At last, towards the close of February, she had the unspeakable relief of learning that madame Verne and her son had gone to Monaco, and once again she was able to step into her car with a sense of safety. Nevertheless, the thought of the unhappi-ness that she had brought upon the boy was black in her mind. She tried to thrust the thought aside by reading, but fiction had lost its power to charm her. Gradually, as her health improved, she turned, for respite from her sad reflections, to the theatre. When there remained no more fashionable programmes for her to see, she would adventure the second-rate. One night, as she was coming out of a little theatre in the Montmartre quarter, she started and stopped short, trembling in every limb at a sight that met her gaze. She could not withdraw her gaze—she was magnetised by the sight; it thrilled her as if the dead had risen to her view. She was looking at the face that had been hers—she was looking at Berthe Cheron.
Berthe Cheron, handsomely dressed, had also jerked to a standstill, and for a few seconds the two fronted each other dumbly—the young girl's puckered eyes, her furrowed cheeks rancorous with regret. It was she who was the first to speak.
" Blast you ! " she said.
" What do you mean—I treated you fairly, didn't I ? " stammered madame de Val Fleury.
" I wish—I wish-" Resentment choked her.
" I paid all you wanted".
" Paid ? It wouldn't have been good enough if you'd paid a million. You knew—you knew who was getting the best of it. Paid? What's the use of the money without any fun? Do you think fine clothes make up for that? I want to be danced with, I want to be kissed. To hell with your money—I want love ! "
" Don't talk so loudly, don't! That man's looking at us".
" He's not looking at me. No man ever looks at me. Paid ? If we were both as we were, you could pay some other fool—it wouldn't be me you'd get!"
"If we were both as we were, I'd pay no one," groaned madame de Val Fleury. " What?"
" It's true. Quite, quite true".
For a moment they were silent again, studying each other. Then madame de VpI Fleury said breathlessly :
" I want to ask you something. Come home with me—get into my car. Don't abuse me any more, don't rail at me—I'm an old woman and I can't bear it".
As the car bore them away, she explained herself, weeping.
" I know it seems strange to you, my not being satisfied—I know I've got the things you want so much. But you retain the capacity to enjoy those things, and I don't. If I could have had your youth as well, it would have been different. The old are happiest in their old ways, with their old friends. We both made an error. If—do you think, if we were to go there again-? "
Berthe Cheron turned to her wildly. "If we were to go there again ? " she gasped.
"If we were to go there again—in humbleness of spirit this time, in contrition, beseeching pardon for our error—do you think it might be undone? "
" Oh, let us try, let us try ! " cried the girl, seizing her hand. And she, too, wept. " But I could not refund more than about half the money," she faltered, dismayed.
" I would not ask you to refund a sou of it," said madame de Val Fleury. " You should keep it as a marriage portion".
In the flat they talked till late, mingling their tears and comforting each other.
Nearly four months had to pass before the coming of the date they craved, but on the evening of the 6th of September the two victims of their own folly reached St. Pierre des Champs once more. And in the eerie market-place, the lanterns swayed amid the flitting figures, and again they heard the shrill clamour of the crone, shuffling among the naked stalls. " Fine faces cheap ! " And the long, long night grew cold, and the penitents' teeth chattered; and as the elder knelt and prayed, as never had she prayed before, the pebbles bit into her knees.
A few days afterwards, monsieur Septfous, in the private office of the bank, saw the door open to admit a caller that surprised him.
" My dear madame de Val Fleury," he exclaimed, " how delighted I am to greet you ! Dare I hope you have returned to Paris for good ? "
" For good, my friend—the country got on my nerves. At my time of life not every change is desirable," replied the old lady, beaming.
And subsequently one man said to another :
" Funny thing; at Bullier last night I saw a girl just like madame de Beaulieu, who vanished to New York or somewhere—excepting that she had her arms round a chap's neck and looked so happy".
" Lucky chap, by Jove ! Know him ? "
" A fellow called Guy Verne".