How strange those old recollections are which haunt us, without our being able to get rid of them!
This one is so very old that I cannot understand how it has clung so vividly and tenaciously to my memory. Since then I have seen so many sinister things, which were either affecting or terrible, that I am astonished at not being able to pass a single day without the face of Mother Bellflower recurring to my mind’s eye, just as I knew her formerly, now so long ago, when I was ten or twelve years old.
She was an old seamstress, who came to my parents house once a week, every Thursday to mend the linen. My parents lived in one of those country houses called châteaux, and which are merely old houses with pointed roofs, which are surrounded by three or four farms.
The village, a large village, almost a small market town, was a few hundred yards off, and lay closely round the church, a red brick church, which had become black with age.
Well, every Thursday Mother Bellflower came between half-past six and seven in the morning, and went immediately into the linen-room and began to work. She was a tall, thin, bearded or rather hairy woman, for she had a beard all over her face, a surprising, an unexpected beard, growing in tufts, in curly bunches, which looked as if they had been sown by a madman over that great face of a gendarme in petticoats. She had them on her nose, under her nose, round her nose, on her chin, on her cheeks; and her eyebrows, which were extraordinarily thick and long, and quite gray, bushy and bristling, looked exactly like a pair of moustaches stuck on there by mistake.
She limped, but not like lame people generally do, but like a ship at anchor. When she planted her great, bony, swerving body on her sound leg, she seemed to be preparing to mount some enormous wave, and then suddenly she dipped as if to disappear in an abyss, and buried herself in the ground. Her walk reminded one of a storm, as she balanced herself at the same time, and her head, which was always covered with an enormous white cap, whose ribbons fluttered down her back, seemed to traverse the horizon from North to South and from South to North, at each of her movements.
I adored Mother Bellflower. As soon as I was up I went into the linen-room, where I found her installed at work, with a foot-warmer under her feet. As soon as I arrived, she made me take the foot-warmer and sit upon it, so that I might not catch cold in that large, chilly room under the roof.
She told me stories, while mending the linen with her long crooked nimble fingers; her eyes behind her magnifying spectacles, for age had impaired her sight, appeared enormous to me, strangely profound, double.
She had, as far as I can remember, the things which she told me and by which my childish heart was moved, the large heart of a poor woman. She told me what had happened in the village, how a cow had escaped from the cowhouse and had been found the next morning in front of Prosper Malet’s mill, looking at the sails turning, or about a hen’s egg, which had been found in the church belfry without anyone being able to understand what creature had been there to lay it, or the story of Jean–Jean Pila’s dog, who had been ten leagues to bring back his master’s breeches, which a tramp had stolen while they were hanging up to dry out of doors, after he had been in the rain. She told me these simple adventures in such a manner, that in my mind they assumed the proportions of never-to-be-forgotten dramas, of grand and mysterious poems; and the ingenious stories invented by the poets which my mother told me in the evening had none of the flavor, none of the fullness nor of the vigor of the peasant woman’s narratives.
Well, one Thursday, when I had spent all the morning in listening to Mother Clochette, I wanted to go up stairs to her again during the day after picking hazelnuts with the manservant in the wood behind the farm. I remember it all as clearly as what happened only yesterday.
On opening the door of the linen-room, I saw the old seamstress lying on the ground by the side of her chair, with her face to the ground and her arms stretched out, but still holding her needle in one hand and one of my shirts in the other. One of her legs in a blue stocking, the longer one, no doubt, was extended under her chair, and her spectacles glistened against the wall, as they had rolled away from her.
I ran away uttering shrill cries. They all came running, and in a few minutes I was told that Mother Clochette was dead.
I cannot describe the profound, poignant, terrible emotion which stirred my childish heart. I went slowly down into the drawing-room and went and hid myself in a dark corner, in the depths of a great, old armchair, where I knelt and wept. I remained there for a long time no doubt, for night came on. Suddenly somebody came in with a lamp, without seeing me, however, and I heard my father and mother talking with the medical man, whose voice I recognized.
