(Same setting as in Act I.)
(Monsieur de Petitpré, Mme. de Ronchard, M. Martinel, and Léon.)
MME. DE RONCHARD [walks about in an agitated manner]
Seven minutes to midnight! It is nearly two hours since Jean left us!
LEON [seated L.]
But, my dear Aunt, just allow a half hour in the carriage for going and a half hour for returning, and there remains just one hour for the business he had to attend to.
Was it so very long, then—the business that called him hence?
Yes, my dear Aunt; and now, why worry yourself by counting the minutes?
Your agitation will change nothing in the end, and will not hasten
Jean's return by a single second, or make the hands of the clock move
How can you ask me not to worry when my mind is full of anxiety, when my heart is beating, and I feel the tears rising into my eyes?
But, my dear Aunt, you know very well you do not feel as badly as that.
Oh, you irritate me!
MARTINEL [seated near the table]
Don't torment yourself, Madame. True, the situation is a rather delicate one, but it need not disquiet you or frighten us, if we know how to bring to its consideration at this moment coolness and reason.
Just so, my dear Aunt, Monsieur Martinel speaks truly.
MME. DE RONCHARD [crosses R.]
You ought to be beaten, you two! You know everything, and won't tell anything. How annoying men are! There is never any means of making them tell a secret.
Jean will come presently and will tell you everything. Have a little patience.
Yes; let us be calm. Let us talk of other things, or be silent, if we can.
Be silent! That is about, the most difficult thing—
A SERVANT [enters R.]
A gentleman wishes to see M. Martinel.
Pardon me for a moment. [To the servant.] Very well, I am coming. [Exit R.]
MME. DE RONCHARD [approaches servant quickly]
Baptiste, Baptiste! Who is asking for M. Martinel?
I do not know, Madame. It was the hall porter who came upstairs.
Well, run now and look without showing yourself, and come back and tell us at once.
PETITPRÉ [who has risen at the entrance of the servant]
No, I will permit no spying; let us wait. We shall not have to wait long now. [To the servant.] You may go. [Exit servant.]
MME. DE RONCHARD [to Petitpré]
I do not understand you at all. You are absolutely calm. One would think that your daughter's happiness was nothing to you. For myself, I am profoundly agitated.
That will do no good. [Sits near the table R.] Let us talk—talk reasonably, now that we are a family party and Monsieur Martinel is absent.
MME. DE RONCHARD [Sits R.]
If that man would only go back to Havre!
LÉON [Sits L. of table]
That would not change anything even if he could go back to Havre.
For my part, I think—
MME. DE RONCHARD [interrupts]
Do you wish to hear my opinion? Well, I think that they are preparing us for some unpleasant surprise; that they wish to entrap us, as one might say.
But why? In whose interest? Jean Martinel is an honest man, and he loves my child. Léon, whose judgment I admire, although he is my son—
Thank you, father!
Léon bears Jean as much affection as esteem. As to the uncle—
Don't talk about them, I pray. It is this woman who is seeking to entrap us. She has played some little comedy, and she chooses to-day above all others for its dénouement. It is her stage climax; her masterpiece of treachery.
As in "The Ambigu."
Do not laugh. I know these women. I have suffered enough at their hands.
Oh, my poor Clarisse; if you really understood them, you would have held your husband better than you did.
MME. DE RONCHARD [rises]
What do you mean by "understanding" them? Pardon me—to live with that roisterer coming in upon me when and whence he pleased—I prefer my broken life and my loneliness—with you!
No doubt you are right from your point of view of a married woman; but there are other points of view, perhaps less selfish and certainly superior, such as that of family interest.
Of family interest, indeed? Do you mean to say that I was wrong from the point of view of the family interest—you, a magistrate!
My duties as a magistrate have made me very prudent, for I have seen pass under my eyes many equivocal and terrible situations, which not only agonized my conscience but gave me many cruel hours of indecision. Man is often so little responsible and circumstances are often so powerful. Our impenetrable nature is so capricious, our instincts are so mysterious that we must be tolerant and even indulgent in the presence of faults which are not really crimes, and which exhibit nothing vicious or abandoned in the man himself.
