"Ha, ha! you think you'll nip me again, do you? Take your paws off!"
"Oh! that's nothing, my charmer!" exclaimed Zephyrin in his husky, guttural voice. "That's to show how I love you—in this style, you know—"
But at that moment the door creaked, and Helene, entering, discovered the diminutive soldier and the servant maid seated very quietly at table, with their noses bent over their plates. They had assumed an air of complete indifference; their innocence was certain. Yet their faces were red with blushes, and their eyes aflame, and they wriggled restlessly on their straw-bottomed chairs. Rosalie started up and hurried forward.
"Madame wants something?"
Helene had no pretext ready to her tongue. She had come to see them, to chat with them, and have their company. However, she felt a sudden shame, and dared not say that she required nothing.
"Have you any hot water?" she asked, after a silence.
"No, madame; and my fire is nearly out. Oh, but it doesn't matter; I'll give you some in five minutes. It boils in no time."
She threw on some charcoal, and then set the kettle in place; but seeing that her mistress still lingered in the doorway, she said:
"I'll bring the water to you in five minutes, madame."
Helene responded with a wave of the hand.
"I'm not in a hurry for it; I'll wait. Don't disturb yourself, my girl; eat away, eat away. There's a lad who'll have to go back to barracks."
Rosalie thereupon sat down again. Zephyrin, who had also been standing, made a military salute, and returned to the cutting of his meat, with his elbows projecting as though to show that he knew how to conduct himself at table. Thus eating together, after madame had finished dinner, they did not even draw the table into the middle of the kitchen, but contented themselves with sitting side by side, with their noses turned towards the wall. A glorious prospect of stewpans was before them. A bunch of laurel and thyme hung near, and a spice-box exhaled a piquant perfume. Around them—the kitchen was not yet tidied—was all the litter of the things cleared away from the dining-room; however, the spot seemed a charming one to these hungry sweethearts, and especially to Zephyrin, who here feasted on such things as were never seen within the walls of his barracks. The predominant odor was one of roast meat, seasoned with a dash of vinegar—the vinegar of the salad. In the copper pans and iron pots the reflected light from the gas was dancing; and as the heat of the fire was beyond endurance, they had set the window ajar, and a cool breeze blew in from the garden, stirring the blue cotton curtain.
"Must you be in by ten o'clock exactly?" asked Helene.
"I must, madame, with all deference to you," answered Zephyrin.
"Well, it's along way off. Do you take the ''bus'?"
"Oh, yes, madame, sometimes. But you see a good swinging walk is much the best."
She had taken a step into the kitchen, and leaning against the dresser, her arms dangling and her hands clasped over her dressing-gown, she began gossiping away about the wretched weather they had had that day, about the food which was rationed out in barracks, and the high price of eggs. As soon, however, as she had asked a question and their answer had been given the conversation abruptly fell. They experienced some discomfort with her standing thus behind their backs. They did not turn round, but spoke into their plates, their shoulders bent beneath her gaze, while, to conform to propriety, each mouthful they swallowed was as small as possible. On the other hand, Helene had now regained her tranquillity, and felt quite happy there.
"Don't fret, madame," said Rosalie; "the kettle is singing already. I wish the fire would only burn up a little better!"
She wanted to see to it, but Helene would not allow her to disturb herself. It would be all right by-and-by. An intense weariness now pervaded the young woman's limbs. Almost mechanically she crossed the kitchen and approached the window, where she observed the third chair, which was very high, and when turned over became a stepladder. However, she did not sit down on it at once, for she had caught sight of a number of pictures heaped up on a corner of the table.
"Dear me!" she exclaimed, as she took them in her hand, inspired with the wish of gratifying Zephyrin.
The little soldier gaped with a silent chuckle. His face beamed with smiles, and his eyes followed each picture, his head wagging whenever something especially lovely was being examined by madame.
"That one there," he suddenly remarked, "I found in the Rue du Temple. She's a beautiful woman, with flowers in her basket."
Helene sat down and inspected the beautiful woman who decorated the gilt and varnished lid of a box of lozenges, every stain on which had been carefully wiped off by Zephyrin. On the chair a dish-cloth was hanging, and she could not well lean back. She flung it aside, however, and once more lapsed into her dreaming. Then the two sweethearts remarked madame's good nature, and their restraint vanished—in the end, indeed, her very presence was forgotten by them. One by one the pictures had dropped from her hands on to her knees, and, with a vague smile playing on her face, she examined the sweethearts and listened to their talk.
"I say, my dear," whispered the girl, "won't you have some more mutton?"
He answered neither yes nor no, but swung backwards and forwards on his chair as though he had been tickled, then contentedly stretched himself, while she placed a thick slice on his plate. His red epaulets moved up and down, and his bullet-shaped head, with its huge projecting ears, swayed to and fro over his yellow collar as though it were the head of some Chinese idol. His laughter ran all over him, and he was almost bursting inside his tunic, which he did not unbutton, however, out of respect for madame.
"This is far better than old Rouvet's radishes!" he exclaimed at last, with his mouth full.
This was a reminiscence of their country home; and at thought of it they both burst into immoderate laughter. Rosalie even had to hold on to the table to prevent herself from falling. One day, before their first communion, it seemed, Zephyrin had filched three black radishes from old Rouvet. They were very tough radishes indeed—tough enough to break one's teeth; but Rosalie all the same had crunched her share of the spoil at the back of the schoolhouse. Hence it was that every time they chanced to be taking a meal together Zephyrin never omitted to ejaculate: "Yes; this is better than old Rouvet's radishes!"
And then Rosalie's laughter would become so violent that nine times out of ten her petticoat-string would give way with an audible crack.
"Hello! has it parted?" asked the little soldier, with triumph in his tone.
But Rosalie responded with a good slap.
"It's disgusting to make me break the string like this!" said she. "I put a fresh one on every week."
However, he came nearer to her, intent on some joke or other, by way of revenging the blow; but with a furious glance she reminded him that her mistress was looking on. This seemed to trouble him but little, for he replied with a rakish wink, as much as to say that no woman, not even a lady, disliked a little fun. To be sure, when folks are sweethearting, other people always like to be looking on.
"You have still five years to serve, haven't you?" asked Helene, leaning back on the high wooden-seated chair, and yielding to a feeling of tenderness.
"Yes, madame; perhaps only four if they don't need me any longer."
It occurred to Rosalie that her mistress was thinking of her marriage, and with assumed anger, she broke in:
"Oh! madame, he can stick in the army for another ten years if he likes! I sha'n't trouble myself to ask the Government for him. He is becoming too much of a rake; yes, I believe he's going to the dogs. Oh! it's useless for you to laugh—that won't take with me. When we go before the mayor to get married, we'll see on whose side the laugh is!"
At this he chuckled all the more, in order that he might show himself a lady-killer before madame, and the maid's annoyance then became real.
"Oh!" said she, "we know all about that! You know, madame, he's still a booby at heart. You've no idea how stupid that uniform makes them all! That's the way he goes on with his comrades; but if I turned him out, you would hear him sobbing on the stairs. Oh, I don't care a fig for you, my lad! Why, whenever I please, won't you always be there to do as I tell you?"
She bent forward to observe him closely; but, on seeing that his good-natured, freckled face was beginning to cloud over, she was suddenly moved, and prattled on, without any seeming transition:
"Ah! I didn't tell you that I've received a letter from auntie. The Guignard lot want to sell their house—aye, and almost for nothing too. We might perhaps be able to take it later on."
"By Jove!" exclaimed Zephyrin, brightening, "we should be quite at home there. There's room enough for two cows."
With this idea they lapsed into silence. They were now having some dessert. The little soldier licked the jam on his bread with a child's greedy satisfaction, while the servant girl carefully pared an apple with a maternal air.
"Madame!" all at once exclaimed Rosalie, "there's the water boiling now."
Helene, however, never stirred. She felt herself enveloped by an atmosphere of happiness. She gave a continuance to their dreams, and pictured them living in the country in the Guignards' house and possessed of two cows. A smile came to her face as she saw Zephyrin sitting there to all appearance so serious, though in reality he was patting Rosalie's knee under the table, whilst she remained very stiff, affecting an innocent demeanor. Then everything became blurred. Helene lost all definite sense of her surroundings, of the place where she was, and of what had brought her there. The copper pans were flashing on the walls; feelings of tenderness riveted her to the spot; her eyes had a far-away look. She was not affected in any way by the disorderly state of the kitchen; she had no consciousness of having demeaned herself by coming there; all she felt was a deep pleasure, as when a longing has been satisfied. Meantime the heat from the fire was bedewing her pale brow with beads of perspiration, and behind her the wind, coming in through the half-open window, quivered delightfully on her neck.
"Madame, your water is boiling," again said Rosalie. "There will be soon none left in the kettle."
She held the kettle before her, and Helene, for the moment astonished, was forced to rise. "Oh, yes! thank you!"
She no longer had an excuse to remain, and went away slowly and regretfully. When she reached her room she was at a loss what to do with the kettle. Then suddenly within her there came a burst of passionate love. The torpor which had held her in a state of semi-unconsciousness gave way to a wave of glowing feeling, the rush of which thrilled her as with fire. She quivered, and memories returned to her—memories of her passion and of Henri.
