Monsieur Savel, who was called in Mantes, “Father Savel,” had just risen from bed. He wept. It was a dull autumn day; the leaves were falling. They fell slowly in the rain, resembling another rain, but heavier and slower. M. Savel was not in good spirit. He walked from the fireplace to the window, and from the window to the fireplace. Life has its somber days. It will no longer have any but somber days for him now, for he has reached the age of sixty-two. He is alone, an old bachelor, with nobody about him. How sad it is to die alone, all alone, without the disinterested affection of anyone!
He pondered over his life, so barren, so void. He recalled the days gone by, the days of his infancy, the house, the house of his parents; his college days, his follies, the time of his probation in Paris, the illness of his father, his death. He then returned to live with his mother. They lived together, the young man and the old woman, very quietly, and desired nothing more. At last the mother died. How sad a thing is life! He has lived always alone, and now, in his turn, he, too, will soon be dead. He will disappear, and that will be the finish. There will be no more of Savel upon the earth. What a frightful thing! Other people will live, they will live, they will laugh. Yes, people will go on amusing themselves, and he will no longer exist! Is it not strange that people can laugh, amuse themselves, be joyful under that eternal certainty of death! If this death were only probable, one could then have hope; but no, it is inevitable, as inevitable as that night follows the day.
If, however, his life had been complete! If he had done something; if he had had adventures, grand pleasures, successes, satisfaction of some kind or another. But now, nothing. He had done nothing, never anything but rise from bed, eat, at the same hours, and go to bed again. And he has gone on like that, to the age of sixty-two years. He had not even taken unto himself a wife, as other men do. Why? Yes, why was it that he was not married? He might have been, for he possessed considerable means. Was it an opportunity which had failed him? Perhaps! But one can create opportunities. He was indifferent; that was all. Indifference had been his greatest drawback, his defect, his vice. Have some men missed their lives through indifference! To certain natures, it is so difficult for them to get out of bed, to move about, to take long walks, to speak, to study any question.
He had not even been in love. No woman had reposed on his bosom, in a complete abandon of love. He knew nothing of this delicious anguish of expectation, of the divine quivering of the pressed hand, of the ecstacy of triumphant passion.
What superhuman happiness must inundate your heart, when lips encounter lips for the first time, when the grasp of four arms makes one being of you, a being unutterably happy, two beings infatuated with one another.
M. Savel was sitting down, his feet on the fender, in his dressing gown. Assuredly his life had been spoiled, completely spoiled. He had, however, loved. He had loved secretly, dolorously and indifferently, just as was characteristic of him in everything. Yes, he had loved his old friend, Madame Saudres, the wife of his old companion, Saudres. Ah! if he had known her as a young girl! But he had encountered her too late; she was already married. Unquestionably he would have asked her hand; that he would! How he had loved her, nevertheless, without respite, since the first day he had set eyes on her!
He recalled, without emotion, all the times he had seen her, his grief on leaving her, the many nights that he could not sleep, because of his thinking of her.
In the mornings he always got up somewhat less amorous than in the evening.
Seeing that she was formerly pretty, and “crumy,” blonde, curl, joyous. Saudres was not the man she would have selected. She was now fifty-two years of age. She seemed happy. Ah! if she had only loved him in days gone by; yes, if she had only loved him! And why should she not have loved him, he, Savel, seeing that he loved her so much, yes, she, Madame Saudres!
If only she could have divined something — Had she not divined anything, had she not seen anything, never comprehended anything? But! Then what would she have thought? If he had spoken what would she have answered?
And Savel asked himself a thousand other things. He reviewed his whole life, seeking to grasp again a multitude of details.
He recalled all the long evenings spent at the house of Saudres, when the latter’s wife was young and so charming.
He recalled many things that she had said to him, the sweet intonations of her voice, the little significant smiles that meant so much.
He recalled the walks that the three of them had had, along the banks of the Seine, their lunches on the grass on the Sundays, for Saudres was employed at the sub-prefecture. And all at once the distant recollection came to him, of an afternoon spent with her in a little plantation on the banks of the river.
They had set out in the morning, carrying their provisions in baskets. It was a bright spring morning, one of those days which inebriate one. Everything smelt fresh, everything seemed happy. The voices of the birds sounded more joyous, and the flapping of their wings more rapid. They had lunch on the grass, under the willow trees, quite close to the water, which glittered in the sun’s rays. The air was balmy, charged with the odors of fresh vegetation; they had drunk the most delicious wines. How pleasant everything was on that day!
After lunch, Saudres went to sleep on the broad of his back, “The best nap he had in his life,” said he, when he woke up.
Madame Saudres had taken the arm of Savel, and they had started to walk along the river’s bank.
She leaned tenderly on his arm. She laughed and said to him: “I am intoxicated, my friend, I am quite intoxicated.” He looked at her, his heart going patty-patty. He felt himself grow pale, fearful that he had not looked too boldly at her, and that the trembling of his hand had not revealed his passion.
