Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 18

She Promised Not to Try Again

Oh! no, she will not try it again. Monsieur le Commissaire need have no fear. In the first place how could she go as far as the river, now that she can not stir from her bed? If Monsieur le Commissaire could see her now, he would not doubt her word. Doubtless the wish, the longing for death, so unmistakably written on her pale face the other morning, are still visible there; but they are softened, resigned. The woman Delobelle knows that by waiting a little, yes, a very little time, she will have nothing more to wish for.

The doctors declare that she is dying of pneumonia; she must have contracted it in her wet clothes. The doctors are mistaken; it is not pneumonia. Is it her love, then, that is killing her? No. Since that terrible night she no longer thinks of Frantz, she no longer feels that she is worthy to love or to be loved. Thenceforth there is a stain upon her spotless life, and it is of the shame of that and of nothing else that she is dying.

Mamma Delobelle sits by Desiree’s bed, working by the light from the window, and nursing her daughter. From time to time she raises her eyes to contemplate that mute despair, that mysterious disease, then hastily resumes her work; for it is one of the hardest trials of the poor that they can not suffer at their ease.

Mamma Delobelle had to work alone now, and her fingers had not the marvellous dexterity of Desiree’s little hands; medicines were dear, and she would not for anything in the world have interfered with one of “the father’s “ cherished habits. And so, at whatever hour the invalid opened her eyes, she would see her mother, in the pale light of early morning, or under her night lamp, working, working without rest.

Between two stitches the mother would look up at her child, whose face grew paler and paler:

“How do you feel?”

“Very well,” the sick girl would reply, with a faint, heartbroken smile, which illumined her sorrowful face and showed all the ravages that had been wrought upon it, as a sunbeam, stealing into a poor man’s lodging, instead of brightening it, brings out more clearly its cheerlessness and nudity.

The illustrious Delobelle was never there. He had not changed in any respect the habits of a strolling player out of an engagement. And yet he knew that his daughter was dying: the doctor had told him so. Moreover, it had been a terrible blow to him, for, at heart, he loved his child dearly; but in that singular nature the most sincere and the most genuine feelings adopted a false and unnatural mode of expression, by the same law which ordains that, when a shelf is placed awry, nothing that you place upon it seems to stand straight.

Delobelle’s natural tendency was, before everything, to air his grief, to spread it abroad. He played the role of the unhappy father from one end of the boulevard to the other. He was always to be found in the neighborhood of the theatres or at the actors’ restaurant, with red eyes and pale cheeks. He loved to invite the question, “Well, my poor old fellow, how are things going at home?” Thereupon he would shake his head with a nervous gesture; his grimace held tears in check, his mouth imprecations, and he would stab heaven with a silent glance, overflowing with wrath, as when he played the ‘Medecin des Enfants;’ all of which did not prevent him, however, from bestowing the most delicate and thoughtful attentions upon his daughter.

He also maintained an unalterable confidence in himself, no matter what happened. And yet his eyes came very near being opened to the truth at last. A hot little hand laid upon that pompous, illusion-ridden head came very near expelling the bee that had been buzzing there so long. This is how it came to pass.

One night Desiree awoke with a start, in a very strange state. It should be said that the doctor, when he came to see her on the preceding evening, had been greatly surprised to find her suddenly brighter and calmer, and entirely free from fever. Without attempting to explain this unhoped-for resurrection, he had gone away, saying, “Let us wait and see”; he relied upon the power of youth to throw off disease, upon the resistless force of the life-giving sap, which often engrafts a new life upon the very symptoms of death. If he had looked under Desiree’s pillow, he would have found there a letter postmarked Cairo, wherein lay the secret of that happy change. Four pages signed by Frantz, his whole conduct confessed and explained to his dear little Zizi.

It was the very letter of which the sick girl had dreamed. If she had dictated it herself, all the phrases likely to touch her heart, all the delicately worded excuses likely to pour balm into her wounds, would have been less satisfactorily expressed. Frantz repented, asked forgiveness, and without making any promises, above all without asking anything from her, described to his faithful friend his struggles, his remorse, his sufferings.

What a misfortune that that letter had not arrived a few days earlier. Now, all those kind words were to Desiree like the dainty dishes that are brought too late to a man dying of hunger.

Suddenly she awoke, and, as we said a moment since, in an extraordinary state.

