A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 3.

Every Tuesday Helene had Monsieur Rambaud and Abbe Jouve to dine with her. It was they who, during the early days of her bereavement, had broken in on her solitude, and drawn up their chairs to her table with friendly freedom; their object being to extricate her, at least once a week, from the solitude in which she lived. The Tuesday dinners became established institutions, and the partakers in these little feasts appeared punctually at seven o’clock, serenely happy in discharging what they deemed a duty.

That Tuesday Helene was seated at the window, profiting by the last gleams of the twilight to finish some needle work, pending the arrival of her guests. She here spent her days in pleasant peacefulness. The noises of the street died away before reaching such a height. She loved this large, quiet chamber, with its substantial luxury, its rosewood furniture and blue velvet curtains. When her friends had attended to her installation, she not having to trouble about anything, she had at first somewhat suffered from all this sombre luxury, in preparing which Monsieur Rambaud had realized his ideal of comfort, much to the admiration of his brother, who had declined the task. She was not long, however, in feeling happy in a home in which, as in her heart, all was sound and simple. Her only enjoyment during her long hours of work was to gaze before her at the vast horizon, the huge pile of Paris, stretching its roofs, like billows, as far as the eye could reach. Her solitary corner overlooked all that immensity.

“Mamma, I can no longer see,” said Jeanne, seated near her on a low chair. And then, dropping her work, the child gazed at Paris, which was darkening over with the shadows of night. She rarely romped about, and her mother even had to exert authority to induce her to go out. In accordance with Doctor Bodin’s strict injunction, Helene made her stroll with her two hours each day in the Bois de Boulogne, and this was their only promenade; in eighteen months they had not gone three times into Paris.* Nowhere was Jeanne so evidently happy as in their large blue room. Her mother had been obliged to renounce her intention of having her taught music, for the sound of an organ in the silent streets made her tremble and drew tears from her eyes. Her favorite occupation was to assist her mother in sewing linen for the children of the Abbe’s poor.

* Passy and the Trocadero are now well inside Paris, but at the time fixed for this story they were beyond the barrieres.

Night had quite fallen when the lamp was brought in by Rosalie, who, fresh from the glare of her range, looked altogether upset. Tuesday’s dinner was the one event of the week, which put things topsy-turvy.

“Aren’t the gentlemen coming here to-night, madame?” she inquired.

Helene looked at the timepiece: “It’s a quarter to seven; they will be here soon,” she replied.

Rosalie was a gift from Abbe Jouve, who had met her at the station on the day she arrived from Orleans, so that she did not know a single street in Paris. A village priest, an old schoolmate of Abbe Jouve’s, had sent her to him. She was dumpy and plump, with a round face under her narrow cap, thick black hair, a flat nose, and deep red lips; and she was expert in preparing savory dishes, having been brought up at the parsonage by her godmother, servant to the village priest.

“Here is Monsieur Rambaud at last!” she exclaimed, rushing to open the door before there was even a ring.

Full and broad-shouldered, Monsieur Rambaud entered, displaying an expansive countenance like that of a country notary. His forty-five years had already silvered his hair, but his large blue eyes retained a wondering, artless, gentle expression, akin to a child’s .

“And here’s his reverence; everybody has come now!” resumed Rosalie, as she opened the door once more.

Whilst Monsieur Rambaud pressed Helene’s hand and sat down without speaking, smiling like one who felt quite at home, Jeanne threw her arms round the Abbe’s neck.

“Good-evening, dear friend,” said she. “I’ve been so ill!”

“So ill, my darling?”

The two men at once showed their anxiety, the Abbe especially. He was a short, spare man, with a large head and awkward manners, and dressed in the most careless way; but his eyes, usually half-closed, now opened to their full extent, all aglow with exquisite tenderness. Jeanne relinquished one of her hands to him, while she gave the other to Monsieur Rambaud. Both held her and gazed at her with troubled looks. Helene was obliged to relate the story of her illness, and the Abbe was on the point of quarrelling with her for not having warned him of it. And then they each questioned her. “The attack was quite over now? She had not had another, had she?” The mother smiled as she listened.

“You are even fonder of her than I am, and I think you’ll frighten me in the end,” she replied. “No, she hasn’t been troubled again, except that she has felt some pains in her limbs and had some headaches. But we shall get rid of these very soon.”

The maid then entered to announce that dinner was ready.

