Tales of To-day and Other Days/Who Can Tell?

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For other English-language translations of this work, see Qui sait?.

Who Can Tell?


GUY DE MAUPASSANT.


 

I

MY God! My God! At last, then, I am to commit to paper that which happened me. But can I do it? Shall I dare do it? It is all so strange, so inexplicable, so incomprehensible, so maddening!

Were I not assured of what my eyes beheld; were I not certain that there was nothing defective in my reasoning, that there was no error in my observation, no link missing in the chain of rigorous verification, I should set myself down as a mere bedlamite, the sport of a fantastic vision. After all, who can tell?

I am to-day the inmate of an asylum for lunatics, but I took up my abode there voluntarily, from caution, from fear! Only one living soul is acquainted with my story. The physician here. I am going to write it down. Why? I do not clearly know. To rid myself of it, for I feel it within me like an intolerable nightmare."

It is this:

I have always been a recluse, a dreamer, a sort of lonely, kindly disposed philosopher, content with little, without bitterness toward man and without hate toward Heaven. I have always lived alone by reason of a sort of incommodity that the presence of others affects me with. How shall I explain that? I cannot. I do not shut myself entirely from the world, I do not refuse to converse and dine with my friends, but when I have had them by me for any length of time, even the nearest and dearest of them, they tire me, they weary and depress me, and I experience a constantly increasing, tormenting desire to see them go away, or to go away myself and be alone.

This desire is something more than a mere fancy; it is an irresistible necessity. And should the people with whom I chance to be continue to remain with me, should I be compelled, not to listen and attend to, but to hear their conversation for a long time, some accident would doubtless happen me. Of what nature? Ah! who can tell? Perhaps a simple fainting-fit? Yes, probably.

I love so to be alone that I cannot even endure the propinquity of other beings sleeping beneath my roof; I cannot live in Paris because it is infinite torture to me. I die a moral death, and am racked, too, in body and nerves, by that immense throng that swarms and lives about me, even while it sleeps. Ah! the slumber of others is even more afflictive to me than their speech, and I can never rest when I know, when I feel that, parted from me by a wall, there are lives whose thread is broken by these regular eclipses of the reason.

Why am I thus? Who can tell? The reason, perhaps, is very simple: I weary very quickly of everything that occurs outside my own individuality. And there are many people constituted as I am.

There are two races of us here on earth. There are those who feel the need of their fellow-men, who find the company of others a distraction and a peaceful, soothing influence, and are exasperated, exhausted, crushed by solitude as they would be by ascending a terrible glacier or crossing a desert; and again there are those whom the companionship of others serves to weary, nauseate, incommode and tire to death, while isolation tends to calm and refresh them, and bathe them in repose, in the independence and the dreamland of their fancy.

In a word, there is a normal psychical phenomenon in it. Some are formed to live the outer life, others to live the inner life. For myself, my interest in external objects is shortlived and soon exhausted, and the moment that it reaches its limits I am conscious of an intolerable wretchedness in all my being, physical and mental.

From this it has resulted that I am deeply attached, that I was deeply attached, to inanimate objects that assume in my eyes the importance of living beings, and that my house is, or was, a world where I lived an active and solitary life in the midst of objects, furniture, familiar bibelots, that were as sympathetic to my eyes as human countenances. I had filled the house with those things little by little, and had made it beautiful, and within its walls I experienced content and satisfaction; I was very happy, as one is in the arms of a loving woman whose accustomed caress has become a calm and gentle portion of our existence.

I had built this house in a handsome garden which secluded it from the public roads, and close to the gate of a city where, when I felt like it, I might have the resource of society, for which I felt at times an inclination. My servants all had quarters in a remote building at the bottom of the kitchen-garden, which was surrounded by a high wall. The silence of my dwelling that was lost, hidden, drowned beneath the leaves of the great trees, wrapped in the obscurity of the night, was so restful and so grateful to me that every night I would put off going to bed for several hours in order that I might have the longer time to enjoy it.

There had been a performance of Sigurd at the opera house in the city that evening. It was the first time that I had heard that fine and imaginative drama and it had afforded me keen delight.

I was returning on foot at a lively pace, and sounding phrases were ringing in my ears and graceful visions were floating before my eyes. It was dark, very dark, so dark that I could scarcely distinguish the road before me, and several times I was near tumbling into the ditch. From the octroi at the gate to my house it is about a half-mile, perhaps a little more, say twenty minutes of easy walking. It was one o'clock in the morning, one o'clock or half-past one; the sky brightened a little ahead of me and the crescent appeared—the cheerless crescent of the moon's last quarter. The crescent of the first quarter, that which rises at four or five o'clock in the afternoon, is bright, cheerful, touched with silver, but that which rises after midnight is red, sullen, disheartening; it is the veritable crescent of the Sabbat. Every night-walker must have remarked this. The former, even if it is no thicker than a thread, casts a joyous little light that makes glad the heart and projects clearly drawn shadows upon the earth; the latter sheds a scanty, expiring light, so dull that it scarcely makes a shadow.

