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   Chapter 5 No.5

Fruitfulness By Emile Zola Characters: 38836

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

MATHIEU rose noiselessly from his little folding iron bedstead beside the large one of mahogany, on which Marianne lay alone. He looked at her, and saw that she was awake and smiling.

"What! you are not asleep?" said he. "I hardly dared to stir for fear of waking you. It is nearly nine o'clock, you know."

It was Sunday morning. January had come round, and they were in Paris. During the first fortnight in December the weather had proved frightful at Chantebled, icy rains being followed by snow and terrible cold. This rigorous temperature, coupled with the circumstance that Marianne was again expecting to become a mother, had finally induced Mathieu to accept Beauchene's amiable offer to place at his disposal the little pavilion in the Rue de la Federation, where the founder of the works had lived before building the superb house on the quay. An old foreman who had occupied this pavilion, which still contained the simple furniture of former days, had lately died. And the young folks, desiring to be near their friend, worthy Dr. Boutan, had lived there for a month now, and did not intend to return to Chantebled until the first fine days in April.

"Wait a moment," resumed Mathieu; "I will let the light in."

He thereupon drew back one of the curtains, and a broad ray of yellow, wintry sunshine illumined the dim room. "Ah! there's the sun! And it's splendid weather-and Sunday too! I shall be able to take you out for a little while with the children this afternoon."

Then Marianne called him to her, and, when he had seated himself on the bed, took hold of his hand and said gayly: "Well, I hadn't been sleeping either for the last twenty minutes; and I didn't move because I wanted you to lie in bed a little late, as it's Sunday. How amusing to think that we were afraid of waking one another when we both had our eyes wide open!"

"Oh!" said he, "I was so happy to think you were sleeping. My one delight on Sundays now is to remain in this room all the morning, and spend the whole day with you and the children." Then he uttered a cry of surprise and remorse: "Why! I haven't kissed you yet."

She had raised herself on her pillows, and he gave her an eager clasp. In the stream of bright sunshine which gilded the bed she herself looked radiant with health and strength and hope. Never had her heavy brown tresses flowed down more abundantly, never had her big eyes smiled with gayer courage. And sturdy and healthful as she was, with her face all kindliness and love, she looked like the very personification of Fruitfulness, the good goddess with dazzling skin and perfect flesh, of sovereign dignity.

They remained for a moment clasped together in the golden sunshine which enveloped them with radiance. Then Mathieu pulled up Marianne's pillows, set the counterpane in order, and forbade her to stir until he had tidied the room. Forthwith he stripped his little bedstead, folded up the sheets, the mattress, and the bedstead itself, over which he slipped a cover. She vainly begged him not to trouble, saying that Zoe, the servant whom they had brought from the country, could very well do all those things. But he persisted, replying that the servant plagued him, and that he preferred to be alone to attend her and do all that there was to do. Then, as he suddenly began to shiver, he remarked that the room was cold, and blamed himself for not having already lighted the fire. Some logs and some small wood were piled in a corner, near the chimney-piece.

"How stupid of me!" he exclaimed; "here am I leaving you to freeze."

Then he knelt down before the fireplace, while she protested: "What an idea! Leave all that, and call Zoe."

"No, no, she doesn't know how to light the fire properly, and besides, it amuses me."

He laughed triumphantly when a bright clear fire began to crackle, filling the room with additional cheerfulness. The place was now a little paradise, said he; but he had scarcely finished washing and dressing when the partition behind the bed was shaken by a vigorous thumping.

"Ah! the rascals," he gayly exclaimed. "They are awake, you see! Oh! well, we may let them come, since to-day is Sunday."

For a few moments there had been a noise as of an aviary in commotion in the adjoining room. Prattling, shrill chirping, and ringing bursts of laughter could be heard. Then came a noise as of pillows and bolsters flying about, while two little fists continued pummelling the partition as if it were a drum.

"Yes, yes," said the mother, smiling and anxious, "answer them; tell them to come. They will be breaking everything if you don't."

