A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 16.

The finger-glasses had been handed round the table, and the ladies were daintily wiping their hands. A momentary silence reigned, while Madame Deberle gazed on either side to see if every one had finished; then, without speaking, she rose, and amidst a noisy pushing back of chairs, her guests followed her example. An old gentleman who had been seated at her right hand hastened to offer her his arm.

“No, no,” she murmured, as she led him towards a doorway. “We will now have coffee in the little drawing-room.”

The guests, in couples, followed her. Two ladies and two gentlemen, however, lagged behind the others, continuing their conversation, without thought of joining the procession. The drawing-room reached, all constraint vanished, and the joviality which had marked the dessert made its reappearance. The coffee was already served on a large lacquer tray on a table. Madame Deberle walked round like a hostess who is anxious to satisfy the various tastes of her guests. But it was Pauline who ran about the most, and more particularly waited on the gentlemen. There were a dozen persons present, about the regulation number of people invited to the house every Wednesday, from December onwards. Later in the evening, at ten o’clock, a great many others would make their appearance.

“Monsieur de Guiraud, a cup of coffee,” exclaimed Pauline, as she halted in front of a diminutive, bald-headed man. “Ah! no, I remember, you don’t take any. Well, then, a glass of Chartreuse?”

But she became confused in discharging her duties, and brought him a glass of cognac. Beaming with smiles, she made the round of the guests, perfectly self-possessed, and looking people straight in the face, while her long train dragged with easy grace behind her. She wore a magnificent gown of white Indian cashmere trimmed with swan’s -down, and cut square at the bosom. When the gentlemen were all standing up, sipping their coffee, each with cup in hand and chin high in the air, she began to tackle a tall young fellow named Tissot, whom she considered rather handsome.

Helene had not taken any coffee. She had seated herself apart, with a somewhat wearied expression on her face. Her black velvet gown, unrelieved by any trimming, gave her an air of austerity. In this small drawing-room smoking was allowed, and several boxes of cigars were placed beside her on the pier-table. The doctor drew near; as he selected a cigar he asked her: “Is Jeanne well?”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied. “We walked to the Bois to-day, and she romped like a madcap. Oh, she must be sound asleep by now.”

They were both chatting in friendly tones, with the smiling intimacy of people who see each other day after day, when Madame Deberle’s voice rose high and shrill:

“Stop! stop! Madame Grandjean can tell you all about it. Didn’t I come back from Trouville on the 10th of September? It was raining, and the beach had become quite unbearable!”

Three or four of the ladies were gathered round her while she rattled on about her holdiday at the seaside. Helene found it necessary to rise and join the group.

“We spent a month at Dinard,” said Madame de Chermette. “Such a delightful place, and such charming society!”

“Behind our chalet was a garden, and we had a terrace overlooking the sea,” went on Madame Deberle. “As you know, I decided on taking my landau and coachman with me. It was very much handier when I wanted a drive. Then Madame Levasseur came to see us —”

“Yes, one Sunday,” interrupted that lady. “We were at Cabourg. Your establishment was perfect, but a little too dear, I think.”

“By the way,” broke in Madame Berthier, addressing Juliette, “didn’t Monsieur Malignon give you lessons in swimming?”

Helene noticed a shadow of vexation, of sudden annoyance, pass over Madame Deberle’s face. Several times already she had fancied that, on Malignon’s name being brought unexpectedly into the conversation, Madame Deberle suddenly seemed perturbed. However, the young woman immediately regained her equanimity.

“A fine swimmer, indeed!” she exclaimed. “The idea of him ever giving lessons to any one! For my part, I have a mortal fear of cold water — the very sight of people bathing curdles my blood.”

She gave an eloquent shiver, with a shrug of her plump shoulders, as though she were a duck shaking water from her back.

“Then it’s a fable?” questioned Madame de Guiraud.

“Of course; and one, I presume, of his own invention. He detests me since he spent a month with us down there.”

