Part 4 out of 5
What is the use of struggling and fighting against fate? Our sin
is stronger than we. But, after all, is it a crime for us to love?
We were destined for each other. Have we not the right to come
together, although life has parted us? So, come! It is all over;
we will go away. Meet me to-morrow evening, Lyon station, at ten
o'clock. The tickets are secured and I shall be there awaiting you.
For a month past Sidonie had been hoping for that letter, a month during
which she had brought all her coaxing and cunning into play to lure her
brother-in-law on to that written revelation of passion. She had
difficulty in accomplishing it. It was no easy matter to pervert an
honest young heart like Frantz's to the point of committing a crime; and
in that strange contest, in which the one who really loved fought against
his own cause, she had often felt that she was at the end of her strength
and was almost discouraged. When she was most confident that he was
conquered, his sense of right would suddenly rebel, and he would be all
ready to flee, to escape her once more.
What a triumph it was for her, therefore, when that letter was handed to
her one morning. Madame Dobson happened to be there. She had just
arrived, laden with complaints from Georges, who was horribly bored away
from his mistress, and was beginning to be alarmed concerning this
brother-in-law, who was more attentive, more jealous, more exacting than
"Oh! the poor, dear fellow, the poor, dear, fellow," said the sentimental
American, "if you could see how unhappy he is!"
And, shaking her curls, she unrolled her music-roll and took from it the
poor, dear fellow's letters, which she had carefully hidden between the
leaves of her songs, delighted to be involved in this love-story, to give
vent to her emotion in an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery which melted
her cold eyes and suffused her dry, pale complexion.
Strange to say, while lending her aid most willingly to this constant
going and coming of love-letters, the youthful and attractive Dobson had
never written or received a single one on her own account.
Always on the road between Asnieres and Paris with an amorous message
under her wing, that odd carrier-pigeon remained true to her own dovecot
and cooed for none but unselfish motives.
When Sidonie showed her Frantz's note, Madame Dobson asked:
"What shall you write in reply?"
"I have already written. I consented."
"What! You will go away with that madman?"
Sidonie laughed scornfully.
"Ha! ha! well, hardly! I consented so that he may go and wait for me at
the station. That is all. The least I can do is to give him a quarter
of an hour of agony. He has made me miserable enough for the last month.
Just consider that I have changed my whole life for my gentleman! I have
had to close my doors and give up seeing my friends and everybody I know
who is young and agreeable, beginning with Georges and ending with you.
For you know, my dear, you weren't agreeable to him, and he would have
liked to dismiss you with the rest."
The one thing that Sidonie did not mention--and it was the deepest cause
of her anger against Frantz--was that he had frightened her terribly by
threatening to tell her husband her guilty secret. From that moment she
had felt decidedly ill at ease, and her life, her dear life, which she so
petted and coddled, had seemed to her to be exposed to serious danger.
Yes, the thought that her husband might some day be apprized of her
conduct positively terrified her.
That blessed letter put an end to all her fears. It was impossible now
for Frantz to expose her, even in the frenzy of his disappointment,
knowing that she had such a weapon in her hands; and if he did speak, she
would show the letter, and all his accusations would become in Risler's
eyes calumny pure and simple. Ah, master judge, we have you now!
"I am born again--I am born again!" she cried to Madame Dobson. She ran
out into the garden, gathered great bouquets for her salon, threw the
windows wide open to the sunlight, gave orders to the cook, the coachman,
the gardener. The house must be made to look beautiful, for Georges was
coming back, and for a beginning she organized a grand dinner-party for
the end of the week.
The next evening Sidonie, Risler, and Madame Dobson were together in the
salon. While honest Risler turned the leaves of an old handbook of
mechanics, Sidonie sang to Madame Dobson's accompaniment. Suddenly she
stopped in the middle of her aria and burst into a peal of laughter. The
clock had just struck ten.
Risler looked up quickly.
"What are you laughing at?"
"Nothing-an idea that came into my head," replied Sidonie, winking of
Madame Dobson and pointing at the clock.
It was the hour appointed for the meeting, and she was thinking of her
lover's torture as he waited for her to come.
Since the return of the messenger bringing from Sidonie the "yes" he had
so feverishly awaited, a great calm had come over his troubled mind,
like the sudden removal of a heavy burden. No more uncertainty, no more
clashing between passion and duty.
Not once did it occur to him that on the other side of the landing some
one was weeping and sighing because of him. Not once did he think of his
brother's despair, of the ghastly drama they were to leave behind them.
He saw a sweet little pale face resting beside his in the railway train,
a blooming lip within reach of his lip, and two fathomless eyes looking
at him by the soft light of the lamp, to the soothing accompaniment of
the wheels and the steam.
Two hours before the opening of the gate for the designated train,
Frantz was already at the Lyon station, that gloomy station which, in the
distant quarter of Paris in which it is situated, seems like a first
halting-place in the provinces. He sat down in the darkest corner and
remained there without stirring, as if dazed.
Instinctively, although the appointed hour was still distant, he looked
among the people who were hurrying along, calling to one another, to see
if he could not discern that graceful figure suddenly emerging from the
crowd and thrusting it aside at every step with the radiance of her
After many departures and arrivals and shrill whistles, the station
suddenly became empty, as deserted as a church on weekdays. The time for
the ten o'clock train was drawing near. There was no other train before
that. Frantz rose. In a quarter of an hour, half an hour at the least,
she would be there.
Frantz went hither and thither, watching the carriages that arrived.
Each new arrival made him start. He fancied that he saw her enter,
closely veiled, hesitating, a little embarrassed. How quickly he would
be by her side, to comfort her, to protect her!
The hour for the departure of the train was approaching. He looked at
the clock. There was but a quarter of an hour more. It alarmed him; but
the bell at the wicket, which had now been opened, summoned him. He ran
thither and took his place in the long line.
"Two first-class for Marseilles," he said. It seemed to him as if that
were equivalent to taking possession.
He made his way back to his post of observation through the luggage-laden
wagons and the late-comers who jostled him as they ran. The drivers
shouted, "Take care!" He stood there among the wheels of the cabs, under
the horses' feet, with deaf ears and staring eyes. Only five minutes
more. It was almost impossible for her to arrive in time.
At last she appeared.
Yes, there she is, it is certainly she--a woman in black, slender and
graceful, accompanied by another shorter woman--Madame Dobson, no doubt.
But a second glance undeceived him. It was a young woman who resembled
her, a woman of fashion like her, with a happy face. A man, also young,
joined them. It was evidently a wedding-party; the mother accompanied
them, to see them safely on board the train.
Now there is the confusion of departure, the last stroke of the bell, the
steam escaping with a hissing sound, mingled with the hurried footsteps
of belated passengers, the slamming of doors and the rumbling of the
heavy omnibuses. Sidonie comes not. And Frantz still waits.
At that moment a hand is placed on his shoulder.
He turns. The coarse face of M. Gardinois, surrounded by a travelling-
cap with ear-pieces, is before him.
"I am not mistaken, it is Monsieur Risler. Are you going to Marseilles
by the express? I am not going far."
He explains to Frantz that he has missed the Orleans train, and is going
to try to connect with Savigny by the Lyon line; then he talks about
Risler Aine and the factory.
"It seems that business hasn't been prospering for some time. They were
caught in the Bonnardel failure. Ah! our young men need to be careful.
At the rate they're sailing their ship, the same thing is likely to
happen to them that happened to Bonnardel. But excuse me, I believe
they're about to close the gate. Au revoir."
Frantz has hardly heard what he has been saying. His brother's ruin, the
destruction of the whole world, nothing is of any further consequence to
him. He is waiting, waiting.
But now the gate is abruptly closed like a last barrier between him and
his persistent hope. Once more the station is empty. The uproar has
been transferred to the line of the railway, and suddenly a shrill
whistle falls upon the lover's ear like an ironical farewell, then dies
away in the darkness.
The ten o'clock train has gone!
He tries to be calm and to reason. Evidently she missed the train from
Asmeres; but, knowing that he is waiting for her, she will come, no
matter how late it may be. He will wait longer. The waiting-room was
made for that.
The unhappy man sits down on a bench. The prospect of a long vigil
brings to his mind a well-known room in which at that hour the lamp burns
low on a table laden with humming-birds and insects, but that vision
passes swiftly through his mind in the chaos of confused thoughts to
which the delirium of suspense gives birth.
And while he thus lost himself in thought, the hours passed. The roofs
of the buildings of Mazas, buried in darkness, were already beginning to
stand out distinctly against the brightening sky. What was he to do? He
must go to Asnieres at once and try to find out what had happened. He
wished he were there already.
Having made up his mind, he descended the steps of the station at a rapid
pace, passing soldiers with their knapsacks on their backs, and poor
people who rise early coming to take the morning train, the train of
poverty and want.
In front of one of the stations he saw a crowd collected, rag-pickers and
countrywomen. Doubtless some drama of the night about to reach its
denouement before the Commissioner of Police. Ah! if Frantz had known
what that drama was! but he could have no suspicion, and he glanced at
the crowd indifferently from a distance.
When he reached Asnieres, after a walk of two or three hours, it was like
an awakening. The sun, rising in all its glory, set field and river on
fire. The bridge, the houses, the quay, all stood forth with that
matutinal sharpness of outline which gives the impression of a new day
emerging, luminous and smiling, from the dense mists of the night. From
a distance he descried his brother's house, already awake, the open
blinds and the flowers on the window-sills. He wandered about some time
before he could summon courage to enter.
Suddenly some one hailed him from the shore:
"Ah! Monsieur Frantz. How early you are today!"
It was Sidonie's coachman taking his horses to bathe in the river.
"Has anything happened at the house?" inquired Frantz tremblingly.
"No, Monsieur Frantz."
"Is my brother at home?"
"No, Monsieur slept at the factory."
"No one sick?"
"No, Monsieur Frantz, no one, so far as I know."
Thereupon Frantz made up his mind to ring at the small gate. The
gardener was raking the paths. The house was astir; and, early as it
was, he heard Sidonie's voice as clear and vibrating as the song of a
bird among the rose-bushes of the facade.