The table, sideboard, and eight chairs furnishing the dining-room were of mahogany. The curtains of red reps had been drawn close by Rosalie, and a hanging lamp of white porcelain within a plain brass ring lighted up the tablecloth, the carefully-arranged plates, and the tureen of steaming soup. Each Tuesday’s dinner brought round the same remarks, but on this particular day Dr. Deberle served naturally as a subject of conversation. Abbe Jouve lauded him to the skies, though he knew that he was no church-goer. He spoke of him, however, as a man of upright character, charitable to a fault, a good father, and a good husband — in fact, one who gave the best of examples to others. As for Madame Deberle she was most estimable, in spite of her somewhat flighty ways, which were doubtless due to her Parisian education. In a word, he dubbed the couple charming. Helene seemed happy to hear this; it confirmed her own opinions; and the Abbe’s remarks determined her to continue the acquaintance, which had at first rather frightened her.

“You shut yourself up too much!” declared the priest.

“No doubt,” echoed his brother.

Helene beamed on them with her quiet smile, as though to say that they themselves sufficed for all her wants, and that she dreaded new acquaintances. However, ten o’clock struck at last, and the Abbe and his brother took up their hats. Jeanne had just fallen asleep in an easy-chair in the bedroom, and they bent over her, raising their heads with satisfied looks as they observed how tranquilly she slumbered. They stole from the room on tiptoe, and in the lobby whispered their good-byes:

“Till next Tuesday!”

“O, by the way,” said the Abbe, returning a step or two, “I was forgetting: Mother Fetu is ill. You should go to see her.”

“I will go to-morrow,” answered Helene.

The Abbe had a habit of commissioning her to visit his poor. They engaged in all sorts of whispered talk together on this subject, private business which a word or two enabled them to settle together, and which they never referred to in the presence of other persons.

On the morrow Helene went out alone. She decided to leave Jeanne in the house, as the child had been troubled with fits of shivering since paying a visit of charity to an old man who had become paralyzed. Once out of doors, she followed the Rue Vineuse, turned down the Rue Raynouard, and soon found herself in the Passage des Eaux, a strange, steep lane, like a staircase, pent between garden walls, and conducting from the heights of Passy to the quay. At the bottom of this descent was a dilapidated house, where Mother Fetu lived in an attic lighted by a round window, and furnished with a wretched bed, a rickety table, and a seatless chair.

“Oh! my good lady, my good lady!” she moaned out, directly she saw Helene enter.

The old woman was in bed. In spite of her wretchedness, her body was plump, swollen out, as it were, while her face was puffy, and her hands seemed numbed as she drew the tattered sheet over her. She had small, keen eyes and a whimpering voice, and displayed a noisy humility in a rush of words.

“Ah! my good lady, how I thank you! Ah, ah! oh, how I suffer! It’s just as if dogs were tearing at my side. I’m sure I have a beast inside me — see, just there! The skin isn’t broken; the complaint is internal. But, oh! oh! the pain hasn’t ceased for two days past. Good Lord, how is it possible to suffer so much? Ah, my good lady, thank you! You don’t forget the poor. It will be taken into account up above; yes, yes, it will be taken into account!”

Helene had sat down. Noticing on the table a jug of warm tisane, she filled a cup which was near at hand, and gave it to the sufferer. Near the jug were placed a packet of sugar, two oranges, and some other comfits.

“Has any one been to see you?” Helene asked.

“Yes, yes — a little lady. But she doesn’t know. That isn’t the sort of stuff I need. Oh, if I could get a little meat! My next-door neighbor would cook it for me. Oh! oh! this pain is something dreadful! A dog is tearing at me — oh, if only I had some broth!”

In spite of the pains which were racking her limbs, she kept her sharp eyes fixed on Helene, who was now busy fumbling in her pocket, and on seeing her visitor place a ten-franc piece on the table, she whimpered all the more, and tried to rise to a sitting posture. Whilst struggling, she extended her arm, and the money vanished, as she repeated:

“Gracious Heaven! this is another frightful attack. Oh! oh! I cannot stand such agony any longer! God will requite you, my good lady; I will pray to Him to requite you. Bless my soul, how these pains shoot through my whole body! His reverence Abbe Jouve promised me you would come. It’s only you who know what I want. I am going to buy some meat. But now the pain’s going down into my legs. Help me; I have no strength left — none left at all!”

The old woman wished to turn over, and Helene, drawing off her gloves, gently took hold of her and placed her as she desired. As she was still bending over her the door opened, and a flush of surprise mounted to her cheeks as she saw Dr. Deberle entering. Did he also make visits to which he never referred?

“It’s the doctor!” blurted out the old woman. “Oh! Heaven must bless you both for being so good!”

