chapter08

Charlotte was vegetating inside her new home. Now that she only needed to worry about herself, she had no plans for the future. She was living one day at a time, hoping for nothing, thinking about nothing. Sometimes she earned two francs fifty, sometimes three francs a day. She had repaid her debts to Lucie. Now she owned a small mirror, white curtains, she also purchased an alarm clock at the store. She crafted a lampshade from discarded pink shreds of silk from her cutting job. Above her fireplace, there were several etchings based on paintings from the Louvre, one of them the "Man with a Glove", she had been impressed by his serious appearance and his reflective look.


Indeed, for a few days, she had loved her little room and decorating it all by herself. She had felt childish when she came home and opened her door. Now all this left her indifferent. She could not stay up in the evening, because she had no fire and it was too cold. She preferred to attend the workshop at seven clock in the morning and get started on any urgent work. Every evening, she went to bed as soon as she returned home. She could not fall asleep right away, indeed, for a long time, she was lying with her eyes wide open in the night. In the faint glow coming from the window, she could make out the shapes of the objects in her room. Once, in a corner on the floor, she spotted her beloved books, those sad remnants of her beautiful childhood dream. Full of remorse, she lit her lamp again, she picked up a book, tried to read, and then she cried because she was unable to concentrate. 


At first, she spent a few evenings at Lucie's. Then, one day, she met her friend's lover there who has come over on vacation. He was a small, brown-haired lad with a handlebar moustache and bright eyes. Charlotte felt like as poor, weak prey in his presence. When the young man put his hand on her shoulders and on her chest, and then tried to put them around her waist, she blushed, pushed him back and cried for help.  With a harsh voice, Lucie said to the man: 

"Leave her alone! " 


After the man had left, the two friends were embarrassed. Lucie, who had a womanly figure, had always thought that Charlotte was just a child with no curves. This is why she had protected the young girl and never considered her to be a threat. Her lover's behaviour changed her perception and Charlotte's awkwardness did not reassure her, it even annoyed her. And now Lucie concluded that her friend was a hypocrite. Lucie was flirtatious, proud of her successes and her curves. She was sensual but not stupid: she realized her lover's worthlessness and he cost her half her wages. She was suffering from being conscious of her own gullibility.  Therefore, how could an innocent little being resist where she has failed? Lotte's restraint felt like a provocation. 


The good Lucie disappeared. Another woman took her place. Not angry, but wary and suspicious. She was looking for ulterior motives in every word and every action. Charlotte was painfully surprised, yet She did not begrudge Lucie. She knew that she was a good woman. In her mind, Lucie was still the compassionate fairy from her early childhood. Therefore Lotte remained affectionate and kind, and once meekly tried to set things right:


"I must have offended you Lucie . You seem different."


"Me, offended? Not at all, Little Lamb, it takes much more than that to offend me. Go home, you look tired."



Charlotte remained silent. Her recent experiences taught her that it was easier to endure injustice than to fight against it.


After that, when Lucie and Charlotte met, they could no longer find anything to say to each other. Charlotte tried to make conversation, read things out and recall shared memories but her kindness could not alleviate Lucie's pain. Then the young girl only dared to visit from time to time. Finally she realized that Lucie did not care about her visits so she did not go back. 


Then she turned to Armandine. Most of the time, Armandine cheerfully scolded at Charlotte because she ate so little:


"You see, you need to fill up - otherwise you're doomed."


Armandine shared her lunch with Charlotte and Lili. Charlotte contributed thirty-five centimes towards the food. Armandine said that this was more than enough. At dinner-time, Charlotte went to a creamery for a cup of milky coffee or hot chocolate. If she was very hungry, she bought a bowl of milk-rice and some soft-boiled eggs. There was a lot of work to do, twice or three times a week, so she visited Rue Oberkampf for an evening home-shift. She contributed forty centimes for dinner and they sang all evening. Charlotte might have earned fifty centimes more, but she needed to spend thirty centimes on the omnibus as it was too far to walk and Charlotte was afraid of the streets at night.


Armandine also looked after Charlotte's laundry. Every Sunday morning, it was Rose's task to clean the clothes for the whole family and she only asked for a small fee, just enough to cover her expenses. Good accounting makes good friends, was another principle of Armandine's. Thanks to this arrangement, Charlotte was able to pay her rent of three francs fifty every Saturday and save some money.


