âHe needs to apologize, to minimize the incident, to say he was drunk or find some other explanation.â
âIs he refusing to?â
âNot only is he refusing but heâs aggravating his case with irresponsible comments. Youâd think he
to be condemned.â
Valentine sat with unseeing eyes and gave a strange smile. Then she jerked her arm abruptly, as if wiping something off the table with the back of her hand. In the process she knocked over the bottle of cordial, which fell to the ground. This unleashed a flurry of activity. She stood up and Lantier did too. She went to fetch a floor cloth from under a cupboard, and gathered up the pieces of glass with a broom. The officer wanted to make himself useful but couldnât think how to. In the end, he let her get on with it and, because he was on his feet, took the opportunity to go and look at the books lined up on the shelves on wall brackets.
He read a few titles at random, on the larger volumes. There were several Zola novels. He also spotted Rousseauâs
La Nouvelle HÃ©loÃ¯se
and, on another book, although he couldnât be sure, he thought he saw the name Jules VallÃ¨s.
âThere we are,â Valentine said. âIâm so sorry. Everythingâs fine. Now, what were we saying?â
She was edging him toward the table and seemed particularly keen to get him away from the bookshelves. He went and sat back down and thought at some length before speaking again.
âThe fact is,â he eventually began, âthe case involving Morlac is very likely one of the last I will handle. Iâm planning to leave the army and go into civilian life. Iâd like to end on an uplifting note, to have good memories of my position, so to speak. If I could succeed in stopping this defendant from going to his death, it would give me tremendous satisfaction and I could leave less heavy-hearted. As you can see, itâs very selfish.â
He was ashamed to admit he had a personal interest in the case. But sheâd already more than grasped the fact.
âMorlac is indeed a hero,â he went on. âWe owe our victory to men like him. Iâd like to save him. But that can only be done against his will, because heâs determined to be condemned to death, and I donât understand why. Thatâs why Iâm here.â
She looked at him steadily, unblinking, waiting to hear what would come next.
âCould I ask you a rather prying question but one I believe to be of key importance?â
She didnât reply and, as sheâd expected, he didnât wait for an answer.
âIs your child his?â
She knew he would come to this.
âJules is his son.â
âFor him to be three years old, he must have been conceived .Â .Â . during the war.â
âJacques came home on leave and, while he was here, we made love almost continuously.â
Lantier felt himself flushing but he was too driven by the subject to falter at this obstacle of propriety.
âHas he recognized him as such on the local register?â
âHe could have done.â
âBut he didnât.â
Lantier sprang to his feet and walked to the door. He hovered on the doorstep for a moment, his eyes wide and scorched by the sun. The child was back. It was a little boy dressed in mud-colored scraps of cloth stitched together. Heâd caught a mole and was prodding it with a stick, without any spite but without any mercy either.
âHave you seen him since he came back?â Lantier asked.
âBut he came back here for you.â
âI donât think so. If he came home, it must be for his farm.â
âExcept he hasnât set foot on the place. He was lodging in a furnished room in town.â
This was one of the pieces of information that featured in the policemenâs report. Morlacâs land had been