Category Archives: Maupassant

La Peur par Maupassant

The Fear (La Peur)

We went up on deck after dinner. Before us lay the Mediterranean without a ripple and shimmering under the moonlight. The great ship glided on through the heavens, seemingly casting upward to the star-studded sky a long serpent of black smoke. Behind us the water all white, stirred by the rapid progress of the heavy boat and beaten by the propeller, foamed, seemed to twist, and gave off so much brilliance that one could have said the moonlight boiled.

 

moon-over-water-poster-2
The moonlight boiled

[An English translation of Guy de Maupassant’s La Peur.]

Six or eight of us were there, silent with admiration, and gazing toward
distant Africa where we were going. The captain, who was smoking a cigar in our midst, suddenly resumed the conversation begun at dinner.
“Yes, I was afraid that day, then. My ship remained for six hours on that rock,
beaten by the sea and with a hole in the side. Luckily we were rescued toward evening by an English coaler which sighted us.”

Then a tall man with a sunburned face and grave demeanor, one of those men,
one senses, has traveled unknown lands in the midst of incessant dangers, whose calm eye seems to watch with a profoundness, and see something of the foreign places he has observed, a man, we guessed, tempered  with courage, spoke for the first time.

“You say, captain, that you were afraid. I believe nothing of the sort. You are in error as to the meaning of the word and the sensation you experienced. An energetic man is never afraid in the face of pressing danger. He is excited, anxious, but fear is another thing.”
The captain laughed and answered: “Bah! I assure you I was
afraid.”

Then the man of the tanned countenance addressed us slowly:

“Permit me to explain. Fear (and the boldest men can fear) is
something horrible, an atrocious sensation, like a decomposition of
the soul, a terrible spasm of thought and heart, the very memory of which
brings on a shudder of agony. But when one is brave he feels it neither
under fire, nor in the presence of death, nor in the face of any
known danger. It takes place under certain abnormal conditions,
under certain mysterious influences in the presence of vague peril.
Real fear is a something of remembrance of a past fantastic terror. A
man who believes in ghosts and imagines he sees a specter in the
darkness must feel fear in all its frightful horror.”

“As for me, I suspect I was overwhelmed with fear in broad daylight about ten
years ago and again I felt it once more, last winter, one December night.”

“Nevertheless, I have gone through many dangers, many adventures which
seemed to promise death. Often, I have been in battle. I have been left
for dead by thieves. In America I was condemned as an insurgent to be
hanged, and thrown into the sea from the deck of a ship off the coast of China. Each time I thought I was lost, I immediately decided upon my course without weakness or regret.”

“But fear, that is not fear.”

“I have felt it in Africa. And yet it is a child of the North. The
sunlight banishes it like the mist. Consider this well, gentlemen.
Among the Orientals life counts for nothing; resignation comes quickly. The
nights are clear and empty of the somber spirit of unrest which haunts
the brain in cooler lands. In the Orient one is an acquaintance to panic, but one does not fear.”

“Well! Here is that which befell me in this land of Africa.”

“I was crossing the great sand dunes to the south of Onargla. It is one of
the most curious districts in the world. You have seen the solid
continuous sand of the endless ocean strands. Well, imagine the ocean
itself turned into sand in the midst of a storm. Imagine a silent tempest
with motionless billows of yellow dust. They are high as mountains,
these uneven, varied surges, rising exactly like unchained billows, but
still larger, and stratified like watered silk. On this wild, silent,
and motionless sea, the tropical sun’s consuming rays are poured
pitilessly and directly. You have to climb these streaks of red-hot
ash, descend again on the other side, climb again, climb, climb without
halt, without repose, without shade. The horses cough, sink to their
knees and slide down the sides of these astounding hills.”

“We were two friends followed by eight native Spahis and four camels
with their drivers. We were no longer spoke, overcome by heat,
fatigue, and a parched thirst produced by this fiery desert.
Suddenly one of our men uttered a strange cry. We stopped, and remained immobile, surprised by an inexplicable phenomenon known to travelers in these lost regions.’

“Somewhere, near us, in an indeterminable direction, was a drum beat, the mysterious drum of the sand dunes. It was beating distinctly, now with greater resonance and again feebler, ceasing, then resuming
its fantastic roll.”
“The Arabs, terrified, stared at one another, and one said in his
language: ‘Death is upon us.’ As he spoke, my companion, my friend,
almost a brother, dropped from his horse, falling face downward on the
sand, overcome by a sunstroke.”

“And for two hours, while I tried in vain to save him, this weird drum
filled my ears with its monotonous, intermittent and incomprehensible
tone, and I felt lay hold of my bones fear, real fear, hideous fear, in
the presence of this beloved corpse, in this hole scorched by the sun,
surrounded by four mountains of sand, and two hundred leagues from any
French settlement, while echo assailed our ears with this furious drum
beat.”

“On that day I realized what fear was, but since then I have had
another, and still more vivid experience.”

The captain interrupted the speaker:

“I beg your pardon, sir, but what was the drum?”

The traveler replied:

“I do not know. No one knows. Our officers are often surprised by this
singular noise and attribute it generally to the echo produced by a
hail of grains of sand blown by the wind against the dry and brittle
leaves of weeds, for it has always been noticed that the phenomenon
occurs in proximity to little plants burned by the sun and hard as
parchment. This sound seems to have been magnified, multiplied, and
swelled beyond measure in its progress through the valleys of sand, and
the drum therefore might be considered a sort of sound mirage. Nothing
more. But I did not learn that until later.”

