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A Story of Mother-Love
By J. W. McConaughy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A NIGHT LAMP — the chosen companion of illness, misery and murder — burned dimly on a little table in the midst of a grim array of bottles and boxes. In a big armchair between the table and the bed, and within easy reach of both, sat a young man. It was his fourteenth night in that chair and he leaned his head back against the cushions in an attitude of utter exhaustion. The hands rested on the arms with the palms turned up. But the strong, clean-cut face — that for two weeks had been a mask of fear and suffering — was transfigured with joy and thanksgiving when he reached over every few minutes and touched the forehead of the little boy in the bed. There was moisture under the dark curls and the fever flush had given way to the pallor of weakness.
Louis Floriot was a man with steel nerves and an unbending will. Barely in his thirty-first year, he was Deputy Attorney of Paris, and in all the two weeks he had watched at the bedside of his boy he had not been ten seconds late at the opening of court in the morning. His work and his child were all that were left to him and he divided the day between them without a thought of himself. The woman that had made both dear to him was gone. He had loved the baby with almost more than a father's love because he was hers — theirs. He had slaved for fame and power to lay them at her feet as a proof of his love.
Two short years ago it would have been impossible to find a happier man within the girth of the seven seas. Then one night he had returned from his office too early — returned to find his life in ruins and his home made desolate. And she had fled from him into the night and had gone out of his life — but not out of his memory.
He had striven with all the strength of his will to forget her; but in his heart he knew that as long as he breathed her image would be there. He worked with feverish energy and poured his love out on Raymond. The child was with him every moment that he was not in court or in his office, but his dark curly hair and great dark eyes were his mother's and forgetfulness did not lie that way.
In the two years that had passed since the whole scheme of his life had been shattered he had barely had time to piece together a makeshift plan that would give him an excuse for living. In this new plan Raymond was the one element of tenderness. But for his love for the boy he would have become as stern and inexorable as the laws in which he dealt. He could not tear Jacqueline out of his heart but he forced himself to remember only the bitterness of her perfidy.
In the past two weeks the memory had come back more bitterly. How different, he had thought in the long nights, if she had been there! They would have watched hand in hand and whispered hope and comfort to each other. One would have slept calmly when wearied, knowing that the tender love of the other guarded their baby. And what happiness would have been theirs that hour when the fever broke and Raymond passed from stupor to natural sleep! But she had not loved him — she had not even loved her boy; for she had deserted both.
Rose, the maid, who had been in their house since his marriage, softly opened the door and whispered that Madame Varenne was in the library waiting to see him. He rose with a sigh, and after a last look at the sleeping child, tiptoed out of the room and noiselessly shut the door behind him. Madame Varenne was a sprightly young widow, the sister of Dr. Chennel, who attended Raymond as if the boy were his own son.
Madame Varenne, too, had almost a motherly affection for the child and something beyond admiration for the handsome, slightly grayed father. They supposed, as did everyone else in Passy, that Madame Floriot was dead. Floriot was living in Paris when she left him and he moved out to Passy shortly afterward.
He shook hands with her cordially as he came in.
"How kind of you to come, Madame Varenne!" he said, gratefully. The young woman looked up at him with a happy smile.
"I am delighted with the news that Rose has just given me!" she exclaimed, pressing his hand.
"Yes," he smiled wearily, "our nightmare is over and it was time it finished. I couldn't have held out much longer."
"You have had a bad time of it," she murmured, sympathetically,
"It hasn't been easy. And I shall never be able to thank your brother enough for what he has done for me," and Floriot's voice trembled.
"He has thought of nothing else beside the boy for weeks and he was always talking about him," declared Madame Varenne, shaking her head. "The day before yesterday he went to see one of his old professors to consult him on the treatment, and he was hard at work that night experimenting and reading."
"He tells me that it was then that he got the idea which has saved Raymond's life. I owe my boy's life to your brother, Madame Varenne," he added, his voice vibrant with gratitude, "and you may be sure that I will never forget it."
"What he has done has been its own reward," she replied gently. "My brother is so fond of Raymond!"
Floriot smiled tenderly.
"Oh, I love the child!" she exclaimed.
"He loves you, too," Floriot assured her. "You were the first person he asked for when the fever left him. And now, that we are alone for a moment I want to take the opportunity of thanking you from the bottom of my heart!"
"Thanking me! For what?"
"For your friendship."
"How absurd you are!" she laughed. "Then I ought to be making pretty speeches to you to thank you for yours as well!"
"It is not quite the same thing," returned Floriot. "You are a charming, happy, amiable and altogether delightful woman while I — Well, I'm just a bear."
"You don't mean to say so!" she exclaimed, with a look of mock alarm.
"Oh, yes!" he nodded with a smile. "Bear is the only word that describes me — an ill-tempered bear, at that!"
