A Humble Drama by Guy de Maupassant
Meetings that are unexpected constitute the charm of traveling. Who has
not experienced the joy of suddenly coming across a Parisian, a college
friend, or a neighbor, five hundred miles from home? Who has not passed a
night awake in one of those small, rattling country stage-coaches, in
regions where steam is still a thing unknown, beside a strange young
woman, of whom one has caught only a glimpse in the dim light of the
lantern, as she entered the carriage in front of a white house in some
small country town?
And the next morning, when one's head and ears feel numb with the
continuous tinkling of the bells and the loud rattling of the windows,
what a charming sensation it is to see your pretty neighbor open her
eyes, startled, glance around her, arrange her rebellious hair with her
slender fingers, adjust her hat, feel with sure hand whether her corset
is still in place, her waist straight, and her skirt not too wrinkled.
She glances at you coldly and curiously. Then she leans back and no
longer seems interested in anything but the country.
In spite of yourself, you watch her; and in spite of yourself you keep on
thinking of her. Who is she? Whence does she come? Where is she going? In
spite of yourself you spin a little romance around her. She is pretty;
she seems charming! Happy he who . . . Life might be delightful with her.
Who knows? She is perhaps the woman of our dreams, the one suited to our
disposition, the one for whom our heart calls.
And how delicious even the disappointment at seeing her get out at the
gate of a country house! A man stands there, who is awaiting her, with
two children and two maids. He takes her in his arms and kisses as he
lifts her out. Then she stoops over the little ones, who hold up their
hands to her; she kisses them tenderly; and then they all go away
together, down a path, while the maids catch the packages which the
driver throws down to them from the coach.
Adieu! It is all over. You never will see her again! Adieu to the young
woman who has passed the night by your side. You know her no more, you
have not spoken to her; all the same, you feel a little sad to see her
I have had many of these souvenirs of travel, some joyous and some sad.
Once I was in Auvergne, tramping through those delightful French
mountains, that are not too high, not too steep, but friendly and
familiar. I had climbed the Sancy, and entered a little inn, near a
pilgrim's chapel called Notre-Dame de Vassiviere, when I saw a queer,
ridiculous-looking old woman breakfasting alone at the end table.
She was at least seventy years old, tall, skinny, and angular, and her
white hair was puffed around her temples in the old-fashioned style. She
was dressed like a traveling Englishwoman, in awkward, queer clothing,
like a person who is indifferent to dress. She was eating an omelet and
Her face was peculiar, with restless eyes and the expression of one with
whom fate has dealt unkindly. I watched her, in spite of myself,
thinking: "Who is she? What is the life of this woman? Why is she
wandering alone through these mountains?"
She paid and rose to leave, drawing up over her shoulders an astonishing
little shawl, the two ends of which hung over her arms. From a corner of
the room she took an alpenstock, which was covered with names traced with
a hot iron; then she went out, straight, erect, with the long steps of a
letter-carrier who is setting out on his route.
A guide was waiting for her at the door, and both went away. I watched
them go down the valley, along the road marked by a line of high wooden
crosses. She was taller than her companion, and seemed to walk faster
Two hours later I was climbing the edge of the deep funnel that incloses
Lake Pavin in a marvelous and enormous basin of verdure, full of trees,
bushes, rocks, and flowers. This lake is so round that it seems as if the
outline had been drawn with a pair of compasses, so clear and blue that
one might deem it a flood of azure come down from the sky, so charming
that one would like to live in a but on the wooded slope which dominates
this crater, where the cold, still water is sleeping. The Englishwoman
was standing there like a statue, gazing upon the transparent sheet down
in the dead volcano. She was straining her eyes to penetrate below the
surface down to the unknown depths, where monstrous trout which have
devoured all the other fish are said to live. As I was passing close by
her, it seemed to me that two big tears were brimming her eyes. But she
departed at a great pace, to rejoin her guide, who had stayed behind in
an inn at the foot of the path leading to the lake.
I did not see her again that day.
The next day, at nightfall, I came to the chateau of Murol. The old
fortress, an enormous tower standing on a peak in the midst of a large
valley, where three valleys intersect, rears its brown, uneven, cracked
surface into the sky; it is round, from its large circular base to the
crumbling turrets on its pinnacles.
It astonishes the eye more than any other ruin by its simple mass, its
majesty, its grave and imposing air of antiquity. It stands there, alone,
high as a mountain, a dead queen, but still the queen of the valleys
stretched out beneath it. You go up by a slope planted with firs, then
you enter a narrow gate, and stop at the foot of the walls, in the first
inclosure, in full view of the entire country.
