Introduction by Linda Mannheim.
I can’t remember the wider context of my life when I read “A Meeting” by Guy de Maupassant, but I can remember the particulars. The story was in a paperback reprint of de Maupassant’s stories. The pages were yellowed and the spine was starting to separate. It was one of the only books in a place where I was staying. Okay, it was actually left behind in an outhouse. Which means that this must have been Vermont, because I can’t think of anywhere else where I would have stayed that was that rural, that cut off from things. And it must have been soon after I returned to the US from France, because I thought given that I was interested in things that were French and given that I was interested in how to construct a story by then, I oughta give de Maupassant another try. I brought the book into the house.
I have no idea who translated the version of “A Meeting” that I read. The de Maupassant stories I can find online (via Gutenberg) are credited to “Albert M. C. McMaster, A. E. Henderson, MME. Quesada and Others.” The only de Maupassant I’d read up to that point was the “The Necklace”, a short story we’d been forced to read in grade school, and the story mystified us because the translation we’d read used the word paste to describe fake jewellery, and to us paste (of course) was the thing you got a glop of in art class. And, anyway, “The Necklace”, even when we found out what paste was supposed to mean, never seemed so much a story to us as a morality tale with a punchline.
But “A Meeting” – that was something different. An arrogant aristocratic man spots his much younger wife kissing another man at a party. Already after several years of marriage, we’re told, the man’s “ardor had cooled, and now he often amused himself elsewhere”. He delivers an ultimatum – a threat -- to his wife: “we shall separate without any scandal. Our lawyers will settle your position according to my orders. You will be free to live as you please when you are no longer under my roof; but, as you will continue to bear my name, I must warn you that should any scandal arise I shall show myself inflexible."
And for years, the two remain apart. The baron grows older, mercilessly described by de Maupassant as a man “with a good crop of gray hair, rather stout, and with that melancholy look characteristic of those who have been handsome, sought after, and liked, but who are deteriorating, daily.”
Then, six years after separating, the baron makes his way into a dark and unheated overnight train destined for Nice. He sees that he is sharing his compartment, but can’t make out who he’s sharing it with, or even if the figure in the compartment is a man or a woman. Morning comes, and he discovers that the other passenger looks like his wife – like a more beautiful version of his wife. Of course, it is his wife.
Reading this story as a young woman – a story about an entitled man who is ultimately outsmarted by a younger woman he has dismissed – was a good thing at the particular moment when I read it. Years afterwards, I thought about the story: kept picturing the baron on the train, kept picturing the younger wife appearing like a ghost when daybreak lit the train compartment, kept thinking about how she observed the strictures of their separation agreement while managing to still live a life of her own.
I also loved de Maupassant’s description of how people change over time. “The blood, the hair, the skin, all changes and is renewed, and when people have not seen each other for a long time, when they meet they find each other totally different beings, although they are the same and bear the same name.”
I sometimes tell people about “A Meeting” when I want to explain how a story set in a time and place so different than my own got to me. Rereading I see the deft description of the baron’s arrogance, the succinct communication of the young wife’s scorn for him. And I’m still dazzled by the fact that, really, you don’t see what’s coming; the entire power balance between the couple is changed by one sentence that the wife utters at the end, and that sentence has been left in the original French in all the English language translations I can find.
I confess that I knew almost nothing about de Maupassant’s life until I sat down to write this. Again, having his work shoved in front of me when I was a child put me off wanting to know more. I was unsurprised to read about the prosperous family he grew up in, that he ran with Flaubert and Dumas and the Goncourts, that he suffered from syphilis, and that as his life went on, he discovered he wanted solitude. But his attempt to kill himself by slashing his throat shocked me, as did the fact that he lived the last year of his life in an asylum. And I was sorry to see that someone who revelled the lives of his characters wrote the following epitaph for himself: "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing."
I think about how he clearly he could see and describe all the societal constraints of the world he lived in, but ultimately couldn’t figure out how to escape those constraints. Which makes the description of the young wife’s escape in “A Meeting” all the more powerful.
It was nothing but an accident, an accident pure and simple. On that particular evening the princess' rooms were open, and as they appeared dark after the brilliantly lighted parlors, Baron d'Etraille, who was tired of standing, inadvertently wandered into an empty bedroom.
