A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 18.

It was nearly nine o’clock the next morning before Rosalie was able to serve the coffee. Helene had risen late. She was weary and pale with the nightmare that had broken her rest. She rummaged in the pocket of her dress, felt the letter there, pressed it to the very bottom, and sat down at the table without opening her lips. Jeanne too was suffering from headache, and had a pale, troubled face. She quitted her bed regretfully that morning, without any heart to indulge in play. There was a sooty color in the sky, and a dim light saddened the room, while from time to time sudden downpours of rain beat against the windows.

“Mademoiselle is in the blues,” said Rosalie, who monopolized all the talk. “She can’t keep cheerful for two days running. That’s what comes of dancing about too much yesterday.”

“Do you feel ill, Jeanne?” asked Helene.

“No, mamma,” answered the child. “It’s only the nasty weather.”

Helene lapsed once more into silence. She finished her coffee, and sat in her chair, plunged in thought, with her eyes riveted on the flames. While rising she had reflected that it was her duty to speak to Juliette and bid her renounce the afternoon assignation. But how? She could not say. Still, the necessity of the step was impressed on her, and now her one urgent, all-absorbing thought was to attempt it. Ten o’clock struck, and she began to dress. Jeanne gazed at her, and, on seeing her take up her bonnet, clasped her little hands as though stricken with cold, while over her face crept a pained look. It was her wont to take umbrage whenever her mother went out; she was unwilling to quit her side, and craved to go with her everywhere.

“Rosalie,” said Helene, “make haste and finish the room. Don’t go out. I’ll be back in a moment.”

She stooped and gave Jeanne a hasty kiss, not noticing her vexation. But the moment she had gone a sob broke from the child, who had hitherto summoned all her dignity to her aid to restrain her emotion.

“Oh, mademoiselle, how naughty!” exclaimed the maid by way of consolation. “Gracious powers! no one will rob you of your mamma. You must allow her to see after her affairs. You can’t always be hanging to her skirts!”

Meanwhile Helene had turned the corner of the Rue Vineuse, keeping close to the wall for protection against the rain. It was Pierre who opened the door; but at sight of her he seemed somewhat embarrassed.

“Is Madame Deberle at home?”

“Yes, madame; but I don’t know whether —”

Helene, in the character of a family friend, was pushing past him towards the drawing-room; but he took the liberty of stopping her.

“Wait, madame; I’ll go and see.”

He slipped into the room, opening the door as little as he could; and immediately afterwards Juliette could be heard speaking in a tone of irritation. “What! you’ve allowed some one to come in? Why, I forbade it peremptorily. It’s incredible!! I can’t be left quiet for an instant!”

Helene, however, pushed open the door, strong in her resolve to do that which she imagined to be her duty.

“Oh, it’s you!” said Juliette, as she perceived her. “I didn’t catch who it was!”

The look of annoyance did not fade from her face, however, and it was evident that the visit was ill-timed.

“Do I disturb you?” asked Helene.

“Not at all, not at all,” answered the other. “You’ll understand in a moment. We have been getting up a surprise. We are rehearsing Caprice* to play it on one of my Wednesdays. We had selected this morning for rehearsal, thinking nobody would know of it. But you’ll stay now? You will have to keep silence about it, that’s all.”

* One of Alfred de Musset’s plays.

Then, clapping her hands and addressing herself to Madame Berthier, who was standing in the middle of the drawing-room, she began once more, without paying any further attention to Helene: “Come, come; we must get on. You don’t give sufficient point to the sentence ‘To make a purse unknown to one’s husband would in the eyes of most people seem rather more than romantic.’ Say that again.”

Intensely surprised at finding her engaged in this way, Helene had sat down. The chairs and tables had been pushed against the wall, the carpet thus being left clear. Madame Berthier, a delicate blonde, repeated her soliloquy, with her eyes fixed on the ceiling in her effort to recall the words; while plump Madame de Guiraud, a beautiful brunette, who had assumed the character of Madame de Lery, reclined in an arm-chair awaiting her cue. The ladies, in their unpretentious morning gowns, had doffed neither bonnets nor gloves. Seated in front of them, her hair in disorder and a volume of Musset in her hand, was Juliette, in a dressing-gown of white cashmere. Her face wore the serious expression of a stage-manager tutoring his actors as to the tones they should speak in and the by-play they should introduce. The day being dull, the small curtains of embroidered tulle had been pulled aside and swung across the knobs of the window-fastenings, so that the garden could be seen, dark and damp.

