Never had Sigismond Planus returned home so late without giving his sister warning, during the twenty years and more that he had lived at Montrouge. Consequently Mademoiselle Planus was greatly worried. Living in community of ideas and of everything else with her brother, having but one mind for herself and for him, the old maid had felt for several months the rebound of all the cashier’s anxiety and indignation; and the effect was still noticeable in her tendency to tremble and become agitated on slight provocation. At the slightest tardiness on Sigismond’s part, she would think:
“Ah! mon Dieu! If only nothing has happened at the factory!”
That is the reason why on the evening in question, when the hens and chickens were all asleep on their perches, and the dinner had been removed untouched, Mademoiselle Planus was sitting in the little ground-floor living-room, waiting, in great agitation.
At last, about eleven o’clock, some one rang. A timid, melancholy ring, in no wise resembling Sigismond’s vigorous pull.
“Is it you, Monsieur Planus?” queried the old lady from behind the door.
It was he; but he was not alone. A tall, bent old man accompanied him, and, as they entered, bade her good-evening in a slow, hesitating voice. Not till then did Mademoiselle Planus recognize Risler Aine, whom she had not seen since the days of the New Year’s calls, that is to say, some time before the dramas at the factory. She could hardly restrain an exclamation of pity; but the grave taciturnity of the two men told her that she must be silent.
“Mademoiselle Planus, my sister, you will put clean sheets on my bed. Our friend Risler does us the honor to pass the night with us.”
The sister hastened away to prepare the bedroom with an almost affectionate zeal; for, as we know, beside “Monsieur Planus, my brother,” Risler was the only man excepted from the general reprobation in which she enveloped the whole male sex.
Upon leaving the cafe concert, Sidonie’s husband had had a moment of frantic excitement. He leaned on Planus’s arm, every nerve in his body strained to the utmost. At that moment he had no thought of going to Montrouge to get the letter and the package.
“Leave me — go away,” he said to Sigismond. “I must be alone.”
But the other knew better than to abandon him thus to his despair. Unnoticed by Risler, he led him away from the factory, and as his affectionate heart suggested to the old cashier what he had best say to his friend, he talked to him all the time of Frantz, his little Frantz whom he loved so dearly.
“That was genuine affection, genuine and trustworthy. No treachery to fear with such hearts as that!”
While they talked they left behind them the noisy streets of the centre of Paris. They walked along the quays, skirted the Jardin des Plantes, plunged into Faubourg Saint-Marceau. Risler followed where the other led. Sigismond’s words did him so much good!
In due time they came to the Bievre, bordered at that point with tanneries whose tall drying-houses with open sides were outlined in blue against the sky; and then the ill-defined plains of Montsouris, vast tracts of land scorched and stripped of vegetation by the fiery breath that Paris exhales around its daily toil, like a monstrous dragon, whose breath of flame and smoke suffers no vegetation within its range.
From Montsouris to the fortifications of Montrouge is but a step. When they had reached that point, Planus had no great difficulty in taking his friend home with him. He thought, and justly, that his tranquil fireside, the spectacle of a placid, fraternal, devoted affection, would give the wretched man’s heart a sort of foretaste of the happiness that was in store for him with his brother Frantz. And, in truth, the charm of the little household began to work as soon as they arrived.
“Yes, yes, you are right, old fellow,” said Risler, pacing the floor of the living-room, “I mustn’t think of that woman any more. She’s like a dead woman to me now. I have nobody left in the world but my little Frantz; I don’t know yet whether I shall send for him to come home, or go out and join him; the one thing that is certain is that we are going to stay together. Ah! I longed so to have a son! Now I have found one. I want no other. When I think that for a moment I had an idea of killing myself! Nonsense! it would make Madame What-d’ye-call-her, yonder, too happy. On the contrary, I mean to live — to live with my Frantz, and for him, and for nothing else.”
“Bravo!” said Sigismond, “that’s the way I like to hear you talk.”
At that moment Mademoiselle Planus came to say that the room was ready.
Risler apologized for the trouble he was causing them.
“You are so comfortable, so happy here. Really, it’s too bad to burden you with my melancholy.”
“Ah! my old friend, you can arrange just such happiness as ours for yourself,” said honest Sigismond with beaming face. “I have my sister, you have your brother. What do we lack?”
Risler smiled vaguely. He fancied himself already installed with Frantz in a quiet little quakerish house like that.
Decidedly, that was an excellent idea of Pere Planus.
“Come to bed,” he said triumphantly. “We’ll go and show you your room.”
Sigismond Planus’s bedroom was on the ground floor, a large room simply but neatly furnished; with muslin curtains at the windows and the bed, and little squares of carpet on the polished floor, in front of the chairs. The dowager Madame Fromont herself could have found nothing to say as to the orderly and cleanly aspect of the place. On a shelf or two against the wall were a few books: Manual of Fishing, The Perfect Country Housewife, Bayeme’s Book-keeping. That was the whole of the intellectual equipment of the room.
Pere Planus glanced proudly around. The glass of water was in its place on the walnut table, the box of razors on the dressing-case.
