Count Muffat, accompanied by his wife and daughter, had arrived overnight at Les Fondettes, where Mme Hugon, who was staying there with only her son Georges, had invited them to come and spend a week. The house, which had been built at the end of the eighteenth century, stood in the middle of a huge square enclosure. It was perfectly unadorned, but the garden possessed magnificent shady trees and a chain of tanks fed by running spring water. It stood at the side of the road which leads from Orleans to Paris and with its rich verdure and high-embowered trees broke the monotony of that flat countryside, where fields stretched to the horizon's verge.
At eleven o'clock, when the second lunch bell had called the whole household together, Mme Hugon, smiling in her kindly maternal way, gave Sabine two great kisses, one on each cheek, and said as she did so:
"You know it's my custom in the country. Oh, seeing you here makes me feel twenty years younger. Did you sleep well in your old room?"
Then without waiting for her reply she turned to Estelle:
"And this little one, has she had a nap too? Give me a kiss, my child."
They had taken their seats in the vast dining room, the windows of which looked out on the park. But they only occupied one end of the long table, where they sat somewhat crowded together for company's sake. Sabine, in high good spirits, dwelt on various childish memories which had been stirred up within her--memories of months passed at Les Fondettes, of long walks, of a tumble into one of the tanks on a summer evening, of an old romance of chivalry discovered by her on the top of a cupboard and read during the winter before fires made of vine branches. And Georges, who had not seen the countess for some months, thought there was something curious about her. Her face seemed changed, somehow, while, on the other hand, that stick of an Estelle seemed more insignificant and dumb and awkward than ever.
While such simple fare as cutlets and boiled eggs was being discussed by the company, Mme Hugon, as became a good housekeeper, launched out into complaints. The butchers, she said, were becoming impossible. She bought everything at Orleans, and yet they never brought her the pieces she asked for. Yet, alas, if her guests had nothing worth eating it was their own fault: they had come too late in the season.
"There's no sense in it," she said. "I've been expecting you since June, and now we're half through September. You see, it doesn't look pretty."
And with a movement she pointed to the trees on the grass outside, the leaves of which were beginning to turn yellow. The day was covered, and the distance was hidden by a bluish haze which was fraught with a sweet and melancholy peacefulness.
"Oh, I'm expecting company," she continued. "We shall be gayer then! The first to come will be two gentlemen whom Georges has invited--Monsieur Fauchery and Monsieur Daguenet; you know them, do you not? Then we shall have Monsieur de Vandeuvres, who has promised me a visit these five years past. This time, perhaps, he'll make up his mind!"
"Oh, well and good!" said the countess, laughing. "If we only can get Monsieur de Vandeuvres! But he's too much engaged."
"And Philippe?" queried Muffat.
"Philippe has asked for a furlough," replied the old lady, "but without doubt you won't be at Les Fondettes any longer when he arrives."
The coffee was served. Paris was now the subject of conversation, and Steiner's name was mentioned, at which Mme Hugon gave a little cry.
"Let me see," she said; "Monsieur Steiner is that stout man I met at your house one evening. He's a banker, is he not? Now there's a detestable man for you! Why, he's gone and bought an actress an estate about a league from here, over Gumieres way, beyond the Choue. The whole countryside's scandalized. Did you know about that, my friend?"
"I knew nothing about it," replied Muffat. "Ah, then, Steiner's bought a country place in the neighborhood!"
Hearing his mother broach the subject, Georges looked into his coffee cup, but in his astonishment at the count's answer he glanced up at him and stared. Why was he lying so glibly? The count, on his side, noticed the young fellow's movement and gave him a suspicious glance. Mme Hugon continued to go into details: the country place was called La Mignotte. In order to get there one had to go up the bank of the Choue as far as Gumieres in order to cross the bridge; otherwise one got one's feet wet and ran the risk of a ducking.
"And what is the actress's name?" asked the countess.
"Oh, I wasn't told," murmured the old lady. "Georges, you were there the morning the gardener spoke to us about it."
Georges appeared to rack his brains. Muffat waited, twirling a teaspoon between his fingers. Then the countess addressed her husband:
"Isn't Monsieur Steiner with that singer at the Varietes, that Nana?"
"Nana, that's the name! A horrible woman!" cried Mme Hugon with growing annoyance. "And they are expecting her at La Mignotte. I've heard all about it from the gardener. Didn't the gardener say they were expecting her this evening, Georges?"
The count gave a little start of astonishment, but Georges replied with much vivacity:
"Oh, Mother, the gardener spoke without knowing anything about it. Directly afterward the coachman said just the opposite. Nobody's expected at La Mignotte before the day after tomorrow."
He tried hard to assume a natural expression while he slyly watched the effect of his remarks on the count. The latter was twirling his spoon again as though reassured. The countess, her eyes fixed dreamily on the blue distances of the park, seemed to have lost all interest in the conversation. The shadow of a smile on her lips, she seemed to be following up a secret thought which had been suddenly awakened within her. Estelle, on the other hand, sitting stiffly on her chair, had heard all that had been said about Nana, but her white, virginal face had not betrayed a trace of emotion.
"Dear me, dear me! I've got no right to grow angry," murmured Mme Hugon after a pause, and with a return to her old good humor she added:
"Everybody's got a right to live. If we meet this said lady on the road we shall not bow to her--that's all!"
And as they got up from table she once more gently upbraided the Countess Sabine for having been so long in coming to her that year. But the countess defended herself and threw the blame of the delays upon her husband's shoulders. Twice on the eve of departure, when all the trunks were locked, he counterordered their journey on the plea of urgent business. Then he had suddenly decided to start just when the trip seemed shelved. Thereupon the old lady told them how Georges in the same way had twice announced his arrival without arriving and had finally cropped up at Les Fondettes the day before yesterday, when she was no longer expecting him. They had come down into the garden, and the two men, walking beside the ladies, were listening to them in consequential silence.
"Never mind," said Mme Hugon, kissing her son's sunny locks, "Zizi is a very good boy to come and bury himself in the country with his mother. He's a dear Zizi not to forget me!"
In the afternoon she expressed some anxiety, for Georges, directly after leaving the table, had complained of a heavy feeling in his head and now seemed in for an atrocious sick headache. Toward four o'clock he said he would go upstairs to bed: it was the only remedy. After sleeping till tomorrow morning he would be perfectly himself again. His mother was bent on putting him to bed herself, but as she left the room he ran and locked the door, explaining that he was shutting himself in so that no one should come and disturb him. Then caressingly he shouted, "Good night till tomorrow, little Mother!" and promised to take a nap. But he did not go to bed again and with flushed cheeks and bright eyes noiselessly put on his clothes. Then he sat on a chair and waited. When the dinner bell rang he listened for Count Muffat, who was on his way to the dining room, and ten minutes later, when he was certain that no one would see him, he slipped from the window to the ground with the assistance of a rain pipe. His bedroom was situated on the first floor and looked out upon the rear of the house. He threw himself among some bushes and got out of the park and then galloped across the fields with empty stomach and heart beating with excitement. Night was closing in, and a small fine rain was beginning to fall.
It was the very evening that Nana was due at La Mignotte. Ever since in the preceding May Steiner had bought her this country place she had from time to time been so filled with the desire of taking possession that she had wept hot tears about, but on each of these occasions Bordenave had refused to give her even the shortest leave and had deferred her holiday till September on the plea that he did not intend putting an understudy in her place, even for one evening, now that the exhibition was on. Toward the close of August he spoke of October. Nana was furious and declared that she would be at La Mignotte in the middle of September. Nay, in order to dare Bordenave, she even invited a crowd of guests in his very presence. One afternoon in her rooms, as Muffat, whose advances she still adroitly resisted, was beseeching her with tremulous emotion to yield to his entreaties, she at length promised to be kind, but not in Paris, and to him, too, she named the middle of September. Then on the twelfth she was seized by a desire to be off forthwith with Zoe as her sole companion. It might be that Bordenave had got wind of her intentions and was about to discover some means of detaining her. She was delighted at the notion of putting him in a fix, and she sent him a doctor's certificate. When once the idea had entered her head of being the first to get to La Mignotte and of living there two days without anybody knowing anything about it, she rushed Zoe through the operation of packing and finally pushed her into a cab, where in a sudden burst of extreme contrition she kissed her and begged her pardon. It was only when they got to the station refreshment room that she thought of writing Steiner of her movements. She begged him to wait till the day after tomorrow before rejoining her if he wanted to find her quite bright and fresh. And then, suddenly conceiving another project, she wrote a second letter, in which she besought her aunt to bring little Louis to her at once. It would do Baby so much good! And how happy they would be together in the shade of the trees! In the railway carriage between Paris and Orleans she spoke of nothing else; her eyes were full of tears; she had an unexpected attack of maternal tenderness and mingled together flowers, birds and child in her every sentence.
