Full of these thoughts Mathieu was already opening his mouth to speak. But all at once he felt how futile discussion would be in presence of that admirable scene; that mother surrounded by such a florescence of vigorous children; that mother nursing yet another child, under the big oak which she had planted. She was bravely accomplishing her task—that of perpetuating the world. And hers was the sovereign beauty.
Mathieu could think of only one thing that would express everything, and that was to kiss her with all his heart before the whole assembly.
“There, dear wife! You are the most beautiful and the best! May all the others do as you have done.”
Then, when Marianne had gloriously returned his kiss, there arose an acclamation, a tempest of merry laughter. They were both of heroic mould; it was with a great dash of heroism that they had steered their bark onward, thanks to their full faith in life, their will of action, and the force of their love. And Constance was at last conscious of it: she could realize the conquering power of fruitfulness; she could already see the Froments masters of the factory through their son Denis; masters of Seguin’s mansion through their son Ambroise; masters, too, of all the countryside through their other children. Numbers spelt victory. And shrinking, consumed with a love which she could never more satisfy, full of the bitterness of her defeat, though she yet hoped for some abominable revenge of destiny, she—who never wept!—turned aside to hide the big hot tears which now burnt her withered cheeks.
Meantime Benjamin and Guillaume were enjoying themselves like greedy little men whom nothing could disturb. Had there been less laughter one might have heard the trickling of their mothers’ milk: that little stream flowing forth amid the torrent of sap which upraised the earth and made the big trees quiver in the powerful July blaze. On every side fruitful life was conveying germs, creating and nourishing. And for its eternal work an eternal river of milk flowed through the world.
ONE Sunday morning Norine and Cecile—who, though it was rightly a day of rest, were, nevertheless, working on either side of their little table, pressed as they were to deliver boxes for the approaching New Year season—received a visit which left them pale with stupor and fright.
Their unknown hidden life had hitherto followed a peaceful course, the only battle being to make both ends meet every week, and to put by the rent money for payment every quarter. During the eight years that the sisters had been living together in the Rue de la Federation near the Champ de Mars, occupying the same big room with cheerful windows, a room whose coquettish cleanliness made them feel quite proud, Norine’s child had grown up steadily between his two affectionate mothers. For he had ended by confounding them together: there was Mamma Norine and there was Mamma Cecile; and he did not exactly know whether one of the two was more his mother than the other. It was for him alone that they both lived and toiled, the one still a fine, good-looking woman at forty years of age, the other yet girlish at thirty.