One night, Charles is called away to set a broken leg in Les Bertaux, a distant village. He sets out a few hours after he receives the message, sleepy, comfortable, and slightly anxious about his task. His patient is an old widower named Monsieur Rouault, who lives on a large farm with his daughter Emma. Charles easily sets the simple fracture, admiring, in the meantime, the daughter’s white nails, lovely eyes, and general elegance. She serves him a small meal, and they talk briefly about the difficulties of country life.
Charles is a dutiful doctor, but he is not passionately self-sacrificing. He does what needs to be done without implicating his ego. He enjoys simple pleasures – sleep, food, and beauty. Emma, from the very beginning, is much less easy and natural. Her appearance suggests a sort of nervous, meticulous care. Her self-consciousness and self-regard are visible from the beginning.
Charles returns the very next day to check on Monsieur Rouault’s leg, and very frequently thereafter. The man’s leg heals quickly and easily, and Charles begins to get a good reputation. Charles intensely enjoys his visits without quite knowing why. Soon his wife discovers that Monsieur Rouault’s daughter is pretty and well-educated, and becomes quite jealous. She complains shrilly about Charles’ disloyalty and berates the young girl to no end. Charles agrees to stop visiting Les Bertaux, but he thinks about Mademoiselle Rouault all the more.
Charles follows his instincts without trying to analyze them. He knows that he wants to go to Les Bertaux, so he goes. Only at his wife’s insistent hinting does he realize that he has feelings for Emma. He lives his life without the need to create an imaginative structure corresponding to it, a fantasy world of ideas, ambitions, and justifications. When he acts, he considers the effect of his actions on others, but not on his self-image.
One day, Héloïse’s lawyer runs off with the entire Dubuc fortune, and Charles’ wife is left penniless. It also comes to light that she had lied about the value of some of her assets. Charles’ parents quarrel with her, and she dies of a seizure a week later. Charles responds with a sort of ambivalent sadness.
Because Charles very nearly lacks an ego, a self-image, he also lacks any sense of his rights or privileges. He observes that his wife makes him unhappy, but he does not feel that he deserves better. He takes her life and her death as they come, without the distortions of ego.