Read The Thibaults Online

Authors: Roger Martin Du Gard

The Thibaults (66 page)

BOOK: The Thibaults
12.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“In three years, I don’t say no. But not now, please, not at once!”

Jerome made no answer, but patted her hand. “Today,” he was repeating under his breath. “This very evening, without fail!” Just now he felt that he had strength enough to break down all resistance, but already he could see, only too clearly, the limit of his power; no time must be lost.

He had the hotel bill brought him, with a time-table. The train left at 7:15 p.m.

Rinette asked him to help her drag from underneath a wardrobe a battered wooden trunk containing a bundle of garments.

“My uniform when I was in service,” she explained.

A memory of Noémie’s dresses which Nicole had handed over to the pension-keeper at Amsterdam flashed across Jerome’s mind. He sat down, drew Rinette onto his knee, and calmly, yet with real fervour throbbing in the cadence of each phrase, exhorted her to leave her finery behind, cast off the harlot’s stock-in-trade, and begged her to go back, for good and all, to the simple ways, the purity of her former life.

She listened to him earnestly. His words were like an echo of some long-forgotten voice within herself. “And then,” she could not help reflecting, “imagine me wearing those things at home! At high mass, for instance! What would they think of me?” She could never have brought herself to throw away, even to give away, the lace-trimmed underlinen and showy dresses on which so much of her savings had been spent. But she owed the girl with whom she shared the room two hundred francs and, now she was leaving Paris, the debt loomed large in her mind. Why not settle it by leaving the clothes to her friend, and keep intact the round sum Jerome had provided? An excellent way out!

At the idea of putting on once more her shabby black serge dress she clapped her hands with glee, as if she were preparing for a fancy ball. She slipped off Jerome’s knee with a burst of hysterical laughter that racked her body like a fit of sobbing.

Jerome had averted his eyes so as not to embarrass her while she dressed. He walked to the window and stared, in a brown study, at the courtyard wall in front. Surely, he mused, I’m worth more than people think! To his mind, this act of merit redeemed the error of the past, responsibility for which, however, he had never frankly taken on himself.

One thing more was needed to set his mind at rest. Without turning his head, he addressed the girl impulsively:

“Tell me that you’re not angry with me any more.”

“Not a bit!”

“No, but say the words. Say: ‘I forgive you.’ ” Her courage failed her and, still gazing out of the window, he implored: “Be generous. Say just those three words!”

She obeyed him.

“Of course … of course, I forgive you, sir.”

“Thank you.”

Tears came to his eyes. He was an exile returning to his place in the scheme of things, regaining, after years of deprivation, a tranquil heart! At a window of the lower story a canary was in full song. “There is a soul of goodness in me,” Jerome reflected. “People judge me over-harshly; they don’t understand. As a man I’m better than the way I live.” His heart overflowed with compassion, indiscriminate benevolence.

“Poor Cricri!” he murmured.

When he turned he saw Rinette fastening the last buttons of her black woollen bodice. She had drawn her hair back and, after a wash, her cheeks had regained their bloom; once more she looked the timid, rather mulish little servant-girl whom Noémie had brought back with her six years earlier from Brittany.

Unable to contain his feelings, Jerome went up to her and slipped his arm round her waist. “I’m good at heart,” he kept on repeating to himself like a refrain. “Far better than anyone supposes.” Instinctively his fingers unhooked her skirt while his lips rested on the girl’s forehead in a paternal kiss.

Rinette shrank away—almost she seemed the shy, reluctant little girl of former days. He pressed her closely to him.

“Ah,” she sighed, “so you still use the same scent—you know what I mean, the one that smells like lemonade.” Smiling now, she lifted a responsive mouth to his, closing her eyes.

Was it not, indeed, the only token of gratitude that she could offer? And for Jerome, too, was it not the one gesture adequate in his present mood of mystic fervour to express in its entirety the devout compassion abounding in his heart?

When they reached the Montparnasse station her train was in. Now, for the first time, when she saw the car labelled “Lannion,” Rinette woke to a sense of realities. No, there was no catch in it; the dream that she had cherished for so many years was coming true at last. Why then, she wondered, should she feel so sad?

