It is impossible to give the accent, the look, the gesture of M. Baleinier, as he thus expressed himself. The most able and practiced lawyer, or the greatest actor in the world, could not have played this scene with more effect than the doctor—or rather, no one could have played it so well—M. Baleinier, carried away by the influence of the situations, was himself half convinced of what he said.
In few words, he felt all the horror of his own perfidy but he felt also that Adrienne could not believe it; for there are combinations of such nefarious character, that pure and upright minds are unable to comprehend them as possible. If a lofty spirit looks down into the abyss of evil, beyond a certain depth it is seized with giddiness, and no longer able to distinguish one object from the other.
And then the most perverse of men have a day, an hour, a moment, in which the good instincts, planted in the heart of every creature, appear in spite of themselves. Adrienne was too interesting, was in too cruel a position, for the doctor mot to feel some pity for her in his heart; the tone of sympathy, which for some time past he had been obliged to assume towards her, and the sweet confidence of the young girl in return, had become for this man habitual and necessary ratifications. But sympathy and habit were now to yield to implacable necessity.
Thus the Marquis d'Aigrigny had idolized his mother; dying, she called him to her—and he turned away from the last prayer of a parent in the agony of death. After such an example, how could M. Baleinier hesitate to sacrifice Adrienne? The members of the Order, of which he formed a part, were bound to him—but he was perhaps still more strongly bound to them, for a long partnership in evil creates terrible and indissoluble ties.
The moment M. Baleinier finished his fervid address to Mdlle. de Cardoville, the slide of the wicket in the door was softly pushed back, and a pair of eyes peered attentively into the chamber, unperceived by the doctor.
Adrienne could not withdraw her gaze from the physician's, which seemed to fascinate her. Mute, overpowered, seized with a vague terror, unable to penetrate the dark depths of this man's soul, moved in spite of herself by the accent of sorrow, half feigned and half real—the young lady had a momentary feeling of doubt. For the first time, it came into her mind, that M. Baleinier might perhaps be committing a frightful error—committing it in good faith.
Besides, the anguish of the past night, the dangers of her position, her feverish agitation, all concurred to fill her mind with trouble and indecision. She looked at the physician with ever increasing surprise, and making a violent effort not to yield to a weakness, of which she partly foresaw the dreadful consequences, she exclaimed: "No, no, sir; I will not, I cannot believe it. You have too much skill, too much experience, to commit such an error."
"An error!" said M. Baleinier, in a grave and sorrowful tone. "Let me speak to you in the name of that skill and experience, which you are pleased to ascribe to me. Hear me but for a moment, my dear child; and then I will appeal to yourself."
"To me!" replied the young girl, in a kind of stupor; "you wish to persuade me, that—" Then, interrupting herself, she added, with a convulsive laugh: "This only is wanting to your triumph—to bring me to confess that I am mad—that my proper place is here—that I owe you—"
"Gratitude. Yes, you do owe it me, even as I told you at the commencement of this conversation. Listen to me then; my words may be cruel, but there are wounds which can only be cured with steel and fire. I conjure you, my dear child—reflect—throw back one impartial glance at your past life—weigh your own thoughts—and you will be afraid of yourself. Remember those moments of strange excitement, during which, as you have told me, you seemed to soar above the earth—and, above all, while it is yet time—while you preserve enough clearness of mind to compare and judge—compare, I entreat, your manner of living with that of other ladies of your age? Is there a single one who acts as you act? who thinks as you think? unless, indeed, you imagine yourself so superior to other women, that, in virtue of that supremacy, you can justify a life and habits that have no parallel in the world."
"I have never had such stupid pride, you know it well," said Adrienne, looking at the doctor with growing terror.
"Then, my dear child, to what are we to attribute your strange and inexplicable mode of life? Can you even persuade yourself that it is founded on reason? Oh, my child! take care?—As yet, you only indulge in charming originalities of conduct, poetical eccentricities, sweet and vague reveries—but the tendency is fatal, the downward course irresistible. Take care, take care!—the healthful, graceful, spiritual portion of your intelligence has yet the upper hand, and imprints its stamp upon all your extravagances; but you do not know, believe me, with what frightful force the insane portion of the mind, at a given moment, develops itself and strangles up the rest. Then we have no longer graceful eccentricities, like yours, but ridiculous, sordid, hideous delusions."
"Oh! you frighten me," said the unfortunate girl, as she passed her trembling hands across her burning brow.
"Then," continued M. Baleinier, in an agitated voice, "then the last rays of intelligence are extinguished; then madness—for we must pronounce the dreaded word—gets the upper hand, and displays itself in furious and savage transports."
"Like the woman upstairs," murmured Adrienne, as, with fixed and eager look, she raised her finger towards the ceiling.
"Sometimes," continued the doctor, alarmed himself at the terrible consequences of his own words, but yielding to the inexorable fatality of his situation, "sometimes madness takes a stupid and brutal form; the unfortunate creature, who is attacked by it, preserves nothing human but the shape—has only the instincts of the lower animals—eats with voracity, and moves ever backwards and forwards in the cell, in which such a being is obliged to be confined. That is all its life—all."
"Like the woman yonder." cried Adrienne, with a still wilder look, as she slowly raised her arm towards the window that was visible on the other side of the building.
"Why—yes," said M. Baleinier. "Like you, unhappy child, those women were young, fair, and sensible, but like you, alas! they had in them the fatal germ of insanity, which, not having been destroyed in time, grew, and grew, larger and ever larger, until it overspread and destroyed their reason."
"Oh, mercy!" cried Mdlle. de Cardoville, whose head was getting confused with terror; "mercy! do not tell me such things!—I am afraid. Take me from this place—oh! take me from this place!" she added, with a heartrending accent; "for, if I remain here, I shall end by going mad! No," added she, struggling with the terrible agony which assailed her, "no, do not hope it! I shall not become mad. I have all my reason. I am not blind enough to believe what you tell me. Doubtless, I live differently from others; think differently from others; am shocked by things that do not offend others; but what does all this prove? Only that I am different from others. Have I a bad heart? Am I envious or selfish? My ideas are singular, I knew—yes, I confess it—but then, M. Baleinier, is not their tendency good, generous, noble!—Oh!" cried Adrienne's supplicating voice, while her tears flowed abundantly, "I have never in my life done one malicious action; my worst errors have arisen from excess of generosity. Is it madness to wish to see everybody about one too happy? And again, if you are mad, you must feel it yourself—and I do not feel it—and yet—I scarcely know—you tell me such terrible things of those two women! You ought to know these things better than I. But then," added Mdlle, de Cardoville, with an accent of the deepest despair, "something ought to have been done. Why, if you felt an interest for me, did you wait so long? Why did you not take pity on me sooner? But the most frightful fact is, that I do not know whether I ought to believe you—for all this may be a snare—but no, no! you weep—it is true, then!—you weep!" She looked anxiously at M. Baleinier, who, notwithstanding his cynical philosophy, could not restrain his tears at the sight of these nameless tortures.
"You weep over me," she continued; "so it is true! But (good heaven!) must there not be something done? I will do all that you wish—all—so that I may not be like those women. But if it should be too late? no, it is not too late—say it is not too late, my good M. Baleinier! Oh, now I ask your pardon for what I said when you came in—but then I did not know, you see—I did not know!"
To these few broken words, interrupted by sobs, and rushing forth in a sort of feverish excitement, succeeded a silence of some minutes, during which the deeply affected physician dried his tears. His resolution had almost failed him. Adrienne hid her face in her hands. Suddenly she again lifted her head; her countenance was calmer than before, though agitated by a nervous trembling.
