A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 10.

Upstairs, in her own room, in the peaceful, convent-like atmosphere she found there, Helene experienced a feeling of suffocation. Her room astonished her, so calm, so secluded, so drowsy did it seem with its blue velvet hangings, while she came to it hotly panting with the emotion which thrilled her. Was this indeed her room, this dreary, lifeless nook, devoid of air? Hastily she threw open a window, and leaned out to gaze on Paris.

The rain had ceased, and the clouds were trooping off like some herd of monsters hurrying in disorderly array into the gloom of the horizon. A blue gap, that grew larger by degrees, had opened up above the city. But Helene, her elbows trembling on the window-rail, still breathless from her hasty ascent, saw nothing, and merely heard her heart beating against her swelling breast. She drew a long breath, but it seemed to her that the spreading valley with its river, its two millions of people, its immense city, its distant hills, could not hold air enough to enable her to breathe peacefully and regularly again.

For some minutes she remained there distracted by the fever of passion which possessed her. It seemed as though a torrent of sensations and confused ideas were pouring down on her, their roar preventing her from hearing her own voice or understanding aught. There was a buzzing in her ears, and large spots of light swam slowly before her eyes. Then she suddenly found herself examining her gloved hands, and remembering that she had omitted to sew on a button that had come off the left-hand glove. And afterwards she spoke aloud, repeating several times, in tones that grew fainter and fainter: “I love you! I love you! oh, how I love you!”

Instinctively she buried her face in her hands, and pressed her fingers to her eyelids as though to intensify the darkness in which she sought to plunge. It was a wish to annihilate herself, to see no more, to be utterly alone, girt in by the gloom of night. Her breathing grew calmer. Paris blew its mighty breath upon her face; she knew it lay before her, and though she had no wish to look on it, she felt full of terror at the thought of leaving the window, and of no longer having beneath her that city whose vastness lulled her to rest.

Ere long she grew unmindful of all around her. The love-scene and confession, despite her efforts, again woke to life in her mind. In the inky darkness Henri appeared to her, every feature so distinct and vivid that she could perceive the nervous twitching of his lips. He came nearer and hung over her. And then she wildly darted back. But, nevertheless, she felt a burning breath on her shoulders and a voice exclaimed: “I love you! I love you!” With a mighty effort she put the phantom to flight, but it again took shape in the distance, and slowly swelled to its whilom proportions; it was Henri once more following her into the dining-room, and still murmuring: “I love you! I love you!” These words rang within her breast with the sonorous clang of a bell; she no longer heard anything but them, pealing their loudest throughout her frame. Nevertheless, she desired to reflect, and again strove to escape from the apparition. He had spoken; never would she dare to look on his face again. The brutal passion of the man had tainted the tenderness of their love. She conjured up past hours, in which he had loved her without being so cruel as to say it; hours spent in the garden amidst the tranquillity of the budding springtime God! he had spoken — the thought clung to her so stubbornly, lowered on her in such immensity and with such weight, that the instant destruction of Paris by a thunderbolt before her eyes would have seemed a trivial matter. Her heart was rent by feelings of indignant protest and haughty anger, commingling with a secret and unconquerable pleasure, which ascended from her inner being and bereft her of her senses. He had spoken, and was speaking still, he sprang up unceasingly before her, uttering those passionate words: “I love you! I love you!"— words that swept into oblivion all her past life as wife and mother.

In spite of her brooding over this vision, she retained some consciousness of the vast expanse which stretched beneath her, beyond the darkness that curtained her sight. A loud rumbling arose, and waves of life seemed to surge up and circle around her. Echoes, odors, and even light streamed against her face, though her hands were still nervously pressed to it. At times sudden gleams appeared to pierce her closed eyelids, and amidst the radiance she imagined she saw monuments, steeples, and domes standing out in the diffuse light of dreamland. Then she lowered her hands and, opening her eyes, was dazzled. The vault of heaven expanded before her, and Henri had vanished.

