That day, like every morning at work, the Avenue du Maine was filled with people walking precipitately and overloaded trams that ran at high speed to the center of Paris.
Despite the crowd, I saw Sandrine right away. She too was taking the plunge and I had to run to catch her.
It was a Monday. Our summer unemployment ended, and we returned to the workshop to begin the winter season.
Bulldog and little Duretour were waiting for us on the sidewalk, and the tall Bergeounette, whom we could see coming across, crossed the avenue without worrying about cars in order to reach us sooner.
For a few minutes there was a happy chat in our group. Then the four floors were mounted quickly. And while the others took their places around the table, I went to sit in front of the sewing machine, all near the window. Bulldog was the last seat. She breathed through her nose as usual, and immediately the work in hand, she said:
-Now it will take hard work to please everyone.
The boss’s husband looked at her closely, answering:
-Well … Say if you’re grumbling already!
It was always him who made the recommendations or the reproaches. So the workers called her the boss, while they spoke of the boss only by calling her Madame Dalignac.
Bulldog grumbled for everything and for nothing.
When she was not happy, she had a way of frowning at the nose that was lifting her lip and discovering all her teeth, which were strong and white.
It often happened that the boss quarreled with her; but Madame Dalignac always brought peace by saying softly to them:
-Let’s … stay quiet.
The boss’s anger did not look like Bulldog at all. They were as fast as they came. Without preparation or warning, he rushed towards the worker to reprimand, and for a minute he cried strangling himself, suppressing half of the words he had to say.
This manner of speech annoyed the great Bergeounette, who mocked and mumbled in a whisper:
-What a gibberish!
The boss was the first to laugh at his anger, and as if to apologize, he said:
-I am alive.
And he added sometimes with a little pride:
-I am from the Pyrenees.
It was he who embroidered the coats and dresses of the clients. He was dexterous and meticulous, but after a few hours of work he became all yellow and seemed crushed with fatigue.
His wife touched him on the shoulder, saying:
-Rest yourself, go.
He then stopped his heavy machine, then he recoiled his stool, to lean against the wall; and there remained long moments without stirring or talking.
There was between the bosses and the workers as a friendly association. Madame Dalignac was not afraid to ask for advice in the workshop, and the workers gave her their full confidence.
As for the boss, if he shouted at the top of his voice to give us the slightest explanation, he spoke quite differently to his wife. He took his advice for the smallest things and never thwarted it.
Mrs. Dalignac was a little older than her husband. This could be seen in her hair, which was graying at the temples; but his face remained very young, and his laugh was as fresh as that of a little girl.
She was tall and well made, too, but she had to look at her expressly to see it, so much did she always seem oblivious and distant. She spoke softly and calmly; and if it happened that she was obliged to reproach someone, she would blush and bewildered as if she were herself the culprit.
The boss had a tenderness of admiration for his wife, and he often told us:
-Nobody is like her.
As soon as she went out, he would go to the window to see her go from one sidewalk to the next, and if she was slow to come back, he would watch her and become anxious.
In those moments, the workers knew that nothing should be asked of her.
Today the hope of work brought joy to the workshop. It was only a question of a new client whose payments would be safe because she had a large business and would give us a lot of work because she had five daughters.
The boss urged his wife to go and get the stuffs announced:
“Quick, quick,” he said.
And he was moving so hard that he hit the mannequins and the stools.
Mrs. Dalignac laughed, and everyone did the same.
The sun seemed to laugh with us too. He was shining through the glass and was trying to land on the wire basket and the sewing machine. His heat was still very mild, and Bergeounette opened the window wide enough for him to enter at his ease.
On the other side of the avenue, the walls of a house under construction were coming out of the ground. Sounds of stones and wood were mingled as they came up to us, and the red and blue belts of the masons showed themselves through the scaffoldings.
At all times, dumpers of rubble and sand poured out. The rubble rolled with a clear noise, and the sliding of the sand made one think of the summer wind in the foliage of the chestnut trees. Then they were loaders loaded with cut stones that arrived. We heard them coming from far away. The carters were shouting. The whips were chattering, and the horses were pulling at full length.
As soon as his wife was gone, the owner had Little Duretour help him, to get rid of the planks of rags and put things in order everywhere.
Little Duretour was not a very good workman in spite of her eighteen years, but Mme. Dalignac kept her because of her great gaiety. She always took things on the right side, and her enthusiasm often kept us from feeling tired.
She was the one shopping and opening the door to the customers. Her height was so small and her hair so neglected that many took her for an apprentice. That hurt her a little and made her say:
-When I am married, they will still take me for a little girl.
Her fiance was not much older than her. Every night he would come and wait for her on the way out, and both of them would not have more room than one on the sidewalk.
Now she emptied the lockers and brushed the planks. From time to time, she threw a packet in the air and caught it like a ball, or she amused herself by distorting the names of the clients by bowing to the models. It was above all Madame Belauzaud and Pellofy who received her compliments. She bowed low, looking delighted:
-Hello, Mrs. Bel-bird.
-Hello, Madam Shovel.
The laughter was coming out of the window, and the masons opposite were looking up to see where they were coming from.
I was the last in the house.
I had entered it shortly before the dead summer season, and though all had been good comrades for me, a timidity prevented me from taking part in their gaiety. However, since I was in Paris, it was the first workshop where I felt comfortable. The boss’s quarrelsome voice scarcely scared me, and his wife’s gentleness gave me great tranquility.
When I arrived, the boss immediately cut my name in half. His cheeks were swollen to accentuate the mockery as he said:
-Marie Claire? Two names at once? Hey … you’re awesome, you.
