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First Snow

by Guy de Maupassant

translated from the French by Matthew Yost


The long promenade of la Croisette curls along the edge of the blue water. There on the right, in the distance, l’Esterel juts out into the sea. It blocks the view, closing off the horizon with its lovely Southern decoration of lavish and bizarre summits. Abed in the water on the left, the islands Sainte-Marguerite and Saint-Honorat display their pine-covered backs. And all along the wide gulf, all along the grand mountains seated about Cannes, the population of white villas seems asleep in the sun. One sees them from a great distance, those fair houses, sown up and down the slopes, that speckle the somber greenery with patches of snow. Those closer to the water open their gates onto the promenade to the bath of gentle waves. It’s clear; it’s mild. It’s a warm winter day and one scarcely feels a touch of cold. Over the tops of garden walls, orange and lemon trees burst with golden fruit. Women walk slowly along the sandy avenue, followed by children rolling hoops, or in conversation with gentlemen.

* * *

A young woman has just emerged from her small and well-kept house, whose door opens onto la Croisette. She stops for a moment to watch the strolling people, then smiles and feebly makes her way to an empty bench by the sea. Drained from having taken twenty steps, she sits down, panting. Her pale face seems that of a corpse. She coughs and brings her transparent fingers to her lips, as though to stop the exhausting spasms.

She looks at the sky, full of sunshine and swallows, at the crazed summits of l’Esterel over there, and at the nearby sea, so blue, so calm, so beautiful.

She smiles again and murmurs, “Oh! how happy I am.”

For all that, she knows she’s dying, that she won’t see the spring, that in a year, while along this same promenade, these same people passing before her will still be breathing this delicate country’s same warm air, their children will have grown a little bigger—their hearts still full of tenderness and good humor, she will be at the bottom of an oaken coffin; the meager flesh she has now will have rotted away, leaving only her bones laid out in the silk dress she has chosen as her shroud.

She will be no more. All of life’s cares will continue for everyone else. For her all of that will be done with, done with forever. She won’t be any more. She smiles and breathes as much of the perfumed garden air as her diseased lungs will allow.

And she begins to reminisce.

* * *

She remembers. They married her off four years ago now, to a Norman nobleman. He was a strong lad, rose-cheeked, bearded, broad-shouldered, narrow-minded, and jolly.

They were coupled for financial reasons that remained unknown to her. She would have gladly said no. She signalled yes with a movement of her head, so as not to contradict her father and mother. She was from Paris, joyful and full of life.

Her husband brought her to his manor house in Normandy. It was a vast building, surrounded by grand ancient trees. A mass of tall pines blocked the front view. On the right, a break looked out over a plain, which extended nakedly to the far-away farmhouses. A crossroads lay near the edge of the property and led to the main thoroughfare, three kilometers distant.

Oh! she remembers it all: her arrival, the first day in her new home, and the isolated life that followed.

After she’d stepped down from their coach, she’d looked at that old building and declared, “That’s not promising!”

Her husband started to laugh, and answered, “Bah! you’ll get used to it. You’ll see. Me, I’m never bored here.”

That day, they passed the time kissing, and she thought it wasn’t too long. The next day they started again, and really the entire week was eaten away in caresses.

Then she busied herself with organizing the interior. That took a good month. The days passed one after the next, taken up with insignificant but absorbing tasks. She learned to appreciate the small things in life. She came to know that one could take an interest in the price of eggs, which cost a few centimes more or less, depending on the season.

It was summer. She went to the fields to watch the harvest. The cheer in the sun kept the same going in her own heart.

Autumn came. Her husband began to go hunting. Mornings he left the house with his dogs Médor and Mirza. She remained alone then without becoming overly despondent over Henry’s absence. She loved him, to be sure, but she did not miss him. When he came home, the dogs absorbed most of her tenderness. She cared for them every evening with a mother’s affection, caressed them endlessly, gave them each a thousand little pet names she’d never have thought of using for her husband.

Invariably he would talk about his hunting. He designated the locations he’d encountered partridges; recounted his surprise at not having found any hares in Joseph Ledentu’s clover; expressed his indignation at how M. Lechapelier, of Havre, had taken up patrolling the outskirts of his property, in order to shoot the game that he, Henry de Parville, had flushed.

“Yes, really,” she answered, “it’s not good,” while thinking of other things.

