'AT last!' she cried, throwing her arms around my neck. 'You're back! You look so pale!'
Then I told her about the scene with my father.
'Oh my God! I was expecting something like this, ' she said. 'When Joseph came and told us your father had arrived, my heart stopped as though he'd brought bad news. Poor dear! And I'm to blame for all your troubles. Perhaps it would be better for you to leave me than quarrel with your father. Still, I never did him any harm. We live very quietly and we'll live more quietly still. Of course, he realizes that you must have a mistress, and he should be pleased it's me, because I love you and won't ask you for anything more than your circumstances warrant. Did you tell him what we've worked out for the future?'
'Yes, and that's what upset him most, because he took the fact that our minds were made up as a sure sign of our love for each other.'
'What do we do now?'
'Stay together, sweet Marguerite, and let the storm blow over.'
'And will it blow over?'
'Storms always do.'
'But your father won't leave it at that, will he?'
'What can he do?'
'How should I know? Everything a father can do to force his son to obey him. He'll remind you of my past life, and may even credit me with some new treachery invented for the purpose of persuading you to give me up.'
'You know how I love you.'
'Yes, but there's something else I know: sooner or later you'll have to obey your father, and in the end you may let yourself be convinced.'
'No, Marguerite, I'll do the convincing. He's furious because of the stories some of his friends have been putting about. But he's good and he's fair-minded, and he'll get over his first impressions. Anyway, even if he doesn't, it won't make any difference to me!'
'You mustn't say that, Armand. I'd rather anything than give people the idea that I've come between you and your family. Leave it for today, and return to Paris tomorrow. Your father will have thought things over and so will you, and perhaps you'll understand each other better. Don't offend his principles. Try to appear as though you're making some concessions to what he wants. Make it look as if you're not all that attached to me, and he'll leave matters as they are, Keep hoping, my dear, and be sure of one thing: whatever happens, your Marguerite will still be yours.'
'You swear it?'
'Do I need to?'
How sweet it is to let yourself be won round by a voice your love! Marguerite and I spent all day going over our plans as though we somehow knew we had to hurry them through. We were expecting something to happen at any minute but, happily, the day passed without further event.
The following morning, I set off at ten o'clock and reached the hotel around noon.
My father had already gone out.
I went to my apartment hoping that he might be there. No one had called. I went round to my solicitor's. There was no one there either!
I returned to the hotel and waited until six. Monsieur Duval did not return.
I set off back to Bougival.
I found Marguerite not waiting for me, as on the previous evening, but sitting by the fire which the season already required.
She was deep enough in her thoughts for me to come right up to her chair without her hearing me or turning round. When my lips touched her forehead, she started as though the kiss had woken her suddenly.
'You gave me a fright, ' she said. 'What did your father say?'
'I didn't see him. I can't make it out. I couldn't find him at his hotel nor in any of the places where he was likely to be.'
'Well, you'll have to try again tomorrow.'
'I've a good mind to wait for him to ask to see me. I think I've done everything that could be expected of me.'
'No, my dear, it's not enough. You must go and see your father again, and do it tomorrow.'
'Why tomorrow rather than any other day?'
'Because, ' said Marguerite, who, I thought, flushed slightly at my question, 'because then your determination will seem all the greater and consequently we shall be forgiven more quickly.'
For the remainder of that day, Marguerite seemed preoccupied, listless, downcast. I had to say everything twice to get an answer. She attributed her inattentiveness to the fears for the future which the events of the past two days had prompted.
I spent the night trying to reassure her, and she sent me off the next morning displaying a distinct uneasiness which I could not fathom.
As on the previous day, my father was out. But, before going, he had left me this letter:
'If you return to see me today, wait until four. If I'm not back by four, come back and dine with me tomorrow. I must speak with you.'
I waited until the appointed time. My father did not put in an appearance. So I left.
The evening before, I had found Marguerite downcast; now I found her feverish and agitated. When she saw me come in, she threw her arms around my neck, but she remained weeping in my arms for some time.
I questioned her about her sudden dejection which, as it worsened, alarmed me. She gave me no specific reason for it, and merely fell back on the excuses a woman falls back on when she does not want to give truthful answers.
When she was a little more herself again, I told her the outcome of my journey to town. I showed her my father's letter, and observed that some good might very well come of it.
When she saw the letter and heard my view of it, her tears began coming so fast that I called Nanine and, fearing some sort of nervous attack, we put her to bed. The poor girl wept without uttering a word, but she kept my hands clasped in hers and kissed them continually.
I asked Nanine if, during my absence, her mistress had received a letter or a visit which could account for the state she was in, but Nanine replied that no one had come and nothing had been delivered.
And yet something had been going on since the previous evening which was all the more worrying because Marguerite was hiding it from me.
She seemed to be a little calmer during the evening and, motioning me to sit at the foot of her bed, she gave me lengthy, renewed assurances that she loved me. Then she smiled, though it was an effort for her to do so, for despite herself her eyes were masked with tears.
I used every means to make her reveal the real cause of her sorrows, but she stubbornly continued to give me the same vague excuses which I have already mentioned.
