A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 23.

On rising from the dinner-table the doctor spoke to his wife of a confinement case, in close attendance on which he would doubtless have to pass the night. He quitted the house at nine o’clock, walked down to the riverside, and paced along the deserted quays in the dense nocturnal darkness. A slight moist wind was blowing, and the swollen Seine rolled on in inky waves. As soon as eleven o’clock chimed, he walked up the slopes of the Trocadero, and began to prowl round the house, the huge square pile of which seemed but a deepening of the gloom. Lights could still be seen streaming through the dining-room windows of Helene’s lodging. Walking round, he noted that the kitchen was also brilliantly lighted up. And at this sight he stopped short in astonishment, which slowly developed into uneasiness. Shadows traversed the blinds; there seemed to be considerable bustle and stir up there. Perhaps Monsieur Rambaud had stayed to dine? But the worthy man never left later than ten o’clock. He, Henri, dared not go up; for what would he say should Rosalie open the door? At last, as it was nearing midnight, mad with impatience and throwing prudence to the winds, he rang the bell, and walked swiftly past the porter’s room without giving his name. At the top of the stairs Rosalie received him.

“It’s you, sir! Come in. I will go and announce you. Madame must be expecting you.”

She gave no sign of surprise on seeing him at this hour. As he entered the dining-room without uttering a word, she resumed distractedly: “Oh! mademoiselle is very ill, sir. What a night! My legs are sinking under me!” Thereupon she left the room, and the doctor mechanically took a seat. He was oblivious of the fact that he was a medical man. Pacing along the quay he had conjured up a vision of a very different reception. And now he was there, as though he were paying a visit, waiting with his hat on his knees. A grievous coughing in the next room alone broke upon the intense silence.

At last Rosalie made her appearance once more, and hurrying across the dining-room with a basin in her hand, merely remarked: “Madame says you are not to go in.”

He sat on, powerless to depart. Was their meeting to be postponed till another day, then? He was dazed, as though such a thing had seemed to him impossible. Then the thought came to him that poor Jeanne had very bad health; children only brought on sorrow and vexation. The door, however, opened once more, and Doctor Bodin entered, with a thousand apologies falling from his lips. For some time he chattered away: he had been sent for, but he would always be exceedingly pleased to enter into consultation with his renowned fellow-practitioner.

“Oh! no doubt, no doubt,” stammered Doctor Deberle, whose ears were buzzing.

The elder man, his mind set at rest with regard to all questions of professional etiquette, then began to affect a puzzled manner, and expressed his doubts of the meaning of the symptoms. He spoke in a whisper, and described them in technical phraseology, frequently pausing and winking significantly. There was coughing without expectoration, very pronounced weakness, and intense fever. Perhaps it might prove a case of typhoid fever. But in the meantime he gave no decided opinion, as the anaemic nervous affection, for which the patient had been treated so long, made him fear unforeseen complications.

“What do you think?” he asked, after delivering himself of each remark.

Doctor Deberle answered with evasive questions. While the other was speaking, he felt ashamed at finding himself in that room. Why had he come up?

“I have applied two blisters,” continued the old doctor. “I’m waiting the result. But, of course, you’ll see her. You will then give me your opinion.”

So saying he led him into the bedroom. Henri entered it with a shudder creeping through his frame. It was but faintly lighted by a lamp. There thronged into his mind the memories of other nights, when there had been the same warm perfume, the same close, calm atmosphere, the same deepening shadows shrouding the furniture and hangings. But there was no one now to come to him with outstretched hands as in those olden days. Monsieur Rambaud lay back in an arm-chair exhausted, seemingly asleep. Helene was standing in front of the bed, robed in a white dressing-gown, but did not turn her head; and her figure, in its death-like pallor, appeared to him extremely tall. Then for a moment’s space he gazed on Jeanne. Her weakness was so great that she could not open her eyes without fatigue. Bathed in sweat, she lay in a stupor, her face ghastly, save that a burning flush colored each cheek.

“It’s galloping consumption,” he exclaimed at last, speaking aloud in spite of himself, and giving no sign of astonishment, as though he had long foreseen what would happen.

Helene heard him and looked at him. She seemed to be of ice, her eyes were dry, and she was terribly calm.

