Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Madame Baptiste

When I went into the waiting-room at the station at Loubain, the first thing I did was to look at the clock, and I found that I had two hours and ten minutes to wait for the Paris express.

I felt suddenly tired, as if I had walked twenty miles, and then I looked about me as if I could find some means of killing the time on the station walls, and at last I went out again, and stopped outside the gates of the station, racking my brains to find something to do. The street, which was a kind of a boulevard, planted with acacias, between two rows of houses of unequal shape and different styles of architecture, houses such as one only sees in a small town, ascended a slight hill, and at the extreme end of it, there were some trees, as if it ended in a park.

From time to time, a cat crossed the street, and jumped over the gutters, carefully. A cur sniffed at every tree, and hunted for fragments from the kitchens, but I did not see a single human being, and I felt listless and disheartened. What could I do with myself? I was already thinking of the inevitable and interminable visit to the small café at the railway station, where I should have to sit over a glass of undrinkable beer and the illegible newspaper, when I saw a funeral procession coming out of a side street into the one in which I was, and the sight of the hearse was a relief to me. It would, at any rate, give me something to do for ten minutes. Suddenly, however, my curiosity was aroused. The corpse was followed by eight gentlemen, one of whom was weeping, while the others were chatting together, but there was no priest, and I thought to myself:

“This is a non-religious funeral,” but then I reflected that a town like Loubain must contain at least a hundred free-thinkers, who would have made a point of making a manifestation. What could it be then? The rapid pace of the procession clearly proved that the body was to be buried without ceremony, and, consequently, without the intervention of religion.

My idle curiosity framed the most complicated suppositions, and as the hearse passed me, a strange idea struck me, which was to follow it, with the eight gentlemen. That would take up my time for an hour, at least, and I, accordingly, walked with the others, with a sad look on my face, and on seeing this, the two last turned round in surprise, and then spoke to each other in a low voice.

No doubt they were asking each other whether I belonged to the town, and then they consulted the two in front of them, who stared at me in turn. This close attention which they paid me, annoyed me, and to put an end to it, I went up to them, and, after bowing, I said:

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen, for interrupting your conversation, but seeing a civil funeral, I have followed it, although I did not know the deceased gentleman whom you are accompanying.”

“It is a woman,” one of them said.

I was much surprised at hearing this, and asked:

“But it is a civil funeral, is it not?”

The other gentleman, who evidently wished to tell me all about it, then said: “Yes and no. The clergy have refused to allow us the use of the church.”

On hearing that I uttered a prolonged A— h! of astonishment. I could not understand it at all, but my obliging neighbor continued:

“It is rather a long story. This young woman committed suicide, and that is the reason why she cannot be buried with any religious ceremony. The gentleman who is walking first, and who is crying, is her husband.”

I replied with some hesitation:

“You surprise and interest me very much, Monsieur. Shall I be indiscreet if I ask you to tell me the facts of the case? If I am troubling you, think that I have said nothing about the matter.”

The gentleman took my arm familiarly.

“Not at all, not at all. Let us stop a little behind the others, and I will tell it you, although it is a very sad story. We have plenty of time before getting to the cemetery, whose trees you see up yonder, for it is a stiff pull up this hill.”

And he began:

“This young woman, Madame Paul Hamot, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant in the neighborhood, Monsieur Fontanelle. When she was a mere child of eleven, she had a terrible adventure; a footman violated her. She nearly died, in consequence, and the wretch’s brutality betrayed him. A terrible criminal case was the result, and it was proved that for three months the poor young martyr had been the victim of that brute’s disgraceful practices, and he was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

“The little girl grew up stigmatized by disgrace, isolated without any companions, and grown-up people would scarcely kiss her, for they thought that they would soil their lips if they touched her forehead, and she became a sort of monster, a phenomenon to all the town. People said to each other in a whisper: ‘You know, little Fontanelle,’ and everybody turned away in the streets when she passed. Her parents could not even get a nurse to take her out for a walk, as the other servants held aloof from her, as if contact with her would poison everybody who came near her.

“It was pitiable to see the poor child. She remained quite by herself, standing by her maid, and looking at the other children amusing themselves. Sometimes, yielding to an irresistible desire to mix with the other children, she advanced, timidly, with nervous gestures, and mingled with a group, with furtive steps, as if conscious of her own infamy. And, immediately, the mothers, aunts and nurses used to come running from every seat, who took the children entrusted to their care by the hand and dragged them brutally away.

“Little Fontanelle remained isolated, wretched, without understanding what it meant, and then she began to cry, nearly heart-broken with grief, and then she used to run and hide her head in her nurse’s lap, sobbing.

“As she grew up, it was worse still. They kept the girls from her, as if she were stricken with the plague. Remember that she had nothing to learn, nothing; that she no longer had the right to the symbolical wreath of orange-flowers; that almost before she could read, she had penetrated that redoubtable mystery, which mothers scarcely allow their daughters to guess, trembling as they enlighten them, on the night of their marriage.

