The question seemed to bring no surprise to Jeanne. She was doubtless pondering over this very matter. She slowly nodded her head.
"But you know," said her mother, "he would be always beside us—night and day, at table—everywhere!"
A great trouble dawned in the clear depths of the child's eyes. She nestled her cheek against her mother's shoulder, kissed her neck, and finally, with a quiver, whispered in her ear: "Mamma, would he kiss you?"
A crimson flush rose to Helene's brow. In her first surprise she was at a loss to answer, but at last she murmured: "He would be the same as your father, my darling!"
Then Jeanne's little arms tightened their hold, and she burst into loud and grievous sobbing. "Oh! no, no!" she cried chokingly. "I don't want it then! Oh! mamma, do please tell him I don't. Go and tell him I won't have it!"
She gasped, and threw herself on her mother's bosom, covering her with tears and kisses. Helene did her utmost to appease her, assuring her she would make it all right; but Jeanne was bent on having a definite answer at once.
"Oh! say no! say no, darling mother! You know it would kill me. Never! Oh, never! Eh?"
"Well, I'll promise it will never be. Now, be good and lie down."
For some minutes longer the child, speechless with emotion, clasped her mother in her arms, as though powerless to tear herself away, and intent on guarding her against all who might seek to take her from her. After some time Helene was able to put her to bed; but for a part of the night she had to watch beside her. Jeanne would start violently in her sleep, and every half-hour her eyes would open to make sure of her mother's presence, and then she would doze off again, with her lips pressed to Helene's hand.
It was a month of exquisite mildness. The April sun had draped the garden in tender green, light and delicate as lace. Twining around the railing were the slender shoots of the lush clematis, while the budding honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet, almost sugary perfume. On both sides of the trim and close-shaven lawn red geraniums and white stocks gave the flower beds a glow of color; and at the end of the garden the clustering elms, hiding the adjacent houses, reared the green drapery of their branches, whose little leaves trembled with the least breath of air.
For more than three weeks the sky had remained blue and cloudless. It was like a miraculous spring celebrating the new youth and blossoming that had burst into life in Helene's heart. Every afternoon she went down into the garden with Jeanne. A place was assigned her against the first elm on the right. A chair was ready for her; and on the morrow she would still find on the gravel walk the scattered clippings of thread that had fallen from her work on the previous afternoon.
"You are quite at home," Madame Deberle repeated every evening, displaying for Helene one of those affections of hers, which usually lasted some six months. "You will come to-morrow, of course; and try to come earlier, won't you?"
Helene, in truth, felt thoroughly at her ease there. By degrees she became accustomed to this nook of greenery, and looked forward to her afternoon visit with the longing of a child. What charmed her most in this garden was the exquisite trimness of the lawn and flower beds. Not a single weed interfered with the symmetry of the plants. Helene spent her time there, calmly and restfully. The neatly laid out flower beds, and the network of ivy, the withered leaves of which were carefully removed by the gardener, could exercise no disturbing influence on her spirit. Seated beneath the deep shadow of the elm-trees, in this quiet spot which Madame Deberle's presence perfumed with a faint odor of musk, she could have imagined herself in a drawing-room; and only the sight of the blue sky, when she raised her head, reminded her that she was out-of-doors, and prompted her to breathe freely.
Often, without seeing a soul, the two women would thus pass the afternoon. Jeanne and Lucien played at their feet. There would be long intervals of silence, and then Madame Deberle, who disliked reverie, would chatter for hours, quite satisfied with the silent acquiescence of Helene, and rattling off again if the other even so much as nodded. She would tell endless stories concerning the ladies of her acquaintance, get up schemes for parties during the coming winter, vent magpie opinions on the day's news and the society trifling which filled her narrow brain, the whole intermingled with affectionate outbursts over the children, and sentimental remarks on the delights of friendship. Helene allowed her to squeeze her hands. She did not always lend an attentive ear; but, in this atmosphere of unceasing tenderness, she showed herself greatly touched by Juliette's caresses, and pronounced her to be a perfect angel of kindness.
Sometimes, to Madame Deberle's intense delight, a visitor would drop in. Since Easter she had ceased receiving on Saturdays, as was usual at this time of the year. But she dreaded solitude, and a casual unceremonious visit paid her in her garden gave her the greatest pleasure. She was now busily engaged in settling on the watering-place where she would spend her holiday in August. To every visitor she retailed the same talk; discoursed on the fact that her husband would not accompany her to the seaside; and then poured forth a flood of questions, as she could not make up her mind where to go. She did not ask for herself, however; no, it was all on Lucien's account. When the foppish youth Malignon came he seated himself astride a rustic chair. He, indeed, loathed the country; one must be mad, he would declare, to exile oneself from Paris with the idea of catching influenza beside the sea. However, he took part in the discussions on the merits of the various watering-places, all of which were horrid, said he; apart from Trouville there was not a place worthy of any consideration whatever. Day after day Helene listened to the same talk, yet without feeling wearied; indeed, she even derived pleasure from this monotony, which lulled her into dreaming of one thing only. The last day of the month came, and still Madame Deberle had not decided where to go.
As Helene was leaving one evening, her friend said to her: "I must go out to-morrow; but that needn't prevent you from coming down here. Wait for me; I shan't be back late."
Helene consented; and, alone in the garden, there spent a delicious afternoon. Nothing stirred, save the sparrows fluttering in the trees overhead. This little sunny nook entranced her, and, from that day, her happiest afternoons were those on which her friend left her alone.
A closer intimacy was springing up between the Deberles and herself. She dined with them like a friend who is pressed to stay when the family sits down to table; when she lingered under the elm-trees and Pierre came down to announce dinner, Juliette would implore her to remain, and she sometimes yielded. They were family dinners, enlivened by the noisy pranks of the children. Doctor Deberle and Helene seemed good friends, whose sensible and somewhat reserved natures sympathized well. Thus it was that Juliette frequently declared: "Oh, you two would get on capitally! Your composure exasperates me!"
The doctor returned from his round of visits at about six o'clock every evening. He found the ladies in the garden, and sat down beside them. On the earlier occasions, Helene started up with the idea of leaving her friends to themselves, but her sudden departure displeased Juliette greatly, and she now perforce had to remain. She became almost a member of this family, which appeared to be so closely united. On the doctor's arrival his wife held up her cheek to him, always with the same loving gesture, and he kissed her; then, as Lucien began clambering up his legs, he kept him on his knees while chatting away. The child would clap his tiny hands on his father's mouth, pull his hair, and play so many pranks that in the upshot he had to be put down, and told to go and play with Jeanne. The fun would bring a smile to Helene's face, and she neglected her work for the moment, to gaze at father, mother, and child. The kiss of the husband and wife gave her no pain, and Lucien's tricks filled her with soft emotion. It might have been said that she had found a haven of refuge amidst this family's quiet content.
Meanwhile the sun would sink into the west, gilding the tree tops with its rays. Serene peacefulness fell from the grey heavens. Juliette, whose curiosity was insatiable, even in company with strangers, plagued her husband with ceaseless questions, and often lacked the patience to wait his replies. "Where have you been? What have you been about?"
Thereupon he would describe his round of visits to them, repeat any news of what was going on, or speak of some cloth or piece of furniture he had caught a glimpse of in a shop window. While he was speaking, his eyes often met those of Helene, but neither turned away the head. They gazed into each other's face for a moment with grave looks, as though heart were being revealed to heart; but after a little they smiled and their eyes dropped. Juliette, fidgety and sprightly, though she would often assume a studied languor, allowed them no opportunity for lengthy conversation, but burst with her interruptions into any talk whatever. Still they exchanged a few words, quite commonplace, slowly articulated sentences which seemed to assume a deep meaning, and to linger in the air after having been spoken. They approvingly punctuated each word the other uttered, as though they had thoughts in common. It was an intimate sympathy that was growing up between them, springing from the depths of their beings, and becoming closer even when they were silent. Sometimes Juliette, rather ashamed of monopolizing all the talk, would cease her magpie chatter.
"Dear me!" she would exclaim, "you are getting bored, aren't you? We are talking of matters which can have no possible interest for you."
"Oh, never mind me," Helene answered blithely. "I never tire. It is a pleasure to me to listen and say nothing."
She was uttering no untruth. It was during the lengthy periods of silence that she experienced most delight in being there. With her head bent over her work, only lifting her eyes at long intervals to exchange with the doctor those interminable looks that riveted their hearts the closer, she willingly surrendered herself to the egotism of her emotion. Between herself and him, she now confessed it, there existed a secret sentiment, a something very sweet—all the sweeter because no one in the world shared it with them. But she kept her secret with a tranquil mind, her sense of honor quite unruffled, for no thought of evil ever disturbed her. How good he was to his wife and child! She loved him the more when he made Lucien jump or kissed Juliette on the cheek. Since she had seen him in his own home their friendship had greatly increased. She was now as one of the family; she never dreamt that the intimacy could be broken. And within her own breast she called him Henri—naturally, too, from hearing Juliette address him so. When her lips said "Sir," through all her being "Henri" was re-echoed.