“You think so, do you?” rejoined Doctor Bodin, giving an approving nod in the style of a man who had not cared to be the first to express this opinion.

He sounded the child once more. Jeanne, her limbs quite lifeless, yielded to the examination without seemingly knowing why she was being disturbed. A few rapid sentences were exchanged between the two physicians. The old doctor murmured some words about amphoric breathing, and a sound such as a cracked jar might give out. Nevertheless, he still affected some hesitation, and spoke, suggestively, of capillary bronchitis. Doctor Deberle hastened to explain that an accidental cause had brought on the illness; doubtless it was due to a cold; however, he had already noticed several times that an anaemical tendency would produce chest diseases. Helene stood waiting behind him.

“Listen to her breathing yourself,” said Doctor Bodin, giving way to Henri.

He leaned over the child, and seemed about to take hold of her. She had not raised her eyelids; but lay there in self-abandonment, consumed by fever. Her open nightdress displayed her childish breast, where as yet there were but slight signs of coming womanhood; and nothing could be more chaste or yet more harrowing than the sight of this dawning maturity on which the Angel of Death had already laid his hand. She had displayed no aversion when the old doctor had touched her. But the moment Henri’s fingers glanced against her body she started as if she had received a shock. In a transport of shame she awoke from the coma in which she had been plunged, and, like a maiden in alarm, clasped her poor puny little arms over her bosom, exclaiming the while in quavering tones: “Mamma! mamma!”

Then she opened her eyes, and on recognizing the man who was bending over her, she was seized with terror. Sobbing with shame, she drew the bed-cover over her bosom. It seemed as though she had grown older by ten years during her short agony, and on the brink of death had attained sufficient womanhood to understand that this man, above all others, must not lay hands on her. She wailed out again in piteous entreaty: “Mamma! mamma! I beseech you!”

Helene, who had hitherto not opened her lips, came close to Henri. Her eyes were bent on him fixedly; her face was of marble. She touched him, and merely said in a husky voice: “Go away!”

Doctor Bodin strove to appease Jeanne, who now shook with a fresh fit of coughing. He assured her that nobody would annoy her again, that every one would go away, to prevent her being disturbed.

“Go away,” repeated Helene, in a deep whisper in her lover’s ear. “You see very well that we have killed her!”

Then, unable to find a word in reply, Henri withdrew. He lingered for a moment longer in the dining-room, awaiting he knew not what, something that might possibly take place. But seeing that Doctor Bodin did not come out, he groped his way down the stairs without even Rosalie to light him. He thought of the awful speed with which galloping consumption — a disease to which he had devoted earnest study — carried off its victims; the miliary tubercles would rapidly multiply, the stifling sensation would become more and more pronounced; Jeanne would certainly not last another three weeks.

The first of these passed by. In the mighty expanse of heaven before the window, the sun rose and set above Paris, without Helene being more than vaguely conscious of the pitiless, steady advance of time. She grasped the fact that her daughter was doomed; she lived plunged in a stupor, alive only to the terrible anguish that filled her heart. It was but waiting on in hopelessness, in certainty that death would prove merciless. She could not weep, but paced gently to and fro, tending the sufferer with slow, regulated movements. At times, yielding to fatigue, she would fall upon a chair, whence she gazed at her for hours. Jeanne grew weaker and weaker; painful vomiting was followed by exhaustion; the fever never quitted her. When Doctor Bodin called, he examined her for a little while and left some prescription; but his drooping shoulders, as he left the room, were eloquent of such powerlessness that the mother forbore to accompany him to ask even a question.

On the morning after the illness had declared itself, Abbe Jouve had made all haste to call. He and his brother now again came every evening, exchanging a mute clasp of the hand with Helene, and never venturing to ask any news. They had offered to watch by the bedside in succession, but she sent them away when ten o’clock struck; she would have no one in the bedroom during the night. One evening the Abbe, who had seemed absorbed by some idea since the previous day, took her aside.

“There is one thing I’ve thought of,” he whispered. “Her health has put obstacles in the darling child’s way; but her first communion might take place here.”

