Elysees.
That spacious thoroughfare literally swarmed with vehicles of every kind,
and on the sidewalks the pedestrians were so numerous that they looked
like two indeterminate black ribbons unfurling their length from the Arc
de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. A flood of sunlight played on
this gay scene, making the varnish of the carriages, the steel of the
harness and the handles of the carriage doors shine with dazzling
An intoxication of life and motion seemed to have invaded this assemblage
of human beings, carriages and horses. In the distance the outlines of
the Obelisk could be discerned in a cloud of golden vapor.
As soon as Hector's horse had passed the Arc de Triomphe he became
suddenly imbued with fresh energy, and, realizing that his stable was not
far off, began to trot rapidly through the maze of wheels, despite all
his rider's efforts to restrain him.
The carriage was now far behind. When the horse arrived opposite the
Palais de l'Industrie he saw a clear field before him, and, turning to
the right, set off at a gallop.
An old woman wearing an apron was crossing the road in leisurely fashion.
She happened to be just in Hector's way as he arrived on the scene riding
at full speed. Powerless to control his mount, he shouted at the top of
"Hi! Look out there! Hi!"
She must have been deaf, for she continued peacefully on her way until
the awful moment when, struck by the horse's chest as by a locomotive
under full steam, she rolled ten paces off, turning three somersaults on
Hector, frantic with terror, clung to the horse's mane and shouted:
A terrible jolt hurled him, as if shot from a gun, over his horse's ears
and cast him into the arms of a policeman who was running up to stop him.
In the space of a second a furious, gesticulating, vociferating group had
gathered round him. An old gentleman with a white mustache, wearing a
large round decoration, seemed particularly exasperated. He repeated:
"Confound it! When a man is as awkward as all that he should remain at
home and not come killing people in the streets, if he doesn't know how
to handle a horse."
Four men arrived on the scene, carrying the old woman. She appeared to
be dead. Her skin was like parchment, her cap on one side and she was
covered with dust.
"Take her to a druggist's," ordered the old gentleman, "and let us go to
the commissary of police."
Hector started on his way with a policeman on either side of him, a third
was leading his horse. A crowd followed them--and suddenly the wagonette
appeared in sight. His wife alighted in consternation, the servant lost
her head, the children whimpered. He explained that he would soon be at
home, that he had knocked a woman down and that there was not much the
matter. And his family, distracted with anxiety, went on their way.
When they arrived before the commissary the explanation took place in few
words. He gave his name--Hector de Gribelin, employed at the Ministry of
Marine; and then they awaited news of the injured woman. A policeman who
had been sent to obtain information returned, saying that she had
recovered consciousness, but was complaining of frightful internal pain.
She was a charwoman, sixty-five years of age, named Madame Simon.
When he heard that she was not dead Hector regained hope and promised to
defray her doctor's bill. Then he hastened to the druggist's. The door
way was thronged; the injured woman, huddled in an armchair, was
groaning. Her arms hung at her sides, her face was drawn. Two doctors
were still engaged in examining her. No bones were broken, but they
feared some internal lesion.
Hector addressed her:
"Do you suffer much?"
"Where is the pain?"
"I feel as if my stomach were on fire."
A doctor approached.
"Are you the gentleman who caused the accident?"
"This woman ought to be sent to a home. I know one where they would take
her at six francs a day. Would you like me to send her there?"
Hector was delighted at the idea, thanked him and returned home much
His wife, dissolved in tears, was awaiting him. He reassured her.
"It's all right. This Madame Simon is better already and will be quite
well in two or three days. I have sent her to a home. It's all right."
When he left his office the next day he went to inquire for Madame Simon.
He found her eating rich soup with an air of great satisfaction.
"Well?" said he.
"Oh, sir," she replied, "I'm just the same. I feel sort of crushed--not
a bit better."
The doctor declared they must wait and see; some complication or other
Hector waited three days, then he returned. The old woman, fresh-faced
and clear-eyed, began to whine when she saw him:
"I can't move, sir; I can't move a bit. I shall be like this for the
rest of my days."
A shudder passed through Hector's frame. He asked for the doctor, who
merely shrugged his shoulders and said:
"What can I do? I can't tell what's wrong with her. She shrieks when
they try to raise her. They can't even move her chair from one place to
another without her uttering the most distressing cries. I am bound to
believe what she tells me; I can't look into her inside. So long as I
have no chance of seeing her walk I am not justified in supposing her to
be telling lies about herself."
The old woman listened, motionless, a malicious gleam in her eyes.
A week passed, then a fortnight, then a month. Madame Simon did not
leave her armchair. She ate from morning to night, grew fat, chatted
gaily with the other patients and seemed to enjoy her immobility as if it
were the rest to which she was entitled after fifty years of going up and
down stairs, of turning mattresses, of carrying coal from one story to
another, of sweeping and dusting.
Hector, at his wits' end, came to see her every day. Every day he found
her calm and serene, declaring:
"I can't move, sir; I shall never be able to move again."
Every evening Madame de Gribelin, devoured with anxiety, said:
"How is Madame Simon?"
And every time he replied with a resignation born of despair:
"Just the same; no change whatever.
They dismissed the servant, whose wages they could no longer afford.
They economized more rigidly than ever. The whole of the extra pay had
been swallowed up.
Then Hector summoned four noted doctors, who met in consultation over the
old woman. She let them examine her, feel her, sound her, watching them
the while with a cunning eye.
"We must make her walk," said one.
"But, sirs, I can't!" she cried. "I can't move!"
Then they took hold of her, raised her and dragged her a short distance,
but she slipped from their grasp and fell to the floor, groaning and
giving vent to such heartrending cries that they carried her back to her
seat with infinite care and precaution.
They pronounced a guarded opinion--agreeing, however, that work was an
impossibility to her.
And when Hector brought this news to his wife she sank on a chair,
"It would be better to bring her here; it would cost us less."
He started in amazement.
"Here? In our own house? How can you think of such a thing?"
But she, resigned now to anything, replied with tears in her eyes:
"But what can we do, my love? It's not my fault!"
About half-past five one afternoon at the end of June when the sun was
shining warm and bright into the large courtyard, a very elegant victoria
with two beautiful black horses drew up in front of the mansion.
The Comtesse de Mascaret came down the steps just as her husband, who was
coming home, appeared in the carriage entrance. He stopped for a few
moments to look at his wife and turned rather pale. The countess was
very beautiful, graceful and distinguished looking, with her long oval
face, her complexion like yellow ivory, her large gray eyes and her black
hair; and she got into her carriage without looking at him, without even
seeming to have noticed him, with such a particularly high-bred air, that
the furious jealousy by which he had been devoured for so long again
gnawed at his heart. He went up to her and said: "You are going for a
She merely replied disdainfully: "You see I am!"
"In the Bois de Boulogne?"
"May I come with you?"
"The carriage belongs to you."
Without being surprised at the tone in which she answered him, he got in
and sat down by his wife's side and said: "Bois de Boulogne." The
footman jumped up beside the coachman, and the horses as usual pranced
and tossed their heads until they were in the street. Husband and wife
sat side by side without speaking. He was thinking how to begin a
conversation, but she maintained such an obstinately hard look that he
did not venture to make the attempt. At last, however, he cunningly,
accidentally as it were, touched the countess' gloved hand with his own,
but she drew her arm away with a movement which was so expressive of
disgust that he remained thoughtful, in spite of his usual authoritative
and despotic character, and he said: "Gabrielle!"
"What do you want?"
"I think you are looking adorable."
She did not reply, but remained lying back in the carriage, looking like
an irritated queen. By that time they were driving up the Champs
Elysees, toward the Arc de Triomphe. That immense monument, at the end
of the long avenue, raised its colossal arch against the red sky and the
sun seemed to be descending on it, showering fiery dust on it from the
The stream of carriages, with dashes of sunlight reflected in the silver
trappings of the harness and the glass of the lamps, flowed on in a
double current toward the town and toward the Bois, and the Comte de
Mascaret continued: "My dear Gabrielle!"
Unable to control herself any longer, she replied in an exasperated
voice: "Oh! do leave me in peace, pray! I am not even allowed to have
my carriage to myself now." He pretended not to hear her and continued:
"You never have looked so pretty as you do to-day."
Her patience had come to an end, and she replied with irrepressible
anger: "You are wrong to notice it, for I swear to you that I will never
have anything to do with you in that way again."
The count was decidedly stupefied and upset, and, his violent nature
gaining the upper hand, he exclaimed: "What do you mean by that?" in a
tone that betrayed rather the brutal master than the lover. She replied
in a low voice, so that the servants might not hear amid the deafening
noise of the wheels: "Ah! What do I mean by that? What do I mean by
that? Now I recognize you again! Do you want me to tell everything?"
"Everything that has weighed on my heart since I have been the victim of
your terrible selfishness?"
He had grown red with surprise and anger and he growled between his
closed teeth: "Yes, tell me everything."
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a big red beard, a handsome
man, a nobleman, a man of the world, who passed as a perfect husband and
an excellent father, and now, for the first time since they had started,
she turned toward him and looked him full in the face: "Ah! You will
hear some disagreeable things, but you must know that I am prepared for
everything, that I fear nothing, and you less than any one to-day."
He also was looking into her eyes and was already shaking with rage as he
said in a low voice: "You are mad."
"No, but I will no longer be the victim of the hateful penalty of
maternity, which you have inflicted on me for eleven years! I wish to
take my place in society as I have the right to do, as all women have the
right to do."
He suddenly grew pale again and stammered: "I do not understand you."
"Oh! yes; you understand me well enough. It is now three months since I
had my last child, and as I am still very beautiful, and as, in spite of
all your efforts you cannot spoil my figure, as you just now perceived,
when you saw me on the doorstep, you think it is time that I should think
of having another child."
"But you are talking nonsense!"
"No, I am not, I am thirty, and I have had seven children, and we have
been married eleven years, and you hope that this will go on for ten
years longer, after which you will leave off being jealous."
He seized her arm and squeezed it, saying: "I will not allow you to talk
to me like that much longer."
"And I shall talk to you till the end, until I have finished all I have
to say to you, and if you try to prevent me, I shall raise my voice so
that the two servants, who are on the box, may hear. I only allowed you
to come with me for that object, for I have these witnesses who will
oblige you to listen to me and to contain yourself, so now pay attention
to what I say. I have always felt an antipathy to you, and I have always
let you see it, for I have never lied, monsieur. You married me in spite
of myself; you forced my parents, who were in embarrassed circumstances,
to give me to you, because you were rich, and they obliged me to marry
you in spite of my tears.
"So you bought me, and as soon as I was in your power, as soon as I had
become your companion, ready to attach myself to you, to forget your
coercive and threatening proceedings, in order that I might only remember
that I ought to be a devoted wife and to love you as much as it might be
possible for me to love you, you became jealous, you, as no man has ever
been before, with the base, ignoble jealousy of a spy, which was as
degrading to you as it was to me. I had not been married eight months
when you suspected me of every perfidiousness, and you even told me so.
What a disgrace! And as you could not prevent me from being beautiful
and from pleasing people, from being called in drawing-rooms and also in
the newspapers one of the most beautiful women in Paris, you tried
everything you could think of to keep admirers from me, and you hit upon
the abominable idea of making me spend my life in a constant state of
motherhood, until the time should come when I should disgust every man.
Oh, do not deny it. I did not understand it for some time, but then I
guessed it. You even boasted about it to your sister, who told me of it,
for she is fond of me and was disgusted at your boorish coarseness.
"Ah! Remember how you have behaved in the past! How for eleven years
you have compelled me to give up all society and simply be a mother to
your children. And then you would grow disgusted with me and I was sent
into the country, the family chateau, among fields and meadows. And when
I reappeared, fresh, pretty and unspoiled, still seductive and constantly
surrounded by admirers, hoping that at last I should live a little more
like a rich young society woman, you were seized with jealousy again, and
you began once more to persecute me with that infamous and hateful desire
from which you are suffering at this moment by my side. And it is not
the desire of possessing me--for I should never have refused myself to
you, but it is the wish to make me unsightly.
"And then that abominable and mysterious thing occurred which I was a
long time in understanding (but I grew sharp by dint of watching your
thoughts and actions): You attached yourself to your children with all
the security which they gave you while I bore them. You felt affection
for them, with all your aversion to me, and in spite of your ignoble
fears, which were momentarily allayed by your pleasure in seeing me lose
"Oh! how often have I noticed that joy in you! I have seen it in your
eyes and guessed it. You loved your children as victories, and not
because they were of your own blood. They were victories over me, over
my youth, over my beauty, over my charms, over the compliments which were
paid me and over those that were whispered around me without being paid
to me personally. And you are proud of them, you make a parade of them,
you take them out for drives in your break in the Bois de Boulogne and
you give them donkey rides at Montmorency. You take them to theatrical
matinees so that you may be seen in the midst of them, so that the people
may say: 'What a kind father' and that it may be repeated----"
He had seized her wrist with savage brutality, and he squeezed it so
violently that she was quiet and nearly cried out with the pain and he
said to her in a whisper:
"I love my children, do you hear? What you have just told me is
disgraceful in a mother. But you belong to me; I am master--your master
--I can exact from you what I like and when I like--and I have the law-on
He was trying to crush her fingers in the strong grip of his large,
muscular hand, and she, livid with pain, tried in vain to free them from
that vise which was crushing them. The agony made her breathe hard and
the tears came into her eyes. "You see that I am the master and the
stronger," he said. When he somewhat loosened his grip, she asked him:
"Do you think that I am a religious woman?"
He was surprised and stammered "Yes."
"Do you think that I could lie if I swore to the truth of anything to you
before an altar on which Christ's body is?"
"Will you go with me to some church?"
"You shall see. Will you?"
"If you absolutely wish it, yes."
