The day after All Saints, I did not find my companions at the workshop. They were at the cemetery, and the boss asked me why I was not going too.
It was raining, and I replied that I preferred to work better than to go for a walk through the bad weather.
He screamed as if he was angry:
-It’s not a walk, it’s a visit to our dead.
A little gaiety came to see him so furious and I spread laughing:
-Yes, but me, I have no dead.
He looked at me as if I had told him something extraordinary, and he went out immediately to go himself to the cemetery.
Madame Dalignac was already sewing in Sandrine’s place. It was the first time I was alone with her. She looked at me in the same way as the boss, before saying:
-You are lucky not to have dead.
“I do not have any living either,” I said.
She stopped sewing with an air of astonishment very marked, then she moved her lips as if to ask me a question, and finally she said a little quickly:
-When you came here, I thought you were as young as Duretour, but afterwards, I saw that you were twenty years old.
She was silent, and it seemed to me that a kind of embarrassment prevented her from looking at me when she asked me a moment later:
-You live alone?
She was silent again. My answer seemed to increase his embarrassment. However, she continued cheerfully:
Do you have a lover?
She blushed while recovering:
-I mean … a fiance, finally, someone who loves you.
I do not know why I thought of Sandrine and her Jacques and I answered clearly still.
But at the same moment my thought showed me an affectionate old face and I went on my turn:
-If, however, there is Miss Herminie who loves me.
And in front of Mrs. Dalignac’s attention, I hastened to explain:
-It is a very old neighbor to whom I give a few small services and who reward me by telling me stories.
Mrs. Dalignac smiles with satisfaction:
“Have you there a good grandmother?
The truth was so different that I immediately replied:
-Oh! No, she is rather my little child.
There was silence, then, as if Mrs. Dalignac could hardly bear it, she raised her head and our eyes met. His family stooped first, but it seemed to me that they had the same expression as those of Sandrine and that they had also just offered me something.
The boss returned in the middle of the morning. He brought back Sandrine whom he had met in an alley of the cemetery. She was out of breath, and her clothes kept the smell of damp earth. She sat down, saying with a weary air:
-The graves are all soaked with rain.
Madame Dalignac scolded her gently:
“Since you are sick, you should not have gone out this bad time.
-But I’m not sick. I only have a cold.
And her black eyes had a concern when she said:
“I’m not sick, I assure you.
Mrs. Dalignac smiled at her to reassure her:
“We know that,” she said, “but you could have gone to the cemetery another day.
She added as if she did not attach any importance to all this:
-The cemeteries do not fly, and the dead have time to wait.
Sandrine says almost immediately:
-Tomorrow, I come back to work.
She wanted to say something else, but her voice became hoarse before she had finished the first word, and she was seized with a coughing fit.
She coughed in fits and starts with a kind of impatience. She sucked hard and made violent efforts to try to tear something from her chest that seemed to have taken deep roots. Her cough still had the same hollow and cracked sounds, but today she seemed to stir a thick, moving thing that was hanging on the bottom.
She was forced to sit down, her face turned white, and sweat ran down her forehead. She made another effort to cough. There was a crack in his throat, as when a solid thread was broken. Then she struck her chest with her clenched fist like the first time, and said, laughing,
-I will have to get rid of this cold.
She pulled up her mantle slipping off her shoulders and she coughed again.
His departure left a discomfort. The boss remained standing without speaking, and Madame Dalignac, who was holding her hands flat on her work, said suddenly:
-There are colds that kill.
The boss tightened his jacket on his chest as if he suddenly felt the cold. Then he drew his stool very close to his wife and the silence returned.
The days that followed, Sandrine coughed much less. However, his breath was short and full of rudeness, and his cough still seemed to catch something in his chest.
From time to time, the boss asked him with a cheerful air:
“How are you, Sandrine?
And Sandrine responded with the same cheerful air imitating the accent of the boss:
Now the workshop was quiet. The work table showed her son of all colors, and the basket full of braids and staples was in order. No one could hear the exclamations of impatience or the words of annoyance when it came to finding a lace or lining fallen under the table and that one of us was trampling on without seeing them.
The boss no longer struck the models from one room to another, and Madame Dalignac had her face rested, so pleasant to look at.
Everybody listened when Bergeounette sang or told a story. She had a very veiled voice, and her high notes made one think of a bad whistle; but his grave notes were full and very sweet to the ear.
