Claudine at School
My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in1884; I shall probably not die there. My Manual of DepartmentalGeography expresses itself thus: "Montigny-en-Fresnois, a prettylittle town of 1,950 inhabitants, built in tiers above the Thaize; itswell-preserved Saracen tower is worthy of note...." To me, thosedescriptions are totally meaningless! To begin with, the Thaizedoesn't exist. Of course I know it's supposed to run through themeadows under the level-crossing but you won't find enough waterthere in any season to give a sparrow a foot-bath. Montigny "built intiers"? No, that's not how I see it; to my mind, the houses justtumble haphazard from the top of the hill to the bottom of thevalley. They rise one above the other, like a staircase, leading up to abig chateau that was rebuilt under Louis XV and is already moredilapidated than the squat, ivy-sheathed Saracen tower that crumblesaway from the top a trifle more every day. Montigny is a village,not a town: its streets, thank heaven, are not paved; the showers rolldown them in little torrents that dry up in a couple of hours; it is avillage, not even a very pretty village, but, all the same, I adore it.
The charm, the delight of this countryside composed of hills andof valleys so narrow that some are ravines, lies in the woodsthedeep, encroaching woods that ripple and wave away into thedistance as far as you can see.... Green meadows make rifts inthem here and there, so do little patches of cultivation. But these donot amount to much, for the magnificent woods devour everything.As a result, this lovely region is atrociously poor and its fewscattered farms provide just the requisite number of red roofs to setoff the velvety green of the woods.
Dear woods! I know them all; I've scoured them so often. Thereare the copses, where bushes spitefully catch your face as you pass.Those are full of sun and strawberries and lilies-of-the-valley; theyare also full of snakes. I've shuddered there with choking terror atthe sight of those dreadful, smooth, cold little bodies gliding just infront of my feet. Dozens of times near the "rosemallow" I've stoppedstill, panting, when I've found a well-behaved grass snake under myhand. It would be neatly coiled up, like a snail-shell, with its headraised and its little golden eyes staring at me: it was not dangerous,but how it frightened me! But never mind all that: I shall always endby going back there, alone or with my friends. Better alone, becausethose girls are so young lady-ish that they annoy me. They'refrightened of being scratched by brambles; they're frightened oflittle creatures such as hairy caterpillars and those pretty heath-spidersthat are as pink and round as pearls; they squeal, they gettiredin fact, they're insufferable.
And then there are my favourites, the great woods that are sixteenand twenty years old. It makes my heart bleed to see one of those cutdown. No bushy undergrowth in them but trees like pillars andnarrow paths where it is almost night at noon, where one's voice andone's steps resound in a disturbing way. Heavens, how I love them!I feel so much alone there, my eyes lost far away among the trees, inthe green, mysterious daylight that is at once deliciously peacefuland a little unnerving because of the loneliness and the vaguedarkness.... No small creatures in those great woods; no tallgrasses; but beaten earth, now dry, and sonorous, now soft onaccount of the springs. Rabbits with white scuts range through themand timid deer who run so fast that you can only guess their passage.Great heavy pheasants too, red and golden, and wild boars (I'venever seen one) and wolves. I heard a wolf once, at the beginning ofwinter, while I was picking up beech-nutsthose nice, oily littlebeech-nuts that tickle your throat and make you cough. Sometimesstorm-showers surprise you in those woods; you huddle under anoak that is thicker than the others and listen to the rain pattering upthere as if on a roof. You're so well-sheltered that when you comeout of those depths you are quite lost and dazzled and feel ill at easein the broad daylight.
And the fir-woods! Not very deep, these, and hardly at allmysterious. I love them for their smell, for the pink and purpleheather that grows under them and for the way they sing in thewind. Before you get to them, you have to go through dense forest;then suddenly you have the delicious surprise of coming out on theedge of a lake; a smooth, deep lake, enclosed on all sides by thewoods, far, far away from everything! The firs grow on a kind ofisland in the middle; you have to straddle bravely across on a fallentree-trunk that bridges the two banks. Under the firs, you light afire, even in summer, because it's forbidden; you cook any old thing,an apple, a pear, a potato stolen from a field, some wholemeal breadif you've nothing better. And there's a smell of acrid smoke andresinit's abominable but it's exquisite.
I have lived ten years of wild rovings, of conquests and discoveries,in those woods; the day when I have to leave them my heart willbe very heavy.
Two months ago, when I turned fifteen and let down my skirts tomy ankles, they demolished the old school and changed theheadmistress. The long skirts were necessitated by my calves; theyattracted glances and were already making me look too much like ayoung lady. The old school was falling into ruins. As to theHeadmistress, poor good Madame X, forty, ugly, ignorant, gentleand always terrified in the presence of the Elementary Schoolinspectors, Doctor Dutertre, our District Superintendent ofSchools, needed her place for a protégée of his own. In this part ofthe world, what Dutertre wishes, the Minister wishes too.