So, then, to deceive one's wife is not deceitful, and you say such a thing before your son? Truly, a pretty state of affairs! [Crosses L.]
Oh, I have my opinion also about that, my dear Aunt.
It is not almost a crime,—it is one. But it is looked upon to-day as so common a thing that one scarcely punishes it at all. It is punished by divorce, which is a house of refuge for most men. The law prefers to separate them with decency—timidly, rather than drag them apart as in former times.
Your learned theories are revolting, and I wish—
Ah, here is Monsieur Martinel.
(The same, and Monsieur Martinel.)
MARTINEL [with great emotion]
I come to fulfill an exceedingly difficult task. Jean, who has gone to his own house, before daring to present himself here, has sent Doctor Pellerin to me. I am commissioned by him to make you acquainted with the sad position in which Jean finds himself,—in which we all find ourselves.
Ah, ha! Now, I am going to learn something!
By a letter which you will read presently, we have learned this evening, in this house, of a new misfortune. A woman of whose existence you are all aware was at the point of death.
Did I not predict that she would do just this thing?
Let M. Martinel speak, my dear Aunt.
And now that this woman has seen him, how does she feel—his dying patient? Better, without a doubt?
She died, Madame, died before his eyes.
Died this evening! Impossible!
Nevertheless, it is so, Madame.
Poor little Musotte!
There is a serious thing to be considered here. This woman left a child, and that child's father is Jean.
MME. DE RONCHARD [stupefied]
MARTINEL [to Petitpré]
Read the physician's letter, Monsieur. [Hands Petitpré the letter, and Petitpré reads it.]
He had a child and he has never confessed it; has never said anything about it; has hidden it from us! What infamy!
He would have told you in due time.
He would have told! That is altogether too strong—you are mocking us!
But, my dear Aunt, let my father answer. I shall go and find Gilberte. She will be dying of anxiety. We have no right to hide the truth from her any longer. I am going to acquaint her with it.
MME. DE RONCHARD [accompanying him to the door]
You have a pleasant task, but you will not succeed in arranging matters.
LÉON [at door L.]
In any case I shall not embroil them with each other as you would.
(Petitpré, Martinel, and Madame de Ronchard.)
PETITPRÉ [who has finished reading the letter]
Then, Martinel, you say that your nephew was ignorant of the situation of this woman.
Upon my honor.
It is incredible.
I will answer you in a word. If my nephew had known of this situation, would he have done what he has this evening?
Explain yourself more clearly.
It is very simple. If he had known sooner of the danger this woman was in, do you think that he would have waited until the last moment, and have chosen this very evening—this supreme moment—to say good-bye to this poor, dying woman, and to reveal to you the existence of his illegitimate son? No, men hide these unfortunate children when and how they please. You know that as well as I, Monsieur. To run the risk of throwing us all into such a state of emotion and threatening his own future, as he has done, it would seem that Jean must be a madman, and he is by no means that. Had he known sooner of this situation, do you think that he would not have confided in me, and that I would have been so stupid—yes, I—as not to avert this disaster? Why, I tell you it is as clear as day.
MME. DE RONCHARD [agitated, walks to and fro rapidly L.]
Clear as the day—clear as the day!
Yes, indeed. If we had not received this piece of news as a bomb which destroys the power of reflection, if we could have taken time to reason the thing out, to make plans, we could have hidden everything from you, and the devil would have been in it before you would have known anything! Our fault has been that of being too sincere and too loyal. Yet, I do not regret it; it is always better to act openly in life.
Permit me, Monsieur—
Silence, Clarisse. [To Martinel.] Be it so, Monsieur. There is no question of your honor or of your loyalty, which have been absolutely patent in this unfortunate affair. I willingly admit that your nephew knew nothing of the situation, but how about the child? What is there to prove that it is Jean's?
Jean alone can prove or disprove that. He believes it, and you know that it is not to his interest to believe it. There is nothing very joyful about such a complication—a poor, little foundling thrusting himself upon one like a thunderbolt, without warning, and upon the very evening of one's marriage. But Jean believes that the child is his, and I—and all of us—must we not accept it as he has accepted it, as the child's father has accepted it? Come, now. [A short silence.] You ask me to prove to you that this child belongs to Jean?
