A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 5.

Both windows of the bedroom were wide open, and in the depths below the house, which was perched on the very summit of the hill, lay Paris, rolling away in a mighty flat expanse. Ten o’clock struck; the lovely February morning had all the sweetness and perfume of spring.

Helene reclined in an invalid chair, reading in front of one of the windows, her knee still in bandages. She suffered no pain; but she had been confined to her room for a week past, unable even to take up her customary needlework. Not knowing what to do, she had opened a book which she had found on the table — she, who indulged in little or no reading at any time. This book was the one she used every night as a shade for the night-lamp, the only volume which she had taken within eighteen months from the small but irreproachable library selected by Monsieur Rambaud. Novels usually seemed to her false to life and puerile; and this one, Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” had at first wearied her to death. However, a strange curiosity had grown upon her, and she was finishing it, at times affected to tears, and at times rather bored, when she would let it slip from her hand for long minutes and gaze fixedly at the far-stretching horizon.

That morning Paris awoke from sleep with a smiling indolence. A mass of vapor, following the valley of the Seine, shrouded the two banks from view. This mist was light and milky, and the sun, gathering strength, was slowly tinging it with radiance. Nothing of the city was distinguishable through this floating muslin. In the hollows the haze thickened and assumed a bluish tint; while over certain broad expanses delicate transparencies appeared, a golden dust, beneath which you could divine the depths of the streets; and up above domes and steeples rent the mist, rearing grey outlines to which clung shreds of the haze which they had pierced. At times cloudlets of yellow smoke would, like giant birds, heavy of wing, slowly soar on high, and then mingle with the atmosphere which seemed to absorb them. And above all this immensity, this mass of cloud, hanging in slumber over Paris, a sky of extreme purity, of a faint and whitening blue, spread out its mighty vault. The sun was climbing the heavens, scattering a spray of soft rays; a pale golden light, akin in hue to the flaxen tresses of a child, was streaming down like rain, filling the atmosphere with the warm quiver of its sparkle. It was like a festival of the infinite, instinct with sovereign peacefulness and gentle gaiety, whilst the city, chequered with golden beams, still remained lazy and sleepy, unwilling to reveal itself by casting off its coverlet of lace.

For eight days it had been Helene’s diversion to gaze on that mighty expanse of Paris, and she never wearied of doing so. It was as unfathomable and varying as the ocean — fair in the morning, ruddy with fire at night, borrowing all the joys and sorrows of the heavens reflected in its depths. A flash of sunshine came, and it would roll in waves of gold; a cloud would darken it and raise a tempest. Its aspect was ever changing. A complete calm would fall, and all would assume an orange hue; gusts of wind would sweep by from time to time, and turn everything livid; in keen, bright weather there would be a shimmer of light on every housetop; whilst when showers fell, blurring both heaven and earth, all would be plunged in chaotic confusion. At her window Helene experienced all the hopes and sorrows that pertain to the open sea. As the keen wind blew in her face she imagined it wafted a saline fragrance; even the ceaseless noise of the city seemed to her like that of a surging tide beating against a rocky cliff.

The book fell from her hands. She was dreaming, with a far-away look in her eyes. When she stopped reading thus it was from a desire to linger and understand what she had already perused. She took a delight in denying her curiosity immediate satisfaction. The tale filled her soul with a tempest of emotion. Paris that morning was displaying the same vague joy and sorrow as that which disturbed her heart. In this lay a great charm — to be ignorant, to guess things dimly, to yield to slow initiation, with the vague thought that her youth was beginning again.

