Cards now became a distraction in the life of the young people. Every morning after breakfast, Julien would play several games of bezique with his wife, smoking and sipping brandy as he played. She would then go up to her room and sit down beside the window, and as the rain beat against the panes, or the wind shook the windows, she would embroider away steadily. Occasionally she would raise her eyes and look out at the gray sea which had white-caps on it. Then, after gazing listlessly for some time, she would resume her work.
She had nothing else to do, Julien having taken the entire management of the house, to satisfy his craving for authority and his craze for economy. He was parsimonious in the extreme, never gave any tips, cut down the food to the merest necessaries; and as Jeanne since her return had ordered the baker to make her a little Norman “galette” for breakfast, he had cut down this extra expense, and condemned her to eat toast.
She said nothing in order to avoid recriminations, arguments and quarrels; but she suffered keenly at each fresh manifestation of avarice on the part of her husband. It appeared to her low and odious, brought up as she had been in a family where money was never considered. How often had she not heard her mother say: “Why, money is made to be spent.” Julien would now say: “Will you never become accustomed to not throwing money away?” And each time he deducted a few sous from some one’s salary or on a note, he would say with a smile, as he slipped the change into his pocket: “Little streams make big rivers.”
On certain days Jeanne would sit and dream. She would gradually cease sewing and, with her hands idle, and forgetting her surroundings, she would weave one of those romances of her girlhood and be lost in some enchanting adventure. But suddenly Julien’s voice giving some orders to old Simon would snatch her abruptly from her dreams, and she would take up her work again, saying: “That is all over,” and a tear would fall on her hands as she plied the needle.
Rosalie, formerly so cheerful and always singing, had changed. Her rounded cheeks had lost their color, and were now almost hollow, and sometimes had an earthy hue. Jeanne would frequently ask her: “Are you ill, my girl?” The little maid would reply: “No, madame,” while her cheeks would redden slightly and she would retire hastily.
At the end of January the snow came. In one night the whole plain was covered and the trees next morning were white with icy foam.
On one of these mornings, Jeanne was sitting warming her feet before the fire in her room, while Rosalie, who had changed from day to day, was making the bed. Suddenly hearing behind her a kind of moan, Jeanne asked, without turning her head: “What is the matter?”
The maid replied as usual: “Nothing, madame”; but her voice was weak and trembling.
Jeanne’s thoughts were on something else, when she noticed that the girl was not moving about the room. She called: “Rosalie!” Still no sound. Then, thinking she might have left the room, she cried in a louder tone: “Rosalie!” and she was reaching out her arm to ring the bell, when a deep moan close beside her made her start up with a shudder.
The little servant, her face livid, her eyes haggard, was seated on the floor, her legs stretched out, and her back leaning against the bed. Jeanne sprang toward her. “What is the matter with you — what is the matter?” she asked.
The girl did not reply, did not move. She stared vacantly at her mistress and gasped as though she were in terrible pain. Then, suddenly, she slid down on her back at full length, clenching her teeth to smother a cry of anguish.
Jeanne suddenly understood, and almost distracted, she ran to the head of the stairs, crying: “Julien, Julien!”
“What do you want?” he replied from below.
She hardly knew how to tell him. “It is Rosalie, who ——”
Julien rushed upstairs two steps at a time, and going abruptly into the room, he found the poor girl had just been delivered of a child. He looked round with a wicked look on his face, and pushing his terrified wife out of the room, exclaimed: “This is none of your affair. Go away. Send me Ludivine and old Simon.”
Jeanne, trembling, descended to the kitchen, and then, not daring to go upstairs again, she went into the drawing-room, in which there had been no fire since her parents left, and anxiously awaited news.
She presently saw the man-servant running out of the house. Five minutes later he returned with Widow Dentu, the nurse of the district.
Then there was a great commotion on the stairs as though they were carrying a wounded person, and Julien came in and told Jeanne that she might go back to her room.
She trembled as if she had witnessed some terrible accident. She sat down again before the fire, and asked: “How is she?”
Julien, preoccupied and nervous, was pacing up and down the room. He seemed to be getting angry, and did not reply at first. Then he stopped and said: “What do you intend to do with this girl?”
