A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 24.

When Madame Deberle was apprised of Jeanne’s death she wept, and gave way to one of those outbursts of emotion that kept her in a flutter for eight-and-forty hours. Hers was a noisy and immoderate grief. She came and threw herself into Helene’s arms. Then a phrase dropped in her hearing inspired her with the idea of imparting some affecting surroundings to the child’s funeral, and soon wholly absorbed her. She offered her services, and declared her willingness to undertake every detail. The mother, worn out with weeping, sat overwhelmed in her chair; Monsieur Rambaud, who was acting in her name, was losing his head. So he accepted the offer with profuse expressions of gratitude. Helene merely roused herself for a moment to express the wish that there should be some flowers — an abundance of flowers.

Without losing a minute, Madame Deberle set about her task. She spent the whole of the next day in running from one lady friend to another, bearing the woeful tidings. It was her idea to have a following of little girls all dressed in white. She needed at least thirty, and did not return till she had secured the full number. She had gone in person to the Funeral Administration, discussed the various styles, and chosen the necessary drapery. She would have the garden railings hung with white, and the body might be laid out under the lilac trees, whose twigs were already tipped with green. It would be charming.

“If only it’s a fine day to-morrow!” she giddily remarked in the evening when her scurrying to and fro had come to an end.

The morning proved lovely; there was a blue sky and a flood of sunshine, the air was pure and invigorating as only the air of spring can be. The funeral was to take place at ten o’clock. By nine the drapery had been hung up. Juliette ran down to give the workmen her ideas of what should be done. She did not wish the trees to be altogether covered. The white cloth, fringed with silver, formed a kind of porch at the garden gate, which was thrown back against the lilac trees. However, Juliette soon returned to her drawing-room to receive her lady guests. They were to assemble there to prevent Madame Grandjean’s two rooms from being filled to overflowing. Still she was greatly annoyed at her husband having had to go that morning to Versailles — for some consultation or other, he explained, which he could not well neglect. Thus she was left alone, and felt she would never be able to get through with it all. Madame Berthier was the first arrival, bringing her two daughters with her.

“What do you think!” exclaimed Madame Deberle; “Henri has deserted me! Well, Lucien, why don’t you say good-day?”

Lucien was already dressed for the funeral, with his hands in black gloves. He seemed astonished to see Sophie and Blanche dressed as though they were about to take part in some church procession. A silk sash encircled the muslin gown of each, and their veils, which swept down to the floor, hid their little caps of transparent tulle. While the two mothers were busy chatting, the three children gazed at one another, bearing themselves somewhat stiffly in their new attire. At last Lucien broke the silence by saying: “Jeanne is dead.”

His heart was full, and yet his face wore a smile — a smile born of amazement. He had been very quiet since the evening before, dwelling on the thought that Jeanne was dead. As his mother was up to her ears in business, and took no notice of him, he had plied the servants with questions. Was it a fact, he wanted to know, that it was impossible to move when one was dead?”

“She is dead, she is dead!” echoed the two sisters, who looked like rosebuds under their white veils. “Are we going to see her?”

Lucien pondered for a time, and then, with dreamy eyes and opened mouth, seemingly striving to divine the nature of this problem which lay beyond his ken, he answered in a low tone:

“We shall never see her again.”

However, several other little girls now entered the room. On a sign from his mother Lucien advanced to meet them. Marguerite Tissot, her muslin dress enveloping her like a cloud, seemed a child-Virgin; her fair hair, escaping from underneath her little cap, looked, through the snowy veil, like a tippet figured with gold. A quiet smile crept into every face when the five Levasseurs made their appearance; they were all dressed alike, and trooped along in boarding-school fashion, the eldest first, the youngest last; and their skirts stood out to such an extent that they quite filled one corner of the room. But on little Mademoiselle Guiraud’s entry the whispering voices rose to a higher key; the others laughed and crowded round to see her and kiss her. She was like some white turtle-dove with its downy feathers ruffled. Wrapped in rustling gauze, she looked as round as a barrel, but still no heavier than a bird. Her mother even could not find her hands. By degrees the drawing-room seemed to be filling with a cloud of snowballs. Several boys, in their black coats, were like dark spots amidst the universal white. Lucien, now that his little wife was dead, desired to choose another. However, he displayed the greatest hesitation. He would have preferred a wife like Jeanne, taller than himself; but at last he settled on Marguerite, whose hair fascinated him, and to whom he attached himself for the day.

