The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Beatrice Merger

Beatrice Merger, whose name might figure at the head of one of Mr. Colburn’s politest romances — so smooth and aristocratic does it sound — is no heroine, except of her own simple history; she is not a fashionable French Countess, nor even a victim of the Revolution.

She is a stout, sturdy girl of two-and-twenty, with a face beaming with good nature, and marked dreadfully by smallpox; and a pair of black eyes, which might have done some execution had they been placed in a smoother face. Beatrice’s station in society is not very exalted; she is a servant of all-work: she will dress your wife, your dinner, your children; she does beefsteaks and plain work; she makes beds, blacks boots, and waits at table; — such, at least, were the offices which she performed in the fashionable establishment of the writer of this book: perhaps her history may not inaptly occupy a few pages of it.

“My father died,” said Beatrice, “about six years since, and left my poor mother with little else but a small cottage and a strip of land, and four children too young to work. It was hard enough in my father’s time to supply so many little mouths with food; and how was a poor widowed woman to provide for them now, who had neither the strength nor the opportunity for labor?

“Besides us, to be sure, there was my old aunt; and she would have helped us, but she could not, for the old woman is bed-ridden; so she did nothing but occupy our best room, and grumble from morning till night: heaven knows, poor old soul, that she had no great reason to be very happy; for you know, sir, that it frets the temper to be sick; and that it is worse still to be sick and hungry too.

“At that time, in the country where we lived (in Picardy, not very far from Boulogne), times were so bad that the best workman could hardly find employ; and when he did, he was happy if he could earn a matter of twelve sous a day. Mother, work as she would, could not gain more than six; and it was a hard job, out of this, to put meat into six bellies, and clothing on six backs. Old Aunt Bridget would scold, as she got her portion of black bread; and my little brothers used to cry if theirs did not come in time. I, too, used to cry when I got my share; for mother kept only a little, little piece for herself, and said that she had dined in the fields — God pardon her for the lie! and bless her, as I am sure He did; for, but for Him, no working man or woman could subsist upon such a wretched morsel as my dear mother took.

“I was a thin, ragged, barefooted girl, then, and sickly and weak for want of food; but I think I felt mother’s hunger more than my own: and many and many a bitter night I lay awake, crying, and praying to God to give me means of working for myself and aiding her. And he has, indeed, been good to me,” said pious Beatrice, “for He has given me all this!

“Well, time rolled on, and matters grew worse than ever: winter came, and was colder to us than any other winter, for our clothes were thinner and more torn; mother sometimes could find no work, for the fields in which she labored were hidden under the snow; so that when we wanted them most we had them least — warmth, work, or food.

“I knew that, do what I would, mother would never let me leave her, because I looked to my little brothers and my old cripple of an aunt; but still, bread was better for us than all my service; and when I left them the six would have a slice more; so I determined to bid good-by to nobody, but to go away, and look for work elsewhere. One Sunday, when mother and the little ones were at church, I went in to Aunt Bridget, and said, ‘Tell mother, when she comes back, that Beatrice is gone.’ I spoke quite stoutly, as if I did not care about it.

“‘Gone! gone where?’ said she. ‘You ain’t going to leave me alone, you nasty thing; you ain’t going to the village to dance, you ragged, barefooted slut: you’re all of a piece in this house — your mother, your brothers, and you. I know you’ve got meat in the kitchen, and you only give me black bread;’ and here the old lady began to scream as if her heart would break; but we did not mind it, we were so used to it.

“‘Aunt,’ said I, ‘I’m going, and took this very opportunity because you WERE alone: tell mother I am too old now to eat her bread, and do no work for it: I am going, please God, where work and bread can be found:’ and so I kissed her: she was so astonished that she could not move or speak; and I walked away through the old room, and the little garden, God knows whither!

“I heard the old woman screaming after me, but I did not stop nor turn round. I don’t think I could, for my heart was very full; and if I had gone back again, I should never have had the courage to go away. So I walked a long, long way, until night fell; and I thought of poor mother coming home from mass, and not finding me; and little Pierre shouting out, in his clear voice, for Beatrice to bring him his supper. I think I should like to have died that night, and I thought I should too; for when I was obliged to throw myself on the cold, hard ground, my feet were too torn and weary to bear me any further.

