"And you did that!"
Then he questioned her, asking her to tell him in detail what she had omitted for fear of tiring him. He put questions to her which showed that he wished to have an exact account, not only of her work, but above all to know what means she had employed to replace all that she had been lacking.
"And that's what you did?" he asked again and again.
When she had finished her story, he placed his hand on her head: "You are a brave little girl," he said, "and I am pleased to see that one can do something with you. Now go into your office and spend the time as you like; at three o'clock we will go out."
Mr. Bendit's office which Perrine occupied was a tiny place whose sole furniture consisted of a table and two chairs, a bookcase in blackwood, and a map of the world.
Yet with its polished pine floor, and a window with its red and white shade, it appeared very bright to Perrine. Not only was the office assigned to her cheerful, but she found that by leaving the door open she could see and occasionally hear what was going on in the other offices.
Monsieur Vulfran's nephews, Theodore and Casimir, had their rooms on the right and on the left of his; after theirs came the counting house, then lastly, there was Fabry, the engineer's, office. This one was opposite hers. Fabry's office was a large room where several draughtsmen were standing up before their drawings, arranged on high inclined desks.
Having nothing to do and not liking to take M. Bendit's chair, Perrine took a seat by the door. She opened one of the dictionaries which were the only kind of books the office contained. She would have preferred anything else but she had to be contented with what was there.
The hours passed slowly, but at last the bell rang for luncheon. Perrine was one of the first to go out. On the way she was joined by Fabry and Mombleux. They also were going to Mother Francoise's house.
"So then you are a comrade of ours, Mademoiselle," said Mombleux, who had not forgotten his humiliation at Saint-Pipoy, and he wanted to make the one who was the cause of it pay for it.
She felt the sarcasm of his words and for a moment she was disconcerted, but she recovered herself quickly.
"No, Monsieur," she said quietly, "not of yours but of William's."
The tone of her reply evidently pleased the engineer, for turning to Perrine he gave her an encouraging smile.
"But if you are replacing Mr. Bendit?" said Mombleux obstinately.
"Say that Mademoiselle is keeping his job for him," retorted Fabry.
"It's the same thing," answered Mombleux.
"Not at all, for in a week or two, when he'll be better, he'll come back in his old place. He certainly would not have had it if Mademoiselle had not been here to keep it for him."
"It seems to me that you and I also have helped to keep it for him," said Mombleux.
"Yes, but this little girl has done her share; he'll have to be grateful to all three of us," said Fabry, smiling again at Perrine.
If she had misunderstood the sense of Mombleux's words, the way in which she was treated at Mother Francoise's would have enlightened her. Her place was not set at the boarders' table as it would have been if she had been considered their equal, but at a little table at the side. And she was served after everyone else had taken from the dishes what they required.
But that did not hurt her; what did it matter to her if she were served first or last, and if the best pieces had already been taken. What interested her was that she was placed near enough to them to hear their conversation. She hoped that what she heard might guide her as to how she should act in the midst of the difficulties which confronted her.
These men knew the habits of M. Vulfran, his nephews, and Talouel, of whom she stood so much in fear; a word from them would enlighten her and she might be shown a danger which she did not even suspect, and if she was aware of it she could avoid it. She would not spy upon them. She would not listen at doors. When they were speaking they knew that they were not alone. So she need have no scruples but could profit by their remarks.
Unfortunately on that particular morning they said nothing that interested her; their talk was on insignificant matters. As soon as she had finished her meal she hurried to Rosalie, for she wanted to know how M. Vulfran had discovered that she had only slept one night at her grandmother's house.
"It was that Skinny who came here while you were at Picquigny," said Rosalie, "and he got Aunt Zenobie to talk about you; and you bet it isn't hard to make Aunt Zenobie talk especially when she gets something for doing so. She told him that you had spent only one night here and all sorts of other things besides."
"What other things?"
"I don't know because I was not there, but you can imagine the worst, but fortunately it has not turned out badly for you."
"No, on the contrary it has turned out very well, because M. Vulfran was amused and interested when I told him my story."
"I'll tell Aunt Zenobie, that'll make her mad."
"Oh, don't put her against me."
"Put her against you; oh, there's no danger of that now. She knows the position that M. Vulfran has given you, you won't have a better friend ... seemingly. You'll see tomorrow. Only if you don't want that Skinny to know your business, don't tell anything to her."
"That I won't."
"Oh, she's sly enough."
"Yes, but now you've warned me...."
At three o'clock as arranged, M. Vulfran rang for Perrine and they drove off in the phaeton to make the customary round of the factories, for he did not let a single day pass without visiting the different buildings.
Although he could not see he could at least be seen, and when he gave his orders it was difficult to believe that he was blind; he seemed to know everything that was going on.
That day they began at the village of Flexelles. They stayed some time in the building and when they came out William was not to be seen. The horse was tied to a tree and William, the coachman, had disappeared. As soon as his employer had gone into his factories, William of course, as usual, had hurried to the nearest wine shop ... meeting a boon companion there he had forgotten the hour.
M. Vulfran sent one of his men off to search for his recalcitrant coachman. After waiting several minutes, the blind man became very angry. Finally William, with head held high, came staggering along.
"I can tell by the sound of his footsteps that he is drunk, Benoist," said M. Vulfran, addressing his manager, who stood beside him. "I am right, am I not?"
"Yes, sir ... nothing can be hidden from you. He is drunk...."
William began to apologize.
"I've just come from...." he began, but his employer cut him short.
"That is enough," said M. Vulfran, sternly. "I can tell by your breath and the way you walk that you are drunk."
"I was just going to say, sir," began William again, as he untied the horse, but at that moment he dropped the whip and stooping down, he tried three times to grasp it. The manager looked grave.
"I think it would be better if I drove you to Maraucourt," he said. "I am afraid you would not be safe with William."
"Why so?" demanded William insolently.
"Silence," commanded M. Vulfran, in a tone that admitted of no reply. "From this moment you can consider yourself dismissed from my service."
"But, sir, I was going to say...."
With an uplifted motion of his hand M. Vulfran stopped him and turned to his manager.
"Thank you, Benoist," he said, "but I think this little girl can drive me home. Coco is as quiet as a lamb, and she can well replace this drunken creature."
He was assisted into the carriage, and Perrine took her place beside him. She was very grave, for she felt the responsibility of her position.
"Not too quickly," said M. Vulfran, when she touched Coco with the end of her whip.
"Oh, please, sir, I don't want to go quickly, I assure you," she said, nervously.
"That's a good thing; let her just trot."
There was a great surprise in the streets of Maraucourt when the villagers saw the head of the firm seated beside a little girl wearing a hat of black straw and a black dress, who was gravely driving old Coco at a straight trot instead of the zigzag course that William forced the old animal to take in spite of herself. What was happening? Where was this little girl going? They questioned one another as they stood at the doors, for few people in the village knew of her and of the position that M. Vulfran had given her.
When they arrived at Mother Francoise's house, Aunt Zenobie was leaning over the gate talking to two women. When she caught sight of Perrine she stared in amazement, but her look of astonishment was quickly followed by her best smile, the smile of a real friend.
"Good day, Monsieur Vulfran! Good day, Mademoiselle Aurelie!" she called out.
As soon as the carriage had passed she told her neighbors how she had procured the fine position for the young girl who had been their boarder. She had recommended her so highly to Skinny.
"She's a nice girl, though," she added, "and she'll not forget what she owes us. She owes it all to us."
If the villagers had been surprised to see Perrine driving M. Vulfran, Talouel was absolutely stunned.
"Where is William?" he cried, hurrying down the steps of the veranda to meet his employer.
"Sent off for continual drunkenness," said M. Vulfran, smiling.
"I had supposed that you would take this step eventually," said Talouel.
"Exactly," replied his employer briefly.
Talouel had established his power in the house by these two words, "I suppose." His aim was to persuade his chief that he was so devoted to his interests that he was able to foresee every wish that he might have. So he usually began with these words, "I suppose that you want...."
He had the subtlety of the peasant, always on the alert, and his quality for spying made him stop at nothing to get the information he desired. M. Vulfran usually made the same reply when Talouel had "supposed" something.
"Exactly," the blind man would say.
"And I suppose you find," continued Talouel, as he helped his employer to get down, "that the one who has replaced him deserves your trust?"
"Exactly," said the blind man again.
"I'm not astonished," added the crafty Talouel. "The day when Rosalie brought her here I thought there was something in her, and I was sure you would soon find that out."
As he spoke he looked at Perrine, and his look plainly said: "You see what I've done for you. Don't forget it, and be ready to do me a service."
A demand of payment on this order was not long in coming.
A little later, stopping before the door of the office in which Perrine sat, he said in a low voice from the doorway:
"Tell me what happened with William."
