Those persons who live always in doors, confined by work or infirmity to a chair by the window, take a deep interest in the people who pass, just as they make for themselves a horizon of the neighboring walls, roofs, and windows.
Nailed to their place, they live in the life of the streets; and the busy men and women who pass within their range of vision, sometimes every day at the same hour, do not suspect that they serve as the mainspring of other lives, that interested eyes watch for their coming and miss them if they happen to go to their destination by another road.
The Delobelles, left to themselves all day, indulged in this sort of silent observation. Their window was narrow, and the mother, whose eyes were beginning to weaken as the result of hard usage, sat near the light against the drawn muslin curtain; her daughter’s large armchair was a little farther away. She announced the approach of their daily passers-by. It was a diversion, a subject of conversation; and the long hours of toil seemed shorter, marked off by the regular appearance of people who were as busy as they. There were two little sisters, a gentleman in a gray overcoat, a child who was taken to school and taken home again, and an old government clerk with a wooden leg, whose step on the sidewalk had a sinister sound.
They hardly ever saw him; he passed after dark, but they heard him, and the sound always struck the little cripple’s ears like a harsh echo of her own mournful thoughts. All these street friends unconsciously occupied a large place in the lives of the two women. If it rained, they would say:
“They will get wet. I wonder whether the child got home before the shower.” And when the season changed, when the March sun inundated the sidewalks or the December snow covered them with its white mantle and its patches of black mud, the appearance of a new garment on one of their friends caused the two recluses to say to themselves, “It is summer,” or, “winter has come.”
Now, on a certain evening in May, one of those soft, luminous evenings when life flows forth from the houses into the street through the open windows, Desiree and her mother were busily at work with needles and fingers, exhausting the daylight to its last ray, before lighting the lamp. They could hear the shouts of children playing in the yards, the muffled notes of pianos, and the voice of a street peddler, drawing his half-empty wagon. One could smell the springtime in the air, a vague odor of hyacinth and lilac.
Mamma Delobelle had laid aside her work, and, before closing the window, leaned upon the sill listening to all these noises of a great toiling city, taking delight in walking through the streets when its day’s work was ended. From time to time she spoke to her daughter, without turning her head.
“Ah! there’s Monsieur Sigismond. How early he leaves the factory to-night! It may be because the days are lengthening so fast, but I don’t think it can be seven o’clock. Who can that man be with the old cashier? — What a funny thing! — One would say — Why, yes! — One would say it was Monsieur Frantz. But that isn’t possible. Monsieur Frantz is a long way from here at this moment; and then he had no beard. That man looks like him all the same! Just look, my dear.”
But “my dear” does not leave her chair; she does not even stir. With her eyes staring into vacancy, her needle in the air, arrested in its pretty, industrious movement, she has gone away to the blue country, that wonderful country whither one may go at will, without thought of any infirmity. The name “Frantz,” uttered mechanically by her mother, because of a chance resemblance, represented to her a whole lifetime of illusions, of fervent hopes, ephemeral as the flush that rose to her cheeks when, on returning home at night, he used to come and chat with her a moment. How far away that was already! To think that he used to live in the little room near hers, that they used to hear his step on the stairs and the noise made by his table when he dragged it to the window to draw! What sorrow and what happiness she used to feel when he talked to her of Sidonie, sitting on the low chair at her knees, while she mounted her birds and her insects.
As she worked, she used to cheer and comfort him, for Sidonie had caused poor Frantz many little griefs before the last great one. His tone when he spoke of Sidonie, the sparkle in his eyes when he thought of her, fascinated Desiree in spite of everything, so that when he went away in despair, he left behind him a love even greater than that he carried with him — a love which the unchanging room, the sedentary, stagnant life, kept intact with all its bitter perfume, whereas his would gradually fade away and vanish in the fresh air of the outer world.
It grows darker and darker. A great wave of melancholy envelops the poor girl with the falling darkness of that balmy evening. The blissful gleam from the past dies away as the last glimmer of daylight vanishes in the narrow recess of the window, where her mother still stands leaning on the sill.
Suddenly the door opens. Some one is there whose features can not be distinguished. Who can it be? The Delobelles never receive calls. The mother, who has turned her head, thinks at first that some one has come from the shop to get the week’s work.
“My husband has just gone to your place, Monsieur. We have nothing here. Monsieur Delobelle has taken everything.”
