In Argenteuil she was called Queen Hortense. No one knew why. Perhaps it was because she had a commanding tone of voice; perhaps because she was tall, bony, imperious; perhaps because she governed a kingdom of servants, chickens, dogs, cats, canaries, parrots, all so dear to an old maid’s heart. But she did not spoil these familiar friends; she had for them none of those endearing names, none of the foolish tenderness which women seem to lavish on the soft fur of a purring cat. She governed these beasts with authority; she reigned.
She was indeed an old maid–one of those old maids with a harsh voice and angular motions, whose very soul seems to be hard. She never would stand contradiction, argument, hesitation, indifference, laziness nor fatigue. She had never been heard to complain, to regret anything, to envy anyone. She would say: “Everyone has his share,” with the conviction of a fatalist. She did not go to church, she had no use for priests, she hardly believed in God, calling all religious things “weeper’s wares.”
For thirty years she had lived in her little house, with its tiny garden running along the street; she had never changed her habits, only changing her servants pitilessly, as soon as they reached twenty-one years of age.
When her dogs, cats and birds would die of old age, or from an accident, she would replace them without tears and without regret; with a little spade she would bury the dead animal in a strip of ground, throwing a few shovelfuls of earth over it and stamping it down with her feet in an indifferent manner.
She had a few friends in town, families of clerks who went to Paris every day. Once in a while she would be invited out, in the evening, to tea. She would inevitably fall asleep, and she would have to be awakened, when it was time for her to go home. She never allowed anyone to accompany her, fearing neither light nor darkness. She did not appear to like children.
She kept herself busy doing countless masculine tasks–carpentering, gardening, sawing or chopping wood, even laying bricks when it was necessary.
She had relatives who came to see her twice a year, the Cimmes and the Colombels, her two sisters having married, one of them a florist and the other a retired merchant. The Cimmes had no children; the Colombels had three: Henri, Pauline and Joseph. Henri was twenty, Pauline seventeen and Joseph only three.
There was no love lost between the old maid and her relatives.
In the spring of the year 1882 Queen Hortense suddenly fell sick. The neighbors called in a physician, whom she immediately drove out. A priest then having presented himself, she jumped out of bed, in order to throw him out of the house.
The young servant, in despair, was brewing her some tea.
After lying in bed for three days the situation appeared so serious that the barrel-maker, who lived next door, to the right, acting on advice from the doctor, who had forcibly returned to the house, took it upon himself to call together the two families.
They arrived by the same train, towards ten in the morning, the Colombels bringing little Joseph with them.
When they got to the garden gate, they saw the servant seated in the chair against the wall, crying.
The dog was sleeping on the door mat in the broiling sun; two cats, which looked as though they might be dead, were stretched out in front of the two windows, their eyes closed, their paws and tails stretched out at full length.
A big clucking hen was parading through the garden with a whole regiment of yellow, downy chicks, and a big cage hanging from the wall and covered with pimpernel, contained a population of birds which were chirping away in the warmth of this beautiful spring morning.
In another cage, shaped like a chalet, two lovebirds sat motionless side by side on their perch.
M. Cimme, a fat, puffing person, who always entered first everywhere, pushing aside everyone else, whether man or woman, when it was necessary, asked:
“Well, Celeste, aren’t things going well?”
The little servant moaned through her tears:
“She doesn’t even recognize me any more. The doctor says it’s the end.”
Everybody looked around.
Mme. Cimme and Mme. Colombel immediately embraced each other, without saying a word. They locked very much alike, having always worn their hair in Madonna bands, and loud red French cashmere shawls.
Cimme turned to his brother-in-law, a pale, sal, low-complexioned, thin man, wasted by stomach complaints, who limped badly, and said in a serious tone of voice:
“Gad! It was high time.”
But no one dared to enter the dying woman’s room on the ground floor. Even Cimme made way for the others. Colombel was the first to make up his mind, and, swaying from side to side like the mast of a ship, the iron ferule of his cane clattering on the paved hall, he entered.
