"Mademoiselle, please draw back a bit," said Rosalie, who had approached her. "The sun's heat is too warm for you."
But with a wave of her hand Jeanne declined to stir. For the time her attention was riveted on the maid and the little soldier. She pretended to direct her glances towards the ground, with the intention of making them believe that she did not see them; but in reality, despite her apparent drowsiness, she kept watching them from beneath her long eyelashes.
Rosalie stood near her for a minute or two longer, but was powerless against the charms of the grating rake. Once more she slowly dragged herself towards Zephyrin, as if in spite of her will. She resented the change in manner which he was now displaying, and yet her heart was bursting with mute admiration. The little soldier had used to good purpose his long strolls with his comrades in the Jardin des Plantes and round the Place du Chateau-d'Eau, where his barracks stood, and the result was the acquisition of the swaying, expansive graces of the Parisian fire-eater. He had learnt the flowery talk, gallant readiness, and involved style of language so dear to the hearts of the ladies. At times she was thrilled with intense pleasure as she listened to the phrases which he repeated to her with a swagger of the shoulders, phrases full of incomprehensible words that inflamed her cheeks with a flush of pride. His uniform no longer sat awkwardly on him; he swung his arms to and fro with a knowing air, and had an especially noticeable style of wearing his shako on the back of his head, with the result that his round face with its tip of a nose became extremely prominent, while his headgear swayed gently with the rolling of his body. Besides, he was growing quite free and easy, quaffed his dram, and ogled the fair sex. With his sneering ways and affectation of reticence, he now doubtless knew a great deal more than she did. Paris was fast taking all the remaining rust off him; and Rosalie stood before him, delighted yet angry, undecided whether to scratch his face or let him give utterance to foolish prattle.
Zephyrin, meanwhile, raking away, had turned the corner of the path. He was now hidden by a big spindle-tree, and was darting side-glances at Rosalie, luring her on against her will with the strokes of his rake. When she had got near him, he pinched her roughly.
"Don't cry out; that's only to show you how I love you!" he said in a husky whisper. "And take that over and above."
So saying he kissed her where he could, his lips lighting somewhere on her ear. Then, as Rosalie gave him a fierce nip in reply, he retaliated by another kiss, this time on her nose. Though she was well pleased, her face turned fiery-red; she was furious that Jeanne's presence should prevent her from giving him a box on the ear.
"I have pricked my finger," she declared to Jeanne as she returned to her, by way of explaining the exclamation that escaped her lips.
However, betwixt the spare branches of the spindle-tree the child had seen the incident. Amid the surrounding greenery the soldier's red trousers and greyish shirt were clearly discernible. She slowly raised her eyes to Rosalie, and looked at her for a moment, while the maid blushed the more. Then Jeanne's gaze fell to the ground again, and she gathered another handful of pebbles, but lacked the will or strength to play with them, and remained in a dreamy state, with her hands resting on the warm ground, amidst the vibrations of the sunrays. Within her a wave of health was swelling and stifling her. The trees seemed to take Titanic shape, and the air was redolent of the perfume of roses. In wonder and delight, she dreamt of all sorts of vague things.
"What are you thinking of, mademoiselle?" asked Rosalie uneasily.
"I don't know—of nothing," was Jeanne's reply. "Yes, I do know. You see, I should like to live to be very old."
However, she could not explain these words. It was an idea, she said, that had come into her head. But in the evening, after dinner, as her dreamy fit fell on her again, and her mother inquired the cause, she suddenly put the question:
"Mamma, do cousins ever marry?"
"Yes, of course," said Helene. "Why do you ask me that?"
"Oh, nothing; only I wanted to know."
Helene had become accustomed to these extraordinary questions. The hour spent in the garden had so beneficial an effect on the child that every sunny day found her there. Helene's reluctance was gradually dispelled; the house was still shut up. Henri never ventured to show himself, and ere long she sat down on the edge of the rug beside Jeanne. However, on the following Sunday morning she found the windows thrown open, and felt troubled at heart.
"Oh! but of course the rooms must be aired," exclaimed Rosalie, as an inducement for them to go down. "I declare to you nobody's there!"
That day the weather was still warmer. Through the leafy screen the sun's rays darted like golden arrows. Jeanne, who was growing strong, strolled about for ten minutes, leaning on her mother's arm. Then, somewhat tired, she turned towards her rug, a corner of which she assigned to Helene. They smiled at one another, amused at thus finding themselves side by side on the ground. Zephyrin had given up his raking, and was helping Rosalie to gather some parsley, clumps of which were growing along the end wall.
All at once there was an uproar in the house, and Helene was thinking of flight, when Madame Deberle made her appearance on the garden-steps. She had just arrived, and was still in her travelling dress, speaking very loudly, and seemingly very busy. But immediately she caught sight of Madame Grandjean and her daughter, sitting on the ground in the front of the lawn, she ran down, overwhelmed them with embraces, and poured a deafening flood of words into their ears.
"What, is it you? How glad I am to see you! Kiss me, my little Jeanne! Poor puss, you've been very ill, have you not? But you're getting better; the roses are coming back to your cheeks! And you, my dear, how often I've thought of you! I wrote to you: did my letters reach you? You must have spent a terrible time: but it's all over now! Will you let me kiss you?"
Helene was now on her feet, and was forced to submit to a kiss on each cheek and return them. This display of affection, however, chilled her to the heart.
"You'll excuse us for having invaded your garden," she said.
"You're joking," retorted Juliette impetuously. "Are you not at home here?"
But she ran off for a moment, hastened up the stairs, and called across the open rooms: "Pierre, don't forget anything; there are seventeen packages!"
Then, at once coming back, she commenced chattering about her holiday adventures. "Oh! such a splendid season! We went to Trouville, you know. The beach was always thronged with people. It was quite a crush. and people of the highest spheres, you know. I had visitors too. Papa came for a fortnight with Pauline. All the same, I'm glad to get home again. But I haven't given you all my news. Oh! I'll tell you later on!"
She stooped down and kissed Jeanne again; then suddenly becoming serious, she asked:
"Am I browned by the sun?"
"No; I don't see any signs of it," replied Helene as she gazed at her.
Juliette's eyes were clear and expressionless, her hands were plump, her pretty face was full of amiability; age did not tell on her; the sea air itself was powerless to affect her expression of serene indifference. So far as appearances went, she might have just returned from a shopping expedition in Paris. However, she was bubbling over with affection, and the more loving her outbursts, the more weary, constrained, and ill became Helene. Jeanne meantime never stirred from the rug, but merely raised her delicate, sickly face, while clasping her hands with a chilly air in the sunshine.
"Wait, you haven't seen Lucien yet," exclaimed Juliette. "You must see him; he has got so fat."
When the lad was brought on the scene, after the dust of the journey had been washed from his face by a servant girl, she pushed and turned him about to exhibit him. Fat and chubby-cheeked, his skin tanned by playing on the beach in the salt breeze, Lucien displayed exuberant health, but he had a somewhat sulky look because he had just been washed. He had not been properly dried, and one check was still wet and fiery-red with the rubbing of the towel. When he caught sight of Jeanne he stood stock-still with astonishment. She looked at him out of her poor, sickly face, as colorless as linen against the background of her streaming black hair, whose tresses fell in clusters to her shoulders. Her beautiful, sad, dilated eyes seemed to fill up her whole countenance; and, despite the excessive heat, she shivered somewhat, and stretched out her hands as though chilled and seeking warmth from a blazing fire.
"Well! aren't you going to kiss her?" asked Juliette.
But Lucien looked rather afraid. At length he made up his mind, and very cautiously protruded his lips so that he might not come too near the invalid. This done, he started back expeditiously. Helene's eyes were brimming over with tears. What health that child enjoyed! whereas her Jeanne was breathless after a walk round the lawn! Some mothers were very fortunate! Juliette all at once understood how cruel Lucien's conduct was, and she rated him soundly.
"Good gracious! what a fool you are! Is that the way to kiss young ladies? You've no idea, my dear, what a nuisance he was at Trouville."
She was getting somewhat mixed. But fortunately for her the doctor now made his appearance, and she extricated herself from her difficulty by exclaiming: "Oh, here's Henri."
He had not been expecting their return until the evening, but she had travelled by an earlier train. She plunged into a discursive explanation, without in the least making her reasons clear. The doctor listened with a smiling face. "At all events, here you are," he said. "That's all that's necessary."
A minute previously he had bowed to Helene without speaking. His glance for a moment fell on Jeanne, but feeling embarrassed he turned away his head. Jeanne bore his look with a serious face, and unclasping her hands instinctively grasped her mother's gown and drew closer to her side.
"Ah! the rascal," said the doctor, as he raised Lucien and kissed him on each cheek. "Why, he's growing like magic."
"Yes; and am I to be forgotten?" asked Juliette, as she held up her head. Then, without putting Lucien down, holding him, indeed, on one arm, the doctor leaned over to kiss his wife. Their three faces were lit up with smiles.
Helene grew pale, and declared she must now go up. Jeanne, however, was unwilling; she wished to see what might happen, and her glances lingered for a while on the Deberles and then travelled back to her mother. When Juliette had bent her face upwards to receive her husband's kiss, a bright gleam had come into the child's eyes.
"He's too heavy," resumed the doctor as he set Lucien down again. "Well, was the season a good one? I saw Malignon yesterday, and he was telling me about his stay there. So you let him leave before you, eh?"
"Oh! he's quite a nuisance!" exclaimed Juliette, over whose face a serious, embarrassed expression had now crept. "He tormented us to death the whole time."
"Your father was hoping for Pauline's sake—He hasn't declared his intentions then?"
