An elegant and exquisite reunion! What an atmosphere of good-living in the high hall—splendidly decorated and ornamented on its four panels with studies for a dining-hall in the fine style of olden days—where were fruits, venison, and eatables of all sorts. The service of the table was noiseless; the domestics seemed to glide upon the thick carpet. The butler whispered the wines in the ears of the guests with a confidential tone, and as if he were revealing a secret upon which life depended.
At the soup—a consomme at the same time mild and stimulating, giving force and youthful vigor to the digestion—chat between neighbors began. Undoubtedly these were the merest trifles that were at first so low spoken. But what politeness in the grave gestures! What affability in looks and smiles! Soon after the Chateau-yquem, wit sparkled. These men, for the most part old or very mature, all remarkable through birth or through talent, had lived much; full of experience and memories, they were made for conversation, and the beauty of the women present inspired them with a desire to shine, and excited them to a courteous rivalry. There was a snapping of bright words, a flight of sudden sallies, and the conversationalists broke into groups of two or three. A famous voyager with bronzed skin, recently returned from the farthest deserts, told his two neighbors of an elephant hunt, without any boasting, with as much tranquillity as though he were speaking of shooting rabbits. Farther off, the fine profile and white hair of an illustrious savant was gallantly inclined towards the comtesse, who listened to him laughing—a very slender blonde, her eyes young and intent, with a collar of splendid emeralds on a bosom like a professional beauty, and the neck and shoulders of the Venus de Medici.
* * * * *
Decidedly the dinner promised to be charming as well as sumptuous. Ennui, that too frequent guest at mundane feasts, would not come to sit at that table. These fortunate ones were going to pass a delicious hour, drinking enjoyment through every pore, by every sense.
Now, at that same table, at the lower end, in the most modest place, a man still young, the least qualified, the most obscure of all who were there, a man of reverie and imagination, one of those dreamers in whom is something of philosophy, something of poetry, sat silent.
Admitted into that high society by virtue of his renown as an artist, one of nature's aristocrats but without vanity, sprung from the people and not forgetting it, he breathed voluptuously that flower of civilization which is called good company.
He knew—none better than he—how everything in this environment—the charm of the women, the wit of the men, the glittering table, the furnishing of the hall, to the exquisite wine which he had just touched to his lips—how everything was choice and rare, and he rejoiced that a concourse of things so lovely and so harmonious existed. He was plunged in a bath of optimism; it seemed to him good that there should be, sometimes and somewhere in the weary world, beings almost happy. Provided that they were accessible to pity, charitable—and these happy people probably were that—who could distress them? what could injure them? Ah, beautiful and consoling chimera to believe that for such as these life is pleasant; that they retain always—or almost always—that gay, happy light in the eye, that half-blossomed smile upon the lips; that they have blotted out, as far as possible, from their existence, imperious and discreditable desires and abject infirmities.
He whom we will call the Dreamer was pursuing that train of thought, when the maitre d'hotel—the superb maitre d'hotel—entered with solemnity, carrying in a great silver plate a turbot of fabulous dimensions—one of those phenomenal fish which are only seen in the old paintings representing the miraculous draught of fish, or perhaps in the window of Chevet, before a row of astonished street-boys who flatten their noses against the glass window.
* * * * *
Dinner is served. But when the Dreamer had before him on his plate a portion of the monstrous turbot, the light odor of the sea evoked in his mind, prone to unexpected suggestions, that corner of Breton, that poor village of sailors, where he had been belated the other autumn until the equinox, and where he had rendered assistance in some dreadful storms. He suddenly called to mind that terrible night when the fishing-boats could not come back to port, the night that he had passed on the mole amid a group of frightened women, standing where the sea-spray streamed down his face, and the cold and furious wind seemed striving to tear his clothes from his back. What a life was theirs, those poor men! Down there how many widows, young and old, wearing always the black shawl, went at break of day, with their swarms of children, to earn their bread—oh, nothing but bread!—working in the sickening smell of hot oil in the sardine factories! He saw again in memory the church above the village, half-way up the cliff, the steeple painted white to show to the distant boats the passage between the reefs; and he saw, also, in the short grass of the cemetery nibbled by the sheep, the gravestones on which this sinister inscription was so often repeated: "Lost at sea." "Lost at sea." "Lost at sea."
The enormous turbot was of savory and delicate taste, and the shrimp sauce with which it was served proved that the chef of the comte had followed a course in cooking at the Cafe Anglais and profited by it. For our refined civilization reaches even this point. One takes degrees in culinary science. There are doctors in roasts and bachelors in sauces. All of the guests eat as if they appreciated, and with delicate gestures, but without showing special favor for exceptional dishes, through good form and because they were habituated to exquisite food.
* * * * *
The Dreamer himself had no appetite. He was still in thought with the Bretons, with the sons of the sea, who had caught, perhaps, this magnificent turbot. He remembered the day that followed the tempest—that morning, rainy and gray—when, walking by the heavy, leaden sea, he had found a body at his feet and recognized it as that of an old sailor, the father of a family, who had been lost at sea three days before—mournful jetsam, stranded in the wrack and foam, so heart-rending to see, with the gray hair of the drowned full of sand and shells!
A shudder passed over his heart.
But the lackeys had already removed the plates; every trace of the giant fish had disappeared, and while they were serving another course, the diners, elegant triflers, had taken up their chat again. Hunger being already somewhat appeased, they were more animated, they spoke with more abandon—light laughs ran round. Oh, charming and gracious company!
* * * * *
Then the Dreamer, the silent guest, was seized with an infinite sadness; for all the work and distress that were required to create this comfort and well-being came surging on his imagination.
That these men of the world might wear light dress-coats in mid-December, that these women might expose their arms and their shoulders, the temperature of the room was that of a spring morning. And who furnished the coal? The poor devils of the black country, the subterranean workmen who lived in hellish mines. How white and fresh is the complexion of that young woman against her corsage of pink satin! But who had woven that satin? The human spider of Lyons, the weaver, always at his trade in the leprous houses of the Croix Rousse. She wears in her tiny ears two beautiful pearls. What brilliancy! what opaline transparence! Almost perfect spheres! The pearl which Cleopatra dissolved in vinegar and swallowed, and which was worth ten thousand sesterces, was not more pure. But does she know, that young woman, that in far-off Ceylon, on the pearl-oyster banks of Arripo and Condatchy, the Indians of the Indian Company plunge heroically down in twelve fathoms of water, one foot in the heavy stone weight which drags them down to the bottom, a knife in the left hand for defence against the shark?
* * * * *
But what of that? One is lovely and coquettish. The air of the dining-hall is warm and perfumed. There one can dine gaily, adorned and half nude, flirting with one's neighbors. What has one to do, I ask you, with a dark workman, who digs fifty feet under the ground, with a weaver sitting with stiffened joints before the loom, with a savage who emerges from the sea and sometimes reddens it with his blood? Why should one think of things so sad, so ugly? What an absurdity!
Meanwhile the Dreamer pursued his train of thought.
