Madame Gorgibus

Three white cats with ribbons on their necks are dancing around the cauldron. The fine milk is boiling, and one of them, now and then, carefully dips his claw in. But, oh! The greedy thing! And he scampers back with three leaps, yowling. Three white cats with ribbons on their necks are dancing around a cauldron.

The old raven, perched at the corner of the window, watches over them as in a dream, his eyes half‑closed. Hard to know if he sleeps or wakes, the crestless raven, almost a hundred years old, perched at the corner of the window in the shadow of the curtains.

Perhaps he’s dreaming of the great shimmering cypress and pine woods where in his youth he would fly swiftly, calling cr‑r‑ruck! cr‑r‑ruck! cr‑r‑ruck!, he and his sisters, my ladies the crows, deafening all the country around.

The old raven might also be dreaming of the cooler sky of April, when nests were built all through the tall budding trees, and were filled with chattering chicks, and that was joy, abundance and love.

Ah! Why did the wretched woodcutter break his wing? A fine bit of mischief! A thrown stone, and now a sea of resentment swells the heart of the old bird.

On the mantelpiece there is a Dresden china figurine, an ancient little shepherdess with pink painted cheeks who for two hundred years has mimed the same greeting. Oh! How bored she must be, my goodness! There is also a figure of Christ in blue faïence from Quimper and an hourglass that is never turned over.

All these objects are velveted with dust: the Christ is the color of ash, and the little old Dresden piece, shrouded in spider webs, despairs; oh, that frozen gesture of vainly shaking her crook and flounces.

As for the hourglass, it has fallen asleep. Besides, everything in this house is so old that the objects don’t seem to remember what to do.

The old almanac hanging near the fireplace is dated at least twenty‑five years ago; some old etchings which could be by Holbein are fading away beneath their tarnished glass; the antique weight‑driven clock in its waxed walnut case looks more like a sarcophagus; no tick‑tocking nor mouse trotting in the dusty neglect of this old house.

The three white cats with ribbons on their necks are dancing around the cauldron, and the raven is devouring and ruminating his gall. Ah! Yet, when the wicked old fairy who lives in this lair comes back from her walk on the ramparts, it seems he would only have to muster courage and take one good leap; he would flutter about her face and stun her with pecks of his great beak, then he would wait until the old hag had quite fainted so he could peel her eyeballs at his leisure. Oh! With the end of his old beak he would dig into her eye sockets and peck out her old eyes. And the old raven feels his feathers puff out: he runs, he flaps his wings, he swells and fills with a savage pleasure, cr‑r‑ruck, cr‑r‑ruck, cr‑r‑ruck. Not with impunity did he have a few noble ancestors at the gibbet of Montfaucon. Noblesse oblige. But, click and frist, a key turns in the lock, someone has come into the lane, and Madame Gorgibus, wrapped in her puce ruched silk cape and capuche, enters the old dwelling. For her old raven (oh, how little she suspects the darkness of his soul!) she brings a piece of calf lung, and its smell disarms the shifty creature; then she heads for the fireplace and crouches down in the ashes with all her cats climbing after her:

“You’ve had enough, stop it, Blanchette, you’ll get a beating! Babyface, if you want a clip on the ear…!”

She tastes the milk, finds it just right, closes the inside shutter of the little window, puts My Lord Raven in his wicker cage and, over it, a piece of calico that will cast a shadow and put him to sleep. She lights her old green‑shaded oil lamp, draws an old winged armchair close to the hearth and sits in it to take a nap before the evening supper.

The three white cats purr on her stomach, stretched out in the lovely warmth. Master Raven is asleep, a captive in his darkened cage.

Poor Madame Gorgibus, she won’t be murdered yet, not tonight.


The ways of Madame Gorgibus were a bit of a mystery. She was a little old stay‑at‑home, pretentious and always got up in hooded cloaks, leafy fabrics and feathered hats in last century’s fashion, giving her an air of carnival. She was a source of amusement for the urchins of the neighborhood and a delight for the town’s small merchants, all of them astounded by her old court styles.

