Strong as Death, by Guy de Maupassant

Part II

Chapter I

A Willing Envoy

“Paris, July 20, 11 P. M.

“MY FRIEND: My mother has just died at Roncieres. We shall leave

here at midnight. Do not come, for we have told no one. But pity
me and think of me. YOUR ANY.”

“July 21, 12 M.

“MY POOR FRIEND: I should have gone, notwithstanding what you

wrote, if I had not become used to regarding all your wishes as
commands. I have thought of you with poignant grief ever since
last night. I think of that silent journey you made, sitting
opposite your daughter and your husband, in that dimly-lighted
carriage, which bore you toward your dead. I could see all three
of you under the oil lamp, you weeping and Annette sobbing. I saw
your arrival at the station, the entrance of the castle in the
midst of a group of servants, your rush up the stairs toward that
room, toward that bed where she lies, your first look at her, and
your kiss on her thin, motionless face. And I thought of your
heart, your poor heart — that poor heart, of which half belongs to
me and which is breaking, which suffers so much, which stifles
you, making me suffer also at this moment.

“With profound pity, I kiss your eyes filled with tears.

“OLIVIER.”

“Roncieres, July 24.

“Your letter would have done me good, my friend, if anything could

do me good in the horrible situation into which I have fallen. We
buried her yesterday, and since her poor lifeless body has gone
out of this house it seems to me that I am alone in the world. We
love our mothers almost without knowing or feeling it, for such
love is as natural as it is to live, and we do not realize how
deep-rooted is that love until the moment of final separation. No
other affection is comparable to that, for all others come by
chance, while this begins at birth; all the others are brought to
us later by the accidents of life, while this has lived in our
very blood since our first day on earth. And then, and there, we
have lost not only a mother but our childhood itself, which half
disappears, for our little life of girlhood belonged to her as
much as to ourselves. She alone knew it as we knew it; she knew
about innumerable things, remote, insignificant and dear, which
are and which were the first sweet emotions of our heart. To her
alone I could still say: “Do you remember, mother, the day when —?
Do you remember, mother, the china doll that grandmother gave me?”
Both of us murmured to each other a long, sweet chapter of
trifling childish memories, which no one on earth now knows of but
me. So it is a part of myself that is dead — the older, the better.
I have lost the poor heart wherein the little girl I was once
still lived. Now no one knows her any more; no one remembers the
little Anne, her short skirts, her laughter and her faces.

“And a day will come — and perhaps it is not far away — when in my

turn I too shall go, leaving my dear Annette alone in the world,
as mamma has left me to-day. How sad all this is, how hard, and
cruel! Yet one never thinks about it; we never look about us to
see death take someone every instant, as it will soon take us. If
we should look at it, if we should think of it, if we were not
distracted, rejoiced, or blinded by all that passes before us, we
could no longer live, for the sight of this endless massacre would
drive us mad.

“I am so crushed, so despairing, that I have no longer strength to

do anything. Day and night I think of my poor mamma, nailed in
that box, buried beneath that earth, in that field, under the
rain, whose old face, which I used to kiss with so much happiness,
is now only a mass of frightful decay! Oh, what horror!

“When I lost papa, I was just married, and I did not feel all these

things as I do to-day. Yes, pity me, think of me, write to me. I
need you so much just now.

“ANNE.”

“Paris, July 25.

“MY POOR FRIEND: Your grief gives me horrible pain, and life no

longer seems rosy to me. Since your departure I am lost,
abandoned, without ties or refuge. Everything fatigues me, bores
me and irritates me. I am ceaselessly thinking of you and Annette;
I feel that you are both far, far away when I need you near me so
much.

“It is extraordinary how far away from me you seem to be, and how I

miss you. Never, even in my younger days, have you been my all,
as you are at this moment. I have foreseen for some time that I
should reach this crisis, which must be a sun-stroke in Indian
summer. What I feel is so very strange that I wish to tell you
about it. Just fancy that since your absence I cannot take walks
any more! Formerly, and even during the last few months, I liked
very much to set out alone and stroll along the street, amusing
myself by looking at people and things, and enjoying the mere
sight of everything and the exercise of walking. I used to walk
along without knowing where I was going, simply to walk, to
breathe, to dream. Now, I can no longer do this. As soon as I
reach the street I am oppressed by anguish, like the fear of a
blind man that has lost his dog. I become uneasy, exactly like a
traveler that has lost his way in the wood, and I am compelled to
return home. Paris seems empty, frightful, alarming. I ask myself:
‘Where am I going?’ I answer myself: ‘Nowhere, since I am still
walking.’ Well, I cannot, for I can no longer walk without some
aim. The bare thought of walking straight before me wearies and
bores me inexpressibly. Then I drag my melancholy to the club.

