"Well, good-bye, Mother Fetu, I'm going away," she exclaimed.
The old lady, however, pushed the saucepan to one side of the stove and murmured: "Wait a minute; this is far too hot, I'll drink it by-and-by. No, no; don't go out that way. I must beg pardon for having received you in the kitchen. Let us go round the rooms."
She caught up the lamp, and turned into a narrow passage. Helene, with beating heart, followed close behind. The passage, dilapidated and smoky, was reeking with damp. Then a door was thrown open, and she found herself treading a thick carpet. Mother Fetu had already advanced into a room which was plunged in darkness and silence.
"Well?" she asked, as she lifted up the lamp; "it's very nice, isn't it?"
There were two rooms, each of them square, communicating with one another by folding-doors, which had been removed, and replaced by curtains. Both were hung with pink cretonne of a Louis Quinze pattern, picturing chubby-checked cupids disporting themselves amongst garlands of flowers. In the first apartment there was a round table, two lounges, and some easy-chairs; and in the second, which was somewhat smaller, most of the space was occupied by the bed. Mother Fetu drew attention to a crystal lamp with gilt chains, which hung from the ceiling. To her this lamp was the veritable acme of luxury.
Then she began explaining things: "You can't imagine what a funny fellow he is! He lights it up in mid-day, and stays here, smoking a cigar and gazing into vacancy. But it amuses him, it seems. Well, it doesn't matter; I've an idea he must have spent a lot of money in his time."
Helene went through the rooms in silence. They seemed to her in bad taste. There was too much pink everywhere; the furniture also looked far too new.
"He calls himself Monsieur Vincent," continued the old woman, rambling on. "Of course, it's all the same to me. As long as he pays, my gentleman—"
"Well, good-bye, Mother Fetu," said Helene, in whose throat a feeling of suffocation was gathering.
She was burning to get away, but on opening a door she found herself threading three small rooms, the bareness and dirt of which were repulsive. The paper hung in tatters from the walls, the ceilings were grimy, and old plaster littered the broken floors. The whole place was pervaded by a smell of long prevalent squalor.
"Not that way! not that way!" screamed Mother Fetu. "That door is generally shut. These are the other rooms which they haven't attempted to clean. My word! it's cost him quite enough already! Yes, indeed, these aren't nearly so nice! Come this way, my good lady—come this way!"
On Helene's return to the pink boudoir, she stopped to kiss her hand once more.
"You see, I'm not ungrateful! I shall never forget the shoes. How well they fit me! and how warm they are! Why, I could walk half-a-dozen miles with them. What can I beg Heaven to grant you? O Lord, hearken to me, and grant that she may be the happiest of women—in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!" A devout enthusiasm had suddenly come upon Mother Fetu; she repeated the sign of the cross again and again, and bowed the knee in the direction of the crystal lamp. This done, she opened the door conducting to the landing, and whispered in a changed voice into Helene's ear:
"Whenever you like to call, just knock at the kitchen door; I'm always there!"
Dazed, and glancing behind her as though she were leaving a place of dubious repute, Helene hurried down the staircase, reascended the Passage des Eaux, and regained the Rue Vineuse, without consciousness of the ground she was covering. The old woman's last words still rang in her ears. In truth, no; never again would she set foot in that house, never again would she bear her charity thither. Why should she ever rap at the kitchen door again? At present she was satisfied; she had seen what was to be seen. And she was full of scorn for herself —for everybody. How disgraceful to have gone there! The recollection of the place with its tawdry finery and squalid surroundings filled her with mingled anger and disgust.
"Well, madame," exclaimed Rosalie, who was awaiting her return on the staircase, "the dinner will be nice. Dear, oh dear! it's been burning for half an hour!"
At table Jeanne plagued her mother with questions. Where had she been? what had she been about? However, as the answers she received proved somewhat curt, she began to amuse herself by giving a little dinner. Her doll was perched near her on a chair, and in a sisterly fashion she placed half of her dessert before it.
"Now, mademoiselle, you must eat like a lady. See, wipe your mouth. Oh, the dirty little thing! She doesn't even know how to wear her napkin! There, you're nice now. See, here is a biscuit. What do you say? You want some preserve on it. Well, I should think it better as it is! Let me pare you a quarter of this apple!"
She placed the doll's share on the chair. But when she had emptied her own plate she took the dainties back again one after the other and devoured them, speaking all the time as though she were the doll.
"Oh! it's delicious! I've never eaten such nice jam! Where did you get this jam, madame? I shall tell my husband to buy a pot of it. Do those beautiful apples come from your garden, madame?"
She fell asleep while thus playing, and stumbled into the bedroom with the doll in her arms. She had given herself no rest since morning. Her little legs could no longer sustain her—she was helpless and wearied to death. However, a ripple of laughter passed over her face even in sleep; in her dreams she must have been still continuing her play.
At last Helene was alone in her room. With closed doors she spent a miserable evening beside the dead fire. Her will was failing her; thoughts that found no utterance were stirring within the innermost recesses of her heart. At midnight she wearily sought her bed, but there her torture passed endurance. She dozed, she tossed from side to side as though a fire were beneath her. She was haunted by visions which sleeplessness enlarged to a gigantic size. Then an idea took root in her brain. In vain did she strive to banish it; it clung to her, surged and clutched her at the throat till it entirely swayed her. About two o'clock she rose, rigid, pallid, and resolute as a somnambulist, and having again lighted the lamp she wrote a letter in a disguised hand; it was a vague denunciation, a note of three lines, requesting Doctor Deberle to repair that day to such a place at such an hour; there was no explanation, no signature. She sealed the envelope and dropped the letter into the pocket of her dress which was hanging over an arm-chair. Then returning to bed, she immediately closed her eyes, and in a few minutes was lying there breathless, overpowered by leaden slumber.
It was nearly nine o'clock the next morning before Rosalie was able to serve the coffee. Helene had risen late. She was weary and pale with the nightmare that had broken her rest. She rummaged in the pocket of her dress, felt the letter there, pressed it to the very bottom, and sat down at the table without opening her lips. Jeanne too was suffering from headache, and had a pale, troubled face. She quitted her bed regretfully that morning, without any heart to indulge in play. There was a sooty color in the sky, and a dim light saddened the room, while from time to time sudden downpours of rain beat against the windows.
"Mademoiselle is in the blues," said Rosalie, who monopolized all the talk. "She can't keep cheerful for two days running. That's what comes of dancing about too much yesterday."
"Do you feel ill, Jeanne?" asked Helene.
"No, mamma," answered the child. "It's only the nasty weather."
Helene lapsed once more into silence. She finished her coffee, and sat in her chair, plunged in thought, with her eyes riveted on the flames. While rising she had reflected that it was her duty to speak to Juliette and bid her renounce the afternoon assignation. But how? She could not say. Still, the necessity of the step was impressed on her, and now her one urgent, all-absorbing thought was to attempt it. Ten o'clock struck, and she began to dress. Jeanne gazed at her, and, on seeing her take up her bonnet, clasped her little hands as though stricken with cold, while over her face crept a pained look. It was her wont to take umbrage whenever her mother went out; she was unwilling to quit her side, and craved to go with her everywhere.
"Rosalie," said Helene, "make haste and finish the room. Don't go out. I'll be back in a moment."
She stooped and gave Jeanne a hasty kiss, not noticing her vexation. But the moment she had gone a sob broke from the child, who had hitherto summoned all her dignity to her aid to restrain her emotion.
"Oh, mademoiselle, how naughty!" exclaimed the maid by way of consolation. "Gracious powers! no one will rob you of your mamma. You must allow her to see after her affairs. You can't always be hanging to her skirts!"
Meanwhile Helene had turned the corner of the Rue Vineuse, keeping close to the wall for protection against the rain. It was Pierre who opened the door; but at sight of her he seemed somewhat embarrassed.
"Is Madame Deberle at home?"
"Yes, madame; but I don't know whether—"
Helene, in the character of a family friend, was pushing past him towards the drawing-room; but he took the liberty of stopping her.
"Wait, madame; I'll go and see."
He slipped into the room, opening the door as little as he could; and immediately afterwards Juliette could be heard speaking in a tone of irritation. "What! you've allowed some one to come in? Why, I forbade it peremptorily. It's incredible!! I can't be left quiet for an instant!"
Helene, however, pushed open the door, strong in her resolve to do that which she imagined to be her duty.
"Oh, it's you!" said Juliette, as she perceived her. "I didn't catch who it was!"
The look of annoyance did not fade from her face, however, and it was evident that the visit was ill-timed.
"Do I disturb you?" asked Helene.
"Not at all, not at all," answered the other. "You'll understand in a moment. We have been getting up a surprise. We are rehearsing Caprice[*] to play it on one of my Wednesdays. We had selected this morning for rehearsal, thinking nobody would know of it. But you'll stay now? You will have to keep silence about it, that's all."
[*] One of Alfred de Musset's plays.
Then, clapping her hands and addressing herself to Madame Berthier, who was standing in the middle of the drawing-room, she began once more, without paying any further attention to Helene: "Come, come; we must get on. You don't give sufficient point to the sentence 'To make a purse unknown to one's husband would in the eyes of most people seem rather more than romantic.' Say that again."
Intensely surprised at finding her engaged in this way, Helene had sat down. The chairs and tables had been pushed against the wall, the carpet thus being left clear. Madame Berthier, a delicate blonde, repeated her soliloquy, with her eyes fixed on the ceiling in her effort to recall the words; while plump Madame de Guiraud, a beautiful brunette, who had assumed the character of Madame de Lery, reclined in an arm-chair awaiting her cue. The ladies, in their unpretentious morning gowns, had doffed neither bonnets nor gloves. Seated in front of them, her hair in disorder and a volume of Musset in her hand, was Juliette, in a dressing-gown of white cashmere. Her face wore the serious expression of a stage-manager tutoring his actors as to the tones they should speak in and the by-play they should introduce. The day being dull, the small curtains of embroidered tulle had been pulled aside and swung across the knobs of the window-fastenings, so that the garden could be seen, dark and damp.
