Loading

The Bookshelf: Precious Dust


Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968) lived and worked in Odessa in the early 1920s, which was later reflected in his work. The most famous work about Odessa, the story “The Time of Great Expectations” (1959), became a landmark for our city. Thanks to Konstantin Paustovsky, the whole world learned about literary Odessa, about Odessa writers Isaak Babel, Eduard Bagritsky, Ilya Ilf and many other talented Odessa citizens.


I cannot remember how I came to hear the story of Jean Chamette, the Paris dustman who earned his living by sweeping the shops of the artisans of his quarter.

Chamette lived in a shanty on the outskirts of the city. To describe his neighbourhood at length would lead the reader away from the main trend of the story. I would point out, however, that to this day the outskirts of Paris are surrounded by fortifications which, at the time this story unfolds, teemed with birds and were covered with honeysuckle and hawthorn. Chamette’s shanty lay at the foot of a northern rampart, in a row with the shacks of tinkers, cobblers, garbage pickers and beggars.

If Maupassant had shown an interest in the inhabitants of these shacks I am sure he would have written many more splendid stories. Perhaps he would have added more laurels to his immortal crown. But outsiders rarely-peered into these places—that is, except detectives, and these only when in search of stolen goods.

His neighbours nicknamed Chamette Woodpecker, from which it may be supposed that he was a lean, hatchet-faced fellow, perhaps with a tuft of hair, like a bird’s comb, protruding from under his hat.

As a private in the army of Napoleon le Petit during the Mexican War, Jean Chamette had known better days. He had been lucky then, too; for at Vera Cruz he had had a bout of fever and was ordered home without having fought in a single real skirmish. The officer in command of Chamette’s regiment took this opportunity to send his eight-year-old daughter Suzanne back to France.

This officer was a widower who took his little daughter with him wherever he went. But the Mexican climate was fatal for European children, and the fitful guerrilla warfare was fraught with unforeseen perils. And so for once he decided to part with the little girl and send her to his sister in Rouen.

The heat hung in a haze over the Atlantic during Chamette’s crossing. Little Suzanne brooded, even the fishes darting in and out of the shimmering water failed to elicit a smile from her.

Chamette looked after the child as best he could. He felt, however, that she needed not just care, but affection. But what affection could he, ex-private of a Colonial Regiment, show to a little girl? How to entertain her? Play a game of dice? Sing a smutty soldier’s song?

Yet the ice had to be broken. Every now and then Chamette caught the child’s bewildered glances on himself. At last he plucked up courage and embarked on a rambling tale of his own life, recalling every detail of the fishing village on the shore of the Channel where he had lived; the quicksands, the pools left by the tide, the village chapel with its cracked bell, and his mother, attending a neighbour’s heart-burns.

In these recollections Chamette saw nothing that could amuse Suzanne or make her laugh. But the girl, to his surprise, hung on his every word, even pleading with him to repeat the stories and recall fresh details.

In search of these details Chamette would strain his memory until he was no longer sure that they were true. These were not really recollections, but the faint shadows of memory, melting like wreaths of mist. It had never occurred to Chamette that he would have to dig into his dull, long-buried past. One day faint memories of the golden rose crossed his mind. Had he actually seen that rudely carved rose of blackened gold hanging above the crucifix in the house of an old fisherwoman or heard a story about it he could not tell. Now, as he began to relate Suzanne about it, he felt almost certain that he had indeed caught a glimpse of the rose. It had glittered, he remembered, though the sun was not shining and a storm raged over the Channel. The more he thought of this rose the more distinctly he recalled how the gold gleamed beneath the low ceiling.

Everybody in the village was puzzled why the fisher-woman refused to sell her treasure, which was worth a large sum. Chamette’s mother alone argued that it would be sinful to sell the golden rose. It had been given to the old woman “for luck” by her sweetheart. That was long ago—when the old woman, then a happy young girl, worked in the sardine cannery at Audierne.

“Golden roses are few in this world,” Chamette’s mother used to say. “But the people lucky enough to possess them are sure of happiness. And not only the owners, but all who touch the rose.”

