The Dream (Le Rêve), by Émile Zola

Chapter 3

In the meanwhile, weeks and months went by. Two years had passed. Angelique was now fourteen years of age and quite womanly. When she read the “Golden Legend,” she would have a humming in her ears, the blood circulated quickly through the blue veins near her temples, and she felt a deep tenderness towards all these virgin saints.

Maidenhood is the sister of the angels, the union of all good, the overthrow of evil, the domain of faith. It gives grace, it is perfection, which has only need to show itself to conquer. The action of the Holy Spirit rendered Lucy so heavy that a thousand men and five pair of oxen could not drag her away from her home. An officer who tried to kiss Anastasia was struck blind. Under torture, the purity of the virgins is always powerful; from their exquisite white limbs, torn by instruments, milk flows instead of blood. Ten different times the story is told of the young convert who, to escape from her family, who wish her to marry against her will, assumes the garb of a monk, is accused of some misdeed, suffers punishment without indicating herself, and at last triumphs by announcing her name. Eugenia is in this way brought before a judge, whom she recognises as her father and reveals herself to him. Externally the combat of chastity recommences; always the thorns reappear. Thus the wisest saints shrink from being tempted. As the world is filled with snares, hermits flee to the desert, where they scourge themselves, throw themselves on the snow, or in beds of prickly herbs. A solitary monk covers his fingers with his mantle, that he may aid his mother in crossing a creek. A martyr bound to a stake, being tempted by a young girl, bites off his tongue with his teeth and spits it at her. All glorify the state of single blessedness. Alexis, very wealthy and in a high position, marries, but leaves his wife at the church-door. One weds only to die. Justina, in love with Cyprianus, converts him, and they walk together to their punishment. Cecilia, beloved by an angel, reveals the secret to Valerian on their wedding-day, and he, that he may see the spirit, consents to be baptised. He found in his room Cecilia talking with the angel, who held in his hand two wreaths of roses, and, giving one to Cecilia, and one to Valerian, he said, “Keep these crowns, like your hearts, pure and unspotted.” In many cases it was proved that death was stronger than love, and couples were united only as a challenge to existence. It was said that even the Virgin Mary at times prevented betrothals from ending in a marriage. A nobleman, a relative of the King of Hungary, renounced his claims to a young girl of marvellous beauty on this account. “Suddenly our Blessed Lady appeared, and said to him: ‘If I am indeed so beautiful as you have called me, why do you leave me for another?’ And he became a most devout man for the rest of his life.”

Among all this saintly company, Angelique had her preferences, and there were those whose experiences touched her to the heart, and helped her to correct her failings. Thus the learned Catherine, of high birth, enchanted her by her great scientific knowledge, when, only eighteen years of age, she was called by the Emperor Maximus to discuss certain questions with fifty rhetoricians and grammarians. She astonished and convinced them. “They were amazed and knew not what to say, but they remained quiet. And the Emperor blamed them for their weakness in allowing themselves to be so easily conquered by a young girl.” The fifty professors then declared that they were converted. “And as soon as the tyrant heard that, he had so terrible a fit of anger, that he commanded they should all be burned to death in the public square.” In her eyes Catherine was the invincible learned woman, as proud and dazzling in intellect as in beauty, just as she would have liked to be, that she might convert men, and be fed in prison by a dove, before having her head cut off. But Saint Elizabeth, the daughter of the King of Hungary, was for her a constant teacher and guide. Whenever she was inclined to yield to her violent temper, she thought of this model of gentleness and simplicity, who was at five years of age very devout, refusing to join her playmates in their sports, and sleeping on the ground, that, in abasing herself, she might all the better render homage to God. Later, she was the faithful, obedient wife of the Landgrave of Thuringia, always showing to her husband a smiling face, although she passed her nights in tears. When she became a widow she was driven from her estates, but was happy to lead the life of poverty. Her dress was so thin from use, that she wore a grey mantle, lengthened out by cloth of a different shade. The sleeves of her jacket had been torn, and were mended with a material of another colour. The king, her father, wishing her to come to him, sent for her by a Count. And when the Count saw her clothed in such a way and spinning, overcome with surprise and grief, he exclaimed: “Never before did one see the daughter of a Royal House in so miserable a garb, and never was one known to spin wool until now.” So Christian and sincere was her humility, that she ate black bread with the poorest peasants, nursed them when ill, dressed their sores without repugnance, put on coarse garments like theirs, and followed them in the church processions with bare feet. She was once washing the porringers and the utensils of the kitchen, when the maids, seeing her so out of place, urged her to desist, but she replied, “Could I find another task more menial even than this, I would do it.” Influenced by her example, Angelique, who was formerly angry when obliged to do any cleaning in the kitchen, now tried to invent some extremely disagreeable task when she felt nervous and in need of control.

