Lemonnier had remained a widower with one child. He had loved his wife devotedly, with a tender and exalted love, without a slip, during their entire married life. He was a good, honest man, perfectly simple, sincere, without suspicion or malice.
He fell in love with a poor neighbor, proposed and was accepted. He was making a very comfortable living out of the wholesale cloth business, and he did not for a minute suspect that the young girl might have accepted him for anything else but himself.
She made him happy. She was everything to him; he only thought of her, looked at her continually, with worshiping eyes. During meals he would make any number of blunders, in order not to have to take his eyes from the beloved face; he would pour the wine in his plate and the water in the salt-cellar, then he would laugh like a child, repeating:
"You see, I love you too much; that makes me crazy."
She would smile with a calm and resigned look; then she would look away, as though embarrassed by the adoration of her husband, and try to make him talk about something else; but he would take her hand under the table and he would hold it in his, whispering:
"My little Jeanne, my darling little Jeanne!"
She sometimes lost patience and said:
"Come, come, be reasonable; eat and let me eat."
He would sigh and break off a mouthful of bread, which he would then chew slowly.
For five years they had no children. Then suddenly she announced to him that this state of affairs would soon cease. He was wild with joy. He no longer left her for a minute, until his old nurse, who had brought him up and who often ruled the house, would push him out and close the door behind him, in order to compel him to go out in the fresh air.
He had grown very intimate with a young man who had known his wife since childhood, and who was one of the prefect's secretaries. M. Duretour would dine three times a week with the Lemonniers, bringing flowers to madame, and sometimes a box at the theater; and often, at the end of the dinner, Lemonnier, growing tender, turning towards his wife, would explain: "With a companion like you and a friend like him, a man is completely happy on earth."
She died in childbirth. The shock almost killed him. But the sight of the child, a poor, moaning little creature, gave him courage.
He loved it with a passionate and sorrowful love, with a morbid love in which stuck the memory of death, but in which lived something of his worship for the dead mother. It was the flesh of his wife, her being continued, a sort of quintessence of herself. This child was her very life transferred to another body; she had disappeared that it might exist, and the father would smother it in with kisses. But also, this child had killed her; he had stolen this beloved creature, his life was at the cost of hers. And M. Lemonnier would place his son in the cradle and would sit down and watch him. He would sit this way by the hour, looking at him, dreaming of thousands of things, sweet or sad. Then, when the little one was asleep, he would bend over him and sob.
The child grew. The father could no longer spend an hour away from him; he would stay near him, take him out for walks, and himself dress him, wash him, make him eat. His friend, M. Duretour, also seemed to love the boy; he would kiss him wildly, in those frenzies of tenderness which are characteristic of parents. He would toss him in his arms, he would trot him on his knees, by the hour, and M. Lemonnier, delighted, would mutter:
"Isn't he a darling? Isn't he a darling?"
And M. Duretour would hug the child in his arms and tickle his neck with his mustache.
Celeste, the old nurse, alone, seemed to have no tenderness for the little one. She would grow angry at his pranks, and seemed impatient at the caresses of the two men. She would exclaim:
"How can you expect to bring a child up like that? You'll make a perfect monkey out of him."
Years went by, and Jean was nine years old. He hardly knew how to read; he had been so spoiled, and only did as he saw fit. He was willful, stubborn and quick-tempered. The father always gave in to him and let him have his own way. M. Duretour would always buy him all the toys he wished, and he fed him on cake and candies. Then Celeste would grow angry and exclaim:
"It's a shame, monsieur, a shame. You are spoiling this child. But it will have to stop; yes, sir, I tell you it will have to stop, and before long, too."
M. Lemonnier would answer, smiling:
"What can you expect? I love him too much, I can't resist him; you must get used to it."
Jean was delicate, rather. The doctor said that he was anaemic, prescribed iron, rare meat and broth.
But the little fellow loved only cake and refused all other nourishment; and the father, in despair, stuffed him with cream-puffs and chocolate eclairs.
One evening, as they were sitting down to supper, Celeste brought on the soup with an air of authority and an assurance which she did not usually have. She took off the cover and, dipping the ladle into the dish, she declared:
"Here is some broth such as I have never made; the young one will have to take some this time."
