Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 23

Cafe Chantant

What a rare, what a conscientious clerk did that new employe of the house of Fromont prove himself!

Every day his lamp was the first to appear at, and the last to disappear from, the windows of the factory. A little room had been arranged for him under the eaves, exactly like the one he had formerly occupied with Frantz, a veritable Trappist’s cell, furnished with an iron cot and a white wooden table, that stood under his brother’s portrait. He led the same busy, regular, quiet life as in those old days.

He worked constantly, and had his meals brought from the same little creamery. But, alas! the disappearance forever of youth and hope deprived those memories of all their charm. Luckily he still had Frantz and Madame “Chorche,” the only two human beings of whom he could think without a feeling of sadness. Madame “Chorche” was always at hand, always trying to minister to his comfort, to console him; and Frantz wrote to him often, without mentioning Sidonie, by the way. Risler supposed that some one had told Frantz of the disaster that had befallen him, and he too avoided all allusion to the subject in his letters. “Oh! when I can send for him to come home!” That was his dream, his sole ambition: to restore the factory and recall his brother.

Meanwhile the days succeeded one another, always the same to him in the restless activity of business and the heartrending loneliness of his grief. Every morning he walked through the workshops, where the profound respect he inspired and his stern, silent countenance had reestablished the orderly conditions that had been temporarily disturbed. In the beginning there had been much gossip, and various explanations of Sidonie’s departure had been made. Some said that she had eloped with a lover, others that Risler had turned her out. The one fact that upset all conjectures was the attitude of the two partners toward each other, apparently as unconstrained as before. Sometimes, however, when they were talking together in the office, with no one by, Risler would suddenly start convulsively, as a vision of the crime passed before his eyes.

Then he would feel a mad longing to spring upon the villain, seize him by the throat, strangle him without mercy; but the thought of Madame “Chorche” was always there to restrain him. Should he be less courageous, less master of himself than that young wife? Neither Claire, nor Fromont, nor anybody else suspected what was in his mind. They could barely detect a severity, an inflexibility in his conduct, which were not habitual with him. Risler awed the workmen now; and those of them upon whom his white hair, blanched in one night, his drawn, prematurely old features did not impose respect, quailed before his strange glance-a glance from eyes of a bluish-black like the color of a gun-barrel. Whereas he had always been very kind and affable with the workmen, he had become pitilessly severe in regard to the slightest infraction of the rules. It seemed as if he were taking vengeance upon himself for some indulgence in the past, blind, culpable indulgence, for which he blamed himself.

Surely he was a marvellous employe, was this new officer in the house of Fromont.

Thanks to him, the factory bell, notwithstanding the quavering of its old, cracked voice, had very soon resumed its authority; and the man who guided the whole establishment denied himself the slightest recreation. Sober as an apprentice, he left three-fourths of his salary with Planus for the Chebes’ allowance, but he never asked any questions about them. Punctually on the last day of the month the little man appeared to collect his little income, stiff and formal in his dealings with Sigismond, as became an annuitant on duty. Madame Chebe had tried to obtain an interview with her son-in-law, whom she pitied and loved; but the mere appearance of her palm-leaf shawl on the steps put Sidonie’s husband to flight.

In truth, the courage with which he armed himself was more apparent than real. The memory of his wife never left him. What had become of her? What was she doing? He was almost angry with Planus for never mentioning her. That letter, above all things, that letter which he had had the courage not to open, disturbed him. He thought of it continually. Ah! had he dared, how he would have liked to ask Sigismond for it!

One day the temptation was too strong. He was alone in the office. The old cashier had gone out to luncheon, leaving the key in his drawer, a most extraordinary thing. Risler could not resist. He opened the drawer, moved the papers, and searched for his letter. It was not there. Sigismond must have put it away even more carefully, perhaps with a foreboding of what actually happened. In his heart Risler was not sorry for his disappointment; for he well knew that, had he found the letter, it would have been the end of the resigned and busy life which he imposed upon himself with so much difficulty.

