I was going to see my friend Simon Radevin once
more, for I had not seen him for fifteen years. Formerly he was my
most intimate friend, and I used to spend long, quiet, and happy
evenings with him. He was one of those men to whom one tells the
most intimate affairs of the heart, and in whom one finds, when
quietly talking, rare, clever, ingenious, and refined
thoughts--thoughts which stimulate and capture the mind.
For years we had scarcely been separated: we had
lived, traveled, thought, and dreamed together; had liked the same
things with the same liking, admired the same books, comprehended
the same works, shivered with the same sensations, and very often
laughed at the same individuals, whom we understood completely, by
merely exchanging a glance.
Then he married--quite unexpectedly married a
little girl from the provinces, who had come to Paris in search of a
husband. How ever could that little, thin, insipidly fair girl, with
her weak hands, her light, vacant eyes, and her clear, silly voice,
who was exactly like a hundred thousand marriageable dolls, have
picked up that intelligent, clever young fellow? Can anyone
understand these things? No doubt he had hoped for happiness,
simple, quiet, and long-enduring happiness, in the arms of a good,
tender, and faithful woman; he had seen all that in the transparent
looks of that schoolgirl with light hair.
He had not dreamed of the fact that an active,
living, and vibrating man grows tired as soon as he has comprehended
the stupid reality of a common-place life, unless indeed, he becomes
so brutalized as to be callous to externals.
What would he be like when I met him again?
Still lively, witty, light-hearted, and enthusiastic, or in a state
of mental torpor through provincial life? A man can change a great
deal in the course of fifteen years!
The train stopped at a small station, and as I
got out of the carriage, a stout, a very stout man with red cheeks
and a big stomach rushed up to me with open arms, exclaiming:
I embraced him, but I had not recognized him,
and then I said, in astonishment: "By Jove! You have not grown
And he replied with a laugh: "What did you
expect? Good living, a good table, and good nights! Eating and
sleeping, that is my existence!"
I looked at him closely, trying to find the
features I held so dear in that broad face. His eyes alone had not
altered, but I no longer saw the same looks in them, and I said to
myself: "If looks be the reflection of the mind, the thoughts in
that head are not what they used to be--those thoughts which I knew
Yet his eyes were bright, full of pleasure and
friendship, but they had not that clear, intelligent expression
which tells better than do words the value of the mind. Suddenly he
said to me:
"Here are my two eldest children." A girl of
fourteen, who was almost a woman, and a boy of thirteen, in the
dress of a pupil from a lycee, came forward in a hesitating and
awkward manner, and I said in a low voice: "Are they yours?"
"Of course they are," he replied laughing.
"How many have you?"
"Five! There are three more indoors."
He said that in a proud, self-satisfied, almost
triumphant manner, and I felt profound pity, mingled with a feeling
of vague contempt for this vainglorious and simple reproducer of his
species, who spent his nights in his country house in uxorious
I got into a carriage, which he drove himself,
and we set off through the town, a dull, sleepy, gloomy town where
nothing was moving in the streets save a few dogs and two or three
maidservants. Here and there a shopkeeper standing at his door took
off his hat, and Simon returned the salute and told me the man's
name--no doubt to show me that he knew all the inhabitants
personally. The thought struck me that he was thinking of becoming a
candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, that dream of all who have
buried themselves in the provinces.
We were soon out of the town; the carriage
turned into a garden which had some pretensions to a park, and
stopped in front of a turreted house, which tried to pass for a
"That is my den," Simon said, so that he might
be complimented on it, and I replied that it was delightful.
A lady appeared on the steps, dressed up for a
visitor, her hair done for a visitor, and with phrases ready
prepared for a visitor. She was no longer the light-haired, insipid
girl I had seen in church fifteen years previously, but a stout lady
in curls and flounces, one of those ladies of uncertain age, without
intellect, without any of those things which constitute a woman. In
short she was a mother, a stout, commonplace mother, a human layer
and brood mare, a machine of flesh which procreates, without mental
care save for her children and her housekeeping book.
She welcomed me, and I went into the hall, where
three children, ranged according to their height, were ranked for
review, like firemen before a mayor. "Ah! ah! so there are the
others?" said I. And Simon, who was radiant with pleasure, named
them: "Jean, Sophie, and Gontran."
