On the way back, in the crush of carriages returning via the lakeshore, the caleche was obliged to slow to a walk. At one point the congestion became so bad that it was even forced to a stop.
The sun was setting in a light gray October sky with streaks of thin cloud on the horizon. A last ray of sunlight descending from the distant heights of the falls threaded its way along the carriageway, bathing the long line of stalled carriages in a pale reddish light. Glimmers of gold and bright flashes from the wheels seemed to cling to the straw-yellow trim of the caleche, whose deep blue side panels reflected bits of the surrounding landscape. And higher up, fully immersed in the reddish light that illuminated them from the rear and caused the brass buttons of their cloaks, half-folded over the back of the seat, to glow, the coachman and footman in their dark blue livery, putty-colored breeches, and striped black-and-yellow waistcoats held themselves erect, grave and patient, as was only proper for the servants of a good house whom no crush of carriages would ever succeed in ruffling. Their hats, ornamented with black crests, possessed great dignity. Only the horses--a superb pair of bays--snorted with impatience.
"Look over there," said Maxime. "Laure d'Aurigny, in that coupe. ... Do you see, Renee?"
Renee lifted herself up slightly and squinted with that exquisite pout she always made on account of her weak eyesight.
"I thought she'd run away," she said. "She's changed the color of her hair, hasn't she?"
"Yes, she has," Maxime laughed. "Her new lover can't stand red."
Renee, leaning forward with her hand resting on the low door of the caleche, stared, awakened at last from the melancholy dream that had kept her silent for the past hour as she lay stretched out in the back of the carriage like a convalescent resting on a chaise longue. Over a mauve silk dress fitted with pinafore and tunic and trimmed with wide pleated flounces, she wore a white cloth jacket with mauve velvet facings, which lent quite a swagger to her look. Her strange hair, of a pale tawny color reminiscent of the finest butter, was barely hidden by a thin hat embellished by a cluster of Bengal roses. Continuing to squint, she had the air of an impertinent youth, with a large furrow in her otherwise unblemished brow and an upper lip that protruded like a sulky child's. Because it was hard for her to see, she took her eyeglasses--a man's pince-nez with horn rims--and, holding them in her hand without setting them on her nose, examined the well-endowed Laure at her leisure and with an air of perfect calm.
The carriages remained motionless. Here and there amid the series of featureless dark patches formed by the long line of coupes--quite numerous in the Bois de Boulogne that autumn afternoon--shone the corner of a mirror or the bit of a horse or the silvered handle of a lantern or the gold braids of a footman sitting high up on his seat. Occasionally one caught a glimpse of female finery in an open landau, a flash of silk here or velvet there. Little by little a profound silence subdued all the bustle, as everything ground to a halt. Inside the carriages one heard the conversations of people passing by on foot. Mute glances were exchanged through carriage doors. All gossip had ceased, and the wait was interrupted only by the creak of a harness or the sound of a horse pawing the ground impatiently. The indistinct voices of the forest died away in the distance.
Despite the lateness of the season, all Paris was there: Duchess von Sternich in an "eight-spring"; Mme de Lauwerens in a quite handsomely rigged victoria; Baroness von Meinhold in a ravishing reddish-brown cab; Countess Wanska, with her piebald ponies; Mme Daste and her famous black "steppers"; Mme de Guende and Mme Teissiere, in a coupe; and little Sylvia in a dark blue landau. And then there was Don Carlos, in mourning, with his antiquated formal livery; Selim Pasha, with his fez and without his guardian; the duchesse de Rozan in a single-seat coupe with white-speckled livery; the comte de Chibray, in a dogcart; Mr. Simpson in the most elegant of coaches; the whole American colony; and, bringing up the rear, two academicians in a fiacre.
The first carriages finally succeeded in extricating themselves, and one by one the whole line slowly began to move. It was like an awakening. A thousand lights began to dance, flashes darted among the wheels, and harnesses glinted as teams strained against their traces. Ground and trees shimmered in what seemed like the glare of moving ice. The glitter of harnesses and wheels, the amber glow of polished panels set ablaze by the setting sun, the shrill accents added by splendid liveries set up high against the open sky and sumptuous finery spilling out over carriage doors--all of this was swept along in a dull rumble, punctuated only by the hoofbeats of trotting horses. The whole parade moved steadily along in a uniform motion, sights and sounds unvarying from first to last, as if the lead carriages were pulling the rest after them.