Thereupon the father himself struck the wall, at which a victorious outburst, cries of triumphal delight, arose on the other side. And Mathieu scarcely had time to open the door before tramping and scuffling could be heard in the passage. A triumphal entry followed. All four of them wore long nightdresses falling to their little bare feet, and they trotted along and laughed, with their brown hair streaming about, their faces quite pink, and their eyes radiant with candid delight. Ambroise, though he was younger than his brothers, marched first, for he was the boldest and most enterprising. Behind him came the twins, Blaise and Denis, who were less turbulent-the latter especially. He taught the others to read, while Blaise, who was rather shy and timid, remained the dreamer of them all. And each gave a hand to little Mademoiselle Rose, who looked like an angel, pulled now to the right and now to the left amid bursts of laughter, while she contrived to keep herself steadily erect.

"Ah! mamma," cried Ambroise, "it's dreadfully cold, you know; do make me a little room."

Forthwith he bounded into the bed, slipped under the coverlet, and nestled close to his mother, so that only his laughing face and fine curly hair could be seen. But at this the two others raised a shout of war, and rushed forward in their turn upon the besieged citadel.

"Make a little room for us, mamma, make a little room! By your back, mamma! Near your shoulder, mamma!"

Only little Rose remained on the floor, feeling quite vexed and indignant. She had vainly attempted the assault, but had fallen back. "And me, mamma, and me," she pleaded.

It was necessary to help her in her endeavors to hoist herself up with her little hands. Then her mother took her in her arms in order that she might have the best place of all. Mathieu had at first felt somewhat anxious at seeing Marianne thus disturbed, but she laughed and told him not to trouble. And then the picture they all presented as they nestled there was so charming, so full of gayety, that he also smiled.

"It's very nice, it's so warm," said Ambroise, who was fond of taking his ease.

But Denis, the reasonable member of the band, began to explain why it was they had made so much noise "Blaise said that he had seen a spider. And then he felt frightened."

This accusation of cowardice vexed his brother, who replied: "It isn't true. I did see a spider, but I threw my pillow at it to kill it."

"So did I! so did I!" stammered Rose, again laughing wildly. "I threw my pillow like that-houp! houp!"

They all roared and wriggled again, so amusing did it seem to them. The truth was that they had engaged in a pillow fight under pretence of killing a spider, which Blaise alone said that he had seen. This unsupported testimony left the matter rather doubtful. But the whole brood looked so healthful and fresh in the bright sunshine that their father could not resist taking them in his arms, and kissing them here and there, wherever his lips lighted, a final game which sent them into perfect rapture amid a fresh explosion of laughter and shouts.

"Oh! what fun! what fun!"

"All the same," Marianne exclaimed, as she succeeded in freeing herself somewhat from the embraces of the children, "all the same, you know, I want to get up. I mustn't idle, for it does me no good. And besides, you little ones need to be washed and dressed."

They dressed in front of the big blazing fire; and it was nearly ten o'clock when they at last went down into the dining-room, where the earthenware stove was roaring, while the warm breakfast milk steamed upon the table. The ground floor of the pavilion comprised a dining-room and a drawing-room on the right of the hall, and a kitchen and a study on the left. The dining-room, like the principal bedchamber, overlooked the Rue de la Federation, and was filled every morning with cheerfulness by the rising sun.

The children were already at table, with their noses in their cups, when a ring at the street door was heard. And it was Dr. Boutan who came in. His arrival brought a renewal of noisy mirth, for the youngsters were fond of his round, good-natured face. He had attended them all at their births, and treated them like an old friend, with whom familiarity is allowable. And so they were already thrusting back their chairs to dart towards the doctor, when a remark from their mother restrained them.

"Now, please just leave the doctor quiet," said she, adding gayly, "Good morning, doctor. I'm much obliged to you for this bright sunshine, for I'm sure you ordered it so that I might go for a walk this afternoon."

"Why, yes, of course I ordered it-I was passing this way, and thought I would look in to see how you were getting on."