"You don't display sufficient emotion," declared Juliette. "Put a little more meaning into it. Every word ought to tell. Begin again: 'I'm going to finish your toilette, my dear little purse.'"
"I shall be an awful failure," said Madame Berthier languidly. "Why don't you play the part instead of me? You would make a delicious Mathilda."
"I! Oh, no! In the first place, one needs to be fair. Besides, I'm a very good teacher, but a bad pupil. But let us get on—let us get on!"
Helene sat still in her corner. Madame Berthier, engrossed in her part, had not even turned round. Madame de Guiraud had merely honored her with a slight nod. She realized that she was in the way, and that she ought to have declined to stay. If she still remained, it was no longer through the sense of a duty to be fulfilled, but rather by reason of a strange feeling stirring vaguely in her heart's depth's—a feeling which had previously thrilled her in this selfsame spot. The unkindly greeting which Juliette had bestowed on her pained her. However, the young woman's friendships were usually capricious; she worshipped people for three months, threw herself on their necks, and seemed to live for them alone; then one morning, without affording any explanation, she appeared to lose all consciousness of being acquainted with them. Without doubt, in this, as in everything else, she was simply yielding to a fashionable craze, an inclination to love the people who were loved by her own circle. These sudden veerings of affection, however, deeply wounded Helene, for her generous and undemonstrative heart had its ideal in eternity. She often left the Deberles plunged in sadness, full of despair when she thought how fragile and unstable was the basis of human love. And on this occasion, in this crisis in her life, the thought brought her still keener pain.
"We'll skip the scene with Chavigny," said Juliette. "He won't be here this morning. Let us see Madame de Lery's entrance. Now, Madame de Guiraud, here's your cue." Then she read from her book: "'Just imagine my showing him this purse.'"
"'Oh! it's exceedingly pretty. Let me look at it,'" began Madame de Guiraud in a falsetto voice, as she rose with a silly expression on her face.
When the servant had opened the door to her, Helene had pictured a scene entirely different from this. She had imagined that she would find Juliette displaying excessive nervousness, with pallid cheeks, hesitating and yet allured, shivering at the very thought of assignation. She had pictured herself imploring her to reflect, till the young woman, choked with sobs, threw herself into her arms. Then they would have mingled their tears together, and Helene would have quitted her with the thought that Henri was henceforward lost to her, but that she had secured his happiness. However, there had been nothing of all this; she had merely fallen on this rehearsal, which was wholly unintelligible to her; and she saw Juliette before her with unruffled features, like one who has had a good night's rest, and with her mind sufficiently at ease to discuss Madame Berthier's by-play, without troubling herself in the least degree about what she would do in the afternoon. This indifference and frivolity chilled Helene, who had come to the house with passion consuming her.
A longing to speak fell on her. At a venture she inquired: "Who will play the part of Chavigny?"
"Why, Malignon, of course," answered Juliette, turning round with an air of astonishment. "He played Chavigny all last winter. It's a nuisance he can't come to the rehearsals. Listen, ladies; I'm going to read Chavigny's part. Unless that's done, we shall never get on."
Thereupon she herself began acting the man's part, her voice deepening unconsciously, whilst she assumed a cavalier air in harmony with the situation. Madame Berthier renewed her warbling tones, and Madame de Guiraud took infinite pains to be lively and witty. When Pierre came in to put some more wood on the fire he slyly glanced at the ladies, who amused him immensely.
Helene, still fixed in her resolve, despite some heart-shrinking, attempted however to take Juliette aside.
"Only a minute. I've something to say to you."
"Oh, impossible, my dear! You see how much I am engaged. To-morrow, if you have the time."
Helene said no more. The young woman's unconcern displeased her. She felt anger growing within her as she observed how calm and collected Juliette was, when she herself had endured such intense agony since the night before. At one moment she was on the point of rising and letting things take their course. It was exceedingly foolish of her to wish to save this woman; her nightmare began once more; her hands slipped into her pocket, and finding the letter there, clasped it in a feverish grasp. Why should she have any care for the happiness of others, when they had no care for her and did not suffer as she did?
"Oh! capital, capital," exclaimed Juliette of a sudden.
Madame Berthier's head was now reclining on Madame de Guiraud's shoulder, and she was declaring through her sobs: "'I am sure that he loves her; I am sure of it!'"
"Your success will be immense," said Juliette. "Say that once more: 'I am sure that he loves her; I am sure of it.' Leave your head as it is. You're divine. Now, Madame de Guiraud, your turn."
"'No, no, my child, it cannot be; it is a caprice, a fancy,'" replied the stout lady.
"Perfect! but oh, the scene is a long one, isn't it? Let us rest a little while. We must have that incident in proper working order."
Then they all three plunged into a discussion regarding the arrangement of the drawing-room. The dining-room door, to the left, would serve for entrances and exits; an easy-chair could be placed on the right, a couch at the farther end, and the table could be pushed close to the fireplace. Helene, who had risen, followed them about, as though she felt an interest in these scenic arrangements. She had now abandoned her idea of eliciting an explanation, and merely wished to make a last effort to prevent Juliette from going to the place of meeting.
"I intended asking you," she said to her, "if it isn't to-day that you mean to pay Madame de Chermette a visit?"
"Yes, this afternoon."
"Then, if you'll allow me, I'll go with you; it's such a long time since I promised to go to see her."
For a moment Juliette betrayed signs of embarrassment, but speedily regained her self-possession.
"Of course, I should be very happy. Only I have so many things to look after; I must do some shopping first, and I have no idea at what time I shall be able to get to Madame de Chermette's."
"That doesn't matter," said Helene; "it will enable me to have a walk."
"Listen; I will speak to you candidly. Well, you must not press me. You would be in my way. Let it be some other Monday."
This was said without a trace of emotion, so flatly and with so quiet a smile that Helene was dumbfounded and uttered not another syllable. She was obliged to lend some assistance to Juliette, who suddenly decided to bring the table close to the fireplace. Then she drew back, and the rehearsal began once more. In a soliloquy which followed the scene, Madame de Guiraud with considerable power spoke these two sentences: "'But what a treacherous gulf is the heart of man! In truth, we are worth more than they!'"
And Helene, what ought she to do now? Within her breast the question raised a storm that stirred her to vague thoughts of violence. She experienced an irresistible desire to be revenged on Juliette's tranquillity, as if that self-possession were an insult directed against her own fevered heart. She dreamed of facilitating her fall, that she might see whether she would always retain this unruffled demeanor. And she thought of herself scornfully as she recalled her delicacy and scruples. Twenty times already she ought to have said to Henri: "I love you; let us go away together." Could she have done so, however, without the most intense emotion? Could she have displayed the callous composure of this woman, who, three hours before her first assignation, was rehearsing a comedy in her own home? Even at this moment she trembled more than Juliette; what maddened her was the consciousness of her own passion amidst the quiet cheerfulness of this drawing-room; she was terrified lest she should burst out into some angry speech. Was she a coward, then?
But all at once a door opened, and Henri's voice reached her ear: "Do not disturb yourselves. I'm only passing."
The rehearsal was drawing to a close. Juliette, who was still reading Chavigny's part, had just caught hold of Madame de Guiraud's hand. "Ernestine, I adore you!" she exclaimed with an outburst of passionate earnestness.
"Then Madame de Blainville is no longer beloved by you?" inquired Madame de Guiraud.
However, so long as her husband was present Juliette declined to proceed. There was no need of the men knowing anything about it. The doctor showed himself most polite to the ladies; he complimented them and predicted an immense success. With black gloves on his hands and his face clean-shaven he was about to begin his round of visits. On his entry he had merely greeted Helene with a slight bow. At the Comedie Francais he had seen some very great actress in the character of Madame de Lery, and he acquainted Madame de Guiraud with some of the usual by-play of the scene.
"At the moment when Chavigny is going to throw himself at your feet, you fling the purse into the fire. Dispassionately, you know, without any anger, like a woman who plays with love."
"All right; leave us alone," said Juliette. "We know all about it."
At last, when they had heard him close his study door, she began once more: "Ernestine, I adore you!"
Prior to his departure Henri had saluted Helene with the same slight bow. She sat dumb, as though awaiting some catastrophe. The sudden appearance of the husband had seemed to her ominous; but when he had gone, his courtesy and evident blindness made him seem to her ridiculous. So he also gave attention to this idiotic comedy! And there was no loving fire in his eye as he looked at her sitting there! The whole house had become hateful and cold to her. Here was a downfall; there was nothing to restrain her any longer, for she abhorred Henri as much as Juliette. Within her pocket she held the letter in her convulsive grasp. At last, murmuring "Good-bye for the present," she quitted the room, her head swimming and the furniture seeming to dance around her. And in her ears rang these words, uttered by Madame de Guiraud:
"Adieu. You will perhaps think badly of me to-day, but you will have some kindly feeling for me to-morrow, and, believe me, that is much better than a caprice."
When Helene had shut the house door and reached the pavement, she drew the letter with a violent, almost mechanical gesture from her pocket, and dropped it into the letter-box. Then she stood motionless for a few seconds, still dazed, her eyes glaring at the narrow brass plate which had fallen back again in its place.
"It is done," she exclaimed in a whisper.
Once more she pictured the rooms hung with pink cretonne. Malignon and Juliette were there together; but all of a sudden the wall was riven open, and the husband entered. She was conscious of no more, and a great calm fell on her. Instinctively she looked around to see if any one had observed her dropping the letter in the box. But the street was deserted. Then she turned the corner and went back home.