“And do you know why? Only because you are no longer here. I am

certain of this. When I know that you are in Paris, my walks are
no longer useless, for it is possible that I may meet you in the
first street I turn into. I can go anywhere because you may go
anywhere. If I do not see you, I may at least find Annette, who is
an emanation of yourself. You and she fill the streets full of
hope for me — the hope of recognizing you, whether you approach me
from a distance, or whether I divine your identity in following
you. And then the city becomes charming to me, and the women whose
figures resemble yours stir my heart with all the liveliness of
the streets, hold my attention, occupy my eyes, and give me a sort
of hunger to see you.

“You will consider me very selfish, my poor friend, to speak to you

in this way of the solitude of an old cooing pigeon when you are
shedding such bitter tears. Pardon me! I am so used to being
spoiled by you that I cry ‘Help! Help!’ when I have you no longer.

“I kiss your feet so that you may have pity on me.

“OLIVIER.”

“Roncieres, July 30.

“MY FRIEND: Thanks for your letter. I need so much to know that you

love me! I have just passed some frightful days. Indeed, I
believed that grief would kill me in my turn.

“It was like a block of suffering in my breast, growing larger and

larger, stifling me, strangling me. The physician that was called
to treat me for the nervous crisis I was enduring, which recurred
four or five times a day, injected morphine, which made me almost
wild, and the great heat we have had aggravated my condition and
threw me into a state of over-excitement that was almost delirium.
I am a little more calm since the great storm of Friday. I must
tell you that since the day of the funeral I could weep no more,
but during the storm, the approach of which upset me, I suddenly
felt the tears beginning to flow from my eyes, slow, small,
burning. Oh, those first tears, how they hurt me! They seemed to
tear me, as if they had claws, and my throat was so choked that I
could hardly breathe. Then the tears came faster, larger, cooler.
They ran from my eyes as from a spring, and came so fast that my
handkerchief was saturated and I had to take another. The great
block of grief seemed to soften and to flow away through my eyes.

“From that moment I have been weeping from morning till night, and

that is saving me. One would really end by going mad or dying, if
one could not weep. I am all alone, too. My husband is making some
little trips around the country, and I insisted that he should
take Annette with him, to distract and console her a little. They
go in the carriage or on horseback as far as eight or ten leagues
from Roncieres, and she returns to me rosy with youth, in spite of
her sadness, her eyes shining with life, animated by the country
air and the excursion she has had. How beautiful it is to be at
that age! I think that we shall remain here a fortnight or three
weeks longer; then, although it will be August, we shall return to
Paris for the reason you know.

“I send to you all that remains to me of my heart.

“ANY.”

“Paris, August 4th.

“I can bear this no longer, my dear friend; you must come back, for

something is certainly going to happen to me. I ask myself whether
I am not already ill, so great a dislike have I for everything I
used to take pleasure in doing, or did with indifferent
resignation. For one thing, it is so warm in Paris that every
night means a Turkish bath of eight or nine hours. I get up
overcome by the fatigue of this sleep in a hot bath, and for an
hour or two I walk about before a white canvas, with the intention
to draw something. But mind, eye, and hand are all empty. I am no
longer a painter! This futile effort to work is exasperating. I
summon my models; I place them, and they give me poses, movements,
and expressions that I have painted to satiety. I make them dress
again and let them go. Indeed, I can no longer see anything new,
and I suffer from this as if I were blind. What is it? Is it
fatigue of the eye or of the brain, exhaustion of the artistic
faculty or of the optic nerve? Who knows? It seems to me that I
have ceased to discover anything in the unexplored corner that I
have been permitted to visit. I no longer perceive anything but
that which all the world knows; I do the things that all poor
painters have done; I have only one subject now, and only the
observation of a vulgar pedant. Once upon a time, and not so very
long ago, either, the number of new subjects seemed to me
unlimited, and in order to express them I had such a variety of
means the difficulty of making a choice made me hesitate. But now,
alas! Suddenly the world of half-seen subjects has become
depopulated, my study has become powerless and useless. The people
that pass have no more sense for me. I no longer find in every
human being the character and savor which once I liked so much to
discern and reveal. I believe, however, that I could make a very
pretty portrait of your daughter. Is it because she resembles you
so much that I confound you both in my mind? Yes, perhaps.