The man comes forward without speaking, and as he approaches the window his features can be distinguished. He is a tall, solidly built fellow with a bronzed face, a thick, red beard, and a deep voice, and is a little slow of speech.
“Ah! so you don’t know me, Mamma Delobelle?”
“Oh! I knew you at once, Monsieur Frantz,” said Desiree, very calmly, in a cold, sedate tone.
“Merciful heavens! it’s Monsieur Frantz.”
Quickly Mamma Delobelle runs to the lamp, lights it, and closes the window.
“What! it is you, is it, my dear Frantz?” How coolly she says it, the little rascal! “I knew you at once.” Ah, the little iceberg! She will always be the same.
A veritable little iceberg, in very truth. She is very pale, and her hand as it lies in Frantz’s is white and cold.
She seems to him improved, even more refined than before. He seems to her superb, as always, with a melancholy, weary expression in the depths of his eyes, which makes him more of a man than when he went away.
His weariness is due to his hurried journey, undertaken immediately on his receipt of Sigismond’s letter. Spurred on by the word dishonor, he had started instantly, without awaiting his leave of absence, risking his place and his future prospects; and, hurrying from steamships to railways, he had not stopped until he reached Paris. Reason enough for being weary, especially when one has travelled in eager haste to reach one’s destination, and when one’s mind has been continually beset by impatient thoughts, making the journey ten times over in incessant doubt and fear and perplexity.
His melancholy began further back. It began on the day when the woman he loved refused to marry him, to become, six months later, the wife of his brother; two terrible blows in close succession, the second even more painful than the first. It is true that, before entering into that marriage, Risler had written to him to ask his permission to be happy, and had written in such touching, affectionate terms that the violence of the blow was somewhat diminished; and then, in due time, life in a strange country, hard work, and long journeys had softened his grief. Now only a vast background of melancholy remains; unless, indeed, the hatred and wrath by which he is animated at this moment against the woman who is dishonoring his brother may be a remnant of his former love.
But no! Frantz Risler thinks only of avenging the honor of the Rislers. He comes not as a lover, but as a judge; and Sidonie may well look to herself.
The judge had gone straight to the factory on leaving the train, relying upon the surprise, the unexpectedness, of his arrival to disclose to him at a glance what was taking place.
Unluckily he had found no one. The blinds of the little house at the foot of the garden had been closed for two weeks. Pere Achille informed him that the ladies were at their respective country seats where the partners joined them every evening.
Fromont Jeune had left the factory very early; Risler Aine had just gone. Frantz decided to speak to old Sigismond. But it was Saturday, the regular pay-day, and he must needs wait until the long line of workmen, extending from Achille’s lodge to the cashier’s grated window, had gradually dispersed.
Although very impatient and very depressed, the excellent youth, who had lived the life of a Paris workingman from his childhood, felt a thrill of pleasure at finding himself once more in the midst of the animated scenes peculiar to that time and place. Upon all those faces, honest or vicious, was an expression of satisfaction that the week was at an end. You felt that, so far as they were concerned, Sunday began at seven o’clock Saturday evening, in front of the cashier’s little lamp.
One must have lived among workingmen to realize the full charm of that one day’s rest and its solemnity. Many of these poor creatures, bound fast to unhealthful trades, await the coming of the blessed Sunday like a puff of refreshing air, essential to their health and their life. What an overflow of spirits, therefore, what a pressing need of noisy mirth! It seems as if the oppression of the week’s labor vanishes with the steam from the machinery, as it escapes in a hissing cloud of vapor over the gutters.
One by one the workmen moved away from the grating, counting the money that glistened in their black hands. There were disappointments, mutterings, remonstrances, hours missed, money drawn in advance; and above the tinkling of coins, Sigismond’s voice could be heard, calm and relentless, defending the interests of his employers with a zeal amounting to ferocity.
Frantz was familiar with all the dramas of pay-day, the false accents and the true. He knew that one man’s wages were expended for his family, to pay the baker and the druggist, or for his children’s schooling.
Another wanted his money for the wine-shop or for something even worse. And the melancholy, downcast shadows passing to and fro in front of the factory gateway — he knew what they were waiting for — that they were all on the watch for a father or a husband, to hurry him home with complaining or coaxing words.
Oh! the barefooted children, the tiny creatures wrapped in old shawls, the shabby women, whose tear-stained faces were as white as the linen caps that surmounted them.