She lived alone in a lane beside the ramparts, in a rather dusty dwelling, for she had no servant. Rising early like people of her age, she would idle about, flitting within her four walls with a feather duster, lightly brushing a few rare curios caked with dust, scarcely tackling the furniture. At around ten o’clock she would venture out to buy some provisions. It was, to tell the truth, an excuse for bowing and courteous exchanges with the stallholders at the market, for she bought almost nothing to eat, some milk for her cats, and for herself a piece of fruit, a vegetable or two, and at the baker’s, half a pastry that would do for a bird.

At the strike of midday she would return to the house, only to leave again at one o’clock, still in her morning clothes, to walk her three white cats on the ramparts, three darling pussies, their necks tied with fat‑looped satin bows, and in their ludicrous get‑up looking like three little Madame Gorgibuses. She would watch closely to see that Babyface, Tramp and Blanchette did their business outside, and, this event accomplished, the family would go back into the house where Madame Gorgibus would then perform some skillful pampering.

This would take quite a few hours, but with the lovely sunshine at the end of May and into June, Madame Gorgibus, pompously dressed in old togs and gaudy rags, puffed up in soft‑hued cloaks, would shuffle down to the quincunxes, the fashionable promenade where the whole town meets under the most beautiful lime trees in the world, beside the calm blue waters of the Adour River.

The old crone no longer caused a sensation, hardly frightening well‑brought‑up children: they had seen her time and time again! But there she would meet another original old woman who had also had a reversal of fortune, and who lived on the opposite edge of town, in the neighborhood of the Capuchin friars.

She was a lady of the nobility, but she no longer received or paid visits, and lived quite secluded from the world. Anyway, she lived too far away and her old legs would have let her down. And then she was somewhat haughty and did not care much for acquainting anyone with her destitution, even her maid Gorgibus who for a long time out of curiosity had besieged the abode. They would meet under the lime trees on the promenade and together spend long hours with the town society around them. Madame de la Livadière knew in minute detail all the stories about these people for at least the past hundred years, and kept trotting them out to her darling friend, all of this in the wonderful setting on the banks of the Adour. What more did these two old dears need? They would see each other again on Sunday at mass, at vespers and at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in their good cathedral. And in the winter months, when the biting cold no longer allowed long rendezvous beside the water on the benches of the promenades, they still found a way to meet.

It was in a chocolate‑maker’s shop in Bûchettes Street, in the very shadow of the cathedral: a small boutique of white woodwork and tall mirrors streaked with fly specks, a chocolaterie of the last century, old‑fashioned like its two customers. Apart from the children who would race in to buy a sou’s worth of chocolate after mass, no one went there any more. Chocolate blocks wrapped in tinfoil were sadly turning white at the bottom of the shop windows where sculpted ornaments stood beside sweet wrappers and surprises and sucres de pomme whose colored pictures were growing pale and paler.

And the old lady presiding over the counter, what did she live on? The province has such mysteries. She was a little old woman in a gown of frayed black silk, very clean, with an ever-present lace kerchief covering her curls, silvery curls with yellowing strands, and who, the strange creature, found the means on lovely frosty days to serve Mesdames Gorgibus and de la Livadière, for the sum of thirty centimes a cup, a hot chocolate, my goodness, fragrant, vanillaed and steaming. The ladies would drink it in small sips, pretentious and precious, then compliment the shopkeeper, exchange confidences, and after a few Darling’s, My delight’s and My chicken’s, each would pay strictly her six sous and depart with a curtsey. How wonderful and touching it was.

And after some exaggerated courtesies they had to go their separate ways: night falls quickly in winter. They would arrange to meet on the first fine day, and Madame de la Livadière, leaning on her ivory‑handled cane, would slowly make her way back to her house in the high town, and Madame Gorgibus to her lane near the ramparts, in the Catalan neighborhood.

And that was it for the day. Once back home, Madame Gorgibus would not go out again. There were preparations for supper, her siesta from five till eight before a few small spoonfuls of soup, then reading from an old almanac, then evening, bed, night. How could such an inoffensive existence attract the hatred of a whole neighborhood? Her extravagant cloaks, her fashions from another time and her sumptuous rags at first gave people reason to call her a mad old woman; from mad old woman they slipped quickly to wicked old fairy. Leaning on their brooms, the gossips of the town from one doorstep to the next would laugh openly and alert each other to the old mask passing by, her ponytail tied with a ribbon. But Madame Gorgibus had her pride, preferring to shut herself away, and apart from delivery men, she would speak to no one; worse, she would not even open her door to anyone.