But more than Catherine, more than Elizabeth, far nearer and dearer to her than all the other saints, was Agnes, the child-martyr; and her heart leaped with joy on refinding in the “Golden Legend” this virgin, clothed with her own hair, who had protected her under the Cathedral portal. What ardour of pure love, as she repelled the son of the Governor when he accosted her on her way from school! “Go — leave me, minister of death, commencement of sin, and child of treason!” How exquisitely she described her beloved! “I love the One whose Mother was a Virgin, and whose father was faithful to her, at whose beauty the sun and moon marvelled, and at whose touch the dead were made alive.” And when Aspasien commanded that “her throat should be cut by the sword,” she ascended into Paradise to be united to her “betrothed, whiter and purer than silver-gilt.”

Always, when weary or disturbed, Angelique called upon and implored her, and it seemed as if peace came to her at once. She saw her constantly near her, and often she regretted having done or thought of things which would have displeased her.

One evening as she was kissing her hands, a habit which she still at times indulged in, she suddenly blushed and turned away, although she was quite alone, for it seemed as if the little saint must have seen her. Agnes was her guardian angel.

Thus, at fifteen Angelique was an adorable child. Certainly, neither the quiet, laborious life, nor the soothing shadows of the Cathedral, nor the legends of the beautiful saints, had made her an angel, a creature of absolute perfection. She was often angry, and certain weaknesses of character showed themselves, which had never been sufficiently guarded against; but she was always ashamed and penitent if she had done wrong, for she wished so much to be perfect. And she was so human, so full of life, so ignorant, and withal so pure in reality.

One day, on returning from a long excursion which the Huberts allowed her to take twice a year, on Pentecost Monday and on Assumption Day, she took home with her a sweetbriar bush, and then amused herself by replanting it in the narrow garden. She trimmed it and watered it well: it grew and sent out long branches, filled with odour. With her usual intensity, she watched it daily, but was unwilling to have it grafted, as she wished to see if, by some miracle, it could not be made to bear roses. She danced around it, she repeated constantly: “This bush is like me; it is like me!” And if one joked her upon her great wild-rose bush, she joined them in their laughter, although a little pale, and with tears almost ready to fall. Her violet-coloured eyes were softer than ever, her half-opened lips revealed little white teeth, and her oval face had a golden aureole from her light wavy hair. She had grown tall without being too slight; her neck and shoulders were exquisitely graceful; her chest was full, her waist flexible; and gay, healthy, of a rare beauty, she had an infinite charm, arising from the innocence and purity of her soul.

Every day the affection of the Huberts for her increased. They often talked together of their mutual wish to adopt her. Yet they took no active measures in that way, lest they might have cause to regret it. One morning, when the husband announced his final decision, his wife suddenly began to weep bitterly. To adopt a child? Was not that the same as giving up all hope of having one of their own? Yet it was useless for them to expect one now, after so many years of waiting, and she gave her consent, in reality delighted that she could call her her daughter. When Angelique was spoken to on the subject, she threw her arms around their necks, kissed them both, and was almost choked with tears of joy.

So it was agreed upon that she was always to remain with them in this house, which now seemed to be filled with her presence, rejuvenated by her youth, and penetrated by her laughter. But an unexpected obstacle was met with at the first step. The Justice of the Peace, Monsieur Grandsire, on being consulted, explained to them the radical impossibility of adoption, since by law the adopted must be “of age.” Then, seeing their disappointment, he suggested the expedient of a legal guardianship: any individual over fifty years of age can attach himself to a minor of fifteen years or less by a legal claim, on becoming their official protector. The ages were all right, so they were delighted, and accepted. It was even arranged that they should afterwards confer the title of adoption upon their ward by way of their united last will and testament, as such a thing would be permitted by the Code. Monsieur Grandsire, furnished with the demand of the husband and the authorisation of the wife, then put himself in communication with the Director of Public Aid, the general guardian for all abandoned children, whose consent it was necessary to have. Great inquiries were made, and at last the necessary papers were placed in Paris, with a certain Justice of the Peace chosen for the purpose. And all was ready except the official report which constitutes the legality of guardianship, when the Huberts suddenly were taken with certain scruples.

