The Orphan by Guy de Maupassant
Mademoiselle Source had adopted this boy under very sad circumstances.
She was at the time thirty-six years old. Being disfigured through having
as a child slipped off her nurse's lap into the fireplace and burned her
face shockingly, she had determined not to marry, for she did not want
any man to marry her for her money.
A neighbor of hers, left a widow just before her child was born, died in
giving birth, without leaving a sou. Mademoiselle Source took the
new-born child, put him out to nurse, reared him, sent him to a
boarding-school, then brought him home in his fourteenth year, in order
to have in her empty house somebody who would love her, who would look
after her, and make her old age pleasant.
She had a little country place four leagues from Rennes, and she now
dispensed with a servant; her expenses having increased to more than
double since this orphan's arrival, her income of three thousand francs
was no longer sufficient to support three persons.
She attended to the housekeeping and cooking herself, and sent out the
boy on errands, letting him also occupy himself in cultivating the
garden. He was gentle, timid, silent, and affectionate. And she
experienced a deep happiness, a fresh happiness when he kissed her
without surprise or horror at her disfigurement. He called her "Aunt,"
and treated her as a mother.
In the evening they both sat down at the fireside, and she made nice
little dainties for him. She heated some wine and toasted a slice of
bread, and it made a charming little meal before going to bed. She often
took him on her knees and covered him with kisses, murmuring tender words
in his ear. She called him: "My little flower, my cherub, my adored
angel, my divine jewel." He softly accepted her caresses, hiding his head
on the old maid's shoulder. Although he was now nearly fifteen, he had
remained small and weak, and had a rather sickly appearance.
Sometimes Mademoiselle Source took him to the city, to see two married
female relatives of hers, distant cousins, who were living in the
suburbs, and who were the only members of her family in existence. The
two women had always found fault with her, for having adopted this boy,
on account of the inheritance; but for all that, they gave her a cordial
welcome, having still hopes of getting a share for themselves, a third,
no doubt, if what she possessed were only equally divided.
She was happy, very happy, always occupied with her adopted child. She
bought books for him to improve his mind, and he became passionately fond
He no longer climbed on her knee to pet her as he had formerly done; but,
instead, would go and sit down in his little chair in the chimney-corner
and open a volume. The lamp placed at the edge of the Tittle table above
his head shone on his curly hair, and on a portion of his forehead; he
did not move, he did not raise his eyes or make any gesture. He read on,
interested, entirely absorbed in the story he was reading.
Seated opposite to him, she would gaze at him earnestly, astonished at
his studiousness, often on the point of bursting into tears.
She said to him occasionally: "You will fatigue yourself, my treasure!"
hoping that he would raise his head, and come across to embrace her; but
he did not even answer her; he had not heard or understood what she was
saying; he paid no attention to anything save what he read in those
For two years he devoured an incalculable number of volumes. His
After this, he asked Mademoiselle Source several times for money, which
she gave him. As he always wanted more, she ended by refusing, for she
was both methodical and decided, and knew how to act rationally when it
was necessary to do so. By dint of entreaties he obtained a large sum
from her one night; but when he begged her for more a few days later, she
showed herself inflexible, and did not give way to him further, in fact.
He appeared to be satisfied with her decision.
He again became quiet, as he had formerly been, remaining seated for
entire hours, without moving, plunged in deep reverie. He now did not
even talk to Madame Source, merely answering her remarks with short,
formal words. Nevertheless, he was agreeable and attentive in his manner
toward her; but he never embraced her now.
She had by this time grown slightly afraid of him when they sat facing
one another at night on opposite sides of the fireplace. She wanted to
wake him up, to make him say something, no matter what, that would break
this dreadful silence, which was like the darkness of a wood. But he did
not appear to listen to her, and she shuddered with the terror of a poor
feeble woman when she had spoken to him five or six times successively
without being able to get a word out of him.
What was the matter with him? What was going on in that closed-up head?
When she had remained thus two or three hours opposite him, she felt as
if she were going insane, and longed to rush away and to escape into the
open country in order to avoid that mute, eternal companionship and also
some vague danger, which she could not define, but of which she had a
She frequently wept when she was alone. What was the matter with him?
When she expressed a wish, he unmurmuringly carried it into execution.
When she wanted anything brought from the city, he immediately went there
to procure it. She had no complaint to make of him; no, indeed! And
Another year flitted by, and it seemed to her that a fresh change had
taken place in the mind of the young man. She perceived it; she felt it;
she divined it. How? No matter! She was sure she was not mistaken; but
she could not have explained in what manner the unknown thoughts of this
strange youth had changed.
It seemed to her that, until now, he had been like a person in a
hesitating frame of mind, who had suddenly arrived at a determination.
This idea came to her one evening as she met his glance, a fixed,
singular glance which she had not seen in his face before.
Then he commenced to watch her incessantly, and she wished she could hide
herself in order to avoid that cold eye riveted on her.
He kept staring at her, evening after evening, for hours together, only
averting his eyes when she said, utterly unnerved:
"Do not look at me like that, my child!"
Then he would lower his head.
But the moment her back was turned she once more felt that his eyes were
upon her. Wherever she went, he pursued her with his persistent gaze.
Sometimes, when she was walking in her little garden, she suddenly
noticed him hidden behind a bush, as if he were lying in wait for her;
and, again, when she sat in front of the house mending stockings while he
was digging some vegetable bed, he kept continually watching her in a
surreptitious manner, as he worked.