As a boy Chamette had longed for the day when fortune would smile on the old fisherwoman. But in vain. Her cottage still shook in the gales and no light relieved the sombre gloom of evening.

Chamette left the village without having seen any change in the old woman’s circumstances. But in Havre a year later when he met a fellow-villager, a stoker on a mail steamer, he learnt that the old woman’s son, a cobearded jolly painter, had turned up unexpectedly from Paris. His presence had transformed the cottage, filling it with gaiety and plenty. Artists, they say, get lots of money for their daubing.

Once while they were sitting on deck and Chamette was combing her tousled hair with his metal comb, Suzanne asked: “Jean, will anyone ever give me a golden rose?” “You can never tell, Susie,” replied Chamette. “Maybe some loon or other will turn up and present you with one. We had an old soldier in our company who had all the luck in the world. He once picked up gold teeth on the battlefield and treated the whole company to drinks. This was in the war in Annam. The tipsy gunners started firing from a mortar for the fun of it. One of the shells landed in the crater of an extinct volcano, exploded and caused it to erupt. I’ll be damned if I remember the name of the volcano. It might have been Kjaka-Taka, for all I know. Some eruption it was, I tell you! Forty natives lost their lives. Just think of innocent people dying, all because of an old dental plate! Then it turned out that it was our colonel who’d lost it. The whole thing, of course, was hushed up. After all, the prestige of the army must be kept up. But were we tipsy!”

“Where did that happen?” Susie queried incredulously.

“I told you, didn’t I? In Annam. That’s in Indo-China, where the ocean burns with hell’s fire and the jellyfish look like the lace flounces around ballet girls’ skirts. And it’s so damp that mushrooms grow in the soldiers’ boots overnight. Let them hang me if I lie.”

Although he had heard plenty of soldiers’ stories Chamette had never told any himself. Not that he had any scruples about inventing ‘things, but somehow there had been no need for it. Now to amuse Suzanne he was ready to do anything.

In Rouen, Chamette handed Suzanne over to her aunt, a tall, elderly woman with a pursed-up yellow mouth. Her dress, trimmed with black sequins, made her look like a snake in a circus. On catching sight of her, Suzanne recoiled, clinging desperately to Chamette’s faded greatcoat.

“Don’t be afraid,” whispered Chamette, urging Susie forward. “Do you think we choose our commanders in the army? Have patience, Susie, you’re a soldier lass.”

Chamette walked away, looking back every now and then at the windows of the gloomy house in which Suzanne’s aunt lived. He made his way through the crowded streets, listening to the measured chiming of the clocks in the little shops. In his haversack lay the crumpled blue ribbon which Susie had worn in her hair. And it smelt as sweetly as though it had been lying for a long time in a basket of violets.

Mexican fever had played havoc with Chamette’s health. Having been discharged from the army without getting his sergeant’s stripes he now plunged into the anxieties of civilian life. Years passed in a monotonous struggle against poverty. He tried his hand at different jobs before settling down as a dustman in Paris. The stench of sewers and garbage dumps pursued him wherever he went. It even seemed to be carried by the light breeze blowing from the Seine and he smelt it in the bunches of moist flowers sold on the boulevards by neat old women.

The days faded into a murky nothingness, relieved only by one rosy vision that now and then broke through the gloom, bringing with it the radiance of spring—the vision of Suzanne in her worn frock. It was as though Suzanne’s frock, like her ribbon, had lain long in a basket of violets.

Where was Suzanne? What had become of her? He knew that her father had died of wounds and that she was now a grown-up girl.

He had often promised himself that he would go to Rouen and find her. But he kept putting off the journey until he felt it was now too late, that Suzanne had forgotten all about him. He cursed himself for his boorish-ness at their parting. Why hadn’t he kissed her instead of pushing her towards that old hag, her aunt, and saying, “Have patience, Susie, you’re a soldier lass!”

Paris dustmen work at night. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it is at the close of the day that large quantities of garbage accumulate as a result of man’s strenuous but not always effective activity; secondly, the sight and the smell of refuse must not offend the Parisians. At night-time the rats are practically the only creatures that pay any attention to the scavenger’s work.

