Sitting near the door, on a stone which once served as a horse-block for equestrians, Risler watches with a smile the exit from the factory. He never loses his enjoyment of the outspoken esteem of all these good people whom he knew when he was insignificant and humble like themselves. The “Good-day, Monsieur Risler,” uttered by so many different voices, all in the same affectionate tone, warms his heart. The children accost him without fear, the long-bearded designers, half-workmen, half-artists, shake hands with him as they pass, and address him familiarly as “thou.” Perhaps there is a little too much familiarity in all this, for the worthy man has not yet begun to realize the prestige and authority of his new station; and there was some one who considered this free-and-easy manner very humiliating. But that some one can not see him at this moment, and the master takes advantage of the fact to bestow a hearty greeting upon the old bookkeeper, Sigismond, who comes out last of all, erect and red-faced, imprisoned in a high collar and bareheaded — whatever the weather — for fear of apoplexy.
He and Risler are fellow-countrymen. They have for each other a profound esteem, dating from their first employment at the factory, from that time, long, long ago, when they breakfasted together at the little creamery on the corner, to which Sigismond Planus goes alone now and selects his refreshment for the day from the slate hanging on the wall.
But stand aside! The carriage of Fromont Jeune drives through the gateway. He has been out on business all the morning; and the partners, as they walk toward the pretty little house in which they both live at the end of the garden, discuss matters of business in a friendly way.
“I have been at Prochasson’s,” says Fromont. “They showed me some new patterns, pretty ones too, I assure you. We must be on our guard. They are dangerous rivals.”
But Risler is not at all anxious. He is strong in his talent, his experience; and then — but this is strictly confidential — he is on the track of a wonderful invention, an improved printing-press, something that — but we shall see. Still talking, they enter the garden, which is as carefully kept as a public park, with round-topped acacias almost as old as the buildings, and magnificent ivies that hide the high, black walls.
Beside Fromont jeune, Risler Aine has the appearance of a clerk making his report to his employer. At every step he stops to speak, for his gait is heavy, his mind works slowly, and words have much difficulty in finding their way to his lips. Oh, if he could see the little flushed face up yonder, behind the window on the second floor, watching everything so attentively!
Madame Risler is waiting for her husband to come to breakfast, and waxes impatient over the good man’s moderation. She motions to him with her hand:
“Come, come!” but Risler does not notice it. His attention is engrossed by the little Fromont, daughter of Claire and Georges, who is taking a sun-bath, blooming like a flower amid her lace in her nurse’s arms. How pretty she is! “She is your very picture, Madame Chorche.”
“Do you think so, my dear Risler? Why, everybody says she looks like her father.”
“Yes, a little. But —”
And there they all stand, the father and mother, Risler and the nurse, gravely seeking resemblances in that miniature model of a human being, who stares at them out of her little eyes, blinking with the noise and glare. Sidonie, at her open window, leans out to see what they are doing, and why her husband does not come up.
At that moment Risler has taken the tiny creature in his arms, the whole fascinating bundle of white draperies and light ribbons, and is trying to make it laugh and crow with baby-talk and gestures worthy of a grandfather. How old he looks, poor man! His tall body, which he contorts for the child’s amusement, his hoarse voice, which becomes a low growl when he tries to soften it, are absurd and ridiculous.
Above, the wife taps the floor with her foot and mutters between her teeth:
At last, weary of waiting, she sends a servant to tell Monsieur that breakfast is served; but the game is so far advanced that Monsieur does not see how he can go away, how he can interrupt these explosions of laughter and little bird-like cries. He succeeds at last, however, in giving the child back to its nurse, and enters the hall, laughing heartily. He is laughing still when he enters the dining-room; but a glance from his wife stops him short.
Sidonie is seated at table before the chafing-dish, already filled. Her martyr-like attitude suggests a determination to be cross.
“Oh! there you are. It’s very lucky!”
Risler took his seat, a little ashamed.
“What would you have, my love? That child is so —”
“I have asked you before now not to speak to me in that way. It isn’t good form.”
“What, not when we’re alone?”
“Bah! you will never learn to adapt yourself to our new fortune. And what is the result? No one in this place treats me with any respect. Pere Achille hardly touches his hat to me when I pass his lodge. To be sure, I’m not a Fromont, and I haven’t a carriage.”
“Come, come, little one, you know perfectly well that you can use Madame Chorche’s coupe. She always says it is at our disposal.”
“How many times must I tell you that I don’t choose to be under any obligation to that woman?”
“Oh! yes, I know, it’s all understood. Madame Fromont is the good Lord himself. Every one is forbidden to touch her. And I must make up my mind to be a nobody in my own house, to allow myself to be humiliated, trampled under foot.”