La Mignotte was more than three leagues away from the station, and Nana lost a good hour over the hire of a carriage, a huge, dilapidated calash, which rumbled slowly along to an accompaniment of rattling old iron. She had at once taken possession of the coachman, a little taciturn old man whom she overwhelmed with questions. Had he often passed by La Mignotte? It was behind this hill then? There ought to be lots of trees there, eh? And the house could one see it at a distance? The little old man answered with a succession of grunts. Down in the calash Nana was almost dancing with impatience, while Zoe, in her annoyance at having left Paris in such a hurry, sat stiffly sulking beside her. The horse suddenly stopped short, and the young woman thought they had reached their destination. She put her head out of the carriage door and asked:
"Are we there, eh?"
By way of answer the driver whipped up his horse, which was in the act of painfully climbing a hill. Nana gazed ecstatically at the vast plain beneath the gray sky where great clouds were banked up.
"Oh, do look, Zoe! There's greenery! Now, is that all wheat? Good lord, how pretty it is!"
"One can quite see that Madame doesn't come from the country," was the servant's prim and tardy rejoinder. "As for me, I knew the country only too well when I was with my dentist. He had a house at Bougival. No, it's cold, too, this evening. It's damp in these parts."
They were driving under the shadow of a wood, and Nana sniffed up the scent of the leaves as a young dog might. All of a sudden at a turn of the road she caught sight of the corner of a house among the trees. Perhaps it was there! And with that she began a conversation with the driver, who continued shaking his head by way of saying no. Then as they drove down the other side of the hill he contented himself by holding out his whip and muttering, "'Tis down there."
She got up and stretched herself almost bodily out of the carriage door.
"Where is it? Where is it?" she cried with pale cheeks, but as yet she saw nothing.
At last she caught sight of a bit of wall. And then followed a succession of little cries and jumps, the ecstatic behavior of a woman overcome by a new and vivid sensation.
"I see it! I see it, Zoe! Look out at the other side. Oh, there's a terrace with brick ornaments on the roof! And there's a hothouse down there! But the place is immense. Oh, how happy I am! Do look, Zoe! Now, do look!"
The carriage had bthin a wall. Then the view of the kitchen garden entirely engrossed her attention. She darted back, jostling the lady's maid at the top of the stairs and bursting out:
"It's full of cabbages! Oh, such woppers! And lettuces and sorrel and onions and everything! Come along, make haste!"
The rain was falling more heavily now, and she opened her white silk sunshade and ran down the garden walks.
"Madame will catch cold," cried Zoe, who had stayed quietly behind under the awning over the garden door.
But Madame wanted to see things, and at each new discovery there was a burst of wonderment.
"Zoe, here's spinach! Do come. Oh, look at the artichokes! They are funny. So they grow in the ground, do they? Now, what can that be? I don't know it. Do come, Zoe, perhaps you know."
The lady's maid never budged an inch. Madame must really be raving mad. For now the rain was coming down in torrents, and the little white silk sunshade was aly this time pulled up before the park gates. A side door was opened, and the gardener, a tall, dry fellow, made his appearance, cap in hand. Nana made an effort to regain her dignity, for the driver seemed now to be suppressing a laugh behind his dry, speechless lips. She refrained from setting off at a run and listened to the gardener, who was a very talkative fellow. He begged Madame to excuse the disorder in which she found everything, seeing that he had only received Madame's letter that very morning. But despite all his efforts, she flew off at a tangent and walked so quickly that Zoe could scarcely follow her. At the end of the avenue she paused for a moment in order to take the house in at a glance. It was a great pavilionlike building in the Italian manner, and it was flanked by a smaller construction, which a rich Englishman, after two years' residence in Naples, had caused to be erected and had forthwith become disgusted with.
"I'll take Madame over the house," said the gardener.
But she had outrun him entirely, and she shouted back that he was not to put himself out and that she would go over the house by herself. She preferred doing that, she said. And without removing her hat she dashed into the different rooms, calling to Zoe as she did so, shouting her impressions from one end of each corridor to the other and filling the empty house, which for long months had been uninhabited, with exclamations and bursts of laughter. In the first place, there was the hall. It was a little damp, but that didn't matter; one wasn't going to sleep in it. Then came the drawing room, quite the thing, the drawing room, with its windows opening on the lawn. Only the red upholsteries there were hideous; she would alter all that. As to the dining room-well, it was a lovely dining room, eh? What big blowouts you might give in Paris if you had a dining room as large as that! As she was going upstairs to the first floor it occurred to her that she had not seen the kitchen, and she went down again and indulged in ecstatic exclamations. Zoe ought to admire the beautiful dimensions of the sink and the width of the hearth, where you might have roasted a sheep! When she had gone upstairs again her bedroom especially enchanted her. It had been hung with delicate rose-colored Louis XVI cretonne by an Orleans upholsterer. Dear me, yes! One ought to sleep jolly sound in such a room as that; why, it was a real best bedroom! Then came four or five guest chambers and then some splendid garrets, which would be extremely convenient for trunks and boxes. Zoe looked very gruff and cast a frigid glance into each of the rooms as she lingered in Madame's wake. She saw Nana disappearing up the steep garret ladder and said, "Thanks, I haven't the least wish to break my legs." But the sound of a voice reached her from far away; indeed, it seemed to come whistling down a chimney.
"Zoe, Zoe, where are you? Come up, do! You've no idea! It's like fairyland!"
Zoe went up, grumbling. On the roof she found her mistress leaning against the brickwork balustrade and gazing at the valley which spread out into the silence. The horizon was immeasurably wide, but it was now covered by masses of gray vapor, and a fierce wind was driving fine rain before it. Nana had to hold her hat on with both hands to keep it from being blown away while her petticoats streamed out behind her, flapping like a flag.
"Not if I know it!" said Zoe, drawing her head in at once. "Madame will be blown away. What beastly weather!"
Madame did not hear what she said. With her head over the balustrade she was gazing at the grounds beneath. They consisted of seven or eight acres of land enclosed wiready dark with it. Nor did it shelter Madame, whose skirts were wringing wet. But that didn't put her out in the smallest degree, and in the pouring rain she visited the kitchen garden and the orchard, stopping in front of every fruit tree and bending over every bed of vegetables. Then she ran and looked down the well and lifted up a frame to see what was underneath it and was lost in the contemplation of a huge pumpkin. She wanted to go along every single garden walk and to take immediate possession of all the things she had been wont to dream of in the old days, when she was a slipshod work-girl on the Paris pavements. The rain redoubled, but she never heeded it and was only miserable at the thought that the daylight was fading. She could not see clearly now and touched things with her fingers to find out what they were. Suddenly in the twilight she caught sight of a bed of strawberries, and all that was childish in her awoke.
"Strawberries! Strawberries! There are some here; I can feel them. A plate, Zoe! Come and pick strawberries."
And dropping her sunshade, Nana crouched down in the mire under the full force of the downpour. With drenched hands she began gathering the fruit among the leaves. But Zoe in the meantime brought no plate, and when the young woman rose to her feet again she was frightened. She thought she had seen a shadow close to her.
"It's some beast!" she screamed.
But she stood rooted to the path in utter amazement. It was a man, and she recognized him.
"Gracious me, it's Baby! What are you doing there, baby?"
"'Gad, I've come--that's all!" replied Georges.
Her head swam.
"You knew I'd come through the gardener telling you? Oh, that poor child! Why, he's soaking!"