One day the doctor found Helene alone under the elms. Juliette now went out nearly every afternoon.
"Hello! is my wife not with you?" he exclaimed.
"No, she has left me to myself," she answered laughingly. "It is true you have come home earlier than usual."
The children were playing at the other end of the garden. He sat down beside her. Their tete-a-tete produced no agitation in either of them. For nearly an hour they spoke of all sorts of matters, without for a moment feeling any desire to allude to the tenderness which filled their hearts. What was the good of referring to that? Did they not well know what might have been said? They had no confession to make. Theirs was the joy of being together, of talking of many things, of surrendering themselves to the pleasure of their isolation without a shadow of regret, in the very spot where every evening he embraced his wife in her presence.
That day he indulged in some jokes respecting her devotion to work. "Do you know," said he, "I do not even know the color of your eyes? They are always bent on your needle."
She raised her head and looked straight into his face, as was her custom. "Do you wish to tease me?" she asked gently.
But he went on. "Ah! they are grey—grey, tinged with blue, are they not?"
This was the utmost limit to which they dared go; but these words, the first that had sprung to his lips, were fraught with infinite tenderness. From that day onwards he frequently found her alone in the twilight. Despite themselves, and without their having any knowledge of it, their intimacy grew apace. They spoke in an altered voice, with caressing inflections, which were not apparent when others were present. And yet, when Juliette came in, full of gossip about her day in town, they could keep up the talk they had already begun without even troubling themselves to draw their chairs apart. It seemed as though this lovely springtide and this garden, with its blossoming lilac, were prolonging within their hearts the first rapture of love.
Towards the end of the month, Madame Deberle grew excited over a grand idea. The thought of giving a children's ball had suddenly struck her. The season was already far advanced, but the scheme took such hold on her foolish brain that she hurried on the preparations with reckless haste. She desired that the affair should be quite perfect; it was to be a fancy-dress ball. And, in her own home, and in other people's houses, everywhere, in short, she now spoke of nothing but her ball. The conversations on the subject which took place in the garden were endless. The foppish Malignon thought the project rather stupid, still he condescended to take some interest in it, and promised to bring a comic singer with whom he was acquainted.
One afternoon, while they were all sitting under the trees, Juliette introduced the grave question of the costumes which Lucien and Jeanne should wear.
"It is so difficult to make up one's mind," said she. "I have been thinking of a clown's dress in white satin."
"Oh, that's too common!" declared Malignon. "There will be a round dozen of clowns at your ball. Wait, you must have something novel." Thereupon he began gravely pondering, sucking the head of his cane all the while.
Pauline came up at the moment, and proclaimed her desire to appear as a soubrette.
"You!" screamed Madame Deberle, in astonishment. "You won't appear in costume at all! Do you think yourself a child, you great stupid? You will oblige me by coming in a white dress."
"Oh, but it would have pleased me so!" exclaimed Pauline, who, despite her eighteen years and plump girlish figure, liked nothing better than to romp with a band of little ones.
Meanwhile Helene sat at the foot of her tree working away, and raising her head at times to smile at the doctor and Monsieur Rambaud, who stood in front of her conversing. Monsieur Rambaud had now become quite intimate with the Deberle family.
"Well," said the doctor, "and how are you going to dress, Jeanne?"
He got no further, for Malignon burst out: "I've got it! I've got it! Lucien must be a marquis of the time of Louis XV."
He waved his cane with a triumphant air; but, as no one of the company hailed his idea with enthusiasm, he appeared astonished. "What, don't you see it? Won't it be for Lucien to receive his little guests? So you place him, dressed as a marquis, at the drawing-room door, with a large bouquet of roses on his coat, and he bows to the ladies."
"But there will be dozens of marquises at the ball!" objected Juliette.
"What does that matter?" replied Malignon coolly. "The more marquises the greater the fun. I tell you it is the best thing you can hit upon. The master of the house must be dressed as a marquis, or the ball will be a complete failure."
Such was his conviction of his scheme's success that at last it was adopted by Juliette with enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, a dress in the Pompadour style, white satin embroidered with posies, would be altogether charming.
"And what about Jeanne?" again asked the doctor.
The little girl had just buried her head against her mother's shoulder in the caressing manner so characteristic of her; and as an answer was about to cross Helene's lips, she murmured:
"Oh! mamma, you know what you promised me, don't you?"
"What was it?" asked those around her.
Then, as her daughter gave her an imploring look, Helene laughingly replied: "Jeanne does not wish her dress to be known."
"Yes, that's so," said the child; "you don't create any effect when you tell your dress beforehand."
Every one was tickled with this display of coquetry, and Monsieur Rambaud thought he might tease the child about it. For some time past Jeanne had been ill-tempered with him, and the poor man, at his wits' end to hit upon a mode of again gaining her favor, thought teasing her the best method of conciliation. Keeping his eyes on her face, he several times repeated: "I know; I shall tell, I shall tell!"
Jeanne, however, became quite livid. Her gentle, sickly face assumed an expression of ferocious anger; her brow was furrowed by two deep wrinkles, and her chin drooped with nervous agitation.
"You!" she screamed excitedly; "you will say nothing!" And, as he still feigned a resolve to speak, she rushed at him madly, and shouted out: "Hold your tongue! I will have you hold your tongue! I will! I will!"
Helene had been unable to prevent this fit of blind anger, such as sometimes took possession of the child, and with some harshness exclaimed: "Jeanne, take care; I shall whip you!"
But Jeanne paid no heed, never once heard her. Trembling from head to foot, stamping on the ground, and choking with rage, she again and again repeated, "I will! I will!" in a voice that grew more and more hoarse and broken; and her hands convulsively gripped hold of Monsieur Rambaud's arm, which she twisted with extraordinary strength. In vain did Helene threaten her. At last, perceiving her inability to quell her by severity, and grieved to the heart by such a display before so many people, she contented herself by saying gently: "Jeanne, you are grieving me very much."
The child immediately quitted her hold and turned her head. And when she caught sight of her mother, with disconsolate face and eyes swimming with repressed tears, she on her side burst into loud sobs, and threw herself on Helene's neck, exclaiming in her grief: "No, mamma! no, mamma!"
She passed her hands over her mother's face, as though to prevent her weeping. Helene, however, slowly put her from her, and then the little one, broken-hearted and distracted, threw herself on a seat a short distance off, where her sobs broke out louder than ever. Lucien, to whom she was always held up as an example to follow, gazed at her surprised and somewhat pleased. And then, as Helene folded up her work, apologizing for so regrettable an incident, Juliette remarked to her:
"Dear me! we have to pardon children everything. Besides, the little one has the best of hearts, and is grieved so much, poor darling, that she has been already punished too severely."
So saying she called Jeanne to come and kiss her; but the child remained on her seat, rejecting the offer of forgiveness, and still choking with tears.
Monsieur Rambaud and the doctor, however, walked to her side, and the former, bending over her, asked, in tones husky with emotion: "Tell me, my pet, what has vexed you? What have I done to you?"
"Oh!" she replied, drawing away her hands and displaying a face full of anguish, "you wanted to take my mamma from me!"
The doctor, who was listening, burst into laughter. Monsieur Rambaud at first failed to grasp her meaning.
"What is this you're talking of?"
"Yes, indeed, the other Tuesday! Oh! you know very well; you were on your knees, and asked me what I should say if you were to stay with us!"
The smile vanished from the doctor's face; his lips became ashy pale, and quivered. A flush, on the other hand, mounted to Monsieur Rambaud's cheek, and he whispered to Jeanne: "But you said yourself that we should always play together?"
"No, no; I did not know at the time," the child resumed excitedly. "I tell you I don't want it. Don't ever speak to me of it again, and then we shall be friends."
Helene was on her feet now, with her needlework in its basket, and the last words fell on her ear. "Come, let us go up, Jeanne," she said; "your tears are not pleasant company."
She bowed, and pushed the child before her. The doctor, with livid face, gazed at her fixedly. Monsieur Rambaud was in dismay. As for Madame Deberle and Pauline, they had taken hold of Lucien, and were making him turn between them, while excitedly discussing the question of his Pompadour dress.
On the morrow Helene was left alone under the elms. Madame Deberle was running about in the interests of her ball, and had taken Lucien and Jeanne with her. On the doctor's return home, at an earlier hour than usual, he hurried down the garden steps. However, he did not seat himself, but wandered aimlessly round the young woman, at times tearing strips of bark from the trees with his finger-nails. She lifted her eyes for a moment, feeling anxious at sight of his agitation; and then again began plying her needle with a somewhat trembling hand.
"The weather is going to break up," said she, feeling uncomfortable as the silence continued. "The afternoon seems quite cold."
"We are only in April, remember," he replied, with a brave effort to control his voice.