"What! Malignon!" said she, as though astonished and offended. And then with a gesture of annoyance she added, "Oh! leave him alone; he's cracked! How happy I am to be home again!"
Without any apparent transition, she thereupon broke into an amazing outburst of tenderness, characteristic of her bird-like nature. She threw herself on her husband's breast and raised her face towards him. To all seeming they had forgotten that they were not alone.
Jeanne's eyes, however, never quitted them. Her lips were livid and trembled with anger; her face was that of a jealous and revengeful woman. The pain she suffered was so great that she was forced to turn away her head, and in doing so she caught sight of Rosalie and Zephyrin at the bottom of the garden, still gathering parsley. Doubtless with the intent of being in no one's way, they had crept in among the thickest of the bushes, where both were squatting on the ground. Zephyrin, with a sly movement, had caught hold of one of Rosalie's feet, while she, without uttering a syllable, was heartily slapping him. Between two branches Jeanne could see the little soldier's face, chubby and round as a moon and deeply flushed, while his mouth gaped with an amorous grin. Meantime the sun's rays were beating down vertically, and the trees were peacefully sleeping, not a leaf stirring among them all. From beneath the elms came the heavy odor of soil untouched by the spade. And elsewhere floated the perfume of the last tea-roses, which were casting their petals one by one on the garden steps. Then Jeanne, with swelling heart, turned her gaze on her mother, and seeing her motionless and dumb in presence of the Deberles, gave her a look of intense anguish—a child's look of infinite meaning, such as you dare not question.
But Madame Deberle stepped closer to them, and said: "I hope we shall see each other frequently now. As Jeanne is feeling better, she must come down every afternoon."
Helene was already casting about for an excuse, pleading that she did not wish to weary her too much. But Jeanne abruptly broke in: "No, no; the sun does me a great deal of good. We will come down, madame. You will keep my place for me, won't you?"
And as the doctor still remained in the background, she smiled towards him.
"Doctor, please tell mamma that the fresh air won't do me any harm."
He came forward, and this man, inured to human suffering, felt on his cheeks a slight flush at being thus gently addressed by the child.
"Certainly not," he exclaimed; "the fresh air will only bring you nearer to good health."
"So you see, mother darling, we must come down," said Jeanne, with a look of ineffable tenderness, whilst a sob died away in her throat.
But Pierre had reappeared on the steps and announced the safe arrival of madame's seventeen packages. Then, followed by her husband and Lucien, Juliette retired, declaring that she was frightfully dirty, and intended to take a bath. When they were alone, Helene knelt down on the rug, as though about to tie the shawl round Jeanne's neck, and whispered in the child's ear:
"You're not angry any longer with the doctor, then?"
With a prolonged shake of the head the child replied "No, mamma."
There was a silence. Helene's hands were seized with an awkward trembling, and she was seemingly unable to tie the shawl. Then Jeanne murmured: "But why does he love other people so? I won't have him love them like that."
And as she spoke, her black eyes became harsh and gloomy, while her little hands fondled her mother's shoulders. Helene would have replied, but the words springing to her lips frightened her. The sun was now low, and mother and daughter took their departure. Zephyrin meanwhile had reappeared to view, with a bunch of parsley in his hand, the stalks of which he continued pulling off while darting murderous glances at Rosalie. The maid followed at some distance, inspired with distrust now that there was no one present. Just as she stooped to roll up the rug he tried to pinch her, but she retaliated with a blow from her fist which made his back re-echo like an empty cask. Still it seemed to delight him, and he was yet laughing silently when he re-entered the kitchen busily arranging his parsley.
Thenceforth Jeanne was stubbornly bent on going down to the garden as soon as ever she heard Madame Deberle's voice there. All Rosalie's tittle-tattle regarding the next-door house she drank in greedily, ever restless and inquisitive concerning its inmates and their doings; and she would even slip out of the bedroom to keep watch from the kitchen window. In the garden, ensconced in a small arm-chair which was brought for her use from the drawing-room by Juliette's direction, her eyes never quitted the family. Lucien she now treated with great reserve, annoyed it seemed by his questions and antics, especially when the doctor was present. On those occasions she would stretch herself out as if wearied, gazing before her with her eyes wide open. For Helene the afternoons were pregnant with anguish. She always returned, however, returned in spite of the feeling of revolt which wrung her whole being. Every day when, on his arrival home, Henri printed a kiss on Juliette's hair, her heart leaped in its agony. And at those moments, if to hide the agitation of her face she pretended to busy herself with Jeanne, she would notice that the child was even paler than herself, with her black eyes glaring and her chin twitching with repressed fury. Jeanne shared in her suffering. When the mother turned away her head, heartbroken, the child became so sad and so exhausted that she had to be carried upstairs and put to bed. She could no longer see the doctor approach his wife without changing countenance; she would tremble, and turn on him a glance full of all the jealous fire of a deserted mistress.
"I cough in the morning," she said to him one day. "You must come and see for yourself."
Rainy weather ensued, and Jeanne became quite anxious that the doctor should commence his visits once more. Yet her health had much improved. To humor her, Helene had been constrained to accept two or three invitations to dine with the Deberles.
At last the child's heart, so long torn by hidden sorrow, seemingly regained quietude with the complete re-establishment of her health. She would again ask Helene the old question—"Are you happy, mother darling?"
"Yes, very happy, my pet," was the reply.
And this made her radiant. She must be pardoned her bad temper in the past, she said. She referred to it as a fit which no effort of her own will could prevent, the result of a headache that came on her suddenly. Something would spring up within her—she wholly failed to understand what it was. She was tempest-tossed by a multitude of vague imaginings—nightmares that she could not even have recalled to memory. However, it was past now; she was well again, and those worries would nevermore return.
The night was falling. From the grey heaven, where the first of the stars were gleaming, a fine ashy dust seemed to be raining down on the great city, raining down without cessation and slowly burying it. The hollows were already hidden deep in gloom, and a line of cloud, like a stream of ink, rose upon the horizon, engulfing the last streaks of daylight, the wavering gleams which were retreating towards the west. Below Passy but a few stretches of roofs remained visible; and as the wave rolled on, darkness soon covered all.
"What a warm evening!" ejaculated Helene, as she sat at the window, overcome by the heated breeze which was wafted upwards from Paris.
"A grateful night for the poor," exclaimed the Abbe, who stood behind her. "The autumn will be mild."
That Tuesday Jeanne had fallen into a doze at dessert, and her mother, perceiving that she was rather tired, had put her to bed. She was already fast asleep in her cot, while Monsieur Rambaud sat at the table gravely mending a toy—a mechanical doll, a present from himself, which both spoke and walked, and which Jeanne had broken. He excelled in such work as this. Helene on her side feeling the want of fresh air—for the lingering heats of September were oppressive—had thrown the window wide open, and gazed with relief on the vast gloomy ocean of darkness that rolled before her. She had pushed an easy-chair to the window in order to be alone, but was suddenly surprised to hear the Abbe speaking to her. "Is the little one warmly covered?" he gently asked. "On these heights the air is always keen."
She made no reply, however; her heart was craving for silence. She was tasting the delights of the twilight hour, the vanishing of all surrounding objects, the hushing of every sound. Gleams, like those of night-lights, tipped the steeples and towers; that on Saint-Augustin died out first, the Pantheon for a moment retained a bluish light, and then the glittering dome of the Invalides faded away, similar to a moon setting in a rising sea of clouds. The night was like the ocean, its extent seemingly increased by the gloom, a dark abyss wherein you divined that a world lay hid. From the unseen city blew a mighty yet gentle wind. There was still a hum; sounds ascended faint yet clear to Helene's ears—the sharp rattle of an omnibus rolling along the quay, the whistle of a train crossing the bridge of the Point-du-Jour; and the Seine, swollen by the recent storms, and pulsing with the life of a breathing soul, wound with increased breadth through the shadows far below. A warm odor steamed upwards from the scorched roofs, while the river, amidst this exhalation of the daytime heat, seemed to give forth a cooling breeze. Paris had vanished, sunk in the dreamy repose of a colossus whose limbs the night has enveloped, and who lies motionless for a time, but with eyes wide open.
Nothing affected Helene more than this momentary pause in the great city's life. For the three months during which she had been a close prisoner, riveted to Jeanne's bedside, she had had no other companion in her vigil than the huge mass of Paris spreading out towards the horizon. During the summer heats of July and August the windows had almost always been left open; she could not cross the room, could not stir or turn her head, without catching a glimpse of the ever-present panorama. It was there, whatever the weather, always sharing in her griefs and hopes, like some friend who would never leave her side. She was still quite ignorant respecting it; never had it seemed farther away, never had she given less thought to its streets and its citizens, and yet it peopled her solitude. The sick-room, whose door was kept shut to the outside world, looked out through its two windows upon this city. Often, with her eyes fixed on its expanse, Helene had wept, leaning on the window-rail in order to hide her tears from her ailing child. One day, too—the very day when she had imagined her daughter to be at the point of death—she had remained for a long time, overcome and choked with grief, watching the smoke which curled up from the Army Bakehouse. Frequently, moreover, in hours of hopefulness she had here confided the gladsome feelings of her heart to the dim and distant suburbs. There was not a single monument which did not recall to her some sensation of joy or sorrow. Paris shared in her own existence; and never did she love it better than when the twilight came, and its day's work over, it surrendered itself to an hour's quietude, forgetfulness, and reverie, whilst waiting for the lighting of its gas.
"What a multitude of stars!" murmured Abbe Jouve. "There are thousands of them gleaming."
