In Paris the common landing is like an additional room, an enlargement of their abodes, to poor families confined in their too small apartments. They go there to get a breath of air in summer, and there the women talk and the children play.
When little Chebe made too much noise in the house, her mother would say to her: “There there! you bother me, go and play on the landing.” And the child would go quickly enough.
This landing, on the upper floor of an old house in which space had not been spared, formed a sort of large lobby, with a high ceiling, guarded on the staircase side by a wrought-iron rail, lighted by a large window which looked out upon roofs, courtyards, and other windows, and, farther away, upon the garden of the Fromont factory, which was like a green oasis among the huge old walls.
There was nothing very cheerful about it, but the child liked it much better than her own home. Their rooms were dismal, especially when it rained and Ferdinand did not go out.
With his brain always smoking with new ideas, which unfortunately never came to anything, Ferdinand Chebe was one of those slothful, project-devising bourgeois of when there are so many in Paris. His wife, whom he had dazzled at first, had soon detected his utter insignificance, and had ended by enduring patiently and with unchanged demeanor his continual dreams of wealth and the disasters that immediately followed them.
Of the dot of eighty thousand francs which she had brought him, and which he had squandered in his absurd schemes, only a small annuity remained, which still gave them a position of some importance in the eyes of their neighbors, as did Madame Chebe’s cashmere, which had been rescued from every wreck, her wedding laces and two diamond studs, very tiny and very modest, which Sidonie sometimes begged her mother to show her, as they lay in the drawer of the bureau, in an old-fashioned white velvet case, on which the jeweller’s name, in gilt letters, thirty years old, was gradually fading. That was the only bit of luxury in that poor annuitant’s abode.
For a very long time M. Chebe had sought a place which would enable him to eke out their slender income. But he sought it only in what he called standing business, his health forbidding any occupation that required him to be seated.
It seemed that, soon after his marriage, when he was in a flourishing business and had a horse and tilbury of his own, the little man had had one day a serious fall. That fall, to which he referred upon every occasion, served as an excuse for his indolence.
One could not be with M. Chebe five minutes before he would say in a confidential tone:
“You know of the accident that happened to the Duc d’Orleans?”
And then he would add, tapping his little bald pate “The same thing happened to me in my youth.”
Since that famous fall any sort of office work made him dizzy, and he had found himself inexorably confined to standing business. Thus, he had been in turn a broker in wines, in books, in truffles, in clocks, and in many other things beside. Unluckily, he tired of everything, never considered his position sufficiently exalted for a former business man with a tilbury, and, by gradual degrees, by dint of deeming every sort of occupation beneath him, he had grown old and incapable, a genuine idler with low tastes, a good-for-nothing.
Artists are often rebuked for their oddities, for the liberties they take with nature, for that horror of the conventional which impels them to follow by-paths; but who can ever describe all the absurd fancies, all the idiotic eccentricities with which a bourgeois without occupation can succeed in filling the emptiness of his life? M. Chebe imposed upon himself certain rules concerning his goings and comings, and his walks abroad. While the Boulevard Sebastopol was being built, he went twice a day “to see how it was getting on.”
No one knew better than he the fashionable shops and the bargains; and very often Madame Chebe, annoyed to see her husband’s idiotic face at the window while she was energetically mending the family linen, would rid herself of him by giving him an errand to do. “You know that place, on the corner of such a street, where they sell such nice cakes. They would be nice for our dessert.”
And the husband would go out, saunter along the boulevard by the shops, wait for the omnibus, and pass half the day in procuring two cakes, worth three sous, which he would bring home in triumph, wiping his forehead.
M. Chebe adored the summer, the Sundays, the great footraces in the dust at Clamart or Romainville, the excitement of holidays and the crowd. He was one of those who went about for a whole week before the fifteenth of August, gazing at the black lamps and their frames, and the scaffoldings. Nor did his wife complain. At all events, she no longer had that chronic grumbler prowling around her chair for whole days, with schemes for gigantic enterprises, combinations that missed fire in advance, lamentations concerning the past, and a fixed determination not to work at anything to earn money.
She no longer earned anything herself, poor woman; but she knew so well how to save, her wonderful economy made up so completely for everything else, that absolute want, although a near neighbor of such impecuniosity as theirs, never succeeded in making its way into those three rooms, which were always neat and clean, or in destroying the carefully mended garments or the old furniture so well concealed beneath its coverings.
Opposite the Chebes’ door, whose copper knob gleamed in bourgeois fashion upon the landing, were two other and smaller ones.