Renee yielded to the slight jolt of the caleche as it resumed its forward progress and, dropping her pince-nez, once again leaned back against the cushions. With a shiver she drew over herself a corner of the bearskin that filled the interior of the carriage with a layer of silky snow. Her gloved hands luxuriated in the deep, soft curls of fur. The wind had picked up. The warm October afternoon that had brought spring back to the Bois and drawn the leading lights of high society out in open carriages threatened to end in a biting evening chill.
For a short while the young woman lay huddled in her warm corner, giving herself up to the voluptuous, hypnotic motion of so many wheels turning round and round in front of her. Then she lifted up her head toward Maxime, who with his eyes was calmly undressing the women on display in the nearby coupes and landaus.
"Honestly," she asked, "do you think Laure d'Aurigny is pretty? You had nice things to say about her the other day, when the sale of her diamonds was announced! And by the way, have you seen the riviere and the aigrette your father bought me at that sale?"
Avoiding the first question, Maxime met the second with a nasty snicker. "You have to admit that he carried it off nicely. He found a way to pay off Laure's debts and give his wife diamonds at the same time."
The young woman gave a slight shrug.
"Naughty boy!" she murmured with a smile.
But the young man had leaned forward to stare at a woman whose green dress caught his eye. Renee laid her head down, her eyes half-closed, staring idly at either side of the carriageway, seeing nothing. To her right, a slow procession of shrubs and small trees with reddish foliage and slender branches slipped past. On the bridle path reserved for riders, narrow-waisted gentlemen occasionally galloped by on horses whose hooves raised small clouds of fine sand. To the left, flower beds of various shapes dotted the lawn that sloped down to the quiet lake, which was crystal clear, free of algae, and neatly edged as if by a gardener's spade. From the far side of its mirror surface rose two islands, joined by the gray hyphen of a bridge, above which loomed charming cliffs whose theatrical rows of fir and other evergreens stood out against the pale sky, while reflections of their dark foliage on the water's surface resembled the fringes of curtains artfully draped over the horizon. This little patch of nature, with its air of a freshly painted backdrop, lay immersed in a pale shadow, a bluish haze that added a finishing touch of exquisite charm, of delightful falsity, to the distances. On the other shore, the Chalet des Iles, looking freshly polished, gleamed like a brand-new toy. Snaking through the lawns of the park and around the lake, ribbons of yellow sand, narrow paths lined with the cast-iron branches of lampposts in imitation of a rustic copse, stood out in this final hour in the strangest way against the softened green of water and grass.
Accustomed to the contrived graces of these vistas, Renee, sinking back into lassitude, had closed her eyes almost completely, until all she could see was the way the long hair of the bearskin wound around the spindles of her slender fingers. But when something disrupted the regular trot of the line of carriages, she raised her head and nodded to two young women lying side by side in amorous languor in an eight-spring that had noisily turned off onto a side path leading away from the lakeshore. Mme la marquise d'Espanet, whose husband, to the great scandal of the recalcitrant old nobility, had recently embraced the imperial cause and accepted a position as aide-de-camp to the Emperor, was one of the most illustrious socialites of the Second Empire. The other woman, Mme Haffner, had married a well-known industrialist from Colmar, a millionaire twenty times over, whom the Empire was turning into a politician. Renee had known both women since boarding school, where others had referred to them with a knowing air as "the two Inseparables." She called them by their first names, Adeline and Suzanne. After smiling at them, she curled up once more, but a laugh from Maxime made her turn around.
"No, really, I'm sad. Don't laugh, this is serious," she said on seeing that the young man was contemplating her with a mocking eye, making fun of her reclining posture.
Maxime replied in a queer tone.
"So we're really hurt, are we? Really jealous?"
She seemed taken aback.
"Me! Why would I be jealous?"