He had just taken a chair and sat down at her side. On hearing him, she gazed upwards into the summer night. The heaven was studded with golden lights. On the very verge of the horizon a constellation was sparkling like a carbuncle, while a dust of almost invisible stars sprinkled the vault above as though with glittering sand. Charles's-Wain was slowly turning its shaft in the night.
"Look!" said Helene in her turn, "look at that tiny bluish star! See —far away up there. I recognize it night after night. But it dies and fades as the night rolls on."
The Abbe's presence no longer annoyed her. With him by her side, she imagined the quiet was deepening around. A few words passed between them after long intervals of silence. Twice she questioned him on the names of the stars—the sight of the heavens had always interested her —but he was doubtful and pleaded ignorance.
"Do you see," she asked, "that lovely star yonder whose lustre is so exquisitely clear?"
"On the left, eh?" he replied, "near another smaller, greenish one? Ah! there are so many of them that my memory fails me."
They again lapsed into silence, their eyes still turned upwards, dazzled, quivering slightly at the sight of that stupendous swarming of luminaries. In the vast depths of the heavens, behind thousands of stars, thousands of others twinkled in ever-increasing multitudes, with the clear brilliancy of gems. The Milky Way was already whitening, displaying its solar specks, so innumerable and so distant that in the vault of the firmament they form but a trailing scarf of light.
"It fills me with fear," said Helene in a whisper; and that she might see it all no more she bent her head and glanced down on the gaping abyss in which Paris seemed to be engulfed. In its depths not a light could yet be seen; night had rolled over it and plunged it into impenetrable darkness. Its mighty, continuous rumble seemed to have sunk into a softer key.
"Are you weeping?" asked the Abbe, who had heard a sound of sobbing.
"Yes," simply answered Helene.
They could not see each other. For a long time she continued weeping, her whole being exhaling a plaintive murmur. Behind them, meantime, Jeanne lay at rest in innocent sleep, and Monsieur Rambaud, his whole attention engrossed, bent his grizzled head over the doll which he had dismembered. At times he could not prevent the loosened springs from giving out a creaking noise, a childlike squeaking which his big fingers, though plied with the utmost gentleness, drew from the disordered mechanism. If the doll vented too loud a sound, however, he at once stopped working, distressed and vexed with himself, and turning towards Jeanne to see if he had roused her. Then once more he would resume his repairing, with great precautions, his only tools being a pair of scissors and a bodkin.
"Why do you weep, my daughter?" again asked the Abbe. "Can I not afford you some relief?"
"Ah! let me be," said Helene; "these tears do me good. By-and-by, by-and-by—"
A stifling sensation checked any further words. Once before, in this very place, she had been convulsed by a storm of tears; but then she had been alone, free to sob in the darkness till the emotion that wrung her was dried up at its source. However, she knew of no cause of sorrow; her daughter was well once more, and she had resumed the old monotonous delightful life. But it was as though a keen sense of awful grief had abruptly come upon her; it seemed as if she were rolling into a bottomless abyss which she could not fathom, sinking with all who were dear to her in a limitless sea of despair. She knew not what misfortune hung over her head; but she was without hope, and could only weep.
Similar waves of feeling had swept over her during the month of the Virgin in the church laden with the perfume of flowers. And, as twilight fell, the vastness of Paris filled her with a deep religious impression. The stretch of plain seemed to expand, and a sadness rose up from the two millions of living beings who were being engulfed in darkness. And when it was night, and the city with its subdued rumbling had vanished from view, her oppressed heart poured forth its sorrow, and her tears overflowed, in presence of that sovereign peace. She could have clasped her hands and prayed. She was filled with an intense craving for faith, love, and a lapse into heavenly forgetfulness; and the first glinting of the stars overwhelmed her with sacred terror and enjoyment.
A lengthy interval of silence ensued, and then the Abbe spoke once more, this time more pressingly.
"My daughter, you must confide in me. Why do you hesitate?"
She was still weeping, but more gently, like a wearied and powerless child.
"The Church frightens you," he continued. "For a time I thought you had yielded your heart to God. But it has been willed otherwise. Heaven has its own purposes. Well, since you mistrust the priest, why should you refuse to confide in the friend?"
"You are right," she faltered. "Yes, I am sad at heart, and need your consolation. I must tell you of it all. When I was a child I seldom, if ever, entered a church; now I cannot be present at a service without feeling touched to the very depths of my being. Yes; and what drew tears from me just now was that voice of Paris, sounding like a mighty organ, that immeasurable night, and those beauteous heavens. Oh! I would fain believe. Help me; teach me."
Abbe Jouve calmed her somewhat by lightly placing his hand on her own.
"Tell me everything," he merely said.
She struggled for a time, her heart wrung with anguish.
"There's nothing to tell, I assure you. I'm hiding nothing from you. I weep without cause, because I feel stifled, because my tears gush out of their own accord. You know what my life has been. No sorrow, no sin, no remorse could I find in it to this hour. I do not know—I do not know—"
Her voice died away, and from the priest's lips slowly came the words, "You love, my daughter!"
She started; she dared not protest. Silence fell on them once more. In the sea of shadows that slumbered before them a light had glimmered forth. It seemed at their feet, somewhere in the abyss, but at what precise spot they would have been unable to specify. And then, one by one, other lights broke through the darkness, shooting into instant life, and remaining stationary, scintillating like stars. It seemed as though thousands of fresh planets were rising on the surface of a gloomy lake. Soon they stretched out in double file, starting from the Trocadero, and nimbly leaping towards Paris. Then these files were intersected by others, curves were described, and a huge, strange, magnificent constellation spread out. Helene never breathed a word, but gazed on these gleams of light, which made the heavens seemingly descend below the line of the horizon, as though indeed the earth had vanished and the vault of heaven were on every side. And Helene's heart was again flooded with emotion, as a few minutes before when Charles's-Wain had slowly begun to revolve round the Polar axis, its shaft in the air. Paris, studded with lights, stretched out, deep and sad, prompting fearful thoughts of a firmament swarming with unknown worlds.
Meanwhile the priest, in the monotonous, gentle voice which he had acquired by years of duty in the confessional, continued whispering in her ear. One evening in the past he had warned her; solitude, he had said, would be harmful to her welfare. No one could with impunity live outside the pale of life. She had imprisoned herself too closely, and the door had opened to perilous thoughts.
"I am very old now, my daughter," he murmured, "and I have frequently seen women come to us weeping and praying, with a craving to find faith and religion. Thus it is that I cannot be deceiving myself to-day. These women, who seem to seek God in so zealous a manner, are but souls rendered miserable by passion. It is a man whom they worship in our churches."
She was not listening; a strife was raging in her bosom, amidst her efforts to read her innermost thoughts aright. And at last confession came from her in a broken whisper:
"Oh! yes, I love, and that is all! Beyond that I know nothing —nothing!"
He now forbore to interrupt her; she spoke in short feverish sentences, taking a mournful pleasure in thus confessing her love, in sharing with that venerable priest the secret which had so long burdened her.
"I swear I cannot read my thoughts. This has come to me without my knowing its presence. Perhaps it came in a moment. Only in time did I realize its sweetness. Besides, why should I deem myself stronger than I am? I have made no effort to flee from it; I was only too happy, and to-day I have yet less power of resistance. My daughter was ill; I almost lost her. Well! my love has been as intense as my sorrow; it came back with sovereign power after those days of terror—and it possesses me, I feel transported—"
She shivered and drew a breath.
"In short, my strength fails me. You were right, my friend, in thinking it would be a relief to confide in you. But, I beseech you, tell me what is happening in the depths of my heart. My life was once so peaceful; I was so happy. A thunderbolt has fallen on me. Why on me? Why not on another? I had done nothing to bring it on; I imagined myself well protected. Ah, if you only knew—I know myself no longer! Help me, save me!"
Then as she became silent, the priest, with the wonted freedom of the confessor, mechanically asked the question:
"The name? tell me his name?"
She was hesitating, when a peculiar noise prompted her to turn her head. It came from the doll which, in Monsieur Rambaud's hands, was by degrees renewing its mechanical life, and had just taken three steps on the table, with a creaking of wheels and springs which showed that there was still something faulty in its works. Then it had fallen on its back, and but for the worthy man would have rebounded onto the ground. He followed all its movements with outstretched hands, ready to support it, and full of paternal anxiety. The moment he perceived Helene turn, he smiled confidently towards her, as if to give her an assurance that the doll would recover its walking powers. And then he once more dived with scissors and bodkin into the toy. Jeanne still slept on.
Thereupon Helene, her nerves relaxing under the influence of the universal quiet, whispered a name in the priest's ear. He never stirred; in the darkness his face could not be seen. A silence ensued, and he responded:
"I knew it, but I wanted to hear it from your own lips. My daughter, yours must be terrible suffering."
He gave utterance to no truisms on the subject of duty. Helene, overcome, saddened to the heart by this unemotional pity, gazed once more on the lights which spangled the gloomy veil enshrouding Paris. They were flashing everywhere in myriads, like the sparks that dart over the blackened refuse of burnt paper. At first these twinkling dots had started from the Trocadero towards the heart of the city. Soon another coruscation had appeared on the left in the direction of Montmartre; then another had burst into view on the right behind the Invalides, and still another, more distant near the Pantheon. From all these centres flights of flames were simultaneously descending.
"You remember our conversation," slowly resumed the Abbe. "My opinion has not changed. My daughter, you must marry."
"I!" she exclaimed, overwhelmed with amazement. "But I have just confessed to you—Oh, you know well I cannot—"
"You must marry," he repeated with greater decision. "You will wed an honest man."