"M. Baleinier," she resumed, with touching dignity, "I hardly know what I said to you just now. Terror, I think, made me wander; I have again collected myself. Hear me! I know that I am in your power; I know that nothing can deliver me from it. Are you an implacable enemy? or are you a friend? I am not able to determine. Do you really apprehend, as you assure me, that what is now eccentricity will hereafter become madness—or are you rather the accomplice in some infernal machination? You alone can answer. In spite of my boasted courage, I confess myself conquered. Whatever is required of me—you understand, whatever it may be, I will subscribe to, I give you my word and you know that I hold it sacred—you have therefore no longer any interest to keep me here. If, on the contrary, you really think my reason in danger—and I own that you have awakened in my mind vague, but frightful doubts—tell it me, and I will believe you. I am alone, at your mercy, without friends, without counsel. I trust myself blindly to you. I know not whether I address myself to a deliverer or a destroyer—but I say to you—here is my happiness—here is my life—take it—I have no strength to dispute it with you!"
These touching words, full of mournful resignation and almost hopeless reliance, gave the finishing stroke to the indecision of M. Baleinier. Already deeply moved by this scene, and without reflecting on the consequences of what he was about to do, he determined at all events to dissipate the terrible and unjust fears with which he had inspired Adrienne. Sentiments of remorse and pity, which now animated the physician, were visible in his countenance.
Alas! they were too visible. The moment he approached to take the hand of Mdlle. de Cardoville, a low but sharp voice exclaimed from behind the wicket: "M. Baleinier!"
"Rodin!" muttered the startled doctor to himself; "he's been spying on me!"
"Who calls you?" asked the lady of the physician.
"A person that I promised to meet here this morning." replied he, with the utmost depression, "to go with him to St. Mary's Convent, which is close at hand."
"And what answer have you to give me?" said Adrienne with mortal anguish.
After a moment's solemn silence, during which he turned his face towards the wicket, the doctor replied, in a voice of deep emotion: "I am—what I have always been—a friend incapable of deceiving you."
Adrienne became deadly pale. Then, extending her hand to M. Baleinier, she said to him in a voice that she endeavored to render calm: "Thank you—I will have courage—but will it be very long?"
"Perhaps a month. Solitude, reflection, a proper regimen, my attentive care, may do much. You will be allowed everything that is compatible with your situation. Every attention will be paid you. If this room displeases you, I will see you have another."
"No—this or another—it is of little consequence," answered Adrienne, with an air of the deepest dejection.
"Come, come! be of good courage. There is no reason to despair."
"Perhaps you flatter me," said Adrienne with the shadow of a smile. "Return soon," she added, "my dear M. Baleinier! my only hope rests in you now."
Her head fell upon her bosom, her hands upon her knees and she remained sitting on the edge of the bed, pale, motionless, overwhelmed with woe.
"Mad!" she said when M. Baleinier had disappeared. "Perhaps mad!"
We have enlarged upon this episode much less romantic than it may appear. Many times have motives of interest or vengeance or perfidious machination led to the abuse of the imprudent facility with which inmates are received in certain private lunatic asylums from the hands of their families or friends.
We shall subsequently explain our views, as to the establishment of a system of inspection, by the crown or the civil magistrates, for the periodical survey of these institutions, and others of no less importance, at present placed beyond the reach of all superintendence. These latter are the nunneries of which we will presently have an example.
CHAPTER XLVI. PRESENTIMENTS.
Whilst the preceding events took place in Dr. Baleinier's asylum, other scenes were passing about the same hour, at Frances Baudoin's, in the Rue Brise-Miche.
Seven o'clock in the morning had just struck at St. Mary church; the day was dark and gloomy, and the sleet rattled against the windows of the joyless chamber of Dagobert's wife.
As yet ignorant of her son's arrest, Frances had waited for him the whole of the preceding evening, and a good part of the night, with the most anxious uneasiness; yielding at length to fatigue and sleep, about three o'clock in the morning, she had thrown herself on a mattress beside the bed of Rose and Blanche. But she rose with the first dawn of day, to ascend to Agricola's garret, in the very faint hope that he might have returned home some hours before.
Rose and Blanche had just risen, and dressed themselves. They were alone in the sad, chilly apartment. Spoil-sport, whom Dagobert had left in Paris, was stretched at full length near the cold stove; with his long muzzle resting on his forepaws, he kept his eye fixed on the sisters.
Having slept but little during the night, they had perceived the agitation and anguish of Dagobert's wife. They had seen her walk up and down, now talking to herself, now listening to the least noise that came up the staircase, and now kneeling before the crucifix placed at one extremity of the room. The orphans were not aware, that, whilst she brayed with fervor on behalf of her son, this excellent woman was praying for them also. For the state of their souls filled her with anxiety and alarm.
The day before, when Dagobert had set out for Chartres, Frances, having assisted Rose and Blanche to rise, had invited them to say their morning prayer: they answered with the utmost simplicity, that they did not know any, and that they never more than addressed their mother, who was in heaven. When Frances, struck with painful surprise, spoke to them of catechism, confirmation, communion, the sisters opened widely their large eyes with astonishment, understanding nothing of such talk.
According to her simple faith, terrified at the ignorance of the young girls in matters of religion, Dagobert's wife believed their souls to be in the greatest peril, the more so as, having asked them if they had ever been baptized (at the same time explaining to them the nature of that sacrament), the orphans answered they did not think they had, since there was neither church nor priest in the village where they were born, during their mother's exile in Siberia.
Placing one's self in the position of Frances, you understand how much she was grieved and alarmed; for, in her eyes, these young girls, whom she already loved tenderly, so charmed was she with their sweet disposition, were nothing but poor heathens, innocently doomed to eternal damnation. So, unable to restrain her tears, or conceal her horrors, she had clasped them in her arms, promising immediately to attend to their salvation, and regretting that Dagobert had not thought of having them baptized by the way. Now, it must be confessed, that this notion had never once occurred to the ex-grenadier.
When she went to her usual Sunday devotions, Frances had not dared to take Rose and Blanche with her, as their complete ignorance of sacred things would have rendered their presence at church, if not useless, scandalous; but, in her own fervent prayers she implored celestial mercy for these orphans, who did not themselves know the desperate position of their souls.
Rose and Blanche were now left alone, in the absence of Dagobert's wife. They were still dressed in mourning, their charming faces seeming even more pensive than usual. Though they were accustomed to a life of misfortune, they had been struck, since their arrival in the Rue Brise Miche, with the painful contrast between the poor dwelling which they had come to inhabit, and the wonders which their young imagination had conceived of Paris, that golden city of their dreams. But, soon this natural astonishment was replaced by thoughts of singular gravity for their age. The contemplation of such honest and laborious poverty made the orphans have reflections no longer those of children, but of young women. Assisted by their admirable spirit of justice and of sympathy for all that is good, by their noble heart, by a character at once delicate and courageous, they had observed and meditated much during the last twenty-four hours.
"Sister," said Rose to Blanche, when Frances had quitted the room, "Dagobert's poor wife is very uneasy. Did you remark in the night, how agitated she was? how she wept and prayed?"
"I was grieved to see it, sister, and wondered what could be the cause."
"I am almost afraid to guess. Perhaps we may be the cause of her uneasiness?"
"Why so, sister? Because we cannot say prayers, nor tell if we have ever been baptized?"
"That seemed to give her a good deal of pain, it is true. I was quite touched by it, for it proves that she loves us tenderly. But I could not understand how we ran such terrible danger as she said we did."
"Nor I either, sister. We have always tried not to displease our mother, who sees and hears us."
"We love those who love us; we are resigned to whatever may happen to us. So, who can reproach us with any harm?"
"No one. But, perhaps, we may do some without meaning it."
"Yes, and therefore I thought: We may perhaps be the cause of her uneasiness."
"Listen, sister! yesterday Madame Baudoin tried to work at those sacks of coarse cloth there on the table."
"Yes; but in about an half-hour, she told us sorrowfully, that she could not go on, because her eyes failed her, and she could not see clearly."
