As will be readily understood, I had no ambition to assist at her next conversation with Henri, and I did not intend to enter the house. Unluckily, when the cab stopped, he was on the veranda, and he came to the gate.
" Comment ? What is it ?" he demanded, seeing her agitation.
" She is rather upset," I said. " I won't come in".
" Yes, yes, come in! Tell him what has happened," gasped Elise peremptorily. Whereby she, in her turn, committed a grave fault, for she made me witness matrimonial dissension of which I need otherwise have had no knowledge.
" She has been to see Jacques and Blanche," I said, following them into the salon.
" Ah? " said Henri, with reserve.
" Yes, I have been to see Jacques and Blanche," she panted, " and a nice time I have had there ! "
He decided on hauteur. " I am quite at a loss. If one of you will explain ? "
As she looked at me, I said : " They told her you had not done as they expected about the shares. I rather gathered that there was some tendency towards feeling hurt".
" Hurt ? On reflection, I saw that I had not the right to advise Jacques to speculate. What of it ? "
" They do not view it as a speculation," I said.
" They ! Much they know of business ! "
" Did you take shares yourself? " queried Elise.
" The cases are not parallel," he contended, his voice rising excitedly. " Jacques is a poor man; I did not feel justified in letting him risk money".
" Oh, Henri," she wailed, " you know very well that was not the reason. It was not loyal of you; it was very, very wrong. Already it would have been a little fortune for them. No wonder they are aggrieved. I cannot be surprised—much as I have suffered this afternoon, I cannot be surprised at what I have had to hear".
" What you have had to hear ? You have heard that I did not choose to assume the responsibility of conducting another man's affairs. And then? Ah, je m'en fiche ! I am fed up with Jacques".
" I have had to hear you broke a promise because you were mean-spirited enough to blame him for your own gaffe to Martime," she cried. " Of my husband I have had to hear that! No, I cannot be surprised at what they said. They said it was petty and contemptible of you—and so it was ! "
For an instant it was as if she had hurled a thunderbolt. Henri stood inarticulate, his eyes bulging from his head. Then, bringing his fist on to the table with a blow that made every ornament in the room jump, he roared :
"You dare to say it? To me, your husband, you dare to say such a thing? You shall ask pardon at once, in the presence of the friend who has heard the insult ! " And, as it was obvious she would do nothing of the kind, he went on, without loss of time, " No ! I forbid you to apologise— it is vain. There are insults that apologies cannot abate. A husband who is ' contemptible' to his wife is best apart from her—I can find comprehension elsewhere".
I was having a pleasant day—what with one menage and the other, I was having a pleasant day. There ensued a quarrel the more harrowing from the fact that the recriminations poured from a pair whom I knew to be, at heart, lovers. And as often as I endeavoured to steal out, either Henri or Elise would pounce upon me to confirm some point that did not matter. When I got away at last my need of stimulant was insupportable.
I had, naturally, expected to receive a penitent missive from Jacques that night, and when there was a knocking at my door I did not doubt that he had come to beg forgiveness in person. But it was Henri who flung in, and dropped into a chair.
" Enfin, I go back no more," he groaned. He took my breath away.
"You are mad," I stuttered. "What? You part from a wife you adore, and who adores you, because of a hasty word? Are you a boy, to behave so wildly ? Cest inoui ! "
" There are words, and words! " His face twitched and crumpled. "It is because I am not a boy that I see clearly we could never again be happy together. The madness would be to try! To sit, every day, opposite a woman who is thinking me contemptible ? Merci! I could not endure it. Every meal, every moment would become a hell".
" Ah, if she were thinking it, really ! But she spoke impetuously—she had had much to try her. She had only just left Jacques and-"
" Ah, mon Dieu, mon Dieu, what I owe to that man ! " he vociferated. " What everlasting afflictions, his telling me of his accursed pansies ! First, it annihilated my prospects, and now it rends me from my wife and children. I shall stipulate that they live with me for half the year; but what of the other half, while they are being taught that the father who loves them so dearly is a contemptible man, disgusting to their mother? " He rocked to and fro. " Also, how am I to make a home for them when they come ? I leave the villa to Elise; I cannot afford two establishments— above all, now that I have lost the production by Martime, and may never see a sou from work that has occupied me for a year. Malediction on that pot of pansies ! "
" Now listen ! " He had been to the last degree unreasonable, but he was suffering, and I have a good heart. " I guarantee that this separation will not last a week. I shall have a talk with Elise".