Poor old school, dilapidated and unhygienic, but so amusing! Thehandsome buildings they are putting up now will never make meforget you!
The rooms on the first floor, the ones belonging to the masters,were cheerless and uncomfortable. The ground floor was occupiedby our two classrooms, the big girls' and the little girls'; two roomsof incredible ugliness and dirtiness, with tables whose like I havenever seen since. They were worn down to half their height byconstant use and, by rights, we ought to have become hunchbacksafter six months of sitting over them. The smell of those classrooms,after the three hours of study in the morning and in the afternoon,was literally enough to knock you down. I have never had schoolmatesof my own kind, for the few middle-class families ofMontigny send their children as a matter of course to boarding-schoolin the main county town. Thus the school's only pupils werethe daughters of grocers, farmers, policemen and, for the most part,of labourers; all of them none too well washed.
The reason I find myself in this strange milieu is that I do not wantto leave Montigny. If I had a Mamma, I know very well that shewould not have let me stay here twenty-four hours. But Papahedoesn't notice anything and doesn't bother about me. He is entirelywrapped up in his work and it never occurs to him that I might bemore suitably brought up in a convent or in some Lycée or other.There's no danger of my opening his eyes!
As companions therefore, I hadand still haveClaire (I won'tgive her surname) who made her First Communion with me, agentle girl with beautiful, soft eyes and a romantic little soul. Shespent her time at school becoming enamoured (oh! platonically, ofcourse!) of a new boy every week and, even now, her only ambitionis to fall in love with the first idiot of an Assistant-Master orRoad-Surveyor who happens to be in the mood for "poetical"declarations.
Then there's the lanky Anaïs who, no doubt, will succeed inentering the portals of the school at Fontenay-aux-Roses, thanks to aprodigious memory which takes the place of real intelligence. She iscold, vicious and so impossible to upset that she never blushes, luckycreature! She is a positive pastmistress of comedy and often makesme quite ill with laughing. Her hair is neither dark nor fair; she has ayellow skin, no colour in her cheeks, and narrow black eyes, and sheis as tall as a bean-pole. Someone quite out of the ordinary, in fact.Liar, toady, swindler and traitress, that lanky Anaïs will alwaysknow how to get out of any scrape in life. At thirteen, she waswriting to some booby of her own age and making assignations withhim; this got about and resulted in gossip which upset all the girls inthe school except herself. Then there are the Jauberts, two sisterstwinsactuallyboth model pupils. Model pupils! Don't I know it! Icould cheerfully flay them alive, they exasperate me so much withtheir good behaviour and their pretty, neat handwriting and theirsilly identical flat, flabby faces and sheep's eyes full of maudlinmildness. They swat all the time; they're bursting with good marks;they're prim and underhand and their breath smells of glue. Ugh!
And Marie Belhomme, a goose but such a cheerful one! At fifteen,she has as much reasoning power and common sense as a ratherbackward child of eight; she overflows with colossally naïve remarksthat disarm our maliciousness and we are very fond of her. I'malways saying any amount of disgraceful things in front of herbecause, at first, she's genuinely shocked and then, the next minute,she laughs wholeheartedly, flinging up her long, narrow hands ashigh as they'll go. "Her midwife's hands" Anaïs calls them. Dark,with a matt complexion, long, humid black eyes and an innocentnose, Marie looks like a pretty, timid hare. These four and myselfmake up an envied set this year; from now on we rank above the "biggirls" as aspirants to the elementary School Certificate. The rest, inour eyes, are mere scum; lower orders beneath contempt! I shallintroduce a few more of my schoolmates in the course of this diaryfor it is definitely a diary, or very nearly one, that I am about tobegin....
When Madame X received the notice of her dismissal, she criedabout it for an entire day, poor womanand so did we. Thisinspired me with a strong aversion for her successor. Just when thedemolishers of the old school made their appearance in the playground,the new Headmistress, Mademoiselle Sergent, arrived. Shewas accompanied by her mother, a fat woman in a starched cap whowaits on her daughter and admires her and who gives me theimpression of a wily peasant who knows the price of butter but is notbad at heart. As for Mademoiselle Sergent, she seemed anything butkindly and I augured ill of that redhead. She has a good figure, withwell-rounded bust and hips, but she is flagrantly ugly. Her face ispuffy and permanently crimson and her nose is slightly snubbetween two small black eyes, deep-set and suspicious. She occupiesa room in the old school which does not have to be demolishedstraight away and so does her assistant, the pretty Aimée Lanthenaywho attracts me as much as her superior repels me. AgainstMademoiselle Sergent, the intruder, I keep up a fierce and rebelliousattitude. She has already tried to tame me but I've jibbed in analmost insolent way. After a few lively skirmishes, I have to admitthat she is an unusually good headmistress; decisive, often imperious,with a strength of purpose that would be admirably clear-sightedif it were not occasionally blinded by rage. If she had morecommand over herself, that woman would be admirable. But, if oneresists her, her eyes blaze and her red hair becomes soaked withsweat. The day before yesterday I saw her leave the room so as notto throw an ink-pot at my head.
