What a rare, what a conscientious clerk did that new employe of the house of Fromont prove himself!
Every day his lamp was the first to appear at, and the last to disappear from, the windows of the factory. A little room had been arranged for him under the eaves, exactly like the one he had formerly occupied with Frantz, a veritable Trappist’s cell, furnished with an iron cot and a white wooden table, that stood under his brother’s portrait. He led the same busy, regular, quiet life as in those old days.
He worked constantly, and had his meals brought from the same little creamery. But, alas! the disappearance forever of youth and hope deprived those memories of all their charm. Luckily he still had Frantz and Madame “Chorche,” the only two human beings of whom he could think without a feeling of sadness. Madame “Chorche” was always at hand, always trying to minister to his comfort, to console him; and Frantz wrote to him often, without mentioning Sidonie, by the way. Risler supposed that some one had told Frantz of the disaster that had befallen him, and he too avoided all allusion to the subject in his letters. “Oh! when I can send for him to come home!” That was his dream, his sole ambition: to restore the factory and recall his brother.
Meanwhile the days succeeded one another, always the same to him in the restless activity of business and the heartrending loneliness of his grief. Every morning he walked through the workshops, where the profound respect he inspired and his stern, silent countenance had reestablished the orderly conditions that had been temporarily disturbed. In the beginning there had been much gossip, and various explanations of Sidonie’s departure had been made. Some said that she had eloped with a lover, others that Risler had turned her out. The one fact that upset all conjectures was the attitude of the two partners toward each other, apparently as unconstrained as before. Sometimes, however, when they were talking together in the office, with no one by, Risler would suddenly start convulsively, as a vision of the crime passed before his eyes.
Then he would feel a mad longing to spring upon the villain, seize him by the throat, strangle him without mercy; but the thought of Madame “Chorche” was always there to restrain him. Should he be less courageous, less master of himself than that young wife? Neither Claire, nor Fromont, nor anybody else suspected what was in his mind. They could barely detect a severity, an inflexibility in his conduct, which were not habitual with him. Risler awed the workmen now; and those of them upon whom his white hair, blanched in one night, his drawn, prematurely old features did not impose respect, quailed before his strange glance-a glance from eyes of a bluish-black like the color of a gun-barrel. Whereas he had always been very kind and affable with the workmen, he had become pitilessly severe in regard to the slightest infraction of the rules. It seemed as if he were taking vengeance upon himself for some indulgence in the past, blind, culpable indulgence, for which he blamed himself.