A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 1.

The night-lamp with a bluish shade was burning on the chimney-piece, behind a book, whose shadows plunged more than half the chamber in darkness. There was a quiet gleam of light cutting across the round table and the couch, streaming over the heavy folds of the velvet curtains, and imparting an azure hue to the mirror of the rosewood wardrobe placed between the two windows. The quiet simplicity of the room, the blue tints on the hangings, furniture, and carpet, served at this hour of night to invest everything with the delightful vagueness of cloudland. Facing the windows, and within sweep of the shadow, loomed the velvet-curtained bed, a black mass, relieved only by the white of the sheets. With hands crossed on her bosom, and breathing lightly, lay Helene, asleep — mother and widow alike personified by the quiet unrestraint of her attitude.

In the midst of the silence one o’clock chimed from the timepiece. The noises of the neighborhood had died away; the dull, distant roar of the city was the only sign of life that disturbed those Trocadero heights. Helene’s breathing, so light and gentle, did not ruffle the chaste repose of her bosom. She was in a beauteous sleep, peaceful yet sound, her profile perfect, her nut-brown hair twisted into a knot, and her head leaning forward somewhat, as though she had fallen asleep while eagerly listening. At the farther end of the room the open door of an adjoining closet seemed but a black square in the wall.

Still there was not a sound. The half-hour struck. The pendulum gave but a feeble tick-tack amid the general drowsiness that brooded over the whole chamber. Everything was sleeping, night-lamp and furniture alike; on the table, near an extinguished lamp, some woman’s handiwork was disposed also in slumber. Helene in her sleep retained her air of gravity and kindliness.

Two o’clock struck, and the stillness was broken. A deep sigh issued from the darkness of the closet. There was a rustling of linen sheets, and then silence reigned again. Anon labored breathing broke through the gloom. Helene had not moved. Suddenly, however, she started up, for the moanings and cries of a child in pain had roused her. Dazed with sleep, she pressed her hands against her temples, but hearing a stifled sob, she leaped from her couch on to the carpet.

“Jeanne! my Jeanne! what ails you? tell me, love,” she asked; and as the child remained silent, she murmured, while running towards the night-light, “Gracious Heaven! why did I go to bed when she was so ill?”

Quickly she entered the closet, where deep silence had again fallen. The feeble gleam of the lamp threw but a circular patch of light on the ceiling. Bending over the iron cot, she could at first make out nothing, but amidst the bed-clothes, tossed about in disorder, the dim light soon revealed Jeanne, with limbs quite stiff, her head flung back, the muscles of her neck swollen and rigid. Her sweet face was distorted, her eyes were open and fixed on the curtain-rod above.

“My child!” cried Helene. “My God! my God! she is dying.”

Setting down the lamp, Helene touched her daughter with trembling hands. The throbbing of the pulse and the heart’s action seemed to have died away. The child’s puny arms and legs were stretched out convulsively, and the mother grew frantic at the sight.

“My child is dying! Help, help!” she stammered. “My child! my child!”

She wandered back to her room, brushing against the furniture, and unconscious of her movements; then, distracted, she again returned to the little bed, throwing herself on her knees, and ever appealing for help. She took Jeanne in her arms, rained kisses on her hair, and stroked her little body, begging her to answer, and seeking one word — only one word — from her silent lips. Where was the pain? Would she have some of the cooling drink she had liked the other day? Perhaps the fresh air would revive her? So she rattled on, bent on making the child speak.

“Speak to me, Jeanne! speak to me, I entreat you!”

Oh, God! and not to know what to do in this sudden terror born of the night! There was no light even. Then her ideas grew confused, though her supplications to the child continued — at one moment she was beseeching, at another answering in her own person. Thus, the pain gripped her in the stomach; no, no, it must be in the breast. It was nothing at all; she need merely keep quiet. Then Helene tried to collect her scattered senses; but as she felt her daughter stark and stiff in her embrace, her heart sickened unto death. She tried to reason with herself, and to resist the yearning to scream. But all at once, despite herself, her cry rang out

“Rosalie, Rosalie! my child is dying. Quick, hurry for the doctor.”

Screaming out these words, she ran through dining-room and kitchen to a room in the rear, where the maid started up from sleep, giving vent to her surprise. Helene speeded back again. Clad only in her night-dress she moved about, seemingly not feeling the icy cold of the February night. Pah! this maid would loiter, and her child would die! Back again she hurried through the kitchen to the bedroom before a minute had elapsed. Violently, and in the dark, she slipped on a petticoat, and threw a shawl over her shoulders. The furniture in her way was overturned; the room so still and silent was filled with the echoes of her despair. Then leaving the doors open, she rushed down three flights of stairs in her slippers, consumed with the thought that she alone could bring back a doctor.