"Oh, I'll explain that to you! The rain caught me on my way here, and then, as I didn't wish to go upstream as far as Gumieres, I crossed the Choue and fell into a blessed hole."
Nana forgot the strawberries forthwith. She was trembling and full of pity. That poor dear Zizi in a hole full of water! And she drew him with her in the direction of the house and spoke of making up a roaring fire.
"You know," he murmured, stopping her among the shadows, "I was in hiding because I was afraid of being scolded, like in Paris, when I come and see you and you're not expecting me."
She made no reply but burst out laughing and gave him a kiss on the forehead. Up till today she had always treated him like a naughty urchin, never taking his declarations seriously and amusing herself at his expense as though he were a little man of no consequence whatever. There was much ado to install him in the house. She absolutely insisted on the fire being lit in her bedroom, as being the most comfortable place for his reception. Georges had not surprised Zoe, who was used to all kinds of encounters, but the gardener, who brought the wood upstairs, was greatly nonplused at sight of this dripping gentleman to whom he was certain he had not opened the front door. He was, however, dismissed, as he was no longer wanted.
A lamp lit up the room, and the fire burned with a great bright flame.
"He'll never get dry, and he'll catch cold," said Nana, seeing Georges beginning to shiver.
And there and with his delicate young arms showing and his bright damp hair falling almost to his shoulders, he looked just like a girl.
"Why, he's as slim as I am!" said Nana, putting her arm round his waist. "Zoe, just come here and see how it suits him. It's were no men's trousers in her house! She was on the point of calling the gardener back when an idea struck her. Zoe, who was unpacking the trunks in the dressing room, brought her mistress a change of underwear, consisting of a shift and some petticoats with a dressing jacket.
"Oh, that's first rate!" cried the young woman. "Zizi can put 'em all on. You're not angry with me, eh? When your clothes are dry you can put them on again, and then off with you, as fast as fast can be, so as not to have a scolding from your mamma. Make haste! I'm going to change my things, too, in the dressing room."
Ten minutes afterward, when she reappeared in a tea gown, she clasped her hands in a perfect ecstasy.
"Oh, the darling! How sweet he looks dressed like a little woman!"
He had simply slipped on a long nightgown with an insertion front, a pair of worked drawers and the dressing jacket, which was a long cambric garment trimmed with lace. Thus attiredmade for him, eh? All except the bodice part, which is too large. He hasn't got as much as I have, poor, dear Zizi!"
"Oh, to be sure, I'm a bit wanting there," murmured Georges with a smile.
All three grew very merry about it. Nana had set to work buttoning the dressing jacket from top to bottom so as to make him quite decent. Then she turned him round as though he were a doll, gave him little thumps, made the skirt stand well out behind. After which she asked him questions. Was he comfortable? Did he feel warm? Zounds, yes, he was comfortable! Nothing fitted more closely and warmly than a woman's shift; had he been able, he would always have worn one. He moved round and about therein, delighted with the fine linen and the soft touch of that unmanly garment, in the folds of which he thought he discovered some of Nana's own warm life.
Meanwhile Zoe had taken the soaked clothes down to the kitchen in order to dry them as quickly as possible in front of a vine-branch fire. Then Georges, as he lounged in an easy chair, ventured to make a confession.
"I say, are you going to feed this evening? I'm dying of hunger. I haven't dined."
Nana was vexed. The great silly thing to go sloping off from Mamma's with an empty stomach, just to chuck himself into a hole full of water! But she was as hungry as a hunter too. They certainly must feed! Only they would have to eat what they could get. Whereupon a round table was rolled up in front of the fire, and the queerest of dinners was improvised thereon. Zoe ran down to the gardener's, he having cooked a mess of cabbage soup in case Madame should not dine at Orleans before her arrival. Madame, indeed, had forgotten to tell him what he was to get ready in the letter she had sent him. Fortunately the cellar was well furnished. Accordingly they had cabbage soup, followed by a piece of bacon. Then Nana rummaged in her handbag and found quite a heap of provisions which she had taken the precaution of stuffing into it. There was a Strasbourg pate, for instance, and a bag of sweet-meats and some oranges. So they both ate away like ogres and, while they satisfied their healthy young appetites, treated one another with easy good fellowship. Nana kept calling Georges "dear old girl," a form of address which struck her as at once tender and familiar. At dessert, in order not to give Zoe any more trouble, they used the same spoon turn and turn about while demolishing a pot of preserves they had discovered at the top of a cupboard.
"Oh, you dear old girl!" said Nana, pushing back the round table. "I haven't made such a good dinner these ten years past!"
Yet it was growing late, and she wanted to send her boy off for fear he should be suspected of all sorts of things. But he kept declaring that he had plenty of time to spare. For the matter of that, his clothes were not drying well, and Zoe averred that it would take an hour longer at least, and as she was dropping with sleep after the fatigues of the journey, they sent her off to bed. After which they were alone in the silent house.
It was a very charming evening. The fire was dying out amid glowing embers, and in the great blue room, where Zoe had made up the bed before going upstairs, the air felt a little oppressive. Nana, overcome by the heavy warmth, got up to open the window for a few minutes, and as she did so she uttered a little cry.
"Great heavens, how beautiful it is! Look, dear old girl!"
Georges had come up, and as though the window bar had not been sufficiently wide, he put his arm round Nana's waist and rested his head against her shoulder. The weather had undergone a brisk change: the skies were clearing, and a full moon lit up the country with its golden disk of light. A sovereign quiet reigned over the valley. It seemed wider and larger as it opened on the immense distances of the plain, where the trees loomed like little shadowy islands amid a shining and waveless lake. And Nana grew tenderhearted, felt herself a child again. Most surely she had dreamed of nights like this at an epoch which she could not recall. Since leaving the train every object of sensation--the wide countryside, the green things with their pungent scents, the house, the vegetables--had stirred her to such a degree that now it seemed to her as if she had left Paris twenty years ago. Yesterday's existence was far, far away, and she was full of sensations of which she had no previous experience. Georges, meanwhile, was giving her neck little coaxing kisses, and this again added to her sweet unrest. With hesitating hand she pushed him from her, as though he were a child whose affectionate advances were fatiguing, and once more she told him that he ought to take his departure. He did not gainsay her. All in good time--he would go all in good time!
But a bird raised its song and again was silent. It was a robin in an elder tree below the window.
"Wait one moment," whispered Georges; "the lamp's frightening him. I'll put it out."
And when he came back and took her waist again he added:
"We'll relight it in a minute."
Then as she listened to the robin and the boy pressed against her side, Nana remembered. Ah yes, it was in novels that she had got to know all this! In other days she would have given her heart to have a full moon and robins and a lad dying of love for her. Great God, she could have cried, so good and charming did it all seem to her! Beyond a doubt she had been born to live honestly! So she pushed Georges away again, and he grew yet bolder.
"No, let me be. I don't care about it. It would be very wicked at your age. Now listen--I'll always be your mamma."
A sudden feeling of shame overcame her. She was blushing exceedingly, and yet not a soul could see her. The room behind them was full of black night while the country stretched before them in silence and lifeless solitude. Never had she known such a sense of shame before. Little by little she felt her power of resistance ebbing away, and that despite her embarrassed efforts to the contrary. That disguise of his, that woman's shift and that dressing jacket set her laughing again. It was as though a girl friend were teasing her.
"Oh, it's not right; it's not right!" she stammered after a last effort.
And with that, in face of the lovely night, she sank like a young virgin into the arms of this mere child. The house slept.
Next morning at Les Fondettes, when the bell rang for lunch, the dining-room table was no longer too big for the company. Fauchery and Daguenet had been driven up together in one carriage, and after them another had arrived with the Count de Vandeuvres, who had followed by the next train. Georges was the last to come downstairs. He was looking a little pale, and his eyes were sunken, but in answer to questions he said that he was much better, though he was still somewhat shaken by the violence of the attack. Mme Hugon looked into his eyes with an anxious smile and adjusted his hair which had been carelessly combed that morning, but he drew back as though embarrassed by this tender little action. During the meal she chaffed Vandeuvres very pleasantly and declared that she had expected him for five years past.
"Well, here you are at last! How have you managed it?"