She had decked her head with wild flowers and water-lilies, and she had asked him: “Do you not like to see me appear thus?”
As he did not answer — for he could find nothing to say, he should rather have gone down on his knees — she burst out laughing, a sort of discontented laughter, which she threw straight in his face, saying: “Great goose, what ails you? You might at least speak!”
He felt like crying, and could not even yet find a word to say.
All these things came back to him now, as vividly as on the day when they took place. Why had she said this to him, “Great goose. What ails you! You might at least speak!”
And he recalled how tenderly she had leaned on his arm. And in passing under a shady tree he had felt her ear leaning against his cheek, and he had tilted his head abruptly, for fear that she had not meant to bring their flesh into contact.
When he had said to her: “Is it not time to return?” she darted at him a singular look. “Certainly,” she said, “certainly,” regarding him at the same time in a curious manner. He had not thought of anything then; and now the whole thing appeared to him quite plain.
“Just as you like, my friend. If you are tired let us go back.”
And he had answered: “It is not that I am fatigued; but Saudres has perhaps woke up now.”
And she had said: “If you are afraid of my husband’s being awake, that is another thing. Let us return.”
In returning she remained silent and leaned no longer on his arm. Why?
At that time it had never occurred to him to ask himself “why.” Now he seemed to apprehend something that he had not then understood.
What was it?
M. Savel felt himself blush, and he got up at a bound, feeling thirty years younger, believing that he now understood Madame Saudres then to say, “I love you.”
Was it possible! That suspicion which had just entered his soul, tortured him. Was it possible that he could not have seen, not have dreamed!
Oh! if that could be true, if he had rubbed against such good fortune without laying hold of it!
He said to himself: “I wish to know. I cannot remain in this state of doubt. I wish to know!” He put on his clothes quickly, dressed in hot haste. He thought: “I am sixty-two years of age, she is fifty-eight; I may ask her that now without giving offense.”
He started out.
The Saudres’s house was situated on the other side of the street, almost directly opposite his own. He went up to it, knocked, and a little servant came to open the door.
“You there at this hour, ill, Savel! Has some accident happened to you?”
M. Savel responded:
“No, my girl; but go and tell your mistress that I want to speak to her at once.”
“The fact is, Madame is preparing her stock of pear-jams for the winter, and she is standing in front of the fire. She is not dressed, as you may well understand.”
“Yes, but go and tell her that I wish to see her on an important matter.”
The little servant went away, and Savel began to walk, with long, nervous strides, up and down the drawing-room. He did not feel himself the least embarrassed, however. Oh! he was merely going to ask her something, as he would have asked her about some cooking receipt, and that was: “Do you know that I am sixty-two years of age!”
The door opened; and Madame appeared. She was now a gross woman, fat and round, with full cheeks, and a sonorous laugh. She walked with her arms away from her body, and her sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, her bare arms all smeared with sugar juice. She asked, anxiously:
“What is the matter with you, my friend; you are not ill, are you?”
“No, my dear friend; but I wish to ask you one thing, which to me is of the first importance, something which is torturing my heart, and I want you to promise that you will answer me candidly.”
She laughed, “I am always candid. Say on.”
“Well, then. I have loved you from the first day I ever saw you. Can you have any doubt of this?”
She responded, laughing, with something of her former tone of voice.
“Great goose! what ails you? I knew it well from the very first day!”
Savel began to tremble. He stammered out: “You knew it? Then — ”
“Then? . . . What?”
“Then . . . what would you think? . . . what . . . what. . . . What would you have answered?”
She broke forth into a peal of laughter, which made the sugar juice run off the tips of her fingers on to the carpet.
“I? But you did not ask me anything. It was not for me to make a declaration.”
He then advanced a step towards her.
“Tell me . . . tell me. . . . You remember the day when Saudres went to sleep on the grass after lunch . . . when we had walked together as far as the bend of the river, below . . . ”
He waited, expectantly. She had ceased to laugh, and looked at him, straight in the eyes.
“Yes, certainly, I remember it.”
He answered, shivering all over.
“Well . . . that day . . . if I had been . . . if I had been . . . enterprising . . . what would you have done?”
She began to laugh as only a happy woman can laugh, who has nothing to regret, and responded, frankly, in a voice tinged with irony:
“I would have yielded, my friend.”
She then turned on her heels and went back to her jam-making.
Savel rushed into the street, cast down, as though he had encountered some great disaster. He walked with giant strides, through the rain, straight on, until he reached the river, without thinking where he was going. When he reached the bank he turned to the right and followed it. He walked a long time, as if urged on by some instinct. His clothes were running with water, his hat was bashed in, as soft as a piece of rag, and dripping like a thatched roof. He walked on, straight in front of him. At last, he came to the place where they had lunched so long, long ago, the recollection of which had tortured his heart. He sat down under the leafless trees, and he wept.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53