The great clock of Saint-Gervais struck one in the morning. It was so cold that the fine snow, flying through the air, hardened as it fell, covering the pavements with a slippery, white blanket.
Risler, wrapped in his cloak, was hastening home from the brewery through the deserted streets of the Marais. He had been celebrating, in company with his two faithful borrowers, Chebe and Delobelle, his first moment of leisure, the end of that almost endless period of seclusion during which he had been superintending the manufacture of his press, with all the searchings, the joys, and the disappointments of the inventor. It had been long, very long. At the last moment he had discovered a defect. The crane did not work well; and he had had to revise his plans and drawings. At last, on that very day, the new machine had been tried. Everything had succeeded to his heart’s desire. The worthy man was triumphant. It seemed to him that he had paid a debt, by giving the house of Fromont the benefit of a new machine, which would lessen the labor, shorten the hours of the workmen, and at the same time double the profits and the reputation of the factory. He indulged in beautiful dreams as he plodded along. His footsteps rang out proudly, emphasized by the resolute and happy trend of his thoughts.
Quickening his pace, he reached the corner of Rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes. A long line of carriages was standing in front of the factory, and the light of their lanterns in the street, the shadows of the drivers seeking shelter from the snow in the corners and angles that those old buildings have retained despite the straightening of the sidewalks, gave an animated aspect to that deserted, silent quarter.
“Yes, yes! to be sure,” thought the honest fellow, “we have a ball at our house.” He remembered that Sidonie was giving a grand musical and dancing party, which she had excused him from attending, by the way, knowing that he was very busy.
Shadows passed and repassed behind the fluttering veil of the curtains; the orchestra seemed to follow the movements of those stealthy apparitions with the rising and falling of its muffled notes. The guests were dancing. Risler let his eyes rest for a moment on that phantasmagoria of the ball, and fancied that he recognized Sidonie’s shadow in a small room adjoining the salon.
She was standing erect in her magnificent costume, in the attitude of a pretty woman before her mirror. A shorter shadow behind her, Madame Dobson doubtless, was repairing some accident to the costume, re-tieing the knot of a ribbon tied about her neck, its long ends floating down to the flounces of the train. It was all very indistinct, but the woman’s graceful figure was recognizable in those faintly traced outlines, and Risler tarried long admiring her.
The contrast on the first floor was most striking. There was no light visible, with the exception of a little lamp shining through the lilac hangings of the bedroom. Risler noticed that circumstance, and as the little girl had been ailing a few days before, he felt anxious about her, remembering Madame Georges’s strange agitation when she passed him so hurriedly in the afternoon; and he retraced his steps as far as Pere Achille’s lodge to inquire.
The lodge was full. Coachmen were warming themselves around the stove, chatting and laughing amid the smoke from their pipes. When Risler appeared there was profound silence, a cunning, inquisitive, significant silence. They had evidently been speaking of him.
“Is the Fromont child still sick?” he asked.
“No, not the child, Monsieur.”
“Monsieur Georges sick?”
“Yes, he was taken when he came home to-night. I went right off to get the doctor. He said that it wouldn’t amount to anything — that all Monsieur needed was rest.”
As Risler closed the door Pere Achille added, under his breath, with the half-fearful, half-audacious insolence of an inferior, who would like to be listened to and yet not distinctly heard:
“Ah! ‘dame’, they’re not making such a show on the first floor as they are on the second.”
This is what had happened.
Fromont jeune, on returning home during the evening, had found his wife with such a changed, heartbroken face, that he at once divined a catastrophe. But he had become so accustomed in the past two years to sin with impunity that it did not for one moment occur to him that his wife could have been informed of his conduct. Claire, for her part, to avoid humiliating him, was generous enough to speak only of Savigny.
“Grandpapa refused,” she said.
The miserable man turned frightfully pale.
