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A Chambermaid's Diary By Octave Mirbeau Characters: 24467

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

September 18.

This morning (Sunday) I went to mass.

I have already declared that, without being pious, I have religion all the same. Say and do what you like, religion is always religion. The rich, perhaps, can get along without it, but it is necessary for people like us. I know very well that there are individuals who make use of it in a rather queer fashion,-that many priests and good sisters scarcely do it honor. But never mind. When one is unhappy,-and, in our calling, we get more than our share of unhappiness,-it is the only thing that will soothe you. Only that, and love. Yes, but love, that is another sort of consolation. Consequently, even in impious houses, I never missed mass. In the first place, mass is an excursion, a distraction, time gained from the daily ennui of the household. And, above all, we meet comrades, hear stories, and form acquaintances. Ah! if, on going out of the chapel of the Assumptionists, I had wished to listen to the good-looking old gentlemen who whispered psalms of a curious sort in my ears, perhaps I should not be here to-day.

To-day the weather is improved. There is a beautiful sun,-one of those misty suns that make walking agreeable and sadness less burdensome. I know not why, but, under the influence of this blue and gold morning, I have something like gaiety in my heart.

We are about a mile from the church. The way leading to it is a pleasant one,-a little path winding between hedges. In spring it must be full of flowers, wild cherry trees, and the hawthorns that smell so good. I love the hawthorns. They remind me of things when I was a little girl. Otherwise the country is like the country everywhere else; there is nothing astonishing about it. It is a very wide valley, and then, yonder, at the end of the valley, there are hills. In the valley there is a river, on the hills there is a forest; all covered with a veil of fog, transparent and gilded, which hides the landscape too much to suit me.

Oddly enough, I keep my fidelity to nature as it is in Brittany. I have it in my blood. Nowhere else does it seem to me as beautiful; nowhere else does it speak better to my soul. Even among the richest and most fertile fields of Normandy I am homesick for the moors, and for that tragic and splendid sea where I was born. And this recollection, suddenly called up, casts a cloud of melancholy into the gaiety of this delightful morning.

On the way I meet women and women. With prayer-books under their arms, they, too, are going to mass,-cooks, chambermaids, and barn-yard scullions, thick-set and clumsy, and with the slow and swaying gait of animals. How queerly they are rigged out, in their holiday garb,-perfect mops. They smell powerfully of the country, and it is easy to see that they have not served in Paris. They look at me with curiosity,-a curiosity at once distrustful and sympathetic. They note enviously, in detail, my hat, my closely-fitting gown, my little baize jacket, and my umbrella rolled in its green silk cover. My costume-that of a lady-astonishes them, and especially, I think, my coquettish and smart way of wearing it. They nudge each other with their elbows, make enormous eyes, and open their mouths immoderately, to show each other my luxury and my style. And I go tripping along, nimbly and lightly, with my pointed shoes, and boldly lifting up my dress, which makes a sound of rustling silk against the skirts beneath. What can you expect? For my part, I am glad to be admired.

As they pass by me, I hear them say to each other, in a whisper:

"That is the new chambermaid at the Priory."

One of them, short, fat, red-faced, asthmatic, and who seems to have great difficulty in carrying an immense paunch on legs widely spread apart, undoubtedly to the better steady it, approaches me with a smile, a thick, glutinous smile on her gluttonous lips:

"You are the new chambermaid at the Priory? Your name is Célestine? You arrived from Paris four days ago?"

She knows everything already. She is familiar with everything, and with me. And there is nothing about this paunchy body, about this walking goatskin, that so amuses me as the musketeer hat,-a large, black, felt hat, whose plumes sway in the breeze.

She continues:

"My name is Rose, Mam'zelle Rose; I am at M. Mauger's, the next place to yours; he is a former captain. Perhaps you have already seen him?"

"No, Mademoiselle."

"You might have seen him over the hedge that separates the two estates. He is always working in the garden. He is still a fine man, you know."

We walk more slowly, for Mam'zelle Rose is almost stifling. She wheezes like a foundered mare. With every breath her chest expands and contracts, then to expand again. She says, chopping her words:

"I have one of my attacks. Oh! how people suffer these days! It is incredible."