“You don’t display sufficient emotion,” declared Juliette. “Put a little more meaning into it. Every word ought to tell. Begin again: ‘I’m going to finish your toilette, my dear little purse.’”

“I shall be an awful failure,” said Madame Berthier languidly. “Why don’t you play the part instead of me? You would make a delicious Mathilda.”

“I! Oh, no! In the first place, one needs to be fair. Besides, I’m a very good teacher, but a bad pupil. But let us get on — let us get on!”

Helene sat still in her corner. Madame Berthier, engrossed in her part, had not even turned round. Madame de Guiraud had merely honored her with a slight nod. She realized that she was in the way, and that she ought to have declined to stay. If she still remained, it was no longer through the sense of a duty to be fulfilled, but rather by reason of a strange feeling stirring vaguely in her heart’s depth’s — a feeling which had previously thrilled her in this selfsame spot. The unkindly greeting which Juliette had bestowed on her pained her. However, the young woman’s friendships were usually capricious; she worshipped people for three months, threw herself on their necks, and seemed to live for them alone; then one morning, without affording any explanation, she appeared to lose all consciousness of being acquainted with them. Without doubt, in this, as in everything else, she was simply yielding to a fashionable craze, an inclination to love the people who were loved by her own circle. These sudden veerings of affection, however, deeply wounded Helene, for her generous and undemonstrative heart had its ideal in eternity. She often left the Deberles plunged in sadness, full of despair when she thought how fragile and unstable was the basis of human love. And on this occasion, in this crisis in her life, the thought brought her still keener pain.

“We’ll skip the scene with Chavigny,” said Juliette. “He won’t be here this morning. Let us see Madame de Lery’s entrance. Now, Madame de Guiraud, here’s your cue.” Then she read from her book: “‘Just imagine my showing him this purse.’”

“‘Oh! it’s exceedingly pretty. Let me look at it,’” began Madame de Guiraud in a falsetto voice, as she rose with a silly expression on her face.

When the servant had opened the door to her, Helene had pictured a scene entirely different from this. She had imagined that she would find Juliette displaying excessive nervousness, with pallid cheeks, hesitating and yet allured, shivering at the very thought of assignation. She had pictured herself imploring her to reflect, till the young woman, choked with sobs, threw herself into her arms. Then they would have mingled their tears together, and Helene would have quitted her with the thought that Henri was henceforward lost to her, but that she had secured his happiness. However, there had been nothing of all this; she had merely fallen on this rehearsal, which was wholly unintelligible to her; and she saw Juliette before her with unruffled features, like one who has had a good night’s rest, and with her mind sufficiently at ease to discuss Madame Berthier’s by-play, without troubling herself in the least degree about what she would do in the afternoon. This indifference and frivolity chilled Helene, who had come to the house with passion consuming her.

A longing to speak fell on her. At a venture she inquired: “Who will play the part of Chavigny?”

“Why, Malignon, of course,” answered Juliette, turning round with an air of astonishment. “He played Chavigny all last winter. It’s a nuisance he can’t come to the rehearsals. Listen, ladies; I’m going to read Chavigny’s part. Unless that’s done, we shall never get on.”

Thereupon she herself began acting the man’s part, her voice deepening unconsciously, whilst she assumed a cavalier air in harmony with the situation. Madame Berthier renewed her warbling tones, and Madame de Guiraud took infinite pains to be lively and witty. When Pierre came in to put some more wood on the fire he slyly glanced at the ladies, who amused him immensely.

Helene, still fixed in her resolve, despite some heart-shrinking, attempted however to take Juliette aside.

“Only a minute. I’ve something to say to you.”

“Oh, impossible, my dear! You see how much I am engaged. To-morrow, if you have the time.”