He looked round for a chair in which to have a doze, as he was sure his wife would not leave before daylight. As soon as he became accustomed to the light of the room he distinguished the big bed with its azure-and-gold hangings, in the middle of the great room, looking like a catafalque in which love was buried, for the princess was no longer young. Behind it, a large bright surface looked like a lake seen at a distance. It was a large mirror, discreetly covered with dark drapery, that was very rarely let down, and seemed to look at the bed, which was its accomplice. One might almost fancy that it had reminiscences, and that one might see in it charming female forms and the gentle movement of loving arms.
The baron stood still for a moment, smiling, almost experiencing an emotion on the threshold of this chamber dedicated to love. But suddenly something appeared in the looking-glass, as if the phantoms which he had evoked had risen up before him. A man and a woman who had been sitting on a low couch concealed in the shadow had arisen, and the polished surface, reflecting their figures, showed that they were kissing each other before separating.
Baron d'Etraille recognized his wife and the Marquis de Cervigne. He turned and went away like a man who is fully master of himself, and waited till it was day before taking away the baroness; but he had no longer any thoughts of sleeping.
As soon as they were alone he said:
“Madame, I saw you just now in Princesse de Raynes' room; I need say no more, and I am not fond either of reproaches, acts of violence, or of ridicule. As I wish to avoid all such things, we shall separate without any scandal. Our lawyers will settle your position according to my orders. You will be free to live as you please when you are no longer under my roof; but, as you will continue to bear my name, I must warn you that should any scandal arise I shall show myself inflexible.”
She tried to speak, but he stopped her, bowed, and left the room.
He was more astonished and sad than unhappy. He had loved her dearly during the first period of their married life; but his ardor had cooled, and now he often amused himself elsewhere, either in a theatre or in society, though he always preserved a certain liking for the baroness.
She was very young, hardly four-and-twenty, small, slight—too slight—and very fair. She was a true Parisian doll: clever, spoiled, elegant, coquettish, witty, with more charm than real beauty. He used to say familiarly to his brother, when speaking of her:
“My wife is charming, attractive, but—there is nothing to lay hold of. She is like a glass of champagne that is all froth; when you get to the wine it is very good, but there is too little of it, unfortunately.”
He walked up and down the room in great agitation, thinking of a thousand things. At one moment he was furious, and felt inclined to give the marquis a good thrashing, or to slap his face publicly, in the club. But he decided that would not do, it would not be good form; he would be laughed at, and not his rival, and this thought wounded his vanity. So he went to bed, but could not sleep. Paris knew in a few days that the Baron and Baroness d'Etraille had agreed to an amicable separation on account of incompatibility of temper. No one suspected anything, no one laughed, and no one was astonished.
The baron, however, to avoid meeting his wife, travelled for a year, then spent the summer at the seaside, and the autumn in shooting, returning to Paris for the winter. He did not meet the baroness once.
He did not even know what people said about her. In any case, she took care to respect appearances, and that was all he asked for.
He became dreadfully bored, travelled again, restored his old castle of Villebosc, which took him two years; then for over a year he entertained friends there, till at last, tired of all these so-called pleasures, he returned to his mansion in the Rue de Lille, just six years after the separation.
He was now forty-five, with a good crop of gray hair, rather stout, and with that melancholy look characteristic of those who have been handsome, sought after, and liked, but who are deteriorating, daily.
A month after his return to Paris, he took cold on coming out of his club, and had such a bad cough that his medical man ordered him to Nice for the rest of the winter.
He reached the station only a few minutes before the departure of the train on Monday evening, and had barely time to get into a carriage, with only one other occupant, who was sitting in a corner so wrapped in furs and cloaks that he could not even make out whether it was a man or a woman, as nothing of the figure could be seen. When he perceived that he could not find out, he put on his travelling cap, rolled himself up in his rugs, and stretched out comfortably to sleep.
He did not wake until the day was breaking, and looked at once at his fellow-traveller, who had not stirred all night, and seemed still to be sound asleep.
M. d'Etraille made use of the opportunity to brush his hair and his beard, and to try to freshen himself up a little generally, for a night's travel does not improve one's appearance when one has attained a certain age.
A great poet has said:
“When we are young, our mornings are triumphant!”
