Epiphany by Guy de Maupassant
I should say I did remember that Epiphany supper during the war!
exclaimed Count de Garens, an army captain.
I was quartermaster of cavalry at the time, and for a fortnight had been
scouting in front of the German advance guard. The evening before we had
cut down a few Uhlans and had lost three men, one of whom was that poor
little Raudeville. You remember Joseph de Raudeville, of course.
Well, on that day my commanding officer ordered me to take six troopers
and to go and occupy the village of Porterin, where there had been five
skirmishes in three weeks, and to hold it all night. There were not
twenty houses left standing, not a dozen houses in that wasps' nest. So I
took ten troopers and set out about four o'clock, and at five o'clock,
while it was still pitch dark, we reached the first houses of Porterin. I
halted and ordered Marchas—you know Pierre de Marchas, who
afterward married little Martel-Auvelin, the daughter of the Marquis de
Martel-Auvelin—to go alone into the village, and to report to me
what he saw.
I had selected nothing but volunteers, all men of good family. It is
pleasant when on duty not to be forced to be on intimate terms with
unpleasant fellows. This Marchas was as smart as possible, cunning as a
fox and supple as a serpent. He could scent the Prussians as a dog can
scent a hare, could discover food where we should have died of hunger
without him, and obtained information from everybody, and information
which was always reliable, with incredible cleverness.
In ten minutes he returned. "All right," he said; "there have been no
Prussians here for three days. It is a sinister place, is this village. I
have been talking to a Sister of Mercy, who is caring for four or five
wounded men in an abandoned convent."
I ordered them to ride on, and we entered the principal street. On the
right and left we could vaguely see roofless walls, which were hardly
visible in the profound darkness. Here and there a light was burning in a
room; some family had remained to keep its house standing as well as they
were able; a family of brave or of poor people. The rain began to fall, a
fine, icy cold rain, which froze as it fell on our cloaks. The horses
stumbled against stones, against beams, against furniture. Marchas guided
us, going before us on foot, and leading his horse by the bridle.
"Where are you taking us to?" I asked him. And he replied: "I have a
place for us to lodge in, and a rare good one." And we presently stopped
before a small house, evidently belonging to some proprietor of the
middle class. It stood on the street, was quite inclosed, and had a
garden in the rear.
Marchas forced open the lock by means of a big stone which he picked up
near the garden gate; then he mounted the steps, smashed in the front
door with his feet and shoulders, lit a bit of wax candle, which he was
never without, and went before us into the comfortable apartments of some
rich private individual, guiding us with admirable assurance, as if he
lived in this house which he now saw for the first time.
Two troopers remained outside to take care of our horses, and Marchas
said to stout Ponderel, who followed him: "The stables must be on the
left; I saw that as we came in; go and put the animals up there, for we
do not need them"; and then, turning to me, he said: "Give your orders,
confound it all!"
This fellow always astonished me, and I replied with a laugh: "I will
post my sentinels at the country approaches and will return to you here."
"How many men are you going to take?"
"Five. The others will relieve them at five o'clock in the evening."
"Very well. Leave me four to look after provisions, to do the cooking and
to set the table. I will go and find out where the wine is hidden."
I went off, to reconnoitre the deserted streets until they ended in the
open country, so as to post my sentries there.
Half an hour later I was back, and found Marchas lounging in a great
easy-chair, the covering of which he had taken off, from love of luxury,
as he said. He was warming his feet at the fire and smoking an excellent
cigar, whose perfume filled the room. He was alone, his elbows resting on
the arms of the chair, his head sunk between his shoulders, his cheeks
flushed, his eyes bright, and looking delighted.
I heard the noise of plates and dishes in the next room, and Marchas said
to me, smiling in a con tented manner: "This is famous; I found the
champagne under the flight of steps outside, the brandy—fifty
bottles of the very finest in the kitchen garden under a pear tree, which
did not seem to me to be quite straight when I looked at it by the light
of my lantern. As for solids, we have two fowls, a goose, a duck, and
three pigeons. They are being cooked at this moment. It is a delightful
I sat down opposite him, and the fire in the grate was burning my nose
and cheeks. "Where did you find this wood?" I asked. "Splendid wood," he
replied. "The owner's carriage. It is the paint which is causing all this
flame, an essence of punch and varnish. A capital house!"
