Une Vie, by Guy de Maupassant

II

A delightful life of freedom began for Jeanne. She read, dreamed, and wandered about all alone, walking slowly along the road, building castles in the air, or dancing down the little winding valleys whose sloping sides were covered with golden gorse. Its strong, sweet odor, increased by the heat, intoxicated her like a perfumed wine, while she was lulled by the distant sound of the waves breaking on the beach. When she was in an idle mood she would throw herself down on the thick grass of the hill-side, and sometimes when at the turn of a road she suddenly caught a glimpse of the blue sea, sparkling in the light of the sun, with a white sail at the horizon, she felt an inordinate joy, a mysterious presentiment of future happiness.

She loved to be alone with the calm beauty of nature, and would sit motionless for so long on the top of a hill, that the wild rabbits would bound fearlessly up to her; or she would run swiftly along the cliff, exhilarated by the pure air of the hills, and finding an exquisite pleasure in being able to move without fatigue, like the swallows in the air and the fish in the water.

Very fond of bathing, and strong, fearless, and unconscious of danger, she would swim out to sea till she could no longer be perceived from the shore, feeling refreshed by the cool water, and enjoying the rocking of its clear blue waves. When she was a long way out, she floated, and, with her arms crossed on her breast, gazed at the deep, blue sky, against which a swallow or the white outline of a sea-gull could sometimes be seen. No noise could be heard except the far away murmur of the waves breaking on the beach, and the vague, confused, almost imperceptible sound of the pebbles being drawn down by the receding waves. When she went out too far, a boat put off to bring her in and she would return to the château pale with hunger, but not at all tired, with a smile on her lips, and her eyes dancing with joy.

The baron was planning great agricultural improvements; he wanted to make experiments, to try new machines, to acclimatize foreign plants, and he passed part of his time talking to the peasants, who shook their heads and refused to believe in his ideas.

He often went on the sea with the sailors of Yport, and when he had seen the caves, the springs, and the rocks that were of any interest in the neighborhood, he fished like a common seaman. On windy days, when the breeze filled the sails and forced the boat over till its edge touched the water, and the mackerel-nets trailed over the sides, he would hold a slender fishing-line, waiting with anxiety for the bite of a fish. Then he went out in the moonlight to take up the nets set the night before (for he loved to hear the creaking of the masts, and to breathe the fresh night air), and, after a long time spent in tacking about to find the buoys, guided by a ridge of rocks, the spire of a church, or the light-house at Fécamp, he liked to lie still under the first rays of the rising sun, which turned into a glittering mass the slimy rays and the white-bellied turbot which lay on the deck of the boat.

At every meal, he gave a glowing account of his excursions, and the baroness, in her turn, would tell him how many times she had walked up and down the long poplar-avenues on the right next to the Couillards’s farm, the other one not having enough sun on it.

She had been advised to “take exercise,” and she walked for hours together. As soon as the sun was high enough for its warmth to be felt she went out, leaning on Rosalie’s arm, and enveloped in a cloak and two shawls, with a red scarf on her head and a black hood over that.

Then she began a long, uninteresting walk from the corner of the château to the first shrubs of the wood and back again. Her left foot, which dragged a little, had traced two furrows where the grass had died. At each end of the path she had had a bench placed, and every five minutes she stopped, saying to the poor, patient maid who supported her: “Let us sit down, my girl; I am a little tired.”

And at each rest she left on one or other of the benches first the scarf which covered her head, then one shawl, then the other, then the hood, and then the cloak; and all these things made two big bundles of wraps, which Rosalie carried on her free arm, when they went in to lunch.

In the afternoon the baroness recommenced her walk in a feebler way, taking longer rests, and sometimes dozing for an hour at a time on a couch that was wheeled out of doors for her. She called it taking “her exercise,” in the same way as she spoke of “my hypertrophy.”

A doctor she had consulted ten years before because she suffered from palpitations, had hinted at hypertrophy. Since then she had constantly used this word, though she did not in the least understand what it meant, and she was always making the baron, and Jeanne, and Rosalie put their hands on her heart, though its beatings could not be felt, so buried was it under her bosom. She obstinately refused to be examined by any other doctor in case he should say she had another malady, and she spoke of “her hypertrophy” so often that it seemed as though this affection of the heart were peculiar to her, and belonged to her, like something unique, to which no one else had any right. The baron and Jeanne said “my wife’s” or “mamma’s hypertrophy” in the same way as they would have spoken of her dress or her umbrella.

She had been very pretty when she was young, and as slender as a reed. After flirting with the officers of all the regiments of the Empire, she had read Corinne, which had made her cry, and, in a certain measure, altered her character.

