A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 2.

Next day Helene thought it right and proper to pay a visit of thanks to Doctor Deberle. The abrupt fashion in which she had compelled him to follow her, and the remembrance of the whole night which he had spent with Jeanne, made her uneasy, for she realized that he had done more than is usually compassed within a doctor’s visit. Still, for two days she hesitated to make her call, feeling a strange repugnance towards such a step. For this she could give herself no reasons. It was the doctor himself who inspired her with this hesitancy; one morning she met him, and shrunk from his notice as though she were a child. At this excess of timidity she was much annoyed. Her quiet, upright nature protested against the uneasiness which was taking possession of her. She decided, therefore, to go and thank the doctor that very day.

Jeanne’s attack had taken place during the small hours of Wednesday morning; it was now Saturday, and the child was quite well again. Doctor Bodin, whose fears concerning her had prompted him to make an early call, spoke of Doctor Deberle with the respect that an old doctor with a meagre income pays to another in the same district, who is young, rich, and already possessed of a reputation. He did not forget to add, however, with an artful smile, that the fortune had been bequeathed by the elder Deberle, a man whom all Passy held in veneration. The son had only been put to the trouble of inheriting fifteen hundred thousand francs, together with a splendid practice. “He is, though, a very smart fellow,” Doctor Bodin hastened to add, “and I shall be honored by having a consultation with him about the precious health of my little friend Jeanne!”

About three o’clock Helene made her way downstairs with her daughter, and had to take but a few steps along the Rue Vineuse before ringing at the next-door house. Both mother and daughter still wore deep mourning. A servant, in dress-coat and white tie, opened the door. Helene easily recognized the large entrance-hall, with its Oriental hangings; on each side of it, however, there were now flower-stands, brilliant with a profusion of blossoms. The servant having admitted them to a small drawing-room, the hangings and furniture of which were of a mignonette hue, stood awaiting their pleasure, and Helene gave her name — Madame Grandjean.

Thereupon the footman pushed open the door of a drawing-room, furnished in yellow and black, of dazzling effect, and, moving aside, announced:

“Madame Grandjean!”

Helene, standing on the threshold, started back. She had just noticed at the other end of the room a young woman seated near the fireplace on a narrow couch which was completely covered by her ample skirts. Facing her sat an elderly person, who had retained her bonnet and shawl, and was evidently paying a visit.

“I beg pardon,” exclaimed Helene. “I wished to see Doctor Deberle.”

She had made the child enter the room before her, and now took her by the hand again. She was both astonished and embarrassed in meeting this young lady. Why had she not asked for the doctor? She well knew he was married.

Madame Deberle was just finishing some story, in a quick and rather shrill voice.

“Oh! it’s marvellous, marvellous! She dies with wonderful realism. She clutches at her bosom like this, throws back her head, and her face turns green. I declare you ought to see her, Mademoiselle Aurelie!”

Then, rising up, she sailed towards the doorway, rustling her skirts terribly.

“Be so kind as to walk in, madame,” she said with charming graciousness. “My husband is not at home, but I shall be delighted to receive you, I assure you. This must be the pretty little girl who was so ill a few nights ago. Sit down for a moment, I beg of you.”

Helene was forced to accept the invitation, while Jeanne timidly perched herself on the edge of another chair. Madame Deberle again sank down on her little sofa, exclaiming with a pretty laugh,

“Yes, this is my day. I receive every Saturday, you see, and Pierre then announces all comers. A week or two ago he ushered in a colonel suffering from the gout.”

“How silly you are, my dear Juliette!” expostulated Mademoiselle Aurelie, the elderly lady, an old friend in straitened circumstances, who had seen her come into the world.

There was a short silence, and Helene gazed round at the luxury of the apartment, with its curtains and chairs in black and gold, glittering like constellations. Flowers decorated mantel-shelf, piano, and tables alike, and the clear light streamed through the windows from the garden, in which could be seen the leafless trees and bare soil. The room had almost a hot-house temperature; in the fireplace one large log was glowing with intense heat. After another glance Helene recognized that the gaudy colors had a happy effect. Madame Deberle’s hair was inky-black, and her skin of a milky whiteness. She was short, plump, slow in her movements, and withal graceful. Amidst all the golden decorations, her white face assumed a vermeil tint under her heavy, sombre tresses. Helene really admired her.