I laughed, for I saw the creature was funny, and he went on: "Fancy this
being the Epiphany! I have had a bean put into the goose dressing; but
there is no queen; it is really very annoying!" And I repeated like an
echo: "It is annoying, but what do you want me to do in the matter?" "To
find some, of course." "Some women. Women?—you must be mad?" "I
managed to find the brandy under the pear tree, and the champagne under
the steps; and yet there was nothing to guide me, while as for you, a
petticoat is a sure bait. Go and look, old fellow."
He looked so grave, so convinced, that I could not tell whether he was
joking or not, and so I replied: "Look here, Marchas, are you having a
joke with me?" "I never joke on duty." "But where the devil do you expect
me to find any women?" "Where you like; there must be two or three
remaining in the neighborhood, so ferret them out and bring them here."
I got up, for it was too hot in front of the fire, and Marchas went off:
"Do you want an idea?" "Yes." "Go and see the priest." "The priest? What
for?" "Ask him to supper, and beg him to bring a woman with him." "The
priest! A woman! Ha! ha! ha!"
But Marchas continued with extraordinary gravity: "I am not laughing; go
and find the priest and tell him how we are situated, and, as he must be
horribly dull, he will come. But tell him that we want one woman at
least, a lady, of course, since we, are all men of the world. He is sure
to know his female parishioners on the tips of his fingers, and if there
is one to suit us, and you manage it well, he will suggest her to you."
"Come, come, Marchas, what are you thinking of?" "My dear Garens, you can
do this quite well. It will even be very funny. We are well bred, by
Jove! and we will put on our most distinguished manners and our grandest
style. Tell the abbe who we are, make him laugh, soften his heart, coax
him and persuade him!" "No, it is impossible."
He drew his chair close to mine, and as he knew my special weakness, the
scamp continued: "Just think what a swaggering thing it will be to do and
how amusing to tell about; the whole army will talk about it, and it will
give you a famous reputation."
I hesitated, for the adventure rather tempted me, and he persisted:
"Come, my little Garens. You are the head of this detachment, and you
alone can go and call on the head of the church in this neighborhood. I
beg of you to go, and I promise you that after the war I will relate the
whole affair in verse in the Revue de Deux Mondes. You owe this much to
your men, for you have made them march enough during the last month."
I got up at last and asked: "Where is the priest's house?" "Take the
second turning at the end of the street, you will see an avenue, and at
the end of the avenue you will find the church. The parsonage is beside
it." As I went out, he called out: "Tell him the bill of fare, to make
I discovered the ecclesiastic's little house without any difficulty; it
was by the side of a large, ugly brick church. I knocked at the door with
my fist, as there was neither bell nor knocker, and a loud voice from
inside asked: "Who is there?" To which I replied: "A quartermaster of
I heard the noise of bolts and of a key being turned, and found myself
face to face with a tall priest with a large stomach, the chest of a
prizefighter, formidable hands projecting from turned-up sleeves, a red
face, and the look of a kind man. I gave him a military salute and said:
"Good-day, Monsieur le Cure."
He had feared a surprise, some marauders' ambush, and he smiled as he
replied: "Good-day, my friend; come in." I followed him into a small room
with a red tiled floor, in which a small fire was burning, very different
to Marchas' furnace, and he gave me a chair and said: "What can I do for
you?" "Monsieur, allow me first of all to introduce myself"; and I gave
him my card, which he took and read half aloud: "Le Comte de Garens."
I continued: "There are eleven of us here, Monsieur l'Abbe, five on
picket duty, and six installed at the house of an unknown inhabitant. The
names of the six are: Garens, myself; Pierre de Marchas, Ludovic de
Ponderel, Baron d'Streillis, Karl Massouligny, the painter's son, and
Joseph Herbon, a young musician. I have come to ask you, in their name
and my own, to do us the honor of supping with us. It is an Epiphany
supper, Monsieur le Cure, and we should like to make it a little
The priest smiled and murmured: "It seems to me to be hardly a suitable
occasion for amusing one's self." And I replied: "We are fighting during
the day, monsieur. Fourteen of our comrades have been killed in a month,
and three fell as late as yesterday. It is war time. We stake our life at
every moment; have we not, therefore, the right to amuse ourselves
freely? We are Frenchmen, we like to laugh, and we can laugh everywhere.
