But Beauchene, in his triumphant manner, tried to show that he possessed great breadth of mind; he admitted the disquieting strides of a decrease of population, and denounced the causes of it—alcoholism, militarism, excessive mortality among infants, and other numerous matters. Then he indicated remedies; first, reductions in taxation, fiscal means in which he had little faith; then freedom to will one’s estate as one pleased, which seemed to him more efficacious; a change, too, in the marriage laws, without forgetting the granting of affiliation rights.
However, Boutan ended by interrupting him. “All the legislative measures in the world will do nothing,” said the doctor. “Manners and customs, our notions of what is moral and what is not, our very conceptions of the beautiful in life—all must be changed. If France is becoming depopulated, it is because she so chooses. It is simply necessary then for her to choose so no longer. But what a task—a whole world to create anew!”
At this Mathieu raised a superb cry: “Well! we’ll create it. I’ve begun well enough, surely!”
But Constance, after laughing in a constrained way, in her turn thought it as well to change the subject. And so she at last replied to his invitation, saying that she would do her best to go to Janville, though she feared she might not be able to dispose of a Sunday to do so.
Dr. Boutan then took his leave, and was escorted to the door by Beauchene, who still went on jesting, like a man well pleased with life, one who was satisfied with himself and others, and who felt certain of being able to arrange things as might best suit his pleasure and his interests.
An hour later, a few minutes after midday, as Mathieu, who had been delayed in the works, went up to the offices to fetch Morange as he had promised to do, it occurred to him to take a short cut through the women’s workshop. And there, in that spacious gallery, already deserted and silent, he came upon an unexpected scene which utterly amazed him. On some pretext or other Norine had lingered there the last, and Beauchene was with her, clasping her around the waist whilst he eagerly pressed his lips to hers. But all at once they caught sight of Mathieu and remained thunderstruck. And he, for his part, fled precipitately, deeply annoyed at having been a surprised witness to such a secret.
Morange, the chief accountant at Beauchene’s works, was a man of thirty-eight, bald and already gray-headed, but with a superb dark, fan-shaped beard, of which he was very proud. His full limpid eyes, straight nose, and well-shaped if somewhat large mouth had in his younger days given him the reputation of being a handsome fellow. He still took great care of himself, invariably wore a tall silk hat, and preserved the correct appearance of a very painstaking and well-bred clerk.
“You don’t know our new flat yet, do you?” he asked Mathieu as he led him away. “Oh! it’s perfect, as you will see. A bedroom for us and another for Reine. And it is so close to the works too. I get there in four minutes, watch in hand.”