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- THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD - 30/39 -
Maitre Mouche and Mademoiselle Prefere discourse upon virtue. I said the pleasure--I ought to have said the shame; for the sentiments to which they gave expression soared far beyond the range of my vulgar nature.
What they said proved to me as clear as day that devotedness was their daily bread, and that self-sacrifice was not less necessary to their existence than air and water. Observing that I was not eating, Mademoiselle Prefere made a thousand efforts to overcome that which she was good enough to term my "discretion." Jeanne was not of the party, because, I was told, her presence at it would have been contrary to the rules, and would have wounded the feelings of the other school-children, among whom it was necessary to maintian a certain equality. I secretly congratulated her upon having escaped from the Merovingian butter; from the huge radishes, empty as funeral- urns; form the leathery roast, and from various other curiosities of diet to which I had exposed myself for the love of her.
The extremely disconsolate-looking servant served up some liquid to which they gave the name of cream--I do not know why--and vanished away like a ghost.
Then Mademoiselle Prefere related to Maitre Mouche, with extraordinary transports of emotion, all that she had said to me in the City of Books, during the time that my housekeeper was sick in bed. Her admiration for a Member of the Institute, her terror lest I should be taken ill while unattended, and the certainty she felt that any intelligent woman would be proud and happy to share my existence--she concealed nothing, but, on the contrary, added many fresh follies to the recital. Maitre Mouche kept nodding his head in approval while cracking nuts. Then, after all this verbiage, he demanded, with an agreeable smile, what my answer had been.
Mademoiselle Prefere, pressing her hand upon her heart and extending the other towards me, cried out,
"He is so affectionate, so superior, so good, and so great! He answered... But I could never, because I am only a humble woman--I could never repeat the words of a Member of the Institute. I can only utter the substance of them. He answered, 'Yes, I understand you--yes.'"
And with these words she reached out and seized one of my hands. Then Maitre Mouche, also overwhelmed with emotion, arose and seized my other hand.
"Monsieur," he said, "permit me to offer my congratulations."
Several times in my life I have known fear; but never before had I experienced any fright of so nauseating a character. A sickening terror came upon me.
I disengaged by two hands, and, rising to my feet, so as to give all possible seriousness to my words, I said,
"Madame, either I explained myself very badly when you were at my house, or I have totally misunderstood you here in your own. In either case, a positive declaration is absolutely necessary. Permit me, Madame, to make it now, very plainly. No--I never did understand you; I am totally ignorant of the nature of this marriage project that you have been planning for me--if you really have been planning one. In any event, I should not think of marrying. It would be unpardonable folly at my age, and even now, at this moment, I cannot conceive how a sensible person like you could ever have advised me to marry. Indeed, I am strongly inclined to believe that I must have been mistaken, and that you never said anything of the kind before. In the latter case, please excuse an old man totally unfamiliar with the usages of society, unaccustomed to the conversation of ladies, and very contrite for his mistake."
Maitre Mouche went back very softly to his place, where, not finding any more nuts to crack, he began to whittle a cork.
Mademoiselle Prefere, after staring at me for a few moments with an expression in her little round dry eyes which I had never seen there before, suddenly resumed her customary sweetness and graciousness. Then she cried out in honeyed tones,
"Oh! these learned men!--these studious men! They are like children. Yes, Monsieur Bonnard, you are a real child!"
Then, turning to the notary, who still sat very quietly in his corner, with his nose over his cork, she exclaimed, in beseeching tones,
"Oh, do not accuse him! Do not accuse him! Do not think any evil of him, I beg of you! Do not think it at all! Must I ask you upon my knees?"
Maitre Mouche continued to examine all the various aspects and surfaces of his cork without making any further manifestation.
I was very indignant; and I know that my cheeks must have been extremely red, if I could judge by the flush of heat which I felt rise to my face. This would enable me to explain the words I heard through all the buzzing in my ears:
"I am frightened about him! our poor friend!... Monsieur Mouche, be kind enough to open a window! It seems to me that a compress of arnica would do him some good."
I rushed out into the street with an unspeakable feeling of shame.
"My poor Jeanne!"
I passed eight days without hearing anything further in regard to the Prefere establishment. Then, feeling myself unable to remain any longer without some news of Clementine's daughter, and feeling furthermore that I owed it as a duty to myself not to cease my visits with the school without more serious cause, I took my way to Les Ternes.
the parlour seemed to me more cold, more damp, more inhospitable, and more insidious than ever before; and the servant much more silent and much more scared. I asked to see Mademoiselle Jeanne; but, after a very considerable time, it was Mademoiselle Prefere who made her appearance instead--severe and pale, with lips compressed and a hard look in her eyes.
"Monsieur," she said, folding her arms over her pelerine, I regret very much that I cannot allow you to see Mademoiselle Alexandre to- day; but I cannot possibly do it."
"Why not?" I asked in astonishment.
"Monsieur," she replied, "the reasons which compel me to request that your visits shall be less frequent hereafter are of an excessively delicate nature; and I must beg you to spare me the unpleasantness of mentioning them."
"Madame," I replied, "I have been authorized by Jeanne's guardian to see his ward every day. Will you please to inform me of your reasons for opposing the will of Monsieur Mouche?"
"The guardian of Mademoiselle Alexandre," she replied (and she dwelt upon that word "guardian" as upon a solid support), "desires, quite as strongly as I myself do, that your assiduities may come to an end as soon as possible."
"Then, if that be the case," I said, "be kind enough to let me know his reasons and your own."
She looked up at the little spiral of paper on the ceiling, and then replied, with stern composure,
"You insist upon it? Well, although such explanations are very painful for a woman to make, I will yield to your exaction. This house, Monsieur is an honourable house. I have my responsibility. I have to watch like a mother over each one of my pupils. Your assiduities in regard to Mademoiselle Alexandre could not possibly be continued without serious injury to the young girl herself; and it is my duty to insist that they shall cease."
"I do not really understand you," I replied--and I was telling the plain truth. Then she deliberately resumed:
"Your assiduities in this house are being interpreted, by the most respectable and the least suspicious persons, in such a manner that I find myself obliged, both in the interest of my establishment and in the interest of Mademoiselle Alexandre, to see that they end at once."
"Madame," I cried, "I have heard a great many silly things in my life, but never anything so silly as what you have just said!"
She answered me quietly,
"Your words of abuse will not affect me in the slightest. When one has a duty to accomplish, one is strong enough to endure all."
And she pressed her pelerine over her heart once more--not perhaps on this occasion to restrain, but doubtless only to caress that generous heart.
"Madame," I said, shaking my finger at her, "you have wantonly aroused the indignation of an aged man. Be good enough to act in such a fashion that the old man may be able at least to forget your existence, and do not add fresh insults to those which I have already sustained from your lips. I give you fair warning that I shall never cease to look after Mademoiselle Alexandre; and that should you attempt to do her any harm, in any manner whatsoever, you will have serious reason to regret it!"
The more I became excited, the more she became cool; and she answered in a tone of superb indifference:
"Monsieur, I am much too well informed in regard to the nature of the interest which you take in this young girl, not to withdraw her immediately from that very surveillance with which you threaten me. After observing the more than equivocal intimacy in which you are living with your housekeeper, I ought to have taken measures at once to render it impossible for you ever to come into contact with an innocent child. In the future I shall certainly do it. If up to this time I have been too trustful, it is for Mademoiselle Alexandre, and not for you, to reproach me with it. But she is too artless and too pure--thanks to me!--ever to have suspected the nature of that danger into which you were trying to lead her. I scarecly suppose
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