The Restaurant Grillon, a small commonwealth of boatmen, was slowly emptying. In front of the door all was a tumult of cries and calls, while the jolly dogs in white flannels gesticulated with oars on their shoulders.
The ladies in bright spring toilets stepped aboard the skiffs with care, and seating themselves astern, arranged their dresses, while the landlord of the establishment, a mighty individual with a red beard, of renowned strength, offered his hand to the pretty dears, with great self-possession, keeping the frail craft steady.
The rowers, bare-armed, with bulging chests, took their places in their turn, posing for their gallery, as they did so, a gallery consisting of middle class people dressed in their Sunday clothes, of workmen and soldiers leaning upon their elbows on the parapet of the bridge, all taking a great interest in the sight.
The boats one by one cast off from the landing stage. The oarsmen bent themselves forward and then threw themselves backwards with an even swing, and under the impetus of the long curved oars, the swift skiffs glided along the river, got far away, grew smaller and finally disappeared under the other bridge, that of the railway, as they descended the stream towards La Grenouillère. One couple only remained behind. The young man, still almost beardless, slender, and of pale countenance, held his mistress, a thin little brunette, with the gait of a grasshopper, by the waist; and occasionally they gazed into each others eyes. The landlord shouted:
“Come, Mr. Paul, make haste,” and they drew near.
Of all the guests of the house, Mr. Paul was the most liked and most respected. He paid well and punctually, while the others hung back for a long time, if indeed they did not vanish insolvent. Besides which he acted as a sort of walking advertisement for the establishment, inasmuch as his father was a senator. And when a stranger would inquire: “Who on earth is that little chap who thinks so much of himself because of his girl?” some habituè would reply, half-aloud, with a mysterious and important air: “Don’t you know? That is Paul Baron, a senator’s son.”
And invariably the other could not restrain himself from exclaiming:
“Poor devil! He is not half mashed.”
Mother Grillon, a worthy and good business woman, described the young man and his companion as “her two turtle-doves,” and appeared quite moved by this passion, profitable for her house.
The couple advanced at a slow pace; the skiff, Madeleine, was ready, when at the moment of embarking therein they kissed each other, which caused the public collected on the bridge to laugh, and Mr. Paul taking the oars, they left also for La Grenonillère.
When they arrived it was just upon three o’clock and the large floating café overflowed with people.
The immense raft, sheltered by a tarpaulin roof, is attached to the charming island of Croissy by two narrow foot bridges, one of which leads into the center of this aquatic establishment, while the other unites its end with a tiny islet planted with a tree and surnamed “The Flower Pot,” and thence leads to land near the bath office.
Mr. Paul made fast his boat alongside the establishment, climbed over the railing of the café and then grasping his mistress’s hand assisted her out of the boat and they both seated themselves at the end of a table opposite each other.
On the opposite side of the river along the market road, a long string of vehicles was drawn up. Fiacres alternated with the fine carriages of the swells; the first, clumsy, with enormous bodies crushing the springs, drawn by a broken down hack with hanging head and broken knees; the second, slightly built on light wheels, with horses slender and straight, their heads well up, their bits snowy with foam, while the coachman, solemn in his livery, his head erect in his high collar, waited bolt upright, his whip resting on his knee.
The bank was covered with people who came off in families, or in gangs, or two by two, or alone. They plucked blades of grass, went down to the water, remounted the path, and all having attained the same spot, stood still awaiting the ferryman. The clumsy punt plied incessantly from bank to bank, discharging its passengers on to the island. The arm of the river (named the Dead Arm) upon which this refreshment wharf lay, appeared asleep, so feeble was the current. Fleets of yawls, of skiffs, of canoes, of podoscaphs (a light boat propelled by wheels set in motion by a treadle), of gigs, of craft of all forms and of all kinds, crept about upon the motionless stream, crossing each other, intermingling, running foul of one another, stopping abruptly under a jerk of the arms to shoot off afresh under a sudden strain of the muscles gliding swiftly along like great yellow or red fishes.
