Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Book 1.

Chapter 1

A Wedding-party at the Cafe Vefour

“Madame Chebe!”

“My boy —”

“I am so happy!”

This was the twentieth time that day that the good Risler had said that he was happy, and always with the same emotional and contented manner, in the same low, deep voice-the voice that is held in check by emotion and does not speak too loud for fear of suddenly breaking into violent tears.

Not for the world would Risler have wept at that moment — imagine a newly-made husband giving way to tears in the midst of the wedding-festival! And yet he had a strong inclination to do so. His happiness stifled him, held him by the throat, prevented the words from coming forth. All that he could do was to murmur from time to time, with a slight trembling of the lips, “I am happy; I am happy!”

Indeed, he had reason to be happy.

Since early morning the poor man had fancied that he was being whirled along in one of those magnificent dreams from which one fears lest he may awake suddenly with blinded eyes; but it seemed to him as if this dream would never end. It had begun at five o’clock in the morning, and at ten o’clock at night, exactly ten o’clock by Vefour’s clock, he was still dreaming.

How many things had happened during that day, and how vividly he remembered the most trivial details.

He saw himself, at daybreak, striding up and down his bachelor quarters, delight mingled with impatience, clean-shaven, his coat on, and two pairs of white gloves in his pocket. Then there were the wedding-coaches, and in the foremost one — the one with white horses, white reins, and a yellow damask lining — the bride, in her finery, floated by like a cloud. Then the procession into the church, two by two, the white veil in advance, ethereal, and dazzling to behold. The organ, the verger, the cure’s sermon, the tapers casting their light upon jewels and spring gowns, and the throng of people in the sacristy, the tiny white cloud swallowed up, surrounded, embraced, while the bridegroom distributed hand-shakes among all the leading tradesmen of Paris, who had assembled to do him honor. And the grand crash from the organ at the close, made more solemn by the fact that the church door was thrown wide open, so that the whole street took part in the family ceremony — the music passing through the vestibule at the same time with the procession — the exclamations of the crowd, and a burnisher in an ample lute-string apron remarking in a loud voice, “The groom isn’t handsome, but the bride’s as pretty as a picture.” That is the kind of thing that makes you proud when you happen to be the bridegroom.

And then the breakfast at the factory, in a workroom adorned with hangings and flowers; the drive in the Bois — a concession to the wishes of his mother-in-law, Madame Chebe, who, being the petty Parisian bourgeoise that she was, would not have deemed her daughter legally married without a drive around the lake and a visit to the Cascade. Then the return for dinner, as the lamps were being lighted along the boulevard, where people turned to look after the wedding-party, a typical well-to-do bourgeois wedding-party, as it drove up to the grand entrance at Vefour’s with all the style the livery horses could command.

Risler had reached that point in his dream.

And now the worthy man, dazed with fatigue and well-being, glanced vaguely about that huge table of twenty-four covers, curved in the shape of a horseshoe at the ends, and surrounded by smiling, familiar faces, wherein he seemed to see his happiness reflected in every eye. The dinner was drawing near its close. The wave of private conversation flowed around the table. Faces were turned toward one another, black sleeves stole behind waists adorned with bunches of asclepias, a childish face laughed over a fruit ice, and the dessert at the level of the guests’ lips encompassed the cloth with animation, bright colors, and light.

Ah, yes! Risler was very happy.

Except his brother Frantz, everybody he loved was there. First of all, sitting opposite him, was Sidonie — yesterday little Sidonie, to-day his wife. For the ceremony of dinner she had laid aside her veil; she had emerged from her cloud. Now, above the smooth, white silk gown, appeared a pretty face of a less lustrous and softer white, and the crown of hair-beneath that other crown so carefully bestowed — would have told you of a tendency to rebel against life, of little feathers fluttering for an opportunity to fly away. But husbands do not see such things as those.

Next to Sidonie and Frantz, the person whom Risler loved best in the world was Madame Georges Fromont, whom he called “Madame Chorche,” the wife of his partner and the daughter of the late Fromont, his former employer and his god. He had placed her beside him, and in his manner of speaking to her one could read affection and deference. She was a very young woman, of about the same age as Sidonie, but of a more regular, quiet and placid type of beauty. She talked little, being out of her element in that conglomerate assemblage; but she tried to appear affable.

