Every day at the luncheon hour she went to Mother Francoise's house to ask news of Rosalie. Sometimes news was given to her, sometimes not, according to whether it was the grandmother or the aunt whom she saw.
On her way to inquire for Rosalie she passed a little store which was divided into two sections. On one side newspapers, pictures and songs were sold, and on the other linens, calicos and prints. Perrine had often looked in this store. How nice it would be to go in and have them cut off as much material as she wished! Sometimes, when she had been looking in the window, pretending to look at the newspapers or a song, she had seen girls from the factory enter and come out shortly after with parcels carefully wrapped up, which they held clasped tightly to them. She had thought then that such pleasure was not for her ... at least not then.
Now she could enter the store if she wished, for she had three silver coins in her hand. She went in.
"What is it you want, mademoiselle?" asked a little old woman politely, with a pleasant smile.
"Will you please tell me what is the price of calico the yard ... the cheapest?" asked Perrine timidly.
"I have it at forty centimes the yard," said the old woman.
Perrine gave a sigh of relief.
"Will you cut me two yards, please?" she said.
"It won't wear very well ... but the sixty centimes...."
"The forty centime one will do, thank you," said little Perrine.
"As you like," said the old woman. "I wouldn't like you to come back after and say...."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that," interrupted Perrine hastily.
The old woman cut off two yards, and Perrine noticed that it was not white nor shiny like the one she had admired in the window.
"Any more?" asked the shopkeeper when she had torn the calico with a sharp, dry rip.
"I want some thread also," said Perrine; "a spool of white, number forty."
Now it was Perrine's turn to leave the store with her little newspaper parcel hugged tightly to her heart. Out of her three francs (sixty centimes) she had spent eighteen, so there still remained forty-two until the following Saturday. She would have to spend twenty sous for bread, so that left her fourteen sous for extras.
She ran back all the way to her little island. When she reached her cabin she was out of breath, but that did not prevent her from beginning her work at once. She had some time ago decided upon the shape she would give her chemise. She would make it quite straight, first, because that was the simplest and the easiest way for one who had never cut out anything before and who had no scissors, and secondly, because she could use the string that was in her old one for this new one.
Everything went very well; to begin with, there was no cutting in the straight piece. Perhaps there was nothing to admire in her work but at any rate she did not have to do it over again. But when the time came for shaping the openings for the head and arms then she experienced difficulties! She had only a knife to do the cutting and she was so afraid that she would tear the calico. With a trembling hand she took the risk. At last it was finished, and on Tuesday morning she would be able to go to the factory wearing a chemise earned by her own work, cut and sewn by her own hands.
That day when she went to Mother Francoise's; it was Rosalie who came to meet her with her arm in a sling.
"Are you better?" asked Perrine.
"No, but they let me get up and they said that I could come out in the yard," replied Rosalie.
Perrine was very pleased to see her friend again and asked all kinds of questions, but Rosalie seemed rather reserved. Perrine could not understand this attitude.
"Where are you living now?" asked Rosalie.
Fearing to say where, Perrine evaded a direct answer to this question.
"It was too expensive for me here," she said, "and I had so little money left for food and other things."
"Well, did you find anything cheaper elsewhere?"
"I don't have to pay."
She looked narrowly at Perrine, then her curiosity got the better of her.
"Who are you with?" she asked.
Again Perrine could not give a direct answer.
"I'll tell you that later," she said.
"Oh, when you like," replied Rosalie carelessly, "only let me tell you this, if you see Aunt Zenobie in the yard or at the door you had better not come in. She doesn't want to see you here. If you come it is better to come in the evening, then she ... she is busy."
Perrine went to the factory very saddened by this welcome. What had she done that she could not go into the house? All day long she remained under the impression that she had offended them. When evening came and she found herself alone in the cabin having nothing to do for the first time in eight days, she was even more depressed. Then she thought that she would go and walk in the fields that surrounded her little island, for she had not yet had time to do this.
It was a beautiful evening. She wandered around the pond, walking in the high grass that had not been trodden by anyone. She looked across the water at her little home which seemed almost hidden amongst the trees. The birds and beasts could not suspect that it was the work of man behind which he could lie in ambush with his gun.
At that moment she heard a noise at her feet which frightened her and a water hen jumped into the water, terrified. Then looking about her she saw a nest made of grass and feathers in which were ten white eggs, dirty little eggs with small dark spots.
Instead of being placed on the ground amongst the grass the nest was floating on the water. She examined it but without touching it, and noticed that it was made in a way to go up and down according to the flow of the water, and was so surrounded with reeds that neither the current nor the wind could carry it away.
The mother hen, anxious, took up her position at a distance and stayed there. Perrine hid herself in the high grass and waited to see if she would come back to her nest.
As she did not return, she went on with her walk, and again and again the rustling of her dress frightened other birds. The water hens, so lissom in their escape, ran to the floating leaves of the water lilies without going under. She saw birds everywhere.
When an hour later she returned to her little home the hut was hidden half in the shadows of night. It was so quiet and pretty she thought, and how pleased she was that she had shown as much intelligence as these birds ... to make her nest here.
With Perrine, as with many little children, it was the events of the day which shaped her dreams by night. The unhappiness through which she had passed the last few months had often colored her dreams, and many times since her troubles had commenced, she had awakened in the night with the perspiration pouring off her. Her sleep was disturbed with nightmares caused by the miseries she had experienced in the day.
Now since she had been at Maraucourt and had new hopes and was at work, the nightmares had been less frequent and so she was not so sad.
Now she thought of what she was going to do at the factory the next day, of the skirt and waist that she would make, of her underwear.
Now on this particular evening after she had wandered over the fields surrounding her home and had entered her little nest to go to sleep, strange visions passed before her sleepy eyes. She thought that she was walking about the field exploring, and came upon a great big kitchen, a wonderful kitchen like in castles, and there were a number of little dwarfs of the most diabolical shapes, sitting around a big table before a blazing fire; some of them were breaking eggs, others were beating them up until they were white and frothy; and some of these eggs were as large as melons and others were as small as a little pea, and the dwarfs made the most extraordinary dishes from them. They seemed to know the every kind of dish that could be made with eggs,—boiled eggs with cheese and butter; with tomatoes; poached; fried eggs; various omelettes with ham and kidney, jam or rum; the rum set afire and flaming with sparkling lights. And then there were more important dishes still which only the head cooks were handling ... pastries and delicious creams.
Now and again she half woke and she tried to banish the stupid dream but it came again and the elfs still went on doing their fantastic work, so that when the factory whistle sounded she was still watching them prepare some chocolate creams which she could almost taste in her mouth.
Then she knew that what had impressed her most during her walk was not the beauty of the night but simply those eggs which she had seen in the nest, which had told her stomach that for fourteen days she had eaten only bread and water. These eggs had made her dream of the elfs and all those delicious things that they were making; she was hungry for good things and she had found it out through her dream.
Why had she not taken those eggs, or at least some of them, they did not belong to anyone for the duck was wild? Of course as she had no saucepan or frying pan or any kitchen utensils whatever, she could not prepare any of the dishes that she had seen made before her dream eyes. But there, that was the best about eggs, they could be used without any very skillful preparation; a lighted match put to a little heap of dry wood and then she could cook them hard or soft, how she liked, in the hot ashes. And she would buy a saucepan or a pan as soon as possible.
Several times this idea came to her while she was at work that day until finally she decided to buy a box of matches and a cent's worth of salt. As soon as she had made her purchases she ran back to her hut.
She had been too interested in the place where she had discovered the nest not to be able to find it again. The mother was not occupying the nest but she had been there during the day because Perrine saw now that instead of ten eggs there were eleven, which proved that she had not finished laying.
Here was a good chance for her to help herself. In the first place the eggs were fresh, and then if she only took five or six, the duck, who did not know how to count, would not notice that any one had been there.
A short time ago Perrine would not have had any scruples and she would have quickly emptied the nest, without a thought, but the sorrows that she had experienced had made her very thoughtful for the griefs of others; in this same manner her love for Palikare had made her feel an affection for all animals that she had not known in her early childhood.
After she had taken the eggs she wondered where she could cook them; naturally this could not be done in the cabin for the slightest wreath of smoke which would emerge from it would indicate to anyone who saw it that someone was living there.
There was a gypsy camp quite near which she passed by to get to her island, and a little smoke coming from there would attract no attention.