Within the folds of his old cassock he seemed to have grown more commanding. His large comical-looking head, which, with eyes half-closed, was usually inclined towards one shoulder, was now raised erect, and his eyes beamed with such intensity that she saw them sparkling in the darkness.
"You will marry an honest man, who will be a father to Jeanne, and will lead you back to the path of goodness."
"But I do not love him. Gracious Heaven! I do not love him!"
"You will love him, my daughter. He loves you, and he is good in heart."
Helene struggled, and her voice sank to a whisper as she heard the slight noise that Monsieur Rambaud made behind them. He was so patient and so strong in his hope, that for six months he had not once intruded his love on her. Disposed by nature to the most heroic self-sacrifice, he waited in serene confidence. The Abbe stirred, as though about to turn round.
"Would you like me to tell him everything? He would stretch out his hand and save you. And you would fill him with joy beyond compare."
She checked him, utterly distracted. Her heart revolted. Both of these peaceful, affectionate men, whose judgment retained perfect equilibrium in presence of her feverish passion, were sources of terror to her. What world could they abide in to be able to set at naught that which caused her so much agony? The priest, however, waved his hand with an all-comprehensive gesture.
"My daughter," said he, "look on this lovely night, so supremely still in presence of your troubled spirit. Why do you refuse happiness?"
All Paris was now illumined. The tiny dancing flames had speckled the sea of shadows from one end of the horizon to the other, and now, as in a summer night, millions of fixed stars seemed to be serenely gleaming there. Not a puff of air, not a quiver of the atmosphere stirred these lights, to all appearance suspended in space. Paris, now invisible, had fallen into the depths of an abyss as vast as a firmament. At times, at the base of the Trocadero, a light—the lamp of a passing cab or omnibus—would dart across the gloom, sparkling like a shooting star; and here amidst the radiance of the gas-jets, from which streamed a yellow haze, a confused jumble of house-fronts and clustering trees—green like the trees in stage scenery—could be vaguely discerned. To and fro, across the Pont des Invalides, gleaming lights flashed without ceasing; far below, across a band of denser gloom, appeared a marvellous train of comet-like coruscations, from whose lustrous tails fell a rain of gold. These were the reflections in the Seine's black waters of the lamps on the bridge. From this point, however, the unknown began. The long curve of the river was merely described by a double line of lights, which ever and anon were coupled to other transverse lines, so that the whole looked like some glittering ladder, thrown across Paris, with its ends on the verge of the heavens among the stars.
To the left there was another trench excavated athwart the gloom; an unbroken chain of stars shone forth down the Champs-Elysees from the Arc-de-Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, where a new cluster of Pleiades was flashing; next came the gloomy stretches of the Tuileries and the Louvre, the blocks of houses on the brink of the water, and the Hotel-de-Ville away at the extreme end—all these masses of darkness being parted here and there by bursts of light from some large square or other; and farther and farther away, amidst the endless confusion of roofs, appeared scattered gleams, affording faint glimpses of the hollow of a street below, the corner of some boulevard, or the brilliantly illuminated meeting-place of several thoroughfares. On the opposite bank, on the right, the Esplanade alone could be discerned with any distinctness, its rectangle marked out in flame, like an Orion of a winter's night bereft of his baldrick. The long streets of the Saint-Germain district seemed gloomy with their fringe of infrequent lamps; but the thickly populated quarters beyond were speckled with a multitude of tiny flames, clustering like nebulae. Away towards the outskirts, girdling the whole of the horizon, swarmed street-lamps and lighted windows, filling these distant parts with a dust, as it were, of those myriads of suns, those planetary atoms which the naked eye cannot discover. The public edifices had vanished into the depths of the darkness; not a lamp marked out their spires and towers. At times you might have imagined you were gazing on some gigantic festival, some illuminated cyclopean monument, with staircases, balusters, windows, pediments, and terraces —a veritable cosmos of stone, whose wondrous architecture was outlined by the gleaming lights of a myriad lamps. But there was always a speedy return of the feeling that new constellations were springing into being, and that the heavens were spreading both above and below.
Helene, in compliance with the all-embracing sweep of the priest's hand, cast a lingering look over illumined Paris. Here too she knew not the names of those seeming stars. She would have liked to ask what the blaze far below on the left betokened, for she saw it night after night. There were others also which roused her curiosity, and some of them she loved, whilst some inspired her with uneasiness or vexation.
"Father," said she, for the first time employing that appellation of affection and respect, "let me live as I am. The loveliness of the night has agitated me. You are wrong; you would not know how to console me, for you cannot understand my feelings."
The priest stretched out his arms, then slowly dropped them to his side resignedly. And after a pause he said in a whisper:
"Doubtless that was bound to be the case. You call for succor and reject salvation. How many despairing confessions I have received! What tears I have been unable to prevent! Listen, my daughter, promise me one thing only; if ever life should become too heavy a burden for you, think that one honest man loves you and is waiting for you. To regain content you will only have to place your hand in his."
"I promise you," answered Helene gravely.
As she made the avowal a ripple of laughter burst through the room. Jeanne had just awoke, and her eyes were riveted on her doll pacing up and down the table. Monsieur Rambaud, enthusiastic over the success of his tinkering, still kept his hands stretched out for fear lest any accident should happen. But the doll retained its stability, strutted about on its tiny feet, and turned its head, whilst at every step repeating the same words after the fashion of a parrot.
"Oh! it's some trick or other!" murmured Jeanne, who was still half asleep. "What have you done to it—tell me? It was all smashed, and now it's walking. Give it me a moment; let me see. Oh, you are a darling!"
Meanwhile over the gleaming expanse of Paris a rosy cloud was ascending higher and higher. It might have been thought the fiery breath of a furnace. At first it was shadowy-pale in the darkness—a reflected glow scarcely seen. Then slowly, as the evening progressed, it assumed a ruddier hue; and, hanging in the air, motionless above the city, deriving its being from all the lights and noisy life which breathed from below, it seemed like one of those clouds, charged with flame and lightning, which crown the craters of volcanoes.
The finger-glasses had been handed round the table, and the ladies were daintily wiping their hands. A momentary silence reigned, while Madame Deberle gazed on either side to see if every one had finished; then, without speaking, she rose, and amidst a noisy pushing back of chairs, her guests followed her example. An old gentleman who had been seated at her right hand hastened to offer her his arm.
"No, no," she murmured, as she led him towards a doorway. "We will now have coffee in the little drawing-room."
The guests, in couples, followed her. Two ladies and two gentlemen, however, lagged behind the others, continuing their conversation, without thought of joining the procession. The drawing-room reached, all constraint vanished, and the joviality which had marked the dessert made its reappearance. The coffee was already served on a large lacquer tray on a table. Madame Deberle walked round like a hostess who is anxious to satisfy the various tastes of her guests. But it was Pauline who ran about the most, and more particularly waited on the gentlemen. There were a dozen persons present, about the regulation number of people invited to the house every Wednesday, from December onwards. Later in the evening, at ten o'clock, a great many others would make their appearance.
"Monsieur de Guiraud, a cup of coffee," exclaimed Pauline, as she halted in front of a diminutive, bald-headed man. "Ah! no, I remember, you don't take any. Well, then, a glass of Chartreuse?"
But she became confused in discharging her duties, and brought him a glass of cognac. Beaming with smiles, she made the round of the guests, perfectly self-possessed, and looking people straight in the face, while her long train dragged with easy grace behind her. She wore a magnificent gown of white Indian cashmere trimmed with swan's-down, and cut square at the bosom. When the gentlemen were all standing up, sipping their coffee, each with cup in hand and chin high in the air, she began to tackle a tall young fellow named Tissot, whom she considered rather handsome.
Helene had not taken any coffee. She had seated herself apart, with a somewhat wearied expression on her face. Her black velvet gown, unrelieved by any trimming, gave her an air of austerity. In this small drawing-room smoking was allowed, and several boxes of cigars were placed beside her on the pier-table. The doctor drew near; as he selected a cigar he asked her: "Is Jeanne well?"
"Yes, indeed," she replied. "We walked to the Bois to-day, and she romped like a madcap. Oh, she must be sound asleep by now."
They were both chatting in friendly tones, with the smiling intimacy of people who see each other day after day, when Madame Deberle's voice rose high and shrill:
"Stop! stop! Madame Grandjean can tell you all about it. Didn't I come back from Trouville on the 10th of September? It was raining, and the beach had become quite unbearable!"
Three or four of the ladies were gathered round her while she rattled on about her holdiday at the seaside. Helene found it necessary to rise and join the group.
"We spent a month at Dinard," said Madame de Chermette. "Such a delightful place, and such charming society!"
"Behind our chalet was a garden, and we had a terrace overlooking the sea," went on Madame Deberle. "As you know, I decided on taking my landau and coachman with me. It was very much handier when I wanted a drive. Then Madame Levasseur came to see us—"
"Yes, one Sunday," interrupted that lady. "We were at Cabourg. Your establishment was perfect, but a little too dear, I think."
"By the way," broke in Madame Berthier, addressing Juliette, "didn't Monsieur Malignon give you lessons in swimming?"
Helene noticed a shadow of vexation, of sudden annoyance, pass over Madame Deberle's face. Several times already she had fancied that, on Malignon's name being brought unexpectedly into the conversation, Madame Deberle suddenly seemed perturbed. However, the young woman immediately regained her equanimity.
"A fine swimmer, indeed!" she exclaimed. "The idea of him ever giving lessons to any one! For my part, I have a mortal fear of cold water —the very sight of people bathing curdles my blood."
She gave an eloquent shiver, with a shrug of her plump shoulders, as though she were a duck shaking water from her back.
