Then came more mice—ten, twenty, hundreds, thousands, sprang up on all sides. They ran up the bed-posts, and along the tapestry, and covered the whole bed. They got under the clothes, and Jeanne could feel them gliding over her skin, tickling her legs, running up and down her body. She could see them coming from the foot of the bed to get inside and creep close to her breast, but when she struggled and stretched out her hands to catch one, she always clutched the air. Then she got angry, and cried out, and wanted to run away; she fancied someone held her down, and that strong arms were thrown around her to prevent her moving, but she could not see anyone. She had no idea of the time that all this lasted; she only knew that it seemed a very long while.
At last she became conscious again—conscious that she was tired and aching, and yet better than she had been. She felt very, very weak. She looked round, and did not feel at all surprised to see her mother sitting by her bedside with a stout man whom she did not know. She had forgotten how old she was, and thought she was a little child again, for her memory was entirely gone.
"See, she is conscious," said the stout man.
The baroness began to cry, and the big man said:
"Come, come, madame le baronne; I assure you there is no longer any danger, but you must not talk to her; just let her sleep."
It seemed to Jeanne that she lay for a long time in a doze, which became a heavy sleep if she tried to think of anything. She had a vague idea that the past contained something dreadful, and she was content to lie still without trying to recall anything to her memory. But one day, when she opened her eyes, she saw Julien standing beside the bed, and the curtain which hid everything from her was suddenly drawn aside, and she remembered what had happened.
She threw back the clothes and sprang out of bed to escape from her husband; but as soon as her feet touched the floor she fell to the ground, for she was too weak to stand. Julien hastened to her assistance, but when he attempted to raise her, she shrieked and rolled from side to side to avoid the contact of his hands. The door opened, and Aunt Lison and the Widow Dentu hurried in, closely followed by the baron and his wife, the latter gasping for breath.
They put Jeanne to bed again, and she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep that she might think undisturbed. Her mother and aunt busied themselves around her, saying from time to time:
"Do you know us now, Jeanne, dear?"
She pretended not to hear them, and made no answer; and in the evening they went away, leaving her to the care of the nurse. She could not sleep all that night, for she was painfully trying to connect the incidents she could remember, one with the other; but there seemed to be gaps in her memory which she could not bridge over. Little by little, however, all the facts came back to her, and then she tried to decide what she had better do. She must have been very ill, or her mother and Aunt Lison and the baron would not have been sent for; but what had Julien said? Did her parents know everything? And where was Rosalie?
The only thing she could do was to go back to Rouen with her father and mother; they could all live there together as they used to do, and it would be just the same as if she had not been married.
The next day she noticed and listened to all that went on around her, but she did not let anyone see that she understood everything and had recovered her full senses. Towards evening, when no one but the baroness was in her room, Jeanne whispered softly:
She was surprised to hear how changed her own voice was, but the baroness took her hands, exclaiming:
"My child! my dear little Jeanne! Do you know me, my pet?"
"Yes, mother. But you mustn't cry; I want to talk to you seriously. Did Julien tell you why I ran out into the snow?"
"Yes, my darling. You have had a very dangerous fever."
"That was not the reason, mamma; I had the fever afterwards. Hasn't he told you why I tried to run away, and what was the cause of the fever?"
"It was because I found Rosalie in his bed."
The baroness thought she was still delirious, and tried to soothe her.
"There, there, my darling; lie down and try to go to sleep."
But Jeanne would not be quieted.
"I am not talking nonsense now, mamma dear, though I dare say I have been lately," she said. "I felt very ill one night, and I got up and went to Julien's room; there I saw Rosalie lying beside him. My grief nearly drove me mad, and I ran out into the snow, meaning to throw myself over the cliff."
"Yes, darling, you have been ill; very ill indeed," answered the baroness.
"It wasn't that, mamma. I found Rosalie in Julien's bed, and I will not stay with him any longer. You shall take me back to Rouen with you."
The doctor had told the baroness to let Jeanne have her own way in everything, so she answered:
"Very well, my pet."
Jeanne began to lose patience.
"I see you don't believe me," she said pettishly. "Go and find papa; perhaps he'll manage to understand that I am speaking the truth."
The baroness rose slowly to her feet, dragged herself out of the room with the aid of two sticks, and came back in a few minutes with the baron. They sat down by the bedside, and Jeanne began to speak in her weak voice. She spoke quite coherently, and she told them all about Julien's odd ways, his harshness, his avarice, and, lastly, his infidelity.
The baron could see that her mind was not wandering, but he hardly knew what to say or think. He affectionately took her hand, like he used to do when she was a child and he told her fairy tales to send her to sleep.
"Listen, my dear," he said. "We must not do anything rashly. Don't let us say anything till we have thought it well over. Will you promise me to try and bear with your husband until we have decided what is best to be done?"
"Very well," she answered; "but I will not stay here after I get well."
Then she added, in a whisper: "Where is Rosalie now?"
"You shall not see her any more," replied the baron.
But she persisted: "Where is she? I want to know."
He owned that she was still in the house, but he declared she should go at once.
Directly he left Jeanne's room, his heart full of pity for his child and indignation against her husband, the baron went to find Julien, and said to him sternly:
"Monsieur, I have come to ask for an explanation of your behavior to my daughter. You have not only been false to her, but you have deceived her with your servant, which makes your conduct doubly infamous."
Julien swore he was innocent of such a thing, and called heaven to witness his denial. What proof was there? Jeanne was just recovering from brain fever, and of course her thoughts were still confused. She had rushed out in the snow one night at the beginning of her illness, in a fit of delirium, and how could her statement be believed when, on the very night that she said she had surprised her maid in her husband's bed, she was dashing over the house nearly naked, and quite unconscious of what she was doing!
Julien got very angry, and threatened the baron with an action if he did not withdraw his accusation; and the baron, confused by this indignant denial, began to make excuses and to beg his son-in-law's pardon; but Julien refused to take his outstretched hand.
Jeanne did not seem vexed when she heard what her husband had said.
"He is telling a lie, papa," she said, quietly; "but we will force him to own the truth."
For two days she lay silent, turning over all sorts of things in her mind; on the third morning she asked for Rosalie. The baron refused to let the maid go up and told Jeanne that she had left. But Jeanne insisted on seeing her, and said:
"Send someone to fetch her, then."
When the doctor came she was very excited because they would not let her see the maid, and they told him what was the matter. Jeanne burst into tears and almost shrieked: "I will see her! I will see her!"
The doctor took her hand and said in a low voice:
"Calm yourself, madame. Any violent emotion might have very serious results just now, for you are enceinte."
Jeanne's tears ceased directly; even as the doctor spoke she fancied she could feel a movement within her, and she lay still, paying no attention to what was being said or done around her. She could not sleep that night; it seemed so strange to think that within her was another life, and she felt sorry because it was Julien's child, and full of fears in case it should resemble its father.
The next morning she sent for the baron.
"Papa, dear," she said, "I have made up my mind to know the whole truth; especially now. You hear, I will know it, and you know, you must let me do as I like, because of my condition. Now listen; go and fetch M. le cure; he must be here to make Rosalie tell the truth. Then, as soon as he is here, you must send her up to me, and you and mamma must come too; but, whatever you do, don't let Julien know what is going on."
The priest came about an hour afterwards. He was fatter than ever, and panted quite as much as the baroness. He sat down in an armchair and began joking, while he wiped his forehead with his checked handkerchief from sheer habit.
"Well, Madame la baronne, I don't think we are either of us getting thinner; in my opinion we make a very handsome pair." Then turning to the invalid, he said: "Ah, ah! my young lady, I hear we're soon to have a christening, and that it won't be the christening of a boat either, this time, ha, ha, ha!" Then he went on in a grave voice, "It will be one more defender for the country, or," after a short silence, "another good wife and mother like you, madame," with a bow to the baroness.
The door flew open and there stood Rosalie, crying, struggling, and refusing to move, while the baron tried to push her in. At last he gave her a sudden shake, and threw her into the room with a jerk, and she stood in the middle of the floor, with her face in her hands, sobbing violently. Jeanne started up as white as a sheet, and her heart could be seen beating under her thin nightdress. It was some time before she could speak, but at last she gasped out:
"There—there—is no—need for me to—question you. Your confusion in my presence—is—is quite sufficient—proof—of your guilt."
She stopped for a few moments for want of breath, and then went on again:
"But I wish to know all. You see that M. le cure is here, so you understand you will have to answer as if you were at confession."
Rosalie had not moved from where the baron had pushed her; she made no answer, but her sobs became almost shrieks. The baron, losing all patience with her, seized her hands, drew them roughly from her face and threw her on her knees beside the bed, saying:
"Why don't you say something? Answer your mistress."
She crouched down on the ground in the position in which Mary Magdalene is generally depicted; her cap was on one side, her apron on the floor, and as soon as her hands were free she again buried her face in them.
"Come, come, my girl," said the cure, "we don't want to do you any harm, but we must know exactly what has happened. Now listen to what is asked you and answer truthfully."
Jeanne was leaning over the side of the bed, looking at the girl.
"Is it not true that I found you in Julien's bed?" she asked.
"Yes, madame," moaned out Rosalie through her fingers.