“I am lost — I am lost!” he muttered two or three times in the wild accents of fever; and his sleepless nights, a last terrible scene which he had had with Sidonie, trying to induce her not to give this party on the eve of his downfall, M. Gardinois’ refusal, all these maddening things which followed so closely on one another’s heels and had agitated him terribly, culminated in a genuine nervous attack. Claire took pity on him, put him to bed, and established herself by his side; but her voice had lost that affectionate intonation which soothes and persuades. There was in her gestures, in the way in which she arranged the pillow under the patient’s head and prepared a quieting draught, a strange indifference, listlessness.
“But I have ruined you!” Georges said from time to time, as if to rouse her from that apathy which made him uncomfortable. She replied with a proud, disdainful gesture. Ah! if he had done only that to her!
At last, however, his nerves became calmer, the fever subsided, and he fell asleep.
She remained to attend to his wants.
“It is my duty,” she said to herself.
Her duty. She had reached that point with the man whom she had adored so blindly, with the hope of a long and happy life together.
At that moment the ball in Sidonie’s apartments began to become very animated. The ceiling trembled rhythmically, for Madame had had all the carpets removed from her salons for the greater comfort of the dancers. Sometimes, too, the sound of voices reached Claire’s ears in waves, and frequent tumultuous applause, from which one could divine the great number of the guests, the crowded condition of the rooms.
Claire was lost in thought. She did not waste time in regrets, in fruitless lamentations. She knew that life was inflexible and that all the arguments in the world will not arrest the cruel logic of its inevitable progress. She did not ask herself how that man had succeeded in deceiving her so long — how he could have sacrificed the honor and happiness of his family for a mere caprice. That was the fact, and all her reflections could not wipe it out, could not repair the irreparable. The subject that engrossed her thoughts was the future. A new existence was unfolding before her eyes, dark, cruel, full of privation and toil; and, strangely enough, the prospect of ruin, instead of terrifying her, restored all her courage. The idea of the change of abode made necessary by the economy they would be obliged to practise, of work made compulsory for Georges and perhaps for herself, infused an indefinable energy into the distressing calmness of her despair. What a heavy burden of souls she would have with her three children: her mother, her child, and her husband! The feeling of responsibility prevented her giving way too much to her misfortune, to the wreck of her love; and in proportion as she forgot herself in the thought of the weak creatures she had to protect she realized more fully the meaning of the word “sacrifice,” so vague on careless lips, so serious when it becomes a rule of life.
Such were the poor woman’s thoughts during that sad vigil, a vigil of arms and tears, while she was preparing her forces for the great battle. Such was the scene lighted by the modest little lamp which Risler had seen from below, like a star fallen from the radiant chandeliers of the ballroom.
Reassured by Pere Achille’s reply, the honest fellow thought of going up to his bedroom, avoiding the festivities and the guests, for whom he cared little.
On such occasions he used a small servants’ staircase communicating with the counting-room. So he walked through the many-windowed workshops, which the moon, reflected by the snow, made as light as at noonday. He breathed the atmosphere of the day of toil, a hot, stifling atmosphere, heavy with the odor of boiled talc and varnish. The papers spread out on the dryers formed long, rustling paths. On all sides tools were lying about, and blouses hanging here and there ready for the morrow. Risler never walked through the shops without a feeling of pleasure.
Suddenly he spied a light in Planus’s office, at the end of that long line of deserted rooms. The old cashier was still at work, at one o’clock in the morning! That was really most extraordinary.
Risler’s first impulse was to retrace his steps. In fact, since his unaccountable falling-out with Sigismond, since the cashier had adopted that attitude of cold silence toward him, he had avoided meeting him. His wounded friendship had always led him to shun an explanation; he had a sort of pride in not asking Planus why he bore him ill-will. But, on that evening, Risler felt so strongly the need of cordial sympathy, of pouring out his heart to some one, and then it was such an excellent opportunity for a tete-a-tete with his former friend, that he did not try to avoid him but boldly entered the counting-room.
