Une Vie, by Guy de Maupassant

I

Jeanne, having finished her packing, went to the window, but it had not stopped raining.

All night long the downpour had pattered against the roofs and the window-panes. The low, heavy clouds seemed as though they had burst, and were emptying themselves on the world, to reduce it to a pulp and melt it as though it were a sugar-loaf. A hot wind swept by in gusts; the murmur of the overflowing gutters filled the empty streets, and the houses, like sponges, absorbed the moisture which, penetrating to the interior, made the walls wet from cellar to attic.

Jeanne, who had left the convent the day before, free at last and ready for all the happiness of a life of which she had dreamed for so long, feared that her father would hesitate about starting if the weather did not clear up, and, for the hundredth time since the morning, she studied the horizon.

Looking round, she saw that she had forgotten to put her almanac in her traveling bag. She took from the wall the little card which bore in the center of a design, the date of the current year 1819 in gilt letters, and crossed out with a pencil the first four columns, drawing a line through each saint’s name till she came to the second of May, the day she had left the convent.

A voice outside the door called: “Jeannette!”

Jeanne answered: “Come in, papa.” And her father appeared.

The Baron Simon–Jecques Le Perthuis des Vauds was a gentleman of the old school, eccentric and good-hearted. An enthusiastic follower of Jean–Jacques Rousseau, he had a loving tenderness for all nature; for the fields, the woods, and for animals. An aristocrat by birth, he hated ‘93 by instinct; but of a philosophical temperament and liberal by education, he loathed tyranny with an inoffensive and declamatory hatred. The strongest, and at the same time the weakest, trait in his character was his generosity; a generosity which had not enough arms to caress, to give, to embrace; the generosity of a creator which was utterly devoid of system, and to which he gave way with no attempt to resist his impulses, as though part of his will were paralyzed; it was a want of energy, and almost amounted to a vice.

A man of theories, he had thought out a whole plan of education for his daughter, wishing to make her happy and good, straightforward and affectionate. Till she was twelve years old she had stayed at home; then, in spite of her mother’s tears, she was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent. He had kept her strictly immured there, totally ignorant of worldly things, for he wished her to return to him, at the age of seventeen, innocent, that he might himself immerse her in a sort of bath of rational poetry; and, in the fields, surrounded by the fertile earth, he meant to instruct her, and enlighten her by the sight of the serene laws of life, the innocent loves and the simple tenderness of the animals.

And now she was leaving the convent, radiant and brimful of happiness, ready for every joy and for all the charming adventures that, in the idle moments of her days and during the long nights, she had already pictured to herself.

She looked like a portrait by Veronese, with her shining, fair hair, which looked as though it had given part of its color to her skin, the creamy skin of a high-born girl, hardly tinted with pink and shaded by a soft velvety down, which could just be seen when she was kissed by a sun-ray. Her eyes were blue, an opaque blue, like the eyes of a Dutch china figure. On her left nostril was a little mole, another on the right side of her chin, where curled a few hairs so much like the color of the skin that they could hardly be seen. She was tall, with a well-developed chest and supple waist. Her clear voice sometimes sounded too shrill, but her merry laugh made everyone around her feel happy. She had a way of frequently putting both hands to her forehead, as though to smooth her hair.

She ran to her father, put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

“Well, are we going to start?” she asked.

He smiled, shook back his white hair, which he wore rather long, and pointing towards the window:

“How can you think of traveling in such weather?” he said.

Then she pleaded coaxingly and affectionately, “Oh, papa, please do let us start. It will be fine in the afternoon.”

“But your mother will never consent to it.”

“Oh, yes, I promise you she shall; I will answer for her.”

“Well, if you can persuade your mother, I am quite willing to start.”

