My Uncle Jules by Guy de Maupassant
A white-haired old man begged us for alms. My companion, Joseph
Davranche, gave him five francs. Noticing my surprised look, he said:
"That poor unfortunate reminds me of a story which I shall tell you, the
memory of which continually pursues me. Here it is:
"My family, which came originally from Havre, was not rich. We just
managed to make both ends meet. My father worked hard, came home late
from the office, and earned very little. I had two sisters.
"My mother suffered a good deal from our reduced circumstances, and she
often had harsh words for her husband, veiled and sly reproaches. The
poor man then made a gesture which used to distress me. He would pass his
open hand over his forehead, as if to wipe away perspiration which did
not exist, and he would answer nothing. I felt his helpless suffering. We
economized on everything, and never would accept an invitation to dinner,
so as not to have to return the courtesy. All our provisions were bought
at bargain sales. My sisters made their own gowns, and long discussions
would arise on the price of a piece of braid worth fifteen centimes a
yard. Our meals usually consisted of soup and beef, prepared with every
kind of sauce.
"They say it is wholesome and nourishing, but I should have preferred a
"I used to go through terrible scenes on account of lost buttons and torn
"Every Sunday, dressed in our best, we would take our walk along the
breakwater. My father, in a frock coat, high hat and kid gloves, would
offer his arm to my mother, decked out and beribboned like a ship on a
holiday. My sisters, who were always ready first, would await the signal
for leaving; but at the last minute some one always found a spot on my
father's frock coat, and it had to be wiped away quickly with a rag
moistened with benzine.
"My father, in his shirt sleeves, his silk hat on his head, would await
the completion of the operation, while my mother, putting on her
spectacles, and taking off her gloves in order not to spoil them, would
"Then we set out ceremoniously. My sisters marched on ahead, arm in arm.
They were of marriageable age and had to be displayed. I walked on the
left of my mother and my father on her right. I remember the pompous air
of my poor parents in these Sunday walks, their stern expression, their
stiff walk. They moved slowly, with a serious expression, their bodies
straight, their legs stiff, as if something of extreme importance
depended upon their appearance.
"Every Sunday, when the big steamers were returning from unknown and
distant countries, my father would invariably utter the same words:
"'What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that one! Eh?'
"My Uncle Jules, my father's brother, was the only hope of the family,
after being its only fear. I had heard about him since childhood, and it
seemed to me that I should recognize him immediately, knowing as much
about him as I did. I knew every detail of his life up to the day of his
departure for America, although this period of his life was spoken of
only in hushed tones.
"It seems that he had led a bad life, that is to say, he had squandered a
little money, which action, in a poor family, is one of the greatest
crimes. With rich people a man who amuses himself only sows his wild
oats. He is what is generally called a sport. But among needy families a
boy who forces his parents to break into the capital becomes a
good-for-nothing, a rascal, a scamp. And this distinction is just,
although the action be the same, for consequences alone determine the
seriousness of the act.
"Well, Uncle Jules had visibly diminished the inheritance on which my
father had counted, after he had swallowed his own to the last penny.
Then, according to the custom of the times, he had been shipped off to
America on a freighter going from Havre to New York.
"Once there, my uncle began to sell something or other, and he soon wrote
that he was making a little money and that he soon hoped to be able to
indemnify my father for the harm he had done him. This letter caused a
profound emotion in the family. Jules, who up to that time had not been
worth his salt, suddenly became a good man, a kind-hearted fellow, true
and honest like all the Davranches.
"One of the captains told us that he had rented a large shop and was
doing an important business.
"Two years later a second letter came, saying: 'My dear Philippe, I am
writing to tell you not to worry about my health, which is excellent.
Business is good. I leave to-morrow for a long trip to South America. I
may be away for several years without sending you any news. If I
shouldn't write, don't worry. When my fortune is made I shall return to
Havre. I hope that it will not be too long and that we shall all live
happily together . . . .'
