Editor’s Note: The following article by Guy de Maupassant appeared originally in Nouvelles de Chrétienté No. 174 Nov/Dec 2018.
It is customary at Christmastime to read stories to children. This story that we are proposing to the readers of the Nouvelles de Chrétienté, is not properly speaking, a Christmas story, but a Christian account, because its author is not a writer known for his fervent Faith. But, once upon a time in France when it was still Christian, certain writers had fallen away from their baptismal promises, but found their Faith again in a moment of definitive re-conversion. This was the case for Paul Verlaine in Sagesse (1880), of Francois Coppee in La Bonne Souffrance (1897) and of Guy de Maupassant in Le Donneur d’eau Benite, published by the review La Mosaique on November 10, 1877.
Once upon a time there was a small house situated near the entrance to a village. Established there was a wheelwright who married the daughter of a farmer. Since they both worked a great deal, they were able to amass a small fortune. But sadly, they had no children, which caused them much suffering. At last, they had a son whom they named John. They caressed him one after the other enveloping him in their love and cherishing him so much that they could not go more than an hour without gazing upon him.
When John was five years old, a group of acrobats passed through the country and established a stage in the town square.
John, who saw them, snuck out of the house to go watch the festivities. His father, after looking for him for a long time, finally found him. He was sitting upon the knees of an old clown bursting into laughter as he watched the goats and dogs doing tricks.
Three days later at dinner time, the wheelwright and his wife realized that their son was no longer in the house. They looked for him outside, but since they couldn’t find him, the father, shouted into the dark with all of his might, “John?!”
Nighttime came. The horizon was enveloped in a foggy vapor which rendered objects in the distance as dark and frightening. Three large pine trees close to the house bent as if they were weeping. There seemed to be indistinct groanings in the night air. The father listened for a long time, believing that he was hearing something sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, and having lost his composure, he ran into the night constantly calling out, “John! John!”
He ran thus until dawn filling the shadows with his cries, frightening the nocturnal creatures, ravaged by a terrible agony and thinking himself mad at times. His wife, seated upon the doorstep sobbed until morning. They did not find their son.
Thus, they wearied into an inconsolable sadness.
At last, they sold their house and they left in order to search for their son themselves. They asked the shepherds on the hills, the merchants passing by, the peasants in the villages, and the authorities of the towns. But it had already been a long time since their son had been lost; no one knew anything; John himself had, without a doubt, forgotten his own name and that of his country; and they wept without hope.
Soon they had no more money left; therefore, they were hired out for the day on farms and in hotels, accomplishing the humblest of tasks, living off of the scraps of others, sleeping upon the hard floor, and suffering from the cold. And since they had become very weak due to their exhaustion, they were forced to beg on the streets. They accosted travelers with their sad faces and begging voices. Once they implored harvesters for a scrap of bread who they found eating against the trunk of a tree on a plain at noon…and the couple ate silently.
A hotel manager, having heard their misfortune said to them one day, “I also knew someone who lost their daughter; it was in Paris that they found her again.”
They then left immediately for Paris.
Just as they entered the big city, they were intimidated by its immensity and by the multitudes of people who passed by. They understood however that John must be among all of these people, but they didn’t know how to go about searching for him. Also, they feared that they would never be able to find him, because 15 years had passed since they had last seen him.
They visited every place, every street, stopping at every group of people, hoping for a providential meeting, some prodigious chance, a moment of destiny!
Often they walked great distances, one against the other, having such a sad air about them and so poor that one gave them alms without them having to beg.
Every Sunday they spent their day outside the doors of churches, watching the crowds enter and leave and searching the faces that might resemble John even a little bit. Many times, they thought that they recognized him, but each time, they had made a mistake.
They had, at the threshold of one of the churches where they visited the most frequently, an old holy water dispenser who befriended them. His story was also very sad and the commiseration that they had for him turned into a special friendship.
Over time, the three of them ended up living together in a poor slum in the attic of a large household situated far away from the city and close to farmlands. The wheelwright sometimes replaced his new friend at the church if he was ill. A harsh winter came. The poor holy water dispenser died and the curé of the parish designated the wheelwright to take his job to distribute holy water when he learned the sad news.
Thus he went every morning and sat in the same place, on the same stool, using the old column of stone that he leaned against to support his back. He looked attentively at all those who entered the church, and he waited for Sundays with as much impatience as a youth because the church was continually full of people on this day.
He became very old and weakened under the humidity of the vaults; his hope of finding John waned a little more each day.
He knew at that moment, all who came to attend the offices; he knew their schedules, their habits and was able to distinguish them by the sound of their footsteps on the floor.
His existence had narrowed such that the entrance of a stranger in the church was a big event for him. One day two women came. One was an adult, the other a young girl. It was probably a mother and daughter. Following close behind them was a man. The man greeted the ladies at the exit of the church, and after offering them holy water, he took the arm of the woman.
“This must be the fiancé of the woman.” the wheelwright thought.
And he reflected all day until nighttime where he could have seen a man who resembled the one he saw that day. But the person who he remembered would have been an old man by now, because it seemed that he knew the face in his youth.
This same man came back often with the two ladies, and this vague resemblance, far away, yet familiar was so frustrating to the old holy water dispenser that he had his wife come with him to aid his weakened memory.
One evening, when the day was winding down the three strangers entered. As they were passing by the wheelwright said to his wife: “And? So! Do you know him?”
The wheelwright’s wife, who was also a bit perplexed, tried to remember who this man was. All of a sudden, she said in a whisper:
“Yes…yes…but he is darker, stronger, and dressed like a gentleman; still, father, do you see, it is your face from when you were younger.”
The old man jumped with surprise.
It was true! The young man looked like him and he also resembled his brother who was dead, and his own father when he knew him as a young man. They were so overcome with emotion that they were speechless. The three people came back down to exit the church. The man touched the bottle of holy water with his finger. The old man was trembling so much that he made a puddle of holy water on the floor and he cried, “John?”
The man stopped and looked at him. The wheelwright said more quietly this time, “John?”
The two ladies examined the old man without understanding.
Again, he said for the third time while sobbing: “John?”
The man inclined very closely to the old man’s face, and illuminated by a childhood memory, he responded, “Papa Peter, Mama Jane!”
He had forgotten everything, among other things, the name of his father and that of his country; but he remembered always these two words that he had heard repeated so many times: Papa Peter, Mama Jane!
He fell, his face upon the knees of the old man and he cried, and he kissed them one after the other his father and mother who were overwhelmed with immeasurable joy.
The two ladies cried as well understanding that a wonderful blessing had come upon them all!
Then, they all went to the home of the young man and he told them his story.
The acrobats had kidnapped him. For three years, he travelled with them to many lands. Afterwards, the troupe dispersed, and an old woman, one day, in a castle, gave the troupe money in order to keep John because she found him to be an agreeable young man. Since he was intelligent, he was put into school, then into high school, and the old woman, having no children of her own left him her fortune. John also looked for his parents; but since he was only able to remember their two names, “Papa Peter and Mama Jane,” he was not able to find them. Now, he was about to get married and he presented to his parents his fiancée who was very good and very pretty.
When the old couple told them of their sorrows and trials, he embraced them once again; and they stayed up very late that night, not daring to go to bed, in fear that this happiness they finally found would abandon them again during their sleep.
But they conquered the tenacity of their misfortunes, because they lived happily ever after.