" With Elise ? It is I who make the separation," he objected, with a piteous attempt at dignity. " And further, I have no hostility against you, but it is partly through your own talks with Elise that she is lost to me. Ah, yes ! " I had stared at him, stupefied. " I understand that you said to her, at the time, that I was guilty of ' injustice ' towards Jacques. I do not say you traduced me with any vicious motive, but, unquestionably, your irresponsible chatter paved the way to the catastrophe that wrecks my life".
My turpitude notwithstanding, he wept in my room till 3 a.m., keeping me up. And he, and Elise, too, proved very distressing to me during the days that followed. She was equally headstrong. I was surprised at her.
" You mean well, but pray say no more; it is inevitable," she answered me tremulously. " As for that stupid affair of Jacques and Blanche, I daresay I may have misjudged Henri. They don't understand. As a business man, no doubt he did what was really best in their own interests." I perceived that her commiseration for them had much decreased since it involved her in domestic strife. " But his conduct towards me— ! I have done with him. I am not a fool, to imagine an honourable man would desert his wife for a reason like that. A performance. He did not even forget his razor strop. Let him go to her ! He was not an angel—no writing man is—but I thought he loved me, and I never complained. Because I admired him, because he was the one man in the world to me. Behind the curtain it hung, not even in sight, and he did not forget it when he packed ! Brute ! You heard him say he could ' find comprehension elsewhere.' She will not keep his linen in such order as I have done, that I'll swear. To pretend it was just because I believed what Jacques and Blanche had said ! I believe nothing that they say. I detest them. Oh, they have made a pretty mess of my life, those two ! "
She was illogical, but I was much displeased with Jacques and Blanche myself. The previous day I had seen them in the street. It is true that they cast ingratiating glances, but in the circumstances they should have done a good deal more. And I, very properly, looked away.
Yes, for fully three weeks the estrangement of Henri and Elise made demands on my time. And since each of them viewed the other as the aggressor, their criticisms of each other were not unduly diffident. Nevertheless I continued to do all in my power for them. I implored Henri to return, and I besought Elise to write to him, though it was no recreation to me to keep pressing counsel upon people who told me they did not want to hear it. When there were two consecutive days without Henri despairing in my chair, the lull was welcome.
I cannot depict my joyful surprise, the next evening, on seeing them issue radiantly from the Restaurant Noel Peters, arm in arm. I had had no news of the reconciliation. I rushed to them and clasped their hands.
" Hurrah ! " I exclaimed. " Thank goodness ! How delighted I am the trouble is over ! "
Their greeting appeared to me a shade constrained.
" Oh, that didn't amount to much," Henri mumbled, brushing my reference aside.
" No one supposed it did," laughed Elise lightly. And as I found myself at a loss what to say next, there was a pause.
" We are going to a theatre," said Henri; " we are rather late." After a glance at his wife, he added, in flat tones, " You will dine with us one night, hein? "
" Ah, yes," said Elise perfunctorily. " Of course".
When I went, we did not allude to what had happened. Nor was the conversation on general topics as animated as when I had dined there hitherto. For the first time at their table I was depressed.
And it was the last invitation from them I received. Probably I was embarrassing to them, by reason of their having railed against each other to me while they thought they would never make it up. Also, though Henri could forgive his admiring wife for once calling him petty and contemptible, one may be sure it was bitter to him to remember I had been present when she humiliated him. That both he and Elise resented my sharing the secret of their separation was as clear as daylight. For some months afterwards, if I chanced to meet them, they would stop and exchange a few words with me, but by and by they contented themselves with smiling; and, finally, they preferred to pass without perceiving that I was there. When that play of Henri's was produced, two or three years later, he had become so alien to me that I should never have dreamed of going to see it, if I had not got in for nothing. The leading man was not capable of the part, and the run was short—by which Henri's enmity against Jacques was doubtless intensified.
The two couples that used to be so intimate remain at daggers drawn. And both couples are strangers to me. I do not think there is anything to add, excepting that the story of the pot of pansies has not been accomplished to this day. The tragic history that I have related is the story of the story that was never found.