Part 3 out of 4
lose my way amid the paths which cross in every direction these little
forests where Parisians take their outings.
As soon as I was unperceived I began to study my guide, which seemed to
be perfectly clear. I was to turn to the right, then to the left, then
again to the left and I should reach Versailles by evening in time for
I walked slowly beneath the young leaves, drinking in the air, fragrant
with the odor of young buds and sap. I sauntered along, forgetful of
musty papers, of the offices, of my chief, my colleagues, my documents,
and thinking of the good things that were sure to come to me, of all the
veiled unknown contained in the future. A thousand recollections of
childhood came over me, awakened by these country odors, and I walked
along, permeated with the fragrant, living enchantment, the emotional
enchantment of the woods warmed by the sun of June.
At times I sat down to look at all sorts of little flowers growing on a
bank, with the names of which I was familiar. I recognized them all just
as if they were the ones I had seen long ago in the country. They were
yellow, red, violet, delicate, dainty, perched on long stems or close to
the ground. Insects of all colors and shapes, short, long, of peculiar
form, frightful, and microscopic monsters, climbed quietly up the stalks
of grass which bent beneath their weight.
Then I went to sleep for some hours in a hollow and started off again,
refreshed by my doze.
In front of me lay an enchanting pathway and through its somewhat scanty
foliage the sun poured down drops of light on the marguerites which grew
there. It stretched out interminably, quiet and deserted, save for an
occasional big wasp, who would stop buzzing now and then to sip from a
flower, and then continue his way.
All at once I perceived at the end of the path two persons, a man and a
woman, coming towards me. Annoyed at being disturbed in my quiet walk, I
was about to dive into the thicket, when I thought I heard someone
calling me. The woman was, in fact, shaking her parasol, and the man, in
his shirt sleeves, his coat over one arm, was waving the other as a
signal of distress.
I went towards them. They were walking hurriedly, their faces very red,
she with short, quick steps and he with long strides. They both looked
annoyed and fatigued.
The woman asked:
"Can you tell me, monsieur, where we are? My fool of a husband made us
lose our way, although he pretended he knew the country perfectly."
I replied confidently:
"Madame, you are going towards Saint-Cloud and turning your back on
With a look of annoyed pity for her husband, she exclaimed:
"What, we are turning our back on Versailles? Why, that is just where we
want to dine!"
"I am going there also, madame."
"Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, mon Dieu!" she repeated, shrugging her shoulders,
and in that tone of sovereign contempt assumed by women to express their
She was quite young, pretty, a brunette with a slight shadow on her upper
As for him, he was perspiring and wiping his forehead. It was assuredly
a little Parisian bourgeois couple. The man seemed cast down, exhausted
"But, my dear friend, it was you--" he murmured.
She did not allow him to finish his sentence.
"It was I! Ah, it is my fault now! Was it I who wanted to go out
without getting any information, pretending that I knew how to find my
way? Was it I who wanted to take the road to the right on top of the
hill, insisting that I recognized the road? Was it I who undertook to
take charge of Cachou--"
She had not finished speaking when her husband, as if he had suddenly
gone crazy, gave a piercing scream, a long, wild cry that could not be
described in any language, but which sounded like 'tuituit'.
The young woman did not appear to be surprised or moved and resumed:
"No, really, some people are so stupid and they pretend they know
everything. Was it I who took the train to Dieppe last year instead of
the train to Havre--tell me, was it I? Was it I who bet that
M. Letourneur lived in Rue des Martyres? Was it I who would not believe
that Celeste was a thief?"
She went on, furious, with a surprising flow of language, accumulating
the most varied, the most unexpected and the most overwhelming
accusations drawn from the intimate relations of their daily life,
reproaching her husband for all his actions, all his ideas, all his
habits, all his enterprises, all his efforts, for his life from the time
of their marriage up to the present time.
He strove to check her, to calm her and stammered:
"But, my dear, it is useless--before monsieur. We are making ourselves
ridiculous. This does not interest monsieur."
And he cast mournful glances into the thicket as though he sought to
sound its peaceful and mysterious depths, in order to flee thither, to
escape and hide from all eyes, and from time to time he uttered a fresh
scream, a prolonged and shrill "tuituit." I took this to be a nervous
The young woman, suddenly turning towards me: and changing her tone with
singular rapidity, said:
"If monsieur will kindly allow us, we will accompany him on the road, so
as not to lose our way again, and be obliged, possibly, to sleep in the
I bowed. She took my arm and began to talk about a thousand things--
about herself, her life, her family, her business. They were glovers in
the Rue, Saint-Lazare.
Her husband walked beside her, casting wild glances into the thick wood
and screaming "tuituit" every few moments.
At last I inquired:
"Why do you scream like that?"
"I have lost my poor dog," he replied in a tone of discouragement and
"How is that--you have lost your dog?"
"Yes. He was just a year old. He had never been outside the shop.
I wanted to take him to have a run in the woods. He had never seen the
grass nor the leaves and he was almost wild. He began to run about and
bark and he disappeared in the wood. I must also add that he was greatly
afraid of the train. That may have driven him mad. I kept on calling
him, but he has not come back. He will die of hunger in there."
Without turning towards her husband, the young woman said:
"If you had left his chain on, it would not have happened. When people
are as stupid as you are they do not keep a dog."
"But, my dear, it was you--" he murmured timidly.
She stopped short, and looking into his eyes as if she were going to tear
them out, she began again to cast in his face innumerable reproaches.
It was growing dark. The cloud of vapor that covers the country at dusk
was slowly rising and there was a poetry in the air, induced by the
peculiar and enchanting freshness of the atmosphere that one feels in the
woods at nightfall.
Suddenly the young man stopped, and feeling his body feverishly,
"Oh, I think that I--"
She looked at him.
"I did not notice that I had my coat on my arm."
"I have lost my pocketbook--my money was in it."
She shook with anger and choked with indignation.
"That was all that was lacking. How stupid you are! how stupid you are!
Is it possible that I could have married such an idiot! Well, go and
look for it, and see that you find it. I am going on to Versailles with
monsieur. I do not want to sleep in the wood."
"Yes, my dear," he replied gently. "Where shall I find you?"
A restaurant had been recommended to me. I gave him the address.
He turned back and, stooping down as he searched the ground with anxious
eyes, he moved away, screaming "tuituit" every few moments.
We could see him for some time until the growing darkness concealed all
but his outline, but we heard his mournful "tuituit," shriller and
shriller as the night grew darker.
As for me, I stepped along quickly and happily in the soft twilight, with
this little unknown woman leaning on my arm. I tried to say pretty
things to her, but could think of nothing. I remained silent, disturbed,
Our path was suddenly crossed by a high road. To the right I perceived a
town lying in a valley.
What was this place? A man was passing. I asked him. He replied:
I was dumfounded.
"What, Bougival? Are you sure?"
"Parbleu, I belong there!"
The little woman burst into an idiotic laugh.
I proposed that we should take a carriage and drive to Versailles. She
"No, indeed. This is very funny and I am very hungry. I am really quite
calm. My husband will find his way all right. It is a treat to me to be
rid of him for a few hours."
We went into a restaurant beside the water and I ventured to ask for a
private compartment. We had some supper. She sang, drank champagne,
committed all sorts of follies.
That was my first serious flirtation.
Eight hours of railway travel induce sleep for some persons and insomnia
for others with me, any journey prevents my sleeping on the following
At about five o'clock I arrived at the estate of Abelle, which belongs to
my friends, the Murets d'Artus, to spend three weeks there. It is a
pretty house, built by one of their grandfathers in the style of the
latter half of the last century. Therefore it has that intimate
character of dwellings that have always been inhabited, furnished and
enlivened by the same people. Nothing changes; nothing alters the soul
of the dwelling, from which the furniture has never been taken out, the
tapestries never unnailed, thus becoming worn out, faded, discolored, on
the same walls. None of the old furniture leaves the place; only from
time to time it is moved a little to make room for a new piece, which
enters there like a new-born infant in the midst of brothers and sisters.
The house is on a hill in the center of a park which slopes down to the
river, where there is a little stone bridge. Beyond the water the fields
stretch out in the distance, and here one can see the cows wandering
around, pasturing on the moist grass; their eyes seem full of the dew,
mist and freshness of the pasture. I love this dwelling, just as one
loves a thing which one ardently desires to possess. I return here every
autumn with infinite delight; I leave with regret.
After I had dined with this friendly family, by whom I was received like
a relative, I asked my friend, Paul Muret: "Which room did you give me
"Aunt Rose's room."
An hour later, followed by her three children, two little girls and a
boy, Madame Muret d'Artus installed me in Aunt Rose's room, where I had
not yet slept.
When I was alone I examined the walls, the furniture, the general aspect
of the room, in order to attune my mind to it. I knew it but little, as
I had entered it only once or twice, and I looked indifferently at a
pastel portrait of Aunt Rose, who gave her name to the room.