On the first, a visiting-card, held in place by four nails, according to the custom in vogue among industrial artists, bore the name of
DESIGNER OF PATTERNS.
On the other was a small square of leather, with these words in gilt letters:
BIRDS AND INSECTS FOR ORNAMENT.
The Delobelles’ door was often open, disclosing a large room with a brick floor, where two women, mother and daughter, the latter almost a child, each as weary and as pale as the other, worked at one of the thousand fanciful little trades which go to make up what is called the ‘Articles de Paris’.
It was then the fashion to ornament hats and ballgowns with the lovely little insects from South America that have the brilliant coloring of jewels and reflect the light like diamonds. The Delobelles had adopted that specialty.
A wholesale house, to which consignments were made directly from the Antilles, sent to them, unopened, long, light boxes from which, when the lid was removed, arose a faint odor, a dust of arsenic through which gleamed the piles of insects, impaled before being shipped, the birds packed closely together, their wings held in place by a strip of thin paper. They must all be mounted — the insects quivering upon brass wire, the humming-birds with their feathers ruffled; they must be cleansed and polished, the beak in a bright red, claw repaired with a silk thread, dead eyes replaced with sparkling pearls, and the insect or the bird restored to an appearance of life and grace. The mother prepared the work under her daughter’s direction; for Desiree, though she was still a mere girl, was endowed with exquisite taste, with a fairy-like power of invention, and no one could, insert two pearl eyes in those tiny heads or spread their lifeless wings so deftly as she. Happy or unhappy, Desiree always worked with the same energy. From dawn until well into the night the table was covered with work. At the last ray of daylight, when the factory bells were ringing in all the neighboring yards, Madame Delobelle lighted the lamp, and after a more than frugal repast they returned to their work. Those two indefatigable women had one object, one fixed idea, which prevented them from feeling the burden of enforced vigils. That idea was the dramatic renown of the illustrious Delobelle. After he had left the provincial theatres to pursue his profession in Paris, Delobelle waited for an intelligent manager, the ideal and providential manager who discovers geniuses, to seek him out and offer him a role suited to his talents. He might, perhaps, especially at the beginning, have obtained a passably good engagement at a theatre of the third order, but Delobelle did not choose to lower himself.
He preferred to wait, to struggle, as he said! And this is how he awaited the struggle.
In the morning in his bedroom, often in his bed, he rehearsed roles in his former repertory; and the Delobelle ladies trembled with emotion when they heard behind the partition tirades from ‘Antony’ or the ‘Medecin des Enfants’, declaimed in a sonorous voice that blended with the thousand-and-one noises of the great Parisian bee-hive. Then, after breakfast, the actor would sally forth for the day; would go to “do his boulevard,” that is to say, to saunter to and fro between the Chateau d’Eau and the Madeline, with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, his hat a little on one side-always gloved, and brushed, and glossy.
That question of dress was of great importance in his eyes. It was one of the greatest elements of success, a bait for the manager — the famous, intelligent manager — who never would dream of engaging a threadbare, shabbily dressed man.
So the Delobelle ladies took good care that he lacked nothing; and you can imagine how many birds and insects it required to fit out a blade of that temper! The actor thought it the most natural thing in the world.
In his view, the labors, the privations of his wife and daughter were not, strictly speaking, for his benefit, but for the benefit of that mysterious and unknown genius, whose trustee he considered himself to be.
There was a certain analogy between the position of the Chebe family and that of the Delobelles. But the latter household was less depressing. The Chebes felt that their petty annuitant existence was fastened upon them forever, with no prospect of amelioration, always the same; whereas, in the actor’s family, hope and illusion often opened magnificent vistas.
The Chebes were like people living in a blind alley; the Delobelles on a foul little street, where there was no light or air, but where a great boulevard might some day be laid out. And then, too, Madame Chebe no longer believed in her husband, whereas, by virtue of that single magic word, “Art!” her neighbor never had doubted hers.
And yet for years and years Monsieur Delobelle had been unavailingly drinking vermouth with dramatic agents, absinthe with leaders of claques, bitters with vaudevillists, dramatists, and the famous what’s -his-name, author of several great dramas. Engagements did not always follow. So that, without once appearing on the boards, the poor man had progressed from jeune premier to grand premier roles, then to the financiers, then to the noble fathers, then to the buffoons —
He stopped there!