Oh! the lurking vice that prowls about on pay-day, the candles that are lighted in the depths of dark alleys, the dirty windows of the wine-shops where the thousand-and-one poisonous concoctions of alcohol display their alluring colors.
Frantz was familiar with all these forms of misery; but never had they seemed to him so depressing, so harrowing as on that evening.
When the last man was paid, Sigismond came out of his office. The two friends recognized each other and embraced; and in the silence of the factory, at rest for twenty-four hours and deathly still in all its empty buildings, the cashier explained to Frantz the state of affairs. He described Sidonie’s conduct, her mad extravagance, the total wreck of the family honor. The Rislers had bought a country house at Asnieres, formerly the property of an actress, and had set up a sumptuous establishment there. They had horses and carriages, and led a luxurious, gay life. The thing that especially disturbed honest Sigismond was the self restraint of Fromont jeune. For some time he had drawn almost no money from the strong-box, and yet Sidonie was spending more than ever.
“I haf no gonfidence!” said the unhappy cashier, shaking his head, “I haf no gonfidence!”
Lowering his voice he added:
“But your brother, my little Frantz, your brother? Who can explain his actions? He goes about through it all with his eyes in the air, his hands in his pockets, his mind on his famous invention, which unfortunately doesn’t move fast. Look here! do you want me to give you my opinion? — He’s either a knave or a fool.”
They were walking up and down the little garden as they talked, stopping for a moment, then resuming their walk. Frantz felt as if he were living in a horrible dream. The rapid journey, the sudden change of scene and climate, the ceaseless flow of Sigismond’s words, the new idea that he had to form of Risler and Sidonie — the same Sidonie he had loved so dearly — all these things bewildered him and almost drove him mad.
It was late. Night was falling. Sigismond proposed to him to go to Montrouge for the night; he declined on the plea of fatigue, and when he was left alone in the Marais, at that dismal and uncertain hour when the daylight has faded and the gas is still unlighted, he walked instinctively toward his old quarters on the Rue de Braque.
At the hall door hung a placard: Bachelor’s Chamber to let.
It was the same room in which he had lived so long with his brother. He recognized the map fastened to the wall by four pins, the window on the landing, and the Delobelles’ little sign: ‘Birds and Insects for Ornament.’
Their door was ajar; he had only to push it a little in order to enter the room.
Certainly there was not in all Paris a surer refuge for him, a spot better fitted to welcome and console his perturbed spirit, than that hard-working familiar fireside. In his present agitation and perplexity it was like the harbor with its smooth, deep water, the sunny, peaceful quay, where the women work while awaiting their husbands and fathers, though the wind howls and the sea rages. More than all else, although he did not realize that it was so, it was a network of steadfast affection, that miraculous love-kindness which makes another’s love precious to us even when we do not love that other.
That dear little iceberg of a Desiree loved him so dearly. Her eyes sparkled so even when talking of the most indifferent things with him. As objects dipped in phosphorus shine with equal splendor, so the most trivial words she said illuminated her pretty, radiant face. What a blissful rest it was for him after Sigismond’s brutal disclosures!
They talked together with great animation while Mamma Delobelle was setting the table.
“You will dine with us, won’t you, Monsieur Frantz? Father has gone to take back the work; but he will surely come home to dinner.”
He will surely come home to dinner!
The good woman said it with a certain pride.
In fact, since the failure of his managerial scheme, the illustrious Delobelle no longer took his meals abroad, even on the evenings when he went to collect the weekly earnings. The unlucky manager had eaten so many meals on credit at his restaurant that he dared not go there again. By way of compensation, he never failed, on Saturday, to bring home with him two or three unexpected, famished guests —“old comrades”—“unlucky devils.” So it happened that, on the evening in question, he appeared upon the stage escorting a financier from the Metz theatre and a comique from the theatre at Angers, both waiting for an engagement.
The comique, closely shaven, wrinkled, shrivelled by the heat from the footlights, looked like an old street-arab; the financier wore cloth shoes, and no linen, so far as could be seen.
“Frantz! — my Frantz!” cried the old strolling player in a melodramatic voice, clutching the air convulsively with his hands. After a long and energetic embrace he presented his guests to one another.
“Monsieur Robricart, of the theatre at Metz.
“Monsieur Chaudezon, of the theatre at Angers.
