Meanwhile September arrived. The hunting season brought together a large, noisy, vulgar party at the chateau. There were long dinners at which the wealthy bourgeois lingered slothfully and wearily, prone to fall asleep like peasants. They went in carriages to meet the returning hunters in the cool air of the autumn evening. The mist arose from the fields, from which the crops had been gathered; and while the frightened game flew along the stubble with plaintive cries, the darkness seemed to emerge from the forests whose dark masses increased in size, spreading out over the fields.
The carriage lamps were lighted, the hoods raised, and they drove quickly homeward with the fresh air blowing in their faces. The dining-hall, brilliantly illuminated, was filled with gayety and laughter.
Claire Fromont, embarrassed by the vulgarity of those about her, hardly spoke at all. Sidonie was at her brightest. The drive had given animation to her pale complexion and Parisian eyes. She knew how to laugh, understood a little too much, perhaps, and seemed to the male guests the only woman in the party. Her success completed Georges’s intoxication; but as his advances became more pronounced, she showed more and more reserve. Thereupon he determined that she should be his wife. He swore it to himself, with the exaggerated emphasis of weak characters, who seem always to combat beforehand the difficulties to which they know that they must yield some day.
It was the happiest moment of little Chebe’s life. Even aside from any ambitious project, her coquettish, false nature found a strange fascination in this intrigue, carried on mysteriously amid banquets and merry-makings.
No one about them suspected anything. Claire was at that healthy and delightful period of youth when the mind, only partly open, clings to the things it knows with blind confidence, in complete ignorance of treachery and falsehood. M. Fromont thought of nothing but his business. His wife polished her jewels with frenzied energy. Only old Gardinois and his little, gimlet-like eyes were to be feared; but Sidonie entertained him, and even if he had discovered anything, he was not the man to interfere with her future.
Her hour of triumph was near, when a sudden, unforeseen disaster blasted her hopes.
One Sunday morning M. Fromont was brought back fatally wounded from a hunting expedition. A bullet intended for a deer had pierced his temple. The chateau was turned upside-down.
All the hunters, among them the unknown bungler that had fired the fatal shot, started in haste for Paris. Claire, frantic with grief, entered the room where her father lay on his deathbed, there to remain; and Risler, being advised of the catastrophe, came to take Sidonie home.
On the night before her departure she had a final meeting with Georges at The Phantom — a farewell meeting, painful and stealthy, and made solemn by the proximity of death. They vowed, however, to love each other always; they agreed upon a method of writing to each other. Then they parted.
It was a sad journey home.
Sidonie returned abruptly to her every-day life, escorted by the despairing grief of Risler, to whom his dear master’s death was an irreparable loss. On her arrival, she was compelled to describe her visit to the smallest detail; discuss the inmates of the chateau, the guests, the entertainments, the dinners, and the final catastrophe. What torture for her, when, absorbed as she was by a single, unchanging thought, she had so much need of silence and solitude! But there was something even more terrible than that.
On the first day after her return Frantz resumed his former place; and the glances with which he followed her, the words he addressed to her alone, seemed to her exasperating beyond endurance.
Despite all his shyness and distrust of himself, the poor fellow believed that he had some rights as an accepted and impatient lover, and little Chebe was obliged to emerge from her dreams to reply to that creditor, and to postpone once more the maturity of his claim.
A day came, however, when indecision ceased to be possible. She had promised to marry Frantz when he had obtained a good situation; and now an engineer’s berth in the South, at the smelting-furnaces of Grand Combe, was offered to him. That was sufficient for the support of a modest establishment.
There was no way of avoiding the question. She must either keep her promise or invent an excuse for breaking it. But what excuse could she invent?
In that pressing emergency, she thought of Desiree. Although the lame little girl had never confided in her, she knew of her great love for Frantz. Long ago she had detected it, with her coquette’s eyes, bright and changing mirrors, which reflected all the thoughts of others without betraying any of her own. It may be that the thought that another woman loved her betrothed had made Frantz’s love more endurable to her at first; and, just as we place statues on tombstones to make them appear less sad, Desiree’s pretty, little, pale face at the threshold of that uninviting future had made it seem less forbidding to her.
Now it provided — her with a simple and honorable pretext for freeing herself from her promise.
“No! I tell you, mamma,” she said to Madame Chebe one day, “I never will consent to make a friend like her unhappy. I should suffer too much from remorse — poor Desiree! Haven’t you noticed how badly she looks since I came home; what a beseeching way she has of looking at me? No, I won’t cause her that sorrow; I won’t take away her Frantz.”
Even while she admired her daughter’s generous spirit, Madame Chebe looked upon that as a rather exaggerated sacrifice, and remonstrated with her.
“Take care, my child; we aren’t rich. A husband like Frantz doesn’t turn up every day.”
“Very well! then I won’t marry at all,” declared Sidonie flatly, and, deeming her pretext an excellent one, she clung persistently to it. Nothing could shake her determination, neither the tears shed by Frantz, who was exasperated by her refusal to fulfil her promise, enveloped as it was in vague reasons which she would not even explain to him, nor the entreaties of Risler, in whose ear Madame Chebe had mysteriously mumbled her daughter’s reasons, and who in spite of everything could not but admire such a sacrifice.
“Don’t revile her, I tell you! She’s an angel!” he said to his brother, striving to soothe him.
