He said, resolutely: "I did not come to see you, because it was better so."
She asked, without understanding:
"No, not at all."
"Because I am in love with you; oh! only a little, and I do not want to be head over ears."
She seemed neither astonished, nor shocked, nor flattered; she went on smiling the same indifferent smile, and replied with the same tranquillity:
"Oh! you can come all the same.
No one is in love with me long."
He was surprised, more by the tone than by the words, and asked:
"Because it is useless. I let this be understood at once.
If you had told me of your fear before, I should have reassured you, and invited you, on the contrary, to come as often as possible."
He exclaimed, in a pathetic tone: "Can we command our feelings?"
She turned towards him:
"My dear friend, for me a man in love is struck off the list of the living.
He becomes idiotic, and not only idiotic, but dangerous.
I cease all intimate relations with people who are in love with me, or who pretend to be so--because they bore me, in the first place; and, secondly, because they are as much objects of suspicion to me as a mad dog, which may have a fit of biting.
I therefore put them into a kind of moral quarantine until their illness is over.
Do not forget this.
I know very well that in your case love is only a species of appetite, while with me it would be, on the contrary, a kind of--of--of communion of souls, which does not enter into a man's religion.
You understand its letter, and its spirit.
But look me well in the face."
She no longer smiled.
Her face was calm and cold, and she continued, emphatically:
"I will never, never be your mistress; you understand.
It is therefore absolutely useless, it would even be hurtful, for you to persist in this desire.
And now that the operation is over, will you agree to be friends--good friends--real friends, I mean, without any mental reservation."
He had understood that any attempt would be useless in face of this irrevocable sentence. He made up his mind at once, frankly, and, delighted at being able to secure this ally in the battle of life, held out both hands, saying:
"I am yours, madame, as you will."
She read the sincerity of his intention in his voice, and gave him her hands.
He kissed them both, one after the other, and then said simply, as he raised his head:
"Ah, if I had found a woman like you, how gladly I would have married her."
She was touched this time--soothed by this phrase, as women are by the compliments which reach their hearts, and she gave him one of those rapid and grateful looks which make us their slaves.
Then, as he could find no change of subject to renew the conversation, she said softly, laying her finger on his arm:
"And I am going to play my part of a friend at once.
You are clumsy."
She hesitated a moment, and then asked:
"May I speak plainly?"
"Well, go and see Madame Walter, who greatly appreciates you, and do your best to please her.
You will find a place there for your compliments, although she is virtuous, you understand me, perfectly virtuous.
Oh! there is no hope of--of poaching there, either.
You may find something better, though, by showing yourself.
I know that you still hold an inferior position on the paper.
But do not be afraid, they receive all their staff with the same kindness.
Go there--believe me."
He said, with a smile: "Thanks, you are an angel, a guardian angel."