Works, by Guy de Maupassant

Boitelle

Pere Boitelle (Antoine) had the reputation through the whole county of a specialist in dirty jobs. Every time a pit, a dunghill, or a cesspool required to be cleared away, or a dirt-hole to be cleansed out he was the person employed to do it.

He would come there with his nightman’s tools and his wooden shoes covered with muck, and would set to work, whining incessantly about the nature of his occupation. When people asked him, then, why he did this loathsome work, he would reply resignedly:

“Faith, ’tis for my children whom I must support. This brings me in more than anything else.”

He had, indeed, fourteen children. If anyone asked him what had become of them, he would say with an air of indifference:

“There are only eight of them left in the house. One is out at service, and five are married.”

When the questioner wanted to know whether they were well married, he replied vivaciously:

“I did not cross them. I crossed them in nothing. They married just as they pleased. We shouldn’t go against people’s likings, it turns out badly. I am a night-cart-man because my parents went against my likings. But for that I would have become a workman like the others.”

Here is the way his parents had thwarted him in his likings:

He was at the time a soldier stationed at Havre, not more stupid than another, or sharper either, a rather simple fellow, in truth. During his hours of freedom his greatest pleasure was to walk along the quay, where the bird-dealers congregate. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a soldier from his own part of the country, he would slowly saunter along by cages where the parrots with green backs and yellow heads from the banks of the Amazon, the parrots with gray backs and red heads from Senegal, enormous macaws, which look like birds brought up in conservatories, with their flower-like feathers, their plumes and their tufts, the paroquets of every shape, who seem painted with minute care by that excellent miniaturist, God Almighty, and the little ones, all the little young birds, hopping about, yellow, blue, and variegated, mingling their cries with the noise of the quay, add to the din caused by the unloading of the vessels, as well as by passengers and vehicles, a violent clamor, loud, shrill, and deafening, as if from some distant, monstrous forest.

Boitelle would stop with stained eyes, wide-open mouth, laughing and enraptured, showing his teeth to the captive cockatoos, who kept nodding their white or yellow top-knots towards the glaring red of his breeches and the copper buckle of his belt. When he found a bird that could talk, he put questions to it, and if it happened at the time to be disposed to reply and to hold a conversation with him, he would remain there till nightfall, filled with gayety and contentment. He also found heaps of fun in looking at the monkeys, and could conceive no greater luxury for a rich man than to possess these animals, just like cats and dogs. This kind of taste for the exotic he had in his blood, as people have a taste for the chase, or for medicine, or for the priesthood. He could not keep himself, every time the gates of the barracks opened, from going back to the quay, as if he felt himself drawn towards it by an irresistible longing.

Now, on one occasion, having stopped almost in ecstacy before an enormous araruna, which was swelling out its plumes, bending forward, and bridling up again as if making the court-curtseys of parrot-land, he saw the door of a little tavern adjoining the bird-dealer’s shop opening, and his attention was attracted by a young negress, with a silk kerchief tied round her head, sweeping into the street the rubbish and the sand of the establishment.

Boitelle’s attention was soon divided between the bird and the woman, and he really could not tell which of these two beings he contemplated with the greater astonishment and delight.

The negress, having got rid of the sweepings of the tavern, raised her eyes, and, in her turn, was dazzled by the soldier’s uniform. There she stood facing him with her broom in her hands as if she were carrying arms for him, while the araruna continued making curtseys. Now at the end of a few seconds the soldier began to get embarrassed by this attention, and he walked away gingerly so as not to present the appearance of beating a retreat.

But he came back. Almost every day he passed in front of the Colonial tavern, and often he could distinguish through the window-panes the figure of the little black-skinned maid filling out “bocks” or glasses of brandy for the sailors of the port. Frequently, too, she would come out to the door on seeing him; soon, without even having exchanged a word they smiled at one another like acquaintances; and Boitelle felt his heart moved when he saw suddenly glittering between the dark lips of the girl her shining row of white teeth. At length he ventured one day to enter and was quite surprised to find that she could speak French like everyone else. The bottle of lemonade, of which she was good enough to accept a glassful, remained in the soldier’s recollection, memorably delicious; and it grew into custom with him to come and absorb in this little tavern on the quay all the agreeable drinks which he could afford.

For him it was a treat, a happiness, on which his thoughts were constantly dwelling, to watch the black hand of the little maid pouring out something into his glass whilst her teeth, brighter than her eyes, showed themselves as she laughed. When they had kept company in this way for two months they became fast friends, and Boitelle, after his first astonishment at discovering that this negress was in her excellent principles as good as the best girls in the country, that she exhibited a regard for economy, industry, religion, and good conduct, loved her more on that account, and became so much smitten with her that he wanted to marry her.