While she was taking off her dressing-gown and gazing at her bare arms, a noise broke on her anxious ear. She thought she had heard Jeanne coughing. Taking up the lamp she went into the closet, but found the child with eyelids closed, seemingly fast asleep. However, the moment the mother, satisfied with her examination, had turned her back, Jeanne's eyes again opened widely to watch her as she returned to her room. There was indeed no sleep for Jeanne, nor had she any desire to sleep. A second fit of coughing racked her bosom, but she buried her head beneath the coverlet and stifled every sound. She might go away for ever now; her mother would never miss her. Her eyes were still wide open in the darkness; she knew everything as though knowledge had come with thought, and she was dying of it all, but dying without a murmur.
Next day all sorts of practical ideas took possession of Helene's mind. She awoke impressed by the necessity of keeping watch over her happiness, and shuddering with fear lest by some imprudent step she might lose Henri. At this chilly morning hour, when the room still seemed asleep, she felt that she idolized him, loved him with a transport which pervaded her whole being. Never had she experienced such an anxiety to be diplomatic. Her first thought was that she must go to see Juliette that very morning, and thus obviate the need of any tedious explanations or inquiries which might result in ruining everything.
On calling upon Madame Deberle at about nine o'clock she found her already up, with pallid cheeks and red eyes like the heroine of a tragedy. As soon as the poor woman caught sight of her, she threw herself sobbing upon her neck exclaiming that she was her good angel. She didn't love Malignon, not in the least, she swore it! Gracious heavens! what a foolish affair! It would have killed her—there was no doubt of that! She did not now feel herself to be in the least degree qualified for ruses, lies, and agonies, and the tyranny of a sentiment that never varied. Oh, how delightful did it seem to her to find herself free again! She laughed contentedly; but immediately afterwards there was another outburst of tears as she besought her friend not to despise her. Beneath her feverish unrest a fear lingered; she imagined that her husband knew everything. He had come home the night before trembling with agitation. She overwhelmed Helene with questions; and Helene, with a hardihood and facility at which she herself was amazed, poured into her ears a story, every detail of which she invented offhand. She vowed to Juliette that her husband doubted her in nothing. It was she, Helene, who had become acquainted with everything, and, wishing to save her, had devised that plan of breaking in upon their meeting. Juliette listened to her, put instant credit in the fiction, and, beaming through her tears, grew sunny with joy. She threw herself once more on Helene's neck. Her caresses brought no embarrassment to the latter; she now experienced none of the honorable scruples that had at one time affected her. When she left her lover's wife after extracting a promise from her that she would try to be calm, she laughed in her sleeve at her own cunning; she was in a transport of delight.
Some days slipped away. Helene's whole existence had undergone a change; and in the thoughts of every hour she no longer lived in her own home, but with Henri. The only thing that existed for her was that next-door house in which her heart beat. Whenever she could find an excuse to do so she ran thither, and forgot everything in the content of breathing the same air as her lover. In her first rapture the sight of Juliette even flooded her with tenderness; for was not Juliette one of Henri's belongings? He had not, however, again been able to meet her alone. She appeared loth to give him a second assignation. One evening, when he was leading her into the hall, she even made him swear that he would never again visit the house in the Passage des Eaux, as such an act might compromise her.
Meantime, Jeanne was shaken by a short, dry cough, that never ceased, but became severer towards evening every day. She would then be slightly feverish, and she grew weak with the perspiration that bathed her in her sleep. When her mother cross-questioned her, she answered that she wasn't ill, that she felt no pain. Doubtless her cold was coming to an end. Helene, tranquillized by the explanation, and having no adequate idea of what was going on around her, retained, however, in her bosom, amidst the rapture that made up her life, a vague feeling of sorrow, of some weight that made her heart bleed despite herself. At times, when she was plunged in one of those causeless transports which made her melt with tenderness, an anxious thought would come to her—she imagined that some misfortune was hovering behind her. She turned round, however, and then smiled. People are ever in a tremble when they are too happy. There was nothing there. Jeanne had coughed a moment before, but she had some tisane to drink; there would be no ill effects.
However, one afternoon old Doctor Bodin, who visited them in the character of a family friend, prolonged his stay, and stealthily, but carefully, examined Jeanne with his little blue eyes. He questioned her as though he were having some fun with her, and on this occasion uttered no warning word. Two days later, however, he made his appearance again; and this time, not troubling to examine Jeanne, he talked away merrily in the fashion of a man who has seen many years and many things, and turned the conversation on travelling. He had once served as a military surgeon; he knew every corner of Italy. It was a magnificent country, said he, which to be admired ought to be seen in spring. Why didn't Madame Grandjean take her daughter there? From this he proceeded by easy transitions to advising a trip to the land of the sun, as he styled it. Helene's eyes were bent on him fixedly. "No, no," he exclaimed, "neither of you is ill! Oh, no, certainly not! Still, a change of air would mean new strength!" Her face had blanched, a mortal chill had come over her at the thought of leaving Paris. Gracious heavens! to go away so far, so far! to lose Henri in a moment, their love to droop without a morrow! Such was the agony which the thought gave her that she bent her head towards Jeanne to hide her emotion. Did Jeanne wish to go away? The child, with a chilly gesture, had intertwined her little fingers. Oh! yes, she would so like to go! She would so like to go away into the sunny land, quite alone, she and her mother, quite alone! And over her poor attenuated face with its cheeks burning with fever, there swept the bright hope of a new life. But Helene would listen to no more; indignation and distrust led her to imagine that all of them—the Abbe, Doctor Bodin, Jeanne herself—were plotting to separate her from Henri. When the old doctor noticed the pallor of her cheeks, he imagined that he had not spoken so cautiously as he might have done, and hastened to declare that there was no hurry, albeit he silently resolved to return to the subject at another time.
It happened that Madame Deberle intended to stop at home that day. As soon as the doctor had gone Helene hastened to put on her bonnet. Jeanne, however, refused to quit the house; she felt better beside the fire; she would be very good, and would not open the window. For some time past she had not teased her mother to be allowed to go with her; still she gazed after her as she went out with a longing look. Then, when she found herself alone, she shrunk into her chair and sat for hours motionless.
"Mamma, is Italy far away?" she asked as Helene glided towards her to kiss her.
"Oh! very far away, my pet!"
Jeanne clung round her neck, and not letting her rise again at the moment, whispered: "Well, Rosalie could take care of everything here. We should have no need of her. A small travelling-trunk would do for us, you know! Oh! it would be delightful, mother dear! Nobody but us two! I should come back quite plump—like this!"
She puffed out her cheeks and pictured how stout her arms would be. Helene's answer was that she would see; and then she ran off with a final injunction to Rosalie to take good care of mademoiselle.
The child coiled herself up in the chimney-corner, gazing at the ruddy fire and deep in reverie. From time to time she moved her hands forward mechanically to warm them. The glinting of the flames dazzled her large eyes. So absorbed was she in her dreaming that she did not hear Monsieur Rambaud enter the room. His visits had now become very frequent; he came, he would say, in the interests of the poor paralytic woman for whom Doctor Deberle had not yet been able to secure admission into the Hospital for Incurables. Finding Jeanne alone, he took a seat on the other side of the fireplace, and chatted with her as though she were a grown-up person. It was most regrettable; the poor woman had been waiting a week; however, he would go down presently to see the doctor, who might perhaps give him an answer. Meanwhile he did not stir.
"Why hasn't your mother taken you with her?" he asked.
Jeanne shrugged her shoulders with a gesture of weariness. It disturbed her to go about visiting other people. Nothing gave her any pleasure now.
"I am getting old," she added, "and I can't be always amusing myself. Mamma finds entertainment out of doors, and I within; so we are not together."
Silence ensued. The child shivered, and held her hands out towards the fire which burnt steadily with a pinky glare; and, indeed, muffled as she was in a huge shawl, with a silk handkerchief round her neck and another encircling her head, she did look like some old dame. Shrouded in all these wraps, it struck one that she was no larger than an ailing bird, panting amidst its ruffled plumage. Monsieur Rambaud, with hands clasped over his knees, was gazing at the fire. Then, turning towards Jeanne, he inquired if her mother had gone out the evening before. She answered with a nod, yes. And did she go out the evening before that and the previous day? The answer was always yes, given with a nod of the head; her mother quitted her every day.
At this the child and Monsieur Rambaud gazed at one another for a long time, their faces pale and serious, as though they shared some great sorrow. They made no reference to it—a chit like her and an old man could not talk of such a thing together; but they were well aware why they were so sad, and why it was a pleasure to them to sit like this on either side of the fireplace when they were alone in the house. It was a comfort beyond telling. They loved to be near one another that their forlornness might pain them less. A wave of tenderness poured into their hearts; they would fain have embraced and wept together.
"You are cold, my dear old friend, I'm certain of it," said Jeanne; "come nearer the fire."
"No, no, my darling; I'm not cold."
