Martine one morning obtained from Dr. Pascal, as she did every three months, his receipt for fifteen hundred francs, to take it to the notary Grandguillot, to get from him what she called their “income.” The doctor seemed surprised that the payment should have fallen due again so soon; he had never been so indifferent as he was now about money matters, leaving to Martine the care of settling everything. And he and Clotilde were under the plane trees, absorbed in the joy that filled their life, lulled by the ceaseless song of the fountain, when the servant returned with a frightened face, and in a state of extraordinary agitation. She was so breathless with excitement that for a moment she could not speak.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” she cried at last. “M. Grandguillot has gone away!”
Pascal did not at first comprehend.
“Well, my girl, there is no hurry,” he said; “you can go back another day.”
“No, no! He has gone away; don’t you hear? He has gone away forever —”
And as the waters rush forth in the bursting of a dam, her emotion vented itself in a torrent of words.
“I reached the street, and I saw from a distance a crowd gathered before the door. A chill ran through me; I felt that some misfortune had happened. The door closed, and not a blind open, as if there was somebody dead in the house. They told me when I got there that he had run away; that he had not left a sou behind him; that many families would be ruined.”
She laid the receipt on the stone table.
“There! There is your paper! It is all over with us, we have not a sou left, we are going to die of starvation!” And she sobbed aloud in the anguish of her miserly heart, distracted by this loss of a fortune, and trembling at the prospect of impending want.
Clotilde sat stunned and speechless, her eyes fixed on Pascal, whose predominating feeling at first seemed to be one of incredulity. He endeavored to calm Martine. Why! why! it would not do to give up in this way. If all she knew of the affair was what she had heard from the people in the street, it might be only gossip, after all, which always exaggerates everything. M. Grandguillot a fugitive; M. Grandguillot a thief; that was monstrous, impossible! A man of such probity, a house liked and respected by all Plassans for more than a century past. Why people thought money safer there than in the Bank of France.
“Consider, Martine, this would not have come all of a sudden, like a thunderclap; there would have been some rumors of it beforehand. The deuce! an old reputation does not fall to pieces in that way, in a night.”
At this she made a gesture of despair.
“Ah, monsieur, that is what most afflicts me, because, you see, it throws some of the responsibility on me. For weeks past I have been hearing stories on all sides. As for you two, naturally you hear nothing; you don’t even know whether you are alive or dead.”
Neither Pascal nor Clotilde could refrain from smiling; for it was indeed true that their love lifted them so far above the earth that none of the common sounds of existence reached them.
“But the stories I heard were so ugly that I didn’t like to worry you with them. I thought they were lies.”
She was silent for a moment, and then added that while some people merely accused M. Grandguillot of having speculated on the Bourse, there were others who accused him of still worse practises. And she burst into fresh sobs.
“My God! My God! what is going to become of us? We are all going to die of starvation!”
Shaken, then, moved by seeing Clotilde’s eyes, too, filled with tears, Pascal made an effort to remember, to see clearly into the past. Years ago, when he had been practising in Plassans, he had deposited at different times, with M. Grandguillot, the twenty thousand francs on the interest of which he had lived comfortably for the past sixteen years, and on each occasion the notary had given him a receipt for the sum deposited. This would no doubt enable him to establish his position as a personal creditor. Then a vague recollection awoke in his memory; he remembered, without being able to fix the date, that at the request of the notary, and in consequence of certain representations made by him, which Pascal had forgotten, he had given the lawyer a power of attorney for the purpose of investing the whole or a part of his money, in mortgages, and he was even certain that in this power the name of the attorney had been left in blank. But he was ignorant as to whether this document had ever been used or not; he had never taken the trouble to inquire how his money had been invested. A fresh pang of miserly anguish made Martine cry out:
“Ah, monsieur, you are well punished for your sin. Was that a way to abandon one’s money? For my part, I know almost to a sou how my account stands every quarter; I have every figure and every document at my fingers’ ends.”
In the midst of her distress an unconscious smile broke over her face, lighting it all up. Her long cherished passion had been gratified; her four hundred francs wages, saved almost intact, put out at interest for thirty years, at last amounted to the enormous sum of twenty thousand francs. And this treasure was put away in a safe place which no one knew. She beamed with delight at the recollection, and she said no more.
“But who says that our money is lost?” cried Pascal.
“M. Grandguillot had a private fortune; he has not taken away with him his house and his lands, I suppose. They will look into the affair; they will make an investigation. I cannot make up my mind to believe him a common thief. The only trouble is the delay: a liquidation drags on so long.”
He spoke in this way in order to reassure Clotilde, whose growing anxiety he observed. She looked at him, and she looked around her at La Souleiade; her only care his happiness; her most ardent desire to live here always, as she had lived in the past, to love him always in this beloved solitude. And he, wishing to tranquilize her, recovered his fine indifference; never having lived for money, he did not imagine that one could suffer from the want of it.
