A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 22.

Next day all sorts of practical ideas took possession of Helene’s mind. She awoke impressed by the necessity of keeping watch over her happiness, and shuddering with fear lest by some imprudent step she might lose Henri. At this chilly morning hour, when the room still seemed asleep, she felt that she idolized him, loved him with a transport which pervaded her whole being. Never had she experienced such an anxiety to be diplomatic. Her first thought was that she must go to see Juliette that very morning, and thus obviate the need of any tedious explanations or inquiries which might result in ruining everything.

On calling upon Madame Deberle at about nine o’clock she found her already up, with pallid cheeks and red eyes like the heroine of a tragedy. As soon as the poor woman caught sight of her, she threw herself sobbing upon her neck exclaiming that she was her good angel. She didn’t love Malignon, not in the least, she swore it! Gracious heavens! what a foolish affair! It would have killed her — there was no doubt of that! She did not now feel herself to be in the least degree qualified for ruses, lies, and agonies, and the tyranny of a sentiment that never varied. Oh, how delightful did it seem to her to find herself free again! She laughed contentedly; but immediately afterwards there was another outburst of tears as she besought her friend not to despise her. Beneath her feverish unrest a fear lingered; she imagined that her husband knew everything. He had come home the night before trembling with agitation. She overwhelmed Helene with questions; and Helene, with a hardihood and facility at which she herself was amazed, poured into her ears a story, every detail of which she invented offhand. She vowed to Juliette that her husband doubted her in nothing. It was she, Helene, who had become acquainted with everything, and, wishing to save her, had devised that plan of breaking in upon their meeting. Juliette listened to her, put instant credit in the fiction, and, beaming through her tears, grew sunny with joy. She threw herself once more on Helene’s neck. Her caresses brought no embarrassment to the latter; she now experienced none of the honorable scruples that had at one time affected her. When she left her lover’s wife after extracting a promise from her that she would try to be calm, she laughed in her sleeve at her own cunning; she was in a transport of delight.

Some days slipped away. Helene’s whole existence had undergone a change; and in the thoughts of every hour she no longer lived in her own home, but with Henri. The only thing that existed for her was that next-door house in which her heart beat. Whenever she could find an excuse to do so she ran thither, and forgot everything in the content of breathing the same air as her lover. In her first rapture the sight of Juliette even flooded her with tenderness; for was not Juliette one of Henri’s belongings? He had not, however, again been able to meet her alone. She appeared loth to give him a second assignation. One evening, when he was leading her into the hall, she even made him swear that he would never again visit the house in the Passage des Eaux, as such an act might compromise her.

Meantime, Jeanne was shaken by a short, dry cough, that never ceased, but became severer towards evening every day. She would then be slightly feverish, and she grew weak with the perspiration that bathed her in her sleep. When her mother cross-questioned her, she answered that she wasn’t ill, that she felt no pain. Doubtless her cold was coming to an end. Helene, tranquillized by the explanation, and having no adequate idea of what was going on around her, retained, however, in her bosom, amidst the rapture that made up her life, a vague feeling of sorrow, of some weight that made her heart bleed despite herself. At times, when she was plunged in one of those causeless transports which made her melt with tenderness, an anxious thought would come to her — she imagined that some misfortune was hovering behind her. She turned round, however, and then smiled. People are ever in a tremble when they are too happy. There was nothing there. Jeanne had coughed a moment before, but she had some tisane to drink; there would be no ill effects.