Perrine thought that if she frankly replied to his question she would not be revealing any serious matter, so she related exactly what had occurred.
"Ah, good," he said, more at ease. "Now, if he should come to me and ask to be taken back I'll settle with him."
Later on Fabry and Mombleux put the same question to her, for everyone now knew that little Perrine had had to drive the chief home because his coachman had been too drunk to hold the reins.
"It's a miracle that he hasn't upset the boss a dozen times," said Fabry, "for he drives like a crazy creature when he's drunk. He should have been sent off long ago."
"Yes, and he would have been," said Mombleux, smiling, "if certain ones who wanted his help had not done all they could to keep him."
Perrine became all attention.
"They'll make a face when they see that he's gone, but I'll give William his due: he didn't know that he was spying."
They were silent while Zenobie came in to change the plates. They had not thought that the pretty little girl in the corner was listening to their conversation. After Zenobie had left the room they went on with their talk.
"But what if the son returns?" asked Mombleux.
"Well, most of us want him back, for the old man's getting old," said Fabry; "but perhaps he's dead."
"That might be," agreed Mombleux. "Talouel's so ambitious he'd stop at nothing. He wants to own the place, and he'll get it if he can."
"Yes, and who knows? Maybe he had a hand in keeping M. Edmond away. Neither of us were here at the time, but you might be sure that Talouel would work out things to his own interests."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"Yes, and at that time he didn't know that there'd be others to take the place of M. Edmond. I'm not sure what he's scheming to get, but it's something big."
"Yes, and he's doing some dirty work for sure, and only think, when he was twenty years old he couldn't write his own name."
Rosalie came into the room at this moment and asked Perrine if she would like to go on an errand with her. Perrine could not refuse. She had finished her dinner some time ago, and if she remained in her corner she would soon awaken their suspicions.
It was a quiet evening. The people sat at their street doors chatting. After Rosalie had finished her errand she wanted to go from one door to another to gossip, but Perrine had no desire for this, and she excused herself on the plea of being tired. She did not want to go to bed. She just wanted to be alone, to think, in her little room, with the door closed. She wanted to take a clear account of the situation in which she now found herself.
When she heard Fabry and Mombleux speaking of the manager she realized how much she had to fear this man. He had given her to understand that he was the master, and as such it was his right to be informed of all that happened. But all that was nothing compared with what had been revealed to her in the conversation that she had just heard.
She knew that he wished to exercise his authority over everyone. But she had not known that his ambition was to take her grandfather's place some day. This man was scheming to replace the all-powerful master of the Maraucourt factories; for years he had plotted with this object in view. All this she had just learned. The two men whose conversation she had overheard were in a position to know the facts. And this terrible man, now that she had replaced William, intended that she should spy upon his employer.
What should she do? She was only a little girl, almost a child, and there was no one to protect her. What should she do?
She had asked herself this question before, but under different circumstances. It was impossible for her to lie down, so nervous and excited was she at what she had heard.
Perhaps this dreadful man had schemed to keep her dear dead father away from his home, and he was still working in an underhanded way for what? Was he trying to get out of the way the two nephews who would replace his master? If he had the power to do this, what might he not do to her if she refused to spy for him?
She spent the greater part of the night turning these questions over in her little head. At last, tired out with the difficulties which confronted her, she dropped her curly head on the pillow and slept.
LETTERS FROM DACCA
The first thing that M. Vulfran did upon reaching his office in the morning was to open his mail. Domestic letters were arranged in one pile and foreign letters in another. Since he had gone blind his nephews or Talouel read the French mail aloud to him; the English letters were given to Fabry and the German to Mombleux.
The day following the conversation between Fabry and Mombleux which had caused Perrine so much anxiety, M. Vulfran, his nephews and the manager were occupied with the morning's mail. Suddenly Theodore exclaimed:
"A letter from Dacca, dated May 29."
"In French?" demanded M. Vulfran.
"No, in English."
"It's not very clear ... looks like Field. Fildes ... preceded by a word that I can't make out. There are four pages. Your name occurs in several places, uncle. Shall I give it to Fabry?"
Simultaneously, Theodore and Talouel cast a quick look at M. Vulfran, but catching each other in this act, which betrayed that each was intensely curious, they both assumed an indifferent air.
"I'm putting the letter on your table, uncle," said Theodore.
"Give it to me," replied M. Vulfran.
When the stenographer had gone off with the replies to the various letters, M. Vulfran dismissed his manager and his two nephews and rang for Perrine.
She appeared immediately.
"What's in the letter?" he asked.
She took the letter that he handed to her and glanced at it. If he could have seen her he would have noticed that she had turned very pale and that her hands trembled.
"It is an English letter, dated May 29, from Dacca," she replied.
"From Father Fields."
"What does it say?"
"May I read a few lines first, please ... before I tell you?"
"Yes, but do it quickly."
She tried to do as she was told, but her emotion increased as she read ... the words dancing before her eyes.
"Well?" demanded M. Vulfran, impatiently.
"It is difficult to read," she murmured, "and difficult to understand; the sentences are very long."
"Don't translate literally; just tell me what it is about."
There was another long pause; at last she said:
"Father Fields says that Father Leclerc, to whom you wrote, is dead, and that before dying he asked him to send this reply to you. He was unable to communicate with you before, as he had some difficulty in getting together the facts that you desired. He excuses himself for writing in English, as his knowledge of French is very slight."
"What information does he send?" asked the blind man.
"I have not come to that yet, sir," replied Perrine.
Although little Perrine gave this reply in a very gentle voice, the blind man knew that he would gain nothing by hurrying her.
"You are right," he said; "not being in French, you must understand it thoroughly before you can explain it to me. You'd better take the letter and go into Bendit's office; translate it as accurately as you can, writing it out so that you can read it to me. Don't lose a minute. I'm anxious to know what it contains."
He called her back as she was leaving.
"This letter relates to a personal matter," he said, "and I do not wish anyone to know about it ... understand ... no one. If anyone dares question you about it, you must say nothing, nor give them any inkling of what it is about. You see what confidence I place in you. I hope that you will prove yourself worthy of my trust. If you serve me faithfully, you may be sure that you will be taken care of."
"I promise you, sir, that I'll deserve your trust," said Perrine, earnestly.
"Very well; now hurry."
But hurry she could not. She read the letter from beginning to end, then re-read it. Finally she took a large sheet of paper and commenced to write:
"Dacca, May 29.
"It is with great grief that I inform you that we have lost our Reverend Father Leclerc, to whom you wrote for certain important information. When dying he asked me to send a reply to your letter, and I regret that it could not have been sent earlier, but after a lapse of twelve years I have had some difficulty in getting the facts that you desire, and I must ask pardon for sending the information I now have in English, as my knowledge of French is very slight...."
Perrine, who had only read this far to M. Vulfran, now stopped to read and correct what she had done. She was giving all her attention to her translation when the office door was opened by Theodore Paindavoine. He came into the room, closing the door after him, and asked for a French and English dictionary.
This dictionary was opened before her. She closed it and handed it to him.
"Are you not using it?" he asked, coming close to her.
"Yes, but I can manage without it," she replied.
"I really only need it to spell the French words correctly," she said, "and a French dictionary will do as well."
She knew that he was standing just at the back of her, and although she could not see his eyes, being afraid to turn round, she felt that he was reading over her shoulder.
"Ah, you're translating that letter from Dacca?" he said.
She was surprised that he knew about this letter which was to be kept a secret. Then she realized that he was questioning her, and that his request for a dictionary was only a pretext. Why did he need an English dictionary if he could not understand a word of English?
"Yes, monsieur," she said.
"Is the translation coming along all right?" he asked.
She felt that he was bending over her, that his eyes were fixed on what she had translated. Quickly she moved her paper, turning it so that he could only see it sideways.
"Oh, please, sir," she exclaimed; "don't read it. It is not correct ... it is all confused. I was just trying."
"Oh, never mind that."
"Oh, but I do mind. I should be ashamed to let you see this."
He wanted to take the sheet of paper, but she put both her small hands over it. She determined to hold her own even with one of the heads of the house.
Until then he had spoken pleasantly to her.
"Now give it to me," he said briefly. "I'm not playing schoolmaster with a pretty little girl like you."
"But, sir, it is impossible; I can't let you see it," she said obstinately.
Laughingly he tried to take it from her, but she resisted him.
"No, I will not let you have it," she said with determination.
"Oh, this is a joke!" replied Theodore.
"It is not a joke; I am very serious," said little Perrine. "Monsieur Vulfran forbade me to let anyone see this letter. I am obeying him."
"It was I who opened it."
"The letter in English is not the translation."
"Oh, my uncle will show me this wonderful translation presently," he replied.
"If your uncle shows it, very well; but that won't be me showing it. He gave me his orders and I must obey him."