She spoke with ease and could not bear the nasty words. And when one of us wanted to know if a word was French or not, she asserted with authority:
-I know it, I have my patent.
Bulldog did not know how to turn his sentences like Bergeounette. She threw out the words as one throws a stone, and it always seemed that she was going to demolish something.
She rarely sang, though her voice was more beautiful than Bergeounette’s.
Since we were less in a hurry, she was less grumpy, and one day she said:
-The work should always be so regulated.
Mrs. Dalignac approached:
“I would like it like you,” she said, “but if I had sent the clients away, we would have nothing to do now and I would be forced to fire you too.
Bulldog scowled, then she went on:
-As we work more in the hurry, we deserve to earn more.
Madame Dalignac shook her head as if she knew something impossible, and Bergeounette laughed:
“Would you like to make a revolution, maybe?
Bulldog discovered his teeth, and his voice rolled a little to answer:
-The work should never be a pain.
I knew that Mrs. Dalignac was helpless against the demands of her clients, and that claiming the price of her ways was a big trouble for her. But what Bouledogue had just said seemed so right to me that I was about to prove him right, when Bergeounette preceded me:
-There is this one who will preach now.
It was not the first time she had reproached me, so I was confused and I just looked at Mrs. Dalignac.
The boss did not like the discussions. He turned away the ideas by asking Bergeounette a song from his country. And Bergeounette, who continued to laugh, sang a very old song of which she had often hummed the tune:
In the good old days,
My grandmother often tells me …
In the good old days,
A petticoat lasted a hundred years.
This made everyone laugh; but Madame Dalignac quickly resumed her anxious air. She stared at me in turn and said as if she was answering a reproach:
“My sentence is similar to yours, and my share of money is often the smallest.
She took back the three steps that separated her from her cutting table, still looking at me, and Bergeounette began another verse of her song.
The end of December brought back the off-season and we had to separate again.
Bulldog left the first to join a factory of canned food.
Until now, she had used her time of unemployment to make lingerie with a friend, but the friend had just gone abroad and Bulldogue did not know who to go for the same work.
It was she who made her grandmother live with whom she lived. Her gain was quickly spent, and the least lost days sentenced the two women to all privations.
She was after Sandrine the best worker in the workshop. It was not necessary to ask her for a new idea, nor to force her to dispose of the toppings to her liking, but when she had said, “I finished sewing the dress,” we could trust her, because she never forgot a point.
On the day of her departure, she turned her eyes to the empty planks, as if she had a bad grudge against them, and her voice rang out as she said:
-When grandmother did not eat enough to allow me to learn a nice job, she did not suspect that I would have to go to the factory anyway.
Sandrine was the only one who remained. Mrs. Dalignac shared with her the little work the clients were doing.
I left in my turn and, the next day, I entered a furrier who asked for workers for a helping hand.
The price I was offered was much higher than Mrs. Dalignac’s, so I paid full attention to this new work.
My fingers had little trouble handling the tiled needle, but I immediately felt great difficulty in breathing. Thousands and thousands of fine hairs escaped from the furs and flew into the air of the room.
An unbearable tickling took me by the throat, and I coughed constantly.
The others advised me to drink large glasses of water. But the cough started again a minute later. After a few hours I was seized with a violent nosebleed. And the same evening, the boss knocked me out:
-Go on in … You are good for nothing here.
The fear of long unemployment made me look for a new job.
I found him in a hospice where I applied myself with all my will. But here too I found a serious inconvenience. In front of the already dimly lit shop where I lined up with the other hitchhikers, men of all ages stopped at every moment. Some of them approached so close and stayed so long to bar the day, that I happened to no longer see the plot of threads and confuse my times. And despite my desire to do well, I had to leave to stop hearing the boss’s reproaches.
Weary of trying to employ myself according to my abilities, I decided to enter a house that had just left my old neighbor, Miss Herminie. It was about sewing strips of leather and flannel on rolls used for printing. It was a hard job that had to be done standing up and that had not taken three months to make hunchback Miss Herminie. I left it at the end of the first week, because I felt that I would become hunchback too.
Sandrine, whom I often met in the street, promised to come and spend my time in the studio instead of staying alone at home.
I found Bergeounette who had not stopped coming there. Her husband did not want to feed her or support her without doing anything at home; and, with each unemployment, it was between them endless battles.
