But even a haloed past does not give one a licence to annoy one’s neighbours. Madame Depine felt resentfully, and she hated Madame Valiere as a haughty minion of royalty, who kept a cough, which barked loudest in the silence of the night.
“Why doesn’t she go to the hospital, your Princess?” she complained to Madame la Proprietaire.
“Since she is able to nurse herself at home,” the opulent-bosomed hostess replied with a shrug.
“At the expense of other people,” Madame Depine retorted bitterly. “I shall die of her cough, I am sure of it.”
Madame showed her white teeth sweetly. “Then it is you who should go to the hospital.”
Time wrote wrinkles enough on the brows of the two old ladies, but his frosty finger never touched their glossy brown hair, for both wore wigs of nearly the same shade. These wigs were almost symbolic of the evenness of their existence, which had got beyond the reach of happenings. The Church calendar, so richly dyed with figures of saints and martyrs, filled life with colour enough, and fast-days were almost as welcome as feast-days, for if the latter warmed the general air, the former cloaked economy with dignity. As for Mardi Gras, that shook you up for weeks, even though you did not venture out of your apartment; the gay serpentine streamers remained round one’s soul as round the trees.
At intervals, indeed, secular excitements broke the even tenor. A country cousin would call upon the important Parisian relative, and be received, not in the little bedroom, but in state in the mustily magnificent salon of the hotel—all gold mirrors and mouldiness—which the poor country mouse vaguely accepted as part of the glories of Paris and success. Madame Depine would don her ponderous gold brooch, sole salvage of her bourgeois prosperity; while, if the visitor were for Madame Valiere, that grande dame would hang from her yellow, shrivelled neck the long gold chain and the old-fashioned watch, whose hands still seemed to point to regal hours.
Another break in the monotony was the day on which the lottery was drawn—the day of the pagan god of Luck. What delicious hopes of wealth flamed in these withered breasts, only to turn grey and cold when the blank was theirs again, but not the less to soar up again, with each fresh investment, towards the heaven of the hundred thousand francs! But if ever Madame Depine stumbled on Madame Valiere buying a section of a billet at the lottery agent’s, she insisted on having her own slice cut from another number. Fortune itself would be robbed of its sweet if the “Princess” should share it. Even their common failure to win a sou did not draw them from their freezing depths of silence, from which every passing year made it more difficult to emerge. Some greater conjuncture was needed for that.
It came when Madame la Proprietaire made her debut one fine morning in a grey wig.