She quickly got together some wood and lighted it; soon she had a fire in the ashes of which she cooked one of her eggs. She lacked an egg cup but what did that matter? A little hole made in a piece of bread could hold the egg. In a few minutes she had the satisfaction of dipping a piece of bread in her egg, which was cooked to perfection. It seemed to her as she took the first mouthful that she had never eaten anything so good.
When she had finished her supper she wondered how she should use the remainder of her eggs. She would have to use them sparingly for she might not be able to get any more for a long time. A hot soup with an egg broken into it would be very good.
As the idea of having some soup came into her head, it was almost immediately followed by the regret that she could not have it. The success of her canvas shoes and her underwear had inspired her with a certain amount of confidence. She had proved that one can do a great deal if one perseveres, but she had not enough confidence to imagine that she could ever make a saucepan for her soup or a metal or wooden spoon, and if she waited until she had the money required to buy these utensils, she would have to content herself with the smell of the soup that came to her as she passed by the open doors.
She was telling herself this as she went to work, but just before she reached the village she saw a heap of rubbish by the side of the road and amongst the debris she noticed some tin cans which had been used for potted meat, fish and vegetables. There were different shapes, some large, some small, some high, some low.
Noticing how shiny they were on the surface, she instinctively stopped; she had not a moment's hesitation. The saucepans, dishes, forks, spoons which she lacked were all here; she could have a whole array of kitchen utensils; she had only to make her choice. With a bound she was across the road; quickly picking out four cans she ran back and hid them behind a hedge so that when evening came she would be able to find them.
When evening came she found her treasures and made for her home.
She did not wish to make a noise on her island any more than she wished smoke to be seen, so at the end of her day's work she went to her gypsy's camp hoping that she might find a tool or something that would serve her for a hammer with which to flatten the tins that were to be used for plates, saucepans, spoons, etc.
She found that it was a very difficult task to make a spoon. It took her no less than three days to do so, and when it was done, she was not at all sure that if she had shown it to anyone, he would have recognized it for a spoon. But she had made something that served her purpose, that was enough; besides, she ate alone and there would be no one to notice her utensils.
Now for the soup for which she longed! All she wanted was butter and sorrel. She would have to buy butter and naturally as she couldn't make milk she would have to buy that also.
The sorrel she would find wild in the fields and she could also find wild carrots and oyster plants. They were not so good as the cultivated vegetables but they would suit her very well indeed.
She not only had eggs and vegetables for her dinner, and her pots and pans, but there were fish in the pond and if she were sharp enough to catch them she would have fish too.
She needed a line and some worms. She had a long piece of string left over from the piece she had bought for her shoes and she had only to spend one sou for some hooks, then with a piece of horse hair she could pick up outside the blacksmith's door, she would have a line good enough to catch several kinds of fish; if the best in the pond passed disdainfully before her simple bait then she would have to be satisfied with little ones.
A BANQUET IN THE HUT
Perrine was so busy of an evening that she let an entire week pass before she again went to see Rosalie. However, one of the girls at the factory who lodged with Mother Francoise had brought her news of her friend. Perrine, as well as being busy, had been afraid that she might see that terrible Aunt Zenobie and so she had let the days pass.
Then one evening after work she thought that she would not return at once to her little island. She had no supper to prepare. The night before she had caught some fish and cooked it, and she intended to have it cold for her supper that evening.
Rosalie was alone in the garden sitting under an apple tree. When she saw Perrine she came to the gate, half pleased, half annoyed.
"I thought that you were not coming any more," she said.
"I've been very busy."
Perrine showed Rosalie her shoes. Then she told her how she had made herself a chemise and the trouble she had had in cutting it.
"Couldn't you borrow a pair of scissors from the people in your house?" asked Rosalie in astonishment.
"There is no one in my house who could lend me scissors," replied Perrine.
"Everybody has scissors!"
Perrine wondered if she ought to keep her abode a secret any longer. She was afraid that if she did so she might offend Rosalie, so she decided to tell her.
"Nobody lives in my house," she said smiling.
"Whatever do you mean?" asked Rosalie with round eyes.
"That's so, and that's why, as I wasn't able to borrow a saucepan to cook my soup in and a spoon to eat it with, I had to make them and I can tell you that it was harder for me to make my spoon than to make my shoes."
Then she told her everything, how she had taken possession of the cabin, and made her own cooking utensils, and about her search for eggs, and how she fished and cooked in the gypsy's camping ground.
Rosalie's eyes opened wider still in wonder and delight. She seemed to be listening to a wonderful story.
When Perrine told her how she made her first sorrel soup, she clapped her hands.
"Oh, how delicious! How you must have enjoyed it!" she cried. "What fun!"
"Yes, everything is great fun when things go right," said Perrine; "but when things won't go! I worked three days for my spoon. I couldn't scoop it out properly. I spoiled two large pieces of tin and had only one left. And my! how I banged my fingers with the stones that I had to use in place of a hammer!"
"But your soup, that's what I'm thinking of," said Rosalie.
"Yes, it was good."
"You know," said Perrine, "there's sorrel and carrots, watercress, onions, parsnips, turnips, and ever so many things to eat that one can find in the fields. They are not quite the same as the cultivated vegetables, but they are good!"
"One ought to know that!"
"It was my father who taught me to know them."
Rosalie was silent for a moment, then she said:
"Would you like me to come and see you?"
"I should love to have you if you'll promise not to tell anyone where I live," said Perrine, delightedly.
"I promise," said Rosalie, solemnly.
"Well, when will you come?"
"On Sunday I am going to see one of my aunts at Saint-Pipoy; on my way back in the afternoon I can stop...."
Perrine hesitated for a moment, then she said amiably:
"Do better than just call; stay to dinner with me."
Rosalie, like the real peasant that she was, began to reply vaguely in a ceremonious fashion, neither saying yes nor no; but it was quite plain to see that she wished very much to accept the invitation. Perrine insisted.
"Do come; I shall be so pleased," she said. "I am so lonesome."
"Well, really...." began Rosalie.
"Yes, dine with me; that is settled," said Perrine, brightly; "but you must bring your own spoon, because I shall not have the time nor the tin to make another one."
"Shall I bring my bread also? I can...."
"I wish you would. I'll wait for you in the gypsy's ground. You'll find me doing my cooking."
Perrine was very pleased at the thought of receiving a guest in her own home ... there was a menu to compose, provisions to find ... what an affair! She felt quite important. Who would have said a few days before that she would be able to offer dinner to a friend!
But there was a serious side. Suppose she could not find any eggs or catch a fish! Her menu then would be reduced to sorrel soup only. What a dinner!
But fortune favored her. On Friday evening she found some eggs. True, they were only water-hen's eggs, and not so large as the duck's eggs, but then she must not be too particular. And she was just as lucky with her fishing. With a red worm on the end of her line, she managed to catch a fine perch, which was quite sufficient to satisfy hers and Rosalie's appetite. Yet, however, she wanted a dessert, and some gooseberries growing under a weeping willow furnished it. True, they were not quite ripe, but the merit of this fruit is that you can eat it green.
When, late Sunday afternoon, Rosalie arrived at the gypsy camping ground, she found Perrine seated before her fire upon which the soup was boiling.
"I waited for you to mix the yolk of an egg in the soup," said Perrine. "You have only to turn it with your free hand while I gently pour the soup over it; the bread is soaked."
Although Rosalie had dressed herself specially for this dinner, she was not afraid to help. This was play, and it all seemed very amusing to her.
Soon the soup was ready, and it only had to be carried across to the island. This Perrine did.
The cabin door was open, and Rosalie could see before she entered that the place was filled with flowers. In each corner were grouped, in artistic showers, wild roses, yellow iris, cornflowers, and poppies, and the floor was entirely covered with a beautiful soft green moss.
Rosalie's exclamations of delight amply repaid Perrine for all the trouble she had taken.
"How beautiful! Oh, isn't it pretty!" she exclaimed.
On a bed of fresh ferns two large flat leaves were placed opposite each other; these were to serve for plates; and on a very much larger leaf, long and narrow, which is as it should be for a dish, the perch was placed, garnished with a border of watercress. Another leaf, but very small, served as a salt-cellar, also another holding the dessert. Between each dish was a white anemone, its pure whiteness standing out dazzlingly against the fresh verdure.
"If you will sit down...." said Perrine, extending her hand. And when they had taken their seats opposite one another the dinner commenced.
