Jeanne did not leave her room for three months and was so wan and pale that no one thought she would recover. But she picked up by degrees. Little father and Aunt Lison never left her; they had both taken up their abode at “The Poplars.” The shock of Julien’s death had left her with a nervous malady. The slightest sound made her faint and she had long swoons from the most insignificant causes.
She had never asked the details of Julien’s death. What did it matter to her? Did she not know enough already? Every one thought it was an accident, but she knew better, and she kept to herself this secret which tortured her: the knowledge of his infidelity and the remembrance of the abrupt and terrible visit of the comte on the day of the catastrophe.
And now she was filled with tender, sweet and melancholy recollections of the brief evidences of love shown her by her husband. She constantly thrilled at unexpected memories of him, and she seemed to see him as he was when they were betrothed and as she had known him in the hours passed beneath the sunlight in Corsica. All his faults diminished, all his harshness vanished, his very infidelities appeared less glaring in the widening separation of the closed tomb. And Jeanne, pervaded by a sort of posthumous gratitude for this man who had held her in his arms, forgave all the suffering he had caused her, to remember only moments of happiness they had passed together. Then, as time went on and month followed month, covering all her grief and reminiscences with forgetfulness, she devoted herself entirely to her son.
He became the idol, the one thought of the three beings who surrounded him, and he ruled as a despot. A kind of jealousy even arose among his slaves. Jeanne watched with anxiety the great kisses he gave his grandfather after a ride on his knee, and Aunt Lison, neglected by him as she had been by every one else and treated often like a servant by this little tyrant who could scarcely speak as yet, would go to her room and weep as she compared the slight affection he showed her with the kisses he gave his mother and the baron.
Two years passed quietly, and at the beginning of the third winter it was decided that they should go to Rouen to live until spring, and the whole family set out. But on their arrival in the old damp house, that had been shut up for some time, Paul had such a severe attack of bronchitis that his three relatives in despair declared that he could not do without the air of “The Poplars.” They took him back there and he got well.
Then began a series of quiet, monotonous years. Always around the little one, they went into raptures at everything he did. His mother called him Poulet, and as he could not pronounce the word, he said “Pol,” which amused them immensely, and the nickname of “Poulet” stuck to him.
The favorite occupation of his “three mothers,” as the baron called his relatives, was to see how much he had grown, and for this purpose they made little notches in the casing of the drawing-room door, showing his progress from month to month. This ladder was called “Poulet’s ladder,” and was an important affair.
A new individual began to play a part in the affairs of the household — the dog “Massacre,” who became Paul’s inseparable companion.
Rare visits were exchanged with the Brisevilles and the Couteliers. The mayor and the doctor alone were regular visitors. Since the episode of the mother dog and the suspicion Jeanne had entertained of the priest on the occasion of the terrible death of the comtesse and Julien, Jeanne had not entered the church, angry with a divinity that could tolerate such ministers.
The church was deserted and the priest came to be looked on as a sorcerer because he had, so they said, driven out an evil spirit from a woman who was possessed, and although fearing him the peasants came to respect him for this occult power as well as for the unimpeachable austerity of his life.
When he met Jeanne he never spoke. This condition of affairs distressed Aunt Lison, and when she was alone, quite alone with Paul, she talked to him about God, telling him the wonderful stories of the early history of the world. But when she told him that he must love Him very much, the child would say: “Where is He, auntie?” “Up there,” she would say, pointing to the sky; “up there, Poulet, but do not say so.” She was afraid of the baron.
One day, however, Poulet said to her: “God is everywhere, but He is not in church.” He had told his grandfather of his aunt’s wonderful revelations.
When Paul was twelve years old a great difficulty arose on the subject of his first communion.
Lison came to Jeanne one morning and told her that the little fellow should no longer be kept without religious instruction and from his religious duties. His mother, troubled and undecided, hesitated, saying that there was time enough. But a month later, as she was returning a call at the Brisevilles’, the comtesse asked her casually if Paul was going to make his first communion that year. Jeanne, unprepared for this, answered, “Yes,” and this simple word decided her, and without saying a word to her father, she asked Aunt Lison to take the boy to the catechism class.
