Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 10

Sigismond Planus Trembles for His Cash-box.

“Carriage, my dear Chorche? — I— have a carriage? What for?”

“I assure you, my dear Risler, that it is quite essential for you. Our business, our relations, are extending every day; the coupe is no longer enough for us. Besides, it doesn’t look well to see one of the partners always in his carriage and the other on foot. Believe me, it is a necessary outlay, and of course it will go into the general expenses of the firm. Come, resign yourself to the inevitable.”

It was genuine resignation. It seemed to Risler as if he were stealing something in taking the money for such an unheard-of luxury as a carriage; however, he ended by yielding to Georges’s persistent representations, thinking as he did so:

“This will make Sidonie very happy!”

The poor fellow had no suspicion that Sidonie herself, a month before, had selected at Binder’s the coupe which Georges insisted upon giving her, and which was to be charged to expense account in order not to alarm the husband.

Honest Risler was so plainly created to be deceived. His inborn uprightness, the implicit confidence in men and things, which was the foundation of his transparent nature, had been intensified of late by preoccupation resulting from his pursuit of the Risler Press, an invention destined to revolutionize the wall-paper industry and representing in his eyes his contribution to the partnership assets. When he laid aside his drawings and left his little work-room on the first floor, his face invariably wore the absorbed look of the man who has his life on one side, his anxieties on another. What a delight it was to him, therefore, to find his home always tranquil, his wife always in good humor, becomingly dressed and smiling.

Without undertaking to explain the change to himself, he recognized that for some time past the “little one” had not been as before in her treatment of him. She allowed him to resume his old habits: the pipe at dessert, the little nap after dinner, the appointments at the brewery with Chebe and Delobelle. Their apartments also were transformed, embellished.

A grand piano by a famous maker made its appearance in the salon in place of the old one, and Madame Dobson, the singing-teacher, came no longer twice a week, but every day, music-roll in hand.

Of a curious type was that young woman of American extraction, with hair of an acid blond, like lemon-pulp, over a bold forehead and metallic blue eyes. As her husband would not allow her to go on the stage, she gave lessons, and sang in some bourgeois salons. As a result of living in the artificial world of compositions for voice and piano, she had contracted a species of sentimental frenzy.

She was romance itself. In her mouth the words “love” and “passion” seemed to have eighty syllables, she uttered them with so much expression. Oh, expression! That was what Mistress Dobson placed before everything, and what she tried, and tried in vain, to impart to her pupil.

‘Ay Chiquita,’ upon which Paris fed for several seasons, was then at the height of its popularity. Sidonie studied it conscientiously, and all the morning she could be heard singing:

“On dit que tu te maries,

Tu sais que j’en puis mourir.”

[They say that thou’rt to marry

Thou know’st that I may die.]

“Mouri-i-i-i-i-r!” the expressive Madame Dobson would interpose, while her hands wandered feebly over the piano-keys; and die she would, raising her light blue eyes to the ceiling and wildly throwing back her head. Sidonie never could accomplish it. Her mischievous eyes, her lips, crimson with fulness of life, were not made for such AEolian-harp sentimentalities. The refrains of Offenbach or Herve, interspersed with unexpected notes, in which one resorts to expressive gestures for aid, to a motion of the head or the body, would have suited her better; but she dared not admit it to her sentimental instructress. By the way, although she had been made to sing a great deal at Mademoiselle Le Mire’s, her voice was still fresh and not unpleasing.

Having no social connections, she came gradually to make a friend of her singing-mistress. She would keep her to breakfast, take her to drive in the new coupe and to assist in her purchases of gowns and jewels. Madame Dobson’s sentimental and sympathetic tone led one to repose confidence in her. Her continual repinings seemed too long to attract other repinings. Sidonie told her of Georges, of their relations, attempting to palliate her offence by blaming the cruelty of her parents in marrying her by force to a man much older than herself. Madame Dobson at once showed a disposition to assist them; not that the little woman was venal, but she had a passion for passion, a taste for romantic intrigue. As she was unhappy in her own home, married to a dentist who beat her, all husbands were monsters in her eyes, and poor Risler especially seemed to her a horrible tyrant whom his wife was quite justified in hating and deceiving.

