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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?'

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

'Ah! my poor lady,' resumed Maxime; 'I told you, you will remember, that you entertained illusions about papa, and that you would be ill rewarded. It was inevitable.'

Thereupon she remembered the day when she had gone to borrow those two thousand francs of the young man in order to pay part of Victor's ransom. Had he not then promised to have a chat with her whenever she might desire to know the truth? Was not this an opportunity to learn all the past by questioning him? And an irresistible need of knowing urged her on. Now that she had commenced the descent she must go to the bottom. That course alone would be brave, worthy of her, useful to all.

Still the inquiry was repugnant to her, and, instead of boldly starting upon it, she took a circuitous course, as though with the object of changing the conversation. 'I still owe you two thousand francs,' said she; 'I hope you are not too angry with me for keeping you waiting.'

He made a gesture as though to imply that she might take all the time she needed, and then abruptly said: 'By the way, and my little brother, that monster?'

'I am greatly grieved about him. I have so far said nothing about him to your father. I should so much like to cleanse the poor boy a little, so that it might be possible for your father to love him.'

A burst of laughter from Maxime disturbed her, and as she gave him a questioning look he exclaimed: 'Well, I think that you are wasting time and trouble in that respect also! Papa will hardly understand your taking all this trouble. He has experienced so many family annoyances.'

She was still looking at him, so demurely egotistical in his enjoyment of life, so disengaged from all human ties, even from those which a life of pleasure creates. He had smiled, alone enjoying the covert maliciousness of his last words.[Pg 226] And she was conscious that she was at last about to discover the secret of these two men.

'You lost your mother at an early age?' she said.

'Yes, I scarcely knew her. I was still at Plassans, at school, when she died here in Paris. Our uncle, Doctor Pascal, has kept my sister Clotilde with him there; I have only once seen her since.'

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'But your father married again?'

He hesitated. A kind of ruddy vapour seemed to dim his empty eyes, usually so clear.

'Oh! yes, yes; he married again, the daughter of a magistrate, one Béraud du Chatel—Renée her name was; she was not a mother to me, but a good friend.' Then, sitting down beside her in a familiar way, he went on: 'You see, one must understand papa. Mon Dieu! he isn't worse than others. Only children, wives—in short, all around him—hold in his mind a second place to money. Oh! let us understand each other; he doesn't love money like a miser, for the sake of having a huge pile of it and hiding it in his cellar. No; if he wishes to make it gush forth on every side, if he draws it from no matter what sources, it is to see it flow around him in torrents; it is for the sake of all the enjoyments he derives from it—luxury, pleasure, power. What can you expect? It is in his blood. He would sell us—you, me, no matter whom—if we were a part of some bargain. And he would do it as an unconscious and superior man; for he is really the poet of the million, so mad and rascally does money make him—oh! rascally on a very grand scale!'

This was just what Madame Caroline had understood, and while listening to Maxime she nodded her head in token of assent. Ah! money, that all-corrupting poisonous money, which withered souls and drove from them all kindness, tenderness, and love for others! Money alone was the great culprit, the agent of all human cruelties and abominations. At that moment she cursed it, execrated it, in the indignant revolt of her woman's nobility and uprightness. Ah! if she had had the power, she would with a gesture have annihilated all the money in the world, even as one would crush disease[Pg 227] with a stamp of the heel in order to preserve the world in health.

'And your father married again,' she slowly repeated after a pause, with a tinge of embarrassment in her voice as vague memories began awaking within her. Who was it that had alluded to the story in her presence? She could not have told. But doubtless it had been some woman, some friend, in the early days of her residence in the Rue Saint Lazare, when Saccard had rented the first floor of the mansion. Had there not been some question of a marriage which he had contracted, some marriage for money, some shameful bargain? And later on had not crime quietly taken its seat at the hearth, abominable depravity, tolerated, suffered to abide there without let or hindrance?