His meaning at first did not seem to dawn on Helene. The thought that, despite all his indulgence, he should now allow his priestly character the ascendant and evince no concern but in spiritual matters, came on her with surprise, and even wounded her somewhat. With a careless gesture she exclaimed: “No, no; I would rather she wasn’t worried. If there be a heaven, she will have no difficulty in entering its gates.”

That evening, however, Jeanne experienced one of those deceptive improvements in health which fill the dying with illusions as to their condition. Her hearing, rendered more acute by illness, had enabled her to catch the Abbe’s words.

“It’s you, dear old friend!” said she. “You spoke about the first communion. It will be soon, won’t it?”

“No doubt, my darling,” he answered.

Then she wanted him to come near to speak to her. Her mother had propped her up with the pillow, and she reclined there, looking very little, with a smile on her fever-burnt lips, and the shadow of death already passing over her brilliant eyes.

“Oh! I’m getting on very well,” she began. “I could get up if I wanted. But tell me: should I have a white gown and flowers? Will the church be as beautiful as it was in the Month of Mary?”

“More beautiful, my pet.”

“Really? Will there be as many flowers, and will there be such sweet chants? It will be soon, soon — you promise me, won’t you?”

She was wrapt in joy. She gazed on the curtains of the bed, and murmured in her transport that she was very fond of the good God, and had seen Him while she was listening to the canticles. Even now she could hear organs pealing, see lights that circled round, and flowers in great vases hovering like butterflies before her eyes. Then another fit of coughing threw her back on the pillow. However, her face was still flushed with a smile; she seemed to be unconscious of her cough, but continued:

“I shall get up to-morrow. I shall learn my catechism without a mistake, and we’ll be all very happy.”

A sob came from Helene as she stood at the foot of the bed. She had been powerless to weep, but a storm of tears rushed up from her bosom as Jeanne’s laughter fell on her ear. Then, almost stifling, she fled into the dining-room, that she might hide her despair. The Abbe followed her. Monsieur Rambaud had at once started up to engage the child’s attention.

“Oh dear! mamma cried out! Has she hurt herself?” she asked.

“Your mamma?” he answered. “No, she didn’t cry out; she was laughing because you are feeling so well.”

In the dining-room, her head bowed dejectedly on the table, Helene strove to stifle her sobs with her clasped hands. The Abbe hung over her, and prayed her to restrain her emotion. But she raised her face, streaming with tears, and bitterly accused herself. She declared to him that she herself had killed her daughter, and a full confession escaped from her lips in a torrent of broken words. She would never have succumbed to that man had Jeanne remained beside her. It had been fated that she should meet him in that chamber of mystery. God in Heaven! she ought to die with her child; she could live no longer. The priest, terrified, sought to calm her with the promise of absolution.

But there was a ring at the bell, and a sound of voices came from the lobby. Helene dried her tears as Rosalie made her appearance.

“Madame, it’s Dr. Deberle, who —”

“I don’t wish him to come in.”

“He is asking after mademoiselle.”

“Tell him she is dying.”

The door had been left open, and Henri had heard everything. Without awaiting the return of the servant girl, he walked down the stairs. He came up every day, received the same answer, and then went away.

The visits which Helene received quite unnerved her. The few ladies whose acquaintance she had made at the Deberles’ house deemed it their duty to tender her their sympathy. Madame de Chermette, Madame Levasseur, Madame de Guiraud, and others also presented themselves. They made no request to enter, but catechised Rosalie in such loud voices that they could be heard through the thin partitions. Giving way to impatience, Helene would then receive them in the dining-room, where, without sitting down, she spoke with them very briefly. She went about all day in her dressing-gown, careless of her attire, with her lovely hair merely gathered up and twisted into a knot. Her eyes often closed with weariness; her face was flushed; she had a bitter taste in her mouth; her lips were clammy, and she could scarcely articulate. When Juliette called, she could not exclude her from the bedroom, but allowed her to stay for a little while beside the bed.

“My dear,” Madame Deberle said to her one day in friendly tones, “you give way too much. Keep up your spirits.”

Helene was about to reply, when Juliette, wishing to turn her thoughts from her grief, began to chat about the things which were occupying the gossips of Paris: “We are certainly going to have a war. I am in a nice state about it, as I have two cousins who will have to serve.”