She was an active confidant and a very useful one. Two or three times a week she would bring tickets for a box at the Opera or the Italiens, or some one of the little theatres which enjoy a temporary vogue, and cause all Paris to go from one end of Paris to the other for a season. In Risler’s eyes the tickets came from Madame Dobson; she had as many as she chose to the theatres where operas were given. The poor wretch had no suspicion that one of those boxes for an important “first night” had often cost his partner ten or fifteen Louis.

In the evening, when his wife went away, always splendidly attired, he would gaze admiringly at her, having no suspicion of the cost of her costumes, certainly none of the man who paid for them, and would await her return at his table by the fire, busy with his drawings, free from care, and happy to be able to say to himself, “What a good time she is having!”

On the floor below, at the Fromonts’, the same comedy was being played, but with a transposition of parts. There it was the young wife who sat by the fire. Every evening, half an hour after Sidonie’s departure, the great gate swung open to give passage to the Fromont coupe conveying Monsieur to his club. What would you have? Business has its demands. All the great deals are arranged at the club, around the bouillotte table, and a man must go there or suffer the penalty of seeing his business fall off. Claire innocently believed it all. When her husband had gone, she felt sad for a moment. She would have liked so much to keep him with her or to go out leaning on his arm, to seek enjoyment with him. But the sight of the child, cooing in front of the fire and kicking her little pink feet while she was being undressed, speedily soothed the mother. Then the eloquent word “business,” the merchant’s reason of state, was always at hand to help her to resign herself.

Georges and Sidonie met at the theatre. Their feeling at first when they were together was one of satisfied vanity. People stared at them a great deal. She was really pretty now, and her irregular but attractive features, which required the aid of all the eccentricities of the prevailing style in order to produce their full effect, adapted themselves to them so perfectly that you would have said they were invented expressly for her. In a few moments they went away, and Madame Dobson was left alone in the box. They had hired a small suite on the Avenue Gabriel, near the ‘rond-point’ of the Champs Elysees — the dream of the young women at the Le Mire establishment — two luxuriously furnished, quiet rooms, where the silence of the wealthy quarter, disturbed only by passing carriages, formed a blissful surrounding for their love.

Little by little, when she had become accustomed to her sin, she conceived the most audacious whims. From her old working-days she had retained in the depths of her memory the names of public balls, of famous restaurants, where she was eager to go now, just as she took pleasure in causing the doors to be thrown open for her at the establishments of the great dressmakers, whose signs only she had known in her earlier days. For what she sought above all else in this liaison was revenge for the sorrows and humiliations of her youth. Nothing delighted her so much, for example, when returning from an evening drive in the Bois, as a supper at the Cafe Anglais with the sounds of luxurious vice around her. From these repeated excursions she brought back peculiarities of speech and behavior, equivocal songs, and a style of dress that imported into the bourgeois atmosphere of the old commercial house an accurate reproduction of the most advanced type of the Paris cocotte of that period.

At the factory they began to suspect something. The women of the people, even the poorest, are so quick at picking a costume to pieces! When Madame Risler went out, about three o’clock, fifty pairs of sharp, envious eyes, lying in ambush at the windows of the polishing-shop, watched her pass, penetrating to the lowest depths of her guilty conscience through her black velvet dolman and her cuirass of sparkling jet.

Although she did not suspect it, all the secrets of that mad brain were flying about her like the ribbons that played upon her bare neck; and her daintily-shod feet, in their bronzed boots with ten buttons, told the story of all sorts of clandestine expeditions, of the carpeted stairways they ascended at night on their way to supper, and the warm fur robes in which they were wrapped when the coupe made the circuit of the lake in the darkness dotted with lanterns.

