|The Maidservant, 1881.
Portrait by William Breakspeare (1855-1914).
Image courtesy of the Astley Cheetham Art Collection.
FOREWORD: WHY THIS STORY IS WORTH YOUR TIME:
The Mouse was published in “Under a Glass Bell”, a collection of short stories by Anais Nin, in 1944. Nin, who is known for her erotic texts and considered a groundbreaking writer, presents here the absolute opposite of erotica and the erotic woman. The Mouse is a fearful maid who lives with her mistress in a houseboat on the Sein. The nickname Mouse is given to her by her mistress for the endless fears that govern her and characterize her behavior – fear of being sacked, fear of the terms of her employment worsening, fear of the men roaming the river banks. But it is her fear that leads her, like an animal, to erotica, which she defines as “anything extraordinary”, and eventually also to her own demise. As a lower class unmarried female, erotica is a dangerous thing – if it’s not handled with caution it’s very difficult to cope with its outcomes. The mistress is the only person willing to listen to the Mouse and hear about the conundrum she has found herself in. She is the one willing to tell her story and lead a gallant rescue attempt. But in a masculine world, which vigorously refuses to let the hero survive, it seems that even the “rescuing” woman will not succeed in ridding the Mouse of her nickname and status; she will not mention her name even once, thereby denying her the figure of a living person truly worthy of saving. –By Yael Dean Ben Ivri.
By Anais Nin (1903-1977).
The mouse and I lived on a houseboat anchored near Notre Dame where the Seine curved endlessly like veins around the island heart of Paris.
The Mouse was a small woman with thin legs, big breasts, and frightened eyes. She moved furtively, taking care of the houseboat, sometimes silently, sometimes singing a little fragment of a song. Seven little notes from some folk song of Brittany, always followed by the clashes of pots and pans.
She was always beginning the song and never ending it, as if it were stolen from the severity of the world and something frightened her, some fear of punishment or danger. Her room was the smallest cabin on the houseboat. The bed filled it, leaving only a corner for a little night table, and a hook for her everyday clothes, for her mouse-colored bedroom slippers, her mouse-colored sweater and skirt. Her Sunday clothes she kept under the bed in a box, wrapped with tissue paper.
Her one new hat and a small piece of mouse fur were also kept in tissue paper. On the night table there was a photograph of her future husband, in a soldier’s uniform. Her greatest fear was of going to the fountain after dark. The houseboat was tied near the bridge and the fountain was under the bridge. It was there the hoboes washed themselves and slept at night. Or they sat in circles talking and smoking.
During the day the Mouse fetched water in a pail, and the hoboes helped her to carry it in exchange for a piece of cheese, left-over wine, or a piece of soap. She laughed and talked with them. But as soon as night came she feared them. The Mouse emerged from her little cabin all dressed in her mouse costume, a mouse-colored sweater, skirt and apron. She wore soft gray bedroom slippers. She was always scurrying along as if she were threatened. If she was caught eating, she lowered her eyes and sought to cover the plate. If she was seen coming out of her cabin she immediately concealed what she was carrying as if she were thieving. No gentleness could cross the border of the Mouse’s fear, which was ingrained in the very skin of her thin legs. Her shoulders sloped as if too heavily burdened, every sound was an alarm to her ear.
|Anais Nin (1903-1977).
I wanted to dispel her fear.
I talked to her about her home, her family, the places where she had worked before.
The Mouse answered me evasively as if she were being questioned by a detective. Before every act of friendliness, she was suspicious, and uneasy. When she broke a dish she lamented: “Madame will take it out of my salary.” When I assured her that I did not believe in doing this because it was an accident and an accident could happen equally to me, she was silent.
Then the Mouse received a letter which made her cry. I questioned her. She said: “My mother wants a loan of my savings. As I am saving to get married. I will lose interest on the money.” I offered to lend her the sum. The Mouse accepted but looked perplexed.
When she thought of herself alone on the houseboat, the Mouse was happy. She sang her little beginning of a song she never finished. Sometimes instead of mending stockings, she sewed for herself, for her marriage.
The first storm was caused by eggs.
The Mouse was always given the same food as I ate, and not treated like a French servant. The Mouse was happy to have everything to eat, until one day when I ran short of money and I said to her: “Today just get some eggs and we’ll make an omelet.”
The Mouse stood there, with a great fright in her eyes. She said nothing but she did not move. She was very pale, and then she began to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked her what was the matter.
