In the break, on their way home, all the men dozed excepting Jean. Beausire and Roland dropped every five minutes on to a neighbour's shoulder which repelled them with a shove. Then they sat up, ceased to snore, opened their eyes, muttered, "A lovely evening!" and almost immediately fell over on the other side.
By the time they reached Havre their drowsiness was so heavy that they had great difficulty in shaking it off, and Beausire even refused to go to Jean's rooms where tea was waiting for them. He had to be set down at his own door.
The young lawyer was to sleep in his new abode for the first time; and he was full of rather puerile glee which had suddenly come over him, at being able, that very evening, to show his betrothed the rooms she was so soon to inhabit.
The maid had gone to bed, Mme. Roland having declared that she herself would boil the water and make the tea, for she did not like the servants to be kept up for fear of fire.
No one had yet been into the lodgings but herself, Jean, and the workmen, that the surprise might be the greater at their being so pretty.
Jean begged them all to wait a moment in the ante-room. He wanted to light the lamps and candles, and he left Mme. Rosemilly in the dark with his father and brother; then he cried: "Come in!" opening the double door to its full width.
The glass gallery, lighted by a chandelier and little coloured lamps hidden among palms, india-rubber plants, and flowers, was first seen like a scene on the stage. There was a spasm of surprise. Roland, dazzled by such luxury, muttered an oath, and felt inclined to clap his hands as if it were a pantomime scene. They then went into the first drawing-room, a small room hung with dead gold and furnished to match. The larger drawing-room—the lawyer's consulting-room, very simple, hung with light salmon-colour—was dignified in style.
Jean sat down in his arm-chair in front of his writing-table loaded with books, and in a solemn, rather stilted tone, he began:
"Yes, madame, the letter of the law is explicit, and, assuming the consent I promised you, it affords me absolute certainty that the matter we discussed will come to a happy conclusion within three months."
He looked at Mme. Rosemilly, who began to smile and glanced at Mme. Roland. Mme. Roland took her hand and pressed it. Jean, in high spirits, cut a caper like a school-boy, exclaiming: "Hah! How well the voice carries in this room; it would be capital for speaking in."
And he declaimed:
"If humanity alone, if the instinct of natural benevolence which we feel towards all who suffer, were the motive of the acquittal we expect of you, I should appeal to your compassion, gentlemen of the jury, to your hearts as fathers and as men; but we have law on our side, and it is the point of law only which we shall submit to your judgment."
Pierre was looking at this home which might have been his, and he was restive under his brother's frolics, thinking him really too silly and witless.
Mme. Roland opened a door on the right.
"This is the bed-room," said she.
She had devoted herself to its decoration with all her mother's love. The hangings were of Rouen cretonne imitating old Normandy chintz, and the Louis XV. design—a shepherdess, in a medallion held in the beaks of a pair of doves—gave the walls, curtains, bed, and arm-chairs a festive, rustic style that was extremely pretty!
"Oh, how charming!" Mme. Rosemilly exclaimed, becoming a little serious as they entered the room.
"Do you like it?" asked Jean.
"You cannot imagine how glad I am."
They looked at each other for a second, with confiding tenderness in the depths of their eyes.
She had felt a little awkward, however, a little abashed, in this room which was to be hers. She noticed as she went in that the bed was a large one, quite a family bed, chosen by Mme. Roland, who had no doubt foreseen and hoped that her son should soon marry; and this motherly foresight pleased her, for it seemed to tell her that she was expected in the family.
When they had returned to the drawing-room Jean abruptly threw open the door to the left, showing the circular dining-room with three windows, and decorated to imitate a Chinese lantern. Mother and son had here lavished all the fancy of which they were capable, and the room, with its bamboo furniture, its mandarins, jars, silk hangings glistening with gold, transparent blinds threaded with beads looking like drops of water, fans nailed to the wall to drape the hangings on, screens, swords, masks, cranes made of real feathers, and a myriad trifles in china, wood, paper, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and bronze, had the pretentious and extravagant aspect which unpractised hands and uneducated eyes inevitably stamp on things which need the utmost tact, taste, and artistic education. Nevertheless it was the most admired; only Pierre made some observations with rather bitter irony which hurt his brother's feelings.