Our fathers laughed on the scaffold! This evening we should like to cheer
ourselves up a little, like gentlemen, and not like soldiers; you
understand me, I hope. Are we wrong?"
He replied quickly: "You are quite right, my friend, and I accept your
invitation with great pleasure." Then he called out: "Hermance!"
An old bent, wrinkled, horrible peasant woman appeared and said: "What do
you want?" "I shall not dine at home, my daughter." "Where are you going
to dine then?" "With some gentlemen, the hussars."
I felt inclined to say: "Bring your servant with you," just to see
Marchas' face, but I did not venture, and continued: "Do you know any one
among your parishioners, male or female, whom I could invite as well?" He
hesitated, reflected, and then said: "No, I do not know anybody!"
I persisted: "Nobody! Come, monsieur, think; it would be very nice to
have some ladies, I mean to say, some married couples! I know nothing
about your parishioners. The baker and his wife, the grocer,
the—the—the—watchmaker—the—shoemaker—the—the druggist with Mrs.
Druggist. We have a good spread and plenty of wine, and we should be
enchanted to leave pleasant recollections of ourselves with the people
The priest thought again for a long time, and then said resolutely: "No,
there is nobody." I began to laugh. "By Jove, Monsieur le Cure, it is
very annoying not to have an Epiphany queen, for we have the bean. Come,
think. Is there not a married mayor, or a married deputy mayor, or a
married municipal councillor or a schoolmaster?" "No, all the ladies have
gone away." "What, is there not in the whole place some good tradesman's
wife with her good tradesman, to whom we might give this pleasure, for it
would be a pleasure to them, a great pleasure under present
But, suddenly, the cure began to laugh, and laughed so violently that he
fairly shook, and presently exclaimed: "Ha! ha! ha! I have got what you
want, yes. I have got what you want! Ha! ha! ha! We will laugh and enjoy
ourselves, my children; we will have some fun. How pleased the ladies
will be, I say, how delighted they will be! Ha! ha! Where are you
I described the house, and he understood where it was. "Very good," he
said. "It belongs to Monsieur Bertin-Lavaille. I will be there in half an
hour, with four ladies! Ha! ha! ha! four ladies!"
He went out with me, still laughing, and left me, repeating: "That is
capital; in half an hour at Bertin-Lavaille's house."
I returned quickly, very much astonished and very much puzzled. "Covers
for how many?" Marchas asked, as soon as he saw me. "Eleven. There are
six of us hussars, besides the priest and four ladies." He was
thunderstruck, and I was triumphant. He repeated: "Four ladies! Did you
say, four ladies?" "I said four women." "Real women?" "Real women."
"Well, accept my compliments!" "I will, for I deserve them."
He got out of his armchair, opened the door, and I saw a beautiful white
tablecloth on a long table, round which three hussars in blue aprons were
setting out the plates and glasses. "There are some women coming!"
Marchas cried. And the three men began to dance and to cheer with all
Everything was ready, and we were waiting. We waited for nearly an hour,
while a delicious smell of roast poultry pervaded the whole house. At
last, however, a knock against the shutters made us all jump up at the
same moment. Stout Ponderel ran to open the door, and in less than a
minute a little Sister of Mercy appeared in the doorway. She was thin,
wrinkled and timid, and successively greeted the four bewildered hussars
who saw her enter. Behind her, the noise of sticks sounded on the tiled
floor in the vestibule, and as soon as she had come into the
drawing-room, I saw three old heads in white caps, following each other
one by one, who came in, swaying with different movements, one inclining
to the right, while the other inclined to the left. And three worthy
women appeared, limping, dragging their legs behind them, crippled by
illness and deformed through old age, three infirm old women, past
service, the only three pensioners who were able to walk in the home
presided over by Sister Saint-Benedict.
