Madame Hermet by Guy de Maupassant
Crazy people attract me. They live in a mysterious land of weird
dreams, in that impenetrable cloud of dementia where all that they have
witnessed in their previous life, all they have loved, is reproduced
for them in an imaginary existence, outside of all laws that govern the
things of this life and control human thought.
For them there is no such thing as the impossible, nothing is
improbable; fairyland is a constant quantity and the supernatural quite
familiar. The old rampart, logic; the old wall, reason; the old main
stay of thought, good sense, break down, fall and crumble before their
imagination, set free and escaped into the limitless realm of fancy,
and advancing with fabulous bounds, and nothing can check it. For them
everything happens, and anything may happen. They make no effort to
conquer events, to overcome resistance, to overturn obstacles. By a
sudden caprice of their flighty imagination they become princes,
emperors, or gods, are possessed of all the wealth of the world, all
the delightful things of life, enjoy all pleasures, are always strong,
always beautiful, always young, always beloved! They, alone, can be
happy in this world; for, as far as they are concerned, reality does
not exist. I love to look into their wandering intelligence as one
leans over an abyss at the bottom of which seethes a foaming torrent
whose source and destination are both unknown.
But it is in vain that we lean over these abysses, for we shall
never discover the source nor the destination of this water. After all,
it is only water, just like what is flowing in the sunlight, and we
shall learn nothing by looking at it.
It is likewise of no use to ponder over the intelligence of crazy
people, for their most weird notions are, in fact, only ideas that are
already known, which appear strange simply because they are no longer
under the restraint of reason. Their whimsical source surprises us
because we do not see it bubbling up. Doubtless the dropping of a
little stone into the current was sufficient to cause these
ebullitions. Nevertheless crazy people attract me and I always return
to them, drawn in spite of myself by this trivial mystery of dementia.
One day as I was visiting one of the asylums the physician who was
my guide said:
“Come, I will show you an interesting case.”
And he opened the door of a cell where a woman of about forty, still
handsome, was seated in a large armchair, looking persistently at her
face in a little hand mirror.
As soon as she saw us she rose to her feet, ran to the other end of
the room, picked up a veil that lay on a chair, wrapped it carefully
round her face, then came back, nodding her head in reply to our
“Well,” said the doctor, “how are you this morning?”
She gave a deep sigh.
“Oh, ill, monsieur, very ill. The marks are increasing every day.”
He replied in a tone of conviction:
“Oh, no; oh, no; I assure you that you are mistaken.”
She drew near to him and murmured:
“No. I am certain of it. I counted ten pittings more this morning,
three on the right cheek, four on the left cheek, and three on the
forehead. It is frightful, frightful! I shall never dare to let any one
see me, not even my son; no, not even him! I am lost, I am disfigured
She fell back in her armchair and began to sob.
The doctor took a chair, sat down beside her, and said soothingly in
a gentle tone:
“Come, let me see; I assure you it is nothing. With a slight
cauterization I will make it all disappear.”
She shook her head in denial, without speaking. He tried to touch
her veil, but she seized it with both hands so violently that her
fingers went through it.
He continued to reason with her and reassure her.
“Come, you know very well that I remove those horrid pits every time
and that there is no trace of them after I have treated them. If you do
not let me see them I cannot cure you.”
“I do not mind your seeing them,” she murmured, “but I do not know
that gentleman who is with you.”
“He is a doctor also, who can give you better care than I can.”
She then allowed her face to be uncovered, but her dread, her
emotion, her shame at being seen brought a rosy flush to her face and
her neck, down to the collar of her dress. She cast down her eyes,
turned her face aside, first to the right; then to the left, to avoid
our gaze and stammered out:
“Oh, it is torture to me to let myself be seen like this! It is
horrible, is it not? Is it not horrible?”
I looked at her in much surprise, for there was nothing on her face,
not a mark, not a spot, not a sign of one, nor a scar.
