Authors: Henri Alain-Fournier
Tags: #literature, #20th Century, #France, #v.5, #European Literature, #Amazon.com, #Retail
I also recalled my terrors… After dinner, sitting in front of the fire, my great aunt had taken my father to one side to tell him a story about ghosts: ‘I looked round… Ah! My poor Louis! What did I see? A little grey woman.’ She was said to have her head stuffed with this terrifying rubbish.
And now that evening, when dinner was over and, tired out by my cycle ride, I was lying in the big bedroom in a checked nightshirt that had belonged to Uncle Moinel, she came and sat by the bed and started to say, in her most mysterious and shrill voice, ‘My poor François, I have to tell you something that I have never told anyone before…’
I thought, ‘That’s it! Now I’ll be scared stiff the whole night, as I was ten years ago.’
I listened. She shook her head, staring directly ahead as though telling the story to herself:
‘I was coming back from a wedding with Moinel. It was the first that we had been to together since our poor Ernest died, and among the guests was my sister Adèle, whom I hadn’t seen for four years. An old friend of Moinel’s who was very rich had invited her to his son’s wedding at Le Domaine des Sablonnières. We had hired a carriage: it cost us a lot. At around seven in the morning we were driving back along the road, in mid-winter. The sun was rising, and there was absolutely no one around. Then suddenly what did I see on the road ahead? A little man, a little young man standing there, very good-looking, not moving, just watching us drive towards him. As we got nearer, we made out his pretty face, which was so white and so pretty that it scared you!
‘I took Moinel’s arm – I was shaking like a leaf… I thought it was the Good Lord himself! I said: “Look! An apparition!”
‘He answered me angrily, under his breath, “I’ve seen him! Shut up, you old chatterbox!”
‘He didn’t know what to do; then the horse stopped… Close up, the thing had a pale face, the forehead beaded with sweat, and it was wearing a dirty beret and long trousers. We heard a soft voice saying, “I’m not a man, I’m a girl. I’ve run away and I can’t go on. Please could you take me in your carriage, Monsieur and Madame?”
‘At once, we told her to get in. No sooner was she sitting down than she fainted. And just guess who it was? The fiancée of the young man from Les Sablonnières, Frantz de Galais, to whose wedding we had been invited!’
‘But there was no wedding,’ I said, ‘because the bride ran away.’
‘Why, that’s right,’ she said, looking at me sheepishly. ‘There was no wedding, because the poor foolish girl had got a thousand silly ideas into her head, as she told us. She was one of the daughters of a poor weaver. She was sure that so much
happiness was not possible, that the young man was too young for her, and that all the wonderful things that he had told her about were imaginary, so when Frantz finally came to get her, Valentine took fright. He was walking with her and her sister in the garden of the archbishop’s palace in Bourges, even though it was cold and very windy. The young man, surely being considerate and because he was in love with the younger sister, paid a lot of attention to the elder one. So my silly girl got I don’t know what ideas into her head. She said she was going to fetch a scarf from the house and there, to make sure she was not followed, she dressed in men’s clothes and ran away down the Paris road.
‘Her fiancé received a letter in which she told him that she was going to be with a young man that she loved. It wasn’t true…
‘ “I’m happier because of my sacrifice,” she told me, “than I would be as his wife.” Yes, little idiot, but meanwhile he had no intention of marrying her sister. He shot himself with a pistol – they saw the blood in the woods, but never found his body.’
‘What did you do with this unfortunate girl?’
‘We gave her a sip of brandy, first of all, then something to eat, and she fell asleep in front of the fire when we got home. She spent a good part of the winter here with us.’
‘All day long, while it was light, she cut out and sewed dresses, decorated hats and furiously cleaned the house. She was the one who stuck back all the wallpaper that you can see there. And since that time, the swallows have been nesting outside. But in the evening, when night fell and her work was done, she always found an excuse to go out into the yard, into the garden or on the porch, even when it was icy cold. And we’d find her standing there, crying her heart out.
‘ “Come now, what’s wrong? Tell me.”
‘ “Nothing, Madame Moinel.”
