A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 21.

Night had long gathered in when Helene returned. From her umbrella the water dripped on step after step, whilst clinging to the balusters she ascended the staircase. She stood for a few seconds outside her door to regain her breath; the deafening rush of the rain still sounded in her ears; she still seemed to feel the jostling of hurrying foot-passengers, and to see the reflections from the street-lamps dancing in the puddles. She was walking in a dream, filled with the surprise of the kisses that had been showered upon her; and as she fumbled for her key she believed that her bosom felt neither remorse nor joy. Circumstances had compassed it all; she could have done naught to prevent it. But the key was not to be found; it was doubtless inside, in the pocket of her other gown. At this discovery her vexation was intense; it seemed as though she were denied admission to her own home. It became necessary that she should ring the bell.

“Oh! it’s madame!” exclaimed Rosalie as she opened the door. “I was beginning to feel uneasy.”

She took the umbrella, intending to place it in the kitchen sink, and then rattled on:

“Good gracious! what torrents! Zephyrin, who has just come, was drenched to the skin. I took the liberty, madame, of keeping him to dinner. He has leave till ten o’clock.”

Helene followed her mechanically. She felt a desire to look once more on everything in her home before removing her bonnet.

“You have done quite right, my girl,” she answered.

For a moment she lingered on the kitchen threshold, gazing at the bright fire. Then she instinctively opened the door of a cupboard, and promptly shut it again. Everything was in its place, chairs and tables alike; she found them all again, and their presence gave her pleasure. Zephyrin had, in the meantime, struggled respectfully to his feet. She nodded to him, smiling.

“I didn’t know whether to put the roast on,” began the maid.

“Why, what time is it?” asked Helene.

“Oh, it’s close on seven o’clock, madame.”

“What! seven o’clock!”

Astonishment riveted her to the floor; she had lost all consciousness of time, and seemed to awaken from a dream.

“And where’s Jeanne?” she asked.

“Oh! she has been very good, madame. I even think she must have fallen asleep, for I haven’t heard her for some time.”

“Haven’t you given her a light?”

Embarrassment closed Rosalie’s lips; she was unwilling to relate that Zephyrin had brought her some pictures which had engrossed her attention. Mademoiselle had never made the least stir, so she could scarcely have wanted anything. Helene, however, paid no further heed to her, but ran into the room, where a dreadful chill fell upon her.

“Jeanne! Jeanne!” she called.

No answer broke the stillness. She stumbled against an arm-chair. From the dining-room, the door of which she had left ajar, some light streamed across a corner of the carpet. She felt a shiver come over her, and she could have declared that the rain was falling in the room, with its moist breath and continuous streaming. Then, on turning her head, she at once saw the pale square formed by the open window and the gloomy grey of the sky.

“Who can have opened this window?” she cried. “Jeanne! Jeanne!”

Still no answering word. A mortal terror fell on Helene’s heart. She must look out of this window; but as she felt her way towards it, her hands lighted on a head of hair — it was Jeanne’s . And then, as Rosalie entered with a lamp, the child appeared with blanched face, sleeping with her cheek upon her crossed arms, while the big raindrops from the roof splashed upon her. Her breathing was scarcely perceptible, so overcome she was with despair and fatigue. Among the lashes of her large, bluey eyelids there were still two heavy tears.

“The unhappy child!” stammered Helene. “Oh, heavens! she’s icy cold! To fall asleep there, at such a time, when she had been expressly forbidden to touch the window! Jeanne, Jeanne, speak to me; wake up, Jeanne!”

Rosalie had prudently vanished. The child, on being raised in her mother’s embrace, let her head drop as though she were unable to shake off the leaden slumber that had seized upon her. At last, however, she raised her eyelids; but the glare of the lamp dazzled her, and she remained benumbed and stupid.

“Jeanne, it’s I! What’s wrong with you? See, I’ve just come back,” said Helene.

But the child seemingly failed to understand her; in her stupefaction she could only murmur: “Oh! Ah!”

She gazed inquiringly at her mother, as though she failed to recognize her. And suddenly she shivered, growing conscious of the cold air of the room. Her memory was awakening, and the tears rolled from her eyelids to her cheeks. Then she commenced to struggle, in the evident desire to be left alone.

“It’s you, it’s you! Oh, leave me; you hold me too tight! I was so comfortable.”

