Mademoiselle Source had adopted this boy under very sad circumstances. She was at the time thirty-six years old. She was disfigured, having in her infancy slipped off her nurse’s lap into the fireplace, and getting her face so shockingly burned that it ever afterward presented a frightful appearance. This deformity had made her resolve not to marry, for she did not want any man to marry her for her money.
The Orphan reads like a whodunnit, but watch the narrator carefully; there’s some shading of facts going on and it isn’t always clear who is responsible for the shading.
This version of the story is from the collection of de Maupassant stories Comedy of Marriage and Other Tales, hosted at Project Gutenberg.
A female neighbor of hers, being left a widow during her pregnancy, died in childbirth, without leaving a sou. Mademoiselle Source took the newborn child, put him out to nurse, reared him, sent him to a boarding-school, then brought him home in his fourteenth year, in order to have in her empty house somebody who would love her, who would look after her, who would make her old age pleasant.
She resided on a little property four leagues away from Rennes, and she now dispensed with a servant. The expenses having increased to more than double what they had been since this orphan’s arrival, her income of three thousand francs was no longer sufficient to support three persons.
She attended to the housekeeping and the cooking herself, and sent the boy out on errands, letting him further occupy himself with cultivating the garden. He was gentle, timid, silent, and caressing. And she experienced a deep joy, a fresh joy at being embraced by him, without any apparent surprise or repugnance being exhibited by him on account of her ugliness. He called her “Aunt” and treated her as a mother.
In the evening they both sat down at the fireside, and she got nice things ready for him. She heated some wine and toasted a slice of bread, and it made a charming little meal before going to bed. She often took him on her knees and covered him with kisses, murmuring in his ear with passionate tenderness. She called him: “My little flower, my cherub, my adored angel, my divine jewel.” He softly accepted her caresses, concealing his head on the old maid’s shoulder. Although he was now nearly fifteen years old, he had remained small and weak, and had a rather sickly appearance.
Sometimes Mademoiselle Source brought him to the city to see two married female relatives of hers, distant cousins, who were living in the suburbs, and who were the only members of her family in existence. The two women had always found fault with her for having adopted this boy, on account of the inheritance; but for all that they gave her a cordial welcome, having still hopes of getting a share for themselves, a third, no doubt, if what she possessed were only equally divided.
She was happy, very happy, always taken up with her adopted child. She bought books for him to improve his mind, and he devoted himself ardently to reading.
He no longer now climbed on her knees to fondle her as he had formerly done; but instead would go and sit down in his little chair in the chimney-corner and open a volume. The lamp placed at the edge of the little table, above his head, shone on his curly hair and on a portion of his forehead; he did not move, he did not raise his eyes, he did not make any gesture. He read on, interested, entirely absorbed in the adventures which formed the subject of the book.
She, seated opposite to him, gazed at him with an eager, steady look, astonished at his studiousness, jealous, often on the point of bursting into tears.
She said to him now and then: “You will fatigue yourself, my treasure!” in the hope that he would raise his head and come across to embrace her; but he did not even answer her; he had not heard or understood what she was saying; he paid no attention to anything save what he read in these pages.
For two years he devoured an incalculable number of volumes. His character changed.
After this, he asked Mademoiselle Source many times for money, which she gave him. As he always wanted more, she ended by refusing, for she was both regular and energetic and knew how to act rationally when it was necessary to do so. By dint of entreaties he obtained a large sum one night from her; but when he urged her to give him another sum a few days later, she showed herself inflexible, and did not give way to him further, in fact.
He appeared to be satisfied with her decision.
He again became quiet, as he had formerly been, loving to remain seated for entire hours, without moving, plunged in deep reverie. He now did not even talk to Madame Source, merely answering her remarks with short, formal words. Nevertheless, he was agreeable and attentive in his manner toward her; but he never embraced her now.
She had by this time grown slightly afraid of him when they sat facing one another at night at opposite sides of the fireplace. She wanted to wake him up, to make him say something, no matter what, that would break this dreadful silence, which was like the darkness of a wood. But he did not appear to listen to her, and she shuddered with the terror of a poor feeble woman when she had spoken to him five or six times successively without being able to get a word out of him.
What was the matter with him? What was going on in that closed-up head? When she had been thus two or three hours sitting opposite him, she felt herself getting daft, and longed to rush away and to escape into the open country in order to avoid that mute, eternal companionship and also some vague danger, which she could not define, but of which she had a presentiment.
She frequently shed tears when she was alone. What was the matter with him? When she gave expression to a desire, he unmurmuringly carried it into execution. When she wanted to have anything brought to her from the city, he immediately went there to procure it. She had no complaint to make of him; no, indeed! And yet—
Another year flitted by, and it seemed to her that a new modification had taken place in the mind of the young man. She perceived it; she felt it; she divined it. How? No matter! She was sure she was not mistaken; but she could not have explained in what the unknown thoughts of this strange youth had changed.
It seemed to her that till now he had been like a person in a hesitating frame of mind who had suddenly arrived at a determination. This idea came to her one evening as she met his glance, a fixed, singular glance which she had not seen in his face before.
Then he commenced to watch her incessantly, and she wished she could hide herself in order to avoid that cold eye, riveted on her.
He kept staring at her, evening after evening for hours together, only averting his eyes when she said, utterly unnerved:
“Do not look at me like that, my child!”
Then he bowed his head.
But the moment her back was turned, she once more felt that his eye was upon her. Wherever she went he pursued her with his persistent gaze.
