Bel Ami/Chapter XIV
|←Chapter XIII: Madame Marelle||Bel Ami by
|Chapter XV: Suzanne→|
|Table of Contents|
The church was draped in black, and over the door a large escutcheon surmounted by a coronet announced to the passers-by that a nobleman was being buried. The ceremony was just over; those present went out slowly, passing by the coffin, and by Count de Vaudrec's nephew, who shook hands and returned salutations.
When Georges du Roy and his wife left the church, they walked along side by side on their way home. They did not speak; they were both preoccupied. At length Georges said, as if talking to himself: "Truly it is very astonishing!"
Madeleine asked: "What, my friend?"
"That Vaudrec left us nothing."
She blushed and said: "Why should he leave us anything? Had he any reason for doing so?" Then after several moments of silence, she continued: "Perhaps there is a will at a lawyer's; we should not know of it."
He replied: "That is possible, for he was our best friend. He dined with us twice a week; he came at any time; he was at home with us. He loved you as a father; he had no family, no children, no brothers nor sisters, only a nephew. Yes, there should be a will. I would not care for much--a remembrance to prove that he thought of us--that he recognized the affection we felt for him. We should certainly have a mark of friendship."
She said with a pensive and indifferent air: "It is possible that there is a will."
When they entered the house, the footman handed Madeleine a letter. She opened it and offered it to her husband.
"OFFICE OF M. LAMANEUR, Notary. 17 Rue des Vosges,"
"Madame: Kindly call at my office at a quarter past two o'clock Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, on business which concerns you."
Georges, in his turn, colored.
"That is as it should be. It is strange, however, that he should write to you and not to me, for I am the head of the family legally."
"Shall we go at once?" she asked.
"Yes, I should like to."
After luncheon they set out for M. Lamaneur's office.
The notary was a short, round man--round all over. His head looked like a ball fastened to another ball, which was supported by legs so short that they too almost resembled balls.
He bowed, as Du Roy and his wife were shown into his office, pointed to seats, and said, turning to Madeleine: "Madame, I sent for you in order to inform you of Count de Vaudrec's will, which will be of interest to you."
Georges could not help muttering: "I suspected that."
The notary continued: "I shall read you the document which is very brief."
"'I, the undersigned, Paul Emile Cyprien Gontran, Count de Vaudrec, sound both in body and mind, here express my last wishes. As death might take me away at any moment, I wish to take the precaution of drawing up my will, to be deposited with M. Lamaneur.'"
"'Having no direct heirs, I bequeath all my fortune, comprising stocks and bonds for six hundred thousand francs and landed property for five hundred thousand, to Mme. Claire Madeleine du Roy unconditionally. I beg her to accept that gift from a dead friend as a proof of devoted, profound, and respectful affection.'"
The notary said: "That is all. That document bears the date of August last, and took the place of one of the same nature made two years ago in the name of Mme. Claire Madeleine Forestier. I have the first will, which would prove, in case of contestation on the part of the family, that Count de Vaudrec had not changed his mind."
Madeleine cast down her eyes; her cheeks were pale. Georges nervously twisted his mustache.
The notary continued after a moment's pause: "It is of course understood that Madame cannot accept that legacy without your consent."
Du Roy rose and said shortly: "I ask time for reflection."
The notary smiled, bowed, and replied pleasantly: "I comprehend the scruples which cause you to hesitate. I may add that M. de Vaudrec's nephew, who was informed this morning of his uncle's last wishes, expresses himself as ready to respect them if he be given one hundred thousand francs. In my opinion the will cannot be broken, but a lawsuit would cause a sensation which you would probably like to avoid. The world often judges uncharitably. Can you let me have your reply before Saturday?"
Georges bowed, and together with his wife left the office. When they arrived home, Du Roy closed the door and throwing his hat on the bed, asked: "What were the relations between you and Vaudrec?"
Madeleine, who was taking off her veil, turned around with a shudder: "Between us?"