Through the week it was all very well. Life was endurable, absorbed by the innumerable duties of the factory, and so fatiguing that, when night came, Risler fell on his bed like a lifeless mass. But Sunday was long and sad. The silence of the deserted yards and workshops opened a far wider field to his thoughts. He tried to busy himself, but he missed the encouragement of the others’ work. He alone was busy in that great, empty factory whose very breath was arrested. The locked doors, the closed blinds, the hoarse voice of Pere Achille playing with his dog in the deserted courtyard, all spoke of solitude. And the whole neighborhood also produced the same effect. In the streets, which seemed wider because of their emptiness, and where the passers-by were few and silent, the bells ringing for vespers had a melancholy sound, and sometimes an echo of the din of Paris, rumbling wheels, a belated hand-organ, the click of a toy-peddler’s clappers, broke the silence, as if to make it even more noticeable.

Risler would try to invent new combinations of flowers and leaves, and, while he handled his pencil, his thoughts, not finding sufficient food there, would escape him, would fly back to his past happiness, to his hopeless misfortunes, would suffer martyrdom, and then, on returning, would ask the poor somnambulist, still seated at his table: “What have you done in my absence?” Alas! he had done nothing.

Oh! the long, heartbreaking, cruel Sundays! Consider that, mingled with all these perplexities in his mind, was the superstitious reverence of the common people for holy days, for the twenty-four hours of rest, wherein one recovers strength and courage. If he had gone out, the sight of a workingman with his wife and child would have made him weep, but his monastic seclusion gave him other forms of suffering, the despair of recluses, their terrible outbreaks of rebellion when the god to whom they have consecrated themselves does not respond to their sacrifices. Now, Risler’s god was work, and as he no longer found comfort or serenity therein, he no longer believed in it, but cursed it.

Often in those hours of mental struggle the door of the draughting-room would open gently and Claire Fromont would appear. The poor man’s loneliness throughout those long Sunday afternoons filled her with compassion, and she would come with her little girl to keep him company, knowing by experience how contagious is the sweet joyousness of children. The little one, who could now walk alone, would slip from her mother’s arms to run to her friend. Risler would hear the little, hurrying steps. He would feel the light breath behind him, and instantly he would be conscious of a soothing, rejuvenating influence. She would throw her plump little arms around his neck with affectionate warmth, with her artless, causeless laugh, and a kiss from that little mouth which never had lied. Claire Fromont, standing in the doorway, would smile as she looked at them.

“Risler, my friend,” she would say, “you must come down into the garden a while — you work too hard. You will be ill.”

“No, no, Madame — on the contrary, work is what saves me. It keeps me from thinking.”

Then, after a long pause, she would continue:

“Come, my dear Risler, you must try to forget.”

Risler would shake his head.

“Forget? Is that possible? There are some things beyond one’s strength. A man may forgive, but he never forgets.”

The child almost always succeeded in dragging him down to the garden. He must play ball, or in the sand, with her; but her playfellow’s awkwardness and lack of enthusiasm soon impressed the little girl. Then she would become very sedate, contenting herself with walking gravely between the hedges of box, with her hand in her friend’s . After a moment Risler would entirely forget that she was there; but, although he did not realize it, the warmth of that little hand in his had a magnetic, softening effect upon his diseased mind.

A man may forgive, but he never forgets!

Poor Claire herself knew something about it; for she had never forgotten, notwithstanding her great courage and the conception she had formed of her duty. To her, as to Risler; her surroundings were a constant reminder of her sufferings. The objects amid which she lived pitilessly reopened the wound that was ready to close. The staircase, the garden, the courtyard, all those dumb witnesses of her husband’s sin, assumed on certain days an implacable expression. Even the careful precaution her husband took to spare her painful reminders, the way in which he called attention to the fact that he no longer went out in the evening, and took pains to tell her where he had been during the day, served only to remind her the more forcibly of his wrong-doing. Sometimes she longed to ask him to forbear — to say to him: “Do not protest too much.” Faith was shattered within her, and the horrible agony of the priest who doubts, and seeks at the same time to remain faithful to his vows, betrayed itself in her bitter smile, her cold, uncomplaining gentleness.