The cashier was sitting there, motionless, among heaps of papers and great books, which he had been turning over, some of which had fallen to the floor. At the sound of his employer’s footsteps he did not even lift his eyes. He had recognized Risler’s step. The latter, somewhat abashed, hesitated a moment; then, impelled by one of those secret springs which we have within us and which guide us, despite ourselves, in the path of our destiny, he walked straight to the cashier’s grating.
“Sigismond,” he said in a grave voice.
The old man raised his head and displayed a shrunken face down which two great tears were rolling, the first perhaps that that animate column of figures had ever shed in his life.
“You are weeping, old man? What troubles you?”
And honest Risler, deeply touched, held out his hand to his friend, who hastily withdrew his. That movement of repulsion was so instinctive, so brutal, that all Risler’s emotion changed to indignation.
He drew himself up with stern dignity.
“I offer you my hand, Sigismond Planus!” he said.
“And I refuse to take it,” said Planus, rising.
There was a terrible pause, during which they heard the muffled music of the orchestra upstairs and the noise of the ball, the dull, wearing noise of floors shaken by the rhythmic movement of the dance.
“Why do you refuse to take my hand?” demanded Risler simply, while the grating upon which he leaned trembled with a metallic quiver.
Sigismond was facing him, with both hands on his desk, as if to emphasize and drive home what he was about to say in reply.
“Why? Because you have ruined the house; because in a few hours a messenger from the Bank will come and stand where you are, to collect a hundred thousand francs; and because, thanks to you, I haven’t a sou in the cash-box — that’s the reason why!”
Risler was stupefied.
“I have ruined the house — I?”
“Worse than that, Monsieur. You have allowed it to be ruined by your wife, and you have arranged with her to benefit by our ruin and your dishonor. Oh! I can see your game well enough. The money your wife has wormed out of the wretched Fromont, the house at Asnieres, the diamonds and all the rest is invested in her name, of course, out of reach of disaster; and of course you can retire from business now.”
“Oh — oh!” exclaimed Risler in a faint voice, a restrained voice rather, that was insufficient for the multitude of thoughts it strove to express; and as he stammered helplessly he drew the grating toward him with such force that he broke off a piece of it. Then he staggered, fell to the floor, and lay there motionless, speechless, retaining only, in what little life was still left in him, the firm determination not to die until he had justified himself. That determination must have been very powerful; for while his temples throbbed madly, hammered by the blood that turned his face purple, while his ears were ringing and his glazed eyes seemed already turned toward the terrible unknown, the unhappy man muttered to himself in a thick voice, like the voice of a shipwrecked man speaking with his mouth full of water in a howling gale: “I must live! I must live!”
When he recovered consciousness, he was sitting on the cushioned bench on which the workmen sat huddled together on pay-day, his cloak on the floor, his cravat untied, his shirt open at the neck, cut by Sigismond’s knife. Luckily for him, he had cut his hands when he tore the grating apart; the blood had flowed freely, and that accident was enough to avert an attack of apoplexy. On opening his eyes, he saw on either side old Sigismond and Madame Georges, whom the cashier had summoned in his distress. As soon as Risler could speak, he said to her in a choking voice:
“Is this true, Madame Chorche — is this true that he just told me?”
She had not the courage to deceive him, so she turned her eyes away.
“So,” continued the poor fellow, “so the house is ruined, and I—”
“No, Risler, my friend. No, not you.”
“My wife, was it not? Oh! it is horrible! This is how I have paid my debt of gratitude to you. But you, Madame Chorche, you could not have believed that I was a party to this infamy?”
“No, my friend, no; be calm. I know that you are the most honorable man on earth.”
He looked at her a moment, with trembling lips and clasped hands, for there was something child-like in all the manifestations of that artless nature.
“Oh! Madame Chorche, Madame Chorche,” he murmured. “When I think that I am the one who has ruined you.”
In the terrible blow which overwhelmed him, and by which his heart, overflowing with love for Sidonie, was most deeply wounded, he refused to see anything but the financial disaster to the house of Fromont, caused by his blind devotion to his wife. Suddenly he stood erect.
“Come,” he said, “let us not give way to emotion. We must see about settling our accounts.”