"Oh! you're telling a fib; your hands are like ice! Come nearer, or I shall get vexed."
It was now his turn to display his anxious care.
"I could lay a wager they haven't left you any drink. I'll run and make some for you; would you like it? Oh! I'm a good hand at making it. You would see, if I were your nurse, you wouldn't be without anything you wanted."
He did not allow himself any more explicit hint. Jeanne somewhat sharply declared she was disgusted with tisane; she was compelled to drink too much of it. However, now and then she would allow Monsieur Rambaud to flutter round her like a mother; he would slip a pillow under her shoulders, give her the medicine that she had almost forgotten, or carry her into the bedroom in his arms. These little acts of devotion thrilled both with tenderness. As Jeanne eloquently declared with her sombre eyes, whose flashes disturbed the old man so sorely, they were playing the parts of the father and the little girl while her mother was absent. Then, however, sadness would all at once fall upon them; their talk died away, and they glanced at one another stealthily with pitying looks.
That afternoon, after a lengthy silence, the child asked the question which she had already put to her mother: "Is Italy far away?"
"Oh! I should think so," replied Monsieur Rambaud. "It's away over yonder, on the other side of Marseilles, a deuce of a distance! Why do you ask me such a question?"
"Oh! because—" she began gravely. But she burst into loud complaints at her ignorance. She was always ill, and she had never been sent to school. Then they both became silent again, lulled into forgetfulness by the intense heat of the fire.
In the meantime Helene had found Madame Deberle and her sister Pauline in the Japanese pavilion where they so frequently whiled away the afternoon. Inside it was very warm, a heating apparatus filled it with a stifling atmosphere.
The large windows were shut, and a full view could be had of the little garden, which, in its winter guise, looked like some large sepia drawing, finished with exquisite delicacy, the little black branches of the trees showing clear against the brown earth. The two sisters were carrying on a sharp controversy.
"Now, be quiet, do!" exclaimed Juliette; "it is evidently our interest to support Turkey."
"Oh! I've had a talk about it with a Russian," replied Pauline, who was equally excited. "We are much liked at St. Petersburg, and it is only there that we can find our proper allies."
Juliette's face assumed a serious look, and, crossing her arms, she exclaimed: "Well, and what will you do with the balance of power in Europe?"
The Eastern crisis was the absorbing topic in Paris at that moment;[*] it was the stock subject of conversation, and no woman who pretended to any position could speak with propriety of anything else. Thus, for two days past, Madame Deberle had with passionate fervor devoted herself to foreign politics. Her ideas were very pronounced on the various eventualities which might arise; and Pauline greatly annoyed her by her eccentricity in advocating Russia's cause in opposition to the clear interests of France. Juliette's first desire was to convince her of her folly, but she soon lost her temper.
[*] The reader may be reminded that the period of the story is that of the Crimean war.
"Pooh! hold your tongue; you are talking foolishly! Now, if you had only studied the matter carefully with me—"
But she broke off to greet Helene, who entered at this moment.
"Good-day, my dear! It is very kind of you to call. I don't suppose you have any news. This morning's paper talked of an ultimatum. There has been a very exciting debate in the English House of Commons!"
"No, I don't know anything," answered Helene, who was astounded by the question. "I go out so little!"
However, Juliette had not waited for her reply, but was busy explaining to Pauline why it was necessary to neutralize the Black Sea; and her talk bristled with references to English and Russian generals, whose names she mentioned in a familiar way and with faultless pronunciation. However, Henri now made his appearance with several newspapers in his hand. Helene at once realized that he had come there for her sake; for their eyes had sought one another and exchanged a long, meaning glance. And when their hands met it was in a prolonged and silent clasp that told how the personality of each was lost in the other.
"Is there anything in the papers?" asked Juliette feverishly.
"In the papers, my dear?" repeated the doctor; "no there's never anything."
For a time the Eastern Question dropped into the background. There were frequent allusions to some one whom they were expecting, but who did not make his appearance. Pauline remarked that it would soon be three o'clock. Oh he would come, declared Madame Deberle; he had given such a definite promise; but she never hinted at any name. Helene listened without understanding; things which had no connection with Henri did not in the least interest her. She no longer brought her work when she now came down into the garden; and though her visits would last a couple of hours, she would take no part in the conversation, for her mind was ever filled with the same childish dream wherein all others miraculously vanished, and she was left alone with him. However, she managed to reply to Juliette's questions, while Henri's eyes, riveted on her own, thrilled her with a delicious languor. At last he stepped behind her with the intention of pulling up one of the blinds, and she fully divined that he had come to ask another meeting, for she noticed the tremor that seized him when he brushed against her hair.
"There's a ring at the bell; that must be he!" suddenly exclaimed Pauline.
Then the faces of the two sisters assumed an air of indifference. It was Malignon who made his appearance, dressed with greater care than ever, and having a somewhat serious look. He shook hands; but eschewed his customary jocularity, thus returning, in a ceremonious manner, to this house where for some time he had not shown his face.
While the doctor and Pauline were expostulating with him on the rarity of his visits, Juliette bent down and whispered to Helene, who, despite her supreme indifference, was overcome with astonishment:
"Ah! you are surprised? Dear me! I am not angry with him at all! he's such a good fellow at heart that nobody could long be angry with him! Just fancy! he has unearthed a husband for Pauline. It's splendid, isn't it?"
"Oh! no doubt," answered Helene complaisantly.
"Yes, one of his friends, immensely rich, who did not think of getting married, but whom he has sworn to bring here! We were waiting for him to-day to have some definite reply. So, as you will understand, I had to pass over a lot of things. Oh! there's no danger now; we know one another thoroughly."
Her face beamed with a pretty smile, and she blushed slightly at the memories she conjured up; but she soon turned round and took possession of Malignon. Helene likewise smiled. These accommodating circumstances in life seemed to her sufficient excuse for her own delinquencies. It was absurd to think of tragic melodramas; no, everything wound up with universal happiness. However, while she had thus been indulging in the cowardly, but pleasing, thought that nothing was absolutely indefensible, Juliette and Pauline had opened the door of the pavilion, and were now dragging Malignon in their train into the garden. And, all at once, Helene heard Henri speaking to her in a low and passionate voice:
"I beseech you, Helene! Oh! I beseech you—"
She started to her feet, and gazed around her with sudden anxiety. They were quite alone; she could see the three others walking slowly along one of the walks. Henri was bold enough to lay his hand on her shoulder, and she trembled as she felt its pressure.
"As you wish," she stammered, knowing full well what question it was that he desired to ask.
Then, hurriedly, they exchanged a few words.
"At the house in the Passage des Eaux," said he.
"No, it is impossible—I have explained to you, and you swore to me—"
"Well, wherever you like, so that I may see you! In your own house —this evening. Shall I call?"
The idea was repellant to her. But she could only refuse with a sign, for fear again came upon her as she observed the two ladies and Malignon returning. Madame Deberle had taken the young man away under pretext of showing him some clumps of violets which were in full blossom notwithstanding the cold weather. Hastening her steps, she entered the pavilion before the others, her face illumined by a smile.
"It's all arranged," she exclaimed.
"What's all arranged?" asked Helene, who was still trembling with excitement and had forgotten everything.
"Oh, that marriage! What a riddance! Pauline was getting a bit of a nuisance. However, the young man has seen her and thinks her charming! To-morrow we're all going to dine with papa. I could have embraced Malignon for his good news!"
With the utmost self-possession Henri had contrived to put some distance between Helene and himself. He also expressed his sense of Malignon's favor, and seemed to share his wife's delight at the prospect of seeing their little sister settled at last. Then he turned to Helene, and informed her that she was dropping one of her gloves. She thanked him. They could hear Pauline laughing and joking in the garden. She was leaning towards Malignon, murmuring broken sentences in his ear, and bursting into loud laughter as he gave her whispered answers. No doubt he was chatting to her confidentially about her future husband. Standing near the open door of the pavilion, Helene meanwhile inhaled the cold air with delight.
It was at this moment that in the bedroom up above a silence fell on Jeanne and Monsieur Rambaud, whom the intense heat of the fire filled with languor. The child woke up from the long-continued pause with a sudden suggestion which seemed to be the outcome of her dreamy fit:
"Would you like to go into the kitchen? We'll see if we can get a glimpse of mamma!"
"Very well; let us go," replied Monsieur Rambaud.
Jeanne felt stronger that day, and reaching the kitchen without any assistance pressed her face against a windowpane. Monsieur Rambaud also gazed into the garden. The trees were bare of foliage, and through the large transparent windows of the Japanese pavilion they could make out every detail inside. Rosalie, who was busy attending to the soup, reproached mademoiselle with being inquisitive. But the child had caught sight of her mother's dress; and pointed her out, whilst flattening her face against the glass to obtain a better view. Pauline meanwhile looked up, and nodded vigorously. Then Helene also made her appearance, and signed to the child to come down.
"They have seen you, mademoiselle," said the servant girl. "They want you to go down."