"Have you been good, my darling?" she asked as she kissed Jeanne.
The child, still seated on the same chair, raised a gloomy face towards her, and without answering threw both arms around her neck, and kissed her with a great gasp. Her grief indeed had been intense.
At lunch-time Rosalie seemed greatly surprised. "Madame surely went for a long walk!" said she.
"Why do you think so?" asked Helene.
"Because madame is eating with such an appetite. It is long since madame ate so heartily."
It was true; she was very hungry; with her sudden relief she had felt her stomach empty. She experienced a feeling of intense peace and content. After the shocks of these last two days a stillness fell upon her spirit, her limbs relaxed and became as supple as though she had just left a bath. The only sensation that remained to her was one of heaviness somewhere, an indefinable load that weighed upon her.
When she returned to her bedroom her eyes were at once directed towards the clock, the hands of which pointed to twenty-five minutes past twelve. Juliette's assignation was for three o'clock. Two hours and a half must still elapse. She made the reckoning mechanically. Moreover, she was in no hurry; the hands of the clock were moving on, and no one in the world could stop them. She left things to their own accomplishment. A child's cap, long since begun, was lying unfinished on the table. She took it up and began to sew at the window. The room was plunged in unbroken silence. Jeanne had seated herself in her usual place, but her arms hung idly beside her.
"Mamma," she said, "I cannot work; it's no fun at all."
"Well, my darling, don't do anything. Oh! wait a minute, you can thread my needles!"
In a languid way the child silently attended to the duty assigned her. Having carefully cut some equal lengths of cotton, she spent a long time in finding the eyes of the needles, and was only just ready with one of them threaded when her mother had finished with the last.
"You see," said the latter gently, "this will save time. The last of my six little caps will be finished to-night."
She turned round to glance at the clock—ten minutes past one. Still nearly two hours. Juliette must now be beginning to dress. Henri had received the letter. Oh! he would certainly go. The instructions were precise; he would find the place without delay. But it all seemed so far off still, and she felt no emotional fever, but went on sewing with regular stitches as industriously as a work-girl. The minutes slipped by one by one. At last two o'clock struck.
A ring at the bell came as a surprise.
"Who can it be, mother darling?" asked Jeanne, who had jumped on her chair. "Oh! it's you!" she continued, as Monsieur Rambaud entered the room. "Why did you ring so loudly? You gave me quite a fright."
The worthy man was in consternation—to tell the truth, his tug at the bell had been a little too violent.
"I am not myself to-day, I'm ill," the child resumed. "You must not frighten me."
Monsieur Rambaud displayed the greatest solicitude. What was the matter with his poor darling? He only sat down, relieved, when Helene had signed to him that the child was in her dismals, as Rosalie was wont to say. A call from him in the daytime was a rare occurrence, and so he at once set about explaining the object of his visit. It concerned some fellow-townsman of his, an old workman who could find no employment owing to his advanced years, and who lived with his paralytic wife in a tiny little room. Their wretchedness could not be pictured. He himself had gone up that morning to make a personal investigation. Their lodging was a mere hole under the tiles, with a swing window, through whose broken panes the wind beat in. Inside, stretched on a mattress, he had found a woman wrapped in an old curtain, while the man squatted on the floor in a state of stupefaction, no longer finding sufficient courage even to sweep the place.
"Oh! poor things, poor things!" exclaimed Helene, moved to tears.
It was not the old workman who gave Monsieur Rambaud any uneasiness. He would remove him to his own house and find him something to do. But there was the wife with palsied frame, whom the husband dared not leave for a moment alone, and who had to be rolled up like a bundle; where could she be put? what was to be done with her?
"I thought of you," he went on. "You must obtain her instant admission to an asylum. I should have gone straight to Monsieur Deberle, but I imagined you knew him better and would have greater influence with him. If he would be kind enough to interest himself in the matter, it could all be arranged to-morrow."
Trembling with pity, her cheeks white, Jeanne listened to the tale.
"Oh, mamma!" she murmured with clasped hands, "be kind—get the admission for the poor woman!"
"Yes, yes, of course!" said Helene, whose emotion was increasing. "I will speak to the doctor as soon as I can; he will himself take every requisite step. Give me their names and the address, Monsieur Rambaud."
He scribbled a line on the table, and said as he rose: "It is thirty-five minutes past two. You would perhaps find the doctor at home now."
She had risen at the same time, and as she looked at the clock a fierce thrill swept through her frame. In truth it was already thirty-five minutes past two, and the hands were still creeping on. She stammered out that the doctor must have started on his round of visits. Her eyes were riveted on the dial. Meantime, Monsieur Rambaud remained standing hat in hand, and beginning his story once more. These poor people had sold everything, even their stove, and since the setting in of winter had spent their days and nights alike without a fire. At the close of December they had been four days without food. Helene gave vent to a cry of compassion. The hands of the clock now marked twenty minutes to three. Monsieur Rambaud devoted another two minutes to his farewell: "Well, I depend on you," he said. And stooping to kiss Jeanne, he added: "Good-bye, my darling."
"Good-bye; don't worry; mamma won't forget. I'll make her remember."
When Helene came back from the ante-room, whither she had gone in company with Monsieur Rambaud, the hands of the clock pointed to a quarter to three. Another quarter of an hour and all would be over. As she stood motionless before the fireplace, the scene which was about to be enacted flashed before her eyes: Juliette was already there; Henri entered and surprised her. She knew the room; she could see the scene in its minutest details with terrible vividness. And still affected by Monsieur Rambaud's awful story she felt a mighty shudder rise from her limbs to her face. A voice cried out within her that what she had done—the writing of that letter, that cowardly denunciation—was a crime. The truth came to her with dazzling clearness. Yes, it was a crime she had committed! She recalled to memory the gesture with which she had flung the letter into the box; she recalled it with a sense of stupor such as might come over one on seeing another commit an evil action, without thought of intervening. She was as if awaking from a dream. What was it that had happened? Why was she here, with eyes ever fixed on the hands of that dial? Two more minutes had slipped away.
"Mamma," said Jeanne, "if you like, we'll go to see the doctor together to-night. It will be a walk for me. I feel stifling to-day."
Helene, however, did not hear; thirteen minutes must yet elapse. But she could not allow so horrible a thing to take place! In this stormy awakening of her rectitude she felt naught but a furious craving to prevent it. She must prevent it; otherwise she would be unable to live. In a state of frenzy she ran about her bedroom.
"Ah, you're going to take me!" exclaimed Jeanne joyously. "We're going to see the doctor at once, aren't we, mother darling?"
"No, no," Helene answered, while she hunted for her boots, stooping to look under the bed.
They were not to be found; but she shrugged her shoulders with supreme indifference when it occurred to her that she could very well run out in the flimsy house-slippers she had on her feet. She was now turning the wardrobe topsy-turvy in her search for her shawl. Jeanne crept up to her with a coaxing air: "Then you're not going to the doctor's, mother darling?"
"Say that you'll take me all the same. Oh! do take me; it will be such a pleasure!"
But Helene had at last found her shawl, and she threw it over her shoulders. Good heavens! only twelve minutes left—just time to run. She would go—she would do something, no matter what. She would decide on the way.
"Mamma dear, do please take me with you," said Jeanne in tones that grew lower and more imploring.
"I cannot take you," said Helene; "I'm going to a place where children don't go. Give me my bonnet."
Jeanne's face blanched. Her eyes grew dim, her words came with a gasp. "Where are you going?" she asked.
The mother made no reply—she was tying the strings of her bonnet.
Then the child continued: "You always go out without me now. You went out yesterday, you went out to-day, and you are going out again. Oh, I'm dreadfully grieved, I'm afraid to be here all alone. I shall die if you leave me here. Do you hear, mother darling? I shall die."
Then bursting into loud sobs, overwhelmed by a fit of grief and rage, she clung fast to Helene's skirts.
"Come, come, leave me; be good, I'm coming back," her mother repeated.
"No, no! I won't have it!" the child exclaimed through her sobs. "Oh! you don't love me any longer, or you would take me with you. Yes, yes, I am sure you love other people better. Take me with you, take me with you, or I'll stay here on the floor; you'll come back and find me on the floor."
She wound her little arms round her mother's legs; she wept with face buried in the folds of her dress; she clung to her and weighed upon her to prevent her making a step forward. And still the hands of the clock moved steadily on; it was ten minutes to three. Then Helene thought that she would never reach the house in time, and, nearly distracted, she wrenched Jeanne from her grasp, exclaiming: "What an unbearable child! This is veritable tyranny! If you sob any more, I'll have something to say to you!"
She left the room and slammed the door behind her. Jeanne had staggered back to the window, her sobs suddenly arrested by this brutal treatment, her limbs stiffened, her face quite white. She stretched her hands towards the door, and twice wailed out the words: "Mamma! mamma!" And then she remained where she had fallen on a chair, with eyes staring and features distorted by the jealous thought that her mother was deceiving her.
On reaching the street, Helene hastened her steps. The rain had ceased, but great drops fell from the housetops on to her shoulders. She had resolved that she would reflect outside and fix on some plan. But now she was only inflamed with a desire to reach the house. When she reached the Passage des Eaux, she hesitated for just one moment. The descent had become a torrent; the water of the gutters of the Rue Raynouard was rushing down it. And as the stream bounded over the steps, between the close-set walls, it broke here and there into foam, whilst the edges of the stones, washed clear by the downpour, shone out like glass. A gleam of pale light, falling from the grey sky, made the Passage look whiter between the dusky branches of the trees. Helene went down it, scarcely raising her skirts. The water came up to her ankles. She almost lost her flimsy slippers in the puddles; around her, down the whole way, she heard a gurgling sound, like the murmuring of brooklets coursing through the grass in the depths of the woods.