On two or three occasions his friends had obtained for him a chance to earn his living as manager of a club or a cafe as an inspector in great warehouses, at the ‘Phares de la Bastille’ or the ‘Colosse de Rhodes.’ All that was necessary was to have good manners. Delobelle was not lacking in that respect, God knows! And yet every suggestion that was made to him the great man met with a heroic refusal.
“I have no right to abandon the stage!” he would then assert.
In the mouth of that poor devil, who had not set foot on the boards for years, it was irresistibly comical. But one lost the inclination to laugh when one saw his wife and his daughter swallowing particles of arsenic day and night, and heard them repeat emphatically as they broke their needles against the brass wire with which the little birds were mounted:
“No! no! Monsieur Delobelle has no right to abandon the stage.”
Happy man, whose bulging eyes, always smiling condescendingly, and whose habit of reigning on the stage had procured for him for life that exceptional position of a spoiled and admired child-king! When he left the house, the shopkeepers on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, with the predilection of the Parisian for everything and everybody connected with the theatre, saluted him respectfully. He was always so well dressed! And then he was so kind, so obliging! When you think that every Saturday night, he, Ruy Blas, Antony, Raphael in the ‘Filles de Maybre,’ Andres in the ‘Pirates de la Savane,’ sallied forth, with a bandbox under his arm, to carry the week’s work of his wife and daughter to a flower establishment on the Rue St.-Denis!
Why, even when performing such a commission as that, this devil of a fellow had such nobility of bearing, such native dignity, that the young woman whose duty it was to make up the Delobelle account was sorely embarrassed to hand to such an irreproachable gentleman the paltry stipend so laboriously earned.
On those evenings, by the way, the actor did not return home to dinner. The women were forewarned.
He always met some old comrade on the boulevard, some unlucky devil like himself — there are so many of them in that sacred profession! — whom he entertained at a restaurant or cafe. Then, with scrupulous fidelity — and very grateful they were to him — he would carry the rest of the money home, sometimes with a bouquet for his wife or a little present for Desiree, a nothing, a mere trifle. What would you have? Those are the customs of the stage. It is such a simple matter in a melodrama to toss a handful of louis through the window!
“Ho! varlet, take this purse and hie thee hence to tell thy mistress I await her coming.”
And so, notwithstanding their marvellous courage, and although their trade was quite lucrative, the Delobelles often found themselves in straitened circumstances, especially in the dull season of the ‘Articles de Paris.’
Luckily the excellent Risler was at hand, always ready to accommodate his friends.
Guillaume Risler, the third tenant on the landing, lived with his brother Frantz, who was fifteen years his junior. The two young Swiss, tall and fair, strong and ruddy, brought into the dismal, hard-working house glimpses of the country and of health. The elder was a draughtsman at the Fromont factory and was paying for the education of his brother, who attended Chaptal’s lectures, pending his admission to the Ecole Centrale.
On his arrival at Paris, being sadly perplexed as to the installation of his little household, Guillaume had derived from his neighbors, Mesdames Chebe and Delobelle, advice and information which were an indispensable aid to that ingenuous, timid, somewhat heavy youth, embarrassed by his foreign accent and manner. After a brief period of neighborhood and mutual services, the Risler brothers formed a part of both families.
On holidays places were always made for them at one table or the other, and it was a great satisfaction to the two exiles to find in those poor households, modest and straitened as they were, a taste of affection and family life.
The wages of the designer, who was very clever at his trade, enabled him to be of service to the Delobelles on rent-day, and to make his appearance at the Chebes’ in the guise of the rich uncle, always laden with surprises and presents, so that the little girl, as soon as she saw him, would explore his pockets and climb on his knees.
On Sunday he would take them all to the theatre; and almost every evening he would go with Messieurs Chebe and Delobelle to a brewery on the Rue Blondel, where he regaled them with beer and pretzels. Beer and pretzels were his only vice.
For his own part, he knew no greater bliss than to sit before a foaming tankard, between his two friends, listening to their talk, and taking part only by a loud laugh or a shake of the head in their conversation, which was usually a long succession of grievances against society.
A childlike shyness, and the Germanisms of speech which he never had laid aside in his life of absorbing toil, embarrassed him much in giving expression to his ideas. Moreover, his friends overawed him. They had in respect to him the tremendous superiority of the man who does nothing over the man who works; and M. Chebe, less generous than Delobelle, did not hesitate to make him feel it. He was very lofty with him, was M. Chebe! In his opinion, a man who worked, as Risler did, ten hours a day, was incapable, when he left his work, of expressing an intelligent idea. Sometimes the designer, coming home worried from the factory, would prepare to spend the night over some pressing work. You should have seen M. Chebe’s scandalized expression then!
