A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 14.

During August Doctor Deberle’s garden was like a well of foliage. The railings were hidden both by the twining branches of the lilac and laburnum trees and by the climbing plants, ivy, honeysuckle, and clematis, which sprouted everywhere in luxuriance, and glided and intermingled in inextricable confusion, drooping down in leafy canopies, and running along the walls till they reached the elms at the far end, where the verdure was so profuse that you might have thought a tent were stretched between the trees, the elms serving as its giant props. The garden was so small that the least shadow seemed to cover it. At noon the sun threw a disc of yellow light on the centre, illumining the lawn and its two flower-beds. Against the garden steps was a huge rose-bush, laden with hundreds of large tea-roses. In the evening when the heat subsided their perfume became more penetrating, and the air under the elms grew heavy with their warm breath. Nothing could exceed the charm of this hidden, balmy nook, into which no neighborly inquisition could peep, and which brought one a dream of the forest primeval, albeit barrel-organs were playing polkas in the Rue Vineuse, near by.

“Why, madame, doesn’t mademoiselle go down to the garden?” Rosalie daily asked. “I’m sure it would do her good to romp about under the trees.”

One of the elms had invaded Rosalie’s kitchen with its branches. She would pull some of the leaves off as she gazed with delight on the clustering foliage, through which she could see nothing.

“She isn’t strong enough yet,” was Helene’s reply. “The cold, shady garden might be harmful to her.”

Rosalie was in no wise convinced. A happy thought with her was not easily abandoned. Madame must surely be mistaken in imagining that it would be cold or harmful. Perhaps madame’s objection sprang rather from the fear that she would be in somebody’s way; but that was nonsense. Mademoiselle would of a truth be in nobody’s way; not a living soul made any appearance there. The doctor shunned the spot, and as for madame, his wife, she would remain at the seaside till the middle of September. This was so certain that the doorkeeper had asked Zephyrin to give the garden a rake over, and Zephyrin and she herself had spent two Sunday afternoons there already. Oh! it was lovely, lovelier than one could imagine.

Helene, however, still declined to act on the suggestion. Jeanne seemed to have a great longing to enjoy a walk in the garden, which had been the ceaseless topic of her discourse during her illness; but a vague feeling of embarrassment made her eyes droop and closed her mouth on the subject in her mother’s presence. At last when Sunday came round again the maid hurried into the room exclaiming breathlessly:

“Oh! madame, there’s nobody there, I give you my word! Only myself and Zephyrin, who is raking! Do let her come. You can’t imagine how fine it is outside. Come for a little, only a little while, just to see!”

Her conviction was such that Helene gave way. She cloaked Jeanne in a shawl, and told Rosalie to take a heavy wrap with her. The child was in an ecstasy, which spoke silently from the depths of her large sparkling eyes; she even wished to descend the staircase without help in order that her strength might be made plain. However, her mother’s arms were stretched out behind her, ready to lend support. When they had reached the foot of the stairs and entered the garden, they both gave vent to an exclamation. So little did this umbrageous, thicket-girt spot resemble the trim nook they had seen in the springtime that they failed to recognize it.

“Ah! you wouldn’t believe me!” declared Rosalie, in triumphant tones.

The clumps of shrubbery had grown to great proportions, making the paths much narrower, and, in walking, their skirts caught in some of the interwoven branches. To the fancy it seemed some far-away recess in a wood, arched over with foliage, from which fell a greeny light of delightful charm and mystery. Helene directed her steps towards the elm beneath which she had sat in April.

“But I don’t wish her to stay here,” said she. “It is shady and coldish.”

“Well, well, you will see in a minute,” answered the maid.

Three steps farther on they emerged from the seeming forest, and, in the midst of the leafy profusion they found the sun’s golden rays streaming on the lawn, warm and still as in a woodland clearing. As they looked up they saw the branches standing out against the blue of the sky with the delicacy of guipure. The tea-roses on the huge bush, faint in the heat, dropped slumberously from their stems. The flower-beds were full of red and white asters, looking with their old-world air like blossoms woven in some ancient tapestry.

“Now you’ll see,” said Rosalie. “I’m going to put her all right myself.”