Vandeuvres took her remarks with equal pleasantry. He told her that he had lost a fabulous sum of money at the club yesterday and thereupon had come away with the intention of ending up in the country.
"'Pon my word, yes, if only you can find me an heiress in these rustic parts! There must be delightful women hereabouts."
The old lady rendered equal thanks to Daguenet and Fauchery for having been so good as to accept her son's invitation, and then to her great and joyful surprise she saw the Marquis de Chouard enter the room. A third carriage had brought him.
"Dear me, you've made this your trysting place today!" she cried. "You've passed word round! But what's happening? For years I've never succeeded in bringing you all together, and now you all drop in at once. Oh, I certainly don't complain."
Another place was laid. Fauchery found himself next the Countess Sabine, whose liveliness and gaiety surprised him when he remembered her drooping, languid state in the austere Rue Miromesnil drawing room. Daguenet, on the other hand, who was seated on Estelle's left, seemed slightly put out by his propinquity to that tall, silent girl. The angularity of her elbows was disagreeable to him. Muffat and Chouard had exchanged a sly glance while Vandeuvres continued joking about his coming marriage.
"Talking of ladies," Mme Hugon ended by saying, "I have a new neighbor whom you probably know."
And she mentioned Nana. Vandeuvres affected the liveliest astonishment.
"Well, that is strange! Nana's property near here!"
Fauchery and Daguenet indulged in a similar demonstration while the Marquis de Chouard discussed the breast of a chicken without appearing to comprehend their meaning. Not one of the men had smiled.
"Certainly," continued the old lady, "and the person in question arrived at La Mignotte yesterday evening, as I was saying she would. I got my information from the gardener this morning."
At these words the gentlemen could not conceal their very real surprise. They all looked up. Eh? What? Nana had come down! But they were only expecting her next day; they were privately under the impression that they would arrive before her! Georges alone sat looking at his glass with drooped eyelids and a tired expression. Ever since the beginning of lunch he had seemed to be sleeping with open eyes and a vague smile on his lips.
"Are you still in pain, my Zizi?" asked his mother, who had been gazing at him throughout the meal.
He started and blushed as he said that he was very well now, but the worn-out insatiate expression of a girl who has danced too much did not fade from his face.
"What's the matter with your neck?" resumed Mme Hugon in an alarmed tone. "It's all red."
He was embarrassed and stammered. He did not know--he had nothing the matter with his neck. Then drawing his shirt collar up:
"Ah yes, some insect stung me there!"
The Marquis de Chouard had cast a sidelong glance at the little red place. Muffat, too, looked at Georges. The company was finishing lunch and planning various excursions. Fauchery was growing increasingly excited with the Countess Sabine's laughter. As he was passing her a dish of fruit their hands touched, and for one second she looked at him with eyes so full of dark meaning that he once more thought of the secret which had been communicated to him one evening after an uproarious dinner. Then, too, she was no longer the same woman. Something was more pronounced than of old, and her gray foulard gown which fitted loosely over her shoulders added a touch of license to her delicate, high-strung elegance.
When they rose from the table Daguenet remained behind with Fauchery in order to impart to him the following crude witticism about Estelle: "A nice broomstick that to shove into a man's hands!" Nevertheless, he grew serious when the journalist told him the amount she was worth in the way of dowry.
"Four hundred thousand francs."
"And the mother?" queried Fauchery. "She's all right, eh?"
"Oh, she'll work the oracle! But it's no go, my dear man!"
"Bah! How are we to know? We must wait and see."
It was impossible to go out that day, for the rain was still falling in heavy showers. Georges had made haste to disappear from the scene and had double-locked his door. These gentlemen avoided mutual explanations, though they were none of them deceived as to the reasons which had brought them together. Vandeuvres, who had had a very bad time at play, had really conceived the notion of lying fallow for a season, and he was counting on Nana's presence in the neighborhood as a safeguard against excessive boredom. Fauchery had taken advantage of the holidays granted him by Rose, who just then was extremely busy. He was thinking of discussing a second notice with Nana, in case country air should render them reciprocally affectionate. Daguenet, who had been just a little sulky with her since Steiner had come upon the scene, was dreaming of resuming the old connection or at least of snatching some delightful opportunities if occasion offered. As to the Marquis de Chouard, he was watching for times and seasons. But among all those men who were busy following in the tracks of Venus--a Venus with the rouge scarce washed from her cheeks--Muffat was at once the most ardent and the most tortured by the novel sensations of desire and fear and anger warring in his anguished members. A formal promise had been made him; Nana was awaiting him. Why then had she taken her departure two days sooner than was expected?
He resolved to betake himself to La Mignotte after dinner that same evening. At night as the count was leaving the park Georges fled forth after him. He left him to follow the road to Gumieres, crossed the Choue, rushed into Nana's presence, breathless, furious and with tears in his eyes. Ah yes, he understood everything! That old fellow now on his way to her was coming to keep an appointment! Nana was dumfounded by this ebullition of jealousy, and, greatly moved by the way things were turning out, she took him in her arms and comforted him to the best of her ability. Oh no, he was quite beside the mark; she was expecting no one. If the gentleman came it would not be her fault. What a great ninny that Zizi was to be taking on so about nothing at all! By her child's soul she swore she loved nobody except her own Georges. And with that she kissed him and wiped away his tears.
"Now just listen! You'll see that it's all for your sake," she went on when he had grown somewhat calmer. "Steiner has arrived--he's up above there now. You know, duckie, I can't turn him out of doors."
"Yes, I know; I'm not talking of him," whispered the boy.
"Very well then, I've stuck him into the room at the end. I said I was out of sorts. He's unpacking his trunk. Since nobody's seen you, be quick and run up and hide in my room and wait for me.
Georges sprang at her and threw his arms round her neck. It was true after all! She loved him a little! So they would put the lamp out as they did yesterday and be in the dark till daytime! Then as the front-door bell sounded he quietly slipped away. Upstairs in the bedroom he at once took off his shoes so as not to make any noise and straightway crouched down behind a curtain and waited soberly.
Nana welcomed Count Muffat, who, though still shaken with passion, was now somewhat embarrassed. She had pledged her word to him and would even have liked to keep it since he struck her as a serious, practicable lover. But truly, who could have foreseen all that happened yesterday? There was the voyage and the house she had never set eyes on before and the arrival of the drenched little lover! How sweet it had all seemed to her, and how delightful it would be to continue in it! So much the worse for the gentleman! For three months past she had been keeping him dangling after her while she affected conventionality in order the further to inflame him. Well, well! He would have to continue dangling, and if he didn't like that he could go! She would sooner have thrown up everything than have played false to Georges.
The count had seated himself with all the ceremonious politeness becoming a country caller. Only his hands were trembling slightly. Lust, which Nana's skillful tactics daily exasperated, had at last wrought terrible havoc in that sanguine, uncontaminated nature. The grave man, the chamberlain who was wont to tread the state apartments at the Tuileries with slow and dignified step, was now nightly driven to plunge his teeth into his bolster, while with sobs of exasperation he pictured to himself a sensual shape which never changed. But this time he was determined to make an end of the torture. Coming along the highroad in the deep quiet of the gloaming, he had meditated a fierce course of action. And the moment he had finished his opening remarks he tried to take hold of Nana with both hands.
"No, no! Take care!" she said simply. She was not vexed; nay, she even smiled.
He caught her again, clenching his teeth as he did so. Then as she struggled to get free he coarsely and crudely reminded her that he had come to stay the night. Though much embarrassed at this, Nana did not cease to smile. She took his hands and spoke very familiarly in order to soften her refusal.
"Come now, darling, do be quiet! Honor bright, I can't: Steiner's upstairs."
But he was beside himself. Never yet had she seen a man in such a state. She grew frightened and put her hand over his mouth in order to stifle his cries. Then in lowered tones she besought him to be quiet and to let her alone. Steiner was coming downstairs. Things were getting stupid, to be sure! When Steiner entered the room he heard Nana remarking:
"I adore the country."
She was lounging comfortably back in her deep easy chair, and she turned round and interrupted herself.
"It's Monsieur le Comte Muffat, darling. He saw a light here while he was strolling past, and he came in to bid us welcome."