She was talking with animation. Frantz, deeply moved, drew near to
"No, no cream. The 'cafe parfait' will be enough. Be sure that it's
well frozen and ready at seven o'clock. Oh! about an entree--let us
She was holding council with her cook concerning the famous dinner-party
for the next day. Her brother-in-law's sudden appearance did not
"Ah! good-morning, Frantz," she said very coolly. "I am at your service
directly. We're to have some people to dinner to-morrow, customers of
the firm, a grand business dinner. You'll excuse me, won't you?"
Fresh and smiling, in the white ruffles of her trailing morning-gown and
her little lace cap, she continued to discuss her menu, inhaling the cool
air that rose from the fields and the river. There was not the slightest
trace of chagrin or anxiety upon that tranquil face, which was a striking
contrast to the lover's features, distorted by a night of agony and
For a long quarter of an hour Frantz, sitting in a corner of the salon,
saw all the conventional dishes of a bourgeois dinner pass before him in
their regular order, from the little hot pates, the sole Normande and the
innumerable ingredients of which that dish is composed, to the Montreuil
peaches and Fontainebleau grapes.
At last, when they were alone and he was able to speak, he asked in a
"Didn't you receive my letter?"
"Why, yes, of course."
She had risen to go to the mirror and adjust a little curl or two
entangled with her floating ribbons, and continued, looking at herself
all the while:
"Yes, I received your letter. Indeed, I was charmed to receive it.
Now, should you ever feel inclined to tell your brother any of the vile
stories about me that you have threatened me with, I could easily satisfy
him that the only source of your lying tale-bearing was anger with me for
repulsing a criminal passion as it deserved. Consider yourself warned,
my dear boy--and au revoir."
As pleased as an actress who has just delivered a telling speech with
fine effect, she passed him and left the room smiling, with a little curl
at the corners of her mouth, triumphant and without anger. And he did
not kill her!
AN ITEM OF NEWS
In the evening preceding that ill-omened day, a few moments after Frantz
had stealthily left his room on Rue de Braque, the illustrious Delobelle
returned home, with downcast face and that air of lassitude and
disillusionment with which he always met untoward events.
"Oh! mon Dieu, my poor man, what has happened?" instantly inquired Madame
Delobelle, whom twenty years of exaggerated dramatic pantomime had not
Before replying, the ex-actor, who never failed to precede his most
trivial words with some facial play, learned long before for stage
purposes, dropped his lower lip, in token of disgust and loathing,
as if he had just swallowed something very bitter.
"The matter is that those Rislers are certainly ingrates or egotists,
and, beyond all question, exceedingly ill-bred. Do you know what I just
learned downstairs from the concierge, who glanced at me out of the
corner of his eye, making sport of me? Well, Frantz Risler has gone!
He left the house a short time ago, and has left Paris perhaps ere this,
without so much as coming to shake my hand, to thank me for the welcome
he has received here. What do you think of that? For he didn't say
good-by to you two either, did he? And yet, only a month ago, he was
always in our rooms, without any remonstrance from us."
Mamma Delobelle uttered an exclamation of genuine surprise and grief.
Desiree, on the contrary, did not say a word or make a motion. She was
always the same little iceberg.
Oh! wretched mother, turn your eyes upon your daughter. See that
transparent pallor, those tearless eyes which gleam unwaveringly, as if
their thoughts and their gaze were concentrated on some object visible
to them alone. Cause that poor suffering heart to open itself to you.
Question your child. Make her speak, above all things make her weep,
to rid her of the burden that is stifling her, so that her tear-dimmed
eyes can no longer distinguish in space that horrible unknown thing upon
which they are fixed in desperation now.
For nearly a month past, ever since the day when Sidonie came and took
Frantz away in her coupe, Desiree had known that she was no longer loved,
and she knew her rival's name. She bore them no ill-will, she pitied
them rather. But, why had he returned? Why had he so heedlessly given
her false hopes? How many tears had she devoured in silence since those
hours! How many tales of woe had she told her little birds! For once
more it was work that had sustained her, desperate, incessant work,
which, by its regularity and monotony, by the constant recurrence of the
same duties and the same motions, served as a balance-wheel to her
Lately Frantz was not altogether lost to her. Although he came but
rarely to see her, she knew that he was there, she could hear him go in
and out, pace, the floor with restless step, and sometimes, through the
half-open door, see his loved shadow hurry across the landing. He did
not seem happy. Indeed, what happiness could be in store for him? He
loved his brother's wife. And at the thought that Frantz was not happy,
the fond creature almost forgot her own sorrow to think only of the
sorrow of the man she loved.
She was well aware that it was impossible that he could ever love her
again. But she thought that perhaps she would see him come in some day,
wounded and dying, that he would sit down on the little low chair, lay
his head on her knees, and with a great sob tell her of his suffering and
say to her, "Comfort me."
That forlorn hope kept her alive for three weeks. She needed so little
But no. Even that was denied her. Frantz had gone, gone without a
glance for her, without a parting word. The lover's desertion was
followed by the desertion of the friend. It was horrible!
At her father's first words, she felt as if she were hurled into a deep,
ice-cold abyss, filled with darkness, into which she plunged swiftly,
helplessly, well knowing that she would never return to the light. She
was suffocating. She would have liked to resist, to struggle, to call
Who was there who had the power to sustain her in that great disaster?
God? The thing that is called Heaven?
She did not even think of that. In Paris, especially in the quarters
where the working class live, the houses are too high, the streets too
narrow, the air too murky for heaven to be seen.
It was Death alone at which the little cripple was gazing so earnestly.
Her course was determined upon at once: she must die. But how?
Sitting motionless in her easy-chair, she considered what manner of death
she should choose. As she was almost never alone, she could not think of
the brazier of charcoal, to be lighted after closing the doors and
windows. As she never went out she could not think either of poison to
be purchased at the druggist's, a little package of white powder to be
buried in the depths of the pocket, with the needle-case and the thimble.
There was the phosphorus on the matches, too, the verdigris on old sous,
the open window with the paved street below; but the thought of forcing
upon her parents the ghastly spectacle of a self-inflicted death-agony,
the thought that what would remain of her, picked up amid a crowd of
people, would be so frightful to look upon, made her reject that method.
She still had the river. At all events, the water carries you away
somewhere, so that nobody finds you and your death is shrouded in
The river! She shuddered at the mere thought. But it was not the vision
of the deep, black water that terrified her. The girls of Paris laugh at
that. You throw your apron over your head so that you can't see, and
pouf! But she must go downstairs, into the street, all alone, and the
street frightened her.
Yes, it was a terrible thing to go out into the street alone. She must
wait until the gas was out, steal softly downstairs when her mother had
gone to bed, pull the cord of the gate, and make her way across Paris,
where you meet men who stare impertinently into your face, and pass
brilliantly lighted cafes. The river was a long distance away. She
would be very tired. However, there was no other way than that.
"I am going to bed, my child; are you going to sit up any longer?"
With her eyes on her work, "my child" replied that she was. She wished
to finish her dozen.
"Good-night, then," said Mamma Delobelle, her enfeebled sight being
unable to endure the light longer. "I have put father's supper by the
fire. Just look at it before you go to bed."
Desire did not lie. She really intended to finish her dozen, so that her
father could take them to the shop in the morning; and really, to see
that tranquil little head bending forward in the white light of the lamp,
one would never have imagined all the sinister thoughts with which it was
At last she takes up the last bird of the dozen, a marvellously lovely
little bird whose wings seem to have been dipped in sea-water, all green
as they are with a tinge of sapphire.
Carefully, daintily, Desiree suspends it on a piece of brass wire, in the
charming attitude of a frightened creature about to fly away.
Ah! how true it is that the little blue bird is about to fly away! What
a desperate flight into space! How certain one feels that this time it
is the great journey, the everlasting journey from which there is no
By and by, very softly, Desiree opens the wardrobe and takes a thin shawl
which she throws over her shoulders; then she goes. What? Not a glance
at her mother, not a silent farewell, not a tear? No, nothing! With the
terrible clearness of vision of those who are about to die, she suddenly
realizes that her childhood and youth have been sacrificed to a vast
self-love. She feels very sure that a word from their great man will
comfort that sleeping mother, with whom she is almost angry for not
waking, for allowing her to go without a quiver of her closed eyelids.
When one dies young, even by one's own act, it is never without a
rebellious feeling, and poor Desiree bids adieu to life, indignant with
Now she is in the street. Where is she going? Everything seems deserted
already. Desiree walks rapidly, wrapped in her little shawl, head erect,
dry-eyed. Not knowing the way, she walks straight ahead.
The dark, narrow streets of the Marais, where gas-jets twinkle at long
intervals, cross and recross and wind about, and again and again in her
feverish course she goes over the same ground. There is always something
between her and the river. And to think that, at that very hour, almost
in the same quarter, some one else is wandering through the streets,
waiting, watching, desperate! Ah! if they could but meet. Suppose she
should accost that feverish watcher, should ask him to direct her:
"I beg your pardon, Monsieur. How can I get to the Seine?"
He would recognize her at once.
"What! Can it be you, Mam'zelle Zizi? What are you doing out-of-doors
at this time of night?"
"I am going to die, Frantz. You have taken away all my pleasure in
Thereupon he, deeply moved, would seize her, press her to his heart and
carry her away in his arms, saying:
"Oh! no, do not die. I need you to comfort me, to cure all the wounds
the other has inflicted on me."
But that is a mere poet's dream, one of the meetings that life can not
Streets, more streets, then a square and a bridge whose lanterns make
another luminous bridge in the black water. Here is the river at last.
The mist of that damp, soft autumn evening causes all of this huge Paris,
entirely strange to her as it is, to appear to her like an enormous
confused mass, which her ignorance of the landmarks magnifies still more.
This is the place where she must die.
Poor little Desiree!
She recalls the country excursion which Frantz had organized for her.
That breath of nature, which she breathed that day for the first time,
falls to her lot again at the moment of her death. "Remember," it seems
to say to her; and she replies mentally, "Oh! yes, I remember."
