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This decision filled Madame Caroline with despair. She did not possess the amount, and, of course, did not want to ask the father for it. In vain did she argue and plead.

'No, no!' said La Méchain. 'If I no longer had my security, I might say good-bye to the money. I know that!' At last, however, realizing that the sum was a large one and that she might get nothing at all, she made an abatement. 'Well, give me two thousand francs at once. I will wait for the rest.'

But Madame Caroline's embarrassment remained the same, and she was asking herself where she could possibly get two thousand francs, when the idea struck her of applying to Maxime. She did not pause to think it over. He would surely consent to share the secret; he would not refuse to advance such a small sum, which his father would certainly repay him. And thereupon she went away, saying that she would return the next day to fetch Victor.

It was only five o'clock, and she was in such a fever to finish the matter that, on getting into her cab, she gave the driver Maxime's address in the Avenue de l'Impératrice. When she arrived, the valet told her that his master was at his toilet, but that he would all the same announce her.

For a moment she stifled in the reception-room into which[Pg 160] she was ushered. The house was small, but furnished with an exquisite refinement of luxury and comfort. Hangings and carpets had been lavished upon it; and amid the warm silence of the rooms a delicate odour of ambergris was diffused. All was pretty, soft, and discreet here, although there was no sign of woman; for the young widower, enriched by his wife's death, had arranged his life for the sole worship of self, declining, like a man of experience, to allow anyone to share it again. Owing the enjoyments of life to one woman, he was determined not to let them be spoilt by another. He had long since abandoned his idea of entering the Council of State; he no longer even kept a racing stable, weary as he was of horses as well as women. And he lived alone, idle, perfectly happy, spending his fortune with art and precaution, evincing the ferocity of a perverse 'kept' masher who has turned serious.

'If Madame will allow me,' the valet returned to say, 'Monsieur will receive her in his room directly.'

Madame Caroline was on familiar terms with Maxime, now that whenever he went to his father's to dine he found her installed there as a faithful housekeeper. On entering his room, she saw that the curtains were drawn. Six candles, burning on the mantel-shelf and a stand, illumined with a quiet light this silky, downy nest, the more than effeminate chamber of a beautiful woman. With its deep seats and immense soft downy bed, this was his favourite room, where he had lavished delicacies, marvellous furniture, and precious bibelots of the last century, all blended, lost amidst the most delightful confusion of stuffs imaginable.

However, the door leading to the adjoining dressing-room was wide open, and Maxime appeared, saying: 'What has happened, then? Papa isn't dead, eh?'

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With his pretty face, girlish but no longer fresh, his eyes blue and clear, hiding the emptiness of his brain, he had just left the bath, and, his skin cool and balmy, had slipped on an elegant white flannel costume. Through the door could still be heard the dripping from one of the bath taps,[Pg 161] and a strong flowery perfume ascended from the soft warm water.

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'No, no; it is not so serious,' she answered, put out by the quietly jesting tone of the question. 'And yet what I have to say to you embarrasses me a little. You will excuse me for thus falling in upon you——'

'It's true I dine out, but I have time enough to dress. Come, what is the matter?'

He waited, and now she hesitated, and began to stammer, greatly struck by all the luxury and enjoyable refinement which she perceived about her. Cowardice seized upon her; and she could not find courage to tell the whole story. Was it possible that existence, so stern to the child of chance over yonder, in the sink of the Cité de Naples, had shown itself so prodigal to this one, living amid such well-ordered wealth? So much vile wretchedness, hunger, and filth on the one hand, and on the other such exquisite refinement, abundance, and beautiful life. Could money, then, be education, health, intelligence? And if the same human mud remained beneath, did not all civilisation consist in the superiority of smelling nice and living well?

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'Mon Dieu!' said she, 'it is such a story! But I believe I do right in telling it to you. For that matter, I am obliged to; I have need of you.'

Maxime at first listened to her standing; then he sat down in front of her, his legs giving way, such was his surprise. And when she had finished, he exclaimed: 'What, what! So I am not the only son! A frightful little brother falls on me from the sky, without so much as shouting "Look out!"'

She thought he spoke from an interested motive, and made an allusion to the question of inheritance.

'Oh! an inheritance from papa!' said he.

And he made a gesture of ironical carelessness, which she did not understand. What—what did he mean? Did he not believe in his father's great qualities, his certainty of attaining to fortune?

'No, no, I have my pile,' he added. 'I need nobody. But[Pg 162] really this is such a queer affair that I cannot help laughing at it.'