The doctor bowed respectfully to Helene. Mother Fetu had ceased whining on his entrance, but kept up a sibilant wheeze, like that of a child in pain. She had understood at once that the doctor and her benefactress were known to one another; and her eyes never left them, but travelled from one to the other, while her wrinkled face showed that her mind was covertly working. The doctor put some questions to her, and sounded her right side; then, turning to Helene, who had just sat down, he said:

“She is suffering from hepatic colic. She will be on her feet again in a few days.”

And, tearing from his memorandum book a leaf on which he had written some lines, he added, addressing Mother Fetu:

“Listen to me. You must send this to the chemist in the Rue de Passy, and every two hours you must drink a spoonful of the draught he will give you.”

The old woman burst out anew into blessings. Helene remained seated. The doctor lingered gazing at her; but when their eyes had met, he bowed and discreetly took his leave. He had not gone down a flight ere Mother Fetu’s lamentations were renewed.

“Ah! he’s such a clever doctor! Ah! if his medicine could do me some good! Dandelions and tallow make a good simple for removing water from the body. Yes, yes, you can say you know a clever doctor. Have you known him long? Gracious goodness, how thirsty I am! I feel burning hot. He has a wife, hasn’t he? He deserves to have a good wife and beautiful children. Indeed, it’s a pleasure to see kind-hearted people good acquaintances.”

Helene had risen to give her a drink.

“I must go now, Mother Fetu,” she said. “Good-bye till to-morrow.”

“Ah! how good you are! If I only had some linen! Look at my chemise — it’s torn in half; and this bed is so dirty. But that doesn’t matter. God will requite you, my good lady!”

Next day, on Helene’s entering Mother Fetu’s room, she found Dr. Deberle already there. Seated on the chair, he was writing out a prescription, while the old woman rattled on with whimpering volubility.

“Oh, sir, it now feels like lead in my side — yes, just like lead! It’s as heavy as a hundred-pound weight, and prevents me from turning round.”

Then, having caught sight of Helene, she went on without a pause: “Ah! here’s the good lady! I told the kind doctor you would come. Though the heavens might fall, said I, you would come all the same. You’re a very saint, an angel from paradise, and, oh! so beautiful that people might fall on their knees in the streets to gaze on you as you pass! Dear lady, I am no better; just now I have a heavy feeling here. Oh, I have told the doctor what you did for me! The emperor could have done no more. Yes, indeed, it would be a sin not to love you — a great sin.”

These broken sentences fell from her lips as, with eyes half closed, she rolled her head on the bolster, the doctor meantime smiling at Helene, who felt very ill at ease.

“Mother Fetu,” she said softly, “I have brought you a little linen.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you; God will requite you! You’re just like this kind, good gentleman, who does more good to poor folks than a host of those who declare it their special work. You don’t know what great care he has taken of me for four months past, supplying me with medicine and broth and wine. One rarely finds a rich person so kind to a poor soul! Oh, he’s another of God’s angels! Dear, dear, I seem to have quite a house in my stomach!”

In his turn the doctor now seemed to be embarrassed. He rose and offered his chair to Helene; but although she had come with the intention of remaining a quarter of an hour, she declined to sit down, on the plea that she was in a great hurry.

Meanwhile, Mother Fetu, still rolling her head to and fro, had stretched out her hand, and the parcel of linen had vanished in the bed. Then she resumed:

“Oh, what a couple of good souls you are! I don’t wish to offend you; I only say it because it’s true. When you have seen one, you have seen the other. Oh, dear Lord! give me a hand and help me to turn round. Kind-hearted people understand one another. Yes, yes, they understand one another.”

“Good-bye, Mother Fetu,” said Helene, leaving the doctor in sole possession. “I don’t think I shall call to-morrow.”

The next day, however, found her in the attic again. The old woman was sound asleep, but scarcely had she opened her eyes and recognized Helene in her black dress sitting on the chair than she exclaimed:

“He has been here — oh, I really don’t know what he gave me to take, but I am as stiff as a stick. We were talking about you. He asked me all kinds of questions; whether you were generally sad, and whether your look was always the same. Oh, he’s such a good man!”

Her words came more slowly, and she seemed to be waiting to see by the expression of Helene’s face what effect her remarks might have on her, with that wheedling, anxious air of the poor who are desirous of pleasing people. No doubt she fancied she could detect a flush of displeasure mounting to her benefactress’s brow, for her huge, puffed-up face, all eagerness and excitement, suddenly clouded over; and she resumed, in stammering accents:

“I am always asleep. Perhaps I have been poisoned. A woman in the Rue de l’Annonciation was killed by a drug which the chemist gave her in mistake for another.”

That day Helene lingered for nearly half an hour in Mother Fetu’s room, hearing her talk of Normandy, where she had been born, and where the milk was so good. During a silence she asked the old woman carelessly: “Have you known the doctor a long time?”