"So that she is not able to earn her living."
"No—but her son, M. Agricola, works for her. He looks so good, so gay, so frank, and so happy to devote himself for his mother. Oh, indeed! he is the worthy brother of our angel Gabriel!"
"You will see my reason for speaking of this. Our good old Dagobert told us, that, when we arrived here, he had only a few pieces of money left."
"That is true."
"Now both he and his wife are unable to earn their living; what can a poor old soldier like him do?"
"You are right; he only knows how to love us, and take care of us, like his children."
"It must then be M. Agricola who will have to support his father; for Gabriel is a poor priest, who possesses nothing, and can render no assistance to those who have brought him up. So M. Agricola will have to support the whole family by himself."
"Doubtless—he owes it to father and mother—it is his duty, and he will do it with a good will."
"Yes, sister—but he owes us nothing."
"What do you say, Blanche?"
"He is obliged to work for us also, as we possess nothing in the world."
"I had not thought of that. True."
"It is all very well, sister, for our father to be Duke and Marshal of France, as Dagobert tells us, it is all very well for us to hope great things from this medal, but as long as father is not here, and our hopes are not realized, we shall be merely poor orphans, obliged to remain a burden to this honest family, to whom we already owe so much, and who find it so hard to live, that—"
"Why do you pause, sister?"
"What I am about to say would make other people laugh; but you will understand it. Yesterday, when Dagobert's wife saw poor Spoil-sport at his dinner, she said, sorrowfully: 'Alas! he eats as much as a man!'—so that I could almost have cried to hear her. They must be very poor, and yet we have come to increase their poverty."
The sisters looked sadly at each other, while Spoil-sport pretended not to know they were talking of his voracity.
"Sister, I understand," said Rose, after a moment's silence. "Well, we must not be at the charge of any one. We are young, and have courage. Till our fate is decided, let us fancy ourselves daughters of workmen. After all, is not our grandfather a workman? Let us find some employment, and earn our own living. It must be so proud and happy to earn one's living!"
"Good little sister," said Blanche, kissing Rose. "What happiness! You have forestalled my thought; kiss me!"
"Your project is mine exactly. Yesterday, when I heard Dagobert's wife complain so sadly that she had lost her sight. I looked into your large eyes, which reminded me of my own, and said to myself: 'Well! this poor old woman may have lost her sight, but Rose and Blanche Simon can see pretty clearly'—which is a compensation," added Blanche, with a smile.
"And, after all," resumed Rose, smiling in her turn, "the young ladies in question are not so very awkward, as not to be able to sew up great sacks of coarse cloth—though it may chafe their fingers a little."
"So we had both the same thought, as usual; only I wished to surprise you, and waited till we were alone, to tell you my plan."
"Yes, but there is something teases me."
"What is that?"
"First of all, Dagobert and his wife will be sure to say to us: 'Young ladies, you are not fitted for such work. What, daughters of a Marshal of France sewing up great ugly bags!' And then, if we insist upon it, they will add: 'Well, we have no work to give you. If you want any, you must hunt for it.' What would Misses Simon do then?"
"The fact is, that when Dagobert has made up his mind to anything—"
"Oh! even then, if we coax him well—"
"Yes, in certain things; but in others he is immovable. It is just as when upon the journey, we wished to prevent his doing so much for us."
"Sister, an idea strikes me," cried Rose, "an excellent idea!"
"What is it? quick!"
"You know the young woman they call Mother Bunch, who appears to be so serviceable and persevering?"
"Oh yes! and so timid and discreet. She seems always to be afraid of giving offence, even if she looks at one. Yesterday, she did not perceive that I saw her; but her eyes were fixed on you with so good and sweet an expression, that tears came into mine at the very sight of it."
"Well, we must ask her how she gets work, for certainly she lives by her labor."
"You are right. She will tell us all about it; and when we know, Dagobert may scold us, or try to make great ladies of us, but we will be as obstinate as he is."
"That is it; we must show some spirit! We will prove to him, as he says himself, that we have soldier's blood in our veins."
"We will say to him: 'Suppose, as you say, we should one day be rich, my good Dagobert, we shall only remember this time with the more pleasure."
"It is agreed then, is it not, Rose? The first time we are alone with Mother Bunch, we must make her our confidant, and ask her for information. She is so good a person, that she will not refuse us."
"And when father comes home, he will be pleased, I am sure, with our courage."
"And will approve our wish to support ourselves, as if we were alone in the world."
On these words of her sister, Rose started. A cloud of sadness, almost of alarm, passed over her charming countenance, as she exclaimed: "Oh, sister, what a horrible idea!"
"What is the matter? your look frightens me."
"At the moment I heard you say, that our father would approve our wish to support ourselves, as if we were alone in the world—a frightful thought struck me—I know not why—but feel how my heart beats—just as if some misfortune were about to happen us."
"It is true; your poor heart beats violently. But what was this thought? You alarm me."
"When we were prisoners, they did not at least separate us, and, besides, the prison was a kind of shelter—"
"A sad one, though shared with you."
"But if, when arrived here, any accident had parted us from Dagobert—if we had been left alone, without help, in this great town?"
"Oh, sister! do not speak of that. It would indeed be terrible. What would become of us, kind heaven?"
This cruel thought made the girls remain for a moment speechless with emotion. Their sweet faces, which had just before glowed with a noble hope, grew pale and sad. After a pretty long silence, Rose uplifted her eyes, now filled with tears, "Why does this thought," she said, trembling, "affect us so deeply, sister? My heart sinks within me, as if it were really to happen to us."
"I feel as frightened as you yourself. Alas! were we both to be lost in this immense city, what would become of us?"
"Do not let us give way to such ideas, Blanche! Are we not here in Dagobert's house, in the midst of good people?"
"And yet, sister," said Rose, with a pensive air, "it is perhaps good for us to have had this thought."
"Because we shall now find this poor lodging all the better, as it affords a shelter from all our fears. And when, thanks to our labor, we are no longer a burden to any one, what more can we need until the arrival of our father?"
"We shall want for nothing—there you are right—but still, why did this thought occur to us, and why does it weigh so heavily on our minds?"
"Yes, indeed—why? Are we not here in the midst of friends that love us? How could we suppose that we should ever be left alone in Paris? It is impossible that such a misfortune should happen to us—is it not, my dear sister?"
"Impossible!" said Rose, shuddering. "If the day before we reached that village in Germany, where poor Jovial was killed, any one had said to us: 'To-morrow, you will be in prison'—we should have answered as now: 'It is impossible. Is not Dagobert here to protect us; what have we to fear?' And yet, sister, the day after we were in prison at Leipsic."
"Oh! do not speak thus, my dear sister! It frightens me."
By a sympathetic impulse, the orphans took one another by the hand, while they pressed close together, and looked around with involuntary fear. The sensation they felt was in fact deep, strange, inexplicable, and yet lowering—one of those dark presentiments which come over us, in spite of ourselves—those fatal gleams of prescience, which throw a lurid light on the mysterious profundities of the future.
Unaccountable glimpses of divination! often no sooner perceived than forgotten—but, when justified by the event, appearing with all the attributes of an awful fatality!
The daughters of Marshal Simon were still absorbed in the mournful reverie which these singular thoughts had awakened, when Dagobert's wife, returning from her son's chamber, entered the room with a painfully agitated countenance.
CHAPTER XLVII. THE LETTER.
Frances' agitation was so perceptible that Rose could not help exclaiming: "Good gracious, what is the matter?"