Then he appeared to be on the point of leaving her, but turned round, and suddenly asked: "So you are going to get married?"
This abrupt question took her wholly by surprise, and her work fell from her hands. Her face blanched, but by a supreme effort of will remained unimpassioned, as though she were a marble statue, fixing dilated eyes upon him. She made no reply, and he continued in imploring tones:
"Oh! I pray you, answer me. One word, one only. Are you going to get married?"
"Yes, perhaps. What concern is it of yours?" she retorted, in a tone of icy indifference.
He made a passionate gesture, and exclaimed:
"It is impossible!"
"Why should it be?" she asked, still keeping her eyes fixed on his face.
Her glance stayed the words upon his lips, and he was forced to silence. For a moment longer he remained near her, pressing his hands to his brow, and then fled away, with a feeling of suffocation in his throat, dreading lest he might give expression to his despair; while she, with assumed tranquillity, once more turned to her work.
But the spell of those delicious afternoons was gone. Next day shone fair and sunny, and Helene seemed ill at ease from the moment she found herself alone with him. The pleasant intimacy, the happy trustfulness, which sanctioned their sitting side by side in blissful security, and revelling in the unalloyed joy of being together, no longer existed. Despite his intense carefulness to give her no cause for alarm, he would sometimes gaze at her and tremble with sudden excitement, while his face crimsoned with a rush of blood. From her own heart had fled its wonted happy calm; quivers ran through her frame; she felt languid; her hands grew weary, and forsook their work.
She now no longer allowed Jeanne to wander from her side. Between himself and her the doctor found this constant onlooker, watching him with large, clear eyes. But what pained Helene most was that she now felt ill at ease in Madame Deberle's company. When the latter returned of an afternoon, with her hair swept about by the wind, and called her "my dear" while relating the incidents of some shopping expedition, she no longer listened with her former quiet smile. A storm arose from the depths of her soul, stirring up feelings to which she dared not give a name. Shame and spite seemed mingled in them. However, her honorable nature gained the mastery, and she gave her hand to Juliette, but without being able to repress the shudder which ran through her as she pressed her friend's warm fingers.
The weather had now broken up. Frequent rain forced the ladies to take refuge in the Japanese pavilion. The garden, with its whilom exquisite order, became transformed into a lake, and no one dared venture on the walks, on account of the mud. However, whenever the sun peeped out from behind the clouds, the dripping greenery soon dried; pearls hung from each little blossom of the lilac trees; and under the elms big drops fell splashing on the ground.
"At last I've arranged it; it will be on Saturday," said Madame Deberle one day. "My dear, I'm quite tired out with the whole affair. Now, you'll be here at two o'clock, won't you? Jeanne will open the ball with Lucien."
And thereupon, surrendering to a flow of tenderness, in ecstasy over the preparations for her ball, she embraced both children, and, laughingly catching hold of Helene, pressed two resounding kisses on her cheeks.
"That's my reward!" she exclaimed merrily. "You know I deserve it; I have run about enough. You'll see what a success it will be!"
But Helene remained chilled to the heart, while the doctor, with Lucien clinging to his neck, gazed at them over the child's fair head.
In the hall of the doctor's house stood Pierre, in dress coat and white cravat, throwing open the door as each carriage rolled up. Puffs of dank air rushed in; the afternoon was rainy, and a yellow light illumined the narrow hall, with its curtained doorways and array of green plants. It was only two o'clock, but the evening seemed as near at hand as on a dismal winter's day.
However, as soon as the servant opened the door of the first drawing-room, a stream of light dazzled the guests. The shutters had been closed, and the curtains carefully drawn, and no gleam from the dull sky could gain admittance. The lamps standing here and there on the furniture, and the lighted candles of the chandelier and the crystal wall-brackets, gave the apartment somewhat the appearance of a brilliantly illuminated chapel. Beyond the smaller drawing-room, whose green hangings rather softened the glare of the light, was the large black-and-gold one, decorated as magnificently as for the ball which Madame Deberle gave every year in the month of January.
The children were beginning to arrive, while Pauline gave her attention to the ranging of a number of chairs in front of the dining-room doorway, where the door had been removed from its hinges and replaced by a red curtain.
"Papa," she cried, "just lend me a hand! We shall never be ready."
Monsieur Letellier, who, with his arms behind his back, was gazing at the chandelier, hastened to give the required assistance. Pauline carried the chairs about herself. She had paid due deference to her sister's request, and was robed in white; only her dress opened squarely at the neck and displayed her bosom.
"At last we are ready," she exclaimed: "they can come when they like. But what is Juliette dreaming about? She has been ever so long dressing Lucien!"
Just at that moment Madame Deberle entered, leading the little marquis, and everybody present began raising admiring remarks. "Oh! what a love! What a darling he is!" His coat was of white satin embroidered with flowers, his long waistcoat was embroidered with gold, and his knee-breeches were of cherry-colored silk. Lace clustered round his chin, and delicate wrists. A sword, a mere toy with a great rose-red knot, rattled against his hip.
"Now you must do the honors," his mother said to him, as she led him into the outer room.
For eight days past he had been repeating his lesson, and struck a cavalier attitude with his little legs, his powdered head thrown slightly back, and his cocked hat tucked under his left arm. As each of his lady-guests was ushered into the room, he bowed low, offered his arm, exchanged courteous greetings, and returned to the threshold. Those near him laughed over his intense seriousness in which there was a dash of effrontery. This was the style in which he received Marguerite Tissot, a little lady five years old, dressed in a charming milkmaid costume, with a milk-can hanging at her side; so too did he greet the Berthier children, Blanche and Sophie, the one masquerading as Folly, the other dressed in soubrette style; and he had even the hardihood to tackle Valentine de Chermette, a tall young lady of some fourteen years, whom her mother always dressed in Spanish costume, and at her side his figure appeared so slight that she seemed to be carrying him along. However, he was profoundly embarrassed in the presence of the Levasseur family, which numbered five girls, who made their appearance in a row of increasing height, the youngest being scarcely two years old, while the eldest was ten. All five were arrayed in Red Riding-Hood costumes, their head-dresses and gowns being in poppy-colored satin with black velvet bands, with which their lace aprons strikingly contrasted. At last Lucien, making up his mind, bravely flung away his three-cornered hat, and led the two elder girls, one hanging on each arm, into the drawing-room, closely followed by the three others. There was a good deal of laughter at it, but the little man never lost his self-possession for a moment.
In the meantime Madame Deberle was taking her sister to task in a corner.
"Good gracious! is it possible! what a fearfully low-necked dress you are wearing!"
"Dear, dear! what have I done now? Papa hasn't said a word," answered Pauline coolly. "If you're anxious, I'll put some flowers at my breast."
She plucked a handful of blossoms from a flower-stand where they were growing and allowed them to nestle in her bosom; while Madame Deberle was surrounded by several mammas in stylish visiting-dresses, who were already profuse in their compliments about her ball. As Lucien was passing them, his mother arranged a loose curl of his powdered hair, while he stood on tip-toe to whisper in her ear:
"She will be here immediately, my darling. Take good care not to fall. Run away, there comes little Mademoiselle Guiraud. Ah! she is wearing an Alsatian costume."
The drawing-room was now filling rapidly; the rows of chairs fronting the red curtain were almost all occupied, and a hubbub of children's voices was rising. The boys were flocking into the room in groups. There were already three Harlequins, four Punches, a Figaro, some Tyrolese peasants, and a few Highlanders. Young Master Berthier was dressed as a page. Little Guiraud, a mere bantling of two-and-a-half summers, wore his clown's costume in so comical a style that every one as he passed lifted him up and kissed him.
"Here comes Jeanne," exclaimed Madame Deberle, all at once. "Oh, she is lovely!"
A murmur ran round the room; heads were bent forward, and every one gave vent to exclamations of admiration. Jeanne was standing on the threshold of the outer room, awaiting her mother, who was taking off her cloak in the hall. The child was robed in a Japanese dress of unusual splendor. The gown, embroidered with flowers and strange-looking birds, swept to her feet, which were hidden from view; while beneath her broad waist-ribbon the flaps, drawn aside, gave a glimpse of a green petticoat, watered with yellow. Nothing could be more strangely bewitching than her delicate features seen under the shadow of her hair, coiled above her head with long pins thrust through it, while her chin and oblique eyes, small and sparkling, pictured to the life a young lady of Yeddo, strolling amidst the perfume of tea and benzoin. And she lingered there hesitatingly, with all the sickly languor of a tropical flower pining for the land of its birth.
Behind her, however, appeared Helene. Both, in thus suddenly passing from the dull daylight of the street into the brilliant glare of the wax candles, blinked their eyes as though blinded, while their faces were irradiated with smiles. The rush of warm air and the perfumes, the scent of violets rising above all else, almost stifled them, and brought a flush of red to their cheeks. Each guest, on passing the doorway, wore a similar air of surprise and hesitancy.