Sometimes, when she was walking in her little garden, she suddenly noticed him squatted on the stump of a tree as if he were lying in wait for her; and again when she sat in front of the house mending stockings while he was digging some cabbage-bed, he kept watching her, as he worked, in a sly, continuous fashion.
It was in vain that she asked him:
“What’s the matter with you, my boy? For the last three years, you have become very different. I don’t find you the same. Tell me what ails you, and what you are thinking of, I beg of you.”
He invariably replied, in a quiet, weary tone: “Why, nothing ails me, Aunt!”
And when she persisted, appealing to him thus: “Ah! my child, answer me, answer me when I speak to you. If you knew what grief you caused me, you would always answer, and you would not look at me that way. Have you any trouble? Tell me, I’ll console you!” he would turn away with a tired air, murmuring: “But there is nothing the matter with me, I assure you.”
He had not grown much, having always a childish aspect, although the features of his face were those of a man. They were, however, hard and badly cut. He seemed incomplete, abortive, only half finished, and disquieting as a mystery. He was a close impenetrable being, in whom there seemed always to be some active, dangerous mental travail taking place.
Mademoiselle Source was quite conscious of all this, and she could not, from that time forth, sleep at night, so great was her anxiety. Frightful terrors, dreadful nightmares assailed her. She shut herself up in her own room and barricaded the door, tortured by fear.
What was she afraid of? She could not tell.
Fear of everything, of the night, of the walls, of the shadows thrown by the moon on the white curtains of the windows, and, above all, fear of him.
Why? What had she to fear? Did she know what it was? She could live this way no longer! She felt certain that a misfortune threatened her, a frightful misfortune.
She set forth secretly one morning and went into the city to see her relatives. She told them about the matter in a gasping voice. The two women thought she was going mad and tried to reassure her.
She said: “If you knew the way he looks at me from morning till night. He never takes his eyes off me! At times I feel a longing to cry for help, to call in the neighbors, so much am I afraid. But what could I say to them? He does nothing to me except to keep looking at me.”
The two female cousins asked: “Is he ever brutal to you? Does he give you sharp answers?”
She replied: “No, never; he does everything I wish; he works hard; he is steady; but I am so frightened I don’t mind that much. He has something in his head, I am certain of that—quite certain. I don’t care to remain all alone like that with him in the country.”
The relatives, scared by her words, declared to her that they were astonished and could not understand her; and they advised her to keep silent about her fears and her plans, without, however, dissuading her from coming to reside in the city, hoping in that way that the entire inheritance would eventually fall into their hands.
They even promised to assist her in selling her house and in finding another near them.
Mademoiselle Source returned home. But her mind was so much upset that she trembled at the slightest noise, and her hands shook whenever any trifling disturbance agitated her.
Twice she went again to consult her relatives, quite determined now not to remain any longer in this way in her lonely dwelling. At last she found a little cottage in the suburbs, which suited her, and privately she bought it.
The signature of the contract took place on a Tuesday morning, and Mademoiselle Source devoted the rest of the day to the preparations for her change of residence.
At eight o’clock in the evening she got into the diligence which passed within a few hundred yards of her house, and she told the conductor to let her down in the place where it was his custom to stop for her. The man called out to her as he whipped his horses: “Good evening, Mademoiselle Source—good night!”
She replied as she walked on: “Good evening, Père Joseph.”
Next morning, at half past seven, the postman who conveyed letters to the village, noticed at the crossroad, not far from the highroad, a large splash of blood not yet dry. He said to himself: “Hallo! some boozer must have been bleeding from the nose.”
But he perceived ten paces farther on a pocket-handkerchief also stained with blood. He picked them up. The linen was fine, and the postman, in alarm, made his way over to the dike, where he fancied he saw a strange object.
Mademoiselle Source was lying at the foot on the grass, her throat cut open with a knife.
An hour later, the gendarmes, the examining magistrate, and other authorities made an inquiry as to the cause of death.
The two female relatives, called as witnesses, told all about the old maid’s fears and her last plans.
The orphan was arrested. Since the death of the woman who had adopted him, he wept from morning till night, plunged, at least to all appearance, in the most violent grief.
He proved that he had spent the evening up to eleven o’clock in a cafe. Ten persons had seen him, having remained there till his departure.
Now the driver of the diligence stated that he had set down the murdered woman on the road between half past nine and ten o’clock.
The accused was acquitted. A will, a long time made, which had been left in the hands of a notary in Rennes, made him universal legatee. So he inherited everything.
For a long time the people of the country put him into quarantine, as they still suspected him. His house, which was that of the dead woman, was looked upon as accursed. People avoided him in the street.
But he showed himself so good-natured, so open, so familiar, that gradually these horrible doubts were forgotten. He was generous, obliging, ready to talk to the humblest about anything as long as they cared to talk to him.
The notary, Maître Rameay, was one of the first to take his part, attracted by his smiling loquacity. He said one evening at a dinner at the tax-collector’s house: “A man who speaks with such facility and who is always in good-humor could not have such a crime on his conscience.”
Touched by this argument, the others who were present reflected, and they recalled to mind the long conversations with this man who made them stop almost by force at the road corners to communicate his ideas to them, who insisted on their going into his house when they were passing by his garden, who could crack a joke better than the lieutenant of the gendarmes himself, and who possessed such contagious gaiety that, in spite of the repugnance with which he inspired them, they could not keep from always laughing when in his company.
All doors were opened to him after a time.
He is, today, the mayor of his own community.