Volume 4
Chapter XXXVII. The Challenge of Paulette Dubois
 

"Monsieur, Monsieur!" came the voice from inside the house, querulously and anxiously. Charley entered the Notary's bedroom.

"Monsieur," said the Notary excitedly, "she is here--Paulette is here. My wife is asleep, thank God! but old Sophie has just told me that the woman asks to see me. Ah, Heaven above, what shall I do?"

"Will you leave it to me?"

"Yes, yes, Monsieur."

"You will do exactly as I say?"

"Ah, most sure."

"Very well. Keep still. I will see her first. Trust to me." He turned and left the room.

Charley found the woman in the Notary's office, which, while partly detached from the house, did duty as sitting-room and library. When Charley entered, the room was only lighted by two candles, and Paulette's face was hidden by a veil, but Charley observed the tremulousness of the figure and the nervous decision of manner. He had seen her before several times, and he had always noticed the air, half bravado, half shrinking, marking her walk and movements, as though two emotions were fighting in her. She was now dressed in black, save for one bright red ribbon round her throat, incongruous and garish.

When she saw Charley she started, for she had expected the servant with a message from the Notary--her own message had been peremptory.

"I wish to see the Notary," she said defiantly.

"He is not able to come to you."

"What of that?"

"Did you expect to go to his bedroom?"

"Why not?" She was abrupt to discourtesy.

"You are neither physician, nor relative."

"I have important business."

"I transact his business for him, Madame."

"You are a tailor."

"I learned that; I am learning to be a notary."

"My business is private."

"I transact his private business too--that which his wife cannot do. Would you prefer his wife to me? It must be either the one or the other."

The woman started towards the door in a rage. He stepped between. "You cannot see the Notary."

"I'll see his wife, then--"

"That would only put the fat in the fire. His wife would not listen to you. She is quick-tempered, and she fancies she has reasons for not liking you."

"She's a fool. I haven't been always particular, but as for Narcisse Dauphin--"

"He has been a good friend to you at some expense, the world says."

The woman struggled with herself. "The world lies!" she said at last.

"But he doesn't. The village was against you once. That was when the Notary, with the Seigneur, was for you--it has cost him something ever since, I'm told. You've never thanked him."

"He has tortured me for years, the oily, smirking, lying--"

"He has been your best friend," he interrupted. "Please sit down, and listen to me for a moment."

She hesitated, then did as he asked.

"He tells me that years ago he was in love with you. Hasn't he behaved better than some who said they loved you?"

The woman half started up, her eyes flashing, but met a deprecating motion of his hand and sat down again.

"He thought that if you knew your child lived, you would think better of life--and of yourself. He has his good points, the Notary."

"Why doesn't he tell me where my child is?"

"The Notary is in bed--you shot him! Don't you think it is doing you a good turn not to have you arrested?"

"It was an accident."

"Oh no, it wasn't! You couldn't make a jury believe that. And if you were in prison, how could you find your child? You see, you have treated the Notary very badly."

She was silent, and he added, slowly: "He had good reasons for not telling you. It wasn't his own secret, and he hadn't come by it in a strictly professional way. Your child was being well cared for, and he told you simply that it was alive--for your own sake. But he has changed his mind at last, and--"

The woman sprang from her seat. "He will tell me--he will tell me?"

"I will tell you."

"Monsieur-Monsieur--ah, my God, but you are kind! How should you know-- what do you know?"

"I give you my word that by to-morrow evening you shall know where your child is."

For a moment she was bewildered and overcome, then a look of gratitude, of luminous hope, covered her face, softening the hardness of its contour, and she fell on her knees beside the table, dropped her head in her arms, and sobbed as if her heart would break.

"My little lamb, my little, little lamb-my own dearest!" she sobbed. "I shall have you again. I shall have you again--all my own!"

He stood and watched her meditatively. He was wondering why it was that grief like this had never touched him so before. His eyes were moist. Though he had been many things in his life, he had never been abashed; but a curious timidity possessed him now.

He leaned over and touched her shoulder with a kindly abruptness, a friendly awkwardness. "Cheer up," he said. "You shall have your child, if Dauphin can help you to it."

"If he ever tries to take him from me"--she sprang to her feet, her face in a fury--"I will--"

For an instant her overpowering passion possessed her, and she stood violent and wilful; then, under his fixed, exacting gaze, her rage ceased; she became still and grey and quiet.

"I shall know to-morrow evening, Monsieur? Where?" Her voice was weak and distant.

He thought for a time. "At my house-at nine o'clock," he answered at last.

"Monsieur," she said, in a choking voice, "if I get my child again, I will bless you to my dying day."

"No, no; it will be Dauphin you must bless," he said, and opened the door for her. As she disappeared into the dusk and silence he adjusted his eye-glass, and stared musingly after her, though there was nothing to see save the summer darkness, nothing to hear save the croak of the frogs in the village pond. He was thinking of the trial of Joseph Nadeau, and of a woman in the gallery, who laughed.

"Monsieur, Monsieur," called the voice of the Notary from the bedroom.