They were just sitting down at the table when the mistress of the house stopped suddenly, Jacqueline's spoon of tonic suspended in mid-air. "It's your father, children," she said as the key turned in the lock.
It was indeed Monsieur Péricand, a short, stocky man with a gentle and slightly awkward manner. His normally well-fed, relaxed and rosy-cheeked face looked, not frightened or worried, but extraordinarily shocked. He wore the expression found on people who have died in an accident, in a matter of seconds, without having had time to be afraid or suffer. They would be reading a book or looking out of a car window, thinking about things, or making their way along a train to the restaurant car when, all of a sudden, there they were in hell.
Madame Péricand rose quietly from her chair. "Adrien?" she called out, her voice anguished.
"It's nothing. Nothing," he muttered hastily, glancing furtively at the children, his father and the servants.
Madame Péricand understood. She nodded at the servants to continue serving dinner. She forced herself to swallow her food, but each mouthful seemed as hard and bland as a stone and stuck in her throat. Nevertheless, she repeated the phrases that had become ritual at mealtimes for the past thirty years. "Don't drink before starting your soup," she told the children. "Darling, your knife . . ."
She cut the elderly Monsieur Péricand's filet of sole into small strips. He was on a complicated diet that allowed him to eat only the lightest food and Madame Péricand always served him herself, pouring his water, buttering his bread, tying his napkin round his neck, for he always started drooling when he saw food he liked. "I don't think poor elderly invalids can bear to be touched by servants," she would say to her friends.
"We must show grandfather how much we love him, my darlings," she instructed the children, looking at the old man with terrifying tenderness.
In his later years, Monsieur Péricand had endowed various philanthropic projects, one of which was especially dear to his heart: the Penitent Children of the 16th Arrondissement, a venerable institution whose goal was to instil morals in delinquent minors. It had always been understood that the elder Monsieur Péricand would leave a certain sum of money to this organisation, but he had a rather irritating way of never revealing exactly how much. If he hadn't enjoyed his meal, or if the children made too much noise, he would suddenly emerge from his stupor and say in a weak but clear voice, "I'm going to leave them five million."
A painful silence would follow.
On the other hand, if he'd had a lovely meal and a good sleep in his chair by the window, in the sunshine, he would look up at his daughter-in-law with the pale, distant eyes of a small child, or a newborn puppy.
Charlotte was very tactful. She never replied, as others might, "You're absolutely right, Father." Instead, she would say sweetly, "Good Lord, you have plenty of time to think about that!"
The Péricand fortune was considerable, but it would be unjust to accuse them of coveting the elder Monsieur Péricand's inheritance. They didn't care about money, not at all, but money cared about them, so to speak! There were certain things that they deserved, including the Maltête-Lyonnais millions; they would never manage to spend it all but they would save it for their children's children. As for the Penitent Children of the 16th Arrondissement, they were so involved with this charity that, twice a year, Madame Péricand organised classical music concerts for the unfortunate children; she would play the harp and was gratified to notice that, at certain passages, sobbing could be heard in the darkened concert hall.
Excerpted from Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky Copyright © 2006 by Irene Nemirovsky. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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