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A Chambermaid's Diary By Octave Mirbeau Characters: 15293

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

September 15.

I have not yet written a single time the name of my masters. It is a ridiculous and comical name: Lanlaire; Monsieur and Madame Lanlaire. You see at once the plays that can be made on such a name, and the jokes to which it is bound to give rise. As for their Christian names, they are, perhaps, more ridiculous than their surname, and, if I may say so, they complete it. That of Monsieur is Isidore; that of Madame, Euphrasie. Euphrasie! Think of it!

I have just been to the haberdasher's to match some silk. And the woman who keeps the shop has given me some information as to the house. It is not delightful. But, to be just, I must say that I have never met such a chattering jade. If the dealers of whom my masters buy speak in this way of them, what must be said of them by those whom they do not patronize? My! but they have good tongues in the country.

Monsieur's father was a manufacturer of cloths, and a banker, at Louviers. He went into a fraudulent bankruptcy that emptied all the little purses of the region, and was condemned to ten years' imprisonment, which, in view of the forgeries, abuses of confidence, thefts, and crimes of all sorts, that he had committed, was deemed a very light sentence. While he was serving his time at Gaillon, he died. But he had taken care to put aside, and in a safe place, it seems, four hundred and fifty thousand francs, which, artfully withheld from the ruined creditors, constitute Monsieur's entire personal fortune. Ah! you see, it is no trick at all to be rich.

Madame's father was much worse, although he was never sentenced to imprisonment, and departed this life respected by all the respectable people. He was a dealer in men. The haberdasher explained to me that, under Napoleon III, when everybody was not obliged to serve in the army, as is the case to-day, the rich young men who were drawn by lot for service had the right to send a substitute. They applied to an agency or to a Monsieur who, in consideration of a premium varying from one to two thousand francs, according to the risks at the time, found them a poor devil, who consented to take their place in the regiment for seven years, and, in case of war, to die for them. Thus was carried on in France the trade in whites, as in Africa the trade in blacks. There were men-markets, like cattle-markets, but for a more horrible butchery. That does not greatly astonish me. Are there, then, none to-day? What, I should like to know, are the employment-bureaus and the public houses, if not slave-fairs, butcher-shops for the sale of human meat?

According to the haberdasher, it was a very lucrative business, and Madame's father, who had a monopoly of it for the entire department, showed great skill in it,-that is to say, he kept for himself and put in his pocket the larger part of the premium. Ten years ago he died, mayor of Mesnil-Roy, substitute justice of the peace, councillor-general, president of the board of vestrymen, treasurer of the charity bureau, decorated, and leaving, in addition to the Priory, which he had bought for nothing, twelve hundred thousand francs, of which six hundred thousand went to Madame,-for Madame has a brother who has gone to the bad, and they do not know what has become of him. Well, say what you will, that is money that can hardly be called clean, if, indeed, there be any clean money. For my part, it is very simple; I have seen nothing but dirty money and wicked wealth.

The Lanlaires-is it not enough to disgust you?-have, then, more then a million. They do nothing but economize, and they spend hardly a third of their income. Curtailing everything, depriving others and themselves, haggling bitterly over bills, denying their words, recognizing no agreements save those that are written and signed, one must keep an eye on them, and in business affairs never open the door for any dispute whatever. They immediately take advantage of it, to avoid payment, especially with the little dealers who cannot afford the costs of a lawsuit, and the poor devils who are defenceless. Naturally, they never give anything, except from time to time to the church, for they are very pious. As for the poor, they may die of hunger before the door of the Priory, imploring and wailing. The door remains always closed.

"I even believe," said the haberdasher, "that, if they could take something from the beggar's sack, they would do it remorselessly, with a savage joy."

And she added, by way of a monstrous example:

"All of us here who earn our living with difficulty, when giving hallowed bread, buy cake for the purpose. It is a point of propriety and pride. They, the dirty misers, they distribute,-what? Bread, my dear young woman. And not first-class bread at that, not even white bread. No, workman's bread. Is it not shameful,-people as rich as they are? Why, one day the wife of Paumier, the cooper, heard Madame Lanlaire say to the priest, who was mildly reproaching her for this avarice: 'Monsieur le curé, that is always good enough for these people.'"