MME. DE RONCHARD AND PETITPRÉ [together]
Then first prove to me that it is not Jean's child.
You ask an impossibility.
And so do you. The principal judge in the matter, look you, is my nephew himself. We others can do nothing but accept his decision.
Silence, Clarisse. Monsieur Martinel is right.
MME. DE RONCHARD [ironically]
Say that again.
There can be no better reason, Madame. [To Petitpré.] I was quite sure that you would understand me, Monsieur, for you are a man of sense.
And what am I, then?
You are a woman of the world, Madame.
And it is exactly as a woman of the world that I protest, Monsieur. You have a very pretty way of putting things, but none the less this is a fact: Jean Martinel brings to his bride, as a nuptial present, on the day of his marriage, an illegitimate child. Well, I ask you, woman of the world or not, can she accept such a thing?
My sister is in the right this time, Monsieur Martinel.
And by no means too soon.
It is evident that a situation exists patent and undeniable, which places us in an awkward dilemma. We have wedded our daughter to a man supposedly free from all ties and all complications in life, and then comes—what you know has come. The consequences should be endured by him, not by us. We have been wounded and deceived in our confidence, and the consent that we have given to this marriage we should certainly have refused, had we known the actual circumstances.
We should have refused? I should say so—not only once, but twice. Besides, this child, if Jean brings it into the house, will certainly be a cause of trouble among us all. Consider, Gilberte will probably become a mother in her turn, and then what jealousies, what rivalries, what hatred, perhaps, will arise between this intruder and her own children. This child will be a veritable apple of discord.
Oh, no, no! he will not be a burden to anyone. Thanks to Jean's liberality, this child's mother will have left him enough to live comfortably, and, later, when he has become a man, he will travel, no doubt. He will do as I have done; as nine-tenths of the human race do.
Well, until then, who will take care of it?
I, if it is agreeable. I am a free man, retired from business; and it will give me something to do, something to distract me. I am ready to take him with me at once, the poor little thing—[looks at Mme. de Ronchard] unless Madame, who is so fond of saving lost dogs—
That child! I! Oh, that would be a piece of foolishness.
Yet, Madame, if you care to have him, I will yield my right most willingly.
But Monsieur, I never said—
Not as yet, true, but perhaps you will say it before very long, for I am beginning to understand you. You are an assumed man-hater and nothing else. You have been unhappy in your married life and that has embittered you—just as milk may turn upon its surface, but at the bottom of the churn there is butter of fine quality.
MME. DE RONCHARD [frowns]
What a comparison!—milk—butter—pshaw! how vulgar!
Here is your daughter.
(The same, and Gilberte and Leon who enter L.)
PETITPRÉ [approaches Gilberte]
Before seeing your husband again, if you decide to see him, it is necessary that we should decide exactly what you are going to say to him.
GILBERTE [greatly moved, sits L. of table]
I knew it was some great misfortune.
MARTINEL [sits beside her]
Yes, my child; but there are two kinds of misfortune—those that come from the faults of men, and those that spring purely from the hazards of fate; that is to say, destiny. In the first case, the man is guilty; in the second case, he is a victim. Do you understand me?
A misfortune of which some one person is the victim can also wound another person very cruelly. But will not the heart of this second wounded and altogether innocent, person bestow a pardon upon the involuntary author of her disaster?
GILBERTE [in a sad voice]
That depends upon the suffering which she undergoes.
MARTINEL Meanwhile, you knew that before Jean loved you, before he conceived the idea of marrying you, he had—an intrigue. You accepted the fact as one which had nothing exceptional about it.
I did accept it.
And now your brother may tell you the rest.
What shall I say to Jean?
I am too much agitated to tell you yet. This woman, of whom I did not think at all, whose very existence was a matter of indifference to me—her death has frightened me. It seems that she has come between Jean and me, and will always remain there. Everything that I have heard of her prophesies this estrangement. But you knew her—this woman did you not, Monsieur?
