Deep in her consciousness had lurked this thought too, and she turned from him in guilty silence. " You are fond of me, then," she muttered at last, " in spite of all ? "
" If I am fond of you ! " groaned Floromond. " Ah, Frisonnette, Frisonnette, there is no moment, even when you are coldest, that I would not give my life for you. I curse the poverty that prevents me tearing you from these temptations and making you entirely mine once more. If I were rich ! It is I who would give you boxes at the opera, and carriages in the park; I would wrap you in that ermine cloak, and pour all the jewels of Boucheron's window in your lap".
" I will not go ! " she cried, weeping. " Forgive me, forgive the way I have behaved. I have been wicked, yes ! But I repent, it is ended—I will not go ! "
And that night she was proud and joyful to think she would not go. It was only in the grey morning that her heart sank to remember it.
" I must decline," she said to Finot hesitatingly. " I have a husband. I—I could not take my husband ? "
" Mon enfant, your husband would not grudge you the little holiday without him, one may be sure".
It was like being barred from Eden. " And the ermine cloak," she faltered, " could I take the ermine cloak ? "
The tempter smiled. " One cannot doubt that, among fourteen trunks, there would be room for the ermine cloak," he told her suavely.
One November evening when Floromond came in, his wife was not there. He supposed she had been detained in the show-room—until he groped for a match; and then, in the dark, his hand touched an envelope, stuck in the box. He trembled so heavily that, before he could light the lamp, he seemed to be falling through an eternity of fear.
He read: "I am leaving you because I am frivolous and contemptible. I dare not entreat your pardon. But I shall never make you wretched any more." . . .
When he noticed things again, from the chair in which he crouched, he found that the night had passed and daylight filled the room. He was shuddering with cold. And he got feebly up, and wavered towards the bed.
" She did not ponder her words," babbled the aunt, who came to him aghast—" she will return to you. When the two months are over and she is back in Paris, you will see ! "
" She pondered longer than you surmise, and she will never return to me," he said. " And what is more, a man with nothing to offer can never presume to seek her. No, I have done with illusions—she will be no nearer to me in Paris than in Monte Carlo; Frisonnette's Paris and mine henceforth will be different worlds".
Floromond lived, without Frisonnette, among the clothes that she had left behind; the dainty things that she had prized had been abandoned now that she was to be decked in masterpieces. They hung ownerless, the peignoir, and tricot, and dresses— the pink, and the mauve, and the plaid—gathering the dust, and speaking of her to him always.
" She has soared above you, dish-clouts ! " he would cry sometimes, half mad with misery. " It was you who first estranged us—now it is your turn to be spurned." And, as he tossed sleepless, his fancy followed her; or pacing the room, he projected some passionate indictment, which, on reflection, he never sent.
M You should try to work," his reason told him. " If you worked, you might manage to forget in minutes." And, setting his teeth, he took palette and brush and worked doggedly for hours. But he did not forget, and the result of his effort was so execrable that he knew that he was simply wasting good paint.
Then, because work was beyond him, and his purse was always slimmer, he began to make dejeuner do for dinner, too. And not long after that, he was reducing his rations more every day. It was a haggard Floromond who threaded his way among the crowds that massed the pavements when some weeks had passed. The boulevards were gay with booths of toys and trifles now; great branches of holly glowed on the baraques of s the flower-vendors at the street corners; and the restaurants, where throngs would fête the Réveillon, and New Year's Eve, displayed advice to merrymakers to book their tables well ahead.
" My own rejoicings will be held at home ! " said Floromond.
And, during the afternoon of New Year's Eve, it was by a stroke of irony that the first comrade who had rapped at the door since Frisonnette's flight came to propose expenditure. " Two places go begging for the supper at the Café des Beaux Esprits," he explained blithely, " and it struck me that you and your wife might join our party? Quite select, mon vieux. They promise to do one very well, and five francs a cover is to include everything but the wine".
" My wife has an engagement that she found it impossible to refuse," said the painter, huddled over the fading fire. " And as for me, I am not hungry".
The other stared. " There is time enough for you to be hungry by midnight".
"That is a fact," assented Floromond; "I may be most inconveniently hungry by midnight. But I am less likely to be scattering five francs. In plain French, my dear Bonvoisin, if you could lend me a few sous, I should feel comparatively prosperous. I am like the two places at the Beaux Esprits—I go begging".
Bonvoisin looked down his nose. " I should have been overjoyed to accommodate you, of course," he mumbled, " but at this season, you know how it is. What with the pestilential tips to the concierge, and the postman, and one thing and another, I am confoundedly hard up myself".
" All my sympathy ! " said Floromond. " Amuse yourself well at the banquet." And he sprinkled a little more dust over the dying boulets in the grate, to prolong their warmth.
Outside, big snowflakes fell.
" The man who has never known poverty has never known his fellow-man," he mused; " I would have sworn for Bonvoisin. He has inspired me with an apophthegm, however—let us give Bonvoisin his due ! And, to take a rosy view of things, turkeys are very indigestible birds, and, since I lack the fuel to cook it, I am spared the fatigue of going out to buy one for my mahogany to-morrow. Really there is much to be thankful for—the only embarrassment is to know where it is to be found. If I knew where enough tobacco for a cigarette was to be found, I would be thankful for that also. How the Mediterranean sparkles, and how hot the sun is, to be sure ! We shall get freckles, she and I. Won't you spare me half of your beautiful sunshade, Frisonnette? Upon my word, I could grow light-headed, with a little encouragement; I could imagine that the steps I hear on the staircase now are hers ! Fortunately, I have too much self-control to let fancy fool me".