All at once she found herself on the stairs in front of the door. She stood there, panting in a state of torture. Then her memory came back, and she decided to knock at the kitchen.
"What! is it you?" exclaimed Mother Fetu.
There was none of the old whimper in her voice. Her little eyes were sparkling, and a complacent grin had spread over the myriad wrinkles of her face. All the old deference vanished, and she patted Helene's hands as she listened to her broken words. The young woman gave her twenty francs.
"May God requite you!" prayed Mother Fetu in her wonted style. "Whatever you please, my dear!"
Leaning back in an easy-chair, with his legs stretched out before the huge, blazing fire, Malignon sat waiting. He had considered it a good idea to draw the window-curtains and light the wax candles. The outer room, in which he had seated himself, was brilliantly illuminated by a small chandelier and a pair of candelabra; whilst the other apartment was plunged in shadow, the swinging crystal lamp alone casting on the floor a twilight gleam. Malignon drew out his watch.
"The deuce!" he muttered. "Is she going to keep me waiting again?"
He gave vent to a slight yawn. He had been waiting for an hour already, and it was small amusement to him. However, he rose and cast a glance over his preparations.
The arrangement of the chairs did not please him, and he rolled a couch in front of the fireplace. The cretonne hangings had a ruddy glow, as they reflected the light of the candles; the room was warm, silent, and cozy, while outside the wind came and went in sudden gusts. All at once the young man heard three hurried knocks at the door. It was the signal.
"At last!" he exclaimed aloud, his face beaming jubilantly.
He ran to open the door, and Juliette entered, her face veiled, her figure wrapped in a fur mantle. While Malignon was gently closing the door, she stood still for a moment, with the emotion that checked the words on her lips undetected.
However, before the young man had had time to take her hand, she raised her veil, and displayed a smiling face, rather pale, but quite unruffled.
"What! you have lighted up the place!" she exclaimed. "Why? I thought you hated candles in broad daylight!"
Malignon, who had been making ready to clasp her with a passionate gesture that he had been rehearsing, was put somewhat out of countenance by this remark, and hastened to explain that the day was too wretched, and that the windows looked on to waste patches of ground. Besides, night was his special delight.
"Well, one never knows how to take you," she retorted jestingly. "Last spring, at my children's ball, you made such a fuss, declaring that the place was like some cavern, some dead-house. However, let us say that your taste has changed."
She seemed to be paying a mere visit, and affected a courage which slightly deepened her voice. This was the only indication of her uneasiness. At times her chin twitched somewhat, as though she felt some uneasiness in her throat. But her eyes were sparkling, and she tasted to the full the keen pleasure born of her imprudence. She thought of Madame de Chermette, of whom such scandalous stories were related. Good heavens! it seemed strange all the same.
"Let us have a look round," she began.
And thereupon she began inspecting the apartment. He followed in her footsteps, while she gazed at the furniture, examined the walls, looked upwards, and started back, chattering all the time.
"I don't like your cretonne; it is so frightfully common!" said she. "Where did you buy that abominable pink stuff? There's a chair that would be nice if the wood weren't covered with gilding. Not a picture, not a nick-nack—only your chandelier and your candelabra, which are by no means in good style! Ah well, my dear fellow; I advise you to continue laughing at my Japanese pavilion!"
She burst into a laugh, thus revenging herself on him for the old affronts which still rankled in her breast.
"Your taste is a pretty one, and no mistake! You don't know that my idol is worth more than the whole lot of your things! A draper's shopman wouldn't have selected that pink stuff. Was it your idea to fascinate your washerwoman?"
Malignon felt very much hurt, and did not answer. He made an attempt to lead her into the inner room; but she remained on the threshold, declaring that she never entered such gloomy places. Besides, she could see quite enough; the one room was worthy of the other. The whole of it had come from the Saint-Antoine quarter.
But the hanging lamp was her special aversion. She attacked it with merciless raillery—what a trashy thing it was, such as some little work-girl with no furniture of her own might have dreamt of! Why, lamps in the same style could be bought at all the bazaars at seven francs fifty centimes apiece.
"I paid ninety francs for it," at last ejaculated Malignon in his impatience.
Thereupon she seemed delighted at having angered him.
On his self-possession returning, he inquired: "Won't you take off your cloak?"
"Oh, yes, I will," she answered; "it is dreadfully warm here."
She took off her bonnet as well, and this with her fur cloak he hastened to deposit in the next room. When he returned, he found her seated in front of the fire, still gazing round her. She had regained her gravity, and was disposed to display a more conciliatory demeanor.
"It's all very ugly," she said; "still, you are not amiss here. The two rooms might have been made very pretty."
"Oh! they're good enough for my purpose!" he thoughtlessly replied, with a careless shrug of the shoulders.
The next moment, however, he bitterly regretted these silly words. He could not possibly have been more impertinent or clumsy. Juliette hung her head, and a sharp pang darted through her bosom. Then he sought to turn to advantage the embarrassment into which he had plunged her.
"Juliette!" he said pleadingly, as he leaned towards her.
But with a gesture she forced him to resume his seat. It was at the seaside, at Trouville, that Malignon, bored to death by the constant sight of the sea, had hit upon the happy idea of falling in love. One evening he had taken hold of Juliette's hand. She had not seemed offended; in fact, she had at first bantered him over it. Soon, though her head was empty and her heart free, she imagined that she loved him. She had, so far, done nearly everything that her friends did around her; a lover only was lacking, and curiosity and a craving to be like the others had impelled her to secure one. However, Malignon was vain enough to imagine that he might win her by force of wit, and allowed her time to accustom herself to playing the part of a coquette. So, on the first outburst, which took place one night when they stood side by side gazing at the sea like a pair of lovers in a comic opera, she had repelled him, in her astonishment and vexation that he should spoil the romance which served as an amusement to her.
On his return to Paris Malignon had vowed that he would be more skilful in his attack. He had just reacquired influence over her, during a fit of boredom which had come on with the close of a wearying winter, when the usual dissipations, dinners, balls, and first-night performances were beginning to pall on her with their dreary monotony. And at last, her curiosity aroused, allured by the seeming mystery and piquancy of an intrigue, she had responded to his entreaties by consenting to meet him. However, so wholly unruffled were her feelings, that she was as little disturbed, seated here by the side of Malignon, as when she paid visits to artists' studios to solicit pictures for her charity bazaars.
"Juliette! Juliette!" murmured the young man, striving to speak in caressing tones.
"Come, be sensible," she merely replied; and taking a Chinese fan from the chimney-piece, she resumed—as much at her ease as though she had been sitting in her own drawing-room: "You know we had a rehearsal this morning. I'm afraid I have not made a very happy choice in Madame Berthier. Her 'Mathilda' is a snivelling, insufferable affair. You remember that delightful soliloquy when she addresses the purse—'Poor little thing, I kissed you a moment ago'? Well! she declaims it like a school-girl who has learnt a complimentary greeting. It's so vexatious!"
"And what about Madame de Guiraud?" he asked, as he drew his chair closer and took her hand.
"Oh! she is perfection. I've discovered in her a 'Madame de Lery,' with some sarcasm and animation."
While speaking she surrendered her hand to the young man, and he kissed it between her sentences without her seeming to notice it.
"But the worst of it all, you know," she resumed, "is your absence. In the first place, you might say something to Madame Berthier; and besides, we shall not be able to get a good ensemble if you never come."
He had now succeeded in passing his arm round her waist.
"But as I know my part," he murmured.
"Yes, that's all very well; but there's the arrangement of the scenes to look after. It is anything but obliging on your part to refuse to give us three or four mornings."
She was unable to continue, for he was raining a shower of kisses on her neck. At this she could feign ignorance no longer, but pushed him away, tapping him the while with the Chinese fan which she still retained in her hand. Doubtless, she had registered a vow that she would not allow any further familiarity. Her face was now flushed by the heat reflected from the fire, and her lips pouted with the very expression of an inquisitive person whom her feelings astonish. Moreover, she was really getting frightened.
"Leave me alone," she stammered, with a constrained smile. "I shall get angry."
But he imagined that he had moved her, and once more took hold of her hands. To her, however, a voice seemed to be crying out, "No!" It was she herself protesting before she had even answered her own heart.
"No, no!" she said again. "Let me go; you are hurting me!" And thereupon, as he refused to release her, she twisted herself violently from his grasp. She was acting in obedience to some strange emotion; she felt angry with herself and with him. In her agitation some disjointed phrases escaped her lips. Yes, indeed, he rewarded her badly for her trust. What a brute he was! She even called him a coward. Never in her life would she see him again. But he allowed her to talk on, and ran after her with a wicked and brutal laugh. And at last she could do no more than gasp in the momentary refuge which she had sought behind a chair. They were there, gazing at one another, her face transformed by shame and his by passion, when a noise broke through the stillness. At first they did not grasp its significance. A door had opened, some steps crossed the room, and a voice called to them:
"Fly! fly! You will be caught!"
It was Helene. Astounded, they both gazed at her. So great was their stupefaction that they lost consciousness of their embarrassing situation. Juliette indeed displayed no sign of confusion.
"Fly! fly!" said Helene again. "Your husband will be here in two minutes."
"My husband!" stammered the young woman; "my husband!—why—for what reason?"
She was losing her wits. Her brain was in a turmoil. It seemed to her prodigious that Helene should be standing there speaking to her of her husband.
But Helene made an angry gesture.
"Oh! if you think I've time to explain," said she,—"he is on the way here. I give you warning. Disappear at once, both of you."