“Nobody could make me follow such a business!” he would say, expanding his chest, and he would add, looking at Risler with the air of a physician making a professional call, “Just wait till you’ve had one severe attack.”
Delobelle was not so fierce, but he adopted a still loftier tone. The cedar does not see a rose at its foot. Delobelle did not see Risler at his feet.
When, by chance, the great man deigned to notice his presence, he had a certain air of stooping down to him to listen, and to smile at his words as at a child’s; or else he would amuse himself by dazzling him with stories of actresses, would give him lessons in deportment and the addresses of outfitters, unable to understand why a man who earned so much money should always be dressed like an usher at a primary school. Honest Risler, convinced of his inferiority, would try to earn forgiveness by a multitude of little attentions, obliged to furnish all the delicacy, of course, as he was the constant benefactor.
Among these three households living on the same floor, little Chebe, with her goings and comings, formed the bond of union.
At all times of day she would slip into the workroom of the Delobelles, amuse herself by watching their work and looking at all the insects, and, being already more coquettish than playful, if an insect had lost a wing in its travels, or a humming-bird its necklace of down, she would try to make herself a headdress of the remains, to fix that brilliant shaft of color among the ripples of her silky hair. It made Desiree and her mother smile to see her stand on tiptoe in front of the old tarnished mirror, with affected little shrugs and grimaces. Then, when she had had enough of admiring herself, the child would open the door with all the strength of her little fingers, and would go demurely, holding her head perfectly straight for fear of disarranging her headdress, and knock at the Rislers’ door.
No one was there in the daytime but Frantz the student, leaning over his books, doing his duty faithfully. But when Sidonie enters, farewell to study! Everything must be put aside to receive that lovely creature with the humming-bird in her hair, pretending to be a princess who had come to Chaptal’s school to ask his hand in marriage from the director.
It was really a strange sight to see that tall, overgrown boy playing with that little girl of eight, humoring her caprices, adoring her as he yielded to her, so that later, when he fell genuinely in love with her, no one could have said at what time the change began.
Petted as she was in those two homes, little Chebe was very fond of running to the window on the landing. There it was that she found her greatest source of entertainment, a horizon always open, a sort of vision of the future toward which she leaned with eager curiosity and without fear, for children are not subject to vertigo.
Between the slated roofs sloping toward one another, the high wall of the factory, the tops of the plane-trees in the garden, the many-windowed workshops appeared to her like a promised land, the country of her dreams.
That Fromont establishment was to her mind the highest ideal of wealth.
The place it occupied in that part of the Marais, which was at certain hours enveloped by its smoke and its din, Risler’s enthusiasm, his fabulous tales concerning his employer’s wealth and goodness and cleverness, had aroused that childish curiosity; and such portions as she could see of the dwelling-houses, the carved wooden blinds, the circular front steps, with the garden-seats before them, a great white bird-house with gilt stripes glistening in the sun, the blue-lined coupe standing in the courtyard, were to her objects of continual admiration.
She knew all the habits of the family: At what hour the bell was rung, when the workmen went away, the Saturday payday which kept the cashier’s little lamp lighted late in the evening, and the long Sunday afternoon, the closed workshops, the smokeless chimney, the profound silence which enabled her to hear Mademoiselle Claire at play in the garden, running about with her cousin Georges. From Risler she obtained details.
“Show me the salon windows,” she would say to him, “and Claire’s room.”
Risler, delighted by this extraordinary interest in his beloved factory, would explain to the child from their lofty position the arrangement of the buildings, point out the print-shop, the gilding-shop, the designing-room where he worked, the engine-room, above which towered that enormous chimney blackening all the neighboring walls with its corrosive smoke, and which never suspected that a young life, concealed beneath a neighboring roof, mingled its inmost thoughts with its loud, indefatigable panting.
At last one day Sidonie entered that paradise of which she had heretofore caught only a glimpse.
Madame Fromont, to whom Risler often spoke of her little neighbor’s beauty and intelligence, asked him to bring her to the children’s ball she intended to give at Christmas. At first Monsieur Chebe replied by a curt refusal. Even in those days, the Fromonts, whose name was always on Rider’s lips, irritated and humiliated him by their wealth. Moreover, it was to be a fancy ball, and M. Chebe — who did not sell wallpapers, not he! — could not afford to dress his daughter as a circus-dancer. But Risler insisted, declared that he would get everything himself, and at once set about designing a costume.
