As the months wore by, and term succeeded term, the boy evoked an interest in the loneliness. Duty no longer took her to him—it was affection; to amuse him now was not a task—their playtime had become her single pleasure. From this child, the woman who had had no childhood, captured gleams of youth—the virgin who was for ever celibate, caught glimpses of maternity. " In the vacances, Paul, I'll come and stay at Maison-Verte," she used to say, " and we'll have picnics in the park ! " When the trimestre was over and she studied his report, her smile was proud. Once when she went, he rushed to meet her with a prize. " Mademoiselle ma mère, look, look !" he halloed. And the virgin's arms were flung about him and she hugged him like a mother.
As a mother she marked his progress, year by year; as a mother, mourning his barren prospects and craving to advance them, she beat her breast that she had made him penniless. It was as a mother that, by parsimonies, protracted and implacable, she garnered the means at last to better his condition. By this time her hair was all grey, and the schoolboy's voice was breaking.
On the day that she was strong enough, she meant to confess to him and see his love turn to contempt. But the day when she was strong enough wouldn't come. When he was sixteen she had said : "I shall tell him in a year from now ! " When he was seventeen she had wept : " God couldn't mind his loving me for a year more ! "
" Mademoiselle," he would say—for he was a young man and had dropped the other name—" I don't know why you have been so good to me." And she would answer : " Your mother and I were friends, dearest." Only that.
" You work too hard," he would declare, " ever so much too hard ; you're always tired. You know, you weren't ambitious enough—that was your great mistake. You shouldn't have gone in for teaching ; you ought to have played at concerts—you might have been no end of a swell. Play something to me now, will you ? What used my mother to say about your playing? "
" She said once that it made her cry for her baby, Paul. What do you think of when I play?"
But he was shy of admitting what he thought of, because he thought of noble deeds, and his ideal woman, and of the ecstasy it would be to see his name on the cover of a book—and he was doomed to be a clerk.
Yet when the clerk chafed in his bonds, and the conceit of authorship was too mighty to be bridled, it was to her that he first revealed a manuscript. It was she, trembling, who was his first critic. " Your good women are all perfect," she told him, " and your bad women have never a good impulse. We aren't like that." But she was never too weary to talk about the tales; and when they began to wander among august journals that refused them, she used to pray, before the crucifix in her bedroom, that the hearts of editors might be moved.
Now she meant to confess to him before he entered on his military service.
The parting was so bitter that she failed at the last moment. He went far from her. The years of his service were a much greater hardship to her than to him. During the first week she stinted her own diet to send a bon de poste to ameliorate his food; but he wouldn't keep the money. In the avenues of Ivry, never did she see the pitifully garbed conscripts being drilled without picturing the conscript who was dear to her, garbed like that—and closing her eyes with the pain.
And when he was free to return, the meeting was so sweet that she was a coward once more.
He was a clerk for a long time, but his dissatisfaction would have been longer still without her. She it was who took to the Echo oVlvry-St.-Hilaire the article that paved his way to journalism. There was a day of sovereignty when he was offered an ill-paid post on that undistinguished paper. How victoriously he twirled his moustache ! How proudly, through her spectacles, she watched him do it!
Oh, of course he wouldn't be content to stick for ever on the Ivry Echo, not he ! He was going to write great novels just the same. Incipiently the women of his stories lived now, but he was still very young. She said to him at this stage : " You put your girls in a drawing-room, but they come from a tavern." And, abashed and wondering, he saw that poor mademoiselle knew more of girlhood than a literary man had learnt. He was an artist, or he would not have seen.
Because he was an artist he probed his questions deep. Because she loved him she did not flinch. To him she voiced truths that she had shrunk from owning to herself. Thoughts that had frightened her, and thoughts that she had deemed too sacred to be uttered, she brought forth for his guidance. Her innocence and her knowledge she yielded to him, her vanities and her regrets. She bared the holiest secrets of her sterile life and stripped her soul, that he might make his books of it.
But always there remained the one secret that she could not tell.
After he had begun to get on—when he was a journalist in Paris—she had a terrible grief. She had travelled to Paris to see him, and he declined to admit her. He declined to admit her because he knew what she had come to say, and, under Heaven, there was nothing to him so precious as an idol that he had made out of a spiritual profile and some vices. The Ivry editor had told her it was rumoured that the woman talked of marrying Paul, and mademoiselle had written imploring letters to him without avail. " He must be the best judge of his own mind," he had answered, " and of the true nature of the woman he loved".
Then, distraught, she had made the journey, and been turned from the door with a servant's transparent lie. The tumult of the modern traffic confused her—the failing little figure was jostled by the crowd. She went, deafened, through remembered gates, to a bench, and sat there, feeling stunned. The bench was in the Garden of the Luxembourg, where it seemed to her that in another life she had walked beside his mother.