“You see, Risler. Here is everything you need. And if you should want anything else, the keys are in all the drawers — you have only to turn them. Just see what a beautiful view you get from here. It’s a little dark just now, but when you wake up in the morning you’ll see; it is magnificent.”
He opened the widow. Great drops of rain were beginning to fall, and lightning flashes rending the darkness disclosed the long, silent line of the fortifications, with telegraph poles at intervals, or the frowning door of a casemate. Now and then the footsteps of a patrol making the rounds, the clash of muskets or swords, reminded them that they were within the military zone.
That was the outlook so vaunted by Planus — a melancholy outlook if ever there were one.
“And now good-night. Sleep well!”
But, as the old cashier was leaving the room, his friend called him back:
“Here!” said Sigismond, and he waited.
Risler blushed slightly and moved his lips like a man who is about to speak; then, with a mighty effort, he said:
“No, no-nothing. Good-night, old man.”
In the dining-room the brother and sister talked together a long while in low tones. Planus described the terrible occurrence of the evening, the meeting with Sidonie; and you can imagine the —“Oh! these women!” and “Oh! these men?” At last, when they had locked the little garden-door, Mademoiselle Planus went up to her room, and Sigismond made himself as comfortable as possible in a small cabinet adjoining.
About midnight the cashier was aroused by his sister calling him in a terrified whisper:
“Monsieur Planus, my brother?”
“What is it?”
“Did you hear?”
“Oh! it was awful. Something like a deep sigh, but so loud and so sad! It came from the room below.”
They listened. Without, the rain was falling in torrents, with the dreary rustling of leaves that makes the country seem so lonely.
“That is only the wind,” said Planus.
“I am sure not. Hush! Listen!”
Amid the tumult of the storm, they heard a wailing sound, like a sob, in which a name was pronounced with difficulty:
It was terrible and pitiful.
When Christ on the Cross sent up to heaven His despairing cry: ‘Eli, eli, lama sabachthani’, they who heard him must have felt the same species of superstitious terror that suddenly seized upon Mademoiselle Planus.
“I am afraid!” she whispered; “suppose you go and look —”
“No, no, we will let him alone. He is thinking of his brother. Poor fellow! It’s the very thought of all others that will do him the most good.”
And the old cashier went to sleep again.
The next morning he woke as usual when the drums beat the reveille in the fortifications; for the little family, surrounded by barracks, regulated its life by the military calls. The sister had already risen and was feeding the poultry. When she saw Sigismond she came to him in agitation.
“It is very strange,” she said, “I hear nothing stirring in Monsieur Risler’s room. But the window is wide open.”
Sigismond, greatly surprised, went and knocked at his friend’s door.
He called in great anxiety:
“Risler, are you there? Are you asleep?”
There was no reply. He opened the door.
The room was cold. It was evident that the damp air had been blowing in all night through the open window. At the first glance at the bed, Sigismond thought: “He hasn’t been in bed”— for the clothes were undisturbed and the condition of the room, even in the most trivial details, revealed an agitated vigil: the still smoking lamp, which he had neglected to extinguish, the carafe, drained to the last drop by the fever of sleeplessness; but the thing that filled the cashier with dismay was to find the bureau drawer wide open in which he had carefully bestowed the letter and package entrusted to him by his friend.
The letter was no longer there. The package lay on the table, open, revealing a photograph of Sidonie at fifteen. With her high-necked frock, her rebellious hair parted over the forehead, and the embarrassed pose of an awkward girl, the little Chebe of the old days, Mademoiselle Le Mire’s apprentice, bore little resemblance to the Sidonie of to-day. And that was the reason why Risler had kept that photograph, as a souvenir, not of his wife, but of the “little one.”
Sigismond was in great dismay.
“This is my fault,” he said to himself. “I ought to have taken away the keys. But who would have supposed that he was still thinking of her? He had sworn so many times that that woman no longer existed for him.”
At that moment Mademoiselle Planus entered the room with consternation written on her face.
“Monsieur Risler has gone!” she exclaimed.
“Gone? Why, wasn’t the garden-gate locked?”
“He must have climbed over the wall. You can see his footprints.”
They looked at each other, terrified beyond measure.
“It was the letter!” thought Planus.
Evidently that letter from his wife must have made some extraordinary revelation to Risler; and, in order not to disturb his hosts, he had made his escape noiselessly through the window, like a burglar. Why? With what aim in view?
“You will see, sister,” said poor Planus, as he dressed with all haste, “you will see that that hussy has played him still another trick.” And when his sister tried to encourage him, he recurred to his favorite refrain:
“I haf no gonfidence!”
As soon as he was dressed, he darted out of the house.
Risler’s footprints could be distinguished on the wet ground as far as the gate of the little garden. He must have gone before daylight, for the beds of vegetables and flowers were trampled down at random by deep footprints with long spaces between; there were marks of heels on the garden-wall and the mortar was crumbled slightly on top. The brother and sister went out on the road skirting the fortifications. There it was impossible to follow the footprints. They could tell nothing more than that Risler had gone in the direction of the Orleans road.