Helene said no more. The young woman’s unconcern displeased her. She felt anger growing within her as she observed how calm and collected Juliette was, when she herself had endured such intense agony since the night before. At one moment she was on the point of rising and letting things take their course. It was exceedingly foolish of her to wish to save this woman; her nightmare began once more; her hands slipped into her pocket, and finding the letter there, clasped it in a feverish grasp. Why should she have any care for the happiness of others, when they had no care for her and did not suffer as she did?

“Oh! capital, capital,” exclaimed Juliette of a sudden.

Madame Berthier’s head was now reclining on Madame de Guiraud’s shoulder, and she was declaring through her sobs: “‘I am sure that he loves her; I am sure of it!’”

“Your success will be immense,” said Juliette. “Say that once more: ‘I am sure that he loves her; I am sure of it.’ Leave your head as it is. You’re divine. Now, Madame de Guiraud, your turn.”

“‘No, no, my child, it cannot be; it is a caprice, a fancy,’” replied the stout lady.

“Perfect! but oh, the scene is a long one, isn’t it? Let us rest a little while. We must have that incident in proper working order.”

Then they all three plunged into a discussion regarding the arrangement of the drawing-room. The dining-room door, to the left, would serve for entrances and exits; an easy-chair could be placed on the right, a couch at the farther end, and the table could be pushed close to the fireplace. Helene, who had risen, followed them about, as though she felt an interest in these scenic arrangements. She had now abandoned her idea of eliciting an explanation, and merely wished to make a last effort to prevent Juliette from going to the place of meeting.

“I intended asking you,” she said to her, “if it isn’t to-day that you mean to pay Madame de Chermette a visit?”

“Yes, this afternoon.”

“Then, if you’ll allow me, I’ll go with you; it’s such a long time since I promised to go to see her.”

For a moment Juliette betrayed signs of embarrassment, but speedily regained her self-possession.

“Of course, I should be very happy. Only I have so many things to look after; I must do some shopping first, and I have no idea at what time I shall be able to get to Madame de Chermette’s .”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Helene; “it will enable me to have a walk.”

“Listen; I will speak to you candidly. Well, you must not press me. You would be in my way. Let it be some other Monday.”

This was said without a trace of emotion, so flatly and with so quiet a smile that Helene was dumbfounded and uttered not another syllable. She was obliged to lend some assistance to Juliette, who suddenly decided to bring the table close to the fireplace. Then she drew back, and the rehearsal began once more. In a soliloquy which followed the scene, Madame de Guiraud with considerable power spoke these two sentences: “‘But what a treacherous gulf is the heart of man! In truth, we are worth more than they!’”

And Helene, what ought she to do now? Within her breast the question raised a storm that stirred her to vague thoughts of violence. She experienced an irresistible desire to be revenged on Juliette’s tranquillity, as if that self-possession were an insult directed against her own fevered heart. She dreamed of facilitating her fall, that she might see whether she would always retain this unruffled demeanor. And she thought of herself scornfully as she recalled her delicacy and scruples. Twenty times already she ought to have said to Henri: “I love you; let us go away together.” Could she have done so, however, without the most intense emotion? Could she have displayed the callous composure of this woman, who, three hours before her first assignation, was rehearsing a comedy in her own home? Even at this moment she trembled more than Juliette; what maddened her was the consciousness of her own passion amidst the quiet cheerfulness of this drawing-room; she was terrified lest she should burst out into some angry speech. Was she a coward, then?

But all at once a door opened, and Henri’s voice reached her ear: “Do not disturb yourselves. I’m only passing.”

The rehearsal was drawing to a close. Juliette, who was still reading Chavigny’s part, had just caught hold of Madame de Guiraud’s hand. “Ernestine, I adore you!” she exclaimed with an outburst of passionate earnestness.

“Then Madame de Blainville is no longer beloved by you?” inquired Madame de Guiraud.

However, so long as her husband was present Juliette declined to proceed. There was no need of the men knowing anything about it. The doctor showed himself most polite to the ladies; he complimented them and predicted an immense success. With black gloves on his hands and his face clean-shaven he was about to begin his round of visits. On his entry he had merely greeted Helene with a slight bow. At the Comedie Francais he had seen some very great actress in the character of Madame de Lery, and he acquainted Madame de Guiraud with some of the usual by-play of the scene.

