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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Last Years of Madame Jeanne
By Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
 
From ‘A Life’: Translation of Edward Irenæus Prime-Stevenson

JEANNE did not go out any more. She hardly bestirred herself. Each morning she got up at the same hour; took notice of the weather outside; and then went down and seated herself before the fire in the hall.  1
  She would remain there whole days, immovable, her eyes fixed upon the flame, giving course to lamentable thoughts, following the melancholy retrospect of her sorrows. Little by little darkness would invade the small room as the day closed, without her having made any other movement than to put more wood on the fire. Then Rosalie would bring the lamp, exclaiming to her, “Come, come, Madame Jeanne! You must shake yourself up a bit, or really you won’t have any appetite this evening for supper.”  2
  Often, too, she was persecuted by fixed ideas, which besieged and tortured her; by insignificant preoccupations,—mere trifles which took in her dim brain a false importance.  3
  More than anything else she took to living over the past,—her past that lay furthest back, haunted by the early days of her life,—by her wedding trip, over there in Corsica. Suddenly there would rise up before her, landscapes of that island so long forgotten, seen now in the embers of the fireplace: she would recall all the details, all the trivial little episodes, every face once met in that time; the fine head of the guide that they had employed—Jean Ravoli—kept coming before her, and she sometimes fancied that she heard his voice.  4
  Then too she would fall into a revery upon the happy years of her son’s childhood, when she and Aunt Lison, with Paul, had worked in the salad-bed together, kneeling side by side in the soft ground, the two women rivals in their effort to amuse the child as they toiled among the young plants.  5
  So musing, her lips would murmur, “Poulet, Poulet! my little Poulet,”—as if she were speaking to him; and, her revery broken as she spoke, she would try during whole hours to write the boy’s name in the air, shaping with her outstretched finger these letters. She would trace them slowly in space before the fire, sometimes imagining that she really saw them, then believing that her eyes had deceived her; and so she would rewrite the capital P again, her old arm trembling with fatigue, but forcing herself to trace the name to its end; then when she had finished it she would write it over again. At last she could not write it any more. She would confuse everything,—form other words at random, enfeebled almost to idiocy.  6
  All the little manias of those who live solitary took hold of her. The least change in her surroundings irritated her.  7
  Rosalie would often insist upon making her walk about, and even carry her off to the roadside: but Jeanne at the end of twenty minutes would always end up by saying, “No, I am too tired out, my good girl;” and then she would sit down on the edge of the green roadside.  8
  Indeed, movement of any kind was soon distasteful to her, and she would stay in bed in the morning as late as possible. Ever since her infancy one particular habit had remained tenaciously with her,—that of jumping up out of bed just as soon as she had swallowed her morning coffee. She was very much set on that way of breakfasting, and the privation would have been felt more than anything else. Each morning she would await Rosalie’s arrival at her bedside with an exaggerated impatience; and just as soon as the cup was put upon the table at her side, she would start up and empty it almost greedily, and then begin to dress herself at once.  9
  But now, little by little, she had grown into the habit of dreamily waiting some seconds after she had put back the cup into the plate; then she would settle herself again in her bed; and then, little by little, would lengthen her idleness from day to day, until Rosalie would come back furious at such delay, and would dress her mistress almost by force.  10
  Besides all this, she did not seem to have now any appearance of a will about matters; and each time that Rosalie would ask her opinion as to whether something was to be one way or another, she would answer, “Do as you think best, my girl.”  11
  She fancied herself directly pursued by obstinate misfortune, against which she made herself as fatalistic as an Oriental: the habit of seeing her dreams evaporate, and her hopes come to nothing, put her into the attitude of being afraid to undertake anything; and she hesitated whole days before accomplishing the most simple affair, convinced that she would only set out the wrong way to do it, and that it would turn out badly. She repeated continually, “I have never had any luck in my life.” Then it was Rosalie’s turn to cry to her, “What would you say if you had had to work for your bread,—if you were obliged to get up every morning at six o’clock and go out for your day’s doings? There are lots of people who are obliged to do that, nevertheless; and when such people become too old, they have to die—just of their poverty.”  12
  A little more strength came to her when the air softened into the first days of spring; but she used this new activity only to throw herself more and more into sombre thoughts.  13