She raised her voice and said: "Philippe!" And the coachman, bending down
a little, without taking his eyes from his horses, seemed to turn his ear
alone toward his mistress, who continued: "Drive to St. Philippe-du-
Roule." And the-victoria, which had reached the entrance of the Bois de
Boulogne returned to Paris.
Husband and wife (did riot exchange a word further during the drive, and
when the carriage stopped before the church Madame de Mascaret jumped out
and entered it, followed by the count, a few yards distant. She went,
without stopping, as far as the choir-screen, and falling on her knees at
a chair, she buried her face in her hands. She prayed for a long time,
and he, standing behind her could see that she was crying. She wept
noiselessly, as women weep when they are in great, poignant grief. There
was a kind of undulation in her body, which ended in a little sob, which
was hidden and stifled by her fingers.
But the Comte de Mascaret thought that the situation was lasting too
long, and he touched her on the shoulder. That contact recalled her to
herself, as if she had been burned, and getting up, she looked straight
into his eyes. "This is what I have to say to you. I am afraid of
nothing, whatever you may do to me. You may kill me if you like. One of
your children is not yours, and one only; that I swear to you before God,
who hears me here. That was the only revenge that was possible for me in
return for all your abominable masculine tyrannies, in return for the
penal servitude of childbearing to which you have condemned me. Who was
my lover? That you never will know! You may suspect every one, but you
never will find out. I gave myself to him, without love and without
pleasure, only for the sake of betraying you, and he also made me a
mother. Which is the child? That also you never will know. I have
seven; try to find out! I intended to tell you this later, for one has
not avenged oneself on a man by deceiving him, unless he knows it. You
have driven me to confess it today. I have now finished."
She hurried through the church toward the open door, expecting to hear
behind her the quick step: of her husband whom she had defied and to be
knocked to the ground by a blow of his fist, but she heard nothing and
reached her carriage. She jumped into it at a bound, overwhelmed with
anguish and breathless with fear. So she called out to the coachman:
"Home!" and the horses set off at a quick trot.
The Comtesse de Mascaret was waiting in her room for dinner time as a
criminal sentenced to death awaits the hour of his execution. What was
her husband going to do? Had he come home? Despotic, passionate, ready
for any violence as he was, what was he meditating, what had he made up
his mind to do? There was no sound in the house, and every moment she
looked at the clock. Her lady's maid had come and dressed her for the
evening and had then left the room again. Eight o'clock struck and
almost at the same moment there were two knocks at the door, and the
butler came in and announced dinner.
"Has the count come in?"
"Yes, Madame la Comtesse. He is in the diningroom."
For a little moment she felt inclined to arm herself with a small
revolver which she had bought some time before, foreseeing the tragedy
which was being rehearsed in her heart. But she remembered that all the
children would be there, and she took nothing except a bottle of smelling
salts. He rose somewhat ceremoniously from his chair. They exchanged a
slight bow and sat down. The three boys with their tutor, Abbe Martin,
were on her right and the three girls, with Miss Smith, their English
governess, were on her left. The youngest child, who was only three
months old, remained upstairs with his nurse.
The abbe said grace as usual when there was no company, for the children
did not come down to dinner when guests were present. Then they began
dinner. The countess, suffering from emotion, which she had not
calculated upon, remained with her eyes cast down, while the count
scrutinized now the three boys and now the three girls. with an
uncertain, unhappy expression, which travelled from one to the other.
Suddenly pushing his wineglass from him, it broke, and the wine was spilt
on the tablecloth, and at the slight noise caused by this little accident
the countess started up from her chair; and for the first time they
looked at each other. Then, in spite of themselves, in spite of the
irritation of their nerves caused by every glance, they continued to
exchange looks, rapid as pistol shots.
The abbe, who felt that there was some cause for embarrassment which he
could not divine, attempted to begin a conversation and tried various
subjects, but his useless efforts gave rise to no ideas and did not bring
out a word. The countess, with feminine tact and obeying her instincts
of a woman of the world, attempted to answer him two or three times, but
in vain. She could not find words, in the perplexity of her mind, and
her own voice almost frightened her in the silence of the large room,
where nothing was heard except the slight sound of plates and knives and
Suddenly her husband said to her, bending forward: "Here, amid your
children, will you swear to me that what you told me just now is true?"
The hatred which was fermenting in her veins suddenly roused her, and
replying to that question with the same firmness with which she had
replied to his looks, she raised both her hands, the right pointing
toward the boys and the left toward the girls, and said in a firm,
resolute voice and without any hesitation: "On the head of my children,
I swear that I have told you the truth."
He got up and throwing his table napkin on the table with a movement of
exasperation, he turned round and flung his chair against the wall, and
then went out without another word, while she, uttering a deep sigh, as
if after a first victory, went on in a calm voice: "You must not pay any
attention to what your father has just said, my darlings; he was very
much upset a short time ago, but he will be all right again in a few
Then she talked with the abbe and Miss Smith and had tender, pretty words
for all her children, those sweet, tender mother's ways which unfold
When dinner was over she went into the drawing-room, all her children
following her. She made the elder ones chatter, and when their bedtime
came she kissed them for a long time and then went alone into her room.
She waited, for she had no doubt that the count would come, and she made
up her mind then, as her children were not with her, to protect herself
as a woman of the world as she would protect her life, and in the pocket
of her dress she put the little loaded revolver which she had bought a
few days previously. The hours went by, the hours struck, and every
sound was hushed in the house. Only the cabs, continued to rumble
through the streets, but their noise was only heard vaguely through the
shuttered and curtained windows.
She waited, full of nervous energy, without any fear of him now, ready
for anything, and almost triumphant, for she had found means of torturing
him continually during every moment of his life.
But the first gleam of dawn came in through the fringe at the bottom of
her curtain without his having come into her room, and then she awoke to
the fact, with much amazement, that he was not coming. Having locked and
bolted her door, for greater security, she went to bed at last and
remained there, with her eyes open, thinking and barely understanding it
all, without being able to guess what he was going to do.
When her maid brought her tea she at the same time handed her a letter
from her husband. He told her that he was going to undertake a longish
journey and in a postscript added that his lawyer would provide her with
any sums of money she might require for all her expenses.
It was at the opera, between two acts of "Robert the Devil." In the
stalls the men were standing up, with their hats on, their waistcoats cut
very low so as to show a large amount of white shirt front, in which gold
and jewelled studs glistened, and were looking at the boxes full of
ladies in low dresses covered with diamonds and pearls, who were
expanding like flowers in that illuminated hothouse, where the beauty of
their faces and the whiteness of their shoulders seemed to bloom in order
to be gazed at, amid the sound of the music and of human voices.
Two friends, with their backs to the orchestra, were scanning those rows
of elegance, that exhibition of real or false charms, of jewels, of
luxury and of pretension which displayed itself in all parts of the Grand
Theatre, and one of them, Roger de Salnis, said to his companion, Bernard
"Just look how beautiful the Comtesse de Mascaret still is."
The older man in turn looked through his opera glasses at a tall lady in
a box opposite. She appeared to be still very young, and her striking
beauty seemed to attract all eyes in every corner of the house. Her pale
complexion, of an ivory tint, gave her the appearance of a statue, while
a small diamond coronet glistened on her black hair like a streak of
When he had looked at her for some time, Bernard Grandin replied with a
jocular accent of sincere conviction: "You may well call her beautiful!"
"How old do you think she is?"
"Wait a moment. I can tell you exactly, for I have known her since she
was a child and I saw her make her debut into society when she was quite
a girl. She is--she is--thirty--thirty-six."
"I am sure of it."
"She looks twenty-five."
"She has had seven children."
"It is incredible."
"And what is more, they are all seven alive, as she is a very good
mother. I occasionally go to the house, which is a very quiet and
pleasant one, where one may see the phenomenon of the family in the midst
"How very strange! And have there never been any reports about her?"
"But what about her husband? He is peculiar, is he not?"
"Yes and no. Very likely there has been a little drama between them, one
of those little domestic dramas which one suspects, never finds out
exactly, but guesses at pretty closely."
"What is it?"
"I do not know anything about it. Mascaret leads a very fast life now,
after being a model husband. As long as he remained a good spouse he had
a shocking temper, was crabbed and easily took offence, but since he has
been leading his present wild life he has become quite different, But one
might surmise that he has some trouble, a worm gnawing somewhere, for he
has aged very much."
Thereupon the two friends talked philosophically for some minutes about
the secret, unknowable troubles which differences of character or perhaps
physical antipathies, which were not perceived at first, give rise to in
families, and then Roger de Salnis, who was still looking at Madame de
Mascaret through his opera glasses, said: "It is almost incredible that
that woman can have had seven children!"
"Yes, in eleven years; after which, when she was thirty, she refused to
have any more, in order to take her place in society, which she seems
likely to do for many years."
"Why do you pity them?"
"Why? Ah! my dear fellow, just consider! Eleven years in a condition of
motherhood for such a woman! What a hell! All her youth, all her
beauty, every hope of success, every poetical ideal of a brilliant life
sacrificed to that abominable law of reproduction which turns the normal
woman into a mere machine for bringing children into the world."
"What would you have? It is only Nature!"
"Yes, but I say that Nature is our enemy, that we must always fight
against Nature, for she is continually bringing us back to an animal
state. You may be sure that God has not put anything on this earth that
is clean, pretty, elegant or accessory to our ideal; the human brain has
done it. It is man who has introduced a little grace, beauty, unknown
charm and mystery into creation by singing about it, interpreting it, by
admiring it as a poet, idealizing it as an artist and by explaining it
through science, doubtless making mistakes, but finding ingenious
reasons, hidden grace and beauty, unknown charm and mystery in the
various phenomena of Nature. God created only coarse beings, full of the
germs of disease, who, after a few years of bestial enjoyment, grow old
and infirm, with all the ugliness and all the want of power of human
decrepitude. He seems to have made them only in order that they may
reproduce their species in an ignoble manner and then die like ephemeral
insects. I said reproduce their species in an ignoble manner and I
adhere to that expression. What is there as a matter of fact more
ignoble and more repugnant than that act of reproduction of living
beings, against which all delicate minds always have revolted and always
will revolt? Since all the organs which have been invented by this
economical and malicious Creator serve two purposes, why did He not
choose another method of performing that sacred mission, which is the
noblest and the most exalted of all human functions? The mouth, which
nourishes the body by means of material food, also diffuses abroad speech
and thought. Our flesh renews itself of its own accord, while we are
thinking about it. The olfactory organs, through which the vital air
reaches the lungs, communicate all the perfumes of the world to the
brain: the smell of flowers, of woods, of trees, of the sea. The ear,
which enables us to communicate with our fellow men, has also allowed us
to invent music, to create dreams, happiness, infinite and even physical
pleasure by means of sound! But one might say that the cynical and
cunning Creator wished to prohibit man from ever ennobling and idealizing
his intercourse with women. Nevertheless man has found love, which is
not a bad reply to that sly Deity, and he has adorned it with so much
poetry that woman often forgets the sensual part of it. Those among us
who are unable to deceive themselves have invented vice and refined
debauchery, which is another way of laughing at God and paying homage,
immodest homage, to beauty.
"But the normal man begets children just like an animal coupled with
another by law.
"Look at that woman! Is it not abominable to think that such a jewel,
such a pearl, born to be beautiful, admired, feted and adored, has spent
eleven years of her life in providing heirs for the Comte de Mascaret?"
Bernard Grandin replied with a laugh: "There is a great deal of truth in
all that, but very few people would understand you."
Salnis became more and more animated. "Do you know how I picture God
myself?" he said. "As an enormous, creative organ beyond our ken, who
scatters millions of worlds into space, just as one single fish would
deposit its spawn in the sea. He creates because it is His function as
God to do so, but He does not know what He is doing and is stupidly
prolific in His work and is ignorant of the combinations of all kinds
which are produced by His scattered germs. The human mind is a lucky
little local, passing accident which was totally unforeseen, and
condemned to disappear with this earth and to recommence perhaps here or
elsewhere the same or different with fresh combinations of eternally new
beginnings. We owe it to this little lapse of intelligence on His part
that we are very uncomfortable in this world which was not made for us,
which had not been prepared to receive us, to lodge and feed us or to
satisfy reflecting beings, and we owe it to Him also that we have to
struggle without ceasing against what are still called the designs of
Providence, when we are really refined and civilized beings."
Grandin, who was listening to him attentively as he had long known the
surprising outbursts of his imagination, asked him: "Then you believe
that human thought is the spontaneous product of blind divine
"Naturally! A fortuitous function of the nerve centres of our brain,
like the unforeseen chemical action due to new mixtures and similar also
to a charge of electricity, caused by friction or the unexpected
proximity of some substance, similar to all phenomena caused by the
infinite and fruitful fermentation of living matter.
"But, my dear fellow, the truth of this must be evident to any one who
looks about him. If the human mind, ordained by an omniscient Creator,
had been intended to be what it has become, exacting, inquiring,
agitated, tormented--so different from mere animal thought and
resignation--would the world which was created to receive the beings
which we now are have been this unpleasant little park for small game,
this salad patch, this wooded, rocky and spherical kitchen garden where
your improvident Providence had destined us to live naked, in caves or
under trees, nourished on the flesh of slaughtered animals, our brethren,
or on raw vegetables nourished by the sun and the rain?
"But it is sufficient to reflect for a moment, in order to understand
that this world was not made for such creatures as we are. Thought,
which is developed by a miracle in the nerves of the cells in our brain,
powerless, ignorant and confused as it is, and as it will always remain,
makes all of us who are intellectual beings eternal and wretched exiles
"Look at this earth, as God has given it to those who inhabit it. Is it
not visibly and solely made, planted and covered with forests for the
sake of animals? What is there for us? Nothing. And for them,
everything, and they have nothing to do but to eat or go hunting and eat
each other, according to their instincts, for God never foresaw
gentleness and peaceable manners; He only foresaw the death of creatures
which were bent on destroying and devouring each other. Are not the
quail, the pigeon and the partridge the natural prey of the hawk? the
sheep, the stag and the ox that of the great flesh-eating animals, rather
than meat to be fattened and served up to us with truffles, which have
been unearthed by pigs for our special benefit?
