"I really think you must be mad, my dear, to go for a country walk in such weather as this. You have had some very strange notions for the last two months. You drag me to the seaside in spite of myself, when you have never once had such a whim during all the forty-four years that we have been married. You chose Fecamp, which is a very dull town, without consulting me in the matter, and now you are seized with such a rage for walking, you who hardly ever stir out on foot, that you want to take a country walk on the hottest day of the year. Ask d'Apreval to go with you, as he is ready to gratify all your whims. As for me, I am going back to have a nap."
Madame de Cadour turned to her old friend and said:
"Will you come with me, Monsieur d'Apreval?"
He bowed with a smile, and with all the gallantry of former years:
"I will go wherever you go," he replied.
"Very well, then, go and get a sunstroke," Monsieur de Cadour said; and he went back to the Hotel des Bains to lie down for an hour or two.
As soon as they were alone, the old lady and her old companion set off, and she said to him in a low voice, squeezing his hand:
"At last! at last!"
"You are mad," he said in a whisper. "I assure you that you are mad. Think of the risk you are running. If that man — "
"Oh! Henri, do not say that man, when you are speaking of him."
"Very well," he said abruptly, "if our son guesses anything, if he has any suspicions, he will have you, he will have us both in his power. You have got on without seeing him for the last forty years. What is the matter with you to-day?"
They had been going up the long street that leads from the sea to the town, and now they turned to the right, to go to Etretat. The white road stretched in front of him, then under a blaze of brilliant sunshine, so they went on slowly in the burning heat. She had taken her old friend's arm, and was looking straight in front of her, with a fixed and haunted gaze, and at last she said:
"And so you have not seen him again, either?"
"Is it possible?"
"My dear friend, do not let us begin that discussion again. I have a wife and children and you have a husband, so we both of us have much to fear from other people's opinion."
She did not reply; she was thinking of her long past youth and of many sad things that had occurred. How well she recalled all the details of their early friendship, his smiles, the way he used to linger, in order to watch her until she was indoors. What happy days they were, the only really delicious days she had ever enjoyed, and how quickly they were over!
And then — her discovery — of the penalty she paid! What anguish!
Of that journey to the South, that long journey, her sufferings, her constant terror, that secluded life in the small, solitary house on the shores of the Mediterranean, at the bottom of a garden, which she did not venture to leave. How well she remembered those long days which she spent lying under an orange tree, looking up at the round, red fruit, amid the green leaves. How she used to long to go out, as far as the sea, whose fresh breezes came to her over the wall, and whose small waves she could hear lapping on the beach. She dreamed of its immense blue expanse sparkling under the sun, with the white sails of the small vessels, and a mountain on the horizon. But she did not dare to go outside the gate. Suppose anybody had recognized her!
And those days of waiting, those last days of misery and expectation! The impending suffering, and then that terrible night! What misery she had endured, and what a night it was! How she had groaned and screamed! She could still see the pale face of her lover, who kissed her hand every moment, and the clean-shaven face of the doctor and the nurse's white cap.
And what she felt when she heard the child's feeble cries, that wail, that first effort of a human's voice!
And the next day! the next day! the only day of her life on which she had seen and kissed her son; for, from that time, she had never even caught a glimpse of him.
And what a long, void existence hers had been since then, with the thought of that child always, always floating before her. She had never seen her son, that little creature that had been part of herself, even once since then; they had taken him from her, carried him away, and had hidden him. All she knew was that he had been brought up by some peasants in Normandy, that he had become a peasant himself, had married well, and that his father, whose name he did not know, had settled a handsome sum of money on him.
How often during the last forty years had she wished to go and see him and to embrace him! She could not imagine to herself that he had grown! She always thought of that small human atom which she had held in her arms and pressed to her bosom for a day.
How often she had said to M. d'Apreval: "I cannot bear it any longer; I must go and see him."
But he had always stopped her and kept her from going. She would be unable to restrain and to master herself; their son would guess it and take advantage of her, blackmail her; she would be lost.
"What is he like?" she said.
"I do not know. I have not seen him again, either."
"Is it possible? To have a son and not to know him; to be afraid of him and to reject him as if he were a disgrace! It is horrible."