She did not understand, and looked at her husband. “Why, what do you mean? I do not know.”
Then suddenly flying into a rage, he exclaimed: “We cannot keep a bastard in the house.”
Jeanne was very much bewildered, and said at the end of a long silence: “But, my friend, perhaps we could put it out to nurse?”
He cut her short: “And who will pay the bill? You will, no doubt.”
She reflected for some time, trying to find some way out of the difficulty; at length she said: “Why, the father will take care of it, of the child; and if he marries Rosalie, there will be no more difficulty.”
Julien, as though his patience were exhausted, replied furiously: “The father! — the father! — do you know him — the father? No, is it not so? Well then ——?”
Jeanne, much affected, became excited: “But you certainly would not let the girl go away like that. It would be cowardly! We will inquire the name of the man, and we will go and find him, and he will have to explain matters.”
Julien had calmed down and resumed his pacing up and down. “My dear,” he said, “she will not tell the name of the man; she will not tell you any more than she will tell me — and, if he does not want her? . . . We cannot, however, keep a woman and her illegitimate child under our roof, don’t you understand?”
Jeanne, persistent, replied: “Then he must be a wretch, this man. But we must certainly find out who it is, and then he will have us to deal with.”
Julien colored, became annoyed again, and said: “But — meanwhile ——?”
She did not know what course to take, and asked: “What do you propose?”
“Oh, I? That’s very simple. I would give her some money and send her to the devil with her brat.”
The young wife, indignant, was disgusted with him. “That shall never be,” she said. “She is my foster-sister, that girl; we grew up together. She has made a mistake, so much the worse; but I will not cast her out of doors on that account; and, if it is necessary, I will bring up the child.”
Then Julien’s wrath exploded: “And we should earn a fine reputation, we, with our name and our position! And they would say of us everywhere that we were protecting vice, harboring beggars; and decent people would never set their foot inside our doors. What are you thinking of? You must be crazy!”
She had remained quite calm. “I shall never cast off Rosalie; and if you do not wish her to stay, my mother will take her; and we shall surely succeed in finding out the name of the father of the child.”
He left the room in exasperation, banging the door after him and exclaiming: “What stupid ideas women have!”
In the afternoon Jeanne went up to see the patient. The little maid, watched over by Widow Dentu, was lying still in her bed, her eyes wide open, while the nurse held the new-born babe in her arms.
As soon as Rosalie perceived her mistress, she began to sob, hiding her face in the covers and shaking with her sorrow. Jeanne wanted to kiss her, but she avoided it by keeping her face covered. But the nurse interfered, and drawing away the sheet, uncovered her face, and she let Jeanne kiss her, weeping still, but more quietly.
A meagre fire was burning in the grate; the room was cold; the child was crying. Jeanne did not dare to speak of the little one, for fear of another attack, and she took her maid’s hand as she said mechanically: “It will not matter, it will not matter.” The poor girl glanced furtively at the nurse, and trembled as the infant cried, and the remembrance of her sorrow came to her mind occasionally in a convulsive sob, while suppressed tears choked her.
Jeanne kissed her again, and murmured softly in her ear: “We will take good care of it, never fear, my girl.” Then as she was beginning to cry again, Jeanne made her escape.
She came to see her every day, and each time Rosalie burst into tears at the sight of her mistress.
The child was put out to nurse at a neighbor’s.
Julien, however, hardly spoke to his wife, as though he had nourished anger against her ever since she refused to send away the maid. He referred to the subject one day, but Jeanne took from her pocket a letter from the baroness asking them to send the girl to them at once if they would not keep her at the “Poplars.” Julien, furious, cried: “Your mother is as foolish as you are!” but he did not insist any more.
Two weeks later the patient was able to get up and take up her work again.
One morning, Jeanne made her sit down and, taking her hands and looking steadfastly at her, she said:
“See here, my girl, tell me everything.”
Rosalie began to tremble, and faltered:
“Whose is it, this child?”