This old Aunt Rose, with her curls, looking at me from behind the glass,
made very little impression on my mind. She looked to me like a woman of
former days, with principles and precepts as strong on the maxims of
morality as on cooking recipes, one of these old aunts who are the
bugbear of gaiety and the stern and wrinkled angel of provincial
I never had heard her spoken of; I knew nothing of her life or of her
death. Did she belong to this century or to the preceding one? Had she
left this earth after a calm or a stormy existence? Had she given up to
heaven the pure soul of an old maid, the calm soul of a spouse, the
tender one of a mother, or one moved by love? What difference did it
make? The name alone, "Aunt Rose," seemed ridiculous, common, ugly.
I picked up a candle and looked at her severe face, hanging far up in an
old gilt frame. Then, as I found it insignificant, disagreeable, even
unsympathetic, I began to examine the furniture. It dated from the
period of Louis XVI, the Revolution and the Directorate. Not a chair,
not a curtain had entered this room since then, and it gave out the
subtle odor of memories, which is the combined odor of wood, cloth,
chairs, hangings, peculiar to places wherein have lived hearts that have
loved and suffered.
I retired but did not sleep. After I had tossed about for an hour or
two, I decided to get up and write some letters.
I opened a little mahogany desk with brass trimmings, which was placed
between the two windows, in hope of finding some ink and paper; but all I
found was a quill-pen, very much worn, and chewed at the end. I was
about to close this piece of furniture, when a shining spot attracted my
attention it looked like the yellow head of a nail. I scratched it with
my finger, and it seemed to move. I seized it between two finger-nails,
and pulled as hard as I could. It came toward me gently. It was a long
gold pin which had been slipped into a hole in the wood and remained
Why? I immediately thought that it must have served to work some spring
which hid a secret, and I looked. It took a long time. After about two
hours of investigation, I discovered another hole opposite the first one,
but at the bottom of a groove. Into this I stuck my pin: a little shelf
sprang. toward my face, and I saw two packages of yellow letters, tied
with a blue ribbon.
I read them. Here are two of them:
So you wish me to return to you your letters, my dearest friend.
Here they are, but it pains me to obey. Of what are you afraid?
That I might lose them? But they are under lock and key. Do you
fear that they might be stolen? I guard against that, for they are
my dearest treasure.
Yes, it pains me deeply. I wondered whether, perhaps you might not
be feeling some regret! Not regret at having loved me, for I know
that you still do, but the regret of having expressed on white paper
this living love in hours when your heart did not confide in me, but
in the pen that you held in your hand. When we love, we have need
of confession, need of talking or writing, and we either talk or
write. Words fly away, those sweet words made of music, air and
tenderness, warm and light, which escape as soon as they are
uttered, which remain in the memory alone, but which one can neither
see, touch nor kiss, as one can with the words written by your hand.
Your letters? Yes, I am returning them to you! But with what
Undoubtedly, you must have had an after thought of delicate shame at
expressions that are ineffaceable. In your sensitive and timid soul
you must have regretted having written to a man that you loved him.
You remembered sentences that called up recollections, and you said
to yourself: "I will make ashes of those words."
Be satisfied, be calm. Here are your letters. I love you.
No, you have not understood me, you have not guessed. I do not
regret, and I never shall, that I told you of my affection.
I will always write to you, but you must return my letters to me as
soon as you have read them.
I shall shock you, my friend, when I tell you the reason for this
demand. It is not poetic, as you imagined, but practical. I am
afraid, not of you, but of some mischance. I am guilty. I do not
wish my fault to affect others than myself.
Understand me well. You and I may both die. You might fall off
your horse, since you ride every day; you might die from a sudden
attack, from a duel, from heart disease, from a carriage accident,
in a thousand ways. For, if there is only one death, there are more
ways of its reaching us than there are days or us to live.
Then your sisters, your brother, or your sister-in-law might find my
letters! Do you think that they love me? I doubt it. And then,
even if they adored me, is it possible for two women and one man to
know a secret--such a secret!--and not to tell of it?
I seem to be saying very disagreeable things, speaking first of your
death, and then suspecting the discreetness of your relatives.
But don't all of us die sooner or later? And it is almost certain
that one of us will precede the other under the ground. We must
therefore foresee all dangers, even that one.
As for me, I will keep your letters beside mine, in the secret of my
little desk. I will show them to you there, sleeping side by side
in their silken hiding place, full of our love, like lovers in a
You will say to me: "But if you should die first, my dear, your
husband will find these letters."
Oh! I fear nothing. First of all, he does not know the secret of my
desk, and then he will not look for it. And even if he finds it
after my death, I fear nothing.
Did you ever stop to think of all the love letters that have been
found after death? I have been thinking of this for a long time,
and that is the reason I decided to ask you for my letters.
Think that never, do you understand, never, does a woman burn, tear
or destroy the letters in which it is told her that she is loved.
That is our whole life, our whole hope, expectation and dream.
These little papers which bear our name in caressing terms are
relics which we adore; they are chapels in which we are the saints.
Our love letters are our titles to beauty, grace, seduction, the
intimate vanity of our womanhood; they are the treasures of our
heart. No, a woman does not destroy these secret and delicious
archives of her life.
But, like everybody else, we die, and then--then these letters are
found! Who finds them? The husband. Then what does he do?
Nothing. He burns them.
Oh, I have thought a great deal about that! Just think that every
day women are dying who have been loved; every day the traces and
proofs of their fault fall into the hands of their husbands, and
that there is never a scandal, never a duel.
Think, my dear, of what a man's heart is. He avenges himself on a
living woman; he fights with the man who has dishonored her, kills
him while she lives, because, well, why? I do not know exactly why.
But, if, after her death, he finds similar proofs, he burns them and
no one is the wiser, and he continues to shake hands with the friend
of the dead woman, and feels quite at ease that these letters should
not have fallen into strange hands, and that they are destroyed.
Oh, how many men I know among my friends who must have burned such
proofs, and who pretend to know nothing, and yet who would have
fought madly had they found them when she was still alive! But she
is dead. Honor has changed. The tomb is the boundary of conjugal
Therefore, I can safely keep our letters, which, in your hands,
would be a menace to both of us. Do you dare to say that I am not
I love you and kiss you.
I raised my eyes to the portrait of Aunt Rose, and as I looked at her
severe, wrinkled face, I thought of all those women's souls which we do
not know, and which we suppose to be so different from what they really
are, whose inborn and ingenuous craftiness we never can penetrate, their
quiet duplicity; and a verse of De Vigny returned to my memory:
"Always this comrade whose heart is uncertain."
THE LOVE OF LONG AGO
The old-fashioned chateau was built on a wooded knoll in the midst of
tall trees with dark-green foliage; the park extended to a great
distance, in one direction to the edge of the forest, in another to the
distant country. A few yards from the front of the house was a huge
stone basin with marble ladies taking a bath; other, basins were seen at
intervals down to the foot of the slope, and a stream of water fell in
cascades from one basin to another.
From the manor house, which preserved the grace of a superannuated
coquette, down to the grottos incrusted with shell-work, where slumbered
the loves of a bygone age, everything in this antique demesne had
retained the physiognomy of former days. Everything seemed to speak
still of ancient customs, of the manners of long ago, of former
gallantries, and of the elegant trivialities so dear to our grandmothers.
In a parlor in the style of Louis XV, whose walls were covered with
shepherds paying court to shepherdesses, beautiful ladies in hoop-skirts,
and gallant gentlemen in wigs, a very old woman, who seemed dead as soon
as she ceased to move, was almost lying down in a large easy-chair, at
each side of which hung a thin, mummy-like hand.
Her dim eyes were gazing dreamily toward the distant horizon as if they
sought to follow through the park the visions of her youth. Through the
open window every now and then came a breath of air laden with the odor
of grass and the perfume of flowers. It made her white locks flutter
around her wrinkled forehead and old memories float through her brain.
Beside her, on a tapestried stool, a young girl, with long fair hair
hanging in braids down her back, was embroidering an altar-cloth. There
was a pensive expression in her eyes, and it was easy to see that she was
dreaming, while her agile fingers flew over her work.
But the old lady turned round her head, and said:
"Berthe, read me something out of the newspapers, that I may still know
sometimes what is going on in the world."
The young girl took up a newspaper, and cast a rapid glance over it.
"There is a great deal about politics, grandmamma; shall I pass that
"Yes, yes, darling. Are there no love stories? Is gallantry, then, dead
in France, that they no longer talk about abductions or adventures as
they did formerly?"
The girl made a long search through the columns of the newspaper.
"Here is one," she said. "It is entitled 'A Love Drama!'"
The old woman smiled through her wrinkles. "Read that for me," she said.
And Berthe commenced. It was a case of vitriol throwing. A wife, in
order to avenge herself on her husband's mistress, had burned her face
and eyes. She had left the Court of Assizes acquitted, declared to be
innocent, amid the applause of the crowd.
The grandmother moved about excitedly in her chair, and exclaimed:
"This is horrible--why, it is perfectly horrible!