How full of lies were novels! She was assuredly right in not reading them. They were mere fables, good for empty heads with no proper conception of life. Yet she remained entranced, dreaming unceasingly of the knight Ivanhoe, loved so passionately by two women — Rebecca, the beautiful Jewess, and the noble Lady Rowena. She herself thought she could have loved with the intensity and patient serenity of the latter maiden. To love! to love! She did not utter the words, but they thrilled her through and through in the very thought, astonishing her, and irradiating her face with a smile. In the distance some fleecy cloudlets, driven by the breeze, now floated over Paris like a flock of swans. Huge gaps were being cleft in the fog; a momentary glimpse was given of the left bank, indistinct and clouded, like a city of fairydom seen in a dream; but suddenly a thick curtain of mist swept down, and the fairy city was engulfed, as though by an inundation. And then the vapors, spreading equally over every district, formed, as it were, a beautiful lake, with milky, placid waters. There was but one denser streak, indicating the grey, curved course of the Seine. And slowly over those milky, placid waters shadows passed, like vessels with pink sails, which the young woman followed with a dreamy gaze. To love! to love! She smiled as her dream sailed on.

However, she again took up her book. She had reached the chapter describing the attack on the castle, wherein Rebecca nurses the wounded Ivanhoe, and recounts to him the incidents of the fight, which she gazes at from a window. Helene felt that she was in the midst of a beautiful falsehood, but roamed through it as through some mythical garden, whose trees are laden with golden fruit, and where she imbibed all sorts of fancies. Then, at the conclusion of the scene, when Rebecca, wrapped in her veil, exhales her love beside the sleeping knight, Helene again allowed the book to slip from her hand; her heart was so brimful of emotion that she could read no further.

Heavens! could all those things be true? she asked, as she lay back in her easy-chair, numbed by her enforced quiescence, and gazing on Paris, shrouded and mysterious, beneath the golden sun. The events of her life now arose before her, conjured up by the perusal of the novel. She saw herself a young girl in the house of her father, Mouret, a hatter at Marseilles. The Rue des Petites-Maries was black and dismal, and the house, with its vat of steaming water ready to the hand of the hatter, exhaled a rank odor of dampness, even in fine weather. She also saw her mother, who was ever an invalid, and who kissed her with pale lips, without speaking. No gleam of the sun penetrated into her little room. Hard work went on around her; only by dint of toil did her father gain a workingman’s competency. That summed up her early life, and till her marriage nothing intervened to break the monotony of days ever the same. One morning, returning from market with her mother, a basketful of vegetables on her arm, she jostled against young Grandjean. Charles turned round and followed them. The love-romance of her life was in this incident. For three months she was always meeting him, while he, bashful and awkward, could not pluck up courage to speak to her. She was sixteen years of age, and a little proud of her lover, who, she knew, belonged to a wealthy family. But she deemed him bad-looking, and often laughed at him, and no thought of him disturbed her sleep in the large, gloomy, damp house. In the end they were married, and this marriage yet filled her with surprise. Charles worshipped her, and would fling himself on the floor to kiss her bare feet. She beamed on him, her smile full of kindness, as she rebuked him for such childishness. Then another dull life began. During twelve years no event of sufficient interest had occurred for her to bear in mind. She was very quiet and very happy, tormented by no fever either of body or heart; her whole attention being given to the daily cares of a poor household. Charles was still wont to kiss her fair white feet, while she showed herself indulgent and motherly towards him. But other feeling she had none. Then there abruptly came before her the room in the Hotel du Var, her husband in his coffin, and her widow’s robe hanging over a chair. She had wept that day as on the winter’s night when her mother died. Then once more the days glided on; for two months with her daughter she had again enjoyed peace and happiness. Heaven! did that sum up everything? What, then, did that book mean when it spoke of transcendent loves which illumine one’s existence?

