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Chapter 4

VISIONS OF THE REAL.

THE HOVEL.

You want a description of this hovel? I hesitated to
inflict it upon you. But you want it. I' faith, here it is!
You will only have yourself to blame, it is your fault.

"Pshaw!" you say, "I know what it is. A bleared,
bandy ruin. Some old house!"

In the first place it is not an old house, it is very much
worse, it is a new house.

Really, now, an old house! You counted upon an old
house and turned up your nose at it in advance. Ah! yes,
old houses; don't you wish you may get them! A
dilapidated, tumble-down cottage! Why, don't you know
that a dilapidated, tumble-down cottage is simply charming,
a thing of beauty? The wall is of beautiful, warm and strong
colour, with moth holes, birds' nests, old nails on which the
spider hangs his rose-window web, a thousand amusing
things that break its evenness. The window is only a
dormer, but from it protrude long poles on which all sorts
of clothing, of all sorts of colours, hang and dry in the
wind-white tatters, red rags, flags of poverty that give to
the hut an air of gaiety and are resplendent in the sunshine.
The door is cracked and black, but approach and examine
it; you will without doubt find upon it a bit of antique
ironwork of the time of Louis XIII., cut out like a piece
of guipure. The roof is full of crevices, but in each crevice
there is a convolvulus that will blossom in the spring, or a
daisy that will bloom in the autumn. The tiles are patched
with thatch. Of course they are, I should say so! It affords
the occasion to have on one's roof a colony of pink
dragon flowers and wild marsh-mallow. A fine green grass
carpets the foot of this decrepit wall, the ivy climbs
joyously up it and cloaks its bareness--its wounds and its
leprosy mayhap; moss covers with green velvet the stone
seat at the door. All nature takes pity upon this
degraded and charming thing that you call a hovel, and
welcomes it. 0 hovel! honest and peaceful old dwelling,
sweet and good to see! rejuvenated every year by April
and May! perfumed by the wallflower and inhabited by
the swallow!

No, it is not of this that I write, it is not, I repeat, of
an old house, it is of a new house,--of a new hovel, if you
will.

This thing has not been built longer than two years. The
wall has that hideous and glacial whiteness of fresh plaster.
The whole is wretched, mean, high, triangular, and has the
shape of a piece of Gruyère cheese cut for a miser a
dessert. There are new doors that do not shut properly,
window frames with white panes that are already spangled
here and there with paper stars. These stars are cut
coquettishly and pasted on with care. There is a frightful
bogus sumptuousness about the place that causes a painful
impression--balconies of hollow iron badly fixed to the
wall; trumpery locks, already rotten round the fastenings,
upon which vacillate, on three nails, horrible ornaments
of embossed brass that are becoming covered with
verdigris; shutters painted grey that are getting out of
joint, not because they are worm-eaten, but because they
were made of green wood by a thieving cabinet maker.

A chilly feeling comes over you as you look at the house.
On entering it you shiver. A greenish humidity leaks at
the foot of the wall. This building of yesterday is already
a ruin; it is more than a ruin, it is a disaster; one feels
that the proprietor is bankrupt and that the contractor has
fled.

In rear of the house, a wall white and new like the rest,
encloses a space in which a drum major could not lie at
full length. This is called the garden. Issuing shiveringly
from the earth is a little tree, long, spare and sickly,
which seems always to be in winter, for it has not a single
leaf. This broom is called a poplar. The remainder of the
garden is strewn with old potsherds and bottoms of bottles.
Among them one notices two or three list slippers. In a
corner on top of a heap of oyster shells is an old tin
watering can, painted green, dented, rusty and cracked,
inhabited by slugs which silver it with their trails of slime.

Let us enter the hovel. In the other you will find perhaps
a ladder "rickety," as Regnier says, "from the top
to the bottom." Here you will find a staircase.

This staircase, "ornamented" with brass-knobbed banisters,
has fifteen or twenty wooden steps, high, narrow,
with sharp angles, which rise perpendicularly to
the first floor and turn upon themselves in a spiral of about
eighteen inches in diameter. Would you not be inclined
to ask for a ladder?