The work-women laughed sneeringly and whispered:

“Just look at that Tata Bebelle! A fine way to dress to go out. She don’t rig herself up like that to go to mass, that’s sure! To think that it ain’t three years since she used to start for the shop every morning in an old waterproof, and two sous’ worth of roasted chestnuts in her pockets to keep her fingers warm. Now she rides in her carriage.”

And amid the talc dust and the roaring of the stoves, red-hot in winter and summer alike, more than one poor girl reflected on the caprice of chance in absolutely transforming a woman’s existence, and began to dream vaguely of a magnificent future which might perhaps be in store for herself without her suspecting it.

In everybody’s opinion Risler was a dishonored husband. Two assistants in the printing-room — faithful patrons of the Folies Dramatiques — declared that they had seen Madame Risler several times at their theatre, accompanied by some escort who kept out of sight at the rear of the box. Pere Achille, too, told of amazing things. That Sidonie had a lover, that she had several lovers, in fact, no one entertained a doubt. But no one had as yet thought of Fromont jeune.

And yet she showed no prudence whatever in her relations with him. On the contrary, she seemed to make a parade of them; it may be that that was what saved them. How many times she accosted him boldly on the steps to agree upon a rendezvous for the evening! How many times she had amused herself in making him shudder by looking into his eyes before every one! When the first confusion had passed, Georges was grateful to her for these exhibitions of audacity, which he attributed to the intensity of her passion. He was mistaken.

What she would have liked, although she did not admit it to herself, would have been to have Claire see them, to have her draw aside the curtain at her window, to have her conceive a suspicion of what was passing. She needed that in order to be perfectly happy: that her rival should be unhappy. But her wish was ungratified; Claire Fromont noticed nothing and lived, as did Risler, in imperturbable serenity.

Only Sigismond, the old cashier, was really ill at ease. And yet he was not thinking of Sidonie when, with his pen behind his ear, he paused a moment in his work and gazed fixedly through his grating at the drenched soil of the little garden. He was thinking solely of his master, of Monsieur “Chorche,” who was drawing a great deal of money now for his current expenses and sowing confusion in all his books. Every time it was some new excuse. He would come to the little wicket with an unconcerned air:

“Have you a little money, my good Planus? I was worsted again at bouillotte last night, and I don’t want to send to the bank for such a trifle.”

Sigismond Planus would open his cash-box, with an air of regret, to get the sum requested, and he would remember with terror a certain day when Monsieur Georges, then only twenty years old, had confessed to his uncle that he owed several thousand francs in gambling debts. The elder man thereupon conceived a violent antipathy for the club and contempt for all its members. A rich tradesman who was a member happened to come to the factory one day, and Sigismond said to him with brutal frankness:

“The devil take your ‘Cercle du Chateau d’Eau!’ Monsieur Georges has left more than thirty thousand francs there in two months.”

The other began to laugh.

“Why, you’re greatly mistaken, Pere Planus — it’s at least three months since we have seen your master.”

The cashier did not pursue the conversation; but a terrible thought took up its abode in his mind, and he turned it over and over all day long.

If Georges did not go to the club, where did he pass his evenings? Where did he spend so much money?

There was evidently a woman at the bottom of the affair.

As soon as that idea occurred to him, Sigismond Planus began to tremble seriously for his cash-box. That old bear from the canton of Berne, a confirmed bachelor, had a terrible dread of women in general and Parisian women in particular. He deemed it his duty, first of all, in order to set his conscience at rest, to warn Risler. He did it at first in rather a vague way.

“Monsieur Georges is spending a great deal of money,” he said to him one day.

Risler exhibited no surprise.

“What do you expect me to do, my old Sigismond? It is his right.”

And the honest fellow meant what he said. In his eyes Fromont jeune was the absolute master of the establishment. It would have been a fine thing, and no mistake, for him, an ex-draughtsman, to venture to make any comments. The cashier dared say no more until the day when a messenger came from a great shawl-house with a bill for six thousand francs for a cashmere shawl.