While she thus reflected prolonged quivers were darting over the sleeping lake of mist on the horizon. Suddenly it seemed to burst, gaps appeared, a rending sped from end to end, betokening a complete break-up. The sun, ascending higher and higher, scattering its rays in glorious triumph, was victoriously attacking the mist. Little by little the great lake seemed to dry up, as though some invisible sluice were draining the plain. The fog, so dense but a moment before, was losing its consistency and becoming transparent, showing all the bright hues of the rainbow. On the left bank of the Seine all was of a heavenly blue, deepening into violet over towards the Jardin des Plantes. Upon the right bank a pale pink, flesh-like tint suffused the Tuileries district; while away towards Montmartre there was a fiery glow, carmine flaming amid gold. Then, farther off, the working-men’s quarters deepened to a dusty brick-color, changing more and more till all became a slatey, bluish grey. The eye could not yet distinguish the city, which quivered and receded like those subaqueous depths divined through the crystalline waves, depths with awful forests of huge plants, swarming with horrible things and monsters faintly espied. However, the watery mist was quickly falling. It became at last no more than a fine muslin drapery; and bit by bit this muslin vanished, and Paris took shape and emerged from dreamland.

To love! to love! Why did these words ring in Helene’s ears with such sweetness as the darkness of the fog gave way to light? Had she not loved her husband, whom she had tended like a child? But a bitter memory stirred within her — the memory of her dead father, who had hung himself three weeks after his wife’s decease in a closet where her gowns still dangled from their hooks. There he had gasped out his last agony, his body rigid, and his face buried in a skirt, wrapped round by the clothes which breathed of her whom he had ever worshipped. Then Helene’s reverie took a sudden leap. She began thinking of her own home-life, of the month’s bills which she had checked with Rosalie that very morning; and she felt proud of the orderly way in which she regulated her household. During more than thirty years she had lived with self-respect and strength of mind. Uprightness alone impassioned her. When she questioned her past, not one hour revealed a sin; in her mind’s eye she saw herself ever treading a straight and level path. Truly, the days might slip by; she would walk on peacefully as before, with no impediment in her way. The very thought of this made her stern, and her spirit rose in angry contempt against those lying lives whose apparent heroism disturbs the heart. The only true life was her own, following its course amidst such peacefulness. But over Paris there now only hung a thin smoke, a fine, quivering gauze, on the point of floating away; and emotion suddenly took possession of her. To love! to love! everything brought her back to that caressing phrase — even the pride born of her virtue. Her dreaming became so light, she no longer thought, but lay there, steeped in springtide, with moist eyes.

At last, as she was about to resume her reading, Paris slowly came into view. Not a breath of wind had stirred; it was as if a magician had waved his wand. The last gauzy film detached itself, soared and vanished in the air; and the city spread out without a shadow, under the conquering sun. Helene, with her chin resting on her hand, gazed on this mighty awakening.

A far-stretching valley appeared, with a myriad of buildings huddled together. Over the distant range of hills were scattered close-set roofs, and you could divine that the sea of houses rolled afar off behind the undulating ground, into the fields hidden from sight. It was as the ocean, with all the infinity and mystery of its waves. Paris spread out as vast as the heavens on high. Burnished with the sunshine that lovely morning, the city looked like a field of yellow corn; and the huge picture was all simplicity, compounded of two colors only, the pale blue of the sky, and the golden reflections of the housetops. The stream of light from the spring sun invested everything with the beauty of a new birth. So pure was the light that the minutest objects became visible. Paris, with its chaotic maze of stonework, shone as though under glass. From time to time, however, a breath of wind passed athwart this bright, quiescent serenity; and then the outlines of some districts grew faint, and quivered as if they were being viewed through an invisible flame.