The little maid was overcome with confusion, and she sought wildly to withdraw her hands so as to hide her face. But Jeanne kissed her in spite of herself, and consoled her, saying: “It is a misfortune, but cannot be helped, my girl. You were weak, but that happens to many others. If the father marries you, no one will think of it again.”
Rosalie sighed as if she were suffering, and from time to time made an effort to disengage herself and run away.
Jeanne resumed: “I understand perfectly that you are ashamed; but you see that I am not angry, that I speak kindly to you. If I ask you the name of the man it is for your own good, for I feel from your grief that he has deserted you, and because I wish to prevent that. Julien will go and look for him, you see, and we will oblige him to marry you; and as we will employ you both, we will oblige him also to make you happy.”
This time Rosalie gave such a jerk that she snatched her hands away from her mistress and ran off as if she were mad.
That evening at dinner Jeanne said to Julien: “I tried to persuade Rosalie to tell me the name of her betrayer. I did not succeed. You try to find out so that we can compel this miserable man to marry her.”
But Julien became angry: “Oh! you know I do not wish to hear anything about it. You wish to keep this girl. Keep her, but do not bother me about her.”
Since the girl’s illness he appeared to be more irritable than ever; and he had got into the way of never speaking to his wife without shouting as if he were in a rage, while she, on the contrary, would lower her voice, be gentle and conciliating, to avoid all argument; but she often wept at night after she went to bed.
In spite of his constant irritability, her husband had become more affectionate than customary since their return.
Rosalie was soon quite well and less sad, although she appeared terrified, pursued by some unknown fear, and she ran away twice when Jeanne tried to question her again.
Julien all at once became more amiable, and the young wife, clinging to vain hopes, also became more cheerful. The thaw had not yet set in and a hard, smooth, glittering covering of snow extended over the landscape. Neither men nor animals were to be seen; only the chimneys of the cottages gave evidence of life in the smoke that ascended from them into the icy air.
One evening the thermometer fell still lower, and Julien, shivering as he left the table — for the dining-room was never properly heated, he was so economical with the wood — rubbed his hands, murmuring: “It will be warmer to-night, won’t it, my dear?” He laughed with his jolly laugh of former days, and Jeanne threw her arms around his neck: “I do not feel well, dear; perhaps I shall be better to-morrow.”
“As you wish, my dear. If you are ill you must take care of yourself.” And they began to talk of other things.
She retired early. Julien, for a wonder, had a fire lighted in her room. As soon as he saw that it was burning brightly, he kissed his wife on the forehead and left the room.
The whole house seemed to be penetrated by the cold; the very walls seemed to be shivering, and Jeanne shivered in her bed. Twice she got up to put fresh logs on the fire and to look for dresses, skirts, and other garments which she piled on the bed. Nothing seemed to warm her; her feet were numbed and her lower limbs seemed to tingle, making her excessively nervous and restless.
Then her teeth began to chatter, her hands shook, there was a tightness in her chest, her heart began to beat with hard, dull pulsations, and at times seemed to stop beating, and she gasped for breath. A terrible apprehension seized her, while the cold seemed to penetrate to her marrow. She never had felt such a sensation, she had never seemed to lose her hold on life like this before, never been so near her last breath.
“I am going to die,” she thought, “I am dying ——”
And filled with terror, she jumped out of bed, rang for Rosalie, waited, rang again, waited again, shivering and frozen.
The little maid did not come. She was doubtless asleep, that first, sound sleep that nothing can disturb. Jeanne, in despair, darted toward the stairs in her bare feet, and groping her way, she ascended the staircase quietly, found the door, opened it, and called, “Rosalie!” She went forward, stumbled against the bed, felt all over it with her hands and found that it was empty. It was empty and cold, and as if no one had slept there. Much surprised, she said: “What! Has she gone out in weather like this?”
But as her heart began to beat tumultuously till she seemed to be suffocating, she went downstairs again with trembling limbs in order to wake Julien. She rushed into his room filled with the idea that she was going to die, and longing to see him before she lost consciousness.
By the light of the dying embers she perceived Rosalie’s head leaning on her husband’s shoulder.