Before receiving Angelique into their family, ought not they to ascertain if she had any relatives on her side? Was her mother still alive? Had they the right to dispose of the daughter without being absolutely sure that she had willingly been given up and deserted? Then, in reality, the unknown origin of the child, which had troubled them long ago, came back to them now and made them hesitate. They were so tormented by this anxiety that they could not sleep.

Without any more talk, Hubert unexpectedly announced that he was going to Paris. Such a journey seemed like a catastrophe in his calm existence. He explained the necessity of it to Angelique, by speaking of the guardianship. He hoped to arrange everything in twenty-four hours. But once in the city, days passed; obstacles arose on every side. He spent a week there, sent from one to another, really doing nothing, and quite discouraged. In the first place, he was received very coldly at the Office of Public Assistance. The rule of the Administration is that children shall not be told of their parents until they are of age. So for two mornings in succession he was sent away from the office. He persisted, however, explained the matter to three secretaries, made himself hoarse in talking to an under-officer, who wished to counsel him that he had not official papers. The Administration were quite ignorant. A nurse had left the child there, “Angelique Marie,” without naming the mother. In despair he was about to return to Beaumont, when a new idea impelled him to return for the fourth time to the office, to see the book in which the arrival of the infant had been noted down, and in that way to have the address of the nurse. That proved quite an undertaking. But at last he succeeded, and found it was a Madame Foucart, and that in 1850 she lived on the Rue des Deux-Ecus.

Then he recommenced his hunting up and down. The end of the Rue des Deux-Ecus had been demolished, and no shopkeeper in the neighbourhood recollected ever having heard of Madame Foucart. He consulted the directory, but there was no such name. Looking at every sign as he walked along, he called on one after another, and at last, in this way, he had the good fortune to find an old woman, who exclaimed, in answer to his questions, “What! Do I know Madame Foucart? A most honourable person, but one who has had many misfortunes. She lives on the Rue de Censier, quite at the other end of Paris.” He hastened there at once.

Warned by experience, he determined now to be diplomatic. But Madame Foucart, an enormous woman, would not allow him to ask questions in the good order he had arranged them before going there. As soon as he mentioned the two names of the child, she seemed to be eager to talk, and she related its whole history in a most spiteful way. “Ah! the child was alive! Very well; she might flatter herself that she had for a mother a most famous hussy. Yes, Madame Sidonie, as she was called since she became a widow, was a woman of a good family, having, it is said, a brother who was a minister, but that did not prevent her from being very bad.” And she explained that she had made her acquaintance when she kept, on the Rue Saint-Honore, a little shop where they dealt in fruit and oil from Provence, she and her husband, when they came from Plassans, hoping to make their fortune in the city. The husband died and was buried, and soon after Madame Sidonie had a little daughter, which she sent at once to the hospital, and never after even inquired for her, as she was “a heartless woman, cold as a protest and brutal as a sheriff’s aid.” A fault can be pardoned, but not ingratitude! Was not it true that, obliged to leave her shop as she was so heavily in debt, she had been received and cared for by Madame Foucart? And when in her turn she herself had fallen into difficulties, she had never been able to obtain from Madame Sidonie, even the month’s board she owed her, nor the fifteen francs she had once lent her. To-day the “hateful thing” lived on the Rue de Faubourg-Poissonniere, where she had a little apartment of three rooms. She pretended to be a cleaner and mender of lace, but she sold a good many other things. Ah! yes! such a mother as that it was best to know nothing about!

An hour later, Hubert was walking round the house where Madame Sidonie lived. He saw through the window a woman, thin, pale, coarse-looking, wearing an old black gown, stained and greased. Never could the heart of such a person be touched by the recollection of a daughter whom she had only seen on the day of its birth. He concluded it would be best not to repeat, even to his wife, many things that he had just learned. Still he hesitated. Once more he passed by the place, and looked again. Ought not he to go in, to introduce himself, and to ask the consent of the unnatural parent? As an honest man, it was for him to judge if he had the right of cutting the tie there and for ever. Brusquely he turned his back, hurried away, and returned that evening to Beaumont.

Hubertine had just learned that the proces-verbal at Monsieur Grandsire’s, for the guardianship of the child, had been signed. And when Angelique threw herself into Hubert’s arms, he saw clearly by the look of supplication in her eyes, that she had understood the true reason of his journey.

