Count Muffat, accompanied by his wife and daughter, had arrived overnight at Les Fondettes, where Mme Hugon, who was staying there with only her son Georges, had invited them to come and spend a week. The house, which had been built at the end of the eighteenth century, stood in the middle of a huge square enclosure. It was perfectly unadorned, but the garden possessed magnificent shady trees and a chain of tanks fed by running spring water. It stood at the side of the road which leads from Orleans to Paris and with its rich verdure and high-embowered trees broke the monotony of that flat countryside, where fields stretched to the horizon’s verge.
At eleven o’clock, when the second lunch bell had called the whole household together, Mme Hugon, smiling in her kindly maternal way, gave Sabine two great kisses, one on each cheek, and said as she did so:
“You know it’s my custom in the country. Oh, seeing you here makes me feel twenty years younger. Did you sleep well in your old room?”
Then without waiting for her reply she turned to Estelle:
“And this little one, has she had a nap too? Give me a kiss, my child.”
They had taken their seats in the vast dining room, the windows of which looked out on the park. But they only occupied one end of the long table, where they sat somewhat crowded together for company’s sake. Sabine, in high good spirits, dwelt on various childish memories which had been stirred up within her—memories of months passed at Les Fondettes, of long walks, of a tumble into one of the tanks on a summer evening, of an old romance of chivalry discovered by her on the top of a cupboard and read during the winter before fires made of vine branches. And Georges, who had not seen the countess for some months, thought there was something curious about her. Her face seemed changed, somehow, while, on the other hand, that stick of an Estelle seemed more insignificant and dumb and awkward than ever.
While such simple fare as cutlets and boiled eggs was being discussed by the company, Mme Hugon, as became a good housekeeper, launched out into complaints. The butchers, she said, were becoming impossible. She bought everything at Orleans, and yet they never brought her the pieces she asked for. Yet, alas, if her guests had nothing worth eating it was their own fault: they had come too late in the season.
“There’s no sense in it,” she said. “I’ve been expecting you since June, and now we’re half through September. You see, it doesn’t look pretty.”
And with a movement she pointed to the trees on the grass outside, the leaves of which were beginning to turn yellow. The day was covered, and the distance was hidden by a bluish haze which was fraught with a sweet and melancholy peacefulness.
“Oh, I’m expecting company,” she continued. “We shall be gayer then! The first to come will be two gentlemen whom Georges has invited—Monsieur Fauchery and Monsieur Daguenet; you know them, do you not? Then we shall have Monsieur de Vandeuvres, who has promised me a visit these five years past. This time, perhaps, he’ll make up his mind!”