He saw by her resolute attitude that if he wanted the paper he would have to take it from her by force. But then, if he did so, she would probably call out. He did not dare go as far as that.
"I am delighted to see how faithfully you carry out my uncle's orders, even in trivial things," he said, sarcastically, leaving the room.
When he had gone and closed the door Perrine tried to go on with her work, but she was so upset she found it impossible to do so. She knew that Theodore was not delighted, as he had said, but furious. If he intended to make her pay for thwarting his will, how could she defend herself against such a powerful enemy? He could crush her with the first blow and she would have to leave.
The door was again opened and Talouel, with gliding step, came into the room. His eyes fell at once on the letter.
"Well, how is the translation of that letter from Dacca coming along?" he asked.
"I have only just commenced it," replied Perrine timidly.
"M. Theodore interrupted you just now. What did he want?"
"A French and English dictionary."
"What for? He doesn't know English."
"He did not tell me why he wanted it."
"Did he want to know what was in the letter?" asked Talouel.
"I had only commenced the first phrase," said Perrine, evasively.
"You don't ask me to believe that you have not read it?"
"I have not yet translated it."
"I ask you if you have read it."
"I cannot reply to that."
"Because M. Vulfran has forbidden me to speak of this letter."
"You know very well that M. Vulfran and I are as one. All of his orders pass by me; all favors that he bestows are also passed by me. I have to know all that concerns him."
"Even his personal affairs?"
"Does that letter relate to personal affairs then?" asked Talouel.
She realized that she had let herself be caught.
"I did not say that," she said. "I said that in case it was a personal letter, ought I to let you know the contents?"
"I certainly should know," said Talouel, "if it relates to personal affairs. Do you know that he is ill from worrying over matters which might kill him? If he now received some news that might cause him great sorrow or great joy, it might prove fatal to him. He must not be told anything suddenly. That is why I ought to know beforehand anything that concerns him, so as to prepare him. I could not do that if you read your translation straight off to him."
He said this in a suave, insinuating voice, very different from his ordinary rough tones.
She was silent, looking up at him with an emotion which made her very pale.
"I hope that you are intelligent enough to understand what I am telling you," he continued. "It is important for us, for the entire town, who depend upon M. Vulfran for a livelihood, to consider his health. See what a good job you have now with him; in time it will be much better. We, every one of us, must work for his good. He looks strong, but he is not so strong as he appears, so much sorrow has undermined his health; and then the loss of his sight depresses him terribly. He places every confidence in me, and I must see that nothing hurts him."
If Perrine had not known Talouel she might have been won by his words; but after what she had heard the factory girls say about him, and the talk that she had overheard between Fabry and Mombleux, who were men able to judge character, she felt that she could not believe in him. He was not sincere. He wanted to make her talk, and he would attempt any deceit and hypocrisy to gain his object.
M. Vulfran had told her that if she were questioned she must not let anyone know the contents of the letter. Evidently he had foreseen what might happen. She must obey him.
Talouel, leaning on her desk, fixed his eyes on her face. She needed all her courage; it seemed as though he were trying to hypnotize her. In a hoarse voice which betrayed her emotion, but which did not tremble, however, she said:
"Monsieur Vulfran forbade me to speak of this letter to anyone."
Her determined attitude made him furious, but controlling himself, he leaned over her again and said gently, but firmly: "Yes, of course; but then I'm not anyone. I am his other self."
She did not reply.
"Are you a fool?" he cried at last in a stifled voice.
"Perhaps I am," she said.
"Well, then, understand," he said, roughly, "you'd better show some intelligence if you want to hold this job that M. Vulfran has given you. If you haven't any intelligence you can't hold the job, and instead of protecting you, as I intended, it will be my duty to pack you off ... fire you! Understand?"
"Well, think about it; think what your position is today and think what it will be tomorrow, turned out in the streets; then let me know what you decide to do. Tell me this evening."
Then as she showed no signs of weakening, he went out of the room with the same gliding step with which he had entered.
A CABLE TO DACCA
M. Vulfran was waiting for her. She had no time to think over what Talouel had threatened. She went on with her translation, hoping that her emotion would die down and leave her in a state better able to come to a decision as to what she should do. She continued to write:
"So much time has elapsed since the marriage of your son, M. Edmond Paindavoine, that I have had some difficulty in getting together the facts. It was our own Father Leclerc who performed this marriage.
"The lady who became your son's wife was endowed with the finest womanly qualities. She was upright, kind, charming; added to these qualities, she was gifted with remarkable personal charms. The time is past when all the knowledge the Hindu woman possessed consisted in the art of being graceful and the science of etiquette of their social world. Today the Hindu woman's mind is cultivated to a remarkable degree. Your son's wife was a highly educated girl. Her father and mother were of the Brahmin faith, but Father Leclerc had the joy of converting them to our own religion. Unfortunately, when a Hindu is converted to our religion he loses his caste, his rank, his standing in social life. This was the case with the family whose daughter married your son. By becoming Christians, they became to a certain extent outcasts.
"So you will quite understand that being cast off by the all-powerful Hindu world, this charming girl, who was now a Christian, should turn and take her place in European society. Her father went into partnership with a well-known French exporter, and the firm was known as Doressany (Hindu) & Bercher (French).
"It was in the home of Madame Bercher that your son met Marie Doressany and fell in love with her. Everybody spoke in the highest praise of this young lady. I did not know her, for I came to Dacca after she left. Why there should have been any obstacle to this union I cannot say. That is a matter I must not discuss. Although there were, however, objections, the marriage took place and in our own Chapel. The Reverend Father Leclerc bestowed the nuptial blessing upon the marriage of your son and Marie Doressany. This marriage was recorded in our registers, and a copy of it can be sent to you if you wish.
"For four years your son Edmond lived at the home of his wife's parents. There a little girl was born to the young couple. Everyone who remembers them speaks of them, as a model couple, and like all young people, they took part in the social pleasures of their world.
"For some time the firm of Doressany & Bercher prospered, then hard times came, and after several bad seasons the firm was ruined. M. and Mme. Doressany died at some months' interval, and Monsieur Bercher with his family returned to France. Your son then traveled to Dalhousie as collector of plants and antiquities for various English houses. He took with him his young wife and his little girl, who was about three years old.
"He did not return to Dacca, but I learn from one of his friends to whom he has written several times, and from Father Leclerc, who wrote regularly to Mme. Paindavoine, that they had a villa at Dehra. They selected this spot to live in as it was the center of his voyages; he traveled between the Thiberian frontier and the Himalayas.
"I do not know Dehra, but we have a mission in this town, and if you think it might help in our researches I shall be pleased to send you a letter for one of the Fathers whose help might be useful in this matter...."
At last the letter was finished. The moment she had translated the last word, without even waiting to write the polite ending, she gathered up her sheets and went quickly to M. Vulfran's office. She found him walking back and forth the length of the room, counting his steps as much to avoid bumping against the wall as to curb his impatience.
"You have been very slow," he said.
"The letter was long and difficult," she replied.
"And you were interrupted, were you not? I heard the door of your office open and close twice."
Since he put the question to her, she thought that she ought to reply truthfully. It would solve the problem that had caused her so much anxiety.
"Monsieur Theodore and Monsieur Talouel came into the office," she said.
He seemed as though he wanted to say more, but refrained.
"Give me the letter first," he said, "and we'll see to the other matter after. Sit down beside me and read slowly. Don't raise your voice."
She read. Her voice was somewhat weak.
As she read the blind man murmured to himself from time to time: "Model couple" ... "social pleasures" ... "English houses" ... "which?" ... "One of his friends" ... "Which friend?"
When she had finished there was a silence. Finally M. Vulfran spoke:
"Can you translate into English as well as you translate English into French?" he asked.
"I can do it if the phrases are not too difficult," she replied.
"Yes, I think so."
"Well, sit down at that little table and write."
He dictated in French:
"Father Fields' Mission, Dacca:
"Thanks for letter. Please send by cable, reply prepaid, twenty words ... name of friend who received last news, date of letter. Send also name of the Reverend Father at Dehra. Inform him that I shall write him immediately. Paindavoine."
* * * * *
"Translate that into English and make it shorter rather than longer, if possible. At one franc sixty centimes a word, we must not waste words. Write very clearly."
The translation was quickly made.
"How many words?" he asked.
"In English ... thirty-seven."
He made the calculation for the message and for the return answer.
"Now," he said to Perrine, giving her the money, "take it yourself to the telegraph office, hand it in and see that no mistakes are made by the receiver."
As she crossed the veranda she saw Talouel, who, with his hands thrust in his pockets, was strolling about as though on the lookout for all that passed in the yards as well as in the offices.
"Where are you going?" he demanded.
