One night, near the end of January, old Sigismond Planus, cashier of the house of Fromont Jeune and Risler Aine, was awakened with a start in his little house at Montrouge by the same teasing voice, the same rattling of chains, followed by that fatal cry:
“That is true,” thought the worthy man, sitting up in bed; “day after to-morrow will be the last day of the month. And I have the courage to sleep!”
In truth, a considerable sum of money must be raised: a hundred thousand francs to be paid on two obligations, and at a moment when, for the first time in thirty years, the strong-box of the house of Fromont was absolutely empty. What was to be done? Sigismond had tried several times to speak to Fromont Jeune, but he seemed to shun the burdensome responsibility of business, and when he walked through the offices was always in a hurry, feverishly excited, and seemed neither to see nor hear anything about him. He answered the old cashier’s anxious questions, gnawing his moustache:
“All right, all right, my old Planus. Don’t disturb yourself; I will look into it.” And as he said it, he seemed to be thinking of something else, to be a thousand leagues away from his surroundings. It was rumored in the factory, where his liaison with Madame Risler was no longer a secret to anybody, that Sidonie deceived him, made him very unhappy; and, indeed, his mistress’s whims worried him much more than his cashier’s anxiety. As for Risler, no one ever saw him; he passed his days shut up in a room under the roof, overseeing the mysterious, interminable manufacture of his machines.
This indifference on the part of the employers to the affairs of the factory, this absolute lack of oversight, had led by slow degrees to general demoralization. Some business was still done, because an established house will go on alone for years by force of the first impetus; but what ruin, what chaos beneath that apparent prosperity?
Sigismond knew it better than any one, and as if to see his way more clearly amid the multitude of painful thoughts which whirled madly through his brain, the cashier lighted his candle, sat down on his bed, and thought, “Where were they to find that hundred thousand francs?”
“Take the notes back. I have no funds to meet them.”
No, no! That was not possible. Any sort of humiliation was preferable to that.
“Well, it’s decided. I will go to-morrow,” sighed the poor cashier.
And he tossed about in torture, unable to close an eye until morning.
Notwithstanding the late hour, Georges Fromont had not yet retired. He was sitting by the fire, with his head in his hands, in the blind and dumb concentration due to irreparable misfortune, thinking of Sidonie, of that terrible Sidonie who was asleep at that moment on the floor above. She was positively driving him mad. She was false to him, he was sure of it — she was false to him with the Toulousan tenor, that Cazabon, alias Cazaboni, whom Madame Dobson had brought to the house. For a long time he had implored her not to receive that man; but Sidonie would not listen to him, and on that very day, speaking of a grand ball she was about to give, she had declared explicitly that nothing should prevent her inviting her tenor.
“Then he’s your lover!” Georges had exclaimed angrily, his eyes gazing into hers.
She had not denied it; she had not even turned her eyes away.
And to think that he had sacrificed everything to that woman — his fortune, his honor, even his lovely Claire, who lay sleeping with her child in the adjoining room — a whole lifetime of happiness within reach of his hand, which he had spurned for that vile creature! Now she had admitted that she did not love him, that she loved another. And he, the coward, still longed for her. In heaven’s name, what potion had she given him?
Carried away by indignation that made the blood boil in his veins, Georges Fromont started from his armchair and strode feverishly up and down the room, his footsteps echoing in the silence of the sleeping house like living insomnia. The other was asleep upstairs. She could sleep by favor of her heedless, remorseless nature. Perhaps, too, she was thinking of her Cazaboni.
When that thought passed through his mind, Georges had a mad longing to go up, to wake Risler, to tell him everything and destroy himself with her. Really that deluded husband was too idiotic! Why did he not watch her more closely? She was pretty enough, yes, and vicious enough, too, for every precaution to be taken with her.
And it was while he was struggling amid such cruel and unfruitful reflections as these that the devil of anxiety whispered in his ear:
“The notes! the notes!”
The miserable wretch! In his wrath he had entirely forgotten them. And yet he had long watched the approach of that terrible last day of January. How many times, between two assignations, when his mind, free for a moment from thoughts of Sidonie, recurred to his business, to the realities of life-how many times had he said to himself, “That day will be the end of everything!” But, as with all those who live in the delirium of intoxication, his cowardice convinced him that it was too late to mend matters, and he returned more quickly and more determinedly to his evil courses, in order to forget, to divert his thoughts.
But that was no longer possible. He saw the impending disaster clearly, in its full meaning; and Sigismond Planus’s wrinkled, solemn face rose before him with its sharply cut features, whose absence of expression softened their harshness, and his light German-Swiss eyes, which had haunted him for many weeks with their impassive stare.
Well, no, he had not the hundred thousand francs, nor did he know where to get them.
The crisis which, a few hours before, seemed to him a chaos, an eddying whirl in which he could see nothing distinctly and whose very confusion was a source of hope, appeared to him at that moment with appalling distinctness. An empty cash-box, closed doors, notes protested, ruin, are the phantoms he saw whichever way he turned. And when, on top of all the rest, came the thought of Sidonie’s treachery, the wretched, desperate man, finding nothing to cling to in that shipwreck, suddenly uttered a sob, a cry of agony, as if appealing for help to some higher power.
“Georges, Georges, it is I. What is the matter?”
His wife stood before him, his wife who now waited for him every night, watching anxiously for his return from the club, for she still believed that he passed his evenings there. That night she had heard him walking very late in his room. At last her child fell asleep, and Claire, hearing the father sob, ran to him.
Oh! what boundless, though tardy remorse overwhelmed him when he saw her before him, so deeply moved, so lovely and so loving! Yes, she was in very truth the true companion, the faithful friend. How could he have deserted her? For a long, long time he wept upon her shoulder, unable to speak. And it was fortunate that he did not speak, for he would have told her all, all. The unhappy man felt the need of pouring out his heart — an irresistible longing to accuse himself, to ask forgiveness, to lessen the weight of the remorse that was crushing him.
She spared him the pain of uttering a word:
“You have been gambling, have you not? You have lost — lost heavily?”
He moved his head affirmatively; then, when he was able to speak, he confessed that he must have a hundred thousand francs for the day after the morrow, and that he did not know how to obtain them.
She did not reproach him. She was one of those women who, when face to face with disaster, think only of repairing it, without a word of recrimination. Indeed, in the bottom of her heart she blessed this misfortune which brought him nearer to her and became a bond between their two lives, which had long lain so far apart. She reflected a moment. Then, with an effort indicating a resolution which had cost a bitter struggle, she said:
“Not all is lost as yet. I will go to Savigny tomorrow and ask my grandfather for the money.”
He would never have dared to suggest that to her. Indeed, it would never have occurred to him. She was so proud and old Gardinois so hard! Surely that was a great sacrifice for her to make for him, and a striking proof of her love.
“Claire, Claire — how good your are!” he said.
Without replying, she led him to their child’s cradle.
“Kiss her,” she said softly; and as they stood there side by side, their heads leaning over the child, Georges was afraid of waking her, and he embraced the mother passionately.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53