When the summer came and she went to the coast, with a score of wonderful dresses, she sighed for companionship more drearily yet. Hitherto, at such places, she had sat among her compeers, amiably chatting. Now she appeared too young to be congruous to the circle of the old—was too old to participate in the pastimes of the young. Scant of breath and stiff in the joints, she viewed morosely the laughing women trooping to the tennis courts. Shrunken beneath her youthful frocks, she dared not don a bathing costume and reveal her wasted form among the sirens lolling by the tents. Queer as the fact seemed, her years irked her more this summer than they had done while she looked her age.
The anniversary of the miracle found her in low spirits, and suffering from lumbago.
There was a lad, attractive, promising, on the threshold of a career—such a lad as, thirty-eight years earlier, she had pictured her baby growing up to be. She had made his acquaintance at a " feeve o'clock," where, being so young, he felt shy, and where to find himself speaking to this enchantress confused him more still. But her tone had promptly relieved him of his dread that he ought to play the courtier. When she invited him to call on her, she asked him as she might have asked a schoolboy. Her interest in Guy Verne's ambitions yielded to her gradually a healthier outlook. Stranger still, as the months passed, a real and deep affection stole into the old egoist's nature. She was less purposeless, less futile for it. Almost, as she entered into his boyish forecasts, and made light of his little setbacks, it seemed to her as if her son had lived.
One day the boy flung his arms round her and begged her to be his wife.
It was horrible. She repulsed him, shuddering.
" Don't, Guy, don't! "
Entreaties poured from him.
" If you understood ! " she moaned. " I shall have gone to my grave while you're a young man".
He thought she meant that she was very ill. " I'll nurse you back to health. Victorine, I love you with all my soul".
" You don't love me a bit," she said. " There is nothing in me for you to love—I am as utterly different from you as if there were fifty years between us; you only imagine you love me because you admire my face. Good heavens, have I ever said a single word to lead you to think I cared for you in such a way ? "
An English boy might have suffered as much, but would have taken it more quietly. This boy was French, and he did not hide what he felt. He answered vehemently that she had led him to think so every time they talked of his future. " If you didn't care for me, why should it interest you ? " He raved of his broken heart. He loaded her with reproaches. " You've shammed to me, mocked me, just to amuse yourself! "
" No." She was crying. " I am fond of you— fonder of you than of anybody in the world. But not like that. I shall never care like that again for anyone".
" I wish I had never seen you. I wish I were dead".
" You mustn't come here any more," she found the strength to tell him—and not till then had she realised how very dear he had become to her. " I'm so sorry, Guy—so dreadfully sorry".
He fell at her feet, imploring her anew. He broke down, and besought one kiss before he left her. Her misery was deeper than his as she bent to him, but the boy didn't know it.
" My God," he sobbed, " I adore you—and you kiss me as if you were my mother ! "
The mirror provided no comfort in her loss. She stared, lonely, at the alien face reflected— stared at it, by slow degrees, with aversion. It was not she. The unlovely form and jaded mind were she—the spent passion, and the infirmities.
What benefit was the face of youth without youth's pulses? The mirror mocked her weary thoughts each day.
Upon her grief a woman, white-lipped and shaken, intruded to upbraid her.
" You have ruined my son's career," she said. " He neglects his work, he thinks of nothing but you. I hope and pray you may be punished as you deserve ! "
" At Guy's age a career is not ruined by a foolish attachment," pleaded madame de Val Fleury piteously.
" And at yours such an answer is abominable," cried the other. " You do not lessen your guilt by cynicism. If ever a girl encouraged a young man, you encouraged my son. Foolish as his devotion to you may be, he is devoted to you. By what right did you tempt him to come here constantly if you had no tenderness for him? Your treatment of him has been infamous".
"As a mother, do you know only one kind of tenderness, madame? My affection for your son was true and great. My interest in his future was no less deep than yours. I swear to you that what has happened distresses me so much that I have been able to think of nothing else".
Madame Verne advanced upon her with clenched hands.
" Your hypocrisy is even more revolting than your cynicism. If I know more than one kind of tenderness? Yes. But not in a girl for a young man ! You swear to me you are distressed. I swear to you something else. My boy is all I have —and I am frightened for him; I do not know what he may do in his despair. If I lose him he shall be revenged. Take care, madame de Beau-lieu. If you hear of his death, take care! The very next day, if possible, or the next month, or the next year—whenever I can reach you—as Heaven is my witness, I will mark that face of yours with vitriol".
She rang the bell, and went—and the maid that entered found her mistress in a swoon upon the floor.
For a week her shattered nerves kept madame de Val Fleury abed. And for several weeks terror prevented her from setting foot outside the flat. She had a grille constructed in the door, and a hundred times she repeated to the servants that it was not to be opened for the merest instant to madame Verne, or any stranger. Such precautions could not yield composure, however. The day was rendered ghastly with false alarms; and when she glanced at the mirror, dread flared upon her now a face seared and repulsive, a mutilated, sightless thing of horror. The night brought dreams so fearful that she was, more than once, wakened by a scream that had burst from her. Thrice the awfulness of the tension impelled her to falter, through the telephone, sympathetic and ingratiating inquiries to madame Verne; and when the mother rang off without vouchsafing a reply, the poor old creature tottered with panic.