"See whether you can find anything else to read to me, darling."
Berthe again made a search; and farther down among the reports of
criminal cases, she read:
"'Gloomy Drama. A shop girl, no longer young, allowed herself to be led
astray by a young man. Then, to avenge herself on her lover, whose heart
proved fickle, she shot him with a revolver. The unhappy man is maimed
for life. The jury, all men of moral character, condoning the illicit
love of the murderess, honorably acquitted her.'"
This time the old grandmother appeared quite shocked, and, in a trembling
voice, she said:
"Why, you people are mad nowadays. You are mad! The good God has given
you love, the only enchantment in life. Man has added to this gallantry
the only distraction of our dull hours, and here you are mixing up with
it vitriol and revolvers, as if one were to put mud into a flagon of
Berthe did not seem to understand her grandmother's indignation.
"But, grandmamma, this woman avenged herself. Remember she was married,
and her husband deceived her."
The grandmother gave a start.
"What ideas have they been filling your head with, you young girls of
"But marriage is sacred, grandmamma."
The grandmother's heart, which had its birth in the great age of
gallantry, gave a sudden leap.
"It is love that is sacred," she said. "Listen, child, to an old woman
who has seen three generations, and who has had a long, long experience
of men and women. Marriage and love have nothing in common. We marry to
found a family, and we form families in order to constitute society.
Society cannot dispense with marriage. If society is a chain, each
family is a link in that chain. In order to weld those links, we always
seek metals of the same order. When we marry, we must bring together
suitable conditions; we must combine fortunes, unite similar races and
aim at the common interest, which is riches and children. We marry only
once my child, because the world requires us to do so, but we may love
twenty times in one lifetime because nature has made us like this.
Marriage, you see, is law, and love is an instinct which impels us,
sometimes along a straight, and sometimes along a devious path. The
world has made laws to combat our instincts--it was necessary to make
them; but our instincts are always stronger, and we ought not to resist
them too much, because they come from God; while the laws only come from
men. If we did not perfume life with love, as much love as possible,
darling, as we put sugar into drugs for children, nobody would care to
take it just as it is."
Berthe opened her eyes wide in astonishment. She murmured:
"Oh! grandmamma, we can only love once."
The grandmother raised her trembling hands toward Heaven, as if again to
invoke the defunct god of gallantries. She exclaimed indignantly:
"You have become a race of serfs, a race of common people. Since the
Revolution, it is impossible any longer to recognize society. You have
attached big words to every action, and wearisome duties to every corner
of existence; you believe in equality and eternal passion. People have
written poetry telling you that people have died of love. In my time
poetry was written to teach men to love every woman. And we! when we
liked a gentleman, my child, we sent him a page. And when a fresh
caprice came into our hearts, we were not slow in getting rid of the last
Lover--unless we kept both of them."
The old woman smiled a keen smile, and a gleam of roguery twinkled in her
gray eye, the intellectual, skeptical roguery of those people who did not
believe that they were made of the same clay as the rest, and who lived
as masters for whom common beliefs were not intended.
The young girl, turning very pale, faltered out:
"So, then, women have no honor?"
The grandmother ceased to smile. If she had kept in her soul some of
Voltaire's irony, she had also a little of Jean Jacques's glowing
philosophy: "No honor! because we loved, and dared to say so, and even
boasted of it? But, my child, if one of us, among the greatest ladies in
France, had lived without a lover, she would have had the entire court
laughing at her. Those who wished to live differently had only to enter
a convent. And you imagine, perhaps, that your husbands will love but
you alone, all their lives. As if, indeed, this could be the case.
I tell you that marriage is a thing necessary in order that society
should exist, but it is not in the nature of our race, do you understand?
There is only one good thing in life, and that is love. And how you
misunderstand it! how you spoil it! You treat it as something solemn
like a sacrament, or something to be bought, like a dress."
The young girl caught the old woman's trembling hands in her own.
"Hold your tongue, I beg of you, grandmamma!"
And, on her knees, with tears in her eyes, she prayed to Heaven to bestow
on her a great passion, one sole, eternal passion in accordance with the
dream of modern poets, while the grandmother, kissing her on the
forehead, quite imbued still with that charming, healthy reason with
which gallant philosophers tinctured the thought of the eighteenth
"Take care, my poor darling! If you believe in such folly as that, you
will be very unhappy."
They had been great friends all winter in Paris. As is always the case,
they had lost sight of each other after leaving school, and had met again
when they were old and gray-haired. One of them had married, but the
other had remained in single blessedness.
M. de Meroul lived for six months in Paris and for six months in his
little chateau at Tourbeville. Having married the daughter of a
neighboring, squire, he had lived a good and peaceful life in the
indolence of a man who has nothing to do. Of a calm and quiet
disposition, and not over-intelligent he used to spend his time quietly
regretting the past, grieving over the customs and institutions of the
day and continually repeating to his wife, who would lift her eyes, and
sometimes her hands, to heaven, as a sign of energetic assent: "Good
gracious! What a government!"
Madame de Meroul resembled her husband intellectually as though she had
been his sister. She knew, by tradition, that one should above all
respect the Pope and the King!
And she loved and respected them from the bottom of her heart, without
knowing them, with a poetic fervor, with an hereditary devotion, with the
tenderness of a wellborn woman. She was good to, the marrow of her
bones. She had had no children, and never ceased mourning the fact.
On meeting his old friend, Joseph Mouradour, at a ball, M. de Meroul was
filled with a deep and simple joy, for in their youth they had been
After the first exclamations of surprise at the changes which time had
wrought in their bodies and countenances, they told each other about
their lives since they had last met.
Joseph Mouradour, who was from the south of France, had become a
government official. His manner was frank; he spoke rapidly and without
restraint, giving his opinions without any tact. He was a Republican,
one of those good fellows who do not believe in standing on ceremony, and
who exercise an almost brutal freedom of speech.
He came to his friend's house and was immediately liked for his easy
cordiality, in spite of his radical ideas. Madame de Meroul would
"What a shame! Such a charming man!"
Monsieur de Meroul would say to his friend in a serious and confidential
tone of voice; "You have no idea the harm that you are doing your
country." He loved him all the same, for nothing is stronger than the
ties of childhood taken up again at a riper age. Joseph Mouradour
bantered the wife and the husband, calling them "my amiable snails," and
sometimes he would solemnly declaim against people who were behind the
times, against old prejudices and traditions.
When he was once started on his democratic eloquence, the couple,
somewhat ill at ease, would keep silent from politeness and good-
breeding; then the husband would try to turn the conversation into some
other channel in order to avoid a clash. Joseph Mouradour was only seen
in the intimacy of the family.
Summer came. The Merouls had no greater pleasure than to receive their
friends at their country home at Tourbeville. It was a good, healthy
pleasure, the enjoyments of good people and of country proprietors. They
would meet their friends at the neighboring railroad station and would
bring them back in their carriage, always on the lookout for compliments
on the country, on its natural features, on the condition of the roads,
on the cleanliness of the farm-houses, on the size of the cattle grazing
in the fields, on everything within sight.
They would call attention to the remarkable speed with which their horse
trotted, surprising for an animal that did heavy work part of the year
behind a plow; and they would anxiously await the opinion of the newcomer
on their family domain, sensitive to the least word, and thankful for the
slightest good intention.
Joseph Mouradour was invited, and he accepted the invitation.
Husband and wife had come to the train, delighted to welcome him to their
home. As soon as he saw them, Joseph Mouradour jumped from the train
with a briskness which increased their satisfaction. He shook their
hands, congratulated them, overwhelmed them with compliments.
All the way home he was charming, remarking on the height of the trees,
the goodness of the crops and the speed of the horse.
When he stepped on the porch of the house, Monsieur de Meroul said, with
a certain friendly solemnity:
"Consider yourself at home now."
Joseph Mouradour answered:
"Thanks, my friend; I expected as much. Anyhow, I never stand on
ceremony with my friends. That's how I understand hospitality."
Then he went upstairs to dress as a farmer, he said, and he came back all
togged out in blue linen, with a little straw hat and yellow shoes, a
regular Parisian dressed for an outing. He also seemed to become more
vulgar, more jovial, more familiar; having put on with his country
clothes a free and easy manner which he judged suitable to the
surroundings. His new manners shocked Monsieur and Madame de Meroul a
little, for they always remained serious and dignified, even in the
country, as though compelled by the two letters preceding their name to
keep up a certain formality even in the closest intimacy.
After lunch they all went out to visit the farms, and the Parisian
astounded the respectful peasants by his tone of comradeship.
In the evening the priest came to dinner, an old, fat priest, accustomed
to dining there on Sundays, but who had been especially invited this day
in honor of the new guest.
Joseph, on seeing him, made a wry face. Then he observed him with
surprise, as though he were a creature of some peculiar race, which he
had never been able to observe at close quarters. During the meal he
told some rather free stories, allowable in the intimacy of the family,
but which seemed to the Merouls a little out of place in the presence of
a minister of the Church. He did not say, "Monsieur l'abbe," but simply,
"Monsieur." He embarrassed the priest greatly by philosophical
discussions about diverse superstitions current all over the world.
