Original Maupassant Short Stories, Vol. 13. by Guy de Maupassant
THE LITTLE CASK
A MOTHER OF
THE MAGIC COUCH
GUY DE MAUPASSANT
ORIGINAL SHORT STORIES
ALBERT M. C. McMASTER, B.A.
A. E. HENDERSON, B.A.
MME. QUESADA and Others
This entire stretch of country was amazing; it was characterized by
a grandeur that was almost religious, and yet it had an air of sinister
A great, wild lake, filled with stagnant, black water, in which
thousands of reeds were waving to and fro, lay in the midst of a vast
circle of naked hills, where nothing grew but broom, or here and there
an oak curiously twisted by the wind.
Just one house stood on the banks of that dark lake, a small, low
house inhabited by Uncle Joseph, an old boatman, who lived on what he
could make by his fishing. Once a week he carried the fish he caught
into the surrounding villages, returning with the few provisions that
he needed for his sustenance.
I went to see this old hermit, who offered to take me with him to
his nets, and I accepted.
His boat was old, worm-eaten and clumsy, and the skinny old man
rowed with a gentle and monotonous stroke that was soothing to the
soul, already oppressed by the sadness of the land round about.
It seemed to me as if I were transported to olden times, in the
midst of that ancient country, in that primitive boat, which was
propelled by a man of another age.
He took up his nets and threw the fish into the bottom of the boat,
as the fishermen of the Bible might have done. Then he took me down to
the end of the lake, where I suddenly perceived a ruin on the other
side of the bank a dilapidated hut, with an enormous red cross on the
wall that looked as if it might have been traced with blood, as it
gleamed in the last rays of the setting sun.
“What is that?” I asked.
“That is where Judas died,” the man replied, crossing himself.
I was not surprised, being almost prepared for this strange answer.
Still I asked:
“Judas? What Judas?”
“The Wandering Jew, monsieur,” he added.
I asked him to tell me this legend.
But it was better than a legend, being a true story, and quite a
recent one, since Uncle Joseph had known the man.
This hut had formerly been occupied by a large woman, a kind of
beggar, who lived on public charity.
Uncle Joseph did not remember from whom she had this hut. One
evening an old man with a white beard, who seemed to be at least two
hundred years old, and who could hardly drag himself along, asked alms
of this forlorn woman, as he passed her dwelling.
“Sit down, father,” she replied; “everything here belongs to all the
world, since it comes from all the world.”
He sat down on a stone before the door. He shared the woman's bread,
her bed of leaves, and her house.
He did not leave her again, for he had come to the end of his
“It was Our Lady the Virgin who permitted this, monsieur,” Joseph
added, “it being a woman who had opened her door to a Judas, for this
old vagabond was the Wandering Jew. It was not known at first in the
country, but the people suspected it very soon, because he was always
walking; it had become a sort of second nature to him.”
And suspicion had been aroused by still another thing. This woman,
who kept that stranger with her, was thought to be a Jewess, for no one
had ever seen her at church. For ten miles around no one ever called
her anything else but the Jewess.
When the little country children saw her come to beg they cried out:
“Mamma, mamma, here is the Jewess!”
The old man and she began to go out together into the neighboring
districts, holding out their hands at all the doors, stammering
supplications into the ears of all the passers. They could be seen at
all hours of the day, on by-paths, in the villages, or again eating
bread, sitting in the noon heat under the shadow of some solitary tree.
And the country people began to call the beggar Old Judas.
One day he brought home in his sack two little live pigs, which a
farmer had given him after he had cured the farmer of some sickness.
Soon he stopped begging, and devoted himself entirely to his pigs.
He took them out to feed by the lake, or under isolated oaks, or in the
near-by valleys. The woman, however, went about all day begging, but
she always came back to him in the evening.
He also did not go to church, and no one ever had seen him cross
himself before the wayside crucifixes. All this gave rise to much
One night his companion was attacked by a fever and began to tremble
like a leaf in the wind. He went to the nearest town to get some
medicine, and then he shut himself up with her, and was not seen for
The priest, having heard that the “Jewess” was about to die, came to
offer the consolation of his religion and administer the last
sacrament. Was she a Jewess? He did not know. But in any case, he
wished to try to save her soul.
Hardly had he knocked at the door when old Judas appeared on the
threshold, breathing hard, his eyes aflame, his long beard agitated,
like rippling water, and he hurled blasphemies in an unknown language,
extending his skinny arms in order to prevent the priest from entering.
The priest attempted to speak, offered his purse and his aid, but
the old man kept on abusing him, making gestures with his hands as if
throwing; stones at him.
Then the priest retired, followed by the curses of the beggar.
The companion of old Judas died the following day. He buried her
himself, in front of her door. They were people of so little account
that no one took any interest in them.
Then they saw the man take his pigs out again to the lake and up the
hillsides. And he also began begging again to get food. But the people
gave him hardly anything, as there was so much gossip about him. Every
one knew, moreover, how he had treated the priest.
Then he disappeared. That was during Holy Week, but no one paid any
attention to him.
But on Easter Sunday the boys and girls who had gone walking out to
the lake heard a great noise in the hut. The door was locked; but the
boys broke it in, and the two pigs ran out, jumping like gnats. No one
ever saw them again.
The whole crowd went in; they saw some old rags on the floor, the
beggar's hat, some bones, clots of dried blood and bits of flesh in the
hollows of the skull.
His pigs had devoured him.
“This happened on Good Friday, monsieur.” Joseph concluded his
story, “three hours after noon.”
“How do you know that?” I asked him.
“There is no doubt about that,” he replied.
I did not attempt to make him understand that it could easily happen
that the famished animals had eaten their master, after he had died
suddenly in his hut.
As for the cross on the wall, it had appeared one morning, and no
one knew what hand traced it in that strange color.
Since then no one doubted any longer that the Wandering Jew had died
on this spot.
I myself believed it for one hour.
THE LITTLE CASK
He was a tall man of forty or thereabout, this Jules Chicot, the
innkeeper of Spreville, with a red face and a round stomach, and said
by those who knew him to be a smart business man. He stopped his buggy
in front of Mother Magloire's farmhouse, and, hitching the horse to the
gatepost, went in at the gate.
Chicot owned some land adjoining that of the old woman, which he had
been coveting for a long while, and had tried in vain to buy a score of
times, but she had always obstinately refused to part with it.
“I was born here, and here I mean to die,” was all she said.
He found her peeling potatoes outside the farmhouse door. She was a
woman of about seventy-two, very thin, shriveled and wrinkled, almost
dried up in fact and much bent but as active and untiring as a girl.
Chicot patted her on the back in a friendly fashion and then sat down
by her on a stool.
“Well mother, you are always pretty well and hearty, I am glad to
“Nothing to complain of, considering, thank you. And how are you,
“Oh, pretty well, thank you, except a few rheumatic pains
occasionally; otherwise I have nothing to complain of.”
“So much the better.”
And she said no more, while Chicot watched her going on with her
work. Her crooked, knotted fingers, hard as a lobster's claws, seized
the tubers, which were lying in a pail, as if they had been a pair of
pincers, and she peeled them rapidly, cutting off long strips of skin
with an old knife which she held in the other hand, throwing the
potatoes into the water as they were done. Three daring fowls jumped
one after the other into her lap, seized a bit of peel and then ran
away as fast as their legs would carry them with it in their beak.
Chicot seemed embarrassed, anxious, with something on the tip of his
tongue which he could not say. At last he said hurriedly:
“Listen, Mother Magloire—”
“Well, what is it?”
“You are quite sure that you do not want to sell your land?”
“Certainly not; you may make up your mind to that. What I have said
I have said, so don't refer to it again.”
“Very well; only I think I know of an arrangement that might suit us
both very well.”
“What is it?”
“Just this. You shall sell it to me and keep it all the same. You
don't understand? Very well, then follow me in what I am going to say.”
The old woman left off peeling potatoes and looked at the innkeeper
attentively from under her heavy eyebrows, and he went on:
“Let me explain myself. Every month I will give you a hundred and
fifty francs. You understand me! suppose! Every month I will come and
bring you thirty crowns, and it will not make the slightest difference
in your life—not the very slightest. You will have your own home just
as you have now, need not trouble yourself about me, and will owe me
nothing; all you will have to do will be to take my money. Will that
arrangement suit you?”
He looked at her good-humoredly, one might almost have said
benevolently, and the old woman returned his looks distrustfully, as if
she suspected a trap, and said:
“It seems all right as far as I am concerned, but it will not give
you the farm.”
“Never mind about that,” he said; “you may remain here as long as it
pleases God Almighty to let you live; it will be your home. Only you
will sign a deed before a lawyer making it over to me; after your
death. You have no children, only nephews and nieces for whom you don't
care a straw. Will that suit you? You will keep everything during your
life, and I will give you the thirty crowns a month. It is pure gain as
far as you are concerned.”
The old woman was surprised, rather uneasy, but, nevertheless, very
much tempted to agree, and answered:
“I don't say that I will not agree to it, but I must think about it.
Come back in a week, and we will talk it over again, and I will then
give you my definite answer.”
And Chicot went off as happy as a king who had conquered an empire.
Mother Magloire was thoughtful, and did not sleep at all that night;
in fact, for four days she was in a fever of hesitation. She suspected
that there was something underneath the offer which was not to her
advantage; but then the thought of thirty crowns a month, of all those
coins clinking in her apron, falling to her, as it were, from the
skies, without her doing anything for it, aroused her covetousness.
She went to the notary and told him about it. He advised her to
accept Chicot's offer, but said she ought to ask for an annuity of
fifty instead of thirty, as her farm was worth sixty thousand francs at
the lowest calculation.
“If you live for fifteen years longer,” he said, “even then he will
only have paid forty-five thousand francs for it.”
The old woman trembled with joy at this prospect of getting fifty
crowns a month, but she was still suspicious, fearing some trick, and
she remained a long time with the lawyer asking questions without being
able to make up her mind to go. At last she gave him instructions to
draw up the deed and returned home with her head in a whirl, just as if
she had drunk four jugs of new cider.
When Chicot came again to receive her answer she declared, after a
lot of persuading, that she could not make up her mind to agree to his
proposal, though she was all the time trembling lest he should not
consent to give the fifty crowns, but at last, when he grew urgent, she
told him what she expected for her farm.
He looked surprised and disappointed and refused.
Then, in order to convince him, she began to talk about the probable
duration of her life.
“I am certainly not likely to live more than five or six years
longer. I am nearly seventy-three, and far from strong, even
considering my age. The other evening I thought I was going to die, and
could hardly manage to crawl into bed.”
But Chicot was not going to be taken in.
“Come, come, old lady, you are as strong as the church tower, and
will live till you are a hundred at least; you will no doubt see me put
under ground first.”
The whole day was spent in discussing the money, and as the old
woman would not give in, the innkeeper consented to give the fifty
crowns, and she insisted upon having ten crowns over and above to
strike the bargain.
Three years passed and the old dame did not seem to have grown a day
older. Chicot was in despair, and it seemed to him as if he had been
paying that annuity for fifty years, that he had been taken in, done,
ruined. From time to time he went to see the old lady, just as one goes
in July to see when the harvest is likely to begin. She always met him
with a cunning look, and one might have supposed that she was
congratulating herself on the trick she had played him. Seeing how well
and hearty she seemed he very soon got into his buggy again, growling
“Will you never die, you old hag?”
He did not know what to do, and he felt inclined to strangle her
when he saw her. He hated her with a ferocious, cunning hatred, the
hatred of a peasant who has been robbed, and began to cast about for
some means of getting rid of her.
One day he came to see her again, rubbing his hands as he did the
first time he proposed the bargain, and, after having chatted for a few
minutes, he said:
“Why do you never come and have a bit of dinner at my place when you
are in Spreville? The people are talking about it, and saying we are
not on friendly terms, and that pains me. You know it will cost you
nothing if you come, for I don't look at the price of a dinner. Come
whenever you feel inclined; I shall be very glad to see you.”
Old Mother Magloire did not need to be asked twice, and the next day
but one, as she had to go to the town in any case, it being market day,
she let her man drive her to Chicot's place, where the buggy was put in
the barn while she went into the house to get her dinner.
The innkeeper was delighted and treated her like a lady, giving her
roast fowl, black pudding, leg of mutton and bacon and cabbage. But she
ate next to nothing. She had always been a small eater, and had
generally lived on a little soup and a crust of bread and butter.
Chicot was disappointed and pressed her to eat more, but she
refused, and she would drink little, and declined coffee, so he asked
“But surely you will take a little drop of brandy or liqueur?”
“Well, as to that, I don't know that I will refuse.” Whereupon he
“Rosalie, bring the superfine brandy—the special—you know.”
The servant appeared, carrying a long bottle ornamented with a paper
vine-leaf, and he filled two liqueur glasses.
“Just try that; you will find it first rate.”
The good woman drank it slowly in sips, so as to make the pleasure
last all the longer, and when she had finished her glass, she said:
“Yes, that is first rate!”
Almost before she had said it Chicot had poured her out another
glassful. She wished to refuse, but it was too late, and she drank it
very slowly, as she had done the first, and he asked her to have a
third. She objected, but he persisted.
“It is as mild as milk, you know; I can drink ten or a dozen glasses
without any ill effects; it goes down like sugar and does not go to the
head; one would think that it evaporated on the tongue: It is the most
wholesome thing you can drink.”
She took it, for she really enjoyed it, but she left half the glass.
Then Chicot, in an excess of generosity, said:
“Look here, as it is so much to your taste, I will give you a small
keg of it, just to show that you and I are still excellent friends.” So
she took one away with her, feeling slightly overcome by the effects of
what she had drunk.
The next day the innkeeper drove into her yard and took a little
iron- hooped keg out of his gig. He insisted on her tasting the
contents, to make sure it was the same delicious article, and, when
they had each of them drunk three more glasses, he said as he was going
“Well, you know when it is all gone there is more left; don't be
modest, for I shall not mind. The sooner it is finished the better
pleased I shall be.”
Four days later he came again. The old woman was outside her door
cutting up the bread for her soup.
He went up to her and put his face close to hers, so that he might
smell her breath; and when he smelt the alcohol he felt pleased.
“I suppose you will give me a glass of the Special?” he said. And
they had three glasses each.
Soon, however, it began to be whispered abroad that Mother Magloire
was in the habit of getting drunk all by herself. She was picked up in
her kitchen, then in her yard, then in the roads in the neighborhood,
and she was often brought home like a log.
The innkeeper did not go near her any more, and, when people spoke
to him about her, he used to say, putting on a distressed look:
“It is a great pity that she should have taken to drink at her age,
but when people get old there is no remedy. It will be the death of her
in the long run.”
And it certainly was the death of her. She died the next winter.
About Christmas time she fell down, unconscious, in the snow, and was
found dead the next morning.
And when Chicot came in for the farm, he said:
“It was very stupid of her; if she had not taken to drink she would
probably have lived ten years longer.”
Father Boitelle (Antoine) made a specialty of undertaking dirty jobs
all through the countryside. Whenever there was a ditch or a cesspool
to be cleaned out, a dunghill removed, a sewer cleansed, or any dirt
hole whatever, he way always employed to do it.
He would come with the instruments of his trade, his sabots covered
with dirt, and set to work, complaining incessantly about his
occupation. When people asked him then why he did this loathsome work,
he would reply resignedly:
“Faith, 'tis for my children, whom I must support. This brings me in
more than anything else.”
He had, indeed, fourteen children. If any one asked him what had
become of them, he would say with an air of indifference:
“There are only eight of them left in the house. One is out at
service and five are married.”
When the questioner wanted to know whether they were well married,
he replied vivaciously:
“I did not oppose them. I opposed them in nothing. They married just
as they pleased. We shouldn't go against people's likings, it turns out
badly. I am a night scavenger because my parents went against my
likings. But for that I would have become a workman like the others.”
Here is the way his parents had thwarted him in his likings:
He was at the time a soldier stationed at Havre, not more stupid
than another, or sharper either, a rather simple fellow, however. When
he was not on duty, his greatest pleasure was to walk along the quay,
where the bird dealers congregate. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a
soldier from his own part of the country, he would slowly saunter along
by cages containing parrots with green backs and yellow heads from the
banks of the Amazon, or parrots with gray backs and red heads from
Senegal, or enormous macaws, which look like birds reared in
hot-houses, with their flower-like feathers, their plumes and their
tufts. Parrots of every size, who seem painted with minute care by the
miniaturist, God Almighty, and the little birds, all the smaller birds
hopped about, yellow, blue and variegated, mingling their cries with
the noise of the quay; and adding to the din caused by unloading the
vessels, as well as by passengers and vehicles, a violent clamor, loud,
shrill and deafening, as if from some distant forest of monsters.
Boitelle would pause, with wondering eyes, wide-open mouth, laughing
and enraptured, showing his teeth to the captive cockatoos, who kept
nodding their white or yellow topknots toward the glaring red of his
breeches and the copper buckle of his belt. When he found a bird that
could talk he put questions to it, and if it happened at the time to be
disposed to reply and to hold a conversation with him he would carry
away enough amusement to last him till evening. He also found heaps of
amusement in looking at the monkeys, and could conceive no greater
luxury for a rich man than to own these animals as one owns cats and
dogs. This kind of taste for the exotic he had in his blood, as people
have a taste for the chase, or for medicine, or for the priesthood. He
could not help returning to the quay every time the gates of the
barracks opened, drawn toward it by an irresistible longing.
On one occasion, having stopped almost in ecstasy before an enormous
macaw, which was swelling out its plumes, bending forward and bridling
up again as if making the court curtseys of parrot-land, he saw the
door of a little cafe adjoining the bird dealer's shop open, and a
young negress appeared, wearing on her head a red silk handkerchief.
She was sweeping into the street the corks and sand of the
Boitelle's attention was soon divided between the bird and the
woman, and he really could not tell which of these two beings he
contemplated with the greater astonishment and delight.
The negress, having swept the rubbish into the street, raised her
eyes, and, in her turn, was dazzled by the soldier's uniform. There she
stood facing him with her broom in her hands as if she were bringing
him a rifle, while the macaw continued bowing. But at the end of a few
seconds the soldier began to feel embarrassed at this attention, and he
walked away quietly so as not to look as if he were beating a retreat.