“Convulsions are so terrible,” broke in Madame Deberle. “My Lucien had them when a mere baby. How uneasy you must have been, madame! However, the dear little thing appears to be quite well now.”

As she drawled out these words she kept her eyes on Helene, whose superb beauty amazed and delighted her. Never had she seen a woman with so queenly an air in the black garments which draped the widow’s commanding figure. Her admiration found vent in an involuntary smile, while she exchanged glances with Mademoiselle Aurelie. Their admiration was so ingenuously and charmingly expressed, that a faint smile also rippled over Helene’s face.

Then Madame Deberle stretched herself on the sofa. “You were not at the first night at the Vaudeville yesterday, madame?” she asked, as she played with the fan that hung from her waist.

“I never go to the theatre,” was Helene’s reply.

“Oh! little Noemi was simply marvellous! Her death scene is so realistic! She clutches her bosom like this, throws back her head, and her face turns green. Oh! the effect is prodigious.”

Thereupon she entered into a minute criticism of the actress’s playing, which she upheld against the world; and then she passed to the other topics of the day — a fine art exhibition, at which she had seen some most remarkable paintings; a stupid novel about which too much fuss was being made; a society intrigue which she spoke of to Mademoiselle Aurelie in veiled language. And so she went on from one subject to another, without wearying, her tongue ever ready, as though this social atmosphere were peculiarly her own. Helene, a stranger to such society, was content to listen, merely interjecting a remark or brief reply every now and then.

At last the door was again thrown open and the footman announced: “Madame de Chermette! Madame Tissot!”

Two ladies entered, magnificently dressed. Madame Deberle rose eagerly to meet them, and the train of her black silk gown, heavily decked with trimmings, trailed so far behind her that she had to kick it out of her way whenever she happened to turn round. A confused babel of greetings in shrill voices arose.

“Oh! how kind of you! I declare I never see you!”

“You know we come about that lottery.”

“Yes: I know, I know.”

“Oh! we cannot sit down. We have to call at twenty houses yet.”

“Come now, you are not going to run away at once!”

And then the visitors finished by sitting down on the edge of a couch; the chatter beginning again, shriller than ever.

“Well! what do you think of yesterday at the Vaudeville?”

“Oh! it was splendid!”

“You know she unfastens her dress and lets down her hair. All the effect springs from that.”

“People say that she swallows something to make her green.”

“No, no, every action is premeditated; but she had to invent and study them all, in the first place.”

“It’s wonderful.”

The two ladies rose and made their exit, and the room regained its tranquil peacefulness. From some hyacinths on the mantel-shelf was wafted an all-pervading perfume. For a time one could hear the noisy twittering of some sparrows quarrelling on the lawn. Before resuming her seat, Madame Deberle proceeded to draw down the embroidered tulle blind of a window facing her, and then returned to her sofa in the mellowed, golden light of the room.

“I beg pardon,” she now said. “We have had quite an invasion.”

Then, in an affectionate way, she entered into conversation with Helene. She seemed to know some details of her history, doubtless from the gossip of her servants. With a boldness that was yet full of tact, and appeared instinct with much friendliness, she spoke to Helene of her husband, and of his sad death at the Hotel du Var, in the Rue de Richelieu.

“And you had just arrived, hadn’t you? You had never been in Paris before. It must be awful to be plunged into mourning, in a strange room, the day after a long journey, and when one doesn’t know a single place to go to.”

Helene assented with a slow nod. Yes, she had spent some very bitter hours. The disease which carried off her husband had abruptly declared itself on the day after their arrival, just as they were going out together. She knew none of the streets, and was wholly unaware what district she was in. For eight days she had remained at the bedside of the dying man, hearing the rumble of Paris beneath her window, feeling she was alone, deserted, lost, as though plunged in the depths of an abyss. When she stepped out on the pavement for the first time, she was a widow. The mere recalling of that bare room, with its rows of medicine bottles, and with the travelling trunks standing about unpacked, still made her shudder.

