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She retained her severity of demeanour in the growing darkness which was filling the room. However, a couple of lamps were brought, and a broad light then illumined the walls, the large plans, the bright water-colours, which so often made[Pg 140] her dream of the countries over yonder. The plains were still barren, the mountains still barred the horizon, and once more she conjured up a vision of the distressful wretchedness of that old world asleep on its treasures, but which science was going to reawaken in its filth and its ignorance. What great and beautiful and good things there were to be accomplished! Little by little, her vision showed her the generations of the future, a stronger and happier humanity springing from the ancient soil which progress would once more plough.

'Speculation, speculation!' she mechanically repeated, struggling with her doubts. 'Ah! the idea of it fills my heart with disturbing anguish.'

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Saccard, who was well acquainted with her usual train of thought, had watched that hope in the future dawning on her face. 'Yes,' said he, 'speculation. Why does the word frighten you? Speculation—why, it is the one inducement that we have to live; it is the eternal desire that compels us to live and struggle. Without speculation, my dear friend, there would be no business of any kind. Why on earth would you have me loosen my purse strings and risk my fortune, if you do not promise me some extraordinary enjoyment, some sudden happiness which will open heaven to me? With the mere legitimate, moderate remuneration of labour, the mere living wage—with nothing but well-balanced equilibrium in all transactions, life becomes a desert of dreary flatness, a marsh in which all forces slumber and stagnate. But, all at once, just make some dream flare up on the horizon, promise men that with one sou they shall gain a hundred, propose to all these sleepers that they shall join you in the chase after the impossible, and gain millions in a couple of hours, amidst the most fearful hazards—why then the race at once begins, all energies are increased tenfold, and amidst the scramble of people toiling and sweating for their own gratification, birth is given to great and beautiful living things. It is the same as in love. In love as in speculation there is much filth; in love also, people think only of their own gratification; yet without love there would be no life, and the world would come to an end.'

Madame Caroline was not prudish, and made up her mind to laugh. 'And so,' said she, 'your conclusion is that we must resign ourselves since all this enters into Nature's plan. You are right, life is by no means clean.'

Genuine bravery came to her at the thought that each forward step in the world's history and development is made through blood and mire. One must have will-power, determination. Meantime her eyes, straying along the walls, had not ceased gazing at the plans and drawings, and the future appeared to her with its ports, canals, highways, railways, rural districts with immense farms equipped like factories, new, healthy, and intelligent cities, where the human race would live to a great age and in the enjoyment of much knowledge.

'Well,' she resumed gaily, 'I must give way, I suppose, as usual. Let us try to do a little good, that we may be forgiven.'

Her brother, who had remained silent, now drew near and embraced her. She threatened him with her finger. 'Oh! you,' said she, 'you are a coaxer. I know you well. To-morrow, when you have left us, you will trouble yourself but little as to what may go on here; and as soon as you have buried yourself in your work over yonder, you will find everything going well and be dreaming of triumph, whilst here, perhaps, the soil will be cracking beneath us.'

'But,' cried Saccard in a jocular way, 'since it's understood that he will leave you here like a gendarme to lay hold of me if I behave badly.'

All three burst out laughing.

'Yes,' said Madame Caroline, 'you may rely upon it, I shall lay hold of you. Remember what you have promised, to ourselves to begin with, and then to so many others, my worthy Dejoie for instance, whom I strongly recommend to you. Ah! and our neighbours also, those poor Beauvilliers ladies, whom I saw to-day superintending their cook whilst she washed some of their linen, by way of reducing the laundry bill, no doubt.'

For another moment all three continued talking in a very friendly way, and Hamelin's departure was definitely settled.[Pg 142] Then, as Saccard went down again to his private room, he learnt from his valet that a woman had been obstinately waiting to see him, although she had been told that there was a board meeting that afternoon, and that he would in all probability be unable to receive her. At first, feeling quite tired, Saccard became angry, and gave orders to send her away; then the thought that he ought to be grateful for success and the fear that he might change his luck should he close his door caused him to alter his mind. The stream of applicants was increasing day by day, and the swarming of this throng brought him intoxication.

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His private room was lighted by a single lamp and he could not see his visitor very clearly.

'It was Monsieur Busch who sent me, monsieur,' she began.

His anger kept him standing, and he did not even tell the woman to sit down. By that shrill voice emanating from an unsightly mass of flesh he had recognised Madame Méchain. There was a pretty shareholder for you—a creature who bought securities by the pound weight!

She, however, calmly explained that Busch had sent her to get some information respecting the issue of the Universal Bank shares. Were there any still available? Could one hope to secure some with the premium accorded to the members of the syndicate? But all this was surely a pretext, a dodge to get in to see the house, to spy out what was being done there, and to feel him, Saccard; for her tiny eyes, gimlet-holes as they seemed, pierced in her puffy face, were ferreting everywhere, and incessantly returning to him, as though to probe him to the very soul. Busch, indeed, after long and patient waiting, ripening the famous affair of the abandoned child, was now making up his mind to act, and had sent her out to reconnoitre.

'There are none left,' answered Saccard brutally.

She realised that she would learn nothing further, and that any attempt that day would be imprudent. And so, without waiting for him to push her out, she at once stepped towards the door.

'Why don't you ask me for some shares for yourself?' he resumed with the intention of offending her.