“But I have some money!” he cried, at last. “What does Martine mean by saying that we have not a sou left, and that we are going to die of starvation!”
And he rose gaily, and made them both follow him saying:
“Come, come, I am going to show you some money. And I will give some of it to Martine that she may make us a good dinner this evening.”
Upstairs in his room he triumphantly opened his desk before them. It was in a drawer of this desk that for years past he had thrown the money which his later patients had brought him of their own accord, for he had never sent them an account. Nor had he ever known the exact amount of his little treasure, of the gold and bank bills mingled together in confusion, from which he took the sums he required for his pocket money, his experiments, his presents, and his alms. During the last few months he had made frequent visits to his desk, making deep inroads into its contents. But he had been so accustomed to find there the sums he required, after years of economy during which he had spent scarcely anything, that he had come to believe his savings inexhaustible.
He gave a satisfied laugh, then, as he opened the drawer, crying:
“Now you shall see! Now you shall see!”
And he was confounded, when, after searching among the heap of notes and bills, he succeeded in collecting only a sum of 615 francs — two notes of 100 francs each, 400 francs in gold, and 15 francs in change. He shook out the papers, he felt in every corner of the drawer, crying:
“But it cannot be! There was always money here before, there was a heap of money here a few days ago. It must have been all those old bills that misled me. I assure you that last week I saw a great deal of money. I had it in my hand.”
He spoke with such amusing good faith, his childlike surprise was so sincere, that Clotilde could not keep from smiling. Ah, the poor master, what a wretched business man he was! Then, as she observed Martine’s look of anguish, her utter despair at sight of this insignificant sum, which was now all there was for the maintenance of all three, she was seized with a feeling of despair; her eyes filled with tears, and she murmured:
“My God, it is for me that you have spent everything; if we have nothing now, if we are ruined, it is I who am the cause of it!”
Pascal had already forgotten the money he had taken for the presents. Evidently that was where it had gone. The explanation tranquilized him. And as she began to speak in her grief of returning everything to the dealers, he grew angry.
“Give back what I have given you! You would give a piece of my heart with it, then! No, I would rather die of hunger, I tell you!”
Then his confidence already restored, seeing a future of unlimited possibilities opening out before him, he said:
“Besides, we are not going to die of hunger to-night, are we, Martine? There is enough here to keep us for a long time.”
Martine shook her head. She would undertake to manage with it for two months, for two and a half, perhaps, if people had sense, but not longer. Formerly the drawer was replenished; there was always some money coming in; but now that monsieur had given up his patients, they had absolutely no income. They must not count on any help from outside, then. And she ended by saying:
“Give me the two one-hundred-franc bills. I’ll try and make them last for a month. Then we shall see. But be very prudent; don’t touch the four hundred francs in gold; lock the drawer and don’t open it again.”
“Oh, as to that,” cried the doctor, “you may make your mind easy. I would rather cut off my right hand.”
And thus it was settled. Martine was to have entire control of this last purse; and they might trust to her economy, they were sure that she would save the centimes. As for Clotilde, who had never had a private purse, she would not even feel the want of money. Pascal only would suffer from no longer having his inexhaustible treasure to draw upon, but he had given his promise to allow the servant to buy everything.
“There! That is a good piece of work!” he said, relieved, as happy as if he had just settled some important affair which would assure them a living for a long time to come.
A week passed during which nothing seemed to have changed at La Souleiade. In the midst of their tender raptures neither Pascal nor Clotilde thought any more of the want which was impending. And one morning during the absence of the latter, who had gone with Martine to market, the doctor received a visit which filled him at first with a sort of terror. It was from the woman who had sold him the beautiful corsage of old point d’Alencon, his first present to Clotilde. He felt himself so weak against a possible temptation that he trembled. Even before the woman had uttered a word he had already begun to defend himself — no, no, he neither could nor would buy anything. And with outstretched hands he prevented her from taking anything out of her little bag, declaring to himself that he would look at nothing. The dealer, however, a fat, amiable woman, smiled, certain of victory. In an insinuating voice she began to tell him a long story of how a lady, whom she was not at liberty to name, one of the most distinguished ladies in Plassans, who had suddenly met with a reverse of fortune, had been obliged to part with one of her jewels; and she then enlarged on the splendid chance — a piece of jewelry that had cost twelve hundred francs, and she was willing to let it go for five hundred. She opened her bag slowly, in spite of the terrified and ever-louder protestations of the doctor, and took from it a slender gold necklace set simply with seven pearls in front; but the pearls were of wonderful brilliancy — flawless, and perfect in shape. The ornament was simple, chaste, and of exquisite delicacy. And instantly he saw in fancy the necklace on Clotilde’s beautiful neck, as its natural adornment. Any other jewel would have been a useless ornament, these pearls would be the fitting symbol of her youth. And he took the necklace in his trembling fingers, experiencing a mortal anguish at the idea of returning it. He defended himself still, however; he declared that he had not five hundred francs, while the dealer continued, in her smooth voice, to push the advantage she had gained. After another quarter an hour, when she thought she had him secure, she suddenly offered him the necklace for three hundred francs, and he yielded; his mania for giving, his desire to please his idol, to adorn her, conquered. When he went to the desk to take the fifteen gold pieces to count them out to the dealer, he felt convinced that the notary’s affairs would be arranged, and that they would soon have plenty of money.