Others arrived incessantly; some from Chaton up the stream; others from Bougival down it; laughter crossed the water from one boat to another, calls, admonitions or imprecations. The boatmen exposed the bronzed and knotted flesh of their biceps to the heat of the day; and similar to strange flowers, which floated, the silk parasols, red, green, blue, or yellow, of the ladies seated near the helm, bloomed in the sterns of the boats.
A July sun flamed high in the heavens; the atmosphere seemed full of burning merriment: not a breath of air stirred the leaves of the willows or poplars.
Down there the inevitable Mont–Valerien erected its fortified ramparts, tier above tier, in the intense light; while on the right the divine slopes of Louveniennes following the bend of the river disposed themselves in a semi-circle, displaying in their order across the rich and shady lawns, of large gardens, the white walls of country seats.
Upon the outskirts of La Grenonillère a crowd of promenaders moved about beneath the giant trees which make this corner of the island the most delightful park in the world.
Women and girls with breasts developed beyond all measurement, with exaggerated bustles, their complexions plastered with rouge, their eyes daubed with charcoal, their lips blood-red, laced up, rigged out in outrageous dresses — trailed the crying bad taste of their toilets over the fresh green sward; while beside them young men postured in their fashion-plate accouterments with light gloves, varnished boots, canes, the size of a thread, and single eye-glasses punctuating the insipidity of their smiles.
The island is narrow opposite La Grenonillère, and on its other side, where also a ferry-boat plies, bringing people unceasingly across from Croissy, the rapid branch of the river, full of whirlpools and eddies and foam, rushes along with the strength of a torrent.
A detachment of pontoon-soldiers, in the uniform of artillerymen, is encamped upon this bank, and the soldiers seated in a row on a long beam watched the water flowing.
In the floating establishment there was a boisterous and uproarious crowd. The wooden tables upon which the spilt refreshments made little sticky streams, were covered with half empty glasses and surrounded by half tipsy individuals. All this crowd shouted, sang and brawled. The men, their hats at the backs of their heads, their faces red, with the brilliant eyes of drunkards, moved about vociferously in need of a row natural to brutes. The women, seeking their prey for the night, caused themselves to be treated, in the meantime; and in the free space between the tables, the ordinary local public predominated a whole regiment of boatmen, Rowkickersup, with their companions in short flannel petticoats.
One of them carried on at the piano and appeared to play with his feet as well as his hands; four couples bounded through a quadrille, and some young men watched them, polished and correct, who would have looked proper, if in spite of all, vice itself had appeared.
For there, one tastes in full all the pomp and vanity of the world, all its well bred debauchery, all the seamy side of Parisian society; a mixture of counter-jumpers, of strolling players, of the lowest journalists, of gentlemen in tutelage, of rotten stock-jobbers, of ill-famed debauchées, of used-up old, fast men; a doubtful crowd of suspicious characters, half-known, half gone under, half-recognized, half-cut, pickpockets, rogues, procurers of women, sharpers with dignified manners, and a bragging air, which seems to say: “I shall rend the first who treats me as a scoundrel.”
This place reeks of folly, stinks of the scum and the gallantry of the shops. Male and female there give themselves airs. There dwells an odor of love, and there one fights for a yes, or for a no, in order to sustain a worm-eaten reputation, which a stroke of the sword or a pistol bullet would destroy further.
Some of the neighboring inhabitants looked in out of curiosity every Sunday; some young men, very young, appeared there every year to learn how to live, some promenaders lounging about showed themselves there; some greenhorns wandered thither. It is with good reason named La Grenonillère. At the side of the covered wharf where they drank, and quite close to the Flower Pot, people bathed. Those among the women who possessed the requisite roundness of form came there to display their wares naked and to make clients. The rest, scornful, although well filled out with wadding, shored up with springs, corrected here and altered there, watched their sisters dabbling with disdain.
The swimmers crowded on to a little platform to dive thence head foremost. They are either straight like vine poles, or round like pumpkins, gnarled like olive branches, they are bowed over in front, or thrown backwards by the size of their stomachs and are invariably ugly, they leap into the water which splashes almost over the drinkers in the café.
