" Oh, you are—priceless ! " she pealed.
Vauquelin reflected, " She has three sterling qualities, this girl—she is pretty, she is nice, and she looks at me as if I were a young man".
During the next six weeks Vauquelin developed a zest for the Français that was astonishing. And not for the Français only, or for the Opéra Comique, and concerts, and kinemas. Blanche had never applauded her papa so ardently. He would be seized with captivating whims for expeditions, and picnics, and moonlight runs in the car. His frolicsomeness passed belief.
Not till the six weeks were over and mademoiselle Paumelle had departed, bearing Blanche with her, did his spirits fall. And then there would have been no buyers. The middle-aged gentleman was plunged into melancholy, the worse to bear from the fact that he was conscious of being comic. Trying to throw dust in his own eyes, " It is frightful how I miss Blanche," he would soliloquise at the elegiac dinner-table. But the eyes were fixed sentimentally on the place that had been Georgette's. And as the date approached for Blanche to return, and his heart sank before the necessity for resuming his capers, " It is clear," he told himself, " that the affection I entertained for that Georgette Paumelle was almost parental ! "
The fatherliness of his feelings for her, however, did not avert increased regrets at the greying moustache; and he abandoned his shaving mirror, because it magnified the lines about his nose and mouth.
Blanche, on his knee again, had plenty to tell. She described the stepfather as a " trial," and his maiden sisters as " cats." She had enjoyed herself, because Georgette and she had been together all day, but it must be hideous there for Georgette alone. " She isn't going to stick it much longer. She is miserable with them".
" How distressing that is ! " said Vauquelin. " To whom does she go ? "
" Well, she has money of her own, you know— she can live where she likes".
" Mais—Comment done ? She cannot live by herself—une jeune fille, bien élevée ! What an idea ! Her people would never sanction it".
" I think they would be rather glad to get rid of her," said Blanche, choosing a chocolate with deliberation.
" But—but it is monstrous ! To live like a bohemian, she ! It is unheard of, terrible. Is she out of her mind ? Listen, ma chérie, if her plight upsets you so violently, she can make her home with us".
" Ah, papa ! " cried Blanche in ecstasy. " It is the very thing I thought of, but I was afraid it was too much to ask you".
" Now, when did I ever refuse you anything? "
" But such an enormous favour ! "
" Not at all, not at all. I shall adapt myself to the arrangement well enough".
" But, papa, it might get on your nerves in time".
" Not at all, not at all. There is my study for me to retire to—I shall not see more of her than I want to".
" You promise that? "
" I can swear it".
" Oh, it will be adorable ! I only wonder if I am being selfish to let you do it".
" I insist," said Vauquelin, with a noble gesture. " Say we entreat her to agree, that we shall be wounded if she declines. Say our flat is her home for as long as she will honour us—the longer, the better. I will write a few lines to her, too. Be tranquil, my sweet child—I do not sacrifice myself. Is it not my highest joy to indulge you ? "
After many letters had been indited to her, mademoiselle Paumelle was prevailed upon to come ; and after many remonstrances had been made to her, she ceased to speak of going. But for the fact that her gifts to the girl were expensive, it was as if she were a member of the family. Blanche was relieved to note that her papa was not driven to the seclusion of his study often; and never did he withdraw to it when Blanche was absent, to take her music-lesson. As he had predicted, Vauquelin adapted himself to the arrangement plastically. He approved it so much, especially the tête-à-tête during the music-lessons, that when six months had flashed by, he resented an incident which reminded him that it couldn't be permanent. A monsieur Brigard, an old comrade, arrived to advocate nothing less than that Blanche should espouse Brigard's boy.
" My friend, I have other views for my daughter," replied Vauquelin firmly.
But the arrival dejected him, in the knowledge that when Blanche should marry, Georgette would have to go. And in their next hour alone together, Georgette asked him what his worry was.
" Nothing. I am a little—we must all think of the future, our children's future. A father has responsibilities".
" À propos de—what ? Am I inquisitive ? "
"Do I not confide everything to you ? Some pest has made matrimonial overtures about his son. Preposterous".
" The young man's position is not good enough ? "
" Ah, his position is first rate. I say nothing against his position".
" It is his character that displeases you? "
" No. As for that, he is steady, and not unamiable".
" But what do you complain of ? "
Vauquelin waved his hand vaguely. " The proposal does not accord with my ideas. I have different intentions for her".
" Ah, yes, that monsieur Daudenarde ! I thought perhaps that affair had faded out".
" By no means," affirmed Vauquelin, clutching at the excuse. " Precisely. I wish her to marry monsieur Daudenarde. And that is a sound and laudable reason why I should resent being badgered by Brigard. I find such intrusions on my routine very offensive. Daudenarde's mother and I are going to have a little talk together some time or other".