Then Juliette's agitation became extraordinary. She ran about the rooms like a maniac, screaming out disconnected sentences.
"My God! my God!—I thank you.—Where is my cloak?—How horrid it is, this room being so dark!—Give me my cloak.—Bring me a candle, to help me to find my cloak.—My dear, you mustn't mind if I don't stop to thank you.—I can't get my arms into the sleeves—no, I can't get them in—no, I can't!"
She was paralyzed with fear, and Helene was obliged to assist her with her cloak. She put her bonnet on awry, and did not even tie the ribbons. The worst of it, however, was that they lost quite a minute in hunting for her veil, which had fallen on the floor. Her words came with a gasp; her trembling hands moved about in bewilderment, fumbling over her person to ascertain whether she might be leaving anything behind which might compromise her.
"Oh, what a lesson! what a lesson! Thank goodness, it is well over!"
Malignon was very pale, and made a sorry appearance. His feet beat a tattoo on the ground, as he realized that he was both scorned and ridiculous. His lips could only give utterance to the wretched question:
"Then you think I ought to go away as well?"
Then, as no answer was vouchsafed him, he took up his cane, and went on talking by way of affecting perfect composure. They had plenty of time, said he. It happened that there was another staircase, a small servants' staircase, now never used, but which would yet allow of their descent. Madame Deberle's cab had remained at the door; it would convey both of them away along the quays. And again he repeated: "Now calm yourself. It will be all right. See, this way."
He threw open a door, and the three dingy, dilapidated, little rooms, which had not been repaired and were full of dirt, appeared to view. A puff of damp air entered the boudoir. Juliette, ere she stepped through all that squalor, gave final expression to her disgust.
"How could I have come here?" she exclaimed in a loud voice. "What a hole! I shall never forgive myself."
"Be quick, be quick!" urged Helene, whose anxiety was as great as her own.
She pushed Juliette forward, but the young woman threw herself sobbing on her neck. She was in the throes of a nervous reaction. She was overwhelmed with shame, and would fain have defended herself, fain have given a reason for being found in that man's company. Then instinctively she gathered up her skirts, as though she were about to cross a gutter. With the tip of his boot Malignon, who had gone on first, was clearing away the plaster which littered the back staircase. The doors were shut once more.
Meantime, Helene had remained standing in the middle of the sitting-room. Silence reigned there, a warm, close silence, only disturbed by the crackling of the burnt logs. There was a singing in her ears, and she heard nothing. But after an interval, which seemed to her interminable, the rattle of a cab suddenly resounded. It was Juliette's cab rolling away.
Then Helene sighed, and she made a gesture of mute gratitude. The thought that she would not be tortured by everlasting remorse for having acted despicably filled her with pleasant and thankful feelings. She felt relieved, deeply moved, and yet so weak, now that this awful crisis was over, that she lacked the strength to depart in her turn. In her heart she thought that Henri was coming, and that he must meet some one in this place. There was a knock at the door, and she opened it at once.
The first sensation on either side was one of bewilderment. Henri entered, his mind busy with thoughts of the letter which he had received, and his face pale and uneasy. But when he caught sight of her a cry escaped his lips.
"You! My God! It was you!"
The cry betokened more astonishment than pleasure. But soon there came a furious awakening of his love.
"You love me, you love me!" he stammered. "Ah! it was you, and I did not understand."
He stretched out his arm as he spoke; but Helene, who had greeted his entrance with a smile, now started back with wan cheeks. Truly she had waited for him; she had promised herself that they would be together for a moment, and that she would invent some fiction. Now, however, full consciousness of the situation flashed upon her; Henri believed it to be an assignation. Yet she had never for one moment desired such a thing, and her heart rebelled.
"Henri, I pray you, release me," said she.
He had grasped her by the wrists, and was drawing her slowly towards him, as though to kiss her. The love that had been surging within him for months, but which had grown less violent owing to the break in their intimacy, now burst forth more fiercely than ever.
"Release me," she resumed. "You are frightening me. I assure you, you are mistaken."
His surprise found voice once more.
"Was it not you then who wrote to me?" he asked.
She hesitated for a second. What could she say in answer?
"Yes," she whispered at last.
She could not betray Juliette after having saved her. An abyss lay before her into which she herself was slipping. Henri was now glancing round the two rooms in wonderment at finding them illumined and furnished in such gaudy style. He ventured to question her.
"Are these rooms yours?" he asked.
But she remained silent.
"Your letter upset me so," he continued. "Helene, you are hiding something from me. For mercy's sake, relieve my anxiety!"
She was not listening to him; she was reflecting that he was indeed right in considering this to be an assignation. Otherwise, what could she have been doing there? Why should she have waited for him? She could devise no plausible explanation. She was no longer certain whether she had not given him this rendezvous. A network of chance and circumstance was enveloping her yet more tightly; there was no escape from it. Each second found her less able to resist.
"You were waiting for me, you were waiting for me!" he repeated passionately, as he bent his head to kiss her. And then as his lips met hers she felt it beyond her power to struggle further; but, as though in mute acquiescence, fell, half swooning and oblivious of the world, upon his neck.
Jeanne, with her eyes fixed on the door, remained plunged in grief over her mother's sudden departure. She gazed around her; the room was empty and silent; but she could still hear the waning sounds of hurrying footsteps and rustling skirts, and last the slamming of the outer door. Then nothing stirred, and she was alone.
All alone, all alone. Over the bed hung her mother's dressing-gown, flung there at random, the skirt bulging out and a sleeve lying across the bolster, so that the garment looked like some person who had fallen down overwhelmed with grief, and sobbing in misery. There was some linen scattered about, and a black neckerchief lay on the floor like a blot of mourning. The chairs were in disorder, the table had been pushed in front of the wardrobe, and amidst it all she was quite alone. She felt her tears choking her as she looked at the dressing-gown which no longer garmented her mother, but was stretched there with the ghastly semblance of death. She clasped her hands, and for the last time wailed, "Mamma! mamma!" The blue velvet hangings, however, deadened the sound. It was all over, and she was alone.
Then the time slipped away. The clock struck three. A dismal, dingy light came in through the windows. Dark clouds were sailing over the sky, which made it still gloomier. Through the panes of glass, which were covered with moisture, Paris could only be dimly seen; the watery vapor blurred it; its far-away outskirts seemed hidden by thick smoke. Thus the city even was no longer there to keep the child company, as on bright afternoons, when, on leaning out a little, it seemed to her as though she could touch each district with her hand.
What was she to do? Her little arms tightened in despair against her bosom. This desertion seemed to her mournful, passing all bounds, characterized by an injustice and wickedness that enraged her. She had never known anything so hateful; it struck her that everything was going to vanish; nothing of the old life would ever come back again. Then she caught sight of her doll seated near her on a chair, with its back against a cushion, and its legs stretched out, its eyes staring at her as though it were a human being. It was not her mechanical doll, but a large one with a pasteboard head, curly hair, and eyes of enamel, whose fixed look sometimes frightened her. What with two years' constant dressing and undressing, the paint had got rubbed off the chin and cheeks, and the limbs, of pink leather stuffed with sawdust, had become limp and wrinkled like old linen. The doll was just now in its night attire, arrayed only in a bed-gown, with its arms twisted, one in the air and the other hanging downwards. When Jeanne realized that there was still some one with her, she felt for an instant less unhappy. She took the doll in her arms and embraced it ardently, while its head swung back, for its neck was broken. Then she chattered away to it, telling it that it was Jeanne's best-behaved friend, that it had a good heart, for it never went out and left Jeanne alone. It was, said she, her treasure, her kitten, her dear little pet. Trembling with agitation, striving to prevent herself from weeping again, she covered it all over with kisses.
This fit of tenderness gave her some revengeful consolation, and the doll fell over her arm like a bundle of rags. She rose and looked out, with her forehead against a window-pane. The rain had ceased falling, and the clouds of the last downpour, driven before the wind, were nearing the horizon towards the heights of Pere-Lachaise, which were wrapped in gloom; and against this stormy background Paris, illumined by a uniform clearness, assumed a lonely, melancholy grandeur. It seemed to be uninhabited, like one of those cities seen in a nightmare—the reflex of a world of death. To Jeanne it certainly appeared anything but pretty. She was now idly dreaming of those she had loved since her birth. Her oldest sweetheart, the one of her early days at Marseilles, had been a huge cat, which was very heavy; she would clasp it with her little arms, and carry it from one chair to another without provoking its anger in the least; but it had disappeared, and that was the first misfortune she remembered. She had next had a sparrow, but it died; she had picked it up one morning from the bottom of its cage. That made two. She never reckoned the toys which got broken just to grieve her, all kinds of wrongs which had caused her much suffering because she was so sensitive. One doll in particular, no higher than one's hand, had driven her to despair by getting its head smashed; she had cherished it to a such a degree that she had buried it by stealth in a corner of the yard; and some time afterwards, overcome by a craving to look on it once more, she had disinterred it, and made herself sick with terror whilst gazing on its blackened and repulsive features.
However, it was always the others who were the first to fail in their love. They got broken; they disappeared. The separation, at all events, was invariably their fault. Why was it? She herself never changed. When she loved any one, her love lasted all her life. Her mind could not grasp the idea of neglect and desertion; such things seemed to her monstrously wicked, and never occurred to her little heart without giving it a deadly pang. She shivered as a host of vague ideas slowly awoke within her. So people parted one day; each went his own way, never to meet or love each other again. With her eyes fixed on the limitless and dreary expanse of Paris, she sat chilled by all that her childish passion could divine of life's hard blows.
