“Ah! here’s Sigismond. How goes the world, Pere Sigismond? How is business? Is it good with you?”
The old cashier smiled affably, shook hands with the master, his wife, and his brother, and, as they talked, looked curiously about. They were in a manufactory of wallpapers on Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the establishment of the little Prochassons, who were beginning to be formidable rivals. Those former employees of the house of Fromont had set up on their own account, beginning in a very, small way, and had gradually succeeded in making for themselves a place on ‘Change. Fromont the uncle had assisted them for a long while with his credit and his money; the result being most friendly relations between the two firms, and a balance — between ten or fifteen thousand francs — which had never been definitely adjusted, because they knew that money was in good hands when the Prochassons had it.
Indeed, the appearance of the factory was most reassuring. The chimneys proudly shook their plumes of smoke. The dull roar of constant toil indicated that the workshops were full of workmen and activity. The buildings were in good repair, the windows clean; everything had an aspect of enthusiasm, of good-humor, of discipline; and behind the grating in the counting-room sat the wife of one of the brothers, simply dressed, with her hair neatly arranged, and an air of authority on her youthful face, deeply intent upon a long column of figures.
Old Sigismond thought bitterly of the difference between the house of Fromont, once so wealthy, now living entirely upon its former reputation, and the ever-increasing prosperity of the establishment before his eyes. His stealthy glance penetrated to the darkest corners, seeking some defect, something to criticise; and his failure to find anything made his heart heavy and his smile forced and anxious.
What embarrassed him most of all was the question how he should approach the subject of the money due his employers without betraying the emptiness of the strongbox. The poor man assumed a jaunty, unconcerned air which was truly pitiful to see. Business was good — very good. He happened to be passing through the quarter and thought he would come in a moment — that was natural, was it not? One likes to see old friends.
But these preambles, these constantly expanding circumlocutions, did not bring him to the point he wished to reach; on the contrary, they led him away from his goal, and imagining that he detected surprise in the eyes of his auditors, he went completely astray, stammered, lost his head, and, as a last resort, took his hat and pretended to go. At the door he suddenly bethought himself:
“Ah! by the way, so long as I am here —”
He gave a little wink which he thought sly, but which was in reality heartrending.
“So long as I am here, suppose we settle that old account.”
The two brothers and the young woman in the counting-room gazed at one another a second, unable to understand.
“Account? What account, pray?”
Then all three began to laugh at the same moment, and heartily too, as if at a joke, a rather broad joke, on the part of the old cashier. “Go along with you, you sly old Pere Planus!” The old man laughed with them! He laughed without any desire to laugh, simply to do as the others did.
At last they explained. Fromont Jeune had come in person, six months before, to collect the balance in their hands.
Sigismond felt that his strength was going. But he summoned courage to say:
“Ah! yes; true. I had forgotten. Sigismond Planus is growing old, that is plain. I am failing, my children, I am failing.”
And the old man went away wiping his eyes, in which still glistened great tears caused by the hearty laugh he had just enjoyed. The young people behind him exchanged glances and shook their heads. They understood.
The blow he had received was so crushing that the cashier, as soon as he was out-of-doors, was obliged to sit down on a bench. So that was the reason why Georges did not come to the counting-room for money. He made his collections in person. What had taken place at the Prochassons’ had probably been repeated everywhere else. It was quite useless, therefore, for him to subject himself to further humiliation. Yes, but the notes, the notes! — that thought renewed his strength. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and started once more to try his luck with a customer in the faubourg. But this time he took his precautions and called to the cashier from the doorway, without entering:
“Good-morning, Pere So-and-So. I want to ask you a question.”
He held the door half open, his hand upon the knob.
“When did we settle our last bill? I forgot to enter it.”
Oh! it was a long while ago, a very long while, that their last bill was settled. Fromont Jeune’s receipt was dated in September. It was five months ago.
The door was hastily closed. Another! Evidently it would be the same thing everywhere.
“Ah! Monsieur Chorche, Monsieur Chorche,” muttered poor Sigismond; and while he pursued his journey, with bowed head and trembling legs, Madame Fromont Jeune’s carriage passed him close, on its way to the Orleans station; but Claire did not see old Planus, any more than she had seen, when she left her house a few moments earlier, Monsieur Chebe in his long frock-coat and the illustrious Delobelle in his stovepipe hat, turning into the Rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes at opposite ends, each with the factory and Risler’s wallet for his objective point. The young woman was much too deeply engrossed by what she had before her to look into the street.