He said: "Your God, monsieur, is of those who should be respected, but
also one of those who should be discussed. Mine is called Reason; he has
always been the enemy of yours."
The Merouls, distressed, tried to turn the trend of the conversation.
The priest left very early.
Then the husband said, very quietly:
"Perhaps you went a little bit too far with the priest."
But Joseph immediately exclaimed:
"Well, that's pretty good! As if I would be on my guard with a
shaveling! And say, do me the pleasure of not imposing him on me any
more at meals. You can both make use of him as much as you wish, but
don't serve him up to your friends, hang it!"
"But, my friends, think of his holy--"
Joseph Mouradour interrupted him:
"Yes, I know; they have to be treated like 'rosieres.' But let them
respect my convictions, and I will respect theirs!"
That was all for that day.
As soon as Madame de Meroul entered the parlor, the next morning, she
noticed in the middle of the table three newspapers which made her start
the Voltaire, the Republique-Francaise and the Justice. Immediately
Joseph Mouradour, still in blue, appeared on the threshold, attentively
reading the Intransigeant. He cried:
"There's a great article in this by Rochefort. That fellow is a wonder!"
He read it aloud, emphasizing the parts which especially pleased him, so
carried away by enthusiasm that he did not notice his friend's entrance.
Monsieur de Meroul was holding in his hand the Gaulois for himself, the
Clarion for his wife.
The fiery prose of the master writer who overthrew the empire, spouted
with violence, sung in the southern accent, rang throughout the peaceful
parsons seemed to spatter the walls and century-old furniture with a hail
of bold, ironical and destructive words.
The man and the woman, one standing, the other sitting, were listening
with astonishment, so shocked that they could not move.
In a burst of eloquence Mouradour finished the last paragraph, then
"Well! that's pretty strong!"
Then, suddenly, he noticed the two sheets which his friend was carrying,
and he, in turn, stood speechless from surprise. Quickly walking toward
him he demanded angrily:
"What are you doing with those papers?"
Monsieur de Meroul answered hesitatingly:
"Why--those--those are my papers!"
"Your papers! What are you doing--making fun of me? You will do me the
pleasure of reading mine; they will limber up your ideas, and as for
yours--there! that's what I do with them."
And before his astonished host could stop him, he had seized the two
newspapers and thrown them out of the window. Then he solemnly handed
the Justice to Madame de Meroul, the Voltaire to her husband, while he
sank down into an arm-chair to finish reading the Intransigeant.
The couple, through delicacy, made a pretense of reading a little, they
then handed him back the Republican sheets, which they handled gingerly,
as though they might be poisoned.
He laughed and declared:
"One week of this regime and I will have you converted to my ideas."
In truth, at the end of a week he ruled the house. He had closed the
door against the priest, whom Madame de Meroul had to visit secretly; he
had forbidden the Gaulois and the Clarion to be brought into the house,
so that a servant had to go mysteriously to the post-office to get them,
and as soon as he entered they would be hidden under sofa cushions; he
arranged everything to suit himself--always charming, always good-
natured, a jovial and all-powerful tyrant.
Other friends were expected, pious and conservative friends. The unhappy
couple saw the impossibility of having them there then, and, not knowing
what to do, one evening they announced to Joseph Mouradour that they
would be obliged to absent themselves for a few days, on business, and
they begged him to stay on alone. He did not appear disturbed, and
"Very well, I don't mind! I will wait here as long as you wish. I have
already said that there should be no formality between friends. You are
perfectly right-go ahead and attend to your business. It will not offend
me in the least; quite the contrary, it will make me feel much more
completely one of the family. Go ahead, my friends, I will wait for
Monsieur and Madame de Meroul left the following day.
He is still waiting for them.
How often we hear people say, "He is charming, that man, but he is a
girl, a regular girl." They are alluding to the effeminates, the bane of
For we are all girl-like men in France--that is, fickle, fanciful,
innocently treacherous, without consistency in our convictions or our
will, violent and weak as women are.
But the most irritating of girl--men is assuredly the Parisian and the
boulevardier, in whom the appearance of intelligence is more marked and
who combines in himself all the attractions and all the faults of those
charming creatures in an exaggerated degree in virtue of his masculine
Our Chamber of Deputies is full of girl-men. They form the greater
number of the amiable opportunists whom one might call "The Charmers."
These are they who control by soft words and deceitful promises, who know
how to shake hands in such a manner as to win hearts, how to say "My dear
friend" in a certain tactful way to people he knows the least, to change
his mind without suspecting it, to be carried away by each new idea, to
be sincere in their weathercock convictions, to let themselves be
deceived as they deceive others, to forget the next morning what he
affirmed the day before.
The newspapers are full of these effeminate men. That is probably where
one finds the most, but it is also where they are most needed. The
Journal des Debats and the Gazette de France are exceptions.
Assuredly, every good journalist must be somewhat effeminate--that is, at
the command of the public, supple in following unconsciously the shades
of public opinion, wavering and varying, sceptical and credulous, wicked
and devout, a braggart and a true man, enthusiastic and ironical, and
always convinced while believing in nothing.
Foreigners, our anti-types, as Mme. Abel called them, the stubborn
English and the heavy Germans, regard us with a certain amazement mingled
with contempt, and will continue to so regard us till the end of time.
They consider us frivolous. It is not that, it is that we are girls.
And that is why people love us in spite of our faults, why they come back
to us despite the evil spoken of us; these are lovers' quarrels! The
effeminate man, as one meets him in this world, is so charming that he
captivates you after five minutes' chat. His smile seems made for you;
one cannot believe that his voice does not assume specially tender
intonations on their account. When he leaves you it seems as if one had
known him for twenty years. One is quite ready to lend him money if he
asks for it. He has enchanted you, like a woman.
If he commits any breach of manners towards you, you cannot bear any
malice, he is so pleasant when you next meet him. If he asks your pardon
you long to ask pardon of him. Does he tell lies? You cannot believe
it. Does he put you off indefinitely with promises that he does not
keep? One lays as much store by his promises as though he had moved
heaven and earth to render them a service.
When he admires anything he goes into such raptures that he convinces
you. He once adored Victor Hugo, whom he now treats as a back number.
He would have fought for Zola, whom he has abandoned for Barbey and
d'Aurevilly. And when he admires, he permits no limitation, he would
slap your face for a word. But when he becomes scornful, his contempt is
unbounded and allows of no protest.
In fact, he understands nothing.
Listen to two girls talking.
"Then you are angry with Julia?" "I slapped her face." "What had she
done?" "She told Pauline that I had no money thirteen months out of
twelve, and Pauline told Gontran--you understand." "You were living
together in the Rue Clanzel?" "We lived together four years in the Rue
Breda; we quarrelled about a pair of stockings that she said I had worn--
it wasn't true--silk stockings that she had bought at Mother Martin's.
Then I gave her a pounding and she left me at once. I met her six months
ago and she asked me to come and live with her, as she has rented a flat
that is twice too large."
One goes on one's way and hears no more. But on the following Sunday as
one is on the way to Saint Germain two young women get into the same
railway carriage. One recognizes one of them at once; it is Julia's
enemy. The other is Julia!
And there are endearments, caresses, plans. "Say, Julia--listen, Julia,"
The girl-man has his friendships of this kind. For three months he
cannot bear to leave his old Jack, his dear Jack. There is no one but
Jack in the world. He is the only one who has any intelligence, any
sense, any talent. He alone amounts to anything in Paris. One meets
them everywhere together, they dine together, walk about in company, and
every evening walk home with each other back and forth without being able
to part with one another.
Three months later, if Jack is mentioned:
"There is a drinker, a sorry fellow, a scoundrel for you. I know him
well, you may be sure. And he is not even honest, and ill-bred," etc.,
Three months later, and they are living together.
But one morning one hears that they have fought a duel, then embraced
each other, amid tears, on the duelling ground.
Just now they are the dearest friends in the world, furious with each
other half the year, abusing and loving each other by turns, squeezing
each other's hands till they almost crush the bones, and ready to run
each other through the body for a misunderstanding.
For the relations of these effeminate men are uncertain. Their temper is
by fits and starts, their delight unexpected, their affection turn-about-
face, their enthusiasm subject to eclipse. One day they love you, the
next day they will hardly look at you, for they have in fact a girl's
nature, a girl's charm, a girl's temperament, and all their sentiments
are like the affections of girls.
They treat their friends as women treat their pet dogs.
It is the dear little Toutou whom they hug, feed with sugar, allow to
sleep on the pillow, but whom they would be just as likely to throw out
of a window in a moment of impatience, whom they turn round like a sling,
holding it by the tail, squeeze in their arms till they almost strangle
it, and plunge, without any reason, in a pail of cold water.
