Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 17

An Item of News

In the evening preceding that ill-omened day, a few moments after Frantz had stealthily left his room on Rue de Braque, the illustrious Delobelle returned home, with downcast face and that air of lassitude and disillusionment with which he always met untoward events.

“Oh! mon Dieu, my poor man, what has happened?” instantly inquired Madame Delobelle, whom twenty years of exaggerated dramatic pantomime had not yet surfeited.

Before replying, the ex-actor, who never failed to precede his most trivial words with some facial play, learned long before for stage purposes, dropped his lower lip, in token of disgust and loathing, as if he had just swallowed something very bitter.

“The matter is that those Rislers are certainly ingrates or egotists, and, beyond all question, exceedingly ill-bred. Do you know what I just learned downstairs from the concierge, who glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, making sport of me? Well, Frantz Risler has gone! He left the house a short time ago, and has left Paris perhaps ere this, without so much as coming to shake my hand, to thank me for the welcome he has received here. What do you think of that? For he didn’t say good-by to you two either, did he? And yet, only a month ago, he was always in our rooms, without any remonstrance from us.”

Mamma Delobelle uttered an exclamation of genuine surprise and grief. Desiree, on the contrary, did not say a word or make a motion. She was always the same little iceberg.

Oh! wretched mother, turn your eyes upon your daughter. See that transparent pallor, those tearless eyes which gleam unwaveringly, as if their thoughts and their gaze were concentrated on some object visible to them alone. Cause that poor suffering heart to open itself to you. Question your child. Make her speak, above all things make her weep, to rid her of the burden that is stifling her, so that her tear-dimmed eyes can no longer distinguish in space that horrible unknown thing upon which they are fixed in desperation now.

For nearly a month past, ever since the day when Sidonie came and took Frantz away in her coupe, Desiree had known that she was no longer loved, and she knew her rival’s name. She bore them no ill-will, she pitied them rather. But, why had he returned? Why had he so heedlessly given her false hopes? How many tears had she devoured in silence since those hours! How many tales of woe had she told her little birds! For once more it was work that had sustained her, desperate, incessant work, which, by its regularity and monotony, by the constant recurrence of the same duties and the same motions, served as a balance-wheel to her thoughts.

Lately Frantz was not altogether lost to her. Although he came but rarely to see her, she knew that he was there, she could hear him go in and out, pace, the floor with restless step, and sometimes, through the half-open door, see his loved shadow hurry across the landing. He did not seem happy. Indeed, what happiness could be in store for him? He loved his brother’s wife. And at the thought that Frantz was not happy, the fond creature almost forgot her own sorrow to think only of the sorrow of the man she loved.

She was well aware that it was impossible that he could ever love her again. But she thought that perhaps she would see him come in some day, wounded and dying, that he would sit down on the little low chair, lay his head on her knees, and with a great sob tell her of his suffering and say to her, “Comfort me.”

That forlorn hope kept her alive for three weeks. She needed so little as that.

But no. Even that was denied her. Frantz had gone, gone without a glance for her, without a parting word. The lover’s desertion was followed by the desertion of the friend. It was horrible!

At her father’s first words, she felt as if she were hurled into a deep, ice-cold abyss, filled with darkness, into which she plunged swiftly, helplessly, well knowing that she would never return to the light. She was suffocating. She would have liked to resist, to struggle, to call for help.

Who was there who had the power to sustain her in that great disaster?

God? The thing that is called Heaven?

She did not even think of that. In Paris, especially in the quarters where the working class live, the houses are too high, the streets too narrow, the air too murky for heaven to be seen.

It was Death alone at which the little cripple was gazing so earnestly. Her course was determined upon at once: she must die. But how?

Sitting motionless in her easy-chair, she considered what manner of death she should choose. As she was almost never alone, she could not think of the brazier of charcoal, to be lighted after closing the doors and windows. As she never went out she could not think either of poison to be purchased at the druggist’s, a little package of white powder to be buried in the depths of the pocket, with the needle-case and the thimble. There was the phosphorus on the matches, too, the verdigris on old sous, the open window with the paved street below; but the thought of forcing upon her parents the ghastly spectacle of a self-inflicted death-agony, the thought that what would remain of her, picked up amid a crowd of people, would be so frightful to look upon, made her reject that method.

She still had the river. At all events, the water carries you away somewhere, so that nobody finds you and your death is shrouded in mystery.

The river! She shuddered at the mere thought. But it was not the vision of the deep, black water that terrified her. The girls of Paris laugh at that. You throw your apron over your head so that you can’t see, and pouf! But she must go downstairs, into the street, all alone, and the street frightened her.

Yes, it was a terrible thing to go out into the street alone. She must wait until the gas was out, steal softly downstairs when her mother had gone to bed, pull the cord of the gate, and make her way across Paris, where you meet men who stare impertinently into your face, and pass brilliantly lighted cafes. The river was a long distance away. She would be very tired. However, there was no other way than that.

“I am going to bed, my child; are you going to sit up any longer?”

With her eyes on her work, “my child” replied that she was. She wished to finish her dozen.