She slipped from her mother’s arms with affright in her face. Her uneasy looks wandered from Helene’s hands to her shoulders; one of those hands was ungloved, and she started back from the touch of the moist palm and warm fingers with a fierce resentment, as though fleeing from some stranger’s caress. The old perfume of vervain had died away; Helene’s fingers had surely become greatly attenuated, and her hand was unusually soft. This skin was no longer hers, and its touch exasperated Jeanne.

“Come, I’m not angry with you,” pleaded Helene. “But, indeed, have you behaved well? Come and kiss me.”

Jeanne, however, still recoiled from her. She had no remembrance of having seen her mother dressed in that gown or cloak. Besides, she looked so wet and muddy. Where had she come from dressed in that dowdy style.

“Kiss me, Jeanne,” repeated Helene.

But her voice also seemed strange; in Jeanne’s ears it sounded louder. Her old heartache came upon her once more, as when an injury had been done her; and unnerved by the presence of what was unknown and horrible to her, divining, however, that she was breathing an atmosphere of falsehood, she burst into sobs.

“No, no, I entreat you! You left me all alone; and oh! I’ve been so miserable!”

“But I’m back again, my darling. Don’t weep any more; I’ve come home!”

“Oh no, no! it’s all over now! I don’t wish for you any more! Oh, I waited and waited, and have been so wretched!”

Helene took hold of the child again, and gently sought to draw her to her bosom; but she resisted stubbornly, plaintively exclaiming:

“No, no; it will never be the same! You are not the same!”

“What! What are you talking of, child?”

“I don’t know; you are not the same.”

“Do you mean to say that I don’t love you any more?”

“I don’t know; you are no longer the same! Don’t say no. You don’t feel the same! It’s all over, over, over. I wish to die!”

With blanching face Helene again clasped her in her arms. Did her looks, then, reveal her secret? She kissed her, but a shudder ran through the child’s frame, and an expression of such misery crept into her face that Helene forbore to print a second kiss upon her brow. She still kept hold of her, but neither of them uttered a word. Jeanne’s sobbing fell to a whisper, a nervous revolt stiffening her limbs the while. Helene’s first thought was that much notice ought not to be paid to a child’s whims; but to her heart there stole a feeling of secret shame, and the weight of her daughter’s body on her shoulder brought a blush to her cheeks. She hastened to put Jeanne down, and each felt relieved.

“Now, be good, and wipe your eyes,” said Helene. “We’ll make everything all right.”

The child acquiesced in all gentleness, but seemed somewhat afraid and glanced covertly at her mother. All at once her frame was shaken by a fit of coughing.

“Good heavens! why, you’ve made yourself ill now! I cannot stay away from you a moment. Did you feel cold?

“Yes, mamma; in the back.”

“See here; put on this shawl. The dining-room stove is lighted, and you’ll soon feel warm. Are you hungry?”

Jeanne hesitated. It was on the tip of her tongue to speak the truth and say no; but she darted a side glance at her mother, and, recoiling, answered in a whisper: “Yes, mamma.”

“Ah, well, it will be all right,” exclaimed Helene, desirous of tranquillizing herself. “Only, I entreat you, you naughty child, don’t frighten me like this again.”

On Rosalie re-entering the room to announce that dinner was ready, Helene severely scolded her. The little maid’s head drooped; she stammered out that it was all very true, for she ought to have looked better after mademoiselle. Then, hoping to mollify her mistress, she busied herself in helping her to change her clothes. “Good gracious! madame was in a fine state!” she remarked, as she assisted in removing each mud-stained garment, at which Jeanne glared suspiciously, still racked by torturing thoughts.

“Madame ought to feel comfortable now,” exclaimed Rosalie when it was all over. “It’s awfully nice to get into dry clothes after a drenching.”

Helene, on finding herself once more in her blue dressing-gown, gave vent to a slight sigh, as though a new happiness had welled up within her. She again regained her old cheerfulness; she had rid herself of a burden in throwing off those bedraggled garments. She washed her face and hands; and while she stood there, still glistening with moisture, her dressing-gown buttoned up to her chin, she was slowly approached by Jeanne, who took one of her hands and kissed it.

At table, however, not a word passed between mother and daughter. The fire flared with a merry roar, and there was a look of happiness about the little dining-room, with its bright mahogany and gleaming china. But the old stupor which drove away all thought seemed to have again fallen on Helene; she ate mechanically, though with an appearance of appetite. Jeanne sat facing her, and quietly watched her over her glass, noting each of her movements. But all at once the child again coughed, and her mother, who had become unconscious of her presence, immediately displayed lively concern.

