Catholic Distance University

An Excerpt from The Woman Who Was Poor

Léon Bloy, Translated by Joshua Hren

“It reeks of God, here!”

This rogue’s bit of gall was disgorged, like vomit, on the very lowly threshold of the Vincentian Missionary’s chapel, on the Rue de Sèvres, in 1879.

It was the first Sunday of Advent, and Parisian humanity was slogging its way to the Great Winter Circus.

That year, like so many others, had not been the year of the End of the World, and no one thought to be shocked.

Old Isidore, maker and mechanic of scales by trade, and one of the most reputable drunkards of the Gros-Caillou, was stunned least of all.

By temperament and by culture, he belonged to the elite of that superfine scum that is observable only in Paris, unequaled by the roguishness of any other people under the moon.

A fruitless and sterile scum, it is true, despite the most assiduous labor policy and most attentive literary irrigation. Even when it is raining blood we see hatched few extraordinary individuals.

The old scale-maker, who had just cracked open the cistern of his soul as he passed a holy place, represented, not without pride, all of the brawling and reviling virtuosos by which that social group perpetually discharges, as into a common cesspool, the gutter-water intellectualism of the bourgeois and the suffocating refuse of the working man.

Very satisfied with his own witty word, of which a few devout, who examined with horror, were frightened, he staggered toward some dubious destination with the gait of a sleepwalker suffering seasickness.

Something like a premonition of deadly vertigo seemed to hang over this rabble, made blotchy by drink, twisted at the wheel of the filthiest lusts.
A morose and superb cockiness was seen on his gallows mask, his lower lip clenched under the battlements of poisoned and abominable teeth, thereby lowering both corners of his mouth into what appeared as scaly ruts of Cretaceous clay, which had been carved into his face by various spirituous substances.

The center of his face had grown accustomed, for sixty years, to the sharp nose of a one-time moneylender, beneath which grew the couch grass of a seditious mustache which might have been put to the profitable use of grooming mangy horses.

His hallmark eyes, which had the incredible pettiness and liveliness of a brown rat or gerbil, suggested, by their cold and lackluster glister, the idea of one who steals from the poor box at night, one accustomed to robbing churches.

Finally, the whole appearance of this dismantled ruffian gave the impression of a little runt who is merciless and meticulous even in his drunkenness, burnt out by adventures long past, and who has, for a long time, kept up his boor’s heart by assaults on the weak and disarmed.

But he was not utterly without erudition, this excellent old Chapuis. He regularly read arbitrating and authoritative newspapers such as The Lantern or The Cry of the People, was a strong believer in the infallible advent of the Social Revolution, and he enjoyed babbling, in taverns, oracles of pasty hard Politics and Religion, those two sciences so undemanding and so wonderfully easy—as everybody knows—that the first lazy soul can come along and command them.

As for love, this he scorned, without words, considering it paltry, and if, perchance, some other doctor made the slightest serious allusion to l’amour, straightaway he laughed and satirized it with vigor.

All this is why the amiable Isidore assumed the esteem of an incredible number of bartenders.

No one knew his precise origins, though he asserted his ties to a respectable middle-class heritage from Perigord. That was quite some ways back, without a doubt, because the odd character said himself that he was born in the Fauborg du Temple, where his parents had been swayed into practicing vague and very Parisian trades of which he did not speak at length.

And so he claimed descent from a provincial worthy of respect, and rattled off an innumerable collateral of family connections scattered everywhere, and bragged of their riches, vigorously mouthing things to wither the pride of propertied businessmen who underestimated the glorious overalls of the working citizen, clothes he wore. Really, however, no one had ever seen one of Isidore’s family. This problem of his parents was simultaneously a resource of glory and an occasion for generous outbursts.

But he broke loose even more against injustice, telling, with the rhetorical flourish of an aboriginal southerner, of the damned bad luck that had muddied all his enterprises, and the dishonest and dirty competitors who had forced him to leave off the boss’s frock coat for the overalls of the proletariat.

For in truth he had been a bourgeois, boss of his own workshop, working on his own behalf, or, rather, getting some half dozen workmen—for whom he seemed to be the Commander of the Faithful of carousing and eternal drunken revelries—to do the work for him.

The Glacière district could still recall those brawling scale-adjusters, their own balance disputed when one came upon them in the wine merchants’, where the boss, always dead drunk, publicized his law to them.

