Gudule the Maid
Translated by Patricia Worth
Madame de Lautréamont lived in the most beautiful house in town. It was the former Office of the Receiver General, built under Louis XV (none less!). Its high windows, adorned with emblems and shells, were admired by everyone who passed through the large square on market days. The great dwelling was flanked by two wings set at right angles and joined by a wide gate, forming the courtyard of honor, and behind the main building was the most beautiful garden in the world. From terrace to terrace it descended down to the ramparts and dominated thirty leagues of countryside, and, in the most beautiful Louis XV layout, it sheltered in its groves some licentious statues, all of them variously tormented by Laughter and Love.
The apartments of the house were lined with sculpted panels with a most charming effect, and were decorated with pillars and mirrors. Even the parquetry of the entire ground floor, curiously inlaid with wood from the West Indies, shone like a mirror. Madame de Lautréamont lived only in the principal part; she had rented the wings to solid tenants and made for herself a nice private income. There was no one who wouldn’t want to live in the Lautréamont mansion; it was a never-ending subject of conversation around town.
Now, this Madame de Lautréamont was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and had always had every opportunity: a husband built like Hercules and entirely subject to her will, who let her be dressed by a renowned tailor in Paris; two children whom she had set up in life, the daughter married to a Royal Prosecutor, and the son already captain of the artillery, or was about to be; the most beautiful home in the region; and a state of health which kept her still fresh, and, oh my, desirable at more than forty‑five years of age. To maintain this princely residence and her almost indecent health, she had a domestic like they don’t make anymore, a superior individual, the rare pearl of all servants. Every form of devotion, attention and honesty was embodied in Gudule the maid.
Because of this wonderful girl, Madame de Lautréamont managed to keep her huge house with three servants, a gardener, a valet and a cook, on an income of just sixty thousand pounds. It was unquestionably the best-kept residence in town: not a speck of dust on the marble console tables; parquet floors dangerous for being so well polished; old mirrors clearer than the water in the fountains; and everywhere, in all the apartments, an order, a symmetry. And people spoke of the old building of the Receiver General as though it were the prime household of the province, saying, with what became henceforth the accepted way of designating a well‑kept dwelling: “You’d think we were in the Lautréamonts’ house”.
The soul of this astonishing residence happened to be the good old spinster with small naïve blue eyes and cheeks still fresh, who, from morning to night, feather duster or broom in hand, serious, silent and active, never stopped beating, brushing, dusting and making things shine and gleam, the declared enemy of every atom of dust. The other servants feared her a little: it was a terrible thing to be supervised by Gudule the maid. She was wholly devoted to the interests of her masters, and nothing escaped her little blue eye. What’s more, she was always in the house, for the old girl only went out to attend mass on celebration days and Sundays, and in truth she was hardly devout and not at all strict about the six o’clock mass, that excuse all the old servant women used for a daily outing.
In town they never stopped singing the praises of this model housekeeper, and Madame de Lautréamont was greatly envied for her servant. A few souls wanting in delicacy were unscrupulous enough to try to pinch her. They made Gudule lucrative offers, for vanity was a part of it, and, in society, bets were even opened to remove the poor girl from her mistress; but it was a waste of time. Gudule, with the loyalty of another age, turned a deaf ear to every proposition, and the insolent happiness of Madame de Lautréamont continued until the day when the old servant, worn out, exhausted from work, died like a lamp without oil in her cold little attic under the roof, where Madame de Lautréamont, it must be said to her credit, remained three days.
Gudule the maid had the joy of dying with her dear mistress at her bedside. The Lautréamonts had a suitable burial for their servant. Monsieur de Lautréamont conducted the mourning. Gudule had her concession in the cemetery, fresh flowers on her grave for at least eight days, then they really needed to replace her.
Replace her, no, for that would be impossible, but at least they could bring into the mansion a woman to do her job. House mistresses can be found, and after a few unhappy trials Madame de Lautréamont believed she could finally congratulate herself for having laid hands on a woman she could trust, a woman of great integrity. Mademoiselle Agatha reigned henceforth in the old Receiver’s offices. She was a rather plump woman, her bosom projecting bastion‑like, and she rushed about gesticulating, appalled at every turn, a bunch of keys on her belt, an apron of shot silk on her waist, and airs of Madame Braggart; her service was not exactly silent. From morning to night there was nothing but whining after the other servants, and the old residence, so calm and so quiet in Gudule’s time, was now deafened by it all. But Mademoiselle Agatha knew how to make herself look good, and that was the secret. All it took was daily reports on the antechamber and the kitchen, self-interested disputes with the cook, and in the end Madame de Lautréamont was taken in by all these displays of noisy devotion.
