Fromont and Risler, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter 8

The Brewery on the Rue Blondel

After his marriage Risler had given up the brewery. Sidonie would have been glad to have him leave the house in the evening for a fashionable club, a resort of wealthy, well-dressed men; but the idea of his returning, amid clouds of pipe-smoke, to his friends of earlier days, Sigismond, Delobelle, and her own father, humiliated her and made her unhappy. So he ceased to frequent the place; and that was something of a sacrifice. It was almost a glimpse of his native country, that brewery situated in a remote corner of Paris. The infrequent carriages, the high, barred windows of the ground floors, the odor of fresh drugs, of pharmaceutical preparations, imparted to that narrow little Rue Blondel a vague resemblance to certain streets in Basle or Zurich.

The brewery was managed by a Swiss and crowded with men of that nationality. When the door was opened, through the smoke-laden atmosphere, dense with the accents of the North, one had a vision of a vast, low room with hams hanging from the rafters, casks of beer standing in a row, the floor ankle-deep with sawdust, and on the counter great salad-bowls filled with potatoes as red as chestnuts, and baskets of pretzels fresh from the oven, their golden knots sprinkled with white salt.

For twenty years Risler had had his pipe there, a long pipe marked with his name in the rack reserved for the regular customers. He had also his table, at which he was always joined by several discreet, quiet compatriots, who listened admiringly, but without comprehending them, to the endless harangues of Chebe and Delobelle. When Risler ceased his visits to the brewery, the two last-named worthies likewise turned their backs upon it, for several excellent reasons. In the first place, M. Chebe now lived a considerable distance away. Thanks to the generosity of his children, the dream of his whole life was realized at last.

“When I am rich,” the little man used to say in his cheerless rooms in the Marais, “I will have a house of my own, at the gates of Paris, almost in the country, a little garden which I will plant and water myself. That will be better for my health than all the excitement of the capital.”

Well, he had his house now, but he did not enjoy himself in it. It was at Montrouge, on the road that runs around the city. “A small chalet, with garden,” said the advertisement, printed on a placard which gave an almost exact idea of the dimensions of the property. The papers were new and of rustic design, the paint perfectly fresh; a water-butt planted beside a vine-clad arbor played the part of a pond. In addition to all these advantages, only a hedge separated this paradise from another “chalet with garden” of precisely the same description, occupied by Sigismond Planus the cashier, and his sister. To Madame Chebe that was a most precious circumstance. When the good woman was bored, she would take a stock of knitting and darning and go and sit in the old maid’s arbor, dazzling her with the tale of her past splendors. Unluckily, her husband had not the same source of distraction.

However, everything went well at first. It was midsummer, and M. Chebe, always in his shirt-sleeves, was busily employed in getting settled. Each nail to be driven in the house was the subject of leisurely reflections, of endless discussions. It was the same with the garden. He had determined at first to make an English garden of it, lawns always green, winding paths shaded by shrubbery. But the trouble of it was that it took so long for the shrubbery to grow.

“I have a mind to make an orchard of it,” said the impatient little man.

And thenceforth he dreamed of nothing but vegetables, long lines of beans, and peach-trees against the wall. He dug for whole mornings, knitting his brows in a preoccupied way and wiping his forehead ostentatiously before his wife, so that she would say:

“For heaven’s sake, do rest a bit — you’re killing yourself.”

The result was that the garden was a mixture: flowers and fruit, park and kitchen garden; and whenever he went into Paris M. Chebe was careful to decorate his buttonhole with a rose from his rose-bushes.

While the fine weather lasted, the good people did not weary of admiring the sunsets behind the fortifications, the long days, the bracing country air. Sometimes, in the evening, when the windows were open, they sang duets; and in presence of the stars in heaven, which began to twinkle simultaneously with the lanterns on the railway around the city, Ferdinand would become poetical. But when the rain came and he could not go out, what misery! Madame Chebe, a thorough Parisian, sighed for the narrow streets of the Marais, her expeditions to the market of Blancs-Manteaux, and to the shops of the quarter.