When Pascal found himself once more alone, with the ornament in his pocket, he was seized with a childish delight, and he planned his little surprise, while waiting, excited and impatient, for Clotilde’s return. The moment she made her appearance his heart began to beat violently. She was very warm, for an August sun was blazing in the sky, and she laid aside her things quickly, pleased with her walk, telling him, laughing, of the good bargain Martine had made — two pigeons for eighteen sous. While she was speaking he pretended to notice something on her neck.
“Why, what have you on your neck? Let me see.”
He had the necklace in his hand, and he succeeded in putting it around her neck, while feigning to pass his fingers over it, to assure himself that there was nothing there. But she resisted, saying gaily:
“Don’t! There is nothing on my neck. Here, what are you doing? What have you in your hand that is tickling me?”
He caught hold of her, and drew her before the long mirror, in which she had a full view of herself. On her neck the slender chain showed like a thread of gold, and the seven pearls, like seven milky stars, shone with soft luster against her satin skin. She looked charmingly childlike. Suddenly she gave a delighted laugh, like the cooing of a dove swelling out its throat proudly.
“Oh, master, master, how good you are! Do you think of nothing but me, then? How happy you make me!”
And the joy which shone in her eyes, the joy of the woman and the lover, happy to be beautiful and to be adored, recompensed him divinely for his folly.
She drew back her head, radiant, and held up her mouth to him. He bent over and kissed her.
“Are you happy?”
“Oh, yes, master, happy, happy! Pearls are so sweet, so pure! And these are so becoming to me!”
For an instant longer she admired herself in the glass, innocently vain of her fair flower-like skin, under the nacre drops of the pearls. Then, yielding to a desire to show herself, hearing the servant moving about outside, she ran out, crying:
“Martine, Martine! See what master has just given me! Say, am I not beautiful!”
But all at once, seeing the old maid’s severe face, that had suddenly turned an ashen hue, she became confused, and all her pleasure was spoiled. Perhaps she had a consciousness of the jealous pang which her brilliant youth caused this poor creature, worn out in the dumb resignation of her servitude, in adoration of her master. This, however, was only a momentary feeling, unconscious in the one, hardly suspected by the other, and what remained was the evident disapprobation of the economical servant, condemning the present with her sidelong glance.
Clotilde was seized with a little chill.
“Only,” she murmured, “master has rummaged his desk again. Pearls are very dear, are they not?”
Pascal, embarrassed, too, protested volubly, telling them of the splendid opportunity presented by the dealer’s visit. An incredibly good stroke of business — it was impossible to avoid buying the necklace.
“How much?” asked the young girl with real anxiety.
“Three hundred francs.”
Martine, who had not yet opened her lips, but who looked terrible in her silence, could not restrain a cry.
“Good God! enough to live upon for six weeks, and we have not bread!”
Large tears welled from Clotilde’s eyes. She would have torn the necklace from her neck if Pascal had not prevented her. She wished to give it to him on the instant, and she faltered in heart-broken tones:
“It is true, Martine is right. Master is mad, and I am mad, too, to keep this for an instant, in the situation in which we are. It would burn my flesh. Let me take it back, I beg of you.”
Never would he consent to this, he said. Now his eyes, too, were moist, he joined in their grief, crying that he was incorrigible, that they ought to have taken all the money away from him. And running to the desk he took the hundred francs that were left, and forced Martine to take them, saying:
“I tell you that I will not keep another sou. I should spend this, too. Take it, Martine; you are the only one of us who has any sense. You will make the money last, I am very certain, until our affairs are settled. And you, dear, keep that; do not grieve me.”
Nothing more was said about this incident. But Clotilde kept the necklace, wearing it under her gown; and there was a sort of delightful mystery in feeling on her neck, unknown to every one, this simple, pretty ornament. Sometimes, when they were alone, she would smile at Pascal and draw the pearls from her dress quickly, and show them to him without a word; and as quickly she would replace them again on her warm neck, filled with delightful emotion. It was their fond folly which she thus recalled to him, with a confused gratitude, a vivid and radiant joy — a joy which nevermore left her.
