A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 6.

One morning Helene was arranging her little library, the various books of which had got out of order during the past few days, when Jeanne skipped into the room, clapping her hands.

“A soldier, mamma! a soldier!” she cried.

“What? a soldier?” exclaimed her mother. “What do you want, you and your soldier?”

But the child was in one of her paroxysms of extravagant delight; she only jumped about the more, repeating: “A soldier! a soldier!” without deigning to give any further explanation. She had left the door wide open behind her, and so, as Helene rose, she was astonished to see a soldier — a very little soldier too — in the ante-room. Rosalie had gone out, and Jeanne must have been playing on the landing, though strictly forbidden to do so by her mother.

“What do you want, my lad?” asked Helene.

The little soldier was very much confused on seeing this lady, so lovely and fair, in her dressing-gown trimmed with lace; he shuffled one foot to and fro over the floor, bowed, and at last precipitately stammered: “I beg pardon — excuse —”

But he could get no further, and retreated to the wall, still shuffling his feet. His retreat was thus cut off, and seeing the lady awaited his reply with an involuntary smile, he dived into his right-hand pocket, from which he dragged a blue handkerchief, a knife, and a hunk of bread. He gazed on each in turn, and thrust them all back again. Then he turned his attention to the left-hand pocket, from which were produced a twist of cord, two rusty nails, and some pictures wrapped in part of a newspaper. All these he pushed back to their resting-place, and began tapping his thighs with an anxious air. And again he stammered in bewilderment:

“I beg pardon — excuse —”

But all at once he raised his finger to his nose, and exclaimed with a loud laugh: “What a fool I am! I remember now!”

He then undid two buttons of his greatcoat, and rummaged in his breast, into which he plunged his arm up to the elbow. After a time he drew forth a letter, which he rustled violently before handing to Helene, as though to shake some dust from it.

“A letter for me! Are you sure?” said she.

On the envelope were certainly inscribed her name and address in a heavy rustic scrawl, with pothooks and hangers tumbling over one another. When at last she made it all out, after being repeatedly baffled by the extraordinary style and spelling, she could not but smile again. It was a letter from Rosalie’s aunt, introducing Zephyrin Lacour, who had fallen a victim to the conscription, “in spite of two masses having been said by his reverence.” However, as Zephyrin was Rosalie’s “intended” the aunt begged that madame would be so good as to allow the young folks to see each other on Sundays. In the three pages which the letter comprised this question was continually cropping up in the same words, the confusion of the epistle increasing through the writer’s vain efforts to say something she had not said before. Just above the signature, however, she seemed to have hit the nail on the head, for she had written: “His reverence gives his permission”; and had then broken her pen in the paper, making a shower of blots.

Helene slowly folded the letter. Two or three times, while deciphering its contents, she had raised her head to glance at the soldier. He still remained close to the wall, and his lips stirred, as though to emphasize each sentence in the letter by a slight movement of the chin. No doubt he knew its contents by heart.

“Then you are Zephyrin Lacour, are you not?” asked Helene.

He began to laugh and wagged his head.

“Come in, my lad; don’t stay out there.”

He made up his mind to follow her, but he continued standing close to the door, while Helene sat down. She had scarcely seen him in the darkness of the ante-room. He must have been just as tall as Rosalie; a third of an inch less, and he would have been exempted from service. With red hair, cut very short, he had a round, freckled, beardless face, with two little eyes like gimlet holes. His new greatcoat, much too large for him, made him appear still more dumpy, and with his red-trousered legs wide apart, and his large peaked cap swinging before him, he presented both a comical and pathetic sight — his plump, stupid little person plainly betraying the rustic, although he wore a uniform.

Helene desired to obtain some information from him.

“You left Beauce a week ago?” she asked.

“Yes, madame!”

“And here you are in Paris. I suppose you are not sorry?”

“No, madame.”

He was losing his bashfulness, and now gazed all over the room, evidently much impressed by its blue velvet hangings.

“Rosalie is out,” Helene began again, “but she will be here very soon. Her aunt tells me you are her sweetheart.”

To this the little soldier vouchsafed no reply, but hung his head, laughing awkwardly, and scraping the carpet with the tip of his boot.

“Then you will have to marry her when you leave the army?” Helene continued questioning.

“Yes, to be sure!” exclaimed he, his face turning very red. “Yes, of course; we are engaged!” And, won over by the kindly manners of the lady, he made up his mind to speak out, his fingers still playing with his cap. “You know it’s an old story. When we were quite children, we used to go thieving together. We used to get switched; oh yes, that’s true! I must tell you that the Lacours and the Pichons lived in the same lane, and were next-door neighbors. And so Rosalie and myself were almost brought up together. Then her people died, and her aunt Marguerite took her in. But she, the minx, was already as strong as a demon.”

