In the evening, in my room, I found Miss Herminie. Her health no longer allowed her to come to the workshop, and the work she carried away was never completed in time. The day ended, she came to meet me, and we slowly went up the avenue.
Oh! that she was old now, Miss Herminie. His blue eyes, still so fresh a few months before, seemed quite faded, and in the place of his lips they thought they saw two thin sheets of roses rolled and dried. His character also changed. She was angry for nothing. Little ridiculous anger where his weak voice spoke only of killing.
As far as a poor skinny cat who skirted the gutter to come and beg at our window, and who made him say:
-Oh! this cat, I’ll kill him three times.
Her back was still bent and she was losing consciousness for days. On those days she remained in bed without anger or worry; but as soon as the reason returned to her, she went away from her bed in the fear of death:
-Why die? She said.
And to hear him, one might have thought that it was easy to avoid this misfortune.
She did not talk about her past anymore. Only once, in a moment of distress, had she alluded to our journey, saying:
-I destroyed everything, and I do not know where to rest.
She, so curious at first, was no longer interested in anything. Outside she walked with her head down, and in the house she was dozing, leaning against the back of her chair, or sunk in her old armchair. My future marriage even left her indifferent, and she scarcely looked at Clement. Only a young negro, who followed in the opposite direction the same path as us, brought her out of her torpor. Miss Herminie did not like Negroes, and at every meeting she made derogatory remarks about him. Yet the black face of the young man was a reflection of good humor, and it seemed as if he had his smile nearby to show it to us in passing. Mlle Herminie’s hatred increased with this smile, and one evening, when an embarrassment of cars stopped us near the negro, she said brazenly:
“You have not washed yourself this morning.
He smiles even more broadly by answering:
-No, it was too cold.
His voice was harmonious, and he had no foreign accent. I pointed it out to Miss Herminie, who would not agree, and replied bitterly:
“Looks like you prefer him to Clement.
She apologized for her abruptness, but at the same moment I realized that the Negro’s face was as pleasant to me as any kind face.
The cold weather suppressed Mlle Herminie’s exits; but it was always with the same pleasure that I found her. The care to give him made me forget everything that had troubled me during the day, and I wanted nothing more than his contentment.
It was not the same for the poor old woman. His face lighted up hardly when I arrived, and I soon perceived that the long hours of solitude were gradually altering his faculties.
One evening, she says to me as if in confidence:
-Today, I am fifty-three years old.
She pressed me a changed look that frightened me. For a whole week she repeated:
-Today, I am fifty-three years old.
Then she forgot my presence. While I was talking to her, she would go out on the landing to watch my steps on the stairs, or she would open the window to try to see me in the distance, and often, with a vague look and ears, she would sing. a child’s round:
Come back, come back, it’s time
Where the wolf comes out of the woods
Soon she refused to eat and she went out into the street barely dressed.
She had to be driven to an asylum.
Clement was more and more worried about Mrs. Dalignac’s debts. He spread out before her papers covered with figures and said:
-You do not earn more than your workers.
“That’s enough for me,” replied Mme. Dalignac.
It seemed to me that Clement looked at her with a little contempt in those moments.
One Sunday, while we were alone for a moment, he got angry:
-Its debts go up … go up … She runs her business badly and does not want to change anything.
He knocked the papers, then shrugged, to say:
“You see, Marie-Claire, my aunt does not love herself, and when people do not love each other, they do not come to anything.
I dared to defend her:
-She manages to support thirty workers.
He got impatient:
-Nobody requires it. Let her live first.
And he threatened not to take care of the accounts of the workshop.
He came with us to Quibu the next day. Her presence gave Madame Dalignac some audacity and she maintained her prices as I had never seen her do.
The merchant answered him at first politely, with the air of condescension of other times, then he became firmer, and as she did not yield, he made himself hard and said to him insolently:
-Do you have the trouble to sell your models?
Madame Dalignac would not have become redder if she had been accused of theft. She had that sagging shoulders that I knew well, and it was over. Hardly outside, Clement gave reason to the merchant:
-He does not leave his share to others, him. And that’s how I’ll do when I’m boss.
And as we were walking fast, he forced us to slow down, adding:
-You must always pull the blanket to yourself.
I looked for Madame Dalignac’s eyes, but I did not meet him. He was benevolent and gay about his nephew:
“You will become rich, you,” she said to him.
And his pretty laugh made the passers-by return.
At each of his visits the proprietor, who received only small installments, said to Madame Dalignac:
-You end up tired of my patience.
She was still confused, although she had given him up to his last penny. Which put her in great embarrassment while waiting for the pay of the house Quibu.
The owner did not look mean. He was a man in his fifties, whose hair was too black to shine as well as his shoes, and whose mustache was much too bright too.
Duretour laughed at his sticky jacket and Bergeounette, who had called him Mr. Pritout, said that he looked like an old piece of furniture on which a pot of varnish had been dropped.
Listening to them Madame Dalignac laughed and regained her composure. She was convinced that the abundance of work would give her the means to free herself quickly from all her debts. And when I saw her so quiet, I persuaded myself that nothing serious could threaten her.
