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   Chapter 5 No.5

A Chambermaid's Diary By Octave Mirbeau Characters: 18321

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


September 28.

My mother is dead. I received the news this morning, in a letter from home. Although I have never had anything but blows from her, the news has given me pain, and I have cried, and cried, and cried. Seeing me crying, Madame said:

"Again these manners?"

I answered:

"My mother, my poor mother, is dead!"

Then Madame, in her ordinary voice:

"It is a pity, but I can do nothing about it. At any rate, the work must not suffer."

And that was all. Oh! indeed, Madame's kindness will never kill her.

What has made me most unhappy is the fact that I have seen a coincidence between my mother's death and the murder of the little ferret. It seems to me like a punishment from heaven, and that perhaps my mother would not be dead if I had not obliged the captain to kill poor Kléber. In vain have I repeated to myself that my mother died before the ferret. That had no effect; the idea has pursued me all day long, like a remorse.

I should have liked to go home. But Audierne is so far away,-at the end of the world, it seems. And I have no money. When I shall receive my first month's wages, I shall have to pay the employment-bureau. I shall not have enough to even pay the few little debts contracted during the days when I was on the pavement.

And then, of what use would it be to go? My brother is in the naval service, and his vessel is in China, I believe, for it is a very long time since we had any news from him. And my sister Louise? Where is she now? I do not know. Since she left us to follow Jean le Duff to Concarneau, nothing has been heard from her. She must have rolled hither and thither, the devil knows where! Perhaps she is in a public house; perhaps she, too, is dead. And perhaps, also, my brother is dead.

Yes, why should I go there? In what way would it help me? There is no one there now who interests me, and surely my mother has left nothing. Her rags and the little furniture that she had certainly will not pay her brandy bill.

It is queer, all the same; as long as she was living, I almost never thought of her; I felt no desire to see her again. I wrote to her only when I changed my place, and then simply to give her my address. She has beaten me so much! I was so unhappy with her, she being always drunk. And yet, on learning suddenly that she is dead, my soul is plunged in mourning, and I feel more alone than ever.

And I remember my childhood with singular clearness. I see again all the things and beings among whom I began the stern apprenticeship of life. There is really too much sorrow on one side, too much happiness on the other. The world is not just.

One night, I remember,-I was very small, moreover,-I remember that we were awakened with a start by the whistle of the life-saving boat. Oh! those calls in the tempest and in the darkness,-how lugubrious they are! Since the night before, the wind had been blowing a gale. The harbor bar was white and furious. Only a few sloops had been able to get back. The others, the poor others, were surely in danger.

Knowing that my father was fishing in the vicinity of the Ile de Sein, my mother was not too anxious. She hoped that he had put into the island harbor, as he had done so often before. Nevertheless, on hearing the whistle of the life-saving boat, she arose, trembling and very pale, wrapped me hurriedly in a thick woolen shawl, and started for the breakwater. My sister Louise, who was already grown, and my younger brother, followed her, crying:

"Oh! Holy Virgin! Oh! Our Jesus!"

And she, too, cried:

"Oh! Holy Virgin! Oh! Our Jesus!"

The narrow streets were full of people,-women, old men, children. A crowd of frightened shadows were hastening to the pier, where the groaning of the boats could be heard. But they could not stay on the breakwater because of the strong wind, and especially because of the waves, which, beating against the stone embankment, swept it from end to end, with the noise of a cannonade. My mother took the path ... "Oh! Holy Virgin! Oh! Our Jesus!...." took the path that winds around the estuary to the light-house. Everything was black on land, and on the sea, which was black also, could be seen, from time to time, in the distance, by the rays from the light-house, the white breaking of enormous waves. In spite of the shocks ... "Oh! Holy Virgin! Oh! Our Jesus!...." in spite of the shocks and in a way lulled by them, in spite of the wind and in a way stunned by it, I went to sleep in my mother's arms. I awoke in a low room, and I saw, among sombre backs, gloomy faces, and waving arms,-I saw, on a camp bed, lighted by two tallow candles, a great corpse ... "Oh! Holy Virgin! Oh! Our Jesus!...." a frightful corpse, long and naked, perfectly rigid, the face crushed, the limbs streaked with bleeding gashes and covered with black and blue spots. It was my father.

I see him still. His hair was glued to his skull, and filled with a mass of sea-weed that made a sort of crown. Men were bending over him, rubbing his skin with warm flannels and forcing air into his mouth. There was the mayor; there was the rector; there was the captain of customs; there was the marine policeman. I was frightened; I freed myself from my shawl, and, running between the legs of these men, over the wet stone floor, I began to cry,-to call papa,-to call mamma. A neighbor took me away.

* * *

From that moment my mother took to drinking furiously. At first she really tried to work in the sardine-packing establishments, but, as she was always drunk, none of her employers would keep her. Then she stayed at home to intoxicate herself, quarrelsome and gloomy; and, when she was full of brandy, she beat us. How does it happen that she did not kill me?