“Frantz Risler, engineer.”
In Delobelle’s mouth that word “engineer” assumed vast proportions!
Desiree pouted prettily when she saw her father’s friends. It would have been so nice to be by themselves on a day like to-day. But the great man snapped his fingers at the thought. He had enough to do to unload his pockets. First of all, he produced a superb pie “for the ladies,” he said, forgetting that he adored pie. A lobster next made its appearance, then an Arles sausage, marrons glaces and cherries, the first of the season!
While the financier enthusiastically pulled up the collar of his invisible shirt, while the comique exclaimed “gnouf! gnouf!” with a gesture forgotten by Parisians for ten years, Desiree thought with dismay of the enormous hole that impromptu banquet would make in the paltry earnings of the week, and Mamma Delobelle, full of business, upset the whole buffet in order to find a sufficient number of plates.
It was a very lively meal. The two actors ate voraciously, to the great delight of Delobelle, who talked over with them old memories of their days of strolling. Fancy a collection of odds and ends of scenery, extinct lanterns, and mouldy, crumbling stage properties.
In a sort of vulgar, meaningless, familiar slang, they recalled their innumerable triumphs; for all three of them, according to their own stories, had been applauded, laden with laurel-wreaths, and carried in triumph by whole cities.
While they talked they ate as actors usually eat, sitting with their faces turned three-fourths toward the audience, with the unnatural haste of stage guests at a pasteboard supper, alternating words and mouthfuls, seeking to produce an effect by their manner of putting down a glass or moving a chair, and expressing interest, amazement, joy, terror, surprise, with the aid of a skilfully handled knife and fork. Madame Delobelle listened to them with a smiling face.
One can not be an actor’s wife for thirty years without becoming somewhat accustomed to these peculiar mannerisms.
But one little corner of the table was separated from the rest of the party as by a cloud which intercepted the absurd remarks, the hoarse laughter, the boasting. Frantz and Desiree talked together in undertones, hearing naught of what was said around them. Things that happened in their childhood, anecdotes of the neighborhood, a whole ill-defined past which derived its only value from the mutual memories evoked, from the spark that glowed in the eyes of both-those were the themes of their pleasant chat.
Suddenly the cloud was torn aside, and Delobelle’s terrible voice interrupted the dialogue.
“Have you not seen your brother?” he asked, in order to avoid the appearance of neglecting him too much. “And you have not seen his wife, either? Ah! you will find her a Madame. Such toilettes, my dear fellow, and such chic! I assure you. They have a genuine chateau at Asnieres. The Chebes are there also. Ah! my old friend, they have all left us behind. They are rich, they look down on old friends. Never a word, never a call. For my part, you understand, I snap my fingers at them, but it really wounds these ladies.”
“Oh, papa!” said Desiree hastily, “you know very well that we are too fond of Sidonie to be offended with her.”
The actor smote the table a violent blow with his fist.
“Why, then, you do wrong. You ought to be offended with people who seek always to wound and humiliate you.”
He still had upon his mind the refusal to furnish funds for his theatrical project, and he made no secret of his wrath.
“If you knew,” he said to Frantz, “if you knew how money is being squandered over yonder! It is a great pity. And nothing substantial, nothing sensible. I who speak to you, asked your brother for a paltry sum to assure my future and himself a handsome profit. He flatly refused. Parbleu! Madame requires too much. She rides, goes to the races in her carriage, and drives her husband at the same rate as her little phaeton on the quay at Asnieres. Between you and me, I don’t think that our good friend Risler is very happy. That woman makes him believe black is white.”
The ex-actor concluded his harangue with a wink at the comique and the financier, and for a moment the three exchanged glances, conventional grimaces, ‘ha-has!’ and ‘hum-hums!’ and all the usual pantomime expressive of thoughts too deep for words.
Frantz was struck dumb. Do what he would, the horrible certainty assailed him on all sides. Sigismond had spoken in accordance with his nature, Delobelle with his. The result was the same.
Fortunately the dinner was drawing near its close. The three actors left the table and betook themselves to the brewery on the Rue Blondel. Frantz remained with the two women.
As he sat beside her, gentle and affectionate in manner, Desiree was suddenly conscious of a great outflow of gratitude to Sidonie. She said to herself that, after all, it was to her generosity that she owed this semblance of happiness, and that thought gave her courage to defend her former friend.
