Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Book 3.

Chapter 14

Explanation

By slow degrees Sidonie sank to her former level, yes, even lower. From the rich, well-considered bourgeoise to which her marriage had raised her, she descended the ladder to the rank of a mere toy. By dint of travelling in railway carriages with fantastically dressed courtesans, with their hair worn over their eyes like a terrier’s, or falling over the back ‘a la Genevieve de Brabant’, she came at last to resemble them. She transformed herself into a blonde for two months, to the unbounded amazement of Rizer, who could not understand how his doll was so changed. As for Georges, all these eccentricities amused him; it seemed to him that he had ten women in one. He was the real husband, the master of the house.

To divert Sidonie’s thoughts, he had provided a simulacrum of society for her — his bachelor friends, a few fast tradesmen, almost no women, women have too sharp eyes. Madame Dobson was the only friend of Sidonie’s sex.

They organized grand dinner-parties, excursions on the water, fireworks. From day to day Risler’s position became more absurd, more distressing. When he came home in the evening, tired out, shabbily dressed, he must hurry up to his room to dress.

“We have some people to dinner,” his wife would say. “Make haste.”

And he would be the last to take his place at the table, after shaking hands all around with his guests, friends of Fromont Jeune, whom he hardly knew by name. Strange to say, the affairs of the factory were often discussed at that table, to which Georges brought his acquaintances from the club with the tranquil self-assurance of the gentleman who pays.

“Business breakfasts and dinners!” To Risler’s mind that phrase explained everything: his partner’s constant presence, his choice of guests, and the marvellous gowns worn by Sidonie, who beautified herself in the interests of the firm. This coquetry on his mistress’s part drove Fromont Jeune to despair. Day after day he came unexpectedly to take her by surprise, uneasy, suspicious, afraid to leave that perverse and deceitful character to its own devices for long.

“What in the deuce has become of your husband?”

Pere Gardinois would ask his grand-daughter with a cunning leer. “Why doesn’t he come here oftener?”

Claire apologized for Georges, but his continual neglect began to disturb her. She wept now when she received the little notes, the despatches which arrived daily at the dinner-hour: “Don’t expect me to-night, dear love. I shall not be able to come to Savigny until to-morrow or the day after by the night-train.”

She ate her dinner sadly, opposite an empty chair, and although she did not know that she was betrayed, she felt that her husband was becoming accustomed to living away from her. He was so absent-minded when a family gathering or some other unavoidable duty detained him at the chateau, so silent concerning what was in his mind. Claire, having now only the most distant relations with Sidonie, knew nothing of what was taking place at Asnieres: but when Georges left her, apparently eager to be gone, and with smiling face, she tormented her loneliness with unavowed suspicions, and, like all those who anticipate a great sorrow, she suddenly became conscious of a great void in her heart, a place made ready for disasters to come.

Her husband was hardly happier than she. That cruel Sidonie seemed to take pleasure in tormenting him. She allowed everybody to pay court to her. At that moment a certain Cazabon, alias Cazaboni, an Italian tenor from Toulouse, introduced by Madame Dobson, came every day to sing disturbing duets. Georges, jealous beyond words, hurried to Asnieres in the afternoon, neglecting everything, and was already beginning to think that Risler did not watch his wife closely enough. He would have liked him to be blind only so far as he was concerned.

Ah! if he had been her husband, what a tight rein he would have kept on her! But he had no power over her and she was not at all backward about telling him so. Sometimes, too, with the invincible logic that often occurs to the greatest fools, he reflected that, as he was deceiving his friend, perhaps he deserved to be deceived. In short, his was a wretched life. He passed his time running about to jewellers and dry-goods dealers, inventing gifts and surprises. Ah! he knew her well. He knew that he could pacify her with trinkets, yet not retain his hold upon her, and that, when the day came that she was bored —

But Sidonie was not bored as yet. She was living the life that she longed to live; she had all the happiness she could hope to attain. There was nothing passionate or romantic about her feeling for Georges. He was like a second husband to her, younger and, above all, richer than the other. To complete the vulgarization of their liaison, she had summoned her parents to Asnieres, lodged them in a little house in the country, and made of that vain and wilfully blind father and that affectionate, still bewildered mother a halo of respectability of which she felt the necessity as she sank lower and lower.

Everything was shrewdly planned in that perverse little brain, which reflected coolly upon vice; and it seemed to her as if she might continue to live thus in peace, when Frantz Risler suddenly arrived.

Simply from seeing him enter the room, she had realized that her repose was threatened, that an interview of the gravest importance was to take place between them.

