"Pauline," hastily asked Madame Deberle, raising her voice, "did you not meet him with Florence?"
"Yes, certainly," replied her sister. "I met them on the boulevards opposite Bignon's."
Thereupon, glorying in her victory over Malignon, whose face wore an embarrassed smile, Madame Deberle called out: "You can come back, Pauline; I have finished."
Malignon, who had a box at the Folies-Dramatiques for the following night, now gallantly placed it at Madame Deberle's service, apparently not feeling the slightest ill-will towards her; moreover, they were always quarreling. Pauline wished to know if she might go to see the play that was running, and as Malignon laughed and shook his head, she declared it was very silly; authors ought to write plays fit for girls to see. She was only allowed such entertainments as La Dame Blanche and the classic drama could offer.
Meantime, the ladies had ceased watching the children, and all at once Lucien began to raise terrible shrieks.
"What have you done to him, Jeanne?" asked Helene.
"I have done nothing, mamma," answered the little girl. "He has thrown himself on the ground."
The truth was, the children had just set out for the famous glaciers. As Jeanne pretended that they were reaching the mountains, they had lifted their feet very high, as though to step over the rocks. Lucien, however, quite out of breath with his exertions, at last made a false step, and fell sprawling in the middle of an imaginary ice-field. Disgusted, and furious with child-like rage, he no sooner found himself on the ground than he burst into tears.
"Lift him up," called Helene.
"He won't let me, mamma. He is rolling about."
And so saying, Jeanne drew back, as though exasperated and annoyed by such a display of bad breeding. He did not know how to play; he would certainly cover her with dirt. Her mouth curled, as though she were a duchess compromising herself by such companionship. Thereupon Madame Deberle, irritated by Lucien's continued wailing, requested her sister to pick him up and coax him into silence. Nothing loth, Pauline ran, cast herself down beside the child, and for a moment rolled on the ground with him. He struggled with her, unwilling to be lifted, but she at last took him up by the arms, and to appease him, said, "Stop crying, you noisy fellow; we'll have a swing!"
Lucien at once closed his lips, while Jeanne's solemn looks vanished, and a gleam of ardent delight illumined her face. All three ran towards the swing, but it was Pauline who took possession of the seat.
"Push, push!" she urged the children; and they pushed with all the force of their tiny hands; but she was heavy, and they could scarcely stir the swing.
"Push!" she urged again. "Oh, the big sillies, they can't!"
In the pavilion, Madame Deberle had just felt a slight chill. Despite the bright sunshine she thought it rather cold, and she requested Malignon to hand her a white cashmere burnous that was hanging from the handle of a window fastening. Malignon rose to wrap the burnous round her shoulders, and they began chatting familiarly on matters which had little interest for Helene. Feeling fidgety, fearing that Pauline might unwittingly knock the children down, she therefore stepped into the garden, leaving Juliette and the young man to wrangle over some new fashion in bonnets which apparently deeply interested them.
Jeanne no sooner saw her mother than she ran towards her with a wheedling smile, and entreaty in every gesture. "Oh, mamma, mamma!" she implored. "Oh, mamma!"
"No, no, you mustn't!" replied Helene, who understood her meaning very well. "You know you have been forbidden."
Swinging was Jeanne's greatest delight. She would say that she believed herself a bird; the breeze blowing in her face, the lively rush through the air, the continued swaying to and fro in a motion as rythmic as the beating of a bird's wings, thrilled her with an exquisite pleasure; in her ascent towards cloudland she imagined herself on her way to heaven. But it always ended in some mishap. On one occasion she had been found clinging to the ropes of the swing in a swoon, her large eyes wide open, fixed in a vacant stare; at another time she had fallen to the ground, stiff, like a swallow struck by a shot.
"Oh, mamma!" she implored again. "Only a little, a very, very little!"
In the end her mother, in order to win peace, placed her on the seat. The child's face lit up with an angelic smile, and her bare wrists quivered with joyous expectancy. Helene swayed her very gently.
"Higher, mamma, higher!" she murmured.
But Helene paid no heed to her prayer, and retained firm hold of the rope. She herself was glowing all over, her cheeks flushed, and she thrilled with excitement at every push she gave to the swing. Her wonted sedateness vanished as she thus became her daughter's playmate.
"That will do," she declared after a time, taking Jeanne in her arms.
"Oh, mamma, you must swing now!" the child whispered, as she clung to her neck.
She took a keen delight in seeing her mother flying through the air; as she said, her pleasure was still more intense in gazing at her than in having a swing herself. Helene, however, asked her laughingly who would push her; when she went in for swinging, it was a serious matter; why, she went higher than the treetops! While she was speaking it happened that Monsieur Rambaud made his appearance under the guidance of the doorkeeper. He had met Madame Deberle in Helene's rooms, and thought he would not be deemed presuming in presenting himself here when unable to find her. Madame Deberle proved very gracious, pleased as she was with the good-natured air of the worthy man; however, she soon returned to a lively discussion with Malignon.
"Bon ami[*] will push you, mamma! Bon ami will push you!" Jeanne called out, as she danced round her mother.
[*] Literally "good friend;" but there is no proper equivalent for the expression in English.
"Be quiet! We are not at home!" said her mother with mock gravity.
"Bless me! if it will please you, I am at your disposal," exclaimed Monsieur Rambaud. "When people are in the country—"
Helene let herself be persuaded. When a girl she had been accustomed to swing for hours, and the memory of those vanished pleasures created a secret craving to taste them once more. Moreover, Pauline, who had sat down with Lucien at the edge of the lawn, intervened with the boldness of a girl freed from the trammels of childhood.
"Of course he will push you, and he will swing me after you. Won't you, sir?"
This determined Helene. The youth which dwelt within her, in spite of the cold demureness of her great beauty, displayed itself in a charming, ingenuous fashion. She became a thorough school-girl, unaffected and gay. There was no prudishness about her. She laughingly declared that she must not expose her legs, and asked for some cord to tie her skirts securely round her ankles. That done, she stood upright on the swing, her arms extended and clinging to the ropes.
"Now, push, Monsieur Rambaud," she exclaimed delightedly. "But gently at first!"
Monsieur Rambaud had hung his hat on the branch of a tree. His broad, kindly face beamed with a fatherly smile. First he tested the strength of the ropes, and, giving a look at the trees, determined to give a slight push. That day Helene had for the first time abandoned her widow's weeds; she was wearing a grey dress set off with mauve bows. Standing upright, she began to swing, almost touching the ground, and as if rocking herself to sleep.
"Quicker! quicker!" she exclaimed.
Monsieur Rambaud, with his hands ready, caught the seat as it came back to him, and gave it a more vigorous push. Helene went higher, each ascent taking her farther. However, despite the motion, she did not lose her sedateness; she retained almost an austre demeanor; her eyes shone very brightly in her beautiful, impassive face; her nostrils only were inflated, as though to drink in the air.
