A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 17.

That night Helene was unable to sleep. She turned from side to side in feverish unrest, and whenever a drowsy stupor fell on her senses, the old sorrows would start into new life within her breast. As she dozed and the nightmare increased, one fixed thought tortured her — she was eager to know where Juliette and Malignon would meet. This knowledge, she imagined, would be a source of relief to her. Where, where could it be? Despite herself, her brain throbbed with the thought, and she forgot everything save her craving to unravel this mystery, which thrilled her with secret longings.

When day dawned and she began to dress, she caught herself saying loudly: “It will be to-morrow!”

With one stocking on, and hands falling helpless to her side, she lapsed for a while into a fresh dreamy fit. “Where, where was it that they had agreed to meet?”

“Good-day, mother, darling!” just then exclaimed Jeanne who had awakened in her turn.

As her strength was now returning to her, she had gone back to sleep in her cot in the closet. With bare feet and in her nightdress she came to throw herself on Helene’s neck, as was her every-day custom; then back again she rushed, to curl herself up in her warm bed for a little while longer. This jumping in and out amused her, and a ripple of laughter stole from under the clothes. Once more she bounded into the bedroom, saying: “Good-morning, mammy dear!”

And again she ran off, screaming with laughter. Then she threw the sheet over her head, and her cry came, hoarse and muffled, from beneath it: “I’m not there! I’m not there!”

But Helene was in no mood for play, as on other mornings; and Jeanne, dispirited, fell asleep again. The day was still young. About eight o’clock Rosalie made her appearance to recount the morning’s chapter of accidents. Oh! the streets were awful outside; in going for the milk her shoes had almost come off in the muddy slush. All the ice was thawing; and it was quite mild too, almost oppressive. Oh! by the way, she had almost forgotten! an old woman had come to see madame the night before.

“Why!” she said, as there came a pull at the bell, “I expect that’s she!”

It was Mother Fetu, but Mother Fetu transformed, magnificent in a clean white cap, a new gown, and tartan shawl wrapped round her shoulders. Her voice, however, still retained its plaintive tone of entreaty.

“Dear lady, it’s only I, who have taken the liberty of calling to ask you about something!”

Helene gazed at her, somewhat surprised by her display of finery.

“Are you better, Mother Fetu?”

“Oh yes, yes; I feel better, if I may venture to say so. You see I always have something queer in my inside; it knocks me about dreadfully, but still I’m better. Another thing, too; I’ve had a stroke of luck; it was a surprise, you see, because luck hasn’t often come in my way. But a gentleman has made me his housekeeper — and oh! it’s such a story!”

Her words came slowly, and her small keen eyes glittered in her face, furrowed by a thousand wrinkles. She seemed to be waiting for Helene to question her; but the young woman sat close to the fire which Rosalie had just lit, and paid scant attention to her, engrossed as she was in her own thoughts, with a look of pain on her features.

“What do you want to ask me?” she at last said to Mother Fetu.

The old lady made no immediate reply. She was scrutinizing the room, with its rosewood furniture and blue velvet hangings. Then, with the humble and fawning air of a pauper, she muttered: “Pardon me, madame, but everything is so beautiful here. My gentleman has a room like this, but it’s all in pink. Oh! it’s such a story! Just picture to yourself a young man of good position who has taken rooms in our house. Of course, it isn’t much of a place, but still our first and second floors are very nice. Then, it’s so quiet, too! There’s no traffic; you could imagine yourself in the country. The workmen have been in the house for a whole fortnight; they have made such a jewel of his room!”

She here paused, observing that Helene’s attention was being aroused.

“It’s for his work,” she continued in a drawling voice; “he says it’s for his work. We have no doorkeeper, you know, and that pleases him. Oh! my gentleman doesn’t like doorkeepers, and he is quite right, too!”

Once more she came to a halt, as though an idea had suddenly occurred to her.

“Why, wait a minute; you must know him — of course you must. He visits one of your lady friends!”

“Ah!” exclaimed Helene, with colorless face.

“Yes, to be sure; the lady who lives close by — the one who used to go with you to church. She came the other day.”

Mother Fetu’s eyes contracted, and from under the lids she took note of her benefactress’s emotion. But Helene strove to question her in a tone that would not betray her agitation.