"Yes, between you and him! One does not leave one's entire fortune to a woman unless--"
She trembled, and could scarcely take out the pins which fastened the transparent tissue. Then she stammered in an agitated manner: "You are mad--you are--you are--you did not think--he would leave you anything!"
Georges replied, emphazing each word: "Yes, he could have left me something; me, your husband, his friend; but not you, my wife and his friend. The distinction is material in the eyes of the world."
Madeleine gazed at him fixedly: "It seems to me that the world would have considered a legacy from him to you very strange."
"Because,"--she hesitated, then continued: "Because you are my husband; because you were not well acquainted; because I have been his friend so long; because his first will, made during Forestier's lifetime, was already in my favor."
Georges began to pace to and fro. He finally said: "You cannot accept that."
She answered indifferently: "Very well; it is not necessary then to wait until Saturday; you can inform M. Lamaneur at once."
He paused before her, and they gazed into one another's eyes as if by that mute and ardent interrogation they were trying to examine each other's consciences. In a low voice he murmured: "Come, confess your relations."
She shrugged her shoulders. "You are absurd. Vaudrec was very fond of me, very, but there was nothing more, never."
He stamped his foot. "You lie! It is not possible."
She replied calmly: "It is so, nevertheless."
He resumed his pacing to and fro; then pausing again, he said: "Explain to me, then, why he left all his fortune to you."
She did so with a nonchalant air: "It is very simple. As you said just now, we were his only friends, or rather, I was his only friend, for he knew me when a child. My mother was a governess in his father's house. He came here continually, and as he had no legal heirs, he selected me. It is possible that he even loved me a little. But what woman has never been loved thus? He brought me flowers every Monday. You were never surprised at that, and he never brought you any. To-day he leaves me his fortune for the same reason, because he had no one else to leave it to. It would on the other hand have been extremely surprising if he had left it to you."
"What are you to him?"
She spoke so naturally and so calmly that Georges hesitated before replying: "It makes no difference; we cannot accept that bequest under those conditions. Everyone would talk about it and laugh at me. My fellow-journalists are already too much disposed to be jealous of me and to attack me. I have to be especially careful of my honor and my reputation. I cannot permit my wife to accept a legacy of that kind from a man whom rumor has already assigned to her as her lover. Forestier might perhaps have tolerated that, but I shall not."
She replied gently: "Very well, my dear, we will not take it; it will be a million less in our pockets, that is all."
Georges paced the room and uttered his thoughts aloud, thus speaking to his wife without addressing her:
"Yes, a million--so much the worse. He did not think when making his will what a breach of etiquette he was committing. He did not realize in what a false, ridiculous position he was placing me. He should have left half of it to me--that would have made matters right."
He seated himself, crossed his legs and began to twist the ends of his mustache, as was his custom when annoyed, uneasy, or pondering over a weighty question.
Madeleine took up a piece of embroidery upon which she worked occasionally, and said: "I have nothing to say. You must decide."
It was some time before he replied; then he said hesitatingly: "The world would never understand how it was that Vaudrec constituted you his sole heiress and that I allowed it. To accept that legacy would be to avow guilty relations on your part and an infamous lack of self-respect on mine. Do you know how the acceptance of it might be interpreted? We should have to find some adroit means of palliating it. We should have to give people to suppose, for instance, that he divided his fortune between us, giving half to you and half to me."
She said: "I do not see how that can be done, since there is a formal will."
He replied: "Oh, that is very simple. We have no children; you can therefore deed me part of the inheritance. In that way we can silence malignant tongues."
She answered somewhat impatiently: "I do not see how we can silence malignant tongues since the will is there, signed by Vaudrec."
He said angrily: "Do you need to exhibit it, or affix it to the door? You are absurd! We will say that the fortune was left us jointly by Count de Vaudrec. That is all. You cannot, moreover, accept the legacy without my authority; I will only consent on the condition of a partition which will prevent me from becoming a laughing-stock for the world."