"Why, Lucien! where are you?" exclaimed Madame Deberle.
The boy had not caught sight of Jeanne. But now he rushed forward and seized her arm, forgetting to make his bow. And they were so dainty, so loving, the little marquis in his flowered coat, and the Japanese maiden in her purple embroidered gown, that they might have been taken for two statuettes of Dresden china, daintily gilded and painted, into which life had been suddenly infused.
"You know, I was waiting for you," whispered Lucien. "Oh, it is so nasty to give everybody my arm! Of course, we'll keep beside each other, eh?"
And he sat himself down with her in the first row of chairs, wholly oblivious of his duties as host.
"Oh, I was so uneasy!" purred Juliette into Helene's ear. "I was beginning to fear that Jeanne had been taken ill."
Helene proffered apology; dressing children, said she, meant endless labor. She was still standing in a corner of the drawing-room, one of a cluster of ladies, when her heart told her that the doctor was approaching behind her. He was making his way from behind the red curtain, beneath which he had dived to give some final instructions. But suddenly he came to a standstill. He, too, had divined her presence, though she had not yet turned her head. Attired in a dress of black grenadine, she had never appeared more queenly in her beauty; and a thrill passed through him as he breathed the cool air which she had brought with her from outside, and wafted from her shoulders and arms, gleaming white under their transparent covering.
"Henri has no eyes for anybody," exclaimed Pauline, with a laugh. "Ah, good-day, Henri!"
Thereupon he advanced towards the group of ladies, with a courteous greeting. Mademoiselle Aurelie, who was amongst them, engaged his attention for the moment to point out to him a nephew whom she had brought with her. He was all complaisance. Helene, without speaking, gave him her hand, encased in its black glove, but he dared not clasp it with marked force.
"Oh! here you are!" said Madame Deberle, as she appeared beside them. "I have been looking for you everywhere. It is nearly three o'clock; they had better begin."
"Certainly; at once," was his reply.
The drawing-room was now crowded. All round it, in the brilliant glare thrown from the chandelier, sat the fathers and mothers, their walking costumes serving to fringe the circle with less vivid colors. Some ladies, drawing their chairs together, formed groups; men standing motionless along the walls filled up the gaps; while in the doorway leading to the next room a cluster of frock-coated guests could be seen crowding together and peering over each other's shoulders. The light fell wholly on the little folks, noisy in their glee, as they rustled about in their seats in the centre of the large room. There were almost a hundred children packed together; in an endless variety of gay costumes, bright with blue and red. It was like a sea of fair heads, varying from pale yellow to ruddy gold, with here and there bows and flowers gleaming vividly—or like a field of ripe grain, spangled with poppies and cornflowers, and waving to and fro as though stirred by a breeze. At times, amidst this confusion of ribbons and lace, of silk and velvet, a face was turned round—a pink nose, a pair of blue eyes, a smiling or pouting little mouth. There were some, no higher than one's boots, who were buried out of sight between big lads of ten years of age, and whom their mothers sought from a distance, but in vain. A few of the boys looked bored and foolish by the side of girls who were busy spreading out their skirts. Some, however, were already very venturesome, jogging the elbows of their fair neighbors with whom they were unacquainted, and laughing in their faces. But the royalty of the gathering remained with the girls, some of whom, clustering in groups, stirred about in such a way as to threaten destruction to their chairs, and chattered so loudly that the grown-up folks could no longer hear one another speaking. And all eyes were intently gazing at the red curtain.
Slowly was it drawn aside, and in the recess of the doorway appeared a puppet-show. There was a hushed silence. Then all at once Punch sprang in, with so ferocious a yell that baby Guiraud could not restrain a responsive cry of terror and delight. It was one of those bloodthirsty dramas in which Punch, having administered a sound beating to the magistrate, murders the policeman, and tramples with ferocious glee on every law, human and divine. At every cudgelling bestowed on the wooden heads the pitiless audience went into shrieks of laughter; and the sharp thrusts delivered by the puppets at each other's breasts, the duels in which they beat a tattoo on one another's skulls as though they were empty pumpkins, the awful havoc of legs and arms, reducing the characters to a jelly, served to increase the roars of laughter which rang out from all sides. But the climax of enjoyment was reached when Punch sawed off the policeman's head on the edge of the stage; an operation provocative of such hysterical mirth that the rows of juveniles were plunged into confusion, swaying to and fro with glee till they all but fell on one another. One tiny girl, but four years old, all pink and white, considered the spectacle so entrancing that she pressed her little hands devoutly to her heart. Others burst into applause, while the boys laughed, with mouths agape, their deeper voices mingling with the shrill peals from the girls.
"How amused they are!" whispered the doctor. He had returned to his place near Helene. She was in high spirits like the children. Behind her, he sat inhaling the intoxicating perfume which came from her hair. And as one puppet on the stage dealt another an exceptionally hard knock she turned to him and exclaimed: "Do you know, it is awfully funny!"
The youngsters, crazy with excitement, were now interfering with the action of the drama. They were giving answers to the various characters. One young lady, who must have been well up in the plot, was busy explaining what would next happen.
"He'll beat his wife to death in a minute! Now they are going to hang him!"
The youngest of the Levasseur girls, who was two years old, shrieked out all at once:
"Mamma, mamma, will they put him on bread and water?"
All sorts of exclamations and reflections followed. Meanwhile Helene, gazing into the crowd of children, remarked: "I cannot see Jeanne. Is she enjoying herself?"
Then the doctor bent forward, with head perilously near her own, and whispered: "There she is, between that harlequin and the Norman peasant maiden! You can see the pins gleaming in her hair. She is laughing very heartily."
He still leaned towards her, her cool breath playing on his cheek. Till now no confession had escaped them; preserving silence, their intimacy had only been marred for a few days past by a vague sensation of discomfort. But amidst these bursts of happy laughter, gazing upon the little folks before her, Helene became once more, in sooth, a very child, surrendering herself to her feelings, while Henri's breath beat warm upon her neck. The whacks from the cudgel, now louder than ever, filled her with a quiver which inflated her bosom, and she turned towards him with sparkling eyes.
"Good heavens! what nonsense it all is!" she said each time. "See how they hit one another!"
"Oh! their heads are hard enough!" he replied, trembling.
This was all his heart could find to say. Their minds were fast lapsing into childhood once more. Punch's unedifying life was fostering languor within their breasts. When the drama drew to its close with the appearance of the devil, and the final fight and general massacre ensued, Helene in leaning back pressed against Henri's hand, which was resting on the back of her arm-chair; while the juvenile audience, shouting and clapping their hands, made the very chairs creak with their enthusiasm.
The red curtain dropped again, and the uproar was at its height when Malignon's presence was announced by Pauline, in her customary style: "Ah! here's the handsome Malignon!"
He made his way into the room, shoving the chairs aside, quite out of breath.
"Dear me! what a funny idea to close the shutters!" he exclaimed, surprised and hesitating. "People might imagine that somebody in the house was dead." Then, turning towards Madame Deberle, who was approaching him, he continued: "Well, you can boast of having made me run about! Ever since the morning I have been hunting for Perdiguet; you know whom I mean, my singer fellow. But I haven't been able to lay my hands on him, and I have brought you the great Morizot instead."
The great Morizot was an amateur who entertained drawing-rooms by conjuring with juggler-balls. A gipsy table was assigned to him, and on this he accomplished his most wonderful tricks; but it all passed off without the spectators evincing the slightest interest. The poor little darlings were pulling serious faces; some of the tinier mites fell fast asleep, sucking their thumbs. The older children turned their heads and smiled towards their parents, who were themselves yawning behind their hands. There was thus a general feeling of relief when the great Morizot decided to take his table away.
"Oh! he's awfully clever," whispered Malignon into Madame Deberle's neck.
But the red curtain was drawn aside once again, and an entrancing spectacle brought all the little folks to their feet.
Along the whole extent of the dining-room stretched the table, laid and bedecked as for a grand dinner, and illumined by the bright radiance of the central lamp and a pair of large candelabra. There were fifty covers laid; in the middle and at either end were shallow baskets, full of flowers; between these towered tall epergnes, filled to overflowing with crackers in gilded and colored paper. Then there were mountains of decorated cakes, pyramids of iced fruits, piles of sandwiches, and, less prominent, a whole host of symmetrically disposed plates, bearing sweetmeats and pastry: buns, cream puffs, and brioches alternating with dry biscuits, cracknals, and fancy almond cakes. Jellies were quivering in their glass dishes. Whipped creams waited in porcelain bowls. And round the table sparkled the silver helmets of champagne bottles, no higher than one's hand, made specially to suit the little guests. It all looked like one of those gigantic feasts which children conjure up in dreamland—a feast served with the solemnity that attends a repast of grown-up folks—a fairy transformation of the table to which their own parents sat down, and on which the horns of plenty of innumerable pastry-cooks and toy dealers had been emptied.
"Come, come, give the ladies your arms!" said Madame Deberle, her face covered with smiles as she watched the delight of the children.