A straitened existence, sweet in spite of everything, now began for them. Martine made an exact inventory of the resources of the house, and it was not reassuring. The provision of potatoes only promised to be of any importance. As ill luck would have it, the jar of oil was almost out, and the last cask of wine was also nearly empty. La Souleiade, having neither vines nor olive trees, produced only a few vegetables and some fruits — pears, not yet ripe, and trellis grapes, which were to be their only delicacies. And meat and bread had to be bought every day. So that from the first day the servant put Pascal and Clotilde on rations, suppressing the former sweets, creams, and pastry, and reducing the food to the quantity barely necessary to sustain life. She resumed all her former authority, treating them like children who were not to be consulted, even with regard to their wishes or their tastes. It was she who arranged the menus, who knew better than themselves what they wanted; but all this like a mother, surrounding them with unceasing care, performing the miracle of enabling them to live still with comfort on their scanty resources; occasionally severe with them, for their own good, as one is severe with a child when it refuses to eat its food. And it seemed as if this maternal care, this last immolation, the illusory peace with which she surrounded their love, gave her, too, a little happiness, and drew her out of the dumb despair into which she had fallen. Since she had thus watched over them she had begun to look like her old self, with her little white face, the face of a nun vowed to chastity; her calm ash-colored eyes, which expressed the resignation of her thirty years of servitude. When, after the eternal potatoes and the little cutlet at four sous, undistinguishable among the vegetables, she was able, on certain days, without compromising her budget, to give them pancakes, she was triumphant, she laughed to see them laugh.
Pascal and Clotilde thought everything she did was right, which did not prevent them, however, from jesting about her when she was not present. The old jests about her avarice were repeated over and over again. They said that she counted the grains of pepper, so many grains for each dish, in her passion for economy. When the potatoes had too little oil, when the cutlets were reduced to a mouthful, they would exchange a quick glance, stifling their laughter in their napkins, until she had left the room. Everything was a source of amusement to them, and they laughed innocently at their misery.
At the end of the first month Pascal thought of Martine’s wages. Usually she took her forty francs herself from the common purse which she kept.
“My poor girl,” he said to her one evening, “what are you going to do for your wages, now that we have no more money?”
She remained for a moment with her eyes fixed on the ground, with an air of consternation, then she said:
“Well, monsieur, I must only wait.”
But he saw that she had not said all that was in her mind, that she had thought of some arrangement which she did not know how to propose to him, so he encouraged her.
“Well, then, if monsieur would consent to it, I should like monsieur to sign me a paper.”
“How, a paper?”
“Yes, a paper, in which monsieur should say, every month, that he owes me forty francs.”
Pascal at once made out the paper for her, and this made her quite happy. She put it away as carefully as if it had been real money. This evidently tranquilized her. But the paper became a new subject of wondering amusement to the doctor and his companion. In what did the extraordinary power consist which money has on certain natures? This old maid, who would serve him on bended knees, who adored him above everything, to the extent of having devoted to him her whole life, to ask for this silly guarantee, this scrap of paper which was of no value, if he should be unable to pay her.
So far neither Pascal nor Clotilde had any great merit in preserving their serenity in misfortune, for they did not feel it. They lived high above it, in the rich and happy realm of their love. At table they did not know what they were eating; they might fancy they were partaking of a princely banquet, served on silver dishes. They were unconscious of the increasing destitution around them, of the hunger of the servant who lived upon the crumbs from their table; and they walked through the empty house as through a palace hung with silk and filled with riches. This was undoubtedly the happiest period of their love. The workroom had pleasant memories of the past, and they spent whole days there, wrapped luxuriously in the joy of having lived so long in it together. Then, out of doors, in every corner of La Souleiade, royal summer had set up his blue tent, dazzling with gold. In the morning, in the embalsamed walks on the pine grove; at noon under the dark shadow of the plane trees, lulled by the murmur of the fountain; in the evening on the cool terrace, or in the still warm threshing yard bathed in the faint blue radiance of the first stars, they lived with rapture their straitened life, their only ambition to live always together, indifferent to all else. The earth was theirs, with all its riches, its pomps, and its dominions, since they loved each other.
Toward the end of August however, matters grew bad again. At times they had rude awakenings, in the midst of this life without ties, without duties, without work; this life which was so sweet, but which it would be impossible, hurtful, they knew, to lead always. One evening Martine told them that she had only fifty francs left, and that they would have difficulty in managing for two weeks longer, even giving up wine. In addition to this the news was very serious; the notary Grandguillot was beyond a doubt insolvent, so that not even the personal creditors would receive anything. In the beginning they had relied on the house and the two farms which the fugitive notary had left perforce behind him, but it was now certain that this property was in his wife’s name and, while he was enjoying in Switzerland, as it was said, the beauty of the mountains, she lived on one of the farms, which she cultivated quietly, away from the annoyances of the liquidation. In short, it was infamous — a hundred families ruined; left without bread. An assignee had indeed been appointed, but he had served only to confirm the disaster, since not a centime of assets had been discovered. And Pascal, with his usual indifference, neglected even to go and see him to speak to him about his own case, thinking that he already knew all that there was to be known about it, and that it was useless to stir up this ugly business, since there was neither honor nor profit to be derived from it.