Think of it! It was horrible. To go and ask M. Gardinois for a hundred thousand francs — M. Gardinois, a man who boasted that he had never borrowed or loaned a sou in his life, who never lost an opportunity to tell how, on one occasion, being driven to ask his father for forty francs to buy a pair of trousers, he had repaid the loan in small amounts. In his dealings with everybody, even with his children, M. Gardinois followed those traditions of avarice which the earth, the cruel earth, often ungrateful to those who till it, seems to inculcate in all peasants. The old man did not intend that any part of his colossal fortune should go to his children during his lifetime.
“They’ll find my property when I am dead,” he often said.
Acting upon that principle, he had married off his daughter, the elder Madame Fromont, without one sou of dowry, and he never forgave his son-in-law for having made a fortune without assistance from him. For it was one of the peculiarities of that nature, made up of vanity and selfishness in equal parts, to wish that every one he knew should need his help, should bow before his wealth. When the Fromonts expressed in his presence their satisfaction at the prosperous turn their business was beginning to take, his sharp, cunning, little blue eye would smile ironically, and he would growl, “We shall see what it all comes to in the end,” in a tone that made them tremble. Sometimes, too, at Savigny, in the evening, when the park, the avenues, the blue slates of the chateau, the red brick of the stables, the ponds and brooks shone resplendent, bathed in the golden glory of a lovely sunset, this eccentric parvenu would say aloud before his children, after looking about him:
“The one thing that consoles me for dying some day is that no one in the family will ever be rich enough to keep a chateau that costs fifty thousand francs a year to maintain.”
And yet, with that latter-day tenderness which even the sternest grandfathers find in the depths of their hearts, old Gardinois would gladly have made a pet of his granddaughter. But Claire, even as a child, had felt an invincible repugnance for the former peasant’s hardness of heart and vainglorious selfishness. And when affection forms no bonds between those who are separated by difference in education, such repugnance is increased by innumerable trifles. When Claire married Georges, the grandfather said to Madame Fromont:
“If your daughter wishes, I will give her a royal present; but she must ask for it.”
But Claire received nothing, because she would not ask for anything.
What a bitter humiliation to come, three years later, to beg a hundred thousand francs from the generosity she had formerly spurned, to humble herself, to face the endless sermons, the sneering raillery, the whole seasoned with Berrichon jests, with phrases smacking of the soil, with the taunts, often well-deserved, which narrow, but logical, minds can utter on occasion, and which sting with their vulgar patois like an insult from an inferior!
Poor Claire! Her husband and her father were about to be humiliated in her person. She must necessarily confess the failure of the one, the downfall of the house which the other had founded and of which he had been so proud while he lived. The thought that she would be called upon to defend all that she loved best in the world made her strong and weak at the same time.
It was eleven o’clock when she reached Savigny. As she had given no warning of her visit, the carriage from the chateau was not at the station, and she had no choice but to walk.
It was a cold morning and the roads were dry and hard. The north wind blew freely across the arid fields and the river, and swept unopposed through the leafless trees and bushes. The chateau appeared under the low-hanging clouds, with its long line of low walls and hedges separating it from the surrounding fields. The slates on the roof were as dark as the sky they reflected; and that magnificent summer residence, completely transformed by the bitter, silent winter, without a leaf on its trees or a pigeon on its roofs, showed no life save in its rippling brooks and the murmuring of the tall poplars as they bowed majestically to one another, shaking the magpies’ nests hidden among their highest branches.
At a distance Claire fancied that the home of her youth wore a surly, depressed air. It seemed to het that Savigny watched her approach with the cold, aristocratic expression which it assumed for passengers on the highroad, who stopped at the iron bars of its gateways.
Oh! the cruel aspect of everything!
And yet not so cruel after all. For, with its tightly closed exterior, Savigny seemed to say to her, “Begone — do not come in!” And if she had chosen to listen, Claire, renouncing her plan of speaking to her grandfather, would have returned at once to Paris to maintain the repose of her life. But she did not understand, poor child! and already the great Newfoundland dog, who had recognized her, came leaping through the dead leaves and sniffed at the gate.
