“How do you mean?”
“The Royal Secrets.”
The “Princess” blushed. “What are you thinking of?”
“The journalist below us tells me that gossip about the great sells like Easter buns.”
“He is truly below us,” said Madame Valiere, witheringly. “What! sell one’s memories! No, no; it would not be convenable. There are even people living—”
“But nobody would know,” urged Madame Depine.
“One must carry the head high, even if it is not grey.”
It was almost a quarrel. Far below the steam-tram was puffing past. At the window across the street a woman was beating her carpet with swift, spasmodic thwacks, as one who knew the legal time was nearly up. In the tragic silence which followed Madame Valiere’s rebuke, these sounds acquired a curious intensity.
“I prefer to sacrifice the lottery rather than honour,” she added, in more conciliatory accents.
The long quasi-Lenten weeks went by, and unflinchingly the two old ladies pursued their pious quest of the grey wig. Butter had vanished from their bread, and beans from their coffee. Their morning brew was confected of charred crusts, and as they sipped it solemnly they exchanged the reflection that it was quite equal to the coffee at the cremerie. Positively one was safer drinking one’s own messes. Figs, no longer posing as a pastime of the palate, were accepted seriously as pieces de resistance. The Spring was still cold, yet fires could be left to die after breakfast. The chill had been taken off, and by mid-day the sun was in its full power. Each sustained the other by a desperate cheerfulness. When they took their morning walk in the Luxembourg Gardens—what time the blue-aproned Jacques was polishing their waxed floors with his legs for broom-handles—they went into ecstasies over everything, drawing each other’s attention to the sky, the trees, the water. And, indeed, of a sunshiny morning it was heartening to sit by the pond and watch the wavering sheet of beaten gold water, reflecting all shades of green in a restless shimmer against the shadowed grass around. Madame Valiere always had a bit of dry bread to feed the pigeons withal—it gave a cheerful sense of superfluity, and her manner of sprinkling the crumbs revived Madame Depine’s faded images of a Princess scattering New Year largess.
But beneath all these pretences of content lay a hollow sense of desolation. It was not the want of butter nor the diminished meat; it was the total removal from life of that intangible splendour of hope produced by the lottery ticket. Ah! every day was drawn blank now. This gloom, this gnawing emptiness at the heart, was worse than either had foreseen or now confessed. Malicious Fate, too, they felt, would even crown with the grand prix the number they would have chosen. But for the prospective draw for the Wig—which reintroduced the aleatory—life would scarcely have been bearable.