“Why, you’re coughing again! Aren’t you getting warm?”

“Oh, yes, mamma; I’m very warm.”

Helene leaned towards her to feel her hand and ascertain whether she was speaking the truth. Only then did she perceive that her plate was still full.

“Why, you said you were hungry. Don’t you like what you have there?”

“Oh, yes, mamma; I’m eating away.”

With an effort Jeanne swallowed a mouthful. Helene looked at her for a time, but soon again began dreaming of the fatal room which she had come from. It did not escape the child that her mother took little interest in her now. As the dinner came to an end, her poor wearied frame sank down on the chair, and she sat there like some bent, aged woman, with the dim eyes of one of those old maids for whom love is past and gone.

“Won’t mademoiselle have any jam?” asked Rosalie. “If not, can I remove the cloth?”

Helene still sat there with far-away looks.

“Mamma, I’m sleepy,” exclaimed Jeanne in a changed voice. “Will you let me go to bed? I shall feel better in bed.”

Once more her mother seemed to awake with a start to consciousness of her surroundings.

“You are suffering, my darling! where do you feel the pain? Tell me.”

“No, no; I told you I’m all right! I’m sleepy, and it’s already time for me to go to bed.”

She left her chair and stood up, as though to prove that there was no illness threatening her: but her benumbed feet tottered over the floor on her way to the bedroom. She leaned against the furniture, and her hardihood was such that not a tear came from her, despite the feverish fire darting through her frame. Her mother followed to assist her to bed; but the child had displayed such haste in undressing herself that she only arrived in time to tie up her hair for the night. Without need of any helping hand Jeanne slipped between the sheets, and quickly closed her eyes.

“Are you comfortable?” asked Helene, as she drew up the bedclothes and carefully tucked her in.

“Yes, quite comfortable. Leave me alone, and don’t disturb me. Take away the lamp.”

Her only yearning was to be alone in the darkness, that she might reopen her eyes and chew the cud of her sorrows, with no one near to watch her. When the light had been carried away, her eyes opened quite wide.

Nearby, in the meantime, Helene was pacing up and down her room. She was seized with a wondrous longing to be up and moving about; the idea of going to bed seemed to her insufferable. She glanced at the clock — twenty minutes to nine; what was she to do? she rummaged about in a drawer, but forgot what she was seeking for. Then she wandered to her bookshelves, glancing aimlessly over the books; but the very reading of the titles wearied her. A buzzing sprang up in her ears with the room’s stillness; the loneliness, the heavy atmosphere, were as an agony to her. She would fain have had some bustle going on around her, have had some one there to speak to — something, in short, to draw her from herself. She twice listened at the door of Jeanne’s little room, from which, however, not even a sound of breathing came. Everything was quiet; so she turned back once more, and amused herself by taking up and replacing whatever came to her hand. Then suddenly the thought flashed across her mind that Zephyrin must still be with Rosalie. It was a relief to her; she was delighted at the idea of not being alone, and stepped in her slippers towards the kitchen.

She was already in the ante-room, and was opening the glass door of the inner passage, when she detected the re-echoing clap of a swinging box on the ears, and the next moment Rosalie could be heard exclaiming:

“Ha, ha! you think you’ll nip me again, do you? Take your paws off!”

“Oh! that’s nothing, my charmer!” exclaimed Zephyrin in his husky, guttural voice. “That’s to show how I love you — in this style, you know —”

But at that moment the door creaked, and Helene, entering, discovered the diminutive soldier and the servant maid seated very quietly at table, with their noses bent over their plates. They had assumed an air of complete indifference; their innocence was certain. Yet their faces were red with blushes, and their eyes aflame, and they wriggled restlessly on their straw-bottomed chairs. Rosalie started up and hurried forward.

“Madame wants something?”

Helene had no pretext ready to her tongue. She had come to see them, to chat with them, and have their company. However, she felt a sudden shame, and dared not say that she required nothing.

“Have you any hot water?” she asked, after a silence.

“No, madame; and my fire is nearly out. Oh, but it doesn’t matter; I’ll give you some in five minutes. It boils in no time.”

She threw on some charcoal, and then set the kettle in place; but seeing that her mistress still lingered in the doorway, she said:

“I’ll bring the water to you in five minutes, madame.”

Helene responded with a wave of the hand.

“I’m not in a hurry for it; I’ll wait. Don’t disturb yourself, my girl; eat away, eat away. There’s a lad who’ll have to go back to barracks.”