“The corpse hasn’t been brought down yet,” Pauline muttered at this moment in Juliette’s ear.

Pauline was as flurried as though the preliminaries of a ball were in hand. It was with the greatest difficulty that her sister had prevented her from donning a white dress for the ceremony.

“Good gracious!” exclaimed Juliette; “what are they dreaming about? I must run up. Stay with these ladies.”

She hastily left the room, where the mothers in their mourning attire sat chatting in whispers, while the children dared not make the least movement lest they should rumple their dresses. When she had reached the top of the staircase and entered the chamber where the body lay, Juliette’s blood was chilled by the intense cold. Jeanne still lay on the bed, with clasped hands; and, like Marguerite and the Levasseur girls, she was arrayed in a white dress, white cap, and white shoes. A wreath of white roses crowned the cap, as though she were a little queen about to be honored by the crowd of guests who were waiting below. In front of the window, on two chairs, was the oak coffin lined with satin, looking like some huge jewel casket. The furniture was all in order; a wax taper was burning; the room seemed close and gloomy, with the damp smell and stillness of a vault which has been walled up for many years. Thus Juliette, fresh from the sunshine and smiling life of the outer world, came to a sudden halt, stricken dumb, without the courage to explain that they must needs hurry.

“A great many people have come,” she stammered at last. And then, as no answer was forthcoming, she added, just for the sake of saying something: “Henri has been forced to attend a consultation at Versailles; you will excuse him.”

Helene, who sat in front of the bed, gazed at her with vacant eyes. They were wholly unable to drag her from that room. For six-and-thirty hours she had lingered there, despite the prayers of Monsieur Rambaud and the Abbe Jouve, who kept watch with her. During the last two nights she had been weighed to the earth by immeasurable agony. Besides, she had accomplished the grievous task of dressing her daughter for the last time, of putting on those white silk shoes, for she would allow no other to touch the feet of the little angel who lay dead. And now she sat motionless, as though her strength were spent, and the intensity of her grief had lulled her into forgetfulness.

“Have you got some flowers?” she exclaimed after an effort, her eyes still fixed on Madame Deberle.

“Yes, yes, my dear,” answered the latter. “Don’t trouble yourself about that.”

Since her daughter had breathed her last, Helene had been consumed with one idea — there must be flowers, flowers, an overwhelming profusion of flowers. Each time she saw anybody, she grew uneasy, seemingly afraid that sufficient flowers would never be obtained.

“Are there any roses?” she began again after a pause.

“Yes. I assure you that you will be well pleased.”

She shook her head, and once more fell back into her stupor. In the meantime the undertaker’s men were waiting on the landing. It must be got over now without delay. Monsieur Rambaud, who was himself affected to such a degree that he staggered like a drunken man, signed to Juliette to assist him in leading the poor woman from the room. Each slipped an arm gently beneath hers, and they raised her up and led her towards the dining-room. But the moment she divined their intention, she shook them from her in a last despairing outburst. The scene was heartrending. She threw herself on her knees at the bedside and clung passionately to the sheets, while the room re-echoed with her piteous shrieks. But still Jeanne lay there with her face of stone, stiff and icy-cold, wrapped round by the silence of eternity. She seemed to be frowning; there was a sour pursing of the lips, eloquent of a revengeful nature; and it was this gloomy, pitiless look, springing from jealousy and transforming her face, which drove Helene so frantic. During the preceding thirty-six hours she had not failed to notice how the old spiteful expression had grown more and more intense upon her daughter’s face, how more and more sullen she looked the nearer she approached the grave. Oh, what a comfort it would have been if Jeanne could only have smiled on her for the last time!