“Good-night, then,” said Mamma Delobelle, her enfeebled sight being unable to endure the light longer. “I have put father’s supper by the fire. Just look at it before you go to bed.”

Desire did not lie. She really intended to finish her dozen, so that her father could take them to the shop in the morning; and really, to see that tranquil little head bending forward in the white light of the lamp, one would never have imagined all the sinister thoughts with which it was thronged.

At last she takes up the last bird of the dozen, a marvellously lovely little bird whose wings seem to have been dipped in sea-water, all green as they are with a tinge of sapphire.

Carefully, daintily, Desiree suspends it on a piece of brass wire, in the charming attitude of a frightened creature about to fly away.

Ah! how true it is that the little blue bird is about to fly away! What a desperate flight into space! How certain one feels that this time it is the great journey, the everlasting journey from which there is no return!

By and by, very softly, Desiree opens the wardrobe and takes a thin shawl which she throws over her shoulders; then she goes. What? Not a glance at her mother, not a silent farewell, not a tear? No, nothing! With the terrible clearness of vision of those who are about to die, she suddenly realizes that her childhood and youth have been sacrificed to a vast self-love. She feels very sure that a word from their great man will comfort that sleeping mother, with whom she is almost angry for not waking, for allowing her to go without a quiver of her closed eyelids.

When one dies young, even by one’s own act, it is never without a rebellious feeling, and poor Desiree bids adieu to life, indignant with destiny.

Now she is in the street. Where is she going? Everything seems deserted already. Desiree walks rapidly, wrapped in her little shawl, head erect, dry-eyed. Not knowing the way, she walks straight ahead.

The dark, narrow streets of the Marais, where gas-jets twinkle at long intervals, cross and recross and wind about, and again and again in her feverish course she goes over the same ground. There is always something between her and the river. And to think that, at that very hour, almost in the same quarter, some one else is wandering through the streets, waiting, watching, desperate! Ah! if they could but meet. Suppose she should accost that feverish watcher, should ask him to direct her:

“I beg your pardon, Monsieur. How can I get to the Seine?”

He would recognize her at once.

“What! Can it be you, Mam’zelle Zizi? What are you doing out-of-doors at this time of night?”

“I am going to die, Frantz. You have taken away all my pleasure in living.”

Thereupon he, deeply moved, would seize her, press her to his heart and carry her away in his arms, saying:

“Oh! no, do not die. I need you to comfort me, to cure all the wounds the other has inflicted on me.”

But that is a mere poet’s dream, one of the meetings that life can not bring about.

Streets, more streets, then a square and a bridge whose lanterns make another luminous bridge in the black water. Here is the river at last. The mist of that damp, soft autumn evening causes all of this huge Paris, entirely strange to her as it is, to appear to her like an enormous confused mass, which her ignorance of the landmarks magnifies still more. This is the place where she must die.

Poor little Desiree!

She recalls the country excursion which Frantz had organized for her. That breath of nature, which she breathed that day for the first time, falls to her lot again at the moment of her death. “Remember,” it seems to say to her; and she replies mentally, “Oh! yes, I remember.”

She remembers only too well. When it arrives at the end of the quay, which was bedecked as for a holiday, the furtive little shadow pauses at the steps leading down to the bank.

Almost immediately there are shouts and excitement all along the quay:

“Quick — a boat — grappling-irons!” Boatmen and policemen come running from all sides. A boat puts off from the shore with a lantern in the bow.

The flower-women awake, and, when one of them asks with a yawn what is happening, the woman who keeps the cafe that crouches at the corner of the bridge answers coolly:

“A woman just jumped into the river.”

But no. The river has refused to take that child. It has been moved to pity by so great gentleness and charm. In the light of the lanterns swinging to and fro on the shore, a black group forms and moves away. She is saved! It was a sand-hauler who fished her out. Policemen are carrying her, surrounded by boatmen and lightermen, and in the darkness a hoarse voice is heard saying with a sneer: “That water-hen gave me a lot of trouble. You ought to see how she slipped through my fingers! I believe she wanted to make me lose my reward.” Gradually the tumult subsides, the bystanders disperse, and the black group moves away toward a police-station.

Ah! poor girl, you thought that it was an easy matter to have done with life, to disappear abruptly. You did not know that, instead of bearing you away swiftly to the oblivion you sought, the river would drive you back to all the shame, to all the ignominy of unsuccessful suicide. First of all, the station, the hideous station, with its filthy benches, its floor where the sodden dust seems like mud from the street. There Desiree was doomed to pass the rest of the night.

At last day broke with the shuddering glare so distressing to invalids. Suddenly aroused from her torpor, Desiree sat up in her bed, threw off the blanket in which they had wrapped her, and despite fatigue and fever tried to stand, in order to regain full possession of her faculties and her will. She had but one thought — to escape from all those eyes that were opening on all sides, to leave that frightful place where the breath of sleep was so heavy and its attitudes so distorted.

“I implore you, messieurs,” she said, trembling from head to foot, “let me return to mamma.”