‘And she would come back inside.
‘The neighbours used to say, “You’ve found a pretty little maid there, Madame Moinel.”
‘Even though we begged her not to, she wanted to carry on
towards Paris when March came. I gave her some dresses that she altered to her size and Moinel bought her ticket at the station and gave her a little money.
‘She didn’t forget us. She’s a dressmaker in Paris near Notre-Dame. She still writes to us to ask whether we have any news from Les Sablonnières. To put that idea out of her head, I told her once and for all that the estate had been sold and pulled down, and that the young man had vanished for ever and that the girl was married. I think all that must be true. Since then my Valentine has been writing to us much less often.’
It was not a ghost story that Aunt Moinel had told me in her shrill little voice that was so well suited to telling them. Even so, I was as uneasy as could be. The reason was that we had sworn to Frantz the gypsy to serve him like brothers, and now I had the opportunity to do so… But was this the moment to spoil the joy that I was going to bring Meaulnes the next morning by telling him what I had learnt? What was the sense of launching him on an utterly impossible quest? Certainly, we had the girl’s address, but where to start looking for the gypsy who was wandering the world? Let the mad look after their mad, I thought. Delouche and Boujardon had been right. What a lot of harm that romanticizing Frantz had done us! I decided to say nothing until I had seen Augustin Meaulnes married to Mademoiselle de Galais.
Even when I had made up my mind, I still had a painful sense of foreboding – though I was quick to dispel this ridiculous idea.
The candle had almost burnt down, and a mosquito was humming, but Aunt Moinel, leaning with her elbows on her knees and her head bowed under the velvet hood that she did not take off even to sleep, started her story again… From time to time, she looked up and examined me to see what I was thinking (and perhaps to make sure that I was not dropping off to sleep). Eventually, with my head on the pillow, I slyly closed my eyes, pretending to doze off…
‘What’s this? You’re sleeping,’ she said, in a lower voice, slightly disappointed.
I felt sorry for her and protested, ‘No, aunt, I promise…’
‘Yes, you are!’ she said. ‘Anyway, I can understand if it doesn’t interest you very much. It’s all about people you don’t know…’
Coward that I am, that time I didn’t reply.
THE GREAT NEWS
When I reached the main street the next morning, it was such lovely holiday weather, so tranquil and with such gentle, familiar sounds throughout the town, that I regained all the joyful confidence of a bringer of good news.
Augustin and his mother lived in the old schoolhouse. His father had inherited a lot of money and retired early; after his death, Meaulnes wanted them to buy the school where the old master had taught for twenty years and where he himself had learnt to read. Not that it was a particularly prepossessing building: it was a large, square house, like the town hall that it had also been, and the ground-floor windows facing the street were so high up that no one ever looked out of them. As for the yard at the back, there was not a single tree in it, and a high shed blocked the view over the countryside: it was far and away the most barren and desolate school yard that I have ever seen…
There was a complicated passage with four doors leading off it where I came on Meaulnes’ mother bringing a large bundle of washing in from the garden: she must have put it out to dry at dawn on that long holiday morning. Her grey hair was half undone, with wisps hanging across her face, and her features were puffy and tired under her old-fashioned cap, as though she had not slept. She had a thoughtful look and downcast eyes.
But, suddenly noticing me, she recognized me and smiled.
‘You’ve come just at the right moment,’ she said. ‘You see, I’m just bringing in the clothes that I was drying for when Augustin goes away. I spent the night settling his accounts and
getting his things ready. The train goes at five, but we will manage to prepare everything.’
You would have thought, seeing her so definite, that she had taken the decision herself. In fact, she certainly had no idea where Meaulnes was going.
‘Go on up,’ she said. ‘You’ll find him in the town hall, writing.’
I hastily climbed the stairs, opened the door on the right, which still bore a sign saying
and went into a large room with four windows, two on the town, two on the country side, its walls decorated with yellowing portraits of Presidents Grévy and Carnot.
