This eBook was prepared from the edition published by the Societe des Beaux-Arts in 1905 for the Comedie d'Amour Series. Registered copy Number 153 of 500.
A LOVE EPISODE
ILLUSTRATED BY DANTAN
ZOLA AND HIS WRITINGS
Emile Zola was born in Paris, April 2, 1840. His father was Francois Zola, an Italian engineer, who constructed the Canal Zola in Provence. Zola passed his early youth in the south of France, continuing his studies at the Lycee St. Louis, in Paris, and at Marseilles. His sole patrimony was a lawsuit against the town of Aix. He became a clerk in the publishing house of Hachette, receiving at first the modest honorarium of twenty-five francs a week. His journalistic career, though marked by immense toil, was neither striking nor remunerative. His essays in criticism, of which he collected and published several volumes, were not particularly successful. This was evidently not his field. His first stories, Les Mysteres de Marseilles and Le Voeu d'Une Morte fell flat, disclosing no indication of remarkable talent. But in 1864 appeared Les Contes a Ninon, which attracted wide attention, the public finding them charming. Les Confessions de Claude was published in 1865. In this work Zola had evidently struck his gait, and when Therese Raquin followed, in 1867, Zola was fully launched on his great career as a writer of the school which he called "Naturalist." Therese Raquin was a powerful study of the effects of remorse preying upon the mind. In this work the naturalism was generally characterized as "brutal," yet many critics admitted that it was absolutely true to nature. It had, in fact, all the gruesome accuracy of a clinical lecture. In 1868 came Madeleine Ferat, an exemplification of the doctrine of heredity, as inexorable as the "Destiny" of the Greek tragedies of old.
And now dawned in Zola's teeming brain the vast conception of a "Naturalistic Comedy of Life." It was to be Balzac "naturalized," so to speak. The great cycle should run through the whole gamut of human passions, foibles, motives and interests. It should consist of human documents, of painstaking minuteness of detail and incontrovertible truth.
The idea of destiny or heredity permeates all the works of this portentously ambitious series. Details may be repellant. One should not "smell" a picture, as the artists say. If one does, he gets an impression merely of a small blotch of paint. The vast canvas should be studied as a whole. Frailties are certainly not the whole of human nature. But they cannot be excluded from a comprehensive view of it. The "Rougon-Macquart series" did not carry Zola into the Academy. But the reputation of Moliere has managed to survive a similar exclusion, and so will the fame of Zola, who will be bracketed with Balzac in future classifications of artistic excellence. For twenty-two years, from La Fortune des Rougon, in 1871, to Docteur Pascal in 1893, the series continued to focus the attention of the world, and Zola was the most talked about man in the literature of the epoch. La Fortune des Rougon was introductory. La Curee discussed society under the second Empire. Le Ventre de Paris described the great market of Paris. La Conquete de Plassans spoke of life in the south of France. La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret treated of the results of celibacy. Son Excellence Eugene Rougon dealt with official life. L'Assommoir was a tract against the vice of drunkenness. Some think this the strongest of the naturalist series. Its success was prodigious. In this the marvellous talent of Zola for minute description is evinced. Une Page d'Amour (A Love Episode) appeared in 1878. Of Nana, 1880, three hundred thousand copies were quickly sold. Pot-Bouille portrayed the lower bourgeoisie and their servants. Au Bonheur des Dames treated of the great retail shops. La Joie de Vivre came in 1884. Germinal told of mining and the misery of the proletariat. L'Oeuvre pictured the life of artists and authors. La Terre portrayed, with startling realism, the lowest peasant life. Le Reve, which followed, was a reaction. It was a graceful idyl. Le Reve was termed "a symphony in white," and was considered as a concession to the views of the majority of the French Academy. La Bete Humaine exhausted the details of railway life. L'Argent treats of financial scandals and panics. La Debacle, 1892, is a realistic picture of the desperate struggles of the Franco-Prussian war. Le Docteur Pascal, 1893, a story of the emotions, wound up the series. Through it all runs the thread of heredity and environment in their influence on human character.
But Zola's work was not finished. A series of three romances on cities showed a continuance of power. They are Lourdes, Rome, and Paris. After the books on the three cities Zola planned a sort of tetralogy, intended to sum up his social philosophy, which he called the "Four Gospels." Feconditie is a tract against race suicide. The others of this series are entitled Travail, Verite and Justice, the latter projected but not begun.
The attitude which Zola took in reference to the wretched Dreyfus scandal will add greatly to his fame as a man of courage and a lover of truth. From this filthy mess of perjury and forgery Zola's intrepidity and devotion to justice arise clear and white as a lily from a cesspool.
Several of Zola's books have been dramatized.
Zola died suddenly at his home in Paris, in September, 1902. He received a public funeral, Anatole France delivering an oration at the grave. There is every indication that Zola's great reputation as an artist and philosopher will increase with the passing of the years.
C. C. STARKWEATHER.
A LOVE EPISODE
The night-lamp with a bluish shade was burning on the chimney-piece, behind a book, whose shadows plunged more than half the chamber in darkness. There was a quiet gleam of light cutting across the round table and the couch, streaming over the heavy folds of the velvet curtains, and imparting an azure hue to the mirror of the rosewood wardrobe placed between the two windows. The quiet simplicity of the room, the blue tints on the hangings, furniture, and carpet, served at this hour of night to invest everything with the delightful vagueness of cloudland. Facing the windows, and within sweep of the shadow, loomed the velvet-curtained bed, a black mass, relieved only by the white of the sheets. With hands crossed on her bosom, and breathing lightly, lay Helene, asleep—mother and widow alike personified by the quiet unrestraint of her attitude.
In the midst of the silence one o'clock chimed from the timepiece. The noises of the neighborhood had died away; the dull, distant roar of the city was the only sign of life that disturbed those Trocadero heights. Helene's breathing, so light and gentle, did not ruffle the chaste repose of her bosom. She was in a beauteous sleep, peaceful yet sound, her profile perfect, her nut-brown hair twisted into a knot, and her head leaning forward somewhat, as though she had fallen asleep while eagerly listening. At the farther end of the room the open door of an adjoining closet seemed but a black square in the wall.
Still there was not a sound. The half-hour struck. The pendulum gave but a feeble tick-tack amid the general drowsiness that brooded over the whole chamber. Everything was sleeping, night-lamp and furniture alike; on the table, near an extinguished lamp, some woman's handiwork was disposed also in slumber. Helene in her sleep retained her air of gravity and kindliness.
Two o'clock struck, and the stillness was broken. A deep sigh issued from the darkness of the closet. There was a rustling of linen sheets, and then silence reigned again. Anon labored breathing broke through the gloom. Helene had not moved. Suddenly, however, she started up, for the moanings and cries of a child in pain had roused her. Dazed with sleep, she pressed her hands against her temples, but hearing a stifled sob, she leaped from her couch on to the carpet.
"Jeanne! my Jeanne! what ails you? tell me, love," she asked; and as the child remained silent, she murmured, while running towards the night-light, "Gracious Heaven! why did I go to bed when she was so ill?"
Quickly she entered the closet, where deep silence had again fallen. The feeble gleam of the lamp threw but a circular patch of light on the ceiling. Bending over the iron cot, she could at first make out nothing, but amidst the bed-clothes, tossed about in disorder, the dim light soon revealed Jeanne, with limbs quite stiff, her head flung back, the muscles of her neck swollen and rigid. Her sweet face was distorted, her eyes were open and fixed on the curtain-rod above.
"My child!" cried Helene. "My God! my God! she is dying."
Setting down the lamp, Helene touched her daughter with trembling hands. The throbbing of the pulse and the heart's action seemed to have died away. The child's puny arms and legs were stretched out convulsively, and the mother grew frantic at the sight.
"My child is dying! Help, help!" she stammered. "My child! my child!"
She wandered back to her room, brushing against the furniture, and unconscious of her movements; then, distracted, she again returned to the little bed, throwing herself on her knees, and ever appealing for help. She took Jeanne in her arms, rained kisses on her hair, and stroked her little body, begging her to answer, and seeking one word —only one word—from her silent lips. Where was the pain? Would she have some of the cooling drink she had liked the other day? Perhaps the fresh air would revive her? So she rattled on, bent on making the child speak.
"Speak to me, Jeanne! speak to me, I entreat you!"
Oh, God! and not to know what to do in this sudden terror born of the night! There was no light even. Then her ideas grew confused, though her supplications to the child continued—at one moment she was beseeching, at another answering in her own person. Thus, the pain gripped her in the stomach; no, no, it must be in the breast. It was nothing at all; she need merely keep quiet. Then Helene tried to collect her scattered senses; but as she felt her daughter stark and stiff in her embrace, her heart sickened unto death. She tried to reason with herself, and to resist the yearning to scream. But all at once, despite herself, her cry rang out
"Rosalie, Rosalie! my child is dying. Quick, hurry for the doctor."
Screaming out these words, she ran through dining-room and kitchen to a room in the rear, where the maid started up from sleep, giving vent to her surprise. Helene speeded back again. Clad only in her night-dress she moved about, seemingly not feeling the icy cold of the February night. Pah! this maid would loiter, and her child would die! Back again she hurried through the kitchen to the bedroom before a minute had elapsed. Violently, and in the dark, she slipped on a petticoat, and threw a shawl over her shoulders. The furniture in her way was overturned; the room so still and silent was filled with the echoes of her despair. Then leaving the doors open, she rushed down three flights of stairs in her slippers, consumed with the thought that she alone could bring back a doctor.