"As to ourselves, the more civilized, intellectual and refined we are,
the more we ought to conquer and subdue that animal instinct, which
represents the will of God in us. And so, in order to mitigate our lot
as brutes, we have discovered and made everything, beginning with houses,
then exquisite food, sauces, sweetmeats, pastry, drink, stuffs, clothes,
ornaments, beds, mattresses, carriages, railways and innumerable
machines, besides arts and sciences, writing and poetry. Every ideal
comes from us as do all the amenities of life, in order to make our
existence as simple reproducers, for which divine Providence solely
intended us, less monotonous and less hard.
"Look at this theatre. Is there not here a human world created by us,
unforeseen and unknown to eternal fate, intelligible to our minds alone,
a sensual and intellectual distraction, which has been invented solely by
and for that discontented and restless little animal, man?
"Look at that woman, Madame de Mascaret. God intended her to live in a
cave, naked or wrapped up in the skins of wild animals. But is she not
better as she is? But, speaking of her, does any one know why and how
her brute of a husband, having such a companion by his side, and
especially after having been boorish enough to make her a mother seven
times, has suddenly left her, to run after bad women?"
Grandin replied: "Oh! my dear fellow, this is probably the only reason.
He found that raising a family was becoming too expensive, and from
reasons of domestic economy he has arrived at the same principles which
you lay down as a philosopher."
Just then the curtain rose for the third act, and they turned round, took
off their hats and sat down.
The Comte and Comtesse Mascaret were sitting side by side in the carriage
which was taking them home from the Opera, without speaking but suddenly
the husband said to his wife: "Gabrielle!"
"What do you want?"
"Don't you think that this has lasted long enough?"
"The horrible punishment to which you have condemned me for the last six
"What do you want? I cannot help it."
"Then tell me which of them it is."
"Think that I can no longer see my children or feel them round me,
without having my heart burdened with this doubt. Tell me which of them
it is, and I swear that I will forgive you and treat it like the others."
"I have not the right to do so."
"Do you not see that I can no longer endure this life, this thought which
is wearing me out, or this question which I am constantly asking myself,
this question which tortures me each time I look at them? It is driving
"Then you have suffered a great deal?" she said.
"Terribly. Should I, without that, have accepted the horror of living by
your side, and the still greater horror of feeling and knowing that there
is one among them whom I cannot recognize and who prevents me from loving
"Then you have really suffered very much?" she repeated.
And he replied in a constrained and sorrowful voice:
"Yes, for do I not tell you every day that it is intolerable torture to
me? Should I have remained in that house, near you and them, if I did
not love them? Oh! You have behaved abominably toward me. All the
affection of my heart I have bestowed upon my children, and that you
know. I am for them a father of the olden time, as I was for you a
husband of one of the families of old, for by instinct I have remained a
natural man, a man of former days. Yes, I will confess it, you have made
me terribly jealous, because you are a woman of another race, of another
soul, with other requirements. Oh! I shall never forget the things you
said to me, but from that day I troubled myself no more about you. I did
not kill you, because then I should have had no means on earth of ever
discovering which of our--of your children is not mine. I have waited,
but I have suffered more than you would believe, for I can no longer
venture to love them, except, perhaps, the two eldest; I no longer
venture to look at them, to call them to me, to kiss them; I cannot take
them on my knee without asking myself, 'Can it be this one?' I have been
correct in my behavior toward you for six years, and even kind and
complaisant. Tell me the truth, and I swear that I will do nothing
He thought, in spite of the darkness of the carriage, that he could
perceive that she was moved, and feeling certain that she was going to
speak at last, he said: "I beg you, I beseech you to tell me" he said.
"I have been more guilty than you think perhaps," she replied, "but I
could no longer endure that life of continual motherhood, and I had only
one means of driving you from me. I lied before God and I lied, with my
hand raised to my children's head, for I never have wronged you."
He seized her arm in the darkness, and squeezing it as he had done on
that terrible day of their drive in the Bois de Boulogne, he stammered:
"Is that true?"
"It is true."
But, wild with grief, he said with a groan: "I shall have fresh doubts
that will never end! When did you lie, the last time or now? How am I
to believe you at present? How can one believe a woman after that? I
shall never again know what I am to think. I would rather you had said
to me, 'It is Jacques or it is Jeanne.'"
The carriage drove into the courtyard of the house and when it had drawn
up in front of the steps the count alighted first, as usual, and offered
his wife his arm to mount the stairs. As soon as they reached the first
floor he said: "May I speak to you for a few moments longer?" And she
replied, "I am quite willing."
They went into a small drawing-room and a footman, in some surprise,
lighted the wax candles. As soon as he had left the room and they were
alone the count continued: "How am I to know the truth? I have begged you
a thousand times to speak, but you have remained dumb, impenetrable,
inflexible, inexorable, and now to-day you tell me that you have been
lying. For six years you have actually allowed me to believe such a
thing! No, you are lying now, I do not know why, but out of pity for me,
She replied in a sincere and convincing manner: "If I had not done so, I
should have had four more children in the last six years!"
"Can a mother speak like that?"
"Oh!" she replied, "I do not feel that I am the mother of children who
never have been born; it is enough for me to be the mother of those that
I have and to love them with all my heart. I am a woman of the civilized
world, monsieur--we all are--and we are no longer, and we refuse to be,
mere females to restock the earth."
She got up, but he seized her hands. "Only one word, Gabrielle. Tell me
"I have just told you. I never have dishonored you."
He looked her full in the face, and how beautiful she was, with her gray
eyes, like the cold sky. In her dark hair sparkled the diamond coronet,
like a radiance. He suddenly felt, felt by a kind of intuition, that
this grand creature was not merely a being destined to perpetuate the
race, but the strange and mysterious product of all our complicated
desires which have been accumulating in us for centuries but which have
been turned aside from their primitive and divine object and have
wandered after a mystic, imperfectly perceived and intangible beauty.
There are some women like that, who blossom only for our dreams, adorned
with every poetical attribute of civilization, with that ideal luxury,
coquetry and esthetic charm which surround woman, a living statue that
brightens our life.
Her husband remained standing before her, stupefied at his tardy and
obscure discovery, confusedly hitting on the cause of his former jealousy
and understanding it all very imperfectly, and at last lie said: "I
believe you, for I feel at this moment that you are not lying, and before
I really thought that you were."
She put out her hand to him: "We are friends then?"
He took her hand and kissed it and replied: "We are friends. Thank you,
Then he went out, still looking at her, and surprised that she was still
so beautiful and feeling a strange emotion arising in him.
He was a clerk in the Bureau of Public Education and lived at
Batignolles. He took the omnibus to Paris every morning and always sat
opposite a girl, with whom he fell in love.
She was employed in a shop and went in at the same time every day. She
was a little brunette, one of those girls whose eyes are so dark that
they look like black spots, on a complexion like ivory. He always saw
her coming at the corner of the same street, and she generally had to run
to catch the heavy vehicle, and sprang upon the steps before the horses
had quite stopped. Then she got inside, out of breath, and, sitting
down, looked round her.
The first time that he saw her, Francois Tessier liked the face. One
sometimes meets a woman whom one longs to clasp in one's arms without
even knowing her. That girl seemed to respond to some chord in his
being, to that sort of ideal of love which one cherishes in the depths of
the heart, without knowing it.
He looked at her intently, not meaning to be rude, and she became
embarrassed and blushed. He noticed it, and tried to turn away his eyes;
but he involuntarily fixed them upon her again every moment, although he
tried to look in another direction; and, in a few days, they seemed to
know each other without having spoken. He gave up his place to her when
the omnibus was full, and got outside, though he was very sorry to do it.
By this time she had got so far as to greet him with a little smile; and,
although she always dropped her eyes under his looks, which she felt were
too ardent, yet she did not appear offended at being looked at in such a
They ended by speaking. A kind of rapid friendship had become
established between them, a daily freemasonry of half an hour, and that
was certainly one of the most charming half hours in his life to him.
He thought of her all the rest of the day, saw her image continually
during the long office hours. He was haunted and bewitched by that
floating and yet tenacious recollection which the form of a beloved woman
leaves in us, and it seemed to him that if he could win that little
person it would be maddening happiness to him, almost above human
Every morning she now shook hands with him, and he preserved the sense of
that touch and the recollection of the gentle pressure of her little
fingers until the next day, and he almost fancied that he preserved the
imprint on his palm. He anxiously waited for this short omnibus ride,
while Sundays seemed to him heartbreaking days. However, there was no
doubt that she loved him, for one Saturday, in spring, she promised to go
and lunch with him at Maisons-Laffitte the next day.
She was at the railway station first, which surprised him, but she said:
"Before going, I want to speak to you. We have twenty minutes, and that
is more than I shall take for what I have to say."
She trembled as she hung on his arm, and looked down, her cheeks pale, as
she continued: "I do not want you to be deceived in me, and I shall not
go there with you, unless you promise, unless you swear--not to do--not
to do anything--that is at all improper."
She had suddenly become as red as a poppy, and said no more. He did not
know what to reply, for he was happy and disappointed at the same time.
He should love her less, certainly, if he knew that her conduct was
light, but then it would be so charming, so delicious to have a little
As he did not say anything, she began to speak again in an agitated voice
and with tears in her eyes. "If you do not promise to respect me
altogether, I shall return home." And so he squeezed her arm tenderly
and replied: "I promise, you shall only do what you like." She appeared
relieved in mind, and asked, with a smile: "Do you really mean it?" And
he looked into her eyes and replied: "I swear it" "Now you may take the
tickets," she said.
During the journey they could hardly speak, as the carriage was full, and
when they reached Maisons-Laffite they went toward the Seine. The sun,
which shone full on the river, on the leaves and the grass, seemed to be
reflected in their hearts, and they went, hand in hand, along the bank,
looking at the shoals of little fish swimming near the bank, and they
walked on, brimming over with happiness, as if they were walking on air.
At last she said: "How foolish you must think me!"
"Why?" he asked. "To come out like this, all alone with you."
"Certainly not; it is quite natural." "No, no; it is not natural for me
--because I do not wish to commit a fault, and yet this is how girls
fall. But if you only knew how wretched it is, every day the same thing,
every day in the month and every month in the year. I live quite alone
with mamma, and as she has had a great deal of trouble, she is not very
cheerful. I do the best I can, and try to laugh in spite of everything,
but I do not always succeed. But, all the same, it was wrong in me to
come, though you, at any rate, will not be sorry."
By way of an answer, he kissed her ardently on the ear that was nearest
him, but she moved from him with an abrupt movement, and, getting
suddenly angry, exclaimed: "Oh! Monsieur Francois, after what you swore
to me!" And they went back to Maisons-Laffitte.
They had lunch at the Petit-Havre, a low house, buried under four
enormous poplar trees, by the side of the river. The air, the heat, the
weak white wine and the sensation of being so close together made them
silent; their faces were flushed and they had a feeling of oppression;
but, after the coffee, they regained their high spirits, and, having
crossed the Seine, started off along the bank, toward the village of La
Frette. Suddenly he asked: "What-is your name?"
"Louise," he repeated and said nothing more.
The girl picked daisies and made them into a great bunch, while he sang
vigorously, as unrestrained as a colt that has been turned into a meadow.
On their left a vine-covered slope followed the river. Francois stopped
motionless with astonishment: "Oh, look there!" he said.
The vines had come to an end, and the whole slope was covered with lilac
bushes in flower. It was a purple wood! A kind of great carpet of
flowers stretched over the earth, reaching as far as the village, more
than two miles off. She also stood, surprised and delighted, and
murmured: "Oh! how pretty!" And, crossing a meadow, they ran toward
that curious low hill, which, every year, furnishes all the lilac that is
drawn through Paris on the carts of the flower venders.
There was a narrow path beneath the trees, so they took it, and when they
came to a small clearing, sat down.
Swarms of flies were buzzing around them and making a continuous, gentle
sound, and the sun, the bright sun of a perfectly still day, shone over
the bright slopes and from that forest of blossoms a powerful fragrance
was borne toward them, a breath of perfume, the breath of the flowers.
A church clock struck in the distance, and they embraced gently, then,
without the knowledge of anything but that kiss, lay down on the grass.
But she soon came to herself with the feeling of a great misfortune, and
began to cry and sob with grief, with her face buried in her hands.
He tried to console her, but she wanted to start to return and to go home
immediately; and she kept saying, as she walked along quickly: "Good
heavens! good heavens!"
He said to her: "Louise! Louise! Please let us stop here." But now her
cheeks were red and her eyes hollow, and, as soon as they got to the
railway station in Paris, she left him without even saying good-by.
When he met her in the omnibus, next day, she appeared to him to be
changed and thinner, and she said to him: "I want to speak to you; we
will get down at the Boulevard."
As soon as they were on the pavement, she said:
"We must bid each other good-by; I cannot meet you again." "But why?" he
asked. "Because I cannot; I have been culpable, and I will not be so
Then he implored her, tortured by his love, but she replied firmly: "No,
I cannot, I cannot." He, however, only grew all the more excited and
promised to marry her, but she said again: "No," and left him.
For a week he did not see her. He could not manage to meet her, and, as
he did not know her address, he thought that he had lost her altogether.
On the ninth day, however, there was a ring at his bell, and when he
opened the door, she was there. She threw herself into his arms and did
not resist any longer, and for three months they were close friends.
He was beginning to grow tired of her, when she whispered something to
him, and then he had one idea and wish: to break with her at any price.
As, however, he could not do that, not knowing how to begin, or what to
say, full of anxiety through fear of the consequences of his rash
indiscretion, he took a decisive step: one night he changed his lodgings
The blow was so heavy that she did not look, for the man who had
abandoned her, but threw herself at her mother's knees and confessed her
misfortune, and, some months after, gave birth to a boy.