She hastened towards the baroness’s room, for she had looked forward to this day with great impatience. Since she had entered the convent she had not left Rouen, as her father would allow no distracting pleasures before the age he had fixed. Only twice had she been taken to Paris for a fortnight, but that was another town, and she longed for the country. Now she was going to spend the summer on their estate, Les Peuples, in an old family château built on the cliff near Yport; and she was looking forward to the boundless happiness of a free life beside the waves. And then it was understood that the manor was to be given to her, and that she was to live there always when she was married; and the rain which had been falling incessantly since the night before was the first real grief of her life.

In three minutes she came running out of her mother’s room, crying:

“Papa! papa! Mamma is quite willing. Tell them to harness the horses.”

The rain had not given over in the least, in fact, it was coming down still faster when the landau came round to the door. Jeanne was ready to jump in when the baroness came down the stairs, supported on one side by her husband, and on the other by a tall maid, whose frame was as strong and as well-knit as a boy’s. She was a Normandy girl from Caux, and looked at least twenty years old, though she really was scarcely eighteen. In the baron’s family she was treated somewhat like a second daughter, for she was Jeanne’s foster-sister. She was named Rosalie, and her principal duty consisted in aiding her mistress to walk, for, within the last few years, the baroness had attained an enormous size, owing to an hypertrophy of the heart, of which she was always complaining.

Breathing very hard, the baroness reached the steps of the old hotel; there she stopped to look at the court-yard where the water was streaming down, and murmured:

“Really, it is not prudent.”

Her husband answered with a smile:

“It was you who wished it, Madame Adélaïde.”

She bore the pompous name of Adélaïde, and he always prefaced it by “Madame” with a certain little look of mock-respect.

She began to move forward again, and with difficulty got into the carriage, all the springs of which bent under her weight. The baron sat by her side, and Jeanne and Rosalie took their places with their backs to the horses. Ludivine, the cook, brought a bundle of rugs, which were thrown over their knees, and two baskets, which were pushed under their legs; then she climbed up beside old Simon and enveloped herself in a great rug, which covered her entirely. The concierge and his wife came to shut the gate and wish them good-bye, and after some parting instructions about the baggage, which was to follow in a cart, the carriage started.

Old Simon, the coachman, with his head held down and his back bent under the rain, could hardly be seen in his three-caped coat; and the moaning wind rattled against the windows and swept the rain along the road.

The horses trotted briskly down to the quay, passed the row of big ships, whose masts and yards and ropes stood out against the gray sky like bare trees, and entered the long Boulevard du Mont Riboudet. Soon they reached the country, and from time to time the outline of a weeping-willow, with its branches hanging in a corpse-like inertness, could be vaguely seen through the watery mist. The horses’ shoes clattered on the road; and the four wheels made regular rings of mud.

Inside the carriage they were silent; their spirits seemed damped, like the earth. The baroness leaned back, rested her head against the cushions, and closed her eyes. The baron looked out mournfully at the monotonous, wet fields, and Rosalie, with a parcel on her knees, sat musing in the animal-like way in which the lower classes indulge. But Jeanne felt herself revive under this warm rain like a plant which is put into the open air after being shut up in a dark closet; and the greatness of her joy seemed to prevent any sadness reaching her heart. Although she did not speak, she wanted to sing and to put her hand outside and drink the water with which it would be filled; and the desolate look of the country only added to the enjoyment she felt at being carried along so swiftly, and at feeling herself sheltered in the midst of this deluge.

Under the ceaseless rain a cloud of steam rose from the backs of the two horses.

The baroness gradually fell asleep; her face, surrounded by six stiff curls, sank lower and lower, though it was partly sustained by the three big waves of her neck, the last curves of which lost themselves in the amplitude of her chest. Her head, raised by each respiration, as regularly sank again; her cheeks puffed out, and from her half-opened lips issued a deep snore. Her husband leaned over towards her and softly placed in her hands, crossed on her ample lap, a leather pocket-book. The touch awoke her, and she looked at the object in her lap with the stupefied look of one suddenly aroused from sleep. The pocket-book fell and opened, and the gold and bank-notes it contained were scattered all over the carriage. That woke her up altogether, and the light-heartedness of her daughter found vent in a burst of laughter.

