below them stood the prisoner and her two guards. I saw，
"A wager!" M. Wilkie wondered if he were not the victim of some practical joke, and if there were not a crowd of listeners hidden somewhere, who, after enjoying his discomfiture, would suddenly make their appearance, holding their sides. This fear restored his presence of mind. "Well, then," he replied, huskily, "this is my reason. I know nothing respecting my parents. This morning, a man with whom you are well acquainted, assured me that I was--your son. I was completely stunned at first, but after a while I recovered sufficiently to call here, and found that you had gone out."
He was interrupted by a nervous laugh from Madame d'Argeles. For she was heroic enough to laugh, although death was in her heart, and although the nails of her clinched hands were embedded deep in her quivering flesh. "And you believed him, monsieur?" she exclaimed. "Really, this is too absurd! I--your mother! Why, look at me----"
He was doing nothing else, he was watching her with all the powers of penetration he possessed. Madame d'Argeles's laugh had an unnatural ring that awakened his suspicions. All Coralth's recommendations buzzed confusedly in his ears, and he judged that the moment had come "to do the sentimental," as he would have expressed it. So he lowered his head, and in an aggrieved tone, exclaimed: "Ah! you think it very amusing, I don't. Do you realize how wretched it makes one to live as utterly alone as a leper, without a soul to love or care for you? Other young men have a mother, sisters, relatives. I have no one! Ah! if---- But I only have friends while my money lasts." He wiped his eyes, dry as they were, with his handkerchief, and in a still more pathetic tone, resumed: "Not that I want for anything; I receive a very handsome allowance. But when my relatives have given me the wherewithal to keep me from starving, they imagine their duty is fulfilled. I think this very hard. I didn't come into the world at my own request, did I? I didn't ask to be born. If I was such an annoyance to them when I came into existence, why didn't they throw me into the river? Then they would have been well rid of me, and I should be out of my misery!"
He stopped short, struck dumb with amazement, for Madame d'Argeles had thrown herself on her knees at his feet. "Have mercy!" she faltered; "Wilkie; my son, forgive me!" Alas! the unfortunate woman had failed in playing a part which was too difficult for a mother's heart. "You have suffered cruelly, my son," she continued; "but I--I--Ah! you can't conceive the frightful agony it costs a mother to separate from her child! But you were not deserted, Wilkie; don't say that. Have you not felt my love in the air around you? YOU forgotten? Know, then, that for years and years I have seen you every day, and that all my thoughts and all my hopes are centered in you alone! Wilkie!"
She dragged herself toward him with her hands clasped in an agony of supplication, while he recoiled, frightened by this outburst of passion, and utterly amazed by his easily won victory. The poor woman misunderstood this movement. "Great God!" she exclaimed, "he spurns me; he loathes me. Ah! I knew it would be so. Oh! why did you come? What infamous wretch sent you here? Name him, Wilkie! Do you understand, now, why I concealed myself from you? I dreaded the day when I should blush before you, before my own son. And yet it was for your sake. Death would have been a rest, a welcome release for me. But your breath was ebbing away, your poor little arms no longer had strength to clasp me round the neck. And then I cried: 'Perish my soul and body, if only my child can be saved!' I believed such a sacrifice permissible in a mother. I am punished for it as if it were a crime. I thought you would be happy, my Wilkie. I said to myself that you, my pride and joy, would move freely and proudly far above me and my shame. I accepted ignominy, so that your honor might be preserved intact. I knew the horrors of abject poverty, and I wished to save my son from it. I would have licked up the very mire in your pathway to save you from a stain. I renounced all hope for myself, and I consecrated all that was noble and generous in my nature to you. Oh! I will discover the vile coward who sent you here, who betrayed my secret. I will discover him and I will have my revenge! You were never to know this, Wilkie. In parting from you, I took a solemn oath never to see you again, and to die without the supreme consolation of feeling your lips upon my forehead."
She could not continue; sobs choked her utterance. And for more than a minute the silence was so profound that one could hear the sound of low conversation in the hall outside, the exclamations of the players as they greeted each unexpected turn of luck, and occasionally a cry of "Banco!" or "I stake one hundred louis!" Standing silent and motionless near the window, Wilkie gazed with consternation at Madame d'Argeles, his mother, who was crouching in the middle of the room with her face hidden in her hands, and sobbing as if her heart would break. He would willingly have given his third share in Pompier de Nanterre to have made his escape. The strangeness of the scene appalled him. It was not emotion that he felt, but an instinctive fear mingled with commiseration. And he was not only ill at ease, but he was angry with himself for what he secretly styled his weakness. "Women are incomprehensible," he thought. "It would be so easy to explain things quietly and properly, but they must always cry and have a sort of melodrama."
Suddenly the sound of footsteps near the door roused him from his stupor. He shuddered at the thought that some one might come in. He hated the very idea of ridicule. So summoning all his courage he went toward Madame d'Argeles, and, raising her from the floor, he exclaimed: "Don't cry so. You grieve me, upon my word! Pray get up. Some one is coming. Do you hear me? Some one is coming." Thereupon, as she offered no resistance, he half led, half carried her to an arm-chair, into which she sank heavily. "Now she is going to faint!" thought Wilkie, in despair. What should he do? Call for help? He dared not. However, necessity inspired him. He knelt at Madame d'Argeles's feet, and gently said: "Come, come, be reasonable! Why do you give way like this? I don't reproach you!"
Slowly, with an air of humility which was indescribably touching, she took her hands from her face, and for the first time raised her tear-stained eyes to her son's. "Wilkie," she murmured.
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