“Was your husband, as I’ve been told, nearly twice your age?” asked Madame Deberle with an appearance of profound interest, while Mademoiselle Aurelie cocked her ears so as not to lose a syllable of the conversation.

“Oh, no!” replied Helene. “He was scarcely six years older.”

Then she ventured to enter into the story of her marriage, telling in a few brief sentences how her husband had fallen deeply in love with her while she was living with her father, Monsieur Mouret, a hatter in the Rue des Petites-Maries, at Marseilles; how the Grandjean family, who were rich sugar-refiners, were bitterly opposed to the match, on account of her poverty. She spoke, too, of the ill-omened and secret wedding after the usual legal formalities, and of their hand-to-mouth existence, till the day an uncle on dying left them some ten thousand francs a year. It was then that Grandjean, within whom an intense hatred of Marseilles was growing, had decided on coming to Paris, to live there for good.

“And how old were you when you were married?” was Madame Deberle’s next question.

“Seventeen.”

“You must have been very beautiful.”

The conversation suddenly ceased, for Helene had not seemed to hear the remark.

“Madame Manguelin!” announced the footman.

A young, retiring woman, evidently ill at ease, was ushered in. Madame Deberle scarcely rose. It was one of her dependents, who had called to thank her for some service performed. The visitor only remained for a few minutes, and left the room with a courtesy.

Madame Deberle then resumed the conversation, and spoke of Abbe Jouve, with whom both were acquainted. The Abbe was a meek officiating priest at Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the parish church of Passy; however, his charity was such that he was more beloved and more respectfully hearkened to than any other priest in the district.

“Oh, he has such pious eloquence!” exclaimed Madame Deberle, with a sanctimonious look.

“He has been very kind to us,” said Helene. “My husband had formerly known him at Marseilles. The moment he heard of my misfortune he took charge of everything. To him we owe our settling in Passy.”

“He has a brother, hasn’t he?” questioned Juliette.

“Yes, a step-brother, for his mother married again. Monsieur Rambaud was also acquainted with my husband. He has started a large business in the Rue de Rambuteau, where he sells oils and other Southern produce. I believe he makes a large amount of money by it.” And she added, with a laugh: “The Abbe and his brother make up my court.”

Jeanne, sitting on the edge of her chair, and wearied to death, now cast an impatient look at her mother. Her long, delicate, lamb-like face wore a pained expression, as if she disliked all this conversation; and she appeared at times to sniff the heavy, oppressive odors floating in the room, while casting suspicious side-glances at the furniture, as though her own exquisite sensibility warned her of some undefined dangers. Finally, however, she turned a look of tyrannical worship on her mother.

Madame Deberle noticed the child’s uneasiness.

“Here’s a little girl,” she said, “who feels tired at being serious, like a grown-up person. There are some picture-books on the table, dear; they will amuse you.”

Jeanne took up an album, but her eyes strayed from it to glance imploringly at her mother. Helene, charmed by her hostess’s excessive kindness, did not move; there was nothing of the fidget in her, and she would of her own accord remain seated for hours. However, as the servant announced three ladies in succession — Madame Berthier, Madame de Guiraud, and Madame Levasseur — she thought she ought to rise.

“Oh! pray stop,” exclaimed Madame Deberle; “I must show you my son.”

The semi-circle round the fireplace was increasing in size. The ladies were all gossiping at the same time. One of them declared that she was completely broken down, as for five days she had not gone to bed till four o’clock in the morning. Another indulged in a diatribe against wet nurses; she could no longer find one who was honest. Next the conversation fell on dressmakers. Madame Deberle affirmed no woman tailor could fit you properly; a man was requisite. Two of the ladies, however, were mumbling something under their breath, and, a silence intervening, two or three words became audible. Every one then broke into a laugh, while languidly waving their fans.