However, one afternoon old Doctor Bodin, who visited them in the character of a family friend, prolonged his stay, and stealthily, but carefully, examined Jeanne with his little blue eyes. He questioned her as though he were having some fun with her, and on this occasion uttered no warning word. Two days later, however, he made his appearance again; and this time, not troubling to examine Jeanne, he talked away merrily in the fashion of a man who has seen many years and many things, and turned the conversation on travelling. He had once served as a military surgeon; he knew every corner of Italy. It was a magnificent country, said he, which to be admired ought to be seen in spring. Why didn’t Madame Grandjean take her daughter there? From this he proceeded by easy transitions to advising a trip to the land of the sun, as he styled it. Helene’s eyes were bent on him fixedly. “No, no,” he exclaimed, “neither of you is ill! Oh, no, certainly not! Still, a change of air would mean new strength!” Her face had blanched, a mortal chill had come over her at the thought of leaving Paris. Gracious heavens! to go away so far, so far! to lose Henri in a moment, their love to droop without a morrow! Such was the agony which the thought gave her that she bent her head towards Jeanne to hide her emotion. Did Jeanne wish to go away? The child, with a chilly gesture, had intertwined her little fingers. Oh! yes, she would so like to go! She would so like to go away into the sunny land, quite alone, she and her mother, quite alone! And over her poor attenuated face with its cheeks burning with fever, there swept the bright hope of a new life. But Helene would listen to no more; indignation and distrust led her to imagine that all of them — the Abbe, Doctor Bodin, Jeanne herself — were plotting to separate her from Henri. When the old doctor noticed the pallor of her cheeks, he imagined that he had not spoken so cautiously as he might have done, and hastened to declare that there was no hurry, albeit he silently resolved to return to the subject at another time.

It happened that Madame Deberle intended to stop at home that day. As soon as the doctor had gone Helene hastened to put on her bonnet. Jeanne, however, refused to quit the house; she felt better beside the fire; she would be very good, and would not open the window. For some time past she had not teased her mother to be allowed to go with her; still she gazed after her as she went out with a longing look. Then, when she found herself alone, she shrunk into her chair and sat for hours motionless.

“Mamma, is Italy far away?” she asked as Helene glided towards her to kiss her.

“Oh! very far away, my pet!”

Jeanne clung round her neck, and not letting her rise again at the moment, whispered: “Well, Rosalie could take care of everything here. We should have no need of her. A small travelling-trunk would do for us, you know! Oh! it would be delightful, mother dear! Nobody but us two! I should come back quite plump — like this!”

She puffed out her cheeks and pictured how stout her arms would be. Helene’s answer was that she would see; and then she ran off with a final injunction to Rosalie to take good care of mademoiselle.

The child coiled herself up in the chimney-corner, gazing at the ruddy fire and deep in reverie. From time to time she moved her hands forward mechanically to warm them. The glinting of the flames dazzled her large eyes. So absorbed was she in her dreaming that she did not hear Monsieur Rambaud enter the room. His visits had now become very frequent; he came, he would say, in the interests of the poor paralytic woman for whom Doctor Deberle had not yet been able to secure admission into the Hospital for Incurables. Finding Jeanne alone, he took a seat on the other side of the fireplace, and chatted with her as though she were a grown-up person. It was most regrettable; the poor woman had been waiting a week; however, he would go down presently to see the doctor, who might perhaps give him an answer. Meanwhile he did not stir.

“Why hasn’t your mother taken you with her?” he asked.

Jeanne shrugged her shoulders with a gesture of weariness. It disturbed her to go about visiting other people. Nothing gave her any pleasure now.

“I am getting old,” she added, “and I can’t be always amusing myself. Mamma finds entertainment out of doors, and I within; so we are not together.”

Silence ensued. The child shivered, and held her hands out towards the fire which burnt steadily with a pinky glare; and, indeed, muffled as she was in a huge shawl, with a silk handkerchief round her neck and another encircling her head, she did look like some old dame. Shrouded in all these wraps, it struck one that she was no larger than an ailing bird, panting amidst its ruffled plumage. Monsieur Rambaud, with hands clasped over his knees, was gazing at the fire. Then, turning towards Jeanne, he inquired if her mother had gone out the evening before. She answered with a nod, yes. And did she go out the evening before that and the previous day? The answer was always yes, given with a nod of the head; her mother quitted her every day.

At this the child and Monsieur Rambaud gazed at one another for a long time, their faces pale and serious, as though they shared some great sorrow. They made no reference to it — a chit like her and an old man could not talk of such a thing together; but they were well aware why they were so sad, and why it was a pleasure to them to sit like this on either side of the fireplace when they were alone in the house. It was a comfort beyond telling. They loved to be near one another that their forlornness might pain them less. A wave of tenderness poured into their hearts; they would fain have embraced and wept together.

“You are cold, my dear old friend, I’m certain of it,” said Jeanne; “come nearer the fire.”

“No, no, my darling; I’m not cold.”

“Oh! you’re telling a fib; your hands are like ice! Come nearer, or I shall get vexed.”

