“Neither,” the aunt replied.
And, laughing at their disappointment, she had informed them that it was she herself whom the embroiderer had just proposed to marry.
This memory, which today brought great joy to both women, did not, however, raise Eglantine’s voice to say:
-Yes, and your laugh then rang so clear that I saw for the first time your beautiful hair with reflections and your waist much better shot than ours.
A little silence came back.
In the faint light that came from outside, I could see Eglantine’s fingers playing with a lock of hair escaping Madame Dalignac’s comb. She was slowly stretching it out, and when she let it go, the wick came up all at once, curling up.
“What you never knew,” said Eglantine suddenly, “is the trouble we gave ourselves that night to know your age. Rose added I do not know how many dozens at his fifteen years, and I made calculations that I did not go out.
She laughs softly, resuming:
-At the end we thought of your image of first communion that was hanging on the wall of our room. We did not dare pick up the frame, for fear of being surprised by you, and we both went up on the same chair with the lamp. The handwriting was no longer distinguishable, it had melted into the parchment, and only the name of the month of May was printed in large black letters. Rose even put a wet cloth on the frame glass, but the date of your birth did not appear any more.
The laughter of Eglantine and Mme. Dalignac joined again, but although they were almost silent, I recognized them as I recognized their hands united in spite of the darkness. And while they were exchanging caresses and affectionate words, I was thinking of the first communion image that was now in the boss’s room. I remembered the writing erased and the date lost, and I imagined the communicants and communicants rising from the holy table and meeting in couples as in weddings, when the spouses come out of the church.
Another night, it was all her childhood that Mrs. Dalignac told us. A sad childhood of which she kept a fearful memory full of bitterness.
Her mother had never been able to forgive her for coming into the world when she believed that by her age she was safe from maternity. “You make me ashamed,” she told him.
And she never allowed him to laugh or play with the other little girls.
Until the age of six, the child had known the caresses of his father, but at the death of the good man, she had found around her only the threatening hatred of her mother. At the time of the apprenticeship she had had to make a long detour every day on a dirty and uncrowded street to go to the seamstress who occupied her. Her departure as well as her arrival were closely watched, and when one day, dragged along by the comrades, she had dared to return by the most beautiful street of the city, her mother had struck her so hard that she had thought she would lose life.
And she always heard those words that she could not understand:
“You make me ashamed.”
She grew up, however, and with her eighteen years, the force that grew in her removed the fear that inspired her mother, and he sometimes brought back to the house tunes learned at the workshop.-It stopped quickly under the sarcasm: “You sing to attract lovers.”
“No, I’m singing because I’m gay.”
Happy! How dare she be gay with the shame she was dragging after her.
But now, on a Sunday, watching the spring blossom, the girl had forgotten the shame of which her mother spoke, and suddenly she began to laugh. First of all, she did not know why she was laughing, then hearing this clear sound ring, she did not recognize it as her own good. She thought he was coming from outside like the swallows coming in through a window and coming out the other way, but the next moment she realized that laughter was mostly coming in to make a noise, because he shrugged, spread and resounded in the four corners of the house.
He did not go further. A shock, fast as lightning, fell on him and killed him.
-This was my last stage of suffering, Mrs. Dalignac tells us, lifting her soft face a little more.
She paused as if she was taking the time to close a door that should not have been open and she added:
The seamstress who employed me had pity on my swollen mouth, and the next day I secretly left the country to follow an English family.
Our evenings passed thus, one by one, and each of them brought us closer together. Sometimes a coughing fit of the boss put us up in the middle of a sentence, and we parted for the next day.
Madame Doublé, who often came to see her brother, did not bring him words of tenderness. On the pretext of making her forget her malady, she shouted at him and bitterly reproached him with his immobility. She even forced him to get up and walk in the room when Mrs. Dalignac was not there. The result was fatigue and discontent for the boss, which increased his fever and lengthened his choking attacks.
“She’s setting fire to my burns,” he said.
He guessed his arrival although she never came at the same time, and before she had knocked at the door he announced it:
-That’s Madame, I order.
She ordered, indeed, and moreover she criticized all the advice of the doctor.
She was frightened, however, the morning I made her sign to shut up. The boss had a long faint in the night and Mr. Bon had warned Eglantine he was nearing his end.
She was there, the sweet Eglantine.
She could not decide to leave her patient, and on her contracted face she could see the effort she was making to find a way to prepare Madame Dalignac for her misfortune.
As soon as she came out, Madame Doublé had to go secretly to Monsieur Bon’s, because that evening she joined us noiselessly in the studio. She did not look arrogant, but her voice was still soft when she said to Mrs. Dalignac:
-Do you know, that my brother is very sick?
Madame Dalignac had a start in her body as if she were told of a new malady for her husband. And Madame Doublé resumed in a softer voice:
“Father, he may be dead tomorrow.