Years passed, and Francois Tessier grew old, without there having been
any alteration in his life. He led the dull, monotonous life of an
office clerk, without hope and without expectation. Every day he got up
at the same time, went through the same streets, went through the same
door, past the same porter, went into the same office, sat in the same
chair, and did the same work. He was alone in the world, alone during
the day in the midst of his different colleagues, and alone at night in
his bachelor's lodgings, and he laid by a hundred francs a month against
Every Sunday he went to the Champs-Elysees, to watch the elegant people,
the carriages and the pretty women, and the next day he used to say to
one of his colleagues: "The return of the carriages from the Bois du
Boulogne was very brilliant yesterday." One fine Sunday morning,
however, he went into the Parc Monceau, where the mothers and nurses,
sitting on the sides of the walks, watched the children playing, and
suddenly Francois Tessier started. A woman passed by, holding two
children by the hand, a little boy of about ten and a little girl of
four. It was she!
He walked another hundred yards anti then fell into a chair, choking with
emotion. She had not recognized him, and so he came back, wishing to see
her again. She was sitting down now, and the boy was standing by her
side very quietly, while the little girl was making sand castles. It was
she, it was certainly she, but she had the reserved appearance of a lady,
was dressed simply, and looked self-possessed and dignified. He looked
at her from a distance, for he did not venture to go near; but the little
boy raised his head, and Francois Tessier felt himself tremble. It was
his own son, there could be no doubt of that. And, as he looked at him,
he thought he could recognize himself as he appeared in an old photograph
taken years ago. He remained hidden behind a tree, waiting for her to go
that he might follow her.
He did not sleep that night. The idea of the child especially tormented
him. His son! Oh, if he could only have known, have been sure! But
what could he have done? However, he went to the house where she lived
and asked about her. He was told that a neighbor, an honorable man of
strict morals, had been touched by her distress and had married her; he
knew the fault she had committed and had married her, and had even
recognized the child, his, Francois Tessier's child, as his own.
He returned to the Parc Monceau every Sunday, for then he always saw her,
and each time he was seized with a mad, an irresistible longing to take
his son into his arms, to cover him with kisses and to steal him, to
carry him off.
He suffered horribly in his wretched isolation as an old bachelor, with
nobody to care for him, and he also suffered atrocious mental torture,
torn by paternal tenderness springing from remorse, longing and jealousy
and from that need of loving one's own children which nature has
implanted in all. At last he determined to make a despairing attempt,
and, going up to her, as she entered the park, he said, standing in the
middle of the path, pale and with trembling lips: "You do not recognize
me." She raised her eyes, looked at him, uttered an exclamation of
horror, of terror, and, taking the two children by the hand, she rushed
away, dragging them after her, while he went home and wept inconsolably.
Months passed without his seeing her again, but he suffered, day and
night, for he was a prey to his paternal love. He would gladly have
died, if he could only have kissed his son; he would have committed
murder, performed any task, braved any danger, ventured anything. He
wrote to her, but she did not reply, and, after writing her some twenty
letters, he saw that there was no hope of altering her determination, and
then he formed the desperate resolution of writing to her husband, being
quite prepared to receive a bullet from a revolver, if need be. His
letter only consisted of a few lines, as follows:
"Monsieur: You must have a perfect horror of my name, but I am so
wretched, so overcome by misery that my only hope is in you, and,
therefore, I venture to request you to grant me an interview of only five
"I have the honor, etc."
The next day he received the reply:
"Monsieur: I shall expect you to-morrow, Tuesday, at five o'clock."
As he went up the staircase, Francois Tessier's heart beat so violently
that he had to stop several times. There was a dull and violent thumping
noise in his breast, as of some animal galloping; and he could breathe
only with difficulty, and had to hold on to the banisters, in order not
He rang the bell on the third floor, and when a maid servant had opened
the door, he asked: "Does Monsieur Flamel live here?" "Yes, monsieur.
Kindly come in."
He was shown into the drawing-room; he was alone, and waited, feeling
bewildered, as in the midst of a catastrophe, until a door opened, and a
man came in. He was tall, serious and rather stout, and wore a black
frock coat, and pointed to a chair with his hand. Francois Tessier sat
down, and then said, with choking breath: "Monsieur--monsieur--I do not
know whether you know my name--whether you know----"
Monsieur Flamel interrupted him. "You need not tell it me, monsieur, I
know it. My wife has spoken to me about you." He spoke in the dignified
tone of voice of a good man who wishes to be severe, and with the
commonplace stateliness of an honorable man, and Francois Tessier
"Well, monsieur, I want to say this: I am dying of grief, of remorse, of
shame, and I would like once, only once to kiss the child."
Monsieur Flamel got up and rang the bell, and when the servant came in,
he said: "Will you bring Louis here?" When she had gone out, they
remained face to face, without speaking, as they had nothing more to say
to one another, and waited. Then, suddenly, a little boy of ten rushed
into the room and ran up to the man whom he believed to be his father,
but he stopped when he saw the stranger, and Monsieur Flamel kissed him
and said: "Now, go and kiss that gentleman, my dear." And the child went
up to the stranger and looked at him.
Francois Tessier had risen. He let his hat fall, and was ready to fall
himself as he looked at his son, while Monsieur Flamel had turned away,
from a feeling of delicacy, and was looking out of the window.
The child waited in surprise; but he picked up the hat and gave it to the
stranger. Then Francois, taking the child up in his arms, began to kiss
him wildly all over his face; on his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth, his
hair; and the youngster, frightened at the shower of kisses, tried to
avoid them, turned away his head, and pushed away the man's face with his
little hands. But suddenly Francois Tessier put him down and cried:
"Good-by! good-by!" And he rushed out of the room as if he had been a
MY UNCLE SOSTHENES
Some people are Freethinkers from sheer stupidity. My Uncle Sosthenes
was one of these. Some people are often religious for the same reason.
The very sight of a priest threw my uncle into a violent rage. He would
shake his fist and make grimaces at him, and would then touch a piece of
iron when the priest's back was turned, forgetting that the latter action
showed a belief after all, the belief in the evil eye. Now, when beliefs
are unreasonable, one should have all or none at all. I myself am a
Freethinker; I revolt at all dogmas, but feel no anger toward places of
worship, be they Catholic, Apostolic, Roman, Protestant, Greek, Russian,
Buddhist, Jewish, or Mohammedan.
My uncle was a Freemason, and I used to declare that they are stupider
than old women devotees. That is my opinion, and I maintain it; if we
must have any religion at all, the old one is good enough for me.
What is their object? Mutual help to be obtained by tickling the palms
of each other's hands. I see no harm in it, for they put into practice
the Christian precept: "Do unto others as ye would they should do unto
you." The only difference consists in the tickling, but it does not seem
worth while to make such a fuss about lending a poor devil half a crown.
To all my arguments my uncle's reply used to be:
"We are raising up a religion against a religion; Free Thought will kill
clericalism. Freemasonry is the stronghold, of those who are demolishing
"Very well, my dear uncle," I would reply--in my heart I felt inclined to
say, "You old idiot! it is just that which I am blaming you for. Instead
of destroying, you are organizing competition; it is only a case of
lowering prices. And then, if you admitted only Freethinkers among you,
I could understand it, but you admit anybody. You have a number of
Catholics among you, even the leaders of the party. Pius IX is said to
have been one of you before he became pope. If you call a society with
such an organization a bulwark against clericalism, I think it is an
extremely weak one."
"My dear boy," my uncle would reply, with a wink, "we are most to be
dreaded in politics; slowly and surely we are everywhere undermining the
Then I broke out: "Yes, you are very clever! If you tell me that
Freemasonry is an election machine, I will grant it. I will never deny
that it is used as a machine to control candidates of all shades; if you
say that it is only used to hoodwink people, to drill them to go to the
polls as soldiers are sent under fire, I agree with you; if you declare
that it is indispensable to all political ambitions because it changes
all its members into electoral agents, I should say to you: 'That is as
clear as the sun.' But when you tell me that it serves to undermine the
monarchical spirit, I can only laugh in your face.
"Just consider that gigantic and secret democratic association which had
Prince Napoleon for its grand master under the Empire; which has the
Crown Prince for its grand master in Germany, the Czar's brother in
Russia, and to which the Prince of Wales and King Humbert, and nearly all
the crowned heads of the globe belong."
"You are quite right," my uncle said; "but all these persons are serving
our projects without guessing it."
I felt inclined to tell him he was talking a pack of nonsense.
It was, however, indeed a sight to see my uncle when he had a Freemason
On meeting they shook hands in a manner that was irresistibly funny; one
could see that they were going through a series of secret, mysterious
Then my uncle would take his friend into a corner to tell him something
important, and at dinner they had a peculiar way of looking at each
other, and of drinking to each other, in a manner as if to say: "We know
all about it, don't we?"
And to think that there are millions on the face of the globe who are
amused at such monkey tricks! I would sooner be a Jesuit.
Now, in our town there really was an old Jesuit who was my uncle's
detestation. Every time he met him, or if he only saw him at a distance,
he used to say: "Get away, you toad." And then, taking my arm, he would
whisper to me:
"See here, that fellow will play me a trick some day or other, I feel
sure of it."
My uncle spoke quite truly, and this was how it happened, and through my
It was close on Holy Week, and my uncle made up his mind to give a dinner
on Good Friday, a real dinner, with his favorite chitterlings and black
puddings. I resisted as much as I could, and said:
"I shall eat meat on that day, but at home, quite by myself. Your
manifestation, as you call it, is an idiotic idea. Why should you
manifest? What does it matter to you if people do not eat any meat?"
But my uncle would not be persuaded. He asked three of his friends to
dine with him at one of the best restaurants in the town, and as he was
going to pay the bill I had certainly, after all, no scruples about
At four o'clock we took a conspicuous place in the most frequented
restaurant in the town, and my uncle ordered dinner in a loud voice for
We sat down punctually, and at ten o'clock we had not yet finished. Five
of us had drunk eighteen bottles of choice, still wine and four of
champagne. Then my uncle proposed what he was in the habit of calling
"the archbishop's circuit." Each man put six small glasses in front of
him, each of them filled with a different liqueur, and they had all to be
emptied at one gulp, one after another, while one of the waiters counted
twenty. It was very stupid, but my uncle thought it was very suitable to
At eleven o'clock he was as drunk as a fly. So we had to take him home
in a cab and put him to bed, and one could easily foresee that his anti-
clerical demonstration would end in a terrible fit of indigestion.
As I was going back to my lodgings, being rather drunk myself, with a
cheerful drunkenness, a Machiavellian idea struck me which satisfied all
my sceptical instincts.
I arranged my necktie, put on a look of great distress, and went and,
rang loudly at the old Jesuit's door. As he was deaf he made me wait a
longish while, but at length appeared at his window in a cotton nightcap
and asked what I wanted.
I shouted out at the top of my voice:
"Make haste, reverend sir, and open the door; a poor, despairing, sick
man is in need of your spiritual ministrations."
The good, kind man put on his trousers as quickly as he could, and came
down without his cassock. I told him in a breathless voice that my
uncle, the Freethinker, had been taken suddenly ill, and fearing it was
going to be something serious, he had been seized with a sudden dread of
death, and wished to see the priest and talk to him; to have his advice
and comfort, to make his peace with the Church, and to confess, so as to
be able to cross the dreaded threshold at peace with himself; and I added
in a mocking tone:
"At any rate, he wishes it, and if it does him no good it can do him no
The old Jesuit, who was startled, delighted, and almost trembling, said
"Wait a moment, my son; I will come with you." But I replied: "Pardon
me, reverend father, if I do not go with you; but my convictions will not
allow me to do so. I even refused to come and fetch you, so I beg you
not to say that you have seen me, but to declare that you had a
presentiment--a sort of revelation of his illness.
The priest consented and went off quickly; knocked at my uncle's door,
and was soon let in; and I saw the black cassock disappear within that
stronghold of Free Thought.
I hid under a neighboring gateway to wait results. Had he been well, my
uncle would have half-murdered the Jesuit, but I knew that he would
scarcely be able to move an arm, and I asked myself gleefully what sort
of a scene would take place between these antagonists, what disputes,
what arguments, what a hubbub, and what would be the issue of the
situation, which my uncle's indignation would render still more tragic?
I laughed till my sides ached, and said half aloud: "Oh, what a joke,
what a joke!"
Meanwhile it was getting very cold, and I noticed that the Jesuit stayed
a long time, and I thought: "They are having an argument, I suppose."
One, two, three hours passed, and still the reverend father did not come
out. What had happened? Had my uncle died in a fit when he saw him, or
had he killed the cassocked gentleman? Perhaps they had mutually
devoured each other? This last supposition appeared very unlikely, for I
fancied that my uncle was quite incapable of swallowing a grain more
nourishment at that moment.
At last the day broke.
I was very uneasy, and, not venturing to go into the house myself, went
to one of my friends who lived opposite. I woke him up, explained
matters to him, much to his amusement and astonishment, and took
possession of his window.
At nine o'clock he relieved me, and I got a little sleep. At two o'clock
I, in my turn, replaced him. We were utterly astonished.
At six o'clock the Jesuit left, with a very happy and satisfied look on
his face, and we saw him go away with a quiet step.
Then, timid and ashamed, I went and knocked at the door of my uncle's
house; and when the servant opened it I did not dare to ask her any
questions, but went upstairs without saying a word.
My uncle was lying, pale and exhausted, with weary, sorrowful eyes and
heavy arms, on his bed. A little religious picture was fastened to one
of the bed curtains with a pin.
"Why, uncle," I said, "in bed still? Are you not well?"
He replied in a feeble voice:
"Oh, my dear boy, I have been very ill, nearly dead."
"How was that, uncle?"
"I don't know; it was most surprising. But what is stranger still is
that the Jesuit priest who has just left--you know, that excellent man
whom I have made such fun of--had a divine revelation of my state, and
came to see me."