"You will never be as disagreeable as my husband was!" And Madame Varenne shook her head decidedly. Floriot laughed.
"Really! Was he even gloomier than I?"
"My husband! Good gracious me! You are a regular devil of a chap compared to him!" exclaimed the sprightly lady, earnestly. Again Floriot burst into a laugh. It was the first exercise of the kind he had had in some time.
"You can't have amused yourself much," he suggested. "You can't have had a wildly merry time."
"I didn't!" was the forcible response. "But now everything and everybody appear charming by contrast!"
"Even I?" he smiled.
"Yes, even you!" she admitted, with another smile. At that moment her brother entered and Floriot greeted him affectionately. His first questions were about Raymond and the replies were satisfactory. He rubbed his hands enthusiastically and busied himself with his bag, while Floriot attempted to continue his speech of thanks in the face of protests from both.
"There, there, there!" broke in the doctor. "How do you know that we are not both of us sowing that we may reap? One never knows how useful it may be to be friends with a man in your profession," he chuckled.
Madame Varenne made her adieux and left with a rather wistful look at Floriot as she pressed his hand. She promised to come back the first thing in the morning.
"And now, friend Floriot," said the doctor, looking at him gravely, "as the boy is out of danger, you begin taking care of yourself."
Floriot stared at him in surprise.
"Why, there's nothing the matter with me!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, yes, there is!" retorted the man of medicine. "And a great deal more than you think!"
"Nonsense!" said Floriot, lightly. "I'm a little tired, but a few days' rest will —"
"No, no, no!" interrupted the doctor, with an energetic shake of the head. "You are working too much and you are taking too little exercise. You brood and worry over things and you must take a cure!"
"What sort of a cure?" inquired Floriot, with an uneasy glance.
"Every morning, no matter what the weather is, you must take a smart two hours' walk."
"But, my dear fellow —"
"You must walk at a smart pace for two hours," insisted the doctor. "And you must feed heartily."
"My dear fellow, I can hardly get through a cutlet for my lunch!" protested Floriot.
"I will let you off to-day, but from to-morrow on you must eat two," he continued firmly, as if he had not heard the interruption. Considering that luncheon was some eight hours in the past, |this was not much of a concession.
"I shall never be able to do anything of the sort!" Floriot declared.
"Oh, yes, you will!" the doctor assured him with exasperating confidence. "On your way home every evening you must look in at the fencing school and fence for half-hour, take a cold shower and walk home."
"Walk! Out to Passy?"
"Out to Passy."
"My dear doctor," he smiled pityingly, "I can't possibly follow your prescription. I haven't the time."
"Then you must get married," returned the doctor calmly. Floriot gazed at him for a few moments in dumb amazement and then laughed amusedly.
"Distraction of some sort is absolutely necessary for your case," the doctor explained as gravely as a judge. "There is nothing to be startled at — you've been married before" — Floriot winced — "you can do so again. A lonely life is not the life for you. Look out for a happy-minded woman, who will keep you young and be a mother to your child, and marry her. I have an idea," he smiled knowingly, "that you won't have much difficulty in finding the very woman!"
In a flash the young lawyer saw what was in his friend's mind. He saw, too, that he must make him a confidant — tell him a story that he had sworn should never be put into words. For almost a minute emotion held him tongue-tied.
Then he said brokenly:
"My friend, I see now that I ought to — I ought to have — told you before, I — am not a widower!" Dr. Chennel fell back against the table astounded.
"Not a widower!" he gasped.
"My wife is living," said Floriot in a low, unsteady voice. "After three years of married life — she left me — with a lover. I came home unexpectedly one day — and found them — together. They rushed out of the house in terror. I should have killed them both, I think, if they had not run."
The doctor murmured something meant to be sympathetic. He was too much amazed for speech.
"I have sometimes thought of telling you, but, somehow, I could not talk of it. Chennel, old man!" he cried, miserably, laying his hand on his friend's arm, "you can't guess how horribly unhappy I am!"
"Then — you — you love her still?" asked the doctor, gently. Floriot bowed his head to conceal the agony written on his face and threw up a hand in a gesture of despair.
"I can think of no other woman! God knows, I have tried hard to forget her! She was the whole joy of my life — my life itself! I cannot tell you how I suffered. I would have died if I had dared. But I thought of the child, and that saved me from suicide. I remembered my duty to the boy and the thought of it kept me alive. If I had lost him —" He choked and turned abruptly away.
"He will be running about in a week," said the doctor's quiet voice.
"Thanks to you, doctor, thanks to you!" he cried, his eyes shining with tears and gratitude as he turned to his friend with both hands outstretched. "You have saved both of our lives!"