Georges was wofully unhappy. He loved his wife now. The nobility of her character had conquered him. There was admiration in his love, and — why not say it? — Claire’s sorrow filled the place of the coquetry which was contrary to her nature, the lack of which had always been a defect in her husband’s eyes. He was one of that strange type of men who love to make conquests. Sidonie, capricious and cold as she was, responded to that whim of his heart. After parting from her with a tender farewell, he found her indifferent and forgetful the next day, and that continual need of wooing her back to him took the place of genuine passion. Serenity in love bored him as a voyage without storms wearies a sailor. On this occasion he had been very near shipwreck with his wife, and the danger had not passed even yet. He knew that Claire was alienated from him and devoted entirely to the child, the only link between them thenceforth. Their separation made her seem lovelier, more desirable, and he exercised all his powers of fascination to recapture her. He knew how hard a task it would be, and that he had no ordinary, frivolous nature to deal with. But he did not despair. Sometimes a vague gleam in the depths of the mild and apparently impassive glance with which she watched his efforts, bade him hope.

As for Sidonie, he no longer thought of her. Let no one be astonished at that abrupt mental rupture. Those two superficial beings had nothing to attach them securely to each other. Georges was incapable of receiving lasting impressions unless they were continually renewed; Sidonie, for her part, had no power to inspire any noble or durable sentiment. It was one of those intrigues between a cocotte and a coxcomb, compounded of vanity and of wounded self-love, which inspire neither devotion nor constancy, but tragic adventures, duels, suicides which are rarely fatal, and which end in a radical cure. Perhaps, had he seen her again, he might have had a relapse of his disease; but the impetus of flight had carried Sidonie away so swiftly and so far that her return was impossible. At all events, it was a relief for him to be able to live without lying; and the new life he was leading, a life of hard work and self-denial, with the goal of success in the distance, was not distasteful to him. Luckily; for the courage and determination of both partners were none too much to put the house on its feet once more.

The poor house of Fromont had sprung leaks on all sides. So Pere Planus still had wretched nights, haunted by the nightmare of notes maturing and the ominous vision of the little blue man. But, by strict economy, they always succeeded in paying.

Soon four Risler Presses were definitively set up and used in the work of the factory. People began to take a deep interest in them and in the wall-paper trade. Lyons, Caen, Rixbeim, the great centres of the industry, were much disturbed concerning that marvellous “rotary and dodecagonal” machine. One fine day the Prochassons appeared, and offered three hundred thousand francs simply for an interest in the patent rights.

“What shall we do?” Fromont Jeune asked Risler Aine.

The latter shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

“Decide for yourself. It doesn’t concern me. I am only an employe.”

The words, spoken coldly, without anger, fell heavily upon Fromont’s bewildered joy, and reminded him of the gravity of a situation which he was always on the point of forgetting.

But when he was alone with his dear Madame “Chorche,” Risler advised her not to accept the Prochassons’ offer.

“Wait — don’t be in a hurry. Later you will have a better offer.”

He spoke only of them in that affair in which his own share was so glorious. She felt that he was preparing to cut himself adrift from their future.

Meanwhile orders came pouring in and accumulated on their hands. The quality of the paper, the reduced price because of the improved methods of manufacture, made competition impossible. There was no doubt that a colossal fortune was in store for the house of Fromont. The factory had resumed its former flourishing aspect and its loud, business-like hum. Intensely alive were all the great buildings and the hundreds of workmen who filled them. Pere Planus never raised his nose from his desk; one could see him from the little garden, leaning over his great ledgers, jotting down in magnificently molded figures the profits of the Risler press.

Risler still worked as before, without change or rest. The return of prosperity brought no alteration in his secluded habits, and from the highest window on the topmost floor of the house he listened to the ceaseless roar of his machines. He was no less gloomy, no less silent. One day, however, it became known at the factory that the press, a specimen of which had been sent to the great Exposition at Manchester, had received the gold medal, whereby its success was definitely established. Madame Georges called Risler into the garden at the luncheon hour, wishing to be the first to tell him the good news.

For the moment a proud smile relaxed his prematurely old, gloomy features. His inventor’s vanity, his pride in his renown, above all, the idea of repairing thus magnificently the wrong done to the family by his wife, gave him a moment of true happiness. He pressed Claire’s hands and murmured, as in the old days:

“I am very happy! I am very happy!”

But what a difference in tone! He said it without enthusiasm, hopelessly, with the satisfaction of a task accomplished, and nothing more.