As her waist got bigger her mind became more and more poetical, and when, through her size, she had to remain nearly all day in her armchair, she dreamed of love adventures, of which she was always the heroine; always thinking of the sort she liked best, like a hand-organ continually repeating the same air. The languishing romances, where they talk about captives and swallows, always made her cry; and she even liked some of Béranger’s coarse verses, because of the grief they expressed. She would sit motionless for hours, lost in thought, and she was very fond of Les Peuples, because it served as a scene for her dreams, the surrounding woods, the sea, and the waste land reminding her of Sir Walter Scott’s books, which she had lately been reading.

On rainy days she stayed in her room looking over what she called her “relics.” They were all her old letters; those from her father and mother, the baron’s when she was engaged to him, and some others besides. She kept them in a mahogany escritoire with copper sphinxes at the corners, and she always used a particular tone when she said: “Rosalie, bring me my souvenir-drawer.”

The maid would open the escritoire, take out the drawer, and place it on a chair beside her mistress, who slowly read the letters one by one, occasionally letting fall a tear.

Jeanne sometimes took Rosalie’s place and accompanied her mother’s walks, and listened to her reminiscences of childhood. The young girl recognized herself in these tales, and was astonished to find that her mother’s thoughts and hopes had been the same as hers; for every one imagines that he is the first to experience those feelings which made the hearts of our first parents beat quicker, and which will continue to exist in human hearts till the end of time.

These tales, often interrupted for several seconds by the baroness’s want of breath, were told as slowly as she walked, and Jeanne let her thoughts run on to the happy future, without waiting to hear the end of her mother’s anecdotes.

One afternoon, as they were resting on the seat at the bottom of the walk, they saw a fat priest coming towards them from the other end of the avenue. He bowed, put on a smiling look, bowed again when he was about three feet off, and cried:

“Well, Madame la baronne, and how are we today?”

He was the curé of the parish.

The baroness, born in a philosophical century and brought up in revolutionary times by a father who did not believe very much in anything, did not often go to church, although she liked priests with the sort of religious instinct that most women have. She had forgotten all about the Abbé Picot, her curé, and her face colored when she saw him. She began to make excuses for not having gone to see him, but the good-natured priest did not seem at all put out. He looked at Jeanne, complimented her on her good looks, sat down, put his hat on his knees, and wiped his forehead.

He was a very fat, red-faced man, who perspired very freely. Every minute he drew an enormous, checked handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face and neck; but he had hardly put it back again when fresh drops appeared on his skin and, falling on his cassock, made the dust on it into little, round spots. He was a true country-priest, lively and tolerant, talkative and honest. He told anecdotes, talked about the peasants, and did not seem to have noticed that his two parishioners had not been to mass; for the baroness always tried to reconcile her vague ideas of religion to her indolence, and Jeanne was too happy at having left the convent, where she had been sickened of holy ceremonies, to think about going to church.

The baron joined them. His pantheistic religion made him indifferent to doctrine, and he asked the abbé, whom he knew by sight, to stay to dinner. The priest had the art of pleasing every one, and thanks to the unconscious tact that is acquired by the most ordinary men called by fate to exercise any moral power over their fellow creatures, and the baroness, attracted perhaps by one of these affinities which draw similar natures together, paid every attention to him, the fat man’s sanguine face and short breath agreeing with her gasping obesity. By the time dessert was placed on the table he had begun telling funny stories, with the laisser -aller of a man who had had a good dinner in congenial society.

All at once, as though a good idea had just occurred to him, he exclaimed:

“Oh, I have a new parishioner I must introduce to you, M. le Vicomte de Lamare.”

The baroness, who had all the heraldy of the province at her finger ends, asked:

“Does he belong to the family of Lamare de l’Eure?”

The priest bowed:

“Yes, madame; he is the son of the Vicomte Jean de Lamare, who died last year.”

Then Madame Adélaïde, who loved the aristocracy above everything, asked a great many questions, and learnt that the young man had sold the family château to pay his father’s debts, and had come to live on one of the three farms that he owned at Etouvent.

This property only brought in about five or six thousand livres a year, but the vicomte was of a foreseeing, economical disposition and meant to live quietly for two or three years, so that he might save enough to go into society and marry well, without having to get into debt or mortgage his farms.

“He is a charming young fellow,” added the curé; “and so steady, so quiet. But he can’t find many amusements in the country.”

“Bring him to see us, M. l’Abbé,” said the baron; “he might like to come here sometimes.” And then the conversation turned to other subjects.

When they went into the drawing-room the priest asked if he might go out into the garden, as he was used to a little exercise after meals. The baron went out with him, and they walked backwards and forwards the whole length of the château, while their two shadows, the one thin, and the other quite round and looking as though it had a mushroom on its head, fell sometimes before and sometimes behind them, according as they walked towards the moon or turned their backs on it. The curé chewed a sort of cigarette that he had taken from his pocket; he told the baron why he used it in the plain speech of a countryman:

“It is to help the digestion; my liver is rather sluggish.”

Looking at the sky where the bright moon was sailing along, he suddenly said:

“That is a sight one never gets tired of.”

Then he went in to say good-bye to the ladies.

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