She had folded and placed the wrap on the edge of a walk, where the shadow came to an end. Here she made Jeanne sit down, covering her shoulders with a shawl, and bidding her stretch out her little legs. In this fashion the shade fell on the child’s head, while her feet lay in the sunshine.

“Are you all right, my darling?” Helene asked.

“Oh, yes,” was her answer. “I don’t feel cold a bit, you know. I almost think I am sweltering before a big fire. Ah! how well one can breathe! How pleasant it is!”

Thereupon Helene, whose eyes had turned uneasily towards the closed window-shutters of the house, expressed her intention of returning upstairs for a little while, and loaded Rosalie with a variety of injunctions. She would have to watch the sun; she was not to leave Jeanne there for more than half an hour; and she must not lose sight of her for a moment.

“Don’t be alarmed, mamma,” exclaimed the child, with a laugh. “There are no carriages to pass along here.”

Left to amuse herself, she gathered a handful of gravel from the path at her side, and took pleasure in letting it fall from her clasped hands like a shower of rain. Zephyrin meantime was raking. On catching sight of madame and her daughter he had slipped on his great-coat, which he had previously hung from the branch of a tree; and in token of respect had stood stock-still, with his rake idle in his hand. Throughout Jeanne’s illness he had come every Sunday as usual; but so great had been the caution with which he had slipped into the kitchen, that Helene would scarcely have dreamt of his presence had not Rosalie on each occasion been deputed as his messenger to inquire about the invalid’s progress, and convey his condolences. Yes, so ran her comments, he was now laying claim to good manners; Paris was giving him some polish! And at present here he was, leaning on his rake, and mutely addressing Jeanne with a sympathetic nod. As soon as she saw him, her face broke into smiles.

“I have been very ill,” she said.

“Yes, I know, mademoiselle,” he replied as he placed his hand on his heart. And inspired with the wish to say something pretty or comical, which might serve to enliven the meeting, he added: “You see, your health has been taking a rest. Now it will indulge in a snore.”

Jeanne had again gathered up a handful of gravel, while he, perfectly satisfied, and opening his mouth wide from ear to ear in a burst of silent laughter, renewed his raking with all the strength of his arms. As the rake travelled over the gravel a regular, strident sound arose. When a few minutes had elapsed Rosalie, seeing her little charge absorbed in her amusement, seemingly happy and at ease, drew gradually farther away from her, as though lured by the grating of this rake. Zephyrin was now working away in the full glare of the sun, on the other side of the lawn.

“You are sweating like an ox,” she whispered to him. “Take off your great-coat. Be quick; mademoiselle won’t be offended.”

He relieved himself of the garment, and once more suspended it from a branch. His red trousers, supported by a belt round the waist, reached almost to his chest, while his shirt of stout, unbleached linen, held at the neck by a narrow horsehair band, was so stiff that it stuck out and made him look even rounder than he was. He tucked up his sleeves with a certain amount of affectation, as though to show Rosalie a couple of flaming hearts, which, with the inscription “For Ever,” had been tattooed on them at the barracks.

“Did you go to mass this morning?” asked Rosalie, who usually tackled him with this question every Sunday.

“To mass! to mass!” he repeated, with a chuckle.

His red ears seemed to stand out from his head, shorn to the very skin, and the whole of his diminutive barrel-like body expressed a spirit of banter.

At last the confession came. “Of course I went to mass.”

“You are lying,” Rosalie burst out violently. “I know you are lying; your nose is twitching. Oh, Zephyrin, you are going to the dogs — you have left off going to church! Beware!”

His answer, lover-like, was an attempt to put his arm round her waist, but to all appearance she was shocked, for she exclaimed:

“I’ll make you put on your coat again if you don’t behave yourself. Aren’t you ashamed? Why, there’s mademoiselle looking at you!”

