It was almost like going into a new world, and I breathed more freely the farther we travelled down into the interior. At Falaise we exchanged the train for a small omnibus, which bore the name "Noireau" conspicuously on its door. I had discovered that the little French I knew was not of much service, as I could in no way understand the rapid answers that were given to my questions. A woman came to us, at the door of a cafe, where the omnibus stopped in Falaise, and made a long and earnest harangue, of which I did not recognize one word. At length we started off on the last stage of our journey.
Where could we be going to? I began to ask myself the question anxiously after we had crept on, at a dog-trot, for what seemed an interminable time. We had passed through long avenues of trees, and across a series of wide, flat plains, and down gently-sloping roads into narrow valleys, and up the opposite ascents; and still the bells upon the horses' collars jingled sleepily, and their hoof-beats shambled along the roads. We were seldom in sight of any house, and we passed through very few villages. I felt as if we were going all the way to Marseilles.
"I'm so hungry!" said Minima, after a very long silence.
I too had been hungry for an hour or two past. We had breakfasted at mid-day at one of the stations, but we had had nothing to eat since, except a roll which Minima had brought away from breakfast, with wise prevision; but this had disappeared long ago.
"Try to go to sleep," I said; "lean against me. We must be there soon."
"Yes," she answered, "and it's such a splendid school! I'm going to stay there four years, you know, so it's foolish to mind being hungry now. 'Courage, Minima!' I must recollect that."
"Courage, Olivia!" I repeated to myself. "The farther you go, the more secure will be your hiding-place." The child nestled against me, and soon fell asleep. I went to sleep myself—an unquiet slumber, broken by terrifying dreams. Sometimes I was falling from the cliffs in Sark into the deep, transparent waters below, where the sharp rocks lay like swords. Then I was in the Gouliot Caves, with Martin Dobree at my side, and the tide was coming in too strongly for us; and beyond, in the opening through which we might have escaped, my husband's face looked in at us, with a hideous exultation upon it. I woke at last, shivering with cold and dread, for I had fancied that he had found me, and was carrying me away again to his old hateful haunts.
Our omnibus was jolting and rumbling down some steep and narrow streets lighted by oil-lamps swung across them. There were no lights in any of the houses, save a few in the upper windows, as though the inmates were all in bed, or going to bed. Only at the inn where we stopped was there any thing like life. A lamp, which hung over the archway leading to the yard and stables, lit up a group of people waiting for the arrival of the omnibus. I woke up Minima from her deep and heavy sleep.
"We are here at Noireau!" I said. "We have reached our home at last!"
The door was opened before the child was fairly awake. A small cluster of bystanders gathered round us as we alighted, and watched our luggage put down from the roof; while the driver ran on volubly, and with many gesticulations, addressed to the little crowd. He, the chamber-maid, the landlady, and all the rest, surrounded us as solemnly as if they were assisting at a funeral. There was not a symptom of amusement, but they all stared at us unflinchingly, as if a single wink of their eyelids would cause them to lose some extraordinary spectacle. If I had been a total eclipse of the sun, and they a group of enthusiastic astronomers bent upon observing every phenomenon, they could not have gazed more steadily. Minima was leaning against me, half asleep. A narrow vista of tall houses lay to the right and left, lost in impenetrable darkness. The strip of sky overhead was black with midnight.
"Noireau?" I asked, in a tone of interrogation.
"Oui, oui, madame," responded a chorus of voices.
"Carry me to the house of Monsieur Emile Perrier, the avocat," I said, speaking slowly and distinctly.
The words, simple as they were, seemed to awaken considerable excitement. The landlady threw up her hands, with an expression of astonishment, and the driver recommenced his harangue. Was it possible that I could have made a mistake in so short and easy a sentence? I said it over again to myself, and felt sure I was right. With renewed confidence I repeated it aloud, with a slight variation.
"I wish to go to the house of Monsieur Emile Perrier, the avocat," I said.
But while they still clustered round Minima and me, giving no sign of compliance with my request, two persons thrust themselves through the circle. The one was a man, in a threadbare brown greatcoat, with a large woollen comforter wound several times about his neck; and the other a woman, in an equally shabby dress, who spoke to me in broken English.
"Mees, I am Madame Perrier, and this my husband," she said; "come on. The letter was here only an hour ago; but all is ready. Come on; come on."
She put her hand through my arm, and took hold of Minima's hand, as if claiming both of us. A dead silence had fallen upon the little crowd, as if they were trying to catch the meaning of the English words. But as she pushed on, with us both in her hands, a titter for the first time ran from lip to lip. I glanced back, and saw Monsieur Perrier, the avocat, hurriedly putting our luggage on a wheelbarrow, and preparing to follow us with it along the dark streets.
I was too bewildered yet to feel any astonishment. We were in France, in a remote part of France, and I did not know what Frenchmen would or would not do. Madame Perrier, exhausted with her effort at speaking English, had ceased speaking to me, and contented herself with guiding us along the strange streets. We stopped at last opposite the large, handsome house, which stood in the front of the photograph I had seen in London. I could just recognize it in the darkness; and behind lay the garden and the second range of building. Not a glimmer of light shone in any of the windows.
"It is midnight nearly," said Madame Perrier, as we came to a stand-still and waited for her husband, the avocat.
Even when he came up with the luggage there seemed some difficulty in effecting an entrance. He passed through the garden-gate, and disappeared round the corner of the house, walking softly, as if careful not to disturb the household. How long the waiting seemed! For we were hungry, sleepy, and cold—strangers in a very strange land. I heard Minima sigh weariedly.
At last he reappeared round the corner, carrying a candle, which flickered in the wind. Not a word was spoken by him or his wife as the latter conducted us toward him. We were to enter by the back-door, that was evident. But I did not care what door we entered by, so that we might soon find rest and food. She led us into a dimly-lighted room, where I could just make out what appeared to be a carpenter's bench, with a heap of wood-shavings lying under it. But I was too weary to be certain about any thing.
"It is a leetle cabinet of work of my husband," said Madame Perrier; "our chamber is above, and the chamber for you and leetle mees is there also. But the school is not there. Will you go to bed? Will you sleep? Come on, mees."
"But we are very hungry," I remonstrated; "we have had nothing to eat since noon. We could not sleep without food."
"Bah! that is true," she said. "Well, come on. The food is at the school. Come on."
That must be the house at the back. We went down the broad gravel walk, with the pretty garden at the side of us, where a fountain was tinkling and splashing busily in the quiet night. But we passed the front of the house behind it without stopping, at the door. Madame led us through a cart-shed into a low, long, vaulted passage, with doors opening on each side; a black, villanous-looking place, with the feeble, flickering light of the candle throwing on to the damp walls a sinister gleam. Minima pressed very close to me, and I felt a strange quiver of apprehension: but the thought that there was no escape from it, and no help at hand, nerved me to follow quietly to the end.
CHAPTER THE EIGHTH.
AT SCHOOL IN FRANCE.
The end brought us out into a mean, poor street, narrow even where the best streets were narrow. A small house, the exterior of which I discovered afterward to be neglected and almost dilapidated, stood before us; and madame unlocked the door with a key from her pocket. We were conducted into a small kitchen, where a fire had been burning lately, though it was now out, and only a little warmth lingered about the stove. Minima was set upon a chair opposite to it, with her feet in the oven, and I was invited to do the same. I assented mechanically, and looked furtively about me, while madame was busy in cutting a huge hunch or two of black bread, and spreading upon them a thin scraping of rancid butter.
There was an oil-lamp here, burning with a clear, bright blaze. Madame's face was illuminated by it. It was a coarse, sullen face, with an expression of low cunning about it. There was not a trace of refinement or culture about her, not even the proverbial taste of a Frenchwoman in dress. The kitchen was a picture of squalid dirt and neglect; the walls and ceiling black with smoke, and the floor so crusted over with unswept refuse and litter that I thought it was not quarried. The few cooking-utensils were scattered about in disorder. The stove before which we sat was rusty. Could I be dreaming of this filthy dwelling and this slovenly woman? No; it was all too real for me to doubt their existence for an instant.
She was pouring out some cold tea into two little cups, when Monsieur Perrier made his appearance, his face begrimed and his shaggy hair uncombed. I had been used to the sight of rough men in Adelaide, on our sheep-farm, but I had never seen one more boorish. He stood in the doorway, rubbing his hands, and gazing at us unflinchingly with the hard stare of a Norman peasant, while he spoke in rapid, uncouth tones to his wife. I turned away my head, and shut my eyes to this unwelcome sight.
"Eat, mees," said the woman, bringing us our food. "There is tea. We give our pupils and instructresses tea for supper at six o'clock: after that there is no more to eat."
I took a mouthful of the food, but I could hardly swallow it, exhausted as I was from hunger. The bread was sour and the butter rancid; the tea tasted of garlic. Minima ate hers ravenously, without uttering a word. The child had not spoken since we entered these new scenes: her careworn face was puckered, and her sharp eyes were glancing about her more openly than mine. As soon as she had finished her hunch of black bread, I signified to Madame Perrier that we were ready to go to our bedroom.
We had the same vaulted passage and cart-shed to traverse on our way back to the other house. There we were ushered into a room containing only two beds and our two boxes. I helped Minima to undress, and tucked her up in bed, trying not to see the thin little face and sharp eyes which wanted to meet mine, and look into them. She put her arm round my neck, and drew down my head to whisper cautiously into my ear.
