A white-haired old man
begged us for alms. My companion, Joseph
Davranche, gave him five francs. Noticing my
surprised look, he said:
"That poor unfortunate reminds me of a story which I shall
tell you, the memory of which continually
pursues me. Here it is:
"My family, which came originally from Havre, was not rich.
We just managed to make both ends meet. My
father worked hard, came home late from the
office, and earned very little. I had two
"My mother suffered a good deal from our reduced
circumstances, and she often had harsh words for
her husband, veiled and sly reproaches. The poor
man then made a gesture which used to distress
me. He would pass his open hand over his
forehead, as if to wipe away perspiration which
did not exist, and he would answer nothing. I
felt his helpless suffering. We economized on
everything, and never would accept an invitation
to dinner, so as not to have to return the
courtesy. All our provisions were bought at
bargain sales. My sisters made their own gowns,
and long discussions would arise on the price of
a piece of braid worth fifteen centimes a yard.
Our meals usually consisted of soup and beef,
prepared with every kind of sauce. They say it
is wholesome and nourishing, but I should have
preferred a change.
"I used to go through terrible scenes on account of lost
buttons and torn trousers.
Sunday, dressed in our best, we would take our walk
along the breakwater. My father, in a frock coat,
high hat and kid gloves, would offer his arm to my
mother, decked out and beribboned like a ship on a
holiday. My sisters, who were always ready first,
would await the signal for leaving; but at the last
minute some one always found a spot on my father’s
frock coat, and it had to be wiped away quickly with
a rag moistened with benzene.
"My father, in his shirt sleeves, his silk hat on his head,
would await the completion of the operation, while
my mother, putting on her spectacles, and taking off
her gloves in order not to spoil them, would make
"Then we set out ceremoniously. My sisters marched on ahead,
arm in arm. They were of marriageable age and had to
be displayed. I walked on the left of my mother and
my father on her right. I remember the pompous air
of my poor parents in these Sunday walks, their
stern expression, their stiff walk. They moved
slowly, with a serious expression, their bodies
straight, their legs stiff, as if something of
extreme importance depended upon their appearance.
"Every Sunday, when the big steamers were returning from
unknown and distant countries, my father would
invariably utter the same words:
"'What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that one! Eh?'
Uncle Jules, my father’s brother, was the only hope
of the family, after being its only fear. I had
heard about him since childhood, and it seemed to me
that I should recognize him immediately, knowing as
much about him as I did. I knew every detail of his
life up to the day of his departure for America,
although this period of his life was spoken of only
in hushed tones.
"It seems that he had led a bad life, that is to say, he had
squandered a little money, which action, in a poor
family, is one of the greatest crimes. With rich
people a man who amuses himself only sows his wild
oats. He is what is generally called a sport.But
among needy families a boy who forces his parents to
break into the capital becomes a good-for-nothing, a
rascal, a scamp. And this distinction is just,
although the action be the same, for consequences
alone determine the seriousness of the act.
Uncle Jules had visibly diminished the inheritance
on which my father had counted, after he had
swallowed his own to the last penny. Then, according
to the custom of the times, he had been shipped off
to America on a freighter going from Havre to New
"Once there, my uncle began to sell something or other, and
he soon wrote that he was making a little money and
that he soon hoped to be able to indemnify my father
for the harm he had done him. This letter caused a
profound emotion in the family. Jules, who up to
that time had not been worth his salt, suddenly
became a good man, a kind-hearted fellow, true and
honest like all the Davranches.
"One of the captains told us that he had rented a large shop
and was doing an important business.
"Two years later a second letter came, saying: 'My dear
Philippe, I am writing to tell you not to worry
about my health, which is excellent. Business is
good. I leave tomorrow for a long trip to South
America. I may be away for several years without
sending you any news. If I shouldn't write, don't
worry. When my fortune is made I shall return to
Havre. I hope that it will not be too long and that
we shall all live happily together . . . .'