After the house-porter had opened the door Helene found herself upon the pavement, with a ringing in her ears and her mind distracted. However, she quickly ran down the Rue Vineuse and pulled the door-bell of Doctor Bodin, who had already tended Jeanne; but a servant—after an interval which seemed an eternity—informed her that the doctor was attending a woman in childbed. Helene remained stupefied on the footway; she knew no other doctor in Passy. For a few moments she rushed about the streets, gazing at the houses. A slight but keen wind was blowing, and she was walking in slippers through the light snow that had fallen during the evening. Ever before her was her daughter, with the agonizing thought that she was killing her by not finding a doctor at once. Then, as she retraced her steps along the Rue Vineuse, she rang the bell of another house. She would inquire, at all events; some one would perhaps direct her. She gave a second tug at the bell; but no one seemed to come. The wind meanwhile played with her petticoat, making it cling to her legs, and tossed her dishevelled hair.
At last a servant answered her summons. "Doctor Deberle was in bed asleep." It was a doctor's house at which she had rung, so Heaven had not abandoned her! Straightway, intent upon entering, she pushed the servant aside, still repeating her prayer:
"My child, my child is dying! Oh, tell him he must come!"
The house was small and seemed full of hangings. She reached the first floor, despite the servant's opposition, always answering his protest with the words, "My child is dying!" In the apartment she entered she would have been content to wait; but the moment she heard the doctor stirring in the next room she drew near and appealed to him through the doorway:
"Oh, sir, come at once, I beseech you. My child is dying!"
When the doctor at last appeared in a short coat and without a neckcloth, she dragged him away without allowing him to finish dressing. He at once recognized her as a resident in the next-door house, and one of his own tenants; so when he induced her to cross a garden—to shorten the way by using a side-door between the two houses —memory suddenly awoke within her.
"True, you are a doctor!" she murmured, "and I knew it. But I was distracted. Oh, let us hurry!"
On the staircase she wished him to go first. She could not have admitted the Divinity to her home in a more reverent manner. Upstairs Rosalie had remained near the child, and had lit the large lamp on the table. After the doctor had entered the room he took up this lamp and cast its light upon the body of the child, which retained its painful rigidity; the head, however, had slipped forward, and nervous twitchings were ceaselessly drawing the face. For a minute he looked on in silence, his lips compressed. Helene anxiously watched him, and on noticing the mother's imploring glance, he muttered: "It will be nothing. But she must not lie here. She must have air."
Helene grasped her child in a strong embrace, and carried her away on her shoulder. She could have kissed the doctor's hand for his good tidings, and a wave of happiness rippled through her. Scarcely, however, had Jeanne been placed in the larger bed than her poor little frame was again seized with violent convulsions. The doctor had removed the shade from the lamp, and a white light was streaming through the room. Then, opening a window, he ordered Rosalie to drag the bed away from the curtains. Helene's heart was again filled with anguish. "Oh, sir, she is dying," she stammered. "Look! look! Ah! I scarcely recognize her."
The doctor did not reply, but watched the paroxysm attentively.
"Step into the alcove," he at last exclaimed. "Hold her hands to prevent her from tearing herself. There now, gently, quietly! Don't make yourself uneasy. The fit must be allowed to run its course."
They both bent over the bed, supporting and holding Jeanne, whose limbs shot out with sudden jerks. The doctor had buttoned up his coat to hide his bare neck, and Helene's shoulders had till now been enveloped in her shawl; but Jeanne in her struggles dragged a corner of the shawl away, and unbuttoned the top of the coat. Still they did not notice it; they never even looked at one another.
At last the convulsion ceased, and the little one then appeared to sink into deep prostration. Doctor Deberle was evidently ill at ease, though he had assured the mother that there was no danger. He kept his gaze fixed on the sufferer, and put some brief questions to Helene as she stood by the bedside.
"How old is the child?"
"Eleven years and six months, sir," was the reply.
Silence again fell between them. He shook his head, and stooped to raise one of Jeanne's lowered eyelids and examine the mucus. Then he resumed his questions, but without raising his eyes to Helene.
"Did she have convulsions when she was a baby?"
"Yes, sir; but they left her after she reached her sixth birthday. Ah! she is very delicate. For some days past she had seemed ill at ease. She was at times taken with cramp, and plunged in a stupor."
"Do you know of any members of your family that have suffered from nervous affections?"
"I don't know. My mother was carried off by consumption."
Here shame made her pause. She could not confess that she had a grandmother who was an inmate of a lunatic asylum.[*] There was something tragic connected with all her ancestry.
[*] This is Adelaide Fouque, otherwise Aunt Dide, the ancestress of the Rougon-Macquart family, whose early career is related in the "Fortune of the Rougons," whilst her death is graphically described in the pages of "Dr. Pascal."
"Take care! the convulsions are coming on again!" now hastily exclaimed the doctor.
Jeanne had just opened her eyes, and for a moment she gazed around her with a vacant look, never speaking a word. Her glance then grew fixed, her body was violently thrown backwards, and her limbs became distended and rigid. Her skin, fiery-red, all at once turned livid. Her pallor was the pallor of death; the convulsions began once more.
"Do not loose your hold of her," said the doctor. "Take her other hand!"
He ran to the table, where, on entering, he had placed a small medicine-case. He came back with a bottle, the contents of which he made Jeanne inhale; but the effect was like that of a terrible lash; the child gave such a violent jerk that she slipped from her mother's hands.
"No, no, don't give her ether," exclaimed Helene, warned by the odor. "It drives her mad."
The two had now scarcely strength enough to keep the child under control. Her frame was racked and distorted, raised by the heels and the nape of the neck, as if bent in two. But she fell back again and began tossing from one side of the bed to the other. Her fists were clenched, her thumbs bent against the palms of her hands. At times she would open the latter, and, with fingers wide apart, grasp at phantom bodies in the air, as though to twist them. She touched her mother's shawl and fiercely clung to it. But Helene's greatest grief was that she no longer recognized her daughter. The suffering angel, whose face was usually so sweet, was transformed in every feature, while her eyes swam, showing balls of a nacreous blue.
"Oh, do something, I implore you!" she murmured. "My strength is exhausted, sir."
She had just remembered how the child of a neighbor at Marseilles had died of suffocation in a similar fit. Perhaps from feelings of pity the doctor was deceiving her. Every moment she believed she felt Jeanne's last breath against her face; for the child's halting respiration seemed suddenly to cease. Heartbroken and overwhelmed with terror, Helene then burst into tears, which fell on the body of her child, who had thrown off the bedclothes.
The doctor meantime was gently kneading the base of the neck with his long supple fingers. Gradually the fit subsided, and Jeanne, after a few slight twitches, lay there motionless. She had fallen back in the middle of the bed, with limbs outstretched, while her head, supported by the pillow, inclined towards her bosom. One might have thought her an infant Jesus. Helene stooped and pressed a long kiss on her brow.
"Is it over?" she asked in a whisper. "Do you think she'll have another fit?"
The doctor made an evasive gesture, and then replied:
"In any case the others will be less violent."
He had asked Rosalie for a glass and water-bottle. Half-filling the glass with water, he took up two fresh medicine phials, and counted out a number of drops. Helene assisted in raising the child's head, and the doctor succeeded in pouring a spoonful of the liquid between the clenched teeth. The white flame of the lamp was leaping up high and clear, revealing the disorder of the chamber's furnishings. Helene's garments, thrown on the back of an arm-chair before she slipped into bed, had now fallen, and were littering the carpet. The doctor had trodden on her stays, and had picked them up lest he might again find them in his way. An odor of vervain stole through the room. The doctor himself went for the basin, and soaked a linen cloth in it, which he then pressed to Jeanne's temples.
"Oh, madame, you'll take cold!" expostulated Rosalie as she stood there shivering. "Perhaps the window might be shut? The air is too raw."
"No, no!" cried Helene; "leave the window open. Should it not be so?" she appealed to the doctor.
The wind entered in slight puffs, rustling the curtains to and fro; but she was quite unconscious of it. Yet the shawl had slipped off her shoulders, and her hair had become unwound, some wanton tresses sweeping down to her hips. She had left her arms free and uncovered, that she might be the more ready; she had forgotten all, absorbed entirely in her love for her child. And on his side, the doctor, busy with his work, no longer thought of his unbuttoned coat, or of the shirt-collar that Jeanne's clutch had torn away.
"Raise her up a little," said he to Helene. "No, no, not in that way! Give me your hand."
He took her hand and placed it under the child's head. He wished to give Jeanne another spoonful of the medicine. Then he called Helene close to him, made use of her as his assistant; and she obeyed him reverently on seeing that her daughter was already more calm.
"Now, come," he said. "You must let her head lean against your shoulder, while I listen."
Helene did as he bade her, and he bent over her to place his ear against Jeanne's bosom. He touched her bare shoulder with his cheek, and as the pulsation of the child's heart struck his ear he could also have heard the throbbing of the mother's breast. As he rose up his breath mingled with Helene's.