Pyramids of fruit stood on the table and monuments of cakes. No one was hungry; they picked at the fruit and nibbled at the cakes rather than ate them. Then, at the end of about an hour, Mme. Rosemilly begged to take leave. It was decided that old Roland should accompany her home and set out with her forthwith; while Mme. Roland, in the maid's absence, should cast a maternal eye over the house and see that her son had all he needed.
"Shall I come back for you?" asked Roland.
She hesitated a moment and then said: "No, dear old man; go to bed. Pierre will see me home."
As soon as they were gone she blew out the candles, locked up the cakes, the sugar, and liqueurs in a cupboard of which she gave the key to Jean; then she went into the bed-room, turned down the bed, saw that there was fresh water in the water-bottle, and that the window was properly closed.
Pierre and Jean had remained in the little outer drawing-room; the younger still sore under the criticism passed on his taste, and the elder chafing more and more at seeing his brother in this abode. They both sat smoking without a word. Pierre suddenly started to his feet.
"Cristi!" he exclaimed. "The widow looked very jaded this evening. Long excursions do not improve her."
Jean felt his spirit rising with one of those sudden and furious rages which boil up in easy-going natures when they are wounded to the quick. He could hardly find breath to speak, so fierce was his excitement, and he stammered out:
"I forbid you ever again to say 'the widow' when you speak of Mme. Rosemilly."
Pierre turned on him haughtily:
"You are giving me an order, I believe. Are you gone mad by any chance?"
Jean had pulled himself up.
"I am not gone mad, but I have had enough of your manners to me."
Pierre sneered: "To you? And are you any part of Mme. Rosemilly?"
"You are to know that Mme. Rosemilly is about to become my wife."
Pierre laughed the louder.
"Ah! ha! very good. I understand now why I should no longer speak of her as 'the widow.' But you have taken a strange way of announcing your engagement."
"I forbid any jesting about it. Do you hear? I forbid it."
Jean had come close up to him, pale, and his voice quivering with exasperation at this irony levelled at the woman he loved and had chosen.
But on a sudden Pierre turned equally furious. All the accumulation of impotent rage, of suppressed malignity, of rebellion choked down for so long past, all his unspoken despair mounted to his brain, bewildering it like a fit.
"How dare you? How dare you? I order you to hold your tongue—do you hear? I order you."
Jean, startled by his violence, was silent for a few seconds, trying in the confusion of mind which comes of rage to hit on the thing, the phrase, the word, which might stab his brother to the heart. He went on, with an effort to control himself that he might aim true, and to speak slowly that the words might hit more keenly:
"I have known for a long time that you were jealous of me, ever since the day when you first began to talk of 'the widow' because you knew it annoyed me."
Pierre broke into one of those strident and scornful laughs which were common with him.
"Ah! ah! Good Heavens! Jealous of you! I? I? And of what? Good God! Of your person or your mind?"
But Jean knew full well that he had touched the wound in his soul.
"Yes, jealous of me—jealous from your childhood up. And it became fury when you saw that this woman liked me best and would have nothing to say to you."
Pierre, stung to the quick by this assumption, stuttered out:
"I? I? Jealous of you? And for the sake of that goose, that gaby, that simpleton?"
Jean, seeing that he was aiming true, went on:
"And how about the day when you tried to pull me round in the Pearl? And all you said in her presence to show off? Why, you are bursting with jealousy! And when this money was left to me you were maddened, you hated me, you showed it in every possible way, and made every one suffer for it; not an hour passes that you do not spit out the bile that is choking you."
