A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 19.

Leaning back in an easy-chair, with his legs stretched out before the huge, blazing fire, Malignon sat waiting. He had considered it a good idea to draw the window-curtains and light the wax candles. The outer room, in which he had seated himself, was brilliantly illuminated by a small chandelier and a pair of candelabra; whilst the other apartment was plunged in shadow, the swinging crystal lamp alone casting on the floor a twilight gleam. Malignon drew out his watch.

“The deuce!” he muttered. “Is she going to keep me waiting again?”

He gave vent to a slight yawn. He had been waiting for an hour already, and it was small amusement to him. However, he rose and cast a glance over his preparations.

The arrangement of the chairs did not please him, and he rolled a couch in front of the fireplace. The cretonne hangings had a ruddy glow, as they reflected the light of the candles; the room was warm, silent, and cozy, while outside the wind came and went in sudden gusts. All at once the young man heard three hurried knocks at the door. It was the signal.

“At last!” he exclaimed aloud, his face beaming jubilantly.

He ran to open the door, and Juliette entered, her face veiled, her figure wrapped in a fur mantle. While Malignon was gently closing the door, she stood still for a moment, with the emotion that checked the words on her lips undetected.

However, before the young man had had time to take her hand, she raised her veil, and displayed a smiling face, rather pale, but quite unruffled.

“What! you have lighted up the place!” she exclaimed. “Why? I thought you hated candles in broad daylight!”

Malignon, who had been making ready to clasp her with a passionate gesture that he had been rehearsing, was put somewhat out of countenance by this remark, and hastened to explain that the day was too wretched, and that the windows looked on to waste patches of ground. Besides, night was his special delight.

“Well, one never knows how to take you,” she retorted jestingly. “Last spring, at my children’s ball, you made such a fuss, declaring that the place was like some cavern, some dead-house. However, let us say that your taste has changed.”

She seemed to be paying a mere visit, and affected a courage which slightly deepened her voice. This was the only indication of her uneasiness. At times her chin twitched somewhat, as though she felt some uneasiness in her throat. But her eyes were sparkling, and she tasted to the full the keen pleasure born of her imprudence. She thought of Madame de Chermette, of whom such scandalous stories were related. Good heavens! it seemed strange all the same.

“Let us have a look round,” she began.

And thereupon she began inspecting the apartment. He followed in her footsteps, while she gazed at the furniture, examined the walls, looked upwards, and started back, chattering all the time.

“I don’t like your cretonne; it is so frightfully common!” said she. “Where did you buy that abominable pink stuff? There’s a chair that would be nice if the wood weren’t covered with gilding. Not a picture, not a nick-nack — only your chandelier and your candelabra, which are by no means in good style! Ah well, my dear fellow; I advise you to continue laughing at my Japanese pavilion!”

She burst into a laugh, thus revenging herself on him for the old affronts which still rankled in her breast.

“Your taste is a pretty one, and no mistake! You don’t know that my idol is worth more than the whole lot of your things! A draper’s shopman wouldn’t have selected that pink stuff. Was it your idea to fascinate your washerwoman?”

Malignon felt very much hurt, and did not answer. He made an attempt to lead her into the inner room; but she remained on the threshold, declaring that she never entered such gloomy places. Besides, she could see quite enough; the one room was worthy of the other. The whole of it had come from the Saint-Antoine quarter.

But the hanging lamp was her special aversion. She attacked it with merciless raillery — what a trashy thing it was, such as some little work-girl with no furniture of her own might have dreamt of! Why, lamps in the same style could be bought at all the bazaars at seven francs fifty centimes apiece.

“I paid ninety francs for it,” at last ejaculated Malignon in his impatience.

Thereupon she seemed delighted at having angered him.

On his self-possession returning, he inquired: “Won’t you take off your cloak?”

“Oh, yes, I will,” she answered; “it is dreadfully warm here.”

She took off her bonnet as well, and this with her fur cloak he hastened to deposit in the next room. When he returned, he found her seated in front of the fire, still gazing round her. She had regained her gravity, and was disposed to display a more conciliatory demeanor.

“It’s all very ugly,” she said; “still, you are not amiss here. The two rooms might have been made very pretty.”

“Oh! they’re good enough for my purpose!” he thoughtlessly replied, with a careless shrug of the shoulders.

The next moment, however, he bitterly regretted these silly words. He could not possibly have been more impertinent or clumsy. Juliette hung her head, and a sharp pang darted through her bosom. Then he sought to turn to advantage the embarrassment into which he had plunged her.

“Juliette!” he said pleadingly, as he leaned towards her.