She remembers only too well. When it arrives at the end of the quay,
which was bedecked as for a holiday, the furtive little shadow pauses at
the steps leading down to the bank.
Almost immediately there are shouts and excitement all along the quay:
"Quick--a boat--grappling-irons!" Boatmen and policemen come running
from all sides. A boat puts off from the shore with a lantern in the
The flower-women awake, and, when one of them asks with a yawn what is
happening, the woman who keeps the cafe that crouches at the corner of
the bridge answers coolly:
"A woman just jumped into the river."
But no. The river has refused to take that child. It has been moved to
pity by so great gentleness and charm. In the light of the lanterns
swinging to and fro on the shore, a black group forms and moves away.
She is saved! It was a sand-hauler who fished her out. Policemen are
carrying her, surrounded by boatmen and lightermen, and in the darkness a
hoarse voice is heard saying with a sneer: "That water-hen gave me a lot
of trouble. You ought to see how she slipped through my fingers! I
believe she wanted to make me lose my reward." Gradually the tumult
subsides, the bystanders disperse, and the black group moves away toward
Ah! poor girl, you thought that it was an easy matter to have done with
life, to disappear abruptly. You did not know that, instead of bearing
you away swiftly to the oblivion you sought, the river would drive you
back to all the shame, to all the ignominy of unsuccessful suicide.
First of all, the station, the hideous station, with its filthy benches,
its floor where the sodden dust seems like mud from the street. There
Desiree was doomed to pass the rest of the night.
At last day broke with the shuddering glare so distressing to invalids.
Suddenly aroused from her torpor, Desiree sat up in her bed, threw off
the blanket in which they had wrapped her, and despite fatigue and fever
tried to stand, in order to regain full possession of her faculties and
her will. She had but one thought--to escape from all those eyes that
were opening on all sides, to leave that frightful place where the breath
of sleep was so heavy and its attitudes so distorted.
"I implore you, messieurs," she said, trembling from head to foot, "let
me return to mamma."
Hardened as they were to Parisian dramas, even those good people realized
that they were face to face with something more worthy of attention, more
affecting than usual. But they could not take her back to her mother as
yet. She must go before the commissioner first. That was absolutely
necessary. They called a cab from compassion for her; but she must go
from the station to the cab, and there was a crowd at the door to stare
at the little lame girl with the damp hair glued to her temples, and her
policeman's blanket which did not prevent her shivering. At headquarters
she was conducted up a dark, damp stairway where sinister figures were
passing to and fro.
When Desiree entered the room, a man rose from the shadow and came to
meet her, holding out his hand.
It was the man of the reward, her hideous rescuer at twenty-five francs.
"Well, little-mother," he said, with his cynical laugh, and in a voice
that made one think of foggy nights on the water, "how are we since our
The unhappy girl was burning red with fever and shame; so bewildered that
it seemed to her as if the river had left a veil over her eyes, a buzzing
in her ears. At last she was ushered into a smaller room, into the
presence of a pompous individual, wearing the insignia of the Legion of
Honor, Monsieur le Commissaire in person, who was sipping his 'cafe au
lait' and reading the 'Gazette des Tribunaux.'
"Ah! it's you, is it?" he said in a surly tone and without raising his
eyes from his paper, as he dipped a piece of bread in his cup; and the
officer who had brought Desiree began at once to read his report:
"At quarter to twelve, on Quai de la Megisserie, in front of No. 17,
the woman Delobelle, twenty-four years old, flower-maker, living with her
parents on Rue de Braque, tried to commit suicide by throwing herself
into the Seine, and was taken out safe and sound by Sieur Parcheminet,
sand-hauler of Rue de la Butte-Chaumont."
Monsieur le Commissaire listened as he ate, with the listless, bored
expression of a man whom nothing can surprise; at the end he gazed
sternly and with a pompous affectation of virtue at the woman Delobelle,
and lectured her in the most approved fashion. It was very wicked, it
was cowardly, this thing that she had done. What could have driven her
to such an evil act? Why did she seek to destroy herself? Come, woman
Delobelle, answer, why was it?
But the woman Delobelle obstinately declined to answer. It seemed to her
that it would put a stigma upon her love to avow it in such a place.
"I don't know--I don't know," she whispered, shivering.
Testy and impatient, the commissioner decided that she should be taken
back to her parents, but only on one condition: she must promise never to
try it again.
"Come, do you promise?"
"Oh! yes, Monsieur."
"You will never try again?"
"Oh! no, indeed I will not, never--never!"
Notwithstanding her protestations, Monsieur le Commissaire de Police
shook his head, as if he did not trust her oath.
Now she is outside once more, on the way to her home, to a place of
refuge; but her martyrdom was not yet at an end.
In the carriage, the officer who accompanied her was too polite, too
affable. She seemed not to understand, shrank from him, withdrew her
hand. What torture! But the most terrible moment of all was the arrival
in Rue de Braque, where the whole house was in a state of commotion, and
the inquisitive curiosity of the neighbors must be endured. Early in the
morning the whole quarter had been informed of her disappearance. It was
rumored that she had gone away with Frantz Risler. The illustrious
Delobelle had gone forth very early, intensely agitated, with his hat
awry and rumpled wristbands, a sure indication of extraordinary
preoccupation; and the concierge, on taking up the provisions, had found
the poor mother half mad, running from one room to another, looking for a
note from the child, for any clew, however unimportant, that would enable
her at least to form some conjecture.
Suddenly a carriage stopped in front of the door. Voices and footsteps
echoed through the hall.
"M'ame Delobelle, here she is! Your daughter's been found."
It was really Desiree who came toiling up the stairs on the arm of a
stranger, pale and fainting, without hat or shawl, and wrapped in a great
brown cape. When she saw her mother she smiled at her with an almost
"Do not be alarmed, it is nothing," she tried to say, then sank to the
floor. Mamma Delobelle would never have believed that she was so strong.
To lift her daughter, take her into the room, and put her to bed was a
matter of a moment; and she talked to her and kissed her.
"Here you are at last. Where have you come from, you bad child? Tell
me, is it true that you tried to kill yourself? Were you suffering so
terribly? Why did you conceal it from me?"
When she saw her mother in that condition, with tear-stained face, aged
in a few short hours, Desiree felt a terrible burden of remorse. She
remembered that she had gone away without saying good-by to her, and that
in the depths of her heart she had accused her of not loving her.
Not loving her!
"Why, it would kill me if you should die," said the poor mother. "Oh!
when I got up this morning and saw that your bed hadn't been slept in and
that you weren't in the workroom either!--I just turned round and fell
flat. Are you warm now? Do you feel well? You won't do it again, will
you--try to kill yourself?"
And she tucked in the bed-clothes, rubbed her feet, and rocked her upon
As she lay in bed with her eyes closed, Desiree saw anew all the
incidents of her suicide, all the hideous scenes through which she had
passed in returning from death to life. In the fever, which rapidly
increased, in the intense drowsiness which began to overpower her, her
mad journey across Paris continued to excite and torment her. Myriads of
dark streets stretched away before her, with the Seine at the end of
That ghastly river, which she could not find in the night, haunted her
She felt that she was besmirched with its slime, its mud; and in the
nightmare that oppressed her, the poor child, powerless to escape the
obsession of her recollections, whispered to her mother: "Hide me--
hide me--I am ashamed!"
SHE PROMISED NOT TO TRY AGAIN
Oh! no, she will not try it again. Monsieur le Commissaire need have no
fear. In the first place how could she go as far as the river, now that
she can not stir from her bed? If Monsieur le Commissaire could see her
now, he would not doubt her word. Doubtless the wish, the longing for
death, so unmistakably written on her pale face the other morning, are
still visible there; but they are softened, resigned. The woman
Delobelle knows that by waiting a little, yes, a very little time, she
will have nothing more to wish for.
The doctors declare that she is dying of pneumonia; she must have
contracted it in her wet clothes. The doctors are mistaken; it is not
pneumonia. Is it her love, then, that is killing her? No. Since that
terrible night she no longer thinks of Frantz, she no longer feels that
she is worthy to love or to be loved. Thenceforth there is a stain upon
her spotless life, and it is of the shame of that and of nothing else
that she is dying.
Mamma Delobelle sits by Desiree's bed, working by the light from the
window, and nursing her daughter. From time to time she raises her eyes
to contemplate that mute despair, that mysterious disease, then hastily
resumes her work; for it is one of the hardest trials of the poor that
they can not suffer at their ease.
Mamma Delobelle had to work alone now, and her fingers had not the
marvellous dexterity of Desiree's little hands; medicines were dear, and
she would not for anything in the world have interfered with one of "the
father's" cherished habits. And so, at whatever hour the invalid opened
her eyes, she would see her mother, in the pale light of early morning,
or under her night lamp, working, working without rest.
Between two stitches the mother would look up at her child, whose face
grew paler and paler:
"How do you feel?"
"Very well," the sick girl would reply, with a faint, heartbroken smile,
which illumined her sorrowful face and showed all the ravages that had
been wrought upon it, as a sunbeam, stealing into a poor man's lodging,
instead of brightening it, brings out more clearly its cheerlessness and
The illustrious Delobelle was never there. He had not changed in any
respect the habits of a strolling player out of an engagement. And yet
he knew that his daughter was dying: the doctor had told him so.
Moreover, it had been a terrible blow to him, for, at heart, he loved his
child dearly; but in that singular nature the most sincere and the most
genuine feelings adopted a false and unnatural mode of expression, by the
same law which ordains that, when a shelf is placed awry, nothing that
you place upon it seems to stand straight.
Delobelle's natural tendency was, before everything, to air his grief,
to spread it abroad. He played the role of the unhappy father from one
end of the boulevard to the other. He was always to be found in the
neighborhood of the theatres or at the actors' restaurant, with red eyes
and pale cheeks. He loved to invite the question, "Well, my poor old
fellow, how are things going at home?" Thereupon he would shake his head
with a nervous gesture; his grimace held tears in check, his mouth
imprecations, and he would stab heaven with a silent glance, overflowing
with wrath, as when he played the 'Medecin des Enfants;' all of which did
not prevent him, however, from bestowing the most delicate and thoughtful
attentions upon his daughter.
