Baroness Picpus's Chambermaid
"But, my dear
chap, I met somebody delightful recently, Baroness Picpus's
chambermaid. She is a majestic blonde, the prettiest girl I have
ever seen, too much the lady, with an insolence second to none,
but a marvel. Along with that she is a girl who has retained
something of the vicious peasant, who was brought up in the
country where she spent all of her childhood in the company of
farm boys. As a result she is relatively virtuous, but only
relatively. But I assure you that she tells us all about it and
makes us see things that are in no way banal."
My head was beginning to be turned towards Baroness Picpus's chambermaid. I was seriously thinking about how to meet her when I read in the paper: "Baroness Picpus and her retinue are leaving for Venice where she has rented the palace of X. She is going to spend three months there before embarking for the West Indies." There was nothing more for it, I was in love with Baroness Picpus's chambermaid. But she was leaving for Venice! Had she left already? Perhaps her chambermaid would not be joining her until the next day? Perhaps she was still in Paris? It would be enough for me to get to know her, to give her money, for her to think well of me, so that she would leave me keeping a place, a flattering place in her head. That would be enough for me, and on her return we should see. But I must hurry! Tomorrow may be too late. I did not know the chambermaid's name... But it was time to write to Montargis, they might all have left. I sent a trustworthy man to the Picpus's town house. I waited outside in a motor car. The porter had gone to bed, it took an hour before the door was opened. The Baroness had left; her chambermaid was still there and was leaving the next morning, but she was in bed, my man came back to tell me. I sent him back, he rang the bell again. The porter, after having to get up again, insulted him. He said he absolutely must go up and speak to the chambermaid on behalf of one of her cousins: after ten minutes he came back in a rage, telling us to leave immediately, that he had been insulted and threatened us with the police. From then on I had only one thought in mind, to go to Venice with an introduction to Mme de Picpus, see her chambermaid at her house, scorn the insolent creature, make friends with her as though despite myself, and afterwards we should see.
I went for a walk alone in the Bois. By the restaurants a Venetian air brought tears to my eyes and all I could read were guides to Italy. "You always want things of the moment, Montargis told me, you have offended this girl, I told you that she puts on more airs than a duchess. Stay calm, I promise I'll bring her to you. Why do you want to go to Venice just for that!"
The following year I was no longer thinking about her when he told me that she had had her face burned in a fire on a steamboat and that she would be permanently disfigured. He saw her from time to time. He arranged a meeting with her for me. But she was dreadful to look at and on seeing her body one could only think how lovely she must have been.
"I would never accept a rendezvous with somebody I didn't know, she told me (fortunately she did not know and was never to know that I was the one who had got her up that night), but since you say you are a friend of Robert's (she did not know the name Montargis but his recommendation to her appeared to be sufficient), I thought there couldn't be any harm in it, eh? How is he? When will he be coming?" I stupidly replied: "I don't know, I met him at his aunt de Guermantes. - De Guermantes, you say? isn't that the de Guermantes château in l'Eure-et-Loire? - But how come you know the de Guermantes château? - Because I'm from near there; the village where I was brought up is ten kilometres from the château de Guermantes. I'm telling you this, I think I can trust you as a friend of Robert's, eh? - Which village? - Maybe you've heard of Méséglise? It's near Brou. - Brou! so you must know Combray? - Oh yes, I know Combray very well; as for going there I have never been, but my parents used to go there every week for the market. There is a gentleman from near Combray who seduced me, while I was in service at the château de Mérouville, it's because of all that that I never went there. But I often visited nearby, because I had a friend who liked to go fishing in Combray, because it is famous for its trout." I had the feeling that I would soon find out who this fisherman was. But I was unable to find out where her friend went fishing. She knew that it was on the river near Combray but did not know where.
"Oh, but if you know Combray, she exclaimed joyfully, you must have come across Théodule the young chemist who had a lovely voice and used to sing in the church?" Yes, I remember him! He was the one who used to bring us the consecrated bread. "Well then, she cried, brimming over with happiness, he is married to my sister. He doesn't live in Combray now, he is the chemist in our village, in Brou. But you wouldn't recognize him now! He has a big black beard. You never knew him with a beard, eh? Oh he is a holy fool. And besides he has no respect for anything, she added lowering her eyes. But I am still very pleased to have found him, because he told me that he could heal this", she said, indicating her poor scarred face.
We calculated that we were the same age. The thought that while I was wearing myself out in my solitary pleasures in the little turret in Combray, at Brou where by a chance of fate I never wanted to stop and where one year when I was ill I was encouraged to rent a room in order to spend the winter in the fresh air, when Combray would have been all closed down, the thought that this wonderful girl, drunk with desire, was prostituting herself with peasants in barns, drove me mad. Forgetting her face I threw myself upon her and I felt that her violent caresses had been taught to her by young swains, so that I had the impression of no longer being myself, but of being a young peasant that a bolder and already knowing young peasant girl was rolling in the hay.