The baron picked up the money and placed it on her knees.

“There, my dear,” he said. “That is all that is left of the farm at Eletot. I have sold it to pay for the doing up of Les Peuples as we shall live there so much now.”

She counted the six thousand, four hundred francs, and put them quietly into her pocket.

It was the ninth farm that they had sold out of the thirty-one left them by their parents; but they still had about twenty thousand livres a year coming in from property which, well-managed, would have easily brought in thirty thousand francs. As they lived quietly, this income would have been amply sufficient for them, if their lavish generosity had not constantly exhausted their supplies. It drained their money from them as the sun draws water from a swamp. The gold melted, vanished, disappeared. How? No one knew. One of them was always saying: “I don’t know how it is, but I have spent a hundred francs today, and I haven’t anything to show for it.”

To give was one of the great joys of their existence, and they perfectly understood each other on this point in a way that was at once grand and touching.

Jeanne asked: “Is my château looking beautiful now?”

“You will see, my child,” answered the baron, gaily.

Little by little the violence of the storm diminished; soon there was nothing more than a sort of mist, a very fine drizzling rain. The arch of the clouds seemed to get higher and lighter; and suddenly a long oblique sunbeam fell on the fields. Through the break in the clouds a streak of blue sky could be seen, and then the rift got bigger as though a veil were being drawn back, and a beautiful sky of a pure deep blue spread itself out over the world. There was a fresh mild breeze like a happy sigh from the earth, and from the gardens and woods came now and again the merry song of a bird drying his wings.

The evening was drawing in; everyone inside the carriage, except Jeanne, was asleep. Twice they had stopped at an inn, to rest the horses and give them water and corn. The sun had set, and in the distance the bells were ringing; in a little village the lamps were being lighted, and the sky was studded with stars. Sometimes the lights of a homestead could be seen, their rays piercing the darkness; and, all at once among the fir-trees, behind a hill, the large, red, sleepy moon arose.

It was so mild that the windows were left down, and Jeanne, tired of dreaming, and her stock of happy visions exhausted, was now sleeping. Sometimes the numbness caused by resting too long in one position aroused her, and she looked outside and saw the trees fly past her in the clear night, or some cows, lying in a field, raise their heads at the noise of the carriage. Then she settled herself in a fresh position, and tried to continue an interrupted dream, but the continual rumbling of the carriage sounded in her ears, confusing her thoughts, and she shut her eyes again, her mind feeling as tired as her body.

At last the carriage stopped, and men and women came to the doors with lanterns in their hands. They had arrived, and Jeanne, suddenly awakened, sprang out, while her father and Rosalie, lighted by a farmer, almost carried in the baroness; she was quite worn out, and, catching her breath, she kept saying in a weak little voice: “Ah, my children! what shall I do?” She would have nothing to eat or drink, but went to bed and fell asleep at once.

Jeanne and the baron had supper alone. They smiled when their glances met, and, at every moment, took each other’s hands across the table; then, both of them filled with a childish delight, they went over the manor which had just been put in thorough repair.

It was one of those big, high, Normandy houses generally built of white stone which turns gray, and which, large enough to accommodate a regiment, have something of the farm about them as well as the château.

An immense hall, going from end to end, divided the house into two parts, its large doors opening opposite each other. A double staircase bestrode this entrance hall leaving the center empty, and, meeting at the height of the first floor, formed a sort of bridge. On the ground-floor, to the right, was the huge drawing-room hung with tapestry with a design of birds and flowers. All the furniture was in tapestry, the subjects of the designs being taken from La Fontaine’s fables. Jeanne was delighted at recognizing a chair she had liked when she was quite a child, and which represented the history of the Fox and the Stork. The library, full of old books, and two other rooms, which were not used, came next to the drawing-room. On the left were the dining-room, which had been newly wainscoted, the linen-press, the pantry, the kitchen, and a little room with a bath in it.