I avoided the house as much as I could. I spent my days in playing on the pier, in thieving in the gardens, and in paddling in the puddles when the tide was low. Or else, on the Plogoff road, at the bottom of a grassy decline, sheltered from the sea wind and covered with thick bushes, I misbehaved with the little boys, among the hawthorns. On returning at night, I generally found my mother stretched on the tile floor across the threshold, inert, her mouth covered with vomit, and a broken bottle in her hands. Often I had to step over her body. Her awakenings were terrible. She was seized with a passion for destruction. Without listening to my prayers or my cries, she tore me from the bed, pursued me, kicked me, and knocked me against the furniture, crying:

"I'll have your hide! I'll have your hide!"

Many times I thought I should die.

And then she debauched herself, to get money with which to buy liquor. At night, every night, low knocks were heard at the door of our house. A sailor entered, filling the room with a strong odor of sea-salt and fish. He lay down, remained an hour, and went away. And another came, after him, lay down also, remained another hour, and went away. There were struggles and terrifying uproars in the darkness of these abominable nights, and several times the police interfered.

* * *

Thus years rolled by. I was not wanted anywhere; nor was my sister, or my brother. They avoided us in the streets. The respectable people drove us with stones from their houses, to which we went, sometimes to steal, sometimes to beg. One day my sister Louise, who also had got into bad ways with the sailors, ran away. And then my brother enlisted as a cabin-boy. I was left alone with my mother.

* * *

At the age of ten I was no longer chaste. Made familiar with love by the sad example of mamma, perverted by the little boys with whom I associated, my physical development had been very rapid. In spite of deprivations and blows, living continually in the open sea air, free and strong, I had grown so fast that at the age of eleven I experienced the first awakenings of womanhood. Beneath my girlish exterior, I was almost a woman.

At the age of twelve I was a woman quite, and no longer a virgin. Raped? No, not exactly. Consenting? Yes, almost,-at least in the degree in which the artlessness of my vice and the candor of my depravity were consistent with consent. The thing occurred one Sunday, after high mass, near the beach, on the Saint Jean side, in a recess in the cliff, in a dark hole among the rocks where the sea-gulls came to build their nests, and where the sailors sometimes hid the wreckage which they found at sea. The man was the foreman of a sardine-packing establishment,-an old, hairy, ill-smelling man, whose face was nothing but a dirty mass of beard and hair. He gave me an orange. He had a funny name,-M. Cléophas Biscouille.

And here is an incomprehensible thing, of which I have found no explanation in any novel. Ugly, brutal, and repulsive though M. Biscouille was, when I think of him now,-and I often do,-how happens it that it is never with a feeling of detestation for him, never with a disposition to curse him? At this recollection, which I call up with satisfaction, I feel a sort of great gratitude, a sort of great tenderness, and also a sort of real regret at having to say to myself that never shall I see thi

s disgusting personage again.

In this connection may I be permitted to offer here, humble though I am, my personal contribution to the biography of great men.

* * *

M. Paul Bourget was the intimate friend and spiritual guide of the Countess Fardin, in whose house last year I served as chambermaid. I had always heard it said that he alone knew, even to its subsoil, the complex soul of woman. And many times I had had the idea of writing to him, in order to submit to him this case of passional psychology. I had not dared. Do not be too much astonished at the gravity of such preoccupations. They are not usual among domestics, I admit. But in the salons of the countess they never talked of anything but psychology. It is an admitted fact that our mind is modeled on that of our masters, and that what is said in the salon is said also in the servants' hall. Unhappily we had not in the servants' hall a Paul Bourget, capable of elucidating and solving the cases of feminism that we discussed there. The explanations of Monsieur Jean himself were not satisfactory to me.

One day my mistress sent me to carry an "urgent" letter to the illustrious master. He handed me the reply himself. Then I made bold to put to him the question that tormented me, pretending, however, that the heroine of this ticklish and obscure story was a friend of mine. M. Paul Bourget asked:

"What is your friend? A woman of the people? A poor woman, undoubtedly?"

"A chambermaid, like myself, illustrious master."

A superior grimace, a look of disdain, appeared on M. Bourget's face. Ah! sapristi! he does not like the poor.

"I do not occupy myself with these souls," said he. "These are too little souls. They are not even souls. They are outside the province of my psychology."

I understood that, in this province, one begins to be a soul only with an income of a hundred thousand francs.

Not so M. Jules Lemaitre, also a familiar of the house. When I asked him the same question, he answered, prettily catching me about the waist:

"Well, charming Célestine, your friend is a good girl, that is all. And, if she resembles you, I would say a couple of words to her, you know,-hey! hey! hey!"

He, at least, with his face of a little humpbacked and merry-making faun, put on no airs; and he was good-natured. What a pity that he has fallen among the priests!

* * *

With all that, I know not what would have become of me in that hell of an Audierne, if the Little Sisters of Pont-Croix, finding me intelligent and pretty, had not taken me in, out of pity. They did not take advantage of my age, of my ignorance, of my trying and despised situation, to make use of me, to secrete me for their benefit, as often happens in such establishments, which carry human exploitation to the point of crime. They were poor, candid, timid, charitable little beings, who were not rich, and who did not even dare to extend their hands to passers-by or to beg at the doors of houses. There was sometimes much poverty among them, but they got along as best they could. And, amid all the difficulties of living, they continued none the less to be gay, and to sing continually like larks. Their ignorance of life had something touching about it, something which brings the tears to my eyes to-day, now that I can better understand their infinite and pure kindness.