Notwithstanding the great trees which overhang the floating-house, and notwithstanding the vicinity of the water a suffocating heat fills the place. The fumes of the spilt liquors mix with the effluvium of the bodies and with that of the strong perfumes with which the skin of the traders in love is saturated and which evaporate in this furnace. But beneath all these diverse scents a slight aroma of vice-powder lingered, which now disappeared and then reappeared, which one was perpetually encountering as though some concealed hand had shaken an invisible powder-puff in the air. The show was upon the river whither the perpetual coming and going of the boats attracts the eyes. The boatwomen sprawled upon their seats opposite their strong-wristed males, and contemplated with contempt the dinner hunters prowling about the island.
Sometimes when a train of boats, just started, passed at full speed, the friends who stayed ashore gave shouts, and all the people suddenly seized with madness set to work yelling.
At the bend of the river towards Chaton fresh boats showed themselves unceasingly. They came nearer and grew larger, and if only faces were recognized, the vociferations broke out anew.
A canoe covered with an awning and manned by four women came slowly down the current. She who rowed was little, thin, faded, in a cabin boy’s costume, her hair drawn up under an oil-skin cap. Opposite her, a lusty blonde, dressed as a man, with a white flannel jacket, lay upon her back at the bottom of the boat, her legs in the air, on the seat at each side of the rower, and she smoked a cigarette, while at each stroke of the oars, her chest and stomach quivered, shaken by the shock. Quite at the back, under the awning, two handsome girls, tall and slender, one dark and the other fair, held each other by the waist as they unceasingly watched their companions.
A cry arose from La Grenonillère, “There is Lesbos,” and there became all at once a furious clamor; a terrifying scramble took place; the glasses were knocked down; people clambered on to the tables; all in a frenzy of noise bawled: “Lesbos! Lesbos! Lesbos!” The shout rolled along, became indistinct, was no longer more than a kind of tremendous howl, and then suddenly it seemed to start anew, to rise into space, to cover the plain, to fill the foliage of the great trees, to extend itself to the distant slopes, to go even to the sun.
The rower, in the face of this ovation, had quietly stopped. The handsome blonde extended upon the bottom of the boat, turned her head with a careless air, as she raised herself upon her elbows; and the two girls at the back commenced laughing as they saluted the crowd.
Then the hullaballoo was doubled, making the floating establishment tremble. The men took off their hats, the women waved their handkerchiefs, and all voices, shrill or deep, together cried:
One would have said that these people, this collection of the corrupt, saluted a chief like the squadrons which fire guns when an admiral passes along the line.
The numerous fleet of boats also acclaimed the women’s boat, which awoke from its sleepy motion to land rather farther off.
Mr. Paul, contrary to the others, had drawn a key from his pocket and whistled with all his might. His nervous mistress grew paler, caught him by the arm to cause him to be quiet, and upon this occasion she looked at him with fury in her eyes. But he appeared exasperated, as though borne away by jealousy of some man by deep anger, instinctive and ungovernable. He stammered, his lips quivering with indignation:
“It is shameful! They ought to be drowned like dogs with a stone about the neck.”
But Madeleine instantly flew into a rage; her small and shrill voice became hissing, and she spoke volubly, as though pleading her own cause:
“And what has it to do with you — you indeed? Are they not at liberty to do what they wish since they owe nobody anything. A truce with your airs and mind your own business. . . . ”
But he cut her speech short:
“It is the police whom it concerns, and I will have them marched off to St. Lazare; so I will.”
She gave a start:
“Yes, I! And in the meantime I forbid you to speak to them, you understand, I forbid you to do so.”
Then she shrugged her shoulders and grew calm in a moment:
“My friend, I shall do as I please; if you are not satisfied, be off, and instantly. I am not your wife, am I? Very well then, hold your tongue.”
He made no reply and they stood face to face, their mouths tightly closed and their breathing rapid.
