Read For a Night of Love Online
Authors: Émile Zola
Julien had been living on the Place des Quatre-Femmes for five years when, one July evening, an event turned his life upside down. The night was very warm and lit with bright stars. He was playing his flute in the dark, but
, slowing down and almost dozing off at certain notes, when suddenly, right opposite, a window of the Marsanne house opened, a slash of brilliant light in the dark
façade. A young girl had come to lean out, and remained at the window: he could see her slender outline, she seemed to be looking across, lending an attentive ear. Julien, trembling, had stopped playing. He couldn’t make out the girl’s face, he could see only her flowing hair, already let down round her neck. And a light voice came to him through the silence.
‘Didn’t you hear that, Françoise? It sounded like music.’
‘It must be a nightingale, mademoiselle,’ replied a rough voice from within. ‘Close the shutters, don’t let in the night creatures.’
Once the façade had become black once more, Julien was unable to leave his armchair, his eyes still dazzled by the gash of light in the wall that up until then had been dead. And he couldn’t stop shaking, wondering if he should be pleased at this apparition. Then, an hour later, he resumed his quiet flute-playing. The thought that the young girl doubtless imagined there was a nightingale in the chestnut trees made him smile.
Next day, at the post office, the latest news was that Mlle Thérèse de Marsanne had just left her convent school. Julien told no one he had seen her with her hair down and her neck bare. He was in a state of great disquiet; he felt an indefinable hostility towards this young girl, who was going to upset his habits. Certainly, that window would annoy him terribly: he would dread seeing its shutters opening at all hours. He would no longer feel at home, he would even have preferred a man than a woman to live opposite, since women are more prone to make fun. How would he find the courage to play his flute now? He played too badly to please a lady who was bound to know about music. So, that evening, after
turning it over and over in his mind, he was sure he hated Thérèse.
Julien returned home furtively. He didn’t light a candle. That way, she wouldn’t see him. He wanted to go to bed straight away, to show what a bad mood he was in. But he couldn’t resist the need to know what was going on opposite. The window didn’t open. Only around ten o’clock did a pale light finally gleam between the slats of the shutters; then the gleam was extinguished, and he was left gazing at the dark window. From then on, every evening, he resumed this espionage, in spite of himself. He kept the house under surveillance; as he had at first, he strained every nerve to pick up the tiniest tremors that gave life to its old mute stones. Nothing seemed changed, the house continued to sleep its deep sleep; you needed expert ears and eyes to catch a hint of the new life there. Sometimes, there was a flicker of light moving behind the windows, the corner of a curtain was lifted, giving him a glimpse into a huge room. At other times, light footsteps could be heard crossing the garden, the distant sound of a piano reached him, accompanying a voice singing; or the sounds remained even vaguer, a simple passing ripple pointing to the beating of a young heart in the old dwelling. Julien explained his curiosity to himself as the result of his great irritation at all this noise. How he missed the time when the empty house echoed back the subdued sound of his flute!
One of his most avid desires, though he wouldn’t admit it to himself, was to see Thérèse again. He imagined her in his mind’s eye, pink-faced, mocking, her eyes gleaming. But as he never ventured to his window in daylight, he caught a glimpse of her only at night, when she was swallowed up in the grey shadows. One morning, as he was closing one of his shutters to keep the sun out, he caught sight of Thérèse standing in the
middle of her room. He remained rooted to the spot, not daring to move a muscle. She seemed to be thinking
over, she was very tall, very pale, her face classically beautiful. And he felt almost intimidated by her, she was so different from the light-hearted image he had formed of her. Especially noticeable was her mouth, rather large with
lips, and deep eyes, dark and lustreless, which gave her the appearance of a cruel queen. Slowly, she came over to the window; but she didn’t seem to see him, as if he were too far off, too indistinct. She moved away, and the swing of her head was so powerful in its grace that he felt weaker than a child in comparison with her, for all his broad shoulders. When he got to know her, he feared her all the more.
