Then she was lying in bed in a small room, obscure because it was heavily curtained; the light came through the inner pair of curtains of ecru lace, with a beautiful soft silvery quality. A man was standing by the side of the bed — not Chirac.
“Now, madame,” he said to her, with kind firmness, and speaking with a charming exaggerated purity of the vowels. “You have the mucous fever. I have had it myself. You will be forced to take baths, very frequently. I must ask you to reconcile yourself to that, to be good.”
She did not reply. It did not occur to her to reply. But she certainly thought that this doctor — he was probably a doctor — was overestimating her case. She felt better than she had felt for two days. Still, she did not desire to move, nor was she in the least anxious as to her surroundings. She lay quiet.
A woman in a rather coquettish deshabille watched over her with expert skill.
Later, Sophia seemed to be revisiting the sea on whose waves the cab had swum; but now she was under the sea, in a watery gulf, terribly deep; and the sounds of the world came to her through the water, sudden and strange. Hands seized her and forced her from the subaqueous grotto where she had hidden into new alarms. And she briefly perceived that there was a large bath by the side of the bed, and that she was being pushed into it. The water was icy cold. After that her outlook upon things was for a time clearer and more precise. She knew from fragments of talk which she heard that she was put into the cold bath by her bed every three hours, night and day, and that she remained in it for ten minutes. Always, before the bath, she had to drink a glass of wine, and sometimes another glass while she was in the bath. Beyond this wine, and occasionally a cup of soup, she took nothing, had no wish to take anything. She grew perfectly accustomed to these extraordinary habits of life, to this merging of night and day into one monotonous and endless repetition of the same rite amid the same circumstances on exactly the same spot. Then followed a period during which she objected to being constantly wakened up for this annoying immersion. And she fought against it even in her dreams. Long days seemed to pass when she could not be sure whether she had been put into the bath or not, when all external phenomena were disconcertingly interwoven with matters which she knew to be merely fanciful. And then she was overwhelmed by the hopeless gravity of her state. She felt that her state was desperate. She felt that she was dying. Her unhappiness was extreme, not because she was dying, but because the veils of sense were so puzzling, so exasperating, and because her exhausted body was so vitiated, in every fibre, by disease. She was perfectly aware that she was going to die. She cried aloud for a pair of scissors. She wanted to cut off her hair, and to send part of it to Constance and part of it to her mother, in separate packages. She insisted upon separate packages. Nobody would give her a pair of scissors. She implored, meekly, haughtily, furiously, but nobody would satisfy her. It seemed to her shocking that all her hair should go with her into her coffin while Constance and her mother had nothing by which to remember her, no tangible souvenir of her beauty. Then she fought for the scissors. She clutched at some one — always through those baffling veils — who was putting her into the bath by the bedside, and fought frantically. It appeared to her that this some one was the rather stout woman who had supped at Sylvain’s with the quarrelsome Englishman, four years ago. She could not rid herself of this singular conceit, though she knew it to be absurd. . . .
A long time afterwards — it seemed like a century — she did actually and unmistakably see the woman sitting by her bed, and the woman was crying.
“Why are you crying?” Sophia asked wonderingly.
And the other, younger, woman, who was standing at the foot of the bed, replied:
“You do well to ask! It is you who have hurt her, in your delirium, when you so madly demanded the scissors.”
The stout woman smiled with the tears on her cheeks; but Sophia wept, from remorse. The stout woman looked old, worn, and untidy. The other one was much younger. Sophia did not trouble to inquire from them who they were.
That little conversation formed a brief interlude in the delirium, which overtook her again and distorted everything. She forgot, however, that she was destined to die.
One day her brain cleared. She could be sure that she had gone to sleep in the morning and not wakened till the evening. Hence she had not been put into the bath.
“Have I had my baths?” she questioned.
It was the doctor who faced her.
“No,” he said, “the baths are finished.”
She knew from his face that she was out of danger. Moreover, she was conscious of a new feeling in her body, as though the fount of physical energy within her, long interrupted, had recommenced to flow — but very slowly, a trickling. It was a rebirth. She was not glad, but her body itself was glad; her body had an existence of its own.
She was now often left by herself in the bedroom. To the right of the foot of the bed was a piano in walnut, and to the left a chimney-piece with a large mirror. She wanted to look at herself in the mirror. But it was a very long way off. She tried to sit up, and could not. She hoped that one day she would be able to get as far as the mirror. She said not a word about this to either of the two women.
Often they would sit in the bedroom and talk without ceasing. Sophia learnt that the stout woman was named Foucault, and the other Laurence. Sometimes Laurence would address Madame Foucault as Aimee, but usually she was more formal. Madame Foucault always called the other Laurence.
Sophia’s curiosity stirred and awoke. But she could not obtain any very exact information as to where she was, except that the house was in the Rue Breda, off the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette. She recollected vaguely that the reputation of the street was sinister. It appeared that, on the day when she had gone out with Chirac, the upper part of the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette was closed for repairs —(this she remembered)— and that the cabman had turned up the Rue Breda in order to make a detour, and that it was just opposite to the house of Madame Foucault that she had lost consciousness. Madame Foucault happened to be getting into a cab at the moment; but she had told Chirac nevertheless to carry Sophia into the house, and a policeman had helped. Then, when the doctor came, it was discovered that she could not be moved, save to a hospital, and both Madame Foucault and Laurence were determined that no friend of Chirac’s should be committed to the horrors of a Paris hospital. Madame Foucault had suffered in one as a patient, and Laurence had been a nurse in another. . . .
Chirac was now away. The women talked loosely of a war.
“How kind you have been!” murmured Sophia, with humid eyes.
But they silenced her with gestures. She was not to talk. They seemed to have nothing further to tell her. They said Chirac would be returning perhaps soon, and that she could talk to him. Evidently they both held Chirac in affection. They said often that he was a charming boy.
Bit by bit Sophia comprehended the length and the seriousness of her illness, and the immense devotion of the two women, and the terrific disturbance of their lives, and her own debility. She saw that the women were strongly attached to her, and she could not understand why, as she had never done anything for them, whereas they had done everything for her. She had not learnt that benefits rendered, not benefits received, are the cause of such attachments.
All the time she was plotting, and gathering her strength to disobey orders and get as far as the mirror. Her preliminary studies and her preparations were as elaborate as those of a prisoner arranging to escape from a fortress. The first attempt was a failure. The second succeeded. Though she could not stand without support, she managed by clinging to the bed to reach a chair, and to push the chair in front of her until it approached the mirror. The enterprise was exciting and terrific. Then she saw a face in the glass: white, incredibly emaciated, with great, wild, staring eyes; and the shoulders were bent as though with age. It was a painful, almost a horrible sight. It frightened her, so that in her alarm she recoiled from it. Not attending sufficiently to the chair, she sank to the ground. She could not pick herself up, and she was caught there, miserably, by her angered jailers. The vision of her face taught her more efficiently than anything else the gravity of her adventure. As the women lifted her inert, repentant mass into the bed, she reflected, “How queer my life is!” It seemed to her that she ought to have been trimming hats in the showroom instead of being in that curtained, mysterious, Parisian interior.
One day Madame Foucault knocked at the door of Sophia’s little room (this ceremony of knocking was one of the indications that Sophia, convalescent, had been reinstated in her rights as an individual), and cried:
“Madame, one is going to leave you all alone for some time.”
“Come in,” said Sophia, who was sitting up in an armchair, and reading.
Madame Foucault opened the door. “One is going to leave you all alone for some time,” she repeated in a low, confidential voice, sharply contrasting with her shriek behind the door.
Sophia nodded and smiled, and Madame Foucault also nodded and smiled. But Madame Foucault’s face quickly resumed its anxious expression.
“The servant’s brother marries himself today, and she implored me to accord her two days — what would you? Madame Laurence is out. And I must go out. It is four o’clock. I shall reenter at six o’clock striking. Therefore . . . ”
“Perfectly,” Sophia concurred.
