Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 3

The False Pearls

After two or three years of intimacy with Claire, of sharing her amusements, years during which Sidonie acquired the familiarity with luxury and the graceful manners of the children of the wealthy, the friendship was suddenly broken.

Cousin Georges, whose guardian M. Fromont was, had entered college some time before. Claire in her turn took her departure for the convent with the outfit of a little queen; and at that very time the Chebes were discussing the question of apprenticing Sidonie to some trade. They promised to love each other as before and to meet twice a month, on the Sundays that Claire was permitted to go home.

Indeed, little Chebe did still go down sometimes to play with her friends; but as she grew older she realized more fully the distance that separated them, and her clothes began to seem to her very simple for Madame Fromont’s salon.

When the three were alone, the childish friendship which made them equals prevented any feeling of embarrassment; but visitors came, girl friends from the convent, among others a tall girl, always richly dressed, whom her mother’s maid used to bring to play with the little Fromonts on Sunday.

As soon as she saw her coming up the steps, resplendent and disdainful, Sidonie longed to go away at once. The other embarrassed her with awkward questions. Where did she live? What did her parents do? Had she a carriage?

As she listened to their talk of the convent and their friends, Sidonie felt that they lived in a different world, a thousand miles from her own; and a deathly sadness seized her, especially when, on her return home, her mother spoke of sending her as an apprentice to Mademoiselle Le Mire, a friend of the Delobelles, who conducted a large false-pearl establishment on the Rue du Roi-Dore.

Risler insisted upon the plan of having the little one serve an apprenticeship. “Let her learn a trade,” said the honest fellow. “Later I will undertake to set her up in business.”

Indeed, this same Mademoiselle Le Mire spoke of retiring in a few years. It was an excellent opportunity.

One morning, a dull day in November, her father took her to the Rue du Rio-Dore, to the fourth floor of an old house, even older and blacker than her own home.

On the ground floor, at the entrance to the hall, hung a number of signs with gilt letters: Depot for Travelling-Bags, Plated Chains, Children’s Toys, Mathematical Instruments in Glass, Bouquets for Brides and Maids of Honor, Wild Flowers a Specialty; and above was a little dusty show-case, wherein pearls, yellow with age, glass grapes and cherries surrounded the pretentious name of Angelina Le Mire.

What a horrible house!

It had not even a broad landing like that of the Chebes, grimy with old age, but brightened by its window and the beautiful prospect presented by the factory. A narrow staircase, a narrow door, a succession of rooms with brick floors, all small and cold, and in the last an old maid with a false front and black thread mitts, reading a soiled copy of the ‘Journal pour Tous,’ and apparently very much annoyed to be disturbed in her reading.

Mademoiselle Le Mire (written in two words) received the father and daughter without rising, discoursed at great length of the rank she had lost, of her father, an old nobleman of Le Rouergue — it is most extraordinary how many old noblemen Le Rouergue has produced! — and of an unfaithful steward who had carried off their whole fortune. She instantly aroused the sympathies of M. Chebe, for whom decayed gentlefolk had an irresistible charm, and he went away overjoyed, promising his daughter to call for her at seven o’clock at night in accordance with the terms agreed upon.

The apprentice was at once ushered into the still empty workroom. Mademoiselle Le Mire seated her in front of a great drawer filled with pearls, needles, and bodkins, with instalments of four-sou novels thrown in at random among them.

It was Sidonie’s business to sort the pearls and string them in necklaces of equal length, which were tied together to be sold to the small dealers. Then the young women would soon be there and they would show her exactly what she would have to do, for Mademoiselle Le Mire (always written in two words!) did not interfere at all, but overlooked her business from a considerable distance, from that dark room where she passed her life reading newspaper novels.

At nine o’clock the work-women arrived, five tall, pale-faced, faded girls, wretchedly dressed, but with their hair becomingly arranged, after the fashion of poor working-girls who go about bare-headed through the streets of Paris.

Two or three were yawning and rubbing their eyes, saying that they were dead with sleep.

At last they went to work beside a long table where each had her own drawer and her own tools. An order had been received for mourning jewels, and haste was essential. Sidonie, whom the forewoman instructed in her task in a tone of infinite superiority, began dismally to sort a multitude of black pearls, bits of glass, and wisps of crape.

The others, paying no attention to the little girl, chatted together as they worked. They talked of a wedding that was to take place that very day at St. Gervais.