Usually, at seven o’clock in the evening, Totole was waiting at the door at work. He was a strong lad aged twenty; he was stocky and awkward. He was fair-haired beardless and white-faced. When he greeted someone, his voice could barely be heard and his eyes were stubbornly gazing at the ground. One could think that he was devious in fact, he was just very shy. From time to time, Armandine allowed the lad, to take Lili back home. She said:


"Not that I think it's funny. No, really, I don't find this funny, he's quite stupid, but then, he's only known beatings. So basically he's not a bad guy, and I admit, we need to play fair with everyone. "


When he spoke to Armandine, Totole re-assured her that he would never take her Lili away without the consent of his future mother-in-law. Her permission probably made him happy but his immovable face did not show any sign. He shoved Lili's arm under his own, and they left at a very slow place, and stopped when Lili felt violent palpitations. They looked at each other without talking. Lili was happy and told her mother:


"You know, Mother, when he comes here, he doesn’t drink."


Bertie has made his peace with Totole: he gave him a watch that he had won at target shooting. Totole constantly took it out of his pocket and scrutinized it. Charlotte could not repress a smile.


Yet poor Lili's health was not getting any better. Every evening, Totole walked with the two women back home, and he even picked them up in the morning. One day, Armandine arrived at about eleven o'clock at the workshop, her eyes red from crying: she had just accompanied Lili to hospital in a cab.


A great sadness weighed on Lotte's heart like a lead cloak. She was very fond of Lily.  Armandine, anxious about her daughter, seemed to abandon her young protégé. She no longer prepared lunch, as she saving as much as she could in order to bring treats to her sick daughter. Work was also drying out.


In the flower business, even during high season, periods of activity alternate with variable periods of stagnation. In times of activity, wages were too low to save for a contingent against subsequent shortages, and in any case, nothing could protect the workers against demoralizing thoughts. Young people felt this even more strongly because school had taught them to occupy their minds at all times.


A rivalry started among the ladies at the workshop; the first to arrive in the morning was able to grab all the work for herself. Mr Décoiffer no longer greeted anyone, now he was constantly muttering:


"Damn women, when there's work, they don't lift a finger, when there's none, they all want to sleep here."


Like a trapped old fox, he was scurrying from one room to another, then he changed the daily routine. He was waiting for all the workers to arrive before allocating work to each one. It was in his best interests to keep everyone in case business picked up again. Only Fifi was excluded from the deal.


Nevertheless, Fifi came, laid her head on the table and fell asleep. Martha gave her something to eat. Mrs Toriol accused the boss of favoring Armandine and she also could not understand why there was work for Martha, who clearly had other sources of income; Mrs Ravage and Julie agreed with her. Martha explained that she came here for her own entertainment, she vigorously demanded her share, and insisted that she would miss the sight of the ladies. After completing her task, she handed it to Armandine:

"For Lili."


Armandine accepted; she was moved by the gesture.


But there were still moments of laughter at Décoiffer. When Armandine was accused of hoarding all the work, she responded with a song. Mrs Toriol followed suit and tried to reach the high notes with her rough bulldog voice. She sounded silly. Martha was rolling with laughter and Charlotte could hardly contain herself.


They heard Mrs Toriol singing:


" Hi - hi - hi - "


"you you you - do you hear , " Armandine replied , as if she wanted to pierce the ceiling. 


Mrs Toriol continued with insults, then with derision:


" This nose - this mouth . "


Her rival immediately sang back: 


" Daddy gave it to me , Mummy gave it to me "

  

Mr Décoiffer screamed: 


"Enough, enough, women, you’re driving us mad "



Mrs Toriol replied:

" Let her sing, this bad mother. She sings in the hope her daughter dies more quickly. "



With a leap, Armandine had reached her. A formidable fight ensued. Mrs Ravage and Julie took refuge in the hallway. Father Décoiffer stayed in the kitchen; he did not dare to come any nearer, but he warned:

"I'm calling the police." 



But he did not move from his spot. Charlotte tried to take Armandine's goffering iron from her hand. Martha pounded her feet and said:


" Scratch her eyes out, Armandine !"


Fearing for her safety, Mrs Toriol went face down on the floor, and suffered a nervous attack. Martha exclaimed: 


"Wait - here comes the shower."  