“You see, Monsieur Frantz, you mustn’t believe all my father told you about your sister-in-law. Dear papa! he always exaggerates a little. For my own part, I am very sure that Sidonie is incapable of all the evil she is accused of. I am sure that her heart has remained the same; and that she is still fond of her friends, although she does neglect them a little. Such is life, you know. Friends drift apart without meaning to. Isn’t that true, Monsieur Frantz?”
Oh! how pretty she was in his eyes, while she talked in that strain. He never had taken so much notice of the refined features, the aristocratic pallor of her complexion; and when he left her that evening, deeply touched by the warmth she had displayed in defending Sidonie, by all the charming feminine excuses she put forward for her friend’s silence and neglect, Frantz Risler reflected, with a feeling of selfish and ingenuous pleasure, that the child had loved him once, and that perhaps she loved him still, and kept for him in the bottom of her heart that warm, sheltered spot to which we turn as to the sanctuary when life has wounded us.
All night long in his old room, lulled by the imaginary movement of the vessel, by the murmur of the waves and the howling of the wind which follow long sea voyages, he dreamed of his youthful days, of little Chebe and Desiree Delobelle, of their games, their labors, and of the Ecole Centrale, whose great, gloomy buildings were sleeping near at hand, in the dark streets of the Marais.
And when daylight came, and the sun shining in at his bare window vexed his eyes and brought him back to a realization of the duty that lay before him and to the anxieties of the day, he dreamed that it was time to go to the School, and that his brother, before going down to the factory, opened the door and called to him:
“Come, lazybones! Come!”
That dear, loving voice, too natural, too real for a dream, made him open his eyes without more ado.
Risler was standing by his bed, watching his awakening with a charming smile, not untinged by emotion; that it was Risler himself was evident from the fact that, in his joy at seeing his brother Frantz once more, he could find nothing better to say than, “I am very happy, I am very happy!”
Although it was Sunday, Risler, as was his custom, had come to the factory to avail himself of the silence and solitude to work at his press. Immediately on his arrival, Pere Achille had informed him that his brother was in Paris and had gone to the old house on the Rue de Braque, and he had hastened thither in joyful surprise, a little vexed that he had not been forewarned, and especially that Frantz had defrauded him of the first evening. His regret on that account came to the surface every moment in his spasmodic attempts at conversation, in which everything that he wanted to say was left unfinished, interrupted by innumerable questions on all sorts of subjects and explosions of affection and joy. Frantz excused himself on the plea of fatigue, and the pleasure it had given him to be in their old room once more.
“All right, all right,” said Risler, “but I sha’n’t let you alone now — you are coming to Asnieres at once. I give myself leave of absence today. All thought of work is out of the question now that you have come, you understand. Ah! won’t the little one be surprised and glad! We talk about you so often! What joy! what joy!”
The poor fellow fairly beamed with happiness; he, the silent man, chattered like a magpie, gazed admiringly at his Frantz and remarked upon his growth. The pupil of the Ecole Centrale had had a fine physique when he went away, but his features had acquired greater firmness, his shoulders were broader, and it was a far cry from the tall, studious-looking boy who had left Paris two years before, for Ismailia, to this handsome, bronzed corsair, with his serious yet winning face.
While Risler was gazing at him, Frantz, on his side, was closely scrutinizing his brother, and, finding him the same as always, as ingenuous, as loving, and as absent-minded as times, he said to himself:
“No! it is not possible — he has not ceased to be an honest man.”
Thereupon, as he reflected upon what people had dared to imagine, all his wrath turned against that hypocritical, vicious woman, who deceived her husband so impudently and with such absolute impunity that she succeeded in causing him to be considered her confederate. Oh! what a terrible reckoning he proposed to have with her; how pitilessly he would talk to her!
“I forbid you, Madame — understand what I say — I forbid you to dishonor my brother!”
He was thinking of that all the way, as he watched the still leafless trees glide along the embankment of the Saint-Germain railway. Sitting opposite him, Risler chattered, chattered without pause. He talked about the factory, about their business. They had gained forty thousand francs each the last year; but it would be a different matter when the Press was at work. “A rotary press, my little Frantz, rotary and dodecagonal, capable of printing a pattern in twelve to fifteen colors at a single turn of the wheel — red on pink, dark green on light green, without the least running together or absorption, without a line lapping over its neighbor, without any danger of one shade destroying or overshadowing another. Do you understand that, little brother? A machine that is an artist like a man. It means a revolution in the wallpaper trade.”
