A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 15.

The night was falling. From the grey heaven, where the first of the stars were gleaming, a fine ashy dust seemed to be raining down on the great city, raining down without cessation and slowly burying it. The hollows were already hidden deep in gloom, and a line of cloud, like a stream of ink, rose upon the horizon, engulfing the last streaks of daylight, the wavering gleams which were retreating towards the west. Below Passy but a few stretches of roofs remained visible; and as the wave rolled on, darkness soon covered all.

“What a warm evening!” ejaculated Helene, as she sat at the window, overcome by the heated breeze which was wafted upwards from Paris.

“A grateful night for the poor,” exclaimed the Abbe, who stood behind her. “The autumn will be mild.”

That Tuesday Jeanne had fallen into a doze at dessert, and her mother, perceiving that she was rather tired, had put her to bed. She was already fast asleep in her cot, while Monsieur Rambaud sat at the table gravely mending a toy — a mechanical doll, a present from himself, which both spoke and walked, and which Jeanne had broken. He excelled in such work as this. Helene on her side feeling the want of fresh air — for the lingering heats of September were oppressive — had thrown the window wide open, and gazed with relief on the vast gloomy ocean of darkness that rolled before her. She had pushed an easy-chair to the window in order to be alone, but was suddenly surprised to hear the Abbe speaking to her. “Is the little one warmly covered?” he gently asked. “On these heights the air is always keen.”

She made no reply, however; her heart was craving for silence. She was tasting the delights of the twilight hour, the vanishing of all surrounding objects, the hushing of every sound. Gleams, like those of night-lights, tipped the steeples and towers; that on Saint-Augustin died out first, the Pantheon for a moment retained a bluish light, and then the glittering dome of the Invalides faded away, similar to a moon setting in a rising sea of clouds. The night was like the ocean, its extent seemingly increased by the gloom, a dark abyss wherein you divined that a world lay hid. From the unseen city blew a mighty yet gentle wind. There was still a hum; sounds ascended faint yet clear to Helene’s ears — the sharp rattle of an omnibus rolling along the quay, the whistle of a train crossing the bridge of the Point-du-Jour; and the Seine, swollen by the recent storms, and pulsing with the life of a breathing soul, wound with increased breadth through the shadows far below. A warm odor steamed upwards from the scorched roofs, while the river, amidst this exhalation of the daytime heat, seemed to give forth a cooling breeze. Paris had vanished, sunk in the dreamy repose of a colossus whose limbs the night has enveloped, and who lies motionless for a time, but with eyes wide open.

Nothing affected Helene more than this momentary pause in the great city’s life. For the three months during which she had been a close prisoner, riveted to Jeanne’s bedside, she had had no other companion in her vigil than the huge mass of Paris spreading out towards the horizon. During the summer heats of July and August the windows had almost always been left open; she could not cross the room, could not stir or turn her head, without catching a glimpse of the ever-present panorama. It was there, whatever the weather, always sharing in her griefs and hopes, like some friend who would never leave her side. She was still quite ignorant respecting it; never had it seemed farther away, never had she given less thought to its streets and its citizens, and yet it peopled her solitude. The sick-room, whose door was kept shut to the outside world, looked out through its two windows upon this city. Often, with her eyes fixed on its expanse, Helene had wept, leaning on the window-rail in order to hide her tears from her ailing child. One day, too — the very day when she had imagined her daughter to be at the point of death — she had remained for a long time, overcome and choked with grief, watching the smoke which curled up from the Army Bakehouse. Frequently, moreover, in hours of hopefulness she had here confided the gladsome feelings of her heart to the dim and distant suburbs. There was not a single monument which did not recall to her some sensation of joy or sorrow. Paris shared in her own existence; and never did she love it better than when the twilight came, and its day’s work over, it surrendered itself to an hour’s quietude, forgetfulness, and reverie, whilst waiting for the lighting of its gas.

“What a multitude of stars!” murmured Abbe Jouve. “There are thousands of them gleaming.”

