Son by Ivan Bunin

Madame Maraud was born and grew up in Lausanne, in a strict, honest, industrious family. She did not marry young, but she married for love. In March, 1876, among the passengers on an old French ship, the Auvergne, sailing from Marseilles to Italy, was the newly married couple. The weather was calm and fresh; the silvery mirror of the sea appeared and disappeared in the mists of the spring horizon. The newly married couple never left the deck. Every one liked them, every one looked at their happiness with friendly smiles; his happiness showed itself in the energy and keenness of his glance, in a need for movement, in the animation of his welcome to those around him; hers showed itself in the joy and interest with which she took in each detail…. The newly married couple were the Marauds.

He was about ten years her elder; he was not tall, with a swarthy face and curly hair; his hand was dry and his voice melodious. One felt in her the presence of some other, non-Latin blood; she was over medium height, although her figure was charming, and she had dark hair and blue-grey eyes. After touching at Naples, Palermo, and Tunis, they arrived at the Algerian town of Constantine, where M. Maraud had obtained a rather good post. And their life in Constantine, for the fourteen years since that happy spring, gave them everything with which people are normally satisfied: wealth, family happiness, healthy and beautiful children.

During the fourteen years the Marauds had greatly changed in appearance. He became as dark as an Arab; from his work, from travelling, from tobacco and the sun, he had grown grey and dried up–many people mistook him for a native of Algeria. And it would have been impossible to recognize in her the woman who sailed once in the Auvergne: at that time there was even in the boots which she put outside her door at night the charm of youth; now there was silver in her hair, her skin had become more transparent and more of a golden colour, her hands were thinner and in her care of them, of her linen, and of her clothes she already showed a certain excessive tidiness. Their relations had certainly changed too, although no one could say for the worse. They each lived their own life: his time was filled with work–he remained the same passionate, and, at the same time, sober man that he had been before; her time was filled up with looking after him and their children, two pretty girls, of whom the elder was almost a young lady: and every one with one voice agreed that in all Constantine there was no better hostess, no better mother, no more charming companion in the drawing-room than Madame Maraud.

Their house stood in a quiet, clean part of the town. From the front rooms on the second floor, which were always half dark with the blinds drawn down, one saw Constantine, known the world over for its picturesqueness. On steep rocks stands the ancient Arab fortress which has become a French city. The windows of the living-rooms looked into a garden where in perpetual heat and sunshine slumbered the evergreen eucalyptuses, the sycamores, and palms behind high walls. The master was frequently away on business, and the lady led the secluded existence to which the wives of Europeans are doomed in the colonies. On Sundays she always went to church. On weekdays she rarely went out, and she visited only a small and select circle. She read, did needle-work, talked or did lessons with the children; sometimes taking her younger daughter, the black-eyed Marie, on her knee, she would play the piano with one hand and sing old French songs, in order to while away the long African day, while the great breath of hot wind blew in through the open windows from the garden…. Constantine, with all its shutters closed and scorched pitilessly by the sun, seemed at such hours a dead city: only the birds called behind the garden wall, and from the hills behind the town came the dreary sound of pipes, filled with the melancholy of colonial countries, and at times there the dull thud of guns shook the earth, and you could see the flashing of the white helmets of soldiers.

The days in Constantine passed monotonously, but no one noticed that Madame Maraud minded that. In her pure, refined nature there was no trace of abnormal sensitiveness or excessive nervousness. Her health could not be called robust, but it gave no cause of anxiety to M. Maraud. Only one incident once astonished him: in Tunis once, an Arab juggler so quickly and completely hypnotized her that it was only with difficulty that she could be brought to. But this happened at the time of their arrival from France; she had never since experienced so sudden a loss of will-power, such a morbid suggestibility. And M. Maraud was happy, untroubled, convinced that her soul was tranquil and open to him. And it was so, even in the last, the fourteenth year of their married life. But then there appeared in Constantine Emile Du-Buis.

