The little Bouilloux girl
by ColetteThe little Bouilloux girl was so lovely that even we children noticed it. It is unusual for small girls to recognize beauty in one of themselves and pay homage to it. But there could be no disputing such undeniable loveliness as hers. When-ever my mother met the little Bouilloux girl in the street, she would stop her and bend over her as she was wont to bend over her yellow tea-rose, her red flowering cactus or her Azure Blue butterfly trustfully asleep on the scaly bark of the pine tree. She would stroke her curly hair, golden as a half-ripe chestnut, and her delicately tinted cheeks, and watch the incredible lashes flutter over her great dark eyes. She would observe the glimmer of the perfect teeth in her peerless mouth, and when, at last, she let the child go on her way, she would look after her, murmuring, “It’s prodigious!”
Several years passed, bringing yet further graces to the little Bouilloux girl. There were certain occasions recorded by our admiration: a prize-giving at which, shyly murmuring an unintelligible recitation, she glowed through her tears like a peach under a summer shower. The little Bouilloux girl’s first communion caused a scandal: the same evening, after vespers, she was seen drinking a half pint at the Café du Commerce, with her father, the sawyer, and that night she danced, already feminine and flirtatious, a little unsteady in her white slippers, at the public ball.
With an arrogance to which she had accustomed us, she informed us later, at school, that she was to be apprenticed.
“Oh! Who to?”
“To Madame Adolphe.”
“Oh! And are you to get wages at once?”
“No. I’m only thirteen, I shall start earning next year.”
She left us without emotion, and coldly we let her go.
Already her beauty isolated her and she had no friends at school, where she learned very little. Her Sundays and her Thursdays brought no intimacy with us; they were spent with a family that was considered “unsuitable,” with girl cousins of eighteen well known for their brazen behavior, and with brothers, cartwright apprentices, who sported ties at fourteen and smoked when they escorted their sister to the Parisian shooting-gallery at the fair or to the cheerful bar that the widow Pimolle had made so popular.
The very next morning on my way to school I met the little Bouilloux girl setting out for the dressmaker’s work-rooms, and I remained motionless, thunderstruck with jealous admiration, at the corner of the Rue des Soeurs, watching Nana Bouilloux’s retreating form. She had exchanged her black pinafore and short childish frock for a long skirt and a pleated blouse of pink sateen. She wore a black alpaca apron and her exuberant locks, disciplined and twisted into a “figure of eight,” lay close as a helmet about the charming new shape of a round imperious head that retained nothing childish except its freshness and the not yet calculated impudence of a little village adventuress.
That morning the upper forms hummed like a hive.
“I’ve seen Nana Bouilloux! In a long dress, my dear, would you believe it? And her hair in a chignon! She had a pair of scissors hanging from her belt too!”
At noon I flew home to announce breathlessly:
“Mother! I met Nana Bouilloux in the street! She was passing our door. And she had on a long dress! Mother, just imagine, a long dress! And her hair in a chignon! And she had high heels and a pair of . . .”
“Eat, Minet-Chéri, eat, your cutlet will be cold.”
“And an apron, mother, such a lovely alpaca apron that looked like silk! Couldn’t I possibly. . .”
“No, Minet-Chéri, you certainly couldn’t.”
“But if Nana Bouilloux can …”
“Yes, Nana Bouilloux, at thirteen, can, in fact she should, wear a chignon, a short apron and a long skirt —it’s the uniform of all little Bouilloux girls throughout the world, at thirteen—more’s the pity.”
“Yes, I know you would like to wear the complete uniform of a little Bouilloux girl. It includes all that you’ve seen, and a bit more besides: a letter safely hidden in the apron pocket, an admirer who smells of wine and of cheap cigars; two admirers, three admirers and a little later on plenty of tears. . . and a sickly child hidden away, a child that has lain for months crushed by constricting stays. There it is, Minet-Chéri, the entire uniform of the little Bouilloux girls. Do you still want it?”
“Of course not, mother. I only wanted to see if a chignon …”
But my mother shook her head, mocking but serious.
“No, no! You can’t have the chignon without the apron, the apron without the letter, the letter without the high-heeled slippers, or the slippers without . . . all the rest of it! It’s just a matter of choice!”
My envy was soon exhausted. The resplendent little Bouilloux girl became no more than a daily passerby whom I scarcely noticed. Bareheaded in winter and summer, her gaily colored blouses varied from week to week, and in very cold weather she swathed her elegant shoulders in a useless little scarf. Erect, radiant as a thorny rose, her eyelashes sweeping her cheeks or half revealing her dark and dewy eyes, she grew daily more worthy of queening it over crowds, of being gazed at, adorned and bedecked With jewels. The severely smoothed crinkliness of her chestnut hair could still be discerned in little waves that caught the light in the golden mist at the nape of her neck and round her ears. She always looked vaguely offended With her small, velvety nostrils reminding one of a doe.