He had just taken a chair and sat down at her side. On hearing him, she gazed upwards into the summer night. The heaven was studded with golden lights. On the very verge of the horizon a constellation was sparkling like a carbuncle, while a dust of almost invisible stars sprinkled the vault above as though with glittering sand. Charles’s -Wain was slowly turning its shaft in the night.

“Look!” said Helene in her turn, “look at that tiny bluish star! See — far away up there. I recognize it night after night. But it dies and fades as the night rolls on.”

The Abbe’s presence no longer annoyed her. With him by her side, she imagined the quiet was deepening around. A few words passed between them after long intervals of silence. Twice she questioned him on the names of the stars — the sight of the heavens had always interested her — but he was doubtful and pleaded ignorance.

“Do you see,” she asked, “that lovely star yonder whose lustre is so exquisitely clear?”

“On the left, eh?” he replied, “near another smaller, greenish one? Ah! there are so many of them that my memory fails me.”

They again lapsed into silence, their eyes still turned upwards, dazzled, quivering slightly at the sight of that stupendous swarming of luminaries. In the vast depths of the heavens, behind thousands of stars, thousands of others twinkled in ever-increasing multitudes, with the clear brilliancy of gems. The Milky Way was already whitening, displaying its solar specks, so innumerable and so distant that in the vault of the firmament they form but a trailing scarf of light.

“It fills me with fear,” said Helene in a whisper; and that she might see it all no more she bent her head and glanced down on the gaping abyss in which Paris seemed to be engulfed. In its depths not a light could yet be seen; night had rolled over it and plunged it into impenetrable darkness. Its mighty, continuous rumble seemed to have sunk into a softer key.

“Are you weeping?” asked the Abbe, who had heard a sound of sobbing.

“Yes,” simply answered Helene.

They could not see each other. For a long time she continued weeping, her whole being exhaling a plaintive murmur. Behind them, meantime, Jeanne lay at rest in innocent sleep, and Monsieur Rambaud, his whole attention engrossed, bent his grizzled head over the doll which he had dismembered. At times he could not prevent the loosened springs from giving out a creaking noise, a childlike squeaking which his big fingers, though plied with the utmost gentleness, drew from the disordered mechanism. If the doll vented too loud a sound, however, he at once stopped working, distressed and vexed with himself, and turning towards Jeanne to see if he had roused her. Then once more he would resume his repairing, with great precautions, his only tools being a pair of scissors and a bodkin.

“Why do you weep, my daughter?” again asked the Abbe. “Can I not afford you some relief?”

“Ah! let me be,” said Helene; “these tears do me good. By-and-by, by-and-by —”

A stifling sensation checked any further words. Once before, in this very place, she had been convulsed by a storm of tears; but then she had been alone, free to sob in the darkness till the emotion that wrung her was dried up at its source. However, she knew of no cause of sorrow; her daughter was well once more, and she had resumed the old monotonous delightful life. But it was as though a keen sense of awful grief had abruptly come upon her; it seemed as if she were rolling into a bottomless abyss which she could not fathom, sinking with all who were dear to her in a limitless sea of despair. She knew not what misfortune hung over her head; but she was without hope, and could only weep.

Similar waves of feeling had swept over her during the month of the Virgin in the church laden with the perfume of flowers. And, as twilight fell, the vastness of Paris filled her with a deep religious impression. The stretch of plain seemed to expand, and a sadness rose up from the two millions of living beings who were being engulfed in darkness. And when it was night, and the city with its subdued rumbling had vanished from view, her oppressed heart poured forth its sorrow, and her tears overflowed, in presence of that sovereign peace. She could have clasped her hands and prayed. She was filled with an intense craving for faith, love, and a lapse into heavenly forgetfulness; and the first glinting of the stars overwhelmed her with sacred terror and enjoyment.

A lengthy interval of silence ensued, and then the Abbe spoke once more, this time more pressingly.

“My daughter, you must confide in me. Why do you hesitate?”

She was still weeping, but more gently, like a wearied and powerless child.