“Suppose we go,” said a stout, red-haired girl, whose name was Malvina. “It’s to be at noon. We shall have time to go and get back again if we hurry.”

And, at the lunch hour, the whole party rushed downstairs four steps at a time.

Sidonie had brought her luncheon in a little basket, like a school-girl; with a heavy heart she sat at a corner of the table and ate alone for the first time in her life. Great God! what a sad and wretched thing life seemed to be; what a terrible revenge she would take hereafter for her sufferings there!

At one o’clock the girls trooped noisily back, highly excited.

“Did you see the white satin gown? And the veil of point d’Angleterre? There’s a lucky girl!”

Thereupon they repeated in the workroom the remarks they had made in undertones in the church, leaning against the rail, throughout the ceremony. That question of a wealthy marriage, of beautiful clothes, lasted all day long; nor did it interfere with their work-far from it.

These small Parisian industries, which have to do with the most trivial details of the toilet, keep the work-girls informed as to the fashions and fill their minds with thoughts of luxury and elegance. To the poor girls who worked on Mademoiselle Le Mire’s fourth floor, the blackened walls, the narrow street did not exist. They were always thinking of something else and passed their lives asking one another:

“Malvina, if you were rich what would you do? For my part, I’d live on the Champs-Elysees.” And the great trees in the square, the carriages that wheeled about there, coquettishly slackening their pace, appeared momentarily before their minds, a delicious, refreshing vision.

Little Chebe, in her corner, listened without speaking, industriously stringing her black grapes with the precocious dexterity and taste she had acquired in Desiree’s neighborhood. So that in the evening, when M. Chebe came to fetch his daughter, they praised her in the highest terms.

Thereafter all her days were alike. The next day, instead of black pearls, she strung white pearls and bits of false coral; for at Mademoiselle Le Mire’s they worked only in what was false, in tinsel, and that was where little Chebe was to serve her apprenticeship to life.

For some time the new apprentice-being younger and better bred than the others — found that they held aloof from her. Later, as she grew older, she was admitted to their friendship and their confidence, but without ever sharing their pleasures. She was too proud to go to see weddings at midday; and when she heard them talking of a ball at Vauxhall or the ‘Delices du Marais,’ or of a nice little supper at Bonvalet’s or at the ‘Quatre Sergents de la Rochelle,’ she was always very disdainful.

We looked higher than that, did we not, little Chebe?

Moreover, her father called for her every evening. Sometimes, however, about the New Year, she was obliged to work late with the others, in order to complete pressing orders. In the gaslight those pale-faced Parisians, sorting pearls as white as themselves, of a dead, unwholesome whiteness, were a painful spectacle. There was the same fictitious glitter, the same fragility of spurious jewels. They talked of nothing but masked balls and theatres.

“Have you seen Adele Page, in ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires?’ And Melingue? And Marie Laurent? Oh! Marie Laurent!”

The actors’ doublets, the embroidered costumes of the queens of melodrama, appeared before them in the white light of the necklaces forming beneath their fingers.

In summer the work was less pressing. It was the dull season. In the intense heat, when through the drawn blinds fruit-sellers could be heard in the street, crying their mirabelles and Queen Claudes, the workgirls slept heavily, their heads on the table. Or perhaps Malvina would go and ask Mademoiselle Le Mire for a copy of the ‘Journal pour Tous,’ and read aloud to the others.

But little Chebe did not care for the novels. She carried one in her head much more interesting than all that trash.

The fact is, nothing could make her forget the factory. When she set forth in the morning on her father’s arm, she always cast a glance in that direction. At that hour the works were just stirring, the chimney emitted its first puff of black smoke. Sidonie, as she passed, could hear the shouts of the workmen, the dull, heavy blows of the bars of the printing-press, the mighty, rhythmical hum of the machinery; and all those sounds of toil, blended in her memory with recollections of fetes and blue-lined carriages, haunted her persistently.

They spoke louder than the rattle of the omnibuses, the street cries, the cascades in the gutters; and even in the workroom, when she was sorting the false pearls even at night, in her own home, when she went, after dinner, to breathe the fresh air at the window on the landing and to gaze at the dark, deserted factory, that murmur still buzzed in her ears, forming, as it were, a continual accompaniment to her thoughts.

