He replied, tranquilly: "That man is only paying his debt, and he still owes me a great deal."
She was astonished at his tone, and resumed:
"It is though, a big thing at your age."
He remarked: "All things are relative.
I could have something bigger now."
He had taken the case, and placing it on the mantel-shelf, looked for some moments at the glittering star it contained.
Then he closed it and went to bed, shrugging his shoulders.
The _Journal Officiel_ of the first of January announced the nomination of Monsieur Prosper George Du Roy, journalist, to the dignity of chevalier of the Legion of Honor, for special services.
The name was written in two words, which gave George more pleasure than the derivation itself.
An hour after having read this piece of news he received a note from Madame Walter begging him to come and dine with her that evening with his wife, to celebrate his new honors.
He hesitated for a few moments, and then throwing this note, written in ambiguous terms, into the fire, said to Madeleine:
"We are going to dinner at the Walter's this evening."
She was astonished.
"Why, I thought you never wanted to set foot in the house again."
He only remarked: "I have changed my mind."
When they arrived Madame Walter was alone in the little Louis XVI. boudoir she had adopted for the reception of personal friends.
Dressed in black, she had powdered her hair, which rendered her charming.
She had the air at a distance of an old woman, and close at hand, of a young one, and when one looked at her well, of a pretty snare for the eyes.
"You are in mourning?" inquired Madeleine.
She replied, sadly: "Yes, and no.
I have not lost any relative.
But I have reached the age when one wears the mourning of one's life.
I wear it to-day to inaugurate it.
In future I shall wear it in my heart."
Du Roy thought: "Will this resolution hold good?"
The dinner was somewhat dull.
Susan alone chattered incessantly.
Rose seemed preoccupied.
The journalist was warmly congratulated.
During the evening they strolled chatting through the saloons and the conservatory.
As Du Roy was walking in the rear with Madame Walter, she checked him by the arm.
"Listen," said she, in a low voice,
"I will never speak to you of anything again, never.
But come and see me, George.
It is impossible for me to live without you, impossible.
It is indescribable torture.
I feel you, I cherish you before my eyes, in my heart, all day and all night.
It is as though you had caused me to drink a poison which was eating me away within.
I cannot bear it, no, I cannot bear it.
I am willing to be nothing but an old woman for you.
I have made my hair white to show you so, but come here, only come here from time to time as a friend."
She had taken his hand and was squeezing it, crushing it, burying her nails in his flesh.
He answered, quietly: "It is understood, then.
It is useless to speak of all that again.
You see I came to-day at once on receiving your letter."
Walter, who had walked on in advance with his two daughters and Madeleine, was waiting for Du Roy beside the picture of "Jesus Walking on the Waters."
"Fancy," said he, laughing, "I found my wife yesterday on her knees before this picture, as if in a chapel.
She was paying her devotions.
How I did laugh."
Madame Walter replied in a firm voice--a voice thrilling with secret exultation: "It is that Christ who will save my soul.