Then, what a strange thing it is when one of these beings falls in love
with a real girl! He beats her, she scratches him, they execrate each
other, cannot bear the sight of each other and yet cannot part, linked
together by no one knows what mysterious psychic bonds. She deceives
him, he knows it, sobs and forgives her. He despises and adores her
without seeing that she would be justified in despising him. They are
both atrociously unhappy and yet cannot separate. They cast invectives,
reproaches and abominable accusations at each other from morning till
night, and when they have reached the climax and are vibrating with rage
and hatred, they fall into each other's arms and kiss each other
The girl-man is brave and a coward at the same time. He has, more than
another, the exalted sentiment of honor, but is lacking in the sense of
simple honesty, and, circumstances favoring him, would defalcate and
commit infamies which do not trouble his conscience, for he obeys without
questioning the oscillations of his ideas, which are always impulsive.
To him it seems permissible and almost right to cheat a haberdasher. He
considers it honorable not to pay his debts, unless they are gambling
debts--that is, somewhat shady. He dupes people whenever the laws of
society admit of his doing so. When he is short of money he borrows in
all ways, not always being scrupulous as to tricking the lenders, but he
would, with sincere indignation, run his sword through anyone who should
suspect him of only lacking in politeness.
The humid gray sky seemed to weigh down on the vast brown plain. The
odor of autumn, the sad odor of bare, moist lands, of fallen leaves, of
dead grass made the stagnant evening air more thick and heavy. The
peasants were still at work, scattered through the fields, waiting for
the stroke of the Angelus to call them back to the farmhouses, whose
thatched roofs were visible here and there through the branches of the
leafless trees which protected the apple-gardens against the wind.
At the side of the road, on a heap of clothes, a very small boy seated
with his legs apart was playing with a potato, which he now and then let
fall on his dress, whilst five women were bending down planting slips of
colza in the adjoining plain. With a slow, continuous movement, all
along the mounds of earth which the plough had just turned up, they drove
in sharp wooden stakes and in the hole thus formed placed the plant,
already a little withered, which sank on one side; then they patted down
the earth and went on with their work.
A man who was passing, with a whip in his hand, and wearing wooden shoes,
stopped near the child, took it up and kissed it. Then one of the women
rose up and came across to him. She was a big, red haired girl, with
large hips, waist and shoulders, a tall Norman woman, with yellow hair in
which there was a blood-red tint.
She said in a resolute voice:
"Why, here you are, Cesaire--well?"
The man, a thin young fellow with a melancholy air, murmured:
"Well, nothing at all--always the same thing."
"He won't have it?"
"He won't have it."
"What are you going to do?"
"What do you say I ought to do?"
"Go see the cure."
"Go at once!"
And they stared at each other. He held the child in his arms all the
time. He kissed it once more and then put it down again on the woman's
In the distance, between two farm-houses, could be seen a plough drawn by
a horse and driven by a man. They moved on very gently, the horse, the
plough and the laborer, in the dim evening twilight.
The woman went on:
"What did your father say?"
"He said he would not have it."
"Why wouldn't he have it?"
The young man pointed toward the child whom he had just put back on the
ground, then with a glance he drew her attention to the man drawing the
plough yonder there.
And he said emphatically:
"Because 'tis his--this child of yours."
The girl shrugged her shoulders and in an angry tone said:
"Faith, every one knows it well--that it is Victor's. And what about it
after all? I made a slip. Am I the only woman that did? My mother also
made a slip before me, and then yours did the same before she married
your dad! Who is it that hasn't made a slip in the country? I made a
slip with Victor because he took advantage of me while I was asleep in
the barn, it's true, and afterward it happened between us when I wasn't
asleep. I certainly would have married him if he weren't a servant man.
Am I a worse woman for that?"
The man said simply:
"As for me, I like you just as you are, with or without the child. It's
only my father that opposes me. All the same, I'll see about settling
"Go to the cure at once."
"I'm going to him."
And he set forth with his heavy peasant's tread, while the girl, with her
hands on her hips, turned round to plant her colza.
In fact, the man who thus went off, Cesaire Houlbreque, the son of deaf
old Amable Houlbreque, wanted to marry, in spite of his father, Celeste
Levesque, who had a child by Victor Lecoq, a mere laborer on her parents'
farm, who had been turned out of doors for this act.
The hierarchy of caste, however, does not exist in the country, and if
the laborer is thrifty, he becomes, by taking a farm in his turn, the
equal of his former master.
So Cesaire Houlbieque went off, his whip under his arm, brooding over his
own thoughts and lifting up one after the other his heavy wooden shoes
daubed with clay. Certainly he desired to marry Celeste Levesque. He
wanted her with her child because she was the wife he wanted. He could
not say why, but he knew it, he was sure of it. He had only to look at
her to be convinced of it, to feel quite queer, quite stirred up, simply
stupid with happiness. He even found a pleasure in kissing the little
boy, Victor's little boy, because he belonged to her.
And he gazed, without hate, at the distant outline of the man who was
driving his plough along the horizon.
But old Amable did not want this marriage. He opposed it with the
obstinacy of a deaf man, with a violent obstinacy.
Cesaire in vain shouted in his ear, in that ear which still heard a few
"I'll take good care of you, daddy. I tell you she's a good girl and
strong, too, and also thrifty."
The old man repeated:
"As long as I live I won't see her your wife."
And nothing could get the better of him, nothing could make him waver.
One hope only was left to Cesaire. Old Amable was afraid of the cure
through the apprehension of death which he felt drawing nigh; he had not
much fear of God, nor of the Devil, nor of Hell, nor of Purgatory, of
which he had no conception, but he dreaded the priest, who represented to
him burial, as one might fear the doctors through horror of diseases.
For the last tight days Celeste, who knew this weakness of the old man,
had been urging Cesaire to go and find the cure, but Cesaire always
hesitated, because he had not much liking for the black robe, which
represented to him hands always stretched out for collections or for
However, he had made up his mind, and he proceeded toward the presbytery,
thinking in what manner he would speak about his case.
The Abbe Raffin, a lively little priest, thin and never shaved, was
awaiting his dinner-hour while warming his feet at his kitchen fire.
As soon as he saw the peasant entering he asked, merely turning his head:
"Well, Cesaire, what do you want?"
"I'd like to have a talk with you, M. le Cure."
The man remained standing, intimidated, holding his cap in one hand and
his whip in the other.
Cesaire looked at the housekeeper, an old woman who dragged her feet
while putting on the cover for her master's dinner at the corner of the
table in front of the window.
"'Tis--'tis a sort of confession."
Thereupon the Abbe Raffin carefully surveyed his peasant. He saw his
confused countenance, his air of constraint, his wandering eyes, and he
gave orders to the housekeeper in these words:
"Marie, go away for five minutes to your room, while I talk to Cesaire."
The servant cast on the man an angry glance and went away grumbling.
The clergyman went on:
"Come, now, tell your story."
The young fellow still hesitated, looked down at his wooden shoes, moved
about his cap, then, all of a sudden, he made up his mind:
"Here it is: I want to marry Celeste Levesque."
"Well, my boy, what's there to prevent you?"
"The father won't have it."
"Yes, my father."
"What does your father say?"
"He says she has a child."
"She's not the first to whom that happened, since our Mother Eve."
"A child by Victor Lecoq, Anthime Loisel's servant man."
"Ha! ha! So he won't have it?"
"He won't have it."
"What! not at all?"
"No, no more than an ass that won't budge an inch, saving your presence."
"What do you say to him yourself in order to make him decide?"
"I say to him that she's a good girl, and strong, too, and thrifty also."
"And this does not make him agree to it. So you want me to speak to
"Exactly. You speak to him."
"And what am I to tell your father?"
"Why, what you tell people in your sermons to make them give you sous."
In the peasant's mind every effort of religion consisted in loosening the
purse strings, in emptying the pockets of men in order to fill the
heavenly coffer. It was a kind of huge commercial establishment, of
which the cures were the clerks; sly, crafty clerks, sharp as any one
must be who does business for the good God at the expense of the country
He knew full well that the priests rendered services, great services to
the poorest, to the sick and dying, that they assisted, consoled,
counselled, sustained, but all this by means of money, in exchange for
white pieces, for beautiful glittering coins, with which they paid for
sacraments and masses, advice and protection, pardon of sins and
indulgences, purgatory and paradise according to the yearly income and
the generosity of the sinner.
The Abbe Raffin, who knew his man and who never lost his temper, burst
"Well, yes, I'll tell your father my little story; but you, my lad,
you'll come to church."
Houlbreque extended his hand in order to give a solemn assurance:
"On the word of a poor man, if you do this for me, I promise that I
"Come, that's all right. When do you wish me to go and find your
"Why, the sooner the better-to-night, if you can."
"In half an hour, then, after supper."
"In half an hour."
"That's understood. So long, my lad."
"Good-by till we meet again, Monsieur le Cure; many thanks."
"Not at all, my lad."
