The two young women appear to be buried under a blanket of flowers. They are alone in the immense landau, which is filled with flowers like a giant basket. On the front seat are two small hampers of white satin filled with violets, and on the bearskin by which their knees are covered there is a mass of roses, mimosas, pinks, daisies, tuberoses and orange blossoms, interwoven with silk ribbons; the two frail bodies seem buried under this beautiful perfumed bed, which hides everything but the shoulders and arms and a little of the dainty waists.
The coachman's whip is wound with a garland of anemones, the horses' traces are dotted with carnations, the spokes of the wheels are clothed in mignonette, and where the lanterns ought to be are two enormous round bouquets which look as though they were the eyes of this strange, rolling, flower-bedecked creature.
The landau drives rapidly along the road, through the Rue d'Antibes, preceded, followed, accompanied, by a crowd of other carriages covered with flowers, full of women almost hidden by a sea of violets. It is the flower carnival at Cannes.
The carriage reaches the Boulevard de la Fonciere, where the battle is waged. All along the immense avenue a double row of flower-bedecked vehicles are going and coming like an endless ribbon. Flowers are thrown from one to the other. They pass through the air like balls, striking fresh faces, bouncing and falling into the dust, where an army of youngsters pick them up.
A thick crowd is standing on the sidewalks looking on and held in check by the mounted police, who pass brutally along pushing back the curious pedestrians as though to prevent the common people from mingling with the rich.
In the carriages, people call to each other, recognize each other and bombard each other with roses. A chariot full of pretty women, dressed in red, like devils, attracts the eyes of all. A gentleman, who looks like the portraits of Henry IV., is throwing an immense bouquet which is held back by an elastic. Fearing the shock, the women hide their eyes and the men lower their heads, but the graceful, rapid and obedient missile describes a curve and returns to its master, who immediately throws it at some new face.
The two young women begin to throw their stock of flowers by handfuls, and receive a perfect hail of bouquets; then, after an hour of warfare, a little tired, they tell the coachman to drive along the road which follows the seashore.
The sun disappears behind Esterel, outlining the dark, rugged mountain against the sunset sky. The clear blue sea, as calm as a mill-pond, stretches out as far as the horizon, where it blends with the sky; and the fleet, anchored in the middle of the bay, looks like a herd of enormous beasts, motionless on the water, apocalyptic animals, armored and hump-backed, their frail masts looking like feathers, and with eyes which light up when evening approaches.
The two young women, leaning back under the heavy robes, look out lazily over the blue expanse of water. At last one of them says:
"How delightful the evenings are! How good everything seems! Don't you think so, Margot?"
"Yes, it is good. But there is always something lacking."
"What is lacking? I feel perfectly happy. I don't need anything else."
"Yes, you do. You are not thinking of it. No matter how contented we may be, physically, we always long for something more—for the heart."
The other asked with a smile:
"A little love?"
They stopped talking, their eyes fastened on the distant horizon, then the one called Marguerite murmured: "Life without that seems to me unbearable. I need to be loved, if only by a dog. But we are all alike, no matter what you may say, Simone."
"Not at all, my dear. I had rather not be loved at all than to be loved by the first comer. Do you think, for instance, that it would be pleasant to be loved by—by—"
She was thinking by whom she might possibly be loved, glancing across the wide landscape. Her eyes, after traveling around the horizon, fell on the two bright buttons which were shining on the back of the coachman's livery, and she continued, laughing: "by my coachman?"
Madame Margot barely smiled, and said in a low tone of voice:
"I assure you that it is very amusing to be loved by a servant. It has happened to me two or three times. They roll their eyes in such a funny manner—it's enough to make you die laughing! Naturally, the more in love they are, the more severe one must be with them, and then, some day, for some reason, you dismiss them, because, if anyone should notice it, you would appear so ridiculous."
Madame Simone was listening, staring straight ahead of her, then she remarked:
"No, I'm afraid that my footman's heart would not satisfy me. Tell me how you noticed that they loved you."
"I noticed it the same way that I do with other men—when they get stupid."
"The others don't seem stupid to me, when they love me."
"They are idiots, my dear, unable to talk, to answer, to understand anything."
"But how did you feel when you were loved by a servant? Were you—moved—flattered?"
"Moved? no, flattered—yes a little. One is always flattered to be loved by a man, no matter who he may be."
"Yes, indeed, my dear! For instance, I will tell you of a peculiar incident which happened to me. You will see how curious and complex our emotions are, in such cases.