"To the cable office with a message," replied Perrine. She held the paper in one hand and the money in the other. He took the paper from her, snatching it so roughly that if she had not let it go he would have torn it. He hastily opened it. His face flushed with anger when he saw that the message was written in English.
"You know that you've got to talk with me later on, eh?" he said.
She did not see M. Vulfran again before three o'clock, when he rang for her to go out. She had wondered who would replace William, and she was very surprised when M. Vulfran told her to take her seat beside him, after having sent away the coachman who had brought old Coco around.
"As you drove him so well yesterday, there is no reason why you should not drive him well today," said M. Vulfran. "Besides, I want to talk to you, and it is better for us to be alone like this."
It was not until they had left behind the village, where their appearance excited the same curiosity as the evening before, and were going at a gentle trot along the lanes, that M. Vulfran began to talk. Perrine would like to have put off this moment; she was very nervous.
"You told me that M. Theodore and Talouel came into your office?" said the blind man.
"What did they want?"
She hesitated. Her little face wore a very worried look.
"Why do you hesitate?" asked the blind man. "Don't you think that you ought to tell me everything?"
"Yes, indeed," said Perrine, fervently. Was this not the best way to solve her difficulties? She told what had happened when Theodore had come into the office.
"Was that all?" asked M. Vulfran, when she stopped.
"Yes, sir; that was all."
Again she told exactly what had occurred, only omitting to tell him that Talouel had said that a sudden announcement of news, good or bad, might prove fatal to him. She then told him what had passed regarding the cable; and also that Talouel said he was going to talk with her after work that same day.
As she talked she had let old Coco go at her own will, and the old horse, taking advantage of her freedom, shambled along calmly from one side of the road to the other, sniffing the odor of the warm hay that the breeze wafted to his nostrils.
When Perrine stopped talking her grandfather remained silent for some time. Knowing that he could not see her, she fixed her eyes on his face and she read in his expression as much sadness as annoyance.
"No harm shall come to you," he said at last. "I shall not mention what you have told me, and if anyone wants to take revenge on you for opposing their attempts I shall be near to protect you. I thought something like this would happen, but it will not occur a second time. In the future you will sit at the little table that is in my office. I hardly think that they'll try to question you before me. But as they might try to do so after you leave off work, over at Mother Francoise's where you eat, I shall take you to my home to live with me. You will have a room in the chateau, and you will eat at my table. As I am expecting to have some correspondence with persons in India, and I shall receive letters in English and cables, you alone will know about them. I must take every precaution, for they will do their utmost to make you talk. I shall be able to protect you if you are by my side; besides, this will be my reply to those who try to force you to speak, as well as a warning if they still try to tempt you. Then, also, it will be a reward for you."
Perrine, who had been trembling with anxiety when M. Vulfran commenced to speak, was now so overcome with joy that she could find no words with which to reply.
"I had faith in you, child," continued the old man, "from the moment I knew what struggle you had made against poverty. When one is as brave as you, one is honest. You have proved to me that I have not made a mistake, and that I can be proud of you. It is as though I have known you for years. I am a very lonely and unhappy man. What is my wealth to me? It is a heavy burden if you have not the health to enjoy it. And yet there are those who envy me. There are seven thousand men and women who depend upon me for a living. If I failed there would be misery and hunger and perhaps death for many. I must keep up for them. I must uphold the honor of this house which I have built up, little by little. It is my joy, my pride ... and yet ... I am blind!"
The last words were said with such bitterness that Perrine's eyes filled with tears. The blind man continued: "You ought to know from village talk and from the letter that you translated that I have a son. My son and I disagreed. We parted; there were many reasons for us doing so. He then married against my wishes and our separation was complete. But with all this my affection for him has not changed. I love him after all these years of absence as though he were still the little boy I brought up, and when I think of him, which is day and night, it is the little boy that I see with my sightless eyes. My son preferred that woman to his own father. Instead of coming back to me he preferred to live with her because I would not, or could not, receive her. I hoped that he would give in, but he thought probably that I in time would give in. We have both the same characters. I have had no news from him. After my illness, of which I am sure he knew, for I have every reason to believe that he has been kept informed of all that happens here, I thought that he would come back to me, but he has not returned. That wretched woman evidently holds him back. She is not content with having taken him from me, she keeps him ... the wretch...."
The blind man stopped. Perrine, who had been hanging on his words, had scarcely breathed, but at the last words she spoke.
"The letter from Father Fields said that she was a lady, honorable and upright. He does not speak of her as a wretch."
"What the letter says cannot go against facts," said the blind man, obstinately. "The main fact which has made me hate her is that she keeps my son from me. A creature of her kind should efface herself and let him return and take up again the life which is his. It is through her that we are parted. I have tried to find him, but I cannot. He must come back and take his place. You may not understand all I tell you, my child, but when I die my whole fortune must go to my son. He is my heir. When I die who will take my place if he is not here? Can you understand what I am saying, little girl?" said the old man, almost entreatingly.
"I think so, sir," said Perrine gently.
"But there, I don't wish you to understand entirely. There are those around me who ought to help me. There are certain ones who do not want my boy to return; it is to their interest that he should not come back, so they try to think that he is dead. My boy dead! Could he be? Could God strike me such a terrible blow? They try to believe it, but I will not. No, I will not! It can't be! Oh, what should I do if my boy was dead!"
Perrine's eyes were no longer fixed on the blind man's face; she had turned her face from him as though he could see her own.
"I talk to you frankly, little girl," continued the old man, "because I need your help. They are going to try and tempt you again to spy for them. I have warned you; that is all that I can do."
They could now see the factory chimneys of Fercheux. Still a few more rods and they came to the village. Perrine, who was trembling, could only find words to say in a broken voice: "Monsieur Vulfran, you may trust me. I will serve you faithfully with all my heart."
That evening, when the tour of the factories was over, instead of returning to his office as was his custom, M. Vulfran told Perrine to drive straight to the chateau.
For the first time she passed through the magnificent iron gates, a masterpiece of skill that a king had coveted, so it was said, these wonderful iron gates which one of France's richest merchants had bought for his chateau.
"Follow the main driveway," said M. Vulfran.
For the first time also she saw close to the beautiful flowers and the velvety lawns which until then she had only seen from a distance. The beautiful blossoms, red and pink masses, seemed like great splashes on the verdure. Accustomed to take this road, old Coco trotted along calmly, and as there was no occasion to guide her, Perrine was able to gaze right and left of her and admire the flowers, plants and shrubs in all their beauty. Although their master could not see them as formerly, the same attention and skill was showered upon them.
Of her own accord, Coco stopped before the wide steps where an old servant, warned by the lodge-keeper's bell, stood waiting.
"Are you there, Bastien?" asked M. Vulfran, without getting down.
"Then take this young girl to the butterfly room, which is to be hers in the future. See that everything is given to her that she needs. Set her plate opposite to mine at table. Now send Felix to me. I want him to drive me to the office."
Perrine thought that she was dreaming.
"We dine at eight o'clock," said M. Vulfran. "Until then you are free to do as you like."
She got out of the carriage quickly and followed the old butler. She was so dazed that it was as though she had suddenly been set down in an enchanted palace.
And was not this beautiful chateau like a palace? The monumental hall, from which rose a wonderful stairway of white marble, up which ran a crimson carpet, was a delight to the eyes. On each landing exquisite flowers and plants were grouped artistically in pots and jardinieres. Their perfume filled the air.
Bastien took her to the second floor, and without entering opened the door of a room for her.
"I'll send the chambermaid to you," he said, leaving her.
She passed through a somber little hall, then found herself in a very large room draped with ivory colored cretonne patterned with butterflies in vivid shades. The furniture was ivory colored wood, and the carpet gray, with clusters of wild flowers, primrose, poppies, cornflowers and buttercups.
How pretty and dainty it was!
She was still in a dream, pushing her feet into the soft carpet, when the maid entered.
"Bastien told me that I was to be at your service, mademoiselle," she said.
Here stood a chambermaid in a clean light dress and a muslin cap at her service ... she who only a few days before had slept in a hut on a bed of ferns with rats and frogs scampering about her.
"Thank you," she said at last, collecting her wits, "but I do not need anything ... at least I think not."
"If you like I will show you the apartment," said the maid.
What she meant by "show the apartment" was to throw open the doors of a big wardrobe with glass doors, and a closet, then to pull out the drawers of the dressing table in which were brushes, scissors, soaps and bottles, etc. That done, she showed Perrine two knobs on the wall.
"This one is for the lights," she said, flashing on the electric light, "and this one is the bell if you need anything.
"If you need Bastien," she explained, "you have to ring once, and if you need me, ring twice."
How much had happened in a few hours! Who would have thought when she took her stand against Theodore and Talouel that the wind was going to blow so favorably in her direction. How amusing it was ... their ill feeling towards her had itself brought her this good luck.