“The Church frightens you,” he continued. “For a time I thought you had yielded your heart to God. But it has been willed otherwise. Heaven has its own purposes. Well, since you mistrust the priest, why should you refuse to confide in the friend?”

“You are right,” she faltered. “Yes, I am sad at heart, and need your consolation. I must tell you of it all. When I was a child I seldom, if ever, entered a church; now I cannot be present at a service without feeling touched to the very depths of my being. Yes; and what drew tears from me just now was that voice of Paris, sounding like a mighty organ, that immeasurable night, and those beauteous heavens. Oh! I would fain believe. Help me; teach me.”

Abbe Jouve calmed her somewhat by lightly placing his hand on her own.

“Tell me everything,” he merely said.

She struggled for a time, her heart wrung with anguish.

“There’s nothing to tell, I assure you. I’m hiding nothing from you. I weep without cause, because I feel stifled, because my tears gush out of their own accord. You know what my life has been. No sorrow, no sin, no remorse could I find in it to this hour. I do not know — I do not know —”

Her voice died away, and from the priest’s lips slowly came the words, “You love, my daughter!”

She started; she dared not protest. Silence fell on them once more. In the sea of shadows that slumbered before them a light had glimmered forth. It seemed at their feet, somewhere in the abyss, but at what precise spot they would have been unable to specify. And then, one by one, other lights broke through the darkness, shooting into instant life, and remaining stationary, scintillating like stars. It seemed as though thousands of fresh planets were rising on the surface of a gloomy lake. Soon they stretched out in double file, starting from the Trocadero, and nimbly leaping towards Paris. Then these files were intersected by others, curves were described, and a huge, strange, magnificent constellation spread out. Helene never breathed a word, but gazed on these gleams of light, which made the heavens seemingly descend below the line of the horizon, as though indeed the earth had vanished and the vault of heaven were on every side. And Helene’s heart was again flooded with emotion, as a few minutes before when Charles’s-Wain had slowly begun to revolve round the Polar axis, its shaft in the air. Paris, studded with lights, stretched out, deep and sad, prompting fearful thoughts of a firmament swarming with unknown worlds.

Meanwhile the priest, in the monotonous, gentle voice which he had acquired by years of duty in the confessional, continued whispering in her ear. One evening in the past he had warned her; solitude, he had said, would be harmful to her welfare. No one could with impunity live outside the pale of life. She had imprisoned herself too closely, and the door had opened to perilous thoughts.

“I am very old now, my daughter,” he murmured, “and I have frequently seen women come to us weeping and praying, with a craving to find faith and religion. Thus it is that I cannot be deceiving myself to-day. These women, who seem to seek God in so zealous a manner, are but souls rendered miserable by passion. It is a man whom they worship in our churches.”

She was not listening; a strife was raging in her bosom, amidst her efforts to read her innermost thoughts aright. And at last confession came from her in a broken whisper:

“Oh! yes, I love, and that is all! Beyond that I know nothing — nothing!”

He now forbore to interrupt her; she spoke in short feverish sentences, taking a mournful pleasure in thus confessing her love, in sharing with that venerable priest the secret which had so long burdened her.

“I swear I cannot read my thoughts. This has come to me without my knowing its presence. Perhaps it came in a moment. Only in time did I realize its sweetness. Besides, why should I deem myself stronger than I am? I have made no effort to flee from it; I was only too happy, and to-day I have yet less power of resistance. My daughter was ill; I almost lost her. Well! my love has been as intense as my sorrow; it came back with sovereign power after those days of terror — and it possesses me, I feel transported —”

She shivered and drew a breath.

“In short, my strength fails me. You were right, my friend, in thinking it would be a relief to confide in you. But, I beseech you, tell me what is happening in the depths of my heart. My life was once so peaceful; I was so happy. A thunderbolt has fallen on me. Why on me? Why not on another? I had done nothing to bring it on; I imagined myself well protected. Ah, if you only knew — I know myself no longer! Help me, save me!”