“Well, then, after forcing myself to sketch a man or a woman who

does not resemble any of the familiar models, I decide to go and
breakfast somewhere, for I no longer have the courage to sit down
alone in my own dining-room. The Boulevard Malesherbes seems like
a forest path imprisoned in a dead city. All the houses smell
empty. On the street the sprinklers throw showers of white rain,
splashing the wooden pavement whence rises the vapor of damp tar
and stable refuse; and from one end to the other of the long
descent from the Parc Monceau to Saint Augustin, one sees five or
six black forms, unimportant passers, tradesmen or domestics. The
shade of the plane-trees spreads over the burning sidewalks,
making a curious spot, looking almost like liquid, as if water
spilled there were drying. The stillness of the leaves on the
branches, and of their gray silhouettes on the asphalt, expresses
the fatigue of the roasted city, slumbering and perspiring like a
workman asleep on a bench in the sun. Yes, she perspires, the
beggar, and she smells frightfully through her sewer mouths, the
vent-holes of sinks and kitchens, the streams through which the
filth of her streets is running. Then I think of those summer
mornings in your orchard full of little wild-flowers that flavor
the air with a suggestion of honey. Then I enter, sickened
already, the restaurant where bald, fat, tired-looking men are
eating, with half-opened waistcoats and moist, shining foreheads.
The food shows the effect of heat — the melon growing soft under
the ice, the soft bread, the flabby filet, the warmed-over
vegetables, the purulent cheese, the fruits ripened on the
premises. I go out, nauseated, and go home to try to sleep a
little until the hour for dinner, which I take at the club.

“There I always find Adelmans, Maldant, Rocdiane, Landa, and many

others, who bore and weary me as much as hand-organs. Each one has
his own little tune, or tunes, which I have heard for fifteen
years, and they play them all together every evening in that club,
which is apparently a place where one goes to be entertained.
Someone should change my own generation for my benefit, for my
eyes, my ears, and my mind have had enough of it. They still make
conquests, however, they boast of them and congratulate one
another on them!

“After yawning as many times as there are minutes between eight

o’clock and midnight, I go home and go to bed, and while I undress
I think that the same thing will begin over again the next day.

“Yes, my dear friend, I am at the age when a bachelor’s life

becomes intolerable, because there is nothing new for me under the
sun. An unmarried man should be young, curious, eager. When one is
no longer all that, it becomes dangerous to remain free. Heavens!
how I loved my liberty, long ago, before I loved you more! How
burdensome it is to me to-day! For an old bachelor like me,
liberty is an empty thing, empty everywhere; it is the path to
death, with nothing in himself to prevent him from seeing the end;
it is the ceaseless query: ‘What shall I do? Whom can I go to see,
so that I shall not be alone?’ And I go from one friend to
another, from one handshake to the next, begging for a little
friendship. I gather up my crumbs, but they do not make a loaf.
You, I have You, my friend, but you do not belong to me. Perhaps
it is because of you that I suffer this anguish, for it is the
desire for contact with you, for your presence, for the same roof
over our heads, for the same walls inclosing our lives, the same
interests binding our hearts together, the need of that community
of hopes, griefs, pleasures, joys, sadness, and also of material
things, that fills me with so much yearning. You do belong to me —
that is to say, I steal a little of you from time to time. But I
long to breathe forever the same air that you breathe, to share
everything with you, to possess nothing that does not belong to
both of us, to feel that all which makes up my own life belongs to
you as much as to me — the glass from which I drink, the chair on
which I sit, the bread I eat and the fire that warms me.

“Adieu! Return soon. I suffer too much when you are far away.

“OLIVIER.”

“Roncieres, August 8th.

“MY FRIEND: I am ill, and so fatigued that you would not recognize

me at all. I believe that I have wept too much. I must rest a
little before I return, for I do not wish you to see me as I am.
My husband sets out for Paris the day after to-morrow, and will
give you news of us. He expects to take you to dinner somewhere,
and charges me to ask you to wait for him at your house about
seven o’clock.

“As for me, as soon as I feel a little better, as soon as I have no

more this corpse-like face which frightens me, I will return to be
near you. In all the world, I have only Annette and you, and I
wish to offer to each of you all that I can give without robbing
the other.

“I hold out my eyes, which have wept so much, so that you may kiss

them.

“ANY.”

When he received this letter announcing the still delayed return, Olivier was seized with an immoderate desire to take a carriage for the railway station to catch a train for Roncieres; then, thinking that M. de Guilleroy must return the next day, he resigned himself, and even began to wish for the arrival of the husband with almost as much impatience as if it were that of the wife herself.

Never had he liked Guilleroy as during those twenty-four hours of waiting. When he saw him enter, he rushed toward him, with hands extended, exclaiming:

“Ah, dear friend! how happy I am to see you!”