She turned towards me, her eyes still lowered, and said:
“It was while taking care of my son that I caught this fearful
disease, monsieur. I saved him, but I am disfigured. I sacrificed my
beauty to him, to my poor child. However, I did my duty, my conscience
is at rest. If I suffer it is known only to God.”
The doctor had drawn from his coat pocket a fine water-color paint
“Let me attend to it,” he said, “I will put it all right.”
She held out her right cheek, and he began by touching it lightly
with the brush here and there, as though he were putting little points
of paint on it. He did the same with the left cheek, then with the
chin, and the forehead, and then exclaimed:
“See, there is nothing there now, nothing at all!”
She took up the mirror, gazed at her reflection with profound, eager
attention, with a strong mental effort to discover something, then she
“No. It hardly shows at all. I am infinitely obliged to you.”
The doctor had risen. He bowed to her, ushered me out and followed
me, and, as soon as he had locked the door, said:
“Here is the history of this unhappy woman.”
Her name is Mme. Hermet. She was once very beautiful, a great
coquette, very much beloved and very much in-love with life.
She was one of those women who have nothing but their beauty and
their love of admiration to sustain, guide or comfort them in this
life. The constant anxiety to retain her freshness, the care of her
complexion, of her hands, her teeth, of every portion of body that was
visible, occupied all her time and all her attention.
She became a widow, with one son. The boy was brought up as are all
children of society beauties. She was, however, very fond of him.
He grew up, and she grew older. Whether she saw the fatal crisis
approaching, I cannot say. Did she, like so many others, gaze for hours
and hours at her skin, once so fine, so transparent and free from
blemish, now beginning to shrivel slightly, to be crossed with a
thousand little lines, as yet imperceptible, that will grow deeper day
by day, month by month? Did she also see slowly, but surely, increasing
traces of those long wrinkles on the forehead, those slender serpents
that nothing can check? Did she suffer the torture, the abominable
torture of the mirror, the little mirror with the silver handle which
one cannot make up one's mind to lay down on the table, but then throws
down in disgust only to take it up again in order to look more closely,
and still more closely at the hateful and insidious approaches of old
age? Did she shut herself up ten times, twenty times a day, leaving her
friends chatting in the drawing-room, and go up to her room where,
under the protection of bolts and bars, she would again contemplate the
work of time on her ripe beauty, now beginning to wither, and recognize
with despair the gradual progress of the process which no one else had
as yet seemed to perceive, but of which she, herself, was well aware.
She knows where to seek the most serious, the gravest traces of age.
And the mirror, the little round hand-glass in its carved silver frame,
tells her horrible things; for it speaks, it seems to laugh, it jeers
and tells her all that is going to occur, all the physical discomforts
and the atrocious mental anguish she will suffer until the day of her
death, which will be the day of her deliverance.
Did she weep, distractedly, on her knees, her forehead to the
ground, and pray, pray, pray to Him who thus slays his creatures and
gives them youth only that he may render old age more unendurable, and
lends them beauty only that he may withdraw it almost immediately? Did
she pray to Him, imploring Him to do for her what He has never yet done
for any one, to let her retain until her last day her charm, her
freshness and her gracefulness? Then, finding that she was imploring in
vain an inflexible Unknown who drives on the years, one after another,
did she roll on the carpet in her room, knocking her head against the
furniture and stifling in her throat shrieks of despair?
Doubtless she suffered these tortures, for this is what occurred:
One day (she was then thirty-five) her son aged fifteen, fell ill.
He took to his bed without any one being able to determine the cause
or nature of his illness.
His tutor, a priest, watched beside him and hardly ever left him,
while Mme. Hermet came morning and evening to inquire how he was.
She would come into the room in the morning in her night wrapper,
smiling, all powdered and perfumed, and would ask as she entered the
“Well, George, are you better?”
The big boy, his face red, swollen and showing the ravages of fever,
“Yes, little mother, a little better.”