And Cesaire Houlbreque returned home, his heart relieved of a great
He held on lease a little farm, quite small, for they were not rich, his
father and he. Alone with a female servant, a little girl of fifteen,
who made the soup, looked after the fowls, milked the cows and churned
the butter, they lived frugally, though Cesaire was a good cultivator.
But they did not possess either sufficient lands or sufficient cattle to
earn more than the indispensable.
The old man no longer worked. Sad, like all deaf people, crippled with
pains, bent double, twisted, he went through the fields leaning on his
stick, watching the animals and the men with a hard, distrustful eye.
Sometimes he sat down on the side of the road and remained there without
moving for hours, vaguely pondering over the things that had engrossed
his whole life, the price of eggs, and corn, the sun and the rain which
spoil the crops or make them grow. And, worn out with rheumatism, his
old limbs still drank in the humidity of the soul, as they had drunk in
for the past sixty years, the moisture of the walls of his low house
thatched with damp straw.
He came back at the close of the day, took his place at the end of the
table in the kitchen and when the earthen bowl containing the soup had
been placed before him he placed round it his crooked fingers, which
seemed to have kept the round form of the bowl and, winter and summer, he
warmed his hands, before commencing to eat, so as to lose nothing, not
even a particle of the heat that came from the fire, which costs a great
deal, neither one drop of soup into which fat and salt have to be put,
nor one morsel of bread, which comes from the wheat.
Then he climbed up a ladder into a loft, where he had his straw-bed,
while his son slept below stairs at the end of a kind of niche near the
chimneypiece and the servant shut herself up in a kind of cellar, a black
hole which was formerly used to store the potatoes.
Cesaire and his father scarcely ever talked to each other. From time to
time only, when there was a question of selling a crop or buying a calf,
the young man would ask his father's advice, and, making a speaking-
trumpet of his two hands, he would bawl out his views into his ear, and
old Amable either approved of them or opposed them in a slow, hollow
voice that came from the depths of his stomach.
So one evening Cesaire, approaching him as if about to discuss the
purchase of a horse or a heifer, communicated to him at the top of his
voice his intention to marry Celeste Levesque.
Then the father got angry. Why? On the score of morality? No,
certainly. The virtue of a girl is of slight importance in the country.
But his avarice, his deep, fierce instinct for saving, revolted at the
idea that his son should bring up a child which he had not begotten
himself. He had thought suddenly, in one second, of the soup the little
fellow would swallow before becoming useful on the farm. He had
calculated all the pounds of bread, all the pints of cider that this brat
would consume up to his fourteenth year, and a mad anger broke loose from
him against Cesaire, who had not bestowed a thought on all this.
He replied in an unusually strong voice:
"Have you lost your senses?"
Thereupon Cesaire began to enumerate his reasons, to speak about
Celeste's good qualities, to prove that she would be worth a thousand
times what the child would cost. But the old man doubted these
advantages, while he could have no doubts as to the child's existence;
and he replied with emphatic repetition, without giving any further
"I will not have it! I will not have it! As long as I live, this won't
be done!" And at this point they had remained for the last three months
without one or the other giving in, resuming at least once a week the
same discussion, with the same arguments, the same words, the same
gestures and the same fruitlessness.
It was then that Celeste had advised Cesaire to go and ask for the cure's
On arriving home the peasant found his father already seated at table,
for he came late through his visit to the presbytery.
They dined in silence, face to face, ate a little bread and butter after
the soup and drank a glass of cider. Then they remained motionless in
their chairs, with scarcely a glimmer of light, the little servant girl
having carried off the candle in order to wash the spoons, wipe the
glasses and cut the crusts of bread to be ready for next morning's
There was a knock, at the door, which was immediately opened, and the
priest appeared. The old man raised toward him an anxious eye full of
suspicion, and, foreseeing danger, he was getting ready to climb up his
ladder when the Abbe Raffin laid his hand on his shoulder and shouted
close to his temple:
"I want to have a talk with you, Father Amable."
Cesaire had disappeared, taking advantage of the door being open. He did
not want to listen, for he was afraid and did not want his hopes to
crumble slowly with each obstinate refusal of his father. He preferred
to learn the truth at once, good or bad, later on; and he went out into
the night. It was a moonless, starless night, one of those misty nights
when the air seems thick with humidity. A vague odor of apples floated
through the farmyard, for it was the season when the earliest applies
were gathered, the "early ripe," as they are called in the cider country.
As Cesaire passed along by the cattlesheds the warm smell of living
beasts asleep on manure was exhaled through the narrow windows, and he
heard the stamping of the horses, who were standing at the end of the
stable, and the sound of their jaws tearing and munching the hay on the
He went straight ahead, thinking about Celeste. In this simple nature,
whose ideas were scarcely more than images generated directly by objects,
thoughts of love only formulated themselves by calling up before the mind
the picture of a big red-haired girl standing in a hollow road and
laughing, with her hands on her hips.
It was thus he saw her on the day when he first took a fancy for her. He
had, however, known her from infancy, but never had he been so struck by
her as on that morning. They had stopped to talk for a few minutes and
then he went away, and as he walked along he kept repeating:
"Faith, she's a fine girl, all the same. 'Tis a pity she made a slip
Till evening he kept thinking of her and also on the following morning.
When he saw her again he felt something tickling the end of his throat,
as if a cock's feather had been driven through his mouth into his chest,
and since then, every time he found himself near her, he was astonished
at this nervous tickling which always commenced again.
In three months he made up his mind to marry her, so much did she please
him. He could not have said whence came this power over him, but he
explained it in these words:
"I am possessed by her," as if the desire for this girl within him were
as dominating as one of the powers of hell. He scarcely bothered himself
about her transgression. It was a pity, but, after all, it did her no
harm, and he bore no grudge against Victor Lecoq.
But if the cure should not succeed, what was he to do? He did not dare
to think of it, the anxiety was such a torture to him.
He reached the presbytery and seated himself near the little gateway to
wait for the priest's return.
He was there perhaps half an hour when he heard steps on the road, and
although the night was very dark, he presently distinguished the still
darker shadow of the cassock.
He rose up, his legs giving way under him, not even venturing to speak,
not daring to ask a question.
The clergyman perceived him and said gaily:
"Well, my lad, it's all right."
"All right, 'tisn't possible."
"Yes, my lad, but not without trouble. What an old ass your father is!"
The peasant repeated:
"Why, yes. Come and look me up to-morrow at midday in order to settle
about the publication of the banns."
The young man seized the cure's hand. He pressed it, shook it, bruised
it as he stammered:
"True-true-true, Monsieur le Cure, on the word of an honest man, you'll
see me to-morrow-at your sermon."
The wedding took place in the middle of December. It was simple, the
bridal pair not being rich. Cesaire, attired in new clothes, was ready
since eight o'clock in the morning to go and fetch his betrothed and
bring her to the mayor's office, but it was too early. He seated himself
before the kitchen table and waited for the members of the family and the
friends who were to accompany him.
For the last eight days it had been snowing, and the brown earth, the
earth already fertilized by the autumn sowing, had become a dead white,
sleeping under a great sheet of ice.
It was cold in the thatched houses adorned with white caps, and the round
apples in the trees of the enclosures seemed to be flowering, covered
with white as they had been in the pleasant month of their blossoming.
This day the big clouds to the north, the big great snow clouds, had
disappeared and the blue sky showed itself above the white earth on which
the rising sun cast silvery reflections.
Cesaire looked straight before him through the window, thinking of
nothing, quite happy.
The door opened, two women entered, peasant women in their Sunday
clothes, the aunt and the cousin of the bridegroom; then three men, his
cousins; then a woman who was a neighbor. They sat down on chairs and
remained, motionless and silent, the women on one side of the kitchen,
the men on the other, suddenly seized with timidity, with that
embarrassed sadness which takes possession of people assembled for a
ceremony. One of the cousins soon asked:
"Is it not the hour?"
"I am much afraid it is."
"Come on! Let us start," said another.
Those rose up. Then Cesaire, whom a feeling of uneasiness had taken
possession of, climbed up the ladder of the loft to see whether his
father was ready. The old man, always as a rule an early riser, had not
yet made his appearance. His son found him on his bed of straw, wrapped
up in his blanket, with his eyes open and a malicious gleam in them.
He bawled into his ear: "Come, daddy, get up. It's time for the
The deaf man murmured-in a doleful tone:
"I can't get up. I have a sort of chill over me that freezes my back.
I can't stir."
The young man, dumbfounded, stared at him, guessing that this was a
"Come, daddy; you must make an effort."
"I can't do it."
"Look here! I'll help you."
And he stooped toward the old man, pulled off his blanket, caught him by
the arm and lifted him up. But old Amable began to whine, "Ooh! ooh!
ooh! What suffering! Ooh! I can't. My back is stiffened up. The cold
wind must have rushed in through this cursed roof."
"Well, you'll get no dinner, as I'm having a spread at Polyte's inn.
This will teach you what comes of acting mulishly."