He also maintained an unalterable confidence in himself, no matter what
happened. And yet his eyes came very near being opened to the truth at
last. A hot little hand laid upon that pompous, illusion-ridden head
came very near expelling the bee that had been buzzing there so long.
This is how it came to pass.
One night Desiree awoke with a start, in a very strange state. It should
be said that the doctor, when he came to see her on the preceding
evening, had been greatly surprised to find her suddenly brighter and
calmer, and entirely free from fever. Without attempting to explain this
unhoped-for resurrection, he had gone away, saying, "Let us wait and
see"; he relied upon the power of youth to throw off disease, upon the
resistless force of the life-giving sap, which often engrafts a new life
upon the very symptoms of death. If he had looked under Desiree's
pillow, he would have found there a letter postmarked Cairo, wherein lay
the secret of that happy change. Four pages signed by Frantz, his whole
conduct confessed and explained to his dear little Zizi.
It was the very letter of which the sick girl had dreamed. If she had
dictated it herself, all the phrases likely to touch her heart, all the
delicately worded excuses likely to pour balm into her wounds, would have
been less satisfactorily expressed. Frantz repented, asked forgiveness,
and without making any promises, above all without asking anything from
her, described to his faithful friend his struggles, his remorse, his
What a misfortune that that letter had not arrived a few days earlier.
Now, all those kind words were to Desiree like the dainty dishes that are
brought too late to a man dying of hunger.
Suddenly she awoke, and, as we said a moment since, in an extraordinary
In her head, which seemed to her lighter than usual, there suddenly began
a grand procession of thoughts and memories. The most distant periods of
her past seemed to approach her. The most trivial incidents of her
childhood, scenes that she had not then understood, words heard as in a
dream, recurred to her mind.
From her bed she could see her father and mother, one by her side, the
other in the workroom, the door of which had been left open. Mamma
Delobelle was lying back in her chair in the careless attitude of long-
continued fatigue, heeded at last; and all the scars, the ugly sabre cuts
with which age and suffering brand the faces of the old, manifested
themselves, ineffaceable and pitiful to see, in the relaxation of
slumber. Desiree would have liked to be strong enough to rise and kiss
that lovely, placid brow, furrowed by wrinkles which did not mar its
In striking contrast to that picture, the illustrious Delobelle appeared
to his daughter through the open door in one of his favorite attitudes.
Seated before the little white cloth that bore his supper, with his body
at an angle of sixty-seven and a half degrees, he was eating and at the
same time running through a pamphlet which rested against the carafe in
front of him.
For the first time in her life Desiree noticed the striking lack of
harmony between her emaciated mother, scantily clad in little black
dresses which made her look even thinner and more haggard than she really
was, and her happy, well-fed, idle, placid, thoughtless father. At a
glance she realized the difference between the two lives. What would
become of them when she was no longer there? Either her mother would
work too hard and would kill herself; or else the poor woman would be
obliged to cease working altogether, and that selfish husband, forever
engrossed by his theatrical ambition, would allow them both to drift
gradually into abject poverty, that black hole which widens and deepens
as one goes down into it.
Suppose that, before going away--something told her that she would go
very soon--before going away, she should tear away the thick bandage that
the poor man kept over his eyes wilfully and by force?
Only a hand as light and loving as hers could attempt that operation.
Only she had the right to say to her father:
"Earn your living. Give up the stage."
Thereupon, as time was flying, Desire Delobelle summoned all her courage
and called softly:
At his daughter's first summons the great man hurried to her side. He
entered Desiree's bedroom, radiant and superb, very erect, his lamp in
his hand and a camellia in his buttonhole.
"Good evening, Zizi. Aren't you asleep?"
His voice had a joyous intonation that produced a strange effect amid the
prevailing gloom. Desiree motioned to him not to speak, pointing to her
"Put down your lamp--I have something to say to you."
Her voice, broken by emotion, impressed him; and so did her eyes, for
they seemed larger than usual, and were lighted by a piercing glance that
he had never seen in them.
He approached with something like awe.
"Why, what's the matter, Bichette? Do you feel any worse?"
Desiree replied with a movement of her little pale face that she felt
very ill and that she wanted to speak to him very close, very close.
When the great man stood by her pillow, she laid her burning hand on the
great man's arm and whispered in his ear. She was very ill, hopelessly
ill. She realized fully that she had not long to live.
"Then, father, you will be left alone with mamma. Don't tremble like
that. You knew that this thing must come, yes, that it was very near.
But I want to tell you this. When I am gone, I am terribly afraid mamma
won't be strong enough to support the family just see how pale and
exhausted she is."
The actor looked at his "sainted wife," and seemed greatly surprised to
find that she did really look so badly. Then he consoled himself with
the selfish remark:
"She never was very strong."
That remark and the tone in which it was made angered Desiree and
strengthened her determination. She continued, without pity for the
"What will become of you two when I am no longer here? Oh! I know that
you have great hopes, but it takes them a long while to come to anything.
The results you have waited for so long may not arrive for a long time to
come; and until then what will you do? Listen! my dear father, I would
not willingly hurt you; but it seems to me that at your age, as
intelligent as you are, it would be easy for you--I am sure Monsieur
Risler Aine would ask nothing better."
She spoke slowly, with an effort, carefully choosing her words, leaving
long pauses between every two sentences, hoping always that they might be
filled by a movement, an exclamation from her father. But the actor did
"I think that you would do well," pursued Desiree, timidly, "I think that
you would do well to give up--"
She paused when she saw the effect of her words. The old actor's mobile
features were suddenly contracted under the lash of violent despair; and
tears, genuine tears which he did not even think of concealing behind his
hand as they do on the stage, filled his eyes but did not flow, so
tightly did his agony clutch him by the throat. The poor devil began to
She murmured twice or thrice:
"To give up--to give up--"
Then her little head fell back upon the pillow, and she died without
having dared to tell him what he would do well to give up.
One night, near the end of January, old Sigismond Planus, cashier of the
house of Fromont Jeune and Risler Aine, was awakened with a start in his
little house at Montrouge by the same teasing voice, the same rattling of
chains, followed by that fatal cry:
"That is true," thought the worthy man, sitting up in bed; "day after to-
morrow will be the last day of the month. And I have the courage to
In truth, a considerable sum of money must be raised: a hundred thousand
francs to be paid on two obligations, and at a moment when, for the first
time in thirty years, the strong-box of the house of Fromont was
absolutely empty. What was to be done? Sigismond had tried several
times to speak to Fromont Jeune, but he seemed to shun the burdensome
responsibility of business, and when he walked through the offices was
always in a hurry, feverishly excited, and seemed neither to see nor hear
anything about him. He answered the old cashier's anxious questions,
gnawing his moustache:
"All right, all right, my old Planus. Don't disturb yourself; I will
look into it." And as he said it, he seemed to be thinking of something
else, to be a thousand leagues away from his surroundings. It was
rumored in the factory, where his liaison with Madame Risler was no
longer a secret to anybody, that Sidonie deceived him, made him very
unhappy; and, indeed, his mistress's whims worried him much more than his
cashier's anxiety. As for Risler, no one ever saw him; he passed his
days shut up in a room under the roof, overseeing the mysterious,
interminable manufacture of his machines.
This indifference on the part of the employers to the affairs of the
factory, this absolute lack of oversight, had led by slow degrees to
general demoralization. Some business was still done, because an
established house will go on alone for years by force of the first
impetus; but what ruin, what chaos beneath that apparent prosperity?
Sigismond knew it better than any one, and as if to see his way more
clearly amid the multitude of painful thoughts which whirled madly
through his brain, the cashier lighted his candle, sat down on his bed,
and thought, "Where were they to find that hundred thousand francs?"
"Take the notes back. I have no funds to meet them."
No, no! That was not possible. Any sort of humiliation was preferable
"Well, it's decided. I will go to-morrow," sighed the poor cashier.
And he tossed about in torture, unable to close an eye until morning.
Notwithstanding the late hour, Georges Fromont had not yet retired.
He was sitting by the fire, with his head in his hands, in the blind and
dumb concentration due to irreparable misfortune, thinking of Sidonie,
of that terrible Sidonie who was asleep at that moment on the floor
above. She was positively driving him mad. She was false to him, he was
sure of it,--she was false to him with the Toulousan tenor, that Cazabon,
alias Cazaboni, whom Madame Dobson had brought to the house. For a long
time he had implored her not to receive that man; but Sidonie would not
listen to him, and on that very day, speaking of a grand ball she was
about to give, she had declared explicitly that nothing should prevent
her inviting her tenor.
"Then he's your lover!" Georges had exclaimed angrily, his eyes gazing
She had not denied it; she had not even turned her eyes away.
And to think that he had sacrificed everything to that woman--
his fortune, his honor, even his lovely Claire, who lay sleeping with
her child in the adjoining room--a whole lifetime of happiness within
reach of his hand, which he had spurned for that vile creature! Now she
had admitted that she did not love him, that she loved another. And he,
the coward, still longed for her. In heaven's name, what potion had she
Carried away by indignation that made the blood boil in his veins,
Georges Fromont started from his armchair and strode feverishly up and
down the room, his footsteps echoing in the silence of the sleeping house
like living insomnia. The other was asleep upstairs. She could sleep by
favor of her heedless, remorseless nature. Perhaps, too, she was
thinking of her Cazaboni.
When that thought passed through his mind, Georges had a mad longing to
go up, to wake Risler, to tell him everything and destroy himself with
her. Really that deluded husband was too idiotic! Why did he not watch
her more closely? She was pretty enough, yes, and vicious enough, too,
for every precaution to be taken with her.
And it was while he was struggling amid such cruel and unfruitful
reflections as these that the devil of anxiety whispered in his ear:
"The notes! the notes!"
The miserable wretch! In his wrath he had entirely forgotten them.