All went well for a month, but one day Paul came home with a hoarseness and the following day he coughed. On inquiry his mother learned that the priest had sent him to wait till the lesson was over at the door of the church, where there was a draught, because he had misbehaved. So she kept him at home and taught him herself. But the Abbé Tobiac, despite Aunt Lison’s entreaties, refused to admit him as a communicant on the ground that he was not thoroughly taught.
The same thing occurred the following year, and the baron angrily swore that the child did not need to believe all that tomfoolery, so it was decided that he should be brought up as a Christian, but not as an active Catholic, and when he came of age he could believe as he pleased.
The Brisevilles ceased to call on her and Jeanne was surprised, knowing the punctiliousness of these neighbors in returning calls, but the Marquise de Coutelier haughtily told her the reason. Considering herself, in virtue of her husband’s rank and fortune, a sort of queen of the Norman nobility, the marquise ruled as a queen, said what she thought, was gracious or the reverse as occasion demanded, admonishing, restoring to favor, congratulating whenever she saw fit. So when Jeanne came to see her, this lady, after a few chilling remarks, said drily: “Society is divided into two classes: those who believe in God and those who do not believe in Him. The former, even the humblest, are our friends, our equals; the latter are nothing to us.”
Jeanne, perceiving the insinuation, replied: “But may one not believe in God without going to church?”
“No, madame,” answered the marquise. “The faithful go to worship God in His church, just as one goes to see people in their homes.”
Jeanne, hurt, replied: “God is everywhere, madame. As for me, who believes from the bottom of my heart in His goodness, I no longer feel His presence when certain priests come between Him and me.”
The marquise rose. “The priest is the standard bearer of the Church, madame. Whoever does not follow the standard is opposed to Him and opposed to us.”
Jeanne had risen in her turn and said, trembling: “You believe, madame, in a partisan God. I believe in the God of upright people.” She bowed and took her leave.
The peasants also blamed her among themselves for not having let Poulet make his first communion. They themselves never attended service or took the sacrament unless it might be at Easter, according to the rule ordained by the Church; but for boys it was quite another thing, and they would have all shrunk in horror at the audacity of bringing up a child outside this recognized law, for religion is religion.
She saw how they felt and was indignant at heart at all these discriminations, all these compromises with conscience, this general fear of everything, the real cowardice of all hearts and the mask of respectability assumed in public.
The baron took charge of Paul’s studies and made him study Latin, his mother merely saying: “Above all things, do not get over tired.”
As soon as the boy was at liberty he went down to work in the garden with his mother and his aunt.
He now loved to dig in the ground, and all three planted young trees in the spring, sowed seed and watched it growing with the deepest interest, pruned branches and cut flowers for bouquets.
Poulet was almost fifteen, but was a mere child in intelligence, ignorant, silly, suppressed between petticoat government and this kind old man who belonged to another century.
One evening the baron spoke of college, and Jeanne at once began to sob. Aunt Lison timidly remained in a dark corner.
“Why does he need to know so much?” asked his mother. “We will make a gentleman farmer of him. He can cultivate his land, as many of the nobility do. He will live and grow old happily in this house, where we have lived before him and where we shall die. What more can one do?”
But the baron shook his head. “What would you say to him if he should say to you when he is twenty-five: ‘I amount to nothing, I know nothing, all through your fault, the fault of your maternal selfishness. I feel that I am incapable of working, of making something of myself, and yet I was not intended for a secluded, simple life, lonely enough to kill one, to which I have been condemned by your shortsighted affection.’”
She was weeping and said entreatingly: “Tell me, Poulet, you will not reproach me for having loved you too well?” And the big boy, in surprise, promised that he never would. “Swear it,” she said. “Yes, mamma.” “You want to stay here, don’t you?” “Yes, mamma.”
Then the baron spoke up loud and decidedly: “Jeanne, you have no right to make disposition of this life. What you are doing is cowardly and almost criminal; you are sacrificing your child to your own private happiness.”
She hid her face in her hands, sobbing convulsively, and stammered out amid her tears: “I have been so unhappy — so unhappy! Now, just as I am living peacefully with him, they want to take him away from me. What will become of me now — all by myself?” Her father rose and, sitting down beside her, put his arms round her. “And how about me, Jeanne?”