I was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh, and with
difficulty said: "Oh, really!"
"Yes, he came. He heard a voice telling him to get up and come to me,
because I was going to die. I was a revelation."
I pretended to sneeze, so as not to burst out laughing; I felt inclined
to roll on the ground with amusement.
In about a minute I managed to say indignantly:
"And you received him, uncle? You, a Freethinker, a Freemason? You did
not have him thrown out of doors?"
He seemed confused, and stammered:
"Listen a moment, it is so astonishing--so astonishing and providential!
He also spoke to me about my father; it seems he knew him formerly."
"Your father, uncle? But that is no reason for receiving a Jesuit."
"I know that, but I was very ill, and he looked after me most devotedly
all night long. He was perfect; no doubt he saved my life; those men all
know a little of medicine."
"Oh! he looked after you all night? But you said just now that he had
only been gone a very short time."
"That is quite true; I kept him to breakfast after all his kindness. He
had it at a table by my bedside while I drank a cup of tea."
"And he ate meat?"
My uncle looked vexed, as if I had said something very uncalled for, and
"Don't joke, Gaston; such things are out of place at times. He has shown
me more devotion than many a relation would have done, and I expect to
have his convictions respected."
This rather upset me, but I answered, nevertheless: "Very well, uncle;
and what did you do after breakfast?"
"We played a game of bezique, and then he repeated his breviary while I
read a little book which he happened to have in his pocket, and which was
not by any means badly written."
"A religious book, uncle?"
"Yes, and no, or, rather--no. It is the history of their missions in
Central Africa, and is rather a book of travels and adventures. What
these men have done is very grand."
I began to feel that matters were going badly, so I got up. "Well, good-
by, uncle," I said, "I see you are going to give up Freemasonry for
religion; you are a renegade."
He was still rather confused, and stammered:
"Well, but religion is a sort of Freemasonry."
"When is your Jesuit coming back?" I asked.
"I don't--I don't know exactly; to-morrow, perhaps; but it is not
I went out, altogether overwhelmed.
My joke turned out very badly for me! My uncle became thoroughly
converted, and if that had been all I should not have cared so much.
Clerical or Freemason, to me it is all the same; six of one and half a
dozen of the other; but the worst of it is that he has just made his
will--yes, made his will--and he has disinherited me in favor of that
"Come with me," said my friend Boisrene, "you will see some very
interesting bric-a-brac and works of art there."
He conducted me to the first floor of an elegant house in one of the big
streets of Paris. We were welcomed by a very pleasing man, with
excellent manners, who led us from room to room, showing us rare things,
the price of which he mentioned carelessly. Large sums, ten, twenty,
thirty, fifty thousand francs, dropped from his lips with such grace and
ease that one could not doubt that this gentleman-merchant had millions
shut up in his safe.
I had known him by reputation for a long time Very bright, clever,
intelligent, he acted as intermediary in all sorts of transactions. He
kept in touch with all the richest art amateurs in Paris, and even of
Europe and America, knowing their tastes and preferences; he apprised
them by letter, or by wire if they lived in a distant city, as soon as he
knew of some work of art which might suit them.
Men of the best society had had recourse to him in times of difficulty,
either to find money for gambling, or to pay off a debt, or to sell a
picture, a family jewel, or a tapestry.
It was said that he never refused his services when he saw a chance of
Boisrene seemed very intimate with this strange merchant. They must have
worked together in many a deal. I observed the man with great interest.
He was tall, thin, bald, and very elegant. His soft, insinuating voice
had a peculiar, tempting charm which seemed to give the objects a special
value. When he held anything in his hands, he turned it round and round,
looking at it with such skill, refinement, and sympathy that the object
seemed immediately to be beautiful and transformed by his look and touch.
And its value increased in one's estimation, after the object had passed
from the showcase into his hands.
"And your Crucifix," said Boisrene, "that beautiful Renaissance Crucifix
which you showed me last year?"
The man smiled and answered:
"It has been sold, and in a very peculiar manner. There is a real
Parisian story for you! Would you like to hear it?"
"Do you know the Baroness Samoris?"
"Yes and no. I have seen her once, but I know what she is!"
"Would you mind telling me, so that I can see whether you are not
"Certainly. Mme. Samoris is a woman of the world who has a daughter,
without anyone having known her husband. At any rate, she is received in
a certain tolerant, or blind society. She goes to church and devoutly
partakes of Communion, so that everyone may know it, and she never
compromises herself. She expects her daughter to marry well. Is that
"Yes, but I will complete your information. She is a woman who makes
herself respected by her admirers in spite of everything. That is a rare
quality, for in this manner she can get what she wishes from a man. The
man whom she has chosen without his suspecting it courts her for a long
time, longs for her timidly, wins her with astonishment and possesses her
with consideration. He does not notice that he is paying, she is so
tactful; and she maintains her relations on such a footing of reserve and
dignity that he would slap the first man who dared doubt her in the
least. And all this in the best of faith.
"Several times I have been able to render little services to this woman.
She has no secrets from me.
"Toward the beginning of January she came to me in order to borrow thirty
thousand francs. Naturally, I did not lend them to her; but, as I wished
to oblige her, I told her to explain her situation to me completely, so
that I might see whether there was not something I could do for her.
"She told me her troubles in such cautious language that she could not
have spoken more delicately of her child's first communion. I finally
managed to understand that times were hard, and that she was penniless.
"The commercial crisis, political unrest, rumors of war, had made money
scarce even in the hands of her clients. And then, of course, she was
"She would associate only with a man in the best of society, who could
strengthen her reputation as well as help her financially. A reveller,
no matter how rich, would have compromised her forever, and would have
made the marriage of her daughter quite doubtful.
"She had to maintain her household expenses and continue to entertain, in
order not to lose the opportunity of finding, among her numerous
visitors, the discreet and distinguished friend for whom she was waiting,
and whom she would choose.
"I showed her that my thirty thousand francs would have but little
likelihood of returning to me; for, after spending them all, she would
have to find at least sixty thousand more, in a lump, to pay me back.
"She seemed very disheartened when she heard this. I did not know just
what to do, when an idea, a really fine idea, struck me.
"I had just bought this Renaissance Crucifix which I showed you, an
admirable piece of workmanship, one of the finest of its land that I have
"'My dear friend,' I said to her, 'I am going to send you that piece of
ivory. You will invent some ingenious, touching, poetic story, anything
that you wish, to explain your desire for parting with it. It is, of
course, a family heirloom left you by your father.
"'I myself will send you amateurs, or will bring them to you. The rest
concerns you. Before they come I will drop you a line about their
position, both social and financial. This Crucifix is worth fifty
thousand francs; but I will let it go for thirty thousand. The
difference will belong to you.'
"She considered the matter seriously for several minutes, and then
answered: 'Yes, it is, perhaps, a good idea. I thank you very-much.'
"The next day I sent her my Crucifix, and the same evening the Baron de
"For three months I sent her my best clients, from a business point of
view. But I heard nothing more from her.
"One day I received a visit from a foreigner who spoke very little
French. I decided to introduce him personally to the baroness, in order
to see how she was getting along.
"A footman in black livery received us and ushered us into a quiet little
parlor, furnished with taste, where we waited for several minutes. She
appeared, charming as usual, extended her hand to me and invited us to be
seated; and when I had explained the reason of my visit, she rang.
"The footman appeared.
"'See if Mlle. Isabelle can let us go into her oratory.' The young girl
herself brought the answer. She was about fifteen years of age, modest
and good to look upon in the sweet freshness of her youth. She wished to
conduct us herself to her chapel.
"It was a kind of religious boudoir where a silver lamp was burning
before the Crucifix, my Crucifix, on a background of black velvet. The
setting was charming and very clever. The child crossed herself and then
"'Look, gentlemen. Isn't it beautiful?'
"I took the object, examined it and declared it to be remarkable. The
foreigner also examined it, but he seemed much more interested in the two
women than in the crucifix.
"A delicate odor of incense, flowers and perfume pervaded the whole
house. One felt at home there. This really was a comfortable home,
where one would have liked to linger.
"When we had returned to the parlor I delicately broached the subject of
the price. Mme. Samoris, lowering her eyes, asked fifty thousand francs.
"Then she added: 'If you wish to see it again, monsieur, I very seldom go
out before three o'clock; and I can be found at home every day.'
"In the street the stranger asked me for some details about the baroness,
whom he had found charming. But I did not hear anything more from either
"Three months passed by.
"One morning, hardly two weeks ago, she came here at about lunch time,
and, placing a roll of bills in my hand, said: 'My dear, you are an
angel! Here are fifty thousand francs; I am buying your crucifix, and I
am paying twenty thousand francs more for it than the price agreed upon,
on condition that you always--always send your clients to me--for it is
sill for sale.'"
MOTHER AND SON
A party of men were chatting in the smoking room after dinner. We were
talking of unexpected legacies, strange inheritances. Then M. le
Brument, who was sometimes called "the illustrious judge" and at other
times "the illustrious lawyer," went and stood with his back to the fire.
"I have," said he, "to search for an heir who disappeared under
peculiarly distressing circumstances. It is one of those simple and
terrible dramas of ordinary life, a thing which possibly happens every
day, and which is nevertheless one of the most dreadful things I know.
Here are the facts:
"Nearly six months ago I was called to the bedside of a dying woman. She
said to me:
"'Monsieur, I want to intrust to you the most delicate, the most
difficult, and the most wearisome mission that can be conceived. Be good
enough to notice my will, which is there on the table. A sum of five
thousand francs is left to you as a fee if you do not succeed, and of a
hundred thousand francs if you do succeed. I want you to find my son
after my death.'
"She asked me to assist her to sit up in bed, in order that she might
talk with greater ease, for her voice, broken and gasping, was whistling
in her throat.
"It was a very wealthy establishment. The luxurious apartment, of an
elegant simplicity, was upholstered with materials as thick as walls,
with a soft inviting surface.
"The dying woman continued:
"'You are the first to hear my horrible story. I will try to have
strength ,enough to finish it. You must know all, in order that you,
whom I know to be a kind-hearted man as well as a man of the world, may
have a sincere desire to aid me with all your power.
"'Listen to me:
"'Before my marriage, I loved a young man, whose suit was rejected by my
family because he was not rich enough. Not long afterward, I married a
man of great wealth. I married him through ignorance, through obedience,
through indifference, as young girls do marry.
"'I had a child, a boy. My husband died in the course of a few years.
"'He whom I had loved had married, in his turn. When he saw that I was
a widow, he was crushed by grief at knowing he was not free. He came to
see me; he wept and sobbed so bitterly, that it was enough to break my
heart. He came to see me at first as a friend. Perhaps I ought not to
have received him. What could I do? I was alone, so sad, so solitary,
so hopeless! And I loved him still. What sufferings we women have
sometimes to endure!
"'I had only him in the world, my parents being dead. He came
frequently; he spent whole evenings with me. I should not have let him
come so often, seeing that he was married. But I had not enough will-
power to prevent him from coming.
"'How can I tell it?--he became my lover. How did this come about? Can
I explain it? Can any one explain such things? Do you think it could be
otherwise when two human beings are drawn to each other by the
irresistible force of mutual affection? Do you believe, monsieur, that
it is always in our power to resist, that we can keep up the struggle
forever, and refuse to yield to the prayers, the supplications, the
tears, the frenzied words, the appeals on bended knees, the transports of
passion, with which we are pursued by the man we adore, whom we want to
gratify even in his slightest wishes, whom we desire to crown with every
possible happiness, and whom, if we are to be guided by a worldly code of
honor, we must drive to despair? What strength would it not require?
What a renunciation of happiness? what self-denial? and even what
"'In short, monsieur, I was his mistress; and I was happy. I became--and
this was my greatest weakness and my greatest piece of cowardice-I became
his wife's friend.
"'We brought up my son together; we made a man of him, a thorough man,
intelligent, full of sense and resolution, of large and generous ideas.
The boy reached the age of seventeen.
"'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,
after a few minutes:
"You see, monsieur, with nearly every one the heart ages with the body.
But this has not happened with me. My body is sixty-nine years old,
while my poor heart is only twenty. And that is the reason why I live
all alone, with my flowers and my dreams."
There was a long silence between us. She grew calmer and continued,
"How you would laugh at me, if you knew, if you knew how I pass my
evenings, when the weather is fine. I am ashamed and I pity myself at
the same time."
Beg as I might, she would not tell me what she did. Then I rose to
"Already!" she exclaimed.
And as I said that I wished to dine at Monte Carlo, she asked timidly:
"Will you not dine with me? It would give me a great deal of pleasure."
I accepted at once. She rang, delighted, and after giving some orders to
the little maid she took me over her house.
A kind of glass-enclosed veranda, filled with shrubs, opened into the
dining-room, revealing at the farther end the long avenue of orange trees
extending to the foot of the mountain. A low seat, hidden by plants,
indicated that the old actress often came there to sit down.
Then we went into the garden, to look at the flowers. Evening fell
softly, one of those calm, moist evenings when the earth breathes forth
all her perfumes. Daylight was almost gone when we sat down at table.
The dinner was good and it lasted a long time, and we became intimate
friends, she and I, when she understood what a profound sympathy she had
aroused in my heart. She had taken two thimblefuls of wine, as the
phrase goes, and had grown more confiding and expansive.
"Come, let us look at the moon," she said. "I adore the good moon. She
has been the witness of my most intense joys. It seems to me that all my
memories are there, and that I need only look at her to bring them all
back to me. And even--some times--in the evening--I offer to myself a
pretty play--yes, pretty--if you only knew! But no, you would laugh at
me. I cannot--I dare not--no, no--really--no."
I implored her to tell me what it was.
"Come, now! come, tell me; I promise you that I will not laugh. I swear
it to you--come, now!"
She hesitated. I took her hands--those poor little hands, so thin and so
cold!--and I kissed them one after the other, several times, as her
lovers had once kissed them. She was moved and hesitated.