Her plan was formed on the instant. She must at once put it into execution.

The summer-house that they entered contained one large, circular room with four windows, each looking out upon a different landscape; it was furnished for the purposes of summer siestas, for the hot hours when one seeks shelter from the sunlight and the noises of the garden. A broad, very low divan ran all around the wall. A small lacquered table, also very low, stood in the middle of the room, covered with odd numbers of society journals.

The hangings were new, and the Persian pattern-birds flying among bluish reeds — produced the effect of a dream in summer, ethereal figures floating before one’s languid eyes. The lowered blinds, the matting on the floor, the Virginia jasmine clinging to the trellis-work outside, produced a refreshing coolness which was enhanced by the splashing in the river near by, and the lapping of its wavelets on the shore.

Sidonie sat down as soon as she entered the room, pushing aside her long white skirt, which sank like a mass of snow at the foot of the divan; and with sparkling eyes and a smile playing about her lips, bending her little head slightly, its saucy coquettishness heightened by the bow of ribbon on the side, she waited.

Frantz, pale as death, remained standing, looking about the room. After a moment he began:

“I congratulate you, Madame; you understand how to make yourself comfortable.”

And in the next breath, as if he were afraid that the conversation, beginning at such a distance, would not arrive quickly enough at the point to which he intended to lead it, he added brutally:

“To whom do you owe this magnificence, to your lover or your husband?”

Without moving from the divan, without even raising her eyes to his, she answered:

“To both.”

He was a little disconcerted by such self-possession.

“Then you confess that that man is your lover?”

“Confess it! — yes!”

Frantz gazed at her a moment without speaking. She, too, had turned pale, notwithstanding her calmness, and the eternal little smile no longer quivered at the corners of her mouth.

He continued:

“Listen to me, Sidonie! My brother’s name, the name he gave his wife, is mine as well. Since Risler is so foolish, so blind as to allow the name to be dishonored by you, it is my place to defend it against your attacks. I beg you, therefore, to inform Monsieur Georges Fromont that he must change mistresses as soon as possible, and go elsewhere to ruin himself. If not —”

“If not?” queried Sidonie, who had not ceased to play with her rings while he was speaking.

“If not, I shall tell my brother what is going on in his house, and you will be surprised at the Risler whose acquaintance you will make then — a man as violent and ungovernable as he usually is inoffensive. My disclosure will kill him perhaps, but you can be sure that he will kill you first.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Very well! let him kill me. What do I care for that?”

This was said with such a heartbroken, despondent air that Frantz, in spite of himself, felt a little pity for that beautiful, fortunate young creature, who talked of dying with such self-abandonment.

“Do you love him so dearly?” he said, in an indefinably milder tone. “Do you love this Fromont so dearly that you prefer to die rather than renounce him?”

She drew herself up hastily.

“I? Love that fop, that doll, that silly girl in men’s clothes? Nonsense! — I took him as I would have taken any other man.”

“Why?”

“Because I couldn’t help it, because I was mad, because I had and still have in my heart a criminal love, which I am determined to tear out, no matter at what cost.”

She had risen and was speaking with her eyes in his, her lips near his, trembling from head to foot.

A criminal love? — Whom did she love, in God’s name?

Frantz was afraid to question her.

Although suspecting nothing as yet, he had a feeling that that glance, that breath, leaning toward him, were about to make some horrible disclosure.

But his office of judge made it necessary for him to know all.

“Who is it?” he asked.

She replied in a stifled voice:

“You know very well that it is you.”

She was his brother’s wife.

For two years he had not thought of her except as a sister. In his eyes his brother’s wife in no way resembled his former fiancee, and it would have been a crime to recognize in a single feature of her face the woman to whom he had formerly so often said, “I love you.”

And now it was she who said that she loved him.

The unhappy judge was thunderstruck, dazed, could find no words in which to reply.

She, standing before him, waited.

It was one of those spring days, full of heat and light, to which the moisture of recent rains imparts a strange softness and melancholy. The air was warm, perfumed by fresh flowers which, on that first day of heat, gave forth their fragrance eagerly, like violets hidden in a muff. Through its long, open windows the room in which they were inhaled all those intoxicating odors. Outside, they could hear the Sunday organs, distant shouts on the river, and nearer at hand, in the garden, Madame Dobson’s amorous, languishing voice, sighing:

“On dit que tu te maries;

Tu sais que j’en puis mouri-i-i-r!”