She glanced sharply at him: "As you will. I am ready."
He seemed to hesitate again, rose, paced the floor, and avoiding his wife's piercing gaze, he said: "No--decidedly no--perhaps it would be better to renounce it altogether--it would be more correct--more honorable. From the nature of the bequest even charitably-disposed people would suspect illicit relations."
He paused before Madeleine. "If you like, my darling, I will return to M. Lamaneur's alone, to consult him and to explain the matter to him. I will tell him of my scruples and I will add that we have agreed to divide it in order to avoid any scandal. From the moment that I accept a portion of the inheritance it will be evident that there is nothing wrong. I can say: 'My wife accepts it because I, her husband, accept'--I, who am the best judge of what she can do without compromising herself."
Madeleine simply murmured: "As you wish."
He continued: "Yes, it will be as clear as day if that is done. We inherit a fortune from a friend who wished to make no distinction between us, thereby showing that his liking for you was purely Platonic. You may be sure that if he had given it a thought, that is what he would have done. He did not reflect--he did not foresee the consequences. As you said just now, he offered you flowers every week, he left you his wealth."
She interrupted him with a shade of annoyance:
"I understand. No more explanations are necessary. Go to the notary at once."
He stammered in confusion: "You are right; I will go." He took his hat, and, as he was leaving the room, he asked: "Shall I try to compromise with the nephew for fifty thousand francs?"
She replied haughtily: "No. Give him the hundred thousand francs he demands, and take them from my share if you wish."
Abashed, he murmured: "No, we will share it. After deducting fifty thousand francs each we will still have a million net." Then he added: "Until later, my little Made."
He proceeded to the notary's to explain the arrangement decided upon, which he claimed originated with his wife. The following day they signed a deed for five hundred thousand francs, which Madeleine du Roy gave up to her husband.
On leaving the office, as it was pleasant, Georges proposed that they take a stroll along the boulevards. He was very tender, very careful of her, and laughed joyously while she remained pensive and grave.
It was a cold, autumn day. The pedestrians seemed in haste and walked along rapidly.
Du Roy led his wife to the shop into the windows of which he had so often gazed at the coveted chronometer.
"Shall I buy you some trinket?" he asked.
She replied indifferently: "As you like."
They entered the shop: "What would you prefer, a necklace, a bracelet, or earrings?"
The sight of the brilliant gems made her eyes sparkle in spite of herself, as she glanced at the cases filled with costly baubles.
Suddenly she exclaimed: "There is a lovely bracelet."
It was a chain, very unique in shape, every link of which was set with a different stone.
Georges asked: "How much is that bracelet?"
The jeweler replied: "Three thousand francs, sir."
"If you will let me have it for two thousand five hundred, I will take it."
The man hesitated, then replied: "No, sir, it is impossible."
Du Roy said: "See here--throw in this chronometer at fifteen hundred francs; that makes four thousand, and I will pay cash. If you do not agree, I will go somewhere else."
The jeweler finally yielded. "Very well, sir."
The journalist, after leaving his address, said: "You can have my initials G. R. C. interlaced below a baron's crown, engraved on the chronometer."
Madeleine, in surprise, smiled, and when they left the shop, she took his arm quite affectionately. She thought him very shrewd and clever. He was right; now that he had a fortune he must have a title.
They passed the Vaudeville on their way arid, entering, secured a box. Then they repaired to Mme, de Marelle's at Georges' suggestion, to invite her to spend the evening with them. Georges rather dreaded the first meeting with Clotilde, but she did not seem to bear him any malice, or even to remember their disagreement. The dinner, which they took at a restaurant, was excellent, and the evening altogether enjoyable.
Georges and Madeleine returned home late. The gas was extinguished, and in order to light the way the journalist from time to time struck a match. On reaching the landing on the first floor they saw their reflections in the mirror. Du Roy raised his hand with the lighted match in it, in order to distinguish their images more clearly, and said, with a triumphant smile:
"The millionaires are passing by."