The two women were the next to venture, and M. Cimmes closed the procession.
Little Joseph had remained outside, pleased at the sight of the dog.
A ray of sunlight seemed to cut the bed in two, shining just on the hands, which were moving nervously, continually opening and closing. The fingers were twitching as though moved by some thought, as though trying to point out a meaning or idea, as though obeying the dictates of a will. The rest of the body lay motionless under the sheets. The angular frame showed not a single movement. The eyes remained closed.
The family spread out in a semi-circle and, without a word, they began to watch the contracted chest and the short, gasping breathing. The little servant had followed them and was still crying.
At last Cimme asked:
“Exactly what did the doctor say?”
The girl stammered:
“He said to leave her alone, that nothing more could be done for her.”
But suddenly the old woman’s lips began to move. She seemed to be uttering silent words, words hidden in the brain of this dying being, and her hands quickened their peculiar movements.
Then she began to speak in a thin, high voice, which no one had ever heard, a voice which seemed to come from the distance, perhaps from the depths of this heart which had always been closed.
Cimme, finding this scene painful, walked away on tiptoe. Colombel, whose crippled leg was growing tired, sat down.
The two women remained standing.
Queen Hortense was now babbling away, and no one could understand a word. She was pronouncing names, many names, tenderly calling imaginary people.
“Come here, Philippe, kiss your mother. Tell me, child, do you love your mamma? You, Rose, take care of your little sister while I am away. And don’t leave her alone. Don’t play with matches!”
She stopped for a while, then, in a louder voice, as though she were calling someone: “Henriette!” then waited a moment and continued:
“Tell your father that I wish to speak to him before he goes to business.” And suddenly: “I am not feeling very well to-day, darling; promise not to come home late. Tell your employer that I am sick. You know, it isn’t safe to leave the children alone when I am in bed. For dinner I will fix you up a nice dish of rice. The little ones like that very much. Won’t Claire be happy?”
And she broke into a happy, joyous laugh, such as they had never heard: “Look at Jean, how funny he looks! He has smeared jam all over his face, the little pig! Look, sweetheart, look; isn’t he funny?”
Colombel, who was continually lifting his tired leg from place to place, muttered:
“She is dreaming that she has children and a husband; it is the beginning of the death agony.”
The two sisters had not yet moved, surprised, astounded.
The little maid exclaimed:
“You must take off your shawls and your hits! Would you like to go into the parlor?”
They went out without having said a word. And Colombel followed them, limping, once more leaving the dying woman alone.
When they were relieved of their travelling garments, the women finally sat down. Then one of the cats left its window, stretched, jumped into the room and on to Mme. Cimme’s knees. She began to pet it.
In the next room could be heard the voice of the dying woman, living, in this last hour, the life for which she had doubtless hoped, living her dreams themselves just when all was over for her.
Cimme, in the garden, was playing with little Joseph and the dog, enjoying himself in the whole hearted manner of a countryman, having completely forgotten the dying woman.
But suddenly he entered the house and said to the girl:
“I say, my girl, are we not going to have luncheon? What do you ladies wish to eat?”
They finally agreed on an omelet, a piece of steak with new potatoes, cheese and coffee.
As Mme. Colombel was fumbling in her pocket for her purse, Cimme stopped her, and, turning to the maid: “Have you got any money?”
“That’s enough. Hustle, my girl, because I am beginning to get very hungry:”
Mme. Cimme, looking out over the climbing vines bathed in sunlight, and at the two turtle-doves on the roof opposite, said in an annoyed tone of voice:
“What a pity to have had to come for such a sad occasion. It is so nice in the country to-day.”
Her sister sighed without answering, and Colombel mumbled, thinking perhaps of the walk ahead of him:
“My leg certainly is bothering me to-day:”
Little Joseph and the dog were making a terrible noise; one was shrieking with pleasure, the other was barking wildly. They were playing hide-and- seek around the three flower beds, running after each other like mad.