"They're cheats," she said, earnestly, "dreadful cheats. This isn't a splendid place at all. Oh! whatever shall I do? Shall I have to stay here four years?"
"Hush, Minima!" I answered. "Perhaps it is better than we think now. We are tired. To-morrow we shall see the place better, and it may be splendid after all. Kiss me, and go to sleep."
But it was too much for me, far too much. The long, long journey; the hunger the total destruction of all my hopes; the dreary prospect that stretched before me. I laid my aching head on my pillow, and cried myself to sleep like a child.
I was awakened, while it was yet quite dark, by the sound of a carpenter's tool in the room below me. Almost immediately a loud knock came at my door, and the harsh voice of madame called to us.
"Get up, mees, get up, and come on," she said; "you make your toilet at the school. Come on, quick!"
Minima was more dexterous than I in dressing herself in the dark; but we were not long in getting ready. The air was raw and foggy when we turned out-of-doors, and it was so dark still that we could scarcely discern the outline of the walls and houses. But madame was waiting to conduct us once more to the other house, and as she did so she volunteered an explanation of their somewhat singular arrangement of dwelling in two houses. The school, she informed me, was registered in the name of her head governess, not in her own; and as the laws of France prohibited any man dwelling under the same roof with a school of girls, except the husband of the proprietor, they were compelled to rent two dwellings.
"How many pupils have you, madame?" I inquired.
"We have six, mees," she replied. "They are here; see them."
We had reached the house, and she opened the door of a long, low room. There was an open hearth, with a few logs of green wood upon it, but they were not kindled. A table ran almost the whole length of the room, with forms on each side. A high chair or two stood about. All was comfortless, dreary, and squalid.
But the girls who were sitting on the hard benches by the table were still more squalid and dreary-looking. Their faces were pinched, and just now blue with cold, and their hands were swollen and red with chilblains. They had a cowed and frightened expression, and peeped askance at us as we went in behind madame. Minima pressed closely to me, and clasped my hand tightly in her little fingers. We were both entering upon the routine of a new life, and the first introduction to it was disheartening.
"Three are English," said madame, "and three are French. The English are frileuses; they are always sheever, sheever, sheever. Behold, how they have fingers red and big! Bah! it is disgusting."
She rapped one of the swollen hands which lay upon the table, and the girl dropped it out of sight upon her lap, with a frightened glance at the woman. Minima's fingers tightened upon mine. The head governess, a Frenchwoman of about thirty, with a number of little black papillotes circling about her head, was now introduced to me; and an animated conversation followed between her and madame.
"You comprehend the French?" asked the latter, turning with a suspicious look to me.
"No," I answered; "I know very little of it yet."
"Good!" she replied. "We will eat breakfast."
"But I have not made my toilet," I objected; "there was neither washingstand nor dressing-table in my room."
"Bah!" she said, scornfully; "there are no gentlemans here. No person will see you. You make your toilet before the promenade; not at this moment."
It was evident that uncomplaining submission was expected, and no remonstrance would be of avail. Breakfast was being brought in by one of the pupils. It consisted of a teacupful of coffee at the bottom of a big basin, which was placed before each of us, a large tablespoon to feed ourselves with; and a heaped plateful of hunches of bread, similar to those I had turned from last night. But I could fast no longer. I sat down with the rest at the long table, and ate my food with a sinking and sorrowful heart.
Minima drank her scanty allowance of coffee thirstily, and then asked, in a timid voice, if she could have a little more. Madame's eyes glared upon her, and her voice snapped out an answer; while the English girls looked frightened, and drew in their bony shoulders, as if such temerity made them shudder. As soon as madame was gone, the child flung her arms around me, and hid her face in my bosom.
"Oh!" she cried, "don't you leave me; don't forsake me! I have to stay here four years, and it will kill me. I shall die if you go away and leave me."
I soothed her as best I could, without promising to remain in this trap. Would it not be possible in some way to release her as well as myself? I sat thinking through the long cold morning, with the monotonous hum of lessons in my ears. There was nothing for me to do, and I found that I could not return to the house where I had slept, and where my luggage was, until night came again. I sat all the morning in the chilly room, with Minima on the floor at my feet, clinging to me for protection and warmth, such as I could give.
But what could I do either for her or myself? My store of money was almost all gone, for our joint expenses had cost more than I had anticipated, and I could very well see that I must not expect Madame Perrier to refund Minima's fare. There was perhaps enough left to carry me back to England, and just land me on its shores. But what then? Where was I to go then? Penniless, friendless; without character, without a name—but an assumed one—what was to become of me? I began to wonder vaguely whether I should be forced to make myself known to my husband; whether fate would not drive me back to him. No; that should never be. I would face and endure any hardship rather than return to my former life. A hundred times better this squalid, wretched, foreign school, than the degradation of heart and soul I had suffered with him.
I could do no more for Minima than for myself, for I dared not even write to Mrs. Wilkinson, who was either an accomplice or a dupe of these Perriers. My letter might fall into the hands of Richard Foster, or the woman living with him, and so they would track me out, and I should have no means of escape. I dared not run that risk. The only thing I could do for her was to stay with her, and as far as possible shield her from the privations and distress that threatened us both. I was safe here; no one was likely to come across me, in this remote place, who could by any chance know me. I had at least a roof over my head; I had food to eat. Elsewhere I was not sure of either. There seemed to be no other choice given me than to remain in the trap.
"We must make the best of it, Minima," I whispered to the child, through the hum of lessons. Her shrewd little face brightened with a smile that smoothed all the wrinkles out of it.
"That's what father said!" she cried; "he said, 'Courage, Minima. God will take care of my little daughter.' God has sent you to take care of me. Suppose I'd come all the way alone, and found it such a horrid place!"
CHAPTER THE NINTH.
A FRENCH AVOCAT.
December came in with intense severity. Icicles a yard long hung to the eaves, and the snow lay unmelted for days together on the roofs. More often than not we were without wood for our fire, and when we had it, it was green and unseasoned, and only smouldered away with a smoke that stung and irritated our eyes. Our insufficient and unwholesome food supplied us with no inward warmth. Coal in that remote district cost too much for any but the wealthiest people, Now and then I caught a glimpse of a blazing fire in the houses I had to pass, to get to our chamber over Monsieur Perrier's workshop; and in an evening the dainty, savory smell of dinner, cooking in the kitchen adjoining, sometimes filled the frosty air. Both sight and scent were tantalizing, and my dreams at night were generally of pleasant food and warm firesides.
At times the pangs of hunger grew too strong for us both, and forced me to spend a little of the money I was nursing so carefully. As soon as I could make myself understood, I went out occasionally after dark, to buy bread-and-milk.
Noireau was a curious town, the streets everywhere steep and narrow, and the houses, pell-mell, rich and poor, large and small huddled together without order. Almost opposite the handsome dwelling, the photograph of which had misled me, stood a little house where I could buy rich, creamy milk. It was sold by a Mademoiselle Rosalie, an old maid, whom I generally found solitarily reading a Journal pour Tous with her feet upon a chaufferette, and no light save that of her little oil-lamp. She had never sat by a fire in her life, she told me, burning her face and spoiling her teint. Her dwelling consisted of a single room, with a shed opening out of it, where she kept her milkpans. She was the only person I spoke to out of Madame Perrier's own household.
"Is Monsieur Perrier an avocat?" I asked her one day, as soon as I could understand what she might say in reply. There was very little doubt in my mind as to what her answer would be.
"An avocat, mademoiselle?" She repeated, shrugging her shoulders; "who has told you that? Are the avocats in England like Emile? He is my relation, and you see me! He is a bailiff; do you understand? If I go in debt, he comes and takes possession of my goods, you see. It is very simple. One need not be very learned to do that. Emile Perrier an avocat? Bah!"
"What is an avocat?" I inquired.
"An avocat is even higher than a notaire," she answered; "he gives counsel; he pleads before the judges. It is a high role. One must be very learned, very eloquent, to be an avocat."
"I suppose he must be a gentleman," I remarked.
"A gentleman, mademoiselle?" she said; "I do not understand you. There is equality in France. We are all messieurs and mesdames. There is monsieur the bailiff, and monsieur the duke; and there is madame the washer-woman, and madame the duchess. We are all gentlemen, all ladies. It is not the same in your country."
"Not at all," I answered.
"Did my little Emile tell you he was an avocat, mademoiselle?" she asked.
"No," I said. I was on my guard, even if I had known French well enough to explain the deception practised upon me. She looked as if she did not believe me, but smiled and nodded with imperturbable politeness, as I carried off my jug of milk.
So Monsieur Perrier was nothing higher than a bailiff, and with very little to do even in that line of the law! He took off his tasselled cap to me as I passed his workshop, and went up-stairs with the milk to Minima, who was already gone to bed for the sake of warmth. The discovery did not affect me with surprise. If he had been an avocat, my astonishment at French barristers would have been extreme.
Yet there was something galling in the idea of being under the roof of a man and woman of that class, in some sort in their power and under their control. The low, vulgar cunning of their nature appeared more clearly to me. There was no chance of success in any contest with them, for they were too boorish to be reached by any weapon I could use. All I could do was to keep as far aloof from them as possible.
This was not difficult to do, for neither of them interfered with the affairs of the school, and we saw them only at meal times, when they watched every mouthful we ate with keen eyes.