“Did she go up?”

“No, she altered her mind; perhaps she had forgotten something. But I was at the door. She asked for Monsieur Vincent, and then got back into her cab again, calling to the driver to return home, as it was too late. Oh! she’s such a nice, lively, and respectable lady. The gracious God doesn’t send many such into the world. Why, with the exception of yourself, she’s the best — well, well, may Heaven bless you all!”

In this way Mother Fetu rambled on with the pious glibness of a devotee who is perpetually telling her beads. But the twitching of the myriad wrinkles of her face showed that her mind was still working, and soon she beamed with intense satisfaction.

“Ah!” she all at once resumed in inconsequent fashion, “how I should like to have a pair of good shoes! My gentleman has been so very kind, I can’t ask him for anything more. You see I’m dressed; still I must get a pair of good shoes. Look at those I have; they are all holes; and when the weather’s muddy, as it is to-day, one’s apt to get very ill. Yes, I was down with colic yesterday; I was writhing all the afternoon, but if I had a pair of good shoes —”

“I’ll bring you a pair, Mother Fetu,” said Helene, waving her towards the door.

Then, as the old woman retired backwards, with profuse curtseying and thanks, she asked her: “At what hour are you alone?”

“My gentleman is never there after six o’clock,” she answered. “But don’t give yourself the trouble; I’ll come myself, and get them from your doorkeeper. But you can do as you please. You are an angel from heaven. God on high will requite you for all your kindness!”

When she had reached the landing she could still be heard giving vent to her feelings. Helene sat a long time plunged in the stupor which the information, supplied by this woman with such fortuitous seasonableness, had brought upon her. She now knew the place of assignation. It was a room, with pink decorations, in that old tumbledown house! She once more pictured to herself the staircase oozing with damp, the yellow doors on each landing, grimy with the touch of greasy hands, and all the wretchedness which had stirred her heart to pity when she had gone during the previous winter to visit Mother Fetu; and she also strove to conjure up a vision of that pink chamber in the midst of such repulsive, poverty-stricken surroundings. However, whilst she was still absorbed in her reverie, two tiny warm hands were placed over her eyes, which lack of sleep had reddened, and a laughing voice inquired: “Who is it? who is it?”

It was Jeanne, who had slipped into her clothes without assistance. Mother Fetu’s voice had awakened her; and perceiving that the closet door had been shut, she had made her toilet with the utmost speed in order to give her mother a surprise.

“Who is it? who is it?” she again inquired, convulsed more and more with laughter.

She turned to Rosalie, who entered at the moment with the breakfast.

“You know; don’t you speak. Nobody is asking you any question.”

“Be quiet, you little madcap!” exclaimed Helene. “I suppose it’s you!”

The child slipped on to her mother’s lap, and there, leaning back and swinging to and fro, delighted with the amusement she had devised, she resumed:

“Well, it might have been another little girl! Eh? Perhaps some little girl who had brought you a letter of invitation to dine with her mamma. And she might have covered your eyes, too!”

“Don’t be silly,” exclaimed Helene, as she set her on the floor. “What are you talking about? Rosalie, let us have breakfast.”

The maid’s eyes, however, were riveted on the child, and she commented upon her little mistress being so oddly dressed. To tell the truth, so great had been Jeanne’s haste that she had not put on her shoes. She had drawn on a short flannel petticoat which allowed a glimpse of her chemise, and had left her morning jacket open, so that you could see her delicate, undeveloped bosom. With her hair streaming behind her, stamping about in her stockings, which were all awry, she looked charming, all in white like some child of fairyland.

She cast down her eyes to see herself, and immediately burst into laughter.

“Look, mamma, I look nice, don’t I? Won’t you let me be as I am? It is nice!”

Repressing a gesture of impatience, Helene, as was her wont every morning, inquired: “Are you washed?”

“Oh, mamma!” pleaded the child, her joy suddenly dashed. “Oh, mamma! it’s raining; it’s too nasty!”

“Then, you’ll have no breakfast. Wash her, Rosalie.”