Hardened as they were to Parisian dramas, even those good people realized that they were face to face with something more worthy of attention, more affecting than usual. But they could not take her back to her mother as yet. She must go before the commissioner first. That was absolutely necessary. They called a cab from compassion for her; but she must go from the station to the cab, and there was a crowd at the door to stare at the little lame girl with the damp hair glued to her temples, and her policeman’s blanket which did not prevent her shivering. At headquarters she was conducted up a dark, damp stairway where sinister figures were passing to and fro.

When Desiree entered the room, a man rose from the shadow and came to meet her, holding out his hand.

It was the man of the reward, her hideous rescuer at twenty-five francs.

“Well, little-mother,” he said, with his cynical laugh, and in a voice that made one think of foggy nights on the water, “how are we since our dive?”

The unhappy girl was burning red with fever and shame; so bewildered that it seemed to her as if the river had left a veil over her eyes, a buzzing in her ears. At last she was ushered into a smaller room, into the presence of a pompous individual, wearing the insignia of the Legion of Honor, Monsieur le Commissaire in person, who was sipping his ‘cafe au lait’ and reading the ‘Gazette des Tribunaux.’

“Ah! it’s you, is it?” he said in a surly tone and without raising his eyes from his paper, as he dipped a piece of bread in his cup; and the officer who had brought Desiree began at once to read his report:

“At quarter to twelve, on Quai de la Megisserie, in front of No. 17, the woman Delobelle, twenty-four years old, flower-maker, living with her parents on Rue de Braque, tried to commit suicide by throwing herself into the Seine, and was taken out safe and sound by Sieur Parcheminet, sand-hauler of Rue de la Butte-Chaumont.”

Monsieur le Commissaire listened as he ate, with the listless, bored expression of a man whom nothing can surprise; at the end he gazed sternly and with a pompous affectation of virtue at the woman Delobelle, and lectured her in the most approved fashion. It was very wicked, it was cowardly, this thing that she had done. What could have driven her to such an evil act? Why did she seek to destroy herself? Come, woman Delobelle, answer, why was it?

But the woman Delobelle obstinately declined to answer. It seemed to her that it would put a stigma upon her love to avow it in such a place. “I don’t know — I don’t know,” she whispered, shivering.

Testy and impatient, the commissioner decided that she should be taken back to her parents, but only on one condition: she must promise never to try it again.

“Come, do you promise?”

“Oh! yes, Monsieur.”

“You will never try again?”

“Oh! no, indeed I will not, never — never!”

Notwithstanding her protestations, Monsieur le Commissaire de Police shook his head, as if he did not trust her oath.

Now she is outside once more, on the way to her home, to a place of refuge; but her martyrdom was not yet at an end.

In the carriage, the officer who accompanied her was too polite, too affable. She seemed not to understand, shrank from him, withdrew her hand. What torture! But the most terrible moment of all was the arrival in Rue de Braque, where the whole house was in a state of commotion, and the inquisitive curiosity of the neighbors must be endured. Early in the morning the whole quarter had been informed of her disappearance. It was rumored that she had gone away with Frantz Risler. The illustrious Delobelle had gone forth very early, intensely agitated, with his hat awry and rumpled wristbands, a sure indication of extraordinary preoccupation; and the concierge, on taking up the provisions, had found the poor mother half mad, running from one room to another, looking for a note from the child, for any clew, however unimportant, that would enable her at least to form some conjecture.

Suddenly a carriage stopped in front of the door. Voices and footsteps echoed through the hall.

“M’ame Delobelle, here she is! Your daughter’s been found.”

It was really Desiree who came toiling up the stairs on the arm of a stranger, pale and fainting, without hat or shawl, and wrapped in a great brown cape. When she saw her mother she smiled at her with an almost foolish expression.

“Do not be alarmed, it is nothing,” she tried to say, then sank to the floor. Mamma Delobelle would never have believed that she was so strong. To lift her daughter, take her into the room, and put her to bed was a matter of a moment; and she talked to her and kissed her.

“Here you are at last. Where have you come from, you bad child? Tell me, is it true that you tried to kill yourself? Were you suffering so terribly? Why did you conceal it from me?”

When she saw her mother in that condition, with tear-stained face, aged in a few short hours, Desiree felt a terrible burden of remorse. She remembered that she had gone away without saying good-by to her, and that in the depths of her heart she had accused her of not loving her.

Not loving her!

“Why, it would kill me if you should die,” said the poor mother. “Oh! when I got up this morning and saw that your bed hadn’t been slept in and that you weren’t in the workroom either! — I just turned round and fell flat. Are you warm now? Do you feel well? You won’t do it again, will you — try to kill yourself?”

And she tucked in the bed-clothes, rubbed her feet, and rocked her upon her breast.

As she lay in bed with her eyes closed, Desiree saw anew all the incidents of her suicide, all the hideous scenes through which she had passed in returning from death to life. In the fever, which rapidly increased, in the intense drowsiness which began to overpower her, her mad journey across Paris continued to excite and torment her. Myriads of dark streets stretched away before her, with the Seine at the end of each.

That ghastly river, which she could not find in the night, haunted her now.

She felt that she was besmirched with its slime, its mud; and in the nightmare that oppressed her, the poor child, powerless to escape the obsession of her recollections, whispered to her mother: “Hide me — hide me — I am ashamed!”

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