“No, no!” she shrieked. “I pray you, leave her for a moment. You cannot take her from me. I want to embrace her. Oh, only a moment, only a moment!”

With trembling arms she clasped her child to her bosom, eager to dispute possession with the men who stood in the ante-room, with their backs turned towards her and impatient frowns on their faces. But her lips were powerless to breathe any warmth on the cold countenance; she became conscious that Jeanne’s obstinacy was not to be overcome, that she refused forgiveness. And then she allowed herself to be dragged away, and fell upon a chair in the dining-room, with the one mournful cry, again and again repeated: “My God! My God!”

Monsieur Rambaud and Madame Deberle were overcome by emotion. There was an interval of silence, but when the latter opened the door halfway it was all over. There had been no noise — scarcely a stir. The screws, oiled beforehand, now closed the lid for ever. The chamber was left empty, and a white sheet was thrown over the coffin.

The bedroom door remained open, and no further restraint was put upon Helene. On re-entering the room she cast a dazed look on the furniture and round the walls. The men had borne away the corpse. Rosalie had drawn the coverlet over the bed to efface the slight hollow made by the form of the little one whom they had lost. Then opening her arms with a distracted gesture and stretching out her hands, Helene rushed towards the staircase. She wanted to go down, but Monsieur Rambaud held her back, while Madame Deberle explained to her that it was not the thing to do. But she vowed she would behave rationally, that she would not follow the funeral procession. Surely they could allow her to look on; she would remain quiet in the garden pavilion. Both wept as they heard her pleading. However, she had to be dressed. Juliette threw a black shawl round her to conceal her morning wrap. There was no bonnet to be found; but at last they came across one from which they tore a bunch of red vervain flowers. Monsieur Rambaud, who was chief mourner, took hold of Helene’s arm.

“Do not leave her,” whispered Madame Deberle as they reached the garden. “I have so many things to look after!”

And thereupon she hastened away. Helene meanwhile walked with difficulty, her eyes ever seeking something. As soon as she had found herself out of doors she had drawn a long sigh. Ah! what a lovely morning! Then she looked towards the iron gate, and caught sight of the little coffin under the white drapery. Monsieur Rambaud allowed her to take but two or three steps forward.

“Now, be brave,” he said to her, while a shudder ran through his own frame.

They gazed on the scene. The narrow coffin was bathed in sunshine. At the foot of it, on a lace cushion, was a silver crucifix. To the left the holy-water sprinkler lay in its font. The tall wax tapers were burning with almost invisible flames. Beneath the hangings, the branches of the trees with their purple shoots formed a kind of bower. It was a nook full of the beauty of spring, and over it streamed the golden sunshine irradiating the blossoms with which the coffin was covered. It seemed as if flowers had been raining down; there were clusters of white roses, white camellias, white lilac, white carnations, heaped in a snowy mass of petals; the coffin was hidden from sight, and from the pall some of the white blossoms were falling, the ground being strewn with periwinkles and hyacinths. The few persons passing along the Rue Vineuse paused with a smile of tender emotion before this sunny garden where the little body lay at peace amongst the flowers. There seemed to be a music stealing up from the snowy surroundings; in the glare of light the purity of the blossoms grew dazzling, and the sun flushed hangings, nosegays, and wreaths of flowers, with a very semblance of life. Over the roses a bee flew humming.

“Oh, the flowers! the flowers!” murmured Helene, powerless to say another word.

She pressed her handkerchief to her lips, and her eyes filled with tears. Jeanne must be warm, she thought, and with this idea a wave of emotion rose in her bosom; she felt very grateful to those who had enveloped her child in flowers. She wished to go forward, and Monsieur Rambaud made no effort to hold her back. How sweet was the scene beneath the cloud of drapery! Perfumes were wafted upwards; the air was warm and still. Helene stooped down and chose one rose only, that she might place it in her bosom. But suddenly she commenced to tremble, and Monsieur Rambaud became uneasy.

