Night: A Nightmare (1887) | Guy de Maupassant


I love the night with passion. I love it the way you love your country, or your mistress, with an instinctive love, a deep love, an invincible love. I love it with all my senses, with my eyes that see it, with my nostrils that breathe it, with my ears that hear the silence of it, with my whole flesh, caressed by its shadows. Larks sing in the sun, in the blue air, the warm air, the light air of clear mornings. But the owl takes refuge in the night, a black blotch that crosses the black space, and, with joy, intoxicated with the vast blackness, he lets out his cry, vibrant and sinister.  
The day tires me out and bores me. It is brutal and noisy. I get up with difficulty, I get dressed with weariness, I go out with regret, and each step, each movement, each gesture, each word, each thought exhausts me as though I were lifting a crushing burden.  
But when the sun goes down, a joy swirls about me, a joy overruns my entire body. I wake up, I come to life. With each moment that darkness advances, I feel completely different, younger, stronger, more alert, happier. I watch it get thicker, the vast, gentle darkness that falls from the sky. It engulfs the city like an unstoppable, impenetrable flood, it covers up, wears away and destroys colors, shapes, and enfolds the homes, monuments and living things with its imperceptible touch.  
At that point, I have the urge to shout for joy like a screech owl, to run across the rooftops like a cat. And an impetuous, invincible desire to love lights up inside my veins.  
I go, I walk, now in the darkened suburbs, now in the woods near Paris, where I hear my brothers and sisters, the beasts and their predators, lurking about.  
Anything you love too violently always ends up killing you. But how can I explain what happened to me? How can I even make you understand what I might tell you? I do not know, I do not know anymore. I only know what it is. Here goes:  
Yesterday, then - was it yesterday? - yes, without a doubt, at least it wasn't any earlier, another day, another month, another year, - I do not know. But it must be yesterday, since another day did not break, since the sun did not reappear. But since what time has this night continued? Since what time? ... Who will tell me? Who can know it, ever?  
And so, yesterday, I went out as I do every evening, after my dinner. It was very beautiful outside, very gentle, very warm. Making my way down toward the boulevards, above my head I watched that black river, loaded with stars, cut into pieces in the sky by the rooftops along the street which twisted this stream of heavenly lights and made it ebb and flow like a genuine river.  
Everything was distinct in the buoyant air, from the planets down to the gaslights. So great was the fiery brilliance up above and in the town that the shadows themselves took on a glow. Gleaming nights are more joyous than long, sunny days.  
On the boulevard the cafés were flickering. People laughed, passed by, ordered drinks. I went inside the theater for a few moments. Which theater? I do not know anymore. The light was so bright inside, it made me unhappy, and I went back out with my spirits depressed by that shock of brutal lighting bouncing off the gilt edges of the balcony, by the artificial glitter of the enormous luster of crystal, by the wall of lights along the ramp, by the gloom of this false, garish clarity. I made it to the Champs-Elysées, where the music cafés seemed like roaring fireplaces amid the foliage. The chestnut trees looked painted, smeared with yellow light, like phosphorescent trees. And just like pale, shining moons, like lunar eggs fallen from the sky, like vibrant, monster pearls with their sea-shell clarity, mysterious and regal, the electric glass fixtures made the gas lines pale by comparison, the conduits of dirty gas as well as the garlands of colored glass. I stopped under the Arch of Triumph to look at the avenue, the long, admirable, starry avenue, going to the heart of Paris between two lines of flame, and the stars! The stars up there, the unknown stars, scattered only by chance around the deep void, where they take on peculiar shapes, which fill us with so much reverie, which provoke us to dream.  
I entered the Bois de Boulogne and stayed there a long while, very long. Then I was seized by a singular chill, an unforeseen and powerful emotion, an epiphany of thoughts which bordered on madness.  
I walked around a long time, a very long time. Then I came back.  
What time was it when I passed back under the Arch of Triumph? I do not know. The city had fallen asleep, and clouds, large, black clouds slowly spread out over the sky.  
For the first time I felt that something weird was going to happen, something new. The weather seemed to be turning cold, the air to be thickening; it seemed that the night, my well-beloved night, was starting to weigh upon my heart. The avenue was deserted now. All alone, two patrolmen were walking near the taxi station, and on the pavement barely illuminated by the gas valves which seemed to be dying, a line of vegetable trucks was headed for Halles. They went slowly, loaded with carrots, turnips and cabbage. Their drivers were sleeping, unseen, and the horses all walked at the same pace, following the vehicle ahead of them, noiseless, upon the wooden pavement. Before each light along the sidewalk, the carrots flashed in their redness, the turnips flashed in their whiteness, and the cabbages flashed in their greenness. And they passed by, one after the other, those vehicles, red with the red of fire, white with the white of silver and green with the green of emeralds. I followed them, then I turned onto Royale Street and came back to the boulevards. Nobody else, no more lighted cafés, only a few stragglers in a hurry. I had never before seen Paris so dead, so deserted. I pulled out my watch. It was two o'clock.  