It was now his turn to display his anxious care.

“I could lay a wager they haven’t left you any drink. I’ll run and make some for you; would you like it? Oh! I’m a good hand at making it. You would see, if I were your nurse, you wouldn’t be without anything you wanted.”

He did not allow himself any more explicit hint. Jeanne somewhat sharply declared she was disgusted with tisane; she was compelled to drink too much of it. However, now and then she would allow Monsieur Rambaud to flutter round her like a mother; he would slip a pillow under her shoulders, give her the medicine that she had almost forgotten, or carry her into the bedroom in his arms. These little acts of devotion thrilled both with tenderness. As Jeanne eloquently declared with her sombre eyes, whose flashes disturbed the old man so sorely, they were playing the parts of the father and the little girl while her mother was absent. Then, however, sadness would all at once fall upon them; their talk died away, and they glanced at one another stealthily with pitying looks.

That afternoon, after a lengthy silence, the child asked the question which she had already put to her mother: “Is Italy far away?”

“Oh! I should think so,” replied Monsieur Rambaud. “It’s away over yonder, on the other side of Marseilles, a deuce of a distance! Why do you ask me such a question?”

“Oh! because —” she began gravely. But she burst into loud complaints at her ignorance. She was always ill, and she had never been sent to school. Then they both became silent again, lulled into forgetfulness by the intense heat of the fire.

In the meantime Helene had found Madame Deberle and her sister Pauline in the Japanese pavilion where they so frequently whiled away the afternoon. Inside it was very warm, a heating apparatus filled it with a stifling atmosphere.

The large windows were shut, and a full view could be had of the little garden, which, in its winter guise, looked like some large sepia drawing, finished with exquisite delicacy, the little black branches of the trees showing clear against the brown earth. The two sisters were carrying on a sharp controversy.

“Now, be quiet, do!” exclaimed Juliette; “it is evidently our interest to support Turkey.”

“Oh! I’ve had a talk about it with a Russian,” replied Pauline, who was equally excited. “We are much liked at St. Petersburg, and it is only there that we can find our proper allies.”

Juliette’s face assumed a serious look, and, crossing her arms, she exclaimed: “Well, and what will you do with the balance of power in Europe?”

The Eastern crisis was the absorbing topic in Paris at that moment;* it was the stock subject of conversation, and no woman who pretended to any position could speak with propriety of anything else. Thus, for two days past, Madame Deberle had with passionate fervor devoted herself to foreign politics. Her ideas were very pronounced on the various eventualities which might arise; and Pauline greatly annoyed her by her eccentricity in advocating Russia’s cause in opposition to the clear interests of France. Juliette’s first desire was to convince her of her folly, but she soon lost her temper.

* The reader may be reminded that the period of the story is that of the Crimean war.

“Pooh! hold your tongue; you are talking foolishly! Now, if you had only studied the matter carefully with me —”

But she broke off to greet Helene, who entered at this moment.

“Good-day, my dear! It is very kind of you to call. I don’t suppose you have any news. This morning’s paper talked of an ultimatum. There has been a very exciting debate in the English House of Commons!”

“No, I don’t know anything,” answered Helene, who was astounded by the question. “I go out so little!”

However, Juliette had not waited for her reply, but was busy explaining to Pauline why it was necessary to neutralize the Black Sea; and her talk bristled with references to English and Russian generals, whose names she mentioned in a familiar way and with faultless pronunciation. However, Henri now made his appearance with several newspapers in his hand. Helene at once realized that he had come there for her sake; for their eyes had sought one another and exchanged a long, meaning glance. And when their hands met it was in a prolonged and silent clasp that told how the personality of each was lost in the other.

“Is there anything in the papers?” asked Juliette feverishly.

“In the papers, my dear?” repeated the doctor; “no there’s never anything.”

