A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 12.

When evening came Jeanne was somewhat better. She was able to get up, and, in order to remove her mother’s fears, persisted in dragging herself into the dining-room, where she took her seat before her empty plate.

“I shall be all right,” she said, trying to smile. “You know very well that the least thing upsets me. Get on with your dinner, mamma; I want you to eat.”

And in the end she pretended an appetite she did not feel, for she observed that her mother sat watching her paling and trembling, without being able to swallow a morsel. She promised to take some jam, and Helene then hurried through her dinner, while the child, with a never-fading smile and her head nodding tremblingly, watched her with worshipping looks. On the appearance of the dessert she made an effort to carry out her promise, but tears welled into her eyes.

“You see I can’t get it down my throat,” she murmured. “You mustn’t be angry with me.”

The weariness that overwhelmed her was terrible. Her legs seemed lifeless, her shoulders pained her as though gripped by a hand of iron. But she was very brave through it all, and choked at their source the moans which the shooting pains in her neck awakened. At one moment, however, she forgot herself, her head felt too heavy, and she was bent double by pain. Her mother, as she gazed on her, so faint and feeble, was wholly unable to finish the pear which she was trying to force down her throat. Her sobs choked her, and throwing down her napkin, she clasped Jeanne in her arms.

“My child! my child!” she wailed, her heart bursting with sorrow, as her eyes ranged round the dining-room where her darling, when in good health, had so often enlivened her by her fondness for tid-bits.

At last Jeanne woke to life again, and strove to smile as of old.

“Don’t worry, mamma,” said she; “I shall be all right soon. Now that you have done you must put me to bed. I only wanted to see you have your dinner. Oh! I know you; you wouldn’t have eaten as much as a morsel of bread.”

Helene bore her away in her arms. She had brought the little crib close to her own bed in the blue room. When Jeanne had stretched out her limbs, and the bedclothes were tucked up under her chin, she declared she felt much better. There were no more complaints about dull pains at the back of her head; but she melted into tenderness, and her passionate love seemed to grow more pronounced. Helene was forced to caress her, to avow intense affection for her, and to promise that she would again kiss her when she came to bed.

“Never mind if I’m sleeping,” said Jeanne. “I shall know you’re there all the same.”

She closed her eyes and fell into a doze. Helene remained near her, watching over her slumber. When Rosalie entered on tip-toe to ask permission to go to bed, she answered “Yes” with a nod. At last eleven o’clock struck, and Helene was still watching there, when she imagined she heard a gentle tapping at the outer door. Bewildered with astonishment, she took up the lamp and left the room to make sure.

“Who is there?”

“’Tis I; open the door,” replied a voice in stifled tones.

It was Henri’s voice. She quickly opened the door, thinking his coming only natural. No doubt he had but now been informed of Jeanne’s illness, and had hastened to her, although she had not summoned him to her assistance, feeling a certain shame at the thought of allowing him to share in attending on her daughter.

However, he gave her no opportunity to speak. He followed her into the dining-room, trembling, with inflamed visage.

“I beseech you, pardon me,” he faltered, as he caught hold of her hand. “I haven’t seen you for three days past, and I cannot resist the craving to see you.”

Helene withdrew her hand. He stepped back, but, with his gaze still fixed on her, continued: “Don’t be afraid; I love you. I would have waited at the door had you not opened it. Oh! I know very well it is simple madness, but I love you, I love you all the same!”

Her face was grave as she listened, eloquent with a dumb reproach which tortured him, and impelled him to pour forth his passionate love.

But Helene still remained standing, wholly unmoved. At last she spoke. “You know nothing, then?” asked she.

He had taken her hand, and was raising it to his lips, when she started back with a gesture of impatience.

“Oh! leave me!” she exclaimed. “You see that I am not even listening to you. I have something far different to think about!”

Then becoming more composed, she put her question to him a second time. “You know nothing? Well, my daughter is ill. I am pleased to see you; you will dispel my fears.”

