A Love Episode, by Émile Zola

Chapter 7.

The soup had just been served on the following Tuesday evening, when Helene, after listening attentively, exclaimed:

“What a downpour! Don’t you hear? My poor friends, you will get drenched to-night!”

“Oh, it’s only a few drops,” said the Abbe quietly, though his old cassock was already wet about the shoulders.

“I’ve got a good distance to go,” said Monsieur Rambaud. “But I shall return home on foot all the same; I like it. Besides, I have my umbrella.”

Jeanne was reflecting as she gazed gravely on her last spoonful of vermicelli; and at last her thoughts took shape in words: “Rosalie said you wouldn’t come because of the wretched weather; but mamma said you would come. You are very kind; you always come.”

A smile lit up all their faces. Helene addressed a nod of affectionate approval to the two brothers. Out of doors the rain was falling with a dull roar, and violent gusts of wind beat angrily against the window-shutters. Winter seemed to have returned. Rosalie had carefully drawn the red repp curtains; and the small, cosy dining-room, illumined by the steady light of the white hanging-lamp, looked, amidst the buffeting of the storm, a picture of pleasant, affectionate intimacy. On the mahogany sideboard some china reflected the quiet light; and amidst all this indoor peacefulness the four diners leisurely conversed, awaiting the good pleasure of the servant-maid, as they sat round the table, where all, if simple, was exquisitely clean.

“Oh! you are waiting; so much the worse!” said Rosalie familiarly, as she entered with a dish. “These are fillets of sole au gratin for Monsieur Rambaud; they require to be lifted just at the last moment.”

Monsieur Rambaud pretended to be a gourmand, in order to amuse Jeanne, and give pleasure to Rosalie, who was very proud of her accomplishments as a cook. He turned towards her with the question: “By the way, what have you got for us to-day? You are always bringing in some surprise or other when I am no longer hungry.”

“Oh,” said she in reply, “there are three dishes as usual, and no more. After the sole you will have a leg of mutton and then some Brussels sprouts. Yes, that’s the truth; there will be nothing else.”

From the corner of his eye Monsieur Rambaud glanced towards Jeanne. The child was boiling over with glee, her hands over her mouth to restrain her laughter, while she shook her head, as though to insinuate that the maid was deceiving them. Monsieur Rambaud thereupon clacked his tongue as though in doubt, and Rosalie pretended great indignation.

“You don’t believe me because Mademoiselle Jeanne laughs so,” said she. “Ah, very well! believe what you like. Stint yourself, and see if you won’t have a craving for food when you get home.”

When the maid had left the room, Jeanne, laughing yet more loudly, was seized with a longing to speak out.

“You are really too greedy!” she began. “I myself went into the kitchen —” However, she left her sentence unfinished: “No, no, I won’t tell; it isn’t right, is it, mamma? There’s nothing more — nothing at all! I only laughed to cheat you.”

This interlude was re-enacted every Tuesday with the same unvarying success. Helene was touched by the kindliness with which Monsieur Rambaud lent himself to the fun; she was well aware that, with Provencal frugality, he had long limited his daily fare to an anchovy and half-a-dozen olives. As for Abbe Jouve, he never knew what he was eating, and his blunders and forgetfulness supplied an inexhaustible fund of amusement. Jeanne, meditating some prank in this respect, was even now stealthily watching him with her glittering eyes.

“How nice this whiting is!” she said to him, after they had all been served.

“Very nice, my dear,” he answered. “Bless me, you are right — it is whiting; I thought it was turbot.”

And then, as every one laughed, he guilelessly asked why. Rosalie, who had just come into the room again, seemed very much hurt, and burst out:

“A fine thing indeed! The priest in my native place knew much better what he was eating. He could tell the age of the fowl he was carving to a week or so, and didn’t require to go into the kitchen to find out what there was for dinner. No, the smell was quite sufficient. Goodness gracious! had I been in the service of a priest like your reverence, I should not know yet even how to turn an omelet.”

The Abbe hastened to excuse himself with an embarrassed air, as though his inability to appreciate the delights of the table was a failing he despaired of curing. But, as he said, he had too many other things to think about.

“There! that is a leg of mutton!” exclaimed Rosalie, as she placed on the table the joint referred to.