For a time the Eastern Question dropped into the background. There were frequent allusions to some one whom they were expecting, but who did not make his appearance. Pauline remarked that it would soon be three o’clock. Oh he would come, declared Madame Deberle; he had given such a definite promise; but she never hinted at any name. Helene listened without understanding; things which had no connection with Henri did not in the least interest her. She no longer brought her work when she now came down into the garden; and though her visits would last a couple of hours, she would take no part in the conversation, for her mind was ever filled with the same childish dream wherein all others miraculously vanished, and she was left alone with him. However, she managed to reply to Juliette’s questions, while Henri’s eyes, riveted on her own, thrilled her with a delicious languor. At last he stepped behind her with the intention of pulling up one of the blinds, and she fully divined that he had come to ask another meeting, for she noticed the tremor that seized him when he brushed against her hair.

“There’s a ring at the bell; that must be he!” suddenly exclaimed Pauline.

Then the faces of the two sisters assumed an air of indifference. It was Malignon who made his appearance, dressed with greater care than ever, and having a somewhat serious look. He shook hands; but eschewed his customary jocularity, thus returning, in a ceremonious manner, to this house where for some time he had not shown his face.

While the doctor and Pauline were expostulating with him on the rarity of his visits, Juliette bent down and whispered to Helene, who, despite her supreme indifference, was overcome with astonishment:

“Ah! you are surprised? Dear me! I am not angry with him at all! he’s such a good fellow at heart that nobody could long be angry with him! Just fancy! he has unearthed a husband for Pauline. It’s splendid, isn’t it?”

“Oh! no doubt,” answered Helene complaisantly.

“Yes, one of his friends, immensely rich, who did not think of getting married, but whom he has sworn to bring here! We were waiting for him to-day to have some definite reply. So, as you will understand, I had to pass over a lot of things. Oh! there’s no danger now; we know one another thoroughly.”

Her face beamed with a pretty smile, and she blushed slightly at the memories she conjured up; but she soon turned round and took possession of Malignon. Helene likewise smiled. These accommodating circumstances in life seemed to her sufficient excuse for her own delinquencies. It was absurd to think of tragic melodramas; no, everything wound up with universal happiness. However, while she had thus been indulging in the cowardly, but pleasing, thought that nothing was absolutely indefensible, Juliette and Pauline had opened the door of the pavilion, and were now dragging Malignon in their train into the garden. And, all at once, Helene heard Henri speaking to her in a low and passionate voice:

“I beseech you, Helene! Oh! I beseech you —”

She started to her feet, and gazed around her with sudden anxiety. They were quite alone; she could see the three others walking slowly along one of the walks. Henri was bold enough to lay his hand on her shoulder, and she trembled as she felt its pressure.

“As you wish,” she stammered, knowing full well what question it was that he desired to ask.

Then, hurriedly, they exchanged a few words.

“At the house in the Passage des Eaux,” said he.

“No, it is impossible — I have explained to you, and you swore to me —”

“Well, wherever you like, so that I may see you! In your own house — this evening. Shall I call?”

The idea was repellant to her. But she could only refuse with a sign, for fear again came upon her as she observed the two ladies and Malignon returning. Madame Deberle had taken the young man away under pretext of showing him some clumps of violets which were in full blossom notwithstanding the cold weather. Hastening her steps, she entered the pavilion before the others, her face illumined by a smile.

“It’s all arranged,” she exclaimed.

“What’s all arranged?” asked Helene, who was still trembling with excitement and had forgotten everything.

“Oh, that marriage! What a riddance! Pauline was getting a bit of a nuisance. However, the young man has seen her and thinks her charming! To-morrow we’re all going to dine with papa. I could have embraced Malignon for his good news!”

With the utmost self-possession Henri had contrived to put some distance between Helene and himself. He also expressed his sense of Malignon’s favor, and seemed to share his wife’s delight at the prospect of seeing their little sister settled at last. Then he turned to Helene, and informed her that she was dropping one of her gloves. She thanked him. They could hear Pauline laughing and joking in the garden. She was leaning towards Malignon, murmuring broken sentences in his ear, and bursting into loud laughter as he gave her whispered answers. No doubt he was chatting to her confidentially about her future husband. Standing near the open door of the pavilion, Helene meanwhile inhaled the cold air with delight.

It was at this moment that in the bedroom up above a silence fell on Jeanne and Monsieur Rambaud, whom the intense heat of the fire filled with languor. The child woke up from the long-continued pause with a sudden suggestion which seemed to be the outcome of her dreamy fit:

“Would you like to go into the kitchen? We’ll see if we can get a glimpse of mamma!”

