by Guy de Maupassant
It was tea time, before the lamps were brought in. The villa stood above the sea; the vanished sun had left the sky all rosy with its passing, dusted with a golden powder; and the Mediterranean, without a wave or a ripple, stretching out flat and smooth and shimmering still under the dying day, seemed a vast, polished sheet of metal. To the right, stretching off into the distance, jagged mountains cast their black silhouettes against the fading crimson of the sunset.
They were speaking of love, discussing that old subject, saying again the things that have already been said so many times before. The sweet melancholy of twilight slowed their speech, caused a tender emotion to well up in their souls; and this word “love,” which was heard again and again—now spoken by a strong, manly voice, now by a soft woman’s voice—seemed to fill the little salon, fluttering through it like a bird, hovering in it like a spirit.
Can one love continuously for many years? “Yes,” said some; “no,” claimed others. They distinguished cases, established distinctions, cited examples; and everyone, men and women, full of powerful and stirring memories that rose to their lips as examples, seemed touched; and spoke of this banal and sovereign thing, the tender and mysterious accord of two beings, with a profound emotion and ardent interest.
Then all of a sudden someone, staring off into the distance, cried, “Oh! Look, there! What is that?”
Above the sea, at the edge of the horizon, an enormous, indistinct gray mass was emerging. The women had gotten up and were staring uncomprehendingly at this shocking thing they had never seen before.
Someone said, “It’s Corsica! You can see it two or three times a year like this, under certain unusual atmospheric conditions, when the air becomes perfectly clear and no longer hides it behind the haze that always obscures things in the distance.”
They could vaguely make out the crests of the peaks; some thought they could see snow on the summits. And everyone was surprised, troubled, almost frightened by this sudden appearance of a world, this phantom risen from the sea. Perhaps those who set out, like Columbus, across unexplored oceans, had these strange visions.
Then an elderly gentleman, who had not yet spoken, said, “Listen, I met on this island—which has appeared before us as if in answer to what we have been saying, and which has reminded me of a singular memory—I met with an admirable example of a constant love, an incredibly happy love. Here it is:
Five years ago, I took a trip to Corsica. This wild island is more unknown and more distant to us than America, even though you can see it sometimes from the coasts of France, like today.
Picture a world still in chaos, a tempest of mountains separating narrow ravines with rushing torrents. Not a plain anywhere, but immense crags of granite and giant undulations of earth covered with scrub or high forests of chestnut and pine. It’s virgin soil, uncultivated, deserted, even though sometimes you see a village, looking like a pile of rocks at the summit of a mountain. No culture, no industry, no art. You never encounter a piece of worked wood, a bit of sculpted stone, never encounter evidence of an ancestral taste for graceful and beautiful things, however simple. It is precisely this that strikes one the most about this superb and hard land: the hereditary indifference to that search after seductive forms called art.
Italy—where each palace, full of masterpieces, is itself a masterpiece; where marble, wood, bronze, iron, all metals and stones attest to the genius of man; where the smallest old objects laying around in the old houses reveal this divine care for gracefulness—is for us all the sacred patrimony that we love because it shows us, demonstrates to us, the effort, the grandeur, the power and the triumph of creative intelligence.
And, just across from Italy, wild Corsica has remained as it was in its first days. Humanity lives there in its crudest house, indifferent to everything that is not immediately relevant to its immediate existence or its family quarrels. And it has retained the faults and qualities of the uncultivated races: violent, hateful, bloody without conscience; but also hospitable, generous, devoted, naïve, opening its door to the passer-by and giving its faithful friendship after the slightest sign of sympathy.
And so for a month, I had wandered through this magnificent island, with the feeling that I was at the end of the world. No inns, no bars, no roads. By mule paths you reach these tiny villages clinging to the sides of the mountains, and which stand over tortuous abysses from which you hear rising, at night, a continuous noise, the heavy and profound voice of the torrent. You knock on the doors of the houses, you ask for shelter for the night and something to eat to last you till the next day. And you sit at the humble table, and sleep under the humble roof; and in the morning you shake the hand of your host, who has led you to the edge of the village.
So, one night, after ten hours’ walk, I reached a small dwelling all alone at the bottom of a narrow valley that opened onto the sea a little farther on. The two steep slopes of the mountain, covered with brush, broken rock, and giant trees, closed in on this dismally sad ravine like two dark walls. Around the cottage a few vines, a small garden, and farther on, a few large chestnut trees; enough to live by at least, a fortune for this impoverished land.
The woman who received me was old, severe, and proper without exception. The man, sitting in a cane chair, got up to greet me, then sat down again without saying a word. His companion said to me, “Excuse him; he’s deaf now. He’s 82 years old.”
She spoke the French of France. I was surprised. I asked her, “You’re not from Corsica?”
She answered, “No, we’re from the continent. But we have lived here for fifty years now.”