“At the moment when Chavigny is going to throw himself at your feet, you fling the purse into the fire. Dispassionately, you know, without any anger, like a woman who plays with love.”

“All right; leave us alone,” said Juliette. “We know all about it.”

At last, when they had heard him close his study door, she began once more: “Ernestine, I adore you!”

Prior to his departure Henri had saluted Helene with the same slight bow. She sat dumb, as though awaiting some catastrophe. The sudden appearance of the husband had seemed to her ominous; but when he had gone, his courtesy and evident blindness made him seem to her ridiculous. So he also gave attention to this idiotic comedy! And there was no loving fire in his eye as he looked at her sitting there! The whole house had become hateful and cold to her. Here was a downfall; there was nothing to restrain her any longer, for she abhorred Henri as much as Juliette. Within her pocket she held the letter in her convulsive grasp. At last, murmuring “Good-bye for the present,” she quitted the room, her head swimming and the furniture seeming to dance around her. And in her ears rang these words, uttered by Madame de Guiraud:

“Adieu. You will perhaps think badly of me to-day, but you will have some kindly feeling for me to-morrow, and, believe me, that is much better than a caprice.”

When Helene had shut the house door and reached the pavement, she drew the letter with a violent, almost mechanical gesture from her pocket, and dropped it into the letter-box. Then she stood motionless for a few seconds, still dazed, her eyes glaring at the narrow brass plate which had fallen back again in its place.

“It is done,” she exclaimed in a whisper.

Once more she pictured the rooms hung with pink cretonne. Malignon and Juliette were there together; but all of a sudden the wall was riven open, and the husband entered. She was conscious of no more, and a great calm fell on her. Instinctively she looked around to see if any one had observed her dropping the letter in the box. But the street was deserted. Then she turned the corner and went back home.

“Have you been good, my darling?” she asked as she kissed Jeanne.

The child, still seated on the same chair, raised a gloomy face towards her, and without answering threw both arms around her neck, and kissed her with a great gasp. Her grief indeed had been intense.

At lunch-time Rosalie seemed greatly surprised. “Madame surely went for a long walk!” said she.

“Why do you think so?” asked Helene.

“Because madame is eating with such an appetite. It is long since madame ate so heartily.”

It was true; she was very hungry; with her sudden relief she had felt her stomach empty. She experienced a feeling of intense peace and content. After the shocks of these last two days a stillness fell upon her spirit, her limbs relaxed and became as supple as though she had just left a bath. The only sensation that remained to her was one of heaviness somewhere, an indefinable load that weighed upon her.

When she returned to her bedroom her eyes were at once directed towards the clock, the hands of which pointed to twenty-five minutes past twelve. Juliette’s assignation was for three o’clock. Two hours and a half must still elapse. She made the reckoning mechanically. Moreover, she was in no hurry; the hands of the clock were moving on, and no one in the world could stop them. She left things to their own accomplishment. A child’s cap, long since begun, was lying unfinished on the table. She took it up and began to sew at the window. The room was plunged in unbroken silence. Jeanne had seated herself in her usual place, but her arms hung idly beside her.

“Mamma,” she said, “I cannot work; it’s no fun at all.”

“Well, my darling, don’t do anything. Oh! wait a minute, you can thread my needles!”

In a languid way the child silently attended to the duty assigned her. Having carefully cut some equal lengths of cotton, she spent a long time in finding the eyes of the needles, and was only just ready with one of them threaded when her mother had finished with the last.

“You see,” said the latter gently, “this will save time. The last of my six little caps will be finished to-night.”

She turned round to glance at the clock — ten minutes past one. Still nearly two hours. Juliette must now be beginning to dress. Henri had received the letter. Oh! he would certainly go. The instructions were precise; he would find the place without delay. But it all seemed so far off still, and she felt no emotional fever, but went on sewing with regular stitches as industriously as a work-girl. The minutes slipped by one by one. At last two o’clock struck.

A ring at the bell came as a surprise.

“Who can it be, mother darling?” asked Jeanne, who had jumped on her chair. “Oh! it’s you!” she continued, as Monsieur Rambaud entered the room. “Why did you ring so loudly? You gave me quite a fright.”

