Marthe: the story of a whore

J.-K. Huysmans cover

Translated with an introduction and notes by Brendan King.
Published by Dedalus Books, 2006. Price £6.99


Chapter II

AFTER ten years of fruitless struggle and impatiently endured poverty, Sébastien Landousé, artist, got married, just as he was starting to make a name for himself, to Florence Herbier, worker in artificial pearls. Unfortunately his health, already undermined by love-making and over-work, declined day by day, so much so that after a chest infection that laid him low in his bed for six long months he died and was buried, for want of money, in a forgotten corner of a communal grave.

Apathetic and lethargic by temperament, his wife bucked up under the blow that had struck her and put herself valiantly to work, but after her daughter, Marthe, had reached her fifteenth year and finished her apprenticeship, she died in her turn, and, like her husband, was buried in some cemetery somewhere.

Soon Marthe, as a worker in artificial pearls, was earning four francs a day, but the job was so exhausting and unhealthy she often wasn’t up to it.

Artificial pearls are made from the scales of a fish, the bleak, which are ground down and reduced to a kind of porridge that the worker has to keep stirring. In the slightest heat this mixture of water, ammonia and fish-scales spoils and becomes a sink of infection, so you have prepare the paste in a cool cellar. The older it is, the more valuable it becomes. It is preserved in carefully-sealed bottles, and from time to time the diluted ammonia solution is renewed. As with certain wine merchants, these bottles bear the details of the year they were filled, and just like the ’pure septembral juice’ this gleaming mash improves with age. Anyway, even without labels, one would still have recognised the young bottles from the old, the former having a dark grey tarnish, while the latter seem to gleam like quicksilver. Once the mixture is sufficiently thick and consistent, the worker has to blow it, using a blowpipe, into a spherical or ovoid glass bead — ball— or pear-shaped according to the required shape of the pearl — and then wash it with ethanol, which is also blown through a pipe. This latter operation is intended to dry the glaze; all that remains after that, to give the pearls weight and preserve their silvery lustre, is to drip virgin wax inside. If it has a proper silver-grey ’orient’, if it’s what the manufacturer calls a demi-fin, it’ll be worth anything from 3 francs to 3 fr 50.

In this fashion Marthe spent her days filling tiny beads, and in the evening when her work was done she would go to Montrouge to see her mother’s brother, a violin-maker, or else go back to her own lodgings where, frozen by the cold in the empty apartment, she would hurry to bed in order to drown the melancholy of those long light evenings in sleep. She was, moreover, a peculiar girl. Strange enthusiasms, a disgust for her job, a hatred of poverty, an unhealthy longing for the unknown, a despair that had nothing of resignation about it, poignant memories of the wretched, hunger-filled days spent with her sick father; a conviction, born of the spurned artist’s bitterness, that security acquired at the cost of all manner of cowardice and corruption is all that can be expected here below; a craving for luxury and glamour, a morbid languor, a neurotic disposition which she inherited from her father and a certain innate laziness she got from her mother who had been so courageous in adversity and so feckless when necessity no longer goaded her on — all this seethed and boiled furiously within her.

Unfortunately the workshop was not the place to bolster her faltering courage or lend support to her hard-pressed virtue.

A workshop full of women is the antechamber of the VD clinic. It wasn’t long before Marthe was hardened to the conversations of her workmates; bent over their bowls of fishscales all day, in between blowing a couple of pearls, they would gossip away endlessly. In truth, their conversation varied little: it always turned on the subject of men. One girl was living with a well-off gentleman — got so much a month from him — and they all admired her new lockets, her rings and her ear-rings; all were jealous of her and pressured their lovers to give them similar trinkets. A girl is lost once she starts mixing with other girls: the conversation of schoolboys is as nothing compared to that of working girls; a workshop is a touchstone for virtue, you rarely come across gold there, but brass abounds. A young girl doesn’t ’fall’, as the novelists put it, from love or being carried away by her senses, but mostly from vanity — and a little bit of curiosity. Marthe used to listen to accounts of her workmates’ adventures, their sweet or deadly struggles with the opposite sex, her eyes wide and her mouth dry with excitement. The others laughed at her and called her ’little chickie’. To hear them talk, all men were absolute idiots. One of the girls had made a fool of her man the night before and kept him waiting for an appointment; it only made him all the more hungry for her; another was making her lover’s life a misery, but the more unfaithful she was the more he loved her. All of the girls deceived their admirers or twisted them round their little fingers, and all of them gloried in their power. If Marthe blushed now, it wasn’t because of the filthy stories she heard, she blushed because she wasn’t on a par with her workmates. She was no longer in two minds whether to give herself, she was just waiting for the right occasion.