People were now beginning to pour in. The ladies, with clusters of flowers in their hair, and round, plump arms, entered smiling and nodding; while the men, each in evening dress and hat in hand, bowed and ventured on some commonplace remark. Madame Deberle, never ceasing her chatter for a moment, extended the tips of her fingers to the friends of the house, many of whom said nothing, but passed on with a bow. However, Mademoiselle Aurelie had just appeared on the scene, and at once went into raptures over Juliette’s dress, which was of dark-blue velvet, trimmed with faille silk. At this all the ladies standing round seemed to catch their first glimpse of the dress, and declared it was exquisite, truly exquisite. It came, they learned, from Worth’s, and they discussed it for five minutes. The guests who had drunk their coffee had placed their empty cups here and there on the tray and on the pier-tables; only one old gentleman had not yet finished, as between every mouthful he paused to converse with a lady. A warm perfume, the aroma of the coffee and the ladies’ dresses intermingled, permeated the apartment.

“You know I have had nothing,” remonstrated young Monsieur Tissot with Pauline, who had been chatting with him about an artist to whose studio her father had escorted her with a view to examining the pictures.

“What! have you had nothing? Surely I brought you a cup of coffee?”

“No, mademoiselle, I assure you.”

“But I insist on your having something. See, here is some Chartreuse.”

Madame Deberle had just directed a meaning nod towards her husband. The doctor, understanding her, thereupon opened the door of a large drawing-room, into which they all filed, while a servant removed the coffee-tray. There was almost a chill atmosphere in this spacious apartment, through which streamed the white light of six lamps and a chandelier with ten wax candles. There were already some ladies there, sitting in a semi-circle round the fireplace, but only two or three men were present, standing amidst the sea of outspread skirts. And through the open doorway of the smaller drawing-room rang the shrill voice of Pauline, who had lingered behind in company with young Tissot.

“Now that I have poured it out, I’m determined you shall drink it. What would you have me do with it? Pierre has carried off the tray.”

Then she entered the larger room, a vision in white, with her dress trimmed with swan’s -down. Her ruddy lips parted, displaying her teeth, as she smilingly announced: “Here comes Malignon, the exquisite!”

Hand-shaking and bowing were now the order of the day. Monsieur Deberle had placed himself near the door. His wife, seated with some other ladies on an extremely low couch, rose every other second. When Malignon made his appearance, she affected to turn away her head. He was dressed to perfection; his hair had been curled, and was parted behind, down to his very neck. On the threshold he had stuck an eye-glass in his right eye with a slight grimace, which, according to Pauline, was just the thing; and now he cast a glance around the room. Having nonchalantly and silently shaken hands with the doctor, he made his way towards Madame Deberle, in front of whom he respectfully bent his tall figure.

“Oh, it’s you!” she exclaimed, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everybody. “It seems you go in for swimming now.”

He did not guess her meaning, but nevertheless replied, by way of a joke:

“Certainly; I once saved a Newfoundland dog from drowning.”

The ladies thought this extremely funny, and even Madame Deberle seemed disarmed.

“Well, I’ll allow you to save Newfoundlands,” she answered, “but you know very well I did not bathe once at Trouville.”

“Oh! you’re speaking of the lesson I gave you!” he exclaimed. “Didn’t I tell you one night in your dining-room how to move your feet and hands about?”

All the ladies were convulsed with mirth — he was delightful! Juliette shrugged her shoulders; it was impossible to engage him in a serious talk. Then she rose to meet a lady whose first visit this was to her house, and who was a superb pianist. Helene, seated near the fire, her lovely face unruffled by any emotion, looked on and listened. Malignon, especially, seemed to interest her. She saw him execute a strategical movement which brought him to Madame Deberle’s side, and she could hear the conversation that ensued behind her chair. Of a sudden there was a change in the tones, and she leaned back to gather the drift of what was being said.

“Why didn’t you come yesterday?” asked Malignon. “I waited for you till six o’clock.”

“Nonsense; you are mad,” murmured Juliette.

Thereupon Malignon loudly lisped: “Oh! you don’t believe the story about my Newfoundland! Yet I received a medal for it, and I’ll show it to you.”