They went along the dusty road, overcome by the scorching sun, and continually ascending that interminable hill.
"One might take it for a punishment," she continued; "I have never had another child, and I could no longer resist the longing to see him, which has possessed me for forty years. You men cannot understand that. You must remember that I shall not live much longer, and suppose I should never see him, never have seen him!... Is it possible? How could I wait so long? I have thought about him every day since, and what a terrible existence mine has been! I have never awakened, never, do you understand, without my first thoughts being of him, of my child. How is he? Oh, how guilty I feel toward him! Ought one to fear what the world may say in a case like this? I ought to have left everything to go after him, to bring him up and to show my love for him. I should certainly have been much happier, but I did not dare, I was a coward. How I have suffered! Oh, how those poor, abandoned children must hate their mothers!"
She stopped suddenly, for she was choked by her sobs. The whole valley was deserted and silent in the dazzling light and the overwhelming heat, and only the grasshoppers uttered their shrill, continuous chirp among the sparse yellow grass on both sides of the road.
"Sit down a little," he said.
She allowed herself to be led to the side of the ditch and sank down with her face in her hands. Her white hair, which hung in curls on both sides of her face, had become tangled. She wept, overcome by profound grief, while he stood facing her, uneasy and not knowing what to say, and he merely murmured: "Come, take courage."
She got up.
"I will," she said, and wiping her eyes, she began to walk again with the uncertain step of an elderly woman.
A little farther on the road passed beneath a clump of trees, which hid a few houses, and they could distinguish the vibrating and regular blows of a blacksmith's hammer on the anvil; and presently they saw a wagon standing on the right side of the road in front of a low cottage, and two men shoeing a horse under a shed.
Monsieur d'Apreval went up to them.
"Where is Pierre Benedict's farm?" he asked.
"Take the road to the left, close to the inn, and then go straight on; it is the third house past Poret's. There is a small spruce fir close to the gate; you cannot make a mistake."
They turned to the left. She was walking very slowly now, her legs threatened to give way, and her heart was beating so violently that she felt as if she should suffocate, while at every step she murmured, as if in prayer:
"Oh! Heaven! Heaven!"
Monsieur d'Apreval, who was also nervous and rather pale, said to her somewhat gruffly:
"If you cannot manage to control your feelings, you will betray yourself at once. Do try and restrain yourself."
"How can I?" she replied. "My child! When I think that I am going to see my child."
They were going along one of those narrow country lanes between farmyards, that are concealed beneath a double row of beech trees at either side of the ditches, and suddenly they found themselves in front of a gate, beside which there was a young spruce fir.
"This is it," he said.
She stopped suddenly and looked about her. The courtyard, which was planted with apple trees, was large and extended as far as the small thatched dwelling house. On the opposite side were the stable, the barn, the cow house and the poultry house, while the gig, the wagon and the manure cart were under a slated outhouse. Four calves were grazing under the shade of the trees and black hens were wandering all about the enclosure.
All was perfectly still; the house door was open, but nobody was to be seen, and so they went in, when immediately a large black dog came out of a barrel that was standing under a pear tree, and began to bark furiously.
There were four bee-hives on boards against the wall of the house.
Monsieur d'Apreval stood outside and called out:
"Is anybody at home?"
Then a child appeared, a little girl of about ten, dressed in a chemise and a linen, petticoat, with dirty, bare legs and a timid and cunning look. She remained standing in the doorway, as if to prevent any one going in.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Is your father in?"
"Where is he?"
"I don't know."
"And your mother?"
"Gone after the cows."
"Will she be back soon?"
"I don't know."
Then suddenly the lady, as if she feared that her companion might force her to return, said quickly:
"I shall not go without having seen him."
"We will wait for him, my dear friend."
As they turned away, they saw a peasant woman coming toward the house, carrying two tin pails, which appeared to be heavy and which glistened brightly in the sunlight.
She limped with her right leg, and in her brown knitted jacket, that was faded by the sun and washed out by the rain, she looked like a poor, wretched, dirty servant.
"Here is mamma," the child said.