I perceived in the distance the dark mass of my garden, and I know not whence arose the feeling of disquiet that I experienced at the idea of entering it. I proceeded at a slower pace. The night was very balmy. The great group of trees seemed to me like a necropolis in which my house lay buried.

I opened my gate and entered the long alley of sycamores that stretched away toward the building, arching the road like a lofty tunnel; I threaded the dense, opaque masses of shrubbery and skirted the lawn where, in the wan darkness, the flower-beds lay in oval splashes of indistinct color.

As I drew near the house a strange disturbance took possession of my mind. I stopped. There was nothing to be heard. There was not a breath of air to move the leaves. "What ails me?" I thought. For ten years I had been coming home in this way, and never until now had I known the slightest uneasiness. I was not afraid. I have never been afraid at night. The sight of a man, a depredator, a robber, would have excited my wrath, and I should not have hesitated to try conclusions with him. Besides, I was armed. I had my revolver with me. I did not lay hand on it, however, for I wished to resist that influence of dread that was gathering within me.

What was it? A presentiment? The mysterious presentiment that takes possession of the minds of men when they behold the approach of the unfathomable? Perhaps so. Who can tell?

I felt my flesh creep as I went forward, and when at last I stood in front of my big house with its tightly closed shutters, I was sensible that I should have to wait a few minutes before opening the door and effecting an entrance. I therefore seated myself upon a bench, before the windows of my salon. I remained there, slightly trembling, my head resting against the wall, my gaze fixed upon the shadowy foliage. I noticed nothing unusual about me during those first instants. I had something of a roaring in my ears, but that is a frequent occurrence with me. At times it seems to me that I hear the passing of trains, the ringing of bells, the marching of an army.

Then this roaring soon became more distinct, more clearly defined, more unambiguous. I had deceived myself. It was not the normal beating of my pulses that had caused those noises in my ears, but a nondescript, and, at the same time, very confused sound, which emanated, beyond the possibility of a doubt, from the interior of my house.

I could distinguish it through the wall, this continuous, uninterrupted noise; a tremor, it was, rather than a noise, an aimless moving about of many objects, as if all my furniture, my chairs and tables, had been shaken and moved from their places, and dragged gently to and fro.

Oh! I questioned, for quite a length of time, the reliability of my sense of hearing, but having placed my ear against the shutter in order to gain a clearer knowledge of this strange disorder in my dwelling, I was convinced beyond room for doubt that something unnatural and incomprehensible was going on within. I was not afraid, but I was—how shall I express my meaning? I was struck dumb with astonishment. I did not draw my revolver—for I knew very well that I should have no occasion to use it. I waited.

For a long time I waited, unable to decide upon what to do, my mind perfectly clear, but wildly apprehensive. I waited, standing erect, all the while listening intently to the noise that kept increasing, assuming at times a character of intense violence and rising, seemingly, into a roar of impatience, rage, and mysterious riot.

Then, ashamed of my cowardice, I seized my bunch of keys, selected the one that I required and inserted it in the lock. I gave it two turns and pushing the door with all my strength, I sent it flying back against the wainscot. The crash sounded like the report of a musket, and lo! straightway, from top to bottom of my house, responsive to the explosive sound, there arose a fearful din. It was so unexpected, so terrible, so deafening, that I recoiled a few steps and, though well aware how futile was the proceeding, drew my revolver from its case.

I waited again. Oh! only for a short time, though. I could distinguish now an outlandish trampling on the steps of my staircase, on the wooden floors, on the carpets—a trampling not of shoes and of foot-coverings such as are worn by human beings, but of crutches, crutches of wood and crutches of iron, which rang with a noise such as is made by the beating of cymbals. And behold! there upon the threshold of my door I suddenly perceived a fauteuil, my great reading-chair, go waddling out of the house. It made off through the garden. Others followed suit, those of my drawing-room first, then the low sofas, dragging themselves along like crocodiles on their short legs, then all the rest of my chairs, bounding and leaping like goats, and the little footstools, which trotted off like rabbits.