Besides, the life she was leading was insupportable. Never a laugh, never any fun! The only entertainment she had was provided at her uncle’s house, a real dump that was rented by the week and stuffed, in no particular order, with uncle, aunt, children, dogs and cats. In the evenings they played lotto, that sublimely stupid game, marking the scores with trouser buttons; on public holidays they drank a glass of mulled wine between games and sometimes even had peeled roasted chestnuts or boiled sweet chestnuts. These pauper’s pleasures exasperated her, and she preferred the company of one of her girl friends, who was living with her man. But they were both young and never left off kissing each other. The situation of a third person in the middle of such couples is always ridiculous; so she would leave them feeling sadder and angrier than before. Oh, she’d had enough of this solitary life, of those eternal torments of Tantalus, of that unappeasable itch for affection and for money. It was necessary to put an end to it, and she daydreamed about it. Every evening she was followed home by a man of advanced years who promised her the moon; and every evening a young man who lived in the same building on the floor below hers brushed against her on the stairs and quietly begged her pardon when his arm touched hers. Her choice was never in doubt. In the balancing-scales of her heart, the old one carried the day, for where one could only offer his charm and his youth, the other threw in that sword of Brennus: prosperity and wealth. He also had a certain cultured air about him which flattered the young girl, because her companions only had louts, draper’s assistants and hardware-store clerks for lovers. She succumbed — without even the excuse of an irresistible passion, the burning fire of which compels one to cry out and abandon oneself body and soul — she succumbed...and was overwhelmed with disgust.

The next day, however, she related her lapse, which she now regretted, to her companions. She put on a show of pride about her valiant deed and, in front of the whole workshop, took the arm of the old letch who had bought her. But her courage didn’t last long; her nerves couldn’t stand the strain; and one night she showed the old man and his money the door, and resolved to take up her former way of life. But it’s the same story as with those who take up smoking: at first, sick to the stomach, they swear never to do it again — and then do it again until the stomach consents to be tamed. After one cigarette, another; after the first lover, a second.

This time, she wanted to love a young man, as if that could be arranged to order! The other one loved her...sort of, but he was so gentle and so respectful that she couldn’t resist making him suffer. They ended up separating by common consent. Then she did as the others did; but after a week, three days, two days or one, she’d be fed up with the importunity of their unwanted caresses. In the meantime she fell ill and, as soon as she recovered, was abandoned by her latest lover; to add to her misfortune, the doctor expressly ordered her to give up her job as a pearl-blower. What was she to do now? What was to become of her? Here was misery, made more oppressive because the memory of the good-fortune she had tasted with her first lover constantly recurred to her. She tried her hand at other jobs, but the poor wages she earned discouraged her from making any further efforts. One fine evening hunger drove her into the venal mire, and there she sprawled, never to get back up.

Then she drifted along with the flow, spending whatever chance earnings she got on food, and enduring fasts whenever times were hard. Her apprenticeship in this new trade was soon complete; she was now a slave to anyone who passed, a hired labourer of the passions. One evening in a dancehall, when she was touting for custom alongside a tall, willowly slut with eyes the colour of sienna, she met a young man who seemed to be looking for adventure. Marthe, with her lips the colour of redcurrant, her endearing pout whenever he teased her, her imposing looks like some suburban goddess and her burning glances, so captivated this young innocent, that she brought him home with her. This chance meeting soon developed into a regular occurence. They even ended up living together. Chased from hotel to hotel, they eventually snuggled up in a squalid hole in the Rue du Cherche-Midi.