“Monsieur Malignon!” announced the servant.

A tall young man, dressed in good style, was ushered in. Some exclamations greeted him. Madame Deberle, not taking the trouble to rise, stretched out her hand and inquired: “Well! what of yesterday at the Vaudeville?”

“Vile!” was his reply.

“What! vile! She’s marvellous when she clutches her bosom and throws back her head —”

“Stop! stop! The whole thing is loathsome in its realism.”

And then quite a dispute commenced. It was easy to talk of realism, but the young man would have no realism at all.

“I would not have it in anything, you hear!” said he, raising his voice. “No, not in anything! it degrades art.”

People would soon be seeing some fine things on the stage, indeed! Why didn’t Noemi follow out her actions to their logical conclusion? And he illustrated his remark with a gesture which quite scandalized the ladies. Oh, how horrible! However, when Madame Deberle had declared that the actress produced a great effect, and Madame Levasseur had related how a lady had fainted in the balcony, everybody agreed that the affair was a great success; and with this the discussion stopped short.

The young man sat in an arm-chair, with his legs stretched out among the ladies’ flowing skirts. He seemed to be quite at home in the doctor’s house. He had mechanically plucked a flower from a vase, and was tearing it to pieces with his teeth. Madame Deberle interrupted him:

“Have you read that novel which —”

He did not allow her to finish, but replied, with a superior air, that he only read two novels in the year.

As for the exhibition of paintings at the Art Club, it was not worth troubling about; and then, every topic being exhausted, he rose and leaned over Juliette’s little sofa, conversing with her in a low voice, while the other ladies continued chatting together in an animated manner.

At length: “Dear me! he’s gone,” exclaimed Madame Berthier turning round. “I met him only an hour ago in Madame Robinot’s drawing-room.”

“Yes, and he is now going to visit Madame Lecomte,” said Madame Deberle. “He goes about more than any other man in Paris.” She turned to Helene, who had been following the scene, and added: “A very distinguished young fellow he is, and we like him very much. He has some interest in a stockbroking business; he’s very rich besides, and well posted in everything.”

The other ladies, however, were now going off.

“Good-bye, dear madame. I rely upon you for Wednesday.”

“Yes, to be sure; Wednesday.”

“Oh, by the way, will you be at that evening party? One doesn’t know whom one may meet. If you go, I’ll go.”

“Ah, well! I’ll go, I promise you. Give my best regards to Monsieur de Guiraud.”

When Madame Deberle returned she found Helene standing in the middle of the drawing-room. Jeanne had drawn close to her mother, whose hands she firmly grasped; and thus clinging to her caressingly and almost convulsively, she was drawing her little by little towards the doorway.

“Ah, I was forgetting!” exclaimed the lady of the house; and ringing the bell for the servant, she said to him: “Pierre, tell Miss Smithson to bring Lucien here.”

During the short interval of waiting that ensued the door was again opened, but this time in a familiar fashion and without any formal announcement. A good-looking girl of some sixteen years of age entered in company with an old man, short of stature but with a rubicund, chubby face.

“Good-day, sister,” was the girl’s greeting, as she kissed Madame Deberle.

“Good-day, Pauline! good-day, father!” replied the doctor’s wife.

Mademoiselle Aurelie, who had not stirred from her seat beside the fire, rose to exchange greetings with Monsieur Letellier. He owned an extensive silk warehouse on the Boulevard des Capucines. Since his wife’s death he had been taking his younger daughter about everywhere, in search of a rich husband for her.

“Were you at the Vaudeville last night?” asked Pauline.

“Oh, it was simply marvellous!” repeated Juliette in parrot-fashion, as, standing before a mirror, she rearranged a rebellious curl.

“It is annoying to be so young; one can’t go to anything!” said Pauline, pouting like a spoiled child. “I went with papa to the theatre-door at midnight, to find out how the piece had taken.”

“Yes, and we tumbled upon Malignon,” said the father.

“He was extremely pleased with it.”