At the other end of the great café of wood the four women made their entry. The two in men’s costumes marched in front: the one thin like an oldish tomboy, with yellow lines on her temples; the other filled out her white flannel garments with her fat, swelling out her big trousers with her buttocks; she swayed about like a fat goose with enormous legs and yielding knees. Their two friends followed them, and the crowd of boatmen thronged about to shake their hands.
They had all four hired a small cottage close to the water’s edge, and they lived there as two households would have lived.
Their vice was public, recognized, patent. People talked of it as a natural thing, which almost excited their sympathy, and whispered in very low tones strange stories of dramas begotten of furious feminine jealousies, of the stealthy visit of well-known women and of actresses to the little house close to the water’s edge.
A neighbor, horrified by these scandalous rumors, apprised the police, and the inspector, accompanied by a man, had come to make inquiry. The mission was a delicate one; it was impossible, in short, to reproach these women, who did not abandon themselves to prostitution with anything. The inspector, very much puzzled, indeed, ignorant of the nature of the offenses suspected, had asked questions at random, and made a lofty report conclusive of their innocence.
They laughed about it all the way to St. Germain. They walked about La Grenonillère establishment with stately steps like queens; and seemed to glory in their fame, rejoicing in the gaze that was fixed on them, so superior to this crowd, to this mob, to these plebeians.
Madeleine and her lover watched them approach and in the girl’s eyes a fire lightened.
When the two first had reached the end of the table, Madeleine cried:
The large woman turned herself and stopped, continuing all the time to hold the arm of her feminine cabin boy:
“Good gracious, Madeleine. . . . Do come and talk to me, my dear.”
Paul squeezed his fingers upon his mistress’s wrist; but she said to him, with such an air:
“You know, my fine fellow, you can be off;” he said nothing and remained alone.
Then they chatted in low voices, standing all three of them. Many pleasant jests passed their lips, they spoke quickly; and Pauline looked now and then at Paul, by stealth, with a shrewd and malicious smile.
At last, putting up with it no longer, he suddenly raised himself and in a single bound was at their side, trembling in every limb. He seized Madeleine by the shoulders:
“Come. I wish it,” said he. “I have forbidden you to speak to these scoundrels.”
Whereupon Pauline raised her voice and set to work blackguarding him with her Billingsgate vocabulary. All the bystanders laughed; they drew near him; they raised themselves on tiptoe in order the better to see him. He remained dumbfounded under this downpour of filthy abuse. It appeared to him that these words, which came from that mouth and fell upon him, defiled him like dirt, and, in presence of the row which was beginning, he fell back, retraced his steps, and rested his elbows on the railing towards the river, turning his back upon the three victorious women.
There he stayed watching the water, and sometimes with rapid gesture as though he plucked it out, he removed with his sinewy fingers the tear which had formed in his eye.
The fact was that he was hopelessly in love, without knowing why, notwithstanding his refined instincts, in spite of his reason, in spite, indeed, of his will. He had fallen into this love as one falls into a sloughy hole. Of a tender and delicate disposition, he had dreamed of liaisons, exquisite, ideal and impassioned, and there that little bit of a woman, stupid like all girls, with an exasperating stupidity, not even pretty, thin and a spitfire, had taken him prisoner, possessing him from head to foot, body and soul. He underwent this feminine bewitchery, mysterious and all powerful, this unknown power, this prodigious domination, arising no one knows whence, from the demon of the flesh, which casts the most sensible man at the feet of some girl or other without there being anything in her to explain her fatal and sovereign power.
And there at his back he felt that some infamous thing was brewing. Shouts of laughter cut him to the heart. What should he do? He knew well, but he could not do it.
He steadily watched an angler upon the bank opposite him, and his motionless line.
Suddenly, the worthy man jerked a little silver fish, which wriggled at the end of his line, out of the river. Then he endeavored to extract his hook, hoisted and turned it, but in vain. At last, losing patience, he commenced to pull it out, and all the bleeding gullet of the beast, with a portion of its intestines, came out. Paul shuddered, rent himself to his heart-strings. It seemed to him that the hook was his love and that if he should pluck it out, all that he had in his breast would come out in the same way at the end of a curved iron fixed in the depths of his being, of which Madeleine held the line.
