Works, by Guy de Maupassant

One Evening

The steamboat Kleber had stopped, and I was admiring the beautiful bay of Bougie, that was opened out before us. The high hills were covered with forests, and in the distance the yellow sands formed a beach of powdered gold, while the sun shed its fiery rays on the white houses of the town.

The warm African breeze blew the odor of that great, mysterious continent into which men of the Northern races but rarely penetrate, into my face. For three months I had been wandering on the borders of that great, unknown world, on the outskirts of that strange world of the ostrich, the camel, the gazelle, the hippopotamus, the gorilla, the lion and the tiger, and the negro. I had seen the Arab galloping like the wind, and passing like a floating standard, and I had slept under those brown tents, the moving habitation of those white birds of the desert, and I felt, as it were, intoxicated with light, with fancy, and with space.

But now, after this final excursion, I should have to start, to return to France and to Paris, that city of useless chatter, of commonplace cares, and of continual hand-shaking, and I should bid adieu to all that I had got to like so much, which was so new to me, which I had scarcely had time to see thoroughly, and which I so much regretted to leave.

A fleet of small boats surrounded the steamer, and, jumping into one rowed by a negro lad, I soon reached the quay near the old Saracen gate, whose gray ruins at the entrance of the Kabyle town, looked like an old escutcheon of nobility. While I was standing by the side of my portmanteau, looking at the great steamer lying at anchor in the roads, and filled with admiration at that unique shore, and that semi-circle of hills, bathed in blue light, which were more beautiful than those of Ajaccio, or of Porto, in Corsica, a heavy hand was laid on my shoulder, and on turning round I saw a tall man with a long beard, dressed in white flannel, and wearing a straw hat, standing by my side, and looking at me with his blue eyes.

“Are you not an old school-fellow of mine?” he said.

“It is very possible. What is your name?”

“Trémoulin.”

“By Jove! You were in the same class as I was.”

“Ah! Old fellow, I recognized you immediately.”

He seemed so pleased, so happy at seeing me, that in an outburst of friendly selfishness, I shook both the hands of my former school-fellow heartily, and felt very pleased at meeting him thus.

For four years Trémoulin had been one of the best and most intimate school friends, one of those whom we are too apt to forget as soon as we leave. In those days he had been a tall, thin fellow, whose head seemed to be too heavy for his body; it was a large, round head, and hung sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, onto his chest. Trémoulin was very clever, however, and had a marvelous aptitude for learning, and had an instinctive intuition for all literary studies, and gained nearly all the prizes in our class.

We were fully convinced at school, that he would turn out a celebrated man, a poet, no doubt, for he wrote verses, and was full of ingeniously sentimental ideas. His father, who kept a chemist’s shop near the Panthéon, was not supposed to be very well off, and I had lost sight of him as soon as he had taken his bachelor’s degree, and now I naturally asked him what he was doing there.

“I am a planter,” he replied.

“Bah! You really plant?”

“And I have my harvest.”

“What is it?”

“Grapes, from which I make wine.”

“Is your wine-growing a success?”

“A great success.”

“So much the better, old fellow.”

“Were you going to the hotel?”

“Of course I was.”

“Well, then, you must just come home with me, instead!”

“But! . . . ”

“The matter is settled.”

And he said to the young negro who was watching our movements: “Take that home, Al.”

And the lad put my portmanteau on his shoulder, and set off, raising the dust with his black feet, while Trémoulin took my arm and led me off. First of all, he asked me about my journey, and what impressions it had had on me, and seeing how enthusiastic I was about it, he seemed to like me better than ever. He lived in an old Moorish house, with an interior courtyard, without any windows looking into the street, and commanded by a terrace, which, in its turn, commanded those of the neighboring houses, as well as the bay, and the forests, the hill, and the open sea, and I could not help exclaiming:

“Ah! That is what I like; the whole of the East lays hold of me in this place. You are indeed lucky to be living here! What nights you must spend upon that terrace! Do you sleep there?”

“Yes, in the summer. We will go onto it this evening. Are you fond of fishing?”

“What kind of fishing?”

“Fishing by torchlight.”

“Yes, I am particularly fond of it.”

“Very well, then, we will go after dinner, and we will come back and drink sherbet on my roof.”

After I had had a bath, he took me to see the charming Kabyle town, a veritable cascade of white houses toppling down to the sea, and then, when it was getting dusk, we went in, and after an excellent dinner, we went down to the quay, and we saw nothing except the fires and the stars, those large, bright, scintillating African stars. A boat was waiting for us, and as soon as we had got in, a man whose face I could not distinguish, began to row, while my friend was getting ready the brazier which he would light later, and he said to me: “You know I have a mania for a fish-spear, and nobody can handle it better than I can.”