Monsieur Rambaud opened the window, and every one called to him to carry Jeanne downstairs. Jeanne, however, vanished into her room, and vehemently refused to go, accusing her worthy friend of having purposely tapped on the window. It was a great pleasure to her to look at her mother, but she stubbornly declared she would not go near that house; and to all Monsieur Rambaud's questions and entreaties she would only return a stern "Because!" which was meant to explain everything.
"It is not you who ought to force me," she said at last, with a gloomy look.
But he told her that she would grieve her mother very much, and that it was not right to insult other people. He would muffle her up well, she would not catch cold; and, so saying, he wound the shawl round her body, and taking the silk handkerchief from her head, set a knitted hood in its place. Even when she was ready, however, she still protested her unwillingness; and when in the end she allowed him to carry her down, it was with the express proviso that he would take her up again the moment she might feel poorly. The porter opened the door by which the two houses communicated, and when they entered the garden they were hailed with exclamations of joy. Madame Deberle, in particular, displayed a vast amount of affection for Jeanne; she ensconced her in a chair near the stove, and desired that the windows might be closed, for the air she declared was rather sharp for the dear child. Malignon had now left. As Helene began smoothing the child's dishevelled hair, somewhat ashamed to see her in company muffled up in a shawl and a hood, Juliette burst out in protest:
"Leave her alone! Aren't we all at home here? Poor Jeanne! we are glad to have her!"
She rang the bell, and asked if Miss Smithson and Lucien had returned from their daily walk. No, they had not yet returned. It was just as well, she declared; Lucien was getting beyond control, and only the night before had made the five Levasseur girls sob with grief.
"Would you like to play at pigeon vole?" asked Pauline, who seemed to have lost her head with the thought of her impending marriage. "That wouldn't tire you."
But Jeanne shook her head in refusal. Beneath their drooping lids her eyes wandered over the persons who surrounded her. The doctor had just informed Monsieur Rambaud that admission to the Hospital for Incurables had been secured for his protegee, and in a burst of emotion the worthy man clasped his hands as though some great personal favor had been conferred on him. They were all lounging on their chairs, and the conversation became delightfully friendly. Less effort was shown in following up remarks, and there were at times intervals of silence. While Madame Deberle and her sister were busily engaged in discussion, Helene said to the two men:
"Doctor Bodin has advised us to go to Italy."
"Ah! that is why Jeanne was questioning me!" exclaimed Monsieur Rambaud. "Would it give you any pleasure to go away there?"
Without vouchsafing any answer, the child clasped her little hands upon her bosom, while her pale face flushed with joy. Then, stealthily, and with some fear, she looked towards the doctor; it was he, she understood it, whom her mother was consulting. He started slightly, but retained all his composure. Suddenly, however, Juliette joined in the conversation, wishing, as usual, to have her finger in every pie.
"What's that? Are you talking about Italy? Didn't you say you had an idea of going to Italy? Well, it's a droll coincidence! Why, this very morning, I was teasing Henri to take me to Naples! Just fancy, for ten years now I have been dreaming of seeing Naples! Every spring he promises to take me there, but he never keeps his word!"
"I didn't tell you that I would not go," murmured the doctor.
"What! you didn't tell me? Why, you refused flatly, with the excuse that you could not leave your patients!"
Jeanne was listening eagerly. A deep wrinkle now furrowed her pale brow, and she began twisting her fingers mechanically one after the other.
"Oh! I could entrust my patients for a few weeks to the care of a brother-physician," explained the doctor. "That's to say, if I thought it would give you so much pleasure—"
"Doctor," interrupted Helene, "are you also of opinion that such a journey would benefit Jeanne?"
"It would be the very thing; it would thoroughly restore her to health. Children are always the better for a change."
"Oh! then," exclaimed Juliette, "we can take Lucien, and we can all go together. That will be pleasant, won't it?"
"Yes, indeed; I'll do whatever you wish," he answered, smiling.
Jeanne lowered her face, wiped two big tears of passionate anger and grief from her eyes, and fell back in her chair as though she would fain hear and see no more; while Madame Deberle, filled with ecstasy by the idea of such unexpected pleasure, began chattering noisily. Oh! how kind her husband was! She kissed him for his self-sacrifice. Then, without the loss of a moment, she busied herself with sketching the necessary preparations. They would start the very next week. Goodness gracious! she would never have time to get everything ready! Next she wanted to draw out a plan of their tour; they would need to visit this and that town certainly; they could stay a week at Rome; they must stop at a little country place that Madame de Guiraud had mentioned to her; and she wound up by engaging in a lively discussion with Pauline, who was eager that they should postpone their departure till such time as she could accompany them with her husband.
"Not a bit of it!" exclaimed Juliette; "the wedding can take place when we come back."
Jeanne's presence had been wholly forgotten. Her eyes were riveted on her mother and the doctor. The proposed journey, indeed, now offered inducements to Helene, as it must necessarily keep Henri near her. In fact, a keen delight filled her heart at the thought of journeying together through the land of the sun, living side by side, and profiting by the hours of freedom. Round her lips wreathed a smile of happy relief; she had so greatly feared that she might lose him; and deemed herself fortunate in the thought that she would carry her love along with her. While Juliette was discoursing of the scenes they would travel through, both Helene and Henri, indeed, indulged in the dream that they were already strolling through a fairy land of perennial spring, and each told the other with a look that their passion would reign there, aye, wheresoever they might breathe the same air.
In the meantime, Monsieur Rambaud, who with unconscious sadness had slowly lapsed into silence, observed Jeanne's evident discomfort.
"Aren't you well, my darling?" he asked in a whisper.
"No! I'm quite ill! Carry me up again, I implore you."
"But we must tell your mamma."
"Oh, no, no! mamma is busy; she hasn't any time to give to us. Carry me up, oh! carry me up again."
He took her in his arms, and told Helene that the child felt tired. In answer she requested him to wait for her in her rooms; she would hasten after them. The little one, though light as a feather, seemed to slip from his grasp, and he was forced to come to a standstill on the second landing. She had leaned her head against his shoulder, and each gazed into the other's face with a look of grievous pain. Not a sound broke upon the chill silence of the staircase. Then in a low whisper he asked her:
"You're pleased, aren't you, to go to Italy?"
But she thereupon burst into sobs, declaring in broken words that she no longer had any craving to go, and would rather die in her own room. Oh! she would not go, she would fall ill, she knew it well. She would go nowhere—nowhere. They could give her little shoes to the poor. Then amidst tears she whispered to him:
"Do you remember what you asked me one night?"
"What was it, my pet?"
"To stay with mamma always—always—always! Well, if you wish so still, I wish so too!"
The tears welled into Monsieur Rambaud's eyes. He kissed her lovingly, while she added in a still lower tone:
"You are perhaps vexed by my getting so angry over it. I didn't understand, you know. But it's you whom I want! Oh! say that it will be soon. Won't you say that it will be soon? I love you more than the other one."
Below in the pavilion, Helene had begun to dream once more. The proposed journey was still the topic of conversation; and she now experienced an unconquerable yearning to relieve her overflowing heart, and acquaint Henri with all the happiness which was stifling her. So, while Juliette and Pauline were wrangling over the number of dresses that ought to be taken, she leaned towards him and gave him the assignation which she had refused but an hour before.
"Come to-night; I shall expect you."
But as she at last ascended to her own rooms, she met Rosalie flying terror-stricken down the stairs. The moment she saw her mistress, the girl shrieked out:
"Madame! madame! Oh! make haste, do! Mademoiselle is very ill! She's spitting blood!"
On rising from the dinner-table the doctor spoke to his wife of a confinement case, in close attendance on which he would doubtless have to pass the night. He quitted the house at nine o'clock, walked down to the riverside, and paced along the deserted quays in the dense nocturnal darkness. A slight moist wind was blowing, and the swollen Seine rolled on in inky waves. As soon as eleven o'clock chimed, he walked up the slopes of the Trocadero, and began to prowl round the house, the huge square pile of which seemed but a deepening of the gloom. Lights could still be seen streaming through the dining-room windows of Helene's lodging. Walking round, he noted that the kitchen was also brilliantly lighted up. And at this sight he stopped short in astonishment, which slowly developed into uneasiness. Shadows traversed the blinds; there seemed to be considerable bustle and stir up there. Perhaps Monsieur Rambaud had stayed to dine? But the worthy man never left later than ten o'clock. He, Henri, dared not go up; for what would he say should Rosalie open the door? At last, as it was nearing midnight, mad with impatience and throwing prudence to the winds, he rang the bell, and walked swiftly past the porter's room without giving his name. At the top of the stairs Rosalie received him.
"It's you, sir! Come in. I will go and announce you. Madame must be expecting you."
She gave no sign of surprise on seeing him at this hour. As he entered the dining-room without uttering a word, she resumed distractedly: "Oh! mademoiselle is very ill, sir. What a night! My legs are sinking under me!" Thereupon she left the room, and the doctor mechanically took a seat. He was oblivious of the fact that he was a medical man. Pacing along the quay he had conjured up a vision of a very different reception. And now he was there, as though he were paying a visit, waiting with his hat on his knees. A grievous coughing in the next room alone broke upon the intense silence.