She put her arms suddenly round his neck, gave him a hearty kiss and with her voice full of tears, she said: “Yes, you are right perhaps, little father. I was foolish, but I have suffered so much. I am quite willing he should go to college.”
And without knowing exactly what they were going to do with him, Poulet in his turn began to weep.
Then the three mothers began to kiss him and pet him and encourage him. When they retired to their rooms it was with a weight at their hearts, and they all wept, even the baron, who had restrained himself up to that.
It was decided that when the term began to put the young boy to school at Havre, and during the summer he was petted more than ever; his mother sighed often as she thought of the separation. She prepared his wardrobe as if he were going to undertake a ten years’ voyage. One October morning, after a sleepless night, the two women and the baron got into the carriage with him and set out on their journey.
They had previously selected his place in the dormitory and his desk in the school room. Jeanne, aided by Aunt Lison, spent the whole day in arranging his clothes in his little wardrobe. As it did not hold a quarter of what they had brought, she went to look for the superintendent to ask for another. The treasurer was called, but he pointed out that all that amount of clothing would only be in the way and would never be needed, and he refused, on behalf of the directors, to let her have another chest of drawers. Jeanne, much annoyed, decided to hire a room in a small neighboring hotel, begging the proprietor to go himself and take Poulet whatever he required as soon as the boy asked for it.
They then took a walk on the pier to look at the ships coming and going. They went into a restaurant to dine, but they were none of them able to eat, and looked at one another with moistened eyes as the dishes were brought on and taken away almost untouched.
They now returned slowly toward the school. Boys of all ages were arriving from all quarters, accompanied by their families or by servants. Many of them were crying.
Jeanne held Poulet in a long embrace, while Aunt Lison remained in the background, her face hidden in her handkerchief. The baron, however, who was becoming affected, cut short the adieus by dragging his daughter away. They got into the carriage and went back through the darkness to “The Poplars,” the silence being broken by an occasional sob.
Jeanne wept all the following day and on the day after drove to Havre in the phaeton. Poulet seemed to have become reconciled to the separation. For the first time in his life he now had playmates, and in his anxiety to join them he could scarcely sit still on his chair when his mother called. She continued her visits to him every other day and called to take him home on Sundays. Not knowing what to do with herself while school was in session until recreation time, she would remain sitting in the reception room, not having the strength or the courage to go very far from the school. The superintendent sent to ask her to come to his office and begged her not to come so frequently. She paid no attention to his request. He therefore informed her that if she continued to prevent her son from taking his recreation at the usual hours, obliging him to work without a change of occupation, they would be forced to send him back home again, and the baron was also notified to the same effect. She was consequently watched like a prisoner at “The Poplars.”
She became restless and worried and would ramble about for whole days in the country, accompanied only by Massacre, dreaming as she walked along. Sometimes she would remain seated for a whole afternoon, looking out at the sea from the top of the cliff; at other times she would go down to Yport through the wood, going over the ground of her former walks, the memory of which haunted her. How long ago — how long ago it was — the time when she had gone over these same paths as a young girl, carried away by her dreams.
Poulet was not very industrious at school; he was kept two years in the fourth form. The third year’s work was only tolerable and he had to begin the second over again, so that he was in rhetoric when he was twenty.
He was now a big, fair young man, with downy whiskers and a faint sign of a mustache. He now came home to “The Poplars” every Sunday, riding over in a couple of hours, his mother, Aunt Lison and the baron starting out early to go and meet him.
Although he was a head taller than his mother, she always treated him as though he were a child, and when he returned to school in the evening she would charge him anxiously not to go too fast and to think of his poor mother, who would break her heart if anything happened to him.
One Saturday morning she received a letter from Paul, saying that he would not be home on the following day because some friends had arranged an excursion and had invited him. She was tormented with anxiety all day Sunday, as though she dreaded some misfortune, and on Thursday, as she could endure it no longer, she set out for Havre.
He seemed to be changed, though she could not have told in what manner. He appeared excited and his voice seemed deeper. And suddenly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, he said: “I say, mother, as long as you have come to-day, I want to tell you that I will not be at ‘The Poplars’ next Sunday, for we are going to have another excursion.”