"You promise me not to laugh?"
"Yes, I swear it to you."
"Well, then, come."
She rose, and as the little domestic, awkward in his green livery,
removed the chair behind her, she whispered quickly a few words into his
"Yes, madame, at once," he replied.
She took my arm and led me to the veranda.
The avenue of oranges was really splendid to see. The full moon made a
narrow path of silver, a long bright line, which fell on the yellow sand,
between the round, opaque crowns of the dark trees.
As these trees were in bloom, their strong, sweet perfume filled the
night, and swarming among their dark foliage I saw thousands of
fireflies, which looked like seeds fallen from the stars.
"Oh, what a setting for a love scene!" I exclaimed.
"Is it not true? Is it not true? You will see!"
And she made me sit down beside her.
"This is what makes one long for more life. But you hardly think of
these things, you men of to-day. You are speculators, merchants and men
You no longer even know how to talk to us. When I say 'you,' I mean
young men in general. Love has been turned into a liaison which very
often begins with an unpaid dressmaker's bill. If you think the bill is
dearer than the woman, you disappear; but if you hold the woman more
highly, you pay it. Nice morals--and a nice kind of love!"
She took my hand.
I looked, astonished and delighted. Down there at the end of the avenue,
in the moonlight, were two young people, with their arms around each
other's waist. They were walking along, interlaced, charming, with
short, little steps, crossing the flakes of light; which illuminated them
momentarily, and then sinking back into the shadow. The youth was
dressed in a suit of white satin, such as men wore in the eighteenth
century, and had on a hat with an ostrich plume. The girl was arrayed in
a gown with panniers, and the high, powdered coiffure of the handsome
dames of the time of the Regency.
They stopped a hundred paces from us, and standing in the middle of the
avenue, they kissed each other with graceful gestures.
Suddenly I recognized the two little servants. Then one of those
dreadful fits of laughter that convulse you made me writhe in my chair.
But I did not laugh aloud. I resisted, convulsed and feeling almost ill,
as a man whose leg is cut off resists the impulse to cry out.
As the young pair turned toward the farther end of the avenue they again
became delightful. They went farther and farther away, finally
disappearing as a dream disappears. I no longer saw them. The avenue
seemed a sad place.
I took my leave at once, so as not to see them again, for I guessed that
this little play would last a long time, awakening, as it did, a whole
past of love and of stage scenery; the artificial past, deceitful and
seductive, false but charming, which still stirred the heart of this
amorous old comedienne.
THE RONDOLI SISTERS
I set out to see Italy thoroughly on two occasions, and each time I was
stopped at the frontier and could not get any further. So I do not know
Italy, said my friend, Charles Jouvent. And yet my two attempts gave me
a charming idea of the manners of that beautiful country. Some time,
however, I must visit its cities, as well as the museums and works of art
with which it abounds. I will make another attempt to penetrate into the
interior, which I have not yet succeeded in doing.
You don't understand me, so I will explain: In the spring of 1874 I was
seized with an irresistible desire to see Venice, Florence, Rome and
Naples. I am, as you know, not a great traveller; it appears to me a
useless and fatiguing business. Nights spent in a train, the disturbed
slumbers of the railway carriage, with the attendant headache, and
stiffness in every limb, the sudden waking in that rolling box, the
unwashed feeling, with your eyes and hair full of dust, the smell of the
coal on which one's lungs feed, those bad dinners in the draughty
refreshment rooms are, according to my ideas, a horrible way of beginning
a pleasure trip.
After this introduction, we have the miseries of the hotel; of some great
hotel full of people, and yet so empty; the strange room and the doubtful
I am most particular about my bed; it is the sanctuary of life. We
entrust our almost naked and fatigued bodies to it so that they may be
reanimated by reposing between soft sheets and feathers.
There we find the most delightful hours of our existence, the hours of
love and of sleep. The bed is sacred, and should be respected, venerated
and loved by us as the best and most delightful of our earthly
I cannot lift up the sheets of a hotel bed without a shudder of disgust.
Who has occupied it the night before? Perhaps dirty, revolting people
have slept in it. I begin, then, to think of all the horrible people
with whom one rubs shoulders every day, people with suspicious-looking
skin which makes one think of the feet and all the rest! I call to mind
those who carry about with them the sickening smell of garlic or of
humanity. I think of those who are deformed and unhealthy, of the
perspiration emanating from the sick, of everything that is ugly and
filthy in man.
And all this, perhaps, in the bed in which I am about to sleep! The mere
idea of it makes me feel ill as I get into it.
And then the hotel dinners--those dreary table d'hote dinners in the
midst of all sorts of extraordinary people, or else those terrible
solitary dinners at a small table in a restaurant, feebly lighted by a
wretched composite candle under a shade.
Again, those terribly dull evenings in some un known town! Do you know
anything more wretched than the approach of. dusk on such an occasion?
One goes about as if almost in a dream, looking at faces that one never
has seen before and never will see again; listening to people talking
about matters which are quite indifferent to you in a language that
perhaps you do not understand. You have a terrible feeling, almost as if
you were lost, and you continue to walk on so as not to be obliged to
return to the hotel, where you would feel more lost still because you are
at home, in a home which belongs to anyone who can pay for it; and at
last you sink into a chair of some well-lighted cafe, whose gilding and
lights oppress you a thousand times more than the shadows in the streets.
Then you feel so abominably lonely sitting in front of the glass of flat
bock beer that a kind of madness seizes you, the longing to go somewhere
or other, no matter where, as long as you need not remain in front of
that marble table amid those dazzling lights.
And then, suddenly, you are aware that you are really alone in the world,
always and everywhere, and that in places which we know, the familiar
jostlings give us the illusion only of human fraternity. At such moments
of self-abandonment and sombre isolation in distant cities one thinks
broadly, clearly and profoundly. Then one suddenly sees the whole of
life outside the vision of eternal hope, apart from the deceptions of our
innate habits, and of our expectations of happiness, which we indulge in
dreams never to be realized.
It is only by going a long distance from home that we can fully
understand how short-lived and empty everything near at hand is; by
searching for the unknown, we perceive how commonplace and evanescent
everything is; only by wandering over the face of the earth can we
understand how small the world is, and how very much alike it is
How well I know, and how I hate and almost fear, those haphazard walks
through unknown streets; and this was the reason why, as nothing would
induce me to undertake a tour in Italy by myself, I made up my mind to
accompany my friend Paul Pavilly.
You know Paul, and how he idealizes women. To him the earth is habitable
only because they are there; the sun gives light and is warm because it
shines upon them; the air is soft and balmy because it blows upon their
skin and ruffles the soft hair on their temples; and the moon is charming
because it makes them dream and imparts a languorous charm to love.
Every act and action of Paul's has woman for its motive; all his
thoughts, all his efforts and hopes are centered in them.
When I mentioned Italy to Paul he at first absolutely refused to leave
Paris. I, however, began to tell him of the adventures I had on my
travels. I assured him that all Italian women are charming, and I made
him hope for the most refined pleasures at Naples, thanks to certain
letters of introduction which I had; and so at last he allowed himself to
We took the express one Thursday evening, Paul and I. Hardly anyone goes
south at that time of the year, so that we had the carriages to
ourselves, and both of us were in a bad temper on leaving Paris, sorry
for having yielded to the temptation of this journey, and regretting
Marly, the Seine, and our lazy boating excursions, and all those
pleasures in and near Paris which are so dear to every true Parisian.
As soon as the train started Paul stuck himself in his corner, and said,
"It is most idiotic to go all that distance," and as it was too late for
him to change his mind then, I said, "Well, you should not have come."
He made no answer, and I felt very much inclined to laugh when I saw how
furious he looked. He is certainly always rather like a squirrel, but
then every one of us has retained the type of some animal or other as the
mark of his primitive origin. How many people have jaws like a bulldog,
or heads like goats, rabbits, foxes, horses, or oxen. Paul is a squirrel
turned into a man. He has its bright, quick eyes, its hair, its pointed
nose, its small, fine, supple, active body, and a certain mysterious
resemblance in his general bearing; in fact, a similarity of movement, of
gesture, and of bearing which might almost be taken for a recollection.
At last we both went to sleep with that uncomfortable slumber of the
railway carriage, which is interrupted by horrible cramps in the arms and
neck, and by the sudden stoppages of the train.
We woke up as we were passing along the Rhone. Soon the continued noise
of crickets came in through the windows, that cry which seems to be the
voice of the warm earth, the song of Provence; and seemed to instill into
our looks, our breasts, and our souls the light and happy feeling of the
south, that odor of the parched earth, of the stony and light soil of the
olive with its gray-green foliage.
When the train stopped again a railway guard ran along the train calling
out "Valence" in a sonorous voice, with an accent that again gave us a
taste of that Provence which the shrill note of the crickets had already
imparted to us.
Nothing fresh happened till we got to Marseilles, where we alighted for
breakfast, but when we returned to our carriage we found a woman
Paul, with a delighted glance at me, gave his short mustache a mechanical
twirl, and passed his fingers through his, hair, which. had become
slightly out of order with the night's journey. Then he sat down
opposite the newcomer.
Whenever I happen to see a striking new face, either in travelling or in
society, I always have the strongest inclination to find out what
character, mind, and intellectual capacities are hidden beneath those
She was a young and pretty woman, certainly a native of the south of
France, with splendid eyes, beautiful wavy black hair, which was so thick
and long that it seemed almost too heavy for her head. She was dressed
with a certain southern bad taste which made her look a little vulgar.
Her regular features had none of the grace and finish of the refined
races, of that slight delicacy which members of the aristocracy inherit
from their birth, and which is the hereditary mark of thinner blood.
Her bracelets were too big to be of gold; she wore earrings with large
white stones that were certainly not diamonds, and she belonged
unmistakably to the People. One surmised that she would talk too loud,
and shout on every occasion with exaggerated gestures.
When the train started she remained motionless in her place, in the
attitude of a woman who was indignant, without even looking at us.
Paul began to talk to me, evidently with an eye to effect, trying to
attract her attention, as shopkeepers expose their choice wares to catch
the notice of passersby.
She, however, did not appear to be paying the least attention.
"Toulon! Ten minutes to wait! Refreshment room!" the porters shouted.
Paul motioned to me to get out, and as soon as we had done so, he said:
"I wonder who on earth she can be?"
I began to laugh. "I am sure I don't know, and I don't in the least
He was quite excited.
"She is an uncommonly fresh and pretty girl. What eyes she has, and how
cross she looks. She must have been dreadfully worried, for she takes no
notice of anything."
"You will have all your trouble for nothing," I growled.
He began to lose his temper.
"I am not taking any trouble, my dear fellow. I think her an extremely
pretty woman, that is all. If one could only speak to her! But I don't
know how to begin. Cannot you give me an idea? Can't you guess who she
"Upon my word, I cannot. However, I should rather think she is some
strolling actress who is going to rejoin her company after a love
He seemed quite upset, as if I had said something insulting.
"What makes you think that? On the contrary, I think she looks most
"Just look at her bracelets," I said, "her earrings and her whole dress.
I should not be the least surprised if she were a dancer or a circus
rider, but most likely a dancer. Her whole style smacks very much of the
He evidently did not like the idea.
"She is much too young, I am sure; why, she is hardly twenty."
"Well," I replied, "there are many things which one can do before one is
twenty; dancing and elocution are among them."
"Take your seats for Nice, Vintimiglia," the guards and porters called.
We got in; our fellow passenger was eating an orange, and certainly she
did not do it elegantly. She had spread her pocket-handkerchief on her
knees, and the way in which she tore off the peel and opened her mouth to
put in the pieces, and then spat the pips out of the window, showed that
her training had been decidedly vulgar.
She seemed, also, more put out than ever, and swallowed the fruit with an
exceedingly comic air of rage.
Paul devoured her with his eyes, and tried to attract her attention and
excite her curiosity; but in spite of his talk, and of the manner in
which he brought in well-known names, she did not pay the least attention
After passing Frejus and St. Raphael, the train passed through a
veritable garden, a paradise of roses, and groves of oranges and lemons
covered with fruits and flowers at the same time. That delightful coast
from Marseilles to Genoa is a kingdom of perfumes in a home of flowers.
June is the time to see it in all its beauty, when in every narrow valley
and on every slope, the most exquisite flowers are growing luxuriantly.
And the roses! fields, hedges, groves of roses. They climb up the walls,
blossom on the roofs, hang from the trees, peep out from among the
bushes; they are white, red, yellow, large and small, single, with a
simple self-colored dress, or full and heavy in brilliant toilettes.
Their breath makes the air heavy and relaxing, and the still more
penetrating odor of the orange blossoms sweetens the atmosphere till it
might almost be called the refinement of odor.
The shore, with its brown rocks, was bathed by the motionless
Mediterranean. The hot summer sun stretched like a fiery cloth over the
mountains, over the long expanses of sand, and over the motionless,
apparently solid blue sea. The train went on through the tunnels, along
the slopes, above the water, on straight, wall-like viaducts, and a soft,
vague, saltish smell, a smell of drying seaweed, mingled at times with
the strong, heavy perfume of the flowers.
But Paul neither saw, looked at, nor smelled anything, for our fellow
traveller engrossed all his attention.
When we reached Cannes, as he wished to speak to me he signed to me to
get out, and as soon as I did so, he took me by the arm.
"Do you know, she is really charming. Just look at her eyes; and I never
saw anything like her hair."
"Don't excite yourself," I replied, "or else address her, if you have any
intentions that way. She does not look unapproachable; I fancy, although
she appear to be a little bit grumpy."
"Why don't you speak to her?" he said.