At last Rosalie made her appearance once more, and hurrying across the dining-room with a basin in her hand, merely remarked: "Madame says you are not to go in."
He sat on, powerless to depart. Was their meeting to be postponed till another day, then? He was dazed, as though such a thing had seemed to him impossible. Then the thought came to him that poor Jeanne had very bad health; children only brought on sorrow and vexation. The door, however, opened once more, and Doctor Bodin entered, with a thousand apologies falling from his lips. For some time he chattered away: he had been sent for, but he would always be exceedingly pleased to enter into consultation with his renowned fellow-practitioner.
"Oh! no doubt, no doubt," stammered Doctor Deberle, whose ears were buzzing.
The elder man, his mind set at rest with regard to all questions of professional etiquette, then began to affect a puzzled manner, and expressed his doubts of the meaning of the symptoms. He spoke in a whisper, and described them in technical phraseology, frequently pausing and winking significantly. There was coughing without expectoration, very pronounced weakness, and intense fever. Perhaps it might prove a case of typhoid fever. But in the meantime he gave no decided opinion, as the anaemic nervous affection, for which the patient had been treated so long, made him fear unforeseen complications.
"What do you think?" he asked, after delivering himself of each remark.
Doctor Deberle answered with evasive questions. While the other was speaking, he felt ashamed at finding himself in that room. Why had he come up?
"I have applied two blisters," continued the old doctor. "I'm waiting the result. But, of course, you'll see her. You will then give me your opinion."
So saying he led him into the bedroom. Henri entered it with a shudder creeping through his frame. It was but faintly lighted by a lamp. There thronged into his mind the memories of other nights, when there had been the same warm perfume, the same close, calm atmosphere, the same deepening shadows shrouding the furniture and hangings. But there was no one now to come to him with outstretched hands as in those olden days. Monsieur Rambaud lay back in an arm-chair exhausted, seemingly asleep. Helene was standing in front of the bed, robed in a white dressing-gown, but did not turn her head; and her figure, in its death-like pallor, appeared to him extremely tall. Then for a moment's space he gazed on Jeanne. Her weakness was so great that she could not open her eyes without fatigue. Bathed in sweat, she lay in a stupor, her face ghastly, save that a burning flush colored each cheek.
"It's galloping consumption," he exclaimed at last, speaking aloud in spite of himself, and giving no sign of astonishment, as though he had long foreseen what would happen.
Helene heard him and looked at him. She seemed to be of ice, her eyes were dry, and she was terribly calm.
"You think so, do you?" rejoined Doctor Bodin, giving an approving nod in the style of a man who had not cared to be the first to express this opinion.
He sounded the child once more. Jeanne, her limbs quite lifeless, yielded to the examination without seemingly knowing why she was being disturbed. A few rapid sentences were exchanged between the two physicians. The old doctor murmured some words about amphoric breathing, and a sound such as a cracked jar might give out. Nevertheless, he still affected some hesitation, and spoke, suggestively, of capillary bronchitis. Doctor Deberle hastened to explain that an accidental cause had brought on the illness; doubtless it was due to a cold; however, he had already noticed several times that an anaemical tendency would produce chest diseases. Helene stood waiting behind him.
"Listen to her breathing yourself," said Doctor Bodin, giving way to Henri.
He leaned over the child, and seemed about to take hold of her. She had not raised her eyelids; but lay there in self-abandonment, consumed by fever. Her open nightdress displayed her childish breast, where as yet there were but slight signs of coming womanhood; and nothing could be more chaste or yet more harrowing than the sight of this dawning maturity on which the Angel of Death had already laid his hand. She had displayed no aversion when the old doctor had touched her. But the moment Henri's fingers glanced against her body she started as if she had received a shock. In a transport of shame she awoke from the coma in which she had been plunged, and, like a maiden in alarm, clasped her poor puny little arms over her bosom, exclaiming the while in quavering tones: "Mamma! mamma!"
Then she opened her eyes, and on recognizing the man who was bending over her, she was seized with terror. Sobbing with shame, she drew the bed-cover over her bosom. It seemed as though she had grown older by ten years during her short agony, and on the brink of death had attained sufficient womanhood to understand that this man, above all others, must not lay hands on her. She wailed out again in piteous entreaty: "Mamma! mamma! I beseech you!"
Helene, who had hitherto not opened her lips, came close to Henri. Her eyes were bent on him fixedly; her face was of marble. She touched him, and merely said in a husky voice: "Go away!"
Doctor Bodin strove to appease Jeanne, who now shook with a fresh fit of coughing. He assured her that nobody would annoy her again, that every one would go away, to prevent her being disturbed.
"Go away," repeated Helene, in a deep whisper in her lover's ear. "You see very well that we have killed her!"
Then, unable to find a word in reply, Henri withdrew. He lingered for a moment longer in the dining-room, awaiting he knew not what, something that might possibly take place. But seeing that Doctor Bodin did not come out, he groped his way down the stairs without even Rosalie to light him. He thought of the awful speed with which galloping consumption—a disease to which he had devoted earnest study—carried off its victims; the miliary tubercles would rapidly multiply, the stifling sensation would become more and more pronounced; Jeanne would certainly not last another three weeks.
The first of these passed by. In the mighty expanse of heaven before the window, the sun rose and set above Paris, without Helene being more than vaguely conscious of the pitiless, steady advance of time. She grasped the fact that her daughter was doomed; she lived plunged in a stupor, alive only to the terrible anguish that filled her heart. It was but waiting on in hopelessness, in certainty that death would prove merciless. She could not weep, but paced gently to and fro, tending the sufferer with slow, regulated movements. At times, yielding to fatigue, she would fall upon a chair, whence she gazed at her for hours. Jeanne grew weaker and weaker; painful vomiting was followed by exhaustion; the fever never quitted her. When Doctor Bodin called, he examined her for a little while and left some prescription; but his drooping shoulders, as he left the room, were eloquent of such powerlessness that the mother forbore to accompany him to ask even a question.
On the morning after the illness had declared itself, Abbe Jouve had made all haste to call. He and his brother now again came every evening, exchanging a mute clasp of the hand with Helene, and never venturing to ask any news. They had offered to watch by the bedside in succession, but she sent them away when ten o'clock struck; she would have no one in the bedroom during the night. One evening the Abbe, who had seemed absorbed by some idea since the previous day, took her aside.
"There is one thing I've thought of," he whispered. "Her health has put obstacles in the darling child's way; but her first communion might take place here."
His meaning at first did not seem to dawn on Helene. The thought that, despite all his indulgence, he should now allow his priestly character the ascendant and evince no concern but in spiritual matters, came on her with surprise, and even wounded her somewhat. With a careless gesture she exclaimed: "No, no; I would rather she wasn't worried. If there be a heaven, she will have no difficulty in entering its gates."
That evening, however, Jeanne experienced one of those deceptive improvements in health which fill the dying with illusions as to their condition. Her hearing, rendered more acute by illness, had enabled her to catch the Abbe's words.
"It's you, dear old friend!" said she. "You spoke about the first communion. It will be soon, won't it?"
"No doubt, my darling," he answered.
Then she wanted him to come near to speak to her. Her mother had propped her up with the pillow, and she reclined there, looking very little, with a smile on her fever-burnt lips, and the shadow of death already passing over her brilliant eyes.
"Oh! I'm getting on very well," she began. "I could get up if I wanted. But tell me: should I have a white gown and flowers? Will the church be as beautiful as it was in the Month of Mary?"
"More beautiful, my pet."
"Really? Will there be as many flowers, and will there be such sweet chants? It will be soon, soon—you promise me, won't you?"
She was wrapt in joy. She gazed on the curtains of the bed, and murmured in her transport that she was very fond of the good God, and had seen Him while she was listening to the canticles. Even now she could hear organs pealing, see lights that circled round, and flowers in great vases hovering like butterflies before her eyes. Then another fit of coughing threw her back on the pillow. However, her face was still flushed with a smile; she seemed to be unconscious of her cough, but continued:
"I shall get up to-morrow. I shall learn my catechism without a mistake, and we'll be all very happy."
A sob came from Helene as she stood at the foot of the bed. She had been powerless to weep, but a storm of tears rushed up from her bosom as Jeanne's laughter fell on her ear. Then, almost stifling, she fled into the dining-room, that she might hide her despair. The Abbe followed her. Monsieur Rambaud had at once started up to engage the child's attention.
"Oh dear! mamma cried out! Has she hurt herself?" she asked.
"Your mamma?" he answered. "No, she didn't cry out; she was laughing because you are feeling so well."
In the dining-room, her head bowed dejectedly on the table, Helene strove to stifle her sobs with her clasped hands. The Abbe hung over her, and prayed her to restrain her emotion. But she raised her face, streaming with tears, and bitterly accused herself. She declared to him that she herself had killed her daughter, and a full confession escaped from her lips in a torrent of broken words. She would never have succumbed to that man had Jeanne remained beside her. It had been fated that she should meet him in that chamber of mystery. God in Heaven! she ought to die with her child; she could live no longer. The priest, terrified, sought to calm her with the promise of absolution.