The collapse of his business, coming fast enough, and sufficiently announced by such Writing on the Wall, shocked only Chapuis, who, at first, broke out into curses against the heavens and the earth, but in time, with the good faith of a drunkard, recognized that he had committed the fault of being “too honest in business.”

As for the source of this ephemeral prosperity, a source long dried up, no one knew. “A small inheritance from the province,” the scale-maker had said vaguely. Certain strange rumors, however, which had once ran around, made his explanation rather dubious.

People remembered very clearly that they had known this counterfeit before the two Sieges, a man entirely without pomp, a bum lugging his carcass from workshop to workshop.

Suddenly, after the Commune, he was seen full of tens of thousands of francs, with which he had bought his business.

If the muted murmurs of the neighborhood were not lying, the money, picked up in some horrible cesspool that stank of bloodshed, had been the ransom of a bourgeois prince who had been inexplicably protected from fired shots and flames, the heroic Chapuis having been a Commandant or even Lieutenant Colonel of the insurrectionist force.

The highly mysterious and arbitrary clemency, which spared some of the factious after the insurrection, had stretched over him as it had stretched over many other more famous fighters who were known or assumed to be depositories of vile secrets, and who would likely make awful revelations.

So they let the wrecker alone to sleep off his drunkenness in peace, and he artfully made himself scarce during the period of summary executions.

A little later, representatives of Public Order and Morals made two or three attempts to interview him but they gave up before this habitual drunkard’s real or simulated stupidity, and old Chapuis, who for a fleeting moment had been almost famous, returned forever into total obscurity.

Everything about this man was therefore cast under a cloud of confusion that turned him into an important oracle in the eyes of the poor devils he condescended to spend time with, and whose childlike souls are so easily brought under control by any barker who assumes the dirt-cheap reputation of “knowing a thing or two.” Have not the Sovereign People themselves become the Sacred Geese of ancient superstition, soothsayers of the cabaret whom even the police like to consult?

In summary the old Isidore had the fame of being a “dirty bastard,” a generic term whose strength is not disputed.

He belonged, undoubtedly, to that lineage of scoundrels whom Providence instituted, at the beginning, to balance off the Seraphim.

Does it not happen that the great river of Humanity needs such a vessel to warn, by the unrest and reek of its waves, when anything at all is being dropped from Heaven? And how could any heart be made great without the marvelous education emitted by such a vessel?

Without Barabbas, no redemption. God would not have been worthy of creating the world had he left in the void that immense Rabble who would one day crucify Him.

II.

Despite the irregularity of his gait, apparently the one-time master scale-maker had an affair that would not suffer delay, because he did not stop at the Rendez-Vous Des Ennemis Du Phyloxéra, and scorned the advances of an ebony-skinned barker who hailed him from the Cocher Fidèle’s threshold.

Perhaps he had already spent his account, because although it was barely noon he was tempted by none of these bars of delight where, normally, he made multiple stops. Moreover, he was murmuring to himself and drooling on his boots, known symptoms of crabby preoccupation that his comrades held in respect.

Having repelled all consolation, at last he arrived at his own door, in the middle of the miserable Rue de Grenelle, where he had lived since his bankruptcy.

Filled with aches, he reached the fourth floor on a staircase suffocated by the terrible exhalations of the latrines and the “sanitation system,” and in the manner of a paralytic he knocked with his elbow against a scaly door that appeared to be the most harrowing entrance to hell.

The door opened at once and an old woman appeared, staring at him with interrogating eyes.

“Well?” he replied. “It’s a settled case. It depends only on the Princess.”

He entered and fell into any old chair, not without having thrown, in the direction of the grate, a stream of thick saliva whose curve, incorrectly calculated, fell on the fringes of a carpet that adorned the front of the fireplace.

As the old woman made haste to wipe away his spit with her foot, he cleared his throat liberally of some preliminary complaints.

“Ah, in the name of God, there’s nothing further than that piggish suburb of Honore, and not enough fare for the bus, and then having to rest my feet after being forced to wait for this painter who works for the aristocrats. He wasn’t awake yet at ten o’clock! I had a good mind to bawl him out. But I says to myself, ‘It’s for your daughter,’ and it’s past time that she made us a bit of cash as she’s been doing nothing for six months. Hey, old hag, is there nothing to drink here?”