But he came back. Almost every day he passed before the Cafe des
Colonies, and often he could distinguish through the window the figure
of the little black-skinned maid serving “bocks” or glasses of brandy
to the sailors of the port. Frequently, too, she would come out to the
door on seeing him; soon, without even having exchanged a word, they
smiled at one another like acquaintances; and Boitelle felt his heart
touched when he suddenly saw, glittering between the dark lips of the
girl, a shining row of white teeth. At length, one day he ventured to
enter, and was quite surprised to find that she could speak French like
every one else. The bottle of lemonade, of which she was good enough to
accept a glassful, remained in the soldier's recollection memorably
delicious, and it became a custom with him to come and absorb in this
little tavern on the quay all the agreeable drinks which he could
For him it was a treat, a happiness, on which his thoughts dwelt
constantly, to watch the black hand of the little maid pouring
something into his glass while her teeth laughed more than her eyes. At
the end of two months they became fast friends, and Boitelle, after his
first astonishment at discovering that this negress had as good
principles as honest French girls, that she exhibited a regard for
economy, industry, religion and good conduct, loved her more on that
account, and was so charmed with her that he wanted to marry her.
He told her his intentions, which made her dance with joy. She had
also a little money, left her by, a female oyster dealer, who had
picked her up when she had been left on the quay at Havre by an
American captain. This captain had found her, when she was only about
six years old, lying on bales of cotton in the hold of his ship, some
hours after his departure from New York. On his arrival in Havre he
abandoned to the care of this compassionate oyster dealer the little
black creature, who had been hidden on board his vessel, he knew not
why or by whom.
The oyster woman having died, the young negress became a servant at
the Colonial Tavern.
Antoine Boitelle added: “This will be all right if my parents don't
oppose it. I will never go against them, you understand, never! I'm
going to say a word or two to them the first time I go back to the
On the following week, in fact, having obtained twenty-four hours'
leave, he went to see his family, who cultivated a little farm at
Tourteville, near Yvetot.
He waited till the meal was finished, the hour when the coffee
baptized with brandy makes people more open-hearted, before informing
his parents that he had found a girl who satisfied his tastes, all his
tastes, so completely that there could not exist any other in all the
world so perfectly suited to him.
The old people, on hearing this, immediately assumed a cautious
manner and wanted explanations. He had concealed nothing from them
except the color of her skin.
She was a servant, without much means, but strong, thrifty, clean,
well- conducted and sensible. All these things were better than money
would be in the hands of a bad housewife. Moreover, she had a few sous,
left her by a woman who had reared her, a good number of sous, almost a
little dowry, fifteen hundred francs in the savings bank. The old
people, persuaded by his talk, and relying also on their own judgment,
were gradually weakening, when he came to the delicate point. Laughing
in rather a constrained fashion, he said:
“There's only one thing you may not like. She is not a white slip.”
They did not understand, and he had to explain at some length and
very cautiously, to avoid shocking them, that she belonged to the dusky
race of which they had only seen samples in pictures at Epinal. Then
they became restless, perplexed, alarmed, as if he had proposed a union
with the devil.
The mother said: “Black? How much of her is black? Is the whole of
He replied: “Certainly. Everywhere, just as you are white
The father interposed: “Black? Is it as black as the pot?”
The son answered: “Perhaps a little less than that. She is black,
but not disgustingly black. The cure's cassock is black, but it is not
uglier than a surplice which is white.”
The father said: “Are there more black people besides her in her
And the son, with an air of conviction, exclaimed: “Certainly!”
But the old man shook his head.
“That must be unpleasant.”
And the son:
“It isn't more disagreeable than anything else when you get
accustomed to it.”
The mother asked:
“It doesn't soil the underwear more than other skins, this black
“Not more than your own, as it is her proper color.”
Then, after many other questions, it was agreed that the parents
should see this girl before coming; to any decision, and that the young
fellow, whose, term of military service would be over in a month,
should bring her to the house in order that they might examine her and
decide by talking the matter over whether or not she was too dark to
enter the Boitelle family.
Antoine accordingly announced that on Sunday, the 22d of May, the
day of his discharge, he would start for Tourteville with his
She had put on, for this journey to the house of her lover's
parents, her most beautiful and most gaudy clothes, in which yellow,
red and blue were the prevailing colors, so that she looked as if she
were adorned for a national festival.
At the terminus, as they were leaving Havre, people stared at her,
and Boitelle was proud of giving his arm to a person who commanded so
much attention. Then, in the third-class carriage, in which she took a
seat by his side, she aroused so much astonishment among the country
folks that the people in the adjoining compartments stood up on their
benches to look at her over the wooden partition which divides the
compartments. A child, at sight of her, began to cry with terror,
another concealed his face in his mother's apron. Everything went off
well, however, up to their arrival at their destination. But when the
train slackened its rate of motion as they drew near Yvetot, Antoine
felt: ill at ease, as he would have done at a review when; he did not
know his drill practice. Then, as he; leaned his head out, he
recognized in the distance: his father, holding the bridle of the horse
harnessed to a carryall, and his mother, who had come forward to the
grating, behind which stood those who were expecting friends.
He alighted first, gave his hand to his sweetheart, and holding
himself erect, as if he were escorting a general, he went to meet his
The mother, on seeing this black lady in variegated costume in her
son's company, remained so stupefied that she could not open her mouth;
and the father found it hard to hold the horse, which the engine or the
negress caused to rear continuously. But Antoine, suddenly filled with
unmixed joy at seeing once more the old people, rushed forward with
open arms, embraced his mother, embraced his father, in spite of the
nag's fright, and then turning toward his companion, at whom the
passengers on the platform stopped to stare with amazement, he
proceeded to explain:
“Here she is! I told you that, at first sight, she is not
attractive; but as soon as you know her, I can assure you there's not a
better sort in the whole world. Say good-morning to her so that she may
not feel badly.”
Thereupon Mere Boitelle, almost frightened out of her wits, made a
sort of curtsy, while the father took off his cap, murmuring:
“I wish you good luck!”
Then, without further delay, they climbed into the carryall, the two
women at the back, on seats which made them jump up and down as the
vehicle went jolting along the road, and the two men in front on the
Nobody spoke. Antoine, ill at ease, whistled a barrack-room air; his
father whipped the nag; and his mother, from where she sat in the
corner, kept casting sly glances at the negress, whose forehead and
cheekbones shone in the sunlight like well-polished shoes.
Wishing to break the ice, Antoine turned round.
“Well,” said he, “we don't seem inclined to talk.”
“We must have time,” replied the old woman.
He went on:
“Come! Tell us the little story about that hen of yours that laid
It was a funny anecdote of long standing in the family. But, as his
mother still remained silent, paralyzed by her emotion, he undertook
himself to tell the story, laughing as he did so at the memorable
incident. The father, who knew it by heart brightened at the opening
words of the narrative; his wife soon followed his example; and the
negress herself, when he reached the drollest part of it, suddenly gave
vent to a laugh, such a loud, rolling torrent of laughter that the
horse, becoming excited, broke into a gallop for a while.
This served to cement their acquaintance. They all began to chat.
They had scarcely reached the house and had all alighted, when
Antoine conducted his sweetheart to a room, so that she might take off
her dress, to avoid staining it, as she was going to prepare a nice
dish, intended to win the old people's affections through their
stomachs. He drew his parents outside the house, and, with beating
“Well, what do you say now?”
The father said nothing. The mother, less timid, exclaimed:
“She is too black. No, indeed, this is too much for me. It turns my
“You will get used to it,” said Antoine.
“Perhaps so, but not at first.”
They went into the house, where the good woman was somewhat affected
at the spectacle of the negress engaged in cooking. She at once
proceeded to assist her, with petticoats tucked up, active in spite of
The meal was an excellent one, very long, very enjoyable. When they
were taking a turn after dinner, Antoine took his father aside.
“Well, dad, what do you say about it?”
The peasant took care never to compromise himself.
“I have no opinion about it. Ask your mother.”
So Antoine went back to his mother, and, detaining her behind the
“Well, mother, what do you think of her?”
“My poor lad, she is really too black. If she were only a little
less black, I would not go against you, but this is too much. One would
think it was Satan!”
He did not press her, knowing how obstinate the old woman had always
been, but he felt a tempest of disappointment sweeping over his heart.
He was turning over in his mind what he ought to do, what plan he could
devise, surprised, moreover, that she had not conquered them already as
she had captivated himself. And they, all four, walked along through
the wheat fields, having gradually relapsed into silence. Whenever they
passed a fence they saw a countryman sitting on the stile, and a group
of brats climbed up to stare at them, and every one rushed out into the
road to see the “black” whore young Boitelle had brought home with him.
At a distance they noticed people scampering across the fields just as
when the drum beats to draw public attention to some living phenomenon.
Pere and Mere Boitelle, alarmed at this curiosity, which was exhibited
everywhere through the country at their approach, quickened their pace,
walking side by side, and leaving their son far behind. His dark
companion asked what his parents thought of her.
He hesitatingly replied that they had not yet made up their minds.
But on the village green people rushed out of all the houses in a
flutter of excitement; and, at the sight of the gathering crowd, old
Boitelle took to his heels, and regained his abode, while Antoine;
swelling with rage, his sweetheart on his arm, advanced majestically
under the staring eyes, which opened wide in amazement.
He understood that it was at an end, and there was no hope for him,
that he could not marry his negress. She also understood it; and as
they drew near the farmhouse they both began to weep. As soon as they
had got back to the house, she once more took off her dress to aid the
mother in the household duties, and followed her everywhere, to the
dairy, to the stable, to the hen house, taking on herself the hardest
part of the work, repeating always: “Let me do it, Madame Boitelle,” so
that, when night came on, the old woman, touched but inexorable, said
to her son: “She is a good girl, all the same. It's a pity she is so
black; but indeed she is too black. I could not get used to it. She
must go back again. She is too, too black!”
And young Boitelle said to his sweetheart:
“She will not consent. She thinks you are too black. You must go
back again. I will go with you to the train. No matter—don't fret. I
am going to talk to them after you have started.”
He then took her to the railway station, still cheering her with
hope, and, when he had kissed her, he put her into the train, which he
watched as it passed out of sight, his eyes swollen with tears.
In vain did he appeal to the old people. They would never give their
And when he had told this story, which was known all over the
country, Antoine Boitelle would always add:
“From that time forward I have had no heart for anything—for
anything at all. No trade suited me any longer, and so I became what I
am—a night scavenger.”
People would say to him:
“Yet you got married.”
“Yes, and I can't say that my wife didn't please me, seeing that I
have fourteen children; but she is not the other one, oh, no—certainly
not! The other one, mark you, my negress, she had only to give me one
glance, and I felt as if I were in Heaven.”
This story was told during the hunting season at the Chateau
Baneville. The autumn had been rainy and sad. The red leaves, instead
of rustling under the feet, were rotting under the heavy downfalls.
The forest was as damp as it could be. From it came an odor of must,
of rain, of soaked grass and wet earth; and the sportsmen, their backs
hunched under the downpour, mournful dogs, with tails between their
legs and hairs sticking to their sides, and the young women, with their
clothes drenched, returned every evening, tired in body and in mind.
After dinner, in the large drawing-room, everybody played lotto,
without enjoyment, while the wind whistled madly around the house. Then
they tried telling stories like those they read in books, but no one
was able to invent anything amusing. The hunters told tales of
wonderful shots and of the butchery of rabbits; and the women racked
their brains for ideas without revealing the imagination of
Scheherezade. They were about to give up this diversion when a young
woman, who was idly caressing the hand of an old maiden aunt, noticed a
little ring made of blond hair, which she had often seen, without
paying any attention to it.
She fingered it gently and asked, “Auntie, what is this ring? It
looks as if it were made from the hair of a child.”
The old lady blushed, grew pale, then answered in a trembling voice:
“It is sad, so sad that I never wish to speak of it. All the
unhappiness of my life comes from that. I was very young then, and the
memory has remained so painful that I weep every time I think of it.”
Immediately everybody wished to know the story, but the old lady
refused to tell it. Finally, after they had coaxed her for a long time,
she yielded. Here is the story:
“You have often heard me speak of the Santeze family, now extinct. I
knew the last three male members of this family. They all died in the
same manner; this hair belongs to the last one. He was thirteen when he
killed himself for me. That seems strange to you, doesn't it?
“Oh! it was a strange family—mad, if you will, but a charming
madness, the madness of love. From father to son, all had violent
passions which filled their whole being, which impelled them to do wild
things, drove them to frantic enthusiasm, even to crime. This was born
in them, just as burning devotion is in certain souls. Trappers have
not the same nature as minions of the drawing-room. There was a saying:
'As passionate as a Santeze.' This could be noticed by looking at them.
They all had wavy hair, falling over their brows, curly beards and
large eyes whose glance pierced and moved one, though one could not say
“The grandfather of the owner of this hair, of whom it is the last
souvenir, after many adventures, duels and elopements, at about sixty-five fell madly in love with his farmer's daughter. I knew them both.
She was blond, pale, distinguished-looking, with a slow manner of
talking, a quiet voice and a look so gentle that one might have taken
her for a Madonna. The old nobleman took her to his home and was soon
so captivated with her that he could not live without her for a minute.
His daughter and daughter-in-law, who lived in the chateau, found this
perfectly natural, love was such a tradition in the family. Nothing in
regard to a passion surprised them, and if one spoke before them of
parted lovers, even of vengeance after treachery, both said in the same
sad tone: 'Oh, how he must have suffered to come to that point!' That
was all. They grew sad over tragedies of love, but never indignant,
even when they were criminal.
“Now, one day a young man named Monsieur de Gradelle, who had been
invited for the shooting, eloped with the young girl.
“Monsieur de Santeze remained calm as if nothing had happened, but
one morning he was found hanging in the kennels, among his dogs.
“His son died in the same manner in a hotel in Paris during a
journey which he made there in 1841, after being deceived by a singer
from the opera.
“He left a twelve-year-old child and a widow, my mother's sister.
She came to my father's house with the boy, while we were living at
Bertillon. I was then seventeen.
“You have no idea how wonderful and precocious this Santeze child
was. One might have thought that all the tenderness and exaltation of
the whole race had been stored up in this last one. He was always
dreaming and walking about alone in a great alley of elms leading from
the chateau to the forest. I watched from my window this sentimental
boy, who walked with thoughtful steps, his hands behind his back, his
head bent, and at times stopping to raise his eyes as if he could see
and understand things that were not comprehensible at his age.
“Often, after dinner on clear evenings, he would say to me: 'Let us
go outside and dream, cousin.' And we would go outside together in the
park. He would stop quickly before a clearing where the white vapor of
the moon lights the woods, and he would press my hand, saying: 'Look!
look! but you don't understand me; I feel it. If you understood me, we
should be happy. One must love to know! I would laugh and then kiss
this child, who loved me madly.
“Often, after dinner, he would sit on my mother's knees. 'Come,
auntie,' he would say, 'tell me some love-stories.' And my mother, as a
joke, would tell him all the old legends of the family, all the
passionate adventures of his forefathers, for thousands of them were
current, some true and some false. It was their reputation for love and
gallantry which was the ruin of every one of these-men; they gloried in
it and then thought that they had to live up to the renown of their
“The little fellow became exalted by these tender or terrible
stories, and at times he would clap his hands, crying: 'I, too, I, too,
know how to love, better than all of them!'
“Then, he began to court me in a timid and tender manner, at which
every one laughed, it was, so amusing. Every morning I had some flowers
picked by him, and every evening before going to his room he would kiss
my hand and murmur: 'I love you!'
“I was guilty, very guilty, and I grieved continually about it, and
I have been doing penance all my life; I have remained an old maid—or,
rather, I have lived as a widowed fiancee, his widow.
“I was amused at this childish tenderness, and I even encouraged
him. I was coquettish, as charming as with a man, alternately caressing
and severe. I maddened this child. It was a game for me and a joyous
diversion for his mother and mine. He was twelve! think of it! Who
would have taken this atom's passion seriously? I kissed him as often
as he wished; I even wrote him little notes, which were read by our
respective mothers; and he answered me by passionate letters, which I
have kept. Judging himself as a man, he thought that our loving
intimacy was secret. We had forgotten that he was a Santeze.
“This lasted for about a year. One evening in the park he fell at my
feet and, as he madly kissed the hem of my dress, he kept repeating: 'I
love you! I love you! I love you! If ever you deceive me, if ever you
leave me for another, I'll do as my father did.' And he added in a
hoarse voice, which gave me a shiver: 'You know what he did!'
“I stood there astonished. He arose, and standing on the tips of his
toes in order to reach my ear, for I was taller than he, he pronounced
my first name: 'Genevieve!' in such a gentle, sweet, tender tone that I
trembled all over. I stammered: 'Let us return! let us return!' He said
no more and followed me; but as we were going up the steps of the
porch, he stopped me, saying: 'You know, if ever you leave me, I'll
“This time I understood that I had gone too far, and I became quite
reserved. One day, as he was reproaching me for this, I answered: 'You
are now too old for jesting and too young for serious love. I'll wait.'
“I thought that this would end the matter. In the autumn he was sent
to a boarding-school. When he returned the following summer I was
engaged to be married. He understood immediately, and for a week he
became so pensive that I was quite anxious.
“On the morning of the ninth day I saw a little paper under my door
as I got up. I seized it, opened it and read: 'You have deserted me and
you know what I said. It is death to which you have condemned me. As I
do not wish to be found by another than you, come to the park just
where I told you last year that I loved you and look in the air.'
“I thought that I should go mad. I dressed as quickly as I could and
ran wildly to the place that he had mentioned. His little cap was on
the ground in the mud. It had been raining all night. I raised my eyes
and saw something swinging among the leaves, for the wind was blowing a
“I don't know what I did after that. I must have screamed at first,
then fainted and fallen, and finally have run to the chateau. The next
thing that I remember I was in bed, with my mother sitting beside me.
“I thought that I had dreamed all this in a frightful nightmare. I
stammered: 'And what of him, what of him, Gontran?' There was no
answer. It was true!
“I did not dare see him again, but I asked for a lock of his blond
hair. Here—here it is!”
And the old maid stretched out her trembling hand in a despairing
gesture. Then she blew her nose several times, wiped her eyes and
“I broke off my marriage—without saying why. And I—I always have
remained the—the widow of this thirteen-year-old boy.” Then her head
fell on her breast and she wept for a long time.