At that the baroness burst into tears also, and the sound of her sobs mingled with the maid's.
"How long had that gone on?" asked Jeanne, her eyes fixed on the maid.
"Ever since he came here," stammered Rosalie.
"Since he came here," repeated Jeanne, hardly understanding what the words meant. "Do you mean since—since the spring?"
"Since he first came to the house?"
"But how did it happen? How did he come to say anything to you about it?" burst out Jeanne, as if she could keep back the questions no longer. "Did he force you, or did you give yourself to him? How could you do such a thing?"
"I don't know," answered Rosalie, taking her hands from her face and speaking as if the words were forced from her by an irresistible desire to talk and to tell all. "The day he dined 'ere for the first time, 'e came up to my room. He 'ad 'idden in the garret and I dursn't cry out for fear of what everyone would say. He got into my bed, and I dunno' how it was or what I did, but he did just as 'e liked with me. I never said nothin' about it because I thought he was nice."
"But your—your child? Is it his?" cried Jeanne.
"Yes, madame," answered Rosalie, between her sobs. Then neither said anything more, and the silence was only broken by the baroness's and Rosalie's sobs.
The tears rose to Jeanne's eyes, and flowed noiselessly down her cheeks. So her maid's child had the same father as her own! All her anger had evaporated and in its place was a dull, gloomy, deep despair. After a short silence she said in a softer, tearful voice.
"After we returned from—from our wedding tour—when did he begin again?"
"The—the night you came back," answered the maid, who was now almost lying on the floor.
Each word rung Jeanne's heart. He had actually left her for this girl the very night of their return to Les Peuples! That, then, was why he had let her sleep alone. She had heard enough now; she did not want to know anything more, and she cried to the girl:
"Go away! go away!"
As Rosalie, overcome by her emotion, did not move, she called to her father:
"Take her away! Carry her out of the room!"
But the cure, who had said nothing up to now, thought the time had come for a little discourse.
"You have behaved very wickedly," he said to Rosalie, "very wickedly indeed, and the good God will not easily forgive you. Think of the punishment which awaits you if you do not live a better life henceforth. Now you are young is the time to train yourself in good ways. No doubt Madame la baronne will do something for you, and we shall be able to find you a husband—"
He would have gone on like this for a long time had not the baron seized Rosalie by the shoulders, dragged her to the door and thrown her into the passage like a bundle of clothes.
When he came back, looking whiter even than his daughter, the cure began again:
"Well, you know, all the girls round here are the same. It is a very bad state of things, but it can't be helped, and we must make a little allowance for the weakness of human nature. They never marry until they are enceintes; never, madame. One might almost call it a local custom," he added, with a smile. Then he went on indignantly: "Even the children are the same. Only last year I found a little boy and girl from my class in the cemetery together. I told their parents, and what do you think they replied: 'Well, M'sieu l'cure, we didn't teach it them; we can't help it.' So you see, monsieur, your maid has only done like the others—"
"The maid!" interrupted the baron, trembling with excitement. "The maid! What do I care about her? It's Julien's conduct which I think so abominable, and I shall certainly take my daughter away with me." He walked up and down the room, getting more and more angry with every step he took. "It is infamous the way he has deceived my daughter, infamous! He's a wretch, a villain, and I will tell him so to his face. I'll horsewhip him within an inch of his life."
The cure was slowly enjoying a pinch of snuff as he sat beside the baroness, and thinking how he could make peace. "Come now, M. le baron, between ourselves he has only done like everyone else. I am quite sure you don't know many husbands who are faithful to their wives, do you now?" And he added in a sly, good-natured way: "I bet you, yourself, have played your little games; you can't say conscientiously that you haven't, I know. Why, of course you have! And who knows but what you have made the acquaintance of some little maid just like Rosalie. I tell you every man is the same. And your escapades didn't make your wife unhappy, or lessen your affection for her; did they?"
The baron stood still in confusion. It was true that he had done the same himself, and not only once or twice, but as often as he had got the chance; his wife's presence in the house had never made any difference, when the servants were pretty. And was he a villain because of that? Then why should he judge Julien's conduct so severely when he had never thought that any fault could be found with his own?
Though her tears were hardly dried, the idea of her husband's pranks brought a slight smile to the baroness's lip, for she was one of those good-natured, tender-hearted, sentimental women to whom love adventures are an essential part of existence.
Jeanne lay back exhausted, thinking, with open unseeing eyes, of all this painful episode. The expression that had wounded her most in Rosalie's confession was: "I never said anything about it because I thought he was nice." She, his wife, had also thought him "nice," and that was the sole reason why she had united herself to him for life, had given up every other hope, every other project to join her destiny to his. She had plunged into marriage, into this pit from which there was no escape, into all this misery, this grief, this despair, simply because, like Rosalie, she had thought him "nice."
The door was flung violently open and Julien came in, looking perfectly wild with rage. He had seen Rosalie moaning on the landing, and guessing that she had been forced to speak, he had come to see what was going on; but at the sight of the priest he was taken thoroughly aback.
"What is it? What is the matter?" he asked, in a voice which trembled in spite of his efforts to make it sound calm.
The baron, who had been so violent just before, dared say nothing after the cure's argument, in case his son-in-law should quote his own example; the baroness only wept more bitterly than before, and Jeanne raised herself on her hands and looked steadily at this man who was causing her so much sorrow. Her breath came and went quickly, but she managed to answer:
"The matter is that we know all about your shameful conduct ever since—ever since the day you first came here; we know that—that—Rosalie's child is yours—like—like mine, and that they will be—brothers."
Her grief became so poignant at this thought that she hid herself under the bedclothes and sobbed bitterly. Julien stood open-mouthed, not knowing what to say or do. The cure again interposed.
"Come, come, my dear young lady," he said, "you mustn't give way like that. See now, be reasonable."
He rose, went to the bedside, and laid his cool hand on this despairing woman's forehead. His simple touch seemed to soothe her wonderfully; she felt calmer at once, as if the large hand of this country priest, accustomed to gestures of absolution and sympathy, had borne with it some strange, peace-giving power.
"Madame, we must always forgive," said the good-natured priest. "You are borne down by a great grief, but God, in His mercy, has also sent you a great joy, since He has permitted you to have hopes of becoming a mother. This child will console you for all your trouble and it is in its name that I implore, that I adjure, you to forgive M. Julien. It will be a fresh tie between you, a pledge of your husband's future fidelity. Can you steel your heart against the father of your unborn child?"
Too weak to feel either anger or resentment, and only conscious of a crushed, aching, exhausted sensation, she made no answer. Her nerves were thoroughly unstrung, and she clung to life but by a very slender thread.
The baroness, to whom resentment seemed utterly impossible and whose mind was simply incapable of bearing any prolonged strain, said in a low tone:
The cure drew Julien close to the bed and placed his hand in his wife's, giving it a little tap as if to make the union more complete. Then, dropping his professional pulpit tone, he said, with a satisfied air:
"There! that's done. Believe me, it is better so."
The two hands, united thus for an instant, loosed their clasp directly. Julien, not daring to embrace Jeanne, kissed his mother-in-law, then turned on his heel, took the baron (who, in his heart, was not sorry that everything had finished so quietly) by the arm, and drew him from the room to go and smoke a cigar.
Then the tired invalid went to sleep and the baroness and the priest began to chat in low tones. The abbe talked of what had just occurred and proceeded to explain his ideas on the subject, while the baroness assented to everything he said with a nod.
"Very well, then, it's understood," he said, in conclusion. "You give the girl the farm at Barville and I will undertake to find her a good, honest husband. Oh, you may be sure that with twenty thousand francs we shall not want candidates for her hand. We shall have an embarras de choix."
The baroness was smiling happily now, though two tears still lingered on her cheeks.
"Barville is worth twenty thousand francs, at the very least," she said; "and you understand that it is to be settled on the child though the parents will have it as long as they live."
Then the cure shook hands with the baroness, and rose to go.
"Don't get up, Madame la baronne, don't get up," he exclaimed. "I know the value of a step too well myself."
As he went out he met Aunt Lison coming to see her patient. She did not notice that anything extraordinary had happened. No one had told her anything, and, as usual, she had not the slightest idea of what was going on.
* * * * *
Rosalie had left the house and the time of Jeanne's confinement was drawing near. The sorrow she had gone through had taken away all pleasure from the thought of becoming a mother, and she waited for the child's birth without any impatience or curiosity, her mind entirely filled with her presentiment of coming evils.
Spring was close at hand. The bare trees still trembled in the cold wind, but, in the damp ditches, the yellow primroses were already blossoming among the decaying autumn leaves. The rain-soaked fields, the farm-yards and the commons exhaled a damp odor, as of fermenting liquor, and little green leaves peeped out of the brown earth and glistened in the sun.
A big, strongly-built woman had been engaged in Rosalie's place, and she now supported the baroness in her dreary walks along the avenue, where the track made by her foot was always damp and muddy.
Jeanne, low-spirited and in constant pain, leant on her father's arm when she went out, while on her other side walked Aunt Lison, holding her niece's hand, and thinking nervously, of this mysterious suffering that she would never know. They would all three walk for hours without speaking a word, and, while they were out, Julien went all over the country on horseback, for he had suddenly become very fond of riding.