A hand was placed upon his shoulder; he started and turned; his mistress was at his side. They did not speak to each other; and she rested, like him, with her elbows upon the railing, her eyes fixed upon the river.
He sought for what he ought to say to her and could find nothing. He did not even arrive at disentangling his own emotions; all that he was sensible of was joy at feeling her there close to him, come back again, and a shameful cowardice, a craving to pardon everything, to permit everything, provided she never left him.
At last, at the end of some minutes, he asked her in a very gentle voice:
“Do you wish that we should leave? It will be nicer in the boat.”
She answered: “Yes, my puss.”
And he assisted her into the skiff, pressing her hands, all softened, with some tears still in his eyes. Then she looked at him with a smile and they kissed each other anew.
They re-ascended the river very slowly, skirting the bank planted with willows, covered with grass, bathed and still in the afternoon warmth. When they had returned to the Restaurant Grillon, it was barely six o’clock. Then leaving their boat they set off on foot on the island towards Bezons, across the fields and along the high poplars which bordered the river. The long grass ready to be mowed was full of flowers. The sun, which was sinking, showed himself from beneath a sheet of red light, and in the tempered heat of the closing day the floating exhalations from the grass, mingled with the damp scents from the river, filled the air with a soft languor, with a happy light, as though with a vapor of well-being.
A soft weakness overtakes the heart, and a species of communion with this splendid calm of evening, with this vague and mysterious chilliness of outspread life, with the keen and melancholy poetry which seems to arise from flowers and things, develops itself revealed at this sweet and pensive time to the senses.
He felt all that; but she did not understand anything of it, for her part. They walked side by side; and, suddenly tired of being silent, she sang. She sang with her shrill and false voice, something which pervaded the streets, an air catching the memory, which rudely destroyed the profound and serene harmony of the evening.
Then he looked at her and he felt an unsurpassable abyss between them. She beat the grass with her parasol, her head slightly inclined, contemplating her feet and singing, spinning out the notes, attempting trills, and venturing on shakes. Her smooth little brow, of which he was so fond, was at that time absolutely empty! empty! There was nothing therein but this music of a bird-organ; and the ideas which formed there by chance were like this music. She did not understand anything of him; they were now separated as if they did not live together. Did then his kisses never go any further than her lips?
Then she raised her eyes to him and laughed again. He was moved to the quick and, extending his arms in a paroxysm of love, he embraced her passionately.
As he was rumpling her dress she ended by disengaging herself, murmuring by way of compensation as she did so:
“Go; I love you well, my puss.”
But he seized her by the waist and seized by madness, carried her rapidly away. He kissed her on the cheek, on the temple, on the neck, all the while dancing with joy. They threw themselves down panting at the edge of a thicket, lit up by the rays of the setting sun, and before they had recovered breath they became friends again without her understanding his transport.
They returned, holding each other by the hand, when suddenly, across the trees, they perceived on the river, the canoe manned by the four women. The large Pauline also saw them, for she drew herself up and blew kisses to Madeleine. And then she cried:
Paul believed he suddenly felt his heart enveloped in ice.
They re-entered the house for dinner.
They installed themselves in one of the arbors, close to the water, and set about eating in silence. When night arrived, they brought a candle inclosed in a glass globe, which lit them up with a feeble and glimmering light; and they heard every moment the bursting out of the shouts of the boatmen in the great saloon on the first floor.
Towards dessert, Paul, taking Madeleine’s hand, tenderly said to her:
“I feel very tired, my darling; unless you have any objection, we will go to bed early.”
She, however, understood the ruse, and shot an enigmatical glance at him, that glance of treachery which so readily appears at the bottom of a woman’s eyes. Then having reflected she answered:
“You can go to bed if you wish, but I have promised to go to the ball at La Grenonillère.”