Not a fold of her skirts was out of place, but a plait of her hair slipped down.
"Quicker! quicker!" she called.
An energetic push gave her increased impetus. Up in the sunshine she flew, even higher and higher. A breeze sprung up with her motion, and blew through the garden; her flight was so swift that they could scarcely distinguish her figure aright. Her face was now all smiles, and flushed with a rosy red, while her eyes sparkled here, then there, like shooting stars. The loosened plait of hair rustled against her neck. Despite the cords which bound them, her skirts now waved about, and you could divine that she was at her ease, her bosom heaving in its free enjoyment as though the air were indeed her natural place.
Monsieur Rambaud, his face red and bedewed with perspiration, exerted all his strength. A cry rang out. Helene went still higher.
"Oh, mamma! Oh, mamma!" repeated Jeanne in her ecstasy.
She was sitting on the lawn gazing at her mother, her little hands clasped on her bosom, looking as though she herself had drunk in all the air that was stirring. Her breath failed her; with a rythmical movement of the shoulders she kept time with the long strokes of the swing. And she cried, "Quicker! quicker!" while her mother still went higher, her feet grazing the lofty branches of the trees.
"Higher, mamma! oh, higher, mamma!"
But Helene was already in the very heavens. The trees bent and cracked as beneath a gale. Her skirts, which were all they could see, flapped with a tempestuous sound. When she came back with arms stretched out and bosom distended she lowered her head slightly and for a moment hovered; but then she rose again and sank backwards, her head tilted, her eyes closed, as though she had swooned. These ascensions and descents which made her giddy were delightful. In her flight she entered into the sunshine—the pale yellow February sunshine that rained down like golden dust. Her chestnut hair gleamed with amber tints; and a flame seemed to have leaped up around her, as the mauve bows on her whitening dress flashed like burning flowers. Around her the springtide was maturing into birth, and the purple-tinted gems of the trees showed like delicate lacquer against the blue sky.
Jeanne clasped her hands. Her mother seemed to her a saint with a golden glory round her head, winging her way to paradise, and she again stammered: "Oh, mamma! oh! mamma!"
Madame Deberle and Malignon had now grown interested, and had stepped under the trees. Malignon declared the lady to be very bold.
"I should faint, I'm sure," said Madame Deberle, with a frightened air.
Helene heard them, for she dropped these words from among the branches: "Oh, my heart is all right! Give a stronger push, Monsieur Rambaud!"
And indeed her voice betrayed no emotion. She seemed to take no heed of the two men who were onlookers. They were doubtless nothing to her. Her tress of hair had become entangled, and the cord that confined her skirts must have given way, for the drapery flapped in the wind like a flag. She was going still higher.
All at once, however, the exclamation rang out:
"Enough, Monsieur Rambaud, enough!"
Doctor Deberle had just appeared on the house steps. He came forward, embraced his wife tenderly, took up Lucien and kissed his brow. Then he gazed at Helene with a smile.
"Enough, enough!" she still continued exclaiming.
"Why?" asked he. "Do I disturb you?"
She made no answer; a look of gravity had suddenly come over her face. The swing, still continuing its rapid flights, owing to the impetus given to it, would not stop, but swayed to and fro with a regular motion which still bore Helene to a great height. The doctor, surprised and charmed, beheld her with admiration; she looked so superb, so tall and strong, with the pure figure of an antique statue whilst swinging thus gently amid the spring sunshine. But she seemed annoyed, and all at once leaped down.
"Stop! stop!" they all cried out.
From Helene's lips came a dull moan; she had fallen upon the gravel of a pathway, and her efforts to rise were fruitless.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the doctor, his face turning very pale. "How imprudent!"
They all crowded round her. Jeanne began weeping so bitterly that Monsieur Rambaud, with his heart in his mouth, was compelled to take her in his arms. The doctor, meanwhile, eagerly questioned Helene.
"Is it the right leg you fell on? Cannot you stand upright?" And as she remained dazed, without answering, he asked: "Do you suffer?"
"Yes, here at the knee; a dull pain," she answered, with difficulty.
He at once sent his wife for his medicine case and some bandages, and repeated:
"I must see, I must see. No doubt it is a mere nothing."
He knelt down on the gravel and Helene let him do so; but all at once she struggled to her feet and said: "No, no!"
"But I must examine the place," he said.
A slight quiver stole over her, and she answered in a yet lower tone:
"It is not necessary. It is nothing at all."
He looked at her, at first astounded. Her neck was flushing red; for a moment their eyes met, and seemed to read each other's soul; he was disconcerted, and slowly rose, remaining near her, but without pressing her further.
Helene had signed to Monsieur Rambaud. "Fetch Doctor Bodin," she whispered in his ear, "and tell him what has happened to me."
Ten minutes later, when Doctor Bodin made his appearance, she, with superhuman courage, regained her feet, and leaning on him and Monsieur Rambaud, contrived to return home. Jeanne followed, quivering with sobs.
"I shall wait," said Doctor Deberle to his brother physician. "Come down and remove our fears."
In the garden a lively colloquy ensued. Malignon was of opinion that women had queer ideas. Why on earth had that lady been so foolish as to jump down? Pauline, excessively provoked at this accident, which deprived her of a pleasure, declared it was silly to swing so high. On his side Doctor Deberle did not say a word, but seemed anxious.
"It is nothing serious," said Doctor Bodin, as he came down again —"only a sprain. Still, she will have to keep to an easy-chair for at least a fortnight."
Thereupon Monsieur Deberle gave a friendly slap on Malignon's shoulder. He wished his wife to go in, as it was really becoming too cold. For his own part, taking Lucien in his arms, he carried him into the house, covering him with kisses the while.
Both windows of the bedroom were wide open, and in the depths below the house, which was perched on the very summit of the hill, lay Paris, rolling away in a mighty flat expanse. Ten o'clock struck; the lovely February morning had all the sweetness and perfume of spring.
Helene reclined in an invalid chair, reading in front of one of the windows, her knee still in bandages. She suffered no pain; but she had been confined to her room for a week past, unable even to take up her customary needlework. Not knowing what to do, she had opened a book which she had found on the table—she, who indulged in little or no reading at any time. This book was the one she used every night as a shade for the night-lamp, the only volume which she had taken within eighteen months from the small but irreproachable library selected by Monsieur Rambaud. Novels usually seemed to her false to life and puerile; and this one, Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe," had at first wearied her to death. However, a strange curiosity had grown upon her, and she was finishing it, at times affected to tears, and at times rather bored, when she would let it slip from her hand for long minutes and gaze fixedly at the far-stretching horizon.