She usually took this office upon herself, but that morning she felt altogether out of sorts, and drew nearer to the fire, shivering, although the weather was so balmy. Having spread a napkin and placed two white china bowls on a small round table, Rosalie had brought the latter close to the fireplace. The coffee and milk steamed before the fire in a silver pot, which had been a present from Monsieur Rambaud. At this early hour the disorderly, drowsy room seemed delightfully homelike.

“Mamma, mamma!” screamed Jeanne from the depths of the closet, “she’s rubbing me too hard. It’s taking my skin off. Oh dear! how awfully cold!”

Helene, with eyes fixed on the coffee-pot, remained engrossed in thought. She desired to know everything, so she would go. The thought of that mysterious place of assignation in so squalid a nook of Paris was an ever-present pain and vexation. She judged such taste hateful, but in it she identified Malignon’s leaning towards romance.

“Mademoiselle,” declared Rosalie, “if you don’t let me finish with you, I shall call madame.”

“Stop, stop: you are poking the soap into my eyes,” answered Jeanne, whose voice was hoarse with sobs. “Leave me alone; I’ve had enough of it. The ears can wait till to-morrow.”

But the splashing of water went on, and the squeezing of the sponge into the basin could be heard. There was a clamor and a struggle, the child was sobbing; but almost immediately afterward she made her appearance, shouting gaily: “It’s over now; it’s over now!”

Her hair was still glistening with wet, and she shook herself, her face glowing with the rubbing it had received and exhaling a fresh and pleasant odor. In her struggle to get free her jacket had slipped from her shoulders, her petticoat had become loosened, and her stockings had tumbled down, displaying her bare legs. According to Rosalie, she looked like an infant Jesus. Jeanne, however, felt very proud that she was clean; she had no wish to be dressed again.

“Look at me, mamma; look at my hands, and my neck, and my ears. Oh! you must let me warm myself; I am so comfortable. You don’t say anything; surely I’ve deserved my breakfast to-day.”

She had curled herself up before the fire in her own little easy-chair. Then Rosalie poured out the coffee and milk. Jeanne took her bowl on her lap, and gravely soaked her toast in its contents with all the airs of a grown-up person. Helene had always forbidden her to eat in this way, but that morning she remained plunged in thought. She did not touch her own bread, and was satisfied with drinking her coffee. Then Jeanne, after swallowing her last morsel, was stung with remorse. Her heart filled, she put aside her bowl, and gazing on her mother’s pale face, threw herself on her neck: “Mamma, are you ill now? I haven’t vexed you, have I? — say.”

“No, no, my darling, quite the contrary; you’re very good,” murmured Helene as she embraced her. “I’m only a little wearied; I haven’t slept well. Go on playing: don’t be uneasy.”

The thought occurred to her that the day would prove a terribly long one. What could she do whilst waiting for the night? For some time past she had abandoned her needlework; sewing had become a terrible weariness. For hours she lingered in her seat with idle hands, almost suffocating in her room, and craving to go out into the open air for breath, yet never stirring. It was this room which made her ill; she hated it, in angry exasperation over the two years which she had spent within its walls; its blue velvet and the vast panorama of the mighty city disgusted her, and her thoughts dwelt on a lodging in some busy street, the uproar of which would have deafened her. Good heavens! how long were the hours! She took up a book, but the fixed idea that engrossed her mind continually conjured up the same visions between her eyes and the page of print.

In the meantime Rosalie had been busy setting the room in order; Jeanne’s hair also had been brushed, and she was dressed. While her mother sat at the window, striving to read, the child, who was in one of her moods of obstreperous gaiety, began playing a grand game. She was all alone; but this gave her no discomfort; she herself represented three or four persons in turn with comical earnestness and gravity. At first she played the lady going on a visit. She vanished into the dining-room, and returned bowing and smiling, her head nodding this way and that in the most coquettish style.

“Good-day, madame! How are you, madame? How long it is since I’ve seen you! A marvellously long time, to be sure! Dear me, I’ve been so ill, madame! Yes; I’ve had the cholera; it’s very disagreeable. Oh! it doesn’t show; no, no, it makes you look younger, on my word of honor. And your children, madame? Oh! I’ve had three since last summer!”

So she rattled on, never ceasing her curtseying to the round table, which doubtless represented the lady she was visiting. Next she ventured to bring the chairs closer together, and for an hour carried on a general conversation, her talk abounding in extraordinary phrases.

