< 5 >
"What's the matter with you?" asked her husband, already half undressed.
She turned towards him in the utmost distress.
"I . . . I . . . I've no longer got Madame Forestier's necklace. . . ."
He started with astonishment.
"What! . . . Impossible!"
They searched in the folds of her dress, in the folds of the coat, in the pockets, everywhere. They could not find it.
"Are you sure that you still had it on when you came away from the ball?" he asked.
"Yes, I touched it in the hall at the Ministry."
"But if you had lost it in the street, we should have heard it fall."
"Yes. Probably we should. Did you take the number of the cab?"
"No. You didn't notice it, did you?"
They stared at one another, dumbfounded. At last Loisel put on his clothes again.
"I'll go over all the ground we walked," he said, "and see if I can't find it."
And he went out. She remained in her evening clothes, lacking strength to get into bed, huddled on a chair, without volition or power of thought.
Her husband returned about seven. He had found nothing.
He went to the police station, to the newspapers, to offer a reward, to the cab companies, everywhere that a ray of hope impelled him.
She waited all day long, in the same state of bewilderment at this fearful catastrophe.
Loisel came home at night, his face lined and pale; he had discovered nothing.
"You must write to your friend," he said, "and tell her that you've broken the clasp of her necklace and are getting it mended. That will give us time to look about us."
She wrote at his dictation.
By the end of a week they had lost all hope.
Loisel, who had aged five years, declared:
"We must see about replacing the diamonds."
Next day they took the box which had held the necklace and went to the jewellers whose name was inside. He consulted his books.
"It was not I who sold this necklace, Madame; I must have merely supplied the clasp."
Then they went from jeweller to jeweller, searching for another necklace like the first, consulting their memories, both ill with remorse and anguish of mind.
In a shop at the Palais-Royal they found a string of diamonds which seemed to them exactly like the one they were looking for. It was worth forty thousand francs. They were allowed to have it for thirty-six thousand.
< 6 >
They begged the jeweller not to sell it for three days. And they arranged matters on the understanding that it would be taken back for thirty-four thousand francs, if the first one were found before the end of February.
Loisel possessed eighteen thousand francs left to him by his father. He intended to borrow the rest.
He did borrow it, getting a thousand from one man, five hundred from another, five louis here, three louis there. He gave notes of hand, entered into ruinous agreements, did business with usurers and the whole tribe of money-lenders. He mortgaged the whole remaining years of his existence, risked his signature without even knowing if he could honour it, and, appalled at the agonising face of the future, at the black misery about to fall upon him, at the prospect of every possible physical privation and moral torture, he went to get the new necklace and put down upon the jeweller's counter thirty-six thousand francs.
When Madame Loisel took back the necklace to Madame Forestier, the latter said to her in a chilly voice:
"You ought to have brought it back sooner; I might have needed it."
She did not, as her friend had feared, open the case. If she had noticed the substitution, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Would she not have taken her for a thief?
Madame Loisel came to know the ghastly life of abject poverty. From the very first she played her part heroically. This fearful debt must be paid off. She would pay it. The servant was dismissed. They changed their flat; they took a garret under the roof.
She came to know the heavy work of the house, the hateful duties of the kitchen. She washed the plates, wearing out her pink nails on the coarse pottery and the bottoms of pans. She washed the dirty linen, the shirts and dish-cloths, and hung them out to dry on a string; every morning she took the dustbin down into the street and carried up the water, stopping on each landing to get her breath. And, clad like a poor woman, she went to the fruiterer, to the grocer, to the butcher, a basket on her arm, haggling, insulted, fighting for every wretched halfpenny of her money.
Every month notes had to be paid off, others renewed, time gained.
< 7 >
Her husband worked in the evenings at putting straight a merchant's accounts, and often at night he did copying at twopence-halfpenny a page.
And this life lasted ten years.
At the end of ten years everything was paid off, everything, the usurer's charges and the accumulation of superimposed interest.
Madame Loisel looked old now. She had become like all the other strong, hard, coarse women of poor households. Her hair was badly done, her skirts were awry, her hands were red. She spoke in a shrill voice, and the water slopped all over the floor when she scrubbed it. But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she sat down by the window and thought of that evening long ago, of the ball at which she had been so beautiful and so much admired.
What would have happened if she had never lost those jewels. Who knows? Who knows? How strange life is, how fickle! How little is needed to ruin or to save!
One Sunday, as she had gone for a walk along the Champs-Elysees to freshen herself after the labours of the week, she caught sight suddenly of a woman who was taking a child out for a walk. It was Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still attractive.
Madame Loisel was conscious of some emotion. Should she speak to her? Yes, certainly. And now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not?
She went up to her.
"Good morning, Jeanne."
The other did not recognise her, and was surprised at being thus familiarly addressed by a poor woman.
"But . . . Madame . . ." she stammered. "I don't know . . . you must be making a mistake."
"No . . . I am Mathilde Loisel."
Her friend uttered a cry.
"Oh! . . . my poor Mathilde, how you have changed! . . ."
"Yes, I've had some hard times since I saw you last; and many sorrows . . . and all on your account."
"On my account! . . . How was that?"
"You remember the diamond necklace you lent me for the ball at the Ministry?"
"Well, I lost it."
"How could you? Why, you brought it back."
"I brought you another one just like it. And for the last ten years we have been paying for it. You realise it wasn't easy for us; we had no money. . . . Well, it's paid for at last, and I'm glad indeed."
< 8 >
Madame Forestier had halted.
"You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?"
"Yes. You hadn't noticed it? They were very much alike."
And she smiled in proud and innocent happiness.
Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her two hands.
"Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs! . . . "