"Then it's a fable?" questioned Madame de Guiraud.
"Of course; and one, I presume, of his own invention. He detests me since he spent a month with us down there."
People were now beginning to pour in. The ladies, with clusters of flowers in their hair, and round, plump arms, entered smiling and nodding; while the men, each in evening dress and hat in hand, bowed and ventured on some commonplace remark. Madame Deberle, never ceasing her chatter for a moment, extended the tips of her fingers to the friends of the house, many of whom said nothing, but passed on with a bow. However, Mademoiselle Aurelie had just appeared on the scene, and at once went into raptures over Juliette's dress, which was of dark-blue velvet, trimmed with faille silk. At this all the ladies standing round seemed to catch their first glimpse of the dress, and declared it was exquisite, truly exquisite. It came, they learned, from Worth's, and they discussed it for five minutes. The guests who had drunk their coffee had placed their empty cups here and there on the tray and on the pier-tables; only one old gentleman had not yet finished, as between every mouthful he paused to converse with a lady. A warm perfume, the aroma of the coffee and the ladies' dresses intermingled, permeated the apartment.
"You know I have had nothing," remonstrated young Monsieur Tissot with Pauline, who had been chatting with him about an artist to whose studio her father had escorted her with a view to examining the pictures.
"What! have you had nothing? Surely I brought you a cup of coffee?"
"No, mademoiselle, I assure you."
"But I insist on your having something. See, here is some Chartreuse."
Madame Deberle had just directed a meaning nod towards her husband. The doctor, understanding her, thereupon opened the door of a large drawing-room, into which they all filed, while a servant removed the coffee-tray. There was almost a chill atmosphere in this spacious apartment, through which streamed the white light of six lamps and a chandelier with ten wax candles. There were already some ladies there, sitting in a semi-circle round the fireplace, but only two or three men were present, standing amidst the sea of outspread skirts. And through the open doorway of the smaller drawing-room rang the shrill voice of Pauline, who had lingered behind in company with young Tissot.
"Now that I have poured it out, I'm determined you shall drink it. What would you have me do with it? Pierre has carried off the tray."
Then she entered the larger room, a vision in white, with her dress trimmed with swan's-down. Her ruddy lips parted, displaying her teeth, as she smilingly announced: "Here comes Malignon, the exquisite!"
Hand-shaking and bowing were now the order of the day. Monsieur Deberle had placed himself near the door. His wife, seated with some other ladies on an extremely low couch, rose every other second. When Malignon made his appearance, she affected to turn away her head. He was dressed to perfection; his hair had been curled, and was parted behind, down to his very neck. On the threshold he had stuck an eye-glass in his right eye with a slight grimace, which, according to Pauline, was just the thing; and now he cast a glance around the room. Having nonchalantly and silently shaken hands with the doctor, he made his way towards Madame Deberle, in front of whom he respectfully bent his tall figure.
"Oh, it's you!" she exclaimed, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everybody. "It seems you go in for swimming now."
He did not guess her meaning, but nevertheless replied, by way of a joke:
"Certainly; I once saved a Newfoundland dog from drowning."
The ladies thought this extremely funny, and even Madame Deberle seemed disarmed.
"Well, I'll allow you to save Newfoundlands," she answered, "but you know very well I did not bathe once at Trouville."
"Oh! you're speaking of the lesson I gave you!" he exclaimed. "Didn't I tell you one night in your dining-room how to move your feet and hands about?"
All the ladies were convulsed with mirth—he was delightful! Juliette shrugged her shoulders; it was impossible to engage him in a serious talk. Then she rose to meet a lady whose first visit this was to her house, and who was a superb pianist. Helene, seated near the fire, her lovely face unruffled by any emotion, looked on and listened. Malignon, especially, seemed to interest her. She saw him execute a strategical movement which brought him to Madame Deberle's side, and she could hear the conversation that ensued behind her chair. Of a sudden there was a change in the tones, and she leaned back to gather the drift of what was being said.
"Why didn't you come yesterday?" asked Malignon. "I waited for you till six o'clock."
"Nonsense; you are mad," murmured Juliette.
Thereupon Malignon loudly lisped: "Oh! you don't believe the story about my Newfoundland! Yet I received a medal for it, and I'll show it to you."
Then he added, in a whisper: "You gave me your promise—remember."
A family group now entered the drawing-room, and Juliette broke into complimentary greetings, while Malignon reappeared amongst the ladies, glass in eye. Helene had become quite pale since overhearing those hastily spoken words. It was as though a thunderbolt, or something equally unforeseen and horrible, had fallen on her. How could thoughts of treachery enter into the mind of that woman whose life was so happy, whose face betrayed no signs of sorrow, whose cheeks had the freshness of the rose? She had always known her to be devoid of brains, displaying an amiable egotism which seemed a guarantee that she would never commit a foolish action. And over such a fellow as Malignon, too! The scenes in the garden of an afternoon flashed back on her memory—she recalled Juliette smiling lovingly as the doctor kissed her hair. Their love for one another had seemed real enough. An inexplicable feeling of indignation with Juliette now pervaded Helene, as though some wrong had been done herself. She felt humiliated for Henri's sake; she was consumed with jealous rage; and her perturbed feelings were so plainly mirrored in her face that Mademoiselle Aurelie asked her: "What is the matter with you? Do you feel ill?"
The old lady had sunk into a seat beside her immediately she had observed her to be alone. She had conceived a lively friendship for Helene, and was charmed with the kindly manner in which so sedate and lovely a woman would listen for hours to her tittle-tattle.
But Helene made no reply. A wild desire sprang up within her to gaze on Henri, to know what he was doing, and what was the expression of his face. She sat up, and glancing round the drawing-room, at last perceived him. He stood talking with a stout, pale man, and looked completely at his ease, his face wearing its customary refined smile. She scanned him for a moment, full of a pity which belittled him somewhat, though all the while she loved him the more with an affection into which entered some vague idea of watching over him. Her feelings, still in a whirl of confusion, inspired her with the thought that she ought to bring him back the happiness he had lost.
"Well, well!" muttered Mademoiselle Aurelie; "it will be pleasant if Madame de Guiraud's sister favors us with a song. It will be the tenth time I have heard her sing the 'Turtle-Doves.' That is her stock song this winter. You know that she is separated from her husband. Do you see that dark gentleman down there, near the door? They are most intimate together, I believe. Juliette is compelled to have him here, for otherwise she wouldn't come!"
"Indeed!" exclaimed Helene.
Madame Deberle was bustling about from one group to another, requesting silence for a song from Madame de Guiraud's sister. The drawing-room was now crowded, some thirty ladies being seated in the centre whispering and laughing together; two, however, had remained standing, and were talking loudly and shrugging their shoulders in a pretty way, while five or six men sat quite at home amongst the fair ones, almost buried beneath the folds of their skirts and trains. A low "Hush!" ran round the room, the voices died away, and a stolid look of annoyance crept into every face. Only the fans could be heard rustling through the heated atmosphere.
Madame de Guiraud's sister sang, but Helene never listened. Her eyes were now riveted on Malignon, who feigned an intense love of music, and appeared to be enraptured with the "Turtle Doves." Was it possible? Could Juliette have turned a willing ear to the amorous chatter of the young fop? It was at Trouville, no doubt, that some dangerous game had been played. Malignon now sat in front of Juliette, marking the time of the music by swaying to and fro with the air of one who is enraptured. Madame Deberle's face beamed in admiring complacency, while the doctor, good-natured and patient, silently awaited the last notes of the song in order to renew his talk with the stout, pale man.
There was a murmur of applause as the singer's voice died away, and two or three exclaimed in tones of transport: "Delightful! magnificent!"
Malignon, however, stretching his arms over the ladies' head-dresses, noiselessly clapped his gloved hands, and repeated "Brava! brava!" in a voice that rose high above the others.
The enthusiasm promptly came to an end, every face relaxed and smiled, and a few of the ladies rose, while, with the feeling of general relief, the buzz of conversation began again. The atmosphere was growing much warmer, and the waving fans wafted an odor of musk from the ladies' dresses. At times, amidst the universal chatter, a peal of pearly laughter would ring out, or some word spoken in a loud tone would cause many to turn round. Thrice already had Juliette swept into the smaller drawing-room to request some gentleman who had escaped thither not to desert the ladies in so rude a fashion. They returned at her request, but ten minutes afterwards had again vanished.
"It's intolerable," she muttered, with an air of vexation; "not one of them will stay here."
In the meantime Mademoiselle Aurelie was running over the ladies' names for Helene's benefit, as this was only the latter's second evening visit to the doctor's house. The most substantial people of Passy, some of them rolling in riches, were present. And the old maid leaned towards Helene and whispered in her ear: "Yes, it seems it's all arranged. Madame de Chermette is going to marry her daughter to that tall fair fellow with whom she has flirted for the last eighteen months. Well, never mind, that will be one mother-in-law who'll be fond of her son-in-law."
She stopped short, and then burst out in a tone of intense surprise: "Good gracious! there's Madame Levasseur's husband speaking to that man. I thought Juliette had sworn never to have them here together."
Helene's glances slowly travelled round the room. Even amongst such seemingly estimable and honest people as these could there be women of irregular conduct? With her provincial austerity she was astounded at the manner in which wrongdoing was winked at in Paris. She railed at herself for her own painful repugnance when Juliette had shaken hands with her. Madame Deberle had now seemingly become reconciled with Malignon; she had curled up her little plump figure in an easy-chair, where she sat listening gleefully to his jests. Monsieur Deberle happened to pass them.
"You're surely not quarrelling to-night?" asked he.