“Yes, Frantz, I have always loved you,” said Sidonie. “That love which I renounced long ago because I was a young girl — and young girls do not know what they are doing — that love nothing has ever succeeded in destroying or lessening. When I learned that Desiree also loved you, the unfortunate, penniless child, in a great outburst of generosity I determined to assure her happiness for life by sacrificing my own, and I at once turned you away, so that you should go to her. Ah! as soon as you had gone, I realized that the sacrifice was beyond my strength. Poor little Desiree! How I cursed her in the bottom of my heart! Will you believe it? Since that time I have avoided seeing her, meeting her. The sight of her caused me too much pain.”

“But if you loved me,” asked Frantz, in a low voice, “if you loved me, why did you marry my brother?”

She did not waver.

“To marry Risler was to bring myself nearer to you. I said to myself: ‘I could not be his wife. Very well, I will be his sister. At all events, in that way it will still be allowable for me to love him, and we shall not pass our whole lives as strangers.’ Alas! those are the innocent dreams a girl has at twenty, dreams of which she very soon learns the impossibility. I could not love you as a sister, Frantz; I could not forget you, either; my marriage prevented that. With another husband I might perhaps have succeeded, but with Risler it was terrible. He was forever talking about you and your success and your future — Frantz said this; Frantz did that — He loves you so well, poor fellow! And then the most cruel thing to me is that your brother looks like you. There is a sort of family resemblance in your features, in your gait, in your voices especially, for I have often closed my eyes under his caresses, saying to myself, ‘It is he, it is Frantz.’ When I saw that that wicked thought was becoming a source of torment to me, something that I could not escape, I tried to find distraction, I consented to listen to this Georges, who had been pestering me for a long time, to transform my life to one of noise and excitement. But I swear to you, Frantz, that in that whirlpool of pleasure into which I then plunged, I never have ceased to think of you, and if any one had a right to come here and call me to account for my conduct, you certainly are not the one, for you, unintentionally, have made me what I am.”

She paused. Frantz dared not raise his eyes to her face. For a moment past she had seemed to him too lovely, too alluring. She was his brother’s wife!

Nor did he dare speak. The unfortunate youth felt that the old passion was despotically taking possession of his heart once more, and that at that moment glances, words, everything that burst forth from it would be love.

And she was his brother’s wife!

“Ah! wretched, wretched creatures that we are!” exclaimed the poor judge, dropping upon the divan beside her.

Those few words were in themselves an act of cowardice, a beginning of surrender, as if destiny, by showing itself so pitiless, had deprived him of the strength to defend himself. Sidonie had placed her hand on his. “Frantz — Frantz!” she said; and they remained there side by side, silent and burning with emotion, soothed by Madame Dobson’s romance, which reached their ears by snatches through the shrubbery:

“Ton amour, c’est ma folie.

Helas! je n’en puis guei-i-i-r.”

Suddenly Risler’s tall figure appeared in the doorway.

“This way, Chebe, this way. They are in the summerhouse.”

As he spoke the husband entered, escorting his father-in-law and mother-in-law, whom he had gone to fetch.

There was a moment of effusive greetings and innumerable embraces. You should have seen the patronizing air with which M. Chebe scrutinized the young man, who was head and shoulders taller than he.

“Well, my boy, does the Suez Canal progress as you would wish?”

Madame Chebe, in whose thoughts Frantz had never ceased to be her future son-in-law, threw her arms around him, while Risler, tactless as usual in his gayety and his enthusiasm, waved his arms, talked of killing several fatted calves to celebrate the return of the prodigal son, and roared to the singing-mistress in a voice that echoed through the neighboring gardens:

“Madame Dobson, Madame Dobson — if you’ll allow me, it’s a pity for you to be singing there. To the devil with sadness for to-day! Play us something lively, a good waltz, so that I can take a turn with Madame Chebe.”

“Risler, Risler, are you crazy, my son-in-law?”

“Come, come, mamma! We must dance.”

And up and down the paths, to the strains of an automatic six-step waltz-a genuine valse de Vaucanson — he dragged his breathless mamma-in-law, who stopped at every step to restore to their usual orderliness the dangling ribbons of her hat and the lace trimming of her shawl, her lovely shawl bought for Sidonie’s wedding.

Poor Risler was intoxicated with joy.

