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Maitre Dubon lifted his gaze from Madeleine's right breast, which was peeking out tantalizingly from under a crisp white sheet, and let it travel slowly down the bed, admiring as he did so how the draped cotton clung to her body in some places and obscured it in others. He glanced across the room and let his eye come to rest, ever so casually, on the ornate gilt clock that sat atop the dresser. It was twenty minutes before the hour.
"Well, perhaps it's time we get dressed." Still leaning back against the pillows, he waited a long moment before he made up his mind to move, and then took the plunge, pulling the sheet off his own body, swinging his feet to the floor and standing.
Beside him, Madeleine stirred and stretched an arm languidly across the bed toward an armchair. Dubon crossed over to it, picked up the peignoir that was lying there, and held it open for her. As she rose to her feet, she slipped her arms into it, drawing the fluttering layers of its wide lace collar over her shoulders and around her neck. He moved to his clothes, pulling on his undershirt, shirt, pants, and waistcoat, buttoning buttons as he did so, methodically but with no apparent haste. He turned to a full-length mirror that stood in one corner of the room and straightened his tie approvingly. Though only of average height, he had a big head, and a finely shaped nose, straight but for the sharp break that formed a little shelf at the bridge, and his features gave him presence. His hair was still good and thick, he always noted with pleasure, and the occasional strand of silver that now appeared at the temples added an air of distinction.
He picked up his jacket. "See you tomorrow, my dear."
"Until tomorrow," she replied. He kissed her affectionately on one cheek, gently patted the other, and left her padding about her small apartment in her peignoir and little satin slippers as he stepped calmly into the street. It was fifteen minutes to the hour.
Maitre Dubon's day was a well-ordered thing. Its final goal, which the lawyer achieved without fail, was a seven-thirty dinner hour during which he shared a light meal with his wife, Genevieve, and his son, Andre. He also breakfasted with them at seven, and most days joined them for a large lunch at eleven, for he thought of himself as a family man and considered it his duty to eat three meals a day in the company of his wife and son, a duty he executed with affection.
From the breakfast table, he proceeded to the office, a pleasant walk, if the weather was fine, along the river and across the place de la Concorde to the rue Saint-Honore, and so to his clients, who would visit him before lunch. They were prosperous burghers and people of society, and he drafted their wills and their contracts with diligence if no particular enthusiasm. The practice he had inherited from his father represented a limited set of legal permutations that he had long since mastered. The thrusts and parries of the courtroom, on the other hand, he left to others, simply passing on to a colleague the occasional unfortunate case that was headed in that direction. Returning home for lunch, he tried not to dally at the table and allowed himself only a single glass of wine, because after a few more hours in the office preparing documents and reviewing files, he would proceed to an engagement rather different from the dinner hour but to which he was equally faithful.
Between five and seven, Maitre Dubon visited Mademoiselle Madeleine Marteau in her apartment off the boulevard des Italiens. He had been visiting her there five days a week for the past eleven years, ever since he had rented the apartment for her in the seventh year of his marriage, when Andre had just turned three. He had met Mademoiselle Marteau, or Mazou as he called her, a few years previously; he had been introduced to her by a legal colleague with bohemian connections. In those days, she worked as a seamstress with a leading fashion house and had received many different visitors in a second-floor studio in Montparnasse. His attendance at her little gatherings and the occasional tete-a-tete had ceased briefly when Genevieve presented him with the joyous news of her pregnancy, but he had resumed the acquaintance soon after Andre's birth. Labor had strained Genevieve, and two things had become clear to him then. One was that his relations with his wife, while always cordial, were unlikely to become physical again anytime soon; the other was that if he wished to enjoy Madeleine's company, he needed to regularize their situation. And so, he rented the apartment off the boulevard des Italiens and attended her there faithfully Monday through Friday, arriving with the occasional box of chocolates or new handbag to augment the check he paid into her bank account every month.