M. Lemonnier, frightened, bent his head. He saw a storm brewing.
Celeste took his plate, filled it herself and placed it in front of him.
He tasted the soup and said:
"It is, indeed, excellent."
The servant took the boy's plate and poured a spoonful of soup in it. Then she retreated a few steps and waited.
Jean smelled the food and pushed his plate away with an expression of disgust. Celeste, suddenly pale, quickly stepped forward and forcibly poured a spoonful down the child's open mouth.
He choked, coughed, sneezed, spat; howling, he seized his glass and threw it at his nurse. She received it full in the stomach. Then, exasperated, she took the young shaver's head under her arm and began pouring spoonful after spoonful of soup down his throat. He grew as red as a beet, and he would cough it up, stamping, twisting, choking, beating the air with his hands.
At first the father was so surprised that he could not move. Then, suddenly, he rushed forward, wild with rage, seized the servant by the throat and threw her up against the wall stammering:
"Out! Out! Out! you brute!"
But she shook him off, and, her hair streaming down her back, her eyes snapping, she cried out:
"What's gettin' hold of you? You're trying to thrash me because I am making this child eat soup when you are filling him with sweet stuff!"
He kept repeating, trembling from head to foot:
"Out! Get out-get out, you brute!"
Then, wild, she turned to him and, pushing her face up against his, her voice trembling:
"Ah!--you think-you think that you can treat me like that? Oh! no. And for whom?--for that brat who is not even yours. No, not yours! No, not yours--not yours! Everybody knows it, except yourself! Ask the grocer, the butcher, the baker, all of them, any one of them!"
She was growling and mumbling, choked with passion; then she stopped and looked at him.
He was motionless livid, his arms hanging by his sides. After a short pause, he murmured in a faint, shaky voice, instinct with deep feeling:
"You say? you say? What do you say?"
She remained silent, frightened by his appearance. Once more he stepped forward, repeating:
"You say--what do you say?"
Then in a calm voice, she answered:
"I say what I know, what everybody knows."
He seized her and, with the fury of a beast, he tried to throw her down. But, although old, she was strong and nimble. She slipped under his arm, and running around the table once more furious, she screamed:
"Look at him, just look at him, fool that you are! Isn't he the living image of M. Durefour? just look at his nose and his eyes! Are yours like that? And his hair! Is it like his mother's? I tell you that everyone knows it, everyone except yourself! It's the joke of the town! Look at him!"
She went to the door, opened it, and disappeared.
Jean, frightened, sat motionless before his plate of soup.
At the end of an hour, she returned gently, to see how matters stood. The child, after doing away with all the cakes and a pitcher full of cream and one of syrup, was now emptying the jam-pot with his soup-spoon.
The father had gone out.
Celeste took the child, kissed him, and gently carried him to his room and put him to bed. She came back to the dining-room, cleared the table, put everything in place, feeling very uneasy all the time.
Not a single sound could be heard throughout the house. She put her ear against's her master's door. He seemed to be perfectly still. She put her eye to the keyhole. He was writing, and seemed very calm.
Then she returned to the kitchen and sat down, ready for any emergency. She slept on a chair and awoke at daylight.
She did the rooms as she had been accustomed to every morning; she swept and dusted, and, towards eight o'clock, prepared M. Lemonnier's breakfast.
But she did not dare bring it to her master, knowing too well how she would be received; she waited for him to ring. But he did not ring. Nine o'clock, then ten o'clock went by.
Celeste, not knowing what to think, prepared her tray and started up with it, her heart beating fast.
She stopped before the door and listened. Everything was still. She knocked; no answer. Then, gathering up all her courage, she opened the door and entered. With a wild shriek, she dropped the breakfast tray which she had been holding in her hand.
In the middle of the room, M. Lemonnier was hanging by a rope from a ring in the ceiling. His tongue was sticking out horribly. His right slipper was lying on the ground, his left one still on his foot. An upturned chair had rolled over to the bed.
Celeste, dazed, ran away shrieking. All the neighbors crowded together. The physician declared that he had died at about midnight.
A letter addressed to M. Duretdur was found on the table of the suicide. It contained these words:
"I leave and entrust the child to you!"