"Alas, my dear young ladies! I can no longer conceal it from you," said Frances, bursting into tears. "Since yesterday I have not seen him. I expected my son to supper as usual, and he never came; but I would not let you see how much I suffered. I continued to expect him, minute after minute; for ten years he has never gone up to bed without coming to kiss me; so I spent a good part of the night close to the door, listening if I could hear his step. But he did not come; and, at last, about three o'clock in the morning, I threw myself down upon the mattress. I have just been to see (for I still had a faint hope), if my son had come in this morning—"
"There is no sign of him!" said the poor mother, drying her eyes.
Rose and Blanche looked at each other with emotion; the same thought filled the minds of both; if Agricola should not return, how would this family live? would they not, in such an event, become doubly burdensome?
"But, perhaps, madame," said Blanche, "M. Agricola remained too late at his work to return home last night."
"Oh! no, no! he would have returned in the middle of the night, because he knew what uneasiness he would cause me by stopping out. Alas! some misfortune must have happened to him! Perhaps he has been injured at the forge, he is so persevering at his work. Oh, my poor boy! and, as if I did not feel enough anxiety about him, I am also uneasy about the poor young woman who lives upstairs."
"Why so, madame?"
"When I left my son's room, I went into hers, to tell her my grief, for she is almost a daughter to me; but I did not find her in the little closet where she lives, and the bed had not even been slept in. Where can she have gone so early—she, that never goes out?"
Rose and Blanche looked at each other with fresh uneasiness, for they counted much upon Mother Bunch to help them in the resolution they had taken. Fortunately, both they and Frances were soon to be satisfied on this head, for they heard two low knocks at the door, and the sempstress's voice, saying: "Can I come in, Mrs. Baudoin?"
By a spontaneous impulse, Rose and Blanche ran to the door, and opened it to the young girl. Sleet and snow had been falling incessantly since the evening before; the gingham dress of the young sempstress, her scanty cotton shawl, and the black net cap, which, leaving uncovered two thick bands of chestnut hair, encircled her pale and interesting countenance, were all dripping wet; the cold had given a livid appearance to her thin, white hands; it was only in the fire of her blue eyes, generally so soft and timid, that one perceived the extraordinary energy which this frail and fearful creature had gathered from the emergency of the occasion.
"Dear me! where do you come from, my good Mother Bunch?" said Frances. "Just now, in going to see if my son had returned, I opened your door, and was quite astonished to find you gone out so early."
"I bring you news of Agricola."
"Of my son!" cried Frances, trembling all over. "What has happened to him? Did you see him?—Did you speak to him?—Where is he?"
"I did not see him, but I know where he is." Then, perceiving that Frances grew very pale, the girl added: "He is well; he is in no danger."
"Blessed be God, who has pity on a poor sinner!—who yesterday restored me my husband, and to-day, after a night of cruel anguish, assures me of the safety of my child!" So saying, Frances knelt down upon the floor, and crossed herself with fervor.
During the moment of silence, caused by this pious action, Rose and Blanche approached Mother Bunch, and said to her in a low voice, with an expression of touching interest: "How wet you are! you must be very cold. Take care you do not get ill. We did not venture to ask Madame Frances to light the fire in the stove, but now we will do so."
Surprised and affected by the kindness of Marshal Simon's daughters, the hunchback, who was more sensible than others to the least mark of kindness, answered them with a look of ineffable gratitude: "I am much obliged to you, young ladies; but I am accustomed to the cold, and am moreover so anxious that I do not feel it."
"And my son?" said Frances, rising after she had remained some moments on her knees; "why did he stay out all night? And could you tell me where to find him, my good girl? Will he soon come? why is he so long?"
"I assure you, Agricola is well; but I must inform you, that for some time—"
"You must have courage, mother."
"Oh! the blood runs cold in my veins. What has happened? why shall I not see him?"
"Alas, he is arrested."
"Arrested!" cried Rose and Blanche, with affright.
"Father! Thy will be done!" said Frances; "but it is a great misfortune. Arrested! for what? He is so good and honest, that there must be some mistake."
"The day before yesterday," resumed Mother Bunch, "I received an anonymous letter, by which I was informed that Agricola might be arrested at any moment, on account of his song. We agreed together that he should go to the rich young lady in the Rue de Babylone, who had offered him her services, and ask her to procure bail for him; to prevent his going to prison. Yesterday morning he set out to go to the young lady's."
"And neither of you told me anything of all this—why did you hide it from me?"
"That we might not make you uneasy, mother; for, counting on the generosity of that young lady, I expected Agricola back every moment. When he did not come yesterday evening. I said to myself: 'Perhaps the necessary formalities with regard to the bail have detained him.' But the time passed on, and he did not make his appearance. So, I watched all night, expecting him."
"So you did not go to bed either, my good girl?"
"No, I was too uneasy. This morning, not being able to conquer my fears, I went out before dawn. I remembered the address of the young lady in the Rue de Babylone, and I ran thither."
"Oh, well!" said Frances, with anxiety; "you were in the right. According to what my son told us, that young lady appeared very good and generous."
Mother Bunch shook her head sorrowfully; a tear glittered in her eyes, as she continued: "It was still dark when I arrived at the Rue de Babylone; I waited till daylight was come."
"Poor child! you, who are so weak and timid," said Frances, with deep feeling, "to go so far, and in this dreadful weather!—Oh, you have been a real daughter to me!"
"Has not Agricola been like a brother to me!" said Mother Bunch, softly, with a slight blush.
"When it was daylight," she resumed: "I ventured to ring at the door of the little summer-house; a charming young girl, but with a sad, pale countenance, opened the door to me. 'I come in the name of an unfortunate mother in despair,' said I to her immediately, for I was so poorly dressed that I feared to be sent away as a beggar; but seeing, on the contrary, that the young girl listened to me with kindness, I asked her if, the day before, a young workman had not come to solicit a great favor of her mistress. 'Alas! yes,' answered the young girl; 'my mistress was going to interest herself for him, and, hearing that he was in danger of being arrested, she concealed him here; unfortunately, his retreat was discovered, and yesterday afternoon, at four o'clock, he was arrested and taken to prison.'"
Though the orphans took no part in this melancholy conversation, the sorrow and anxiety depicted in their countenances, showed how much they felt for the sufferings of Dagobert's wife.
"But the young lady?" cried Frances. "You should have tried to see her, my good Mother Bunch, and begged her not to abandon my son. She is so rich that she must have influence, and her protection might save us from great calamities."
"Alas!" said Mother Bunch, with bitter grief, "we must renounce this last hope."
"Why?" said Frances. "If this young lady is so good, she will have pity upon us, when she knows that my son is the only support of a whole family, and that for him to go to prison is worse than for another, because it will reduce us all to the greatest misery."
"But this young lady," replied the girl, "according to what I learned from her weeping maid, was taken last evening to a lunatic asylum: it appears she is mad."
"Mad! Oh! it is horrible for her, and for us also—for now there is no hope. What will become of us without my son? Oh, merciful heaven!" The unfortunate woman hid her face in her hands.
A profound silence followed this heart-rending outburst. Rose and Blanche exchanged mournful glances, for they perceived that their presence augmented the weighty embarrassments of this family. Mother Bunch, worn out with fatigue, a prey to painful emotions, and trembling with cold in her wet clothes, sank exhausted on a chair, and reflected on their desperate position.
That position was indeed a cruel one!
Often, in times of political disturbances, or of agitation amongst the laboring classes, caused by want of work, or by the unjust reduction of wages (the result of the powerful coalition of the capitalists)—often are whole families reduced, by a measure of preventive imprisonment, to as deplorable a position as that of Dagobert's household by Agricola's arrest—an arrest, which, as will afterwards appear, was entirely owing to Rodin's arts.