As the guests were retiring for the night a large man, whose quiet
she had disturbed, whispered in his neighbor's ear: “Isn't it
unfortunate to, be so sentimental?”
THE ENGLISHMAN OF ETRETAT
A great English poet has just crossed over to France in order to
greet Victor Hugo. All the newspapers are full of his name and he is
the great topic of conversation in all drawing-rooms. Fifteen years ago
I had occasion several times to meet Algernon Charles Swinburne. I will
attempt to show him just as I saw him and to give an idea of the
strange impression he made on me, which will remain with me throughout
I believe it was in 1867 or in 1868 that an unknown young Englishman
came to Etretat and bought a little but hidden under great trees. It
was said that he lived there, always alone, in a strange manner; and he
aroused the inimical surprise of the natives, for the inhabitants were
sullen and foolishly malicious, as they always are in little towns.
They declared that this whimsical Englishman ate nothing but boiled.
roasted or stewed monkey; that he would see no one; that he talked to
himself hours at a time and many other surprising things that made
people think that he was different from other men. They were surprised
that he should live alone with a monkey. Had it been a cat or a dog
they would have said nothing. But a monkey! Was that not frightful?
What savage tastes the man must have!
I knew this young man only from seeing him in the streets. He was
short, plump, without being fat, mild-looking, and he wore a little
blond mustache, which was almost invisible.
Chance brought us together. This savage had amiable and pleasing
manners, but he was one of those strange Englishmen that one meets here
and there throughout the world.
Endowed with remarkable intelligence, he seemed to live in a
fantastic dream, as Edgar Poe must have lived. He had translated into
English a volume of strange Icelandic legends, which I ardently desired
to see translated into French. He loved the supernatural, the dismal
and grewsome, but he spoke of the most marvellous things with a
calmness that was typically English, to which his gentle and quiet
voice gave a semblance of reality that was maddening.
Full of a haughty disdain for the world, with its conventions,
prejudices and code of morality, he had nailed to his house a name that
was boldly impudent. The keeper of a lonely inn who should write on his
door: “Travellers murdered here!” could not make a more sinister jest.
I never had entered his dwelling, when one day I received an invitation
to luncheon, following an accident that had occurred to one of his
friends, who had been almost drowned and whom I had attempted to
Although I was unable to reach the man until he had already been
rescued, I received the hearty thanks of the two Englishmen, and the
following day I called upon them.
The friend was a man about thirty years old. He bore an enormous
head on a child's body—a body without chest or shoulders. An immense
forehead, which seemed to have engulfed the rest of the man, expanded
like a dome above a thin face which ended in a little pointed beard.
Two sharp eyes and a peculiar mouth gave one the impression of the head
of a reptile, while the magnificent brow suggested a genius.
A nervous twitching shook this peculiar being, who walked, moved,
acted by jerks like a broken spring.
This was Algernon Charles Swinburne, son of an English admiral and
grandson, on the maternal side, of the Earl of Ashburnham.
He strange countenance was transfigured when he spoke. I have seldom
seen a man more impressive, more eloquent, incisive or charming in
conversation. His rapid, clear, piercing and fantastic imagination
seemed to creep into his voice and to lend life to his words. His
brusque gestures enlivened his speech, which penetrated one like a
dagger, and he had bursts of thought, just as lighthouses throw out
flashes of fire, great, genial lights that seemed to illuminate a whole
world of ideas.
The home of the two friends was pretty and by no means commonplace.
Everywhere were paintings, some superb, some strange, representing
different conceptions of insanity. Unless I am mistaken, there was a
water-color which represented the head of a dead man floating in a
rose- colored shell on a boundless ocean, under a moon with a human
Here and there I came across bones. I clearly remember a flayed hand
on which was hanging some dried skin and black muscles, and on the
snow- white bones could be seen the traces of dried blood.
The food was a riddle which I could not solve. Was it good? Was it
bad? I could not say. Some roast monkey took away all desire to make a
steady diet of this animal, and the great monkey who roamed about among
us at large and playfully pushed his head into my glass when I wished
to drink cured me of any desire I might have to take one of his
brothers as a companion for the rest of my days.
As for the two men, they gave me the impression of two strange,
original, remarkable minds, belonging to that peculiar race of talented
madmen from among whom have arisen Poe, Hoffmann and many others.
If genius is, as is commonly believed, a sort of aberration of great
minds, then Algernon Charles Swinburne is undoubtedly a genius.
Great minds that are healthy are never considered geniuses, while
this sublime qualification is lavished on brains that are often
inferior but are slightly touched by madness.
At any rate, this poet remains one of the first of his time, through
his originality and polished form. He is an exalted lyrical singer who
seldom bothers about the good and humble truth, which French poets are
now seeking so persistently and patiently. He strives to set down
dreams, subtle thoughts, sometimes great, sometimes visibly forced, but
Two years later I found the house closed and its tenants gone. The
furniture was being sold. In memory of them I bought the hideous flayed
hand. On the grass an enormous square block of granite bore this simple
word: “Nip.” Above this a hollow stone offered water to the birds. It
was the grave of the monkey, who had been hanged by a young, vindictive
negro servant. It was said that this violent domestic had been forced
to flee at the point of his exasperated master's revolver. After
wandering about without home or food for several days, he returned and
began to peddle barley-sugar in the streets. He was expelled from the
country after he had almost strangled a displeased customer.
The world would be gayer if one could often meet homes like that.
This story appeared in the “Gaulois,” November 29, 1882. It was
original sketch for the introductory study of Swinburne,
Maupassant for the French translation by Gabriel Mourey of
It was a men's dinner party, and they were sitting over their cigars
and brandy and discussing magnetism. Donato's tricks and Charcot's
experiments. Presently, the sceptical, easy-going men, who cared
nothing for religion of any sort, began telling stories of strange
occurrences, incredible things which, nevertheless, had really
occurred, so they said, falling back into superstitious beliefs,
clinging to these last remnants of the marvellous, becoming devotees of
this mystery of magnetism, defending it in the name of science. There
was only one person who smiled, a vigorous young fellow, a great
ladies' man who was so incredulous that he would not even enter upon a
discussion of such matters.
He repeated with a sneer:
“Humbug! humbug! humbug! We need not discuss Donato, who is merely a
very smart juggler. As for M. Charcot, who is said to be a remarkable
man of science, he produces on me the effect of those story-tellers of
the school of Edgar Poe, who end by going mad through constantly
reflecting on queer cases of insanity. He has authenticated some cases
of unexplained and inexplicable nervous phenomena; he makes his way
into that unknown region which men are exploring every day, and unable
always to understand what he sees, he recalls, perhaps, the
ecclesiastical interpretation of these mysteries. I should like to hear
what he says himself.”
The words of the unbeliever were listened to with a kind of pity, as
if he had blasphemed in an assembly of monks.
One of these gentlemen exclaimed:
“And yet miracles were performed in olden times.”
“I deny it,” replied the other: “Why cannot they be performed now?”
Then, each mentioned some fact, some fantastic presentiment some
instance of souls communicating with each other across space, or some
case of the secret influence of one being over another. They asserted
and maintained that these things had actually occurred, while the
sceptic angrily repeated:
“Humbug! humbug! humbug!”
At last he rose, threw away his cigar, and with his hands in his
pockets, said: “Well, I also have two stories to tell you, which I will
afterwards explain. Here they are:
“In the little village of Etretat, the men, who are all seafaring
folk, go every year to Newfoundland to fish for cod. One night the
little son of one of these fishermen woke up with a start, crying out
that his father was dead. The child was quieted, and again he woke up
exclaiming that his father was drowned. A month later the news came
that his father had, in fact, been swept off the deck of his smack by a
billow. The widow then remembered how her son had woke up and spoken of
his father's death. Everyone said it was a miracle, and the affair
caused a great sensation. The dates were compared, and it was found
that the accident and the dream were almost coincident, whence they
concluded that they had happened on the same night and at the same
hour. And there is a mystery of magnetism.”
The story-teller stopped suddenly.
Thereupon, one of those who had heard him, much affected by the
“And can you explain this?”
“Perfectly, monsieur. I have discovered the secret. The circumstance
surprised me and even perplexed me very much; but you see, I do not
believe on principle. Just as others begin by believing, I begin by
doubting; and when I cannot understand, I continue to deny that there
can be any telepathic communication between souls; certain that my own
intelligence will be able to explain it. Well, I kept on inquiring into
the matter, and by dint of questioning all the wives of the absent
seamen, I was convinced that not a week passed without one of them, or
one of their children dreaming and declaring when they woke up that the
father was drowned. The horrible and continual fear of this accident
makes them always talk about it. Now, if one of these frequent
predictions coincides, by a very simple chance, with the death of the
person referred to, people at once declare it to be a miracle; for they
suddenly lose sight of all the other predictions of misfortune that
have remained unfulfilled. I have myself known fifty cases where the
persons who made the prediction forgot all about it a week after wards.
But, if, then one happens to die, then the recollection of the thing is
immediately revived, and people are ready to believe in the
intervention of God, according to some, and magnetism, according to
One of the smokers remarked:
“What you say is right enough; but what about your second story?”
“Oh! my second story is a very delicate matter to relate. It
happened to myself, and so I don't place any great value on my own view
of the matter. An interested party can never give an impartial opinion.
However, here it is:
“Among my acquaintances was a young woman on whom I had never
bestowed a thought, whom I had never even looked at attentively, never
taken any notice of.
“I classed her among the women of no importance, though she was not
bad- looking; she appeared, in fact, to possess eyes, a nose, a mouth,
some sort of hair—just a colorless type of countenance. She was one of
those beings who awaken only a chance, passing thought, but no special
interest, no desire.
“Well, one night, as I was writing some letters by my fireside
before going to bed, I was conscious, in the midst of that train of
sensuous visions that sometimes pass through one's brain in moments of
idle reverie, of a kind of slight influence, passing over me, a little
flutter of the heart, and immediately, without any cause, without any
logical connection of thought, I saw distinctly, as if I were touching
her, saw from head to foot, and disrobed, this young woman to whom I
had never given more that three seconds' thought at a time. I suddenly
discovered in her a number of qualities which I had never before
observed, a sweet charm, a languorous fascination; she awakened in me
that sort of restless emotion that causes one to pursue a woman. But I
did not think of her long. I went to bed and was soon asleep. And I
“You have all had these strange dreams which make you overcome the
impossible, which open to you double-locked doors, unexpected joys,
tightly folded arms?
“Which of us in these troubled, excising, breathless slumbers, has
not held, clasped, embraced with rapture, the woman who occupied his
thoughts? And have you ever noticed what superhuman delight these happy
dreams give us? Into what mad intoxication they cast you! with what
passionate spasms they shake you! and with what infinite, caressing,
penetrating tenderness they fill your heart for her whom you hold
clasped in your arms in that adorable illusion that is so like reality!
“All this I felt with unforgettable violence. This woman was mine,
so much mine that the pleasant warmth of her skin remained in my
fingers, the odor of her skin, in my brain, the taste of her kisses, on
my lips, the sound of her voice lingered in my ears, the touch of her
clasp still clung to me, and the burning charm of her tenderness still
gratified my senses long after the delight but disillusion of my
“And three times that night I had the same dream.
“When the day dawned she haunted me, possessed me, filled my senses
to such an extent that I was not one second without thinking of her.
“At last, not knowing what to do, I dressed myself and went to call
on her. As I went upstairs to her apartment, I was so overcome by
emotion that I trembled, and my heart beat rapidly.
“I entered the apartment. She rose the moment she heard my name
mentioned; and suddenly our eyes met in a peculiar fixed gaze.
“I sat down. I stammered out some commonplaces which she seemed not
to hear. I did not know what to say or do. Then, abruptly, clasping my
arms round her, my dream was realized so suddenly that I began to doubt
whether I was really awake. We were friends after this for two years.”
“What conclusion do you draw from it?” said a voice.
The story-teller seemed to hesitate.
“The conclusion I draw from it—well, by Jove, the conclusion is
that it was just a coincidence! And then—who can tell? Perhaps it was
some glance of hers which I had not noticed and which came back that
night to me through one of those mysterious and
unconscious—recollections that often bring before us things ignored by
our own consciousness, unperceived by our minds!”
“Call it whatever you like,” said one of his table companions, when
the story was finished; “but if you don't believe in magnetism after
that, my dear boy, you are an ungrateful fellow!”
A FATHER'S CONFESSION
All Veziers-le-Rethel had followed the funeral procession of M.
Badon- Leremince to the grave, and the last words of the funeral
oration pronounced by the delegate of the district remained in the
minds of all: “He was an honest man, at least!”
An honest man he had been in all the known acts of his life, in his
words, in his examples, his attitude, his behavior, his enterprises, in
the cut of his beard and the shape of his hats. He never had said a
word that did not set an example, never had given an alms without
adding a word of advice, never had extended his hand without appearing
to bestow a benediction.
He left two children, a boy and a girl. His son was counselor
general, and his daughter, having married a lawyer, M. Poirel de la
Voulte, moved in the best society of Veziers.
They were inconsolable at the death of their father, for they loved
As soon as the ceremony was over, the son, daughter and son-in-law
returned to the house of mourning, and, shutting themselves in the
library, they opened the will, the seals of which were to be broken by
them alone and only after the coffin had been placed in the ground.
This wish was expressed by a notice on the envelope.
M. Poirel de la Voulte tore open the envelope, in his character of a
lawyer used to such operations, and having adjusted his spectacles, he
read in a monotonous voice, made for reading the details of contracts:
My children, my dear children, I could not sleep the eternal
in peace if I did not make to you from the tomb a confession,
confession of a crime, remorse for which has ruined my life.
I committed a crime, a frightful, abominable crime.
I was twenty-six years old, and I had just been called to the
Paris, and was living the life off young men from the
are stranded in this town without acquaintances, relatives, or
I took a sweetheart. There are beings who cannot live alone. I
one of those. Solitude fills me with horrible anguish, the
of my room beside my fire in the evening. I feel then as if I
alone on earth, alone, but surrounded by vague dangers,
terrible things; and the partition that separates me from my
neighbor, my neighbor whom I do not know, keeps me at as great
distance from him as the stars that I see through my window. A
of fever pervades me, a fever of impatience and of fear, and
silence of the walls terrifies me. The silence of a room where
lives alone is so intense and so melancholy It is not only a
of the mind; when a piece of furniture cracks a shudder goes
you for you expect no noise in this melancholy abode.
How many times, nervous and timid from this motionless silence,
have begun to talk, to repeat words without rhyme or reason,
make some sound. My voice at those times sounds so strange
am afraid of that, too. Is there anything more dreadful than
talking to one's self in an empty house? One's voice sounds
that of another, an unknown voice talking aimlessly, to no
the empty air, with no ear to listen to it, for one knows
they escape into the solitude of the room exactly what words
uttered. And when they resound lugubriously in the silence,
seem no more than an echo, the peculiar echo of words
My sweetheart was a young girl like other young girls who live
Paris on wages that are insufficient to keep them. She was
good, simple. Her parents lived at Poissy. She went to spend
several days with them from time to time.
For a year I lived quietly with her, fully decided to leave her
I should find some one whom I liked well enough to marry. I
make a little provision for this one, for it is an understood
in our social set that a woman's love should be paid for, in
if she is poor, in presents if she is rich.
But one day she told me she was enceinte. I was thunderstruck,
saw in a second that my life would be ruined. I saw the fetter
I should wear until my death, everywhere, in my future family
in my old age, forever; the fetter of a woman bound to my life
through a child; the fetter of the child whom I must bring up,
over, protect, while keeping myself unknown to him, and
hidden from the world.
I was greatly disturbed at this news, and a confused longing, a
criminal desire, surged through my mind; I did not formulate
I felt it in my heart, ready to come to the surface, as if
hidden behind a portiere should await the signal to come out.
some accident might only happen! So many of these little
before they are born!
Oh! I did not wish my sweetheart to die! The poor girl, I loved
her very much! But I wished, possibly, that the child might
before I saw it.
He was born. I set up housekeeping in my little bachelor
an imitation home, with a horrible child. He looked like all
children; I did not care for him. Fathers, you see, do not
affection until later. They have not the instinctive and
tenderness of mothers; their affection has to be awakened
their mind must become attached by bonds formed each day
beings that live in each other's society.
A year passed. I now avoided my home, which was too small,
soiled linen, baby-clothes and stockings the size of gloves
lying round, where a thousand articles of all descriptions lay
the furniture, on the arm of an easy-chair, everywhere. I went
chiefly that I might not hear the child cry, for he cried on
slightest pretext, when he was bathed, when he was touched,
was put to bed, when he was taken up in the morning,
I had made a few acquaintances, and I met at a reception the
who was to be your mother. I fell in love with her and became
desirous to marry her. I courted her; I asked her parents'
to our marriage and it was granted.
I found myself in this dilemma: I must either marry this young
whom I adored, having a child already, or else tell the truth
renounce her, and happiness, my future, everything; for her
who were people of rigid principles, would not give her to me
I passed a month of horrible anguish, of mortal torture, a
haunted by a thousand frightful thoughts; and I felt
me a hatred toward my son, toward that little morsel of
screaming flesh, who blocked my path, interrupted my life,
me to an existence without hope, without all those vague
expectations that make the charm of youth.
But just then my companion's mother became ill, and I was left
with the child.
It was in December, and the weather was terribly cold. What a
My companion had just left. I had dined alone in my little
room and I went gently into the room where the little one was
I sat down in an armchair before the fire. The wind was
making the windows rattle, a dry, frosty wind; and I saw
window the stars shining with that piercing brightness that
have on frosty nights.
Then the idea that had obsessed me for a month rose again to
surface. As soon as I was quiet it came to me and harassed me.
ate into my mind like a fixed idea, just as cancers must eat
the flesh. It was there, in my head, in my heart, in my whole
it seemed to me; and it swallowed me up as a wild beast might
I endeavored to drive it away, to repulse it, to open my mind
other thoughts, as one opens a window to the fresh morning
drive out the vitiated air; but I could not drive it from my
not even for a second. I do not know how to express this
It gnawed at my soul, and I felt a frightful pain, a real
and moral pain.
My life was ruined! How could I escape from this situation? How
could I draw back, and how could I confess?
And I loved the one who was to become your mother with a mad
passion, which this insurmountable obstacle only aggravated.
A terrible rage was taking possession of me, choking me, a rage
verged on madness! Surely I was crazy that evening!