“The little one is tired, Madame Chebe. She needs diversion. Next Sunday I will take you all into the country.”

These Sunday excursions, which honest Risler organized to amuse Sidonie, served only to sadden her still more.

On those days she must rise at four o’clock in the morning; for the poor must pay for all their enjoyments, and there was always a ribbon to be ironed at the last moment, or a bit of trimming to be sewn on in an attempt to rejuvenate the everlasting little lilac frock with white stripes which Madame Chebe conscientiously lengthened every year.

They would all set off together, the Chebes, the Rislers, and the illustrious Delobelle. Only Desiree and her mother never were of the party. The poor, crippled child, ashamed of her deformity, never would stir from her chair, and Mamma Delobelle stayed behind to keep her company. Moreover, neither possessed a suitable gown in which to show herself out-of-doors in their great man’s company; it would have destroyed the whole effect of his appearance.

When they left the house, Sidonie would brighten up a little. Paris in the pink haze of a July morning, the railway stations filled with light dresses, the country flying past the car windows, and the healthful exercise, the bath in the pure air saturated with the water of the Seine, vivified by a bit of forest, perfumed by flowering meadows, by ripening grain, all combined to make her giddy for a moment. But that sensation was soon succeeded by disgust at such a commonplace way of passing her Sunday.

It was always the same thing.

They stopped at a refreshment booth, in close proximity to a very noisy and numerously attended rustic festival, for there must be an audience for Delobelle, who would saunter along, absorbed by his chimera, dressed in gray, with gray gaiters, a little hat over his ear, a light top coat on his arm, imagining that the stage represented a country scene in the suburbs of Paris, and that he was playing the part of a Parisian sojourning in the country.

As for M. Chebe, who prided himself on being as fond of nature as the late Jean Jacques Rousseau, he did not appreciate it without the accompaniments of shooting-matches, wooden horses, sack races, and a profusion of dust and penny-whistles, which constituted also Madame Chebe’s ideal of a country life.

But Sidonie had a different ideal; and those Parisian Sundays passed in strolling through noisy village streets depressed her beyond measure. Her only pleasure in those throngs was the consciousness of being stared at. The veriest boor’s admiration, frankly expressed aloud at her side, made her smile all day; for she was of those who disdain no compliment.

Sometimes, leaving the Chebes and Delobelle in the midst of the fete, Risler would go into the fields with his brother and the “little one” in search of flowers for patterns for his wall-papers. Frantz, with his long arms, would pull down the highest branches of a hawthorn, or would climb a park wall to pick a leaf of graceful shape he had spied on the other side. But they reaped their richest harvests on the banks of the stream.

There they found those flexible plants, with long swaying stalks, which made such a lovely effect on hangings, tall, straight reeds, and the volubilis, whose flower, opening suddenly as if in obedience to a caprice, resembles a living face, some one looking at you amid the lovely, quivering foliage. Risler arranged his bouquets artistically, drawing his inspiration from the very nature of the plants, trying to understand thoroughly their manner of life, which can not be divined after the withering of one day.

Then, when the bouquet was completed, tied with a broad blade of grass as with a ribbon, and slung over Frantz’s back, away they went. Risler, always engrossed in his art, looked about for subjects, for possible combinations, as they walked along.

“Look there, little one — see that bunch of lily of the valley, with its white bells, among those eglantines. What do you think? Wouldn’t that be pretty against a sea-green or pearl-gray background?”

But Sidonie cared no more for lilies of the valley than for eglantine. Wild flowers always seemed to her like the flowers of the poor, something like her lilac dress.

She remembered that she had seen flowers of a different sort at the house of M. Gardinois, at the Chateau de Savigny, in the hothouses, on the balconies, and all about the gravelled courtyard bordered with tall urns. Those were the flowers she loved; that was her idea of the country!

The little stations in the outskirts of Paris are so terribly crowded and stuffy on those Sunday evenings in summer! Such artificial enjoyment, such idiotic laughter, such doleful ballads, sung in whispers by voices that no longer have the strength to roar! That was the time when M. Chebe was in his element.

He would elbow his way to the gate, scold about the delay of the train, declaim against the station-agent, the company, the government; say to Delobelle in a loud voice, so as to be overheard by his neighbors:

“I say — suppose such a thing as this should happen in America!” Which remark, thanks to the expressive by-play of the illustrious actor, and to the superior air with which he replied, “I believe you!” gave those who stood near to understand that these gentlemen knew exactly what would happen in America in such a case. Now, they were equally and entirely ignorant on that subject; but upon the crowd their words made an impression.

