For five months they had been talking of going to lunch at some country restaurant in the neighborhood of Paris, on Madame Dufour’s birthday, and as they were looking forward very impatiently to the outing, they had got up very early that morning. Monsieur Dufour had borrowed the milkman’s tilted cart, and drove himself. It was a very tidy, two-wheeled conveyance, with a hood, and in it the wife, resplendent in a wonderful, sherry-colored, silk dress, sat by the side of her husband.
The old grandmother and a girl were accommodated with two chairs, and a boy with yellow hair was lying at the bottom of the trap, of whom however, nothing was to be seen except his head.
When they got to the bridge of Neuilly, Monsieur Dufour said: “Here we are in the country at last!” and at that signal, his wife had grown sentimental about the beauties of nature. When they got to the cross roads at Courbevoie, they were seized with admiration for the distant horizon down there; on the right, was the spire of Argenteuil church, and above it rose the hills of Sannois, and the mill of Orgemont, while on the left, the aqueduct of Marly stood out against the clear morning sky, and in the distance they could see the terrace of Saint–Germain; and opposite to them, at the end of a low chain of hills, the new fort of Cormeilles. Quite in the distance, a very long way off, beyond the plains and villages, one could see the somber green of the forests.
The sun was beginning to shine in their faces, the dust got into their eyes, and on either side of the road there stretched an interminable tract of bare, ugly country which smelt unpleasantly. One might have thought that it had been ravaged by the pestilence, which had even attacked the buildings, for skeletons of dilapidated and deserted houses, or small cottages, which were left in an unfinished state, as the contractors had not been paid, reared their four roofless walls on each side.
Here and there tall factory chimneys rose up from the barren soil; the only vegetation on that putrid land, where the spring breezes wafted an odor of petroleum and shist, which was mingled with another smell, that was even still less agreeable. At last, however, they crossed the Seine a second time, and it was delightful on the bridge. The river sparkled in the sun, and they had a feeling of quiet satisfaction and enjoyment, in drinking in the purer air, that was not impregnated by the black smoke of factories, nor by the miasma from the deposits of night soil. A man whom they met, told them that the name of the place was Bézons, and so Monsieur Dufour pulled up, and read the attractive announcement outside an eating-house: Restaurant Poulin, stews and fried fish, private rooms, arbors and swings.
“Well! Madame Dufour, will this suit you? Will you make up your mind at last?”
She read the announcement in her turn, and then looked at the house for a time.
It was a white, country inn, built by the road side, and through the open door she could see the bright zinc of the counter, at which two workmen, out for the day, were sitting. At last she made up her mind, and said:
“Yes, this will do; and, besides, there is a view.”
So they drove into a large yard with trees in it, behind the inn, which was only separated from the river by the towing-path, and got out. The husband sprang out first, and then held out his arms for his wife, and as the step was very high, Madame Dufour, in order to reach him, had to show the lower part of her limbs, whose former slenderness had disappeared in fat, the Monsieur Dufour, who was already getting excited by the country air, pinched her calf, and then taking her in his arms, he set her onto the ground, as if she had been some enormous bundle. She shook the dust out of the silk dress, and then looked round, to see in what sort of a place she was.
She was a stout woman, of about thirty-six, full-blown and delightful to look at. She could hardly breathe, as her stays were laced too tightly, and their pressure forced the heaving mass of her superabundant bosom up to her double chin. Next, the girl put her hand onto her father’s shoulder, and jumped lightly out. The boy with the yellow hair had got down by stepping on the wheel, and he helped Monsieur Dufour to get his grandmother out. Then they unharnessed the horse, which they tied up to a tree, and the carriage fell back, with both shafts in the air. The men took off their coats, and washed their hands in a pail of water, and then went and joined their ladies who had already taken possession of the swings.
Mademoiselle Dufour was trying to swing herself standing up, but she could not succeed in getting a start. She was a pretty girl of about eighteen; one of those women who suddenly excite your desire when you meet them in the street, and who leave you with a vague feeling of uneasiness, and of excited senses. She was tall, had a small waist and large hips, with a dark skin, very large eyes, and very black hair. Her dress clearly marked the outlines of her firm, full figure, which was accentuated by the motion of her hips as she tried to swing herself higher. Her arms were stretched over her head to hold the rope, so that her bosom rose at every movement she made. Her hat, which a gust of wind had blown off, was hanging behind her, and as the swing gradually rose higher and higher, she showed her delicate limbs up to the knees each time, and the wind from the petticoats, which was more heady than the fumes of wine, blew into the faces of the two men, who were looking at her and smiling.