In this style she would drop in upon them on returning from her rambles through Paris, her brain bursting with all the tittle-tattle collected in the course of the afternoon, and her long skirts whirling and rustling as she sailed through the stillness of the sick-room. It was altogether futile for her to lower her voice and assume a pitiful air; her indifference peeped through all disguise; it could be seen that she was happy, quite joyous indeed, in the possession of perfect health. Helene was very downcast in her company, her heart rent by jealous anguish.

“Madame,” said Jeanne one evening, “why doesn’t Lucien come to play with me?”

Juliette was embarrassed for a moment, and merely answered with a smile.

“Is he ill too?” continued the child.

“No, my darling, he isn’t ill; he has gone to school.”

Then, as Helene accompanied her into the ante-room, she wished to apologize for her prevarication.

“Oh! I would gladly bring him; I know that there’s no infection. But children get frightened with the least thing, and Lucien is such a stupid. He would just burst out sobbing when he saw your poor angel —”

“Yes, indeed; you are quite right,” interrupted Helene, her heart ready to break with the thought of this woman’s gaiety, and her happiness in possessing a child who enjoyed robust health.

A second week had passed away. The disease was following its usual course, robbing Jeanne every hour of some of her vitality. Fearfully rapid though it was, however, it evinced no haste, but, in accomplishing the destruction of that delicate, lovable flesh, passed in turn through each foreseen phase, without skipping a single one of them. Thus the spitting of blood had ceased, and at intervals the cough disappeared. But such was the oppressive feeling which stifled the child that you could detect the ravages of the disease by the difficulty she experienced in breathing. Such weakness could not withstand so violent an attack; and the eyes of the Abbe and Monsieur Rambaud constantly moistened with tears as they heard her. Day and night under the shelter of the curtains the sound of oppressed breathing arose; the poor darling, whom the slightest shock seemed likely to kill, was yet unable to die, but lived on and on through the agony which bathed her in sweat. Her mother, whose strength was exhausted, and who could no longer bear to hear that rattle, went into the adjoining room and leaned her head against the wall.

Jeanne was slowly becoming oblivious to her surroundings. She no longer saw people, and her face bore an unconscious and forlorn expression, as though she had already lived all alone in some unknown sphere. When they who hovered round her wished to attract her attention, they named themselves that she might recognize them; but she would gaze at them fixedly, without a smile, then turn herself round towards the wall with a weary look. A gloominess was settling over her; she was passing away amidst the same vexation and sulkiness as she had displayed in past days of jealous outbursts. Still, at times the whims characteristic of sickness would awaken her to some consciousness. One morning she asked her mother:

“To-day is Sunday, isn’t it?”

“No, my child,” answered Helene; “this is only Friday. Why do you wish to know?”

Jeanne seemed to have already forgotten the question she had asked. But two days later, while Rosalie was in the room, she said to her in a whisper: “This is Sunday. Zephyrin is here; ask him to come and see me.”

The maid hesitated, but Helene, who had heard, nodded to her in token of consent. The child spoke again:

“Bring him; come both of you; I shall be so pleased.”

When Rosalie entered the sick-room with Zephyrin, she raised herself on her pillow. The little soldier, with bare head and hands spread out, swayed about to hide his intense emotion. He had a great love for mademoiselle, and it grieved him unutterably to see her “shouldering arms on the left,” as he expressed it in the kitchen. So, in spite of the previous injunctions of Rosalie, who had instructed him to put on a bright expression, he stood speechless, with downcast face, on seeing her so pale and wasted to a skeleton. He was still as tender-hearted as ever, despite his conquering airs. He could not even think of one of those fine phrases which nowadays he usually concocted so easily. The maid behind him gave him a pinch to make him laugh. But he could only stammer out:

“I beg pardon — mademoiselle and every one here —”

Jeanne was still raising herself with the help of her tiny arms. She widely opened her large, vacant eyes; she seemed to be looking for something; her head shook with a nervous trembling. Doubtless the stream of light was blinding her as the shadows of death gathered around.

“Come closer, my friend,” said Helene to the soldier. “It was mademoiselle who asked to see you.”