She was fifteen or sixteen now—and so was I. Except that she laughed too freely on Sundays, in order to show her white teeth, as she hung on the arms of her brothers or her girl cousins, Nana Bouilloux was behaving fairly well.
“For a little Bouilloux girl, very well indeed!” was the public verdict.
She was seventeen, then eighteen; her complexion was like a peach on a south wall, no eyes could meet the challenge of hers and she had the bearing of a goddess. She began to take the floor at fetes and fairs, to dance with abandon, to stay out very late at night, wandering in the lanes with a man’s arm round her waist. Always unkind, but full of laughter, provoking boldness in those who would have been content merely to love her.
Then came a St. John’s Eve when she appeared on the dance floor that was laid down on the Place du Grand-Jeu under the melancholy light of malodorous oil lamps. Hob-nailed boots kicked up the dust between the planks of the “floor.” All the young men, as was customary, kept their hats on while dancing. Blonde girls became claret-colored in their tight bodices, while the dark ones, sunburned from their work in the fields, looked black. But there, among a band of haughty workgirls, Nana Bouilloux, in a summer dress sprigged with little flowers, was drinking lemonade laced with red wine when the Parisians arrived on the scene.
They were two Parisians such as one sees in the country in summer, friends of a neighboring landowner, and supremely bored; Parisians in tussore and white serge, come for a moment to mock at a village midsummer fete. They stopped laughing when they saw Nana Bouilloux and sat down near the bar in order to see her better. In low voices they exchanged comments which she pretended not to hear, since her pride as a beautiful creature would not let her turn her eyes in their direction and giggle like her companions. She heard the words: “A swan among geese! A Greuze! A crime to let such a wonder bury herself here. . . .” When the young man in the white suit asked the little Bouilloux girl for a waltz she got up without surprise and danced with him gravely, in silence. From time to time her eyelashes, more beautiful than a glance, brushed against her partner’s fair mustache.
After the waltz the two Parisians went away, and Nana Bouilloux sat down by the bar, fanning herself. There she was soon approached by young Leriche, by Houette, even by Honce the chemist, and even by Possy the cabinet-maker, who was ageing, but none the less a good dancer. To all of them she replied, “Thank you, but I’m tired,” and she left the ball at half-past ten o’clock.
And after that, nothing more ever happened to the little Bouilloux girl. The Parisians did not return, neither they, nor others like them. Houette, Honce, young Leriche, the commercial travelers with their gold watch-chains, soldiers on leave and sheriff’s clerks vainly climbed our steep street at the hours when the beautifully coiffed sempstress, on her way down it, passed them by stiffly with a distant nod. They looked out for her at dances, where she sat drinking lemonade with an air of distinction and answered their importunities with “Thank you very much, but I’m not dancing, I’m tired.” Taking offense, they soon began to snigger: “Tired! Her kind of tiredness lasts for thirty-six weeks!” and they kept a sharp watch on her figure. But nothing happened to the little Bouilloux girl, neither that nor anything else. She was simply waiting, possessed by an arrogant faith, conscious of the debt owed by the hazard that had armed her too well. She was awaiting . . . not the return of the Parisian in white serge, but a stranger, a ravisher. Her proud anticipation kept her silent and pure; with a little smile of surprise, she rejected Honce, who would have raised her to the rank of chemist’s lawful wife, and she would have nothing to say to the sheriff’s chief clerk. With never another lapse, taking back, once and for all, the smiles, the glances, the glowing bloom of her cheeks, the red young lips, the shadowy blue cleft of her breasts which she had so prodigally lavished on mere rustics, she awaited her kingdom and the prince without a name.
Years later, when I passed through my native village, I could not find the shade of her who had so lovingly refused me what she called “The uniform of little Bouilloux girls.” But as the car bore me slowly, though not slowly enough—never slowly enough—up a street where I have now no reason to stop, a woman drew back to avoid the wheel. A slender woman, her hair well dressed in a bygone fashion, dressmaker’s scissors hanging from a steel “chatelaine” on her black apron. Large, vindictive eyes, a tight mouth sealed by long silence, the sallow cheeks and temples of those who work by lamplight; a woman of forty-five or . Not at all; a woman of thirty-eight, a woman of my own age, of exactly my age, there was no room for doubt. As soon as the car allowed her room to pass, “the little Bouilloux girl” went on her way down the street, erect and indifferent, after one anxious, bitter glance had told her that the car did not contain the long-awaited ravisher.