Boutan took a chair and seated himself near the table, while Mathieu explained to him that they had remained late in bed.

"Yes, that is all right, let her rest: but she must also take as much exercise as possible. However, there is no cause to worry. I see that she has a good appetite. When I find my patients at table, I cease to be a doctor, you know, I am simply a friend making a call."

Then he put a few questions, which the children, who were busy breakfasting, did not hear. And afterwards there came a pause in the conversation, which the doctor himself resumed, following, no doubt, some train of thought which he did not explain: "I hear that you are to lunch with the Seguins next Thursday," said he. "Ah! poor little woman! That is a terrible affair of hers."

With a gesture he expressed his feelings concerning the drama that had just upset the Seguins' household. Valentine, like Marianne, was to become a mother. For her part she was in despair at it, and her husband had given way to jealous fury. For a time, amid all their quarrels, they had continued leading their usual life of pleasure, but she now spent her days on a couch, while he neglected her and reverted to a bachelor's life. It was a very painful story, but the doctor was in hopes that Marianne, on the occasion of her visit to the Seguins, might bring some good influence to bear on them.

He rose from his chair and was about to retire, when the attack which had all along threatened him burst forth. The children, unsuspectedly rising from their chairs, had concerted together with a glance, and now they opened their campaign. The worthy doctor all at once found the twins upon his shoulders, while the younger boy clasped him round the waist and the little girl clung to his legs.

"Puff! puff! do the railway train, do the railway train, please do."

They pushed and shook him, amid peal after peal of flute-like laughter, while their father and mother rushed to his assistance, scolding and angry. But he calmed the parents by saying: "Let them be! they are simply wishing me good day. And besides, I must bear with them, you know, since, as our friend Beauchene says, it is a little bit my fault if they are in the world. What charms me with your children is that they enjoy such good health, just like their mother. For the present, at all events, one can ask nothing more of them."

When he had set them down on the floor, and given each a smacking kiss, he took hold of Marianne's hands and said to her that everything was going on beautifully, and that he was very pleased. Then he went off, escorted to the front door by Mathieu, the pair of them jesting and laughing gayly.

Directly after the midday meal Mathieu wished to go out, in order that Marianne might profit by the bright sunshine. The children had been dressed in readiness before sitting down to table, and it was scarcely more than one o'clock when the family turned the corner of the Rue de la Federation and found itself upon the quays.

This portion of Grenelle, lying between the Champ de Mars and the densely populated streets of the centre of the district, has an aspect all its own, characterized by vast bare expanses, and long and almost deserted streets running at right angles and fringed by factories with lofty, interminable gray walls. During work-hours nobody passes along these streets, and on raising one's head one sees only lofty chimneys belching forth thick coal smoke above the roofs of big buildings with dusty window panes. And if any large cart entrance happens to be open one may espy deep yards crowded with drays and full of acrid vapor. The only sounds are the strident puffs of jets of steam, the dull rumbling of machinery, and the sudden rattle of ironwork lowered from the carts to the pavement. But on Sundays the factories do not work, and the district then falls into death-like silence. In summer time there is but bright sunshine heating the pavement, in winter some icy snow-laden wind rushing down the lonely streets. The population of Grenelle is said to be the worst of Paris, both the most vicious and the most wretched. The neighborhood of the Ecole Militaire attracts thither a swarm of worthless women, who bring in their train all the scum of the populace. In contrast to all this the gay bourgeois district of Passy rises up across the Seine; while the rich aristocratic quarters of the Invalides and the Faubourg St. Germain spread out close by. Thus the Beauchene works on the quay, as their owner laughingly said, turned their back upon misery and looked towards all the prosperity and gayety of this world.