“Just then the moon got up; and do you know I felt a comfort in looking at it, for I knew it was shining on our little cottage, and it seemed like an old friend’s face? A little way on, as I saw by the moon, was a village: and I saw, too, that a man was coming towards me; he must have heard me crying, I suppose.

“Was not God good to me? This man was a farmer, who had need of a girl in his house; he made me tell him why I was alone, and I told him the same story I have told you, and he believed me and took me home. I had walked six long leagues from our village that day, asking everywhere for work in vain; and here, at bedtime, I found a bed and a supper!

“Here I lived very well for some months; my master was very good and kind to me; but, unluckily, too poor to give me any wages; so that I could save nothing to send to my poor mother. My mistress used to scold; but I was used to that at home, from Aunt Bridget: and she beat me sometimes, but I did not mind it; for your hardy country girl is not like your tender town lasses, who cry if a pin pricks them, and give warning to their mistresses at the first hard word. The only drawback to my comfort was, that I had no news of my mother; I could not write to her, nor could she have read my letter, if I had; so there I was, at only six leagues’ distance from home, as far off as if I had been to Paris or to ‘Merica.

“However, in a few months I grew so listless and homesick, that my mistress said she would keep me no longer; and though I went away as poor as I came, I was still too glad to go back to the old village again, and see dear mother, if it were but for a day. I knew she would share her crust with me, as she had done for so long a time before; and hoped that, now, as I was taller and stronger, I might find work more easily in the neighborhood.

“You may fancy what a fête it was when I came back; though I’m sure we cried as much as if it had been a funeral. Mother got into a fit, which frightened us all; and as for Aunt Bridget, she SKREELED away for hours together, and did not scold for two days at least. Little Pierre offered me the whole of his supper; poor little man! his slice of bread was no bigger than before I went away.

“Well, I got a little work here and a little there; but still I was a burden at home rather than a bread-winner; and, at the closing-in of the winter, was very glad to hear of a place at two leagues’ distance, where work, they said, was to be had. Off I set, one morning, to find it, but missed my way, somehow, until it was night-time before I arrived. Night-time and snow again; it seemed as if all my journeys were to be made in this bitter weather.

“When I came to the farmer’s door, his house was shut up, and his people all a-bed; I knocked for a long while in vain; at last he made his appearance at a window up stairs, and seemed so frightened, and looked so angry that I suppose he took me for a thief. I told him how I had come for work. ‘Who comes for work at such an hour?’ said he. ‘Go home, you impudent baggage, and do not disturb honest people out of their sleep.’ He banged the window to; and so I was left alone to shift for myself as I might. There was no shed, no cow-house, where I could find a bed; so I got under a cart, on some straw; it was no very warm berth. I could not sleep for the cold: and the hours passed so slowly, that it seemed as if I had been there a week instead of a night; but still it was not so bad as the first night when I left home, and when the good farmer found me.

“In the morning, before it was light, the farmer’s people came out, and saw me crouching under the cart: they told me to get up; but I was so cold that I could not: at last the man himself came, and recognized me as the girl who had disturbed him the night before. When he heard my name, and the purpose for which I came, this good man took me into the house, and put me into one of the beds out of which his sons had just got; and, if I was cold before, you may be sure I was warm and comfortable now! such a bed as this I had never slept in, nor ever did I have such good milk-soup as he gave me out of his own breakfast. Well, he agreed to hire me; and what do you think he gave me? — six sous a day! and let me sleep in the cow-house besides: you may fancy how happy I was now, at the prospect of earning so much money.

“There was an old woman among the laborers who used to sell us soup: I got a cupful every day for a half-penny, with a bit of bread in it; and might eat as much beet-root besides as I liked; not a very wholesome meal, to be sure, but God took care that it should not disagree with me.