I found that I had no duties to perform as a teacher, for none of the three French pupils desired to learn English. English girls, who had been decoyed into the same snare by the same false photograph and prospectus which had entrapped me, were all of families too poor to be able to forfeit the money which had been paid in advance for their French education. Two of them, however, completed their term at Christmas, and returned home weak and ill; the third was to leave in the spring. I did not hear that any more pupils were expected, and why Madame Perrier should have engaged any English teacher became a problem to me. The premium I had paid was too small to cover my expenses for a year, though we were living at so scanty a cost. It was not long before I understood my engagement better.
I studied the language diligently. I felt myself among foreigners and foes, and I was helpless till I could comprehend what they were saying in my presence. Having no other occupation, I made rapid progress, though Mademoiselle Morel, the head governess, gave me very little assistance.
She was a dull, heavy, yet crafty-looking woman, who had taken a first-class diploma as a teacher; yet, as far as I could judge, knew very much less than most English governesses who are uncertificated. So far from there being any professors attending the school, I could not discover that there were any in the town. It was a cotton-manufacturing town, with a population of six thousand, most of them hand-loom weavers. There were three or four small factories, built on the banks of the river, where the hands were at work from six in the morning till ten at night, Sundays included. There was not much intellectual life here; a professor would have little chance of making a living.
At first Minima, and I took long walks together into the country surrounding Noireau, a beautiful country, even in November. Once out of the vapor lying in the valley, at the bottom of which the town was built, the atmosphere showed itself as exquisitely clear, with no smoke in it, except the fine blue smoke of wood-fire. We could distinguish the shapes of trees standing out against the horizon, miles and miles away; while between us and it lay slopes of brown woodland and green pastures, with long rows of slim poplars, the yellow leaves clinging to them still, and winding round them, like garlands on a May-pole. But this pleasure was a costly one, for it awoke pangs of hunger, which I was compelled to appease by drawing upon my rapidly-emptying purse. We learned that it was necessary to stay in-doors, and cultivate a small appetite.
"Am I getting very thin?" asked Minima one day, as she held up her transparent hand against the light; "how thin do you think I could get without dying, Aunt Nelly?"
"Oh! a great deal thinner, my darling," I said, kissing the little fingers, My heart was bound up in the child. I had been so lonely without her, that now her constant companionship, her half-womanly, half-babyish prattle seemed necessary to me. There was no longer any question in my mind as to whether I could leave her. I only wondered what I should do when my year was run out, and only one of those four of hers, for which these wretches had received the payment.
"Some people can get very thin indeed," she went on, with her shrewd, quaint smile; "I've heard the boys at school talk about it. One of them had seen a living skeleton, that was all skin and bone, and no flesh. I shouldn't like to be a living skeleton, and be made a show of. Do you think I ever shall be, if I stay here four years? Perhaps they'd take me about as a show."
"Why, you are talking nonsense, Minima," I answered.
"Am I?" she said, wistfully, as if the idea really troubled her; "I dream of it often and often. I can feel all my bones now, and count them, when I'm in bed. Some of them are getting very sharp. The boys used to say they'd get as sharp as knives sometimes, and cut through the skin. But father said it was only boys' talk."
"Your father was right," I answered; "you must think of what he said, not the boys' talk."
"But," she continued, "the boys said sometimes people get so hungry they bite pieces out of their arms. I don't think I could ever be so hungry as that; do you?"
"Minima," I said, starting up, "let us run to Mademoiselle Rosalie's for some bread-and-milk."
"You're afraid of me beginning to eat myself!" she cried, with a little laugh. But she was the first to reach Mademoiselle Rosalie's door; and I watched her devouring her bread-and-milk with the eagerness of a ravenous appetite.
Very fast melted away my money. I could not see the child pining with hunger, though every sou I spent made our return to England more difficult. Madame Perrier put no hinderance in my way, for the more food we purchased ourselves, the less we ate at her table. The bitter cold and the coarse food told upon Minima's delicate little frame. Yet what could I do? I dared not write to Mrs. Wilkinson, and I very much doubted if there would be any benefit to be hoped for if I ran the risk. Minima did not know the address of any one of the persons who had subscribed for her education and board; to her they were only the fathers and mothers of the boys of whom she talked so much. She was as friendless as I was in the world.
So far away were Dr. Martin Dobree and Tardif, that I dared not count them as friends who could have any power to help me. Better for Dr. Martin Dobree if he could altogether forget me, and return to his cousin Julia. Perhaps he had done so already.
How long was this loneliness, this friendlessness to be my lot? I was so young yet, that my life seemed endless as it stretched before me. Poor, desolate, hunted, I shrank from life as an evil thing, and longed impatiently to be rid of it. Yet how could I escape even from its present phase?
CHAPTER THE TENTH.
A MISFORTUNE WITHOUT PARALLEL.
My escape was nearer than I expected, and was forced upon me in a manner I could never have foreseen.
Toward the middle of February, Mademoiselle Morel appeared often in tears. Madame Perrier's coarse face was always overcast, and monsieur seemed gloomy, too gloomy to retain even French politeness of manner toward any of us. The household was under a cloud, but I could not discover why. What little discipline and work there had been in the school was quite at an end. Every one was left to do as she chose.
Early one morning, long before daybreak, I was startled out of my sleep by a hurried knock at my door. I cried out, "Who is there?" and a voice, indistinct with sobbing, replied, "C'est moi."
The "moi" proved to be Mademoiselle Morel. I opened the door for her, and she appeared in her bonnet and walking-dress, carrying a lamp in her hand, which lit up her weary and tear-stained face. She took a seat at the foot of my bed, and buried her face in her handkerchief.
"Mademoiselle," she said, "here is a grand misfortune, a misfortune without parallel. Monsieur and madame are gone."
"Gone!" I repeated; "where are they gone?"
"I do not know, mademoiselle," she answered; "I know nothing at all. They are gone away. The poor good people were in debt, and their creditors are as hard as stone. They wished to take every sou, and they talked of throwing monsieur into prison, you understand. That is intolerable. They are gone, and I have no means to carry on the establishment. The school is finished."
"But I am to stay here twelve months," I cried, in dismay, "and Minima was to stay four years. The money has been paid to them for it. What is to become of us?"
"I cannot say, mademoiselle; I am desolated myself," she replied, with a fresh burst of tears; "all is finished here. If you have not money enough to take you back to England, you must write to your friends. I'm going to return to Bordeaux. I detest Normandy; it is so cold and triste."
"But what is to be done with the other pupils?" I inquired, still lost in amazement, and too bewildered to realize my own position.
"The English pupil goes with me to Paris," she answered; "she has her friends there. The French demoiselles are not far from their own homes, and they return to-day by the omnibus to Granville. It is a misfortune without parallel, mademoiselle—a misfortune quite without parallel."
By the way she repeated this phrase, it was evidently a great consolation to her—as phrases seem to be to all classes of the French people. But both the tone of her voice, and the expression of her face, impressed upon me the conviction that it was not her only consolation. In answer to my urgent questions, she informed me that, without doubt, the goods left in the two houses would be seized, as soon as the flight of madame and monsieur became known.
To crown all, she was going to start immediately by the omnibus to Falaise, and on by rail to Paris, not waiting for the storm to burst. She kissed me on both cheeks, bade me adieu, and was gone, leaving me in utter darkness, before I fairly comprehended the rapid French in which she conveyed her intention. I groped to the window, and saw the glimmering of her lamp, as she turned into the cart-shed, on her way to the other house. Before I could dress and follow her, she would be gone.
I had seen my last of Monsieur and Madame Perrier, and of Mademoiselle Morel.
I had time to recover from my consternation, and to see my position clearly, before the dawn came. Leagues of land, and leagues of sea, lay between me and England. Ten shillings was all that was left of my money. Besides this, I had Minima dependent upon me, for it was impossible to abandon her to the charity of foreigners. I had not the means of sending her back to Mrs. Wilkinson, and I rejected the mere thought of doing so, partly because I dared not run the risk, and partly because I could not harden myself against the appeals the child would make against such a destiny. But then what was to become of us?
I dressed myself as soon as the first faint light came, and hurried to the other house. The key was in the lock, as mademoiselle had left it. A fire was burning in the school-room, and the fragments of a meal were scattered about the table. The pupils up-stairs were preparing for their own departure, and were chattering too volubly to one another for me to catch the meaning of their words. They seemed to know very well how to manage their own affairs, and they informed me their places were taken in the omnibus, and a porter was hired to fetch their luggage.
All I had to do was to see for myself and Minima.
I carried our breakfast back with me, when I returned to Minima. Her wan and womanly face was turned toward the window, and the light made it look more pinched and worn than usual. She sat up in bed to eat her scanty breakfast—the last meal we should have in this shelter of ours—and I wrapped a shawl about her thin shoulders.
"I wish I'd been born a boy," she said, plaintively; "they can get their own living sooner than girls, and better. How soon do you think I could get my own living? I could be a little nurse-maid now, you know; and I'd eat very little."
"What makes you talk about getting your living?" I asked.
"How pale you look!" she answered, nodding her little head; "why, I heard something of what mademoiselle said. They've all run away, and left us to do what we can. We shall both have to get our own living. I've been thinking how nice it would be if you could get a place as housemaid and me nurse, in the same house. Wouldn't that be first-rate? You're very poor, aren't you, Aunt Nelly?"
