A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 25.

Two years were past and gone. One morning in December the little cemetery lay slumbering in the intense cold. Since the evening before snow had been falling, a fine snow, which a north wind blew before it. From the paling sky the flakes now fell at rarer intervals, light and buoyant, like feathers. The snow was already hardening, and a thick trimming of seeming swan’s -down edged the parapet of the terrace. Beyond this white line lay Paris, against the gloomy grey on the horizon.

Madame Rambaud was still praying on her knees in the snow before the grave of Jeanne. Her husband had but a moment before risen silently to his feet. Helene and her old lover had been married in November at Marseilles. Monsieur Rambaud had disposed of his business near the Central Markets, and had come to Paris for three days, in order to conclude the transaction. The carriage now awaiting them in the Rue des Reservoirs was to take them back to their hotel, and thence with their travelling-trunks to the railway station. Helene had made the journey with the one thought of kneeling here. She remained motionless, with drooping head, as if dreaming, and unconscious of the cold ground that chilled her knees.

Meanwhile the wind was falling. Monsieur Rambaud had stepped to the terrace, leaving her to the mute anguish which memory evoked. A haze was stealing over the outlying districts of Paris, whose immensity faded away in this pale, vague mist. Round the Trocadero the city was of a leaden hue and lifeless, while the last snowflakes slowly fluttered down in pale specks against the gloomy background. Beyond the chimneys of the Army Bakehouse, the brick towers of which had a coppery tint, these white dots descended more thickly; a gauze seemed to be floating in the air, falling to earth thread by thread. Not a breath stirred as the dream-like shower sleepily and rhythmically descended from the atmosphere. As they neared the roofs the flakes seemed to falter in their flight; in myriads they ceaselessly pillowed themselves on one another, in such intense silence that even blossoms shedding their petals make more noise; and from this moving mass, whose descent through space was inaudible, there sprang a sense of such intense peacefulness that earth and life were forgotten. A milky whiteness spread more and more over the whole heavens though they were still darkened here and there by wreaths of smoke. Little by little, bright clusters of houses became plainly visible; a bird’s -eye view was obtained of the whole city, intersected by streets and squares, which with their shadowy depths described the framework of the several districts.

Helene had slowly risen. On the snow remained the imprint of her knees. Wrapped in a large, dark mantle trimmed with fur, she seemed amidst the surrounding white very tall and broad-shouldered. The border of her bonnet, a twisted band of black velvet, looked like a diadem throwing a shadow on her forehead. She had regained her beautiful, placid face with grey eyes and pearly teeth. Her chin was full and rounded, as in the olden days, giving her an air of sturdy sense and determination. As she turned her head, her profile once more assumed statuesque severity and purity. Beneath the untroubled paleness of her cheeks her blood coursed calmly; everything showed that honor was again ruling her life. Two tears had rolled from under her eyelids; her present tranquillity came from her past sorrow. And she stood before the grave on which was reared a simple pillar inscribed with Jeanne’s name and two dates, within which the dead child’s brief existence was compassed.

Around Helene stretched the cemetery, enveloped in its snowy pall, through which rose rusty monuments and iron crosses, like arms thrown up in agony. There was only one path visible in this lonely corner, and that had been made by the footmarks of Helene and Monsieur Rambaud. It was a spotless solitude where the dead lay sleeping. The walks were outlined by the shadowy, phantom-like trees. Ever and anon some snow fell noiselessly from a branch that had been too heavily burdened. But nothing else stirred. At the far end, some little while ago, a black tramping had passed by; some one was being buried beneath this snowy winding-sheet. And now another funeral train appeared on the left. Hearses and mourners went their way in silence, like shadows thrown upon a spotless linen cloth.