Thereupon Zephyrin turned to his raking once more. In truth, Jeanne had raised her eyes towards them. Her amusement was palling on her somewhat; the gravel thrown aside, she had been gathering leaves and plucking grass; but a feeling of indolence crept over her, and now she preferred to do nothing but gaze at the sunshine as it fell on her more and more. A few moments previously only her legs, as far as the knees, had been bathed in this warm cascade of sunshine, but now it reached her waist, the heat increasing like an entrancing caress. What particularly amused her were the round patches of light, of a beautiful golden yellow, which danced over her shawl, for all the world like living creatures. She tossed back her head to see if they were perchance creeping towards her face, and meanwhile clasped her little hands together in the glare of the sunshine. How thin and transparent her hands seemed! The sun’s rays passed through them, but all the same they appeared to her very pretty, pinky like shells, delicate and attenuated like the tiny hands of an infant Christ. Then too the fresh air, the gigantic trees around her, and the warmth, had lulled her somewhat into a trance. Sleep, she imagined, had come upon her, and yet she could still see and hear. It all seemed to her very nice and pleasant.

“Mademoiselle, please draw back a bit,” said Rosalie, who had approached her. “The sun’s heat is too warm for you.”

But with a wave of her hand Jeanne declined to stir. For the time her attention was riveted on the maid and the little soldier. She pretended to direct her glances towards the ground, with the intention of making them believe that she did not see them; but in reality, despite her apparent drowsiness, she kept watching them from beneath her long eyelashes.

Rosalie stood near her for a minute or two longer, but was powerless against the charms of the grating rake. Once more she slowly dragged herself towards Zephyrin, as if in spite of her will. She resented the change in manner which he was now displaying, and yet her heart was bursting with mute admiration. The little soldier had used to good purpose his long strolls with his comrades in the Jardin des Plantes and round the Place du Chateau-d’Eau, where his barracks stood, and the result was the acquisition of the swaying, expansive graces of the Parisian fire-eater. He had learnt the flowery talk, gallant readiness, and involved style of language so dear to the hearts of the ladies. At times she was thrilled with intense pleasure as she listened to the phrases which he repeated to her with a swagger of the shoulders, phrases full of incomprehensible words that inflamed her cheeks with a flush of pride. His uniform no longer sat awkwardly on him; he swung his arms to and fro with a knowing air, and had an especially noticeable style of wearing his shako on the back of his head, with the result that his round face with its tip of a nose became extremely prominent, while his headgear swayed gently with the rolling of his body. Besides, he was growing quite free and easy, quaffed his dram, and ogled the fair sex. With his sneering ways and affectation of reticence, he now doubtless knew a great deal more than she did. Paris was fast taking all the remaining rust off him; and Rosalie stood before him, delighted yet angry, undecided whether to scratch his face or let him give utterance to foolish prattle.

Zephyrin, meanwhile, raking away, had turned the corner of the path. He was now hidden by a big spindle-tree, and was darting side-glances at Rosalie, luring her on against her will with the strokes of his rake. When she had got near him, he pinched her roughly.

“Don’t cry out; that’s only to show you how I love you!” he said in a husky whisper. “And take that over and above.”

So saying he kissed her where he could, his lips lighting somewhere on her ear. Then, as Rosalie gave him a fierce nip in reply, he retaliated by another kiss, this time on her nose. Though she was well pleased, her face turned fiery-red; she was furious that Jeanne’s presence should prevent her from giving him a box on the ear.

“I have pricked my finger,” she declared to Jeanne as she returned to her, by way of explaining the exclamation that escaped her lips.

However, betwixt the spare branches of the spindle-tree the child had seen the incident. Amid the surrounding greenery the soldier’s red trousers and greyish shirt were clearly discernible. She slowly raised her eyes to Rosalie, and looked at her for a moment, while the maid blushed the more. Then Jeanne’s gaze fell to the ground again, and she gathered another handful of pebbles, but lacked the will or strength to play with them, and remained in a dreamy state, with her hands resting on the warm ground, amidst the vibrations of the sunrays. Within her a wave of health was swelling and stifling her. The trees seemed to take Titanic shape, and the air was redolent of the perfume of roses. In wonder and delight, she dreamt of all sorts of vague things.

“What are you thinking of, mademoiselle?” asked Rosalie uneasily.

“I don’t know — of nothing,” was Jeanne’s reply. “Yes, I do know. You see, I should like to live to be very old.”