Everybody once more indulged in a peal of laughter, the Abbe Jouve being the first to do so. He bent forward to look, his little eyes twinkling with glee.

“Yes, certainly,” said he; “it is a leg of mutton. I think I should have known it.”

Despite this remark, there was something about the Abbe that day which betokened unusual absent-mindedness. He ate quickly, with the haste of a man who is bored by a long stay at table, and lunches standing when at home. And, having finished, himself, he would wait the convenience of the others, plunged in deep thought, and simply smiling in reply to the questions put to him. At every moment he cast on his brother a look in which encouragement and uneasiness were mingled. Nor did Monsieur Rambaud seen possessed of his wonted tranquillity that evening; but his agitation manifested itself in a craving to talk and fidget on his chair, which seemed rather inconsistent with his quiet disposition. When the Brussels sprouts had disappeared, there was a delay in the appearance of the dessert, and a spell of silence ensued. Out of doors the rain was beating down with still greater force, rattling noisily against the house. The dining-room was rather close, and it suddenly dawned on Helene that there was something strange in the air — that the two brothers had some worry of which they did not care to speak. She looked at them anxiously, and at last spoke:

“Dear, dear! What dreadful rain! isn’t it? It seems to be influencing both of you, for you look out of sorts.”

They protested, however, that such was not the case, doing their utmost to clear her mind of the notion. And as Rosalie now made her appearance with an immense dish, Monsieur Rambaud exclaimed, as though to veil his emotion: “What did I say! Still another surprise!”

The surprise of the day was some vanilla cream, one of the cook’s triumphs. And thus it was a sight to see her broad, silent grin, as she deposited her burden on the table. Jeanne shouted and clapped her hands.

“I knew it, I knew it! I saw the eggs in the kitchen!”

“But I have no more appetite,” declared Monsieur Rambaud, with a look of despair. “I could not eat any of it!”

Thereupon Rosalie became grave, full of suppressed wrath. With a dignified air, she remarked: “Oh, indeed! A cream which I made specially for you! Well, well! just try not to eat any of it — yes, try!”

He had to give in and accept a large helping of the cream. Meanwhile the Abbe remained thoughtful. He rolled up his napkin and rose before the dessert had come to an end, as was frequently his custom. For a little while he walked about, with his head hanging down; and when Helene in her turn quitted the table, he cast at Monsieur Rambaud a look of intelligence, and led the young woman into the bedroom.* The door being left open behind them, they could almost immediately afterwards be heard conversing together, though the words which they slowly exchanged were indistinguishable.

* Helene’s frequent use of her bedroom may seem strange to the English reader who has never been in France. But in the petite bourgeoisie the bedchamber is often the cosiest of the whole suite of rooms, and whilst indoors, when not superintending her servant, it is in the bedroom that madame will spend most of her time. Here, too, she will receive friends of either sex, and, the French being far less prudish than ourselves, nobody considers that there is anything wrong or indelicate in the practice.

“Oh, do make haste!” said Jeanne to Monsieur Rambaud, who seemed incapable of finishing a biscuit. “I want to show you my work.”

However, he evinced no haste, though when Rosalie began to clear the table it became necessary for him to leave his chair.

“Wait a little! wait a little!” he murmured, as the child strove to drag him towards the bedroom, And, overcome with embarrassment and timidity, he retreated from the doorway. Then, as the Abbe raised his voice, such sudden weakness came over him that he had to sit down again at the table. From his pocket he drew a newspaper.

“Now,” said he, “I’m going to make you a little coach.”

Jeanne at once abandoned her intention of entering the adjoining room. Monsieur Rambaud always amazed her by his skill in turning a sheet of paper into all sorts of playthings. Chickens, boats, bishops’ mitres, carts, and cages, were all evolved under his fingers. That day, however, so tremulous were his hands that he was unable to perfect anything. He lowered his head whenever the faintest sound came from the adjacent room. Nevertheless, Jeanne took interest in watching him, and leaned on the table at his side.

“Now,” said she, “you must make a chicken to harness to the carriage.”