An instant ago, without taking thought, mechanically he crumbled on the cloth a bit of the gilded bread which was placed near his napkin. As a viand, a mere bit of fancy, insignificant in such a repast, it made him think of the naif phrase of the great lady concerning the starving wretches—"Let them eat cake." Nevertheless, this little cake is bread all the same—bread made of flour, which in turn is made of wheat. Great heaven! yes, it is bread, simply bread, like the loaf of the peasant, like the bran-roll of the soldier; and that it might be here, on the table of the rich, required the patient labor of many poor.
The peasant labored, sowed, reaped. He pushed his plough or led his harrow across the fertile field, under the cold needles of the autumn rain; he started from sleep, full of terror for his crop, when it thundered by night; he trembled, seeing the passage of great violet clouds charged with hail; he went forth, dissatisfied and gloomy, to the heavy work and exhausting labor of harvest.
And when the old miller, twisted by rheumatism which he has caught in the river fogs, has sent the flour to Paris, the market-porters with the great white hats have carried the crushing sacks on their broad backs, and last night, even, in the baker's cellar the workmen toiled until morning.
Verily, yes! It has cost all these efforts, all these pains—the bit of bread carelessly broken by the white hands of these patricians.
And now the incorrigible Dreamer was possessed by these things. The delicacies of the repast only recalled to him the suffering of humanity. Presently, when the butler poured for him a glass of Chambertin, did he not remember that certain glass-blowers became consumptive through blowing bottles?
Let it pass—it is absurd. He well knows that so the world is made. An economist would have laughed in his face. Would he become a Socialist, perhaps? There will always be rich and poor, as there will always be well-formed men and hunchbacks.
Besides, the fortunates before him were not unjustly so. These were not vulgar favorites of the Gilded Calf—parvenus gross and conceited. The nobleman who presides at the table bears with honor and dignity a name associated with all the glories of France; the general with the gray mustache is a hero, and charged at Rezonville with the intrepidity of a Murat; the painter, the poet, have faithfully served Art and Beauty; the chemist, a self-made man who began life as a shop-boy in a drug-store, and to whom the learned world listens to-day as to an oracle, is simply a man of genius; these high-born dames are generous and good, and they will often dip their fair hands courageously in the depth of misfortune. Why should not these members of the elite have exceptional enjoyment?
The Dreamer said to himself that he had been unjust. These were old sophisms—good, at the best, for the clubs of the faubourgs, which had been awakened in his memory, and by which he had been duped. Is it possible? He was ashamed of himself.
But the dinner neared its end; and while the lackeys refilled for the last time the champagne-glasses, the table grew silent—the guests felt the apathy of digestion. The Dreamer looked at them, one after the other, and all the faces had satiated, blase expressions which disturbed and disquieted him. A sentiment, obscure, inexplicable, but so bitter! protested even from the depth of his soul against that repast; and when they rose at last from the table, he repeated softly and stubbornly to himself:
"Yes; they are within their rights. But do they know, do they understand, that their luxury is made from many miseries? Do they think of it sometimes? Do they think of it as often as they should? Do they think of it?"
Saint Medard, the old church of the Rue Mouffetard, once well known as the scene of the Convulsionnaires, is a very poor parish. The "Faubourg Marceau," as they call it there, has not much religion, and the vestry-board must have hard work to make both ends meet. On Sundays, at the hours of service, there are but few there, and they are for the most part women: some twenty of the folk of the quarter and some servants in their round caps. As for the men, there are not at the most more than three or four—old men in peasant jackets, who kneel awkwardly on the stone floor, near a pillar, their caps under their arms, rolling a great chaplet of beads between their fingers, moving their lips, and raising their eyes towards the arched roof, with an air as if they had given the stained-glass windows. On week days, nobody. On Thursdays, in the winter, the aisles resounded for an instant with the clang of wooden shoes, when the students of the catechism came and went. Sometimes a poor woman, leading one or two children and carrying a baby in her arms, came to burn a little candle on the stand at the chapel of the Virgin, or perhaps one heard by the baptismal font the wailing of a new-born babe; or, more often, the funeral of some poor wretch: a deal box, covered with a black cloth and resting on two trestles, hastily blessed by the priest, before a little group of women, the men being free-thinkers, and waiting the conclusion of the ceremony in the drinking-shop across the way, where they played bagatelle for drinks.
Therefore, the old Abbe Faber, one of the vicars of the parish, is sure that twice out of three times he will find no penitent before his confessional, and has only to hear, for the most part of the time, the uninteresting confession of some good women. But he is conscientious, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, at seven o'clock precisely, he betakes himself regularly to the chapel of St. John, only to make a short prayer and return should there be nobody there.
One day last winter, struggling against a heavy wind with his open umbrella, the Abbe Faber toiled painfully up the Rue Mouffetard, on the way to his parish, and, almost certain that his toil was useless, he regretted to himself the warm fire he had just quitted in his little room in the Rue D'homond, and the folio Bollandiste which he had left lying on the table, with his eye-glasses on its open pages. But it was Saturday night, the day when certain old widows, who earned their scant income in the neighboring boarding-houses, sometimes sought absolution for the morrow's communion. The honest priest could not, therefore, excuse himself from entering his oak box and opening, with the punctuality of a cashier, that wicket where the devotees, for whom the confessional is a spiritual savings-bank, make a weekly deposit of their venial sins.
The Abbe Faber was the more sorry to go out, because that particular Saturday was pay-day, and on such occasions the Rue Mouffetard swarmed with people, and a people not well disposed toward his cloth. However good a man one may be, it is far from agreeable to be forced to lower the eyes to avoid malevolent looks, and to stop the ears against insolent words heard in passing. There was a certain drinking-shop which the abbe particularly dreaded—a shop brilliant with gas and exhaling an odor of alcohol through its open doors, through which one could see a perspective of barrels labelled: "Absinthe," "Bitter," "Madere," "Vermouth," etc. Here, leaning against the bar, were always a band of loafers in long blouses and high hats, who saluted the poor abbe, walking quickly along the pavement, with ribald jests.
However, on this night the streets were deserted on account of the bad weather, and the abbe reached his church without interruption. He dipped his finger in the holy water, crossed himself, made a brief reverence before the grand altar, and went towards his confessional. At least he had not come for nothing. A penitent was waiting.
A male penitent! a rare and exceptional thing at Saint Medard. But, distinguishing by the red light of the lamp hanging from the roof of the chapel the short white jacket and the heavy nailed shoes of the kneeling man, the Abbe Faber believed him to be some workman who had kept his rustic faith and his early habits of religious observance. Without doubt the confession that he was about to hear would be as stupid as that of the cook of the Rue Monge, who, after having accused himself of petty thefts, exclaimed loudly against a single word of restitution. The priest even smiled to himself as he remembered the formal confession of one of the inhabitants of the faubourg, who came to ask for a billet of confession that he might marry. "I have neither killed or robbed. Ask me about the rest." And so the vicar entered very tranquilly into his confessional, and, after having taken a copious pinch of snuff, opened without emotion the little curtain of green serge which closed the wicket.
"Monsieur le cure," stammered a rough voice, which was making an effort to speak low.