The two men clasped hands. Muffat, with his face in shadow, stood silent for a moment or two. Steiner seemed sulky. Then they chatted about Paris: business there was at a standstill; abominable things had been happening on 'change. When a quarter of an hour had elapsed Muffat took his departure, and, as the young woman was seeing him to the door, he tried without success to make an assignation for the following night. Steiner went up to bed almost directly afterward, grumbling, as he did so, at the everlasting little ailments that seemed to afflict the genus courtesan. The two old boys had been packed off at last! When she was able to rejoin him Nana found Georges still hiding exemplarily behind the curtain. The room was dark. He pulled her down onto the floor as she sat near him, and together they began playfully rolling on the ground, stopping now and again and smothering their laughter with kisses whenever they struck their bare feet against some piece of furniture. Far away, on the road to Gumieres, Count Muffat walked slowly home and, hat in hand, bathed his burning forehead in the freshness and silence of the night.
During the days that followed Nana found life adorable. In the lad's arms she was once more a girl of fifteen, and under the caressing influence of this renewed childhood love's white flower once more blossomed forth in a nature which had grown hackneyed and disgusted in the service of the other sex. She would experience sudden fits of shame, sudden vivid emotions, which left her trembling. She wanted to laugh and to cry, and she was beset by nervous, maidenly feelings, mingled with warm desires that made her blush again. Never yet had she felt anything comparable to this. The country filled her with tender thoughts. As a little girl she had long wished to dwell in a meadow, tending a goat, because one day on the talus of the fortifications she had seen a goat bleating at the end of its tether. Now this estate, this stretch of land belonging to her, simply swelled her heart to bursting, so utterly had her old ambition been surpassed. Once again she tasted the novel sensations experienced by chits of girls, and at night when she went upstairs, dizzy with her day in the open air and intoxicated by the scent of green leaves, and rejoined her Zizi behind the curtain, she fancied herself a schoolgirl enjoying a holiday escapade. It was an amour, she thought, with a young cousin to whom she was going to be married. And so she trembled at the slightest noise and dread lest parents should hear her, while making the delicious experiments and suffering the voluptuous terrors attendant on a girl's first slip from the path of virtue.
Nana in those days was subject to the fancies a sentimental girl will indulge in. She would gaze at the moon for hours. One night she had a mind to go down into the garden with Georges when all the household was asleep. When there they strolled under the trees, their arms round each other's waists, and finally went and laid down in the grass, where the dew soaked them through and through. On another occasion, after a long silence up in the bedroom, she fell sobbing on the lad's neck, declaring in broken accents that she was afraid of dying. She would often croon a favorite ballad of Mme Lerat's, which was full of flowers and birds. The song would melt her to tears, and she would break off in order to clasp Georges in a passionate embrace and to extract from him vows of undying affection. In short she was extremely silly, as she herself would admit when they both became jolly good fellows again and sat up smoking cigarettes on the edge of the bed, dangling their bare legs over it the while and tapping their heels against its wooden side.
But what utterly melted the young woman's heart was Louiset's arrival. She had an access of maternal affection which was as violent as a mad fit. She would carry off her boy into the sunshine outside to watch him kicking about; she would dress him like a little prince and roll with him in the grass. The moment he arrived she decided that he was to sleep near her, in the room next hers, where Mme Lerat, whom the country greatly affected, used to begin snoring the moment her head touched the pillow. Louiset did not hurt Zizi's position in the least. On the contrary, Nana said that she had now two children, and she treated them with the same wayward tenderness. At night, more than ten times running, she would leave Zizi to go and see if Louiset were breathing properly, but on her return she would re-embrace her Zizi and lavish on him the caresses that had been destined for the child. She played at being Mamma while he wickedly enjoyed being dandled in the arms of the great wench and allowed himself to be rocked to and fro like a baby that is being sent to sleep. It was all so delightful, and Nana was so charmed with her present existence, that she seriously proposed to him never to leave the country. They would send all the other people away, and he, she and the child would live alone. And with that they would make a thousand plans till daybreak and never once hear Mme Lerat as she snored vigorously after the fatigues of a day spent in picking country flowers.
This charming existence lasted nearly a week. Count Muffat used to come every evening and go away again with disordered face and burning hands. One evening he was not even received, as Steiner had been obliged to run up to Paris. He was told that Madame was not well. Nana grew daily more disgusted at the notion of deceiving Georges. He was such an innocent lad, and he had such faith in her! She would have looked on herself as the lowest of the low had she played him false. Besides, it would have sickened her to do so! Zoe, who took her part in this affair in mute disdain, believed that Madame was growing senseless.
On the sixth day a band of visitors suddenly blundered into Nana's idyl. She had, indeed, invited a whole swarm of people under the belief that none of them would come. And so one fine afternoon she was vastly astonished and annoyed to see an omnibus full of people pulling up outside the gate of La Mignotte.
"It's us!" cried Mignon, getting down first from the conveyance and extracting then his sons Henri and Charles.
Labordette thereupon appeared and began handing out an interminable file of ladies--Lucy Stewart, Caroline Hequet, Tatan Nene, Maria Blond. Nana was in hopes that they would end there, when La Faloise sprang from the step in order to receive Gaga and her daughter Amelie in his trembling arms. That brought the number up to eleven people. Their installation proved a laborious undertaking. There were five spare rooms at La Mignotte, one of which was already occupied by Mme Lerat and Louiset. The largest was devoted to the Gaga and La Faloise establishment, and it was decided that Amelie should sleep on a truckle bed in the dressing room at the side. Mignon and his two sons had the third room. Labordette the fourth. There thus remained one room which was transformed into a dormitory with four beds in it for Lucy, Caroline, Tatan and Maria. As to Steiner, he would sleep on the divan in the drawing room. At the end of an hour, when everyone was duly settled, Nana, who had begun by being furious, grew enchanted at the thought of playing hostess on a grand scale. The ladies complimented her on La Mignotte. "It's a stunning property, my dear!" And then, too, they brought her quite a whiff of Parisian air, and talking all together with bursts of laughter and exclamation and emphatic little gestures, they gave her all the petty gossip of the week just past. By the by, and how about Bordenave? What had he said about her prank? Oh, nothing much! After bawling about having her brought back by the police, he had simply put somebody else in her place at night. Little Violaine was the understudy, and she had even obtained a very pretty success as the Blonde Venus. Which piece of news made Nana rather serious.
It was only four o'clock in the afternoon, and there was some talk of taking a stroll around.
"Oh, I haven't told you," said Nana, "I was just off to get up potatoes when you arrived."
Thereupon they all wanted to go and dig potatoes without even changing their dresses first. It was quite a party. The gardener and two helpers were already in the potato field at the end of the grounds. The ladies knelt down and began fumbling in the mold with their beringed fingers, shouting gaily whenever they discovered a potato of exceptional size. It struck them as so amusing! But Tatan Nene was in a state of triumph! So many were the potatoes she had gathered in her youth that she forgot herself entirely and gave the others much good advice, treating them like geese the while. The gentlemen toiled less strenuously. Mignon looked every inch the good citizen and father and made his stay in the country an occasion for completing his boys' education. Indeed, he spoke to them of Parmentier!
Dinner that evening was wildly hilarious. The company ate ravenously. Nana, in a state of great elevation, had a warm disagreement with her butler, an individual who had been in service at the bishop's palace in Orleans. The ladies smoked over their coffee. An earsplitting noise of merrymaking issued from the open windows and died out far away under the serene evening sky while peasants, belated in the lanes, turned and looked at the flaring rooms.
"It's most tiresome that you're going back the day after tomorrow," said Nana. "But never mind, we'll get up an excursion all the same!"
They decided to go on the morrow, Sunday, and visit the ruins of the old Abbey of Chamont, which were some seven kilometers distant. Five carriages would come out from Orleans, take up the company after lunch and bring them back to dinner at La Mignotte at about seven. It would be delightful.
