The great expanse of Paris under my window lit up that night with a thousand and one thousand lights. From place to place public monuments shone and increased clarity. Closer to me, the Notre-Dame-des-Champs church was all garlanded with colored lanterns, while the Montparnasse station was surrounded by a gas ramp that looked like a belt of white ribbon. And there, far above the city, a red glow descended slowly and seemed to slip from the sky like a broad silk curtain.
July 14 began his night party.
My old neighbor knocked at the door with my fingertips as she did every Saturday or every eve of a holiday, and her thin voice asked:
-Are you there, Marie-Claire?
I wanted to light the lamp, but she stopped me. She hit the table in the middle of the room, and fumbling for it, she took the chair I was putting her. Just sitting, she says:
-Here! I’m finished. My last client just went to the sea.
There was a great contentment in his accent.
But immediately after, she had a fearful tone to say that she was going to stay two months without gaining anything.
And as if she saw at once all the privations of unemployment, she made very low:
Ah! my God!
Miss Herminie was over seventy, and her body was so small that it could be compared to that of a thirteen-year-old girl.
She made a mockery of her life, but most of the time she was forced to stay at home because of her stomach pain. During the summer holidays, she often lacked what was needed and it was a miracle that she could continue to live.
Now she was holding one hand on the window sill, and her other hand was a little light place on her black dress.
In my turn, I spoke of the departure of Dalignac and the long unemployment that awaited me. And she was still very low:
Ah! my God!
Noises full of gaiety rose from the neighboring streets and from the boulevard. It seemed as if all these noises could be recognized by meeting each other and mingling happily to burst with more force.
On all sides rockets rushed and blossomed beneath the stars as Bengal fires lit and smoked in the dark corners.
Then the music of a ball in the open air was heard. The sounds clashed with the houses and we arrived half broken. And from time to time, a flag that could not be seen slammed abruptly.
We were silent. The fresh air that came from the sunset touched our faces and brought us as an appeasement. And for a long time, a very long time on the night of celebration, my old neighbor remained near me listening to the noise made by the joy of others.
The first week of vacation seemed sweet. It was as if every day had been a Sunday. Miss Herminie found that we did not have much time to do nothing, and she no longer complained of her stomach.
She wanted to take me for a walk, but she was no more than I used to walk.
We hastened as if to get to work, and we returned tired and bored of the crowding of the streets. Also, after a few days, when one asked: “Let’s go out today?” The other answered:
-We are good here.
And our days were spent cleaning and mending.
Miss Herminie had a lively and cheerful mind, but she never suited her wrongs.
The day I pointed out to her that she always found the right word for her defense, she replied:
-When one is weak in body, one must have solid language.
Her jokes made me laugh, and I did not care about the rough looks she sometimes took.
She feared death more than anything, and no misery or suffering could make her want it. In ordinary times, she rebelled against the disease, but as soon as she felt worse, she became scared and said:
“I do not mind suffering, as long as I live.
I was very comfortable with her, we were almost always in agreement, our different ages were confused, and we felt young or old, depending on whether there was laughter or sadness between us.
To reduce our expenses, it occurred to us to take our meals together. The kitchen was not difficult to do; we ate mostly potatoes and beans. Every other day, Miss Herminie ate a narrow and flat chop that I was grilling on the embers of the small furnace. It often happened that the cutlet served him for both meals. She detached the middle and pushed the rest on her plate saying:
-I keep the bone for tonight.
She spent an infinite time eating the bites she cut as small as for a toddler. His jaw had only two teeth, long and useless, coming out from below, at each corner of the mouth, which made me think of the fence of a field where there would have remained only two worm-eaten stakes and badly plumb.
The heat came with the month of August. We kept open the door and the window; in spite of that there were hours when the heat was so heavy that we would sit on the steps of the stairs in the hope of a draft.
Miss Herminie was suffering especially at night. She was choking in her room all length. Her window sank so deeply between two sections of wall, that she herself seemed to want to flee this narrow room.
The old woman had a real hatred for those two sections of wall that went down to the middle of the room. She spoke to them like living and evil beings, and when I laughed at her anger, she said with angry eyes:
-It is they who prevent the air from entering here.
She had lived there for more than thirty years, and nothing had ever changed. His bedstead disassembled and broken on the day of the move remained in a corner while awaiting repair. His bed-table laid on the floor and hollowed in the middle held the mattress that sank into the hole. She laughed and said:
-What it is, there is no danger that I fall from bed.
There was also an old ice cabinet that was hiding behind the door. It had been necessary to cut off her feet so that she could enter.
It made her look miserable and ridiculous, and it always seemed to me that this closet was on her knees so as not to bang her head on the ceiling.