“Good-morning, Francoise. Where is grandpapa?” the young woman asked the gardener’s wife, who came to open the gate, fawning and false and trembling, like all the servants at the chateau when they felt that the master’s eye was upon them.
Grandpapa was in his office, a little building independent of the main house, where he passed his days fumbling among boxes and pigeonholes and great books with green backs, with the rage for bureaucracy due to his early ignorance and the strong impression made upon him long before by the office of the notary in his village.
At that moment he was closeted there with his keeper, a sort of country spy, a paid informer who apprised him as to all that was said and done in the neighborhood.
He was the master’s favorite. His name was Fouinat (polecat), and he had the flat, crafty, blood-thirsty face appropriate to his name.
When Claire entered, pale and trembling under her furs, the old man understood that something serious and unusual had happened, and he made a sign to Fouinat, who disappeared, gliding through the half-open door as if he were entering the very wall.
“What’s the matter, little one? Why, you’re all ‘perlute’,” said the grandfather, seated behind his huge desk.
Perlute, in the Berrichon dictionary, signifies troubled, excited, upset, and applied perfectly to Claire’s condition. Her rapid walk in the cold country air, the effort she had made in order to do what she was doing, imparted an unwonted expression to her face, which was much less reserved than usual. Without the slightest encouragement on his part, she kissed him and seated herself in front of the fire, where old stumps, surrounded by dry moss and pine needles picked up in the paths, were smouldering with occasional outbursts of life and the hissing of sap. She did not even take time to shake off the frost that stood in beads on her veil, but began to speak at once, faithful to her resolution to state the object of her visit immediately upon entering the room, before she allowed herself to be intimidated by the atmosphere of fear and respect which encompassed the grandfather and made of him a sort of awe-inspiring deity.
She required all her courage not to become confused, not to interrupt her narrative before that piercing gaze which transfixed her, enlivened from her first words by a malicious joy, before that savage mouth whose corners seemed tightly closed by premeditated reticence, obstinacy, a denial of any sort of sensibility. She went on to the end in one speech, respectful without humility, concealing her emotion, steadying her voice by the consciousness of the truth of her story. Really, seeing them thus face to face, he cold and calm, stretched out in his armchair, with his hands in the pockets of his gray swansdown waistcoat, she carefully choosing her words, as if each of them might condemn or absolve her, you would never have said that it was a child before her grandfather, but an accused person before an examining magistrate.
His thoughts were entirely engrossed by the joy, the pride of his triumph. So they were conquered at last, those proud upstarts of Fromonts! So they needed old Gardinois at last, did they? Vanity, his dominating passion, overflowed in his whole manner, do what he would. When she had finished, he took the floor in his turn, began naturally enough with “I was sure of it — I always said so — I knew we should see what it would all come to”— and continued in the same vulgar, insulting tone, ending with the declaration that, in view of his principles, which were well known in the family, he would not lend a sou.
Then Claire spoke of her child, of her husband’s name, which was also her father’s, and which would be dishonored by the failure. The old man was as cold, as implacable as ever, and took advantage of her humiliation to humiliate her still more; for he belonged to the race of worthy rustics who, when their enemy is down, never leave him without leaving on his face the marks of the nails in their sabots.
“All I can say to you, little one, is that Savigny is open to you. Let your husband come here. I happen to need a secretary. Very well, Georges can do my writing for twelve hundred francs a year and board for the whole family. Offer him that from me, and come.”
She rose indignantly. She had come as his child and he had received her as a beggar. They had not reached that point yet, thank God!
“Do you think so?” queried M. Gardinois, with a savage light in his eye.
Claire shuddered and walked toward the door without replying. The old man detained her with a gesture.
“Take care! you don’t know what you’re refusing. It is in your interest, you understand, that I suggest bringing your husband here. You don’t know the life he is leading up yonder. Of course you don’t know it, or you’d never come and ask me for money to go where yours has gone. Ah! I know all about your man’s affairs. I have my police at Paris, yes, and at Asnieres, as well as at Savigny. I know what the fellow does with his days and his nights; and I don’t choose that my crowns shall go to the places where he goes. They’re not clean enough for money honestly earned.”
