It was broad daylight when Fromont Jeune awoke. All night long, between the drama that was being enacted below him and the festivity in joyous progress above, he slept with clenched fists, the deep sleep of complete prostration like that of a condemned man on the eve of his execution or of a defeated General on the night following his disaster; a sleep from which one would wish never to awake, and in which, in the absence of all sensation, one has a foretaste of death.
The bright light streaming through his curtains, made more dazzling by the deep snow with which the garden and the surrounding roofs were covered, recalled him to the consciousness of things as they were. He felt a shock throughout his whole being, and, even before his mind began to work, that vague impression of melancholy which misfortunes, momentarily forgotten, leave in their place. All the familiar noises of the factory, the dull throbbing of the machinery, were in full activity. So the world still existed! and by slow degrees the idea of his own responsibility awoke in him.
“To-day is the day,” he said to himself, with an involuntary movement toward the dark side of the room, as if he longed to bury himself anew in his long sleep.
The factory bell rang, then other bells in the neighborhood, then the Angelus.
“Noon! Already! How I have slept!”
He felt some little remorse and a great sense of relief at the thought that the drama of settling-day had passed off without him. What had they done downstairs? Why did they not call him?
He rose, drew the curtains aside, and saw Risler and Sigismond talking together in the garden. And it was so long since they had spoken to each other! What in heaven’s name had happened? When he was ready to go down he found Claire at the door of his room.
“You must not go out,” she said.
“Stay here. I will explain it to you.”
“But what’s the matter? Did any one come from the Bank?”
“Yes, they came — the notes are paid.”
“Risler obtained the money. He has been rushing about with Planus since early morning. It seems that his wife had superb jewels. The diamond necklace alone brought twenty thousand francs. He has also sold their house at Asnieres with all it contained; but as time was required to record the deed, Planus and his sister advanced the money.”
She turned away from him as she spoke. He, on his side, hung his head to avoid her glance.
“Risler is an honorable man,” she continued, “and when he learned from whom his wife received all her magnificent things —”
“What!” exclaimed Georges in dismay. “He knows?”
“All,” Claire replied, lowering her voice.
The wretched man turned pale, stammered feebly:
“Why, then — you?”
“Oh! I knew it all before Risler. Remember, that when I came home last night, I told you I had heard very cruel things down at Savigny, and that I would have given ten years of my life not to have taken that journey.”
Moved by a mighty outburst of affection, he stepped toward his wife; but her face was so cold, so sad, so resolute, her despair was so plainly written in the stern indifference of her whole bearing, that he dared not take her in his arms as he longed to do, but simply murmured under his breath:
“Forgive! — forgive!”
“You must think me strangely calm,” said the brave woman; “but I shed all my tears yesterday. You may have thought that I was weeping over our ruin; you were mistaken. While one is young and strong as we are, such cowardly conduct is not permissible. We are armed against want and can fight it face to face. No, I was weeping for our departed happiness, for you, for the madness that led you to throw away your only, your true friend.”
She was lovely, lovelier than Sidonie had ever been, as she spoke thus, enveloped by a pure light which seemed to fall upon her from a great height, like the radiance of a fathomless, cloudless sky; whereas the other’s irregular features had always seemed to owe their brilliancy, their saucy, insolent charm to the false glamour of the footlights in some cheap theatre. The touch of statuesque immobility formerly noticeable in Claire’s face was vivified by anxiety, by doubt, by all the torture of passion; and like those gold ingots which have their full value only when the Mint has placed its stamp upon them, those beautiful features stamped with the effigy of sorrow had acquired since the preceding day an ineffaceable expression which perfected their beauty.
Georges gazed at her in admiration. She seemed to him more alive, more womanly, and worthy of adoration because of their separation and all the obstacles that he now knew to stand between them. Remorse, despair, shame entered his heart simultaneously with this new love, and he would have fallen on his knees before her.
“No, no, do not kneel,” said Claire; “if you knew of what you remind me, if you knew what a lying face, distorted with hatred, I saw at my feet last night!”
“Ah! but I am not lying,” replied Georges with a shudder. “Claire, I implore you, in the name of our child —”
At that moment some one knocked at the door.
“Rise, I beg of you! You see that life has claims upon us,” she said in a low voice and with a bitter smile; then she asked what was wanted.
Monsieur Risler had sent for Monsieur to come down to the office.
“Very well,” she said; “say that he will come.”
Georges approached the door, but she stopped him.
“No, let me go. He must not see you yet.”
“I wish you to stay here. You have no idea of the indignation and wrath of that poor man, whom you have deceived. If you had seen him last night, crushing his wife’s wrists!”
As she said it she looked him in the face with a curiosity most cruel to herself; but Georges did not wince, and replied simply:
“My life belongs to him.”