Helene was awaking from her dream when she observed a beggar-woman crawling along near her. It was Mother Fetu, the snow deadening the sound of her huge man’s boots, which were burst and bound round with bits of string. Never had Helene seen her weighed down by such intense misery, or covered with filthier rags, though she was fatter than ever, and wore a stupid look. In the foulest weather, despite hard frosts or drenching rain, the old woman now followed funerals in order to speculate on the pity of the charitable. She well knew that amongst the gravestones the fear of death makes people generous; and so she prowled from tomb to tomb, approaching the kneeling mourners at the moment they burst into tears, for she understood that they were then powerless to refuse her. She had entered with the last funeral train, and a moment previously had espied Helene. But she had not recognized her benefactress, and with gasps and sobs began to relate how she had two children at home who were dying of hunger. Helene listened to her, struck dumb by this apparition. The children were without fire to warm them; the elder was going off in a decline. But all at once Mother Fetu’s words came to an end. Her brain was evidently working beneath the myriad wrinkles of her face, and her little eyes began to blink. Good gracious! it was her benefactress! Heaven, then, had hearkened to her prayers! And without seeking to explain the story about the children, she plunged into a whining tale, with a ceaseless rush of words. Several of her teeth were missing, and she could be understood with difficulty. The gracious God had sent every affliction on her head, she declared. The gentleman lodger had gone away, and she had only just been enabled to rise after lying for three months in bed; yes, the old pain still remained, it now gripped her everywhere; a neighbor had told her that a spider must have got in through her mouth while she was asleep. If she had only had a little fire, she could have warmed her stomach; that was the only thing that could relieve her now. But nothing could be had for nothing — not even a match. Perhaps she was right in thinking that madame had been travelling? That was her own concern, of course. At all events, she looked very well, and fresh, and beautiful. God would requite her for all her kindness. Then, as Helene began to draw out her purse, Mother Fetu drew breath, leaning against the railing that encircled Jeanne’s grave.

The funeral processions had vanished from sight. Somewhere in a grave close at hand a digger, whom they could not see, was wielding his pickaxe with regular strokes.

Meanwhile the old woman had regained her breath, and her eyes were riveted on the purse. Then, anxious to extort as large a sum as possible, she displayed considerable cunning, and spoke of the other lady. Nobody could say that she was not a charitable lady; still, she did not know what to do with her money — it never did one much good. Warily did she glance at Helene as she spoke. And next she ventured to mention the doctor’s name. Oh! he was good. Last summer he had again gone on a journey with his wife. Their boy was thriving; he was a fine child. But just then Helene’s fingers, as she opened the purse, began to tremble, and Mother Fetu immediately changed her tone. In her stupidity and bewilderment she had only now realized that the good lady was standing beside her daughter’s grave. She stammered, gasped, and tried to bring tears to her eyes. Jeanne, said she, had been so dainty a darling, with such loves of little hands; she could still see her giving her silver in charity. What long hair she had! and how her large eyes filled with tears when she gazed on the poor! Ah! there was no replacing such an angel; there were no more to be found like her, were they even to search the whole of Passy. And when the fine days came, said Mother Fetu, she would gather some daisies in the moat of the fortifications and place them on her tomb. Then, however, she lapsed into silence frightened by the gesture with which Helene cut her short. Was it possible, she thought, that she could no longer find the right thing to say? Her good lady did not weep, and only gave her a twenty-sou piece.

Monsieur Rambaud, meanwhile, had walked towards them from the parapet of the terrace. Helene hastened to rejoin him. At the sight of the gentleman Mother Fetu’s eyes began to sparkle. He was unknown to her; he must be a new-comer. Dragging her feet along, she followed Helene, invoking every blessing of Heaven on her head; and when she had crept close to Monsieur Rambaud, she again spoke of the doctor. Ah! his would be a magnificent funeral when he died, were the poor people whom he had attended for nothing to follow his corpse! He was rather fickle in his loves — nobody could deny that. There were ladies in Passy who knew him well. But all that didn’t prevent him from worshipping his wife — such a pretty lady, who, had she wished, might have easily gone wrong, but had given up such ideas long ago. Their home was quite a turtle-doves’ nest now. Had madame paid them a visit yet? They were certain to be at home; she had but a few moments previously observed that the shutters were open in the Rue Vineuse. They had formerly had such regard for madame that surely they would be delighted to receive her with open arms!