Claire’s eyes opened wide in amazement and horror, for she felt that a terrible drama had entered her life at that moment through the little low door of denunciation. The old man continued with a sneer:
“That little Sidonie has fine, sharp teeth.”
“Faith, yes, to be sure. I have told you the name. At all events, you’d have found it out some day or other. In fact, it’s an astonishing thing that, since the time — But you women are so vain! The idea that a man can deceive you is the last idea to come into your head. Well, yes, Sidonie’s the one who has got it all out of him — with her husband’s consent, by the way.”
He went on pitilessly to tell the young wife the source of the money for the house at Asnieres, the horses, the carriages, and how the pretty little nest in the Avenue Gabriel had been furnished. He explained everything in detail. It was clear that, having found a new opportunity to exercise his mania for espionage, he had availed himself of it to the utmost; perhaps, too, there was at the bottom of it all a vague, carefully concealed rage against his little Chebe, the anger of a senile passion never declared.
Claire listened to him without speaking, with a smile of incredulity. That smile irritated the old man, spurred on his malice. “Ah! you don’t believe me. Ah! you want proofs, do you?” And he gave her proofs, heaped them upon her, overpowered her with knife-thrusts in the heart. She had only to go to Darches, the jeweller in the Rue de la Paix. A fortnight before, Georges had bought a diamond necklace there for thirty thousand francs. It was his New Year’s gift to Sidonie. Thirty thousand francs for diamonds at the moment of becoming bankrupt!
He might have talked the entire day and Claire would not have interrupted him. She felt that the slightest effort would cause the tears that filled her eyes to overflow, and she was determined to smile to the end, the sweet, brave woman. From time to time she cast a sidelong glance at the road. She was in haste to go, to fly from the sound of that spiteful voice, which pursued her pitilessly.
At last he ceased; he had told the whole story. She bowed and walked toward the door.
“Are you going? What a hurry you’re in!” said the grandfather, following her outside.
At heart he was a little ashamed of his savagery.
“Won’t you breakfast with me?”
She shook her head, not having strength to speak.
“At least wait till the carriage is ready — some one will drive you to the station.”
No, still no.
And she walked on, with the old man close behind her. Proudly, and with head erect, she crossed the courtyard, filled with souvenirs of her childhood, without once looking behind. And yet what echoes of hearty laughter, what sunbeams of her younger days were imprinted in the tiniest grain of gravel in that courtyard!
Her favorite tree, her favorite bench, were still in the same place. She had not a glance for them, nor for the pheasants in the aviary, nor even for the great dog Kiss, who followed her docilely, awaiting the caress which she did not give him. She had come as a child of the house, she went away as a stranger, her mind filled with horrible thoughts which the slightest reminder of her peaceful and happy past could not have failed to aggravate.
And the gate closed upon her harshly. As soon as she was alone, she began to walk swiftly, swiftly, almost to run. She was not merely going away, she was escaping. Suddenly, when she reached the end of the wall of the estate, she found herself in front of the little green gate, surrounded by nasturtiums and honeysuckle, where the chateau mail-box was. She stopped instinctively, struck by one of those sudden awakenings of the memory which take place within us at critical moments and place before our eyes with wonderful clearness of outline the most trivial acts of our lives bearing any relation to present disasters or joys. Was it the red sun that suddenly broke forth from the clouds, flooding the level expanse with its oblique rays in that winter afternoon as at the sunset hour in August? Was it the silence that surrounded her, broken only by the harmonious sounds of nature, which are almost alike at all seasons?
Whatever the cause she saw herself once more as she was, at that same spot, three years before, on a certain day when she placed in the post a letter inviting Sidonie to come and pass a month with her in the country. Something told her that all her misfortunes dated from that moment. “Ah! had I known — had I only known!” And she fancied that she could still feel between her fingers the smooth envelope, ready to drop into the box.
Thereupon, as she reflected what an innocent, hopeful, happy child she was at that moment, she cried out indignantly, gentle creature that she was, against the injustice of life. She asked herself: “Why is it? What have I done?”
Then she suddenly exclaimed: “No! it isn’t true. It can not be possible. Grandfather lied to me.” And as she went on toward the station, the unhappy girl tried to convince herself, to make herself believe what she said. But she did not succeed.