She took up the lamp and walked on before him, but as they were passing through the doorway, she turned, and looking at him, said firmly:

“I forbid you beginning again here. Oh! you must not!”

He entered behind her, scarcely understanding what had been enjoined on him. His temples throbbed convulsively, as he leaned over the child’s little crib.

“She is asleep; look at her,” said Helene in a whisper.

He did not hear her; his passion would not be silenced. She was hanging over the bed in front of him, and he could see her rosy neck, with its wavy hair. He shut his eyes that he might escape the temptation of kissing her, as she said to him:

“Doctor, look at her, she is so feverish. Oh, tell me whether it is serious!”

Then, yielding to professional habit, despite the tempest raging in his brain, he mechanically felt Jeanne’s pulse. Nevertheless, so fierce was the struggle that he remained for a time motionless, seemingly unaware that he held this wasted little hand in his own.

“Is it a violent fever?” asked Helene.

“A violent fever! Do you think so?” he repeated.

The little hand was scorching his own. There came another silence; the physician was awakening within him, and passion was dying from his eyes. His face slowly grew paler; he bent down uneasily, and examined Jeanne.

“You are right; this is a very severe attack,” he exclaimed. “My God! the poor child!”

His passion was now dead; he was solely consumed by a desire to be of service to her. His coolness at once returned; he sat down, and was questioning the mother respecting the child’s condition previous to this attack of illness, when Jeanne awoke, moaning loudly. She again complained of a terrible pain in the head. The pangs which were darting through her neck and shoulders had attained such intensity that her every movement wrung a sob from her. Helene knelt on the other side of the bed, encouraging her, and smiling on her, though her heart almost broke at the sight of such agony.

“There’s some one there, isn’t there, mamma?” Jeanne asked, as she turned round and caught sight of the doctor.

“It is a friend, whom you know.”

The child looked at him for a time with thoughtful eyes, as if in doubt; but soon a wave of affection passed over her face. “Yes, yes, I know him; I love him very much.” And with her coaxing air she added: “You will have to cure me, won’t you, sir, to make mamma happy? Oh, I’ll be good; I’ll drink everything you give me.”

The doctor again felt her pulse, while Helene grasped her other hand; and, as she lay there between them, her eyes travelled attentively from one to the other, as though no such advantageous opportunity of seeing and comparing them had ever occurred before. Then her head shook with a nervous trembling; she grew agitated; and her tiny hands caught hold of her mother and the doctor with a convulsive grip.

“Do not go away; I’m so afraid. Take care of me; don’t let all the others come near me. I only want you, only you two, near me. Come closer up to me, together!” she stammered.

Drawing them nearer, with a violent effort she brought them close to her, still uttering the same entreaty: “Come close, together, together!”

Several times did she behave in the same delirious fashion. Then came intervals of quiet, when a heavy sleep fell on her, but it left her breathless and almost dead. When she started out of these short dozes she heard nothing, saw nothing — a white vapor shrouded her eyes. The doctor remained watching over her for a part of the night, which proved a very bad one. He only absented himself for a moment to procure some medicine. Towards morning, when he was about to leave, Helene, with terrible anxiety in her face accompanied him into the ante-room.

“Well?” asked she.

“Her condition is very serious,” he answered; “but you must not fear; rely on me; I will give you every assistance. I shall come back at ten o’clock.”

When Helene returned to the bedroom she found Jeanne sitting up in bed, gazing round her with bewildered looks.

“You left me! you left me!” she wailed. “Oh! I’m afraid; I don’t want to be left all alone.”

To console her, her mother kissed her, but she still gazed round the room:

“Where is he?” she faltered. “Oh! tell him not to go away; I want him to be here, I want him —”

“He will come back, my darling!” interrupted Helene, whose tears were mingling with Jeanne’s own. “He will not leave us, I promise you. He loves us too well. Now, be good and lie down. I’ll stay here till he comes back.”