On Risler’s other side sat Madame Chebe, the bride’s mother, radiant and gorgeous in her green satin gown, which gleamed like a shield. Ever since the morning the good woman’s every thought had been as brilliant as that robe of emblematic hue. At every moment she said to herself: “My daughter is marrying Fromont Jeune and Risler Aine, of Rue des Vieilles Haudriettes!” For, in her mind, it was not Risler alone whom her daughter took for her husband, but the whole sign of the establishment, illustrious in the commercial annals of Paris; and whenever she mentally announced that glorious event, Madame Chebe sat more erect than ever, stretching the silk of the bodice until it almost cracked.

What a contrast to the attitude of Monsieur Chebe, who was seated at a short distance. In different households, as a general rule, the same causes produce altogether different results. That little man, with the high forehead of a visionary, as inflated and hollow as a ball, was as fierce in appearance as his wife was radiant. That was nothing unusual, by the way, for Monsieur Chebe was in a frenzy the whole year long. On this particular evening, however, he did not wear his customary woe-begone, lack-lustre expression, nor the full-skirted coat, with the pockets sticking out behind, filled to repletion with samples of oil, wine, truffles, or vinegar, according as he happened to be dealing in one or the other of those articles. His black coat, new and magnificent, made a fitting pendant to the green gown; but unfortunately his thoughts were of the color of his coat. Why had they not seated him beside the bride, as was his right? Why had they given his seat to young Fromont? And there was old Gardinois, the Fromonts’ grandfather, what business had he by Sidonie’s side? Ah! that was how it was to be! Everything for the Fromonts and nothing for the Chebes! And yet people are amazed that there are such things as revolutions!

Luckily the little man had by his side, to vent his anger upon, his friend Delobelle, an old, retired actor, who listened to him with his serene and majestic holiday countenance.

Strangely enough, the bride herself had something of that same expression. On that pretty and youthful face, which happiness enlivened without making glad, appeared indications of some secret preoccupation; and, at times, the corners of her lips quivered with a smile, as if she were talking to herself.

With that same little smile she replied to the somewhat pronounced pleasantries of Grandfather Gardinois, who sat by her side.

“This Sidonie, on my word!” said the good man, with a laugh. “When I think that not two months ago she was talking about going into a convent. We all know what sort of convents such minxes as she go to! As the saying is in our province: The Convent of Saint Joseph, four shoes under the bed!”

And everybody at the table laughed heartily at the rustic jests of the old Berrichon peasant, whose colossal fortune filled the place of manliness, of education, of kindness of heart, but not of wit; for he had plenty of that, the rascal — more than all his bourgeois fellow-guests together. Among the very rare persons who inspired a sympathetic feeling in his breast, little Chebe, whom he had known as an urchin, appealed particularly to him; and she, for her part, having become rich too recently not to venerate wealth, talked to her right-hand neighbor with a very perceptible air of respect and coquetry.

With her left-hand-neighbor, on the contrary, Georges Fromont, her husband’s partner, she exhibited the utmost reserve. Their conversation was restricted to the ordinary courtesies of the table; indeed there was a sort of affectation of indifference between them.

Suddenly there was that little commotion among the guests which indicates that they are about to rise: the rustling of silk, the moving of chairs, the last words of conversations, the completion of a laugh, and in that half-silence Madame Chebe, who had become communicative, observed in a very loud tone to a provincial cousin, who was gazing in an ecstasy of admiration at the newly made bride’s reserved and tranquil demeanor, as she stood with her arm in Monsieur Gardinois’s:

“You see that child, cousin — well, no one has ever been able to find out what her thoughts were.”

Thereupon the whole party rose and repaired to the grand salon.

While the guests invited for the ball were arriving and mingling with the dinner-guests, while the orchestra was tuning up, while the cavaliers, eyeglass in position, strutted before the impatient, white-gowned damsels, the bridegroom, awed by so great a throng, had taken refuge with his friend Planus — Sigismond Planus, cashier of the house of Fromont for thirty years — in that little gallery decorated with flowers and hung with a paper representing shrubbery and clambering vines, which forms a sort of background of artificial verdure to Vefour’s gilded salons.

“Sigismond, old friend — I am very happy.”

And Sigismond too was happy; but Risler did not give him time to say so. Now that he was no longer in dread of weeping before his guests, all the joy in his heart overflowed.