Then as she became silent, the priest, with the wonted freedom of the confessor, mechanically asked the question:

“The name? tell me his name?”

She was hesitating, when a peculiar noise prompted her to turn her head. It came from the doll which, in Monsieur Rambaud’s hands, was by degrees renewing its mechanical life, and had just taken three steps on the table, with a creaking of wheels and springs which showed that there was still something faulty in its works. Then it had fallen on its back, and but for the worthy man would have rebounded onto the ground. He followed all its movements with outstretched hands, ready to support it, and full of paternal anxiety. The moment he perceived Helene turn, he smiled confidently towards her, as if to give her an assurance that the doll would recover its walking powers. And then he once more dived with scissors and bodkin into the toy. Jeanne still slept on.

Thereupon Helene, her nerves relaxing under the influence of the universal quiet, whispered a name in the priest’s ear. He never stirred; in the darkness his face could not be seen. A silence ensued, and he responded:

“I knew it, but I wanted to hear it from your own lips. My daughter, yours must be terrible suffering.”

He gave utterance to no truisms on the subject of duty. Helene, overcome, saddened to the heart by this unemotional pity, gazed once more on the lights which spangled the gloomy veil enshrouding Paris. They were flashing everywhere in myriads, like the sparks that dart over the blackened refuse of burnt paper. At first these twinkling dots had started from the Trocadero towards the heart of the city. Soon another coruscation had appeared on the left in the direction of Montmartre; then another had burst into view on the right behind the Invalides, and still another, more distant near the Pantheon. From all these centres flights of flames were simultaneously descending.

“You remember our conversation,” slowly resumed the Abbe. “My opinion has not changed. My daughter, you must marry.”

“I!” she exclaimed, overwhelmed with amazement. “But I have just confessed to you — Oh, you know well I cannot —”

“You must marry,” he repeated with greater decision. “You will wed an honest man.”

Within the folds of his old cassock he seemed to have grown more commanding. His large comical-looking head, which, with eyes half-closed, was usually inclined towards one shoulder, was now raised erect, and his eyes beamed with such intensity that she saw them sparkling in the darkness.

“You will marry an honest man, who will be a father to Jeanne, and will lead you back to the path of goodness.”

“But I do not love him. Gracious Heaven! I do not love him!”

“You will love him, my daughter. He loves you, and he is good in heart.”

Helene struggled, and her voice sank to a whisper as she heard the slight noise that Monsieur Rambaud made behind them. He was so patient and so strong in his hope, that for six months he had not once intruded his love on her. Disposed by nature to the most heroic self-sacrifice, he waited in serene confidence. The Abbe stirred, as though about to turn round.

“Would you like me to tell him everything? He would stretch out his hand and save you. And you would fill him with joy beyond compare.”

She checked him, utterly distracted. Her heart revolted. Both of these peaceful, affectionate men, whose judgment retained perfect equilibrium in presence of her feverish passion, were sources of terror to her. What world could they abide in to be able to set at naught that which caused her so much agony? The priest, however, waved his hand with an all-comprehensive gesture.

“My daughter,” said he, “look on this lovely night, so supremely still in presence of your troubled spirit. Why do you refuse happiness?”

All Paris was now illumined. The tiny dancing flames had speckled the sea of shadows from one end of the horizon to the other, and now, as in a summer night, millions of fixed stars seemed to be serenely gleaming there. Not a puff of air, not a quiver of the atmosphere stirred these lights, to all appearance suspended in space. Paris, now invisible, had fallen into the depths of an abyss as vast as a firmament. At times, at the base of the Trocadero, a light — the lamp of a passing cab or omnibus — would dart across the gloom, sparkling like a shooting star; and here amidst the radiance of the gas-jets, from which streamed a yellow haze, a confused jumble of house-fronts and clustering trees — green like the trees in stage scenery — could be vaguely discerned. To and fro, across the Pont des Invalides, gleaming lights flashed without ceasing; far below, across a band of denser gloom, appeared a marvellous train of comet-like coruscations, from whose lustrous tails fell a rain of gold. These were the reflections in the Seine’s black waters of the lamps on the bridge. From this point, however, the unknown began. The long curve of the river was merely described by a double line of lights, which ever and anon were coupled to other transverse lines, so that the whole looked like some glittering ladder, thrown across Paris, with its ends on the verge of the heavens among the stars.