Madame Fromont was frightened.
“Risler, Risler — where are you going?”
She thought that he was going up to Georges’ room.
Risler understood her and smiled in superb disdain.
“Never fear, Madame. Monsieur Georges can sleep in peace. I have something more urgent to do than avenge my honor as a husband. Wait for me here. I will come back.”
He darted toward the narrow staircase; and Claire, relying upon his word, remained with Planus during one of those supreme moments of uncertainty which seem interminable because of all the conjectures with which they are thronged.
A few moments later the sound of hurried steps, the rustling of silk filled the dark and narrow staircase. Sidonie appeared first, in ball costume, gorgeously arrayed and so pale that the jewels that glistened everywhere on her dead-white flesh seemed more alive than she, as if they were scattered over the cold marble of a statue. The breathlessness due to dancing, the trembling of intense excitement and her rapid descent, caused her to shake from head to foot, and her floating ribbons, her ruffles, her flowers, her rich and fashionable attire drooped tragically about her. Risler followed her, laden with jewel-cases, caskets, and papers. Upon reaching his apartments he had pounced upon his wife’s desk, seized everything valuable that it contained, jewels, certificates, title-deeds of the house at Asnieres; then, standing in the doorway, he had shouted into the ballroom:
She had run quickly to him, and that brief scene had in no wise disturbed the guests, then at the height of the evening’s enjoyment. When she saw her husband standing in front of the desk, the drawers broken open and overturned on the carpet with the multitude of trifles they contained, she realized that something terrible was taking place.
“Come at once,” said Risler; “I know all.”
She tried to assume an innocent, dignified attitude; but he seized her by the arm with such force that Frantz’s words came to her mind: “It will kill him perhaps, but he will kill you first.” As she was afraid of death, she allowed herself to be led away without resistance, and had not even the strength to lie.
“Where are we going?” she asked, in a low voice.
Risler did not answer. She had only time to throw over her shoulders, with the care for herself that never failed her, a light tulle veil, and he dragged her, pushed her, rather, down the stairs leading to the counting-room, which he descended at the same time, his steps close upon hers, fearing that his prey would escape.
“There!” he said, as he entered the room. “We have stolen, we make restitution. Look, Planus, you can raise money with all this stuff.” And he placed on the cashier’s desk all the fashionable plunder with which his arms were filled — feminine trinkets, trivial aids to coquetry, stamped papers.
Then he turned to his wife:
“Take off your jewels! Come, be quick.”
She complied slowly, opened reluctantly the clasps of bracelets and buckles, and above all the superb fastening of her diamond necklace on which the initial of her name-a gleaming S-resembled a sleeping serpent, imprisoned in a circle of gold. Risler, thinking that she was too slow, ruthlessly broke, the fragile fastenings. Luxury shrieked beneath his fingers, as if it were being whipped.
“Now it is my turn,” he said; “I too must give up everything. Here is my portfolio. What else have I? What else have I?”
He searched his pockets feverishly.
“Ah! my watch. With the chain it will bring four-thousand francs. My rings, my wedding-ring. Everything goes into the cash-box, everything. We have a hundred thousand francs to pay this morning. As soon as it is daylight we must go to work, sell out and pay our debts. I know some one who wants the house at Asnieres. That can be settled at once.”
He alone spoke and acted. Sigismond and Madame Georges watched him without speaking. As for Sidonie, she seemed unconscious, lifeless. The cold air blowing from the garden through the little door, which was opened at the time of Risler’s swoon, made her shiver, and she mechanically drew the folds of her scarf around her shoulders, her eyes fixed on vacancy, her thoughts wandering. Did she not hear the violins of her ball, which reached their ears in the intervals of silence, like bursts of savage irony, with the heavy thud of the dancers shaking the floors? An iron hand, falling upon her, aroused her abruptly from her torpor. Risler had taken her by the arm, and, leading her before his partner’s wife, he said:
“Down on your knees!”
Madame Fromont drew back, remonstrating:
“No, no, Risler, not that.”