She was strong and daring, and did not fear to fight with him. But here she received a bad blow that left her scared and trembling. Also to avoid arguments, she pretended to work part of the day. The work she had begun with her was not progressing. She was mostly looking out the window, and she always went down when the penguin passed.
I was so good in the workshop that I forgot the worries of unemployment.
Like Bergeounette, I brought my clothes to repair. It was linen without lace or trimmings, which she made fun of, and which made her say:
“It’s not worth repairing. You are mending here and it is torn there.
Like her too, I often approached the window and was surprised to see my eyes go over the rooftops instead of staring at the people passing through the avenue. She raised a finger to the sky and said to me maliciously:
-It is not from up there that he will come.
Sometimes I brought a book wrapped in the same paper as my snack bread. The boss was flipping through it and giving it back to me very quickly, with a grumbling tone:
-You have a passion for reading, hey?
This reproach had been addressed to me so often already that I made the habit of excusing myself by answering that I read only in lost time, or during the night, when I was not sleeping.
Despite the lack of work, Bergeounette kept her cheeks full, and her snack was as plentiful as in the past.
By cons I felt very depressed. My cheeks were digging at the jaws and my neck was no longer filling the collar of my bodice.
The boss teased me:
“Your nose is growing longer,” he said.
Sandrine laughed with me, and Bergeounette declared that reading was no better than dry bread.
I did not like Bergeounette very much. She could not bear to see me stay half a day without speaking or moving her feet, and she accused me of loving only silence.
Yet when she sang or told, I always listened with great pleasure, and many times, I had asked for the continuation of a story that the boss had interrupted.
My face did not like him either. She said we did not know how it was done. She was looking at hers in a little mirror, and when she made sure that it was still brown and solid, she was surprised that mine was sometimes pale and withered, as if I were sick, and sometimes glowing. freshness, as if I had the most beautiful health in the world. And although there was never a quarrel between us, we seemed separated by an obstacle which neither could ever cross.
Little Duretour was not long in coming to spend a few hours near us. But she did not bring anything to sew. His gaiety was enough to occupy him. She was having fun jumping from one foot to the other and she never stopped to tell the fine parts she was doing on Sunday with her fiance. She was singing actresses and dancers. Or she imitated the prepared gestures of a waiter, cutting a fowl. And while she pretended to cut the wire basket, holding her elbows in the air and her fingers in pigeon wings, she seemed to herself a delicate and very precious bird.
There were long discussions between her and Bergeounette about the dishes. Bergeounette spoke of sweetbreads, which she liked very much. But Duretour did not like sweetbreads. She said with a little grimace of disgust:
-It’s good for old people who do not have teeth anymore.
And she laughed, showing us hers, which were brighter than fine porcelain.
She talked about theaters and restaurants, with details that made the boss say:
veterinary emergency clinic
-It will eventually fall in size.
However, she had no desire for luxury. She even confessed to being often intimidated among the people outside.
His fiance was not more daring. One day when they had wanted to play the rich and had been driven to the Champs-Elysees, both had got out of their cars to watch the delicacies of a confectioner. But they had been so long in front of the shop that the coachman had fallen asleep in his seat. Neither of them had dared to disturb him, and they had paced the sidewalk waiting for him to wake up.
When Duretour had nothing new to teach us, she stuck her forehead against the window. But his attention did not stop on the passers-by nor on the extent of the sky above the roofs. She was interested only in burials, which parade all along the day in the Avenue du Maine.
As soon as she saw the hearse of the poor, all thin and light, who was advancing rapidly, jumping clumsily on the pavement, she said:
-Ha! here is the grasshopper.
But when a hearse full of plumes and flowers slowly ascended the avenue, she swelled her cheeks, to say with exaggerated respect:
-That’s a big death.
She was also trying to make signs to the masons across the way, but they did not take the time to look at the studio. The rain wet them continuously, and their red and blue belts disappeared under the plaster bags they attached to the shoulders.
It was their turn to be in a hurry. The trowels drew without stopping in the troughs full of mortar; and the stones were added and rapidly increased the height of the walls.
The dumpers still poured the millstone and the sand on the sidewalk, but now the stones rolled in the mud with a thud, and the winter wind prevented us from hearing the silky and cool sliding of the sand.