On the morrow of the day when chance had so brutally made her acquainted with the truth concerning Saccard and the Baroness Sandorff she had exerted all her will power to resist her desire to watch them. She was not this man's wife, and did not wish to carry jealousy to the point of scandal. She was no longer twenty, but six and thirty, and the terrible experience of her married life had made her tolerant. Still it was in vain that she practised abnegation; her nature revolted, and she experienced intense suffering. There were times when she longed to sever the ties which bound her to Saccard, to provoke a violent scene and hurl in his face the wrong that he had done her. However, she succeeded in mastering herself, in forcing herself to remain not only silent, but calm and smiling; and never indeed in her existence, hitherto so hard, had she been in greater need of strength than now.

Still holding the religious pictures, she bent her eyes upon them for a moment longer, smiling the sorrowful smile of one who cannot believe, and her heart melting with affection for her brother. But a moment later she no longer beheld them. Her mind had wandered away, as it always did directly[Pg 221] she ceased to occupy it, and she was again thinking of Saccard, of what he had done the day before, of what he might that day be doing. He seemed to be leading his usual life, devoting his mornings to his worrying duties at the Bank, his afternoons to the Bourse, his evenings to the invitations to dinner which he received, to the first performances given at the theatres, to the society of actresses whom she was not jealous of, to everything, in fact, which is supposed to make up a life of pleasure. And yet she felt that some new interest absorbed him, an interest, no doubt, in that woman, whom he met somewhere. No doubt she had prohibited herself from trying to ascertain where and when it was that they met; yet it all made her distrustful and suspicious, and, as her brother laughingly expressed it, she had begun playing the gendarme again, even with regard to the affairs of the Bank, which she had previously ceased watching, so great at one moment had her confidence become. At the present time, however, she was struck and grieved by certain irregular practices; and then was quite surprised to find that she really cared nothing about the matter at bottom, lacking the strength alike to speak and act, so completely did a single anguish fill her heart—anguish for that betrayal, which she would have condoned, but the thought of which stifled her, despite all her efforts. And now, ashamed at last to find her tears flowing again, she went and hid the religious pictures, deeply regretting that she, who had no faith, could not go and kneel in some church, and find relief by weeping and praying.

Having at last calmed herself, she set to work on the memoir again, and had been writing for some ten minutes or so when the valet came to inform her that Charles, Saccard's coachman who had been dismissed on the previous day, absolutely insisted upon speaking to her. Saccard himself had detected the fellow stealing the horses' oats. She hesitated for a moment, and then consented to see him.

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Tall, good-looking, with shaven face and confident, conceited gait, Charles came into the room and insolently exclaimed: 'I've come, madame, about the two shirts of mine which the laundress has lost, and won't make an allowance[Pg 222] for. Madame surely doesn't suppose that I can put up with such a loss. And, as Madame is responsible, I wish Madame to pay me for my shirts. Yes, I want fifteen francs.'

She was very severe in all these household matters. Perhaps she would have paid the fifteen francs to avoid any discussion. But she was disgusted by the effrontery of this man, who had been caught thieving only the day before.

'I owe you nothing, and I shall give you nothing,' said she; 'besides, Monsieur warned me, and absolutely forbade me to do anything for you.'

Charles took a step forward with a threatening air. 'Oh, Monsieur said that, did he? I suspected as much, and Monsieur made a great mistake, for now we shall have some fun. For I know all about Monsieur and his goings on. Yes, indeed, I know all about them!'

Madame Caroline had risen to her feet, intending to order him out of the room; but before she could do so he had forced the whole horrid story upon her unwilling ears. She tried to get rid of him by handing him the fifteen francs that he had asked for, and he took them and even became polite; but nothing could stop his venomous tongue. And thus she learnt everything; the meetings of Saccard and the Baroness, and a horribly scandalous scene in which Delcambre, the Public Prosecutor, long the woman's lover, had taken part.

But at last the coachman went off, and after remaining for a few moments motionless Madame Caroline sank with a prolonged wail on to a chair beside her work-table, giving free course to the tears which had so long been stifling her. For a long while she wept in silent agony, but the time came when amidst all her grief for self, her grief for the wrong which had been done her, she felt the many suspicions, the many fears respecting other matters that she had sought to bury, reviving.