“It must be,” said the implacable Risler. “Restitution, reparation! Down on your knees then, wretched woman!” And with irresistible force he threw Sidonie at Claire’s feet; then, still holding her arm;
“You will repeat after me, word for word, what I say: Madame —”
Sidonie, half dead with fear, repeated faintly: “Madame —”
“A whole lifetime of humility and submission —”
“A whole lifetime of humil — No, I can not!” she exclaimed, springing to her feet with the agility of a deer; and, wresting herself from Risler’s grasp, through that open door which had tempted her from the beginning of this horrible scene, luring her out into the darkness of the night to the liberty obtainable by flight, she rushed from the house, braving the falling snow and the wind that stung her bare shoulders.
“Stop her, stop her! — Risler, Planus, I implore you! In pity’s name do not let her go in this way,” cried Claire.
Planus stepped toward the door.
Risler detained him.
“I forbid you to stir! I ask your pardon, Madame, but we have more important matters than this to consider. Madame Risler concerns us no longer. We have to save the honor of the house of Fromont, which alone is at stake, which alone fills my thoughts at this moment.”
Sigismond put out his hand.
“You are a noble man, Risler. Forgive me for having suspected you.”
Risler pretended not to hear him.
“A hundred thousand francs to pay, you say? How much is there left in the strong-box?”
He sat bravely down behind the gratin, looking over the books of account, the certificates of stock in the funds, opening the jewel-cases, estimating with Planus, whose father had been a jeweller, the value of all those diamonds, which he had once so admired on his wife, having no suspicion of their real value.
Meanwhile Claire, trembling from head to foot, looked out through the window at the little garden, white with snow, where Sidonie’s footsteps were already effaced by the fast-falling flakes, as if to bear witness that that precipitate departure was without hope of return.
Up-stairs they were still dancing. The mistress of the house was supposed to be busy with the preparations for supper, while she was flying, bare-headed, forcing back sobs and shrieks of rage.
Where was she going? She had started off like a mad woman, running across the garden and the courtyard of the factory, and under the dark arches, where the cruel, freezing wind blew in eddying circles. Pere Achille did not recognize her; he had seen so many shadows wrapped in white pass his lodge that night.
The young woman’s first thought was to join the tenor Cazaboni, whom at the last she had not dared to invite to her ball; but he lived at Montmartre, and that was very far away for her to go, in that garb; and then, would he be at home? Her parents would take her in, doubtless; but she could already hear Madame Chebe’s lamentations and the little man’s sermon under three heads. Thereupon she thought of Delobelle, her old Delobelle. In the downfall of all her splendors she remembered the man who had first initiated her into fashionable life, who had given her lessons in dancing and deportment when she was a little girl, laughed at her pretty ways, and taught her to look upon herself as beautiful before any one had ever told her that she was so. Something told her that that fallen star would take her part against all others. She entered one of the carriages standing at the gate and ordered the driver to take her to the actor’s lodgings on the Boulevard Beaumarchais.
For some time past Mamma Delobelle had been making straw hats for export-a dismal trade if ever there was one, which brought in barely two francs fifty for twelve hours’ work.
And Delobelle continued to grow fat in the same degree that his “sainted wife” grew thin. At the very moment when some one knocked hurriedly at his door he had just discovered a fragrant soup ‘au fromage’, which had been kept hot in the ashes on the hearth. The actor, who had been witnessing at Beaumarchais some dark-browed melodrama drenched with gore even to the illustrated headlines of its poster, was startled by that knock at such an advanced hour.
“Who is there?” he asked in some alarm.
“It is I, Sidonie. Open the door quickly.”
She entered the room, shivering all over, and, throwing aside her wrap, went close to the stove where the fire was almost extinct. She began to talk at once, to pour out the wrath that had been stifling her for an hour, and while she was describing the scene in the factory, lowering her voice because of Madame Delobelle, who was asleep close by, the magnificence of her costume in that poor, bare, fifth floor, the dazzling whiteness of her disordered finery amid the heaps of coarse hats and the wisps of straw strewn about the room, all combined to produce the effect of a veritable drama, of one of those terrible upheavals of life when rank, feelings, fortunes are suddenly jumbled together.