And he hurried down the ladder and started out, accompanied by his
relatives and guests.
The men had turned up the bottoms of their trousers so as not to get them
wet in the snow. The women held up their petticoats and showed their
lean ankles with gray woollen stockings and their bony shanks resembling
broomsticks. And they all moved forward with a swinging gait, one behind
the other, without uttering a word, moving cautiously, for fear of losing
the road which was-hidden beneath the flat, uniform, uninterrupted
stretch of snow.
As they approached the farmhouses they saw one or two persons waiting to
join them, and the procession went on without stopping and wound its way
forward, following the invisible outlines of the road, so that it
resembled a living chaplet of black beads undulating through the white
In front of the bride's door a large group was stamping up and down the
open space awaiting the bridegroom. When he appeared they gave him a
loud greeting, and presently Celeste came forth from her room, clad in a
blue dress, her shoulders covered with a small red shawl and her head
adorned with orange flowers.
But every one asked Cesaire:
"Where's your father?"
He replied with embarrassment:
"He couldn't move on account of the pains."
And the farmers tossed their heads with a sly, incredulous air.
They directed their steps toward the mayor's office. Behind the pair
about to be wedded a peasant woman carried Victor's child, as if it were
going to be baptized; and the risen, in pairs now, with arms linked,
walked through the snow with the movements of a sloop at sea.
After having been united by the mayor in the little municipal house the
pair were made one by the cure, in his turn, in the modest house of God.
He blessed their union by promising them fruitfulness, then he preached
to them on the matrimonial virtues, the simple and healthful virtues of
the country, work, concord and fidelity, while the child, who was cold,
began to fret behind the bride.
As soon as the couple reappeared on the threshold of the church shots
were discharged from the ditch of the cemetery. Only the barrels of the
guns could be seen whence came forth rapid jets of smoke; then a head
could be seen gazing at the procession. It was Victor Lecoq celebrating
the marriage of his old sweetheart, wishing her happiness and sending her
his good wishes with explosions of powder. He had employed some friends
of his, five or six laboring men, for these salvos of musketry. It was
considered a nice attention.
The repast was given in Polyte Cacheprune's inn. Twenty covers were laid
in the great hall where people dined on market days, and the big leg of
mutton turning before the spit, the fowls browned under their own gravy,
the chitterlings sputtering over the bright, clear fire filled the house
with a thick odor of live coal sprinkled with fat--the powerful, heavy
odor of rustic fare.
They sat down to table at midday and the soup was poured at once into the
plates. All faces had already brightened up; mouths opened to utter loud
jokes and eyes were laughing with knowing winks. They were going to
amuse themselves and no mistake.
The door opened, and old Amable appeared. He seemed in a bad humor and
his face wore a scowl as he dragged himself forward on his sticks,
whining at every step to indicate his suffering. As soon as they saw him
they stopped talking, but suddenly his neighbor, Daddy Malivoire, a big
joker, who knew all the little tricks and ways of people, began to yell,
just as Cesaire used to do, by making a speaking-trumpet of his hands.
"Hallo, my cute old boy, you have a good nose on you to be able to smell
Polyte's cookery from your own house!"
A roar of laughter burst forth from the throats of those present.
Malivoire, excited by his success, went on:
"There's nothing for the rheumatics like a chitterling poultice! It
keeps your belly warm, along with a glass of three-six!"
The men uttered shouts, banged the table with their fists, laughed,
bending on one side and raising up their bodies again as if they were
working a pump. The women clucked like hens, while the servants
wriggled, standing against the walls. Old Amable was the only one that
did not laugh, and, without making any reply, waited till they made room
They found a place for him in the middle of the table, facing his
daughter-in-law, and, as soon as he was seated, he began to eat. It was
his son who was paying, after all; it was right he should take his share.
With each ladleful of soup that went into his stomach, with each mouthful
of bread or meat crushed between his gums, with each glass of cider or
wine that flowed through his gullet he thought he was regaining something
of his own property, getting back a little of his money which all those
gluttons were devouring, saving in fact a portion of his own means. And
he ate in silence with the obstinacy of a miser who hides his coppers,
with the same gloomy persistence with which he formerly performed his
But all of a sudden he noticed at the end of the table Celeste's child on
a woman's lap, and his eye remained fixed on the little boy. He went on
eating, with his glance riveted on the youngster, into whose mouth the
woman who minded him every now and then put a little morsel which he
nibbled at. And the old man suffered more from the few mouthfuls sucked
by this little chap than from all that the others swallowed.
The meal lasted till evening. Then every one went back home.
Cesaire raised up old Amable.
"Come, daddy, we must go home," said he.
And he put the old man's two sticks in his hands.
Celeste took her child in her arms, and they went on slowly through the
pale night whitened by the snow. The deaf old man, three-fourths tipsy,
and even more malicious under the influence of drink, refused to go
forward. Several times he even sat down with the object of making his
daughter-in-law catch cold, and he kept whining, without uttering a word,
giving vent to a sort of continuous groaning as if he were in pain.
When they reached home he at once climbed up to his loft, while Cesaire
made a bed for the child near the deep niche where he was going to lie
down with his wife. But as the newly wedded pair could not sleep
immediately, they heard the old man for a long time moving about on his
bed of straw, and he even talked aloud several times, whether it was that
he was dreaming or that he let his thoughts escape through his mouth, in
spite of himself, not being able to keep them back, under the obsession
of a fixed idea.
When he came down his ladder next morning he saw his daughter-in-law
looking after the housekeeping.
She cried out to him:
"Come, daddy, hurry on! Here's some good soup."
And she placed at the end of the table the round black earthen bowl
filled with steaming liquid. He sat down without giving any answer,
seized the hot bowl, warmed his hands with it in his customary fashion,
and, as it was very cold, even pressed it against his breast to try to
make a little of the living heat of the boiling liquid enter into him,
into his old body stiffened by so many winters.
Then he took his sticks and went out into the fields, covered with ice,
till it was time for dinner, for he had seen Celeste's youngster still
asleep in a big soap-box.
He did not take his place in the household. He lived in the thatched
house, as in bygone days, but he seemed not to belong to it any longer,
to be no longer interested in anything, to look upon those people, his
son, the wife and the child as strangers whom he did not know, to whom he
The winter glided by. It was long and severe.
Then the early spring made the seeds sprout forth again, and the peasants
once more, like laborious ants, passed their days in the fields, toiling
from morning till night, under the wind and under the rain, along the
furrows of brown earth which brought forth the bread of men.
The year promised well for the newly married pair. The crops grew thick
and strong. There were no late frosts, and the apples bursting into
bloom scattered on the grass their rosy white snow which promised a hail
of fruit for the autumn.
Cesaire toiled hard, rose early and left off work late, in order to save
the expense of a hired man.
His wife said to him sometimes:
"You'll make yourself ill in the long run."
"Certainly not. I'm a good judge."
Nevertheless one evening he came home so fatigued that he had to get to
bed without supper. He rose up next morning at the usual hour, but he
could not eat, in spite of his fast on the previous night, and he had to
come back to the house in the middle of the afternoon in order to go to
bed again. In the course of the night he began to cough; he turned round
on his straw couch, feverish, with his forehead burning, his tongue dry
and his throat parched by a burning thirst.
However, at daybreak he went toward his grounds, but next morning the
doctor had to be sent for and pronounced him very ill with inflammation
of the lungs.
And he no longer left the dark recess in which he slept. He could be
heard coughing, gasping and tossing about in this hole. In order to see
him, to give his medicine and to apply cupping-glasses they had to-bring
a candle to the entrance. Then one could see his narrow head with his
long matted beard underneath a thick lacework of spiders' webs, which
hung and floated when stirred by the air. And the hands of the sick man
seemed dead under the dingy sheets.
Celeste watched him with restless activity, made him take physic, applied
blisters to him, went back and forth in the house, while old Amable
remained at the edge of his loft, watching at a distance the gloomy
cavern where his son lay dying. He did not come near him, through hatred
of the wife, sulking like an ill-tempered dog.
Six more days passed, then one morning, as Celeste, who now slept on the
ground on two loose bundles of straw, was going to see whether her man
was better, she no longer heard his rapid breathing from the interior of
his recess. Terror stricken, she asked:
"Well Cesaire, what sort of a night had you?"
He did not answer. She put out her hand to touch him, and the flesh on
his face felt cold as ice. She uttered a great cry, the long cry of a
woman overpowered with fright. He was dead.
At this cry the deaf old man appeared at the top of his ladder, and when
he saw Celeste rushing to call for help, he quickly descended, placed his
hand on his son's face, and suddenly realizing what had happened, went to
shut the door from the inside, to prevent the wife from re-entering and
resuming possession of the dwelling, since his son was no longer living.
Then he sat down on a chair by the dead man's side.
Some of the neighbors arrived, called out and knocked. He did not hear
them. One of them broke the glass of the window and jumped into the
room. Others followed. The door was opened again and Celeste
reappeared, all in tears, with swollen face and bloodshot eyes. Then old
Amable, vanquished, without uttering a word, climbed back to his loft.