"There is nothing wrong there," was the quiet remark that filled her with delight. "Lay her down again. We must not worry her more."
However, another, though much less violent, paroxysm followed. From Jeanne's lips burst some broken words. At short intervals two fresh attacks seemed about to convulse her, and then a great prostration, which again appeared to alarm the doctor, fell on the child. He had placed her so that her head lay high, with the clothes carefully tucked under her chin; and for nearly an hour he remained there watching her, as though awaiting the return of a healthy respiration. On the other side of the bed Helene also waited, never moving a limb.
Little by little a great calm settled on Jeanne's face. The lamp cast a sunny light upon it, and it regained its exquisite though somewhat lengthy oval. Jeanne's fine eyes, now closed, had large, bluish, transparent lids, which veiled—one could divine it—a sombre, flashing glance. A light breathing came from her slender nose, while round her somewhat large mouth played a vague smile. She slept thus, amidst her outspread tresses, which were inky black.
"It has all passed away now," said the doctor in a whisper; and he turned to arrange his medicine bottles prior to leaving.
"Oh, sir!" exclaimed Helene, approaching him, "don't leave me yet; wait a few minutes. Another fit might come on, and you, you alone, have saved her!"
He signed to her that there was nothing to fear; yet he tarried, with the idea of tranquillizing her. She had already sent Rosalie to bed; and now the dawn soon broke, still and grey, over the snow which whitened the housetops. The doctor proceeded to close the window, and in the deep quiet the two exchanged a few whispers.
"There is nothing seriously wrong with her, I assure you," said he; "only with one so young great care must be taken. You must see that her days are spent quietly and happily, and without shocks of any kind."
"She is so delicate and nervous," replied Helene after a moment's pause. "I cannot always control her. For the most trifling reasons she is so overcome by joy or sorrow that I grow alarmed. She loves me with a passion, a jealousy, which makes her burst into tears when I caress another child."
"So, so—delicate, nervous, and jealous," repeated the doctor as he shook his head. "Doctor Bodin has attended her, has he not? I'll have a talk with him about her. We shall have to adopt energetic treatment. She has reached an age that is critical in one of her sex."
Recognizing the interest he displayed, Helene gave vent to her gratitude. "How I must thank you, sir, for the great trouble you have taken!"
The loudness of her tones frightened her, however; she might have woke Jeanne, and she bent down over the bed. But no; the child was sound asleep, with rosy cheeks, and a vague smile playing round her lips. The air of the quiet chamber was charged with languor. The whilom drowsiness, as if born again of relief, once more seized upon the curtains, furniture, and littered garments. Everything was steeped restfully in the early morning light as it entered through the two windows.
Helene again stood up close to the bed; on the other side was the doctor, and between them lay Jeanne, lightly sleeping.
"Her father was frequently ill," remarked Helene softly, continuing her answer to his previous question. "I myself enjoy the best of health."
The doctor, who had not yet looked at her, raised his eyes, and could scarcely refrain from smiling, so hale and hearty was she in every way. She greeted his gaze with her own sweet and quiet smile. Her happiness lay in her good health.
However, his looks were still bent on her. Never had he seen such classical beauty. Tall and commanding, she was a nut-brown Juno, of a nut-brown sunny with gleams of gold. When she slowly turned her head, its profile showed the severe purity of a statue. Her grey eyes and pearly teeth lit up her whole face. Her chin, rounded and somewhat pronounced, proved her to be possessed of commonsense and firmness. But what astonished the doctor was the superbness of her whole figure. She stood there, a model of queenliness, chastity, and modesty.
On her side also she scanned him for a moment. Doctor Deberle's years were thirty-five; his face was clean-shaven and a little long; he had keen eyes and thin lips. As she gazed on him she noticed for the first time that his neck was bare. Thus they remained face to face, with Jeanne asleep between them. The distance which but a short time before had appeared immense, now seemed to be dwindling away. Then Helene slowly wrapped the shawl about her shoulders again, while the doctor hastened to button his coat at the neck.
"Mamma! mamma!" Jeanne stammered in her sleep. She was waking, and on opening her eyes she saw the doctor and became uneasy.
"Mamma, who's that?" was her instant question; but her mother kissed her, and replied: "Go to sleep, darling, you haven't been well. It's only a friend."
The child seemed surprised; she did not remember anything. Drowsiness was coming over her once more, and she fell asleep again, murmuring tenderly: "I'm going to by-by. Good-night, mamma, dear. If he is your friend he will be mine."
The doctor had removed his medicine-case, and, with a silent bow, he left the room. Helene listened for a while to the child's breathing, and then, seated on the edge of the bed, she became oblivious to everything around her; her looks and thoughts wandering far away. The lamp, still burning, was paling in the growing sunlight.
Next day Helene thought it right and proper to pay a visit of thanks to Doctor Deberle. The abrupt fashion in which she had compelled him to follow her, and the remembrance of the whole night which he had spent with Jeanne, made her uneasy, for she realized that he had done more than is usually compassed within a doctor's visit. Still, for two days she hesitated to make her call, feeling a strange repugnance towards such a step. For this she could give herself no reasons. It was the doctor himself who inspired her with this hesitancy; one morning she met him, and shrunk from his notice as though she were a child. At this excess of timidity she was much annoyed. Her quiet, upright nature protested against the uneasiness which was taking possession of her. She decided, therefore, to go and thank the doctor that very day.
Jeanne's attack had taken place during the small hours of Wednesday morning; it was now Saturday, and the child was quite well again. Doctor Bodin, whose fears concerning her had prompted him to make an early call, spoke of Doctor Deberle with the respect that an old doctor with a meagre income pays to another in the same district, who is young, rich, and already possessed of a reputation. He did not forget to add, however, with an artful smile, that the fortune had been bequeathed by the elder Deberle, a man whom all Passy held in veneration. The son had only been put to the trouble of inheriting fifteen hundred thousand francs, together with a splendid practice. "He is, though, a very smart fellow," Doctor Bodin hastened to add, "and I shall be honored by having a consultation with him about the precious health of my little friend Jeanne!"
About three o'clock Helene made her way downstairs with her daughter, and had to take but a few steps along the Rue Vineuse before ringing at the next-door house. Both mother and daughter still wore deep mourning. A servant, in dress-coat and white tie, opened the door. Helene easily recognized the large entrance-hall, with its Oriental hangings; on each side of it, however, there were now flower-stands, brilliant with a profusion of blossoms. The servant having admitted them to a small drawing-room, the hangings and furniture of which were of a mignonette hue, stood awaiting their pleasure, and Helene gave her name—Madame Grandjean.
Thereupon the footman pushed open the door of a drawing-room, furnished in yellow and black, of dazzling effect, and, moving aside, announced:
Helene, standing on the threshold, started back. She had just noticed at the other end of the room a young woman seated near the fireplace on a narrow couch which was completely covered by her ample skirts. Facing her sat an elderly person, who had retained her bonnet and shawl, and was evidently paying a visit.
"I beg pardon," exclaimed Helene. "I wished to see Doctor Deberle."
She had made the child enter the room before her, and now took her by the hand again. She was both astonished and embarrassed in meeting this young lady. Why had she not asked for the doctor? She well knew he was married.
Madame Deberle was just finishing some story, in a quick and rather shrill voice.
"Oh! it's marvellous, marvellous! She dies with wonderful realism. She clutches at her bosom like this, throws back her head, and her face turns green. I declare you ought to see her, Mademoiselle Aurelie!"
Then, rising up, she sailed towards the doorway, rustling her skirts terribly.
"Be so kind as to walk in, madame," she said with charming graciousness. "My husband is not at home, but I shall be delighted to receive you, I assure you. This must be the pretty little girl who was so ill a few nights ago. Sit down for a moment, I beg of you."
Helene was forced to accept the invitation, while Jeanne timidly perched herself on the edge of another chair. Madame Deberle again sank down on her little sofa, exclaiming with a pretty laugh,
"Yes, this is my day. I receive every Saturday, you see, and Pierre then announces all comers. A week or two ago he ushered in a colonel suffering from the gout."
"How silly you are, my dear Juliette!" expostulated Mademoiselle Aurelie, the elderly lady, an old friend in straitened circumstances, who had seen her come into the world.
There was a short silence, and Helene gazed round at the luxury of the apartment, with its curtains and chairs in black and gold, glittering like constellations. Flowers decorated mantel-shelf, piano, and tables alike, and the clear light streamed through the windows from the garden, in which could be seen the leafless trees and bare soil. The room had almost a hot-house temperature; in the fireplace one large log was glowing with intense heat. After another glance Helene recognized that the gaudy colors had a happy effect. Madame Deberle's hair was inky-black, and her skin of a milky whiteness. She was short, plump, slow in her movements, and withal graceful. Amidst all the golden decorations, her white face assumed a vermeil tint under her heavy, sombre tresses. Helene really admired her.
"Convulsions are so terrible," broke in Madame Deberle. "My Lucien had them when a mere baby. How uneasy you must have been, madame! However, the dear little thing appears to be quite well now."
As she drawled out these words she kept her eyes on Helene, whose superb beauty amazed and delighted her. Never had she seen a woman with so queenly an air in the black garments which draped the widow's commanding figure. Her admiration found vent in an involuntary smile, while she exchanged glances with Mademoiselle Aurelie. Their admiration was so ingenuously and charmingly expressed, that a faint smile also rippled over Helene's face.