And as Madame Dalignac looked at her suspiciously, she gestured with her thumb, saying:
-Request these girls instead.
Eglantine took a quick step that brought her closer to me, and her hand clung firmly to mine.
Madame Dalignac saw us thus, she did not ask us anything, but her features were deformed and she sat down abruptly on the table.
As if he had only waited for this warning to die, the boss called us:
-Eh! Come here.
His eyes hesitated over our four bowed faces, but when he recognized his wife’s, he no longer looked away. For a moment he seemed to listen to a familiar sound, and he said, as if disappointed:
Ah! yes, the day is over.
And immediately his breathing diminished.
He died without agony, almost standing, and his last sigh, long, rough and jerky, made me think of the sound of his embroidery machine.
As for the sewing vigils, two lamps were lit for the vigil of death.
Madame Doublé filled the workshop with cries and lamentations, and Madame Dalignac, who roamed silently and without tears, struck the cutting table whenever she found her in her way.
At each of these clashes something was falling off the table. The soapy chalks started first, and the oilcloth meter followed them whistling and wriggling like a bad beast awake. Then, a half-unrolled piece of silk fell in its turn, and we had to pick it up so as not to see it swell and slip, rustling to our feet.
The big scissors themselves eventually jumped off the table. They straddled each other on a floorboard and stood level and disturbing like a closed barrier.
The midnight heat was no less heavy than the midday heat. Not a breath of air came from above. The stars were barely shining in the dark sky, and on the avenue the chestnut trees were as motionless as if they had fallen asleep to never wake up again.
A little after midnight Madame Double’s screaming pain calmed down, and Madame Dalignac’s weary legs forced her to sit down. She took her place as usual between Eglantine and me. And the silence hovering outside entered the house immediately.
Since Mlle. Herminie could dispose of a few francs a week in addition to her ordinary expenses, the boulevards and gardens of Paris were no longer sufficient for her. She had to follow the crowd of Parisians who went every Sunday to the country, and for that she got up early and took a liking to her dress. I myself was happy to escape a whole day to the city, and both of us were going away happy and busy like a distant and marvelous country. Most of the time, a streetcar only took us to the suburbs, but at other times the railroad took us far beyond, and that was when Miss Herminie thought she would find some of the country she had left regretted so bitterly. The trip was already for us like a party. As soon as they left Paris, the huge vegetable gardens were standing on either side of the road, with their glass bells lining up in the hundreds and shining under the sun like pools of clear water. Then came the orchards. Spring had bloomed with white and pink. And when the month of June made the first fruits blush, at the same time he covered poppies with the broad embankments of the railway. All this was blurred when the train passed, and it was not known whether the flowers were cherries or whether the cherries were poppies.
The Chevreuse Valley had our preferences.
Lozere especially delighted Mlle Herminie. The hillsides lacked a few vines as he pleased, but the slopes covered with strawberry and peach-trees were more pleasing to him than the plain with his fields of oats or wheat.
After a morning of walking on the roads, or along lost paths, we stopped in a small inn, under a sort of hangar open to the winds, and built especially for Parisians Sunday. A sparrow had made its nest at the crossing of a beam and a pillar that supported the roof. The little ones advanced their heads without fear over the nest, and the parents came to the tables to take the crumbs of bread. There was such silence in the valley that no one dared speak loudly under the shed. The dishes were waiting, but no one was impatient and everyone looked good at the servant who laughed without hurry. Then we went again, but when we were walking on a road in full sun or sitting in the cool shade of a wood, Mlle Herminie always recalled a memory that lightened our steps or prolonged our rest. The narrow, high houses on the way made her praise the breadth and depth of her birth, and the tiny garden of a beautiful villa, where selected pebbles replaced the greenery, made her say:
-My garden was full of flowers and leaves, and when the sun came in after the rain, the leaves took such rare colors and sprinkled with drops of water so sparkling that they became more beautiful than the flowers .
As I was surprised that she was able to voluntarily leave a place that was so dear to her, she sharply divided:
-The garden held me three years after the death of my parents, but the empty house frightened me, the silence of the nights prevented me from sleeping and my health was declining.
She paused a long time to resume:
-And then, the work ran out, the women did not bring me their dresses to make.
She added as angry:
-It was my fault too … I bore my grief as an infirmity.
There was a grudge in the sound of his voice, and I dared to ask him:
-What did you do on your fiance’s wedding day?
To my surprise she simply replied:
– I went to church, and I prayed a long time for his happiness.
And so our Sundays followed each other, filled with fresh air and sweet words. And while I was listening to Miss Herminie, I seemed to receive from her the precious gift of a very long life, all made of love and courage, misery and regret.