"I am not a cure, my friend. Say your confiteor, and call me father."
The man, whose face the abbe could not see among the shadows, stumbled through the prayer, which he seemed to have great difficulty in recalling, and he began again in a hoarse whisper:
"Monsieur le cure—no—my father—excuse me if I do not speak properly, but I have not been to confession for twenty-five years—no, not since I quitted the country—you know how it is—a man in Paris, and yet I have not been worse than other people, and I have said to myself, 'God must be a good sort of fellow.' But to-day what I have on my conscience is too heavy to carry alone, and you must hear me, monsieur le cure: I have killed a man!"
The abbe half rose from his seat. A murderer! There was no longer any question of his mind wandering from the duties of his office, of half annoyance at the garrulity of the old women, to whom he listened with a half attentive ear, and whom he absolved in all confidence. A murderer! That head which was so near his had conceived and planned such a crime! Those hands, crossed on the confessional, were perhaps still stained with blood! In his trouble, perhaps not unmixed with a certain amount of fear, the Abbe Faber could only speak mechanically.
"Confess yourself, my son. The mercy of God is infinite."
"Listen to my whole story," said the man, with a voice trembling with profound grief. "I am a workingman, and I came to Paris more than twenty years ago with a fellow-countryman, a companion from childhood. We robbed birds'-nests, and we learned to read in school together—almost a brother, sir. He was called Philip; I am called Jack, myself. He was a fine big fellow; I have always been heavy and ill-formed. There was never a better workman than he—while I am only a 'botcher'—and so generous and good-natured, wearing his heart on his sleeve. I was proud to be his friend, to walk by his side—proud when he clapped me on the back and called me a clumsy fellow. I loved him because I admired him, in fact. Once here, what an opportunity! We worked together for the same employer, but he left me alone in the evenings more than half the time. He preferred to amuse himself with his companions—natural enough, at his age. He loved pleasure, he was free, he had no responsibilities. All this was impossible for me. I was forced to save my money, for at that time I had an invalid mother in the country, and I sent her all my savings. As for me, I stayed at the fruiterer's where I lodged, and who kept a lodging-house for masons. Philip did not dine there; he used to go somewhere else, and, to tell the truth, the dinners were not particularly good. But the fruiterer was a widow, far from happy, and I saw that my payments were of help to her; and then, to be frank, I fell at once in love with her daughter. Poor Catherine! You will soon know, monsieur le cure, what came from it all. I was there three years without daring to tell her of the love I had for her. I have told you that I am not a good workman, and the little that I gained hardly sufficed for me and for the support of my mother. There could be no thought of marrying. At last my good mother left this world for a better. I was somewhat less pressed for money, and I began to save, and when it seemed to me that I had enough to begin with, I told Catherine of my love. She said nothing at first—neither yes nor no. Well, I knew that no one would fall upon my neck; I am not attractive. In the mean time Catherine consulted her mother, who thought well of me as a steady workman, as a good fellow, and the marriage was decided upon. Ah, I had some happy weeks! I saw that Catherine barely accepted me, and that she was by no means carried away with me; but as she had a good heart, I hoped that she would love me some day—I would make her love me. As a matter of course, I told everything to Philip, whom I saw every day at the work-yard, and as Catherine and I were engaged, I wanted him to meet her. Perhaps you have already guessed the end, monsieur le cure. Philip was handsome, lively, good-tempered—everything that I was not; and without attempting it, innocently enough, he fascinated Catherine. Ah, Catherine had a frank and honest heart, and as soon as she recognized what had happened she at once told me everything. Ah, I can never forget that moment! It was Catherine's birthday, and in honor of it I had bought a little cross of gold which I had arranged in a box with cotton. We were alone in the back shop, and she had just brought me my soup. I took my box from my pocket, and, opening it, I showed her the jewel. Then she burst into tears.
"'Forgive me, Jack,' she said, 'and keep that for her whom you will marry. As for me, I can never become your wife. I love another—I love Philip.'
"Believe me, I had trouble enough then, monsieur le cure; my soul was full of it. But what could I do, since I loved them both? Only what I believed was for their happiness—let them marry. And as Philip had always lived freely, and spent as he made, I lent him my hoard to buy the furniture.
"Then they were married, and for a while all went well. They had a little boy, and I stood sponsor for him and named him Camille, in remembrance of his mother. It was a little after the birth of the baby that Philip began to go wrong. I was mistaken in him—he was not made for marriage; he was too fond of frivolity and pleasure. You live in a poor quarter, monsieur le cure, and you must know the sad story by heart—the workman who glides little by little from idleness into drunkenness, who is off on a spree for two or three days, who does not bring home his week's wages, and who only returns to his home, broken up by his spree, to make scenes and to beat his wife. In less than two years Philip became one of these wretches. At first I tried to reform him, and sometimes, ashamed of himself, he would attempt to do better; but that did not last long. Then my remonstrances only irritated him; and when I went to his house, and he saw me look sadly around the chamber made bare by the pawn-shop, at poor Catherine, thin and pale with grief, he became furious. One day he had the audacity to be jealous of me on account of his wife, who was as pure as the blessed Virgin, reminding me that I was once her lover and accusing me of still being so, with slanders and infamies that I should be ashamed to repeat. We almost flew at each other's throats. I saw what I must do. I would see Catherine and my godson no more; and as for Philip, I would only meet him when by chance we worked on the same job.
"Only, you will understand, I loved Catherine and little Camille too well to lose sight of them entirely. On Saturday evenings, when I knew that Philip was drinking up his wages with his comrades, I used to prowl about the quarter, and chat with the boy when I found him; and if it was too miserable at home, he did not return with empty hands, you know. I believe that the wretched Philip knew that I was helping his wife, and that he closed his eyes to the fact, finding it rather convenient. I will hurry on, for the story is too miserable. Some years have passed; Philip plunging deeper in vice; but Catherine, whom I had helped all I could, has educated her son, who is now a fellow of twenty years, good and courageous like herself. He is not a workman; he is educated; he has learned to draw at the evening schools, and he is now with an architect, where he gets good wages. And though the house is saddened by the presence of the drunkard, things go fairly well, for Camille is a great comfort to his mother; and for a year or two, when I see Catherine—she is so changed, the poor woman!—leaning on the arm of her manly son, it warms my heart.
"But yesterday evening, coming out of my cook-shop, I met Camille; and shaking hands with him—oh, he is not ashamed of me, and he doesn't blush at a blouse covered with plaster—I saw that something was the matter.
"'Let's see—what's the matter now?'
"'I drew the lot yesterday,' he replied, 'and I drew the number ten—a number that sends you to die with fever in the colonies with the marines. That will, at all events, send me there for five years, to leave mother alone, without resources, with father, who has never been drinking so much, who has never been so wicked. And it will kill her—it will kill her! How cursed it is to be poor!'
