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The next day was cold and damp. A fog, so thick that one could not discern objects ten steps off, hung over the earth. Sauvresy, after breakfast, took his gun and whistled to his dogs.
"I'm going to take a turn in Mauprevoir wood," said he.
"A queer idea," remarked Hector, "for you won't see the end of your gun-barrel in the woods."
"No matter, if I see some pheasants."
This was only a pretext, for Sauvresy, on leaving Valfeuillu, took the direct road to Corbeil, and half an hour later, faithful to his promise, he entered the Belle Image tavern.
Jenny was waiting for him in the large room which had always been reserved for her since she became a regular customer of the house. Her eyes were red with recent-tears; she was very pale, and her marble color showed that she had not slept. Her breakfast lay untouched on the table near the fireplace, where a bright fire was burning. When Sauvresy came in, she rose to meet him, and took him by the hand with a friendly motion.
"Thank you for coming," said she. "Ah, you are very good."
Jenny was only a girl, and Sauvresy detested girls; but her grief was so sincere and seemed so deep, that he was touched.
"You are suffering, Madame?" asked he.
"Oh, yes, very much."
Her tears choked her, and she concealed her face in her handkerchief.
"I guessed right," thought Sauvresy. "Hector has deserted her. Now I must smooth the wound, and yet make future meetings between them impossible."
He took the weeping Jenny's hand, and softly pulled away the handkerchief.
"Have courage," said he.
She lifted her tearful eyes to him, and said:
"You know, then?"
"I know nothing, for, as you asked me, I have said nothing to Tremorel; but I can imagine what the trouble is."
"He will not see me any more," murmured Jenny. "He has deserted me."
Sauvresy summoned up all his eloquence. The moment to be persuasive and paternal had come. He drew a chair up to Jenny's, and sat down.
"Come, my child," pursued he, "be resigned. People are not always young, you know. A time comes when the voice of reason must be heard. Hector does not desert you, but he sees the necessity of assuring his future, and placing his life on a domestic foundation; he feels the need of a home."
Jenny stopped crying. Nature took the upper hand, and her tears were dried by the fire of anger which took possession of her. She rose, overturning her chair, and walked restlessly up and down the room.
"Do you believe that?" said she. "Do you believe that Hector troubles himself about his future? I see you don't know his character. He dream of a home, or a family? He never has and never will think of anything but himself. If he had any heart, would he have gone to live with you as he has? He had two arms to gain his bread and mine. I was ashamed to ask money of him, knowing that what he gave me came from you."
"But he is my friend, my dear child."
"Would you do as he has done?"
Sauvresy did not know what to say; he was embarrassed by the logic of this daughter of the people, judging her lover rudely, but justly.
"Ah, I know him, I do," continued Jenny, growing more excited as her mind reverted to the past." He has only deceived me once - the morning he came and told me he was going to kill himself. I was stupid enough to think him dead, and to cry about it. He, kill himself? Why, he's too much of a coward to hurt himself! Yes, I love him, but I don't esteem him. That's our fate, you see, only to love the men we despise."
Jenny talked loud, gesticulating, and every now and then thumping the table with her fist so that the bottles and glasses jingled. Sauvresy was somewhat fearful lest the hotel people should hear her; they knew him, and had seen him come in. He began to be sorry that he had come, and tried to calm the girl.
"But Hector is not deserting you," repeated he. "He will assure you a good position."
"Humph! I should laugh at such a thing! Have I any need of him? As long as I have ten fingers and good eyes, I shall not be at the mercy of any man. He made me change my name, and wanted to accustom me to luxury! And now there is neither a Miss Jenny, nor riches, but there is a Pelagie, who proposes to get her fifty sous a day, without much trouble."
"No," said Sauvresy, "you will not need - "
"What? To work? But I like work; I am not a do-nothing. I will go back to my old life. I used to breakfast on a sou's worth of biscuit and a sou's worth of potatoes, and was well and happy. On Sundays, I dined at the Turk for thirty sous. I laughed more then in one afternoon, than in all the years I have known Tremorel."
She no longer cried, nor was she angry; she was laughing. She was thinking of her old breakfasts, and her feasts at the Turk.