“Allow me to compliment you on your skill.” We had rowed round a kind of mole, and now we were in a small bay full of high rocks, whose shadows looked like towers built in the water, and I suddenly perceived that the sea was phosphorescent, and as the oars moved gently, they seemed to light up moving flames, that followed in our wake, and then died out, and I leant over the side of the boat and watched it, as we glided over that glimmer in the darkness.

Where were we going to? I could not see my neighbors; in fact, I could see nothing but the luminous ripple, and the sparks of water dropping from the oars; it was hot, very hot, and the darkness seemed as hot as a furnace, and this mysterious motion with these two men in that silent boat, had a peculiar effect upon me.

Suddenly the rower stopped. Where were we? I heard a slight scratching noise close to me, and I saw a hand, nothing but a hand applying a lighted match to the iron grating which was fastened over the bows of the boat, which was covered with wood, as if it had been a floating funeral pile, and which soon was blazing brightly and illuminating the boat and the two men, an old, thin, pale, wrinkled sailor, with a pocket-handkerchief tied round his head, instead of a cap, and Trémoulin, whose fair beard glistened in the light.

The other began to row again, while Trémoulin kept throwing wood onto the brazier, which burnt red and brightly. I leant over the side again, and could see the bottom, and a few feet below us there was that strange country of the water, which vivifies plants and animals, just like the air of heaven does. Trémoulin, who was standing in the bows with his body bent forward, and holding the sharp-pointed trident in his hand, was on the look-out with the ardent gaze of a beast of prey watching for its spoil, and, suddenly, with a swift movement, he darted his forked weapon into the sea so vigorously that it secured a large fish swimming near the bottom. It was a conger eel, which managed to wriggle, half dead as it was, into a puddle of the brackish water.

Trémoulin again threw his spear, and when he pulled it up, I saw a great lump of red flesh which palpitated, moved, rolled and unrolled, long, strong, soft feelers round the handle of the trident. It was an octopus, and Trémoulin opened his knife, and with a swift movement plunged it between the eyes, and killed it. And so our fishing continued until the wood began to run short. When there was not enough left to keep up the fire, Trémoulin dipped the braziers into the sea, and we were again buried in darkness.

The old sailor began to row again, slowly and regularly, though I could not tell where the land or where the port was. By-and-bye, however, I saw lights. We were nearing the harbor.

“Are you sleepy?” my friend said to me.

“Not the slightest.”

“Then we will go and have a chat on the roof.”

“I shall be delighted.”

Just as we got onto the terrace, I saw the crescent moon rising behind the mountains, and around us, the white houses, with their flat roofs, descending down towards the sea, while human forms were standing or lying on them, sleeping or dreaming under the stars; whole families wrapped in long gowns, and resting in the calm night, after the heat of the day.

It suddenly seemed to me as if the Eastern mind were taking possession of me, the poetical and legendary spirit of a people with simply and flowery thoughts. My head was full of the Bible and of The Arabian Nights; I could hear the prophets proclaiming miracles, and I could see princesses wearing silk drawers on the roofs of the palaces, while delicate perfumes, whose smoke assumed the forms of genii, were burning on silver dishes, and I said to Trémoulin:

“You are very fortunate in living here.”

“I came here quite by accident,” he replied.

“By accident?”

“Yes, accident and unhappiness brought me here.”

“You have been unhappy?”

“Very unhappy.”

He was standing in front of me, wrapped in his bournoose, and his voice had such a painful ring in it that it almost made me shiver; after a moment’s silence, he continued:

“I will tell you what my troubles have been; perhaps it will do me good to speak about them.”

“Let me hear them.”

“Do you really wish it?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, then. You remember what I was at school; a sort of poet, brought up in a chemist’s shop. I dreamt of writing books, and I tried it, after taking my degree, but I did not succeed. I published a volume of verse, and then a novel, and neither of them sold, and then I wrote a play, which was never acted.”

“Next, I lost my heart, but I will not give you an account of my passion. Next door to my father’s shop, there was a tailor’s, who had a daughter, with whom I fell in love. She was very clever, and had obtained her certificates for higher education, and her mind was bright and active, quite in keeping indeed with her body. She might have been taken for fifteen, although she was two-and-twenty. She was very small, with delicate features, outlines and tints, just like some beautiful water color. Her nose, her mouth, her blue eyes, her light hair, her smile, her waist, her hands, all looked as if they were fit for a stained window, and not for everyday life, but she was lively, supple, and incredibly active, and I was very much in love with her. I remember two or three walks in the Luxembourg Garden, near the Medices fountain, which were certainly the happiest hours of my life. I dare say you have known that foolish condition of tender madness, which causes us to think of nothing but of acts of adoration! One really becomes possessed, haunted by a woman, and nothing exists for us, by the side of her.

“We soon became engaged, and I told her my projects of the future, which she did not approve of. She did not believe that I was either a poet, a novelist, or a dramatic author, and thought a prosperous business could afford perfect happiness. So I gave up the idea of writing books, and resigned myself to selling them, and I bought a bookseller’s business at Marseilles, the owner of which had just died.

“I had three very prosperous years. We had made our shop into a sort of literary drawing-room, where all the men of letters in the town used to come and talk. They came in, as if it had been a club, and exchanged ideas on books, on poets, and especially on politics. My wife, who took a very active part in the business, enjoyed quite a reputation in the town, but, as for me, while they were all talking downstairs, I was working in my studio upstairs, which communicated with the shop by a winding staircase. I could hear their voices, their laughter, and their discussions, and sometimes I left off writing in order to listen. I kept in my own room to write a novel — which I never finished.

“The most regular frequenters of the shop were Monsieur Montina, a man of good private means, a tall, handsome man, like one meets with in the South of France, with an olive skin, and dark, expressive eyes; Monsieur Barbet, a magistrate; two merchants, who were partners, Messrs. Faucil and Labarrègue, and General, the Marquis de la Flèche, the head of the Royalist party, the principal man in the whole district, an old fellow of sixty-six.

“My business prospered, and I was happy, very happy. One day, however, about three o’clock, when I was out on business, as I was going through the Rue Saint Ferréol, I suddenly saw a woman come out of a house, whose figure and appearance were so much like my wife’s that I should have said to myself: ‘There she is!’ if I had not left her in the shop half an hour before, suffering from a headache. She was walking quickly on before me, without turning round, and, in spite of myself, I followed her, as I felt surprised and uneasy. I said to myself: ‘It it she; no, it is quite impossible, as she has a sick headache. And then, what could she have to do in that house?’ However, as I wished to have the matter cleared up, I made haste after her. I do not know whether she felt or guessed that I was behind her, or whether she recognized my step, but she turned round suddenly. It was she! When she saw me, she grew very red and stopped, and then, with a smile, she said: ‘Oh! Here you are!’ I felt choking.

“‘Yes; so you have come out? And how is your headache?’

“‘It is better, and I have been out on an errand.’

“‘Where?’

“‘To Lacaussade’s, in the Rue Cassinelli, to order some pencils,’

“She looked me full in the face. She was not flushed now, but rather pale, on the contrary. Her clear, limpid eyes — ah! those women’s eyes! — appeared to be full of truth, but I felt vaguely and painfuly that they were full of lies. I was much more confused and embarrassed than she was herself, without venturing to suspect, but sure that she was lying, though I did not know why, and so I merely said:

“‘You were quite right to go out, if you felt better.’

“‘Oh! yes; my head is much better.’

“‘Are you going home?’

“‘Yes, of course I am.’

“I left her, and wandered about the streets by myself. What was going on? While I was talking to her, I had an intuitive feeling of her falseness, but now I could not believe that it was so, and when I returned home to dinner, I was angry for having suspected her, even for a moment.

“Have you ever been jealous? It does not matter whether you have or not, but the first drop of jealousy had fallen into my heart, and that is always like a spark of fire. It did not formulate anything, and I did not think anything; I only knew that she had lied. You must remember that every night, after the customers and clerks had left, we were alone, and either strolled as far as the harbor, when it was fine, or remained talking in my office, if the weather was bad, and I used to open my heart to her without any reserve, because I loved her. She was part of my life, the greater part, and all my happiness, and in her small hands she held my trusting, faithful heart captive.

“During those first days, those days of doubt, and before my suspicions increased and assumed a precise shape, I felt as depressed and chilly as when we are going to be seriously ill. I was continually cold, really cold, and could neither eat nor sleep. Why had she told me a lie? What was she doing in that house? I went there, to try and find out something, but I could discover nothing. The man who rented the first floor, and who was an upholsterer, had told me all about his neighbors, but without helping me the least. A midwife had lived on the second floor, a dressmaker and a manicure and chiropodist on the third, and two coachmen and their families in the attics.

“Why had she told me a lie? It would have been so easy for her to have said that she had been to the dressmaker’s or the chiropodist’s. Oh! How I longed to question them, also! I did not say so, for fear that she might guess my suspicions. One thing, however, was certain; she had been into that house, and had concealed the fact from me, so there was some mystery in it. But what? At one moment, I thought there might be some laudable purpose in it, some charitable deed that she wished to hide, some information which she wished to obtain, and I found fault with myself for suspecting her. Have not all of us the right of our little, innocent secrets, a kind of second, interior life, for which one ought not to be responsible to anybody? Can a man, because he has taken a girl to be his companion through life, demand that she shall neither think nor do anything without telling him, either before or afterwards? Does the word marriage mean renouncing all liberty and independence? Was it not quite possible that she was going to the dressmaker’s without telling me, or that she was going to assist the family of one of the coachmen? Or she might have thought that I might criticize, if not blame, her visit to the house. She knew me thoroughly, and my slightest peculiarities, and perhaps she feared a discussion, even if she did not think that I should find fault with her. She had very pretty hands, and I ended by supposing that she was having them secretly attended to by the manicure in the house which I suspected, and that she did not tell me of it, for fear that I should think her extravagant. She was very methodical and economical, +and looked after all her household duties most carefully, and no doubt she thought that she should lower herself in my eyes, were she to confess that slight piece of feminine extravagance. Women have very many subtleties and innate tricks in their soul!

“But none of my own arguments reassured me. I was jealous, and I felt that my suspicion was affecting me terribly, that I was being devoured by it. I felt secret grief and anguish, and a thought which I still veiled, and I did not dare to lift the veil, for beneath it I should find a terrible doubt. . . . A lover! . . . Had not she a lover? . . . It was unlikely, impossible. . . . A mere dream . . . and yet? . . .

“I continually saw Montina’s face before my eyes. I saw the tall, silly-looking, handsome man, with his bright hair, smiling into her face, and I said to myself: ‘He is the one!’ I concocted a story of their intrigues. They had talked a book over together, had discussed the love ventures it contained, had found something in it that resembled them, and they had turned that analogy into reality. And so I watched them, a prey to the most terrible sufferings that a man can endure. I bought shoes with india-rubber soles, so that I might be able to walk about the house without making any noise, and I spent half my time in going up and down my little spiral staircase, in the hope of surprising them, but I always found that the clerk was with them.

“I lived in a constant state of suffering. I could no longer work, nor attend to my business. As soon as I went out, as soon as I had walked a hundred yards along the street, I said to myself: ‘He is there!’ and when I found he was not there, I went out again! But almost immediately I went back again, thinking: ‘He has come now!’ and that went on every day.

“At night it was still worse, for I felt her by my side in bed asleep, or pretending to be asleep! Was she really sleeping? No, most likely not. Was that another lie?

“I remained motionless on my back, hot from the warmth of her body, panting and tormented. Oh! how intensely I longed to get up, to get a hammer and to split her head open, so as to be able to see inside it! I knew that I should have seen nothing except what is to be found in every head, and I should have discovered nothing, for that would have been impossible. And her eyes! When she looked at me, I felt furious with rage. I looked at her . . . she looked at me! Her eyes were transparent, candid . . . and false, false! Nobody could tell what she was thinking of, and I felt inclined to run pins into them, and to destroy those mirrors of falseness.

“Ah! how well I could understand the Inquisition! I would have applied the torture, the boot. . . . Speak! . . . Confess! . . . You will not? . . . Then wait! . . . And I would have seized her by the throat until I choked her. . . . Or else I would have held her fingers into the fire. . . . Oh! how I should have enjoyed doing it! . . . Speak! . . . Speak! . . . You will not? I would have held them on the coals, and when the tips were burnt, she would have confessed . . . certainly she would have confessed!”

Trémoulin was sitting up, shouting, with clenched fists. Around us, on the neighboring roofs, people awoke and sat up, as he was disturbing their sleep. As for me, I was moved and powerfully interested, and in the darkness I could see that little woman, that little, fair, lively, artful woman, as if I had known her personally. I saw her selling her books, talking with the men whom her childish ways attracted, and in her delicate, doll-like head, I could see little crafty ideas, silly ideas, the dreams which a milliner smelling of musk attached to all heroes of romantic adventures. I suspected her just like he did, I hated and detested her, and would willingly have burnt her fingers and made her confess.

Presently, he continued more calmly: “I do not know why I have told you all this, for I have never mentioned it to anyone, but then, I have not seen anybody or spoken to anybody for two years! And it was seething in my heart like a fermenting wine. I have got rid of it, and so much the worse for you. Well, I had made a mistake, but it was worse than I thought, much worse. Just listen. I employed the means which a man always does under such circumstances, and pretended that I was going to be away from home for a day, and whenever I did this my wife went out to lunch. I need not tell you how I bribed a waiter in the restaurant to which they used to go, so that I might surprise them.