Mathieu was very partial to the avenues, planted with fine trees, which radiate from the Champ de Mars and the Esplanade des Invalides, supplying great gaps for air and sunlight. But he was particularly fond of that long diversified Quai d'Orsay, which starts from the Rue du Bac in the very centre of the city, passes before the Palais Bourbon, crosses first the Esplanade des Invalides, and then the Champ de Mars, to end at the Boulevard de Grenelle, in the black factory region. How majestically it spread out, what fine old leafy trees there were round that bend of the Seine from the State Tobacco Works to the garden of the Eiffel Tower! The river winds along with sovereign gracefulness; the avenue stretches out under superb foliage. You can really saunter there amid delicious quietude, instinct as it were with all the charm and power of Paris.

It was thither that Mathieu wished to take his wife and the little ones that Sunday. But the distance was considerable, and some anxiety was felt respecting Rose's little legs. She was intrusted to Ambroise, who, although the youngest of the boys, was already energetic and determined. These two opened the march; then came Blaise and Denis, the twins, the parents bringing up the rear. Everything at first went remarkably well: they strolled on slowly in the gay sunshine. That beautiful winter afternoon was exquisitely pure and clear, and though it was very cold in the shade, all seemed golden and velvety in the stretches of bright light. There were a great many people out of doors-all the idle folks, clad in their Sunday best, whom the faintest sunshine draws in crowds to the promenades of Paris. Little Rose, feeling warm and gay, drew herself up as if to show the people that she was a big girl. She crossed the whole extent of the Champ de Mars without asking to be carried. And her three brothers strode along making the frozen pavement resound beneath their steps. Promenaders were ever turning round to watch them. In other cities of Europe the sight of a young married couple preceded by four children would have excited no comment, but here in Paris the spectacle was so unusual that remarks of astonishment, sarcasm, and even compassion were exchanged. Mathieu and Marianne divined, even if they did not actually hear, these comments, but they cared nothing for them. They bravely went their way, smiling at one another, and feeling convinced that the course they had taken in life was the right one, whatever other folks might think or say.

It was three o'clock when they turned their steps homeward; and Marianne, feeling rather tired, then took a little rest on a sofa in the drawing-room, where Zoe had previously lighted a good fire. The children, quieted by fatigue, were sitting round a little table, listening to a tale which Denis read from a story-book, when a visitor was announced. This proved to be Constance, who, after driving out with Maurice, had thought of calling to inquire after Marianne, whom she saw only once or twice a week, although the little pavilion was merely separated by a garden from the large house on the quay.

"Oh! are you poorly, my dear?" she inquired as she entered the room and perceived Marianne on the sofa.

"Oh! dear, no," replied the other, "but I have been out walking for the last two hours and am now taking some rest."

Mathieu had brought an armchair forward for his wife's rich, vain cousin, who, whatever her real feelings, certainly strove to appear amiable. She apologized for not being able to call more frequently, and explained what a number of duties she had to discharge as mistress of her home. Meantime Maurice, clad in black velvet, hung round her petticoats, gazing from a distance at the other children, who one and all returned his scrutiny.

"Well, Maurice," exclaimed his mother, "don't you wish your little cousins good-day?"

He had to do as he was bidden and step towards them. But all five remained embarrassed. They seldom met, and had as yet had no opportunity to quarrel. The four little savages of Chantebled felt indeed almost out of their element in the presence of this young Parisian with bourgeois manners.

"And are all your little folks quite well?" resumed Constance, who, with her sharp eyes, was comparing her son with the other lads. "Ambroise has grown; his elder brothers also look very strong."

Her examination did not apparently result to Maurice's advantage. The latter was tall and looked sturdy, but he had quite a waxen complexion. Nevertheless, the glance that Constance gave the others was full of irony, disdain, and condemnation. When she had first heard that Marianne was likely to become a mother once more she had made no secret of her disapproval. She held to her old opinions more vigorously than ever.

Marianne, knowing full well that they would fall out if they discussed the subject of children, sought another topic of conversation. She inquired after Beauchene. "And Alexandre," said she, "why did you not bring him with you? I haven't seen him for a week!"

"Why," broke in Mathieu, "I told you he had gone shooting yesterday evening. He slept, no doubt, at Puymoreau, the other side of Chantebled, so as to be in the woods at daybreak this morning, and he probably won't be home till to-morrow."