A feeling of anguish and fear seized me at the thought of those fifty years passed in this dark hole, so far from towns where people live. An old sheepdog wandered in, and we sat down to eat the only dinner dish, a thick soup of potatoes, lard, and cabbage.
When the short meal was finished I went to sit before the door, my heart engulfed by the melancholy of the mournful country, wrapped in that distress which sometimes grips travelers on certain sad evenings, in certain desolate places. It seemed that everything was about to end, existence and the universe. I suddenly saw the terrible misery of life, the isolation of everyone, the nothingness of everything, and the black solitude of the heart, deluding itself with dreams until death.
The old woman joined me and, tortured by that curiosity that always lives at the bottom of the most resigned souls, asked, “So, you come from France?”
“Yes, I’m on a pleasure trip.”
“You’re from Paris, perhaps?”
“No, I’m from Nancy.”
It seemed to me that an extraordinary emotion was agitating her. How I saw, or rather sensed this, I don’t know.
She repeated in a slow voice, “You’re from Nancy?”
The man appeared in the doorway, impassive, as deaf people are.
She said, “Don’t pay any attention to him. He can’t hear anything.” Then, after a few seconds, “So, you know everyone in Nancy?”
“Of course, almost everyone.”
“The Sainte-Allaize family?”
“Yes, very well. They were friends of my father’s.”
“What’s your name?”
I told her my name. She stared at me fixedly, then said, in that low voice of awakening memories, “Yes, yes, I remember well. And the Brisemares, what has become of them?”
“They are all dead.”
“Ah! And the Sirmonts, you know them?”
“Yes, the last one is a general.”
Then she said, trembling with emotion, with anguish, with I don’t know what confused, powerful, and holy sentiments, with I don’t know what need to avow, to tell everything, to speak of those things that she had held until then enclosed at the bottom of her heart, to speak of those people whose name shook her soul: “Yes, Henri de Sirmont. I know him well. He is my brother.”
I raised my eyes toward her, bewildered with surprise. And all of a sudden it came back to me.
A long time ago, it had caused a terrible scandal in noble Lorraine. A young girl, beautiful and rich, Suzanne de Sirmont, had been carried off by a sergeant in the regiment that her father commanded. He was a handsome boy, the son of peasants, but looking good in his dress uniform, this soldier who had seduced the daughter of his colonel. No doubt she had seen him, noticed him, fell in love with him while watching the troops march by. But how had he spoken to her, how had they been able to see each other, to talk? How had she dared to make him understand that she loved him? No one ever knew.
No one suspected anything. One night, as the soldier had just finished his enlistment, he disappeared with her. They sought for them, but never found them. They never heard from her again, and they considered her dead.
And I had found her in that sinister valley.
Then I said, in my turn, “Yes, I remember well. You are Suzanne.”
She shook her head yes. Tears fell from her eyes. Then, with a glance at the old man sitting immobile on the doorstep of the shack, she told me, “It’s him.”
And I understood that she still loved him, that she still saw him with seduced eyes.
I asked, “Have you been happy, at least?”
She answered, with a voice that came from the heart, “Oh! Yes, very happy. He has made me very happy. I have never regretted anything.”
I contemplated her, sad, surprised, amazed by the power of love! This rich girl had followed this man, this peasant. She had herself become a peasant. She had lived her life without charms, without luxuries, without delicacies of any sort, she had bent herself to his simple habits. And she loved him still. She had become a rustic, in a bonnet and canvas skirt. She ate on an earthenware plate on a crude wooden table, sitting on a cane seat, a gruel of cabbage and potatoes with lard. She lay on a straw mattress by his side.
She had never thought of anything, but him! She had missed neither necklaces, nor fineries, nor elegances, nor soft seats, nor the perfumed warmth of rooms enveloped in curtains, nor the sweetness of downy cushions on which to rest one’s body. She had never needed anything but him; as long as he was there, she desired nothing.
She had abandoned life while young, both the world and those who had raised her and loved her. She had come, alone with him, to this wild ravine. And he had been everything for her, everything one desires, everything one dreams of, everything one constantly waits for, everything one endlessly hopes. He had filled her existence with happiness, from one end to the other. She couldn’t have been happier.
And all night, listening to the rough breathing of the old soldier stretched out on his pallet, beside her who had followed him so far, I thought of that strange and simple adventure, of this happiness so complete, made of so little.
And I left with the rising sun, after having shaken hands with the two old people, man and wife.”
The old man fell silent.
A woman said, “All the same, she had an ideal that was too easy, needs that were too primitive, and requirements that were too simple. She was just a fool.”
Someone else said in a slow voice, “What does that matter! She was happy.”
And there, at the farthest edge of the horizon, Corsica disappeared into the night, sank back slowly into the sea, its great shadow fading away, which had appeared as if itself to tell the story of the two humble lovers sheltered on its shores.
— — —