The bad old bad songs, the heavy sad dreams, they have to be buried. Go and find me a big coffin - Heinrich Heine
Donatienne studied the house.
“It’s a really ugly house,” she thought.
An unappealing, almost hostile house. Narrow and high. A long time ago the door had been painted green. The stone doorstep was black, worn with use. At ground level, a window obscured by a mesh grill. Higher up, out of reach, another window, then another two, one on each floor, hung with cheap, faded curtains.
“Just the house for that…” thought Donatienne.
A grey and black house. A rotting house. A leprous, corrupt, malodorous house. Inside it must smell of dishwater, cold grease and drains.
Donatienne overcame her malaise and took some hesitant steps. She was sorely tempted to turn on her heels. She was afraid. She was on the point of fleeing this sordid neighbourhood where everything reeked of complicity, deceit, wrongdoing.
No-one in the gloomy street. On the opposite pavement, a miserable little shop. From where she was standing Donatienne could see its display, with its gilt frames, its old ornamental mouldings and a big plaster statue representing a young girl. Happy to be distracted, she crossed the road and went up to it.
The plaster girl had a bird on her shoulder. A bird with a wing missing.
Just then a sly-looking old man came out of the shop, a pencil behind his ear, bent back, waistcoat unbuttoned. An unpleasant individual with hypocritical eyes, who looked at her, smiled, squinted, showed his teeth, turned round again, hands on his bottom. A second later, he appeared behind his shop window, removed the statue of the child and bird and replaced it with a sort of Mephistophelean Don Quixote, with spidery legs, leaning on a wire lance.
Intrigued, Donatienne observed this manoeuvre. The shopkeeper re-emerged and spoke to her.
“Do you like that?”
“Do I like what?”
Donatienne felt that she had to get away from the intrusive presence. This wretched man made her feel even more ill-at-ease. She opened her handbag, looked at the scrap of paper where several hours earlier she had hastily scribbled the address of Mme Diana. Without daring to look at her interlocutor, she asked:
“Can I find Mme Diana across from here, at no. 32?”
The man rubbed his hands nervously. Then pinched his nose. Under any other circumstances she would have found him amusing.
“So you’re going to see that… that Diana too?”
Donatienne blushed crimson and was annoyed with herself for her lack of composure.
“And you,” he continued, “so young and pretty.”
She blushed still more deeply. The shopkeeper rubbed the palms of his hands on his thighs, as though to dry their sweat. It was disgusting.
“If he touches me,” Donatienne thought, flustered, “I’ll scratch his face.”
But he didn’t move a finger. His voice softening to the point of a fatherly concern that was almost acceptable, he merely said,
“Don’t go in there, my dear… Believe me… Let your destiny follow its course.”
He moved away. With a gesture he invited her to follow him into the shop. But Donatienne stiffened her resolve. Suddenly decided, she shrugged her shoulders and turned her back on him. She crossed the street without further hesitation, pushed open the door of no. 32 and disappeared into the house.
The corridor was humid, the staircase gloomy, the steps black, the bannister greasy. A simple bar of iron that she didn’t dare to touch. The wall wasn’t flaking. It had been repainted recently. Dark brown lower down and pale green further up.
Donatienne climbed up slowly, anxiously, reluctantly. What was she going to do there? How would she be received by that woman? What to tell her? She was said to be discreet and expert. The friend who gave her the address was a good friend, no doubt about it… She felt like crying now. Not that she was ashamed, no. Afraid rather. Why had she come all alone to this silent, hideous house?
On the first landing a narrow window overlooked buildings to the rear of this one. Donatienne peered at the yard through the dirty window. Four strung-out washing lines, a zinc drain-pipe plunging into a black barrel, a pile of rubbish in a corner. And these walls, so high and so sad, like a prison!