And yet he had long watched the approach of that terrible last day of
January. How many times, between two assignations, when his mind, free
for a moment from thoughts of Sidonie, recurred to his business, to the
realities of life-how many times had he said to himself, "That day will
be the end of everything!" But, as with all those who live in the
delirium of intoxication, his cowardice convinced him that it was too
late to mend matters, and he returned more quickly and more determinedly
to his evil courses, in order to forget, to divert his thoughts.
But that was no longer possible. He saw the impending disaster clearly,
in its full meaning; and Sigismond Planus's wrinkled, solemn face rose
before him with its sharply cut features, whose absence of expression
softened their harshness, and his light German-Swiss eyes, which had
haunted him for many weeks with their impassive stare.
Well, no, he had not the hundred thousand francs, nor did he know where
to get them.
The crisis which, a few hours before, seemed to him a chaos, an eddying
whirl in which he could see nothing distinctly and whose very confusion
was a source of hope, appeared to him at that moment with appalling
distinctness. An empty cash-box, closed doors, notes protested, ruin,
are the phantoms he saw whichever way he turned. And when, on top of all
the rest, came the thought of Sidonie's treachery, the wretched,
desperate man, finding nothing to cling to in that shipwreck, suddenly
uttered a sob, a cry of agony, as if appealing for help to some higher
"Georges, Georges, it is I. What is the matter?"
His wife stood before him, his wife who now waited for him every night,
watching anxiously for his return from the club, for she still believed
that he passed his evenings there. That night she had heard him walking
very late in his room. At last her child fell asleep, and Claire,
hearing the father sob, ran to him.
Oh! what boundless, though tardy remorse overwhelmed him when he saw her
before him, so deeply moved, so lovely and so loving! Yes, she was in
very truth the true companion, the faithful friend. How could he have
deserted her? For a long, long time he wept upon her shoulder, unable to
speak. And it was fortunate that he did not speak, for he would have
told her all, all. The unhappy man felt the need of pouring out his
heart--an irresistible longing to accuse himself, to ask forgiveness,
to lessen the weight of the remorse that was crushing him.
She spared him the pain of uttering a word:
"You have been gambling, have you not? You have lost--lost heavily?"
He moved his head affirmatively; then, when he was able to speak, he
confessed that he must have a hundred thousand francs for the day after
the morrow, and that he did not know how to obtain them.
She did not reproach him. She was one of those women who, when face
to face with disaster, think only of repairing it, without a word of
recrimination. Indeed, in the bottom of her heart she blessed this
misfortune which brought him nearer to her and became a bond between
their two lives, which had long lain so far apart. She reflected a
moment. Then, with an effort indicating a resolution which had cost a
bitter struggle, she said:
"Not all is lost as yet. I will go to Savigny tomorrow and ask my
grandfather for the money."
He would never have dared to suggest that to her. Indeed, it would never
have occurred to him. She was so proud and old Gardinois so hard!
Surely that was a great sacrifice for her to make for him, and a striking
proof of her love.
"Claire, Claire--how good your are!" he said.
Without replying, she led him to their child's cradle.
"Kiss her," she said softly; and as they stood there side by side, their
heads leaning over the child, Georges was afraid of waking her, and he
embraced the mother passionately.
"Ah! here's Sigismond. How goes the world, Pere Sigismond? How is
business? Is it good with you?"
The old cashier smiled affably, shook hands with the master, his wife,
and his brother, and, as they talked, looked curiously about. They were
in a manufactory of wallpapers on Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the
establishment of the little Prochassons, who were beginning to be
formidable rivals. Those former employes of the house of Fromont had
set up on their own account, beginning in a very, small way, and had
gradually succeeded in making for themselves a place on 'Change. Fromont
the uncle had assisted them for a long while with his credit and his
money; the result being most friendly relations between the two firms,
and a balance--between ten or fifteen thousand francs--which had never
been definitely adjusted, because they knew that money was in good hands
when the Prochassons had it.
Indeed, the appearance of the factory was most reassuring. The chimneys
proudly shook their plumes of smoke. The dull roar of constant toil
indicated that the workshops were full of workmen and activity. The
buildings were in good repair, the windows clean; everything had an
aspect of enthusiasm, of good-humor, of discipline; and behind the
grating in the counting-room sat the wife of one of the brothers, simply
dressed, with her hair neatly arranged, and an air of authority on her
youthful face, deeply intent upon a long column of figures.
Old Sigismond thought bitterly of the difference between the house of
Fromont, once so wealthy, now living entirely upon its former reputation,
and the ever-increasing prosperity of the establishment before his eyes.
His stealthy glance penetrated to the darkest corners, seeking some
defect, something to criticise; and his failure to find anything made his
heart heavy and his smile forced and anxious.
What embarrassed him most of all was the question how he should approach
the subject of the money due his employers without betraying the
emptiness of the strongbox. The poor man assumed a jaunty, unconcerned
air which was truly pitiful to see. Business was good--very good.
He happened to be passing through the quarter and thought he would come
in a moment--that was natural, was it not? One likes to see old friends.
But these preambles, these constantly expanding circumlocutions, did not
bring him to the point he wished to reach; on the contrary, they led him
away from his goal, and imagining that he detected surprise in the eyes
of his auditors, he went completely astray, stammered, lost his head,
and, as a last resort, took his hat and pretended to go. At the door he
suddenly bethought himself:
"Ah! by the way, so long as I am here--"
He gave a little wink which he thought sly, but which was in reality
"So long as I am here, suppose we settle that old account."
The two brothers and the young woman in the counting-room gazed at one
another a second, unable to understand.
"Account? What account, pray?"
Then all three began to laugh at the same moment, and heartily too,
as if at a joke, a rather broad joke, on the part of the old cashier.
"Go along with you, you sly old Pere Planus!" The old man laughed with
them! He laughed without any desire to laugh, simply to do as the others
At last they explained. Fromont Jeune had come in person, six months
before, to collect the balance in their hands.
Sigismond felt that his strength was going. But he summoned courage to
"Ah! yes; true. I had forgotten. Sigismond Planus is growing old, that
is plain. I am failing, my children, I am failing."
And the old man went away wiping his eyes, in which still glistened great
tears caused by the hearty laugh he had just enjoyed. The young people
behind him exchanged glances and shook their heads. They understood.
The blow he had received was so crushing that the cashier, as soon as he
was out-of-doors, was obliged to sit down on a bench. So that was the
reason why Georges did not come to the counting-room for money. He made
his collections in person. What had taken place at the Prochassons' had
probably been repeated everywhere else. It was quite useless, therefore,
for him to subject himself to further humiliation. Yes, but the notes,
the notes!--that thought renewed his strength. He wiped the perspiration
from his forehead and started once more to try his luck with a customer
in the faubourg. But this time he took his precautions and called to the
cashier from the doorway, without entering:
"Good-morning, Pere So-and-So. I want to ask you a question."
He held the door half open, his hand upon the knob.
"When did we settle our last bill? I forgot to enter it."
Oh! it was a long while ago, a very long while, that their last bill was
settled. Fromont Jeune's receipt was dated in September. It was five
The door was hastily closed. Another! Evidently it would be the same
"Ah! Monsieur Chorche, Monsieur Chorche," muttered poor Sigismond; and
while he pursued his journey, with bowed head and trembling legs, Madame
Fromont Jeune's carriage passed him close, on its way to the Orleans
station; but Claire did not see old Planus, any more than she had seen,
when she left her house a few moments earlier, Monsieur Chebe in his long
frock-coat and the illustrious Delobelle in his stovepipe hat, turning
into the Rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes at opposite ends, each with the
factory and Risler's wallet for his objective point. The young woman was
much too deeply engrossed by what she had before her to look into the
Think of it! It was horrible. To go and ask M. Gardinois for a hundred
thousand francs--M. Gardinois, a man who boasted that he had never
borrowed or loaned a sou in his life, who never lost an opportunity to
tell how, on one occasion, being driven to ask his father for forty
francs to buy a pair of trousers, he had repaid the loan in small
amounts. In his dealings with everybody, even with his children,
M. Gardinois followed those traditions of avarice which the earth,
the cruel earth, often ungrateful to those who till it, seems to
inculcate in all peasants. The old man did not intend that any part of
his colossal fortune should go to his children during his lifetime.
"They'll find my property when I am dead," he often said.
Acting upon that principle, he had married off his daughter, the elder
Madame Fromont, without one sou of dowry, and he never forgave his son-
in-law for having made a fortune without assistance from him. For it
was one of the peculiarities of that nature, made up of vanity and
selfishness in equal parts, to wish that every one he knew should need
his help, should bow before his wealth. When the Fromonts expressed in
his presence their satisfaction at the prosperous turn their business was
beginning to take, his sharp, cunning, little blue eye would smile
ironically, and he would growl, "We shall see what it all comes to in the
end," in a tone that made them tremble. Sometimes, too, at Savigny, in
the evening, when the park, the avenues, the blue slates of the chateau,
the red brick of the stables, the ponds and brooks shone resplendent,
bathed in the golden glory of a lovely sunset, this eccentric parvenu
would say aloud before his children, after looking about him:
"The one thing that consoles me for dying some day is that no one in the
family will ever be rich enough to keep a chateau that costs fifty
thousand francs a year to maintain."
And yet, with that latter-day tenderness which even the sternest
grandfathers find in the depths of their hearts, old Gardinois would
gladly have made a pet of his granddaughter. But Claire, even as a
child, had felt an invincible repugnance for the former peasant's
hardness of heart and vainglorious selfishness. And when affection forms
no bonds between those who are separated by difference in education, such
repugnance is increased by innumerable trifles. When Claire married
Georges, the grandfather said to Madame Fromont:
"If your daughter wishes, I will give her a royal present; but she must
ask for it."
But Claire received nothing, because she would not ask for anything.
What a bitter humiliation to come, three years later, to beg a hundred
thousand francs from the generosity she had formerly spurned, to humble
herself, to face the endless sermons, the sneering raillery, the whole
seasoned with Berrichon jests, with phrases smacking of the soil, with
the taunts, often well-deserved, which narrow, but logical, minds can
utter on occasion, and which sting with their vulgar patois like an
insult from an inferior!
