The Penguin's Rock by Guy de Maupassant
This is the season for penguins.
From April to the end of May, before the Parisian visitors arrive, one
sees, all at once, on the little beach at Etretat several old gentlemen,
booted and belted in shooting costume. They spend four or five days at
the Hotel Hauville, disappear, and return again three weeks later. Then,
after a fresh sojourn, they go away altogether.
One sees them again the following spring.
These are the last penguin hunters, what remain of the old set. There
were about twenty enthusiasts thirty or forty years ago; now there are
only a few of the enthusiastic sportsmen.
The penguin is a very rare bird of passage, with peculiar habits. It
lives the greater part of the year in the latitude of Newfoundland and
the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. But in the breeding season a
flight of emigrants crosses the ocean and comes every year to the same
spot to lay their eggs, to the Penguins' Rock near Etretat. They are
found nowhere else, only there. They have always come there, have always
been chased away, but return again, and will always return. As soon as
the young birds are grown they all fly away, and disappear for a year.
Why do they not go elsewhere? Why not choose some other spot on the long
white, unending cliff that extends from the Pas-de-Calais to Havre? What
force, what invincible instinct, what custom of centuries impels these
birds to come back to this place? What first migration, what tempest,
possibly, once cast their ancestors on this rock? And why do the
children, the grandchildren, all the descendants of the first parents
always return here?
There are not many of them, a hundred at most, as if one single family,
maintaining the tradition, made this annual pilgrimage.
And each spring, as soon as the little wandering tribe has taken up its
abode an the rock, the same sportsmen also reappear in the village. One
knew them formerly when they were young; now they are old, but constant
to the regular appointment which they have kept for thirty or forty
years. They would not miss it for anything in the world.
It was an April evening in one of the later years. Three of the old
sportsmen had arrived; one was missing—M. d'Arnelles.
He had written to no one, given no account of himself. But he was not
dead, like so many of the rest; they would have heard of it. At length,
tired of waiting for him, the other three sat down to table. Dinner was
almost over when a carriage drove into the yard of the hotel, and the
late corner presently entered the dining room.
He sat down, in a good humor, rubbing his hands, and ate with zest. When
one of his comrades remarked with surprise at his being in a frock-coat,
he replied quietly:
"Yes, I had no time to change my clothes."
They retired on leaving the table, for they had to set out before
daybreak in order to take the birds unawares.
There is nothing so pretty as this sport, this early morning expedition.
At three o'clock in the morning the sailors awoke the sportsmen by
throwing sand against the windows. They were ready in a few minutes and
went down to the beach. Although it was still dark, the stars had paled a
little. The sea ground the shingle on the beach. There was such a fresh
breeze that it made one shiver slightly in spite of one's heavy clothing.
Presently two boats were pushed down the beach, by the sailors, with a
sound as of tearing cloth, and were floated on the nearest waves. The
brown sail was hoisted, swelled a little, fluttered, hesitated and
swelling out again as round as a paunch, carried the boats towards the
large arched entrance that could be faintly distinguished in the
The sky became clearer, the shadows seemed to melt away. The coast still
seemed veiled, the great white coast, perpendicular as a wall.
They passed through the Manne-Porte, an enormous arch beneath which a
ship could sail; they doubled the promontory of La Courtine, passed the
little valley of Antifer and the cape of the same name; and suddenly
caught sight of a beach on which some hundreds of seagulls were perched.
That was the Penguins' Rock. It was just a little protuberance of the
cliff, and on the narrow ledges of rock the birds' heads might be seen
watching the boats.
They remained there, motionless, not venturing to fly off as yet. Some of
them perched on the edges, seated upright, looked almost like bottles,
for their little legs are so short that when they walk they glide along
as if they were on rollers. When they start to fly they cannot make a
spring and let themselves fall like stones almost down to the very men
who are watching them.
They know their limitation and the danger to which it subjects them, and
cannot make up their minds to fly away.
But the boatmen begin to shout, beating the sides of the boat with the
wooden boat pins, and the birds, in affright, fly one by one into space
until they reach the level of the waves. Then, moving their wings
rapidly, they scud, scud along until they reach the open sea; if a shower
of lead does not knock them into the water.
For an hour the firing is kept up, obliging them to give up, one after
another. Sometimes the mother birds will not leave their nests, and are
riddled with shot, causing drops of blood to spurt out on the white
cliff, and the animal dies without having deserted her eggs.
The first day M. d'Arnelles fired at the birds with his habitual zeal;
but when the party returned toward ten o'clock, beneath a brilliant sun,
which cast great triangles of light on the white cliffs along the coast
he appeared a little worried, and absentminded, contrary to his
As soon as they got on shore a kind of servant dressed in black came up
to him and said something in a low tone. He seemed to reflect, hesitate,
and then replied:
The following day they set out again. This time M, d'Arnelles frequently
missed his aim, although the birds were close by. His friends teased him,
asked him if he were in love, if some secret sorrow was troubling his
mind and heart. At length he confessed.
"Yes, indeed, I have to leave soon, and that annoys me."
"What, you must leave? And why?"
"Oh, I have some business that calls me back. I cannot stay any longer."
They then talked of other matters.
As soon as breakfast was over the valet in black appeared. M. d'Arnelles
ordered his carriage, and the man was leaving the room when the three
sportsmen interfered, insisting, begging, and praying their friend to
stay. One of them at last said:
"Come now, this cannot be a matter of such importance, for you have
already waited two days."
M. d'Arnelles, altogether perplexed, began to think, evidently baffled,
divided between pleasure and duty, unhappy and disturbed.
After reflecting for some time he stammered:
"The fact is—the fact is—I am not alone here. I have my
There were exclamations and shouts of "Your son-in-law! Where is he?"
He suddenly appeared confused and his face grew red.
"What! do you not know? Why—why—he is in the coach house. He
They were all silent in amazement.
M. d'Arnelles continued, more and more disturbed:
"I had the misfortune to lose him; and as I was taking the body to my
house, in Briseville, I came round this way so as not to miss our
appointment. But you can see that I cannot wait any longer."
Then one of the sportsmen, bolder than the rest said:
"Well, but—since he is dead—it seems to me that he can wait a
The others chimed in:
"That cannot be denied."
M. d'Arnelles appeared to be relieved of a great weight, but a little
uneasy, nevertheless, he asked:
"But, frankly—do you think—"
The three others, as one man, replied:
"Parbleu! my dear boy, two days more or less can make no difference in
his present condition."
And, perfectly calmly, the father-in-law turned to the undertaker's
assistant, and said:
"Well, then, my friend, it will be the day after tomorrow."