She had forced herself to tranquillity and hope in the affairs of the Universal, becoming in her loving blindness an accomplice in all that was not told her and that she did not seek to learn. And now, in a fit of violent remorse, she reproached herself for writing that reassuring letter to her[Pg 223] brother at the time of the last shareholders' meeting. For, since jealousy had again opened her eyes and ears, she had known that the irregular practices were continuing, ever growing worse and worse. The Sabatani account had increased to a yet higher figure, the Bank was speculating more and more extensively under cover of Sabatani's name, to say nothing of the monstrous lying puffs which were being disseminated, the foundations of sand and mud on which had been reared that colossal edifice, whose rise, so rapid that it seemed miraculous, inspired her with far more terror than delight. And it was especially the terrible pace which distressed her—the continual gallop at which the Universal was driven along, like some engine stuffed full of coals and set upon diabolical rails that it might rush on until a final great shock should make everything burst and smash.

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She was not a simpleton, a booby, who could be deceived; albeit ignorant of the technicalities of banking, she fully understood the reasons of this overdriving, this feverishness destined to intoxicate the mob and plunge it into epidemical madness. Each morning must bring its rise; it was necessary to keep on inspiring a belief in fresh successes, in streamlets of gold converted into great rivers, oceans of the precious metal. Her poor brother, so credulous, fascinated, carried away—did she mean to betray him, to abandon him to the mercy of that flood which threatened to drown them all some day? At thought of her inaction, her powerlessness, she was once more filled with despair.

Meantime the twilight was darkening the workroom; there was not even a reflection from the fire-place to illumine it, for she had let the fire go out; and in the increasing gloom Madame Caroline wept more and more bitterly. It was cowardly to weep in this fashion, for she was perfectly conscious that all these tears were not due to her anxiety about the affairs of the Universal. Assuredly it was Saccard alone who was forcing that terrible gallop, lashing the monster on and on with extraordinary ferocity and moral unconsciousness, careless as to whether he killed it or not. He was the only guilty one, and she shuddered as she tried to read him,[Pg 224] to read that murky financier's soul, of which even he himself was ignorant, a miry Infinite of all degradations, hidden one from another by the darkness in which they were enveloped. Though there were things which she did not yet clearly distinguish, she suspected them and trembled at them. But the mere discovery of so many sores, the fear of a possible catastrophe, would not have sufficed to bow her in this fashion over that table, weeping and strengthless; it would, on the contrary, have set her erect, eager for struggle and cure. She knew herself; she was a warrior. No, if she sobbed so bitterly, like a weak child, it was because she loved Saccard, and because Saccard at that very moment was betraying her. And this avowal which she was obliged to make to herself filled her with shame, redoubled her tears until she almost choked. 'To think that I have no pride left, my God!' she stammered aloud; 'to be so weak and miserable! to be unable when I would!'

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But just then she was astonished to hear a voice address her in the darkness. It was the voice of Maxime, who had just entered, like one at home. 'What! you in the dark and crying?' said he.

Confused at being thus surprised, she strove to master her sobs, while he added: 'I beg your pardon, but I thought that my father had come back from the Bourse. A lady asked me to bring him to dinner at her house.'

However, the valet now brought a lamp, and, after placing it on the table, withdrew. The whole of the spacious room was illumined by the soft light that fell from the shade.

'It is nothing,' Madame Caroline tried to explain—'merely a woman's fretting, and yet I seldom give way to my nerves.'

Her eyes dry and her figure erect, she was already smiling with the brave mien of a fighter. For a moment the young man looked at her, as she thus proudly drew herself up with her large clear eyes, her thick lips, her expression of virile kindness, which her thick crown of hair softened and endowed with a great charm; and he found her still young, white-haired though she was, her teeth also very white—indeed an adorable woman, who had become beautiful. And then he[Pg 225] thought of his father and shrugged his shoulders with contemptuous pity. 'It is on account of him, is it not,' said he; 'that you have put yourself in this fearful state?'

She wished to deny it, but she was choking, tears were again coming to her eyelids.