Then he added, in a whisper: “You gave me your promise — remember.”

A family group now entered the drawing-room, and Juliette broke into complimentary greetings, while Malignon reappeared amongst the ladies, glass in eye. Helene had become quite pale since overhearing those hastily spoken words. It was as though a thunderbolt, or something equally unforeseen and horrible, had fallen on her. How could thoughts of treachery enter into the mind of that woman whose life was so happy, whose face betrayed no signs of sorrow, whose cheeks had the freshness of the rose? She had always known her to be devoid of brains, displaying an amiable egotism which seemed a guarantee that she would never commit a foolish action. And over such a fellow as Malignon, too! The scenes in the garden of an afternoon flashed back on her memory — she recalled Juliette smiling lovingly as the doctor kissed her hair. Their love for one another had seemed real enough. An inexplicable feeling of indignation with Juliette now pervaded Helene, as though some wrong had been done herself. She felt humiliated for Henri’s sake; she was consumed with jealous rage; and her perturbed feelings were so plainly mirrored in her face that Mademoiselle Aurelie asked her: “What is the matter with you? Do you feel ill?”

The old lady had sunk into a seat beside her immediately she had observed her to be alone. She had conceived a lively friendship for Helene, and was charmed with the kindly manner in which so sedate and lovely a woman would listen for hours to her tittle-tattle.

But Helene made no reply. A wild desire sprang up within her to gaze on Henri, to know what he was doing, and what was the expression of his face. She sat up, and glancing round the drawing-room, at last perceived him. He stood talking with a stout, pale man, and looked completely at his ease, his face wearing its customary refined smile. She scanned him for a moment, full of a pity which belittled him somewhat, though all the while she loved him the more with an affection into which entered some vague idea of watching over him. Her feelings, still in a whirl of confusion, inspired her with the thought that she ought to bring him back the happiness he had lost.

“Well, well!” muttered Mademoiselle Aurelie; “it will be pleasant if Madame de Guiraud’s sister favors us with a song. It will be the tenth time I have heard her sing the ‘Turtle-Doves.’ That is her stock song this winter. You know that she is separated from her husband. Do you see that dark gentleman down there, near the door? They are most intimate together, I believe. Juliette is compelled to have him here, for otherwise she wouldn’t come!”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Helene.

Madame Deberle was bustling about from one group to another, requesting silence for a song from Madame de Guiraud’s sister. The drawing-room was now crowded, some thirty ladies being seated in the centre whispering and laughing together; two, however, had remained standing, and were talking loudly and shrugging their shoulders in a pretty way, while five or six men sat quite at home amongst the fair ones, almost buried beneath the folds of their skirts and trains. A low “Hush!” ran round the room, the voices died away, and a stolid look of annoyance crept into every face. Only the fans could be heard rustling through the heated atmosphere.

Madame de Guiraud’s sister sang, but Helene never listened. Her eyes were now riveted on Malignon, who feigned an intense love of music, and appeared to be enraptured with the “Turtle Doves.” Was it possible? Could Juliette have turned a willing ear to the amorous chatter of the young fop? It was at Trouville, no doubt, that some dangerous game had been played. Malignon now sat in front of Juliette, marking the time of the music by swaying to and fro with the air of one who is enraptured. Madame Deberle’s face beamed in admiring complacency, while the doctor, good-natured and patient, silently awaited the last notes of the song in order to renew his talk with the stout, pale man.

There was a murmur of applause as the singer’s voice died away, and two or three exclaimed in tones of transport: “Delightful! magnificent!”

Malignon, however, stretching his arms over the ladies’ head-dresses, noiselessly clapped his gloved hands, and repeated “Brava! brava!” in a voice that rose high above the others.