“Come, come, little one —”
Poor Risler tries to interpose, to say a word in favor of his dear Madame “Chorche.” But he has no tact. This is the worst possible method of effecting a reconciliation; and Sidonie at once bursts forth:
“I tell you that that woman, with all her calm airs, is proud and spiteful. In the first place, she detests me, I know that. So long as I was poor little Sidonie and she could toss me her broken dolls and old clothes, it was all right, but now that I am my own mistress as well as she, it vexes her and humiliates her. Madame gives me advice with a lofty air, and criticises what I do. I did wrong to have a maid. Of course! Wasn’t I in the habit of waiting on myself? She never loses a chance to wound me. When I call on her on Wednesdays, you should hear the tone in which she asks me, before everybody, how ‘dear Madame Chebe’ is. Oh! yes. I’m a Chebe and she’s a Fromont. One’s as good as the other, in my opinion. My grandfather was a druggist. What was hers? A peasant who got rich by money-lending. I’ll tell her so one of these days, if she shows me too much of her pride; and I’ll tell her, too, that their little imp, although they don’t suspect it, looks just like that old Pere Gardinois, and heaven knows he isn’t handsome.”
“Oh!” exclaims Risler, unable to find words to reply.
“Oh! yes, of course! I advise you to admire their child. She’s always ill. She cries all night like a little cat. It keeps me awake. And afterward, through the day, I have mamma’s piano and her scales — tra, la la la! If the music were only worth listening to!”
Risler has taken the wise course. He does not say a word until he sees that she is beginning to calm down a little, when he completes the soothing process with compliments.
“How pretty we are to-day! Are we going out soon to make some calls, eh?”
He resorts to this mode of address to avoid the more familiar form, which is so offensive to her.
“No, I am not going to make calls,” Sidonie replies with a certain pride. “On the contrary, I expect to receive them. This is my day.”
In response to her husband’s astounded, bewildered expression she continues:
“Why, yes, this is my day. Madame Fromont has one; I can have one also, I fancy.”
“Of course, of course,” said honest Risler, looking about with some little uneasiness. “So that’s why I saw so many flowers everywhere, on the landing and in the drawing-room.”
“Yes, my maid went down to the garden this morning. Did I do wrong? Oh! you don’t say so, but I’m sure you think I did wrong. ‘Dame’! I thought the flowers in the garden belonged to us as much as to the Fromonts.”
“Certainly they do — but you — it would have been better perhaps —”
“To ask leave? That’s it-to humble myself again for a few paltry chrysanthemums and two or three bits of green. Besides, I didn’t make any secret of taking the flowers; and when she comes up a little later —”
“Is she coming? Ah! that’s very kind of her.”
Sidonie turned upon him indignantly.
“What’s that? Kind of her? Upon my word, if she doesn’t come, it would be the last straw. When I go every Wednesday to be bored to death in her salon with a crowd of affected, simpering women!”
She did not say that those same Wednesdays of Madame Fromont’s were very useful to her, that they were like a weekly journal of fashion, one of those composite little publications in which you are told how to enter and to leave a room, how to bow, how to place flowers in a jardiniere and cigars in a case, to say nothing of the engravings, the procession of graceful, faultlessly attired men and women, and the names of the best modistes. Nor did Sidonie add that she had entreated all those friends of Claire’s, of whom she spoke so scornfully, to come to see her on her own day, and that the day was selected by them.
Will they come? Will Madame Fromont Jeune insult Madame Risler Aine by absenting herself on her first Friday? The thought makes her almost feverish with anxiety.
“For heaven’s sake, hurry!” she says again and again. “Good heavens! how long you are at your, breakfast!”
It is a fact that it is one of honest Risler’s ways to eat slowly, and to light his pipe at the table while he sips his coffee. To-day he must renounce these cherished habits, must leave the pipe in its case because of the smoke, and, as soon as he has swallowed the last mouthful, run hastily and dress, for his wife insists that he must come up during the afternoon and pay his respects to the ladies.
What a sensation in the factory when they see Risler Aine come in, on a week-day, in a black frock-coat and white cravat!
“Are you going to a wedding, pray?” cries Sigismond, the cashier, behind his grating.
And Risler, not without a feeling of pride, replies:
“This is my wife’s reception day!”
Soon everybody in the place knows that it is Sidonie’s day; and Pere Achille, who takes care of the garden, is not very well pleased to find that the branches of the winter laurels by the gate are broken.
Before taking his seat at the table upon which he draws, in the bright light from the tall windows, Risler has taken off his fine frock-coat, which embarrasses him, and has turned up his clean shirt-sleeves; but the idea that his wife is expecting company preoccupies and disturbs him; and from time to time he puts on his coat and goes up to her.
“Has no one come?” he asks timidly.
“No, Monsieur, no one.”