As she sat by the window, her usual place for sewing and observation, she would gaze at the damp little garden, where the volubilis and the nasturtiums, stripped of their blossoms, were dropping away from the lattices with an air of exhaustion, at the long, straight line of the grassy slope of the fortifications, still fresh and green, and, a little farther on, at the corner of a street, the office of the Paris omnibuses, with all the points of their route inscribed in enticing letters on the green walls. Whenever one of the omnibuses lumbered away on its journey, she followed it with her eyes, as a government clerk at Cayenne or Noumea gazes after the steamer about to return to France; she made the trip with it, knew just where it would stop, at what point it would lurch around a corner, grazing the shop-windows with its wheels.

As a prisoner, M. Chebe became a terrible trial. He could not work in the garden. On Sundays the fortifications were deserted; he could no longer strut about among the workingmen’s families dining on the grass, and pass from group to group in a neighborly way, his feet encased in embroidered slippers, with the authoritative demeanor of a wealthy landowner of the vicinity. This he missed more than anything else, consumed as he was by the desire to make people think about him. So that, having nothing to do, having no one to pose before, no one to listen to his schemes, his stories, the anecdote of the accident to the Duc d’Orleans — a similar accident had happened to him in his youth, you remember — the unfortunate Ferdinand overwhelmed his wife with reproaches.

“Your daughter banishes us — your daughter is ashamed of us!”

She heard nothing but that “Your daughter — your daughter — your daughter!” For, in his anger with Sidonie, he denied her, throwing upon his wife the whole responsibility for that monstrous and unnatural child. It was a genuine relief for poor Madame Chebe when her husband took an omnibus at the office to go and hunt up Delobelle — whose hours for lounging were always at his disposal — and pour into his bosom all his rancor against his son-in-law and his daughter.

The illustrious Delobelle also bore Risler a grudge, and freely said of him: “He is a dastard.”

The great man had hoped to form an integral part of the new household, to be the organizer of festivities, the ‘arbiter elegantiarum’. Instead of which, Sidonie received him very coldly, and Risler no longer even took him to the brewery. However, the actor did not complain too loud, and whenever he met his friend he overwhelmed him with attentions and flattery; for he had need of him.

Weary of awaiting the discerning manager, seeing that the engagement he had longed for so many years did not come, it had occurred to Delobelle to purchase a theatre and manage it himself. He counted upon Risler for the funds. Opportunely enough, a small theatre on the boulevard happened to be for sale, as a result of the failure of its manager. Delobelle mentioned it to Risler, at first very vaguely, in a wholly hypothetical form —“There would be a good chance to make a fine stroke.” Risler listened with his usual phlegm, saying, “Indeed, it would be a good thing for you.” And to a more direct suggestion, not daring to answer, “No,” he took refuge behind such phrases as “I will see”—“Perhaps later”—“I don’t say no”— and finally uttered the unlucky words “I must see the estimates.”

For a whole week the actor had delved away at plans and figures, seated between his wife and daughter, who watched him in admiration, and intoxicated themselves with this latest dream. The people in the house said, “Monsieur Delobelle is going to buy a theatre.” On the boulevard, in the actors’ cafes, nothing was talked of but this transaction. Delobelle did not conceal the fact that he had found some one to advance the funds; the result being that he was surrounded by a crowd of unemployed actors, old comrades who tapped him familiarly on the shoulder and recalled themselves to his recollection —“You know, old boy.” He promised engagements, breakfasted at the cafe, wrote letters there, greeted those who entered with the tips of his fingers, held very animated conversations in corners; and already two threadbare authors had read to him a drama in seven tableaux, which was “exactly what he wanted” for his opening piece. He talked about “my theatre!” and his letters were addressed, “Monsieur Delobelle, Manager.”