She looked curiously at Madame Foucault, who was carefully made up and arranged for the street, in a dress of yellow tussore with blue ornaments, bright lemon-coloured gloves, a little blue bonnet, and a little white parasol not wider when opened than her shoulders. Cheeks, lips, and eyes were heavily charged with rouge, powder, or black. And that too abundant waist had been most cunningly confined in a belt that descended beneath, instead of rising above, the lower masses of the vast torso. The general effect was worthy of the effort that must have gone to it. Madame Foucault was not rejuvenated by her toilette, but it almost procured her pardon for the crime of being over forty, fat, creased, and worn out. It was one of those defeats that are a triumph.
“You are very chic,” said Sophia, uttering her admiration.
“Ah!” said Madame Foucault, shrugging the shoulders of disillusion. “Chic! What does that do?”
But she was pleased.
The front-door banged. Sophia, by herself for the first time in the flat into which she had been carried unconscious and which she had never since left, had the disturbing sensation of being surrounded by mysterious rooms and mysterious things. She tried to continue reading, but the sentences conveyed nothing to her. She rose — she could walk now a little — and looked out of the window, through the interstices of the pattern of the lace curtains. The window gave on the courtyard, which was about sixteen feet below her. A low wall divided the courtyard from that of the next house. And the windows of the two houses, only to be distinguished by the different tints of their yellow paint, rose tier above tier in level floors, continuing beyond Sophia’s field of vision. She pressed her face against the glass, and remembered the St. Luke’s Square of her childhood; and just as there from the showroom window she could not even by pressing her face against the glass see the pavement, so here she could not see the roof; the courtyard was like the bottom of a well. There was no end to the windows; six storeys she could count, and the sills of a seventh were the limit of her view. Every window was heavily curtained, like her own. Some of the upper ones had green sunblinds. Scarcely any sound! Mysteries brooded without as well as within the flat of Madame Foucault. Sophia saw a bodiless hand twitch at a curtain and vanish. She noticed a green bird in a tiny cage on a sill in the next house. A woman whom she took to be the concierge appeared in the courtyard, deposited a small plant in the track of a ray of sunshine that lighted a corner for a couple of hours in the afternoon, and disappeared again. Then she heard a piano — somewhere. That was all. The feeling that secret and strange lives were being lived behind those baffling windows, that humanity was everywhere intimately pulsing around her, oppressed her spirit yet not quite unpleasantly. The environment softened her glance upon the spectacle of existence, insomuch that sadness became a voluptuous pleasure. And the environment threw her back on herself, into a sensuous contemplation of the fundamental fact of Sophia Scales, formerly Sophia Baines.
She turned to the room, with the marks of the bath on the floor by the bed, and the draped piano that was never opened, and her two trunks filling up the corner opposite the door. She had the idea of thoroughly examining those trunks, which Chirac or somebody else must have fetched from the hotel. At the top of one of them was her purse, tied up with old ribbon and ostentatiously sealed! How comical these French people were when they deemed it necessary to be serious! She emptied both trunks, scrutinizing minutely all her goods, and thinking of the varied occasions upon which she had obtained them. Then she carefully restored them, her mind full of souvenirs newly awakened.
She sighed as she straightened her back. A clock struck in another room. It seemed to invite her towards discoveries. She had been in no other room of the flat. She knew nothing of the rest of the flat save by sound. For neither of the other women had ever described it, nor had it occurred to them that Sophia might care to leave her room though she could not leave the house.
She opened her door, and glanced along the dim corridor, with which she was familiar. She knew that the kitchen lay next to her little room, and that next to the kitchen came the front-door. On the opposite side of the corridor were four double-doors. She crossed to the pair of doors facing her own little door, and quietly turned the handle, but the doors were locked; the same with the next pair. The third pair yielded, and she was in a large bedroom, with three windows on the street. She saw that the second pair of doors, which she had failed to unfasten, also opened into this room. Between the two pairs of doors was a wide bed. In front of the central window was a large dressing-table. To the left of the bed, half hiding the locked doors, was a large screen. On the marble mantelpiece, reflected in a huge mirror, that ascended to the ornate cornice, was a gilt-and-basalt clock, with pendants to match. On the opposite side of the room from this was a long wide couch. The floor was of polished oak, with a skin on either side of the bed. At the foot of the bed was a small writing-table, with a penny bottle of ink on it. A few coloured prints and engravings — representing, for example, Louis Philippe and his family, and people perishing on a raft — broke the tedium of the walls. The first impression on Sophia’s eye was one of sombre splendour. Everything had the air of being richly ornamented, draped, looped, carved, twisted, brocaded into gorgeousness. The dark crimson bed-hangings fell from massive rosettes in majestic folds. The counterpane was covered with lace. The window-curtains had amplitude beyond the necessary, and they were suspended from behind fringed and pleated valances. The green sofa and its sateen cushions were stiff with applied embroidery. The chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling, modelled to represent cupids holding festoons, was a glittering confusion of gilt and lustres; the lustres tinkled when Sophia stood on a certain part of the floor. The cane-seated chairs were completely gilded. There was an effect of spaciousness. And the situation of the bed between the two double-doors, with the three windows in front and other pairs of doors communicating with other rooms on either hand, produced in addition an admirable symmetry.
But Sophia, with the sharp gaze of a woman brought up in the traditions of a modesty so proud that it scorns ostentation, quickly tested and condemned the details of this chamber that imitated every luxury. Nothing in it, she found, was ‘good.’ And in St. Luke’s Square ‘goodness’ meant honest workmanship, permanence, the absence of pretence. All the stuffs were cheap and showy and shabby; all the furniture was cracked, warped, or broken. The clock showed five minutes past twelve at five o’clock. And further, dust was everywhere, except in those places where even the most perfunctory cleaning could not have left it. In the obscurer pleatings of draperies it lay thick. Sophia’s lip curled, and instinctively she lifted her peignoir. One of her mother’s phrases came into her head: ‘a lick and a promise.’ And then another: “If you want to leave dirt, leave it where everybody can see it, not in the corners.”
She peeped behind the screen, and all the horrible welter of a cabinet de toilette met her gaze: a repulsive medley of foul waters, stained vessels and cloths, brushes, sponges, powders, and pastes. Clothes were hung up in disorder on rough nails; among them she recognized a dressing-gown of Madame Foucault’s, and, behind affairs of later date, the dazzling scarlet cloak in which she had first seen Madame Foucault, dilapidated now. So this was Madame Foucault’s room! This was the bower from which that elegance emerged, the filth from which had sprung the mature blossom!