Then we wake up with a cool skin, a bright eye, and glossy hair.
As one grows older one wakes up in a very different condition. Dull eyes, red, swollen cheeks, dry lips, hair and beard disarranged, impart an old, fatigued, worn-out look to the face.
The baron opened his travelling case, and improved his looks as much as possible.
The engine whistled, the train stopped, and his neighbor moved. No doubt he was awake. They started off again, and then a slanting ray of sunlight shone into the carriage and on the sleeper, who moved again, shook himself, and then his face could be seen.
It was a young, fair, pretty, plump woman, and the baron looked at her in amazement. He did not know what to think. He could really have sworn that it was his wife, but wonderfully changed for the better: stouter —why she had grown as stout as he was, only it suited her much better than it did him.
She looked at him calmly, did not seem to recognize him, and then slowly laid aside her wraps. She had that quiet assurance of a woman who is sure of herself, who feels that on awaking she is in her full beauty and freshness.
The baron was really bewildered. Was it his wife, or else as like her as any sister could be? Not having seen her for six years, he might be mistaken.
She yawned, and this gesture betrayed her. She turned and looked at him again, calmly, indifferently, as if she scarcely saw him, and then looked out of the window again.
He was upset and dreadfully perplexed, and kept looking at her sideways.
Yes; it was surely his wife. How could he possibly have doubted it? There could certainly not be two noses like that, and a thousand recollections flashed through his mind. He felt the old feeling of the intoxication of love stealing over him, and he called to mind the sweet odor of her skin, her smile when she put her arms on to his shoulders, the soft intonations of her voice, all her graceful, coaxing ways.
But how she had changed and improved! It was she and yet not she. She seemed riper, more developed, more of a woman, more seductive, more desirable, adorably desirable.
And this strange, unknown woman, whom he had accidentally met in a railway carriage, belonged to him; he had only to say to her:
“I insist upon it.”
He had formerly slept in her arms, existed only in her love, and now he had found her again certainly, but so changed that he scarcely knew her. It was another, and yet it was she herself. It was some one who had been born and had formed and grown since he had left her. It was she, indeed; she whom he had loved, but who was now altered, with a more assured smile and greater self-possession. There were two women in one, mingling a great part of what was new and unknown with many sweet recollections of the past. There was something singular, disturbing, exciting about it—a kind of mystery of love in which there floated a delicious confusion. It was his wife in a new body and in new flesh which lips had never pressed.
And he thought that in a few years nearly every thing changes in us; only the outline can be recognized, and sometimes even that disappears.
The blood, the hair, the skin, all changes and is renewed, and when people have not seen each other for a long time, when they meet they find each other totally different beings, although they are the same and bear the same name.
And the heart also can change. Ideas may be modified and renewed, so that in forty years of life we may, by gradual and constant transformations, become four or five totally new and different beings.
He dwelt on this thought till it troubled him; it had first taken possession of him when he surprised her in the princess' room. He was not the least angry; it was not the same woman that he was looking at —that thin, excitable little doll of those days.
What was he to do? How should he address her? and what could he say to her? Had she recognized him?
The train stopped again. He got up, bowed, and said: “Bertha, do you want anything I could bring you?”
She looked at him from head to foot, and answered, without showing the slightest surprise, or confusion, or anger, but with the most perfect indifference:
“I do not want anything—-thank you.”
He got out and walked up and down the platform a little in order to recover himself, and, as it were, to recover his senses after a fall. What should he do now? If he got into another carriage it would look as if he were running away. Should he be polite or importunate? That would look as if he were asking for forgiveness. Should he speak as if he were her master? He would look like a fool, and, besides, he really had no right to do so.
He got in again and took his place.
During his absence she had hastily arranged her dress and hair, and was now lying stretched out on the seat, radiant, and without showing any emotion.
He turned to her, and said: “My dear Bertha, since this singular chance has brought up together after a separation of six years—a quite friendly separation—are we to continue to look upon each other as irreconcilable enemies? We are shut up together, tete-a-tete, which is so much the better or so much the worse. I am not going to get into another carriage, so don't you think it is preferable to talk as friends till the end of our journey?”
She answered, quite calmly again:
“Just as you please.”