"Very poor!" I repeated, hiding my face on her pillow, while hot tears forced themselves through my eyelids.
"Oh! this will never do," said the childish voice; "we mustn't cry, you know. The boys always said it was like a baby to cry; and father used to say, 'Courage, Minima!' Perhaps, when all our money is gone, we shall find a great big purse full of gold; or else a beautiful French prince will see you, and fall in love with you, and take us both to his palace, and make you his princess; and we shall all grow up till we die."
I laughed at the oddity of this childish climax in spite of the heaviness of my heart and the springing of my tears. Minima's fresh young fancies were too droll to resist, especially in combination with her shrewd, old-womanish knowledge of many things of which I was ignorant.
"I should know exactly what to do if we were in London," she resumed; "we could take our things to the pawnbroker's, and get lots of money for them. That is what poor people do. Mrs. Foster has pawned all her rings and brooches. It is quite easy to do, you know; but perhaps there are no pawn-shops in France."
This incidental mention of Mrs. Foster had sent my thoughts and fears fluttering toward a deep, unutterable dread, which was lurking under all my other cares. Should I be driven by the mere stress of utter poverty to return to my husband? There must be something wrong in a law which bound me captive, body and soul, to a man whose very name had become a terror to me, and to escape whom I was willing to face any difficulties, any distresses. But all my knowledge of the law came from his lips, and he would gladly deceive me. It might be that I was suffering all these troubles quite needlessly. Across the darkness of my prospects flushed a thought that seemed like an angel of light. Why should I not try to make my way to Mrs. Dobree, Martin's mother, to whom I could tell my whole history, and on whose friendship and protection I could rely implicitly? She would learn for me how far the law would protect me. By this time Kate Daltrey would have quitted the Channel Islands, satisfied that I had eluded her pursuit. The route to the Channel Islands was neither long nor difficult, for at Granville a vessel sailed directly for Jersey, and we were not more than thirty miles from Granville. It was a distance that we could almost walk. If Mrs. Dobree could not help me, Tardif would take Minima into his house for a time, and the child could not have a happier home. I could count upon my good Tardif doing that. These plans were taking shape in my brain, when I heard a voice calling softly under the window. I opened the casement, and, leaning out, saw the welcome face of Rosalie, the milk-woman.
"Will you permit me to come in?" she inquired.
"Yes, yes, come in," I said, eagerly.
She entered, and saluted us both with much ceremony. Her clumsy wooden sabots clattered over the bare boards, and the wings of her high Norman cap flapped against her sallow cheeks. No figure could have impressed upon me more forcibly the unwelcome fact that I was in great straits in a foreign land. I regarded her with a vague kind of fear.
"So my little Emile and his spouse are gone, mademoiselle," she said, in a mysterious whisper. "I have been saying to myself, 'What will my little English lady do?' That is why I am here. Behold me."
"I do not know what to do," I answered.
"If mademoiselle is not difficult," she said, "she and the little one could rest with me for a day or two. My bed is clean and soft—bah! ten times softer than these paillasses. I would ask only a franc a night for it. That is much less than at the hotels, where they charge for light and attendance. Mademoiselle could write to her friends, if she has not enough money to carry her and the little one back to their own country."
"I have no friends," I said, despondently.
"No friends! no relations!" she exclaimed.
"Not one," I replied.
"But that is terrible!" she said. "Has mademoiselle plenty of money?"
"Only twelve francs," I answered.
Rosalie's face grew long and grave. This was an abyss of misfortune she had not dreamed of. She looked at us both critically, and did not open her lips again for a minute or two.
"Is the little one your relation?" she inquired, after this pause.
"No," I replied; "I did not know her till I brought her here. She does not know of any friends or relations belonging to her."
"There is the convent for her," she said; "the good sisters would take a little girl like her, and make a true Christian of her. She might become a saint some day—"
"No, no," I interrupted, hastily; "I could not leave her in a convent."
Mademoiselle Rosalie was very much offended; her sallow face flushed a dull red, and the wings of her cap flapped as if she were about to take flight, and leave me in my difficulties. She had kindliness of feeling, but it was not proof against my poverty and my covert slight of her religion. I caught her hand in mine to prevent her going.
"Let us come to your house for to-day," I entreated: "to-morrow we will go. I have money enough to pay you."
I was only too glad to get a shelter for Minima and myself for another night. She explained to me the French system of borrowing money upon articles left in pledge and offered to accompany me to the mont de piete with those things that we could spare. But, upon packing up our few possessions, I remembered that only a few days before Madame Perrier had borrowed from me my seal-skin mantle, the only valuable thing I had remaining. I had lent it reluctantly, and in spite of myself; and it had never been returned. Minima's wardrobe was still poorer than my own. All the money we could raise was less than two napoleons; and with this we had to make our way to Granville, and thence to Guernsey. We could not travel luxuriously.
The next morning we left Noireau on foot.
CHAPTER THE ELEVENTH.
LOST AT NIGHTFALL.
It was a soft spring morning, with an exhilarating, jubilant lightness in the air, such as only comes in the very early spring, or at sunrise on a dewy summer-day. A few gray clouds lay low along the horizon, but overhead the sky was a deep, rich blue, with fine, filmy streaks of white vapor floating slowly across it. The branches of the trees were still bare, showing the blue through their delicate net-work; but the ends of the twigs were thickening, and the leaf-buds swelling under the rind. The shoots of the hazel-bushes wore a purple bloom, with yellow catkins already hanging in tassels about them. The white buds of the chestnut-trees shone with silvery lustre. In the orchards, though the tangled boughs of the apple-trees were still thickly covered with gray lichens, small specks of green among the gray gave a promise of early blossom. Thrushes were singing from every thorn-bush; and the larks, lost in the blue heights above us, flung down their triumphant carols, careless whether our ears caught them or no. A long, straight road stretched before us, and seemed to end upon the skyline in the far distance. Below us, when we looked back, lay the valley and the town; and all around us a vast sweep of country, rising up to the low floor of clouds from which the bright dome of the sky was springing.
We strolled on as if we were walking on air, and could feel no fatigue; Minima with a flush upon her pale cheeks, and chattering incessantly about the boys, whose memories were her constant companions. I too had my companions; faces and voices were about me, which no eye or ear but mine could perceive.
During the night, while my brain had been between waking and sleeping, I had been busy with the new idea that had taken possession of it. The more I pondered upon the subject, the more impossible it appeared that the laws of any Christian country should doom me, and deliver me up against my will, to a bondage more degrading and more cruel than slavery itself. If every man, I had said to myself, were proved to be good and chivalrous, of high and steadfast honor, it might be possible to place another soul, more frail and less wise, into his charge unchallenged. But the law is made for evil men, not for good. I began to believe it incredible that it should subject me to the tyranny of a husband who made my home a hell, and gave me no companionship but that of the vicious. Should the law make me forfeit all else, it would at least recognize my right to myself. Once free from the necessity of hiding, I did not fear to face any difficulty. Surely he had been deceiving me, and playing upon my ignorance, when he told me I belonged to him as a chattel!
Every step which carried us nearer to Granville brought new hope to me. The face of Martin's mother came often to my mind, looking at me, as she had done in Sark, with a mournful yet tender smile—a smile behind which lay many tears. If I could but lay my head upon her lap, and tell her all, all which I had never breathed into any ear, I should feel secure and happy. "Courage!" I said to myself; "every hour brings you nearer to her."
Now and then, whenever we came to a pleasant place, where a fallen tree, or the step under a cross, offered us a resting-place by the roadside, we sat down, scarcely from weariness, but rather for enjoyment. I had full directions as to our route, and I carried a letter from Rosalie to a cousin of hers, who lived in a convent about twelve miles from Noirean; where, she assured me, they would take us in gladly for a night, and perhaps send us on part of our way in their conveyance, in the morning. Twelve miles only had to be accomplished this first day, and we could saunter as we chose, making our dinner of the little loaves which we had bought hot from the oven, as we quitted the town, and drinking of the clear little rills, which were gurgling merrily under the brown hedge-rows. If we reached the convent before six o'clock we should find the doors open, and should gain admission.
But in the afternoon the sky changed. The low floor of clouds rose gradually, and began to spread themselves, growing grayer and thicker as they crept higher into the sky. The blue became paler and colder. The wind changed a point or two from the south, and a breath from the east blew, with a chilly touch, over the wide open plain we were now crossing.
Insensibly our high spirits sank. Minima ceased to prattle; and I began to shiver a little, more from an inward dread of the utterly unknown future, than from any chill of the easterly wind. The road was very desolate. Not a creature had we seen for an hour or two, from whom I could inquire if we were on the high-road to Granville. About noon we had passed a roadside cross, standing where three ways met, and below it a board had pointed toward Granville. I had followed its direction in confidence, but now I began to feel somewhat anxious. This road, along which the grass was growing, was strangely solitary and dreary.
