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    Chapter 21

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    Chapter 21
    Previous Chapter
    Night had long gathered in when Helene returned. From her umbrella the
    water dripped on step after step, whilst clinging to the balusters she
    ascended the staircase. She stood for a few seconds outside her door
    to regain her breath; the deafening rush of the rain still sounded
    in her ears; she still seemed to feel the jostling of hurrying
    foot-passengers, and to see the reflections from the street-lamps
    dancing in the puddles. She was walking in a dream, filled with the
    surprise of the kisses that had been showered upon her; and as she
    fumbled for her key she believed that her bosom felt neither remorse
    nor joy. Circumstances had compassed it all; she could have done naught
    to prevent it. But the key was not to be found; it was doubtless inside,
    in the pocket of her other gown. At this discovery her vexation was
    intense; it seemed as though she were denied admission to her own
    home. It became necessary that she should ring the bell.

    "Oh! it's madame!" exclaimed Rosalie as she opened the door. "I was
    beginning to feel uneasy."

    She took the umbrella, intending to place it in the kitchen sink, and
    then rattled on:

    "Good gracious! what torrents! Zephyrin, who has just come, was
    drenched to the skin. I took the liberty, madame, of keeping him to
    dinner. He has leave till ten o'clock."

    Helene followed her mechanically. She felt a desire to look once more
    on everything in her home before removing her bonnet.

    "You have done quite right, my girl," she answered.

    For a moment she lingered on the kitchen threshold, gazing at the
    bright fire. Then she instinctively opened the door of a cupboard, and
    promptly shut it again. Everything was in its place, chairs and tables
    alike; she found them all again, and their presence gave her pleasure.
    Zephyrin had, in the meantime, struggled respectfully to his feet. She
    nodded to him, smiling.

    "I didn't know whether to put the roast on," began the maid.

    "Why, what time is it?" asked Helene.

    "Oh, it's close on seven o'clock, madame."

    "What! seven o'clock!"

    Astonishment riveted her to the floor; she had lost all consciousness
    of time, and seemed to awaken from a dream.

    "And where's Jeanne?" she asked.

    "Oh! she has been very good, madame. I even think she must have fallen
    asleep, for I haven't heard her for some time."

    "Haven't you given her a light?"

    Embarrassment closed Rosalie's lips; she was unwilling to relate that
    Zephyrin had brought her some pictures which had engrossed her
    attention. Mademoiselle had never made the least stir, so she could
    scarcely have wanted anything. Helene, however, paid no further heed
    to her, but ran into the room, where a dreadful chill fell upon her.

    "Jeanne! Jeanne!" she called.

    No answer broke the stillness. She stumbled against an arm-chair. From
    the dining-room, the door of which she had left ajar, some light
    streamed across a corner of the carpet. She felt a shiver come over
    her, and she could have declared that the rain was falling in the
    room, with its moist breath and continuous streaming. Then, on turning
    her head, she at once saw the pale square formed by the open window
    and the gloomy grey of the sky.

    "Who can have opened this window?" she cried. "Jeanne! Jeanne!"

    Still no answering word. A mortal terror fell on Helene's heart. She
    must look out of this window; but as she felt her way towards it, her
    hands lighted on a head of hair--it was Jeanne's. And then, as Rosalie
    entered with a lamp, the child appeared with blanched face, sleeping
    with her cheek upon her crossed arms, while the big raindrops from the
    roof splashed upon her. Her breathing was scarcely perceptible, so
    overcome she was with despair and fatigue. Among the lashes of her
    large, bluey eyelids there were still two heavy tears.

    "The unhappy child!" stammered Helene. "Oh, heavens! she's icy cold!
    To fall asleep there, at such a time, when she had been expressly
    forbidden to touch the window! Jeanne, Jeanne, speak to me; wake up,
    Jeanne!"

    Rosalie had prudently vanished. The child, on being raised in her
    mother's embrace, let her head drop as though she were unable to shake
    off the leaden slumber that had seized upon her. At last, however, she
    raised her eyelids; but the glare of the lamp dazzled her, and she
    remained benumbed and stupid.

