Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Relics of the Past

My dear Colette, — I do not know whether you remember a verse of M. Sainte–Beuve which we have read together, and which has remained fixed in my memory; for me this verse speaks eloquently; and it has very often reassured my poor heart, especially for some time past. Here it is:

“To be born, to live, and die in the same house.”

I am now all alone in this house where I was born, where I have lived, and where I hope to die. It is not gay every day, but it is pleasant; for there I have souvenirs all around me.

My son Henri is a barrister; he comes to see me twice a year. Jeanne is living with her husband at the other end of France, and it is I who go to see her each autumn. So here I am, all, all alone, but surrounded by familiar objects which incessantly speak to me about my own people, the dead, and the living separated from me by distance.

I no longer read much; I am too old for that; but I am constantly thinking, or rather dreaming. I do not dream as I used to do long ago. You may recall to mind any wild fancies, the adventures our brains concocted when we were twenty, and all the horizons of happiness that dawned upon us!

Nothing out of all our dreaming has been realized, or rather it is quite a different thing that has happened, less charming, less poetic, but sufficient for those who know how to accept their lot in this world bravely.

Do you know why we women are so often unhappy? It is because we are taught in our youth to believe too much in happiness! We are never brought up with the idea of fighting, of striving, of suffering. And, at the first shock, our hearts are broken; we look forward, with blind faith, to cascades of fortunate events. What does happen is at best but a partial happiness, and thereupon we burst out sobbing. Happiness, the real happiness that we dream of, I have come to know what that is. It does not consist in the arrival of great bliss, for any great bliss that falls to our share is to be found in the infinite expectation of a succession of joys to which we never attain. Happiness is happy expectation; it is the horizon of hope; it is, therefore, endless illusion; and, old as I am, I create illusions for myself still, in fact, every day I live; only their object is changed, my desires being no longer the same. I have told you that I spend my brightest hours in dreaming. What else should I do?

I have two ways of doing this. I am going to tell you what they are; they may perhaps prove useful to you.

Oh! the first is very simple; it consists in sitting down before my fire in a low armchair made soft for my old bones, and looking back at the things that have been put aside.

One life is so short, especially a life entirely spent in the same spot:

“To be born, to live, and die in the same house.”

The things that bring back the past to our recollection are heaped, pressed together; and, we are old, it sometimes seems no more than ten days since we were young. Yes; everything slips away from us, as if life itself were but a single day: morning, evening, and then comes night — a night without a dawn!

When I gaze into the fire, for hours and hours, the past rises up before me as though it were but yesterday. I no longer think of my present existence; reverie carries me away; once more I pass through all the changes of my life.

And I often am possessed by the illusion that I am a young girl, so many breaths of bygone days are wafted back to me, so many youthful sensations and even impulses, so many throbbings of my young heart — all the passionate ardor of eighteen; and I have clear, as fresh realities, visions of forgotten things. Oh! how vividly, above all, do the memories of my walks as a young girl come back to me! There, in the armchair of mine, before the fire, I saw once more, a few nights since, a sunset on Mont Saint–Michel, and immediately afterwards I was riding on horseback through the forest of Uville with the odors of the damp sand and of the flowers steeped in dew, and the evening star sending its burning reflection through the water and bathing my face in its rays as I galloped through the copse. And all I thought of then, my poetic enthusiasm at the sight of the boundless sea, my keen delight at the rustling of the branches as I passed, my most trivial impressions, every fragment of thought, desire, or feeling, all, all came back to me as if I were there still, as if fifty years had not glided by since then, to chill my blood and moderate my hopes. But my other way of reviving the long ago is much better.

You know, or you do not know, my dear Colette, that we destroy nothing in the house. We have upstairs, under the roof, a large room for cast-off things which we call “the lumber-room.” Everything which is no longer used is thrown there. I often go up there, and gaze around me. Then I find once more a heap of nothings that I had ceased to think about, and that recalled a heap of things to my mind. They are not those beloved articles of furniture which we have known since our childhood and to which are attached recollections of events of joys or sorrows, dates in our history, which, from the fact of being intermingled with our lives, have assumed a kind of personality, a physiognomy, which are the companions of our pleasant or gloomy house, the only companions, alas! that we are sure not to lose, the only ones that will not die, like the others — those whose features, whose loving eyes, whose lips, whose voices, have vanished for ever. But I find instead among the medley of worn-out gewgaws those little old insignificant objects which have hung on by our side for forty years without ever having been noticed by us, and which, when we suddenly lay eyes on them again, have somehow the importance, the significance of relics of the past. They produce on my mind the effect of those people — whom we have known for a very long time without ever having seen them as they really are, and who, all of a sudden, some evening, quite unexpectedly, break out into a stream of interminable talk, and tell us all about themselves down to their most hidden secrets, of which we had never even suspected the existence.

And I move about from one object to the other with a little thrill in my heart every time something fixes my attention. I say to myself: “See there! I broke that the night Paul started for Lyons;” or else, “Ah! there is mamma’s little lantern, which she used to carry with her going to her evening devotions on dark winter nights.” There are even things in this room which have no story to tell me, which have come down from my grandparents, things therefore, whose history and adventures are utterly unknown to those who are living today, and whose very owners nobody knows now. Nobody has seen the hands that used to touch them or the eyes that used to gaze at them. These are the things that make me have long, long dreams. They represent to my mind desolate people whose last remaining friend is dead. You, my dear Colette, can scarcely comprehend all this, and you will smile at my simplicity, my childish, sentimental whims. You are a Parisian, and you Parisians do not understand this interior life, those eternal echoes of one’s own heart. You live in the outer world, with all your thoughts in the open. Living alone as I do, I can only speak about myself. When you are answering this letter, tell me a little about yourself, that I may also be able to put myself in your place, as you will be able to put yourself in mine tomorrow.

But you will never completely understand M. de Sainte Beuve’s verse:

“To be born, to live, and to die in one house.”

A thousand kisses, my old friend,


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