In the beautiful red drawing-room — for they have a drawing-room in red damask, with a console between the windows and a pretty table in the centre of the light-flowered carpet — Sidonie has established herself in the attitude of a woman holding a reception, a circle of chairs of many shapes around her. Here and there are books, reviews, a little work-basket in the shape of a gamebag, with silk tassels, a bunch of violets in a glass vase, and green plants in the jardinieres. Everything is arranged exactly as in the Fromonts’ apartments on the floor below; but the taste, that invisible line which separates the distinguished from the vulgar, is not yet refined. You would say it was a passable copy of a pretty genre picture. The hostess’s attire, even, is too new; she looks more as if she were making a call than as if she were at home. In Risler’s eyes everything is superb, beyond reproach; he is preparing to say so as he enters the salon, but, in face of his wife’s wrathful glance, he checks himself in terror.
“You see, it’s four o’clock,” she says, pointing to the clock with an angry gesture. “No one will come. But I take it especially ill of Claire not to come up. She is at home — I am sure of it — I can hear her.”
Indeed, ever since noon, Sidonie has listened intently to the slightest sounds on the floor below, the child’s crying, the closing of doors. Risler attempts to go down again in order to avoid a renewal of the conversation at breakfast; but his wife will not allow him to do so. The very least he can do is to stay with her when everybody else abandons her, and so he remains there, at a loss what to say, rooted to the spot, like those people who dare not move during a storm for fear of attracting the lightning. Sidonie moves excitedly about, going in and out of the salon, changing the position of a chair, putting it back again, looking at herself as she passes the mirror, and ringing for her maid to send her to ask Pere Achille if no one has inquired for her. That Pere Achille is such a spiteful creature! Perhaps when people have come, he has said that she was out.
But no, the concierge has not seen any one.
Silence and consternation. Sidonie is standing at the window on the left, Risler at the one on the right. From there they can see the little garden, where the darkness is gathering, and the black smoke which the chimney emits beneath the lowering clouds. Sigismond’s window is the first to show a light on the ground floor; the cashier trims his lamp himself with painstaking care, and his tall shadow passes in front of the flame and bends double behind the grating. Sidonie’s wrath is diverted a moment by these familiar details.
Suddenly a small coupe drives into the garden and stops in front of the door. At last some one is coming. In that pretty whirl of silk and flowers and jet and flounces and furs, as it runs quickly up the step, Sidonie has recognized one of the most fashionable frequenters of the Fromont salon, the wife of a wealthy dealer in bronzes. What an honor to receive a call from such an one! Quick, quick! the family takes its position, Monsieur in front of the hearth, Madame in an easychair, carelessly turning the leaves of a magazine. Wasted pose! The fair caller did not come to see Sidonie; she has stopped at the floor below.
Ah! if Madame Georges could hear what her neighbor says of her and her friends!
At that moment the door opens and “Mademoiselle Planus” is announced. She is the cashier’s sister, a poor old maid, humble and modest, who has made it her duty to make this call upon the wife of her brother’s employer, and who is amazed at the warm welcome she receives. She is surrounded and made much of. “How kind of you to come! Draw up to the fire.” They overwhelm her with attentions and show great interest in her slightest word. Honest Risler’s smiles are as warm as his thanks. Sidonie herself displays all her fascinations, overjoyed to exhibit herself in her glory to one who was her equal in the old days, and to reflect that the other, in the room below, must hear that she has had callers. So she makes as much noise as possible, moving chairs, pushing the table around; and when the lady takes her leave, dazzled, enchanted, bewildered, she escorts her to the landing with a great rustling of flounces, and calls to her in a very loud voice, leaning over the rail, that she is at home every Friday. “You understand, every Friday.”
Now it is dark. The two great lamps in the salon are lighted. In the adjoining room they hear the servant laying the table. It is all over. Madame Fromont Jeune will not come.
Sidonie is pale with rage.
“Just fancy, that minx can’t come up eighteen steps! No doubt Madame thinks we’re not grand enough for her. Ah! but I’ll have my revenge.”
As she pours forth her wrath in unjust words, her voice becomes coarse, takes on the intonations of the faubourg, an accent of the common people which betrays the ex-apprentice of Mademoiselle Le Mire.
Risler is unlucky enough to make a remark.
“Who knows? Perhaps the child is ill.”
She turns upon him in a fury, as if she would like to bite him.
“Will you hold your tongue about that brat? After all, it’s your fault that this has happened to me. You don’t know how to make people treat me with respect.”
And as she closed the door of her bedroom violently, making the globes on the lamps tremble, as well as all the knick-knacks on the etageres, Risler, left alone, stands motionless in the centre of the salon, looking with an air of consternation at his white cuffs, his broad patent-leather shoes, and mutters mechanically:
“My wife’s reception day!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49