Helene took interest at first in gazing on the large expanse spread under her windows, the slope of the Trocadero, and the far-stretching quays. She had to lean out to distinguish the deserted square of the Champ-de-Mars, barred at the farther end by the sombre Military School. Down below, on thoroughfare and pavement on each side of the Seine, she could see the passers-by — a busy cluster of black dots, moving like a swarm of ants. A yellow omnibus shone out like a spark of fire; drays and cabs crossed the bridge, mere child’s toys in the distance, with miniature horses like pieces of mechanism; and amongst others traversing the grassy slopes was a servant girl, with a white apron which set a bright spot in all the greenery. Then Helene raised her eyes; but the crowd scattered and passed out of sight, and even the vehicles looked like mere grains of sand; there remained naught but the gigantic carcass of the city, seemingly untenanted and abandoned, its life limited to the dull trepidation by which it was agitated. There, in the foreground to the left, some red roofs were shining, and the tall chimneys of the Army Bakehouse slowly poured out their smoke; while, on the other side of the river, between the Esplanade and the Champ-de-Mars, a grove of lofty elms clustered, like some patch of a park, with bare branches, rounded tops, and young buds already bursting forth, quite clear to the eye. In the centre of the picture, the Seine spread out and reigned between its grey banks, to which rows of casks, steam cranes, and carts drawn up in line, gave a seaport kind of aspect. Helene’s eyes were always turning towards this shining river, on which boats passed to and fro like birds with inky plumage. Her looks involuntarily followed the water’s stately course, which, like a silver band, cut Paris atwain. That morning the stream rolled liquid sunlight; no greater resplendency could be seen on the horizon. And the young woman’s glance encountered first the Pont des Invalides, next the Pont de la Concorde, and then the Pont Royal. Bridge followed bridge, they appeared to get closer, to rise one above the other like viaducts forming a flight of steps, and pierced with all kinds of arches; while the river, wending its way beneath these airy structures, showed here and there small patches of its blue robe, patches which became narrower and narrower, more and more indistinct. And again did Helene raise her eyes, and over yonder the stream forked amidst a jumble of houses; the bridges on either side of the island of La Cite were like mere films stretching from one bank to the other; while the golden towers of Notre-Dame sprang up like boundary-marks of the horizon, beyond which river, buildings, and clumps of trees became naught but sparkling sunshine. Then Helene, dazzled, withdrew her gaze from this the triumphant heart of Paris, where the whole glory of the city appeared to blaze.

On the right bank, amongst the clustering trees of the Champs-Elysees she saw the crystal buildings of the Palace of Industry glittering with a snowy sheen; farther away, behind the roof of the Madeleine, which looked like a tombstone, towered the vast mass of the Opera House; then there were other edifices, cupolas and towers, the Vendome Column, the church of Saint-Vincent de Paul, the tower of Saint-Jacques; and nearer in, the massive cube-like pavilions of the new Louvre and the Tuileries, half-hidden by a wood of chestnut trees. On the left bank the dome of the Invalides shone with gilding; beyond it the two irregular towers of Saint-Sulpice paled in the bright light; and yet farther in the rear, to the right of the new spires of Sainte-Clotilde, the bluish Pantheon, erect on a height, its fine colonnade showing against the sky, overlooked the city, poised in the air, as it were, motionless, with the silken hues of a captive balloon.

Helene’s gaze wandered all over Paris. There were hollows, as could be divined by the lines of roofs; the Butte des Moulins surged upward, with waves of old slates, while the line of the principal boulevards dipped downward like a gutter, ending in a jumble of houses whose tiles even could no longer be seen. At this early hour the oblique sun did not light up the house-fronts looking towards the Trocadero; not a window-pane of these threw back its rays. The skylights on some roofs alone sparkled with the glittering reflex of mica amidst the red of the adjacent chimney-pots. The houses were mostly of a sombre grey, warmed by reflected beams; still rays of light were transpiercing certain districts, and long streets, stretching in front of Helene, set streaks of sunshine amidst the shade. It was only on the left that the far-spreading horizon, almost perfect in its circular sweep, was broken by the heights of Montmartre and Pere-Lachaise. The details so clearly defined in the foreground, the innumerable denticles of the chimneys, the little black specks of the thousands of windows, grew less and less distinct as you gazed farther and farther away, till everything became mingled in confusion — the pell-mell of an endless city, whose faubourgs, afar off, looked like shingly beaches, steeped in a violet haze under the bright, streaming, vibrating light that fell from the heavens.