Emile Du-Buis, the son of Madame Bonnay, an old and good friend of M. Maraud, was only nineteen. Emile was the son of her first husband and had grown up in Paris where he studied law, but he spent most of his time in writing poems, intelligible only to himself; he was attached to the school of “Seekers” which has now ceased to exist. Madame Bonnay, the widow of an engineer, also had a daughter, Elise. In May, 1889, Elise was just going to be married, when she fell ill and died a few days before her wedding, and Emile, who had never been in Constantine, came to the funeral. It can be easily understood how that death moved Madame Maraud, the death of a girl already trying on her wedding dress; it is also known how quickly in such circumstances an intimacy springs up between people who have hardly met before. Besides, to Madame Maraud Emile was, indeed, only a boy. Soon after the funeral Madame Bonnay went for the summer to stay with her relations in France. Emile remained in Constantine, in a suburban villa which belonged to his late step-father, the villa “Hashim,” as it was called in the town, and he began coming nearly every day to the Marauds. Whatever he was, whatever he pretended to be, he was still very young, very sensitive, and he needed people to whom he could attach himself for a time. “And isn’t it strange?” some said; “Madame Maraud has become unrecognizable! How lively she has become, and how her looks have improved!”

However, these insinuations were groundless. At first there was only this, that her life had become a little bit jollier, and her girls too had become more playful and coquettish, since Emile, every now and then forgetting his sorrow and the poison with which, as he thought, the fin de siècle had infected him, would for hours at a time play with Marie and Louise as if he were their age. It is true that he was all the same a man, a Parisian, and not altogether an ordinary man. He had already taken part in that life, inaccessible to ordinary mortals, which Parisian writers live; he often read aloud, with a hypnotic expressiveness, strange but sonorous poems; and, perhaps it was entirely owing to him that Madame Maraud’s walk had become lighter and quicker, her dress at home imperceptibly smarter, the tones of her voice more tender and playful. Perhaps, too, there was in her soul a drop of purely feminine pleasure that here was a man to whom she could give her small commands, with whom she could talk, half seriously and half jokingly as a mentor, with that freedom which their difference in age so naturally allowed–a man who was so devoted to her whole household, in which, however, the first person–this, of course, very soon became clear–was for him, nevertheless, she herself. But how common all that is! And the chief thing was that often what she really felt for him was only pity.

He honestly thought himself a born poet, and he wished outwardly too to look like a poet; his long hair was brushed back with artistic modesty; his hair was fine, brown, and suited his pale face just as did his black clothes; but the pallor was too bloodless, with a yellow tinge in it; his eyes were always shining, but the tired look in his face made them seem feverish; and so flat and narrow was his chest, so thin his legs and hands, that one felt a little uncomfortable when one saw him get very excited and run in the street or garden, with his body pushed forward a little, as though he were gliding, in order to hide his defect, that he had one leg shorter than the other. In company he was apt to be unpleasant, haughty, trying to appear mysterious, negligent, at times elegantly dashing, at times contemptuously absent-minded, in everything independent; but too often he could not carry it through to the end, he became confused and began to talk hurriedly with naïve frankness. And, of course, he was not very long able to hide his feelings, to maintain the pose of not believing in love or in happiness on earth. He had already begun to bore his host by his visits; every day he would bring from his villa bouquets of the rarest flowers, and he would sit from morn to night reading poems which were more and more unintelligible–the children often heard him beseeching some one that they should die together–while he spent his nights in the native quarter, in dens where Arabs, wrapped in dirty white robes, greedily watch the danse de ventre, and drank fiery liqueurs…. In a word it took less than six weeks for his passion to change into God knows what.

His nerves gave way completely. Once he sat for nearly the whole day in silence; then he got up, bowed, took his hat and went out–and half an hour later he was carried in from the street in a terrible state; he was in hysterics and he wept so passionately that he terrified the children and servants. But Madame Maraud, it seemed, did not attach any particular importance to this delirium. She herself tried to help him recover himself, quickly undid his tie, told him to be a man, and she only smiled when he, without any restraint in her husband’s presence, caught her hands and covered them with kisses and vowed devotion to her. But an end had to be put to all this. When, a few days after this outbreak, Emile, whom the children had greatly missed, arrived calm, but looking like some one who has been through a serious illness, Madame Maraud gently told him everything which is always said on such occasions.

“My friend, you are like a son to me,” she said to him, for the first time uttering the word son, and, indeed, almost feeling a maternal affection. “Don’t put me in a ridiculous and painful position.”

“But I swear to you, you are mistaken!” he exclaimed, with passionate sincerity. “I am only devoted to you. I only want to see you, nothing else!”

And suddenly he fell on his knees–they were in the garden, on a quiet, hot, dark evening–impetuously embraced her knees, nearly fainting with passion. And looking at his hair, at his thin white neck, she thought with pain and ecstasy:

“Ah yes, yes, I might have had such a son, almost his age!”