Then, indeed, the future looked threatening at La Souleiade. Black want stared them in the face. And Clotilde, who, in reality, had a great deal of good sense, was the first to take alarm. She maintained her cheerfulness while Pascal was present, but, more prescient than he, in her womanly tenderness, she fell into a state of absolute terror if he left her for an instant, asking herself what was to become of him at his age with so heavy a burden upon his shoulders. For several days she cherished in secret a project — to work and earn money, a great deal of money, with her pastels. People had so often praised her extraordinary and original talent that, taking Martine into her confidence, she sent her one fine morning to offer some of her fantastic bouquets to the color dealer of the Cours Sauvaire, who was a relation, it was said, of a Parisian artist. It was with the express condition that nothing was to be exhibited in Plassans, that everything was to be sent to a distance. But the result was disastrous; the merchant was frightened by the strangeness of the design, and by the fantastic boldness of the execution, and he declared that they would never sell. This threw her into despair; great tears welled her eyes. Of what use was she? It was a grief and a humiliation to be good for nothing. And the servant was obliged to console her, saying that no doubt all women were not born for work; that some grew like the flowers in the gardens, for the sake of their fragrance; while others were the wheat of the fields that is ground up and used for food.
Martine, meantime, cherished another project; it was to urge the doctor to resume his practise. At last she mentioned it to Clotilde, who at once pointed out to her the difficulty, the impossibility almost, of such an attempt. She and Pascal had been talking about his doing so only the day before. He, too, was anxious, and had thought of work as the only chance of salvation. The idea of opening an office again was naturally the first that had presented itself to him. But he had been for so long a time the physician of the poor! How could he venture now to ask payment when it was so many years since he had left off doing so? Besides, was it not too late, at his age, to recommence a career? not to speak of the absurd rumors that had been circulating about him, the name which they had given him of a crack-brained genius. He would not find a single patient now, it would be a useless cruelty to force him to make an attempt which would assuredly result only in a lacerated heart and empty hands. Clotilde, on the contrary, had used all her influence to turn him from the idea. Martine comprehended the reasonableness of these objections, and she too declared that he must be prevented from running the risk of so great a chagrin. But while she was speaking a new idea occurred to her, as she suddenly remembered an old register, which she had met with in a press, and in which she had in former times entered the doctor’s visits. For a long time it was she who had kept the accounts. There were so many patients who had never paid that a list of them filled three of the large pages of the register. Why, then, now that they had fallen into misfortune, should they not ask from these people the money which they justly owed? It might be done without saying anything to monsieur, who had never been willing to appeal to the law. And this time Clotilde approved of her idea. It was a perfect conspiracy. Clotilde consulted the register, and made out the bills, and the servant presented them. But nowhere did she receive a sou; they told her at every door that they would look over the account; that they would stop in and see the doctor himself. Ten days passed, no one came, and there were now only six francs in the house, barely enough to live upon for two or three days longer.
Martine, when she returned with empty hands on the following day from a new application to an old patient, took Clotilde aside and told her that she had just been talking with Mme. Felicite at the corner of the Rue de la Banne. The latter had undoubtedly been watching for her. She had not again set foot in La Souleiade. Not even the misfortune which had befallen her son — the sudden loss of his money, of which the whole town was talking — had brought her to him; she still continued stern and indignant. But she waited in trembling excitement, she maintained her attitude as an offended mother only in the certainty that she would at last have Pascal at her feet, shrewdly calculating that he would sooner or later be compelled to appeal to her for assistance. When he had not a sou left, when he knocked at her door, then she would dictate her terms; he should marry Clotilde, or, better still, she would demand the departure of the latter. But the days passed, and he did not come. And this was why she had stopped Martine, assuming a pitying air, asking what news there was, and seeming to be surprised that they had not had recourse to her purse, while giving it to be understood that her dignity forbade her to take the first step.
“You should speak to monsieur, and persuade him,” ended the servant. And indeed, why should he not appeal to his mother? That would be entirely natural.
“Oh! never would I undertake such a commission,” cried Clotilde. “Master would be angry, and with reason. I truly believe he would die of starvation before he would eat grandmother’s bread.”
But on the evening of the second day after this, at dinner, as Martine was putting on the table a piece of boiled beef left over from the day before, she gave them notice.
“I have no more money, monsieur, and to-morrow there will be only potatoes, without oil or butter. It is three weeks now that you have had only water to drink; now you will have to do without meat.”
They were still cheerful, they could still jest.
“Have you salt, my good girl?”
“Oh, that; yes, monsieur, there is still a little left.”
“Well, potatoes and salt are very good when one is hungry.”
