Pierre and Jean, by Guy de Maupassant

Chapter 8

When he got back to his lodgings Jean dropped on a sofa; for the sorrows and anxieties which made his brother long to be moving, and to flee like a hunted prey, acted differently on his torpid nature and broke the strength of his arms and legs. He felt too limp to stir a finger, even to get to bed; limp body and soul, crushed and heart-broken. He had not been hit, as Pierre had been, in the purity of filial love, in the secret dignity which is the refuge of a proud heart; he was overwhelmed by the stroke of fate which, at the same time threatened his own nearest interests.

When at last his spirit was calmer, when his thoughts had settled like water that has been stirred and lashed, he could contemplate the situation which had come before him. If he had learned the secret of his birth through any other channel he would assuredly have been very wroth and very deeply pained, but after his quarrel with his brother, after the violent and brutal betrayal which had shaken his nerves, the agonizing emotion of his mother’s confession had so bereft him of energy that he could not rebel. The shock to his feelings had been so great as to sweep away in an irresistible tide of pathos, all prejudice, and all the sacred delicacy of natural morality. Besides, he was not a man made for resistance. He did not like contending against any one, least of all against himself, so he resigned himself at once; and by instinctive tendency, a congenital love of peace, and of easy and tranquil life, he began to anticipate the agitations which must surge up around him and at once be his ruin. He foresaw that they were inevitable, and to avert them he made up his mind to superhuman efforts of energy and activity. The knot must be cut immediately, this very day; for even he had fits of that imperious demand for a swift solution which is the only strength of weak natures, incapable of a prolonged effort of will. His lawyer’s mind, accustomed as it was to disentangling and studying complicated situations and questions of domestic difficulties in families that had got out of gear, at once foresaw the more immediate consequences of his brother’s state of mind. In spite of himself, he looked at the issue from an almost professional point of view, as though he had to legislate for the future relations of certain clients after a moral disaster. Constant friction against Pierre had certainly become unendurable. He could easily evade it, no doubt, by living in his own lodgings; but even then it was not possible that their mother should live under the same roof with her elder son. For a long time he sat meditating, motionless, on the cushions, devising and rejecting various possibilities, and finding nothing that satisfied him.

But suddenly an idea took him by storm. This fortune which had come to him. Would an honest man keep it?

“No,” was the first immediate answer, and he made up his mind that it must go to the poor. It was hard, but it could not be helped. He would sell his furniture and work like any other man, like any other beginner. This manful and painful resolution spurred his courage; he rose and went to the window, leaning his forehead against the pane. He had been poor; he could become poor again. After all, he should not die of it. His eyes were fixed on the gas lamp burning at the opposite side of the street. A woman, much belated, happened to pass; suddenly he thought of Mme. Rosémilly with the pang at his heart, the shock of deep feeling which comes of a cruel suggestion. All the dire results of his decision rose up before him together. He would have to renounce his marriage, renounce happiness, renounce everything. Could he do such a thing after having pledged himself to her? She had accepted him knowing him to be rich. She would take him still if he were poor; but had he any right to demand such a sacrifice? Would it not be better to keep this money in trust, to be restored to the poor at some future date?

And in his soul, where selfishness put on a guise of honesty, all these specious interests were struggling and contending. His first scruples yielded to ingenious reasoning, then came to the top again, and again disappeared.

He sat down again, seeking some decisive motive, some all-sufficient pretext to solve his hesitancy and convince his natural rectitude. Twenty times over had he asked himself this question: “Since I am this man’s son, since I know and acknowledge it, is it not natural that I should also accept the inheritance?”

But even this argument could not suppress the “No” murmured by his inmost conscience.

Then came the thought: “Since I am not the son of the man I always believed to be my father, I can take nothing from him, neither during his lifetime nor after his death. It would be neither dignified nor equitable. It would be robbing my brother.”

This new view of the matter having relieved him and quieted his conscience, he went to the window again.

“Yes,” he said to himself, “I must give up my share of the family inheritance. I must let Pierre have the whole of it, since I am not his father’s son. That is but just. Then is it not just that I should keep my father’s money?”