“But,” queried Frantz with some anxiety, “have you invented this Press of yours yet, or are you still hunting for it?”
“Invented! — perfected! To-morrow I will show you all my plans. I have also invented an automatic crane for hanging the paper on the rods in the drying-room. Next week I intend to take up my quarters in the factory, up in the garret, and have my first machine made there secretly, under my own eyes. In three months the patents must be taken out and the Press must be at work. You’ll see, my little Frantz, it will make us all rich-you can imagine how glad I shall be to be able to make up to these Fromonts for a little of what they have done for me. Ah! upon my word, the Lord has been too good to me.”
Thereupon he began to enumerate all his blessings. Sidonie was the best of women, a little love of a wife, who conferred much honor upon him. They had a charming home. They went into society, very select society. The little one sang like a nightingale, thanks to Madame Dobson’s expressive method. By the way, this Madame Dobson was another most excellent creature. There was just one thing that disturbed poor Risler, that was his incomprehensible misunderstanding with Sigismond. Perhaps Frantz could help him to clear up that mystery.
“Oh! yes, I will help you, brother,” replied Frantz through his clenched teeth; and an angry flush rose to his brow at the idea that any one could have suspected the open-heartedness, the loyalty, that were displayed before him in all their artless spontaneity. Luckily he, the judge, had arrived; and he proposed to restore everything to its proper place.
Meanwhile, they were drawing near the house at Asnieres. Frantz had noticed at a distance a fanciful little turreted affair, glistening with a new blue slate roof. It seemed to him to have been built expressly for Sidonie, a fitting cage for that capricious, gaudy-plumaged bird.
It was a chalet with two stories, whose bright mirrors and pink-lined curtains could be seen from the railway, shining resplendent at the far end of a green lawn, where an enormous pewter ball was suspended.
The river was near at hand, still wearing its Parisian aspect, filled with chains, bathing establishments, great barges, and multitudes of little, skiffs, with a layer of coal dust on their pretentious, freshly-painted names, tied to the pier and rocking to the slightest motion of the water. From her windows Sidonie could see the restaurants on the beach, silent through the week, but filled to overflowing on Sunday with a motley, noisy crowd, whose shouts of laughter, mingled with the dull splash of oars, came from both banks to meet in midstream in that current of vague murmurs, shouts, calls, laughter, and singing that floats without ceasing up and down the Seine on holidays for a distance of ten miles.
During the week she saw shabbily-dressed idlers sauntering along the shore, men in broad-brimmed straw hats and flannel shirts, women who sat on the worn grass of the sloping bank, doing nothing, with the dreamy eyes of a cow at pasture. All the peddlers, hand-organs, harpists; travelling jugglers, stopped there as at a quarantine station. The quay was crowded with them, and as they approached, the windows in the little houses near by were always thrown open, disclosing white dressing-jackets, half-buttoned, heads of dishevelled hair, and an occasional pipe, all watching these paltry strolling shows, as if with a sigh of regret for Paris, so near at hand. It was a hideous and depressing sight.
The grass, which had hardly begun to grow, was already turning yellow beneath the feet of the crowd. The dust was black; and yet, every Thursday, the cocotte aristocracy passed through on the way to the Casino, with a great show of rickety carriages and borrowed postilions. All these things gave pleasure to that fanatical Parisian, Sidonie; and then, too, in her childhood, she had heard a great deal about Asnieres from the illustrious Delobelle, who would have liked to have, like so many of his profession, a little villa in those latitudes, a cozy nook in the country to which to return by the midnight train, after the play is done.
All these dreams of little Chebe, Sidonie Risler had realized.
The brothers went to the gate opening on the quay, in which the key was usually left. They entered, making their way among trees and shrubs of recent growth. Here and there the billiard-room, the gardener’s lodge, a little greenhouse, made their appearance, like the pieces of one of the Swiss chalets we give to children to play with; all very light and fragile, hardly more than resting on the ground, as if ready to fly away at the slightest breath of bankruptcy or caprice: the villa of a cocotte or a pawnbroker.
