Une Vie, by Guy de Maupassant

Chapter 12

A New Home

In a week’s time Rosalie had taken absolute control of everything and everyone in the château. Jeanne was quite resigned and obeyed passively. Weak and dragging her feet as she walked, as little mother had formerly done, she went out walking leaning on Rosalie’s arm, the latter lecturing her and consoling her with abrupt and tender words as they walked slowly along, treating her mistress as though she were a sick child.

They always talked of bygone days, Jeanne with tears in her throat, and Rosalie in the quiet tone of a phlegmatic peasant. The servant kept referring to the subject of unpaid interests; and at last requested Jeanne to give her up all the business papers that Jeanne, in her ignorance of money matters, was hiding from her, out of consideration for her son.

After that, for a week, Rosalie went to Fécamp every day to have matters explained to her by a lawyer whom she knew.

One evening, after having put her mistress to bed, she sat down by the bedside and said abruptly: “Now that you are settled quietly, madame, we will have a chat.” And she told her exactly how matters stood.

When everything was settled, there would be about seven thousand francs of income left, no more.

“We cannot help it, my girl,” said Jeanne. “I feel that I shall not make old bones, and there will be quite enough for me.”

But Rosalie was annoyed: “For you, madame, it might be; but M. Paul — will you leave nothing for him?”

Jeanne shuddered. “I beg you not to mention him again. It hurts me too much to think about him.”

“But I wish to speak about him, because you see you are not brave, Madame Jeanne. He does foolish things. Well! what of it? He will not do so always; and then he will marry and have children. He will need money to bring them up. Pay attention to me: you must sell ‘The Poplars.’”

Jeanne sprang up in a sitting posture. “Sell ‘The Poplars’! Do you mean it? Oh, never, never!”

But Rosalie was not disturbed. “I tell you that you will sell the place, madame, because it must be done.” And then she explained her calculations, her plans, her reasons.

Once they had sold “The Poplars” and the two farms belonging to it to a buyer whom she had found, they would keep four farms situated at St. Leonard, which, free of all mortgage, would bring in an income of eight thousand three hundred francs. They would set aside thirteen hundred francs a year for repairs and for the upkeep of the property; there would then remain seven thousand francs, five thousand of which would cover the annual expenditures and the other two thousand would be put away for a rainy day.

She added: “All the rest has been squandered; there is an end of it. And then I am to keep the key, you understand. As for M. Paul, he will have nothing left, nothing; he would take your last sou from you.”

Jeanne, who was weeping silently, murmured:

“But if he has nothing to eat?”

“He can come and eat with us if he is hungry. There will always be a bed and some stew for him. Do you believe he would have acted as he has done if you had not given him a sou in the first place?”

“But he was in debt, he would have been disgraced.”

“When you have nothing left, will that prevent him from making fresh debts? You have paid his debts, that is all right; but you will not pay any more; it is I who am telling you this. Now goodnight, madame.”

And she left the room.

Jeanne did not sleep, she was so upset at the idea of selling “The Poplars,” of going away, of leaving this house to which all her life was linked.

When Rosalie came into the room next morning she said to her: “My poor girl, I never could make up my mind to go away from here.”

But the servant grew angry: “It will have to be, however, madame; the lawyer will soon be here with the man who wants to buy the château. Otherwise, in four years you will not have a rap left.”

Jeanne was crushed, and repeated: “I could not do it; I never could.”

An hour later the postman brought her a letter from Paul asking for ten thousand francs. What should she do? At her wit’s end, she consulted Rosalie, who threw up her hands, exclaiming: “What was I telling you, madame? Ah! You would have been in a nice fix, both of you, if I had not come back.” And Jeanne, bending to her servant’s will, wrote as follows to the young man:

“My Dear Son: I can do nothing more for you. You have ruined me; I am even obliged to sell ‘The Poplars.’ But never forget that I shall always have a home whenever you want to seek shelter with your old mother, to whom you have caused much suffering. Jeanne.”

