Outside, the rolling of cars was sprawling. It was now, on the avenue, the trampling of the groups returning from the midnight mass. And suddenly, two discordant voices rose to sing:
He is born, the divine child.
Gabielle laughed. All the faces took a look of contentment as the announcement of great joy and soon the workshop filled with chatter and song.
Almost all kept a Christmas in their memory. The great voice of Bulldog gave a boyish air that she had learned at school, and no one made fun of the one Roberte intoned in a most ridiculous way.
The sweet voice of Madame Dalignac also rose, and I myself remembered a Christmas in which we saw the Solognot shepherds leave their flock to bring presents to the divine child.
Sylvain wears him a lamb,
His grandson, a jar of milk
And two sparrows in a cage.
Robin brings him cake,
Pierrot brings him some cheese
And big John, a little calf.
The night was very late when the clothes were finished, but nobody made the remark. The stools were arranged with good humor, and the descent of the staircase was full of laughter.
A bright cold surprised us below. The bright, high moon lit up the avenue, as if someone had lit it on purpose for that festive night. And to finish the New Year’s Eve, Duretour dragged us into a happy round singing in his false voice the last words of my Christmas:
And our flocks, leave them there.
And our flocks, leave them there.
Since the day Clement had entered my little room, my old neighbor seemed to have forgotten the vineyards of her country to remember only her unhappy love. She spoke of it as a recent story, and when I happened to look at it by chance, I was always surprised to find her old.
She could not remember anything of her childhood. All her troubles and all her joys were from her eighteen years, as if life had really begun for her only at this age.
It was at that moment that love had entered his heart. He had entered it so deeply that nothing could drive him out of it and I saw it as a mysterious fire that kept warming it and preventing his lips from fading.
At the very beginning of her confidences, she had put a little bitterness into her accent, to say: “He saw us so coquettishly dressed, my sister and myself, that he imagined that we were rich; but when he knew that our parents would not even give us a wedding book, he turned away from me to marry another. ”
Her state of exaltation increased with the idea that I might one day become Clement’s wife. In the studio, she was on the lookout for everything Mrs. Dalignac could say about her nephew. And in the evening she did not always wait for us to be at home to tell me that she wanted this marriage with all her heart. She made plans about it, and if I happened to laugh about it, she was angry. Then she seemed to forget that it was my future and not hers, and soon she spoke of this marriage as a happiness due to her.
On this Christmas day our house looked like an open cage. The children escaped with cries of joy and the calls of the parents were lost in the continual tumble down the stairs.
For everyone it was a beautiful day of celebration, but for Miss Herminie, it was especially a day of beautiful memories.
He was just like this one, the Christmas that had seen his fiancé in his parents’ house, and just like today, the children were drumming and blowing loudly in tin trumpets. Our carefully prepared meal left her almost indifferent, she had so much to say.
I listened to him speak. A kind of youth made her cheeks red, and her wrinkles seemed less hollow.
However, when she had said all along the joy of that distant day, she brought my thoughts back to Clement.
We knew from Mrs. Dalignac that he would come on leave during the holidays and that he would take advantage of this time to talk about a very serious thing that would involve all his life.
The boss had made fun of Clement’s letter:
-You! it’s clear, he’ll tell you he’s in love with a beautiful girl and wants to get married.
Madame Dalignac had answered nothing, but her eyes had become fixed as if she were trying to see in the distance the beautiful girl her nephew had chosen.
Was it me? as he assured me during his visit, and as Mademoiselle Herminie so ardently desired. A doubt came to me. I had not seen Clement, although he had come several times on leave since that day. And if, in his letters to Madame Dalignac, he spoke of the workers, my name was not mentioned more often than that of Duretour or Bergeounette. I felt neither boredom nor joy. Nothing kept me away from Clement, but nothing attracted me to him either, and if he had not been Madame Dalignac’s nephew, I would have been quick to forget him.
Now that we had approached our chairs very close to the stove, Miss Herminie was still talking about her love. Her memories escaped one by one and made me think of pretty birds flying by the room. She herself was taking a wonderful form in my mind at once, so much did she put in the tone of her voice, and she seemed to me far from the present. She did not notice that the cold was hissing under the door and that he was trying to bite our legs. She did not want to grow the anger of the wind that carried hard snow and pushed gusts in the windows. And she did not see the darkness rise from all over the place to come slowly to us. She only looked at the little round stove that blushed from above. And when the lid had become like a ball of fire, and nothing was seen but him and the light he was putting on the ceiling, Miss Herminie stopped speaking and fell asleep.