Winter came, the Norman winter, cold and full of rain. Interminable showers fell upon the broad, slanting slate roof that stood against the sky like a blade. The roads seemed to be rivers of mud; the countryside, a plain of mud; and there wasn’t a noise to be heard, save that of falling water; not a movement to be seen, save the whirling flight of ravens, who, unfurling like clouds, fell into the fields and then took flight once more.

Every day around four o’clock that army of dark flying creatures would roost in the giant beech trees to the left of the chateau, while letting out deafening shrieks. For about an hour they would hop from crown to crown, seeming to battle one with the other, croaking, filling the gray branches with their black turbulence.

She watched them every night, her cramped heart pierced by the dismal melancholy of night falling over the barren ground.

Then she would ring for a lamp; and she would draw near the fire. She burned masses of wood without managing to heat rooms taken over by the damp. She was cold all day long: in the salon, at meals, in her chamber. The cold went through to her bones, she thought. Her husband didn’t come home except to dine, because he was constantly out hunting, or busy with the sowing, the ploughing, all the things that had to do with country life.

He’d come home, joyful and muddy, and, rubbing his hands together, would declare: “What rotten weather!”

Or: “It’s good to have a fire!”

Or sometimes he would ask: “What do you say today? Are we happy?”

He was happy, in good health, without desire, never dreaming of anything other than this simple, sensible, and peaceful life.

On towards December when the snows came, she suffered so much from the manor’s icy air—the ancient building seemed to have grown colder with the passing centuries, as do people with age—that one evening she said to her husband,

“Tell me, Henry, don’t you think you’d do well to install a stove in here? It would dry out these walls. I swear, I can’t get warm from morning till night.”

He seemed shocked by the extravagant idea of installing a stove in his manor. It would have seemed more natural to him to feed his dogs off the flatware. Then, with all his gusto, he let out an enormous laugh, repeating the words:

“A stove, here? A stove here? Ha! ha! ha! What a great joke!”

She insisted. “I assure you, my dear, that I’m freezing in here; you don’t notice it because you’re always on the move, but it’s freezing just the same.”

He answered, still laughing:

Bah! This is how we live, and anyhow it’s good for your health. It will do you nothing but good. We’re not Parisians, for God’s sake, always hanging about the fire! And spring will be here soon, in any case.”

* * *

Tragedy struck at the beginning of January. Her father and mother died in a carriage accident. She went to Paris for their funeral; and grief dampened her spirits for nearly six months.

The mildness of pleasant days eventually woke her, and she let herself live on in a rueful languor until the fall.

When the cold returned, she pondered her dark future for the first time. What would she do? Nothing. What would happen to her hereafter? Nothing. What expectations, what hopes could gladden her heart? None. Upon consulting a doctor, she learned that she would never have children.

More bitter, more piercing than the year before, the cold caused her constant suffering. She stretched her shivering hands over the tall flames. The blazing fire stung her face, but an icy breath seemed to penetrate between her flesh and clothing and glissade down her naked back. She shivered head to foot. Uncountable currents of air seemed to reside within the manor’s compartments, living currents of air, insidious and unremitting, like an enemy. She came across them at every turn; they blew their corrupt and frozen hatred without interruption, sometimes onto her face, sometimes onto her hands or neck.

She spoke again of getting a stove; her husband listened to her request as though she had told him she wanted the moon. Installing such an apparatus at manor Parville seemed, to him, just as impossible as discovering the Philosopher’s Stone.

Having been in Rouen for a day on business, he brought his wife a dainty leather copper, which he referred to, laughing, as a “portable furnace”; he judged that this would suffice to prevent her from ever being cold again.

Towards the end of December, she realized that she couldn’t live this way forever, and she asked timidly one evening, “Tell me, my dear, aren’t we going to spend a week or two in Paris before the spring?”

“Paris?” he said, stupefied. “Paris? But to do what? But, ah, no! We have it too good here. What odd ideas you have sometimes!”

“It might distract us a little,” she stammered.

He didn’t understand. “What do you need to distract yourself? The theatre, fancy dinners, and evenings spent at parties? Certainly you must have known when you came here that you wouldn’t have any distractions like that!”

She felt reproach in his words and in the way they had been spoken. She was quiet. She was timid and gentle, neither rebellious nor forceful of will.

In January the cold returned with violence. Then snow covered the earth.

One evening, while watching the writhing cloud of ravens spread among the beech trees she began, despite herself, to cry.

Her husband came in and asked her, surprised, “What’s the matter with you, then?”