He told her about his intentions, which made her dance with joy. Besides, she had a little money, left her by a female oyster-dealer, who had picked her up when she had been left on the quay at Havre by an American captain. This captain had found her, when she was only about six years old, lying on bales of cotton in the hold of his ship, some hours after his departure from New York. On his arrival in Havre, he there abandoned to the care of this compassionate oyster-dealer the little black creature, who had been hidden on board his vessel, he could not tell how or why.

The oyster-woman having died, the young negress became a servant at the Colonial tavern.

Antoine Boitelle added: “This will be all right if the parents don’t go against it. I will never go against them, you understand never! I’m going to say a word or two to them the first time I go back to the country.”

On the following week, in fact, having obtained twenty-four hours’ leave, he went to see his family, who cultivate a little farm at Tourteville near Yvetot.

He waited till the meal was finished, the hour when the coffee baptized with brandy makes people more open-hearted, before informing his parents that he had found a girl answering so well to his likings in every way that there could not exist any other in all the world so perfectly suited to him.

The old people, at this observation, immediately assumed a circumspect air, and wanted explanations. Besides he had concealed nothing from them except the color of her skin.

She was a servant, without much means, but strong, thrifty, clean, well-conducted, and sensible. All these things were better than money would be in the hands of a bad housewife. Moreover, she had a few sous, left her by a woman who had reared her, a good number of sous, almost a little dowry, fifteen hundred francs in the savings’ bank. The old people, overcome by his talk, and relying, too, on their own judgment, were gradually giving way, when he came to the delicate point. Laughing in rather a constrained fashion, he said:

“There is only one thing you may not like. She is not a white slip.”

They did not understand, and he had to explain at some length and very cautiously, to avoid shocking them, that she belonged to the dusky race of which they had only seen samples amongst figures exhibited at Epinal. Then, they became restless, perplexed, alarmed, as if he had proposed a union with the Devil.

The mother said. “Black? How much of her is black? Is the whole of her?”

He replied, “Certainly. Everywhere, just as you are white everywhere.”

The father interposed, “Black? Is it as black as the pot?”

The son answered “Perhaps a little less than that. She is black, but not disgustingly black. The Curé‘s cassock is black; but it is not uglier than a surplice, which is white.”

The father said, “Are there more black people besides her in her country?”

And the son, with an air of conviction, exclaimed, “Certainly!”

But the old man shook his head.

“This must be disagreeable?”

And the son:

“It isn’t more disagreeable than anything else, seeing that you get used to it in no time.”

The mother asked:

“It doesn’t soil linen more than other skins, this black skin?”

“Not more than your own, as it is her proper color.”

Then after many other questions, it was agreed that the parents should see this girl before coming to any decision and that the young fellow, whose period of services was coming to an end in the course of a month, should bring her to the house in order that they might examine her, and decide by talking the matter over whether or not she was too dark to enter the Boitelle family.

Antoine accordingly announced that on Sunday, the 22nd of May, the day of his discharge, he would start for Tourteville with his sweetheart.

She had put on, for this journey to the house of her lover’s parents, her most beautiful and most gaudy clothes, in which yellow, red, and blue were the prevailing colors, so that she had the appearance of one adorned for a national fete.

At the terminus, as they were leaving Havre, people stared at her very much, and Boitelle was proud of giving his arm to a person who commanded so much attention. Then, in the third-class carriage, in which she took a seat by his side, she excited so much astonishment among the peasants that the people in the adjoining compartments got up on their benches to get a look at her, over the wooden partition, which divided the different portions of the carriage from one another. A child, at sight of her, began to cry with terror, another concealed his face in his mother’s apron. Everything went off well, however, up to their arrival at their destination. But, when the train slackened its rate of motion as they drew near Yvetot, Antoine felt ill at ease, as he would have done at an inspection when he did not know his drill-practice. Then, as he put his head out through the carriage door, he recognized, some distance away, his father who was holding the bridle of the horse yoked to a car, and his mother who had made her way to the railed portion of the platform where a number of spectators had gathered.

He stepped out first, gave his hand to his sweetheart, and holding himself erect, as if he were escorting a general, he advanced towards his family.

The mother, on seeing this black lady, in variegated costume in her son’s company, remained so stupefied that she could not open her mouth; and the father found it hard to hold the horse, which the engine or the negress caused to rear for some time without stopping. But Antoine, suddenly seized with the unmingled joy of seeing once more the old people, rushed forward with open arms, embraced his mother, embraced his father, in spite of the nag’s fright, and then turning towards his companion, at whom the passengers on the platform stopped to stare with amazement, he proceeded to explain:

“Here she is! I told you that, at first sight, she is an odd piece; but as soon as you know her, in very truth, there’s not a better sort in the whole world. Say good-morrow to her without making any pother about it.”

Thereupon Mere Boitelle, herself nearly frightened out of her wits, made a sort of curtsey, while the father took off his cap, murmuring:

“I wish you good-luck!”