She passed from that room direct to another, of which the shutters were closed, leaving it in twilight. This room too was a bedroom, rather smaller than the middle one, and having only one window, but furnished with the same dubious opulence. Dust covered it everywhere, and small footmarks were visible in the dust on the floor. At the back was a small door, papered to match the wall, and within this door was a cabinet de toilette, with no light and no air; neither in the room nor in the closet was there any sign of individual habitation. She traversed the main bedroom again and found another bedroom to balance the second one, but open to the full light of day, and in a state of extreme disorder; the double-pillowed bed had not even been made: clothes and towels draped all the furniture: shoes were about the floor, and on a piece of string tied across the windows hung a single white stocking, wet. At the back was a cabinet de toilette, as dark as the other one, a vile malodorous mess of appliances whose familiar forms loomed vague and extraordinarily sinister in the dense obscurity. Sophia turned away with the righteous disgust of one whose preparations for the gaze of the world are as candid and simple as those of a child. Concealed dirt shocked her as much as it would have shocked her mother; and as for the trickeries of the toilet table, she contemned them as harshly as a young saint who has never been tempted contemns moral weakness. She thought of the strange flaccid daily life of those two women, whose hours seemed to slip unprofitably away without any result of achievement. She had actually witnessed nothing; but since the beginning of her convalescence her ears had heard, and she could piece the evidences together. There was never any sound in the flat, outside the kitchen, until noon. Then vague noises and smells would commence. And about one o’clock Madame Foucault, disarrayed, would come to inquire if the servant had attended to the needs of the invalid. Then the odours of cookery would accentuate themselves; bells rang; fragments of conversations escaped through doors ajar; occasionally a man’s voice or a heavy step; then the fragrance of coffee; sometimes the sound of a kiss, the banging of the front door, the noise of brushing, or of the shaking of a carpet, a little scream as at some trifling domestic contretemps. Laurence, still in a dressing-gown, would lounge into Sophia’s room, dirty, haggard, but polite with a curious stiff ceremony, and would drink her coffee there. This wandering in peignoirs would continue till three o’clock, and then Laurence might say, as if nerving herself to an unusual and immense effort: “I must be dressed by five o’clock. I have not a moment.” Often Madame Foucault did not dress at all; on such days she would go to bed immediately after dinner, with the remark that she didn’t know what was the matter with her, but she was exhausted. And then the servant would retire to her seventh floor, and there would be silence until, now and then, faint creepings were heard at midnight or after. Once or twice, through the chinks of her door, Sophia had seen a light at two o’clock in the morning, just before the dawn.
Yet these were the women who had saved her life, who between them had put her into a cold bath every three hours night and day for weeks! Surely it was impossible after that to despise them for shiftlessness and talkative idling in peignoirs; impossible to despise them for anything whatever! But Sophia, conscious of her inheritance of strong and resolute character, did despise them as poor things. The one point on which she envied them was their formal manners to her, which seemed to become more dignified and graciously distant as her health improved. It was always ‘Madame,’ ‘Madame,’ to her, with an intonation of increasing deference. They might have been apologizing to her for themselves.
She prowled into all the corners of the flat; but she discovered no more rooms, nothing but a large cupboard crammed with Madame Foucault’s dresses. Then she went back to the large bedroom, and enjoyed the busy movement and rattle of the sloping street, and had long, vague yearnings for strength and for freedom in wide, sane places. She decided that on the morrow she would dress herself ‘properly,’ and never again wear a peignoir; the peignoir and all that it represented, disgusted her. And while looking at the street she ceased to see it and saw Cook’s office and Chirac helping her into the carriage. Where was he? Why had he brought her to this impossible abode? What did he mean by such conduct? But could he have acted otherwise? He had done the one thing that he could do. . . . Chance! . . . Chance! And why an impossible abode? Was one place more impossible than another? All this came of running away from home with Gerald. It was remarkable that she seldom thought of Gerald. He had vanished from her life as he had come into it — madly, preposterously. She wondered what the next stage in her career would be. She certainly could not forecast it. Perhaps Gerald was starving, or in prison . . . Bah! That exclamation expressed her appalling disdain of Gerald and of the Sophia who had once deemed him the paragon of men. Bah!
A carriage stopping in front of the house awakened her from her meditation. Madame Foucault and a man very much younger than Madame Foucault got out of it. Sophia fled. After all, this prying into other people’s rooms was quite inexcusable. She dropped on to her own bed and picked up a book, in case Madame Foucault should come in.
In the evening, just after night had fallen, Sophia on the bed heard the sound of raised and acrimonious voices in Madame Foucault’s room. Nothing except dinner had happened since the arrival of Madame Foucault and the young man. These two had evidently dined informally in the bedroom on a dish or so prepared by Madame Foucault, who had herself served Sophia with her invalid’s repast. The odours of cookery still hung in the air.
The noise of virulent discussion increased and continued, and then Sophia could hear sobbing, broken by short and fierce phrases from the man. Then the door of the bedroom opened brusquely. “J’en ai soupe!” exclaimed the man, in tones of angry disgust. “Laisse-moi, je te prie!” And then a soft muffled sound, as of a struggle, a quick step, and the very violent banging of the front door. After that there was a noticeable silence, save for the regular sobbing. Sophia wondered when it would cease, that monotonous sobbing.
“What is the matter?” she called out from her bed.
The sobbing grew louder, like the sobbing of a child who has detected an awakening of sympathy and instinctively begins to practise upon it. In the end Sophia arose and put on the peignoir which she had almost determined never to wear again. The broad corridor was lighted by a small, smelling oil-lamp with a crimson globe. That soft, transforming radiance seemed to paint the whole corridor with voluptuous luxury: so much so that it was impossible to believe that the smell came from the lamp. Under the lamp lay Madame Foucault on the floor, a shapeless mass of lace, frilled linen, and corset; her light brown hair was loose and spread about the floor. At the first glance, the creature abandoned to grief made a romantic and striking picture, and Sophia thought for an instant that she had at length encountered life on a plane that would correspond to her dreams of romance. And she was impressed, with a feeling somewhat akin to that of a middling commoner when confronted with a viscount. There was, in the distance, something imposing and sensational about that prone, trembling figure. The tragic works of love were therein apparently manifest, in a sort of dignified beauty. But when Sophia bent over Madame Foucault, and touched her flabbiness, this illusion at once vanished; and instead of being dramatically pathetic the woman was ridiculous. Her face, especially as damaged by tears, could not support the ordeal of inspection; it was horrible; not a picture, but a palette; or like the coloured design of a pavement artist after a heavy shower. Her great, relaxed eyelids alone would have rendered any face absurd; and there were monstrous details far worse than the eyelids. Then she was amazingly fat; her flesh seemed to be escaping at all ends from a corset strained to the utmost limit. And above her boots — she was still wearing dainty, high-heeled, tightly laced boots — the calves bulged suddenly out.
As a woman of between forty and fifty, the obese sepulchre of a dead vulgar beauty, she had no right to passions and tears and homage, or even the means of life; she had no right to expose herself picturesquely beneath a crimson glow in all the panoply of ribboned garters and lacy seductiveness. It was silly; it was disgraceful. She ought to have known that only youth and slimness have the right to appeal to the feelings by indecent abandonments.
Such were the thoughts that mingled with the sympathy of the beautiful and slim Sophia as she bent down to Madame Foucault. She was sorry for her landlady, but at the same time she despised her, and resented her woe.
“What is the matter?” she asked quietly.
“He has chucked me!” stammered Madame Foucault. “And he’s the last. I have no one now!”
She rolled over in the most grotesque manner, kicking up her legs, with a fresh outburst of sobs. Sophia felt quite ashamed for her.
“Come and lie down. Come now!” she said, with a touch of sharpness. “You musn’t lie there like that.”
Madame Foucault’s behaviour was really too outrageous. Sophia helped her, morally rather than physically, to rise, and then persuaded her into the large bedroom. Madame Foucault fell on the bed, of which the counterpane had been thrown over the foot. Sophia covered the lower part of her heaving body with the counterpane.
“Now, calm yourself, please!”
This room too was lit in crimson, by a small lamp that stood on the night-table, and though the shade of the lamp was cracked, the general effect of the great chamber was incontestably romantic. Only the pillows of the wide bed and a small semi-circle of floor were illuminated, all the rest lay in shadow. Madame Foucault’s head had dropped between the pillows. A tray containing dirty plates and glasses and a wine-bottle was speciously picturesque on the writing-table.
Despite her genuine gratitude to Madame Foucault for astounding care during her illness, Sophia did not like her landlady, and the present scene made her coldly wrathful. She saw the probability of having another’s troubles piled on the top of her own. She did not, in her mind, actively object, because she felt that she could not be more hopelessly miserable than she was; but she passively resented the imposition. Her reason told her that she ought to sympathize with this ageing, ugly, disagreeable, undignified woman; but her heart was reluctant; her heart did not want to know anything at all about Madame Foucault, nor to enter in any way into her private life.
“I have not a single friend now,” stammered Madame Foucault.