"About four years ago I happened to be without a maid. I had tried five or six, one right after the other, and I was about ready to give up in despair, when I saw an advertisement in a newspaper of a young girl knowing how to cook, embroider, dress hair, who was looking for a position and who could furnish the best of references. Besides all these accomplishments, she could speak English.
"I wrote to the given address, and the next day the person in question presented herself. She was tall, slender, pale, shy-looking. She had beautiful black eyes and a charming complexion; she pleased me immediately. I asked for her certificates; she gave me one in English, for she came, as she said, from Lady Rymwell's, where she had been for ten years.
"The certificate showed that the young girl had left of her own free will, in order to return to France, and the only thing which they had had to find fault in her during her long period of service was a little French coquettishness.
"This prudish English phrase even made me smile, and I immediately engaged this maid.
"She came to me the same day. Her name was Rose.
"At the end of a month I would have been helpless without her. She was a treasure, a pearl, a phenomenon.
"She could dress my hair with infinite taste; she could trim a hat better than most milliners, and she could even make my dresses.
"I was astonished at her accomplishments. I had never before been waited on in such a manner.
"She dressed me rapidly and with a surprisingly light touch. I never felt her fingers on my skin, and nothing is so disagreeable to me as contact with a servant's hand. I soon became excessively lazy; it was so pleasant to be dressed from head to foot, and from lingerie to gloves, by this tall, timid girl, always blushing a little, and never saying a word. After my bath she would rub and massage me while I dozed a little on my couch; I almost considered her more of a friend than a servant.
"One morning the janitor asked, mysteriously, to speak to me. I was surprised, and told him to come in. He was a good, faithful man, an old soldier, one of my husband's former orderlies.
"He seemed to be embarrassed by what he had to say to me. At last he managed to mumble:
"'Madame, the superintendent of police is downstairs.'
"I asked quickly:
"'What does he wish?'
"'He wishes to search the house.'
"Of course the police are useful, but I hate them. I do not think that it is a noble profession. I answered, angered and hurt:
"'Why this search? For what reason? He shall not come in.'
"The janitor continued:
"'He says that there is a criminal hidden in the house.'
"This time I was frightened and I told him to bring the inspector to me, so that I might get some explanation. He was a man with good manners and decorated with the Legion of Honor. He begged my pardon for disturbing me, and then informed me that I had, among my domestics, a convict.
"I was shocked; and I answered that I could guarantee every servant in the house, and I began to enumerate them.
"'The janitor, Pierre Courtin, an old soldier.'
"'It's not he.'
"'A stable-boy, son of farmers whom I know, and a groom whom you have just seen.'
"'It's not he.'
"'Then, monsieur, you see that you must be mistaken.'
"'Excuse me, madame, but I am positive that I am not making a mistake.
"As the conviction of a notable criminal is at stake, would you be so kind as to send for all your servants?"
"At first I refused, but I finally gave in, and sent downstairs for everybody, men and women.
"The inspector glanced at them and then declared:
"'This isn't all.'
"'Excuse me, monsieur, there is no one left but my maid, a young girl whom you could not possibly mistake for a convict.'
"'May I also see her?'
"I rang for Rose, who immediately appeared. She had hardly entered the room, when the inspector made a motion, and two men whom I had not seen, hidden behind the door, sprang forward, seized her and tied her hands behind her back.
"I cried out in anger and tried to rush forward to defend her. The inspector stopped me:
"'This girl, madame, is a man whose name is Jean Nicolas Lecapet, condemned to death in 1879 for assaulting a woman and injuring her so that death resulted. His sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life. He escaped four months ago. We have been looking for him ever since.'
"I was terrified, bewildered. I did not believe him. The commissioner continued, laughing:
"'I can prove it to you. His right arm is tattooed.'
"'The sleeve was rolled up. It was true. The inspector added, with bad taste:
"'You can trust us for the other proofs.'
"And they led my maid away!
"Well, would you believe me, the thing that moved me most was not anger at having thus been played upon, deceived and made ridiculous, it was not the shame of having thus been dressed and undressed, handled and touched by this man—but a deep humiliation—a woman's humiliation. Do you understand?"
"I am afraid I don't."
"Just think—this man had been condemned for—for assaulting a woman. Well! I thought of the one whom he had assaulted—and—and I felt humiliated—There! Do you understand now?"
Madame Margot did not answer. She was looking straight ahead, her eyes fastened on the two shining buttons of the livery, with that sphinx-like smile which women sometimes have.