She could not continue; sobs choked her utterance. And for more than a minute the silence was so profound that one could hear the sound of low conversation in the hall outside, the exclamations of the players as they greeted each unexpected turn of luck, and occasionally a cry of "Banco!" or "I stake one hundred louis!" Standing silent and motionless near the window, Wilkie gazed with consternation at Madame d'Argeles, his mother, who was crouching in the middle of the room with her face hidden in her hands, and sobbing as if her heart would break. He would willingly have given his third share in Pompier de Nanterre to have made his escape. The strangeness of the scene appalled him. It was not emotion that he felt, but an instinctive fear mingled with commiseration. And he was not only ill at ease, but he was angry with himself for what he secretly styled his weakness. "Women are incomprehensible," he thought. "It would be so easy to explain things quietly and properly, but they must always cry and have a sort of melodrama."
Suddenly the sound of footsteps near the door roused him from his stupor. He shuddered at the thought that some one might come in. He hated the very idea of ridicule. So summoning all his courage he went toward Madame d'Argeles, and, raising her from the floor, he exclaimed: "Don't cry so. You grieve me, upon my word! Pray get up. Some one is coming. Do you hear me? Some one is coming." Thereupon, as she offered no resistance, he half led, half carried her to an arm-chair, into which she sank heavily. "Now she is going to faint!" thought Wilkie, in despair. What should he do? Call for help? He dared not. However, necessity inspired him. He knelt at Madame d'Argeles's feet, and gently said: "Come, come, be reasonable! Why do you give way like this? I don't reproach you!"
Slowly, with an air of humility which was indescribably touching, she took her hands from her face, and for the first time raised her tear-stained eyes to her son's. "Wilkie," she murmured.
She heaved a deep sigh, and in a half-stifled voice:
"MADAME!" she repeated. "Will you not call me mother?"
"Yes, of course--certainly. But--only you know it will take me some time to acquire the habit. I shall do so, of course; but I shall have to get used to it, you know."
"True, very true!--but tell me it is not mere pity that leads you to make this promise? If you should hate me--if you should curse me--how should I bear it! Ah! when a woman reaches the years of understanding one should never cease repeating to her: 'Take care! Your son will be twenty some day, and you will have to meet his searching gaze. You will have to render an account of your honor to him!' My God! If women thought of this, they would never sin. To be reduced to such a state of abject misery that one dares not lift one's head before one's own son! Alas! Wilkie, I know only too well that you cannot help despising me."
"No, indeed. Not at all! What an idea!"