‘Mother and Son’ is a tragic short story by Guy De Maupassant. It’s an old classic that will well-up your eyes. How cruel can life be with someone can be imagined through this story. This is how the story goes. I’ve simplified it for you.
It opens with a party of men who were chatting in the smoking room after dinner. They are talking of unexpected legacies and strange inheritances. Where, there is a character by the name of Maitre le Brument, who is at times called “the illustrious judge” and at some other times “the illustrious lawyer.” During the party he goes and stands with his back to the fire, as it is extremely cold and narrates a real life story.
He says, ‘Nearly six months ago I was called to the bedside of a dying woman and was asked to search for her heir who had disappeared under very peculiar and distressing circumstances. Friends, it is one of those terrible dramas of life, a thing that rarely happens, and is one of the most dreadful happenings I know of, in our society. Let me narrate what the dying woman says in pain.’
“Monsieur, I want to intrust you with the most delicate, difficult and the most wearisome mission that one can ever conceive. Be kind enough to read my will, which is lying there on the table. A sum of five thousand francs is left for you as a fee if you don’t succeed. A hundred thousand francs if you succeed. I want you to find my son after my death.”
‘She asked me to assist her to sit up in the bed, so that she might talk with greater ease. Her voice was broken and gasping, and was whistling in her throat. It was a wealthy establishment, a luxurious apartment with elegant simplicity. It was upholstered with materials as thick as walls, with a soft inviting surface, where the dying woman continued.’
“You are the first to hear my horrible story. Hope, I’ll have enough strength to finish it. You must know the full story. I know you as a kind-hearted man, as well as a man of the world, who may have a sincere desire to help me, with all your power. So please listen to me patiently.
Before my marriage, I loved a young man, whose proposal to marry me was rejected by my family because he was not rich enough. Not long afterward, I was married to a man of great wealth. I had a child, a boy. After which my husband died in the course of a few years.
And he, whom, I had loved had also married by now. But when he saw that I was a widow, he was crushed by grief, more at knowing, that he was no more a free man to marry me. He came to see me. He wept and sobbed so bitterly, that it was enough to break my heart. He came to see me first as a friend. Perhaps, I ought not to have received him. But what could I do? I was alone, sad, solitary, and hopeless! And I still loved him.
I had only him in the world, since my parents were dead. Soon he started coming home frequently and started spending the evenings with me. I should not have let him come so often, seeing that he was married. But I did not have enough will-power to prevent him from coming.
Soon he became my lover. Something you can’t explain. In short, monsieur, I had become his mistress, and I was happy about it. But my greatest weakness and my greatest piece of cowardice was that I became his wife’s friend.
We brought up my son together. We made a man of him, a thorough man, intelligent, full of sense and resolution, of large and generous ideas. The boy reached the age of seventeen.
My son was fond of my lover, almost as fond of him as I was myself, for he had been equally cherished and cared for by both of us. He used to call him his ‘dear friend,’ and respected him immensely, having never received from him, anything but wise counsels, and an example of integrity, honour, and probity. He looked at him as an old loyal and devoted comrade of his mother, a sort of moral father, guardian, and protector. Just don’t know how to describe it.
The reason, perhaps why, he never asked any questions about him was because he had been accustomed to him, from his early years, and had seen him in my house, at my side, at his side, always concerned about us both.
One evening the three of us were to dine together. This was my prime hobby and recreation. I waited for the two men to arrive, asking myself which of them would be the first to arrive. The door opened. It was my old friend. I went towards him, with outstretched arms. He pressed my lips and turned it into a long delicious kiss.
When all of a sudden, a slight sound, a faint rustling, that mysterious sensation which indicates the presence of another person, made us start and turn round abruptly. Jean, my son, stood there, livid, staring at us.
That was a moment of atrocious confusion. I drew back, holding out my hand towards my son as if in supplication. But I could not see him. He had left.
We stood there facing each other—my lover and I—crushed, unable to utter a word. I sank into an armchair. I felt like going out in the night and disappearing forever. Convulsive sobs rose in my throat. I wept, shaken with spasms. My heart breaking, my nerves writhing with the horrible sensation of an irreparable misfortune. I was engulfed in a dreadful sense of shame, which in moments such as this, fills a mother’s heart.