Helene was watching the scene with grave interest when Jeanne burst gleefully into the room.

“Oh, mamma! look here!”

The child had a big bunch of wall-flowers in her hand. She told, with some laughter, how she had waylaid Rosalie on her return from market to peep into her basket of provisions. To rummage in this basket was a great delight to her.

“Look at it, mamma! It lay at the very bottom. Just smell it; what a lovely perfume!”

From the tawny flowers, speckled with purple, there came a penetrating odor which scented the whole room. Then Helene, with a passionate movement, drew Jeanne to her breast, while the nosegay fell on her lap. To love! to love! Truly, she loved her child. Was not that intense love which had pervaded her life till now sufficient for her wants? It ought to satisfy her; it was so gentle, so tranquil; no lassitude could put an end to its continuance. Again she pressed her daughter to her, as though to conjure away thoughts which threatened to separate them. In the meantime Jeanne surrendered herself to the shower of kisses. Her eyes moist with tears, she turned her delicate neck upwards with a coaxing gesture, and pressed her face against her mother’s shoulder. Then she slipped an arm round her waist and thus remained, very demure, her cheek resting on Helene’s bosom. The perfume of the wall-flowers ascended between them.

For a long time they did not speak; but at length, without moving, Jeanne asked in a whisper:

“Mamma, you see that rosy-colored dome down there, close to the river; what is it?”

It was the dome of the Institute, and Helene looked towards it for a moment as though trying to recall the name.

“I don’t know, my love,” she answered gently.

The child appeared content with this reply, and silence again fell. But soon she asked a second question.

“And there, quite near, what beautiful trees are those?” she said, pointing with her finger towards a corner of the Tuileries garden.

“Those beautiful trees!” said her mother. “On the left, do you mean? I don’t know, my love.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Jeanne; and after musing for a little while she added with a pout: “We know nothing!”

Indeed they knew nothing of Paris. During eighteen months it had lain beneath their gaze every hour of the day, yet they knew not a stone of it. Three times only had they gone down into the city; but on returning home, suffering from terrible headaches born of all the agitation they had witnessed, they could find in their minds no distinct memory of anything in all that huge maze of streets.

However, Jeanne at times proved obstinate. “Ah! you can tell me this!” said she: “What is that glass building which glitters there? It is so big you must know it.”

She was referring to the Palais de l’Industrie. Helene, however, hesitated.

“It’s a railway station,” said she. “No, I’m wrong, I think it is a theatre.”

Then she smiled and kissed Jeanne’s hair, at last confessing as before: “I do not know what it is, my love.”

So they continued to gaze on Paris, troubling no further to identify any part of it. It was very delightful to have it there before them, and yet to know nothing of it; it remained the vast and the unknown. It was as though they had halted on the threshold of a world which ever unrolled its panorama before them, but into which they were unwilling to descend. Paris often made them anxious when it wafted them a hot, disturbing atmosphere; but that morning it seemed gay and innocent, like a child, and from its mysterious depths only a breath of tenderness rose gently to their faces.

Helene took up her book again while Jeanne, clinging to her, still gazed upon the scene. In the dazzling, tranquil sky no breeze was stirring. The smoke from the Army Bakehouse ascended perpendicularly in light cloudlets which vanished far aloft. On a level with the houses passed vibrating waves of life, waves of all the life pent up there. The loud voices of the streets softened amidst the sunshine into a languid murmur. But all at once a flutter attracted Jeanne’s notice. A flock of white pigeons, freed from some adjacent dovecot, sped through the air in front of the window; with spreading wings like falling snow, the birds barred the line of view, hiding the immensity of Paris.

With eyes again dreamily gazing upward, Helene remained plunged in reverie. She was the Lady Rowena; she loved with the serenity and intensity of a noble mind. That spring morning, that great, gentle city, those early wall-flowers shedding their perfume on her lap, had little by little filled her heart with tenderness.

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