"This letter became the gospel of the family. It was read on the
slightest provocation, and it was shown to everybody.
"For ten years nothing was heard from Uncle Jules; but as time went on my
father's hope grew, and my mother, also, often said:
"'When that good Jules is here, our position will be different. There is
one who knew how to get along!'
"And every Sunday, while watching the big steamers approaching from the
horizon, pouring out a stream of smoke, my father would repeat his
"'What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that one! Eh?'
"We almost expected to see him waving his handkerchief and crying:
"Thousands of schemes had been planned on the strength of this expected
return; we were even to buy a little house with my uncle's money—a
little place in the country near Ingouville. In fact, I wouldn't swear
that my father had not already begun negotiations.
"The elder of my sisters was then twenty-eight, the other twenty-six.
They were not yet married, and that was a great grief to every one.
"At last a suitor presented himself for the younger one. He was a clerk,
not rich, but honorable. I have always been morally certain that Uncle
Jules' letter, which was shown him one evening, had swept away the young
man's hesitation and definitely decided him.
"He was accepted eagerly, and it was decided that after the wedding the
whole family should take a trip to Jersey.
"Jersey is the ideal trip for poor people. It is not far; one crosses a
strip of sea in a steamer and lands on foreign soil, as this little
island belongs to England. Thus, a Frenchman, with a two hours' sail, can
observe a neighboring people at home and study their customs.
"This trip to Jersey completely absorbed our ideas, was our sole
anticipation, the constant thought of our minds.
"At last we left. I see it as plainly as if it had happened yesterday.
The boat was getting up steam against the quay at Granville; my father,
bewildered, was superintending the loading of our three pieces of
baggage; my mother, nervous, had taken the arm of my unmarried sister,
who seemed lost since the departure of the other one, like the last
chicken of a brood; behind us came the bride and groom, who always stayed
behind, a thing that often made me turn round.
"The whistle sounded. We got on board, and the vessel, leaving the
breakwater, forged ahead through a sea as flat as a marble table. We
watched the coast disappear in the distance, happy and proud, like all
who do not travel much.
"My father was swelling out his chest in the breeze, beneath his frock
coat, which had that morning been very carefully cleaned; and he spread
around him that odor of benzine which always made me recognize Sunday.
Suddenly he noticed two elegantly dressed ladies to whom two gentlemen
were offering oysters. An old, ragged sailor was opening them with his
knife and passing them to the gentlemen, who would then offer them to the
ladies. They ate them in a dainty manner, holding the shell on a fine
handkerchief and advancing their mouths a little in order not to spot
their dresses. Then they would drink the liquid with a rapid little
motion and throw the shell overboard.
"My father was probably pleased with this delicate manner of eating
oysters on a moving ship. He considered it good form, refined, and, going
up to my mother and sisters, he asked:
"'Would you like me to offer you some oysters?'
"My mother hesitated on account of the expense, but my two sisters
immediately accepted. My mother said in a provoked manner:
"'I am afraid that they will hurt my stomach. Offer the children some,
but not too much, it would make them sick.' Then, turning toward me, she
"'As for Joseph, he doesn't need any. Boys shouldn't be spoiled.'
"However, I remained beside my mother, finding this discrimination
unjust. I watched my father as he pompously conducted my two sisters and
his son-in-law toward the ragged old sailor.
"The two ladies had just left, and my father showed my sisters how to eat
them without spilling the liquor. He even tried to give them an example,
and seized an oyster. He attempted to imitate the ladies, and immediately
spilled all the liquid over his coat. I heard my mother mutter:
"'He would do far better to keep quiet.'
"But, suddenly, my father appeared to be worried; he retreated a few
steps, stared at his family gathered around the old shell opener, and
quickly came toward us. He seemed very pale, with a peculiar look. In a
low voice he said to my mother:
"'It's extraordinary how that man opening the oysters looks like Jules.'
"Astonished, my mother asked:
"My father continued:
"'Why, my brother. If I did not know that he was well off in America, I
should think it was he.'