He went to Georges in his office.

“Shall I pay it, Monsieur?”

Georges Fromont was a little annoyed. Sidonie had forgotten to tell him of this latest purchase; she used no ceremony with him now.

“Pay it, pay it, Pere Planus,” he said, with a shade of embarrassment, and added: “Charge it to the account of Fromont jeune. It is a commission intrusted to me by a friend.”

That evening, as Sigismond was lighting his little lamp, he saw Risler crossing the garden, and tapped on the window to call him.

“It’s a woman,” he said, under his breath. “I have the proof of it now.”

As he uttered the awful words “a woman” his voice shook with alarm and was drowned in the great uproar of the factory. The sounds of the work in progress had a sinister meaning to the unhappy cashier at that moment. It seemed to him as if all the whirring machinery, the great chimney pouring forth its clouds of smoke, the noise of the workmen at their different tasks — as if all this tumult and bustle and fatigue were for the benefit of a mysterious little being, dressed in velvet and adorned with jewels.

Risler laughed at him and refused to believe him. He had long been acquainted with his compatriot’s mania for detecting in everything the pernicious influence of woman. And yet Planus’s words sometimes recurred to his thoughts, especially in the evening when Sidonie, after all the commotion attendant upon the completion of her toilette, went away to the theatre with Madame Dobson, leaving the apartment empty as soon as her long train had swept across the threshold. Candles burning in front of the mirrors, divers little toilette articles scattered about and thrown aside, told of extravagant caprices and a reckless expenditure of money. Risler thought nothing of all that; but, when he heard Georges’s carriage rolling through the courtyard, he had a feeling of discomfort at the thought of Madame Fromont passing her evenings entirely alone. Poor woman! Suppose what Planus said were true!

Suppose Georges really had a second establishment! Oh, it would be frightful!

Thereupon, instead of beginning to work, he would go softly downstairs and ask if Madame were visible, deeming it his duty to keep her company.

The little girl was always in bed, but the little cap, the blue shoes, were still lying in front of the fire. Claire was either reading or working, with her silent mother beside her, always rubbing or dusting with feverish energy, exhausting herself by blowing on the case of her watch, and nervously taking the same thing up and putting it down again ten times in succession, with the obstinate persistence of mania. Nor was honest Risler a very entertaining companion; but that did not prevent the young woman from welcoming him kindly. She knew all that was said about Sidonie in the factory; and although she did not believe half of it, the sight of the poor man, whom his wife left alone so often, moved her heart to pity. Mutual compassion formed the basis of that placid friendship, and nothing could be more touching than these two deserted ones, one pitying the other and each trying to divert the other’s thoughts.

Seated at the small, brightly lighted table in the centre of the salon, Risler would gradually yield to the influence of the warmth of the fire and the harmony of his surroundings. He found there articles of furniture with which he had been familiar for twenty years, the portrait of his former employer; and his dear Madame Chorche, bending over some little piece of needle work at his side, seemed to him even younger and more lovable among all those old souvenirs. From time to time she would rise to go and look at the child sleeping in the adjoining room, whose soft breathing they could hear in the intervals of silence. Without fully realizing it, Risler felt more comfortable and warmer there than in his own apartment; for on certain days those attractive rooms, where the doors were forever being thrown open for hurried exits or returns, gave him the impression of a hall without doors or windows, open to the four winds. His rooms were a camping-ground; this was a home. A care-taking hand caused order and refinement to reign everywhere. The chairs seemed to be talking together in undertones, the fire burned with a delightful sound, and Mademoiselle Fromont’s little cap retained in every bow of its blue ribbons suggestions of sweet smiles and baby glances.

And while Claire was thinking that such an excellent man deserved a better companion in life, Risler, watching the calm and lovely face turned toward him, the intelligent, kindly eyes, asked himself who the hussy could be for whom Georges Fromont neglected such an adorable woman.

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