That night, however, Pascal noticed that Clotilde was feverish; this was the hour in which they exchanged confidences, and she ventured to tell him of her anxiety on his account, on her own, on that of the whole house. What was going to become of them when all their resources should be exhausted? For a moment she thought of speaking to him of his mother. But she was afraid, and she contented herself with confessing to him what she and Martine had done — the old register examined, the bills made out and sent, the money asked everywhere in vain. In other circumstances he would have been greatly annoyed and very angry at this confession; offended that they should have acted without his knowledge, and contrary to the attitude he had maintained during his whole professional life. He remained for a long tine silent, strongly agitated, and this would have sufficed to prove how great must be his secret anguish at times, under his apparent indifference to poverty. Then he forgave Clotilde, clasping her wildly to his breast, and finally he said that she had done right, that they could not continue to live much longer as they were living, in a destitution which increased every day. Then they fell into silence, each trying to think of a means of procuring the money necessary for their daily wants, each suffering keenly; she, desperate at the thought of the tortures that awaited him; he unable to accustom himself to the idea of seeing her wanting bread. Was their happiness forever ended, then? Was poverty going to blight their spring with its chill breath?
At breakfast, on the following day, they ate only fruit. The doctor was very silent during the morning, a prey to a visible struggle. And it was not until three o’clock that he took a resolution.
“Come, we must stir ourselves,” he said to his companion. “I do not wish you to fast this evening again; so put on your hat, we will go out together.”
She looked at him, waiting for an explanation.
“Yes, since they owe us money, and have refused to give it to you, I will see whether they will also refuse to give it to me.”
His hands trembled; the thought of demanding payment in this way, after so many years, evidently made him suffer terribly; but he forced a smile, he affected to be very brave. And she, who knew from the trembling of his voice the extent of his sacrifice, had tears in her eyes.
“No, no, master; don’t go if it makes you suffer so much. Martine can go again.”
But the servant, who was present, approved highly of monsieur’s intention.
“And why should not monsieur go? There’s no shame in asking what is owed to one, is there? Every one should have his own; for my part, I think it quite right that monsieur should show at last that he is a man.”
Then, as before, in their hours of happiness, old King David, as Pascal jestingly called himself, left the house, leaning on Abishag’s arm. Neither of them was yet in rags; he still wore his tightly buttoned overcoat; she had on her pretty linen gown with red spots, but doubtless the consciousness of their poverty lowered them in their own estimation, making them feel that they were now only two poor people who occupied a very insignificant place in the world, for they walked along by the houses, shunning observation. The sunny streets were almost deserted. A few curious glances embarrassed them. They did not hasten their steps, however; only their hearts were oppressed at the thought of the visits they were about to make.
Pascal resolved to begin with an old magistrate whom he had treated for an affection of the liver. He entered the house, leaving Clotilde sitting on the bench in the Cours Sauvaire. But he was greatly relieved when the magistrate, anticipating his demand, told him that he did not receive his rents until October, and that he would pay him then. At the house of an old lady of seventy, a paralytic, the rebuff was of a different kind. She was offended because her account had been sent to her through a servant who had been impolite; so that he hastened to offer her his excuses, giving her all the time she desired. Then he climbed up three flights of stairs to the apartment of a clerk in the tax collector’s office, whom he found still ill, and so poor that he did not even venture to make his demand. Then followed a mercer, a lawyer’s wife, an oil merchant, a baker — all well-to-do people; and all turned him away, some with excuses, others by denying him admittance; a few even pretended not to know what he meant. There remained the Marquise de Valqueyras, the sole representative of a very ancient family, a widow with a girl of ten, who was very rich, and whose avarice was notorious. He had left her for the last, for he was greatly afraid of her. Finally he knocked at the door of her ancient mansion, at the foot of the Cours Sauvaire, a massive structure of the time of Mazarin. He remained so long in the house that Clotilde, who was walking under the trees, at last became uneasy.
When he finally made his appearance, at the end of a full half hour, she said jestingly, greatly relieved:
“Why, what was the matter? Had she no money?”
But here, too, he had been unsuccessful; she complained that her tenants did not pay her.
“Imagine,” he continued, in explanation of his long absence, “the little girl is ill. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a gastric fever. So she wished me to see the child, and I examined her.”
A smile which she could not suppress came to Clotilde’s lips.
“And you prescribed for her?”
“Of course; could I do otherwise?”
She took his arm again, deeply affected, and he felt her press it against her heart. For a time they walked on aimlessly. It was all over; they had knocked at every debtor’s door, and nothing now remained for them to do but to return home with empty hands. But this Pascal refused to do, determined that Clotilde should have something more than the potatoes and water which awaited them. When they ascended the Cours Sauvaire, they turned to the left, to the new town; drifting now whither cruel fate led them.
“Listen,” said Pascal at last; “I have an idea. If I were to speak to Ramond he would willingly lend us a thousand francs, which we could return to him when our affairs are arranged.”