“It belongs to me, too; and I do not wish you to go down. There has been scandal enough in my father’s house. Remember that the whole factory is aware of what is going on. Every one is watching us, spying upon us. It required all the authority of the foremen to keep the men busy to-day, to compel them to keep their inquisitive looks on their work.”
“But I shall seem to be hiding.”
“And suppose it were so! That is just like a man. They do not recoil from the worst crimes: betraying a wife, betraying a friend; but the thought that they may be accused of being afraid touches them more keenly than anything. Moreover, listen to what I say. Sidonie has gone; she has gone forever; and if you leave this house I shall think that you have gone to join her.”
“Very well, I will stay,” said Georges. “I will do whatever you wish.”
Claire descended into Planus’ office.
To see Risler striding to and fro, with his hands behind his back, as calm as usual, no one would ever have suspected all that had taken place in his life since the night before. As for Sigismond, he was fairly beaming, for he saw nothing in it all beyond the fact that the notes had been paid at maturity and that the honor of the firm was safe.
When Madame Fromont appeared, Risler smiled sadly and shook his head.
“I thought that you would prefer to come down in his place; but you are not the one with whom I have to deal. It is absolutely necessary that I should see Georges and talk with him. We have paid the notes that fell due this morning; the crisis has passed; but we must come to an understanding about many matters.”
“Risler, my friend, I beg you to wait a little longer.”
“Why, Madame Chorche, there’s not a minute to lose. Oh! I suspect that you fear I may give way to an outbreak of anger. Have no fear — let him have no fear. You know what I told you, that the honor of the house of Fromont is to be assured before my own. I have endangered it by my fault. First of all, I must repair the evil I have done or allowed to be done.”
“Your conduct toward us is worthy of all admiration, my good Risler; I know it well.”
“Oh! Madame, if you could see him! he’s a saint,” said poor Sigismond, who, not daring to speak to his friend, was determined at all events to express his remorse.
“But aren’t you afraid?” continued Claire. “Human endurance has its limits. It may be that in presence of the man who has injured you so —”
Risler took her hands, gazed into her eyes with grave admiration, and said:
“You dear creature, who speak of nothing but the injury done to me! Do you not know that I hate him as bitterly for his falseness to you? But nothing of that sort has any existence for me at this moment. You see in me simply a business man who wishes to have an understanding with his partner for the good of the firm. So let him come down without the slightest fear, and if you dread any outbreak on my part, stay here with us. I shall need only to look at my old master’s daughter to be reminded of my promise and my duty.”
“I trust you, my friend,” said Claire; and she went up to bring her husband.
The first minute of the interview was terrible. Georges was deeply moved, humiliated, pale as death. He would have preferred a hundred times over to be looking into the barrel of that man’s pistol at twenty paces, awaiting his fire, instead of appearing before him as an unpunished culprit and being compelled to confine his feelings within the commonplace limits of a business conversation.
Risler pretended not to look at him, and continued to pace the floor as he talked:
“Our house is passing through a terrible crisis. We have averted the disaster for to-day; but this is not the last of our obligations. That cursed invention has kept my mind away from the business for a long while. Luckily, I am free now, and able to attend to it. But you must give your attention to it as well. The workmen and clerks have followed the example of their employers to some extent. Indeed, they have become extremely negligent and indifferent. This morning, for the first time in a year, they began work at the proper time. I expect that you will make it your business to change all that. As for me, I shall work at my drawings again. Our patterns are old-fashioned. We must have new ones for the new machines. I have great confidence in our presses. The experiments have succeeded beyond my hopes. We unquestionably have in them a means of building up our business. I didn’t tell you sooner because I wished to surprise you; but we have no more surprises for each other, have we, Georges?”
There was such a stinging note of irony in his voice that Claire shuddered, fearing an outbreak; but he continued, in his natural tone.
“Yes, I think I can promise that in six months the Risler Press will begin to show magnificent results. But those six months will be very hard to live through. We must limit ourselves, cut down our expenses, save in every way that we can. We have five draughtsmen now; hereafter we will have but two. I will undertake to make the absence of the others of no consequence by working at night myself. Furthermore, beginning with this month, I abandon my interest in the firm. I will take my salary as foreman as I took it before, and nothing more.”
Fromont attempted to speak, but a gesture from his wife restrained him, and Risler continued:
“I am no longer your partner, Georges. I am once more the clerk that I never should have ceased to be. From this day our partnership articles are cancelled. I insist upon it, you understand; I insist upon it. We will remain in that relation to each other until the house is out of difficulty and I can — But what I shall do then concerns me alone. This is what I wanted to say to you, Georges. You must give your attention to the factory diligently; you must show yourself, make it felt that you are master now, and I believe there will turn out to be, among all our misfortunes, some that can be retrieved.”