Then Madame Deberle stretched herself on the sofa. "You were not at the first night at the Vaudeville yesterday, madame?" she asked, as she played with the fan that hung from her waist.
"I never go to the theatre," was Helene's reply.
"Oh! little Noemi was simply marvellous! Her death scene is so realistic! She clutches her bosom like this, throws back her head, and her face turns green. Oh! the effect is prodigious."
Thereupon she entered into a minute criticism of the actress's playing, which she upheld against the world; and then she passed to the other topics of the day—a fine art exhibition, at which she had seen some most remarkable paintings; a stupid novel about which too much fuss was being made; a society intrigue which she spoke of to Mademoiselle Aurelie in veiled language. And so she went on from one subject to another, without wearying, her tongue ever ready, as though this social atmosphere were peculiarly her own. Helene, a stranger to such society, was content to listen, merely interjecting a remark or brief reply every now and then.
At last the door was again thrown open and the footman announced: "Madame de Chermette! Madame Tissot!"
Two ladies entered, magnificently dressed. Madame Deberle rose eagerly to meet them, and the train of her black silk gown, heavily decked with trimmings, trailed so far behind her that she had to kick it out of her way whenever she happened to turn round. A confused babel of greetings in shrill voices arose.
"Oh! how kind of you! I declare I never see you!"
"You know we come about that lottery."
"Yes: I know, I know."
"Oh! we cannot sit down. We have to call at twenty houses yet."
"Come now, you are not going to run away at once!"
And then the visitors finished by sitting down on the edge of a couch; the chatter beginning again, shriller than ever.
"Well! what do you think of yesterday at the Vaudeville?"
"Oh! it was splendid!"
"You know she unfastens her dress and lets down her hair. All the effect springs from that."
"People say that she swallows something to make her green."
"No, no, every action is premeditated; but she had to invent and study them all, in the first place."
The two ladies rose and made their exit, and the room regained its tranquil peacefulness. From some hyacinths on the mantel-shelf was wafted an all-pervading perfume. For a time one could hear the noisy twittering of some sparrows quarrelling on the lawn. Before resuming her seat, Madame Deberle proceeded to draw down the embroidered tulle blind of a window facing her, and then returned to her sofa in the mellowed, golden light of the room.
"I beg pardon," she now said. "We have had quite an invasion."
Then, in an affectionate way, she entered into conversation with Helene. She seemed to know some details of her history, doubtless from the gossip of her servants. With a boldness that was yet full of tact, and appeared instinct with much friendliness, she spoke to Helene of her husband, and of his sad death at the Hotel du Var, in the Rue de Richelieu.
"And you had just arrived, hadn't you? You had never been in Paris before. It must be awful to be plunged into mourning, in a strange room, the day after a long journey, and when one doesn't know a single place to go to."
Helene assented with a slow nod. Yes, she had spent some very bitter hours. The disease which carried off her husband had abruptly declared itself on the day after their arrival, just as they were going out together. She knew none of the streets, and was wholly unaware what district she was in. For eight days she had remained at the bedside of the dying man, hearing the rumble of Paris beneath her window, feeling she was alone, deserted, lost, as though plunged in the depths of an abyss. When she stepped out on the pavement for the first time, she was a widow. The mere recalling of that bare room, with its rows of medicine bottles, and with the travelling trunks standing about unpacked, still made her shudder.
"Was your husband, as I've been told, nearly twice your age?" asked Madame Deberle with an appearance of profound interest, while Mademoiselle Aurelie cocked her ears so as not to lose a syllable of the conversation.
"Oh, no!" replied Helene. "He was scarcely six years older."
Then she ventured to enter into the story of her marriage, telling in a few brief sentences how her husband had fallen deeply in love with her while she was living with her father, Monsieur Mouret, a hatter in the Rue des Petites-Maries, at Marseilles; how the Grandjean family, who were rich sugar-refiners, were bitterly opposed to the match, on account of her poverty. She spoke, too, of the ill-omened and secret wedding after the usual legal formalities, and of their hand-to-mouth existence, till the day an uncle on dying left them some ten thousand francs a year. It was then that Grandjean, within whom an intense hatred of Marseilles was growing, had decided on coming to Paris, to live there for good.
"And how old were you when you were married?" was Madame Deberle's next question.
"You must have been very beautiful."
The conversation suddenly ceased, for Helene had not seemed to hear the remark.
"Madame Manguelin!" announced the footman.
A young, retiring woman, evidently ill at ease, was ushered in. Madame Deberle scarcely rose. It was one of her dependents, who had called to thank her for some service performed. The visitor only remained for a few minutes, and left the room with a courtesy.
Madame Deberle then resumed the conversation, and spoke of Abbe Jouve, with whom both were acquainted. The Abbe was a meek officiating priest at Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the parish church of Passy; however, his charity was such that he was more beloved and more respectfully hearkened to than any other priest in the district.
"Oh, he has such pious eloquence!" exclaimed Madame Deberle, with a sanctimonious look.
"He has been very kind to us," said Helene. "My husband had formerly known him at Marseilles. The moment he heard of my misfortune he took charge of everything. To him we owe our settling in Passy."
"He has a brother, hasn't he?" questioned Juliette.
"Yes, a step-brother, for his mother married again. Monsieur Rambaud was also acquainted with my husband. He has started a large business in the Rue de Rambuteau, where he sells oils and other Southern produce. I believe he makes a large amount of money by it." And she added, with a laugh: "The Abbe and his brother make up my court."
Jeanne, sitting on the edge of her chair, and wearied to death, now cast an impatient look at her mother. Her long, delicate, lamb-like face wore a pained expression, as if she disliked all this conversation; and she appeared at times to sniff the heavy, oppressive odors floating in the room, while casting suspicious side-glances at the furniture, as though her own exquisite sensibility warned her of some undefined dangers. Finally, however, she turned a look of tyrannical worship on her mother.
Madame Deberle noticed the child's uneasiness.
"Here's a little girl," she said, "who feels tired at being serious, like a grown-up person. There are some picture-books on the table, dear; they will amuse you."
Jeanne took up an album, but her eyes strayed from it to glance imploringly at her mother. Helene, charmed by her hostess's excessive kindness, did not move; there was nothing of the fidget in her, and she would of her own accord remain seated for hours. However, as the servant announced three ladies in succession—Madame Berthier, Madame de Guiraud, and Madame Levasseur—she thought she ought to rise.
"Oh! pray stop," exclaimed Madame Deberle; "I must show you my son."
The semi-circle round the fireplace was increasing in size. The ladies were all gossiping at the same time. One of them declared that she was completely broken down, as for five days she had not gone to bed till four o'clock in the morning. Another indulged in a diatribe against wet nurses; she could no longer find one who was honest. Next the conversation fell on dressmakers. Madame Deberle affirmed no woman tailor could fit you properly; a man was requisite. Two of the ladies, however, were mumbling something under their breath, and, a silence intervening, two or three words became audible. Every one then broke into a laugh, while languidly waving their fans.
"Monsieur Malignon!" announced the servant.
A tall young man, dressed in good style, was ushered in. Some exclamations greeted him. Madame Deberle, not taking the trouble to rise, stretched out her hand and inquired: "Well! what of yesterday at the Vaudeville?"
"Vile!" was his reply.
"What! vile! She's marvellous when she clutches her bosom and throws back her head—"
"Stop! stop! The whole thing is loathsome in its realism."
And then quite a dispute commenced. It was easy to talk of realism, but the young man would have no realism at all.
"I would not have it in anything, you hear!" said he, raising his voice. "No, not in anything! it degrades art."
People would soon be seeing some fine things on the stage, indeed! Why didn't Noemi follow out her actions to their logical conclusion? And he illustrated his remark with a gesture which quite scandalized the ladies. Oh, how horrible! However, when Madame Deberle had declared that the actress produced a great effect, and Madame Levasseur had related how a lady had fainted in the balcony, everybody agreed that the affair was a great success; and with this the discussion stopped short.
The young man sat in an arm-chair, with his legs stretched out among the ladies' flowing skirts. He seemed to be quite at home in the doctor's house. He had mechanically plucked a flower from a vase, and was tearing it to pieces with his teeth. Madame Deberle interrupted him:
"Have you read that novel which—"
He did not allow her to finish, but replied, with a superior air, that he only read two novels in the year.
As for the exhibition of paintings at the Art Club, it was not worth troubling about; and then, every topic being exhausted, he rose and leaned over Juliette's little sofa, conversing with her in a low voice, while the other ladies continued chatting together in an animated manner.
At length: "Dear me! he's gone," exclaimed Madame Berthier turning round. "I met him only an hour ago in Madame Robinot's drawing-room."
"Yes, and he is now going to visit Madame Lecomte," said Madame Deberle. "He goes about more than any other man in Paris." She turned to Helene, who had been following the scene, and added: "A very distinguished young fellow he is, and we like him very much. He has some interest in a stockbroking business; he's very rich besides, and well posted in everything."
The other ladies, however, were now going off.
"Good-bye, dear madame. I rely upon you for Wednesday."
"Yes, to be sure; Wednesday."