“When she went through the streets, always accompanied by her governess, as if her parents feared some fresh, terrible adventure, with her eyes cast down under the load of that mysterious disgrace, which she felt was always weighing upon her, the other girls, who were not nearly so innocent as people thought, whispered and giggled as they looked at her knowingly, and immediately turned their heads absently, if she happened to look at them. People scarcely greeted her; only a few men bowed to her, and the mothers pretended not to see her, whilst some young blackguards called her Madame Baptiste, after the name of the footman who had outraged and ruined her.

“Nobody knew the secret torture of her mind, for she hardly ever spoke, and never laughed, and her parents themselves appeared uncomfortable in her presence, as if they bore her a constant grudge for some irreparable fault.

“An honest man would not willingly give his hand to a liberated convict, would he, even if that convict were his own son? And Monsieur and Madame Fontanelle looked on their daughter as they would have done on a son who had just been released from the hulks. She was pretty and pale, tall, slender, distinguished-looking, and she would have pleased me very much, Monsieur, but for that unfortunate affair.

“Well, when a new sub-prefect was appointed here eighteen months ago, he brought his private secretary with him. He was a queer sort of fellow, who had lived in the Latin Quarter1, it appears. He saw Mademoiselle Fontanelle, and fell in love with her, and when told of what occurred, he merely said: ‘Bah! That is just a guarantee for the future, and I would rather it should have happened before I married her, than afterwards. I shall sleep tranquilly with that woman.’

1 The students’ quarter in France, where so many of them lead rackety, fast lives. — TRANSLATOR.]

“He paid his addresses to her, asked for her hand, and married her, and then, not being deficient in boldness, he paid wedding-calls,2 as if nothing had happened. Some people returned them, others did not, but, at last, the affair began to be forgotten, and she took her proper place in society.

2 In France and Germany, the newly-married couple pay the wedding-calls, which is the direct opposite to our custom. — TRANSLATOR.]

“She adored her husband as if he had been a god, for, you must remember, he had restored her to honor and to social life, that he had braved public opinion, faced insults, and, in a word, performed such a courageous act, as few men would accomplish, and she felt the most exalted and uneasy love for him.

“When she became pregnant, and it was known, the most particular people and the greatest sticklers opened their doors to her, as if she had been definitely purified by maternity.

“It is funny, but so it is, and thus everything was going on as well as possible, when, the other day, was the feast of the patron saint of our town. The Prefect, surrounded by his staff and the authorities, presided at the musical competition, and when he had finished his speech, the distribution of medals began, which Paul Hamot, his private secretary, handed to those who were entitled to them.

“As you know, there are always jealousies and rivalries, which make people forget all propriety. All the ladies of the town were there on the platform, and, in his proper turn, the bandmaster from the village of Mourmillon came up. This band was only to receive a second-class medal, for one cannot give first-class medals to everybody, can one? But when the private secretary handed him his badge, the man threw it in his face and exclaimed:

“‘You may keep your medal for Baptiste. You owe him a first-class one, also, just as you do me.’

“There were a number of people there who began to laugh. The common herd are neither charitable nor refined, and every eye was turned towards that poor lady. Have you ever seen a woman going mad, Monsieur? Well, we were present at the sight! She got up and fell back on her chair three times following, as if she had wished to make her escape, but saw that she could not make her way through the crowd, and then another voice in the crowd exclaimed:

“‘Oh I Oh! Madame Baptiste!’

“And a great uproar, partly laughter, and partly indignation, arose. The word was repeated over and over again; people stood on tip-toe to see the unhappy woman’s face; husbands lifted their wives up in their arms, so that they might see the unhappy woman’s face, and people asked:

“‘Which is she? The one in blue?’

“The boys crowed like cocks, and laughter was heard all over the place.

“She did not move now on her state chair, just as if she had been put there for the crowd to look at. She could not move, nor disappear, nor hide her face. Her eyelids blinked quickly, as if a vivid light were shining in her face, and she panted like a horse that is going up a steep hill, so that it almost broke one’s heart to see it. Meanwhile, however, Monsieur Hamot had seized the ruffian by the throat, and they were rolling on the ground together, amidst a scene of indescribable confusion, and the ceremony was interrupted.

“An hour later, as the Hamots were returning home, the young woman, who had not uttered a word since the insult, but who was trembling as if all her nerves had been set in motion by springs, suddenly sprang on the parapet of the bridge, and threw herself into the river, before her husband could prevent her. The water is very deep under the arches, and it was two hours before her body was recovered. Of course, she was dead.”

The narrator stopped, and then added:

“It was, perhaps, the best thing she could do in her position. There are some things which cannot be wiped out, and now you understand why the clergy refused to have her taken into church. Ah! If it had been a religious funeral, the whole town would have been present, but you can understand that her suicide added to the other affair, and made families abstain from attending her funeral; and then, it is not an easy matter, here, to attend a funeral which is performed without religious rites.”

We passed through the cemetery gates and I waited, much moved by what I had heard, until the coffin had been lowered into the grave, before I went up to the poor fellow who was sobbing violently, to press his hand vigorously. He looked at me in surprise through his tears, and then said:

“Thank you, Monsieur.” And I was not sorry that I had followed the funeral.

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