His relationship with Genevieve, meanwhile, remained happy enough. She was thirty-nine now; he was forty-three, and friends and relations had stopped dropping hints about the joys of big families. It was sad, but there it was: Andre would never have, could never have, a brother or sister. Although Dubon slept beside his wife each night, their sexual relations were less than infrequent.
If it was important that he arrive home by seven, it was no less important that he present himself at Madeleine's door by five, for he considered himself, both at home and abroad, to be a gentleman and here too there were delicate social negotiations to be entered into before they could move to Madeleine's bedroom. Perhaps there was a new dress to admire or a recent concert to discuss over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Maitre Dubon may have visited Madeleine's bed more than two thousand times, but their relations remained enjoyably fresh thanks not only to Madeleine's sense of invention but also to his lack of presumption--or at least his pretense of a lack of presumption.
Yes, it was important to arrive no later than five, but Maitre Dubon often liked to be there earlier or even make Madeleine a surprise visit on a Saturday morning after he had spent an hour or two in his office. His mistress was a highly attractive woman almost ten years his junior and it would be unwise to take her for granted.
So he was particularly annoyed when, on the following afternoon shortly before five on a day that was already running late, a sharp whistle sounded. As he lifted the speaking tube off the edge of his desk and put it to his ear, the clerk Roberge could be heard mumbling something about a visitor to see him. Roberge had never mastered the gadget, always blowing the warning whistle too loudly but then speaking too softly into the tube to be heard.
Dubon blamed the interruption on Lebrun's mother's cat. Lebrun was his regular clerk and knew that afternoon visitors were rare and certainly not permitted after 4:00 p.m., but his aged mother had fallen over her cat the week before and broken some bone, the location of which, being a delicate man, Lebrun would not name. He had craved Dubon's understanding--and a few days' credit from his annual holiday to attend to his relative. He had called in, as his temporary replacement, Roberge, a downtrodden character who floated around the quartier picking up work in various law offices when his weak health would permit. And so, on that day, it was the less-than-satisfactory Roberge who ushered a lady into the lawyer's office at an inconvenient hour.
The woman, a widow, entered the room with a firm but quiet step. Dubon guessed her husband must be six months' gone now: she was dressed head to toe in black, but not veiled. Instead, she wore a tidy little hat. Her hair was carefully pinned up out of sight, and the little that showed around her forehead was dark but not quite black, hinting that the unseen mane was a luxurious brown or perhaps a rich chestnut color. She wore no ornament of any kind, not even a mourning brooch, except for a gold wedding ring on her left hand. She wasn't old--perhaps thirty or thirty-five, certainly not yet forty, he estimated--and, if it were not for the sad contradiction between her youth and her bereavement, a man passing her in the street might not give her quiet figure a second glance.
Unless, of course, he had the gall to look her straight in the eyes. And what remarkable eyes they were, Dubon noted as he rose to greet her: a deep, deep blue, sparkling with an intensity that suggested widowhood had not dampened some quick spirit alive beneath her sorrows. Dubon was visited by a sudden image of her quite naked, her skin . . . He checked himself. Perhaps he had been staring.
"Madame, my apologies. I so seldom receive visits after four o'clock; you have startled me, I'm afraid." He paused and reached for her hand, then held it in his as though he might kiss it before letting it drop. "To whom do I owe the honor?"
"My name is Madame Duhamel. I apologize, Monsieur, for waiting until the very end of the day to call upon you--"
"Oh, not at all, Madame. You are most welcome. Please, do come in."
He adjusted the chair reserved for clients and swept a hand across it to invite her to sit down. Then, instead of going around and settling himself behind the large expanse of the desktop, he stayed in front of it, drew a second, smaller chair out from against one wall and sat down directly facing her. She made no move to take off her hat but sat there, clutching her gloves in one hand.