"Oh, what a horrible night I passed! Think of it, monsieur le cure, that poor woman's labor for twenty years destroyed in a minute by an unhappy chance; because a child, rummaging in a sack, has drawn an unfortunate number! In the morning I was broken as by age when I went to the house we were building on the Boulevard Arago. Of what use is sorrow? we must work all the same. So I mounted the scaffolding. We had already built the house to the fourth story, and I began to place my mortar. Suddenly I felt some one strike me on the shoulder. It was Philip. He only worked now when the inclination seized him, and he was apparently putting in a day's work to get something to drink; but the builder, having a forfeit to pay if the building was not finished by a certain date, accepted the first-comers.
"I had not seen Philip for a long time, and it was with difficulty that I recognized him. Burned and fevered by brandy, his beard gray, his hands trembling, he was more than an old man—he was a ruin.
"'Well,' I said to him, 'the boy has drawn a bad number.'
"'What of it?' he replied, with an angry look. 'Are you going to worry me about that, too, like Catherine and Camille? The boy will do as others have done: he will serve his country. I know what worries them, both my wife and son. If I were dead he would not have to go. But, so much the worse for them, I am still solid at my post, and Camille is not the son of a widow.'
"The son of a widow! Ah, monsieur le cure, why did he use that unhappy phrase? The evil thought came to me at once, and it never quitted me all the morning that I worked at the wretch's side. I imagined all that she was about to suffer—poor Catherine!—when she no longer had her son to care for and protect her, and she must be alone with the miserable drunkard, now completely brutalized, ugly, and capable of anything. A neighboring clock struck eleven, and the workmen all descended to lunch. We remained until the last, Philip and I, but in stepping on the ladder to descend, he turned to me with a leer, and said, in his hoarse, dissipated voice:
"'You see, steady as a sailor; Camille is not nearly the son of a widow.'
"The blood mounted to my head. I was beside myself. I seized with both hands the rounds of the ladder to which Philip clung shouting 'Help!' and with a single effort I toppled it over.
"He was instantly killed—by an accident, they said—and now Camille is the son of a widow and need not go.
"That is what I have done, monsieur le cure, and what I want to tell to you and to the good God. I repent, I ask pardon, of course; but I must not see Catherine in her black dress, happy on the arm of her son, or I could not regret my crime. To prevent that I will emigrate—I will lose myself in America. As to my penance—see, monsieur le cure, here is the little cross of gold that Catherine refused when she told me that she was in love with Philip. I have always kept it, in memory of the only happy days that I ever knew in my life. Take it and sell it. Give the money to the poor."
* * * * *
Jack rose absolved by the Abbe Faber.
One thing is certain, and that is that the priest never sold the little cross of gold. After having paid its price into the Treasury of the Church, he hung the jewel, as an ex-voto, on the altar of the chapel of the Virgin, where he often went to pray for the poor mason.
THE SABOTS OF LITTLE WOLFF.
Once upon a time—it was so long ago that the whole world has forgotten the date—in a city in the north of Europe—whose name is so difficult to pronounce that nobody remembers it—once upon a time there was a little boy of seven, named Wolff, an orphan in charge of an old aunt who was hard and avaricious, who only embraced him on New-Year's Day, and who breathed a sigh of regret every time that she gave him a porringer of soup.
But the poor little chap was naturally so good that he loved the old woman just the same, although she frightened him very much, and he could never see without trembling the great wart, ornamented with four gray hairs, which she had on the end of her nose.
As the aunt of Wolff was known through all the village to have a house and an old stocking full of gold, she did not dare send her nephew to the school for the poor. But she so schemed to obtain a reduction of the price with the school-master whose school little Wolff attended, that the bad teacher, vexed at having a scholar so badly dressed and who paid so poorly, punished him very often and unjustly with the backboard and fool's cap, and even stirred his fellow-pupils against him, all sons of well-to-do men, who made the orphan their scapegoat.
The poor little fellow was therefore as miserable as the stones in the street, and hid himself in out-of-the-way corners to cry; when Christmas came.
The night before Christmas the school-master was to take all of his pupils to the midnight mass, and bring them back to their homes.
Now, as the winter was very severe that year, and as for several days a great quantity of snow had fallen, the scholars came to the rendezvous warmly wrapped and bundled up, with fur caps pulled down over their ears, double and triple jackets, knitted gloves and mittens, and good thick nailed boots with strong soles. Only little Wolff came shivering in the clothes that he wore week-days and Sundays, and with nothing on his feet but coarse Strasbourg socks and heavy sabots, or wooden shoes.
His thoughtless comrades made a thousand jests over his sad looks and his peasant's dress. But the orphan was so occupied in blowing on his fingers, and suffered so much from his chilblains, that he took no notice of them; and the troop of boys, with the master at their head, started for the church.
It was fine in the church, which was resplendent with wax-candles; and the scholars, excited by the pleasant warmth, profited by the noise of the organ and the singing to talk to each other in a low voice. They boasted of the fine suppers that were waiting for them at home. The son of the burgomaster had seen, before he went out, a monstrous goose that the truffles marked with black spots like a leopard. At the house of the first citizen there was a little fir-tree in a wooden box, from whose branches hung oranges, sweetmeats, and toys. And the cook of the first citizen had pinned behind her back the two strings of her cap, as she only did on her days of inspiration when she was sure of succeeding with her famous sugar-candy. And then the scholars spoke, too, of what the Christ-child would bring to them, of what he would put in their shoes, which they would, of course, be very careful to leave in the chimney before going to bed. And the eyes of those little chaps, lively as a parcel of mice, sparkled in advance with the joy of seeing in their imagination pink paper bags of burnt almonds, lead soldiers drawn up in battalions in their boxes, menageries smelling of varnished wood, and magnificent jumping-jacks covered with purple and bells.
Little Wolff knew very well by experience that his old miserly aunt would send him supperless to bed. But in the simplicity of his soul, and knowing that he had been all the year as good and industrious as possible, he hoped that the Christ-child would not forget him, and he, too, looked eagerly forward by-and-by to putting his wooden shoes in the ashes of the fireplace.
The midnight mass concluded, the faithful went away, anxious for supper, and the band of scholars, walking two by two after their teacher, left the church.
Now, under the porch, sitting on a stone seat under a Gothic niche, a child was sleeping—a child covered by a robe of white linen, and whose feet were bare, notwithstanding the cold. He was not a beggar, for his robe was new and nice, and near him on the ground were seen, lying in a cloth, a square, a hatchet, a pair of compasses, and the other tools of a carpenter's apprentice. Under the light of the stars, his face, with its closed eyes, bore an expression of divine sweetness, and his long locks of golden hair seemed like an aureole about his head. But the child's feet, blue in the cold of that December night, were sad to see.
The scholars, so well clothed and shod for the winter, passed heedlessly before the unknown child. One of them, even, the son of one of the principal men in the village, looked at the waif with an expression in which could be seen all the scorn of the rich for the poor, the well-fed for the hungry.
But little Wolff, coming the last out of the church, stopped, full of compassion, before the beautiful sleeping infant.
"Alas!" said the orphan to himself, "it is too bad: this poor little one going barefoot in such bad weather. But what is worse than all, he has not to-night even a boot or a wooden shoe to leave before him while he sleeps, so that the Christ-child could put something there to comfort him in his misery."