When he had composed his prospectus and made his estimates, he went to the factory to see Risler, who, being very busy, made an appointment to meet him in the Rue Blondel; and that same evening, Delobelle, being the first to arrive at the brewery, established himself at their old table, ordered a pitcher of beer and two glasses, and waited. He waited a long while, with his eye on the door, trembling with impatience. Whenever any one entered, the actor turned his head. He had spread his papers on the table, and pretended to be reading them, with animated gestures and movements of the head and lips.

It was a magnificent opportunity, unique in its way. He already fancied himself acting — for that was the main point — acting, in a theatre of his own, roles written expressly for him, to suit his talents, in which he would produce all the effect of —

Suddenly the door opened, and M. Chebe made his appearance amid the pipe-smoke. He was as surprised and annoyed to find Delobelle there as Delobelle himself was by his coming. He had written to his son-in-law that morning that he wished to speak with him on a matter of very serious importance, and that he would meet him at the brewery. It was an affair of honor, entirely between themselves, from man to man. The real fact concerning this affair of honor was that M. Chebe had given notice of his intention to leave the little house at Montrouge, and had hired a shop with an entresol in the Rue du Mail, in the midst of a business district. A shop? Yes, indeed! And now he was a little alarmed regarding his hasty step, anxious to know how his son-in-law would take it, especially as the shop cost much more than the Montrouge house, and there were some repairs to be made at the outset. As he had long been acquainted with his son-in-law’s kindness of heart, M. Chebe had determined to appeal to him at once, hoping to lead him into his game and throw upon him the responsibility for this domestic change. Instead of Risler he found Delobelle.

They looked askance at each other, with an unfriendly eye, like two dogs meeting beside the same dish. Each divined for whom the other was waiting, and they did not try to deceive each other.

“Isn’t my son-in-law here?” asked M. Chebe, eying the documents spread over the table, and emphasizing the words “my son-in-law,” to indicate that Risler belonged to him and to nobody else.

“I am waiting for him,” Delobelle replied, gathering up his papers.

He pressed his lips together, as he added with a dignified, mysterious, but always theatrical air:

“It is a matter of very great importance.”

“So is mine,” declared M. Chebe, his three hairs standing erect like a porcupine’s quills.

As he spoke, he took his seat on the bench beside Delobelle, ordered a pitcher and two glasses as the former had done, then sat erect with his hands in his pockets and his back against the wall, waiting in his turn. The two empty glasses in front of them, intended for the same absentee, seemed to be hurling defiance at each other.

But Risler did not come.

The two men, drinking in silence, lost their patience and fidgeted about on the bench, each hoping that the other would tire of waiting.

At last their ill-humor overflowed, and naturally poor Risler received the whole flood.

“What an outrage to keep a man of my years waiting so long!” began M. Chebe, who never mentioned his great age except upon such occasions.

“I believe, on my word, that he is making sport of us,” replied M. Delobelle.

And the other:

“No doubt Monsieur had company to dinner.”

“And such company!” scornfully exclaimed the illustrious actor, in whose mind bitter memories were awakened.

“The fact is —” continued M. Chebe.

They drew closer to each other and talked. The hearts of both were full in respect to Sidonie and Risler. They opened the flood-gates. That Risler, with all his good-nature, was an egotist pure and simple, a parvenu. They laughed at his accent and his bearing, they mimicked certain of his peculiarities. Then they talked about his household, and, lowering their voices, they became confidential, laughed familiarly together, were friends once more.

M. Chebe went very far: “Let him beware! he has been foolish enough to send the father and mother away from their daughter; if anything happens to her, he can’t blame us. A girl who hasn’t her parents’ example before her eyes, you understand —”

“Certainly — certainly,” said Delobelle; “especially as Sidonie has become a great flirt. However, what can you expect? He will get no more than he deserves. No man of his age ought to — Hush! here he is!”

Risler had entered the room, and was walking toward them, distributing hand-shakes all along the benches.

There was a moment of embarrassment between the three friends. Risler excused himself as well as he could. He had been detained at home; Sidonie had company — Delobelle touched M. Chebe’s foot under the table — and, as he spoke, the poor man, decidedly perplexed by the two empty glasses that awaited him, wondered in front of which of the two he ought to take his seat.