It was a memorable evening.
In Madame Chebe’s bedroom, littered with pieces of cloth and pins and small toilet articles, Desiree Delobelle superintended Sidonie’s toilet. The child, appearing taller because of her short skirt of red flannel with black stripes, stood before the mirror, erect and motionless, in the glittering splendor of her costume. She was charming. The waist, with bands of velvet laced over the white stomacher, the lovely, long tresses of chestnut hair escaping from a hat of plaited straw, all the trivial details of her Savoyard’s costume were heightened by the intelligent features of the child, who was quite at her ease in the brilliant colors of that theatrical garb.
The whole assembled neighborhood uttered cries of admiration. While some one went in search of Delobelle, the lame girl arranged the folds of the skirt, the bows on the shoes, and cast a final glance over her work, without laying aside her needle; she, too, was excited, poor child! by the intoxication of that festivity to which she was not invited. The great man arrived. He made Sidonie rehearse two or three stately curtseys which he had taught her, the proper way to walk, to stand, to smile with her mouth slightly open, and the exact position of the little finger. It was truly amusing to see the precision with which the child went through the drill.
“She has dramatic blood in her veins!” exclaimed the old actor enthusiastically, unable to understand why that stupid Frantz was strongly inclined to weep.
A year after that happy evening Sidonie could have told you what flowers there were in the reception rooms, the color of the furniture, and the music they were playing as she entered the ballroom, so deep an impression did her enjoyment make upon her. She forgot nothing, neither the costumes that made an eddying whirl about her, nor the childish laughter, nor all the tiny steps that glided over the polished floors. For a moment, as she sat on the edge of a great red-silk couch, taking from the plate presented to her the first sherbet of her life, she suddenly thought of the dark stairway, of her parents’ stuffy little rooms, and it produced upon her mind the effect of a distant country which she had left forever.
However, she was considered a fascinating little creature, and was much admired and petted. Claire Fromont, a miniature Cauchoise dressed in lace, presented her to her cousin Georges, a magnificent hussar who turned at every step to observe the effect of his sabre.
“You understand, Georges, she is my friend. She is coming to play with us Sundays. Mamma says she may.”
And, with the artless impulsiveness of a happy child, she kissed little Chebe with all her heart.
But the time came to go. For a long time, in the filthy street where the snow was melting, in the dark hall, in the silent room where her mother awaited her, the brilliant light of the salons continued to shine before her dazzled eyes.
“Was it very fine? Did you have a charming time?” queried Madame Chebe in a low tone, unfastening the buckles of the gorgeous costume, one by one.
And Sidonie, overcome with fatigue, made no reply, but fell asleep standing, beginning a lovely dream which was to last throughout her youth and cost her many tears.
Claire Fromont kept her word. Sidonie often went to play in the beautiful gravelled garden, and was able to see at close range the carved blinds and the dovecot with its threads of gold. She came to know all the corners and hiding-places in the great factory, and took part in many glorious games of hide-and-seek behind the printing-tables in the solitude of Sunday afternoon. On holidays a plate was laid for her at the children’s table.
Everybody loved her, although she never exhibited much affection for any one. So long as she was in the midst of that luxury, she was conscious of softer impulses, she was happy and felt that she was embellished by her surroundings; but when she returned to her parents, when she saw the factory through the dirty panes of the window on the landing, she had an inexplicable feeling of regret and anger.
And yet Claire Fromont treated her as a friend.
Sometimes they took her to the Bois, to the Tuileries, in the famous blue-lined carriage, or into the country, to pass a whole week at Grandfather Gardinois’s chateau, at Savigny-sur-Orge. Thanks to the munificence of Risler, who was very proud of his little one’s success, she was always presentable and well dressed. Madame Chebe made it a point of honor, and the pretty, lame girl was always at hand to place her treasures of unused coquetry at her little friend’s service.
But M. Chebe, who was always hostile to the Fromonts, looked frowningly upon this growing intimacy. The true reason was that he himself never was invited; but he gave other reasons, and would say to his wife:
“Don’t you see that your daughter’s heart is sad when she returns from that house, and that she passes whole hours dreaming at the window?”
But poor Madame Chebe, who had been so unhappy ever since her marriage, had become reckless. She declared that one should make the most of the present for fear of the future, should seize happiness as it passes, as one often has no other support and consolation in life than the memory of a happy childhood.
For once it happened that M. Chebe was right.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53