A party of men were chatting in the smoking room after dinner. We were talking of unexpected legacies, strange inheritances. Then M. le Brument, who was sometimes called “the illustrious judge” and at other times “the illustrious lawyer,” went and stood with his back to the fire.
“I have,” said he, “to search for an heir who disappeared under peculiarly distressing circumstances. It is one of those simple and terrible dramas of ordinary life, a thing which possibly happens every day, and which is nevertheless one of the most dreadful things I know. Here are the facts:
“Nearly six months ago I was called to the bedside of a dying woman. She said to me:
“‘Monsieur, I want to intrust to you the most delicate, the most difficult, and the most wearisome mission that can be conceived. Be good enough to notice my will, which is there on the table. A sum of five thousand francs is left to you as a fee if you do not succeed, and of a hundred thousand francs if you do succeed. I want you to find my son after my death.’
“She asked me to assist her to sit up in bed, in order that she might talk with greater ease, for her voice, broken and gasping, was whistling in her throat.
“It was a very wealthy establishment. The luxurious apartment, of an elegant simplicity, was upholstered with materials as thick as walls, with a soft inviting surface.
“The dying woman continued:
“‘You are the first to hear my horrible story. I will try to have strength ,enough to finish it. You must know all, in order that you, whom I know to be a kind-hearted man as well as a man of the world, may have a sincere desire to aid me with all your power.
“‘Listen to me:
“‘Before my marriage, I loved a young man, whose suit was rejected by my family because he was not rich enough. Not long afterward, I married a man of great wealth. I married him through ignorance, through obedience, through indifference, as young girls do marry.
“‘I had a child, a boy. My husband died in the course of a few years.
“‘He whom I had loved had married, in his turn. When he saw that I was a widow, he was crushed by grief at knowing he was not free. He came to see me; he wept and sobbed so bitterly, that it was enough to break my heart. He came to see me at first as a friend. Perhaps I ought not to have received him. What could I do? I was alone, so sad, so solitary, so hopeless! And I loved him still. What sufferings we women have sometimes to endure!
“‘I had only him in the world, my parents being dead. He came frequently; he spent whole evenings with me. I should not have let him come so often, seeing that he was married. But I had not enough will- power to prevent him from coming.
“‘How can I tell it?–he became my lover. How did this come about? Can I explain it? Can any one explain such things? Do you think it could be otherwise when two human beings are drawn to each other by the irresistible force of mutual affection? Do you believe, monsieur, that it is always in our power to resist, that we can keep up the struggle forever, and refuse to yield to the prayers, the supplications, the tears, the frenzied words, the appeals on bended knees, the transports of passion, with which we are pursued by the man we adore, whom we want to gratify even in his slightest wishes, whom we desire to crown with every possible happiness, and whom, if we are to be guided by a worldly code of honor, we must drive to despair? What strength would it not require? What a renunciation of happiness? what self-denial? and even what virtuous selfishness?
“‘In short, monsieur, I was his mistress; and I was happy. I became–and this was my greatest weakness and my greatest piece of cowardice-I became his wife’s friend.
“‘We brought up my son together; we made a man of him, a thorough man, intelligent, full of sense and resolution, of large and generous ideas. The boy reached the age of seventeen.
“‘He, the young man, was fond of my–my lover, almost as fond of him as I was myself, for he had been equally cherished and cared for by both of us. He used to call him his ‘dear friend,’ and respected him immensely, having never received from him anything but wise counsels and an example of integrity, honor, and probity. He looked upon him as an old loyal and devoted comrade of his mother, as a sort of moral father, guardian, protector–how am I to describe it?
“‘Perhaps the reason why he never asked any questions was that he had been accustomed from his earliest years to see this man in my house, at my side, and at his side, always concerned about us both.
“‘One evening the three of us were to dine together–this was my chief amusement–and I waited for the two men, asking myself which of them would be the first to arrive. The door opened; it was my old friend. I went toward him, with outstretched arms; and he pressed my lips in a long, delicious kiss.
“‘All of a sudden, a slight sound, a faint rustling, that mysterious sensation which indicates the presence of another person, made us start and turn round abruptly. Jean, my son, stood there, livid, staring at us.
“‘There was a moment of atrocious confusion. I drew back, holding out my hand toward my son as if in supplication; but I could not see him. He had gone.