However, from that time until he left for France he behaved reasonably. This essentially was a bad sign, for it might mean that his passion had become deeper. But outwardly everything had changed for the better–only once did he break down. It was on a Sunday after dinner at which several strangers were present, and he, careless of whether they noticed it, said to her:

“I beg you to spare me a minute.”

She got up and followed him into the empty, half-dark drawing-room. He went to the window through which the evening light fell in broad shafts, and, looking straight into her face, said:

“To-day is the day on which my father died. I love you!”

She turned and was about to leave him. Frightened, he hastily called after her:

“Forgive me, it is for the first and last time!”

Indeed, she heard no further confessions from him. “I was fascinated by her agitation,” he noted that night in his diary in his elegant and pompous style; “I swore never again to disturb her peace of mind: am I not blessed enough without that?” He continued to come to town–he only slept at the villa Hashim–and he behaved erratically, but always more or less properly. At times he was, as before, unnaturally playful and naïve, running about with the children in the garden; but more often he sat with her and “sipped of her presence,” read newspapers and novels to her, and “was happy in her listening to him.” “The children were not in the way,” he wrote of those days, “their voices, laughter, comings and goings, their very beings acted like the subtlest conductors for our feelings; thanks to them, the charm of those feelings was intensified; we talked about the most everyday matters, but something else sounded through what we said: our happiness; yes, yes, she, too, was happy–I maintain that! She loved me to read poetry; in the evenings from the balcony we looked down upon Constantine, lying at our feet in the bluish moonlight….” At last, in August Madame Maraud insisted that he should go away, return to his work; and during his journey he wrote: “I’m going away! I am going away, poisoned by the bitter sweet of parting! She gave me a remembrance, a velvet ribbon which she wore round her neck as a young girl. At the last moment she blessed me, and I saw tears shine in her eyes, when she said: ‘Good-bye, my dear son.’”

Was he right in thinking that Madam Maraud was also happy in August? No one knows. But that his leaving was painful to her–there is no doubt of that. That word “son,” which had often troubled her before, now had a sound for her which she could not bear to hear. Formerly when friends met her on the way to church, and said to her jokingly: “What have you to pray for, Madame Maraud? You are already without sin and without troubles!” she more than once answered with a sad smile: “I complain to God that he has not given me a son.” Now the thought of a son never left her, the thought of the happiness that he would constantly give her by his mere existence in the world. And once, soon after Emile’s departure, she said to her husband:

“Now I understand it all. I now believe firmly that every mother ought to have a son, that every mother who has no son, if she look into her own heart and examine her whole life, will realize that she is unhappy. You are a man and cannot feel that, but it is so…. Oh how tenderly, passionately a woman can love a son!”

She was very affectionate to her husband during that autumn. It would happen sometimes that, sitting alone with him, she would suddenly say bashfully:

“Listen, Hector…. I am ashamed to mention it again to you, but still … do you ever think of March, ’76? Ah, if we had had a son!”

“All this troubled me a good deal,” M. Maraud said later, “and it troubled me the more because she began to get thin and out of health. She grew feeble, became more and more silent and gentle. She went out to our friends more and more rarely, she avoided going to town unless compelled…. I have no doubt that some terrible, incomprehensible disease had been gradually getting hold of her, body and soul!” And the governess added that that autumn, Madame Maraud, if she went out, invariably put on a thick white veil, which she had never done before, and that, on coming home, she would immediately take it off in front of the glass and would carefully examine her tired face. It is unnecessary to explain what had been going on in her soul during that period. But did she desire to see Emile? Did he write to her and did she answer him? He produced before the court two telegrams which he alleged she sent him in reply to letters of his. One was dated November 10: “You are driving me mad. Be calm. Send me a message immediately.” The other of December 23: “No, no, don’t come, I implore you. Think of me, love me as a mother.” But, of course, the truth that the telegrams had been sent by her could not be proved. Only this is certain, that from September to January the life which Madame Maraud lived was miserable, agitated, morbid.