Pierre clenched his fist in his fury with an almost irresistible impulse to fly at his brother and seize him by the throat.
"Hold your tongue," he cried. "At least say nothing about that money."
Jean went on:
"Why your jealousy oozes out at every pore. You never say a word to my father, my mother, or me that does not declare it plainly. You pretend to despise me because you are jealous. You try to pick a quarrel with every one because you are jealous. And now that I am rich you can no longer contain yourself; you have become venomous, you torture our poor mother as if she were to blame!"
Pierre had retired step by step as far as the fire-place, his mouth half open, his eyes glaring, a prey to one of those mad fits of passion in which a crime is committed.
He said again in a lower tone, gasping for breath: "Hold your tongue—for God's sake hold your tongue!"
"No! For a long time I have been wanting to give you my whole mind! You have given me an opening—so much the worse for you. I love the woman; you know it, and laugh her to scorn in my presence—so much the worse for you. But I will break your viper's fangs, I tell you. I will make you treat me with respect."
"Respect you? You who have brought shame on us all by your greed."
"You say—? Say it again—again."
"I say that it does not do to accept one man's fortune when another is reputed to be your father."
Jean stood rigid, not understanding, dazed by the insinuation he scented.
"What? Repeat that once more."
"I say—what everybody is muttering, what every gossip is blabbing—that you are the son of the man who left you his fortune. Well, then—a decent man does not take the money which brings dishonour on his mother."
"Pierre! Pierre! Pierre! Think what you are saying. You? Is it you who give utterance to this infamous thing?"
"Yes, I. It is I. Have you not seen me crushed with woe this month past, spending my nights without sleep and my days in lurking out of sight like an animal? I hardly know what I am doing or what will become of me, so miserable am I, so crazed with shame and grief; for first I guessed—and now I know it."
"Pierre! Be silent. Mother is in the next room. Remember she may hear—she must hear."
But Pierre felt that he must unburden his heart. He told Jean all his suspicions, his arguments, his struggles, his assurance, and the history of the portrait—which had again disappeared. He spoke in short broken sentences almost without coherence—the language of a sleep-walker.
He seemed to have quite forgotten Jean, and his mother in the adjoining room. He talked as if no one were listening, because he must talk, because he had suffered too much and smothered and closed the wound too tightly. It had festered like an abscess and the abscess had burst, splashing every one. He was pacing the room in the way he almost always did, his eyes fixed on vacancy, gesticulating in a frenzy of despair, his voice choked with tearless sobs and revulsions of self-loathing; he spoke as if he were making a confession of his own misery and that of his nearest kin, as though he were casting his woes to the deaf, invisible winds which bore away his words.
Jean, distracted and almost convinced on a sudden by his brother's blind vehemence, was leaning against the door behind which, as he guessed, their mother had heard them.
She could not get out, she must come through his room. She had not come; then it was because she dare not.
Suddenly Pierre stamped his foot.
"I am a brute," he cried, "to have told you this."
And he fled, bare-headed, down the stairs.
The noise of the front-door closing with a slam roused Jean from the deep stupor into which he had fallen. Some seconds had elapsed, longer than hours, and his spirit had sunk into the numb torpor of idiocy. He was conscious, indeed, that he must presently think and act, but he would wait, refusing to understand, to know, to remember, out of fear, weakness, cowardice. He was one of those procrastinators who put everything off till to-morrow; and when he was compelled to come to a decision then and there, still he instinctively tried to gain a few minutes.
But the perfect silence which now reigned, after Pierre's vociferations, the sudden stillness of walls and furniture, with the bright light of six wax candles and two lamps, terrified him so greatly that he suddenly longed to make his escape too.
Then he roused his brain, roused his heart, and tried to reflect.
Never in his life had he had to face a difficulty. There are men who let themselves glide onward like running water. He had been duteous over his tasks for fear of punishment, and had got through his legal studies with credit because his existence was tranquil. Everything in the world seemed to him quite natural and never aroused his particular attention. He loved order, steadiness, and peace, by temperament, his nature having no complications; and face to face with this catastrophe, he found himself like a man who has fallen into the water and cannot swim.
