At this moment, when Madame de Monredon was sitting in judgment on the education given to the little girls brought up in the world, and on the ruinous extravagance of their young stepmothers, Madame de Nailles and Jacqueline—their last visitors having departed—were resting themselves, leaning tenderly against each other, on a sofa. Jacqueline’s head lay on her mother’s lap. Her mother, without speaking, was stroking the girl’s dark hair. Jacqueline, too, was silent, but from time to time she kissed the slender fingers sparkling with rings, as they came within reach of her lips.
When M. de Nailles, about dinner-time, surprised them thus, he said, with satisfaction, as he had often said before, that it would be hard to find a home scene more charming, as they sat under the light of a lamp with a pink shade.
That the stepmother and stepdaughter adored each other was beyond a doubt. And yet, had any one been able to look into their hearts at that moment, he would have discovered with surprise that each was thinking of something that she could not confide to the other.
Both were thinking of the same person. Madame de Nailles was occupied with recollections, Jacqueline with hope. She was absorbed in Machiavellian strategy, how to realize a hope that had been formed that very afternoon.
“What are you both thinking of, sitting there so quietly?” said the Baron, stooping over them and kissing first his wife and then his child.
“About nothing,” said the wife, with the most innocent of smiles.
“Oh! I am thinking,” said Jacqueline, “of many things. I have a secret, papa, that I want to tell you when we are quite alone. Don’t be jealous, dear mamma. It is something about a surprise—Oh, a lovely surprise for you.”
“Saint Clotilde’s day-my fete-day is still far off,” said Madame de Nailles, refastening, mother-like, the ribbon that was intended to keep in order the rough ripples of Jacqueline’s unruly hair, “and usually your whisperings begin as the day approaches my fete.”
“Oh, dear!—you will go and guess it!” cried Jacqueline in alarm. “Oh! don’t guess it, please.”
“Well! I will do my best not to guess, then,” said the good-natured Clotilde, with a laugh.
“And I assure you, for my part, that I am discretion itself,” said M. de Nailles.
So saying, he drew his wife’s arm within his own, and the three passed gayly together into the dining-room.
A CLEVER STEPMOTHER
No man took more pleasure than M. de Nailles in finding himself in his own home—partly, perhaps, because circumstances compelled him to be very little there. The post of deputy in the French Chamber is no sinecure. He was not often an orator from the tribune, but he was absorbed by work in the committees—“Harnessed to a lot of bothering reports,” as Jacqueline used to say to him. He had barely any time to give to those important duties of his position, by which, as is well known, members of the Corps Legislatif are shamelessly harassed by constituents, who, on pretence that they have helped to place the interests of their district in your hands, feel authorized to worry you with personal matters, such as the choice of agricultural machines, or a place to be found for a wet-nurse.