A corridor ran the whole length of the first story, the ten doors of as many rooms opening on to it, and Jeanne’s room was quite at the end, on the right. The baron had just had it freshly furnished by simply using some hangings and furniture that had been stored away in a garret. Very old Flemish tapestry peopled the room with strange characters, and when she saw the bed Jeanne gave a cry of delight. At the four corners four birds of carved oak, quite black and polished till they shone, supported the bed, looking as though they were its guardians. The sides were decorated with two large garlands of carved flowers and fruit; and the four bed-posts, finely fluted and crowned with Corinthian capitals, supported a cornice of entwined roses and cupids. It was a monumental couch, and yet was very graceful, despite the somber appearance of the wood darkened by age. The counterpane and canopy, made of old dark blue silk, starred here and there with great fleurs de lis embroidered in gold, sparkled like two firmaments.

When she had finished admiring the bed, Jeanne, raising her light, examined the tapestry, trying to discover the subject of the design.

A young nobleman and a young lady, dressed in the strangest way in green, red, and yellow, were talking under a blue tree on which white fruit was ripening. A big rabbit of the same color as the fruit was nibbling a little gray grass. Just above the figures, in a conventional distance, five little round houses with pointed roofs could be seen, and up at the top, nearly in the sky, was a red wind-mill. Great branches of flowers twined in and out over the whole.

The next two panels were very like the first, except that out of the houses came four little men, dressed in Flemish costume, who raised their heads to heaven as if to denote their extreme surprise and anger. But the last set of hangings depicted a drama. Near the rabbit, which was still nibbling, the young man was stretched out, apparently dead. The young lady, with her eyes fixed on him, was thrusting a sword into her breast, and the fruit on the tree had become black.

Jeanne was just giving up trying to understand it when she discovered in a corner a microscopic animal, which the rabbit could have eaten as easily as a blade of grass, and which was meant for a lion. Then she recognized the misfortunes of Pyramis and Thisbe; and, although she smiled at the simplicity of the designs, she felt happy at being surrounded by these pictures which would always accord with her dearest hopes; and at the thought that every night this antique and legendary love would watch over her dreams.

The rest of the furniture was of the most different styles, and bore the traces of many generations. A superb Louis XVI chest of drawers, bound with polished brass, stood between two Louis XV armchairs which were still covered with their original brocaded silk. A rosewood escritoire was opposite the mantelpiece, on which, under a glass shade, was a clock made in the time of the Empire. It was in the form of a bronze bee-hive hanging on four marble columns over a garden of gilded flowers. On a small pendulum, coming out of the hive through a long slit, swung a little bee, with enamel wings, backwards and forwards over the flowers; the dial was of painted china and was let into the side of the hive. It struck eleven, and the baron kissed his daughter and went to his own room.

Then Jeanne regretfully went to bed, giving a last look round her room before she put out her candle. Only the head of the bed was against the wall, and on the left was a window through which a stream of moonlight entered, making a pool of light on the floor, and casting pale reflections on the walls over the motionless loves of Pyramis and Thisbe. Through the other window, opposite the foot of the bed, Jeanne could see a big tree bathed in a soft light. She turned over and closed her eyes, but after a little while opened them again, for she still seemed to feel the jolting of the carriage, and its rumbling was yet in her ears.

For some time she lay quite still, hoping thus to soon fall asleep, but the restlessness of her mind communicated itself to her body, and at last she got out of bed. With her arms and feet bare, in her long chemise, which made her look like a phantom, she crossed the flood of light on the boards, opened her window and looked out.

The night was so clear that everything could be seen as plainly as in broad daylight; and the young girl recognized all the country she had so loved as a child.

First of all, just opposite her, was a big lawn looking as yellow as gold under the light of the night. There were two enormous trees before the château, a plane-tree to the north, a linden to the south, and quite at the end of the grass, a little thicket ended the estate which was protected from the hurricanes by five rows of old elms twisted, torn, and sloped like a roof, by the sea wind which was constantly blowing.