"Oh, by the way, will you be at that evening party? One doesn't know whom one may meet. If you go, I'll go."
"Ah, well! I'll go, I promise you. Give my best regards to Monsieur de Guiraud."
When Madame Deberle returned she found Helene standing in the middle of the drawing-room. Jeanne had drawn close to her mother, whose hands she firmly grasped; and thus clinging to her caressingly and almost convulsively, she was drawing her little by little towards the doorway.
"Ah, I was forgetting!" exclaimed the lady of the house; and ringing the bell for the servant, she said to him: "Pierre, tell Miss Smithson to bring Lucien here."
During the short interval of waiting that ensued the door was again opened, but this time in a familiar fashion and without any formal announcement. A good-looking girl of some sixteen years of age entered in company with an old man, short of stature but with a rubicund, chubby face.
"Good-day, sister," was the girl's greeting, as she kissed Madame Deberle.
"Good-day, Pauline! good-day, father!" replied the doctor's wife.
Mademoiselle Aurelie, who had not stirred from her seat beside the fire, rose to exchange greetings with Monsieur Letellier. He owned an extensive silk warehouse on the Boulevard des Capucines. Since his wife's death he had been taking his younger daughter about everywhere, in search of a rich husband for her.
"Were you at the Vaudeville last night?" asked Pauline.
"Oh, it was simply marvellous!" repeated Juliette in parrot-fashion, as, standing before a mirror, she rearranged a rebellious curl.
"It is annoying to be so young; one can't go to anything!" said Pauline, pouting like a spoiled child. "I went with papa to the theatre-door at midnight, to find out how the piece had taken."
"Yes, and we tumbled upon Malignon," said the father.
"He was extremely pleased with it."
"Really!" exclaimed Juliette. "He was here a minute ago, and declared it vile. One never knows how to take him."
"Have you had many visitors to-day?" asked Pauline, rushing off to another subject.
"Oh, several ladies; quite a crowd! The room was never once empty. I'm dead-beat—"
Here she abruptly broke off, remembering she had a formal introduction to make
"My father, my sister—Madame Grandjean."
The conversation was turning on children and the ailments which give mothers so much worry when Miss Smithson, an English governess, appeared with a little boy clinging to her hand. Madame Deberle scolded her in English for having kept them waiting.
"Ah! here's my little Lucien!" exclaimed Pauline as she dropped on her knees before the child, with a great rustling of skirts.
"Now, now, leave him alone!" said Juliette. "Come here, Lucien; come and say good-day to this little lady."
The boy came forward very sheepishly. He was no more than seven years old, fat and dumpy, and dressed as coquettishly as a doll. As he saw that they were all looking at him with smiles, he stopped short, and surveyed Jeanne, his blue eyes wide open with astonishment.
"Go on!" urged his mother.
He turned his eyes questioningly on her and advanced a step, evincing all the sullenness peculiar to lads of his age, his head lowered, his thick lips pouting, and his eyebrows bent into a growing frown. Jeanne must have frightened him with the serious look she wore standing there in her black dress. She had not ceased holding her mother's hand, and was nervously pressing her fingers on the bare part of the arm between the sleeve and glove. With head lowered she awaited Lucien's approach uneasily, like a young and timid savage, ready to fly from his caress. But a gentle push from her mother prompted her to step forward.
"Little lady, you will have to kiss him first," Madame Deberle said laughingly. "Ladies always have to begin with him. Oh! the little stupid."
"Kiss him, Jeanne," urged Helene.
The child looked up at her mother; and then, as if conquered by the bashful looks of the little noodle, seized with sudden pity as she gazed on his good-natured face, so dreadfully confused—she smiled divinely. A sudden wave of hidden tenderness rose within her and brightened her features, and she whispered: "Willingly, mamma!"
Then, taking Lucien under the armpits, almost lifting him from the ground, she gave him a hearty kiss on each cheek. He had no further hesitation in embracing her.
"Bravo! capital!" exclaimed the onlookers.
With a bow Helene turned to leave, accompanied to the door by Madame Deberle.
"I beg you, madame," said she, "to present my heartiest thanks to the doctor. He relieved me of such dreadful anxiety the other night."
"Is Henri not at home?" broke in Monsieur Letellier.
"No, he will be away some time yet," was Juliette's reply. "But you're not going away; you'll dine with us," she continued, addressing Mademoiselle Aurelie, who had risen as if to leave with Madame Grandjean.
The old maid with each Saturday expected a similar invitation, then decided to relieve herself of shawl and bonnet. The heat in the drawing-room was intense, and Monsieur Letellier hastened to open a window, at which he remained standing, struck by the sight of a lilac bush which was already budding. Pauline, meantime, had begun playfully running after Lucien behind the chairs and couches, left in confusion by the visitors.
On the threshold Madame Deberle held out her hand to Helene with a frank and friendly movement.
"You will allow me," said she. "My husband spoke to me about you, and I felt drawn to you. Your bereavement, your lonely life—in short, I am very glad to have seen you, and you must not be long in coming back."
"I give you my promise, and I am obliged to you," said Helene, moved by these tokens of affection from a woman whom she had imagined rather flighty. They clasped hands, and each looked into the other's face with a happy smile. Juliette's avowal of her sudden friendship was given with a caressing air. "You are too lovely not to be loved!" she said.
Helene broke into a merry laugh, for her beauty never engaged her thoughts, and she called Jeanne, whose eyes were busy watching the pranks of Lucien and Pauline. But Madame Deberle detained the girl for a moment longer.
"You are good friends henceforth," she said; "you must just say au revoir."
Thereupon the two children blew one another a kiss with their finger-tips.
Every Tuesday Helene had Monsieur Rambaud and Abbe Jouve to dine with her. It was they who, during the early days of her bereavement, had broken in on her solitude, and drawn up their chairs to her table with friendly freedom; their object being to extricate her, at least once a week, from the solitude in which she lived. The Tuesday dinners became established institutions, and the partakers in these little feasts appeared punctually at seven o'clock, serenely happy in discharging what they deemed a duty.
That Tuesday Helene was seated at the window, profiting by the last gleams of the twilight to finish some needle work, pending the arrival of her guests. She here spent her days in pleasant peacefulness. The noises of the street died away before reaching such a height. She loved this large, quiet chamber, with its substantial luxury, its rosewood furniture and blue velvet curtains. When her friends had attended to her installation, she not having to trouble about anything, she had at first somewhat suffered from all this sombre luxury, in preparing which Monsieur Rambaud had realized his ideal of comfort, much to the admiration of his brother, who had declined the task. She was not long, however, in feeling happy in a home in which, as in her heart, all was sound and simple. Her only enjoyment during her long hours of work was to gaze before her at the vast horizon, the huge pile of Paris, stretching its roofs, like billows, as far as the eye could reach. Her solitary corner overlooked all that immensity.
"Mamma, I can no longer see," said Jeanne, seated near her on a low chair. And then, dropping her work, the child gazed at Paris, which was darkening over with the shadows of night. She rarely romped about, and her mother even had to exert authority to induce her to go out. In accordance with Doctor Bodin's strict injunction, Helene made her stroll with her two hours each day in the Bois de Boulogne, and this was their only promenade; in eighteen months they had not gone three times into Paris.[*] Nowhere was Jeanne so evidently happy as in their large blue room. Her mother had been obliged to renounce her intention of having her taught music, for the sound of an organ in the silent streets made her tremble and drew tears from her eyes. Her favorite occupation was to assist her mother in sewing linen for the children of the Abbe's poor.
[*] Passy and the Trocadero are now well inside Paris, but at the time fixed for this story they were beyond the barrieres.
Night had quite fallen when the lamp was brought in by Rosalie, who, fresh from the glare of her range, looked altogether upset. Tuesday's dinner was the one event of the week, which put things topsy-turvy.
"Aren't the gentlemen coming here to-night, madame?" she inquired.
Helene looked at the timepiece: "It's a quarter to seven; they will be here soon," she replied.
Rosalie was a gift from Abbe Jouve, who had met her at the station on the day she arrived from Orleans, so that she did not know a single street in Paris. A village priest, an old schoolmate of Abbe Jouve's, had sent her to him. She was dumpy and plump, with a round face under her narrow cap, thick black hair, a flat nose, and deep red lips; and she was expert in preparing savory dishes, having been brought up at the parsonage by her godmother, servant to the village priest.
"Here is Monsieur Rambaud at last!" she exclaimed, rushing to open the door before there was even a ring.
Full and broad-shouldered, Monsieur Rambaud entered, displaying an expansive countenance like that of a country notary. His forty-five years had already silvered his hair, but his large blue eyes retained a wondering, artless, gentle expression, akin to a child's.
"And here's his reverence; everybody has come now!" resumed Rosalie, as she opened the door once more.
Whilst Monsieur Rambaud pressed Helene's hand and sat down without speaking, smiling like one who felt quite at home, Jeanne threw her arms round the Abbe's neck.
"Good-evening, dear friend," said she. "I've been so ill!"
"So ill, my darling?"