The enthusiasm promptly came to an end, every face relaxed and smiled, and a few of the ladies rose, while, with the feeling of general relief, the buzz of conversation began again. The atmosphere was growing much warmer, and the waving fans wafted an odor of musk from the ladies’ dresses. At times, amidst the universal chatter, a peal of pearly laughter would ring out, or some word spoken in a loud tone would cause many to turn round. Thrice already had Juliette swept into the smaller drawing-room to request some gentleman who had escaped thither not to desert the ladies in so rude a fashion. They returned at her request, but ten minutes afterwards had again vanished.

“It’s intolerable,” she muttered, with an air of vexation; “not one of them will stay here.”

In the meantime Mademoiselle Aurelie was running over the ladies’ names for Helene’s benefit, as this was only the latter’s second evening visit to the doctor’s house. The most substantial people of Passy, some of them rolling in riches, were present. And the old maid leaned towards Helene and whispered in her ear: “Yes, it seems it’s all arranged. Madame de Chermette is going to marry her daughter to that tall fair fellow with whom she has flirted for the last eighteen months. Well, never mind, that will be one mother-in-law who’ll be fond of her son-in-law.”

She stopped short, and then burst out in a tone of intense surprise: “Good gracious! there’s Madame Levasseur’s husband speaking to that man. I thought Juliette had sworn never to have them here together.”

Helene’s glances slowly travelled round the room. Even amongst such seemingly estimable and honest people as these could there be women of irregular conduct? With her provincial austerity she was astounded at the manner in which wrongdoing was winked at in Paris. She railed at herself for her own painful repugnance when Juliette had shaken hands with her. Madame Deberle had now seemingly become reconciled with Malignon; she had curled up her little plump figure in an easy-chair, where she sat listening gleefully to his jests. Monsieur Deberle happened to pass them.

“You’re surely not quarrelling to-night?” asked he.

“No,” replied Juliette, with a burst of merriment. “He’s talking too much silly nonsense. If you had heard all the nonsense he’s been saying!”

There now came some more singing, but silence was obtained with greater difficulty. The aria selected was a duet from La Favorita, sung by young Monsieur Tissot and a lady of ripened charms, whose hair was dressed in childish style. Pauline, standing at one of the doors, amidst a crowd of black coats, gazed at the male singer with a look of undisguised admiration, as though she were examining a work of art.

“What a handsome fellow!” escaped from her lips, just as the accompaniment subsided into a softer key, and so loud was her voice that the whole drawing-room heard the remark.

As the evening progressed the guests’ faces began to show signs of weariness. Ladies who had occupied the same seat for hours looked bored, though they knew it not — they were even delighted at being able to get bored here. In the intervals between the songs, which were only half listened to, the murmur of conversation again resounded, and it seemed as though the deep notes of the piano were still echoing. Monsieur Letellier related how he had gone to Lyons for the purpose of inspecting some silk he had ordered, and how he had been greatly impressed by the fact that the Saone did not mingle its waters with those of the Rhone. Monsieur de Guiraud, who was a magistrate, gave vent to some sententious observations on the need of stemming the vice of Paris. There was a circle round a gentleman who was acquainted with a Chinaman, and was giving some particulars of his friend. In a corner two ladies were exchanging confidences about the failings of their servants; whilst literature was being discussed by those among whom Malignon sat enthroned. Madame Tissot declared Balzac to be unreadable, and Malignon did not deny it, but remarked that here and there, at intervals far and few, some very fine passages occurred in Balzac.

“A little silence, please!” all at once exclaimed Pauline; “she’s just going to play.”

The lady whose talent as a musician had been so much spoken of had just sat down to the piano. In accordance with the rules of politeness, every head was turned towards her. But in the general stillness which ensued the deep voices of the men conversing in the small drawing-room could be heard. Madame Deberle was in despair.

“They are a nuisance!” she muttered. “Let them stay there, if they don’t want to come in; but at least they ought to hold their tongues!”

She gave the requisite orders to Pauline, who, intensely delighted, ran into the adjacent apartment to carry out her instructions.

“You must know, gentlemen, that a lady is going to play,” she said, with the quiet boldness of a maiden in queenly garb. “You are requested to keep silence.”