She was amazed, smothering, as if he had announced his departure for America. At last, recovering herself, she said: “Oh, Poulet, what is the matter with you? Tell me what is going on.”
He began to laugh, and kissing her, replied: “Why, nothing, nothing, mamma. I am going to have a good time with my friends; I am just at that age.”
She had nothing to say, but when she was alone in the carriage all manner of ideas came into her mind. She no longer recognized him, her Poulet, her little Poulet of former days. She felt for the first time that he was grown up, that he no longer belonged to her, that he was going to live his life without troubling himself about the old people. It seemed to her that one day had wrought this change in him. Was it possible that this was her son, her poor little boy who had helped her to replant the lettuce, this great big bearded youth who had a will of his own!
For three months Paul came home only occasionally, and always seemed impatient to get away again, trying to steal off an hour earlier each evening. Jeanne was alarmed, but the baron consoled her, saying: “Let him alone; the boy is twenty years old.”
One morning, however, an old man, poorly dressed, inquired in German-French for “Madame la Vicomtesse,” and after many ceremonious bows, he drew from his pocket a dilapidated pocketbook, saying: “Che un betit bapier bour fous,” and unfolding as he handed it to her a piece of greasy paper. She read and reread it, looked at the Jew, read it over again and asked: “What does it mean?”
He obsequiously explained: “I will tell you. Your son needed a little money, and as I knew that you are a good mother, I lent him a trifle to help him out.”
Jeanne was trembling. “But why did he not ask me?” The Jew explained at length that it was a question of a debt that must be paid before noon the following day; that Paul not being of age, no one would have lent him anything, and that his “honor would have been compromised” without this little service that he had rendered the young man.
Jeanne tried to call the baron, but had not the strength to rise, she was so overcome by emotion. At length she said to the usurer: “Would you have the kindness to ring the bell?”
He hesitated, fearing some trap, and then stammered out: “If I am intruding, I will call again.” She shook her head in the negative. He then rang, and they waited in silence, sitting opposite each other.
When the baron came in he understood the situation at once. The note was for fifteen hundred francs. He paid one thousand, saying close to the man’s face: “And on no account come back.” The other thanked him and went his way.
The baron and Jeanne set out at once for Havre. On reaching the college they learned that Paul had not been there for a month. The principal had received four letters signed by Jeanne saying that his pupil was not well and then to tell how he was getting along. Each letter was accompanied by a doctor’s certificate. They were, of course, all forged. They were all dumbfounded, and stood there looking at each other.
The principal, very much worried, took them to the commissary of police. Jeanne and her father stayed at a hotel that night. The following day the young man was found in the apartment of a courtesan of the town. His grandfather and mother took him back to “The Poplars” and not a word was exchanged between them during the whole journey.
A week later they discovered that he had contracted fifteen thousand francs’ worth of debts within the last three months. His creditors had not come forward at first, knowing that he would soon be of age.
They entered into no discussion about it, hoping to win him back by gentleness. They gave him dainty food, petted him, spoiled him. It was spring and they hired a boat for him at Yport, in spite of Jeanne’s fears, so that he might amuse himself on the water.
They would not let him have a horse, for fear he should ride to Havre.
He was there with nothing to do and became irritable and occasionally brutally so. The baron was worried at the discontinuance of his studies. Jeanne, distracted at the idea of a separation, asked herself what they could do with him.
One evening he did not come home. They learned that he had gone out in a boat with two sailors. His mother, beside herself with anxiety, went down to Yport without a hat in the dark. Some men were on the beach, waiting for the boat to come in. There was a light on board an incoming boat, but Paul was not on board. He had made them take him to Havre.
The police sought him in vain; he could not be found. The woman with whom he had been found the first time had also disappeared without leaving any trace; her furniture was sold and her rent paid. In Paul’s room at “The Poplars” were found two letters from this person, who seemed to be madly in love with him. She spoke of a voyage to England, having, she said, obtained the necessary funds.
The three dwellers in the château lived silently and drearily, their minds tortured by all kinds of suppositions. Jeanne’s hair, which had become gray, now turned perfectly white. She asked in her innocence why fate had thus afflicted her.
