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An Old Man by Guy de Maupassant

AnOld Man

by guy de maupassant The Dispenser of Holy WaterWe lived formerly in a little house beside the high road outside thevillage. He had set up in business as a wheelwright, after marrying thedaughter of a farmer of the neighborhood, and as they were bothindustrious, they managed to save up a nice little fortune. But they hadnochildren, and this caused them great sorrow. Finally a son was born,whom they named Jean. They both loved and petted him, enfolding him withtheir affection, and were unwilling to let him be out of their sight.

When he was five years old some mountebanks passed through the countryand set up their tent in the town hall square.

Jean, who had seen them pass by, made his escape from the house, andafter his father had made a long search for him, he found him among thelearned goats and trick dogs, uttering shouts of laughter and sitting onthe knees of an old clown.

Three days later, just as they were sitting down to dinner, thewheelwright and his wife noticed that their son was not in the house.They looked for him in the garden, and as they did not find him, hisfather went out into the road and shouted at the top of his voice,"Jean!"

Night came on. A brown vapor arose making distant objects look stillfarther away and giving them a dismal, weird appearance. Three tallpines, close at hand, seemed to be weeping. Still there was no reply,but the air appeared to be full of indistinct sighing. The fatherlistened for some time, thinking he heard a sound first in one direction,then in another, and, almost beside himself, he ran, out into the night,calling incessantly "Jean! Jean!"

He ran along thus until daybreak, filling the, darkness with his shouts,terrifying stray animals, torn by a terrible anguish and fearing that hewas losing his mind. His wife, seated on the stone step of their home,sobbed until morning.

They did not find their son. They both aged rapidly in theirinconsolable sorrow. Finally they sold their house and set out to searchtogether.

They inquired of the shepherds on the hillsides, of the tradesmen passingby, of the peasants in the villages and of the authorities in the towns.But their boy had been lost a long time and no one knew anything abouthim. He had probably forgotten his own name by this time and also thename of his village, and his parents wept in silence, having lost hope.

Before long their money came to an end, and they worked out by the day inthe farms and inns, doing the most menial work, eating what was left fromthe tables, sleeping on the ground and suffering from cold. Then as theybecame enfeebled by hard work no one would employ them any longer, andthey were forced to beg along the high roads. They accosted passers-byin an entreating voice and with sad, discouraged faces; they begged amorsel of bread from the harvesters who were dining around a tree in thefields at noon, and they ate in silence seated on the edge of a ditch.An innkeeper to whom they told their story said to them one day:

"I know some one who had lost their daughter, and they found her inParis."

They at once set out for Paris.

When they entered the great city they were bewildered by its size and bythe crowds that they saw. But they knew that Jean must be in the midstof all these people, though they did not know how to set about lookingfor him. Then they feared that they might not recognize him, for he wasonly five years old when they last saw him.

They visited every place, went through all the streets, stopping wheneverthey saw a group of people, hoping for some providential meeting, someextraordinary luck, some compassionate fate. They frequently walked at haphazard straight ahead, leaning one againstthe other, looking so sad and poverty-stricken that people would givethem alms without their asking.

They spent every Sunday at the doors of the churches, watching the crowdsentering and leaving, trying to distinguish among the faces one thatmight be familiar. Several times they thought they recognized him,butalways found they had made a mistake.

In the vestibule of one of the churches which they visited the mostfrequently there was an old dispenser of holy Water who had become theirfriend. He also had a very sad history, and their sympathy for him hadestablished a bond of close friendship between them. It ended by themall three living together in a poor lodging on the top floor of a largehouse situated at some distance, quite on the outskirts of the city, andthe wheelwright would sometimes take his new friend's place at the churchwhen the latter was ill.

Winter came, a very severe winter. The poor holy water sprinkler diedand the parish priest appointed the wheelwright, whose misfortunes hadcome to his knowledge, to replace him. He went every morning and sat inthe same place, on the same chair, wearing away the old stone pillar bycontinually leaning against it. He would gaze steadily at every man whoentered the church and looked forward to Sunday with as much impatienceas a schoolboy, for on that day the church was filled with people frommorning till night.

He became very old, growing weaker each day from the dampness of thechurch, and his hope oozed away gradually.

He now knew by sight all the people who came to the services; heknewtheir hours, their manners, could distinguish their step on the stonepavement.

His interests had become so contracted that the entrance of a stranger inthe church was for him a great event. One day two ladies came in; onewas old, the other young--a mother and daughter probably. Behind themcame a man who was following them. He bowed to them as they came out,and after offering them some holy water, he took the arm of the elderlady.

"That must be the fiance of the younger one," thought the wheelwright.And until evening he kept trying to recall where he had formerly seen ayoung man who resembled this one. But the one he was thinking of must bean old man by this time, for it seemed as if he had known him down homein his youth.

The same man frequently came again to walk home with the ladies, and thisvague, distant, familiar resemblance which he could not place worried theold man so much that he made his wife come with him to see if she couldhelp his impaired memory.

One evening as it was growing dusk the three strangers entered together.When they had passed the old man said:

"Well, do you know him?"

His wife anxiously tried to ransack her memory. Suddenly she said in alow tone:

"Yes--yes--but he is darker, taller, stouter and is dressed like agentleman, but, father, all the same, it is your face when you wereyoung!"

The old man started violently.

It was true. He looked like himself and also like his brother who wasdead, and like his father, whom he remembered while he was yet young.The old couple were so affected that they could not speak. The threepersons came out and were about to leave the church.

The man touched his finger to the holy water sprinkler. Then the oldman, whose hand was trembling so that he was fairly sprinkling the groundwith holy water, exclaimed:


The young man stopped and looked at him.

He repeated in a lower tone:


The two women looked at them without understanding.

He then said for the third time, sobbing as he did so:


The man stooped down, with his face close to the old man's, and as amemory of his childhood dawned on him he replied:

"Papa Pierre, Mamma Jeanne!"

He had forgotten everything, his father's surname and the name of hisnative place, but he always remembered those two words that he had sooften repeated: "Papa Pierre, Mamma Jeanne."

He sank to the floor, his face on the old man's knees, and he wept,kissing now his father and then his mother, while they were almostbreathless from intense joy.

The two ladies also wept, understanding as they did that some greathappiness had come to pass. Then they all went to the young man's house and he told them his history.The circus people had carried him off. For three years he traveled withthem in various countries. Then the troupe disbanded, and one day an oldlady in a chateau had paid to have him stay with her because she likedhis appearance. As he was intelligent, he was sent to school, then tocollege, and the old lady having no children, had left him all her money.He, for his part, had tried to find his parents, but as he could rememberonly the two names, "Papa Pierre, Mamma Jeanne," he had been unable to doso. Now he was about to be married, and he introduced his fiancee, whowas very good and very pretty.

When the two old people had told their story in their turn he kissed themonce more. They sat up very late that night, not daring to retire lestthe happiness they had so long sought should escape them again while theywere asleep.

But misfortune had lost its hold on them and they were happy for the restof their lives