    "Jeanne, it's I! What's wrong with you? See, I've just come back,"
    said Helene.

    But the child seemingly failed to understand her; in her stupefaction
    she could only murmur: "Oh! Ah!"

    She gazed inquiringly at her mother, as though she failed to recognize
    her. And suddenly she shivered, growing conscious of the cold air of
    the room. Her memory was awakening, and the tears rolled from her
    eyelids to her cheeks. Then she commenced to struggle, in the evident
    desire to be left alone.

    "It's you, it's you! Oh, leave me; you hold me too tight! I was so
    comfortable."

    She slipped from her mother's arms with affright in her face. Her
    uneasy looks wandered from Helene's hands to her shoulders; one of
    those hands was ungloved, and she started back from the touch of the
    moist palm and warm fingers with a fierce resentment, as though
    fleeing from some stranger's caress. The old perfume of vervain had
    died away; Helene's fingers had surely become greatly attenuated, and
    her hand was unusually soft. This skin was no longer hers, and its
    touch exasperated Jeanne.

    "Come, I'm not angry with you," pleaded Helene. "But, indeed, have you
    behaved well? Come and kiss me."

    Jeanne, however, still recoiled from her. She had no remembrance of
    having seen her mother dressed in that gown or cloak. Besides, she
    looked so wet and muddy. Where had she come from dressed in that dowdy
    style.

    "Kiss me, Jeanne," repeated Helene.

    But her voice also seemed strange; in Jeanne's ears it sounded louder.
    Her old heartache came upon her once more, as when an injury had been
    done her; and unnerved by the presence of what was unknown and
    horrible to her, divining, however, that she was breathing an
    atmosphere of falsehood, she burst into sobs.

    "No, no, I entreat you! You left me all alone; and oh! I've been so
    miserable!"

    "But I'm back again, my darling. Don't weep any more; I've come home!"

    "Oh no, no! it's all over now! I don't wish for you any more! Oh, I
    waited and waited, and have been so wretched!"

    Helene took hold of the child again, and gently sought to draw her to
    her bosom; but she resisted stubbornly, plaintively exclaiming:

    "No, no; it will never be the same! You are not the same!"

    "What! What are you talking of, child?"

    "I don't know; you are not the same."

    "Do you mean to say that I don't love you any more?"

    "I don't know; you are no longer the same! Don't say no. You don't
    feel the same! It's all over, over, over. I wish to die!"

    With blanching face Helene again clasped her in her arms. Did her
    looks, then, reveal her secret? She kissed her, but a shudder ran
    through the child's frame, and an expression of such misery crept into
    her face that Helene forbore to print a second kiss upon her brow. She
    still kept hold of her, but neither of them uttered a word. Jeanne's
    sobbing fell to a whisper, a nervous revolt stiffening her limbs the
    while. Helene's first thought was that much notice ought not to be
    paid to a child's whims; but to her heart there stole a feeling of
    secret shame, and the weight of her daughter's body on her shoulder
    brought a blush to her cheeks. She hastened to put Jeanne down, and
    each felt relieved.

    "Now, be good, and wipe your eyes," said Helene. "We'll make
    everything all right."

    The child acquiesced in all gentleness, but seemed somewhat afraid and
    glanced covertly at her mother. All at once her frame was shaken by a
    fit of coughing.

    "Good heavens! why, you've made yourself ill now! I cannot stay away
    from you a moment. Did you feel cold?

    "Yes, mamma; in the back."

    "See here; put on this shawl. The dining-room stove is lighted, and
    you'll soon feel warm. Are you hungry?"

    Jeanne hesitated. It was on the tip of her tongue to speak the truth
    and say no; but she darted a side glance at her mother, and,
    recoiling, answered in a whisper: "Yes, mamma."

    "Ah, well, it will be all right," exclaimed Helene, desirous of
    tranquillizing herself. "Only, I entreat you, you naughty child, don't
    frighten me like this again."