“I proceed to my second instance.”

“It was last winter, in a forest of the northeast of France. The sky
was so overcast that night came two hours earlier than usual. My guide
was a peasant who walked beside me along the narrow road, under the
vault of fir trees, through which the wind in its fury howled. Between
the tree tops, I saw the fleeting clouds, which seemed to hasten as if
to escape some object of terror. Sometimes in a fierce gust of wind the
whole forest bowed in the same direction with a groan of pain, and a
chill laid hold of me, despite my rapid pace and heavy clothing.

“We were to sup and sleep at an gamekeeper’s house not much farther
on. I had come to hunt.

“My guide, sometimes, raised his eyes and murmured: ‘Sad times!’ Then
he told me about the people among whom we were to spend the night. The
father had killed a poacher, two years before, and since then had been
gloomy and behaved as though haunted by a memory. His two sons were
married and lived with him.

“The darkness was deep. I could see nothing before me nor around me
and the mass of overhanging interlacing trees rubbed together, filling
the night with an incessant whispering. Finally I saw a light and soon
my companion was knocking upon a door. Sharp women’s voices answered
us, then a man’s voice, a choking voice, asked, ‘Who goes there?’ My
guide gave his name. We entered and beheld a memorable picture.

“An old man with white hair, wild eyes, and a loaded gun in his hands,
stood waiting for us in the middle of the kitchen, while two stalwart
youths, armed with axes, guarded the door. In the somber corners I
distinguished two women kneeling with faces to the wall.

“Matters were explained, and the old man stood his gun against the
wall, at the same time ordering that a room be prepared for me. Then,
as the women did not stir: ‘Look you, monsieur,’ said he, ‘two years
ago this night I killed a man, and last year he came back to haunt me.
I expect him again to-night.’

Then he added in a tone that made me smile:

“‘And so we were not at peace.'”

“I reassured him as best I could, I am happy to have arrived on this
particular evening and to witness this superstitious terror. I told
stories and almost succeeded in calming the group.”

“Near the fireplace slept an old dog, almost blind and mustached, sleeping with
his head between his paws, such a dog as reminds you of people you have
known.”

Outside, the raging storm beat against the little house, and
suddenly through a small pane of glass, a sort of peep-window placed
near the door, I saw in a brilliant flash of lightning a whole mass of
trees thrashed by the wind.

In spite of my efforts, I realized that terror was laying hold of
these people, and each time that I ceased to speak, all ears listened
for distant sounds. Annoyed at these foolish fears, I was about to
retire to my bed, when the old gamekeeper suddenly leaped from his
chair, seized his gun and stammered wildly: ‘There he is, there he is!
I hear him!’ The two women again sank upon their knees in the corner
and hid their faces, while the sons took up the axes. I was going to
try to pacify them once more, when the sleeping dog awakened suddenly
and, raising his head and stretching his neck, looked at the fire with
his dim eyes and uttered one of those mournful howls which make
travelers shudder in the darkness and solitude of the country. All eyes
were focused upon him now as he rose on his front feet, as though
haunted by a vision, and began to howl at something invisible, unknown,
and doubtless horrible, for he was bristling all over. The gamekeeper
with livid face cried: ‘He scents him! He scents him! He was there when
I killed him.’ The two women, terrified, began to wail in concert with
the dog.

In spite of myself, cold chills ran down my spine. This vision of the
animal at such a time and place, in the midst of these startled people,
was something frightful to witness.

Then for an hour the dog howled without stirring; he howled as though
in the anguish of a nightmare; and fear, horrible fear came over me.
Fear of what? How can I say? It was fear, and that is all I know.

We remained motionless and pale, expecting something awful to happen.
Our ears were strained and our hearts beat loudly while the slightest
noise startled us. Then the beast began to walk around the room,
sniffing at the walls and growling constantly. His maneuvers were
driving us mad! Then the countryman, who had brought me thither, in a
paroxysm of rage, seized the dog, and carrying him to a door, which
opened into a small court, thrust him forth.

The noise was suppressed and we were left plunged in a silence still
more terrible. Then suddenly we all started. Some one was gliding along
the outside wall toward the forest; then he seemed to be feeling of the
door with a trembling hand; then for two minutes nothing was heard and
we almost lost our minds. Then he returned, still feeling along the
wall, and scratched lightly upon the door as a child might do with his
finger nails. Suddenly a face appeared behind the glass of the
peep-window, a white face with eyes shining like those of the cat
tribe. A sound was heard, an indistinct plaintive murmur.

Then there was a formidable burst of noise in the kitchen. The old
gamekeeper had fired and the two sons at once rushed forward and
barricaded the window with the great table, reinforcing it with the
buffet.

“I swear to you that at the shock of the gun’s discharge, which I did
not expect, such an anguish laid hold of my heart, my soul, and my very
body that I felt myself about to fall, about to die from fear.”

“We remained there until dawn, unable to move, in short, seized by an
indescribable numbness of the brain.”

“No one dared to remove the barricade until a thin ray of sunlight
appeared through a crack in the back room.”

“At the base of the wall and under the window, we found the old dog
lying dead, his skull shattered by a ball.”

“He had escaped from the little court by digging a hole under a fence.”

The dark-visaged man became silent, then he added:

“And that night, however, I faced no danger, but I should rather again
pass through all the hours in which I have confronted the most terrible
perils than the one minute when that gun was discharged at the bearded
head in the window.”