He smiled in a piteous manner, one of those smiles with which one veils the most horrible suffering, but he replied in a coaxing but agonized tone:
“If you were very kind, we should remain here, both of us.”
She indicated no with her head, without opening her mouth.
“I beg of you, my Bichette.”
Then she roughly broke out:
“You know what I said to you. If you are not satisfied the door is open. No one wishes to keep you. As for myself, I have promised; I shall go.”
He placed his two elbows upon the table, covered his face with his hands and remained there pondering sorrowfully.
The boat people came down again, bawling as usual. They set off in their vessels for the ball at La Grenonillère.
Madeleine said to Paul:
“If you are not coming, say so, and I will ask one of these gentlemen to take me.”
“Let us go!” murmured he.
And they left.
The night was black, full of stars, overpowered by a burning air, by oppressive breaths of wind, burdened with heat and emanations, with living germs, which, mixed with the breeze, destroyed its freshness. It imparted to the face a heated caress, made one breathe more quickly, gasp a little, so thick and heavy did it seem. The boats started on their way bearing venetian lanterns at the prow. It was not possible to distinguish the craft, but only these little colored lights, swift and dancing up and down like glow-worms in a fit; and voices sounded from all sides in the shade. The young people’s skiff glided gently along. Now and then, when a fast boat passed near them, they could, for a moment, see the white back of the rower, lit up by his lantern.
When they turned the elbow of the river, La Grenonillère appeared to them in the distance. The establishment, en fête, was decorated with sconces, with colored garlands draped with clusters of lights. On the Seine some great barges moved about slowly, representing domes, pyramids and elaborate erections in fires of all colors. Illuminated festoons hung right down to the water, and sometimes a red or blue lantern, at the end of an immense invisible fishing-rod, seemed like a great swinging star.
All this illumination spread a light around the café, lit up the great trees on the bank, from top to bottom, the trunks of which stood out in pale gray and the leaves in a milky green upon the deep black of the fields and the heavens. The orchestra, composed of five suburban artists, flung far its public-house ball-music, poor and jerky, which caused Madeleine to sing anew.
She desired to enter at once. Paul desired first to take a turn on the island, but he was obliged to give way. The attendance was more select. The boatmen, always alone, remained with some thinly scattered citizens, and some young men flanked by girls. The director and organizer of this can-can majestic, in a jaded black suit, walked about in every direction, his head laid waste by his old trade of purveyor of public amusements, at a cheap rate.
The large Pauline and her companions were not there; and Paul breathed again.
They danced; couples opposite each other, capered in the most distracted manner, throwing their legs in the air, until they were upon a level with the noses of their partners.
The women, whose thighs were disjointed, skipped amid such a flying upwards of their petticoats that the lower portions of their frames were displayed. They kicked their feet up above their heads with astounding facility, balanced their bodies, wagged their backs and shook their sides, shedding around them a powerful scent of sweating womanhood.
The men were squatted like toads, some making obscene signs; some turned and twisted themselves, grimacing and hideous; some turned like a wheel on their hands, or, perhaps, trying to make themselves funny, sketched the manners of the day with exaggerated gracefulness.
A fat servant-maid and two waiters served refreshments.
This café-boat being only covered with a roof and having no wall whatever, to shut it in, the hare-brained dance was displayed in the face of the peaceful night and of the firmament powdered with stars.
Suddenly, Mount Valerien, yonder opposite, appears illumined, as if a conflagration had been set ablaze behind it. The radiance spreads itself and deepens upon the sky, describing a large luminous circle of wan and white light. Then something or other red appeared, grew greater, shining with a burning red, like that of hot metal upon the anvil. That gradually developed into a round body which seemed to arise from the earth; and the moon, freeing herself from the horizon, rose slowly into space. In proportion as she ascended, the purple tint faded and became yellow, a shining bright yellow, and the satellite appeared to grow smaller in proportion as her distance increased.
Paul watched her for sometime, lost in contemplation, forgetting his mistress, and when he returned to himself the latter had vanished.