Mother Fetu, lying on her back, half-opened her eyes and again closed them.

“Oh, yes!” she answered, almost in a whisper. “For instance, his father attended to me before ‘48, and he accompanied him then.”

“I have been told the father was a very good man.”

“Yes, but a little cracked. The son is much his superior. When he touches you you would think his hands were of velvet.”

Silence again fell.

“I advise you to do everything he tells you,” at last said Helene. “He is very clever; he saved my daughter.”

“To be sure!” exclaimed Mother Fetu, again all excitement. “People ought to have confidence in him. Why, he brought a boy to life again when he was going to be buried! Oh, there aren’t two persons like him; you won’t stop me from saying that! I am very lucky; I fall in with the pick of good-hearted people. I thank the gracious Lord for it every night. I don’t forget either of you. You are mingled together in my prayers. May God in His goodness shield you and grant your every wish! May He load you with His gifts! May He keep you a place in Paradise!”

She was now sitting up in bed with hands clasped, seemingly entreating Heaven with devout fervor. Helene allowed her to go on thus for a considerable time, and even smiled. The old woman’s chatter, in fact, ended by lulling her into a pleasant drowsiness, and when she went off she promised to give her a bonnet and gown, as soon as she should be able to get about again.

Throughout that week Helene busied herself with Mother Fetu. Her afternoon visit became an item in her daily life. She felt a strange fondness for the Passage des Eaux. She liked that steep lane for its coolness and quietness and its ever-clean pavement, washed on rainy days by the water rushing down from the heights. A strange sensation thrilled her as she stood at the top and looked at the narrow alley with its steep declivity, usually deserted, and only known to the few inhabitants of the neighboring streets. Then she would venture through an archway dividing a house fronting the Rue Raynouard, and trip down the seven flights of broad steps, in which lay the bed of a pebbly stream occupying half of the narrow way. The walls of the gardens on each side bulged out, coated with a grey, leprous growth; umbrageous trees drooped over, foliage rained down, here and there an ivy plant thickly mantled the stonework, and the chequered verdure, which only left glimpses of the blue sky above, made the light very soft and greeny. Halfway down Helene would stop to take breath, gazing at the street-lamp which hung there, and listening to the merry laughter in the gardens, whose doors she had never seen open. At times an old woman panted up with the aid of the black, shiny, iron handrail fixed in the wall to the right; a lady would come, leaning on her parasol as on a walking-stick; or a band of urchins would run down, with a great stamping of feet. But almost always Helene found herself alone, and this steep, secluded, shady descent was to her a veritable delight — like a path in the depths of a forest. At the bottom she would raise her eyes, and the sight of the narrow, precipitous alley she had just descended made her feel somewhat frightened.

She glided into the old woman’s room with the quiet and coolness of the Passage des Eaux clinging to her garments. This woefully wretched den no longer affected her painfully. She moved about there as if in her own rooms, opening the round attic window to admit the fresh air, and pushing the table into a corner if it came in her way. The garret’s bareness, its whitewashed walls and rickety furniture, realized to her mind an existence whose simplicity she had sometimes dreamt of in her girlhood. But what especially charmed her was the kindly emotion she experienced there. Playing the part of sick nurse, hearing the constant bewailing of the old woman, all she saw and felt within the four walls left her quivering with deep pity. In the end she awaited with evident impatience Doctor Deberle’s customary visit. She questioned him as to Mother Fetu’s condition; but from this they glided to other subjects, as they stood near each other, face to face. A closer acquaintance was springing up between them, and they were surprised to find they possessed similar tastes. They understood one another without speaking a word, each heart engulfed in the same overflowing charity. Nothing to Helene seemed sweeter than this mutual feeling, which arose in such an unusual way, and to which she yielded without resistance, filled as she was with divine pity. At first she had felt somewhat afraid of the doctor; in her own drawing-room she would have been cold and distrustful, in harmony with her nature. Here, however, in this garret they were far from the world, sharing the one chair, and almost happy in the midst of the wretchedness and poverty which filled their souls with emotion. A week passed, and they knew one another as though they had been intimate for years. Mother Fetu’s miserable abode was filled with sunshine, streaming from this fellowship of kindliness.

The old woman grew better very slowly. The doctor was surprised, and charged her with coddling herself when she related that she now felt a dreadful weight in her legs. She always kept up her monotonous moaning, lying on her back and rolling her head to and fro; but she closed her eyes, as though to give her visitors an opportunity for unrestrained talk. One day she was to all appearance sound asleep, but beneath their lids her little black eyes continued watching. At last, however, she had to rise from her bed; and next day Helene presented her with the promised bonnet and gown. When the doctor made his appearance that afternoon the old woman’s laggard memory seemed suddenly stirred. “Gracious goodness!” said she, “I’ve forgotten my neighbor’s soup-pot; I promised to attend to it!”