“Don’t stay here,” he said, as he drew her away. “You promised not to make yourself unwell.”

He was attempting to lead her into the pavilion when the door of the drawing-room was thrown open. Pauline was the first to appear. She had undertaken the duty of arranging the funeral procession. One by one, the little girls stepped into the garden. Their coming seemed like some sudden outburst of bloom, a miraculous flowering of May. In the open air the white skirts expanded, streaked moire-like by the sunshine with shades of the utmost delicacy. An apple-tree above was raining down its blossoms; gossamer-threads were floating to and fro; the dresses were instinct with all the purity of spring. And their number still increased; they already surrounded the lawn; they yet lightly descended the steps, sailing on like downy balls suddenly expanding beneath the open sky.

The garden was now a snowy mass, and as Helene gazed on the crowd of little girls, a memory awoke within her. She remembered another joyous season, with its ball and the gay twinkling of tiny feet. She once more saw Marguerite in her milk-girl costume, with her can hanging from her waist; and Sophie, dressed as a waiting-maid, and revolving on the arm of her sister Blanche, whose trappings as Folly gave out a merry tinkle of bells. She thought, too, of the five Levasseur girls, and of the Red Riding-Hoods, whose number had seemed endless, with their ever-recurring cloaks of poppy-colored satin edged with black velvet; while little Mademoiselle Guiraud, with her Alsatian butterfly bow in her hair, danced as if demented opposite a Harlequin twice as tall as herself. To-day they were all arrayed in white. Jeanne, too, was in white, her head laid amongst white flowers on the white satin pillow. The delicate-faced Japanese maiden, with hair transfixed by long pins, and purple tunic embroidered with birds, was leaving them for ever in a gown of snowy white.

“How tall they have all grown!” exclaimed Helene, as she burst into tears.

They were all there but her daughter; she alone was missing. Monsieur Rambaud led her to the pavilion; but she remained on the threshold, anxious to see the funeral procession start. Several of the ladies bowed to her quietly. The children looked at her, with some astonishment in their blue eyes. Meanwhile Pauline was hovering round, giving orders. She lowered her voice for the occasion, but at times forgot herself.

“Now, be good children! Look, you little stupid, you are dirty already! I’ll come for you in a minute; don’t stir.”

The hearse drove up; it was time to start, but Madame Deberle appeared, exclaiming: “The bouquets have been forgotten! Quick, Pauline, the bouquets!”

Some little confusion ensued. A bouquet of white roses had been prepared for each little girl; and these bouquets now had to be distributed. The children, in an ecstasy of delight, held the great clusters of flowers in front of them as though they had been wax tapers; Lucien, still at Marguerite’s side, daintily inhaled the perfume of her blossoms as she held them to his face. All these little maidens, their hands filled with flowers, looked radiant with happiness in the golden light; but suddenly their faces grew grave as they perceived the men placing the coffin on the hearse.

“Is she inside that thing?” asked Sophie in a whisper.

Her sister Blanche nodded assent. Then, in her turn, she said: “For men it’s as big as this!”

She was referring to the coffin, and stretched out her arms to their widest extent. However, little Marguerite, whose nose was buried amongst her roses, was seized with a fit of laughter; it was the flowers, said she, which tickled her. Then the others in turn buried their noses in their bouquets to find out if it were so; but they were remonstrated with, and they all became grave once more.