"No," replied Juliette, with a burst of merriment. "He's talking too much silly nonsense. If you had heard all the nonsense he's been saying!"
There now came some more singing, but silence was obtained with greater difficulty. The aria selected was a duet from La Favorita, sung by young Monsieur Tissot and a lady of ripened charms, whose hair was dressed in childish style. Pauline, standing at one of the doors, amidst a crowd of black coats, gazed at the male singer with a look of undisguised admiration, as though she were examining a work of art.
"What a handsome fellow!" escaped from her lips, just as the accompaniment subsided into a softer key, and so loud was her voice that the whole drawing-room heard the remark.
As the evening progressed the guests' faces began to show signs of weariness. Ladies who had occupied the same seat for hours looked bored, though they knew it not,—they were even delighted at being able to get bored here. In the intervals between the songs, which were only half listened to, the murmur of conversation again resounded, and it seemed as though the deep notes of the piano were still echoing. Monsieur Letellier related how he had gone to Lyons for the purpose of inspecting some silk he had ordered, and how he had been greatly impressed by the fact that the Saone did not mingle its waters with those of the Rhone. Monsieur de Guiraud, who was a magistrate, gave vent to some sententious observations on the need of stemming the vice of Paris. There was a circle round a gentleman who was acquainted with a Chinaman, and was giving some particulars of his friend. In a corner two ladies were exchanging confidences about the failings of their servants; whilst literature was being discussed by those among whom Malignon sat enthroned. Madame Tissot declared Balzac to be unreadable, and Malignon did not deny it, but remarked that here and there, at intervals far and few, some very fine passages occurred in Balzac.
"A little silence, please!" all at once exclaimed Pauline; "she's just going to play."
The lady whose talent as a musician had been so much spoken of had just sat down to the piano. In accordance with the rules of politeness, every head was turned towards her. But in the general stillness which ensued the deep voices of the men conversing in the small drawing-room could be heard. Madame Deberle was in despair.
"They are a nuisance!" she muttered. "Let them stay there, if they don't want to come in; but at least they ought to hold their tongues!"
She gave the requisite orders to Pauline, who, intensely delighted, ran into the adjacent apartment to carry out her instructions.
"You must know, gentlemen, that a lady is going to play," she said, with the quiet boldness of a maiden in queenly garb. "You are requested to keep silence."
She spoke in a very loud key, her voice being naturally shrill. And, as she lingered with the men, laughing and quizzing, the noise grew more pronounced than ever. There was a discussion going on among these males, and she supplied additional matter for argument. In the larger drawing-room Madame Deberle was in agony. The guests, moreover, had been sated with music, and no enthusiasm was displayed; so the pianist resumed her seat, biting her lips, notwithstanding the laudatory compliments which the lady of the house deemed it her duty to lavish on her.
Helene was pained. Henri scarcely seemed to see her; he had made no attempt to approach her, and only at intervals smiled to her from afar. At the earlier part of the evening she had felt relieved by his prudent reserve; but since she had learnt the secret of the two others she wished for something—she knew not what—some display of affection, or at least interest, on his part. Her breast was stirred with confused yearnings, and every imaginable evil thought. Did he no longer care for her, that he remained so indifferent to her presence? Oh! if she could have told him everything! If she could apprise him of the unworthiness of the woman who bore his name! Then, while some short, merry catches resounded from the piano, she sank into a dreamy state. She imagined that Henri had driven Juliette from his home, and she was living with him as his wife in some far-away foreign land, the language of which they knew not.
All at once a voice startled her.
"Won't you take anything?" asked Pauline.
The drawing-room had emptied, and the guests were passing into the dining-room to drink some tea. Helene rose with difficulty. She was dazed; she thought she had dreamt it all—the words she had heard, Juliette's secret intrigue, and its consequences. If it had all been true, Henri would surely have been at her side and ere this both would have quitted the house.
"Will you take a cup of tea?"
She smiled and thanked Madame Deberle, who had kept a place for her at the table. Plates loaded with pastry and sweetmeats covered the cloth, while on glass stands arose two lofty cakes, flanking a large brioche. The space was limited, and the cups of tea were crowded together, narrow grey napkins with long fringes lying between each two. The ladies only were seated. They held biscuits and preserved fruits with the tips of their ungloved fingers, and passed each other the cream-jugs and poured out the cream with dainty gestures. Three or four, however, had sacrificed themselves to attend on the men, who were standing against the walls, and, while drinking, taking all conceivable precautions to ward off any push which might be unwittingly dealt them. A few others lingered in the two drawing-rooms, waiting for the cakes to come to them. This was the hour of Pauline's supreme delight. There was a shrill clamor of noisy tongues, peals of laughter mingled with the ringing clatter of silver plate, and the perfume of musk grew more powerful as it blended with the all-pervading fragrance of the tea.
"Kindly pass me some cake," said Mademoiselle Aurelie to Helene, close to whom she happened to find herself. "These sweetmeats are frauds!"
She had, however, already emptied two plates of them. And she continued, with her mouth full:
"Oh! some of the people are beginning to go now. We shall be a little more comfortable."
In truth, several ladies were now leaving, after shaking hands with Madame Deberle. Many of the gentlemen had already wisely vanished, and the room was becoming less crowded. Now came the opportunity for the remaining gentlemen to sit down at table in their turn. Mademoiselle Aurelie, however, did not quit her place, though she would much have liked to secure a glass of punch.
"I will get you one," said Helene, starting to her feet.
"No, no, thank you. You must not inconvenience yourself so much."
For a short time Helene had been watching Malignon. He had just shaken hands with the doctor, and was now bidding farewell to Juliette at the doorway. She had a lustrous face and sparkling eyes, and by her complacent smile it might have been imagined that she was receiving some commonplace compliments on the evening's success. While Pierre was pouring out the punch at a sideboard near the door, Helene stepped forward in such wise as to be hidden from view by the curtain, which had been drawn back. She listened.
"I beseech you," Malignon was saying, "come the day after to-morrow. I shall wait for you till three o'clock."
"Why cannot you talk seriously," replied Madame Deberle, with a laugh. "What foolish things you say!"
But with greater determination he repeated: "I shall wait for you—the day after to-morrow."
Then she hurriedly gave a whispered reply:
"Very well—the day after to-morrow."
Malignon bowed and made his exit. Madame de Chermette followed in company with Madame Tissot. Juliette, in the best of spirits, walked with them into the hall, and said to the former of these ladies with her most amiable look:
"I shall call on you the day after to-morrow. I have a lot of calls to make that day."
Helene stood riveted to the floor, her face quite white. Pierre, in the meanwhile, had poured out the punch, and now handed the glass to her. She grasped it mechanically and carried it to Mademoiselle Aurelie, who was making an inroad on the preserved fruits.
"Oh, you are far too kind!" exclaimed the old maid. "I should have made a sign to Pierre. I'm sure it's a shame not offering the punch to ladies. Why, when people are my age—"
She got no further, however, for she observed the ghastliness of Helene's face. "You surely are in pain! You must take a drop of punch!"
"Thank you, it's nothing. The heat is so oppressive—"
She staggered, and turned aside into the deserted drawing-room, where she dropped into an easy-chair. The lamps were shedding a reddish glare; and the wax candles in the chandelier, burnt to their sockets, threatened imminent destruction to the crystal sconces. From the dining-room were wafted the farewells of the departing guests. Helene herself had lost all thoughts of going; she longed to linger where she was, plunged in thought. So it was no dream after all; Juliette would visit that man the day after to-morrow—she knew the day. Then the thought struck her that she ought to speak to Juliette and warn her against sin. But this kindly thought chilled her to the heart, and she drove it from her mind as though it were out of place, and deep in meditation gazed at the grate, where a smouldering log was crackling. The air was still heavy and oppressive with the perfumes from the ladies' hair.
"What! you are here!" exclaimed Juliette as she entered. "Well, you are kind not to run away all at once. At last we can breathe!"
Helene was surprised, and made a movement as though about to rise; but Juliette went on: "Wait, wait, you are in no hurry. Henri, get me my smelling-salts."
Three or four persons, intimate friends, had lingered behind the others. They sat before the dying fire and chatted with delightful freedom, while the vast room wearily sank into a doze. The doors were open, and they saw the smaller drawing-room empty, the dining-room deserted, the whole suite of rooms still lit up and plunged in unbroken silence. Henri displayed a tender gallantry towards his wife; he had run up to their bedroom for her smelling-salts, which she inhaled with closed eyes, whilst he asked her if she had not fatigued herself too much. Yes, she felt somewhat tired; but she was delighted —everything had gone off so well. Next she told them that on her reception nights she could not sleep, but tossed about till six o'clock in the morning. Henri's face broke into a smile, and some quizzing followed. Helene looked at them, and quivered amidst the benumbing drowsiness which little by little seemed to fall upon the whole house.
However, only two guests now remained. Pierre had gone in search of a cab. Helene remained the last. One o'clock struck. Henri, no longer standing on ceremony, rose on tiptoe and blew out two candles in the chandelier which were dangerously heating their crystal sconces. As the lights died out one by one, it seemed like a bedroom scene, the gloom of an alcove spreading over all.
"I am keeping you up!" exclaimed Helene, as she suddenly rose to her feet. "You must turn me out."
A flush of red dyed her face; her blood, racing through her veins, seemed to stifle her. They walked with her into the hall, but the air there was chilly, and the doctor was somewhat alarmed for his wife in her low dress.
"Go back; you will do yourself harm. You are too warm."
"Very well; good-bye," said Juliette, embracing Helene, as was her wont in her most endearing moments. "Come and see me oftener."