This kind of park was bounded on the right and left by two long avenues of immense poplar-trees (called peuples in Normandy) which separated the squire’s residence from the two farms adjoining, one of which was occupied by the Couillards, the other by the Martins. These peuples had given the names to the château.

Beyond this enclosure lay a large piece of uncultivated ground covered with gorse, over which the wind rustled and blew day and night. Then the coast suddenly fell a hundred yards, forming a high, white cliff, the foot of which was washed by the sea; and Jeanne gazed at the vast, watery expanse whose waves seemed to be sleeping under the stars.

In this repose of nature, when the sun was absent, the earth gave out all her perfumes. A jasmine, which had climbed round the lower windows, exhaled its penetrating fragrance which united with the subtler odor of the budding leaves, and the soft breeze brought with it the damp, salt smell of the seaweeds and the beach.

At first the young girl gave herself up to the pleasure of simply breathing, and the peace of the country calmed her as would a cool bath. All the animals which wake at evening-time, and hide their obscure existence in the peacefulness of the night, filled the clear darkness with a silent restlessness. Great birds fled silently through the air like shadows; the humming of invisible insects could be heard, and noiseless races took place across the dewy grass or along the quiet sandy roads. The short monotonous croak of the frogs was the only sound that could be distinguished.

It seemed to Jeanne that her heart was getting bigger, becoming full of whisperings like this clear evening, and of a thousand wandering desires like these nocturnal insects whose quivering life surrounded her. An unconscious sympathy drew her towards this living poetry and she felt that joy and happiness were floating towards her through the soft white night, and she began to dream of love.

Love! For two years she had been anxiously awaiting the time when it would come to her, and now she was free to love, she had only to meet — him! What should he be like? She did not know, and did not trouble herself even to think about it. He would be himself, that was enough. She only knew that she should adore him with her whole heart, and that he would love her with all his strength, and she pictured herself walking with him on evenings such as this, under the luminous glow of the stars. They would walk hand in hand, pressing close to one another, listening to the beating of their hearts, mingling their love with the sweet clearness of the summer nights, and so united that by the simple power of their love, they would easily divine each other’s inmost thoughts. And that would endure indefinitely, in the serenity of an indestructible affection.

Suddenly she fancied he was there — close to her; and a vague feeling of sensuality swept over her from head to foot. She unconsciously pressed her arms against her breast, as if to clasp her dream to her; and something passed over her mouth, held out towards the unknown, which almost made her faint, as if the springtide wind had given her a kiss of love.

All at once, on the road behind the château, she heard someone walking in the night, and in the rapture of her love-filled soul, in a transport of faith in the impossible, in providential hazards, in divine presentiment, in the romantic combinations of Fate, she thought: “If it should be he!” She anxiously listened to the steps of the traveler, sure that he would stop at the gate to demand hospitality. But he had passed by and she felt sad, as though she had experienced a deception; then after a moment she understood the feverish excitement of her hopes, and smiled at her own folly.

A little calmer, she let her thoughts float down the stream of a more reasonable reverie, trying to pierce the shadows of the future and planning out her life.

She would live here with him, in their quiet château overlooking the sea. She would have two children, a son for him, and a daughter for herself, and she pictured them running on the grass between the plane-tree and the linden, while their father and mother followed their movements with proud eyes, sometimes exchanging looks full of love above their heads.

She stayed dreaming until the moon had finished her journey across the sky, and began to descend into the sea. The air became cooler. Towards the east the horizon was getting lighter. A cock crowed in the farm on the right, others answered from the farm on the left, their hoarse notes, coming through the walls of the poultry-houses, seeming to be a long way off, and the stars were disappearing from the immense dome of the sky which had gradually whitened. The little chirp of a bird sounded; warblings, timid at first, came from among the leaves; then, getting bolder, they became vibrating, joyous, and spread from branch to branch, from tree to tree. Jeanne suddenly felt a bright light; and raising her head, which she had buried in her hands, she shut her eyes, dazzled by the splendor of the dawn.