After the house-porter had opened the door Helene found herself upon the pavement, with a ringing in her ears and her mind distracted. However, she quickly ran down the Rue Vineuse and pulled the door-bell of Doctor Bodin, who had already tended Jeanne; but a servant — after an interval which seemed an eternity — informed her that the doctor was attending a woman in childbed. Helene remained stupefied on the footway; she knew no other doctor in Passy. For a few moments she rushed about the streets, gazing at the houses. A slight but keen wind was blowing, and she was walking in slippers through the light snow that had fallen during the evening. Ever before her was her daughter, with the agonizing thought that she was killing her by not finding a doctor at once. Then, as she retraced her steps along the Rue Vineuse, she rang the bell of another house. She would inquire, at all events; some one would perhaps direct her. She gave a second tug at the bell; but no one seemed to come. The wind meanwhile played with her petticoat, making it cling to her legs, and tossed her dishevelled hair.

At last a servant answered her summons. “Doctor Deberle was in bed asleep.” It was a doctor’s house at which she had rung, so Heaven had not abandoned her! Straightway, intent upon entering, she pushed the servant aside, still repeating her prayer:

“My child, my child is dying! Oh, tell him he must come!”

The house was small and seemed full of hangings. She reached the first floor, despite the servant’s opposition, always answering his protest with the words, “My child is dying!” In the apartment she entered she would have been content to wait; but the moment she heard the doctor stirring in the next room she drew near and appealed to him through the doorway:

“Oh, sir, come at once, I beseech you. My child is dying!”

When the doctor at last appeared in a short coat and without a neckcloth, she dragged him away without allowing him to finish dressing. He at once recognized her as a resident in the next-door house, and one of his own tenants; so when he induced her to cross a garden — to shorten the way by using a side-door between the two houses — memory suddenly awoke within her.

“True, you are a doctor!” she murmured, “and I knew it. But I was distracted. Oh, let us hurry!”

On the staircase she wished him to go first. She could not have admitted the Divinity to her home in a more reverent manner. Upstairs Rosalie had remained near the child, and had lit the large lamp on the table. After the doctor had entered the room he took up this lamp and cast its light upon the body of the child, which retained its painful rigidity; the head, however, had slipped forward, and nervous twitchings were ceaselessly drawing the face. For a minute he looked on in silence, his lips compressed. Helene anxiously watched him, and on noticing the mother’s imploring glance, he muttered: “It will be nothing. But she must not lie here. She must have air.”

Helene grasped her child in a strong embrace, and carried her away on her shoulder. She could have kissed the doctor’s hand for his good tidings, and a wave of happiness rippled through her. Scarcely, however, had Jeanne been placed in the larger bed than her poor little frame was again seized with violent convulsions. The doctor had removed the shade from the lamp, and a white light was streaming through the room. Then, opening a window, he ordered Rosalie to drag the bed away from the curtains. Helene’s heart was again filled with anguish. “Oh, sir, she is dying,” she stammered. “Look! look! Ah! I scarcely recognize her.”

The doctor did not reply, but watched the paroxysm attentively.

“Step into the alcove,” he at last exclaimed. “Hold her hands to prevent her from tearing herself. There now, gently, quietly! Don’t make yourself uneasy. The fit must be allowed to run its course.”

They both bent over the bed, supporting and holding Jeanne, whose limbs shot out with sudden jerks. The doctor had buttoned up his coat to hide his bare neck, and Helene’s shoulders had till now been enveloped in her shawl; but Jeanne in her struggles dragged a corner of the shawl away, and unbuttoned the top of the coat. Still they did not notice it; they never even looked at one another.

Jeanne's illness

At last the convulsion ceased, and the little one then appeared to sink into deep prostration. Doctor Deberle was evidently ill at ease, though he had assured the mother that there was no danger. He kept his gaze fixed on the sufferer, and put some brief questions to Helene as she stood by the bedside.

“How old is the child?”

“Eleven years and six months, sir,” was the reply.

Silence again fell between them. He shook his head, and stooped to raise one of Jeanne’s lowered eyelids and examine the mucus. Then he resumed his questions, but without raising his eyes to Helene.

“Did she have convulsions when she was a baby?”

“Yes, sir; but they left her after she reached her sixth birthday. Ah! she is very delicate. For some days past she had seemed ill at ease. She was at times taken with cramp, and plunged in a stupor.”

“Do you know of any members of your family that have suffered from nervous affections?”

“I don’t know. My mother was carried off by consumption.”

Here shame made her pause. She could not confess that she had a grandmother who was an inmate of a lunatic asylum.* There was something tragic connected with all her ancestry.