Jerome found a seat for her and they paced up and down the platform in front of her car, in silence. Rinette was thinking of something, of someone… . But she found no words to break the silence. Something, it seemed, was preying on Jerome’s mind as well, for several times he turned to her, as if about to speak, then looked away. At last, shunning her eyes, he blurted it out:

“I didn’t tell you the truth, Cricri. Mme. Petit-Dutreuil is dead.”

She asked for no details, but began to cry, and in her silent grief Jerome took heart of grace, thinking with flattering unction: “What kindness there is in all of us!”

No more words passed between them till the train was due to leave. Had she dared to do so, Rinette would have snatched at any pretext to hand back the money and return to Mme. Rose, begging to be taken back. The delay was getting on Jerome’s nerves as well; the thought that he had achieved the rescue of this girl had lost its zest.

Only when the train was pulling out did Rinette pluck up her courage.

“Will you be so kind, sir, as to give my respects to M. Daniel?”

But the noise of the train drowned her voice. She saw he had not heard her; her lips began to quiver, her fingers tightened upon her breast. Jerome, all smiles, delighted to see her go, waved her goodbye with a courteous sweep of his hat.

A new thought had waylaid him and set him tingling with impatience; he would take the first train back to Maisons-Laffitte and, throwing himself at his wife’s feet, confess everything—well, nearly everything.

“And then,” he murmured to himself as he lit a cigarette and moved away from the station with brisk steps, “about the yearly allowance—I’d better explain matters to Thérèse; she’s got a head on her shoulders and will see it’s properly attended to.”

XIII

ANTOINE had formed the habit of calling several times a week at Rachel’s place to take her out to dinner.

One evening as Rachel was on her way towards the mirror, preparatory to going out, and taking her powder-box out of her bag, she let a scrap of folded paper drop to the floor. Antoine picked it up and held it out to her.

“Eh? Oh, thanks!”

He thought he had detected an uneasy tremor in Rachel’s voice; she read his thought at once.

“Well?” she said, trying to pass it off with a joke. “What’s all the fuss about? It’s only a time-table.”

He said nothing and she replaced the paper in her bag. A moment later he blurted out the question:

“Are you going away?”

And now the flutter of her lashes, her twisted smile, were not to be mistaken.

“Well, Rachel …?”

Her smile had gone; a spasm of anguish gripped him. No, he thought; no, I mustn’t let her. … I couldn’t do without her, even for a day or two!

He went up to her and touched her arm; sobbing, she sank onto his breast.

“But what … what ever …?” he stammered.

She replied at once in brief, staccato sentences.

“No, it’s nothing, nothing at all. Just my nerves. I’ll tell you; then you’ll see it’s nothing much really. It’s on account of baby’s grave; at Gu
é
-la-Rozi
è
re, you know. I haven’t been to visit it for ages and ages; I really shall have to go there soon. You understand, don’t you? Imagine my frightening you like that! I’m sorry. So you’d be dreadfully cut up—would you?—if … if one day——”

“Don’t go on!” he begged in a low voice. Now for the first time he realized the place that Rachel had come to occupy in his life, and it appalled him. “How long will you be away?” he faltered.

Loosening her embrace, she ran off, with a forced laugh, to the washstand, to sponge her eyes.

“Isn’t it silly, starting crying like that!” she exclaimed. “Do you know, the news came one evening—exactly like tonight—when I was just going out to dinner. I was at my place with some friends—people you don’t know. There was a ring at the bell; a wire. ‘Baby dangerously ill. Come.’ I knew what it meant. I rushed off to the station just as I was, in a light tulle hat and evening shoes, and caught the first train out. What a journey that was! I was all alone and almost off my head. It’s a wonder I wasn’t quite crazy by the time I got there.” She turned towards Antoine. “Wait just a bit longer! I’m letting them dry off; that’s the best way.” Her face lit up suddenly. “Antoine, do you want to do something very, very nice? Then you’ll come along there with me. It would only take two days, you know —Saturday and Sunday. We could stay the night at Rouen or Caudebec and go on next day to the Gu
é
-la-Rozi
è
re cemetery. Wouldn’t it be great—to go off like that together, all on our own! Don’t you think so?”

They left on the last Saturday in September. The afternoon was fine, the train almost empty, and they had the car to themselves. Antoine was delighted with his two days’ holiday in Rachel’s company ; a weight seemed lifted from . his shoulders and he looked younger. Like a schoolboy, he seemed unable to keep still, he laughed at everything and twitted Rachel about her luggage deployed along the rack. The better to feast his eyes upon her face, he refused to sit beside her.