Sauvresy was stupefied. He had no idea of this Parisian nature, detestable and excellent, emotional to excess, nervous, full of transitions, which laughs and cries, caresses and strikes in the same minute, which a passing idea whirls a hundred leagues from the present moment.
"So," said Jenny, more calmly, "I snap my fingers at Hector " - she had just said exactly the contrary, and had forgotten it - " I don't care for him, but I will not let him leave me in this way. It sha'n't be said that he left me for another. I won't have it."
Jenny was one of those women who do not reason, but who feel; with whom it is folly to argue, for their fixed idea is impregnable to the most victorious arguments. Sauvresy asked himself why she had asked him to come, and said to himself that the part he had intended to play would be a difficult one. But he was patient.
"I see, my child," he commenced, "that you haven't understood or even heard me. I told you that Hector was intending to marry."
"He!" answered Jenny, with an ironical gesture. "He get married."
She reflected a moment, and added:
"If it were true, though - "
"I tell you it is so."
"No," cried Jenny, "no, that can't be possible. He loves another, I am sure of it, for I have proofs."
Sauvresy smiled; this irritated her.
"What does this letter mean," cried she warmly, "which I found in his pocket, six months ago? It isn't signed to be sure, but it must have come from a woman."
"Yes, one that destroys all doubts. Perhaps you ask, why I did not speak to him about it? Ah, you see, I did not dare. I loved him. I was afraid if I said anything, and it was true he loved another, I should lose him. And so I resigned myself to humiliation, I concealed myself to weep, for I said to myself, he will come back to me. Poor fool!"
"Well, but what will you do?"
"Me? I don't know - anything. I didn't say anything about the letter, but I kept it; it is my weapon - I will make use of it. When I want to, I shall find out who she is, and then - "
"You will compel Tremorel, who is kindly disposed toward you, to use violence."
"He? What can he do to me? Why, I will follow him like his shadow - I will cry out everywhere the name of this other. Will he have me put in St. Lazare prison? I will invent the most dreadful calumnies against him. They will not believe me at first; later, part of it will be believed. I have nothing to fear - I have no parents, no friends, nobody on earth who cares for me. That's what it is to raise girls from the gutter. I have fallen so low that I defy him to push me lower. So, if you are his friend, sir, advise him to come back to me."
Sauvresy was really alarmed; he saw clearly how real and earnest Jenny's menaces were. There are persecutions against which the law is powerless. But he dissimulated his alarm under the blandest air he could assume.
"Hear me, my child," said he. "If I give you my word of honor to tell you the truth, you'll believe me, won't you?"
She hesitated a moment, and said:
"Yes, you are honorable; I will believe you."
"Then, I swear to you that Tremorel hopes to marry a young girl who is immensely rich, whose dowry will secure his future."
"He tells you so; he wants you to believe it."
"Why should he? Since he came to Valfeuillu, he could have had no other affair than this with you. He lives in my house, as if he were my brother, between my wife and myself, and I could tell you how he spends his time every hour of every day as well as what I do myself."
Jenny opened her mouth to reply, but a sudden reflection froze the words on her lips. She remained silent and blushed violently, looking at Sauvresy with an indefinable expression. He did not observe this, being inspired by a restless though aimless curiosity. This proof, which Jenny talked about, worried him.
"Suppose," said he, "you should show me this letter."
She seemed to feel at these words an electric shock.
"To you?" she said, shuddering. "Never!"
If, when one is sleeping, the thunder rolls and the storm bursts, it often happens that the sleep is not troubled; then suddenly, at a certain moment, the imperceptible flutter of a passing insect's wing awakens one.
Jenny's shudder was like such a fluttering to Sauvresy. The sinister light of doubt struck on his soul. Now his confidence, his happiness, his repose, were gone forever. He rose with a flashing eye and trembling lips.
"Give me the letter," said he, in an imperious tone. Jenny recoiled with terror. She tried to conceal her agitation, to smile, to turn the matter into a joke.
"Not to-day," said she. "Another time; you are too curious."