And, rejecting his breath as if he were moving something too complicated away from him, he added in a serious tone:
-You will be called Marie. That will be enough.
But that was not enough. I answered the name so badly that it was necessary to return to mine its first form.
Madame Dalignac returned sooner than expected. She brought back an enormous cardboard whose lid was raised despite the strings that held it.
The boss hastened to open it. He touched the fabrics with a small grimace of contentment.
“Silk, nothing but silk,” he said. His wife pushed him away:
-Leave … you’re going to confuse everything.
Then speaking to us:
-It’s for a wedding.
She made sure that the cardboard rested entirely on the table and she went out one by one, the pieces of cloth, by designating their use.
– A black dress for the mother of the bride … Two blue dresses for the big sisters … Pink dresses for the little sisters … And black lace, and white lace, and pieces of ribbon, and taffeta for linings, and satins for petticoats …
She carefully took out the last fabric carefully folded in paper:
-And here is some crepe de chine for the bride’s dress.
And without taking the time to take off her coat, she drew a mannequin and took the stuffs with both hands to drape them around the bust. She unfolded the lace and arranged it, she turned the ribbons in shell on her fingers and pricked them with a pin. Then she threw the whole thing on the table and it was soon nothing more than a jumble of any color.
My four companions had stopped sewing and watched with interest. Their eyes went from one color to another and their hands moved forward to touch the laces and silky fabrics.
Suddenly the clock began to ring.
Bulldog rose, saying gruffly:
-It is noon.
It was true, but the morning had passed so quickly that no one knew it was time to go to lunch.
The others laid down their work and rose slowly as if reluctantly.
The afternoon was full of excitement. Duretour, mounted on a stool, garnished the boards with a gray paper which the patron passed to him, after having cut off the strips of the necessary size.
When the boss did not give the papers fast enough, Duretour took the opportunity to turn and dance on his stool; then she opened and closed her arms, shouting like a merchant at the fair:
-Gowns and coats, dresses and coats.
It made us laugh and the boss said indulgently:
“If only you could do them, my poor Duretour.
The masons opposite were whistling like free birds. They had finally discovered the workshop and they were doing their best to get our attention. One of them called all the names of young girls who came to the idea, while another hit an iron frame with a heavy hammer. And each time a laugh broke out or one of us showed up a little at the window, the calls redoubled, and the frame sounded like a bell.
Towards evening, the boss’s sister entered the studio. She was a bold-looking woman. She was a seamstress too, and she was called Madame Doublé.
She sat down on the boss’s stool and said scornfully:
-All people already working?
His brother replied, looking upset:
-I am sure you have not finished resting, you!
She gestured to throw something over her shoulder:
-Oh! me, I do like clients, I go to the sea baths, and I came back only this morning.
The boss showed him the fabrics:
“We have work,” he said.
Madame Doublé became attentive, and her eyebrows drew nearer.
She had black eyes like those of her brother, but her eyes were full of audacity and firmness. His mouth was reminiscent of that of the boss, but his lips seemed made of a hard material that prevented them from distending themselves for the smile. She walked without grace, beating her breast, and one would have said that she bore something satisfied about her whole person.
At his entrance, Madame Dalignac’s face had changed its expression. While cutting her taffeta, she nibbled her lip like the people who have a preoccupation, and one could hear more the dry and creaking sound of her scissors.
Madame Doublé continued:
“It’s alright, you’re crazy, Baptiste, to have all your workers at the beginning of the season.
She pointed at me:
-You did not need to pick up that one.
The boss seemed embarrassed. He answered without looking at me:
-She needs to make a living like us.
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Madame Doublé laughed. She seemed to be humming when she said, tapping on her brother’s shoulder:
-Eh! yes, poor Baptiste! but I prefer that money be in my pocket than in that of others.
Bulldog and Sandrine lowered their heads and sewed faster. Little Duretour had become serious, and I myself felt an uneasiness, which made me long for Madame Double’s departure. Only the great Bergeounette seemed to fear nothing and continued to take an interest in the masons across the way, who were making a big noise as they left the building site.
The boss was trying to talk about something else, but his sister always came back to the same subject. She found that Ms. Dalignac lacked firmness with her clients and severity with her workers. She asked for specific details about the work and found fault with everything.
The boss ends up showing annoyance:
“My wife is not a policeman like you,” he said.
And Madame Doublé, who had the same accent as her brother, replied:
-Well, well … well, so.
And she stood up, looking at everyone with insolence.
“It is seven o’clock, Bulldog,” said Madame Dalignac suddenly.
It was perhaps the first time that Bulldog forgot the time. She got up quickly and undid her apron before putting away her work. The others also got up in haste. They passed the door noiselessly. But just out, they were heard tumbling down the stairs as if they were fleeing danger.
I found them downstairs, grouped as in the morning in front of the porte-cochere; but their faces were very different. The pretty eyes of little Duretour showed real anger:
“She spoiled our beautiful day,” she said.
Sandrine affirmed while approaching me:
-It is very hard for her workers.
She drew closer again, lowering her voice.
-You will see her come back when the wedding dresses are made. Every season, she comes to take our most beautiful models, and she boasts of making them pay dearly to her customers.
The great Bergeounette uttered a funny laugh, and said all in the air, without care to be listened to:
-It does not have the same to know how to bring the money in its trunk.
Bulldog grunted, showing his teeth:
-I would not work at home, even if I was very hungry.
The arrival of Duretour’s fiancé obliged us to separate, and each one went away with his rancor.