“Don’t be silly,” said her mother at intervals, when the chatter put her out of patience.

“But, mamma, I’m paying my friend a visit. She’s speaking to me, and I must answer her. At tea nobody ought to put the cakes in their pockets, ought they?”

Then she turned and began again:

“Good-bye, madame; your tea was delicious. Remember me most kindly to your husband.”

The next moment came something else. She was going out shopping in her carriage, and got astride of a chair like a boy.

“Jean, not so quick; I’m afraid. Stop! stop! here is the milliner’s! Mademoiselle, how much is this bonnet? Three hundred francs; that isn’t dear. But it isn’t pretty. I should like it with a bird on it — a bird big like that! Come, Jean, drive me to the grocer’s . Have you some honey? Yes, madame, here is some. Oh, how nice it is! But I don’t want any of it; give me two sous’ worth of sugar. Oh! Jean, look, take care! There! we have had a spill! Mr. Policeman, it was the cart which drove against us. You’re not hurt, madame, are you? No, sir, not in the least. Jean, Jean! home now. Gee-up! gee-up. Wait a minute; I must order some chemises. Three dozen chemises for madame. I want some boots too and some stays. Gee-up! gee-up! Good gracious, we shall never get back again.”

Then she fanned herself, enacting the part of the lady who has returned home and is finding fault with her servants. She never remained quiet for a moment; she was in a feverish ecstasy, full of all sorts of whimsical ideas; all the life she knew surged up in her little brain and escaped from it in fragments. Morning and afternoon she thus moved about, dancing and chattering; and when she grew tired, a footstool or parasol discovered in a corner, or some shred of stuff lying on the floor, would suffice to launch her into a new game in which her effervescing imagination found fresh outlet. Persons, places, and incidents were all of her own creation, and she amused herself as much as though twelve children of her own age had been beside her.

But evening came at last. Six o’clock was about to strike. And Helene, rousing herself from the troubled stupor in which she had spent the afternoon, hurriedly threw a shawl over her shoulders.

“Are you going out, mamma?” asked Jeanne in her surprise.

“Yes, my darling, just for a walk close by. I won’t be long; be good.”

Outside it was still thawing. The footways were covered with mud. In the Rue de Passy, Helene entered a boot shop, to which she had taken Mother Fetu on a previous occasion. Then she returned along the Rue Raynouard. The sky was grey, and from the pavement a mist was rising. The street stretched dimly before her, deserted and fear-inspiring, though the hour was yet early. In the damp haze the infrequent gas-lamps glimmered like yellow spots. She quickened her steps, keeping close to the houses, and shrinking from sight as though she were on the way to some assignation. However, as she hastily turned into the Passage des Eaux, she halted beneath the archway, her heart giving way to genuine terror. The passage opened beneath her like some black gulf. The bottom of it was invisible; the only thing she could see in this black tunnel was the quivering gleam of the one lamp which lighted it. Eventually she made up her mind, and grasped the iron railing to prevent herself from slipping. Feeling her way with the tip of her boots she landed successively on the broad steps. The walls, right and left, grew closer, seemingly prolonged by the darkness, while the bare branches of the trees above cast vague shadows, like those of gigantic arms with closed or outstretched hands. She trembled as she thought that one of the garden doors might open and a man spring out upon her. There were no passers-by, however, and she stepped down as quickly as possible. Suddenly from out of the darkness loomed a shadow which coughed, and she was frozen with fear; but it was only an old woman creeping with difficulty up the path. Then she felt less uneasy, and carefully raised her dress, which had been trailing in the mud. So thick was the latter that her boots were constantly sticking to the steps. At the bottom she turned aside instinctively. From the branches the raindrops dripped fast into the passage, and the lamp glimmered like that of some miner, hanging to the side of a pit which infiltrations have rendered dangerous.

Helene climbed straight to the attic she had so often visited at the top of the large house abutting on the Passage. But nothing stirred, although she rapped loudly. In considerable perplexity she descended the stairs again. Mother Fetu was doubtless in the rooms on the first floor, where, however, Helene dared not show herself. She remained five minutes in the entry, which was lighted by a petroleum lamp. Then again she ascended the stairs hesitatingly, gazing at each door, and was on the point of going away, when the old woman leaned over the balusters.

