Une Vie, by Guy de Maupassant

Chapter 14

Light at Eventide

Jeanne never went out now, never stirred about. She rose at the same hour every day, looked out at the weather and then went downstairs and sat before the parlor fire.

She would remain for days motionless, gazing into the fire, thinking of nothing in particular. It would grow dark before she stirred, except to put a fresh log on the fire. Rosalie would then bring in the lamp and exclaim: “Come, Madame Jeanne, you must stir about or you will have no appetite again this evening.”

She lived over the past, haunted by memories of her early life and her wedding journey down yonder in Corsica. Forgotten landscapes in that isle now rose before her in the blaze of the fire, and she recalled all the little details, all the little incidents, the faces she had seen down there. The head of the guide, Jean Ravoli, haunted her, and she sometimes seemed to hear his voice.

Then she remembered the sweet years of Paul’s childhood, when they planted salad together and when she knelt in the thick grass beside Aunt Lison, each trying what they could do to please the child, and her lips murmured: “Poulet, my little Poulet,” as though she were talking to him. Stopping at this word, she would try to trace it, letter by letter, in space, sometimes for hours at a time, until she became confused and mixed up the letters and formed other words, and she became so nervous that she was almost crazy.

She had all the peculiarities of those who live a solitary life. The least thing out of its usual place irritated her.

Rosalie often obliged her to walk and took her on the high road, but at the end of twenty minutes she declared she could not take another step and sat down on the side of the road.

She soon became averse to all movement and stayed in bed as late as possible. Since her childhood she had retained one custom, that of rising the instant she had drunk her café au lait in the morning. But now she would lie down again and begin to dream, and as she was daily growing more lazy, Rosalie would come and oblige her to get up and almost force her to get dressed.

She seemed no longer to have any will power, and each time the maid asked her a question or wanted her advice or opinion she would say: “Do as you think best, my girl.”

She imagined herself pursued by some persistent ill luck and was like an oriental fatalist, and having seen her dreams all fade away and her hopes crushed, she would sometimes hesitate a whole day or longer before undertaking the simplest thing, for fear she might be on the wrong road and it would turn out badly. She kept repeating: “Talk of bad luck — I have never had any luck in life.”

Then Rosalie would say: “What would you do if you had to work for your living, if you were obliged to get up every morning at six o’clock to go out to your work? Many people have to do that, nevertheless, and when they grow too old they die of want.”

Jeanne replied: “Remember that I am all alone; that my son has deserted me.” And Rosalie would get very angry: “That’s another thing! Well, how about the sons who are drafted into the army and those who go to America?”

America to her was an undefined country, where one went to make a fortune and whence one never returned. She continued: “There always comes a time when people have to part, for old people and young people are not made to live together.” And she added fiercely: “Well, what would you say if he were dead?”

Jeanne had nothing more to say.

One day in spring she had gone up to the loft to look for something and by chance opened a box containing old calendars which had been preserved after the manner of some country folks.

She took them up and carried them downstairs. They were of all sizes, and she laid them out on the table in the parlor in regular order. Suddenly she spied the earliest, the one she had brought with her to “The Poplars.” She gazed at it for some time, at the days crossed off by her the morning she left Rouen, the day after she left the convent, and she wept slow, sorrowful tears, the tears of an old woman at sight of her wretched life spread out before her on this table.

One morning the maid came into her room earlier than usual, and placing the bowl of café au lait on the little stand beside her bed, she said: “Come, drink it quickly. Denis is waiting for us at the door. We are going to ‘The Poplars,’ for I have something to attend to down there.”

Jeanne dressed herself with trembling hands, almost fainting at the thought of seeing her dear home once more.

The sky was cloudless and the nag, who was inclined to be frisky, would suddenly start off at a gallop every now and then. As they entered the commune of Étouvent Jeanne’s heart beat so that she could hardly breathe.

They unharnessed the horse at the Couillard place, and while Rosalie and her son were attending to their own affairs, the farmer and his wife offered to let Jeanne go over the chateau, as the proprietor was away and they had the keys.

She went off alone, and when she reached the side of the chateau from which there was a view of the sea she turned round to look. Nothing had changed on the outside. When she turned the heavy lock and went inside the first thing she did was to go up to her old room, which she did not recognize, as it had been newly papered and furnished. But the view from the window was the same, and she stood and gazed out at the landscape she had so loved.

She then wandered all over the house, walking quietly all alone in this silent abode as though it were a cemetery. All her life was buried here. She went down to the drawing-room, which was dark with its closed shutters. As her eyes became accustomed to the dim light she recognized some of the old hangings. Two easy chairs were drawn up before the fire, as if some one had just left them, and as Jeanne stood there, full of old memories, she suddenly seemed to see her father and mother sitting there, warming their feet at the fire.