Meantime, within the bedroom, Abbe Jouve remained standing in the shadow thrown by the lamp-shade upon the floor. Helene had sat down in her usual place in front of the round table; and, as on Tuesdays she refrained from ceremony with her friends, she had taken up her needlework, and, in the circular glare of light, only her white hands could be seen sewing a child’s cap.

“Jeanne gives you no further worry, does she?” asked the Abbe.

Helene shook her head before making a reply.

“Doctor Deberle seems quite satisfied,” said she. “But the poor darling is still very nervous. Yesterday I found her in her chair in a fainting fit.”

“She needs exercise,” resumed the priest. “You stay indoors far too much; you should follow the example of other folks and go about more than you do.”

He ceased speaking, and silence followed. He now, without doubt, had what he had been seeking — a suitable inlet for his discourse; but the moment for speaking came, and he was still communing with himself. Taking a chair, he sat down at Helene’s side.

“Hearken to me, my dear child,” he began. “For some time past I have wished to talk with you seriously. The life you are leading here can entail no good results. A convent existence such as yours is not consistent with your years; and this abandonment of worldly pleasures is as injurious to your child as it is to yourself. You are risking many dangers — dangers to health, ay, and other dangers, too.”

Helene raised her head with an expression of astonishment. “What do you mean, my friend?” she asked.

“Dear me! I know the world but little,” continued the priest, with some slight embarrassment, “yet I know very well that a woman incurs great risk when she remains without a protecting arm. To speak frankly, you keep to your own company too much, and this seclusion in which you hide yourself is not healthful, believe me. A day must come when you will suffer from it.”

“But I make no complaint; I am very happy as I am,” she exclaimed with spirit.

The old priest gently shook his large head.

“Yes, yes, that is all very well. You feel completely happy. I know all that. Only, on the downhill path of a lonely, dreamy life, you never know where you are going. Oh! I understand you perfectly; you are incapable of doing any wrong. But sooner or later you might lose your peace of mind. Some morning, when it is too late, you will find that blank which you now leave in your life filled by some painful feeling not to be confessed.”

As she sat there in the shadow, a blush crimsoned Helene’s face. Had the Abbe, then, read her heart? Was he aware of this restlessness which was fast possessing her — this heart-trouble which thrilled her every-day life, and the existence of which she had till now been unwilling to admit? Her needlework fell on her lap. A sensation of weakness pervaded her, and she awaited from the priest something like a pious complicity which would allow her to confess and particularize the vague feelings which she buried in her innermost being. As all was known to him, it was for him to question her, and she would strive to answer.

“I leave myself in your hands, my friend,” she murmured. “You are well aware that I have always listened to you.”

The priest remained for a moment silent, and then slowly and solemnly said:

“My child, you must marry again.”

She remained speechless, with arms dangling, in a stupor this counsel brought upon her. She awaited other words, failing, as it were, to understand him. And the Abbe continued putting before her the arguments which should incline her towards marriage.

“Remember, you are still young. You must not remain longer in this out-of-the-way corner of Paris, scarcely daring to go out, and wholly ignorant of the world. You must return to the every-day life of humanity, lest in the future you should bitterly regret your loneliness. You yourself have no idea how the effects of your isolation are beginning to tell on you, but your friends remark your pallor, and feel uneasy.”

With each sentence he paused, in the hope that she might break in and discuss his proposition. But no; she sat there as if lifeless, seemingly benumbed with astonishment.

“No doubt you have a child,” he resumed. “That is always a delicate matter to surmount. Still, you must admit that even in Jeanne’s interest a husband’s arm would be of great advantage. Of course, we must find some one good and honorable, who would be a true father —”

However, she did not let him finish. With violent revolt and repulsion she suddenly spoke out: “No, no; I will not! Oh, my friend, how can you advise me thus? Never, do you hear, never!”

Her whole heart was rising; she herself was frightened by the violence of her refusal. The priest’s proposal had stirred up that dim nook in her being whose secret she avoided reading, and, by the pain she experienced, she at last understood all the gravity of her ailment. With the open, smiling glance of the priest still bent on her, she plunged into contention.

“No, no; I do not wish it! I love nobody!”

And, as he still gazed at her, she imagined he could read her lie on her face. She blushed and stammered:

“Remember, too, I only left off my mourning a fortnight ago. No, it could not be!”