But with a gesture she forced him to resume his seat. It was at the seaside, at Trouville, that Malignon, bored to death by the constant sight of the sea, had hit upon the happy idea of falling in love. One evening he had taken hold of Juliette’s hand. She had not seemed offended; in fact, she had at first bantered him over it. Soon, though her head was empty and her heart free, she imagined that she loved him. She had, so far, done nearly everything that her friends did around her; a lover only was lacking, and curiosity and a craving to be like the others had impelled her to secure one. However, Malignon was vain enough to imagine that he might win her by force of wit, and allowed her time to accustom herself to playing the part of a coquette. So, on the first outburst, which took place one night when they stood side by side gazing at the sea like a pair of lovers in a comic opera, she had repelled him, in her astonishment and vexation that he should spoil the romance which served as an amusement to her.

On his return to Paris Malignon had vowed that he would be more skilful in his attack. He had just reacquired influence over her, during a fit of boredom which had come on with the close of a wearying winter, when the usual dissipations, dinners, balls, and first-night performances were beginning to pall on her with their dreary monotony. And at last, her curiosity aroused, allured by the seeming mystery and piquancy of an intrigue, she had responded to his entreaties by consenting to meet him. However, so wholly unruffled were her feelings, that she was as little disturbed, seated here by the side of Malignon, as when she paid visits to artists’ studios to solicit pictures for her charity bazaars.

“Juliette! Juliette!” murmured the young man, striving to speak in caressing tones.

“Come, be sensible,” she merely replied; and taking a Chinese fan from the chimney-piece, she resumed — as much at her ease as though she had been sitting in her own drawing-room: “You know we had a rehearsal this morning. I’m afraid I have not made a very happy choice in Madame Berthier. Her ‘Mathilda’ is a snivelling, insufferable affair. You remember that delightful soliloquy when she addresses the purse —‘Poor little thing, I kissed you a moment ago’? Well! she declaims it like a school-girl who has learnt a complimentary greeting. It’s so vexatious!”

“And what about Madame de Guiraud?” he asked, as he drew his chair closer and took her hand.

“Oh! she is perfection. I’ve discovered in her a ‘Madame de Lery,’ with some sarcasm and animation.”

While speaking she surrendered her hand to the young man, and he kissed it between her sentences without her seeming to notice it.

“But the worst of it all, you know,” she resumed, “is your absence. In the first place, you might say something to Madame Berthier; and besides, we shall not be able to get a good ensemble if you never come.”

He had now succeeded in passing his arm round her waist.

“But as I know my part,” he murmured.

“Yes, that’s all very well; but there’s the arrangement of the scenes to look after. It is anything but obliging on your part to refuse to give us three or four mornings.”

She was unable to continue, for he was raining a shower of kisses on her neck. At this she could feign ignorance no longer, but pushed him away, tapping him the while with the Chinese fan which she still retained in her hand. Doubtless, she had registered a vow that she would not allow any further familiarity. Her face was now flushed by the heat reflected from the fire, and her lips pouted with the very expression of an inquisitive person whom her feelings astonish. Moreover, she was really getting frightened.

“Leave me alone,” she stammered, with a constrained smile. “I shall get angry.”

But he imagined that he had moved her, and once more took hold of her hands. To her, however, a voice seemed to be crying out, “No!” It was she herself protesting before she had even answered her own heart.

“No, no!” she said again. “Let me go; you are hurting me!” And thereupon, as he refused to release her, she twisted herself violently from his grasp. She was acting in obedience to some strange emotion; she felt angry with herself and with him. In her agitation some disjointed phrases escaped her lips. Yes, indeed, he rewarded her badly for her trust. What a brute he was! She even called him a coward. Never in her life would she see him again. But he allowed her to talk on, and ran after her with a wicked and brutal laugh. And at last she could do no more than gasp in the momentary refuge which she had sought behind a chair. They were there, gazing at one another, her face transformed by shame and his by passion, when a noise broke through the stillness. At first they did not grasp its significance. A door had opened, some steps crossed the room, and a voice called to them:

“Fly! fly! You will be caught!”

It was Helene. Astounded, they both gazed at her. So great was their stupefaction that they lost consciousness of their embarrassing situation. Juliette indeed displayed no sign of confusion.

“Fly! fly!” said Helene again. “Your husband will be here in two minutes.”

“My husband!” stammered the young woman; “my husband! — why — for what reason?”

She was losing her wits. Her brain was in a turmoil. It seemed to her prodigious that Helene should be standing there speaking to her of her husband.

But Helene made an angry gesture.

“Oh! if you think I’ve time to explain,” said she — “he is on the way here. I give you warning. Disappear at once, both of you.”

Then Juliette’s agitation became extraordinary. She ran about the rooms like a maniac, screaming out disconnected sentences.

“My God! my God! — I thank you. — Where is my cloak? — How horrid it is, this room being so dark! — Give me my cloak. — Bring me a candle, to help me to find my cloak. — My dear, you mustn’t mind if I don’t stop to thank you. — I can’t get my arms into the sleeves — no, I can’t get them in — no, I can’t!”