Then, without further delay, they climbed up on the car, the two women at the lower end on seats, which made them jump up and down, as the vehicle went jolting along the road, and the two men outside on the front seat.

Nobody spoke. Antoine, ill at ease, whistled a barrack-room air; his father lashed the nag; and his mother, from where she sat in the corner, kept casting sly glances at the negress, whose forehead and cheek-bones shone in the sunlight, like well-blacked shoes.

Wishing to break the ice, Antoine turned round.

“Well,” said he, “we don’t seem inclined to talk.”

“We must get time,” replied the old woman.

He went on:

“Come! tell us the little story about that hen of yours that laid eight eggs.”

It was a funny anecdote of long standing in the family. But, as his mother still remained silent, paralyzed by emotion, he started the talking himself, and narrated, with much laughter on his own part, this memorable adventure. The father, who knew it by heart, brightened at the opening words of the narrative; his wife soon followed his example; and the negress herself, when he reached the drollest part of it, suddenly gave vent to a laugh so noisy, rolling, and torrent-like that the horse, becoming excited, broke into a gallop for a little while.

This served as the introduction to their acquaintanceship. The company at length began to chat.

On reaching the house when they had all alighted, and he had conducted his sweetheart to a room, so that she might take off her dress, to avoid staining it, while she would be preparing a good dish intended to win the old people’s affections while appealing to their stomachs, he drew aside his parents, near the door, and with beating heart, asked:

“Well, what do you say now?”

The father said nothing. The mother, less timid, exclaimed:

“She is too black. No, indeed, this is too much for me. It turns my blood.”

“That may be, but it is only for the moment.”

Then they made their way into the interior of the house, where the good woman was somewhat affected at the spectacle of the negress engaged in cooking. She at once proceeded to assist her, with petticoats tucked up, active in spite of her age.

The meal was an excellent one, very long, very enjoyable. When they had afterwards taken a turn together, Antoine said to his father:

“Well dad, what do you say to this?”

The peasant took care never to compromise himself.

“I have no opinion about it. Ask your mother.”

So Antoine went back to his mother, and leading her to the end of the room, said:

“Well mother, what do you think of her?”

“My poor lad, she is really too black. If she were only a little less black, I would not go against you, but this is too much. One would think it was Satan!”

He did not press her, knowing how obstinate the old woman had always been, but he felt a tempest of disappointment sweeping over his heart. He was turning over his mind what he ought to do, what plan he could devise, surprised, moreover, that she had not conquered them already as she had captivated himself. And they, all four, set out with slow steps through the cornfields, having again relapsed into silence. Whenever they passed a fence they saw a countryman sitting on the stile, and a group of brats climbed up to stare at them and everyone rushed out into the road to see the “black” whom young Boitelle had brought home with him. At a distance they noticed people scampering across the fields just as when the drum beats to draw public attention to some living phenomenon. Pere and Mere Boitelle, scared by this curiosity, which was exhibited everywhere through the country at their approach, quickened their pace, walking side by side, and leaving far behind their son, when his dark companion asked what his parents thought of her.

He hesitatingly replied that they had not yet made up their minds.

But, on the village-green, people rushed out of all the houses in a flutter of excitement; and, at the sight of the gathering rabble, old Boitelle took to his heels and regained his abode, whilst Antoine, swelling with rage, his sweetheart on his arm, advanced majestically under the staring eyes which opened wide in amazement.

He understood that it was at an end, and there was no hope for him, that he could not marry his negress, she also understood it; and as they drew near the farmhouse they both began to weep. As soon as they had got back to the house, she once more took off her dress to aid the mother in the household duties, and followed her everywhere to the dairy, to the stable, to the hen-house, taking on herself the hardest part of the work, repeating always, “Let me do it Madame Boitelle,” so that, when night came on, the old woman, touched but inexorable, said to her son: “She is a good, all the same. ’Tis a pity she is so black; but indeed she is too much so. I couldn’t get used to it. She must go back again. She is too, too black!”

And young Boitelle said to his sweetheart:

“She will not consent. She thinks you are too black. You must go back again. I will go with you to the train. No matter — don’t fret. I am going to talk to them after you are started.”

He then conducted her to the railway-station, still cheering her with hope, and, when he had kissed her, he put her into the train, which he watched as it passed out of sight, his eyes swollen with tears.

In vain did he appeal to the old people. They would never give their consent.

And when he had told this story, which was known all over the country, Antoine Boitelle would always add:

“From that time forward I have had no heart for anything — for anything at all. No trade suited me any longer, and so I became what I am — a nightcart-man.”

People would say to him:

“Yet you got married.”

“Yes, and I can’t say that my wife didn’t please me, seeing that I’ve got fourteen children; but she is not the other one, oh no — certainly not! The other one, mark you, my negress, she had only to give me one glance, and I felt as if I were in Heaven!”

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/maupassant/guy/works/chapter180.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09