It brought us after a while to the edge of a common, stretching before us, drear and brown, as far as my eye could reach. A wild, weird-looking flat, with no sign of cultivation; and the road running across it lying in deep ruts, where moss and grass were springing. As far as I could guess, it was drawing near to five o'clock; and, if we had wandered out of our way, the right road took an opposite direction some miles behind us. There was no gleam of sunshine now, no vision of blue overhead. All there was gray, gloomy, and threatening. The horizon was rapidly becoming invisible; a thin, cold, clinging vapor shut it from us. Every few minutes a fold of this mist overtook us, and wrapped itself about us, until the moaning wind drifted it away. Minima was quite silent now, and her weary feet dragged along the rough road. The hand which rested upon my wrist felt hot, as it clasped it closely. The child was worn out, and was suffering more than I did, though in uncomplaining patience.
"Are you very tired, my Minima?" I asked.
"It will be so nice to go to bed, when we reach the convent," she said, looking up with a smile. "I can't imagine why the prince has not come yet."
"Perhaps he is coming all the time," I answered, "and he'll find us when we want him worst."
We plodded on after that, looking for the convent, or for any dwelling where we could stay till morning. But none came in sight, or any person from whom we could learn where we were wandering. I was growing frightened, dismayed. What would become of us both, if we could find no shelter from the cold of a February night?
There were unshed tears in my eyes—for I would not let Minima know my fears—when I saw dimly, through the mist, a high cross standing in the midst of a small grove of yews and cypresses, planted formally about it. There were three tiers of steps at its foot, the lowest partly screened from the gathering rain by the trees. The shaft of the cross, with a serpent twining about its base, rose high above the cypresses; and the image of the Christ hanging upon its crossbeams fronted the east, which was now heavy with clouds. The half-closed eyes seemed to be gazing over the vast wintry plain, lying in the brown desolateness of a February evening. The face was full of an unutterable and complete agony, and there was the helpless languor of dying in the limbs. The rain was beating against it, and the wind sobbing in the trees surrounding it. It seemed so sad, so forsaken, that it drew us to it. Without speaking the child and I crept to the shelter at its foot, and sat down to rest there, as if we were companions to it in its loneliness.
There was no sound to listen to save the sighing of the east wind through the fine needle-like leaflets of the yew-trees; and the mist was rapidly shutting out every sight but the awful, pathetic form above us. Evening had closed in, night was coming gradually, yet swiftly. Every minute was drawing the darkness more densely about us. If we did not bestir ourselves soon, and hasten along, it would overtake us, and find us without resource. Yet I felt as if I had no heart to abandon that gray figure, with the rain-drops beating heavily against it. I forgot myself, forgot Minima, forgot all the world, while looking up to the face, growing more dim to me through my own tears.
"Hush! hush!" cried Minima, though I was neither moving nor speaking, and the stillness was profound; "hark! I hear something coming along the road, only very far off."
I listened for a minute or two, and there reached my ears a faint tinkling, which drew nearer and nearer every moment. At last it was plainly the sound of bells on a horse's collar; and presently I could distinguish the beat of a horse's hoofs coming slowly along the road. In a few minutes some person would be passing by, who would be able to help us; and no one could be so inhuman as to leave us in our distress.
It was too dark now to see far along the road, but as we waited and watched there came into sight a rude sort of covered carriage, like a market-cart, drawn by a horse with a blue sheep-skin hanging round his neck. The pace at which he was going was not above a jog-trot, and he came almost to a stand-still opposite the cross, as if it was customary to pause there.
This was the instant to appeal for aid. I darted forward in front of the char a bancs, and stretched out my hands to the driver.
"Help us," I cried; we have lost our way, and the night is come. "Help us, for the love of Christ!" I could see now that the driver was a burly, red-faced, cleanshaven Norman peasant, wearing a white cotton cap, with a tassel over his forehead, who stared at me, and at Minima dragging herself weariedly to my side, as if we had both dropped from the clouds. He crossed himself hurriedly, and glanced at the grove of dark, solemn trees from which we had come. But by his side sat a priest, in his cassock and broad-brimmed hat fastened up at the sides, who alighted almost before I had finished speaking, and stood before us bareheaded, and bowing profoundly.
"Madame," he said, in a bland tone, "to what town are you going?"
"We are going to Granville," I answered, "but I am afraid I have lost the way. We are very tired, this little child and I. We can walk no more, monsieur. Take care of us, I pray you."
I spoke brokenly, for in an extremity like this it was difficult to put my request into French. The priest appeared perplexed, but he went back to the char a bancs, and held a short, earnest conversation with the driver, in a subdued voice.
"Madame," he said, returning to me, "I am Francis Laurentie, the cure of Ville-en-bois. It is quite a small village about a league from here, and we are on the road to it; but the route to Granville is two leagues behind us, and it is still farther to the first village. There is not time to return with you this evening. Will you, then, go with us to Ville-en-bois, and to-morrow we will send you on to Granville?"
He spoke very slowly and distinctly, with a clear, cordial voice, which filled me with confidence. I could hardly distinguish his features, but his hair was silvery white, and shone in the gloom, as he still stood bareheaded before me, though the rain was falling fast.
"Take care of us, monsieur?" I replied, putting my hand in his; "we will go with you."
"Make haste then, my children," he said, cheerfully; "the rain will hurt you. Let me lift the mignonne into the char a bancs. Bah! How little she is! Voila! Now, madame, permit me."
There was a seat in the back of the char a bancs which we reached by climbing over the front bench, assisted by the driver. There we were well sheltered from the driving wind and rain, with our feet resting upon a sack of potatoes, and the two strange figures of the Norman peasant in his blouse and white cotton cap, and the cure in his hat and cassock, filling up the front of the car before us.
It was so unlike any thing I had foreseen, that I could scarcely believe that it was real.
CHAPTER THE TWELFTH.
THE CURE OF VILLE-EN-BOIS.
"They are not Frenchwomen, Monsieur le Cure," observed the driver, after a short pause. We were travelling slowly, for the cure would not allow the peasant to whip on the shaggy cart-horse. We were, moreover, going up-hill, along roads as rough as any about my father's sheep-walk, with large round stones deeply bedded in the soil.
"No, no, my good Jean," was the cure's answer; "by their tongue I should say they are English. Englishwomen are extremely intrepid, and voyage about all the world quite alone, like this. It is only a marvel to me that we have never encountered one of them before to-day."
"But, Monsieur le Cure, are they Christian?" inquired Jean, with a backward glance at us. Evidently he had not altogether recovered from the fright we had given him, when we appeared suddenly from out of the gloomy shadows of the cypresses.
"The English nation is Protestant," replied the cure, with a sigh.
"But, monsieur," exclaimed Jean, "if they are Protestants they cannot be Christians! Is it not true that all the Protestants go to hell on the back of that bad king who had six wives all at one time?"
"Not all at one time, my good Jean," the cure answered mildly; "no, no, surely they do not all go to perdition. If they know any thing of the love of Christ, they must be Christians, however feeble and ignorant. He does not quench the smoking flax, Jean. Did you not hear madame say, 'Help me, for the love of Christ?' Good! There is the smoking flax, which may burn into a flame brighter than yours or mine some day, my poor friend. We must make her and the mignonne as welcome as if they were good Catholics. She is very poor, cela saute aux yeux—"
"Monsieur," I interrupted, feeling almost guilty in having listened so far, "I understand French very well, though I speak it badly."
"Pardon, madame!" he replied, "I hope you will not be grieved by the foolish words we have been speaking one to the other."
After that all was still again for some time, except the tinkling of the bells, and the pad-pad of the horse's feet upon the steep and rugged road. Hills rose on each side of us, which were thickly planted with trees. Even the figures of the cure and driver were no longer well defined in the denser darkness. Minima had laid her head on my shoulder, and seemed to be asleep. By-and-by a village clock striking echoed faintly down the valley; and the cure turned round and addressed me again.
"There is my village, madame," he said, stretching forth his hand to point it out, though we could not see a yard beyond the char a bancs; "it is very small, and my parish contains but four hundred and twenty-two souls, some of them very little ones. They all know me, and regard me as a father. They love me, though I have some rebel sons.—Is it not so, Jean? Rebel sons, but not many rebel daughters. Here we are!"
We entered a narrow and roughly-paved village-street. The houses, as I saw afterward, were all huddled together, with a small church at the point farthest from the entrance; and the road ended at its porch, as if there were no other place in the world beyond it.
As we clattered along the dogs barked, and the cottage-doors flew open. Children toddled to the thresholds, and called after us, in shrill notes, "Good-evening, and a good-night, Monsieur le Cure!" Men's voices, deeper and slower, echoed the salutation. The cure was busy greeting each one in return: "Good-night, my little rogue," "Good-night, my lamb." "Good-night to all of you, my friends;" his cordial voice making each word sound as if it came from his very heart. I felt that we were perfectly secure in his keeping.
Never, as long as I live, shall I smell the pungent, pleasant scent of wood burning without recalling to my memory that darksome entrance into Ville-en-bois.
"We drove at last into a square courtyard, paved with pebbles. Almost before the horse could stop I saw a stream of light shining from an open door across a causeway, and the voice of a woman, whom I could not see, spoke eagerly as soon as the horse's hoofs had ceased to scrape upon the pebbles.
"Hast thou brought a doctor with thee, my brother?" she asked.
"I have brought no doctor except thy brother, my sister," answered Monsieur Laurentie, "also a treasure which I found at the foot of the Calvary down yonder."
He had alighted while saying this, and the rest of the conversation was carried on in whispers. There was some one ill in the house, and our arrival was ill-timed, that was quite clear. Whoever the woman was that had come to the door, she did not advance to speak to me, but retreated as soon as the conversation was over; while the cure returned to the side of the char a bancs, and asked me to remain where I was, with Minima, for a few minutes.