Yes, Madame, and I can say nothing but good of her. Your brother and I have always looked upon her as irreproachable in her fidelity to Jean. She loved him with a pure, devoted, absolute, and lasting affection. I speak as a man who has deplored deeply this intrigue, for I look upon myself as a father to Jean, but we must try to be just to everyone.
And did Jean love her very much, too?
Oh, yes, certainly he did, but his love began to wane. Between them there was too much of a moral and social distance. He lived with her, however, drawn to her by the knowledge of the deep and tender affection which she bestowed upon him.
And Jean went to see her die?
He had just time to say farewell to her.
GILBERTE [to herself]
If I could only tell what passed between them at that moment! Ah, this wretched death is worse for me than if she were alive!
MME. DE RONCHARD [rises R. and goes up stage]
I really do not understand you, my dear. The woman has died—so much the better for you. May God deliver you from all such!
No, my dear Aunt; the feeling I have just now is so painful that I would sooner know her to be far away than to know her dead.
PETITPRÉ [comes down]
Yes, I admit that is the sentiment of a woman moved by a horrible catastrophe; but there is one grave complication in the matter—that of the child. Whatever may be done with it, he will none the less be the son of my son-in-law and a menace to us all.
And a subject for ridicule. See what the world will say of us in a little while.
Leave the world to itself, my dear Aunt, and let us occupy ourselves with our own business. [Goes to Gilberte.] Now, Gilberte, is it the idea of the child that moves you so deeply?
Oh, no,—the poor little darling!
Such is the foolishness of women who know nothing of life.
Well, father, why, if we have so many different views,—according as we are spectators or actors in the course of events,—why is there so much difference between the life of the imagination and the actual life; between that which one ought to do; that which you would that others should do, and that which you do yourself. Yes, what has happened is very painful; but the surprise of the event, its coincidence with the nuptial day makes it still more painful. We magnify—everything in our emotion, when it is ourselves that misfortune touches. Suppose, for a moment, that you had read this in your daily newspaper—
MME. DE RONCHARD [seated L. of table, indignantly]
In my daily newspaper!
Or in a romance. What emotion we should feel; what tears we should shed! How your sympathy would quickly go out to the poor little child whose birth was attained at the cost of his mother's life! How Jean would go up in your esteem; how frank, how loyal, how stanch in his fealty you would consider him; while, on the other hand, if he had deserted the dying woman, and had spirited away the little one into some distant village, you would not have had enough scorn for him, or enough insults for him. You would look upon him as a being without heart and without fear; and, you, my dear Aunt, thinking of the innumerable little bad dogs who owe you their lives, you would cry out with forcible gestures: "What a miserable scoundrel!"
MARTINEL [seated L.]
That's perfectly true.
Dogs are worth more than men.
Little children are not men, my dear Aunt. They have not had time to become bad.
All that is very ingenious, Leon, and your special pleading is magnificent.
Yes, if you would only plead like that at the Palais.
But this has nothing to do with a romance or with imaginary personages. We have married Gilberte to a young man in the ordinary conditions of life.
Without enthusiasm, it is true, but nevertheless they are married, just the same. Now, on the evening of his nuptials, he brings us a present—I must say I do not care for a present which bawls.
What does that prove, unless it is that your son-in-law is a brave man? What he has just done—risked his happiness in order to accomplish his duty—does it not say better than anything else could, how capable of devotion he is?
Clear as the day.
MME. DE RONCHARD [aside]
And this man from Havre admires him!
Then you maintain that Gilberte, on the day, of her entry upon married life, should become the adopted mother of the son of her husband's mistress?
Exactly; just as I maintain all that is honorable and disinterested. And you would think as I do if the thing did not concern your daughter.
No; it is an inexcusable situation.
Well, then, what do you propose to do?
Well, nothing less than a divorce. The scandal of this night is sufficient.