At the cry she gave they both started to their feet; she stood motionless for a second, horrified at this discovery, and then fled to her room; and when Julien, at his wit’s end, called “Jeanne!” she was seized with an overmastering terror of seeing him, of hearing his voice, of listening to him explaining, lying, of meeting his gaze; and she darted toward the stairs again and went down.
She now ran along in the darkness, at the risk of falling downstairs, at the risk of breaking her neck on the stone floor of the hall. She rushed along, impelled by an imperious desire to flee, to know nothing about it, to see no one.
When she was at the bottom of the stairs she sat down on one of the steps, still in her nightdress, and in bare feet, and remained in a dazed condition. She heard Julien moving and walking about. She started to her feet in order to escape him. He was starting to come downstairs and called: “Listen, Jeanne!”
No, she would not listen nor let him touch her with the tips of his fingers; and she darted into the dining-room as if she were fleeing from an assassin. She looked for a door of escape, a hiding place, a dark corner, some way of avoiding him. She hid under the table. But he was already at the door, a candle in his hand, still calling: “Jeanne!” She started off again like a hare, darted into the kitchen, ran round it twice like a trapped animal, and as he came near her, she suddenly opened the door into the garden and darted out into the night.
The contact with the snow, into which she occasionally sank up to her knees, seemed to give her the energy of despair. She did not feel cold, although she had little on. She felt nothing, her body was so numbed from the emotion of her mind, and she ran along as white as the snow.
She followed the large avenue, crossed the wood, crossed the ditch, and started off across the plain.
There was no moon, the stars were shining like sparks of fire in the black sky; but the plain was light with a dull whiteness, and lay in infinite silence.
Jeanne walked quickly, hardly breathing, not knowing, not thinking of anything. She suddenly stopped on the edge of the cliff. She stopped short, instinctively, and crouched down, bereft of thought and of will power.
In the abyss before her the silent, invisible sea exhaled the salt odor of its wrack at low tide.
She remained thus some time, her mind as inert as her body; then, all at once, she began to tremble, to tremble violently, like a sail shaken by the wind. Her arms, her hands, her feet, impelled by an invisible force, throbbed, pulsated wildly, and her consciousness awakened abruptly, sharp and poignant.
Old memories passed before her mental vision: the sail with him in Père Lastique’s boat, their conversation, his nascent love, the christening of the boat; then she went back, further back, to that night of dreams when she first came to the “Poplars.” And now! And now! Oh, her life was shipwrecked, all joy was ended, all expectation at an end; and the frightful future full of torture, of deception, and of despair appeared before her. Better to die, it would all be over at once.
But a voice cried in the distance: “Here it is, here are her steps; quick, quick, this way!” It was Julien who was looking for her.
Oh! she did not wish to see him again. In the abyss down yonder before her she now heard a slight sound, the indistinct ripple of the waves over the rocks. She rose to her feet with the idea of throwing herself over the cliff and bidding life farewell. Like one in despair, she uttered the last word of the dying, the last word of the young soldier slain in battle: “Mother!”
All at once the thought of little mother came to her mind, she saw her sobbing, she saw her father on his knees before her mangled remains, and in a second she felt all the pain of their sorrow.
She sank down again into the snow; and when Julien and old Simon, followed by Marius, carrying a lantern, seized her arm to pull her back as she was so close to the brink, she made no attempt to escape.
She let them do as they would, for she could not stir. She felt that they were carrying her, and then that she was being put to bed and rubbed with hot cloths; then she became unconscious.
Then she had a nightmare, or was it a nightmare? She was in bed. It was broad daylight, but she could not get up. Why? She did not know. Then she heard a little noise on the floor, a sort of scratching, a rustling, and suddenly a mouse, a little gray mouse, ran quickly across the sheet. Another followed it, then a third, who ran toward her chest with his little, quick scamper. Jeanne was not afraid, and she reached out her hand to catch the animal, but could not catch it. Then other mice, ten, twenty, hundreds, thousands, rose up on all sides of her. They climbed the bedposts, ran up the tapestries, covered the bed completely. And soon they got beneath the covers; Jeanne felt them gliding over her skin, tickling her limbs, running up and down her body. She saw them running from the bottom of the bed to get into her neck under the sheets; and she tried to fight them off, throwing her hands out to try and catch them, but always finding them empty.