* This is Adelaide Fouque, otherwise Aunt Dide, the ancestress of the Rougon-Macquart family, whose early career is related in the “Fortune of the Rougons,” whilst her death is graphically described in the pages of “Dr. Pascal.”

“Take care! the convulsions are coming on again!” now hastily exclaimed the doctor.

Jeanne had just opened her eyes, and for a moment she gazed around her with a vacant look, never speaking a word. Her glance then grew fixed, her body was violently thrown backwards, and her limbs became distended and rigid. Her skin, fiery-red, all at once turned livid. Her pallor was the pallor of death; the convulsions began once more.

“Do not loose your hold of her,” said the doctor. “Take her other hand!”

He ran to the table, where, on entering, he had placed a small medicine-case. He came back with a bottle, the contents of which he made Jeanne inhale; but the effect was like that of a terrible lash; the child gave such a violent jerk that she slipped from her mother’s hands.

“No, no, don’t give her ether,” exclaimed Helene, warned by the odor. “It drives her mad.”

The two had now scarcely strength enough to keep the child under control. Her frame was racked and distorted, raised by the heels and the nape of the neck, as if bent in two. But she fell back again and began tossing from one side of the bed to the other. Her fists were clenched, her thumbs bent against the palms of her hands. At times she would open the latter, and, with fingers wide apart, grasp at phantom bodies in the air, as though to twist them. She touched her mother’s shawl and fiercely clung to it. But Helene’s greatest grief was that she no longer recognized her daughter. The suffering angel, whose face was usually so sweet, was transformed in every feature, while her eyes swam, showing balls of a nacreous blue.

“Oh, do something, I implore you!” she murmured. “My strength is exhausted, sir.”

She had just remembered how the child of a neighbor at Marseilles had died of suffocation in a similar fit. Perhaps from feelings of pity the doctor was deceiving her. Every moment she believed she felt Jeanne’s last breath against her face; for the child’s halting respiration seemed suddenly to cease. Heartbroken and overwhelmed with terror, Helene then burst into tears, which fell on the body of her child, who had thrown off the bedclothes.

The doctor meantime was gently kneading the base of the neck with his long supple fingers. Gradually the fit subsided, and Jeanne, after a few slight twitches, lay there motionless. She had fallen back in the middle of the bed, with limbs outstretched, while her head, supported by the pillow, inclined towards her bosom. One might have thought her an infant Jesus. Helene stooped and pressed a long kiss on her brow.

“Is it over?” she asked in a whisper. “Do you think she’ll have another fit?”

The doctor made an evasive gesture, and then replied:

“In any case the others will be less violent.”

He had asked Rosalie for a glass and water-bottle. Half-filling the glass with water, he took up two fresh medicine phials, and counted out a number of drops. Helene assisted in raising the child’s head, and the doctor succeeded in pouring a spoonful of the liquid between the clenched teeth. The white flame of the lamp was leaping up high and clear, revealing the disorder of the chamber’s furnishings. Helene’s garments, thrown on the back of an arm-chair before she slipped into bed, had now fallen, and were littering the carpet. The doctor had trodden on her stays, and had picked them up lest he might again find them in his way. An odor of vervain stole through the room. The doctor himself went for the basin, and soaked a linen cloth in it, which he then pressed to Jeanne’s temples.

“Oh, madame, you’ll take cold!” expostulated Rosalie as she stood there shivering. “Perhaps the window might be shut? The air is too raw.”

“No, no!” cried Helene; “leave the window open. Should it not be so?” she appealed to the doctor.

The wind entered in slight puffs, rustling the curtains to and fro; but she was quite unconscious of it. Yet the shawl had slipped off her shoulders, and her hair had become unwound, some wanton tresses sweeping down to her hips. She had left her arms free and uncovered, that she might be the more ready; she had forgotten all, absorbed entirely in her love for her child. And on his side, the doctor, busy with his work, no longer thought of his unbuttoned coat, or of the shirt-collar that Jeanne’s clutch had torn away.

“Raise her up a little,” said he to Helene. “No, no, not in that way! Give me your hand.”

He took her hand and placed it under the child’s head. He wished to give Jeanne another spoonful of the medicine. Then he called Helene close to him, made use of her as his assistant; and she obeyed him reverently on seeing that her daughter was already more calm.

“Now, come,” he said. “You must let her head lean against your shoulder, while I listen.”

Helene did as he bade her, and he bent over her to place his ear against Jeanne’s bosom. He touched her bare shoulder with his cheek, and as the pulsation of the child’s heart struck his ear he could also have heard the throbbing of the mother’s breast. As he rose up his breath mingled with Helene’s.

“There is nothing wrong there,” was the quiet remark that filled her with delight. “Lay her down again. We must not worry her more.”