And, carried away by the goodness of his heart, little Wolff took off the wooden shoe from his right foot, and laid it in front of the sleeping child; and then, as best he could, limping along on his poor blistered foot and dragging his sock through the snow, he went back to his aunt's.
"Look at the worthless fellow!" cried his aunt, full of anger at his return without one of his shoes. "What have you done with your wooden shoe, little wretch?"
Little Wolff did not know how to deceive, and although he was shaking with terror at seeing the gray hairs bristle up on the nose of the angry woman, he tried to stammer out some account of his adventure.
But the old woman burst into a frightful peal of laughter.
"Ah, monsieur takes off his shoes for beggars! Ah, monsieur gives away his wooden shoe to a barefoot! That is something new for example! Ah, well, since that is so, I am going to put the wooden shoe which you have left in the chimney, and I promise you the Christ-child will leave there to-night something to whip you with in the morning. And you shall pass the day to-morrow on dry bread and water. We will see if next time you give away your shoes to the first vagabond that comes."
And the wicked woman, after having given the poor boy a couple of slaps, made him climb up to his bed in the attic. Grieved to the heart, the child went to bed in the dark, and soon went to sleep on his pillow steeped with tears.
But on the morrow morning, when the old woman, awakened by the cold and shaken by her cough, went down stairs—oh, wonderful sight!—she saw the great chimney full of beautiful playthings, and sacks of magnificent candies, and all sorts of good things; and before all these splendid things the right shoe, that her nephew had given to the little waif, stood by the side of the left shoe, that she herself had put there that very night, and where she meant to put a birch-rod.
And as little Wolff, running down to learn the meaning of his aunt's exclamation, stood in artless ecstasy before all these splendid Christmas presents, suddenly there were loud cries of laughter out-of-doors. The old woman and the little boy went out to know what it all meant, and saw all the neighbors gathered around the public fountain. What had happened? Oh, something very amusing and very extraordinary. The children of all the rich people of the village, those whose parents had wished to surprise them by the most beautiful gifts, had found only rods in their shoes.
Then the orphan and the old woman, thinking of all the beautiful things that were in their chimney, were full of amazement. But presently they saw the cure coming with wonder in his face. Above the seat, placed near the door of the church, at the same place where in the evening a child, clad in a white robe, and with feet bare notwithstanding the cold, had rested his sleeping head, the priest had just seen a circle of gold incrusted with precious stones.
And they all crossed themselves devoutly, comprehending that the beautiful sleeping child, near whom were the carpenter's tools, was Jesus of Nazareth in person, become for an hour such as he was when he worked in his parents' house, and they bowed themselves before that miracle that the good God had seen fit to work, to reward the faith and charity of a child.
THE FOSTER SISTER.
Sitting in her office at the end of the shop, shut off from it by glass windows, pretty Madame Bayard, in a black gown and with her hair in sober braids, was writing steadily in an enormous ledger with leather corners, while her husband, following his morning custom, stopped at the door to scold his workmen, who had not finished unloading a dray from the Northern Railway, which blocked the road, and carried to the druggist of the Rue Vieille du Temple a dozen casks of glucose.
"I have bad news to tell you," said Madame Bayard, sticking her pen in a cup of leaden shot, when her husband had entered the glass cage. "Poor Voisin is dead."
"The nurse of Leon? Poor woman! And her little daughter?"
"That is the saddest part, my dear. A relative of poor Voisin writes me that they are too poor to take charge of the child, and she must be sent to an orphan asylum."
"Oh, those peasants!"
The druggist was silent for a moment, rubbing his thick blond beard; then suddenly looking at his wife with kindly eyes:
"Say, Mimi, the child is the foster sister of our Leon. Suppose we give her a home?"
"I should think so," was the quiet reply of the pretty wife.
"Well done," cried Bayard, as, caring little if he were seen by his clerks and store-boys, he leaned towards his wife and kissed her forehead, "well done! you're a good woman, Mimi. We will take little Norine with us, and bring her up with Leon. That won't ruin us, eh? Besides, I have just made a good stroke in quinine. We will go after the child Sunday to Argenteuil, sha'n't we?"
"We will make that our Sunday excursion."
Good people, these Bayards; an honor to the drug trade. Their marriage had united two houses which had been for a long time rivals; for Bayard was the son of The Silver Pill, founded by his great-great-grandfather in 1756 in the Rue Vieille du Temple, and had espoused the daughter of the Offering to Esculapius, of the Rue des Lombards, an establishment which dated from the First Empire, as was shown by the sign, copied from the celebrated painting of Guerin. Honest people, excellent people—and there are many more, like them, whatever folks may say, among the older Paris houses, conservators of old traditions; going to the second tier, on Sunday, at the opera comique, and ignorant of false weights and measures. It was the cure of Blancs-Manteaux who had managed that marriage with his confrere of Saint-Merry. The first had ministered at the death-bed of the elder Bayard, and was dismayed to see a young man of twenty-five all alone in a house so gloomy as that of The Silver Pill, justly famed for its ipecac; and the second was anxious to establish Mademoiselle Simonin, to whom he had administered her first communion, and whose father was one of his most important parishioners, old Simonin of the Offering to Esculapius, celebrated for its camphor. The negotiations were successful; camphor and ipecac, two excellent specialties, were united in the holy bonds of matrimony, there was a dinner and ball at the Grand Vefour, and now for ten years, tranquilly working every day, summer and winter, in her glass cage, Madame Bayard, with her pale brown face and her plaited hair, had smitten the hearts of all the young clerks of the quarter Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie.
And yet for a long time there had been a disappointment in that happy household, a cloud in that bright sky. An heir was wanted, and it was five years before little Leon came into the world. One can imagine with what joy he was received. Now one day they might write over the door of The Silver Pill these words, "Bayard & Son." But as the infant arrived at the time of a boom in isinglass, Madame Bayard, whose presence in the shop was indispensable, could not think of nursing him. She even gave up the idea of taking a nurse in the house, fearing for the new-born the close air of that corner of old Paris, and contented herself with taking every Sunday with her husband a little excursion to Argenteuil to see her son with his nurse Voisin, who was overwhelmed with coffee, sugar, soap, and other dainties. At the end of eighteen months Mother Voisin brought back the baby in a magnificent state, and for two years a child's nurse, chosen with great care, had taken the child out for his airings in the square of the Tour Saint-Jacques, and had exhibited for the admiration of her companion-nurses, the pouting lips, the high color, and the dimpled back of the future druggist.
And now these good Bayards, learning of the death of Mother Voisin, could not bear the thought that the little girl who had been nourished at the same breast with their boy should be abandoned to public charity, so they went to Argenteuil for Norine.
Poor little one! Since the fifteen days that her mother slept in the cemetery she had been taken charge of by a cousin who kept a billiard-saloon; and though she was not yet five years old, she had been put to work washing the beer-glasses.