"I suppose that young girl did something foolish?" said Talouel, meeting his employer at the foot of the steps. "I see she has not returned with you."
"Oh, no; she did not," replied M. Vulfran.
"But if Felix drove you back?..."
"As I passed the chateau I dropped her there so that she would have time to get ready for dinner."
"Dinner? Oh, I suppose...."
He was gasping with amazement, and for once he could not say what he did suppose.
"You do nothing but 'suppose'," said M. Vulfran, tartly. "I may as well tell you that for a long time I have wanted someone intelligent to be near me, one who is discreet and whom I can trust. This young girl seems to have these qualities. I am sure that she is intelligent, and I have already had the proof that I can trust her."
M. Vulfran's tone was significant. Talouel could not misunderstand the sense of his words.
"I am taking her to live with me," continued M. Vulfran, "because I know that there are those who are trying to tempt her. She is not one to yield, but I do not intend that she should run any risk at their hands."
These words were said with even greater significance.
"She will stay with me altogether now," continued M. Vulfran. "She will work here in my office; during the day she will accompany me; she will eat at my table. I shall not be so lonesome at my meals, for her chatter will entertain me."
"I suppose she will give you all the satisfaction that you expect," remarked Talouel suavely.
"I suppose so also," replied his employer, very drily.
Meanwhile Perrine, leaning with her elbows on the window sill, looked out dreamily over the beautiful garden, at the factories beyond the village with its houses and church, the meadows in which the silvery water glistened in the oblique rays of the setting sun; and then her eyes turned in the opposite direction, to the woods where she had sat down the day she had come, and where in the evening breeze she had seemed to hear the soft voice of her mother murmuring, "I know you will be happy."
Her dear mother had foreseen the future, and the big daisies had also spoken true. Yes, she was beginning to be happy. She must be patient and all would come right in time. She need not hurry matters now. There was no poverty, no hunger or thirst, in this beautiful chateau where she had entered so quickly.
When the factory whistle announced the closing hour she was still standing at her window, deep in thought. The piercing whistle recalled her from the future to the present.
Along the white roads between the fields she saw a black swarm of workers, first a great compact mass, then gradually it grew smaller, as they dwindled off in different directions in groups towards their homes.
Old Coco's gentle trot was soon heard on the drive, and Perrine saw her blind grandfather returning to his home.
She gave herself a real wash with eau de Cologne as well as soap, a delicious perfume soap. It was not until the clock on the mantle shelf struck eight that she went down.
She wondered how she would find the dining room. She did not have to look for it, however. A footman in a black coat, who was standing in the hall, showed her the way. Almost immediately M. Vulfran came in. No one guided him. He seemed to have no difficulty in finding his way to his seat.
A bowl of beautiful orchids stood in the middle of the table, which was covered with massive silver and cut glass, which gleamed in the lights that fell from the crystal chandelier.
For a moment she stood behind her chair, not knowing what to do. M. Vulfran seemed to sense her attitude.
"Sit down," he said.
The dinner was served at once. The servant who had shown her the way to the dining room put a plate of soup before her, while Bastien brought another to his master which was full to the brim.
If she had been dining there alone with M. Vulfran she would have been quite at her ease, but the inquisitive glances the servants cast at her made her feel deeply embarrassed. Probably they were wondering how a little tramp like her would eat.
Fortunately, however, she made no mistakes.
The dinner was very simple—soup, roast lamb, green peas and salad—but there was abundance of dessert ... two or three raised stands of delicious fruit and cakes.
"Tomorrow, if you like, you may go and see the hot houses where these fruits are grown," said M. Vulfran.
Perrine thanked him and said she would like to.
She had commenced by helping herself discreetly to some cherries. M. Vulfran wished her also to take some apricots, peaches and grapes.
"Take all you want," he said. "At your age I should have eaten all the fruit that is on the table ... if it had been offered to me."
Bastien selected an apricot and peach and placed them before Perrine as he might have done for an intelligent monkey, just to see how the "little animal" would eat.
But despite the delicious fruit, Perrine was very pleased when the dinner came to an end. She hoped that the next day the servants would not stare so much.
"Now you are free until tomorrow," said M. Vulfran, rising from his seat. "It is moonlight, and you can go for a stroll in the garden, or read in the library, or take a book up to your own room."
She was embarrassed, wondering if she ought not to tell M. Vulfran that she would do as he wished. While she stood hesitating she saw Bastien making signs to her which at first she did not understand. He held an imaginary book in one hand and appeared to be turning the pages with the other, then glanced at M. Vulfran and moved his lips as though he were reading. Suddenly Perrine understood. She was to ask if she might read to him.
"But don't you need me, sir?" she said, timidly. "Would you not like me to read to you?"
Bastien nodded his head in approval. He seemed delighted that she had guessed what he had tried to explain.
"Oh, you need some time to yourself," replied M. Vulfran.
"I assure you that I am not at all tired," said Perrine.
"Very well, then," said the blind man; "follow me into the study."
The library was a big somber room separated from the dining room by the hall. There was a strip of carpet laid from one room to the other, which was a guide for the blind man. He now walked direct to the room opposite.
Perrine had wondered how he spent his time when he was alone, as he could not read. From the appearance of the room one could not guess, for the large table was covered with papers and magazines. Before the window stood a large Voltaire chair, upholstered in tapestry. The chair was rather worn. This seemed to indicate that the blind man sat for long hours face to face with the sky, the clouds of which he could never see.
"What could you read to me?" he asked Perrine.
"A newspaper," she said, "if you wish. There are some on the table."
"The less time one gives to the newspapers the better," he replied. "Do you like books on travels?"
"Yes, sir; I do," she said.
"I do, too," he said. "They amuse one as well as instruct one."
Then, as though speaking to himself, as though unaware of her presence, he said softly: "Get away from yourself. Get interested in another life than your own."
"We'll read from 'Around the World'," he said. He led her to a bookcase which contained several volumes on travels and told her to look in the index.
"What shall I look for?" she asked.
"Look in the I's ... for the word India."
Thus he was following his own thoughts. How could he live the life of another? His one thought was of his son. He now wanted to read about the country where his boy lived.
"Tell me what you find," he said.
She read aloud the various headings concerning India. He told her which volume to take. As she was about to take it she stood as though transfixed, gazing at a portrait hanging over the fireplace which her eyes, gradually becoming accustomed to the dim light, had not seen before.
"Why are you silent?" he asked.
"I am looking at the portrait over the mantel shelf," she said, in a trembling voice.
"That was my son when he was twenty," said the old gentleman; "but you can't see it very well. I'll light up."
He touched the electric knob and the room was flooded with light. Perrine, who had taken a few steps nearer, uttered a cry and let the book of travels fall to the floor.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
She did not reply, but stood there with her eyes fixed on the picture of a fair young man dressed in a hunting suit leaning with one hand on a gun and the other stroking the head of a black spaniel.
There was silence in the room, then the blind man heard a little sob.
"Why are you crying?" he asked.
Perrine did not reply for a moment. With an effort she tried to control her emotion.
"It is the picture ... your son ... you are his father?" she stammered.
At first he did not understand, then in a voice that was strangely sympathetic he said:
"And you ... you were thinking of your father, perhaps?"
"Yes, yes, sir; I was."
"Poor little girl," he murmured.
GETTING AN EDUCATION
The next morning, when Theodore and Casimir entered their uncle's office to attend to the correspondence, they were amazed to see Perrine installed at her table as though she were a fixture there.
Talouel had taken care not to tell them, but he had contrived to be present when they entered so as to witness their discomfiture. The sight of their amazement gave him considerable enjoyment. Although he was furious at the way this little beggar girl had imposed, as he thought, upon the senile weakness of an old man, it was at least some compensation to know that the two nephews felt the same astonishment and indignation that he had.
Evidently they did not understand her presence in this sacred office, where they themselves only remained just the time necessary to report on the business of which they were in charge.
Theodore and Casimir looked in dismay at one another, but they did not dare ask questions. Talouel left the room the same time as they.
"You were surprised to see that girl in the boss' office, eh?" he said, when they got outside.
They did not deign to reply.
"If you had not come in late this morning, I should have let you know that she was there, and then you would not have looked so taken back. She noticed how surprised you were."
He had managed to give them two little knocks: First, there was a gentle scolding for them being late; secondly, he had let them see that he, a foreman, had noticed that they had been unable to hide their discomfiture and that the girl had noticed it, too. And they were M. Vulfran's nephews! Ah! ha!
"M. Vulfran told me yesterday that he had taken that girl to live at the chateau with him, and that in the future she would work in his office."
"But who is the girl?"
"That's what I'd like to know. I don't think your uncle knows either. He told me he wanted someone to be with him whom he could trust."
"Hasn't he got us?" asked Casimir.
"That is just what I said to him. I mentioned you both, and do you know what he replied?"
