“Never, my little Benjamin.”
The boy shuddered.
“Never, never!” he repeated. “Oh! that’s too long. Come back, come back some day, so that I may kiss you again.”
“Never,” repeated Nicolas, turning pale himself. “Never, never.”
He had lifted up the lad, whose tears were raining fast; and then for all came the supreme grief, the frightful moment of the hatchet-stroke, of the separation which was to be eternal.
“Good-by, little brother! Good-by, good-by, all of you!”
While Mathieu accompanied the future conqueror to the door for the last time wishing him victory, Benjamin in wild grief sought a refuge beside his mother who was blinded by her tears. And she caught him up with a passionate clasp, as if seized with fear that he also might leave her. He was the only one now left to them in the family nest.
AT the factory, in her luxurious house on the quay, where she had long reigned as sovereign mistress, Constance for twelve years already had been waiting for destiny, remaining rigid and stubborn amid the continual crumbling of her life and hopes.
During those twelve years Beauchene had pursued a downward course, the descent of which was fatal. He was right at the bottom now, in the last state of degradation. After beginning simply as a roving husband, festively inclined, he had ended by living entirely away from his home, principally in the company of two women, aunt and niece. He was now but a pitiful human rag, fast approaching some shameful death. And large as his fortune had been, it had not sufficed him; as he grew older he had squandered money yet more and more lavishly, immense sums being swallowed up in disreputable adventures, the scandal of which it had been necessary to stifle. Thus he at last found himself poor, receiving but a small portion of the ever-increasing profits of the works, which were in full prosperity.
This was the disaster which brought so much suffering to Constance in her incurable pride. Beauchene, since the death of his son, had quite abandoned himself to a dissolute life, thinking of nothing but his pleasures, and taking no further interest in his establishment. What was the use of defending it, since there was no longer an heir to whom it might be transmitted, enlarged and enriched? And thus he had surrendered it, bit by bit, to Denis, his partner, whom, by degrees, he allowed to become the sole master. On arriving at the works, Denis had possessed but one of the six shares which represented the totality of the property according to the agreement. And Beauchene had even reserved to himself the right of repurchasing that share within a certain period. But far from being in a position to do so before the appointed date was passed, he had been obliged to cede yet another share to the young man, in order to free himself of debts which he could not confess.