He sought for her, but could not find her. He threw his anxious eye over table after table, going to and fro unceasingly, inquiring after her from this one and that one. No one had seen her. He was thus tormented with disquietude, when one of the waiters said to him:
“You are looking for Madame Madeleine, are you not? She has left but a few moments ago, in company with Madame Pauline.” And at the same instant, Paul perceived the cabin-boy and the two pretty girls standing at the other end of the café, all three holding each others’ waists and lying in wait for him, whispering to one another. He understood, and, like a madman, dashed off into the island.
He first ran towards Chatou, but having reached the plain, retraced his steps. Then he began to search the dense coppices, occasionally roamed about distractedly, halting to listen.
The toads all round about him poured out their metallic and short notes.
Towards Bougival, some unknown bird warbled some song which reached him from the distance.
Over the large lawns the moon shed a soft light, resembling powdered wool; it penetrated the foliage and shone upon the silvered bark of the poplars, and riddled with its brilliant rays the waving tops of the great trees. The entrancing poetry of this summer night had, in spite of himself, entered into Paul, athwart his infatuated anguish, and stirred his heart with a ferocious irony, increasing even to madness, his craving for an ideal tenderness, for passionate outpourings of the bosom of an adored and faithful woman. He was compelled to stop, choked by hurried and rending sobs.
The crisis over, he started anew.
Suddenly, he received what resembled the stab of a poignard. There, behind that bush, some people were kissing. He ran thither; and found an amorous couple whose faces were entwined, united in an endless kiss.
He dared not call, knowing well that she would not respond, and he had also a frightful dread of discovering them all at once.
The flourishes of the quadrilles, with the ear-splitting solos of the cornet, the false shriek of the flute, the shrill squeaking of the violin, irritated his feelings, and exasperated his sufferings. Wild and limping music was floating under the trees, now feeble, now stronger, wafted hither and thither by the breeze.
Suddenly, he said to himself, that possibly she had returned. Yes, she had returned! Why not? He had stupidly lost his head, without cause, carried away by his fears, by the inordinate suspicions which had for some time overwhelmed him.
Seized by one of these singular calms which will sometimes occur in cases of the greatest despair, he returned towards the ball-room.
With a single glance of the eye, he took in the whole room. He made the round of the tables, and abruptly again found himself face to face with the three women. He must have had a doleful and queer expression of countenance, for all three together burst into merriment.
He made off, returned into the island, threw himself across the coppice panting. He listened again, listened a long time, for his ears were singing. At last, however, he believed he heard a little farther off a little, sharp laugh, which he recognized at once; and he advanced very quietly, on his knees, removing the branches from his path, his heart beating so rapidly, that he could no longer breathe.
Two voices murmured some words, the meaning of which he did not understand, and then they were silent.
Next, he was possessed by a frightful longing to fly, to save himself, for ever, from this furious passion which threatened his existence. He was about to return to Chatou and take the train, resolved never to come back again, never again to see her. But her likeness suddenly rushed in upon him, and he mentally pictured that moment in the morning when she would wake in their warm bed, and would press herself coaxingly against him, throwing her arms around his neck, her hair disheveled, and a little entangled on the forehead, her eyes still shut and her lips apart ready to receive the first kiss. The sudden recollection of this morning caress filled him with frantic recollection and the maddest desire.
The couple began to speak again; and he approached, doubled in two. Then a faint cry rose from under the branches quite close to him. He advanced again, always as though in spite of himself, invisibly attracted, without being conscious of anything . . . and he saw them.
And he stood there astounded and distracted, as though he had there suddenly discovered a corpse, dead and mutilated. Then, in an involuntary flash of thought, he remembered the little fish whose entrails he had felt being torn out. . . . But Madeleine murmured to her companion, in the same tone in which she had often called him by name, and he was seized by such a fit of anguish that he fled with all his might.
He struck against two trees, fell over a root, set off again and suddenly found himself near the river, opposite its rapid branch, which was lit up by the moon. The torrent-like current made great eddies where the light played upon it. The high bank dominated the river like a cliff, leaving a wide obscure zone at its foot where the eddies made themselves heard in the darkness.
