Authors: Roger Martin Du Gard
Mme. de Fontanin smiled indulgently. “You’d realize that such a suspicion is absurd, M. Thibault, if you knew my children and the way they behave with their mother. Never has either of them hidden anything from—” She stopped abruptly, stung by the thought that Daniel’s recent conduct gave her the lie. “Still,” she went on at once, but with a certain stiffness, moving towards the door, “if Jenny isn’t asleep you can ask her about it yourself.”
The little girl had her eyes open. Her delicately moulded profile showed against the pillow; her cheeks were flushed. The black muzzle of the little dog peeped comically from between the sheets beside her.
“Jenny, this is M. Thibault—the brother of one of Daniel’s friends, you know.”
The child cast at the intruder a look that, eager at first, darkened with mistrust.
Antoine went up to the bed, took her wrist and drew out his watch.
“Still too quick,” he said. Then he listened to her breathing. He put into each professional gesture a rather self-complacent gravity.
“How old is she?”
“Really? I wouldn’t have thought it. As a matter of principle one can never be too careful about these feverish attacks. Not that there’s anything to be alarmed about, of course,” he added, looking at the child and smiling. Then, moving from the bedside, he said in a different tone:
“Do you know my brother, Mademoiselle? Jacques Thibault?”
Her forehead wrinkled; she shook her head.
“Really and truly? Your brother has never talked to you about his best friend?”
“But, Jenny,” Mme. de Fontanin insisted, “don’t you remember? When I woke you up last night you were dreaming that Daniel and his friend Thibault were being chased along a road. You said ‘Thibault’ quite distinctly.”
The child seemed to be searching in her memory of the night. Then, “I don’t know the name,” she said at last.
“By the way,” Antoine went on after a short pause, “I’ve just been asking your mother about a detail she can’t remember; we’ve got to know it if we are to find your brother. How was he dressed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then you didn’t see him yesterday morning?”
“Yes, I did. Quite early—when he was having his coffee and rolls. But he hadn’t dressed then.” She turned to her mother. “You’ve only to go to his wardrobe, and see what clothes are missing.”
“There’s something else, Mademoiselle, something very important. Was it at nine o’clock, or ten, or eleven that your brother came back to leave the letter? Your mother was out then, so she can’t say.”
“I don’t know.”
Antoine caught a hint of annoyance in Jenny’s voice.
“What a pity!” He made a gesture of disappointment. “That means we’ll have trouble in getting on his track.”
“Wait!” Jenny said raising her arm to make him stay. “It was at ten minutes to eleven.”
“Exactly? Quite sure about it?”
“You looked at the clock while he was with you, I suppose.”
“No. But that was the time when I went to the kitchen to get some bread-crumbs—for my drawing, you know. If he’d come before that, or if he’d come after, I’d have heard the door and gone to see.”
“Yes, of course.” He pondered for a moment. What use was it to tire her with more questions? He had been mistaken; she knew nothing. “Now,” he went on, “you must make yourself comfy, and shut your eyes, and go to sleep.” He drew the blankets up over the little bare arm, smiling to the child. “A nice long sleep, and when we wake up we’ll be quite well again, and our big brother will be back at home.”
She looked at him. Never afterwards could he forget all that he read at that instant in her gaze: an inner life quite out of keeping with her years, such indifference towards all human consolation, and a distress so deep, so desperately lonely, that he could not help being shaken by it and lowered his eyes.
“You were right,” he said to Mme. de Fontanin, when they had returned to the drawing-room. “That child is innocence itself. She’s suffering terribly, but she knows nothing.”
“Yes,” she replied in a musing tone, “she is innocence itself; but—
“You mean …?”
“How can you think that? Surely her answers …?”
“Her answers?” she repeated in a slow, meditative voice. “But I was near her and I felt it somehow. No, I can’t explain it.” She sat down, but stood up again at once. Her face was anguished. “She knows, she knows—now I’m certain of it.” Then suddenly, in a louder voice: “And I’m certain, too, that she would rather die than betray her secret.”