She did not answer at once. Ramond, whom she had rejected, who was now married and settled in a house in the new town, in a fair way to become the fashionable physician of the place, and to make a fortune! She knew, indeed, that he had a magnanimous soul and a kind heart. If he had not visited them again it had been undoubtedly through delicacy. Whenever they chanced to meet, he saluted them with so admiring an air, he seemed so pleased to see their happiness.
“Would that be disagreeable to you?” asked Pascal ingenuously. For his part, he would have thrown open to the young physician his house, his purse, and his heart.
“No, no,” she answered quickly. “There has never been anything between us but affection and frankness. I think I gave him a great deal of pain, but he has forgiven me. You are right; we have no other friend. It is to Ramond that we must apply.”
Ill luck pursued them, however. Ramond was absent from home, attending a consultation at Marseilles, and he would not be back until the following evening. And it young Mme. Ramond, an old friend of Clotilde’s, some three years her junior, who received them. She seemed a little embarrassed, but she was very amiable, notwithstanding. But the doctor, naturally, did not prefer his request, and contented himself with saying, in explanation of his visit, that he had missed Ramond. When they were in the street again, Pascal and Clotilde felt themselves once more abandoned and alone. Where now should they turn? What new effort should they make? And they walked on again aimlessly.
“I did not tell you, master,” Clotilde at last ventured to murmur, “but it seems that Martine met grandmother the other day. Yes, grandmother has been uneasy about us. She asked Martine why we did not go to her, if we were in want. And see, here is her house.”
They were in fact, in the Rue de la Banne. They could see the corner of the Place de la Sous-Prefecture. But he at once silenced her.
“Never, do you hear! Nor shall you go either. You say that because it grieves you to see me in this poverty. My heart, too, is heavy, to think that you also are in want, that you also suffer. But it is better to suffer than to do a thing that would leave one an eternal remorse. I will not. I cannot.”
They emerged from the Rue de la Banne, and entered the old quarter.
“I would a thousand times rather apply to a stranger. Perhaps we still have friends, even if they are only among the poor.”
And resolved to beg, David continued his walk, leaning on the arm of Abishag; the old mendicant king went from door to door, leaning on the shoulder of the loving subject whose youth was now his only support. It was almost six o’clock; the heat had abated; the narrow streets were filling with people; and in this populous quarter where they were loved, they were everywhere greeted with smiles. Something of pity was mingled with the admiration they awakened, for every one knew of their ruin. But they seemed of a nobler beauty than before, he all white, she all blond, pressing close to each other in their misfortune. They seemed more united, more one with each other than ever; holding their heads erect, proud of their glorious love, though touched by misfortune; he shaken, while she, with a courageous heart, sustained him. And in spite of the poverty that had so suddenly overtaken them they walked without shame, very poor and very great, with the sorrowful smile under which they concealed the desolation of their souls. Workmen in dirty blouses passed them by, who had more money in their pockets than they. No one ventured to offer them the sou which is not refused to those who are hungry. At the Rue Canoquin they stopped at the house of Gulraude. She had died the week before. Two other attempts which they made failed. They were reduced now to consider where they could borrow ten francs. They had been walking about the town for three hours, but they could not resolve to go home empty-handed.
Ah, this Plassans, with its Cours Sauvaire, its Rue de Rome, and its Rue de la Banne, dividing it into three quarters; this Plassans; with its windows always closed, this sun-baked town, dead in appearance, but which concealed under this sleeping surface a whole nocturnal life of the clubhouse and the gaming table. They walked through it three times more with slackened pace, on this clear, calm close of a glowing August day. In the yard of the coach office a few old stage-coaches, which still plied between the town and the mountain villages, were standing unharnessed; and under the thick shade of the plane trees at the doors of the cafes, the customers, who were to be seen from seven o’clock in the morning, looked after them smiling. In the new town, too, the servants came and stood at the doors of the wealthy houses; they met with less sympathy here than in the deserted streets of the Quartier St. Marc, whose antique houses maintained a friendly silence. They returned to the heart of the old quarter where they were most liked; they went as far as St. Saturnin, the cathedral, whose apse was shaded by the garden of the chapter, a sweet and peaceful solitude, from which a beggar drove them by himself asking an alms from them. They were building rapidly in the neighborhood of the railway station; a new quarter was growing up there, and they bent their steps in that direction. Then they returned a last time to the Place de la Sous-Prefecture, with a sudden reawakening of hope, thinking that they might meet some one who would offer them money. But they were followed only by the indulgent smile of the town, at seeing them so united and so beautiful. Only one woman had tears in her eyes, foreseeing, perhaps, the sufferings that awaited them. The stones of the Viorne, the little sharp paving stones, wounded their feet. And they had at last to return to La Souleiade, without having succeeded in obtaining anything, the old mendicant king and his submissive subject; Abishag, in the flower of her youth, leading back David, old and despoiled of his wealth, and weary from having walked the streets in vain.