Delobelle was generous.

“You have business together, Messieurs; do not let me disturb you.”

He added in a low tone, winking at Risler:

“I have the papers.”

“The papers?” echoed Risler, in a bewildered tone.

“The estimates,” whispered the actor.

Thereupon, with a great show of discretion, he withdrew within himself, and resumed the reading of his documents, his head in his hands and his fingers in his ears.

The two others conversed by his side, first in undertones, then louder, for M. Chebe’s shrill, piercing voice could not long be subdued. — He wasn’t old enough to be buried, deuce take it! — He should have died of ennui at Montrouge. — What he must have was the bustle and life of the Rue de Mail or the Rue du Sentier — of the business districts.

“Yes, but a shop? Why a shop?” Risler timidly ventured to ask.

“Why a shop? — why a shop?” repeated M. Chebe, red as an Easter egg, and raising his voice to its highest pitch. “Why, because I’m a merchant, Monsieur Risler, a merchant and son of a merchant. Oh! I see what you’re coming at. I have no business. But whose fault is it? If the people who shut me up at Montrouge, at the gates of Bicetre, like a paralytic, had had the good sense to furnish me with the money to start in business —”

At that point Risler succeeded in silencing him, and thereafter only snatches of the conversation could be heard: “a more convenient shop — high ceilings — better air — future plans — enormous business — I will speak when the time comes — many people will be astonished.”

As he caught these fragments of sentences, Delobelle became more and more absorbed in his estimates, presenting the eloquent back of the man who is not listening. Risler, sorely perplexed, slowly sipped his beer from time to time to keep himself, in countenance.

At last, when M. Chebe had grown calm, and with good reason, his son-in-law turned with a smile to the illustrious Delobelle, and met the stern, impassive glance which seemed to say, “Well! what of me?”

“Ah! Mon Dieu! — that is true,” thought the poor fellow.

Changing at once his chair and his glass, he took his seat opposite the actor. But M. Chebe had not Delobelle’s courtesy. Instead of discreetly moving away, he took his glass and joined the others, so that the great man, unwilling to speak before him, solemnly replaced his documents in his pocket a second time, saying to Risler:

“We will talk this over later.”

Very much later, in truth, for M. Chebe had reflected:

“My son-in-law is so good-natured! If I leave him with this swindler, who knows what he may get out of him?”

And he remained on guard. The actor was furious. It was impossible to postpone the matter to some other day, for Risler told them that he was going the next day to spend the next month at Savigny.

“A month at Savigny!” exclaimed M. Chebe, incensed at the thought of his son-in-law escaping him. “How about business?”

“Oh! I shall come to Paris every day with Georges. Monsieur Gardinois is very anxious to see his little Sidonie.”

M. Chebe shook his head. He considered it very imprudent. Business is business. A man ought to be on the spot, always on the spot, in the breach. Who could say? — the factory might take fire in the night. And he repeated sententiously: “The eye of the master, my dear fellow, the eye of the master,” while the actor — who was little better pleased by this intended departure — opened his great eyes; giving them an expression at once cunning and authoritative, the veritable expression of the eye of the master.

At last, about midnight, the last Montrouge omnibus bore away the tyrannical father-in-law, and Delobelle was able to speak.

“Let us first look at the prospectus,” he said, preferring not to attack the question of figures at once; and with his eyeglasses on his nose, he began, in a declamatory tone, always upon the stage: “When one considers coolly the decrepitude which dramatic art has reached in France, when one measures the distance that separates the stage of Moliere —”

There were several pages like that. Risler listened, puffing at his pipe, afraid to stir, for the reader looked at him every moment over his eyeglasses, to watch the effect of his phrases. Unfortunately, right in the middle of the prospectus, the cafe closed. The lights were extinguished; they must go. — And the estimates? — It was agreed that they should read them as they walked along. They stopped at every gaslight. The actor displayed his figures. So much for the hall, so much for the lighting, so much for poor-rates, so much for the actors. On that question of the actors he was firm.