They taught me to read, to write, to sew, to do housework; and, when I had become almost expert in these necessary things, they got me a place as a little housemaid in the house of a retired colonel, who came every summer, with his wife and his two daughters, to occupy a sort of dilapidated little chateau near Comfort. Worthy people, certainly, but so sad, so sad! And maniacs, too! Never a smile on their faces, never a sign of joy in their garments, which were always black. The colonel had had a lathe put in at the top of the house, and there, all day long, he turned egg cups out of box-wood, or else those oval balls, called "eggs," which housewives use in mending stockings. Madame drew up petition after petition, in order to obtain a tobacco-shop. And the two daughters, saying nothing, doing nothing, one with a duck's beak, the other with a rabbit's face, yellow and thin, angular and faded, dried up on the spot, like two plants lacking everything,-soil, water, sunshine. They bored me enormously. At the end of eight months I left them, in a moment of rashness which I have regretted.

But then! I heard Paris breathing and living around me. Its breath filled my heart with new desires. Although I did not go out often, I had admired with a prodigious astonishment the streets, the shop-windows, the crowds, the palaces, the brilliant equipages, the jeweled women. And, when, at night, I went to bed in the sixth story, I envied the other domestics of the house, and their pranks which I found charming, and their stories which left me in a state of marvelous surprise. Though I remained in the house but a short time, I saw there, at night, in the sixth story, all sorts of debaucheries, and took my part in them with the enthusiasm and emulation of a novice. Oh! the vague hopes and the uncertain ambitions that I cherished there, in that fallacious ideal of pleasure and vice!

Alas! yes, one is young, one knows nothing of life, one entertains imaginations and dreams. Oh! the dreams! Stupidities! I have supped on them, in the words of M. Xavier, a prettily perverted boy, of whom I shall have something to say later.

And I have rolled. Oh! how I have rolled! It is frightful when I think of it.

Yet I am not old, but I have had a very close view of things; I have seen people naked. And I have sniffed the odor of their linen, of their skin, of their soul. In spite of perfumes, they do not smell good. All that a respected interior, all that a respectable family, can hide in the way of filth, shameful vices, and base crimes, beneath the appearance of virtue,-ah! I know it well. It makes no difference if they are rich, if they have rags of silk and velvet and gilded furniture; it makes no difference if they wash in silver tubs and make a great show,-I know them. They are not clean. And their heart is more disgusting than was my mother's bed.

Oh! how a poor domestic is to be pitied, and how lonely she is! She may live in houses full of joyous and noisy people, but how lonely she is always! Solitude does not consist in living alone; it consists in living with others, with people who take no interest in you, with whom you count for less than a dog gorged with goodies, or than a flower cared for as tenderly as a rich man's child,-people of whom you have nothing but their cast-off garments or the spoiled remains of their table.

"You may eat this pear; it is rotten. Finish this chicken in the kitchen; it smells bad."

Every word is contemptuous of you, every gesture disparaging of you, placing you on a level lower than that of the beasts. And you must say nothing; you must smile and give thanks; unless you would pass for an ingrate or a wicked heart. Sometimes, when doing my mistresses' hair, I have had a mad desire to tear their neck, to scratch their bosom with my nails.

Fortunately one is not always under the influence of these gloomy ideas. One shakes them off, and arranges matters to get all the fun one can, by himself.

* * *

This evening, after dinner, Marianne, seeing that I was utterly sad, was moved to pity, and tried to console me. She went to get a bottle of brandy from the depths of the sideboard, where it stood among a heap of old papers and dirty rags.

"You must not grieve like that," she said to me; "you must shake yourself a little, my poor little one; you must console yourself."

And, having poured me out a drink, she sat for an hour, with elbows on the table, and, in a drawling and lamenting voice, told me gloomy stories of sickness, of child-birth, of the death of her mother, of her father, and of her sister. With every minute her voice became thicker; her eyes moistened; and she repeated, as she licked her glass:

"You must not grieve like that. The death of your mamma,-oh! it is a great misfortune! But what do you expect? We are all mortal. Oh! my God! Oh! my poor little one!"

Then she suddenly began to weep and weep, and, while she wept and wept, she did not cease to wail:

"You must not grieve; you must not grieve."

At first it was a plaint; but soon it became a sort of frightful bray, which grew louder and louder. And her big belly, and her big breasts, and her triple chin, shaken by her sobs, heaved in enormous surges.

"Be still, then, Marianne," I said to her; "Madame might hear you, and come."

But she did not listen to me, and, crying louder than ever, exclaimed:

"Ah! what a misfortune! what a great misfortune!"

So that I too, my stomach turned by drink, and my heart moved by Marianne's tears, began to sob like a Madeleine. All the same, she is not a bad girl.

But I am getting tired here; I am getting tired; I am getting tired. I should like to get a place in the house of some member of the demi-monde, or else in America.

* * *

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