The Short Stories

Guy de Maupassant

False Alarm
(L'Epouvante) []

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

False Alarm

“I have a perfect horror of pianos,” Frémecourt said, “of those hateful boxes that fill up a drawing-room, and which have not even the soft sound and the queer shape of the mahogany or veneered spinets, to which our grandmothers sighed out exquisite, long-forgotten ballads, and allowed their fingers to run over the keys, while around them there floated a delicate odor of powder and muslin, and some little Abbé or other turned over the leaves, and was continually making mistakes, as he was looking at the patches close to the lips on the white skin of the player instead of at the music.

“I wish there were a tax upon them, or that some evening, during a riot, the people would make huge bonfires of them, which would illuminate the whole town. They simply exasperate me, and affect my nerves, and make me think of the tortures those poor girls must suffer, who are condemned not to stir for hours, but to keep on constantly strumming away at the chromatic scales and monotonous arpeggios, and to have no other object in life except to win a prize at the Conservatoire.

“Their incoherent music suggests to me the sufferings of those who are ill, abandoned, wounded, as it proceeds from every floor of every house, and irritates you, nearly drives you mad, and makes you break out into ironical fits of laughter.

“And yet when that madcap Lâlie Spring honored me with her love, as I never can refuse anything to a woman who smells of fresh scent, and who has a large store of promises in her looks, and who puts out her red, smiling lips immediately, as if she were going to offer you handsel money, I bought a piano, so that she might strum upon it to her heart’s content. I got it, however, on the hire-purchase system, and paid so much a month, like grisettes1 do for their furniture.

1 Work-girl, a name applied to those whose virtue is not too rigorous. — TRANSLATOR.]

“At that time, I had the apartments I had so long dreamed of: warm, elegant, light, well-arranged, with two entrances, and an incomparable porter’s wife; she had been canteen-keeper in a Zouave regiment, and knew everything and understood everything at a wink.

“It was the kind of apartment from which a woman has not the courage to escape, so as to avoid temptation, but becomes weak, and rolls herself up on the soft, eider down cushions like a cat, and so is appeased, and in spite of herself, thinks of sin at the sight of the low, wide couch, which is so suitable for caresses, of the heavy curtains, which quite deaden the sound of voices and of laughter, and of the flowers that scent the air, and whose smell lingers on the folds of the hangings.

“They were rooms in which a woman forgets time, where she begins by accepting a cup of tea and nibbling a sweet cake, and abandons her fingers timidly and with regret to other fingers which tremble, and are hot, and so by degrees she loses her head and succumbs.

“I do not know whether the piano brought us ill luck, but Lâlie had not even time to learn four songs before she disappeared like the wind, just as she had come, flick-flack, good-night, good-bye; perhaps from spite, because she had found letters from other women on my table, perhaps to renew her advertisement, as she was not one of those to hang onto one man and become a fixture.

“I had not been in love with her, certainly, but yet it always has some effect on a man; it breaks a spring when a woman leaves you, and you think that you must start again, risk it, and go in for forbidden sport in which one is exposed to knocks, common sport that one has been through a hundred times before, and which provides you with nothing to show for it.

“Nothing is more unpleasant than to lend your apartments to a friend, to have to say to yourself that someone is going to disturb the mysterious intimacy which really exists between the actual owner and his furniture, the soul of those past kisses which floats in the air; that the room whose tints you connect with some recollection, some dream, some sweet vision, and whose colors you have tried to make harmonize with certain fair-haired, pink-skinned girls, is going to become a common-place lodging, like the rooms in an ordinary lodging house, which are suitable to hidden crime and to evanescent love affairs.

“However, poor Stanis had begged me so urgently to do him that service; he was so very much in love with Madame de Fréjus, and among the characters in the play there was a brute of a husband who was terribly jealous and suspicious; one of those Othellos who have always a flea in their ear, and come back unexpectedly from shooting or the club, who pick up pieces of torn paper, listen at doors, smell out meetings with the nose of a detective, and seem to have been sent into the world only to be cuckolds, but who know better than most how to lay a snare, and to play a nasty trick — that when I went to Venice, I consented to let him have my room.

“I will leave you to guess whether they made up for lost time, although, after all, it is no business of yours. My journey, however, which was only to have lasted a few weeks — just long enough to benefit by the change of air, to rid my brain of the image of my last mistress, and perhaps to find another among that strange mixture of society which one meets there, a medley of American, Slav, Viennese and Italian women, who instill a little artificial life into that old city, which is asleep amidst the melancholy silence of the lagoons — was prolonged, and Stanis was as much at home in my rooms as he was in his own.

“Madame Piquignolles, the retired canteen-keeper, took great interest in this adventure, watched over their little love affair, and, as she used to say, she was on guard as soon as they arrived one after the other, the marchioness covered with a thick veil, and slipping in as quickly as possible, always uneasy, and afraid that Monsieur de Fréjus might be following her, and Stanis with the assured and satisfied look of an amorous husband, who is going to meet his little wife after having been away from home for a few days.

“Well, one day during one of those calm moments when his beloved one, fresh from her bath, and impregnated with the coolness of the water, was pressing close to her lover, reclining in his arms, and smiling at him with half closed eyes, at one of those moments when people do not speak, but continue their dream, the sentinel, without even asking leave, suddenly burst into the room, for worthy Madame Piquignolles was in a terrible fright.