The two men at once showed their anxiety, the Abbe especially. He was a short, spare man, with a large head and awkward manners, and dressed in the most careless way; but his eyes, usually half-closed, now opened to their full extent, all aglow with exquisite tenderness. Jeanne relinquished one of her hands to him, while she gave the other to Monsieur Rambaud. Both held her and gazed at her with troubled looks. Helene was obliged to relate the story of her illness, and the Abbe was on the point of quarrelling with her for not having warned him of it. And then they each questioned her. "The attack was quite over now? She had not had another, had she?" The mother smiled as she listened.
"You are even fonder of her than I am, and I think you'll frighten me in the end," she replied. "No, she hasn't been troubled again, except that she has felt some pains in her limbs and had some headaches. But we shall get rid of these very soon."
The maid then entered to announce that dinner was ready.
The table, sideboard, and eight chairs furnishing the dining-room were of mahogany. The curtains of red reps had been drawn close by Rosalie, and a hanging lamp of white porcelain within a plain brass ring lighted up the tablecloth, the carefully-arranged plates, and the tureen of steaming soup. Each Tuesday's dinner brought round the same remarks, but on this particular day Dr. Deberle served naturally as a subject of conversation. Abbe Jouve lauded him to the skies, though he knew that he was no church-goer. He spoke of him, however, as a man of upright character, charitable to a fault, a good father, and a good husband—in fact, one who gave the best of examples to others. As for Madame Deberle she was most estimable, in spite of her somewhat flighty ways, which were doubtless due to her Parisian education. In a word, he dubbed the couple charming. Helene seemed happy to hear this; it confirmed her own opinions; and the Abbe's remarks determined her to continue the acquaintance, which had at first rather frightened her.
"You shut yourself up too much!" declared the priest.
"No doubt," echoed his brother.
Helene beamed on them with her quiet smile, as though to say that they themselves sufficed for all her wants, and that she dreaded new acquaintances. However, ten o'clock struck at last, and the Abbe and his brother took up their hats. Jeanne had just fallen asleep in an easy-chair in the bedroom, and they bent over her, raising their heads with satisfied looks as they observed how tranquilly she slumbered. They stole from the room on tiptoe, and in the lobby whispered their good-byes:
"Till next Tuesday!"
"O, by the way," said the Abbe, returning a step or two, "I was forgetting: Mother Fetu is ill. You should go to see her."
"I will go to-morrow," answered Helene.
The Abbe had a habit of commissioning her to visit his poor. They engaged in all sorts of whispered talk together on this subject, private business which a word or two enabled them to settle together, and which they never referred to in the presence of other persons.
On the morrow Helene went out alone. She decided to leave Jeanne in the house, as the child had been troubled with fits of shivering since paying a visit of charity to an old man who had become paralyzed. Once out of doors, she followed the Rue Vineuse, turned down the Rue Raynouard, and soon found herself in the Passage des Eaux, a strange, steep lane, like a staircase, pent between garden walls, and conducting from the heights of Passy to the quay. At the bottom of this descent was a dilapidated house, where Mother Fetu lived in an attic lighted by a round window, and furnished with a wretched bed, a rickety table, and a seatless chair.
"Oh! my good lady, my good lady!" she moaned out, directly she saw Helene enter.
The old woman was in bed. In spite of her wretchedness, her body was plump, swollen out, as it were, while her face was puffy, and her hands seemed numbed as she drew the tattered sheet over her. She had small, keen eyes and a whimpering voice, and displayed a noisy humility in a rush of words.
"Ah! my good lady, how I thank you! Ah, ah! oh, how I suffer! It's just as if dogs were tearing at my side. I'm sure I have a beast inside me—see, just there! The skin isn't broken; the complaint is internal. But, oh! oh! the pain hasn't ceased for two days past. Good Lord, how is it possible to suffer so much? Ah, my good lady, thank you! You don't forget the poor. It will be taken into account up above; yes, yes, it will be taken into account!"
Helene had sat down. Noticing on the table a jug of warm tisane, she filled a cup which was near at hand, and gave it to the sufferer. Near the jug were placed a packet of sugar, two oranges, and some other comfits.
"Has any one been to see you?" Helene asked.
"Yes, yes,—a little lady. But she doesn't know. That isn't the sort of stuff I need. Oh, if I could get a little meat! My next-door neighbor would cook it for me. Oh! oh! this pain is something dreadful! A dog is tearing at me—oh, if only I had some broth!"
In spite of the pains which were racking her limbs, she kept her sharp eyes fixed on Helene, who was now busy fumbling in her pocket, and on seeing her visitor place a ten-franc piece on the table, she whimpered all the more, and tried to rise to a sitting posture. Whilst struggling, she extended her arm, and the money vanished, as she repeated:
"Gracious Heaven! this is another frightful attack. Oh! oh! I cannot stand such agony any longer! God will requite you, my good lady; I will pray to Him to requite you. Bless my soul, how these pains shoot through my whole body! His reverence Abbe Jouve promised me you would come. It's only you who know what I want. I am going to buy some meat. But now the pain's going down into my legs. Help me; I have no strength left—none left at all!"
The old woman wished to turn over, and Helene, drawing off her gloves, gently took hold of her and placed her as she desired. As she was still bending over her the door opened, and a flush of surprise mounted to her cheeks as she saw Dr. Deberle entering. Did he also make visits to which he never referred?
"It's the doctor!" blurted out the old woman. "Oh! Heaven must bless you both for being so good!"
The doctor bowed respectfully to Helene. Mother Fetu had ceased whining on his entrance, but kept up a sibilant wheeze, like that of a child in pain. She had understood at once that the doctor and her benefactress were known to one another; and her eyes never left them, but travelled from one to the other, while her wrinkled face showed that her mind was covertly working. The doctor put some questions to her, and sounded her right side; then, turning to Helene, who had just sat down, he said:
"She is suffering from hepatic colic. She will be on her feet again in a few days."
And, tearing from his memorandum book a leaf on which he had written some lines, he added, addressing Mother Fetu:
"Listen to me. You must send this to the chemist in the Rue de Passy, and every two hours you must drink a spoonful of the draught he will give you."
The old woman burst out anew into blessings. Helene remained seated. The doctor lingered gazing at her; but when their eyes had met, he bowed and discreetly took his leave. He had not gone down a flight ere Mother Fetu's lamentations were renewed.
"Ah! he's such a clever doctor! Ah! if his medicine could do me some good! Dandelions and tallow make a good simple for removing water from the body. Yes, yes, you can say you know a clever doctor. Have you known him long? Gracious goodness, how thirsty I am! I feel burning hot. He has a wife, hasn't he? He deserves to have a good wife and beautiful children. Indeed, it's a pleasure to see kind-hearted people good acquaintances."
Helene had risen to give her a drink.
"I must go now, Mother Fetu," she said. "Good-bye till to-morrow."
"Ah! how good you are! If I only had some linen! Look at my chemise —it's torn in half; and this bed is so dirty. But that doesn't matter. God will requite you, my good lady!"
Next day, on Helene's entering Mother Fetu's room, she found Dr. Deberle already there. Seated on the chair, he was writing out a prescription, while the old woman rattled on with whimpering volubility.
"Oh, sir, it now feels like lead in my side—yes, just like lead! It's as heavy as a hundred-pound weight, and prevents me from turning round."
Then, having caught sight of Helene, she went on without a pause: "Ah! here's the good lady! I told the kind doctor you would come. Though the heavens might fall, said I, you would come all the same. You're a very saint, an angel from paradise, and, oh! so beautiful that people might fall on their knees in the streets to gaze on you as you pass! Dear lady, I am no better; just now I have a heavy feeling here. Oh, I have told the doctor what you did for me! The emperor could have done no more. Yes, indeed, it would be a sin not to love you—a great sin."
These broken sentences fell from her lips as, with eyes half closed, she rolled her head on the bolster, the doctor meantime smiling at Helene, who felt very ill at ease.
"Mother Fetu," she said softly, "I have brought you a little linen."
"Oh, thank you, thank you; God will requite you! You're just like this kind, good gentleman, who does more good to poor folks than a host of those who declare it their special work. You don't know what great care he has taken of me for four months past, supplying me with medicine and broth and wine. One rarely finds a rich person so kind to a poor soul! Oh, he's another of God's angels! Dear, dear, I seem to have quite a house in my stomach!"
In his turn the doctor now seemed to be embarrassed. He rose and offered his chair to Helene; but although she had come with the intention of remaining a quarter of an hour, she declined to sit down, on the plea that she was in a great hurry.
Meanwhile, Mother Fetu, still rolling her head to and fro, had stretched out her hand, and the parcel of linen had vanished in the bed. Then she resumed:
"Oh, what a couple of good souls you are! I don't wish to offend you; I only say it because it's true. When you have seen one, you have seen the other. Oh, dear Lord! give me a hand and help me to turn round. Kind-hearted people understand one another. Yes, yes, they understand one another."
"Good-bye, Mother Fetu," said Helene, leaving the doctor in sole possession. "I don't think I shall call to-morrow."
The next day, however, found her in the attic again. The old woman was sound asleep, but scarcely had she opened her eyes and recognized Helene in her black dress sitting on the chair than she exclaimed:
"He has been here—oh, I really don't know what he gave me to take, but I am as stiff as a stick. We were talking about you. He asked me all kinds of questions; whether you were generally sad, and whether your look was always the same. Oh, he's such a good man!"