But there was a ring at the bell, and a sound of voices came from the lobby. Helene dried her tears as Rosalie made her appearance.
"Madame, it's Dr. Deberle, who—"
"I don't wish him to come in."
"He is asking after mademoiselle."
"Tell him she is dying."
The door had been left open, and Henri had heard everything. Without awaiting the return of the servant girl, he walked down the stairs. He came up every day, received the same answer, and then went away.
The visits which Helene received quite unnerved her. The few ladies whose acquaintance she had made at the Deberles' house deemed it their duty to tender her their sympathy. Madame de Chermette, Madame Levasseur, Madame de Guiraud, and others also presented themselves. They made no request to enter, but catechised Rosalie in such loud voices that they could be heard through the thin partitions. Giving way to impatience, Helene would then receive them in the dining-room, where, without sitting down, she spoke with them very briefly. She went about all day in her dressing-gown, careless of her attire, with her lovely hair merely gathered up and twisted into a knot. Her eyes often closed with weariness; her face was flushed; she had a bitter taste in her mouth; her lips were clammy, and she could scarcely articulate. When Juliette called, she could not exclude her from the bedroom, but allowed her to stay for a little while beside the bed.
"My dear," Madame Deberle said to her one day in friendly tones, "you give way too much. Keep up your spirits."
Helene was about to reply, when Juliette, wishing to turn her thoughts from her grief, began to chat about the things which were occupying the gossips of Paris: "We are certainly going to have a war. I am in a nice state about it, as I have two cousins who will have to serve."
In this style she would drop in upon them on returning from her rambles through Paris, her brain bursting with all the tittle-tattle collected in the course of the afternoon, and her long skirts whirling and rustling as she sailed through the stillness of the sick-room. It was altogether futile for her to lower her voice and assume a pitiful air; her indifference peeped through all disguise; it could be seen that she was happy, quite joyous indeed, in the possession of perfect health. Helene was very downcast in her company, her heart rent by jealous anguish.
"Madame," said Jeanne one evening, "why doesn't Lucien come to play with me?"
Juliette was embarrassed for a moment, and merely answered with a smile.
"Is he ill too?" continued the child.
"No, my darling, he isn't ill; he has gone to school."
Then, as Helene accompanied her into the ante-room, she wished to apologize for her prevarication.
"Oh! I would gladly bring him; I know that there's no infection. But children get frightened with the least thing, and Lucien is such a stupid. He would just burst out sobbing when he saw your poor angel—"
"Yes, indeed; you are quite right," interrupted Helene, her heart ready to break with the thought of this woman's gaiety, and her happiness in possessing a child who enjoyed robust health.
A second week had passed away. The disease was following its usual course, robbing Jeanne every hour of some of her vitality. Fearfully rapid though it was, however, it evinced no haste, but, in accomplishing the destruction of that delicate, lovable flesh, passed in turn through each foreseen phase, without skipping a single one of them. Thus the spitting of blood had ceased, and at intervals the cough disappeared. But such was the oppressive feeling which stifled the child that you could detect the ravages of the disease by the difficulty she experienced in breathing. Such weakness could not withstand so violent an attack; and the eyes of the Abbe and Monsieur Rambaud constantly moistened with tears as they heard her. Day and night under the shelter of the curtains the sound of oppressed breathing arose; the poor darling, whom the slightest shock seemed likely to kill, was yet unable to die, but lived on and on through the agony which bathed her in sweat. Her mother, whose strength was exhausted, and who could no longer bear to hear that rattle, went into the adjoining room and leaned her head against the wall.
Jeanne was slowly becoming oblivious to her surroundings. She no longer saw people, and her face bore an unconscious and forlorn expression, as though she had already lived all alone in some unknown sphere. When they who hovered round her wished to attract her attention, they named themselves that she might recognize them; but she would gaze at them fixedly, without a smile, then turn herself round towards the wall with a weary look. A gloominess was settling over her; she was passing away amidst the same vexation and sulkiness as she had displayed in past days of jealous outbursts. Still, at times the whims characteristic of sickness would awaken her to some consciousness. One morning she asked her mother:
"To-day is Sunday, isn't it?"
"No, my child," answered Helene; "this is only Friday. Why do you wish to know?"
Jeanne seemed to have already forgotten the question she had asked. But two days later, while Rosalie was in the room, she said to her in a whisper: "This is Sunday. Zephyrin is here; ask him to come and see me."
The maid hesitated, but Helene, who had heard, nodded to her in token of consent. The child spoke again:
"Bring him; come both of you; I shall be so pleased."
When Rosalie entered the sick-room with Zephyrin, she raised herself on her pillow. The little soldier, with bare head and hands spread out, swayed about to hide his intense emotion. He had a great love for mademoiselle, and it grieved him unutterably to see her "shouldering arms on the left," as he expressed it in the kitchen. So, in spite of the previous injunctions of Rosalie, who had instructed him to put on a bright expression, he stood speechless, with downcast face, on seeing her so pale and wasted to a skeleton. He was still as tender-hearted as ever, despite his conquering airs. He could not even think of one of those fine phrases which nowadays he usually concocted so easily. The maid behind him gave him a pinch to make him laugh. But he could only stammer out:
"I beg pardon—mademoiselle and every one here—"
Jeanne was still raising herself with the help of her tiny arms. She widely opened her large, vacant eyes; she seemed to be looking for something; her head shook with a nervous trembling. Doubtless the stream of light was blinding her as the shadows of death gathered around.
"Come closer, my friend," said Helene to the soldier. "It was mademoiselle who asked to see you."
The sunshine entered through the window in a slanting ray of golden light, in which the dust rising from the carpet could be seen circling. March had come, and the springtide was already budding out of doors. Zephyrin took one step forward, and appeared in the sunshine; his little round, freckled face had a golden hue, as of ripe corn, while the buttons on his tunic glittered, and his red trousers looked as sanguineous as a field of poppies. At last Jeanne became aware of his presence there; but her eye again betrayed uneasiness, and she glanced restlessly from one corner to another.
"What do you want, my child?" asked her mother. "We are all here." She understood, however, in a moment. "Rosalie, come nearer. Mademoiselle wishes to see you."
Then Rosalie, in her turn, stepped into the sunlight. She wore a cap, whose strings, carelessly tossed over her shoulders, flapped round her head like the wings of a butterfly. A golden powder seemed to fall on her bristly black hair and her kindly face with its flat nose and thick lips. And for Jeanne there were only these two in the room—the little soldier and the servant girl, standing elbow to elbow under the ray of sunshine. She gazed at them.
"Well, my darling," began Helene again, "you do not say anything to them! Here they are together."
Jeanne's eyes were still fixed on them, and her head shook with the tremor of a very aged woman. They stood there like man and wife, ready to take each other's arm and return to their country-side. The spring sun threw its warmth on them, and eager to brighten mademoiselle they ended by smiling into each other's face with a look of mingled embarrassment and tenderness. The very odor of health was exhaled from their plump round figures. Had they been alone, Zephyrin without doubt would have caught hold of Rosalie, and would have received for his pains a hearty slap. Their eyes showed it.
"Well, my darling, have you nothing to say to them?"
Jeanne gazed at them, her breathing growing yet more oppressed. And still she said not a word, but suddenly burst into tears. Zephyrin and Rosalie had at once to quit the room.
"I beg pardon—mademoiselle and every one—" stammered the little soldier, as he went away in bewilderment.
This was one of Jeanne's last whims. She lapsed into a dull stupor, from which nothing could rouse her. She lay there in utter loneliness, unconscious even of her mother's presence. When Helene hung over the bed seeking her eyes, the child preserved a stolid expression, as though only the shadow of the curtain had passed before her. Her lips were dumb; she showed the gloomy resignation of the outcast who knows that she is dying. Sometimes she would long remain with her eyelids half closed, and nobody could divine what stubborn thought was thus absorbing her. Nothing now had any existence for her save her big doll, which lay beside her. They had given it to her one night to divert her during her insufferable anguish, and she refused to give it back, defending it with fierce gestures the moment they attempted to take it from her. With its pasteboard head resting on the bolster, the doll was stretched out like an invalid, covered up to the shoulders by the counterpane. There was little doubt the child was nursing it, for her burning hands would, from time to time, feel its disjointed limbs of flesh-tinted leather, whence all the sawdust had exuded. For hours her eyes would never stray from those enamel ones which were always fixed, or from those white teeth wreathed in an everlasting smile. She would suddenly grow affectionate, clasp the doll's hands against her bosom and press her cheek against its little head of hair, the caressing contact of which seemed to give her some relief. Thus she sought comfort in her affection for her big doll, always assuring herself of its presence when she awoke from a doze, seeing nothing else, chatting with it, and at times summoning to her face the shadow of a smile, as though she had heard it whispering something in her ear.