“That’ll do!” she protested when he got up again, this time to lower the blind. “I’m not going to melt.”

“Perhaps not. But, when the sun’s on your face, I’m positively blinded.” And, indeed, when the light fell full on her cheeks and set her hair ablaze, his eyes grew dazzled if he looked long at her. “This is the first time we’ve travelled together,” he presently remarked. “Has that struck you?”

She could not bring herself to smile. Her mouth was a little drawn, tense with resolve and contained emotion. He bent towards her.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s nothing. Only the journey.”

He was silent, aware that selfishly he had forgotten the object of their pilgrimage. But then she explained what she meant.

“Travelling always sets my nerves on edge. The landscape flying past. And always at a journey’s end … the unknown!” Her eyes dwelt for a moment on the transient horizon. “And I’ve travelled in so many of them, trains and boats.” Her look grew sombre.

Antoine slipped across to her side and, stretching himself full length on the seat, laid his head on her lap.

“ ‘Thy navel is like a round goblet … set about with lilies,’ ” he murmured. Then, after a moment’s silence, realizing that Rachel’s thoughts were far away, he asked her: “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing.” She tried to speak lightly. “About your head-masterish tie, perhaps!” She slipped a finger under the silk. “To think that even when you travel you can’t manage to knot it a trifle looser, let it out a bit!” She stretched herself and smiled. “A stroke of luck—isn’t it?— having the car to ourselves. Now it’s up to you to talk. Tell me about things that have happened to you.”

He laughed.

“That’s more in your line—things that happen! I’ve only my ‘cases,’ examinations, and so forth. How on earth could I have anything to yarn about? I’ve always lived like a mole, underground; it’s you who’ve pulled me up to the surface and taught me to look at the world.”

Never before had he confessed as much to her. Bending above the head she loved so well, pillowed on her knees, she took it between her hands, gazing into his eyes.

“You mean that? You really mean it?”

“Next year, you know,” he went on, without changing his position, “we won’t stay in Paris all the summer.”

“No?”

“I haven’t taken any leave this year; I’ll fix things up to get a fortnight off at least.”

“Yes.”

“Three weeks, perhaps.”

“Yes.”

“We’ll go abroad together, somewhere or other. Like the idea?”

“Yes.”

“To the mountains, if you like. The Vosges, or Switzerland. Or we might go further afield.”

There was a faraway look on Rachel’s face.

“What are you thinking about now?” he asked.

“About what you’re saying. Switzerland—rather!”

“Or the Italian lakes, perhaps.”

“No.”

Lying on his back, lulled by the rhythms of the swaying train, he drowsily agreed.

“All right then, we’ll go somewhere else.” After a moment’s silence he added lazily: “What have you got against the Italian lakes?”

With the tips of her fingers she stroked Antoine’s forehead, his eyelids, and his temples, slightly sunken like his cheeks, and did not answer. His eyes were closed, but the question he had put still simmered in his brain.

“Why won’t you tell me what you have against the Italian lakes?”

She made a slight movement of impatience.

“Because, if you must know, that’s where my brother died. My brother Aaron. At Pallanza.”

He regretted his insistence, but did not drop the subject.

“Had he settled in Italy, then?”

“Oh, no, he was travelling. On his honeymoon.” Her eyebrows frowned; then, after a moment, as if she had read Antoine’s thought, she murmured: “No, there’s no denying it, I’ve had my share of queer experiences in my time!”

“You don’t hit it off with your sister-in-law, I suppose?” he suggested. “Anyhow you never speak of her.”

The train was stopping; getting up, she looked out of the window. But she had heard Antoine’s question, for she turned round towards him.

“Eh? What sister-in-law? Clara?”

“The one who married your brother; he died, you said, on his honeymoon.”

“She died at the same time. Didn’t I tell you about it? No?” She was still looking out of the window. “They were drowned in the lake. Nobody ever knew how it happened.” She hesitated. “Nobody, except, perhaps … Hirsch.”

BOOK: The Thibaults
12.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva
Guardian: Volume 5 by Ella Price
The Stonecutter by Camilla Läckberg
The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda
Perfect Victim by Carla Norton, Christine McGuire
Engaging the Enemy by Elizabeth Moon
The War Planners by Andrew Watts
Kindergarten Baby: A Novel by Cricket Rohman