"Already?" said she, and then added: "That is not meant for a reproach, but a simple question."
"Oh, madame, I did not want to come up, but your husband, whom I met at the bottom of the house, obliged me to.
I am so confused that I dare not tell you what brings me."
She pointed to a chair, saying:
"Sit down and tell me about it."
She was twirling a goose-quill between her fingers, and in front of her was a half-written page, interrupted by the young fellow's arrival.
She seemed quite at home at this work table, as much at her ease as if in her drawing-room, engaged on everyday tasks.
A faint perfume emanated from her dressing gown, the fresh perfume of a recent toilet. Duroy sought to divine, fancied he could trace, the outline of her plump, youthful figure through the soft material enveloping it.
She went on, as he did not reply: "Well, come tell me what is it."
He murmured, hesitatingly:
"Well, you see--but I really dare not--I was working last night very late and quite early this morning on the article upon Algeria, upon which Monsieur Walter asked me to write, and I could not get on with it--I tore up all my attempts. I am not accustomed to this kind of work, and I came to ask Forestier to help me this once--"
She interrupted him, laughing heartily.
"And he told you to come and see me?
That is a nice thing."
He said that you will get me out of my difficulty better than himself, but I did not dare, I did not wish to--you understand."
She rose, saying:
"It will be delightful to work in collaboration with you like that.
I am charmed at the notion.
Come, sit down in my place, for they know my hand-writing at the office.
And we will knock you off an article; oh, but a good one."
He sat down, took a pen, spread a sheet of paper before him, and waited.
Madame Forestier, standing by, watched him make these preparations, then took a cigarette from the mantel-shelf, and lit it.
"I cannot work without smoking," said she.
"Come, what are you going to say?"
He lifted his head towards her with astonishment.
"But that is just what I don't know, since it is that I came to see you about."
She replied: "Oh, I will put it in order for you.
I will make the sauce, but then I want the materials of the dish."
He remained embarrassed before her.
At length he said, hesitatingly: "I should like to relate my journey, then, from the beginning."
Then she sat down before him on the other side of the table, and looking him in the eyes:
"Well, tell it me first; for myself alone, you understand, slowly and without forgetting anything, and I will select what is to be used of it."
But as he did not know where to commence, she began to question him as a priest would have done in the confessional, putting precise questions which recalled to him forgotten details, people encountered and faces merely caught sight of.
When she had made him speak thus for about a quarter of an hour, she suddenly interrupted him with:
"Now we will begin.
In the first place, we will imagine that you are narrating your impressions to a friend, which will allow you to write a lot of tom-foolery, to make remarks of all kinds, to be natural and funny if we can.
"'My Dear Henry,--You want to know what Algeria is like, and you shall.
I will send you, having nothing else to do in a little cabin of dried mud which serves me as a habitation, a kind of journal of my life, day by day, and hour by hour.
It will be a little lively at times, more is the pity, but you are not obliged to show it to your lady friends.'"
She paused to re-light her cigarette, which had gone out, and the faint creaking of the quill on the paper stopped, too.
"Let us continue," said she.
"Algeria is a great French country on the frontiers of the great unknown countries called the Desert, the Sahara, central Africa, etc., etc.
"Algiers is the door, the pretty white door of this strange continent.
"But it is first necessary to get to it, which is not a rosy job for everyone.
I am, you know, an excellent horseman, since I break in the colonel's horses; but a man may be a very good rider and a very bad sailor.
That is my case.
"You remember Surgeon-Major Simbretras, whom we used to call Old Ipecacuanha, and how, when we thought ourselves ripe for a twenty-four hours' stay in the infirmary, that blessed sojourning place, we used to go up before him.
"How he used to sit in his chair, with his fat legs in his red trousers, wide apart, his hands on his knees, and his elbows stuck, rolling his great eyes and gnawing his white moustache.