Armandine held down Mrs Toriol, while Martha poured purple liquid, the entire contents of one liter bottle over the woman's  head when Mrs Toriol stood up again, she was met with raucous laughter .  So she brushed with her hands against her face, pulled them back, looked at them , roared horribly and  shouted insults at the bantering workers. Martha shouted: 

"Listen - at least it's not vitriol "



Armandine was laughing to tears.


"You're so pretty now, aren't you? "

 

Charlotte, her head hidden in her handkerchief was almost suffocating. Only Fifi who has just woken up, was there sitting with her mouth open, unable to understand and yet she bore the brunt of Mrs Toriol's rage. She shouted so many obscenities at her, that the Décoiffers decided to throw her out. Martha implemented the task: armed with a pair of scissors, she forced Mrs Toriol  to retreat into the stairwell; she was still shouting egregious threats before she finally left after draping a shawl over her head. Annette compassionately had thrown the garment  to her. The old woman said:

"It's wrong to insult a mother."

 


Her husband agreed with her and on the spur of the moment he forgot to complain about the wasted dye. Martha was overjoyed, waltzing around with Fifi, hugging her boss, and jumping on the table. Mrs Ravage and Julie came back, and also agreed that Mrs Toriol was a wretch:

 "It's wrong to insult a mother."

 

Everyone was satisfied: there was one less worker. Charlotte became serious, and somewhat disgusted, she listened to them. They envied her. She was young, she could do something else. Mrs Ravage complained that nobody took her children into consideration. Martha said:

 

"Don't kid yourself, your children won't eat more or won't eat less. Admit it: your husband is a drunkard!"


The porter was dismissed. Annette who liked Charlotte because of her kindness, took the young girl with her when a prospective client was receiving salespeople. The boxes with the samples were not heavy, but Charlotte was afraid of a chance encounter with her father. She had received a letter from Mother: the parents knew where she was, they would bring her home if she did not remain on the straight path. Charlotte was not concerned about the threat and she was determined to defend her freedom.  She thought about her mother and her sister, in the way a crippled person would think of an amputated limb long  after an operation. It only hurt a little, and usually it did so on a rainy day. But the memory of her father, startled her. She was filled with disgust, hatred and terror. Nevertheless, she went with Annette. On such days, she was sure to earn one franc.


Fortunately for Charlotte, unlike Bugeot's, Décoiffer's mainly dealt with Americans. Therefore, the chances of meeting the father, were quite low. The salespeople needed to arrive early in the morning, then wait for their turn; under a doorway or sitting on the stairs. There were men who called out at each other while smoking and spitting. In the presence of the young girl, they were telling nasty, stupid stories. They came close to her because they noticed that she was embarrassed. Annette was protecting her; when Totole was there, he looked after the two women, helping them to keep their spot. Sometimes a surprised salesman who used to visit Porcher's recognized Charlotte and greeted her.

 

Sometimes, a well-dressed saleswoman came, she was accompanied by several porters carrying several boxes of different sizes. She sent her business card and the client received her immediately, afterwards everyone else was told to go home. There were loud protests and complaints against this competition, the gentlemen were right to say that this treatment was unfair. Yet they did not realize that their own behaviour was to blame: Once such a woman was stabbed in the back when she walked through the door. Her name was Blanche. The men who told the story laughingly boasted that they had slept with the woman. Her shoulders were as famous as the pretty fold in her neck, which they called 'Venus' necklace'.


Charlotte spent the rest of the time at the workshop knitting woolen socks, - a skill that she had learnt from Henriette Pageol; and now she was teaching Martha. These socks were intended for Koko in Poissy. In exchange for those, Martha brought some lace and crafted a cravat for Charlotte, whose clothes she found too dour. At work, the other ladies had left the workshop because they did not find anything else to do.  Only Julie came to see whether the boss had left something for his employees.  Fifi was also be there and she slept most of the time. Charlotte and Martha took refuge as far as possible from the two women in order to chat without being disturbed.