One must be just, even with his masters. Though there is only one voice in regard to Madame, they have nothing against Monsieur. They do not detest Monsieur. All agree in declaring that Monsieur is not proud, that he would be generous to people, and would do much good, if he could. The trouble is that he cannot. Monsieur is nothing in his own house,-less than the servants, badly treated as they are, less than the cat, to whom everything is allowed. Little by little, and for the sake of tranquillity, he has abrogated all his authority as master of the house, all his dignity as a man, into the hands of his wife. Madame directs, regulates, organizes, administers everything. Madame attends to the stable, to the yard, to the garden, to the cellar, and to the wood-house, and is sure to find something amiss everywhere. Never do things go to her liking, and she continually pretends that they are being robbed. What an eye she has! It is inconceivable. They play her no tricks, be sure, for she knows them all. She pays the bills, collects the dividends and rents, and makes the bargains. She has the devices of an old bookkeeper, the indelicacies of a corrupt process-server, the ingenious strategy of a usurer. It is incredible. Of course, she holds the purse, and ferociously; and she never loosens the strings, except to let in more money. She leaves Monsieur without a sou; the poor man has hardly enough to buy his tobacco. In the midst of his wealth, he is even more destitute than the rest of us here. However, he does not balk; he never balks. He obeys like the comrades. Oh! how queer he is at times, with his air of a tired and submissive dog! When, Madame being out, there comes a dealer with a bill, a poor man with his poverty, a messenger who wants a tip, you ought to see Monsieur. Monsieur is really a comical sight. He fumbles in his pockets, gropes about, blushes, apologizes, and says, with a sorrowful face:

"Why, I have no change about me. I have only thousand-franc bills. Have you change for a thousand francs? No? Then you will have to call again."

Thousand-franc bills, he, who never has a hundred sous about him. Even his letter-paper Madame keeps locked in a closet, of which she holds the key, and she gives it out to him sheet by sheet, grumbling:

"Thank you, but you use a tremendous amount of paper. To whom, then, can you be writing that you use so much?"

The only thing that they reproach him with, the only thing that they do not understand, is the undignified weakness in consequence of which he allows himself to be led in this way

by such a shrew. For no one is ignorant of the fact-indeed, Madame shouts it from the house-top-that Monsieur and Madame are no longer anything to each other. Madame, who has some internal disease and can have no children, will not allow him to approach her.

"Then," asked the haberdasher, in finishing her conversation, "why is Monsieur so good and so cowardly toward a woman who denies him not only money, but pleasure? I would bring him to his senses, and rudely, too."

And this is what happens. When Monsieur, who is a vigorous man, and who is also a kindly man, wishes to enjoy himself away from home, or to bestow a little charity upon a poor man, he is reduced to ridiculous expedients, to clumsy excuses, to not very dignified loans, the discovery of which by Madame brings on terrible scenes,-quarrels that often last for months. Then Monsieur is seen going off through the fields, walking, walking, like a madman, making furious and threatening gestures, crushing the turf beneath his feet, talking to himself, in the wind, in the rain, in the snow; and then coming back at night more timid, more bowed, more trembling, more conquered than ever.

The curious, and also the melancholy, part of the matter is that, amid the worst recriminations of the haberdasher, among these unveiled infamies, this shameful vileness, which is hawked from mouth to mouth, from shop to shop, from house to house, it is evident that the jealousy of the town's-people toward the Lanlaires is even greater than their contempt for them. In spite of their criminal uselessness, of their social wrong-doing, in spite of all that they crush under the weight of their hideous million, this million none the less surrounds them with a halo of respectability, and almost of glory. The people bow lower to them than to others, and receive them more warmly than others. They call-with what fawning civility!-the dirty hovel in which they live in the filth of their soul, the chateau. To strangers coming to inquire concerning the curiosities of the region I am sure that the haberdasher herself, hateful though she is, would answer:

"We have a beautiful church, a beautiful fountain, and, above all, we have something else very beautiful,-the Lanlaires, who possess a million and live in a chateau. They are frightful people, and we are very proud of them."