The child was sleeping. I got up and looked at it as it slept.
was he, this abortion, this spawn, this nothing, that
to irremediable unhappiness!
He was asleep, his mouth open, wrapped in his bed-clothes in a
beside my bed, where I could not sleep.
How did I ever do what I did? How do I know? What force urged
on? What malevolent power took possession of me? Oh! the
temptation to crime came to me without any forewarning. All I
recall is that my heart beat tumultuously. It beat so hard
could hear it, as one hears the strokes of a hammer behind a
partition. That is all I can recall—the beating of my heart!
In my head there was a strange confusion, a tumult, a
disorder, a lack of presence of mind. It was one of those
bewilderment and hallucination when a man is neither conscious
his actions nor able to guide his will.
I gently raised the coverings from the body of the child; I
them down to the foot of the crib, and he lay there uncovered
He did not wake. Then I went toward the window, softly, quite
softly, and I opened it.
A breath of icy air glided in like an assassin; it was so cold
I drew aside, and the two candles flickered. I remained
near the window, not daring to turn round, as if for fear of
what was doing on behind me, and feeling the icy air
across my forehead, my cheeks, my hands, the deadly air which
streaming in. I stood there a long time.
I was not thinking, I was not reflecting. All at once a little
cough caused me to shudder frightfully from head to foot, a
that I feel still to the roots of my hair. And with a frantic
movement I abruptly closed both sides of the window and,
round, ran over to the crib.
He was still asleep, his mouth open, quite naked. I touched his
legs; they were icy cold and I covered them up.
My heart was suddenly touched, grieved, filled with pity,
tenderness, love for this poor innocent being that I had
kill. I kissed his fine, soft hair long and tenderly; then I
and sat down before the fire.
I reflected with amazement with horror on what I had done,
myself whence come those tempests of the soul in which a man
all perspective of things, all command over himself and acts
as in a
condition of mad intoxication, not knowing whither he is
a vessel in a hurricane.
The child coughed again, and it gave my heart a wrench. Suppose
should die! O God! O God! What would become of me?
I rose from my chair to go and look at him, and with a candle
hand I leaned over him. Seeing him breathing quietly I felt
reassured, when he coughed a third time. It gave me such a
tat I started backward, just as one does at sight of something
horrible, and let my candle fall.
As I stood erect after picking it up, I noticed that my temples
bathed in perspiration, that cold sweat which is the result of
anguish of soul. And I remained until daylight bending over my
becoming calm when he remained quiet for some time, and filled
atrocious pain when a weak cough came from his mouth.
He awoke with his eyes red, his throat choked, and with an air
When the woman came in to arrange my room I sent her at once
doctor. He came at the end of an hour, and said, after
“Did he not catch cold?”
I began to tremble like a person with palsy, and I faltered:
“No, I do not think so.”
And then I said:
“What is the matter? Is it serious?”
“I do not know yet,” he replied. “I will come again this
He came that evening. My son had remained almost all day in a
condition of drowsiness, coughing from time to time. During
night inflammation of the lungs set in.
That lasted ten days. I cannot express what I suffered in those
interminable hours that divide morning from night, right from
And since—since that moment, I have not passed one hour, not a
single hour, without the frightful burning recollection, a
recollection, a memory that seems to wring my heart, awaking
like a savage beast imprisoned in the depth of my soul.
Oh! if I could have gone mad!
M. Poirel de la Voulte raised his spectacles with a motion that was
peculiar to him whenever he finished reading a contract; and the three
heirs of the defunct looked at one another without speaking, pale and
At the end of a minute the lawyer resumed:
“That must be destroyed.”
The other two bent their heads in sign of assent. He lighted a
candle, carefully separated the pages containing the damaging
confession from those relating to the disposition of money, then he
held them over the candle and threw them into the fireplace.
And they watched the white sheets as they burned, till they were
presently reduced to little crumbling black heaps. And as some words
were still visible in white tracing, the daughter, with little strokes
of the toe of her shoe, crushed the burning paper, mixing it with the
old ashes in the fireplace.
Then all three stood there watching it for some time, as if they
feared that the destroyed secret might escape from the fireplace.
A MOTHER OF MONSTERS
I recalled this horrible story, the events of which occurred long
ago, and this horrible woman, the other day at a fashionable seaside
resort, where I saw on the beach a well-known young, elegant and
charming Parisienne, adored and respected by everyone.
I had been invited by a friend to pay him a visit in a little
provincial town. He took me about in all directions to do the honors of
the place, showed me noted scenes, chateaux, industries, ruins. He
pointed out monuments, churches, old carved doorways, enormous or
distorted trees, the oak of St. Andrew, and the yew tree of Roqueboise.
When I had exhausted my admiration and enthusiasm over all the
sights, my friend said with a distressed expression on his face, that
there was nothing left to look at. I breathed freely. I would now be
able to rest under the shade of the trees. But, all at once, he uttered
“Oh, yes! We have the 'Mother of Monsters'; I must take you to see
“Who is that, the 'Mother of Monsters'?” I asked.
“She is an abominable woman,” he replied, “a regular demon, a being
who voluntarily brings into the world deformed, hideous, frightful
children, monstrosities, in fact, and then sells them to showmen who
exhibit such things.
“These exploiters of freaks come from time to time to find out if
she has any fresh monstrosity, and if it meets with their approval they
carry it away with them, paying the mother a compensation.
“She has eleven of this description. She is rich.
“You think I am joking, romancing, exaggerating. No, my friend; I am
telling you the truth, the exact truth.
“Let us go and see this woman. Then I will tell you her history.”
He took me into one of the suburbs. The woman lived in a pretty
little house by the side of the road. It was attractive and well kept.
The garden was filled with fragrant flowers. One might have supposed it
to be the residence of a retired lawyer.
A maid ushered us into a sort of little country parlor, and the
wretch appeared. She was about forty. She was a tall, big woman with
hard features, but well formed, vigorous and healthy, the true type of
a robust peasant woman, half animal, and half woman.
She was aware of her reputation and received everyone with a
humility that smacked of hatred.
“What do the gentlemen wish?” she asked.
“They tell me that your last child is just like an ordinary child,
that he does not resemble his brothers at all,” replied my friend. “I
wanted to be sure of that. Is it true?”
She cast on us a malicious and furious look as she said:
“Oh, no, oh, no, my poor sir! He is perhaps even uglier than the
rest. I have no luck, no luck!
“They are all like that, it is heartbreaking! How can the good God
be so hard on a poor woman who is all alone in the world, how can He?”
She spoke hurriedly, her eyes cast down, with a deprecating air as of a
wild beast who is afraid. Her harsh voice became soft, and it seemed
strange to hear those tearful falsetto tones issuing from that big,
bony frame, of unusual strength and with coarse outlines, which seemed
fitted for violent action, and made to utter howls like a wolf.
“We should like to see your little one,” said my friend.
I fancied she colored up. I may have been deceived. After a few
moments of silence, she said in a louder tone:
“What good will that do you?”
“Why do you not wish to show it to us?” replied my friend. “There
are many people to whom you will show it; you know whom I mean.”
She gave a start, and resuming her natural voice, and giving free
play to her anger, she screamed:
“Was that why you came here? To insult me? Because my children are
like animals, tell me? You shall not see him, no, no, you shall not see
him! Go away, go away! I do not know why you all try to torment me like
She walked over toward us, her hands on her hips. At the brutal tone
of her voice, a sort of moaning, or rather a mewing, the lamentable cry
of an idiot, came from the adjoining room. I shivered to the marrow of
my bones. We retreated before her.
“Take care, Devil” (they called her the Devil); said my friend,
“take care; some day you will get yourself into trouble through this.”
She began to tremble, beside herself with fury, shaking her fist and
“Be off with you! What will get me into trouble? Be off with you,
She was about to attack us, but we fled, saddened at what we had
seen. When we got outside, my friend said:
“Well, you have seen her, what do you think of her?”
“Tell me the story of this brute,” I replied.
And this is what he told me as we walked along the white high road,
with ripe crops on either side of it which rippled like the sea in the
light breeze that passed over them.
“This woman was one a servant on a farm. She was an honest girl,
steady and economical. She was never known to have an admirer, and
never suspected of any frailty. But she went astray, as so many do.
“She soon found herself in trouble, and was tortured with fear and
shame. Wishing to conceal her misfortune, she bound her body tightly
with a corset of her own invention, made of boards and cord. The more
she developed, the more she bound herself with this instrument of
torture, suffering martyrdom, but brave in her sorrow, not allowing
anyone to see, or suspect, anything. She maimed the little unborn
being, cramping it with that frightful corset, and made a monster of
it. Its head was squeezed and elongated to a point, and its large eyes
seemed popping out of its head. Its limbs, exaggeratedly long, and
twisted like the stalk of a vine, terminated in fingers like the claws
of a spider. Its trunk was tiny, and round as a nut.
“The child was born in an open field, and when the weeders saw it,
they fled away, screaming, and the report spread that she had given
birth to a demon. From that time on, she was called 'the Devil.'
“She was driven from the farm, and lived on charity, under a cloud.
She brought up the monster, whom she hated with a savage hatred, and
would have strangled, perhaps, if the priest had not threatened her
“One day some travelling showmen heard about the frightful creature,
and asked to see it, so that if it pleased them they might take it
away. They were pleased, and counted out five hundred francs to the
mother. At first, she had refused to let them see the little animal, as
she was ashamed; but when she discovered it had a money value, and that
these people were anxious to get it, she began to haggle with them,
raising her price with all a peasant's persistence.
“She made them draw up a paper, in which they promised to pay her
four hundred francs a year besides, as though they had taken this
deformity into their employ.
“Incited by the greed of gain, she continued to produce these
phenomena, so as to have an assured income like a bourgeoise.
“Some of them were long, some short, some like crabs-all
bodies-others like lizards. Several died, and she was heartbroken.
“The law tried to interfere, but as they had no proof they let her
continue to produce her freaks.
“She has at this moment eleven alive, and they bring in, on an
average, counting good and bad years, from five to six thousand francs
a year. One, alone, is not placed, the one she was unwilling to show
us. But she will not keep it long, for she is known to all the showmen
in the world, who come from time to time to see if she has anything
“She even gets bids from them when the monster is valuable.”
My friend was silent. A profound disgust stirred my heart, and a
feeling of rage, of regret, to think that I had not strangled this
brute when I had the opportunity.
I had forgotten this story, when I saw on the beach of a fashionable
resort the other day, an elegant, charming, dainty woman, surrounded by
men who paid her respect as well as admiration.
I was walking along the beach, arm in arm with a friend, the
resident physician. Ten minutes later, I saw a nursemaid with three
children, who were rolling in the sand. A pair of little crutches lay
on the ground, and touched my sympathy. I then noticed that these three
children were all deformed, humpbacked, or crooked; and hideous.
“Those are the offspring of that charming woman you saw just now,”
said the doctor.
I was filled with pity for her, as well as for them, and exclaimed:
“Oh, the poor mother! How can she ever laugh!”
“Do not pity her, my friend. Pity the poor children,” replied the
doctor. “This is the consequence of preserving a slender figure up to
the last. These little deformities were made by the corset. She knows
very well that she is risking her life at this game. But what does she
care, as long as lie can be beautiful and have admirers!”
And then I recalled that other woman, the peasant, the “Devil,” who
sold her children, her monsters.
AN UNCOMFORTABLE BED
One autumn I went to spend the hunting season with some friends in a
chateau in Picardy.
My friends were fond of practical jokes. I do not care to know
people who are not.
When I arrived, they gave me a princely reception, which at once
awakened suspicion in my mind. They fired off rifles, embraced me, made
much of me, as if they expected to have great fun at my expense.
I said to myself:
“Look out, old ferret! They have something in store for you.”
During the dinner the mirth was excessive, exaggerated, in fact. I
thought: “Here are people who have more than their share of amusement,
and apparently without reason. They must have planned some good joke.
Assuredly I am to be the victim of the joke. Attention!”
During the entire evening every one laughed in an exaggerated
fashion. I scented a practical joke in the air, as a dog scents game.
But what was it? I was watchful, restless. I did not let a word, or a
meaning, or a gesture escape me. Every one seemed to me an object of
suspicion, and I even looked distrustfully at the faces of the
The hour struck for retiring; and the whole household came to escort
me to my room. Why?
They called to me: “Good-night.” I entered the apartment, shut the
door, and remained standing, without moving a single step, holding the
wax candle in my hand.
I heard laughter and whispering in the corridor. Without doubt they
were spying on me. I cast a glance round the walls, the furniture, the
ceiling, the hangings, the floor. I saw nothing to justify suspicion. I
heard persons moving about outside my door. I had no doubt they were
looking through the keyhole.
An idea came into my head: “My candle may suddenly go out and leave
me in darkness.”
Then I went across to the mantelpiece and lighted all the wax
candles that were on it. After that I cast another glance around me
without discovering anything. I advanced with short steps, carefully
examining the apartment. Nothing. I inspected every article, one after
the other. Still nothing. I went over to the window. The shutters,
large wooden shutters, were open. I shut them with great care, and then
drew the curtains, enormous velvet curtains, and placed a chair in
front of them, so as to have nothing to fear from outside.
Then I cautiously sat down. The armchair was solid. I did not
venture to get into the bed. However, the night was advancing; and I
ended by coming to the conclusion that I was foolish. If they were
spying on me, as I supposed, they must, while waiting for the success
of the joke they had been preparing for me, have been laughing
immoderately at my terror. So I made up my mind to go to bed. But the
bed was particularly suspicious-looking. I pulled at the curtains. They
seemed to be secure.
All the same, there was danger. I was going perhaps to receive a
cold shower both from overhead, or perhaps, the moment I stretched
myself out, to find myself sinking to the floor with my mattress. I
searched in my memory for all the practical jokes of which I ever had
experience. And I did not want to be caught. Ah! certainly not!
certainly not! Then I suddenly bethought myself of a precaution which I
considered insured safety. I caught hold of the side of the mattress
gingerly, and very slowly drew it toward me. It came away, followed by
the sheet and the rest of the bedclothes. I dragged all these objects
into the very middle of the room, facing the entrance door. I made my
bed over again as best I could at some distance from the suspected
bedstead and the corner which had filled me with such anxiety. Then I
extinguished all the candles, and, groping my way, I slipped under the
For at least another hour I remained awake, starting at the
slightest sound. Everything seemed quiet in the chateau. I fell asleep.
I must have been in a deep sleep for a long time, but all of a
sudden I was awakened with a start by the fall of a heavy body tumbling
right on top of my own, and, at the same time, I received on my face,
on my neck, and on my chest a burning liquid which made me utter a howl
of pain. And a dreadful noise, as if a sideboard laden with plates and
dishes had fallen down, almost deafened me.
I was smothering beneath the weight that was crushing me and
preventing me from moving. I stretched out my hand to find out what was
the nature of this object. I felt a face, a nose, and whiskers. Then,
with all my strength, I launched out a blow at this face. But I
immediately received a hail of cuffings which made me jump straight out
of the soaked sheets, and rush in my nightshirt into the corridor, the
door of which I found open.
Oh, heavens! it was broad daylight. The noise brought my friends
hurrying into my apartment, and we found, sprawling over my improvised
bed, the dismayed valet, who, while bringing me my morning cup of tea,
had tripped over this obstacle in the middle of the floor and fallen on
his stomach, spilling my breakfast over my face in spite of himself.
The precautions I had taken in closing the shutters and going to
sleep in the middle of the room had only brought about the practical
joke I had been trying to avoid.
Oh, how they all laughed that day!
“Hello! there's Milial!” said somebody near me. I looked at the man
who had been pointed out as I had been wishing for a long time to meet
this Don Juan.
He was no longer young. His gray hair looked a little like those fur
bonnets worn by certain Northern peoples, and his long beard, which
fell down over his chest, had also somewhat the appearance of fur. He
was talking to a lady, leaning toward her, speaking in a low voice and
looking at her with an expression full of respect and tenderness.
I knew his life, or at least as much as was known of it. He had
loved madly several times, and there had been certain tragedies with
which his name had been connected. When I spoke to women who were the
loudest in his praise, and asked them whence came this power, they
always answered, after thinking for a while: “I don't know—he has a
certain charm about him.”
He was certainly not handsome. He had none of the elegance that we
ascribe to conquerors of feminine hearts. I wondered what might be his
hid den charm. Was it mental? I never had heard of a clever saying of
his. In his glance? Perhaps. Or in his voice? The voices of some beings
have a certain irresistible attraction, almost suggesting the flavor of
things good to eat. One is hungry for them, and the sound of their
words penetrates us like a dainty morsel. A friend was passing. I asked
him: “Do you know Monsieur Milial?”
A minute later we were shaking hands and talking in the doorway.
What he said was correct, agreeable to hear; it contained no irritable
thought. The voice was sweet, soft, caressing, musical; but I had heard
others much more attractive, much more moving. One listened to him with
pleasure, just as one would look at a pretty little brook. No tension
of the mind was necessary in order to follow him, no hidden meaning
aroused curiosity, no expectation awoke interest. His conversation was
rather restful, but it did not awaken in one either a desire to answer,
to contradict or to approve, and it was as easy to answer him as it was
to listen to him. The response came to the lips of its own accord, as
soon as he had finished talking, and phrases turned toward him as if he
had naturally aroused them.
One thought soon struck me. I had known him for a quarter of an
hour, and it seemed as if he were already one of my old friends, that I
had known all about him for a long time; his face, his gestures, his
voice, his ideas. Suddenly, after a few minutes of conversation, he
seemed already to be installed in my intimacy. All constraint
disappeared between us, and, had he so desired, I might have confided
in him as one confides only in old friends.
Certainly there was some mystery about him. Those barriers that are
closed between most people and that are lowered with time when
sympathy, similar tastes, equal intellectual culture and constant
intercourse remove constraint—those barriers seemed not to exist
between him and me, and no doubt this was the case between him and all
people, both men and women, whom fate threw in his path.