Then she disappeared, closing the door behind her and leaving the couple alone. They did not notice that they were shut in, but continued their conversation. The doctor urged Helene to spend the afternoon occasionally in his garden in the Rue Vineuse.

“My wife,” said he, “must return your visit, and she will in person repeat my invitation. It would do your daughter good.”

“But I don’t refuse,” she replied, laughing. “I do not require to be fetched with ceremony. Only — only — I am afraid of being indiscreet. At any rate, we will see.”

Their talk continued, but at last the doctor exclaimed in a tone of surprise: “Where on earth can Mother Fetu have gone? It must be a quarter of an hour since she went to see after her neighbor’s soup-pot.”

Helene then saw that the door was shut, but it did not shock her at the moment. She continued to talk of Madame Deberle, of whom she spoke highly to her husband; but noticing that the doctor constantly glanced towards the door, she at last began to feel uncomfortable.

“It’s very strange that she does not come back!” she remarked in her turn.

Their conversation then dropped. Helene, not knowing what to do, opened the window; and when she turned round they avoided looking at one another. The laughter of children came in through the circular window, which, with its bit of blue sky, seemed like a full round moon. They could not have been more alone — concealed from all inquisitive looks, with merely this bit of heaven gazing in on them. The voices of the children died away in the distance; and a quivering silence fell. No one would dream of finding them in that attic, out of the world. Their confusion grew apace, and in the end Helene, displeased with herself, gave the doctor a steady glance.

“I have a great many visits to pay yet,” he at once exclaimed. “As she doesn’t return, I must leave.”

He quitted the room, and Helene then sat down. Immediately afterwards Mother Fetu returned with many protestations:

“Oh! oh! I can scarcely crawl; such a faintness came over me! Has the dear good doctor gone? Well, to be sure, there’s not much comfort here! Oh, you are both angels from heaven, coming to spend your time with one so unfortunate as myself! But God in His goodness will requite you. The pain has gone down into my feet to-day, and I had to sit down on a step. Oh, I should like to have some chairs! If I only had an easy-chair! My mattress is so vile too that I am quite ashamed when you come. The whole place is at your disposal, and I would throw myself into the fire if you required it. Yes. Heaven knows it; I always repeat it in my prayers! Oh, kind Lord, grant their utmost desires to these good friends of mine — in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!”

As Helene listened she experienced a singular feeling of discomfort. Mother Fetu’s bloated face filled her with disgust. Never before in this stifling attic had she been affected in a like way; its sordid misery seemed to stare her in the face; the lack of fresh air, the surrounding wretchedness, quite sickened her. So she made all haste to leave, feeling hurt by the blessings which Mother Fetu poured after her.

In the Passage des Eaux an additional sorrow came upon her. Halfway up, on the right-hand side of the path, the wall was hollowed out, and here there was an excavation, some disused well, enclosed by a railing. During the last two days when passing she had heard the wailings of a cat rising from this well, and now, as she slowly climbed the path, these wailings were renewed, but so pitifully that they seemed instinct with the agony of death. The thought that the poor brute, thrown into the disused well, was slowly dying there of hunger, quite rent Helene’s heart. She hastened her steps, resolving that she would not venture down this lane again for a long time, lest the cat’s death-call should reach her ears.

The day was a Tuesday. In the evening, on the stroke of seven, as Helene was finishing a tiny bodice, the two wonted rings at the bell were heard, and Rosalie opened the door.

“His reverence is first to-night!” she exclaimed. “Oh, here comes Monsieur Rambaud too!”

They were very merry at dinner. Jeanne was nearly well again now, and the two brothers, who spoiled her, were successful in procuring her permission to eat some salad, of which she was excessively fond, notwithstanding Doctor Bodin’s formal prohibition. When she was going to bed, the child in high spirits hung round her mother’s neck and pleaded:

“Oh! mamma, darling! let me go with you to-morrow to see the old woman you nurse!”

But the Abbe and Monsieur Rambaud were the first to scold her for thinking of such a thing. They would not hear of her going amongst the poor, as the sight affected her too grieviously. The last time she had been on such an expedition she had twice swooned, and for three days her eyes had been swollen with tears, that had flowed even in her sleep.

“Oh! I will be good!” she pleaded. “I won’t cry, I promise.”

“It is quite useless, my darling,” said her mother, caressing her. “The old woman is well now. I shall not go out any more; I’ll stay all day with you!”

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