Poor Claire! Her husband and her father were about to be humiliated in
her person. She must necessarily confess the failure of the one, the
downfall of the house which the other had founded and of which he had
been so proud while he lived. The thought that she would be called upon
to defend all that she loved best in the world made her strong and weak
at the same time.
It was eleven o'clock when she reached Savigny. As she had given no
warning of her visit, the carriage from the chateau was not at the
station, and she had no choice but to walk.
It was a cold morning and the roads were dry and hard. The north wind
blew freely across the arid fields and the river, and swept unopposed
through the leafless trees and bushes. The chateau appeared under the
low-hanging clouds, with its long line of low walls and hedges separating
it from the surrounding fields. The slates on the roof were as dark as
the sky they reflected; and that magnificent summer residence, completely
transformed by the bitter, silent winter, without a leaf on its trees or
a pigeon on its roofs, showed no life save in its rippling brooks and the
murmuring of the tall poplars as they bowed majestically to one another,
shaking the magpies' nests hidden among their highest branches.
At a distance Claire fancied that the home of her youth wore a surly,
depressed air. It seemed to het that Savigny watched her approach with
the cold, aristocratic expression which it assumed for passengers on the
highroad, who stopped at the iron bars of its gateways.
Oh! the cruel aspect of everything!
And yet not so cruel after all. For, with its tightly closed exterior,
Savigny seemed to say to her, "Begone--do not come in!" And if she had
chosen to listen, Claire, renouncing her plan of speaking to her
grandfather, would have returned at once to Paris to maintain the repose
of her life. But she did not understand, poor child! and already the
great Newfoundland dog, who had recognized her, came leaping through the
dead leaves and sniffed at the gate.
"Good-morning, Francoise. Where is grandpapa?" the young woman asked
the gardener's wife, who came to open the gate, fawning and false and
trembling, like all the servants at the chateau when they felt that the
master's eye was upon them.
Grandpapa was in his office, a little building independent of the main
house, where he passed his days fumbling among boxes and pigeonholes and
great books with green backs, with the rage for bureaucracy due to his
early ignorance and the strong impression made upon him long before by
the office of the notary in his village.
At that moment he was closeted there with his keeper, a sort of country
spy, a paid informer who apprised him as to all that was said and done in
He was the master's favorite. His name was Fouinat (polecat), and he had
the flat, crafty, blood-thirsty face appropriate to his name.
When Claire entered, pale and trembling under her furs, the old man
understood that something serious and unusual had happened, and he made a
sign to Fouinat, who disappeared, gliding through the half-open door as
if he were entering the very wall.
"What's the matter, little one? Why, you're all 'perlute'," said the
grandfather, seated behind his huge desk.
Perlute, in the Berrichon dictionary, signifies troubled, excited, upset,
and applied perfectly to Claire's condition. Her rapid walk in the cold
country air, the effort she had made in order to do what she was doing,
imparted an unwonted expression to her face, which was much less reserved
than usual. Without the slightest encouragement on his part, she kissed
him and seated herself in front of the fire, where old stumps, surrounded
by dry moss and pine needles picked up in the paths, were smouldering
with occasional outbursts of life and the hissing of sap. She did not
even take time to shake off the frost that stood in beads on her veil,
but began to speak at once, faithful to her resolution to state the
object of her visit immediately upon entering the room, before she
allowed herself to be intimidated by the atmosphere of fear and respect
which encompassed the grandfather and made of him a sort of awe-inspiring
She required all her courage not to become confused, not to interrupt her
narrative before that piercing gaze which transfixed her, enlivened from
her first words by a malicious joy, before that savage mouth whose
corners seemed tightly closed by premeditated reticence, obstinacy, a
denial of any sort of sensibility. She went on to the end in one speech,
respectful without humility, concealing her emotion, steadying her voice
by the consciousness of the truth of her story. Really, seeing them thus
face to face, he cold and calm, stretched out in his armchair, with his
hands in the pockets of his gray swansdown waistcoat, she carefully
choosing her words, as if each of them might condemn or absolve her, you
would never have said that it was a child before her grandfather, but an
accused person before an examining magistrate.
His thoughts were entirely engrossed by the joy, the pride of his
triumph. So they were conquered at last, those proud upstarts of
Fromonts! So they needed old Gardinois at last, did they? Vanity,
his dominating passion, overflowed in his whole manner, do what he would.
When she had finished, he took the floor in his turn, began naturally
enough with "I was sure of it--I always said so--I knew we should see
what it would all come to"--and continued in the same vulgar, insulting
tone, ending with the declaration that, in view of his principles, which
were well known in the family, he would not lend a sou.
Then Claire spoke of her child, of her husband's name, which was also her
father's, and which would be dishonored by the failure. The old man was
as cold, as implacable as ever, and took advantage of her humiliation to
humiliate her still more; for he belonged to the race of worthy rustics
who, when their enemy is down, never leave him without leaving on his
face the marks of the nails in their sabots.
"All I can say to you, little one, is that Savigny is open to you.
Let your husband come here. I happen to need a secretary. Very well,
Georges can do my writing for twelve hundred francs a year and board for
the whole family. Offer him that from me, and come."
She rose indignantly. She had come as his child and he had received her
as a beggar. They had not reached that point yet, thank God!
"Do you think so?" queried M. Gardinois, with a savage light in his eye.
Claire shuddered and walked toward the door without replying. The old
man detained her with a gesture.
"Take care! you don't know what you're refusing. It is in your
interest, you understand, that I suggest bringing your husband here.
You don't know the life he is leading up yonder. Of course you don't
know it, or you'd never come and ask me for money to go where yours has
gone. Ah! I know all about your man's affairs. I have my police at
Paris, yes, and at Asnieres, as well as at Savigny. I know what the
fellow does with his days and his nights; and I don't choose that my
crowns shall go to the places where he goes. They're not clean enough
for money honestly earned."
Claire's eyes opened wide in amazement and horror, for she felt that a
terrible drama had entered her life at that moment through the little low
door of denunciation. The old man continued with a sneer:
"That little Sidonie has fine, sharp teeth."
"Faith, yes, to be sure. I have told you the name. At all events, you'd
have found it out some day or other. In fact, it's an astonishing thing
that, since the time--But you women are so vain! The idea that a man
can deceive you is the last idea to come into your head. Well, yes,
Sidonie's the one who has got it all out of him--with her husband's
consent, by the way."
He went on pitilessly to tell the young wife the source of the money for
the house at Asnieres, the horses, the carriages, and how the pretty
little nest in the Avenue Gabriel had been furnished. He explained
everything in detail. It was clear that, having found a new opportunity
to exercise his mania for espionage, he had availed himself of it to the
utmost; perhaps, too, there was at the bottom of it all a vague,
carefully concealed rage against his little Chebe, the anger of a senile
passion never declared.
Claire listened to him without speaking, with a smile of incredulity.
That smile irritated the old man, spurred on his malice. "Ah! you don't
believe me. Ah! you want proofs, do you?" And he gave her proofs,
heaped them upon her, overpowered her with knife-thrusts in the heart.
She had only to go to Darches, the jeweller in the Rue de la Paix.
A fortnight before, Georges had bought a diamond necklace there for
thirty thousand francs. It was his New Year's gift to Sidonie. Thirty
thousand francs for diamonds at the moment of becoming bankrupt!
He might have talked the entire day and Claire would not have interrupted
him. She felt that the slightest effort would cause the tears that
filled her eyes to overflow, and she was determined to smile to the end,
the sweet, brave woman. From time to time she cast a sidelong glance at
the road. She was in haste to go, to fly from the sound of that spiteful
voice, which pursued her pitilessly.
At last he ceased; he had told the whole story. She bowed and walked
toward the door.
"Are you going? What a hurry you're in!" said the grandfather,
following her outside.
At heart he was a little ashamed of his savagery.
"Won't you breakfast with me?"
She shook her head, not having strength to speak.
"At least wait till the carriage is ready--some one will drive you to the
No, still no.
And she walked on, with the old man close behind her. Proudly, and with
head erect, she crossed the courtyard, filled with souvenirs of her
childhood, without once looking behind. And yet what echoes of hearty
laughter, what sunbeams of her younger days were imprinted in the tiniest
grain of gravel in that courtyard!
Her favorite tree, her favorite bench, were still in the same place. She
had not a glance for them, nor for the pheasants in the aviary, nor even
for the great dog Kiss, who followed her docilely, awaiting the caress
which she did not give him. She had come as a child of the house, she
went away as a stranger, her mind filled with horrible thoughts which the
slightest reminder of her peaceful and happy past could not have failed
And the gate closed upon her harshly. As soon as she was alone, she
began to walk swiftly, swiftly, almost to run. She was not merely going
away, she was escaping. Suddenly, when she reached the end of the wall
of the estate, she found herself in front of the little green gate,
surrounded by nasturtiums and honeysuckle, where the chateau mail-box
was. She stopped instinctively, struck by one of those sudden awakenings
of the memory which take place within us at critical moments and place
before our eyes with wonderful clearness of outline the most trivial acts
of our lives bearing any relation to present disasters or joys. Was it
the red sun that suddenly broke forth from the clouds, flooding the level
expanse with its oblique rays in that winter afternoon as at the sunset
hour in August? Was it the silence that surrounded her, broken only by
the harmonious sounds of nature, which are almost alike at all seasons?
Whatever the cause she saw herself once more as she was, at that same
spot, three years before, on a certain day when she placed in the post a
letter inviting Sidonie to come and pass a month with her in the country.
Something told her that all her misfortunes dated from that moment.
"Ah! had I known--had I only known!" And she fancied that she could
still feel between her fingers the smooth envelope, ready to drop into
Thereupon, as she reflected what an innocent, hopeful, happy child she
was at that moment, she cried out indignantly, gentle creature that she
was, against the injustice of life. She asked herself: "Why is it? What
have I done?"