Frantz looked about in some bewilderment. In the distance, opening on a porch surrounded by vases of flowers, was the salon with its long blinds raised. An American easy-chair, folding-chairs, a small table from which the coffee had not been removed, could be seen near the door. Within they heard a succession of loud chords on the piano and the murmur of low voices.
“I tell you Sidonie will be surprised,” said honest Risler, walking softly on the gravel; “she doesn’t expect me until tonight. She and Madame Dobson are practising together at this moment.”
Pushing the door open suddenly, he cried from the threshold in his loud, good-natured voice:
“Guess whom I’ve brought.”
Madame Dobson, who was sitting alone at the piano, jumped up from her stool, and at the farther end of the grand salon Georges and Sidonie rose hastily behind the exotic plants that reared their heads above a table, of whose delicate, slender lines they seemed a prolongation.
“Ah! how you frightened me!” said Sidonie, running to meet Risler.
The flounces of her white peignoir, through which blue ribbons were drawn, like little patches of blue sky among the clouds, rolled in billows over the carpet, and, having already recovered from her embarrassment, she stood very straight, with an affable expression and her everlasting little smile, as she kissed her husband and offered her forehead to Frantz, saying:
“Good morning, brother.”
Risler left them confronting each other, and went up to Fromont Jeune, whom he was greatly surprised to find there.
“What, Chorche, you here? I supposed you were at Savigny.”
“Yes, to be sure, but — I came — I thought you stayed at Asnieres Sundays. I wanted to speak to you on a matter of business.”
Thereupon, entangling himself in his words, he began to talk hurriedly of an important order. Sidonie had disappeared after exchanging a few unmeaning words with the impassive Frantz. Madame Dobson continued her tremolos on the soft pedal, like those which accompany critical situations at the theatre.
In very truth, the situation at that moment was decidedly strained. But Risler’s good-humor banished all constraint. He apologized to his partner for not being at home, and insisted upon showing Frantz the house. They went from the salon to the stable, from the stable to the carriage-house, the servants’ quarters, and the conservatory. Everything was new, brilliant, gleaming, too small, and inconvenient.
“But,” said Risler, with a certain pride, “it cost a heap of money!”
He persisted in compelling admiration of Sidonie’s purchase even to its smallest details, exhibited the gas and water fixtures on every floor, the improved system of bells, the garden seats, the English billiard-table, the hydropathic arrangements, and accompanied his exposition with outbursts of gratitude to Fromont Jeune, who, by taking him into partnership, had literally placed a fortune in his hands.
At each new effusion on Risler’s part, Georges Fromont shrank visibly, ashamed and embarrassed by the strange expression on Frantz’s face.
The breakfast was lacking in gayety.
Madame Dobson talked almost without interruption, overjoyed to be swimming in the shallows of a romantic love-affair. Knowing, or rather believing that she knew her friend’s story from beginning to end, she understood the lowering wrath of Frantz, a former lover furious at finding his place filled, and the anxiety of Georges, due to the appearance of a rival; and she encouraged one with a glance, consoled the other with a smile, admired Sidonie’s tranquil demeanor, and reserved all her contempt for that abominable Risler, the vulgar, uncivilized tyrant. She made an effort to prevent any of those horrible periods of silence, when the clashing knives and forks mark time in such an absurd and embarrassing way.
As soon as breakfast was at an end Fromont Jeune announced that he must return to Savigny. Risler did not venture to detain him, thinking that his dear Madame Chorche would pass her Sunday all alone; and so, without an opportunity to say a word to his mistress, the lover went away in the bright sunlight to take an afternoon train, still attended by the husband, who insisted upon escorting him to the station.
Madame Dobson sat for a moment with Frantz and Sidonie under a little arbor which a climbing vine studded with pink buds; then, realizing that she was in the way, she returned to the salon, and as before, while Georges was there, began to play and sing softly and with expression. In the silent garden, that muffled music, gliding between the branches, seemed like the cooing of birds before the storm.
At last they were alone. Under the lattice of the arbor, still bare and leafless, the May sun shone too bright. Sidonie shaded her eyes with her hand as she watched the people passing on the quay. Frantz likewise looked out, but in another direction; and both of them, affecting to be entirely independent of each other, turned at the same instant with the same gesture and moved by the same thought.
“I have something to say to you,” he said, just as she opened her mouth.
“And I to you,” she replied gravely; “but come in here; we shall be more comfortable.”
And they entered together a little summer-house at the foot of the garden.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53