It was in vain that she asked him:
"What's the matter with you, my boy? For the last three years, you have
become very different. I don't recognize you. Do tell me what ails you,
and what you are thinking of."
He invariably replied, in a quiet, weary tone:
"Why, nothing ails me, aunt!"
And when she persisted:
"Ah! my child, answer me, answer me when I speak to you. If you knew what
grief you caused me, you would always answer, and you would not look at
me that way. Have you any trouble? Tell me! I'll comfort you!"
He went away, with a tired air, murmuring:
"But there is nothing the matter with me, I assure you."
He had not grown much, having always a childish look, although his
features were those of a man. They were, however, hard and badly cut. He
seemed incomplete, abortive, only half finished, and disquieting as a
mystery. He was a self-contained, unapproachable being, in whom there
seemed always to be some active, dangerous mental labor going on.
Mademoiselle Source was quite conscious of all this, and she could not
sleep at night, so great was her anxiety. Frightful terrors, dreadful
nightmares assailed her. She shut herself up in her own room, and
barricaded the door, tortured by fear.
What was she afraid of? She could not tell.
She feared everything, the night, the walls, the shadows thrown by the
moon on the white curtains of the windows, and, above all, she feared
What had she to fear? Did she know what it was?
She could live this way no longer! She felt certain that a misfortune
threatened her, a frightful misfortune.
She set forth secretly one morning, and went into the city to see her
relatives. She told them about the matter in a gasping voice. The two
women thought she was going mad and tried to reassure her.
"If you knew the way he looks at me from morning till night. He never
takes his eyes off me! At times, I feel a longing to cry for help, to
call in the neighbors, so much am I afraid. But what could I say to them?
He does nothing but look at me."
The two female cousins asked:
"Is he ever brutal to you? Does he give you sharp answers?"
"No, never; he does everything I wish; he works hard: he is steady; but I
am so frightened that I care nothing for that. He is planning something,
I am certain of that—quite certain. I don't care to remain all
alone like that with him in the country."
The relatives, astonished at her words, declared that people would be
amazed, would not understand; and they advised her to keep silent about
her fears and her plans, without, however, dissuading her from coming to
reside in the city, hoping in that way that the entire inheritance would
eventually fall into their hands.
They even promised to assist her in selling her house, and in finding
another, near them.
Mademoiselle Source returned home. But her mind was so much upset that
she trembled at the slightest noise, and her hands shook whenever any
trifling disturbance agitated her.
Twice she went again to consult her relatives, quite determined now not
to remain any longer in this way in her lonely dwelling. At last, she
found a little cottage in the suburbs, which suited her, and she
privately bought it.
The signature of the contract took place on a Tuesday morning, and
Mademoiselle Source devoted the rest of the day to the preparations for
her change of residence.
At eight o'clock in the evening she got into the diligence which passed
within a few hundred yards of her house, and she told the conductor to
put her down in the place where she usually alighted. The man called out
to her as he whipped his horses:
"Good evening, Mademoiselle Source—good night!"
She replied as she walked on:
"Good evening, Pere Joseph." Next morning, at half-past seven, the
postman who conveyed letters to the village noticed at the cross-road,
not far from the high road, a large splash of blood not yet dry. He said
to himself: "Hallo! some boozer must have had a nose bleed."
But he perceived ten paces farther on a pocket handkerchief also stained
with blood. He picked it up. The linen was fine, and the postman, in
alarm, made his way over to the ditch, where he fancied he saw a strange
Mademoiselle Source was lying at the bottom on the grass, her throat cut
with a knife.
An hour later, the gendarmes, the examining magistrate, and other
authorities made an inquiry as to the cause of death.
The two female relatives, called as witnesses, told all about the old
maid's fears and her last plans.
The orphan was arrested. After the death of the woman who had adopted
him, he wept from morning till night, plunged, at least to all
appearance, in the most violent grief.
He proved that he had spent the evening up to eleven o'clock in a cafe.
Ten persons had seen him, having remained there till his departure.
The driver of the diligence stated that he had set down the murdered
woman on the road between half-past nine and ten o'clock.
The accused was acquitted. A will, drawn up a long time before, which had
been left in the hands of a notary in Rennes, made him sole heir. So he
For a long time, the people of the country boycotted him, as they still
suspected him. His house, that of the dead woman, was looked upon as
accursed. People avoided him in the street.
But he showed himself so good-natured, so open, so familiar, that
gradually these horrible doubts were forgotten. He was generous,
obliging, ready to talk to the humblest about anything, as long as they
cared to talk to him.
The notary, Maitre Rameau, was one of the first to take his part,
attracted by his smiling loquacity. He said at a dinner, at the tax
"A man who speaks with such facility and who is always in good humor
could not have such a crime on his conscience."
Touched by his argument, the others who were present reflected, and they
recalled to mind the long conversations with this man who would almost
compel them to stop at the road corners to listen to his ideas, who
insisted on their going into his house when they were passing by his
garden, who could crack a joke better than the lieutenant of the
gendarmes himself, and who possessed such contagious gaiety that, in
spite of the repugnance with which he inspired them, they could not keep
from always laughing in his company.
All doors were opened to him after a time.
He is to-day the mayor of his township.