She received a letter from the Abbé Tolbiac: “Madame, the hand of God is weighing heavily on you. You refused Him your child; He took him from you in His turn to cast him into the hands of a prostitute. Will not you open your eyes at this lesson from Heaven? God’s mercy is infinite. Perhaps He may pardon you if you return and fall on your knees before Him. I am His humble servant. I will open to you the door of His dwelling when you come and knock at it.”
She sat a long time with this letter on her lap. Perhaps it was true what the priest said. And all her religious doubts began to torment her conscience. And in her cowardly hesitation, which drives to church the doubting, the sorrowful, she went furtively one evening at twilight to the parsonage, and kneeling at the feet of the thin abbé, begged for absolution.
He promised her a conditional pardon, as God could not pour down all His favors on a roof that sheltered a man like the baron. “You will soon feel the effects of the divine mercy,” he declared.
Two days later she did, indeed, receive a letter from her son, and in her discouragement and grief she looked upon this as the commencement of the consolation promised her by the abbé. The letter ran:
“My Dear Mamma: Do not be uneasy. I am in London, in good health, in very great need of money. We have not a sou left, and we do not have anything to eat some days. The one who is with me, and whom I love with all my heart, has spent all that she had so as not to leave me — five thousand francs — and you see that I am bound in honor to return her this sum in the first place. So I wish you would be kind enough to advance me fifteen thousand francs of papa’s fortune, for I shall soon be of age. This will help me out of very serious difficulties.
“Good-by, my dear mamma. I embrace you with all my heart, and also grandfather and Aunt Lison. I hope to see you soon.
“Vicomte Paul de Lamare.”
He had written to her! He had not forgotten her then. She did not care anything about his asking for money! She would send him some as long as he had none. What did money matter? He had written to her! And she ran, weeping for joy, to show this letter to the baron. Aunt Lison was called and read over word by word this paper that told of him. They discussed each sentence.
Jeanne, jumping from the most complete despair to a kind of intoxication of hope, took Paul’s part. “He will come back, he will come back as he has written.”
The baron, more calm, said: “All the same he left us for that creature, so he must love her better than us, as he did not hesitate about it.”
A sudden and frightful pang struck Jeanne’s heart, and immediately she was filled with hatred of this woman who had stolen her son from her, an unappeasable, savage hate, the hatred of a jealous mother. Until now all her thoughts had been given to Paul. She scarcely took into consideration that a girl had been the cause of his vagaries. But the baron’s words had suddenly brought before her this rival, had revealed her fatal power, and she felt that between herself and this woman a struggle was about to begin, and she also felt that she would rather lose her son than share his affection with another. And all her joy was at an end.
They sent him the fifteen thousand francs and heard nothing more from him for five months.
Then a business man came to settle the details of Julien’s inheritance. Jeanne and the baron handed over the accounts without any discussion, even giving up the interest that should come to his mother. When Paul came back to Paris he had a hundred and twenty thousand francs. He then wrote four letters in six months, giving his news in concise terms and ending the letters with coldly affectionate expressions. “I am working,” he said; “I have obtained a position on the stock exchange. I hope to go and embrace you at ‘The Poplars’ some day, my dear parents.”
He did not mention his companion, and this silence implied more than if he had filled four pages with news of her. Jeanne, in these cold letters, felt this woman in ambush, the implacable, eternal enemy of mothers, the courtesan.
The three lonely beings discussed the best plan to follow in order to rescue Paul, but could decide on nothing. A voyage to Paris? What good would it do?
“Let his passion exhaust itself. He will come back then of his own accord,” said the baron.
Some time passed without any further news. But one morning they were terrified at the receipt of a despairing letter:
“My Poor Mamma: I am lost. There is nothing left for me to do but to blow out my brains unless you come to my aid. A speculation that gave every prospect of success has fallen through, and I am eighty-five thousand dollars in debt. I shall be dishonored if I do not pay up — ruined — and it will henceforth be impossible for me to do anything. I am lost. I repeat that I would rather blow out my brains than undergo this disgrace. I should have done so already, probably, but for the encouragement of a woman of whom I never speak to you, and who is my providence.
“I embrace you from the bottom of my heart, my dear mamma — perhaps for the last time. Good-by.