That morning Paris awoke from sleep with a smiling indolence. A mass of vapor, following the valley of the Seine, shrouded the two banks from view. This mist was light and milky, and the sun, gathering strength, was slowly tinging it with radiance. Nothing of the city was distinguishable through this floating muslin. In the hollows the haze thickened and assumed a bluish tint; while over certain broad expanses delicate transparencies appeared, a golden dust, beneath which you could divine the depths of the streets; and up above domes and steeples rent the mist, rearing grey outlines to which clung shreds of the haze which they had pierced. At times cloudlets of yellow smoke would, like giant birds, heavy of wing, slowly soar on high, and then mingle with the atmosphere which seemed to absorb them. And above all this immensity, this mass of cloud, hanging in slumber over Paris, a sky of extreme purity, of a faint and whitening blue, spread out its mighty vault. The sun was climbing the heavens, scattering a spray of soft rays; a pale golden light, akin in hue to the flaxen tresses of a child, was streaming down like rain, filling the atmosphere with the warm quiver of its sparkle. It was like a festival of the infinite, instinct with sovereign peacefulness and gentle gaiety, whilst the city, chequered with golden beams, still remained lazy and sleepy, unwilling to reveal itself by casting off its coverlet of lace.
For eight days it had been Helene's diversion to gaze on that mighty expanse of Paris, and she never wearied of doing so. It was as unfathomable and varying as the ocean—fair in the morning, ruddy with fire at night, borrowing all the joys and sorrows of the heavens reflected in its depths. A flash of sunshine came, and it would roll in waves of gold; a cloud would darken it and raise a tempest. Its aspect was ever changing. A complete calm would fall, and all would assume an orange hue; gusts of wind would sweep by from time to time, and turn everything livid; in keen, bright weather there would be a shimmer of light on every housetop; whilst when showers fell, blurring both heaven and earth, all would be plunged in chaotic confusion. At her window Helene experienced all the hopes and sorrows that pertain to the open sea. As the keen wind blew in her face she imagined it wafted a saline fragrance; even the ceaseless noise of the city seemed to her like that of a surging tide beating against a rocky cliff.
The book fell from her hands. She was dreaming, with a far-away look in her eyes. When she stopped reading thus it was from a desire to linger and understand what she had already perused. She took a delight in denying her curiosity immediate satisfaction. The tale filled her soul with a tempest of emotion. Paris that morning was displaying the same vague joy and sorrow as that which disturbed her heart. In this lay a great charm—to be ignorant, to guess things dimly, to yield to slow initiation, with the vague thought that her youth was beginning again.
How full of lies were novels! She was assuredly right in not reading them. They were mere fables, good for empty heads with no proper conception of life. Yet she remained entranced, dreaming unceasingly of the knight Ivanhoe, loved so passionately by two women—Rebecca, the beautiful Jewess, and the noble Lady Rowena. She herself thought she could have loved with the intensity and patient serenity of the latter maiden. To love! to love! She did not utter the words, but they thrilled her through and through in the very thought, astonishing her, and irradiating her face with a smile. In the distance some fleecy cloudlets, driven by the breeze, now floated over Paris like a flock of swans. Huge gaps were being cleft in the fog; a momentary glimpse was given of the left bank, indistinct and clouded, like a city of fairydom seen in a dream; but suddenly a thick curtain of mist swept down, and the fairy city was engulfed, as though by an inundation. And then the vapors, spreading equally over every district, formed, as it were, a beautiful lake, with milky, placid waters. There was but one denser streak, indicating the grey, curved course of the Seine. And slowly over those milky, placid waters shadows passed, like vessels with pink sails, which the young woman followed with a dreamy gaze. To love! to love! She smiled as her dream sailed on.
However, she again took up her book. She had reached the chapter describing the attack on the castle, wherein Rebecca nurses the wounded Ivanhoe, and recounts to him the incidents of the fight, which she gazes at from a window. Helene felt that she was in the midst of a beautiful falsehood, but roamed through it as through some mythical garden, whose trees are laden with golden fruit, and where she imbibed all sorts of fancies. Then, at the conclusion of the scene, when Rebecca, wrapped in her veil, exhales her love beside the sleeping knight, Helene again allowed the book to slip from her hand; her heart was so brimful of emotion that she could read no further.
Heavens! could all those things be true? she asked, as she lay back in her easy-chair, numbed by her enforced quiescence, and gazing on Paris, shrouded and mysterious, beneath the golden sun. The events of her life now arose before her, conjured up by the perusal of the novel. She saw herself a young girl in the house of her father, Mouret, a hatter at Marseilles. The Rue des Petites-Maries was black and dismal, and the house, with its vat of steaming water ready to the hand of the hatter, exhaled a rank odor of dampness, even in fine weather. She also saw her mother, who was ever an invalid, and who kissed her with pale lips, without speaking. No gleam of the sun penetrated into her little room. Hard work went on around her; only by dint of toil did her father gain a workingman's competency. That summed up her early life, and till her marriage nothing intervened to break the monotony of days ever the same. One morning, returning from market with her mother, a basketful of vegetables on her arm, she jostled against young Grandjean. Charles turned round and followed them. The love-romance of her life was in this incident. For three months she was always meeting him, while he, bashful and awkward, could not pluck up courage to speak to her. She was sixteen years of age, and a little proud of her lover, who, she knew, belonged to a wealthy family. But she deemed him bad-looking, and often laughed at him, and no thought of him disturbed her sleep in the large, gloomy, damp house. In the end they were married, and this marriage yet filled her with surprise. Charles worshipped her, and would fling himself on the floor to kiss her bare feet. She beamed on him, her smile full of kindness, as she rebuked him for such childishness. Then another dull life began. During twelve years no event of sufficient interest had occurred for her to bear in mind. She was very quiet and very happy, tormented by no fever either of body or heart; her whole attention being given to the daily cares of a poor household. Charles was still wont to kiss her fair white feet, while she showed herself indulgent and motherly towards him. But other feeling she had none. Then there abruptly came before her the room in the Hotel du Var, her husband in his coffin, and her widow's robe hanging over a chair. She had wept that day as on the winter's night when her mother died. Then once more the days glided on; for two months with her daughter she had again enjoyed peace and happiness. Heaven! did that sum up everything? What, then, did that book mean when it spoke of transcendent loves which illumine one's existence?
While she thus reflected prolonged quivers were darting over the sleeping lake of mist on the horizon. Suddenly it seemed to burst, gaps appeared, a rending sped from end to end, betokening a complete break-up. The sun, ascending higher and higher, scattering its rays in glorious triumph, was victoriously attacking the mist. Little by little the great lake seemed to dry up, as though some invisible sluice were draining the plain. The fog, so dense but a moment before, was losing its consistency and becoming transparent, showing all the bright hues of the rainbow. On the left bank of the Seine all was of a heavenly blue, deepening into violet over towards the Jardin des Plantes. Upon the right bank a pale pink, flesh-like tint suffused the Tuileries district; while away towards Montmartre there was a fiery glow, carmine flaming amid gold. Then, farther off, the working-men's quarters deepened to a dusty brick-color, changing more and more till all became a slatey, bluish grey. The eye could not yet distinguish the city, which quivered and receded like those subaqueous depths divined through the crystalline waves, depths with awful forests of huge plants, swarming with horrible things and monsters faintly espied. However, the watery mist was quickly falling. It became at last no more than a fine muslin drapery; and bit by bit this muslin vanished, and Paris took shape and emerged from dreamland.