She would stay in the room a few seconds, look at the bottles of
medicine, and purse her lips as if she were saying “phew,” and then
would suddenly exclaim: “Oh, I forgot something very important,” and
would run out of the room leaving behind her a fragrance of choice
In the evening she would appear in a decollete dress, in a still
greater hurry, for she was always late, and she had just time to
“Well, what does the doctor say?”
The priest would reply:
“He has not yet given an opinion, madame.”
But one evening the abbe replied: “Madame, your son has got the
She uttered a scream of terror and fled from the room.
When her maid came to her room the following morning she noticed at
once a strong odor of burnt sugar, and she found her mistress, with
wide-open eyes, her face pale from lack of sleep, and shivering with
terror in her bed.
As soon as the shutters were opened Mme. Herrnet asked:
“How is George?”
“Oh, not at all well to-day, madame.”
She did not rise until noon, when she ate two eggs with a cup of
tea, as if she herself had been ill, and then she went out to a
druggist's to inquire about prophylactic measures against the contagion
She did not come home until dinner time, laden with medicine
bottles, and shut herself up at once in her room, where she saturated
herself with disinfectants.
The priest was waiting for her in the dining-room. As soon as she
saw him she exclaimed in a voice full of emotion:
“No improvement. The doctor is very anxious:”
She began to cry and could eat nothing, she was so worried.
The next day, as soon as it was light, she sent to inquire for her
son, but there was no improvement and she spent the whole day in her
room, where little braziers were giving out pungent odors. Her maid
said also that you could hear her sighing all the evening.
She spent a whole week in this manner, only going out for an hour or
two during the afternoon to breathe the air.
She now sent to make inquiries every hour, and would sob when the
reports were unfavorable.
On the morning of the eleventh day the priest, having been
announced, entered her room, his face grave and pale, and said, without
taking the chair she offered him:
“Madame, your son is very ill and wishes to see you.”
She fell on her knees, exclaiming:
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I would never dare! My God! My God! Help
The priest continued:
“The doctor holds out little hope, madame, and George is expecting
And he left the room.
Two hours later as the young lad, feeling himself dying, again asked
for his mother, the abbe went to her again and found her still on her
knees, still weeping and repeating:
“I will not . . . . I will not. . . . I am too much afraid . . . . I
will not. . . .”
He tried to persuade her, to strengthen her, to lead her. He only
succeeded in bringing on an attack of “nerves” that lasted some time
and caused her to shriek.
The doctor when he came in the evening was told of this cowardice
and declared that he would bring her in himself, of her own volition,
or by force. But after trying all manner of argument and just as he
seized her round the waist to carry her into her son's room, she caught
hold of the door and clung to it so firmly that they could not drag her
away. Then when they let go of her she fell at the feet of the doctor,
begging his forgiveness and acknowledging that she was a wretched
creature. And then she exclaimed: “Oh, he is not going to die; tell me
that he is not going to die, I beg of you; tell him that I love him,
that I worship him. . .”
The young lad was dying. Feeling that he had only a few moments more
to live, he entreated that his mother be persuaded to come and bid him
a last farewell. With that sort of presentiment that the dying
sometimes have, he had understood, had guessed all, and he said: “If
she is afraid to come into the room, beg her just to come on the
balcony as far as my window so that I may see her, at least, so that I
may take a farewell look at her, as I cannot kiss her.”
The doctor and the abbe, once more, went together to this woman and
assured her: “You will run no risk, for there will be a pane of glass
between you and him.”
She consented, covered up her head, and took with her a bottle of
smelling salts. She took three steps on the balcony; then, all at once,
hiding her face in her hands, she moaned: “No . . . no . . . I would
never dare to look at him . . . never. . . . I am too much ashamed . .
. too much afraid . . . . No . . . I cannot.”
They endeavored to drag her along, but she held on with both hands
to the railings and uttered such plaints that the passers-by in the
street raised their heads. And the dying boy waited, his eyes turned
towards that window, waited to die until he could see for the last time
the sweet, beloved face, the worshiped face of his mother.
He waited long, and night came on. Then he turned over with his face
to the wall and was silent.
When day broke he was dead. The day following she was crazy.