“Oh, Madame,” said the Mouse, “I knew it could not last. We had meat every day, and I was so happy, I thought at last I had found a good place. And now you are acting just like the others. Eggs. I can’t eat eggs.” “But if you don’t like eggs you can get something else. I don’t mind. I only mentioned eggs because I was short of money today.” “It isn’t that I don’t like them. I always liked them, at home, on the farm. We ate a lot of eggs. But when I first came to Paris the lady I worked for was so stingy—you can’t imagine what she was like. She kept all the closets under lock and key, she weighed the provisions, and she counted the pieces of sugar I ate. She always scolded me for eating too much. She made me buy meat for her every day, but for me it was always eggs, eggs for lunch, dinner, every day, until I got deathly sick. And today when you said… I thought it was beginning all over again.”
“You ought to know by now that I don’t want you to be unhappy here.”
|Anais Nin with author Henry Miller
“I’m not unhappy, Madame. I’m very happy here, only I didn’t believe it. I thought all the time there must be a catch in it, or that you were only engaging me for a month and were intending to throw me out just before the summer vacation so that you would not have to pay my vacation, and I would be left stranded in Paris in the summer when there are no jobs to be had, or I thought you would send me off before Christmas so as not to have to give me a New Year’s present because all this happened to me before. I was in a house once where I could never go out; in the evenings I had to watch over the child, and on Sundays when they all went out I had to watch the house.”
She stopped. That was all she said for many weeks. She never referred to the eggs again. She seemed a little less afraid, but she scurried and hustled just as much, and ate as if she were ashamed to be caught eating.
And again I could not cross the frontier of the Mouse’s fear. Not even when I gave her half of my lottery ticket, not even when I gave her a frame for the photograph of her future husband, not even when I gave her writing paper the very day I caught her stealing mine.
Then one day I left the barge for a week, and the Mouse was left alone to guard it.
When I returned I found it harder to catch the Mouse’s eyes, or to make her laugh. A woman who had been walking along the Quays with her lover lost her hat. It fell into the river. She knocked at our door and asked the Mouse if she could come onto the barge and try to catch it with a pole. It was floating around the other side. Everybody tried to reach it through the windows. The Mouse almost fell out carried down by the weight of the broom and the pull of the current. Everybody laughed, and the Mouse too. Then she got frightened hearing herself laugh, and she hurried away to her work.
A month passed.
One day the Mouse was grinding coffee in the kitchen when I heard her groan. I found the Mouse very white, doubling up with pains in her stomach. I helped her to her cabin. The Mouse said it was indigestion. But the pains grew worse. She groaned for an hour, and finally asked me if I would get a doctor she knew about who lived very near. It was the doctor’s wife who received me. The doctor had taken care of the Mouse before, but not since she lived on a houseboat. That made it impossible for the doctor to go and see her because he was a “grand blessé de guerre” and on account of his wooden leg he could not be expected to walk across an unsteady gangplank into a dancing houseboat.
That was impossible, the wife repeated. But I pleaded with her. I explained that the gangplank was steady, that it had a railing on one side, that the houseboat never moved unless another barge was passing by, that it was anchored near the stairway and easy to get into.
The river was very calm that day, and no accident was to be feared. The doctor’s wife was half convinced and gave me a half promise that the doctor would come in an hour. We watched for him out of the window, and we saw him arrive limping at the gangplank and hesitating in front of it. I walked over it to show him how steady it was, and he limped across it slowly repeating: “I am a grand blessé de guerre. I can’t be taking care of people who live on houseboats.”
But he did not fall into the river. He entered the little cabin. The Mouse was forced to make certain explanations. She was afraid she was pregnant. She had tried using something her sister had told her about, pure ammonia it was and now the pains were terrible. The doctor shook his head. The Mouse had to uncover herself. Strange to see the little Mouse with her thin legs raised. I asked her why she had not told me. “I was afraid Madame would throw me out.”
“On the contrary, I would have helped you.”
The Mouse groaned. The doctor said: “You risked a terrible infection. If it does not come out now you’ll have to go to the hospital.”
“Oh, no, I can’t do that, my sister will find out about it, and she’ll be furious with me, and she will tell my mother.” “Maybe it’ll come out all by itself but that is all I can do: I can’t be mixed up in things like this. In my profession I must be careful, for my own sake. Bring me water and a towel.” He washed his hands carefully, talking all the time about the fact that he could not come back, and that all he hoped was that she would not have an infection.