Oh, what an experience! I slipped into a clump of bushes, where I crouched down and remained watching this migration of my goods and chattels, for they all cleared out, every one of them, one after the other, moving at a slow or rapid pace according to their size and weight. My piano, my grand piano à queue, went by galloping like a runaway horse, with a faint murmur of music proceeding from its depths, and the smaller objects—brushes, glasses, cups—glided over the sand like ants, and the moon touched them with phosphorescent lights so that they shone like glowworms. The stuffs of silk and woolen crawled, spread themselves out in sheets after the fashion of monsters of the sea, octopi and devil-fish. I beheld my desk approaching, a rare bibelot of the last century, containing all the letters that I ever received, all my heart history—an old history that has been cause to me of so much suffering! And in it, too, were photographs.

Suddenly I ceased to be afraid. I rushed upon the desk and seized it, as we seize a robber, as we seize a woman who is trying to escape us, but it pursued its way with irresistible momentum, and despite my efforts, and despite my wrath, I could not even so much as retard its progress. As I was pulling backward like a madman in resistance to this appalling force, I fell to the ground in my conflict with it; then it rolled me over and over, dragged me upon the sandy path, and the pieces of furniture that were following in its train were already begininng to tread upon me, trampling on my legs and bruising them; then, when I had let go my hold of it, the others passed over my body, just as a charge of cavalry passes over a trooper who has lost his saddle.

Maddened with affright, at last I succeeded in dragging myself out of the main alley and concealing myself again among the trees, from thence to watch the flight of the most unconsidered, the smallest, the most trifling objects, those the very existence of which I had been unaware of, which had been mine.

Then in the distance, in my dwelling, that now had the resonancy of other empty houses, I heard a direful sound of closing doors. Downward and from top to bottom of the house they kept slamming, until the door of the vestibule, that I myself, idiot that I was; had opened for this flitting, had swung closed, the last of all.

I immediately fled, running toward the city, and only when in its streets, where I met belated wayfarers, did I regain my self-command. I went to a hotel where I was known and rang the bell. I had beaten my clothing with my hands in order to remove from it the traces of dust, and I told them that I had lost my bunch of keys, among which was that of the garden where my servants were sleeping in an isolated house, behind the inclosing wall that served to protect my fruits and vegetables from the visit of the spoiler.

I buried myself up to the eyes in the bed which they gave me, but I could not sleep and passed the time until daybreak listening to the thumping of my heart. I had given orders that my household should be apprised of my presence there at earliest dawn, and at seven o'clock in the morning my valet-de-chambre knocked at my door. His face bore an aspect of consternation.

"A great misfortune happened last night, sir," said he.

"What was it?"

"All monsieur's furniture was stolen—all, everything, even to the smallest objects."

The intelligence gave me pleasure. Why? Who can tell? It rendered me master of myself and my actions, it gave me an opportunity to dissemble, to say nothing to any one of what my eyes had seen, to conceal it, to bury it at the bottom of my consciousness like a dread secret. I made answer:

"Then those must be the same parties who stole my keys from me. The police must be notified at once. I will get up and be with you in a few moments."

The investigation lasted five months. No discovery was made; no trace of the robbers was found, nor was the least bit of my furniture recovered. Parbleu! If I had told what I knew—if I had told—they would have locked me up, me—not the thieves, but the man who had been capable of seeing such things.

Oh! I knew enough to hold my tongue. I did not refurnish my house, however. There would have been no use in doing that; the same thing would have happened again. I did not wish to return to it, I did not return to it. I never set eyes on it again.

I came and lived at Paris, at the hotel, and I, consulted physicians upon my nervous condition, which had been the cause of much anxiety to me since that ill-omened night. They urged me to travel. I followed their advice.

II

I commenced by a trip to Italy. The sunlight was beneficial to me. I spent six months in wandering from Genoa to Venice, from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, from Rome to Naples. Then I made a tour through Sicily,' an interesting country to visit on account of its natural advantages and its monuments, relics of the Greeks and Normans. I passed over into Africa, I traversed unmolested that peaceful, yellow desert that is trod by camels, gazelles and vagabond Arabs, where the light, transparent atmosphere harbors no haunting visions, by night more than by day.

I re-entered France by way of Marseilles, and notwithstanding the gayety of the Provençals, the paler light of their country afflicted me with sadness. In returning to the continent I experienced the strange sensation of a sick man who believes that he is cured and who is warned by a dull pain that the embers of his disease are still alive.

Then I returned to Paris. I grew tired of life there at the expiration of a month. This was in the autumn, and I felt a desire to make a trip through Normandy before the setting in of winter, a country that I was unacquainted with.

I took Rouen as my starting-point, as a matter of course, and for a week I wandered in a state of disstracted, delighted enthusiasm about the streets of this middle-age city, this surprising museum of wonderful Gothic monuments.