Having discerned that he could take nothing of Roland’s savings, having decided on giving up the whole of this money, he agreed; he resigned himself to keeping Maréchal’s; for if he rejected both he would find himself reduced to beggary.

This delicate question being thus disposed of, he came back to that of Pierre’s presence in the family. How was he to be got rid of? He was giving up his search for any practical solution when the whistle of a steam-vessel coming into port seemed to blow him an answer by suggesting a scheme.

Then he threw himself on his bed without undressing, and dozed and dreamed until daybreak.

At a little before nine he went out to ascertain whether his plans were feasible. Then, after making sundry inquiries and calls, he went to his old home. His mother was waiting for him in her room.

“If you had not come,” she said, “I should never have dared to go down.”

In a minute Roland’s voice was heard on the stairs: “Are we to have nothing to eat today, hang it all!”

There was no answer, and he roared out, with a thundering oath this time: “Joséphine, what the devil are you about?”

The girl’s voice came up from the depths of the basement:

“Yes, m’sieu — what is it?”

“Where is your Miss’es?”

“Madame is upstairs with M’sieu Jean.”

Then he shouted, looking up at the higher floor: “Louise!”

Mme. Roland half opened her door and answered:

“What is it, my dear?”

“Are we to have nothing to eat today, hang it all!”

“Yes, my dear, I am coming.”

And she went down, followed by Jean.

Roland, as soon as he saw him, exclaimed:

“Hallo! There you are! Sick of your home already?”

“No, father, but I had something to talk over with mother this morning.”

Jean went forward holding out his hand, and when he felt his fingers in the old man’s fatherly clasp, a strange, unforeseen emotion thrilled through him, and a sense as of parting and farewell without return.

Mme. Roland asked:

“Pierre is not come down?”

Her husband shrugged his shoulders:

“No, but never mind him; he is always behind hand. We will begin without him.”

She turned to Jean:

“You had better go to call him, my child; it hurts his feelings if we do not wait for him.”

“Yes, mother. I will go.”

And the young man went. He mounted the stairs with the fevered determination of a man who is about to fight a duel and who is in a fright. When he knocked at the door Pierre said:

“Come in.”

He went in. The elder was writing, leaning over his table.

“Good morning,” said Jean.

Pierre rose.

“Good morning,” and they shook hands as if nothing had occurred.

“Are you not coming down to breakfast?”

“Well — you see — I have a good deal to do.” The elder brother’s voice was tremulous, and his anxious eye asked his younger brother what he meant to do.

“They are waiting for you.”

“Oh! There is — is my mother down?”

“Yes, it was she who sent me to fetch you.”

“Ah, very well; then I will come.”

At the door of the dining-room he paused, doubtful about going in first; then he abruptly opened the door and saw his father and mother seated at the table opposite each other.

He went straight up to her without looking at her or saying a word, and bending over her offered his forehead for her to kiss, as he had done for some time past, instead of kissing her on both cheeks as of old. He supposed that she put her lips near, but he did not feel them on his brow, and he straightened himself with a throbbing heart after this feint of a caress. And he wondered:

“What did they say to each other after I had left?”

Jean constantly addressed her tenderly as “mother,” or “dear mother,” took care of her, waited on her, and poured out her wine.

Then Pierre understood that they had wept together, but he could not read their minds. Did Jean believe in his mother’s guilt, or think his brother a base wretch?

And all his self-reproach for having uttered the horrible thing came upon him again, choking his throat and his tongue, and preventing his either eating or speaking.

He was now a prey to an intolerable desire to fly, to leave the house which was his home no longer, and these persons who were bound to him by such imperceptible ties. He would gladly have been off that moment, no matter whither, feeling that everything was over, that he could not endure to stay with them, that his presence was torture to them, and that they would bring on him incessant suffering too great to endure. Jean was talking, chatting with Roland. Pierre, as he did not listen, did not hear. But he presently was aware of a pointed tone in his brother’s voice and paid more attention to his words. Jean was saying:

“She will be the finest ship in their fleet. They say she is of 6,500 tons. She is to make her first trip next month.”

Roland was amazed.