“What! it’s you on the stairs, my good lady!” she exclaimed. “Come in, and don’t catch cold out there. Oh! it is a vile place — enough to kill one.”

“No, thank you,” said Helene; “I’ve brought you your pair of shoes, Mother Fetu.”

She looked at the door which Mother Fetu had left open behind her, and caught a glimpse of a stove within.

“I’m all alone, I assure you,” declared the old woman. “Come in. This is the kitchen here. Oh! you’re not proud with us poor folks; we can talk to you!”

Despite the repugnance which shame at the purpose of her coming created within her, Helene followed her.

“God in Heaven! how can I thank you! Oh, what lovely shoes! Wait, and I’ll put them on. There’s my whole foot in; it fits me like a glove. Bless the day! I can walk with these without being afraid of the rain. Oh! my good lady, you are my preserver; you’ve given me ten more years of life. No, no, it’s no flattery; it’s what I think, as true as there’s a lamp shining on us. No, no, I don’t flatter!”

She melted into tears as she spoke, and grasping Helene’s hands kissed them. In a stewpan on the stove some wine was being heated, and on the table, near the lamp, stood a half-empty bottle of Bordeaux with its tapering neck. The only other things placed there were four dishes, a glass, two saucepans, and an earthenware pot. It could be seen that Mother Fetu camped in this bachelor’s kitchen, and that the fires were lit for herself only. Seeing Helene’s glance turn towards the stewpan, she coughed, and once more put on her dolorous expression.

“It’s gripping me again,” she groaned. “Oh! it’s useless for the doctor to talk; I must have some creature in my inside. And then, a drop of wine relieves me so. I’m greatly afflicted, my good lady. I wouldn’t have a soul suffer from my trouble; it’s too dreadful. Well, I’m nursing myself a bit now; and when a person has passed through so much, isn’t it fair she should do so? I have been so lucky in falling in with a nice gentleman. May Heaven bless him!”

With this outburst she dropped two large lumps of sugar into her wine. She was now getting more corpulent than ever, and her little eyes had almost vanished from her fat face. She moved slowly with a beatifical expression of felicity. Her life’s ambition was now evidently satisfied. For this she had been born. When she put her sugar away again Helene caught a glimpse of some tid-bits secreted at the bottom of a cupboard — a jar of preserves, a bag of biscuits, and even some cigars, all doubtless pilfered from the gentleman lodger.

“Well, good-bye, Mother Fetu, I’m going away,” she exclaimed.

The old lady, however, pushed the saucepan to one side of the stove and murmured: “Wait a minute; this is far too hot, I’ll drink it by-and-by. No, no; don’t go out that way. I must beg pardon for having received you in the kitchen. Let us go round the rooms.”

She caught up the lamp, and turned into a narrow passage. Helene, with beating heart, followed close behind. The passage, dilapidated and smoky, was reeking with damp. Then a door was thrown open, and she found herself treading a thick carpet. Mother Fetu had already advanced into a room which was plunged in darkness and silence.

“Well?” she asked, as she lifted up the lamp; “it’s very nice, isn’t it?”

There were two rooms, each of them square, communicating with one another by folding-doors, which had been removed, and replaced by curtains. Both were hung with pink cretonne of a Louis Quinze pattern, picturing chubby-checked cupids disporting themselves amongst garlands of flowers. In the first apartment there was a round table, two lounges, and some easy-chairs; and in the second, which was somewhat smaller, most of the space was occupied by the bed. Mother Fetu drew attention to a crystal lamp with gilt chains, which hung from the ceiling. To her this lamp was the veritable acme of luxury.

Then she began explaining things: “You can’t imagine what a funny fellow he is! He lights it up in mid-day, and stays here, smoking a cigar and gazing into vacancy. But it amuses him, it seems. Well, it doesn’t matter; I’ve an idea he must have spent a lot of money in his time.”

Helene went through the rooms in silence. They seemed to her in bad taste. There was too much pink everywhere; the furniture also looked far too new.