Her words came more slowly, and she seemed to be waiting to see by the expression of Helene's face what effect her remarks might have on her, with that wheedling, anxious air of the poor who are desirous of pleasing people. No doubt she fancied she could detect a flush of displeasure mounting to her benefactress's brow, for her huge, puffed-up face, all eagerness and excitement, suddenly clouded over; and she resumed, in stammering accents:
"I am always asleep. Perhaps I have been poisoned. A woman in the Rue de l'Annonciation was killed by a drug which the chemist gave her in mistake for another."
That day Helene lingered for nearly half an hour in Mother Fetu's room, hearing her talk of Normandy, where she had been born, and where the milk was so good. During a silence she asked the old woman carelessly: "Have you known the doctor a long time?"
Mother Fetu, lying on her back, half-opened her eyes and again closed them.
"Oh, yes!" she answered, almost in a whisper. "For instance, his father attended to me before '48, and he accompanied him then."
"I have been told the father was a very good man."
"Yes, but a little cracked. The son is much his superior. When he touches you you would think his hands were of velvet."
Silence again fell.
"I advise you to do everything he tells you," at last said Helene. "He is very clever; he saved my daughter."
"To be sure!" exclaimed Mother Fetu, again all excitement. "People ought to have confidence in him. Why, he brought a boy to life again when he was going to be buried! Oh, there aren't two persons like him; you won't stop me from saying that! I am very lucky; I fall in with the pick of good-hearted people. I thank the gracious Lord for it every night. I don't forget either of you. You are mingled together in my prayers. May God in His goodness shield you and grant your every wish! May He load you with His gifts! May He keep you a place in Paradise!"
She was now sitting up in bed with hands clasped, seemingly entreating Heaven with devout fervor. Helene allowed her to go on thus for a considerable time, and even smiled. The old woman's chatter, in fact, ended by lulling her into a pleasant drowsiness, and when she went off she promised to give her a bonnet and gown, as soon as she should be able to get about again.
Throughout that week Helene busied herself with Mother Fetu. Her afternoon visit became an item in her daily life. She felt a strange fondness for the Passage des Eaux. She liked that steep lane for its coolness and quietness and its ever-clean pavement, washed on rainy days by the water rushing down from the heights. A strange sensation thrilled her as she stood at the top and looked at the narrow alley with its steep declivity, usually deserted, and only known to the few inhabitants of the neighboring streets. Then she would venture through an archway dividing a house fronting the Rue Raynouard, and trip down the seven flights of broad steps, in which lay the bed of a pebbly stream occupying half of the narrow way. The walls of the gardens on each side bulged out, coated with a grey, leprous growth; umbrageous trees drooped over, foliage rained down, here and there an ivy plant thickly mantled the stonework, and the chequered verdure, which only left glimpses of the blue sky above, made the light very soft and greeny. Halfway down Helene would stop to take breath, gazing at the street-lamp which hung there, and listening to the merry laughter in the gardens, whose doors she had never seen open. At times an old woman panted up with the aid of the black, shiny, iron handrail fixed in the wall to the right; a lady would come, leaning on her parasol as on a walking-stick; or a band of urchins would run down, with a great stamping of feet. But almost always Helene found herself alone, and this steep, secluded, shady descent was to her a veritable delight —like a path in the depths of a forest. At the bottom she would raise her eyes, and the sight of the narrow, precipitous alley she had just descended made her feel somewhat frightened.
She glided into the old woman's room with the quiet and coolness of the Passage des Eaux clinging to her garments. This woefully wretched den no longer affected her painfully. She moved about there as if in her own rooms, opening the round attic window to admit the fresh air, and pushing the table into a corner if it came in her way. The garret's bareness, its whitewashed walls and rickety furniture, realized to her mind an existence whose simplicity she had sometimes dreamt of in her girlhood. But what especially charmed her was the kindly emotion she experienced there. Playing the part of sick nurse, hearing the constant bewailing of the old woman, all she saw and felt within the four walls left her quivering with deep pity. In the end she awaited with evident impatience Doctor Deberle's customary visit. She questioned him as to Mother Fetu's condition; but from this they glided to other subjects, as they stood near each other, face to face. A closer acquaintance was springing up between them, and they were surprised to find they possessed similar tastes. They understood one another without speaking a word, each heart engulfed in the same overflowing charity. Nothing to Helene seemed sweeter than this mutual feeling, which arose in such an unusual way, and to which she yielded without resistance, filled as she was with divine pity. At first she had felt somewhat afraid of the doctor; in her own drawing-room she would have been cold and distrustful, in harmony with her nature. Here, however, in this garret they were far from the world, sharing the one chair, and almost happy in the midst of the wretchedness and poverty which filled their souls with emotion. A week passed, and they knew one another as though they had been intimate for years. Mother Fetu's miserable abode was filled with sunshine, streaming from this fellowship of kindliness.
The old woman grew better very slowly. The doctor was surprised, and charged her with coddling herself when she related that she now felt a dreadful weight in her legs. She always kept up her monotonous moaning, lying on her back and rolling her head to and fro; but she closed her eyes, as though to give her visitors an opportunity for unrestrained talk. One day she was to all appearance sound asleep, but beneath their lids her little black eyes continued watching. At last, however, she had to rise from her bed; and next day Helene presented her with the promised bonnet and gown. When the doctor made his appearance that afternoon the old woman's laggard memory seemed suddenly stirred. "Gracious goodness!" said she, "I've forgotten my neighbor's soup-pot; I promised to attend to it!"
Then she disappeared, closing the door behind her and leaving the couple alone. They did not notice that they were shut in, but continued their conversation. The doctor urged Helene to spend the afternoon occasionally in his garden in the Rue Vineuse.
"My wife," said he, "must return your visit, and she will in person repeat my invitation. It would do your daughter good."
"But I don't refuse," she replied, laughing. "I do not require to be fetched with ceremony. Only—only—I am afraid of being indiscreet. At any rate, we will see."
Their talk continued, but at last the doctor exclaimed in a tone of surprise: "Where on earth can Mother Fetu have gone? It must be a quarter of an hour since she went to see after her neighbor's soup-pot."
Helene then saw that the door was shut, but it did not shock her at the moment. She continued to talk of Madame Deberle, of whom she spoke highly to her husband; but noticing that the doctor constantly glanced towards the door, she at last began to feel uncomfortable.
"It's very strange that she does not come back!" she remarked in her turn.
Their conversation then dropped. Helene, not knowing what to do, opened the window; and when she turned round they avoided looking at one another. The laughter of children came in through the circular window, which, with its bit of blue sky, seemed like a full round moon. They could not have been more alone—concealed from all inquisitive looks, with merely this bit of heaven gazing in on them. The voices of the children died away in the distance; and a quivering silence fell. No one would dream of finding them in that attic, out of the world. Their confusion grew apace, and in the end Helene, displeased with herself, gave the doctor a steady glance.
"I have a great many visits to pay yet," he at once exclaimed. "As she doesn't return, I must leave."
He quitted the room, and Helene then sat down. Immediately afterwards Mother Fetu returned with many protestations:
"Oh! oh! I can scarcely crawl; such a faintness came over me! Has the dear good doctor gone? Well, to be sure, there's not much comfort here! Oh, you are both angels from heaven, coming to spend your time with one so unfortunate as myself! But God in His goodness will requite you. The pain has gone down into my feet to-day, and I had to sit down on a step. Oh, I should like to have some chairs! If I only had an easy-chair! My mattress is so vile too that I am quite ashamed when you come. The whole place is at your disposal, and I would throw myself into the fire if you required it. Yes. Heaven knows it; I always repeat it in my prayers! Oh, kind Lord, grant their utmost desires to these good friends of mine—in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!"
As Helene listened she experienced a singular feeling of discomfort. Mother Fetu's bloated face filled her with disgust. Never before in this stifling attic had she been affected in a like way; its sordid misery seemed to stare her in the face; the lack of fresh air, the surrounding wretchedness, quite sickened her. So she made all haste to leave, feeling hurt by the blessings which Mother Fetu poured after her.
In the Passage des Eaux an additional sorrow came upon her. Halfway up, on the right-hand side of the path, the wall was hollowed out, and here there was an excavation, some disused well, enclosed by a railing. During the last two days when passing she had heard the wailings of a cat rising from this well, and now, as she slowly climbed the path, these wailings were renewed, but so pitifully that they seemed instinct with the agony of death. The thought that the poor brute, thrown into the disused well, was slowly dying there of hunger, quite rent Helene's heart. She hastened her steps, resolving that she would not venture down this lane again for a long time, lest the cat's death-call should reach her ears.
The day was a Tuesday. In the evening, on the stroke of seven, as Helene was finishing a tiny bodice, the two wonted rings at the bell were heard, and Rosalie opened the door.
"His reverence is first to-night!" she exclaimed. "Oh, here comes Monsieur Rambaud too!"
They were very merry at dinner. Jeanne was nearly well again now, and the two brothers, who spoiled her, were successful in procuring her permission to eat some salad, of which she was excessively fond, notwithstanding Doctor Bodin's formal prohibition. When she was going to bed, the child in high spirits hung round her mother's neck and pleaded:
"Oh! mamma, darling! let me go with you to-morrow to see the old woman you nurse!"