“Really!” exclaimed Juliette. “He was here a minute ago, and declared it vile. One never knows how to take him.”

“Have you had many visitors to-day?” asked Pauline, rushing off to another subject.

“Oh, several ladies; quite a crowd! The room was never once empty. I’m dead-beat —”

Here she abruptly broke off, remembering she had a formal introduction to make

“My father, my sister — Madame Grandjean.”

The conversation was turning on children and the ailments which give mothers so much worry when Miss Smithson, an English governess, appeared with a little boy clinging to her hand. Madame Deberle scolded her in English for having kept them waiting.

“Ah! here’s my little Lucien!” exclaimed Pauline as she dropped on her knees before the child, with a great rustling of skirts.

“Now, now, leave him alone!” said Juliette. “Come here, Lucien; come and say good-day to this little lady.”

The boy came forward very sheepishly. He was no more than seven years old, fat and dumpy, and dressed as coquettishly as a doll. As he saw that they were all looking at him with smiles, he stopped short, and surveyed Jeanne, his blue eyes wide open with astonishment.

“Go on!” urged his mother.

He turned his eyes questioningly on her and advanced a step, evincing all the sullenness peculiar to lads of his age, his head lowered, his thick lips pouting, and his eyebrows bent into a growing frown. Jeanne must have frightened him with the serious look she wore standing there in her black dress. She had not ceased holding her mother’s hand, and was nervously pressing her fingers on the bare part of the arm between the sleeve and glove. With head lowered she awaited Lucien’s approach uneasily, like a young and timid savage, ready to fly from his caress. But a gentle push from her mother prompted her to step forward.

“Little lady, you will have to kiss him first,” Madame Deberle said laughingly. “Ladies always have to begin with him. Oh! the little stupid.”

“Kiss him, Jeanne,” urged Helene.

The child looked up at her mother; and then, as if conquered by the bashful looks of the little noodle, seized with sudden pity as she gazed on his good-natured face, so dreadfully confused — she smiled divinely. A sudden wave of hidden tenderness rose within her and brightened her features, and she whispered: “Willingly, mamma!”

Then, taking Lucien under the armpits, almost lifting him from the ground, she gave him a hearty kiss on each cheek. He had no further hesitation in embracing her.

“Bravo! capital!” exclaimed the onlookers.

With a bow Helene turned to leave, accompanied to the door by Madame Deberle.

“I beg you, madame,” said she, “to present my heartiest thanks to the doctor. He relieved me of such dreadful anxiety the other night.”

“Is Henri not at home?” broke in Monsieur Letellier.

“No, he will be away some time yet,” was Juliette’s reply. “But you’re not going away; you’ll dine with us,” she continued, addressing Mademoiselle Aurelie, who had risen as if to leave with Madame Grandjean.

The old maid with each Saturday expected a similar invitation, then decided to relieve herself of shawl and bonnet. The heat in the drawing-room was intense, and Monsieur Letellier hastened to open a window, at which he remained standing, struck by the sight of a lilac bush which was already budding. Pauline, meantime, had begun playfully running after Lucien behind the chairs and couches, left in confusion by the visitors.

On the threshold Madame Deberle held out her hand to Helene with a frank and friendly movement.

“You will allow me,” said she. “My husband spoke to me about you, and I felt drawn to you. Your bereavement, your lonely life — in short, I am very glad to have seen you, and you must not be long in coming back.”

“I give you my promise, and I am obliged to you,” said Helene, moved by these tokens of affection from a woman whom she had imagined rather flighty. They clasped hands, and each looked into the other’s face with a happy smile. Juliette’s avowal of her sudden friendship was given with a caressing air. “You are too lovely not to be loved!” she said.

Helene broke into a merry laugh, for her beauty never engaged her thoughts, and she called Jeanne, whose eyes were busy watching the pranks of Lucien and Pauline. But Madame Deberle detained the girl for a moment longer.

“You are good friends henceforth,” she said; “you must just say au revoir.”

Thereupon the two children blew one another a kiss with their finger-tips.

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