The bell rang for the workmen to return, and Risler went calmly upstairs to resume his work as on other days.

In a moment he came down again. In spite of all, that news had excited him more than he cared to show. He wandered about the garden, prowled around the counting-room, smiling sadly at Pere Planus through the window.

“What ails him?” the old cashier wondered. “What does he want of me?”

At last, when night came and it was time to close the office, Risler summoned courage to go and speak to him.

“Planus, my old friend, I should like —”

He hesitated a moment.

“I should like you to give me the — letter, you know, the little letter and the package.”

Sigismond stared at him in amazement. In his innocence, he had imagined that Risler never thought of Sidonie, that he had entirely forgotten her.

“What — you want —?”

“Ah! I have well earned it; I can think of myself a little now. I have thought enough of others.”

“You are right,” said Planus. “Well, this is what we’ll do. The letter and package are at my house at Montrouge. If you choose, we will go and dine together at the Palais-Royal, as in the good old times. I will stand treat. We’ll water your medal with a bottle of wine; something choice! Then we’ll go to the house together. You can get your trinkets, and if it’s too late for you to go home, Mademoiselle Planus, my sister, shall make up a bed for you, and you shall pass the night with us. We are very comfortable there — it’s in the country. To-morrow morning at seven o’clock we’ll come back to the factory by the first omnibus. Come, old fellow, give me this pleasure. If you don’t, I shall think you still bear your old Sigismond a grudge.”

Risler accepted. He cared little about celebrating the award of his medal, but he desired to gain a few hours before opening the little letter he had at last earned the right to read.

He must dress. That was quite a serious matter, for he had lived in a workman’s jacket during the past six months. And what an event in the factory! Madame Fromont was informed at once.

“Madame, Madame! Monsieur Risler is going out!”

Claire looked at him from her window, and that tall form, bowed by sorrow, leaning on Sigismond’s arm, aroused in her a profound, unusual emotion which she remembered ever after.

In the street people bowed to Risler with great interest. Even their greetings warmed his heart. He was so much in need of kindness! But the noise of vehicles made him a little dizzy.

“My head is spinning,” he said to Planus:

“Lean hard on me, old fellow-don’t be afraid.”

And honest Planus drew himself up, escorting his friend with the artless, unconventional pride of a peasant of the South bearing aloft his village saint.

At last they arrived at the Palais-Royal.

The garden was full of people. They had come to hear the music, and were trying to find seats amid clouds of dust and the scraping of chairs. The two friends hurried into the restaurant to avoid all that turmoil. They established themselves in one of the large salons on the first floor, whence they could see the green trees, the promenaders, and the water spurting from the fountain between the two melancholy flower-gardens. To Sigismond it was the ideal of luxury, that restaurant, with gilding everywhere, around the mirrors, in the chandelier and even on the figured wallpaper. The white napkin, the roll, the menu of a table d’hote dinner filled his soul with joy. “We are comfortable here, aren’t we?” he said to Risler.

And he exclaimed at each of the courses of that banquet at two francs fifty, and insisted on filling his friend’s plate.

“Eat that — it’s good.”

The other, notwithstanding his desire to do honor to the fete, seemed preoccupied and gazed out-of-doors.

“Do you remember, Sigismond?” he said, after a pause.

The old cashier, engrossed in his memories of long ago, of Risler’s first employment at the factory, replied:

“I should think I do remember — listen! The first time we dined together at the Palais-Royal was in February, ‘forty-six, the year we put in the planches-plates at the factory.”

Risler shook his head.

“Oh! no — I mean three years ago. It was in that room just opposite that we dined on that memorable evening.”

And he pointed to the great windows of the salon of Cafe Vefour, gleaming in the rays of the setting sun like the chandeliers at a wedding feast.

“Ah! yes, true,” murmured Sigismond, abashed. What an unlucky idea of his to bring his friend to a place that recalled such painful things!

Risler, not wishing to cast a gloom upon their banquet, abruptly raised his glass.

“Come! here’s your health, my old comrade.”

He tried to change the subject. But a moment later he himself led the conversation back to it again, and asked Sigismond, in an undertone, as if he were ashamed:

“Have you seen her?”