    On Rosalie re-entering the room to announce that dinner was ready,
    Helene severely scolded her. The little maid's head drooped; she
    stammered out that it was all very true, for she ought to have looked
    better after mademoiselle. Then, hoping to mollify her mistress, she
    busied herself in helping her to change her clothes. "Good gracious!
    madame was in a fine state!" she remarked, as she assisted in removing
    each mud-stained garment, at which Jeanne glared suspiciously, still
    racked by torturing thoughts.

    "Madame ought to feel comfortable now," exclaimed Rosalie when it was
    all over. "It's awfully nice to get into dry clothes after a
    drenching."

    Helene, on finding herself once more in her blue dressing-gown, gave
    vent to a slight sigh, as though a new happiness had welled up within
    her. She again regained her old cheerfulness; she had rid herself of a
    burden in throwing off those bedraggled garments. She washed her face
    and hands; and while she stood there, still glistening with moisture,
    her dressing-gown buttoned up to her chin, she was slowly approached
    by Jeanne, who took one of her hands and kissed it.

    At table, however, not a word passed between mother and daughter. The
    fire flared with a merry roar, and there was a look of happiness about
    the little dining-room, with its bright mahogany and gleaming china.
    But the old stupor which drove away all thought seemed to have again
    fallen on Helene; she ate mechanically, though with an appearance of
    appetite. Jeanne sat facing her, and quietly watched her over her
    glass, noting each of her movements. But all at once the child again
    coughed, and her mother, who had become unconscious of her presence,
    immediately displayed lively concern.

    "Why, you're coughing again! Aren't you getting warm?"

    "Oh, yes, mamma; I'm very warm."

    Helene leaned towards her to feel her hand and ascertain whether she
    was speaking the truth. Only then did she perceive that her plate was
    still full.

    "Why, you said you were hungry. Don't you like what you have there?"

    "Oh, yes, mamma; I'm eating away."

    With an effort Jeanne swallowed a mouthful. Helene looked at her for a
    time, but soon again began dreaming of the fatal room which she had
    come from. It did not escape the child that her mother took little
    interest in her now. As the dinner came to an end, her poor wearied
    frame sank down on the chair, and she sat there like some bent, aged
    woman, with the dim eyes of one of those old maids for whom love is
    past and gone.

    "Won't mademoiselle have any jam?" asked Rosalie. "If not, can I
    remove the cloth?"

    Helene still sat there with far-away looks.

    "Mamma, I'm sleepy," exclaimed Jeanne in a changed voice. "Will you
    let me go to bed? I shall feel better in bed."

    Once more her mother seemed to awake with a start to consciousness of
    her surroundings.

    "You are suffering, my darling! where do you feel the pain? Tell me."

    "No, no; I told you I'm all right! I'm sleepy, and it's already time
    for me to go to bed."

    She left her chair and stood up, as though to prove that there was no
    illness threatening her: but her benumbed feet tottered over the floor
    on her way to the bedroom. She leaned against the furniture, and her
    hardihood was such that not a tear came from her, despite the feverish
    fire darting through her frame. Her mother followed to assist her to
    bed; but the child had displayed such haste in undressing herself that
    she only arrived in time to tie up her hair for the night. Without
    need of any helping hand Jeanne slipped between the sheets, and
    quickly closed her eyes.

    "Are you comfortable?" asked Helene, as she drew up the bedclothes and
    carefully tucked her in.

    "Yes, quite comfortable. Leave me alone, and don't disturb me. Take
    away the lamp."

    Her only yearning was to be alone in the darkness, that she might
    reopen her eyes and chew the cud of her sorrows, with no one near to
    watch her. When the light had been carried away, her eyes opened quite
    wide.