The horse was taken out by Jean, and led away to the stable, the shafts of the char a bancs being supported by two props put under them. Then the place grew profoundly quiet. I leaned forward to look at the presbytery, which I supposed this house to be. It was a low, large building of two stories, with eaves projecting two or three feet over the upper one. At the end of it rose the belfry of the church—an open belfry, with one bell hanging underneath a little square roof of tiles. The church itself was quite hidden by the surrounding walls and roofs. All was dark, except a feeble glimmering in four upper casements, which seemed to belong to one large room. The church-clock chimed a quarter, then half-past, and must have been near upon the three-quarters; but yet there was no sign that we were remembered. Minima was still asleep. I was growing cold, depressed, and anxious, when the house-door opened once more, and the cure appeared carrying a lamp, which he placed on the low stone wall surrounding the court.
"Pardon, madame," he said, approaching us, "but my sister is too much occupied with a sick person to do herself the honor of attending upon you. Permit me to fill her place, and excuse her, I pray you. Give me the poor mignonne; I will lift her down first, and then assist you to descend."
His politeness did not seem studied; it had too kindly a tone to be artificial. I lifted Minima over the front seat, and sprang down myself, glad to be released from my stiff position, and hardly availing myself of his proffered help. He did not conduct us through the open door, but led us round the angle of the presbytery to a small outhouse, opening on to the court, and with no other entrance. It was a building lying between the porch and belfry of the church and his own dwelling place. But it looked comfortable and inviting. A fire had been hastily kindled on an open hearth, and a heap of wood lay beside it. A table stood close by, in the light and warmth, on which were steaming two basins of soup, and an omelette fresh from the frying-pan; with fruit and wine for a second course. Two beds were in this room: one with hangings over the head, and a large, tall cross at the foot-board; the other a low, narrow pallet, lying along the foot of it. A crucifix hung upon the wall, and the wood-work of the high window also formed a cross. It seemed a strange goal to reach after our day's wanderings.
Monsieur Laurentie put the lamp down on the table, and drew the logs of wood together on the hearth. He was an old man, as I then thought, over sixty. He looked round upon us with a benevolent smile.
"Madame," he said, "our hospitality is rude and simple, but you are very welcome guests. My sister is desolated that she must leave you to my cares. But if there be any thing you have need of, tell me, I pray you."
"There is nothing, monsieur," I answered; "you are too good to us, too good."
"No, no, madame," he said, "be content. To-morrow I will send you to Granville under the charge of my good Jean. Sleep well, my children, and fear nothing. The good God will protect you."
He closed the door after him as he spoke, but opened it again to call my attention to a thick wooden bar, with which I might fasten it inside if I chose; and to tell me not to alarm myself when I heard the bell overhead toll for matins, at half-past five in the morning. I listened to his receding footsteps, and then turned eagerly to the food, which I began to want greatly.
But Minima had thrown herself upon the low pallet-bed, and I could not persuade her to swallow more than a few spoonfuls of soup. I toot off her damp clothes, and laid her down comfortably to rest. Her eyes were dull and heavy, and she said her head was aching; but she looked up at me with a faint smile.
"I told you how nice it would be to be in bed," she whispered.
"It was not long before I was also sleeping soundly the deep, dreamless sleep which comes to any one as strong as I was, after unusual physical exertion. Once or twice a vague impression forced itself upon me that Minima was talking a great deal in her dreams. It was the clang of the bell for matins which fully roused me at last, but it was a minute or two before I could make out where I was. Through the uncurtained window, high in the opposite wall, I could see a dim, pallid moon sinking slowly into the west. The thick beams of the cross were strongly delineated against its pale light. For a moment I fancied that Minima and I had passed the night under the shelter of the solitary image, which we had left alone in the dark and rainy evening. I knew better immediately, and lay still, listening to the tramp of the wooden sabots hurrying past the door into the church-porch. Then Minima began to talk.
"How funny that is!" she said, "there the boys run, and I can't catch one of them. Father, Temple Secundus is pulling faces at me, and all the boys are laughing." "Well! it doesn't matter, does it? Only we are so poor, Aunt Nelly and all. We're so poor—so poor—so poor!"
Her voice fell into a murmur too low for me to hear what she was saying, though she went on talking rapidly, and laughing and sobbing at times. I called to her, but she did not answer.
What could ail the child? I went to her, and took her hands in mine—burning little hands. I said, "Minima! and she turned to me with a caressing gesture, raising her hot fingers to stroke my face.
"Yes, Aunt Nelly. How poor we are, you and me! I am so tired, and the prince never comes!"
There was hardly room for me in the narrow bed, but I managed to lie down beside her, and took her into my arms to soothe her. She rested there quietly enough; but her head was wandering, and all her whispered chatter was about the boys, and the dominie, her father, and the happy days at home in the school in Epping Forest. As soon as it was light I dressed myself in haste, and opened my door to see if I could find any one to send to Monsieur Laurentie.
The first person I saw was himself, coming in my direction. I had not fairly looked at him before, for I had seen him only by twilight and firelight. His cassock was old and threadbare, and his hat brown. His hair fell in rather long locks below his hat, and was beautifully white. His face was healthy-looking, like that of a man who lived much out-of-doors, and his clear, quick eyes shone with a kindly light. I ran impulsively to meet him, with outstretched hands, which he took into his own with a pleasant smile.
"Oh, come, monsieur," I cried; "make haste! She is ill, my poor Minima!"
The smile faded away from his face in an instant, and he did not utter a word. He followed me quickly to the side of the little bed, laid his hand softly on the child's forehead, and felt her pulse. He lifted up her head gently, and, opening her mouth, looked at her tongue and throat. He shook his head as he turned to me with a grave and perplexed expression, and he spoke with a low, solemn accent.
"Madame," he said, "it is the fever."
CHAPTER THE THIRTEENTH.
The fever! What fever? Was it any thing more than some childish malady brought on by exhaustion? I stood silent, in amazement at his solemn manner, and looking from him to the delirious child. He was the first to speak again.
"It will be impossible for you to go to-day," he said; "the child cannot be removed. I must tell Jean to put up the horse and char a bancs again. I shall return in an instant to you, madame."
He left me, and I sank down on a chair, half stupefied by this new disaster. It would be necessary to stay where we were until Minima recovered; yet I had no means to pay these people for the trouble we should give them, and the expense we should be to them. Monsieur le Cure had all the appearance of a poor parish priest, with a very small income. I had not time to decide upon any course, however, before he returned and brought with him his sister.
Mademoiselle Therese was a tall, plain, elderly woman, but with the same pleasant expression of open friendliness as that of her brother. She went through precisely the same examination of Minima as he had done.
"The fever!" she ejaculated, in much the same tone as his. They looked significantly at each other, and then held a hurried consultation together outside the door, after which the cure returned alone.
"Madame," he said, "this child is not your own, as I supposed last night. My sister says you are too young to be her mother. Is she your sister?"
"No, monsieur," I answered.
"I called you madame because you were travelling alone," he continued, smiling; "French demoiselles never travel alone before they are married. You are mademoiselle, no doubt?"
An awkward question, for he paused as if it were a question. I look into his kind, keen face and honest eyes.
"No, monsieur," I said, frankly, "I am married."
"Where, then, is your husband?" he inquired.
"He is in London," I answered. "Monsieur, it is difficult for me to explain it; I cannot speak your language well enough. I think in English, and I cannot find the right French words. I am very unhappy, but I am not wicked."
"Good," he said, smiling again, "very good, my child; I believe you. You will learn my language quickly; then you shall tell me all, if you remain with us. But you said the mignonne is not your sister."
"No; she is not my relative at all," I replied; "we were both in a school at Noireau, the school of Monsieur Emile Perrier. Perhaps you know it, monsieur?"
"Certainly, madame," he said.
"He has failed and run away," I continued; "all the pupils are dispersed. Minima and I were returning through Granville."'
"Bien! I understand, madame," he responded; "but it is villanous, this affair! Listen, my child. I have much to say to you. Do I speak gently and slowly enough for you?"
"Yes," I answered; "I understand you perfectly."'
"We have had the fever in Ville-en-bois for some weeks," he went on; "it is now bad, very bad. Yesterday I went to Noireau to seek a doctor, but I could only hear of one, who is in Paris at present, and cannot come immediately. When you prayed me for succor last night, I did not know what to do. I could not leave you by the way-side, with the night coming on, and I could not take you to my own house. At present we have made my house into a hospital for the sick. My people bring their sick to me, and we do our best, and put our trust in God. I said to myself and to Jean, 'We cannot receive these children into the presbytery, lest they should take the fever.' But this little house has been kept free from all infection, and you would be safe here for one night, so I hoped. The mignonne must have caught the fever some days ago. There is no blame, therefore, resting upon me, you understand. Now I must carry her into my little hospital. But you, madame, what am I to do with you? Do you wish to go on to Granville, and leave the mignonne with me? We will take care of her as a little angel of God. What shall I do with you, my child?"
"Monsieur," I exclaimed, speaking so eagerly that I could scarcely bring my sentences into any kind of order, "take me into your hospital too. Let me take care of Minima and your other sick people. I am very strong, and in good health; I am never ill, never, never. I will do all you say to me. Let me stay, dear monsieur."