“He calls himself Monsieur Vincent,” continued the old woman, rambling on. “Of course, it’s all the same to me. As long as he pays, my gentleman —”

“Well, good-bye, Mother Fetu,” said Helene, in whose throat a feeling of suffocation was gathering.

She was burning to get away, but on opening a door she found herself threading three small rooms, the bareness and dirt of which were repulsive. The paper hung in tatters from the walls, the ceilings were grimy, and old plaster littered the broken floors. The whole place was pervaded by a smell of long prevalent squalor.

“Not that way! not that way!” screamed Mother Fetu. “That door is generally shut. These are the other rooms which they haven’t attempted to clean. My word! it’s cost him quite enough already! Yes, indeed, these aren’t nearly so nice! Come this way, my good lady — come this way!”

On Helene’s return to the pink boudoir, she stopped to kiss her hand once more.

“You see, I’m not ungrateful! I shall never forget the shoes. How well they fit me! and how warm they are! Why, I could walk half-a-dozen miles with them. What can I beg Heaven to grant you? O Lord, hearken to me, and grant that she may be the happiest of women — in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!” A devout enthusiasm had suddenly come upon Mother Fetu; she repeated the sign of the cross again and again, and bowed the knee in the direction of the crystal lamp. This done, she opened the door conducting to the landing, and whispered in a changed voice into Helene’s ear:

“Whenever you like to call, just knock at the kitchen door; I’m always there!”

Dazed, and glancing behind her as though she were leaving a place of dubious repute, Helene hurried down the staircase, reascended the Passage des Eaux, and regained the Rue Vineuse, without consciousness of the ground she was covering. The old woman’s last words still rang in her ears. In truth, no; never again would she set foot in that house, never again would she bear her charity thither. Why should she ever rap at the kitchen door again? At present she was satisfied; she had seen what was to be seen. And she was full of scorn for herself — for everybody. How disgraceful to have gone there! The recollection of the place with its tawdry finery and squalid surroundings filled her with mingled anger and disgust.

“Well, madame,” exclaimed Rosalie, who was awaiting her return on the staircase, “the dinner will be nice. Dear, oh dear! it’s been burning for half an hour!”

At table Jeanne plagued her mother with questions. Where had she been? what had she been about? However, as the answers she received proved somewhat curt, she began to amuse herself by giving a little dinner. Her doll was perched near her on a chair, and in a sisterly fashion she placed half of her dessert before it.

“Now, mademoiselle, you must eat like a lady. See, wipe your mouth. Oh, the dirty little thing! She doesn’t even know how to wear her napkin! There, you’re nice now. See, here is a biscuit. What do you say? You want some preserve on it. Well, I should think it better as it is! Let me pare you a quarter of this apple!”

She placed the doll’s share on the chair. But when she had emptied her own plate she took the dainties back again one after the other and devoured them, speaking all the time as though she were the doll.

“Oh! it’s delicious! I’ve never eaten such nice jam! Where did you get this jam, madame? I shall tell my husband to buy a pot of it. Do those beautiful apples come from your garden, madame?”

She fell asleep while thus playing, and stumbled into the bedroom with the doll in her arms. She had given herself no rest since morning. Her little legs could no longer sustain her — she was helpless and wearied to death. However, a ripple of laughter passed over her face even in sleep; in her dreams she must have been still continuing her play.

At last Helene was alone in her room. With closed doors she spent a miserable evening beside the dead fire. Her will was failing her; thoughts that found no utterance were stirring within the innermost recesses of her heart. At midnight she wearily sought her bed, but there her torture passed endurance. She dozed, she tossed from side to side as though a fire were beneath her. She was haunted by visions which sleeplessness enlarged to a gigantic size. Then an idea took root in her brain. In vain did she strive to banish it; it clung to her, surged and clutched her at the throat till it entirely swayed her. About two o’clock she rose, rigid, pallid, and resolute as a somnambulist, and having again lighted the lamp she wrote a letter in a disguised hand; it was a vague denunciation, a note of three lines, requesting Doctor Deberle to repair that day to such a place at such an hour; there was no explanation, no signature. She sealed the envelope and dropped the letter into the pocket of her dress which was hanging over an arm-chair. Then returning to bed, she immediately closed her eyes, and in a few minutes was lying there breathless, overpowered by leaden slumber.

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