Increasingly confused, Charlotte gradually surrendered to Martha's influence. She had spent all her savings, and was horrified that she could not pay the rent for that week. Thanks to Lucie's recommendation, the landlords trusted her. Now she blamed herself because she had spent her money on new underwear and a jacket costing twenty-nine francs. She was listening to Martha advising her to take a lover who would give her money. Martha claimed that if only Charlotte made an effort, she would be successful because all the men were attracted to her:


"The first time - my poor Lolo, it's not fun, but you won't die. Just be careful that you don't end up getting pregnant. "


"And then?"

"After what?"

"After the first time?"

"After that, you get used to it, you don't want that feeling to last forever."



Charlotte remained silent, she seemed to think thoroughly. Poverty was not her biggest misfortune; her loneliness was. Being lonely was not the same thing as living alone: it meant living without a goal, without knowing why; it meant not finding any connection with anyone else, not finding any common aspirations and assuming that everything is hostile, and not even having the courage to hate, which as everyone knows is useless.


Like Charlotte, Martha detested men and her hatred was insane. Martha had empowered herself as well as she could. She made only one exception, for that man who was a victim, an innocent man, a wrongly convicted man. Martha was certain about that, and nobody doubted her. Neither she nor her comrades realized that if Koko turned up, this might spell the end of her illusions and their relationship. Martha only lived to exploit all other men to the death. She thought of herself as a femme fatale, an exterminator, who drove men to their ruin and to suicide. She had read about those in moral novels by popular writers. In any case, she certainly had intrinsic gifts of adaptation, an inventive spirit, a superficial cheerfulness which never seemed to fade. Without any reservations, Mr Décoiffer predicted a nice career for her, provided that Koko did not throw a spanner in the works.



In the meantime, they had to make ends meet. Therefore, in the evening at about five clock, Martha dragged Charlotte with her to the big boulevards. The two young girls stood by the shop-window displays in front of the department store or the jewellers'. Martha had great appeal, men easily followed her and started a conversation.  Some used obscene words, or brutally offered money. Others made an effort to embellish their speeches. Martha dismissed them all, always hoping for the elusive serious type to come along. At about seven clock, she felt that they could come to some kind of arrangement over dinner. She even turned down the most advantageous offers, because they had no male companions. Invariably, pale and trembling, Charlotte slipped away. Not getting any dinner was not a big deal, she was never hungry. Maybe she could have considered men who were polite, but Martha did not want her to do that. They would use her without paying. Charlotte was capable to fall for one of those, and end up on her own with child more miserable than before. Martha could sing a song about it; her first time was with a so-called student who raped her in the woods of Chaville while reciting poems to her. He abandoned her to her fate.

 


When Martha found someone to her liking, she let Charlotte make her excuses. The girl had not learnt anything. Once Martha was concerned about the young girl not getting any dinner but Charlotte explained, that she was feeling sick and started to run back home. An individual who had stopped Martha earlier, followed her but gave up soon. Charlotte was out of breath when she reached home.


On another night, Charlotte accompanied Martha to the ball, Martha tried in vain to persuade her friend to stay. The next morning, at work, she offered money to her but Charlotte declined. Why was she so defensive? She did not disapprove of the idea, because in her opinion, she would end up doing this because there was nothing else for her in this life. But as soon as she arrived home, she carefully double-locked her door, and breathed like a condemned man who had been granted a short respite. She lied down on her bed, and buried her face in the pillow - just sleep, sleep. The next morning, she hardly tidied up, and barely found the courage to get dressed for work. She tried to rationalize, by repeating to herself that she was lost anyway. Everyone ended like this! She accused herself of cowardice, just like that time when she stood in front of the dark water. She envied Martha. At least, Martha knew what she wanted and lived for something, but what was the point? Then she envied Lili - Lili, who would die soon.


Every Thursday and every Sunday, Charlotte had visited the sick girl they visited the sick girl with Armandine. At the entrance they met Totole, Bertie and Rose. Often Martha accompanied them and brought biscuits and oranges with her. Totole and Charlotte brought bunches of violets.


Lili was allowed to do as she pleased. her mother was allowed to visit her every day. She was lying in a small white bed at the end of a large ward. Charlotte walked through on her tiptoes even though everyone else was noisy. Sad and anxious, she briefly glanced at the other beds which lined each side of the ward. Some patients had numerous visitors. The smell of phenol made her stomach turn, and she felt dizzy, she had to restrain herself from stupidly weeping at the sight of a patient who had no visitors.