  One morning, when she had climbed up into the garret to hunt for something, she happened to open a trunk full of old calendars; somebody had kept them, as certain country people have a habit of doing. It seemed to her that in finding them she found the very years themselves of her past life; and she remained stricken with a strange and confused emotion before that pile of cardboard squares.  14
  She took them up and carried them down-stairs. They were of all shapes, big and little. She began to arrange them year by year, upon the table; and then, all at once, she found the very first one that had belonged to her,—the same one that she had brought to Peuples. She looked at this one a long time, with the dates marked off by her the morning of her departure from Rouen, the day after her going away from the convent. She wept over it. Sadly and slowly the tears fell; the bitter tears of an old woman whose life was spread out before her on that table.  15
  With the calendars came to her an idea that soon became a sort of obsession; terrible, incessant, inexorable. She would try to remember just whatever she had done from day to day during all her life. She pinned the calendars against the walls and on the carpet one after the other—those faded pieces of cardboard; and so she came to pass hours face to face with them, continually asking herself, “Now let me see,—what was it happened to me that month?”  16
  She had checked certain memorable days in the course of her life, hence now and then she was able to recall the episodes of an entire month, bringing them up one by one, grouping them together, connecting one by another all those little matters which had preceded or followed some important event. She succeeded by sheer force of attention, by force of memory and of concentrated will, in bringing back to mind almost completely her two first years at Peuples. Far-away souvenirs of her life returned to her with a singular facility, and with a kind of relief in them; but the later years gradually seemed to lose themselves in a mist,—to become mixed one with another: and so Jeanne would remain now and then an indefinite time, her head bowed toward one of the calendars, her mind spellbound by the past, without being able to remember whether it was in this or that calendar that such or such a remembrance ought to be decided. She ranged them around the room like the religious pictures that point out the Way of the Cross in a church,—these tableaux of days that were no more. Then she would abruptly set down her chair before one of them; and there she would sit until night came, immobile, staring at it, buried in her vague researches.  17
  All at once, when the sap began to awaken in the boughs beneath the warmth of the sun; when the crops began to spring up in the fields, the trees to become verdant; when the apple-trees in the orchard swelled out roundly like rosy balls, and perfumed the plain,—then a great counter-agitation came over her; she could not seem to stay still. She went and came; she left the house and returned to it twenty times a day, and even took now and then a stroll the length of the farming tracts, excited to a sort of fever of regret. The sight of a daisy blossoming in a tuft of grass, the flash of a ray of sun slipping down between the leaves, the glittering of a strip of water in which the blue sky was mirrored,—all moved her; awakened a tenderness in her; gave her sensations very far away, like an echo of her emotions as a young girl, when she went dreaming about the country-side.  18
  One morning the faithful Rosalie came later than usual into her room, and said, setting down upon the table the bowl of coffee: “Come now, drink this. Denis is down-stairs waiting for us at the door. We will go over to Peuples to-day: I’ve got some business to attend to over there.”  19
  Jeanne thought that she was going to faint, so deep was her emotion at the sound of that name, at the thought of going to the home of her girlhood. She dressed herself, trembling with emotion, frightened and tremulous at the mere idea of seeing again that dear house.  20
  A radiant sky spread out above over all the world; the horse, in fits and starts of liveliness, sometimes went almost at a gallop. When they entered into the commune of Etouvent, Jeanne could hardly breathe, so much did her heart beat; and when she saw from a distance the brick pillars of the boundary-line of her old home, she exclaimed in a low voice two or three times, and as if in spite of herself, “Oh!—oh!—oh!—” as if before things that threatened to revolutionize all her heart.  21
  They left the wagon with the Couillard family: then, while Rosalie and her son went off to attend to their business, the caretakers offered Jeanne the chance of taking a little turn around the château, the present owners of it being absent; so they gave her the keys.  22
  Alone she set out; and when she was fairly before the old manor-house by the seaside, she stopped to look at its outside once again. It had changed in nothing outside. The large, grayish building that day showed upon its old walls the smile of the sunshine. All the shutters were closed.  23