The dying woman continued to call her children, talking with each one, imagining that she was dressing them, fondling them, teaching them how to read: “Come on! Simon repeat: A, B, C, D. You are not paying attention, listen–D, D, D ; do you hear me? Now repeat–”
Cimme exclaimed: “Funny what people say when in that condition.”
Mme. Colombel then asked:
“Wouldn’t it be better if we were to return to her?”
But Cimme dissuaded her from the idea:
“What’s the use? You can’t change anything. We are just as comfortable here.”
Nobody insisted. Mme. Cimme observed the two green birds called love- birds. In a few words she praised this singular faithfulness and blamed the men for not imitating these animals. Cimme began to laugh, looked at his wife and hummed in a teasing way: “Tra-la-la, tra-la-la” as though to cast a good deal of doubt on his own, Cimme’s, faithfulness:
Colombel was suffering from cramps and was rapping the floor with his cane.
The other cat, its tail pointing upright to the sky, now came in.
They sat down to luncheon at one o’clock.
As soon as he had tasted the wine, Colombel, for whom only the best of Bordeaux had been prescribed, called the servant back:
“I say, my girl, is this the best stuff that you have in the cellar?”
“No, monsieur; there is some better wine, which was only brought out when you came.”
“Well, bring us three bottles of it.”
They tasted the wine and found it excellent, not because it was of a remarkable vintage, but because it had been in the cellar fifteen years. Cimme declared:
“That is regular invalid’s wine.”
Colombel, filled with an ardent desire to gain possession of this Bordeaux, once more questioned the girl:
“How much of it is left?”
“Oh! Almost all, monsieur; mamz’elle never touched it. It’s in the bottom stack.”
Then he turned to his brother-in-law:
“If you wish, Cimme, I would be willing to exchange something else for this wine; it suits my stomach marvellously.”
The chicken had now appeared with its regiment of young ones. The two women were enjoying themselves throwing crumbs to them.
Joseph and the dog, who had eaten enough, were sent back to the garden.
Queen Hortense was still talking, but in a low, hushed voice, so that the words could no longer be distinguished.
When they had finished their coffee all went in to observe the condition of the sick woman. She seemed calm.
They went outside again and seated themselves in a circle in the garden, in order to complete their digestion.
Suddenly the dog, who was carrying something in his mouth, began to run around the chairs at full speed. The child was chasing him wildly. Both disappeared into the house.
Cimme fell asleep, his well-rounded paunch bathed in the glow of the shining sun.
The dying woman once more began to talk in a loud voice. Then suddenly she shrieked.
The two women and Colombel rushed in to see what was the matter. Cimme, waking up, did not budge, because, he did not wish to witness such a scene.
She was sitting up, with haggard eyes. Her dog, in order to escape being pursued by little Joseph, had jumped up on the bed, run over the sick woman, and entrenched behind the pillow, was looking down at his playmate with snapping eyes, ready to jump down and begin the game again. He was holding in his mouth one of his mistress’ slippers, which he had torn to pieces and with which he had been playing for the last hour.
The child, frightened by this woman who had suddenly risen in front of him, stood motionless before the bed.
The hen had also come in, and frightened by the noise, had jumped up on a chair and was wildly calling her chicks, who were chirping distractedly around the four legs of the chair.
Queen Hortense was shrieking:
“No, no, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to! I don’t want to! Who will bring up my children? Who will take care of them? Who will love them? No, I don’t want to!–I don’t—-”
She fell back. All was over.
The dog, wild with excitement, jumped about the room, barking.
Colombel ran to the window, calling his brother-in-law:
“Hurry up, hurry up! I think that she has just gone.”
Then Cimme, resigned, arose and entered the room, mumbling
“It didn’t take as long as I thought it would!”