She had turned round to her invalids, full of anxiety for them, and then,
seeing my quartermaster's stripes, she said to me: "I am much obliged to
you for thinking of these poor women. They have very little pleasure in
life, and you are at the same time giving them a great treat and doing
them a great honor."
I saw the priest, who had remained in the dark hallway, and was laughing
heartily, and I began to laugh in my turn, especially when I saw Marchas'
face. Then, motioning the nun to the seats, I said:
"Sit down, sister; we are very proud and very happy that you have
accepted our unpretentious invitation."
She took three chairs which stood against the wall, set them before the
fire, led her three old women to them, settled them on them, took their
sticks and shawls, which she put into a corner, and then, pointing to the
first, a thin woman with an enormous stomach, who was evidently suffering
from the dropsy, she said: "This is Mother Paumelle; whose husband was
killed by falling from a roof, and whose son died in Africa; she is sixty
years old." Then she pointed to another, a tall woman, whose head
trembled unceasingly: "This is Mother Jean-Jean, who is sixty-seven. She
is nearly blind, for her face was terribly singed in a fire, and her
right leg was half burned off."
Then she pointed to the third, a sort of dwarf, with protruding, round,
stupid eyes, which she rolled incessantly in all directions, "This is La
Putois, an idiot. She is only forty-four."
I bowed to the three women as if I were being presented to some royal
highnesses, and turning to the priest, I said: "You are an excellent man,
Monsieur l'Abbe, to whom all of us here owe a debt of gratitude."
Everybody was laughing, in fact, except Marchas, who seemed furious, and
just then Karl Massouligny cried: "Sister Saint-Benedict, supper is on
I made her go first with the priest, then I helped up Mother Paumelle,
whose arm I took and dragged her into the next room, which was no easy
task, for she seemed heavier than a lump of iron.
Stout Ponderel gave his arm to Mother Jean-Jean, who bemoaned her crutch,
and little Joseph Herbon took the idiot, La Putois, to the dining-room,
which was filled with the odor of the viands.
As soon as we were opposite our plates, the sister clapped her hands
three times, and, with the precision of soldiers presenting arms, the
women made a rapid sign of the cross, and then the priest slowly repeated
the Benedictus in Latin. Then we sat down, and the two fowls appeared,
brought in by Marchas, who chose to wait at table, rather than to sit
down as a guest to this ridiculous repast.
But I cried: "Bring the champagne at once!" and a cork flew out with the
noise of a pistol, and in spite of the resistance of the priest and of
the kind sister, the three hussars, sitting by the side of the three
invalids, emptied their three full glasses down their throats by force.
Massouligny, who possessed the faculty of making himself at home, and of
being on good terms with every one, wherever he was, made love to Mother
Paumelle in the drollest manner. The dropsical woman, who had retained
her cheerfulness in spite of her misfortunes, answered him banteringly in
a high falsetto voice which appeared as if it were put on, and she
laughed so heartily at her neighbor's jokes that it was quite alarming.
Little Herbon had seriously undertaken the task of making the idiot
drunk, and Baron d'Streillis, whose wits were not always particularly
sharp, was questioning old Jean-Jean about the life, the habits, and the
rules of the hospital.
The nun said to Massouligny in consternation:
"Oh! oh! you will make her ill; pray do not make her laugh like that,
monsieur. Oh! monsieur—" Then she got up and rushed at Herbon to
take from him a full glass which he was hastily emptying down La Putois'
throat, while the priest shook with laughter, and said to the sister:
"Never mind; just this once, it will not hurt them. Do leave them alone."
After the two fowls they ate the duck, which was flanked by the three
pigeons and the blackbird, and then the goose appeared, smoking,
golden-brown, and diffusing a warm odor of hot, browned roast meat. La
Paumelle, who was getting lively, clapped her hands; La Jean-Jean left
off answering the baron's numerous questions, and La Putois uttered.
grunts of pleasure, half cries and half sighs, as little children do when
one shows them candy. "Allow me to take charge of this animal," the cure
said. "I understand these sort of operations better than most people."