To love! to love! Why did these words ring in Helene's ears with such sweetness as the darkness of the fog gave way to light? Had she not loved her husband, whom she had tended like a child? But a bitter memory stirred within her—the memory of her dead father, who had hung himself three weeks after his wife's decease in a closet where her gowns still dangled from their hooks. There he had gasped out his last agony, his body rigid, and his face buried in a skirt, wrapped round by the clothes which breathed of her whom he had ever worshipped. Then Helene's reverie took a sudden leap. She began thinking of her own home-life, of the month's bills which she had checked with Rosalie that very morning; and she felt proud of the orderly way in which she regulated her household. During more than thirty years she had lived with self-respect and strength of mind. Uprightness alone impassioned her. When she questioned her past, not one hour revealed a sin; in her mind's eye she saw herself ever treading a straight and level path. Truly, the days might slip by; she would walk on peacefully as before, with no impediment in her way. The very thought of this made her stern, and her spirit rose in angry contempt against those lying lives whose apparent heroism disturbs the heart. The only true life was her own, following its course amidst such peacefulness. But over Paris there now only hung a thin smoke, a fine, quivering gauze, on the point of floating away; and emotion suddenly took possession of her. To love! to love! everything brought her back to that caressing phrase —even the pride born of her virtue. Her dreaming became so light, she no longer thought, but lay there, steeped in springtide, with moist eyes.
At last, as she was about to resume her reading, Paris slowly came into view. Not a breath of wind had stirred; it was as if a magician had waved his wand. The last gauzy film detached itself, soared and vanished in the air; and the city spread out without a shadow, under the conquering sun. Helene, with her chin resting on her hand, gazed on this mighty awakening.
A far-stretching valley appeared, with a myriad of buildings huddled together. Over the distant range of hills were scattered close-set roofs, and you could divine that the sea of houses rolled afar off behind the undulating ground, into the fields hidden from sight. It was as the ocean, with all the infinity and mystery of its waves. Paris spread out as vast as the heavens on high. Burnished with the sunshine that lovely morning, the city looked like a field of yellow corn; and the huge picture was all simplicity, compounded of two colors only, the pale blue of the sky, and the golden reflections of the housetops. The stream of light from the spring sun invested everything with the beauty of a new birth. So pure was the light that the minutest objects became visible. Paris, with its chaotic maze of stonework, shone as though under glass. From time to time, however, a breath of wind passed athwart this bright, quiescent serenity; and then the outlines of some districts grew faint, and quivered as if they were being viewed through an invisible flame.
Helene took interest at first in gazing on the large expanse spread under her windows, the slope of the Trocadero, and the far-stretching quays. She had to lean out to distinguish the deserted square of the Champ-de-Mars, barred at the farther end by the sombre Military School. Down below, on thoroughfare and pavement on each side of the Seine, she could see the passers-by—a busy cluster of black dots, moving like a swarm of ants. A yellow omnibus shone out like a spark of fire; drays and cabs crossed the bridge, mere child's toys in the distance, with miniature horses like pieces of mechanism; and amongst others traversing the grassy slopes was a servant girl, with a white apron which set a bright spot in all the greenery. Then Helene raised her eyes; but the crowd scattered and passed out of sight, and even the vehicles looked like mere grains of sand; there remained naught but the gigantic carcass of the city, seemingly untenanted and abandoned, its life limited to the dull trepidation by which it was agitated. There, in the foreground to the left, some red roofs were shining, and the tall chimneys of the Army Bakehouse slowly poured out their smoke; while, on the other side of the river, between the Esplanade and the Champ-de-Mars, a grove of lofty elms clustered, like some patch of a park, with bare branches, rounded tops, and young buds already bursting forth, quite clear to the eye. In the centre of the picture, the Seine spread out and reigned between its grey banks, to which rows of casks, steam cranes, and carts drawn up in line, gave a seaport kind of aspect. Helene's eyes were always turning towards this shining river, on which boats passed to and fro like birds with inky plumage. Her looks involuntarily followed the water's stately course, which, like a silver band, cut Paris atwain. That morning the stream rolled liquid sunlight; no greater resplendency could be seen on the horizon. And the young woman's glance encountered first the Pont des Invalides, next the Pont de la Concorde, and then the Pont Royal. Bridge followed bridge, they appeared to get closer, to rise one above the other like viaducts forming a flight of steps, and pierced with all kinds of arches; while the river, wending its way beneath these airy structures, showed here and there small patches of its blue robe, patches which became narrower and narrower, more and more indistinct. And again did Helene raise her eyes, and over yonder the stream forked amidst a jumble of houses; the bridges on either side of the island of La Cite were like mere films stretching from one bank to the other; while the golden towers of Notre-Dame sprang up like boundary-marks of the horizon, beyond which river, buildings, and clumps of trees became naught but sparkling sunshine. Then Helene, dazzled, withdrew her gaze from this the triumphant heart of Paris, where the whole glory of the city appeared to blaze.
On the right bank, amongst the clustering trees of the Champs-Elysees she saw the crystal buildings of the Palace of Industry glittering with a snowy sheen; farther away, behind the roof of the Madeleine, which looked like a tombstone, towered the vast mass of the Opera House; then there were other edifices, cupolas and towers, the Vendome Column, the church of Saint-Vincent de Paul, the tower of Saint-Jacques; and nearer in, the massive cube-like pavilions of the new Louvre and the Tuileries, half-hidden by a wood of chestnut trees. On the left bank the dome of the Invalides shone with gilding; beyond it the two irregular towers of Saint-Sulpice paled in the bright light; and yet farther in the rear, to the right of the new spires of Sainte-Clotilde, the bluish Pantheon, erect on a height, its fine colonnade showing against the sky, overlooked the city, poised in the air, as it were, motionless, with the silken hues of a captive balloon.