But the filing off in couples proved a lure. Lucien, who had triumphantly taken Jeanne's arm, went first. But the others following behind fell somewhat into confusion, and the mothers were forced to come and assign them places, remaining close at hand, especially behind the babies, whom they watched lest any mischance should befall them. Truth to tell, the guests at first seemed rather uncomfortable; they looked at one another, felt afraid to lay hands on the good things, and were vaguely disquieted by this new social organization in which everything appeared to be topsy-turvy, the children seated at table while their parents remained standing. At length the older ones gained confidence and commenced the attack. And when the mothers entered into the fray, and cut up the large cakes, helping those in their vicinity, the feast speedily became very animated and noisy. The exquisite symmetry of the table was destroyed as though by a tempest. The two Berthier girls, Blanche and Sophie, laughed at the sight of their plates, which had been filled with something of everything—jam, custard, cake, and fruit. The five young ladies of the Levasseur family took sole possession of a corner laden with dainties, while Valentine, proud of her fourteen years, acted the lady's part, and looked after the comfort of her little neighbors. Lucien, however, impatient to display his politeness, uncorked a bottle of champagne, but in so clumsy a way that the whole contents spurted over his cherry silk breeches. There was quite a to-do about it.
"Kindly leave the bottles alone! I am to uncork the champagne," shouted Pauline.
She bustled about in an extraordinary fashion, purely for her own amusement. On the entry of a servant with the chocolate pot, she seized it and filled the cups with the greatest glee, as active in the performance as any restaurant waiter. Next she took round some ices and glasses of syrup and water, set them down for a moment to stuff a little baby-girl who had been overlooked, and then went off again, asking every one questions.
"What is it you wish, my pet? Eh? A cake? Yes, my darling, wait a moment; I am going to pass you the oranges. Now eat away, you little stupids, you shall play afterwards."
Madame Deberle, calm and dignified, declared that they ought to be left alone, and would acquit themselves very well.
At one end of the room sat Helene and some other ladies laughing at the scene which the table presented; all the rosy mouths were eating with the full strength of their beautiful white teeth. And nothing could eclipse in drollery the occasional lapses from the polished behavior of well-bred children to the outrageous freaks of young savages. With both hands gripping their glasses, they drank to the very dregs, smeared their faces, and stained their dresses. The clamor grew worse. The last of the dishes were plundered. Jeanne herself began dancing on her chair as she heard the strains of a quadrille coming from the drawing-room; and on her mother approaching to upbraid her with having eaten too much, she replied: "Oh! mamma, I feel so happy to-day!"
But now the other children were rising as they heard the music. Slowly the table thinned, until there only remained a fat, chubby infant right in the middle. He seemingly cared little for the attractions of the piano; with a napkin round his neck, and his chin resting on the tablecloth—for he was a mere chit—he opened his big eyes, and protruded his lips each time that his mamma offered him a spoonful of chocolate. The contents of the cup vanished, and he licked his lips as the last mouthful went down his throat, with eyes more agape than ever.
"By Jove! my lad, you eat heartily!" exclaimed Malignon, who was watching him with a thoughtful air.
Now came the division of the "surprise" packets. Each child, on leaving the table, bore away one of the large gilt paper twists, the coverings of which were hastily torn off and from them poured forth a host of toys, grotesque hats made of tissue paper, birds and butterflies. But the joy of joys was the possession of a cracker. Every "surprise" packet had its cracker; and these the lads pulled at gallantly, delighted with the noise, while the girls shut their eyes, making many tries before the explosion took place. For a time the sharp crackling of all this musketry alone could be heard; and the uproar was still lasting when the children returned to the drawing-room, where lively quadrille music resounded from the piano.
"I could enjoy a cake," murmured Mademoiselle Aurelie, as she sat down.
At the table, which was now deserted, but covered with all the litter of the huge feast, a few ladies—some dozen or so, who had preferred to wait till the children had retired—now sat down. As no servant could be found, Malignon bustled hither and thither in attendance. He poured out all that remained in the chocolate pot, shook up the dregs of the bottles, and was even successful in discovering some ices. But amidst all these gallant doings of his, he could not quit one idea, and that was—why had they decided on closing the shutters?
"You know," he asserted, "the place looks like a cellar."
Helene had remained standing, engaged in conversation with Madame Deberle. As the latter directed her steps towards the drawing-room, her companion prepared to follow, when she felt a gentle touch. Behind her was the doctor, smiling; he was ever near her.
"Are you not going to take anything?" he asked. And the trivial question cloaked so earnest an entreaty that her heart was filled with profound emotion. She knew well enough that each of his words was eloquent of another thing. The excitement springing from the gaiety which pulsed around her was slowly gaining on her. Some of the fever of all these little folks, now dancing and shouting, coursed in her own veins. With flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, she at first declined.
"No, thank you, nothing at all."
But he pressed her, and in the end, ill at ease and anxious to get rid of him, she yielded. "Well, then, a cup of tea."
He hurried off and returned with the cup, his hands trembling as he handed it to her. While she was sipping the tea he drew nearer to her, his lips quivering nervously with the confession springing from his heart. She in her turn drew back from him, and, returning him the empty cup, made her escape while he was placing it on a sideboard, thus leaving him alone in the dining-room with Mademoiselle Aurelie, who was slowly masticating, and subjecting each dish in succession to a close scrutiny.
Within the drawing-room the piano was sending forth its loudest strains, and from end to end of the floor swept the ball with its charming drolleries. A circle of onlookers had gathered round the quadrille party with which Lucien and Jeanne were dancing. The little marquis became rather mixed over the figures; he only got on well when he had occasion to take hold of Jeanne; and then he gripped her by the waist and whirled around. Jeanne preserved her equilibrium, somewhat vexed by his rumpling her dress; but the delights of the dance taking full possession of her, she caught hold of him in her turn and lifted him off his feet. The white satin coat embroidered with nosegays mingled with the folds of the gown woven with flowers and strange birds, and the two little figures of old Dresden ware assumed all the grace and novelty of some whatnot ornaments. The quadrille over, Helene summoned Jeanne to her side, in order to rearrange her dress.
"It is his fault, mamma," was the little one's excuse. "He rubs against me—he's a dreadful nuisance."
Around the drawing-room the faces of the parents were wreathed with smiles. As soon as the music began again all the little ones were once more in motion. Seeing, however, that they were observed they felt distrustful, remained grave, and checked their leaps in order to keep up appearances. Some of them knew how to dance; but the majority were ignorant of the steps, and their limbs were evidently a source of embarrassment to them. But Pauline interposed: "I must see to them! Oh, you little stupids!"
She threw herself into the midst of the quadrille, caught hold of two of them, one grasping her right hand the other her left, and managed to infuse such life into the dance that the wooden flooring creaked beneath them. The only sounds now audible rose from the hurrying hither and thither of tiny feet beating wholly out of time, the piano alone keeping to the dance measure. Some more of the older people joined in the fun. Helene and Madame Deberle, noticing some little maids who were too bashful to venture forth, dragged them into the thickest of the throng. It was they who led the figures, pushed the lads forward, and arranged the dancing in rings; and the mothers passed them the youngest of the babies, so that they might make them skip about for a moment, holding them the while by both hands. The ball was now at its height. The dancers enjoyed themselves to their hearts' content, laughing and pushing each other about like some boarding school mad with glee over the absence of the teacher. Nothing, truly, could surpass in unalloyed gaiety this carnival of youngsters, this assemblage of miniature men and women—akin to a veritable microcosm, wherein the fashions of every people mingled with the fantastic creations of romance and drama. The ruddy lips and blue eyes, the faces breathing love, invested the dresses with the fresh purity of childhood. The scene realized to the mind the merrymaking of a fairy-tale to which trooped Cupids in disguise to honor the betrothal of some Prince Charming.
"I'm stifling!" exclaimed Malignon. "I'm off to inhale some fresh air."
As he left the drawing-room he threw the door wide open. The daylight from the street then entered in a lurid stream, bedimming the glare of lamps and candles. In this fashion every quarter of an hour Malignon opened the door to let in some fresh air.
Still there was no cessation of the piano-playing. Little Guiraud, in her Alsatian costume, with a butterfly of black ribbon in her golden hair, swung round in the dance with a harlequin twice her height. A Highlander whirled Marguerite Tissot round so madly that she lost her milk-pail. The two Berthier girls, Blanche and Sophie, who were inseparables, were dancing together; the soubrette in the arms of Folly, whose bells were jingling merrily. A glance could not be thrown over the assemblage without one of the Levasseur girls coming into view; the Red Riding-Hoods seemed to increase in number; caps and gowns of gleaming red satin slashed with black velvet everywhere leaped into sight. Meanwhile some of the older boys and girls had found refuge in the adjacent saloon, where they could dance more at their ease. Valentine de Chermette, cloaked in the mantilla of a Spanish senorita, was executing some marvellous steps in front of a young gentleman who had donned evening dress. Suddenly there was a burst of laughter which drew every one to the sight; behind a door in a corner, baby Guiraud, the two-year-old clown, and a mite of a girl of his own age, in peasant costume, were holding one another in a tight embrace for fear of tumbling, and gyrating round and round like a pair of slyboots, with cheek pressed to cheek.
