Le Grand Meaulnes
He arrived at our house on a Sunday in November 189...
I still say "our house," although that house is no longer ours. We left the region fifteen years ago and we will certainly never return.
We lived in the apartments of the upper school of Saint-Agathe. My father, whom I used to call 'Monsieur Seurel' like the other students, directed the higher course where pupils were prepared for the teaching certificate and also taught the middle forms. My mother was responsible for teaching the younger children.
It was a long red house, at the edge of the commune, with five glazed doors, surrounded by Virginia creepers; it had an immense courtyard (with a covered playground and laundry room) which opened onto the village through a large gate. On the north side, there was the road, edged by low railings, which led to the train station some three kilometres away; on the south side and round the back, there were fields, gardens, and those nearby which abutted the suburbs ... such is the simple description of this residence where the most disturbing and most dear days in my life passed - the residence from which our adventures left and returned to break, like waves of the sea, on an isolated rock.
It must have been a chance decision made by an inspector or prefect that had caused us to end up there. Towards the end of the holidays, a long time ago, a farmer's cart, followed by our furniture and household goods, set us down, my mother and myself, in front of the rusty low railings. Children, who had been stealing peaches from the garden, escaped silently through holes in the hedge ... My mother, whom we used to call Millie, and who was easily the most meticulous housewife that I have ever known, immediately went into the dusty rooms, and at once despairingly concluded, as she did after each "move", that our furniture would never fit in a house so poorly laid out .... She came out to tell me of her distress. While speaking to me, she gently wiped my face, blackened by the journey, with her handkerchief. She then returned to count all the openings which would need to be closed up in order to make the lodging habitable ... As for me, wearing a big straw hat with ribbons, I remained there, on the gravel of this strange courtyard, to wait and to explore around the well and beneath the shed.
That's the way that I now imagine our arrival probably was. Because, when I want to recall that distant memory of lingering in the courtyard of our home at Saint-Agathe on the first evening, there are now other times when I remember waiting - my two hands grasping the bars of the gate - I see myself anxiously looking down the street, waiting for someone to appear. And again, if I try to imagine the first night that I passed in my bedroom, in the middle of the attics of the top floor, there are other nights now that come to mind; I am no longer alone in this room; a wonderful presence excites me with a reassuring shadow moving to and fro on the walls. My memory of this peaceful landscape with the school, Old Martin's field, with its three walnut trees and garden which was always filled every day after four o'clock by visiting women, has been disturbed and is transformed forever by the person that invaded my adolescence and whose final absence even then did not give me peace.
We had been living in the house for ten years when Meaulnes arrived.
I was fifteen years old. It was a cold Sunday in November, the first day of Autumn that led one to think of the coming winter. Millie had waited in all day for the carriage that was to bring her new bonnet ready for the expected bad weather. That morning, she had missed mass; and listening to the sermon, sitting in the choir with other children, I had looked anxiously to the side of the belfry to see if she would enter wearing her new hat.
That afternoon, I attended Vespers alone.
"Indeed," my mother had said, to comfort me while brushing my childish clothes with her hand, "even if it had arrived, the hat would have certainly needed changes that would have taken me the rest of the day".
That was the way we often passed our Sundays in winter. Early in the morning, my father would be away to some distant fog-covered pond to fish for pike from a boat; and my mother would withdraw until evening into her gloomy bedroom to mend her plain clothes. She did it this way in case one of her friends, also as proud and poor as she was, might come in and surprise her. As for me, Vespers finished, I would wait, reading in the cold dining room, for her to open the door to show me how the clothes looked.
That particular Sunday, a spectacle in front of the church kept me outside after the service. While children had gathered to witness a christening in the porch, on the town square, several men, dressed in their firemen's uniforms, had formed up in columns and were stamping their feet in the cold as they listened to Boujardon, the fire chief, who was hopelessly failing to get to grips with the niceties of drill...
The baptismal bell stopped suddenly as though it had embarrasingly recognised that such a jolly sound was completely out of place. Boujardon and his men, their weapons slung across their backs, trotted away behind the fire-engine, and I saw them disappear round the corner followed silently by four boys whose heavy soles cracked the twigs on the icy road where I dared not follow.
Only in the Café Daniel was there any sign of life left in the village - you could hear the murmur of the patrons' voices in quiet conversation. As for me, worried that I would be home late, I followed the wall of the great courtyard that separated the village from our house, and arrived at the little iron gateway.
It was half open and I could see immediately that something out of the ordinary was happening.
At the door of the dining-room – the nearest of the five glazed doors opening on to the courtyard – a grey haired woman was leaning forward and trying to peer through the curtains. She was slight and wearing an old-fashioned black velvet bonnet. She had a fine, lean face, which was disturbed with worry. As soon as I saw her some strange sense made me stop on the first step before the gate.
"Where is he? Oh, my God!" she was muttering. "He was here just now. He has been around the house. Perhaps he has gone."
And between each sentence she tapped three times on the pane, so lightly as to be almost inaudible.
But no one came to answer the door to the unknown visitor. No doubt, oblivious to the world, Millie had got her hat from the station and was now shut in the red room, by the bed strewn with old ribbons and ironed feathers, sewing, unsewing and remaking her poor hat ... And, sure enough, when I did come into the dining room followed by the visitor, my mother appeared, brass wire held in her hands and with the half-finished hat with ribbons and feathers on her head. She smiled, her blue eyes tired from working until the end of day, and started:
"Look! François, I have been waiting to show you..."
But suddenly embarrassed when she saw the old woman seated in the large armchair at the far end of the room, she stopped, quickly removed her hat and, for all of what followed, held it pressed to her bosom, like an upturned nest in the fold of her right arm.
The woman, still wearing her bonnet and with her umbrella and leather handbag on her knees, began to explain the reason for her visit, nodding and saying those things that a lady paying a call would make. Once she had regained her composure she started talking about her son assuming an air of pride and mystery which intrigued us.
They had both come by carriage from La Ferté-d'Angillon, fourteen kilometers from Sainte-Agathe. A widow - and very rich, or at least that was what she suggested - she had lost the younger of her two sons, Antoine, who died one evening having bathed with his brother in a polluted pond on their way home from school. She had decided to put the elder, Augustine, to board with us and for him to join the senior school.
Now, as she praised the new boarder that she had brought us, I no longer recognized her as the grey-haired woman whom I had seen bent at the door moments earlier, then with the air of bereft and haggard mother hen that had lost a wayward chick from her brood.
Now she spoke of her son in admiring terms which greatly impressed us: he liked to please her, and sometimes would follow along the banks of the river wading for miles to bring her eggs of water hens and wild ducks that he found hidden in the rushes ... he would also set traps ... the other night he had come across a pheasant in the woods caught in a snare ...
I, who dared not go home when I had a tear in my smock, looked in amazement at my mother.
But my mother had stopped listening. She made a sign to the lady to be quiet, and laying her "nest" gently on the table she rose silently as though to surprise someone...
Above us, from first floor, the sound of footsteps came and went in the huge dismal attic, where lime leaves were put to dry and apples left to mature; initially shaking the ceiling above us they finally reached the abandoned assistant teachers' rooms which were piled with old fireworks left over from the last fourteenth of July.
"I heard the noise in the rooms downstairs a little while ago", Millie whispered, "but I thought it was you, François, come home..."