After half an hour we parted, promising to see each other often, and
he gave me his address after inviting me to take luncheon with him in
I forgot what hour he had stated, and I arrived too soon; he was not
yet home. A correct and silent domestic showed me into a beautiful,
quiet, softly lighted parlor. I felt comfortable there, at home. How
often I have noticed the influence of apartments on the character and
on the mind! There are some which make one feel foolish; in others, on
the contrary, one always feels lively. Some make us sad, although well
lighted and decorated in light-colored furniture; others cheer us up,
although hung with sombre material. Our eye, like our heart, has its
likes and dislikes, of which it does not inform us, and which it
secretly imposes on our temperament. The harmony of furniture, walls,
the style of an ensemble, act immediately on our mental state, just as
the air from the woods, the sea or the mountains modifies our physical
I sat down on a cushion-covered divan and felt myself suddenly
carried and supported by these little silk bags of feathers, as if the
outline of my body had been marked out beforehand on this couch.
Then I looked about. There was nothing striking about the room;
every- where were beautiful and modest things, simple and rare
furniture, Oriental curtains which did not seem to come from a
department store but from the interior of a harem; and exactly opposite
me hung the portrait of a woman. It was a portrait of medium size,
showing the head and the upper part of the body, and the hands, which
were holding a book. She was young, bareheaded; ribbons were woven in
her hair; she was smiling sadly. Was it because she was bareheaded, was
it merely her natural expression? I never have seen a portrait of a
lady which seemed so much in its place as that one in that dwelling. Of
all those I knew I have seen nothing like that one. All those that I
know are on exhibition, whether the lady be dressed in her gaudiest
gown, with an attractive headdress and a look which shows that she is
posing first of all before the artist and then before those who will
look at her or whether they have taken a comfortable attitude in an
ordinary gown. Some are standing majestically in all their beauty,
which is not at all natural to them in life. All of them have
something, a flower or, a jewel, a crease in the dress or a curve of
the lip, which one feels to have been placed there for effect by the
artist. Whether they wear a hat or merely their hair one can
immediately notice that they are not entirely natural. Why? One cannot
say without knowing them, but the effect is there. They seem to be
calling somewhere, on people whom they wish to please and to whom they
wish to appear at their best advantage; and they have studied their
attitudes, sometimes modest, Sometimes haughty.
What could one say about this one? She was at home and alone. Yes,
she was alone, for she was smiling as one smiles when thinking in
solitude of something sad or sweet, and not as one smiles when one is
being watched. She seemed so much alone and so much at home that she
made the whole large apartment seem absolutely empty. She alone lived
in it, filled it, gave it life. Many people might come in and converse,
laugh, even sing; she would still be alone with a solitary smile, and
she alone would give it life with her pictured gaze.
That look also was unique. It fell directly on me, fixed and
caressing, without seeing me. All portraits know that they are being
watched, and they answer with their eyes, which see, think, follow us
without leaving us, from the very moment we enter the apartment they
inhabit. This one did not see me; it saw nothing, although its look was
fixed directly on me. I remembered the surprising verse of Baudelaire:
And your eyes, attractive as those of a portrait.
They did indeed attract me in an irresistible manner; those painted
eyes which had lived, or which were perhaps still living, threw over me
a strange, powerful spell. Oh, what an infinite and tender charm, like
a passing breeze, like a dying sunset of lilac rose and blue, a little
sad like the approaching night, which comes behind the sombre frame and
out of those impenetrable eyes! Those eyes, created by a few strokes
from a brush, hide behind them the mystery of that which seems to be
and which does not exist, which can appear in the eyes of a woman,
which can make love blossom within us.
The door opened and M. Milial entered. He excused himself for being
late. I excused myself for being ahead of time. Then I said: “Might I
ask you who is this lady?”
He answered: “That is my mother. She died very young.”
Then I understood whence came the inexplicable attraction of this
The north wind was blowing a hurricane, driving through the sky big,
black, heavy clouds from which the rain poured down on the earth with
A high sea was raging and dashing its huge, slow, foamy waves along
the coast with the rumbling sound of thunder. The waves followed each
other close, rolling in as high as mountains, scattering the foam as
The storm engulfed itself in the little valley of Yport, whistling
and moaning, tearing the shingles from the roofs, smashing the
shutters, knocking down the chimneys, rushing through the narrow
streets in such gusts that one could walk only by holding on to the
walls, and children would have been lifted up like leaves and carried
over the houses into the fields.
The fishing smacks had been hauled high up on land, because at high
tide the sea would sweep the beach. Several sailors, sheltered behind
the curved bottoms of their boats, were watching this battle of the sky
and the sea.
Then, one by one, they went away, for night was falling on the
storm, wrapping in shadows the raging ocean and all the battling
Just two men remained, their hands plunged deep into their pockets,
bending their backs beneath the squall, their woolen caps pulled down
over their ears; two big Normandy fishermen, bearded, their skin tanned
through exposure, with the piercing black eyes of the sailor who looks
over the horizon like a bird of prey.
One of them was saying:
“Come on, Jeremie, let's go play dominoes. It's my treat.”
The other hesitated a while, tempted on one hand by the game and the
thought of brandy, knowing well that, if he went to Paumelle's, he
would return home drunk; held back, on the other hand, by the idea of
his wife remaining alone in the house.
“Any one might think that you had made a bet to get me drunk every
night. Say, what good is it doing you, since it's always you that's
Nevertheless he was smiling at the idea of all this brandy drunk at
the expense of another. He was smiling the contented smirk of an
Mathurin, his friend, kept pulling him by the sleeve.
“Come on, Jeremie. This isn't the kind of a night to go home without
anything to warm you up. What are you afraid of? Isn't your wife going
to warm your bed for you?”
“The other night I couldn't find the door—I had to be fished out of
the ditch in front of the house!”
He was still laughing at this drunkard's recollection, and he was
unconsciously going toward Paumelle's Cafe, where a light was shining
in the window; he was going, pulled by Mathurin and pushed by the wind,
unable to resist these combined forces.
The low room was full of sailors, smoke and noise. All these men,
clad in woolens, their elbows on the tables, were shouting to make
themselves heard. The more people came in, the more one had to shout in
order to overcome the noise of voices and the rattling of dominoes on
the marble tables.
Jeremie and Mathurin sat down in a corner and began a game, and the
glasses were emptied in rapid succession into their thirsty throats.
Then they played more games and drank more glasses. Mathurin kept
pouring and winking to the saloon keeper, a big, red-faced man, who
chuckled as though at the thought of some fine joke; and Jeremie kept
absorbing alcohol and wagging his head, giving vent to a roar of
laughter and looking at his comrade with a stupid and contented
All the customers were going away. Every time that one of them would
open the door to leave a gust of wind would blow into the cafe, making
the tobacco smoke swirl around, swinging the lamps at the end of their
chains and making their flames flicker, and suddenly one could hear the
deep booming of a breaking wave and the moaning of the wind.
Jeremie, his collar unbuttoned, was taking drunkard's poses, one leg
outstretched, one arm hanging down and in the other hand holding a
They were alone now with the owner, who had come up to them,
“Well, Jeremie, how goes it inside? Feel less thirsty after wetting
“The more I wet it, the drier it gets inside.”
The innkeeper cast a sly glance at Mathurin. He said:
“And your brother, Mathurin, where's he now?”
The sailor laughed silently:
“Don't worry; he's warm, all right.”
And both of them looked toward Jeremie, who was triumphantly putting
down the double six and announcing:
Then the owner declared:
“Well, boys, I'm goin' to bed. I will leave you the lamp and the
bottle; there's twenty cents' worth in it. Lock the door when you go,
Mathurin, and slip the key under the mat the way you did the other
“Don't worry; it'll be all right.”
Paumelle shook hands with his two customers and slowly went up the
wooden stairs. For several minutes his heavy step echoed through the
little house. Then a loud creaking announced that he had got into bed.
The two men continued to play. From time to time a more violent gust
of wind would shake the whole house, and the two drinkers would look
up, as though some one were about to enter. Then Mathurin would take
the bottle and fill Jeremie's glass. But suddenly the clock over the
bar struck twelve. Its hoarse clang sounded like the rattling of
saucepans. Then Mathurin got up like a sailor whose watch is over.
“Come on, Jeremie, we've got to get out.”
The other man rose to his feet with difficulty, got his balance by
leaning on the table, reached the door and opened it while his
companion was putting out the light.
As soon as they were in the street Mathurin locked the door and then
“Well, so long. See you to-morrow night!”
And he disappeared in the darkness.
Jeremie took a few steps, staggered, stretched out his hands, met a
wall which supported him and began to stumble along. From time to time
a gust of wind would sweep through the street, pushing him forward,
making him run for a few steps; then, when the wind would die down, he
would stop short, having lost his impetus, and once more he would begin
to stagger on his unsteady drunkard's legs.
He went instinctively toward his home, just as birds go to their
nests. Finally he recognized his door, and began to feel about for the
keyhole and tried to put the key in it. Not finding the hole, he began
to swear. Then he began to beat on the door with his fists, calling for
his wife to come and help him:
“Melina! Oh, Melina!”
As he leaned against the door for support, it gave way and opened,
and Jeremie, losing his prop, fell inside, rolling on his face into the
middle of his room, and he felt something heavy pass over him and
escape in the night.
He was no longer moving, dazed by fright, bewildered, fearing the
devil, ghosts, all the mysterious beings of darkness, and he waited a
long time without daring to move. But when he found out that nothing
else was moving, a little reason returned to him, the reason of a
Gently he sat up. Again he waited a long time, and at last, growing
bolder, he called:
His wife did not answer.
Then, suddenly, a suspicion crossed his darkened mind, an
indistinct, vague suspicion. He was not moving; he was sitting there in
the dark, trying to gather together his scattered wits, his mind
stumbling over incomplete ideas, just as his feet stumbled along.
Once more he asked:
“Who was it, Melina? Tell me who it was. I won't hurt you!”
He waited, no voice was raised in the darkness. He was now reasoning
with himself out loud.
“I'm drunk, all right! I'm drunk! And he filled me up, the dog; he
did it, to stop my goin' home. I'm drunk!”
And he would continue:
“Tell me who it was, Melina, or somethin'll happen to you.”
After having waited again, he went on with the slow and obstinate
logic of a drunkard:
“He's been keeping me at that loafer Paumelle's place every night,
so as to stop my going home. It's some trick. Oh, you damned carrion!”
Slowly he got on his knees. A blind fury was gaining possession of
him, mingling with the fumes of alcohol.
“Tell me who it was, Melina, or you'll get a licking—I warn you!”
He was now standing, trembling with a wild fury, as though the
alcohol had set his blood on fire. He took a step, knocked against a
chair, seized it, went on, reached the bed, ran his hands over it and
felt the warm body of his wife.
Then, maddened, he roared:
“So! You were there, you piece of dirt, and you wouldn't answer!”
And, lifting the chair, which he was holding in his strong sailor's
grip, he swung it down before him with an exasperated fury. A cry burst
from the bed, an agonizing, piercing cry. Then he began to thrash
around like a thresher in a barn. And soon nothing more moved. The
chair was broken to pieces, but he still held one leg and beat away
with it, panting.
At last he stopped to ask:
“Well, are you ready to tell me who it was?”
Melina did not answer.
Then tired out, stupefied from his exertion, he stretched himself
out on the ground and slept.
When day came a neighbor, seeing the door open, entered. He saw
Jeremie snoring on the floor, amid the broken pieces of a chair, and on
the bed a pulp of flesh and blood.
As we sat chatting after dinner, a party of men, the conversation
turned on women, for lack of something else.
One of us said:
“Here's a funny thing that happened to me on, that very subject.”
And he told us the following story:
One evening last winter I suddenly felt overcome by that
overpowering sense of misery and languor that takes possession of one
from time to time. I was in my own apartment, all alone, and I was
convinced that if I gave in to my feelings I should have a terrible
attack of melancholia, one of those attacks that lead to suicide when
they recur too often.
I put on my overcoat and went out without the slightest idea of what
I was going to do. Having gone as far as the boulevards, I began to
wander along by the almost empty cafes. It was raining, a fine rain
that affects your mind as it does your clothing, not one of those good
downpours which come down in torrents, driving breathless passers-by
into doorways, but a rain without drops that deposits on your clothing
an imperceptible spray and soon covers you with a sort of iced foam
that chills you through.
What should I do? I walked in one direction and then came back,
looking for some place where I could spend two hours, and discovering
for the first time that there is no place of amusement in Paris in the
evening. At last I decided to go to the Folies-Bergere, that
entertaining resort for gay women.
There were very few people in the main hall. In the long horseshoe
curve there were only a few ordinary looking people, whose plebeian
origin was apparent in their manners, their clothes, the cut of their
hair and beard, their hats, their complexion. It was rarely that one
saw from time to time a man whom you suspected of having washed himself
thoroughly, and his whole make-up seemed to match. As for the women,
they were always the same, those frightful women you all know, ugly,
tired looking, drooping, and walking along in their lackadaisical
manner, with that air of foolish superciliousness which they assume, I
do not know why.
I thought to myself that, in truth, not one of those languid
creatures, greasy rather than fat, puffed out here and thin there, with
the contour of a monk and the lower extremities of a bow-legged snipe,
was worth the louis that they would get with great difficulty after
But all at once I saw a little creature whom I thought attractive,
not in her first youth, but fresh, comical and tantalizing. I stopped
her, and stupidly, without thinking, I made an appointment with her for
that night. I did not want to go back to my own home alone, all alone;
I preferred the company and the caresses of this hussy.
And I followed her. She lived in a great big house in the Rue des
Martyrs. The gas was already extinguished on the stairway. I ascended
the steps slowly, lighting a candle match every few seconds, stubbing
my foot against the steps, stumbling and angry as I followed the rustle
of the skirt ahead of me.
She stopped on the fourth floor, and having closed the outer door
“Then you will stay till to-morrow?”
“Why, yes. You know that that was the agreement.”
“All right, my dear, I just wanted to know. Wait for me here a
minute, I will be right back.”
And she left me in the darkness. I heard her shutting two doors and
then I thought I heard her talking. I was surprised and uneasy. The
thought that she had a protector staggered me. But I have good fists
and a solid back. “We shall see,” I said to myself.
I listened attentively with ear and mind. Some one was stirring
about, walking quietly and very carefully. Then another door was opened
and I thought I again heard some one talking, but in a very low tone.
She came back carrying a lighted candle.
“You may come in,” she said.
She said “thou” in speaking to me, which was an indication of
possession. I went in and after passing through a dining room in which
it was very evident that no one ever ate, I entered a typical room of
all these women, a furnished room with red curtains and a soiled
eiderdown bed covering.
“Make yourself at home, 'mon chat',” she said.
I gave a suspicious glance at the room, but there seemed no reason
As she took off her wraps she began to laugh.
“Well, what ails you? Are you changed into a pillar of salt? Come,
I did as she suggested.
Five minutes later I longed to put on my things and get away. But
this terrible languor that had overcome me at home took possession of
me again, and deprived me of energy enough to move and I stayed in
spite of the disgust that I felt for this association. The unusual
attractiveness that I supposed I had discovered in this creature over
there under the chandeliers of the theater had altogether vanished on
closer acquaintance, and she was nothing more to me now than a common
woman, like all the others, whose indifferent and complaisant kiss
smacked of garlic.
I thought I would say something.
“Have you lived here long?” I asked.
“Over six months on the fifteenth of January.”
“Where were you before that?”
“In the Rue Clauzel. But the janitor made me very uncomfortable and
And she began to tell me an interminable story of a janitor who had
talked scandal about her.
But, suddenly, I heard something moving quite close to us. First
there was a sigh, then a slight, but distinct, sound as if some one had
turned round on a chair.
I sat up abruptly and asked.
“What was that noise?”
She answered quietly and confidently:
“Do not be uneasy, my dear boy, it is my neighbor. The partition is
so thin that one can hear everything as if it were in the room. These
are wretched rooms, just like pasteboard.”
I felt so lazy that I paid no further attention to it. We resumed
our conversation. Driven by the stupid curiosity that prompts all men
to question these creatures about their first experiences, to attempt
to lift the veil of their first folly, as though to find in them a
trace of pristine innocence, to love them, possibly, in a fleeting
memory of their candor and modesty of former days, evoked by a word, I
insistently asked her about her earlier lovers.
I knew she was telling me lies. What did it matter? Among all these
lies I might, perhaps, discover something sincere and pathetic.
“Come,” said I, “tell me who he was.”
“He was a boating man, my dear.”
“Ah! Tell me about it. Where were you?”
“I was at Argenteuil.”
“What were you doing?”
“I was waitress in a restaurant.”
“'The Freshwater Sailor.' Do you know it?”
“I should say so, kept by Bonanfan.”
“Yes, that's it.”
“And how did he make love to you, this boating man?”
“While I was doing his room. He took advantage of me.”
But I suddenly recalled the theory of a friend of mine, an observant
and philosophical physician whom constant attendance in hospitals has
brought into daily contact with girl-mothers and prostitutes, with all
the shame and all the misery of women, of those poor women who have
become the frightful prey of the wandering male with money in his
“A woman,” he said, “is always debauched by a man of her own class
and position. I have volumes of statistics on that subject. We accuse
the rich of plucking the flower of innocence among the girls of the
people. This is not correct. The rich pay for what they want. They may
gather some, but never for the first time.”
Then, turning to my companion, I began to laugh.
“You know that I am aware of your history. The boating man was not
“Oh, yes, my dear, I swear it:”
“You are lying, my dear.”
“Oh, no, I assure you.”
“You are lying; come, tell me all.”
She seemed to hesitate in astonishment. I continued:
“I am a sorcerer, my dear girl, I am a clairvoyant. If you do not
tell me the truth, I will go into a trance sleep and then I can find
She was afraid, being as stupid as all her kind. She faltered:
“How did you guess?”
“Come, go on telling me,” I said.
“Oh, the first time didn't amount to anything.
“There was a festival in the country. They had sent for a special
chef, M. Alexandre. As soon as he came he did just as he pleased in the
house. He bossed every one, even the proprietor and his wife, as if he
had been a king. He was a big handsome man, who did not seem fitted to
stand beside a kitchen range. He was always calling out, 'Come, some
butter- some eggs—some Madeira!' And it had to be brought to him at
once in a hurry, or he would get cross and say things that would make
us blush all over.
“When the day was over he would smoke a pipe outside the door. And
as I was passing by him with a pile of plates he said to me, like that:
'Come, girlie, come down to the water with me and show me the country.'
I went with him like a fool, and we had hardly got down to the bank of
the river when he took advantage of me so suddenly that I did not even
know what he was doing. And then he went away on the nine o'clock
train. I never saw him again.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“Oh, I think Florentin belongs to him.”
“Who is Florentin?”