Then, between wheezes and hiccoughs, she encourages me:

"You must come and see me, my little one. If you need anything, good advice, no matter what, do not hesitate. I am fond of young people. We will drink a little glass of peach brandy as we talk. Many of these young women come to our house."

She stops a moment, takes breath, and then, in a lower voice and a confidential tone, continues:

"And, say, Mademoiselle Célestine, if you wish to have your letters addressed in our care, it would be more prudent. A bit of good advice that I give you. Madame Lanlaire reads the letters, all the letters. Once she came very near being sentenced for it by the justice of the peace. I repeat, do not hesitate."

I thank her, and we continue to walk. Although her body pitches and rolls like an old vessel in a heavy sea, Mademoiselle Rose seems now to breathe more easily. And we go on, gossiping:

"Oh! it will be a change for you here, surely. In the first place, my little one, at the Priory they never keep a chambermaid for any length of time. That is a settled matter. When Madame does not discharge them, Monsieur gets them into trouble. A terrible man, Monsieur Lanlaire. The pretty, the ugly, the young, the old,-all are alike to him. Oh! the house is well known. And everybody will tell you what I tell you. You are ill-fed there; you have no liberty; you are crushed with work. And chiding and scolding all the time. A real hell! One needs only to see you, pretty and well brought up as you are, to know, beyond a doubt, that you are not made to stay with such curmudgeons."

All that the haberdasher told me, Mademoiselle Rose tells me again, with more disagreeable variations. So violent is this woman's passion for chattering that she finally forgets her suffering. Her malice gets the better of her asthma. And the scandal of the house goes its course, mingled with the private affairs of the neighborhood. Although already I know them all, Rose's stories are so black, and her words are so discouraging, that again I am thoroughly saddened. I ask myself if I had not better go away at once. Why try an experiment in which I am conquered in advance?

Other women have overtaken us, curious, nosy, accompanying with an energetic "For sure" each of the revelations of Rose, who, less and less winded, continues to jabber:

"M. Mauger is a very good man, and all alone, my little one. As much as to say that I am the mistress. Why! a former captain; it is natural, isn't it? He is no manager; he knows nothing of household affairs; he likes to be taken care of and coddled, have his linen well kept, his caprices respected, nice dishes prepared for him. If he had not beside him a person in whom he had confidence, he would be plundered right and left. My God, there is no lack of thieves here!"

The intonation of her spasmodic utterances, and her winks, clearly revealed to me her exact situation in Captain Mauger's house.

"Why, you know, a man all alone, and who still has ideas. And besides, there is work to do all the same. And we are going to hire a boy to assist."

This Rose is lucky, I, too, have often dreamed of entering an old man's service. It is disgusting. But at least one is tranquil, and has a future.

We traverse the entire district. Oh! indeed, it is not pretty. It in no way resembles the Boulevard Malesherbes. Dirty, narrow, winding streets, and houses that stand neither square or straight,-dark houses, of old, rotten wood, with high, tottering gables, and bulging stories that project one past the other, in the olden fashion. The people who pass are ugly, ugly, and I have not seen a single handsome fellow. The industry of the neighborhood is the manufacture of list-shoes. Most of the shoemakers, having been unable to deliver a week's product at the factory, are still at work. And behind the window-panes I see poor sickly faces, bent backs, and black hands hammering leather soles.

That adds still further to the dismal sadness of the place. It seems like a prison.

But here is the haberdasher, who, standing at her threshold, smiles at us and bows.

"You are going to eight o'clock mass? I went to seven o'clock mass. You have plenty of time. Will you not come in, a moment?"

Rose thanks her. She warns me against the haberdasher, who is a malicious woman and speaks ill of everybody, a real pest! Then she begins again to boast of her master's virtues and of her easy place. I ask her:

"Then the captain has no family?"

"No family?" she cries, scandalized. "Well, my little one, you are not on. Oh! yes, there is a family, and a nice one, indeed! Heaps of nieces and cousins,-loafers, penniless people, hangers-on, all of whom were plundering him and robbing him. You should have seen that. It was an abomination. So you can imagine whether I set that right,--whether I cleared the house of all this vermin. Why, my dear young woman, but for me, the captain now would be on his uppers. Ah! the poor man! He is well satisfied with the way things are now."