He paused, realizing that he was warming up, and asked hesitatingly:

“But perhaps she has told you all this?”

“Yes, yes; but go on all the same,” said Helene, who was greatly amused.

“In short,” continued he, “she was awfully strong, though she was no bigger than a tomtit. It was a treat to see her at her work! How she did get through it! One day she gave a slap to a friend of mine — by Jove! such a slap! I had the mark of it on my arm for a week! Yes, that was the way it all came about. All the gossips declared we must marry one another. Besides, we weren’t ten years old before we had agreed on that! And, we have stuck to it, madame, we have stuck to it!”

He placed one hand upon his heart, with fingers wide apart. Helene, however, had now become very grave. The idea of allowing a soldier in her kitchen somewhat worried her. His reverence, no doubt, had given his sanction, but she thought it rather venturesome. There is too much license in the country, where lovers indulge in all sorts of pleasantries. So she gave expression to her apprehensions. When Zephyrin at last gathered her meaning, his first inclination was to laugh, but his awe for Helene restrained him.

“Oh, madame, madame!” said he, “you don’t know her, I can see! I have received slaps enough from her! Of course young men like to laugh! isn’t that so? Sometimes I pinched her, and she would turn round and hit me right on the nose. Her aunt’s advice always was, ‘Look here, my girl, don’t put up with any nonsense!’ His reverence, too, interfered in it, and maybe that had a lot to do with our keeping up sweethearting. We were to have been married after I had drawn for a soldier. But it was all my eye! Things turned out badly. Rosalie declared she would go to service in Paris, to earn a dowry while she was waiting for me. And so, and so —”

He swung himself about, dangling his cap, now from one hand now from the other. But still Helene never said a word, and he at last fancied that she distrusted him. This pained him dreadfully.

“You think, perhaps, that I shall deceive her?” he burst out angrily. “Even, too, when I tell you we are betrothed? I shall marry her, as surely as the heaven shines on us. I’m quite ready to pledge my word in writing. Yes, if you like, I’ll write it down for you.”

Deep emotion was stirring him. He walked about the room gazing around in the hope of finding pen and ink. Helene quickly tried to appease him, but he still went on:

“I would rather sign a paper for you. What harm would it do you? Your mind would be all the easier with it.”

However, just at that moment Jeanne, who had again run away, returned, jumping and clapping her hands.

“Rosalie! Rosalie! Rosalie!” she chanted in a dancing tune of her own composition.

Through the open doorway one could hear the panting of the maid as she climbed up the stairs laden with her basket. Zephyrin started back into a corner of the room, his mouth wide agape from ear to ear in silent laughter, and the gimlet holes of his eyes gleaming with rustic roguery. Rosalie came straight into the room, as was her usual practice, to show her mistress her morning’s purchase of provisions.

“Madame,” said she, “I’ve brought some cauliflowers. Look at them! Only eighteen sous for two; it isn’t dear, is it?”

She held out the basket half open, but on lifting her head noticed Zephyrin’s grinning face. Surprise nailed her to the carpet. Two or three seconds slipped away; she had doubtless at first failed to recognize him in his uniform. But then her round eyes dilated, her fat little face blanched, and her coarse black hair waved in agitation.

“Oh!” she simply said.

But her astonishment was such that she dropped her basket. The provisions, cauliflowers, onions, apples, rolled on to the carpet. Jeanne gave a cry of delight, and falling on her knees, began hunting for the apples, even under the chairs and the wardrobe. Meanwhile Rosalie, as though paralyzed, never moved, though she repeated:

“What! it’s you! What are you doing here? what are you doing here? Say!”

Then she turned to Helene with the question: “Was it you who let him come in?”

Zephyrin never uttered a word, but contented himself with winking slily. Then Rosalie gave vent to her emotion in tears; and, to show her delight at seeing him again, could hit on nothing better than to quiz him.

“Oh! go away!” she began, marching up to him. “You look neat and pretty I must say in that guise of yours! I might have passed you in the street, and not even have said: ‘God bless you.’ Oh! you’ve got a nice rig-out. You just look as if you had your sentry-box on your back; and they’ve cut your hair so short that folks might take you for the sexton’s poodle. Good heavens! what a fright you are; what a fright!”

Zephyrin, very indignant, now made up his mind to speak. “It’s not my fault, that’s sure! Oh! if you joined a regiment we should see a few things.”

They had quite forgotten where they were; everything had vanished — the room, Helene and Jeanne, who was still gathering the apples together. With hands folded over her apron, the maid stood upright in front of the little soldier.

“Is everything all right down there?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, excepting Guignard’s cow is ill. The veterinary surgeon came and said she’d got the dropsy.”

“If she’s got the dropsy, she’s done for. Excepting that, is everything all right?”

“Yes, yes! The village constable has broken his arm. Old Canivet’s dead. And, by the way, his reverence lost his purse with thirty sous in it as he was a-coming back from Grandval. But otherwise, things are all right.”

Then silence fell on them, and they looked at one another with sparkling eyes, their compressed lips slowly making an amorous grimace. This, indeed, must have been the manner in which they expressed their love, for they had not even stretched out their hands in greeting. Rosalie, however, all at once ceased her contemplation, and began to lament at sight of the vegetables on the floor. Such a nice mess! and it was he who had caused it all! Madame ought to have made him wait on the stairs! Scolding away as fast as she could, she dropped on her knees and began putting the apples, onions, and cauliflowers into the basket again, much to the disgust of Jeanne, who would fain have done it all herself. And as she turned, with the object of betaking herself into her kitchen, never deigning another look in Zephyrin’s direction, Helene, conciliated by the healthy tranquillity of the lovers, stopped her to say:

“Listen a moment, my girl. Your aunt has asked me to allow this young man to come and see you on Sundays. He will come in the afternoon, and you will try not to let your work fall behind too much.”

Rosalie paused, merely turning her head. Though she was well pleased, she preserved her doleful air.

“Oh, madame, he will be such a bother,” she declared. But at the same time she glanced over her shoulder at Zephyrin, and again made an affectionate grimace at him. The little soldier remained for a minute stock-still, his mouth agape from ear to ear with its silent laugh. Then he retired backwards, with his cap against his heart as he thanked Helene profusely. The door had been shut upon him, when on the landing he still continued bowing.

“Is that Rosalie’s brother, mamma?” asked Jeanne.

Helene was quite embarrassed by the question. She regretted the permission which she had just given in a sudden impulse of kindliness which now surprised her. She remained thinking for some seconds, and then replied, “No, he is her cousin.”

“Ah!” said the child gravely.

Rosalie’s kitchen looked out on the sunny expanse of Doctor Deberle’s garden. In the summer the branches of the elms swayed in through the broad window. It was the cheeriest room of the suite, always flooded with light, which was sometimes so blinding that Rosalie had put up a curtain of blue cotton stuff, which she drew of an afternoon. The only complaint she made about the kitchen was its smallness; and indeed it was a narrow strip of a place, with a cooking-range on the right-hand side, while on the left were the table and dresser. The various utensils and furnishings, however, had all been so well arranged that she had contrived to keep a clear corner beside the window, where she worked in the evening. She took a pride in keeping everything, stewpans, kettles, and dishes, wonderfully clean; and so, when the sun veered round to the window, the walls became resplendent, the copper vessels sparkled like gold, the tin pots showed bright discs like silver moons, while the white-and-blue tiles above the stove gleamed pale in the fiery glow.

On the evening of the ensuing Saturday Helene heard so great a commotion in the kitchen that she determined to go and see what was the matter.

“What is it?” asked she: “are you fighting with the furniture?”

“I am scouring, madame,” replied Rosalie, who, sweating and dishevelled, was squatting on the tiled floor and scrubbing it with all the strength of her arms.

This over, she sponged it with clear water. Never had the kitchen displayed such perfection of cleanliness. A bride might have slept in it; all was white as for a wedding. So energetically had she exerted her hands that it seemed as if table and dresser had been freshly planed. And the good order of everything was a sight to see; stewpans and pots taking rank by their size, each on its own hook, even the frying-pan and gridiron shining brightly without one grimy stain. Helene looked on for a moment in silence, and then with a smile disappeared.

Every Saturday afterwards there was a similar furbishing, a tornado of dust and water lasting for four hours. It was Rosalie’s wish to display her neatness to Zephyrin on the Sunday. That was her reception day. A single cobweb would have filled her with shame; but when everything shone resplendent around her she became amiable, and burst into song. At three o’clock she would again wash her hands and don a cap gay with ribbons. Then the curtain being drawn halfway, so that only the subdued light of a boudoir came in, she awaited Zephyrin’s arrival amidst all this primness, through which a pleasant scent of thyme and laurel was borne.

At half-past three exactly Zephyrin made his appearance; he would walk about the street until the clocks of the neighborhood had struck the half-hour. Rosalie listened to the beat of his heavy shoes on the stairs, and opened the door the moment he halted on the landing. She had forbidden him to ring the bell. At each visit the same greeting passed between them.

“Is it you?”

“Yes, it’s me!”

And they stood face to face, their eyes sparkling and their lips compressed. Then Zephyrin followed Rosalie; but there was no admission vouchsafed to him till she had relieved him of shako and sabre. She would have none of these in her kitchen; and so the sabre and shako were hidden away in a cupboard. Next she would make him sit down in the corner she had contrived near the window, and thenceforth he was not allowed to budge.

“Sit still there! You can look on, if you like, while I get madame’s dinner ready.”

But he rarely appeared with empty hands. He would usually spend the morning in strolling with some comrades through the woods of Meudon, lounging lazily about, inhaling the fresh air, which inspired him with regretful memories of his country home. To give his fingers something to do he would cut switches, which he tapered and notched with marvelous figurings, and his steps gradually slackening he would come to a stop beside some ditch, his shako on the back of his head, while his eyes remained fixed on the knife with which he was carving the stick. Then, as he could never make up his mind to discard his switches, he carried them in the afternoon to Rosalie, who would throw up her hands, and exclaim that they would litter her kitchen. But the truth was, she carefully preserved them; and under her bed was gathered a bundle of these switches, of all sorts and sizes.

One day he made his appearance with a nest full of eggs, which he had secreted in his shako under the folds of a handkerchief. Omelets made from the eggs of wild birds, so he declared, were very nice — a statement which Rosalie received with horror; the nest, however, was preserved and laid away in company with the switches. But Zephyrin’s pockets were always full to overflowing. He would pull curiosities from them, transparent pebbles found on the banks of the Seine, pieces of old iron, dried berries, and all sorts of strange rubbish, which not even a rag-picker would have cared for. His chief love, however, was for pictures; as he sauntered along he would seize on all the stray papers that had served as wrappers for chocolate or cakes of soap, and on which were black men, palm-trees, dancing-girls, or clusters of roses. The tops of old broken boxes, decorated with figures of languid, blonde ladies, the glazed prints and silver paper which had once contained sugar-sticks and had been thrown away at the neighboring fairs, were great windfalls that filled his bosom with pride. All such booty was speedily transferred to his pockets, the choicer articles being enveloped in a fragment of an old newspaper. And on Sunday, if Rosalie had a moment’s leisure between the preparation of a sauce and the tending of the joint, he would exhibit his pictures to her. They were hers if she cared for them; only as the paper around them was not always clean he would cut them out, a pastime which greatly amused him. Rosalie got angry, as the shreds of paper blew about even into her plates; and it was a sight to see with what rustic cunning he would at last gain possession of her scissors. At times, however, in order to get rid of him, she would give them up without any asking.

Meanwhile some brown sauce would be simmering on the fire. Rosalie watched it, wooden spoon in hand; while Zephyrin, his head bent and his breadth of shoulder increased by his epaulets, continued cutting out the pictures. His head was so closely shaven that the skin of his skull could be seen; and the yellow collar of his tunic yawned widely behind, displaying his sunburnt neck. For a quarter of an hour at a time neither would utter a syllable. When Zephyrin raised his head, he watched Rosalie while she took some flour, minced some parsley, or salted and peppered some dish, his eyes betraying the while intense interest. Then, at long intervals, a few words would escape him:

“By Jove! that does smell nice!”

The cook, busily engaged, would not vouchsafe an immediate reply; but after a lengthy silence she perhaps exclaimed: “You see, it must simmer properly.”

Their talk never went beyond that. They no longer spoke of their native place even. When a reminiscence came to them a word sufficed, and they chuckled inwardly the whole afternoon. This was pleasure enough, and by the time Rosalie turned Zephyrin out of doors both of them had enjoyed ample amusement.

“Come, you will have to go! I must wait on madame,” said she; and restoring him his shako and sabre, she drove him out before her, afterwards waiting on madame with cheeks flushed with happiness; while he walked back to barracks, dangling his arms, and almost intoxicated by the goodly odors of thyme and laurel which still clung to him.

During his earlier visits Helene judged it right to look after them. She popped in sometimes quite suddenly to give an order, and there was Zephyrin always in his corner, between the table and the window, close to the stone filter, which forced him to draw in his legs. The moment madame made her appearance he rose and stood upright, as though shouldering arms, and if she spoke to him his reply never went beyond a salute and a respectful grunt. Little by little Helene grew somewhat easier; she saw that her entrance did not disturb them, and that their faces only expressed the quiet content of patient lovers.

At this time, too, Rosalie seemed even more wide awake than Zephyrin. She had already been some months in Paris, and under its influence was fast losing her country rust, though as yet she only knew three streets — the Rue de Passy, the Rue Franklin, and the Rue Vineuse. Zephyrin, soldier though he was, remained quite a lubber. As Rosalie confided to her mistress, he became more of a blockhead every day. In the country he had been much sharper. But, added she, it was the uniform’s fault; all the lads who donned the uniform became sad dolts. The fact is, his change of life had quite muddled Zephyrin, who, with his staring round eyes and solemn swagger, looked like a goose. Despite his epaulets he retained his rustic awkwardness and heaviness; the barracks had taught him nothing as yet of the fine words and victorious attitudes of the ideal Parisian fire-eater. “Yes, madame,” Rosalie would wind up by saying, “you don’t need to disturb yourself; it is not in him to play any tricks!”

Thus the girl began to treat him in quite a motherly way. While dressing her meat on the spit she would preach him a sermon, full of good counsel as to the pitfalls he should shun; and he in all obedience vigorously nodded approval of each injunction. Every Sunday he had to swear to her that he had attended mass, and that he had solemnly repeated his prayers morning and evening. She strongly inculcated the necessity of tidiness, gave him a brush down whenever he left her, stitched on a loose button of his tunic, and surveyed him from head to foot to see if aught were amiss in his appearance. She also worried herself about his health, and gave him cures for all sorts of ailments. In return for her kindly care Zephyrin professed himself anxious to fill her filter for her; but this proposal was long-rejected, through the fear that he might spill the water. One day, however, he brought up two buckets without letting a drop of their contents fall on the stairs, and from that time he replenished the filter every Sunday. He would also make himself useful in other ways, doing all the heavy work and was extremely handy in running to the greengrocer’s for butter, had she forgotten to purchase any. At last, even, he began to share in the duties of kitchen-maid. First he was permitted to peel the vegetables; later on the mincing was assigned to him. At the end of six weeks, though still forbidden to touch the sauces, he watched over them with wooden spoon in hand. Rosalie had fairly made him her helpmate, and would sometimes burst out laughing as she saw him, with his red trousers and yellow collar, working busily before the fire with a dishcloth over his arm, like some scullery-servant.

One Sunday Helene betook herself to the kitchen. Her slippers deadened the sound of her footsteps, and she reached the threshold unheard by either maid or soldier. Zephyrin was seated in his corner over a basin of steaming broth. Rosalie, with her back turned to the door, was occupied in cutting some long sippets of bread for him.

“There, eat away, my dear!” she said. “You walk too much; it is that which makes you feel so empty! There! have you enough? Do you want any more?”

Thus speaking, she watched him with a tender and anxious look. He, with his round, dumpy figure, leaned over the basin, devouring a sippet with each mouthful of broth. His face, usually yellow with freckles, was becoming quite red with the warmth of the steam which circled round him.

“Heavens!” he muttered, “what grand juice! What do you put in it?”

“Wait a minute,” she said; “if you like leeks —”

However, as she turned round she suddenly caught sight of her mistress. She raised an exclamation, and then, like Zephyrin, seemed turned to stone. But a moment afterwards she poured forth a torrent of excuses.

“It’s my share, madame — oh, it’s my share! I would not have taken any more soup, I swear it! I told him, ‘If you would like to have my bowl of soup, you can have it.’ Come, speak up, Zephyrin; you know that was how it came about!”

The mistress remained silent, and the servant grew uneasy, thinking she was annoyed. Then in quavering tones she continued:

“Oh, he was dying of hunger, madame; he stole a raw carrot for me! They feed him so badly! And then, you know, he had walked goodness knows where all along the river-side. I’m sure, madame, you would have told me yourself to give him some broth!”

Gazing at the little soldier, who sat with his mouth full, not daring to swallow, Helene felt she could no longer remain stern. So she quietly said:

“Well, well, my girl, whenever the lad is hungry you must keep him to dinner — that’s all. I give you permission”

Face to face with them, she had again felt within her that tender feeling which once already had banished all thoughts of rigor from her mind. They were so happy in that kitchen! The cotton curtain, drawn half-way, gave free entry to the sunset beams. The burnished copper pans set the end wall all aglow, lending a rosy tint to the twilight lingering in the room. And there, in the golden shade, the lovers’ little round faces shone out, peaceful and radiant, like moons. Their love was instinct with such calm certainty that no neglect was even shown in keeping the kitchen utensils in their wonted good order. It blossomed amidst the savory odors of the cooking-stove, which heightened their appetites and nourished their hearts.

“Mamma,” asked Jeanne, one evening after considerable meditation, “why is it Rosalie’s cousin never kisses her?”

“And why should they kiss one another?” asked Helene in her turn. “They will kiss on their birthdays.”

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