Monsieur Saval, who was called in Mantes “Father Saval,” had just risen from bed. He was weeping. It was a dull autumn day; the leaves were falling. They fell slowly in the rain, like a heavier and slower rain. M. Saval was not in good spirits. He walked from the fireplace to the window, and from the window to the fireplace. Life has its sombre days. It would no longer have any but sombre days for him, for he had reached the age of sixty-two. He is alone, an old bachelor, with nobody about him. How sad it is to die alone, all alone, without any one who is devoted to you!
He pondered over his life, so barren, so empty. He recalled former days, the days of his childhood, the home, the house of his parents; his college days, his follies; the time he studied law in Paris, his father’s illness, his death. He then returned to live with his mother. They lived together very quietly, and desired nothing more. At last the mother died. How sad life is! He lived alone since then, and now, in his turn, he, too, will soon be dead. He will disappear, and that will be the end. There will be no more of Paul Saval upon the earth. What a frightful thing! Other people will love, will laugh. Yes, people will go on amusing themselves, and he will no longer exist! Is it not strange that people can laugh, amuse themselves, be joyful under that eternal certainty of death? If this death were only probable, one could then have hope; but no, it is inevitable, as inevitable as that night follows the day.
If, however, his life had been full! If he had done something; if he had had adventures, great pleasures, success, satisfaction of some kind or another. But no, nothing. He had done nothing, nothing but rise from bed, eat, at the same hours, and go to bed again. And he had gone on like that to the age of sixty-two years. He had not even taken unto himself a wife, as other men do. Why? Yes, why was it that he had not married? He might have done so, for he possessed considerable means. Had he lacked an opportunity? Perhaps! But one can create opportunities. He was indifferent; that was all. Indifference had been his greatest drawback, his defect, his vice. How many men wreck their lives through indifference! It is so difficult for some natures to get out of bed, to move about, to take long walks, to speak, to study any question.
He had not even been loved. No woman had reposed on his bosom, in a complete abandon of love. He knew nothing of the delicious anguish of expectation, the divine vibration of a hand in yours, of the ecstasy of triumphant passion.
What superhuman happiness must overflow your heart, when lips encounter lips for the first time, when the grasp of four arms makes one being of you, a being unutterably happy, two beings infatuated with one another.
M. Saval was sitting before the fire, his feet on the fender, in his dressing gown. Assuredly his life had been spoiled, completely spoiled. He had, however, loved. He had loved secretly, sadly, and indifferently, in a manner characteristic of him in everything. Yes, he had loved his old friend, Madame Sandres, the wife of his old companion, Sandres. Ah! if he had known her as a young girl! But he had met her too late; she was already married. Unquestionably, he would have asked her hand! How he had loved her, nevertheless, without respite, since the first day he set eyes on her!
He recalled his emotion every time he saw her, his grief on leaving her, the many nights that he could not sleep, because he was thinking of her.
On rising in the morning he was somewhat more rational than on the previous evening.
How pretty she was formerly, so dainty, with fair curly hair, and always laughing. Sandres was not the man she should have chosen. She was now fifty-two years of age. She seemed happy. Ah! if she had only loved him in days gone by; yes, if she had only loved him! And why should she not have loved him, he, Saval, seeing that he loved her so much, yes, she, Madame Sandres!
If only she could have guessed. Had she not guessed anything, seen anything, comprehended anything? What would she have thought? If he had spoken, what would she have answered?
And Saval asked himself a thousand other things. He reviewed his whole life, seeking to recall a multitude of details.
He recalled all the long evenings spent at the house of Sandres, when the latter’s wife was young, and so charming.
He recalled many things that she had said to him, the intonations of her voice, the little significant smiles that meant so much.
He recalled their walks, the three of them together, along the banks of the Seine, their luncheon on the grass on Sundays, for Sandres was employed at the sub-prefecture. And all at once the distinct recollection came to him of an afternoon spent with her in a little wood on the banks of the river.
They had set out in the morning, carrying their provisions in baskets. It was a bright spring morning, one of those days which intoxicate one. Everything smells fresh, everything seems happy. The voices of the birds sound more joyous, and-they fly more swiftly. They had luncheon on the grass, under the willow trees, quite close to the water, which glittered in the sun’s rays. The air was balmy, charged with the odors of fresh vegetation; they drank it in with delight. How pleasant everything was on that day!
After lunch, Sandres went to sleep on the broad of his back. “The best nap he had in his life,” said he, when he woke up.
Madame Sandres had taken the arm of Saval, and they started to walk along the river bank.