“The best point about the affair,” he said, “is that we shall have no leading man to pay. Our leading man will be Bibi.” (When Delobelle mentioned himself, he commonly called himself Bibi.) “A leading man is paid twenty thousand francs, and as we have none to pay, it’s just as if you put twenty thousand francs in your pocket. Tell me, isn’t that true?”

Risler did not reply. He had the constrained manner, the wandering eyes of the man whose thoughts are elsewhere. The reading of the estimates being concluded, Delobelle, dismayed to find that they were drawing near the corner of the Rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes, put the question squarely. Would Risler advance the money, yes or no?

“Well! — no,” said Risler, inspired by heroic courage, which he owed principally to the proximity of the factory and to the thought that the welfare of his family was at stake.

Delobelle was astounded. He had believed that the business was as good as done, and he stared at his companion, intensely agitated, his eyes as big as saucers, and rolling his papers in his hand.

“No,” Risler continued, “I can’t do what you ask, for this reason.”

Thereupon the worthy man, slowly, with his usual heaviness of speech, explained that he was not rich. Although a partner in a wealthy house, he had no available funds. Georges and he drew a certain sum from the concern each month; then, when they struck a balance at the end of the year they divided the profits. It had cost him a good deal to begin housekeeping: all his savings. It was still four months before the inventory. Where was he to obtain the 30,000 francs to be paid down at once for the theatre? And then, beyond all that, the affair could not be successful.

“Why, it must succeed. Bibi will be there!” As he spoke, poor Bibi drew himself up to his full height; but Risler was determined, and all Bibi’s arguments met the same refusal —“Later, in two or three years, I don’t say something may not be done.”

The actor fought for a long time, yielding his ground inch by inch. He proposed revising his estimates. The thing might be done cheaper. “It would still be too dear for me,” Risler interrupted. “My name doesn’t belong to me. It is a part of the firm. I have no right to pledge it. Imagine my going into bankruptcy!” His voice trembled as he uttered the word.

“But if everything is in my name,” said Delobelle, who had no superstition. He tried everything, invoked the sacred interests of art, went so far as to mention the fascinating actresses whose alluring glances — Risler laughed aloud.

“Come, come, you rascal! What’s that you’re saying? You forget that we’re both married men, and that it is very late and our wives are expecting us. No ill-will, eh? — This is not a refusal, you understand. — By the way, come and see me after the inventory. We will talk it over again. Ah! there’s Pere Achille putting out his gas. — I must go in. Good-night.”

It was after one o’clock when the actor returned home. The two women were waiting for him, working as usual, but with a sort of feverish activity which was strange to them. Every moment the great scissors that Mamma Delobelle used to cut the brass wire were seized with strange fits of trembling, and Desiree’s little fingers, as she mounted an insect, moved so fast that it made one dizzy to watch them. Even the long feathers of the little birds scattered about on the table before her seemed more brilliant, more richly colored, than on other days. It was because a lovely visitor named Hope had called upon them that evening. She had made the tremendous effort required to climb five dark flights of stairs, and had opened the door of the little room to cast a luminous glance therein. However much you may have been deceived in life, those magic gleams always dazzle you.

“Oh! if your father could only succeed!” said Mamma Delobelle from time to time, as if to sum up a whole world of happy thoughts to which her reverie abandoned itself.

“He will succeed, mamma, never fear. Monsieur Risler is so kind, I will answer for him. And Sidonie is very fond of us, too, although since she was married she does seem to neglect her old friends a little. But we must make allowance for the difference in our positions. Besides, I never shall forget what she did for me.”

And, at the thought of what Sidonie had done for her, the little cripple applied herself with even more feverish energy to her work. Her electrified fingers moved with redoubled swiftness. You would have said that they were running after some fleeing, elusive thing, like happiness, for example, or the love of some one who loves you not.