However, she could not explain these words. It was an idea, she said, that had come into her head. But in the evening, after dinner, as her dreamy fit fell on her again, and her mother inquired the cause, she suddenly put the question:

“Mamma, do cousins ever marry?”

“Yes, of course,” said Helene. “Why do you ask me that?”

“Oh, nothing; only I wanted to know.”

Helene had become accustomed to these extraordinary questions. The hour spent in the garden had so beneficial an effect on the child that every sunny day found her there. Helene’s reluctance was gradually dispelled; the house was still shut up. Henri never ventured to show himself, and ere long she sat down on the edge of the rug beside Jeanne. However, on the following Sunday morning she found the windows thrown open, and felt troubled at heart.

“Oh! but of course the rooms must be aired,” exclaimed Rosalie, as an inducement for them to go down. “I declare to you nobody’s there!”

That day the weather was still warmer. Through the leafy screen the sun’s rays darted like golden arrows. Jeanne, who was growing strong, strolled about for ten minutes, leaning on her mother’s arm. Then, somewhat tired, she turned towards her rug, a corner of which she assigned to Helene. They smiled at one another, amused at thus finding themselves side by side on the ground. Zephyrin had given up his raking, and was helping Rosalie to gather some parsley, clumps of which were growing along the end wall.

All at once there was an uproar in the house, and Helene was thinking of flight, when Madame Deberle made her appearance on the garden-steps. She had just arrived, and was still in her travelling dress, speaking very loudly, and seemingly very busy. But immediately she caught sight of Madame Grandjean and her daughter, sitting on the ground in the front of the lawn, she ran down, overwhelmed them with embraces, and poured a deafening flood of words into their ears.

“What, is it you? How glad I am to see you! Kiss me, my little Jeanne! Poor puss, you’ve been very ill, have you not? But you’re getting better; the roses are coming back to your cheeks! And you, my dear, how often I’ve thought of you! I wrote to you: did my letters reach you? You must have spent a terrible time: but it’s all over now! Will you let me kiss you?”

Helene was now on her feet, and was forced to submit to a kiss on each cheek and return them. This display of affection, however, chilled her to the heart.

“You’ll excuse us for having invaded your garden,” she said.

“You’re joking,” retorted Juliette impetuously. “Are you not at home here?”

But she ran off for a moment, hastened up the stairs, and called across the open rooms: “Pierre, don’t forget anything; there are seventeen packages!”

Then, at once coming back, she commenced chattering about her holiday adventures. “Oh! such a splendid season! We went to Trouville, you know. The beach was always thronged with people. It was quite a crush. and people of the highest spheres, you know. I had visitors too. Papa came for a fortnight with Pauline. All the same, I’m glad to get home again. But I haven’t given you all my news. Oh! I’ll tell you later on!”

She stooped down and kissed Jeanne again; then suddenly becoming serious, she asked:

“Am I browned by the sun?”

“No; I don’t see any signs of it,” replied Helene as she gazed at her.

Juliette’s eyes were clear and expressionless, her hands were plump, her pretty face was full of amiability; age did not tell on her; the sea air itself was powerless to affect her expression of serene indifference. So far as appearances went, she might have just returned from a shopping expedition in Paris. However, she was bubbling over with affection, and the more loving her outbursts, the more weary, constrained, and ill became Helene. Jeanne meantime never stirred from the rug, but merely raised her delicate, sickly face, while clasping her hands with a chilly air in the sunshine.

“Wait, you haven’t seen Lucien yet,” exclaimed Juliette. “You must see him; he has got so fat.”

When the lad was brought on the scene, after the dust of the journey had been washed from his face by a servant girl, she pushed and turned him about to exhibit him. Fat and chubby-cheeked, his skin tanned by playing on the beach in the salt breeze, Lucien displayed exuberant health, but he had a somewhat sulky look because he had just been washed. He had not been properly dried, and one check was still wet and fiery-red with the rubbing of the towel. When he caught sight of Jeanne he stood stock-still with astonishment. She looked at him out of her poor, sickly face, as colorless as linen against the background of her streaming black hair, whose tresses fell in clusters to her shoulders. Her beautiful, sad, dilated eyes seemed to fill up her whole countenance; and, despite the excessive heat, she shivered somewhat, and stretched out her hands as though chilled and seeking warmth from a blazing fire.