However, another, though much less violent, paroxysm followed. From Jeanne’s lips burst some broken words. At short intervals two fresh attacks seemed about to convulse her, and then a great prostration, which again appeared to alarm the doctor, fell on the child. He had placed her so that her head lay high, with the clothes carefully tucked under her chin; and for nearly an hour he remained there watching her, as though awaiting the return of a healthy respiration. On the other side of the bed Helene also waited, never moving a limb.

Little by little a great calm settled on Jeanne’s face. The lamp cast a sunny light upon it, and it regained its exquisite though somewhat lengthy oval. Jeanne’s fine eyes, now closed, had large, bluish, transparent lids, which veiled — one could divine it — a sombre, flashing glance. A light breathing came from her slender nose, while round her somewhat large mouth played a vague smile. She slept thus, amidst her outspread tresses, which were inky black.

“It has all passed away now,” said the doctor in a whisper; and he turned to arrange his medicine bottles prior to leaving.

“Oh, sir!” exclaimed Helene, approaching him, “don’t leave me yet; wait a few minutes. Another fit might come on, and you, you alone, have saved her!”

He signed to her that there was nothing to fear; yet he tarried, with the idea of tranquillizing her. She had already sent Rosalie to bed; and now the dawn soon broke, still and grey, over the snow which whitened the housetops. The doctor proceeded to close the window, and in the deep quiet the two exchanged a few whispers.

“There is nothing seriously wrong with her, I assure you,” said he; “only with one so young great care must be taken. You must see that her days are spent quietly and happily, and without shocks of any kind.”

“She is so delicate and nervous,” replied Helene after a moment’s pause. “I cannot always control her. For the most trifling reasons she is so overcome by joy or sorrow that I grow alarmed. She loves me with a passion, a jealousy, which makes her burst into tears when I caress another child.”

“So, so — delicate, nervous, and jealous,” repeated the doctor as he shook his head. “Doctor Bodin has attended her, has he not? I’ll have a talk with him about her. We shall have to adopt energetic treatment. She has reached an age that is critical in one of her sex.”

Recognizing the interest he displayed, Helene gave vent to her gratitude. “How I must thank you, sir, for the great trouble you have taken!”

The loudness of her tones frightened her, however; she might have woke Jeanne, and she bent down over the bed. But no; the child was sound asleep, with rosy cheeks, and a vague smile playing round her lips. The air of the quiet chamber was charged with languor. The whilom drowsiness, as if born again of relief, once more seized upon the curtains, furniture, and littered garments. Everything was steeped restfully in the early morning light as it entered through the two windows.

Helene again stood up close to the bed; on the other side was the doctor, and between them lay Jeanne, lightly sleeping.

“Her father was frequently ill,” remarked Helene softly, continuing her answer to his previous question. “I myself enjoy the best of health.”

The doctor, who had not yet looked at her, raised his eyes, and could scarcely refrain from smiling, so hale and hearty was she in every way. She greeted his gaze with her own sweet and quiet smile. Her happiness lay in her good health.

However, his looks were still bent on her. Never had he seen such classical beauty. Tall and commanding, she was a nut-brown Juno, of a nut-brown sunny with gleams of gold. When she slowly turned her head, its profile showed the severe purity of a statue. Her grey eyes and pearly teeth lit up her whole face. Her chin, rounded and somewhat pronounced, proved her to be possessed of commonsense and firmness. But what astonished the doctor was the superbness of her whole figure. She stood there, a model of queenliness, chastity, and modesty.

On her side also she scanned him for a moment. Doctor Deberle’s years were thirty-five; his face was clean-shaven and a little long; he had keen eyes and thin lips. As she gazed on him she noticed for the first time that his neck was bare. Thus they remained face to face, with Jeanne asleep between them. The distance which but a short time before had appeared immense, now seemed to be dwindling away. Then Helene slowly wrapped the shawl about her shoulders again, while the doctor hastened to button his coat at the neck.

“Mamma! mamma!” Jeanne stammered in her sleep. She was waking, and on opening her eyes she saw the doctor and became uneasy.

“Mamma, who’s that?” was her instant question; but her mother kissed her, and replied: “Go to sleep, darling, you haven’t been well. It’s only a friend.”

The child seemed surprised; she did not remember anything. Drowsiness was coming over her once more, and she fell asleep again, murmuring tenderly: “I’m going to by-by. Good-night, mamma, dear. If he is your friend he will be mine.”

The doctor had removed his medicine-case, and, with a silent bow, he left the room. Helene listened for a while to the child’s breathing, and then, seated on the edge of the bed, she became oblivious to everything around her; her looks and thoughts wandering far away. The lamp, still burning, was paling in the growing sunlight.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02