“What was it that she did for you?” her mother would naturally have asked her; but at that moment she was only slightly interested in what her daughter said. She was thinking exclusively of her great man.

“No! do you think so, my dear? Just suppose your father should have a theatre of his own and act again as in former days. You don’t remember; you were too small then. But he had tremendous success, no end of recalls. One night, at Alencon, the subscribers to the theatre gave him a gold wreath. Ah! he was a brilliant man in those days, so lighthearted, so glad to be alive. Those who see him now don’t know him, poor man, misfortune has changed him so. Oh, well! I feel sure that all that’s necessary is a little success to make him young and happy again. And then there’s money to be made managing theatres. The manager at Nantes had a carriage. Can you imagine us with a carriage? Can you imagine it, I say? That’s what would be good for you. You could go out, leave your armchair once in a while. Your father would take us into the country. You would see the water and the trees you have had such a longing to see.”

“Oh! the trees,” murmured the pale little recluse, trembling from head to foot.

At that moment the street door of the house was closed violently, and M. Delobelle’s measured step echoed in the vestibule. There was a moment of speechless, breathless anguish. The women dared not look at each other, and mamma’s great scissors trembled so that they cut the wire crooked.

The poor devil had unquestionably received a terrible blow. His illusions crushed, the humiliation of a refusal, the jests of his comrades, the bill at the cafe where he had breakfasted on credit during the whole period of his managership, a bill which must be paid — all these things occurred to him in the silence and gloom of the five flights he had to climb. His heart was torn. Even so, the actor’s nature was so strong in him that he deemed it his duty to envelop his distress, genuine as it was, in a conventional tragic mask.

As he entered, he paused, cast an ominous glance around the work-room, at the table covered with work, his little supper waiting for him in a corner, and the two dear, anxious faces looking up at him with glistening eyes. He stood a full minute without speaking — and you know how long a minute’s silence seems on the stage; then he took three steps forward, sank upon a low chair beside the table, and exclaimed in a hissing voice:

“Ah! I am accursed!”

At the same time he dealt the table such a terrible blow with his fist that the “birds and insects for ornament” flew to the four corners of the room. His terrified wife rose and timidly approached him, while Desiree half rose in her armchair with an expression of nervous agony that distorted all her features.

Lolling in his chair, his arms hanging despondently by his sides, his head on his chest, the actor soliloquized — a fragmentary soliloquy, interrupted by sighs and dramatic hiccoughs, overflowing with imprecations against the pitiless, selfish bourgeois, those monsters to whom the artist gives his flesh and blood for food and drink.

Then he reviewed his whole theatrical life, his early triumphs, the golden wreath from the subscribers at Alencon, his marriage to this “sainted woman,” and he pointed to the poor creature who stood by his side, with tears streaming from her eyes, and trembling lips, nodding her head dotingly at every word her husband said.

In very truth, a person who never had heard of the illustrious Delobelle could have told his history in detail after that long monologue. He recalled his arrival in Paris, his humiliations, his privations. Alas! he was not the one who had known privation. One had but to look at his full, rotund face beside the thin, drawn faces of the two women. But the actor did not look so closely.

“Oh!” he said, continuing to intoxicate himself with declamatory phrases, “oh! to have struggled so long. For ten years, fifteen years, have I struggled on, supported by these devoted creatures, fed by them.”

“Papa, papa, hush,” cried Desiree, clasping her hands.

“Yes, fed by them, I say — and I do not blush for it. For I accept all this devotion in the name of sacred art. But this is too much. Too much has been put upon me. I renounce the stage!”

“Oh! my dear, what is that you say?” cried Mamma Delobelle, rushing to his side.

“No, leave me. I have reached the end of my strength. They have slain the artist in me. It is all over. I renounce the stage.”

If you had seen the two women throw their arms about him then, implore him to struggle on, prove to him that he had no right to give up, you could not have restrained your tears. But Delobelle resisted.

He yielded at last, however, and promised to continue the fight a little while, since it was their wish; but it required many an entreaty and caress to carry the point.

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