Madeleine in turn looked at him fixedly in the eyes, in profound and singular fashion, as though seeking to read something there, as though trying to discover that unknown part of a human being which we never fathom, and of which we can scarcely even catch rapid glimpses in those moments of carelessness or inattention, which are like doors left open, giving onto the mysterious depths of the mind.
She said slowly: "It seems to me, however, that a legacy of this importance would have been looked on as at least equally strange left to you."
He asked abruptly: "Why so?"
She said: "Because--" hesitated, and then continued: "Because you are my husband, and have only known him for a short time, after all--because I have been his friend for a very long while--and because his first will, made during Forestier's lifetime, was already in my favor."
George began to stride up and down.
He said: "You cannot accept."
She replied in a tone of indifference: "Precisely so; then it is not worth while waiting till Saturday, we can let Maitre Lamaneur know at once."
He stopped short in front of her, and they again stood for some moments with their eyes riveted on one another, striving to fathom the impenetrable secret of their hearts, to cut down to the quick of their thoughts.
They tried to see one another's conscience unveiled in an ardent and mute interrogation; the struggle of two beings who, living side by side, were always ignorant of one another, suspecting, sniffing round, watching, but never understanding one another to the muddy depths of their souls.
And suddenly he murmured to her face, in a low voice: "Come, admit that you were De Vaudrec's mistress."
She shrugged her shoulders, saying:
"You are ridiculous. Vaudrec was very fond of me, very--but there was nothing more--never."
He stamped his foot.
It is not possible."
She replied, quietly: "It is so, though."
He began to walk up and down again, and then, halting once more, said:
"Explain, then, how he came to leave the whole of his fortune to you."
She did so in a careless and disinterested tone, saying: "It is quite simple.
As you said just now, he had only ourselves for friends, or rather myself, for he has known me from a child.
My mother was a companion at the house of some relatives of his.
He was always coming here, and as he had no natural heirs he thought of me.
That there was a little love for me in the matter is possible.
But where is the woman who has not been loved thus?
Why should not such secret, hidden affection have placed my name at the tip of his pen when he thought of expressing his last wishes?
He brought me flowers every Monday.
You were not at all astonished at that, and yet he did not bring you any, did he?
Now he has given me his fortune for the same reason, and because he had no one to offer it to.
It would have been, on the contrary, very surprising for him to have left it to you.
Why should he have done so?
What were you to him?"
She spoke so naturally and quietly that George hesitated.
He said, however: "All the same, we cannot accept this inheritance under such conditions.
The effect would be deplorable.
All the world would believe it; all the world would gossip about it, and laugh at me.
My fellow journalists are already only too disposed to feel jealous of me and to attack me.
I should have, before anyone, a care for my honor and my reputation.
It is impossible for me to allow my wife to accept a legacy of this kind from a man whom public report has already assigned to her as a lover.
Forestier might perhaps have tolerated it, but not me."
She murmured, mildly: "Well, dear, do not let us accept it. It will be a million the less in our pockets, that is all."
He was still walking up and down, and began to think aloud, speaking for his wife's benefit without addressing himself directly to her:
"Yes, a million, so much the worse.
He did not understand, in making his will, what a fault in tact, what a breach of propriety he was committing.
He did not see in what a false, a ridiculous position he would place me. Everything is a matter of detail in this life. He should have left me half; that would have settled everything."
He sat down, crossed his legs, and began to twist the end of his moustache, as he did in moments of boredom, uneasiness, and difficult reflection.
Madeleine took up some embroidery at which she worked from time to time, and said, while selecting her wools:
"I have only to hold my tongue.
It is for you to reflect."
He was a long time without replying, and then said, hesitatingly:
"The world will never understand that Vaudrec made you his sole heiress, and that I allowed it.