The late autumn of that year in Constantine was cold and rainy. Then, as is always the case in Algeria, there suddenly came a delightful spring. And a liveliness began again to return to Madame Maraud, that happy, subtle intoxication which people who have already lived through their youth feel at the blossoming of spring. She began to go out again; she drove out a good deal with the children and used to take them to the deserted garden of the villa Hashim; she intended to go to Algiers, and to show the children Blida near which there is in the hills a wooded gorge, the favourite haunt of monkeys. And so it went on until January 17 of the year 1893. On January 17 she woke up with a feeling of gentle happiness which, it seemed, had agitated her the whole night. Her husband was away on business, and in his absence she slept alone in the large room; the blinds and curtains made it almost dark. Still from the pale bluishness which filtered in one could see that it was very early. And, indeed, the little watch on the night table showed that it was six o’clock. She felt with delight the morning freshness coming from the garden, and, wrapping the light blanket round her, turned to the wall…. “Why am I so happy?” she thought as she fell asleep. And in vague and beautiful visions she saw scenes in Italy and Sicily, scenes of that far-off spring when she sailed in a cabin, with its windows opening on to the deck and the cold silvery sea, with doorhangings which time had worn and faded to a rusty silver colour, with its threshold of brass shining from perpetual polishings…. Then she saw boundless bays, lagoons, low shores, an Arab city all white with flat roofs and behind it misty blue hills and mountains. It was Tunis, where she had only once been, that spring when she was in Naples, Palermo…. But then, as though the chill of a wave had passed over her, with a start, she opened her eyes. It was past eight; she heard the voices of the children and the governess. She got up, put on a wrap, and, going out on to the balcony, went down to the garden and sat in the rocking-chair. It stood on the sand by a round table under a blossoming mimosa tree which made a golden arbour heavily scented in the sun. The maid brought her coffee. She again began to think of Tunis, and she remembered the strange thing which had happened to her there, the sweet terror and happy silence of the moment before death which she had experienced in that pale-blue city in a warm pink twilight, half lying in a rocking-chair on the hotel roof, faintly seeing the dark face of the Arab hypnotizer and juggler, who squatted in front of her and sent her to sleep by his hardly audible, monotonous melodies and the slow movements of his thin hands. And suddenly, as she was thinking and was looking mechanically with wide-open eyes at the bright silver spark which shone in the sunlight from the spoon in the glass of water, she lost consciousness…. When with a start she opened her eyes again, Emile was standing over her.

All that followed after that unexpected meeting is known from the words of Emile himself, from his story, from his answers in cross-examination. “Yes, I came to Constantine out of the blue!” he said; “I came because I felt that the Powers of Heaven themselves could not stop me. In the morning of January 17 straight from the railway station, without any warning, I arrived at M. Maraud’s house and ran into the garden. I was overwhelmed by what I saw, but no sooner had I taken a step forward than she woke up. She seemed to be amazed both by the unexpectedness of my appearance and by what had been happening to her, but she uttered no cry. She looked at me like a person who has just woken up from a sound sleep, and then she got up, arranging her hair.

“It is just what I anticipated,” she said without expression; “you did not obey me!”

And with a characteristic movement she folded the wrap round her bosom, and taking my head in her two hands kissed me twice on the forehead.

I was bewildered with passionate ecstasy, but she quietly pushed me from her and said:

“Come, I am not dressed; I’ll be back presently; go to the children.”

“But, for the love of God, what was the matter with you just now?” I asked, following her on to the balcony.

“Oh, it was nothing, a slight faintness; I had been looking at the shining spoon,” she answered, regaining control of herself, and beginning to speak with animation. “But what have you done, what have you done!”

I could not find the children anywhere; it was empty and quiet in the house. I sat in the dining-room, and heard her suddenly begin to sing in a distant room in a strong, melodious voice, but I did not understand then the full horror of that singing, because I was trembling with nervousness. I had not slept at all all night; I had counted the minutes while the train was hurrying me to Constantine; I jumped into the first carriage I met, raced out of the station; I did not expect as I came to the town…. I knew I, too, had a foreboding that my coming would be fatal to us; but still what I saw in the garden, that mystical meeting, and that sudden change in her attitude towards me, I could not expect that! In ten minutes she came down with her hair dressed, in a light grey dress with a shade of blue in it.

“Ah,” she said, while I kissed her hand, “I forgot that to-day is Sunday; the children are at church, and I overslept…. After church the children will go to the pine-wood–have you ever been there?”

