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A Father's Confession by Guy de Maupassant


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 him sincerely.

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 sleep
     in peace if I did not make to you from the tomb a confession, the
     confession of a crime, remorse for which has ruined my life. Yes,
     I committed a crime, a frightful, abominable crime.

     I was twenty-six years old, and I had just been called to the bar in
     Paris, and was living the life off young men from the provinces who
     are stranded in this town without acquaintances, relatives, or

     I took a sweetheart. There are beings who cannot live alone. I was
     one of those. Solitude fills me with horrible anguish, the solitude
     of my room beside my fire in the evening. I feel then as if I were
     alone on earth, alone, but surrounded by vague dangers, unknown and
     terrible things; and the partition that separates me from my
     neighbor, my neighbor whom I do not know, keeps me at as great a
     distance from him as the stars that I see through my window. A sort
     of fever pervades me, a fever of impatience and of fear, and the
     silence of the walls terrifies me. The silence of a room where one
     lives alone is so intense and so melancholy It is not only a silence
     of the mind; when a piece of furniture cracks a shudder goes through
     you for you expect no noise in this melancholy abode.

     How many times, nervous and timid from this motionless silence, I
     have begun to talk, to repeat words without rhyme or reason, only to
     make some sound. My voice at those times sounds so strange that I
     am afraid of that, too. Is there anything more dreadful than
     talking to one's self in an empty house? One's voice sounds like
     that of another, an unknown voice talking aimlessly, to no one, into
     the empty air, with no ear to listen to it, for one knows before
     they escape into the solitude of the room exactly what words will be
     uttered. And when they resound lugubriously in the silence, they
     seem no more than an echo, the peculiar echo of words whispered by
     ones thought.

     My sweetheart was a young girl like other young girls who live in
     Paris on wages that are insufficient to keep them. She was gentle,
     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 when
     I should find some one whom I liked well enough to marry. I would
     make a little provision for this one, for it is an understood thing
     in our social set that a woman's love should be paid for, in money
     if she is poor, in presents if she is rich.

     But one day she told me she was enceinte. I was thunderstruck, and
     saw in a second that my life would be ruined. I saw the fetter that
     I should wear until my death, everywhere, in my future family life,
     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, watch
     over, protect, while keeping myself unknown to him, and keeping him
     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 it, but
     I felt it in my heart, ready to come to the surface, as if some one
     hidden behind a portiere should await the signal to come out. If
     some accident might only happen! So many of these little beings die
     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 die
     before I saw it.

     He was born. I set up housekeeping in my little bachelor apartment,
     an imitation home, with a horrible child. He looked like all
     children; I did not care for him. Fathers, you see, do not show
     affection until later. They have not the instinctive and passionate
     tenderness of mothers; their affection has to be awakened gradually,
     their mind must become attached by bonds formed each day between
     beings that live in each other's society.

     A year passed. I now avoided my home, which was too small, where
     soiled linen, baby-clothes and stockings the size of gloves were
     lying round, where a thousand articles of all descriptions lay on
     the furniture, on the arm of an easy-chair, everywhere. I went out
     chiefly that I might not hear the child cry, for he cried on the
     slightest pretext, when he was bathed, when he was touched, when he
     was put to bed, when he was taken up in the morning, incessantly.

     I had made a few acquaintances, and I met at a reception the woman
     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' consent
     to our marriage and it was granted.

     I found myself in this dilemma: I must either marry this young girl
     whom I adored, having a child already, or else tell the truth and
     renounce her, and happiness, my future, everything; for her parents,
     who were people of rigid principles, would not give her to me if
     they knew.

     I passed a month of horrible anguish, of mortal torture, a month
     haunted by a thousand frightful thoughts; and I felt developing in
     me a hatred toward my son, toward that little morsel of living,
     screaming flesh, who blocked my path, interrupted my life, condemned
     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 alone
     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 dining-
     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 blowing,
     making the windows rattle, a dry, frosty wind; and I saw trough the
     window the stars shining with that piercing brightness that they
     have on frosty nights.

     Then the idea that had obsessed me for a month rose again to the
     surface. As soon as I was quiet it came to me and harassed me. It
     ate into my mind like a fixed idea, just as cancers must eat into
     the flesh. It was there, in my head, in my heart, in my whole body,
     it seemed to me; and it swallowed me up as a wild beast might have.
     I endeavored to drive it away, to repulse it, to open my mind to
     other thoughts, as one opens a window to the fresh morning breeze to
     drive out the vitiated air; but I could not drive it from my brain,
     not even for a second. I do not know how to express this torture.
     It gnawed at my soul, and I felt a frightful pain, a real physical
     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 that
     verged on madness! Surely I was crazy that evening!

     The child was sleeping. I got up and looked at it as it slept. It
     was he, this abortion, this spawn, this nothing, that condemned me
     to irremediable unhappiness!

     He was asleep, his mouth open, wrapped in his bed-clothes in a crib
     beside my bed, where I could not sleep.

     How did I ever do what I did? How do I know? What force urged me
     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 that I
     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 senseless
     disorder, a lack of presence of mind. It was one of those hours of
     bewilderment and hallucination when a man is neither conscious of
     his actions nor able to guide his will.

     I gently raised the coverings from the body of the child; I turned
     them down to the foot of the crib, and he lay there uncovered and

     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 that
     I drew aside, and the two candles flickered. I remained standing
     near the window, not daring to turn round, as if for fear of seeing
     what was doing on behind me, and feeling the icy air continually
     across my forehead, my cheeks, my hands, the deadly air which kept
     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 shudder
     that I feel still to the roots of my hair. And with a frantic
     movement I abruptly closed both sides of the window and, turning
     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 wished to
     kill. I kissed his fine, soft hair long and tenderly; then I went
     and sat down before the fire.

     I reflected with amazement with horror on what I had done, asking
     myself whence come those tempests of the soul in which a man loses
     all perspective of things, all command over himself and acts as in a
     condition of mad intoxication, not knowing whither he is going—like
     a vessel in a hurricane.

     The child coughed again, and it gave my heart a wrench. Suppose it
     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 in my
     hand I leaned over him. Seeing him breathing quietly I felt
     reassured, when he coughed a third time. It gave me such a shock
     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 were
     bathed in perspiration, that cold sweat which is the result of
     anguish of soul. And I remained until daylight bending over my son,
     becoming calm when he remained quiet for some time, and filled with
     atrocious pain when a weak cough came from his mouth.

     He awoke with his eyes red, his throat choked, and with an air of

     When the woman came in to arrange my room I sent her at once for a
     doctor. He came at the end of an hour, and said, after examining
     the child:

     “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 evening.”

     He came that evening. My son had remained almost all day in a
     condition of drowsiness, coughing from time to time. During the
     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

     He died.

     And since—since that moment, I have not passed one hour, not a
     single hour, without the frightful burning recollection, a gnawing
     recollection, a memory that seems to wring my heart, awaking in me
     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 motionless.

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.