At recreation-time, since the damp cold of this wretched autumndoesn't make me feel in the least inclined to play games, I talk toMademoiselle Aimée. Our intimacy is progressing very fast. Hernature is like a demonstrative cat's; she is delicate, acutely sensitiveto cold, and incredibly caressing in her ways. I like looking at hernice pink face, like a fair-haired little girl's, and at her golden eyeswith their curled-up lashes. Lovely eyes that only ask to smile! Theymake the boys turn and look after her when she goes out. Often,when we're talking in the doorway of the little crowded classroom,Mademoiselle Sergent passes by us on the way back to her room.She doesn't say a word but fixes us with her jealous, searching looks.Her silence makes us feel, my new friend and I, that she's furious atseeing us "hit it off" so well.
This little Aiméeshe's nineteen and only comes up to myearschatters, like the schoolgirl she still was only three monthsago, with a need for affection and with repressed gestures that touchme. Repressed gestures! She controls them from an instinctive fearof Mademoiselle Sergent, clutching her cold little hands tight underthe imitation fur collar (poor little thing, she has no money likethousands of her kind). To make her less shy, I behave gently (it isn'tdifficult) and I ask her questions, quite content just to look at her.When she talks, she's pretty, in spite ofor because ofherirregular little face. If her cheekbones are a trifle too salient, if herrather too full mouth, under the short nose, makes a funny little dintat the left side when she laughs, what marvellous golden-yellow eyesshe has to make up for them! And what a complexionone of thosecomplexions that look so delicate but are so reliable that the colddoesn't even turn them blue! She talks and she talksabout herfather who's a gem-cutter and her mother who was liberal with hersmacks, about her sister and her three brothers, about the hardtraining-college in the country-town where the water froze in thejugs and where she was always dropping with sleep because they gotup at five o'clock (luckily the English mistress was very nice to her),about the holidays at home where they used to force her to go backto housework, telling her she'd do better to cook than to sham theyoung lady. All this was unfolded in her endless chatter; all thatpoverty-stricken youth that she had endured with impatience andremembered with terror.
Little Mademoiselle Lanthenay, your supple body seeks anddemands an unknown satisfaction. If you were not an assistantmistress at Montigny you might be ... I'd rather not say what. Buthow I like listening to you and looking at youyou who are fouryears older than I am and yet make me feel every single moment likeyour elder sister!
My new confidante told me one day that she knew quite a lot ofEnglish and this inspired me with a simply marvellous idea. I askedPapa (as he takes Mamma's place) if he wouldn't like me to getMademoiselle Aimée Lanthenay to give me lessons in Englishgrammar. Papa thought the idea a good one, like most of my ideas,and to "clinch the matter", as he says, he came with me to seeMademoiselle Sergent. She received us with a stony politeness and,while Papa was explaining his idea to her, she seemed to beapproving it. But I felt vaguely uneasy at not seeing her eyes whileshe was talking. (I'd noticed very quickly that her eyes always tellwhat she is thinking without her being able to disguise it and I wasworried to observe that she kept them obstinately lowered.) MademoiselleAimée was called down and arrived eager and blushing.She kept repeating "Yes, Monsieur", and "Certainly, Monsieur",hardly realising what she was saying, while I watched her, highlydelighted with my ruse and rejoicing in the thought that, henceforth,I should have her with me in more privacy than on thethreshold of the small classroom. Price of the lessons: fifteen francs amonth and two sessions a week. For this poor little assistantmistress, who earns sixty-five francs a month and has to pay for herkeep out of it, this was a windfall beyond her dreams. I believe, too,that she was pleased at the idea of being with me more often. Duringthat visit, I barely exchanged a couple of sentences with her.
The day of our first lesson! I waited for her after class while shecollected her English books and off we went to my home! I'darranged a comfortable corner for us in Papa's librarya big table,pens and exercise-books, with a good lamp that only lit the table.Mademoiselle Aimée, extremely embarrassed (why?) blushed andsaid with a nervous little cough:
"Now then, Claudine, you know your alphabet, I think?"