That evening, as his wont was, Count Muffat mounted the hill to ring at the outer gate. But the brightly lit windows and the shouts of laughter astonished him. When, however, he recognized Mignon's voice, he understood it all and went off, raging at this new obstacle, driven to extremities, bent on some violent act. Georges passed through a little door of which he had the key, slipped along the staircase walls and went quietly up into Nana's room. Only he had to wait for her till past midnight. She appeared at last in a high state of intoxication and more maternal even than on the previous nights. Whenever she had drunk anything she became so amorous as to be absurd. Accordingly she now insisted on his accompanying her to the Abbey of Chamont. But he stood out against this; he was afraid of being seen. If he were to be seen driving with her there would be an atrocious scandal. But she burst into tears and evinced the noisy despair of a slighted woman. And he thereupon consoled her and formally promised to be one of the party.
"So you do love me very much," she blurted out. "Say you love me very much. Oh, my darling old bear, if I were to die would you feel it very much? Confess!"
At Les Fondettes the near neighborhood of Nana had utterly disorganized the party. Every morning during lunch good Mme Hugon returned to the subject despite herself, told her guests the news the gardener had brought her and gave evidence of the absorbing curiosity with which notorious courtesans are able to inspire even the worthiest old ladies. Tolerant though she was, she was revolted and maddened by a vague presentiment of coming ill, which frightened her in the evenings as thoroughly as if a wild beast had escaped from a menagerie and were known to be lurking in the countryside.
She began trying to pick a little quarrel with her guests, whom she each and all accused of prowling round La Mignotte. Count Vandeuvres had been seen laughing on the highroad with a golden- haired lady, but he defended himself against the accusation; he denied that it was Nana, the fact being that Lucy had been with him and had told him how she had just turned her third prince out of doors. The Marquis de Chouard used also to go out every day, but his excuse was doctor's orders. Toward Daguenet and Fauchery Mme Hugon behaved unjustly too. The former especially never left Les Fondettes, for he had given up the idea of renewing the old connection and was busy paying the most respectful attentions to Estelle. Fauchery also stayed with the Muffat ladies. On one occasion only he had met Mignon with an armful of flowers, putting his sons through a course of botanical instruction in a by-path. The two men had shaken hands and given each other the news about Rose. She was perfectly well and happy; they had both received a letter from her that morning in which she besought them to profit by the fresh country air for some days longer. Among all her guests the old lady spared only Count Muffat and Georges. The count, who said he had serious business in Orleans, could certainly not be running after the bad woman, and as to Georges, the poor child was at last causing her grave anxiety, seeing that every evening he was seized with atrocious sick headaches which kept him to his bed in broad daylight.
Meanwhile Fauchery had become the Countess Sabine's faithful attendant in the absence during each afternoon of Count Muffat. Whenever they went to the end of the park he carried her campstool and her sunshade. Besides, he amused her with the original witticisms peculiar to a second-rate journalist, and in so doing he prompted her to one of those sudden intimacies which are allowable in the country. She had apparently consented to it from the first, for she had grown quite a girl again in the society of a young man whose noisy humor seemed unlikely to compromize her. But now and again, when for a second or two they found themselves alone behind the shrubs, their eyes would meet; they would pause amid their laughter, grow suddenly serious and view one another darkly, as though they had fathomed and divined their inmost hearts.
On Friday a fresh place had to be laid at lunch time. M. Theophile Venot, whom Mme Hugon remembered to have invited at the Muffats' last winter, had just arrived. He sat stooping humbly forward and behaved with much good nature, as became a man of no account, nor did he seem to notice the anxious deference with which he was treated. When he had succeeded in getting the company to forget his presence he sat nibbling small lumps of sugar during dessert, looking sharply up at Daguenet as the latter handed Estelle strawberries and listening to Fauchery, who was making the countess very merry over one of his anecdotes. Whenever anyone looked at him he smiled in his quiet way. When the guests rose from table he took the count's arm and drew him into the park. He was known to have exercised great influence over the latter ever since the death of his mother. Indeed, singular stories were told about the kind of dominion which the ex-lawyer enjoyed in that household. Fauchery, whom his arrival doubtless embarrassed, began explaining to Georges and Daguenet the origin of the man's wealth. It was a big lawsuit with the management of which the Jesuits had entrusted him in days gone by. In his opinion the worthy man was a terrible fellow despite his gentle, plump face and at this time of day had his finger in all the intrigues of the priesthood. The two young men had begun joking at this, for they thought the little old gentleman had an idiotic expression. The idea of an unknown Venot, a gigantic Venot, acting for the whole body of the clergy, struck them in the light of a comical invention. But they were silenced when, still leaning on the old man's arm, Count Muffat reappeared with blanched cheeks and eyes reddened as if by recent weeping.
I bet they've been chatting about hell," muttered Fauchery in a bantering tone.
The Countess Sabine overheard the remark. She turned her head slowly, and their eyes met in that long gaze with which they were accustomed to sound one another prudently before venturing once for all.
After the breakfast it was the guests' custom to betake themselves to a little flower garden on a terrace overlooking the plain. This Sunday afternoon was exquisitely mild. There had been signs of rain toward ten in the morning, but the sky, without ceasing to be covered, had, as it were, melted into milky fog, which now hung like a cloud of luminous dust in the golden sunlight. Soon Mme Hugon proposed that they should step down through a little doorway below the terrace and take a walk on foot in the direction of Gumieres and as far as the Choue. She was fond of walking and, considering her threescore years, was very active. Besides, all her guests declared that there was no need to drive. So in a somewhat straggling order they reached the wooden bridge over the river. Fauchery and Daguenet headed the column with the Muffat ladies and were followed by the count and the marquis, walking on either side of Mme Hugon, while Vandeuvres, looking fashionable and out of his element on the highroad, marched in the rear, smoking a cigar. M. Venot, now slackening, now hastening his pace, passed smilingly from group to group, as though bent on losing no scrap of conversation.
"To think of poor dear Georges at Orleans!" said Mme Hugon. "He was anxious to consult old Doctor Tavernier, who never goes out now, on the subject of his sick headaches. Yes, you were not up, as he went off before seven o'clock. But it'll be a change for him all the same."
She broke off, exclaiming:
"Why, what's making them stop on the bridge?"
The fact was the ladies and Fauchery and Daguenet were standing stock-still on the crown of the bridge. They seemed to be hesitating as though some obstacle or other rendered them uneasy and yet the way lay clear before them.
"Go on!" cried the count.
They never moved and seemed to be watching the approach of something which the rest had not yet observed. Indeed the road wound considerably and was bordered by a thick screen of poplar trees. Nevertheless, a dull sound began to grow momentarily louder, and soon there was a noise of wheels, mingled with shouts of laughter and the cracking of whips. Then suddenly five carriages came into view, driving one behind the other. They were crowded to bursting, and bright with a galaxy of white, blue and pink costumes.
"What is it?" said Mme Hugon in some surprise.
Then her instinct told her, and she felt indignant at such an untoward invasion of her road.
"Oh, that woman!" she murmured. "Walk on, pray walk on. Don't appear to notice."
But it was too late. The five carriages which were taking Nana and her circle to the ruins of Chamont rolled on to the narrow wooden bridge. Fauchery, Daguenet and the Muffat ladies were forced to step backward, while Mme Hugon and the others had also to stop in Indian file along the roadside. It was a superb ride past! The laughter in the carriages had ceased, and faces were turned with an expression of curiosity. The rival parties took stock of each other amid a silence broken only by the measured trot of the horses. In the first carriage Maria Blond and Tatan Nene were lolling backward like a pair of duchesses, their skirts swelling forth over the wheels, and as they passed they cast disdainful glances at the honest women who were walking afoot. Then came Gaga, filling up a whole seat and half smothering La Faloise beside her so that little but his small anxious face was visible. Next followed Caroline Hequet with Labordette, Lucy Stewart with Mignon and his boys and at the close of all Nana in a victoria with Steiner and on a bracket seat in front of her that poor, darling Zizi, with his knees jammed against her own.
"It's the last of them, isn't it?" the countess placidly asked Fauchery, pretending at the same time not to recognize Nana.