“My little boy.”
“Oh! Well, then, you made the boating man believe that he was the
father, did you not?”
“Did he have any money, this boating man?”
“Yes, he left me an income of three hundred francs, settled on
I was beginning to be amused and resumed:
“All right, my girl, all right. You are all of you less stupid than
one would imagine, all the same. And how old is he now, Florentin?”
“He is now twelve. He will make his first communion in the spring.”
“That is splendid. And since then you have carried on your business
She sighed in a resigned manner.
“I must do what I can.”
But a loud noise just then coming from the room itself made me start
up with a bound. It sounded like some one falling and picking
themselves up again by feeling along the wall with their hands.
I had seized the candle and was looking about me, terrified and
furious. She had risen also and was trying to hold me back to stop me,
“That's nothing, my dear, I assure you it's nothing.”
But I had discovered what direction the strange noise came from. I
walked straight towards a door hidden at the head of the bed and I
opened it abruptly and saw before me, trembling, his bright, terrified
eyes opened wide at sight of me, a little pale, thin boy seated beside
a large wicker chair off which he had fallen.
As soon as he saw me he began to cry. Stretching out his arms to his
mother, he cried:
“It was not my fault, mamma, it was not my fault. I was asleep, and
I fell off. Do not scold me, it was not my fault.”
I turned to the woman and said:
“What does this mean?”
She seemed confused and worried, and said in a broken voice:
“What do you want me to do? I do not earn enough to put him to
school! I have to keep him with me, and I cannot afford to pay for
another room, by heavens! He sleeps with me when I am alone. If any one
comes for one hour or two he can stay in the wardrobe; he keeps quiet,
he understands it. But when people stay all night, as you have done, it
tires the poor child to sleep on a chair.
“It is not his fault. I should like to see you sleep all night on a
chair—you would have something to say.”
She was getting angry and excited and was talking loud.
The child was still crying. A poor delicate timid little fellow, a
veritable child of the wardrobe, of the cold, dark closet, a child who
from time to time was allowed to get a little warmth in the bed if it
chanced to be unoccupied.
I also felt inclined to cry.
And I went home to my own bed.
THE MOUNTAIN POOL
Saint Agnes, May 6. MY DEAR FRIEND: You asked
me to write to you often and to tell you in particular about the things
I might see. You also begged me to rummage among my recollections of
travels for some of those little anecdotes gathered from a chance
peasant, from an innkeeper, from some strange traveling acquaintance,
which remain as landmarks in the memory. With a landscape depicted in a
few lines, and a little story told in a few sentences you think one can
give the true characteristics of a country, make it living, visible,
dramatic. I will try to do as you wish. I will, therefore, send you
from time to time letters in which I will mention neither you nor
myself, but only the landscape and the people who move about in it. And
now I will begin.
Spring is a season in which one ought, it seems to me, to drink and
eat the landscape. It is the season of chills, just as autumn is the
season of reflection. In spring the country rouses the physical senses,
in autumn it enters into the soul.
I desired this year to breathe the odor of orange blossoms and I set
out for the South of France just at the time that every one else was
returning home. I visited Monaco, the shrine of pilgrims, rival of
Mecca and Jerusalem, without leaving any gold in any one else's
pockets, and I climbed the high mountain beneath a covering of lemon,
orange and olive branches.
Have you ever slept, my friend, in a grove of orange trees in
flower? The air that one inhales with delight is a quintessence of
perfumes. The strong yet sweet odor, delicious as some dainty, seems to
blend with our being, to saturate us, to intoxicate us, to enervate us,
to plunge us into a sleepy, dreamy torpor. As though it were an opium
prepared by the hands of fairies and not by those of druggists.
This is a country of ravines. The surface of the mountains is cleft,
hollowed out in all directions, and in these sinuous crevices grow
veritable forests of lemon trees. Here and there where the steep gorge
is interrupted by a sort of step, a kind of reservoir has been built
which holds the water of the rain storms.
They are large holes with slippery walls with nothing for any one to
grasp hold of should they fall in.
I was walking slowly in one of these ascending valleys or gorges,
glancing through the foliage at the vivid-hued fruit that remained on
the branches. The narrow gorge made the heavy odor of the flowers still
more penetrating; the air seemed to be dense with it. A feeling of
lassitude came over me and I looked for a place to sit down. A few
drops of water glistened in the grass. I thought that there was a
spring near by and I climbed a little further to look for it. But I
only reached the edge of one of these large, deep reservoirs.
I sat down tailor fashion, with my legs crossed under me, and
remained there in a reverie before this hole, which looked as if it
were filled with ink, so black and stagnant was the liquid it
contained. Down yonder, through the branches, I saw, like patches, bits
of the Mediterranean gleaming so that they fairly dazzled my eyes. But
my glance always returned to the immense somber well that appeared to
be inhabited by no aquatic animals, so motionless was its surface.
Suddenly a voice made me tremble. An old gentleman who was picking
flowers—this country is the richest in Europe for herbalists—asked
“Are you a relation of those poor children, monsieur?”
I looked at him in astonishment.
“What children, monsieur?”
He seemed embarrassed and answered with a bow:
“I beg your pardon. On seeing you sitting thus absorbed in front of
this reservoir I thought you were recalling the frightful tragedy that
Now I wanted to know about it, and I begged him to tell me the
It is very dismal and very heart-rending, my dear friend, and very
trivial at the same time. It is a simple news item. I do not know
whether to attribute my emotion to the dramatic manner in which the
story was told to me, to the setting of the mountains, to the contrast
between the joy of the sunlight and the flowers and this black,
murderous hole, but my heart was wrung, all my nerves unstrung by this
tale which, perhaps, may not appear so terribly harrowing to you as you
read it in your room without having the scene of the tragedy before
It was one spring in recent years. Two little boys frequently came
to play on the edge of this cistern while their tutor lay under a tree
reading a book. One warm afternoon a piercing cry awoke the tutor who
was dozing and the sound of splashing caused by something falling into
the water made him jump to his feet abruptly. The younger of the
children, eight years of age, was shouting, as he stood beside the
reservoir, the surface of which was stirred and eddying at the spot
where the older boy had fallen in as he ran along the stone coping.
Distracted, without waiting or stopping to think what was best to
do, the tutor jumped into the black water and did not rise again,
having struck his head at the bottom of the cistern.
At the same moment the young boy who had risen to the surface was
waving his stretched-out arms toward his brother. The little fellow on
land lay down full length, while the other tried to swim, to approach
the wall, and presently the four little hands clasped each other,
tightened in each other's grasp, contracted as though they were
fastened together. They both felt the intense joy of an escape from
death, a shudder at the danger past.
The older boy tried to climb up to the edge, but could not manage
it, as the wall was perpendicular, and his brother, who was too weak,
was sliding slowly towards the hole.
Then they remained motionless, filled anew with terror. And they
The little fellow squeezed his brother's hands with all his might
and wept from nervousness as he repeated: “I cannot drag you out, I
cannot drag you out.” And all at once he began to shout, “Help! Help!”
But his light voice scarcely penetrated beyond the dome of foliage
above their heads.
They remained thus a long time, hours and hours, facing each other,
these two children, with one thought, one anguish of heart and the
horrible dread that one of them, exhausted, might let go the hands of
the other. And they kept on calling, but all in vain.
At length the older boy, who was shivering with cold, said to the
little one: “I cannot hold out any longer. I am going to fall. Good-by,
little brother.” And the other, gasping, replied: “Not yet, not yet,
Evening came on, the still evening with its stars mirrored in the
water. The older lad, his endurance giving out, said: “Let go my hand,
I am going to give you my watch.” He had received it as a present a few
days before, and ever since it had been his chief amusement. He was
able to get hold of it, and held it out to the little fellow who was
sobbing and who laid it down on the grass beside him.
It was night now. The two unhappy beings, exhausted, had almost
loosened their grasp. The elder, at last, feeling that he was lost,
murmured once more: “Good-by, little brother, kiss mamma and papa.” And
his numbed fingers relaxed their hold. He sank and did not rise again .
. . . The little fellow, left alone, began to shout wildly: “Paul!
Paul!” But the other did not come to the surface.
Then he darted across the mountain, falling among the stones,
overcome by the most frightful anguish that can wring a child's heart,
and with a face like death reached the sitting-room, where his parents
were waiting. He became bewildered again as he led them to the gloomy
reservoir. He could not find his way. At last he reached the spot. “It
is there; yes, it is there!”
But the cistern had to be emptied, and the proprietor would not
permit it as he needed the water for his lemon trees.
The two bodies were found, however, but not until the next day.
You see, my dear friend, that this is a simple news item. But if you
had seen the hole itself your heart would have been wrung, as mine was,
at the thought of the agony of that child hanging to his brother's
hands, of the long suspense of those little chaps who were accustomed
only to laugh and to play, and at the simple incident of the giving of
I said to myself: “May Fate preserve me from ever receiving a
similar relic!” I know of nothing more terrible than such a
recollection connected with a familiar object that one cannot dispose
of. Only think of it; each time that he handles this sacred watch the
survivor will picture once more the horrible scene; the pool, the wall,
the still water, and the distracted face of his brother-alive, and yet
as lost as though he were already dead. And all through his life, at
any moment, the vision will be there, awakened the instant even the tip
of his finger touches his watch pocket.
And I was sad until evening. I left the spot and kept on climbing,
leaving the region of orange trees for the region of olive trees, and
the region of olive trees for the region of pines; then I came to a
valley of stones, and finally reached the ruins of an ancient castle,
built, they say, in the tenth century by a Saracen chief, a good man,
who was baptized a Christian through love for a young girl. Everywhere
around me were mountains, and before me the sea, the sea with an almost
imperceptible patch on it: Corsica, or, rather, the shadow of Corsica.
But on the mountain summits, blood-red in the glow of the sunset, in
the boundless sky and on the sea, in all this superb landscape that I
had come here to admire I saw only two poor children, one lying prone
on the edge of a hole filled with black water, the other submerged to
his neck, their hands intertwined, weeping opposite each other, in
despair. And it seemed as though I continually heard a weak, exhausted
voice saying: “Good-by, little brother, I am going to give you my
This letter may seem rather melancholy, dear friend. I will try to
be more cheerful some other day.
Last Monday an Indian prince died at Etretat, Bapu Sahib Khanderao
Ghatay, a relation of His Highness, the Maharajah Gaikwar, prince of
Baroda, in the province of Guzerat, Presidency of Bombay.
For about three weeks there had been seen walking in the streets
about ten young East Indians, small, lithe, with dark skins, dressed
all in gray and wearing on their heads caps such as English grooms
wear. They were men of high rank who had come to Europe to study the
military institutions of the principal Western nations. The little band
consisted of three princes, a nobleman, an interpreter and three
The head of the commission had just died, an old man of forty-two
and father-in-law of Sampatro Kashivao Gaikwar, brother of His
Highness, the Gaikwar of Baroda.
The son-in-law accompanied his father-in-law.
The other East Indians were called Ganpatrao Shravanrao Gaikwar,
cousin of His Highness Khasherao Gadhav; Vasudev Madhav Samarth,
interpreter and secretary; the slaves: Ramchandra Bajaji, Ganu bin
Pukiram Kokate, Rhambhaji bin Fabji.
On leaving his native land the one who died recently was overcome
with terrible grief, and feeling convinced that he would never return
he wished to give up the journey, but he had to obey the wishes of his
noble relative, the Prince of Baroda, and he set out.
They came to spend the latter part of the summer at Etretat, and
people would go out of curiosity every morning to see them taking their
bath at the Etablissment des Roches-Blanches.
Five or six days ago Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatay was taken with
pains in his gums; then the inflammation spread to the throat and
became ulceration. Gangrene set in and, on Monday, the doctors told his
young friends that their relative was dying. The final struggle was
already beginning, and the breath had almost left the unfortunate man's
body when his friends seized him, snatched him from his bed and laid
him on the stone floor of the room, so that, stretched out on the
earth, our mother, he should yield up his soul, according to the
command of Brahma.
They then sent to ask the mayor, M. Boissaye, for a permit to burn
the body that very day so as to fulfill the prescribed ceremonial of
the Hindoo religion. The mayor hesitated, telegraphed to the prefecture
to demand instructions, at the same time sending word that a failure to
reply would be considered by him tantamount to a consent. As he had
received no reply at 9 o'clock that evening, he decided, in view of the
infectious character of the disease of which the East Indian had died,
that the cremation of the body should take place that very night,
beneath the cliff, on the beach, at ebb tide.
The mayor is being criticized now for this decision, though he acted
as an intelligent, liberal and determined man, and was upheld and
advised by the three physicians who had watched the case and reported
They were dancing at the Casino that evening. It was an early autumn
evening, rather chilly. A pretty strong wind was blowing from the
ocean, although as yet there was no sea on, and swift, light, ragged
clouds were driving across the sky. They came from the edge of the
horizon, looking dark against the background of the sky, but as they
approached the moon they grew whiter and passed hurriedly across her
face, veiling it for a few seconds without completely hiding it.
The tall straight cliffs that inclose the rounded beach of Etretat
and terminate in two celebrated arches, called “the Gates,” lay in
shadow, and made two great black patches in the softly lighted
It had rained all day.
The Casino orchestra was playing waltzes, polkas and quadrilles. A
rumor was presently circulated among the groups of dancers. It was said
that an East Indian prince had just died at the Hotel des Bains and
that the ministry had been approached for permission to burn the body.
No one believed it, or at least no one supposed that such a thing could
occur so foreign was the custom as yet to our customs, and as the night
was far advanced every one went home.
At midnight, the lamplighter, running from street to street,
extinguished, one after another, the yellow jets of flame that lighted
up the sleeping houses, the mud and the puddles of water. We waited,
watching for the hour when the little town should be quiet and
Ever since noon a carpenter had been cutting up wood and asking
himself with amazement what was going to be done with all these planks
sawn up into little bits, and why one should destroy so much good
merchandise. This wood was piled up in a cart which went along through
side streets as far as the beach, without arousing the suspicion of
belated persons who might meet it. It went along on the shingle at the
foot of the cliff, and having dumped its contents on the beach the
three Indian servants began to build a funeral pile, a little longer
than it was wide. They worked alone, for no profane hand must aid in
this solemn duty.
It was one o'clock in the morning when the relations of the deceased
were informed that they might accomplish their part of the work.
The door of the little house they occupied was open, and we
perceived, lying on a stretcher in the small, dimly lighted vestibule
the corpse covered with white silk. We could see him plainly as he lay
stretched out on his back, his outline clearly defined beneath this
The East Indians, standing at his feet, remained motionless, while
one of them performed the prescribed rites, murmuring unfamiliar words
in a low, monotonous tone. He walked round and round the corpse;
touching it occasionally, then, taking an urn suspended from three
slender chains, he sprinkled it for some time with the sacred water of
the Ganges, that East Indians must always carry with them wherever they
Then the stretcher was lifted by four of them who started off at a
slow march. The moon had gone down, leaving the muddy, deserted streets
in darkness, but the body on the stretcher appeared to be luminous, so
dazzlingly white was the silk, and it was a weird sight to see, passing
along through the night, the semi-luminous form of this corpse, borne
by those men, the dusky skin of whose faces and hands could scarcely be
distinguished from their clothing in the darkness.
Behind the corpse came three Indians, and then, a full head taller
than themselves and wrapped in an ample traveling coat of a soft gray
color, appeared the outline of an Englishman, a kind and superior man,
a friend of theirs, who was their guide and counselor in their European
Beneath the cold, misty sky of this little northern beach I felt as
if I were taking part in a sort of symbolical drama. It seemed to me
that they were carrying there, before me, the conquered genius of
India, followed, as in a funeral procession, by the victorious genius
of England robed in a gray ulster.
On the shingly beach the four bearers halted a few moments to take
breath, and then proceeded on their way. They now walked quickly,
bending beneath the weight of their burden. At length they reached the
funeral pile. It was erected in an indentation, at the very foot of the
cliff, which rose above it perpendicularly a hundred meters high,
perfectly white but looking gray in the night.
The funeral pile was about three and a half feet high. The corpse
was placed on it and then one of the Indians asked to have the pole
star pointed out to him. This was done, and the dead Rajah was laid
with his feet turned towards his native country. Then twelve bottles of
kerosene were poured over him and he was covered completely with thin
slabs of pine wood. For almost another hour the relations and servants
kept piling up the funeral pyre which looked like one of those piles of
wood that carpenters keep in their yards. Then on top of this was
poured the contents of twenty bottles of oil, and on top of all they
emptied a bag of fine shavings. A few steps further on, a flame was
glimmering in a little bronze brazier, which had remained lighted since
the arrival of the corpse.
The moment had arrived. The relations went to fetch the fire. As it
was barely alight, some oil was poured on it, and suddenly a flame
arose lighting up the great wall of rock from summit to base. An Indian
who was leaning over the brazier rose upright, his two hands in the
air, his elbows bent, and all at once we saw arising, all black on the
immense white cliff, a colossal shadow, the shadow of Buddha in his
hieratic posture. And the little pointed toque that the man wore on his
head even looked like the head-dress of the god.
The effect was so striking and unexpected that I felt my heart beat
as though some supernatural apparition had risen up before me.
That was just what it was—the ancient and sacred image, come from
the heart of the East to the ends of Europe, and watching over its son
whom they were going to cremate there.
It vanished. They brought fire. The shavings on top of the pyre were
lighted and then the wood caught fire and a brilliant light illumined
the cliff, the shingle and the foam of the waves as they broke on the
It grew brighter from second to second, lighting up on the sea in
the distance the dancing crest of the waves.
The breeze from the ocean blew in gusts, increasing the heat of the
flame which flattened down, twisted, then shot up again, throwing out
millions of sparks. They mounted with wild rapidity along the cliff and
were lost in the sky, mingling with the stars, increasing their number.
Some sea birds who had awakened uttered their plaintive cry, and,
describing long curves, flew, with their white wings extended, through
the gleam from the funeral pyre and then disappeared in the night.
Before long the pile of wood was nothing but a mass of flame, not
red but yellow, a blinding yellow, a furnace lashed by the wind. And,
suddenly, beneath a stronger gust, it tottered, partially crumbling as
it leaned towards the sea, and the corpse came to view, full length,
blackened on his couch of flame and burning with long blue flames:
The pile of wood having crumbled further on the right the corpse
turned over as a man does in bed. They immediately covered him with
fresh wood and the fire started up again more furiously than ever.