The baron, his wife, and the vicomte, paid a visit to the Fourvilles (whom Julien seemed to know very well, though no one at the chateau knew exactly how the acquaintance had begun), and another duty call was paid to the Brisevilles, and those two visits were the only break in their dull, monotonous life.
One afternoon, about four o'clock, two people on horseback trotted up to the chateau. Julien rushed into his wife's room in great excitement:
"Make haste and go down," he exclaimed. "Here are the Fourvilles. They have come simply to make a neighborly call as they know the condition you are in. Say I am out but that I shall be in soon. I am just going to change my coat."
Jeanne went downstairs and found in the drawing-room a gigantic man with big, red moustaches, and a pale, pretty woman with a sad-looking face, sentimental eyes and hair of a dead gold that looked as if the sun had never caressed it. When the fair-haired woman had introduced the big man as her husband, she said:
"M. de Lamare, whom we have met several times, has told us how unwell you are, so we thought we would not put off coming to see you any longer. You see we have come on horseback, so you must look upon this simply as a neighborly call; besides, I have already had the pleasure of receiving a visit from your mother and the baron."
She spoke easily in a refined, familiar way, and Jeanne fell in love with her at once. "In her I might, indeed, find a friend," she thought.
The Comte de Fourville, unlike his wife, seemed as much out of place in a drawing-room as a bull in a china shop. When he sat down he put his hat on a chair close by him, and then the problem of what he should do with his hands presented itself to him. First he rested them on his knees, then on the arms of his chair, and finally joined them as if in prayer.
Julien came in so changed in appearance that Jeanne stared at him in mute surprise. He had shaved himself and looked as handsome and charming as when he was wooing her. His hair, just now so coarse and dull, had been brushed and sprinkled with perfumed oil till it had recovered its soft shining waves, and his large eyes, which seemed made to express nothing but love, had their old winning look in them. He made himself as amiable and fascinating as he had been before his marriage. He pressed the hairy paw of the comte, who seemed much relieved by his presence, and kissed the hand of the comtesse, whose ivory cheek became just tinged with pink.
When the Fourvilles were going away the comtesse said:
"Will you come for a ride on Thursday, vicomte?" And as Julien bowed and replied, "I shall be very pleased, madame," she turned and took Jeanne's hand, saying to her, affectionately:
"When you are well again we must all three go for long rides together. We could make such delightful excursions if you would."
Then she gracefully caught up the skirt of her riding-habit and sprang into the saddle as lightly as a bird, and her husband, after awkwardly raising his hat, leapt on his huge horse, feeling and looking at his ease as soon as he was mounted.
"What charming people!" cried Julien, as soon as they were out of sight. "We may, indeed, think ourselves lucky to have made their acquaintance."
"The little comtesse is delightful," answered Jeanne, feeling pleased herself though she hardly knew why. "I am sure I shall like her; but the husband seems a bear. How did you get to know them?"
"I met them one day at the Brisevilles," he replied, rubbing his hands together cheerfully. "The husband certainly is a little rough, but he is a true gentleman. He is passionately fond of shooting."
Nothing else happened until the end of July. Then, one Tuesday evening, as they were all sitting under the plane-tree beside a little table, on which stood two liqueur glasses and a decanter of brandy, Jeanne suddenly turned very white and put both her hands to her side with a cry. A sharp pain had shot through her and at once died away. In about ten minutes came another one, hardly so severe but of longer duration than the first. Her father and husband almost carried her indoors, for the short distance between the plane-tree and her room seemed miles to her; she could not stifle her moans, and, overpowered by an intolerable sense of heaviness and weight, she implored them to let her sit down and rest.
The child was not expected until September but, in case of accident, a horse was harnessed and old Simon galloped off after the doctor. He came about midnight and at once recognized the signs of a premature confinement. The actual pain had a little diminished, but Jeanne felt an awful deathly faintness, and she thought she was going to die, for Death is sometimes so close that his icy breath can almost be felt.
The room was full of people. The baroness lay back in an armchair gasping for breath; the baron ran hither and thither, bringing all manner of things and completely losing his head; Julien walked up and down looking very troubled, but really feeling quite calm, and the Widow Dentu, whom nothing could surprise or startle, stood at the foot of the bed with an expression suited to the occasion on her face.
Nurse, mid-wife and watcher of the dead, equally ready to welcome the new-born infant, to receive its first cry, to immerse it in its first bath and to wrap it in its first covering, or to hear the last word, the last death-rattle, the last moan of the dying, to clothe them in their last garment, to sponge their wasted bodies, to draw the sheet about their still faces, the Widow Dentu had become utterly indifferent to any of the chances accompanying a birth or a death.
Every now and then Jeanne gave a low moan. For two hours it seemed as if the child would not be born yet, after all; but about daybreak the pains recommenced and soon became almost intolerable. As the involuntary cries of anguish burst through her clenched teeth, Jeanne thought of Rosalie who had hardly even moaned, and whose bastard child had been born without any of the torture such as she was suffering. In her wretched, troubled mind she drew comparisons between her maid and herself, and she cursed God Whom, until now, she had believed just. She thought in angry astonishment of how fate favors the wicked, and of the unpardonable lies of those who hold forth inducements to be upright and good.
Sometimes the agony was so great that she could think of nothing else, her suffering absorbing all her strength, her reason, her consciousness. In the intervals of relief her eyes were fixed on Julien, and then she was filled with a mental anguish as she thought of the day her maid had fallen at the foot of this very bed with her new-born child—the brother of the infant that was now causing her such terrible pain. She remembered perfectly every gesture, every look, every word of her husband as he stood beside the maid, and now she could see in his movements the same ennui, the same indifference for her suffering as he had felt for Rosalie's; it was the selfish carelessness of a man whom the idea of paternity irritates.
She was seized by an excruciating pain, a spasm so agonizing that she thought, "I am going to die! I am dying!" And her soul was filled with a furious hatred; she felt she must curse this man who was the cause of all her agony, and this child which was killing her. She strained every muscle in a supreme effort to rid herself of this awful burden, and then it felt as if her whole inside were pouring away from her, and her suffering suddenly became less.
The nurse and the doctor bent over her and took something away; and she heard the choking noise she had heard once before, and then the low cry of pain, the feeble whine of the new-born child filled her ears and seemed to enter her poor, exhausted body till it reached her very soul; and, in an unconsciousness movement she tried to hold out her arms.
With the child was born a new joy, a fresh rapture. In one second she had been delivered from that terrible pain and made happier than she had ever been before, and she revived in mind and body as she realized, for the first time, the pleasure of being a mother.
She wanted to see her child. It had not any hair or nails, for it had come before its time, but when she saw this human larva move its limbs and open its mouth, and when she touched its wrinkled little face, her heart overflowed with happiness, and she knew that she would never feel weary of life again, for her love for the atom she held in her arms would be so absorbing that it would make her indifferent to everything else.
From that time her child was her chief, her only care, and she idolized it more, perhaps, because she had been so deceived in her love and disappointed in her hopes. She insisted on having the cot close to her bed, and, when she could get up, she sat by the window the whole day rocking the cradle with her foot. She was even jealous of the wet-nurse, and when the hungry baby held out its arms and mouth towards the big blue-veined breast, she felt as if she would like to tear her son from this strong, quiet peasant woman's arms, and strike and scratch the bosom to which he clung so eagerly.
She embroidered his fine robes herself, putting into them the most elaborate work; he was always surrounded by a cloud of lace and wore the handsomest caps. The only thing she could talk about was the baby's clothes, and she was always interrupting a conversation to hold up a band, or bib, or some especially pretty ribbon for admiration, for she took no notice of what was being said around her as she turned and twisted some tiny garment about in her hands, and held it up to the light to see better how it looked.
"Don't you think he will look lovely in that?" she was always asking, and her mother and the baron smiled at this all-absorbing affection; but Julien would exclaim, impatiently, "What a nuisance she is with that brat!" for his habits had been upset and his overweening importance diminished by the arrival of this noisy, imperious tyrant, and he was half-jealous of the scrap of humanity who now held the first place in the house. Jeanne could hardly bear to be away from her baby for an instant, and she even sat watching him all night through as he lay sleeping in his cradle. These vigils and this continual anxiety began to tell upon her health. The want of sleep weakened her and she grew thinner and thinner, until, at last, the doctor ordered the child to be separated from her.
It was in vain that she employed tears, commands and entreaties. Each night the baby slept with his nurse, and each night his mother rose from her bed and went, barefooted, to put her ear to the keyhole and listen if he was sleeping quietly. Julien found her there one night as he was coming in late from dining at the Fourvilles, and after that she was locked into her room every evening to compel her to stay in bed.
The child was to be named Pierre Simon Paul (they were going to call him Paul) and at the end of August he was christened, the baron being godfather, and Aunt Lison godmother. At the beginning of September Aunt Lison went away, and her absence was as unnoticed as her presence had been.