A package of business papers accompanying the letter gave the details of the failure.
The baron answered by return mail that they would see what could be done. Then he set out for Havre to get advice and he mortgaged some property to raise the money which was sent to Paul.
The young man wrote three letters full of the most heartfelt thanks and passionate affection, saying he was coming home at once to see his dear parents.
But he did not come.
A whole year passed. Jeanne and the baron were about to set out for Paris to try and make a last effort, when they received a line to say that he was in London again, setting an enterprise on foot in connection with steamboats under the name of “Paul de Lamare & Co.” He wrote: “This will give me an assured fortune, and perhaps great wealth, and I am risking nothing. You can see at once what a splendid thing it is. When I see you again I shall have a fine position in society. There is nothing but business these days to help you out of difficulties.”
Three months later the steamboat company failed and the manager was being sought for on account of certain irregularities in business methods. Jeanne had a nervous attack that lasted several hours and then she took to her bed.
The baron again went to Havre to make inquiries, saw some lawyers, some business men, some solicitors and bailiffs and found that the liabilities of the De Lamare concern were two hundred and thirty-five thousand francs, and he once more mortgaged some property. The château of “The Poplars” and the two farms and all that went with them were mortgaged for a large sum.
One evening as he was arranging the final details in the office of a business man, he fell over on the floor with a stroke of apoplexy.
A man was sent on horseback to notify Jeanne, but when she arrived he was dead.
She took his body back to “The Poplars,” so overcome that her grief was numbness rather than despair.
Abbé Tolbiac refused to permit the body to be brought to the church, despite the distracted entreaties of the two women. The baron was interred at twilight without any religious ceremony.
Paul learned of the event through one of the men who was settling up his affairs. He was still in hiding in England. He wrote to make excuses for not having come home, saying that he had learned of his grandfather’s death too late. “However, now that you have helped me out of my difficulties, my dear mamma, I shall go back to France and hope to embrace you soon.”
Jeanne was so crushed in spirit that she appeared not to understand anything. Toward the end of the winter Aunt Lison, who was now sixty-eight, had an attack of bronchitis that developed into pneumonia, and she died quietly, murmuring with her last breath: “My poor little Jeanne, I will ask God to take pity on you.”
Jeanne followed her to the grave, and as the earth fell on her coffin she sank to the ground, wishing that she might die also, so as not to suffer, to think. A strong peasant woman lifted her up and carried her away as if she had been a child.
When she reached the château Jeanne, who had spent the last five nights at Aunt Lison’s bedside, allowed herself to be put to bed without resistance by this unknown peasant woman, who handled her with gentleness and firmness, and she fell asleep from exhaustion, overcome with weariness and suffering.
She awoke about the middle of the night. A night light was burning on the mantelpiece. A woman was asleep in her easy chair. Who was this woman? She did not recognize her, and leaning over the edge of her bed, she sought to examine her features by the dim light of the wick floating in oil in a tumbler of water.
It seemed to her that she had seen this face. But when, but where? The woman was sleeping peacefully, her head to one side and her cap on the floor. She might be about forty or forty-five. She was stout, with a high color, squarely built and powerful. Her large hands hung down at either side of the chair. Her hair was turning gray. Jeanne looked at her fixedly, her mind in the disturbed condition of one awaking from a feverish sleep after a great sorrow.
She had certainly seen this face! Was it in former days? Was it of late years? She could not tell, and the idea distressed her, upset her nerves. She rose noiselessly to take another look at the sleeping woman, walking over on tiptoe. It was the woman who had lifted her up in the cemetery and then put her to bed. She remembered this confusedly.
But had she met her elsewhere at some other time of her life or did she only imagine she recognized her amid the confused recollections of the day before? And how did she come to be there in her room and why?
The woman opened her eyes and, seeing Jeanne, she rose to her feet suddenly. They stood face to face, so close that they touched one another. The stranger said crossly: “What! are you up? You will be ill, getting up at this time of night. Go back to bed!”
“Who are you?” asked Jeanne.