The East Indians, seated in a semi-circle on the shingle, looked out
with sad, serious faces. And the rest of us, as it was very cold, had
drawn nearer to the fire until the smoke and sparks came in our faces.
There was no odor save that of burning pine and petroleum.
Hours passed; day began to break. Toward five o'clock in the morning
nothing remained but a heap of ashes. The relations gathered them up,
cast some of them to the winds, some in the sea, and kept some in a
brass vase that they had brought from India. They then retired to their
home to give utterance to lamentations.
These young princes and their servants, by the employment of the
most inadequate appliances succeeded in carrying out the cremation of
their relation in the most perfect manner, with singular skill and
remarkable dignity. Everything was done according to ritual, according
to the rigid ordinances of their religion. Their dead one rests in
The following morning at daybreak there was an indescribable
commotion in Etretat. Some insisted that they had burned a man alive,
others that they were trying to hide a crime, some that the mayor would
be put in jail, others that the Indian prince had succumbed to an
attack of cholera.
The men were amazed, the women indignant. A crowd of people spent
the day on the site of the funeral pile, looking for fragments of bone
in the shingle that was still warm. They found enough bones to
reconstruct ten skeletons, for the farmers on shore frequently throw
their dead sheep into the sea. The finders carefully placed these
various fragments in their pocketbooks. But not one of them possesses a
true particle of the Indian prince.
That very night a deputy sent by the government came to hold an
inquest. He, however, formed an estimate of this singular case like a
man of intelligence and good sense. But what should he say in his
The East Indians declared that if they had been prevented in France
from cremating their dead they would have taken him to a freer country
where they could have carried out their customs.
Thus, I have seen a man cremated on a funeral pile, and it has given
me a wish to disappear in the same manner.
In this way everything ends at once. Man expedites the slow work of
nature, instead of delaying it by the hideous coffin in which one
decomposes for months. The flesh is dead, the spirit has fled. Fire
which purifies disperses in a few hours all that was a human being; it
casts it to the winds, converting it into air and ashes, and not into
This is clean and hygienic. Putrefaction beneath the ground in a
closed box where the body becomes like pap, a blackened, stinking pap,
has about it something repugnant and disgusting. The sight of the
coffin as it descends into this muddy hole wrings one's heart with
anguish. But the funeral pyre which flames up beneath the sky has about
it something grand, beautiful and solemn.
I was very much interested at that time in a droll little woman. She
was married, of course, as I have a horror of unmarried flirts. What
enjoyment is there in making love to a woman who belongs to nobody and
yet belongs to any one? And, besides, morality aside, I do not
understand love as a trade. That disgusts me somewhat.
The especial attraction in a married woman to a bachelor is that she
gives him a home, a sweet, pleasant home where every one takes care of
you and spoils you, from the husband to the servants. One finds
everything combined there, love, friendship, even fatherly interest,
bed and board, all, in fact, that constitutes the happiness of life,
with this incalculable advantage, that one can change one's family from
time to time, take up one's abode in all kinds of society in turn: in
summer, in the country with the workman who rents you a room in his
house; in winter with the townsfolk, or even with the nobility, if one
I have another weakness; it is that I become attached to the husband
as well as the wife. I acknowledge even that some husbands, ordinary or
coarse as they may be, give me a feeling of disgust for their wives,
however charming they may be. But when the husband is intellectual or
charming I invariably become very much attached to him. I am careful if
I quarrel with the wife not to quarrel with the husband. In this way I
have made some of my best friends, and have also proved in many cases
the incontestable superiority of the male over the female in the human
species. The latter makes all sorts of trouble-scenes, reproaches,
etc.; while the former, who has just as good a right to complain,
treats you, on the contrary, as though you were the special Providence
of his hearth.
Well, my friend was a quaint little woman, a brunette, fanciful,
capricious, pious, superstitious, credulous as a monk, but charming.
She had a way of kissing one that I never saw in any one else—but that
was not the attraction—and such a soft skin! It gave me intense
delight merely to hold her hands. And an eye—her glance was like a
slow caress, delicious and unending. Sometimes I would lean my head on
her knee and we would remain motionless, she leaning over me with that
subtle, enigmatic, disturbing smile that women have, while my eyes
would be raised to hers, drinking sweetly and deliciously into my
heart, like a form of intoxication, the glance of her limpid blue eyes,
limpid as though they were full of thoughts of love, and blue as though
they were a heaven of delights.
Her husband, inspector of some large public works, was frequently
away from home and left us our evenings free. Sometimes I spent them
with her lounging on the divan with my forehead on one of her knees;
while on the other lay an enormous black cat called “Misti,” whom she
adored. Our fingers would meet on the cat's back and would intertwine
in her soft silky fur. I felt its warm body against my cheek, trembling
with its eternal purring, and occasionally a paw would reach out and
place on my mouth, or my eyelid, five unsheathed claws which would
prick my eyelids, and then be immediately withdrawn.
Sometimes we would go out on what we called our escapades. They were
very innocent, however. They consisted in taking supper at some inn in
the suburbs, or else, after dining at her house or at mine, in making
the round of the cheap cafes, like students out for a lark.
We would go into the common drinking places and take our seats at
the end of the smoky den on two rickety chairs, at an old wooden table.
A cloud of pungent smoke, with which blended an odor of fried fish from
dinner, filled the room. Men in smocks were talking in loud tones as
they drank their petits verres, and the astonished waiter placed before
us two cherry brandies.
She, trembling, charmingly afraid, would raise her double black veil
as far as her nose, and then take up her glass with the enjoyment that
one feels at doing something delightfully naughty. Each cherry she
swallowed made her feel as if she had done something wrong, each
swallow of the burning liquor had on her the affect of a delicate and
Then she would say to me in a low tone: “Let us go.” And we would
leave, she walking quickly with lowered head between the drinkers who
watched her going by with a look of displeasure. And as soon as we got
into the street she would give a great sigh of relief, as if we had
escaped some terrible danger.
Sometimes she would ask me with a shudder:
“Suppose they, should say something rude to me in those places, what
would you do?” “Why, I would defend you, parbleu!” I would reply in a
resolute manner. And she would squeeze my arm for happiness, perhaps
with a vague wish that she might be insulted and protected, that she
might see men fight on her account, even those men, with me!
One evening as we sat at a table in a tavern at Montmartre, we saw
an old woman in tattered garments come in, holding in her hand a pack
of dirty cards. Perceiving a lady, the old woman at once approached us
and offered to tell my friend's fortune. Emma, who in her heart
believed in everything, was trembling with longing and anxiety, and she
made a place beside her for the old woman.
The latter, old, wrinkled, her eyes with red inflamed rings round
them, and her mouth without a single tooth in it, began to deal her
dirty cards on the table. She dealt them in piles, then gathered them
up, and then dealt them out again, murmuring indistinguishable words.
Emma, turning pale, listened with bated breath, gasping with anxiety
The fortune-teller broke silence. She predicted vague happenings:
happiness and children, a fair young man, a voyage, money, a lawsuit, a
dark man, the return of some one, success, a death. The mention of this
death attracted the younger woman's attention. “Whose death? When? In
The old woman replied: “Oh, as to that, these cards are not certain
enough. You must come to my place to-morrow; I will tell you about it
with coffee grounds which never make a mistake.”
Emma turned anxiously to me:
“Say, let us go there to-morrow. Oh, please say yes. If not, you
cannot imagine how worried I shall be.”
I began to laugh.
“We will go if you wish it, dearie.”
The old woman gave us her address. She lived on the sixth floor, in
a wretched house behind the Buttes-Chaumont. We went there the
Her room, an attic containing two chairs and a bed, was filled with
strange objects, bunches of herbs hanging from nails, skins of animals,
flasks and phials containing liquids of various colors. On the table a
stuffed black cat looked out of eyes of glass. He seemed like the demon
of this sinister dwelling.
Emma, almost fainting with emotion, sat down on a chair and
“Oh, dear, look at that cat; how like it is to Misti.”
And she explained to the old woman that she had a cat “exactly like
that, exactly like that!”
The old woman replied gravely:
“If you are in love with a man, you must not keep it.”
Emma, suddenly filled with fear, asked:
The old woman sat down familiarly beside her and took her hand.
“It was the undoing of my life,” she said.
My friend wanted to hear about it. She leaned against the old woman,
questioned her, begged her to tell. At length the woman agreed to do
“I loved that cat,” she said, “as one would love a brother. I was
young then and all alone, a seamstress. I had only him, Mouton. One of
the tenants had given it to me. He was as intelligent as a child, and
gentle as well, and he worshiped me, my dear lady, he worshiped me more
than one does a fetish. All day long he would sit on my lap purring,
and all night long on my pillow; I could feel his heart beating, in
“Well, I happened to make an acquaintance, a fine young man who was
working in a white-goods house. That went on for about three months on
a footing of mere friendship. But you know one is liable to weaken, it
may happen to any one, and, besides, I had really begun to love him. He
was so nice, so nice, and so good. He wanted us to live together, for
economy's sake. I finally allowed him to come and see me one evening. I
had not made up my mind to anything definite; oh, no! But I was pleased
at the idea that we should spend an hour together.
“At first he behaved very well, said nice things to me that made my
heart go pit-a-pat. And then he kissed me, madame, kissed me as one
does when they love. I remained motionless, my eyes closed, in a
paroxysm of happiness. But, suddenly, I felt him start violently and he
gave a scream, a scream that I shall never forget. I opened my eyes and
saw that Mouton had sprung at his face and was tearing the skin with
his claws as if it had been a linen rag. And the blood was streaming
down like rain, madame.
“I tried to take the cat away, but he held on tight, scratching all
the time; and he bit me, he was so crazy. I finally got him and threw
him out of the window, which was open, for it was summer.
“When I began to bathe my poor friend's face, I noticed that his
eyes were destroyed, both his eyes!
“He had to go to the hospital. He died of grief at the end of a
year. I wanted to keep him with me and provide for him, but he would
not agree to it. One would have supposed that he hated me after the
“As for Mouton, his back was broken by the fall, The janitor picked
up his body. I had him stuffed, for in spite of all I was fond of him.
If he acted as he did it was because he loved me, was it not?”
The old woman was silent and began to stroke the lifeless animal
whose body trembled on its iron framework.
Emma, with sorrowful heart, had forgotten about the predicted
death—or, at least, she did not allude to it again, and she left,
giving the woman five francs.
As her husband was to return the following day, I did not go to the
house for several days. When I did go I was surprised at not seeing
Misti. I asked where he was.
She blushed and replied:
“I gave him away. I was uneasy.”
I was astonished.
“Uneasy? Uneasy? What about?”
She gave me a long kiss and said in a low tone:
“I was uneasy about your eyes, my dear.”
Misti appeared in. Gil Blas of January 22, 1884, over the
Crazy people attract me. They live in a mysterious land of weird
dreams, in that impenetrable cloud of dementia where all that they have
witnessed in their previous life, all they have loved, is reproduced
for them in an imaginary existence, outside of all laws that govern the
things of this life and control human thought.
For them there is no such thing as the impossible, nothing is
improbable; fairyland is a constant quantity and the supernatural quite
familiar. The old rampart, logic; the old wall, reason; the old main
stay of thought, good sense, break down, fall and crumble before their
imagination, set free and escaped into the limitless realm of fancy,
and advancing with fabulous bounds, and nothing can check it. For them
everything happens, and anything may happen. They make no effort to
conquer events, to overcome resistance, to overturn obstacles. By a
sudden caprice of their flighty imagination they become princes,
emperors, or gods, are possessed of all the wealth of the world, all
the delightful things of life, enjoy all pleasures, are always strong,
always beautiful, always young, always beloved! They, alone, can be
happy in this world; for, as far as they are concerned, reality does
not exist. I love to look into their wandering intelligence as one
leans over an abyss at the bottom of which seethes a foaming torrent
whose source and destination are both unknown.
But it is in vain that we lean over these abysses, for we shall
never discover the source nor the destination of this water. After all,
it is only water, just like what is flowing in the sunlight, and we
shall learn nothing by looking at it.
It is likewise of no use to ponder over the intelligence of crazy
people, for their most weird notions are, in fact, only ideas that are
already known, which appear strange simply because they are no longer
under the restraint of reason. Their whimsical source surprises us
because we do not see it bubbling up. Doubtless the dropping of a
little stone into the current was sufficient to cause these
ebullitions. Nevertheless crazy people attract me and I always return
to them, drawn in spite of myself by this trivial mystery of dementia.
One day as I was visiting one of the asylums the physician who was
my guide said:
“Come, I will show you an interesting case.”
And he opened the door of a cell where a woman of about forty, still
handsome, was seated in a large armchair, looking persistently at her
face in a little hand mirror.
As soon as she saw us she rose to her feet, ran to the other end of
the room, picked up a veil that lay on a chair, wrapped it carefully
round her face, then came back, nodding her head in reply to our
“Well,” said the doctor, “how are you this morning?”
She gave a deep sigh.
“Oh, ill, monsieur, very ill. The marks are increasing every day.”
He replied in a tone of conviction:
“Oh, no; oh, no; I assure you that you are mistaken.”
She drew near to him and murmured:
“No. I am certain of it. I counted ten pittings more this morning,
three on the right cheek, four on the left cheek, and three on the
forehead. It is frightful, frightful! I shall never dare to let any one
see me, not even my son; no, not even him! I am lost, I am disfigured
She fell back in her armchair and began to sob.
The doctor took a chair, sat down beside her, and said soothingly in
a gentle tone:
“Come, let me see; I assure you it is nothing. With a slight
cauterization I will make it all disappear.”
She shook her head in denial, without speaking. He tried to touch
her veil, but she seized it with both hands so violently that her
fingers went through it.
He continued to reason with her and reassure her.
“Come, you know very well that I remove those horrid pits every time
and that there is no trace of them after I have treated them. If you do
not let me see them I cannot cure you.”
“I do not mind your seeing them,” she murmured, “but I do not know
that gentleman who is with you.”
“He is a doctor also, who can give you better care than I can.”
She then allowed her face to be uncovered, but her dread, her
emotion, her shame at being seen brought a rosy flush to her face and
her neck, down to the collar of her dress. She cast down her eyes,
turned her face aside, first to the right; then to the left, to avoid
our gaze and stammered out:
“Oh, it is torture to me to let myself be seen like this! It is
horrible, is it not? Is it not horrible?”
I looked at her in much surprise, for there was nothing on her face,
not a mark, not a spot, not a sign of one, nor a scar.
She turned towards me, her eyes still lowered, and said:
“It was while taking care of my son that I caught this fearful
disease, monsieur. I saved him, but I am disfigured. I sacrificed my
beauty to him, to my poor child. However, I did my duty, my conscience
is at rest. If I suffer it is known only to God.”
The doctor had drawn from his coat pocket a fine water-color paint
“Let me attend to it,” he said, “I will put it all right.”
She held out her right cheek, and he began by touching it lightly
with the brush here and there, as though he were putting little points
of paint on it. He did the same with the left cheek, then with the
chin, and the forehead, and then exclaimed:
“See, there is nothing there now, nothing at all!”
She took up the mirror, gazed at her reflection with profound, eager
attention, with a strong mental effort to discover something, then she
“No. It hardly shows at all. I am infinitely obliged to you.”
The doctor had risen. He bowed to her, ushered me out and followed
me, and, as soon as he had locked the door, said:
“Here is the history of this unhappy woman.”
Her name is Mme. Hermet. She was once very beautiful, a great
coquette, very much beloved and very much in-love with life.
She was one of those women who have nothing but their beauty and
their love of admiration to sustain, guide or comfort them in this
life. The constant anxiety to retain her freshness, the care of her
complexion, of her hands, her teeth, of every portion of body that was
visible, occupied all her time and all her attention.
She became a widow, with one son. The boy was brought up as are all
children of society beauties. She was, however, very fond of him.
He grew up, and she grew older. Whether she saw the fatal crisis
approaching, I cannot say. Did she, like so many others, gaze for hours
and hours at her skin, once so fine, so transparent and free from
blemish, now beginning to shrivel slightly, to be crossed with a
thousand little lines, as yet imperceptible, that will grow deeper day
by day, month by month? Did she also see slowly, but surely, increasing
traces of those long wrinkles on the forehead, those slender serpents
that nothing can check? Did she suffer the torture, the abominable
torture of the mirror, the little mirror with the silver handle which
one cannot make up one's mind to lay down on the table, but then throws
down in disgust only to take it up again in order to look more closely,
and still more closely at the hateful and insidious approaches of old
age? Did she shut herself up ten times, twenty times a day, leaving her
friends chatting in the drawing-room, and go up to her room where,
under the protection of bolts and bars, she would again contemplate the
work of time on her ripe beauty, now beginning to wither, and recognize
with despair the gradual progress of the process which no one else had
as yet seemed to perceive, but of which she, herself, was well aware.
She knows where to seek the most serious, the gravest traces of age.
And the mirror, the little round hand-glass in its carved silver frame,
tells her horrible things; for it speaks, it seems to laugh, it jeers
and tells her all that is going to occur, all the physical discomforts
and the atrocious mental anguish she will suffer until the day of her
death, which will be the day of her deliverance.
Did she weep, distractedly, on her knees, her forehead to the
ground, and pray, pray, pray to Him who thus slays his creatures and
gives them youth only that he may render old age more unendurable, and
lends them beauty only that he may withdraw it almost immediately? Did
she pray to Him, imploring Him to do for her what He has never yet done
for any one, to let her retain until her last day her charm, her
freshness and her gracefulness? Then, finding that she was imploring in
vain an inflexible Unknown who drives on the years, one after another,
did she roll on the carpet in her room, knocking her head against the
furniture and stifling in her throat shrieks of despair?
Doubtless she suffered these tortures, for this is what occurred:
One day (she was then thirty-five) her son aged fifteen, fell ill.
He took to his bed without any one being able to determine the cause
or nature of his illness.
His tutor, a priest, watched beside him and hardly ever left him,
while Mme. Hermet came morning and evening to inquire how he was.
She would come into the room in the morning in her night wrapper,
smiling, all powdered and perfumed, and would ask as she entered the
“Well, George, are you better?”
The big boy, his face red, swollen and showing the ravages of fever,
“Yes, little mother, a little better.”