    Nearby, in the meantime, Helene was pacing up and down her room. She
    was seized with a wondrous longing to be up and moving about; the idea
    of going to bed seemed to her insufferable. She glanced at the clock
    --twenty minutes to nine; what was she to do? she rummaged about in a
    drawer, but forgot what she was seeking for. Then she wandered to her
    bookshelves, glancing aimlessly over the books; but the very reading
    of the titles wearied her. A buzzing sprang up in her ears with the
    room's stillness; the loneliness, the heavy atmosphere, were as an
    agony to her. She would fain have had some bustle going on around her,
    have had some one there to speak to--something, in short, to draw her
    from herself. She twice listened at the door of Jeanne's little room,
    from which, however, not even a sound of breathing came. Everything
    was quiet; so she turned back once more, and amused herself by taking
    up and replacing whatever came to her hand. Then suddenly the thought
    flashed across her mind that Zephyrin must still be with Rosalie. It
    was a relief to her; she was delighted at the idea of not being alone,
    and stepped in her slippers towards the kitchen.

    She was already in the ante-room, and was opening the glass door of
    the inner passage, when she detected the re-echoing clap of a swinging
    box on the ears, and the next moment Rosalie could be heard
    exclaiming:

    "Ha, ha! you think you'll nip me again, do you? Take your paws off!"

    "Oh! that's nothing, my charmer!" exclaimed Zephyrin in his husky,
    guttural voice. "That's to show how I love you--in this style, you
    know--"

    But at that moment the door creaked, and Helene, entering, discovered
    the diminutive soldier and the servant maid seated very quietly at
    table, with their noses bent over their plates. They had assumed an
    air of complete indifference; their innocence was certain. Yet their
    faces were red with blushes, and their eyes aflame, and they wriggled
    restlessly on their straw-bottomed chairs. Rosalie started up and
    hurried forward.

    "Madame wants something?"

    Helene had no pretext ready to her tongue. She had come to see them,
    to chat with them, and have their company. However, she felt a sudden
    shame, and dared not say that she required nothing.

    "Have you any hot water?" she asked, after a silence.

    "No, madame; and my fire is nearly out. Oh, but it doesn't matter;
    I'll give you some in five minutes. It boils in no time."

    She threw on some charcoal, and then set the kettle in place; but
    seeing that her mistress still lingered in the doorway, she said:

    "I'll bring the water to you in five minutes, madame."

    Helene responded with a wave of the hand.

    "I'm not in a hurry for it; I'll wait. Don't disturb yourself, my
    girl; eat away, eat away. There's a lad who'll have to go back to
    barracks."

    Rosalie thereupon sat down again. Zephyrin, who had also been
    standing, made a military salute, and returned to the cutting of his
    meat, with his elbows projecting as though to show that he knew how to
    conduct himself at table. Thus eating together, after madame had
    finished dinner, they did not even draw the table into the middle of
    the kitchen, but contented themselves with sitting side by side, with
    their noses turned towards the wall. A glorious prospect of stewpans
    was before them. A bunch of laurel and thyme hung near, and a
    spice-box exhaled a piquant perfume. Around them--the kitchen was not
    yet tidied--was all the litter of the things cleared away from the
    dining-room; however, the spot seemed a charming one to these hungry
    sweethearts, and especially to Zephyrin, who here feasted on such
    things as were never seen within the walls of his barracks. The
    predominant odor was one of roast meat, seasoned with a dash of
    vinegar--the vinegar of the salad. In the copper pans and iron pots
    the reflected light from the gas was dancing; and as the heat of the
    fire was beyond endurance, they had set the window ajar, and a cool
    breeze blew in from the garden, stirring the blue cotton curtain.

    "Must you be in by ten o'clock exactly?" asked Helene.

    "I must, madame, with all deference to you," answered Zephyrin.

    "Well, it's along way off. Do you take the "bus'?"

    "Oh, yes, madame, sometimes. But you see a good swinging walk is much
    the best."