"This letter became the gospel of the family. It was read on
the slightest provocation, and it was shown to
"For ten years nothing was heard from Uncle Jules; but as
time went on my father’s hope grew, and my mother,
also, often said:
"'When that good Jules is here, our position will be
different. There is one who knew how to get along!'
"And every Sunday, while
watching the big steamers approaching from the
horizon, pouring out a stream of smoke, my father
would repeat his eternal question:
"'What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that
"We almost expected to see him waving his handkerchief
"Thousands of schemes had been planned on the strength of
this expected return; we were even to buy a little
house with my uncle’s money --a little place in the
country near Ingouville. In fact, I wouldn't swear
that my father had not already begun negotiations.
"The elder of my sisters was then twenty-eight, the other
twenty-six. They were not yet married, and that was
a great grief to every one.
"At last a suitor presented himself for the younger one. He
was a clerk, not rich, but honorable. I have always
been morally certain that Uncle Jules’ letter, which
was shown him one evening, had swept away the young
man’s hesitation and definitely decided him.
"He was accepted eagerly, and it was decided that after the
wedding the whole family should take a trip to
"Jersey is the ideal trip for poor people. It is not far; one
crosses a strip of sea in a steamer and lands on
foreign soil, as this little island belongs to
England. Thus, a Frenchman, with a two hours’ sail,
can observe a neighboring people at home and study
"This trip to Jersey completely absorbed our ideas, was our
sole anticipation, the constant thought of our
"At last we left. I see it as plainly as if it had happened
yesterday. The boat was getting up steam against the
quay at Granville; my father, bewildered, was
superintending the loading of our three pieces of
baggage; my mother, nervous, had taken the arm of my
unmarried sister, who seemed lost since the
departure of the other one, like the last chicken of
a brood; behind us came the bride and groom, who
always stayed behind, a thing that often made me
"The whistle sounded. We got on board, and the vessel,
leaving the breakwater, forged ahead through a sea
as flat as a marble table. We watched the coast
disappear in the distance, happy and proud, like all
who do not travel much.
"My father was swelling out his chest in the breeze, beneath
his frock coat, which had that morning been very
carefully cleaned; and he spread around him that
odor of benzene which always made me recognize
Sunday. Suddenly he noticed two elegantly dressed
ladies to whom two gentlemen were offering oysters.
An old, ragged sailor was opening them with his
knife and passing them to the gentlemen, who would
then offer them to the ladies. They ate them in a
dainty manner, holding the shell on a fine
handkerchief and advancing their mouths a little in
order not to spot their dresses. Then they would
drink the liquid with a rapid little motion and
throw the shell overboard.
"My father was probably pleased with this delicate manner of
eating oysters on a moving ship. He considered it
good form, refined, and, going up to my mother and
sisters, he asked:
"'Would you like me to offer you some oysters?'
"My mother hesitated on account of the expense, but my two
sisters immediately accepted. My mother said in a
"'I am afraid that they will hurt my stomach. Offer the
children some, but not too much, it would make them
Then, turning toward me, she added:
"'As for Joseph, he doesn't need any. Boys shouldn't be
"However, I remained beside my mother, finding this
discrimination unjust. I watched my father as he
pompously conducted my two sisters and his
son-in-law toward the ragged old sailor.
"The two ladies had just left, and my father showed my
sisters how to eat them without spilling the liquor.
He even tried to give them an example, and seized an
oyster. He attempted to imitate the ladies, and
immediately spilled all the liquid over his coat. I
heard my mother mutter:
"'He would do far better to keep quiet.'
"But, suddenly, my father appeared to be worried; he
retreated a few steps, stared at his family gathered
around the old shell opener, and quickly came toward
us. He seemed very pale, with a peculiar look. In a
low voice he said to my mother:
"'It's extraordinary how that man opening the oysters looks
"Astonished, my mother asked:
"My father continued:
"'Why, my brother. If I did not know that he was well off in
America, I should think it was he.'