Chamette liked working in the small hours of the morning, and was even touched by their beauty, particularly when the first flecks of dawn broke over the vast city and the early morning mist settled low over the Seine.

Once, just at the hour of misty dawn, while crossing the Pont des Invalides Chamette caught sight of a girl in a pale mauve dress standing sadly at the parapet and looking down into the dark waters of the Seine.

Removing his dusty hat Chamette said: “Mademoiselle, at this hour the Seine is very cold. If you allow me, I will see you home.”

“I no longer have a home,” replied the girl hastily, and she turned to Chamette.

Chamette’s hat fell from his hands.

“Susie!” he cried, experiencing delight and dismay at the same time. “Susie, soldier lass! My little girl! We have met, at last. You haven’t forgotten me, have you? I’m Jean, Jean Erneste Chamette, ex-private of the 27th Colonial Regiment, the man who brought you to that old witch in Rouen. How beautiful you’ve become, Susie. Your hair, it’s lovely, and I never knew how to comb it.”

“Jean!” exclaimed Susie and, throwing her arms around his neck, burst into tears. “Jean, good old Jean. Of course, I remember. Jean, you’re as kind as ever!”

“Kind? Nonsense!” Chamette muttered. “Tell me what’s happened, ma petite.”

Chamette drew Suzanne towards him and did what he had hesitated to do in Rouen—passed his hand over her lustrous hair and imprinted a kiss on it. But he turned away quickly, fearing that the smell of his coat would reach Suzanne’s nostrils. Suzanne clung to his shoulder.

“What’s happened, little one?” Chamette repeated with concern.

Suzanne did not reply, unable to restrain her sobbing. Chamette realized that this was not the time for questions.

“I’ve got a place down by the old ramparts,” he began hurriedly. “Quite a bit from here. There’s nothing to eat, unfortunately. But you can boil some water, wash, and sleep. And you can stay as long as you want.”

Suzanne spent five days at Chamette’s lodgings, and for five days no brighter sun had ever risen over Paris for Chamette. All the houses, even the most dilapidated and begrimed, the gardens and even Chamette’s shanty, shone in its rays like the most precious jewels. He who has not felt his pulse quicken at the measured breathing of a sleeping girl does not know what tenderness is.

Her lips had the red of moist rose petals and her lashes glistened from the tears shed during the night.

Chamette had suspected what had happened to Suzanne and he was not far from the truth. Her lover, a young actor, had betrayed her. But it needed no more than the five days which Suzanne spent with Chamette to bring about a reconciliation. And things were not set right without Chamette’s help. It was he who took Suzanne’s letter to her lover, an insufferable dandy, who received a lesson in good manners when he tried to press a few sous into Chamette’s hand.

Soon afterwards the actor arrived in a carriage to take Suzanne away. The reconciliation was accompanied by the usual bouquet, kisses, laughter, and tears, repentance and a touch of recklessness. Suzanne was so flustered that she jumped into the carriage without even saying good-bye to Chamette. Then, remembering, she blushed and held out her hand guiltily.

“If that’s the kind of life you like,” Chamette muttered, “may you be happy.”

“I know nothing about life,” replied Suzanne, tears glistening in her eyes.

“There’s nothing to be worried about, darling,” said the actor in a vexed tone.

“If only someone would give me a golden rose for luck,” Suzanne said and sighed. “I’m sure it would make me happy. Jean, dear, I remember the story you told me on the steamer.”

“Someone may,” replied Chamette. “But whoever it is it will not be that fop of yours. Excuse me, I’m a soldier. I just can’t stomach fops.”

The young couple exchanged glances. The actor shrugged his shoulders and the carriage started off. Chamette went about his job as usual, collecting the rubbish at the end of the day from the shops. But after the meeting with Suzanne he no longer emptied the refuse from the jewellers’ in the rubbish dump. He secretly put the sweepings in a sack and brought it home with him every night. The neighbours thought he had gone out of his mind; for few people knew that the sweepings contained a certain amount of the gold dust which dropped to the floor under the jeweller’s file.

It was Chamette’s secret plan to sift the dust collected from the jewellers; hoping in time to amass a tiny quantity of gold which he would then mould into a small golden rose for Suzanne and so make her happy. And, perhaps, as his mother used to say, the rose might bring happiness to many other poor folk. Who could tell? He made up his mind not to see Suzanne until the rose was finished.