She was frantic, wanted to escape, screamed, and it seemed as if she were being held down, as if strong arms enfolded her and rendered her helpless; but she saw no one.
She had no idea of time. It must have been long, a very long time.
Then she awoke, weary, aching, but quiet. She felt weak, very weak. She opened her eyes and was not surprised to see little mother seated in her room with a man whom she did not know.
How old was she? She did not know, and thought she was a very little girl. She had no recollection of anything.
The big man said: “Why, she has regained consciousness.” Little mother began to weep. Then the big man resumed: “Come, be calm, baroness; I can ensure her recovery now. But do not talk to her at all. Let her sleep, let her sleep.”
Then it seemed to Jeanne that she remained in a state of exhaustion for a long time, overcome by a heavy sleep as soon as she tried to think; and she tried not to remember anything whatever, as though she had a vague fear that the reality might come back to her.
Once when she awoke she saw Julien, alone, standing beside her; and suddenly it all came back to her, as if the curtain which hid her past life had been raised.
She felt a horrible pain in her heart, and wanted to escape once more. She threw back the coverlets, jumped to the floor and fell down, her limbs being too weak to support her.
Julien sprang toward her, and she began to scream for him not to touch her. She writhed and rolled on the floor. The door opened. Aunt Lison came running in with Widow Dentu, then the baron, and finally little mother, puffing and distracted.
They put her back into bed, and she immediately closed her eyes, so as to escape talking and be able to think quietly.
Her mother and aunt watched over her anxiously, saying: “Do you hear us now, Jeanne, my little Jeanne?”
She pretended to be deaf, not to hear them, and did not answer. Night came on and the nurse took up her position beside the bed. She did not sleep; she kept trying to think of things that had escaped her memory as though there were holes in it, great white empty places where events had not been noted down.
Little by little she began to recall the facts, and she pondered over them steadily.
Little mother, Aunt Lison, the baron had come, so she must have been very ill. But Julien? What had he said? Did her parents know? And Rosalie, where was she? And what should she do? What should she do? An idea came to her — she would return to Rouen and live with father and little mother as in old days. She would be a widow; that’s all.
Then she waited, listening to what was being said around her, understanding everything without letting them see it, rejoiced at her returning reason, patient and crafty.
That evening, at last, she found herself alone with the baroness and called to her in a low tone: “Little Mother!” Her own voice astonished her, it seemed strange. The baroness seized her hands: “My daughter, my darling Jeanne! My child, do you recognize me?”
“Yes, little mother, but you must not weep; we have a great deal to talk about. Did Julien tell you why I ran away in the snow?”
“Yes, my darling, you had a very dangerous fever.”
“It was not that, mamma. I had the fever afterward; but did he tell you what gave me the fever and why I ran away?”
“No, my dearie.”
“It was because I found Rosalie in his room.”
Her mother thought she was delirious again and soothed her, saying: “Go to sleep, darling, calm yourself, try to sleep.”
But Jeanne, persistent, continued: “I am quite sensible now, little mother. I am not talking wildly as I must have done these last days. I felt ill one night and I went to look for Julien. Rosalie was with him in his room. I did not know what I was doing, for sorrow, and I ran out into the snow to throw myself off the cliff.”
But the baroness reiterated, “Yes, darling, you have been very ill, very ill.”
“It is not that, mamma. I found Rosalie in with Julien, and I will not live with him any longer. You will take me back with you to Rouen to live as we used to do.”
The baroness, whom the doctor had warned not to thwart Jeanne in any way, replied: “Yes, my darling.”
But the invalid grew impatient: “I see that you do not believe me. Go and fetch little father, he will soon understand.”
The baroness left the room and presently returned, leaning on her husband’s arm. They sat down beside the bed and Jeanne began to talk. She told them all, quietly, in a weak voice, but clearly; all about Julien’s peculiar character, his harshness, his avarice, and, finally, his infidelity.