“Well! aren’t you going to kiss her?” asked Juliette.

But Lucien looked rather afraid. At length he made up his mind, and very cautiously protruded his lips so that he might not come too near the invalid. This done, he started back expeditiously. Helene’s eyes were brimming over with tears. What health that child enjoyed! whereas her Jeanne was breathless after a walk round the lawn! Some mothers were very fortunate! Juliette all at once understood how cruel Lucien’s conduct was, and she rated him soundly.

“Good gracious! what a fool you are! Is that the way to kiss young ladies? You’ve no idea, my dear, what a nuisance he was at Trouville.”

She was getting somewhat mixed. But fortunately for her the doctor now made his appearance, and she extricated herself from her difficulty by exclaiming: “Oh, here’s Henri.”

He had not been expecting their return until the evening, but she had travelled by an earlier train. She plunged into a discursive explanation, without in the least making her reasons clear. The doctor listened with a smiling face. “At all events, here you are,” he said. “That’s all that’s necessary.”

A minute previously he had bowed to Helene without speaking. His glance for a moment fell on Jeanne, but feeling embarrassed he turned away his head. Jeanne bore his look with a serious face, and unclasping her hands instinctively grasped her mother’s gown and drew closer to her side.

“Ah! the rascal,” said the doctor, as he raised Lucien and kissed him on each cheek. “Why, he’s growing like magic.”

“Yes; and am I to be forgotten?” asked Juliette, as she held up her head. Then, without putting Lucien down, holding him, indeed, on one arm, the doctor leaned over to kiss his wife. Their three faces were lit up with smiles.

Helene grew pale, and declared she must now go up. Jeanne, however, was unwilling; she wished to see what might happen, and her glances lingered for a while on the Deberles and then travelled back to her mother. When Juliette had bent her face upwards to receive her husband’s kiss, a bright gleam had come into the child’s eyes.

“He’s too heavy,” resumed the doctor as he set Lucien down again. “Well, was the season a good one? I saw Malignon yesterday, and he was telling me about his stay there. So you let him leave before you, eh?”

“Oh! he’s quite a nuisance!” exclaimed Juliette, over whose face a serious, embarrassed expression had now crept. “He tormented us to death the whole time.”

“Your father was hoping for Pauline’s sake — He hasn’t declared his intentions then?”

“What! Malignon!” said she, as though astonished and offended. And then with a gesture of annoyance she added, “Oh! leave him alone; he’s cracked! How happy I am to be home again!”

Without any apparent transition, she thereupon broke into an amazing outburst of tenderness, characteristic of her bird-like nature. She threw herself on her husband’s breast and raised her face towards him. To all seeming they had forgotten that they were not alone.

Jeanne’s eyes, however, never quitted them. Her lips were livid and trembled with anger; her face was that of a jealous and revengeful woman. The pain she suffered was so great that she was forced to turn away her head, and in doing so she caught sight of Rosalie and Zephyrin at the bottom of the garden, still gathering parsley. Doubtless with the intent of being in no one’s way, they had crept in among the thickest of the bushes, where both were squatting on the ground. Zephyrin, with a sly movement, had caught hold of one of Rosalie’s feet, while she, without uttering a syllable, was heartily slapping him. Between two branches Jeanne could see the little soldier’s face, chubby and round as a moon and deeply flushed, while his mouth gaped with an amorous grin. Meantime the sun’s rays were beating down vertically, and the trees were peacefully sleeping, not a leaf stirring among them all. From beneath the elms came the heavy odor of soil untouched by the spade. And elsewhere floated the perfume of the last tea-roses, which were casting their petals one by one on the garden steps. Then Jeanne, with swelling heart, turned her gaze on her mother, and seeing her motionless and dumb in presence of the Deberles, gave her a look of intense anguish — a child’s look of infinite meaning, such as you dare not question.

But Madame Deberle stepped closer to them, and said: “I hope we shall see each other frequently now. As Jeanne is feeling better, she must come down every afternoon.”