Then, as if remembering, she added with her disdainful pout, "Oh, yes, of course, that fat cow Laure! As if I cared. If what everybody wants me to believe is true, and Aristide really paid that whore's debts and spared her a trip abroad, he must be less in love with his money than I thought. That will put him back in the good graces of the ladies.... The dear man: I leave him perfectly free to do exactly what he wants."
She was smiling as she said this, and pronounced the words "the dear man" in a tone of amicable indifference. Then, suddenly plunged again into deep sadness and darting her eyes about with the desperate look of a woman who can't decide how to amuse herself, she muttered, "Oh, what I'd really like to do--but no, I'm not jealous, not jealous at all."
She stopped, unsure of herself.
"Don't you see? I'm bored," was what she finally came out with, in an offhand voice.
Then, lips pinched, she fell silent. The line of carriages continued to move along the lake at a steady pace, sounding remarkably like a distant waterfall. Looming up on the left, between the water and the path, were small clumps of green trees with straight, slender trunks that oddly resembled a series of colonnades. The bushes and trees on the right had vanished, and the Bois now opened out into vast expanses of green, immense carpets of lawn punctuated here and there by clusters of tall trees. Gently undulating sheets of green stretched all the way to the Porte de la Muette, whose low gate, visible from quite a distance, resembled a piece of taut black lace stretched along the ground, and on the slopes, in the places where the undulations dipped down low, the grass had taken on a bluish tint. Renee stared straight ahead, her eyes fixed, as though this magnification of the horizon, these soft meadows moistened by the night air, had made her more acutely aware of the emptiness of her existence.
At length she broke her silence with these words, repeated in a tone of muffled anger: "Oh, I'm bored! I'm bored to death."
"You're not in good spirits, to be sure," Maxime said quietly. "You're on edge. No doubt about it."
The young woman pushed back deeper into her seat.
"Yes, I'm on edge," she responded curtly.
Then she took a maternal tone. "I'm getting old, my dear child. I'll be thirty soon. It's horrible. Nothing gives me pleasure. At twenty you can't possibly have any idea--"
"Was it to hear your confession that you brought me along?" the young man interrupted. "That could take a devil of a long time."
She met this impertinence with a feeble smile, as the gibe of a spoiled child who is allowed to do as he pleases.
"I advise you to feel sorry for yourself," Maxime continued. "You spend more than a hundred thousand francs a year on your wardrobe, you live in a splendid house, you have the finest horses, your every whim is received as holy writ, and the newspapers discuss each of your gowns as if dealing with an event of the utmost gravity. Women are jealous of you, and men would give ten years of their lives to kiss the tips of your fingers.... Am I right?"
She assented with a nod, without answering. With eyes cast down, she went back to curling the fur of the bearskin around her finger.
"Don't be modest," Maxime went on. "Come right out and admit that you're one of the pillars of the Second Empire. You and I can say such things to each other. You're the queen wherever you go: in the Tuileries, in the homes of ministers, or merely among millionaires, everywhere, from top to bottom, you're in command. There is no pleasure you haven't jumped into with both feet, and if I dared, if the respect I owe you did not hold me back, I would say--"
He paused for a few seconds, laughing, then finished his sentence in a cavalier manner: "I would say you've tasted every conceivable apple."
She did not flinch.
"And you're bored!" the young man resumed with comic passion. "You slay me!... But what do you want? What do you dream of?"
She shrugged to indicate that she had no idea. Despite the tilt of her head, Maxime saw her at that moment as so serious, so somber, that he held his tongue. He gazed at the line of carriages, which, upon reaching the end of the lake, had spread out to fill the wide circle. Less bunched up now, the vehicles turned with magnificent grace. The volume of sound increased as the hooves of the horses struck the hard earth at a more rapid pace.
The caleche, making the wide turn to rejoin the queue, swung back and forth in a way that filled Maxime with a vaguely pleasurable sensation. With that he gave in to his desire to add insult to Renee's injury. "You deserve to ride in a fiacre, you know. That would serve you right!... Just look at all these people heading back to Paris, people who are at your feet. They bow to you as though you were a queen, and your good friend M. de Mussy is all but blowing you kisses."
Copyright © 2004 by Emile Zola. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.