Sitting beside Frantz, with half of his bundle of flowers on her knees, Sidonie would seem to be blotted out, as it were, amid the uproar, during the long wait for the evening trains. From the station, lighted by a single lamp, she could see the black clumps of trees outside, lighted here and there by the last illuminations of the fete, a dark village street, people continually coming in, and a lantern hanging on a deserted pier.

From time to time, on the other side of the glass doors, a train would rush by without stopping, with a shower of hot cinders and the roar of escaping steam. Thereupon a tempest of shouts and stamping would arise in the station, and, soaring above all the rest, the shrill treble of M. Chebe, shrieking in his sea-gull’s voice: “Break down the doors! break down the doors!"— a thing that the little man would have taken good care not to do himself, as he had an abject fear of gendarmes. In a moment the storm would abate. The tired women, their hair disarranged by the wind, would fall asleep on the benches. There were torn and ragged dresses, low-necked white gowns, covered with dust.

The air they breathed consisted mainly of dust. It lay upon their clothes, rose at every step, obscured the light of the lamp, vexed one’s eyes, and raised a sort of cloud before the tired faces. The cars which they entered at last, after hours of waiting, were saturated with it also. Sidonie would open the window, and look out at the dark fields, an endless line of shadow. Then, like innumerable stars, the first lanterns of the outer boulevards appeared near the fortifications.

So ended the ghastly day of rest of all those poor creatures. The sight of Paris brought back to each one’s mind the thought of the morrow’s toil. Dismal as her Sunday had been, Sidonie began to regret that it had passed. She thought of the rich, to whom all the days of their lives were days of rest; and vaguely, as in a dream, the long park avenues of which she had caught glimpses during the day appeared to her thronged with those happy ones of earth, strolling on the fine gravel, while outside the gate, in the dust of the highroad, the poor man’s Sunday hurried swiftly by, having hardly time to pause a moment to look and envy.

Such was little Chebe’s life from thirteen to seventeen.

The years passed, but did not bring with them the slightest change. Madame Chebe’s cashmere was a little more threadbare, the little lilac frock had undergone a few additional repairs, and that was all. But, as Sidonie grew older, Frantz, now become a young man, acquired a habit of gazing at her silently with a melting expression, of paying her loving attentions that were visible to everybody, and were unnoticed by none save the girl herself.

Indeed, nothing aroused the interest of little Chebe. In the work-room she performed her task regularly, silently, without the slightest thought of the future or of saving. All that she did seemed to be done as if she were waiting for something.

Frantz, on the other hand, had been working for some time with extraordinary energy, the ardor of those who see something at the end of their efforts; so that, at the age of twenty-four, he graduated second in his class from the Ecole Centrale, as an engineer.

On that evening Risler had taken the Chebe family to the Gymnase, and throughout the evening he and Madame Chebe had been making signs and winking at each other behind the children’s backs. And when they left the theatre Madame Chebe solemnly placed Sidonie’s arm in Frantz’s, as if she would say to the lovelorn youth, “Now settle matters — here is your chance.”

Thereupon the poor lover tried to settle matters.

It is a long walk from the Gymnase to the Marais. After a very few steps the brilliancy of the boulevard is left behind, the streets become darker and darker, the passers more and more rare. Frantz began by talking of the play. He was very fond of comedies of that sort, in which there was plenty of sentiment.

“And you, Sidonie?”

“Oh! as for me, Frantz, you know that so long as there are fine costumes —”

In truth she thought of nothing else at the theatre. She was not one of those sentimental creatures; a la Madame Bovary, who return from the play with love-phrases ready-made, a conventional ideal. No! the theatre simply made her long madly for luxury and fine raiment; she brought away from it nothing but new methods of arranging the hair, and patterns of gowns. The new, exaggerated toilettes of the actresses, their gait, even the spurious elegance of their speech, which seemed to her of the highest distinction, and with it all the tawdry magnificence of the gilding and the lights, the gaudy placard at the door, the long line of carriages, and all the somewhat unwholesome excitement that springs up about a popular play; that was what she loved, that was what absorbed her thoughts.

“How well they acted their love-scene!” continued the lover.