A line of clouds, a seeming mass of crumbling chalk-hills, now barred the horizon far away. Across the pure, deep blue heavens overhead, merely a few light, fleecy cloudlets were slowly drifting, like a flotilla of vessels with full-blown sails. On the north, above Montmartre, hung a network of extreme delicacy, fashioned as it were of pale-hued silk, and spread over a patch of sky as though for fishing in those tranquil waters. Westward, however, in the direction of the slopes of Meudon, which Helene could not see, the last drops of the downpour must still have been obscuring the sun, for, though the sky above was clear, Paris remained gloomy, dismal beneath the vapor of the drying house-roofs. It was a city of uniform hue — the bluey-grey of slate, studded with black patches of trees — but withal very distinct, with the sharp outlines and innumberable windows of its houses. The Seine gleamed with the subdued brightness of old silver. The edifices on either bank looked as though they had been smeared with soot. The Tower of St. Jacques rose up like some rust-eaten museum curio, whilst the Pantheon assumed the aspect of a gigantic catafalque above the darkened district which it overlooked. Gleams of light peeped only from the gilding of the dome of the Invalides, like lamps burning in the daytime, sad and vague amidst the crepuscular veil of mourning in which the city was draped. All the usual effects of distance had vanished; Paris resembled a huge yet minutely executed charcoal drawing, showing very vigorously through its cloudy veil, under the limpid heavens.

Gazing upon this dismal city, Helene reflected that she really knew nothing of Henri. She felt strong and brave now that his image no longer pursued her. A rebellious impulse stirred her soul to reject the mastery which this man had gained over her within a few weeks. No, she did not know him. She knew nothing of him, of his actions or his thoughts; she could not even have determined whether he possessed talent. Perhaps he was even more lacking in qualities of the heart than of the mind. And thus she gave way to every imagining, her heart full of bitterness, ever finding herself confronted by her ignorance, that barrier which separated her from Henri, and checked her in her efforts to know him. She knew nothing, she would never know anything. She pictured him, hissing out those burning words, and creating within her the one trouble which had, till now, broken in on the quiet happiness of her life. Whence had he sprung to lay her life desolate in this fashion? She suddenly thought that but six weeks before she had had no existence for him, and this thought was insufferable. Angels in heaven! to live no more for one another, to pass each other without recognition, perhaps never to meet again! In her despair she clasped her hands, and her eyes filled with tears.

Then Helene gazed fixedly on the towers of Notre-Dame in the far distance. A ray of light from between two clouds tinged them with gold. Her brain was heavy, as though surcharged with all the tumultuous thoughts hurtling within it. It made her suffer; she would fain have concerned herself with the sight of Paris, and have sought to regain her life-peace by turning on that sea of roofs the tranquil glances of past days. To think that at other times, at the same hour, the infinitude of the city — in the stillness of a lovely twilight — had lulled her into tender musing!

At present Paris was brightening in the sunshine. After the first ray had fallen on Notre-Dame, others had followed, streaming across the city. The luminary, dipping in the west, rent the clouds asunder, and the various districts spread out, motly with ever-changing lights and shadows. For a time the whole of the left bank was of a leaden hue, while the right was speckled with spots of light which made the verge of the river resemble the skin of some huge beast of prey. Then these resemblances varied and vanished at the mercy of the wind, which drove the clouds before it. Above the burnished gold of the housetops dark patches floated, all in the same direction and with the same gentle and silent motion. Some of them were very large, sailing along with all the majestic grace of an admiral’s ship, and surrounded by smaller ones, preserving the regular order of a squadron in line of battle. Then one vast shadow, with a gap yawning like a serpent’s mouth, trailed along, and for a while hid Paris, which it seemed ready to devour. And when it had reached the far-off horizon, looking no larger than a worm, a gush of light streamed from a rift in a cloud, and fell into the void which it had left. The golden cascade could be seen descending first like a thread of fine sand, then swelling into a huge cone, and raining in a continuous shower on the Champs-Elysees district, which it inundated with a splashing, dancing radiance. For a long time did this shower of sparks descend, spraying continuously like a fusee.