The Bayards found her charming, with great eyes as blue as the summer sun, and her thick blond tresses escaping from her ugly black bonnet. Leon, who had been brought with his nurse, embraced his foster sister; and the cousin, who that very morning had boxed the orphan's ears for negligence in sweeping out the hall, appeared before the Parisians to be as much touched as if parting with Norine was a heart-breaking affair.
The order for an ample breakfast restored his serenity.
It was a beautiful Sunday in June, and they were in the country—"an occasion which should be improved," declared Bayard, "by taking the air; shouldn't it, Mimi?"
And while pretty Madame Bayard, having pinned up her skirts, went out with the children and the nurse to pick flowers in a neighboring field, the druggist, who was less ambitious, treated the saloon-keeping cousin to a glass of vermouth, seated at the billiard-table, which was covered with dead flies. They breakfasted under a vineless arbor, which the hot noonday sun riddled with its rays. But what of that? They were pleased and contented all the same. Madame Bayard had hung her hat on the lattice; and her husband, wearing a bargeman's straw helmet, which had been lent to him by the saloon-keeper, cut up the duck in the best of spirits. Little Leon and Norine, who had immediately become the best of friends, emptied the salad-bowl of its cream-cheese. Then they all romped in the grass, went boating on the stream, and, intoxicated with the fresh country air, the indwellers of the city, coming from the close Paris streets, pushed to its fullest extreme this idyl in the fashion of Paul de Kock.
For, yes; there was a moment, as they came back in the boat, in a delicious sunset, when tinted clouds floated in a glowing sky, when Madame Bayard—the serious Madame Bayard—whose frown turned to stone the shop-boys of the druggist, sang the air called "To the Shores of France," to the rhythmic fall of the oars, plied by her husband in his shirt-sleeves. They dined in the arbor where they had breakfasted, but the second repast was a shade less happy. The night-moths, which dashed in to burn themselves at the candles, frightened the children; and Madame Bayard was so tired that she could not even guess the simple rebus on her dessert napkin.
Never mind; it has been a good day; and on their return in a first-class carriage—this was not a time for petty economies—Madame Bayard, with her head on her husband's shoulder, watching Leon and Norine, limp with sleep on the lap of the nurse, half asleep herself, murmured to her husband, in a happy voice:
"See, Ferdinand; we have done well to take the little one. She will be a comrade for Leon. They will be like brother and sister."
In fact, they did thus grow up together.
They were most kind-hearted people, these Bayards. They made no difference between the humble orphan and their own dear boy, who would one day in the firm of "Bayard & Son" work monopolies in rhubarb and corners in castor-oil; indeed, they loved as their own child little Norine, who was as intelligent as she was charming, as fair in mind as she was delicate in body.
Now the nurse took the two children to the square of the Tour Saint-Jacques when the weather was pleasant, and in the evening at the family table there were two high-chairs side by side for the boy and his foster sister.
In addition to which, the Bayards were not slow to perceive the good influence which Norine had upon Leon. Quicker, of a more nervous temperament, more easy of comprehension than the lymphatic boy, whose wits were "wool-gathering," according to his father, she seemed to communicate to him something of her own spirit and fire. "She jogs him up," said Madame Bayard.
And since he had lived with his foster sister Leon had perceptibly grown brighter and quicker. When they were of an age to learn to read, Leon, who made but little progress, and stumbled along with one of those alphabets with pictures where the letter E is by the side of an elephant and the letter Z by the side of a zouave, was the despair of his mother. But as soon as Norine, who in a very short time learned to spell and read, came to the aid of the little man, he immediately made rapid progress.
So things went on, until both children were sent to a school for little children kept by a gentlewoman named Merlin, in the Rue de l'Homme Arme. According to the fallacious circular which Mademoiselle Merlin sent to the folks of the quarter, there was a garden—that is to say, four broomsticks in a sandy court; and it was there, the first day during recess, that the innocent Leon burst into cries of terror when he saw the school-mistress, forced by some accident to interrupt her knitting, stick one of her great knitting-needles in her capacious head-dress. A "senior," who was more familiar with her head-dress, explained the phenomenon in vain to Leon and Norine, for the boy, none the less, preserved in the presence of Mademoiselle Merlin an impression of superstitious terror.
She would have paralyzed his infant faculties, and have prevented him in the class from following the pointer of Mademoiselle Merlin, as she sniffled through her sing-song lecture before the map of Europe, or the table of weights and measures, if Norine had not been there to reassure and encourage him. She was at once the first scholar in the school, and became for slow and lazy Leon a sort of sisterly counsellor and affectionate under-teacher. Towards four o'clock Madame Bayard had the two children, whom the nurse had brought back to the store, placed near her in the glass office; and Norine, opening a copy-book or a book, explained to Leon the uncomprehended task or made him repeat the lesson that he had not understood.
"The good God has rewarded us," Madame Bayard sometimes whispered to her husband in the evening. "That little Norine is a treasure, and so good, so industrious! Only to-day I listened to her helping Leon again. I believe that without her he would never have learned the multiplication-table."
"I believe you, Mimi," responded Bayard. "I have observed it. Things go on marvellously well with us, and we will portion her and marry her, shall we not, when she comes to a suitable age?"
Age comes—ah, how fast age comes! And behold! now in the glass cage of the shop there is a slender and beautiful young girl sitting at the side of Madame Bayard, who already shows some silver threads in her black bands. It is Norine now who writes in the great ledger with leather corners, while her adopted mother plies her needles on some embroidery.
Seven o'clock! Time that they came home, and the shop must be closed against the November wind which is twisting and turning the flames of the gas-jets.
Look at them now: Bayard grown stout, portly, and covered with trinkets, while Leon, who has just entered the first class in pharmacy, has actually become a fine-looking young fellow.
"Good-day, Mimi; good-day, Norine! Let us go right in to dinner. I will tell you all the news while we are eating the soup," said the druggist.
They went up to the dining-room, and while Madame Bayard, sitting under a barometer in the shape of a lyre, served the thick soup, Bayard, tucking his napkin in his vest and regarding his wife with a knowing look, said,
"You know it is all right."
"The Forgets agree?"
"Exactly; and Leon will espouse Hortense in six months, and our daughter-in-law will come and live with us. Yes, Norine, you have known nothing about it, because one does not speak of such things before young girls; but for more than a year Leon has been in love with Hortense Forget, and has been teasing us to arrange the marriage—not such a difficult thing after all, since it only required a word. Leon is a good catch. The only difficulty was that we wanted to keep our son with us. At last it is all arranged, and your foster brother will have the wife he wants. I hope you are pleased."
"Very much pleased," replied Norine.
Oh, deaf and blind! They never heard the voice of Norine when she replied to them—that low, pathetic tone, which is the echo of a broken heart. Nor did they see how pale she became, and that her head, suddenly grown heavy, swayed from side to side as if Norine were about to faint. They saw nothing, comprehended nothing; and for a long time they had seen and comprehended nothing. Yet they dearly loved this Norine, who was the grace, the charm of the house. They dreamed, these good people, of marrying her one of these days to their head-clerk, a widower of prudent and economical habits, and "all that is necessary to make a woman happy." Leon loved her, too, with all his heart; but as a dear, good sister. Nor did the great spoiled boy suspect that Norine loved him, and suffered from her love—aye, to death itself. No; even that evening, when they had unconsciously inflicted upon her the worst of torture, they never suspected the truth; and they would sleep peacefully, indulging in beautiful dreams of the future, at the very hour when, shut in her chamber—the chamber separated by such a thin partition from that of her adopted parents—Norine would fall upon her bed, fainting with grief, and bury her head in her pillow to stifle her sobs.