Mr. Pritout’s patience quickly tired, and the sheets of stamped paper began to arrive.
Madame Dalignac hardly read them. She hooked them to a nail with other unimportant papers and forgot them immediately.
Clement, who read them attentively, was terrified of them, and asked Madame Double for advice. But Madame Doublé gave no advice; she was content to reproach her sister-in-law and renew her offers.
One Sunday morning she came to us, her bold face and resolute voice, saying:
-It must however be heard for this association.
And immediately she showed a square of white cardboard where she had written in black letters: Doublé-Dalignac sisters.
The expression of weariness that extended on Madame Dalignac’s face was so strong that Madame Doublé lost some of her arrogance and said in a less harsh voice:
-I will pay your debts and we will return the machines to this Jew.
Madame Dalignac remained silent. As it always happened in great emotions, she seemed to have lost the use of speech.
“It is in your interest,” replied Madame Doublé.
And without losing a minute she explained her plan to divide the rooms of the house:
-The cup will stay here, but the workshop will become a fitting room, where I will place a door that will connect my apartment with yours.
She got up to better indicate the chosen place. And, with a red chalk, she drew on the wall the shape of a large opening.
Clement had listened without saying anything, but when he saw Madame Dalignac carefully erase the red mark, he spoke in his turn.
He told his aunt how his pretty models held the first rank in the windows of department stores; he had noted the high prices, and he thought it unjust that so much knowledge and sorrow only benefited others. While in the association Doublé-Dalignac sisters, he foresaw safe and fast profits. He added, leaning affectionately on Madame Dalignac:
-You know how to work … Mrs. Doublé knows how to sell … You two can make a fortune.
For the first time, I saw a movement of revolt against Mme Dalignac:
“Do not insist, Clement. It’s useless.
Clement did not insist, but he made a gesture that broke the soapy chalk into three pieces.
Madame Dalignac picked up the three pieces which she mechanically blew into her hand, saying:
She laughed a little, then she threw away the debris, and said firmly:
-No, I do not want.
It was Madame Double’s turn to remain speechless.
She got up from a violent movement and went home.
Madame Dalignac breathed more freely and suddenly, all her tranquility returned, she kissed her nephew:
“Trust me, Clement. I have great courage.
While accompanying me on the avenue, Clement says to me:
-I had counted on her for our installation, but I see that I must give it up.
And he took my arm as familiarly as if we were already married.
He often accompanied me later. Our conversations did not differ much. It was all about a shop for rent and the work we would do. He said:
-Among my boss’s clients, I choose those who will become mine.
And he stopped to write a name on his notebook. On another sheet of his notebook, he wrote down all the things he expected to ask his aunt to get on with our housework. I was shocked:
-But she needs these things.
-Me too …, he answered me.
Then he showed me the objects I would have to ask myself.
I refused. He was surprised at my resistance and said almost angry:
-I thought you were smarter.
The meeting of the negro became another reason for quarreling between us. No more than Miss Herminie could he bear the sight of the poor boy, who, however, avoided smiling when Clement walked beside me. But one evening, when he thought I was alone, his mouth opened wide and fresh, and his eyes stopped for a moment on mine.
Clement, who was only a few steps away, had a hurtful word that suddenly shut his mouth and turned his eyes away.
I remained discontented and wrinkled, and the next day, on seeing the young negro, I felt remorse, as if it were I who had offended him.
He did not smile at me, although I was alone. A sadness put a very soft veil over his black pupils, and as he passed very close he said to me:
-I have red blood too; and my hands are not dirty.
I had a new friend. Perhaps she was already in my room at the time of Mlle Herminie, but I only noticed her after her departure. It was a fly. A very small fly, clean, fine, lively and confident. As soon as the stove was lit, she would come out of her hiding place and play her music. I spoke to him:
-Good evening, little fly.
She flew from my head to my hands, or she turned tirelessly around the lamp.
But it was especially during the meal that she kept me company. Everything on the table served his amusement. She crossed the glass of water, climbed the bread, and balanced herself on the tips of the fork. She disdained the crumbs I had in place for her, and preferred to search the tablecloth for her taste. Sometimes she came to make sure of what was on my plate. She was walking around, standing very close to the edge, then she was cautiously advancing, tasting, shaking her head as if to say that there was nothing good and returning to the tablecloth where she was running in all directions. the senses. Sometimes she seemed to pursue prey. She was so excited that she exceeded the goal. She then made a sudden move back and, after a few jumps disordered, she seemed to enjoy a delicious meal. I looked at her very closely. I even took Miss Herminie’s glasses to try and see what delighted her, but I saw only her fine trunk that plunged into the threads of the canvas and her round head where the eyes held the greatest place.
Her dinner finished, she smoothed her wings for a long time, rubbed her paws carefully, and sat quietly on the book I was reading or on the page I was writing.
One evening in May, heavy, hot smoke came as a flurry into the workshop.
“It’s the fire,” cried Felicite Damoure.