After Antoine had left and before going to see M. Quillard, the principal of the lycée (as Antoine had advised her to do), Mme. de Fontanin yielded to her curiosity and opened a
THIBAULT (Oscar-Marie). Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Sometime Member for the Eure. Vice-president of the Child Welfare Society. Founder and President of the Social Defence League. Treasurer of the Joint Committee of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Paris. Residence: 4A Rue de l’Université, Paris VI.
TWO HOURS later, after her interview with the principal of the lycée, whom she had left abruptly, without a word, her cheeks aflame, Mme. de Fontanin, not knowing where to turn, decided to go and see M. Thibault. Some secret instinct warned her against the visit, but she overruled it, as she often overruled such premonitions—prompted by a fondness for taking risks and a temperamental wilfulness that she mistook for courage.
At the Thibaults’ a regular family council was in session. The Abbé Binot had arrived at the Rue de l’Université at an early hour, but only a few minutes in advance of the Abbé Vécard, private secretary to His Grace the Archbishop of Paris. This priest was M. Thibault’s confessor, and a great friend of the family. A telephone-call had secured his attendance.
Seated at his desk, M. Thibault had the air of a presiding judge. He had slept badly and the unhealthy pallor of his cheeks was even more pronounced than usual. M. Chasle, his secretary, a grey-haired, bespectacled little man, was seated on his employer’s left. Antoine alone had remained standing, leaning against a bookcase. Mademoiselle, too, had been convoked, though it was the hour when normally she attended to her housekeeping. Her shoulders draped in black merino, she sat perched on the edge of her chair, silently observing the proceedings. Under the coils of grey hair looped round her yellow forehead the fawn-like eyes strayed constantly from one priest to the other. The two reverend gentlemen had been installed on either side of the fireplace, in high-backed chairs.
After laying before them the results of Antoine’s inquiries M. Thibault launched into a jeremiad. He liked to feel that he was being approved of by those around him, and the words that came to him, when depicting his anxiety, quickened his emotions. But the presence of his confessor urged him to examine his conscience once again; had he fulfilled all his duties as a father towards the miserable boy? He hardly knew what to answer. Then his thoughts took a new turn: but for that wretched little heretic nothing would have happened.
Rising to his feet, he gave rein to his indignation. “Should not young blackguards like that Fontanin boy be locked up in suitable institutions? Are we to allow our children to be exposed to such contamination?” His hands behind his back, his eyelids lowered, he paced the carpet behind his desk. Though he did not refer to it, the thought of the Congress he was missing rankled bitterly. “For over twenty years I’ve been devoting myself to the problem of juvenile criminality. For twenty years I’ve been fighting the good fight, by means of pamphlets, vigilance societies, and detailed reports addressed to various congresses. But I’ve done more than that!” He turned towards the priests. “Haven’t I created in my reformatory at Crouy a special department where depraved children belonging to a different social class from that of the other inmates are given a special course of moral re-education? Well, you’ll hardly believe it, but that department is always empty! Is it for me to force parents to incarcerate their erring sons there? I’ve moved heaven and earth to get the Ministry of Education to take steps about it. But,” he concluded, shrugging his shoulders and letting himself sink back into his chair, “what do those fine gentlemen who are ousting religion from our French schools care about public morals?”
At that moment the parlour-maid handed him a visiting-card.
“That woman!” he exclaimed, turning to his son. Then, addressing the maid, he asked: “What does she want?” and, without waiting for an answer, said to his son: “Antoine, you attend to this.”
“You can’t very well refuse to see her,” Antoine pointed out, after glancing at the card.
On the brink of an outburst, M. Thibault mastered his feelings and turned again to the two priests.
“It’s Mme. de Fontanin! What’s to be done? A certain consideration is due to a woman, whoever she may be, isn’t it? And we mustn’t forget, this one is a mother.”
“What’s that? A mother?” M. Chasle murmured, but the remark was only for himself.
M. Thibault came to a decision. “Show the lady in.”
When the maid brought the visitor up, he rose and bowed ceremoniously.
Mme. de Fontanin had not expected to find so many people there. She drew back slightly on the threshold, then took a step towards Mademoiselle, who had jumped from her chair and was staring at the Protestant with horrified eyes. The softness had gone out of them and, no longer fawn-like, she looked like an outraged hen.