And, without waiting for my answer, she rang the bell, and told them to bring me coffee. She began to look fixedly at me, and, without listening to my replies, to ask me how I lived, and what I was doing; she began to speak of herself, of how, after two or three very bad months during which she had become “terribly old”–those words were uttered with an imperceptible smile–she now felt so well, as young, as never before…. I answered, listened, but a great deal I did not understand. Both of us said meaningless things; my hands grew cold at the thought of another terrible and inevitable hour. I do not deny that I felt as though I were struck by lightning when she said “I have grown old….” I suddenly noticed that she was right; in the thinness of her hands, and faded, though youthful, face, in the dryness of some of the outlines of her figure, I noticed the first signs of that which, painfully and somehow awkwardly–but still more painfully–makes one’s heart contract at the sight of an ageing woman. Oh yes, how quickly and sharply she had changed, I thought. But still she was beautiful; I grew intoxicated looking at her. I had been accustomed to dream of her endlessly; I had never for an instant forgotten when, in the evening of July 11, I had embraced her knees for the first time. Her hands, too, trembled slightly, as she arranged her hair and spoke and smiled and looked at me; and suddenly–you will understand the whole catastrophic power of that woman–suddenly that smile somehow became distorted, and she said with difficulty, but yet firmly:

“You must go home, you must rest after your journey–you are not looking yourself; your eyes are so terribly suffering, your lips so burning that I cannot bear it any longer…. Would you like me to come with you, to accompany you?”

And, without waiting for my answer, she got up and went to put on her hat and cloak….

We drove quickly to the villa Hashim. I stopped for a moment on the terrace to pick some flowers. She did not wait for me, but opened the door herself. I had no servants; there was only a watchman, but he did not see us. When I came into the hall, hot and dark with its drawn blinds, and gave her the flowers, she kissed them; then, putting one arm round me, she kissed me. Her lips were dry from excitement, but her voice was clear.

“But listen … how shall we … have you got anything?” she asked.

At first I did not understand her; I was so overwhelmed by the first kiss, the first endearment, and I murmured:

“What do you mean?”

She shrank back.

“What!” she said, almost sternly. “Did you imagine that I… that we can live after this? Have you anything to kill ourselves with?”

I understood, and quickly showed her my revolver, loaded with five cartridges, which I always kept on me.

She walked away quickly ahead of me from one room to the other. I followed her with that numbness of the senses with which a naked man on a sultry day walks out into the sea; I heard the rustle of her skirts. At last we were there; she threw off her cloak and began to untie the strings of her hat. Her hands were still trembling and in the half-light I again noticed something, pitiful and tired in her face….

But she died with firmness. At the last moment she was transformed; she kissed me, and moving her head back so as to see my face, she whispered to me such tender and moving words that I cannot repeat them.

I wanted to go out and pick some flowers to strew on the death-bed. She would not let me; she was in a hurry and said:

“No, no, you must not … there are flowers here … here are your flowers,” and she kept on repeating: “And see, I beseech you by all that is sacred to you, kill me!”

“Yes, and then I will kill myself,” I said, without for a moment doubting my resolution.

“Oh, I believe you, I believe you,” she answered, already apparently half-unconscious….

A moment before her death she said very quietly and simply:

“My God, this is unspeakable!”

And again:

“Where are the flowers you gave me? Kiss me–for the last time.”

She herself put the revolver to her head. I wanted to do it, but she stopped me:

“No, that is not right; let me do it. Like this, my child…. And afterwards make the sign of the cross over me and lay the flowers on my heart….”

When I fired, she made a slight movement with her lips, and I fired again….

She lay quiet; in her dead face there was a kind of bitter happiness. Her hair was loose; the tortoise-shell comb lay on the floor. I staggered to my feet in order to put an end to myself. But the room, despite the blinds, was light; in the light and stillness which suddenly surrounded me, I saw clearly her face already pale…. And suddenly madness seized me; I rushed to the window, undid and threw open the shutters, began shouting and firing into the air…. The rest you know….”

[In the spring, five years ago, while wandering in Algeria, the writer of these lines visited Constantine…. There often comes to him a memory of the cold, rainy, and yet spring evenings which he spent by the fire in the reading-room of a certain old and homely French hotel. In the heavy, elaborate book-case were much-read illustrated papers, and in them you could see the faded photographs of Madame Maraud. There were photographs taken of her at different ages, and among them the Lausanne portrait of her as a girl…. Her story is told here once more, from a desire to tell it in one’s own way.]

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