A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 20.

Jeanne, with her eyes fixed on the door, remained plunged in grief over her mother’s sudden departure. She gazed around her; the room was empty and silent; but she could still hear the waning sounds of hurrying footsteps and rustling skirts, and last the slamming of the outer door. Then nothing stirred, and she was alone.

All alone, all alone. Over the bed hung her mother’s dressing-gown, flung there at random, the skirt bulging out and a sleeve lying across the bolster, so that the garment looked like some person who had fallen down overwhelmed with grief, and sobbing in misery. There was some linen scattered about, and a black neckerchief lay on the floor like a blot of mourning. The chairs were in disorder, the table had been pushed in front of the wardrobe, and amidst it all she was quite alone. She felt her tears choking her as she looked at the dressing-gown which no longer garmented her mother, but was stretched there with the ghastly semblance of death. She clasped her hands, and for the last time wailed, “Mamma! mamma!” The blue velvet hangings, however, deadened the sound. It was all over, and she was alone.

Then the time slipped away. The clock struck three. A dismal, dingy light came in through the windows. Dark clouds were sailing over the sky, which made it still gloomier. Through the panes of glass, which were covered with moisture, Paris could only be dimly seen; the watery vapor blurred it; its far-away outskirts seemed hidden by thick smoke. Thus the city even was no longer there to keep the child company, as on bright afternoons, when, on leaning out a little, it seemed to her as though she could touch each district with her hand.

What was she to do? Her little arms tightened in despair against her bosom. This desertion seemed to her mournful, passing all bounds, characterized by an injustice and wickedness that enraged her. She had never known anything so hateful; it struck her that everything was going to vanish; nothing of the old life would ever come back again. Then she caught sight of her doll seated near her on a chair, with its back against a cushion, and its legs stretched out, its eyes staring at her as though it were a human being. It was not her mechanical doll, but a large one with a pasteboard head, curly hair, and eyes of enamel, whose fixed look sometimes frightened her. What with two years’ constant dressing and undressing, the paint had got rubbed off the chin and cheeks, and the limbs, of pink leather stuffed with sawdust, had become limp and wrinkled like old linen. The doll was just now in its night attire, arrayed only in a bed-gown, with its arms twisted, one in the air and the other hanging downwards. When Jeanne realized that there was still some one with her, she felt for an instant less unhappy. She took the doll in her arms and embraced it ardently, while its head swung back, for its neck was broken. Then she chattered away to it, telling it that it was Jeanne’s best-behaved friend, that it had a good heart, for it never went out and left Jeanne alone. It was, said she, her treasure, her kitten, her dear little pet. Trembling with agitation, striving to prevent herself from weeping again, she covered it all over with kisses.

This fit of tenderness gave her some revengeful consolation, and the doll fell over her arm like a bundle of rags. She rose and looked out, with her forehead against a window-pane. The rain had ceased falling, and the clouds of the last downpour, driven before the wind, were nearing the horizon towards the heights of Pere-Lachaise, which were wrapped in gloom; and against this stormy background Paris, illumined by a uniform clearness, assumed a lonely, melancholy grandeur. It seemed to be uninhabited, like one of those cities seen in a nightmare — the reflex of a world of death. To Jeanne it certainly appeared anything but pretty. She was now idly dreaming of those she had loved since her birth. Her oldest sweetheart, the one of her early days at Marseilles, had been a huge cat, which was very heavy; she would clasp it with her little arms, and carry it from one chair to another without provoking its anger in the least; but it had disappeared, and that was the first misfortune she remembered. She had next had a sparrow, but it died; she had picked it up one morning from the bottom of its cage. That made two. She never reckoned the toys which got broken just to grieve her, all kinds of wrongs which had caused her much suffering because she was so sensitive. One doll in particular, no higher than one’s hand, had driven her to despair by getting its head smashed; she had cherished it to a such a degree that she had buried it by stealth in a corner of the yard; and some time afterwards, overcome by a craving to look on it once more, she had disinterred it, and made herself sick with terror whilst gazing on its blackened and repulsive features.

However, it was always the others who were the first to fail in their love. They got broken; they disappeared. The separation, at all events, was invariably their fault. Why was it? She herself never changed. When she loved any one, her love lasted all her life. Her mind could not grasp the idea of neglect and desertion; such things seemed to her monstrously wicked, and never occurred to her little heart without giving it a deadly pang. She shivered as a host of vague ideas slowly awoke within her. So people parted one day; each went his own way, never to meet or love each other again. With her eyes fixed on the limitless and dreary expanse of Paris, she sat chilled by all that her childish passion could divine of life’s hard blows.

