For a long time Jacques Bourdillere had sworn that he would never marry, but he suddenly changed his mind. It happened suddenly, one summer, at the seashore.
One morning as he lay stretched out on the sand, watching the women coming out of the water, a little foot had struck him by its neatness and daintiness. He raised his eyes and was delighted with the whole person, although in fact he could see nothing but the ankles and the head emerging from a flannel bathrobe carefully held closed. He was supposed to be sensual and a fast liver. It was therefore by the mere grace of the form that he was at first captured. Then he was held by the charm of the young girl’s sweet mind, so simple and good, as fresh as her cheeks and lips.
He was presented to the family and pleased them. He immediately fell madly in love. When he saw Berthe Lannis in the distance, on the long yellow stretch of sand, he would tingle to the roots of his hair. When he was near her he would become silent, unable to speak or even to think, with a kind of throbbing at his heart, and a buzzing in his ears, and a bewilderment in his mind. Was that love?
He did not know or understand, but he had fully decided to have this child for his wife.
Her parents hesitated for a long time, restrained by the young man’s bad reputation. It was said that he had an old sweetheart, one of these binding attachments which one always believes to be broken off and yet which always hold.
Besides, for a shorter or longer period, he loved every woman who came within reach of his lips.
Then he settled down and refused, even once, to see the one with whom he had lived for so long. A friend took care of this woman’s pension and assured her an income. Jacques paid, but he did not even wish to hear of her, pretending even to ignore her name. She wrote him letters which he never opened. Every week he would recognize the clumsy writing of the abandoned woman, and every week a greater anger surged within him against her, and he would quickly tear the envelope and the paper, without opening it, without reading one single line, knowing in advance the reproaches and complaints which it contained.
As no one had much faith in his constancy, the test was prolonged through the winter, and Berthe’s hand was not granted him until the spring. The wedding took place in Paris at the beginning of May.
The young couple had decided not to take the conventional wedding trip, but after a little dance for the younger cousins, which would not be prolonged after eleven o’clock, in order that this day of lengthy ceremonies might not be too tiresome, the young pair were to spend the first night in the parental home and then, on the following morning, to leave for the beach so dear to their hearts, where they had first known and loved each other.
Night had come, and the dance was going on in the large parlor. ‘The two had retired into a little Japanese boudoir hung with bright silks and dimly lighted by the soft rays of a large colored lantern hanging from the ceiling like a gigantic egg. Through the open window the fresh air from outside passed over their faces like a caress, for the night was warm and calm, full of the odor of spring.
They were silent, holding each other’s hands and from time to time squeezing them with all their might. She sat there with a dreamy look, feeling a little lost at this great change in her life, but smiling, moved, ready to cry, often also almost ready to faint from joy, believing the whole world to be changed by what had just happened to her, uneasy, she knew not why, and feeling her whole body and soul filled with an indefinable and delicious lassitude.
He was looking at her persistently with a fixed smile. He wished to speak, but found nothing to say, and so sat there, expressing all his ardor by pressures of the hand. From time to time he would murmur: “Berthe!” And each time she would raise her eyes to him with a look of tenderness; they would look at each other for a second and then her look, pierced and fascinated by his, would fall.
They found no thoughts to exchange. They had been left alone, but occasionally some of the dancers would cast a rapid glance at them, as though they were the discreet and trusty witnesses of a mystery.
A door opened and a servant entered, holding on a tray a letter which a messenger had just brought. Jacques, trembling, took this paper, overwhelmed by a vague and sudden fear, the mysterious terror of swift misfortune.
He looked for a longtime at the envelope, the writing on which he did not know, not daring to open it, not wishing to read it, with a wild desire to put it in his pocket and say to himself: “I’ll leave that till to- morrow, when I’m far away!” But on one corner two big words, underlined, “Very urgent,” filled him with terror. Saying, “Please excuse me, my dear,” he tore open the envelope. He read the paper, grew frightfully pale, looked over it again, and, slowly, he seemed to spell it out word for word.
When he raised his head his whole expression showed how upset he was. He stammered: “My dear, it’s–it’s from my best friend, who has had ,a very great misfortune. He has need of me immediately–for a matter of life or death. Will you excuse me if I leave you for half an hour? I’ll be right back.”
Trembling and dazed, she stammered: “Go, my dear!” not having been his wife long enough to dare to question him, to demand to know. He disappeared. She remained alone, listening to the dancing in the neighboring parlor.