At first he tried to be incredulous. His brother had told a lie, out of hatred and jealousy. But yet, how could he have been so vile as to say such a thing of their mother if he had not himself been distraught by despair? Besides, stamped on Jean's ear, on his sight, on his nerves, on the inmost fibres of his flesh, were certain words, certain tones of anguish, certain gestures of Pierre's, so full of suffering that they were irresistibly convincing; as incontrovertible as certainty itself.
He was too much crushed to stir or even to will. His distress became unbearable; and he knew that behind the door was his mother who had heard everything and was waiting.
What was she doing? Not a movement, not a shudder, not a breath, not a sigh revealed the presence of a living creature behind that panel. Could she have run away? But how? If she had run away—she must have jumped out of the window into the street. A shock of terror roused him—so violent and imperious that he drove the door in rather than opened it, and flung himself into the bed-room.
It was apparently empty, lighted by a single candle standing on the chest of drawers.
Jean flew to the window; it was shut and the shutters bolted. He looked about him, peering into the dark corners with anxious eyes, and he then noticed that the bed-curtains were drawn. He ran forward and opened them. His mother was lying on the bed, her face buried in the pillow which she had pulled up over her ears that she might hear no more.
At first he thought she had smothered herself. Then, taking her by the shoulders, he turned her over without her leaving go of the pillow, which covered her face, and in which she had set her teeth to keep herself from crying out.
But the mere touch of this rigid form, of those arms so convulsively clinched, communicated to him the shock of her unspeakable torture. The strength and determination with which she clutched the linen case full of feathers with her hands and teeth, over her mouth and eyes and ears, that he might neither see her nor speak to her, gave him an idea, by the turmoil it roused in him, of the pitch suffering may rise to, and his heart, his simple heart, was torn with pity. He was no judge, not he; not even a merciful judge; he was a man full of weakness and a son full of love. He remembered nothing of what his brother had told him; he neither reasoned nor argued, he merely laid his two hands on his mother's inert body, and not being able to pull the pillow away, he exclaimed, kissing her dress:
"Mother, mother, my poor mother, look at me!"
She would have seemed to be dead but that an almost imperceptible shudder ran through all her limbs, the vibration of a strained cord. And he repeated:
"Mother, mother, listen to me. It is not true. I know that it is not true."
A spasm seemed to come over her, a fit of suffocation; then she suddenly began to sob into the pillow. Her sinews relaxed, her rigid muscles yielded, her fingers gave way and left go of the linen; and he uncovered her face.
She was pale, quite colourless; and from under her closed lids tears were stealing. He threw his arms round her neck and kissed her eyes, slowly, with long heart-broken kisses, wet with her tears; and he said again and again:
"Mother, my dear mother, I know it is not true. Do not cry; I know it. It is not true."
She raised herself, she sat up, looked in his face, and with an effort of courage such as it must cost in some cases to kill one's self, she said:
"No, my child; it is true."
And they remained speechless, each in the presence of the other. For some minutes she seemed again to be suffocating, craning her throat and throwing back her head to get breath; then she once more mastered herself and went on:
"It is true, my child. Why lie about it? It is true. You would not believe me if I denied it."
She looked like a crazy creature. Overcome by alarm, he fell on his knees by the bedside, murmuring:
"Hush, mother, be silent." She stood up with terrible determination and energy.
"I have nothing more to say, my child. Good-bye." And she went towards the door.
He threw his arms about her exclaiming:
"What are you doing, mother; where are you going?"
"I do not know. How should I know—There is nothing left for me to do, now that I am alone."
She struggled to be released. Holding her firmly, he could find only words to say again and again:
"Mother, mother, mother!" And through all her efforts to free herself she was saying:
"No, no. I am not your mother now, poor boy—good-bye."