"How sorry I should have been if I hadn't have come," said Rosalie, speaking with her mouth full; "it is so pretty and so good."
"Why shouldn't you have come?"
"Because they wanted to send me to Picquigny for Mr. Bendit; he is ill."
"What's the matter with him?"
"He's got typhoid fever. He's very ill. Since yesterday he hasn't known what he's been talking about, and he doesn't know anybody. And I had an idea about you...."
"Me! What about me?"
"Something you can do...."
"If there is anything I can do for Mr. Bendit I'd be only too willing. He was kind to me; but I'm only a poor girl; I don't understand."
"Give me a little more fish and some more watercress, and I'll explain," said Rosalie. "You know that Mr. Bendit has charge of the foreign correspondence; he translates the English and German letters. Naturally, as he is off his head now, he can't translate. They wanted to get somebody else to replace him, but as this other man might take his place after he is better (that is, if he does get better), M. Fabry and M. Mombleux have taken charge of the work, so that he will be sure to have his job when he's up again. But now M. Fabry has been sent away to Scotland and M. Mombleux is in a fix, because, although he can read German all right, he's not much on English. If the writing isn't very clear he can't make out the letters at all. I heard him saying so at the table when I was waiting on them. So I thought I'd tell him that you can speak English just as good as you can French."
"I spoke French with my father, and English with my mother," said Perrine, "and when we were all three talking together we spoke sometimes one, sometimes the other, mixing two languages without paying attention."
"I wasn't sure whether I should say anything about you or not, but now I will, if you like."
"Why, yes; do, if you think a poor girl like me could be of any use to them."
"'Tain't a question of being a poor girl or a young lady; it's a question of knowing English," said Rosalie.
"I speak it, but to translate a business letter is another thing," said Perrine, doubtfully.
"It'll be all right with M. Mombleux; he knows the business part."
"Well, then, tell him I shall be very pleased if I can do anything for M. Bendit."
"I'll tell him."
The perch, although a large one, had all been eaten, and all the watercress had disappeared. It was now time for the dessert. Perrine got up and replaced the fish plates with smaller leaf plates in the shape of a cup; she had picked the prettiest, with variegated shades, and marked as exquisitely as enameled ware. Then she offered her guest the gooseberries.
"Let me offer you some fruit from my own garden," she said, laughing, as though she were playing at keeping doll's house.
"Where is your garden?"
"Over your head. There is a gooseberry bush growing in the branches of this willow tree which holds up the cabin, so it seems."
"You know you won't be able to live in here much longer," said Rosalie.
"Until the winter, I think."
"Until winter! Why, the bird catchers will need this place pretty soon; that I'm sure."
"Oh! ... Oh, dear ... Oh, dear!"
The day, which had begun so brightly for Perrine, ended sadly. That night was certainly the worst Perrine had passed since she had been on her little island.
Where should she go?
And all her utensils that she had taken such trouble to make; what should she do with them?
If Rosalie had not spoken to Perrine of the near opening of the shooting season for water fowl, Perrine would have stayed on in her cabin unaware of the danger that might come to her. Although this news came as a blow to her, what Rosalie had said about M. Bendit and the translations she might do for M. Mombleux gave her something else to think about.
Yes, her island was charming, and it would be a great grief for her to leave it. And yet here was an opportunity where she could be useful to two valued employes at the factory, and this step would lead to other steps, and it would open doors perhaps through which she could pass later. This was something that she should consider above all else, even above the sorrow of being dispossessed of her little kingdom. It was not for this game—robbing nests, catching fish, picking flowers, listening to the birds sing—that she had endured all the misery and fatigue of her long journey. She had an object in view. She must remember what her mother told her to do, and do it.
She had told Rosalie that she would call at Mother Francoise's house on Monday to see if Mombleux had need of her services. Rosalie came to meet her and said that as no letters had come from England that Monday, there would not be any translations to make that day, but perhaps there would be something for the next day. This was at the luncheon hour, so Perrine returned to the factory. It had just struck two when Ninepin hopped up to her on his wooden leg and told her that she was wanted at the offices at once.
"What for?" she asked in amazement.
"What's that to do with me? They just sent word for you to go to the office ... go on," he said, roughly.
She hurried off. She could not understand. If it was a matter of helping Mombleux with a translation, why should she have to go to the office, where everyone could see her and know that he had had to ask for her help?
She quickly went up the steps, where she saw Talouel standing outside waiting for her.
"Are you the girl who speaks English?" he asked. "Now, no lies, 'cause you speak French without an accent."
"My mother was English and my father was French," replied Perrine, "so I speak both languages."
"Good. You are to go to Saint-Pipoy. Monsieur Paindavoine wants you."
She was so surprised at this news that she stood staring at the manager in amazement.
"Well, stupid?" he said.
As though to excuse herself, she said:
"I was taken aback. I'm a stranger here and I don't know where Saint-Pipoy is."
"You won't be lost; you are to go in the carriage," said the manager. "Here, William...."
M. Paindavoine's horse and carriage, which had been standing in the shade, now drew up.
"Here's the girl," said the manager to a young man. "Take her to M. Paindavoine quickly."
Perrine was already down the steps, and was about to take her seat beside William when he stopped her with a sign of his hand.
"Not here; take the back seat," he said.
There was a narrow seat for one person at the back. She got up into it and they started off at a brisk trot.
When they had left the village behind William, slacking the horse's speed, turned round to Perrine.
"You're going to have a chance to please the boss," he said.
"How so?" asked Perrine.
"He's got some English mechanics come over to put a machine together, and they can't understand each other. He's got M. Mombleux there, who says he can speak English, but if he does it isn't the same English as these Englishmen speak. They keep on jabbering, but don't seem to understand, and the boss is mad. It makes you split your sides to hear 'em. At last M. Mombleux couldn't go on any longer, and to calm the boss he said that he knew of a girl named Aurelie in the factory who spoke English, and the boss made me come off at once for you."
There was a moment's silence; then he turned round again to Perrine.
"If you speak English like M. Mombleux," he said mockingly, "perhaps it'd be better if you didn't go any farther.
"Shall I put you down?" he added with a grin.
"You can go on," said Perrine, quietly.
"Well, I was just thinking for you; that's all," he said.
"Thank you; but I wish to go on, please."
Yet in spite of her apparent coolness, little Perrine was very nervous, because, although she was sure of her English, she did not know what sort of English the engineer spoke. As William had said mockingly, it was not the same that M. Mombleux understood. And she fully realized that there would be many technical words that she would not be able to translate. She would not understand, and she would hesitate, and then probably M. Paindavoine would be angry with her, the same as he had been with M. Mombleux.
Above the tops of the poplars she could already see the great smoking chimneys of the factories of Saint-Pipoy. She knew that spinning and weaving were done here, the same as at Maraucourt, and, besides that, it was here that they manufactured red rope and string. But whether she knew that or not, it was nothing that would help her in the task before her.
They turned the bend of the road. With a sweeping glance she could take in all the great buildings, and although these works were not so large as those of Maraucourt, they were nevertheless of considerable importance.
The carriage passed through the great iron gates and soon stopped before the main office.
"Come with me," said William.
He led her into an office where M. Paindavoine was seated talking to the manager of the Saint-Pipoy works.
"Here's the girl, sir," said William, holding his hat in his hand.
"Very well; you can go," said his master.
Without speaking to Perrine, M. Paindavoine made a sign to his manager to come nearer to him. Then he spoke to him in a low voice. The manager also dropped his voice to answer. But Perrine's hearing was keen, and she understood that they were speaking of her. She heard the manager reply: "A young girl, about twelve or thirteen, who looks intelligent."
"Come here, my child," said M. Paindavoine, in the same tone that she had already heard him use to Rosalie, and which was very different from that which he used for his employes.
She felt encouraged and went up to him.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Where are your father and mother?"
"They are both dead."
"How long have you been in my employ?"
"For three weeks."
"Where do you come from?"
"I have just come from Paris."
"You speak English?"
"My mother was English, and I can speak in conversation, and I understand, but...."
"There are no 'buts'; you know or you do not know."
"I don't know the words used in various trades, because they use words that I have never heard, and I don't know the meaning of them," said Perrine.
"You see, Benoist," said M. Paindavoine quickly; "what this little girl says is so; that shows she is not stupid."
"She looks anything but that," answered Benoist.
