Bohemia At Home by Alphonse Daudet

Story type: Literature

I hardly fancy it would be possible to find in the whole of Paris, a more lively and peculiar house than that of the sculptor Simaise. Life there is one continual round of festivities. At whatever hour you drop in upon them, a sound of singing and laughter, or the jingle of a piano, guitar, or tamtam greets you. You can never enter the studio without finding a waltz going on, or a set of quadrilles, or a game of battledore and shuttlecock, or else it is cumbered with all the litter and preparations for a ball; shreds of tulle and ribbons lying scattered among the sculptor’s chisels; artificial flowers hanging over the busts, and spangled skirts spreading over groups of moist clay.

The fact is that four big t daughters of sixteen to twenty-five years of age, all very pretty indeed, take up a great deal of room; and when these young ladies whirl round with their hair streaming down their backs, with floating ribbons, long pins, and showy ornaments, it really seems as if instead of four there were eight, sixteen, thirty-two Misses Simaise, as dashing the one as the other, talking and laughing loudly, with the hoydenish manner peculiar to artists’ daughters, with the studio jests, the familiarity of students, and knowing also better than anyone how to dismiss a creditor or blow up a tradesman impertinent enough to present his bill at an inopportune moment.

These young damsels are the real mistresses of the house. From early dawn the father works, chisels, models unceasingly, for he has no settled income. At first he was ambitious and strove to do good work; some early successful exhibitions promised him future fame; but the necessity of providing for the support of his family, the clothing, feeding and future establishment of his children, threw him back into the ordinary work of the trade. As for Madame Simaise, she never attended to anything.

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Very handsome when she married, very much admired in the artistic world into which her husband introduced her, at first satisfied with being only a pretty woman, later on she resigned herself to the part of a woman who had been pretty. A creole by birth, at least such was her pretension–although it was asserted that her parents had never left Courbevoie,–she spent the days from morning to night in a hammock swung up in turn in all the different rooms of the house, fanning herself and taking siestas, full of contempt for the material details of everyday life. She had so often sat to her husband as model for Hebes and Dianas, that she fancied her only duty was to pass through life carrying some emblem of a goddess, such as a crescent on her head or a goblet in her hand. Indeed the disorder of the establishment was a sight in itself. The least thing necessitated a full hour’s search.

“Have you seen my thimble? Marthe, Eva, Genevieve, Madeleine, who has seen my thimble?”

The drawers, in which books, powder, rouge, spangles, spoons and fans are tossed at haphazard, though crammed full, contain absolutely nothing useful; moreover they belong to strange pieces of furniture, curious, battered and incomplete. And how peculiar is the house itself! As they are constantly changing their residence, they never have time to settle anywhere, and this merry household seems to be perpetually awaiting the setting to rights indispensable after a ball. Only so many things are lacking, that it is not worth while settling, and as long as they can put on a bit of finery, display themselves out of doors with something of a meteor flash, a semblance of style and appearance of luxury, honour is saved! Encampment does not in any way distress this migratory tribe. Through the half-opened doors, their poverty is betrayed by the four bare walls of an unfurnished chamber, or the litter of an overcrowded room. It is bohemianism in the domestic circle, a life full of improvidence and surprises.

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At the very moment when they sit down to table, they suddenly perceive that everything is wanting, and that the breakfast must be sent out for at once. In this manner hours are spent rapidly, bustling and idling, and herein lies a certain advantage. After a late breakfast, one does not need to dine, but can sup at the ball, which fills up nearly every evening. These ladies also give evening parties. Tea is drunk out of all kinds of queer receptacles, goblets, old tankards, ancient glasses, Japanese shells, the whole chipped and cracked by the constant moves.

