My Double Life
One day, as her husband was ill, she went into the field to help gather in potatoes;
the over-damp soil was rotting them, and there was no time to be lost. She left me in
charge of her husband, who was lying on his Breton bedstead suffering from a bad
attack of lumbago. The good woman had placed me in my high chair, and had been
careful to put in the wooden peg which supported the narrow table for my toys. She
threw a faggot in the grate, and said to me in Breton language (until the age of four I
only understood Breton), "Be a good girl, Milk Blossom." That was my only name at
the time. When she had gone, I tried to withdraw the wooden peg which she had
taken so much trouble to put in place. Finally I succeeded in pushing aside the little
rampart. I wanted to reach the ground, but—poor little me!—I fell into the fire,
which was burning joyfully.
The screams of my foster-father, who could not move, brought in some neighbours. I
was thrown, all smoking, into a large pail of fresh milk. My aunts were informed of
what had happened: they communicated the news to my mother, and for the next
four days that quiet part of the country was ploughed by stage -coaches which
arrived in rapid succession. My aunts came from all parts of the world, and my
mother, in the greatest alarm, hastened from Brussels, with Baron Larrey, one of her
friends, who was a young doctor, just beginning to acquire celebrity, and a house
surgeon whom Baron Larrey had brought with him. I have been told since that
nothing was so painful to witness and yet so charming as my mother's despair. The
doctor approved of the "mask of butter," which was changed every two hours.
Dear Baron Larrey! I often saw him afterwards, and now and again we shall meet
him in the pages of my Memoirs. He used to tell me in such charming fashion how
those kind folks loved Milk Blossom. And he could never refrain from laughing at the
thought of that butter. There was butter everywhere, he used to say: on the
bedsteads, on the cupboards, on the chairs, on the tables, hanging up on nails in
bladders. All the neighbours used to bring butter to make masks for Milk Blossom.
Mother, adorably beautiful, looked like a Madonna, with her golden hair and her
eyes fringed with such long lashes that they made a shadow on her cheeks when she
She distributed money on all sides. She would have given her golden hair, her
slender white fingers, her tiny feet, her life itself, in order to save her child. And she
was as sincere in her despair and her love as in her unconscious forgetfulnes s.
Baron Larrey returned to Paris, leaving my mother, Aunt Rosine, and the surgeon
with me. Forty-two days later, mother took back in triumph to Paris the nurse, the
foster-father, and me, and installed us in a little house at Neuilly, on the banks of the
Seine. I had not even a scar, it appears. My skin was rather too bright a pink, but that
was all. My mother, happy and trustful once more, began to travel again, leaving me
in care of my aunts.
Two years were spent in the little garden at Neuilly, which wa s full of horrible
dahlias growing close together and coloured like wooden balls. My aunts never
came there. My mother used to send money, bon-bons, and toys. The foster-father
died, and my nurse married a concierge, who used to pull open the door at 65 Ru e
Not knowing where to find my mother, and not being able to write, my nurse—
without telling any of my friends—took me with her to her new abode.