The Mouse was hunched in the corner of her bed looking anxiously at the doctor who was washing his hands of all responsibility. The grand blessé de guerre did not look at the Mouse as if she were a human being. Everything about him said clearly: you are only a servant, just a little servant, and like all of them you get into trouble, and it’s your own fault.
Now he said aloud: “All you servants make trouble for us doctors.” After washing his hands he limped down the gangplank with a definite good-by, and I returned to the cabin and sat on the Mouse’s bed. “You should have confided in me, I would have helped you. Lie quiet now, I’ll take care of you.”
“Don’t send me to the hospital, my mother will find out. It only happened because you went away, and during those nights alone I was terribly afraid. I was so afraid of the men under the bridge that I let my young man stay here, and that’s how it happened, because I was afraid.”
That’s how it happened to the Mouse, just in panic, she scurried into the trap, and was caught. That was the love the Mouse knew, this moment of fear, in the dark. “To tell you the truth, Madame, it isn’t worth it. I don’t see anything to it at all. To have all this trouble afterwards, to get caught like this, and what for? It isn’t anything extraordinary.”
“Lie quiet, I’ll come back later and see if you have a fever.” A few hours later the Mouse called me: “It happened, Madame, it happened!” But the Mouse had a fever and it was mounting. There was an infection, and no doctor would come to the houseboat. As soon as they heard what it was about they refused to come. Especially for a servant. That happened too often. They must learn, they said, not to get into trouble.
I promised the Mouse to talk to her sister and invent some reason for her going away if she would let me take her to the hospital. She agreed and I offered to pack her valise. At the mention of valise the Mouse grew very pale. She lay inert and looked more frightened than ever. But I took her valise from under the bed and laid it beside her. “Tell me where your clothes are. You will need soap, a toothbrush, a towel…”
“Madame…” The Mouse hesitated. She opened the small night table beside her. She handed out to me all the objects I had thought lost during the last month, my own soap, toothbrush, towel, one of my handkerchiefs, one of my powder puffs. So many things that I smiled. Out of the shelf came one of my chemises. I pretended not to notice. The Mouse’s cheeks were red with fever. She packed her little valise carefully. She packed writing paper for her young man, and her knitting.
She asked me to look for a book she wanted included. It was a Child’s Reader. The Mouse had worn down the first ten pages, the stories of the lamb, the cow, the horse. She must have been reading the same pages for many years, they were so threadbare and gray like her bedroom slippers.
I told the Mouse I would get her a new pair of slippers. The Mouse reached for her pocketbook which was hidden under the mattress. “My God, has nobody ever given you anything?”
“If I were poor and sick in bed, wouldn’t you give me a pair of slippers if I needed them?”
This idea frightened the Mouse more than any other. It was impossible for her to imagine this reversal. “It isn’t the same thing,” said the Mouse.
She was carried out of the houseboat. She looked very small. She insisted on wearing a hat, her Sunday hat taken out of its tomb of tissue paper, and the very small fur neckpiece the color of her mouse eyes.
At the hospital they refused to take her in.
Who was the doctor taking care of her?
Was she married? No. Who performed the abortion? Herself. This they doubted. They advised us to try another hospital. The Mouse was losing blood. The fever was consuming her. I took her to another hospital where they sat her on a bench. The Mouse kept a firm grasp on her little valise. They plied her with questions. Where did she come from? Where was the first place she worked in? The Mouse answered meekly. And after that? She could not remember the address. This held up the questionnaire for ten minutes. And before that? The Mouse answered again. She kept one hand over her stomach. “This woman is losing blood,” I protested, “Are all these questions necessary?” Well, if she didn’t remember the third address, did she remember where she worked after that? And how long? The time was always two years. Why? asked the man at the desk. As if her not having stayed in the house longer were surprising, suspicious. As if she were the culprit. “You performed the abortion perhaps?” asked the man, turning to me. The woman bleeding there on the bench meant nothing to them. The little round moist eyes, the tiny worn piece of fur around her neck, the panic in her. The brand-new Sunday hat and the torn valise with a string for a handle. The oily pocketbook, and the soldier’s letters pressed between the leaves of a Child’s Reader. Even this pregnancy, accomplished in the dark, out of fear. A gesture of panic, that of a mouse falling into a trap.