Meantime her breath was fast dimming the glass. With her hands she rubbed away the vapor that prevented her from looking out. Several monuments in the distance, wet with the rain, glittered like browny ice. There were lines of houses, regular and distinct, which, with their fronts standing out pale amidst the surrounding roofs, looked like outstretched linen — some tremendous washing spread to dry on fields of ruddy grass. The sky was clearing, and athwart the tail of the cloud which still cloaked the city in gloom the milky rays of the sun were beginning to stream. A brightness seemed to be hesitating over some of the districts; in certain places the sky would soon begin to smile. Jeanne gazed below, over the quay and the slopes of the Trocadero; the street traffic was about to begin afresh after that violent downpour. The cabs again passed by at a jolting crawl, while the omnibuses rattled along the still lonely streets with a louder noise than usual. Umbrellas were being shut up, and wayfarers, who had taken shelter beneath the trees, ventured from one foot pavement to another through muddy streams which were rushing into the gutters.

Jeanne noticed with special interest a lady and a little girl, both of them fashionably dressed, who were standing beneath the awning of a toy-shop near the bridge. Doubtless they had been caught in the shower, and had taken refuge there. The child would fain have carried away the whole shop, and had pestered her mother to buy her a hoop. Both were now leaving, however, and the child was running along full of glee, driving the hoop before her. At this Jeanne’s melancholy returned with intensified force; her doll became hideous. She longed to have a hoop and to be down yonder and run along, while her mother slowly walked behind her and cautioned her not to go too far. Then, however, everything became dim again. At each minute she had to rub the glass clear. She had been enjoined never to open the window; but she was full of rebellious thoughts; she surely might gaze out of the window, if she were not to be taken for a walk. So she opened it, and leaned out like a grown-up person — in imitation of her mother when she ensconced herself there and lapsed into silence.

The air was mild, and moist in its mildness, which seemed to her delightful. A darkness slowly rising over the horizon induced her to lift her head. To her imagination it seemed as if some gigantic bird with outstretched wings were hovering on high. At first she saw nothing; the sky was clear; but at last, at the angle of the roof, a gloomy cloud made its appearance, sailing on and speedily enveloping the whole heaven. Another squall was rising before a roaring west wind. The daylight was quickly dying away, and the city grew dark, amidst a livid shimmer, which imparted to the house-fronts a rusty tinge.

Almost immediately afterwards the rain fell. The streets were swept by it; the umbrellas were again opened; and the passers-by, fleeing in every direction, vanished like chaff. One old lady gripped her skirts with both hands, while the torrent beat down on her bonnet as though it were falling from a spout. And the rain travelled on; the cloud kept pace with the water ragefully falling upon Paris; the big drops enfiladed the avenues of the quays, with a gallop like that of a runaway horse, raising a white dust which rolled along the ground at a prodigious speed. They also descended the Champs-Elysees, plunged into the long narrow streets of the Saint-Germain district, and at a bound filled up all the open spaces and deserted squares. In a few seconds, behind this veil which grew thicker and thicker, the city paled and seemed to melt away. It was as though a curtain were being drawn obliquely from heaven to earth. Masses of vapor arose too; and the vast, splashing pit-a-pat was as deafening as any rattle of old iron.

Jeanne, giddy with the noise, started back. A leaden wall seemed to have been built up before her. But she was fond of rain; so she returned, leaned out again, and stretched out her arms to feel the big, cold rain-drops splashing on her hands. This gave her some amusement, and she got wet to the sleeves. Her doll must, of course, like herself, have a headache, and she therefore hastened to put it astride the window-rail, with its back against the side wall. She thought, as she saw the drops pelting down upon it, that they were doing it some good. Stiffly erect, its little teeth displayed in a never-fading smile, the doll sat there, with one shoulder streaming with water, while every gust of wind lifted up its night-dress. Its poor body, which had lost some of its sawdust stuffing, seemed to be shivering.

What was the reason that had prevented her mother from taking her with her? wondered Jeanne. The rain that beat down on her hands seemed a fresh inducement to be out. It must be very nice, she argued, in the street. Once more there flashed on her mind’s eye the little girl driving her hoop along the pavement. Nobody could deny that she had gone out with her mamma. Both of them had even seemed to be exceedingly well pleased. This was sufficient proof that little girls were taken out when it rained.