The good weather did not always favor us. The roads sometimes turned into quagmires and the paths bloomed into bogs, but we were only laughing, so great was our joy at being outside. Often, even after dark, we lingered to listen to the pure song of toads in the ditches. The coolness of the earth penetrated us, and the moon froze us like a wet cloth. By the warm evenings of July we let the trains back without being able to decide to return. We had to take the last, however, a crowded and noisy train, launched towards the city whose arrival lighting surprised and dazzled us.
As for Burgundy, we were content to make plans to go there. It was not for lack of talking about it at the workshop though. While telling the story of our Sunday outings, the old woman continued to lament that her country was not around Paris.
Mrs. Dalignac, who sympathized with all the troubles of others in spite of her own sorrow, ended by saying to me:
And as we were on the eve of August 15, she decided to give us three days for this trip.
Three days to spend in his country! Miss Herminie could not believe it. She became nervous to frighten us for her health, and she began to cry:
“That’s good tears,” she said to reassure us.
But a sudden fear came to him:
-If I was going to die after so much happiness.
And Madame Dalignac, who did not know her fear of death, replied:
“It does not matter, you will die happy at least.
The morning of departure, it was pouring rain. All night the storm had thundered on Paris, and now the wind was pushing the rain which beat against the windows and made the gutters of the roof overflow. I hesitated before waking Miss Herminie; but, at the first knock, gently knocked on her door, she went out fully clothed:
-Oh! she said, to prevent me from leaving, it would take another rain than this one.
And in the street, her umbrella in one hand and her skirts gathered in the other, she moved so fast that I could hardly follow her.
The journey is accomplished without a word. She kept her eyes lowered, or absent-mindedly looked at the other travelers, and the stations passed without her paying the slightest attention. She would have let the same pass of his country if I had not warned that the train was entering the station. Then she was the first at the door, opened it with a sure hand and jumped on the platform, frrrout! like a swallow, as she had jumped from the grape cart in her youth. Only, if her black dress did not cling to the step, she rolled up tightly at the hem, and showed all the embroidery of her white petticoat.
Throughout the day it was wonder.
According to Miss Herminie, nothing was comparable to the river cutting the city in two, nor to the main street, which descended like a torrent, and whose rugged pavements prevented us from setting foot straight.
Until the evening it was only walks through the streets and chats with old people recognized in passing. However, when she went to bed, she folded her hands like a prayer and said:
Where is he who made me cry so much?
The next day it was to the vineyards that she led me. Almost all were weak, and many of them looked very sick. Miss Herminie did not recognize them. At this time of the year when the vines should have disappeared under the foliage and bunches, only black wood and burnt foliage were visible.
Where are the vine growers? said the old woman, turning on all sides.
And the roads ran without workers or carts. And these vines, which I expected to see splendid and noisy, offered in their extent only disease and abandonment.
In front of us the Saint-Jacques coast stretched high and wide with the same thin and withered vines, but on the summit, just in the middle, a large bare space shone under the sun and held the eye. As we advanced, the square stood out brighter and sharper, and Miss Herminie stopped abruptly to ask me:
-What is that?
“It’s a stubble,” I replied at once, because as I approached I had just recognized the yellow straw glistening with wheat.
Miss Herminie remained suffocated. She raised her hands as if to announce an irreparable misfortune, and exclaimed:
Wheat in our vineyards!
Then she crossed herself slowly, saying below:
-Lord! have mercy on us!
And instead of advancing, she returned to sit on a pile of shingles that rotted at the edge of the road.
A very old vine-grower who was painfully climbing a cross-road came to sit by us, recognizing Miss Herminie, but instead of speaking of their youth as I expected, they spoke only of the vine.
The old man loved him too. All her life had been spent cultivating and beautifying her. Only old age, in taking her strength, had compelled her to rest. But he could not part with it. Since she was ill, he visited her every day with great pity. At first he was tearing a bad leaf here and there without really believing in the gravity of his pain, but today he saw that she was going to die:
“And so much good wine she gave,” he said.
And his mouth remained open as if to let a long regret pass.
He turned his head to the stubble from above, and when he looked back at the vineyard he said resignedly:
“Maybe she’s too old, too.
He left us to go down the path. He was so curved that his forehead touched the branches at the passages. And behind him a young man with strong arms climbed the same path with a wheelbarrow loaded with dead vines, which he swung and poured into the ditch at once.
Mademoiselle Herminie no longer spoke, she kept her eyes fixed on three large badly-turned elms, which were visible in the distance, and made one think of three old men approaching their heads to confide a secret.
“In the old days,” she said suddenly, “they were called the three little ladies.
She stood up again:
They too have seen the vine more beautiful. So she was fresh and healthy with honey-colored leaves.
She gave a gesture of disgust:
-Now, she’s like spoiled bread.
She had no more joy, and her arm weighed heavy in mine as we descended the coast. Yet the grass paths that crossed or met were full of grasshoppers and butterflies. Each of our steps made them rise by dozens. On the ground they mingled with dust and grasses; but when they flew away, their open wings showed all the colors of the flowers.