"Of course, Mademoiselle. I also know a little grammar. I couldeasily do that little bit of translation.... We're cosy here, aren'twe?"
"Yes, very cosy."
I asked, lowering my voice a little as I did when we were havingour gossips:
"Did Mademoiselle Sergent mention my lessons with you again?"
"Oh, hardly at all. She told me it was a piece of luck for me—-thatyou'd give me no trouble if you were only willing to work alittlethat you could learn very quickly when you wanted to."
"Was that all? That's not much! She must have been sure you'drepeat it to me."
"Now, now Claudine, we're not working. In English there is onlyone article ..., etc., etc."
After ten minutes of serious English, I questioned her again.
"Did you notice she didn't look at all pleased when I came withPapa to ask to have lessons with you?"
"No ... Yes ... Well, perhaps. But we hardly spoke to eachother that evening."
"Do take off your jacket, it's always stifling in Papa's room. Howslim you areone could snap you in two! Your eyes are awfullypretty by this light."
I said that because I thought it and also because it gave mepleasure to pay her complimentsmore pleasure than if I hadreceived them on my own account. I enquired:
"Do you still sleep in the same room as Mademoiselle Sergent?"
This proximity seemed odious to me but how could she dootherwise? All the other rooms had already been stripped of theirfurniture and the men were beginning to take off the roof. The poorlittle thing sighed:
"I have to, but it's too tiresome for words. At nine o'clock I go tobed at oncequick, quickand she comes up to bed later on. Butit's unpleasant all the same, when the two of us are so ill-at-easetogether."
"Oh, I do feel so frightfully sorry for you! It must be maddeningfor you to have to dress in front of her in the morning! I shouldloathe to have to show myself in my chemise to people I don't like!"
Mademoiselle Lanthenay started as she pulled out her watch.
"Really, Claudine, we're not doing a thing! We simply mustwork!"
"Yes.... Did you know they're expecting some new assistant-masters?"
"I know. Two. They're arriving tomorrow."
"That'll be amusing! Two admirers for you!"
"Oh, be quiet, do. To begin with, all the ones I've seen were sostupid that I wasn't a bit tempted. And, besides, I know the namesof these two already. Such ludicrous namesAntonin Rabastensand Armand Duplessis."
"I bet those two idiots will go through our playground twentytimes a day. They'll make the excuse that the boys' entrance iscluttered up with builder's rubbish...."
"Listen, Claudine, this is disgraceful. We haven't done a stroketoday."
"Oh, it's always like that the first day. We'll work much betternext Friday. One has to have time to get going."
In spite of this convincing reasoning, Mademoiselle Lanthenayfelt guilty about her own laziness and made me work seriously to theend of the hour. Afterwards, I accompanied her down to the bottomof the street. It was dark and freezing and it upset me to see thissmall shadow going off into that cold and that blackness to return tothe Redhead with the jealous eyes.
This week we've enjoyed some hours of pure bliss because they'vebeen using us big ones to clear the loft and bring down all the booksand the old lumber with which it was crammed. We had to hurry:the builders were waiting to pull down the first storey. There weremad gallops through the attics and up and down the stairs. At therisk of being punished we ventured, the lanky Anaïs and I, right onto the staircase leading to the masters' rooms, in the hopes of at leastcatching a glimpse of the two new assistants who had remainedinvisible since their arrival....
Yesterday, in front of a door left ajar, Anaïs gave me a shove. Istumbled and pushed the door right open with my head. Then weburst into giggles and stood rooted to the spot on the threshold ofthis room, obviously a master's and, luckily, empty of its tenant.Hastily, we inspected it. On the wall and on the mantelpiece werelarge chromolithographs in commonplace frames: an Italian girl withluxuriant hair, dazzling teeth and eyes three times the size of hermouth; as a companion-piece, a swooning blonde clutching a spanielto her blue-ribboned bodice. Above the bed of Antonin Rabastens(he had stuck his card on the door with four drawing-pins) hungentwined pennants in the French and Russian national colours.What else? A table with a wash-basin, two chairs, some butterfliesstuck on corks, some sentimental songs lying about the mantelpiece,and not a thing besides. We stared at all this without saying a word,then suddenly we escaped towards the loft at full speed, oppressedby an absurd fear that Antonin (one simply can't be called Antonin!)might be coming up the stairs. Our trampling on those forbiddensteps was so noisy that a door opened on the ground-floorthe doorof the boys' classroomand someone appeared, enquiring in afunny Marseilles accent:
"What on earrth's going on? For the last half-hour, have I beenhearing hosses on the staircase?"
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