When she had finished, the baron saw that she was not delirious, but he did not know what to think, what to determine, or what to answer. He took her hand, tenderly, as he used to do when he put her to sleep with stories, and said: “Listen, dearie, we must act with prudence. We must do nothing rash. Try to put up with your husband until we can come to some decision — promise me this?”
“I will try, but I will not stay here after I get well,” she replied.
Then she added in a lower tone: “Where is Rosalie now?”
“You will not see her any more,” replied the baron. But she persisted: “Where is she? I wish to know.” Then he confessed that she had not left the house, but declared that she was going to leave.
On leaving the room the baron, filled with indignation and wounded in his feelings as a father, went to look for Julien, and said to him abruptly: “Sir, I have come to ask you for an explanation of your conduct toward my daughter. You have been unfaithful to her with your maid, which is a double insult.”
Julien pretended to be innocent, denied everything positively, swore, took God as his witness. What proof had they? he asked. Was not Jeanne delirious? Had she not had brain fever? Had she not run out in the snow, in an attack of delirium, at the very beginning of her illness? And it was just at this time, when she was running about the house almost naked, that she pretends that she saw her maid in her husband’s room!
And he grew angry, threatened a lawsuit, became furious. The baron, bewildered, made excuses, begged his pardon, and held out his loyal hand to Julien, who refused to take it.
When Jeanne heard what her husband had said, she did not show any annoyance, but replied: “He is lying, papa, but we shall end by convicting him.”
For some days she remained taciturn and reserved, thinking over matters. The third morning she asked to see Rosalie. The baron refused to send her up, saying she had left. Jeanne persisted, saying: “Well, let some one go and fetch her.”
She was beginning to get excited when the doctor came. They told him everything, so that he could form an opinion. But Jeanne suddenly burst into tears, her nerves all unstrung, and almost screamed: “I want Rosalie; I wish to see her!”
The doctor took hold of her hand and said in a low tone: “Calm yourself, madame; any emotion may lead to serious consequences, for you are enceinte.”
She was dumfounded, as though she had received a blow; and it seemed to her that she felt the first stirrings of life within her. Then she was silent, not even listening to what was being said, absorbed in her own thoughts. She could not sleep that night for thinking of the new life that was developing in her, and was sad at the thought that it was Julien’s child, and might resemble him. The following morning she sent for the baron. “Little father,” she said, “my resolution is formed; I wish to know everything, and especially just now; you understand, I insist, and you know that you must not thwart me in my present condition. Listen! You must go and get M. le Curé. I need him here to keep Rosalie from telling a lie. Then, as soon as he comes, send him up to me, and you stay downstairs with little mother. And, above all things, see that Julien does not suspect anything.”
An hour later the priest came, looking fatter than ever, and puffing like the baroness. He sat down in an arm-chair and began to joke, wiping his forehead as usual with his plaid handkerchief. “Well, baroness, I do not think we grow any thinner; I think we make a good pair.” Then, turning toward the patient, he said: “Eh, what is this I hear, young lady, that we are soon to have a fresh baptism? Aha, it will not be a boat this time.” And in a graver tone he added: “It will be a defender of the country; unless”— after a moment’s reflection —“it should be the prospective mother of a family, like you, madame,” bowing to the baroness.
The door at the end of the room opened and Rosalie appeared, beside herself, weeping, refusing to enter the room, clinging to the door frame, and being pushed forward by the baron. Quite out of patience, he thrust her into the room. She covered her face with her hands and remained standing there, sobbing.
Jeanne, as soon as she saw her, rose to a sitting posture, whiter than the sheets, and with her heart beating wildly. She could not speak, could hardly breathe. At length she said, in a voice broken with emotion: “I— I— will not — need — to question you. It — it is enough for me to see you thus — to — to see your — your shame in my presence.”
After a pause, for she was out of breath, she continued: “I had M. le Curé come, so that it might be like a confession, you understand.”
Rosalie, motionless, uttered little cries that were almost screams behind her hands.
The baron, whose anger was gaining ground, seized her arms, and snatching her hands from her face, he threw her on her knees beside the bed, saying: “Speak! Answer!”
