After that, he called her always " Mademoiselle ma mère"; and, divining something of the little wistful heart, mademoiselle did not reprove him.
At Ivry-St.-Hilaire a thing strange and bewildering happened. For the first time in her life a man sought her society; for the first time in her life she was happier for talking to a man. Two moments were prodigious to her—a moment after she had heard herself laughing merrily ; a moment when she realised why she had just plucked out a grey hair.
When they were alone together one day the man said to her :
" Now that I have made a practice in the town at last, I am rooted here—and Ivry isn't amusing. If a woman were to marry me she would have to live here always. I tell you this because I love you".
It was as if God had wrought another miracle.
" I can't understand it," she whispered truly.
Then the man laughed and took her in his arms, and it seemed to her that she had never known what it was to be tired.
When he let her go and she came back to the world, her sin was staring at her. And now the voice that decoyed her before was clamouring: " If you degrade yourself in his sight you'll lose him".
Her lover appeared to her no less a hero because, under his imposing presence, he was a cur, and the thing that she feared would revolt him was her dishonesty.
Not on that day, nor on the next, but after many resolutions to do right had melted into terrors, she forced him to listen; and it seemed to her that she was dying while she spoke.
" I stole," she moaned, her face covered.
" Pauvrette ! " he exclaimed tenderly.
When she dared to look, he was smiling. The relief and gratitude in her soul were so infinite that she wanted to kneel at his feet.
But when she sobbed out the story of her later struggles and told him how she was devoting her life to the child, his brow grew dark.
" That, of course, would have to be changed," he said.
" Changed ? " she stammered.
" Obviously, best beloved. One must consider public opinion. These journeys to Maison-Verte are mad; they must cease. You have not been fair to yourself; and now, more than ever, you need to reflect that-"
" But," she broke in, frightened, " you don't understand. It is not a mere question of my going to Maison-Verte; he will not be there always—he will grow up, and his future will be my care. My responsibility goes on. Oh, I know—you need not tell me—that you have thoroughly the right to refuse, but—but I have no right to alter. Since I have seen that I could never hope to give back what I took, I have seen that he was my charge for life".
" Mon Dieu ! " he said, " you exaggerate quixotically. To give back what you took? Remember what you have already done ! "
" Counted in francs," she pleaded, " I have done very little. It has been difficult to do, that's all".
Presently, when he perceived that, on this one point, the little weak woman was inflexible, the man made a beautiful speech, declaring that she was worth more than the opinion of Ivry-St.-Hilaire, and of all France. He said that nothing mattered to him but their " divine love." He looked more heroic still, and his eyes were moist with the nobility of the sentiments that he was delivering.
But as he sat in the principal cafe of the town by and by, among the stacks of swords in the corners, and the elite of the military and civil circles, clearing their throats vociferously on to the floor, he knew that a few days hence he meant to deliver a second lie about the " supplications of his family and his duty as a son." Had her debt been paid, he would have held her absolved from yielding so much as another thought to the boy, and he could have afforded to pay the debt, but it did not even enter his mind to commit such a madness. Yet, in his fashion, he loved her. The " chivalry" of offering marriage to a woman without a dot had proved it.
It would have been kinder to her not to leave her in a fool's paradise; she was to suffer more intensely because of that.
" Some of the facts, sufficient to explain the position, I have confided to my mother," he told her. " She is very old, and the honour of the family is very dear to her. I entreat you, in her name. The boy shall remain in this institution, or be placed in some other. They will teach him a trade. When the time comes for him to earn his living he will be no worse off than the other gosses there. Be guided by me. I assure you, you are morbidly sensitive. There is no reason why you should ever meet him again. My adored one, our happiness is in your hands. Give the child up ! "
" I cannot," she repeated hopelessly.
And then, all of a sudden, the imposing presence vanished and she saw the puny man—more clearly than he had ever seen himself.
" It begins to be plain why you 1 cannot,' " he hissed. " Zut, tell your yarn about your 1 theft' to somebody greener. For me it's too thin ! . . . But why should we part, ducky? The matter could be arranged".
When he had demonstrated his intelligence in this way, without advantage, the man went down the garden path, out of her life—and for an hour she sat sightless, and ageing years. The birds in the garden were making a cruel noise. She felt that she had grown too old during the afternoon to bear the shrillness of the birds. When was it that she had had the arrogance to pull out a grey hair?
Her love-story was over; but the drear routine continued—the thrift, the drudgery, the clandestine journeys to the boy. If, when she saw him next, he felt that she was colder to him, she did not mean to be so. Never had she striven quite so wearily to be tender.
It was insensibly that she ceased to recall him as a burden. Had Time's touches been more swift she would have marvelled at the mystery of the thing. But the weight of life was lifted very slowly, and the burden bid fair to be consoling before she realised that the load was less.