It was eight o’clock, and Martine, who was waiting for them, comprehended that she would have no cooking to do this evening. She pretended that she had dined, and as she looked ill Pascal sent her at once to bed.
“We do not need you,” said Clotilde. “As the potatoes are on the fire we can take them up very well ourselves.”
The servant, who was feverish and out of humor, yielded. She muttered some indistinct words — when people had eaten up everything what was the use of sitting down to table? Then, before shutting herself into her room, she added:
“Monsieur, there is no more hay for Bonhomme. I thought he was looking badly a little while ago; monsieur ought to go and see him.”
Pascal and Clotilde, filled with uneasiness, went to the stable. The old horse was, in fact, lying on the straw in the somnolence of expiring old age. They had not taken him out for six months past, for his legs, stiff with rheumatism, refused to support him, and he had become completely blind. No one could understand why the doctor kept the old beast. Even Martine had at last said that he ought to be slaughtered, if only through pity. But Pascal and Clotilde cried out at this, as much excited as if it had been proposed to them to put an end to some aged relative who was not dying fast enough. No, no, he had served them for more than a quarter of a century; he should die comfortably with them, like the worthy fellow he had always been. And to-night the doctor did not scorn to examine him, as if he had never attended any other patients than animals. He lifted up his hoofs, looked at his gums, and listened to the beating of his heart.
“No, there is nothing the matter with him,” he said at last. “It is simply old age. Ah, my poor old fellow, I think, indeed, we shall never again travel the roads together.”
The idea that there was no more hay distressed Clotilde. But Pascal reassured her — an animal of that age, that no longer moved about, needed so little. She stooped down and took a few handfuls of grass from a heap which the servant had left there, and both were rejoiced when Bonhomme deigned, solely and simply through friendship, as it seemed, to eat the grass out of her hand.
“Oh,” she said, laughing, “so you still have an appetite! You cannot be very sick, then; you must not try to work upon our feelings. Good night, and sleep well.”
And they left him to his slumbers after having each given him, as usual, a hearty kiss on either side of his nose.
Night fell, and an idea occurred to them, in order not to remain downstairs in the empty house — to close up everything and eat their dinner upstairs. Clotilde quickly took up the dish of potatoes, the salt-cellar, and a fine decanter of water; while Pascal took charge of a basket of grapes, the first which they had yet gathered from an early vine at the foot of the terrace. They closed the door, and laid the cloth on a little table, putting the potatoes in the middle between the salt-cellar and the decanter, and the basket of grapes on a chair beside them. And it was a wonderful feast, which reminded them of the delicious breakfast they had made on the morning on which Martine had obstinately shut herself up in her room, and refused to answer them. They experienced the same delight as then at being alone, at waiting upon themselves, at eating from the same plate, sitting close beside each other. This evening, which they had anticipated with so much dread, had in store for them the most delightful hours of their existence. As soon as they found themselves at home in the large friendly room, as far removed from the town which they had just been scouring as if they had been a hundred leagues away from it, all uneasiness and all sadness vanished — even to the recollection of the wretched afternoon wasted in useless wanderings. They were once more indifferent to all that was not their affection; they no longer remembered that they had lost their fortune; that they might have to hunt up a friend on the morrow in order to be able to dine in the evening. Why torture themselves with fears of coming want, when all they required to enjoy the greatest possible happiness was to be together?
But Pascal felt a sudden terror.
“My God! and we dreaded this evening so greatly! Is it wise to be happy in this way? Who knows what to-morrow may have in store for us?”
But she put her little hand over his mouth; she desired that he should have one more evening of perfect happiness.
“No, no; to-morrow we shall love each other as we love each other to-day. Love me with all your strength, as I love you.”
And never had they eaten with more relish. She displayed the appetite of a healthy young girl with a good digestion; she ate the potatoes with a hearty appetite, laughing, thinking them delicious, better than the most vaunted delicacies. He, too, recovered the appetite of his youthful days. They drank with delight deep draughts of pure water. Then the grapes for dessert filled them with admiration; these grapes so fresh, this blood of the earth which the sun had touched with gold. They ate to excess; they became drunk on water and fruit, and more than all on gaiety. They did not remember ever before to have enjoyed such a feast together; even the famous breakfast they had made, with its luxuries of cutlets and bread and wine, had not given them this intoxication, this joy in living, when to be together was happiness enough, changing the china to dishes of gold, and the miserable food to celestial fare such as not even the gods enjoyed.
It was now quite dark, but they did not light the lamp. Through the wide open windows they could see the vast summer sky. The night breeze entered, still warm and laden with a faint odor of lavender. The moon had just risen above the horizon, large and round, flooding the room with a silvery light, in which they saw each other as in a dream light infinitely bright and sweet.
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:34