Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 16

The Waiting-room

“Well, yes, I love you, I love you, more than ever and for ever! What is the use of struggling and fighting against fate? Our sin is stronger than we. But, after all, is it a crime for us to love? We were destined for each other. Have we not the right to come together, although life has parted us? So, come! It is all over; we will go away. Meet me to-morrow evening, Lyon station, at ten o’clock. The tickets are secured and I shall be there awaiting you.

“FRANTZ.”

For a month past Sidonie had been hoping for that letter, a month during which she had brought all her coaxing and cunning into play to lure her brother-in-law on to that written revelation of passion. She had difficulty in accomplishing it. It was no easy matter to pervert an honest young heart like Frantz’s to the point of committing a crime; and in that strange contest, in which the one who really loved fought against his own cause, she had often felt that she was at the end of her strength and was almost discouraged. When she was most confident that he was conquered, his sense of right would suddenly rebel, and he would be all ready to flee, to escape her once more.

What a triumph it was for her, therefore, when that letter was handed to her one morning. Madame Dobson happened to be there. She had just arrived, laden with complaints from Georges, who was horribly bored away from his mistress, and was beginning to be alarmed concerning this brother-in-law, who was more attentive, more jealous, more exacting than a husband.

“Oh! the poor, dear fellow, the poor, dear, fellow,” said the sentimental American, “if you could see how unhappy he is!”

And, shaking her curls, she unrolled her music-roll and took from it the poor, dear fellow’s letters, which she had carefully hidden between the leaves of her songs, delighted to be involved in this love-story, to give vent to her emotion in an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery which melted her cold eyes and suffused her dry, pale complexion.

Strange to say, while lending her aid most willingly to this constant going and coming of love-letters, the youthful and attractive Dobson had never written or received a single one on her own account.

Always on the road between Asnieres and Paris with an amorous message under her wing, that odd carrier-pigeon remained true to her own dovecot and cooed for none but unselfish motives.

When Sidonie showed her Frantz’s note, Madame Dobson asked:

“What shall you write in reply?”

“I have already written. I consented.”

“What! You will go away with that madman?”

Sidonie laughed scornfully.

“Ha! ha! well, hardly! I consented so that he may go and wait for me at the station. That is all. The least I can do is to give him a quarter of an hour of agony. He has made me miserable enough for the last month. Just consider that I have changed my whole life for my gentleman! I have had to close my doors and give up seeing my friends and everybody I know who is young and agreeable, beginning with Georges and ending with you. For you know, my dear, you weren’t agreeable to him, and he would have liked to dismiss you with the rest.”

The one thing that Sidonie did not mention — and it was the deepest cause of her anger against Frantz — was that he had frightened her terribly by threatening to tell her husband her guilty secret. From that moment she had felt decidedly ill at ease, and her life, her dear life, which she so petted and coddled, had seemed to her to be exposed to serious danger. Yes, the thought that her husband might some day be apprized of her conduct positively terrified her.

That blessed letter put an end to all her fears. It was impossible now for Frantz to expose her, even in the frenzy of his disappointment, knowing that she had such a weapon in her hands; and if he did speak, she would show the letter, and all his accusations would become in Risler’s eyes calumny pure and simple. Ah, master judge, we have you now!

“I am born again — I am born again!” she cried to Madame Dobson. She ran out into the garden, gathered great bouquets for her salon, threw the windows wide open to the sunlight, gave orders to the cook, the coachman, the gardener. The house must be made to look beautiful, for Georges was coming back, and for a beginning she organized a grand dinner-party for the end of the week.

The next evening Sidonie, Risler, and Madame Dobson were together in the salon. While honest Risler turned the leaves of an old handbook of mechanics, Sidonie sang to Madame Dobson’s accompaniment. Suddenly she stopped in the middle of her aria and burst into a peal of laughter. The clock had just struck ten.

Risler looked up quickly.

“What are you laughing at?”

“Nothing-an idea that came into my head,” replied Sidonie, winking of Madame Dobson and pointing at the clock.