My lover looked at me with terrified eyes, not venturing to approach, or speak to me, or to touch me, for the fear of the boy’s return. And at last he said.
“I am going to follow him, talk to him, to explain matters to him. In short, I must see him and let him know.” And he hurried away. I waited and waited in a distracted frame of mind, trembling, at the least sound, starting with fear, and some unutterably, strange and intolerable emotion, at every slight crackling of the fire in the grate.
I waited for hours, feeling my heart swell with dread. Never before I had experienced such an anguish, and wouldn’t like to pass it on to the greatest of criminals, to endure it, even for ten minutes. Where was my son? What was he doing? I thought in anguish.
At about midnight, a messenger brought me a note from my lover. I still remember its contents by heart.
“Has your son returned? I did not find him. I am down here. I do not want to go up at this hour.”
‘I wrote in pencil on the same slip of paper. “Jean has not returned. You must find him.”
‘And I remained all night in the armchair, waiting for him.
I felt as if I was going mad. I longed to run wildly about, to roll on the ground. Yet I did not even stir, but kept waiting hour after hour. What was going to happen? I tried to imagine. I tried to guess. But I could form no conception, in spite of my efforts, and in spite of the tortures of my soul!
I now feared that they might meet. But what would they do in that case? What would my son do? My mind was torn with fearful doubts, and with terrible suppositions.
You can understand my feelings, can you not, monsieur? My chambermaid, who knew nothing, who understood nothing, came into the room every moment, believing, naturally, that I had lost my reason. I sent her away with a word or a sway of the hand. She went for the doctor, who found me in the throes of a nervous attack.
I was put to bed. I had brain fever.
When I regained consciousness, after a long illness, I saw by my bed my—lover—alone.
My son? Where is my son?
He didn’t reply. I stammered.
Dead-dead. Has he committed suicide?
“No, no, I swear it. But we have not found him in spite of all my efforts.”
‘Then, becoming suddenly exasperated and even indignant, as women are subject to such outbursts of unaccountable and unreasoning anger—I said,
I forbid you to come near me or to see me again unless you find him. Go away!
He did go away.
Since then I’ve never seen either of them monsieur, and so, I have lived alone for the last twenty years.
Can you imagine what all has this meant to me? Can you understand this monstrous punishment, this slow, perpetual laceration of a mother’s heart, this abominable, endless wait? Which is about to end now because I am dying. I am dying without ever again seeing either of them.
He—the man I loved—has written to me every day for the last twenty years. But I have never consented to see him, even for a second. For I had a strange feeling that, if he were to come back here, my son would make his appearance at the same moment. Oh! My son! My son! Is he dead? Is he living? Where is he hiding? Over there, perhaps, beyond the great ocean, in some country so far away that even its very name is unknown to me! Does he ever think of me? Ah! If he only knew! How cruel one’s children are! Did he understand to what frightful suffering he condemned me, into what depths of despair, into what tortures, he cast me while I was still in the prime of my life, leaving me to suffer until this moment, when I am about to die—me, his mother, who loved him with all the intensity of a mother’s love? Oh! Isn’t it cruel?
You will tell him all this, monsieur—will you not? You will repeat to him my last words.
My dear child, be less harsh towards poor women! Life is already brutal and savage enough in its dealings with them. My dear son, think of what the existence of your poor mother has been ever since the day you left her. My dear child, forgive her, and love her, now that she is dead, for she has had to endure the most frightful penance ever inflicted on a woman.
“She gasped for breath, trembling, as if she had addressed the last words to her son and as if he stood by her bedside. Then she added.”
‘You will tell him also, monsieur, that I never saw that person again.’
“Once more she ceased speaking, then, in a broken voice, she said.”
‘Leave me now, I beg of you. I want to die all alone, since they are not with me.’
Maitre Le Brument added:
“And I left the house, monsieurs, crying like a fool, so bitterly, indeed, that my coachman turned round to stare at me. And to think that, every day, dramas like this are being enacted all around us! I have not found the son—that son—well, say what you like about him, but I call him that criminal son!”
Can you believe it? The mother died without seeing her son for no crime of hers.
Posted by Kamlesh Tripathi
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GLOOM BEHIND THE SMILE
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