Thus began for the young man a wretched existence. This beautiful young lady, so grave and noble, who lived near him, drove him to despair. She never looked at him, she was
of his existence. But this did not stop his heart quailing at the thought that she might notice him and find him ridiculous. His pathological shyness made him think that she was spying on his every move so as to make fun of him. He would scurry home with his tail between his legs, and in his room he avoided moving about. Then, after a month, he started to suffer from the girl’s disdain. Why didn’t she ever look at him? She would come over to the window, let her dark eyes wander across the deserted cobbles, and then withdraw, without guessing that he was there, filled with anxiety, on the other side of the square. And just as he had trembled at the idea of being seen by her, now he quivered with the need to feel her fix her gaze on him. She was at the forefront of his thoughts every hour of his life.
When Thérèse got up in the morning, he, who had once been so punctual, forgot all about his office. He was still afraid of that white face with its red lips, but his fear gave him an
exquisite, sensual thrill. Concealed behind a curtain, he let the terror she filled him with pour through his body, until it made him feel ill, his legs shaking as if he had been walking for hours. He would dream that she suddenly caught sight of him and smiled at him, and that his fear would vanish.
And then he had the idea of seducing her with the help of his flute. On warm evenings, he started to play once more. He left the two casements open, and in the darkness he played his oldest tunes, pastorales as sweet and innocent as little girls dancing in a ring. He played notes that were sustained and tremulous, fading away one after the other in simple cadences, like lovelorn ladies of olden days, twirling their skirts. He would choose moonless nights; the square was pitch black, no one knew where such a sweet melody was coming from as it floated past the sleeping houses on the gentle wings of a nocturnal bird. And, on the very first evening, he was startled to see Thérèse as she prepared for bed coming to the window all in white, and leaning there, surprised to recognise this music she had already heard the day she arrived.
‘Just listen, Françoise,’ she said in her grave voice, turning to the interior of the room. ‘It’s not a bird.’
‘Oh!’ replied an old woman, of whom Julien could make out only the shadow, ‘it must be a travelling player having a good time on the outskirts of town – he sounds a long way off.’
‘Yes, a long way off,’ repeated the girl, after a silence, as she bathed her bare arms in the freshness of the night air.
From then on, every evening, Julien started to play louder. His lips swelled the sound, his feverish desire passed into the old flute of yellow wood. And Thérèse, who listened every evening, was astonished to hear this living music, whose phrases, fluttering from rooftop to rooftop, waited until nightfall before launching on their way towards her. She had
the strong impression that the serenade was marching towards her window, she sometimes stood on tiptoes as if to see over the houses. Then, one night, the music broke out so close to her that she felt its breath on her skin; she guessed it was coming from the square, one of those old houses wrapped in sleep. Julien was blowing with the full strength of his passion, the flute was vibrating with crystal chimes. The shadows emboldened him to such an extent that he hoped to bring her to him by the force of his song. And Thérèse did indeed lean forward, as if drawn out and conquered.
‘Come back in,’ said the voice of the old lady. ‘It’s a
night, you’ll have nightmares.’
That night, Julien couldn’t sleep. He was sure Thérèse had guessed at his presence, had perhaps even seen him. And he tossed and turned feverishly on his bed, wondering whether or not to show himself the following day. To be sure, it would be ridiculous for him to go on hiding. But he decided that he wouldn’t make an appearance, and he was at his window, at six o’clock, putting his flute back in its case, when Thérèse’s shutters abruptly opened.
The girl, who never got up before eight, appeared wearing a dressing-gown, and leaned out of the window, her hair twisted on the nape of her neck. Julien remained thunderstruck, staring straight across at her, unable to turn away; meanwhile his hands clumsily and unsuccessfully tried to take his flute apart. Thérèse was examining him, too, with an unblinking, queenly gaze. She seemed for an instant to study his big-boned frame, his huge, rough-hewn body, his whole ugly appearance, that of a timid giant. And she was no longer the feverish child he had seen the night before; she was haughty and very white, with her black eyes and her red lips. When she had made up her mind about him, with the tranquil
deliberation she would have brought to deciding whether or not she liked a dog she saw in the street, she passed sentence on him with a light pout; then, turning her back unhurriedly on him, she closed the window.
Julien, his legs turned to jelly, collapsed into his armchair. And broken words emerged from his lips.