“‘We remained facing each other–my lover and I–crushed, unable to utter a word. I sank into an armchair, and I felt a desire, a vague, powerful desire, to flee, to go out into the night, and to disappear forever. Then convulsive sobs rose in my throat, and I wept, shaken with spasms, my heart breaking, all my nerves writhing with the horrible sensation of an irreparable, misfortune, and with that dreadful sense of shame which, in such moments as this, fills a mother’s heart.
“‘He looked at me in a terrified manner, not venturing to approach, to speak to me, or to touch me, for fear of the boy’s return. At last he said:
“‘I am going to follow him-to talk to him–to explain matters to him. In short, I must see him and let him know—-”
“‘And he hurried away.
“‘I waited–waited in a distracted frame of mind, trembling at the least sound, starting with fear and with some unutterably strange and intolerable emotion at every slight crackling of the fire in the grate.
“‘I waited an hour, two hours, feeling my heart swell with a dread I had never before experienced, such anguish that I would not wish the greatest criminal to endure ten minutes of such misery. Where was my son? What was he doing?
“‘About midnight, a messenger brought me a note from my lover. I still know its contents by heart:
“‘Has your son returned? I did not find him. I am down here. I do not want to go up at this hour.”
“‘I wrote in pencil on the same slip of paper:
“‘Jean has not returned. You must find him.”
“‘And I ‘remained all night in the armchair, waiting for him.
“‘I felt as if I were going mad. I longed to run wildly about, to roll on the ground. And yet I did not even stir, but kept waiting hour after hour. What was going to happen? I tried to imagine, to guess. But I could form no conception, in spite of my efforts, in spite of the tortures of my soul!
“‘And now I feared that they might meet. What would they do in that case? What would my son do? My mind was torn with fearful doubts, with terrible suppositions.
“‘You can understand my feelings, can you not, monsieur? “‘My chambermaid, who knew nothing, who understood nothing, came into the room every moment, believing, naturally, that I had lost my reason. I sent her away with a word or a movement of the hand. She went for the doctor, who found me in the throes of a nervous attack.
“‘I was put to bed. I had brain fever.
“‘When I regained consciousness, after a long illness, I saw beside my bed my–lover–alone.
“‘My son? Where is my son?
“‘He made no reply. I stammered:
“‘Dead-dead. Has he committed suicide?
“‘No, no, I swear it. But we have not found him in spite of all my efforts.
“‘Then, becoming suddenly exasperated and even indignant–for women are subject to such outbursts of unaccountable and unreasoning anger–I said:
“‘I forbid you to come near me or to see me again unless you find him. Go away!
“He did go away.
“‘I have never seen one or the other of them since, monsieur, and thus I have lived for the last twenty years.
“‘Can you imagine what all this meant to me? Can you understand this monstrous punishment, this slow, perpetual laceration of a mother’s heart, this abominable, endless waiting? Endless, did I say? No; it is about to end, for I am dying. I am dying without ever again seeing either of them–either one or the other!
“‘He–the man I loved–has written to me every day for the last twenty years; and I–I have never consented to see him, even for one second; for I had a strange feeling that, if he were to come back here, my son would make his appearance at the same moment. Oh! my son! my son! Is he dead? Is he living? Where is he hiding? Over there, perhaps, beyond the great ocean, in some country so far away that even its very name is unknown to me! Does he ever think of me? Ah! if he only knew! How cruel one’s children are! Did he understand to what frightful suffering he condemned me, into what depths of despair, into what tortures, he cast me while I was still in the prime of life, leaving me to suffer until this moment, when I am about to die–me, his mother, who loved him with all the intensity of a mother’s love? Oh! isn’t it cruel, cruel?
“‘You will tell him all this, monsieur–will you not? You will repeat to him my last words:
“‘My child, my dear, dear child, be less harsh toward poor women! Life is already brutal and savage enough in its dealings with them. My dear son, think of what the existence of your poor mother has been ever since the day you left her. My dear child, forgive her, and love her, now that she is dead, for she has had to endure the most frightful penance ever inflicted on a woman.”
“She gasped for breath, trembling, as if she had addressed the last words to her son and as if he stood by her bedside.
“Then she added:
“‘You will tell him also, monsieur, that I never again saw-the other.’
“Once more she ceased speaking, then, in a broken voice, she said:
“‘Leave me now, I beg of you. I want to die all alone, since they are not with me.'”
Maitre Le Brument added:
“And I left the house, monsieurs, crying like a fool, so bitterly, indeed, that my coachman turned round to stare at me.
“And to think that, every day, dramas like this are being enacted all around us!
“I have not found the son–that son–well, say what you like about him, but I call him that criminal son!”