It struck him clearly that if he let her go now he should never see her again; lifting her up in his arms he carried her to an arm-chair, forced her into it, and kneeling down in front of her barred her in with his arms.
"You shall not quit this spot, mother. I love you and I will keep you! I will keep you always—I love you and you are mine."
She murmured in a dejected tone:
"No, my poor boy, it is impossible. You weep to-night, but to-morrow you would turn me out of the house. You, even you, could not forgive me."
He replied: "I? I? How little you know me!" with such a burst of genuine affection that, with a cry, she seized his head by the hair with both hands, and dragging him violently to her kissed him distractedly all over his face.
Then she sat still, her cheek against his, feeling the warmth of his skin through his beard, and she whispered in his ear: "No, my little Jean, you would not forgive me to-morrow. You think so, but you deceive yourself. You have forgiven me this evening, and that forgiveness has saved my life; but you must never see me again."
And he repeated, clasping her in his arms:
"Mother, do not say that."
"Yes, my child, I must go away. I do not know where, nor how I shall set about it, nor what I shall do; but it must be done. I could never look at you, nor kiss you, do you understand?"
Then he in his turn spoke into her ear:
"My little mother, you are to stay, because I insist, because I want you. And you must pledge your word to obey me, now, at once."
"No, my child."
"Yes, mother, you must; do you hear? You must."
"No, my child, it is impossible. It would be condemning us all to the tortures of hell. I know what that torment is; I have known it this month past. Your feelings are touched now, but when that is over, when you look on me as Pierre does, when you remember what I have told you—oh, my Jean, think—think—I am your mother!"
"I will not let you leave me, mother. I have no one but you."
"But think, my son, we can never see each other again without both of us blushing, without my feeling that I must die of shame, without my eyes falling before yours."
"But it is not so, mother."
"Yes, yes, yes, it is so! Oh, I have understood all your poor brother's struggles, believe me! All—from the very first day. Now, when I hear his step in the house my heart beats as if it would burst, when I hear his voice I am ready to faint. I still had you; now I have you no longer. Oh, my little Jean! Do you think I could live between you two?"
"Yes, I should love you so much that you would cease to think of it."
"As if that were possible!"
"But it is possible."
"How do you suppose that I could cease to think of it, with your brother and you on each hand? Would you cease to think of it, I ask you?"
"I? I swear I should."
"Why you would think of it at every hour of the day."
"No, I swear it. Besides, listen, if you go away I will enlist and get killed."
This boyish threat quite overcame her; she clasped Jean in a passionate and tender embrace. He went on:
"I love you more than you think—ah, much more, much more. Come, be reasonable. Try to stay for only one week. Will you promise me one week? You cannot refuse me that?"
She laid her two hands on Jean's shoulders, and holding him at arm's length she said:
"My child, let us try and be calm and not give way to emotions. First, listen to me. If I were ever to hear from your lips what I have heard for this month past from your brother, if I were once to see in your eyes what I read in his, if I could fancy from a word or a look that I was as odious to you as I am to him—within one hour, mark me—within one hour I should be gone forever."
"Mother, I swear to you—"
"Let me speak. For a month past I have suffered all that any creature can suffer. From the moment when I perceived that your brother, my other son, suspected me, that as the minutes went by, he guessed the truth, every moment of my life has been a martyrdom which no words could tell you."
Her voice was so full of woe that the contagion of her misery brought the tears to Jean's eyes.
He tried to kiss her, but she held him off.
"Leave me—listen; I still have so much to say to make you understand. But you never can understand. You see, if I stayed—I must—no, no. I cannot."
"Speak on, mother, speak."