What could she have been making in this mysterious dwelling with her three cats? Those three cats, beribboned like brides, made the situation worse: it wasn’t natural. What were they doing always sitting beside the cauldron, and what kind of devil’s kitchen were they keeping an eye on, then?

The word “witch” was bandied about, but it was the tamed raven that clinched it.

The old raven, forever standing guard at the corner of the window, sent minds racing. He had a forbidding mien, even threatening, with his huge beak and his round half‑asleep eyes; yet, a vigilant soul was evident and his countenance terrified passersby. Never had a good Christian lived on intimate terms with such a creature; he must have been used for some evil spell and had surely frequented the witches’ sabbath. With every passing day, a web of frightful suspicions wound more tightly around Madame Gorgibus.

Unsuspecting, the poor old doll‑brained woman continued her humble, habitual existence amid the hostility of everyone. Old, poor, isolated, defenseless and clueless, sooner or later she would be the victim of some nasty prank; a few boys, always ready for trouble, one day believed it was their right. Watched and spied upon as she was, they were quick to take advantage of her absence and open her door which had been left on the latch, for the poor woman was ever-trusting.

They were not inside long before they seized the three pussycats which were dull from laziness and did not even resist. It was but a minute’s work to tie them together securely by their tails with some string and wrap it around the handle of the stewpot. At first the three stunned animals did not move, but as soon as the fire’s flame licked their sides they jumped like the damned, and in a magical leap, yowling, meowing and screeching across the room, the three animals dragged the pot right into the middle of the house where it tipped over. The milk poured out and scalded them, and cries and meows, whining and rattling gasps redoubled, and at this the scoundrels could hardly contain their pleasure; now the raging cats were eating each other.

However, the oldest two of the gang had not wasted their time; they had thrown a cover over the raven which fought and pecked wildly; but they had soon wrapped up his head, holding it between their legs, and, in a flick of the wrist, click clack, they plucked alive the unfortunate throbbing bird.

In the blink of an eye Master Raven was stark naked, most indecent and fantastical with his long grainy thighs, his stomach the shape of a prow, and the grey granular skin of his poor shivering body: a gnome, a vampire, a witches’ sabbath beast.

Immobilized by pain, he had taken refuge in a corner and was not moving except to stupidly clack his beak. And our rascals fled. Thereupon Madame Gorgibus came trotting along in her puce‑red silk cape, put her key in the lock and entered her lodging. What a racket! What a disaster! Deafened by growls and cat cries, she tripped over a pot around which three animals of the apocalypse were entwined, clasping and devouring each other, their fur bristling and sticky. One of them clawed her hand in a long scratch, another sank his teeth into her calf, and while in her frenzy she tried calling for help, her throat would produce not even one cry, while a nightmarish bird, a ghostly animal, livid, obscene, with two wings of grey flesh, rushed at her with his beak wide open, hopping up and down, trying to climb her skirts. Fortunately, Madame Gorgibus could get back to her door and she ran screaming through the night, and what little sanity she had was dimmed by the adventure.

Madame Gorgibus went mad. She finished her days in the asylum.


Jean Lorrain

Jean Lorrain was the pseudonym of Paul Duval (1855-1906), a flamboyant, homosexual, ether-addicted French author and judgmental spectator of fin-de-siècle decadence. He had a taste for the morally distasteful, which was an expression of his hatred of the masks and morals of the Belle Époque. Critics have often focused on his eccentricities at the expense of his works, which portray his society and its obsessive fears. Though much of his writing remains unread today, even in French, he rewards study, for many of his stories question our prejudices, leaving the reader unmasked and uneasy.

Patricia Worth

Patricia Worth has a Master of Translation Studies from the Australian National University and has been translating French literature since 2009. Her work has appeared in the New Caledonian literary review Épisodes and the Australian AALITRA Review. A translation of George Sand’s Spiridion is forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2015.

English translation copyright (c) Patricia Worth, 2015.