I insist with an ironical intention, which, however, she does not understand:

"And, undoubtedly, Mademoiselle Rose, he will remember you in his will?"

Prudently, she replies:

"Monsieur will do as he likes. He is free. Surely I do not influence him. I ask nothing of him. I do not ask him even to pay me wages. I stay with him out of devotion. But he knows life. He knows those who love him, who care for him with disinterestedness, who coddle him. No one need think that he is stupid as certain persons pretend,-Madame Lanlaire at the head, who says things about us. It is she, on the contrary, who is evil-minded, Mademoiselle Célestine, and who has a will of her own. Depend upon it!"

Upon this eloquent apology for the captain, we arrive at the church.

The fat Rose does not leave me. She obliges me to take a chair near hers, and begins to mumble prayers, to make genuflections and signs of the cross. Oh! this church! With its rough timbers that cross it and sustain the staggering vault, it resembles a barn; with the people in it, coughing, hawking, running against benches, and dragging chairs around, it seems also like a village wine-shop. I see nothing but faces stupefied by ignorance, bitter mouths contracted by hatred. There are none here but wretched creatures who come to ask God to do something against somebody. It is impossible for me to concentrate my thoughts, and I feel a sort of cold penetrating me and surrounding me. Perhaps it is because there is not even an organ in this church. Queer, isn't it? but I cannot pray without an organ. An anthem on the organ fills my chest, and then my stomach; it completely restores me, like love. If I could always hear the strains of an organ, I really believe that I should never sin. Here, instead of an organ, there is an old woman, in the choir, with blue spectacles, and a poor little black shawl over her shoulders, who painfully drums on a sort of piano, wheezy and out of tune. And the people are always coughing and hawking, the droning of the priest and the responses of the choristers being drowned by a sound of catarrh. And how bad it all smells,-mingled odors of the muck-heap, of the stable, of the soil, of sour straw, of wet leather, of damaged incense. Really, they are very ill-bred in the country.

The mass drags along, and I grow

weary. I am especially vexed at finding myself among people so ordinary and so ugly, and who pay so little attention to me. Not a pretty spectacle, not a pretty costume with which to rest my thought or cheer my eyes. Never did I better understand that I am made for the joy of elegance and style. Instead of being lifted up, as at mass in Paris, all my senses take offence, and rebel at once. For distraction, I follow attentively the movements of the officiating priest. Oh! thank you! he is a sort of tall, jovial fellow, very young, with an ordinary face, and a brick-red complexion. With his dishevelled hair, his greedy jaw, his gluttonous lips, his obscene little eyes, and his eyelids circled with black, I have sized him up at once. How he must enjoy himself at the table! And at the confessional, too,-the dirty things that he must say! Rose, perceiving that I am watching him, bends toward me, and says, in a very low voice:

"That is the new vicar. I recommend him to you. There is no one like him to confess the women. The curate is a holy man, certainly, but he is looked upon as too strict. Whereas the new vicar...."

She clacks her tongue, and goes back to her prayer, her head bent over the prie-Dieu.

Well, he would not please me, the new vicar; he has a dirty and brutal air; he looks more like a ploughman than a priest. For my part, I require delicacy, poetry, the beyond, and white hands. I like men to be gentle and chic, as Monsieur Jean was.

After mass Rose drags me to the grocery store. With a few mysterious words she explains to me that it is necessary to be on good terms with the woman who keeps it, and that all the domestics pay her assiduous court.

Another little dump,-decidedly, this is the country of fat women. Her face is covered with freckles, and, through her thin, light, flaxen hair, which is lacking in gloss, can be seen portions of her skull, on top of which a chignon stands up in a ridiculous fashion, like a little broom. At the slightest movement her breast, beneath her brown cloth waist, shakes like a liquid in a bottle. Her eyes, bordered with red circles, are bloodshot, and her ignoble mouth makes of her every smile a grimace. Rose introduces me:

"Madame Gouin, I bring you the new chambermaid at the Priory."