Sitting in the other swing, Madame Dufour kept saying in a monotonous voice:
“Cyprian, come and swing me; do come and swing me, Cyprian!”
At last he went, and turning up his shirt sleeves as if he intended to work very hard, he, with much difficulty set his wife in motion. She clutched the two ropes, and held her legs out straight, so as not to touch the ground. She enjoyed feeling giddy at the motion of the swing, and her whole figure shook like a jelly on a dish, but as she went higher and higher, she grew too giddy and got frightened. Every time she was coming back she uttered a piercing scream which made all the little urchins come round, and, down below, beneath the garden hedge, she vaguely saw a row of mischievous heads, who made various grimaces as they laughed.
When a servant girl came out, they ordered lunch.
“Some fried fish, a stewed rabbit, salad, and dessert,” Madame Dufour said, with an important air.
“Bring two quarts of beer and a bottle of claret,” her husband said.
“We will have lunch on the grass,” the girl added.
The grandmother, who had an affection for cats, had been running after one that belonged to the house, and had been bestowing the most affectionate words on it, for the last ten minutes. The animal, which was no doubt secretly flattered by her attentions, kept close to the good woman, but just out of reach of her hand, and quietly walked round the trees, against which she rubbed herself, with her tail up, and purring with pleasure.
“Hulloh!” the young man with the yellow hair, who was ferreting about, suddenly exclaimed, “here are two swell boats!” They all went to look at them, and saw two beautiful skiffs in a wooden boat-house, which were as beautifully finished as if they had been objects of luxury. They were moored side by side, like two tall, slender girls, in their narrow shining length, and excited the wish to float in them on warm summer mornings and evenings, along the bower-covered banks of the river, where the trees dipped their branches into the water, where the rushes are continually rustling in the breeze, and where the swift king-fishers dart about like flashes of blue lightning.
The whole family looked at them with great respect.
“Oh! They are indeed two swell boats,” Monsieur Dufour repeated gravely, and he examined them gravely, and he examined them like a connoisseur. He had been in the habit of rowing in his younger days, he said, and when he had that in his hands — and he went through the action of pulling the oars — he did not care a fig for anybody. He had beaten more than one Englishman formerly at the Joinville regattas. He grew quite excited at last, and offered to make a bet, that in a boat like that, he could row six leagues an hour, without exerting himself.
“Lunch is ready,” the waitress said, appearing at the entrance to the boat-house, so they all hurried off, but two young men were already lunching at the best place, which Madame Dufour had chosen in her mind as her seat. No doubt they were the owners of the skiffs, for they were dressed in boating costume. They were stretched out, almost lying on chairs, and were sunburnt, and had on flannel trousers and thin cotton jerseys, with short sleeves, which showed their bare arms, which were as strong as blackmiths’. They were two strong fellows, who thought a great deal of their vigor, and who showed in all their movements that elasticity and grace of the limbs which can only be acquired by exercise, and which is so different to the deformity with which the same continual work stamps the mechanic.
They exchanged a rapid smile when they saw the mother, and then a look on seeing the daughter.
“Let us give up our place,” one of them said: “it will make us acquainted with them.”
The other got up immediately, and holding his black and red boating-cap in his hand, he politely offered the ladies the only shady place in the garden. With many excuses they accepted, and so that it might be more rural, they sat on the grass, without either tables or chairs.
The two young men took their plates, knives, forks, etc., to a table a little way off, and began to eat again, and their bare arms, which they showed continually, rather embarrassed the girl. She even pretended to turn her head aside, and not to see them, while Madame Dufour, who was rather bolder, tempted by feminine curiosity, looked at them every moment, and no doubt compared them with the secret unsightliness of her husband. She had squatted herself on the ground, with her legs tucked under her, after the manner of tailors, and she kept wriggling about continually under the pretext that ants were crawling about her somewhere. Monsieur Dufour, whom the presence of strangers of politeness had put into rather a bad tempter, was trying to find a comfortable position, which he did not, however, succeed in doing, and the young man with the yellow hair was eating as silently as an ogre.
“It is lovely weather, Monsieur,” the stout lady said to one of the boating-men. She wished to be friendly, because they had given up their place.
“It is, indeed, Madame,” he replied; “do you often go into the country?”
“Oh! Only once or twice a year, to get a little fresh air; and you, monsieur?”
“I come and sleep here every night.”
“Oh! That must be very nice?”
“Certainly it is, Madame.” And he gave them such a practical account of his daily life, that it gave rise in the hearts of these shop-keepers, who were deprived of the meadows, and who longed for country walks, to that foolish love of nature, which they all feel so strongly the whole year round, behind the counter in their shop.
The girl raised her eyes, and looked at the oarsman with emotion, and Monsieur Dufour spoke for the first time.