"I don't know what to say, for I am always terribly stupid at first; I
can never make advances to a woman in the street. I follow them, go
round and round them, and quite close to them, but never know what to say
at first. I only once tried to enter into conversation with a woman in
that way. As I clearly saw that she was waiting for me to make
overtures, and as I felt bound to say something, I stammered out, 'I hope
you are quite well, madame?' She laughed in my face, and I made my
I promised Paul to do all I could to bring about a conversation, and when
we had taken our places again, I politely asked our neighbor:
"Have you any objection to the smell of tobacco, madame?"
She merely replied, "Non capisco."
So she was an Italian! I felt an absurd inclination to laugh. As Paul
did not understand a word of that language, I was obliged to act as his
interpreter, so I said in Italian:
"I asked you, madame, whether you had any objection to tobacco smoke?"
With an angry look she replied, "Che mi fa!"
She had neither turned her head nor looked at me, and I really did not
know whether to take this "What do I care" for an authorization, a
refusal, a real sign of indifference, or for a mere "Let me alone."
"Madame," I replied, "if you mind the smell of tobacco in the least--"
She again said, "Mica," in a tone which seemed to mean, "I wish to
goodness you would leave me alone!" It was, however, a kind of
permission, so I said to Paul:
"You may smoke."
He looked at me in that curious sort of way that people have when they
try to understand others who are talking in a strange language before
them, and asked me:
"What did you say to her?"
"I asked whether we might smoke, and she said we might do whatever we
Whereupon I lighted my cigar.
"Did she say anything more?"
"If you had counted her words you would have noticed that she used
exactly six, two of which gave me to understand that she knew no French,
so four remained, and much can be said in four words."
Paul seemed quite unhappy, disappointed, and at sea, so to speak.
But suddenly the Italian asked me, in that tone of discontent which
seemed habitual to her, "Do you know at what time we shall get to Genoa?"
"At eleven o'clock," I replied. Then after a moment I went on:
"My friend and I are also going to Genoa, and if we can be of any service
to you, we shall be very happy, as you are quite alone." But she
interrupted with such a "Mica!" that I did not venture on another word.
"What did she say?" Paul asked.
"She said she thought you were charming."
But he was in no humor for joking, and begged me dryly not to make fun of
him; so I translated her question and my polite offer, which had been so
Then he really became as restless as a caged squirrel.
"If we only knew," he said, "what hotel she was going to, we would go to
the same. Try to find out so as to have another opportunity to make her
It was not particularly easy, and I did not know what pretext to invent,
desirous as I was to make the acquaintance of this unapproachable person.
We passed Nice, Monaco, Mentone, and the train stopped at the frontier
for the examination of luggage.
Although I hate those ill-bred people who breakfast and dine in railway-
carriages, I went and bought a quantity of good things to make one last
attack on her by their means. I felt sure that this girl must,
ordinarily, be by no means inaccessible. Something had put her out and
made her irritable, but very little would suffice, a mere word or some
agreeable offer, to decide her and vanquish her.
We started again, and we three were still alone. I spread my eatables on
the seat. I cut up the fowl, put the slices of ham neatly on a piece of
paper, and then carefully laid out our dessert, strawberries, plums,
cherries and cakes, close to the girl.
When she saw that we were about to eat she took a piece of chocolate and
two little crisp cakes out of her pocket and began to munch them.
"Ask her to have some of ours," Paul said in a whisper.
"That is exactly what I wish to do, but it is rather a difficult matter."
As she, however, glanced from time to time at our provisions, I felt sure
that she would still be hungry when she had finished what she had with
her; so, as soon as her frugal meal was over, I said to her:
"It would be very kind of you if you would take some of this fruit."
Again she said "Mica!" but less crossly than before.
"Well, then," I said, "may I offer you a little wine? I see you have not
drunk anything. It is Italian wine, and as we are now in your own
country, we should be very pleased to see such a pretty Italian mouth
accept the offer of its French neighbors."
She shook her head slightly, evidently wishing to refuse, but very
desirous of accepting, and her mica this time was almost polite. I took
the flask, which was covered with straw in the Italian fashion, and
filling the glass, I offered it to her.
"Please drink it," I said, "to bid us welcome to your country."
She took the glass with her usual look, and emptied it at a draught, like
a woman consumed with thirst, and then gave it back to me without even
saying "Thank you."
I then offered her the cherries. "Please take some," I said; "we shall
be so glad if you will."
Out of her corner she looked at all the fruit spread out beside her, and
said so rapidly that I could scarcely follow her: "A me non piacciono ne
le ciriegie ne le susine; amo soltano le fragole."
"What does she say?" Paul asked.
"That she does riot care for cherries or plums, but only for
I put a newspaper full of wild strawberries on her lap, and she ate them
quickly, tossing them into her mouth from some distance in a coquettish
and charming manner.
When she had finished the little red heap, which soon disappeared under
the rapid action of her hands, I asked her:
"What may I offer you now?"
"I will take a little chicken," she replied.
She certainly devoured half of it, tearing it to pieces with the rapid
movements of her jaws like some carnivorous animal. Then she made up her
mind to have some cherries, which she "did not like," and then some
plums, then some little cakes. Then she said, "I have had enough," and
sat back in her corner.
I was much amused, and tried to make her eat more, insisting, in fact,
till she suddenly flew into a rage, and flung such a furious mica at me,
that I would no longer run the risk of spoiling her digestion.
I turned to my friend. "My poor Paul," I said, "I am afraid we have had
our trouble for nothing."
The night came on, one of those hot summer nights which extend their warm
shade over the burning and exhausted earth. Here and there, in the
distance, by the sea, on capes and promontories, bright stars, which I
was, at times, almost inclined to confound with lighthouses, began to
shine on the dark horizon:
The scent of the orange trees became more penetrating, and we breathed
with delight, distending our lungs to inhale it more deeply. The balmy
air was soft, delicious, almost divine.
Suddenly I noticed something like a shower of stars under the dense shade
of the trees along the line, where it was quite dark. It might have been
taken for drops of light, leaping, flying, playing and running among the
leaves, or for small stars fallen from the skies in order to have an
excursion on the earth; but they were only fireflies dancing a strange
fiery ballet in the perfumed air.
One of them happened to come into our carriage, and shed its intermittent
light, which seemed to be extinguished one moment and to be burning the
next. I covered the carriage-lamp with its blue shade and watched the
strange fly careering about in its fiery flight. Suddenly it settled on
the dark hair of our neighbor, who was half dozing after dinner. Paul
seemed delighted, with his eyes fixed on the bright, sparkling spot,
which looked like a living jewel on the forehead of the sleeping woman.
The Italian woke up about eleven o'clock, with the bright insect still in
her hair. When I saw her move, I said: "We are just getting to Genoa,
madame," and she murmured, without answering me, as if possessed by some
obstinate and embarrassing thought:
"What am I going to do, I wonder?"
And then she suddenly asked:
"Would you like me to come with you?"
I was so taken aback that I really did not understand her.
"With us? How do you mean?"
She repeated, looking more and more furious:
"Would you like me to be your guide now, as soon as we get out of the
"I am quite willing; but where do you want to go.
She shrugged her shoulders with an air of supreme indifference.
"Wherever you like; what does it matter to me?" She repeated her "Che mi
"But we are going to the hotel."
"Very well, let us all go to the hotel," she said, in a contemptuous
I turned to Paul, and said:
"She wishes to know whether we should like her to come with us."
My friend's utter surprise restored my self-possession. He stammered:
"With us? Where to? What for? How?"
"I don't know, but she made this strange proposal to me in a most
irritated voice. I told her that we were going to the hotel, and she
said: 'Very well, let us all go there!' I suppose she is without a penny.
She certainly has a very strange way of making acquaintances."
Paul, who 'was very much excited, exclaimed:
"I am quite agreeable. Tell her that we will go wherever she likes."
Then, after a moment's hesitation, he said uneasily:
"We must know, however, with whom she wishes to go--with you or with me?"
I turned to the Italian, who did not even seem to be listening to us, and
"We shall be very happy to have you with us, but my friend wishes to know
whether you will take my arm or his?"
She opened her black eyes wide with vague surprise, and said, "Che ni
I was obliged to explain myself. "In Italy, I believe, when a man looks
after a woman, fulfils all her wishes, and satisfies all her caprices, he
is called a patito. Which of us two will you take for your patito?"
Without the slightest hesitation she replied:
I turned to Paul. "You see, my friend, she chooses me; you have no
"All the better for you," he replied in a rage. Then, after thinking for
a few moments, he went on:
"Do you really care about taking this creature with you? She will spoil
our journey. What are we to do with this woman, who looks like I don't
know what? They will not take us in at any decent hotel."
I, however, just began to find the Italian much nicer than I had thought
her at first, and I was now very desirous to take her with us. The idea
I replied, "My dear fellow, we have accepted, and it is too late to
recede. You were the first to advise me to say 'Yes.'"
"It is very stupid," he growled, "but do as you please."
The train whistled, slackened speed, and we ran into the station.
I got out of the carriage, and offered my new companion my hand. She
jumped out lightly, and I gave her my arm, which she took with an air of
seeming repugnance. As soon as we had claimed our luggage we set off
into the town, Paul walking in utter silence.
"To what hotel shall we go?" I asked him. "It may be difficult to get
into the City of Paris with a woman, especially with this Italian."
Paul interrupted me. "Yes, with an Italian who looks more like a dancer
than a duchess. However, that is no business of mine. Do just as you
I was in a state of perplexity. I had written to the City of Paris to
retain our rooms, and now I did not know what to do.
Two commissionaires followed us with our luggage. I continued: "You
might as well go on first, and say that we are coming; and give the
landlord to understand that I have a--a friend with me and that we should
like rooms quite by themselves for us three, so as not to be brought in
contact with other travellers. He will understand, and we will decide
according to his answer."
But Paul growled, "Thank you, such commissions and such parts do not suit
me, by any means. I did not come here to select your apartments or to
minister to your pleasures."
But I was urgent: "Look here, don't be angry. It is surely far better to
go to a good hotel than to a bad one, and it is not difficult to ask the
landlord for three separate bedrooms and a dining-room."
I put a stress on three, and that decided him.
He went on first, and I saw him go into a large hotel while I remained on
the other side of the street, with my fair Italian, who did not say a
word, and followed the porters with the luggage.
Paul came back at last, looking as dissatisfied as my companion.
"That is settled," he said, "and they will take us in; but here are only
two bedrooms. You must settle it as you can."
I followed him, rather ashamed of going in with such a strange companion.
There were two bedrooms separated by a small sitting-room. I ordered a
cold supper, and then I turned to the Italian with a perplexed look.
"We have only been able to get two rooms, so you must choose which you
She replied with her eternal "Che mi fa!" I thereupon took up her little
black wooden trunk, such as servants use, and took it into the room on
the right, which I had chosen for her. A bit of paper was fastened to
the box, on which was written, Mademoiselle Francesca Rondoli, Genoa.
"Your name is Francesca?" I asked, and she nodded her head, without
"We shall have supper directly," I continued. "Meanwhile, I dare say you
would like to arrange your toilette a little?"
She answered with a 'mica', a word which she employed just as frequently
as 'Che me fa', but I went on: "It is always pleasant after a journey."
Then I suddenly remembered that she had not, perhaps, the necessary
requisites, for she appeared to me in a very singular position, as if she
had just escaped from some disagreeable adventure, and I brought her my
I put out all the little instruments for cleanliness and comfort which it
contained: a nail-brush, a new toothbrush--I always carry a selection of
them about with me--my nail-scissors, a nail-file, and sponges. I
uncorked a bottle of eau de cologne, one of lavender-water, and a little
bottle of new-mown hay, so that she might have a choice. Then I opened
my powder-box, and put out the powder-puff, placed my fine towels over
the water-jug, and a piece of new soap near the basin.
She watched my movements with a look of annoyance in her wide-open eyes,
without appearing either astonished or pleased at my forethought.
"Here is all that you require," I then said; "I will tell you when supper
When I returned to the sitting-room I found that Paul had shut himself in
the other room, so I sat down to wait.
A waiter went to and fro, bringing plates and glasses. He laid the table
slowly, then put a cold chicken on it, and told me that all was ready.
I knocked gently at Mademoiselle Rondoli's door. "Come in," she said,
and when I did so I was struck by a strong, heavy smell of perfumes, as
if I were in a hairdresser's shop.
The Italian was sitting on her trunk in an attitude either of thoughtful
discontent or absent-mindedness. The towel was still folded over the
waterjug that was full of water, and the soap, untouched and dry, was
lying beside the empty basin; but one would have thought that the young
woman had used half the contents of the bottles of perfume. The eau de
cologne, however, had been spared, as only about a third of it had gone;
but to make up for that she had used a surprising amount of lavender-
water and new-mown hay. A cloud of violet powder, a vague white mist,
seemed still to be floating in the air, from the effects of her over-
powdering her face and neck. It seemed to cover her eyelashes, eyebrows,
and the hair on her temples like snow, while her cheeks were plastered
with it, and layers of it covered her nostrils, the corners of her eyes,
and her chin.
When she got up she exhaled such a strong odor of perfume that it almost
made me feel faint.
When we sat down to supper, I found that Paul was in a most execrable
temper, and I could get nothing out of him but blame, irritable words,
and disagreeable remarks.
Mademoiselle Francesca ate like an ogre, and as soon as she had finished
her meal she threw herself upon the sofa in the sitting-room. Sitting
down beside her, I said gallantly, kissing her hand:
"Shall I have the bed prepared, or will you sleep on the couch?"
"It is all the same to me. 'Che mi fa'!"
Her indifference vexed me.
"Should you like to retire at once?"
"Yes; I am very sleepy."
She got up, yawned, gave her hand to Paul, who took it with a furious
look, and I lighted her into the bedroom. A disquieting feeling haunted
me. "Here is all you want," I said again.
The next morning she got up early, like a woman who is accustomed to
work. She woke me by doing so, and I watched her through my half-closed
She came and went without hurrying herself, as if she were astonished at
having nothing to do. At length she went to the dressing-table, and in a
moment emptied all my bottles of perfume. She certainly also used some
water, but very little.
