" And his charge—how much? " panted Nanette, who feared that such celerity might cost more still.
When the specialist had been, on the morrow— when Picq had closed the street door after him, and stumbled up the stairs, in his hurry to rejoin Nanette, and sat down on the bed, with his cheek resting against hers—they did not speak for some seconds.
" Well, well," he brought forth at last, " after all, it is not so bad, what ? It is a shock, of course —I own it is a shock; but really, when one comes to think it over-"
She moaned—a child afraid.
" Don't—don't ! An operation ! "
" Yes, yes, it is a shock; we were hoping for an easy cure. But when all is said, we have learnt there is a cure. If he had told us there was nothing to be done ? There is a cure ! And you will feel nothing, mignonne—you will feel no pain at all. And afterwards, when you lie there at peace—so comfortable in the knowledge that all the misery is over—I shall come every day and bring you flowers. And every day I shall find you brighter and stronger. Upon my word, I would not mind making a bet that, in looking back at it, you remember it as a happy time".
Big tears were on her frightened face.
" And it is Jean's birthday," she wailed.
" Yes, it is unfortunate. It cannot be helped. Well, we shall have our fete when you come home instead, and—listen, listen ! We will drink his health at a restaurant—we will make up for the delay. To the devil with the cost! When you come home cured, we will have a swagger supper out, to celebrate the double event. Nanette—it is useless to expostulate—I register a vow that this time we will squander a couple of louis on a supper on the Boulevard. And you shall put on your pink silk dress ! "
" Petit bonhomme, wilt thou do me a favour ? " she whimpered.
" Now thou art going to say something foolish".
" No ; we will have that supper on the Boulevard. After the awful expense I shall have been, two louis more or less- But let us fête Jean the same as usual to-night. We must. We've never missed doing it once since he was a baby; I couldn't bear to let the day go by without our doing that. Think of the danger he is in. Get champagne as you always do. If it would be bad for me, I won't take any ; but get it ! My illness mustn't spoil the birthday altogether. Get it, and we'll forget about me for an hour. Chéri, I shall go into the hospital braver in the morning for having had our fête".
" Agreed, agreed," said Picq chokingly. " But it will be a poor treat to me, if I am to drink it alone. I shall ask if you may take a sip".
He rang up the specialist, to inquire, on the way to the theatre in the evening. "It is our boy's birthday, monsieur," he pleaded—" our boy who is in the war. You see, it is his birthday ! "
" One glass of champagne ? Yes. It will do no harm," said the authoritative voice. " But no excitement, you understand. And no solid food. To-morrow and the next day they will see to her diet—and the day after that, we shall operate".
That word " operate," booming from the receiver, struck horror to Picq afresh. He marvelled that anyone could be capable of uttering it so cheerfully, as he went out into the streets again. A child came towards him, calling papers, and he sighed, " If they but announced that Germany sued for peace ! - She would not be thinking so much about the operation then".
During the performance, the bottle of paltry wine stood among the articles of make-up on the table of his dressing-room; and in his wait in the last act, he sat staring at it, and thinking of the days when his boy in the 120ieme Regiment Territorial had been a tiny child, and the wife who was so ill had been all sunshine and laughter. It had not been withheld from him, on the doorstep, in the morning, that the operation would be a serious one, and he felt sick in contemplating the next three days' suspense. How would Nanette contrive to bear it, he wondered, away from him, among strangers in a hospital? When the fearful moment came for her to be carried from the ward to the operating table-! Cold sweat burst out on him. As he sat huddled there, in the garish dressing-room, Picq prayed to Heaven to give her courage. His chin was sunk on his chest; he rocked to and fro.
There was a sudden rap at the door.
" Entrez ! " said Picq, and somebody brought him a telegram.
He read : " I have the pain of informing you of the death on the field of honour of your son Jean Picq." It was from the War Office.
" Better hurry up, Picq—you haven't too long ! " called a colleague, carelessly, looking in. " Good God ! " And he sprang towards him.
Picq staggered, from his colleague's arms, up the crazy staircase to the wings—and straightened his back to be dashing. He entered upon the scene in time. And he delivered his lines, and struck his attitudes, and paused, by force of habit, when a round of applause was due. At the climax of a tirade, when he took a step back and mechanically raised his gaze to the first circle, nobody would have supposed that, with his mind's eye he looked, through the tier of faces, on the mangled body of his son.
The curtain fell again. The play was over, and he tottered back to the room. The bottle of champagne on the dressing-table, among the litter of make-up, was the first thing he noticed. " My wife ! " gasped Picq, and broke down. He was shaken by sobs.
Some of the players had followed. Sympathy surrounded him.
"I see her face when I tell her—I see her face ! How to keep it from her? To-night she mustn't know—it would kill her; but to keep it from her for weeks till she has recovered—is it possible ? "
" Poor chap! Be brave. Time-" They mumbled useless words.
" To have to pretend to her every time I go, for weeks, perhaps months ! And then, when she is so happy at being well again, to have to strike her down with the blow ! Ah, I know I am not the only father to lose his son—she is not the only mother, but-"