But the Abbe and Monsieur Rambaud were the first to scold her for thinking of such a thing. They would not hear of her going amongst the poor, as the sight affected her too grieviously. The last time she had been on such an expedition she had twice swooned, and for three days her eyes had been swollen with tears, that had flowed even in her sleep.
"Oh! I will be good!" she pleaded. "I won't cry, I promise."
"It is quite useless, my darling," said her mother, caressing her. "The old woman is well now. I shall not go out any more; I'll stay all day with you!"
During the following week Madame Deberle paid a return visit to Madame Grandjean, and displayed an affability that bordered on affection.
"You know what you promised me," she said, on the threshold, as she was going off. "The first fine day we have, you must come down to the garden, and bring Jeanne with you. It is the doctor's strict injunction."
"Very well," Helene answered, with a smile, "it is understood; we will avail ourselves of your kindness."
Three days later, on a bright February afternoon, she accompanied her daughter down to the garden. The porter opened the door connecting the two houses. At the near end of the garden, in a kind of greenhouse built somewhat in the style of a Japanese pavilion, they found Madame Deberle and her sister Pauline, both idling away their time, for some embroidery, thrown on the little table, lay there neglected.
"Oh, how good of you to come!" cried Juliette. "You must sit down here. Pauline, move that table away! It is still rather cool you know to sit out of doors, but from this pavilion we can keep a watch on the children. Now, little ones, run away and play; but take care not to fall!"
The large door of the pavilion stood open, and on each side were portable mirrors, whose covers had been removed so that they allowed one to view the garden's expanse as from the threshold of a tent. The garden, with a green sward in the centre, flanked by beds of flowers, was separated from the Rue Vineuse by a plain iron railing, but against this grew a thick green hedge, which prevented the curious from gazing in. Ivy, clematis, and woodbine clung and wound around the railings, and behind this first curtain of foliage came a second one of lilacs and laburnums. Even in the winter the ivy leaves and the close network of branches sufficed to shut off the view. But the great charm of the garden lay in its having at the far end a few lofty trees, some magnificent elms, which concealed the grimy wall of a five-story house. Amidst all the neighboring houses these trees gave the spot the aspect of a nook in some park, and seemed to increase the dimensions of this little Parisian garden, which was swept like a drawing-room. Between two of the elms hung a swing, the seat of which was green with damp.
Helene leaned forward the better to view the scene.
"Oh, it is a hole!" exclaimed Madame Deberle carelessly. "Still, trees are so rare in Paris that one is happy in having half a dozen of one's own."
"No, no, you have a very pleasant place," murmured Helene.
The sun filled the pale atmosphere that day with a golden dust, its rays streaming slowly through the leafless branches of the trees. These assumed a ruddier tint, and you could see the delicate purple gems softening the cold grey of the bark. On the lawn and along the walks the grass and gravel glittered amidst the haze that seemed to ooze from the ground. No flower was in blossom; only the happy flush which the sunshine cast upon the soil revealed the approach of spring.
"At this time of year it is rather dull," resumed Madame Deberle. "In June it is as cozy as a nest; the trees prevent any one from looking in, and we enjoy perfect privacy." At this point she paused to call: "Lucien, you must come away from that watertap!"
The lad, who was doing the honors of the garden, had led Jeanne towards a tap under the steps. Here he had turned on the water, which he allowed to splash on the tips of his boots. It was a game that he delighted in. Jeanne, with grave face, looked on while he wetted his feet.
"Wait a moment!" said Pauline, rising. "I'll go and stop his nonsense!"
But Juliette held her back.
"You'll do no such thing; you are even more of a madcap than he is. The other day both of you looked as if you had taken a bath. How is it that a big girl like you cannot remain two minutes seated? Lucien!" she continued directing her eyes on her son, "turn off the water at once!"
The child, in his fright, made an effort to obey her. But instead of turning the tap off, he turned it on all the more, and the water gushed forth with a force and a noise that made him lose his head. He recoiled, splashed up to the shoulders.
"Turn off the water at once!" again ordered his mother, whose cheeks were flushing with anger.
Jeanne, hitherto silent, then slowly, and with the greatest caution, ventured near the tap; while Lucien burst into loud sobbing at sight of this cold stream, which terrified him, and which he was powerless to stop. Carefully drawing her skirt between her legs, Jeanne stretched out her bare hands so as not to wet her sleeves, and closed the tap without receiving a sprinkle. The flow instantly ceased. Lucien, astonished and inspired with respect, dried his tears and gazed with swollen eyes at the girl.
"Oh, that child puts me beside myself!" exclaimed Madame Deberle, her complexion regaining its usual pallor, while she stretched herself out, as though wearied to death.
Helene deemed it right to intervene. "Jeanne," she called, "take his hand, and amuse yourselves by walking up and down."
Jeanne took hold of Lucien's hand, and both gravely paced the paths with little steps. She was much taller than her companion, who had to stretch his arm up towards her; but this solemn amusement, which consisted in a ceremonious circuit of the lawn, appeared to absorb them and invest them with a sense of great importance. Jeanne, like a genuine lady, gazed about, preoccupied with her own thoughts; Lucien every now and then would venture a glance at her; but not a word was said by either.
"How droll they are!" said Madame Deberle, smiling, and again at her ease. "I must say that your Jeanne is a dear, good child. She is so obedient, so well behaved—"
"Yes, when she is in the company of others," broke in Helene. "She is a great trouble at times. Still, she loves me, and does her best to be good so as not to vex me."
Then they spoke of children; how girls were more precocious than boys; though it would be wrong to deduce too much from Lucien's unintelligent face. In another year he would doubtless lose all his gawkiness and become quite a gallant. Finally, Madame Deberle resumed her embroidery, making perhaps two stitches in a minute. Helene, who was only happy when busy, begged permission to bring her work the next time she came. She found her companions somewhat dull, and whiled away the time in examining the Japanese pavilion. The walls and ceiling were hidden by tapestry worked in gold, with designs showing bright cranes in full flight, butterflies, and flowers and views in which blue ships were tossing upon yellow rivers. Chairs, and ironwood flower-stands were scattered about; on the floor some fine mats were spread; while the lacquered furnishings were littered with trinkets, small bronzes and vases, and strange toys painted in all the hues of the rainbow. At the far end stood a grotesque idol in Dresden china, with bent legs and bare, protruding stomach, which at the least movement shook its head with a terrible and amusing look.
"Isn't it horribly ugly?" asked Pauline, who had been watching Helene as she glanced round. "I say, sister, you know that all these purchases of yours are so much rubbish! Malignon calls your Japanese museum 'the sixpenny bazaar.' Oh, by the way, talking of him, I met him. He was with a lady, and such a lady—Florence, of the Varietes Theatre."
"Where was it?" asked Juliette immediately. "How I shall tease him!"
"On the boulevards. He's coming here to-day, is he not?"
She was not vouchsafed any reply. The ladies had all at once become uneasy owing to the disappearance of the children, and called to them. However, two shrill voices immediately answered:
"We are here!"
Half hidden by a spindle tree, they were sitting on the grass in the middle of the lawn.
"What are you about?"
"We have put up at an inn," answered Lucien. "We are resting in our room."
Greatly diverted, the women watched them for a time. Jeanne seemed quite contented with the game. She was cutting the grass around her, doubtless with the intention of preparing breakfast. A piece of wood, picked up among the shrubs, represented a trunk. And now they were talking. Jeanne, with great conviction in her tone, was declaring that they were in Switzerland, and that they would set out to see the glaciers, which rather astonished Lucien.
"Ha, here he is!" suddenly exclaimed Pauline.
Madame Deberle turned, and caught sight of Malignon descending the steps. He had scarcely time to make his bow and sit down before she attacked him.
"Oh," she said, "it is nice of you to go about everywhere saying that I have nothing but rubbishy ornaments about me!"
"You mean this little saloon of yours? Oh yes," said he, quite at his ease. "You haven't anything worth looking at here!"
"What! not my china figure?" she asked, quite hurt.
"No, no, everything is quite bourgeois. It is necessary for a person to have some taste. You wouldn't allow me to select the things—"
"Your taste, forsooth! just talk about your taste!" she retorted, flushing crimson and feeling quite angry. "You have been seen with a lady—"
"What lady?" he asked, surprised by the violence of the attack.
"A fine choice, indeed! I compliment you on it. A girl whom the whole of Paris knows—"
She suddenly paused, remembering Pauline's presence.
"Pauline," she said, "go into the garden for a minute."
"Oh no," retorted the girl indignantly. "It's so tiresome; I'm always being sent out of the way."
"Go into the garden," repeated Juliette, with increased severity in her tone.
The girl stalked off with a sullen look, but stopped all at once, to exclaim: "Well, then, be quick over your talk!"
As soon as she was gone, Madame Deberle returned to the charge. "How can you, a gentleman, show yourself in public with that actress Florence? She is at least forty. She is ugly enough to frighten one, and all the gentlemen in the stalls thee and thou her on first nights."
"Have you finished?" called out Pauline, who was strolling sulkily under the trees. "I'm not amusing myself here, you know."
Malignon, however, defended himself. He had no knowledge of this girl Florence; he had never in his life spoken a word to her. They had possibly seen him with a lady: he was sometimes in the company of the wife of a friend of his. Besides, who had seen him? He wanted proofs, witnesses.