The third week was dragging to an end. One morning the old doctor came and remained. Helene understood him: her child would not live through the day. Since the previous evening she had been in a stupor that deprived her of the consciousness even of her own actions. There was no longer any struggle with death; it was but a question of hours. As the dying child was consumed by an awful thirst, the doctor had merely recommended that she should be given some opiate beverage, which would render her passing less painful; and the relinquishing of all attempts at cure reduced Helene to a state of imbecility. So long as the medicines had littered the night-table she still had entertained hopes of a miraculous recovery. But now bottles and boxes had vanished, and her last trust was gone. One instinct only inspired her now—to be near Jeanne, never leave her, gaze at her unceasingly. The doctor, wishing to distract her attention from the terrible sight, strove, by assigning some little duties to her, to keep her at a distance. But she ever and ever returned, drawn to the bedside by the physical craving to see. She waited, standing erect, her arms hanging beside her, and her face swollen by despair.
About one o'clock Abbe Jouve and Monsieur Rambaud arrived. The doctor went to meet them, and muttered a few words. Both grew pale, and stood stock-still in consternation, while their hands began to tremble. Helene had not turned round.
The weather was lovely that day; it was one of those sunny afternoons typical of early April. Jeanne was tossing in her bed. Her lips moved painfully at times with the intolerable thirst which consumed her. She had brought her poor transparent hands from under the coverlet, and waved them gently to and fro. The hidden working of the disease was accomplished, she coughed no more, and her dying voice came like a faint breath. For a moment she turned her head, and her eyes sought the light. Doctor Bodin threw the window wide open, and then Jeanne at once became tranquil, with her cheek resting on the pillow and her looks roving over Paris, while her heavy breathing grew fainter and slower.
During the three weeks of her illness she had thus many times turned towards the city that stretched away to the horizon. Her face grew grave, she was musing. At this last hour Paris was smiling under the glittering April sunshine. Warm breezes entered from without, with bursts of urchin's laughter and the chirping of sparrows. On the brink of the grave the child exerted her last strength to gaze again on the scene, and follow the flying smoke which soared from the distant suburbs. She recognized her three friends, the Invalides, the Pantheon, and the Tower of Saint-Jacques; then the unknown began, and her weary eyelids half closed at sight of the vast ocean of roofs. Perhaps she was dreaming that she was growing much lighter and lighter, and was fleeting away like a bird. Now, at last, she would soon know all; she would perch herself on the domes and steeples; seven or eight flaps of her wings would suffice, and she would be able to gaze on the forbidden mysteries that were hidden from children. But a fresh uneasiness fell upon her, and her hands groped about; she only grew calm again when she held her large doll in her little arms against her bosom. It was evidently her wish to take it with her. Her glances wandered far away amongst the chimneys glinting with the sun's ruddy light.
Four o'clock struck, and the bluish shadows of evening were already gathering. The end was at hand; there was a stifling, a slow and passive agony. The dear angel no longer had strength to offer resistance. Monsieur Rambaud, overcome, threw himself on his knees, convulsed with silent sobbing, and dragged himself behind a curtain to hide his grief. The Abbe was kneeling at the bedside, with clasped hands, repeating the prayers for the dying.
"Jeanne! Jeanne!" murmured Helene, chilled to the heart with a horror which sent an icy thrill through her very hair.
She had repulsed the doctor and thrown herself on the ground, leaning against the bed to gaze into her daughter's face. Jeanne opened her eyes, but did not look at her mother. She drew her doll—her last love—still closer. Her bosom heaved with a big sigh, followed by two fainter ones. Then her eyes paled, and her face for a moment gave signs of a fearful anguish. But speedily there came relief; her mouth remained open, she breathed no more.
"It is over," said the doctor, as he took her hand.
Jeanne's big, vacant eyes were fixed on Paris. The long, thin, lamb-like face was still further elongated, there was a sternness on its features, a grey shadow falling from its contracted brows. Thus even in death she retained the livid expression of a jealous woman. The doll, with its head flung back, and its hair dishevelled, seemed to lie dead beside her.
"It is over," again said the doctor, as he allowed the little cold hand to drop.
Helene, with a strained expression on her face, pressed her hands to her brow as if she felt her head splitting open. No tears came to her eyes; she gazed wildly in front of her. Then a rattling noise mounted in her throat; she had just espied at the foot of the bed a pair of shoes that lay forgotten there. It was all over. Jeanne would never put them on again; the little shoes could be given to the poor. And at the sight Helene's tears gushed forth; she still knelt on the floor, her face pressed against the dead child's hand, which had slipped down. Monsieur Rambaud was sobbing. The Abbe had raised his voice, and Rosalie, standing at the door of the dining-room, was biting her handkerchief to check the noise of her grief.
At this very moment Doctor Deberle rang the bell. He was unable to refrain from making inquiries.
"How is she now?" he asked.
"Oh, sir!" wailed Rosalie, "she is dead."
He stood motionless, stupefied by the announcement of the end which he had been expecting daily. At last he muttered: "O God! the poor child! what a calamity!"
He could only give utterance to those commonplace but heartrending words. The door shut once more, and he went down the stairs.
When Madame Deberle was apprised of Jeanne's death she wept, and gave way to one of those outbursts of emotion that kept her in a flutter for eight-and-forty hours. Hers was a noisy and immoderate grief. She came and threw herself into Helene's arms. Then a phrase dropped in her hearing inspired her with the idea of imparting some affecting surroundings to the child's funeral, and soon wholly absorbed her. She offered her services, and declared her willingness to undertake every detail. The mother, worn out with weeping, sat overwhelmed in her chair; Monsieur Rambaud, who was acting in her name, was losing his head. So he accepted the offer with profuse expressions of gratitude. Helene merely roused herself for a moment to express the wish that there should be some flowers—an abundance of flowers.
Without losing a minute, Madame Deberle set about her task. She spent the whole of the next day in running from one lady friend to another, bearing the woeful tidings. It was her idea to have a following of little girls all dressed in white. She needed at least thirty, and did not return till she had secured the full number. She had gone in person to the Funeral Administration, discussed the various styles, and chosen the necessary drapery. She would have the garden railings hung with white, and the body might be laid out under the lilac trees, whose twigs were already tipped with green. It would be charming.
"If only it's a fine day to-morrow!" she giddily remarked in the evening when her scurrying to and fro had come to an end.
The morning proved lovely; there was a blue sky and a flood of sunshine, the air was pure and invigorating as only the air of spring can be. The funeral was to take place at ten o'clock. By nine the drapery had been hung up. Juliette ran down to give the workmen her ideas of what should be done. She did not wish the trees to be altogether covered. The white cloth, fringed with silver, formed a kind of porch at the garden gate, which was thrown back against the lilac trees. However, Juliette soon returned to her drawing-room to receive her lady guests. They were to assemble there to prevent Madame Grandjean's two rooms from being filled to overflowing. Still she was greatly annoyed at her husband having had to go that morning to Versailles—for some consultation or other, he explained, which he could not well neglect. Thus she was left alone, and felt she would never be able to get through with it all. Madame Berthier was the first arrival, bringing her two daughters with her.
"What do you think!" exclaimed Madame Deberle; "Henri has deserted me! Well, Lucien, why don't you say good-day?"
Lucien was already dressed for the funeral, with his hands in black gloves. He seemed astonished to see Sophie and Blanche dressed as though they were about to take part in some church procession. A silk sash encircled the muslin gown of each, and their veils, which swept down to the floor, hid their little caps of transparent tulle. While the two mothers were busy chatting, the three children gazed at one another, bearing themselves somewhat stiffly in their new attire. At last Lucien broke the silence by saying: "Jeanne is dead."
His heart was full, and yet his face wore a smile—a smile born of amazement. He had been very quiet since the evening before, dwelling on the thought that Jeanne was dead. As his mother was up to her ears in business, and took no notice of him, he had plied the servants with questions. Was it a fact, he wanted to know, that it was impossible to move when one was dead?"
"She is dead, she is dead!" echoed the two sisters, who looked like rosebuds under their white veils. "Are we going to see her?"
Lucien pondered for a time, and then, with dreamy eyes and opened mouth, seemingly striving to divine the nature of this problem which lay beyond his ken, he answered in a low tone:
"We shall never see her again."
However, several other little girls now entered the room. On a sign from his mother Lucien advanced to meet them. Marguerite Tissot, her muslin dress enveloping her like a cloud, seemed a child-Virgin; her fair hair, escaping from underneath her little cap, looked, through the snowy veil, like a tippet figured with gold. A quiet smile crept into every face when the five Levasseurs made their appearance; they were all dressed alike, and trooped along in boarding-school fashion, the eldest first, the youngest last; and their skirts stood out to such an extent that they quite filled one corner of the room. But on little Mademoiselle Guiraud's entry the whispering voices rose to a higher key; the others laughed and crowded round to see her and kiss her. She was like some white turtle-dove with its downy feathers ruffled. Wrapped in rustling gauze, she looked as round as a barrel, but still no heavier than a bird. Her mother even could not find her hands. By degrees the drawing-room seemed to be filling with a cloud of snowballs. Several boys, in their black coats, were like dark spots amidst the universal white. Lucien, now that his little wife was dead, desired to choose another. However, he displayed the greatest hesitation. He would have preferred a wife like Jeanne, taller than himself; but at last he settled on Marguerite, whose hair fascinated him, and to whom he attached himself for the day.