She remained on the ground, in the position assigned to Magdalens, her cap awry, her apron on the floor, and her face again covered by her hands.
Then the priest said: “Come, my girl, listen to what is said to you, and reply. We do not want to harm you, but we want to know what occurred.”
Jeanne, leaning over, looked at her and said: “Is it true that you were with Julien when I surprised you?”
Rosalie moaned through her fingers, “Yes, madame.”
Then the baroness suddenly began to cry in a choking fashion, and her convulsive sobs accompanied those of Rosalie.
Jeanne, with her eyes fixed on the maid, said: “How long had this been going on?”
“Ever since he came here,” faltered Rosalie.
Jeanne could not understand. “Ever since he came — then — ever since — ever since the spring?”
“Ever since he came into this house?”
And Jeanne, as if overflowing with questions, asked, speaking precipitately:
“But how did it happen? How did he approach you? How did he persuade you? What did he say? When, how did you ever yield to him? How could you ever have done it?”
Rosalie, removing her hands from her face, and overwhelmed also with a feverish desire to speak, said:
“How do I know, myself? It was the day he dined here for the first time, and he came up to my room. He had hidden himself in the loft. I did not dare to scream for fear of making a scandal. I no longer knew what I was doing. Then I said nothing because I liked him.”
Then Jeanne exclaimed with almost a scream:
“But — your — your child — is his child?”
Then they were both silent. The only sound to be heard was the sobs of Rosalie and of the baroness.
Jeanne, quite overcome, felt her tears also beginning to flow; and they fell silently down her cheeks.
The maid’s child had the same father, as her child! Her anger was at an end; she now was filled with a dreary, slow, profound and infinite despair. She presently resumed in a changed, tearful voice, the voice of a woman who has been crying:
“When we returned from — from down there — from our journey — when did he begin again?”
The little maid, who had sunk down on the floor, faltered: “The first evening.”
Each word wrung Jeanne’s heart. So on the very first night of their return to the “Poplars” he left her for this girl. That was why he wanted to sleep alone!
She now knew all she wanted to know, and exclaimed: “Go away, go away!” And as Rosalie, perfectly crushed, did not stir, Jeanne called to her father: “Take her away, carry her away!” The priest, who had said nothing as yet, thought that the moment had arrived for him to preach a little sermon.
“What you have done is very wrong, my daughter, very wrong, and God will not pardon you so easily. Consider the hell that awaits you if you do not always act right. Now that you have a child you must behave yourself. No doubt madame la baronne will do something for you, and we will find you a husband.”
He would have continued speaking, but the baron, having again seized Rosalie by the shoulders, raised her from the floor and dragged her to the door, and threw her like a package into the corridor. As he turned back into the room, looking paler than his daughter, the priest resumed: “What can one do? They are all like that in the district. It is shocking, but cannot be helped, and then one must be a little indulgent toward the weaknesses of our nature. They never get married until they have become enceinte, never, madame.” He added, smiling: “One might call it a local custom. So, you see, monsieur, your maid did as all the rest do.”
But the baron, who was trembling with nervousness, interrupted him, saying, “She! what do I care about her! It is Julien with whom I am indignant. It is infamous, the way he has behaved, and I shall take my daughter away.”
He walked up and down excitedly, becoming more and more exasperated: “It is infamous to have betrayed my child, infamous! He is a wretch, this man, a cad, a wretch! and I will tell him so. I will slap his face. I will give him a horsewhipping!”
The priest, who was slowly taking a pinch of snuff, seated beside the baroness still in tears, and endeavoring to fulfill his office of a peacemaker, said: “Come, monsieur le baron, between ourselves, he has done what every one else does. Do you know many husbands who are faithful?” And he added with a sly good humor: “Come now, I wager that you have had your turn. Your hand on your heart, am I right?” The baron had stopped in astonishment before the priest, who continued: “Why, yes, you did just as others did. Who knows if you did not make love to a little sugar plum like that? I tell you that every one does. Your wife was none the less happy, or less loved; am I not right?”