Then he suddenly stopped, really not knowing what to say; but as he had plenty of assurance, he sat down on the middle seat, and said:
“Well, I see I must pay my court to you; so much the better. It is, however, really a pleasure, for you are charming. You cannot imagine how you have improved in the last six years. I do not know any woman who could give me that delightful sensation which I experienced just now when you emerged from your wraps. I really could not have thought such a change possible.”
Without moving her head or looking at him, she said: “I cannot say the same with regard to you; you have certainly deteriorated a great deal.”
He got red and confused, and then, with a smile of resignation, he said:
“You are rather hard.”
“Why?” was her reply. “I am only stating facts. I don't suppose you intend to offer me your love? It must, therefore, be a matter of perfect indifference to you what I think about you. But I see it is a painful subject, so let us talk of something else. What have you been doing since I last saw you?”
He felt rather out of countenance, and stammered:
“I? I have travelled, done some shooting, and grown old, as you see. And you?”
She said, quite calmly: “I have taken care of appearances, as you ordered me.”
He was very nearly saying something brutal, but he checked himself; and kissed his wife's hand:
“And I thank you,” he said.
She was surprised. He was indeed diplomatic, and always master of himself.
He went on: “As you have acceded to my first request, shall we now talk without any bitterness?”
She made a little movement of surprise.
“Bitterness? I don't feel any; you are a complete stranger to me; I am only trying to keep up a difficult conversation.”
He was still looking at her, fascinated in spite of her harshness, and he felt seized with a brutal Beside, the desire of the master.
Perceiving that she had hurt his feelings, she said:
“How old are you now? I thought you were younger than you look.”
“I am forty-five;” and then he added: “I forgot to ask after Princesse de Raynes. Are you still intimate with her?”
She looked at him as if she hated him:
“Yes, I certainly am. She is very well, thank you.”
They remained sitting side by side, agitated and irritated. Suddenly he said:
“My dear Bertha, I have changed my mind. You are my wife, and I expect you to come with me to-day. You have, I think, improved both morally and physically, and I am going to take you back again. I am your husband, and it is my right to do so.”
She was stupefied, and looked at him, trying to divine his thoughts; but his face was resolute and impenetrable.
“I am very sorry,” she said, “but I have made other engagements.”
“So much the worse for you,” was his reply. “The law gives me the power, and I mean to use it.”
They were nearing Marseilles, and the train whistled and slackened speed. The baroness rose, carefully rolled up her wraps, and then, turning to her husband, said:
“My dear Raymond, do not make a bad use of this tete-a tete which I had carefully prepared. I wished to take precautions, according to your advice, so that I might have nothing to fear from you or from other people, whatever might happen. You are going to Nice, are you not?”
“I shall go wherever you go.”
“Not at all; just listen to me, and I am sure that you will leave me in peace. In a few moments, when we get to the station, you will see the Princesse de Raynes and Comtesse Henriot waiting for me with their husbands. I wished them to see as, and to know that we had spent the night together in the railway carriage. Don't be alarmed; they will tell it everywhere as a most surprising fact.
“I told you just now that I had most carefully followed your advice and saved appearances. Anything else does not matter, does it? Well, in order to do so, I wished to be seen with you. You told me carefully to avoid any scandal, and I am avoiding it, for, I am afraid—I am afraid—”
She waited till the train had quite stopped, and as her friends ran up to open the carriage door, she said:
“I am afraid”—hesitating—“that there is another reason—je suis enceinte.”
The princess stretched out her arms to embrace her,—and the baroness said, painting to the baron, who was dumb with astonishment, and was trying to get at the truth:
“You do not recognize Raymond? He has certainly changed a good deal, and he agreed to come with me so that I might not travel alone. We take little trips like this occasionally, like good friends who cannot live together. We are going to separate here; he has had enough of me already.”
She put out her hand, which he took mechanically, and then she jumped out on to the platform among her friends, who were waiting for her.
The baron hastily shut the carriage door, for he was too much disturbed to say a word or come to any determination. He heard his wife's voice and their merry laughter as they went away.
He never saw her again, nor did he ever discover whether she had told him a lie or was speaking the truth.
Linda’s work has appeared in The Nation, Granta, Catapult Story, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Sight & Sound, and been broadcast on BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin.
Originally from New York, she lives in London and is a PhD researcher at the University of Westminster.