When the notary arrived with M. Jeoffrin, a retired sugar refiner, she received them herself, and invited them to look over the château.

A month later, she signed a deed of sale, and also bought herself a little cottage in the neighborhood of Goderville, on the high road to Montiviliers, in the hamlet of Batteville.

Then she walked up and down all alone until evening, in little mother’s avenue, with a sore heart and troubled mind, bidding distracted and sobbing farewells to the landscape, the trees, the rustic bench under the plane tree, to all those things she knew so well and that seemed to have become part of her vision and her soul, the grove, the mound overlooking the plain, where she had so often sat, and from where she had seen the Comte de Fourville running toward the sea on that terrible day of Julian’s death, to an old elm whose upper branches were missing, against which she had often leaned, and to all this familiar garden spot.

Rosalie came out and took her by the arm to make her come into the house.

A tall young peasant of twenty-five was waiting outside the door. He greeted her in a friendly manner as if he had known her for some time: “Good-morning, Madame Jeanne. I hope you are well. Mother told me to come and help you move. I would like to know what you are going to take away, seeing that I shall do it from time to time so as not to interfere with my farm work.”

It was her maid’s son, Julien’s son, Paul’s brother.

She felt as if her heart stopped beating; and yet she would have liked to embrace this young fellow.

She looked at him, trying to find some resemblance to her husband or to her son. He was ruddy, vigorous, with fair hair and his mother’s blue eyes. And yet he looked like Julien. In what way? How? She could not have told, but there was something like him in the whole makeup of his face.

The young man resumed: “If you could show me at once, I should be much obliged.”

But she had not yet decided what she was going to take with her, as her new home was very small; and she begged him to come back again at the end of the week.

She was now entirely occupied with getting ready to move, which brought a little variety into her very dreary and hopeless life. She went from room to room, picking out the furniture which recalled episodes in her life, old friends, as it were, who have a share in our life and almost of our being, whom we have known since childhood, and to which are linked our happy or sad recollections, dates in our history; silent companions of our sad or sombre hours, who have grown old and become worn at our side, their covers torn in places, their joints shaky, their color faded.

She selected them, one by one, sometimes hesitating and troubled, as if she were taking some important step, changing her mind every instant, weighing the merits of two easy chairs or of some old writing-desk and an old work table.

She opened the drawers, sought to recall things; then, when she had said to herself, “Yes, I will take this,” the article was taken down into the dining-room.

She wished to keep all the furniture of her room, her bed, her tapestries, her clock, everything.

She took away some of the parlor chairs, those that she had loved as a little child; the fox and the stork, the fox and the crow, the ant and the grasshopper, and the melancholy heron.

Then, while wandering about in all the corners of this dwelling she was going to forsake, she went one day up into the loft, where she was filled with amazement; it was a chaos of articles of every kind, some broken, others tarnished only, others taken up there for no special reason probably, except that they were tired of them or that they had been replaced by others. She saw numberless knick-knacks that she remembered, and that had disappeared suddenly, trifles that she had handled, those old little insignificant articles that she had seen every day without noticing, but which now, discovered in this loft, assumed an importance as of forgotten relics, of friends that she had found again.

She went from one to the other of them with a little pang, saying: “Why, it was I who broke that china cup a few evenings before my wedding. Ah! there is mother’s little lantern and a cane that little father broke in trying to open the gate when the wood was swollen with the rain.”

There were also a number of things that she did not remember that had belonged to her grandparents or to their parents, dusty things that appeared to be exiled in a period that is not their own, and that looked sad at their abandonment, and whose history, whose experiences no one knows, for they never saw those who chose them, bought them, owned them, and loved them; never knew the hands that had touched them familiarly, and the eyes that looked at them with delight.

Jeanne examined carefully three-legged chairs to see if they recalled any memories, a copper warming pan, a damaged foot stove that she thought she remembered, and a number of housekeeping utensils unfit for use.