“Mme. Thibault, I presume?” Mme. de Fontanin said in a low voice.
“No,” Antoine hastened to explain. “This lady is Mile, de Waize, who has been with us for fourteen years—since my mother’s death— and brought us up, my brother and myself.”
M. Thibault introduced the men to her.
“Excuse me for disturbing you, M. Thibault,” Mme. de Fontanin began. All the men’s eyes converging on her made her feel uncomfortable, but she kept her self-possession. “I came to see if any news … Well, as we are both undergoing the same anxiety,. Monsieur, I thought the best thing for us might be to … to join forces. Don’t you agree?” she added with a faint smile, cordial if a little sad. But her frank gaze, as she watched M. Thibault, found no more response than a blind man’s stare.
She tried to catch Antoine’s eye; despite the slight estrangement that the last phase of their conversation on the previous day had brought about, she felt drawn towards the young man whose pensive face and forthright manners were so different from the others’. He, too, as soon as she entered, had felt that a sort of alliance existed between them. He went up to her.
“And how is the little invalid now, Madame?”
M. Thibault cut him short. His impatience betrayed itself only in the way he kept on jerking his head to free his chin. Slewing himself round to face Mme. de Fontanin, he began addressing her with studied formality.
“It should be unnecessary for me to tell you, Mme. de Fontanin, that no one understands your natural anxiety better than myself. As I was saying to my friends here, we cannot think about those poor lads without feeling the utmost distress. And yet I would venture to put you a question: would it be wise for us to ‘join forces’ as you propose? Certainly something must be done, they have got to be found; but would it not be better for us to keep our inquiries separate? What I mean is, we must beware of possible indiscretions on the part of journalists. Don’t be surprised if I speak to you as one whose position obliges him to act with a certain caution as regards the press and public opinion. Not for my own sake. Anything but that! I am, thank God, above the calumnies of my adversaries. But might they not try to strike at the activities I stand for, by attacking me personally? And then I have to think of my son. Should I not make sure, at all costs, that another name is not linked with ours in connexion with this unsavoury adventure? Yes, I see it as my duty so to act that no one may be able in the future to throw in his face certain associations—quite casual, I grant you—but of a character that is, if I may say so, eminently … prejudicial.” He seemed to be addressing the Abbé Vécard especially as, lifting his eyelids for once, he added: “I take it, gentlemen, that you share my opinion?”
During the harangue Mme. de Fontanin had turned pale. Now she looked at each priest in turn; then at Mademoiselle, then at Antoine. Their faces were blank and they said nothing.
“Ah, yes, I understand!” she cried. The words stuck in her throat, and she had difficulty in continuing. “I can see that M. Quillard’s suspicions …” She paused, then added: “What a wretched creature that man is, a miserable, miserable creature!” A wry smile twisted her lips as she spoke. M. Thibault’s face remained inscrutable. Only his flabby hand rose towards the Abbé Binot, as if calling him to witness, inviting him to speak. With the zest of a mongrel joining in a dog-fight, the Abbé flung himself into the fray.
“We would venture to point out to you, Mme. de Fontanin, that you seem to be dismissing the lamentable conclusions come to by M. Quillard, without even having heard the charges brought against your son.”
Mme. de Fontanin cast a quick glance at the priest; then, relying as usual on her intuitions as regards the characters of others, she turned towards the Abbé Vécard, whose eyes met hers with an expression of unruffled suavity. His lethargic face, elongated by the fringe of scanty hair brushed up round his bald patch, gave her the impression of a man in the fifties. Conscious of the heretic’s appealing gaze, he hastened to put in an amiable word.
“None of us here, Madame, but realizes how painful this conversation is for you. The trust you have in your son is infinitely touching … and laudable,” he added as an afterthought. With a gesture that was familiar with him, he raised a finger and held it to his lips while he went on speaking. “But unfortunately, Madame, the facts, ah, yes, the facts …”
As if his colleague had given him the cue, the other priest took him up, and went on with greater unction. “Yes, the facts, there’s no denying it, are … crushing!”
“I beg you,” Mme. de Fontanin began, looking away.