Now, with regard to this "precautionary imprisonment," of which the victims are almost always honest and industrious mechanics, driven to the necessity of combining together by the In organization of Labor and the Insufficiency of Wages, it is painful to see the law, which ought to be equal for all, refuse to strikers what it grants to masters—because the latter can dispose of a certain sum of money. Thus, under many circumstances, the rich man, by giving bail, can escape the annoyance and inconveniences of a preventive incarceration; he deposits a sum of money, pledges his word to appear on a certain day, and goes back to his pleasures, his occupations, and the sweet delights of his family. Nothing can be better; an accused person is innocent till he is proved guilty; we cannot be too much impressed with that indulgent maxim. It is well for the rich man that he can avail himself of the mercy of the law. But how is it with the poor?
Not only has he no bail to give, for his whole capital consists of his daily labor; but it is upon him chiefly that the rigors of preventive measures must fall with a terrible and fatal force.
For the rich man, imprisonment is merely the privation of ease and comfort, tedious hours, and the pain of separation from his family—distresses not unworthy of interest, for all suffering deserves pity, and the tears of the rich man separated from his children are as bitter as those of the poor. But the absence of the rich man does not condemn his family to hunger and cold, and the incurable maladies caused by exhaustion and misery.
For the workman, on the contrary, imprisonment means want, misery, sometimes death, to those most dear to him. Possessing nothing, he is unable to find bail, and he goes to prison. But if he have, as it often happens, an old, infirm father or mother, a sick wife, or children in the cradle? What will become of this unfortunate family? They could hardly manage to live from day to day upon the wages of this man, wages almost always insufficient, and suddenly this only resource will be wanting for three or four months together.
What will this family do? To whom will they have recourse?
What will become of these infirm old men, these sickly wives, these little children, unable to gain their daily bread? If they chance to have a little linen and a few spare clothes, these will be carried to the pawnbroker's, and thus they will exist for a week or so—but afterwards?
And if winter adds the rigors of the season to this frightful and inevitable misery?
Then will the imprisoned artisan see in his mind's eyes, during the long and sleepless nights, those who are dear to him, wan, gaunt, haggard, exhausted, stretched almost naked upon filthy straw, or huddled close together to warm their frozen limbs. And, should he afterwards be acquitted, it is ruin and desolation that he finds on his return to his poor dwelling.
And then, after that long cessation from labor, he will find it difficult to return to his old employers. How many days will be lost in seeking for work! and a day without employment is a day without bread!
Let us repeat our opinion, that if, under various circumstances, the law did not afford to the rich the facility of giving bail, we could only lament over all such victims of individual and inevitable misfortune. But since the law does provide the means of setting provisionally at liberty those who possess a certain sum of money, why should it deprive of this advantage those very persons, for whom liberty is indeed indispensable, as it involves the existence of themselves and families?
Is there any remedy for this deplorable state of things? We believe there is.
The law has fixed the minimum of bail at five hundred francs. Now five hundred francs represent, upon the average, six months' labor of an industrious workman.
If he have a wife and two children (which is also about the average), it is evidently quite impossible for him to have saved any such sum.
So, to ask of such a man five hundred francs, to enable him to continue to support his family, is in fact to put him beyond the pale of the law, though, more than any one else, he requires its protection, because of the disastrous consequences which his imprisonment entails upon others.
Would it not be equitable and humane, a noble and salutary example, to accept, in every case where bail is allowed (and where the good character of the accused could be honorably established), moral guarantees, in the absence of material ones, from those who have no capital but their labor and their integrity—to accept the word of an honest man to appear upon the day of trial? Would it not be great and moral, in these days to raise the value of the lighted word, and exalt man in his own eyes, by showing him that his promise was held to be sufficient security?
Will you so degrade the dignity of man, as to treat this proposition as an impossible and Utopian dream? We ask, how many prisoners of war have ever broken their parole, and if officers and soldiers are not brothers of the workingman?
Without exaggerating the virtue of promise-keeping in the honest and laborious poor, we feel certain, that an engagement taken by the accused to appear on the day of trial would be always fulfilled, not only with fidelity, but with the warmest gratitude—for his family would not have suffered by his absence, thanks to the indulgence of the law.
There is also another fact, of which France may well be proud. It is, that her magistrates (although miserably paid as the army itself) are generally wise, upright, humane, and independent; they have the true feeling of their own useful and sacred mission; they know how to appreciate the wants and distresses of the working classes, with whom they are so often brought in contact; to them might be safely granted the power of fixing those cases in which a moral security, the only one that can be given by the honest and necessitous man, should be received as sufficient.(10)
Finally, if those who make the laws have so low an opinion of the people as to reject with disdain the suggestions we have ventured to throw out, let them at least so reduce the minimum of bail, as to render it available for those who have most need to escape the fruitless rigors of imprisonment. Let them take as their lowest limit, the month's wages of an artisan—say eighty francs.
This sum would still be exorbitant; but, with the aid of friends, the pawnbroker's, and some little advances, eighty francs might perhaps be found—not always, it is true—but still sometimes—and, at all events, many families would be rescued from frightful misery.
Having made these observations, let us return to Dagobert's family, who, in consequence of the preventive arrest of Agricola, were now reduced to an almost hopeless state.
The anguish of Dagobert's wife increased, the more she reflected on her situation, for, including the marshal's daughters, four persons were left absolutely without resource. It must be confessed, however, that the excellent mother thought less of herself, than of the grief which her son must feel in thinking over her deplorable position.
At this moment there was a knock at the door.
"Who is there?" said Frances.
"It is me—Father Loriot."
"Come in," said Dagobert's wife.
The dyer, who also performed the functions of a porter, appeared at the door of the room. This time, his arms were no longer of a bright apple green, but of a magnificent violet.
"Mrs. Baudoin," said Father Loriot, "here is a letter that the giver of holy water at Saint Merely's has just brought from Abbe Dubois, with a request that I would bring it up to you immediately, as it is very pressing."
"A letter from my confessor?" said Frances, in astonishment; and, as she took it, added: "Thank you, Father Loriot."
"You do not want anything?"
"No, Father Loriot."
"My respects to the ladies!" and the dyer went out.
"Mother Bunch, will you read this letter for me?" said Frances, anxious to learn the contents of the missive in question.
"Yes, mother,"—and the young girl read as follows:
"'MY DEAR MADAME BAUDOIN,—I am in the habit of hearing you Tuesday and Saturday, but I shall not be at liberty either to-morrow or the last day of the week; you must then come to me this morning, unless you wish to remain a whole week without approaching the tribunal of penance.'"
"Good heavens! a week!" cried Dagobert's wife. "Alas! I am only too conscious of the necessity of going there today, notwithstanding the trouble and grief in which I am plunged."
Then, addressing herself to the orphans, she continued: "Heaven has heard the prayers that I made for you, my dear young ladies; this very day I shall be able to consult a good and holy man with regard to the great dangers to which you are exposed. Poor dear souls, that are so innocent, and yet so guilty, without any fault of your own! Heaven is my witness, that my heart bleeds for you as much as for my son."
Rose and Blanche looked at each other in confusion; they could not understand the fears with which the state of their souls inspired the wife of Dagobert. The latter soon resumed, addressing the young sempstress:
"My good girl, will you render me yet another service?"
"My husband took Agricola's week's wages with him to pay his journey to Chartres. It was all the money I had in the house; I am sure that my poor child had none about him, and in prison he will perhaps want some. Therefore take my silver cup, fork, and spoon, the two pair of sheets that remain over, and my wadded silk shawl, that Agricola gave me on my birthday, and carry them all to the pawnbroker's. I will try and find out in which prison my son is confined, and will send him half of the little sum we get upon the things; the rest will serve us till my husband comes home. And then, what shall we do? What a blow for him—and only more misery in prospect—since my son is in prison, and I have lost my sight. Almighty Father!" cried the unfortunate mother, with an expression of impatient and bitter grief, "why am I thus afflicted? Have I not done enough to deserve some pity, if not for myself, at least for those belonging to me?" But immediately reproaching herself for this outburst, she added, "No, no! I ought to accept with thankfulness all that Thou sandiest me. Forgive me for these complaints, or punish only myself!"