“So soon? I thought she was not to be ready for sea this summer.”

“Yes. The work has been pushed forward very vigorously, to get her through her first voyage before the autumn. I looked in at the Company’s office this morning, and was talking with one of the directors.”

“Indeed! Which of them?”

“M. Marchand, who is a great friend of the Chairman of the Board.”

“Oh! Do you know him?”

“Yes. And I wanted to ask him a favor.”

“Then you will get me leave to go over every part of the Lorraine as soon as she comes into port?”

“To be sure, nothing can be easier.”

Then Jean seemed to hesitate, to be weighing his words, and to want to lead up to a difficult subject. He went on:

“On the whole, life is very endurable on board those great Transatlantic liners. More than half the time is spent on shore in two splendid cities — New York and Havre; and the remainder at sea with delightful company. In fact, very pleasant acquaintances are sometimes made among the passengers, and very useful in after-life — yes, really very useful. Only think, the captain, with his perquisites on coal, can make as much as twenty-five thousand francs a year or more.”

Roland muttered an oath followed by a whistle, which testified to his deep respect both for the sum and the captain.

Jean went on:

“The purser makes as much as ten thousand, and the doctor has a fixed salary of five thousand, with lodgings, keep, light, firing, service, and everything, which makes it up to ten thousand at least. That is very good pay.”

Pierre, raising his eyes, met his brother’s and understood.

Then, after some hesitation, he asked:

“Is it very hard to get a place as medical man on board a Transatlantic liner?”

“Yes — and no. It all depends on circumstances and recommendation.”

There was a long pause; then the doctor began again.

“Next month, you say, the Lorraine is to sail?”

“Yes. On the 7th.”

And they said no more.

Pierre was considering. It certainly would be a way out of many difficulties if he could embark as medical officer on board the steamship. By-and-by he could see; he might perhaps give it up. Meanwhile he would be gaining a living, and asking for nothing from his parents. Only two days since he had been forced to sell his watch, for he would no longer hold out his hand to beg of his mother. So he had no other resource left, no opening to enable him to eat the bread of any house but this which had become uninhabitable, or sleep in any other bed, or under any other roof. He presently said with some little hesitation:

“If I could, I would very gladly sail in her.”

Jean asked:

“What should hinder you?”

“I know no one in the Transatlantic Shipping Company.”

Roland was astounded:

“And what has become of all your fine schemes for getting on?”

Pierre replied in a low voice:

“There are times when we must bring ourselves to sacrifice everything and renounce our fondest hopes. And after all it is only to make a beginning, a way of saving a few thousand francs to start fair with afterward.”

His father was promptly convinced.

“That is very true. In a couple of years you can put by six or seven thousand francs, and that well laid out, will go a long way. What do you think of the matter, Louise?”

She replied in a voice so low as to be scarcely audible:

“I think Pierre is right.”

Roland exclaimed:

“I will go and talk it over with M. Poulin; I know him very well. He is assessor of the Chamber of Commerce and takes an interest in the affairs of the Company. There is M. Lenient, too, the ship-owner, who is intimate with one of the vice-chairmen.”

Jean asked his brother:

“Would you like me to feel my way with M. Marchand at once?”

“Yes, I should be very glad.”

After thinking a few minutes, Pierre added:

“The best thing I can do, perhaps, will be to write to my professors at the College of Medicine who had a great regard for me. Very inferior men are sometimes shipped on board those vessels. Letters of strong recommendation from such professors as Mas–Roussel, Rémusot, Flache, and Borriquel would do more for me in an hour than all the doubtful introductions in the world. It would be enough if your friend M. Marchand would lay them before the board.”

Jean approved heartily.

“Your idea is really capital.” And he smiled, quite reassured, almost happy, sure of success and incapable of allowing himself to be unhappy for long.

“You will write today?” he said.

“Directly. Now; at once. I will go and do so. I do not care for any coffee this morning; I am too nervous.”

He rose and left the room.

Then Jean turned to his mother:

“And you, mother, what are you going to do?”

“Nothing. I do not know.”

“Will you come with me to call on Mme. Rosémilly?”

“Why, yes — yes.”