I got up quietly to go to the window. On the well-lit boulevard, groups of people were hurrying, laughing and talking loudly. Their shadows were mingled at their feet and their umbrellas covered with snow seemed like huge flowers that a great wind would have swung. Above the roofs the night was not yet complete, but the sky was so low that I imagined I could touch it just by extending my hand a little. And there, far away, over the houses, a factory chimney threw a thick smoke that the wind was bending down and stretching towards me, heavy and black as a threat.
A call from Miss Herminie made me return to the stove:
“Do not let the fire go out,” she said.
I turned on the lamp first, and saw the old woman, all diminished, and shriveled in her chair. The red of her cheeks was gone and her wrinkles were deep in every corner of her mouth.
She paused for a while, then, when she tightened her skirts around her legs, she spoke again. But the memory of the beautiful memories was closed, and the one that opened now only contained complaints and regrets.
I turned on the fire, but the stove had made the lid blush once more, and Miss Herminie remained grave and melancholy.
Our holidays were to last only a week; so, despite the bad weather, I dragged my old neighbor every day to the promenade.
She did not pay much attention to the things on the street. She leaned on my arm, continuing to speak of her youth, and when she could find nothing to say about herself, she told the joys and pains of others. In our neighborhood there was only the boulevard Saint-Michel which made it attentive. She loved the noisy, cluttered sidewalks where young couples kissed while walking.
Outside this boulevard, it was mainly in Luxembourg that I drove it.
By those winter days the garden seemed to have become our property. Passers-by crossed it one way or the other, but no one stopped there. Nor should we think of stopping there. The wind blowing on the terrace lowered her head to Mlle Herminie and cut through her most beautiful stories in the middle. We were walking on an adventure, and most of the time, we did not go beyond the nursery whose paths were the best sheltered. Next door was the big wood, a wood where the trees kept the same distance and the grass had never grown between the pebbles. Everything was dark in color, the benches mingled with the earth and the branches, and the barrel house looked like an abandoned hut. Far off in the foggy alleys, gray shapes passed, crossed, and disappeared.
In the nursery the trees were not less black, and there remained only a semblance of verdure on the lawns, but the boxwood and charcoal preserved the full thickness of their summer foliage.
As soon as we entered, the sparrows recognized us. They arrived in groups in front of us and flew to us to take the bread we brought. The blackbirds stayed away and ran off fearfully as we approached, but the pigeons insisted on their share, and we followed as beggars. Like the benches in the garden, the birds were confused with the earth. Their beautiful bright hues, their beautiful smooth plumages had disappeared. The pigeons, especially, seemed to be dressed in used wool. They had lost their liveliness too, and were hopping around us cautiously. At our departure, they flew heavily to shelter in the corner of the branches. Some perched at the top of the trees, and in the evening they looked like old nests that the winter wind could not shed.
Only the iron chairs we met here and there did not mix with anything. All were alike in rust and wear; but each of them remained distinct as a living being.
Some fallen across the road seemed squatting like watch dogs, while others lying on their backs seemed ready to sleep for a long time.
In the middle of a group in a circle, one of them perched on her sister and swayed by the wind let out shrill cries that the others seemed to listen in silence.
Two lying face to face in the shelter of a massive seemed to speak to each other in a whisper, while a third, half hidden by a bench, leaned over them as if to surprise their secret.
There were some whose pose was so painful to see, that we could not help but straighten them.
Many were lonely and surprised us as mysterious beings. Well concealed against a tree, they seemed to rest only on the shoulder and raised one foot.
New Year’s Day was our last day of celebration; but the cold became so hard and the sky so full of clouds that Miss Herminie refused to go out. She brought home an old dilapidated chair that she struggled to put in place. Then, when she had sunk in to the point of not being able to get out without help, she said in a very clear tone:
-Now, I’m waiting for my presents.
The laughter that suddenly won us was prolonged, for no more than I could expect anyone to do so.
To ward off the bad luck of the new year, I had bought in the morning a small bouquet of violets, which we had shared with the most meticulous care. A violet escaped from the bouquet and fell to the ground during the sharing had even been the subject of a long discussion. I had wanted to join Miss Herminie in assuring her that she represented for her another year to live, but she had refused, claiming that the fallen flower was the share of destiny. And, without losing a minute, she had made him a tiny paper vase and put it in the most beautiful place of the fireplace.
Despite the cold, our house was no less noisy than at Christmas. The rabbits-drums, the bleating sheep and the rifles repeatedly made the same noise on the stairs. So, when I heard a knock on my door, I did not move, thinking that a child was knocking it by accident, but the blows were repeated with more force and I got up to open.