She spoke in a very loud key, her voice being naturally shrill. And, as she lingered with the men, laughing and quizzing, the noise grew more pronounced than ever. There was a discussion going on among these males, and she supplied additional matter for argument. In the larger drawing-room Madame Deberle was in agony. The guests, moreover, had been sated with music, and no enthusiasm was displayed; so the pianist resumed her seat, biting her lips, notwithstanding the laudatory compliments which the lady of the house deemed it her duty to lavish on her.

Helene was pained. Henri scarcely seemed to see her; he had made no attempt to approach her, and only at intervals smiled to her from afar. At the earlier part of the evening she had felt relieved by his prudent reserve; but since she had learnt the secret of the two others she wished for something — she knew not what — some display of affection, or at least interest, on his part. Her breast was stirred with confused yearnings, and every imaginable evil thought. Did he no longer care for her, that he remained so indifferent to her presence? Oh! if she could have told him everything! If she could apprise him of the unworthiness of the woman who bore his name! Then, while some short, merry catches resounded from the piano, she sank into a dreamy state. She imagined that Henri had driven Juliette from his home, and she was living with him as his wife in some far-away foreign land, the language of which they knew not.

All at once a voice startled her.

“Won’t you take anything?” asked Pauline.

The drawing-room had emptied, and the guests were passing into the dining-room to drink some tea. Helene rose with difficulty. She was dazed; she thought she had dreamt it all — the words she had heard, Juliette’s secret intrigue, and its consequences. If it had all been true, Henri would surely have been at her side and ere this both would have quitted the house.

“Will you take a cup of tea?”

She smiled and thanked Madame Deberle, who had kept a place for her at the table. Plates loaded with pastry and sweetmeats covered the cloth, while on glass stands arose two lofty cakes, flanking a large brioche. The space was limited, and the cups of tea were crowded together, narrow grey napkins with long fringes lying between each two. The ladies only were seated. They held biscuits and preserved fruits with the tips of their ungloved fingers, and passed each other the cream-jugs and poured out the cream with dainty gestures. Three or four, however, had sacrificed themselves to attend on the men, who were standing against the walls, and, while drinking, taking all conceivable precautions to ward off any push which might be unwittingly dealt them. A few others lingered in the two drawing-rooms, waiting for the cakes to come to them. This was the hour of Pauline’s supreme delight. There was a shrill clamor of noisy tongues, peals of laughter mingled with the ringing clatter of silver plate, and the perfume of musk grew more powerful as it blended with the all-pervading fragrance of the tea.

“Kindly pass me some cake,” said Mademoiselle Aurelie to Helene, close to whom she happened to find herself. “These sweetmeats are frauds!”

She had, however, already emptied two plates of them. And she continued, with her mouth full:

“Oh! some of the people are beginning to go now. We shall be a little more comfortable.”

In truth, several ladies were now leaving, after shaking hands with Madame Deberle. Many of the gentlemen had already wisely vanished, and the room was becoming less crowded. Now came the opportunity for the remaining gentlemen to sit down at table in their turn. Mademoiselle Aurelie, however, did not quit her place, though she would much have liked to secure a glass of punch.

“I will get you one,” said Helene, starting to her feet.

“No, no, thank you. You must not inconvenience yourself so much.”

For a short time Helene had been watching Malignon. He had just shaken hands with the doctor, and was now bidding farewell to Juliette at the doorway. She had a lustrous face and sparkling eyes, and by her complacent smile it might have been imagined that she was receiving some commonplace compliments on the evening’s success. While Pierre was pouring out the punch at a sideboard near the door, Helene stepped forward in such wise as to be hidden from view by the curtain, which had been drawn back. She listened.

Malignon appoints a rendezvous with Juliette

“I beseech you,” Malignon was saying, “come the day after to-morrow. I shall wait for you till three o’clock.”

“Why cannot you talk seriously,” replied Madame Deberle, with a laugh. “What foolish things you say!”

But with greater determination he repeated: “I shall wait for you — the day after to-morrow.”

Then she hurriedly gave a whispered reply:

“Very well — the day after to-morrow.”