The woman he shouted at launched two thin arms toward heaven, accompanying this gesture with a lengthy sigh.

“Ah, my sweet Jesus, what am I supposed to say to this poor dear, who goes through so much trouble for his luckless family? Be my witness, Holy Virgin, there is nothing left in the house, as everything that was worth two cents went to the Mount Venus pawnshop, and everything they exchanged with us has gone on bread. Ah, my dear Savior, take me to yourself, take me from this world, where I’ve already suffered so much.”

The word “suffered,” obviously polished for years, expired in a sob.

Extending his hand, Isidore grasped after and snagged hold of her skirt, shaking it vigorously.

“That’s enough, alright? You know I can’t stand your damned Jesuit mouth. If it’s a dance you need, only say the word and you’ll be served one for free. And hey, speaking of that, where is your confounded child?”

“Come on, Zizi, you know she had to go to Cousin Amédée, in the Boulevard de Vaugirard, to try to borrow the usual five francs. She told me she wouldn’t be gone for more than an hour. When you knocked, I thought it was her coming home.”

“You didn’t tell me that, you old hearse. Her cousin’s a slut who won’t front her a radish. Because she denied me the other day, saying she had no money for drinking. I’ll remember that one.

“My God, my God; misfortune to misfortune,” he added, almost in a whisper. “This old woman sends her daughter to have the lady turn over her whole house to a bunch of leechers! Alright, enough, we’ll sit here sucking our thumbs and see if Miss Gentility will do her folks the duty of listening to them.”

“Instead tell me how you did this morning,” said the saccharine old shrew. “You said that it’s all been arranged with M. Gacougnol?”

“Of course. Two francs an hour, three or four hours a day—if her person agrees with him, of course. This is a good job, not at all exhausting, nothing that will wear her out, to be sure. We need your weakling at his house by eleven o’clock tomorrow, and he’ll decide immediately.

“The ass doesn’t have an easy air about him. He made me answer a lot of questions. He wanted to know if she had lovers, if you can count on her, if she did not get drunk from time to time. Am I supposed to know? I wanted to tell him to—. It seems as though he wouldn’t have received me without the letter from the landlord. It’s a bit annoying, you know, to need the patronage of these jackasses who distrust the worker as if he were shit.

“Coming back I hurried up to the Red Cross, to hit up a buddy who gets fifteen franks a day from charity. Another one without broad shoulders, that one. He laid out three franks and then I had to fund the second round. It’s about time Clotilde helped us! I’ve made enough sacrifices. And anyhow, I’m one for politics, and fun, and the workshop is starting to be bad for my soul, damn it!”

Here you could hear the old lady make a new sigh, like a sepulchral dove, and say, “Four hours, at two francs, is eight francs. That sustains us. But you’re not afraid that the gentleman will demand things that are too difficult? I say this to you, my Zidore, because I am her mother, this child. We should make her understand that it is for her own good. I talked to her about it this morning. Told her she was to get her portrait painted by a Great Artist, and that made her damn nervous.”

“Ah, the scared bitch. Is she going to make herself the Empress over us again? Wait a while, I’ll knock the stuffiness out of her. When you haven’t got money, you’ve got to work to earn money to feed your family; that’s all I know.”

A gust of silence came and cut off the dialogue. It seemed that these two people were afraid, were they to reveal the dirty mirrors of their hearts, that they would find their reflections in one another.

With oratorical gestures, Chapuis began to fill his pipe, while his most worthy woman, still seated, arms crossed and head titled slighly toward the left shoulder, in the praisworthy pose of a resigned hostage, tapped wih her fingertips at her bony elbows, floating her fatigued eyes toward heaven.

III

The “tabernacle” was grim, lit by the pale ceiling of the icy, late autumn sky. But we can assume that the gleaming Indian sun would have made it seem more ghastly.

This was bleak Parisian poverty, outfitted with all of its make-believe; the odious working-class bric-a-brac of a by-gone respectable comfort, worn down slowly by revelrie and scarcity.

First, a massive Napoleonic bed that had been handsome in 1810, but the brass had not been tarnished since the Hundred Days of Napoleon, the varnish absent, the castors crooked, the legs themselves woefully patched while countless scratches attested to its decay. This bed without delight, barely furnished with a dubious mattress covered by dirty sheets and a gelatinous quilt, had to have busted the backs of three generations of movers.