One evening, after dinner, the cure called at the chateau. There seemed an air of mystery about him, and, after a few commonplace remarks, he asked the baron and baroness if he could speak to them in private for a few moments. They all three walked slowly down the avenue talking eagerly as they went, while Julien, feeling uneasy and irritated at this secrecy, was left behind with Jeanne. He offered to accompany the priest when he went away, and they walked off towards the church where the angelus was ringing. It was a cool, almost cold, evening, and the others soon went into the house. They were all beginning to feel a little drowsy when the drawing-room door was suddenly thrown open and Julien came in looking very vexed. Without stopping to see whether Jeanne was there or not, he cried to the baron, as soon as he entered the room:
"Upon my soul you must be mad to go and give twenty thousand francs to that girl!"
They were all taken too much by surprise to make any answer, and he went on, too angry to speak distinctly: "I can't understand how you can be such fools! But there I suppose you will keep on till we haven't a sou left!"
The baron, recovering himself, a little, tried to check his son-in-law:
"Be quiet!" he exclaimed. "Don't you see that your wife is in the room?"
"I don't care if she is," answered Julien, stamping his foot. "Besides, she ought to know about it. It is depriving her of her rightful inheritance."
Jeanne had listened to her husband in amazement, utterly at a loss to know what it was all about:
"Whatever is the matter?" she asked.
Then Julien turned to her, expecting her to side with him, as the loss of the money would affect her also. He told her in a few words how her parents were trying to arrange a marriage for Rosalie, and how the maid's child was to have the farm at Barville, which was worth twenty thousand francs at the very least. And he kept on repeating:
"Your parents must be mad, my dear, raving mad! Twenty thousand francs! Twenty thousand francs! They can't be in their right senses! Twenty thousand francs for a bastard!"
Jeanne listened to him quite calmly, astonished herself to find that she felt neither anger nor sorrow at his meanness, but she was perfectly indifferent now to everything which did not concern her child. The baron was choking with anger, and at last he burst out, with a stamp of the foot:
"Really, this is too much! Whose fault is it that this girl has to have a dowry? You seem to forget who is her child's father; but, no doubt, you would abandon her altogether if you had your way!"
Julien gazed at the baron for a few moments in silent surprise. Then he went on more quietly:
"But fifteen hundred francs would have been ample to give her. All the peasant-girls about here have children before they marry, so what does it matter who they have them by? And then, setting aside the injustice you will be doing Jeanne and me, you forget that if you give Rosalie a farm worth twenty thousand francs everybody will see at once that there must be a reason for such a gift. You should think a little of what is due to our name and position."
He spoke in a calm, cool way as if he were sure of his logic and the strength of his argument. The baron, disconcerted by this fresh view of the matter, could find nothing to say in reply, and Julien, feeling his advantage, added:
"But fortunately, nothing is settled. I know the man who is going to marry her and he is an honest fellow with whom everything can yet be satisfactorily arranged. I will see to the matter myself."
With that he went out of the room, wishing to avoid any further discussion, and taking the silence with which his words were received to mean acquiescence.
As soon as the door had closed after his son-in-law, the baron exclaimed:
"Oh, this is more than I can stand!"
Jeanne, catching sight of her father's horrified expression, burst into a clear laugh which rang out as it used to do whenever she had seen something very funny:
"Papa, papa!" she cried. "Did you hear the tone in which he said 'twenty thousand francs!'"
The baroness, whose smiles lay as near the surface as her tears, quivered with laughter as she saw Jeanne's gayety, and thought of her son-in-law's furious face, and his indignant exclamations and determined attempt to prevent this money, which was not his, being given to the girl he had seduced. Finally the baron caught the contagion and they all three laughed till they ached as in the happy days of old. When they were a little calmer, Jeanne said:
"It is very funny, but really I don't seem to mind in the least what he says or does now. I look upon him quite as a stranger, and I can hardly believe I am his wife. You see I am able to laugh at his—his want of delicacy."
And the parents and child involuntarily kissed each other, with smiles on their lips, though the tears were not very far from their eyes.
Two days after this scene, when Julien had gone out for a ride, a tall, young fellow of about four or five-and-twenty, dressed in a brand-new blue blouse, which hung in stiff folds, climbed stealthily over the fence, as if he had been hiding there all the morning, crept along the Couillards' ditch, and went round to the other side of the chateau where Jeanne and her father and mother were sitting under the plane-tree. He took off his cap and awkwardly bowed as he came towards them, and, when he was within speaking distance, mumbled:
"Your servant, monsieur le baron, madame and company." Then, as no one said anything to him he introduced himself as "Desire Lecoq."
This name failing to explain his presence at the chateau, the baron asked:
"What do you want?"
The peasant was very disconcerted when he found he had to state his business. He hesitated, stammered, cast his eyes from the cap he held in his hands to the chateau roof and back again, and at last began:
"M'sieu l'cure has said somethin' to me about this business—" then, fearing to say too much and thus injure his own interests, he stopped short.
"What business?" asked the baron. "I don't know what you mean."
"About your maid—what's her name—Rosalie," said the man in a low voice.
Jeanne, guessing what he had come about, got up and went away with her child in her arms.
"Sit down," said the baron, pointing to the chair his daughter had just left.
The peasant took the seat with a "Thank you, kindly," and then waited as if he had nothing whatever to say. After a few moments, during which no one spoke, he thought he had better say something, so he looked up to the blue sky and remarked:
"What fine weather for this time of year to be sure. It'll help on the crops finely." And then he again relapsed into silence.
The baron began to get impatient.
"Then you are going to marry Rosalie?" he said in a dry tone, going straight to the point.
At that all the crafty suspicious nature of the Normandy peasant was on the alert.
"That depends," he answered quickly. "Perhaps I am and perhaps I ain't, that depends."
All this beating about the bush irritated the baron.
"Can't you give a straightforward answer?" he exclaimed. "Have you come to say you will marry the girl or not?"
The man looked at his feet as though he expected to find advice there:
"If it's as M'sieu l'cure says," he replied, "I'll have her; but if it's as M'sieu Julien says, I won't."
"What did M. Julien tell you?"
"M'sieu Julien told me as how I should have fifteen hundred francs; but M'sieu l'cure told me as how I should 'ave twenty thousand. I'll have her for twenty thousand, but I won't for fifteen hundred."
The baroness was tickled by the perplexed look on the yokel's face and began to shake with laughter as she sat in her armchair. Her gayety surprised the peasant, who looked at her suspiciously out of the corner of his eye as he waited for an answer.
The baron cut short all this haggling.
"I have told M. le cure that you shall have the farm at Barville, which is worth twenty thousand francs, for life, and then it is to become the child's. That is all I have to say on the matter, and I always keep my word. Now is your answer yes or no?"
A satisfied smile broke over the man's face, and, with a sudden loquacity:
"Oh, then, I don't say no," he replied. "That was the only thing that pulled me up. When M'sieu l'cure said somethin' to me about it in the first place, I said yes at once, 'specially as it was to oblige M'sieu l'baron who'd be sure to pay me back for it, as I says to myself. Ain't it always the way, and doesn't one good turn always deserve another? But M'sieu Julien comes up and then it was only fifteen 'undred francs. Then I says to myself, 'I must find out the rights o' this and so I came 'ere. In coorse I b'lieved your word, M'sieu l'baron, but I wanted to find out the rights o' the case. Short reck'nings make long friends, don't they, M'sieu l'baron?"
He would have gone on like this till dinner-time if no one had interrupted him, so the baron broke in with:
"When will you marry her?"
The question aroused the peasant's suspicions again directly.
"Couldn't I have it put down in writin' first?" he asked in a halting way.
"Why bless my soul, isn't the marriage-contract good enough for you?" exclaimed the baron, angered by the man's suspicious nature.
"But until I get that I should like it wrote down on paper," persisted the peasant. "Havin' it down on paper never does no harm."
"Give a plain answer, now at once," said the baron, rising to put an end to the interview. "If you don't choose to marry the girl, say so. I know someone else who would be glad of the chance."
The idea of twenty thousand francs slipping from his hands into someone else's, startled the peasant out of his cautiousness, and he at once decided to say "yes":
"Agreed, M'sieu l'baron!" he said, holding out his hand as if he were concluding the purchase of a cow. "It's done, and there's no going back from the bargain."
The baron took his hand and cried to the cook:
"Ludivine! Bring a bottle of wine."
The wine was drunk and then the peasant went away, feeling a great deal lighter-hearted than when he had come.
Nothing was said about this visit to Julien. The drawing up of the marriage-contract was kept a great secret; then the banns were published and Rosalie was married on the Monday morning. At the church a neighbor stood behind the bride and bridegroom with a child in her arms as an omen of good luck, and everyone thought Desire Lecoq very fortunate. "He was born with a caul," said the peasants with a smile.
When Julien heard of the marriage he had a violent quarrel with the baron and baroness and they decided to shorten their visit at Les Peuples. Jeanne was sorry but she did not grieve as before when her parents went away, for now all her hopes and thoughts were centered on her son.
* * * * *
Now Jeanne was quite well again she thought she would like to return the Fourville's visit, and also to call on the Couteliers. Julien had just bought another carriage at a sale, a phaeton. It only needed one horse, so they could go out twice a month, now, instead of once, and they used it for the first time one bright December morning.
After driving for two hours across the Normandy plains they began to go down to a little valley, whose sloping sides were covered with trees, while the level ground at the bottom was cultivated. The ploughed fields were followed by meadows, the meadows by a fen covered with tall reeds, which waved in the wind like yellow ribbons, and then the road took a sharp turn and the Chateau de la Vrillette came in sight. It was built between a wooded slope on the one side and a large lake on the other, the water stretching from the chateau wall to the tall fir-trees which covered the opposite acclivity.
The carriage had to pass over an old draw-bridge and under a vast Louis XIII. archway before it drew up in front of a handsome building of the same period as the archway, with brick frames round the windows and slated turrets. Julien pointed out all the different beauties of the mansion to Jeanne as if he were thoroughly acquainted with every nook and corner of it.
"Isn't it a superb place?" he exclaimed. "Just look at that archway! On the other side of the house, which looks on to the lake, there is a magnificent flight of steps leading right down to the water. Four boats are moored at the bottom of the steps, two for the comte and two for the comtesse. The lake ends down there, on the right, where you can see that row of poplars, and there the river, which runs to Fecamp, rises. The place abounds in wild-fowl, and the comte passes all his time shooting. Ah! it is indeed a lordly residence."
The hall door opened and the fair-haired comtesse came to meet her visitors with a smile on her face. She wore a trailing dress like a chatelaine of the middle ages, and, exactly suited to the place in which she lived, she looked like some beautiful Lady of the Lake.
Four out of the eight drawing-room windows looked on to the lake, and the water looked dull and dismal, overshadowed as it was by the gloomy fir-trees which covered the opposite slope.
The comtesse took both Jeanne's hands in hers as if she had known her for ages, placed her in a seat and then drew a low chair beside her for herself, while Julien, who had regained all his old refinement during the last five months, smiled and chatted in an easy, familiar way. The comtesse and he talked about the rides they had had together. She laughed a little at his bad horsemanship, and called him "The Tottering Knight," and he too laughed, calling her in return "The Amazon Queen."
A gun went off just under the window, and Jeanne gave a little cry. It was the comte shooting teal, and his wife called him in. There was the splash of oars, the grating of a boat against the stone steps and then the comte came in, followed by two dogs of a reddish hue, which lay down on the carpet before the door, while the water dripped from their shaggy coats.
The comte seemed more at his ease in his own house, and was delighted to see the vicomte and Jeanne. He ordered the fire to be made up, and Madeira and biscuits to be brought.
"Of course you will dine with us," he exclaimed.
Jeanne refused the invitation, thinking of Paul; and as he pressed her to stay and she still persisted in her refusal, Julien made a movement of impatience. Then afraid of arousing her husband's quarrelsome temper, she consented to stay, though the idea of not seeing Paul till the next day was torture to her.
They spent a delightful afternoon. First of all the visitors were taken to see the springs which flowed from the foot of a moss-covered rock into a crystal basin of water which bubbled as if it were boiling, and then they went in a boat among the dry reeds, where paths of water had been formed by cutting down the rushes.
The comte rowed (his two dogs sitting each side of him with their noses in the air) and each vigorous stroke of the oars lifted the boat half out of the water and sent it rapidly on its way. Jeanne let her hand trail in the water, enjoying the icy coolness, which seemed to soothe her, and Julien and the comtesse, well wrapped up in rugs, sat in smiling silence in the stern of the boat, as if they were too happy to talk.
The evening drew on, and with it the icy, northerly wind came over the withered reeds. The sun had disappeared behind the firs, and it made one cold only to look at the crimson sky, covered with tiny, red fantastically-shaped clouds.
They all went in to the big drawing-room where an enormous fire was blazing. The room seemed to be filled with an atmosphere of warmth and comfort, and the comte gayly took up his wife in his strong arms like a child, and gave her two hearty kisses on her cheeks.
Jeanne could not help smiling at this good-natured giant to whom his moustaches gave the appearance of an ogre. "What wrong impressions of people one forms every day," she thought; and, almost involuntarily, she glanced at Julien. He was standing in the doorway his eyes fixed on the comte and his face very pale. His expression frightened her and, going up to him, she asked:
"What is the matter? are you ill?"
"There's nothing the matter with me," he answered, churlishly. "Leave me alone. I only feel cold."
Dinner was announced and the comte begged permission for his dogs to come into the dining-room. They came and sat one on each side of their master, who every minute threw them some scrap of food. The animals stretched out their heads, and wagged their tails, quivering with pleasure as he drew their long silky ears through his fingers.
After dinner, when Jeanne and Julien began to say good-bye, the comte insisted on their staying to see some fishing by torchlight. They and the comtesse stood on the steps leading down to the lake, while the comte got into his boat with a servant carrying a lighted torch and a net. The torch cast strange trembling reflections over the water, its dancing glimmers even lighting up the firs beyond the reeds; and suddenly, as the boat turned round, an enormous fantastic shadow was thrown on the background of the illumined wood. It was the shadow of a man, but the head rose above the trees and was lost against the dark sky, while the feet seemed to be down in the lake. This huge creature raised its arms as if it would grasp the stars; the movement was a rapid one, and the spectators on the steps heard a little splash.
The boat tacked a little, and the gigantic shadow seemed to run along the wood, which was lighted up as the torch moved with the boat; then it was lost in the darkness, then reappeared on the chateau wall, smaller, but more distinct; and the loud voice of the comte was heard exclaiming:
"Gilberte, I have caught eight!"
The oars splashed, and the enormous shadow remained standing in the same place on the wall, but gradually it became thinner and shorter; the head seemed to sink lower and the body to get narrower, and when M. de Fourville came up the steps, followed by the servant carrying the torch, it was reduced to his exact proportions, and faithfully copied all his movements. In the net he had eight big fish which were still quivering.
As Jeanne and Julien were driving home, well wrapped up in cloaks and rugs which the Fourvilles had lent them,
"What a good-hearted man that giant is," said Jeanne, almost to herself.
"Yes," answered Julien; "but he makes too much show of his affection, sometimes, before people."
A week after their visit to the Fourvilles, they called on the Couteliers, who were supposed to be the highest family in the province, and whose estate lay near Cany. The new chateau, built in the reign of Louis XIV, lay in a magnificent park, entirely surrounded by walls, and the ruins of the old chateau could be seen from the higher parts of the grounds.
A liveried servant showed the visitors into a large, handsome room. In the middle of the floor an enormous Sevres vase stood on a pedestal, into which a crystal case had been let containing the king's autograph letter, offering this gift to the Marquis Leopold Herve Joseph Germer de Varneville, de Rollebosc de Coutelier. Jeanne and Julien were looking at this royal present when the marquis and marquise came in, the latter wearing her hair powdered.
The marquise thought her rank constrained her to be amiable, and her desire to appear condescending made her affected. Her husband was a big man, with white hair brushed straight up all over his head, and a haughtiness in his voice, in all his movements, in his every attitude which plainly showed the esteem in which he held himself. They were people who had a strict etiquette for everything, and whose feelings seemed always stilted, like their words.
They both talked on without waiting for an answer, smiled with an air of indifference, and behaved as if they were accomplishing a duty imposed upon them by their superior birth, in receiving the smaller nobles of the province with such politeness. Jeanne and Julien tried to make themselves agreeable, though they felt ill at ease, and when the time came to conclude their visit they hardly knew how to retire, though they did not want to stay any longer. However, the marquise, herself, ended the visit naturally and simply by stopping short the conversation, like a queen ending an audience.
"I don't think we will call on anyone else, unless you want to," said Julien, as they were going back. "The Fourvilles are quite as many friends as I want."
And Jeanne agreed with him.
Dark, dreary December passed slowly away. Everyone stayed at home like the winter before, but Jeanne's thoughts were too full of Paul for her ever to feel dull. She would hold him in her arms covering him with those passionate kisses which mothers lavish on their children, then offering the baby's face to his father:
"Why don't you kiss him?" she would say. "You hardly seem to love him."
Julien would just touch the infant's smooth forehead with his lips, holding his body as far away as possible, as if he were afraid of the little hands touching him in their aimless movements. Then he would go quickly out of the room, almost as though the child disgusted him.
The mayor, the doctor, and the cure came to dinner occasionally, and sometimes the Fourvilles, who had become very intimate with Jeanne and her husband. The comte seemed to worship Paul. He nursed the child on his knees from the time he entered Les Peuples to the time he left, sometimes holding him the whole afternoon, and it was marvelous to see how delicately and tenderly he touched him with his huge hands. He would tickle the child's nose with the ends of his long moustaches, and then suddenly cover his face with kisses almost as passionate as Jeanne's. It was the great trouble of his life that he had no children.
March was bright, dry, and almost mild. The Comtesse Gilberte again proposed that they should all four go for some rides together, and Jeanne, a little tired of the long weary evenings and the dull, monotonous days, was only too pleased at the idea and agreed to it at once. It took her a week to make her riding-habit, and then they commenced their rides.
They always rode two and two, the comtesse and Julien leading the way, and the comte and Jeanne about a hundred feet behind. The latter couple talked easily and quietly as they rode along, for, each attracted by the other's straightforward ways and kindly heart, they had become fast friends. Julien and the comtesse talked in whispers alternated by noisy bursts of laughter, and looked in each other's eyes to read there the things their lips did not utter, and often they would break into a gallop, as if impelled by a desire to escape alone to some country far away.
