They both styled themselves "Madame," but only the younger of the old ladies had been married. Madame Valière was still a demoiselle, but as she drew towards sixty it had seemed more convenable to possess a mature label. Certainly Madame Dépine had no visible matrimonial advantages over her fellow-lodger at the Hôtel des Tourterelles, though in the symmetrical cemetery of Montparnasse (Section 22) wreaths of glass beads testified to a copious domesticity in the far past, and a newspaper picture of a chasseur d'Afrique pinned over her bed recalled—though only the uniform was the dead soldier's—the son she had contributed to France's colonial empire. Practically it was two old maids—or two lone widows—whose boots turned pointed toes towards each other in the dark cranny of the rambling, fusty corridor of the sky-floor. Madame Dépine was round, and grew dumpier with age; "Madame" Valière was long, and grew slimmer. Otherwise their lives ran parallel. For the true madame of the establishment you had to turn to Madame la Propriétaire, with her buxom bookkeeper of a daughter and her tame baggage-bearing husband. This full-blooded, jovial creature, with her swart moustache, represented the only Parisian success of three provincial lives, and, in her good-nature, had permitted her decayed townswomen—at as low a rent as was compatible with prudence—to shelter themselves under her roof and as near it as possible. Her house being a profitable warren of American art-students, tempered by native journalists and decadent poets, she could, moreover, afford to let the old ladies off coffee and candles. They were at liberty to prepare their own déjeuner in winter or to buy it outside in summer; they could burn their own candles or sit in the dark, as the heart in them pleased; and thus they were as cheaply niched as any one in the gay city. Rentières after their meticulous fashion, they drew a ridiculous but regular amount from the mysterious coffers of the Crédit Lyonnais.
But though they met continuously in the musty corridor, and even dined—when they did dine—at the same crémerie, they never spoke to each other. Madame la Propriétaire was the channel through which they sucked each other's history, for though they had both known her in their girlish days at Tonnerre, in the department of Yonne, they had not known each other. Madame Valière (Madame Dépine learnt, and it seemed to explain the frigidity of her neighbour's manner) still trailed clouds of glory from the service of a Princess a quarter of a century before. Her refusal to wink at the Princess's goings-on, her austere, if provincial, regard for the convenances, had cost her the place, and from these purpureal heights she had fallen lower and lower, till she struck the attic of the Hôtel des Tourterelles.
But even a haloed past does not give one a licence to annoy one's neighbours. Madame Dépine felt resentfully, and she hated Madame Valière as a haughty minion of royalty, who kept a cough, which barked loudest in the silence of the night.
"Why doesn't she go to the hospital, your Princess?" she complained to Madame la Propriétaire.
"Since she is able to nurse herself at home," the opulent-bosomed hostess replied with a shrug.
"At the expense of other people," Madame Dépine retorted bitterly. "I shall die of her cough, I am sure of it."
Madame showed her white teeth sweetly. "Then it is you who should go to the hospital."
Time wrote wrinkles enough on the brows of the two old ladies, but his frosty finger never touched their glossy brown hair, for both wore wigs of nearly the same shade. These wigs were almost symbolic of the evenness of their existence, which had got beyond the reach of happenings. The Church calendar, so richly dyed with figures of saints and martyrs, filled life with colour enough, and fast-days were almost as welcome as feast-days, for if the latter warmed the general air, the former cloaked economy with dignity. As for Mardi Gras, that shook you up for weeks, even though you did not venture out of your apartment; the gay serpentine streamers remained round one's soul as round the trees.
At intervals, indeed, secular excitements broke the even tenor. A country cousin would call upon the important Parisian relative, and be received, not in the little bedroom, but in state in the mustily magnificent salon of the hotel—all gold mirrors and mouldiness—which the poor country mouse vaguely accepted as part of the glories of Paris and success. Madame Dépine would don her ponderous gold brooch, sole salvage of her bourgeois prosperity; while, if the visitor were for Madame Valière, that grande dame would hang from her yellow, shrivelled neck the long gold chain and the old-fashioned watch, whose hands still seemed to point to regal hours.
Another break in the monotony was the day on which the lottery was drawn—the day of the pagan god of Luck. What delicious hopes of wealth flamed in these withered breasts, only to turn grey and cold when the blank was theirs again, but not the less to soar up again, with each fresh investment, towards the heaven of the hundred thousand francs! But if ever Madame Dépine stumbled on Madame Valière buying a section of a billet at the lottery agent's, she insisted on having her own slice cut from another number. Fortune itself would be robbed of its sweet if the "Princess" should share it. Even their common failure to win a sou did not draw them from their freezing depths of silence, from which every passing year made it more difficult to emerge. Some greater conjuncture was needed for that.
It came when Madame la Propriétaire made her début one fine morning in a grey wig.
Hitherto that portly lady's hair had been black. But now, as suddenly as darkness vanishes in a tropic dawn, it was become light. No gradual approach of the grey, for the black had been equally artificial. The wig is the region without twilight. Only in the swart moustache had the grey crept on, so that perhaps the growing incongruity had necessitated the sudden surrender to age.
To both Madame Dépine and Madame Valière the grey wig came like a blow on the heart.
It was a grisly embodiment of their secret griefs, a tantalising vision of the unattainable. To glide reputably into a grey wig had been for years their dearest desire. As each saw herself getting older and older, saw her complexion fade and the crow's-feet gather, and her eyes grow hollow, and her teeth fall out and her cheeks fall in, so did the impropriety of her brown wig strike more and more humiliatingly to her soul....