“Come in, Henri!” said she, lifting the portiere.
“Do I disturb you?” the General inquired, entering the library.
“Never! You know that well! But how gravely you asked the question!”
“For the reason that I wish to speak to you about serious matters, my dear Eugenie.”
The image of Zibeline passed before the eyes of the actress. That which Desvanneaux had revealed, in accusing the girl of debauchery, now appeared plausible to her, if considered in another way.
“You are about to marry!” she exclaimed.
They were the same words pronounced by Fanny Dorville in similar circumstances.
“Never! You know that well enough!” he replied, in his turn.
“Speak, then!” said she, sinking upon a chair and motioning him to a seat before her.
He obeyed, and sitting so far forward upon his chair that his knees touched her skirt, he took both her hands in his own, and said gently:
“You know how much I love you, and how much I esteem you. You know, too, the story of my life: my past follies, and also the honorable career I have run in order to atone for them morally, for in a material sense they are irreparable—according to my ideas, at least. This career has been fortunate. I have reached the highest rank that a soldier can attain to-day. But my rapid promotion, however justifiable it may be, has none the less awakened jealousy. The nature of my services being above all possibility of suspicion, calumny has sought another quarter at which to strike, and at this moment it is my delicacy which is impugned.”
“Your delicacy, Henri! What do you mean?” asked Eugenie, in an altered voice.
“Our friendship is well known. You are rich, and I have only my pay: the antithesis is flagrant! The gossips comment upon it, and exploit the fact against me.”
“Against you!” cried Eugenie, indignantly.
“Against me—yes. I have proof of it. A man in private life would be justified in ignoring such gossip, but for a man in my profession ambiguity has no place, nor has compromise. Himself a severe judge of the conduct of others, he must not afford them a single instance whereby they can accuse him of not following his own precepts.”
And, as his companion remained silent and startled before an explanation so unexpected, he added:
“You say nothing, my love. You must divine the depth of my chagrin at the prospect of a necessary separation, and you are sufficiently charitable not to remind me that I ought to have made these tardy reflections before I yielded to a fascination which made me close my eyes to facts.”