They were gripping each other's hands hard when Rose appeared at the door to announce that Master Raymond was awake. Arm in arm they hurried off to the sick-room. Rose was about to follow a little later when she heard the buzz of the muffled door bell.
"It is Monsieur Noel," she thought as she hurried to the door. Noel Sauvrin, a life-long friend of Floriot's expected to reach the house in Passy from the south of France that night.
She opened the door with a smile of welcome that changed to a stare of frightened astonishment. There was a quick swish of skirt, a half-sob of "Rose!" a half-smothered exclamation of "Madame!" and a young woman threw herself into the maid's arms.
Jacqueline Floriot had returned.CHAPTER 2
MADAME FLORIOT'S FACE told its own story of remorse and suffering. The cheeks had lost their smooth, lovely contour and the dark clouds under the beautiful eyes spoke of nights spent in tears. The eyes themselves were now dilated as she gripped the maid's arms until she hurt her and gazed into her face with searching dread.
"My boy! Raymond!" she gasped, brokenly. "Is it true — has he been ill?"
The maid gently disengaged herself from the clinging arms and glanced uneasily at the library door. Madame Floriot followed the look and moved quickly forward as the maid answered:
"For more than two weeks, madame."
The woman timidly pushed the door open and stepped into the library. She gave a quick gasp of relief when she saw that the room was empty.
"I only heard of — it — yesterday — by accident," she half-whispered, her hand at her throat. Then as the memory of the hours of grief and dread swept over her she cried:
"Rose, I must see him!"
The maid looked her alarm.
"Monsieur Floriot is with him, madame!"
"Ah — h!" she stifled a sob.
"Poor little chap!" said Rose, tenderly. "We thought he could never get over it!"
The tortured mother sank into a chair with a moan of anguish.
"But the danger is over now," continued Rose, gently. "The doctor says he will soon be well again."
Jacqueline's eyes fell on a photograph of the boy on the table beside her and she seized it with both hands and held it to her face.
"My Raymond! My laddie!" she sobbed, softly.
"How he has grown! How big — and strong — he looks!"
"He does not look strong now, madame," and Rose shook her head.
"To think — that he might have died! And I should never have seen him again! My darling, my little laddie!" The face of the picture was wet with tears and kisses. "I wonder if he will recognize me! Does he remember me at all?" she cried eagerly.
The maid gave a start and an exclamation of alarm.
"Here's Monsieur Floriot!"
Jacqueline rose unsteadily with a smothered cry and all but reeled toward the door. In a moment Rose's arm was around her.
"No, no!" she whispered, reassuringly. "I was mistaken! I thought I heard him coming."
The woman stood with both hands pressed to her breast and Rose watched her pityingly. She had loved her young mistress dearly and had seen much in her short married life to which both husband and wife had been blind. It was several moments before Jacqueline had sufficiently recovered from the shock to speak.
"How — my heart — beats!" she panted. And then after another pause: "What — will he say — to me? But I don't care — I don't care, what he says if he will only pardon me enough to let me stay here with my boy. If he — if he refuses to see me — I don't know what will happen to me! Rose! Rose!" she cried, piteously, sobbing on the maid's shoulder, "I — I am afraid!"
Rose patted her shoulder and murmured sympathy until the sobs became less violent. Then she suggested gently:
"Wouldn't it be better to write to Monsieur Floriot, madame? He does — he doesn't expect you and — you know how quicktempered he is."
"I have written to him! I have written three letters in the last three weeks and he has not answered them."
"He didn't open them," said Rose, very low.
There was another convulsive sob and then Jacqueline straightened and threw back her head, her eyes shining with feverish resolve.
"I must see him! I will see him!" she cried in a high, unnatural voice. "He cannot — he must not condemn me unheard! He loved me a little once — he must hear me now! Does he ever speak of me?"
The maid sadly shook her head.
"Never!" she echoed faintly.
Jacqueline turned away for a moment with a sob of despair.
"What did he say — what did he do when I — left? Do you remember?"
Rose shuddered at the recollection.
"I shall never forget it! He was like a madman! He shut himself up in his room for days together and wouldn't see anyone. Once he went out and was gone for twenty-four hours. I used to listen outside his door and I heard him sobbing and crying. I was so frightened once that in spite of his orders I went into his room. It was in the evening and he was sitting by the fire burning your letters and photographs and the tears were rolling down his cheeks!"
Jacqueline listened white-faced, and as Rose told the story of her husband's grief a sudden gleam of hope made her dizzy and faint. He had loved her deeply, after all! He must still love her a little! She had not lost everything!
"The boy saved his brain, I think," Rose was saying, but she barely heard her. "He never would let him leave him, night or day. Then he began to calm down a little and seemed to settle to his work again. He has worked a little harder than before — that's all. Then we moved out here," she added.
Excerpted from Madame X by J. W. McConaughy. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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