IT was nearly midnight when Madeleine returned to the Moulinettes. The door was ajar, as she had left it, for Michael had gone in by the back way as he always did. She went in on tiptoe and, quick, quick, without a stop for breath, she undressed and dropped into bed.
The two children had slipped into the depression in the middle; she separated them and lay down between them and, slipping her arms under their soft little bodies, she lay quite still, eyes staring—crucified.
Her head buzzed; not a thought, not a memory there; nothing but the stupor of a poor animal that has been struck down.
A great weight lay on her chest, suffocating her. She drew her arms free and sat up; the children stirred; with infinite precautions she drew them close to her again and laid their heads in her lap.
The clock struck one. Madeleine had the sensation of a cold wind striking her forehead; her hair rose on her head. She could not weep, nor could she breathe. Her head went back and through her open lips passed a hoarse, heart-rending moan.
In the men's room across the hall, Michael had just waked up and, hearing her, called out:
"Madeleine—Madeleine, are you ill?"
There came no answer. He listened a little longer and, hearing no more, dropped off to sleep again.
She had thrown herself forward and bitten deep into the blankets.
The children were uncomfortable and now began to be restless. She had to straighten up again.
The moans sounded afresh. "My little babies!"
She drew them closer and closer, gathered them up against her, brought near their arms, crooked their little legs. Her hands would not stop fondling them, gliding over them slowly in an endless caress.
The night rolled by; the window-panes began to whiten; a cock, at the far end of the yard, saluted the day with his cruel crow.
"My babies!—Good-bye, my babies!"
She began to shake so hard that she was afraid it would wake them. For a minute she managed to control herself; she folded them to her more closely still, drew up her knees, bent down her head, and her hands spread over as much of them as they could cover.
She laid the two little heads back on the bolster, put her feet on the floor and, dragging herself up by the blankets, she raised herself out of bed at last.
She lighted a candle and came back to the bed to put on her clothes hastily. A horribly painful shiver passed over all her cold body; her teeth chattered. Her hands kept on busily, fastening her skirt, buttoning her bodice; But her wide, staring eyes never moved. It was with her look now that she touched the two brown little heads, fondled them, sank herself into them.
All at once she blew out the candle. She made three steps away, then ran back and fell across the bed with arms spread wide.
And once more the dreadful moans arose.
She touched them again, she pressed her lips on the warm baby flesh, anywhere, everywhere, just as it happened.
At last she stiffened and drew back; but the little boy had half waked up and threw his arms around her neck, clutching a strand of her hair with his hand. Madeleine pressed to her cheek the closed little fist and, with one jerk, she pulled her hair out by the roots.
Then she ran to the door and fled, with her apron stuffed into her mouth.