“Really? really?” murmured the child, as she slowly fell back into deep slumber.

Terrible days now began, three weeks full of awful agony. The fever did not quit its victim for an hour. Jeanne only seemed tranquil when the doctor was present; she put one of her little hands in his, while her mother held the other. She seemed to find safety in their presence; she gave each of them an equal share of her tyrannical worship, as though she well knew beneath what passionate kindness she was sheltering herself. Her nervous temperament, so exquisite in its sensibility, the keener since her illness, inspired her, no doubt, with the thought that only a miraculous effort of their love could save her. As the hours slipped away she would gaze on them with grave and searching looks as they sat on each side of her crib. Her glances remained instinct with human passion, and though she spoke not she told them all she desired by the warm pressure of her hands, with which she besought them not to leave her, giving them to understand what peace was hers when they were present. Whenever the doctor entered after having been away her joy became supreme, and her eyes, which never quitted the door, flashed with light; and then she would fall quietly asleep, all her fears fleeing as she heard her mother and him moving around her and speaking in whispers.

On the day after the attack Doctor Bodin called. But Jeanne suddenly turned away her head and refused to allow him to examine her.

“I don’t want him, mamma,” she murmured, “I don’t want him! I beg of you.”

As he made his appearance on the following day, Helene was forced to inform him of the child’s dislike, and thus it came about that the venerable doctor made no further effort to enter the sick-room. Still, he climbed the stairs every other day to inquire how Jeanne was getting on, and sometimes chatted with his brother professional, Doctor Deberle, who paid him all the deference due to an elder.

Moreover, it was useless to try to deceive Jeanne. Her senses had become wondrously acute. The Abbe and Monsieur Rambaud paid a visit every night; they sat down and spent an hour in sad silence. One evening, as the doctor was going away, Helene signed to Monsieur Rambaud to take his place and clasp the little one’s hand, so that she might not notice the departure of her beloved friend. But two or three minutes had scarcely passed ere Jeanne opened her eyes and quickly drew her hand away. With tears flowing she declared that they were behaving ill to her.

“Don’t you love me any longer? won’t you have me beside you?” asked poor Monsieur Rambaud, with tears in his eyes.

She looked at him, deigning no reply; it seemed as if her heart was set on knowing him no more. The worthy man, grievously pained, returned to his corner. He always ended by thus gliding into a window-recess, where, half hidden behind a curtain, he would remain during the evening, in a stupor of grief, his eyes the while never quitting the sufferer. The Abbe was there as well, with his large head and pallid face showing above his scraggy shoulders. He concealed his tears by blowing his nose loudly from time to time. The danger in which he saw his little friend lying wrought such havoc within him that his poor were for the time wholly forgotten.

But it was useless for the two brothers to retire to the other end of the room; Jeanne was still conscious of their presence. They were a source of vexation to her, and she would turn round with a harassed look, even though drowsy with fever. Her mother bent over her to catch the words trembling on her lips.

“Oh! mamma, I feel so ill. All this is choking me; send everybody away — quick, quick!”

Helene with the utmost gentleness then explained to the two brothers the child’s wish to fall asleep; they understood her meaning, and quitted the room with drooping heads. And no sooner had they gone than Jeanne breathed with greater freedom, cast a glance round the chamber, and once more fixed a look of infinite tenderness on her mother and the doctor.

“Good-night,” she whispered; “I feel well again; stay beside me.”