Helene's gaze wandered all over Paris. There were hollows, as could be divined by the lines of roofs; the Butte des Moulins surged upward, with waves of old slates, while the line of the principal boulevards dipped downward like a gutter, ending in a jumble of houses whose tiles even could no longer be seen. At this early hour the oblique sun did not light up the house-fronts looking towards the Trocadero; not a window-pane of these threw back its rays. The skylights on some roofs alone sparkled with the glittering reflex of mica amidst the red of the adjacent chimney-pots. The houses were mostly of a sombre grey, warmed by reflected beams; still rays of light were transpiercing certain districts, and long streets, stretching in front of Helene, set streaks of sunshine amidst the shade. It was only on the left that the far-spreading horizon, almost perfect in its circular sweep, was broken by the heights of Montmartre and Pere-Lachaise. The details so clearly defined in the foreground, the innumerable denticles of the chimneys, the little black specks of the thousands of windows, grew less and less distinct as you gazed farther and farther away, till everything became mingled in confusion—the pell-mell of an endless city, whose faubourgs, afar off, looked like shingly beaches, steeped in a violet haze under the bright, streaming, vibrating light that fell from the heavens.
Helene was watching the scene with grave interest when Jeanne burst gleefully into the room.
"Oh, mamma! look here!"
The child had a big bunch of wall-flowers in her hand. She told, with some laughter, how she had waylaid Rosalie on her return from market to peep into her basket of provisions. To rummage in this basket was a great delight to her.
"Look at it, mamma! It lay at the very bottom. Just smell it; what a lovely perfume!"
From the tawny flowers, speckled with purple, there came a penetrating odor which scented the whole room. Then Helene, with a passionate movement, drew Jeanne to her breast, while the nosegay fell on her lap. To love! to love! Truly, she loved her child. Was not that intense love which had pervaded her life till now sufficient for her wants? It ought to satisfy her; it was so gentle, so tranquil; no lassitude could put an end to its continuance. Again she pressed her daughter to her, as though to conjure away thoughts which threatened to separate them. In the meantime Jeanne surrendered herself to the shower of kisses. Her eyes moist with tears, she turned her delicate neck upwards with a coaxing gesture, and pressed her face against her mother's shoulder. Then she slipped an arm round her waist and thus remained, very demure, her cheek resting on Helene's bosom. The perfume of the wall-flowers ascended between them.
For a long time they did not speak; but at length, without moving, Jeanne asked in a whisper:
"Mamma, you see that rosy-colored dome down there, close to the river; what is it?"
It was the dome of the Institute, and Helene looked towards it for a moment as though trying to recall the name.
"I don't know, my love," she answered gently.
The child appeared content with this reply, and silence again fell. But soon she asked a second question.
"And there, quite near, what beautiful trees are those?" she said, pointing with her finger towards a corner of the Tuileries garden.
"Those beautiful trees!" said her mother. "On the left, do you mean? I don't know, my love."
"Ah!" exclaimed Jeanne; and after musing for a little while she added with a pout: "We know nothing!"
Indeed they knew nothing of Paris. During eighteen months it had lain beneath their gaze every hour of the day, yet they knew not a stone of it. Three times only had they gone down into the city; but on returning home, suffering from terrible headaches born of all the agitation they had witnessed, they could find in their minds no distinct memory of anything in all that huge maze of streets.
However, Jeanne at times proved obstinate. "Ah! you can tell me this!" said she: "What is that glass building which glitters there? It is so big you must know it."
She was referring to the Palais de l'Industrie. Helene, however, hesitated.
"It's a railway station," said she. "No, I'm wrong, I think it is a theatre."
Then she smiled and kissed Jeanne's hair, at last confessing as before: "I do not know what it is, my love."
So they continued to gaze on Paris, troubling no further to identify any part of it. It was very delightful to have it there before them, and yet to know nothing of it; it remained the vast and the unknown. It was as though they had halted on the threshold of a world which ever unrolled its panorama before them, but into which they were unwilling to descend. Paris often made them anxious when it wafted them a hot, disturbing atmosphere; but that morning it seemed gay and innocent, like a child, and from its mysterious depths only a breath of tenderness rose gently to their faces.
Helene took up her book again while Jeanne, clinging to her, still gazed upon the scene. In the dazzling, tranquil sky no breeze was stirring. The smoke from the Army Bakehouse ascended perpendicularly in light cloudlets which vanished far aloft. On a level with the houses passed vibrating waves of life, waves of all the life pent up there. The loud voices of the streets softened amidst the sunshine into a languid murmur. But all at once a flutter attracted Jeanne's notice. A flock of white pigeons, freed from some adjacent dovecot, sped through the air in front of the window; with spreading wings like falling snow, the birds barred the line of view, hiding the immensity of Paris.
With eyes again dreamily gazing upward, Helene remained plunged in reverie. She was the Lady Rowena; she loved with the serenity and intensity of a noble mind. That spring morning, that great, gentle city, those early wall-flowers shedding their perfume on her lap, had little by little filled her heart with tenderness.
One morning Helene was arranging her little library, the various books of which had got out of order during the past few days, when Jeanne skipped into the room, clapping her hands.
"A soldier, mamma! a soldier!" she cried.
"What? a soldier?" exclaimed her mother. "What do you want, you and your soldier?"
But the child was in one of her paroxysms of extravagant delight; she only jumped about the more, repeating: "A soldier! a soldier!" without deigning to give any further explanation. She had left the door wide open behind her, and so, as Helene rose, she was astonished to see a soldier—a very little soldier too—in the ante-room. Rosalie had gone out, and Jeanne must have been playing on the landing, though strictly forbidden to do so by her mother.
"What do you want, my lad?" asked Helene.
The little soldier was very much confused on seeing this lady, so lovely and fair, in her dressing-gown trimmed with lace; he shuffled one foot to and fro over the floor, bowed, and at last precipitately stammered: "I beg pardon—excuse—"
But he could get no further, and retreated to the wall, still shuffling his feet. His retreat was thus cut off, and seeing the lady awaited his reply with an involuntary smile, he dived into his right-hand pocket, from which he dragged a blue handkerchief, a knife, and a hunk of bread. He gazed on each in turn, and thrust them all back again. Then he turned his attention to the left-hand pocket, from which were produced a twist of cord, two rusty nails, and some pictures wrapped in part of a newspaper. All these he pushed back to their resting-place, and began tapping his thighs with an anxious air. And again he stammered in bewilderment:
"I beg pardon—excuse—"
But all at once he raised his finger to his nose, and exclaimed with a loud laugh: "What a fool I am! I remember now!"
He then undid two buttons of his greatcoat, and rummaged in his breast, into which he plunged his arm up to the elbow. After a time he drew forth a letter, which he rustled violently before handing to Helene, as though to shake some dust from it.
"A letter for me! Are you sure?" said she.
On the envelope were certainly inscribed her name and address in a heavy rustic scrawl, with pothooks and hangers tumbling over one another. When at last she made it all out, after being repeatedly baffled by the extraordinary style and spelling, she could not but smile again. It was a letter from Rosalie's aunt, introducing Zephyrin Lacour, who had fallen a victim to the conscription, "in spite of two masses having been said by his reverence." However, as Zephyrin was Rosalie's "intended" the aunt begged that madame would be so good as to allow the young folks to see each other on Sundays. In the three pages which the letter comprised this question was continually cropping up in the same words, the confusion of the epistle increasing through the writer's vain efforts to say something she had not said before. Just above the signature, however, she seemed to have hit the nail on the head, for she had written: "His reverence gives his permission"; and had then broken her pen in the paper, making a shower of blots.
