Her eyes filled. I thought I had never seen a creature more gentle, delicate, yielding, acquiescent, and fair. She was not beautiful, but she had grace and distinction of movement. She was a Parisienne. She had won my sympathy. We met in a moment when my heart needed the companionship of a woman’s heart, and I was drawn to her by one of those sudden impulses that sometimes draw women to each other. I cared not what she was. Moreover, she had excited my curiosity. She was a novelty in my life. She was something that I had heard of, and seen—yes, and perhaps envied in secret, but never spoken with. And she shattered all my preconceptions about her.
‘You are an old tenant of this house?’ I ventured.
‘Yes,’ she said; ‘it suits me. But the great heats are terrible here.’
‘You do not leave Paris, then?’
‘Never. Except to see my little boy.’
I started, envious of her, and also surprised. It seemed strange that this ribboned and elegant and plastic creature, whose long, thin arms were used only to dalliance, should be a mother.
‘So you have a little boy?’
’Yes; he lives with my parents at Meudon. He is four years old.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ’Be frank with me once again. Do you love your child, honestly? So many women don’t, it appears.’
‘Do I love him?’ she cried, and her face glowed with her love. ’I adore him!’ Her sincerity was touching and overwhelming. ’And he loves me, too. If he is naughty, one has only to tell him that he will make his petite mere ill, and he will be good at once. When he is told to obey his grandfather, because his grandfather provides his food, he says bravely: “No, not grandpapa; it is petite mere!” Is it not strange he should know that I pay for him? He has a little engraving of the Queen of Italy, and he says it is his petite mere. Among the scores of pictures he has he keeps only that one. He takes it to bed with him. It is impossible to deprive him of it.’
She smiled divinely.
‘How beautiful!’ I said. ‘And you go to see him often?’
’As often as I have time. I take him out for walks. I run with him till we reach the woods, where I can have him to myself alone. I never stop; I avoid people. No one except my parents knows that he is my child. One supposes he is a nurse-child, received by my parents. But all the world will know now,’ she added, after a pause. ’Last Monday I went to Meudon with my friend Alice, and Alice wanted to buy him some sweets at the grocer’s. In the shop I asked him if he would like dragees, and he said “Yes.” The grocer said to him, “Yes who, young man?” “Yes, petite mere,” he said, very loudly and bravely. The grocer understood. We all lowered our heads.’
There was something so affecting in the way she half whispered the last phrase, that I could have wept; and yet it was comical, too, and she appreciated that.