During the silence that followed, they heard the sound of wheels in the garden, and two great furniture vans stopped at the door.
“I beg your pardon,” said Risler, “but I must leave you a moment. Those are the vans from the public auction rooms; they have come to take away my furniture from upstairs.”
“What! you are going to sell your furniture too?” asked Madame Fromont.
“Certainly — to the last piece. I am simply giving it back to the firm. It belongs to it.”
“But that is impossible,” said Georges. “I can not allow that.”
Risler turned upon him indignantly.
“What’s that? What is it that you can’t allow?”
Claire checked him with an imploring gesture.
“True — true!” he muttered; and he hurried from the room to escape the sudden temptation to give vent to all that was in his heart.
The second floor was deserted. The servants, who had been paid and dismissed in the morning, had abandoned the apartments to the disorder of the day following a ball; and they wore the aspect peculiar to places where a drama has been enacted, and which are left in suspense, as it were, between the events that have happened and those that are still to happen. The open doors, the rugs lying in heaps in the corners, the salvers laden with glasses, the preparations for the supper, the table still set and untouched, the dust from the dancing on all the furniture, its odor mingled with the fumes of punch, of withered flowers, of rice-powder — all these details attracted Risler’s notice as he entered.
In the disordered salon the piano was open, the bacchanal from ‘Orphee aux Enfers’ on the music-shelf, and the gaudy hangings surrounding that scene of desolation, the chairs overturned, as if in fear, reminded one of the saloon of a wrecked packet-boat, of one of those ghostly nights of watching when one is suddenly informed, in the midst of a fete at sea, that the ship has sprung a leak, that she is taking in water in every part.
The men began to remove the furniture. Risler watched them at work with an indifferent air, as if he were in a stranger’s house. That magnificence which had once made him so happy and proud inspired in him now an insurmountable disgust. But, when he entered his wife’s bedroom, he was conscious of a vague emotion.
It was a large room, hung with blue satin under white lace. A veritable cocotte’s nest. There were torn and rumpled tulle ruffles lying about, bows, and artificial flowers. The wax candles around the mirror had burned down to the end and cracked the candlesticks; and the bed, with its lace flounces and valances, its great curtains raised and drawn back, untouched in the general confusion, seemed like the bed of a corpse, a state bed on which no one would ever sleep again.
Risler’s first feeling upon entering the room was one of mad indignation, a longing to fall upon the things before him, to tear and rend and shatter everything. Nothing, you see, resembles a woman so much as her bedroom. Even when she is absent, her image still smiles in the mirrors that have reflected it. A little something of her, of her favorite perfume, remains in everything she has touched. Her attitudes are reproduced in the cushions of her couch, and one can follow her goings and comings between the mirror and the toilette table in the pattern of the carpet. The one thing above all others in that room that recalled Sidonie was an ‘etagere’ covered with childish toys, petty, trivial knickknacks, microscopic fans, dolls’ tea-sets, gilded shoes, little shepherds and shepherdesses facing one another, exchanging cold, gleaming, porcelain glances. That ‘etagere’ was Sidonie’s very soul, and her thoughts, always commonplace, petty, vain, and empty, resembled those gewgaws. Yes, in very truth, if Risler, while he held her in his grasp last night, had in his frenzy broken that fragile little head, a whole world of ‘etagere’ ornaments would have come from it in place of a brain.
The poor man was thinking sadly of all these things amid the ringing of hammers and the heavy footsteps of the furniture-movers, when he heard an interloping, authoritative step behind him, and Monsieur Chebe appeared, little Monsieur Chebe, flushed and breathless, with flames darting from his eyes. He assumed, as always, a very high tone with his son-in-law.
“What does this mean? What is this I hear? Ah! so you’re moving, are you?”
“I am not moving, Monsieur Chebe — I am selling out.”
The little man gave a leap like a scalded fish.
“You are selling out? What are you selling, pray?”
“I am selling everything,” said Risler in a hollow voice, without even looking at him.
“Come, come, son-in-law, be reasonable. God knows I don’t say that Sidonie’s conduct — But, for my part, I know nothing about it. I never wanted to know anything. Only I must remind you of your dignity. People wash their dirty linen in private, deuce take it! They don’t make spectacles of themselves as you’ve been doing ever since morning. Just see everybody at the workshop windows; and on the porch, too! Why, you’re the talk of the quarter, my dear fellow.”
“So much the better. The dishonor was public, the reparation must be public, too.”
This apparent coolness, this indifference to all his observations, exasperated Monsieur Chebe. He suddenly changed his tactics, and adopted, in addressing his son-in-law, the serious, peremptory tone which one uses with children or lunatics.