"Bewildered, my mother stammered:
"'You are crazy! As long as you know that it is not he, why do you say
such foolish things?'
"But my father insisted:
"'Go on over and see, Clarisse! I would rather have you see with your own
"She arose and walked to her daughters. I, too, was watching the man. He
was old, dirty, wrinkled, and did not lift his eyes from his work.
"My mother returned. I noticed that she was trembling. She exclaimed
"'I believe that it is he. Why don't you ask the captain? But be very
careful that we don't have this rogue on our hands again!'
"My father walked away, but I followed him. I felt strangely moved.
"The captain, a tall, thin man, with blond whiskers, was walking along
the bridge with an important air as if he were commanding the Indian mail
"My father addressed him ceremoniously, and questioned him about his
profession, adding many compliments:
"'What might be the importance of Jersey? What did it produce? What was
the population? The customs? The nature of the soil?' etc., etc.
"'You have there an old shell opener who seems quite interesting. Do you
know anything about him?'
"The captain, whom this conversation began to weary, answered dryly:
"'He is some old French tramp whom I found last year in America, and I
brought him back. It seems that he has some relatives in Havre, but that
he doesn't wish to return to them because he owes them money. His name is
Jules—Jules Darmanche or Darvanche or something like that. It seems
that he was once rich over there, but you can see what's left of him
"My father turned ashy pale and muttered, his throat contracted, his eyes
"'Ah! ah! very well, very well. I'm not in the least surprised. Thank you
very much, captain.'
"He went away, and the astonished sailor watched him disappear. He
returned to my mother so upset that she said to him:
"'Sit down; some one will notice that something is the matter.'
"He sank down on a bench and stammered:
"'It's he! It's he!'
"Then he asked:
"'What are we going to do?'
"She answered quickly:
"'We must get the children out of the way. Since Joseph knows everything,
he can go and get them. We must take good care that our son-in-law
doesn't find out.'
"My father seemed absolutely bewildered. He murmured:
"'What a catastrophe!'
"Suddenly growing furious, my mother exclaimed:
"'I always thought that that thief never would do anything, and that he
would drop down on us again! As if one could expect anything from a
"My father passed his hand over his forehead, as he always did when his
wife reproached him. She added:
"'Give Joseph some money so that he can pay for the oysters. All that it
needed to cap the climax would be to be recognized by that beggar. That
would be very pleasant! Let's get down to the other end of the boat, and
take care that that man doesn't come near us!'
"They gave me five francs and walked away.
"Astonished, my sisters were awaiting their father. I said that mamma had
felt a sudden attack of sea-sickness, and I asked the shell opener:
"'How much do we owe you, monsieur?'
"I felt like laughing: he was my uncle! He answered:
"'Two francs fifty.'
"I held out my five francs and he returned the change. I looked at his
hand; it was a poor, wrinkled, sailor's hand, and I looked at his face,
an unhappy old face. I said to myself:
"'That is my uncle, the brother of my father, my uncle!'
"I gave him a ten-cent tip. He thanked me:
"'God bless you, my young sir!'
"He spoke like a poor man receiving alms. I couldn't help thinking that
he must have begged over there! My sisters looked at me, surprised at my
generosity. When I returned the two francs to my father, my mother asked
me in surprise:
"'Was there three francs' worth? That is impossible.'
"I answered in a firm voice
"'I gave ten cents as a tip.'
"My mother started, and, staring at me, she exclaimed:
"'You must be crazy! Give ten cents to that man, to that vagabond—'
"She stopped at a look from my father, who was pointing at his
son-in-law. Then everybody was silent.
"Before us, on the distant horizon, a purple shadow seemed to rise out of
the sea. It was Jersey.
"As we approached the breakwater a violent desire seized me once more to
see my Uncle Jules, to be near him, to say to him something consoling,
something tender. But as no one was eating any more oysters, he had
disappeared, having probably gone below to the dirty hold which was the
home of the poor wretch."