Renée Mauperin’s father had served under the first Napoleon and battled for the liberal forces until he became a husband and father, when his new responsibilities forced him to return home. Since acquiring a family he has ceased being a scholar and political figure in order to pursue the more financially reliable career of sugar refiner. His wife, a very proper woman, wishes to see her children married well and respectably.
The two oldest of the Mauperins’ offspring are model children, so well disciplined and quiet that they fail to excite their father’s interest. Renée, however, the third child, born late in his life, has been a lively youngster from the beginning. She loves horses and action, is demonstrative in her affection, and has an artistic and spirited personality. While these qualities endear her to her father, they make her the bane of her mother’s existence. The oldest daughter has dutifully married and become the respectable Madame Davarande, but Renée, now in her late teens, has already summarily dismissed a dozen suitors of good family and fortune and shows no inclination to accept any who come seeking her hand.
Almost as great a worry to Madame Mauperin is her son, Henri, on whom she dotes. Henri Mauperin is a political economist and a lawyer; he is also a cold and calculating fellow, though his mother, in her excessive love for him, fails to realize just how selfish he is. She thinks that he has never given a thought to marriage and chides him for his lack of interest. She feels that at the age of thirty he should have settled down.
Not knowing his plans, Madame Mauperin arranges to have Henri often in the company of Naomi Bourjot, the only daughter of a very rich family known to the Mauperins for many years. The only difficulty lies in convincing Naomi’s father that Henri, who has no title, is a suitable match for his daughter. Henri himself, having realized that this is the greatest difficulty, has undertaken to gain the aid of Madame Bourjot in his suit for her daughter. His method of securing the mother’s aid is to become her lover.
On the occasion of staging an amateur theatrical production, Naomi, Renée, and Henri find themselves in one another’s company, although Naomi has had to be forced into the venture by her mother. Madame Bourjot had known that Henri wants to marry her daughter, but she has had no idea that he is really in love with the girl. Henri’s portrayal of Naomi’s lover onstage, however, reveals to Madame Bourjot the true state of his affections. Rather than lose him altogether, Madame Bourjot, as Henri has anticipated, resolves to help him win her daughter and the family fortune, although tearful and bitter scenes precede that decision. Urged on by Madame Bourjot, Naomi’s father reluctantly consents to the marriage on the condition that Henri Mauperin acquire the government’s permission to add “de Villacourt” to his name.
Naomi has meanwhile discovered that Henri and her mother have been lovers. She loves Henri and is much dismayed by this discovery; nevertheless, she has to go through with the marriage. Naomi’s only consolation is to tell Renée what she has learned. Renée, horrified to learn of her brother’s actions, confronts him with the story, and he curtly and angrily tells her that the affair is none of her business.
A short time later, when the antagonism between Renée and her brother has been superficially smoothed over, she accompanies him to the government offices, where he receives permission to make the desired addition to his...
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name. While waiting for him, she overhears two clerks saying that the real de Villacourt family has not really died out and that one member, a man, is still alive; the clerks even mention where he lives. Her knowledge gives Renée an opportunity for revenge on her brother, although she has no idea what might happen when she puts her plan into action. She takes a copy of the newspaper article announcing that the title “de Villacourt” is to be given to Henri Mauperin and sends it to the real de Villacourt, a villainous lout who immediately plans to kill the upstart who has dared to appropriate his title.
The real de Villacourt journeys to Paris and learns that, penniless as he is, he has no legal means to regain his title. He then goes to the apartment of Henri Mauperin and attempts to beat the young man. Henri, however, is no coward and challenges the man to a duel. The arrangements are made by Monsieur Denoisel, a friend of the Mauperin family for many years. He also serves as Henri’s second in the affair. When the two men meet for the duel, Henri shoots de Villacourt and thinks that the duel is over, but de Villacourt is not fatally wounded. Calling Henri back, he shoots and kills him. Denoisel is given the unhappy duty of reporting Henri’s untimely death to his family. To everyone’s surprise, the one who seems to take the news hardest is Renée. She and her brother have never been close, so no one expects her to be so upset by his death.
One day, in conversation, Denoisel remarks that someone had sent the newspaper clipping to de Villacourt, and Renée, fearful that she has been discovered as the author of her brother’s death, has a heart attack. For many months she lies ill, apparently with no desire to live; her realization that she has not revealed her guilt prevents her recovery. Her father calls in the best specialists he can find, but they only remark that her condition has been caused by some terrible shock. When told that she has recently lost a brother, they say that Henri’s death is probably not the real cause of her illness.
Despite all efforts on her behalf, Renée Mauperin wastes away and finally dies. The tragedy of the Mauperins does not end there, however. They lose their third child, Madame Davarande, a few months afterward, when she dies in childbirth. Childless and alone, the elder Mauperins attempt to ease their grief and loneliness by traveling abroad.