The old hag leered at Monsieur Rambaud as she thus mumbled away. He listened to her with the composure of a brave man. The memories that were being called up before him brought no shadow to his unruffled face. Only it occurred to him that the pertinacity of the old beggar was annoying Helene, and so he hastened to fumble in his pocket, in his turn giving her some alms, and at the same time waving her away. The moment her eyes rested on another silver coin Mother Fetu burst into loud thanks. She would buy some wood at once; she would be able to warm her afflicted body — that was the only thing now to give her stomach any relief. Yes, the doctor’s home was quite a nest of turtle-doves, and the proof was that the lady had only last winter given birth to a second child — a beautiful little daughter, rosy-cheeked and fat, who must now be nearly fourteen months old. On the day of the baptism the doctor had put a hundred sous into her hand at the door of the church. Ah! good hearts came together. Madame had brought her good luck. Pray God that madame might never have a sorrow, but every good fortune! yes, might that come to pass in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!

Helene stood upright gazing on Paris, while Mother Fetu vanished among the tombs, muttering three Paters and three Aves. The snow had ceased falling; the last of the flakes had fluttered slowly and wearily on to the roofs; and through the dissolving mist the golden sun could be seen tinging the pearly-grey expanse of heaven with a pink glow. Over Montmartre a belt of blue fringed the horizon; but it was so faint and delicate that it seemed but a shadow such as white satin might throw. Paris was gradually detaching itself from amidst the smoke, spreading out more broadly with its snowy expanses the frigid cloak which held it in death-like quiescence. There were now no longer any fleeting specks of white making the city shudder, and quivering in pale waves over the dull-brown house-fronts. Amidst the masses of snow that girt them round the dwellings stood out black and gloomy, as though mouldy with centuries of damp. Entire streets appeared to be in ruins, as if undermined by some gunpowder explosion, with roofs ready to give way and windows already driven in. But gradually, as the belt of blue broadened in the direction of Montmartre, there came a stream of light, pure and cool as the waters of a spring; and Paris once more shone out as under a glass, which lent even to the outlying districts the distinctness of a Japanese picture.

Wrapped in her fur mantle, with her hands clinging idly to the cuffs of the sleeves, Helene was musing. With the persistency of an echo one thought unceasingly pursued her — a child, a fat, rosy daughter, had been born to them. In her imagination she could picture her at the love-compelling age when Jeanne had commenced to prattle. Baby girls are such darlings when fourteen months old! She counted the months — fourteen: that made two years when she took the remaining period into consideration — exactly the time within a fortnight. Then her brain conjured up a sunny picture of Italy, a realm of dreamland, with golden fruits where lovers wandered through the perfumed nights, with arms round one another’s waists. Henri and Juliette were pacing before her eyes beneath the light of the moon. They loved as husband and wife do when passion is once more awakened within them. To think of it — a tiny girl, rosy and fat, its bare body flushed by the warm sunshine, while it strives to stammer words which its mother arrests with kisses! And Helene thought of all this without any anger; her heart was mute, yet seemingly derived yet greater quietude from the sadness of her spirit. The land of the sun had vanished from her vision; her eyes wandered slowly over Paris, on whose huge frame winter had laid his freezing hand. Above the Pantheon another patch of blue was now spreading in the heavens.