He wanted to pause to give more effect to his words, but he was afraid that they would turn their backs upon him before he had said what he wanted.
"'Oh, my nephews,' he said, 'and what are they?' From the tone in which he said those few words I thought it better not to reply," continued Talouel. "He told me then that he intended to have that girl up at the chateau with him because there was someone trying to tempt her to tell something that she should not tell. He said he knew that she could be trusted, but he said he didn't like others that he could not trust to put the girl in such a position. He said she had already proved to him that she could be trusted. I wonder who he meant had tried to tempt her?
"I thought it my duty to tell you this, because while M. Edmond is away you two take his place," added Talouel.
He had given them several thrusts, but he wanted to give them one last sharp knock.
"Of course, M. Edmond might return at any moment," he said. "I believe that your uncle is on the right track at last. He has been making inquiries, and from the looks of things I think we shall have him back soon."
"What have you heard? Anything?" asked Theodore, who could not restrain his curiosity.
"Oh, I keep my eyes open," said Talouel, "and I can tell you that that girl is doing a lot of translating in the way of letters and cables that come from India."
At that moment he looked from a window and saw a telegraph boy strolling up to the office.
"Here is another cable coming," he said. "This is a reply to one that has been sent to Dacca. It must be very annoying for you not to be able to speak English. You could be the first to announce to the boss that your cousin will be coming back. Now that little tramp will be the one to do it."
Talouel hurried forward to meet the telegraph boy.
"Say, you don't hurry yourself, do you?" he cried.
"Do you want me to kill myself?" asked the boy, insolently.
He hurried with the message to M. Vulfran's office.
"Shall I open it, sir?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes, do," said M. Vulfran.
"Oh, it is in English," replied Talouel, as he looked at the missive.
"Then Aurelie must attend to it," said M. Vulfran, and with a wave of his hand dismissed the manager.
As soon as the door had closed Perrine translated the cable.
It read: "Friend Leserre, a French merchant. Last news from Dehra five years. Wrote Father Makerness according to your wish."
"Five years," cried M. Vulfran. Then, as he was not the sort of man to waste time in regrets, he said to Perrine: "Write two cables, one to M. Leserre in French and one to Father Makerness in English."
She quickly wrote the cable that she had to translate into English, but she asked if she could get a dictionary from Bendit's office before she did the one in French.
"Are you not sure of your spelling?" asked M. Vulfran.
"No, I am not at all sure," she replied, "and I should not like them at the office to make fun of any message that is sent by you."
"Then you would not be able to write a letter without making mistakes?"
"No, I know I should make a lot of mistakes. I can spell French words all right at the commencement, but the endings I find very difficult. I find it much easier to write in English, and I think I ought to tell you so now."
"Have you never been to school?"
"No, never. I only know what my father and mother taught me. When we stopped on the roads they used to make me study, but I never studied very much."
"You are a good girl to tell me so frankly. We must see to that, but for the moment let us attend to what we have on hand."
It was not until the afternoon, when they were driving out, that he again referred to her spelling.
"Have you written to your relations yet?" he asked.
"Because I would like nothing better than to stay here with you, who are so kind to me," she said.
"Then you don't want to leave me?" asked the blind man.
"No, I want to help you all I can," said Perrine softly.
"Very well, then you must study so as to be able to act as a little secretary for me. Would you like to be educated?"
"Indeed I would! And I will work so hard," said Perrine.
"Well, the matter can be arranged without depriving myself of your services," said M. Vulfran; "there is a very good teacher here and I will ask her to give you lessons from six to eight in the evenings. She is a very nice woman; there are only two things against her; they are her height and her name; she is taller than I am, and her shoulders are much broader than mine. Her name is Mademoiselle Belhomme. She is indeed a bel homme, for although she is only forty her shoulders and figure are more massive than any man's I know ... I must add that she has not a beard."
Perrine smiled at this description of the teacher that she was to have.
After they had made a tour of the factories they stopped before a girl's school and Mlle. Belhomme ran out to greet M. Vulfran. He expressed a wish to get down and go into the school and speak with her. Perrine, who followed in their footsteps, was able to examine her. She was indeed a giant, but her manner seemed very womanly and dignified. At times her manner was almost timid and did not accord at all with her appearance.
Naturally she could not refuse anything the all-powerful master of Maraucourt asked, but even if she had had any reasons to refuse M. Vulfran's request the little girl with the beautiful eyes and hair pleased her very much.
"Yes," she said to M. Vulfran, "we will make her an educated girl. Do you know she has eyes like a gazelle. I have never seen a gazelle, but I should imagine their great brown eyes are like hers. They are wonderful...."
The next day when M. Vulfran returned to his home at the dinner hour he asked the governess what she thought of her new pupil. Mlle. Belhomme was most enthusiastic in her praise of Perrine.
"Does she show any intelligence?" asked M. Vulfran.
"Why she is wonderfully intelligent," replied Mlle. Belhomme; "it would have been such a calamity if she had remained without an education...."
M. Vulfran smiled at Mlle. Belhomme's words.
"What about her spelling?" he asked.
"Oh, that is very poor but she'll do better. Her writing is fairly good but, of course, she needs to study hard. She is so intelligent it is extraordinary. So as to know exactly what she knew in writing and spelling I asked her to write me an account of Maraucourt. In twenty to a hundred lines I asked her to describe the village to me. She sat down and wrote. Her pen flew over the paper; she did not hesitate for words; she wrote four long pages; she described the factories, the scenery, every thing clearly and in detail. She wrote about the birds and the fishes over near the pond, and about the morning mists that cover the fields and the water. Then of the calm, quiet evenings. Had I not seen her writing it I should have thought that she had copied it from some good author. Unfortunately the spelling and writing is very poor but, as I said, that does not matter. That is merely a matter of a few months, whilst all the lessons in the world would not teach her how to write if she had not been gifted with the sense of feeling and seeing in such a remarkable manner; that she can convey to others what she feels and sees. If you have time to let me read it to you, you will see that I have not exaggerated."
The governess read Perrine's narrative to him. He was delighted. He had wondered once or twice if he had been wise in so promptly befriending this little girl and giving her a place in his home. It had appeared to him strange the sudden fancy that he had taken to her.
He told Mlle. Belhomme how her little pupil had lived in a cabin in one of the fields, and how, with nothing except what she found on hand, she contrived to make kitchen utensils and shoes, and how she had made her meals of the fish, herbs and fruit that she found.
Mlle. Belhomme's kind face beamed as the blind man talked. She was greatly interested in what he told her. When M. Vulfran stopped the governess remained silent, thinking.
"Don't you think," she said at last, "that to know how to create the necessities that one needs is a master quality to be desired above all?"
"I certainly do, and it was precisely because that child could do that that I first took an interest in her. Ask her some time to tell you her story and you will see that it required some energy and courage for her to arrive where she is now."
"Well, she has received her reward since she has been able to interest you."
"Yes, I am interested, and already attached to her. I am glad that you like her, and I hope that you will do all that you can with her."
Perrine made great progress with her studies. She was interested in everything her governess had to tell her, but her beautiful eyes betrayed the greatest interest when Mlle. Belhomme talked of her grandfather. Many times Perrine had spoken of M. Vulfran's illness to Rosalie, but she had only received vague replies to her queries; now, from her governess, she learned all the details regarding his affliction.
Like everyone at Maraucourt, Mlle. Belhomme was concerned with M. Vulfran's health, and she had often spoken with Dr. Ruchon so she was in a position to satisfy Perrine's curiosity better than Rosalie could.
Her grandfather had a double cataract. It was not incurable; if he were operated upon he might recover his sight. The operation had not yet been attempted because his health would not allow it.... He was suffering from bronchial trouble, and if the operation was to be a success he would have to be in a perfect state of health. But M. Vulfran was imprudent. He was not careful enough in following the doctor's orders. How could he remain calm, as Dr. Ruchon recommended, when he was always worked up to a fever of anxiety over the continued absence of his son. So long as he was not sure of his son's fate, there was no chance for the operation and it was put off. But ... would it be possible to have it later? That the oculists could not decide. They were uncertain, so long as the blind man's health continued in this precarious state.
But when Mlle. Belhomme saw that Perrine was also anxious to talk about Talouel and the two nephews and their hopes regarding the business she was not so communicative. It was quite natural that the girl should show an interest in her benefactor, but that she should be interested in the village gossip was not permissible. Certainly it was not a conversation for a governess and her pupil.... It was not with talks of this kind that one should mould the character of a young girl.
Perrine would have had to renounce all hope of getting any information from her governess if Casimir's mother, Madame Bretoneux, had not decided to come to the chateau on a visit. This coming visit opened the lips of Mlle. Belhomme, which otherwise would certainly have remained closed.