He had been sent for immediately, and he was explaining the causes of the accident, of which I understood nothing, however. Then he sat down and had a glass of liquor and biscuit.
He went on talking, and what he then said will remain engraved on my mind until I die! I think that I can give the exact words which he used.
“Ah!” said he, “the poor woman! She broke her leg the day of my arrival here, and I had only not even had time to wash my hands after getting off the diligence before I was sent for in all haste, for it was a bad case, very bad.
“She was seventeen, and a pretty girl, very pretty! Would any one believe it? I have never told her story before, and nobody except myself and one other person, who is no longer living in this part of the country, ever knew it. Now that she is dead, I may be less discreet.
“Just then a young assistant teacher came to live in the village; he was good-looking and had the bearing of a sub-officer. All the girls ran after him, and he acted the disdainful, and besides that, he was very much afraid of his superior, the schoolmaster, old Grabu, who occasionally got out of bed the wrong foot first.
“Old Grabu already employed pretty Hortense, who has just died here, and who was afterwards nicknamed Clochette. The assistant master singled out the pretty young girl, who was no doubt flattered at being chosen by this impregnable conqueror; at any rate, she fell in love with him, and he succeeded in persuading her to give him a first meeting in the hay-loft behind the school, at night, after she had done her day’s sewing.
“She pretended to go home, but instead of going downstairs when she left the Grabu’s, she went upstairs and hid among the hay, to wait for her lover. He soon joined her, and he was beginning to say pretty things to her, when the door of the hay-loft opened and the schoolmaster appeared, and asked: ‘What are you doing up there, Sigisbert?’ Feeling sure that he would be caught, the young schoolmaster lost his presence of mind and replied stupidly: ‘I came up here to rest a little among the bundles of hay, Monsieur Grabu.’
“The loft was very large and absolutely dark, and Sigisbert pushed the frightened girl to the further end and said: ‘Go there and hide yourself. I shall lose my situation, so get away and hide yourself.’
“When the schoolmaster heard the whispering, he continued: ‘Why, you are not by yourself?’ ‘Yes, I am, Monsieur Grabu!’ ‘But you are not, for you are talking.’ ‘I swear I am, Monsieur Grabu.’ ‘I will soon find out,’ the old man replied, and double-locking the door, he went down to get a light.
“Then the young man, who was a coward such as one frequently meets, lost his head, and he repeated, having grown furious all of a sudden: ‘Hide yourself, so that he may not find you. You will deprive me of my bread for my whole life; you will ruin my whole career. . . . Do hide yourself!’ They could hear the key turning in the lock again, and Hortense ran to the window, which looked out onto the street, opened it quickly, and then in a low and determined voice she said: ‘You will come and pick me up when he is gone,’ and she jumped out.
“Old Grabu found nobody, and went down again in great surprise, and a quarter of an hour later Monsieur Sigisbert came to me and related his adventure. The girl had remained at the foot of the wall unable to get up, as she had fallen from the second story, and I went with him to fetch her. It was raining in torrents, and I brought the unfortunate girl home with me, for the right leg was broken in three places, and the bones had come out through the flesh. She did not complain, and merely said, with admirable resignation: ‘I am punished, well punished!’
“I sent for assistance and for the workgirl’s friends and told them a made-up story of a runaway carriage which had knocked her down and lamed her, outside my door. They believed me, and the gendarmes for a whole month tried in vain to find the author of this accident.
“That is all! And I say that this woman was a heroine, and belonged to the race of those who accomplished the grandest deeds in history.
“That was her only love affair, and she died a virgin. She was a martyr, a noble soul, a sublimely devoted woman! And if I did not absolutely admire her, I should not have told you this story, which I would never tell anyone during her life: you understand why.”
The doctor ceased; Mamma cried and Papa said some words which I did not catch; then they left the room, and I remained on my knees in the armchair and sobbed, while I heard a strange noise of heavy footsteps and something knocking against the side of the staircase.
They were carrying away Clochette’s body.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58