Oh! This was no longer Gudule’s service, invisible and silent, like housework done by a shadow, that discreet and almost frightened attention that accompanies a secret devotion, a vigilance every second of the day, the meticulous ways of a spinster who adored her masters’ home, the devotee’s worship of her parish and all the domestic fervor that was in the Lautréamonts’ home in earlier times, like perfume for the altar.
There were now specks of dust on the marble of the console tables, the old mirrors in the drawing‑rooms no longer imitated the clear water of the fountains any more than the parquet floors imitated the mirrors. But habit is such a force and Gudule had created such a legend that the old Receiver General’s mansion was still cited whenever discussions arose about the best‑kept house in the region.
Now, some six months later (it was mid-November and Gudule had passed away in March), one night Madame de Lautréamont abruptly woke Monsieur de Lautréamont, and in a voice somewhat changed, without even lighting the candle, she said:
“Hector, that’s odd! Listen! It sounds like Gudule’s broom sweeping.”
Monsieur de Lautréamont, in a very bad mood as a man still half asleep, grumbled and told her she was mad. But Madame de Lautréamont, with great emotion, was shaking so violently that this model husband made an effort to wake up properly and listen closely to his wife’s ravings.
“I tell you, someone is there,” she continued, “there, on the upstairs landing, at our bedroom door. I can hear footsteps, but why this sound of sweeping? See! It’s further away now, there’s sweeping at the end of the hall, and I tell you it’s her way of sweeping. Just you think about it; I know her.”
Madame de Lautréamont dared not even say the name again, and Monsieur de Lautréamont, in his understanding, said:
“The truth is, that girl is running through your head! Your wakefulness is but a dream, my dear, I’m certain there’s nothing there. The air is so still that we can’t even hear a leaf rustling. It’s your dinner sitting on your stomach. Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?”
But Madame de Lautréamont, trembling all over, had shot off the end of the bed like a spring and was running barefoot across the room toward the door. She opened it, peeked out and with a ghastly shriek shut it again. Monsieur de Lautréamont leapt to her side, understanding nothing of this burst of madness, and took his almost senseless wife to a large wing chair into which she dropped, unable to breathe for a time. Finally her voice returned, and in the now illuminated bedroom, she said:
“It’s her, I saw her just as I can see you. She was there, sweeping and scrubbing the parquetry in our hall, in the homespun dress that you knew her by, in the bonnet she wore when alive, but so white, so deathly pale! Oh! It’s like something from the cemetery! We will have to have some masses said for her, my love.”
Monsieur de Lautréamont calmed his wife as best he could, yet he remained worried and pensive, for they were to see things that were even more mysterious.
The following night, Madame de Lautréamont’s hallucination returned. Shivering, her teeth clenched in terror, she could now hear the deceased servant polishing and scrubbing the large deserted landing, bustling about, her feet shod with brushes. Could fear be contagious? The large house was sleeping, and this time, in the silence, Monsieur de Lautréamont could hear it, and despite his wife clutching his arm in horror he went boldly to the door, opened it and looked out.
Every hair on his damp flesh stood up: the disintegrating figure of the dead servant was shuffling and wriggling, a funereal marionette in the middle of the empty hall. She was bathed in a moonbeam shining through a window over the staircase, and in the luminous blue ray the dead woman went back and forth, brushing and scrubbing in feverish agitation. It was like the work of a condemned woman, and as she passed Monsieur de Lautréamont he distinctly saw drops of sweat on her already smooth skull. He quickly shut the door, terrified and convinced.
“You’re right,” he said simply as he turned to his wife, “we will have to have a few masses said for that girl.”
Ten masses were said for the defunct, ten low masses which Monsieur and Madame de Lautréamont and their whole household attended, and Gudule the maid returned no more to do the work of Mademoiselle Agatha on clear November nights.
Jean Lorrain (1855-1906) was a French author renowned for his flamboyant homosexuality and ether addiction. Though admired in his lifetime for his literary achievements, many loathed him for his sarcastic analyses of Belle Époque morals and feared him for his journalistic attacks. Critics have often focused on his eccentricities at the expense of his works which portray his society and its obsessive fears.
Patricia Worth has a Master of Translation Studies from the Australian National University. She has translated French literature since 2009, with pieces published in Australia and New Caledonia, and three Jean Lorrain stories in The Brooklyn Rail and Eleven Eleven. Her English translation of the novel Spiridion, by George Sand, was published by SUNY Press in March 2015.