At the top of these stairs, if you get there, is the room.

To give an idea of this room is difficult. It is the "new
hovel" in all its abominable reality. Wretchedness is
everywhere; a new wretchedness, which has no past, no
future, and which cannot take root anywhere. One divines
that the lodger moved in yesterday and will move out
tomorrow. That he arrived without saying whence he came,
and that he will put the key under the door when he goes
away.

The wall is "ornamented" with dark blue paper with
yellow flowers, the window is "ornamented" with a curtain
of red calico in which holes take the place of flowers.
There is in front of the window a rush-bottom chair with
the bottom worn out; near the chair a stove; on the stove a
stewpot; near the stewpot a flowerpot turned upside down
with a tallow candle stuck in the hole; near the flowerpot
a basketful of coal which evokes thoughts of suicide and
asphyxiation; above the basket a shelf encumbered with
nameless objects, distinguishable among which are a worn
broom and an old toy representing a green rider on a
crimson horse. The mantelpiece, mean and narrow, is of
blackish marble with a thousand little white blotches. It
is covered with broken glasses and unwashed cups. Into
one of these cups a pair of tin rimmed spectacles is plunging.
A nail lies on the floor. In the fireplace a dishcloth
is hanging on one of the fire-iron holders. No fire either
in the fireplace or in the stove. A heap of frightful
sweepings replaces the heaps of cinders. No looking glass on the
mantelpiece, but a picture of varnished canvas representing
a nude negro at the knees of a white woman in a decolletée
ball dress in an arbour. Opposite the mantelpiece, a man's
cap and a woman's bonnet hang from nails on either side
of a cracked mirror.

At the end of the room is a bed. That is to say, a mattress
laid on two planks that rest upon a couple of trestles. Over
the bed, other boards, with openings between them, support
an undesirable heap of linen, clothes and rags. An
imitation cashmere, called "French cashmere," protrudes
between the boards and hangs over the pallet.

Mingled with the hideous litter of all these things are
dirtiness, a disgusting odour, spots of oil and tallow, and
dust everywhere. In the corner near the bed stands an
enormous sack of shavings, and on a chair beside the sack
lies an old newspaper. I am moved by curiosity to look at
the title and the date. It is the "Constitutionnel" of April 25,
1843.

And now what can I add? I have not told the most
horrible thing about the place. The house is odious, the
room is abominable, the pallet is hideous; but all that is
nothing.

When I entered a woman was sleeping on the bed--a
woman old, short, thickset, red, bloated, oily, tumefied, fat,
dreadful, enormous. Her frightful bonnet, which was
awry, disclosed the side of her head, which was grizzled,
pink and bald.

She was fully dressed. She wore a yellowish fichu, a
brown skirt, a jacket, all this on her monstrous abdomen;
and a vast soiled apron like the linen trousers of a convict.

At the noise I made in entering she moved, sat up,
showed her fat legs, that were covered with unqualifiable
blue stockings, and with a yawn stretched her brawny arms,
which terminated with fists that resembled those of a
butcher.

I perceived that the old woman was robust and formidable.

She turned towards me and opened her eyes. I could
not see them.

"Monsieur," she said, in a very gentle voice, "what do
you want?"

When about to speak to this being I experienced the
sensation one would feel in presence of a sow to which it
behoved one to say: "Madam."

I did not quite know what to reply, and thought for a
moment. Just then my gaze, wandering towards the window,
fell upon a sort of picture that hung outside like a
sign. It was a sign, as a matter of fact, a picture of a
young and pretty woman, decolletée, wearing an enormous
beplumed hat and carrying an infant in her arms;
the whole in the style of the chimney boards of the time of
Louis XVIII. Above the picture stood out this inscription
in big letters:


Mme. BECOEUR

Midwife

BLEEDS AND VACCINATES


"Madam," said I, "I want to see Mme. Bécoeur."

The sow metamorphosed into a woman replied with an
amiable smile:

"I am Mme. Bécoeur, Monsieur."


Victor Hugo