In the shadow of this monument, which filled a third of the attic, one could perceive another mattress, speckled with bugs and black with grime, spread simply on the floortile. On the other side of the room, an old Voltaire armchair that could have been pillage from a sacked city, leaked forth its entrails of dried seaweed and wire, despite the fact that it was covered by a ragged child’s tapestry.

Beside this piece of furniture, which all of the pawnbrokers refused to acquire, there appeared, crowned with a water jug and basin, one of those miniscule, villainous “furnishing room” wash tables, reminiscent of the Last Judgment.

Finally, in front of the room’s single window, was a round walnut table, without luxury or steadiness, one which the most assiduous rubbing would not have made radiant; and three wicker chairs—two of them almost entirely without seats. Linen, if any remained, had to be crammed into a shaggy, old, padlocked trunk set aside as a seat for visitors.

Such was the furniture, not unlike that of many other homes in this joyous capital of licence and dissaray. But what was peculiarly awful was the room’s pretention of a proud dignity, of a distinct respectablility, which Chapuis’ sentimental companion had spread like ointment over the mold of this appalling slum.

The fireplace, without fire or cinders, may yet have struck a melancholic note, despite its ugliness, without the grotesque clutter of souveniers and infamous trinkets crowded on top of it.

One could note small cylindrical glass covers sheltering small boquets of dried flowers: in another small glass cover, this one a globe, mounted on a shell-encrusted concrete stand, the spectator saw a floating German-Swiss landscape; an assortment of univalvular shells in which a poetic ear can easily hear the distant murmur of the waves; and two of those tender Florian shepherds, colored porcelain cooked for the masses, in we know not what factory of ignominy.

Beside these works of art one discovered devotional images: doves drinking from a golden chalice, angels carrying armfuls of the “wheat of the elect”; first communicants heavily spruced, holding candles in paper lace; and then two or three questions of the day: “Where is the Cat?” “Where is the Policeman?” etc., inexplicably framed in boiler plate fashion.

Finally, photographs of workers, of soldiers, of respectable merchants of both sexes. The number of these effigies was incredible, and it rose in pyrimadic tiers to the ceiling.

Here and there along the wall, in the intervals between the rags, a few frames were suspended. Obviously, one would be indignant over not finding the famous engraving, so dear to tender hearts, “At Last We are Alone,” in which we do not cease admiring a rich gentleman who thrillingly clasps, in his arms, under the eyes of God, his trembling bride.

This Marriage-Notary’s or Licensced Lady’s picture was the pride of the Chapuises. One day they brought home a shoemaker from Charenton so that he could contemplate it. The rest—hideous chromolithographs, purchased at fairs or handed out at popular bazaars—without rising to the same aesthetic pinnacle, also did not lack a certain spice, and, above all, held that certain distinction on which mother Chapuis doted.

This craze for sprucing-up was one of the most discouraging incarnations of this woman’s foolish pride, and the contagious decay of this “supernumerary bone,” in the words of Bousset, would hold back the Plague.

She was the illegitimate child of a prince, she used to say mysteriously, a very noble prince, who passed before he could acknowledge her. She would never mention this character’s name, having declared her resolution to bury the glorious secret in the depths of her heart. But all her haughtiness and superior airs came from there.

Nobody, of course, had ever undertaken a verification of this origin. And yet there was surely something true to it, for the decadent woman of fifty who was concubine to the foul Chapuis, was once an aristocratically gorgeous woman, superior to the working class milieux in which she had always lived.

Daughter of an out-of-the-way tailoress and an unknown father, she had suddenly, at age eighteen, acquired a small fortune, and almost immediately married a respectable industrial trader in the Rue Saint-Antoine.

It is true that her elementary education was unspeakably lacking. Having barely known her mother who was lost prematurely to a life of clandestine prostitution, she was taken in and adopted by a mattressmaker from Montrogue. Her stepmother, supported in all likelihood by the famous “prince,” raised her carefully, raised her carefully, in the streets. The only education the mattressmaker could confer, one applied with daily slaps, was her personal experience with plant fibres and horsehair substitutes, a program of study that was probably not contained in the curriculum of the primary schools.

Therefore she sent the child to school, where over the course of several years her young mind never exceeded the art of writing without correct spelling and computation without accuracy. But the filth of various sewers held no secrets from her. Her mathematical muscles were to develop only later, that is to say, on the arrival of money.