“Well, I say that you haven’t any right to take anything away from here. I remonstrate formally, with all my strength as a man, with all my authority as a father. Do you suppose I am going to let you drive my child into the street. No, indeed! Oh! no, indeed! Enough of such nonsense as that! Nothing more shall go out of these rooms.”
And Monsieur Chebe, having closed the door, planted himself in front of it with a heroic gesture. Deuce take it! his own interest was at stake in the matter. The fact was that when his child was once in the gutter he ran great risk of not having a feather bed to sleep on himself. He was superb in that attitude of an indignant father, but he did not keep it long. Two hands, two vises, seized his wrists, and he found himself in the middle of the room, leaving the doorway clear for the workmen.
“Chebe, my boy, just listen,” said Risler, leaning over him. “I am at the end of my forbearance. Since this morning I have been making superhuman efforts to restrain myself, but it would take very little now to make my anger burst all bonds, and woe to the man on whom it falls! I am quite capable of killing some one. Come! Be off at once! —”
There was such an intonation in his son-in-law’s voice, and the way that son-in-law shook him as he spoke was so eloquent, that Monsieur Chebe was fully convinced. He even stammered an apology. Certainly Risler had good reason for acting as he had. All honorable people would be on his side. And he backed toward the door as he spoke. When he reached it, he inquired timidly if Madame Chebe’s little allowance would be continued.
“Yes,” was Risler’s reply, “but never go beyond it, for my position here is not what it was. I am no longer a partner in the house.”
Monsieur Chebe stared at him in amazement, and assumed the idiotic expression which led many people to believe that the accident that had happened to him — exactly like that of the Duc d’Orleans, you know — was not a fable of his own invention; but he dared not make the slightest observation. Surely some one had changed his son-in-law. Was this really Risler, this tiger-cat, who bristled up at the slightest word and talked of nothing less than killing people?
He took to his heels, recovered his self-possession at the foot of the stairs, and walked across the courtyard with the air of a conqueror.
When all the rooms were cleared and empty, Risler walked through them for the last time, then took the key and went down to Planus’s office to hand it to Madame Georges.
“You can let the apartment,” he said, “it will be so much added to the income of the factory.”
“But you, my friend?”
“Oh! I don’t need much. An iron bed up under the eaves. That’s all a clerk needs. For, I repeat, I am nothing but a clerk from this time on. A useful clerk, by the way, faithful and courageous, of whom you will have no occasion to complain, I promise you.”
Georges, who was going over the books with Planus, was so affected at hearing the poor fellow talk in that strain that he left his seat precipitately. He was suffocated by his sobs. Claire, too, was deeply moved; she went to the new clerk of the house of Fromont and said to him:
“Risler, I thank you in my father’s name.”
At that moment Pere Achille appeared with the mail.
Risler took the pile of letters, opened them tranquilly one by one, and passed them over to Sigismond.
“Here’s an order for Lyon. Why wasn’t it answered at Saint-Etienne?”
He plunged with all his energy into these details, and he brought to them a keen intelligence, due to the constant straining of the mind toward peace and forgetfulness.
Suddenly, among those huge envelopes, stamped with the names of business houses, the paper of which and the manner of folding suggested the office and hasty despatch, he discovered one smaller one, carefully sealed, and hidden so cunningly between the others that at first he did not notice it. He recognized instantly that long, fine, firm writing — To Monsieur Risler — Personal. It was Sidonie’s writing! When he saw it he felt the same sensation he had felt in the bedroom upstairs.
All his love, all the hot wrath of the betrayed husband poured back into his heart with the frantic force that makes assassins. What was she writing to him? What lie had she invented now? He was about to open the letter; then he paused. He realized that, if he should read that, it would be all over with his courage; so he leaned over to the old cashier, and said in an undertone:
“Sigismond, old friend, will you do me a favor?”
“I should think so!” said the worthy man enthusiastically. He was so delighted to hear his friend speak to him in the kindly voice of the old days.
“Here’s a letter someone has written me which I don’t wish to read now. I am sure it would interfere with my thinking and living. You must keep it for me, and this with it.”
He took from his pocket a little package carefully tied, and handed it to him through the grating.
“That is all I have left of the past, all I have left of that woman. I have determined not to see her, nor anything that reminds me of her, until my task here is concluded, and concluded satisfactorily — I need all my intelligence, you understand. You will pay the Chebes’ allowance. If she herself should ask for anything, you will give her what she needs. But you will never mention my name. And you will keep this package safe for me until I ask you for it.”
Sigismond locked the letter and the package in a secret drawer of his desk with other valuable papers. Risler returned at once to his correspondence; but all the time he had before his eyes the slender English letters traced by a little hand which he had so often and so ardently pressed to his heart.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53