But, then, willingness on her mother’s part was requisite. Why had she been unwilling? Then Jeanne again thought of her big cat which had gone away over the houses opposite with its tail in the air, and of the poor little sparrow which she had tempted with food when it was dead, and which had pretended that it did not understand. That kind of thing always happened to her; nobody’s love for her was enduring enough. Oh! she would have been ready in a couple of minutes; when she chose she dressed quickly enough; it was only a question of her boots, which Rosalie buttoned, her jacket, her hat, and it was done. Her mother might easily have waited two minutes for her. When she left home to see her friends, she did not turn her things all topsy-turvy as she had done that afternoon; when she went to the Bois de Boulogne, she led her gently by the hand, and stopped with her outside every shop in the Rue de Passy.

Jeanne could not get to the bottom of it; her black eyebrows frowned, and her delicate features put on a stern, jealous expression which made her resemble some wicked old maid. She felt in a vague way that her mother had gone to some place where children never go. She had not been taken out because something was to be hidden from her. This thought filled her with unutterable sadness, and her heart throbbed with pain.

The rain was becoming finer, and through the curtain which veiled Paris glimpses of buildings were occasionally afforded. The dome of the Invalides, airy and quivering, was the first to reappear through the glittering vibration of the downpour. Next, some of the districts emerged into sight as the torrent slackened; the city seemed to rise from a deluge that had overwhelmed it, its roofs all streaming, and every street filled with a river of water from which vapor still ascended. But suddenly there was a burst of light; a ray of sunshine fell athwart the shower. For a moment it was like a smile breaking through tears.

The rain had now ceased to fall over the Champs-Elysees district; but it was sabring the left bank, the Cite, and the far-away suburbs; in the sunshine the drops could be seen flashing down like innumerable slender shafts of steel. On the right a rainbow gleamed forth. As the gush of light streamed across the sky, touches of pink and blue appeared on the horizon, a medley of color, suggestive of a childish attempt at water-color painting. Then there was a sudden blaze — a fall of golden snow, as it were, over a city of crystal. But the light died away, a cloud rolled up, and the smile faded amidst tears; Paris dripped and dripped, with a prolonged sobbing noise, beneath the leaden-hued sky.

Jeanne, with her sleeves soaked, was seized with a fit of coughing. But she was unconscious of the chill that was penetrating her; she was now absorbed in the thought that her mother had gone into Paris. She had come at last to know three buildings — the Invalides, the Pantheon, and the Tower of St.-Jacques. She now slowly went over their names, and pointed them out with her finger without attempting to think what they might be like were she nearer to them. Without doubt, however, her mother was down there; and she settled in her mind that she was in the Pantheon, because it astonished her the most, huge as it was, towering up through the air, like the city’s head-piece. Then she began to question herself. Paris was still to her the place where children never go; she was never taken there. She would have liked to know it, however, that she might have quietly said to herself: “Mamma is there; she is doing such and such a thing.” But it all seemed to her too immense; it was impossible to find any one there. Then her glance travelled towards the other end of the plain. Might her mother not rather be in one of that cluster of houses on the hill to the left? or nearer in, beneath those huge trees, whose bare branches seemed as dead as firewood? Oh! if she could only have lifted up the roofs! What could that gloomy edifice be? What was that street along which something of enormous bulk seemed to be running? And what could that district be at sight of which she always felt frightened, convinced as she was that people fought one another there? She could not see it distinctly, but, to tell the truth, its aspects stirred one; it was very ugly, and must not be looked at by little girls.

A host of indefinable ideas and suppositions, which brought her to the verge of weeping, awoke trouble in Jeanne’s ignorant, childish mind. From the unknown world of Paris, with its smoke, its endless noises, its powerful, surging life, an odor of wretchedness, filth, and crime seemed to be wafted to her through the mild, humid atmosphere, and she was forced to avert her head, as though she had been leaning over one of those pestilential pits which breathe forth suffocation from their unseen horrors. The Invalides, the Pantheon, the Tower of Saint-Jacques — these she named and counted; but she knew nothing of anything else, and she sat there, terrified and ashamed, with the all-absorbing thought that her mother was among those wicked places, at some spot which she was unable to identify in the depths yonder.