Malignon bowed and made his exit. Madame de Chermette followed in company with Madame Tissot. Juliette, in the best of spirits, walked with them into the hall, and said to the former of these ladies with her most amiable look:

“I shall call on you the day after to-morrow. I have a lot of calls to make that day.”

Helene stood riveted to the floor, her face quite white. Pierre, in the meanwhile, had poured out the punch, and now handed the glass to her. She grasped it mechanically and carried it to Mademoiselle Aurelie, who was making an inroad on the preserved fruits.

“Oh, you are far too kind!” exclaimed the old maid. “I should have made a sign to Pierre. I’m sure it’s a shame not offering the punch to ladies. Why, when people are my age —”

She got no further, however, for she observed the ghastliness of Helene’s face. “You surely are in pain! You must take a drop of punch!”

“Thank you, it’s nothing. The heat is so oppressive —”

She staggered, and turned aside into the deserted drawing-room, where she dropped into an easy-chair. The lamps were shedding a reddish glare; and the wax candles in the chandelier, burnt to their sockets, threatened imminent destruction to the crystal sconces. From the dining-room were wafted the farewells of the departing guests. Helene herself had lost all thoughts of going; she longed to linger where she was, plunged in thought. So it was no dream after all; Juliette would visit that man the day after to-morrow — she knew the day. Then the thought struck her that she ought to speak to Juliette and warn her against sin. But this kindly thought chilled her to the heart, and she drove it from her mind as though it were out of place, and deep in meditation gazed at the grate, where a smouldering log was crackling. The air was still heavy and oppressive with the perfumes from the ladies’ hair.

“What! you are here!” exclaimed Juliette as she entered. “Well, you are kind not to run away all at once. At last we can breathe!”

Helene was surprised, and made a movement as though about to rise; but Juliette went on: “Wait, wait, you are in no hurry. Henri, get me my smelling-salts.”

Three or four persons, intimate friends, had lingered behind the others. They sat before the dying fire and chatted with delightful freedom, while the vast room wearily sank into a doze. The doors were open, and they saw the smaller drawing-room empty, the dining-room deserted, the whole suite of rooms still lit up and plunged in unbroken silence. Henri displayed a tender gallantry towards his wife; he had run up to their bedroom for her smelling-salts, which she inhaled with closed eyes, whilst he asked her if she had not fatigued herself too much. Yes, she felt somewhat tired; but she was delighted — everything had gone off so well. Next she told them that on her reception nights she could not sleep, but tossed about till six o’clock in the morning. Henri’s face broke into a smile, and some quizzing followed. Helene looked at them, and quivered amidst the benumbing drowsiness which little by little seemed to fall upon the whole house.

However, only two guests now remained. Pierre had gone in search of a cab. Helene remained the last. One o’clock struck. Henri, no longer standing on ceremony, rose on tiptoe and blew out two candles in the chandelier which were dangerously heating their crystal sconces. As the lights died out one by one, it seemed like a bedroom scene, the gloom of an alcove spreading over all.

“I am keeping you up!” exclaimed Helene, as she suddenly rose to her feet. “You must turn me out.”

A flush of red dyed her face; her blood, racing through her veins, seemed to stifle her. They walked with her into the hall, but the air there was chilly, and the doctor was somewhat alarmed for his wife in her low dress.

“Go back; you will do yourself harm. You are too warm.”

“Very well; good-bye,” said Juliette, embracing Helene, as was her wont in her most endearing moments. “Come and see me oftener.”

Henri had taken Helene’s fur coat in his hand, and held it outstretched to assist her in putting it on. When she had slipped her arms into the sleeves, he turned up the collar with a smile, while they stood in front of an immense mirror which covered one side of the hall. They were alone, and saw one another in the mirror’s depths. For three months, on meeting and parting they had simply shaken hands in friendly greeting; they would fain that their love had died. But now Helene was overcome, and sank back into his arms. The smile vanished from his face, which became impassioned, and, still clasping her, he kissed her on the neck. And she, raising her head, returned his kiss.


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