Ah, well! this love was her fate, and Helene ceased to resist. She could battle no longer against her feelings. And in ceasing to struggle she tasted immeasurable delight. Why should she grudge herself happiness any longer? The memory of her past life inspired her with disgust and aversion. How had she been able to drag on that cold, dreary existence, of which she was formerly so proud? A vision rose before her of herself as a young girl living in the Rue des Petites-Maries, at Marseilles, where she had ever shivered; she saw herself a wife, her heart’s blood frozen in the companionship of a big child of a husband, with little to take any interest in, apart from the cares of her household; she saw herself through every hour of her life following the same path with the same even tread, without a trouble to mar her peace; and now this monotony in which she had lived, her heart fast asleep, enraged her beyond expression. To think that she had fancied herself happy in thus following her path for thirty years, her passions silent, with naught but the pride of virtue to fill the blank in her existence. How she had cheated herself with her integrity and nice honor, which had girt her round with the empty joys of piety! No, no; she had had enough of it; she wished to live! And an awful spirit of ridicule woke within her as she thought of the behests of reason. Her reason, forsooth! she felt a contemptuous pity for it; during all the years she had lived it had brought her no joy to be compared with that she had tasted during the past hour. She had denied the possibility of stumbling, she had been vain and idiotic enough to think that she would go on to the end without her foot once tripping against a stone. Ah, well! to-day she almost longed to fall. Oh that she might disappear, after tasting for one moment the happiness which she had never enjoyed!

Within her soul, however, a great sorrow lingered, a heart-burning and a consciousness of a gloomy blank. Then argument rose to her lips. Was she not free? In her love for Henri she deceived nobody; she could deal as she pleased with her love. Then, did not everything exculpate her? What had been her life for nearly two years? Her widowhood, her unrestricted liberty, her loneliness — everything, she realized, had softened and prepared her for love. Love must have been smouldering within her during the long evenings spent between her two old friends, the Abbe and his brother, those simple hearts whose serenity had lulled it to rest; it had been growing whilst she remained shut up within those narrow walls, far away from the world, and gazed on Paris rumbling noisily on the horizon; it had been growing even when she leaned from that window in the dreamy mood which she had scarce been conscious of, but which little by little had rendered her so weak. And a recollection came to her of that radiant spring morning when Paris had shone out fair and clear, as though in a glass mirror, when it had worn the pure, sunny hue of childhood, as she lazily surveyed it, stretched in her easy-chair with a book upon her knees. That morning love had first awoke — a scarcely perceptible feeling that she had been unable to define, and against which she had believed herself strongly armed. To-day she was in the same place, but devoured by overpowering passion, while before her eyes the dying sun illumined the city with flame. It seemed to her that one day had sufficed for all, that this was the ruddy evening following upon that limpid morning; and she imagined she could feel those fiery beams scorching her heart.

But a change had come over the sky. The sun, in its descent towards the slopes of Meudon, had just burst through the last clouds in all its splendor. The azure vault was illuminated with glory; deep on the horizon the crumbling ridge of chalk clouds, blotting out the distant suburbs of Charenton and Choisy-le-Roi, now reared rocks of a tender pink, outlined with brilliant crimson; the flotilla of cloudlets drifting slowly through the blue above Paris, was decked with purple sails; while the delicate network, seemingly fashioned of white silk thread, above Montmartre, was suddenly transformed into golden cord, whose meshes would snare the stars as soon as they should rise.

Beneath the flaming vault of heaven lay Paris, a mass of yellow, striped with huge shadows. On the vast square below Helene, in an orange-tinted haze, cabs and omnibuses crossed in all directions, amidst a crowd of pedestrians, whose swarming blackness was softened and irradiated by splashes of light. The students of a seminary were hurrying in serried ranks along the Quai de Billy, and the trail of cassocks acquired an ochraceous hue in the diffuse light. Farther away, vehicles and foot-passengers faded from view; it was only by their gleaming lamps that you were made aware of the vehicles which, one behind the other, were crossing some distant bridge. On the left the straight, lofty, pink chimneys of the Army Bakehouse were belching forth whirling clouds of flesh-tinted smoke; whilst, across the river, the beautiful elms of the Quai d’Orsay rose up in a dark mass transpierced by shafts of light.