Henri had taken Helene's fur coat in his hand, and held it outstretched to assist her in putting it on. When she had slipped her arms into the sleeves, he turned up the collar with a smile, while they stood in front of an immense mirror which covered one side of the hall. They were alone, and saw one another in the mirror's depths. For three months, on meeting and parting they had simply shaken hands in friendly greeting; they would fain that their love had died. But now Helene was overcome, and sank back into his arms. The smile vanished from his face, which became impassioned, and, still clasping her, he kissed her on the neck. And she, raising her head, returned his kiss.
That night Helene was unable to sleep. She turned from side to side in feverish unrest, and whenever a drowsy stupor fell on her senses, the old sorrows would start into new life within her breast. As she dozed and the nightmare increased, one fixed thought tortured her—she was eager to know where Juliette and Malignon would meet. This knowledge, she imagined, would be a source of relief to her. Where, where could it be? Despite herself, her brain throbbed with the thought, and she forgot everything save her craving to unravel this mystery, which thrilled her with secret longings.
When day dawned and she began to dress, she caught herself saying loudly: "It will be to-morrow!"
With one stocking on, and hands falling helpless to her side, she lapsed for a while into a fresh dreamy fit. "Where, where was it that they had agreed to meet?"
"Good-day, mother, darling!" just then exclaimed Jeanne who had awakened in her turn.
As her strength was now returning to her, she had gone back to sleep in her cot in the closet. With bare feet and in her nightdress she came to throw herself on Helene's neck, as was her every-day custom; then back again she rushed, to curl herself up in her warm bed for a little while longer. This jumping in and out amused her, and a ripple of laughter stole from under the clothes. Once more she bounded into the bedroom, saying: "Good-morning, mammy dear!"
And again she ran off, screaming with laughter. Then she threw the sheet over her head, and her cry came, hoarse and muffled, from beneath it: "I'm not there! I'm not there!"
But Helene was in no mood for play, as on other mornings; and Jeanne, dispirited, fell asleep again. The day was still young. About eight o'clock Rosalie made her appearance to recount the morning's chapter of accidents. Oh! the streets were awful outside; in going for the milk her shoes had almost come off in the muddy slush. All the ice was thawing; and it was quite mild too, almost oppressive. Oh! by the way, she had almost forgotten! an old woman had come to see madame the night before.
"Why!" she said, as there came a pull at the bell, "I expect that's she!"
It was Mother Fetu, but Mother Fetu transformed, magnificent in a clean white cap, a new gown, and tartan shawl wrapped round her shoulders. Her voice, however, still retained its plaintive tone of entreaty.
"Dear lady, it's only I, who have taken the liberty of calling to ask you about something!"
Helene gazed at her, somewhat surprised by her display of finery.
"Are you better, Mother Fetu?"
"Oh yes, yes; I feel better, if I may venture to say so. You see I always have something queer in my inside; it knocks me about dreadfully, but still I'm better. Another thing, too; I've had a stroke of luck; it was a surprise, you see, because luck hasn't often come in my way. But a gentleman has made me his housekeeper—and oh! it's such a story!"
Her words came slowly, and her small keen eyes glittered in her face, furrowed by a thousand wrinkles. She seemed to be waiting for Helene to question her; but the young woman sat close to the fire which Rosalie had just lit, and paid scant attention to her, engrossed as she was in her own thoughts, with a look of pain on her features.
"What do you want to ask me?" she at last said to Mother Fetu.
The old lady made no immediate reply. She was scrutinizing the room, with its rosewood furniture and blue velvet hangings. Then, with the humble and fawning air of a pauper, she muttered: "Pardon me, madame, but everything is so beautiful here. My gentleman has a room like this, but it's all in pink. Oh! it's such a story! Just picture to yourself a young man of good position who has taken rooms in our house. Of course, it isn't much of a place, but still our first and second floors are very nice. Then, it's so quiet, too! There's no traffic; you could imagine yourself in the country. The workmen have been in the house for a whole fortnight; they have made such a jewel of his room!"
She here paused, observing that Helene's attention was being aroused.
"It's for his work," she continued in a drawling voice; "he says it's for his work. We have no doorkeeper, you know, and that pleases him. Oh! my gentleman doesn't like doorkeepers, and he is quite right, too!"
Once more she came to a halt, as though an idea had suddenly occurred to her.
"Why, wait a minute; you must know him—of course you must. He visits one of your lady friends!"
"Ah!" exclaimed Helene, with colorless face.
"Yes, to be sure; the lady who lives close by—the one who used to go with you to church. She came the other day."
Mother Fetu's eyes contracted, and from under the lids she took note of her benefactress's emotion. But Helene strove to question her in a tone that would not betray her agitation.
"Did she go up?"
"No, she altered her mind; perhaps she had forgotten something. But I was at the door. She asked for Monsieur Vincent, and then got back into her cab again, calling to the driver to return home, as it was too late. Oh! she's such a nice, lively, and respectable lady. The gracious God doesn't send many such into the world. Why, with the exception of yourself, she's the best—well, well, may Heaven bless you all!"
In this way Mother Fetu rambled on with the pious glibness of a devotee who is perpetually telling her beads. But the twitching of the myriad wrinkles of her face showed that her mind was still working, and soon she beamed with intense satisfaction.
"Ah!" she all at once resumed in inconsequent fashion, "how I should like to have a pair of good shoes! My gentleman has been so very kind, I can't ask him for anything more. You see I'm dressed; still I must get a pair of good shoes. Look at those I have; they are all holes; and when the weather's muddy, as it is to-day, one's apt to get very ill. Yes, I was down with colic yesterday; I was writhing all the afternoon, but if I had a pair of good shoes—"
"I'll bring you a pair, Mother Fetu," said Helene, waving her towards the door.
Then, as the old woman retired backwards, with profuse curtseying and thanks, she asked her: "At what hour are you alone?"
"My gentleman is never there after six o'clock," she answered. "But don't give yourself the trouble; I'll come myself, and get them from your doorkeeper. But you can do as you please. You are an angel from heaven. God on high will requite you for all your kindness!"
When she had reached the landing she could still be heard giving vent to her feelings. Helene sat a long time plunged in the stupor which the information, supplied by this woman with such fortuitous seasonableness, had brought upon her. She now knew the place of assignation. It was a room, with pink decorations, in that old tumbledown house! She once more pictured to herself the staircase oozing with damp, the yellow doors on each landing, grimy with the touch of greasy hands, and all the wretchedness which had stirred her heart to pity when she had gone during the previous winter to visit Mother Fetu; and she also strove to conjure up a vision of that pink chamber in the midst of such repulsive, poverty-stricken surroundings. However, whilst she was still absorbed in her reverie, two tiny warm hands were placed over her eyes, which lack of sleep had reddened, and a laughing voice inquired: "Who is it? who is it?"
It was Jeanne, who had slipped into her clothes without assistance. Mother Fetu's voice had awakened her; and perceiving that the closet door had been shut, she had made her toilet with the utmost speed in order to give her mother a surprise.
"Who is it? who is it?" she again inquired, convulsed more and more with laughter.
She turned to Rosalie, who entered at the moment with the breakfast.
"You know; don't you speak. Nobody is asking you any question."
"Be quiet, you little madcap!" exclaimed Helene. "I suppose it's you!"
The child slipped on to her mother's lap, and there, leaning back and swinging to and fro, delighted with the amusement she had devised, she resumed:
"Well, it might have been another little girl! Eh? Perhaps some little girl who had brought you a letter of invitation to dine with her mamma. And she might have covered your eyes, too!"
"Don't be silly," exclaimed Helene, as she set her on the floor. "What are you talking about? Rosalie, let us have breakfast."
The maid's eyes, however, were riveted on the child, and she commented upon her little mistress being so oddly dressed. To tell the truth, so great had been Jeanne's haste that she had not put on her shoes. She had drawn on a short flannel petticoat which allowed a glimpse of her chemise, and had left her morning jacket open, so that you could see her delicate, undeveloped bosom. With her hair streaming behind her, stamping about in her stockings, which were all awry, she looked charming, all in white like some child of fairyland.
She cast down her eyes to see herself, and immediately burst into laughter.
"Look, mamma, I look nice, don't I? Won't you let me be as I am? It is nice!"
Repressing a gesture of impatience, Helene, as was her wont every morning, inquired: "Are you washed?"
"Oh, mamma!" pleaded the child, her joy suddenly dashed. "Oh, mamma! it's raining; it's too nasty!"
"Then, you'll have no breakfast. Wash her, Rosalie."
She usually took this office upon herself, but that morning she felt altogether out of sorts, and drew nearer to the fire, shivering, although the weather was so balmy. Having spread a napkin and placed two white china bowls on a small round table, Rosalie had brought the latter close to the fireplace. The coffee and milk steamed before the fire in a silver pot, which had been a present from Monsieur Rambaud. At this early hour the disorderly, drowsy room seemed delightfully homelike.
"Mamma, mamma!" screamed Jeanne from the depths of the closet, "she's rubbing me too hard. It's taking my skin off. Oh dear! how awfully cold!"
Helene, with eyes fixed on the coffee-pot, remained engrossed in thought. She desired to know everything, so she would go. The thought of that mysterious place of assignation in so squalid a nook of Paris was an ever-present pain and vexation. She judged such taste hateful, but in it she identified Malignon's leaning towards romance.
"Mademoiselle," declared Rosalie, "if you don't let me finish with you, I shall call madame."
"Stop, stop: you are poking the soap into my eyes," answered Jeanne, whose voice was hoarse with sobs. "Leave me alone; I've had enough of it. The ears can wait till to-morrow."