"Yes, indeed, for at least I shall not have deceived you. You want me to stay with you? For what—for us to be able to see each other, speak to each other, meet at any hour of the day at home, for I no longer dare open a door for fear of finding your brother behind it. If we are to do that, you must not forgive me—nothing is so wounding as forgiveness—but you must owe me no grudge for what I have done. You must feel yourself strong enough, and so far unlike the rest of the world, as to be able to say to yourself that you are not Roland's son without blushing for the fact or despising me. I have suffered enough—I have suffered too much; I can bear no more, no indeed, no more! And it is not a thing of yesterday, mind you, but of long, long years. But you could never understand that; how should you! If you and I are to live together and kiss each other, my little Jean, you must believe that though I was your father's mistress I was yet more truly his wife, his real wife; that, at the bottom of my heart, I cannot be ashamed of it; that I have no regrets; that I love him still even in death; that I shall always love him and never loved any other man; that he was my life, my joy, my hope, my comfort, everything—everything in the world to me for so long! Listen, my boy, before God, who hears me, I should never have had a joy in my existence if I had not met him; never anything—not a touch of tenderness or kindness, not one of those hours which make us regret growing old—nothing. I owe everything to him! I had but him in the world, and you two boys, your brother and you. But for you, all would have been empty, dark, and void as the night. I should never have loved, or known, or cared for anything—I should not even have wept—for I have wept, my little Jean; oh, yes, and bitter tears, since we came to Havre. I was his wholly and forever; for ten years I was as much his wife as he was my husband before God who created us for each other. And then I began to see that he loved me less. He was always kind and courteous, but I was not what I had been to him. It was all over! Oh, how I have cried! How dreadful and delusive life is! Nothing lasts. Then we came here—I never saw him again; he never came. He promised it in every letter. I was always expecting him, and I never saw him again—and now he is dead! But he still cared for us since he remembered you. I shall love him to my latest breath, and I never will deny him, and I love you because you are his child, and I could never be ashamed of him before you. Do you understand? I could not. So if you wish me to remain you must accept the situation as his son, and we will talk of him sometimes; and you must love him a little and we must think of him when we look at each other. If you will not do this—if you cannot—then good-bye, my child; it is impossible that we should live together. Now, I will act by your decision."
Jean replied gently:
She clasped him in her arms, and her tears flowed again; then, with her face against his, she went on:
"Well, but Pierre. What can we do about Pierre?"
"We will find some plan! You cannot live with him any longer."
At the thought of her elder son she was convulsed with terror.
"No, I cannot; no, no!" And throwing herself on Jean's breast she cried in distress of mind:
"Save me from him, you, my little one. Save me; do something—I don't know what. Think of something. Save me."
"Yes, mother, I will think of something."
"And at once. You must, this minute. Do not leave me. I am so afraid of him—so afraid."
"Yes, yes; I will hit on some plan. I promise you I will."
"But at once; quick, quick! You cannot imagine what I feel when I see him."
Then she murmured softly in his ear: "Keep me here, with you."
He paused, reflected, and with his blunt good-sense saw at once the dangers of such an arrangement. But he had to argue for a long time, combating her scared, terror-stricken insistence.
"Only for to-night," she said. "Only for to-night. And to-morrow morning you can send word to Roland that I was taken ill."
"That is out of the question, as Pierre left you here. Come, take courage. I will arrange everything, I promise you, to-morrow; I will be with you by nine o'clock. Come, put on your bonnet. I will take you home."
"I will do just what you desire," she said with a childlike impulse of timidity and gratitude.
She tried to rise, but the shock had been too much for her; she could not stand.
He made her drink some sugared water and smell at some salts, while he bathed her temples with vinegar. She let him do what he would, exhausted, but comforted, as after the pains of child-birth. At last she could walk and she took his arm. The town hall struck three as they went past.
Outside their own door Jean kissed her, saying:
"Good-night, mother, keep up your courage."
She stealthily crept up the silent stairs, and into her room, undressed quickly, and slipped into bed with a reawakened sense of that long-forgotten sin. Roland was snoring. In all the house Pierre alone was awake, and had heard her come in.