The Seine, whose banks the oblique rays were enfilading, was rolling dancing wavelets, streaked with scattered splashes of blue, green, and yellow; but farther up the river, in lieu of this blotchy coloring, suggestive of an Eastern sea, the waters assumed a uniform golden hue, which became more and more dazzling. You might have thought that some ingot were pouring forth from an invisible crucible on the horizon, broadening out with a coruscation of bright colors as it gradually grew colder. And at intervals over this brilliant stream, the bridges, with curves growing ever more slender and delicate, threw, as it were, grey bars, till there came at last a fiery jumble of houses, above which rose the towers of Notre-Dame, flaring red like torches. Right and left alike the edifices were all aflame. The glass roof of the Palais de l’Industrie appeared like a bed of glowing embers amidst the Champs-Elysees groves. Farther on, behind the roof of the Madeline, the huge pile of the Opera House shone out like a mass of burnished copper; and the summits of other buildings, cupolas, and towers, the Vendome column, the church of Saint-Vincent de Paul, the tower of Saint-Jacques, and, nearer in, the pavilions of the new Louvre and the Tuileries, were crowned by a blaze, which lent them the aspect of sacrificial pyres. The dome of the Invalides was flaring with such brilliancy that you instinctively feared lest it should suddenly topple down and scatter burning flakes over the neighborhood. Beyond the irregular towers of Saint-Sulpice, the Pantheon stood out against the sky in dull splendor, like some royal palace of conflagration reduced to embers. Then, as the sun declined, the pyre-like edifices gradually set the whole of Paris on fire. Flashes sped over the housetops, while black smoke lingered in the valleys. Every frontage turned towards the Trocadero seemed to be red-hot, the glass of the windows glittering and emitting a shower of sparks, which darted upwards as though some invisible bellows were ever urging the huge conflagration into greater activity. Sheaves of flame were also ever rising afresh from the adjacent districts, where the streets opened, now dark and now all ablaze. Even far over the plain, from a ruddy ember-like glow suffusing the destroyed faubourgs, occasional flashes of flame shot up as from some fire struggling again into life. Ere long a furnace seemed raging, all Paris burned, the heavens became yet more empurpled, and the clouds hung like so much blood over the vast city, colored red and gold.

With the ruddy tints falling upon her, yielding to the passion which was devouring her, Helene was still gazing upon Paris all ablaze, when a little hand was placed on her shoulder, and she gave a start. It was Jeanne, calling her. “Mamma! mamma!”

She turned her head, and the child went on: “At last! Didn’t you hear me before? I have called you at least a dozen times.”

The little girl, still in her Japanese costume, had sparkling eyes, and cheeks flushed with pleasure. She gave her mother no time for answer.

“You ran away from me nicely! Do you know, they were hunting for you everywhere? Had it not been for Pauline, who came with me to the bottom of the staircase, I shouldn’t have dared to cross the road.”

With a pretty gesture, she brought her face close to her mother’s lips, and, without pausing, whispered the question: “Do you love me?”

Helene kissed her somewhat absently. She was amazed and impatient at her early return. Had an hour really gone by since she had fled from the ball-room? However, to satisfy the child, who seemed uneasy, she told her that she had felt rather unwell. The fresh air was doing her good; she only needed a little quietness.

“Oh! don’t fear; I’m too tired,” murmured Jeanne. “I am going to stop here, and be very, very good. But, mamma dear, I may talk, mayn’t I?”

She nestled close to Helene, full of joy at the prospect of not being undressed at once. She was in ecstasies over her embroidered purple gown and green silk petticoat; and she shook her head to rattle the pendants hanging from the long pins thrust through her hair. At last there burst from her lips a rush of hasty words. Despite her seeming demureness, she had seen everything, heard everything, and remembered everything; and she now made ample amends for her former assumed dignity, silence, and indifference.

“Do you know, mamma, it was an old fellow with a grey beard who made Punch move his arms and legs? I saw him well enough when the curtain was drawn aside. Yes, and the little boy Guiraud began to cry. How stupid of him, wasn’t it? They told him the policeman would come and put some water in his soup; and at last they had to carry him off, for he wouldn’t stop crying. And at lunch, too, Marguerite stained her milkmaid’s dress all over with jam. Her mamma wiped it off and said to her: ‘Oh, you dirty girl!’ She even had a lot of it in her hair. I never opened my mouth, but it did amuse me to see them all rush at the cakes! Were they not bad-mannered, mamma dear?”