For three weeks she thus kept them by her side. Henri had at first paid two visits each day, but soon he spent the whole night with them, giving every hour he could spare to the child. At the outset he had feared it was a case of typhoid fever; but so contradictory were the symptoms that he soon felt himself involved in perplexity. There was no doubt he was confronted by a disease of the chlorosis type, presenting the greatest difficulty in treatment, with the possibility of very dangerous complications, as the child was almost on the threshold of womanhood. He dreaded first a lesion of the heart and then the setting in of consumption. Jeanne’s nervous excitement, wholly beyond his control, was a special source of uneasiness; to such heights of delirium did the fever rise, that the strongest medicines were of no avail. He brought all his fortitude and knowledge to bear on the case, inspired with the one thought that his own happiness and life were at stake. On his mind there had now fallen a great stillness; not once during those three anxious weeks did his passion break its bonds. Helene’s breath no longer woke tremors within him, and when their eyes met they were only eloquent of the sympathetic sadness of two souls threatened by a common misfortune.

Nevertheless every moment brought their hearts nearer. They now lived only with the one idea. No sooner had he entered the bed-chamber than by a glance he gathered how Jeanne had spent the night; and there was no need for him to speak for Helene to learn what he thought of the child’s condition. Besides, with all the innate bravery of a mother, she had forced from him a declaration that he would not deceive her, but allow her to know his fears. Always on her feet, not having had three hours’ uninterrupted sleep for three weeks past, she displayed superhuman endurance and composure, and quelled her despair without a tear in order that she might concentrate her whole soul upon the struggle with the dread enemy. Within and without her heart there was nothing but emptiness; the world around her, the usual thoughts of each hour, the consciousness of life itself, had all faded into darkness. Existence held nothing for her. Nothing now bound her to life but her suffering darling and this man who promised her a miracle. It was he, and he only, to whom she looked, to whom she listened, whose most trivial words were to her of the first importance, and into whose breast she would fain have transfused her own soul in order to increase his energy. Insensibly, and without break, this idea wrought out its own accomplishment. Almost every evening, when the fever was raging at its worst and Jeanne lay in imminent peril, they were there beside her in silence; and as though eager to remind themselves that they stood shoulder to shoulder struggling against death, their hands met on the edge of the bed in a caressing clasp, while they trembled with solicitude and pity till a faint smile breaking over the child’s face, and the sound of quiet and regular breathing, told them that the danger was past. Then each encouraged the other by an inclination of the head. Once again had their love triumphed; and every time the mute caress grew more demonstrative their hearts drew closer together.

One night Helene divined that Henri was concealing something from her. For ten minutes, without a word crossing his lips, he had been examining Jeanne. The little one complained of intolerable thirst; she seemed choking, and there was an incessant wheezing in her parched throat. Then a purple flush came over her face, and she lapsed into a stupor which prevented her even from raising her eyelids. She lay motionless; it might have been imagined she was dead but for the sound coming from her throat.

“You consider her very ill, do you not?” gasped Helene.

He answered in the negative; there was no change. But his face was ashy-white, and he remained seated, overwhelmed by his powerlessness. Thereupon she also, despite the tension of her whole being, sank upon a chair on the other side of the bed.

“Tell me everything. You promised to tell me all. Is she beyond hope?”

He still sat silent, and she spoke again more vehemently:

“You know how brave I am. Have I wept? have I despaired? Speak: I want to know the truth.”

Henri fixed his eyes on her. The words came slowly from his lips. “Well,” said he, “if in an hour hence she hasn’t awakened from this stupor, it will be all over.”

Not a sob broke from Helene; but icy horror possessed her and raised her hair on end. Her eyes turned on Jeanne; she fell on her knees and clasped her in her arms with a superb gesture eloquent of ownership, as though she could preserve her from ill, nestling thus against her shoulder. For more than a minute she kept her face close to the child’s, gazing at her intently, eager to give her breath from her own nostrils, ay, and her very life too. The labored breathing of the little sufferer grew shorter and shorter.

“Can nothing be done?” she exclaimed, as she lifted her head. “Why do you remain there? Do something!” But he made a disheartened gesture. “Do something!” she repeated. “There must be something to be done. You are not going to let her die oh, surely not!”

“I will do everything possible,” the doctor simply said.