"Well, perhaps we shall be able to manage somehow," said M. Vulfran. He got up, and placing one arm on the manager, he leaned on his cane with the other.
"Follow us, little girl," he said.
Perrine usually had her eyes about her and noticed everything that happened, but she took no heed where she was going. As she followed in her grandfather's footsteps, she was plunged in thought. What would be the result of this interview with the English mechanics?
They came to a big red brick building. Here she saw Mombleux walking back and forth, evidently in a bad humor, and it seemed to her that he threw her anything but a friendly look.
They went in and were taken up to the first floor. Here in a big hall stood a number of wooden crates bearing a firm's name, "Morton and Pratt, Manchester." On one of the crates the Englishmen were sitting, waiting. Perrine noticed that from their dress they had every appearance of being gentlemen, and she hoped that she would be able better to understand them than if they had been rough workingmen. When M. Vulfran entered they rose.
"Tell them that you can speak English and that they can explain to you," said M. Vulfran.
She did what she was told, and at the first words she had the satisfaction of seeing the Englishmen's faces brighten. It is true she only spoke a few words to begin the conversation, but the pleasant smile they gave her banished all her nervousness.
"They understand her perfectly," said the manager.
"Well, then, ask them," said M. Vulfran, "why they have come a week earlier than the date arranged for their coming, because it so happens that the engineer who was to direct them in their work, and who speaks English, is away for a few days."
Perrine translated the phrase accurately, and one of the men answered at once.
"They say," she said, "that they have been to Cambrai and put up some machinery, and they got through with their work quicker than they thought they would, so they came here direct instead of going back to England and returning again."
"Whose machinery were they working on at Cambrai?" asked M. Vulfran.
"It was for the M. M. and E. Aveline and Company."
"What were the machines?"
The question was put and the reply was given in English, but Perrine hesitated.
"Why do you hesitate?" asked M. Vulfran, impatiently.
"Because it's a word used in the business that I don't know," answered Perrine, timidly.
"Say the word in English."
"That's all right," said M. Vulfran. He repeated the word in English, but with quite a different accent from the English mechanics, which explains why he had not understood them when they had spoken the words.
"You see that Aveline and Company are ahead of us," he said, turning to his manager. "We have no time to lose. I am going to cable to Fabry to return at once; but while waiting we must persuade these young men to get to work. Ask them what they are standing there for, little girl."
She translated the question, and the one who seemed to be the chief gave her a long answer.
"Well?" asked M. Vulfran.
"They are saying some things that are very difficult for me to understand."
"However, try and explain to me."
"They say that the floor is not strong enough to hold their machine, which weighs...."
She stopped to question the workmen in English, who told her the weight.
"Ah, that is it, is it?" said M. Vulfran.
"And when the machine is started going its weight will break the flooring," she continued, turning to M. Vulfran.
"The beams are sixty centimetres in width."
She told the men what M. Vulfran said, listened to their reply, then continued:
"They say that they have examined the flooring, and that it is not safe for this machine. They want a thorough test made and strong supports placed under the floor."
"The supports can be placed there at once, and when Fabry returns a thorough examination will be made. Tell them that. Let them get to work without losing a moment. They can have all the workmen they need ... carpenters and masons, millwrights. They have only to tell you. You have to be at their service, and then you tell Monsieur Benoist what they require."
She translated these instructions to the men, who appeared satisfied when she told them that she was to stay and interpret for them.
"You will stay here," continued M. Vulfran. "Your food will be given to you and also a lodging at the inn. You will have nothing to pay there. And if we are pleased with you, you will receive something extra when Monsieur Fabry returns."
She was an interpreter; that was far better than pushing trucks. When the day's work was over, acting in the capacity of interpreter, she escorted the two Englishmen to the village inn and engaged a room for them and one for herself, not a miserable garret where she would have to sleep with several others, but a real bedroom all to herself. As they could not speak one word of French, the two Englishmen asked her if she would not take her dinner with them. They ordered a dinner that would have been enough for ten men.
That night she slept in a real bed and between real sheets, yet it was a very long time before she could get to sleep. Even when her eyelids grew too heavy to keep open her excitement was so great that every now and then she would start up in bed. She tried to force herself to be calm. She told herself that things would have to take their course, without her wondering all the time if she were going to be happy or not. That was the only sensible thing to do. Things seemed to be taking such a favorable turn she must wait. But the best arguments when addressed to oneself have never made anyone go to sleep, and the better the argument the more likely one is to keep awake.
The next morning, when the factory whistle blew, she went to the door of the room occupied by the two machinists and knocked, and told them it was time to get up.
They paid no heed to the whistle, however, and it was not until they had taken a bath and made an elaborate toilette, something unknown to the villagers in those parts, and partaken of a hearty breakfast, consisting of a thick, juicy steak, plenty of buttered toast and several cups of tea, that they showed any readiness to get to their work.
Perrine, who had discreetly waited for them outside, wondered if they would ever be ready. When at last they came out, and she tripped behind them to the factory, her one thought was that her grandfather would surely be there ahead of them.
However, it was not until the afternoon that M. Vulfran arrived. He was accompanied by his youngest nephew, Casimir.
The youth looked disdainfully at the work the machinists had done, which in truth was merely in preparation.
"These fellows won't do much before Fabry returns," he said. "That's not surprising considering the supervision you have given them, uncle."
He said this jeeringly, but instead of taking his words lightly, his uncle reprimanded him severely: "If you had been able to attend to this matter, I should not have been forced to have called in this little girl, who until now has only pushed trucks."
Perrine saw Casimir bite his lip in anger, but he controlled himself and said lightly: "If I had foreseen that I should have to give up a government position for a commercial one, I should certainly have learned English in preference to German."
"It is never too late to learn," replied his uncle in a tone that brooked no further parley.
The quick words on both sides had been spoken in evident displeasure.
Perrine had made herself as small as possible. She had not dared move, but Casimir did not even turn his eyes in her direction, and almost at once he went out, giving his arm to his uncle. Then she was able to give free rein to her thoughts. How severe M. Vulfran was with his nephew, but what a disagreeable, horrid youth was that nephew! If they had any affection for one another it certainly was not apparent. Why was it? Why wasn't this nephew kind to his old uncle, who was blind and broken down with sorrow? And why was the old man so hard with a nephew who was taking the place of his own son?
While she was pondering these questions M. Vulfran returned, this time being led in by the manager, who, having placed him in a seat, began to explain to him the work that the machinists were now engaged upon.
Some minutes later she heard M. Benoist calling: "Aurelie! Aurelie!"
She did not move, for she had forgotten that Aurelie was the name that she had given to herself.
The third time he called: "Aurelie!"
She jumped up with a start as she realized that that was the name by which they knew her. She hurried over to them.
"Are you deaf?" demanded Monsieur Benoist.
"No, sir; I was listening to the machinists."
"You can leave me now," said M. Vulfran to his manager.
When the manager had gone he turned to Perrine, who had remained standing before him.
"Can you read, my child?"
"English as well as French?"
"Yes, both the same."
"But while reading English can you turn it into French?"
"When the phrases are not too difficult; yes, sir."
"The daily news from the papers, do you think you could do that?"
"I have never tried that, because if I read an English paper there is no need for me to translate it for myself, because I understand what it says."
"Well, we will try. Tell the machinists that when they want you they can call you, and then come and read from an English paper some articles that I wish to have read to me in French. Go and tell the men and then come back and sit down here beside me."
When she had done what she was told, she sat down beside M. Vulfran and took the newspaper that he handed her, "The Dundee News."
"What shall I read?" she asked as she unfolded it.
"Look for the commercial column."
The long black and white columns bewildered poor little Perrine. She was so nervous and her hands trembled so she wondered if she would ever be able to accomplish what she was asked to do. She gazed from the top of one page to the bottom of another, and still could not find what she was seeking. She began to fear that her employer would get impatient with her for being so slow and awkward.
But instead of getting impatient he told her to take her time. With that keen hearing so subtle with the blind, he had divined what a state of emotion she was in. He could tell that from the rustling of the newspaper she held in her hand.
"We have plenty of time," he said, encouragingly; "besides I don't suppose you have ever read a trade journal before."
"No, sir; I have not," she replied.
She continued to scan the sheets, then suddenly she gave a little cry of pleasure.
"Have you found it?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Now look for these words," he said in English: "Linen, Hemp, Jute, Sacks, Twine."