The truth dimly seen is like the veiled sun, which tires the eyes far more than its most brilliant rays. In the semi-obscurity which still enveloped her misfortune, the poor woman’s sight was keener than she could have wished. Now she understood and accounted for certain peculiar circumstances in her husband’s life, his frequent absences, his restlessness, his embarrassed behavior on certain days, and the abundant details which he sometimes volunteered, upon returning home, concerning his movements, mentioning names as proofs which she did not ask. From all these conjectures the evidence of his sin was made up. And still she refused to believe it, and looked forward to her arrival in Paris to set her doubts at rest.
No one was at the station, a lonely, cheerless little place, where no traveller ever showed his face in winter. As Claire sat there awaiting the train, gazing vaguely at the station-master’s melancholy little garden, and the debris of climbing plants running along the fences by the track, she felt a moist, warm breath on her glove. It was her friend Kiss, who had followed her and was reminding her of their happy romps together in the old days, with little shakes of the head, short leaps, capers of joy tempered by humility, concluding by stretching his beautiful white coat at full length at his mistress’s feet, on the cold floor of the waiting-room. Those humble caresses which sought her out, like a hesitating offer of devotion and sympathy, caused the sobs she had so long restrained to break forth as last. But suddenly she felt ashamed of her weakness. She rose and sent the dog away, sent him away pitilessly with voice and gesture, pointing to the house in the distance, with a stern face which poor Kiss had never seen. Then she hastily wiped her eyes and her moist hands; for the train for Paris was approaching and she knew that in a moment she should need all her courage.
Claire’s first thought on leaving the train was to take a cab and drive to the jeweller in the Rue de la Paix, who had, as her grandfather alleged, supplied Georges with a diamond necklace. If that should prove to be true, then all the rest was true. Her dread of learning the truth was so great that, when she reached her destination and alighted in front of that magnificent establishment, she stopped, afraid to enter. To give herself countenance, she pretended to be deeply interested in the jewels displayed in velvet cases; and one who had seen her, quietly but fashionably dressed, leaning forward to look at that gleaming and attractive display, would have taken her for a happy wife engaged in selecting a bracelet, rather than an anxious, sorrow-stricken soul who had come thither to discover the secret of her life.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. At that time of day, in winter, the Rue de la Paix presents a truly dazzling aspect. In that luxurious neighborhood, life moves quickly between the short morning and the early evening. There are carriages moving swiftly in all directions, a ceaseless rumbling, and on the sidewalks a coquettish haste, a rustling of silks and furs. Winter is the real Parisian season. To see that devil’s own Paris in all its beauty and wealth and happiness one must watch the current of its life beneath a lowering sky, heavy with snow. Nature is absent from the picture, so to speak. No wind, no sunlight. Just enough light for the dullest colors, the faintest reflections to produce an admirable effect, from the reddish-gray tone of the monuments to the gleams of jet which bespangle a woman’s dress. Theatre and concert posters shine resplendent, as if illumined by the effulgence of the footlights. The shops are crowded. It seems that all those people must be preparing for perpetual festivities. And at such times, if any sorrow is mingled with that bustle and tumult, it seems the more terrible for that reason. For five minutes Claire suffered martyrdom worse than death. Yonder, on the road to Savigny, in the vast expanse of the deserted fields, her despair spread out as it were in the sharp air and seemed to enfold her less closely. Here she was stifling. The voices beside her, the footsteps, the heedless jostling of people who passed, all added to her torture.
At last she entered the shop.
“Ah! yes, Madame, certainly — Monsieur Fromont. A necklace of diamonds and roses. We could make you one like it for twenty-five thousand francs.”
That was five thousand less than for him.
“Thanks, Monsieur,” said Claire, “I will think it over.”
A mirror in front of her, in which she saw her dark-ringed eyes and her deathly pallor, frightened her. She went out quickly, walking stiffly in order not to fall.
She had but one idea, to escape from the street, from the noise; to be alone, quite alone, so that she might plunge headlong into that abyss of heartrending thoughts, of black things dancing madly in the depths of her mind. Oh! the coward, the infamous villain! And to think that only last night she was speaking comforting words to him, with her arms about him!