“Very well; let us go,” replied Monsieur Rambaud.

Jeanne felt stronger that day, and reaching the kitchen without any assistance pressed her face against a windowpane. Monsieur Rambaud also gazed into the garden. The trees were bare of foliage, and through the large transparent windows of the Japanese pavilion they could make out every detail inside. Rosalie, who was busy attending to the soup, reproached mademoiselle with being inquisitive. But the child had caught sight of her mother’s dress; and pointed her out, whilst flattening her face against the glass to obtain a better view. Pauline meanwhile looked up, and nodded vigorously. Then Helene also made her appearance, and signed to the child to come down.

“They have seen you, mademoiselle,” said the servant girl. “They want you to go down.”

Monsieur Rambaud opened the window, and every one called to him to carry Jeanne downstairs. Jeanne, however, vanished into her room, and vehemently refused to go, accusing her worthy friend of having purposely tapped on the window. It was a great pleasure to her to look at her mother, but she stubbornly declared she would not go near that house; and to all Monsieur Rambaud’s questions and entreaties she would only return a stern “Because!” which was meant to explain everything.

“It is not you who ought to force me,” she said at last, with a gloomy look.

But he told her that she would grieve her mother very much, and that it was not right to insult other people. He would muffle her up well, she would not catch cold; and, so saying, he wound the shawl round her body, and taking the silk handkerchief from her head, set a knitted hood in its place. Even when she was ready, however, she still protested her unwillingness; and when in the end she allowed him to carry her down, it was with the express proviso that he would take her up again the moment she might feel poorly. The porter opened the door by which the two houses communicated, and when they entered the garden they were hailed with exclamations of joy. Madame Deberle, in particular, displayed a vast amount of affection for Jeanne; she ensconced her in a chair near the stove, and desired that the windows might be closed, for the air she declared was rather sharp for the dear child. Malignon had now left. As Helene began smoothing the child’s dishevelled hair, somewhat ashamed to see her in company muffled up in a shawl and a hood, Juliette burst out in protest:

“Leave her alone! Aren’t we all at home here? Poor Jeanne! we are glad to have her!”

She rang the bell, and asked if Miss Smithson and Lucien had returned from their daily walk. No, they had not yet returned. It was just as well, she declared; Lucien was getting beyond control, and only the night before had made the five Levasseur girls sob with grief.

“Would you like to play at pigeon vole?” asked Pauline, who seemed to have lost her head with the thought of her impending marriage. “That wouldn’t tire you.”

But Jeanne shook her head in refusal. Beneath their drooping lids her eyes wandered over the persons who surrounded her. The doctor had just informed Monsieur Rambaud that admission to the Hospital for Incurables had been secured for his protegee, and in a burst of emotion the worthy man clasped his hands as though some great personal favor had been conferred on him. They were all lounging on their chairs, and the conversation became delightfully friendly. Less effort was shown in following up remarks, and there were at times intervals of silence. While Madame Deberle and her sister were busily engaged in discussion, Helene said to the two men:

“Doctor Bodin has advised us to go to Italy.”

“Ah! that is why Jeanne was questioning me!” exclaimed Monsieur Rambaud. “Would it give you any pleasure to go away there?”

Without vouchsafing any answer, the child clasped her little hands upon her bosom, while her pale face flushed with joy. Then, stealthily, and with some fear, she looked towards the doctor; it was he, she understood it, whom her mother was consulting. He started slightly, but retained all his composure. Suddenly, however, Juliette joined in the conversation, wishing, as usual, to have her finger in every pie.

“What’s that? Are you talking about Italy? Didn’t you say you had an idea of going to Italy? Well, it’s a droll coincidence! Why, this very morning, I was teasing Henri to take me to Naples! Just fancy, for ten years now I have been dreaming of seeing Naples! Every spring he promises to take me there, but he never keeps his word!”

“I didn’t tell you that I would not go,” murmured the doctor.

“What! you didn’t tell me? Why, you refused flatly, with the excuse that you could not leave your patients!”

Jeanne was listening eagerly. A deep wrinkle now furrowed her pale brow, and she began twisting her fingers mechanically one after the other.