    She had taken a step into the kitchen, and leaning against the
    dresser, her arms dangling and her hands clasped over her
    dressing-gown, she began gossiping away about the wretched weather
    they had had that day, about the food which was rationed out in
    barracks, and the high price of eggs. As soon, however, as she had
    asked a question and their answer had been given the conversation
    abruptly fell. They experienced some discomfort with her standing thus
    behind their backs. They did not turn round, but spoke into their
    plates, their shoulders bent beneath her gaze, while, to conform to
    propriety, each mouthful they swallowed was as small as possible. On
    the other hand, Helene had now regained her tranquillity, and felt
    quite happy there.

    "Don't fret, madame," said Rosalie; "the kettle is singing already. I
    wish the fire would only burn up a little better!"

    She wanted to see to it, but Helene would not allow her to disturb
    herself. It would be all right by-and-by. An intense weariness now
    pervaded the young woman's limbs. Almost mechanically she crossed the
    kitchen and approached the window, where she observed the third chair,
    which was very high, and when turned over became a stepladder.
    However, she did not sit down on it at once, for she had caught sight
    of a number of pictures heaped up on a corner of the table.

    "Dear me!" she exclaimed, as she took them in her hand, inspired with
    the wish of gratifying Zephyrin.

    The little soldier gaped with a silent chuckle. His face beamed with
    smiles, and his eyes followed each picture, his head wagging whenever
    something especially lovely was being examined by madame.

    "That one there," he suddenly remarked, "I found in the Rue du Temple.
    She's a beautiful woman, with flowers in her basket."

    Helene sat down and inspected the beautiful woman who decorated the
    gilt and varnished lid of a box of lozenges, every stain on which had
    been carefully wiped off by Zephyrin. On the chair a dish-cloth was
    hanging, and she could not well lean back. She flung it aside,
    however, and once more lapsed into her dreaming. Then the two
    sweethearts remarked madame's good nature, and their restraint
    vanished--in the end, indeed, her very presence was forgotten by them.
    One by one the pictures had dropped from her hands on to her knees,
    and, with a vague smile playing on her face, she examined the
    sweethearts and listened to their talk.

    "I say, my dear," whispered the girl, "won't you have some more
    mutton?"

    He answered neither yes nor no, but swung backwards and forwards on
    his chair as though he had been tickled, then contentedly stretched
    himself, while she placed a thick slice on his plate. His red epaulets
    moved up and down, and his bullet-shaped head, with its huge
    projecting ears, swayed to and fro over his yellow collar as though it
    were the head of some Chinese idol. His laughter ran all over him, and
    he was almost bursting inside his tunic, which he did not unbutton,
    however, out of respect for madame.

    "This is far better than old Rouvet's radishes!" he exclaimed at last,
    with his mouth full.

    This was a reminiscence of their country home; and at thought of it
    they both burst into immoderate laughter. Rosalie even had to hold on
    to the table to prevent herself from falling. One day, before their
    first communion, it seemed, Zephyrin had filched three black radishes
    from old Rouvet. They were very tough radishes indeed--tough enough to
    break one's teeth; but Rosalie all the same had crunched her share of
    the spoil at the back of the schoolhouse. Hence it was that every time
    they chanced to be taking a meal together Zephyrin never omitted to
    ejaculate: "Yes; this is better than old Rouvet's radishes!"

    And then Rosalie's laughter would become so violent that nine times
    out of ten her petticoat-string would give way with an audible crack.

    "Hello! has it parted?" asked the little soldier, with triumph in his
    tone.

    But Rosalie responded with a good slap.

    "It's disgusting to make me break the string like this!" said she. "I
    put a fresh one on every week."

    However, he came nearer to her, intent on some joke or other, by way
    of revenging the blow; but with a furious glance she reminded him that
    her mistress was looking on. This seemed to trouble him but little,
    for he replied with a rakish wink, as much as to say that no woman,
    not even a lady, disliked a little fun. To be sure, when folks are
    sweethearting, other people always like to be looking on.

    "You have still five years to serve, haven't you?" asked Helene,
    leaning back on the high wooden-seated chair, and yielding to a
    feeling of tenderness.

    "Yes, madame; perhaps only four if they don't need me any longer."