"But, sir, you know English," she cried, involuntarily.
"Five or six words of the trade; that is all, unfortunately," he replied.
When she had found what he required she commenced her translation, but she was so hopelessly slow, hesitating and confused, that in a few moments the beads of perspiration stood out on her forehead and hands from sheer agony, despite the fact that from time to time he encouraged her.
"That will do. I understand that ... go on," he said.
And she continued, raising her voice when the hammering blows from the workmen became too loud.
At last she came to the end of the column.
"Now see if there is any news from Calcutta," said her employer.
She scanned the sheets again.
"Yes, here it is," she said, after a moment; "From our special correspondent."
"That's it. Read!"
"The news that we are receiving from Dacca...."
Her voice shook so as she said this name that Monsieur Vulfran's attention was attracted.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Why are you trembling?"
"I don't know," she said, timidly; "perhaps I am nervous."
"I told you not to mind," he chided. "You are doing very much better than I thought."
She read the cables from Dacca which mentioned a gathering of jute along the shores of the Brahmaputra. Then he told her to look and see if there was a cable from Saint Helena.
Her eyes ran up and down the columns until the words "Saint Helena" caught her eye.
"On the 23rd, the English steamer 'Alma' sailed from Calcutta for Dundee; on the 24th, the Norwegian steamer 'Grundloven' sailed from Naraingaudj for Boulogne."
He appeared satisfied.
"That is very good," he said. "I am quite pleased with you."
She wanted to reply, but afraid that her voice would betray her joy, she kept silent.
"I can see that until poor Bendit is better I can make good use of you," he continued.
After receiving an account of the work that the men had done, and telling them to be as quick as possible, he told Perrine to lead him to the manager's office.
"Have I to give you my hand?" she asked, timidly.
"Why, yes, my child," he replied. "How do you think you can guide me otherwise? And warn me when there is anything in the way, and above all don't be absent-minded."
"Oh, I assure you, sir, you can place every confidence in me," she said with emotion.
"You see that I already have confidence," he replied.
She took him gently by the left hand, whilst with his right he held his cane, feeling ahead of him cautiously as he went forward.
They had scarcely left the workshops before they came to the railway tracks, and she thought that she ought to warn him.
"Here are the rails, just here," she said. "Please...."
But he interrupted her.
"That you need not tell me," he said. "I know every bit of the ground round about the works; my head knows it and my feet know it, but it's the unexpected obstacles that we might find on the road that you must tell me about, something that's in the path that should not be. All the ground I know, thoroughly."
It was not only his grounds that he knew, but he knew his people also. When he went through the yards his men greeted him. They not only took their hats off as though he saw them, but they said his name.
"Good morning, sir!... Good morning, Monsieur Vulfran!"
And to a great number he was able to reply by their names: "Good morning, Jacque!" ... "Good morning, Pascal!" He knew the voices of all those who had long been in his employ. When he hesitated, which was rarely, for he knew almost all, he would stop and say: "It's you, is it not?" mentioning the speaker's name.
If he made a mistake he explained why he had done so.
Walking thus, it was a slow walk from the factories to the offices. She led him to his armchair; then he dismissed her.
"Until tomorrow," he said; "I shall want you then."
The next morning, at the same hour as on the previous day, Monsieur Paindavoine entered the workshops, guided by the manager. Perrine wanted to go and meet him, but she could not at this moment as she was busy transmitting orders from the chief machinist to the men who were working for him—masons, carpenters, smiths, mechanics. Clearly and without repetition, she explained to each one what orders were given to him; then she interpreted for the chief machinist the questions or objections which the French workmen desired to address to him.
Perrine's grandfather had drawn near. The voices stopped as the tap of his cane announced his approach, but he made a sign for them to continue the same as though he were not there.
And while Perrine, obeying him, went on talking with the men, he said quietly to the manager, though not low enough but that Perrine heard:
"Do you know, that little girl would make a fine engineer!"
"Yes," said the manager; "it's astonishing how decided and confident she is with the men."
"Yes, and she can do something else. Yesterday she translated the 'Dundee News' more intelligently than Bendit. And it was the first time that she had read trade journal stuff."
"Does anyone know who her parents were?" asked the manager.
"Perhaps Talouel does; I do not," said Vulfran.
"She is in a very miserable and pitiful condition," said the manager.
"I gave her five francs for her food and lodging."
"I am speaking of her clothes. Her waist is worn to threads; I have never seen such a skirt on anybody but a beggar, and she certainly must have made the shoes she is wearing herself."
"And her face, what is she like, Benoist?"
"Very intelligent and very pretty."
"Hard looking or any signs of vice?"
"No; quite the contrary. She has a very frank, honest look. She has great eyes that look as though they could pierce a wall, and yet at the same time they have a soft, trusting look."
"Where in the world does she come from?"
"Not from these parts, that's a sure thing."
"She told me that her mother was English."
"And yet she does not look English. She seems to belong to quite another race, but she is very pretty; even with the old rags that she is wearing the girl seems to have a strange sort of beauty. She must have a strong character or some power, or why is it that these workmen pay such attention to such a poor little ragged thing?"
And as Benoist never missed a chance to flatter his employer, he added: "Undoubtedly without having even seen her you have guessed all that I have told you."
"Her accent struck me as being very cultured," replied Monsieur Vulfran.
Although Perrine had not heard all that the two men had said, she had caught a few words, which had thrown her into a state of great agitation. She tried to recover her self-control, for it would never do to listen to what was being said behind her when the machinists and workmen were talking to her at the same time. What would her employer think if in giving her explanations in French he saw that she had not been paying attention to her task.
However, everything was explained to them in a manner satisfactory to both sides. When she had finished, Monsieur Vulfran called to her: "Aurelie!"
This time she took care to reply quickly to the name which in the future was to be hers.
As on the previous day, he made her sit down beside him and gave her a paper to translate for him into French. This time it was not the "Dundee News," but the "Dundee Trade Report Association," which is an official bulletin published on the commerce of jute. So without having to search for any particular article, she read it to him from beginning to end. Then, when the reading was over, as before, he asked her to lead him through the grounds, but this time he began to question her about herself.
"You told me that you had lost your mother. How long ago was that?" he asked.
"Five weeks," she replied.
"Yes, in Paris."
"And your father?"
"Father died six months before mother," she said in a low voice.
As he held her hand in his he could feel it tremble, and he knew what anguish she felt as he evoked the memory of her dead parents, but he did not change the subject; he gently continued to question her.
"What did your parents do?"
"We sold things," she replied.
"In Paris? Round about Paris?"
"We traveled; we had a wagon and we were sometimes in one part of the country, sometimes in another."
"And when your mother died you left Paris?"
"Because mother made me promise not to stay in Paris after she had gone, but to go North where my father's people live."
"Then why did you come here?"
"When my mother died we had to sell our wagon and our donkey and the few things we had, and all this money was spent during her illness. When I left the cemetery after she was buried all the money I had was five francs thirty-five centimes, which was not enough for me to take the train. So I decided to make the journey on foot."
Monsieur Vulfran's fingers tightened over hers. She did not understand this movement.
"Oh, forgive me; I am boring you," she said. "I am telling you things perhaps that are of no interest."
"You are not boring me, Aurelie," said the blind man. "On the contrary, I am pleased to know, what an honest little girl you are. I like people who have courage, will, and determination, and who do not easily give up. If I like finding such qualities in men, how much more pleasure does it give me to find them in a girl of your age! So ... you started with five francs thirty-five centimes in your pocket?..."
"A knife, a piece of soap," continued little Perrine, "a thimble, two needles, some thread and a map of the roads, that was all."
"Could you understand the map?"
"Yes, I had to know, because we used to travel all over the country. That was the only thing that I kept of our belongings."
The blind man stopped his little guide.
"Isn't there a big tree here on the left?" he asked.
"Yes, with a seat all around it," she replied.
"Come along then; we'll be better sitting down."
When they were seated she went on with her story. She had no occasion to shorten it, for she saw that her employer was greatly interested.
"You never thought of begging?" he asked, when she came to the time when she had left the woods after being overtaken by the terrible storm.
"No, sir; never."
"But what did you count upon when you saw that you could not get any work?"
"I didn't count on anything. I thought that if I kept on as long as I had the strength I might find something. It was only when I was so hungry and so tired that I had to give up. If I had dropped one hour sooner all would have been over."