In the end, she fell asleep in my arms, but her sleep was the kind which wearies the body instead of giving it rest. From time to time, she would cry out, wake with a start and, after reassuring herself that I was really by her side, would make me swear I would love her always.
I could make nothing of these fits of distress which continues until morning. Then Marguerite lapsed into a sort of torpor. She had not slept now for two nights.
Her rest was short-lived.
About eleven o'clock, Marguerite woke and, seeing that I was up and about, looked around her and exclaimed:
'Are you going already?'
'No, ' I said, taking her hands in mine, 'but I wanted to let you sleep. It's still early.'
'What time are you going to Paris?'
'So soon? You'll stay with me till then, won't you?'
'Of course. Don't I always?'
'I'm so glad!'
Then she went on listlessly: 'Are we going to have lunch?'
'If you want.'
'And then you'll hold me right up to the moment you go?'
'Yes, and I'll come back as soon as I can.'
'Come back?' she said, staring wild- eyed at me.
'That's right, you'll come back tonight and I'll be waiting for you, as usual, and you'll love me, and we'll be happy just as we've been since we met.'
These words were said so falteringly, and seemed to hide some painful notion that was so persistent, that I feared for her reason.
'Listen, ' I told her, 'you're ill, I can't leave you like this. I'll write to my father and say he's not to expect me.'
'No! no!' she exclaimed vehemently, 'you mustn't do that. Your father would only accuse me of preventing you from going to him when he wants to see you. No! no! you must go, you must! Besides, I'm not ill, I couldn't be better. I had a bad dream, that's all, I wasn't properly awake.'
From then on, Marguerite tried to appear more cheerful. There were no more tears.
When it was time for me to leave, I kissed her and asked her if she wanted to come with me as far as the station: I hoped that the ride would take her mind off things, and that the air might do her good.
But most of all, I wanted to remain with her as long as possible.
She agreed, put her cloak on and came with me, bringing Nanine so that she would not have to return alone.
A score of times I was on the point of not going. But the hope of returning soon and fear of further antagonizing my father kept my purpose firm, and the train bore me away.
'Until tonight, ' I said to Marguerite as I said goodbye.
She did not answer.
Once before she had not answered when I had said those selfsame words, and Count de G, as you will recall, had spent the night with her. But that time was so far off that it seemed to have been erased from my memory. If I had anything to fear, it was assuredly not that Marguerite was deceiving me.
When I reached Paris, I hurried round to Prudence's to ask her to go down and see Marguerite. I hoped that her zest and good spirits would cheer her up.
I entered without waiting to be announced, and found Prudence getting dressed.
'Ah!' she said anxiously, 'is Marguerite with you?'
'How is she?'
'She's not well.'
'So she's not coming?'
'Was she supposed to?'
Madame Duvernoy reddened and, somewhat embarrassed, answered:
'What I meant was, now you've come to Paris, isn't she going to come and join you?'
I stared at Prudence. She lowered her eyes, and from the way she looked, I had the feeling that she was afraid of seeing me stay much longer.
'As a matter of fact, my dear Prudence, I came to ask you, if you've nothing else to do, to go down and see Marguerite this evening. You could keep her company and stay the night. I've never seen her the way she was today, and I'm terrified she's going to be ill.'
'I'm dining in town, ' Prudence replied, 'and I can't see Marguerite this evening. But I will tomorrow.'
I said goodbye to Madame Duvernoy, who seemed to me as though she was almost as preoccupied as Marguerite, and went to call on my father who, from the start, gave me studied, searching looks.
He held out his hand.
'You called twice to see me. That pleases me, Armand, ' he said. 'It's given me hope that you've reflected on your position, as I have on mine.'
'May I ask, father, what the outcome of your reflections has been?'
'The outcome, my boy, is that I realize I attached too much importance to the reports I was given, and I have made up my mind not to be quite so hard on you.'
'Do you mean it, father!' I exclaimed, overjoyed.
'What I mean, my dear boy, is that a young man needs a mistress and, after further enquiries, I would prefer to know that you were the lover of Mademoiselle Gautier than of some other woman.'
'Oh, thank you, father! You've made me so happy!'
We talked in this vein for a short while, and then sat down to dine. My father remained most affable throughout the meal.
I was very anxious to get back to Bougival to tell Marguerite all about this auspicious development. I glanced continually at the clock.
'You've got your eye on the time, ' said my father, 'you can't wait to get away. Oh, you young people! always sacrificing genuine feelings for suspect attachments!'
'Don't say that, father! Marguerite loves me. I know she does.'
My father did not answer. His manner suggested that he neither believed nor disbelieved me.
He was very insistent that I should spend the entire evening with him so that I would not have to set off again until the following day. But I had left Marguerite feeling ill, said so, and asked his leave to go and join her soon, promising to return the following day.
It was a fine evening. He decided he would accompany me on to the platform. I had never been so happy. The future looked exactly as I had wanted it to look for so long.
I loved my father more than I had ever loved him.
As I was on the point of taking my leave, he pressed me one last time to stay. I refused.
'So you really love her?' he asked.
'In that case, go!' and he put his hand to his brow as though to drive a thought away, and then opened his mouth as if to tell me something. But he simply shook my hand and turned away abruptly, shouting after me:
'I shall see you tomorrow, then!'