“My child!” quietly said the priest, “I thought over this a great deal before speaking. I am sure your happiness is wrapped up in it. Calm yourself; you need never act against your own wishes.”

The conversation came to a sudden stop. Helene strove to keep pent within her bosom the angry protests that were rushing to her lips. She resumed her work, and, with head lowered, contrived to put in a few stitches. And amid the silence, Jeanne’s shrill voice could be heard in the dining-room.

“People don’t put a chicken to a carriage; it ought to be a horse! You don’t know how to make a horse, do you?”

“No, my dear; horses are too difficult,” said Monsieur Rambaud. “But if you like I’ll show you how to make carriages.”

This was always the fashion in which their game came to an end. Jeanne, all ears and eyes, watched her kindly playfellow folding the paper into a multitude of little squares, and afterwards she followed his example; but she would make mistakes and then stamp her feet in vexation. However, she already knew how to manufacture boats and bishops’ mitres.

“You see,” resumed Monsieur Rambaud patiently, “you make four corners like that; then you turn them back —”

With his ears on the alert, he must during the last moment have heard some of the words spoken in the next room; for his poor hands were now trembling more and more, while his tongue faltered, so that he could only half articulate his sentences.

Helene, who was unable to quiet herself, now began the conversation anew. “Marry again! And whom, pray?” she suddenly asked the priest, as she laid her work down on the table. “You have some one in view, have you not?”

Abbe Jouve rose from his chair and stalked slowly up and down. Without halting, he nodded assent.

“Well! tell me who he is,” she said.

For a moment he lingered before her erect, then, shrugging his shoulders, said: “What’s the good, since you decline?”

“No matter, I want to know,” she replied. “How can I make up my mind when I don’t know?”

He did not answer her immediately, but remained standing there, gazing into her face. A somewhat sad smile wreathed his lips. At last he exclaimed, almost in a whisper: “What! have you not guessed?”

No, she could not guess. She tried to do so, with increasing wonder, whereupon he made a simple sign — nodding his head in the direction of the dining-room.

“He!” she exclaimed, in a muffled tone, and a great seriousness fell upon her. She no longer indulged in violent protestations; only sorrow and surprise remained visible on her face. She sat for a long time plunged in thought, her gaze turned to the floor. Truly, she had never dreamed of such a thing; and yet, she found nothing in it to object to. Monsieur Rambaud was the only man in whose hand she could put her own honestly and without fear. She knew his innate goodness; she did not smile at his bourgeois heaviness. But despite all her regard for him, the idea that he loved her chilled her to the soul.

Meanwhile the Abbe had again begun walking from one to the other end of the room, and on passing the dining-room door he gently called Helene. “Come here and look!”

She rose and did as he wished.

Monsieur Rambaud had ended by seating Jeanne in his own chair; and he, who had at first been leaning against the table, had now slipped down at the child’s feet. He was on his knees before her, encircling her with one of his arms. On the table was the carriage drawn by the chicken, with some boats, boxes, and bishops’ mitres.

“Now, do you love me well?” he asked her. “Tell me that you love me well!”

“Of course, I love you well; you know it.”

He stammered and trembled, as though he were making some declaration of love.

“And what would you say if I asked you to let me stay here with you always?”

“Oh, I should be quite pleased. We would play together, wouldn’t we? That would be good fun.”

“Ah, but you know I should always be here.”

Jeanne had taken up a boat which she was twisting into a gendarme’s hat. “You would need to get mamma’s leave,” she murmured.

By this reply all his fears were again stirred into life. His fate was being decided.

“Of course,” said he. “But if mamma gave me leave, would you say yes, too?”

Jeanne, busy finishing her gendarme’s hat, sang out in a rapturous strain: “I would say yes! yes! yes! I would say yes! yes! yes! Come, look how pretty my hat is!”

Monsieur Rambaud, with tears in his eyes, rose to his knees and kissed her, while she threw her arms round his neck. He had entrusted the asking of Helene’s consent to his brother, whilst he himself sought to secure that of Jeanne.

“You see,” said the priest, with a smile, “the child is quite content.”