"But your husband, your friends—" he said.
"I have no friends," I interrupted, "and my husband does not love me. If I have the fever, and die—good! very good! I am not wicked; I am a Christian, I hope. Only let me stay with Minima, and do all I can in the hospital."
He stood looking at me scrutinizingly, trying to read, I fancied, if there were any sign of wickedness in my face. I felt it flush, but I would not let my eyes sink before his. I think he saw in them, in my steadfast, tearful eyes, that I might be unfortunate, but that I was not wicked. A pleasant gleam came across his features.
"Be content, my child," he said, "you shall stay with us."
I felt a sudden sense of contentment take possession of me; for here was work for me to do, as well as a refuge. Neither should I be compelled to leave Minima. I wrapped her up warmly in the blankets, and Monsieur Laurentie lifted her carefully and tenderly from the low bed. He told me to accompany him, and we crossed the court, and entered the house by the door I had seen the night before. A staircase of red quarries led up to the second story, and the first door we came to was a long, low room, with a quarried floor, which had been turned into a hastily-fitted-up fever-ward for women and children. There were already nine beds in it, of different sizes, brought with the patients who now occupied them. But one of these was empty.
I learned afterward that the girl to whom the bed belonged had died the day before, during the cure's absence, and was going to be buried that morning, in a cemetery lying in a field on the side of the valley. Mademoiselle Therese was making up the bed with homespun linen, scented with rosemary and lavender, and the cure laid Minima down upon it with all the skill of a woman. In this home-like ward I took up my work as nurse.
It was work that seemed to come naturally to me, as if I had a special gift for it. I remembered how some of the older shepherds on the station at home used to praise my mother's skill as a nurse. I felt as if I knew by instinct the wants of my little patients, when they could not put them into coherent words for themselves. They were mostly children, or quite young girls; for the older people who were stricken by the fever generally clung to their own homes, and the cure visited them there with the regularity of a physician. I liked to find for these suffering children a more comfortable position when they were weary; or to bathe their burning heads with some cool lotion; or to give the parched lips the titane Mademoiselle Therese prepared. Even the delirium of these little creatures was but a babbling about playthings, and fetes, and games. Minima, whose fever took faster hold of her day after day, prattled of the same things in English, only with sad alternations of moaning over our poverty.
It was probably these lamentations of Minima which made me sometimes look forward with dread to the time when this season of my life should be ended. I knew it could be only for a little while, an interlude, a brief, passing term, which must run quickly to its conclusion, and bring me face to face again with the terrible poverty which the child bemoaned in words no one could understand but myself. Already my own appearance was changing, as Mademoiselle Therese supplied the place of my clothing, which wore out with my constant work, replacing it with the homely costume of the Norman village. I could not expect to remain here when my task was done. The presbytery was too poor to offer me a shelter when I could be nothing but a burden in it. This good cure, who was growing fonder of me every day, and whom I had learned to love and honor, could not be a father to me as he was to his own people. Sooner or later there would come an hour when we must say adieu to one another, and I must go out once again to confront the uncertain future.
But for the present these fears were very much in the background, and I only felt that they were lurking there, ready for any moment of depression. I was kept too busy with the duties of the hour to attend to them. Some of the children died, and I grieved over them; some recovered sufficiently to be removed to a farm on the brow of the hill, where the air was fresher than in the valley. There was plenty to do and to think of from day to day.
CHAPTER THE FOURTEENTH.
"Madame." said Monsieur Laurentie; one morning, the eighth that I had been in the fever-smitten village, "you did not take a promenade yesterday."
"Not yesterday, monsieur."
"Nor the day before yesterday?" he continued.
"No, monsieur," I answered; "I dare not leave Minima, I fear she is going to die."
My voice failed me as I spoke to him. I was sitting down for a few minutes on a low seat, between Minima's bed and one where a little boy of six years of age lay. Both were delirious. He was the little son of Jean, our driver, and the sacristan of the church; and his father had brought him into the ward the evening of the day after Minima had been taken ill. Jean had besought me with tears to be good to his child. The two had engrossed nearly all my time and thoughts, and I was losing heart and hope every hour.
Monsieur Laurentie raised me gently from my low chair, and seated himself upon it, with a smile, as he looked up at me.
"Voila, madame," he said, "I promise not to quit the chamber till you return. My sister has a little commission for you to do. Confide the mignonne to me, and make your promenade in peace. It is necessary, madame; you must obey me."
The commission for mademoiselle was to carry some food and medicine to a cottage lower down the valley; and Jean's eldest son, Pierre, was appointed to be my guide. Both the cure and his sister gave me a strict charge as to what we were to do; neither of us was upon any account to go near or enter the dwelling; but after the basket was deposited upon a flat stone, which Pierre was to point out to me, he was to ring a small hand-bell which he carried with him for that purpose. Then we were to turn our backs and begin our retreat, before any person came out of the infected house.
I set out with Pierre, a solemn-looking boy of about twelve years of age, who cast upon me sidelong glances of silent scrutiny. We passed down the village street, with its closely-packed houses forming a very nest for fever, until we reached the road by which I had first entered Ville-en-bois. Now that I could see it by daylight, the valley was extremely narrow, and the hills on each side so high that, though the sun had risen nearly three hours ago, it had but just climbed above the brow of the eastern slope. There was a luxurious and dank growth of trees, with a tangle of underwood and boggy soil beneath them. A vapor was shining in rainbow colors against the brightening sky. In the depth of the valley, but hidden by the thicket, ran a noisy stream—too noisy to be any thing else than shallow. There had been no frost since the sharp and keen wintry weather in December, and the heavy rains which had fallen since had flooded the stream, and made the lowlands soft and oozy with undrained moisture. My guide and I trudged along in silence for almost a kilometre.
"Are you a pagan, madame?" inquired Pierre, at last, with eager solemnity of face and voice. His blue eyes were fastened upon me pityingly.
"No, Pierre," I replied.
"But you are a heretic," he pursued.
"I suppose so," I said.
"Pagans and heretics are the same," he rejoined, dogmatically; "you are a heretic, therefore you are a pagan, madame."
"I am not a pagan," I persisted; "I am a Christian like you."
"Does Monsieur le Cure say you are a Christian?" he inquired.
"You can ask him, Pierre," I replied.
"He will know," he said, in a confident tone; "he knows every thing. There is no cure like monsieur between Ville-en-bois and Paris. All the world must acknowledge that. He is our priest, our doctor, our juge de paix, our school-master. Did you ever know a cure like him before, madame?"
"I never knew any cure before," I replied.
"Never knew any cure!" he repeated slowly; "then, madame, you must be a pagan. Did you never confess? Were you never prepared for your first communion? Oh! it is certain, madame, you are a true pagan."
We had not any more time to discuss my religion, for we were drawing near the end of our expedition. Above the tops of the trees appeared a tall chimney, and a sudden turn in the by-road we had taken brought us full in sight of a small cotton-mill, built on the banks of the noisy stream. It was an ugly, formal building, as all factories are, with straight rows of window-frames; but both walls and roof were mouldering into ruin, and looked as though they must before long sink into the brawling waters that were sapping the foundations. A more mournfully-dilapidated place I had never seen. A blight seemed to have fallen upon it; some solemn curse might be brooding over it, and slowly working out its total destruction.
In the yard adjoining this deserted factory stood a miserable cottage, with a thatched roof, and eaves projecting some feet from the walls, and reaching nearly to the ground, except where the door was. The small casements of the upper story, if there were any, were completely hidden. A row of fleur-de-lis was springing up, green and glossy, along the peak of the brown thatch; this and the picturesque eaves forming its only beauty. The thatch looked old and rotten, and was beginning to steam in the warm sunshine. The unpaved yard about it was a slough of mire and mud. There were mould and mildew upon all the wood-work. The place bore the aspect of a pest-house, shunned by all the inmates of the neighboring village. Pierre led me to a large flat stone, which had once been a horse-block, standing at a safe distance from this hovel, and I laid down my basket upon it. Then he rang his hand-bell noisily, and the next instant was scampering back along the road.
But I could not run away. The desolate, plague-stricken place had a dismal fascination for me. I wondered what manner of persons could dwell in it; and, as I lingered, I saw the low door opened, and a thin, spectral figure standing in the gloom within, but delaying to cross the mouldering door-sill as long as I remained in sight. In another minute Pierre had rushed back for me, and dragged me away with all his boyish strength and energy.
"Madame," he said, in angry remonstrance, "you are disobeying Monsieur le Cure. If you catch the fever, and die while you are a pagan, it will be impossible for you to go to heaven. It would be a hundred times better for me to die, who have taken my first communion."
"But who lives there?" I asked.
"They are very wicked people," he answered, emphatically; "no one goes near them, except Monsieur le Cure, and he would go and nurse the devil himself, if he had the fever in his parish. They became wicked before my time, and Monsieur le Cure has forbidden us to speak of them with rancor, so we do not speak of them at all."
I walked back in sadness, wondering at this misery and solitariness by the side of the healthy, simple society of the lonely village, with its interwoven family interests. As I passed through the street again, I heard the click of the hand-looms in most of the dwellings, and saw the pale-faced weavers, in their white and tasselled caps, here a man and there a woman, look after me, while they suspended their work for a moment. Every door was open; the children ran in and out of any house, playing together as if they were of one family; the women were knitting in companies under the eaves. Who were these pariahs, whose name even was banished from every tongue? I must ask the cure himself.