Immediately all the workers got up.
Gabielle, who had done like the others, looked out and said without hurry:
-It’s the sawmill opposite that burns.
There was no danger for us, the sawmill being far back from the avenue. It was only a question of keeping the windows closed to guarantee smoke. However, as large quantities of wood were blazing and the wind pushed the flames on our side, firefighters began to flood the facade of our house from top to bottom.
“Open the tissues,” said Madame Dalignac.
And she piled up the pieces of cloth herself, while Bergeounette helped me to pick up the work that fearful workers had abandoned. Meanwhile, Gabielle, her sleeves up high and her skirt wrapped around her hips, mopped the water that came in despite the closed windows. And every time she saw flaming wood leaping in the air with a shower of sparks, she laughed loudly and said:
“Well done, sir.
Madame Doublé hastily dismissed her workers.
His apartment overlooked the courtyard and did not even receive the jet of pumps. But she was afraid, a fear that made her stupid and humble, and made her seek refuge with us. She remained near the door without daring to go out or return, and her terrified look changed her so much that Duretour was scolding her, and Bergeounette said to me:
-She would not even be able to slap a slap.
Whenever the flames rose or the smoke rose, Madame Doublé found a little voice to say:
-All will burn.
According to her, the neighboring houses were going to catch on fire, ours too, and the whole neighborhood was going to flare up.
Workers were looking at her, ready to believe her; but Bergeounette reassured them:
-Do not listen to it! he’s just a fool who’s scared.
She went from one to the other, her step was as firm as her voice, and her gestures looked like orders.
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Bulldog, a clean cloth in his hand, made the nickel-plated wheel of his machine shine.
Madame Dalignac did not move, but nothing escaped her calm gaze.
The fire dropped quickly, and the smoke began to dissipate.
In our house, firefighters went up and down to make sure of the water damage. One of them, a young sergeant with a fresh face, entered our house. He sat familiarly on the tablet of a sewing machine from where he could see the fire that was glowing in the night, and he said to Mrs. Dalignac:
-It could not last long, all the mouths of water worked well.
He laughed when he saw Gabielle next to him and he continued in a cheerful tone:
-I did not know that there were such nice mouths in Montparnasse.
He laughed again and Gabielle did as he did.
The two of them stared at each other with a laugh, then Gabielle suddenly looked wistful and embarrassed, and she stooped to find things that were not there.
Other firefighters entered our house. A tall blond man had his knee-breeched knee stitched up, and a little brown man asked for help for his sleeve, which was held only by a thread in his shoulder.
The needles were hard to get into the wet sheet, and for half an hour there were loud words and loud laughter.
But initially, the young sergeant was the only one to say goodbye.
We had to see him again. The next day, when the workers were leaving, he stood on the opposite sidewalk, as if he were in charge of watching over the ruins of the sawmill.
“It’s for me that he comes,” says Gabielle.
And immediately she became transported with joy. She waited, however, until he had gone to go down. She did the same thing the next day, but the third day, when she saw him approaching our house, she panicked:
-How do you escape? she says.
And she begged Bergeounette and me to tell the young man that she was no longer part of the studio.
It was to me that the fireman spoke:
Mademoiselle. Tell me, the pretty girl … does not she work up there anymore?
He looked so honest and worried that I did not consider Gabielle’s recommendations.
-Si, I say, but she leaves later because she’s afraid of you.
-Scared of me! he said.
And his anxiety seemed to increase as he continued:
But it is to get married together that I try to talk to him.
He laughs, adding:
“There is not one of my comrades who has such a beautiful wife.
And immediately he gave me his name and his address.
Gabielle was not happy as we hoped for this news. She suddenly forgot all the glimpses of happiness and thought only of her story of the Bullier Ball.
“Above all,” she said, “he must know the truth.
And in spite of Bergeounette’s shrugs, she wrote a letter in which she simply recounted her misfortune, and in which she confessed with the same candor the love the sergeant inspired her.
Several days passed, then Gabielle, who was watching the avenue, saw one evening the young man leaning against a distant tree. She blushed violently and turned away a little to tell us:
This one, too, despises me.
And all quivering, she begged me to go get the answer.
“You’d better go yourself,” Madame Dalignac advised.
-Oh! no, “replied Gabielle,” if he only touched my fingers, I feel I would be lost.
I, too, was anxious to know the answer, and while taking the letter that the fireman handed me, I asked:
“Are you still planning to get married?
“No,” he said.
I went away so fast that he had to take a few steps running to catch me. People passed between us, while he repeated:
-Excuse, excuse, miss.
I stopped. He was still confused before me, then an anger made him raise his fist, and a great blush passed over his face as he explained to me:
-You understand? His fault would soon be known, my comrades would laugh, and nobody would respect us.
He suddenly seemed to me as unhappy as Gabielle, and I left him without rancor.
For a whole week, Gabielle had a laugh that forced us to look at her every time she made it heard, then one evening she lingered again, to tell Mrs. Dalignac:
-I would like to talk to Jacques about our marriage.