The grocer observes me attentively, and I notice that her eyes fasten themselves upon my waist with an embarrassing obstinacy. She says in a meaningless voice:

"Mademoiselle is at home here. Mademoiselle is a pretty girl. Mademoiselle is a Parisienne, undoubtedly?"

"It is true, Madame Gouin, I come from Paris."

"That is to be seen; that is to be seen directly. One need not look at you twice. I am very fond of the Parisiennes; they know what it is to live. I too served in Paris, when I was young. I served in the house of a midwife in the Rue Guénégaud,-Madame Tripier. Perhaps you know her?"


"That makes no difference. Oh! it was a long time ago. But come in, Mademoiselle Célestine."

She escorts us, with ceremony, into the back shop, where four other domestics are already gathered about a round table.

"Oh! you will have an anxious time of it, my poor young woman," groaned the grocer, as she offered me a chair. "It is not because they do not patronize me at the chateau; but I can truly say that it is an infernal house, infernal! Is it not so, Mesdemoiselles?"

"For sure!" answer in chorus, with like gestures and like grimaces, the four domestics thus appealed to.

Madame Gouin continues:

"Oh! thank you, I would not like to sell to people who are continually haggling, and crying out, like pole-cats, that they are being robbed, that they are being injured. They may go where they like."

The chorus of servants responds:

"Surely they may go where they like."

To which Madame Gouin, addressing Rose more particularly, adds, in a firm tone:

"They do not run after them, do they, Mam'zelle Rose? Thank God! we have no need of them, do we?"

Rose contents herself with a shrug of her shoulders, putting into this gesture all the concentrated gall, spite, and contempt at her command. And the huge musketeer hat emphasizes the energy of these violent sentiments by the disorderly swaying of its black plumes.

Then, after a silence:

"Oh! well, let us talk no more about these people. Every time that I speak of them it turns my stomach."

Thereupon the stories and gossip begin again. An uninterrupted flow of filth is vomited from these sad mouths, as from a sewer. The back-shop seems infected with it. The impression is the more disagreeable because the room is rather dark and the faces take on fantastic deformities. It is lighted only by a narrow window opening on a damp and filthy court,-a sort of shaft formed by moss-eaten walls. An odor of pickle, of rotting vegetables, of red herring, persists around us, impregnating our garments. It is intolerable. Then each of these creatures, heaped up on their chairs like bundles of dirty linen, plunges into the narration of some dirty action, some scandal, some crime. Coward that I am, I try to smile with them, to applaud with them; but I feel something insurmountable, something like frightful disgust. A nausea turns my stomach, forces its way to my throat, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and presses my temples. I should like to go away. I cannot, and I remain there, like an idiot, heaped up like them on my chair, making the same gestures that they make,-I remain there, stupidly listening to these shrill voices that sound to me like dish-water gurgling and dripping through sinks and pipes.

I know very well that we have to defend ourselves against our masters, and I am not the last to do it, I assure you. But no; here, all the same, that passes imagination. These women are odious to me. I detest them, and I say to myself, in a low voice, that I have nothing in common with them. Education, contact with stylish people, the habit of seeing beautiful things, the reading of Paul Bourget's novels, have saved me from these turpitudes. Ah! the pretty and amusing monkey-tricks of the servants' halls in Paris,-they are far away!

As we are leaving, the grocer says to me, with an amiable smile:

"Pay no attention to the fact that your masters do not patronize me; you must come and see me again."

I go back with Rose, who finishes familiarizing me with the daily doings of the neighborhood. I had supposed that her stock of infamies was exhausted. Not at all. She discovers and invents new and more frightful ones. In the matter of calumny her resources are infinite. And her tongue goes on forever, without stopping. It does not forget anybody or anything. It is astonishing how, in a few minutes, one can dishonor people, in the country. Thus she escorts me back to the Priory gate. Even there she cannot make up her mind to leave me; talks on, talks incessantly, tries to envelop and stun me with her friendship and devotion. As for me, my head is broken by all that I have heard, and the sight of the Priory fills me with a feeling of discouragement. Ah! these broad, flowerless lawns! And this immense building, that has the air of a barrack or a prison, and where, from behind each window, a pair of eyes seems to be spying you.