In her head, which seemed to her lighter than usual, there suddenly began a grand procession of thoughts and memories. The most distant periods of her past seemed to approach her. The most trivial incidents of her childhood, scenes that she had not then understood, words heard as in a dream, recurred to her mind.

From her bed she could see her father and mother, one by her side, the other in the workroom, the door of which had been left open. Mamma Delobelle was lying back in her chair in the careless attitude of long-continued fatigue, heeded at last; and all the scars, the ugly sabre cuts with which age and suffering brand the faces of the old, manifested themselves, ineffaceable and pitiful to see, in the relaxation of slumber. Desiree would have liked to be strong enough to rise and kiss that lovely, placid brow, furrowed by wrinkles which did not mar its beauty.

In striking contrast to that picture, the illustrious Delobelle appeared to his daughter through the open door in one of his favorite attitudes. Seated before the little white cloth that bore his supper, with his body at an angle of sixty-seven and a half degrees, he was eating and at the same time running through a pamphlet which rested against the carafe in front of him.

For the first time in her life Desiree noticed the striking lack of harmony between her emaciated mother, scantily clad in little black dresses which made her look even thinner and more haggard than she really was, and her happy, well-fed, idle, placid, thoughtless father. At a glance she realized the difference between the two lives. What would become of them when she was no longer there? Either her mother would work too hard and would kill herself; or else the poor woman would be obliged to cease working altogether, and that selfish husband, forever engrossed by his theatrical ambition, would allow them both to drift gradually into abject poverty, that black hole which widens and deepens as one goes down into it.

Suppose that, before going away — something told her that she would go very soon — before going away, she should tear away the thick bandage that the poor man kept over his eyes wilfully and by force?

Only a hand as light and loving as hers could attempt that operation. Only she had the right to say to her father:

“Earn your living. Give up the stage.”

Thereupon, as time was flying, Desire Delobelle summoned all her courage and called softly:

“Papa-papa”

At his daughter’s first summons the great man hurried to her side. He entered Desiree’s bedroom, radiant and superb, very erect, his lamp in his hand and a camellia in his buttonhole.

“Good evening, Zizi. Aren’t you asleep?”

His voice had a joyous intonation that produced a strange effect amid the prevailing gloom. Desiree motioned to him not to speak, pointing to her sleeping mother.

“Put down your lamp — I have something to say to you.”

Her voice, broken by emotion, impressed him; and so did her eyes, for they seemed larger than usual, and were lighted by a piercing glance that he had never seen in them.

He approached with something like awe.

“Why, what’s the matter, Bichette? Do you feel any worse?”

Desiree replied with a movement of her little pale face that she felt very ill and that she wanted to speak to him very close, very close. When the great man stood by her pillow, she laid her burning hand on the great man’s arm and whispered in his ear. She was very ill, hopelessly ill. She realized fully that she had not long to live.

“Then, father, you will be left alone with mamma. Don’t tremble like that. You knew that this thing must come, yes, that it was very near. But I want to tell you this. When I am gone, I am terribly afraid mamma won’t be strong enough to support the family just see how pale and exhausted she is.”

The actor looked at his “sainted wife,” and seemed greatly surprised to find that she did really look so badly. Then he consoled himself with the selfish remark:

“She never was very strong.”

That remark and the tone in which it was made angered Desiree and strengthened her determination. She continued, without pity for the actor’s illusions:

“What will become of you two when I am no longer here? Oh! I know that you have great hopes, but it takes them a long while to come to anything. The results you have waited for so long may not arrive for a long time to come; and until then what will you do? Listen! my dear father, I would not willingly hurt you; but it seems to me that at your age, as intelligent as you are, it would be easy for you — I am sure Monsieur Risler Aine would ask nothing better.”

She spoke slowly, with an effort, carefully choosing her words, leaving long pauses between every two sentences, hoping always that they might be filled by a movement, an exclamation from her father. But the actor did not understand.

“I think that you would do well,” pursued Desiree, timidly, “I think that you would do well to give up —”

“Eh? — what? — what’s that?”

She paused when she saw the effect of her words. The old actor’s mobile features were suddenly contracted under the lash of violent despair; and tears, genuine tears which he did not even think of concealing behind his hand as they do on the stage, filled his eyes but did not flow, so tightly did his agony clutch him by the throat. The poor devil began to understand.

She murmured twice or thrice:

“To give up — to give up —”

Then her little head fell back upon the pillow, and she died without having dared to tell him what he would do well to give up.

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