"Be of good courage, mother!" said Mother Bunch. "Agricola is innocent, and will not remain long in prison."
"But now I think of it," resumed Dagobert's wife, "to go to the pawnbroker's will make you lose much time, my poor girl."
"I can make up that in the night, Madame Frances; I could not sleep, knowing you in such trouble. Work will amuse me."
"Yes, but the candles—"
"Never mind, I am a little beforehand with my work," said the poor girl, telling a falsehood.
"Kiss me, at least," said Frances, with moist eyes, "for you are the very best creature in the world." So saying, she hastened cut of the room.
Rose and Blanche were left alone with Mother Bunch; at length had arrived the moment for which they had waited with so much impatience. Dagobert's wife proceeded to St. Merely Church, where her confessor was expecting to see her.
CHAPTER XLVIII. THE CONFESSIONAL
Nothing could be more gloomy than the appearance of St. Merely Church, on this dark and snowy winter's day. Frances stopped a moment beneath the porch, to behold a lugubrious spectacle.
While a priest was mumbling some words in a low voice, two or three dirty choristers, in soiled surplices, were charting the prayers for the dead, with an absent and sullen air, round a plain deal coffin, followed only by a sobbing old man and a child, miserably clad. The beadle and the sacristan, very much displeased at being disturbed for so wretched a funeral, had not deigned to put on their liveries, but, yawning with impatience, waited for the end of the ceremony, so useless to the interests of the establishment. At length, a few drops of holy water being sprinkled on the coffin, the priest handed the brush to the beadle, and retired.
Then took place one of those shameful scenes, the necessary consequence of an ignoble and sacrilegious traffic, so frequent with regard to the burials of the poor, who cannot afford to pay for tapers, high mass, or violins—for now St. Thomas Aquinas' Church has violins even for the dead.
The old man stretched forth his hand to the sacristan to receive the brush. "Come, look sharp!" said that official, blowing on his fingers.
The emotion of the old man was profound, and his weakness extreme; he remained for a moment without stirring, while the brush was clasped tightly in his trembling hand. In that coffin was his daughter, the mother of the ragged child who wept by his side—his heart was breaking at the thought of that last farewell; he stood motionless, and his bosom heaved with convulsive sobs.
"Now, will you make haste?" said the brutal beadle. "Do you think we are going to sleep here?"
The old man quickened his movements. He made the sign of the cross over the corpse, and, stooping down, was about to place the brush in the hand of his grandson, when the sacristan, thinking the affair had lasted long enough, snatched the sprinkling-brush from the child, and made a sign to the bearers to carry away the coffin—which was immediately done.
"Wasn't that old beggar a slow coach?" said the beadle to his companion, as they went back to the sacristy. "We shall hardly have time to get breakfast, and to dress ourselves for the bang-up funeral of this morning. That will be something like a dead man, that's worth the trouble. I shall shoulder my halberd in style!"
"And mount your colonel's epaulets, to throw dust in the eyes of the women that let out the chairs—eh, you old rascal!" said the other, with a sly look.
"What can I do, Capillare? When one has a fine figure, it must be seen," answered the beadle, with a triumphant air. "I cannot blind the women to prevent their losing their hearts!"
Thus conversing; the two men reached the sacristy. The sight of the funeral had only increased the gloom of Frances. When she entered the church, seven or eight persons, scattered about upon chairs, alone occupied the damp and icy building. One of the distributors of holy water, an old fellow with a rubicund, joyous, wine-bibbing face, seeing Frances approach the little font, said to her in a low voice: "Abbe Dubois is not yet in his box. Be quick, and you will have the first wag of his beard."
Though shocked at this pleasantry, Frances thanked the irreverent speaker, made devoutly the sign of the cross, advanced some steps into the church, and knelt down upon the stones to repeat the prayer, which she always offered up before approaching the tribunal of penance. Having said this prayer, she went towards a dark corner of the church, in which was an oaken confessional, with a black curtain drawn across the grated door. The places on each side were vacant; so Frances knelt down in that upon the right hand, and remained there for some time absorbed in bitter reflections.
In a few minutes, a priest of tall stature, with gray hair and a stern countenance, clad in a long black cassock, stalked slowly along one of the aisles of the church. A short, old, misshapen man, badly dressed, leaning upon an umbrella, accompanied him, and from time to time whispered in his ear, when the priest would stop to listen with a profound and respectful deference.
As they approached the confessional, the short old man, perceiving Frances on her knees, looked at the priest with an air of interrogation. "It is she," said the clergyman.
"Well, in two or three hours, they will expect the two girls at St. Mary's Convent. I count upon it," said the old man.
"I hope so, for the sake of their souls," answered the priest; and, bowing gravely, he entered the confessional. The short old man quitted the church.
This old man was Rodin. It was on leaving Saint Merely's that he went to the lunatic asylum, to assure himself that Dr. Baleinier had faithfully executed his instructions with regard to Adrienne de Cardoville.
Frances was still kneeling in the interior of the confessional. One of the slides opened, and a voice began to speak. It was that of the priest, who, for the last twenty years had been the confessor of Dagobert's wife, and exercised over her an irresistible and all-powerful influence.
"You received my letter?" said the voice.
"Very well—I listen to you."
"Bless me, father—for I have sinned!" said Frances.
The voice pronounced the formula of the benediction. Dagobert's wife answered "amen," as was proper, said her confider to "It is my fault," gave an account of the manner in which she had performed her last penance, and then proceeded to the enumeration of the new sins, committed since she had received absolution.
For this excellent woman, a glorious martyr of industry and maternal love, always fancied herself sinning: her conscience was incessantly tormented by the fear that she had committed some incomprehensible offence. This mild and courageous creature, who, after a whole life of devotion, ought to have passed what time remained to her in calm serenity of soul, looked upon herself as a great sinner, and lived in continual anxiety, doubting much her ultimate salvation.
"Father," said Frances, in a trembling voice, "I accuse myself of omitting my evening prayer the day before yesterday. My husband, from whom I had been separated for many years, returned home. The joy and the agitation caused by his arrival, made me commit this great sin."
"What next?" said the voice, in a severe tone, which redoubled the poor woman's uneasiness.
"Father, I accuse myself of falling into the same sin yesterday evening. I was in a state of mortal anxiety, for my son did not come home as usual, and I waited for him minute after minute, till the hour had passed over."
"What next?" said the voice.
"Father, I accuse myself of having told a falsehood all this week to my son, by letting him think that on account of his reproaching me for neglecting my health, I had taken a little wine for my dinner—whereas I had left it for him, who has more need of it, because he works so much."
"Go on!" said the voice.
"Father, I accuse myself of a momentary want of resignation this morning, when I learned that my poor son was arrested; instead of submitting with respect and gratitude to this new trial which the Lord hath sent me—alas! I rebelled against it in my grief—and of this I accuse myself."
"A bad week," said the priest, in a tone of still greater severity, "a bad week—for you have always put the creature before the Creator. But proceed!"
"Alas, father!" resumed Frances, much dejected, "I know that I am a great sinner; and I fear that I am on the road to sins of a still graver kind."
"My husband brought with him from Siberia two young orphans, daughters of Marshal Simon. Yesterday morning, I asked them to say their prayers, and I learned from them, with as much fright as sorrow, that they know none of the mysteries of our holy faith, though they are fifteen years old. They have never received the sacrament, nor are they even baptized, father—not even baptized!"
"They must be heathens!" cried the voice, in a tone of angry surprise.
"That is what so much grieves me, father; for, as I and my husband are in the room of parents to these young orphans, we should be guilty of the sins which they might commit—should we not, father?"
"Certainly,—since you take the place of those who ought to watch over their souls. The shepherd must answer for his flock," said the voice.