Mlle Herminie lived as much at home as at home. If my room was not much bigger than hers, it was much less crowded, and nothing prevented from approaching the window.
In the evening we heard the neighbors go down to get some fresh air on the boulevard.
We had tried to do as they did, but the dust from cars and pedestrians made the air look thicker and more uncomfortable than at the top. It was still here that we were the best.
The open door let the light of the gas from the staircase through, and when our neighbors were coming up, the shadow of their heads always entered the room as if she were coming to look at what was happening there.
When we had nothing to say and we were tired of silence, my old neighbor forced me to sing one of Bergeounette’s most beautiful romances:
A beautiful ship with a rich hull …
I sang it very low, for us only two. Miss Herminie continued with me at the chorus:
If you see him, tell him I adore him.
Her thin, trembling voice was not above the window.
Sometimes the evenings were getting longer. It was when each of us talked about his country.
Miss Herminie spoke of hers as something of her own and she should have owned all her life.
His voice grew strong enough to name towns and villages all surrounded by vines and which could be seen from the top of the Saint-Jacques coast as far as the eye could see. She had not forgotten the sound of the presses and the smell of the new wine that was spreading throughout the city at the time of the harvest. She also kept a cheerful memory of the noisy arguments of the pickers:
-Oh! She said. At home boys fight first, then they explain themselves, and everything is arranged.
She had not returned to her country since she left him. But his greatest desire was to see him again. She often said to me:
“You see, Marie-Claire, those who have not seen Burgundy do not know what a beautiful country is.
And as if she were suddenly transported there, she found new corners that she described to me carefully. I listened to her, and it seemed to me that none of the paths she indicated to me were unknown to me. I went up with her the Saint-Jacques coast which gave a wine so marvelous that the children drank it only on the big feast days. I walked through the vines, which became so yellow in the autumn that the country looked all gold, and I entered the immense cellars where the barrels were lined up and spread out in hundreds.
Mademoiselle Herminie had a little contempt for her customers who went to the sea instead of going to Burgundy, and she pitied me for the idea that my Sologne only produced fir trees and buckwheat.
I felt it for myself as a greater poverty, and in front of the riches which she had just displayed, and which surrounded me on all sides, I dared not speak any more about the heathered flowers nor the coolness of the roads. full of shadow of my country.
From the second week of vacation, we had to reduce our expenses.
We had removed the morning breakfast and the midday cup of coffee. Then the evening soup was suppressed and replaced by dry bread.
Miss Herminie began to complain about her stomach, and sometimes she confessed in the morning:
-That night, I drank a big glass of water to cheat my hunger.
On Sunday, the stairwell filled with kitchen smells; it smelled of hot meat, golden dough and strong wines.
We rejoiced as if we had taken part in the feast. And my old neighbor said all satisfied:
-Luckily, there are some who eat.
One afternoon Clement showed himself in the open door. He did not have his soldier’s suit and it took me a moment to recognize him. He entered without hesitation, reaching out his hand, and he made a vague gesture when I inquired about the reason for his visit.
I felt a little bored to see him there, and I withdrew my hand, which he kept still too long.
Miss Herminie had risen immediately to return home, and as Clement seemed to want to take his place, I moved away from the chair and stood at the window.
He approached it to lean on the grab bar, and he began several sentences without finishing them, then his fingers moved impatiently, and suddenly he seized the epaulette of my apron saying:
-Here! I find you very pretty, me.
I was so surprised that I looked up quickly at him.
He did not lower his, but his eyes showed worry. Her eyelids went up and discovered a lot of white above the eyeball.
He went on pulling harder on the shoulder pad of my apron:
-Yes, I find you very pretty.
His way of leaning on the words made it clear that he alone could think that way, but that the opinion of others did not matter to him.
He paused for a moment and his voice started to be heard again. He spoke like people who are eager to be approved. He united in one our two futures as to better hold them in his hand and direct them as he pleased. But as he exposed to me what our life would be like when I became his wife, I forgot his presence, and I could not even hear the sound of his voice.
The houses and the streets were also erased, heather and firs rose in their place. And there, in front of me, in the middle of a bush of holly and wild hazel trees, a man stood motionless and looked at me.
I recognized her broad and gentle eyes, whose eyes did not separate from the eyelids, and which seemed like two fearful birds coming to rest on me with confidence. Then the eyes and the heather turned into precious stones and scattered over the roofs, while Clement said, raising his voice:
“I see you do not love me. But what does it do? You will love me when we are married.
I wanted to answer him, but he held his face so close to mine, that it seemed to me that there would not be enough room for my words. His breath made my cheeks warm, and his hand was heavy on my shoulder.