“You know I must positively go to see her today.”

“Yes, yes. To be sure.”

“Why must you positively?” asked Roland, whose habit it was never to understand what was said in his presence.

“Because I promised her I would.”

“Oh, very well. That alters the case.” And he began to fill his pipe, while the mother and son went upstairs to make ready.

When they were in the street Jean said:

“Will you take my arm, mother?”

He was never accustomed to offer it, for they were in the habit of walking side by side. She accepted, and leaned on him.

For some time they did not speak; then he said:

“You see that Pierre is quite ready and willing to go away.”

She murmured:

“Poor boy.”

“But why ‘poor boy’? He will not be in the least unhappy on board the Lorraine!”

“No — I know. But I was thinking of so many things.”

And she thought for a long time, her head bent, accommodating her step to her son’s; then, in the peculiar voice in which we sometimes give utterance to the conclusion of long and secret meditations, she exclaimed:

“How horrible life is! If by any chance we come across any sweetness in it, we sin in letting ourselves be happy, and pay dearly for it afterward.”

He said in a whisper:

“Do not speak of that any more, mother.”

“Is that possible? I think of nothing else.”

“You will forget it.”

Again she was silent; then with deep regret she said:

“How happy I might have been, married to another man.”

She was visiting it on Roland now, throwing all the responsibility of her sin on his ugliness, his stupidity, his clumsiness, the heaviness of his intellect, and the vulgarity of his person. It was to this that it was owing that she had betrayed him, had driven one son to desperation, and had been forced to utter to the other the most agonizing confession that can make a mother’s heart bleed. She muttered: “It is so frightful for a young girl to have to marry such a husband as mine.”

Jean made no reply. He was thinking of the man he had hitherto believed to be his father; and possibly the vague notion he had long since conceived, of that father’s inferiority, with his brother’s constant irony, the scornful indifference of others, and the very maid-servant’s contempt for Roland, had somewhat prepared his mind for his mother’s terrible avowal. It had all made it less dreadful to him to find that he was another man’s son; and if, after the great shock and agitation of the previous evening, he had not suffered the reaction of rage, indignation, and rebellion which Mme. Roland had feared, it was because he had long been unconsciously chafing under the sense of being the child of this well-meaning lout.

They had now reached the dwelling of Mme. Rosémilly.

She lived on the road to Sainte–Adresse, on the second floor of a large tenement which she owned. The windows commanded a view of the whole roadstead.

On seeing Mme. Roland, who entered first, instead of merely holding out her hands as usual, she put her arms round her and kissed her, for she divined the purpose of her visit.

The furniture of this drawing-room, all in stamped velvet, was always shrouded in chair-covers. The walls, hung with flowered paper, were graced by four engravings, the purchase of her late husband, the captain. They represented sentimental scenes of seafaring life. In the first, a fisherman’s wife was seen, waving a handkerchief on shore, while the vessel which bore away her husband vanished on the horizon. In the second, the same woman on her knees on the same shore, under a sky shot with lightning, wrung her arms as she gazed into the distance at her husband’s boat, which was going to the bottom amid impossible waves.

The others represented similar scenes in a higher rank of society. A young lady with fair hair, resting her elbows on the edge of a large steamship quitting the shore, gazed at the already distant coast with eyes full of tears and regret. Whom is she leaving behind?

Then the same young lady sitting by an open window with a view of the sea, had fainted in an armchair; a letter she had dropped lay at her feet. So he is dead! What despair!

Visitors were generally much moved and charmed by the commonplace pathos of these obvious and sentimental works. They were at once intelligible without question or explanation, and the poor women were to be pitied, though the nature of the grief of the more elegant of the two was not precisely known. But this very doubt contributed to the sentiment. She had, no doubt, lost her lover. On entering the room the eye was immediately attracted to these four pictures, and riveted as if fascinated. If it wandered it was only to return and contemplate the four expressions on the faces of the two women, who were as like each other as two sisters. And the very style of these works, in their shining frames, crisp, sharp, and highly finished, with the elegance of a fashion plate, suggested a sense of cleanliness and propriety which was confirmed by the rest of the fittings. The seats were always in precisely the same order, some against the wall and some round the circular center-table. The immaculately white curtains hung in such straight and regular pleats that one longed to crumple them a little; and never did a grain of dust rest on the shade under which the gilt clock, in the taste of the first empire — a terrestrial globe supported by Atlas on his knees — looked like a melon left there to ripen.