"And if they should happen to be in mortal sin, father, I and my husband would be in mortal sin?"
"Yes," said the voice; "you take the place of their parents; and fathers and mothers are guilty of all the sins which their children commit when those sins arise from the want of a Christian education."
"Alas, father! what am I to do? I address myself to you as I would to heaven itself. Every day, every hour, that these poor young girls remain heathens, may contribute to bring about their eternal damnation, may it not, father?" said Frances, in a tone of the deepest emotion.
"Yes," answered the voice; "and the weight of this terrible responsibility rests upon you and your husband; you have the charge of souls!"
"Lord, have mercy upon me!" said Frances weeping.
"You must not grieve yourself thus," answered the voice, in a softer tone; "happily for these unfortunates, they have met you upon the way. They, will have in you and your husband good and pious examples—for I suppose that your husband, though formerly an ungodly person, now practices his religious duties!"
"We must pray for him, father," said Frances, sorrowfully; "grace has not yet touched his heart. He is like my poor child, who has also not been called to holiness. Ah, father!" said Frances, drying her tears, "these thoughts are my heaviest cross."
"So neither your husband nor your son practises," resumed the voice, in a tone of reflection; "this is serious—very serious. The religious education of these two unfortunate girls has yet to begin. In your house, they will have ever before them the most deplorable examples. Take care! I have warned you. You have the charge of souls—your responsibility is immense!"
"Father, it is that which makes me wretched—I am at a loss what to do. Help me, and give me your counsels: for twenty years your voice has been to me as the voice of the Lord."
"Well! you must agree with your husband to send these unfortunate girls to some religious house where they may be instructed."
"We are too poor, father, to pay for their schooling, and unfortunately my son has just been put in prison for songs that he wrote."
"Behold the fruit of impiety," said the voice, severely; "look at Gabriel! he has followed my counsels, and is now the model of every Christian virtue."
"My son, Agricola, has had good qualities, father; he is so kind, so devoted!"
"Without religion," said the voice, with redoubled severity, "what you call good qualities are only vain appearances; at the least breath of the devil they will disappear—for the devil lurks in every soul that has no religion."
"Oh! my poor son!" said Frances, weeping; "I pray for him every day, that faith may enlighten him."
"I have always told you," resumed the voice, "that you have been too weak with him. God now punishes you for it. You should have parted from this irreligious son, and not sanctioned his impiety by loving him as you do. 'If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,' saith the Scripture."
"Alas, father! you know it is the only time I have disobeyed you; but I could not bring myself to part from my son."
"Therefore is your salvation uncertain—but God is merciful. Do not fall into the same fault with regard to these young girls, whom Providence has sent you, that you might save them from eternal damnation. Do not plunge them into it by your own culpable indifference."
"Oh, father! I have wept and prayed for them."
"That is not sufficient. These unfortunate children cannot have any notion of good or evil. Their souls must be an abyss of scandal and impurity—brought up as they have been, by an impious mother, and a soldier devoid of religion."
"As for that, father," said Frances, with simplicity, "they are gentle as angels, and my husband, who has not quitted them since their birth, declares they have the best hearts in the world."
"Your husband has dwelt all his life in mortal sin," said the voice, harshly; "how can he judge of the state of souls? I repeat to you, that as you represent the parents of these unfortunates, it is not to-morrow, but it is today, and on the instant, that you must labor for their salvation, if you would not incur a terrible responsibility."
"It is true—I know it well, father—and I suffer as much from this fear as from grief at my son's arrest. But what is to be done? I could not instruct these young girls at home—for I have not the knowledge—I have only faith—and then my poor husband, in his blindness, makes game of sacred things, which my son, at least, respects in my presence, out of regard for me. Then, once more, father, come to my aid, I conjure you! Advise me: what is to be done?"
"We cannot abandon these two young souls to frightful perdition," said the voice, after a moment's silence: "there are not two ways of saving them: there is only one, and that is to place them in a religious house, where they may be surrounded by good and pious examples."
"Oh, father! if we were not so poor, or if I could still work, I would try to gain sufficient to pay for their board, and do for them as I did for Gabriel. Unfortunately, I have quite lost my sight; but you, father, know some charitable souls, and if you could get any of them to interest them, selves for these poor orphans—"
"Where is their father?"
"He was in India; but, my husband tells me, he will soon be in France. That, however, is uncertain. Besides, it would make my heart bleed to see those poor children share our misery—which will soon be extreme—for we only live by my son's labor."
"Have these girls no relation here?" asked the voice.
"I believe not, father."
"It was their mother who entrusted them to your husband, to bring them to France?"
"Yes, father; he was obliged to set out yesterday for Chartres, on some very pressing business, as he told me."
It will be remembered that Dagobert had not thought fit to inform his wife of the hopes which the daughters of Marshall Simon founded on the possession of the medal, and that he had particularly charged them not to mention these hopes, even to Frances.
"So," resumed the voice, after a pause of some moments' duration, "your husband is not in Paris."
"No, father; but he will doubtless return this evening or to-morrow morning."
"Listen to me," said the voice, after another pause. "Every minute lost for those two young girls is a new step on the road to perdition. At any moment the hand of God may smite them, for He alone knows the hour of our death; and were they to die in the state in which they now are, they would most probably be lost to all eternity. This very day, therefore, you must open their eyes to the divine light, and place them in a religious house. It is your duty—it should be your desire!"
"Oh, yes, father; but, unfortunately, I am too poor, as I have already told you."
"I know it—you do not want for zeal or faith—but even were you capable of directing these young girls, the impious examples of your husband and son would daily destroy your work. Others must do for these orphans, in the name of Christian charity, that which you cannot do, though you are answerable for them before heaven."
"Oh, father! if, thanks to you, this good work could be accomplished, how grateful I should be!"
"It is not impossible. I know the superior of a convent, where these young girls would be instructed as they ought. The charge for their board would be diminished in consideration of their poverty; but, however small, it must be paid and there would be also an outfit to furnish. All that would be too dear for you."
"Alas! yes, father."
"But, by taking a little from my poor-box, and by applying to one or two generous persons, I think I shall be able to complete the necessary sum, and so get the young girls received at the convent."
"Ah, father! you are my deliverer, and these children's."
"I wish to be so—but, in the interest of their salvation, and to make these measures really efficacious, I must attach some conditions to the support I offer you."
"Name them, father; they are accepted beforehand. Your commands shall be obeyed in everything."
"First of all, the children must be taken this very morning to the convent, by my housekeeper, to whom you must bring them almost immediately."
"Nay, father; that is impossible!" cried Frances.
"In the absence of my husband—"
"I dare not take a such a step without consulting him."
"Not only must you abstain from consulting him, but the thing must be done during his absence."
"What, father? should I not wait for his return?"
"No, for two reasons," answered the priest, sternly: "first, because his hardened impiety would certainly lead him to oppose your pious resolution; secondly, because it is indispensable that these young girls should break off all connection with your husband, who, therefore, must be left in ignorance of the place of their retreat."
"But, father," said Frances, a prey to cruel doubt and embarrassment, "it is to my husband that these children were entrusted—and to dispose of them without his consent would be—"
"Can you instruct these children at your house—yes or no?" interrupted the voice.
"No, father, I cannot."
"Are they exposed to fall into a state of final impenitence by remaining with you—yes or no?"
"Yes, father, they are so exposed."
"Are you responsible, as you take the place of their parents, for the mortal sins they may commit—yes or no?"
"Alas, father! I am responsible before God."
"Is it in the interest of their eternal salvation that I enjoin you to place them this very day in a convent?"
"It is for their salvation, father."
"Well, then, choose!"
"But tell me, I entreat you, father if I have the right to dispose of them without the consent of my husband?"