Some force was driving me, a need to walk. So I went up to the Bastille. Up there I realized that I had never seen a night so dark, since I could not even make out the Column of July, whose wizardry wrought in gold was lost in the impenetrable darkness. A vault of cloud, as thick as the universe, had drowned the stars, and appeared to be sinking to earth to demolish it.  
I came back. There was not a soul around me. On the Plaza du Château-d'eau, however, a drunk nearly ran into me, then he vanished. For a while I heard his uneven and reverberating steps. I walked. At the heights of Montmartre a carriage passed by, descending towards the Seine. I called out to it. The coachman did not answer. A woman was begging near Drouot Street: "Mister, please listen..." I quickened my pace to avoid her outstretched hand. Then, nothing else. In front of the Vaudeville, a rag man was rummaging around the gutter. His little lantern floated on ground level. I asked him, "What time is it, my good man?"  
He growled, "How should I know? I have no watch."  
Then all of a sudden I noticed that the gaslights were out. I know that they get turned off very early, before daybreak at this time of year, as an economic measure, but the day was still far off, so far from appearing!  
"Let's go, to Halles," I thought to myself, "there at least I will find some sign of life."  
I started my trek, but I wasn't even able to see which way I should turn. I advanced slowly, as if in the woods, recognizing the streets by counting them.  
In front of the Crédit Lyonnais, a dog growled. I turned onto Grammont Street and I got lost. I wandered a bit, then I recognized the Stock Exchange by the iron grills which surround it. All of Paris was asleep, in a deep, frightening sleep. In the distance, however, a carriage rolled along, a lone carriage, perhaps the very one which had passed in front of me just before. I sought to join up with it, walking towards the noise of its wheels, across the solitary streets, the black streets, black, black like death.  
I got lost again. Where was I? How stupid to extinguish the gas this early! Not one passerby, not one straggler, not one beggar, no caterwauling of cats on the make. Nothing.  
So where were the street patrols? I said to myself, "I am going to yell, then they will come." I yelled. No one responded. I called out more loudly. My voice fled away, without an echo, weak, muted, crushed by the night, by this impenetrable night.  
I shouted, "Help! Help! Help!"  
To my desperate call there was still no answer. What time was it now? I pulled out my watch, but I didn't have any matches. I heard the light tick-tock of the little mechanism with an uncanny, bizarre joy. It seemed to be alive. I was less alone. What a mystery! I set to walking again, like a blind man, and, feeling the walls with my walking stick, I continually kept my eyes trained on the sky, hoping that day would come at last. But the space above was black, completely black, more deeply black than the city.  
What time could it be now? I was walking, it seemed, since forever, because my legs were buckling under me, my lungs were gasping, and I was suffering horribly from hunger.  
I decided to ring at the first garage door I came to. I pulled on the copper ringer, and the bell rang inside the sonorous house; it rang strangely, as if its lively noise were the only living thing in this house.  
I waited, nobody answered. Nobody opened the door. I started to ring again, I kept waiting, - nothing!  
I was scared! I ran to the next residence, and twenty times in a row I made the bell ring inside the dark hallway where the concierge must have been sleeping. But he did not wake up, - and I walked on further, pulling or pressing with all my strength the rings or buttons, striking with my feet, my stick and my hands the doors which were stubbornly closed to me.  
And all of a sudden, I realized that I was arriving in Halles. Halles was deserted, without a sound, without a movement, without a car, without a man, without a bundle of vegetables or flowers. - It was empty, motionless, abandoned, dead!  
I was overcome by fear, - horrible. What was happening? Oh, my God! What was happening?  
I left. But the time? The time? Who will tell me the time? There was no clock chiming in the bell towers or monuments. I thought, "I am going to open up the glass on my watch and touch the needle with my fingers." I pulled out my watch... it was not ticking anymore, it had stopped. Nothing more, nothing more, nothing more astir in the city, not a glimmer, not a rustle of sound in the air. Nothing! Nothing more! Not even the distant roll of the carriage, - nothing more!  
I was at the docks, and a glacial chill rose from the river. Was the Seine still flowing?  
I wanted to know. I found the steps and I walked down... I did not hear the current bubble beneath the arches of the bridge... More walking... then some sand... some silt... then the water... I wet my arms... the water ran... it ran... cold... cold... cold... nearly frozen... nearly solid... nearly dead.  
And I was quite aware that I would never have the strength to get back out... that I was going to die there... me also, from hunger - from exhaustion - and from cold.