"Ah! yes, I remember now. Well, it's nice weather to be

in the woods."

This, however, was another perilous subject, and Marianne regretted having broached it, for, truth to tell, one never knew where Beauchene might really be when he claimed to have gone shooting. He availed himself so often of this pretext to absent himself from home that Constance was doubtless aware of the truth. But in the presence of that household, whose union was so perfect, she was determined to show a brave front.

"Well, you know," said she, "it is I who compel him to go about and take as much exercise as possible. He has a temperament that needs the open air. Shooting is very good for him."

At this same moment there came another ring at the door, announcing another visitor. And this time it was Madame Morange who entered the room, with her daughter Reine. She colored when she caught sight of Madame Beauchene, so keenly was she impressed by that perfect model of wealth and distinction, whom she ever strove to imitate. Constance, however, profited by the diversion of Valerie's arrival to declare that she unfortunately could not remain any longer, as a friend must now be waiting for her at home.

"Well, at all events, leave us Maurice," suggested Mathieu. "Here's Reine here now, and all six children can play a little while together. I will bring you the boy by and by, when he has had a little snack."

But Maurice had already once more sought refuge among his mother's skirts. And she refused the invitation. "Oh! no, no!" said she. "He has to keep to a certain diet, you know, and he must not eat anything away from home. Good-by; I must be off. I called only to inquire after you all in passing. Keep well; good-by."

Then she led her boy away, never speaking to Valerie, but simply shaking hands with her in a familiar, protecting fashion, which the other considered to be extremely distinguished. Reine, on her side, had smiled at Maurice, whom she already slightly knew. She looked delightful that day in her gown of thick blue cloth, her face smiling under her heavy black tresses, and showing such a likeness to her mother that she seemed to be the latter's younger sister.

Marianne, quite charmed, called the girl to her: "Come and kiss me, my dear! Oh! what a pretty young lady! Why, she is getting quite beautiful and tall. How old is she?"

"Nearly thirteen," Valerie replied.

She had seated herself in the armchair vacated by Constance, and Mathieu noticed what a keen expression of anxiety there was in her soft eyes. After mentioning that she also had called in passing to make inquiries, and declaring that both mother and children looked remarkably well, she relapsed into gloomy silence, scarcely listening to Marianne, who thanked her for having come. Thereupon it occurred to Mathieu to leave her with his wife. To him it seemed that she must have something on her mind, and perhaps she wished to make a confidante of Marianne.

"My dear Reine," said he, "come with these little ones into the dining-room. We will see what afternoon snack there is, and lay the cloth."

This proposal was greeted with shouts of delight, and all the children trooped into the dining-room with Mathieu. A quarter of an hour later, when everything was ready there, and Valerie came in, the latter's eyes looked very red, as if she had been weeping. And that evening, when Mathieu was alone with his wife, he learnt what the trouble was. Morange's scheme of leaving the Beauchene works and entering the service of the Credit National, where he would speedily rise to a high and lucrative position, his hope too of giving Reine a big dowry and marrying her off to advantage-all the ambitious dreams of rank and wealth in which his wife and he had indulged, now showed no likelihood of fulfilment, since it seemed probable that Valerie might again have a child. Both she and her husband were in despair over it, and though Marianne had done her utmost to pacify her friend and reconcile her to circumstances, there were reasons to fear that in her distracted condition she might do something desperate.

Four days later, when the Froments lunched with the Seguins du Hordel at the luxurious mansion in the Avenue d'Antin, they came upon similar trouble there. Seguin, who was positively enraged, did not scruple to accuse his wife of infidelity, and, on his side, he took to quite a bachelor life. He had been a gambler in his younger days, and had never fully cured himself of that passion, which now broke out afresh, like a fire which has only slumbered for a time. He spent night after night at his club, playing at baccarat, and could be met in the betting ring at every race meeting. Then, too, he glided into equivocal society and appeared at home only at intervals to vent his irritation and spite and jealousy upon his ailing wife.