On a long dais that extended the whole length of the room you could still see the seats of the town councillors in front of a table with a green baize cloth. In the middle, sitting on an old armchair that had belonged to the mayor, Meaulnes was writing, dipping his pen deep into an old-fashioned porcelain inkwell in the shape of a heart. It was here, to this place that seemed to have been made for some well-to-do villager, that Meaulnes would retire in the holidays, when he was not roaming the countryside…
He got up when he recognized me, but not with the eagerness I had expected, just saying ‘Seurel!’ with an air of profound amazement.
He was the same boy with his bony face and close-cropped head; an unkempt moustache was starting to grow on his upper lip. He still had the same frank and honest look… but it was as though a mist had settled over the enthusiasm of earlier times, a mist that was only momentarily parted by glimpses of his former ardour.
He seemed very disturbed at seeing me. I had bounded up on to the dais but, strangely, he didn’t even think to offer me his hand. He turned towards me with his hands behind him, leaning back against the table with a deeply embarrassed air. He was looking at me without seeing me, already absorbed in thinking about what he would say. As ever and always, he was slow in beginning to speak, like all solitary people and hunters and adventurers: he had taken a decision without considering the
words needed to explain it. And only now that I was there in front of him did he start painfully to mull over how to say it.
Meanwhile, I was merrily describing my journey, where I spent the night and how surprised I had been to see Madame Meaulnes getting ready for her son’s departure.
‘Ah! She told you?’ he asked.
‘Yes, but I don’t suppose it’s for a long journey, is it?’
‘On the contrary, for a very long journey.’
For a moment I was at a loss, not daring to say anything, sensing that very soon, with a word, I would abolish his decision, though I had no idea why he had taken it, and not knowing where to begin.
But at length he started to speak, like someone trying to justify himself.
‘Seurel,’ he said, ‘you know how important that strange adventure at Sainte-Agathe was for me… It was my reason to live and hope… Once I had lost that hope, what would become of me? How could I live like other people? Well, I tried to live in Paris, when I saw that it was all over and that it was not even worthwhile trying to find the Lost Domain… But once a man has taken a step in Paradise, how can he afterwards get used to living like everyone else? The things that make up the happiness of other people seemed ludicrous to me. And when, one day, quite sincerely and deliberately, I decided to behave as others do, that day I stored up enough remorse to last a long time…’
Sitting on a chair on the dais with my head lowered, listening to him without looking at him, I did not know what to think of these vague explanations.
‘Meaulnes,’ I said, ‘can you be a bit clearer? Why the long journey? Do you have to make amends for something? Or do you have a promise to keep?’
‘In fact, yes,’ he replied. ‘Do you remember the promise I made to Frantz?’
‘Ah!’ I said, with relief. ‘Is that it?’
‘That’s it. And perhaps something to make amends for. Both at the same time…’
There followed a moment’s silence in which I made up my mind to start speaking and prepared my words.
‘There’s only one explanation that I believe in,’ he went on. ‘Certainly, I would have liked to see Mademoiselle de Galais once more, just to see her… But now I’m sure that when I discovered the Estate Without a Name, I reached a height, a degree of perfection and purity that I shall never achieve again. In death alone, as I once wrote to you, I may perhaps recapture the beauty of that time…’
His tone changed and he continued, coming closer to me and with a strange intensity in his manner:
‘But, listen, Seurel: this new development and this great journey, the sin that I committed and for which I have to atone, all this, in a sense, is the continuation of my old adventure…’
There was a pause while he tried painfully to recapture his memories. I had missed the last opportunity and I was absolutely determined not to let this one pass, so this time I was the one to speak – but too soon: later I bitterly regretted not having waited for his confession.
Anyway, I spoke my piece, which had been prepared for an earlier moment, and was no longer appropriate. Without a gesture and merely raising my head a little, I said, ‘Suppose I were to tell you that all hope is not lost?’
He looked at me, then, quickly looking away, blushed as I have never seen anyone blush: a rush of blood that must have been beating great hammer blows in his temples.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked at last, in a barely audible voice.
So, without pausing, I told him what I knew, what I had done and how, with the turn that matters had taken, it almost seemed that it was Yvonne de Galais who had sent me to him.
By now, he was horribly pale.