The sunshine entered through the window in a slanting ray of golden light, in which the dust rising from the carpet could be seen circling. March had come, and the springtide was already budding out of doors. Zephyrin took one step forward, and appeared in the sunshine; his little round, freckled face had a golden hue, as of ripe corn, while the buttons on his tunic glittered, and his red trousers looked as sanguineous as a field of poppies. At last Jeanne became aware of his presence there; but her eye again betrayed uneasiness, and she glanced restlessly from one corner to another.

“What do you want, my child?” asked her mother. “We are all here.” She understood, however, in a moment. “Rosalie, come nearer. Mademoiselle wishes to see you.”

Then Rosalie, in her turn, stepped into the sunlight. She wore a cap, whose strings, carelessly tossed over her shoulders, flapped round her head like the wings of a butterfly. A golden powder seemed to fall on her bristly black hair and her kindly face with its flat nose and thick lips. And for Jeanne there were only these two in the room — the little soldier and the servant girl, standing elbow to elbow under the ray of sunshine. She gazed at them.

“Well, my darling,” began Helene again, “you do not say anything to them! Here they are together.”

Jeanne’s eyes were still fixed on them, and her head shook with the tremor of a very aged woman. They stood there like man and wife, ready to take each other’s arm and return to their country-side. The spring sun threw its warmth on them, and eager to brighten mademoiselle they ended by smiling into each other’s face with a look of mingled embarrassment and tenderness. The very odor of health was exhaled from their plump round figures. Had they been alone, Zephyrin without doubt would have caught hold of Rosalie, and would have received for his pains a hearty slap. Their eyes showed it.

“Well, my darling, have you nothing to say to them?”

Jeanne gazed at them, her breathing growing yet more oppressed. And still she said not a word, but suddenly burst into tears. Zephyrin and Rosalie had at once to quit the room.

“I beg pardon — mademoiselle and every one —” stammered the little soldier, as he went away in bewilderment.

This was one of Jeanne’s last whims. She lapsed into a dull stupor, from which nothing could rouse her. She lay there in utter loneliness, unconscious even of her mother’s presence. When Helene hung over the bed seeking her eyes, the child preserved a stolid expression, as though only the shadow of the curtain had passed before her. Her lips were dumb; she showed the gloomy resignation of the outcast who knows that she is dying. Sometimes she would long remain with her eyelids half closed, and nobody could divine what stubborn thought was thus absorbing her. Nothing now had any existence for her save her big doll, which lay beside her. They had given it to her one night to divert her during her insufferable anguish, and she refused to give it back, defending it with fierce gestures the moment they attempted to take it from her. With its pasteboard head resting on the bolster, the doll was stretched out like an invalid, covered up to the shoulders by the counterpane. There was little doubt the child was nursing it, for her burning hands would, from time to time, feel its disjointed limbs of flesh-tinted leather, whence all the sawdust had exuded. For hours her eyes would never stray from those enamel ones which were always fixed, or from those white teeth wreathed in an everlasting smile. She would suddenly grow affectionate, clasp the doll’s hands against her bosom and press her cheek against its little head of hair, the caressing contact of which seemed to give her some relief. Thus she sought comfort in her affection for her big doll, always assuring herself of its presence when she awoke from a doze, seeing nothing else, chatting with it, and at times summoning to her face the shadow of a smile, as though she had heard it whispering something in her ear.

The third week was dragging to an end. One morning the old doctor came and remained. Helene understood him: her child would not live through the day. Since the previous evening she had been in a stupor that deprived her of the consciousness even of her own actions. There was no longer any struggle with death; it was but a question of hours. As the dying child was consumed by an awful thirst, the doctor had merely recommended that she should be given some opiate beverage, which would render her passing less painful; and the relinquishing of all attempts at cure reduced Helene to a state of imbecility. So long as the medicines had littered the night-table she still had entertained hopes of a miraculous recovery. But now bottles and boxes had vanished, and her last trust was gone. One instinct only inspired her now — to be near Jeanne, never leave her, gaze at her unceasingly. The doctor, wishing to distract her attention from the terrible sight, strove, by assigning some little duties to her, to keep her at a distance. But she ever and ever returned, drawn to the bedside by the physical craving to see. She waited, standing erect, her arms hanging beside her, and her face swollen by despair.