“Ah! yes, she is an angel,” assented Madame Chebe with a sigh, so that the poor betrayed lover had not even the right to complain. Driven to despair, he determined to leave Paris, and as Grand Combe seemed too near in his frenzied longing for flight, he asked and obtained an appointment as overseer on the Suez Canal at Ismailia. He went away without knowing, or caring to know aught of, Desiree’s love; and yet, when he went to bid her farewell, the dear little cripple looked up into his face with her shy, pretty eyes, in which were plainly written the words:
“I love you, if she does not.”
But Frantz Risler did not know how to read what was written in those eyes.
Fortunately, hearts that are accustomed to suffer have an infinite store of patience. When her friend had gone, the lame girl, with her charming morsel of illusion, inherited from her father and refined by her feminine nature, returned bravely to her work, saying to herself:
“I will wait for him.”
And thereafter she spread the wings of her birds to their fullest extent, as if they were all going, one after another, to Ismailia in Egypt. And that was a long distance!
Before sailing from Marseilles, young Risler wrote Sidonie a farewell letter, at once laughable and touching, wherein, mingling the most technical details with the most heartrending adieux, the unhappy engineer declared that he was about to set sail, with a broken heart, on the transport Sahib, “a sailing-ship and steamship combined, with engines of fifteen-hundred-horse power,” as if he hoped that so considerable a capacity would make an impression on his ungrateful betrothed, and cause her ceaseless remorse. But Sidonie had very different matters on her mind.
She was beginning to be disturbed by Georges’s silence. Since she left Savigny she had heard from him only once. All her letters were left unanswered. To be sure, she knew through Risler that Georges was very busy, and that his uncle’s death had thrown the management of the factory upon him, imposing upon him a responsibility that was beyond his strength. But to abandon her without a word!
From the window on the landing, where she had resumed her silent observations — for she had so arranged matters as not to return to Mademoiselle Le Mire — little Chebe tried to distinguish her lover, watched him as he went to and fro across the yards and among the buildings; and in the afternoon, when it was time for the train to start for Savigny, she saw him enter his carriage to go to his aunt and cousin, who were passing the early months of their period of mourning at the grandfather’s chateau in the country.
All this excited and alarmed her; and the proximity of the factory rendered Georges’s avoidance of her even more apparent. To think that by raising her voice a little she could make him turn toward the place where she stood! To think that they were separated only by a wall! And yet, at that moment they were very far apart.
Do you remember, little Chebe, that unhappy winter evening when the excellent Risler rushed into your parents’ room with an extraordinary expression of countenance, exclaiming, “Great news!"?
Great news, indeed! Georges Fromont had just informed him that, in accordance with his uncle’s last wishes, he was to marry his cousin Claire, and that, as he was certainly unequal to the task of carrying on the business alone, he had resolved to take him, Risler, for a partner, under the firm name of FROMONT JEUNE AND RISLER AINE.
How did you succeed, little Chebe, in maintaining your self-possession when you learned that the factory had eluded your grasp and that another woman had taken your place? What a terrible evening! — Madame Chebe sat by the table mending; M. Chebe before the fire drying his clothes, which were wet through by his having walked a long distance in the rain. Oh! that miserable room, overflowing with gloom and ennui! The lamp gave a dim light. The supper, hastily prepared, had left in the room the odor of the poor man’s kitchen. And Risler, intoxicated with joy, talking with increasing animation, laid great plans!
All these things tore your heart, and made the treachery still more horrible by the contrast between the riches that eluded your outstretched hand and the ignoble mediocrity in which you were doomed to pass your life.
Sidonie was seriously ill for a long while. As she lay in bed, whenever the window-panes rattled behind the curtains, the unhappy creature fancied that Georges’s wedding-coaches were driving through the street; and she had paroxysms of nervous excitement, without words and inexplicable, as if a fever of wrath were consuming her.
At last, time and youthful strength, her mother’s care, and, more than all, the attentions of Desiree, who now knew of the sacrifice her friend had made for her, triumphed over the disease. But for a long while Sidonie was very weak, oppressed by a deadly melancholy, by a constant longing to weep, which played havoc with her nervous system.
Sometimes she talked of travelling, of leaving Paris. At other times she insisted that she must enter a convent. Her friends were sorely perplexed, and strove to discover the cause of that singular state of mind, which was even more alarming than her illness; when she suddenly confessed to her mother the secret of her melancholy.
She loved the elder Risler! She never had dared to whisper it; but it was he whom she had always loved and not Frantz.
This news was a surprise to everybody, to Risler most of all; but little Chebe was so pretty, her eyes were so soft when she glanced at him, that the honest fellow instantly became as fond of her as a fool! Indeed, it may be that love had lain in his heart for a long time without his realizing it.
And that is how it happened that, on the evening of her wedding-day, young Madame Risler, in her white wedding-dress, gazed with a smile of triumph at the window on the landing which had been the narrow setting of ten years of her life. That haughty smile, in which there was a touch of profound pity and of scorn as well, such scorn as a parvenu feels for his poor beginnings, was evidently addressed to the poor sickly child whom she fancied she saw up at that window, in the depths of the past and the darkness. It seemed to say to Claire, pointing at the factory:
“What do you say to this little Chebe? She is here at last, you see!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53