She was paralyzed with fear, and Helene was obliged to assist her with her cloak. She put her bonnet on awry, and did not even tie the ribbons. The worst of it, however, was that they lost quite a minute in hunting for her veil, which had fallen on the floor. Her words came with a gasp; her trembling hands moved about in bewilderment, fumbling over her person to ascertain whether she might be leaving anything behind which might compromise her.

“Oh, what a lesson! what a lesson! Thank goodness, it is well over!”

Malignon was very pale, and made a sorry appearance. His feet beat a tattoo on the ground, as he realized that he was both scorned and ridiculous. His lips could only give utterance to the wretched question:

“Then you think I ought to go away as well?”

Then, as no answer was vouchsafed him, he took up his cane, and went on talking by way of affecting perfect composure. They had plenty of time, said he. It happened that there was another staircase, a small servants’ staircase, now never used, but which would yet allow of their descent. Madame Deberle’s cab had remained at the door; it would convey both of them away along the quays. And again he repeated: “Now calm yourself. It will be all right. See, this way.”

He threw open a door, and the three dingy, dilapidated, little rooms, which had not been repaired and were full of dirt, appeared to view. A puff of damp air entered the boudoir. Juliette, ere she stepped through all that squalor, gave final expression to her disgust.

“How could I have come here?” she exclaimed in a loud voice. “What a hole! I shall never forgive myself.”

“Be quick, be quick!” urged Helene, whose anxiety was as great as her own.

She pushed Juliette forward, but the young woman threw herself sobbing on her neck. She was in the throes of a nervous reaction. She was overwhelmed with shame, and would fain have defended herself, fain have given a reason for being found in that man’s company. Then instinctively she gathered up her skirts, as though she were about to cross a gutter. With the tip of his boot Malignon, who had gone on first, was clearing away the plaster which littered the back staircase. The doors were shut once more.

Meantime, Helene had remained standing in the middle of the sitting-room. Silence reigned there, a warm, close silence, only disturbed by the crackling of the burnt logs. There was a singing in her ears, and she heard nothing. But after an interval, which seemed to her interminable, the rattle of a cab suddenly resounded. It was Juliette’s cab rolling away.

Then Helene sighed, and she made a gesture of mute gratitude. The thought that she would not be tortured by everlasting remorse for having acted despicably filled her with pleasant and thankful feelings. She felt relieved, deeply moved, and yet so weak, now that this awful crisis was over, that she lacked the strength to depart in her turn. In her heart she thought that Henri was coming, and that he must meet some one in this place. There was a knock at the door, and she opened it at once.

The first sensation on either side was one of bewilderment. Henri entered, his mind busy with thoughts of the letter which he had received, and his face pale and uneasy. But when he caught sight of her a cry escaped his lips.

“You! My God! It was you!”

The cry betokened more astonishment than pleasure. But soon there came a furious awakening of his love.

“You love me, you love me!” he stammered. “Ah! it was you, and I did not understand.”

He stretched out his arm as he spoke; but Helene, who had greeted his entrance with a smile, now started back with wan cheeks. Truly she had waited for him; she had promised herself that they would be together for a moment, and that she would invent some fiction. Now, however, full consciousness of the situation flashed upon her; Henri believed it to be an assignation. Yet she had never for one moment desired such a thing, and her heart rebelled.

“Henri, I pray you, release me,” said she.

He had grasped her by the wrists, and was drawing her slowly towards him, as though to kiss her. The love that had been surging within him for months, but which had grown less violent owing to the break in their intimacy, now burst forth more fiercely than ever.

“Release me,” she resumed. “You are frightening me. I assure you, you are mistaken.”

His surprise found voice once more.

“Was it not you then who wrote to me?” he asked.

She hesitated for a second. What could she say in answer?

“Yes,” she whispered at last.

She could not betray Juliette after having saved her. An abyss lay before her into which she herself was slipping. Henri was now glancing round the two rooms in wonderment at finding them illumined and furnished in such gaudy style. He ventured to question her.

“Are these rooms yours?” he asked.

But she remained silent.

“Your letter upset me so,” he continued. “Helene, you are hiding something from me. For mercy’s sake, relieve my anxiety!”

She was not listening to him; she was reflecting that he was indeed right in considering this to be an assignation. Otherwise, what could she have been doing there? Why should she have waited for him? She could devise no plausible explanation. She was no longer certain whether she had not given him this rendezvous. A network of chance and circumstance was enveloping her yet more tightly; there was no escape from it. Each second found her less able to resist.

“You were waiting for me, you were waiting for me!” he repeated passionately, as he bent his head to kiss her. And then as his lips met hers she felt it beyond her power to struggle further; but, as though in mute acquiescence, fell, half swooning and oblivious of the world, upon his neck.

The Meeting of Helene and Henri


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