“Oh! I never shall return home. It is all over. Free — I am free!”
“But who could have betrayed you to your husband?” asked the actor.
“It was Frantz! I am sure it was Frantz. He wouldn’t have believed it from anybody else. Only last evening a letter came from Egypt. Oh! how he treated me before that woman! To force me to kneel! But I’ll be revenged. Luckily I took something to revenge myself with before I came away.”
And the smile of former days played about the corners of her pale lips.
The old strolling player listened to it all with deep interest. Notwithstanding his compassion for that poor devil of a Risler, and for Sidonie herself, for that matter, who seemed to him, in theatrical parlance, “a beautiful culprit,” he could not help viewing the affair from a purely scenic standpoint, and finally cried out, carried away by his hobby:
“What a first-class situation for a fifth act!”
She did not bear him. Absorbed by some evil thought, which made her smile in anticipation, she stretched out to the fire her dainty shoes, saturated with snow, and her openwork stockings.
“Well, what do you propose to do now?” Delobelle asked after a pause.
“Stay here till daylight and get a little rest. Then I will see.”
“I have no bed to offer you, my poor girl. Mamma Delobelle has gone to bed.”
“Don’t you worry about me, my dear Delobelle. I’ll sleep in that armchair. I won’t be in your way, I tell you!”
The actor heaved a sigh.
“Ah! yes, that armchair. It was our poor Zizi’s . She sat up many a night in it, when work was pressing. Ah, me! those who leave this world are much the happiest.”
He had always at hand such selfish, comforting maxims. He had no sooner uttered that one than he discovered with dismay that his soup would soon be stone-cold. Sidonie noticed his movement.
“Why, you were just eating your supper, weren’t you? Pray go on.”
“‘Dame’! yes, what would you have? It’s part of the trade, of the hard existence we fellows have. For you see, my girl, I stand firm. I haven’t given up. I never will give up.”
What still remained of Desiree’s soul in that wretched household in which she had lived twenty years must have shuddered at that terrible declaration. He never would give up!
“No matter what people may say,” continued Delobelle, “it’s the noblest profession in the world. You are free; you depend upon nobody. Devoted to the service of glory and the public! Ah! I know what I would do in your place. As if you were born to live with all those bourgeois — the devil! What you need is the artistic life, the fever of success, the unexpected, intense emotion.”
As he spoke he took his seat, tucked his napkin in his neck, and helped himself to a great plateful of soup.
“To say nothing of the fact that your triumphs as a pretty woman would in no wise interfere with your triumph as an actress. By the way, do you know, you must take a few lessons in elocution. With your voice, your intelligence, your charms, you would have a magnificent prospect.”
Then he added abruptly, as if to initiate her into the joys of the dramatic art:
“But it occurs to me that perhaps you have not supped! Excitement makes one hungry; sit there, and take this soup. I am sure that you haven’t eaten soup ‘au fromage’ for a long while.”
He turned the closet topsy-turvy to find her a spoon and a napkin; and she took her seat opposite him, assisting him and laughing a little at the difficulties attending her entertainment. She was less pale already, and there was a pretty sparkle in her eyes, composed of the tears of a moment before and the present gayety.
The strolling actress! All her happiness in life was lost forever: honor, family, wealth. She was driven from her house, stripped, dishonored. She had undergone all possible humiliations and disasters. That did not prevent her supping with a wonderful appetite and joyously holding her own under Delobelle’s jocose remarks concerning her vocation and her future triumphs. She felt light-hearted and happy, fairly embarked for the land of Bohemia, her true country. What more would happen to her? Of how many ups and downs was her new, unforeseen, and whimsical existence to consist? She thought about that as she fell asleep in Desiree’s great easy-chair; but she thought of her revenge, too — her cherished revenge which she held in her hand, all ready for use, and so unerring, so fierce!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53