“Oh, yes, you have,” said Sophia, cheerfully. “You have Madame Laurence.”
“Laurence — that is not a friend. You know what I mean.”
“And me! I am your friend!” said Sophia, in obedience to her conscience.
“You are very kind,” replied Madame Foucault, from the pillow. “But you know what I mean.”
The fact was that Sophia did know what she meant. The terms of their intercourse had been suddenly changed. There was no pretentious ceremony now, but the sincerity that disaster brings. The vast structure of make-believe, which between them they had gradually built, had crumbled to nothing.
“I never treated badly any man in my life,” whimpered Madame Foucault. “I have always been a — good girl. There is not a man who can say I have not been a good girl. Never was I a girl like the rest. And every one has said so. Ah! when I tell you that once I had a hotel in the Avenue de la Reine Hortense. Four horses . . . I have sold a horse to Madame Musard. . . . You know Madame Musard. . . . But one cannot make economies. Impossible to make economies! Ah! In ‘fifty-six I was spending a hundred thousand francs a year. That cannot last. Always I have said to myself: ‘That cannot last.’ Always I had the intention. . . . But what would you? I installed myself here, and borrowed money to pay for the furniture. There did not remain to me one jewel. The men are poltroons, all! I could let three bedrooms for three hundred and fifty francs a month, and with serving meals and so on I could live.”
“Then that,” Sophia interrupted, pointing to her own bedroom across the corridor, “is your room?”
“Yes,” said Madame Foucault. “I put you in it because at the moment all these were let. They are so no longer. Only one — Laurence — and she does not pay me always. What would you? Tenants — that does not find itself at the present hour. . . . I have nothing, and I owe. And he quits me. He chooses this moment to quit me! And why? For nothing. For nothing. That is not for his money that I regret him. No, no! You know, at his age — he is twenty-five — and with a woman like me — one is not generous! No. I loved him. And then a man is a moral support, always. I loved him. It is at my age, mine, that one knows how to love. Beauty goes always, but not the temperament! Ah, that — No! . . . I loved him. I love him.”
Sophia’s face tingled with a sudden emotion caused by the repetition of those last three words, whose spell no usage can mar. But she said nothing.
“Do you know what I shall become? There is nothing but that for me. And I know of such, who are there already. A charwoman! Yes, a charwoman! More soon or more late. Well, that is life. What would you? One exists always.” Then in a different tone: “I demand your pardon, madame, for talking like this. I ought to have shame.”
And Sophia felt that in listening she also ought to be ashamed. But she was not ashamed. Everything seemed very natural, and even ordinary. And, moreover, Sophia was full of the sense of her superiority over the woman on the bed. Four years ago, in the Restaurant Sylvain, the ingenuous and ignorant Sophia had shyly sat in awe of the resplendent courtesan, with her haughty stare, her large, easy gestures, and her imperturbable contempt for the man who was paying. And now Sophia knew that she, Sophia, knew all that was to be known about human nature. She had not merely youth, beauty, and virtue, but knowledge — knowledge enough to reconcile her to her own misery. She had a vigorous, clear mind, and a clean conscience. She could look any one in the face, and judge every one too as a woman of the world. Whereas this obscene wreck on the bed had nothing whatever left. She had not merely lost her effulgent beauty, she had become repulsive. She could never have had any commonsense, nor any force of character. Her haughtiness in the day of glory was simply fatuous, based on stupidity. She had passed the years in idleness, trailing about all day in stuffy rooms, and emerging at night to impress nincompoops; continually meaning to do things which she never did, continually surprised at the lateness of the hour, continually occupied with the most foolish trifles. And here she was at over forty writhing about on the bare floor because a boy of twenty-five (who MUST be a worthless idiot) had abandoned her after a scene of ridiculous shoutings and stampings. She was dependent on the caprices of a young scamp, the last donkey to turn from her with loathing! Sophia thought: “Goodness! If I had been in her place I shouldn’t have been like that. I should have been rich. I should have saved like a miser. I wouldn’t have been dependent on anybody at that age. If I couldn’t have made a better courtesan than this pitiable woman, I would have drowned myself.”
In the harsh vanity of her conscious capableness and young strength she thought thus, half forgetting her own follies, and half excusing them on the ground of inexperience.
Sophia wanted to go round the flat and destroy every crimson lampshade in it. She wanted to shake Madame Foucault into self-respect and sagacity. Moral reprehension, though present in her mind, was only faint. Certainly she felt the immense gulf between the honest woman and the wanton, but she did not feel it as she would have expected to feel it. “What a fool you have been!” she thought; not: “What a sinner!” With her precocious cynicism, which was somewhat unsuited to the lovely northern youthfulness of that face, she said to herself that the whole situation and their relative attitudes would have been different if only Madame Foucault had had the wit to amass a fortune, as (according to Gerald) some of her rivals had succeeded in doing.
And all the time she was thinking, in another part of her mind: “I ought not to be here. It’s no use arguing. I ought not to be here. Chirac did the only thing for me there was to do. But I must go now.”
Madame Foucault continued to recite her woes, chiefly financial, in a weak voice damp with tears; she also continued to apologize for mentioning herself. She had finished sobbing, and lay looking at the wall, away from Sophia, who stood irresolute near the bed, ashamed for her companion’s weakness and incapacity.
“You must not forget,” said Sophia, irritated by the unrelieved darkness of the picture drawn by Madame Foucault, “that at least I owe you a considerable sum, and that I am only waiting for you to tell me how much it is. I have asked you twice already, I think.”
“Oh, you are still suffering!” said Madame Foucault.
“I am quite well enough to pay my debts,” said Sophia.
“I do not like to accept money from you,” said Madame Foucault.
“But why not?”
“You will have the doctor to pay.”
“Please do not talk in that way,” said Sophia. “I have money, and I can pay for everything, and I shall pay for everything.”
She was annoyed because she was sure that Madame Foucault was only making a pretence of delicacy, and that in any case her delicacy was preposterous. Sophia had remarked this on the two previous occasions when she had mentioned the subject of bills. Madame Foucault would not treat her as an ordinary lodger, now that the illness was past. She wanted, as it were, to complete brilliantly what she had begun, and to live in Sophia’s memory as a unique figure of lavish philanthropy. This was a sentiment, a luxury that she desired to offer herself: the thought that she had played providence to a respectable married lady in distress; she frequently hinted at Sophia’s misfortunes and helplessness. But she could not afford the luxury. She gazed at it as a poor woman gazes at costly stuffs through the glass of a shop-window. The truth was, she wanted the luxury for nothing. For a double reason Sophia was exasperated: by Madame Foucault’s absurd desire, and by a natural objection to the role of a subject for philanthropy. She would not admit that Madame Foucault’s devotion as a nurse entitled her to the satisfaction of being a philanthropist when there was no necessity for philanthropy.
“How long have I been here?” asked Sophia.
“I don’t know.” murmured Madame Foucault. “Eight weeks — or is it nine?”
“Suppose we say nine,” said Sophia.
“Very well,” agreed Madame Foucault, apparently reluctant.
“Now, how much must I pay you per week?”
“I don’t want anything — I don’t want anything! You are a friend of Chirac’s. You ——”
“Not at all!” Sophia interrupted, tapping her foot and biting her lip. “Naturally I must pay.”
Madame Foucault wept quietly.
“Shall I pay you seventy-five francs a week?” said Sophia, anxious to end the matter.
“It is too much!” Madame Foucault protested, insincerely.
“What? For all you have done for me?”
“I speak not of that,” Madame Foucault modestly replied.
If the devotion was not to be paid for, then seventy-five francs a week was assuredly too much, as during more than half the time Sophia had had almost no food. Madame Foucault was therefore within the truth when she again protested, at sight of the bank-notes which Sophia brought from her trunk:
“I am sure that it is too much.”