As soon as the governess heard that Mme. Bretoneux was coming she had a very serious talk with her little pupil.
"My dear child," she said, lowering her voice, "I must give you some advice; I want you to be very reserved with this lady who is coming here tomorrow."
"Reserved, about what?" asked Perrine in surprise.
"Monsieur Vulfran did not only ask me to take charge of your education but to take a personal interest in you; that is why I give you this advice."
"Please, Mademoiselle, explain to me what I ought to do," said Perrine; "I don't understand at all what this advice means, and I am very nervous."
"Although you have not been very long at Maraucourt," said Mlle. Belhomme, "you must know that M. Vulfran's illness and the continued absence of his son is a cause of anxiety to all this part of the country."
"Yes, I have heard that," answered Perrine.
"What would become of all those employed in the works, seven thousand, and all those who are dependent on these seven thousand if Monsieur Vulfran should die and his son not return? Will he leave his fortune and works to his nephews, of which he has no more confidence in one than the other, or to one who for twenty years has been his right hand and who, having managed the works with him is, perhaps more than anyone else, in a position to keep his hold on them?
"When M. Vulfran took his nephew Theodore into the business everyone thought that he intended to make him his heir. But later, when Monsieur Casimir left college and his uncle sent for him, they saw that they had made a mistake and that M. Vulfran had not decided to leave his business to these two boys. His only wish was to have his son back for, although they had been parted for ten years, he still loved him. Now no one knew whether the son was dead or alive. But there were those who wished that he was dead so that they themselves could take M. Vulfran's place when he died.
"Now, my dear child," said the governess, "you understand you live here in the home of M. Vulfran and you must be very discreet in this matter and not talk about it to Casimir's mother. She is working all she can for her son's interest and she will push anyone aside who stands in his way. Now, if you were on too good terms with her you would be on bad terms with Theodore's mother, and the other way about. Then, on the other hand, should you gain the good graces of both of them you would perhaps have reason to fear one from another direction. That is why I give you this little advice. Talk as little as possible. And if you are questioned, be careful to make replies as vague as possible. It is better sometimes to be looked upon rather as too stupid than too intelligent. This is so in your case ... the less intelligent you appear, the more intelligent you will really be."
This advice, given with every kindness, did not tend to lessen Perrine's anxiety. She was dreading Madame Bretoneux's visit on the morrow.
Her governess had not exaggerated the situation. The two mothers were struggling and scheming in every possible way, each to have her son alone inherit one day or another the great works of Maraucourt and the fortune which it was rumored would be more than a hundred million francs.
The one, Mme. Stanislaus Paindavoine, was the wife of M. Vulfran's eldest brother, a big linen merchant. Her husband had not been able to give her the position in society which she believed to be hers, and now she hoped that, through her son inheriting his uncle's great fortune, she would at last be able to take the place in the Parisian world which she knew she could grace.
The other, Madame Bretoneux was M. Vulfran's married sister who had married a Boulogne merchant, who in turn had been a cement and coal merchant, insurance agent and maritime agent, but with all his trades had never acquired riches. She wanted her brother's wealth as much for love of the money as to get it away from her sister-in-law, whom she hated.
While their brother and his only son had lived on good terms, they had had to content themselves with borrowing all they could from him in loans which they never intended to pay back; but the day when Edmond had been packed off to India, ostensibly to buy jute but in reality as a punishment for being too extravagant and getting into debt, the two women had schemed to take advantage of the situation. On each side they had made every preparation so that each could have her son alone, at any moment, take the place of the exile.
In spite of all their endeavors the uncle had never consented to let the boys live with him at the chateau. There was room enough for them all and he was sad and lonely, but he had made a firm stand against having them with him in his home.
"I don't want any quarrels or jealousy around me," he had always replied to the suggestions made.
He had then given Theodore the house he had lived in before he built the chateau and another to Casimir that had belonged to the late head of the counting house whom Mombleux had replaced.
So their surprise and indignation had been intense when a stranger, a poor girl, almost a child, had been installed in the chateau where they themselves had only been admitted as guests.
What did it mean?
Who was this little girl?
What had they to fear from her?
Madame Bretoneux had put these questions to her son but his replies had not satisfied her. She decided to find out for herself, hence her visit.
Very uneasy when she arrived, it was not long before she felt quite at ease again so well did Perrine play the part that mademoiselle had advised her.
Although M. Vulfran had no wish to have his nephews living with him he was very hospitable and cordial to their parents when they came to visit him. On these occasions the beautiful mansion put on its most festive appearance; fires were lighted everywhere; the servants put on their best liveries; the best carriages and horses were brought from the stables, and in the evening the villagers could see the great chateau lighted up from ground floor to roof.
The victoria, with the coachman and footman, had met Mme. Bretoneux at the railway station. Upon her getting out of the carriage Bastien had been on hand to show her to the apartment which was also reserved for her on the first floor.
M. Vulfran never made any change in his habits when his relations came to Maraucourt. He saw them at meal times, spent the evenings with them, but no more of his time did he give them. With him business came before everything; his nephew, the son of whichever one happened to be visiting there, came to luncheon and dinner and remained the evening as late as he wished, but that was all.
M. Vulfran spent his hours at the office just the same and Perrine was always with him, so Madame Bretoneux was not able to follow up her investigations on the "little tramp" as she had wished.
She had questioned Bastien and the maids; she had made a call on Mother Francoise and had questioned her carefully, also Aunt Zenobie and Rosalie, and she had obtained all the information that they could give her; that is, all they knew from the moment of her arrival in the village until she went to live in the great house as a companion to the millionaire. All this, it seemed, was due exclusively to her knowledge of English.
She found it a difficult matter, however, to talk to Perrine alone, who never left M. Vulfran's side unless it was to go to her own room. Madame Bretoneux was in a fever of anxiety to see what was in the girl and discover some reason for her sudden success.
At table Perrine said absolutely nothing. In the morning she went off with M. Vulfran; after she had finished luncheon she went at once to her own room. When they returned from the tour of the factories she went at once to her lessons with her governess; in the evening, upon leaving the table, she went up again to her own room. Madame Bretoneux could not get the girl alone to talk with her. Finally, on the eve of her departure, she decided to go to Perrine's own room. Perrine, who thought that she had got rid of her, was sleeping peacefully.
A few knocks on the door awoke her. She sat up in bed and listened. Another knock.
She got up and went to the door.
"Who is there?" she asked, without opening it.
"Open the door, it is I ... Madame Bretoneux," said a voice.
Perrine turned the lock. Madame Bretoneux slipped into the room while Perrine turned on the light.
"Get into bed again," said Madame Bretoneux, "we can talk just as well."
She took a chair and sat at the foot of the bed so that she was full face with Perrine.
"I want to talk with you about my brother," she began. "You have taken William's place and I want to tell you a few things that you should do; for William, in spite of his faults, was very careful of his master's health. You seem a nice little girl and very willing, and I am sure if you wish you could do as much as William. I assure you that we shall appreciate it."
At the first words Perrine was reassured; if it was only of M. Vulfran's health that she wanted to speak she had nothing to fear.
"I think you are a very intelligent girl," said Mme. Bretoneux with a flattering, ingratiating smile.
At these words and the look which accompanied them Perrine's suspicions were aroused at once.
"Thank you," she said, exaggerating her simple child-like smile, "all I ask is to give as good service as William."
"Ah, I was sure we could count on you," said Mme. Bretoneux.
"You have only to say what you wish, Madame," said little Perrine, looking up at the intruder with her big innocent eyes.
"First of all you must be very attentive about his health; you must watch him carefully and see that he does not take cold. A cold might be fateful; he would have pulmonary congestion and that would aggravate his bronchitis. Do you know if they could cure him of his bronchial trouble they could operate upon him and give him back his sight? Think what happiness that would be for all of us."
"I also would be happy," replied Perrine.
"Those words prove that you are grateful for what he has done for you, but, then, you are not of the family."
Perrine assumed her most innocent air.
"Yes, but that does not prevent me from being attached to M. Vulfran," she said, "believe me, I am."
"Of course," answered Mme. Bretoneux, "and you can prove your devotion by giving him the care which I am telling you to give him. My brother must not only be protected from catching cold, but he must be guarded against sudden emotions which might, in his state of health, kill him. He is trying to find our dear Edmond, his only son. He is making inquiries in India...."
She paused, but Perrine made no reply.
"I am told," she went on, "that my brother gets you to translate the letters and cables that he receives from India. Well, it is most important that if there be bad news that my son should be informed first. Then he will send me a telegram, and as it is not far from here to Boulogne I will come at once to comfort my poor brother. The sympathy of a sister is deeper than that of a sister-in-law, you understand."
"Certainly, Madame, I understand; at least I think so," said Perrine.
"Then we can count on you?"