“After all,” Mademoiselle Planus ventured to say, “we are very foolish to torment ourselves about him; perhaps he has simply gone back to the factory.”
Sigismond shook his head. Ah! if he had said all that he thought!
“Return to the house, sister. I will go and see.”
And with the old “I haf no gonfidence” he rushed away like a hurricane, his white mane standing even more erect than usual.
At that hour, on the road near the fortifications, was an endless procession of soldiers and market-gardeners, guard-mounting, officers’ horses out for exercise, sutlers with their paraphernalia, all the bustle and activity that is seen in the morning in the neighborhood of forts. Planus was striding along amid the tumult, when suddenly he stopped. At the foot of the bank, on the left, in front of a small, square building, with the inscription.
CITY OF PARIS,
ENTRANCE TO THE QUARRIES,
On the rough plaster, he saw a crowd assembled, and soldiers’ and custom-house officers’ uniforms, mingled with the shabby, dirty blouses of barracks-loafers. The old man instinctively approached. A customs officer, seated on the stone step below a round postern with iron bars, was talking with many gestures, as if he were acting out his narrative.
“He was where I am,” he said. “He had hanged himself sitting, by pulling with all his strength on the rope! It’s clear that he had made up his mind to die, for he had a razor in his pocket that he would have used in case the rope had broken.”
A voice in the crowd exclaimed: “Poor devil!” Then another, a tremulous voice, choking with emotion, asked timidly:
“Is it quite certain that he’s dead?”
Everybody looked at Planus and began to laugh.
“Well, here’s a greenhorn,” said the officer. “Don’t I tell you that he was all blue this morning, when we cut him down to take him to the chasseurs’ barracks!”
The barracks were not far away; and yet Sigismond Planus had the greatest difficulty in the world in dragging himself so far. In vain did he say to himself that suicides are of frequent occurrence in Paris, especially in those regions; that not a day passes that a dead body is not found somewhere along that line of fortifications, as upon the shores of a tempestuous sea — he could not escape the terrible presentiment that had oppressed his heart since early morning.
“Ah! you have come to see the man that hanged himself,” said the quartermaster-sergeant at the door of the barracks. “See! there he is.”
The body had been laid on a table supported by trestles in a sort of shed. A cavalry cloak that had been thrown over it covered it from head to foot, and fell in the shroud-like folds which all draperies assume that come in contact with the rigidity of death. A group of officers and several soldiers in duck trousers were looking on at a distance, whispering as if in a church; and an assistant-surgeon was writing a report of the death on a high window-ledge. To him Sigismond spoke.
“I should like very much to see him,” he said softly.
“Go and look.”
He walked to the table, hesitated a minute, then, summoning courage, uncovered a swollen face, a tall, motionless body in its rain-soaked garments.
“She has killed you at last, my old comrade!” murmured Planus, and fell on his knees, sobbing bitterly.
The officers had come forward, gazing curiously at the body, which was left uncovered.
“Look, surgeon,” said one of them. “His hand is closed, as if he were holding something in it.”
“That is true,” the surgeon replied, drawing nearer. “That sometimes happens in the last convulsions.
“You remember at Solferino, Commandant Bordy held his little daughter’s miniature in his hand like that? We had much difficulty in taking it from him.”
As he spoke he tried to open the poor, tightly-closed dead hand.
“Look!” said he, “it is a letter that he is holding so tight.”
He was about to read it; but one of the officers took it from his hands and passed it to Sigismond, who was still kneeling.
“Here, Monsieur. Perhaps you will find in this some last wish to be carried out.”
Sigismond Planus rose. As the light in the room was dim, he walked with faltering step to the window, and read, his eyes filled with tears:
“Well, yes, I love you, I love you, more than ever and forever! What is the use of struggling and fighting against fate? Our sin is stronger than we . . . ”
It was the letter which Frantz had written to his sister-in-law a year before, and which Sidonie had sent to her husband on the day following their terrible scene, to revenge herself on him and his brother at the same time.
Risler could have survived his wife’s treachery, but that of his brother had killed him.
When Sigismond understood, he was petrified with horror. He stood there, with the letter in his hand, gazing mechanically through the open window.
The clock struck six.
Yonder, over Paris, whose dull roar they could hear although they could not see the city, a cloud of smoke arose, heavy and hot, moving slowly upward, with a fringe of red and black around its edges, like the powder-smoke on a field of battle. Little by little, steeples, white buildings, a gilded cupola, emerged from the mist, and burst forth in a splendid awakening.
Then the thousands of tall factory chimneys, towering above that sea of clustered roofs, began with one accord to exhale their quivering vapor, with the energy of a steamer about to sail. Life was beginning anew. Forward, ye wheels of time! And so much the worse for him who lags behind!
Thereupon old Planus gave way to a terrible outburst of wrath.
“Ah! harlot-harlot!” he cried, shaking his fist; and no one could say whether he was addressing the woman or the city of Paris.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53