I found myself with him near the stairs, not knowing how we had come. He leaned against the rail for a moment before saying:
-I’m not mean.
He hesitated a little to add:
-And you’re not happy, it shows.
When he had descended a dozen steps he turned around and smiled at me as if we agreed in everything and for everything. And as he walked away, I saw that his neck was solid and well placed between his shoulders.
Miss Herminie did not ask me a question. She only says with a smile:
-I forgot you were old enough to be married.
The fixed eyes of Clement reappeared before me, and I answered immediately:
-I do not like anybody.
Miss Herminie returned her smile. She raised her badly rounded chin, and in a voice I did not know, she said:
Children bring so much happiness that painful memories quickly disappear.
I shook my head in doubt. Then she spread her arms trying to straighten her bust stiffer than wood, and, as if exposed to the eyes of the whole world, she said with a laugh full of irony:
-Watch me then … The memory of my lost love seemed to me more precious than anything.
Her face expressed immense regret, and for the first time I saw that her lips were still full and very fresh.
She let her lean arms fall, adding dully:
-It’s like a dead thing … and the others are moving away from you.
The evening ended in silence and I went to bed exhausted, as if I had walked for hours on a bad road.
My sleep was not good either.
I dreamed that a hurricane was taking me to the air. I gathered all my strength to resist the fury of the winds; but their swirls tore my clothes off one by one, and large drops of rain froze my undressed body.
My tranquility went away. My open door gave me constant anxiety, and so as not to get bored, I decided to look for work while waiting for Madame Dalignac’s return.
Every morning I went to places where I could find posters. There I met young girls who like me had hollow cheeks and used clothes. There were also young women with children on their arms. The little ones scratched dirty papers and put pieces in their mouths.
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Sometimes a kid of thirteen to fourteen would stop by the way. He smiled at the young mothers and looked at the young girls boldly, then, he raised himself to write in blue pencil on the white part of the posters, and he put his hands in his pockets whistling and dragging his feet on the sidewalk. And behind him we could read:
A good worker for Adam’s costume.
The young mothers laughed loudly and went away, blowing up their babies at the end of their arms.
At the posters of the Porte Saint-Denis, I found the pretty maid with her cap and her white apron. She watched the workers and spoke to them as if she had places to offer them. Some looked at her with suspicion and went away without wanting to hear it, while others seemed enchanted with what she offered them.
I saw her come to me with a little fear.
I thought of the eyes of those who had not been near, and I wanted to run to escape him.
She said to me kindly:
-My boss has work for all girls. She is not demanding and pays very well.
I felt reassured, but I remembered Bulldog’s rough hands, and asked:
-Is it a job that damages your fingers?
The laugh she gave me shocked me and I explained everything intimidated:
-I am a seamstress and I do not want to enter a factory.
“That’s good,” she says, “my boss needs a seamstress.
The dimples of her cheeks were growing as if she held back a new desire to laugh. However, she became serious again by taking from her pocket a business card. But before handing it to me she hurriedly asked, as if she had forgotten to ask the question earlier:
“Are not you married, at least?
The sharp look she attached to me brought back all my fears and I replied:
-Marriage for real?
I had answered so quickly that I was amazed; but at the same time I felt a satisfaction as when I happened to jump aside so as not to be overthrown by a cab.
The look of the pretty maid searched my whole face, then he went down on the thin circle of gold that I carried in his left hand, and when he got up, he was charged with a deep contempt for my whole person . She put the card back in her apron pocket and headed for another girl.
As I slowly returned through the streets, Clement’s image seemed to be walking in front of me. It was to him that I had thought in replying that I was married, and now his strong shoulders appeared to me as something against which I could rely safely. Her last words came back to my memory: “I’m not mean, and you’re not happy either.”
Then it was his loud voice of the festive dinner that came to sing in my ear.
The beginning of a couplet especially obsessed me:
I wanted to heal his wound,
I opened his white uniform.
No, he must not be mean, and he had grown up with Madame Dalignac.
As I went upstairs, Miss Herminie’s words also turned around my head: “We are like a dead thing, and the others are moving away from you.”
She was waiting for me like every day. Her affectionate smile and her pure gaze made me forget the coarse laughter and piercing eyes of the pretty maid, and I could not explain my fears about her.
Miss Herminie did not understand my suspicion either, and the rest of the day was spent for us both to regret that patroness who was not demanding and who was paying very well.
The next day I found work with a woman childrens entrepreneur. She confided the little dresses to women workers who had a sewing machine at home, but she demanded a certificate of residence signed by the Commissioner.
I came back all merry, though I had no more certificate than a sewing machine. I knew that Mme. Dalignac would not refuse to lend me that of the workshop. And to celebrate the good news, I prepared a good milk soup for our dinner.