"The weather is still so cold, don't you find?" Dubon asked. "Almost unseasonably so. I always enjoy the spring, but here we are in mid-April and we are still bundled up in our winter clothes. If I may be honest, Madame, I would myself not say no to a ray or two of sunlight."
"Oh yes, a ray of sunlight . . ."
Her voice trailed off and she appeared puzzled, as though unsure why they were discussing the weather. She held his gaze now, and again her eyes arrested him. They darted and glittered. This time he was not imagining it: there was some humor there behind her evident grief. Indeed, she almost laughed, emitting a little sound that ended in a gulp.
"Oh, Monsieur, I suppose you want me to state my business."
"Whenever you wish, Madame. I am in no hurry."
And indeed, Dubon, who but moments before had felt annoyed at the interruption keeping him from Madeleine, was now happy to linger. She seemed hesitant, as though sensing there was specific etiquette to be employed when visiting a lawyer's office but ignorant of what it might be. Dubon found the effect charming.
She drew a long breath and shifted in the chair. "Maitre. They do call you Maitre, I suppose . . ."
"Oh yes, indeed. Lebrun, my clerk, always insists on introducing me that way to clients. That wasn't him who let you in. That was Roberge; he's just temporary. He calls me Maitre too. My friends, on the other hand--"
She interrupted him here. "That's fine. I will call you Maitre. And," she added, her tone serious now, "I will tell you my business."
"By all means, do go ahead."
"I come to you on behalf of a friend of mine . . ." Some skepticism must have shown in his face for she repeated it. "Yes, a dear friend of mine. She is in serious trouble but cannot risk coming to see you herself. Indeed, she does not know that I am here, only that I said I would try to make some inquiries as to what might be done to save her husband."
"Save her husband? What ails him, Madame?"
"Nothing that true justice could not cure, Monsieur."
"Well, Madame Duhamel. I am not sure you have come to the right place. A lawyer will get you the best justice he can, but as to whether that constitutes true justice . . ."
"Maitre, please. Your reputation precedes you. Your work on the--"
"No, no, Madame, please, that is not necessary." Dubon did not want to hear her fabricate some tribute to his supposed credentials by dragging up his minor role in events now long past. He could only suppose someone had told her that his services came cheap by the standards of the rue Saint-Honore. God only knew what a client might be asked to pay the society lawyer de Marigny, whose offices were across the street, or the much-praised Socialist, Deon, who was just one floor up and always willing to take on a high-profile cause.
"Please, do continue. Tell me about your friend's husband."
"He is an army officer, Maitre, a captain in the artillery." Dubon began to guess the real reason she had come to his office; she must have learned of his family connections and judged they would be useful if her case involved the military.
"I will come to the point. There is no way to put it gently and you have perhaps read about the case in the papers. It caused some furor at the time: about two years ago, my friend's husband was accused of spying for the Germans. He was court-martialed, convicted, and deported to serve his sentence in cruel exile. Even now, he languishes on Devil's Island."
"But, Madame, his trial is then long past. Why seek legal advice now?"
"Because he is innocent, Monsieur."
"Madame, I am sure your friend is a charming person and a loyal wife--"
"Do not patronize me, Maitre," she interrupted.
Dubon, unaccustomed to such directness in any lady other than his wife, drew himself up and began again. "No, I would not dream of it, Madame. So naturally, your friend believes completely in her husband's innocence."
"It is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of fact. The man is innocent. I have known him, well, many years. It is unthinkable that the captain is a spy."
"That may be, Madame. However, if the army has convicted him at a court martial, I don't see what possible help a lawyer could be now." Most especially, Dubon thought to himself, a lawyer with no current experience in criminal law and whose only knowledge of the workings of the military was limited to Sunday lunches with his wife's relations, however much the lady's informants may have billed him as the highly placed son-in-law of the late General de Ronchaud Valcourt. "I can only assume your friend's husband had the benefit of good legal advice at the time of the court martial?"
From the Hardcover edition.