Helene was already casting about for an excuse, pleading that she did not wish to weary her too much. But Jeanne abruptly broke in: “No, no; the sun does me a great deal of good. We will come down, madame. You will keep my place for me, won’t you?”

And as the doctor still remained in the background, she smiled towards him.

“Doctor, please tell mamma that the fresh air won’t do me any harm.”

He came forward, and this man, inured to human suffering, felt on his cheeks a slight flush at being thus gently addressed by the child.

“Certainly not,” he exclaimed; “the fresh air will only bring you nearer to good health.”

“So you see, mother darling, we must come down,” said Jeanne, with a look of ineffable tenderness, whilst a sob died away in her throat.

But Pierre had reappeared on the steps and announced the safe arrival of madame’s seventeen packages. Then, followed by her husband and Lucien, Juliette retired, declaring that she was frightfully dirty, and intended to take a bath. When they were alone, Helene knelt down on the rug, as though about to tie the shawl round Jeanne’s neck, and whispered in the child’s ear:

“You’re not angry any longer with the doctor, then?”

With a prolonged shake of the head the child replied “No, mamma.”

There was a silence. Helene’s hands were seized with an awkward trembling, and she was seemingly unable to tie the shawl. Then Jeanne murmured: “But why does he love other people so? I won’t have him love them like that.”

And as she spoke, her black eyes became harsh and gloomy, while her little hands fondled her mother’s shoulders. Helene would have replied, but the words springing to her lips frightened her. The sun was now low, and mother and daughter took their departure. Zephyrin meanwhile had reappeared to view, with a bunch of parsley in his hand, the stalks of which he continued pulling off while darting murderous glances at Rosalie. The maid followed at some distance, inspired with distrust now that there was no one present. Just as she stooped to roll up the rug he tried to pinch her, but she retaliated with a blow from her fist which made his back re-echo like an empty cask. Still it seemed to delight him, and he was yet laughing silently when he re-entered the kitchen busily arranging his parsley.

Thenceforth Jeanne was stubbornly bent on going down to the garden as soon as ever she heard Madame Deberle’s voice there. All Rosalie’s tittle-tattle regarding the next-door house she drank in greedily, ever restless and inquisitive concerning its inmates and their doings; and she would even slip out of the bedroom to keep watch from the kitchen window. In the garden, ensconced in a small arm-chair which was brought for her use from the drawing-room by Juliette’s direction, her eyes never quitted the family. Lucien she now treated with great reserve, annoyed it seemed by his questions and antics, especially when the doctor was present. On those occasions she would stretch herself out as if wearied, gazing before her with her eyes wide open. For Helene the afternoons were pregnant with anguish. She always returned, however, returned in spite of the feeling of revolt which wrung her whole being. Every day when, on his arrival home, Henri printed a kiss on Juliette’s hair, her heart leaped in its agony. And at those moments, if to hide the agitation of her face she pretended to busy herself with Jeanne, she would notice that the child was even paler than herself, with her black eyes glaring and her chin twitching with repressed fury. Jeanne shared in her suffering. When the mother turned away her head, heartbroken, the child became so sad and so exhausted that she had to be carried upstairs and put to bed. She could no longer see the doctor approach his wife without changing countenance; she would tremble, and turn on him a glance full of all the jealous fire of a deserted mistress.

“I cough in the morning,” she said to him one day. “You must come and see for yourself.”

Rainy weather ensued, and Jeanne became quite anxious that the doctor should commence his visits once more. Yet her health had much improved. To humor her, Helene had been constrained to accept two or three invitations to dine with the Deberles.

At last the child’s heart, so long torn by hidden sorrow, seemingly regained quietude with the complete re-establishment of her health. She would again ask Helene the old question —“Are you happy, mother darling?”

“Yes, very happy, my pet,” was the reply.

And this made her radiant. She must be pardoned her bad temper in the past, she said. She referred to it as a fit which no effort of her own will could prevent, the result of a headache that came on her suddenly. Something would spring up within her — she wholly failed to understand what it was. She was tempest-tossed by a multitude of vague imaginings — nightmares that she could not even have recalled to memory. However, it was past now; she was well again, and those worries would nevermore return.

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