“Just think of it, my friend! — It’s so extraordinary that a young girl like Sidonie would consent to marry me. For you know I’m not handsome. I didn’t need to have that impudent creature tell me so this morning to know it. And then I’m forty-two — and she such a dear little thing! There were so many others she might have chosen, among the youngest and the richest, to say nothing of my poor Frantz, who loved her so. But, no, she preferred her old Risler. And it came about so strangely. For a long time I noticed that she was sad, greatly changed. I felt sure there was some disappointment in love at the bottom of it. Her mother and I looked about, and we cudgelled our brains to find out what it could be. One morning Madame Chebe came into my room weeping, and said, ‘You are the man she loves, my dear friend!’— And I was the man — I was the man! Bless my soul! Whoever would have suspected such a thing? And to think that in the same year I had those two great pieces of good fortune — a partnership in the house of Fromont and married to Sidonie — Oh!”

At that moment, to the strains of a giddy, languishing waltz, a couple whirled into the small salon. They were Risler’s bride and his partner, Georges Fromont. Equally young and attractive, they were talking in undertones, confining their words within the narrow circle of the waltz.

“You lie!” said Sidonie, slightly pale, but with the same little smile.

And the other, paler than she, replied:

“I do not lie. It was my uncle who insisted upon this marriage. He was dying — you had gone away. I dared not say no.”

Risler, at a distance, gazed at them in admiration.

“How pretty she is! How well they dance!”

But, when they spied him, the dancers separated, and Sidonie walked quickly to him.

“What! You here? What are you doing? They are looking everywhere for you. Why aren’t you in there?”

As she spoke she retied his cravat with a pretty, impatient gesture. That enchanted Risler, who smiled at Sigismond from the corner of his eye, too overjoyed at feeling the touch of that little gloved hand on his neck, to notice that she was trembling to the ends of her slender fingers.

“Give me your arm,” she said to him, and they returned together to the salons. The white bridal gown with its long train made the badly cut, awkwardly worn black coat appear even more uncouth; but a coat can not be retied like a cravat; she must needs take it as it was. As they passed along, returning the salutations of all the guests who were so eager to smile upon them, Sidonie had a momentary thrill of pride, of satisfied vanity. Unhappily it did not last. In a corner of the room sat a young and attractive woman whom nobody invited to dance, but who looked on at the dances with a placid eye, illumined by all the joy of a first maternity. As soon as he saw her, Risler walked straight to the corner where she sat and compelled Sidonie to sit beside her. Needless to say that it was Madame “Chorche.” To whom else would he have spoken with such affectionate respect? In what other hand than hers could he have placed his little Sidonie’s, saying: “You will love her dearly, won’t you? You are so good. She needs your advice, your knowledge of the world.”

“Why, my dear Risler,” Madame Georges replied, “Sidonie and I are old friends. We have reason to be fond of each other still.”

And her calm, straightforward glance strove unsuccessfully to meet that of her old friend.

With his ignorance of women, and his habit of treating Sidonie as a child, Risler continued in the same tone:

“Take her for your model, little one. There are not two people in the world like Madame Chorche. She has her poor father’s heart. A true Fromont!”

Sidonie, with her eyes cast down, bowed without replying, while an imperceptible shudder ran from the tip of her satin shoe to the topmost bit of orange-blossom in her crown. But honest Risler saw nothing. The excitement, the dancing, the music, the flowers, the lights made him drunk, made him mad. He believed that every one breathed the same atmosphere of bliss beyond compare which enveloped him. He had no perception of the rivalries, the petty hatreds that met and passed one another above all those bejewelled foreheads.

He did not notice Delobelle, standing with his elbow on the mantel, one hand in the armhole of his waistcoat and his hat upon his hip, weary of his eternal attitudinizing, while the hours slipped by and no one thought of utilizing his talents. He did not notice M. Chebe, who was prowling darkly between the two doors, more incensed than ever against the Fromonts. Oh! those Fromonts! — How large a place they filled at that wedding! They were all there with their wives, their children, their friends, their friends’ friends. One would have said that one of themselves was being married. Who had a word to say of the Rislers or the Chebes? Why, he — he, the father, had not even been presented! — And the little man’s rage was redoubled by the attitude of Madame Chebe, smiling maternally upon one and all in her scarab-hued dress.