It was the hour appointed for the meeting, and she was thinking of her lover’s torture as he waited for her to come.

Since the return of the messenger bringing from Sidonie the “yes” he had so feverishly awaited, a great calm had come over his troubled mind, like the sudden removal of a heavy burden. No more uncertainty, no more clashing between passion and duty.

Not once did it occur to him that on the other side of the landing some one was weeping and sighing because of him. Not once did he think of his brother’s despair, of the ghastly drama they were to leave behind them. He saw a sweet little pale face resting beside his in the railway train, a blooming lip within reach of his lip, and two fathomless eyes looking at him by the soft light of the lamp, to the soothing accompaniment of the wheels and the steam.

Two hours before the opening of the gate for the designated train, Frantz was already at the Lyon station, that gloomy station which, in the distant quarter of Paris in which it is situated, seems like a first halting-place in the provinces. He sat down in the darkest corner and remained there without stirring, as if dazed.

Instinctively, although the appointed hour was still distant, he looked among the people who were hurrying along, calling to one another, to see if he could not discern that graceful figure suddenly emerging from the crowd and thrusting it aside at every step with the radiance of her beauty.

After many departures and arrivals and shrill whistles, the station suddenly became empty, as deserted as a church on weekdays. The time for the ten o’clock train was drawing near. There was no other train before that. Frantz rose. In a quarter of an hour, half an hour at the least, she would be there.

Frantz went hither and thither, watching the carriages that arrived. Each new arrival made him start. He fancied that he saw her enter, closely veiled, hesitating, a little embarrassed. How quickly he would be by her side, to comfort her, to protect her!

The hour for the departure of the train was approaching. He looked at the clock. There was but a quarter of an hour more. It alarmed him; but the bell at the wicket, which had now been opened, summoned him. He ran thither and took his place in the long line.

“Two first-class for Marseilles,” he said. It seemed to him as if that were equivalent to taking possession.

He made his way back to his post of observation through the luggage-laden wagons and the late-comers who jostled him as they ran. The drivers shouted, “Take care!” He stood there among the wheels of the cabs, under the horses’ feet, with deaf ears and staring eyes. Only five minutes more. It was almost impossible for her to arrive in time.

At last she appeared.

Yes, there she is, it is certainly she — a woman in black, slender and graceful, accompanied by another shorter woman — Madame Dobson, no doubt.

But a second glance undeceived him. It was a young woman who resembled her, a woman of fashion like her, with a happy face. A man, also young, joined them. It was evidently a wedding-party; the mother accompanied them, to see them safely on board the train.

Now there is the confusion of departure, the last stroke of the bell, the steam escaping with a hissing sound, mingled with the hurried footsteps of belated passengers, the slamming of doors and the rumbling of the heavy omnibuses. Sidonie comes not. And Frantz still waits.

At that moment a hand is placed on his shoulder.

Great God!

He turns. The coarse face of M. Gardinois, surrounded by a travelling-cap with ear-pieces, is before him.

“I am not mistaken, it is Monsieur Risler. Are you going to Marseilles by the express? I am not going far.”

He explains to Frantz that he has missed the Orleans train, and is going to try to connect with Savigny by the Lyon line; then he talks about Risler Aine and the factory.

“It seems that business hasn’t been prospering for some time. They were caught in the Bonnardel failure. Ah! our young men need to be careful. At the rate they’re sailing their ship, the same thing is likely to happen to them that happened to Bonnardel. But excuse me, I believe they’re about to close the gate. Au revoir.”

Frantz has hardly heard what he has been saying. His brother’s ruin, the destruction of the whole world, nothing is of any further consequence to him. He is waiting, waiting.

But now the gate is abruptly closed like a last barrier between him and his persistent hope. Once more the station is empty. The uproar has been transferred to the line of the railway, and suddenly a shrill whistle falls upon the lover’s ear like an ironical farewell, then dies away in the darkness.

The ten o’clock train has gone!

He tries to be calm and to reason. Evidently she missed the train from Asmeres; but, knowing that he is waiting for her, she will come, no matter how late it may be. He will wait longer. The waiting-room was made for that.