Now, as I was picking my way one afternoon, about four o'clock, along an outlandish street through which flows an ink-black stream that they call the "Eau de Robec," my attention, which had been devoted to the fantastic and antiquated aspect of the houses, was suddenly attracted by the sight of a row of second-hand dealers' shops that adjoined each other, door by door.

Ah! they had made good choice of their location, those sordid traffickers in the frippery of the past, in that quaint, narrow street, over that repulsive watercourse, beneath those peaked roofs of tile or slate on which the old-fashioned weathercocks were still creaking as they turned with the wind!

Heaped confusedly together in the depths of the dark shops could be seen carved chests, pottery of Rouen, of Nevers, of Moustiers, painted statues and others of oak, images of Christ, of the Virgin and of the saints, ecclesiastical ornaments, chasubles, copes, even sacred vases and an old tabernacle of gilded wood that had ceased to be a residence of the Divinity. Oh! those strange caverns in those lofty houses, in those wide, deep houses that were filled, from garret to cellar, with objects of every description that seemed to have outlived their usefulness, that had survived their natural owners, their age, their time, their customs, to be purchased as curiosities by new generations!

My old passion for bric-à-brac came to life again in this antiquarian region. I went from shop to shop, crossing in a couple of strides the bridges of four rotting planks that spanned the unsavory current of the Eau de Robec.

Miséricorde! How it upset me! At the edge of a vault that was stuffed full with all sorts of things, and that seemed to be the entrance to the catacombs of a graveyard of old furniture, one of my finest armoires greeted my eyes. I approached it trembling in every limb, trembling to such a degree that I dared not touch it. I put forth my hand to touch it; I hesitated and drew it back. And yet there could be no doubt of its identity; a unique armoire of the time of Louis XIII., that any one who had seen it but once would recognize without difficulty. Suddenly casting my eyes a tittle further, toward the more dimly lighted depths of this gallery, they lighted on three of my fauteuils covered with fine-stitch tapestry, then, further still, I perceived my two Henri II. tables, such rarities that people used to come from Paris merely for a look at them.

Think! just think what my feelings must have been!

And I advanced, paralyzed, in a fever of emotion; still, I advanced—for I am a brave man—I advanced as a knight of the dark ages might have penetrated a lair of necromancers. As I proceeded I found everything that had belonged to me, my chandeliers, my books, my pictures, my stuffs of silk and woolen, my arms, everything, excepting the desk that contained my letters, and of that I could see nothing anywhere.

I kept on and on, descending into dark galleries only to climb out of them again immediately and mount to floors above. I was alone. I called; no one responded. I was alone; there was'not a soul in that great house with its labyrinthine passages.

Night came on, and I had to sit down, in the darkness, on one of my own chairs, for I would not go away. Every now and then I shouted: "Halloa! halloa! some one!"

I had been there, certainly, more than an hour, when I heard footsteps, soft, slow footsteps, I could not tell where. I came near taking to my heels, but plucking up my courage I called again and saw a light in the adjacent apartment.

"Who is there?" a voice said.

"A purchaser!" I replied.

The answer came: "It is very late to enter a shop in this manner."

I answered: "I have been waiting for you for more than an hour."

"You can come again to-morrow."

"To-morrow I shall have left Rouen."

I dared not go forward, and he did not come to me. I could still see the light of his lamp, shining on a tapestry where two angels were represented hovering over the dead of a field of battle. It, also, was my property. I said:

"Well! Are you coming?"

"I await you here," he replied.

I arose and went toward him.

In the middle of a great room was a little bit of a man, very little and very fat, phenomenonally fat, a most repulsive sight to see.

He had a thin beard, composed of straggling, yellowish hairs of unequal length, and not the sign of a hair on his head! Not a hair! As he held his candle up at arm's length to get a better view of me, his cranium appeared to me like a small moon in that immense room crowded with old furniture. His face was wrinkled and swollen, and the eyes were imperceptible.

I made a bargain with him for three chairs which were my property, and paid a large sum for them, money down, merely giving him the number of my room at the hotel. They were to be delivered the following day before nine o'clock.

Then I took my departure. He escorted me to his door with a great show of politeness.

After that I called upon the commissaire central of the police of the city, to whom I related the story of the theft of my furniture and the discovery that I had just made. He immediately telegraphed the public prosecutor who had conducted the investigation of the robbery for full particulars, requesting me to await the answer. In an hour's time it came and was satisfactory to me in every respect.

"I am going to have this man arrested and examine him at once," he said to me, "for he may suspect something and take steps to get rid of your property. You had better go and get your dinner and come back here in two hours; I will have him here and will put him through another examination in your presence."