The funeral took place next morning. Then, after the ceremony, the
father-in-law and the daughter-in-law found themselves alone in the
farmhouse with the child.
It was the usual dinner hour. She lighted the fire, made some soup and
placed the plates on the table, while the old man sat on the chair
waiting without appearing to look at her. When the meal was ready she
bawled in his ear
"Come, daddy, you must eat." He rose up, took his seat at the end of the
table, emptied his soup bowl, masticated his bread and butter, drank his
two glasses of cider and then took himself off.
It was one of those warm days, one of those enjoyable days when life
ferments, pulsates, blooms all over the surface of the soil.
Old Amable pursued a little path across the fields. He looked at the
young wheat and the young oats, thinking that his son was now under the
earth, his poor boy! He walked along wearily, dragging his legs after
him in a limping fashion. And, as he was all alone in the plain, all
alone under the blue sky, in the midst of the growing crops, all alone
with the larks which he saw hovering above his head, without hearing
their light song, he began to weep as he proceeded on his way.
Then he sat down beside a pond and remained there till evening, gazing at
the little birds that came there to drink. Then, as the night was
falling, he returned to the house, supped without saying a word and
climbed up to his loft. And his life went on as in the past. Nothing
was changed, except that his son Cesaire slept in the cemetery.
What could he, an old man, do? He could work no longer; he was now good
for nothing except to swallow the soup prepared by his daughter-in-law.
And he ate it in silence, morning and evening, watching with an eye of
rage the little boy also taking soup, right opposite him, at the other
side of the table. Then he would go out, prowl about the fields after
the fashion of a vagabond, hiding behind the barns where he would sleep
for an hour or two as if he were afraid of being seen and then come back
at the approach of night.
But Celeste's mind began to be occupied by graver anxieties. The farm
needed a man to look after it and cultivate it. Somebody should be there
always to go through the fields, not a mere hired laborer, but a regular
farmer, a master who understood the business and would take an interest
in the farm. A lone woman could not manage the farming, watch the price
of corn and direct the sale and purchase of cattle. Then ideas came into
her head, simple practical ideas, which she had turned over in her head
at night. She could not marry again before the end of the year, and it
was necessary at once to take care of pressing interests, immediate
Only one man could help her out of her difficulties, Victor Lecoq, the
father of her child. He was strong and understood farming; with a little
money in his pocket he would make an excellent cultivator. She was aware
of his skill, having known him while he was working on her parents' farm.
So one morning, seeing him passing along the road with a cart of manure,
she went out to meet him. When he perceived her, he drew up his horses
and she said to him as if she had met him the night before:
"Good-morrow, Victor--are you quite well, the same as ever?"
"I'm quite well, the same as ever--and how are you?"
"Oh, I'd be all right, only that I'm alone in the house, which bothers me
on account of the farm."
Then they remained chatting for a long time, leaning against the wheel of
the heavy cart. The man every now and then lifted up his cap to scratch
his forehead and began thinking, while she, with flushed cheeks, went on
talking warmly, told him about her views, her plans; her projects for the
future. At last he said in a low tone:
"Yes, it can be done."
She opened her hand like a countryman clinching a bargain and asked:
"Is it agreed?"
He pressed her outstretched hand.
"It's settled, then, for next Sunday?"
"It's settled for next Sunday"
"Well, good-morning, Victor."
"Good-morning, Madame Houlbreque."
This particular Sunday was the day of the village festival, the annual
festival in honor of the patron saint, which in Normandy is called the
For the last eight days quaint-looking vehicles in which live the
families of strolling fair exhibitors, lottery managers, keepers of
shooting galleries and other forms of amusement or exhibitors of
curiosities whom the peasants call "wonder-makers" could be seen coming
along the roads drawn slowly by gray or sorrel horses.
The dirty wagons with their floating curtains, accompanied by a
melancholy-looking dog, who trotted, with his head down, between the
wheels, drew up one after the other on the green in front of the town
hall. Then a tent was erected in front of each ambulant abode, and
inside this tent could be seen, through the holes in the canvas,
glittering things which excited the envy or the curiosity of the village
As soon as the morning of the fete arrived all the booths were opened,
displaying their splendors of glass or porcelain, and the peasants on
their way to mass looked with genuine satisfaction at these modest shops
which they saw again, nevertheless, each succeeding year.
Early in the afternoon there was a crowd on the green. From every
neighboring village the farmers arrived, shaken along with their wives
and children in the two-wheeled open chars-a-bancs, which rattled along,
swaying like cradles. They unharnessed at their friends' houses and the
farmyards were filled with strange-looking traps, gray, high, lean,
crooked, like long-clawed creatures from the depths of the sea. And each
family, with the youngsters in front and the grown-up ones behind, came
to the assembly with tranquil steps, smiling countenances and open hands,
big hands, red and bony, accustomed to work and apparently tired of their
A clown was blowing a trumpet. The barrel-organ accompanying the
carrousel sent through the air its shrill jerky notes. The lottery-wheel
made a whirring sound like that of cloth tearing, and every moment the
crack of the rifle could be heard. And the slow-moving throng passed on
quietly in front of the booths resembling paste in a fluid condition,
with the motions of a flock of sheep and the awkwardness of heavy animals
who had escaped by chance.
The girls, holding one another's arms in groups of six or eight, were
singing; the youths followed them, making jokes, with their caps over
their ears and their blouses stiffened with starch, swollen out like blue
The whole countryside was there--masters, laboring men and women
Old Amable himself, wearing his old-fashioned green frock coat, had
wished to see the assembly, for he never failed to attend on such an
He looked at the lotteries, stopped in front of the shooting galleries to
criticize the shots and interested himself specially in a very simple
game which consisted in throwing a big wooden ball into the open mouth of
a mannikin carved and painted on a board.
Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Daddy Malivoire, who
"Ha, daddy! Come and have a glass of brandy."
And they sat down at the table of an open-air restaurant.
They drank one glass of brandy, then two, then three, and old Amable once
more began wandering through the assembly. His thoughts became slightly
confused, he smiled without knowing why, he smiled in front of the
lotteries, in front of the wooden horses and especially in front of the
killing game. He remained there a long time, filled with delight, when
he saw a holiday-maker knocking down the gendarme or the cure, two
authorities whom he instinctively distrusted. Then he went back to the
inn and drank a glass of cider to cool himself. It was late, night came
on. A neighbor came to warn him:
"You'll get back home late for the stew, daddy."
Then he set out on his way to the farmhouse. A soft shadow, the warm
shadow of a spring night, was slowly descending on the earth.
When he reached the front door he thought he saw through the window which
was lighted up two persons in the house. He stopped, much surprised,
then he went in, and he saw Victor Lecoq seated at the table, with a
plate filled with potatoes before him, taking his supper in the very same
place where his son had sat.
And he turned round suddenly as if he wanted to go away. The night was
very dark now. Celeste started up and shouted at him:
"Come quick, daddy! Here's some good stew to finish off the assembly
He complied through inertia and sat down, watching in turn the man, the
woman and the child. Then he began to eat quietly as on ordinary days.
Victor Lecoq seemed quite at home, talked from time to time to Celeste,
took up the child in his lap and kissed him. And Celeste again served
him with food, poured out drink for him and appeared happy while speaking
to him. Old Amable's eyes followed them attentively, though he could not
hear what they were saying.
When he had finished supper (and he had scarcely eaten anything, there
was such a weight at his heart) he rose up, and instead of ascending to
his loft as he did every night he opened the gate of the yard and went
out into the open air.
When he had gone, Celeste, a little uneasy, asked:
"What is he going to do?"
Victor replied in an indifferent tone:
"Don't bother yourself. He'll come back when he's tired."
Then she saw after the house, washed the plates and wiped the table,
while the man quietly took off his clothes. Then he slipped into the
dark and hollow bed in which she had slept with Cesaire.
The yard gate opened and old Amable again appeared. As soon as he
entered the house he looked round on every side with the air of an old
dog on the scent. He was in search of Victor Lecoq. As he did not see
him, he took the candle off the table and approached the dark niche in
which his son had died. In the interior of it he perceived the man lying
under the bed clothes and already asleep. Then the deaf man noiselessly
turned round, put back the candle and went out into the yard.
Celeste had finished her work. She put her son into his bed, arranged
everything and waited for her father-in-law's return before lying down
She remained sitting on a chair, without moving her hands and with her
eyes fixed on vacancy.
As he did not come back, she murmured in a tone of impatience and
"This good-for-nothing old man will make us burn four sous' worth of
Victor answered from under the bed clothes:
"It's over an hour since he went out. We ought to see whether he fell
asleep on the bench outside the door."
"I'll go and see," she said.
She rose up, took the light and went out, shading the light with her hand
in order to see through the darkness.
She saw nothing in front of the door, nothing on the bench, nothing on
the dung heap, where the old man used sometimes to sit in hot weather.