A mountain of crimson clouds, partly hidden by the avenue of poplars, cast a red glow over the awakened earth, and, breaking through the bright clouds, bathing the trees, the plain, the ocean, the whole horizon, in a fiery light, the blazing orb appeared.

Jeanne felt mad with happiness. A delirious joy, an infinite tenderness before the splendor of nature filled her heart. It was her sunrise! her dawn! the beginning of her life! the rising of her hopes! She stretched out her arms towards the radiant space, with a longing to embrace the sun; she wanted to speak, to cry aloud something divine like this day-break; but she remained dumb in a state of impotent ecstasy. Then, laying her forehead on her hands, her eyes filled with tears, and she cried for joy.

When she again raised her head the glorious colors of the dawning day had already disappeared. She felt calmer and a little tired and chilled. Leaving the window open, she threw herself on the bed, mused for a few minutes longer, then fell into such a sound sleep that she did not hear her father calling her at eight o’clock, and only awoke when he came into her room.

He wanted to show her the improvements that had been made in the château; in her château.

The back of the house was separated from the village road, which half-a-mile further on joined the high road from Havre to Fécamp, by a large sort of court planted with apple-trees. A straight path went across it leading from the steps of the house to the wooden fence, and the low, thatched out-houses, built of flints from the beach, ran the whole length of two sides of the court, which was separated from the adjoining farms by two long ditches.

The roof of the château had been repaired, the woodwork restored, and the walls mended; all the inside of the house had been painted and the rooms had fresh hangings, and on the old decaying gray walls the snowy shutters and the new plaster stood out like white stains. One of Jeanne’s windows was in the front of the house, which looked out over the little wood and the wall of wind-torn elms, on to the sea.

Arm in arm Jeanne and the baron went all over the château without missing a single corner, and then they walked slowly along the long poplar avenues which enclosed the park, as it was called. The grass had grown under the trees, making a green carpet, and the grove at the bottom was delightfully pretty with its little winding paths, separated by leafy walls, running in and out.

Jeanne was startled by a hare springing suddenly across their path; it ran down the slope and made off towards the cliff, among the rushes.

After breakfast, Madame Adélaïde went to lie down as she had not yet recovered from the fatigue of the journey, and the baron proposed that he and Jeanne should walk to Yport. They set off, going through the hamlet of Etouvent in which was situated Les Peuples, and three peasants saluted them as if they had known them all their lives.

They entered the sloping woods which go right down to the sea, and soon the village of Yport came in sight. The women, sitting at their doors mending clothes, looked up as they passed. There was a strong smell of brine in the steep street with the gutter in the middle and the heaps of rubbish lying before the doors. The brown nets to which a few shining shells, looking like fragments of silver, had clung, were drying before the doors of huts whence came the odors of several families living in the same room, and a few pigeons were looking for food at the side of the gutter. To Jeanne it was all as new and curious as a scene at a theater.

Turning a sharp corner, they suddenly came upon the smooth opaque blue sea, and opposite the beach they stopped to look around.

Boats, with sails looking like the wings of white birds, were in the offing; to the right and left rose the high cliffs; a sort of cape interrupted the view on one side, while on the other the coast-line stretched out till it could no longer be distinguished, and a harbor and some houses could be seen in a bay a little way off. Tiny waves fringing the sea with foam, broke on the beach with a faint noise, and some Normandy boats, hauled up on the shingle, lay on their sides with the sun shining on their tarred planks; a few fishermen were getting them ready to go out with the evening tide.

A sailor came up with some fish to sell, and Jeanne bought a brill that she insisted on carrying home herself. Then the man offered his services if ever they wanted to go sailing, telling them his name, “Lastique, Joséphin Lastique,” over and over again so that they should not forget it. The baron promised to remember him, and then they started to go back to the château.

As the large fish was too heavy for Jeanne, she passed her father’s stick through its gills, and carrying it between them, they went gaily up the hill, with the wind in their faces, chattering like two children; and as the brill made their arms ache, they let it drop lower and lower till its big tail swept along the grass.

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