The ball is finished; and in the empty rooms the candles, burned to the very end, have broken some of the sconces and the fragments lie upon the waxed floors.
The Bayards have insisted that the wedding should be celebrated at their house; but by the aid of many flowers (it is midsummer) they have given a holiday appearance to the apartment in the Rue Vieille du Temple where they have triumphantly installed their daughter-in-law.
At last it is finished; the young couple have retired to their nuptial chamber, where Madame Bayard has gone for a moment with them. Coming out she found Norine still in the little salon, helping the servants extinguish the lights. She embraced the young girl tenderly, saying,
"Go to bed, my child. You must be very tired." And she added, with a smile, "Well, it will be your turn before long."
And Norine was at last alone in the room, now so gloomy, and lighted only by her single candle resting on the piano.
Heavens! how heavy was the odor of the flowers, and how her head ached.
Ah, that horrible day! What torment she had endured since the moment when she knelt, impressed into service as a lady's-maid, with pins in her lips, at the feet of her rival Hortense, and arranged her white satin train, to the hour when Leon, holding his wife by the waist, drew her towards her, Norine, and the lips of the young couple met almost upon her very forehead!
Oh, the odor of the flowers is insupportable, and she is so giddy and faint.
She fell upon a sofa, unnerved by a frightful headache, her head thrown back, clasping her forehead with her two hands, but with open eyes staring always at the door—the door of that chamber which was shut upon the young couple, closed upon the mystery which was breaking her heart. A sort of delirium overwhelmed her. How the heavy perfume of those flowers overpowered her, and how a thousand memories assailed her at once. She was a child again in the saloon at Argenteuil, and the kind Parisians came and caressed her. She was embraced by the dear little boy wearing a white plume in his hat. Rapid pictures flashed upon her soul. The pension of the Rue de l'Homme Arme, and Mademoiselle Merlin, with her knitting-needle stuck in her head-dress, pointed with the end of her stick to the table of weights and measures. The drug-store on Sundays, all dark, the shutters closed, and she playing catch with Leon among the barrels and sacks.
Good God! was she losing her head? She could not help humming that waltz, during which Leon once held her in his arms. She was stifled. Oh, the flowers! She must go out, or at least open a window. But she could not rise; her strength had deserted her. Could she die thus? Two iron fingers seemed to be pressing her temples. Oh, the roses and the orange-flowers—those orange-flowers above all!
At last she made a great effort. She rose upright and pale—pale as her white robe. But suddenly her strength left her, and falling first upon her knees, and then with her head and shoulders upon the wood floor, poor Norine lay stretched at the threshold of the bridal chamber, killed by disappointed love and by the flowers.
MY FRIEND MEURTRIER.
I was at one time employed in a government office. Every day from ten o'clock until four I became a voluntary prisoner in a depressing office, adorned with yellow pasteboard boxes, and filled with the musty odor of old papers. There I lunched on Italian cheese and apples which I roasted at the grate. I read the morning papers, even to the advertisements; I rhymed verses, and I attended to the affairs of state to the extent of drawing at the end of each month a salary which barely kept me from starving.
I recall to-day one of my companions in captivity at that epoch.
He was called Achille Meurtrier, and certainly his fierce look and tall form seemed to warrant that name. He was a great big fellow, about forty years old, not too much chest or shoulders, but who increased his apparent size by wearing felt hats with wide brims, ample and short coats, large plaid trousers, and neckties of a sanguine red under rolling collars. He wore a full beard, long hair, and was very proud of his hairy hands.
The chief boast of Meurtrier, otherwise the best and most amiable of companions, was to trifle with an athletic constitution, to possess the biceps of a prize-fighter, and, as he said himself, not to know his own strength. He never made a gesture, even in the exercise of his peaceful profession, that did not have for its object to convince the spectators of his prodigious vigor. Did he have to take from its case a half-empty pasteboard box, he advanced towards the shelf with the heavy step of a street porter, grasped the box solidly with a tight hand, and carried it with a stiff arm as far as the next table, with a shrugging of shoulders and frowning of brow worthy of Milo of Crotona. He carried this manner so far that he never used less apparent effort even to lift the lightest objects, and one day when he held in his right hand a basket of old papers I saw him extend his left arm horizontally as if to make a counterpoise to the tremendous weight.
I ought to say that this robust creature inspired me with a profound respect, for I was then, even more than to-day, physically weak and delicate, and in consequence filled with admiration for that energetic physique which I lacked.
The conversations of Meurtrier were not of a nature to diminish the admiration with which he inspired me.
In the summer, above all, on Monday mornings, when we had returned to the office after our Sunday holiday, he had an inexhaustible fund of stories concerning his adventures and feats of strength. After taking off his felt-hat, his coat, and his vest, and wiping the perspiration from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, to indicate his sanguine and ardent temperament, he would thrust his hands deep in the pockets of his trousers, and, standing near me in an attitude of perpendicular solidity, begin a monologue something as follows:
"What a Sunday, my boy! Positively no fatigue can lay me up. Think of it: yesterday was the regatta at Joinville-le-Pont; at six o'clock in the morning the rendezvous at Bercy, at The Mariners, for the crew of the Marsouin; the sun is up; a glass of white wine and we jump into our rowing suits, seize an oar and give way—one-two, one-two—as far as Joinville; then overboard for a swim before breakfast—strip to swimming drawers, a jump overboard, and look out for squalls. After my bath I have the appetite of a tiger. Good! I seize the boat by one hand and I call out, 'Charpentier, pass me a small ham.' Three motions in one time and I have finished it to the bone. 'Charpentier, pass me the brandy-flask.' Three swallows and it is empty."
So the description would continue—dazzling, Homeric.
"It is the hour for the regatta—noon—the sun just overhead. The boats draw up in line on the sparkling river, before a tent gaudy with streamers. On the bank the mayor with his staff of office, gendarmes in yellow shoulder-belts, and a swarm of summer dresses, open parasols, and straw hats. Bang! the signal-gun is fired. The Marsouin shoots ahead of all her competitors and easily gains the prize—and no fatigue! We go around Marne, and, returning, dine at Creteil. How cool the evening in the dusky arbor, where pipes glow through the darkness, and moths singe their wings in the flame of the omelette au kirsch. At the end of a dessert, served on decorated plates, we hear from the ball-room the call of the cornet—'Take places for the quadrille!' But already a rival crew, beaten that same morning, has monopolized the prettiest girls. A fight!—teeth broken, eyes blackened, ugly falls, and whacks below the belt; in a word, a poem of physical enthusiasm, of noisy hilarity, of animal spirits, without speaking of the return at midnight, through crowded stations, with girls whom we lift into the cars, friends separated calling from one end of the train to the other, and fellows playing a horn upon the roof."