Furthermore, there were at this, as at almost all wedding-parties, two distinct currents which came together but without mingling. One of the two soon gave place to the other. The Fromonts, who irritated Monsieur Chebe so much and who formed the aristocracy of the ball, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, the syndic of the solicitors, a famous chocolate-manufacturer and member of the Corps Legislatif, and the old millionaire Gardinois, all retired shortly after midnight. Georges Fromont and his wife entered their carriage behind them. Only the Risler and Chebe party remained, and the festivity at once changed its aspect, becoming more uproarious.

The illustrious Delobelle, disgusted to see that no one called upon him for anything, decided to call upon himself for something, and began in a voice as resonant as a gong the monologue from Ruy Blas: “Good appetite, Messieurs!” while the guests thronged to the buffet, spread with chocolate and glasses of punch. Inexpensive little costumes were displayed upon the benches, overjoyed to produce their due effect at last; and here and there divers young shop-clerks, consumed with conceit, amused themselves by venturing upon a quadrille.

The bride had long wished to take her leave. At last she disappeared with Risler and Madame Chebe. As for Monsieur Chebe, who had recovered all his importance, it was impossible to induce him to go. Some one must be there to do the honors, deuce take it! And I assure you that the little man assumed the responsibility! He was flushed, lively, frolicsome, noisy, almost seditious. On the floor below he could be heard talking politics with Vefour’s headwaiter, and making most audacious statements.

Through the deserted streets the wedding-carriage, the tired coachman holding the white reins somewhat loosely, rolled heavily toward the Marais.

Madame Chebe talked continuously, enumerating all the splendors of that memorable day, rhapsodizing especially over the dinner, the commonplace menu of which had been to her the highest display of magnificence. Sidonie mused in the darkness of the carriage, and Risler, sitting opposite her, even though he no longer said, “I am very happy,” continued to think it with all his heart. Once he tried to take possession of a little white hand that rested against the closed window, but it was hastily withdrawn, and he sat there without moving, lost in mute admiration.

They drove through the Halles and the Rue de Rambuteau, thronged with kitchen-gardeners’ wagons; and, near the end of the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, they turned the corner of the Archives into the Rue de Braque. There they stopped first, and Madame Chebe alighted at her door, which was too narrow for the magnificent green silk frock, so that it vanished in the hall with rustlings of revolt and with all its folds muttering. A few minutes later, a tall, massive portal on the Rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes, bearing on the escutcheon that betrayed the former family mansion, beneath half-effaced armorial bearings, a sign in blue letters, Wall Papers, was thrown wide open to allow the wedding-carriage to pass through.

Thereupon the bride, hitherto motionless and like one asleep, seemed to wake suddenly, and if all the lights in the vast buildings, workshops or storehouses, which surrounded the courtyard, had not been extinguished, Risler might have seen that pretty, enigmatical face suddenly lighted by a smile of triumph. The wheels revolved less noisily on the fine gravel of a garden, and soon stopped before the stoop of a small house of two floors. It was there that the young Fromonts lived, and Risler and his wife were to take up their abode on the floor above. The house had an aristocratic air. Flourishing commerce avenged itself therein for the dismal street and the out-of-the-way quarter. There was a carpet on the stairway leading to their apartment, and on all sides shone the gleaming whiteness of marble, the reflection of mirrors and of polished copper.

While Risler was parading his delight through all the rooms of the new apartment, Sidonie remained alone in her bedroom. By the light of the little blue lamp hanging from the ceiling, she glanced first of all at the mirror, which gave back her reflection from head to foot, at all her luxurious surroundings, so unfamiliar to her; then, instead of going to bed, she opened the window and stood leaning against the sill, motionless as a statue.

The night was clear and warm. She could see distinctly the whole factory, its innumerable unshaded windows, its glistening panes, its tall chimney losing itself in the depths of the sky, and nearer at hand the lovely little garden against the ancient wall of the former mansion. All about were gloomy, miserable roofs and squalid streets. Suddenly she started. Yonder, in the darkest, the ugliest of all those attics crowding so closely together, leaning against one another, as if overweighted with misery, a fifth-floor window stood wide open, showing only darkness within. She recognized it at once. It was the window of the landing on which her parents lived.

The window on the landing!

How many things the mere name recalled! How many hours, how many days she had passed there, leaning on that damp sill, without rail or balcony, looking toward the factory. At that moment she fancied that she could see up yonder little Chebe’s ragged person, and in the frame made by that poor window, her whole child life, her deplorable youth as a Parisian street arab, passed before her eyes.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53