Meanwhile memory was recalling the past to life. At Marseilles she had spent her days in a state of coma. One morning as she went along the Rue des Petites-Maries, she had burst out sobbing in front of the home of her childhood. That was the last occasion on which she had wept. Monsieur Rambaud was her frequent visitor; she felt his presence near her to be a protection. Towards autumn she had one evening seen him enter, with red eyes and in the agony of a great sorrow; his brother, Abbe Jouve, was dead. In her turn she comforted him. What followed she could not recall with any exactitude of detail. The Abbe ever seemed to stand behind them, and influenced by thought of him she succumbed resignedly. When M. Rambaud once more hinted at his wish, she had nothing to say in refusal. It seemed to her that what he asked was but sensible. Of her own accord, as her period of mourning was drawing to an end, she calmly arranged all the details with him. His hands trembled in a transport of tenderness. It should be as she pleased; he had waited for months; a sign sufficed him. They were married in mourning garb. On the wedding night he, like her first husband, kissed her bare feet — feet fair as though fashioned out of marble. And thus life began once more.

While the belt of blue was broadening on the horizon, this awakening of memory came with an astounding effect on Helene. Had she lived through a year of madness, then? To-day, as she pictured the woman who had lived for nearly three years in that room in the Rue Vineuse, she imagined that she was passing judgment on some stranger, whose conduct revolted and surprised her. How fearfully foolish had been her act! how abominably wicked! Yet she had not sought it. She had been living peacefully, hidden in her nook, absorbed in the love of her daughter. Untroubled by any curious thoughts, by any desire, she had seen the road of life lying before her. But a breath had swept by, and she had fallen. Even at this moment she was unable to explain it; she had evidently ceased to be herself; another mind and heart had controlled her actions. Was it possible? She had done those things? Then an icy chill ran through her; she saw Jeanne borne away beneath roses. But in the torpor begotten of her grief she grew very calm again, once more without a longing or curiosity, once more proceeding along the path of duty that lay so straight before her. Life had again begun for her, fraught with austere peacefulness and pride of honesty.

Monsieur Rambaud now moved near her to lead her from this place of sadness. But Helene silently signed to him her wish to linger a little longer. Approaching the parapet she gazed below into the Avenue de la Muette, where a long line of old cabs in the last stage of decay stretched beside the footpath. The hoods and wheels looked blanched, the rusty horses seemed to have been rotting there since the dark ages. Some cabmen sat motionless, freezing within their frozen cloaks. Over the snow other vehicles were crawling along, one after the other, with the utmost difficulty. The animals were losing their foothold, and stretching out their necks, while their drivers with many oaths descended from their seats and held them by the bridle; and through the windows you could see the faces of the patient “fares,” reclining against the cushions, and resigning themselves to the stern necessity of taking three-quarters of an hour to cover a distance which in other weather would have been accomplished in ten minutes. The rumbling of the wheels was deadened by the snow; only the voices vibrated upward, sounding shrill and distinct amidst the silence of the streets; there were loud calls, the laughing exclamations of people slipping on the icy paths, the angry whip-cracking of carters, and the snorting of terrified horses. In the distance, to the right, the lofty trees on the quay seemed to be spun of glass, like huge Venetian chandeliers, whose flower-decked arms the designer had whimsically twisted. The icy north wind had transformed the trunks into columns, over which waved downy boughs and feathery tufts, an exquisite tracery of black twigs edged with white trimmings. It was freezing, and not a breath stirred in the pure air.

Then Helene told her heart that she had known nothing of Henri. For a year she had seen him almost every day; he had lingered for hours and hours near her, to speak to her and gaze into her eyes. Yet she knew nothing of him. Whence had he come? how had he crept into her intimacy? what manner of man was he that she had yielded to him — she who would rather have perished than yield to another? She knew nothing of him; it had all sprung from some sudden tottering of her reason. He had been a stranger to her on the last as on the first day. In vain did she patch together little scattered things and circumstances — his words, his acts, everything that her memory recalled concerning him. He loved his wife and his child; he smiled with delicate grace; he outwardly appeared a well-bred man. Then she saw him again with inflamed visage, and trembling with passion. But weeks passed, and he vanished from her sight. At this moment she could not have said where she had spoken to him for the last time. He had passed away, and his shadow had gone with him. Their story had no other ending. She knew him not.