The baron had not stirred, he was much disturbed. What the priest said was true, and he had sinned as much as any one and had not hesitated when his wife’s maids were in question. Was he a wretch on that account? Why should he judge Julien’s conduct so severely when his own had not been above blame?
The baroness, still struggling with her sobs, smiled faintly at the recollection of her husband’s escapades, for she belonged to the sentimental class for whom love adventures are a part of existence.
Jeanne, exhausted, lay with wide-open eyes, absorbed in painful reflection. Something Rosalie had said had wounded her as though an arrow had pierced her heart: “As for me, I said nothing, because I liked him.”
She had liked him also, and that was the only reason why she had given herself, bound herself for life to him, why she had renounced everything else, all her cherished plans, all the unknown future. She had fallen into this marriage, into this hole without any edges by which one could climb out, into this wretchedness, this sadness, this despair, because, like Rosalie, she had liked him!
The door was pushed violently open and Julien appeared, with a furious expression on his face. He had caught sight of Rosalie moaning on the stairs, and suspected that something was up, that the maid had probably told all. The sight of the priest riveted him to the spot.
“Why, what’s the matter?” he asked in a trembling but quiet tone.
The baron, so violent a short while ago, did not venture to speak, afraid of the priest’s remarks, and of what his son-in-law might say in the same strain. Little mother was weeping more copiously than ever; but Jeanne had raised herself with her hands and looked, breathing quickly, at the one who had caused her such cruel sorrow. She stammered out: “The fact is, we know all, all your rascality since — since the day you first entered this house — we know that the child of this maid is your child, just as — as — mine is — they will be brothers.” Overcome with sorrow at this thought, she buried herself in the sheets and wept bitterly.
Julien stood there gaping, not knowing what to say or do. The priest came to the rescue.
“Come, come, do not give way like that, my dear young lady, be sensible.” He rose, approached the bed and placed his warm hand on the despairing girl’s forehead. This seemed to soothe her strangely. She felt quieted, as if this strong peasant’s hand, accustomed to the gesture of absolution, to kindly consolations, had conveyed by its touch some mysterious solace.
The good man, still standing, continued: “Madame, we must always forgive. A great sorrow has come to you; but God in His mercy has balanced it by a great happiness, since you will become a mother. This child will be your comfort. In his name I implore you, I adjure you to forgive M. Julien’s error. It will be a new bond between you, a pledge of his future fidelity. Can you remain apart in your heart from him whose child you bear?”
She did not reply, crushed, mortified, exhausted as she was, without even strength for anger or resentment. Her nerves seemed relaxed, almost severed, she seemed to be scarcely alive.
The baroness, who seemed incapable of resentment, and whose mind was unequal to prolonged effort, murmured: “Come, come, Jeanne.”
Then the priest took the hand of the young man and leading him up to the bed, he placed his hand in that of his wife, and gave it a little tap as though to unite them more closely. Then laying aside his professional tone and manner, he said with a satisfied air: “Well, now, that’s done. Believe me, that is the best thing to do.” The two hands, joined for a moment, separated immediately. Julien, not daring to kiss Jeanne, kissed his mother-in-law on the forehead, turned on his heel, took the arm of the baron, who acquiesced, happy at heart that the thing had been settled thus, and they went out together to smoke a cigar.
The patient, overcome, dozed off, while the priest and little mother talked in a low tone.
The priest explained and propounded his ideas, to which the baroness assented by nodding her head. He said in conclusion: “Well, then, that is understood; you will give this girl the Barville farm, and I will undertake to find her a husband, a good, steady fellow. Oh! with a property worth twenty thousand francs we shall have no lack of suitors. There will be more than enough to choose from.”
The baroness was smiling now, quite happy, with the remains of two tears that had dried on her cheeks.
She repeated: “That is settled. Barville is worth at least twenty thousand francs, but it will be settled on the child, the parents having the use of it during their lifetime.”
The curé rose, shook little mother’s hand, saying: “Do not disturb yourself, Madame la Baronne, do not disturb yourself; I know what an effort it is.”
As he went out he met Aunt Lison coming to see her patient. She noticed nothing; they told her nothing; and she knew nothing, as usual.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53