"I shall be glad to do so, sir, and I thank you with all my heart."

I went to my hotel and dined, and ate with a better appetite than I could have believed possible. I was well pleased with the turn affairs had taken. He was in custody.

Two hours later I returned to the police official, who was waiting for me.

"Well, sir," he said, as he caught sight of me, "we have not succeeded in finding your man. My men have not been able to lay hands on him."

Ah! I experienced a sickening feeling.

"But—you found his house, did you not?" I inquired.

"Certainly. We shall put a guard over it and keep a sharp lookout until he comes back. As to the man, he has disappeared."

"Disappeared?"

"Disappeared. He generally passes his evenings with his neighbor, the widow Bidoin, who is also a second-hand dealer and a good-for-nothing fortune-teller. She has not seen him this evening and can give us no intelligence of him. We shall have to wait until to-morrow."

I went away. Ah! how sinister, how haunted and dread-inspiring the streets of Rouen appeared to me that night!

I slept so badly, awakening in a nightmare from every one of my short naps.

As I did not wish to appear unduly anxious or impatient, I waited the next morning until it was ten o'clock before going to the police-station.

Nothing more had been seen of the merchant. His shop remained closed.

The commissaire said to me:

"I have taken all the necessary steps. The public prosecutor has been fully apprised of the circumstances of the case; we will go together to that shop and have it opened, and you will point out to me your property."

A coupé conveyed us thither. There were policemen, together with a locksmith, standing in front of the shop-door, which was quickly opened.

When we had effected an entrance I could see nothing of my armoire, my fauteuils, my tables; nothing, not a thing of the furniture that had been in my house, absolutely nothing, while the night before I could not take a step without encountering some article that had been mine.

The commissaire, in his bewilderment, at first looked at me distrustfully.

"Mon Dieu, monsieur," I said, "the disappearance of that furniture and that of the merchant form a strange coincidence."

He smiled. "It is true. You made a mistake in buying and paying for your bibelots yesterday. It put him on his guard."

I replied: "What I cannot see through is, how it is that the space that was occupied by my furniture is now filled with other chattels."

"Oh!" the commissaire answered, "he had all the night to work in, and accomplices, no doubt. There must be a communication between this house and the adjoining ones. Never fear, sir; I am going to follow this matter up closely. The scamp can't escape us for long, since we have a watch at the entrance of his den."

Ah! my heart, my heart, my poor heart; how it beat and throbbed!

I remained at Rouen fifteen days. The man did not return. Parbleu! parbleu! A man like that, who could have expected to capture him, or do aught to interfere with his plans?

Now, on the sixteenth day, in the morning, I received this strange letter from my gardener, whom I had made the guardian of my pillaged and empty house:

Monsieur:

I have the honor of informing Monsieur that something happened last night that no one can understand, the police no more than the rest of us. All the furniture was returned, all, without exception, everything, even to the smallest article. The house is now exactly as it was the day before the robbery. It is enough to drive one wild. It occurred during the night between Friday and Saturday. The roads are cut up as if everything had been dragged from the gate to the door. It was the same on the day of the disappearance.

We await the arrival of Monsieur, of whom I am the very humble servant.

Philippe Raudin.

Oh! no, oh! no, oh! no. I will not go back there! I took the letter to the commissaire of Rouen.

"It is a very adroit restitution," said he. "We must dissemble and lay low. We will pinch the man one of these days!"

But he has not been pinched. No. They have not pinched him, and I am afraid of him, now, as if he were a wild beast let loose at my heels.

Undiscoverable! he is undiscoverable, this monster with a skull like a full moon! He will never be caught. He will never return to his home. What matters it to him. I am the only one that he fears to meet, and I won't do it.

I won't! I won't! I won't!

And if he does return, if he takes possession of his shop again, who is there that can prove that he had my furniture there? My testimony is all there is against him, and I feel that it is beginning to be discredited.

Ah! but no! it was no longer possible to lead, such a life. And then I could not keep the secret of what I had seen. I could not keep on living like the rest of the world with the dread that such things might happen me again.

I came and found the doctor who has charge of this asylum and told him everything.

After he had examined me at great length, he said:

"Would you agree to remain here for some time, monsieur?"

"Very gladly, monsieur."

"You have means of your own?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Do you wish a pavilion to yourself?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Shall you wish to see friends?"

"No, monsieur; no, not a soul. The man of Rouen, in his desire for vengeance, might make bold to come and pursue me here."

And so I am here alone, all alone, for three months, now. My mind is at ease, nearly. I fear but one thing: If the antiquary should become crazy—and if they should bring him to this asylum—— The very prisoners themselves are not secure——