Rosalie thereupon sat down again. Zephyrin, who had also been standing, made a military salute, and returned to the cutting of his meat, with his elbows projecting as though to show that he knew how to conduct himself at table. Thus eating together, after madame had finished dinner, they did not even draw the table into the middle of the kitchen, but contented themselves with sitting side by side, with their noses turned towards the wall. A glorious prospect of stewpans was before them. A bunch of laurel and thyme hung near, and a spice-box exhaled a piquant perfume. Around them — the kitchen was not yet tidied — was all the litter of the things cleared away from the dining-room; however, the spot seemed a charming one to these hungry sweethearts, and especially to Zephyrin, who here feasted on such things as were never seen within the walls of his barracks. The predominant odor was one of roast meat, seasoned with a dash of vinegar — the vinegar of the salad. In the copper pans and iron pots the reflected light from the gas was dancing; and as the heat of the fire was beyond endurance, they had set the window ajar, and a cool breeze blew in from the garden, stirring the blue cotton curtain.

“Must you be in by ten o’clock exactly?” asked Helene.

“I must, madame, with all deference to you,” answered Zephyrin.

“Well, it’s along way off. Do you take the “bus’?”

“Oh, yes, madame, sometimes. But you see a good swinging walk is much the best.”

She had taken a step into the kitchen, and leaning against the dresser, her arms dangling and her hands clasped over her dressing-gown, she began gossiping away about the wretched weather they had had that day, about the food which was rationed out in barracks, and the high price of eggs. As soon, however, as she had asked a question and their answer had been given the conversation abruptly fell. They experienced some discomfort with her standing thus behind their backs. They did not turn round, but spoke into their plates, their shoulders bent beneath her gaze, while, to conform to propriety, each mouthful they swallowed was as small as possible. On the other hand, Helene had now regained her tranquillity, and felt quite happy there.

“Don’t fret, madame,” said Rosalie; “the kettle is singing already. I wish the fire would only burn up a little better!”

She wanted to see to it, but Helene would not allow her to disturb herself. It would be all right by-and-by. An intense weariness now pervaded the young woman’s limbs. Almost mechanically she crossed the kitchen and approached the window, where she observed the third chair, which was very high, and when turned over became a stepladder. However, she did not sit down on it at once, for she had caught sight of a number of pictures heaped up on a corner of the table.

“Dear me!” she exclaimed, as she took them in her hand, inspired with the wish of gratifying Zephyrin.

The little soldier gaped with a silent chuckle. His face beamed with smiles, and his eyes followed each picture, his head wagging whenever something especially lovely was being examined by madame.

“That one there,” he suddenly remarked, “I found in the Rue du Temple. She’s a beautiful woman, with flowers in her basket.”

Helene sat down and inspected the beautiful woman who decorated the gilt and varnished lid of a box of lozenges, every stain on which had been carefully wiped off by Zephyrin. On the chair a dish-cloth was hanging, and she could not well lean back. She flung it aside, however, and once more lapsed into her dreaming. Then the two sweethearts remarked madame’s good nature, and their restraint vanished — in the end, indeed, her very presence was forgotten by them. One by one the pictures had dropped from her hands on to her knees, and, with a vague smile playing on her face, she examined the sweethearts and listened to their talk.

“I say, my dear,” whispered the girl, “won’t you have some more mutton?”

He answered neither yes nor no, but swung backwards and forwards on his chair as though he had been tickled, then contentedly stretched himself, while she placed a thick slice on his plate. His red epaulets moved up and down, and his bullet-shaped head, with its huge projecting ears, swayed to and fro over his yellow collar as though it were the head of some Chinese idol. His laughter ran all over him, and he was almost bursting inside his tunic, which he did not unbutton, however, out of respect for madame.

“This is far better than old Rouvet’s radishes!” he exclaimed at last, with his mouth full.

This was a reminiscence of their country home; and at thought of it they both burst into immoderate laughter. Rosalie even had to hold on to the table to prevent herself from falling. One day, before their first communion, it seemed, Zephyrin had filched three black radishes from old Rouvet. They were very tough radishes indeed — tough enough to break one’s teeth; but Rosalie all the same had crunched her share of the spoil at the back of the schoolhouse. Hence it was that every time they chanced to be taking a meal together Zephyrin never omitted to ejaculate: “Yes; this is better than old Rouvet’s radishes!”

And then Rosalie’s laughter would become so violent that nine times out of ten her petticoat-string would give way with an audible crack.

