" You don't think it might be best to break it to her now? " someone suggested.
He shook his head impatiently, the throbbing head from which the jeune premier's curls were not removed yet.
" It would be murder. I am warned she is to avoid excitement. And this evening, when she tries to be bright, to go in and say, ' He is killed ' ! I mustn't tell her till she is well—quite, quite well. I must keep her cheerful; I must be in good spirits, but—I haven't the courage to go home".
It was the truth : he had not the courage to go home.
" She is waiting for me—I must make haste to change," he faltered more than once; but even when he had " changed " at last, his soul cowered before the thought of the ordeal, and he lingered nerveless in the chair.
" She is waiting for me—I must go," he kept repeating while the lights in the theatre went out. " I must go," he said again, and rose. They had called a cab for him, and his legs felt so unreliable that he offered no protest, though a cab seemed a terrible extravagance. Yes, he would take one; it was certain he could not walk fast enough to make up for the delay, and Nanette mustn't be allowed to grow anxious. He lay back in the cab dizzily, a hand round the neck of the bottle on his knees. " In good spirits—in good spirits ! " he cautioned himself. " But her instinct is so strong. If she suspects ? " On the rattling course, imagination wrung him with the moment of her suspicion —the horror in her dilating eyes, the impuissance of his agony. ..." Dead ! " He perceived with a shock that he had not understood that Jean was dead—that he still did not understand. " Dead." Jean, who seemed so vividly alive, was only a memory. His eagerness, his laughter, his allusions, all the intimate realities that represented Jean had been blown out. It was inconceivable; his mind would not grasp it. Where, then, did comprehension lie, that he was stricken? . . . The cab startled him by stopping.
As he had said, she was trying to be bright. She had not cast her fears aside, but she meant to hide them. She welcomed him with a smile. " Champagne and a cab? What next? "
" Yes, what do you think of it ? I was in a hurry to get back. How has it been with you, chérie—has the evening seemed very long? Well, there is good news—you may have a glass".
" He was sure? "
" He said ' Yes ' at once. Oh, I wouldn't have tried to persuade him—that would have been folly. I told him the reason, but I did not try to persuade him".
" How tired you look ! How did it go ? "
" It was a good audience—what there was of it. Three calls after the third act. What an appetite I've got—and what a thirst ! I can't wait to take my boots off. The spread attracts me. What? I declare I see my favourite sausage ! "
" I couldn't go out for any flowers this year, and I forgot to remind you," she said. " But you'll find enough to eat".
" And you—what is there for you ? Let me put the pillow behind you, mignonne. And now i to open the bottle ! I am not an expert at the game, but—ah ! it is coming. Prepare yourself for the bang. . . . Tiens, it is of a gentle disposition. But no doubt it will taste just as good. Sapristi, how it sparkles ! "
He bore a glassful to her side, and their gaze turned together to the likeness on the wall.
" Well, little wife, the usual toast. To our boy, our darling Jean ! May God bless him".
" May God bless him," breathed the mother. They looked at the photograph silently for a moment. " I wonder if he is thinking of us ? " she murmured. " Perhaps he is fancying us like this ? "
" I venture to say so," replied Picq. " He knows we should never forget his birthday; he knows that".
" If—he is alive," she said in a whisper.
"Ah, why should we doubt it?" His arm encouraged her. " How often we have alarmed ourselves! And always he was alive. Take another sip, mignonne. It is a sound wine, hein? I should not be surprised if on the Boulevard they charge fifteen francs for such a wine".
" You must go and sit down now and have your supper".
" Not for a minute or two. The bouquet is so excellent I can't take my nose out of the glass. And I think I am more thirsty than hungry, after all".
" Petit bonhomme, petit bonhomme," she faltered pitifully.
" And why ' petit bonhomme ' like that—what are you making so much of me about ? "
" Do you think I am blind ? Do you suppose you can hide it from me? Your hands tremble and your eyes are red. As soon as you came in I saw. You have been tormenting yourself about the operation all the evening".
" Mais non, mais non ! If I worry, it is not about the operation, because it is a simple thing, though it sounds so big to us. They tell me it is an everyday affair, like having out a tooth; that was his very expression : ' Monsieur, it is no more dangerous than having out a tooth.' I worry, if I worry at all, in thinking that you are frightened. If I could only make you believe that there is nothing to be frightened of! "
" I know I am a coward. I told you so. It is from you that he gets his courage".