The unhappy man sits down on a bench. The prospect of a long vigil brings to his mind a well-known room in which at that hour the lamp burns low on a table laden with humming-birds and insects, but that vision passes swiftly through his mind in the chaos of confused thoughts to which the delirium of suspense gives birth.

And while he thus lost himself in thought, the hours passed. The roofs of the buildings of Mazas, buried in darkness, were already beginning to stand out distinctly against the brightening sky. What was he to do? He must go to Asnieres at once and try to find out what had happened. He wished he were there already.

Having made up his mind, he descended the steps of the station at a rapid pace, passing soldiers with their knapsacks on their backs, and poor people who rise early coming to take the morning train, the train of poverty and want.

In front of one of the stations he saw a crowd collected, rag-pickers and countrywomen. Doubtless some drama of the night about to reach its denouement before the Commissioner of Police. Ah! if Frantz had known what that drama was! but he could have no suspicion, and he glanced at the crowd indifferently from a distance.

When he reached Asnieres, after a walk of two or three hours, it was like an awakening. The sun, rising in all its glory, set field and river on fire. The bridge, the houses, the quay, all stood forth with that matutinal sharpness of outline which gives the impression of a new day emerging, luminous and smiling, from the dense mists of the night. From a distance he descried his brother’s house, already awake, the open blinds and the flowers on the window-sills. He wandered about some time before he could summon courage to enter.

Suddenly some one hailed him from the shore:

“Ah! Monsieur Frantz. How early you are today!”

It was Sidonie’s coachman taking his horses to bathe in the river.

“Has anything happened at the house?” inquired Frantz tremblingly.

“No, Monsieur Frantz.”

“Is my brother at home?”

“No, Monsieur slept at the factory.”

“No one sick?”

“No, Monsieur Frantz, no one, so far as I know.”

Thereupon Frantz made up his mind to ring at the small gate. The gardener was raking the paths. The house was astir; and, early as it was, he heard Sidonie’s voice as clear and vibrating as the song of a bird among the rose-bushes of the facade.

She was talking with animation. Frantz, deeply moved, drew near to listen.

“No, no cream. The ‘cafe parfait’ will be enough. Be sure that it’s well frozen and ready at seven o’clock. Oh! about an entree — let us see —”

She was holding council with her cook concerning the famous dinner-party for the next day. Her brother-in-law’s sudden appearance did not disconcert her.

“Ah! good-morning, Frantz,” she said very coolly. “I am at your service directly. We’re to have some people to dinner to-morrow, customers of the firm, a grand business dinner. You’ll excuse me, won’t you?”

Fresh and smiling, in the white ruffles of her trailing morning-gown and her little lace cap, she continued to discuss her menu, inhaling the cool air that rose from the fields and the river. There was not the slightest trace of chagrin or anxiety upon that tranquil face, which was a striking contrast to the lover’s features, distorted by a night of agony and fatigue.

For a long quarter of an hour Frantz, sitting in a corner of the salon, saw all the conventional dishes of a bourgeois dinner pass before him in their regular order, from the little hot pates, the sole Normande and the innumerable ingredients of which that dish is composed, to the Montreuil peaches and Fontainebleau grapes.

At last, when they were alone and he was able to speak, he asked in a hollow voice:

“Didn’t you receive my letter?”

“Why, yes, of course.”

She had risen to go to the mirror and adjust a little curl or two entangled with her floating ribbons, and continued, looking at herself all the while:

“Yes, I received your letter. Indeed, I was charmed to receive it. Now, should you ever feel inclined to tell your brother any of the vile stories about me that you have threatened me with, I could easily satisfy him that the only source of your lying tale-bearing was anger with me for repulsing a criminal passion as it deserved. Consider yourself warned, my dear boy — and au revoir.”

As pleased as an actress who has just delivered a telling speech with fine effect, she passed him and left the room smiling, with a little curl at the corners of her mouth, triumphant and without anger. And he did not kill her!

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