Then she suddenly exclaimed: "No! it isn't true. It can not be
possible. Grandfather lied to me." And as she went on toward the
station, the unhappy girl tried to convince herself, to make herself
believe what she said. But she did not succeed.
The truth dimly seen is like the veiled sun, which tires the eyes far
more than its most brilliant rays. In the semi-obscurity which still
enveloped her misfortune, the poor woman's sight was keener than she
could have wished. Now she understood and accounted for certain peculiar
circumstances in her husband's life, his frequent absences, his
restlessness, his embarrassed behavior on certain days, and the abundant
details which he sometimes volunteered, upon returning home, concerning
his movements, mentioning names as proofs which she did not ask. From
all these conjectures the evidence of his sin was made up. And still she
refused to believe it, and looked forward to her arrival in Paris to set
her doubts at rest.
No one was at the station, a lonely, cheerless little place, where no
traveller ever showed his face in winter. As Claire sat there awaiting
the train, gazing vaguely at the station-master's melancholy little
garden, and the debris of climbing plants running along the fences by the
track, she felt a moist, warm breath on her glove. It was her friend
Kiss, who had followed her and was reminding her of their happy romps
together in the old days, with little shakes of the head, short leaps,
capers of joy tempered by humility, concluding by stretching his
beautiful white coat at full length at his mistress's feet, on the cold
floor of the waiting-room. Those humble caresses which sought her out,
like a hesitating offer of devotion and sympathy, caused the sobs she had
so long restrained to break forth as last. But suddenly she felt ashamed
of her weakness. She rose and sent the dog away, sent him away
pitilessly with voice and gesture, pointing to the house in the distance,
with a stern face which poor Kiss had never seen. Then she hastily wiped
her eyes and her moist hands; for the train for Paris was approaching and
she knew that in a moment she should need all her courage.
Claire's first thought on leaving the train was to take a cab and drive
to the jeweller in the Rue de la Paix, who had, as her grandfather
alleged, supplied Georges with a diamond necklace. If that should prove
to be true, then all the rest was true. Her dread of learning the truth
was so great that, when she reached her destination and alighted in front
of that magnificent establishment, she stopped, afraid to enter. To give
herself countenance, she pretended to be deeply interested in the jewels
displayed in velvet cases; and one who had seen her, quietly but
fashionably dressed, leaning forward to look at that gleaming and
attractive display, would have taken her for a happy wife engaged in
selecting a bracelet, rather than an anxious, sorrow-stricken soul who
had come thither to discover the secret of her life.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon. At that time of day, in winter,
the Rue de la Paix presents a truly dazzling aspect. In that luxurious
neighborhood, life moves quickly between the short morning and the early
evening. There are carriages moving swiftly in all directions,
a ceaseless rumbling, and on the sidewalks a coquettish haste, a rustling
of silks and furs. Winter is the real Parisian season. To see that
devil's own Paris in all its beauty and wealth and happiness one must
watch the current of its life beneath a lowering sky, heavy with snow.
Nature is absent from the picture, so to speak. No wind, no sunlight.
Just enough light for the dullest colors, the faintest reflections to
produce an admirable effect, from the reddish-gray tone of the monuments
to the gleams of jet which bespangle a woman's dress. Theatre and
concert posters shine resplendent, as if illumined by the effulgence of
the footlights. The shops are crowded. It seems that all those people
must be preparing for perpetual festivities. And at such times, if any
sorrow is mingled with that bustle and tumult, it seems the more terrible
for that reason. For five minutes Claire suffered martyrdom worse than
death. Yonder, on the road to Savigny, in the vast expanse of the
deserted fields, her despair spread out as it were in the sharp air and
seemed to enfold her less closely. Here she was stifling. The voices
beside her, the footsteps, the heedless jostling of people who passed,
all added to her torture.
At last she entered the shop.
"Ah! yes, Madame, certainly--Monsieur Fromont. A necklace of diamonds
and roses. We could make you one like it for twenty-five thousand
That was five thousand less than for him.
"Thanks, Monsieur," said Claire, "I will think it over."
A mirror in front of her, in which she saw her dark-ringed eyes and her
deathly pallor, frightened her. She went out quickly, walking stiffly in
order not to fall.
She had but one idea, to escape from the street, from the noise; to be
alone, quite alone, so that she might plunge headlong into that abyss of
heartrending thoughts, of black things dancing madly in the depths of her
mind. Oh! the coward, the infamous villain! And to think that only last
night she was speaking comforting words to him, with her arms about him!
Suddenly, with no knowledge of how it happened, she found herself in the
courtyard of the factory. Through what streets had she come? Had she
come in a carriage or on foot? She had no remembrance. She had acted
unconsciously, as in a dream. The sentiment of reality returned,
pitiless and poignant, when she reached the steps of her little house.
Risler was there, superintending several men who were carrying potted
plants up to his wife's apartments, in preparation for the magnificent
party she was to give that very evening. With his usual tranquillity he
directed the work, protected the tall branches which the workmen might
have broken: "Not like that. Bend it over. Take care of the carpet."
The atmosphere of pleasure and merry-making which had so revolted her a
moment before pursued her to her own house. It was too much, after all
the rest! She rebelled; and as Risler saluted her, affectionately and
with deep respect as always, her face assumed an expression of intense
disgust, and she passed without speaking to him, without seeing the
amazement that opened his great, honest eyes.
From that moment her course was determined. Wrath, a wrath born of
uprightness and sense of justice, guided her actions. She barely took
time to kiss her child's rosy cheeks before running to her mother's room.
"Come, mamma, dress yourself quickly. We are going away. We are going
The old lady rose slowly from the armchair in which she was sitting,
busily engaged in cleaning her watch-chain by inserting a pin between
every two links with infinite care.
"Come, come, hurry. Get your things ready."
Her voice trembled, and the poor monomaniac's room seemed a horrible
place to her, all glistening as it was with the cleanliness that had
gradually become a mania. She had reached one of those fateful moments
when the loss of one illusion causes you to lose them all, enables you to
look to the very depths of human misery. The realization of her complete
isolation, between her half-mad mother, her faithless husband, her too
young child, came upon her for the first time; but it served only to
strengthen her in her resolution.
In a moment the whole household was busily engaged in making preparations
for this abrupt, unexpected departure. Claire hurried the bewildered
servants, and dressed her mother and the child, who laughed merrily amid
all the excitement. She was in haste to go before Georges' return, so
that he might find the cradle empty and the house deserted. Where should
she go? She did not know as yet. Perhaps to her aunt at Orleans,
perhaps to Savigny, no matter where. What she must do first of all was-
go, fly from that atmosphere of treachery and falsehood.
At that moment she was in her bedroom, packing a trunk, making a pile of
her effects--a heartrending occupation. Every object that she touched
set in motion whole worlds of thoughts, of memories. There is so much of
ourselves in anything that we use. At times the odor of a sachet-bag,
the pattern of a bit of lace, were enough to bring tears to her eyes.
Suddenly she heard a heavy footstep in the salon, the door of which was
partly open; then there was a slight cough, as if to let her know that
some one was there. She supposed that it was Risler: for no one else had
the right to enter her apartments so unceremoniously. The idea of having
to endure the presence of that hypocritical face, that false smile, was
so distasteful to her that she rushed to close the door.
"I am not at home to any one."
The door resisted her efforts, and Sigismond's square head appeared in
"It is I, Madame," he said in an undertone. "I have come to get the
"What money?" demanded Claire, for she no longer remembered why she had
gone to Savigny.
"Hush! The funds to meet my note to-morrow. Monsieur Georges, when he
went out, told me that you would hand it to me very soon."
"Ah! yes--true. The hundred thousand francs."
"I haven't them, Monsieur Planus; I haven't anything."
"Then," said the cashier, in a strange voice, as if he were speaking to
himself, "then it means failure."
And he turned slowly away.
Failure! She sank on a chair, appalled, crushed. For the last few hours
the downfall of her happiness had caused her to forget the downfall of
the house; but she remembered now.
So her husband was ruined! In a little while, when he returned home, he
would learn of the disaster, and he would learn at the same time that his
wife and child had gone; that he was left alone in the midst of the
Alone--that weak, easily influenced creature, who could only weep and
complain and shake his fist at life like a child! What would become of
the miserable man?
She pitied him, notwithstanding his great sin.
Then the thought came to her that she would perhaps seem to have fled at
the approach of bankruptcy, of poverty.
Georges might say to himself:
"Had I been rich, she would have forgiven me!"
Ought she to allow him to entertain that doubt?
To a generous, noble heart like Claire's nothing more than that was
necessary to change her plans. Instantly she was conscious that her
feeling of repugnance, of revolt, began to grow less bitter, and a sudden
ray of light seemed to make her duty clearer to her. When they came to
tell her that the child was dressed and the trunks ready, her mind was
made up anew.
"Never mind," she replied gently. "We are not going away."
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Abundant details which he sometimes volunteered
Exaggerated dramatic pantomime
Void in her heart, a place made ready for disasters to come
Would have liked him to be blind only so far as he was concerned
FROMONT AND RISLER
By ALPHONSE DAUDET
THE DAY OF RECKONING
The great clock of Saint-Gervais struck one in the morning. It was so
cold that the fine snow, flying through the air, hardened as it fell,
covering the pavements with a slippery, white blanket.
Risler, wrapped in his cloak, was hastening home from the brewery through
the deserted streets of the Marais. He had been celebrating, in company
with his two faithful borrowers, Chebe and Delobelle, his first moment of
leisure, the end of that almost endless period of seclusion during which
he had been superintending the manufacture of his press, with all the
searchings, the joys, and the disappointments of the inventor. It had
been long, very long. At the last moment he had discovered a defect.
The crane did not work well; and he had had to revise his plans and
drawings. At last, on that very day, the new machine had been tried.
Everything had succeeded to his heart's desire. The worthy man was
triumphant. It seemed to him that he had paid a debt, by giving the
house of Fromont the benefit of a new machine, which would lessen the
labor, shorten the hours of the workmen, and at the same time double
the profits and the reputation of the factory. He indulged in beautiful
dreams as he plodded along. His footsteps rang out proudly, emphasized
by the resolute and happy trend of his thoughts.