To the left there was another trench excavated athwart the gloom; an unbroken chain of stars shone forth down the Champs-Elysees from the Arc-de-Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where a new cluster of Pleiades was flashing; next came the gloomy stretches of the Tuileries and the Louvre, the blocks of houses on the brink of the water, and the Hotel-de-Ville away at the extreme end — all these masses of darkness being parted here and there by bursts of light from some large square or other; and farther and farther away, amidst the endless confusion of roofs, appeared scattered gleams, affording faint glimpses of the hollow of a street below, the corner of some boulevard, or the brilliantly illuminated meeting-place of several thoroughfares. On the opposite bank, on the right, the Esplanade alone could be discerned with any distinctness, its rectangle marked out in flame, like an Orion of a winter’s night bereft of his baldrick. The long streets of the Saint-Germain district seemed gloomy with their fringe of infrequent lamps; but the thickly populated quarters beyond were speckled with a multitude of tiny flames, clustering like nebulae. Away towards the outskirts, girdling the whole of the horizon, swarmed street-lamps and lighted windows, filling these distant parts with a dust, as it were, of those myriads of suns, those planetary atoms which the naked eye cannot discover. The public edifices had vanished into the depths of the darkness; not a lamp marked out their spires and towers. At times you might have imagined you were gazing on some gigantic festival, some illuminated cyclopean monument, with staircases, balusters, windows, pediments, and terraces — a veritable cosmos of stone, whose wondrous architecture was outlined by the gleaming lights of a myriad lamps. But there was always a speedy return of the feeling that new constellations were springing into being, and that the heavens were spreading both above and below.

Helene, in compliance with the all-embracing sweep of the priest’s hand, cast a lingering look over illumined Paris. Here too she knew not the names of those seeming stars. She would have liked to ask what the blaze far below on the left betokened, for she saw it night after night. There were others also which roused her curiosity, and some of them she loved, whilst some inspired her with uneasiness or vexation.

“Father,” said she, for the first time employing that appellation of affection and respect, “let me live as I am. The loveliness of the night has agitated me. You are wrong; you would not know how to console me, for you cannot understand my feelings.”

The priest stretched out his arms, then slowly dropped them to his side resignedly. And after a pause he said in a whisper:

“Doubtless that was bound to be the case. You call for succor and reject salvation. How many despairing confessions I have received! What tears I have been unable to prevent! Listen, my daughter, promise me one thing only; if ever life should become too heavy a burden for you, think that one honest man loves you and is waiting for you. To regain content you will only have to place your hand in his.”

“I promise you,” answered Helene gravely.

As she made the avowal a ripple of laughter burst through the room. Jeanne had just awoke, and her eyes were riveted on her doll pacing up and down the table. Monsieur Rambaud, enthusiastic over the success of his tinkering, still kept his hands stretched out for fear lest any accident should happen. But the doll retained its stability, strutted about on its tiny feet, and turned its head, whilst at every step repeating the same words after the fashion of a parrot.

“Oh! it’s some trick or other!” murmured Jeanne, who was still half asleep. “What have you done to it — tell me? It was all smashed, and now it’s walking. Give it me a moment; let me see. Oh, you are a darling!”

Meanwhile over the gleaming expanse of Paris a rosy cloud was ascending higher and higher. It might have been thought the fiery breath of a furnace. At first it was shadowy-pale in the darkness — a reflected glow scarcely seen. Then slowly, as the evening progressed, it assumed a ruddier hue; and, hanging in the air, motionless above the city, deriving its being from all the lights and noisy life which breathed from below, it seemed like one of those clouds, charged with flame and lightning, which crown the craters of volcanoes.

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