She, poor woman, was absolutely guiltless of the charges preferred against her. But knowing her husband, and unwilling for her own part to give up her life of pleasure, she had practised concealment as long as possible. And now she was really very ill, haunted too by an unreasoning, irremovable fear that it would all end in her death. Mathieu, who had seen her but a few months previously looking so fair and fresh, was amazed to find her such a wreck. And on her side Valentine gazed, all astonishment, at Marianne, noticing with surprise how calm and strong the young woman seemed, and how limpid her clear and smiling eyes remained.

On the day of the Froments' visit Seguin had gone out early in the morning, and when they arrived he had not yet returned. Thus the lunch was for a short time kept waiting, and during the interval Celeste, the maid, entered the room where the visitors sat near her mistress, who was stretched upon a sofa, looking a perfect picture of distress. Valentine turned a questioning glance on the servant, who forthwith replied:

"No, madame, Monsieur has not come back yet. But that woman of my village is here. You know, madame, the woman I spoke to you about, Sophie Couteau, La Couteau as we call her at Rougemont, who brings nurses to Paris?"

"Well, what of it?" exclaimed Valentine, on the point of ordering Celeste to leave the room, for it seemed to her quite outrageous to be disturbed in this manner.

"Well, madame, she's here; and as I told you before, if you would intrust her with the matter now she would find a very good wet nurse for you in the country, and bring her here whenever she's wanted."

La Couteau had been standing behind the door, which had remained ajar, and scarcely had Celeste finished than, without waiting for an invitation, she boldly entered the room. She was a quick little wizened woman, with certain peasant ways, but considerably polished by her frequent journeys to Paris. So far as her small keen eyes and pointed nose went her long face was not unpleasant, but its expression of good nature was marred by her hard mouth, her thin lips, suggestive of artfulness and cupidity. Her gown of dark woollen stuff, her black cape, black mittens, and black cap with yellow ribbons, gave her the appearance of a respectable countrywoman going to mass in her Sunday best.

"Have you been a nurse?" Valentine inquired, as she scrutinized her.

"Yes, madame," replied La Couteau, "but that was ten years ago, when I was only twenty. It seemed to me that I wasn't likely to make much money by remaining a nurse, and so I preferred to set up as an agent to bring others to Paris."

As she spoke she smiled, like an intelligent woman who feels that those who give their services as wet nurses to bourgeois families are simply fools and dupes. However, she feared that she might have said too much on the point, and so she added: "But one does what one can, eh, madame? The doctor told me that I should never do for a nurse again, and so I thought that I might perhaps help the poor little dears in another manner."

"And you bring wet nurses to the Paris offices?"

"Yes, madame, twice a month. I supply several offices, but more particularly Madame Broquette's office in the Rue Roquepine. It's a very respectable place, where one runs no risk of being deceived-And so, if you like, madame, I will choose the very best I can find for you-the pick of the bunch, so to say. I know the business thoroughly, and you can rely on me."

As her mistress did not immediately reply, Celeste ventured to intervene, and began by explaining how it happened that La Couteau had called that day.

"When she goes back into the country, madame, she almost always takes a baby with her, sometimes a nurse's child, and sometimes the child of people who are not well enough off to keep a nurse in the house. And she takes these children to some of the rearers in the country. She just now came to see me before going round to my friend Madame Menoux, whose baby she is to take away with her."

Valentine became interested. This Madame Menoux was a haberdasher in the neighborhood and a great friend of Celeste's. She had married a former soldier, a tall handsome fellow, who now earned a hundred and fifty francs a month as an attendant at a museum. She was very fond of him, and had bravely set up a little shop, the profits from which doubled their income, in such wise that they lived very happily and almost at their ease. Celeste, who frequently absented herself from her duties to spend hours gossiping in Madame Menoux's little shop, was forever being scolded for this practice; but in the present instance Valentine, full of anxiety and curiosity, did not chide her. The maid was quite proud at being questioned, and informed her mistress that Madame Menoux's baby was a fine little boy, and that the mother had been attended by a certain Madame Rouche, who lived at the lower end of the Rue du Rocher.