“So, every Saturday, when work was over, I had thirty sous to carry home to mother; and tired though I was, I walked merrily the two leagues to our village, to see her again. On the road there was a great wood to pass through, and this frightened me; for if a thief should come and rob me of my whole week’s earnings, what could a poor lone girl do to help herself? But I found a remedy for this too, and no thieves ever came near me; I used to begin saying my prayers as I entered the forest, and never stopped until I was safe at home; and safe I always arrived, with my thirty sons in my pocket. Ah! you may be sure, Sunday was a merry day for us all.”

This is the whole of Beatrice’s history which is worthy of publication; the rest of it only relates to her arrival in Paris, and the various masters and mistresses whom she there had the honor to serve. As soon as she enters the capital the romance disappears, and the poor girl’s sufferings and privations luckily vanish with it. Beatrice has got now warm gowns, and stout shoes, and plenty of good food. She has had her little brother from Picardy; clothed, fed, and educated him: that young gentleman is now a carpenter, and an honor to his profession. Madame Merger is in easy circumstances, and receives, yearly, fifty francs from her daughter. To crown all, Mademoiselle Beatrice herself is a funded proprietor, and consulted the writer of this biography as to the best method of laying out a capital of two hundred francs, which is the present amount of her fortune.

God bless her! she is richer than his Grace the Duke of Devonshire; and, I dare say, has, in her humble walk, been more virtuous and more happy than all the dukes in the realm.

It is, indeed, for the benefit of dukes and such great people (who, I make no doubt, have long since ordered copies of these Sketches), that poor little Beatrice’s story has been indited. Certain it is, that the young woman would never have been immortalized in this way, but for the good which her betters may derive from her example. If your ladyship will but reflect a little, after boasting of the sums which you spend in charity; the beef and blankets which you dole out at Christmas; the poonah-painting which you execute for fancy fairs; the long, long sermons which you listen to at St. George’s, the whole year through; — your ladyship, I say, will allow that, although perfectly meritorious in your line, as a patroness of the Church of England, of Almack’s, and of the Lying-in Asylum, yours is but a paltry sphere of virtue, a pitiful attempt at benevolence, and that this honest servant-girl puts you to shame! And you, my Lord Bishop: do you, out of your six sous a day, give away five to support your flock and family? Would you drop a single coach-horse (I do not say, A DINNER, for such a notion is monstrous, in one of your lordship’s degree), to feed any one of the starving children of your lordship’s mother — the Church?

I pause for a reply. His lordship took too much turtle and cold punch for dinner yesterday, and cannot speak just now: but we have, by this ingenious question, silenced him altogether: let the world wag as it will, and poor Christians and curates starve as they may, my lord’s footmen must have their new liveries, and his horses their four feeds a day.

When we recollect his speech about the Catholics — when we remember his last charity sermon — but I say nothing. Here is a poor benighted superstitious creature, worshipping images, without a rag to her tail, who has as much faith, and humility, and charity as all the reverend bench.

This angel is without a place; and for this reason (besides the pleasure of composing the above slap at episcopacy)— I have indited her history. If the Bishop is going to Paris, and wants a good honest maid-of-all-work, he can have her, I have no doubt; or if he chooses to give a few pounds to her mother, they can be sent to Mr. Titmarsh, at the publisher’s.

Here is Miss Merger’s last letter and autograph. The note was evidently composed by an Ecrivain public:—

“Madame — Ayant apris par ce Monsieur, que vous vous portiez bien, ainsi que Monsieur, ayant su aussi que vous parliez de moi dans votre lettre cette nouvelle m’a fait bien plaisir Je profite de l’occasion pour vous faire passer ce petit billet où Je voudrais pouvoir m’enveloper pour aller vous voir et pour vous dire que Je suis encore sans place Je m’ennuye tojours de ne pas vous voir ainsi que Minette (Minette is a cat) qui semble m’interroger tour a tour et demander où vous êtes. Je vous envoye aussi la note du linge a blanchir — ah, Madame! Je vais cesser de vous ecrire mais non de vous regretter.”

Beatrice Merger.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00