The two women as they sat down somewhat altered the normal position of their chairs.

“You have not been out this morning?” asked Mme. Roland.

“No. I must own to being rather tired.”

And she spoke as if in gratitude to Jean and his mother, of all the pleasure she had derived from the expedition and the prawn-fishing.

“I ate my prawns this morning,” she added, “and they were excellent. If you felt inclined we might go again one of these days.”

The young man interrupted her:

“Before we start on a second fishing excursion, suppose we complete the first?”

“Complete it? It seems to me quite finished.”

“Nay, madame, I, for my part, caught something on the rocks of Saint Jouin which I am anxious to carry home with me.”

She put on an innocent and knowing look.

“You? What can it be? What can you have found?”

“A wife. And my mother and I have come to ask you whether she has changed her mind this morning.”

She smiled: “No, monsieur. I never change my mind.”

And then he held out his hand, wide open, and she put hers into it with a quick, determined movement. Then he said: “As soon as possible, I hope.”

“As soon as you like.”

“In six weeks?”

“I have no opinion. What does my future mother-inlaw say?”

Mme. Roland replied with a rather melancholy smile:

“I? Oh, I can say nothing. I can only thank you for having accepted Jean, for you will make him very happy.”

“We will do our best, mamma.”

Somewhat overcome, for the first time, Mme. Rosémilly rose, and throwing her arms round Mme. Roland, kissed her a long time as a child of her own might have done; and under this new embrace the poor woman’s sick heart swelled with deep emotion. She could not have expressed the feeling; it was at once sad and sweet. She had lost her son, her big boy, but in return she had found a daughter, a grown-up daughter.

When they faced each other again, and were seated, they took hands and remained so, looking at each other and smiling, while they seemed to have forgotten Jean.

Then they discussed a number of things which had to be thought of in view of an early marriage, and when everything was settled and decided Mme. Rosémilly seemed suddenly to remember a further detail and asked: “You have consulted M. Roland, I suppose?”

A flush of color mounted at the same instant to the face of both mother and son. It was the mother who replied:

“Oh, no, it is quite unnecessary!” Then she hesitated, feeling that some explanation was needed, and added: “We do everything without saying anything to him. It is enough to tell him what we have decided on.”

Mme. Rosémilly, not in the least surprised, only smiled, taking it as a matter of course, for the good man counted for so little.

When Mme. Roland was in the street again with her son she said:

“Suppose we go to your rooms for a little while. I should be glad to rest.”

She felt herself homeless, shelterless, her own house being a terror to her.

They went into Jean’s apartments.

As soon as the door was closed upon her she heaved a deep sigh, as if that bolt had placed her in safety, but then, instead of resting as she had said, she began to open the cupboards, to count the piles of linen, the pocket handkerchiefs, and socks. She changed the arrangement to place them in more harmonious order, more pleasing to her housekeeper’s eye; and when she had put everything to her mind, laying out the towels, the shirts, and the drawers on their several shelves and dividing all the linen into three principal classes, body-linen, household linen, and table-linen, she drew back and contemplated the results, and called out:

“Come here, Jean, and see how nice it looks.”

He went and admired it to please her.

On a sudden, when he had sat down again, she came softly up behind his armchair, and putting her right arm round his neck she kissed him, while she laid on the chimney shelf a small packet wrapped in white paper which she held in the other hand.

“What is that?” he asked. Then, as she made no reply, he understood, recognizing the shape of the frame.

“Give it to me!” he said.

She pretended not to hear him, and went back to the linen cupboards. He got up hastily, took the melancholy relic, and going across the room, put it in the drawer of his writing table which he locked and doubled locked. She wiped away a tear with the tip of her finger, and said in a rather quavering voice: “Now I am going to see whether your new servant keeps the kitchen in good order. As she is out I can look into everything and make sure.”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11