I’ve been in a real short story mood lately and have enjoyed re-reading some favourite stories as well as discovering new ones. I have particularly been reading a lot of Maupassant’s stories and one of my favourites is called Mouche, which appears at the end of the Penguin edition called Selected Short Stories and has the subtitle Reminiscences of a Rowing Man. Maupassant loved boats and the sea and as a result, a lot of his stories take place within this environment.
Be warned that I reveal the whole plot in what follows. Unlike some of Maupassant’s stories that have surprise endings I don’t think that knowing the ending of this one particularly harms the reader’s enjoyment as it easily stands up to repeated readings.
Mouche starts off with the elderly narrator reminiscing about a carefree period in his early twenties when he was skint and compares it with his current life:
I was a penniless clerk at the time; now I’m a successful man who can throw away huge sums to gratify a passing whim. I had a thousand modest, unattainable desires in my heart which gilded my existence with fantastic hopes. Today, I really can’t think of anything that would induce me to get out of the armchair where I sit dozing.
He fondly remembers that during this period he lived with four friends in a dormitory; they were all quite different but got on with each other perfectly. They spent most of their time on their boat, the only problem being that they didn’t have a woman alongside to ‘provide excitement, amusement and distraction’ – but no ordinary woman would do, they wanted someone ‘unusual, odd, ready for anything’. Well, one day one of the friends, N’a-qu’un-Oeil, brought along a lively, skinny girl who quickly captivated the five young men. I love Maupassant’s initial description of her:
She was a sweet girl but not really pretty, a rough sketch of a woman with a little of everything in her, one of those silhouettes which artists draw in three strokes on the tablecloth in a café after dinner, between a glass of brandy and a cigarette. Nature sometimes turns out creatures like that.
She was soon christened Mouche (fly) though no one could quite remember why. She talked incessantly and the men loved hearing the outlandish things she came up with which often made them laugh. All the men found her attractive and she ended up sleeping with all of them. Only N’a-qu’un-Oeil seemed to be unaware of what was going on, until he let slip a remark that revealed he knew. After that the others backed off and left N’a-qu’un-Oeil and Mouche alone as lovers.
After about three months Mouche started acting strangely, more irritable. N’a-qu’un-Oeil revealed to his friends that she was pregnant but they should not try to determine the father of the baby, but instead they should all agree to adopt the child. When Mouche heard of their decision she was overcome with gratitude for her friends.
However, one day when trying to embark from the boat she slipped, banged her belly against the quayside and fell into the water. Her friends pulled her from the water but she eventually miscarried. The young men stayed with her during this difficult period and were upset with her misfortune. The story culminates with the following wonderful ending:
Then N’a-qu’un-Oeil, who perhaps loved her more than any of us, hit on a wonderful idea to calm her down. Kissing her tear-dimmed eyes, he said: “Cheer up, Mouche dear, cheer up. We’ll make you another one.”
The sense of humour which was in her very bones suddenly came alive, and half convinced, half laughing, with tears still in her eyes and her heart full of pain, she looked around at us all and asked: “Honest?”
And we answered as one man: “Honest.”
This ending is just wonderful, in part, I feel, because the whole story is not really what we would expect from a nineteenth century auhor, even a French one. The topics of free love, alternative lifestyles, guilt-free sex are ones we don’t really associate with the nineteenth century and this may be the reason why it’s not included in the Victorian collection that’s available on Project Gutenberg.
This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.