"Certainly, Monsieur l'Abbe," and the sister said: "How would it be to
open the window a little? They are too warm, and I am afraid they will be
I turned to Marchas: "Open the window for a minute." He did so; the cold
outer air as it came in made the candles flare, and the steam from the
goose, which the cure was scientifically carving, with a table napkin
round his neck, whirl about. We watched him doing it, without speaking
now, for we were interested in his attractive handiwork, and seized with
renewed appetite at the sight of that enormous golden-brown bird, whose
limbs fell one after another into the brown gravy at the bottom of the
dish. At that moment, in the midst of that greedy silence which kept us
all attentive, the distant report of a shot came in at the open window.
I started to my feet so quickly that my chair fell down behind me, and I
shouted: "To saddle, all of you! You, Marches, take two men and go and
see what it is. I shall expect you back here in five minutes." And while
the three riders went off at full gallop through the night, I got into
the saddle with my three remaining hussars, in front of the steps of the
villa, while the cure, the sister and the three old women showed their
frightened faces at the window.
We heard nothing more, except the barking of a dog in the distance. The
rain had ceased, and it was cold, very cold, and soon I heard the gallop
of a horse, of a single horse, coming back. It was Marchas, and I called
out to him: "Well?" "It is nothing; Francois has wounded an old peasant
who refused to answer his challenge: 'Who goes there?' and who continued
to advance in spite of the order to keep off; but they are bringing him
here, and we shall see what is the matter."
I gave orders for the horses to be put back in the stable, and I sent my
two soldiers to meet the others, and returned to the house. Then the
cure, Marchas, and I took a mattress into the room to lay the wounded man
on; the sister tore up a table napkin in order to make lint, while the
three frightened women remained huddled up in a corner.
Soon I heard the rattle of sabres on the road, and I took a candle to
show a light to the men who were returning; and they soon appeared,
carrying that inert, soft, long, sinister object which a human body
becomes when life no longer sustains it.
They put the wounded man on the mattress that had been prepared for him,
and I saw at the first glance that he was dying. He had the death rattle
and was spitting up blood, which ran out of the corners of his mouth at
every gasp. The man was covered with blood! His cheeks, his beard, his
hair, his neck and his clothes seemed to have been soaked, to have been
dipped in a red tub; and that blood stuck to him, and had become a dull
color which was horrible to look at.
The wounded man, wrapped up in a large shepherd's cloak, occasionally
opened his dull, vacant eyes, which seemed stupid with astonishment, like
those of animals wounded by a sportsman, which fall at his feet, more
than half dead already, stupefied with terror and surprise.
The cure exclaimed: "Ah, it is old Placide, the shepherd from Les
Moulins. He is deaf, poor man, and heard nothing. Ah! Oh, God! they have
killed the unhappy man!" The sister had opened his blouse and shirt, and
was looking at a little blue hole in his chest, which was not bleeding
any more. "There is nothing to be done," she said.
The shepherd was gasping terribly and bringing up blood with every last
breath, and in his throat, to the very depth of his lungs, they could
hear an ominous and continued gurgling. The cure, standing in front of
him, raised his right hand, made the sign of the cross, and in a slow and
solemn voice pronounced the Latin words which purify men's souls, but
before they were finished, the old man's body trembled violently, as if
something had given way inside him, and he ceased to breathe. He was
When I turned round, I saw a sight which was even more horrible than the
death struggle of this unfortunate man; the three old women were standing
up huddled close together, hideous, and grimacing with fear and horror. I
went up to them, and they began to utter shrill screams, while La
Jean-Jean, whose burned leg could no longer support her, fell to the
ground at full length.
Sister Saint-Benedict left the dead man, ran up to her infirm old women,
and without a word or a look for me, wrapped their shawls round them,
gave them their crutches, pushed them to the door, made them go out, and
disappeared with them into the dark night.
I saw that I could not even let a hussar accompany them, for the mere
rattle of a sword would have sent them mad with fear.
The cure was still looking at the dead man; but at last he turned round
to me and said:
"Oh! What a horrible thing!"