The wheel of the victoria came near grazing her, but she did not step back. The two women had exchanged a deeply significant glance. It was, in fact, one of those momentary scrutinies which are at once complete and definite. As to the men, they behaved unexceptionably. Fauchery and Daguenet looked icy and recognized no one. The marquis, more nervous than they and afraid of some farcical ebullition on the part of the ladies, had plucked a blade of grass and was rolling it between his fingers. Only Vandeuvres, who had stayed somewhat apart from the rest of the company, winked imperceptibly at Lucy, who smiled at him as she passed.
"Be careful!" M. Venot had whispered as he stood behind Count Muffat.
The latter in extreme agitation gazed after this illusive vision of Nana while his wife turned slowly round and scrutinized him. Then he cast his eyes on the ground as though to escape the sound of galloping hoofs which were sweeping away both his senses and his heart. He could have cried aloud in his agony, for, seeing Georges among Nana's skirts, he understood it all now. A mere child! He was brokenhearted at the thought that she should have preferred a mere child to him! Steiner was his equal, but that child!
Mme Hugon, in the meantime, had not at once recognized Georges. Crossing the bridge, he was fain to jump into the river, but Nana's knees restrained him. Then white as a sheet and icy cold, he sat rigidly up in his place and looked at no one. It was just possible no one would notice him.
"Oh, my God!" said the old lady suddenly. "Georges is with her!"
The carriages had passed quite through the uncomfortable crowd of people who recognized and yet gave no sign of recognition. The short critical encounter seemed to have been going on for ages. And now the wheels whirled away the carriageloads of girls more gaily than ever. Toward the fair open country they went, amid the buffetings of the fresh air of heaven. Bright-colored fabrics fluttered in the wind, and the merry laughter burst forth anew as the voyagers began jesting and glancing back at the respectable folks halting with looks of annoyance at the roadside. Turning round, Nana could see the walking party hesitating and then returning the way they had come without crossing the bridge. Mme Hugon was leaning silently on Count Muffat's arm, and so sad was her look that no one dared comfort her.
"I say, did you see Fauchery, dear?" Nana shouted to Lucy, who was leaning out of the carriage in front. "What a brute he was! He shall pay out for that. And Paul, too, a fellow I've been so kind to! Not a sign! They're polite, I'm sure."
And with that she gave Steiner a terrible dressing, he having ventured to suggest that the gentlemen's attitude had been quite as it should be. So then they weren't even worth a bow? The first blackguard that came by might insult them? Thanks! He was the right sort, too, he was! It couldn't be better! One ought always to bow to a woman.
"Who's the tall one?" asked Lucy at random, shouting through the noise of the wheels.
"It's the Countess Muffat," answered Steiner.
"There now! I suspected as much," said Nana. "Now, my dear fellow, it's all very well her being a countess, for she's no better than she should be. Yes, yes, she's no better that she should be. You know, I've got an eye for such things, I have! And now I know your countess as well as if I had been at the making of her! I'll bet you that she's the mistress of that viper Fauchery! I tell you, she's his mistress! Between women you guess that sort of thing at once!"
Steiner shrugged his shoulders. Since the previous day his irritation had been hourly increasing. He had received letters which necessitated his leaving the following morning, added to which he did not much appreciate coming down to the country in order to sleep on the drawing-room divan.
"And this poor baby boy!" Nana continued, melting suddenly at sight of Georges's pale face as he still sat rigid and breathless in front of her.
"D'you think Mamma recognized me?" he stammered at last.
"Oh, most surely she did! Why, she cried out! But it's my fault. He didn't want to come with us; I forced him to. Now listen, Zizi, would you like me to write to your mamma? She looks such a kind, decent sort of lady! I'll tell her that I never saw you before and that it was Steiner who brought you with him for the first time today."
"No, no, don't write," said Georges in great anxiety. "I'll explain it all myself. Besides, if they bother me about it I shan't go home again."
But he continued plunged in thought, racking his brains for excuses against his return home in the evening. The five carriages were rolling through a flat country along an interminable straight road bordered by fine trees. The country was bathed in a silvery-gray atmosphere. The ladies still continued shouting remarks from carriage to carriage behind the backs of the drivers, who chuckled over their extraordinary fares. Occasionally one of them would rise to her feet to look at the landscape and, supporting herself on her neighbor's shoulder, would grow extremely excited till a sudden jolt brought her down to the seat again. Caroline Hequet in the meantime was having a warm discussion with Labordette. Both of them were agreed that Nana would be selling her country house before three months were out, and Caroline was urging Labordette to buy it back for her for as little as it was likely to fetch. In front of them La Faloise, who was very amorous and could not get at Gaga's apoplectic neck, was imprinting kisses on her spine through her dress, the strained fabric of which was nigh splitting, while Amelie, perching stiffly on the bracket seat, was bidding them be quiet, for she was horrified to be sitting idly by, watching her mother being kissed. In the next carriage Mignon, in order to astonish Lucy, was making his sons recite a fable by La Fontaine. Henri was prodigious at this exercise; he could spout you one without pause or hesitation. But Maria Blond, at the head of the procession, was beginning to feel extremely bored. She was tired of hoaxing that blockhead of a Tatan Nene with a story to the effect that the Parisian dairywomen were wont to fabricate eggs with a mixture of paste and saffron. The distance was too great: were they never going to get to their destination? And the question was transmitted from carriage to carriage and finally reached Nana, who, after questioning her driver, got up and shouted:
"We've not got a quarter of an hour more to go. You see that church behind the trees down there?"
Then she continued:
"Do you know, it appears the owner of the Chateau de Chamont is an old lady of Napoleon's time? Oh, she was a merry one! At least, so Joseph told me, and he heard it from the servants at the bishop's palace. There's no one like it nowadays, and for the matter of that, she's become goody-goody."
"What's her name?" asked Lucy.
"Irma d'Anglars--I knew her!" cried Gaga.
Admiring exclamations burst from the line of carriages and were borne down the wind as the horses quickened their trot. Heads were stretched out in Gaga's direction; Maria Blond and Tatan Nene turned round and knelt on the seat while they leaned over the carriage hood, and the air was full of questions and cutting remarks, tempered by a certain obscure admiration. Gaga had known her! The idea filled them all with respect for that far-off past.
"Dear me, I was young then," continued Gaga. "But never mind, I remember it all. I saw her pass. They said she was disgusting in her own house, but, driving in her carriage, she was just smart! And the stunning tales about her! Dirty doings and money flung about like one o'clock! I don't wonder at all that she's got a fine place. Why, she used to clean out a man's pockets as soon as look at him. Irma d'Anglars still in the land of the living! Why, my little pets, she must be near ninety."
At this the ladies became suddenly serious. Ninety years old! The deuce, there wasn't one of them, as Lucy loudly declared, who would live to that age. They were all done for. Besides, Nana said she didn't want to make old bones; it wouldn't be amusing. They were drawing near their destination, and the conversation was interrupted by the cracking of whips as the drivers put their horses to their best paces. Yet amid all the noise Lucy continued talking and, suddenly changing the subject, urged Nana to come to town with them all to-morrow. The exhibition was soon to close, and the ladies must really return to Paris, where the season was surpassing their expectations. But Nana was obstinate. She loathed Paris; she wouldn't set foot there yet!
"Eh, darling, we'll stay?" she said, giving Georges's knees a squeeze, as though Steiner were of no account.
The carriages had pulled up abruptly, and in some surprise the company got out on some waste ground at the bottom of a small hill. With his whip one of the drivers had to point them out the ruins of the old Abbey of Chamont where they lay hidden among trees. It was a great sell! The ladies voted them silly. Why, they were only a heap of old stones with briers growing over them and part of a tumble-down tower. It really wasn't worth coming a couple of leagues to see that! Then the driver pointed out to them the countryseat, the park of which stretched away from the abbey, and he advised them to take a little path and follow the walls surrounding it. They would thus make the tour of the place while the carriages would go and await them in the village square. It was a delightful walk, and the company agreed to the proposition.
"Lord love me, Irma knows how to take care of herself!" said Gaga, halting before a gate at the corner of the park wall abutting on the highroad.