MME. DE RONCHARD [rises]
Gilberte divorced! You don't dream of that, do you? Have all our friends closing their doors on her, the greater part of her relatives lost to her! Divorced! Come, come! in spite of your new law, that has not yet come into our custom and shall not come in so soon. Religion forbids it; the world accepts it only under protest; and when you have against you both religion and the world—
But statistics prove—
Pshaw! Statistics! You can make them say what you wish. No, no divorce for Gilberte. [In a soft, low voice.] Simply a legal separation—that is admissible, at least, and it is good form. Let them separate. I am separated—all fashionable people separate, and everything goes all right, but as to divorce—
It seems to me that only one person has a right to speak in this matter, and we are forgetting her too long. [Turns to Gilberte.] You have heard everything, Gilberte; you are mistress of your own judgment and of your decision. Upon a word from you depend either pardon or rupture. My father has made his argument. What does your heart say? [Gilberte tries to speak, but stops and breaks down.] Think always that in refusing to pardon Jean you wound me, and if I see you unhappy from your determination to say no, I shall suffer exceedingly. Monsieur Martinel asks from you at once an answer for Jean. Let us do better. I will go and find him. It is from your lips; it is, above all, in your eyes, that he will learn his fate. [Brings her gently to the front of the stage.] My little sister, my. dear little sister, don't be too proud; don't be too haughty! Listen to that which your chagrin murmurs in your soul. Listen well, but do not mistake it for pride.
But I have no pride. I do not know how I feel. I am ill. My joy has been blighted, and it poisons me.
Take care! It takes so little in such moments as these to make wounds which are incurable.
No, no! I am too much distressed. Perhaps I shall be hard, for I am afraid of him and of myself. I am afraid of breaking off everything, or of yielding everything.
I am going to find Jean.
No, I do not wish to see him. I forbid it!
Let me tell you something, my little Gilberte: You are less intelligent than I thought.
Because in such moments as these it is necessary to say yes or no at once. [Jean appears at door R.]
(The same, and Jean Martinel standing at door R.)
GILBERTE [with a stifled cry]
It is he!
LÉON [goes up to Jean and taking him by the hand]
I am like a prisoner awaiting the decision of his judges—whether it be acquittal or death. The moments through which I have just passed I shall never forget.
Your uncle and I have said all that we had to say. Now speak for yourself.
I do not know how. It must be to my wife alone. I dare not speak before you all. I ask but a moment. After that I go, and I shall leave the house if my wife's attitude indicates that I ought. I shall do exactly what she would have me. I shall become that which she may order. But I must hear from her own lips her decision as to my life. [To Gilberte.] You cannot refuse me that, Madame. It is the only prayer that I shall ever make to you, I swear, if this request to you remains ungranted. [They stand face to face and look at each other.]
No, I cannot refuse you. Father, Aunt, please leave me alone for a few minutes with Monsieur Martinel. You can see that I am perfectly calm.
JEAN [determinedly to M. Petitpré]
Monsieur, I shall not gainsay your will in anything. I shall do nothing without your approval. I have not returned here to contest your authority or to speak of rights; but I respectfully ask permission to remain alone a few minutes with—my wife! Consider that this is perhaps our last interview and that our future depends upon it.
It is solely the future of Gilberte which concerns me.
JEAN [to Mme. de Ronchard]
I appeal simply to your heart, Madame; your heart, which has suffered. Do not forget that your irritation and your bitterness against me come from the misfortune that another man has inflicted upon you. Your life has been broken by him. Do not wish the same for me. You have been unhappy; married scarcely a year. [Points to Gilberte.] Will you say that she shall be married scarcely a day, and that later she shall talk of her broken life—ceaselessly guarding in her mind the memory of this evening's disaster? [At a movement of Mme. de Ronchard.] I know you to be kind, although you deny it, and I promise you, Madame, that if I remain Gilberte's husband, I shall love you as a son, as a son worthy of you.
MME. DE RONCHARD [very much moved]
A son! He has stirred me deeply! [Whispers to Petitpré.] Come away, let us leave them alone. [Embraces Gilberte.]
PETITPRÉ [to Jean]
Well, so be it, Monsieur. [Rises and exit C., offering his arm to
Mme. de Ronchard.]
MARTINEL [to Léon]
They are going to talk with that [touches his heart]; it is the only true eloquence.
[Exit with Léon C.]
You know all, do you not?
Yes. And I have been deeply wounded.
I hope you do not accuse me of lying or of any other dissimulation.
Do you blame me for having left you this evening?
I blame no one who does his duty.