Helene slowly folded the letter. Two or three times, while deciphering its contents, she had raised her head to glance at the soldier. He still remained close to the wall, and his lips stirred, as though to emphasize each sentence in the letter by a slight movement of the chin. No doubt he knew its contents by heart.
"Then you are Zephyrin Lacour, are you not?" asked Helene.
He began to laugh and wagged his head.
"Come in, my lad; don't stay out there."
He made up his mind to follow her, but he continued standing close to the door, while Helene sat down. She had scarcely seen him in the darkness of the ante-room. He must have been just as tall as Rosalie; a third of an inch less, and he would have been exempted from service. With red hair, cut very short, he had a round, freckled, beardless face, with two little eyes like gimlet holes. His new greatcoat, much too large for him, made him appear still more dumpy, and with his red-trousered legs wide apart, and his large peaked cap swinging before him, he presented both a comical and pathetic sight—his plump, stupid little person plainly betraying the rustic, although he wore a uniform.
Helene desired to obtain some information from him.
"You left Beauce a week ago?" she asked.
"And here you are in Paris. I suppose you are not sorry?"
He was losing his bashfulness, and now gazed all over the room, evidently much impressed by its blue velvet hangings.
"Rosalie is out," Helene began again, "but she will be here very soon. Her aunt tells me you are her sweetheart."
To this the little soldier vouchsafed no reply, but hung his head, laughing awkwardly, and scraping the carpet with the tip of his boot.
"Then you will have to marry her when you leave the army?" Helene continued questioning.
"Yes, to be sure!" exclaimed he, his face turning very red. "Yes, of course; we are engaged!" And, won over by the kindly manners of the lady, he made up his mind to speak out, his fingers still playing with his cap. "You know it's an old story. When we were quite children, we used to go thieving together. We used to get switched; oh yes, that's true! I must tell you that the Lacours and the Pichons lived in the same lane, and were next-door neighbors. And so Rosalie and myself were almost brought up together. Then her people died, and her aunt Marguerite took her in. But she, the minx, was already as strong as a demon."
He paused, realizing that he was warming up, and asked hesitatingly:
"But perhaps she has told you all this?"
"Yes, yes; but go on all the same," said Helene, who was greatly amused.
"In short," continued he, "she was awfully strong, though she was no bigger than a tomtit. It was a treat to see her at her work! How she did get through it! One day she gave a slap to a friend of mine—by Jove! such a slap! I had the mark of it on my arm for a week! Yes, that was the way it all came about. All the gossips declared we must marry one another. Besides, we weren't ten years old before we had agreed on that! And, we have stuck to it, madame, we have stuck to it!"
He placed one hand upon his heart, with fingers wide apart. Helene, however, had now become very grave. The idea of allowing a soldier in her kitchen somewhat worried her. His reverence, no doubt, had given his sanction, but she thought it rather venturesome. There is too much license in the country, where lovers indulge in all sorts of pleasantries. So she gave expression to her apprehensions. When Zephyrin at last gathered her meaning, his first inclination was to laugh, but his awe for Helene restrained him.
"Oh, madame, madame!" said he, "you don't know her, I can see! I have received slaps enough from her! Of course young men like to laugh! isn't that so? Sometimes I pinched her, and she would turn round and hit me right on the nose. Her aunt's advice always was, 'Look here, my girl, don't put up with any nonsense!' His reverence, too, interfered in it, and maybe that had a lot to do with our keeping up sweethearting. We were to have been married after I had drawn for a soldier. But it was all my eye! Things turned out badly. Rosalie declared she would go to service in Paris, to earn a dowry while she was waiting for me. And so, and so—"
He swung himself about, dangling his cap, now from one hand now from the other. But still Helene never said a word, and he at last fancied that she distrusted him. This pained him dreadfully.
"You think, perhaps, that I shall deceive her?" he burst out angrily. "Even, too, when I tell you we are betrothed? I shall marry her, as surely as the heaven shines on us. I'm quite ready to pledge my word in writing. Yes, if you like, I'll write it down for you."
Deep emotion was stirring him. He walked about the room gazing around in the hope of finding pen and ink. Helene quickly tried to appease him, but he still went on:
"I would rather sign a paper for you. What harm would it do you? Your mind would be all the easier with it."
However, just at that moment Jeanne, who had again run away, returned, jumping and clapping her hands.
"Rosalie! Rosalie! Rosalie!" she chanted in a dancing tune of her own composition.
Through the open doorway one could hear the panting of the maid as she climbed up the stairs laden with her basket. Zephyrin started back into a corner of the room, his mouth wide agape from ear to ear in silent laughter, and the gimlet holes of his eyes gleaming with rustic roguery. Rosalie came straight into the room, as was her usual practice, to show her mistress her morning's purchase of provisions.
"Madame," said she, "I've brought some cauliflowers. Look at them! Only eighteen sous for two; it isn't dear, is it?"
She held out the basket half open, but on lifting her head noticed Zephyrin's grinning face. Surprise nailed her to the carpet. Two or three seconds slipped away; she had doubtless at first failed to recognize him in his uniform. But then her round eyes dilated, her fat little face blanched, and her coarse black hair waved in agitation.
"Oh!" she simply said.
But her astonishment was such that she dropped her basket. The provisions, cauliflowers, onions, apples, rolled on to the carpet. Jeanne gave a cry of delight, and falling on her knees, began hunting for the apples, even under the chairs and the wardrobe. Meanwhile Rosalie, as though paralyzed, never moved, though she repeated:
"What! it's you! What are you doing here? what are you doing here? Say!"
Then she turned to Helene with the question: "Was it you who let him come in?"
Zephyrin never uttered a word, but contented himself with winking slily. Then Rosalie gave vent to her emotion in tears; and, to show her delight at seeing him again, could hit on nothing better than to quiz him.
"Oh! go away!" she began, marching up to him. "You look neat and pretty I must say in that guise of yours! I might have passed you in the street, and not even have said: 'God bless you.' Oh! you've got a nice rig-out. You just look as if you had your sentry-box on your back; and they've cut your hair so short that folks might take you for the sexton's poodle. Good heavens! what a fright you are; what a fright!"
Zephyrin, very indignant, now made up his mind to speak. "It's not my fault, that's sure! Oh! if you joined a regiment we should see a few things."
They had quite forgotten where they were; everything had vanished—the room, Helene and Jeanne, who was still gathering the apples together. With hands folded over her apron, the maid stood upright in front of the little soldier.