The worthy man was in consternation — to tell the truth, his tug at the bell had been a little too violent.

“I am not myself to-day, I’m ill,” the child resumed. “You must not frighten me.”

Monsieur Rambaud displayed the greatest solicitude. What was the matter with his poor darling? He only sat down, relieved, when Helene had signed to him that the child was in her dismals, as Rosalie was wont to say. A call from him in the daytime was a rare occurrence, and so he at once set about explaining the object of his visit. It concerned some fellow-townsman of his, an old workman who could find no employment owing to his advanced years, and who lived with his paralytic wife in a tiny little room. Their wretchedness could not be pictured. He himself had gone up that morning to make a personal investigation. Their lodging was a mere hole under the tiles, with a swing window, through whose broken panes the wind beat in. Inside, stretched on a mattress, he had found a woman wrapped in an old curtain, while the man squatted on the floor in a state of stupefaction, no longer finding sufficient courage even to sweep the place.

“Oh! poor things, poor things!” exclaimed Helene, moved to tears.

It was not the old workman who gave Monsieur Rambaud any uneasiness. He would remove him to his own house and find him something to do. But there was the wife with palsied frame, whom the husband dared not leave for a moment alone, and who had to be rolled up like a bundle; where could she be put? what was to be done with her?

“I thought of you,” he went on. “You must obtain her instant admission to an asylum. I should have gone straight to Monsieur Deberle, but I imagined you knew him better and would have greater influence with him. If he would be kind enough to interest himself in the matter, it could all be arranged to-morrow.”

Trembling with pity, her cheeks white, Jeanne listened to the tale.

“Oh, mamma!” she murmured with clasped hands, “be kind — get the admission for the poor woman!”

“Yes, yes, of course!” said Helene, whose emotion was increasing. “I will speak to the doctor as soon as I can; he will himself take every requisite step. Give me their names and the address, Monsieur Rambaud.”

He scribbled a line on the table, and said as he rose: “It is thirty-five minutes past two. You would perhaps find the doctor at home now.”

She had risen at the same time, and as she looked at the clock a fierce thrill swept through her frame. In truth it was already thirty-five minutes past two, and the hands were still creeping on. She stammered out that the doctor must have started on his round of visits. Her eyes were riveted on the dial. Meantime, Monsieur Rambaud remained standing hat in hand, and beginning his story once more. These poor people had sold everything, even their stove, and since the setting in of winter had spent their days and nights alike without a fire. At the close of December they had been four days without food. Helene gave vent to a cry of compassion. The hands of the clock now marked twenty minutes to three. Monsieur Rambaud devoted another two minutes to his farewell: “Well, I depend on you,” he said. And stooping to kiss Jeanne, he added: “Good-bye, my darling.”

“Good-bye; don’t worry; mamma won’t forget. I’ll make her remember.”

When Helene came back from the ante-room, whither she had gone in company with Monsieur Rambaud, the hands of the clock pointed to a quarter to three. Another quarter of an hour and all would be over. As she stood motionless before the fireplace, the scene which was about to be enacted flashed before her eyes: Juliette was already there; Henri entered and surprised her. She knew the room; she could see the scene in its minutest details with terrible vividness. And still affected by Monsieur Rambaud’s awful story she felt a mighty shudder rise from her limbs to her face. A voice cried out within her that what she had done — the writing of that letter, that cowardly denunciation — was a crime. The truth came to her with dazzling clearness. Yes, it was a crime she had committed! She recalled to memory the gesture with which she had flung the letter into the box; she recalled it with a sense of stupor such as might come over one on seeing another commit an evil action, without thought of intervening. She was as if awaking from a dream. What was it that had happened? Why was she here, with eyes ever fixed on the hands of that dial? Two more minutes had slipped away.

“Mamma,” said Jeanne, “if you like, we’ll go to see the doctor together to-night. It will be a walk for me. I feel stifling to-day.”

Helene, however, did not hear; thirteen minutes must yet elapse. But she could not allow so horrible a thing to take place! In this stormy awakening of her rectitude she felt naught but a furious craving to prevent it. She must prevent it; otherwise she would be unable to live. In a state of frenzy she ran about her bedroom.