‘Oh God! She doesn’t like me… And I love her, I’m going to die of love!’
He put his head in his hands, he burst into tears. And why on earth had he shown himself? When you are a clodhopper, you hide away, you don’t go round frightening the girls. He cursed himself, furious at his ugliness. Shouldn’t he have continued to play the flute in the darkness, like a night bird that seduces his listeners’ hearts with its song, and must never appear in daylight if it wishes to please? He would have still been for her a sweet music, nothing but the old melody of a mysterious love. She would have adored him without knowing him, like a Prince Charming come from afar to expire with love beneath her window. But, stupid oaf that he was, he had broken the spell. Now she knew he was as thickset as an ox at the plough, and never again would she like his music!
So it turned out: he repeatedly played his tenderest tunes, chose warm nights balmy with the odour of the foliage: it was all in vain, Thérèse wouldn’t listen, didn’t hear. She came and went in her room, leaned at the window as if he hadn’t been right opposite, expressing his love in humble little notes. One day, she even exclaimed: ‘Good God, that out-of-tune flute is getting on my nerves!’
Then, in despair, he flung his flute into the back of a drawer and played no more.
It has to be said that young Colombel also made fun of Julien. One day, as he was going to his office, he had seen
Julien at his window, studying one of his pieces, and every time he passed by on the square, he laughed maliciously. Julien knew that the lawyer’s clerk received invitations to the Marsanne house, and it broke his heart – not that he was jealous of that little pipsqueak, but because he would have given his right arm to be there for an hour in his place. The young man’s mother, Françoise, who had been with the family for years, now looked after Thérèse, whom she had nursed. The noble lady and the little peasant boy had, once upon a time, grown up together, and it seemed natural for them to have kept up something of their old camaraderie. This did not make Julien suffer any the less, however, when he met Colombel in the street, with his pinched, thin-lipped smile. His revulsion grew the day he realised that the little pipsqueak was not bad looking: he had a round head like a cat’s, but finely featured, impishly attractive, with green eyes and a sparse beard curling down his snug little chin. Ah! if only he could have got him up against the wall of one of the ramparts, how he would have made him pay dearly for the happiness he enjoyed in seeing Thérèse at her home!
A year went by. Julien was deeply unhappy. He now lived entirely for Thérèse. His heart was imprisoned in that glacial grand house, opposite which he was dying away for
and love. As soon as he had a free moment, he would spend it there, his eyes fastened to the stretch of grey wall, on which he knew every last patch of moss. He had done all he could, for months on end, to keep his eyes sharp and his ears pricked, he still knew nothing of the inner life of that solemn house into which he projected his whole being. Vague noises, flickers of light left him feeling perplexed. Were they throwing a party, or had someone died? He didn’t know, life was on the other side of the house. He would dream as his fancy took
him, depending on his moods, grave or gay: Thérèse and Colombel romping noisily, the girl going for a stroll beneath the chestnut trees, balls in which she was twirled in the dancers’ arms, sudden occasions of grief that would lead her to sit weeping in dark rooms. Or perhaps all he heard were the light footsteps of the Marquis and Marquise trotting like mice across the old polished floors. And, in his ignorance, he always saw only one window, Thérèse’s, piercing that mysterious wall. The girl would appear there, every day, more silent than the stones, but her appearance never gave him the slightest grounds for hope. She threw him into consternation, so unknown and distant did she remain.
Julien’s times of greatest happiness came when the window stayed open. Then he could see into the corners of her room, while she was out. It took him six months to discover that the bed was on the left, an alcove bed, with pink silk curtains. Then, after another six months, he realised that opposite the bed was a Louis-Quinze chest of drawers topped by a mirror in a china frame. Opposite that, he could make out the white marble fireplace. This bedroom was the paradise he dreamt of.
His love did not spare him immense struggles. He would hide away for weeks, ashamed at his ugliness. Then he would be filled with rage. He needed to stretch his bulky limbs, to impose on her the sight of his pitted face burning with fever. Then he would spend weeks at the window, wearing her out with the sight of him. Twice, he even blew her ardent kisses, with all the brutality of shy people when they are driven mad by daring.