About one o’clock Abbe Jouve and Monsieur Rambaud arrived. The doctor went to meet them, and muttered a few words. Both grew pale, and stood stock-still in consternation, while their hands began to tremble. Helene had not turned round.

The weather was lovely that day; it was one of those sunny afternoons typical of early April. Jeanne was tossing in her bed. Her lips moved painfully at times with the intolerable thirst which consumed her. She had brought her poor transparent hands from under the coverlet, and waved them gently to and fro. The hidden working of the disease was accomplished, she coughed no more, and her dying voice came like a faint breath. For a moment she turned her head, and her eyes sought the light. Doctor Bodin threw the window wide open, and then Jeanne at once became tranquil, with her cheek resting on the pillow and her looks roving over Paris, while her heavy breathing grew fainter and slower.

During the three weeks of her illness she had thus many times turned towards the city that stretched away to the horizon. Her face grew grave, she was musing. At this last hour Paris was smiling under the glittering April sunshine. Warm breezes entered from without, with bursts of urchin’s laughter and the chirping of sparrows. On the brink of the grave the child exerted her last strength to gaze again on the scene, and follow the flying smoke which soared from the distant suburbs. She recognized her three friends, the Invalides, the Pantheon, and the Tower of Saint-Jacques; then the unknown began, and her weary eyelids half closed at sight of the vast ocean of roofs. Perhaps she was dreaming that she was growing much lighter and lighter, and was fleeting away like a bird. Now, at last, she would soon know all; she would perch herself on the domes and steeples; seven or eight flaps of her wings would suffice, and she would be able to gaze on the forbidden mysteries that were hidden from children. But a fresh uneasiness fell upon her, and her hands groped about; she only grew calm again when she held her large doll in her little arms against her bosom. It was evidently her wish to take it with her. Her glances wandered far away amongst the chimneys glinting with the sun’s ruddy light.

Four o’clock struck, and the bluish shadows of evening were already gathering. The end was at hand; there was a stifling, a slow and passive agony. The dear angel no longer had strength to offer resistance. Monsieur Rambaud, overcome, threw himself on his knees, convulsed with silent sobbing, and dragged himself behind a curtain to hide his grief. The Abbe was kneeling at the bedside, with clasped hands, repeating the prayers for the dying.

“Jeanne! Jeanne!” murmured Helene, chilled to the heart with a horror which sent an icy thrill through her very hair.

She had repulsed the doctor and thrown herself on the ground, leaning against the bed to gaze into her daughter’s face. Jeanne opened her eyes, but did not look at her mother. She drew her doll — her last love — still closer. Her bosom heaved with a big sigh, followed by two fainter ones. Then her eyes paled, and her face for a moment gave signs of a fearful anguish. But speedily there came relief; her mouth remained open, she breathed no more.

“It is over,” said the doctor, as he took her hand.

Jeanne’s big, vacant eyes were fixed on Paris. The long, thin, lamb-like face was still further elongated, there was a sternness on its features, a grey shadow falling from its contracted brows. Thus even in death she retained the livid expression of a jealous woman. The doll, with its head flung back, and its hair dishevelled, seemed to lie dead beside her.

“It is over,” again said the doctor, as he allowed the little cold hand to drop.

Helene, with a strained expression on her face, pressed her hands to her brow as if she felt her head splitting open. No tears came to her eyes; she gazed wildly in front of her. Then a rattling noise mounted in her throat; she had just espied at the foot of the bed a pair of shoes that lay forgotten there. It was all over. Jeanne would never put them on again; the little shoes could be given to the poor. And at the sight Helene’s tears gushed forth; she still knelt on the floor, her face pressed against the dead child’s hand, which had slipped down. Monsieur Rambaud was sobbing. The Abbe had raised his voice, and Rosalie, standing at the door of the dining-room, was biting her handkerchief to check the noise of her grief.

At this very moment Doctor Deberle rang the bell. He was unable to refrain from making inquiries.

“How is she now?” he asked.

“Oh, sir!” wailed Rosalie, “she is dead.”

He stood motionless, stupefied by the announcement of the end which he had been expecting daily. At last he muttered: “O God! the poor child! what a calamity!”

He could only give utterance to those commonplace but heartrending words. The door shut once more, and he went down the stairs.

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