Suddenly Jeanne turned round. She could have sworn that somebody had walked into the bedroom, that a light hand had even touched her shoulder. But the room was empty, still in the same disorder as when Helene had left. The dressing-gown, flung across the pillow, still lay in the same mournful, weeping attitude. Then Jeanne, with pallid cheeks, cast a glance around, and her heart nearly burst within her. She was alone! she was alone! And, O Heaven, her mother, in forsaking her, had pushed her with such force that she might have fallen to the floor. The thought came back to her with anguish; she again seemed to feel the pain of that outrage on her wrists and shoulders. Why had she been struck? She had been good, and had nothing to reproach herself with. She was usually spoken to with such gentleness that the punishment she had received awoke feelings of indignation within her. She was thrilled by a sensation of childish fear, as in the old times when she was threatened with the approach of the wolf, and looked for it and saw it not: it was lingering in some shady corner, with many other things that were going to overwhelm her. However, she was full of suspicion; her face paled and swelled with jealous fury. Of a sudden, the thought that her mother must love those whom she had gone to see far more than she loved her came upon her with such crushing force that her little hands clutched her bosom. She knew it now; yes, her mother was false to her.

Over Paris a great sorrow seemed to be brooding, pending the arrival of a fresh squall. A murmur travelled through the darkened air, and heavy clouds were hovering overhead. Jeanne, still at the window, was convulsed by another fit of coughing; but in the chill she experienced she felt herself revenged; she would willingly have had her illness return. With her hands pressed against her bosom, she grew conscious of some pain growing more intense within her. It was an agony to which her body abandoned itself. She trembled with fear, and did not again venture to turn round; she felt quite cold at the idea of glancing into the room any more. To be little means to be without strength. What could this new complaint be which filled her with mingled shame and bitter pleasure? With stiffened body, she sat there as if waiting — every one of her pure and innocent limbs in an agony of revulsion. From the innermost recesses of her being all her woman’s feelings were aroused, and there darted through her a pang, as though she had received a blow from a distance. Then with failing heart she cried out chokingly: “Mamma! mamma!” No one could have known whether she called to her mother for aid, or whether she accused her of having inflicted on her the pain which seemed to be killing her.

At that moment the tempest burst. Through the deep and ominous stillness the wind howled over the city, which was shrouded in darkness; and afterwards there came a long-continued crashing — window-shutters beating to and fro, slates flying, chimney-tops and gutter-pipes rattling on to the pavements. For a few seconds a calm ensued; then there blew another gust, which swept along with such mighty strength that the ocean of roofs seemed convulsed, tossing about in waves, and then disappearing in a whirlpool. For a moment chaos reigned. Some enormous clouds, like huge blots of ink, swept through a host of smaller ones, which were scattered and floated like shreds of rag which the wind tore to pieces and carried off thread by thread. A second later two clouds rushed upon one another, and rent one another with crashing reports, which seemed to sprinkle the coppery expanse with wreckage; and every time the hurricane thus veered, blowing from every point of the compass, the thunder of opposing navies resounded in the atmosphere, and an awful rending and sinking followed, the hanging fragments of the clouds, jagged like huge bits of broken walls, threatening Paris with imminent destruction. The rain was not yet falling. But suddenly a cloud burst above the central quarters, and a water-spout ascended the Seine. The river’s green ribbon, riddled and stirred to its depths by the splashing drops, became transformed into a stream of mud; and one by one, behind the downpour, the bridges appeared to view again, slender and delicately outlined in the mist; while, right and left, the trees edging the grey pavements of the deserted quays were shaken furiously by the wind. Away in the background, over Notre-Dame, the cloud divided and poured down such a torrent of water that the island of La Cite seemed submerged. Far above the drenched houses the cathedral towers alone rose up against a patch of clear sky, like floating waifs.

On every side the water now rushed down from the heavens. Three times in succession did the right bank appear to be engulfed. The first fall inundated the distant suburbs, gradually extending its area, and beating on the turrets of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul and Saint-Jacques, which glistened in the rain. Then two other downpours, following in hot haste one upon the other, streamed over Montmartre and the Champs-Elysees. At times a glimpse could be obtained of the glass roof of the Palace of Industry, steaming, as it were, under the splashing water; of Saint-Augustin, whose cupola swam in a kind of fog like a clouded moon; of the Madeleine, which spread out its flat roof, looking like some ancient court whose flagstones had been freshly scoured; while, in the rear, the huge mass of the Opera House made one think of a dismasted vessel, which with its hull caught between two rocks, was resisting the assaults of the tempest.