" What an illusion ! A fine fire-eater I am ! Old stick-in-the-mud ! "
" Ah, yes. I'm ashamed. When I think of what he is going through—how splendidly he bears it! And here am I, afraid of everything. He has no heroine for a mother".
" I forbid thee to say it. He knows it is not true".
" He loves me just the same. Don't you, Jean —you don't love your little mother any less ? " The photograph hung too high for her. " Take it down," she pleaded. " If I could change places with thee, my son ! I would find the courage for that, though I died of terror in the first hour. Ah, my little baby, my little baby ! And I was so glad he was a boy ! "
" You are not to upset yourself," quavered Picq. " I cannot stand it. Will you be sorry he was a boy when he gets the Croix de Guerre? I make you a bet they give him that at the very least. I see you polishing it all day. Pick up your glass. To tell the truth, I have a strong presentiment, and I am not given to foolish fancies, that he comes home ' Captain.' What triumph for us—hale and hearty and a captain. Imagine it. At his age ! Nanette, pick up your glass. We will paint the town red that night, and you will say you were ' always sure of it.' When I chaff you about your tremors you will declare you never had any. Mind you, I am putting it down very low; it is quite on the cards that he becomes ' Colonel.' Nanette, I entreat thee, pick up thy glass ! Again a toast. Good luck, my son! We drink to your future. A bumper to our next merry meeting ! "
That toast reverberated to Picq when she lay sleeping and Picq was sleepless. But, at any rate, she had no suspicion so far.
She remained without suspicion when he visited her at the hospital, during the following week, but always she remained a prey to fear. Not for herself now—they said the operation had been successful; it was the thought of Jean's peril that haunted her. As she was wakened in the early morning, the burden of dread rolled upon her. Through the long monotonous day her mind was in the blood-soaked line more often than in the ward. They hinted to Picq that her anxiety was detrimental, and he tried to reason with her once; but it seemed to do more harm than good, for she burst out, "If he should be killed ! " and wrung her hands on the quilt. " He has everything before him, he's so fond of life. If he should be killed ! "
" He will not be killed. Is not my love for him as great as yours? And you see I am confident. I swear to you I am confident! I implore you, don't dwell on these thoughts. Make haste and get well." And again he asked himself, " How am I to break it to her when she is well ? "
Then there was a morning when they sent him away for a while, stupefied by the announcement that never would she be well. " The conditions had changed "; he must be " prepared for the worst." She, too, had been prepared, before he was admitted. He had foreseen her speechless with fright; but, strange to say, the " coward " who had been so timorous of an operation, had spoken of her approaching death quite calmly. Her terror for Jean it was, increasingly her terror for Jean, that tortured her last hours. " Petit bonhomme, it is like being on the rack," she had gasped. " If only I were sure he would be spared ! "
" God of heaven, it is ' like being on the rack ' for her," shuddered Picq, sobbing in the street; "it is for her ' like being on the rack ' ! And there is nothing I can do".
And a child came towards him, calling papers.
It was with the connivance of the nurses that he brought joy and thanksgiving to her heart during the hours that remained to her. He pretended to her that Germany sued for peace. If he was condemned to affect the tones of hysterical rejoicing, he had no need to counterfeit the tears. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, as he feigned to fight for mastery of a whirlwind of exultance, and panted to her that the war was won.
" I return with good news—the greatest; but I implore thee, keep still—they forbid thee to sit up. Nanette, my loved one, our boy is safe. The danger is all over—he will soon be home. The Boches are beaten. I rush back to tell thee. They cave in. Paris has gone mad. The boulevards are impassable for crowds. I am deaf with the cheers. They cave in ! They have been on the verge of it for months. Bluff, it has all been bluff for a long time, and now America has called their hand. They collapse, the Boches. An armistice is arranged. It is certain they restore Alsace-Lorraine. I have cried like a child. Glory to God. France has conquered. Vive la France ! "
" Jean safe ! " she breathed, smiling.
She seemed to grow younger during the afternoon, before she died.
" And though she knows now it was a lie," said Picq, when they had crossed her hands on her breast, "it is no disappointment to her, since she has him with her now".