All of them stood silently gazing at the enormous bush which stopped up the gateway. Then following the little path, they skirted the park wall, looking up from time to time to admire the trees, whose lofty branches stretched out over them and formed a dense vault of greenery. After three minutes or so they found themselves in front of a second gate. Through this a wide lawn was visible, over which two venerable oaks cast dark masses of shadow. Three minutes farther on yet another gate afforded them an extensive view of a great avenue, a perfect corridor of shadow, at the end of which a bright spot of sunlight gleamed like a star. They stood in silent, wondering admiration, and then little by little exclamations burst from their lips. They had been trying hard to joke about it all with a touch of envy at heart, but this decidedly and immeasurably impressed them. What a genius that Irma was! A sight like this gave you a rattling notion of the woman! The trees stretched away and away, and there were endlessly recurrent patches of ivy along the wall with glimpses of lofty roofs and screens of poplars interspersed with dense masses of elms and aspens. Was there no end to it then? The ladies would have liked to catch sight of the mansion house, for they were weary of circling on and on, weary of seeing nothing but leafy recesses through every opening they came to. They took the rails of the gate in their hands and pressed their faces against the ironwork. And thus excluded and isolated, a feeling of respect began to overcome them as they thought of the castle lost to view in surrounding immensity. Soon, being quite unused to walking, they grew tired. And the wall did not leave off; at every turn of the small deserted path the same range of gray stones stretched ahead of them. Some of them began to despair of ever getting to the end of it and began talking of returning. But the more their long walk fatigued them, the more respectful they became, for at each successive step they were increasingly impressed by the tranquil, lordly dignity of the domain.
"It's getting silly, this is!" said Caroline Hequet, grinding her teeth.
Nana silenced her with a shrug. For some moments past she had been rather pale and extremely serious and had not spoken a single word. Suddenly the path gave a final turn; the wall ended, and as they came out on the village square the mansion house stood before them on the farther side of its grand outer court. All stopped to admire the proud sweep of the wide steps, the twenty frontage windows, the arrangement of the three wings, which were built of brick framed by courses of stone. Henri IV had erewhile inhabited this historic mansion, and his room, with its great bed hung with Genoa velvet, was still preserved there. Breathless with admiration, Nana gave a little childish sigh.
"Great God!" she whispered very quietly to herself.
But the party were deeply moved when Gaga suddenly announced that Irma herself was standing yonder in front of the church. She recognized her perfectly. She was as upright as of old, the hoary campaigner, and that despite her age, and she still had those eyes which flashed when she moved in that proud way of hers! Vespers were just over, and for a second or two Madame stood in the church porch. She was dressed in a dark brown silk and looked very simple and very tall, her venerable face reminding one of some old marquise who had survived the horrors of the Great Revolution. In her right hand a huge Book of Hours shone in the sunlight, and very slowly she crossed the square, followed some fifteen paces off by a footman in livery. The church was emptying, and all the inhabitants of Chamont bowed before her with extreme respect. An old man even kissed her hand, and a woman wanted to fall on her knees. Truly this was a potent queen, full of years and honors. She mounted her flight of steps and vanished from view.
"That's what one attains to when one has methodical habits!" said Mignon with an air of conviction, looking at his sons and improving the occasion.
Then everybody said his say. Labordette thought her extraordinarily well preserved. Maria Blond let slip a foul expression and vexed Lucy, who declared that one ought to honor gray hairs. All the women, to sum up, agreed that she was a perfect marvel. Then the company got into their conveyances again. From Chamont all the way to La Mignotte Nana remained silent. She had twice turned round to look back at the house, and now, lulled by the sound of the wheels, she forgot that Steiner was at her side and that Georges was in front of her. A vision had come up out of the twilight, and the great lady seemed still to be sweeping by with all the majesty of a potent queen, full of years and of honors.
That evening Georges re-entered Les Fondettes in time for dinner. Nana, who had grown increasingly absent-minded and singular in point of manner, had sent him to ask his mamma's forgiveness. It was his plain duty, she remarked severely, growing suddenly solicitous for the decencies of family life. She even made him swear not to return for the night; she was tired, and in showing proper obedience he was doing no more than his duty. Much bored by this moral discourse, Georges appeared in his mother's presence with heavy heart and downcast head.
Fortunately for him his brother Philippe, a great merry devil of a military man, had arrived during the day, a fact which greatly curtailed the scene he was dreading. Mme Hugon was content to look at him with eyes full of tears while Philippe, who had been put in possession of the facts, threatened to go and drag him home by the scruff of the neck if ever he went back into that woman's society. Somewhat comforted, Georges began slyly planning how to make his escape toward two o'clock next day in order to arrange about future meetings with Nana.
Nevertheless, at dinnertime the house party at Les Fondettes seemed not a little embarrassed. Vandeuvres had given notice of departure, for he was anxious to take Lucy back to Paris with him. He was amused at the idea of carrying off this girl whom he had known for ten years yet never desired. The Marquis de Chouard bent over his plate and meditated on Gaga's young lady. He could well remember dandling Lili on his knee. What a way children had of shooting up! This little thing was becoming extremely plump! But Count Muffat especially was silent and absorbed. His cheeks glowed, and he had given Georges one long look. Dinner over, he went upstairs, intending to shut himself in his bedroom, his pretext being a slight feverish attack. M. Venot had rushed after him, and upstairs in the bedroom a scene ensued. The count threw himself upon the bed and strove to stifle a fit of nervous sobbing in the folds of the pillow while M. Venot, in a soft voice, called him brother and advised him to implore heaven for mercy. But he heard nothing: there was a rattle in his throat. Suddenly he sprang off the bed and stammered:
"I am going there. I can't resist any longer."
"Very well," said the old man, "I go with you."
As they left the house two shadows were vanishing into the dark depths of a garden walk, for every evening now Fauchery and the Countess Sabine left Daguenet to help Estelle make tea. Once on the highroad the count walked so rapidly that his companion had to run in order to follow him. Though utterly out of breath, the latter never ceased showering on him the most conclusive arguments against the temptations of the flesh. But the other never opened his mouth as he hurried away into the night. Arrived in front of La Mignotte, he said simply:
"I can't resist any longer. Go!"
"God's will be done then!" muttered M. Venot. "He uses every method to assure His final triumph. Your sin will become His weapon."
At La Mignotte there was much wrangling during the evening meal. Nana had found a letter from Bordenave awaiting her, in which he advised rest, just as though he were anxious to be rid of her. Little Violaine, he said, was being encored twice nightly. But when Mignon continued urging her to come away with them on the morrow Nana grew exasperated and declared that she did not intend taking advice from anybody. In other ways, too, her behavior at table was ridiculously stuck up. Mme Lerat having made some sharp little speech or other, she loudly announced that, God willing, she wasn't going to let anyone--no, not even her own aunt--make improper remarks in her presence. After which she dreed her guests with honorable sentiments. She seemed to be suffering from a fit of stupid right-mindedness, and she treated them all to projects of religious education for Louiset and to a complete scheme of regeneration for herself. When the company began laughing she gave vent to profound opinions, nodding her head like a grocer's wife who knows what she is saying. Nothing but order could lead to fortune! And so far as she was concerned, she had no wish to die like a beggar! She set the ladies' teeth on edge. They burst out in protest. Could anyone have been converting Nana? No, it was impossible! But she sat quite still and with absent looks once more plunged into dreamland, where the vision of an extremely wealthy and greatly courted Nana rose up before her.
The household were going upstairs to bed when Muffat put in an appearance. It was Labordette who caught sight of him in the garden. He understood it all at once and did him a service, for he got Steiner out of the way and, taking his hand, led him along the dark corridor as far as Nana's bedroom. In affairs of this kind Labordette was wont to display the most perfect tact and cleverness. Indeed, he seemed delighted to be making other people happy. Nana showed no surprise; she was only somewhat annoyed by the excessive heat of Muffat's pursuit. Life was a serious affair, was it not? Love was too silly: it led to nothing. Besides, she had her scruples in view of Zizi's tender age. Indeed, she had scarcely behaved quite fairly toward him. Dear me, yes, she was choosing the proper course again in taking up with an old fellow.
"Zoe," she said to the lady's maid, who was enchanted at the thought of leaving the country, "pack the trunks when you get up tomorrow. We are going back to Paris."
And she went to bed with Muffat but experienced no pleasure.