On the other bank, the country seats of Croissy ranged themselves and could be plainly seen.
Paul saw all this as though in a dream, he thought of nothing, understood nothing, and all things, even his very existence, appeared vague, far-off, forgotten, done with.
The river was there. Did he know what he was doing? Did he wish to die? He was mad. He turned himself, however, towards the island, towards her, and in the still air of the night, in which the faint and persistent burden of the public house band was borne up and down, he uttered, in a voice frantic with despair, bitter beyond measure, and superhuman, a frightful cry:
His heartrending call shot across the great silence of the sky, and sped all around the horizon.
Then, with a tremendous leap, with the bound of a wild animal, he jumped into the river. The water rushed on, closed over him, and from the place where he had disappeared a series of great circles started, enlarging their brilliant undulations, until they finally reached the other bank. The two women had heard the noise of the plunge. Madeleine drew herself up and exclaimed:
“It is Paul,” a suspicion having arisen in her soul, “he has drowned himself;” and she rushed towards the bank, where Pauline rejoined her.
A clumsy punt, propelled by two men, turned and returned on the spot. One of the men rowed, the other plunged into the water a great pole and appeared to be looking for something. Pauline cried:
“What are you doing? What is the matter?”
An unknown voice answered:
“It is a man who has just drowned himself.”
The two ghastly women, squeezing each other tightly, followed the maneuvers of the boat. The music of La Grenonillère continued to sound in the distance, and appeared with its cadences to accompany the movements of the somber fisherman; and the river which now concealed a corpse, whirled round and round, illuminated. The search was prolonged. The horrible suspense made Madeleine shiver all over. At last, after at least half an hour, one of the men announced:
“I have got it.”
And he pulled up his long pole very gently, very gently. Then something large appeared upon the surface. The other mariner left his oars, and they both uniting their strength and hauling upon the inert weight, caused it to tumble over into their boat.
Then they made for the land, seeking a place well lighted and low. At the moment when they landed, the women also arrived. The moment she saw him, Madeleine fell back with horror. In the moonlight he already appeared green, with his mouth, his eyes, his nose, his clothes full of slime. His fingers closed and stiff, were hideous. A kind of black and liquid plaster covered his whole body. The face appeared swollen, and from his hair, glued up by the ooze, there ran a stream of dirty water.
“Do you know him?” asked one.
The other, the Croissy ferryman, hesitated:
“Yes, it certainly seems to me that I have seen that head; but you know when like that one cannot recognize anyone easily.” And then, suddenly:
“Why, it’s Mr. Paul.”
“Who is Mr. Paul?” inquired his comrade.
The first answered:
“Why, Mr. Paul Baron, the son of the senator, the little chap who was so amorous.”
The other added, philosophically:
“Well, his fun is ended now; it is a pity, all the same, when one is so rich!”
Madeleine sobbed and fell to the ground. Pauline approached the body and asked:
“Is he indeed quite dead?”
The men shrugged their shoulders.
“Oh! after that length of time for certain.”
Then one of them asked:
“Was it at the Grillon that he lodged?”
“Yes,” answered the other; “we had better take him back there, there will be something to be made of it.”
They embarked again in their boat and set out, moving off slowly on account of the rapid current; and yet, a long time after they were out of sight, from the place where the women remained, the regular splash of the oars in the water could be heard.
Then Pauline took the poor weeping Madeleine in her arms, petted her, embraced her for a long while, consoled her.
“What would you have; it is not your fault, is it? It is impossible to prevent men committing folly. He wished it, so much the worse for him, after all!”
And then lifting her up:
“Come, my dear, come and sleep at the house; it is impossible for you to go back to the Grillon to-night.”
And she embraced her again.
“Come, we will cure you,” said she.
Madeleine arose, and weeping all the while, but with fainter sobs, her head upon Pauline’s shoulder, as though it had found a refuge in a closer and more certain affection, more familiar and more confiding, set off with very slow steps.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58