And, as he uttered that suggestive phrase, he bent fondly toward a little face surrounded by a white woollen hood, from which the hair escaped in rebellious curls.

Sidonie sighed:

“Oh! yes, the love-scene. The actress wore beautiful diamonds.”

There was a moment’s silence. Poor Frantz had much difficulty in explaining himself. The words he sought would not come, and then, too, he was afraid. He fixed the time mentally when he would speak:

“When we have passed the Porte Saint-Denis — when we have left the boulevard.”

But when the time arrived, Sidonie began to talk of such indifferent matters that his declaration froze on his lips, or else it was stopped by a passing carriage, which enabled their elders to overtake them.

At last, in the Marais, he suddenly took courage:

“Listen to me, Sidonie — I love you!”

That night the Delobelles had sat up very late.

It was the habit of those brave-hearted women to make their working-day as long as possible, to prolong it so far into the night that their lamp was among the last to be extinguished on the quiet Rue de Braque. They always sat up until the great man returned home, and kept a dainty little supper warm for him in the ashes on the hearth.

In the days when he was an actor there was some reason for that custom; actors, being obliged to dine early and very sparingly, have a terrible gnawing at their vitals when they leave the theatre, and usually eat when they go home. Delobelle had not acted for a long time; but having, as he said, no right to abandon the stage, he kept his mania alive by clinging to a number of the strolling player’s habits, and the supper on returning home was one of them, as was his habit of delaying his return until the last footlight in the boulevard theatres was extinguished. To retire without supping, at the hour when all other artists supped, would have been to abdicate, to abandon the struggle, and he would not abandon it, sacre bleu!

On the evening in question the actor had not yet come in and the women were waiting for him, talking as they worked, and with great animation, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour. During the whole evening they had done nothing but talk of Frantz, of his success, of the future that lay before him.

“Now,” said Mamma Delobelle, “the only thing he needs is to find a good little wife.”

That was Desiree’s opinion, too. That was all that was lacking now to Frantz’s happiness, a good little wife, active and brave and accustomed to work, who would forget everything for him. And if Desiree spoke with great confidence, it was because she was intimately acquainted with the woman who was so well adapted to Frantz Risler’s needs. She was only a year younger than he, just enough to make her younger than her husband and a mother to him at the same time.

Pretty?

No, not exactly, but attractive rather than ugly, notwithstanding her infirmity, for she was lame, poor child! And then she was clever and bright, and so loving! No one but Desiree knew how fondly that little woman loved Frantz, and how she had thought of him night and day for years. He had not noticed it himself, but seemed to have eyes for nobody but Sidonie, a gamine. But no matter! Silent love is so eloquent, such a mighty power lies hid in restrained feelings. Who knows? Perhaps some day or other:

And the little cripple, leaning over her work, started upon one of those long journeys to the land of chimeras of which she had made so many in her invalid’s easychair, with her feet resting on the stool; one of those wonderful journeys from which she always returned happy and smiling, leaning on Frantz’s arm with all the confidence of a beloved wife. As her fingers followed her thought, the little bird she had in her hand at the moment, smoothing his ruffled wings, looked as if he too were of the party and were about to fly far, far away, as joyous and light of heart as she.

Suddenly the door flew open.

“I do not disturb you?” said a triumphant voice.

The mother, who was slightly drowsy, suddenly raised her head.

“Ah! it’s Monsieur Frantz. Pray come in, Monsieur Frantz. We’re waiting for father, as you see. These brigands of artists always stay out so late! Take a seat — you shall have supper with him.”

“Oh! no, thank you,” replied Frantz, whose lips were still pale from the emotion he had undergone, “I can’t stop. I saw a light and I just stepped in to tell you — to tell you some great news that will make you very happy, because I know that you love me —”

“Great heavens, what is it?”

“Monsieur Frantz Risler and Mademoiselle Sidonie are engaged to be married.”

“There! didn’t I say that all he needed was a good little wife,” exclaimed Mamma Delobelle, rising and throwing her arms about his neck.

Desiree had not the strength to utter a word. She bent still lower over her work, and as Frantz’s eyes were fixed exclusively upon his happiness, as Mamma Delobelle did nothing but look at the clock to see whether her great man would return soon, no one noticed the lame girl’s emotion, nor her pallor, nor the convulsive trembling of the little bird that lay in her hands with its head thrown back, like a bird with its death-wound.

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