"The corpse hasn't been brought down yet," Pauline muttered at this moment in Juliette's ear.
Pauline was as flurried as though the preliminaries of a ball were in hand. It was with the greatest difficulty that her sister had prevented her from donning a white dress for the ceremony.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Juliette; "what are they dreaming about? I must run up. Stay with these ladies."
She hastily left the room, where the mothers in their mourning attire sat chatting in whispers, while the children dared not make the least movement lest they should rumple their dresses. When she had reached the top of the staircase and entered the chamber where the body lay, Juliette's blood was chilled by the intense cold. Jeanne still lay on the bed, with clasped hands; and, like Marguerite and the Levasseur girls, she was arrayed in a white dress, white cap, and white shoes. A wreath of white roses crowned the cap, as though she were a little queen about to be honored by the crowd of guests who were waiting below. In front of the window, on two chairs, was the oak coffin lined with satin, looking like some huge jewel casket. The furniture was all in order; a wax taper was burning; the room seemed close and gloomy, with the damp smell and stillness of a vault which has been walled up for many years. Thus Juliette, fresh from the sunshine and smiling life of the outer world, came to a sudden halt, stricken dumb, without the courage to explain that they must needs hurry.
"A great many people have come," she stammered at last. And then, as no answer was forthcoming, she added, just for the sake of saying something: "Henri has been forced to attend a consultation at Versailles; you will excuse him."
Helene, who sat in front of the bed, gazed at her with vacant eyes. They were wholly unable to drag her from that room. For six-and-thirty hours she had lingered there, despite the prayers of Monsieur Rambaud and the Abbe Jouve, who kept watch with her. During the last two nights she had been weighed to the earth by immeasurable agony. Besides, she had accomplished the grievous task of dressing her daughter for the last time, of putting on those white silk shoes, for she would allow no other to touch the feet of the little angel who lay dead. And now she sat motionless, as though her strength were spent, and the intensity of her grief had lulled her into forgetfulness.
"Have you got some flowers?" she exclaimed after an effort, her eyes still fixed on Madame Deberle.
"Yes, yes, my dear," answered the latter. "Don't trouble yourself about that."
Since her daughter had breathed her last, Helene had been consumed with one idea—there must be flowers, flowers, an overwhelming profusion of flowers. Each time she saw anybody, she grew uneasy, seemingly afraid that sufficient flowers would never be obtained.
"Are there any roses?" she began again after a pause.
"Yes. I assure you that you will be well pleased."
She shook her head, and once more fell back into her stupor. In the meantime the undertaker's men were waiting on the landing. It must be got over now without delay. Monsieur Rambaud, who was himself affected to such a degree that he staggered like a drunken man, signed to Juliette to assist him in leading the poor woman from the room. Each slipped an arm gently beneath hers, and they raised her up and led her towards the dining-room. But the moment she divined their intention, she shook them from her in a last despairing outburst. The scene was heartrending. She threw herself on her knees at the bedside and clung passionately to the sheets, while the room re-echoed with her piteous shrieks. But still Jeanne lay there with her face of stone, stiff and icy-cold, wrapped round by the silence of eternity. She seemed to be frowning; there was a sour pursing of the lips, eloquent of a revengeful nature; and it was this gloomy, pitiless look, springing from jealousy and transforming her face, which drove Helene so frantic. During the preceding thirty-six hours she had not failed to notice how the old spiteful expression had grown more and more intense upon her daughter's face, how more and more sullen she looked the nearer she approached the grave. Oh, what a comfort it would have been if Jeanne could only have smiled on her for the last time!
"No, no!" she shrieked. "I pray you, leave her for a moment. You cannot take her from me. I want to embrace her. Oh, only a moment, only a moment!"
With trembling arms she clasped her child to her bosom, eager to dispute possession with the men who stood in the ante-room, with their backs turned towards her and impatient frowns on their faces. But her lips were powerless to breathe any warmth on the cold countenance; she became conscious that Jeanne's obstinacy was not to be overcome, that she refused forgiveness. And then she allowed herself to be dragged away, and fell upon a chair in the dining-room, with the one mournful cry, again and again repeated: "My God! My God!"
Monsieur Rambaud and Madame Deberle were overcome by emotion. There was an interval of silence, but when the latter opened the door halfway it was all over. There had been no noise—scarcely a stir. The screws, oiled beforehand, now closed the lid for ever. The chamber was left empty, and a white sheet was thrown over the coffin.
The bedroom door remained open, and no further restraint was put upon Helene. On re-entering the room she cast a dazed look on the furniture and round the walls. The men had borne away the corpse. Rosalie had drawn the coverlet over the bed to efface the slight hollow made by the form of the little one whom they had lost. Then opening her arms with a distracted gesture and stretching out her hands, Helene rushed towards the staircase. She wanted to go down, but Monsieur Rambaud held her back, while Madame Deberle explained to her that it was not the thing to do. But she vowed she would behave rationally, that she would not follow the funeral procession. Surely they could allow her to look on; she would remain quiet in the garden pavilion. Both wept as they heard her pleading. However, she had to be dressed. Juliette threw a black shawl round her to conceal her morning wrap. There was no bonnet to be found; but at last they came across one from which they tore a bunch of red vervain flowers. Monsieur Rambaud, who was chief mourner, took hold of Helene's arm.
"Do not leave her," whispered Madame Deberle as they reached the garden. "I have so many things to look after!"
And thereupon she hastened away. Helene meanwhile walked with difficulty, her eyes ever seeking something. As soon as she had found herself out of doors she had drawn a long sigh. Ah! what a lovely morning! Then she looked towards the iron gate, and caught sight of the little coffin under the white drapery. Monsieur Rambaud allowed her to take but two or three steps forward.
"Now, be brave," he said to her, while a shudder ran through his own frame.
They gazed on the scene. The narrow coffin was bathed in sunshine. At the foot of it, on a lace cushion, was a silver crucifix. To the left the holy-water sprinkler lay in its font. The tall wax tapers were burning with almost invisible flames. Beneath the hangings, the branches of the trees with their purple shoots formed a kind of bower. It was a nook full of the beauty of spring, and over it streamed the golden sunshine irradiating the blossoms with which the coffin was covered. It seemed as if flowers had been raining down; there were clusters of white roses, white camellias, white lilac, white carnations, heaped in a snowy mass of petals; the coffin was hidden from sight, and from the pall some of the white blossoms were falling, the ground being strewn with periwinkles and hyacinths. The few persons passing along the Rue Vineuse paused with a smile of tender emotion before this sunny garden where the little body lay at peace amongst the flowers. There seemed to be a music stealing up from the snowy surroundings; in the glare of light the purity of the blossoms grew dazzling, and the sun flushed hangings, nosegays, and wreaths of flowers, with a very semblance of life. Over the roses a bee flew humming.
"Oh, the flowers! the flowers!" murmured Helene, powerless to say another word.
She pressed her handkerchief to her lips, and her eyes filled with tears. Jeanne must be warm, she thought, and with this idea a wave of emotion rose in her bosom; she felt very grateful to those who had enveloped her child in flowers. She wished to go forward, and Monsieur Rambaud made no effort to hold her back. How sweet was the scene beneath the cloud of drapery! Perfumes were wafted upwards; the air was warm and still. Helene stooped down and chose one rose only, that she might place it in her bosom. But suddenly she commenced to tremble, and Monsieur Rambaud became uneasy.
"Don't stay here," he said, as he drew her away. "You promised not to make yourself unwell."
He was attempting to lead her into the pavilion when the door of the drawing-room was thrown open. Pauline was the first to appear. She had undertaken the duty of arranging the funeral procession. One by one, the little girls stepped into the garden. Their coming seemed like some sudden outburst of bloom, a miraculous flowering of May. In the open air the white skirts expanded, streaked moire-like by the sunshine with shades of the utmost delicacy. An apple-tree above was raining down its blossoms; gossamer-threads were floating to and fro; the dresses were instinct with all the purity of spring. And their number still increased; they already surrounded the lawn; they yet lightly descended the steps, sailing on like downy balls suddenly expanding beneath the open sky.
The garden was now a snowy mass, and as Helene gazed on the crowd of little girls, a memory awoke within her. She remembered another joyous season, with its ball and the gay twinkling of tiny feet. She once more saw Marguerite in her milk-girl costume, with her can hanging from her waist; and Sophie, dressed as a waiting-maid, and revolving on the arm of her sister Blanche, whose trappings as Folly gave out a merry tinkle of bells. She thought, too, of the five Levasseur girls, and of the Red Riding-Hoods, whose number had seemed endless, with their ever-recurring cloaks of poppy-colored satin edged with black velvet; while little Mademoiselle Guiraud, with her Alsatian butterfly bow in her hair, danced as if demented opposite a Harlequin twice as tall as herself. To-day they were all arrayed in white. Jeanne, too, was in white, her head laid amongst white flowers on the white satin pillow. The delicate-faced Japanese maiden, with hair transfixed by long pins, and purple tunic embroidered with birds, was leaving them for ever in a gown of snowy white.