“He was to open the door of their private room for me and I arrived at the appointed time, with the fixed determination of killing them both. I could see the whole scene, just as if it had already occurred! I could see myself going in. A small table covered with glasses, bottles and plates separated her from Montina, and they would be so surprised when they saw me, that they would not even attempt to move, and without a word, I should bring down the loaded stick which I had in my hand, on the man’s head. Killed by one blow, he would fall with his head on the table, and then, turning towards her, I should leave her time — a few moments — to understand it all and to stretch out her arms towards me, mad with terror, before dying in her turn. Oh! I was ready, strong, determined, and pleased, madly pleased at the idea. The idea of the terrified look that she would throw at my raised stick, of her arms that she would stretch out to me, of her horrified cry, of her livid and convulsed looks, avenged me beforehand. I would not kill her at one blow! You will think me cruel, I dare say; but you do not know what a man suffers. To think that a woman, whether she be wife or mistress, whom one loves, gives herself to another, yields herself up to him as she does to you, and receives kisses from his lips, as she does from yours! It is a terrible, an atrocious thing to think of. When one feels that torture, one is ready for anything. I only wonder that more women are not murdered, for every man who has been deceived longs to commit murder, has dreamt of it in the solitude of his own room, or on a deserted road, and has been haunted by the one fixed idea of satisfied vengeance.

“I arrived at the restaurant, and asked whether they were there. The waiter whom I had bribed replied: ‘Yes, Monsieur,’ and taking me upstairs, he pointed to a door, and said: ‘That is the room!’ So I grasped my stick, as if my fingers had been made of iron, and went in. I had chosen a most appropriate moment, for they were kissing most lovingly, but it was not Montina; it was General de la Fléche, who was sixty-six years old, and I had so fully made up my mind that I should find the other one there, I was motionless from astonishment.

“And then . . . and then, I really do not quite know what I thought; no, I really do not know. If I had found myself face to face with the other, I should have been convulsed with rage, but on seeing this old man, with a fat stomach and pendulous cheeks, I was nearly choked with disgust. She, who did not look fifteen, small and slim as she was, had given herself to this fat man, who was nearly paralyzed, because he was a marquis and a general, the friend and representative of dethroned kings. No, I do not know what I felt, nor what I thought. I could not have lifted my hand against this old man; it would have been a disgrace to me, and I no longer felt inclined to kill my wife, but all women who could be guilty of such things! I was no longer jealous, but felt distracted, as if I had seen the horror of horrors!

“Let people say what they like of men, they are not so vile as that! If a man is known to have given himself up to an old woman in that fashion, people point their fingers at him. The husband or lover of an old woman is more despised than a thief. We men are a decent lot, as a rule, but many women, especially in Paris, are absolutely bad. They will give themselves to all men, old or young, from the most contemptible and different motives, because it is their profession, their vocation, and their function. They are the eternal, unconscious, and serene prostitutes, who give up their bodies, because they are the merchandise of love, which they sell or give, to the old man who frequents the pavements with money in his pocket, or else for glory, to a lecherous old king, or to a celebrated and disgusting old man.”

He vociferated like a prophet of old, in a furious voice, under the starry sky, and with the rage of a man in despair, he repeated all the glorified disgrace of all the mistresses of old kings, the respectable shame of all those virgins who marry old husbands, the tolerated disgrace of all those young women who accept old kisses with a smile.

I could see them, as he evoked their memory, since the beginning of the world, surging round us in that Eastern night, girls, beautiful girls, with vile souls, who, like the lower animals, who know nothing of the age of the male, are docile to senile desires. They rose up before one, the handmaids of the patriarchs, who are mentioned in the Bible, Hagar, Ruth, the daughters of Lot, Abigail, Abishag, the virgin of Shunam, who reanimated David with her caresses when he was dying, and the others, young, stout, white, patricians or plebeians, irresponsible females belonging to a master, and submissive slaves, whether caught by the attraction of royalty, or bought as slaves!

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I went away,” he replied simply. And we remained sitting side by side for a long time without speaking, only dreaming! . . .

I have retained an impression of that evening that I can never forget. All that I saw, felt, and heard, our fishing excursion, the octopus also, perhaps that harrowing story, amidst those white figures on the neighboring roofs, all seemed to concur in producing a unique sensation. Certain meetings, certain inexplicable combinations of things, decidedly contain a larger quantity of the secret quintessence of life, than that which is spread over the ordinary events of our days, without anything exceptional happening to them.

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