“It is indeed a happy life,” he said. And then he added: “A little more rabbit, my dear?”
“No, thank you,” she replied and turning to the young men again, and pointing to their arms asked: “Do you never feel cold like that?”
They both began to laugh, and they frightened the family by the account of the enormous fatigue they could endure, of their bathing while in a state of tremendous perspiration, of their rowing in the fog at night, and they struck their chests violently, to show how they sounded.
“Ah! You look very strong,” the husband said, who did not talk any more of the time when he used to beat the English. The girl was looking at them aside now, and the young fellow with the yellow hair was coughing violently, as he had swallowed some wine the wrong way, and bespattering Madame Dufour’s cherry-colored silk dress, who got angry, and sent for some water, to wash the spots.
Meanwhile it had grown unbearably hot, the sparkling river looked like a blaze of fire, and the fumes of the wine were getting into their heads. Monsieur Dufour, who had a violent hiccough, had unbuttoned his waistcoat, and the top of his trousers, while his wife, who felt choking, was gradually unfastening her dress. The apprentice was shaking his yellow wig in a happy frame of mind, and kept helping himself to wine, and as the old grandmother felt drunk, she also felt very stiff and dignified. As for the girl, she showed nothing, except a peculiar brightness in her eyes, while the brown skin on the cheeks became more rosy.
The coffee finished them off; they spoke of singing, and each of them sang, or repeated a couplet, which the others repeated frantically. Then they got up with some difficulty, and while the two women, who were rather dizzy, were getting the fresh air, the two men, who were altogether drunk, were performing gymnastic tricks. Heavy, limp, and with scarlet faces, they hung awkwardly onto the iron rings, without being able to raise themselves, while their shirts were continually threatening to leave their trousers, and to flap in the wind like flags.
Meanwhile, the two boating-men had got their skiffs into the water, and they came back, and politely asked the ladies whether they would like a row.
“Would you like one, Monsieur Dufour?” his wife exclaimed, — “Please come!”
He merely gave her a drunken look, without understanding what she said. Then one of the rowers came up, with two fishing-rods in his hand; and the hope of catching a gudgeon, that great aim of the Parisian shop-keeper, made Dufour’s dull eyes gleam, and he politely allowed them to do whatever they liked, while he sat in the shade, under the bridge, with his feet dangling over the river, by the side of the young man with the yellow hair, who was sleeping soundly close to him.
One of the boating men made a martyr of himself and took the mother.
“Let us go to the little wood on the Ile aux Anglias!” he called out, as he rowed off. The other skiff went slower, for the rower was looking at his companion so intently, that he thought of nothing else, and his emotion paralyzed his strength, while the girl, who was sitting on the steerer’s seat, gave herself up to the enjoyment of being on the water. She felt disinclined to think, felt a lassitude in her limbs, and a total abandonment of herself, as if she were intoxicated, and she had become very flushed, and breathed shortly. The effects of the wine, which were increased by the extreme heat, made all the trees on the bank seem to bow, as she passed. A vague wish for enjoyment and a fermentation for her blood, seemed to pervade her whole body, which was excited by the heat of the day; and she was also agitated by this tête-à-tête on the water, in a place which seemed depopulated by the heat, with this young man who thought her pretty, whose looks seemed to caress her skin, and whose looks were as penetrating and pervading as the sun’s rays.
Their inability to speak, increased their emotion, and they looked about them, but at last he made an effort and asked her name.
“Henriette,” she said.
“Why! My name is Henri,” he replied. The sound of their voices had calmed them, and they looked at the banks. The other skiff had passed them, and seemed to be waiting for them, and the rower called out:
“We will meet you in the wood; we are going as far as Robinson’s1 because Madame Dufour is thirsty.” Then he bent over his oars again, and rowed off so quickly that he was soon out of sight.
1 A well-known restaurant on the banks of the Seine, which is much frequented by the middle classes. — TRANSLATOR.]
Meanwhile, a continual roar, which they had heard for some time, came nearer, and the river itself seemed to shiver, as if the dull noise were rising from its depths.
“What is that noise?” she asked. It was the noise of the weir, which cut the river in two, at the island, and he was explaining it to her, when above the noise of the waterfall, they heard the song of a bird, which seemed a long way off.
“Listen!” he said; “the nightingales are singing during the day, so the females must be sitting.”
A nightingale! She had never heard one before, and the idea of listening to one roused visions of poetic tenderness in her heart. A nightingale! That is to say, the invisible witness of her lovers’ interview which Juliette invoked on her balcony2; the celestial music, which is attuned to human kisses, that eternal inspirer of all those languorous romances which open an ideal sky to all the poor little tender hearts of sensitive girls!
