The incident did not fade from her mind. She thought of it in the night, and on the morrow, and when she took the sapphire and the snapped chain to her jeweller's. If the nonsense the poor creature talked had only been true! What ecstasy ! And her tone had been perfectly sane.
. . . Oh, of course she was demented. Still— still, miracles did happen. Look at Lourdes! Every day madame de Val Fleury recalled the matter with a curiosity more intense, and regretted the alarm that had prevented her obtaining details.
Before a week had gone by, the curiosity drove her to make a purchase at the milliner's the girl had mentioned.
" You have a young person employed here who found a jewel that I lost," she remarked. " I don't see her in the shop".
" Yes, madame. No, madame—she is in the workroom. How fortunate that madame's sapphire was restored to her ! "
" Ah, the workroom. Have you had her long ? Is she satisfactory?"
" Ah yes, madame. About two years. I have no fault to find with her".
" I fancied she was a little odd in her manner. You have not noticed anything of the kind? "
" Mais non, madame. No doubt she was shy in madame's presence. No, she is quick to take a hint, that girl; she has all her wits about her".
" You might tell her I should like to have a word with her," faltered madame de Val Fleury. And when the girl appeared, still more beautiful without a hat, she said, " Come to my flat again this evening about nine o'clock if you can. I will make it worth your while. I want to talk to you".
As she passed out she felt breathless and dizzy.
" Then, if she is not mad—" panted madame de Val Fleury, " then, if she is not mad- My God, can there be something in it? "
She had been going to a neighbour's for a game of ecarte after dinner, and ecarte was a passion with her, but she knew no regrets in cancelling the engagement. A book by her favourite novelist, just published, lay to hand, and reading was another of her pet pleasures, but she did not open it, as she sat waiting for the hour to strike. Punctually at nine o'clock the bell rang. The girl was shown in.
" Good evening," said madame de Val Fleury. " Sit down. No, no, not so far off. Come closer. Tell me. I have been wondering. . . . What you were speaking about the other afternoon. Is it really a fact? "
" Madame means my intention ? "
" I mean the place itself. It actually exists? "
" Ah, certainly it exists, madame ! "
" Where is it? "
" In Brittany, madame. Near Pont Chouay".
" But—it sounds incredible ! I am sure you are sincere, but—how long have you known of it ? "
" I have known of it ever since the first miracle that happened there, madame, four years ago. I lived in the village then. The face of a little girl, the miller's child, was burnt—ah, it was frightful to see !—and her mother knelt and prayed, the whole night through, that she herself might bear the scars instead. And at dawn it was so, and the child's face was as fair as ever".
" It takes one's breath away ! What is the village called? "
" St. Pierre des Champs, madame. If madame goes there and inquires, everyone will confirm what I tell her".
" And such miracles have happened again? "
" At dawn on each seventh of September, madame. I assure madame I speak the truth".
" Listen," said madame de Val Fleury. " I shall go and hear what they say. If I am satisfied, are you willing to—to exchange your face for mine ? I will not haggle with you, I will pay what you want. It is a large amount, but you shall have it— a hundred thousand francs".
" One would have to think over the price, madame," said the girl hesitatingly.
" What ? It is the figure you named".
" Yes—for an exchange. But it is possible I might change with someone of my own years. Naturally I should prefer that".
" You do not suppose a young girl would pay a hundred thousand francs ? " cried madame de Val Fleury, wincing. " If she has youth already, what for? "
" For beauty. There are many young girls who would be content to do so".
" There will not be many living in a little village".
" Ah, madame, people who know arrive from all parts. Besides, it might be better for me to take even fifty thousand francs with a young face than a hundred thousand with—with one more mature. Madame understands that I am human—
I am not indifferent to the other sex. If I sacrifice all my prospects of admiration, sweethearts, husband, it is worth a great sum".
" I shall go and hear what they say," repeated madame de Val Fleury, deeply mortified. " What is your name ? "
" Berthe Cheron, madame".
" Put it down for me, and your private address. If what I hear convinces me perhaps we may come to terms".
All night the old woman dreamt she was again of surpassing loveliness, the envy of all the women of her world.
She went to Brittany the same week, and returned palpitating with the tales that had been told her. She agreed with mademoiselle Cheron to pay 120,000 francs if the metamorphosis occurred, and it was arranged that, when the time came, they should travel to St. Pierre des Champs together.
In the meanwhile her rapturous reflections were not free from anxiety. If the dawning of the longed-for date should indeed yield her Berthe Cheron's face, she would be no longer recognised as madame de Val Fleury. Her social circle would not know her; monsieur Septfous, her banker—she banked at a private bank, and monsieur Septfous was practically her man of business—would not know her; her servants themselves would not know her when she came back to Paris. To explain would be to meet with perpetual embarrassments. On the whole, the best plan would be to change her name as well. It would mean relinquishing o a few friendships that she valued, but- Again, she foresaw herself dazzlingly fair, and caught her breath. Her loveliness would compensate a million-fold.