Helene still retained her grave air, and made no further inquiry. The Abbe, however, again eloquently took up his plea, and emphasized his brother’s good qualities. Was he not a treasure-trove of a father for Jeanne? She was well acquainted with him; in trusting him she gave no hostages to fortune. Then, as she still remained silent, the Abbe with great feeling and dignity declared that in the step he had taken he had not thought of his brother, but of her and her happiness.

“I believe you; I know how you love me,” Helene promptly answered. “Wait; I want to give your brother his answer in your presence.”

The clock struck ten. Monsieur Rambaud made his entry into the bedroom. With outstretched hands she went to meet him.

“I thank you for your proposal, my friend,” said she. “I am very grateful; and you have done well in speaking —”

She was gazing calmly into his face, holding his big hand in her grasp. Trembling all over, he dared not lift his eyes.

“Yet I must have time to consider,” she resumed. “You will perhaps have to give me a long time.”

“Oh! as long as you like — six months, a year, longer if you please,” exclaimed he with a light heart, well pleased that she had not forthwith sent him about his business.

His excitement brought a faint smile to her face. “But I intend that we shall still continue friends,” said she. “You will come here as usual, and simply give me your promise to remain content till I speak to you about the matter. Is that understood?”

He had withdrawn his hand, and was now feverishly hunting for his hat, signifying his acquiescence by a continuous bobbing of the head. Then, at the moment of leaving, he found his voice once more.

“Listen to me,” said he. “You now know that I am there — don’t you? Well, whatever happens I shall always be there. That’s all the Abbe should have told you. In ten years, if you like; you will only have to make a sign. I shall obey you!”

And it was he who a last time took Helene’s hand and gripped it as though he would crush it. On the stairs the two brothers turned round with the usual good-bye:

“Till next Tuesday!”

“Yes, Tuesday,” answered Helene.

On returning to her room a fresh downfall of rain beating against the shutters filled her with grave concern. Good heavens! what an obstinate downpour, and how wet her poor friends would get! She opened the window and looked down into the street. Sudden gusts of wind were making the gaslights flicker, and amid the shiny puddles and shimmering rain she could see the round figure of Monsieur Rambaud, as he went off with dancing gait, exultant in the darkness, seemingly caring nothing for the drenching torrent.

Jeanne, however, was very grave, for she had overheard some of her playfellow’s last words. She had just taken off her little boots, and was sitting on the edge of the bed in her nightgown, in deep cogitation. On entering the room to kiss her, her mother discovered her thus.

“Good-night, Jeanne; kiss me.”

Then, as the child did not seem to hear her, Helene sank down in front of her, and clasped her round the waist, asking her in a whisper: “So you would be glad if he came to live with us?”

The question seemed to bring no surprise to Jeanne. She was doubtless pondering over this very matter. She slowly nodded her head.

“But you know,” said her mother, “he would be always beside us — night and day, at table — everywhere!”

A great trouble dawned in the clear depths of the child’s eyes. She nestled her cheek against her mother’s shoulder, kissed her neck, and finally, with a quiver, whispered in her ear: “Mamma, would he kiss you?”

A crimson flush rose to Helene’s brow. In her first surprise she was at a loss to answer, but at last she murmured: “He would be the same as your father, my darling!”

Then Jeanne’s little arms tightened their hold, and she burst into loud and grievous sobbing. “Oh! no, no!” she cried chokingly. “I don’t want it then! Oh! mamma, do please tell him I don’t. Go and tell him I won’t have it!”

She gasped, and threw herself on her mother’s bosom, covering her with tears and kisses. Helene did her utmost to appease her, assuring her she would make it all right; but Jeanne was bent on having a definite answer at once.

“Oh! say no! say no, darling mother! You know it would kill me. Never! Oh, never! Eh?”

“Well, I’ll promise it will never be. Now, be good and lie down.”

For some minutes longer the child, speechless with emotion, clasped her mother in her arms, as though powerless to tear herself away, and intent on guarding her against all who might seek to take her from her. After some time Helene was able to put her to bed; but for a part of the night she had to watch beside her. Jeanne would start violently in her sleep, and every half-hour her eyes would open to make sure of her mother’s presence, and then she would doze off again, with her lips pressed to Helene’s hand.


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