You did not know this woman—and she is dead.
It is just because she is dead that she troubles me thus.
Impossible; you must have another reason. [With hesitation.] The child?
No, no! don't deceive yourself. The poor little darling! it is not his fault. No, I suffer from something which is peculiar to myself, which can come only from me, and which I cannot confess to you. It is a sorrow deep in my heart, so keen, when I felt it spring to birth under the words of my brother and your uncle, that, should I ever experience it again when living with you as your wife, I should never be able to dispel it.
What is it?
I cannot tell it. [Sits L.]
Listen to me. It is necessary that at this moment there should not be between us the shadow of a misunderstanding. All our life depends upon it. You are my wife, but I admit that you are absolutely free after what has happened. I will do as you wish. I am ready to agree to everything you desire, even to a divorce if you demand it. But what will happen to me after that I do not know, for I love you so that the thought of losing you after winning you will throw me mercilessly into some desperate resolve. [Sees Gilberte moved.] I do not seek to soften you, to move you—I simply tell you the naked truth. I feel, and I have felt during the whole night, through all the shocks and horrible emotions of the drama that has just been enacted, that you hold for me the keenest wound. If you banish me now, I am a lost man.
GILBERTE [much moved]
Do you really love me as much as that?
With a love that I feel is ineffaceable.
Did you love her?
I did indeed love her. I experienced a tender attachment for a gentle and devoted girl. [In a low voice, with passion.] Listen: that which I am going to tell you is unworthy, perhaps infamous, but I am only a human being, feeble as anyone else. Well, just now, in the presence of this poor, dying girl, my eyes were filled with tears and my sobs choked me—all my being vibrated with sorrow; but at the bottom of my soul, in the depths of my being, I thought only of you.
GILBERTE [rises quickly]
Do you mean that?
I cannot lie to you.
Well, do you know what made me suffer just now when my brother told me of this intrigue and death? I can tell it to you now. I was jealous! It was unworthy of me, wasn't it? Jealous of this poor, dead woman! But he spoke so well of her as to move me, and I felt that she loved you so much that you might find me perhaps indifferent and cold after her, and that hurt me so! I had so much fear of experiencing that that I thought of renouncing you.
And now?—Gilberte! Gilberte!
GILBERTE [extends her hands]
I am here, Jean! take me!
Ah, how grateful I am. [Kisses her hands; then immediately after, with emotion.] But here another anguish seizes me. I have promised this poor woman to take and cherish this child in my own home. [Gilberte makes a movement.] That is not all. Do you know what her last thought, her last prayer was? She entreated me to commend the child to you.
To you, Gilberte.
GILBERTE [profoundly moved]
She did this, the poor woman? Did she believe that I would take—
She hoped it, and in that hope her death was made easier.
GILBERTE [in exalted mood, crosses R.]
Yes, I will take it! where is it?
At my house.
At your house? You must go to it immediately.
What! leave you now, at this moment?
We will go together, since I was to have accompanied you to your house this evening.
Oh, Gilberte! But your father will not let us go.
Well, do you know what we must do, since my packing is finished, and my maid awaits me at your house? You must carry me off.
Carry you off?
Give me my cloak and let us go. All can be explained tomorrow. [Shows the cloak that she had left upon the chair in the first act.] My cloak, please.
JEAN [picks up the cloak quickly and throws it over her shoulders]
You are the most adorable creature! [Gilberte takes his arm and they go toward door R.]
(Enter Mme. de Ronchard, M. Petitpré, M. Martinel, and Léon C.)
Well, what are they doing? Are they going away now?
Why, what does it mean?
Yes; father, I am going away. I am going with my husband; but I shall be here to-morrow to ask pardon for this hurried flight, and to explain to you the reason for it.
Were you going without saying good-bye to us—without embracing us?
Yes, in order to avoid more discussions.
She is right. Let them go.
GILBERTE [throws herself upon Petitpré's neck]
Till to-morrow, father; till to-morrow, my dear Aunt. Good night, all; I have had enough of emotion and fatigue.
MME. DE RONCHARD [goes to Gilberte and embraces her]
Yes, run along, darling—there is a little one over there who waits for a mother!