"Did you learn all that from young peasant lads? I asked her. - No, I can speak plainly to you can't I? I learned all that from Robert, but I told them I learned it from the peasant lads because that kept them happy. But I never speak to people of my class now. I only go with society people." Our conversation flagged. I talked about Mme de Picpus whom she found proud. "She is w-w-watching you, she said. And even though I am only a servant I know as much as her, and more than her, eh?" At every turn she started talking about Brou again, where she was going to spend a month during the summer. "Maybe I should tell Théodule about all this. We could send you some post cards, eh?" I told her that I was intending to visit the area around Combray in a motor car, and that I could take her for a trip. This idea pleased her enormously: "I love motor cars, she said. I love nothing more than motor cars, cards, clothes and trips. That's the way to get round me, eh?" I thought that by this simple estimate any serious lady of the house would be happy to engage her as a chambermaid.
At that moment the door opened. "It's my aunt", she said eagerly, and I saw come in a lady I recognized immediately: the black dress, the red face, the majestic bearing, the mother of a pianist, the worthy woman "so pleasant when you are alone with her", from Mme Verdurin's. She recognized me too, and immediately her majesty took on proportions unknown at the Verdurins' house. She no longer had the air of wanting only to pay respect to dear memories, a sombre and unhappy past. She protested indignantly against the outrage that anybody would have wished to suffer them. She would bear herself up through "the immense majesty of her widow's sorrow" as if the fact of my recognizing her and her recognizing me was an insult to her, then a hollow rattling made itself heard, a few words emerged: "Ke, ke, ke, seems t'me... looks familiar, must be mistaken." It seemed to me that in reality I could not have been unknown to her, the previous year she dined with me every week, and as I was the only one who ever talked to her I was always placed next to her. At this point these rites of astonishment appeared to have been completed for her, as if she had no half-way stage between severity and pleasantry, she thought she was at her niece's and it was time to make a joke and with a lecherous laugh she said: "Ke, Mme Verdurin would be astonished, ke, ke, ke, so we meet again, ke, ke." She asked me why I was never seen at the Verdurins' now. I saw that she detested Verdurin, because he had said to her once (she must have been mistaken): "My name is M. Verdurin. - Well, she said haughtily, now finding her words once more, I looked him in the eye and said: and my name is Mme Maudouillard. Ha! Well, all the same you can't let yourself be treated like that. That told him. We never had a peep out of him for the rest of the evening." She found Mme Verdurin a good woman, but with "undistinguished manners", "tradesman-like". I could see that she was not in the slightest bit moved by their kindness, that she was contemptuous of their simplicity and that she attributed to them a thousand vindictive intentions that were totally in her imagination. Swann alone had made a great impression on her: you could see he was a man of the world, a man used to the finest manners. And even with all that, such simplicity! She was convinced that he was a Prussian spy and that his moustache was false.
It was decided that all three of us would dine together at a restaurant. But it was insufferable. As soon as we arrived she began progressively to lose the use of her words, went in wafting her widow's veils with an irritated majesty, finding insolence in the waiter's every remark, in every look of our dining companions, convinced that at every table these people who were "trying to impress" were all concierges on a spree. She even thought she recognized them. We had hardly arrived when she needed the lavatory, asked the way and was displeased by the tone of the waiter: "Did you hear his tone? I mean... really..." As soon as we began to eat, we could hear nothing else from her but the dull rattling of her throat from which emerged from time to time: "As far as I am concerned, he is the guilty one, but he's not the only one. - There's nothing I like better when I'm hungry than a good, rare steak. - I only take homeopathic remedies, because they're not so hard on the stomach." She ate a mouthful as she pronounced a word, every five minutes, making use of the moments we were not looking at her for fear of eating rudely and the rest of the time making solemn gestures with her fork in the air and rearranging her veils. She asked the waiter to put her napkin around her neck and when I offered to do it myself she told me: "I think that's what he's here for."
All at once I noticed with dismay that the Guermantes were dining with the young Villeparisis family at the far end of the restaurant. I pretended not to have seen them. But Mme Maudouillard, who did not know who they were, never stopped staring at them, sneering: "What a way to carry on in a restaurant! No doubt a shop girl on a spree, I think I recognize her actually. At least she hasn't paid for her blouse, nor her hat. And those gaudy colours! No! She even puts her elbows on the table and holds her glass in both hands. Really, some people! And what a racket they're making, anyone would think they were at home. Just look, you would think we were at a show." I was obliged to say that I dare not look because I thought I had recognized the gentleman. "He must be her one-night-stand, she added finally. You don't need pay him any respects on my behalf."
I left this dour family and I never saw the poor burned girl again, but every summer I received post cards from Brou asking me if I was not coming "to see Théodule".
This an early version of the episode about Baroness Putbus's chambermaid, written about 1909 - 1910. This fragment dates from before the publication of Swann where the name Montargis becomes Saint-Loup.
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