On the first floor a door. A miserable little placard:
Donatienne listened. No doubt M. Sambo wasn’t there. No sound came from his lodgings. Nevertheless she’d thought she’d heard a down-at-the-heel shuffling. But after all, what did it matter to her, this M. Sambo? And whether he was painter, musician or tight-ropewalker? But perhaps he was a nice, benevolent clown, able to provide comfort, like those ones that well-off parents bring to the bedside of sick little children to help them recover?
Water dripped regularly from a tap that wouldn’t turn off properly, a copper tap mottled with verdigis, into a sort of low, foul-smelling sink that no doubt served as a night-time urinal.
Donatienne thought that M. Sambo must really be a poor soul. That perhaps he was only a shabby violinist with a lorgnette and a threadbare collar. That he certainly wasn’t a fine clown in a spangled costume. Otherwise he would have pinned to his door his photograph with his little conical cap, all in white, a silver patch, a star on his right cheek.
The tap discharged its drop of water. There were three old, waterlogged matchsticks side by side on the sinkholes.
Donatienne climbed up. The staircase became dusty. It now smelled of old bedding.
On the upper floor you thought you could hear a child babbling. An illusion no doubt. Hallucination. Obsession. What could a child at play possibly be doing in this deadly dismal dwelling?
Donatienne made herself more cautious, lighter on her feet. Before arriving at the landing she craned her neck and saw the open door. There could be no doubt about it, what she could now distinctly hear from the interior was indeed a tiny little child’s uncoordinated syllables. And that little chant, that way of warbling, banal under any other circumstances, here became strangely significant.
Donatienne climbed another three steps and pushed the door…
In a miserable kitchen, at the foot of an oily gas heater, a little child, sitting on the ground, played with a white bowl among pieces of torn paper. He raised his nose, smiled, and resumed his prattle, his chin glistening with saliva.
“Hey! Hey!… Mme Diana,” Donatienne called. “There’s someone…”
No reply. The infant looked at her.
She entered the room and then walked toward the door that opened at the further end of the kitchen, caressing the little blond head as she passed by. There, she came to a standstill, a hand on her mouth so as not to cry out…
An old woman was stretched out on a sordid bed, dead, her eyes open. A fly crawled on the edge of yellowed eyelids. A hand hung out of the bed. The other rested on her chest. On the ground, dirty handkerchiefs and black stockings, empty and skinny, like eelskins.
Donatienne retreated, fumbled her way across the kitchen like a blind woman in order not to see the infant who started to moan. Soon she was on the landing. Then, without having taken another breath, she went down, trembling.
When she arrived on the threshold, panting, she froze. On the far side of the road the unpleasant shopkeeper silently signalled her with a little movement of his index finger to come over. With an ironic and amused look. There was so much persuasive force and overbearing power in this simple gesture – the gesture of a schoolteacher who has just found a pupil at fault and invites him to come and find out what’s in store – that Donatienne had to control herself so as not to obey at one.
She didn’t want to cross the street, with all its mystery. She wanted to be alone. Not to hear or see anyone. But her vision troubled her. Was it truly the little man who was signalling her, or the Don Quixote glimpsed in the shop window, high on his shanks, or some other person that she feared to recognize right now in the form of that vague apparition whose gaze, a focus of intense attraction, betrayed malice, false benevolence and ill-concealed cruelty?
At that precise moment Donatienne felt that she must make the sign of the cross in order to escape the spell. Without a moment’s delay. As she raised her right hand to her forehead, a window somewhere banged violently and fragments of broken glass fell on the pavement around her.
Instinctively she protected her face and started to run straight ahead. The shop door was open. The little man quickly disappeared.
Uncomprehendingly, Donatienne entered into the shadows…
And the street was silent once more. There wasn’t even a breath of wind. Only the slight movement of an open window with a broken pane. Was that a muffled laugh that could be heard, or the babbling of a solitary child?
In the window of the shop of misfortune, the girl with the bird had resumed her place.
On the threshold, he, HIMSELF, was once more waiting and watching.