Perrine hesitated for a moment, but as she was forced to give a reply she said:
"I shall do all that I can for M. Vulfran."
"Yes, and what you do for him will be for us," continued Mme. Bretoneux, "the same as what you do for us will be for him. And I am going to show you that I am not ungrateful. What would you say if I gave you a very nice dress?"
Perrine did not want to say anything, but as she had to make some reply to the question she put it into a smile.
"A very beautiful dress to wear in the evening," said Mme. Bretoneux.
"But I am in mourning," answered Perrine.
"But being in black does not prevent you from wearing a lovely dress. You are not dressed well enough to dine at my brother's table. You are very badly dressed—dressed up like a clever little dog."
Perrine replied that she knew she was not well dressed but she was somewhat humiliated to be compared with a clever little dog, and the way the comparison was made was an evident intention to lower her.
"I took what I could find at Mme. Lachaise's shop," she said in self-defense.
"It was all right for Mme. Lachaise to dress you when you were a little factory girl, but now, that it pleases my brother to have you sit at the table with him, we do not wish to blush for you. You must not mind us making fun of you, but you have no idea how you amused us in that dreadful waist you have been wearing...."
Mme. Bretoneux smiled as though she could still see Perrine in the hideous waist.
"But there," she said brightly, "all that can be remedied; you are a beautiful girl, there is no denying that, and I shall see that you have a dinner dress to set off your beauty and a smart little tailored costume to wear in the carriage, and when you see yourself in it you will remember who gave it you. I expect your underwear is no better than your waist. Let me see it...."
Thereupon, with an air of authority, she opened first one drawer, then another, then shut them again disdainfully with a shrug of her shoulders.
"I thought so," she said, "it is dreadful; not good enough for you."
Perrine felt suffocated; she could not speak.
"It's lucky," continued Mme. Bretoneux, "that I came here, for I intend to look after you."
Perrine wanted to refuse everything and tell this woman that she did not wish her to take care of her, but remembered the part she had to play. After all, Mme. Bretoneux's intentions were most generous; it was her words, her manner, that seemed so hard.
"I'll tell my brother," she continued, "that he must order from a dressmaker at Amiens, whose address I will give him, the dinner dress and the tailor suit which is absolutely necessary, and in addition some good underwear. In fact, a whole outfit. Trust in me and you shall have some pretty things, and I hope that they'll remind you of me all the time. Now don't forget what I have told you."
After the talk his mother had had with Perrine, Casimir, by his looks and manner, gave her every opportunity to confide in him. But she had no intention of telling him about the researches that his uncle was having made both in India and in England. True, they had no positive news of the exile; it was all vague and contradictory, but the blind man still hoped on. He left no stone unturned to find his beloved son.
Mme. Bretoneux's advice had some good effect. Until then Perrine had not taken the liberty of having the hood of the phaeton pulled up, if she thought the day was chilly, nor had she dared advise M. Vulfran to put on an overcoat nor suggest that he have a scarf around his neck; neither did she dare close the window in the study if the evening was too cool, but from the moment that Mme. Bretoneux had warned her that the damp mists and rain would be bad for him she put aside all timidity.
Now, no matter what the weather was like, she never got into the carriage without looking to see that his overcoat was in its place and a silk scarf in the pocket; if a slight breeze came up she put the scarf around his neck or helped him into his coat. If a drop of rain began to fall she stopped at once and put up the hood. When she first walked out with him, she had gone her usual pace and he had followed without a word of complaint. But now that she realized that a brisk walk hurt him and usually made him cough or breathe with difficulty, she walked slowly; in every way she devised means of going about their usual day's routine so that he should feel the least fatigue possible.
Day by day the blind man's affection for little Perrine grew. He was never effusive, but one day while she was carefully attending to his wants he told her that she was like a little daughter to him. She was touched. She took his hand and kissed it.
"Yes," he said, "you are a good girl." Putting his hand on her head, he added: "Even when my son returns you shall not leave us; he will be grateful to you for what you are to me."
"I am so little, and I want to be so much," she said.
"I will tell him what you have been," said the blind man, "and besides he will see for himself; for my son has a good kind heart."
Often he would speak in these terms, and Perrine always wanted to ask him how, if these were his sentiments, he could have been so unforgiving and severe with him, but every time she tried to speak the words would not come, for her throat was closed with emotion. It was a serious matter for her to broach such a subject, but on that particular evening she felt encouraged by what had happened. There could not have been a more opportune moment; she was alone with him in his study where no one came unless summoned. She was seated near him under the lamplight. Ought she to hesitate longer?
She thought not.
"Do you mind," she said, in a little trembling voice, "if I ask you something that I do not understand? I think of it all the time, and yet I have been afraid to speak."
"Speak out," he said.
"What I cannot understand," she said timidly, "is that loving your son as you do, you could be parted from him."
"It is because you are so young you do not understand," he said, "that there is duty as well as love. As a father, it was my duty to send him away; that was to teach him a lesson. I had to show him that my will was stronger than his. That is why I sent him to India where I intended to keep him but a short while. I gave him a position befitting my son and heir. He was the representative of my house. Did I know that he would marry that miserable creature? He was mad!"
"But Father Fields said that she was not a miserable creature," insisted Perrine.
"She was or she would not have contracted a marriage that was not valid in France," retorted the blind man, "and I will not recognize her as my daughter."
He said this in a tone that made Perrine feel suddenly cold. Then he continued abruptly: "You wonder why I am trying to get my son back now, if I did not want him back after he had married. Things have changed. Conditions are not the same now as then. After fourteen years of this so-called marriage my son ought to be tired of this woman and of the miserable life that he has been forced to live on account of her. Besides conditions for me have also changed. My health is not what it was, and I am blind. I cannot recover my sight unless I am operated upon and I must be in a calm state favorable to the success of this operation. When my son learns this do you think he will hesitate to leave this woman? I am willing to support her and her daughter also. I am sure many times he has thought of Maraucourt and wanted to return. If I love him I know that he also loves me. When he learns the truth he will come back at once, you will see."
"Then he would have to leave his wife and daughter?"
"He has no wife nor has he a daughter," said the old man sternly.
"Father Fields says that he was married at the Mission House by Father Leclerc," said Perrine.
"This marriage was contracted contrary to the French law," said M. Vulfran.
"But was it not lawful in India?" asked Perrine.
"I will have it annulled in Rome," said the blind man.
"But the daughter?"
"The law would not recognize that child."
"Is the law everything?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that it is not the law that makes one love or not love one's parents or children. It was not the law that made me love my poor father. I loved him because he was good and kind and he loved me. I was happy when he kissed me, and smiled at me. I loved him and there was nothing that I liked better than to be with him. He loved me because I was his little girl and needed his affection; he loved me because he knew that I loved him with all my heart. The law had nothing to do with that. I did not ask if it was the law that made him my father. It was our love that made us so much to each other."
"What are you driving at?" asked M. Vulfran.
"I beg your pardon if I have said anything I should not say, but I speak as I think and as I feel."
"And that is why I am listening to you," said the blind man; "what you say is not quite reasonable, but you speak as a good girl would."
"Well, sir, what I am trying to say is this," said Perrine boldly; "if you love your son and want to have him back with you, he also loves his daughter and wants to have her with him."
"He should not hesitate between his father and his daughter," said the old man; "besides, if the marriage is annulled, she will be nothing to him. He could soon marry that woman off again with the dowry that I would give her. Everything is changed since he went away. My fortune is much larger.... He will have riches, honor and position. Surely it isn't a little half-caste that can keep him back."
"Perhaps she is not so dreadful as you imagine," said Perrine.
"In the books that I read to you it says that the Hindus are more beautiful than the Europeans," said Perrine.
"Travelers' exaggerations," said the old man scoffingly.
"They have graceful figures, faces of pure oval, deep eyes with a proud look. They are patient, courageous, industrious; they are studious...."
"You have a memory!"
"One should always remember what one reads, should not one?" asked Perrine. "It does not seem that the Hindu is such a horrible creature as you say."
"Well, what does all that matter to me as I do not know her?"
"But if you knew her you might perhaps get interested in her and learn to love her."
"Never! I can't bear to think of her and her mother!..."
"But if you knew her you might not feel so angry towards her."
He clenched his fist as though unable to control his fury, but he did not stop her.
"I don't suppose that she is at all like you suppose," said Perrine; "Father Fields is a good priest and he would not say what was not true, and he says that her mother was good and kind and a lady...."
"He never knew her; it is hearsay."
"But it seems that everyone holds this opinion. If she came to your house would you not be as kind to her as you have been to me, ... a stranger?"
"Don't say anything against yourself."
"I do not speak for or against myself, but what I ask is for justice. I know if that daughter, your granddaughter, came here she would love you with all her heart."
She clasped her hands together and looked up at him as though he could see her; her voice shook with emotion.