When she was quite dressed, she sat down on her trunk again, and clasping
one knee between her hands, she seemed to be thinking.
At that moment I pretended to first notice her, and said:
Without seeming in at all a better temper than the previous night, she
When I asked her whether she had slept well, she nodded her head, and
jumping out of bed, I went and kissed her.
She turned her face toward me like a child who is being kissed against
its will; but I took her tenderly in my arms, and gently pressed my lips
on her eyelids, which she closed with evident distaste under my kisses on
her fresh cheek and full lips, which she turned away.
"You don't seem to like being kissed," I said to her.
"Mica!" was her only answer.
I sat down on the trunk by her side, and passing my arm through hers, I
said: "Mica! mica! mica! in reply to everything. I shall call you
Mademoiselle Mica, I think."
For the first time I fancied that I saw the shadow of a smile on her
lips, but it passed by so quickly that I may have been mistaken.
"But if you never say anything but Mica, I shall not know what to do to
please you. Let me see; what shall we do to-day?"
She hesitated a moment, as if some fancy had flitted through her head,
and then she said carelessly: "It is all the same to me; whatever you
"Very well, Mademoiselle Mica, we will have a carriage and go for a
"As you please," she said.
Paul was waiting for us in the dining-room, looking as bored as third
parties usually do in love affairs. I assumed a delighted air, and shook
hands with him with triumphant energy.
"What are you thinking of doing?" he asked.
"First of all, we will go and see a little of the town, and then we might
get a carriage and take a drive in the neighborhood."
We breakfasted almost in silence, and then set out. I dragged Francesca
from palace to palace, and she either looked at nothing or merely glanced
carelessly at the various masterpieces. Paul followed us, growling all
sorts of disagreeable things. Then we all three took a drive in silence
into the country and returned to dinner.
The next day it was the same thing and the next day again; and on the
third Paul said to me: "Look here, I am going to leave you; I am not
going to stop here for three weeks watching you make love to this
I was perplexed and annoyed, for to my great surprise I had become
singularly attached to Francesca. A man is but weak and foolish, carried
away by the merest trifle, and a coward every time that his senses are
excited or mastered. I clung to this unknown girl, silent and
dissatisfied as she always was. I liked her somewhat ill-tempered face,
the dissatisfied droop of her mouth, the weariness of her look; I liked
her fatigued movements, the contemptuous way in which she let me kiss
her, the very indifference of her caresses. A secret bond, that
mysterious bond of physical love, which does not satisfy, bound me to
her. I told Paul so, quite frankly. He treated me as if I were a fool,
and then said:
"Very well, take her with you."
But she obstinately refused to leave Genoa, without giving any reason.
I besought, I reasoned, I promised, but all was of no avail, and so I
Paul declared that he would go by himself, and went so far as to pack up
his portmanteau; but he remained all the same.
Thus a fortnight passed. Francesca was always silent and irritable,
lived beside me rather than with me, responded to all my requirements and
all my propositions with her perpetual Che mi fa, or with her no less
My friend became more and more furious, but my only answer was, "You can
go if you are tired of staying. I am not detaining you."
Then he called me names, overwhelmed me with reproaches, and exclaimed:
"Where do you think I can go now? We had three weeks at our disposal,
and here is a fortnight gone! I cannot continue my journey now; and, in
any case, I am not going to Venice, Florence and Rome all by myself. But
you will pay for it, and more dearly than you think, most likely. You
are not going to bring a man all the way from Paris in order to shut him
up at a hotel in Genoa with an Italian adventuress."
When I told him, very calmly, to return to Paris, he exclaimed that he
intended to do so the very next day; but the next day he was still there,
still in a rage and swearing.
By this time we began to be known in the streets through which we
wandered from morning till night. Sometimes French people would turn
round astonished at meeting their fellow-countrymen in the company of
this girl with her striking costume, who looked singularly out of place,
not to say compromising, beside us.
She used to walk along, leaning on my arm, without looking at anything.
Why did she remain with me, with us, who seemed to do so little to amuse
her? Who was she? Where did she come from? What was she doing? Had
she any plan or idea? Where did she live? As an adventuress, or by
chance meetings? I tried in vain to find out and to explain it. The
better I knew her the more enigmatical she became. She seemed to be a
girl of poor family who had been taken away, and then cast aside and
lost. What did she think would become of her, or whom was she waiting
for? She certainly did not appear to be trying to make a conquest of me,
or to make any real profit out of me.
I tried to question her, to speak to her of her childhood and family; but
she never gave me an answer. I stayed with her, my heart unfettered and
my senses enchained, never wearied of holding her in my arms, that proud
and quarrelsome woman, captivated by my senses, or rather carried away,
overcome by a youthful, healthy, powerful charm, which emanated from her
fragrant person and from the well-molded lines of her body.
Another week passed, and the term of my journey was drawing on, for I had
to be back in Paris by the eleventh of July. By this time Paul had come
to take his part in the adventure, though still grumbling at me, while I
invented pleasures, distractions and excursions to amuse Francesca and my
friend; and in order to do this I gave myself a great amount of trouble.
One day I proposed an excursion to Sta Margarita, that charming little
town in the midst of gardens, hidden at the foot of a slope which
stretches far into the sea up to the village of Portofino. We three
walked along the excellent road which goes along the foot of the
mountain. Suddenly Francesca said to me: "I shall not be able to go with
you to-morrow; I must go and see some of my relatives."
That was all; I did not ask her any questions, as I was quite sure she
would not answer me.
The next morning she got up very early. When she spoke to me it was in a
constrained and hesitating voice:
"If I do not come back again, shall you come and fetch me?"
"Most certainly I shall," was my reply. "Where shall I go to find you?"
Then she explained: "You must go into the Street Victor-Emmanuel, down
the Falcone road and the side street San-Rafael and into the furniture
shop in the building at the right at the end of a court, and there you
must ask for Madame Rondoli. That is the place."
And so she went away, leaving me rather astonished.
When Paul saw that I was alone, he stammered out: "Where; is Francesca?"
And when I told him what had happened, he exclaimed:
"My dear fellow, let us make use of our opportunity, and bolt; as it is,
our time is up. Two days, more or less, make no difference. Let us go
at once; go and pack up your things. Off we go!"
But I refused. I could not, as I told him, leave the girl in that manner
after such companionship for nearly three weeks. At any rate, I ought to
say good-by to her, and make her accept a present; I certainly had no
intention of behaving badly to her.
But he would not listen; he pressed and worried me, but I would not give
I remained indoors for several hours, expecting Francesca's return, but
she did not come, and at last, at dinner, Paul said with a triumphant
"She has flown, my dear fellow; it is certainly very strange."
I must acknowledge that I was surprised and rather vexed. He laughed in
my face, and made fun of me.
"It is not exactly a bad way of getting rid of you, though rather
primitive. 'Just wait for me, I shall be back in a moment,' they often
say. How long are you going to wait? I should not wonder if you were
foolish enough to go and look for her at the address she gave you. 'Does
Madame Rondoli live here, please?' 'No, monsieur.' I'll bet that you are
longing to go there."
"Not in the least," I protested, "and I assure you that if she does not
come back to-morrow morning I shall leave by the express at eight
o'clock. I shall have waited twenty-four hours, and that is enough; my
conscience will be quite clear."
I spent an uneasy and unpleasant evening, for I really had at heart a
very tender feeling for her. I went to bed at twelve o'clock, and hardly
slept at all. I got up at six, called Paul, packed up my things, and two
hours later we set out for France together.
The next year, at just about the same period, I was seized as one is with
a periodical fever, with a new desire to go to Italy, and I immediately
made up my mind to carry it into effect. There is no doubt that every
really well-educated man ought to see Florence, Venice and Rome. This
travel has, also, the additional advantage of providing many subjects of
conversation in society, and of giving one an opportunity for bringing
forward artistic generalities which appear profound.
This time I went alone, and I arrived at Genoa at the same time as the
year before, but without any adventure on the road. I went to the same
hotel, and actually happened to have the same room.
I was hardly in bed when the recollection of Francesca which, since the
evening before, had been floating vaguely through my mind, haunted me
with strange persistency. I thought of her nearly the whole night, and
by degrees the wish to see her again seized me, a confused desire at
first, which gradually grew stronger and more intense. At last I made up
my mind to spend the next day in Genoa to try to find her, and if I
should not succeed, to take the evening train.
Early in the morning I set out on my search. I remembered the directions
she had given me when she left me, perfectly--Victor-Emmanuel Street,
house of the furniture-dealer, at the bottom of the yard on the right.
I found it without the least difficulty, and I knocked at the door of a
somewhat dilapidated-looking dwelling. It was opened by a stout woman,
who must have been very handsome, but who actually was only very dirty.
Although she had too much embonpoint, she still bore the lines of
majestic beauty; her untidy hair fell over her forehead and shoulders,
and one fancied one could see her floating about in an enormous dressing-
gown covered with spots of dirt and grease. Round her neck she wore a
great gilt necklace, and on her wrists were splendid bracelets of Genoa
In rather a hostile manner she asked me what I wanted, and I replied by
requesting her to tell me whether Francesca Rondoli lived there.
"What do you want with her?" she asked.
"I had the pleasure of meeting her last year, and I should like to see
The old woman looked at me suspiciously.
"Where did you meet her?" she asked.
"Why, here in Genoa itself."
"What is your name?"
I hesitated a moment, and then I told her. I had hardly done so when the
Italian put out her arms as if to embrace me. "Oh! you are the
Frenchman how glad I am to see you! But what grief you caused the poor
child! She waited for you a month; yes, a whole month. At first she
thought you would come to fetch her. She wanted to see whether you loved
her. If you only knew how she cried when she saw that you were not
coming! She cried till she seemed to have no tears left. Then she went
to the hotel, but you had gone. She thought that most likely you were
travelling in Italy, and that you would return by Genoa to fetch her, as
she would not go with you. And she waited more than a month, monsieur;
and she was so unhappy; so unhappy. I am her mother."
I really felt a little disconcerted, but I regained my self-possession,
"Where is she now?"
"She has gone to Paris with a painter, a delightful man, who loves her
very much, and who gives her everything that she wants. Just look at
what she sent me; they are very pretty, are they not?"
And she showed me, with quite southern animation, her heavy bracelets and
necklace. "I have also," she continued, "earrings with stones in them, a
silk dress, and some rings; but I only wear them on grand occasions.
Oh! she is very happy, monsieur, very happy. She will be so pleased
when I tell her you have been here. But pray come in and sit down. You
will take something or other, surely?"
But I refused, as I now wished to get away by the first train; but she
took me by the arm and pulled me in, saying:
"Please, come in; I must tell her that you have been in here."
I found myself in a small, rather dark room, furnished with only a table
and a few chairs.
She continued: "Oh, she is very happy now, very happy. When you met her
in the train she was very miserable; she had had an unfortunate love
affair in Marseilles, and she was coming home, poor child. But she liked
you at once, though she was still rather sad, you understand. Now she
has all she wants, and she writes and tells me everything that she does.
His name is Bellemin, and they say he is a great painter in your country.
He fell in love with her at first sight. But you will take a glass of
sirup?-it is very good. Are you quite alone, this year?"
"Yes," I said, "quite alone."
I felt an increasing inclination to laugh, as my first disappointment was
dispelled by what Mother Rondoli said. I was obliged; however, to drink
a glass of her sirup.
"So you are quite alone?" she continued. "How sorry I am that Francesca
is not here now; she would have been company for you all the time you
stayed. It is not very amusing to go about all by oneself, and she will
be very sorry also."
Then, as I was getting up to go, she exclaimed:
"But would you not like Carlotta to go with you? She knows all the walks
very well. She is my second daughter, monsieur."
No doubt she took my look of surprise for consent, for she opened the
inner door and called out up the dark stairs which I could not see:
"Carlotta! Carlotta! make haste down, my dear child."
I tried to protest, but she would not listen.
"No; she will be very glad to go with you; she is very nice, and much
more cheerful than her sister, and she is a good girl, a very good girl,
whom I love very much."
In a few moments a tall, slender, dark girl appeared, her hair hanging
down, and her youthful figure showing unmistakably beneath an old dress
of her mother's.
The latter at once told her how matters stood.
"This is Francesca's Frenchman, you know, the one whom she knew last
year. He is quite alone, and has come to look for her, poor fellow; so
I told him that you would go with him to keep him company."
The girl looked at me with her handsome dark eyes, and said, smiling:
"I have no objection, if he wishes it"
I could not possibly refuse, and merely said:
"Of course, I shall be very glad of your company."
Her mother pushed her out. "Go and get dressed directly; put on your
blue dress and your hat with the flowers, and make haste."
As soon as she had left the room the old woman explained herself: "I have
two others, but they are much younger. It costs a lot of money to bring
up four children. Luckily the eldest is off my hands at present."
Then she told all about herself, about her husband, who had been an
employee on the railway, but who was dead, and she expatiated on the good
qualities of Carlotta, her second girl, who soon returned, dressed, as
her sister had been, in a striking, peculiar manner.
Her mother examined her from head to foot, and, after finding everything
right, she said:
"Now, my children, you can go." Then turning to the girl, she said: "Be
sure you are back by ten o'clock to-night; you know the door is locked
then." The answer was:
"All right, mamma; don't alarm yourself."
She took my arm and we went wandering about the streets, just as I had
wandered the previous year with her sister.
We returned to the hotel for lunch, and then I took my new friend to
Santa Margarita, just as I had taken her sister the year previously.
During the whole fortnight which I had at my disposal, I took Carlotta to
all the places of interest in and about Genoa. She gave me no cause to
regret her sister.
She cried when I left her, and the morning of my departure I gave her
four bracelets for her mother, besides a substantial token of my
affection for herself.
One of these days I intend to return to Italy, and I cannot help
remembering with a certain amount of uneasiness, mingled with hope, that
Madame Rondoli has two more daughters.