But Sauvresy's anger was terrible; he became as purple as if he had had a stroke of apoplexy, and he repeated, in a choking voice:
"The letter, I demand the letter."
"Impossible," said Jenny. "Because," she added, struck with an idea, " I haven't got it here."
"Where is it?"
"At my room, in Paris."
"Come, then, let us go there."
She saw that she was caught; and she could find no more excuses, quick-witted as she was. She might, however, easily have followed Sauvresy, put his suspicions to sleep with her gayety, and when once in the Paris streets, might have eluded him and fled. But she did not think of that. It occurred to her that she might have time to reach the door, open it, and rush downstairs. She started to do so. Sauvresy caught her at a bound, shut the door, and said, in a low, hoarse voice:
"Wretched girl! Do you wish me to strike you?"
He pushed her into a chair, returned to the door, double locked it, and put the keys in his pocket. Now," said he, returning to the girl, "the letter."
Jenny had never been so terrified in her life. This man's rage made her tremble; she saw that he was beside himself, that she was completely at his mercy; yet she still resisted him.
"You have hurt me very much," said she, crying, "but I have done you no harm."
He grasped her hands in his, and bending over her, repeated:
"For the last time, the letter; give it to me, or I will take it by force."
It would have been folly to resist longer. "Leave me alone," said she. "You shall have it."
He released her, remaining, however, close by her side, while she searched in all her pockets. Her hair had been loosened in the struggle, her collar was torn, she was tired, her teeth chattered, but her eyes shone with a bold resolution.
"Wait - here it is - no. It's odd - I am sure I've got it though - I had it a minute ago - "
And, suddenly, with a rapid gesture, she put the letter, rolled into a ball, into her mouth, and tried to swallow it. But Sauvresy as quickly grasped her by the throat, and she was forced to disgorge it.
He had the letter at last. His hands trembled so that he could scarcely open it.
It was, indeed, Bertha's writing.
Sauvresy tottered with a horrible sensation of dizziness; he could not see clearly; there was a red cloud before his eyes; his legs gave way under him, he staggered, and his hands stretched out for a support. Jenny, somewhat recovered, hastened to give him help; but her touch made him shudder, and he repulsed her. What had happened he could not tell. Ah, he wished to read this letter and could not. He went to the table, turned out and drank two large glasses of water one after another. The cold draught restored him, his blood resumed its natural course, and he could see. The note was short, and this was what he read:
" Don't go to-morrow to Petit-Bourg; or rather, return before breakfast. He has just told me that he must go to Melun, and that he should return late. A whole day!"
"He" - that was himself. This other lover of Hector's was Bertha, his wife. For a moment he saw nothing but that; all thought was crushed within him. His temples beat furiously, he heard a dreadful buzzing in his ears, it seemed to him as if the earth were about to swallow him up. He fell into a chair; from purple he became ashy white. Great tears trickled down his cheeks.
Jenny understood the miserable meanness of her conduct when she saw this great grief, this silent despair, this man with a broken heart. Was she not the cause of all? She had guessed who the writer of the note was. She thought when she asked Sauvresy to come to her, that she could tell him all, and thus avenge herself at once upon Hector and her rival. Then, on seeing this man refusing to comprehend her hints, she had been full of pity for him. She had said to herself that he would be the one who would be most cruelly punished; and then she had recoiled - but too late - and he had snatched the secret from her.
She approached Sauvresy and tried to take his hands; he still repulsed her.
"Let me alone," said he.
Pardon me, sir - I am a wretch, I am horrified at myself."
He rose suddenly; he was gradually coming to himself.
"What do you want?"
"That letter - I guessed - "
He burst into a loud, bitter, discordant laugh, and replied:
God forgive me! Why, my dear, did you dare to suspect my wife?"
While Jenny was muttering confused excuses, he drew out his pocket-book and took from it all the money it contained - some seven or eight hundred francs - which he put on the table.
"Take this, from Hector," said he, "he will not permit you to suffer for anything; but, believe me, you had best let him get married."
Then he mechanically took up his gun, opened the door, and went out. His dogs leaped upon him to caress him; he kicked them off. Where was he going? What was he going to do?
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