But I had no opportunity that day. When I returned to the sick-ward, I found Monsieur Laurentie pacing slowly up and down the long room, with Jean's little son in his arms, to whom he was singing in a low, soft voice, scarcely louder than a whisper. His eyes, when they met mine, were glistening with tears, and he shook his head mournfully.
I went on to look at Minima. She was lying quiet, too weak and exhausted to be violent, but chattering all the time in rapid, childish sentences. I could do nothing for her, and I went back to the hearth, where the cure was now standing, looking sadly at the child in his arms. He bade me sit down on a tabouret that stood there, and laid his little burden on my lap.
"The child has no mother, madame," he said; "let him die in a woman's arms."
I had never seen any one die, not even my father, and I shrank from seeing it. But the small white face rested helplessly against my arm, and the blue eyes unclosed for a moment, and gazed into mine, almost with a smile. Monsieur Laurentie called in Jean and Pierre, and they knelt before us in silence, broken only by sobs. In the room there were children's voices talking about their toys, and calling to one another in shrill, feverish accents. How many deaths such as this was I to witness?
"Monsieur le Cure!" murmured the failing voice of the little child.
"What is it, my little one?" he said, stooping over him.
"Shall I play sometimes with the little child Jesus?"
The words fell one by one from the feeble lips.
"Yes, mon cheri, yes. The holy child Jesus knows what little children need," answered the cure.
"He is always good and wise," whispered the dying child; "so good, so wise."
How quickly it was over after that!
CHAPTER THE FIFTEENTH.
A TACITURN FRENCHWOMAN.
Minima was so much worse that night, that Monsieur Laurentie gave me permission to sit up with Mademoiselle Therese, to watch beside her. There was a kindly and unselfish disposition about Monsieur le Cure which it was impossible to resist, or even gainsay. His own share of the trouble, anxiety, and grief, was so large, that he seemed to stand above us all, and be naturally our director and ruler. But to-night, when I begged to stay with Minima, he conceded the point without a word.
Mademoiselle Therese was the most silent woman I ever met. She could pass a whole day without uttering a word, and did not seem to suffer any ennui from her silence. In the house she wore always, like the other inhabitants of the village, men and women, soundless felt socks, which slipped readily into the wooden sabots used for walking out-of-doors. I was beginning to learn to walk in sabots myself, for the time was drawing rapidly near when otherwise I should be barefoot.
With this taciturn Frenchwoman I entered upon my night-watch by Minima, whose raving no one could understand but myself. The long, dark hours seemed interminable. Mademoiselle sat knitting a pair of gray stockings in the intervals of attendance upon our patients. The subdued glimmer of the night-lamp, the ticking of the clock, the chimes every quarter of an hour from the church-tower, all conspired to make me restless and almost nervous.
"Mademoiselle," I said, at last, "talk to me. I cannot bear this tranquillity. Tell me something."
"What can I tell you, madame?" she inquired, in a pleasant tone.
"Tell me about those people I saw this morning," I answered.
"It is a long history," she said, her face kindling, as if this were a topic that excited her; and she rolled up her knitting, as though she could not trust herself to continue that while she was talking; "all the world knows it here, and we never talk of it now. Bat you are a stranger; shall I tell it you?"
I had hit upon the only subject that could unlock her lips. It was the night-time too. At night one is naturally more communicative than in the broad light of day.
"Madame," she said, in an agitated voice, "you have observed already that my brother is not like other cures. He has his own ideas, his own sentiments. Everybody knows him at this moment as the good Cure of Ville-en-bois; but when he came here first, thirty years ago, all the world called him infidel, heretic, atheist. It was because he would make many changes in the church and parish. The church had been famous for miracles; but Francis did not believe in them, and he would not encourage them. There used to be pilgrimages to it from all the country round; and crowds of pilgrims, who spend much money. There was a great number of crutches left at the shrine of the Virgin by cripples who had come here by their help, but walked away without them. He cleared them all away, and called them rubbish. So every one said he was an infidel—you understand?"
"I understand it very well," I said.
"Bien! At that time there was one family richer than all the others. They were the proprietors of the factory down yonder, and everybody submitted to them. There was a daughter not married, but very devote. I have been devote, myself. I was coquette till I was thirty-five, then I became devote. It is easier than being a simple Christian, like my brother the cure. Mademoiselle Pineau was accustomed to have visions, ecstasies. Sometimes the angels lifted her from the ground into the air when she was at her prayers. Francis did not like that. He was young, and she came very often to the confessional, and told him of these visions and ecstasies. He discouraged them, and enjoined penances upon her. Bref! she grew to detest him, and she was quite like a female cure in the parish. She set everybody against him. At last, when he removed all the plaster images of the saints, and would have none but wood or stone, she had him cited to answer for it to his bishop."
"But what did he do that for?" I asked, seeing no difference between plaster images, and those of wood or stone.
"Madame, these Normans are ignorant and very superstitious," she replied; "they thought a little powder from one of the saints would cure any malady. Some of the images were half-worn away with having powder scraped off them. My brother would not hold with such follies, and his bishop told him he might fight the battle out, if he could. No one thought he could; but they did not know Francis. It was a terrible battle, madame. Nobody would come to the confessional, and every month or so, he was compelled to have a vicaire from some other parish to receive the confessions of his people. Mademoiselle Pineau fanned the flame, and she had the reputation of a saint."
"But how did it end?" I inquired. Mademoiselle's face was all aglow, and her voice rose and fell in her excitement; yet she lingered over the story as if reluctant to lose the rare pleasure of telling it.
"In brief, madame," she resumed, "there was a terrible conflagration in the village. You perceive that all our houses are covered with tiles? In those days the roofs were of thatch, very old and very dry, and there was much timber in the walls. How the fire began, the good God alone knows. It was a sultry day in July; the river was almost dry, and there was no hope of extinguishing the flames. They ran like lightning from roof to roof. All that could be done was to save life, and a little property. My brother threw off his cassock, and worked like Hercules.
"The Pineaux lived then close by the presbytery, in a house half of wood, which blazed like tinder; there was nothing comparable to it in all the village. A domestic suddenly cried out that mademoiselle was in her oratory, probably in a trance. Not a soul dares venture through the flames to save her, though she is a saint. Monsieur le Cure hears the rumor of it; he steps in through the doorway through which the smoke is rolling; walks in as tranquilly as if he were going to make a visit as pastor; he is lost to their sight; not a man stirs to look after his own house. Bref! he comes back to the day, his brown hair all singed and his face black, carrying mademoiselle in his arms. Good: The battle is finished. All the world adores him."
"Continue, mademoiselle, I pray you," I said, eagerly; "do not leave off there."
"Bien! Monsieur le Cure and his unworthy sister had a small fortune which was spent, for the people. He begged for them; he worked with them; he learned to do many things to help them. He lives for them and them only. He has refused to leave them for better positions. They are not ungrateful; they love him, they lean upon him."
"But the Pineaux?" I suggested.
"Bah! I had forgotten them. Their factory was burnt at the same time. It is more than a kilometre from here; but who can say how far the burning thatch might be carried on the wind? It was insured for a large sum in a bureau in Paris. But there were suspicions raised and questions asked. Our sacristan, Jean, who was then a young boy, affirmed that he had seen some one carrying a lighted torch around the building, after the work-people had all fled to see after their own houses. The bureau refused to pay, except by a process of law; and the Pineaux never began their process. They worked the factory a few years on borrowed money; but they became poor, very poor. Mademoiselle ceased to be devote, and did not come near the church or the confessional again. Now they are despised and destitute. Not a person goes near them, except my good brother, whom they hate still. There remain but three of them, the old monsieur, who is very aged, a son, and mademoiselle, who is as old as myself. The son has the fever, and Francis visits him almost every day."
"It is a wretched, dreadful place," I said, shuddering at the remembrance of it.
"They will die there probably," she remarked, in a quiet voice, and with an expression of some weariness now the tale was told; "my brother refuses to let me go to see them. Mademoiselle hates me, because in some part I have taken her place. Francis says there is work enough for me at home. Madame, I believe the good God sent you here to help us."
CHAPTER THE SIXTEENTH.
SENT BY GOD.
I discovered that mademoiselle's opinion was shared by all the people in Ville-en-bois, and Monsieur Laurentie favored the universal impression. I had been sent to them by a special providence. There was something satisfactory and consolatory to them all in my freedom from personal anxieties and cares like their own. I had neither parent, nor husband, nor child to be attacked by the prevailing infection. As soon as Minima had passed safely through the most dangerous stages of the fever, I was at leisure to listen to and sympathize with each one of them. Possibly there was something in the difficulty I still experienced in expressing myself fluently which made me a better listener, and so won them to pour out their troubles into my attentive ear. Jean and Pierre especially were devoted to me, since the child that had belonged to them had died upon my lap.
Through March, April, and May, the fever had its fling, though we were not very long without a doctor. Monsieur Laurentie found one who came and, I suppose, did all he could for the sick; but he could not do much. I was kept too busily occupied to brood much either upon the past or the future, of my own life. Not a thought crossed my mind of deserting the little Norman village where I could be of use. Besides, Minima gained strength very slowly, too slowly to be removed from the place, or to encounter any fresh privations.