Then she told him how her donkey, licking her face, had brought her back to consciousness, and how the ragpicker had saved her from starvation. Then passing quickly over the days she had spent with La Rouquerie, she came to the day when she had made Rosalie's acquaintance.
"And Rosalie told me," she said, "that anyone who wants work can get it in your factories. I came and they employed me at once."
"When are you going on to your relations?"
Perrine was embarrassed. She did not expect this question.
"I am not going any further," she replied, after a moment's hesitation. "I don't know if they want me, for they were angry with father. I was going to try and be near them because I have no one else, but I don't know if I shall be welcomed. Now that I have found work, it seems to me that it would be better for me to stay here. What will become of me if they turn me away? I know I shall not starve here, and I am too afraid to go on the road again. I shall not let them know that I am here unless some piece of luck comes my way."
"Didn't your relatives ever try to find out about you?" asked M. Vulfran.
"No, never," replied Perrine.
"Well, then, perhaps you are right," he said. "Yet if you don't like to take a chance and go and see them, why don't you write them a letter? They may not be able to give you a home, so then you could stay here where you'd be sure of earning your living. On the other hand, they may be very glad to have you, and you would have love and protection, which you would not have here. You've learned already that life is very hard for a young girl of your age, and in your position ... and very sad."
"Yes, sir; I know it is very sad," said little Perrine, lifting her beautiful eyes to the sightless eyes of her grandfather. "Every day I think how sad it is, and I know if they would hold out their arms to welcome me I would run into them so quickly! But suppose they were just as cold and hard to me as they were with my father...."
"Had these relations any serious cause to be angry with your father? Did he do anything very bad?"
"I cannot think," said little Perrine, "that my father, who was always so good and kind, and who loved me and mother so much, could have ever been bad. He could not have done anything very wrong, and yet his people must have had, in their opinion, serious reasons for being angry with him, it seems to me."
"Yes, evidently," said the blind man. "But what they have against him they could not hold against you. The sins of the father should not fall upon the children."
"If that could be true!"
She said these words in a voice that trembled so with emotion that the blind man was surprised at the depths of this little girl's feelings.
"You see," he said, "how in the depths of your heart how much you want their love and affection."
"Yes, but how I dread being turned away," she replied.
"But why should you be?" he asked. "Have your grandparents any other children beside your father?"
"Why shouldn't they be glad that you should come and take the place of the son they have lost? You don't know what it is to be alone in the world."
"Yes, I do ... I know only too well what it is," replied Perrine.
"Youth who has a future ahead is not like old age, which has nothing before it but Death."
She looked at him. She did not take her eyes from his face, for he could not see her. What did his words mean? From the expression of his face little Perrine tried to read the inmost thoughts that stirred this old man's heart.
"Well," he said, after waiting a moment, "what do you think you will do?"
"I hesitate because I feel so bad about it," she said. "If I could only believe that they would be glad to have me and would not turn me away...."
"You know nothing of life, poor little girl," said the old gentleman. "Age should not be alone any more than youth."
"Do you think all old people feel like that?" asked Perrine.
"They may not think that it is so, but they feel it."
"You think so?" she said, trembling, her eyes still fixed on his face.
He did not reply directly, but speaking softly as though to himself, he said:
"Yes, yes; they feel it...."
Then getting up from his seat abruptly, as though to drive away thoughts that made him feel sad, he said in a tone of authority: "Come across to the offices. I wish to go there."
SECRETARY TO M. VULFRAN
When would Fabry, the engineer, return? That was the question that Perrine anxiously asked herself, for on that day her role of interpreter to the English machinists would terminate.
That of translator of newspaper articles to M. Vulfran, would that continue until M. Bendit had recovered from his illness? Here was another question that made her even still more anxious.
It was on Thursday, when she reached the factories with the two machinists, that she found Monsieur Fabry in the workshop busy inspecting the work that had already been done. Discreetly she waited at a distance, not taking part in any of the explanations that were being made, but all the same the chief machinist drew her into the conversation.
"Without this little girl's help," he said, "we should have stood here waiting with our arms folded."
Monsieur Fabry then looked at her, but he said nothing, and she on her side did not dare ask him what she had to do now, whether she was to stay at Saint-Pipoy or return to Maraucourt.
She stood there undecided, thinking that as it was M. Vulfran who had sent for her, it would be he who would send her away or keep her.
He came at his usual hour, led by the manager, who gave him an account of the orders that the engineer had given and the observations that he had made. But it appeared that he was not completely satisfied.
"It is a pity that the little girl is not here," he said in annoyance.
"But she is here," replied the manager, making a sign to Perrine to approach.
"Why was it you did not go back to Maraucourt, girl?" he asked.
"I thought that I ought not to leave here until you told me to go back," she replied.
"That was quite right," he said. "You must be here waiting for me when I come...."
He stopped for a second, then went on: "And I shall also need you at Maraucourt. You can go back this evening, and tomorrow be at the office. I will tell you what you will have to do."
When she had interpreted the orders which he wished to give to the machinists, he left, and that day she was not required to read the newspapers.
But what did that matter? Hadn't her grandfather said that on the morrow he would need her at Maraucourt?
"I shall need you at Maraucourt!" She kept repeating these words over and over again as she tramped along the roads over which William had driven her in the trap.
How was she going to be employed? She imagined all sorts of ways, but she could not feel certain of anything, except that she was not to be sent back to push trucks. That was a sure thing; for the rest she would have to wait. But she need not wait in a state of feverish anxiety, for from her grandfather's manner she might hope for the best. If she, a poor little girl, could only have enough wisdom to follow the course that her mother had mapped out for her before dying, slowly and carefully, without trying to hasten events, her life, which she held in her own hands, would be what she herself made it. She must remember this always, in everything she said, every time she had to make a resolution, every time she took a step forward, and each time she took this step she must take it without asking advice of anyone.
On her way back to Maraucourt she turned all this over in her little head. She walked slowly, stopping when she wanted to pick a flower that grew beneath the hedge, or when, in looking over a fence, she could see a pretty one that seemed to be beckoning to her from the meadow. Now and again she got rather excited; then she would quicken her step; then she slowed up again, telling herself that there was no occasion for her to hurry. Here was one thing she had to do—she must make it a rule, make it a habit, not to give way to an impulse. Oh, she would have to be very wise. Her pretty face was very grave as she walked along, her hands full of lovely wild flowers.
She found her island the same as she had left it, each thing in its place. The birds had even shown respect for the berries beneath the willow tree which had ripened in her absence. Here was something for her supper. She had not counted upon having berries.
She had returned at an earlier hour than when she had left the factory, so she did not feel inclined to go to bed as soon as her supper was over. She sat by the pond in the quiet of the evening, watching the night slowly fall.
Although she had been away only a short time, something seemed to have occurred to disturb the quietness of her little shelter. In the fields there was no longer the solemn silence of the night which had struck her on the first days that she had installed herself on the island. Previously, all she could hear in the entire valley, on the pond, in the big trees and the foliage, was the mysterious rustling of the birds as they returned to the nests for the night. Now the silence was disturbed by all kinds of noises—the blow of the forge, the grind of the axle, the swish of a whip, and the murmur of voices.
As she had tramped along the roads from Saint-Pipoy she had noticed that the harvest had commenced in the fields that were most exposed, and soon the mowers would come as far as her little nook, which was shaded by the big trees.
She would certainly have to leave her tiny home; it would not be possible for her to live there longer. Whether she had to leave on account of the harvesters or the bird catchers, it was the same thing, just a matter of days.
Although for the last few days she had got used to having sheets on her bed, and a room with a window, and closed doors, she slept that night on her bed of ferns as though she had never left it, and it was only when the sun rose in the heavens that she awoke.
When she reached the factory, instead of following her companions to where the trucks stood, she made her way to the general offices, wondering what she should do—go in, or wait outside.
She decided to do the latter. If they saw her standing outside the doors, someone would see her and call her in.
She waited there for almost an hour. Finally she saw Talouel, who asked her roughly what she was doing there.
"Monsieur Vulfran told me to come this morning to the office to see him," she said.
"Outside there, is not the office," he said.
"I was waiting to be called in," she replied.
"Come up then."
She went up the steps, following him in.
"What did you do at Saint-Pipoy?" he asked, turning to look at her.
She told him in what capacity M. Vulfran had employed her.