The serene calm of both mother and daughters in the midst of this poverty is truly admirable. They have indeed other ideas running through the brain than mere housekeeping details. One has plaited her hair like a Swiss girl, another is curled like any English baby, and Madame Simaise, from the top of her hammock, lives in the beatitude of her former beauty. As for father Simaise, he is always delighted. As long as he hears the merry laugh of his daughters around him, he is ready cheerfully to assume all the weight of this disorderly existence. To him are addressed in a coaxing manner such requests as: “Papa, I want a bonnet. Papa, I must have a dress.” Sometimes the winter is severe. They are in such request, receive so many invitations. Pooh! the father has but to get up a couple of hours earlier. They will have a fire only in the studio, where all the family will gather. The girls will cut out and make their own dresses, while the hammock ropes swing slowly to and fro, and the father works on, perched upon his high stool.

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Have you ever met these ladies in society? The moment they appear there is a commotion. It is long since the first two came out, but they are always so well adorned and so smart, that they are in great request as partners. They have as much success as the younger sisters, almost as much as the mother in former days; moreover they carry off their tawdry jewelry and finery so well, and have such charming easy manners, with the giddy laugh of spoilt children, and such a Spanish way of flirting with a fan. Nevertheless they do not get married. No admirer has ever been able to get over the sight of that singular home. The wasteful and useless extravagance, the want of plates, the profusion of old tapestry in holes, of antique and ungilt lustres, the draughty doors, the constant visits of creditors, the slatternly appearance of the young ladies in slipshod slippers and dressing gowns, put to flight the best intentioned. In truth, it is not everyone who could resign himself to hang up the hammock of an idle woman in his home for the rest of his life.

I am very much afraid that the Misses Simaise will never marry. They had, however, a golden and unique opportunity during the Commune. The family had taken refuge in Normandy, in a small and very litigious town, full of lawyers, attorneys, and business men. No sooner had the father arrived, than he looked out for orders. His fame as a sculptor was of service to him, and as in the public square of the town there happened to be a statue of Cujas done by him, all the notabilities of the place wanted to have their busts done.

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The mother at once fastened up the hammock in a corner of the studio, and the young ladies organized a few parties. They at once met with great success. Here at least, poverty seemed but an accident due to exile; the disorder of the establishment was accounted for. The handsome girls laughed loudly themselves at their destitution.

They had started off without anything; and nothing could be had now Paris was closed. It lent to them an extra charm. It called to mind travelling gipsies, combing their beautiful hair in barns, and quenching their thirst in streams. The least poetical compared them in their minds to the exiles of Coblentz, those ladies of Marie-Antoinette’s court who, obliged to fly in haste, without powder or hoops, or bedchamber women, were driven to all sorts of makeshifts, learning to wait upon themselves, and keeping up the frivolity of the French court, the piquant smile of the lost patches.

Every evening a throng of dazzled lawyers crowded Simaise’s studio. To the sounds of a hired piano, all this little world danced the polka, waltzed, schottisched,–they still schottische in Normandy. “I shall end by marrying off one,” thought old Simaise; and the fact is if one had gone off, all the others would have followed suit. Unluckily the first never went off, but it was a near touch. Amongst the numerous partners of these young ladies, in that corps de ballet of lawyers, attorneys and solicitors, the most rabid dancer was a widowed lawyer, who was extremely attentive to the eldest daughter. He was called by them “the first dancing attorney,” in memory of Moliere’s ballets, and certainly, considering the rate at which the fellow whirled round, Papa Simaise might well build the greatest hopes on him. But then business men do not dance like everybody else. This fellow, all the time he was waltzing, reflected silently: “The Simaise family is charming. Tra, la la, la la la, but it’s useless their trying to hurry me on, la la la, la la la. I shall not propose till the gates of Paris are reopened. Tra la la, and I shall be able to make all necessary inquiries, la la la!” Thus thought the first dancing attorney, and in fact, directly the blockade of Paris was raised, he got his information about the family, and the marriage did not come off.

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Since then, the poor little creatures have missed many other chances. However, this has in no way spoilt the happiness of the singular household. On the contrary, the more they live, the merrier they are. Last winter they changed quarters three times, were sold up once, and notwithstanding all this, gave two large fancy balls!

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