HOW STRANGE are those old recollections 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, 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 long, 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 chateaux, which are merely old houses with pointed roofs, to which are attached three or four adjacent farms.
The village, a large village, almost a small market town, was a few hundred yards off and nestled 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 improbable tufts, in curly bunches which looked as if they had been sown by a madman over that great face, the 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 mustaches stuck on there by mistake.
She limped, not like lame people generally do, but like a ship pitching. When she planted her great bony, vibrant 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 ship in a storm, 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 limp.
I adored Mother Bellflower. As soon as I was up I used to go 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.
“That draws the blood from your head,” she would say to me.
She told me stories while mending the linen with her long, crooked, nimble fingers; behind her magnifying spectacles, for age had impaired her sight, her eyes appeared enormous to me, strangely profound, double.
As far as I can remember from the things which she told me and by which my childish heart was moved, she had the large heart of a poor woman. She told me what had happened in the village, how a cow had escaped from the cow house 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 queer story of Jean Pila’s dog who had gone 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 caught 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 or 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 upstairs 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 floor by the side of her chair, her face turned down 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 by the wall, where 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 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 someone came in with a lamp–without seeing me, however–and heard my father and mother talking with the medical man, whose voice recognized.
He had been sent for immediately, and he was explaining the cause of the accident, of which I understood nothing, however. Then he sat down and had a glass of liqueur and a 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!” he said. “The poor woman! she broke her leg the day of my arrival here. I had 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 anyone believe it? I have never told her story before; in fact, no one but 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.
“A young assistant teacher had just come to live in the village; he was good looking and had the bearing of a soldier. All the girls ran after him, but he was disdainful. 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 afterward nicknamed Clochette. The assistant master singled out the pretty young girl who was no doubt flattered at being chosen by this disdainful conqueror; at any rate, she fell in love with him, and he succeeded in persuading her to give him a first meeting in the hayloft 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 Grabus’, 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 hayloft 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. Sigisbert pushed the frightened girl to the farther 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 sometimes 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 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! 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! Now I say that this woman was a heroine and had the fiber of those who accomplish 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.