"I'm quite done up," remarked Helene, as she leaned against the dining-room door.
She fanned her face, flushed with her exertions in the dance. Her bosom rose and fell beneath the transparent grenadine of her bodice. And she was still conscious of Henri's breath beating on her shoulders; he was still close to her—ever behind her. Now it flashed on her that he would speak, yet she had no strength to flee from his avowal. He came nearer and whispered, breathing on her hair: "I love you! oh, how I love you!"
She tingled from head to foot, as though a gust of flame had beaten on her. O God! he had spoken; she could no longer feign the pleasurable quietude of ignorance. She hid behind her fan, her face purple with blushes. The children, whirling madly in the last of the quadrilles, were making the floor ring with the beating of their feet. There were silvery peals of laughter, and bird-like voices gave vent to exclamations of pleasure. A freshness arose from all that band of innocents galloping round and round like little demons.
"I love you! oh, how I love you!"
She shuddered again; she would listen no further. With dizzy brain she fled into the dining-room, but it was deserted, save that Monsieur Letellier sat on a chair, peacefully sleeping. Henri had followed her, and had the hardihood to seize her wrists even at the risk of a scandal, his face convulsed with such passion that she trembled before him. And he still repeated the words:
"I love you! I love you!"
"Leave me," she murmured faintly. "You are mad—"
And, close by, the dancing still went on, with the trampling of tiny feet. Blanche Berthier's bells could be heard ringing in unison with the softer notes of the piano; Madame Deberle and Pauline were clapping their hands, by way of beating time. It was a polka, and Helene caught a glimpse of Jeanne and Lucien, as they passed by smiling, with arms clasped round each other.
But with a sudden jerk she freed herself and fled to an adjacent room —a pantry into which streamed the daylight. That sudden brightness blinded her. She was terror-stricken—she dared not return to the drawing-room with the tale of passion written so legibly on her face. So, hastily crossing the garden, she climbed to her own home, the noises of the ball-room still ringing in her ears.
Upstairs, in her own room, in the peaceful, convent-like atmosphere she found there, Helene experienced a feeling of suffocation. Her room astonished her, so calm, so secluded, so drowsy did it seem with its blue velvet hangings, while she came to it hotly panting with the emotion which thrilled her. Was this indeed her room, this dreary, lifeless nook, devoid of air? Hastily she threw open a window, and leaned out to gaze on Paris.
The rain had ceased, and the clouds were trooping off like some herd of monsters hurrying in disorderly array into the gloom of the horizon. A blue gap, that grew larger by degrees, had opened up above the city. But Helene, her elbows trembling on the window-rail, still breathless from her hasty ascent, saw nothing, and merely heard her heart beating against her swelling breast. She drew a long breath, but it seemed to her that the spreading valley with its river, its two millions of people, its immense city, its distant hills, could not hold air enough to enable her to breathe peacefully and regularly again.
For some minutes she remained there distracted by the fever of passion which possessed her. It seemed as though a torrent of sensations and confused ideas were pouring down on her, their roar preventing her from hearing her own voice or understanding aught. There was a buzzing in her ears, and large spots of light swam slowly before her eyes. Then she suddenly found herself examining her gloved hands, and remembering that she had omitted to sew on a button that had come off the left-hand glove. And afterwards she spoke aloud, repeating several times, in tones that grew fainter and fainter: "I love you! I love you! oh, how I love you!"
Instinctively she buried her face in her hands, and pressed her fingers to her eyelids as though to intensify the darkness in which she sought to plunge. It was a wish to annihilate herself, to see no more, to be utterly alone, girt in by the gloom of night. Her breathing grew calmer. Paris blew its mighty breath upon her face; she knew it lay before her, and though she had no wish to look on it, she felt full of terror at the thought of leaving the window, and of no longer having beneath her that city whose vastness lulled her to rest.
Ere long she grew unmindful of all around her. The love-scene and confession, despite her efforts, again woke to life in her mind. In the inky darkness Henri appeared to her, every feature so distinct and vivid that she could perceive the nervous twitching of his lips. He came nearer and hung over her. And then she wildly darted back. But, nevertheless, she felt a burning breath on her shoulders and a voice exclaimed: "I love you! I love you!" With a mighty effort she put the phantom to flight, but it again took shape in the distance, and slowly swelled to its whilom proportions; it was Henri once more following her into the dining-room, and still murmuring: "I love you! I love you!" These words rang within her breast with the sonorous clang of a bell; she no longer heard anything but them, pealing their loudest throughout her frame. Nevertheless, she desired to reflect, and again strove to escape from the apparition. He had spoken; never would she dare to look on his face again. The brutal passion of the man had tainted the tenderness of their love. She conjured up past hours, in which he had loved her without being so cruel as to say it; hours spent in the garden amidst the tranquillity of the budding springtime God! he had spoken—the thought clung to her so stubbornly, lowered on her in such immensity and with such weight, that the instant destruction of Paris by a thunderbolt before her eyes would have seemed a trivial matter. Her heart was rent by feelings of indignant protest and haughty anger, commingling with a secret and unconquerable pleasure, which ascended from her inner being and bereft her of her senses. He had spoken, and was speaking still, he sprang up unceasingly before her, uttering those passionate words: "I love you! I love you!"—words that swept into oblivion all her past life as wife and mother.
In spite of her brooding over this vision, she retained some consciousness of the vast expanse which stretched beneath her, beyond the darkness that curtained her sight. A loud rumbling arose, and waves of life seemed to surge up and circle around her. Echoes, odors, and even light streamed against her face, though her hands were still nervously pressed to it. At times sudden gleams appeared to pierce her closed eyelids, and amidst the radiance she imagined she saw monuments, steeples, and domes standing out in the diffuse light of dreamland. Then she lowered her hands and, opening her eyes, was dazzled. The vault of heaven expanded before her, and Henri had vanished.
A line of clouds, a seeming mass of crumbling chalk-hills, now barred the horizon far away. Across the pure, deep blue heavens overhead, merely a few light, fleecy cloudlets were slowly drifting, like a flotilla of vessels with full-blown sails. On the north, above Montmartre, hung a network of extreme delicacy, fashioned as it were of pale-hued silk, and spread over a patch of sky as though for fishing in those tranquil waters. Westward, however, in the direction of the slopes of Meudon, which Helene could not see, the last drops of the downpour must still have been obscuring the sun, for, though the sky above was clear, Paris remained gloomy, dismal beneath the vapor of the drying house-roofs. It was a city of uniform hue—the bluey-grey of slate, studded with black patches of trees—but withal very distinct, with the sharp outlines and innumberable windows of its houses. The Seine gleamed with the subdued brightness of old silver. The edifices on either bank looked as though they had been smeared with soot. The Tower of St. Jacques rose up like some rust-eaten museum curio, whilst the Pantheon assumed the aspect of a gigantic catafalque above the darkened district which it overlooked. Gleams of light peeped only from the gilding of the dome of the Invalides, like lamps burning in the daytime, sad and vague amidst the crepuscular veil of mourning in which the city was draped. All the usual effects of distance had vanished; Paris resembled a huge yet minutely executed charcoal drawing, showing very vigorously through its cloudy veil, under the limpid heavens.
Gazing upon this dismal city, Helene reflected that she really knew nothing of Henri. She felt strong and brave now that his image no longer pursued her. A rebellious impulse stirred her soul to reject the mastery which this man had gained over her within a few weeks. No, she did not know him. She knew nothing of him, of his actions or his thoughts; she could not even have determined whether he possessed talent. Perhaps he was even more lacking in qualities of the heart than of the mind. And thus she gave way to every imagining, her heart full of bitterness, ever finding herself confronted by her ignorance, that barrier which separated her from Henri, and checked her in her efforts to know him. She knew nothing, she would never know anything. She pictured him, hissing out those burning words, and creating within her the one trouble which had, till now, broken in on the quiet happiness of her life. Whence had he sprung to lay her life desolate in this fashion? She suddenly thought that but six weeks before she had had no existence for him, and this thought was insufferable. Angels in heaven! to live no more for one another, to pass each other without recognition, perhaps never to meet again! In her despair she clasped her hands, and her eyes filled with tears.
Then Helene gazed fixedly on the towers of Notre-Dame in the far distance. A ray of light from between two clouds tinged them with gold. Her brain was heavy, as though surcharged with all the tumultuous thoughts hurtling within it. It made her suffer; she would fain have concerned herself with the sight of Paris, and have sought to regain her life-peace by turning on that sea of roofs the tranquil glances of past days. To think that at other times, at the same hour, the infinitude of the city—in the stillness of a lovely twilight—had lulled her into tender musing!