Then he said quietly: “My child, your mother is not living.” Angelique wept, as she kissed him most affectionately. After this the subject was not referred to. She was their daughter.

At Whitsuntide, this year, the Huberts had taken Angelique with them to lunch at the ruins of the Chateau d’Hautecoeur, which overlooks the Ligneul, two leagues below Beaumont; and, after the day spent in running and laughing in the open air, the young girl still slept when, the next morning, the old house-clock struck eight.

Hubertine was obliged to go up and rap at her door.

“Ah, well! Little lazy child! We have already had our breakfast, and it is late.”

Angelique dressed herself quickly and went down to the kitchen, where she took her rolls and coffee alone. Then, when she entered the workroom, where Hubert and his wife had just seated themselves, after having arranged their frames for embroidery, she said:

“Oh! how soundly I did sleep! I had quite forgotten that we had promised to finish this chasuble for next Sunday.”

This workroom, the windows of which opened upon the garden, was a large apartment, preserved almost entirely in its original state. The two principal beams of the ceiling, and the three visible cross-beams of support, had not even been whitewashed, and they were blackened by smoke and worm-eaten, while, through the openings of the broken plaster, here and there, the laths of the inner joists could be seen. On one of the stone corbels, which supported the beams, was the date 1463, without doubt the date of the construction of the building. The chimney-piece, also in stone, broken and disjointed, had traces of its original elegance, with its slender uprights, its brackets, its frieze with a cornice, and its basket-shaped funnel terminating in a crown. On the frieze could be seen even now, as if softened by age, an ingenious attempt at sculpture, in the way of a likeness of Saint Clair, the patron of embroiderers. But this chimney was no longer used, and the fireplace had been turned into an open closet by putting shelves therein, on which were piles of designs and patterns. The room was now heated by a great bell-shaped cast-iron stove, the pipe of which, after going the whole length of the ceiling, entered an opening made expressly for it in the wall. The doors, already shaky, were of the time of Louis XIV. The original tiles of the floor were nearly all gone, and had been replaced, one by one, by those of a later style. It was nearly a hundred years since the yellow walls had been coloured, and at the top of the room they were almost of a greyish white, and, lower down, were scratched and spotted with saltpetre. Each year there was talk of repainting them, but nothing had yet been done, from a dislike of making any change.

Hubertine, busy at her work, raised her head as Angelique spoke and said:

“You know that if our work is done on Sunday, I have promised to give you a basket of pansies for your garden.”

The young girl exclaimed gaily: “Oh, yes! that is true. Ah, well! I will do my best then! But where is my thimble? It seems as if all working implements take to themselves wings and fly away, if not in constant use.”

She flipped the old doigtier of ivory on the second joint of her little finger, and took her place on the other side of the frame, opposite to the window.

Since the middle of the last century there had not been the slightest modification in the fittings and arrangements of the workroom. Fashions changed, the art of the embroiderer was transformed, but there was still seen fastened to the wall the chantlate, the great piece of wood where was placed one end of the frame or work, while the other end was supported by a moving trestle. In the corners were many ancient tools — a little machine called a “diligent,” with its wheels and its long pins, to wind the gold thread on the reels without touching it; a hand spinning-wheel; a species of pulley to twist the threads which were attached to the wall; rollers of various sizes covered with silks and threads used in the crochet embroidery. Upon a shelf was spread out an old collection of punches for the spangles, and there was also to be seen a valuable relic, in the shape of the classic chandelier in hammered brass which belonged to some ancient master-workman. On the rings of a rack made of a nailed leather strap were hung awls, mallets, hammers, irons to cut the vellum, and roughing chisels of bogwood, which were used to smooth the threads as fast as they were employed. And yet again, at the foot of the heavy oaken table on which the cutting-out was done, was a great winder, whose two movable reels of wicker held the skeins. Long chains of spools of bright-coloured silks strung on cords were hung near that case of drawers. On the floor was a large basket filled with empty bobbins. A pair of great shears rested on the straw seat of one of the chairs, and a ball of cord had just fallen on the floor, half unwound.

“Oh! what lovely weather! What perfect weather!” continued Angelique. “It is a pleasure simply to live and to breathe.”

And before stooping to apply herself to her work, she delayed another moment before the open window, through which entered all the beauty of a radiant May morning.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06