He was happy, he was. Completely happy, having never dreamed of another life or other pleasures. He’d been born in that dismal country, he’d grown up there; he was happy there in his home, at ease in both body and spirit.

He didn’t understand that one could want for things, be thirsty for changing joys; he didn’t understand at all that certain persons considered it quite normal not to spend all four seasons in the same residence; he seemed not to know that for multitudes of people, spring, summer, fall, and winter all contained new pleasures in new climes.

She didn’t know how to answer him, so she vigorously dried her eyes. At last she stammered, overwhelmed, “I’m . . . I . . . I’m a little sad. . . . I’m bored a little bit . . .” But then terror seized her for having said this much, and she added quickly, “And then . . . I’m . . . I’m a bit cold.”

At those words he grew angry, “Ah! yes . . . always your idea of getting a stove. But look, for God’s sake!—you haven’t even had a cold since you’ve been here."

* * *

Night came. She went up to her own room, for she’d insisted on having a separate chamber. She went to bed. And even there she felt cold. She thought, It will always be this way, until the day I die. She thought of her husband. How could he say to her, “You haven’t even had a cold since you’ve been here”?

She’d have to become ill, then; she’d have to cough, just to show him how she was suffering. An indignation seized her, an exasperated indignation at her weakness and timidity. She’d have to cough. He’d pity her then, no doubt. So then, she would cough! He would hear her coughing; he would have to fetch the doctor; he would do that, her husband, he would see!

She’d risen from her bed, barefoot and bare-legged, and then a childish idea made her smile. I want a stove, and I’ll have it, too. I’ll cough so much that he’ll have to agree to install one.

And she sat down on a chair, almost entirely naked. She waited an hour, two hours. She shivered, but she didn’t catch cold. So she decided to reach for stronger measures.

She left her room without making a sound, descended the stairs, and opened the door to the garden. The snow-covered earth seemed dead. She abruptly stuck out her foot and plunged it into that soft, icy lather. The cold, painful as a wound, clawed its way up to her heart; and still she extended her other leg and began to slowly descend the steps. Then she began to advance across the lawn, telling herself, I’ll go as far as the pines.

She took small steps, panting, choking each time she forced her naked foot into the snow. She touched the first tree with her hand, as if to convince herself that she had completed the task she had set for herself, then turned around. Two or three times, she thought she might fall from being drowsy and numb. Before going inside, though, she sat down in that frozen foam, and even grasped two fistfuls of it to rub against her chest.

Then she went inside and got back into bed. It was only an hour before she felt an army of ants crawling in her throat. More ants ran up and down her limbs. Still, she managed to sleep.

The next morning she was coughing and could not get out of bed.

She had pneumonia. She became delirious, and in her raving asked for a stove. The doctor demanded one be installed. Henry gave way, but only with irritated resistance.

* * *

She could not get better. Her lungs were so badly affected that there was some doubt as to her survival.

“If she stays here, she won’t last until the end of the cold weather,” said the doctor.

They sent her south. She went to Cannes, met the sun, loved the sea, and breathed air scented by orange trees in full flower. She returned north in the spring.

But then she lived in fear of getting better, in fear of the long Norman winters. As soon as she felt better, she opened her windows during the night, while dreaming of the gentle Mediterranean shores.

At present she is going to die. She knows it. She is happy.

She unfolds a newspaper she hasn’t yet bothered to open, and reads this headline: First Snow in Paris.

At first she shivers, and then smiles. She looks over there at l’Esterel, rose colored now in the setting sun. She looks up at the vast blue sky, so blue, at the vast blue sea, so blue, and rises to her feet.

And so she goes home, treading slowly and stopping only to cough, because she’s stayed out too long, and because she’s got a little chill.

She finds a letter from her husband there. She opens it, still smiling, and reads:

“My dearest darling,

“I hope that you are doing well and that you don’t miss too much our beautiful country. We’ve had a good freeze going for several days now, which tells of snow. Me, I adore this kind of weather, and you’ll understand that I don’t light your damned stove . . .”

She stops reading, happy to know she got her stove. Her right hand, which holds the letter, falls slowly back into her lap, while she brings her left to her mouth, as though to tame the cough that relentlessly tears her chest.

 

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) wrote over three hunderd short stories over the course of his career and is considered one of the masters of the form. He is also the author of five novels, including Bel-ami, Pierre and Jean, and Strong as Death (Fort Comme la mort).

Matthew Yost lives in Boston and is a graduate of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Boston University. These are his first publications. (5/2002)


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