At present Paris was brightening in the sunshine. After the first ray had fallen on Notre-Dame, others had followed, streaming across the city. The luminary, dipping in the west, rent the clouds asunder, and the various districts spread out, motly with ever-changing lights and shadows. For a time the whole of the left bank was of a leaden hue, while the right was speckled with spots of light which made the verge of the river resemble the skin of some huge beast of prey. Then these resemblances varied and vanished at the mercy of the wind, which drove the clouds before it. Above the burnished gold of the housetops dark patches floated, all in the same direction and with the same gentle and silent motion. Some of them were very large, sailing along with all the majestic grace of an admiral's ship, and surrounded by smaller ones, preserving the regular order of a squadron in line of battle. Then one vast shadow, with a gap yawning like a serpent's mouth, trailed along, and for a while hid Paris, which it seemed ready to devour. And when it had reached the far-off horizon, looking no larger than a worm, a gush of light streamed from a rift in a cloud, and fell into the void which it had left. The golden cascade could be seen descending first like a thread of fine sand, then swelling into a huge cone, and raining in a continuous shower on the Champs-Elysees district, which it inundated with a splashing, dancing radiance. For a long time did this shower of sparks descend, spraying continuously like a fusee.
Ah, well! this love was her fate, and Helene ceased to resist. She could battle no longer against her feelings. And in ceasing to struggle she tasted immeasurable delight. Why should she grudge herself happiness any longer? The memory of her past life inspired her with disgust and aversion. How had she been able to drag on that cold, dreary existence, of which she was formerly so proud? A vision rose before her of herself as a young girl living in the Rue des Petites-Maries, at Marseilles, where she had ever shivered; she saw herself a wife, her heart's blood frozen in the companionship of a big child of a husband, with little to take any interest in, apart from the cares of her household; she saw herself through every hour of her life following the same path with the same even tread, without a trouble to mar her peace; and now this monotony in which she had lived, her heart fast asleep, enraged her beyond expression. To think that she had fancied herself happy in thus following her path for thirty years, her passions silent, with naught but the pride of virtue to fill the blank in her existence. How she had cheated herself with her integrity and nice honor, which had girt her round with the empty joys of piety! No, no; she had had enough of it; she wished to live! And an awful spirit of ridicule woke within her as she thought of the behests of reason. Her reason, forsooth! she felt a contemptuous pity for it; during all the years she had lived it had brought her no joy to be compared with that she had tasted during the past hour. She had denied the possibility of stumbling, she had been vain and idiotic enough to think that she would go on to the end without her foot once tripping against a stone. Ah, well! to-day she almost longed to fall. Oh that she might disappear, after tasting for one moment the happiness which she had never enjoyed!
Within her soul, however, a great sorrow lingered, a heart-burning and a consciousness of a gloomy blank. Then argument rose to her lips. Was she not free? In her love for Henri she deceived nobody; she could deal as she pleased with her love. Then, did not everything exculpate her? What had been her life for nearly two years? Her widowhood, her unrestricted liberty, her loneliness—everything, she realized, had softened and prepared her for love. Love must have been smouldering within her during the long evenings spent between her two old friends, the Abbe and his brother, those simple hearts whose serenity had lulled it to rest; it had been growing whilst she remained shut up within those narrow walls, far away from the world, and gazed on Paris rumbling noisily on the horizon; it had been growing even when she leaned from that window in the dreamy mood which she had scarce been conscious of, but which little by little had rendered her so weak. And a recollection came to her of that radiant spring morning when Paris had shone out fair and clear, as though in a glass mirror, when it had worn the pure, sunny hue of childhood, as she lazily surveyed it, stretched in her easy-chair with a book upon her knees. That morning love had first awoke—a scarcely perceptible feeling that she had been unable to define, and against which she had believed herself strongly armed. To-day she was in the same place, but devoured by overpowering passion, while before her eyes the dying sun illumined the city with flame. It seemed to her that one day had sufficed for all, that this was the ruddy evening following upon that limpid morning; and she imagined she could feel those fiery beams scorching her heart.
But a change had come over the sky. The sun, in its descent towards the slopes of Meudon, had just burst through the last clouds in all its splendor. The azure vault was illuminated with glory; deep on the horizon the crumbling ridge of chalk clouds, blotting out the distant suburbs of Charenton and Choisy-le-Roi, now reared rocks of a tender pink, outlined with brilliant crimson; the flotilla of cloudlets drifting slowly through the blue above Paris, was decked with purple sails; while the delicate network, seemingly fashioned of white silk thread, above Montmartre, was suddenly transformed into golden cord, whose meshes would snare the stars as soon as they should rise.
Beneath the flaming vault of heaven lay Paris, a mass of yellow, striped with huge shadows. On the vast square below Helene, in an orange-tinted haze, cabs and omnibuses crossed in all directions, amidst a crowd of pedestrians, whose swarming blackness was softened and irradiated by splashes of light. The students of a seminary were hurrying in serried ranks along the Quai de Billy, and the trail of cassocks acquired an ochraceous hue in the diffuse light. Farther away, vehicles and foot-passengers faded from view; it was only by their gleaming lamps that you were made aware of the vehicles which, one behind the other, were crossing some distant bridge. On the left the straight, lofty, pink chimneys of the Army Bakehouse were belching forth whirling clouds of flesh-tinted smoke; whilst, across the river, the beautiful elms of the Quai d'Orsay rose up in a dark mass transpierced by shafts of light.
The Seine, whose banks the oblique rays were enfilading, was rolling dancing wavelets, streaked with scattered splashes of blue, green, and yellow; but farther up the river, in lieu of this blotchy coloring, suggestive of an Eastern sea, the waters assumed a uniform golden hue, which became more and more dazzling. You might have thought that some ingot were pouring forth from an invisible crucible on the horizon, broadening out with a coruscation of bright colors as it gradually grew colder. And at intervals over this brilliant stream, the bridges, with curves growing ever more slender and delicate, threw, as it were, grey bars, till there came at last a fiery jumble of houses, above which rose the towers of Notre-Dame, flaring red like torches. Right and left alike the edifices were all aflame. The glass roof of the Palais de l'Industrie appeared like a bed of glowing embers amidst the Champs-Elysees groves. Farther on, behind the roof of the Madeline, the huge pile of the Opera House shone out like a mass of burnished copper; and the summits of other buildings, cupolas, and towers, the Vendome column, the church of Saint-Vincent de Paul, the tower of Saint-Jacques, and, nearer in, the pavilions of the new Louvre and the Tuileries, were crowned by a blaze, which lent them the aspect of sacrificial pyres. The dome of the Invalides was flaring with such brilliancy that you instinctively feared lest it should suddenly topple down and scatter burning flakes over the neighborhood. Beyond the irregular towers of Saint-Sulpice, the Pantheon stood out against the sky in dull splendor, like some royal palace of conflagration reduced to embers. Then, as the sun declined, the pyre-like edifices gradually set the whole of Paris on fire. Flashes sped over the housetops, while black smoke lingered in the valleys. Every frontage turned towards the Trocadero seemed to be red-hot, the glass of the windows glittering and emitting a shower of sparks, which darted upwards as though some invisible bellows were ever urging the huge conflagration into greater activity. Sheaves of flame were also ever rising afresh from the adjacent districts, where the streets opened, now dark and now all ablaze. Even far over the plain, from a ruddy ember-like glow suffusing the destroyed faubourgs, occasional flashes of flame shot up as from some fire struggling again into life. Ere long a furnace seemed raging, all Paris burned, the heavens became yet more empurpled, and the clouds hung like so much blood over the vast city, colored red and gold.
With the ruddy tints falling upon her, yielding to the passion which was devouring her, Helene was still gazing upon Paris all ablaze, when a little hand was placed on her shoulder, and she gave a start. It was Jeanne, calling her. "Mamma! mamma!"
She turned her head, and the child went on: "At last! Didn't you hear me before? I have called you at least a dozen times."
The little girl, still in her Japanese costume, had sparkling eyes, and cheeks flushed with pleasure. She gave her mother no time for answer.
"You ran away from me nicely! Do you know, they were hunting for you everywhere? Had it not been for Pauline, who came with me to the bottom of the staircase, I shouldn't have dared to cross the road."
With a pretty gesture, she brought her face close to her mother's lips, and, without pausing, whispered the question: "Do you love me?"
Helene kissed her somewhat absently. She was amazed and impatient at her early return. Had an hour really gone by since she had fled from the ball-room? However, to satisfy the child, who seemed uneasy, she told her that she had felt rather unwell. The fresh air was doing her good; she only needed a little quietness.
"Oh! don't fear; I'm too tired," murmured Jeanne. "I am going to stop here, and be very, very good. But, mamma dear, I may talk, mayn't I?"