Meantime her breath was fast dimming the glass. With her hands she rubbed away the vapor that prevented her from looking out. Several monuments in the distance, wet with the rain, glittered like browny ice. There were lines of houses, regular and distinct, which, with their fronts standing out pale amidst the surrounding roofs, looked like outstretched linen—some tremendous washing spread to dry on fields of ruddy grass. The sky was clearing, and athwart the tail of the cloud which still cloaked the city in gloom the milky rays of the sun were beginning to stream. A brightness seemed to be hesitating over some of the districts; in certain places the sky would soon begin to smile. Jeanne gazed below, over the quay and the slopes of the Trocadero; the street traffic was about to begin afresh after that violent downpour. The cabs again passed by at a jolting crawl, while the omnibuses rattled along the still lonely streets with a louder noise than usual. Umbrellas were being shut up, and wayfarers, who had taken shelter beneath the trees, ventured from one foot pavement to another through muddy streams which were rushing into the gutters.
Jeanne noticed with special interest a lady and a little girl, both of them fashionably dressed, who were standing beneath the awning of a toy-shop near the bridge. Doubtless they had been caught in the shower, and had taken refuge there. The child would fain have carried away the whole shop, and had pestered her mother to buy her a hoop. Both were now leaving, however, and the child was running along full of glee, driving the hoop before her. At this Jeanne's melancholy returned with intensified force; her doll became hideous. She longed to have a hoop and to be down yonder and run along, while her mother slowly walked behind her and cautioned her not to go too far. Then, however, everything became dim again. At each minute she had to rub the glass clear. She had been enjoined never to open the window; but she was full of rebellious thoughts; she surely might gaze out of the window, if she were not to be taken for a walk. So she opened it, and leaned out like a grown-up person—in imitation of her mother when she ensconced herself there and lapsed into silence.
The air was mild, and moist in its mildness, which seemed to her delightful. A darkness slowly rising over the horizon induced her to lift her head. To her imagination it seemed as if some gigantic bird with outstretched wings were hovering on high. At first she saw nothing; the sky was clear; but at last, at the angle of the roof, a gloomy cloud made its appearance, sailing on and speedily enveloping the whole heaven. Another squall was rising before a roaring west wind. The daylight was quickly dying away, and the city grew dark, amidst a livid shimmer, which imparted to the house-fronts a rusty tinge.
Almost immediately afterwards the rain fell. The streets were swept by it; the umbrellas were again opened; and the passers-by, fleeing in every direction, vanished like chaff. One old lady gripped her skirts with both hands, while the torrent beat down on her bonnet as though it were falling from a spout. And the rain travelled on; the cloud kept pace with the water ragefully falling upon Paris; the big drops enfiladed the avenues of the quays, with a gallop like that of a runaway horse, raising a white dust which rolled along the ground at a prodigious speed. They also descended the Champs-Elysees, plunged into the long narrow streets of the Saint-Germain district, and at a bound filled up all the open spaces and deserted squares. In a few seconds, behind this veil which grew thicker and thicker, the city paled and seemed to melt away. It was as though a curtain were being drawn obliquely from heaven to earth. Masses of vapor arose too; and the vast, splashing pit-a-pat was as deafening as any rattle of old iron.
Jeanne, giddy with the noise, started back. A leaden wall seemed to have been built up before her. But she was fond of rain; so she returned, leaned out again, and stretched out her arms to feel the big, cold rain-drops splashing on her hands. This gave her some amusement, and she got wet to the sleeves. Her doll must, of course, like herself, have a headache, and she therefore hastened to put it astride the window-rail, with its back against the side wall. She thought, as she saw the drops pelting down upon it, that they were doing it some good. Stiffly erect, its little teeth displayed in a never-fading smile, the doll sat there, with one shoulder streaming with water, while every gust of wind lifted up its night-dress. Its poor body, which had lost some of its sawdust stuffing, seemed to be shivering.
What was the reason that had prevented her mother from taking her with her? wondered Jeanne. The rain that beat down on her hands seemed a fresh inducement to be out. It must be very nice, she argued, in the street. Once more there flashed on her mind's eye the little girl driving her hoop along the pavement. Nobody could deny that she had gone out with her mamma. Both of them had even seemed to be exceedingly well pleased. This was sufficient proof that little girls were taken out when it rained.
But, then, willingness on her mother's part was requisite. Why had she been unwilling? Then Jeanne again thought of her big cat which had gone away over the houses opposite with its tail in the air, and of the poor little sparrow which she had tempted with food when it was dead, and which had pretended that it did not understand. That kind of thing always happened to her; nobody's love for her was enduring enough. Oh! she would have been ready in a couple of minutes; when she chose she dressed quickly enough; it was only a question of her boots, which Rosalie buttoned, her jacket, her hat, and it was done. Her mother might easily have waited two minutes for her. When she left home to see her friends, she did not turn her things all topsy-turvy as she had done that afternoon; when she went to the Bois de Boulogne, she led her gently by the hand, and stopped with her outside every shop in the Rue de Passy.
Jeanne could not get to the bottom of it; her black eyebrows frowned, and her delicate features put on a stern, jealous expression which made her resemble some wicked old maid. She felt in a vague way that her mother had gone to some place where children never go. She had not been taken out because something was to be hidden from her. This thought filled her with unutterable sadness, and her heart throbbed with pain.
The rain was becoming finer, and through the curtain which veiled Paris glimpses of buildings were occasionally afforded. The dome of the Invalides, airy and quivering, was the first to reappear through the glittering vibration of the downpour. Next, some of the districts emerged into sight as the torrent slackened; the city seemed to rise from a deluge that had overwhelmed it, its roofs all streaming, and every street filled with a river of water from which vapor still ascended. But suddenly there was a burst of light; a ray of sunshine fell athwart the shower. For a moment it was like a smile breaking through tears.
The rain had now ceased to fall over the Champs-Elysees district; but it was sabring the left bank, the Cite, and the far-away suburbs; in the sunshine the drops could be seen flashing down like innumerable slender shafts of steel. On the right a rainbow gleamed forth. As the gush of light streamed across the sky, touches of pink and blue appeared on the horizon, a medley of color, suggestive of a childish attempt at water-color painting. Then there was a sudden blaze—a fall of golden snow, as it were, over a city of crystal. But the light died away, a cloud rolled up, and the smile faded amidst tears; Paris dripped and dripped, with a prolonged sobbing noise, beneath the leaden-hued sky.
Jeanne, with her sleeves soaked, was seized with a fit of coughing. But she was unconscious of the chill that was penetrating her; she was now absorbed in the thought that her mother had gone into Paris. She had come at last to know three buildings—the Invalides, the Pantheon, and the Tower of St.-Jacques. She now slowly went over their names, and pointed them out with her finger without attempting to think what they might be like were she nearer to them. Without doubt, however, her mother was down there; and she settled in her mind that she was in the Pantheon, because it astonished her the most, huge as it was, towering up through the air, like the city's head-piece. Then she began to question herself. Paris was still to her the place where children never go; she was never taken there. She would have liked to know it, however, that she might have quietly said to herself: "Mamma is there; she is doing such and such a thing." But it all seemed to her too immense; it was impossible to find any one there. Then her glance travelled towards the other end of the plain. Might her mother not rather be in one of that cluster of houses on the hill to the left? or nearer in, beneath those huge trees, whose bare branches seemed as dead as firewood? Oh! if she could only have lifted up the roofs! What could that gloomy edifice be? What was that street along which something of enormous bulk seemed to be running? And what could that district be at sight of which she always felt frightened, convinced as she was that people fought one another there? She could not see it distinctly, but, to tell the truth, its aspects stirred one; it was very ugly, and must not be looked at by little girls.
A host of indefinable ideas and suppositions, which brought her to the verge of weeping, awoke trouble in Jeanne's ignorant, childish mind. From the unknown world of Paris, with its smoke, its endless noises, its powerful, surging life, an odor of wretchedness, filth, and crime seemed to be wafted to her through the mild, humid atmosphere, and she was forced to avert her head, as though she had been leaning over one of those pestilential pits which breathe forth suffocation from their unseen horrors. The Invalides, the Pantheon, the Tower of Saint-Jacques—these she named and counted; but she knew nothing of anything else, and she sat there, terrified and ashamed, with the all-absorbing thought that her mother was among those wicked places, at some spot which she was unable to identify in the depths yonder.
Suddenly Jeanne turned round. She could have sworn that somebody had walked into the bedroom, that a light hand had even touched her shoulder. But the room was empty, still in the same disorder as when Helene had left. The dressing-gown, flung across the pillow, still lay in the same mournful, weeping attitude. Then Jeanne, with pallid cheeks, cast a glance around, and her heart nearly burst within her. She was alone! she was alone! And, O Heaven, her mother, in forsaking her, had pushed her with such force that she might have fallen to the floor. The thought came back to her with anguish; she again seemed to feel the pain of that outrage on her wrists and shoulders. Why had she been struck? She had been good, and had nothing to reproach herself with. She was usually spoken to with such gentleness that the punishment she had received awoke feelings of indignation within her. She was thrilled by a sensation of childish fear, as in the old times when she was threatened with the approach of the wolf, and looked for it and saw it not: it was lingering in some shady corner, with many other things that were going to overwhelm her. However, she was full of suspicion; her face paled and swelled with jealous fury. Of a sudden, the thought that her mother must love those whom she had gone to see far more than she loved her came upon her with such crushing force that her little hands clutched her bosom. She knew it now; yes, her mother was false to her.
