"You have only to look at her, and to see that she means well."
Blanche took up her needle again, with dogged submission. "If we are to accept charity, mother, I should like to know the hand that gives it," she answered. "I will say no more."
"When you are as old as I am, my dear," rejoined Madame Marillac, "you will not think quite so positively as you think now. I have learned some hard lessons," she proceeded, turning to Stella, "and I hope I am the better for them. My life has not been a happy one--"
"Your life has been a martyrdom!" said the girl, breaking out again in spite of herself. "Oh, my father! my father!" She pushed aside the work and hid her face in her hands.
The gentle mother spoke severely for the first time. "Respect your father's memory!" she said. Blanche trembled and kept silence. "I have no false pride," Madame Marillac continued. "I own that we are miserably poor; and I thank you, my dear young lady, for your kind intentions toward us, without embarrassing you by any inquiries. We manage to live. While my eyes last, our work helps to support us. My good eldest daughter has some employment as a teacher of music, and contributes her little share to assist our poor household. I don't distrust you--I only say, let us try a little longer if we cannot help ourselves."
She had barely pronounced the last words, when a startling interruption led to consequences which the persons present had not foreseen. A shrill, wailing voice suddenly pierced through the flimsy partition which divided the front room and the back room. "Bread!" cried the voice in French; "I'm hungry. Bread! bread!"
The daughter started to her feet. "Think of his betraying us at this moment!" she exclaimed indignantly. The mother rose in silence, and opened a cupboard. Its position was opposite to the place in which Stella was sitting. She saw two or three knives and forks, some cups and saucers and plates, and a folded table-cloth. Nothing else appeared on the shelves; not even the stray crust of bread for which the poor woman had been looking. "Go, my dear, and quiet your brother," she said--and closed the cupboard door again as patiently as ever.
Stella opened her pocketbook when Blanche had left the room. "For God's sake, take something!" she cried. " I offer it with the sincerest respect--I offer it as a loan."
Madame Marillac gently signed to Stella to close the pocketbook again. "That kind heart of yours must not be distressed about trifles," she said. "The baker will trust us until we get the money for our work--and my daughter knows it. If you can tell me nothing else, my dear, will you tell me your Christian name? It is painful to me to speak to you quite as a stranger."
Stella at once complied with the request. Madame Marillac smiled as she repeated the name.
"There is almost another tie between us," she said. "We have your name in France--it speaks with a familiar sound to me in this strange place. Dear Miss Stella, when my poor boy startled you by that cry for food, he recalled to me the saddest of all my anxieties. When I think of him, I should be tempted if my better sense did not restrain me-- No! no! put back the pocketbook. I am incapable of the shameless audacity of borrowing a sum of money which I could never repay. Let me tell you what my trouble is, and you will understand that I am in earnest. I had two sons, Miss Stella. The elder--the most lovable, the most affectionate of my children--was killed in a duel."
The sudden disclosure drew a cry of sympathy from Stella, which she was not mistress enough of herself to repress. Now for the first time she understood the remorse that tortured Romayne, as she had not understood it when Lady Loring had told her the terrible story of the duel. Attributing the effect produced on her to the sensitive nature of a young woman, Madame Marillac innocently added to Stella's distress by making excuses.
"I am sorry to have frightened you, my dear," she said. "In your happy country such a dreadful death as my son's is unknown. I am obliged to mention it, or you might not understand what I have still to say. Perhaps I had better not go on?"
Stella roused herself. "Yes! yes!" she answered, eagerly. "Pray go on!"
"My son in the next room," the widow resumed, "is only fourteen years old. It has pleased God sorely to afflict a harmless creature. He has not been in his right mind since--since the miserable day when he followed the duelists, and saw his brother's death. Oh! you are turning pale! How thoughtless, how cruel of me! I ought to have remembered that such horrors as these have never overshadowed your happy life!"
Struggling to recover her self-control, Stella tried to reassure Madame Marillac by a gesture. The voice which she had heard in the next room was--as she now knew--the voice that haunted Romayne. Not the words that had pleaded hunger and called for bread--but those other words, "Assassin! assassin! where are you?"--rang in her ears. She entreated Madame Marillac to break the unendurable interval of silence. The widow's calm voice had a soothing influence which she was eager to feel. "Go on!" she repeated. "Pray go on!"
"I ought not to lay all the blame of my boy's affliction on the duel," said Madame Marillac. "In childhood, his mind never grew with his bodily growth. His brother's death may have only hurried the result which was sooner or later but too sure to come. You need feel no fear of him. He is never violent--and he is the most beautiful of my children. Would you like to see him?"
"No! I would rather hear you speak of him. Is he not conscious of his own misfortune?"
"For weeks together, Stella--I am sure I may call you Stella?--he is quite calm; you would see no difference outwardly between him and other boys. Unhappily, it is just at those times that a spirit of impatience seems to possess him. He watches his opportunity, and, however careful we may be, he is cunning enough to escape our vigilance."
"Do you mean that he leaves you and his sisters?"
"Yes, that is what I mean. For nearly two months past he has been away from us. Yesterday only, his return relieved us from a state of suspense which I cannot attempt to describe. We don't know where he has been, or in the company of what persons he has passed the time of his absense. No persuasion will induce him to spe ak to us on the subject. This morning we listened while he was talking to himself."
"Was it part of the boy's madness to repeat the words which still tormented Romayne?" Stella asked if he ever spoke of the duel.
"Never! He seems to have lost all memory of it. We only heard, this morning, one or two unconnected words--something about a woman, and then more that appeared to allude to some person's death. Last night I was with him when he went to bed, and I found that he had something to conceal from me. He let me fold all his clothes, as usual, except his waistcoat--and that he snatched away from me, and put it under his pillow. We have no hope of being able to examine the waistcoat without his knowledge.