Quickening his pace, he reached the corner of Rue des Vieilles-
Haudriettes. A long line of carriages was standing in front of the
factory, and the light of their lanterns in the street, the shadows of
the drivers seeking shelter from the snow in the corners and angles that
those old buildings have retained despite the straightening of the
sidewalks, gave an animated aspect to that deserted, silent quarter.
"Yes, yes! to be sure," thought the honest fellow, "we have a ball at
our house." He remembered that Sidonie was giving a grand musical and
dancing party, which she had excused him from attending, by the way,
knowing that he was very busy.
Shadows passed and repassed behind the fluttering veil of the curtains;
the orchestra seemed to follow the movements of those stealthy
apparitions with the rising and falling of its muffled notes. The guests
were dancing. Risler let his eyes rest for a moment on that
phantasmagoria of the ball, and fancied that he recognized Sidonie's
shadow in a small room adjoining the salon.
She was standing erect in her magnificent costume, in the attitude of a
pretty woman before her mirror. A shorter shadow behind her, Madame
Dobson doubtless, was repairing some accident to the costume, retieing
the knot of a ribbon tied about her neck, its long ends floating down to
the flounces of the train. It was all very indistinct, but the woman's
graceful figure was recognizable in those faintly traced outlines, and
Risler tarried long admiring her.
The contrast on the first floor was most striking. There was no light
visible, with the exception of a little lamp shining through the lilac
hangings of the bedroom. Risler noticed that circumstance, and as the
little girl had been ailing a few days before, he felt anxious about her,
remembering Madame Georges's strange agitation when she passed him so
hurriedly in the afternoon; and he retraced his steps as far as Pere
Achille's lodge to inquire.
The lodge was full. Coachmen were warming themselves around the stove,
chatting and laughing amid the smoke from their pipes. When Risler
appeared there was profound silence, a cunning, inquisitive, significant
silence. They had evidently been speaking of him.
"Is the Fromont child still sick?" he asked.
"No, not the child, Monsieur."
"Monsieur Georges sick?"
"Yes, he was taken when he came home to-night. I went right off to get
the doctor. He said that it wouldn't amount to anything--that all
Monsieur needed was rest."
As Risler closed the door Pere Achille added, under his breath, with the
half-fearful, half-audacious insolence of an inferior, who would like to
be listened to and yet not distinctly heard:
"Ah! 'dame', they're not making such a show on the first floor as they
are on the second."
This is what had happened.
Fromont jeune, on returning home during the evening, had found his wife
with such a changed, heartbroken face, that he at once divined a
catastrophe. But he had become so accustomed in the past two years to
sin with impunity that it did not for one moment occur to him that his
wife could have been informed of his conduct. Claire, for her part, to
avoid humiliating him, was generous enough to speak only of Savigny.
"Grandpapa refused," she said.
The miserable man turned frightfully pale.
"I am lost--I am lost!" he muttered two or three times in the wild
accents of fever; and his sleepless nights, a last terrible scene which
he had had with Sidonie, trying to induce her not to give this party on
the eve of his downfall, M. Gardinois' refusal, all these maddening
things which followed so closely on one another's heels and had agitated
him terribly, culminated in a genuine nervous attack. Claire took pity
on him, put him to bed, and established herself by his side; but her
voice had lost that affectionate intonation which soothes and persuades.
There was in her gestures, in the way in which she arranged the pillow
under the patient's head and prepared a quieting draught, a strange
"But I have ruined you!" Georges said from time to time, as if to rouse
her from that apathy which made him uncomfortable. She replied with a
proud, disdainful gesture. Ah! if he had done only that to her!
At last, however, his nerves became calmer, the fever subsided, and he
She remained to attend to his wants.
"It is my duty," she said to herself.
Her duty. She had reached that point with the man whom she had adored so
blindly, with the hope of a long and happy life together.
At that moment the ball in Sidonie's apartments began to become very
animated. The ceiling trembled rhythmically, for Madame had had all the
carpets removed from her salons for the greater comfort of the dancers.
Sometimes, too, the sound of voices reached Claire's ears in waves, and
frequent tumultuous applause, from which one could divine the great
number of the guests, the crowded condition of the rooms.
Claire was lost in thought. She did not waste time in regrets, in
fruitless lamentations. She knew that life was inflexible and that all
the arguments in the world will not arrest the cruel logic of its
inevitable progress. She did not ask herself how that man had succeeded
in deceiving her so long--how he could have sacrificed the honor and
happiness of his family for a mere caprice. That was the fact, and all
her reflections could not wipe it out, could not repair the irreparable.
The subject that engrossed her thoughts was the future. A new existence
was unfolding before her eyes, dark, cruel, full of privation and toil;
and, strangely enough, the prospect of ruin, instead of terrifying her,
restored all her courage. The idea of the change of abode made necessary
by the economy they would be obliged to practise, of work made compulsory
for Georges and perhaps for herself, infused an indefinable energy into
the distressing calmness of her despair. What a heavy burden of souls
she would have with her three children: her mother, her child, and her
husband! The feeling of responsibility prevented her giving way too much
to her misfortune, to the wreck of her love; and in proportion as she
forgot herself in the thought of the weak creatures she had to protect
she realized more fully the meaning of the word "sacrifice," so vague on
careless lips, so serious when it becomes a rule of life.
Such were the poor woman's thoughts during that sad vigil, a vigil of
arms and tears, while she was preparing her forces for the great battle.
Such was the scene lighted by the modest little lamp which Risler had
seen from below, like a star fallen from the radiant chandeliers of the
Reassured by Pere Achille's reply, the honest fellow thought of going up
to his bedroom, avoiding the festivities and the guests, for whom he
On such occasions he used a small servants' staircase communicating with
the counting-room. So he walked through the many-windowed workshops,
which the moon, reflected by the snow, made as light as at noonday. He
breathed the atmosphere of the day of toil, a hot, stifling atmosphere,
heavy with the odor of boiled talc and varnish. The papers spread out on
the dryers formed long, rustling paths. On all sides tools were lying
about, and blouses hanging here and there ready for the morrow. Risler
never walked through the shops without a feeling of pleasure.
Suddenly he spied a light in Planus's office, at the end of that long
line of deserted rooms. The old cashier was still at work, at one
o'clock in the morning! That was really most extraordinary.
Risler's first impulse was to retrace his steps. In fact, since his
unaccountable falling-out with Sigismond, since the cashier had adopted
that attitude of cold silence toward him, he had avoided meeting him.
His wounded friendship had always led him to shun an explanation; he had
a sort of pride in not asking Planus why he bore him ill-will. But, on
that evening, Risler felt so strongly the need of cordial sympathy, of
pouring out his heart to some one, and then it was such an excellent
opportunity for a tete-a-tete with his former friend, that he did not try
to avoid him but boldly entered the counting-room.
The cashier was sitting there, motionless, among heaps of papers and
great books, which he had been turning over, some of which had fallen to
the floor. At the sound of his employer's footsteps he did not even lift
his eyes. He had recognized Risler's step. The latter, somewhat
abashed, hesitated a moment; then, impelled by one of those secret
springs which we have within us and which guide us, despite ourselves, in
the path of our destiny, he walked straight to the cashier's grating.
"Sigismond," he said in a grave voice.
The old man raised his head and displayed a shrunken face down which two
great tears were rolling, the first perhaps that that animate column of
figures had ever shed in his life.
"You are weeping, old man? What troubles you?"
And honest Risler, deeply touched, held out his hand to his friend, who
hastily withdrew his. That movement of repulsion was so instinctive, so
brutal, that all Risler's emotion changed to indignation.
He drew himself up with stern dignity.
"I offer you my hand, Sigismond Planus!" he said.
"And I refuse to take it," said Planus, rising.
There was a terrible pause, during which they heard the muffled music of
the orchestra upstairs and the noise of the ball, the dull, wearing noise
of floors shaken by the rhythmic movement of the dance.
"Why do you refuse to take my hand?" demanded Risler simply, while the
grating upon which he leaned trembled with a metallic quiver.
Sigismond was facing him, with both hands on his desk, as if to emphasize
and drive home what he was about to say in reply.
"Why? Because you have ruined the house; because in a few hours a
messenger from the Bank will come and stand where you are, to collect a
hundred thousand francs; and because, thanks to you, I haven't a sou in
the cash-box--that's the reason why!"
Risler was stupefied.
"I have ruined the house--I?"
"Worse than that, Monsieur. You have allowed it to be ruined by your
wife, and you have arranged with her to benefit by our ruin and your
dishonor. Oh! I can see your game well enough. The money your wife has
wormed out of the wretched Fromont, the house at Asnieres, the diamonds
and all the rest is invested in her name, of course, out of reach of
disaster; and of course you can retire from business now."
"Oh--oh!" exclaimed Risler in a faint voice, a restrained voice rather,
that was insufficient for the multitude of thoughts it strove to express;
and as he stammered helplessly he drew the grating toward him with such
force that he broke off a piece of it. Then he staggered, fell to the
floor, and lay there motionless, speechless, retaining only, in what
little life was still left in him, the firm determination not to die
until he had justified himself. That determination must have been very
powerful; for while his temples throbbed madly, hammered by the blood
that turned his face purple, while his ears were ringing and his glazed
eyes seemed already turned toward the terrible unknown, the unhappy man
muttered to himself in a thick voice, like the voice of a shipwrecked man
speaking with his mouth full of water in a howling gale: "I must live!
I must live!"
When he recovered consciousness, he was sitting on the cushioned bench on
which the workmen sat huddled together on pay-day, his cloak on the
floor, his cravat untied, his shirt open at the neck, cut by Sigismond's
knife. Luckily for him, he had cut his hands when he tore the grating
apart; the blood had flowed freely, and that accident was enough to avert
an attack of apoplexy. On opening his eyes, he saw on either side old
Sigismond and Madame Georges, whom the cashier had summoned in his