“Your wife? No, never.”

“She hasn’t written again?”

“No — never again.”

“But you must have heard of her. What has she been doing these six months? Does she live with her parents?”

“No.”

Risler turned pale.

He hoped that Sidonie would have returned to her mother, that she would have worked, as he had worked, to forget and atone. He had often thought that he would arrange his life according to what he should learn of her when he should have the right to speak of her; and in one of those far-off visions of the future, which have the vagueness of a dream, he sometimes fancied himself living in exile with the Chebes in an unknown land, where nothing would remind him of his past shame. It was not a definite plan, to be sure; but the thought lived in the depths of his mind like a hope, caused by the need that all human creatures feel of finding their lost happiness.

“Is she in Paris?” he asked, after a few moments’ reflection.

“No. She went away three months ago. No one knows where she has gone.”

Sigismond did not add that she had gone with her Cazaboni, whose name she now bore, that they were making the circuit of the provincial cities together, that her mother was in despair, never saw her, and heard of her only through Delobelle. Sigismond did not deem it his duty to mention all that, and after his last words he held his peace.

Risler, for his part, dared ask no further questions.

While they sat there, facing each other, both embarrassed by the long silence, the military band began to play under the trees in the garden. They played one of those Italian operatic overtures which seem to have been written expressly for public open-air resorts; the swiftly-flowing notes, as they rise into the air, blend with the call of the swallows and the silvery plash of the fountain. The blaring brass brings out in bold relief the mild warmth of the closing hours of those summer days, so long and enervating in Paris; it seems as if one could hear nothing else. The distant rumbling of wheels, the cries of children playing, the footsteps of the promenaders are wafted away in those resonant, gushing, refreshing waves of melody, as useful to the people of Paris as the daily watering of their streets. On all sides the faded flowers, the trees white with dust, the faces made pale and wan by the heat, all the sorrows, all the miseries of a great city, sitting dreamily, with bowed head, on the benches in the garden, feel its comforting, refreshing influence. The air is stirred, renewed by those strains that traverse it, filling it with harmony.

Poor Risler felt as if the tension upon all his nerves were relaxed.

“A little music does one good,” he said, with glistening eyes. “My heart is heavy, old fellow,” he added, in a lower tone; “if you knew —”

They sat without speaking, their elbows resting on the window-sill, while their coffee was served.

Then the music ceased, the garden became deserted. The light that had loitered in the corners crept upward to the roofs, cast its last rays upon the highest windowpanes, followed by the birds, the swallows, which saluted the close of day with a farewell chirp from the gutter where they were huddled together.

“Now, where shall we go?” said Planus, as they left the restaurant.

“Wherever you wish.”

On the first floor of a building on the Rue Montpensier, close at hand, was a cafe chantant, where many people entered.

“Suppose we go in,” said Planus, desirous of banishing his friend’s melancholy at any cost, “the beer is excellent.”

Risler assented to the suggestion; he had not tasted beer for six months.

It was a former restaurant transformed into a concert-hall. There were three large rooms, separated by gilded pillars, the partitions having been removed; the decoration was in the Moorish style, bright red, pale blue, with little crescents and turbans for ornament.

Although it was still early, the place was full; and even before entering one had a feeling of suffocation, simply from seeing the crowds of people sitting around the tables, and at the farther end, half-hidden by the rows of pillars, a group of white-robed women on a raised platform, in the heat and glare of the gas.

Our two friends had much difficulty in finding seats, and had to be content with a place behind a pillar whence they could see only half of the platform, then occupied by a superb person in black coat and yellow gloves, curled and waxed and oiled, who was singing in a vibrating voice —

Mes beaux lions aux crins dores,

Du sang des troupeaux alteres,

Halte la! — Je fais sentinello!

[My proud lions with golden manes

Who thirst for the blood of my flocks,

Stand back! — I am on guard!]