Inside there are ruined halls, crumbling stairways, unknown cavities,
dungeons, walls cut through in the middle, vaulted roofs held up one
knows not how, and a mass of stones and crevices, overgrown with grass,
where animals glide in and out.
I was exploring this ruin alone.
Suddenly I perceived behind a bit of wall a being, a kind of phantom,
like the spirit of this ancient and crumbling habitation.
I was taken aback with surprise, almost with fear, when I recognized the
old lady whom I had seen twice.
She was weeping, with big tears in her eyes, and held her handkerchief in
I turned around to go away, when she spoke to me, apparently ashamed to
have been surprised in her grief.
"Yes, monsieur, I am crying. That does not happen often to me."
"Pardon me, madame, for having disturbed you," I stammered, confused, not
knowing what to say. "Some misfortune has doubtless come to you."
"Yes. No—I am like a lost dog," she murmured, and began to sob,
with her handkerchief over her eyes.
Moved by these contagious tears, I took her hand, trying to calm her.
Then brusquely she told me her history, as if no longer ably to bear her
"Oh! Oh! Monsieur—if you knew—the sorrow in which I
live—in what sorrow.
"Once I was happy. I have a house down there—a home. I cannot go
back to it any more; I shall never go back to it again, it is too hard to
"I have a son. It is he! it is he! Children don't know. Oh, one has such
a short time to live! If I should see him now I should perhaps not
recognize him. How I loved him? How I loved him! Even before he was born,
when I felt him move. And after that! How I have kissed and caressed and
cherished him! If you knew how many nights I have passed in watching him
sleep, and how many in thinking of him. I was crazy about him. When he
was eight years old his father sent him to boarding-school. That was the
end. He no longer belonged to me. Oh, heavens! He came to see me every
Sunday. That was all!
"He went to college in Paris. Then he came only four times a year, and
every time I was astonished to see how he had changed, to find him taller
without having seen him grow. They stole his childhood from me, his
confidence, and his love which otherwise would not have gone away from
me; they stole my joy in seeing him grow, in seeing him become a little
"I saw him four times a year. Think of it! And at every one of his visits
his body, his eye, his movements, his voice his laugh, were no longer the
same, were no longer mine. All these things change so quickly in a child;
and it is so sad if one is not there to see them change; one no longer
"One year he came with down on his cheek! He! my son! I was dumfounded
—would you believe it? I hardly dared to kiss him. Was it really
he, my little, little curly head of old, my dear; dear child, whom I had
held in his diapers or my knee, and who had nursed at my breast with his
little greedy lips—was it he, this tall, brown boy, who no longer
knew how to kiss me, who seemed to love me as a matter of duty, who
called me 'mother' for the sake of politeness, and who kissed me on the
forehead, when I felt like crushing him in my arms?
"My husband died. Then my parents, and then my two sisters. When Death
enters a house it seems as if he were hurrying to do his utmost, so as
not to have to return for a long time after that. He spares only one or
two to mourn the others.
"I remained alone. My tall son was then studying law. I was hoping to
live and die near him, and I went to him so that we could live together.
But he had fallen into the ways of young men, and he gave me to
understand that I was in his way. So I left. I was wrong in doing so, but
I suffered too much in feeling myself in his way, I, his mother! And I
came back home.
"I hardly ever saw him again.
"He married. What a joy! At last we should be together for good. I should
have grandchildren. His wife was an Englishwoman, who took a dislike to
me. Why? Perhaps she thought that I loved him too much.
"Again I was obliged to go away. And I was alone. Yes, monsieur.
"Then he went to England, to live with them, with his wife's parents. Do
you understand? They have him—they have my son for themselves. They
have stolen him from me. He writes to me once a month. At first he came
to see me. But now he no longer comes.
"It is now four years since I saw him last. His face then was wrinkled
and his hair white. Was that possible? This man, my son, almost an old
man? My little rosy child of old? No doubt I shall never see him again.
"And so I travel about all the year. I go east and west, as you see, with
"I am like a lost dog. Adieu, monsieur! don't stay here with me for it
hurts me to have told you all this."
I went down the hill, and on turning round to glance back, I saw the old
woman standing on a broken wall, looking out upon the mountains, the long
valley and Lake Chambon in the distance.
And her skirt and the queer little shawl which she wore around her thin
shoulders were fluttering tike a flag in the wind.