A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 8.

It was a month of exquisite mildness. The April sun had draped the garden in tender green, light and delicate as lace. Twining around the railing were the slender shoots of the lush clematis, while the budding honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet, almost sugary perfume. On both sides of the trim and close-shaven lawn red geraniums and white stocks gave the flower beds a glow of color; and at the end of the garden the clustering elms, hiding the adjacent houses, reared the green drapery of their branches, whose little leaves trembled with the least breath of air.

For more than three weeks the sky had remained blue and cloudless. It was like a miraculous spring celebrating the new youth and blossoming that had burst into life in Helene’s heart. Every afternoon she went down into the garden with Jeanne. A place was assigned her against the first elm on the right. A chair was ready for her; and on the morrow she would still find on the gravel walk the scattered clippings of thread that had fallen from her work on the previous afternoon.

“You are quite at home,” Madame Deberle repeated every evening, displaying for Helene one of those affections of hers, which usually lasted some six months. “You will come to-morrow, of course; and try to come earlier, won’t you?”

Helene, in truth, felt thoroughly at her ease there. By degrees she became accustomed to this nook of greenery, and looked forward to her afternoon visit with the longing of a child. What charmed her most in this garden was the exquisite trimness of the lawn and flower beds. Not a single weed interfered with the symmetry of the plants. Helene spent her time there, calmly and restfully. The neatly laid out flower beds, and the network of ivy, the withered leaves of which were carefully removed by the gardener, could exercise no disturbing influence on her spirit. Seated beneath the deep shadow of the elm-trees, in this quiet spot which Madame Deberle’s presence perfumed with a faint odor of musk, she could have imagined herself in a drawing-room; and only the sight of the blue sky, when she raised her head, reminded her that she was out-of-doors, and prompted her to breathe freely.

Often, without seeing a soul, the two women would thus pass the afternoon. Jeanne and Lucien played at their feet. There would be long intervals of silence, and then Madame Deberle, who disliked reverie, would chatter for hours, quite satisfied with the silent acquiescence of Helene, and rattling off again if the other even so much as nodded. She would tell endless stories concerning the ladies of her acquaintance, get up schemes for parties during the coming winter, vent magpie opinions on the day’s news and the society trifling which filled her narrow brain, the whole intermingled with affectionate outbursts over the children, and sentimental remarks on the delights of friendship. Helene allowed her to squeeze her hands. She did not always lend an attentive ear; but, in this atmosphere of unceasing tenderness, she showed herself greatly touched by Juliette’s caresses, and pronounced her to be a perfect angel of kindness.

Sometimes, to Madame Deberle’s intense delight, a visitor would drop in. Since Easter she had ceased receiving on Saturdays, as was usual at this time of the year. But she dreaded solitude, and a casual unceremonious visit paid her in her garden gave her the greatest pleasure. She was now busily engaged in settling on the watering-place where she would spend her holiday in August. To every visitor she retailed the same talk; discoursed on the fact that her husband would not accompany her to the seaside; and then poured forth a flood of questions, as she could not make up her mind where to go. She did not ask for herself, however; no, it was all on Lucien’s account. When the foppish youth Malignon came he seated himself astride a rustic chair. He, indeed, loathed the country; one must be mad, he would declare, to exile oneself from Paris with the idea of catching influenza beside the sea. However, he took part in the discussions on the merits of the various watering-places, all of which were horrid, said he; apart from Trouville there was not a place worthy of any consideration whatever. Day after day Helene listened to the same talk, yet without feeling wearied; indeed, she even derived pleasure from this monotony, which lulled her into dreaming of one thing only. The last day of the month came, and still Madame Deberle had not decided where to go.

As Helene was leaving one evening, her friend said to her: “I must go out to-morrow; but that needn’t prevent you from coming down here. Wait for me; I shan’t be back late.”

Helene consented; and, alone in the garden, there spent a delicious afternoon. Nothing stirred, save the sparrows fluttering in the trees overhead. This little sunny nook entranced her, and, from that day, her happiest afternoons were those on which her friend left her alone.