The other also seemed very glad, delighted above all things to return to Paris, for life was not gay in Normandy during the three weeks he had passed there.

The two men sat down on a little two-seated sofa in a corner of the studio, under a canopy of Oriental stuffs, and again shook hands with mutual sympathy.

“And the Countess?” asked Bertin, “how is she?”

“Not very well. She has been very much affected, and is recovering too slowly. I must confess that I am a little anxious about her.”

“But why does she not return?”

“I know nothing about it. It was impossible for me to induce her to return here.”

“What does she do all day?”

“Oh, heavens! She weeps, and thinks of her mother. That is not good for her. I should like very much to have her decide to have a change of air, to leave the place where that happened, you understand?”

“And Annette?”

“Oh, she is a blooming flower.”

Olivier smiled with joy.

“Was she very much grieved?” he asked again.

“Yes, very much, very much, but you know that the grief of eighteen years does not last long.”

After a silence Guilleroy resumed:

“Where shall we dine, my dear fellow? I need to be cheered up, to hear some noise and see some movement.”

“Well, at this season, it seems to me that the Cafe des Ambassadeurs is the right place.”

So they set out, arm in arm, toward the Champs-Elysees. Guilleroy, filled with the gaiety of Parisians when they return, to whom the city, after every absence, seems rejuvenated and full of possible surprises, questioned the painter about a thousand details of what people had been doing and saying; and Olivier, after indifferent replies which betrayed all the boredom of his solitude, spoke of Roncieres, tried to capture from this man, in order to gather round him that almost tangible something left with us by persons with whom we have recently been associated, that subtle emanation of being one carries away when leaving them, which remains with us a few hours and evaporates amid new surroundings.

The heavy sky of a summer evening hung over the city and over the great avenue where, under the trees, the gay refrains of open-air concerts were beginning to sound. The two men, seated on the balcony of the Cafe des Ambassadeurs, looked down upon the still empty benches and chairs of the inclosure up to the little stage, where the singers, in the mingled light of electric globes and fading day, displayed their striking costumes and their rosy complexions. Odors of frying, of sauces, of hot food, floated in the slight breezes from the chestnut-trees, and when a woman passed, seeing her reserved chair, followed by a man in a black coat, she diffused on her way the fresh perfume of her dress and her person.

Guilleroy, who was radiant, murmured:

“Oh, I like to be here much better than in the country!”

“And I,” Bertin replied, “should like it much better to be there than here.”

“Nonsense!”

“Heavens, yes! I find Paris tainted this summer.”

“Oh, well, my dear fellow, it is always Paris, after all.”

The Deputy seemed to be enjoying his day, one of those rare days of effervescence and gaiety in which grave men do foolish things. He looked at two cocottes dining at a neighboring table with three thin young men, superlatively correct, and he slyly questioned Olivier about all the well-known girls, whose names were heard every day. Then he murmured in a tone of deep regret:

“You were lucky to have remained a bachelor. You can do and see many things.”

But the painter did not agree with him, and, as a man will do when haunted by a persistent idea, he took Guilleroy into his confidence on the subject of his sadness and isolation. When he had said everything, had recited to the end of his litany of melancholy, and, urged by the longing to relieve his heart, had confessed naively how much he would have enjoyed the love and companionship of a woman installed in his home, the Count, in his turn, admitted that marriage had its advantages. Recovering his parliamentary eloquence in order to sing the praises of his domestic happiness, he eulogized the Countess in the highest terms, to which Olivier listened gravely with frequent nods of approval.

Happy to hear her spoken of, but jealous of that intimate happiness which Guilleroy praised as a matter of duty, the painter finally murmured, with sincere conviction:

“Yes, indeed, you were the lucky one!”

The Deputy, flattered, assented to this; then he resumed:

“I should like very much to see her return; indeed, I am a little anxious about her just now. Wait — since you are bored in Paris, you might go to Roncieres and bring her back. She will listen to you, for you are her best friend; while a husband — you know ——”

Delighted, Olivier replied: “I ask nothing better. But do you think it would not annoy her to see me arriving in that abrupt way?”

“No, not at all. Go, by all means, my dear fellow.”

“Well, then, I will. I will leave to-morrow by the one o’clock train. Shall I send her a telegram?”

“No, I will attend to that. I will telegraph, so that you will find a carriage at the station.”

As they had finished dinner, they strolled again up the Boulevard, but in half an hour the Count suddenly left the painter, under the pretext of an urgent affair that he had quite forgotten.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09