"Bewildered, my mother
"'You are crazy! As long as you know that it is not he, why
do you say such foolish things?'
"'Go on over and see, Clarisse! I would rather have you see
with your own eyes.'
"She arose and walked to her daughters. I, too, was watching
the man. He was old, dirty, wrinkled, and did not
lift his eyes from his work.
"My mother returned. I noticed that she was trembling. She
"'I believe that it is he. Why don't you ask the captain? But
be very careful that we don't have this rogue on our
"My father walked away, but I followed him. I felt strangely
"The captain, a tall, thin man, with blond whiskers, was
walking along the bridge with an important air as if
he were commanding the Indian mail steamer.
"My father addressed him ceremoniously, and questioned him
about his profession, adding many compliments:
"'What might be the importance of Jersey? What did it
produce? What was the population? The customs? The
nature of the soil?' etc., etc.
"'You have there an old shell opener who seems quite
interesting. Do you know anything about him?'
"The captain, whom this conversation began to weary, answered
"'He is some old French tramp whom I found last year in
America, and I brought him back.
It seems that he has some relatives in Havre, but that he
doesn't wish to return to them because he owes them
money. His name is Jules--Jules Darmanche or
Darvanche or something like that. It seems that he
was once rich over there, but you can see what's
left of him now.'
"My father turned ashy pale and muttered, his throat
contracted, his eyes haggard.
"'Ah! ah! very well, very well. I'm not in the least
surprised. Thank youvery much, captain.'
"He went away, and the astonished sailor watched him
disappear. He returned to my mother so upset that
she said to him:
"'Sit down; some one will notice that something is the
"He sank down on a bench and stammered:
"'It's he! It's he!'
"Then he asked:
"'What are we going to do?'
"She answered quickly:
"'We must get the children out of the way. Since Joseph knows
everything, he can go and get them. We must take
good care that our son-in-law doesn't find out.'
"My father seemed absolutely bewildered. He murmured:
"'What a catastrophe!'
"Suddenly growing furious, my mother exclaimed:
"'I always thought that that thief never would do anything,
and that he would drop down on us again! As if one
could expect anything from a Davranche!'
"My father passed his hand over his forehead, as he always
did when his wife reproached him. She added:
"'Give Joseph some money so that he can pay for the oysters.
All that it needed to cap the climax would be to be
recognized by that beggar. That would be very
pleasant! Let's get down to the other end of the
boat, and take care that that man doesn't come near
"They gave me five francs and walked away.
"Astonished, my sisters were awaiting their father. I said
that mamma had felt a sudden attack of sea-sickness,
and I asked the shell opener:
"'How much do we owe you, monsieur?'
"I felt like laughing: he was my uncle! He answered:
"'Two francs fifty.'
"I held out my five francs and he returned the change. I
looked at his hand; it was a poor, wrinkled,
sailor’s hand, and I looked at his face, an unhappy
old face. I said to myself:
"'That is my uncle, the brother of my father, my uncle!'
"I gave him a ten-cent tip. He thanked me:
"'God bless you, my young sir!'
"He spoke like a poor man receiving alms. I couldn't help
thinking that he must have begged over there! My
sisters looked at me, surprised at my generosity.
When I returned the two francs to my father, my mother asked
me in surprise:
"'Was there three francs’ worth? That is impossible.'
"I answered in a firm voice,
"'I gave ten cents as a tip.'
"My mother started, and, staring at me, she exclaimed:
"'You must be crazy! Give ten cents to that man, to that
"She stopped at a look from my father, who was pointing at
his son-in-law. Then everybody was silent.
"Before us, on the distant horizon, a purple
shadow seemed to rise out of the sea. It was Jersey.
"As we approached the breakwater a violent desire seized me
once more to see my Uncle Jules, to be near him, to
say to him something consoling, something tender.
But as no one was eating any more oysters, he had
disappeared, having probably gone below to the dirty
hold which was the home of the poor wretch."