Sometimes it seemed as if something irritated Gilberte. Her sharp tones would be borne on the breeze to the ears of the couple loitering behind, and the comte would say to Jeanne, with a smile:
"I don't think my wife got out of bed the right side this morning."
One evening, as they were returning home, the comtesse began to spur her mare, and then pull her in with sudden jerks on the rein.
"Take care, or she'll run away with you," said Julien two or three times.
"So much the worse for me; it's nothing to do with you," she replied, in such cold, hard tones that the clear words rang out over the fields as if they were actually floating in the air.
The mare reared, kicked, and foamed at the mouth and the comte cried out anxiously:
"Do take care what you are doing, Gilberte!"
Then, in a fit of defiance, for she was in one of those obstinate moods that will brook no word of advice, she brought her whip heavily down between the animal's ears. The mare reared, beat the air with her fore legs for a moment, then, with a tremendous bound, set off over the plain at the top of her speed. First she crossed a meadow, then some ploughed fields, kicking up the wet heavy soil behind her, and going at such a speed that in a few moments the others could hardly distinguish the comtesse from her horse.
Julien stood stock still, crying: "Madame! Madame!" The comte gave a groan, and, bending down over his powerful steed, galloped after his wife. He encouraged his steed with voice and hand, urged it on with whip and spur, and it seemed as though he carried the big animal between his legs, and raised it from the ground at every leap it took. The horse went at an inconceivable speed, keeping a straight line regardless of all obstacles; and Jeanne could see the two outlines of the husband and wife diminish and fade in the distance, till they vanished altogether, like two birds chasing each other till they are lost to sight beyond the horizon.
Julien walked his horse up to his wife, murmuring angrily: "She is mad to-day." And they both went off after their friends, who were hidden in a dip in the plain. In about a quarter of an hour they saw them coming back, and soon they came up to them.
The comte, looking red, hot and triumphant, was leading his wife's horse. The comtesse was very pale; her features looked drawn and contracted, and she leant on her husband's shoulder as if she were going to faint. That day Jeanne understood, for the first time, how madly the comte loved his wife.
All through the following month the comtesse was merrier than she had ever been before. She came to Les Peuples as often as she could, and was always laughing and jumping up to kiss Jeanne. She seemed to have found some unknown source of happiness, and her husband simply worshiped her now, following her about with his eyes and seeking every pretext for touching her hand or her dress.
"We are happier now than we have ever been before," he said, one evening, to Jeanne. "Gilberte has never been so affectionate as she is now; nothing seems to vex her or make her angry. Until lately I was never quite sure that she loved me, but now I know she does."
Julien had changed for the better also; he had become gay and good-tempered, and their friendship seemed to have brought peace and happiness to both families.
The spring was exceptionally warm and forward. The sun cast his warm rays upon the budding trees and flowers from early morn until the sweet, soft evening. It was one of those favored years when the world seems to have grown young again, and nature to delight in bringing everything to life once more.
Jeanne felt a vague excitement in the presence of this reawakening of the fields and woods. She gave way to a sweet melancholy and spent hours languidly dreaming. All the tender incidents of her first hours of love came back to her, not that any renewal of affection for her husband stirred her heart; that had been completely destroyed; but the soft breeze which fanned her cheek and the sweet perfume which filled the air seemed to breathe forth a tender sigh of love which made her pulse beat quicker. She liked to be alone, and in the warm sunshine, to enjoy these vague, peaceful sensations which aroused no thoughts.
One morning she was lying thus half-dormant, when suddenly she saw in her mind that sunlit space in the little wood near Etretat where for the first time she had felt thrilled by the presence of the man who loved her then, where he had for the first time timidly hinted at his hopes, and where she had believed that she was going to realize the radiant future of her dreams. She thought she should like to make a romantic, superstitious pilgrimage to the wood, and she felt as if a visit to that sunny spot would in some way alter the course of her life.
Julien had gone out at daybreak, she did not know whither, so she ordered the Martins' little white horse, which she sometimes rode, to be saddled, and set off.
It was one of those calm days when there is not a leaf nor a blade of grass stirring. The wind seemed dead, and everything looked as though it would remain motionless until the end of time; even the insects had disappeared. A burning, steady heat descended from the sun in a golden mist, and Jeanne walked her horse along, enjoying the stillness, and every now and then looking up at a tiny white cloud which hung like a snowy fleece in the midst of the bright blue sky. She went down into the valley leading to the sea, between the two great arches which are called the gates of Etretat, and went slowly towards the wood.
The sunlight poured down through the foliage which, as yet, was not very thick, and Jeanne wandered along the little paths unable to find the spot where she had sat with Julien. She turned into a long alley and, at the other end of it, saw two saddle-horses fastened to a tree; she recognized them at once; they were Gilberte's and Julien's. Tired of being alone and pleased at this unexpected meeting, she trotted quickly up to them, and when she reached the two animals, which were waiting quietly as if accustomed to stand like this, she called aloud. There was no answer.
On the grass, which looked as if someone had rested there, lay a woman's glove and two whips. Julien and Gilberte had evidently sat down and then gone farther on, leaving the horses tied to the tree. Jeanne wondered what they could be doing, and getting off her horse, she leant against the trunk of a tree and waited for a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. She stood quite motionless, and two little birds flew down onto the grass close by her. One of them hopped round the other, fluttering his outstretched wings, and chirping and nodding his little head; all at once they coupled. Jeanne watched them, as surprised as if she had never known of such a thing before; then she thought: "Oh, of course! It is springtime."
Then came another thought—a suspicion. She looked again at the glove, the whips and the two horses standing riderless; then she sprang on her horse with an intense longing to leave this place. She started back to Les Peuples at a gallop. Her brain was busy reasoning, connecting different incidents and thinking it all out.
How was it that she had never noticed anything, had never guessed this before? How was it that Julien's frequent absence from home, his renewed attention to his toilet, his better temper had told her nothing? Now she understood Gilberte's nervous irritability, her exaggerated affection for herself and the bliss in which she had appeared to be living lately, and which had so pleased the comte.
She pulled up her horse for she wanted to think calmly, and the quick movement confused her ideas. After the first shock she became almost indifferent; she felt neither jealousy nor hatred, only contempt. She did not think about Julien at all, for nothing that he could do would have astonished her, but the twofold treachery of the comtesse, who had deceived her friend as well as her husband, hurt her deeply. So everyone was treacherous, and untrue and faithless! Her eyes filled with tears, for sometimes it is as bitter to see an illusion destroyed as to witness the death of a friend. She resolved to say nothing more about her discovery. Her heart would be dead to everyone but Paul and her parents, but she would bear a smiling face.
When she reached home she caught up her son in her arms, carried him to her room and pressed her lips to his face again and again, and for a whole hour she played with and caressed him.
Julien came in to dinner in a very good temper and full of plans for his wife's pleasure.
"Won't your father and mother come and stay with us this year?" he said.
Jeanne almost forgave him his infidelity, so grateful was she to him for making this proposal. She longed to see the two people she loved best after Paul, and she passed the whole evening in writing to them, and urging them to come as soon as possible.
They wrote to say they would come on the twentieth of May; it was then the seventh, and Jeanne awaited their arrival with intense impatience. Besides her natural desire to see her parents, she felt it would be such a relief to have near her two honest hearts, two simple-minded beings whose life and every action, thought and desire had always been upright and pure. She felt she stood alone in her honesty among all this guilt. She had learnt to dissimulate her feelings, to meet the comtesse with an outstretched hand and a smiling face, but her sense of desolation increased with her contempt for her fellow-men.
Every day some village scandal reached her ears which filled her with still greater disgust and scorn for human frailty. The Couillards' daughter had just had a child and was therefore going to be married. The Martins' servant, who was an orphan, a little girl only fifteen years old, who lived near, and a widow, a lame, poverty-stricken woman who was so horribly dirty that she had been nicknamed La Crotte, were all pregnant; and Jeanne was continually hearing of the misconduct of some girl, some married woman with a family, or of some rich farmer who had been held in general respect.
This warm spring seemed to revive the passions of mankind as it revived the plants and the flowers; but to Jeanne, whose senses were dead, and whose wounded heart and romantic soul were alone stirred by the warm springtide breezes, and who only dreamed of the poetic side of love, these bestial desires were revolting and hateful. She was angry with Gilberte, not for having robbed her of her husband, but for having bespattered herself with this filth. The comtesse was not of the same class as the peasants, who could not resist their brutal desires; then how could she have fallen into the same abomination?
The very day that her parents were to arrive, Julien increased his wife's disgust by telling her laughingly, as though it were something quite natural and very funny, that the baker having heard a noise in his oven the day before, which was not baking day, had gone to see what it was, and instead of finding the stray cat he expected to see, had surprised his wife, "who was certainly not putting bread into the oven." "The baker closed the mouth of the oven," went on Julien, "and they would have been suffocated if the baker's little boy, who had seen his mother go into the oven with the blacksmith, had not told the neighbors what was going on." He laughed as he added, "That will give a nice flavor to the bread. It is just like a tale of La Fontaine's."
For some time after that Jeanne could not touch bread.
When the post-chaise drew up before the door with the baron's smiling face looking out of the window, Jeanne felt fonder of her parents and more pleased to see them than she had ever been before; but when she saw her mother she was overcome with surprise and grief. The baroness looked ten years older than when she had left Les Peuples six months before. Her huge, flabby cheeks were suffused with blood, her eyes had a glazed look, and she could not move a step unless she was supported on either side; she drew her breath with so much difficulty that only to hear her made everyone around her draw theirs painfully also.
The baron, who had lived with her and seen her every day, had not noticed the gradual change in his wife, and if she had complained or said her breathing and the heavy feeling about her heart were getting worse, he had answered:
"Oh, no, my dear. You have always been like this."
Jeanne went to her own room and cried bitterly when she had taken her parents upstairs. Then she went to her father and, throwing herself in his arms, said, with her eyes still full of tears:
"Oh, how changed mother is! What is the matter with her? Do tell me what is the matter with her?"
"Do you think she is changed?" asked the baron in surprise. "It must be your fancy. You know I have been with her all this time, and to me she seems just the same as she has always been; she is not any worse."
"Your mother is in a bad way," said Julien to his wife that evening. "I don't think she's good for much now."
Jeanne burst into tears.
"Oh, good gracious!" went on Julien irritably. "I don't say that she is dangerously ill. You always see so much more than is meant. She is changed, that's all; it's only natural she should begin to break up at her age."
In a week Jeanne had got accustomed to her mother's altered appearance and thought no more about it, thrusting her fears from her, as people always do put aside their fears and cares, with an instinctive and natural, though selfish dislike of anything unpleasant.
The baroness, unable to walk, only went out for about half an hour every day. When she had gone once up and down "her" avenue, she could not move another step and asked to sit down on "her" seat. Some days she could not walk even to the end of the avenue, and would say:
"Let us stop; my hypertrophy is too much for me to-day."
She never laughed as she used to; things which, the year before, would have sent her into fits of laughter, only brought a faint smile to her lips now. Her eyesight was still excellent, and she passed her time in reading Corinne and Lamartine's Meditations over again, and in going through her "Souvenir-drawer." She would empty on her knees the old letters, which were so dear to her heart, place the drawer on a chair beside her, look slowly over each "relic," and then put it back in its place. When she was quite alone she kissed some of the letters as she might have kissed the hair of some loved one who was dead.
Jeanne, coming into the room suddenly, sometimes found her in tears.
"What is the matter, mamma, dear?" she would ask.
"My souvenirs have upset me," the baroness would answer, with a long-drawn sigh. "They bring to my mind so vividly the happy times which are all over now, and make me think of people whom I had almost forgotten. I seem to see them, to hear their voices, and it makes me sad. You will feel the same, later on."
If the baron came in and found them talking like this, he would say:
"Jeanne, my dear, if you take my advice, you will burn all your letters—those from your mother, mine, everyone's. There is nothing more painful than to stir up the memories of one's youth when one is old."
But Jeanne, who had inherited her mother's sentimental instincts, though she differed from her in nearly everything else, carefully kept all her old letters to form a "souvenir-box" for her old age, also.
A few days after his arrival, business called the baron away again. The baroness soon began to get better, and Jeanne, forgetting Julien's infidelity and Gilberte's treachery, was almost perfectly happy. The weather was splendid. Mild, starlit nights followed the soft evenings, and dazzling sunrises commenced the glorious days. The fields were covered with bright, sweet-smelling flowers, and the vast calm sea glittered in the sun from morning till night.
One afternoon Jeanne went into the fields with Paul in her arms. She felt an exquisite gladness as she looked now at her son, now at the flowery hedgerows, and every minute she pressed her baby closely to her and kissed him. The earth exhaled a faint perfume, and, as she walked along, she felt as though her happiness were too great for her. Then she thought of her child's future. What would he be? Sometimes she hoped he would become a great and famous man. Sometimes she felt she would rather he remained with her, passing his life in tender devotion to his mother and unknown to the world. When she listened to the promptings of her mother's heart, she wished him to remain simply her adored son; but when she listened to her reason and her pride she hoped he would make a name and become something of importance in the world.
She sat down at the edge of a ditch and studied the child's face as if she had never really looked at it before. It seemed so strange to think that this little baby would grow up, and walk with manly strides, that these soft cheeks would become bearded, and the feeble murmur change to a deep-toned voice.
Someone called her, and, looking up, she saw Marius running towards her. Thinking he had come to announce some visitor, she got up, feeling vexed at being disturbed. The boy was running as fast as his legs could carry him.
"Madame!" he cried, when he was near enough to be heard. "Madame la baronne is very ill."
Jeanne ran quickly towards the house, feeling as if a douche of cold water had been poured down her spine. There was quite a little crowd standing under the plane tree, which opened to let her through as she rushed forward. There, in the midst, lay the baroness on the ground, her head supported by two pillows, her face black, her eyes closed, and her chest, which for the last twenty years had heaved so tumultuously, motionless. The child's nurse was standing there; she took him from his mother's arms, and carried him away.
"How did it happen? What made her fall?" asked Jeanne, looking up with haggard eyes. "Send for the doctor immediately."
As she turned she saw the cure; he at once offered his services, and, turning up his sleeves, began to rub the baroness with Eau de Cologne and vinegar; but she showed no signs of returning consciousness.
"She ought to be undressed and put to bed," said the priest; and, with his aid, Joseph Couillard, old Simon and Ludivine tried to raise the baroness.
As they lifted her, her head fell backwards, and her dress, which they were grasping, gave way under the dead weight of her huge body. They were obliged to lay her down again, and Jeanne shrieked with horror.
At last an armchair was brought from the drawing-room; the baroness was placed in it, carried slowly indoors, then upstairs, and laid on the bed. The cook was undressing her as best she could when the Widow Dentu came in, as if, like the priest, she had "smelt death," as the servants said. Joseph Couillard hurried off for the doctor, and the priest was going to fetch the holy oil, when the nurse whispered in his ear:
"You needn't trouble to go, Monsieur le cure. I have seen too much of death not to know that she is gone."
Jeanne, in desperation, begged them to tell her what she could do, what remedies they had better apply. The cure thought that anyhow he might pronounce an absolution, and for two hours they watched beside the lifeless, livid body, Jeanne, unable to contain her grief, sobbing aloud as she knelt beside the bed. When the door opened to admit the doctor, she thought that with him came safety and consolation and hope, and she rushed to meet him, trying to tell him, in a voice broken with sobs, all the details of the catastrophe.
"She was walking—like she does every day—and she seemed quite well, better even—than usual. She had eaten some soup and two eggs for lunch, and—quite suddenly, without any warning she fell—and turned black, like she is now; she has not moved since, and we have—tried everything to restore her to consciousness—everything—"
She stopped abruptly for she saw the nurse making a sign to the doctor to intimate that it was all over. Then she refused to understand the gesture, and went on anxiously:
"Is it anything serious? Do you think there is any danger?"
He answered at last:
"I very much fear that—that life is extinct. Be brave and try to bear up."
For an answer Jeanne opened her arms, and threw herself on her mother's body. Julien came in. He made no sign of grief or pity, but stood looking simply vexed; he had been taken too much by surprise to at once assume an expression of sorrow.
"I expected it," he whispered. "I knew she could not live long."
He drew out his handkerchief, wiped his eyes, knelt down and crossed himself as he mumbled something, then rose and attempted to raise his wife. She was clinging to the corpse, almost lying on it as she passionately kissed it; they had to drag her away for she was nearly mad with grief, and she was not allowed to go back for an hour.
Then every shadow of hope had vanished, and the room had been arranged fittingly for its dead occupant. The day was drawing to a close, and Julien and the priest were standing near one of the windows, talking in whispers. The Widow Dentu, thoroughly accustomed to death, was already comfortably dozing in an armchair. The cure went to meet Jeanne as she came into the room, and taking both her hands in his, he exhorted her to be brave under this sorrow, and attempted to comfort her with the consolation of religion. Then he spoke of her dead mother's good life, and offered to pass the night in prayers beside the body.
But Jeanne refused this offer as well as she could for her tears. She wanted to be alone, quite alone, with her mother this last night.
"That cannot be," interposed Julien; "we will watch beside her together."
She shook her head, unable to speak for some moments; then she said:
"She was my mother, and I want to watch beside her alone."
"Let her do as she wants," whispered the doctor; "the nurse can stay in the next room," and Julien and the priest, thinking of their night's rest, gave in.
The Abbe Picot knelt down, prayed for a few moments, then rose and went out of the room, saying, "She was a saintly woman," in the same tone as he always said, "Dominus vobiscum."
"Won't you have some dinner?" asked the vicomte in a perfectly ordinary voice.
Jeanne, not thinking he was speaking to her, made no answer.
"You would feel much better if you would eat something," he went on again.
"Let someone go for papa, directly," she said as if she had not heard what he said; and he went out of the room to dispatch a mounted messenger to Rouen.
Jeanne sank into a sort of stupor, as if she were waiting to give way to her passion of regret until she should be alone with her mother. The room became filled with shadows. The Widow Dentu moved noiselessly about, arranging everything for the night, and at last lighted two candles which she placed at the head of the bed on a small table covered with a white cloth. Jeanne seemed unconscious of everything; she was waiting until she should be alone.
When he had dined, Julien came upstairs again and asked for the second time:
"Won't you have something to eat?"
His wife shook her head, and he sat down looking more resigned than sad, and did not say anything more. They all three sat apart from one another; the nurse dropped off to sleep every now and then, snored for a little while, then awoke with a start. After some time Julien rose and went over to his wife.
"Do you still want to be left alone?" he asked.
She eagerly took his hand in hers: "Oh, yes; do leave me," she answered.
He kissed her on the forehead, whispered, "I shall come and see you during the night," then went away with the Widow Dentu, who wheeled her armchair into the next room.
Jeanne closed the door and put both windows wide open. A warm breeze, laden with the sweet smell of the hay, blew into the room, and on the lawn, which had been mown the day before, she could see the heaps of dry grass lying in the moonlight. She turned away from the window and went back to the bed, for the soft, beautiful night seemed to mock her grief.
Her mother was no longer swollen as she had been when she died; she looked simply asleep, only her sleep was more peaceful than it had ever been before; the wind made the candles flicker, and the changing shadows made the dead face look as though it moved and lived again. As Jeanne gazed at it the memories of her early childhood came crowding into her mind. She could see again her mother sitting in the convent parlor, holding out the bag of cakes she had brought for her little girl; she thought of all her little ways, her affectionate words, the way she used to move, the wrinkles that came round her eyes when she laughed, the deep sigh she always heaved when she sat down, and all her little, daily habits, and as she stood gazing at the dead body she kept repeating, almost mechanically: "She is dead; she is dead;" until at last she realized all the horror of that word.
The woman who was lying there—mamma—little mother—Madame Adelaide, was dead! She would never move, never speak, never laugh, never say, "Good morning, Jeannette"; never sit opposite her husband at the dinner table again. She was dead. She would be enclosed in a coffin, placed beneath the ground, and that would be the end; they would never see her again. It could not be possible! What! She, her daughter, had now no mother! Had she indeed lost for ever this dear face, the first she had ever looked upon, the first she had ever loved, this kindly loving mother, whose place in her heart could never be filled? And in a few hours even this still, unconscious face would have vanished, and then there would be nothing left her but a memory. She fell on her knees in despair, wringing her hands and pressing her lips to the bed.
"Oh, mother, mother! My darling mother!" she cried, in a broken voice which was stifled by the bed-covering.
She felt she was going mad; mad, like the night she had fled into the snow. She rushed to the window to breathe the fresh air which had not passed over the corpse or the bed on which it lay. The new-mown hay, the trees, the waste land and the distant sea lay peacefully sleeping in the moonlight, and the tears welled up into Jeanne's eyes as she looked out into the clear, calm night. She went back to her seat by the bedside and held her mother's dead hand in hers, as if she were lying ill instead of dead. Attracted by the lighted candles, a big, winged insect had entered through the open window and was flying about the room, dashing against the wall at every moment with a faint thud. It disturbed Jeanne, and she looked up to see where it was, but she could only see its shadow moving over the white ceiling.
Its buzzing suddenly ceased, and then, besides the regular ticking of the clock, Jeanne noticed another fainter rustling noise. It was the ticking of her mother's watch, which had been forgotten when her dress had been taken off and thrown at the foot of the bed, and the idea of this little piece of mechanism still moving while her mother lay dead, sent a fresh pang of anguish through her heart. She looked at the time. It was hardly half-past ten, and as she thought of the long night to come, she was seized with a horrible dread.
She began to think of her own life—of Rosalie, of Gilberte—of all her illusions which had been, one by one, so cruelly destroyed. Life contained nothing but misery and pain, misfortune and death; there was nothing true, nothing honest, nothing but what gave rise to suffering and tears. Repose and happiness could only be expected in another existence, when the soul had been delivered from its early trials. Her thoughts turned to the unfathomable mystery of the soul, but, as she reasoned about it, her poetic theories were invariably upset by others, just as poetic and just as unreal. Where was now her mother's soul, the soul which had forsaken this still, cold body? Perhaps it was far away, floating in space. But had it entirely vanished like the perfume from a withered flower, or was it wandering like some invisible bird freed from its cage? Had it returned to God, or was it scattered among the new germs of creation? It might be very near; perhaps in this very room, hovering around the inanimate body it had left, and at this thought Jeanne fancied she felt a breath, as if a spirit had passed by her. Her blood ran cold with terror; she did not dare turn round to look behind her, and she sat motionless, her heart beating wildly.
At that moment the invisible insect again commenced its buzzing, noisy flight, and Jeanne trembled from head to foot at the sound. Then, as she recognized the noise, she felt a little reassured, and rose and looked around. Her eyes fell on the escritoire with the sphinxes' heads, the guardian of the "souvenirs." As she looked at it she thought it would be fulfilling a sacred, filial duty, which would please her mother as she looked down on her from another world, to read these letters, as she might have done a holy book during this last watch.
She knew it was the correspondence of her grandfather and grandmother, whom she had never known; and it seemed as if her hands would join theirs across her mother's corpse, and so a sacred chain of affection would be formed between those who had died so long ago, their daughter who had but just joined them, and her child who was still on earth.
She opened the escritoire and took out the letters; they had been carefully tied into ten little packets, which were laid side by side in the lowest drawer. A refinement of sentimentality prompted her to place them all on the bed in the baroness's arms; then she began to read.
They were old-fashioned letters with the perfume of another century about them, such as are treasured up in every family. The first commenced "My dearie"; another "My little darling"; then came some beginning "My pet"—"My beloved daughter," then "My dear child"—"My dear Adelaide"—"My dear daughter," the commencements varying as the letters had been addressed to the child, the young girl, and, later on, to the young wife. They were all full of foolish, loving phrases, and news about a thousand insignificant, homely events, which, to a stranger, would have seemed too trivial to mention: "Father has an influenza; Hortense has burnt her finger; Croquerat, the cat, is dead; the fir tree which stood on the right-hand side of the gate has been cut down; mother lost her mass book as she was coming home from church, she thinks someone must have stolen it," and they talked about people whom Jeanne had never known, but whose names were vaguely familiar to her.
She was touched by these simple details which seemed to reveal all her mother's life and inmost thoughts to her. She looked at the corpse as it lay there, and suddenly she began to read the letters aloud, as though to console and gladden the dead heart once more; and a smile of happiness seemed to light up the face. As she finished reading them, Jeanne threw the letters on the foot of the bed, resolving to place them all in her mother's coffin.
She untied another packet. These were in another handwriting, and the first ran thus:
"I cannot live without your kisses. I love you madly."
There was nothing more, not even a signature. Jeanne turned the paper over, unable to understand it. It was addressed clearly enough to "Madame la baronne Le Perthuis des Vauds."
She opened the next:
"Come to-night as soon as he has gone out. We shall have at least one hour together. I adore you."
"I have passed a night of longing and anguish. I fancied you in my arms, your mouth quivering beneath mine, your eyes looking into my eyes. And then I could have dashed myself from the window, as I thought that, at that very moment, you were sleeping beside him, at the mercy of his caresses."
Jeanne stopped in amazement. What did it all mean? To whom were these words of love addressed? She read on, finding in every letter the same distracted phrases, the same assignations, the same cautions, and, at the end, always the five words: "Above all, burn this letter." At last she came to an ordinary note, merely accepting an invitation to dinner; it was signed "Paul d'Ennemare." Why, that was the man of whom the baron still spoke as "Poor old Paul," and whose wife had been the baroness's dearest friend!
Then into Jeanne's mind came a suspicion which at once changed to a certainty—he had been her mother's lover! With a sudden gesture of loathing, she threw from her all these odious letters, as she would have shaken off some venomous reptile, and, running to the window, she wept bitterly. All her strength seemed to have left her; she sank on the ground, and, hiding her face in the curtains to stifle her moans, she sobbed in an agony of despair. She would have crouched there the whole night if the sound of someone moving in the next room had not made her start to her feet. Perhaps it was her father! And all these letters were lying on the bed and on the floor! He had only to come in and open one, and he would know all!
She seized all the old, yellow papers—her grandparents' epistles, the love letters, those she had not unfolded, those that were still lying in the drawer—and threw them all into the fireplace. Then she took one of the candles which were burning on the little table, and set fire to this heap of paper. A bright flame sprang up at once, lighting up the room, the bed and the corpse with a bright, flickering light, and casting on the white bed-curtain a dark, trembling shadow of the rigid face and huge body.
When there was nothing left but a heap of ashes in the bottom of the grate, Jeanne went and sat by the window, as though now she dare not sit by the corpse. The tears streamed from her eyes, and, hiding her face in her hands, she moaned out in heartbroken tones: "Oh, poor mamma! Poor mamma!"
Then a terrible thought came to her: Suppose her mother, by some strange chance, was not dead; suppose she was only in a trance-like sleep and should suddenly rise and speak! Would not the knowledge of this horrible secret lessen her, Jeanne's, love for her mother? Should she be able to kiss her with the same respect, and regard her with the same esteem as before? No! She knew it would be impossible; and the thought almost broke her heart.