“A few minutes before, a well-dressed gentleman, followed by two others of seedy appearance, but who looked very strong, and fit to knock anybody down, had questioned her in a rough manner, and cross-questioned her, and tried to turn her inside out, as she said, asking her whether Monsieur de Fréjus lived on the first floor, without giving her any explanation, and when she declared that there was nobody occupying the apartments then, as her lodger was not in France, Monsieur de Fréjus — for it could certainly be nobody but he — had burst out into an evil laugh, and said: ‘Very well; I shall go and fetch the Police Commissary of the district, and he will make you let us in!’

“And as quickly as possible, while she was telling her story, now in a low, and then in a shrill voice, the woman picked up the marchioness’ dress, cloak, lace-edged drawers, silk petticoat, and little varnished shoes, pulled her out of bed, without giving her time to let her know what she was doing, or to moan, or to have a fit of hysterics, and carried her off, as if she had been a doll, with all her pretty toggery, to a large, empty cupboard in the dining room, that was concealed by Flemish tapestry. ‘You are a man . . . Try to get out of the mess,’ she said to Stanis as she shut the door; ‘I will be answerable for Madame.’ And the enormous woman, who was out of breath by hurrying upstairs as she had done, and whose kind, large red face was dripping with perspiration, while her ample bosom shook beneath her loose jacket, took Madame de Fréjus onto her knees as if she had been a baby, whose nurse was trying to quiet her.

“She felt the poor little culprit’s heart beating as if it were going to burst, while shivers ran over her skin, which was so soft and delicate that the porter’s wife was afraid that she would hurt it with her coarse hands. She was struck with wonder at the cambric chemise, which a gust of wind would have carried off as if it had been a pigeon’s feather, and by the delicate odor of that scarce flower which filled the narrow cupboard, and which rose up in the darkness from that supple body, that was impregnated with the warmth of the bed.

“She would have liked to be there, in that profaned room, and to tell them in a loud voice — with her hands upon her lips like at the time when she used to serve brandy to her comrades at Daddy l’Arb’s — that they had no common sense, that they were none of them good for much, neither the Police Commissary, the husband nor the subordinates, to come and torment a pretty young thing, who was having a little bit of fun, like that. It was a nice job, to get over the wall in that way, to be absent from the second call of names, especially when they were all of the same sort, and were glad of five francs an hour! She had certainly done quite right to get out sometimes and to have a sweetheart, and she was a charming little thing, and that she would say, if she were called before the Court as a witness!

“And she took Madame de Fréjus in her arms to quiet her, and repeated the same thing a dozen times, whispered pretty things to her, and interrupted her occasionally to listen whether they were not searching all the nooks and corners of the apartment. ‘Come, come,’ she said, 4 do not distress yourself. Be calm, my dear . . . It hurts me to hear you cry like that. . . . There will be no mischief done, I will vouch for it.’

“The marchioness, who was nearly fainting, and who was prostrate with terror, could only sob out: ‘Good heavens! Good heavens!’

“She scarcely seemed to be conscious of anything; her head seemed vacant, her ears buzzed, and she felt benumbed, like one does when one goes to sleep in the snow.

“Oh! Only to forget everything, as her love dream was over, to go out quickly, like those little rose-colored tapers at Nice, on Shrove Tuesday evening.

“Oh! Not to awake any more, as the tomorrow would come in, black and sad, because a whole array of barristers, ushers, solicitors and judges would be against her, and disturb her usual quietude, would torment her, cover her with mud, as her delicious, amorous adventure — her first — which had been so carefully enveloped in mystery, and had been kept so secret behind closed shutters and thick veils, would become an everyday episode of adultery, which would get wind, and be discussed from door to door; the lilac had faded, and she was obliged to bid farewell to happiness, as if to an old friend who was going far, very far away, never to return!

“Suddenly, however, she started and sat up, with her neck stretched out and her eyes fixed, while the excanteen-keeper, who was trembling with emotion, put her hands to her left ear, which was her best, like a speaking trumpet, and tried to hear the cries which succeeded each other from room to room, amidst a noise of opening and shutting of doors.

“‘Ah! upon my word, I am not blind. . . . It is Monsieur de Tavernay who is applying again, and making all that noise. . . . Don’t you hear, Mame Piquignolles, Mame Piquignolles! Saved, saved!’ And she dashed out of the cupboard like an unwieldy mass, with her cap all on one side, an anxious look and heavy legs.

“Tavernay was still quite pale, and in a panting voice he cried out to them: ‘Nothing serious, only that fool Frémecourt, who lent me the rooms, has forgotten to pay for his piano for the last five months, a hundred francs a month. . . . You understand . . . they came to claim it, and as we did not reply . . . why, they fetched the Police Commissary, and so, in the name of the law. . . .

“‘A nice fright to give one!’ Madame Piquignolles said, throwing herself onto a chair. ‘Confound the nasty piano!’

“It may be useless to add, that the marchioness has quite renounced trifles, as our forefathers used to say, and would deserve a prize for virtue, if the Academy would only show itself rather more gallant towards pretty women, who take crossroads in order to become virtuous.

“Emotions like that cure people of running risks of that kind!”

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005