The audience — small tradesmen of the quarter with their wives and daughters-seemed highly enthusiastic: especially the women. He represented so perfectly the ideal of the shopkeeper imagination, that magnificent shepherd of the desert, who addressed lions with such an air of authority and tended his flocks in full evening dress. And so, despite their bourgeois bearing, their modest costumes and their expressionless shop-girl smiles, all those women, made up their little mouths to be caught by the hook of sentiment, and cast languishing glances upon the singer. It was truly comical to see that glance at the platform suddenly change and become contemptuous and fierce as it fell upon the husband, the poor husband tranquilly drinking a glass of beer opposite his wife: “You would never be capable of doing sentry duty in the very teeth of lions, and in a black coat too, and with yellow gloves!”

And the husband’s eye seemed to reply:

“Ah! ‘dame’, yes, he’s quite a dashing buck, that fellow.”

Being decidedly indifferent to heroism of that stamp, Risler and Sigismond were drinking their beer without paying much attention to the music, when, at the end of the song, amid the applause and cries and uproar that followed it, Pere Planus uttered an exclamation:

“Why, that is odd; one would say — but no, I’m not mistaken. It is he, it’s Delobelle!”

It was, in fact, the illustrious actor, whom he had discovered in the front row near the platform. His gray head was turned partly away from them. He was leaning carelessly against a pillar, hat in hand, in his grand make-up as leading man: dazzlingly white linen, hair curled with the tongs, black coat with a camellia in the buttonhole, like the ribbon of an order. He glanced at the crowd from time to time with a patronizing air: but his eyes were most frequently turned toward the platform, with encouraging little gestures and smiles and pretended applause, addressed to some one whom Pere Planus could not see from his seat.

There was nothing very extraordinary in the presence of the illustrious Delobelle at a cafe concert, as he spent all his evenings away from home; and yet the old cashier felt vaguely disturbed, especially when he discovered in the same row a blue cape and a pair of steely eyes. It was Madame Dobson, the sentimental singing-teacher. The conjunction of those two faces amid the pipe-smoke and the confusion of the crowd, produced upon Sigismond the effect of two ghosts evoked by a bad dream. He was afraid for his friend, without knowing exactly why; and suddenly it occurred to him to take him away.

“Let us go, Risler. The heat here is enough to kill one.”

Just as they rose — for Risler was no more desirous to stay than to go — the orchestra, consisting of a piano and several violins, began a peculiar refrain. There was a flutter of curiosity throughout the room, and cries of “Hush! hush! sit down!”

They were obliged to resume their seats. Risler, too, was beginning to be disturbed.

“I know that tune,” he said to himself. “Where have I heard it?”

A thunder of applause and an exclamation from Planus made him raise his eyes.

“Come, come, let us go,” said the cashier, trying to lead him away.

But it was too late.

Risler had already seen his wife come forward to the front of the stage and curtsey to the audience with a ballet-dancer’s smile.

She wore a white gown, as on the night of the ball; but her whole costume was much less rich and shockingly immodest.

The dress was barely caught together at the shoulders; her hair floated in a blond mist low over her eyes, and around her neck was a necklace of pearls too large to be real, alternated with bits of tinsel. Delobelle was right: the Bohemian life was better suited to her. Her beauty had gained an indefinably reckless expression, which was its most characteristic feature, and made her a perfect type of the woman who has escaped from all restraint, placed herself at the mercy of every accident, and is descending stage by stage to the lowest depths of the Parisian hell, from which nothing is powerful enough to lift her and restore her to the pure air and the light.

And how perfectly at ease she seemed in her strolling life! With what self-possession she walked to the front of the stage! Ah! could she have seen the desperate, terrible glance fixed upon her down there in the hall, concealed behind a pillar, her smile would have lost that equivocal placidity, her voice would have sought in vain those wheedling, languorous tones in which she warbled the only song Madame Dobson had ever been able to teach her:

Pauv’ pitit Mamz’elle Zizi,

C’est l’amou, l’amou qui tourne

La tete a li.

Risler had risen, in spite of Planus’s efforts. “Sit down! sit down!” the people shouted. The wretched man heard nothing. He was staring at his wife.

C’est l’amou, l’amou qui tourne

La tete a li,

Sidonie repeated affectedly.

For a moment he wondered whether he should not leap on the platform and kill her. Red flames shot before his eyes, and he was blinded with frenzy.

Then, suddenly, shame and disgust seized upon him and he rushed from the hall, overturning chairs and tables, pursued by the terror and imprecations of all those scandalized bourgeois.

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