But the splashing of water went on, and the squeezing of the sponge into the basin could be heard. There was a clamor and a struggle, the child was sobbing; but almost immediately afterward she made her appearance, shouting gaily: "It's over now; it's over now!"
Her hair was still glistening with wet, and she shook herself, her face glowing with the rubbing it had received and exhaling a fresh and pleasant odor. In her struggle to get free her jacket had slipped from her shoulders, her petticoat had become loosened, and her stockings had tumbled down, displaying her bare legs. According to Rosalie, she looked like an infant Jesus. Jeanne, however, felt very proud that she was clean; she had no wish to be dressed again.
"Look at me, mamma; look at my hands, and my neck, and my ears. Oh! you must let me warm myself; I am so comfortable. You don't say anything; surely I've deserved my breakfast to-day."
She had curled herself up before the fire in her own little easy-chair. Then Rosalie poured out the coffee and milk. Jeanne took her bowl on her lap, and gravely soaked her toast in its contents with all the airs of a grown-up person. Helene had always forbidden her to eat in this way, but that morning she remained plunged in thought. She did not touch her own bread, and was satisfied with drinking her coffee. Then Jeanne, after swallowing her last morsel, was stung with remorse. Her heart filled, she put aside her bowl, and gazing on her mother's pale face, threw herself on her neck: "Mamma, are you ill now? I haven't vexed you, have I?—say."
"No, no, my darling, quite the contrary; you're very good," murmured Helene as she embraced her. "I'm only a little wearied; I haven't slept well. Go on playing: don't be uneasy."
The thought occurred to her that the day would prove a terribly long one. What could she do whilst waiting for the night? For some time past she had abandoned her needlework; sewing had become a terrible weariness. For hours she lingered in her seat with idle hands, almost suffocating in her room, and craving to go out into the open air for breath, yet never stirring. It was this room which made her ill; she hated it, in angry exasperation over the two years which she had spent within its walls; its blue velvet and the vast panorama of the mighty city disgusted her, and her thoughts dwelt on a lodging in some busy street, the uproar of which would have deafened her. Good heavens! how long were the hours! She took up a book, but the fixed idea that engrossed her mind continually conjured up the same visions between her eyes and the page of print.
In the meantime Rosalie had been busy setting the room in order; Jeanne's hair also had been brushed, and she was dressed. While her mother sat at the window, striving to read, the child, who was in one of her moods of obstreperous gaiety, began playing a grand game. She was all alone; but this gave her no discomfort; she herself represented three or four persons in turn with comical earnestness and gravity. At first she played the lady going on a visit. She vanished into the dining-room, and returned bowing and smiling, her head nodding this way and that in the most coquettish style.
"Good-day, madame! How are you, madame? How long it is since I've seen you! A marvellously long time, to be sure! Dear me, I've been so ill, madame! Yes; I've had the cholera; it's very disagreeable. Oh! it doesn't show; no, no, it makes you look younger, on my word of honor. And your children, madame? Oh! I've had three since last summer!"
So she rattled on, never ceasing her curtseying to the round table, which doubtless represented the lady she was visiting. Next she ventured to bring the chairs closer together, and for an hour carried on a general conversation, her talk abounding in extraordinary phrases.
"Don't be silly," said her mother at intervals, when the chatter put her out of patience.
"But, mamma, I'm paying my friend a visit. She's speaking to me, and I must answer her. At tea nobody ought to put the cakes in their pockets, ought they?"
Then she turned and began again:
"Good-bye, madame; your tea was delicious. Remember me most kindly to your husband."
The next moment came something else. She was going out shopping in her carriage, and got astride of a chair like a boy.
"Jean, not so quick; I'm afraid. Stop! stop! here is the milliner's! Mademoiselle, how much is this bonnet? Three hundred francs; that isn't dear. But it isn't pretty. I should like it with a bird on it—a bird big like that! Come, Jean, drive me to the grocer's. Have you some honey? Yes, madame, here is some. Oh, how nice it is! But I don't want any of it; give me two sous' worth of sugar. Oh! Jean, look, take care! There! we have had a spill! Mr. Policeman, it was the cart which drove against us. You're not hurt, madame, are you? No, sir, not in the least. Jean, Jean! home now. Gee-up! gee-up. Wait a minute; I must order some chemises. Three dozen chemises for madame. I want some boots too and some stays. Gee-up! gee-up! Good gracious, we shall never get back again."
Then she fanned herself, enacting the part of the lady who has returned home and is finding fault with her servants. She never remained quiet for a moment; she was in a feverish ecstasy, full of all sorts of whimsical ideas; all the life she knew surged up in her little brain and escaped from it in fragments. Morning and afternoon she thus moved about, dancing and chattering; and when she grew tired, a footstool or parasol discovered in a corner, or some shred of stuff lying on the floor, would suffice to launch her into a new game in which her effervescing imagination found fresh outlet. Persons, places, and incidents were all of her own creation, and she amused herself as much as though twelve children of her own age had been beside her.
But evening came at last. Six o'clock was about to strike. And Helene, rousing herself from the troubled stupor in which she had spent the afternoon, hurriedly threw a shawl over her shoulders.
"Are you going out, mamma?" asked Jeanne in her surprise.
"Yes, my darling, just for a walk close by. I won't be long; be good."
Outside it was still thawing. The footways were covered with mud. In the Rue de Passy, Helene entered a boot shop, to which she had taken Mother Fetu on a previous occasion. Then she returned along the Rue Raynouard. The sky was grey, and from the pavement a mist was rising. The street stretched dimly before her, deserted and fear-inspiring, though the hour was yet early. In the damp haze the infrequent gas-lamps glimmered like yellow spots. She quickened her steps, keeping close to the houses, and shrinking from sight as though she were on the way to some assignation. However, as she hastily turned into the Passage des Eaux, she halted beneath the archway, her heart giving way to genuine terror. The passage opened beneath her like some black gulf. The bottom of it was invisible; the only thing she could see in this black tunnel was the quivering gleam of the one lamp which lighted it. Eventually she made up her mind, and grasped the iron railing to prevent herself from slipping. Feeling her way with the tip of her boots she landed successively on the broad steps. The walls, right and left, grew closer, seemingly prolonged by the darkness, while the bare branches of the trees above cast vague shadows, like those of gigantic arms with closed or outstretched hands. She trembled as she thought that one of the garden doors might open and a man spring out upon her. There were no passers-by, however, and she stepped down as quickly as possible. Suddenly from out of the darkness loomed a shadow which coughed, and she was frozen with fear; but it was only an old woman creeping with difficulty up the path. Then she felt less uneasy, and carefully raised her dress, which had been trailing in the mud. So thick was the latter that her boots were constantly sticking to the steps. At the bottom she turned aside instinctively. From the branches the raindrops dripped fast into the passage, and the lamp glimmered like that of some miner, hanging to the side of a pit which infiltrations have rendered dangerous.
Helene climbed straight to the attic she had so often visited at the top of the large house abutting on the Passage. But nothing stirred, although she rapped loudly. In considerable perplexity she descended the stairs again. Mother Fetu was doubtless in the rooms on the first floor, where, however, Helene dared not show herself. She remained five minutes in the entry, which was lighted by a petroleum lamp. Then again she ascended the stairs hesitatingly, gazing at each door, and was on the point of going away, when the old woman leaned over the balusters.
"What! it's you on the stairs, my good lady!" she exclaimed. "Come in, and don't catch cold out there. Oh! it is a vile place—enough to kill one."
"No, thank you," said Helene; "I've brought you your pair of shoes, Mother Fetu."
She looked at the door which Mother Fetu had left open behind her, and caught a glimpse of a stove within.
"I'm all alone, I assure you," declared the old woman. "Come in. This is the kitchen here. Oh! you're not proud with us poor folks; we can talk to you!"
Despite the repugnance which shame at the purpose of her coming created within her, Helene followed her.
"God in Heaven! how can I thank you! Oh, what lovely shoes! Wait, and I'll put them on. There's my whole foot in; it fits me like a glove. Bless the day! I can walk with these without being afraid of the rain. Oh! my good lady, you are my preserver; you've given me ten more years of life. No, no, it's no flattery; it's what I think, as true as there's a lamp shining on us. No, no, I don't flatter!"
She melted into tears as she spoke, and grasping Helene's hands kissed them. In a stewpan on the stove some wine was being heated, and on the table, near the lamp, stood a half-empty bottle of Bordeaux with its tapering neck. The only other things placed there were four dishes, a glass, two saucepans, and an earthenware pot. It could be seen that Mother Fetu camped in this bachelor's kitchen, and that the fires were lit for herself only. Seeing Helene's glance turn towards the stewpan, she coughed, and once more put on her dolorous expression.
"It's gripping me again," she groaned. "Oh! it's useless for the doctor to talk; I must have some creature in my inside. And then, a drop of wine relieves me so. I'm greatly afflicted, my good lady. I wouldn't have a soul suffer from my trouble; it's too dreadful. Well, I'm nursing myself a bit now; and when a person has passed through so much, isn't it fair she should do so? I have been so lucky in falling in with a nice gentleman. May Heaven bless him!"
With this outburst she dropped two large lumps of sugar into her wine. She was now getting more corpulent than ever, and her little eyes had almost vanished from her fat face. She moved slowly with a beatifical expression of felicity. Her life's ambition was now evidently satisfied. For this she had been born. When she put her sugar away again Helene caught a glimpse of some tid-bits secreted at the bottom of a cupboard—a jar of preserves, a bag of biscuits, and even some cigars, all doubtless pilfered from the gentleman lodger.