The worship of the million! It is a low sentiment, common not only to the bourgeois, but to most of us also,-the little, the humble, the penniless of this world. And I myself, with my frank ways and my threats to break everything, even I am not free from this. I, whom wealth oppresses; I, who owe to it my sorrows, my vices, my hatreds, the bitterest of my humiliations, and my impossible dreams, and the perpetual torment of my life,-well, as soon as I find myself in presence of a rich man, I cannot help looking upon him as an exceptional and beautiful being, as a sort of marvellous divinity, and, in spite of myself, surmounting my will and my reason, I feel rising, from the depths of my being, toward this rich man, who is very often an imbecile, and sometimes a murderer, something like an incense of admiration. Is it not stupid? And why? Why?

On leaving this dirty haberdasher, and this strange shop, where, by the way, it was impossible for me to match my silk, I reflected with discouragement upon all that this woman had told me about my masters. It was drizzling. The sky was as dirty as the soul of this dealer in pinchbeck. I slipped along the slimy pavement of the street, and, furious against the haberdasher and against my masters, and against myself, furious against this country sky, against this mud, in which my heart and my feet were splashing, against the incurable sadness of the little town, I kept on repeating to myself:

"Well, here is a clean place for you! I had seen everything but this. A nice hole I have fallen into!"

* * *

Ah! yes, a nice hole indeed! And here is something more.

Madame dresses herself all alone, and does her own hair. She locks herself securely in her dressing-room, and it is with difficulty that I can obtain an entrance. God knows what she does in there for hours and hours! This evening, unable to restrain myself, I knocked at the door squarely. And here is the little conversation that ensued between Madame and myself:

"Tac, tac!"

"Who is there?"

Ah! that sharp, shrill voice, which one would like to force back into her throat with one's fist!

"It is I, Madame."

"What do you want?"

"I come to do the dressing-room."

"It is done. Go away. And come only when I ring for you."

That is to say that I am not even the chambermaid here. I do not know what I am here, and what my duties are. And yet, to dress and undress my mistresses and to do their hair is the only part of my work that I like. I like to play with night-gowns, with dresses and ribbons, to dabble among the linens, the hats, the laces, the furs, to rub my mistresses after the bath, to powder them, to rub their feet with pumice-stone, to perfume their breasts, to oxygenize their hair, to know them, in short, from the tips of their slippers to the peak of their chignon, to see them all naked. In this way they become for you something else than a mistress, almost a friend or an accomplice, often a slave. One inevitably becomes the confidant of a heap of things, of their pains, of their vices, of their disappointments in love, of the inner secrets of the household, of their diseases. To say nothing of the fact that, when one is adroit, one holds them by a multitude of details which they do not even suspect. One gets much more out of them. It is at once profitable and amusing. That is how I understand the work of a chambermaid.

You cannot imagine how many there are-how shall I say that?-how many there are who are indecent and lewd in their privacy, even among those who, in society, pass for the most reserved and the most strict, and whose virtue is supposed to be unassailable. Ah! in the dressing-rooms how the masks fall! How the proudest fronts crack and crumble!

* * *

Well, what am I going to do here? In this country hole, with an impertinent minx like my new mistress, I have no favors to dream of, no distractions to hope for. I shall do stupid housework, wearisome sewing, and nothing else. Ah! when I remember the places where I have served, that makes my situation still sadder, more intolerably sad. And I have a great desire to go away,-to make my bow once for all to this country of savages.

* * *

Just now I met Monsieur on the stairs. He was starting for a hunt. Monsieur looked at me with a salacious air. Again he asked me:

"Well, Célestine, are you getting accustomed to the place?"

Decidedly, it is a mania with him. I answered:

"I do not know yet, Monsieur."

Then, with effrontery:

"And Monsieur, is he getting accustomed here?"

Monsieur burst out laughing. Monsieur takes a joke well. Monsieur is really good-natured.

"You must get accustomed, Célestine. You must get accustomed. Sapristi!"

I was in a humor for boldness. Again I answered:

"I will try, Monsieur,-with Monsieur's aid."

I think that Monsieur was going to say something very stiff to me. His eyes shone like two coals. But Madame appeared at the top of the stairs. Monsieur was off in his direction, I in mine. It was a pity.

This evening, through the door of the salon, I heard Madame saying to Monsieur, in the amiable tone that you can imagine:

"I wish no familiarity with my servants."

Her servants? Are not Madame's servants Monsieur's servants? Well, indeed!

* * *

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