The door of the drawing-room was open. I went
in, and in the depths of an easy-chair I saw something trembling, a
man, an old, paralyzed man. Madame Radevin came forward and said:
"This is my grandfather, Monsieur; he is eighty-seven." And then she
shouted into the shaking old man's ears: "This is a friend of
The old gentleman tried to say "Good day" to me,
and he muttered: "Oua, oua, oua," and waved his hand.
I took a seat saying: "You are very kind,
Simon had just come in, and he said with a
laugh: "So! You have made grandpapa's acquaintance. He is priceless,
is that old man. He is the delight of the children, and he is so
greedy that he almost kills himself at every meal. You have no idea
what he would eat if he were allowed to do as he pleased. But you
will see, you will see. He looks all the sweets over as if they were
so many girls. You have never seen anything funnier; you will see it
I was then shown to my room to change my dress
for dinner, and hearing a great clatter behind me on the stairs, I
turned round and saw that all the children were following me behind
their father--to do me honor, no doubt.
My windows looked out on to a plain, a bare,
interminable plain, an ocean of grass, of wheat, and of oats,
without a clump of trees or any rising ground, a striking and
melancholy picture of the life which they must be leading in that
A bell rang; it was for dinner, and so I went
downstairs. Madame Radevin took my arm in a ceremonious manner, and
we went into the dining-room. A footman wheeled in the old man's
arm-chair, who gave a greedy and curious look at the dessert, as
with difficulty he turned his shaking head from one dish to the
Simon rubbed his hands, saying: "You will be
amused." All the children understood that I was going to be indulged
with the sight of their greedy grandfather and they began to laugh
accordingly, while their mother merely smiled and shrugged her
shoulders. Simon, making a speaking trumpet of his hands, shouted at
the old man: "This evening there is sweet rice-cream," and the
wrinkled face of the grandfather brightened, he trembled violently
all over, showing that he had understood and was very pleased. The
"Just look!" Simon whispered. The grandfather
did not like the soup, and refused to eat it; but he was made to, on
account of his health. The footman forced the spoon into his mouth,
while the old man blew energetically, so as not to swallow the soup,
which was thus scattered like a stream of water on to the table and
over his neighbors. The children shook with delight at the
spectacle, while their father, who was also amused, said: "Isn't the
old man funny?"
During the whole meal they were all taken up
solely with him. With his eyes he devoured the dishes which were put
on the table, and with trembling hands tried to seize them and pull
them to him. They put them almost within his reach to see his
useless efforts. his trembling clutches at them, the piteous appeal
of his whole nature, of his eyes, of his mouth, and of his nose as
he smelled them. He slobbered on to his table napkin with eagerness,
while uttering inarticulate grunts, and the whole family was highly
amused at this horrible and grotesque scene.
Then they put a tiny morsel on to his plate,
which he ate with feverish gluttony, in order to get something more
as soon as possible. When the rice-cream was brought in, he nearly
had a fit, and groaned with greediness. Gontran called out to him:
"You have eaten too much already; you will have no more." And they
pretended not to give him any. Then he began to cry--cry and tremble
more violently than ever, while all the children laughed. At last,
however, they gave him his helping, a very small piece. As he ate
the first mouthful of the pudding, he made a comical and greedy
noise in his throat, and a movement with his neck like ducks do,
when they swallow too large a morsel, and then, when he had done, he
began to stamp his feet, so as to get more.
I was seized with pity for this pitiable and
ridiculous Tantalus, and interposed on his behalf: "Please, will you
not give him a little more rice?"
But Simon replied: "Oh! no my dear fellow, if he
were to eat too much, it might harm him at his age."
I held my tongue, and thought over these words.
Oh! ethics! Oh! logic! Oh! wisdom! At his age! So they deprived him
of his only remaining pleasure out of regard for his health! His
health! What would he do with it, inert and trembling wreck that he
was? They were taking care of his life, so they said. His life? How
many days? Ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? Why? For his own sake?
Or to preserve for some time longer, the spectacle of his impotent
greediness in the family.
There was nothing left for him to do in this
life, nothing whatever. He had one single wish left, one sole
pleasure; why not grant him that last solace constantly, until he
After playing cards for a long time, I went up
to my room and to bed: I was low-spirited and sad, sad, sad! I sat
at my window, but I heard nothing but the beautiful warbling of a
bird in a tree, somewhere in the distance. No doubt the bird was
singing thus in a low voice during the night, to lull his mate, who
was sleeping on her eggs.
And I thought of my poor friend's five children,
and to myself pictured him snoring by the side of his ugly wife.