"Monsieur Fabry then had been messing up things?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean—you don't know? Are you a silly?"
"Maybe I am."
"You're not, and you know it; and if you don't reply it's because you don't want to. Don't forget who is talking to you; do you know what I am here?"
"Yes, the foreman."
"That means the master. And as your master you do as I tell you. I am going to know all. Those who don't obey I fire! Remember that!"
This was indeed the man whom she had heard the factory girls talking about when she had slept in that terrible room at Mother Francoise's. The tyrant who wanted to be everything in the works, not only at Maraucourt, but at Saint-Pipoy, at Bacourt, at Flexelles, everywhere, and who would employ any means to uphold his authority, even disputing it with that of Monsieur Vulfran's.
"I ask you what Monsieur Fabry has been doing?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"I cannot tell you because I do not know myself. But I can tell you what observations Monsieur Vulfran had me interpret for the machinists."
She repeated what she had had to tell the men without omitting a single thing.
"Is that all?"
"That is all."
"Did Monsieur Vulfran make you translate his letters?"
"No, he did not. I only read some articles from the 'Dundee News' and a little paper all through; it was called the 'Dundee Trades Report Association.'"
"You know if you don't tell me the truth, all the truth, I'll get it pretty quick, and then ... Ouste! off you go."
"Why should I not speak the truth?" asked Perrine.
"It's up to you to do so," he retorted. "I've warned you ... remember."
"I'll remember," said Perrine, "I assure you."
"Very good. Now go and sit down on that bench over there. If the boss really needs you he'll remember that he told you to come here this morning. He is busy talking to some of his men now."
She sat on the bench for almost an hour, not daring to move so long as Talouel was near. What a dreadful man! How afraid she was of him! But it would never do to let him see that she was afraid. He wanted her to spy on her employer, and then tell him what was in the letters that she translated for him!
This indeed might well scare her, yet there was something to be pleased about. Talouel evidently thought that she would have the letters to translate; that meant that her grandfather would have her with him all the time that M. Bendit was ill.
While she sat there waiting she caught sight of William several times. When he was not fulfilling the duties of coachman he acted as useful man to M. Vulfran. Each time that he appeared on the scene Perrine thought that he had come to fetch her, but he passed without saying a word to her. He seemed always in a hurry.
Finally some workingmen came out of M. Vulfran's office with a very dissatisfied expression on their faces. Then William came and beckoned to her and showed her into M. Vulfran's office. She found her grandfather seated at a large table covered with ledgers, at the side of which were paper weights stamped with large letters in relief. In this way the blind man was able to find what his eyes could not see.
Without announcing her, William had pushed Perrine inside the room and closed the door after her. She waited a moment, then she thought that she had better let M. Vulfran know that she was there.
"Monsieur," she said, "I am here ... Aurelie."
"Yes," he said, "I recognized your step. Come nearer and listen to me. I am interested in you. You have told me your troubles and I think you have been very courageous. From the translations that you have made for me, and the manner in which you have acted as interpreter for the machinists, I see that you are intelligent. Now that I am blind, I need someone to see for me, to tell me about things I wish to know, and also about things that strike them also. I had hoped that William would have been able to do this for me, but unfortunately he drinks too much and I can't keep him.
"Now, would you like to take the position that he has been unable to hold? To commence with, you will have ninety francs a month. If I am pleased with you I may do more for you."
Overwhelmed with joy, Perrine stood before the blind man unable to say a word.
"Why don't you speak?" he said at last.
"I can't ... I don't know what to say ... to thank you," she said. Her voice broke. "I feel so...."
"Yes, yes," he said. "I know how you feel. Your voice tells me that. I am pleased. That is as good as a promise that you will do all you can to give me satisfaction. Now let us change the subject. Have you written to your grandparents?"
"No," said Perrine, hesitatingly; "I ... I did not have any paper."
"Oh, very well. You will be able to find all you need in Monsieur Bendit's office. When you write tell them exactly what position you occupy in my employ. If they have anything better to offer you, they will send for you; if not, they will let you remain here."
"Oh, certainly ... I am sure I shall stay...."
"Yes, I think so. I think it will be best for you. As you will be in the offices, you will be in communication with my employes; you can take my orders to them, and you will also have to go out with me, so in that case you cannot wear your factory clothes, which Monsieur Benoist tells me are rather shabby."
"They are in rags," said Perrine; "but I assure you, sir, it is not because I am lazy or that I don't care...."
"I am sure of that," replied M. Vulfran. "Now, as all that will be changed, you go to the cashier in the counting house, and he will give you a money order. You can go then to Madame Lachaise in the village and get some clothes, some linen, hats and shoes; what you need...."
Perrine was listening as though it were not an old blind man with a grave face that was speaking, but a beautiful fairy who was holding over her her magic wand.
She was silent. Then his voice recalled her to the reality.
"You are free to choose what you like, but bear in mind the choice you make will guide me in acquiring a knowledge of your character. Now you can go and see about your things at once. I shall not need you until tomorrow."
SUSPICION AND CONFIDENCE
She went to the counting house, and after the chief cashier and his clerks had eyed her from head to foot, she was handed the order which M. Vulfran had said was to be given to her. She left the factory wondering where she would find Madame Lachaise's shop.
She hoped that it was the woman who had sold her the calico, because as she knew her already, it would be less embarrassing to ask her advice as to what she should buy, than it would be to ask a perfect stranger. And so much hung on the choice she would make; her anxiety increased as she thought of her employer's last words: "the choice you make will guide me in acquiring a knowledge of your character."
She did not need this warning to keep her from making extravagant purchases, but then on the other hand, what she thought would be the right things for herself, would her employer consider suitable? In her fancy she had worn beautiful clothes, and when she was quite a little girl she had been very proud to display her pretty things, but of course dresses on this order would not be fitting for her now. The simplest that she could find would be better.
Who would have thought that the unexpected present of new clothes could have filled her with so much anxiety and embarrassment. She knew that she ought to be filled with joy and yet here she was greatly worried and hesitating.
Just near the church she found Mme. Lachaise's shop. It was by far the best shop in Maraucourt. In the window there was a fine display of materials, ribbons, lingerie, hats, jewels, perfumes, which aroused the envy and tempted the greed of all the frivolous girls throughout the surrounding villages. It was here where they spent their small earnings, the same as their fathers and husbands spent theirs at the taverns.
When Perrine saw this display of finery she was still more perplexed and embarrassed. She entered the shop and stood in the middle of the floor, for neither the mistress of the establishment nor the milliners who were working behind the counter seemed to think that the ragged little girl required any attention. Finally Perrine decided to hold out the envelope containing the order that she held in her hand.
"What is it you want, little girl?" demanded Madame Lachaise.
As she still held out the envelope the mistress of the store caught sight of the words Maraucourt Factories, Vulfran Paindavoine in one of the corners. The expression of her face changed at once, her smile was very pleasant now.
"What do you wish, Mademoiselle?" she asked, leaving her desk and drawing forward a chair for Perrine. Perrine told her that she wanted a dress, some underlinen, a pair of shoes and a hat.
"We can supply you with all those," said Madame Lachaise, "and with goods of the very best quality. Would you like to commence with the dress? Yes. Very well then, I will show you some materials."
But it was not materials that Perrine wished to see; she wanted a ready-made dress. Something that she could put on at once, or at least something that would be ready for her to wear the next day when she went out with Monsieur Paindavoine.
"Ah, you are going out with Monsieur Vulfran?" said Madame Lachaise quickly; her curiosity was strung to its highest pitch at this statement. She wondered what the all powerful master of Maraucourt could have to do with this ragged little girl and she did not hesitate to ask.
But instead of replying to her question Perrine continued to explain that she wanted to see some black dresses as she was in mourning.
"You want a dress so as to be able to attend a funeral then?"
"No, it is not for a funeral," said Perrine.
"Well, you understand, Mademoiselle, if I know what you require the dress for I shall be able to know what style, material, and price it should be.
"I want the plainest style," said little Perrine timidly, "and the lightest but best wearing material, and the lowest price."
"Very good, very good," replied Madame Lachaise, "they will show you something. Virginie, attend to Mademoiselle."
How her tone had changed! her manner also. With great dignity Madame Lachaise went back to her seat at the desk, disdaining to busy herself with a customer who had such small desires. She was probably one of the servant's daughters, for whom Monsieur Vulfran was going to buy a mourning outfit; but which servant?