But the woman, opening her arms, picked her up and carried her back to her bed with the strength of a man. And as she laid her down gently and drew the covers over her, she leaned over close to Jeanne and, weeping as she did so, she kissed her passionately on the cheeks, her hair, her eyes, the tears falling on her face as she stammered out: “My poor mistress, Mam’zelle Jeanne, my poor mistress, don’t you recognize me?”
“Rosalie, my girl!” cried Jeanne, throwing her arms round her neck and hugging her as she kissed her, and they sobbed together, clasped in each other’s arms.
Rosalie was the first to regain her calmness. “Come,” she said, “you must be sensible and not catch cold.” And she covered her up warm and straightened the pillow under her former mistress’ head. The latter continued to sob, trembling all over at the recollections that were awakened in her mind. She finally inquired: “How did you come back, my poor girl?”
“Pardi! do you suppose I was going to leave you all alone like that, now?” replied Rosalie.
“Light a candle, so I may see you,” said Jeanne. And when the candle was brought to the bedside they looked at each other for some time without speaking a word. Then Jeanne, holding out her hand to her former maid, murmured: “I should not have recognized you, my girl, you have changed greatly; did you know it? But not as much as I have.” And Rosalie, looking at this white-haired woman, thin and faded, whom she had left a beautiful and fresh young woman, said: “That is true, you have changed, Madame Jeanne, and more than you should. But remember, however, that we have not seen each other for twenty-five years.”
They were silent, thinking over the past. At length Jeanne said hesitatingly: “Have you been happy?”
Rosalie, fearful of awakening certain painful souvenirs, stammered out: “Why — yes — yes — madame. I have nothing much to complain of. I have been happier than you have — that is sure. There was only one thing that always weighed on my heart, and that was that I did not stay here —” And she stopped suddenly, sorry she had referred to that unintentionally. But Jeanne replied gently: “How could you help it, my girl? One cannot always do as they wish. You are a widow now, also, are you not?” Then her voice trembled with emotion as she said: “Have you other — other children?”
“And he — your — your boy — what has become of him? Has he turned out well?”
“Yes, madame, he is a good boy and works industriously. He has been married for six months, and he can take my farm now, since I have come back to you.”
Jeanne murmured in a trembling voice: “Then you will never leave me again, my girl?”
“No, indeed, madame, I have arranged all that.”
Jeanne, in spite of herself, began to compare their lives, but without any bitterness, for she was now resigned to the unjust cruelty of fate. She said: “And your husband, how did he treat you?”
“Oh, he was a good man, madame, and not lazy; he knew how to make money. He died of consumption.”
Then Jeanne, sitting up in bed, filled with a longing to know more, said: “Come, tell me everything, my girl, all about your life. It will do me good just now.”
Rosalie, drawing up her chair, began to tell about herself, her home, her people, entering into those minute details dear to country people, describing her yard, laughing at some old recollection that reminded her of good times she had had, and raising her voice by degrees like a farmer’s wife accustomed to command. She ended by saying: “Oh, I am well off now. I don’t have to worry.” Then she became confused again, and said in a lower tone: “It is to you that I owe it, anyhow; and you know I do not want any wages. No, indeed! No, indeed! And if you will not have it so, I will go.”
Jeanne replied: “You do not mean that you are going to serve me for nothing?”
“Oh, yes, indeed, madame. Money! You give me money! Why, I have almost as much as you. Do you know what is left to you will all your jumble of mortgages and borrowing, and interests unpaid which are mounting up every year? Do you know? No, is it not so? Well, then, I can promise you that you have not even ten thousand francs income. Not ten thousand, do you understand? But I will settle all that for you, and very quickly.”
She had begun talking loud again, carried away in her indignation at these interests left unpaid, at this threatening ruin. And as a faint, tender smile passed over the face of her mistress, she cried in a tone of annoyance: “You must not laugh, madame, for without money we are nothing but laborers.”
Jeanne took hold of her hands and kept them in her own; then she said slowly, still full of the idea that haunted her: “Oh, I have had no luck. Everything has gone against me. Fate has a grudge against my life.”
But Rosalie shook her head: “You must not say that, madame. You married badly, that’s all. One should not marry like that, anyway, without knowing anything about one’s intended.”
And they went on talking about themselves just as two old friends might have done.
The sun rose while they were still talking.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53