He had seized the first hat and coat he came to and rushed downstairs three steps at a time. As he was emerging into the street he stopped under the gas-jet of the vestibule and reread the letter. This is what it said:
SIR: A girl by the name of Ravet, an old sweetheart of yours, it seems, has just given birth to a child that she says is yours. The mother is about to die and is begging for you. I take the liberty to write and ask you if you can grant this last request to a woman who seems to be very unhappy and worthy of pity. Yours truly, DR. BONNARD.
When he reached the sick-room the woman was already on the point of death. He did not recognize her at first. The doctor and two nurses were taking care of her. And everywhere on the floor were pails full of ice and rags covered with blood. Water flooded the carpet; two candles were burning on a bureau; behind the bed, in a little wicker crib, the child was crying, and each time it would moan the mother, in torture, would try to move, shivering under her ice bandages.
She was mortally wounded, killed by this birth. Her life was flowing from her, and, notwithstanding the ice and the care, the merciless hemorrhage continued, hastening her last hour.
She recognized Jacques and wished to raise her arms. They were so weak that she could not do so, but tears coursed down her pallid cheeks. He dropped to his knees beside the bed, seized one of her hands and kissed it frantically. Then, little by little, he drew close to the thin face, which started at the contact. One of the nurses was lighting them with a candle, and the doctor was watching them from the back of the room.
Then she said in a voice which sounded as though it came from a distance: “I am going to die, dear. Promise to stay to the end. Oh! don’t leave me now. Don’t leave me in my last moments!”
He kissed her face and her hair, and, weeping, he murmured: “Do not be uneasy; I will stay.”
It was several minutes before she could speak again, she was so weak. She continued: “The little one is yours. I swear it before God and on my soul. I swear it as I am dying! I have never loved another man but you –promise to take care of the child.”
He was trying to take this poor pain-racked body in his arms. Maddened by remorse and sorrow, he stammered: “I swear to you that I will bring him up and love him. He shall never leave me.”
Then she tried to kiss Jacques. Powerless to lift her head, she held out her white lips in an appeal for a kiss. He approached his lips to respond to this piteous entreaty.
As soon as she felt a little calmer, she murmured: “Bring him here and let me see if you love him.”
He went and got the child. He placed him gently on the bed between them, and the little one stopped crying. She murmured: “Don’t move any more!” And he was quiet. And he stayed there, holding in his burning hand this other hand shaking in the chill of death, just as, a while ago, he had been holding a hand trembling with love. From time to time he would cast a quick glance at the clock, which marked midnight, then one o’clock, then two.
The physician had returned. The two nurses, after noiselessly moving about the room for a while, were now sleeping on chairs. The child was asleep, and the mother, with eyes shut, appeared also to be resting.
Suddenly, just as pale daylight was creeping in behind the curtains, she stretched out her arms with such a quick and violent motion that she almost threw her baby on the floor. A kind of rattle was heard in her throat, then she lay on her back motionless, dead.
The nurses sprang forward and declared: “All is over!”
He looked once more at this woman whom he had so loved, then at the clock, which pointed to four, and he ran away, forgetting his overcoat, in the evening dress, with the child in his arms.
After he had left her alone the young wife had waited, calmly enough at first, in the little Japanese boudoir. Then, as she did not see him return, she went back to the parlor with an indifferent and calm appearance, but terribly anxious. When her mother saw her alone she asked: “Where is your husband?” She answered: “In his room; he is coming right back.”
After an hour, when everybody had questioned her, she told about the letter, Jacques’ upset appearance and her fears of an accident.
Still they waited. The guests left; only the nearest relatives remained. At midnight the bride was put to bed, sobbing bitterly. Her mother and two aunts, sitting around the bed, listened to her crying, silent and in despair. The father had gone to the commissary of police to see if he could obtain some news.
At five o’clock a slight noise was heard in the hall. A door was softly opened and closed. Then suddenly a little cry like the mewing of a cat was heard throughout the silent house.
All the women started forward and Berthe sprang ahead of them all, pushing her way past her aunts, wrapped in a bathrobe.
Jacques stood in the middle of the room, pale and out of breath, holding an infant in his arms. The four women looked at him, astonished; but Berthe, who had suddenly become courageous, rushed forward with anguish in her heart, exclaiming: “What is it? What’s the matter?”
He looked about him wildly and answered shortly:
“I–I have a child and the mother has just died.”
And with his clumsy hands he held out the screaming infant.
Without saying a word, Berthe seized the child, kissed it and hugged it to her. Then she raised her tear-filled eyes to him, asking: “Did you say that the mother was dead?” He answered: “Yes–just now–in my arms. I had broken with her since summer. I knew nothing. The physician sent for me.”
Then Berthe murmured: “Well, we will bring up the little one.”