On the left bank of the Seine, also hidden by a watery veil, you perceived the dome of the Invalides, the spires of Sainte-Clotilde, and the towers of Saint-Sulpice, apparently melting away in the moist atmosphere. Another cloud spread out, and from the colonnade of the Pantheon sheets of water streamed down, threatening to inundate what lay below. And from that moment the rain fell upon the city in all directions; one might have imagined that the heavens were precipitating themselves on the earth; streets vanished, sank into the depths, and men reappeared, drifting on the surface, amidst shocks whose violence seemed to foretell the end of the city. A prolonged roar ascended — the roar of all the water rushing along the gutters and falling into the drains. And at last, above muddy-looking Paris, which had assumed with the showers a dingy-yellow hue, the livid clouds spread themselves out in uniform fashion, without stain or rift. The rain was becoming finer, and was falling sharply and vertically; but whenever the wind again rose, the grey hatching was curved into mighty waves, and the raindrops, driven almost horizontally, could be heard lashing the walls with a hissing sound, till, with the fall of the wind, they again fell vertically, peppering the soil with a quiet obstinacy, from the heights of Passy away to the level plain of Charenton. Then the vast city, as though overwhelmed and lifeless after some awful convulsion, seemed but an expanse of stony ruins under the invisible heavens.

Jeanne, who had sunk down by the window, had wailed out once more, “Mamma! mamma!” A terrible weariness deprived her limbs of their strength as she lingered there, face to face with the engulfing of Paris. Amidst her exhaustion, whilst the breeze played with her tresses, and her face remained wet with rain, she preserved some taste of the bitter pleasure which had made her shiver, while within her heart there was a consciousness of some irretrievable woe. Everything seemed to her to have come to an end; she realized that she was getting very old. The hours might pass away, but now she did not even cast a glance into the room. It was all the same to her to be forgotten and alone. Such despair possessed the child’s heart that all around her seemed black. If she were scolded, as of old, when she was ill, it would surely be very wrong. She was burning with fever; something like a sick headache was weighing on her. Surely too, but a moment ago, something had snapped within her. She could not prevent it; she must inevitably submit to whatever might be her fate. Besides, weariness was prostrating her. She had joined her hands over the window-bar, on which she rested her head, and, though at times she opened her eyes to gaze at the rain, drowsiness was stealing over her.

And still and ever the rain kept beating down; the livid sky seemed dissolving in water. A final blast of wind had passed by; a monotonous roar could be heard. Amidst a solemn quiescence the sovereign rain poured unceasingly upon the silent, deserted city it had conquered; and behind this sheet of streaked crystal Paris showed like some phantom place, with quivering outlines, which seemed to be melting away. To Jeanne the scene now brought nothing beyond sleepiness and horrid dreams, as though all the mystery and unknown evil were rising up in vapor to pierce her through and make her cough. Every time she opened her eyes she was seized with a fit of coughing, and would remain for a few seconds looking at the scene; which as her head fell back once more, clung to her mind, and seemed to spread over her and crush her.

The rain was still falling. What hour might it be now? Jeanne could not have told. Perhaps the clock had ceased going. It seemed to her too great a fatigue to turn round. It was surely at least a week since her mother had quitted her. She had abandoned all expectation of her return; she was resigned to the prospect of never seeing her again. Then she became oblivious of everything — the wrongs which had been done her, the pain which she had just experienced, even the loneliness in which she was suffered to remain. A weight, chilly like stone, fell upon her. This only was certain: she was very unhappy — ah! as unhappy as the poor little waifs to whom she gave alms as they huddled together in gateways. Ah! Heaven! how coughing racked one, and how penetrating was the cold when there was no nobody to love one! She closed her heavy eyelids, succumbing to a feverish stupor; and the last of her thoughts was a vague memory of childhood, of a visit to a mill, full of yellow wheat, and of tiny grains slipping under millstones as huge as houses.

Hours and hours passed away; each minute was a century. The rain beat down without ceasing, with ever the same tranquil flow, as though all time and eternity were allowed it to deluge the plain. Jeanne had fallen asleep. Close by, her doll still sat astride the iron window-bar; and, with its legs in the room and its head outside, its nightdress clinging to its rosy skin, its eyes glaring, and its hair streaming with water, it looked not unlike a drowned child; and so emaciated did it appear in its comical yet distressing posture of death, that it almost brought tears of pity to the eyes. Jeanne coughed in her sleep; but now she never once opened her eyes. Her head swayed to and fro on her crossed arms, and the cough spent itself in a wheeze without awakening her. Nothing more existed for her. She slept in the darkness. She did not even withdraw her hand, from whose cold, red fingers bright raindrops were trickling one by one into the vast expanse which lay beneath the window. This went on for hours and hours. Paris was slowly waning on the horizon, like some phantom city; heaven and earth mingled together in an indistinguishable jumble; and still and ever with unflagging persistency did the grey rain fall.


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