“Hello! has it parted?” asked the little soldier, with triumph in his tone.

But Rosalie responded with a good slap.

“It’s disgusting to make me break the string like this!” said she. “I put a fresh one on every week.”

However, he came nearer to her, intent on some joke or other, by way of revenging the blow; but with a furious glance she reminded him that her mistress was looking on. This seemed to trouble him but little, for he replied with a rakish wink, as much as to say that no woman, not even a lady, disliked a little fun. To be sure, when folks are sweethearting, other people always like to be looking on.

“You have still five years to serve, haven’t you?” asked Helene, leaning back on the high wooden-seated chair, and yielding to a feeling of tenderness.

“Yes, madame; perhaps only four if they don’t need me any longer.”

It occurred to Rosalie that her mistress was thinking of her marriage, and with assumed anger, she broke in:

“Oh! madame, he can stick in the army for another ten years if he likes! I sha’n’t trouble myself to ask the Government for him. He is becoming too much of a rake; yes, I believe he’s going to the dogs. Oh! it’s useless for you to laugh — that won’t take with me. When we go before the mayor to get married, we’ll see on whose side the laugh is!”

At this he chuckled all the more, in order that he might show himself a lady-killer before madame, and the maid’s annoyance then became real.

“Oh!” said she, “we know all about that! You know, madame, he’s still a booby at heart. You’ve no idea how stupid that uniform makes them all! That’s the way he goes on with his comrades; but if I turned him out, you would hear him sobbing on the stairs. Oh, I don’t care a fig for you, my lad! Why, whenever I please, won’t you always be there to do as I tell you?”

She bent forward to observe him closely; but, on seeing that his good-natured, freckled face was beginning to cloud over, she was suddenly moved, and prattled on, without any seeming transition:

“Ah! I didn’t tell you that I’ve received a letter from auntie. The Guignard lot want to sell their house — aye, and almost for nothing too. We might perhaps be able to take it later on.”

“By Jove!” exclaimed Zephyrin, brightening, “we should be quite at home there. There’s room enough for two cows.”

With this idea they lapsed into silence. They were now having some dessert. The little soldier licked the jam on his bread with a child’s greedy satisfaction, while the servant girl carefully pared an apple with a maternal air.

“Madame!” all at once exclaimed Rosalie, “there’s the water boiling now.”

Helene, however, never stirred. She felt herself enveloped by an atmosphere of happiness. She gave a continuance to their dreams, and pictured them living in the country in the Guignards’ house and possessed of two cows. A smile came to her face as she saw Zephyrin sitting there to all appearance so serious, though in reality he was patting Rosalie’s knee under the table, whilst she remained very stiff, affecting an innocent demeanor. Then everything became blurred. Helene lost all definite sense of her surroundings, of the place where she was, and of what had brought her there. The copper pans were flashing on the walls; feelings of tenderness riveted her to the spot; her eyes had a far-away look. She was not affected in any way by the disorderly state of the kitchen; she had no consciousness of having demeaned herself by coming there; all she felt was a deep pleasure, as when a longing has been satisfied. Meantime the heat from the fire was bedewing her pale brow with beads of perspiration, and behind her the wind, coming in through the half-open window, quivered delightfully on her neck.

“Madame, your water is boiling,” again said Rosalie. “There will be soon none left in the kettle.”

She held the kettle before her, and Helene, for the moment astonished, was forced to rise. “Oh, yes! thank you!”

She no longer had an excuse to remain, and went away slowly and regretfully. When she reached her room she was at a loss what to do with the kettle. Then suddenly within her there came a burst of passionate love. The torpor which had held her in a state of semi-unconsciousness gave way to a wave of glowing feeling, the rush of which thrilled her as with fire. She quivered, and memories returned to her — memories of her passion and of Henri.

While she was taking off her dressing-gown and gazing at her bare arms, a noise broke on her anxious ear. She thought she had heard Jeanne coughing. Taking up the lamp she went into the closet, but found the child with eyelids closed, seemingly fast asleep. However, the moment the mother, satisfied with her examination, had turned her back, Jeanne’s eyes again opened widely to watch her as she returned to her room. There was indeed no sleep for Jeanne, nor had she any desire to sleep. A second fit of coughing racked her bosom, but she buried her head beneath the coverlet and stifled every sound. She might go away for ever now; her mother would never miss her. Her eyes were still wide open in the darkness; she knew everything as though knowledge had come with thought, and she was dying of it all, but dying without a murmur.

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