And the evenings of my astonishing companion were not less full of adventure than his Sundays. Collar-and-elbow wrestling in a tent, under the red light of torches, between him—simple amateur—and Du Bois, the iron man, in person; rat-chases near the mouths of sewers, with dogs as fierce as tigers; sanguinary encounters at night, in the most dangerous quarters, with ruffians and nose-eaters, were the most insignificant episodes of his nightly career. Nor do I dare relate other adventures of a more intimate character, from which, as the writers of an earlier day would say in noble style, a pen the least timorous would recoil with horror.
However painful it may be to confess an unworthy sentiment, I am obliged to say that my admiration for Meurtrier was not unmixed with regret and bitterness. Perhaps there was mingled with it something of envy. But the recitation of his most marvellous exploits had never awakened in me the least feeling of incredulity, and Achille Meurtrier easily took his place in my mind among heroes and demigods, between Roland and Pirithous.
At this time I was a great wanderer in the suburbs, and I occupied the leisure of my summer evenings by solitary walks in those distant regions, as unknown to the Parisians of the boulevards as the country of the Caribbees, and of whose sombre charm I endeavored later to tell in verse.
One evening in July, hot and dusty, at the hour when the first gas-lights were beginning to twinkle in the misty twilight, I was walking slowly from Vaugirard through one of those long and depressing suburban streets lined on each side by houses of unequal height, whose porters and porteresses, in shirt sleeves and in calico, sat on the steps and imagined that they were taking the fresh air. Hardly any one passing in the whole street; perhaps, from end to end, a mason, white with plaster, a sergeant-de-ville, a child carrying home a four-pound loaf larger than himself, or a young girl hurrying on in hat and cloak, with a leather bag on her arm; and every quarter-hour the half-empty omnibus coming back to its place of departure with the heavy trot of its tired horses.
Stumbling now and then on the pavement—for asphalt is an unknown luxury in these places—I went down the street, tasting all the delights of a stroller. Sometimes I stopped before a vacant lot to watch, through the broken boards of the fence, the fading glories of the setting sun and the black silhouettes of the chimneys thrown against a greenish sky. Sometimes, through an open window on the ground-floor, I caught sight of an interior, picturesque and familiar: here a jolly-looking laundress holding her flat-iron to her cheek; there workmen sitting at tables and smoking in the basement of a cabaret, while an old Bohemian with long gray hair, standing before them, sang something about "Liberty," accompanying himself on a guitar about the color of bouillon—the scenes of Chardin and Van Ostade.
Suddenly I stopped.
One of these personal pictures had caught my eye by its domestic and charming simplicity.
She looked so happy and peaceful in her quiet little room, the dear old lady in her black gown and widow's cap, leaning back in an easy-chair covered with green Utrecht velvet, and sitting quietly with her hands folded on her lap. Everything around her was so old and simple, and seemed to have been preserved, less through a wise economy than on account of hallowed memories, since the honey-moon with monsieur of the high complexion, in a frock-coat and flowered waistcoat, whose oval crayon ornamented the wall. By two lamps on the mantle-shelf every detail of the old-fashioned furniture could be distinguished, from the clock on a fish of artificial and painted marble to the old and antiquated piano, on which, without doubt, as a young girl, in leg-of-mutton sleeves and with hair dressed a la Grecque, she had played the airs of Romagnesi.
Certainly a loved and only daughter, remaining unmarried through her affection for her mother, piously watched over the last years of the widow. It was she, I was sure, who had so tenderly placed her dear mother; she who had put the ottoman under her feet, she who had put near her the inlaid table, and arranged on it the waiter and two cups. I expected already to see her coming in carrying the evening coffee—the sweet, calm girl, who should be dressed in mourning like the widow, and resemble her very much.
Absorbed by the contemplation of a scene so sympathetic, and by the pleasure of imagining that humble poem, I remained standing some steps from the open window, sure of not being noticed in the dusky street, when I saw a door open and there appeared—oh, how far he was from my thoughts at that moment—my friend Meurtrier himself, the formidable hero of tilts on the river and frays in unknown places.
A sudden doubt crossed me. I felt that I was on the point of discovering a mystery.
It was indeed he. His terrible hairy hand held a tiny silver coffee-pot, and he was followed by a poodle which greatly embarrassed his steps—a valiant and classic poodle, the poodle of blind clarionet-players, a poor beggar's poodle, a poodle clipped like a lion, with hairy ruffles on his four paws, and a white mustache like a general of the Gymnase.
"Mamma," said the giant, in a tone of ineffable tenderness, "here is your coffee. I am sure that you will find it nice to-night. The water was boiling well, and I poured it on drop by drop."
"Thank you," said the old lady, rolling her easy-chair to the table with an air; "thank you, my little Achille. Your dear father said many a time that there was not my equal at making coffee—he was so kind and indulgent, the dear, good man—but I begin to believe that you are even better than I."
At that moment, and while Meurtrier was pouring out the coffee with all the delicacy of a young girl, the poodle, excited no doubt by the uncovered sugar, placed his forepaws on the lap of his mistress.
"Down, Medor," she cried, with a benevolent indignation. "Did any one ever see such a troublesome animal? Look here, sir! you know very well that your master never fails to give you the last of his cup. By-the-way," added the widow, addressing her son, "you have taken the poor fellow out, have you not?"
"Certainly, mamma," he replied, in a tone that was almost infantile. "I have just been to the creamery for your morning milk, and I put the leash and collar on Medor and took him with me."
"And he has attended to all his little wants?"
"Don't be disturbed. He doesn't want anything."
Reassured on this point, important to canine hygiene, the good dame drank her coffee, between her son and her dog, who each regarded her with an inexpressible tenderness.
It was assuredly unnecessary to see or hear more. I had already descried what a peaceful family life—upright, pure, and devoted—my friend Meurtrier hid under his chimerical gasconades. But the spectacle with which chance had favored me was at once so droll and so touching that I could not resist the temptation to watch for some moments longer. That indiscretion sufficed to show me the whole truth.
Yes, this type of roisterers, who seemed to have stepped from one of the romances of Paul de Kock—this athlete, this despot of bar-rooms and public-houses—performed simply and courageously, in these lowly rooms in the suburbs, the sublime duties of a sister of charity. This intrepid oarsman had never made a longer voyage than to conduct his mother to mass or vespers every Sunday. This billiard expert knew only how to play bezique. This trainer of bull-dogs was the submissive slave of a poodle. This Mauvaise-Philibert was an Antigone.
The next morning, on arriving at the office, I asked Meurtrier how he had employed the previous evening, and he instantly improvised, without a moment's hesitation, an account of a sharp encounter on the boulevard at two in the morning, when he had knocked down with a single blow of his fist, having passed his thumb through the ring of his keys, a terrible street rough. I listened, smiling ironically, and thinking to confound him; but remembering how respectable a virtue is which is hidden even under an absurdity, I struck him amicably on the shoulder, and said, with conviction:
"Meurtrier, you are a hero!"