"Is everything all right down there?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, excepting Guignard's cow is ill. The veterinary surgeon came and said she'd got the dropsy."
"If she's got the dropsy, she's done for. Excepting that, is everything all right?"
"Yes, yes! The village constable has broken his arm. Old Canivet's dead. And, by the way, his reverence lost his purse with thirty sous in it as he was a-coming back from Grandval. But otherwise, things are all right."
Then silence fell on them, and they looked at one another with sparkling eyes, their compressed lips slowly making an amorous grimace. This, indeed, must have been the manner in which they expressed their love, for they had not even stretched out their hands in greeting. Rosalie, however, all at once ceased her contemplation, and began to lament at sight of the vegetables on the floor. Such a nice mess! and it was he who had caused it all! Madame ought to have made him wait on the stairs! Scolding away as fast as she could, she dropped on her knees and began putting the apples, onions, and cauliflowers into the basket again, much to the disgust of Jeanne, who would fain have done it all herself. And as she turned, with the object of betaking herself into her kitchen, never deigning another look in Zephyrin's direction, Helene, conciliated by the healthy tranquillity of the lovers, stopped her to say:
"Listen a moment, my girl. Your aunt has asked me to allow this young man to come and see you on Sundays. He will come in the afternoon, and you will try not to let your work fall behind too much."
Rosalie paused, merely turning her head. Though she was well pleased, she preserved her doleful air.
"Oh, madame, he will be such a bother," she declared. But at the same time she glanced over her shoulder at Zephyrin, and again made an affectionate grimace at him. The little soldier remained for a minute stock-still, his mouth agape from ear to ear with its silent laugh. Then he retired backwards, with his cap against his heart as he thanked Helene profusely. The door had been shut upon him, when on the landing he still continued bowing.
"Is that Rosalie's brother, mamma?" asked Jeanne.
Helene was quite embarrassed by the question. She regretted the permission which she had just given in a sudden impulse of kindliness which now surprised her. She remained thinking for some seconds, and then replied, "No, he is her cousin."
"Ah!" said the child gravely.
Rosalie's kitchen looked out on the sunny expanse of Doctor Deberle's garden. In the summer the branches of the elms swayed in through the broad window. It was the cheeriest room of the suite, always flooded with light, which was sometimes so blinding that Rosalie had put up a curtain of blue cotton stuff, which she drew of an afternoon. The only complaint she made about the kitchen was its smallness; and indeed it was a narrow strip of a place, with a cooking-range on the right-hand side, while on the left were the table and dresser. The various utensils and furnishings, however, had all been so well arranged that she had contrived to keep a clear corner beside the window, where she worked in the evening. She took a pride in keeping everything, stewpans, kettles, and dishes, wonderfully clean; and so, when the sun veered round to the window, the walls became resplendent, the copper vessels sparkled like gold, the tin pots showed bright discs like silver moons, while the white-and-blue tiles above the stove gleamed pale in the fiery glow.
On the evening of the ensuing Saturday Helene heard so great a commotion in the kitchen that she determined to go and see what was the matter.
"What is it?" asked she: "are you fighting with the furniture?"
"I am scouring, madame," replied Rosalie, who, sweating and dishevelled, was squatting on the tiled floor and scrubbing it with all the strength of her arms.
This over, she sponged it with clear water. Never had the kitchen displayed such perfection of cleanliness. A bride might have slept in it; all was white as for a wedding. So energetically had she exerted her hands that it seemed as if table and dresser had been freshly planed. And the good order of everything was a sight to see; stewpans and pots taking rank by their size, each on its own hook, even the frying-pan and gridiron shining brightly without one grimy stain. Helene looked on for a moment in silence, and then with a smile disappeared.
Every Saturday afterwards there was a similar furbishing, a tornado of dust and water lasting for four hours. It was Rosalie's wish to display her neatness to Zephyrin on the Sunday. That was her reception day. A single cobweb would have filled her with shame; but when everything shone resplendent around her she became amiable, and burst into song. At three o'clock she would again wash her hands and don a cap gay with ribbons. Then the curtain being drawn halfway, so that only the subdued light of a boudoir came in, she awaited Zephyrin's arrival amidst all this primness, through which a pleasant scent of thyme and laurel was borne.
At half-past three exactly Zephyrin made his appearance; he would walk about the street until the clocks of the neighborhood had struck the half-hour. Rosalie listened to the beat of his heavy shoes on the stairs, and opened the door the moment he halted on the landing. She had forbidden him to ring the bell. At each visit the same greeting passed between them.
"Is it you?"
"Yes, it's me!"
And they stood face to face, their eyes sparkling and their lips compressed. Then Zephyrin followed Rosalie; but there was no admission vouchsafed to him till she had relieved him of shako and sabre. She would have none of these in her kitchen; and so the sabre and shako were hidden away in a cupboard. Next she would make him sit down in the corner she had contrived near the window, and thenceforth he was not allowed to budge.
"Sit still there! You can look on, if you like, while I get madame's dinner ready."
But he rarely appeared with empty hands. He would usually spend the morning in strolling with some comrades through the woods of Meudon, lounging lazily about, inhaling the fresh air, which inspired him with regretful memories of his country home. To give his fingers something to do he would cut switches, which he tapered and notched with marvelous figurings, and his steps gradually slackening he would come to a stop beside some ditch, his shako on the back of his head, while his eyes remained fixed on the knife with which he was carving the stick. Then, as he could never make up his mind to discard his switches, he carried them in the afternoon to Rosalie, who would throw up her hands, and exclaim that they would litter her kitchen. But the truth was, she carefully preserved them; and under her bed was gathered a bundle of these switches, of all sorts and sizes.
One day he made his appearance with a nest full of eggs, which he had secreted in his shako under the folds of a handkerchief. Omelets made from the eggs of wild birds, so he declared, were very nice—a statement which Rosalie received with horror; the nest, however, was preserved and laid away in company with the switches. But Zephyrin's pockets were always full to overflowing. He would pull curiosities from them, transparent pebbles found on the banks of the Seine, pieces of old iron, dried berries, and all sorts of strange rubbish, which not even a rag-picker would have cared for. His chief love, however, was for pictures; as he sauntered along he would seize on all the stray papers that had served as wrappers for chocolate or cakes of soap, and on which were black men, palm-trees, dancing-girls, or clusters of roses. The tops of old broken boxes, decorated with figures of languid, blonde ladies, the glazed prints and silver paper which had once contained sugar-sticks and had been thrown away at the neighboring fairs, were great windfalls that filled his bosom with pride. All such booty was speedily transferred to his pockets, the choicer articles being enveloped in a fragment of an old newspaper. And on Sunday, if Rosalie had a moment's leisure between the preparation of a sauce and the tending of the joint, he would exhibit his pictures to her. They were hers if she cared for them; only as the paper around them was not always clean he would cut them out, a pastime which greatly amused him. Rosalie got angry, as the shreds of paper blew about even into her plates; and it was a sight to see with what rustic cunning he would at last gain possession of her scissors. At times, however, in order to get rid of him, she would give them up without any asking.