" What? "
" You decided to have a little talk with her nine or ten months ago".
" I must avoid precipitance. In such matters a father cannot act with too much caution".
" Blanche is a darling. But there are other girls in Paris. If you desire the match, be careful you don't let him slip".
" Have no misgiving," said Vauquelin irritably. " I am quite content. Madame Daudenarde will receive a visit from me—when Blanche is older. And we shall see what we shall see".
The captivating Georgette looked thoughtful. The more so after a chat with Blanche had drawn forth the nervous confession that she " thought monsieur Daudenarde very nice".
And then, when the volatile father had banished the menace of the future from his mind, and was again basking in the sunshine of the present, what should happen but that madame Daudenarde inconsiderately broached the matter to him, instead of waiting for him to approach her.
" Dear lady, my daughter is too young," replied Vauquelin promptly.
" How, too young? " demurred madame Daudenarde. " She is one-and-twenty. I was but nineteen when I married".
" Yes," said Vauquelin, " but my sainted mother did not marry till she was thirty-two, and she always impressed upon me that it was the best age".
"Thirty-two?" cried madame Daudenarde shrilly. " Do you ask me to adjourn our conference for eleven years? "
" My honoured friend, I do not make it a hard-and-fast condition," stammered the unhappy man, struggling for coherence. " It is possible there may be something to be said against it. But your gratifying proposal is so sudden—I had not contemplated the alliance—I need time to balance my parental duties against my reverence for my mother's views".
Now, Georgette, who could put two and two together as accurately as the Minister of Finance, had not failed to remark that the interview took place privately in the study, and noted that her host was evasive when Blanche inquired why madame Daudenarde had " called at such a funny time." Feelers during the next music-lesson found him evasive also. In the days that followed, when Blanche developed a tendency to sigh plaintively, and turned against chocolates, it grew clear to Georgette that this father must be shown the error of his ways.
" May I say that I hope that conversation with madame Daudenarde contented you? " she ventured.
" Hein? " said Vauquelin, starting.
" That the engagement will soon be announced ? "
" Mon Dieu, is it not extraordinary how people seek to rob me of my child ? " he moaned.
" Does that mean that nothing is arranged yet? "
" Why not leave well alone ? Are we not all comfortable as we are? I have made no definite reply to madame Daudenarde — I cannot be bustled. Have you ever thought that when I part from Blanche, I shall be left here by myself? "
" Yes. It has even occurred to me that you have thought of it, too".
" Naturally. It is not strange that I should tremble at such a prospect. To be solitary is a sad thing".
" It is for your own sake, then, not hers, that you delay? "
" For the first time I find you lacking ! " he broke out. " You do not seem to comprehend the workings of a father's heart".
" I have never had one".
" Don't split straws ! When I lose her I shall be alone. You do not require to be a father to know that".
" You could always go to see her." " Flute ! "
" And your grandchildren. Respectful grandchildren that clustered at your knee".
" I will not anticipate grandchildren—I am not a hundred ! " exclaimed Vauquelin angrily. " I repeat that the present conditions are entirely to my taste, and I desire to prolong them".
" It is also possible you might re-marry".
" At my age ? Who would have me ? Some ripe and ruddled widow".
" Girls, quite young, marry men much older than you".
" But not for love. Tell me, what would you put me down at ? Without flattery".
" I should call you in the prime of life".
" The friendly phrase for ' senile.' Depend upon it, people said that to Methuselah. Supposing —a man is never too old to make a fool of himself, you know—supposing, for the sake of argument, I felt a tenderness, a devotion for a girl scarcely older than Blanche : a devotion which I strove to think platonic, even while I sighed under her window, and which revived in me unsought, the emotions—all the sentiment, the throes, the absurdities—of the youth that had gone from me before I knew how divine it was. Would it—could it—is it imaginable that she might not laugh? "
" She would not laugh if she were worth it all".
" To marry me for love—a girl ? To see me romantic without thinking me ridiculous—to melt to my tears, not shrink from the crows'-feet round my eyes ? I wonder ! "
" If you choose wisely, you will not wonder".
" In love, who chooses ? Fate decides. What would you call ' wisely ' ? She should be—how old?"
" Old enough to know her mind. Young enough to attract you." " For the rest ? "
" She should have means, that you might never fear it had been yours that won her. She should have affection for your child, that she might know no jealousy of yours. She should take interest in your child's future, that, if you were wilful, she might guide you. ... To revert to madame Daudenarde, I counsel you to write to-day that you consent".
Vauquelin stood gazing at her incredulously.
" Georgette ! Georgette ! " he panted. " Do you know you have given me your own portrait ? "
" With my love," she told him, smiling.