“Oh! I could entrust my patients for a few weeks to the care of a brother-physician,” explained the doctor. “That’s to say, if I thought it would give you so much pleasure —”

“Doctor,” interrupted Helene, “are you also of opinion that such a journey would benefit Jeanne?”

“It would be the very thing; it would thoroughly restore her to health. Children are always the better for a change.”

“Oh! then,” exclaimed Juliette, “we can take Lucien, and we can all go together. That will be pleasant, won’t it?”

“Yes, indeed; I’ll do whatever you wish,” he answered, smiling.

Jeanne lowered her face, wiped two big tears of passionate anger and grief from her eyes, and fell back in her chair as though she would fain hear and see no more; while Madame Deberle, filled with ecstasy by the idea of such unexpected pleasure, began chattering noisily. Oh! how kind her husband was! She kissed him for his self-sacrifice. Then, without the loss of a moment, she busied herself with sketching the necessary preparations. They would start the very next week. Goodness gracious! she would never have time to get everything ready! Next she wanted to draw out a plan of their tour; they would need to visit this and that town certainly; they could stay a week at Rome; they must stop at a little country place that Madame de Guiraud had mentioned to her; and she wound up by engaging in a lively discussion with Pauline, who was eager that they should postpone their departure till such time as she could accompany them with her husband.

“Not a bit of it!” exclaimed Juliette; “the wedding can take place when we come back.”

Jeanne’s presence had been wholly forgotten. Her eyes were riveted on her mother and the doctor. The proposed journey, indeed, now offered inducements to Helene, as it must necessarily keep Henri near her. In fact, a keen delight filled her heart at the thought of journeying together through the land of the sun, living side by side, and profiting by the hours of freedom. Round her lips wreathed a smile of happy relief; she had so greatly feared that she might lose him; and deemed herself fortunate in the thought that she would carry her love along with her. While Juliette was discoursing of the scenes they would travel through, both Helene and Henri, indeed, indulged in the dream that they were already strolling through a fairy land of perennial spring, and each told the other with a look that their passion would reign there, aye, wheresoever they might breathe the same air.

In the meantime, Monsieur Rambaud, who with unconscious sadness had slowly lapsed into silence, observed Jeanne’s evident discomfort.

“Aren’t you well, my darling?” he asked in a whisper.

“No! I’m quite ill! Carry me up again, I implore you.”

“But we must tell your mamma.”

“Oh, no, no! mamma is busy; she hasn’t any time to give to us. Carry me up, oh! carry me up again.”

He took her in his arms, and told Helene that the child felt tired. In answer she requested him to wait for her in her rooms; she would hasten after them. The little one, though light as a feather, seemed to slip from his grasp, and he was forced to come to a standstill on the second landing. She had leaned her head against his shoulder, and each gazed into the other’s face with a look of grievous pain. Not a sound broke upon the chill silence of the staircase. Then in a low whisper he asked her:

“You’re pleased, aren’t you, to go to Italy?”

But she thereupon burst into sobs, declaring in broken words that she no longer had any craving to go, and would rather die in her own room. Oh! she would not go, she would fall ill, she knew it well. She would go nowhere — nowhere. They could give her little shoes to the poor. Then amidst tears she whispered to him:

“Do you remember what you asked me one night?”

“What was it, my pet?”

“To stay with mamma always — always — always! Well, if you wish so still, I wish so too!”

The tears welled into Monsieur Rambaud’s eyes. He kissed her lovingly, while she added in a still lower tone:

“You are perhaps vexed by my getting so angry over it. I didn’t understand, you know. But it’s you whom I want! Oh! say that it will be soon. Won’t you say that it will be soon? I love you more than the other one.”

Below in the pavilion, Helene had begun to dream once more. The proposed journey was still the topic of conversation; and she now experienced an unconquerable yearning to relieve her overflowing heart, and acquaint Henri with all the happiness which was stifling her. So, while Juliette and Pauline were wrangling over the number of dresses that ought to be taken, she leaned towards him and gave him the assignation which she had refused but an hour before.

“Come to-night; I shall expect you.”

But as she at last ascended to her own rooms, she met Rosalie flying terror-stricken down the stairs. The moment she saw her mistress, the girl shrieked out:

“Madame! madame! Oh! make haste, do! Mademoiselle is very ill! She’s spitting blood!”

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