"It was I who recommended her," continued the servant, "for a friend of mine whom she had attended had spoken to me very highly of her. No doubt she has not such a good position as Madame Bourdieu, who has so handsome a place in the Rue de Miromesnil, but she is less expensive, and so very kind and obliging."

Then Celeste suddenly ceased speaking, for she noticed that Mathieu's eyes were fixed upon her, and this, for reasons best known to herself, made her feel uncomfortable. He on his side certainly placed no confidence in this big dark girl with a head like that of a horse, who, it seemed to him, knew far too much.

Marianne joined in the conversation. "But why," asked she, "why does not this Madame Menoux, whom you speak about, keep her baby with her?"

Thereupon La Couteau turned a dark harsh glance upon this lady visitor, who, whatever course she might take herself, had certainly no right to prevent others from doing business.

"Oh! it's impossible," exclaimed Celeste, well pleased with the diversion. "Madame Menoux's shop is no bigger than my pocket-handkerchief, and at the back of it there is only one little room where she and her husband take their meals and sleep. And that room, too, overlooks a tiny courtyard where one can neither see nor breathe. The baby would not live a week in such a place. And, besides, Madame Menoux would not have time to attend to the child. She has never had a servant, and what with waiting on customers and having to cook meals in time for her husband's return from the museum, she never has a moment to spare. Oh! if she could, she would be very happy to keep the little fellow with her."

"It is true," said Marianne sadly; "there are some poor mothers whom I pity with all my heart. This person you speak of is not in poverty, and yet is reduced to this cruel separation. For my part, I should not be able to exist if a child of mine were taken away from me to some unknown spot and given to another woman."

La Couteau doubtless interpreted this as an attack upon herself. Assuming the kindly demeanor of one who dotes on children, the air which she always put on to prevail over hesitating mothers, she replied: "Oh, Rougemont is such a very pretty place. And then it's not far from Bayeux, so that folks are by no means savages there. The air is so pure, too, that people come there to recruit their health. And, besides, the little ones who are confided to us are well cared for, I assure you. One would have to be heartless to do otherwise than love such little angels."

However, like Celeste, she relapsed into silence on seeing how significantly Mathieu was looking at her. Perhaps, in spite of her rustic ways, she understood that there was a false ring in her voice. Besides, of what use was her usual patter about the salubrity of the region, since that lady, Madame Seguin, wished to have a nurse at her house? So she resumed: "Then it's understood, madame, I will bring you the best we have, a real treasure."

Valentine, now a little tranquillized as to her fears for herself, found strength to speak out. "No, no, I won't pledge myself in advance. I will send to see the nurses you bring to the office, and we shall see if there is one to suit me."

Then, without occupying herself further about the woman, she turned to Marianne, and asked: "Shall you nurse your baby yourself?"

"Certainly, as I did with the others. We have very decided opinions on that point, my husband and I."

"No doubt. I understand you: I should much like to do the same myself; but it is impossible."

La Couteau had remained there motionless, vexed at having come on a fruitless errand, and regretting the loss of the present which she would have earned by her obligingness in providing a nurse. She put all her spite into a glance which she shot at Marianne, who, thought she, was evidently some poor creature unable even to afford a nurse. However, at a sign which Celeste made her, she courtesied humbly and withdrew in the company of the maid.

A few minutes afterwards, Seguin arrived, and, repairing to the dining-room, they all sat down to lunch there. It was a very luxurious meal, comprising eggs, red mullet, game, and crawfish, with red and white Bordeaux wines and iced champagne. Such diet for Valentine and Marianne would never have met with Dr. Boutan's approval; but Seguin declared the doctor to be an unbearable individual whom nobody could ever please.