Lili hardly recognized anyone and did not speak. She merely took Totole's hand and tried to smile at him. Her mother was sitting on the other side of the bed, chatting cheerfully to her. The brother and the sister told stories, pretended to argue, and told about the others. Martha and Charlotte replied. Bertie crossed his arms and said:


"Na - old bean- are you not impressed. There you are hosting your own salon.  The only thing missing is the laxative water"


This is how Bertie called the tea that they drank only on special occasions at Armandine's house .


On that Thursday only Totole and Charlotte accompanied Armandine. Martha did not come to the workshop. All three agreed that Lili was getting better - although her breathing sounded more laboured than usual; She was sitting upright in her bed. Armandine told her: she had adopted Totole, he was sleeping in the same room as Bertie:


"I told him - that way you'll get some peace - and you'll have someone to talk to about our Lili.  And he'll also get used to the household"



Lili reached her hand to her mother. Armandine bended down, and pushed Totole away. The young girl collapsed:

 

"Mother" 

Armandine held her , and craddled her:

 "Lili, my little Lili."

 

Then she laid her down on the pillow, closed her eyes and in a muffled, trembling voice, she said to Totole, without looking at him: .

"You should go home, my boy. It's your usual time. Lili is asleep, give her a kiss, but don't wake her up."


Shyly, Totole barely touched Lili's forehead, he said:

"she's cold".


He did not unterstand why. Charlotte held back her tears, knelt down, and kissed Lili's limp hand. She left and led Totole; silent and docile, he followed her and like her he felt the need to walk through the ward on tiptoes.

 

On the same evening, Charlotte had an appointment with Martha at the end of the Chaussée Clignancourt. Together, they were going to the Moulin Rouge. Martha had bought tickets.



Charlotte dressed herself with care: she had made up her mind. Her father had defiled her,  he had dishonored her. Yet, all things considered, he did not do much harm and her mother was right to tell her not to pay too much importance to it. On the contrary: he had done her a favour, now there was no reason to hesitate. What was she going to do anyway?  What could she expect? Maybe she would be lucky? In any case - her fate could not be worse than what happened to the women she had known. Only Armandine had managed to love without inspiring fear and disgust. But Madame Porcher loved and she killed himself. Lucie loved and her man exploited her. Lili was fortunate. Now she was dead - that was a blessing - because she would never experience what life had in store for her. When Charlotte remembered the poor girl's swollen face, she shivered. Dying - this could be an option if she didn't succeed or if she had a bad pregnancy. Martha was wrong, it was possible to terminate. Now Charlotte remembered a drug, which Mother took at the start of her pregnancy. Mother became ill and At the time, Charlotte did not understand what was going on . Mother had told a story about the milk being off  but it had not harmed anyone else in the house, and when the little girl had questioned her , Mother had replied :


"Leave me alone. I took a laxative."


To pass the time, Charlotte put her mirror on her knees. Martha could always be sure that someone would fall for her. But men rarely followed her companion, when she was alone. Was she not pretty? Martha claimed the contrary, but told her that her dour expression was not engaging. Men had no patience, you caught them, you needed to hang on to them. If she was cheerful and well-dressed, Charlotte would be irresistible. She could start being cheerful, later she might also be well-dressed.


Charlotte stood up. She was of average height, a little too slender; her gait was graceful and supple. Her dress and her jacket were dark, with a white embroidered collar and a blue silk tie, this suited her. She put her hat on, it was black and plain. Again she picked up her mirror and studied her face. A small, matt, white, genuine Parisian face, very expressive; beautiful big, sad eyes of changing color; her curls were the envy of the women at the workshop, a cute mouth, which could be charming, if her lips were more pink. Charlotte was absolutely adorable when she laughed. Mr Décoiffer has told her so. Indeed, she hated men as much as Martha did. Could not she find the courage and look cheerful?


Martha was waiting impatiently. She was annoyed at useless passers-by who were staring at her. She was wearing a black dress with a black hat, because black enhanced the colour of her hair color; that night, she was also wearing a red bolero jacket. She looked stunning; there was something demonic about her; her eyes looked phosphorescent:


" Come on, girl, none's going to eat you alive. You look like you're going to a funeral. "

" Lili is dead."


"Ah!"  Martha said.

 

She made a gesture as if to say "such a shame"; she paused ... then she dragged her companion with her.


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