Works, by Guy de Maupassant

The Love of Long Ago

The old-fashioned chateau was built on a wooded height. Tall trees surrounded it with dark greenery; and the vast park extended its vistas here over a deep forest and there over an open plain. Some little distance from the front of the mansion stood a huge stone basin in which marble nymphs were bathing. Other basins arranged in order succeeded each other down as far as the foot of the slope, and a hidden fountain sent cascades dancing from one to the other.

From the manor-house which preserved the grace of a superannuated coquette down to the grottos encrusted with shell-work, where slumbered the loves of a bygone age, everything in this antique demesne had retained the physiognomy of former days. Everything seemed to speak still of ancient customs, of the manners of long ago, of faded gallantries, and of the elegant trivialities so dear to our grandmothers.

In a parlor in the style of Louis XV, whose walls were covered with shepherds paying court to shepherdesses, beautiful ladies in hoop-petticoats, and gallant gentlemen in wigs, a very old woman who seemed dead as soon as she ceased to move was almost lying down in a large easy-chair, while her thin, mummy-like hands hung down, one at each side of her.

Her eyes were gazing languidly towards the distant horizon as if they sought to follow through the park visions of her youth. Through the open window every now and then came a breath of air laden with the scent of grass and the perfume of flowers. It made her white locks flutter around her wrinkled forehead and old memories, through her brain.

Beside her on a tapestried stool, a young girl with long, fair hair hanging in plaits over her neck, was embroidering an altar-cloth. There was a pensive expression in her eyes, and it was easy to see that, while her agile fingers worked, her brain was busy with thoughts.

But the old lady suddenly turned round her head.

“Berthe,” she said, “read something out of the newspapers for me, so that I may still know sometimes what is happening in the world.”

The young girl took up a newspaper, and cast a rapid glance over it.

“There is a great deal about politics, grandmamma; am I to pass it by?”

“Yes, yes, darling. Are there no accounts of love affairs? Is gallantry, then, dead in France, that they no longer talk about abductions or adventures as they did formerly?”

The girl made a long search through the columns of the newspaper.

“Here is one,” she said. “It is entitled: ‘A Love–Drama!’”

The old woman smiled through her wrinkles. “Read that for me,” she said.

And Berthe commenced. It was a case of vitriol-throwing. A wife, in order to avenge herself on her husband’s mistress, had burned her face and eyes. She had left the Assize Court acquitted, declared to be innocent, amid the applause of the crowd.

The grandmother moved about excitedly in her chair, and exclaimed:

“This is horrible — why, it is perfectly horrible! See whether you can find anything else to read for me, darling.”

Berthe again made a search; and further down in the reports of criminal cases at which her attention was still directed. She read:

“‘Gloomy Drama. — A shop girl, no longer young, allowed herself to yield to the embraces of a young man. Then, to avenge herself on her lover, whose heart proved fickle, she shot him with a revolver. The unhappy man is maimed for life. The Jury, consisting of men of moral character, took the part of the murderess — regarding her as the victim of illicit love, and honorably acquitted her.’”

This time the old grandmother appeared quite shocked, and, in a trembling voice, she said.

“Why, you are mad, then, nowadays. You are mad! The good God has given you love, the only allurement in life. Man has added to this gallantry, the only distraction of our dull hours, and here are you mixing up with it vitriol and revolvers, as if one were to put mud into a flagon of Spanish wine.”

Berthe did not seem to understand her grandmother’s indignation.

“But grandmamma, this woman avenged herself. Remember she was married, and her husband deceived her.”

The grandmother gave a start.

“What ideas have they been filling your head with, you young girls of today?”

Berthe replied:

“But marriage is sacred, grandmamma.”

The grandmother’s heart, which had its birth in the great age of gallantry, gave a sudden leap.

“It is love that is sacred,” she said, “Listen, child, to an old woman who has seen three generations, and who has had a long, long experience of men and women. Marriage and love have nothing in common. We marry to found a family, and we form families in order to constitute society. Society cannot dispense with marriage. If society is a chain, each family is a link in that chain. In order to weld those links, we always seek for metals of the same kind. When we marry, we must bring together suitable conditions; we must combine fortunes, unite similar races, and aim at the common interest, which is riches and children. We marry only once, my child, because the world requires us to do so, but we may love twenty times in one lifetime because nature has made us like this. Marriage, you see, is law, and love is an instinct, which impels us sometimes along a straight and sometimes along a crooked path. The world has made laws to combat our instincts — it was necessary to make them; but our instincts are always stronger, and we ought not to resist them too much, because they come from God, while the laws only come from men. If we did not perfume life with love, as much love as possible, darling, as we put sugar into drugs for children, nobody would care to take it just as it is.”

Berthe opened her eyes widely in astonishment. She murmured:

“Oh! grandmamma, we can only love once.”

The grandmother raised her trembling hands towards Heaven, as if again to invoke the defunct God of gallantries. She exclaimed indignantly:

“You have become a race of serfs, a race of common people. Since the Revolution, it is impossible any longer to recognize society. You have attached big words to every action, and wearisome duties to every corner of existence; you believe in equality and eternal passion. People have written verses telling you that people have died of love. In my time verses were written to teach men to love every woman. And we! when we liked a gentleman, my child, we sent him a page. And when a fresh caprice came into our hearts, we were not slow in getting rid of the last lover — unless we kept both of them.”

The old woman smiled with a keen smile, and a gleam of roguery twinkled in her gray eye, the sprightly, skeptical roguery of those people who did not believe that they were made of the same clay as the others, and who lived as masters for whom common beliefs were not made.

The young girl, turning very pale, faltered out:

“So then women have no honor?”

The grandmother ceased to smile. If she had kept in her soul some of Voltaire’s irony, she had also a little of Jean–Jaques’s glowing philosophy: “No honor! because we loved, and dared to say so, and even boasted of it? But, my child, if one of us, among the greatest ladies in France, were to live without a lover, she would have the entire court laughing at her. Those who wished to live differently had only to enter a convent. And you imagine, perhaps, that your husbands will love you alone all their lives. As if, indeed, this could be the case. I tell you that marriage is a thing necessary in order that Society should exist, but it is not in the nature of our race, do you understand? There is only one good thing in life, and that is love. And how you misunderstand it! how you spoil it! You treat it as something solemn like a sacrament, or something to be bought, like a dress.”

The young girl caught the old woman’s trembling hands in her own.

“Hold your tongue, I beg of you, grandmamma!”

And, on her knees, with tears in her eyes, she prayed to Heaven to bestow on her a great passion, one eternal passion alone, in accordance with the dream of modern poets, while the grandmother, kissing her on the forehead, quite penetrated still by that charming, healthy logic by which the philosophers of gallantry sprinkled salt with the life of the eighteenth century, murmured:

“Take care, my poor darling! If you believe in such follies as this, you will be very unhappy.”

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