She nestled close to Helene, full of joy at the prospect of not being undressed at once. She was in ecstasies over her embroidered purple gown and green silk petticoat; and she shook her head to rattle the pendants hanging from the long pins thrust through her hair. At last there burst from her lips a rush of hasty words. Despite her seeming demureness, she had seen everything, heard everything, and remembered everything; and she now made ample amends for her former assumed dignity, silence, and indifference.
"Do you know, mamma, it was an old fellow with a grey beard who made Punch move his arms and legs? I saw him well enough when the curtain was drawn aside. Yes, and the little boy Guiraud began to cry. How stupid of him, wasn't it? They told him the policeman would come and put some water in his soup; and at last they had to carry him off, for he wouldn't stop crying. And at lunch, too, Marguerite stained her milkmaid's dress all over with jam. Her mamma wiped it off and said to her: 'Oh, you dirty girl!' She even had a lot of it in her hair. I never opened my mouth, but it did amuse me to see them all rush at the cakes! Were they not bad-mannered, mamma dear?"
She paused for a few seconds, absorbed in some reminiscence, and then asked, with a thoughtful air: "I say, mamma, did you eat any of those yellow cakes with white cream inside? Oh! they were nice! they were nice! I kept the dish beside me the whole time."
Helene was not listening to this childish chatter. But Jeanne talked to relieve her excited brain. She launched out again, giving the minutest details about the ball, and investing each little incident with the greatest importance.
"You did not see that my waistband came undone just as we began dancing. A lady, whose name I don't know, pinned it up for me. So I said to her: 'Madame, I thank you very much.' But while I was dancing with Lucien the pin ran into him, and he asked me: 'What have you got in front of you that pricks me so?' Of course I knew nothing about it, and told him I had nothing there to prick him. However, Pauline came and put the pin in its proper place. Ah! but you've no idea how they pushed each other about; and one great stupid of a boy gave Sophie a blow on the back which made her fall. The Levasseur girls jumped about with their feet close together. I am pretty certain that isn't the way to dance. But the best of it all came at the end. You weren't there; so you can't know. We all took one another by the arms, and then whirled round; it was comical enough to make one die laughing. Besides, some of the big gentlemen were whirling around as well. It's true; I am not telling fibs. Why, don't you believe me, mamma dear?"
Helene's continued silence was beginning to vex Jeanne. She nestled closer, and gave her mother's hand a shake. But, perceiving that she drew only a few words from her, she herself, by degrees, lapsed into silence, into thought of the incidents of that ball of which her heart was full. Both mother and daughter now sat mutely gazing on Paris all aflame. It seemed to them yet more mysterious than ever, as it lay there illumined by blood-red clouds, like some city of an old-world tale expiating its lusts under a rain of fire.
"Did you have any round dances?" all at once asked Helene, as if wakening with a start.
"Yes, yes!" murmured Jeanne, engrossed in her turn.
"And the doctor—did he dance!"
"I should think so; he had a turn with me. He lift me up and asked me: 'Where is your mamma? where is your mamma?' and then he kissed me."
Helene unconsciously smiled. What need had she of knowing Henri well? It appeared sweeter to her not to know him—ay, never to know him well —and to greet him simply as the one whose coming she had awaited so long. Why should she feel astonished or disquieted? At the fated hour he had met her on her life-journey. Her frank nature accepted whatever might be in store; and quietude, born of the knowledge that she loved and was beloved, fell on her mind. She told her heart that she would prove strong enough to prevent her happiness from being marred.
But night was coming on and a chilly breeze arose. Jeanne, still plunged in reverie, began to shiver. She reclined her head on her mother's bosom, and, as though the question were inseparably connected with her deep meditation, she murmured a second time: "Do you love me?"
Then Helene, her face still glad with smiles, took her head within her hands and for a moment examined her face closely. Next she pressed a long kiss near her mouth, over a ruddy spot on her skin. It was there, she could divine it, that Henri had kissed the child!
The gloomy ridge of the Meudon hills was already partially concealing the disc of the sun. Over Paris the slanting beams of light had yet lengthened. The shadow cast by the dome of the Invalides—increased to stupendous proportions—covered the whole of the Saint-Germain district; while the Opera-House, the Saint-Jacques tower, the columns and the steeples, threw streaks of darkness over the right bank dwellings. The lines of house-fronts, the yawning streets, the islands of roofs, were burning with a more sullen glow. The flashes of fire died away in the darkening windows, as though the houses were reduced to embers. Distant bells rang out; a rumbling noise fell on the ears, and then subsided. With the approach of night the expanse of sky grew more vast, spreading a vault of violet, streaked with gold and purple, above the ruddy city. But all at once the conflagration flared afresh with formidable intensity, a last great flame shot up from Paris, illumining its entire expanse, and even its hitherto hidden suburbs. Then it seemed as if a grey, ashy dust were falling; and though the clustering districts remained erect, they wore the gloomy, unsubstantial aspect of coals which had ceased to burn.
One morning in May, Rosalie ran in from the kitchen, dish-cloth in hand, screaming out in the familiar fashion of a favorite servant: "Oh, madame, come quick! His reverence the Abbe is digging the ground down in the doctor's garden."
Helene made no responsive movement, but Jeanne had already rushed to have a look. On her return, she exclaimed:
"How stupid Rosalie is! he is not digging at all. He is with the gardener, who is putting some plants into a barrow. Madame Deberle is plucking all her roses."
"They must be for the church," quietly said Helene, who was busy with some tapestry-work.
A few minutes later the bell rang, and Abbe Jouve made his appearance. He came to say that his presence must not be expected on the following Tuesday. His evenings would be wholly taken up with the ceremonies incident to the month of Mary. The parish priest had assigned him the task of decorating the church. It would be a great success. All the ladies were giving him flowers. He was expecting two palm-trees about fourteen feet high, and meant to place them to the right and left of the altar.
"Oh! mamma, mamma!" murmured Jeanne, listening, wonderstruck.
"Well," said Helene, with a smile, "since you cannot come to us, my old friend, we will go to see you. Why, you've quite turned Jeanne's head with your talk about flowers."
She had few religious tendencies; she never even went to mass, on the plea that her daughter's health suffered from the shivering fits which seized her when she came out of a church. In her presence the old priest avoided all reference to religion. It was his wont to say, with good-natured indulgence, that good hearts carve out their own salvation by deeds of loving kindness and charity. God would know when and how to touch her.
Till the evening of the following day Jeanne thought of nothing but the month of Mary. She plagued her mother with questions; she dreamt of the church adorned with a profusion of white roses, filled with thousands of wax tapers, with the sound of angels' voices, and sweet perfumes. And she was very anxious to go near the altar, that she might have a good look at the Blessed Virgin's lace gown, a gown worth a fortune, according to the Abbe. But Helene bridled her excitement with a threat not to take her should she make herself ill beforehand.
However, the evening came at last, and they set out. The nights were still cold, and when they reached the Rue de l'Annonciation, where the church of Notre-Dame-de-Grace stands, the child was shivering all over.
"The church is heated," said her mother. "We must secure a place near a hot-air pipe."
She pushed open the padded door, and as it gently swung back to its place they found themselves in a warm atmosphere, with brilliant lights streaming on them, and chanting resounding in their ears. The ceremony had commenced, and Helene, perceiving that the nave was crowded, signified her intention of going down one of the aisles. But there seemed insuperable obstacles in her way; she could not get near the altar. Holding Jeanne by the hand, she for a time patiently pressed forward, but at last, despairing of advancing any farther, took the first unoccupied chairs she could find. A pillar hid half of the choir from view.
"I can see nothing," said the child, grievously discontented. "This is a very nasty place."
However, Helene signed to her to keep silent, and she lapsed into a fit of sulks. In front of her she could only perceive the broad back of a fat old lady. When her mother next turned towards her she was standing upright on her chair.
"Will you come down!" said Helene in a low voice. "You are a nuisance."
But Jeanne was stubborn.
"Hist! mamma," she said, "there's Madame Deberle. Look! she is down there in the centre, beckoning to us."
The young woman's annoyance on hearing this made her very impatient, and she shook her daughter, who still refused to sit down. During the three days that had intervened since the ball, Helene had avoided any visit to the doctor's house on the plea of having a great deal to do.
"Mamma," resumed Jeanne with a child's wonted stubbornness, "she is looking at you; she is nodding good-day to you."
At this intimation Helene was forced to turn round and exchange greetings; each bowed to the other. Madame Deberle, in a striped silk gown trimmed with white lace, sat in the centre of the nave but a short distance from the choir, looking very fresh and conspicuous. She had brought her sister Pauline, who was now busy waving her hand. The chanting still continued, the elder members of the congregation pouring forth a volume of sound of falling scale, while now and then the shrill voice of the children punctuated the slow, monotonous rhythm of the canticle.
"They want us to go over to them, you see," exclaimed Jeanne, with some triumph in her remark.
"It is useless; we shall be all right here."
"Oh, mamma, do let us go over to them! There are two chairs empty."
"No, no; come and sit down."