The sun is warmer, the fog has disappeared, and the view of the landscape has become clearer. Beyond the plain, on the hills, I perceive little villages, gilded by the light, and enlivened by red roofs. The river running through the plain, yellow and green, shines here and there in silvery curves. And a few clouds decorate the sky with their light and charming frescoes. But I take no pleasure in the contemplation of all this. I have now but one desire, one will, one obsession,-to flee from this sun, from this plain, from these hills, from this house, and from this fat woman, whose malicious voice hurts and tortures me.

At last she gets ready to leave me, takes my hand, and presses it affectionately in her fat fingers gloved with mittens. She says to me:

"And then, my little one, Madame Gouin, you know, is a very amiable and very clever woman. You must go to see her often."

She lingers longer, and adds more mysteriously:

"She has relieved many young girls. As soon as they are in any trouble, they go to her. Neither seen or known. One can trust her, take my word for it. She is a very, very expert woman."

With eyes more brilliant, and fastening her gaze on me with a strange tenacity, she repeats:

"Very expert, and clever, and discreet. She is the Providence of the neighborhood. Now, my little one, do not forget to come to see us when you can. And go often to Madame Gouin's. You will not regret it. We will see each other soon again."

She has gone. I see her, with her rolling gait, moving away, skirting first the wall and then the hedge with her enormous person, and suddenly burying herself in a road, where she disappears.

* * *

I pass by Joseph, the gardener-coachman, who is raking the paths. I think that he is going to speak to me; he does not speak to me. He simply looks at me obliquely, with a singular expression that almost frightens me.

"Fine weather this morning, Monsieur Joseph."

Joseph grunts I know not what between his teeth. He is furious that I have allowed myself to walk in the path that he is raking.

What a queer man he is, and how ill-bred! And why does he never say a word to me? And why does he never answer when I speak to him?

* * *

In the house I find Madame by no means contented. She gives me a very disagreeable reception, treats me very roughly:

"I beg you not to stay out so long in future."

I desire to reply, for I am vexed, irritated, unnerved. But fortunately I restrain myself. I confine myself to muttering a little.

"What's that you say?"

"I say nothing."

"It is lucky. And furthermore, I forbid you to walk with M. Mauger's servant. She is very bad company for you. See, everything is late this morning, because of you."

I say to myself:

"Zut! zut! and zut! You make me tired. I will speak to whom I like. I will see anyone that it pleases me to see. You shall lay down no law for me, camel!"

I need only to see once more her wicked eyes, and hear her shrill voice and her tyrannical orders, in order to lose at once the bad impression, the impression of disgust, that I brought back from the mass, from the grocer, and from Rose. Rose and the grocer are right; the haberdasher also is right; all of them are right. And I promise myself that I will see Rose; that I will see her often; that I will return to the grocer's; that I will make this dirty haberdasher my best friend,-since Madame forbids me to do so. And I repeat internally, with savage energy:

"Camel! Camel! Camel!"

But I would have been much more relieved if I had had the courage to hurl and shout this insult full in her face.

* * *

During the day, after lunch, Monsieur and Madame went out driving. The dressing-room, the chambers, Monsieur's desk, all the closets, all the cupboards, all the sideboards, were locked. What did I tell you? Ah, well, thank you! no means of reading a letter, or of making up any little packages.

So I have remained in my room. I have written to my mother and to Monsieur Jean, and I have read "En Famille." What a delightful book! And how well written! It is queer, all the same; I am very fond of hearing dirty things, but I do not like to read them. I like only the books that make me cry.

* * *

For dinner they had boiled beef and broth. It seemed to me that Monsieur and Madame were very cool toward each other. Monsieur read the "Petit Journal" with provoking ostentation. He crumpled the paper, rolling all the time his kind, comical, gentle eyes. Even when he is in anger, Monsieur's eyes remain gentle and timid. At last, doubtless to start the conversation, Monsieur, with his nose still buried in his paper, exclaimed:

"Hello! another woman cut to pieces!"

Madame made no answer. Very stiff, very straight, austere in her black silk dress, her forehead wrinkled, her look stern, she did not cease her dreaming. About what?

It is, perhaps, because of me that Madame is sulky with Monsieur.

* * *

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