She started back in terror and knocked up against the edge of the door, against which she leaned to support herself, still staring at the armchairs.

The vision had vanished.

She remained bewildered for some minutes. Then she slowly recovered her composure and started to run away, for fear she might become insane. She chanced to look at the door against which she had been leaning and saw there “Poulet’s ladder.”

All the little notches were there showing the age and growth of her child. Here was the baron’s writing, then hers, a little smaller, and then Aunt Lison’s rather shaky characters. And she seemed to see her boy of long ago with his fair hair standing before her, leaning his little forehead against the door while they measured his height.

And she kissed the edge of the door in a frenzy of affection.

But some one was calling her outside. It was Rosalie’s voice: “Madame Jeanne, Madame Jeanne, they are waiting breakfast for you.” She went out in a dream and understood nothing of what they were saying to her. She ate what they gave her, heard them talking, but about what she knew not, let them kiss her on the cheeks and kissed them in return and then got into the carriage.

When they lost sight of the château behind the tall trees she felt a wrench at her heart, convinced that she had bid a last farewell to her old home.

When they reached Batteville and just as she was going into her new house, she saw something white under the door. It was a letter that the postman had slipped under the door while she was out. She recognized Paul’s writing and opened it, trembling with anxiety. He wrote:

“My Dear Mother: I have not written sooner because I did not wish you to make a useless journey to Paris when it was my place to go and see you. I am just now in great sorrow and in great straits. My wife is dying after giving birth to a little girl three days ago, and I have not one sou. I do not know what to do with the child, whom my janitor’s wife is bringing up on the bottle as well as she can, but I fear I shall lose her. Could you not take charge of it? I absolutely do not know what to do, and I have no money to put her out to nurse. Answer by return mail.

“Your son, who loves you,

“Paul.”

Jeanne sank into a chair and had scarcely strength to call Rosalie. When the maid came into the room they read the letter over together and then remained silent for some time, face to face.

At last Rosalie said: “I am going to fetch the little one, madame. We cannot leave it like that.”

“Go, my girl,” replied Jeanne.

Then they were silent until the maid said: “Put on your hat, madame, and we will go to Goderville to see the lawyer. If she is going to die, the other one, M. Paul must marry her for the little one’s sake later on.”

Jeanne, without replying, put on her hat. A deep, inexpressible joy filled her heart, a treacherous joy that she sought to hide at any cost, one of those things of which one is ashamed, although cherishing it in one’s soul — her son’s sweetheart was going to die.

The lawyer gave the servant minute instructions, making her repeat them several times. Then, sure that she could make no mistake, she said: “Do not be afraid. I will see to it now.”

She set out for Paris that very night.

Jeanne passed two days in such a troubled condition that she could not think. The third morning she received merely a line from Rosalie saying she would be back on the evening train. That was all.

About three o’clock she drove in a neighbor’s light wagon to the station at Beuzeville to meet Rosalie.

She stood on the platform, looking at the railroad track as it disappeared on the horizon. She looked at the clock. Ten minutes still — five minutes still — two minutes more. Then the hour of the train’s arrival, but it was not in sight. Presently, however, she saw a cloud of white smoke and gradually it drew up in the station. She looked anxiously and at last perceived Rosalie carrying a sort of white bundle in her arms.

She wanted to go over toward her, but her knees seemed to grow weak and she was afraid of falling.

But the maid had seen her and came forward with her usual calm manner and said: “How do you do, madame? Here I am back again, but not without some difficulty.”

“Well?” faltered Jeanne.

“Well,” answered Rosalie, “she died last night. They were married and here is the little girl.” And she held out the child, who could not be seen under her wraps.

Jeanne took it mechanically and they left the station and got into the carriage.

“M. Paul will come as soon as the funeral is over — to-morrow about this time, I believe,” resumed Rosalie.

Jeanne murmured “Paul” and then was silent.

The wagon drove along rapidly, the peasant clacking his tongue to urge on the horse. Jeanne looked straight ahead of her into the clear sky through which the swallows darted in curves. Suddenly she felt a gentle warmth striking through to her skin; it was the warmth of the little being who was asleep on her lap.

Then she was overcome with an intense emotion, and uncovering gently the face of the sleeping infant, she raised it to her lips and kissed it passionately.

But Rosalie, happy though grumpy, stopped her; “Come, come, Madame Jeanne, stop that; you will make it cry.”

And then she added, probably in answer to her own thoughts: “Life, after all, is not as good or as bad as we believe it to be.”

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