The funeral procession was now filing into the street. At the corner of the Rue Vineuse a woman without a cap, and with tattered shoes on her feet, wept and wiped her cheeks with the corner of her apron. People stood at many windows, and exclamations of pity ascended through the stillness of the street. Hung with white silver-fringed drapery the hearse rolled on without a sound; nothing fell on the ear save the measured tread of the two white horses, deadened by the solid earthen roadway. The bouquets and wreaths, borne on the funeral car, formed a very harvest of flowers; the coffin was hidden by them; every jolt tossed the heaped-up mass, and the hearse slowly sprinkled the street with lilac blossom. From each of the four corners streamed a long ribbon of white watered silk, held by four little girls — Sophie and Marguerite, one of the Levasseur family, and little Mademoiselle Guiraud, who was so small and so uncertain on her legs that her mother walked beside her. The others, in a close body, surrounded the hearse, each bearing her bouquet of roses. They walked slowly, their veils waved, and the wheels rolled on amidst all this muslin, as though borne along on a cloud, from which smiled the tender faces of cherubs. Then behind, following Monsieur Rambaud, who bowed his pale face, came several ladies and little boys, Rosalie, Zephyrin, and the servants of Madame Deberle. To these succeeded five empty mourning carriages. And as the hearse passed along the sunny street like a car symbolical of springtide, a number of white pigeons wheeled over the mourners’ heads.

“Good heavens! how annoying!” exclaimed Madame Deberle when she saw the procession start off. “If only Henri had postponed that consultation! I told him how it would be!”

She did not know what to do with Helene, who remained prostrate on a seat in the pavilion. Henri might have stayed with her and afforded her some consolation. His absence was a horrible nuisance. Luckily, Mademoiselle Aurelie was glad to offer her services; she had no liking for such solemn scenes, and while watching over Helene would be able to attend to the luncheon which had to be prepared ere the children’s return. So Juliette hastened after the funeral, which was proceeding towards the church by way of the Rue de Passy.

The garden was now deserted; a few workmen only were folding up the hangings. All that remained on the gravelled path over which Jeanne had been carried were the scattered petals of a camellia. And Helene, suddenly lapsing into loneliness and stillness, was thrilled once more with the anguish of this eternal separation. Once again — only once again! — to be at her darling’s side! The never-fading thought that Jeanne was leaving her in anger, with a face that spoke solely of gloomy hatred, seared her heart like a red-hot iron. She well divined that Mademoiselle Aurelie was there to watch her, and cast about for some opportunity to escape and hasten to the cemetery.

“Yes, it’s a dreadful loss,” began the old maid, comfortably seated in an easy-chair. “I myself should have worshipped children, and little girls in particular. Ah, well! when I think of it I am pleased that I never married. It saves a lot of grief!”

It was thus she thought to divert the mother. She chatted away about one of her friends who had had six children; they were now all dead. Another lady had been left a widow with a big lad who struck her; he might die, and there would be no difficulty in comforting her. Helene appeared to be listening to all this; she did not stir, but her whole frame quivered with impatience.

“You are calmer now,” said Mademoiselle Aurelie, after a time. “Well, in the end we always have to get the better of our feelings.”

The dining-room communicated with the Japanese pavilion, and, rising up, the old maid opened the door and peered into the room. The table, she saw, was covered with pastry and cakes. Meantime, in an instant Helene sped through the garden; the gate was still open, the workmen were just carrying away their ladder.

On the left the Rue Vineuse turns into the Rue des Reservoirs, from which the cemetery of Passy can be entered. On the Boulevard de la Muette a huge retaining wall has been reared, and the cemetery stretches like an immense terrace commanding the heights, the Trocadero, the avenues, and the whole expanse of Paris. In twenty steps Helene had reached the yawning gateway, and saw before her the lonely expanse of white gravestones and black crosses. She entered. At the corners of the first walk two large lilac trees were budding. There were but few burials here; weeds grew thickly, and a few cypress trees threw solemn shadows across the green. Helene hurried straight on; a troop of frightened sparrows flew off, and a grave-digger raised his head towards her after flinging aside a shovelful of earth. The procession had probably not yet arrived from the church; the cemetery seemed empty to her. She turned to the right, and advanced almost to the edge of the terrace parapet; but, on looking round, she saw behind a cluster of acacias the little girls in white upon their knees before the temporary vault into which Jeanne’s remains had a moment before been lowered. Abbe Jouve, with outstretched hand, was giving the farewell benediction. She heard nothing but the dull thud with which the stone slab of the vault fell back into its place. All was over.