Meanwhile some brown sauce would be simmering on the fire. Rosalie watched it, wooden spoon in hand; while Zephyrin, his head bent and his breadth of shoulder increased by his epaulets, continued cutting out the pictures. His head was so closely shaven that the skin of his skull could be seen; and the yellow collar of his tunic yawned widely behind, displaying his sunburnt neck. For a quarter of an hour at a time neither would utter a syllable. When Zephyrin raised his head, he watched Rosalie while she took some flour, minced some parsley, or salted and peppered some dish, his eyes betraying the while intense interest. Then, at long intervals, a few words would escape him:
"By Jove! that does smell nice!"
The cook, busily engaged, would not vouchsafe an immediate reply; but after a lengthy silence she perhaps exclaimed: "You see, it must simmer properly."
Their talk never went beyond that. They no longer spoke of their native place even. When a reminiscence came to them a word sufficed, and they chuckled inwardly the whole afternoon. This was pleasure enough, and by the time Rosalie turned Zephyrin out of doors both of them had enjoyed ample amusement.
"Come, you will have to go! I must wait on madame," said she; and restoring him his shako and sabre, she drove him out before her, afterwards waiting on madame with cheeks flushed with happiness; while he walked back to barracks, dangling his arms, and almost intoxicated by the goodly odors of thyme and laurel which still clung to him.
During his earlier visits Helene judged it right to look after them. She popped in sometimes quite suddenly to give an order, and there was Zephyrin always in his corner, between the table and the window, close to the stone filter, which forced him to draw in his legs. The moment madame made her appearance he rose and stood upright, as though shouldering arms, and if she spoke to him his reply never went beyond a salute and a respectful grunt. Little by little Helene grew somewhat easier; she saw that her entrance did not disturb them, and that their faces only expressed the quiet content of patient lovers.
At this time, too, Rosalie seemed even more wide awake than Zephyrin. She had already been some months in Paris, and under its influence was fast losing her country rust, though as yet she only knew three streets—the Rue de Passy, the Rue Franklin, and the Rue Vineuse. Zephyrin, soldier though he was, remained quite a lubber. As Rosalie confided to her mistress, he became more of a blockhead every day. In the country he had been much sharper. But, added she, it was the uniform's fault; all the lads who donned the uniform became sad dolts. The fact is, his change of life had quite muddled Zephyrin, who, with his staring round eyes and solemn swagger, looked like a goose. Despite his epaulets he retained his rustic awkwardness and heaviness; the barracks had taught him nothing as yet of the fine words and victorious attitudes of the ideal Parisian fire-eater. "Yes, madame," Rosalie would wind up by saying, "you don't need to disturb yourself; it is not in him to play any tricks!"
Thus the girl began to treat him in quite a motherly way. While dressing her meat on the spit she would preach him a sermon, full of good counsel as to the pitfalls he should shun; and he in all obedience vigorously nodded approval of each injunction. Every Sunday he had to swear to her that he had attended mass, and that he had solemnly repeated his prayers morning and evening. She strongly inculcated the necessity of tidiness, gave him a brush down whenever he left her, stitched on a loose button of his tunic, and surveyed him from head to foot to see if aught were amiss in his appearance. She also worried herself about his health, and gave him cures for all sorts of ailments. In return for her kindly care Zephyrin professed himself anxious to fill her filter for her; but this proposal was long-rejected, through the fear that he might spill the water. One day, however, he brought up two buckets without letting a drop of their contents fall on the stairs, and from that time he replenished the filter every Sunday. He would also make himself useful in other ways, doing all the heavy work and was extremely handy in running to the greengrocer's for butter, had she forgotten to purchase any. At last, even, he began to share in the duties of kitchen-maid. First he was permitted to peel the vegetables; later on the mincing was assigned to him. At the end of six weeks, though still forbidden to touch the sauces, he watched over them with wooden spoon in hand. Rosalie had fairly made him her helpmate, and would sometimes burst out laughing as she saw him, with his red trousers and yellow collar, working busily before the fire with a dishcloth over his arm, like some scullery-servant.
One Sunday Helene betook herself to the kitchen. Her slippers deadened the sound of her footsteps, and she reached the threshold unheard by either maid or soldier. Zephyrin was seated in his corner over a basin of steaming broth. Rosalie, with her back turned to the door, was occupied in cutting some long sippets of bread for him.
"There, eat away, my dear!" she said. "You walk too much; it is that which makes you feel so empty! There! have you enough? Do you want any more?"
Thus speaking, she watched him with a tender and anxious look. He, with his round, dumpy figure, leaned over the basin, devouring a sippet with each mouthful of broth. His face, usually yellow with freckles, was becoming quite red with the warmth of the steam which circled round him.
"Heavens!" he muttered, "what grand juice! What do you put in it?"
"Wait a minute," she said; "if you like leeks—"
However, as she turned round she suddenly caught sight of her mistress. She raised an exclamation, and then, like Zephyrin, seemed turned to stone. But a moment afterwards she poured forth a torrent of excuses.
"It's my share, madame—oh, it's my share! I would not have taken any more soup, I swear it! I told him, 'If you would like to have my bowl of soup, you can have it.' Come, speak up, Zephyrin; you know that was how it came about!"
The mistress remained silent, and the servant grew uneasy, thinking she was annoyed. Then in quavering tones she continued:
"Oh, he was dying of hunger, madame; he stole a raw carrot for me! They feed him so badly! And then, you know, he had walked goodness knows where all along the river-side. I'm sure, madame, you would have told me yourself to give him some broth!"
Gazing at the little soldier, who sat with his mouth full, not daring to swallow, Helene felt she could no longer remain stern. So she quietly said:
"Well, well, my girl, whenever the lad is hungry you must keep him to dinner—that's all. I give you permission"
Face to face with them, she had again felt within her that tender feeling which once already had banished all thoughts of rigor from her mind. They were so happy in that kitchen! The cotton curtain, drawn half-way, gave free entry to the sunset beams. The burnished copper pans set the end wall all aglow, lending a rosy tint to the twilight lingering in the room. And there, in the golden shade, the lovers' little round faces shone out, peaceful and radiant, like moons. Their love was instinct with such calm certainty that no neglect was even shown in keeping the kitchen utensils in their wonted good order. It blossomed amidst the savory odors of the cooking-stove, which heightened their appetites and nourished their hearts.
"Mamma," asked Jeanne, one evening after considerable meditation, "why is it Rosalie's cousin never kisses her?"
"And why should they kiss one another?" asked Helene in her turn. "They will kiss on their birthdays."
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?"