Chamette kept his secret to himself, fearing that if it leaked out, it would rouse the suspicions of the police. Better keep clear of them. Maybe they would take him for a thief, lock him up in gaol, and carry away his precious dust. After all, it was not his.

Before he joined the army Chamette had worked as a farm-hand for the village cure. He knew how to winnow grain and this knowledge was useful now. He remembered how the heavy grain dropped to the ground while the chaff was swept away with the wind. And so, Chamette made a little winnowing fan, and at night would winnow the dust brought from the jewellers; his heart leaping with joy each time he caught sight of a few glittering particles at the bottom of the tray.

Much time passed before he had enough gold powder to make a mould. But when he had it at last, he delayed giving it to the jeweller to shape it into a gold rose. This was not because he had no money—any jeweller would be satisfied with a third part of the mould in return for his services. The real reason was that when the rose was ready he would have to see Susie and much as he longed for the meeting, the thought of it filled him with misgivings. All the pent-up tenderness that was in him he had kept for Susie. But who wanted the tenderness of a horrid old scarecrow who waddled on rickety, rheumatic legs. Chamette had long noticed that most people shunned him. The sight of his gaunt, grey face with its sagging skin and bulging eyes was anything but attractive. He had a chip of a broken mirror in his shack. On rare occasions he would gaze at his reflection in it and immediately hurl it away with a curse. Far better not to see himself.

When at long last the rose was ready, Chamette learnt that Suzanne had left the year before for America, never to return to Paris again—so they said. Nor did anybody know her address.

At first Chamette was even somewhat relieved at this news. But, by degrees, a great disappointment, like a piece of rusty iron, sharp and cold, cut into his breast near his heart—so near that Chamette prayed for it to pierce the weary heart and stop its beating for all time. He no longer collected the refuse. For days now he lay silently on his bed, his face turned to the wall. Once only did he smile, pressing the sleeve of his old jacket to his eyes. None of the neighbours bothered about him—they had cares of their own. One man, however, kept watch over Chamette. This was an elderly jeweller, the one who had moulded Chamette’s gold into a most delicate rose with a twig containing a little sharp-pointed bud. The jeweller visited Chamette regularly, but never brought any medicine, knowing full well that the dustman was beyond recovery.

And in fact Chamette passed away before the jeweller’s eyes. He raised the dead man’s head, took from under his soiled pillow the golden rose, wrapped up in a crinkled blue ribbon, and departed unhurriedly, closing the creaking door behind him. The ribbon smelt of mice.

It was late autumn. The gloom of the evening was pierced by the wind and the flicking lights of lamps. The jeweller recalled how death had transformed Chamette’s face, giving it an expression at once austere and serene, almost beautiful.

“That which life denies is given by death,” thought the jeweller, who was fond of platitudes. Some time afterwards he sold the rose to an elderly, shabbily dressed man of letters, who in the jeweller’s opinion was not rich enough to buy anything so costly as the golden rose. Evidently the story told by the jeweller about the origin of the rose so fascinated the writer that he decided to buy it.

This elderly writer kept a journal. And it is to this that we are indebted for the story of Jean Erneste Chamette, ex-private of the 27th Colonial Regiment.

The journal contained, among other things, this entry:

“Every minute, every chance word and glance, every thought—profound or flippant—the imperceptible beat of the human heart, and, by the same token, the fluff dropping from the poplar, the starlight gleaming in a pool—• all are grains of gold dust. Over the years, we writers subconsciously collect millions of these tiny grains and keep them stored away until they form a mould out of which we shape our own particular golden rose—a story, novel, or poem. From these precious particles a stream of literature is born.

“For me the story of Chamette’s golden rose is symbolic of literature in the making. And just as the golden rose of the old dustman was to bring happiness to Suzanne, so with our writing. It should play its part in ensuring that beauty, the pursuit of happiness, joy and freedom, generosity and reason dissipate the gloom and shine with the brilliance of the unsetting sun.”

1931

Translated by Susanna Rosenberg