Over Paris a great sorrow seemed to be brooding, pending the arrival of a fresh squall. A murmur travelled through the darkened air, and heavy clouds were hovering overhead. Jeanne, still at the window, was convulsed by another fit of coughing; but in the chill she experienced she felt herself revenged; she would willingly have had her illness return. With her hands pressed against her bosom, she grew conscious of some pain growing more intense within her. It was an agony to which her body abandoned itself. She trembled with fear, and did not again venture to turn round; she felt quite cold at the idea of glancing into the room any more. To be little means to be without strength. What could this new complaint be which filled her with mingled shame and bitter pleasure? With stiffened body, she sat there as if waiting —every one of her pure and innocent limbs in an agony of revulsion. From the innermost recesses of her being all her woman's feelings were aroused, and there darted through her a pang, as though she had received a blow from a distance. Then with failing heart she cried out chokingly: "Mamma! mamma!" No one could have known whether she called to her mother for aid, or whether she accused her of having inflicted on her the pain which seemed to be killing her.
At that moment the tempest burst. Through the deep and ominous stillness the wind howled over the city, which was shrouded in darkness; and afterwards there came a long-continued crashing —window-shutters beating to and fro, slates flying, chimney-tops and gutter-pipes rattling on to the pavements. For a few seconds a calm ensued; then there blew another gust, which swept along with such mighty strength that the ocean of roofs seemed convulsed, tossing about in waves, and then disappearing in a whirlpool. For a moment chaos reigned. Some enormous clouds, like huge blots of ink, swept through a host of smaller ones, which were scattered and floated like shreds of rag which the wind tore to pieces and carried off thread by thread. A second later two clouds rushed upon one another, and rent one another with crashing reports, which seemed to sprinkle the coppery expanse with wreckage; and every time the hurricane thus veered, blowing from every point of the compass, the thunder of opposing navies resounded in the atmosphere, and an awful rending and sinking followed, the hanging fragments of the clouds, jagged like huge bits of broken walls, threatening Paris with imminent destruction. The rain was not yet falling. But suddenly a cloud burst above the central quarters, and a water-spout ascended the Seine. The river's green ribbon, riddled and stirred to its depths by the splashing drops, became transformed into a stream of mud; and one by one, behind the downpour, the bridges appeared to view again, slender and delicately outlined in the mist; while, right and left, the trees edging the grey pavements of the deserted quays were shaken furiously by the wind. Away in the background, over Notre-Dame, the cloud divided and poured down such a torrent of water that the island of La Cite seemed submerged. Far above the drenched houses the cathedral towers alone rose up against a patch of clear sky, like floating waifs.
On every side the water now rushed down from the heavens. Three times in succession did the right bank appear to be engulfed. The first fall inundated the distant suburbs, gradually extending its area, and beating on the turrets of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul and Saint-Jacques, which glistened in the rain. Then two other downpours, following in hot haste one upon the other, streamed over Montmartre and the Champs-Elysees. At times a glimpse could be obtained of the glass roof of the Palace of Industry, steaming, as it were, under the splashing water; of Saint-Augustin, whose cupola swam in a kind of fog like a clouded moon; of the Madeleine, which spread out its flat roof, looking like some ancient court whose flagstones had been freshly scoured; while, in the rear, the huge mass of the Opera House made one think of a dismasted vessel, which with its hull caught between two rocks, was resisting the assaults of the tempest.
On the left bank of the Seine, also hidden by a watery veil, you perceived the dome of the Invalides, the spires of Sainte-Clotilde, and the towers of Saint-Sulpice, apparently melting away in the moist atmosphere. Another cloud spread out, and from the colonnade of the Pantheon sheets of water streamed down, threatening to inundate what lay below. And from that moment the rain fell upon the city in all directions; one might have imagined that the heavens were precipitating themselves on the earth; streets vanished, sank into the depths, and men reappeared, drifting on the surface, amidst shocks whose violence seemed to foretell the end of the city. A prolonged roar ascended—the roar of all the water rushing along the gutters and falling into the drains. And at last, above muddy-looking Paris, which had assumed with the showers a dingy-yellow hue, the livid clouds spread themselves out in uniform fashion, without stain or rift. The rain was becoming finer, and was falling sharply and vertically; but whenever the wind again rose, the grey hatching was curved into mighty waves, and the raindrops, driven almost horizontally, could be heard lashing the walls with a hissing sound, till, with the fall of the wind, they again fell vertically, peppering the soil with a quiet obstinacy, from the heights of Passy away to the level plain of Charenton. Then the vast city, as though overwhelmed and lifeless after some awful convulsion, seemed but an expanse of stony ruins under the invisible heavens.
Jeanne, who had sunk down by the window, had wailed out once more, "Mamma! mamma!" A terrible weariness deprived her limbs of their strength as she lingered there, face to face with the engulfing of Paris. Amidst her exhaustion, whilst the breeze played with her tresses, and her face remained wet with rain, she preserved some taste of the bitter pleasure which had made her shiver, while within her heart there was a consciousness of some irretrievable woe. Everything seemed to her to have come to an end; she realized that she was getting very old. The hours might pass away, but now she did not even cast a glance into the room. It was all the same to her to be forgotten and alone. Such despair possessed the child's heart that all around her seemed black. If she were scolded, as of old, when she was ill, it would surely be very wrong. She was burning with fever; something like a sick headache was weighing on her. Surely too, but a moment ago, something had snapped within her. She could not prevent it; she must inevitably submit to whatever might be her fate. Besides, weariness was prostrating her. She had joined her hands over the window-bar, on which she rested her head, and, though at times she opened her eyes to gaze at the rain, drowsiness was stealing over her.
And still and ever the rain kept beating down; the livid sky seemed dissolving in water. A final blast of wind had passed by; a monotonous roar could be heard. Amidst a solemn quiescence the sovereign rain poured unceasingly upon the silent, deserted city it had conquered; and behind this sheet of streaked crystal Paris showed like some phantom place, with quivering outlines, which seemed to be melting away. To Jeanne the scene now brought nothing beyond sleepiness and horrid dreams, as though all the mystery and unknown evil were rising up in vapor to pierce her through and make her cough. Every time she opened her eyes she was seized with a fit of coughing, and would remain for a few seconds looking at the scene; which as her head fell back once more, clung to her mind, and seemed to spread over her and crush her.
The rain was still falling. What hour might it be now? Jeanne could not have told. Perhaps the clock had ceased going. It seemed to her too great a fatigue to turn round. It was surely at least a week since her mother had quitted her. She had abandoned all expectation of her return; she was resigned to the prospect of never seeing her again. Then she became oblivious of everything—the wrongs which had been done her, the pain which she had just experienced, even the loneliness in which she was suffered to remain. A weight, chilly like stone, fell upon her. This only was certain: she was very unhappy—ah! as unhappy as the poor little waifs to whom she gave alms as they huddled together in gateways. Ah! Heaven! how coughing racked one, and how penetrating was the cold when there was no nobody to love one! She closed her heavy eyelids, succumbing to a feverish stupor; and the last of her thoughts was a vague memory of childhood, of a visit to a mill, full of yellow wheat, and of tiny grains slipping under millstones as huge as houses.
Hours and hours passed away; each minute was a century. The rain beat down without ceasing, with ever the same tranquil flow, as though all time and eternity were allowed it to deluge the plain. Jeanne had fallen asleep. Close by, her doll still sat astride the iron window-bar; and, with its legs in the room and its head outside, its nightdress clinging to its rosy skin, its eyes glaring, and its hair streaming with water, it looked not unlike a drowned child; and so emaciated did it appear in its comical yet distressing posture of death, that it almost brought tears of pity to the eyes. Jeanne coughed in her sleep; but now she never once opened her eyes. Her head swayed to and fro on her crossed arms, and the cough spent itself in a wheeze without awakening her. Nothing more existed for her. She slept in the darkness. She did not even withdraw her hand, from whose cold, red fingers bright raindrops were trickling one by one into the vast expanse which lay beneath the window. This went on for hours and hours. Paris was slowly waning on the horizon, like some phantom city; heaven and earth mingled together in an indistinguishable jumble; and still and ever with unflagging persistency did the grey rain fall.
Night had long gathered in when Helene returned. From her umbrella the water dripped on step after step, whilst clinging to the balusters she ascended the staircase. She stood for a few seconds outside her door to regain her breath; the deafening rush of the rain still sounded in her ears; she still seemed to feel the jostling of hurrying foot-passengers, and to see the reflections from the street-lamps dancing in the puddles. She was walking in a dream, filled with the surprise of the kisses that had been showered upon her; and as she fumbled for her key she believed that her bosom felt neither remorse nor joy. Circumstances had compassed it all; she could have done naught to prevent it. But the key was not to be found; it was doubtless inside, in the pocket of her other gown. At this discovery her vexation was intense; it seemed as though she were denied admission to her own home. It became necessary that she should ring the bell.
"Oh! it's madame!" exclaimed Rosalie as she opened the door. "I was beginning to feel uneasy."
She took the umbrella, intending to place it in the kitchen sink, and then rattled on:
"Good gracious! what torrents! Zephyrin, who has just come, was drenched to the skin. I took the liberty, madame, of keeping him to dinner. He has leave till ten o'clock."
Helene followed her mechanically. She felt a desire to look once more on everything in her home before removing her bonnet.
"You have done quite right, my girl," she answered.
For a moment she lingered on the kitchen threshold, gazing at the bright fire. Then she instinctively opened the door of a cupboard, and promptly shut it again. Everything was in its place, chairs and tables alike; she found them all again, and their presence gave her pleasure. Zephyrin had, in the meantime, struggled respectfully to his feet. She nodded to him, smiling.
"I didn't know whether to put the roast on," began the maid.
"Why, what time is it?" asked Helene.
"Oh, it's close on seven o'clock, madame."
"What! seven o'clock!"
Astonishment riveted her to the floor; she had lost all consciousness of time, and seemed to awaken from a dream.
"And where's Jeanne?" she asked.
"Oh! she has been very good, madame. I even think she must have fallen asleep, for I haven't heard her for some time."