A closer intimacy was springing up between the Deberles and herself. She dined with them like a friend who is pressed to stay when the family sits down to table; when she lingered under the elm-trees and Pierre came down to announce dinner, Juliette would implore her to remain, and she sometimes yielded. They were family dinners, enlivened by the noisy pranks of the children. Doctor Deberle and Helene seemed good friends, whose sensible and somewhat reserved natures sympathized well. Thus it was that Juliette frequently declared: “Oh, you two would get on capitally! Your composure exasperates me!”

The doctor returned from his round of visits at about six o’clock every evening. He found the ladies in the garden, and sat down beside them. On the earlier occasions, Helene started up with the idea of leaving her friends to themselves, but her sudden departure displeased Juliette greatly, and she now perforce had to remain. She became almost a member of this family, which appeared to be so closely united. On the doctor’s arrival his wife held up her cheek to him, always with the same loving gesture, and he kissed her; then, as Lucien began clambering up his legs, he kept him on his knees while chatting away. The child would clap his tiny hands on his father’s mouth, pull his hair, and play so many pranks that in the upshot he had to be put down, and told to go and play with Jeanne. The fun would bring a smile to Helene’s face, and she neglected her work for the moment, to gaze at father, mother, and child. The kiss of the husband and wife gave her no pain, and Lucien’s tricks filled her with soft emotion. It might have been said that she had found a haven of refuge amidst this family’s quiet content.

Meanwhile the sun would sink into the west, gilding the tree tops with its rays. Serene peacefulness fell from the grey heavens. Juliette, whose curiosity was insatiable, even in company with strangers, plagued her husband with ceaseless questions, and often lacked the patience to wait his replies. “Where have you been? What have you been about?”

Thereupon he would describe his round of visits to them, repeat any news of what was going on, or speak of some cloth or piece of furniture he had caught a glimpse of in a shop window. While he was speaking, his eyes often met those of Helene, but neither turned away the head. They gazed into each other’s face for a moment with grave looks, as though heart were being revealed to heart; but after a little they smiled and their eyes dropped. Juliette, fidgety and sprightly, though she would often assume a studied languor, allowed them no opportunity for lengthy conversation, but burst with her interruptions into any talk whatever. Still they exchanged a few words, quite commonplace, slowly articulated sentences which seemed to assume a deep meaning, and to linger in the air after having been spoken. They approvingly punctuated each word the other uttered, as though they had thoughts in common. It was an intimate sympathy that was growing up between them, springing from the depths of their beings, and becoming closer even when they were silent. Sometimes Juliette, rather ashamed of monopolizing all the talk, would cease her magpie chatter.

“Dear me!” she would exclaim, “you are getting bored, aren’t you? We are talking of matters which can have no possible interest for you.”

“Oh, never mind me,” Helene answered blithely. “I never tire. It is a pleasure to me to listen and say nothing.”

She was uttering no untruth. It was during the lengthy periods of silence that she experienced most delight in being there. With her head bent over her work, only lifting her eyes at long intervals to exchange with the doctor those interminable looks that riveted their hearts the closer, she willingly surrendered herself to the egotism of her emotion. Between herself and him, she now confessed it, there existed a secret sentiment, a something very sweet — all the sweeter because no one in the world shared it with them. But she kept her secret with a tranquil mind, her sense of honor quite unruffled, for no thought of evil ever disturbed her. How good he was to his wife and child! She loved him the more when he made Lucien jump or kissed Juliette on the cheek. Since she had seen him in his own home their friendship had greatly increased. She was now as one of the family; she never dreamt that the intimacy could be broken. And within her own breast she called him Henri — naturally, too, from hearing Juliette address him so. When her lips said “Sir,” through all her being “Henri” was re-echoed.

One day the doctor found Helene alone under the elms. Juliette now went out nearly every afternoon.

“Hello! is my wife not with you?” he exclaimed.

“No, she has left me to myself,” she answered laughingly. “It is true you have come home earlier than usual.”

The children were playing at the other end of the garden. He sat down beside her. Their tete-a-tete produced no agitation in either of them. For nearly an hour they spoke of all sorts of matters, without for a moment feeling any desire to allude to the tenderness which filled their hearts. What was the good of referring to that? Did they not well know what might have been said? They had no confession to make. Theirs was the joy of being together, of talking of many things, of surrendering themselves to the pleasure of their isolation without a shadow of regret, in the very spot where every evening he embraced his wife in her presence.

That day he indulged in some jokes respecting her devotion to work. “Do you know,” said he, “I do not even know the color of your eyes? They are always bent on your needle.”

She raised her head and looked straight into his face, as was her custom. “Do you wish to tease me?” she asked gently.

But he went on. “Ah! they are grey — grey, tinged with blue, are they not?”

This was the utmost limit to which they dared go; but these words, the first that had sprung to his lips, were fraught with infinite tenderness. From that day onwards he frequently found her alone in the twilight. Despite themselves, and without their having any knowledge of it, their intimacy grew apace. They spoke in an altered voice, with caressing inflections, which were not apparent when others were present. And yet, when Juliette came in, full of gossip about her day in town, they could keep up the talk they had already begun without even troubling themselves to draw their chairs apart. It seemed as though this lovely springtide and this garden, with its blossoming lilac, were prolonging within their hearts the first rapture of love.

Towards the end of the month, Madame Deberle grew excited over a grand idea. The thought of giving a children’s ball had suddenly struck her. The season was already far advanced, but the scheme took such hold on her foolish brain that she hurried on the preparations with reckless haste. She desired that the affair should be quite perfect; it was to be a fancy-dress ball. And, in her own home, and in other people’s houses, everywhere, in short, she now spoke of nothing but her ball. The conversations on the subject which took place in the garden were endless. The foppish Malignon thought the project rather stupid, still he condescended to take some interest in it, and promised to bring a comic singer with whom he was acquainted.

One afternoon, while they were all sitting under the trees, Juliette introduced the grave question of the costumes which Lucien and Jeanne should wear.

“It is so difficult to make up one’s mind,” said she. “I have been thinking of a clown’s dress in white satin.”

“Oh, that’s too common!” declared Malignon. “There will be a round dozen of clowns at your ball. Wait, you must have something novel.” Thereupon he began gravely pondering, sucking the head of his cane all the while.

Pauline came up at the moment, and proclaimed her desire to appear as a soubrette.

“You!” screamed Madame Deberle, in astonishment. “You won’t appear in costume at all! Do you think yourself a child, you great stupid? You will oblige me by coming in a white dress.”

“Oh, but it would have pleased me so!” exclaimed Pauline, who, despite her eighteen years and plump girlish figure, liked nothing better than to romp with a band of little ones.

Meanwhile Helene sat at the foot of her tree working away, and raising her head at times to smile at the doctor and Monsieur Rambaud, who stood in front of her conversing. Monsieur Rambaud had now become quite intimate with the Deberle family.

“Well,” said the doctor, “and how are you going to dress, Jeanne?”

He got no further, for Malignon burst out: “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Lucien must be a marquis of the time of Louis XV.”

He waved his cane with a triumphant air; but, as no one of the company hailed his idea with enthusiasm, he appeared astonished. “What, don’t you see it? Won’t it be for Lucien to receive his little guests? So you place him, dressed as a marquis, at the drawing-room door, with a large bouquet of roses on his coat, and he bows to the ladies.”

“But there will be dozens of marquises at the ball!” objected Juliette.

“What does that matter?” replied Malignon coolly. “The more marquises the greater the fun. I tell you it is the best thing you can hit upon. The master of the house must be dressed as a marquis, or the ball will be a complete failure.”

Such was his conviction of his scheme’s success that at last it was adopted by Juliette with enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, a dress in the Pompadour style, white satin embroidered with posies, would be altogether charming.

“And what about Jeanne?” again asked the doctor.

The little girl had just buried her head against her mother’s shoulder in the caressing manner so characteristic of her; and as an answer was about to cross Helene’s lips, she murmured:

“Oh! mamma, you know what you promised me, don’t you?”

“What was it?” asked those around her.

Then, as her daughter gave her an imploring look, Helene laughingly replied: “Jeanne does not wish her dress to be known.”

“Yes, that’s so,” said the child; “you don’t create any effect when you tell your dress beforehand.”

Every one was tickled with this display of coquetry, and Monsieur Rambaud thought he might tease the child about it. For some time past Jeanne had been ill-tempered with him, and the poor man, at his wits’ end to hit upon a mode of again gaining her favor, thought teasing her the best method of conciliation. Keeping his eyes on her face, he several times repeated: “I know; I shall tell, I shall tell!”

Jeanne, however, became quite livid. Her gentle, sickly face assumed an expression of ferocious anger; her brow was furrowed by two deep wrinkles, and her chin drooped with nervous agitation.

“You!” she screamed excitedly; “you will say nothing!” And, as he still feigned a resolve to speak, she rushed at him madly, and shouted out: “Hold your tongue! I will have you hold your tongue! I will! I will!”

Helene had been unable to prevent this fit of blind anger, such as sometimes took possession of the child, and with some harshness exclaimed: “Jeanne, take care; I shall whip you!”

But Jeanne paid no heed, never once heard her. Trembling from head to foot, stamping on the ground, and choking with rage, she again and again repeated, “I will! I will!” in a voice that grew more and more hoarse and broken; and her hands convulsively gripped hold of Monsieur Rambaud’s arm, which she twisted with extraordinary strength. In vain did Helene threaten her. At last, perceiving her inability to quell her by severity, and grieved to the heart by such a display before so many people, she contented herself by saying gently: “Jeanne, you are grieving me very much.”

The child immediately quitted her hold and turned her head. And when she caught sight of her mother, with disconsolate face and eyes swimming with repressed tears, she on her side burst into loud sobs, and threw herself on Helene’s neck, exclaiming in her grief: “No, mamma! no, mamma!”

She passed her hands over her mother’s face, as though to prevent her weeping. Helene, however, slowly put her from her, and then the little one, broken-hearted and distracted, threw herself on a seat a short distance off, where her sobs broke out louder than ever. Lucien, to whom she was always held up as an example to follow, gazed at her surprised and somewhat pleased. And then, as Helene folded up her work, apologizing for so regrettable an incident, Juliette remarked to her:

“Dear me! we have to pardon children everything. Besides, the little one has the best of hearts, and is grieved so much, poor darling, that she has been already punished too severely.”

So saying she called Jeanne to come and kiss her; but the child remained on her seat, rejecting the offer of forgiveness, and still choking with tears.

Monsieur Rambaud and the doctor, however, walked to her side, and the former, bending over her, asked, in tones husky with emotion: “Tell me, my pet, what has vexed you? What have I done to you?”

“Oh!” she replied, drawing away her hands and displaying a face full of anguish, “you wanted to take my mamma from me!”

The doctor, who was listening, burst into laughter. Monsieur Rambaud at first failed to grasp her meaning.

“What is this you’re talking of?”

“Yes, indeed, the other Tuesday! Oh! you know very well; you were on your knees, and asked me what I should say if you were to stay with us!”

The smile vanished from the doctor’s face; his lips became ashy pale, and quivered. A flush, on the other hand, mounted to Monsieur Rambaud’s cheek, and he whispered to Jeanne: “But you said yourself that we should always play together?”

“No, no; I did not know at the time,” the child resumed excitedly. “I tell you I don’t want it. Don’t ever speak to me of it again, and then we shall be friends.”

Helene was on her feet now, with her needlework in its basket, and the last words fell on her ear. “Come, let us go up, Jeanne,” she said; “your tears are not pleasant company.”

She bowed, and pushed the child before her. The doctor, with livid face, gazed at her fixedly. Monsieur Rambaud was in dismay. As for Madame Deberle and Pauline, they had taken hold of Lucien, and were making him turn between them, while excitedly discussing the question of his Pompadour dress.

On the morrow Helene was left alone under the elms. Madame Deberle was running about in the interests of her ball, and had taken Lucien and Jeanne with her. On the doctor’s return home, at an earlier hour than usual, he hurried down the garden steps. However, he did not seat himself, but wandered aimlessly round the young woman, at times tearing strips of bark from the trees with his finger-nails. She lifted her eyes for a moment, feeling anxious at sight of his agitation; and then again began plying her needle with a somewhat trembling hand.

“The weather is going to break up,” said she, feeling uncomfortable as the silence continued. “The afternoon seems quite cold.”

“We are only in April, remember,” he replied, with a brave effort to control his voice.

Then he appeared to be on the point of leaving her, but turned round, and suddenly asked: “So you are going to get married?”

This abrupt question took her wholly by surprise, and her work fell from her hands. Her face blanched, but by a supreme effort of will remained unimpassioned, as though she were a marble statue, fixing dilated eyes upon him. She made no reply, and he continued in imploring tones:

“Oh! I pray you, answer me. One word, one only. Are you going to get married?”

“Yes, perhaps. What concern is it of yours?” she retorted, in a tone of icy indifference.

He made a passionate gesture, and exclaimed:

“It is impossible!”

“Why should it be?” she asked, still keeping her eyes fixed on his face.

Her glance stayed the words upon his lips, and he was forced to silence. For a moment longer he remained near her, pressing his hands to his brow, and then fled away, with a feeling of suffocation in his throat, dreading lest he might give expression to his despair; while she, with assumed tranquillity, once more turned to her work.

But the spell of those delicious afternoons was gone. Next day shone fair and sunny, and Helene seemed ill at ease from the moment she found herself alone with him. The pleasant intimacy, the happy trustfulness, which sanctioned their sitting side by side in blissful security, and revelling in the unalloyed joy of being together, no longer existed. Despite his intense carefulness to give her no cause for alarm, he would sometimes gaze at her and tremble with sudden excitement, while his face crimsoned with a rush of blood. From her own heart had fled its wonted happy calm; quivers ran through her frame; she felt languid; her hands grew weary, and forsook their work.

She now no longer allowed Jeanne to wander from her side. Between himself and her the doctor found this constant onlooker, watching him with large, clear eyes. But what pained Helene most was that she now felt ill at ease in Madame Deberle’s company. When the latter returned of an afternoon, with her hair swept about by the wind, and called her “my dear” while relating the incidents of some shopping expedition, she no longer listened with her former quiet smile. A storm arose from the depths of her soul, stirring up feelings to which she dared not give a name. Shame and spite seemed mingled in them. However, her honorable nature gained the mastery, and she gave her hand to Juliette, but without being able to repress the shudder which ran through her as she pressed her friend’s warm fingers.

The weather had now broken up. Frequent rain forced the ladies to take refuge in the Japanese pavilion. The garden, with its whilom exquisite order, became transformed into a lake, and no one dared venture on the walks, on account of the mud. However, whenever the sun peeped out from behind the clouds, the dripping greenery soon dried; pearls hung from each little blossom of the lilac trees; and under the elms big drops fell splashing on the ground.

“At last I’ve arranged it; it will be on Saturday,” said Madame Deberle one day. “My dear, I’m quite tired out with the whole affair. Now, you’ll be here at two o’clock, won’t you? Jeanne will open the ball with Lucien.”

And thereupon, surrendering to a flow of tenderness, in ecstasy over the preparations for her ball, she embraced both children, and, laughingly catching hold of Helene, pressed two resounding kisses on her cheeks.

“That’s my reward!” she exclaimed merrily. “You know I deserve it; I have run about enough. You’ll see what a success it will be!”

But Helene remained chilled to the heart, while the doctor, with Lucien clinging to his neck, gazed at them over the child’s fair head.

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