She leaned tenderly on his arm. She laughed and said to him: “I am intoxicated, my friend, I am quite intoxicated.” He looked at her, his heart going pit-a-pat. He felt himself grow pale, fearful that he might have looked too boldly at her, and that the trembling of his hand had revealed his passion.
She had made a wreath of wild flowers and water-lilies, and she asked him: “Do I look pretty like that?”
As he did not answer—for he could find nothing to say, he would have liked to go down on his knees—she burst out laughing, a sort of annoyed, displeased laugh, as she said: “Great goose, what ails you? You might at least say something.”
He felt like crying, but could not even yet find a word to say.
All these things came back to him now, as vividly as on the day when they took place. Why had she said this to him, “Great goose, what ails you? You might at least say something!”
And he recalled how tenderly she had leaned on his arm. And in passing under a shady tree he had felt her ear brushing his cheek, and he had moved his head abruptly, lest she should suppose he was too familiar.
When he had said to her: “Is it not time to return?” she darted a singular look at him. “Certainly,” she said, “certainly,” regarding him at the same time in a curious manner. He had not thought of it at the time, but now the whole thing appeared to him quite plain.
“Just as you like, my friend. If you are tired let us go back.”
And he had answered: “I am not fatigued; but Sandres may be awake now.”
And she had said: “If you are afraid of my husband’s being awake, that is another thing. Let us return.”
On their way back she remained silent, and leaned no longer on his arm. Why?
At that time it had never occurred to him, to ask himself “why.” Now he seemed to apprehend something that he had not then understood.
M. Saval felt himself blush, and he got up at a bound, as if he were thirty years younger and had heard Madame Sandres say, “I love you.”
Was it possible? That idea which had just entered his mind tortured him. Was it possible that he had not seen, had not guessed?
Oh! if that were true, if he had let this opportunity of happiness pass without taking advantage of it!
He said to himself: “I must know. I cannot remain in this state of doubt. I must know!” He thought: “I am sixty-two years of age, she is fifty-eight; I may ask her that now without giving offense.”
He started out.
The Sandres’ house was situated on the other side of the street, almost directly opposite his own. He went across and knocked at the door, and a little servant opened it.
“You here at this hour, Saval! Has some accident happened to you?”
“No, my girl,” he replied; “but go and tell your mistress that I want to speak to her at once.”
“The fact is madame is preserving pears for the winter, and she is in the preserving room. She is not dressed, you understand.”
“Yes, but go and tell her that I wish to see her on a very important matter.”
The little servant went away, and Saval began to walk, with long, nervous strides, up and down the drawing-room. He did not feel in the least embarrassed, however. Oh! he was merely going to ask her something, as he would have asked her about some cooking recipe. He was sixty-two years of age!
The door opened and madame appeared. She was now a large woman, fat and round, with full cheeks and a sonorous laugh. She walked with her arms away from her sides and her sleeves tucked up, her bare arms all covered with fruit juice. She asked anxiously:
“What is the matter with you, my friend? You are not ill, are you?”
“No, my dear friend; but I wish to ask you one thing, which to me is of the first importance, something which is torturing my heart, and I want you to promise that you will answer me frankly.”
She laughed, “I am always frank. Say on.”
“Well, then. I have loved you from the first day I ever saw you. Can you have any doubt of this?”
She responded, laughing, with something of her former tone of voice.
“Great goose! what ails you? I knew it from the very first day!”
Saval began to tremble. He stammered out: “You knew it? Then…”
“Then—what did you think? What—what—what would you have answered?”
She broke into a peal of laughter. Some of the juice ran off the tips of her fingers on to the carpet.
“I? Why, you did not ask me anything. It was not for me to declare myself!”
He then advanced a step toward her.
“Tell me—tell me…. You remember the day when Sandres went to sleep on the grass after lunch… when we had walked together as far as the bend of the river, below…”
He waited, expectantly. She had ceased to laugh, and looked at him, straight in the eyes.
“Yes, certainly, I remember it.”
He answered, trembling all over:
“Well—that day—if I had been—if I had been—venturesome—what would you have done?”
She began to laugh as only a happy woman can laugh, who has nothing to regret, and responded frankly, in a clear voice tinged with irony:
“I would have yielded, my friend.”
She then turned on her heels and went back to her jam-making.
Saval rushed into the street, cast down, as though he had met with some disaster. He walked with giant strides through the rain, straight on, until he reached the river bank, without thinking where he was going. He then turned to the right and followed the river. He walked a long time, as if urged on by some instinct. His clothes were running with water, his hat was out of shape, as soft as a rag, and dripping like a roof. He walked on, straight in front of him. At last, he came to the place where they had lunched on that day so long ago, the recollection of which tortured his heart. He sat down under the leafless trees, and wept.