"Haven't you given her a light?"
Embarrassment closed Rosalie's lips; she was unwilling to relate that Zephyrin had brought her some pictures which had engrossed her attention. Mademoiselle had never made the least stir, so she could scarcely have wanted anything. Helene, however, paid no further heed to her, but ran into the room, where a dreadful chill fell upon her.
"Jeanne! Jeanne!" she called.
No answer broke the stillness. She stumbled against an arm-chair. From the dining-room, the door of which she had left ajar, some light streamed across a corner of the carpet. She felt a shiver come over her, and she could have declared that the rain was falling in the room, with its moist breath and continuous streaming. Then, on turning her head, she at once saw the pale square formed by the open window and the gloomy grey of the sky.
"Who can have opened this window?" she cried. "Jeanne! Jeanne!"
Still no answering word. A mortal terror fell on Helene's heart. She must look out of this window; but as she felt her way towards it, her hands lighted on a head of hair—it was Jeanne's. And then, as Rosalie entered with a lamp, the child appeared with blanched face, sleeping with her cheek upon her crossed arms, while the big raindrops from the roof splashed upon her. Her breathing was scarcely perceptible, so overcome she was with despair and fatigue. Among the lashes of her large, bluey eyelids there were still two heavy tears.
"The unhappy child!" stammered Helene. "Oh, heavens! she's icy cold! To fall asleep there, at such a time, when she had been expressly forbidden to touch the window! Jeanne, Jeanne, speak to me; wake up, Jeanne!"
Rosalie had prudently vanished. The child, on being raised in her mother's embrace, let her head drop as though she were unable to shake off the leaden slumber that had seized upon her. At last, however, she raised her eyelids; but the glare of the lamp dazzled her, and she remained benumbed and stupid.
"Jeanne, it's I! What's wrong with you? See, I've just come back," said Helene.
But the child seemingly failed to understand her; in her stupefaction she could only murmur: "Oh! Ah!"
She gazed inquiringly at her mother, as though she failed to recognize her. And suddenly she shivered, growing conscious of the cold air of the room. Her memory was awakening, and the tears rolled from her eyelids to her cheeks. Then she commenced to struggle, in the evident desire to be left alone.
"It's you, it's you! Oh, leave me; you hold me too tight! I was so comfortable."
She slipped from her mother's arms with affright in her face. Her uneasy looks wandered from Helene's hands to her shoulders; one of those hands was ungloved, and she started back from the touch of the moist palm and warm fingers with a fierce resentment, as though fleeing from some stranger's caress. The old perfume of vervain had died away; Helene's fingers had surely become greatly attenuated, and her hand was unusually soft. This skin was no longer hers, and its touch exasperated Jeanne.
"Come, I'm not angry with you," pleaded Helene. "But, indeed, have you behaved well? Come and kiss me."
Jeanne, however, still recoiled from her. She had no remembrance of having seen her mother dressed in that gown or cloak. Besides, she looked so wet and muddy. Where had she come from dressed in that dowdy style.
"Kiss me, Jeanne," repeated Helene.
But her voice also seemed strange; in Jeanne's ears it sounded louder. Her old heartache came upon her once more, as when an injury had been done her; and unnerved by the presence of what was unknown and horrible to her, divining, however, that she was breathing an atmosphere of falsehood, she burst into sobs.
"No, no, I entreat you! You left me all alone; and oh! I've been so miserable!"
"But I'm back again, my darling. Don't weep any more; I've come home!"
"Oh no, no! it's all over now! I don't wish for you any more! Oh, I waited and waited, and have been so wretched!"
Helene took hold of the child again, and gently sought to draw her to her bosom; but she resisted stubbornly, plaintively exclaiming:
"No, no; it will never be the same! You are not the same!"
"What! What are you talking of, child?"
"I don't know; you are not the same."
"Do you mean to say that I don't love you any more?"
"I don't know; you are no longer the same! Don't say no. You don't feel the same! It's all over, over, over. I wish to die!"
With blanching face Helene again clasped her in her arms. Did her looks, then, reveal her secret? She kissed her, but a shudder ran through the child's frame, and an expression of such misery crept into her face that Helene forbore to print a second kiss upon her brow. She still kept hold of her, but neither of them uttered a word. Jeanne's sobbing fell to a whisper, a nervous revolt stiffening her limbs the while. Helene's first thought was that much notice ought not to be paid to a child's whims; but to her heart there stole a feeling of secret shame, and the weight of her daughter's body on her shoulder brought a blush to her cheeks. She hastened to put Jeanne down, and each felt relieved.
"Now, be good, and wipe your eyes," said Helene. "We'll make everything all right."
The child acquiesced in all gentleness, but seemed somewhat afraid and glanced covertly at her mother. All at once her frame was shaken by a fit of coughing.
"Good heavens! why, you've made yourself ill now! I cannot stay away from you a moment. Did you feel cold?
"Yes, mamma; in the back."
"See here; put on this shawl. The dining-room stove is lighted, and you'll soon feel warm. Are you hungry?"
Jeanne hesitated. It was on the tip of her tongue to speak the truth and say no; but she darted a side glance at her mother, and, recoiling, answered in a whisper: "Yes, mamma."
"Ah, well, it will be all right," exclaimed Helene, desirous of tranquillizing herself. "Only, I entreat you, you naughty child, don't frighten me like this again."
On Rosalie re-entering the room to announce that dinner was ready, Helene severely scolded her. The little maid's head drooped; she stammered out that it was all very true, for she ought to have looked better after mademoiselle. Then, hoping to mollify her mistress, she busied herself in helping her to change her clothes. "Good gracious! madame was in a fine state!" she remarked, as she assisted in removing each mud-stained garment, at which Jeanne glared suspiciously, still racked by torturing thoughts.
"Madame ought to feel comfortable now," exclaimed Rosalie when it was all over. "It's awfully nice to get into dry clothes after a drenching."
Helene, on finding herself once more in her blue dressing-gown, gave vent to a slight sigh, as though a new happiness had welled up within her. She again regained her old cheerfulness; she had rid herself of a burden in throwing off those bedraggled garments. She washed her face and hands; and while she stood there, still glistening with moisture, her dressing-gown buttoned up to her chin, she was slowly approached by Jeanne, who took one of her hands and kissed it.
At table, however, not a word passed between mother and daughter. The fire flared with a merry roar, and there was a look of happiness about the little dining-room, with its bright mahogany and gleaming china. But the old stupor which drove away all thought seemed to have again fallen on Helene; she ate mechanically, though with an appearance of appetite. Jeanne sat facing her, and quietly watched her over her glass, noting each of her movements. But all at once the child again coughed, and her mother, who had become unconscious of her presence, immediately displayed lively concern.
"Why, you're coughing again! Aren't you getting warm?"
"Oh, yes, mamma; I'm very warm."
Helene leaned towards her to feel her hand and ascertain whether she was speaking the truth. Only then did she perceive that her plate was still full.
"Why, you said you were hungry. Don't you like what you have there?"
"Oh, yes, mamma; I'm eating away."
With an effort Jeanne swallowed a mouthful. Helene looked at her for a time, but soon again began dreaming of the fatal room which she had come from. It did not escape the child that her mother took little interest in her now. As the dinner came to an end, her poor wearied frame sank down on the chair, and she sat there like some bent, aged woman, with the dim eyes of one of those old maids for whom love is past and gone.
"Won't mademoiselle have any jam?" asked Rosalie. "If not, can I remove the cloth?"
Helene still sat there with far-away looks.
"Mamma, I'm sleepy," exclaimed Jeanne in a changed voice. "Will you let me go to bed? I shall feel better in bed."
Once more her mother seemed to awake with a start to consciousness of her surroundings.
"You are suffering, my darling! where do you feel the pain? Tell me."
"No, no; I told you I'm all right! I'm sleepy, and it's already time for me to go to bed."
She left her chair and stood up, as though to prove that there was no illness threatening her: but her benumbed feet tottered over the floor on her way to the bedroom. She leaned against the furniture, and her hardihood was such that not a tear came from her, despite the feverish fire darting through her frame. Her mother followed to assist her to bed; but the child had displayed such haste in undressing herself that she only arrived in time to tie up her hair for the night. Without need of any helping hand Jeanne slipped between the sheets, and quickly closed her eyes.
"Are you comfortable?" asked Helene, as she drew up the bedclothes and carefully tucked her in.
"Yes, quite comfortable. Leave me alone, and don't disturb me. Take away the lamp."
Her only yearning was to be alone in the darkness, that she might reopen her eyes and chew the cud of her sorrows, with no one near to watch her. When the light had been carried away, her eyes opened quite wide.
Nearby, in the meantime, Helene was pacing up and down her room. She was seized with a wondrous longing to be up and moving about; the idea of going to bed seemed to her insufferable. She glanced at the clock —twenty minutes to nine; what was she to do? she rummaged about in a drawer, but forgot what she was seeking for. Then she wandered to her bookshelves, glancing aimlessly over the books; but the very reading of the titles wearied her. A buzzing sprang up in her ears with the room's stillness; the loneliness, the heavy atmosphere, were as an agony to her. She would fain have had some bustle going on around her, have had some one there to speak to—something, in short, to draw her from herself. She twice listened at the door of Jeanne's little room, from which, however, not even a sound of breathing came. Everything was quiet; so she turned back once more, and amused herself by taking up and replacing whatever came to her hand. Then suddenly the thought flashed across her mind that Zephyrin must still be with Rosalie. It was a relief to her; she was delighted at the idea of not being alone, and stepped in her slippers towards the kitchen.
She was already in the ante-room, and was opening the glass door of the inner passage, when she detected the re-echoing clap of a swinging box on the ears, and the next moment Rosalie could be heard exclaiming: