“She has grown grey!” contemptuously muttered Madame Valiere.
“Grey? She!” repeated Madame Depine, with no less bitterness. “It is only to give herself the air of a grande dame!”
Then both started, and coloured to the roots of their wigs. Simultaneously they realised that they had spoken to each other.
As they went up the stairs together—for Madame Depine had quite forgotten she was going out—an immense relief enlarged their souls. Merely to mention the grey wig had been a vent for all this morbid brooding; to abuse Madame la Proprietaire into the bargain was to pass from the long isolation into a subtle sympathy.
“I wonder if she did say one franc fifty,” observed Madame Valiere, reflectively.
“Without doubt,” Madame Depine replied viciously. “And fifty centimes a day soon mount up to a grey wig.”
“Not so soon,” sighed Madame Valiere.
“But then it is not only one client that she cheats.”
“Ah! at that rate wigs fall from the skies,” admitted Madame Valiere.
“Especially if one has not to give dowries to one’s nieces,” said Madame Depine, boldly.
“And if one is mean on New Year’s Day,” returned Madame Valiere, with a shade less of mendacity.
They inhaled the immemorial airlessness of the staircase as if they were breathing the free air of the forests depicted on its dirty-brown wall-paper. It was the new atmosphere of self-respect that they were really absorbing. Each had at last explained herself and her brown wig to the other. An immaculate honesty (that would scorn to overcharge fifty centimes even to un Anglais), complicated with unwedded nieces in one case, with a royal shower of New Year’s gifts in the other, had kept them from selfish, if seemly, hoary-headedness.
“Ah! here is my floor,” panted Madame Valiere at length, with an air of indicating it to a thorough stranger. “Will you not come into my room and eat a fig? They are very healthy between meals.”
Madame Depine accepted the invitation, and entering her own corner of the corridor with a responsive air of foreign exploration, passed behind the door through whose keyhole she had so often peered. Ah! no wonder she had detected nothing abnormal. The room was a facsimile of her own—the same bed with the same quilt over it and the same crucifix above it, the same little table with the same books of devotion, the same washstand with the same tiny jug and basin, the same rusted, fireless grate. The wardrobe, like her own, was merely a pair of moth-eaten tartan curtains, concealing both pegs and garments from her curiosity. The only sense of difference came subtly from the folding windows, below whose railed balcony showed another view of the quarter, with steam-trams—diminished to toy trains—puffing past to the suburbs. But as Madame Depine’s eyes roved from these to the mantel-piece, she caught sight of an oval miniature of an elegant young woman, who was jewelled in many places, and corresponded exactly with her idea of a Princess!