Suddenly, with no knowledge of how it happened, she found herself in the courtyard of the factory. Through what streets had she come? Had she come in a carriage or on foot? She had no remembrance. She had acted unconsciously, as in a dream. The sentiment of reality returned, pitiless and poignant, when she reached the steps of her little house. Risler was there, superintending several men who were carrying potted plants up to his wife’s apartments, in preparation for the magnificent party she was to give that very evening. With his usual tranquillity he directed the work, protected the tall branches which the workmen might have broken: “Not like that. Bend it over. Take care of the carpet.”
The atmosphere of pleasure and merry-making which had so revolted her a moment before pursued her to her own house. It was too much, after all the rest! She rebelled; and as Risler saluted her, affectionately and with deep respect as always, her face assumed an expression of intense disgust, and she passed without speaking to him, without seeing the amazement that opened his great, honest eyes.
From that moment her course was determined. Wrath, a wrath born of uprightness and sense of justice, guided her actions. She barely took time to kiss her child’s rosy cheeks before running to her mother’s room.
“Come, mamma, dress yourself quickly. We are going away. We are going away.”
The old lady rose slowly from the armchair in which she was sitting, busily engaged in cleaning her watch-chain by inserting a pin between every two links with infinite care.
“Come, come, hurry. Get your things ready.”
Her voice trembled, and the poor monomaniac’s room seemed a horrible place to her, all glistening as it was with the cleanliness that had gradually become a mania. She had reached one of those fateful moments when the loss of one illusion causes you to lose them all, enables you to look to the very depths of human misery. The realization of her complete isolation, between her half-mad mother, her faithless husband, her too young child, came upon her for the first time; but it served only to strengthen her in her resolution.
In a moment the whole household was busily engaged in making preparations for this abrupt, unexpected departure. Claire hurried the bewildered servants, and dressed her mother and the child, who laughed merrily amid all the excitement. She was in haste to go before Georges’ return, so that he might find the cradle empty and the house deserted. Where should she go? She did not know as yet. Perhaps to her aunt at Orleans, perhaps to Savigny, no matter where. What she must do first of all was-go, fly from that atmosphere of treachery and falsehood.
At that moment she was in her bedroom, packing a trunk, making a pile of her effects — a heartrending occupation. Every object that she touched set in motion whole worlds of thoughts, of memories. There is so much of ourselves in anything that we use. At times the odor of a sachet-bag, the pattern of a bit of lace, were enough to bring tears to her eyes. Suddenly she heard a heavy footstep in the salon, the door of which was partly open; then there was a slight cough, as if to let her know that some one was there. She supposed that it was Risler: for no one else had the right to enter her apartments so unceremoniously. The idea of having to endure the presence of that hypocritical face, that false smile, was so distasteful to her that she rushed to close the door.
“I am not at home to any one.”
The door resisted her efforts, and Sigismond’s square head appeared in the opening.
“It is I, Madame,” he said in an undertone. “I have come to get the money.”
“What money?” demanded Claire, for she no longer remembered why she had gone to Savigny.
“Hush! The funds to meet my note to-morrow. Monsieur Georges, when he went out, told me that you would hand it to me very soon.”
“Ah! yes — true. The hundred thousand francs.”
“I haven’t them, Monsieur Planus; I haven’t anything.”
“Then,” said the cashier, in a strange voice, as if he were speaking to himself, “then it means failure.”
And he turned slowly away.
Failure! She sank on a chair, appalled, crushed. For the last few hours the downfall of her happiness had caused her to forget the downfall of the house; but she remembered now.
So her husband was ruined! In a little while, when he returned home, he would learn of the disaster, and he would learn at the same time that his wife and child had gone; that he was left alone in the midst of the wreck.
Alone — that weak, easily influenced creature, who could only weep and complain and shake his fist at life like a child! What would become of the miserable man?
She pitied him, notwithstanding his great sin.
Then the thought came to her that she would perhaps seem to have fled at the approach of bankruptcy, of poverty.
Georges might say to himself:
“Had I been rich, she would have forgiven me!”
Ought she to allow him to entertain that doubt?
To a generous, noble heart like Claire’s nothing more than that was necessary to change her plans. Instantly she was conscious that her feeling of repugnance, of revolt, began to grow less bitter, and a sudden ray of light seemed to make her duty clearer to her. When they came to tell her that the child was dressed and the trunks ready, her mind was made up anew.
“Never mind,” she replied gently. “We are not going away.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49