When Madame Caroline had gone up to the office, she plainly detected an odour of ruin, a quiver of secret anguish in the gloomy rooms. On passing through the cashier's office, she noticed a score of persons, quite a little crowd, waiting, while the cashiers still met the engagements of the house, though with slackening hands like men who are emptying the last drawers. The 'account' office, the door of which was partially open, seemed to her asleep, for its seven employees were all reading their newspapers, having but few transactions to attend to, now that everything was at a standstill at the Bourse. The cash office alone showed some signs of life. And it was Berthier, the authorised clerk, who received her, greatly agitated himself, his face pale, through the misfortune which had fallen on his employer.

'I don't know whether Monsieur Mazaud will be able to receive you, madame,' said he. 'He is not well, for he caught cold through obstinately working without a fire all last night, and he has just gone down to his rooms on the first floor to get a little rest.'

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Madame Caroline insisted, however. 'Oh, pray, monsieur, try to induce him to see me just for a moment,' she said. 'The salvation of my brother perhaps depends upon it. Monsieur Mazaud knows very well that my brother was never concerned in the transactions at the Bourse, and his testimony would be of great importance. Moreover, I want to get some figures from him; he alone can give me information about certain documents.'

At last, in a hesitating way, Berthier asked her to step into the broker's private office. 'Wait there a moment, madame,' he said. 'I will go and see.'

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On entering this room Madame Caroline felt a keen sensation of cold. The fire must have gone out during the previous day, and no one had thought of lighting it again. But what struck her even more was the perfect order that prevailed here, as if the whole night and morning had been spent in emptying the drawers, destroying the useless papers, and classifying those which ought to be kept. Nothing was lying about, not a paper, not a letter. On the writing table there were only the inkstand, the pen-rack, and a large blotting-pad, on which there had merely remained a package of the fiches which Mazaud used—green fiches, the colour of hope. And with the room thus bare, an infinite sadness fell with the heavy silence.

In a few minutes Berthier reappeared. 'I have rung twice, madame,' he said, 'but there was no answer, and I do not dare to insist. Perhaps you will ring yourself on your way down. But I advise you to come again.'

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Madame Caroline was obliged to retire; nevertheless, on reaching the first-floor landing, she again hesitated, and even extended her arm in order to ring the bell. But she had finally decided to go away, when loud cries and sobs, a muffled uproar, coming from the apartments, rooted her to the spot. And all at once the door opened, and a servant rushed out, with a scared look, and vanished down the stairs, stammering: 'My God! my God! Monsieur——'

Madame Caroline stood motionless before that open doorway, by which a wail of frightful grief now distinctly reached her. And she became very cold, divining the truth, a clear vision of what had happened arising before her. At first she wanted to flee; then she could not, overcome as she was by pity, attracted by the calamity she pictured, experiencing a need to see and contribute her own tears also. So she entered, found every door wide open, and went as far as the salon. Two servants, doubtless the cook and the chambermaid, stood at the doorway with terrified faces, stretching their necks[Pg 384] into the room and stammering: 'Oh, monsieur! O God! O God!'

The dying light of that grey winter day entered faintly between the heavy silk curtains of the room. However, it was very warm there; the remnants of some huge logs lay in glowing embers in the fire-place, illumining the walls with a red reflection. On a table a bunch of roses, a royal bouquet for the season, which the broker had brought his wife on the previous day, was blooming in this greenhouse temperature, scenting the whole room. It was like the perfume of all the refined luxury which the apartment displayed, like the pleasant odour of luck, of wealth, of happiness in love, which for four years had flourished there. And, lighted by the ruddy glow from the fire, Mazaud lay on the edge of the sofa, his head pierced by a bullet, his clenched hand upon the stock of a revolver; while, standing before him, his young wife, who had hastened to the spot, was giving vent to that wail, that continuous wild cry which could be heard upon the stairs. At the moment of the report she had been holding in her arms her little boy, now four years and a half old; she had brought him with her, and his little hands were clasped around her neck in fright; while her little girl, already six, had followed her, hanging to her skirt and pressing against her. And hearing their mother cry the two children were crying also, crying desperately.

Madame Caroline at once tried to lead them away. 'Madame, I beg of you——Madame, do not stay here.'

She was trembling herself, however, and felt as if she would faint. She could see the blood still flowing from the hole in Mazaud's head, falling drop by drop upon the velvet of the sofa, whence it trickled on to the carpet. On the floor there was a large stain, which was growing yet larger. And it seemed to her as if this blood reached her, and bespattered both her feet and hands. 'Madame, I beg of you, follow me,' she said.

But, with her son hanging from her neck and her daughter clinging to her waist, the poor woman did not hear, did not stir, stiffened, planted there so firmly that no power in[Pg 385] the world could have uprooted her. All three of them were fair, with complexions of milky freshness, the mother seemingly as delicate and as artless as the children. And in the stupor of their dead felicity, in this sudden annihilation of the happiness which was to have lasted for ever, they continued raising their loud cry, the shriek which expressed all the frightful suffering of the human race.

Then Madame Caroline fell down upon her knees, sobbing and stammering, 'Oh, madame, you rend my heart! For mercy's sake, madame, take yourself away from this spectacle; come with me into the next room; let me try to spare you a little of the evil that has been done you.'

And still the group remained there, motionless, wild and woeful, the mother and her two little ones, all three with long light loose hair. And still the frightful shrieking went on, that cry of the blood-tie which rises from the forest when the hunters have killed the sire.

Madame Caroline had risen, her head whirling. There were sounds of steps and voices; a doctor, no doubt, had come to verify the death. And she could remain no longer, but ran away, pursued by that abominable and endless wail, which she fancied she still heard, amid the rolling of the passing vehicles, when she had reached the street.