Meanwhile, however, Pauline had observed her and pointed her out to Madame Deberle, who almost gave way to anger. “What!” she exclaimed; “she has come. But it isn’t at all proper; it’s very bad taste!"*

* In France, among the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie— to which Madame Deberle belonged — mothers seldom, if ever, attend the funerals of their children, or widows those of the husbands they have lost. They are supposed to be so prostrated by grief as to be unable to appear in public. This explanation was necessary, as otherwise the reader might not understand the force of Madame Deberle’s remarks.

So saying she stepped forward, showing Helene by the expression of her face that she disapproved of her presence. Some other ladies also followed with inquisitive looks. Monsieur Rambaud, however, had already rejoined the bereaved mother, and stood silent by her side. She was leaning against one of the acacias, feeling faint, and weary with the sight of all those mourners. She nodded her head in recognition of their sympathetic words, but all the while she was stifling with the thought that she had come too late; for she had heard the noise of the stone falling back into its place. Her eyes ever turned towards the vault, the step of which a cemetery keeper was sweeping.

“Pauline, see to the children,” said Madame Deberle.

The little girls rose from their knees looking like a flock of white sparrows. A few of the tinier ones, lost among their petticoats, had seated themselves on the ground, and had to be picked up. While Jeanne was being lowered down, the older girls had leaned forward to see the bottom of the cavity. It was so dark they had shuddered and turned pale. Sophie assured her companions in a whisper that one remained there for years and years. “At nighttime too?” asked one of the little Levasseur girls. “Of course — at night too — always!” Oh, the night! Blanche was nearly dead with the idea. And they all looked at one another with dilated eyes, as if they had just heard some story about robbers. However, when they had regained their feet, and stood grouped around the vault, released from their mourning duties, their cheeks became pink again; it must all be untrue, those stories could only have been told for fun. The spot seemed pleasant, so pretty with its long grass; what capital games they might have had at hide-and-seek behind all the tombstones! Their little feet were already itching to dance away, and their white dresses fluttered like wings. Amidst the graveyard stillness the warm sunshine lazily streamed down, flushing their faces. Lucien had thrust his hand beneath Marguerite’s veil, and was feeling her hair and asking if she put anything on it, to make it so yellow. The little one drew herself up, and he told her that they would marry each other some day. To this Marguerite had no objection, but she was afraid that he might pull her hair. His hands were still wandering over it; it seemed to him as soft as highly-glazed letter-paper.

“Don’t go so far away,” called Pauline.

“Well, we’ll leave now,” said Madame Deberle. “There’s nothing more to be done, and the children must be hungry.”

The little girls, who had scattered like some boarding-school at play, had to be marshalled together once more. They were counted, and baby Guiraud was missing; but she was at last seen in the distance, gravely toddling along a path with her mother’s parasol. The ladies then turned towards the gateway, driving the stream of white dresses before them. Madame Berthier congratulated Pauline on her marriage, which was to take place during the following month. Madame Deberle informed them that she was setting out in three days’ time for Naples, with her husband and Lucien. The crowd now quickly disappeared; Zephyrin and Rosalie were the last to remain. Then in their turn they went off, linked together, arm-in-arm, delighted with their outing, although their hearts were heavy with grief. Their pace was slow, and for a moment longer they could be seen at the end of the path, with the sunshine dancing over them.

“Come,” murmured Monsieur Rambaud to Helene.

With a gesture she entreated him to wait. She was alone, and to her it seemed as though a page had been torn from the book of her life. As soon as the last of the mourners had disappeared, she knelt before the tomb with a painful effort. Abbe Jouve, robed in his surplice, had not yet risen to his feet. Both prayed for a long time. Then, without speaking, but with a glowing glance of loving-kindness and pardon, the priest assisted her to rise.

“Give her your arm,” he said to Monsieur Rambaud.

Towards the horizon stretched Paris, all golden in the radiance of that spring morning. In the cemetery a chaffinch was singing.

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