When this visitor was announced, with the conditional reservation that she accept a certain husband, this affecting Spartan virgin, forgetful of the foxes that had been ravaging at her flank, suddenly showed forth the seeds of virtue previously ignored under the harshness of her life, and the merchant who married her, happy to have a legitimate cashier who would prosper his money-counter, demanded no more.

She became, then, the Refined Wife, for time eternal.

Her language, fortunately, conserved the succulence of the streets. But, at the same time that her fate was changed, her soul was miraculously cleansed of the scars and sad-flowers of her miserable childhood in the Parisian gutters. A complete cleansing and obliteration.

In short, she became an irreproachable wife, ah, good heavens! And that was to bring, to be sure, the rarest blessings upon her happy husband’s shop, even if he knew not his own happiness.

Naturally, she “got religion,” because it is essential to have, when one belongs to the well of the world,” a reasonable religion—needless to say, one without exaggeration or fanaticism.

This was in the middle of the reign of Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King, and not all the cows of all of the universities and philosophical circles of this period could provide sufficient lymph for the vaccine that innoculated the French mind against the superstition of the ancien régime.

However, the young madame Maréchal, such was the name of this Christian, would not endure jokes about piété, and her husband, who loved the bawdiness of Béranger, often had to be severely reminded of the sentiments and propieties of his position.

For, it is time to declare, this woman was truly ineffable, above all in that she had a poetic soul. The latent treasure of poetry in it had been revealed by some “Meditations of Lamartine,” whom she called “her divine Alphonse,” and two or three starchy elegies of Jean Raboul, such as the “Angel and the Child”:

Charming child who resembles me
The earth is unworthy of you.

When she had a girl, after two years of marriage, her prudishness became so exasperated that it produced the most hateful and crabbed dullness. In consequence, the district was unanimous in celebrating with a single cry the impeccable rigidity of her morals.

Once, however, the envied Maréchal surprised his wife in the company of a scantily clad gentleman. The circumstances were such that he would have had to be not only blind but deaf, and dead as well, to preserve the slightest doubt.

The austere matron who conducted her infidelity with an enthusiasm her partner obviously shared, was not literary enough to make use of the sublime words of Ninon: “Ah! You no longer love me! You believe what you see and you do not believe what I tell you!” But her lines were almost as lovely.

She walked over to him, breast in the wind, and in a tone so soft, her voice gentle and very grave, she told the stupefied man: “My dear friend, I am doing business with Monsieur le Comte, so hadn’t you better attend to your practice?”

After which she shut the door.

And it was finished. Two hours later she signified to her husband that he was not to speak to her, except in a case of absolute urgency, declaring that she was tired of condescending to his shopkeeper’s soul; indeed, she was to be pitied, for having sacrificed her girlish hopes for a lout without ideals, who had the indelicacy to spy on her. She did not forget, on this occasion, to recall her noble birth.

From that day forward, this exemplary wife walked nowhere without a palm of martyrdom, and life became a hell, a lake of deep bitterness for the poor, tamed cuckold who began to drink and neglected his business.

Life is too short, and the novel too precarious, for the epic of this commercial decline to be recounted here. Here is the epilogue.

After four years, bankruptcy was consumated, her husband confined to an assylum for senility, and, ruined at the same time, the woman with her child lodged anywhere she could in a back-alley of the Fauborg St. Jacques, where the mercy of a creditor had enabled her to bring a few pieces of her former furniture.

The martyr lived there until 1872, the memorable time when she became acquainted with Chapuis. Her resources being nonexistent, she managed to sustain herself, nevertheless, quite comfortably, on her alleged needlework, which she performed, it must be believed, to the peoples’ satisfaction, since she said she was overhelmed with peoples’ orders, although nobody saw her in her sewing room except very rarely. But it must be assumed that she was pining away in town, because she often returned home very late, and sometimes did not return at all.

The poor child grew as she could, horribly afraid of her mother, who sometimes forced her to pass the night in waiting, because she needed, she said, to find at home some evidence of affection and devotion, after a holy day of hard work.

So this little girl, who thus became, by and by, a big girl and even a woman, although malnourished and ill-clad, long maintained a tremulous admiration of her mother, who did not beat her too badly, who even embraced her, at long intervals, on days of maternal crisis, and whose stylish dress, disturbing on a working woman, left the child astonished.

www.bringuptospeed.com