  A bit of a dead branch fell from above upon her dress. She raised her eyes. It came from the plane-tree. She drew near the big tree with its smooth, pale bark; she caressed it with her hand almost as if it had been an animal. Her foot struck something in the grass,—a fragment of rotten wood; lo! it was the last fragment of the very bench on which she had sat so often with those of her own family about her, so many years ago; the very bench which had been set in place on the same day that Julien had made his first visit.  24
  She turned then to the double doors of the vestibule of the house, and she had great trouble to open them; for the heavy key, grown rusty, refused to turn in the lock. At length the lock yielded with a heavy grinding of its springs; and the door, a little obstinate itself, gave her entrance with a cloud of dust.  25
  At once, and almost running, she went up-stairs to find what had been her own room. She could hardly recognize it, hung as it was with a light new paper: but throwing open a window, she looked out and stood motionless, stirred even to the depth of her being at the sight of all that landscape so much beloved; the thicket, the elm-trees, the flat reaches, and the sea dotted with brown sails, seeming motionless in the distance.  26
  She began prowling about the great empty, lonely dwelling. She even stopped to look at the discolorations on the walls; spots familiar to her eyes. Once she stood before a little hole crushed in the plaster by her father himself; who had often amused himself with making passages at arms, cane in hand, against the partition wall, when he would happen to be passing this spot.  27
  Her mother’s room—in it she found, stuck behind the door in a dark corner near the bed, a fine gold hairpin; one which she herself had stuck there so long ago, and which she had often tried to find during the past years. Nobody had ever come across it. She drew it out as a relic beyond all price, and kissed it, and carried it away with her. Everywhere about the house she walked, recognizing almost invisible marks in the hangings of the rooms that had not been changed; she made out once more those curious faces that a childish imagination gives often to the patterns and stuffs, to marbles, and to shadings of the ceilings, grown dingy with time. On she walked, with soundless footsteps, wholly alone in the immense, silent house, as one who crosses a cemetery. All her life was buried in it.  28
  She went down-stairs to the drawing-room. It was sombre behind the closed shutters: for some time she could not distinguish anything; then her eyes became accustomed to the darkness. She recognized, little by little, the tall hangings with their patterns of birds flitting about. Two arm-chairs were set before the chimney, as if people had just quitted them; and even the odor of the room, an odor which it had always kept,—that old vague, sweet odor belonging to some old houses,—entered Jeanne’s very being, enwrapt her in souvenirs, intoxicated her memory. She remained gasping, breathing in that breath of the past, and with her eyes fixed upon those two chairs; for suddenly, in a sort of hallucination which gave place to a positive idea, she saw—as she had so often seen them—her father and her mother, sitting there warming their feet by the fire. She drew back terrified, struck her back against the edge of the door, caught at it to keep herself from falling, but with her eyes still fixed upon the chairs.  29
  The vision disappeared. She remained forgetful of everything during some moments; then slowly she recovered her self-possession, and would have fled from the room, fearful of losing her very senses. By chance, her glance fell against the door-post on which she chanced to be leaning; and lo! before her eyes were the marks that had been made to keep track of Poulet’s height as he was growing up!  30
  The little marks climbed the painted wood with unequal intervals; figures traced with the penknife noted down the different ages and growths during the boy’s life. Sometimes the jottings were in the handwriting of her father, a large hand; sometimes they were in her own smaller hand; sometimes in that of Aunt Lison, a little tremulous. It seemed to her that the child of other days was actually there, standing before her with his blond hair, pressing his little forehead against the wall so that his height could be measured; and the Baron was crying, “Why, Jeanne! he has grown a whole centimetre since six weeks ago!” She kissed the piece of wood in a frenzy of love and desolateness.  31
  But some one was calling her from outside. It was Rosalie’s voice: “Madame Jeanne, Madame Jeanne! We are waiting for you, to have luncheon.” She hurried away from the room half out of her senses. She hardly understood anything that the others said to her at luncheon. She ate the things that they put on her plate; she listened without knowing what she heard, talking mechanically with the farming-women, who inquired about her health; she let them embrace her, and herself saluted the cheeks that were held out to her; and then got into the wagon again.  32
  When the high roof of the château was lost to her sight across the trees, she felt in her very heart a direful wrench. It seemed to her in her innermost spirit that now she had said farewell forever to her old home!  33
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
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