Over the city the sky had now become blue, and every cloud had vanished. Wearied with her memories, and rejoicing in the purity before her, Helene raised her head. The blue of the heavens was exquisitely clear, but still very pale in the light of the sun, which hung low on the horizon, and glittered like a silver lamp. In that icy temperature its rays shed no heat on the glittering snow. Below stretched the expanses of roofs — the tiles of the Army Bakehouse, and the slates of the houses on the quay — like sheets of white cloth fringed with black. On the other bank of the river, the square stretch of the Champ-de-Mars seemed a steppe, the black dots of the straggling vehicles making one think of sledges skimming along with tinkling bells; while the elms on the Quai d’Orsay, dwarfed by the distance, looked like crystal flowers bristling with sharp points. Through all the snow-white sea the Seine rolled its muddy waters edged by the ermine of its banks; since the evening before ice had been floating down, and you could clearly see the masses crushing against the piers of the Pont des Invalides, and vanishing swiftly beneath the arches. The bridges, growing more and more delicate with the distance, seemed like the steps of a ladder of white lace reaching as far as the sparkling walls of the Cite, above which the towers of Notre-Dame reared their snow-white crests. On the left the level plain was broken up by other peaks. The Church of Saint-Augustin, the Opera House, the Tower of Saint-Jacques, looked like mountains clad with eternal snow. Nearer at hand the pavilions of the Tuileries and the Louvre, joined together by newly erected buildings, resembled a ridge of hills with spotless summits. On the right, too, were the white tops of the Invalides, of Saint-Sulpice, and the Pantheon, the last in the dim distance, outlining against the sky a palace of fairyland with dressings of bluish marble. Not a sound broke the stillness. Grey-looking hollows revealed the presence of the streets; the public squares were like yawning crevasses. Whole lines of houses had vanished. The fronts of the neighboring dwellings alone showed distinctly with the thousand streaks of light reflected from their windows. Beyond, the expanse of snow intermingled and merged into a seeming lake, whose blue shadows blended with the blue of the sky. Huge and clear in the bright, frosty atmosphere, Paris glittered in the light of the silver sun.

Then Helene for the last time let her glance sweep over the unpitying city which also remained unknown to her. She saw it once more, tranquil and with immortal beauty amidst the snow, the same as when she had left it, the same as it had been every day for three long years. Paris to her was full of her past life. In its presence she had loved, in its presence Jeanne had died. But this companion of her every-day existence retained on its mighty face a wondrous serenity, unruffled by any emotion, as though it were but a mute witness of the laughter and the tears which the Seine seemed to roll in its flood. She had, according to her mood, endowed it with monstrous cruelty or almighty goodness. To-day she felt that she would be ever ignorant of it, in its indifference and immensity. It spread before her; it was life.

However, Monsieur Rambaud now laid a light hand on her arm to lead her away. His kindly face was troubled, and he whispered:

“Do not give yourself pain.”

He divined her every thought, and this was all he could say. Madame Rambaud looked at him, and her sorrow became appeased. Her cheeks were flushed by the cold; her eyes sparkled. Her memories were already far away. Life was beginning again.

“I’m not quite certain whether I shut the big trunk properly,” she exclaimed.

Monsieur Rambaud promised that he would make sure. Their train started at noon, and they had plenty of time. Some gravel was being scattered on the streets; their cab would not take an hour. But, all at once, he raised his voice:

“I believe you’ve forgotten the fishing-rods!” said he.

“Oh, yes; quite!” she answered, surprised and vexed at her forgetfulness. “We ought to have bought them yesterday!”

The rods in question were very handy ones, the like of which could not be purchased at Marseilles. They there owned near the sea a small country house, where they purposed spending the summer. Monsieur Rambaud looked at his watch. On their way to the railway station they would still be able to buy the rods, and could tie them up with the umbrellas. Then he led her from the place, tramping along, and taking short cuts between the graves. The cemetery was empty; only the imprint of their feet now remained on the snow. Jeanne, dead, lay alone, facing Paris, for ever and for ever.

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