2 Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene V.]
She was going to hear a nightingale.
“We must not make a noise,” her companion said, “and then we can go into the wood, and sit down close to it.”
The skiff seemed to glide. They saw the trees on the island, whose banks were so low, that they could look into the depths of the thickets. They stopped, he made the boat fast, Henriette took hold of Henri’s arm, and they went beneath the trees.
“Stop,” he said, so she bent down, and they went into an inextricable thicket of creepers, leaves, and reed-grass, which formed an inpenetrable asylum, and which the young man laughingly called, “his private room.”
Just above their heads, perched in one of the trees which hid them, the bird was still singing. He uttered shakes and roulades, and then long, vibrating sounds that filled the air, and seemed to lose themselves on the horizon, across the level country, through that burning silence which weighed upon the whole country round. They did not speak for fear of frightening it away. They were sitting close together, and slowly Henri’s arm stole round the girl’s waist and squeezed it gently. She took that daring hand without any anger, and kept removing it whenever he put it round her; without, however, feeling at all embarrassed by this caress, just as if it had been something quite natural, which she was resisting just as naturally.
She was listening to the bird in ecstasy. She felt an infinite longing for happiness, for some sudden demonstration of tenderness, for the revelation of super-human poetry, and she felt such a softening at her heart, and relaxation of her nerves, that she began to cry, without knowing why, and now the young man was straining her close to him, and she did not remove his arm; she did not think of it. Suddenly the nightingale stopped, and a voice called out in the distance:
“Do not reply,” he said in a low voice; “you will drive the bird away.”
But she had no idea of doing so, and they remained in the same position for some time. Madame Dufour had sat down somewhere or other, for from time to time they heard the stout lady break out into little bursts of laughter.
The girl was still crying; she was filled with strange sensations. Henri’s head was on her shoulder, and suddenly he kissed her on the lips. She was surprised and angry, and, to avoid him, she stood up.
They were both very pale, when they quitted their grassy retreat. The blue sky looked dull to them, and the ardent sun was clouded over to their eyes, but they perceived not the solitude and silence. They walked quickly side by side, without speaking or touching each other, for they appeared to be irreconcilable enemies, as if disgust had sprung up between them, and hatred between their souls, and from time to time Henriette called out: “Mamma!”
By-and-bye they heard a noise in a thicket, and the stout lady appeared looking rather confused, and her companion’s face was wrinkled with smiles which he could not check.
Madame Dufour took his arm, and they returned to the boats, and Henri, who was going on first, still without speaking, by the girl’s side, and at last they got back to Bézons. Monsieur Dufour, who had got sober, was waiting for them very impatiently, while the young man with the yellow hair, was having a mouthful of something to eat, before leaving the inn. The carriage was in the yard, with the horse in, and the grandmother, who had already got in, was very frightened at the thought of being overtaken by night, before they got back to Paris, as the outskirts were not safe.
They shook hands, and the Dufour family drove off.
“Good-bye, until we meet again!” the oarsman cried, and the answer they got was a sigh and a tear.
Two months later, as Henri was going along the Rue des Martyrs, he saw Dufour, Ironmonger over a door, and so he went in, and saw the stout lady sitting at the counter. They recognized each other immediately, and after an interchange of polite greetings, he asked after them all.
“And how is Mademoiselle Henriette?” he inquired, specially.
“Very well, thank you; she is married.”
“Ah!” . . . But mastering his feelings, he added: “Whom was she married to?”
“To that young man who went with us, you know, he has joined us in business.”
“I remember him, perfectly.”
He was going out, feeling very unhappy, though scarcely knowing why, when Madame called him back.
“And how is your friend?” she asked, rather shyly.
“He is very well, thank you.”
“Please give him our compliments, and beg him to come and call, when he is in the neighborhood.”
She then added: “Tell him it will give me great pleasure.”
“I will be sure to do so. Adieu!”
“I will not say that; come again, very soon.”
The next year, one very hot Sunday, all the details of that adventure which he had never forgotten, suddenly came back to him so clearly, that he returned to their room in the wood, and he was overwhelmed with astonishment when he went in. She was sitting on the grass, looking very sad, while by her side, again in his shirt sleeves the young man with the yellow hair was sleeping soundly, like some brute.
She grew so pale when she saw Henri, that at first he thought she was going to faint, then, however, they began to talk quite naturally. But when he told her that he was very fond of that spot, and went there very often on Sundays, she looked into his eyes for a long time. “I, too, think of it,” she replied.
“Come, my dear,” her husband said, with a yawn; “I think it is time for us to be going.”
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40