“Ah, you’re going to take me!” exclaimed Jeanne joyously. “We’re going to see the doctor at once, aren’t we, mother darling?”

“No, no,” Helene answered, while she hunted for her boots, stooping to look under the bed.

They were not to be found; but she shrugged her shoulders with supreme indifference when it occurred to her that she could very well run out in the flimsy house-slippers she had on her feet. She was now turning the wardrobe topsy-turvy in her search for her shawl. Jeanne crept up to her with a coaxing air: “Then you’re not going to the doctor’s, mother darling?”

“No.”

“Say that you’ll take me all the same. Oh! do take me; it will be such a pleasure!”

But Helene had at last found her shawl, and she threw it over her shoulders. Good heavens! only twelve minutes left — just time to run. She would go — she would do something, no matter what. She would decide on the way.

“Mamma dear, do please take me with you,” said Jeanne in tones that grew lower and more imploring.

“I cannot take you,” said Helene; “I’m going to a place where children don’t go. Give me my bonnet.”

Jeanne’s face blanched. Her eyes grew dim, her words came with a gasp. “Where are you going?” she asked.

The mother made no reply — she was tying the strings of her bonnet.

Then the child continued: “You always go out without me now. You went out yesterday, you went out to-day, and you are going out again. Oh, I’m dreadfully grieved, I’m afraid to be here all alone. I shall die if you leave me here. Do you hear, mother darling? I shall die.”

Then bursting into loud sobs, overwhelmed by a fit of grief and rage, she clung fast to Helene’s skirts.

“Come, come, leave me; be good, I’m coming back,” her mother repeated.

“No, no! I won’t have it!” the child exclaimed through her sobs. “Oh! you don’t love me any longer, or you would take me with you. Yes, yes, I am sure you love other people better. Take me with you, take me with you, or I’ll stay here on the floor; you’ll come back and find me on the floor.”

She wound her little arms round her mother’s legs; she wept with face buried in the folds of her dress; she clung to her and weighed upon her to prevent her making a step forward. And still the hands of the clock moved steadily on; it was ten minutes to three. Then Helene thought that she would never reach the house in time, and, nearly distracted, she wrenched Jeanne from her grasp, exclaiming: “What an unbearable child! This is veritable tyranny! If you sob any more, I’ll have something to say to you!”

She left the room and slammed the door behind her. Jeanne had staggered back to the window, her sobs suddenly arrested by this brutal treatment, her limbs stiffened, her face quite white. She stretched her hands towards the door, and twice wailed out the words: “Mamma! mamma!” And then she remained where she had fallen on a chair, with eyes staring and features distorted by the jealous thought that her mother was deceiving her.

On reaching the street, Helene hastened her steps. The rain had ceased, but great drops fell from the housetops on to her shoulders. She had resolved that she would reflect outside and fix on some plan. But now she was only inflamed with a desire to reach the house. When she reached the Passage des Eaux, she hesitated for just one moment. The descent had become a torrent; the water of the gutters of the Rue Raynouard was rushing down it. And as the stream bounded over the steps, between the close-set walls, it broke here and there into foam, whilst the edges of the stones, washed clear by the downpour, shone out like glass. A gleam of pale light, falling from the grey sky, made the Passage look whiter between the dusky branches of the trees. Helene went down it, scarcely raising her skirts. The water came up to her ankles. She almost lost her flimsy slippers in the puddles; around her, down the whole way, she heard a gurgling sound, like the murmuring of brooklets coursing through the grass in the depths of the woods.

All at once she found herself on the stairs in front of the door. She stood there, panting in a state of torture. Then her memory came back, and she decided to knock at the kitchen.

“What! is it you?” exclaimed Mother Fetu.

There was none of the old whimper in her voice. Her little eyes were sparkling, and a complacent grin had spread over the myriad wrinkles of her face. All the old deference vanished, and she patted Helene’s hands as she listened to her broken words. The young woman gave her twenty francs.

“May God requite you!” prayed Mother Fetu in her wonted style. “Whatever you please, my dear!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/z/zola/emile/love-episode/chapter18.html

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