“Not at all!” Sophia repeated. “Nine weeks at seventy-five. That makes six hundred and seventy-five. Here are seven hundreds.”
“I have no change,” said Madame Foucault. “I have nothing.”
“That will pay for the hire of the bath,” said Sophia.
She laid the notes on the pillow. Madame Foucault looked at them gluttonously, as any other person would have done in her place. She did not touch them. After an instant she burst into wild tears.
“But why do you cry?” Sophia asked, softened.
“I— I don’t know!” spluttered Madame Foucault. “You are so beautiful. I am so content that we saved you.” Her great wet eyes rested on Sophia.
It was sentimentality. Sophia ruthlessly set it down as sentimentality. But she was touched. She was suddenly moved. Those women, such as they were in their foolishness, probably had saved her life — and she a stranger! Flaccid as they were, they had been capable of resolute perseverance there. It was possible to say that chance had thrown them upon an enterprise which they could not have abandoned till they or death had won. It was possible to say that they hoped vaguely to derive advantage from their labours. But even then? Judged by an ordinary standard, those women had been angels of mercy. And Sophia was despising them, cruelly taking their motives to pieces, accusing them of incapacity when she herself stood a supreme proof of their capacity in, at any rate, one direction! In a rush of emotion she saw her hardness and her injustice.
She bent down. “Never can I forget how kind you have been to me. It is incredible! Incredible!” She spoke softly, in tones loaded with genuine feeling. It was all she said. She could not embroider on the theme. She had no talent for thanksgiving.
Madame Foucault made the beginning of a gesture, as if she meant to kiss Sophia with those thick, marred lips; but refrained. Her head sank back, and then she had a recurrence of the fit of nervous sobbing. Immediately afterwards there was the sound of a latchkey in the front-door of the flat; the bedroom door was open. Still sobbing very violently, she cocked her ear, and pushed the bank-notes under the pillow.
Madame Laurence — as she was called: Sophia had never heard her surname — came straight into the bedroom, and beheld the scene with astonishment in her dark twinkling eyes. She was usually dressed in black, because people said that black suited her, and because black was never out of fashion; black was an expression of her idiosyncrasy. She showed a certain elegance, and by comparison with the extreme disorder of Madame Foucault and the deshabille of Sophia her appearance, all fresh from a modish restaurant, was brilliant; it gave her an advantage over the other two — that moral advantage which ceremonial raiment always gives.
“What is it that passes?” she demanded.
“He has chucked me, Laurence!” exclaimed Madame Foucault, in a sort of hysteric scream which seemed to force its way through her sobs. From the extraordinary freshness of Madame Foucault’s woe, it might have been supposed that her young man had only that instant strode out.
Laurence and Sophia exchanged a swift glance; and Laurence, of course, perceived that Sophia’s relations with her landlady and nurse were now of a different, a more candid order. She indicated her perception of the change by a single slight movement of the eyebrows.
“But listen, Aimee,” she said authoritatively. “You must not let yourself go like that. He will return.”
“Never!” cried Madame Foucault. “It is finished. And he is the last!”
Laurence, ignoring Madame Foucault, approached Sophia. “You have an air very fatigued,” she said, caressing Sophia’s shoulder with her gloved hand. “You are pale like everything. All this is not for you. It is not reasonable to remain here, you still suffering! At this hour! Truly not reasonable!”
Her hands persuaded Sophia towards the corridor. And, in fact, Sophia did then notice her own exhaustion. She departed from the room with the ready obedience of physical weakness, and shut her door.
After about half an hour, during which she heard confused noises and murmurings, her door half opened.
“May I enter, since you are not asleep?” It was Laurence’s voice. Twice, now, she had addressed Sophia without adding the formal ‘madame.’
“Enter, I beg you,” Sophia called from the bed. “I am reading.”
Laurence came in. Sophia was both glad and sorry to see her. She was eager to hear gossip which, however, she felt she ought to despise. Moreover, she knew that if they talked that night they would talk as friends, and that Laurence would ever afterwards treat her with the familiarity of a friend. This she dreaded. Still, she knew that she would yield, at any rate, to the temptation to listen to gossip.
“I have put her to bed,” said Laurence, in a whisper, as she cautiously closed the door. “The poor woman! Oh, what a charming bracelet! It is a true pearl, naturally?”
Her roving eye had immediately, with an infallible instinct, caught sight of a bracelet which, in taking stock of her possessions, Sophia had accidentally left on the piano. She picked it up, and then put it down again.
“Yes,” said Sophia. She was about to add: “It’s nearly all the jewellery I possess;” but she stopped.
Laurence moved towards Sophia’s bed, and stood over it as she had often done in her quality as nurse. She had taken off her gloves, and she made a piquant, pretty show, with her thirty years, and her agreeable, slightly roguish face, in which were mingled the knowingness of a street boy and the confidence of a woman who has ceased to be surprised at the influence of her snub nose on a highly intelligent man.
“Did she tell you what they had quarrelled about?” Laurence inquired abruptly. And not only the phrasing of the question, but the assured tone in which it was uttered, showed that Laurence meant to be the familiar of Sophia.
“Not a word!” said Sophia.
In this brief question and reply, all was crudely implied that had previously been supposed not to exist. The relations between the two women were altered irretrievably in a moment.
“It must have been her fault!” said Laurence. “With men she is insupportable. I have never understood how that poor woman has made her way. With women she is charming. But she seems to be incapable of not treating men like dogs. Some men adore that, but they are few. Is it not?”
“I have told her! How many times have I told her! But it is useless. It is stronger than she is, and if she finishes on straw one will be able to say that it was because of that. But truly she ought not to have asked him here! Truly that was too much! If he knew . . .!”
“Why not?” asked Sophia, awkwardly. The answer startled her.
“Because her room has not been disinfected.”
“But I thought all the flat had been disinfected?”
“All except her room.”
“But why not her room?”
Laurence shrugged her shoulders. “She did not want to disturb her things! Is it that I know, I? She is like that. She takes an idea — and then, there you are!”
“She told me every room had been disinfected.”
“She told the same to the police and the doctor.”
“Then all the disinfection is useless?”
“Perfectly! But she is like that. This flat might be very remunerative; but with her, never! She has not even paid for the furniture — after two years!”
“But what will become of her?” Sophia asked.
“Ah — that!” Another shrug of the shoulders. “All that I know is that it will be necessary for me to leave here. The last time I brought Monsieur Cerf here, she was excessively rude to him. She has doubtless told you about Monsieur Cerf?”
“No. Who is Monsieur Cerf?”
“Ah! She has not told you? That astonishes me. Monsieur Cerf, that is my friend, you know.”
“Oh!” murmured Sophia.
“Yes,” Laurence proceeded, impelled by a desire to impress Sophia and to gossip at large. “That is my friend. I knew him at the hospital. It was to please him that I left the hospital. After that we quarrelled for two years; but at the end he gave me right. I did not budge. Two years! It is long. And I had left the hospital. I could have gone back. But I would not. That is not a life, to be nurse in a Paris hospital! No, I drew myself out as well as I could . . . He is the most charming boy you can imagine! And rich now; that is to say, relatively. He has a cousin infinitely more rich than he. I dined with them both to-night at the Maison Doree. For a luxurious boy, he is a luxurious boy — the cousin I mean. It appears that he has made a fortune in Canada.”
“Truly!” said Sophia, with politeness. Laurence’s hand was playing on the edge of the bed, and Sophia observed for the first time that it bore a wedding-ring.
“You remark my ring?” Laurence laughed. “That is he — the cousin. ‘What!’ he said, ‘you do not wear an alliance? An alliance is more proper. We are going to arrange that after dinner.’ I said that all the jewellers’ shops would be closed. ‘That is all the same to me,’ he said. ‘We will open one.’ And in effect . . . it passed like that. He succeeded! Is it not beautiful?” She held forth her hand.