She then put together all the things she wished to take, and going downstairs, sent Rosalie up to get them. The servant indignantly refused to bring down “that rubbish.” But Jeanne, who had not much will left, held her own this time, and had to be obeyed.

One morning the young farmer, Julien’s son, Denis Lecoq, came with his wagon for the first load. Rosalie went back with him in order to superintend the unloading and placing of furniture where it was to stand.

Rosalie had come back and was waiting for Jeanne, who had been out on the cliff. She was enchanted with the new house, declaring it was much more cheerful than this old box of a building, which was not even on the side of the road.

Jeanne wept all the evening.

Ever since they heard that the château was sold, the farmers were not more civil to her than necessary, calling her among themselves “the crazy woman,” without knowing exactly why, but doubtless because they guessed with their animal instinct at her morbid and increasing sentimentality, at all the disturbance of her poor mind that had undergone so much sorrow.

The night before they left she chanced to go into the stable. A growl made her start. It was Massacre, whom she had hardly thought of for months. Blind and paralyzed, having reached a great age for an animal, he existed in a straw bed, taken care of by Ludivine, who never forgot him. She took him in her arms, kissed him, and carried him into the house. As big as a barrel, he could scarcely carry himself along on his stiff legs, and he barked like the wooden dogs that one gives to children.

The day of departure finally came. Jeanne had slept in Julien’s old room, as hers was dismantled. She got up exhausted and short of breath as if she had been running. The carriage containing the trunks and the rest of the furniture was in the yard ready to start. Another two-wheeled vehicle was to take Jeanne and the servant. Old Simon and Ludivine were to stay until the arrival of a new proprietor, and then to go to some of their relations, Jeanne having provided a little income for them. They had also saved up some money, and being now very old and garrulous, they were not of much use in the house. Marius had long since married and left.

About eight o’clock it began to rain, a fine icy rain, driven by a light breeze. On the kitchen table, some cups of café au lait were steaming. Jeanne sat down and sipped hers, then rising, she said, “Come along.”

She put on her hat and shawl, and while Rosalie was putting on her overshoes, she said in a choking voice: “Do you remember, my girl, how it rained when we left Rouen to come here?”

As she said this, she put her two hands to her breast and fell over on her back, unconscious. She remained thus over an hour, apparently dead. Then she opened her eyes and was seized with convulsions accompanied by floods of tears.

When she was a little calmer she was so weak that she could not stand up, and Rosalie, fearing another attack if they delayed their departure, went to look for her son. They took her up and carried her to the carriage, placed her on the wooden bench covered with leather; and the old servant got in beside her, wrapped her up with a big cloak, and holding an umbrella over her head, cried: “Quick, Denis, let us be off.” The young man climbed up beside his mother and whipped up the horse, whose jerky pace made the two women bounce about vigorously.

As they turned the corner to enter the village, they saw some one stalking along the road; it was Abbé Tolbiac, who seemed to be watching for them to go by. He stopped to let the carriage pass. He was holding up his cassock with one hand, to keep it out of the mud, and his thin legs, encased in black stockings, ended in a pair of enormous muddy shoes.

Jeanne lowered her eyes so as not to meet his glance, and Rosalie, who had heard all about him, flew into a rage. “Peasant! Peasant!” she murmured; and then seizing her son’s hand: “Give him a good slash with the whip.”

But the young man, just as they were passing the priest, made the wheel of the wagon, which was going at full speed, sink into a rut, splashing the abbé with mud from head to foot.

Rosalie was delighted and turned round to shake her fist at him, while the priest was wiping off the mud with his big handkerchief.

All at once Jeanne exclaimed: “We have forgotten Massacre!” They stopped, and, getting down, Denis ran to fetch the dog, while Rosalie held the reins. He presently reappeared, carrying in his arms the shapeless and crippled animal, which he placed at the feet of the two women.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58