When she got close to the house, she looked at the strangers angrily and suspiciously, and then she went in, as if she had not seen them. She looked old and had a hard, yellow, wrinkled face, one of those wooden faces that country people so often have.
Monsieur d'Apreval called her back.
"I beg your pardon, madame, but we came in to know whether you could sell us two glasses of milk."
She was grumbling when she reappeared in the door, after putting down her pails.
"I don't sell milk," she replied.
"We are very thirsty," he said, "and madame is very tired. Can we not get something to drink?"
The peasant woman gave them an uneasy and cunning glance and then she made up her mind.
"As you are here, I will give you some," she said, going into the house, and almost immediately the child came out and brought two chairs, which she placed under an apple tree, and then the mother, in turn, brought out two bowls of foaming milk, which she gave to the visitors. She did not return to the house, however, but remained standing near them, as if to watch them and to find out for what purpose they had come there.
"You have come from Fecamp?" she said.
"Yes," Monsieur d'Apreval replied, "we are staying at Fecamp for the summer."
And then, after a short silence, he continued:
"Have you any fowls you could sell us every week?"
The woman hesitated for a moment and then replied:
"Yes, I think I have. I suppose you want young ones?"
"Yes, of course."
"'What do you pay for them in the market?"
D'Apreval, who had not the least idea, turned to his companion:
"What are you paying for poultry in Fecamp, my dear lady?"
"Four francs and four francs fifty centimes," she said, her eyes full of tears, while the farmer's wife, who was looking at her askance, asked in much surprise:
"Is the lady ill, as she is crying?"
He did not know what to say, and replied with some hesitation:
"No — no — but she lost her watch as we came along, a very handsome watch, and that troubles her. If anybody should find it, please let us know."
Mother Benedict did not reply, as she thought it a very equivocal sort of answer, but suddenly she exclaimed:
"Oh, here is my husband!"
She was the only one who had seen him, as she was facing the gate. D'Apreval started and Madame de Cadour nearly fell as she turned round suddenly on her chair.
A man bent nearly double, and out of breath, stood there, ten-yards from them, dragging a cow at the end of a rope. Without taking any notice of the visitors, he said:
"Confound it! What a brute!"
And he went past them and disappeared in the cow house.
Her tears had dried quickly as she sat there startled, without a word and with the one thought in her mind, that this was her son, and D'Apreval, whom the same thought had struck very unpleasantly, said in an agitated voice:
"Is this Monsieur Benedict?"
"Who told you his name?" the wife asked, still rather suspiciously.
"The blacksmith at the corner of the highroad," he replied, and then they were all silent, with their eyes fixed on the door of the cow house, which formed a sort of black hole in the wall of the building. Nothing could be seen inside, but they heard a vague noise, movements and footsteps and the sound of hoofs, which were deadened by the straw on the floor, and soon the man reappeared in the door, wiping his forehead, and came toward the house with long, slow strides. He passed the strangers without seeming to notice them and said to his wife:
"Go and draw me a jug of cider; I am very thirsty."
Then he went back into the house, while his wife went into the cellar and left the two Parisians alone.
"Let us go, let us go, Henri," Madame de Cadour said, nearly distracted with grief, and so d'Apreval took her by the arm, helped her to rise, and sustaining her with all his strength, for he felt that she was nearly fainting, he led her out, after throwing five francs on one of the chairs.
As soon as they were outside the gate, she began to sob and said, shaking with grief:
"Oh! oh! is that what you have made of him?"
He was very pale and replied coldly:
"I did what I could. His farm is worth eighty thousand francs, and that is more than most of the sons of the middle classes have."
They returned slowly, without speaking a word. She was still crying; the tears ran down her cheeks continually for a time, but by degrees they stopped, and they went back to Fecamp, where they found Monsieur de Cadour waiting dinner for them. As soon as he saw them, he began to laugh and exclaimed:
"So my wife has had a sunstroke, and I am very glad of it. I really think she has lost her head for some time past!"
Neither of them replied, and when the husband asked them, rubbing his hands:
"Well, I hope that, at least, you have had a pleasant walk?"
Monsieur d'Apreval replied:
"A delightful walk, I assure you; perfectly delightful."