To Frantz that was an endless, indelible day of agony. Driving, rowing on the river, lunch on the grass on the Ile des Ravageurs — he was spared none of the charms of Asnieres; and all the time, in the dazzling sunlight of the roads, in the glare reflected by the water, he must laugh and chatter, describe his journey, talk of the Isthmus of Suez and the great work undertaken there, listen to the whispered complaints of M. Chebe, who was still incensed with his children, and to his brother’s description of the Press. “Rotary, my dear Frantz, rotary and dodecagonal!” Sidonie left the gentlemen to their conversation and seemed absorbed in deep thought. From time to time she said a word or two to Madame Dobson, or smiled sadly at her, and Frantz, not daring to look at her, followed the motions of her blue-lined parasol and of the white flounces of her skirt.

How she had changed in two years! How lovely she had grown!

Then horrible thoughts came to his mind. There were races at Longchamps that day. Carriages passed theirs, rubbed against it, driven by women with painted faces, closely veiled. Sitting motionless on the box, they held their long whips straight in the air, with doll-like gestures, and nothing about them seemed alive except their blackened eyes, fixed on the horses’ heads. As they passed, people turned to look. Every eye followed them, as if drawn by the wind caused by their rapid motion.

Sidonie resembled those creatures. She might herself have driven Georges’ carriage; for Frantz was in Georges’ carriage. He had drunk Georges’ wine. All the luxurious enjoyment of that family party came from Georges.

It was shameful, revolting! He would have liked to shout the whole story to his brother. Indeed, it was his duty, as he had come there for that express purpose. But he no longer felt the courage to do it. Ah! the unhappy judge!

That evening after dinner, in the salon open to the fresh breeze from the river, Risler begged his wife to sing. He wished her to exhibit all her newly acquired accomplishments to Frantz.

Sidonie, leaning on the piano, objected with a melancholy air, while Madame Dobson ran her fingers over the keys, shaking her long curls.

“But I don’t know anything. What do you wish me to sing?”

She ended, however, by being persuaded. Pale, disenchanted, with her mind upon other things, in the flickering light of the candles which seemed to be burning incense, the air was so heavy with the odor of the hyacinths and lilacs in the garden, she began a Creole ballad very popular in Louisiana, which Madame Dobson herself had arranged for the voice and piano:

“Pauv’ pitit Mam’zelle Zizi,

C’est l’amou, l’amou qui tourne la tete a li.”

[“Poor little Mam’zelle Zizi,

’Tis love, ’tis love that turns her head."]

And as she told the story of the ill-fated little Zizi, who was driven mad by passion, Sidonie had the appearance of a love-sick woman. With what heartrending expression, with the cry of a wounded dove, did she repeat that refrain, so melancholy and so sweet, in the childlike patois of the colonies:

“C’est l’amou, l’amou qui tourne la tete. . . . ”

It was enough to drive the unlucky judge mad as well.

But no! The siren had been unfortunate in her choice of a ballad. For, at the mere name of Mam’zelle Zizi, Frantz was suddenly transported to a gloomy chamber in the Marais, a long way from Sidonie’s salon, and his compassionate heart evoked the image of little Desiree Delobelle, who had loved him so long. Until she was fifteen, she never had been called anything but Ziree or Zizi, and she was the pauv’ pitit of the Creole ballad to the life, the ever-neglected, ever-faithful lover. In vain now did the other sing. Frantz no longer heard her or saw her. He was in that poor room, beside the great armchair, on the little low chair on which he had sat so often awaiting the father’s return. Yes, there, and there only, was his salvation. He must take refuge in that child’s love, throw himself at her feet, say to her, “Take me, save me!” And who knows? She loved him so dearly. Perhaps she would save him, would cure him of his guilty passion.

“Where are you going?” asked Risler, seeing that his brother rose hurriedly as soon as the last flourish was at an end.

“I am going back. It is late.”

“What? You are not going to sleep here? Why your room is ready for you.”

“It is all ready,” added Sidonie, with a meaning glance.

He refused resolutely. His presence in Paris was necessary for the fulfilment of certain very important commissions intrusted to him by the Company. They continued their efforts to detain him when he was in the vestibule, when he was crossing the garden in the moonlight and running to the station, amid all the divers noises of Asnieres.

When he had gone, Risler went up to his room, leaving Sidonie and Madame Dobson at the windows of the salon. The music from the neighboring Casino reached their ears, with the “Yo-ho!” of the boatmen and the footsteps of the dancers like a rhythmical, muffled drumming on the tambourine.

“There’s a kill-joy for you!” observed Madame Dobson.

“Oh, I have checkmated him,” replied Sidonie; “only I must be careful. I shall be closely watched now. He is so jealous. I am going to write to Cazaboni not to come again for some time, and you must tell Georges to-morrow morning to go to Savigny for a fortnight.”

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