The house had all the charm of a slum. A rusty door streaked blood-red and ochre yellow, a long dark corridor the walls of which oozed black drops like coffee, and a sinister staircase that creaked at every footstep and was impregnated with the foul stench of drains and the smell of the lavatories whose doors swung open in the slightest breeze. It was on the third floor of this house that they chose a room with floral wallpaper, which in places had been scratched off, letting through a fine rain of plaster. There were none of the usual painted alabaster or porcelain vases in these lodgings, none of those clocks without hands or mirrors speckled with fly-shit; they didn’t even have that ubiquitous luxury of the furnished room, the colour print of Napoléon wounded in the foot and getting back onto his horse. The bare walls pissed drops of yellow liquid and the tiled floor, with its patches of varnished scarlet, looked like diseased skin, marbled with red eruptions. The only furniture was a dirty wooden bed, a table lacking its drawer, chintz curtains stiff and black with grime, a chair without a bottom and an old armchair which split its sides alone by the fireplace, laughing out of all its crevasses and, as if to taunt them, sticking out tongues of black horsehair through all the splits in its velvety mouths.

They stayed there for eight weeks, living on their wits, drinking and eating indescribable things. Marthe was beginning to long for another way of life when she discovered that she was a few months pregnant. She burst into tears, swore to her lover that the child was not his, said he was free to go — this ruse binding him irredeemably to her — and made the poor wretch agree with her resolve to deprive herself of every luxury in order to put aside the money needed for a midwife.

They could have spared themselves the trouble — she fell downstairs and brought on the birth. On a clear night in December, when neither had a sou, she felt the first pangs of labour. The young man rushed out in search of a midwife, whom he brought back with him straightaway.

’But it’s freezing in here,’ cried this bonnet-wearing angel as she entered the room. ’We must light a fire at once.’ Fearing that if the woman guessed how poor they were she would ask to be paid in advance, Marthe asked her lover to look for the key to the coal-cellar — it should be either in the pocket of her dress or on the mantelpiece. He was so bewildered that he began to look for the key in earnest, when suddenly Marthe stiffened, uttered a long groan and fell back, white and inert, onto the bed. She had just brought a little girl into the world.

The midwife washed the child, wrapped it up and left, announcing that she would return the following day at dawn. That night was indescribably forlorn. The girl groaned and complained that she could not sleep; the boy, dying of cold, sat in the armchair and rocked the poor mite who wailed in a lamentable fashion. Towards three in the morning snow fell and the wind started howling through the passageway, rattling the ill-fitting windows, slapping the candle-flame around which was sputtering madly, and sending ashes from the fireplace flying into the room. The baby was frozen and hungry; to make matters worse its swaddling clothes came undone and, numbed by the blasts which froze his hands, the young man couldn’t put them back in place. And to add one last horribly trivial detail, this fireless room made him so ill that he no longer knew what to do, and the poor child cried louder and louder whenever he stopped rocking her.

The consequence of this vigil was that both the child and the man died: the one from weakness and cold, and the other from an abnormal dropsy which this night helped bring on. The girl alone emerged from this torture, more radiant and more alluring than ever. For a while she lived off what she could get hanging around street-corners, until the evening when, discouraged at not finding the morass in which she could earn her bread, she met one of her old pearl-factory workmates. This girl hadn’t needed to strike a reef: she’d gone down with all hands on the open seas. This meeting decided Marthe’s fate. The other girl flaunted the profits of her state; Marthe drank a couple of glasses too many, accompanied her friend to the entrance of the lair and chanced a foot inside thinking she could take it out whenever she felt like it.

The next day she was a hired servant in a pick-up joint.

Copyright © 2006 Brendan King