He rose up, and then a supreme struggle began. All the coolness and nerve of the practitioner had returned to him. Till now he had not ventured to try any violent remedies, for he dreaded to enfeeble the little frame already almost destitute of life. But he no longer remained undecided, and straightway dispatched Rosalie for a dozen leeches. And he did not attempt to conceal from the mother that this was a desperate remedy which might save or kill her child. When the leeches were brought in, her heart failed her for a moment.

“Gracious God! gracious God!” she murmured. “Oh, if you should kill her!”

He was forced to wring consent from her.

“Well, put them on,” said she; “but may Heaven guide your hand!”

She had not ceased holding Jeanne, and refused to alter her position, as she still desired to keep the child’s little head nestling against her shoulder. With calm features he meantime busied himself with the last resource, not allowing a word to fall from his lips. The first application of the leeches proved unsuccessful. The minutes slipped away. The only sound breaking the stillness of the shadowy chamber was the merciless, incessant tick-tack of the timepiece. Hope departed with every second. In the bright disc of light cast by the lamp, Jeanne lay stretched among the disordered bedclothes, with limbs of waxen pallor. Helene, with tearless eyes, but choking with emotion, gazed on the little body already in the clutches of death, and to see a drop of her daughter’s blood appear, would willingly have yielded up all her own. And at last a ruddy drop trickled down — the leeches had made fast their hold; one by one they commenced sucking. The child’s life was in the balance. These were terrible moments, pregnant with anguish. Was that sigh the exhalation of Jeanne’s last breath, or did it mark her return to life? For a time Helene’s heart was frozen within her; she believed that the little one was dead; and there came to her a violent impulse to pluck away the creatures which were sucking so greedily; but some supernatural power restrained her, and she remained there with open mouth and her blood chilled within her. The pendulum still swung to and fro; the room itself seemed to wait the issue in anxious expectation.

At last the child stirred. Her heavy eyelids rose, but dropped again, as though wonder and weariness had overcome her. A slight quiver passed over her face; it seemed as if she were breathing. Finally there was a trembling of the lips; and Helene, in an agony of suspense, bent over her, fiercely awaiting the result.

“Mamma! mamma!” murmured Jeanne.

Henri heard, and walking to the head of the bed, whispered in the mother’s ear: “She is saved.”

“She is saved! she is saved!” echoed Helene in stammering tones, her bosom filled with such joy that she fell on the floor close to the bed, gazing now at her daughter and now at the doctor with distracted looks. But she rose and giving way to a mighty impulse, threw herself on Henri’s neck.

“I love you!” she exclaimed.

This was her avowal — the avowal imprisoned so long, but at last poured forth in the crisis of emotion which had come upon her. Mother and lover were merged in one; she proffered him her love in a fiery rush of gratitude.

Through her sobs she spoke to him in endearing words. Her tears, dried at their source for three weeks, were now rolling down her cheeks. But at last she fell upon her knees, and took Jeanne in her arms to lull her to deeper slumber against her shoulder; and at intervals whilst her child thus rested she raised to Henri’s eyes glistening with passionate tears.

Stretched in her cot, the bedclothes tucked under her chin, and her head, with its dark brown tresses, resting in the centre of the pillow, Jeanne lay, relieved, but prostrate. Her eyelids were closed, but she did not sleep. The lamp, placed on the table, which had been rolled close to the fireplace, lit but one end of the room, and the shade encompassed Helene and Henri, seated in their customary places on each side of the bed. But the child did not part them; on the contrary, she served as a closer bond between them, and her innocence was intermingled with their love on this first night of its avowal. At times Helene rose on tiptoe to fetch the medicine, to turn up the lamp, or give some order to Rosalie; while the doctor, whose eyes never quitted her, would sign to her to walk gently. And when she had sat down again they smiled at one another. Not a word was spoken; all their interest was concentrated on Jeanne, who was to them as their love itself. Sometimes when the coverlet was being pulled up, or the child’s head was being raised, their hands met and rested together in sweet forgetfulness. This undesigned, stealthy caress was the only one in which they indulged.