“Yes,” said Sophia. “It is very beautiful.”
“Yours also is beautiful,” said Laurence, with an extremely puzzling intonation.
“It is just the ordinary English wedding-ring,” said Sophia. In spite of herself she blushed.
“Now I have married you. It is I, the cure, said he — the cousin — when he put the ring on my finger. Oh, he is excessively amusing! He pleases me much. And he is all alone. He asked me whether I knew among my friends a sympathetic, pretty girl, to make four with us three for a picnic. I said I was not sure, but I thought not. Whom do I know? Nobody. I’m not a woman like the rest. I am always discreet. I do not like casual relations. . . . But he is very well, the cousin. Brown eyes. . . . It is an idea — will you come, one day? He speaks English. He loves the English. He is all that is most correct, the perfect gentleman. He would arrange a dazzling fete. I am sure he would be enchanted to make your acquaintance. Enchanted! . . . As for my Charles, happily he is completely mad about me — otherwise I should have fear.”
She smiled, and in her smile was a genuine respect for Sophia’s face.
“I fear I cannot come,” said Sophia. She honestly endeavoured to keep out of her reply any accent of moral superiority, but she did not quite succeed. She was not at all horrified by Laurence’s suggestion. She meant simply to refuse it; but she could not do so in a natural voice.
“It is true you are not yet strong enough,” said the imperturbable Laurence, quickly, and with a perfect imitation of naturalness. “But soon you must make a little promenade.” She stared at her ring. “After all, it is more proper,” she observed judicially. “With a wedding-ring one is less likely to be annoyed. What is curious is that the idea never before came to me. Yet . . . ”
“You like jewellery?” said Sophia.
“If I like jewellery!” with a gesture of the hands.
“Will you pass me that bracelet?”
Laurence obeyed, and Sophia clasped it round the girl’s wrist.
“Keep it,” Sophia said.
“For me?” Laurence exclaimed, ravished. “It is too much.”
“It is not enough,” said Sophia. “And when you look at it, you must remember how kind you were to me, and how grateful I am.”
“How nicely you say that!” Laurence said ecstatically.
And Sophia felt that she had indeed said it rather nicely. This giving of the bracelet, souvenir of one of the few capricious follies that Gerald had committed for her and not for himself, pleased Sophia very much.
“I am afraid your nursing of me forced you to neglect Monsieur Cerf,” she added.
“Yes, a little!” said Laurence, impartially, with a small pout of haughtiness. “It is true that he used to complain. But I soon put him straight. What an idea! He knows there are things upon which I do not joke. It is not he who will quarrel a second time! Believe me!”
Laurence’s absolute conviction of her power was what impressed Sophia. To Sophia she seemed to be a vulgar little piece of goods, with dubious charm and a glance that was far too brazen. Her movements were vulgar. And Sophia wondered how she had established her empire and upon what it rested.
“I shall not show this to Aimee,” whispered Laurence, indicating the bracelet.
“As you wish,” said Sophia.
“By the way, have I told you that war is declared?” Laurence casually remarked.
“No,” said Sophia. “What war?”
“The scene with Aimee made me forget it . . . With Germany. The city is quite excited. An immense crowd in front of the new Opera. They say we shall be at Berlin in a month — or at most two months.”
“Oh!” Sophia muttered. “Why is there a war?”
“Ah! It is I who asked that. Nobody knows. It is those Prussians.”
“Don’t you think we ought to begin again with the disinfecting?” Sophia asked anxiously. “I must speak to Madame Foucault.”
Laurence told her not to worry, and went off to show the bracelet to Madame Foucault. She had privately decided that this was a pleasure which, after all, she could not deny herself.
About a fortnight later — it was a fine Saturday in early August — Sophia, with a large pinafore over her dress, was finishing the portentous preparations for disinfecting the flat. Part of the affair was already accomplished, her own room and the corridor having been fumigated on the previous day, in spite of the opposition of Madame Foucault, who had taken amiss Laurence’s tale-bearing to Sophia. Laurence had left the flat — under exactly what circumstances Sophia knew not, but she guessed that it must have been in consequence of a scene elaborating the tiff caused by Madame Foucault’s resentment against Laurence. The brief, factitious friendliness between Laurence and Sophia had gone like a dream, and Laurence had gone like a dream. The servant had been dismissed; in her place Madame Foucault employed a charwoman each morning for two hours. Finally, Madame Foucault had been suddenly called away that morning by a letter to her sick father at St. Mammes-sur-Seine. Sophia was delighted at the chance. The disinfecting of the flat had become an obsession with Sophia — the obsession of a convalescent whose perspective unconsciously twists things to the most wry shapes. She had had trouble on the day before with Madame Foucault, and she was expecting more serious trouble when the moment arrived for ejecting Madame Foucault as well as all her movable belongings from Madame Foucault’s own room. Nevertheless, Sophia had been determined, whatever should happen, to complete an honest fumigation of the entire flat. Hence the eagerness with which, urging Madame Foucault to go to her father, Sophia had protested that she was perfectly strong and could manage by herself for a couple of days. Owing to the partial suppression of the ordinary railway services in favour of military needs, Madame Foucault could not hope to go and return on the same day. Sophia had lent her a louis.
Pans of sulphur were mysteriously burning in each of the three front rooms, and two pairs of doors had been pasted over with paper, to prevent the fumes from escaping. The charwoman had departed. Sophia, with brush, scissors, flour-paste, and news-sheets, was sealing the third pair of doors, when there was a ring at the front door.
She had only to cross the corridor in order to open.
It was Chirac. She was not surprised to see him. The outbreak of the war had induced even Sophia and her landlady to look through at least one newspaper during the day, and she had in this way learnt, from an article signed by Chirac, that he had returned to Paris after a mission into the Vosges country for his paper.
He started on seeing her. “Ah!” He breathed out the exclamation slowly. And then smiled, seized her hand, and kissed it.
The sight of his obvious extreme pleasure in meeting her again was the sweetest experience that had fallen to Sophia for years.
“Then you are cured?”
He sighed. “You know, this is an enormous relief to me, to know, veritably, that you are no longer in danger. You gave me a fright . . . but a fright, my dear madame!”
She smiled in silence.
As he glanced inquiringly up and down the corridor, she said —
“I’m all alone in the flat. I’m disinfecting it.”
“Then that is sulphur that I smell?”
She nodded. “Excuse me while I finish this door,” she said.
He closed the front-door. “But you seem to be quite at home here!” he observed.
“I ought to be,” said she.
He glanced again inquiringly up and down the corridor. “And you are really all alone now?” he asked, as though to be doubly sure.
She explained the circumstances.
“I owe you my most sincere excuses for bringing you here,” he said confidentially.
“But why?” she replied, looking intently at her door. “They have been most kind to me. Nobody could have been kinder. And Madame Laurence being such a good nurse ——”
“It is true,” said he. “That was a reason. In effect they are both very good-natured little women. . . . You comprehend, as journalist it arrives to me to know all kinds of people . . . ” He snapped his fingers . . . “And as we were opposite the house. In fine, I pray you to excuse me.”
“Hold me this paper,” she said. “It is necessary that every crack should be covered; also between the floor and the door.”
“You English are wonderful,” he murmured, as he took the paper. “Imagine you doing that! Then,” he added, resuming the confidential tone, “I suppose you will leave the Foucault now, hein?”
“I suppose so,” she said carelessly.
“You go to England?”
She turned to him, as she patted the creases out of a strip of paper with a duster, and shook her head.
“Not to England?”
“If it is not indiscreet, where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” she said candidly.
And she did not know. She was without a plan. Her brain told her that she ought to return to Bursley, or, at the least, write. But her pride would not hear of such a surrender. Her situation would have to be far more desperate than it was before she could confess her defeat to her family even in a letter. A thousand times no! That was a point which she had for ever decided. She would face any disaster, and any other shame, rather than the shame of her family’s forgiving reception of her.
“And you?” she asked. “How does it go? This war?”
He told her, in a few words, a few leading facts about himself. “It must not be said,” he added of the war, “but that will turn out ill! I— I know, you comprehend.”
“Truly?” she answered with casualness.
“You have heard nothing of him?” Chirac asked.
He gave a gesture.
“Nothing! Not a word! Nothing!”
“He will have gone back to England!”
“Never!” she said positively.
“But why not?”
“Because he prefers France. He really does like France. I think it is the only real passion he ever had.”
“It is astonishing,” reflected Chirac, “how France is loved! And yet . . .! But to live, what will he do? Must live!”
Sophia merely shrugged her shoulders.
“Then it is finished between you two?” he muttered awkwardly.
She nodded. She was on her knees, at the lower crack of the doors.
“There!” she said, rising. “It’s well done, isn’t it? That is all.”
She smiled at him, facing him squarely, in the obscurity of the untidy and shabby corridor. Both felt that they had become very intimate. He was intensely flattered by her attitude, and she knew it.
“Now,” she said, “I will take off my pinafore. Where can I niche you? There is only my bedroom, and I want that. What are we to do?”
“Listen,” he suggested diffidently. “Will you do me the honour to come for a drive? That will do you good. There is sunshine. And you are always very pale.”
“With pleasure,” she agreed cordially.
While dressing, she heard him walking up and down the corridor; occasionally they exchanged a few words. Before leaving, Sophia pulled off the paper from one of the key-holes of the sealed suite of rooms, and they peered through, one after the other, and saw the green glow of the sulphur, and were troubled by its uncanniness. And then Sophia refixed the paper.
In descending the stairs of the house she felt the infirmity of her knees; but in other respects, though she had been out only once before since her illness, she was conscious of a sufficient strength. A disinclination for any enterprise had prevented her from taking the air as she ought to have done, but within the flat she had exercised her limbs in many small tasks. The little Chirac, nervously active and restless, wanted to take her arm, but she would not allow it.
The concierge and part of her family stared curiously at Sophia as she passed under the archway, for the course of her illness had excited the interest of the whole house. Just as the carriage was driving off, the concierge came across the pavement and paid her compliments, and then said:
“You do not know by hazard why Madame Foucault has not returned for lunch, madame?”
“Returned for lunch!” said Sophia. “She will not come back till tomorrow.”
The concierge made a face. “Ah! How curious it is! She told my husband that she would return in two hours. It is very grave! Question of business.”
“I know nothing, madame,” said Sophia. She and Chirac looked at each other. The concierge murmured thanks and went off muttering indistinctly.
The fiacre turned down the Rue Laferriere, the horse slipping and sliding as usual over the cobblestones. Soon they were on the boulevard, making for the Champs Elysees and the Bois de Boulogne.
The fresh breeze and bright sunshine and the large freedom of the streets quickly intoxicated Sophia — intoxicated her, that is to say, in quite a physical sense. She was almost drunk, with the heady savour of life itself. A mild ecstasy of well-being overcame her. She saw the flat as a horrible, vile prison, and blamed herself for not leaving it sooner and oftener. The air was medicine, for body and mind too. Her perspective was instantly corrected. She was happy, living neither in the past nor in the future, but in and for that hour. And beneath her happiness moved a wistful melancholy for the Sophia who had suffered such a captivity and such woes. She yearned for more and yet more delight, for careless orgies of passionate pleasure, in the midst of which she would forget all trouble. Why had she refused the offer of Laurence? Why had she not rushed at once into the splendid fire of joyous indulgence, ignoring everything but the crude, sensuous instinct? Acutely aware as she was of her youth, her beauty, and her charm, she wondered at her refusal. She did not regret her refusal. She placidly observed it as the result of some tremendously powerful motive in herself, which could not be questioned or reasoned with — which was, in fact, the essential HER.
“Do I look like an invalid?” she asked, leaning back luxuriously in the carriage among the crowd of other vehicles.
Chirac hesitated. “My faith! Yes!” he said at length. “But it becomes you. If I did not know that you have little love for compliments, I—”
“But I adore compliments!” she exclaimed. “What made you think that?”
“Well, then,” he youthfully burst out, “you are more ravishing than ever.”
She gave herself up deliciously to his admiration.
After a silence, he said: “Ah! if you knew how disquieted I was about you, away there . . .! I should not know how to tell you. Veritably disquieted, you comprehend! What could I do? Tell me a little about your illness.”
She recounted details.
As the fiacre entered the Rue Royale, they noticed a crowd of people in front of the Madeleine shouting and cheering.
The cabman turned towards them. “It appears there has been a victory!” he said.
“A victory! If only it was true!” murmured Chirac, cynically.
In the Rue Royale people were running frantically to and fro, laughing and gesticulating in glee. The customers in the cafes stood on their chairs, and even on tables, to watch, and occasionally to join in, the sudden fever. The fiacre was slowed to a walking pace. Flags and carpets began to show from the upper storeys of houses. The crowd grew thicker and more febrile. “Victory! Victory!” rang hoarsely, shrilly, and hoarsely again in the air.
“My God!” said Chirac, trembling. “It must be a true victory! We are saved! We are saved! . . . Oh yes, it is true!”
“But naturally it is true! What are you saying?” demanded the driver.
At the Place de la Concorde the fiacre had to stop altogether. The immense square was a sea of white hats and flowers and happy faces, with carriages anchored like boats on its surface. Flag after flag waved out from neighbouring roofs in the breeze that tempered the August sun. Then hats began to go up, and cheers rolled across the square like echoes of firing in an enclosed valley. Chirac’s driver jumped madly on to his seat, and cracked his whip.
“Vive la France!” he bawled with all the force of his lungs.
A thousand throats answered him.
Then there was a stir behind them. Another carriage was being slowly forced to the front. The crowd was pushing it, and crying, “Marseillaise! Marseillaise!” In the carriage was a woman alone; not beautiful, but distinguished, and with the assured gaze of one who is accustomed to homage and multitudinous applause.
“It is Gueymard!” said Chirac to Sophia. He was very pale. And he too shouted, “Marseillaise!” All his features were distorted.
The woman rose and spoke to her coachman, who offered his hand and she climbed to the box seat, and stood on it and bowed several times.
“Marseillaise!” The cry continued. Then a roar of cheers, and then silence spread round the square like an inundation. And amid this silence the woman began to sing the Marseillaise. As she sang, the tears ran down her cheeks. Everybody in the vicinity was weeping or sternly frowning. In the pauses of the first verse could be heard the rattle of horses’ bits, or a whistle of a tug on the river. The refrain, signalled by a proud challenging toss of Gueymard’s head, leapt up like a tropical tempest, formidable, overpowering. Sophia, who had had no warning of the emotion gathering within her, sobbed violently. At the close of the hymn Gueymard’s carriage was assaulted by worshippers. All around, in the tumult of shouting, men were kissing and embracing each other; and hats went up continually in fountains. Chirac leaned over the side of the carriage and wrung the hand of a man who was standing by the wheel.
“Who is that?” Sophia asked, in an unsteady voice, to break the inexplicable tension within her.
“I don’t know,” said Chirac. He was weeping like a child. And he sang out: “Victory! To Berlin! Victory!”
Sophia walked alone, with tired limbs, up the damaged oak stairs to the flat. Chirac had decided that, in the circumstances of the victory, he would do well to go to the offices of his paper rather earlier than usual. He had brought her back to the Rue Breda. They had taken leave of each other in a sort of dream or general enchantment due to their participation in the vast national delirium which somehow dominated individual feelings. They did not define their relations. They had been conscious only of emotion.
The stairs, which smelt of damp even in summer, disgusted Sophia. She thought of the flat with horror and longed for green places and luxury. On the landing were two stoutish, ill-dressed men, of middle age, apparently waiting. Sophia found her key and opened the door.
“Pardon, madame!” said one of the men, raising his hat, and they both pushed into the flat after her. They stared, puzzled, at the strips of paper pasted on the doors.
“What do you want?” she asked haughtily. She was very frightened. The extraordinary interruption brought her down with a shock to the scale of the individual.
“I am the concierge,” said the man who had addressed her. He had the air of a superior artisan. “It was my wife who spoke to you this afternoon. This,” pointing to his companion, “this is the law. I regret it, but . . . ”
The law saluted and shut the front door. Like the concierge, the law emitted an odour — the odour of uncleanliness on a hot August day.
“The rent?” exclaimed Sophia.
“No, madame, not the rent: the furniture!”
Then she learnt the history of the furniture. It had belonged to the concierge, who had acquired it from a previous tenant and sold it on credit to Madame Foucault. Madame Foucault had signed bills and had not met them. She had made promises and broken them. She had done everything except discharge her liabilities. She had been warned and warned again. That day had been fixed as the last limit, and she had solemnly assured her creditor that on that day she would pay. On leaving the house she had stated precisely and clearly that she would return before lunch with all the money. She had made no mention of a sick father.
Sophia slowly perceived the extent of Madame Foucault’s duplicity and moral cowardice. No doubt the sick father was an invention. The woman, at the end of a tether which no ingenuity of lies could further lengthen, had probably absented herself solely to avoid the pain of witnessing the seizure. She would do anything, however silly, to avoid an immediate unpleasantness. Or perhaps she had absented herself without any particular aim, but simply in the hope that something fortunate might occur. Perhaps she had hoped that Sophia, taken unawares, would generously pay. Sophia smiled grimly.
“Well,” she said. “I can’t do anything. I suppose you must do what you have to do. You will let me pack up my own affairs?”
She warned them as to the danger of opening the sealed rooms. The man of the law seemed prepared to stay in the corridor indefinitely. No prospect of delay disturbed him.
Strange and disturbing, the triumph of the concierge! He was a locksmith by trade. He and his wife and their children lived in two little dark rooms by the archway — an insignificant fragment of the house. He was away from home about fourteen hours every day, except Sundays, when he washed the courtyard. All the other duties of the concierge were performed by the wife. The pair always looked poor, untidy, dirty, and rather forlorn. But they were steadily levying toll on everybody in the big house. They amassed money in forty ways. They lived for money, and all men have what they live for. With what arrogant gestures Madame Foucault would descend from a carriage at the great door! What respectful attitudes and tones the ageing courtesan would receive from the wife and children of the concierge! But beneath these conventional fictions the truth was that the concierge held the whip. At last he was using it. And he had given himself a half-holiday in order to celebrate his second acquirement of the ostentatious furniture and the crimson lampshades. This was one of the dramatic crises in his career as a man of substance. The national thrill of victory had not penetrated into the flat with the concierge and the law. The emotions of the concierge were entirely independent of the Napoleonic foreign policy.
As Sophia, sick with a sudden disillusion, was putting her things together, and wondering where she was to go, and whether it would be politic to consult Chirac, she heard a fluster at the front door: cries, protestations, implorings. Her own door was thrust open, and Madame Foucault burst in.
“Save me!” exclaimed Madame Foucault, sinking to the ground.
The feeble theatricality of the gesture offended Sophia’s taste. She asked sternly what Madame Foucault expected her to do. Had not Madame Foucault knowingly exposed her, without the least warning, to the extreme annoyance of this visit of the law, a visit which meant practically that Sophia was put into the street?
“You must not be hard!” Madame Foucault sobbed.
Sophia learnt the complete history of the woman’s efforts to pay for the furniture: a farrago of folly and deceptions. Madame Foucault confessed too much. Sophia scorned confession for the sake of confession. She scorned the impulse which forces a weak creature to insist on its weakness, to revel in remorse, and to find an excuse for its conduct in the very fact that there is no excuse. She gathered that Madame Foucault had in fact gone away in the hope that Sophia, trapped, would pay; and that in the end, she had not even had the courage of her own trickery, and had run back, driven by panic into audacity, to fall at Sophia’s feet, lest Sophia might not have yielded and the furniture have been seized. From, beginning to end the conduct of Madame Foucault had been fatuous and despicable and wicked. Sophia coldly condemned Madame Foucault for having allowed herself to be brought into the world with such a weak and maudlin character, and for having allowed herself to grow old and ugly. As a sight the woman was positively disgraceful.
“Save me!” she exclaimed again. “I did what I could for you!”
Sophia hated her. But the logic of the appeal was irresistible.
“But what can I do?” she asked reluctantly.
“Lend me the money. You can. If you don’t, this will be the end for me.”
“And a good thing, too!” thought Sophia’s hard sense.
“How much is it?” Sophia glumly asked.
“It isn’t a thousand francs!” said Madame Foucault with eagerness. “All my beautiful furniture will go for less than a thousand francs! Save me!”
She was nauseating Sophia.
“Please rise,” said Sophia, her hands fidgeting undecidedly.
“I shall repay you, surely!” Madame Foucault asseverated. “I swear!”
“Does she take me for a fool?” thought Sophia, “with her oaths!”
“No!” said Sophia. “I won’t lend you the money. But I tell you what I will do. I will buy the furniture at that price; and I will promise to resell it to you as soon as you can pay me. Like that, you can be tranquil. But I have very little money. I must have a guarantee. The furniture must be mine till you pay me.”
“You are an angel of charity!” cried Madame Foucault, embracing Sophia’s skirts. “I will do whatever you wish. Ah! You Englishwomen are astonishing.”
Sophia was not an angel of charity. What she had promised to do involved sacrifice and anxiety without the prospect of reward. But it was not charity. It was part of the price Sophia paid for the exercise of her logical faculty; she paid it unwillingly. ‘I did what I could for you!’ Sophia would have died sooner than remind any one of a benefit conferred, and Madame Foucault had committed precisely that enormity. The appeal was inexcusable to a fine mind; but it was effective.
The men were behind the door, listening. Sophia paid out of her stock of notes. Needless to say, the total was more and not less than a thousand francs. Madame Foucault grew rapidly confidential with the man. Without consulting Sophia, she asked the bailiff to draw up a receipt transferring the ownership of all the furniture to Sophia; and the bailiff, struck into obligingness by glimpses of Sophia’s beauty, consented to do so. There was much conferring upon forms of words, and flourishing of pens between thick, vile fingers, and scattering of ink.
Before the men left Madame Foucault uncorked a bottle of wine for them, and helped them to drink it. Throughout the evening she was insupportably deferential to Sophia, who was driven to bed. Madame Foucault contentedly went up to the sixth floor to occupy the servant’s bedroom. She was glad to get so far away from the sulphur, of which a few faint fumes had penetrated into the corridor.
The next morning, after a stifling night of bad dreams, Sophia was too ill to get up. She looked round at the furniture in the little room, and she imagined the furniture in the other rooms, and dismally thought: “All this furniture is mine. She will never pay me! I am saddled with it.”
It was cheaply bought, but she probably could not sell it for even what she had paid. Still, the sense of ownership was reassuring.
The charwoman brought her coffee, and Chirac’s newspaper; from which she learnt that the news of the victory which had sent the city mad on the previous day was utterly false. Tears came into her eyes as she gazed absently at all the curtained windows of the courtyard. She had youth and loveliness; according to the rules she ought to have been irresponsible, gay, and indulgently watched over by the wisdom of admiring age. But she felt towards the French nation as a mother might feel towards adorable, wilful children suffering through their own charming foolishness. She saw France personified in Chirac. How easily, despite his special knowledge, he had yielded to the fever! Her heart bled for France and Chirac on that morning of reaction and of truth. She could not bear to recall the scene in the Place de la Concorde. Madame Foucault had not descended.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47