She paused for a few seconds, absorbed in some reminiscence, and then asked, with a thoughtful air: “I say, mamma, did you eat any of those yellow cakes with white cream inside? Oh! they were nice! they were nice! I kept the dish beside me the whole time.”

Helene was not listening to this childish chatter. But Jeanne talked to relieve her excited brain. She launched out again, giving the minutest details about the ball, and investing each little incident with the greatest importance.

“You did not see that my waistband came undone just as we began dancing. A lady, whose name I don’t know, pinned it up for me. So I said to her: ‘Madame, I thank you very much.’ But while I was dancing with Lucien the pin ran into him, and he asked me: ‘What have you got in front of you that pricks me so?’ Of course I knew nothing about it, and told him I had nothing there to prick him. However, Pauline came and put the pin in its proper place. Ah! but you’ve no idea how they pushed each other about; and one great stupid of a boy gave Sophie a blow on the back which made her fall. The Levasseur girls jumped about with their feet close together. I am pretty certain that isn’t the way to dance. But the best of it all came at the end. You weren’t there; so you can’t know. We all took one another by the arms, and then whirled round; it was comical enough to make one die laughing. Besides, some of the big gentlemen were whirling around as well. It’s true; I am not telling fibs. Why, don’t you believe me, mamma dear?”

Helene’s continued silence was beginning to vex Jeanne. She nestled closer, and gave her mother’s hand a shake. But, perceiving that she drew only a few words from her, she herself, by degrees, lapsed into silence, into thought of the incidents of that ball of which her heart was full. Both mother and daughter now sat mutely gazing on Paris all aflame. It seemed to them yet more mysterious than ever, as it lay there illumined by blood-red clouds, like some city of an old-world tale expiating its lusts under a rain of fire.

“Did you have any round dances?” all at once asked Helene, as if wakening with a start.

“Yes, yes!” murmured Jeanne, engrossed in her turn.

“And the doctor — did he dance!”

“I should think so; he had a turn with me. He lift me up and asked me: ‘Where is your mamma? where is your mamma?’ and then he kissed me.”

Helene unconsciously smiled. What need had she of knowing Henri well? It appeared sweeter to her not to know him — ay, never to know him well — and to greet him simply as the one whose coming she had awaited so long. Why should she feel astonished or disquieted? At the fated hour he had met her on her life-journey. Her frank nature accepted whatever might be in store; and quietude, born of the knowledge that she loved and was beloved, fell on her mind. She told her heart that she would prove strong enough to prevent her happiness from being marred.

But night was coming on and a chilly breeze arose. Jeanne, still plunged in reverie, began to shiver. She reclined her head on her mother’s bosom, and, as though the question were inseparably connected with her deep meditation, she murmured a second time: “Do you love me?”

Then Helene, her face still glad with smiles, took her head within her hands and for a moment examined her face closely. Next she pressed a long kiss near her mouth, over a ruddy spot on her skin. It was there, she could divine it, that Henri had kissed the child!

The gloomy ridge of the Meudon hills was already partially concealing the disc of the sun. Over Paris the slanting beams of light had yet lengthened. The shadow cast by the dome of the Invalides — increased to stupendous proportions — covered the whole of the Saint-Germain district; while the Opera-House, the Saint-Jacques tower, the columns and the steeples, threw streaks of darkness over the right bank dwellings. The lines of house-fronts, the yawning streets, the islands of roofs, were burning with a more sullen glow. The flashes of fire died away in the darkening windows, as though the houses were reduced to embers. Distant bells rang out; a rumbling noise fell on the ears, and then subsided. With the approach of night the expanse of sky grew more vast, spreading a vault of violet, streaked with gold and purple, above the ruddy city. But all at once the conflagration flared afresh with formidable intensity, a last great flame shot up from Paris, illumining its entire expanse, and even its hitherto hidden suburbs. Then it seemed as if a grey, ashy dust were falling; and though the clustering districts remained erect, they wore the gloomy, unsubstantial aspect of coals which had ceased to burn.

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