“I am not sleeping,” murmured Jeanne. “I know very well you are there.”

On hearing her speak they were overjoyed. Their hands parted; beyond this they had no desires. The improvement in the child’s condition was to them satisfaction and peace.

“Are you feeling better, my darling?” asked Helene, when she saw her stirring.

Jeanne made no immediate reply, and when she spoke it was dreamingly.

“Oh, yes! I don’t feel anything now. But I can hear you, and that pleases me.”

After the lapse of a moment, she opened her eyes with an effort and looked at them. Then an angelic smile crossed her face, and her eyelids dropped once more.

On the morrow, when the Abbe and Monsieur Rambaud made their appearance, Helene gave way to a shrug of impatience. They were now a disturbing element in her happy nest. As they went on questioning her, shaking with fear lest they might receive bad tidings, she had the cruelty to reply that Jeanne was no better. She spoke without consideration, driven to this strait by the selfish desire of treasuring for herself and Henri the bliss of having rescued Jeanne from death, and of alone knowing this to be so. What was their reason for seeking a share in her happiness? It belonged to Henri and herself, and had it been known to another would have seemed to her impaired in value. To her imagination it would have been as though a stranger were participating in her love.

The priest, however, approached the bed.

“Jeanne, ’tis we, your old friends. Don’t you know us?”

She nodded gravely to them in recognition, but she was unwilling to speak to them; she was in a thoughtful mood, and she cast a look full of meaning on her mother. The two poor men went away more heartbroken than on any previous evening.

Three days later Henri allowed his patient her first boiled egg. It was a matter of the highest importance. Jeanne’s mind was made up to eat it with none present but her mother and the doctor, and the door must be closed. As it happened, Monsieur Rambaud was present at the moment; and when Helene began to spread a napkin, by way of tablecloth, on the bed, the child whispered in her ear: “Wait a moment — when he has gone.”

And as soon as he had left them she burst out: “Now, quick! quick! It’s far nicer when there’s nobody but ourselves.”

Helene lifted her to a sitting posture, while Henri placed two pillows behind her to prop her up; and then, with the napkin spread before her and a plate on her knees, Jeanne waited, smiling.

“Shall I break the shell for you?” asked her mother.

“Yes, do, mamma.”

“And I will cut you three little bits of bread,” added the doctor.

“Oh! four; you’ll see if I don’t eat four.”

It was now the doctor’s turn to be addressed endearingly. When he gave her the first slice, she gripped his hand, and as she still clasped her mother’s, she rained kisses on both with the same passionate tenderness.

“Come, come; you will have to be good,” entreated Helene, who observed that she was ready to burst into tears; “you must please us by eating your egg.”

At this Jeanne ventured to begin; but her frame was so enfeebled that with the second sippet of bread she declared herself wearied. As she swallowed each mouthful, she would say, with a smile, that her teeth were tender. Henri encouraged her, while Helene’s eyes were brimful of tears. Heaven! she saw her child eating! She watched the bread disappear, and the gradual consumption of this first egg thrilled her to the heart. To picture Jeanne stretched dead beneath the sheets was a vision of mortal terror; but now she was eating, and eating so prettily, with all an invalid’s characteristic dawdling and hesitancy!

“You won’t be angry, mamma? I’m doing my best. Why, I’m at my third bit of bread! Are you pleased?”

“Yes, my darling, quite pleased. Oh! you don’t know all the joy the sight gives me!”

And then, in the happiness with which she overflowed, Helene forgetfully leaned against Henri’s shoulder. Both laughed gleefully at the child, but over her face there suddenly crept a sullen flush; she gazed at them stealthily, and drooped her head, and refused to eat any more, her features glooming the while with distrust and anger. At last they had to lay her back in bed again.

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