He, Seguin, while showing all politeness to his guests, seemed that day to be in an execrable temper. Again and again he levelled annoying and even galling remarks at his wife, carrying things to such a point at times that tears came to the unfortunate woman's eyes. Now that he scarcely set foot in the house he complained that everything was going wrong there. If he spent his time elsewhere it was, according to him, entirely his wife's fault. The place was becoming a perfect hell upon earth. And in everything, the slightest incident, the most common-place remark, he found an opportunity for jeers and gibes. These made Mathieu and Marianne extremely uncomfortable; but at last he let fall such a harsh expression that Valentine indignantly rebelled, and he had to apologize. At heart he feared her, especially when the blood of the Vaugelades arose within her, and she gave him to understand, in her haughty disdainful way, that she would some day revenge herself on him for his treatment.

However, seeking another outlet for his spite and rancor, he at last turned to Mathieu, and spoke of Chantebled, saying bitterly that the game in the covers there was fast becoming scarcer and scarcer, in such wise that he now had difficulty in selling his shooting shares, so that his income from the property was dwindling every year. He made no secret of the fact that he would much like to sell the estate, but where could he possibly find a purchaser for those unproductive woods, those sterile plains, those marshes and those tracts of gravel?

Mathieu listened to all this attentively, for during his long walks in the summer he had begun to take an interest in the estate. "Are you really of opinion that it cannot be cultivated?" he asked. "It's pitiful to see all that land lying waste and idle."

"Cultivate it!" cried Seguin. "Ah! I should like to see such a miracle! The only crops that one will ever raise on it are stones and frogs."

They had by this time eaten their dessert, and before rising from table Marianne was telling Valentine that she would much like to see and kiss her children, who had not been allowed to lunch with their elders on account of their supposed unruly ways, when a couple of visitors arrived in turn, and everything else was forgotten. One was Santerre the novelist, who of late had seldom called on the Seguins, and the other, much to Mathieu's dislike, proved to be Beauchene's sister, Seraphine, the Baroness de Lowicz. She looked at the young man in a bold, provoking, significant manner, and then, like Santerre, cast a sly glance of mocking contempt at Marianne and Valentine. She and the novelist between them soon turned the conversation on to subjects that appealed to their vicious tastes. And Santerre related that he had lately seen Doctor Gaude perform several operations at the Marbeuf Hospital. He had found there the usual set of society men who attend first performances at the theatres, and indeed there were also some women present.

And then he enlarged upon the subject, giving the crudest and most precise particulars, much to the delight of Seguin, who every now and again interpolated remarks of approval, while both Mathieu and Marianne grew more and more ill at ease. The young woman sat looking with amazement at Santerre as he calmly recapitulated horror after horror, to the evident enjoyment of the others. She remembered having read his last book, that love story which had seemed to her so supremely absurd, with its theories of the annihilation of the human species. And she at last glanced at Mathieu to tell him how weary she felt of all the semi-society and semi-medical chatter around her, and how much she would like to go off home, leaning on his arm, and walking slowly along the sunlit quays. He, for his part, felt a pang at seeing so much insanity rife amid those wealthy surroundings. He made his wife a sign that it was indeed time to take leave.

"What! are you going already!" Valentine then exclaimed. "Well, I dare not detain you if you feel tired." However, when Marianne begged her to kiss the children for her, she added: "Why, yes, it's true you have not seen them. Wait a moment, pray; I want you to kiss them yourself."

But when Celeste appeared in answer to the bell, she announced that Monsieur Gaston and Mademoiselle Lucie had gone out with their governess. And this made Seguin explode once more. All his rancor against his wife revived. The house was going to rack and ruin. She spent her days lying on a sofa. Since when had the governess taken leave to go out with the children without saying anything? One could not even see the children now in order to kiss them. It was a nice state of things. They were left to the servants; in fact, it was the servants now who controlled the house.

Thereupon Valentine began to cry.

"Mon Dieu!" said Marianne to her husband, when she found herself out of doors, able to breathe, and happy once more now that she was leaning on his arm; "why, they are quite mad, the people in that house."

"Yes," Mathieu responded, "they are mad, no doubt; but we must pity them, for they know not what happiness is."

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