It was Madame Dalignac, a little out of breath from having gone upstairs too quickly.
Even before entering she asked me very quickly:
“Is it true that you want to marry Clement?
I remained forbidden and felt myself blush violently.
She barely waited and continued, lowering her forehead to me, which was far beyond mine.
-Tell. Is this really true?
All his tenderness, all his desire for happiness for his nephew burst so loudly in the trembling of his voice that I nodded without taking my eyes off his.
She let go of her pretty laugh towards the boss who arrived in his turn, and said:
-You see! Clement did not lie.
The first smile of the boss had been for his wife, but in the one he spoke to me afterwards there was a real satisfaction.
Clement also entered with a happy face.
He waddled a little in his beautiful military dress, but his gestures were well measured, and his gaze fell on me with great calm.
Mrs. Dalignac explained while making her husband sit down:
“It was this morning that Clement told us about you.
She added as if she apologized for coming:
-It was too serious, I could not wait until tomorrow your answer.
Clement did not stay long without saying anything. He was almost the only one to be heard during the time that followed. He exposed slowly and clearly his projects of installation and work, and, as he spoke of our future household, I realized that he had thought long.
I followed his words without losing a single one. From time to time my eyes met his, but the self-confidence that I found each time forced me to look for that of Mrs. Dalignac who remained a little supplicant and full of hope.
The day suddenly dropped and the snow began to fall. She swirled softly and lightly like fine down, and Miss Herminie pointed to it, saying as usual:
-The angels shake their wings.
Clement hardly lingered to look at the snow. The tapestry shop, well decorated and well-stocked where he already saw himself the master, absorbed all his attention. He warned me that our wedding would take place as soon as he returned from the regiment, and his eyes softened utterly when he said to me as he got up:
“You will be very useful to me in my profession, and I am sure you will not regret anything.
He was going to start another sentence; but the boss stopped him by making fun of him:
-Eh! You never know … Do not sing so fast … donque.
Clement laughed with us, and Madame Dalignac, who had risen at the same time as him, stretched out his hand to say to me:
-Come to me, he’s a good boy …
She was laughing softly. And all the joy that was in her seemed to spread around her.
Before leaving, Clément glanced quickly at most things as if he were counting them. Then he moved the two bunches of the morning that he found too close together, and after having smelled the solitary little violet, he took it and put it in the buttonhole of his tunic. He went out behind the boss and his wife, and as on the day he had come alone, I lingered for a long time on the banister.
I found Miss Herminie’s forehead glued to the window. She kept her eyes closed, and her hands clasped under her chin.
I remained silent beside her. In front of us the roofs began to hold the snow. The pottery of the fireplaces was lined up and seemed to press against each other to protect themselves from the cold. Among them the long sheet-chimneys rose under the hood of their weathercocks, and stubbornly turned towards us the entrance to their black pit.
Miss Herminie returned to her chair, and I to the little bench that brought me closer to her; however, the rest of the evening often found us in disagreement. And at bedtime, the poor old woman told me all saddened:
-Thanks are beautiful, but I do not know whether to rejoice or cry.
That night, I dreamed that Clement had brought me to the seat of a very small cart, where there was only room for one. I was so tight between him and the side that I was out of breath. Clement did not suspect anything. He held the guides with both hands and boldly launched the horse on a path all cluttered with cut wood. The car remained upright and the well-kept animal did not stumble, but now, at the turn of a little bridge, the road closed abruptly in dead-end, and before Clement could stop his horse, he was falling heavily and the cart was tumbling. Twice in a row I had this dream, and the second time I felt my limbs touch the earth so hard that I was afraid to go back to sleep. I sat up to escape sleep, and tried to recognize the noises outside. They had changed their sound. The voices of the retarded passers-by reached me without the shock of their footsteps, and I guessed the passage of the cabs without hearing the roll. Then the Notre-Dame-des-Champs church struck a blow that seemed very close and far away at once, as if the bell had been wrapped in cloth. So to stop the anxiety that was beginning to oppress me, I jumped off the bed and ran to the window.
It was the snow that was choking the sounds. She was not seen to fall; but it spread thick and white under the lights. And right there, on the sidewalk opposite, a bill of gas made the flakes turn around him like big white butterflies.
I went back to my bed. And for a long time, in the silence of the night, I followed the thought of the flight of the angels who shook their wings on Paris.
In the morning, when Miss Herminie woke me, an icy wind blew over the city. The weather had cleared up and thousands of little white clouds were leaping into the sky, flying high.
Downstairs, men ranged in line attacked the snow with broomsticks and all together pushed it down the drain, like a messy thing.