    It occurred to Rosalie that her mistress was thinking of her marriage,
    and with assumed anger, she broke in:

    "Oh! madame, he can stick in the army for another ten years if he
    likes! I sha'n't trouble myself to ask the Government for him. He is
    becoming too much of a rake; yes, I believe he's going to the dogs.
    Oh! it's useless for you to laugh--that won't take with me. When we go
    before the mayor to get married, we'll see on whose side the laugh
    is!"

    At this he chuckled all the more, in order that he might show himself
    a lady-killer before madame, and the maid's annoyance then became
    real.

    "Oh!" said she, "we know all about that! You know, madame, he's still
    a booby at heart. You've no idea how stupid that uniform makes them
    all! That's the way he goes on with his comrades; but if I turned him
    out, you would hear him sobbing on the stairs. Oh, I don't care a fig
    for you, my lad! Why, whenever I please, won't you always be there to
    do as I tell you?"

    She bent forward to observe him closely; but, on seeing that his
    good-natured, freckled face was beginning to cloud over, she was
    suddenly moved, and prattled on, without any seeming transition:

    "Ah! I didn't tell you that I've received a letter from auntie. The
    Guignard lot want to sell their house--aye, and almost for nothing
    too. We might perhaps be able to take it later on."

    "By Jove!" exclaimed Zephyrin, brightening, "we should be quite at
    home there. There's room enough for two cows."

    With this idea they lapsed into silence. They were now having some
    dessert. The little soldier licked the jam on his bread with a child's
    greedy satisfaction, while the servant girl carefully pared an apple
    with a maternal air.

    "Madame!" all at once exclaimed Rosalie, "there's the water boiling
    now."

    Helene, however, never stirred. She felt herself enveloped by an
    atmosphere of happiness. She gave a continuance to their dreams, and
    pictured them living in the country in the Guignards' house and
    possessed of two cows. A smile came to her face as she saw Zephyrin
    sitting there to all appearance so serious, though in reality he was
    patting Rosalie's knee under the table, whilst she remained very
    stiff, affecting an innocent demeanor. Then everything became blurred.
    Helene lost all definite sense of her surroundings, of the place where
    she was, and of what had brought her there. The copper pans were
    flashing on the walls; feelings of tenderness riveted her to the spot;
    her eyes had a far-away look. She was not affected in any way by the
    disorderly state of the kitchen; she had no consciousness of having
    demeaned herself by coming there; all she felt was a deep pleasure, as
    when a longing has been satisfied. Meantime the heat from the fire was
    bedewing her pale brow with beads of perspiration, and behind her the
    wind, coming in through the half-open window, quivered delightfully on
    her neck.

    "Madame, your water is boiling," again said Rosalie. "There will be
    soon none left in the kettle."

    She held the kettle before her, and Helene, for the moment astonished,
    was forced to rise. "Oh, yes! thank you!"

    She no longer had an excuse to remain, and went away slowly and
    regretfully. When she reached her room she was at a loss what to do
    with the kettle. Then suddenly within her there came a burst of
    passionate love. The torpor which had held her in a state of
    semi-unconsciousness gave way to a wave of glowing feeling, the rush
    of which thrilled her as with fire. She quivered, and memories
    returned to her--memories of her passion and of Henri.

    While she was taking off her dressing-gown and gazing at her bare
    arms, a noise broke on her anxious ear. She thought she had heard
    Jeanne coughing. Taking up the lamp she went into the closet, but
    found the child with eyelids closed, seemingly fast asleep. However,
    the moment the mother, satisfied with her examination, had turned her
    back, Jeanne's eyes again opened widely to watch her as she returned
    to her room. There was indeed no sleep for Jeanne, nor had she any
    desire to sleep. A second fit of coughing racked her bosom, but she
    buried her head beneath the coverlet and stifled every sound. She
    might go away for ever now; her mother would never miss her. Her eyes
    were still wide open in the darkness; she knew everything as though
    knowledge had come with thought, and she was dying of it all, but
    dying without a murmur.
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    Chapter 21
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