However as Virginie brought forward a cashmere dress trimmed with passementerie and jet, she thought fit to interfere.
"No, no, not that," she said. "That would be beyond the price. Show her that black challis dress with the little dots. The skirt will be a trifle too long and the waist too large, but it can easily be made to fit her, besides we have nothing else in black."
Here was a reason that dispensed with all others, but even though it was too large, Perrine found the skirt and waist that went with it very pretty, and the saleslady assured her that with a little alteration is would suit her beautifully, and of course she had to believe her.
The choice for the stockings and undergarments was easier because she wanted the least expensive, but when she stated that she only wanted to purchase two pairs of stockings and two chemises, Mlle. Virginie became just as disdainful as her employer, and it was as though she was conferring a favor that she condescended to try some shoes on Perrine, and the black straw hat which completed the wardrobe of this little simpleton.
Could anyone believe that a girl would be such an idiot! She had been given an order to buy what she wanted and she asked for two pairs of stockings and two chemises. And when Perrine asked for some handkerchiefs, which for a long time had been the object of her desires, this new purchase, which was limited to three handkerchiefs, did not help to change the shopkeeper's or the saleslady's contempt for her.
"She's nothing at all," they murmured.
"And now shall we send you these things?" asked Mme. Lachaise.
"No, thank you," said Perrine, "I will call this evening and fetch them when the alterations are made."
"Well, then, don't come before eight o'clock or after nine," she was told.
Perrine had a very good reason for not wishing to have the things sent to her. She was not sure where she was going to sleep that night. Her little island was not to be thought of. Those who possess nothing can dispense with doors and locks, but when one has riches ... for despite the condescension of the shopkeeper and her assistant, these were riches to Perrine and needed to be guarded. So that night she would have to take a lodging and quite naturally she thought of going to Rosalie's grandmother. When she left Madame Lachaise's shop, she went on her way to Mother Francoise's to see if she could accommodate her and give her what she desired; that was a tiny little room that would not cost much.
As she reached the gate she met Rosalie coming out, walking quickly.
"You're going out?" cried Perrine.
"Yes, and you ... so you are free then?"
In a few hurried words they explained.
Rosalie, who was going on an important errand to Picquigny, could not return to her grandmother's at once, as she would have liked, so as to make the best arrangements that she could for Perrine; but as Perrine had nothing to do for that day, why shouldn't she go with her to Picquigny; and they would come back together; it would be a pleasure trip then.
They went off gaily, and Rosalie accomplished her errand quickly, then their pleasure trip commenced. They walked through the fields, chatting and laughing, picked flowers, then rested in the heat of the day under the shadows of the great trees. It was not until night that they arrived back in Maraucourt. Not until Rosalie reached her grandmother's gate did she realize what time it was.
"What will Aunt Zenobie say?" she said half afraid.
"Oh well...." began Perrine.
"Oh well, I don't care," said Rosalie defiantly, "I've enjoyed myself ... and you?"
"Well, if you who have people to talk to every day have enjoyed yourself, how much more have I who never have anybody to talk to," said Perrine ruefully.
"I've had a lovely time," she sighed.
"Well, then we don't care what anybody says," said Rosalie bravely.
Fortunately, Aunt Zenobie was busy waiting on the boarders, so the arrangements for the room was made with Mother Francoise, who did not drive too hard a bargain and that was done quickly and promptly. Fifty francs a month for two meals a day; twelve francs for a little room decorated with a little mirror, a window, and a dressing table.
At eight o'clock Perrine dined alone in the general dining room, a table napkin on her lap. At eight-thirty she went to Madame Lachaise's establishment to fetch her dress and other things which were quite ready for her. At nine o'clock, in her tiny room, the door of which she locked, she went to bed, a little worried, a little excited, a little hesitating, but, in her heart of hearts full of hope.
Now we should see.
What she did see the next morning when she was called into M. Vulfran's office after he had given his orders to his principal employes, was such a severe expression on his face that she was thoroughly disconcerted; although the eyes that turned towards her as she entered his room were devoid of look, she could not mistake the expression on this face that she had studied so much.
Certainly it was not the kind look of a benefactor, but quite the reverse: it was an expression of displeasure and anger that she saw.
What had she done wrong that he should be angry; with her?
She put this question to herself but she could find no reply to it; perhaps she had spent too much at Madame Lachaise's and her employer had judged her character from these purchases. And in her selection she had tried to be so modest and economical. What should she have bought then? or rather what should she not have bought?
But she had no more time to wonder, for her employer was speaking to her in a severe tone:
"Why did you not tell me the truth?" he said.
"In what have I not told the truth?" she asked in a frightened voice.
"In regard to your conduct since you came to this village."
"But I assure you, Monsieur, I have told you the truth."
"You told me that you lodged at Mother Francoise's house. And when you left there where did you go? I may as well tell you that yesterday Zenobie, that is Francoise's daughter, was asked to give some information, some references of you, and she said that you only spent one night in her mother's house, then you disappeared, and no one knew what you did from that night until now."
Perrine had listened to the commencement of this cross examination in afright, but as Monsieur Vulfran went on she grew braver.
"There is someone who knows what I did after I left the room I used at Mother Francoise's," she said quietly.
"Rosalie, her granddaughter, knows. She will tell you that what I am now going to tell you, sir, is the truth. That is, if you think my doings are worth knowing about."
"The position that you are to hold in my service demands that I know what you are," said Monsieur Vulfran.
"Well, Monsieur, I will tell you," said little Perrine. "When you know you can send for Rosalie and question her without me seeing her, and then you will have the proof that I have not deceived you."
"Yes, that can be done," he said in a softened voice, "now go on...."
She told her story, dwelling on the horror of that night in that miserable room, her disgust, how she was almost suffocated, and how she crept outside at the break of dawn too sick to stay in that terrible garret one moment longer.
"Cannot you bear what the other girls could?" asked her employer.
"The others perhaps have not lived in the open air as I have," said Perrine, her beautiful eyes fixed on her grandfather's face. "I assure you I am not hard to please. We were so poor that we endured great misery. But I could not stay in that room. I should have died, and I don't think it was wrong of me to try to escape death. I could not live if I had to sleep there."
"Why! can that room be so unhealthy, so unwholesome as that?" mused Monsieur Vulfran.
"Oh, sir," cried Perrine, "if you could see it you would never permit your work girls to live there, never, never."
"Go on with your story," he said abruptly.
She told him how she had discovered the tiny island and how the idea had come to her to take possession of the cabin.
"You were not afraid?" he asked.
"I am not accustomed to being afraid," she said, with a wan little smile flitting across her beautiful face.
"You are speaking of that cabin in the valley there a little to the side of the road to Saint-Pipoy, on the left, are you not?" asked Monsieur Vulfran.
"That belongs to me and my nephews use it. Was it there that you slept?"
"I not only slept there, but I worked there and I ate there, and I even gave a dinner to Rosalie, and she can tell you about it," said little Perrine eagerly, for now that she had told him her story she wanted him to know everything. "I did not leave the cabin until you sent for me to go to Saint-Pipoy, and then you told me to stay there so as to be on hand to interpret for the machinists. And now tonight I have taken a lodging again at Mother Francoise's, but now I can pay for a room all to myself."
"Were you rich then, that you were able to invite a friend to dinner?" asked the blind man.
"If I only dare tell you," said Perrine timidly.
"You can tell me everything," said the blind man.
"I may take up your time just to tell you a story about two little girls?" asked little Perrine.
"Now that I cannot use my time as I should like," said the blind man sadly, "it is often very long, very long ... and empty."
A shade passed over her grandfather's face. He had so much; there were men who envied him—and yet how sad and barren was his life. When he said that his days were "empty" Perrine's heart went out to him. She also, since the death of her father and mother, knew what it was for the days to be long and empty, nothing to fill them but the anxiety, the fatigue, and the misery of the moment. No one to share them with you, none to uphold you, or cheer you. He had not known bodily fatigue, privations and poverty. But they are not the only trials to be borne, there are other sorrows in this world from which one suffers. And it was those other sorrows that had made him say those few words in such a sad, sad tone; the memory of which made this old blind man bend his head while the tears sprang into his sightless eyes. But no tears fell. Perrine's eyes had not left his face; if she had seen that her story did not interest him, she would have stopped at once, but she knew that he was not bored. He interrupted her several times and said: