"I am not idle," he said. "I have obtained a post in connection with the Stock Exchange, and I hope some day to see my dear relations at Les Peuples."
He never mentioned his mistress, but his silence was more significant than if he had written four pages about her; and, in these icy letters, Jeanne could perceive the influence of this unknown woman who was, by instinct, the implacable enemy of every mother.
Ponder as they would, the three lonely beings at the chateau could think of no means by which they might rescue Paul from his present life. They would have gone to Paris, but they knew that would be no good.
"We must let his passion wear itself out," said the baron; "sooner or later he will return to us of his own accord." And the mournful days dragged on.
Jeanne and Lison got into the habit of going to church together without letting the baron know; and a long time passed without any news from Paul. Then, one morning they received a desperate letter which terrified them.
"My Dear Mother: I am lost; I shall have no resource left but to blow out my brains if you do not help me. A speculation which held out every hope of success has turned the wrong way, and I owe eighty-five thousand francs. It means dishonor, ruin, the destruction of all my future if I do not pay, and, I say again, rather than survive the disgrace, I will blow my brains out. I should, perhaps, have done so already, had it not been for the brave and hopeful words of a woman, whose name I never mention to you, but who is the good genius of my life.
"I send you my very best love, dear mother. Goodbye, perhaps for ever.
Enclosed in the letter was a bundle of business papers giving the details of this unfortunate speculation. The baron answered by return post that they would help as much as they could. Then he went to Havre to get legal advice, mortgaged some property and forwarded the money to Paul. The young man wrote back three letters full of hearty thanks, and said they might expect him almost immediately. But he did not come, and another year passed away.
Jeanne and the baron were on the point of starting for Paris, to find him and make one last effort to persuade him to return, when they received a few lines saying he was again in London, starting a steamboat company which was to trade under the name of "Paul Delamare & Co." "I am sure to get a living out of it," he wrote, "and perhaps it will make my fortune, At any rate I risk nothing, and you must at once see the advantages of the scheme. When I see you again, I shall be well up in the world; there is nothing like trade for making money, nowadays."
Three months later, the company went into liquidation, and the manager was prosecuted for falsifying the books. When the news reached Les Peuples, Jeanne had a hysterical fit which lasted several hours. The baron went to Havre, made every inquiry, saw lawyers and attorneys, and found that the Delamare Company had failed for two hundred and fifty thousand francs. He again mortgaged his property, and borrowed a large sum on Les Peuples and the two adjoining farms. One evening he was going through some final formalities in a lawyer's office, when he suddenly fell to the ground in an apoplectic fit. A mounted messenger was at once dispatched to Jeanne, but her father died before she could arrive. The shock was so great that it seemed to stun Jeanne and she could not realize her loss. The body was taken back to Les Peuples, but the Abbe Tolbiac refused to allow it to be interred with any sacred rites, in spite of all the entreaties of the two women, so the burial took place at night without any ceremony whatever. Then Jeanne fell into a state of such utter depression that she took no interest in anything, and seemed unable to comprehend the simplest things.
Paul, who was still in hiding in England, heard of his grandfather's death through the liquidators of the company, and wrote to say he should have come before, but he had only just heard the sad news. He concluded: "Now you have rescued me from my difficulties, mother dear, I shall return to France, and shall at once, come to see you."
Towards the end of that winter Aunt Lison, who was now sixty-eight, had a severe attack of bronchitis. It turned to inflammation of the lungs, and the old maid quietly expired.
"I will ask the good God to take pity on you, my poor little Jeanne," were the last words she uttered.
Jeanne followed her to the grave, saw the earth fall on the coffin, and then sank to the ground, longing for death to take her also that she might cease to think and to suffer. As she fell a big, strong peasant woman caught her in her arms and carried her away as if she had been a child; she took her back to the chateau, and Jeanne let herself be put to bed by this stranger, who handled her so tenderly and firmly, and at once fell asleep, for she had spent the last five nights watching beside the old maid, and she was thoroughly exhausted by sorrow and fatigue. It was the middle of the night when she again opened her eyes. A night-lamp was burning on the mantelpiece, and, in the armchair, lay a woman asleep. Jeanne did not know who it was, and, leaning over the side of the bed, she tried to make out her features by the glimmering light of the night-lamp. She fancied she had seen this face before, but she could not remember when or where.
The woman was quietly sleeping, her head drooping on one shoulder, her cap lying on the ground and her big hands hanging on each side of the armchair. She was a strong, square-built peasant of about forty or forty-five, with a red face and hair that was turning gray. Jeanne was sure she had seen her before, but she had not the least idea whether it was a long time ago or quite recently, and it worried her to find she could not remember. She softly got out of bed, and went on tiptoe to see the sleeping woman nearer. She recognized her as the peasant who had caught her in her arms in the cemetery, and had afterwards put her to bed; but surely she had known her in former times, under other circumstances. And yet perhaps the face was only familiar to her because she had seen it that day in the cemetery. Still how was it that the woman was sleeping here?
Just then the stranger opened her eyes and saw Jeanne standing beside her. She started up, and they stood face to face, so close together that they touched each other.
"How is it that you're out of bed?" said the peasant; "you'll make yourself ill, getting up at this time of night. Go back to bed again."
"Who are you?" asked Jeanne.
The woman made no answer, but picked Jeanne up and carried her back to bed as easily as if she had been a baby. She gently laid her down, and, as she bent over her, she suddenly began to cover her cheeks, her hair, her eyes with violent kisses, while the tears streamed from her eyes.
"My poor mistress! Mam'zelle Jeanne, my poor mistress! Don't you know me?" she sobbed.
"Rosalie, my lass!" cried Jeanne, throwing her arms round the woman's neck and kissing her; and, clasped in each other's arms they mingled their tears and sobs together.
Rosalie dried her eyes the first. "Come now," she said, "you must be good and not catch cold."
She picked up the clothes, tucked up the bed and put the pillow back under the head of her former mistress, who lay choking with emotion as the memories of days that were past and gone rushed back to her mind.
"How is it you have come back, my poor girl?" she asked.
"Do you think I was going to leave you to live all alone now?" answered Rosalie.
"Light a candle and let me look at you," went on Jeanne.
Rosalie placed a light on the table by the bedside, and for a long time they gazed at each other in silence.
"I should never have known you again," murmured Jeanne, holding out her hand to her old servant. "You have altered very much, though not so much as I have."
"Yes, you have changed, Madame Jeanne, and more than you ought to have done," answered Rosalie, as she looked at this thin, faded, white-haired woman, whom she had left young and beautiful; "but you must remember it's twenty-four years since we have seen one another."
"Well, have you been happy?" asked Jeanne after a long pause.
"Oh, yes—yes, madame. I haven't had much to grumble at; I've been happier than you—that's certain. The only thing that I've always regretted is that I didn't stop here—" She broke off abruptly, finding she had unthinkingly touched upon the very subject she wished to avoid.
"Well, you know, Rosalie, one cannot have everything one wants," replied Jeanne gently; "and now you too are a widow, are you not?" Then her voice trembled, as she went on, "Have you any—any other children?"
"And what is your—your son? Are you satisfied with him?"
"Yes, madame; he's a good lad, and a hard-working one. He married about six months ago, and he is going to have the farm now I have come back to you."
"Then you will not leave me again?" murmured Jeanne.
"No fear, madame," answered Rosalie in a rough tone. "I've arranged all about that."
And for some time nothing more was said.
Jeanne could not help comparing Rosalie's life with her own, but she had become quite resigned to the cruelty and injustice of Fate, and she felt no bitterness as she thought of the difference between her maid's peaceful existence and her own.
"Was your husband kind to you?"
"Oh, yes, madame; he was a good, industrious fellow, and managed to put by a good deal. He died of consumption."
Jeanne sat up in bed. "Tell me all about your life, and everything that has happened to you," she said. "I feel as if it would do me good to hear it."
Rosalie drew up a chair, sat down, and began to talk about herself, her house, her friends, entering into all the little details in which country people delight, laughing sometimes over things which made her think of the happy times that were over, and gradually raising her voice as she went on, like a woman accustomed to command, she wound up by saying:
"Oh, I'm well off now; I needn't be afraid of anything. But I owe it all to you," she added in a lower, faltering voice; "and now I've come back I'm not going to take any wages. No! I won't! So, if you don't choose to have me on those terms, I shall go away again."
"But you do not mean to serve me for nothing?" said Jeanne.
"Yes, I do, madame. Money! You give me money! Why, I've almost as much as you have yourself. Do you know how much you will have after all these loans and mortgages have been cleared off, and you have paid all the interest you have let run on and increase? You don't know, do you? Well, then, let me tell you that you haven't ten thousand livres a year; not ten thousand. But I'm going to put everything straight, and pretty soon, too."
She had again raised her voice, for the thought of the ruin which hung over the house, and the way in which the interest money had been neglected and allowed to accumulate roused her anger and indignation. A faint, sad smile which passed over her mistress's face angered her still more, and she cried:
"You ought not to laugh at it, madame. People are good for nothing without money."
Jeanne took both the servant's hands in hers.
"I have never had any luck," she said slowly, as if she could think of nothing else. "Everything has gone the wrong way with me. My whole life has been ruined by a cruel Fate."
"You must not talk like that, madame," said Rosalie, shaking her head. "You made an unhappy marriage, that's all. But people oughtn't to marry before they know anything about their future husbands."
They went on talking about themselves and their past loves like two old friends, and when the day dawned they had not yet told all they had to say.
* * * * *
In less than a week Rosalie had everything and everybody in the chateau under her control, and even Jeanne yielded a passive obedience to the servant, who scolded her or soothed her as if she had been a sick child. She was very weak now, and her legs dragged along as the baroness's used to do; the maid supported her when she went out and their conversation was always about bygone times, of which Jeanne talked with tears in her eyes, and Rosalie in the calm quiet way of an impassive peasant.
The old servant returned several times to the question of the interest that was owing, and demanded the papers which Jeanne, ignorant of all business matters, had hidden away that Rosalie might not know of Paul's misdoings. Next Rosalie went over to Fecamp each day for a week to get everything explained to her by a lawyer whom she knew; then one evening after she had put her mistress to bed she sat down beside her and said abruptly:
"Now you're in bed, madame, we will have a little talk."
She told Jeanne exactly how matters stood, and that when every claim had been settled she, Jeanne, would have about seven or eight thousand francs a year; not a penny more.
"Well, Rosalie," answered Jeanne, "I know I shall not live to be very old, and I shall have enough until I die."
"Very likely you will, madame," replied Rosalie, getting angry; "but how about M. Paul? Don't you mean to leave him anything?"
Jeanne shuddered. "Pray, don't ever speak to me about him; I cannot bear to think of him."
"Yes, but I want to talk to you about him, because you don't look at things in the right light, Madame Jeanne. He may be doing all sorts of foolish things now, but he won't always behave the same. He'll marry and then he'll want money to educate his children and to bring them up properly. Now listen to what I am going to say; you must sell Les Peuples—"
But Jeanne started up in bed.
"Sell Les Peuples! How can you think of such a thing? No! I will never sell the chateau!"
Rosalie was not in the least put out.
"But I say you will, madame, simply because you must."
Then she explained her plans and her calculations. She had already found a purchaser for Les Peuples and the two adjoining farms, and when they had been sold Jeanne would still have four farms at Saint Leonard, which, freed from the mortgages, would bring in about eight thousand three hundred francs a year. Out of this income thirteen hundred francs would have to go for the keeping up and repairing of the property; two thousand would be put by for unforeseen expenses, and Jeanne would have five thousand francs to live upon.
"Everything else is gone, so there's an end of it," said Rosalie. "But, in future, I shall keep the money and M. Paul sha'n't have another penny off you. He'd take your last farthing."
"But if he has not anything to eat?" murmured Jeanne, who was quietly weeping.
"He can come to us if he's hungry; there'll always be victuals and a bed for him. He'd never have got into trouble if you hadn't given him any money the first time he asked for some."
"But he was in debt; he would have been dishonored."
"And don't you think he'll get into debt just the same when you've no more money to give him? You have paid his debts up to now, so well and good; but you won't pay any more, I can tell you. And now, good-night, madame."
And away she went.
The idea of selling Les Peuples and leaving the house where she had passed all her life threw Jeanne into a state of extreme agitation, and she lay awake the whole night. "I shall never be able to go away from here," she said, when Rosalie came into the room next morning.
"You'll have to, all the same, madame," answered the maid with rising temper. "The lawyer is coming presently with the man who wants to buy the chateau, and, if you don't sell it, you won't have a blade of grass to call your own in four years' time."
"Oh, I cannot! I cannot!" moaned Jeanne.
But an hour afterwards came a letter from Paul asking for ten thousand francs. What was to be done? Jeanne did not know, and, in her distress, she consulted Rosalie, who shrugged her shoulders, and observed:
"What did I tell you, madame? Oh, you'd both of you have been in a nice muddle if I hadn't come back."
Then, by her advice, Jeanne wrote back:
"My Dear Son: I cannot help you any more; you have ruined me, and I am even obliged to sell Les Peuples. But I shall always have a home for you whenever you choose to return to your poor old mother, who has suffered so cruelly through you.
The lawyer came with M. Jeoffrin, who was a retired sugar baker, and Jeanne herself received them, and invited them to go all over the house and grounds. Then a month after this visit, she signed the deed of sale, and bought, at the same time, a little villa in the hamlet of Batteville, standing on the Montivilliers high-road, near Goderville.
After she had signed the deeds she went out to the baroness's avenue, and walked up and down, heart-broken and miserable while she bade tearful, despairing farewells to the trees, the worm-eaten bench under the plane tree, the wood, the old elm trunk, against which she had leant so many times, and the hillock, where she had so often sat, and whence she had watched the Comte de Fourville running towards the sea on the awful day of Julien's death. She stayed out until the evening, and at last Rosalie went to look for her and brought her in. A tall peasant of about twenty-five was waiting at the door. He greeted Jeanne in a friendly way, as if he had known her a long while:
"Good-day, Madame Jeanne, how are you? Mother told me I was to come and help with the moving, and I wanted to know what you meant to take with you, so that I could move it a little at a time without it hindering the farm work."
He was Rosalie's son—Julien's son and Paul's brother. Jeanne's heart almost stood still as she looked at him, and yet she would have liked to kiss the young fellow. She gazed at him, trying to find any likeness to her husband or her son. He was robust and ruddy-cheeked and had his mother's fair hair and blue eyes, but there was something in his face which reminded Jeanne of Julien, though she could not discover where the resemblance lay.
"I should be very much obliged if you could show me the things now," continued the lad.
But she did not know herself yet what she should be able to take, her new house was so small, and she asked him to come again in a week's time.
For some time the removal occupied Jeanne's thoughts, and made a change, though a sad one, in her dull, hopeless life. She went from room to room, seeking the pieces of furniture which were associated in her mind with various events in her life, for the furniture among which we live becomes, in time, part of our lives—almost of ourselves—and, as it gets old, and we look at its faded colors, its frayed coverings, its tattered linings, we are reminded of the prominent dates and events of our existence by these time-worn objects which have been the mute companions of our happy and of our sad moments alike.
As agitated as if the decisions she were making had been of the last importance, Jeanne chose, one by one, the things she should take with her, often hesitating and altering her mind at every moment, as she stood unable to decide the respective merits of two armchairs, or of some old escritoire and a still older worktable. She opened and searched every drawer, and tried to connect every object with something that had happened in bygone days, and when at last she made up her mind and said: "Yes, I shall take this," the article she had decided upon was taken downstairs and put into the dining-room. She wished to keep the whole of her bedroom furniture, the bed, the tapestry, the clock—everything, and she also took a few of the drawing-room chairs, choosing those with the designs she had always liked ever since she could remember—the fox and the stork, the fox and the crow, the ant and the grasshopper, and the solitary heron.
One day, as she was wandering all over this house she should so soon have to leave, Jeanne went up into the garret. She was amazed when she opened the door; there lay articles of furniture of every description, some broken, others only soiled, others again stored away simply because fresh things had been bought and put in their places. She recognized a hundred little odds and ends which used to be downstairs and had disappeared without her noticing their absence—things of no value which she had often used, insignificant little articles, which had stood fifteen years beneath her eyes and had never attracted her attention, but which now—suddenly discovered in the lumber-room, lying side by side with other things older still and which she could quite distinctly remember seeing when she first returned from the convent—became as precious in her eyes as if they had been valued friends that had been a long time absent from her. They appeared to her under a new light, and as she looked at them she felt as she might have done if any very reserved acquaintances had suddenly begun to talk and to reveal thoughts and feelings she had never dreamed they possessed.
As she went from one thing to another, and remembered little incidents in connection with them, her heart felt as if it would break. "Why, this is the china cup I cracked a few days before I was married, and here is mamma's little lantern, and the cane papa broke trying to open the wooden gate the rain had swollen."
Besides all these familiar objects there were a great many things she had never seen before, which had belonged to her grandparents or her great-grandparents. Covered with dust they looked like sad, forsaken exiles from another century, their history and adventures for ever lost, for there was no one living now who had known those who had chosen, bought and treasured them, or who had seen the hands which had so often touched them or the eyes which had found such pleasure in looking at them. Jeanne touched them, and turned them about, her fingers leaving their traces on the thick dust; and she stayed for a long, long time amidst these old things, in the garret which was dimly lighted by a little skylight.
She tried to find other things with associations to them, and very carefully she examined some three-legged chairs, a copper warming-pan, a dented foot-warmer (which she thought she remembered) and all the other worn-out household utensils. Then she put all the things she thought she should like to take away together, and going downstairs, sent Rosalie up to fetch them. The latter indignantly refused to bring down "such rubbish," but Jeanne, though she hardly ever showed any will of her own, now would have her own way this time, and the servant had to obey.
One morning young Denis Lecoq (Julien's son) came, with his cart, to take way the first lot of things, and Rosalie went off with him to look after the unloading, and to see that the furniture was put into the right rooms.
When she was alone Jeanne began to visit every room in the chateau, and to kiss in a transport of passionate sorrow and regret everything that she was forced to leave behind her—the big white birds in the drawing-room tapestry, the old candlesticks, anything and everything that came in her way. She went from room to room, half mad with grief, and the tears streaming from her eyes, and, when she had gone all over the house, she went out to "say good-bye" to the sea. It was the end of September, and the dull yellowish waves stretched away as far as the eye could reach, under the lowering gray sky which hung over the world. For a long, long while, Jeanne stood on the cliff, her thoughts running on all her sorrows and troubles, and it was not till night drew on that she went indoors. In that day she had gone through as much suffering as she had ever passed through in her greatest griefs.
Rosalie had returned enchanted with the new house, "which was much livelier than this big barn of a place that was not even on a main road," but her mistress wept the whole evening.
Now they knew the chateau was sold the farmers showed Jeanne barely the respect that was due to her, and, though they hardly knew why, among themselves they always spoke of her as "that lunatic." Perhaps, with their brute-like instinct, they perceived her unhealthy and increasing sentimentality, her morbid reveries, and the disordered and pitiful state of her mind which so much sorrow and affliction had unhinged.
Happening to go through the stables the day before she was to leave Les Peuples, Jeanne came upon Massacre, whose existence she had entirely forgotten. Long past the age at which dogs generally die, he had become blind and paralyzed, and dragged out his life on a bed of straw, whither Ludivine, who never forgot him, brought him his food. Jeanne took him up in her arms, kissed him and carried him into the house; he could hardly creep along, his legs were so stiff, and he barked like a child's wooden toy-dog.
At length the last day dawned. Jeanne had passed the night in Julien's old room, as all the furniture had been moved out of hers, and when she rose she felt as tired and exhausted as if she had just been running a long distance.
In the court-yard stood the gig in which Rosalie and her mistress were to go, and a cart on which the remainder of the furniture and the trunks were already loaded. Ludivine and old Simon were to stay at the chateau until its new owner arrived, and then, too old to stay in service any longer, they were going to their friends to live on their savings and the pensions Jeanne had given them. Marius had married and left the chateau long ago.
About eight o'clock a fine, cold rain, which the wind drove in slanting lines, began to fall, and the furniture on the cart had to be covered over with tarpaulins. Some steaming cups of coffee stood on the kitchen-table, and Jeanne sat down and slowly drank hers up; then rising:
"Let us go," she said.
She began to put on her hat and shawl, while Rosalie put on her goloshes. A great lump rose in her throat, and she whispered:
"Rosalie, do you remember how it rained the day we left Rouen to come here?"
She broke off abruptly, pressed her hands to her heart, and fell backwards in a sort of fit. For more than an hour she lay as if she were dead, then, when she at length recovered consciousness, she went into violent hysterics. Gradually she became calmer, but this attack had left her so weak that she could not rise to her feet. Rosalie, fearing another attack if they did not get her away at once, went for her son, and between them, they carried her to the gig, and placed her on the leather-covered seat. Rosalie got up beside her, wrapped up her legs, threw a thick cloak over her shoulders, then, opening an umbrella over her head, cried:
"Make haste, and let's get off, Denis."
The young man climbed up by his mother, sat down with one leg right outside the gig, for want of room, and started off his horse at a quick jerky trot, which shook the two women from side to side. As they turned the corner of the village, they saw someone walking up and down the road; it was the Abbe Tolbiac, apparently waiting to see their departure. He was holding up his cassock with one hand to keep it out of the wet, regardless of showing his thin legs which were encased in black stockings, and his huge, muddy boots. When he saw the carriage coming he stopped, and stood on one side to let it pass. Jeanne looked down to avoid meeting his eyes, while Rosalie, who had heard all about him, furiously muttered: "You brute, you brute!" and seizing her son's hand, "Give him a cut with the whip!" she exclaimed. The young man did not do that, but he urged on his horse and then, just as they were passing the Abbe, suddenly let the wheel of the gig drop into a deep rut. There was a splash, and, in an instant, the priest was covered with mud from head to foot. Rosalie laughed all over her face, and turning round, she shook her fist at the abbe as he stood wiping himself down with his big handkerchief.
"Oh, we have forgotten Massacre!" suddenly cried Jeanne. Denis pulled up, gave Rosalie the reins to hold, and jumped down to run and fetch the dog. Then in a few minutes he came back with the big, shapeless animal in his arms and placed him in the gig between the two women.
* * * * *
After a two hours' drive the gig drew up before a little brick house, standing by the high road in the middle of an orchard planted with pear-trees. Four lattice-work arbors covered with honeysuckle and clematis stood at the four corners of the garden, which was planted with vegetables, and laid out in little beds with narrow paths bordered with fruit-trees running between them, and both garden and orchard were entirely surrounded by a thickset hedge which divided them from a field belonging to the next farm. About thirty yards lower down the road was a forge, and that was the only dwelling within a mile. All around lay fields and plains with farms scattered here and there, half-hidden by the four double rows of big trees which surrounded them.
Jeanne wanted to rest as soon as they arrived, but Rosalie, wishing to keep her from thinking, would not let her do so. The carpenter from Goderville had come to help them put the place in order, and they all began to arrange the furniture which was already there without waiting for the last cart-load which was coming on. The arrangement of the rooms took a long time, for everyone's ideas and opinions had to be consulted, and then the cart from Les Peuples arrived, and had to be unloaded in the rain. When night fell the house was in a state of utter disorder, and all the rooms were full of things piled anyhow one on top of the other. Jeanne was tired out and fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.
The next few days there was so much to do that she had no time to fret; in fact, she even found a certain pleasure in making her new home pretty, for all the time she was working she thought that her son would one day come and live there. The tapestry from her bedroom at Les Peuples was hung in the dining-room, which was also to serve as drawing-room, and Jeanne took especial pains over the arrangement of one of the rooms on the first floor, which in her own mind she had already named "Poulet's room;" she was to have the other one on that floor, and Rosalie was to sleep upstairs next to the box-room. The little house thus tastefully arranged, looked pretty when it was all finished, and at first Jeanne was pleased with it though she was haunted by the feeling that there was something missing though she could not tell what.
One morning a clerk came over from the attorney at Fecamp with the three thousand six hundred francs, the price at which an upholsterer had valued the furniture left at Les Peuples. Jeanne felt a thrill of pleasure as she took the money, for she had not expected to get so much, and as soon as the man had gone she put on her hat and hurried off to Goderville to send Paul this unlooked-for sum as quickly as possible. But as she was hastening along the road she met Rosalie coming back from market; the maid suspected that something had happened though she did not at once guess the truth. She soon found it out, however, for Jeanne could not hide anything from her, and placing her basket on the ground to give way to her wrath at her ease, she put her hands on her hips and scolded Jeanne at the top of her voice; then she took hold of her mistress with her right hand and her basket with her left and walked on again towards the house in a great passion. As soon as they were indoors Rosalie ordered the money to be given into her care, and Jeanne gave it her with the exception of the six hundred francs which she said nothing about; but this trick was soon detected and Jeanne had to give it all up. However, Rosalie consented to these odd hundreds being sent to the young man, who in a few days wrote to thank his mother for the money. "It was a most welcome present, mother dear," he said, "for we were reduced to utter want."
Time went on but Jeanne could not get accustomed to her new home. It seemed as if she could not breathe freely at Batteville, and she felt more alone and forsaken than ever. She would often walk as far as the village of Verneuil and come back through Trois-Mares, but as soon as she was home she started up to go out again as if she had forgotten to go to the very place to which she had meant to walk. The same thing happened time after time and she could not understand where it was she longed to go; one evening, however, she unconsciously uttered a sentence which at once revealed to her the secret of her restlessness. "Oh! how I long to see the ocean," she said as she sat down to dinner.
The sea! That was what she missed. The sea with its salt breezes, its never-ceasing roar, its tempests, its strong odors; the sea, near which she had lived for five and twenty years, which had always felt near her and which, unconsciously, she had come to love like a human being.
Massacre, too, was very uneasy. The very evening of his arrival at the new house he had installed himself under the kitchen-dresser and no one could get him to move out. There he lay all day long, never stirring, except to turn himself over with a smothered grunt, until it was dark; then he got up and dragged himself towards the garden door, grazing himself against the wall as he went. After he had stayed out of doors a few minutes he came in again and sat down before the stove which was still warm, and as soon as Jeanne and Rosalie had gone to bed he began to howl. The whole night long he howled, in a pitiful, deplorable way, sometimes ceasing for an hour only to recommence in a still more doleful tone. A barrel was put outside the house and he was tied up to it, but he howled just the same out of doors as in, and as he was old and almost dying, he was brought back to the kitchen again.
It was impossible for Jeanne to sleep, for the whole night she could hear the old dog moaning and scratching as he tried to get used to this new house which he found so different from his old home. Nothing would quiet him; his eyes were dim and it seemed as if the knowledge of his infirmity made him keep still while everyone else was awake and downstairs, and at night he wandered restlessly about until daybreak, as if he only dared to move in the darkness which makes all beings sightless for the time. It was an intense relief to everyone when one morning he was found dead.
Winter wore on, and Jeanne gave way more and more to an insuperable hopelessness; it was no longer a keen, heartrending grief that she felt, but a dull, gloomy melancholy. There was nothing to rouse her from it, no one came to see her, and the road which passed before her door was almost deserted. Sometimes a gig passed by driven by a red-faced man whose blouse, blown out by the wind, looked like a blue balloon, and sometimes a cart crawled past, or a peasant and his wife could be seen coming from the distance, growing larger and larger as they approached the house and then diminishing again when they had passed it, till they looked like two insects at the end of the long white line which stretched as far as the eye could reach, rising and falling with the undulation of the earth. When the grass again sprang up a little girl passed the gate every morning with two thin cows which browsed along the side of the road, and in the evening she returned, taking, as in the morning, one step every ten minutes as she followed the animals.
Every night Jeanne dreamt that she was again at Les Peuples. She thought she was there with her father and mother and Aunt Lison as in the old times. Again she accomplished the old, forgotten duties and supported Madame Adelaide as she walked in her avenue; and each time she awoke she burst into tears.
Paul was continually in her thoughts and she wondered what he was doing, if he were well and if he ever thought of her. She revolved all these painful thoughts in her mind as she walked along the low-lying roads between the farms, and what was more torture to her than anything else was the fierce jealousy of the woman who had deprived her of her son. It was this hatred alone which restrained her from taking any steps towards finding Paul and trying to see him. She could imagine her son's mistress confronting her at the door and asking, "What is your business here, madame?" and her self-respect would not permit her to run the risk of such an encounter. In the haughty pride of a chaste and spotless woman, who had never stooped to listen to temptation, she became still more bitter against the base and cowardly actions to which sensual love will drive a man who is not strong enough to throw off its degrading chains. The whole of humanity seemed to her unclean as she thought of the obscene secrets of the senses, of the caresses which debase as they are given and received, and of all the mysteries which surround the attraction of the sexes.
Another spring and summer passed away, and when the autumn came again with its rainy days, its dull, gray skies, its heavy clouds, Jeanne felt so weary of the life she was leading that she determined to make a supreme attempt to regain possession of her Poulet. Surely the young man's passion must have cooled by this time, and she wrote him a touching, pitiful letter:
"My Dear Child—I am coming to entreat you to return to me. Think how I am left, lonely, aged and ill, the whole year with only a servant. I am living now in a little house by the roadside and it is very miserable for me, but if you were here everything would seem different. You are all I have in the world, and I have not seen you for seven years. You will never know how unhappy I have been and how my every thought was centered in you. You were my life, my soul, my only hope, my only love, and you are away from me, you have forsaken me.
"Oh! come back, my darling Poulet, come back, and let me hold you in my arms again; come back to your old mother who so longs to see you.
A few days later came the following reply:
"My Dear Mother—I should only be too glad to come and see you, but I have not a penny; send me some money and I will come. I had myself been thinking of coming to speak to you about a plan which, if carried out, would permit me to do as you desire.
"I shall never be able to repay the disinterested affection of the woman who has shared all my troubles, but I can at least make a public recognition of her faithful love and devotion. Her behavior is all you could desire; she is well-educated and well-read and you cannot imagine what a comfort she has been to me. I should be a brute if I did not make her some recompense, and I ask your permission to marry her. Then we could all live together in your new house, and you would forgive my follies. I am convinced that you would give your consent at once, if you knew her; I assure you she is very lady-like and quiet, and I know you would like her. As for me, I could not live without her.
"I shall await your reply with every impatience, dear mother. We both send you much love.—Your son,
"Vicomte Paul de Lamare."
Jeanne was thunderstruck. As she sat with the letter on her knees, she could see so plainly through the designs of this woman who had not once let Paul return to his friends, but had always kept him at her side while she patiently waited until his mother should give in and consent to anything and everything in the irresistible desire of having her son with her again; and it was with bitter pain that she thought of how Paul obstinately persisted in preferring this creature to herself. "He does not love me, he does not love me," she murmured over and over again.
"He wants to marry her now," she said, when Rosalie came in.
The servant started.
"Oh! madame, you surely will not consent to it. M. Paul can't bring that hussy here."
All the pride in Jeanne's nature rose in revolt at the thought, and though she was bowed down with grief, she replied decidedly:
"No, Rosalie, never. But since he won't come here I will go to him, and we will see which of us two will have the greater influence over him."
She wrote to Paul at once, telling him that she was coming to Paris, and would see him anywhere but at the house where he was living with that wretch. Then while she awaited his reply, she began to make all her preparations for the journey, and Rosalie commenced to pack her mistress's linen and clothes in an old trunk.
"You haven't a single thing to put on," exclaimed the servant, as she was folding up an old, badly-made dress. "I won't have you go with such clothes; you'd be a disgrace to everyone, and the Paris ladies would think you were a servant."
Jeanne let her have her own way, and they both went to Goderville and chose some green, checked stuff, which they left with the dressmaker to be made up. Then they went to see Me. Roussel the lawyer, who went to Paris for a fortnight every year, to obtain a few directions, for it was twenty-eight years since Jeanne had been to the capital. He gave them a great deal of advice about crossing the roads and the way to avoid being robbed, saying that the safest plan was to carry only just as much money as was necessary in the pockets and to sew the rest in the lining of the dress; then he talked for a long time about the restaurants where the charges were moderate, and mentioned two or three to which ladies could go, and he recommended Jeanne to stay at the Hotel de Normandie, which was near the railway station. He always stayed there himself, and she could say he had sent her. There had been a railway between Paris and Havre for the last six years, but Jeanne had never seen one of these steam-engines of which everyone was talking, and which were revolutionizing the whole country.
The day passed on, but still there came no answer from Paul. Every morning, for a fortnight, Jeanne had gone along the road to meet the postman, and had asked, in a voice which she could not keep steady:
"You have nothing for me to-day, Pere Malandain?" And the answer was always the same: "No nothing yet, ma bonne dame."
Fully persuaded that it was that woman who was preventing Paul from answering, Jeanne determined not to wait any longer, but to start at once. She wanted to take Rosalie with her, but the maid would not go because of increasing the expense of the journey, and she only allowed her mistress to take three hundred francs with her.
"If you want any more money," she said, "write to me, and I'll tell the lawyer to forward you some; but if I give you any more now, Monsieur Paul will have it all."
Then one December morning, Denis Lecoq's gig came to take them both to the railway station, for Rosalie was going to accompany her mistress as far as that. When they reached the station, they found out first how much the tickets were, then, when the trunk had been labeled and the ticket bought, they stood watching the rails, both too much occupied in wondering what the train would be like to think of the sad cause of this journey. At last a distant whistle made them look round, and they saw a large, black machine approaching, which came up with a terrible noise, dragging after it a long chain of little rolling houses. A porter opened the door of one of these little huts, and Jeanne kissed Rosalie and got in.
"Au revoir, madame. I hope you will have a pleasant journey, and will soon be back again."
"Au revoir, Rosalie."
There was another whistle, and the string of carriages moved slowly off, gradually going faster and faster, till they reached a terrific speed. In Jeanne's compartment there were only two other passengers, who were both asleep, and she sat and watched the fields and farms and villages rush past. She was frightened at the speed at which she was going, and the feeling came over her that she was entering a new phase of life, and was being hurried towards a very different world from that in which she had spent her peaceful girlhood and her monotonous life.
It was evening when she reached Paris. A porter took her trunk, and she followed closely at his heels, sometimes almost running for fear of losing sight of him, and feeling frightened as she was pushed about by the swaying crowd through which she did not know how to pass.
"I was recommended here by Me. Roussel," she hastened to say when she was in the hotel office.
The landlady, a big, stolid-looking woman, was sitting at the desk.
"Who is Me. Roussel?" she asked.
"The lawyer from Goderville, who stays here every year," replied Jeanne, in surprise.
"Very likely he does," responded the big woman, "but I don't know him. Do you want a room?"
A waiter shouldered the luggage and led the way upstairs.
Jeanne followed, feeling very low-spirited and depressed, and sitting down at a little table, she ordered some soup and the wing of a chicken to be sent up to her, for she had had nothing to eat since day-break. She thought of how she had passed through this same town on her return from her wedding tour, as she ate her supper by the miserable light of one candle, and of how Julien had then first shown himself in his true character. But then she was young and brave and hopeful; now she felt old and timid; and the least thing worried and frightened her.
When she had finished her supper, she went to the window and watched the crowded street. She would have liked to go out if she had dared, but she thought she should be sure to lose herself, so she went to bed. But she had hardly yet got over the bustle of the journey, and that, and the noise and the sensation of being in a strange place, kept her awake. The hours passed on, and the noises outside gradually ceased, but still she could not sleep, for she was accustomed to the sound, peaceful sleep of the country, which is so different from the semi-repose of a great city. Here she was conscious of a sort of restlessness all around her; the murmur of voices reached her ears, and every now and then a board creaked, a door shut, or a bell rang. She was just dozing off, about two o'clock in the morning, when a woman suddenly began to scream in a neighboring room. Jeanne started up in bed, and next she thought she heard a man laughing. As dawn approached she became more and more anxious to see Paul, and as soon as it was light, she got up and dressed.
He lived in the Rue du Sauvage, and she meant to follow Rosalie's advice about spending as little as possible, and walk there. It was a fine day, though the wind was keen, and there were a great many people hurrying along the pavements. Jeanne walked along the street as quickly as she could. When she reached the other end, she was to turn to the right, then to the left; then she would come to a square, where she was to ask again. She could not find the square, and a baker from whom she inquired the way gave her different directions altogether. She started on again, missed the way, wandered about, and in trying to follow other directions, lost herself entirely. She walked on and on, and was just going to hail a cab when she saw the Seine. Then she decided to walk along the quays, and in about an hour she reached the dark, dirty lane called Rue du Sauvage.
When she came to the number she was seeking, she was so excited that she stood before the door unable to move another step. Poulet was there, in that house! Her hands and knees trembled violently, and it was some moments before she could enter and walk along the passage to the doorkeeper's box.
"Will you go and tell M. Paul de Lamare that an old lady friend of his mother's, is waiting to see him?" she said, slipping a piece of money into the man's hand.
"He does not live here now, madame," answered the doorkeeper.
"Ah! Where—where is he living now?" she gasped.
"I do not know."
She felt stunned, and it was some time before she could speak again.
"When did he leave?" she asked at last, controlling herself by a violent effort.
The man was quite ready to tell her all he knew.
"About a fortnight ago," he replied. "They just walked out of the house one evening and didn't come back. They owed all over the neighborhood, so you may guess they didn't leave any address."
Tongues of flame were dancing before Jeanne's eyes, as if a gun were being fired off close to her face; but she wanted to find Poulet, and that kept her up and made her stand opposite the doorkeeper, as if she were calmly thinking.
"Then he did not say anything when he left?"
"No, nothing at all; they went away to get out of paying their debts."
"But he will have to send for his letters."
"He'll send a good many times before he gets them, then; besides, they didn't have ten in a twelvemonth, though I took them up one two days before they left."
That must have been the one she sent.
"Listen," she said, hastily. "I am his mother, and I have come to look for him. Here are ten francs for yourself. If you hear anything from or about him, let me know at once at the Hotel de Normandie, Rue du Havre, and you shall be well paid for your trouble."
"You may depend upon me, madame," answered the doorkeeper; and Jeanne went away.
She hastened along the streets as if she were bent on an important mission, but she was not looking or caring whither she was going. She walked close to the walls, pushed and buffeted by errand boys and porters; crossed the roads, regardless of the vehicles and the shouts of the drivers; stumbled against the curbstones, which she did not see; and hurried on and on, unconscious of everything and everyone. At last she found herself in some gardens, and, feeling too weary to walk any further, she dropped on a seat. She sat there a long while, apparently unaware that the tears were running down her cheeks, and that passersby stopped to look at her. At last the bitter cold made her rise to go, but her legs would hardly carry her, so weak and exhausted was she. She would have liked some soup, but she dared not go into a restaurant, for she knew people could see she was in trouble, and it made her feel timid and ashamed. When she passed an eating-place she would stop a moment at the door, look inside, and see all the people sitting at the tables eating, and then go on again, saying to herself: "I will go into the next one"; but when she came to the next her courage always failed her again. In the end she went into a baker's shop, and bought a little crescent-shaped roll, which she ate as she went along. She was very thirsty, but she did not know where to go to get anything to drink, so she went without.
She passed under an arch, and found herself in some more gardens with arcades running all round them, and she recognized the Palais Royal. Her walk in the sun had made her warm again, so she sat down for another hour or two. A crowd of people flowed into the gardens—an elegant crowd composed of beautiful women and wealthy men, who only lived for dress and pleasure, and who chatted and smiled and bowed as they sauntered along. Feeling ill at ease amidst this brilliant throng, Jeanne rose to go away; but suddenly the thought struck her that perhaps she might meet Paul here, and she began to walk from end to end of the gardens, with hasty, furtive steps, carefully scanning every face she met.
Soon she saw that people turned to look and laugh at her, and she hurried away, thinking it was her odd appearance and her green-checked dress, which Rosalie had chosen and had made up, that attracted everyone's attention and smiles. She hardly dared ask her way, but she did at last venture, and when she had reached her hotel, she passed the rest of the day sitting on a chair at the foot of the bed. In the evening she dined off some soup and a little meat, like the day before, and then undressed and went to bed, performing all the duties of her toilet quite mechanically, from sheer habit.
The next morning she went to the police office to see if she could get any help there towards the discovery of her son's whereabouts. They told her they could not promise her anything, but that they would attend to the matter. After she had left the police office, she wandered about the streets, in the hopes of meeting her child, and she felt more friendless and forsaken among the busy crowds than she did in the midst of the lovely fields.
When she returned to the hotel in the evening, she was told that a man from M. Paul had asked for her, and was coming again the next day. All the blood in her body seemed to suddenly rush to her heart and she could not close her eyes all night. Perhaps it was Paul himself! Yes, it must be so, although his appearance did not tally with the description the hotel people had given of the man who had called, and when, about nine o'clock in the morning, there came a knock at her door, she cried, "Come in!" expecting her son to rush into her arms held open to receive him.
But it was a stranger who entered—a stranger who began to apologize for disturbing her and to explain that he had come about some money Paul owed him. As he spoke she felt herself beginning to cry, and she tried to hide her tears from the man by wiping them away with the end of her finger as soon as they reached the corners of her eyes. The man had heard of her arrival from the concierge at the Rue du Sauvage, and as he could not find Paul he had come to his mother. He held out a paper which Jeanne mechanically took; she saw "90 francs" written on it, and she drew out the money and paid the man. She did not go out at all that day, and the next morning more creditors appeared. She gave them all the money she had left, except twenty francs, and wrote and told Rosalie how she was placed.
Until her servant's answer came she passed the days in wandering aimlessly about the streets. She did not know what to do or how to kill the long, miserable hours; there was no one who knew of her troubles, or to whom she could go for sympathy, and her one desire was to get away from this city and to return to her little house beside the lonely road, where, a few days before, she had felt she could not bear to live because it was so dull and lonely. Now she was sure she could live nowhere else but in that little home where all her mournful habits had taken root.
At last, one evening, she found a letter from Rosalie awaiting her with two hundred francs enclosed.
"Come back as soon as possible, Madame Jeanne," wrote the maid, "for I shall send you nothing more. As for M. Paul, I will go and fetch him myself the next time we hear anything from him.—With best respects, your servant,
And Jeanne started back to Batteville one bitterly cold, snowy morning.
* * * * *
After her return from Paris, Jeanne would not go out or take any interest in anything. She rose at the same hour every morning, looked out of the window to see what sort of day it was, then went downstairs and sat before the fire in the dining-room. She stayed there the whole day, sitting perfectly still with her eyes fixed on the flames while she thought of all the sorrows she had passed through. The little room grew darker and darker, but she never moved, except to put more wood on the fire, and when Rosalie brought in the lamp she cried:
"Come, Madame Jeanne, you must stir about a bit, or you won't be able to eat any dinner again this evening."
Often she was worried by thoughts which she could not dismiss from her mind, and she allowed herself to be tormented by the veriest trifles, for the most insignificant matters appeared of the greatest importance to her diseased mind. She lived in the memories of the past, and she would think for hours together of her girlhood and her wedding tour in Corsica. The wild scenery that she had long forgotten suddenly appeared before her in the fire, and she could recall every detail, every event, every face connected with the island. She could always see the features of Jean Ravoli, the guide, and sometimes she fancied she could even hear his voice.
At other times she thought of the peaceful years of Paul's childhood—of how he used to make her tend the salad plants, and of how she and Aunt Lison used to kneel on the ground, each trying to outdo the other in giving pleasure to the boy, and in rearing the greater number of plants.
Her lips would form the words, "Poulet, my little Poulet," as if she were talking to him, and she would cease to muse, and try for hours to write in the air the letters which formed her son's name, with her outstretched finger. Slowly she traced them before the fire, fancying she could see them, and, thinking she had made a mistake, she began the word over and over again, forcing herself to write the whole name though her arm trembled with fatigue. At last she would become so nervous that she mixed up the letters, and formed other words, and had to give it up.
She had all the manias and fancies which beset those who lead a solitary life, and it irritated her to the last degree to see the slightest change in the arrangement of the furniture. Rosalie often made her go out with her along the road, but after twenty minutes or so Jeanne would say: "I cannot walk any further, Rosalie," and would sit down by the roadside. Soon movement of any kind became distasteful to her, and she stayed in bed as late as she could. Ever since a child she had always been in the habit of jumping out of bed as soon as she had drunk her cafe au lait. She was particularly fond of her morning coffee, and she would have missed it more than anything. She always waited for Rosalie to bring it with an impatience that had a touch of sensuality in it, and as soon as the cup was placed on the bedside table she sat up, and emptied it, somewhat greedily. Then she at once drew back the bedclothes and began to dress. But gradually she fell into the habit of dreaming for a few moments after she had placed the empty cup back in the saucer, and from that she soon began to lie down again, and at last she stayed in bed every day until Rosalie came back in a temper and dressed her almost by force.
She had no longer the slightest will of her own. Whenever her servant asked her advice, or put any question to her, or wanted to know her opinion, she always answered: "Do as you like, Rosalie." So firmly did she believe herself pursued by a persistent ill luck that she became as great a fatalist as an Oriental, and she was so accustomed to seeing her dreams unfulfilled, and her hopes disappointed, that she did not dare undertake anything fresh, and hesitated for days before she commenced the simplest task, so persuaded was she that whatever she touched would be sure to go wrong.
"I don't think anyone could have had more misfortune than I have had all my life," she was always saying.
"How would it be if you had to work for your bread, and if you were obliged to get up every morning at six o'clock to go and do a hard day's work?" Rosalie would exclaim. "That's what a great many people have to do, and then when they get too old to work, they die of want."
"But my son has forsaken me, and I am all alone," Jeanne would reply.
That enraged Rosalie.
"And what if he has? How about those whose children enlist, or settle in America?" (America, in her eyes, was a shadowy country whither people went to make their fortune, and whence they never returned). "Children always leave their parents sooner or later; old and young people aren't meant to stay together. And then, what if he were dead?" she would finish up with savagely, and her mistress could say nothing after that.
Jeanne got a little stronger when the first warm days of spring came, but she only took advantage of her better health to bury herself still deeper in her gloomy thoughts.
She went up to the garret one morning to look for something, and, while she was there, happened to open a box full of old almanacs. It seemed as if she had found the past years themselves, and she was filled with emotion as she looked at the pile of cards. They were of all sizes, big and little, and she took them every one down to the dining-room and began to lay them out on the table in the right order of years. Suddenly she picked up the very first one—the one she had taken with her from the convent to Les Peuples. For a long time she gazed at it with its dates which she had crossed out the day she had left Rouen, and she began to shed slow, bitter tears—the weak, pitiful tears of an aged woman—as she looked at these cards spread out before her on the table, and which represented all her wretched life.
Then the thought struck her that by means of these almanacs she could recall all that she had ever done, and giving way to the idea, she at once devoted herself to the task of retracing the past. She pinned all the cards, which had grown yellow with age, up on the tapestry, and then passed hours before one or other of them, thinking, "What did I do in that month?"
She had put a mark beside all the important dates in her life, and sometimes, by means of linking together and adding one to the other, all the little circumstances which had preceded and followed a great event, she succeeded in remembering a whole month. By dint of concentrated attention, and efforts of will and of memory, she retraced nearly the whole of her first two years at Les Peuples, recalling without much difficulty this far-away period of her life, for it seemed to stand out in relief. But the following years were shrouded in a sort of mist and seemed to run one into the other, and sometimes she pored over an almanac for hours without being able to remember whether it was even in that year that such and such a thing had happened. She would go slowly round the dining-room looking at these images of past years, which, to her, were as pictures of an ascent to Calvary, until one of them arrested her attention and then she would sit gazing at it all the rest of the day, absorbed in her recollections.
Soon the sap began to rise in the trees; the seeds were springing up, the leaves were budding and the air was filled with the faint, sweet smell of the apple blossoms which made the orchards a glowing mass of pink. As summer approached Jeanne became very restless. She could not keep still; she went in and out twenty times a day, and, as she rambled along past the farms, she worked herself into a perfect state of fever.
A daisy half hidden in the grass, a sunbeam falling through the leaves, or the reflection of the sky in a splash of water in a rut was enough to agitate and affect her, for their sight brought back a kind of echo of the emotions she had felt when, as a young girl, she had wandered dreamily through the fields; and though now there was nothing to which she could look forward, the soft yet exhilarating air sent the same thrill through her as when all her life had lain before her. But this pleasure was not unalloyed with pain, and it seemed as if the universal joy of the awakening world could now only impart a delight which was half sorrow to her grief-crushed soul and withered heart. Everything around her seemed to have changed. Surely the sun was hardly so warm as in her youth, the sky so deep a blue, the grass so fresh a green, and the flowers, paler and less sweet, could no longer arouse within her the exquisite ecstasies of delight as of old. Still she could enjoy the beauty around her, so much that sometimes she found herself dreaming and hoping again; for, however cruel Fate may be, is it possible to give way to utter despair when the sun shines and the sky is blue?
She went for long walks, urged on and on by her inward excitement, and sometimes she would suddenly stop and sit down by the roadside to think of her troubles. Why had she not been loved like other women? Why had even the simple pleasure of an uneventful existence been refused her?
Sometimes, again forgetting for a moment that she was old, that there was no longer any pleasure in store for her, and that, with the exception of a few more lonely years, her life was over and done, she would build all sorts of castles in the air and make plans for such a happy future, just as she had done when she was sixteen. Then suddenly remembering the bitter reality she would get up again, feeling as if a heavy load had fallen upon her, and return home, murmuring:
"Oh, you old fool! You old fool!"
Now Rosalie was always saying to her:
"Do keep still, madame. What on earth makes you want to run about so?"
"I can't help it," Jeanne would reply sadly. "I am like Massacre was before he died."
One morning Rosalie went into her mistress's room earlier than usual.
"Make haste and drink up your coffee," she said as she placed the cup on the table. "Denis is waiting to take us to Les Peuples. I have to go over there on business."
Jeanne was so excited that she thought she would have fainted, and, as she dressed herself with trembling fingers, she could hardly believe she was going to see her dear home once more.
Overhead was a bright, blue sky, and, as they went along, Denis's pony would every now and then break into a gallop. When they reached Etouvent, Jeanne could hardly breathe, her heart beat so quickly, and when she saw the brick pillars beside the chateau gate, she exclaimed, "Oh," two or three times in a low voice, as if she were in the presence of something which stirred her very soul, and she could not help herself.
They put up the horse at the Couillards' farm, and, when Rosalie and her son went to attend to their business, the farmer asked Jeanne if she would like to go over the chateau, as the owner was away, and gave her the key.
She went off alone, and when she found herself opposite the old manor she stood still to look at it. The outside had not been touched since she had left. All the shutters were closed, and the sunbeams were dancing on the gray walls of the big, weather-beaten building. A little piece of wood fell on her dress, she looked up and saw that it had fallen from the plane tree, and she went up to the big tree and stroked its pale, smooth bark as if it had been alive. Her foot touched a piece of rotten wood lying in the grass; it was the last fragment of the seat on which she had so often sat with her loved ones—the seat which had been put up the very day of Julien's first visit to the chateau.
Then she went to the hall-door. She had some difficulty in opening it as the key was rusty and would not turn, but at last the lock gave way, and the door itself only required a slight push before it swung back. The first thing Jeanne did was to run up to her own room. It had been hung with a light paper and she hardly knew it again, but when she opened one of the windows and looked out, she was moved almost to tears as she saw again the scene she loved so well—the thicket, the elms, the common, and the sea covered with brown sails which, at this distance, looked as if they were motionless.
Then she went all over the big, empty house. She stopped to look at a little hole in the plaster which the baron had made with his cane, for he used to make a few thrusts at the wall whenever he passed this spot, in memory of the fencing bouts he had had in his youth. In her mother's bedroom she found a small gold-headed pin stuck in the wall behind the door, in a dark corner near the bed. She had stuck it there a long while ago (she remembered it now), and had looked everywhere for it since, but it had never been found; and she kissed it and took it with her as a priceless relic.
She went into every room, recognizing the almost invisible spots and marks on the hangings which had not been changed and again noting the odd forms and faces which the imagination so often traces in the designs of the furniture coverings, the carvings of mantelpieces and the shadows on soiled ceilings. She walked through the vast, silent chateau as noiselessly as if she were in a cemetery; all her life was interred there.
She went down to the drawing-room. The closed shutters made it very dark, and it was a few moments before she could distinguish anything; then, as her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she gradually made out the tapestry with the big, white birds on it. Two armchairs stood before the fireplace, looking as if they had just been vacated, and the very smell of the room—a smell that had always been peculiar to it, as each human being has his, a smell which could be perceived at once, and yet was vague like all the faint perfumes of old rooms—brought the memories crowding to Jeanne's mind.
Her breath came quickly as she stood with her eyes fixed on the two chairs, inhaling this perfume of the past; and, all at once, in a sudden hallucination occasioned by her thoughts, she fancied she saw—she did see—her father and mother with their feet on the fender as she had so often seen them before. She drew back in terror, stumbling against the door-frame, and clung to it for support, still keeping her eyes fixed on the armchairs. The vision disappeared and for some minutes she stood horror-stricken; then she slowly regained possession of herself and turned to fly, afraid that she was going mad. Her eyes fell on the wainscoting against which she was leaning and she saw Poulet's ladder. There were all the faint marks traced on the wall at unequal intervals and the figures which had been cut with a penknife to indicate the month, and the child's age and growth. In some places there was the baron's big writing, in others her own, in others again Aunt Lison's, which was a little shaky. She could see the boy standing there now, with his fair hair, and his little forehead pressed against the wall to have his height measured, while the baron exclaimed: "Jeanne, he has grown half an inch in six weeks," and she began to kiss the wainscoting in a frenzy of love for the very wood.
Then she heard Rosalie's voice outside, calling: "Madame Jeanne! Madame Jeanne! lunch is waiting," and she went out with her head in a whirl. She felt unable to understand anything that was said to her. She ate what was placed before her, listened to what was being said without realizing the sense of the words, answered the farmers' wives when they inquired after her health, passively received their kisses and kissed the cheeks which were offered to her, and then got into the chaise again.
When she could no longer see the high roof of the chateau through the trees, something within her seemed to break, and she felt that she had just said good-bye to her old home for ever.
They went straight back to Batteville, and as she was going indoors Jeanne saw something white under the door; it was a letter which the postman had slipped there during their absence. She at once recognized Paul's handwriting and tore open the envelope in an agony of anxiety. He wrote:
"My Dear Mother: I have not written before because I did not want to bring you to Paris on a fruitless errand, for I have always been meaning to come and see you myself. At the present moment I am in great trouble and difficulty. My wife gave birth to a little girl three days ago, and now she is dying and I have not a penny. I do not know what to do with the child; the doorkeeper is trying to nourish it with a feeding-bottle as best she can, but I fear I shall lose it. Could not you take it? I cannot send it to a wet nurse as I have not any money, and I do not know which way to turn. Pray answer by return post.
"Your loving son,
Jeanne dropped on a chair with hardly enough strength left to call Rosalie. The maid came and they read the letter over again together, and then sat looking at each other in silence.
"I'll go and fetch the child myself, madame," said Rosalie at last. "We can't leave it to die."
"Very well, my girl, go," answered Jeanne.
"Put on your hat, madame," said the maid, after a pause, "and we will go and see the lawyer at Goderville. If that woman is going to die, M. Paul must marry her for the sake of the child."
Jeanne put on her hat without a word. Her heart was overflowing with joy, but she would not have allowed anyone to see it for the world, for it was one of those detestable joys in which people can revel in their hearts, but of which they are all the same ashamed; her son's mistress was going to die.
The lawyer gave Rosalie detailed instructions which the servant made him repeat two or three times; then, when she was sure she knew exactly what to do, she said:
"Don't you fear; I'll see it's all right now." And she started for Paris that very night.
Jeanne passed two days in such an agony of mind that she could fix her thoughts on nothing. The third morning she received a line from Rosalie merely saying she was coming back by that evening's train; nothing more; and in the afternoon, about three o'clock, Jeanne sent round to a neighbor to ask him if he would drive her to the Beuzeville railway station to meet her servant.
She stood on the platform looking down the rails (which seemed to get closer together right away as far off as she could see), and turning every now and then to look at the clock. Ten minutes more—five minutes—two—and at last the train was due, though as yet she could see no signs of it. Then, all at once, she saw a cloud of white smoke, and underneath it a black speck which got rapidly larger and larger. The big engine came into the station, snorting and slackening its speed, and Jeanne looked eagerly into every window as the carriages went past her.
The doors opened and several people got out—peasants in blouses, farmers' wives with baskets on their arms, a few bourgeois in soft hats—and at last Rosalie appeared, carrying what looked like a bundle of linen in her arms. Jeanne would have stepped forward to meet her, but all strength seemed to have left her legs and she feared she would fall if she moved. The maid saw her and came up in her ordinary, calm way.
"Good-day, madame; here I am again, though I've had some bother to get along."
"Well?" gasped Jeanne.
"Well," answered Rosalie, "she died last night. They were married and here's the baby," and she held out the child which could not be seen for its wraps. Jeanne mechanically took it, and they left the station and got into the carriage which was waiting.
"M. Paul is coming directly after the funeral. I suppose he'll be here to-morrow, by this train."
"Paul—" murmured Jeanne, and then stopped without saying anything more.
The sun was sinking towards the horizon, bathing in a glow of light the green fields which were flecked here and there with golden colewort flowers or blood-red poppies, and over the quiet country fell an infinite peace.
The peasant who was driving the chaise kept clicking his tongue to urge on his horse which trotted swiftly along, and Jeanne looked straight up into the sky which the circling flight of the swallows seemed to cut asunder.
All at once she became conscious of a soft warmth which was making itself felt through her skirts; it was the heat from the tiny being sleeping on her knees, and it moved her strangely. She suddenly drew back the covering from the child she had not yet seen, that she might look at her son's daughter; as the light fell on its face the little creature opened its blue eyes, and moved its lips, and then Jeanne hugged it closely to her, and, raising it in her arms, began to cover it with passionate kisses.
"Come, come, Madame Jeanne, have done," said Rosalie, in sharp, though good-tempered tones; "you'll make the child cry."
Then she added, as if in reply to her own thoughts:
"After all, life is never so jolly or so miserable as people seem to think."
* * * * *
In front of the building, half farm-house, half manor-house, one of those rural habitations of a mixed character which were all but seigneurial, and which are at the present time occupied by large cultivators, the dogs lashed beside the apple-trees in the orchard near the house, kept barking and howling at the sight of the shooting-bags carried by the gamekeepers and the boys. In the spacious dining-room kitchen, Hautot Senior and Hautot Junior, M. Bermont, the tax-collector, and M. Mondaru, the notary were taking a pick and drinking a glass before going out to shoot, for it was the opening day.
Hautot Senior, proud of all his possessions, talked boastfully beforehand of the game which his guests were going to find on his lands. He was a big Norman, one of those powerful, sanguineous, bony men, who lift wagon-loads of apples on their shoulders. Half-peasant, half-gentleman, rich, respected, influential, invested with authority he made his son Cesar go as far as the third form at school, so that he might be an educated man, and there he had brought his studies to a stop for fear of his becoming a fine gentleman and paying no attention to the land.
Cesar Hautot, almost as tall as his father, but thinner, was a good son, docile, content with everything, full of admiration, respect, and deference, for the wishes and opinions of his sire.
M. Bermont, the tax-collector, a stout little man, who showed on his red cheeks a thin network of violet veins resembling the tributaries and the winding courses of rivers on maps, asked:
"And hares—are there any hares on it?"
Hautot Senior answered:
"As much as you like, especially in the Puysatier lands."
"Which direction are we to begin at?" asked the notary, a jolly notary fat and pale, big paunched too, and strapped up in an entirely new hunting-costume bought at Rouen.
"Well, that way, through these grounds. We will drive the partridges into the plain, and we will beat there again."
And Hautot Senior rose up. They all followed his example, took their guns out of the corners, examined the locks, stamped with their feet in order to feel themselves firmer in their boots which were rather hard, not having as yet been rendered flexible by the heat of the blood. Then they went out; and the dogs, standing erect at the ends of their lashes, gave vent to piercing howls while beating the air with their paws.
They set forth for the lands referred to. They consisted of a little glen, or rather a long undulating stretch of inferior soil, which had on that account remained uncultivated, furrowed with mountain-torrents, covered with ferns, an excellent preserve for game.
The sportsmen took up their positions at some distance from each other, Hautot Senior posting himself at the right, Hautot Junior at the left, and the two guests in the middle. The keeper and those who carried the game-bags followed. It was the solemn moment when the first shot it awaited, when the heart beats a little, while the nervous finger keeps feeling at the gun-lock every second.
Suddenly the shot went off. Hautot Senior had fired. They all stopped, and saw a partridge breaking off from a covey which was rushing along at a single flight to fall down into a ravine under a thick growth of brushwood. The sportsman, becoming excited, rushed forward with rapid strides, thrusting aside the briers which stood in his path, and he disappeared in his turn into the thicket, in quest of his game.
Almost at the same instant, a second shot was heard.
"Ha! ha! the rascal!" exclaimed M. Bermont, "he will unearth a hare down there."
They all waited, with their eyes riveted on the heap of branches through which their gaze failed to penetrate.
The notary, making a speaking-trumpet of his hands, shouted:
"Have you got them?"
Hautot Senior made no response.
Then Cesar, turning towards the keeper, said to him:
"Just go, and assist him, Joseph. We must keep walking in a straight line. We'll wait."
And Joseph, an old stump of a man, lean and knotty, all whose joints formed protuberances, proceeded at an easy pace down the ravine, searching at every opening through which a passage could be effected with the cautiousness of a fox. Then, suddenly, he cried:
"Oh! come! come! an unfortunate thing has occurred."
They all hurried forward, plunging through the briers.
The elder Hautot, who had fallen on his side, in a fainting condition, kept both his hands over his stomach, from which flowed down upon the grass through the linen vest torn by the lead, long streamlets of blood. As he was laying down his gun, in order to seize the partridge, within reach of him, he had let the firearm fall, and the second discharge going off with the shock, had torn open his entrails. They drew him out of the trench; they removed his clothes, and they saw a frightful wound, through which the intestines came out. Then, after having bandaged him the best way they could, they brought him back to his own house, and they awaited the doctor, who had been sent for, as well as a priest.
When the doctor arrived, he gravely shook his head, and, turning towards young Hautot, who was sobbing on a chair:
"My poor boy," said he, "this has not a good look."
But, when the dressing was finished, the wounded man moved his fingers, opened his mouth, then his eyes, cast around his troubled, haggard glances, then appeared to search about in his memory, to recollect, to understand, and he murmured:
"Ah! good God! this has done for me!"
The doctor held his hand.
"Why no, why no, some days of rest merely—it will be nothing."
"It has done for me! My stomach is split! I know it well."
Then, all of a sudden:
"I want to talk to the son, if I have the time."
Hautot Junior, in spite of himself, shed tears, and kept repeating like a little boy.
"P'pa, p'pa, poor p'ps!"
But the father, in a firmer tone:
"Come! stop crying—this is not the time for it. I have to talk to you. Sit down there quite close to me. It will be quickly done, and I will be more calm. As for the rest of you, kindly give me one minute."
They all went out, leaving the father and son face to face.
As soon as they were alone:
"Listen, son! you are twenty-four years; one can say things like this to you. And then there is not such mystery about these matters as we import into them. You know well that your mother is seven years dead, isn't that so? and that I am not more than forty-five years myself, seeing that I got married at nineteen. Is not that true?"
The son faltered:
"Yes, it is true."
"So then your mother is seven years dead, and I have remained a widower. Well! a man like me cannot remain without a wife at thirty-seven isn't that true?"
The son replied:
"Yes, it is true."
The father, out of breath, quite pale, and his face contracted with suffering, went on:
"God! what pain I feel! Well, you understand. Man is not made to live alone, but I did not want to take a successor to your mother, since I promised her not to do so. Then—you understand?"
"So, I kept a young girl at Rouen, Reu de l'Eperlan 18, in the third story, the second door—I tell you all this, don't forget—but a young girl, who has been very nice to me, loving, devoted, a true woman, eh? You comprehend, my lad?"
"So then, if I am carried off, I owe something to her, but something substantial, that will place her in a safe position. You understand?"
"I tell you that she is an honest girl, and that, but for you, and the remembrance of your mother, and again but for the house in which we three lived, I would have brought her here, and then married her, for certain—listen—listen, my lad. I might have made a will—I haven't done so. I did not wish to do so—for it is not necessary to write down things—things of this sort—it is too hurtful to the legitimate children—and then it embroils everything—it ruins everyone! Look you, the stamped paper, there's no need of it—never make use of it. If I am rich, it is because I have not made use of what I have during my own life. You understand, my son?"
"Listen again—listen well to me! So then, I have made no will—I did not desire to do so—and then I knew what you were; you have a good heart; you are not niggardly, not too near, in any way, I said to myself that when my end approached I would tell you all about it, and that I would beg of you not to forget the girl. And then listen again! When I am gone, make your way to the place at once—and make such arrangements that she may not blame my memory. You have plenty of means. I leave it to you—I leave you enough. Listen! You won't find her at home every day in the week. She works at Madame Moreau's in the Rue Beauvoisine. Go there on a Thursday. That is the day she expects me. It has been my day for the past six years. Poor little thing! she will weep!—I say all this to you, because I have known you so well, my son. One does not tell these things in public either to the notary or to the priest. They happen—everyone knows that—but they are not talked about, save in case of necessity. Then there is no outsider in the secret, nobody except the family, because the family consists of one person alone. You understand?"
"Do you promise?"
"Do you swear it?"
"I beg of you, I implore of you, son do not forget. I bind you to it."
"You will go yourself. I want you to make sure of everything."
"And, then, you will see—you will see what she will explain to you. As for me, I can say no more to you. You have vowed to do it."
"That's good, my son. Embrace me. Farewell. I am going to break up, I'm sure. Tell them they may come in."
Young Hautot embraced his father, groaning while he did so; then, always docile, he opened the door, and the priest appeared in a white surplice, carrying the holy oils.
But the dying man had closed his eyes, and he refused to open them again, he refused to answer, he refused to show, even by a sign, that he understood.
He had spoken enough, this man; he could speak no more. Besides he now felt his heart calm; he wanted to die in peace. What need had he to make a confession to the deputy of God, since he had just done so to his son, who constituted his own family?
He received the last rites, was purified and absolved, in the midst of his friends and his servants on their bended knees, without any movement of his face indicating that he still lived.
He expired about midnight, after four hours' convulsive movements, which showed that he must have suffered dreadfully in his last moments.
* * * * *
It was on the following Tuesday that they buried him, the shooting opened on Sunday. On his return home, after having accompanied his father to the cemetery, Cesar Hautot spent the rest of the day weeping. He scarcely slept at all on the following night, and he felt so sad on awakening that he asked himself how he could go on living.