She would stay in the room a few seconds, look at the bottles of
medicine, and purse her lips as if she were saying “phew,” and then
would suddenly exclaim: “Oh, I forgot something very important,” and
would run out of the room leaving behind her a fragrance of choice
In the evening she would appear in a decollete dress, in a still
greater hurry, for she was always late, and she had just time to
“Well, what does the doctor say?”
The priest would reply:
“He has not yet given an opinion, madame.”
But one evening the abbe replied: “Madame, your son has got the
She uttered a scream of terror and fled from the room.
When her maid came to her room the following morning she noticed at
once a strong odor of burnt sugar, and she found her mistress, with
wide-open eyes, her face pale from lack of sleep, and shivering with
terror in her bed.
As soon as the shutters were opened Mme. Herrnet asked:
“How is George?”
“Oh, not at all well to-day, madame.”
She did not rise until noon, when she ate two eggs with a cup of
tea, as if she herself had been ill, and then she went out to a
druggist's to inquire about prophylactic measures against the contagion
She did not come home until dinner time, laden with medicine
bottles, and shut herself up at once in her room, where she saturated
herself with disinfectants.
The priest was waiting for her in the dining-room. As soon as she
saw him she exclaimed in a voice full of emotion:
“No improvement. The doctor is very anxious:”
She began to cry and could eat nothing, she was so worried.
The next day, as soon as it was light, she sent to inquire for her
son, but there was no improvement and she spent the whole day in her
room, where little braziers were giving out pungent odors. Her maid
said also that you could hear her sighing all the evening.
She spent a whole week in this manner, only going out for an hour or
two during the afternoon to breathe the air.
She now sent to make inquiries every hour, and would sob when the
reports were unfavorable.
On the morning of the eleventh day the priest, having been
announced, entered her room, his face grave and pale, and said, without
taking the chair she offered him:
“Madame, your son is very ill and wishes to see you.”
She fell on her knees, exclaiming:
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I would never dare! My God! My God! Help
The priest continued:
“The doctor holds out little hope, madame, and George is expecting
And he left the room.
Two hours later as the young lad, feeling himself dying, again asked
for his mother, the abbe went to her again and found her still on her
knees, still weeping and repeating:
“I will not . . . . I will not. . . . I am too much afraid . . . . I
will not. . . .”
He tried to persuade her, to strengthen her, to lead her. He only
succeeded in bringing on an attack of “nerves” that lasted some time
and caused her to shriek.
The doctor when he came in the evening was told of this cowardice
and declared that he would bring her in himself, of her own volition,
or by force. But after trying all manner of argument and just as he
seized her round the waist to carry her into her son's room, she caught
hold of the door and clung to it so firmly that they could not drag her
away. Then when they let go of her she fell at the feet of the doctor,
begging his forgiveness and acknowledging that she was a wretched
creature. And then she exclaimed: “Oh, he is not going to die; tell me
that he is not going to die, I beg of you; tell him that I love him,
that I worship him. . .”
The young lad was dying. Feeling that he had only a few moments more
to live, he entreated that his mother be persuaded to come and bid him
a last farewell. With that sort of presentiment that the dying
sometimes have, he had understood, had guessed all, and he said: “If
she is afraid to come into the room, beg her just to come on the
balcony as far as my window so that I may see her, at least, so that I
may take a farewell look at her, as I cannot kiss her.”
The doctor and the abbe, once more, went together to this woman and
assured her: “You will run no risk, for there will be a pane of glass
between you and him.”
She consented, covered up her head, and took with her a bottle of
smelling salts. She took three steps on the balcony; then, all at once,
hiding her face in her hands, she moaned: “No . . . no . . . I would
never dare to look at him . . . never. . . . I am too much ashamed . .
. too much afraid . . . . No . . . I cannot.”
They endeavored to drag her along, but she held on with both hands
to the railings and uttered such plaints that the passers-by in the
street raised their heads. And the dying boy waited, his eyes turned
towards that window, waited to die until he could see for the last time
the sweet, beloved face, the worshiped face of his mother.
He waited long, and night came on. Then he turned over with his face
to the wall and was silent.
When day broke he was dead. The day following she was crazy.
THE MAGIC COUCH
The Seine flowed past my house, without a ripple on its surface, and
gleaming in the bright morning sunlight. It was a beautiful, broad,
indolent silver stream, with crimson lights here and there; and on the
opposite side of the river were rows of tall trees that covered all the
bank with an immense wall of verdure.
The sensation of life which is renewed each day, of fresh, happy,
loving life trembled in the leaves, palpitated in the air, was mirrored
in the water.
The postman had just brought my papers, which were handed to me, and
I walked slowly to the river bank in order to read them.
In the first paper I opened I noticed this headline, “Statistics of
Suicides,” and I read that more than 8,500 persons had killed
themselves in that year.
In a moment I seemed to see them! I saw this voluntary and hideous
massacre of the despairing who were weary of life. I saw men bleeding,
their jaws fractured, their skulls cloven, their breasts pierced by a
bullet, slowly dying, alone in a little room in a hotel, giving no
thought to their wound, but thinking only of their misfortunes.
I saw others seated before a tumbler in which some matches were
soaking, or before a little bottle with a red label.
They would look at it fixedly without moving; then they would drink
and await the result; then a spasm would convulse their cheeks and draw
their lips together; their eyes would grow wild with terror, for they
did not know that the end would be preceded by so much suffering.
They rose to their feet, paused, fell over and with their hands
pressed to their stomachs they felt their internal organs on fire,
their entrails devoured by the fiery liquid, before their minds began
to grow dim.
I saw others hanging from a nail in the wall, from the fastening of
the window, from a hook in the ceiling, from a beam in the garret, from
a branch of a tree amid the evening rain. And I surmised all that had
happened before they hung there motionless, their tongues hanging out
of their mouths. I imagined the anguish of their heart, their final
hesitation, their attempts to fasten the rope, to determine that it was
secure, then to pass the noose round their neck and to let themselves
I saw others lying on wretched beds, mothers with their little
children, old men dying of hunger, young girls dying for love, all
rigid, suffocated, asphyxiated, while in the center of the room the
brasier still gave forth the fumes of charcoal.
And I saw others walking at night along the deserted bridges. These
were the most sinister. The water flowed under the arches with a low
sound. They did not see it . . . they guessed at it from its cool
breath! They longed for it and they feared it. They dared not do it!
And yet, they must. A distant clock sounded the hour and, suddenly, in
the vast silence of the night, there was heard the splash of a body
falling into the river, a scream or two, the sound of hands beating the
water, and all was still. Sometimes, even, there was only the sound of
the falling body when they had tied their arms down or fastened a stone
to their feet. Oh, the poor things, the poor things, the poor things,
how I felt their anguish, how I died in their death! I went through all
their wretchedness; I endured in one hour all their tortures. I knew
all the sorrows that had led them to this, for I know the deceitful
infamy of life, and no one has felt it more than I have.
How I understood them, these who weak, harassed by misfortune,
having lost those they loved, awakened from the dream of a tardy
compensation, from the illusion of another existence where God will
finally be just, after having been ferocious, and their minds disabused
of the mirages of happiness, have given up the fight and desire to put
an end to this ceaseless tragedy, or this shameful comedy.
Suicide! Why, it is the strength of those whose strength is
exhausted, the hope of those who no longer believe, the sublime courage
of the conquered! Yes, there is at least one door to this life we can
always open and pass through to the other side. Nature had an impulse
of pity; she did not shut us up in prison. Mercy for the despairing!
As for those who are simply disillusioned, let them march ahead with
free soul and quiet heart. They have nothing to fear since they may
take their leave; for behind them there is always this door that the
gods of our illusions cannot even lock.
I thought of this crowd of suicides: more than eight thousand five
hundred in one year. And it seemed to me that they had combined to send
to the world a prayer, to utter a cry of appeal, to demand something
that should come into effect later when we understood things better. It
seemed to me that all these victims, their throats cut, poisoned, hung,
asphyxiated, or drowned, all came together, a frightful horde, like
citizens to the polls, to say to society:
“Grant us, at least, a gentle death! Help us to die, you who will
not help us to live! See, we are numerous, we have the right to speak
in these days of freedom, of philosophic independence and of popular
suffrage. Give to those who renounce life the charity of a death that
will not be repugnant nor terrible.”
I began to dream, allowing my fancy to roam at will in weird and
mysterious fashion on this subject.
I seemed to be all at once in a beautiful city. It was Paris; but at
what period? I walked about the streets, looking at the houses, the
theaters, the public buildings, and presently found myself in a square
where I remarked a large building; very handsome, dainty and
attractive. I was surprised on reading on the facade this inscription
in letters of gold, “Suicide Bureau.”
Oh, the weirdness of waking dreams where the spirit soars into a
world of unrealities and possibilities! Nothing astonishes one, nothing
shocks one; and the unbridled fancy makes no distinction between the
comic and the tragic.
I approached the building where footmen in knee-breeches were seated
in the vestibule in front of a cloak-room as they do at the entrance of
I entered out of curiosity. One of the men rose and said:
“What does monsieur wish?”
“I wish to know what building this is.”
“Then would monsieur like me to take him to the Secretary of the
I hesitated, and asked:
“But will not that disturb him?”
“Oh, no, monsieur, he is here to receive those who desire
“Well, lead the way.”
He took me through corridors where old gentlemen were chatting, and
finally led me into a beautiful office, somewhat somber, furnished
throughout in black wood. A stout young man with a corporation was
writing a letter as he smoked a cigar, the fragrance of which gave
evidence of its quality.
He rose. We bowed to each other, and as soon as the footman had
retired he asked:
“What can I do for you?”
“Monsieur,” I replied, “pardon my curiosity. I had never seen this
establishment. The few words inscribed on the facade filled me with
astonishment, and I wanted to know what was going on here.”
He smiled before replying, then said in a low tone with a complacent
“Mon Dieu, monsieur, we put to death in a cleanly and gentle—I do
not venture to say agreeable manner those persons who desire to die.”
I did not feel very shocked, for it really seemed to me natural and
right. What particularly surprised me was that on this planet, with its
low, utilitarian, humanitarian ideals, selfish and coercive of all true
freedom, any one should venture on a similar enterprise, worthy of an
“How did you get the idea?” I asked.
“Monsieur,” he replied, “the number of suicides increased so
enormously during the five years succeeding the world exposition of
1889 that some measures were urgently needed. People killed themselves
in the streets, at fetes, in restaurants, at the theater, in railway
carriages, at the receptions held by the President of the Republic,
everywhere. It was not only a horrid sight for those who love life, as
I do, but also a bad example for children. Hence it became necessary to
“What caused this suicidal epidemic?”
“I do not know. The fact is, I believe, the world is growing old.
People begin to see things clearly and they are getting disgruntled. It
is the same to-day with destiny as with the government, we have found
out what it is; people find that they are swindled in every direction,
and they just get out of it all. When one discovers that Providence
lies, cheats, robs, deceives human beings just as a plain Deputy
deceives his constituents, one gets angry, and as one cannot nominate a
fresh Providence every three months as we do with our privileged
representatives, one just gets out of the whole thing, which is
“Oh, as for me, I am not complaining.”
“Will you inform me how you carry on this establishment?”
“With pleasure. You may become a member when you please. It is a
“Yes, monsieur, founded by the most eminent men in the country, by
men of the highest intellect and brightest intelligence. And,” he
added, laughing heartily, “I swear to you that every one gets a great
deal of enjoyment out of it.”
“In this place?”
“Yes, in this place.”
“You surprise me.”
“Mon Dieu, they enjoy themselves because they have not that fear of
death which is the great killjoy in all our earthly pleasures.”
“But why should they be members of this club if they do not kill
“One may be a member of the club without being obliged for that
reason to commit suicide.”
“I will explain. In view of the enormous increase in suicides, and
of the hideous spectacle they presented, a purely benevolent society
was formed for the protection of those in despair, which placed at
their disposal the facilities for a peaceful, painless, if not
“Who can have authorized such an institution?”
“General Boulanger during his brief tenure of power. He could never
refuse anything. However, that was the only good thing he did. Hence, a
society was formed of clear-sighted, disillusioned skeptics who desired
to erect in the heart of Paris a kind of temple dedicated to the
contempt for death. This place was formerly a dreaded spot that no one
ventured to approach. Then its founders, who met together here, gave a
grand inaugural entertainment with Mmes. Sarah Bernhardt, Judic, Theo,
Granier, and twenty others, and Mme. de Reske, Coquelin, Mounet-Sully,
Paulus, etc., present, followed by concerts, the comedies of Dumas, of
Meilhac, Halevy and Sardon. We had only one thing to mar it, one drama
by Becque which seemed sad, but which subsequently had a great success
at the Comedie-Francaise. In fact all Paris came. The enterprise was
“In the midst of the festivities! What a funereal joke!”
“Not at all. Death need not be sad, it should be a matter of
indifference. We made death cheerful, crowned it with flowers, covered
it with perfume, made it easy. One learns to aid others through
example; one can see that it is nothing.”
“I can well understand that they should come to the entertainments;
but did they come to . . . Death?”
“Not at first; they were afraid.”
“Many of them?”
“In crowds. We have had more than forty in a day. One finds hardly
any more drowned bodies in the Seine.”
“Who was the first?”
“A club member.”
“As a sacrifice to the cause?”
“I don't think so. A man who was sick of everything, a 'down and
out' who had lost heavily at baccarat for three months.”
“The second was an Englishman, an eccentric. We then advertised in
the papers, we gave an account of our methods, we invented some
attractive instances. But the great impetus was given by poor people.”
“How do you go to work?”
“Would you like to see? I can explain at the same time.”
He took his hat, opened the door, allowed me to precede him, and we
entered a card room, where men sat playing as they, play in all
gambling places. They were chatting cheerfully, eagerly. I have seldom
seen such a jolly, lively, mirthful club.
As I seemed surprised, the secretary said:
“Oh, the establishment has an unheard of prestige. All the smart
people all over the world belong to it so as to appear as though they
held death in scorn. Then, once they get here, they feel obliged to be
cheerful that they may not appear to be afraid. So they joke and laugh
and talk flippantly, they are witty and they become so. At present it
is certainly the most frequented and the most entertaining place in
Paris. The women are even thinking of building an annex for
“And, in spite of all this, you have many suicides in the house?”
“As I said, about forty or fifty a day. Society people are rare, but
poor devils abound. The middle class has also a large contingent.
“And how . . . do they do?”
“They are asphyxiated . . . very slowly.”
“In what manner?”
“A gas of our own invention. We have the patent. On the other side
of the building are the public entrances—three little doors opening on
small streets. When a man or a woman present themselves they are
interrogated. Then they are offered assistance, aid, protection. If a
client accepts, inquiries are made; and sometimes we have saved their
“Where do you get your money?”
“We have a great deal. There are a large number of shareholders.
Besides it is fashionable to contribute to the establishment. The names
of the donors are published in Figaro. Then the suicide of every rich
man costs a thousand francs. And they look as if they were lying in
state. It costs the poor nothing.”
“How can you tell who is poor?”
“Oh, oh, monsieur, we can guess! And, besides, they must bring a
certificate of indigency from the commissary of police of their
district. If you knew how distressing it is to see them come in! I
visited their part of our building once only, and I will never go
again. The place itself is almost as good as this part, almost as
luxurious and comfortable; but they themselves . . . they themselves!!!
If you could see them arriving, the old men in rags coming to die;
persons who have been dying of misery for months, picking up their food
at the edges of the curbstone like dogs in the street; women in rags,
emaciated, sick, paralyzed, incapable of making a living, who say to us
after they have told us their story: 'You see that things cannot go on
like that, as I cannot work any longer or earn anything.' I saw one
woman of eighty- seven who had lost all her children and grandchildren,
and who for the last six weeks had been sleeping out of doors. It made
me ill to hear of it. Then we have so many different cases, without
counting those who say nothing, but simply ask: 'Where is it?' These
are admitted at once and it is all over in a minute.”
With a pang at my heart I repeated:
“And . . . where is it?”
“Here,” and he opened a door, adding:
“Go in; this is the part specially reserved for club members, and
the one least used. We have so far had only eleven annihilations here.”
“Ah! You call that an . . . annihilation!”
“Yes, monsieur. Go in.”
I hesitated. At length I went in. It was a wide corridor, a sort of
greenhouse in which panes of glass of pale blue, tender pink and
delicate green gave the poetic charm of landscapes to the inclosing
walls. In this pretty salon there were divans, magnificent palms,
flowers, especially roses of balmy fragrance, books on the tables, the
Revue des Deuxmondes, cigars in government boxes, and, what surprised
me, Vichy pastilles in a bonbonniere.
As I expressed my surprise, my guide said:
“Oh, they often come here to chat.” He continued: “The public
corridors are similar, but more simply furnished.”
In reply to a question of mine, he pointed to a couch covered with
creamy crepe de Chine with white embroidery, beneath a large shrub of
unknown variety at the foot of which was a circular bed of mignonette.
The secretary added in a lower tone:
“We change the flower and the perfume at will, for our gas, which is
quite imperceptible, gives death the fragrance of the suicide's
favorite flower. It is volatilized with essences. Would you like to
inhale it for a second?”
“'No, thank you,” I said hastily, “not yet . . . .”
He began to laugh.
“Oh, monsieur, there is no danger. I have tried it myself several
I was afraid he would think me a coward, and I said:
“Well, I'll try it.”
“Stretch yourself out on the 'endormeuse.”'
A little uneasy I seated myself on the low couch covered with crepe
de Chine and stretched myself full length, and was at once bathed in a
delicious odor of mignonette. I opened my mouth in order to breathe it
in, for my mind had already become stupefied and forgetful of the past
and was a prey, in the first stages of asphyxia, to the enchanting
intoxication of a destroying and magic opium.
Some one shook me by the arm.
“Oh, oh, monsieur,” said the secretary, laughing, “it looks to me as
if you were almost caught.”
But a voice, a real voice, and no longer a dream voice, greeted me
with the peasant intonation:
“Good morning, m'sieu. How goes it?”
My dream was over. I saw the Seine distinctly in the sunlight, and,
coming along a path, the garde champetre of the district, who with his
right hand touched his kepi braided in silver. I replied:
“Good morning, Marinel. Where are you going?”
“I am going to look at a drowned man whom they fished up near the
Morillons. Another who has thrown himself into the soup. He even took
off his trousers in order to tie his legs together with them.”