"The right! you have not only the right, but it is your sacred duty. Would you not be bound, I ask you, to rescue these unfortunate creatures from a fire, against the will of your husband, or during his absence? Well! you must now rescue them, not from a fire that will only consume the body, but from one in which their souls would burn to all eternity."
"Forgive me, I implore you, father," said the poor woman, whose indecision and anguish increased every minute; "satisfy my doubts!—How can I act thus, when I have sworn obedience to my husband?"
"Obedience for good—yes—but never for evil. You confess, that, were it left to him, the salvation of these orphans would be doubtful, and perhaps impossible."
"But, father," said Frances, trembling, "when my husband returns, he will ask me where are these children? Must I tell him a falsehood?"
"Silence is not falsehood; you will tell him that you cannot answer his question."
"My husband is the kindest of men; but such an answer will drive him almost mad. He has been a soldier, and his anger will be terrible, father," said Frances, shuddering at the thought.
"And were his anger a hundred times more terrible, you should be proud to brave it in so sacred a cause!" cried the voice, with indignation. "Do you think that salvation is to be so easily gained on earth? Since when does the sinner, that would walk in the way of the Lord, turn aside for the stones and briars that may bruise and tear him?"
"Pardon, father, pardon!" said Frances, with the resignation of despair. "Permit me to ask one more question, one only. Alas! if you do not guide me, how shall I find the way?"
"When Marshal Simon arrives, he will ask his children of my husband. What answer can he then give to their father?"
"When Marshal Simon arrives, you will let me know immediately, and then—I will see what is to be done. The rights of a father are only sacred in so far as he make use of them for the salvation of his children. Before and above the father on earth, is the Father in heaven, whom we must first serve. Reflect upon all this. By accepting what I propose to you, these young girls will be saved from perdition; they will not be at your charge; they will not partake of your misery; they will be brought up in a sacred institution, as, after all, the daughters of a Marshal of France ought to be—and, when their father arrives at Paris, if he be found worthy of seeing them again, instead of finding poor, ignorant, half savage heathens, he will behold two girls, pious, modest, and well informed, who, being acceptable with the Almighty, may invoke His mercy for their father, who, it must be owned, has great need of it—being a man of violence, war, and battle. Now decide! Will you, on peril of your soul, sacrifice the welfare of these girls in this world and the next, because of an impious dread of your husband's anger?"
Though rude and fettered by intolerance, the confessor's language was (taking his view of the case) reasonable and just, because the honest priest was himself convinced of what he said; a blind instrument of Rodin, ignorant of the end in view, he believed firmly, that, in forcing Frances to place these young girls in a convent, he was performing a pious duty. Such was, and is, one of the most wonderful resources of the order to which Rodin belonged—to have for accomplices good and sincere people, who are ignorant of the nature of the plots in which they are the principal actors.
Frances, long accustomed to submit to the influence of her confessor, could find nothing to object to his last words. She resigned herself to follow his directions, though she trembled to think of the furious anger of Dagobert, when he should no longer find the children that a dying mother had confided to his care. But, according to the priest's opinion, the more terrible this anger might appear to her, the more she would show her pious humility by exposing herself to it.
"God's will be done, father!" said she, in reply to her confessor. "Whatever may happen, I wilt do my duty as a Christian—in obedience to your commands."
"And the Lord will reward you for what you may have to suffer in the accomplishment of this meritorious act. You promise then, before God, that you will not answer any of your husband's questions, when he asks you for the daughters of Marshal Simon?"
"Yes, father, I promise!" said Frances, with a shudder.
"And will preserve the same silence towards Marshal Simon himself, in case he should return, before his daughters appear to me sufficiently grounded in the faith to be restored to him?"
"Yes, father," said Frances, in a still fainter voice.
"You will come and give me an account of the scene that takes place between you and your husband, upon his return?"
"Yes, father; when must I bring the orphans to your house?"
"In an hour. I will write to the superior, and leave the letter with my housekeeper. She is a trusty person, and will conduct the young girls to the convent."
After she had listened to the exhortations of her confessor, and received absolution for her late sins, on condition of performing penance, Dagobert's wife left the confessional.
The church was no longer deserted. An immense crowd pressed into it, drawn thither by the pomp of the grand funeral of which the beadle had spoken to the sacristan two hours before. It was with the greatest difficulty that Frances could reach the door of the church, now hung with sumptuous drapery.
What a contrast to the poor and humble train, which had that morning so timidly presented themselves beneath the porch!
The numerous clergy of the parish, in full procession, advanced majestically to receive the coffin covered with a velvet pall; the watered silks and stuffs of their copes and stoles, their splendid silvered embroideries, sparkled in the light of a thousand tapers. The beadle strutted in all the glory of his brilliant uniform and flashing epaulets; on the opposite side walked in high glee the sacristan, carrying his whalebone staff with a magisterial air; the voice of the choristers, now clad in fresh, white surplices, rolled out in bursts of thunder; the trumpets' blare shook the windows; and upon the countenances of all those who were to have a share in the spoils of this rich corpse, this excellent corpse, this first-class corpse, a look of satisfaction was visible, intense and yet subdued, which suited admirably with the air and attitude of the two heirs, tall, vigorous fellows with florid complexions, who, without overstepping the limits of a charming modesty of enjoyment, seemed to cuddle and hug themselves most comfortably in their mourning cloaks.
Notwithstanding her simplicity and pious faith, Dagobert's wife was painfully impressed with this revolting difference between the reception of the rich and the poor man's coffin at the door of the house of God—for surely, if equality be ever real, it is in the presence of death and eternity!
The two sad spectacles she had witnessed, tended still further to depress the spirits of Frances. Having succeeded with no small trouble in making her way out of the church, she hastened to return to the Rue Brise-Miche, in order to fetch the orphans and conduct them to the housekeeper of her confessor, who was in her turn to take them to St. Mary's Convent, situated, as we know, next door to Dr. Baleinier's lunatic-asylum, in which—Adrienne de Cardoville was confined.
CHAPTER XLIX. MY LORD AND SPOIL-SPORT.
The wife of Dagobert, having quitted the church, arrived at the corner of the Rue Brise-Miche, when she was accosted by the distributor of holy water; he came running out of breath, to beg her to return to Saint Mery's, where the Abbe Dubois had yet something of importance to say to her.
The moment Frances turned to go back, a hackney-coach stopped in front of the house she inhabited. The coachman quitted his box to open the door.
"Driver," said a stout woman dressed in black, who was seated in the carriage, and held a pug-dog upon her knees, "ask if Mrs. Frances Baudoin lives in this house."
"Yes, ma'am," said the coachman.
The reader will no doubt have recognized Mrs. Grivois, head waiting-woman to the Princess de Saint-Dizier, accompanied by My Lord, who exercised a real tyranny over his mistress. The dyer, whom we have already seen performing the duties of a porter, being questioned by the coachman as to the dwelling of Frances, came out of his workshop, and advanced gallantly to the coach-door, to inform Mrs. Grivois, that Frances Baudoin did in fact live in the house, but that she was at present from home.
The arms, hands, and part of the face of Father Loriot were now of a superb gold-color. The sight of this yellow personage singularly provoked My Lord, and at the moment the dyer rested his hand upon the edge of the coach-window, the cur began to yelp frightfully, and bit him in the wrist.
"Oh! gracious heaven!" cried Mrs. Grivois, in an agony, whilst Father Loriot, withdrew his hand with precipitation; "I hope there is nothing poisonous in the dye that you have about you—my dog is so delicate!"
So saying, she carefully wiped the pug-nose, spotted with yellow. Father Loriot, not at all satisfied with this speech, when he had expected to receive some apology from Mrs. Grivois on account of her dog's behavior, said to her, as with difficulty he restrained his anger: "If you did not belong to the fair sex, which obliges me to respect you in the person of that wretched animal I would have the pleasure of taking him by the tail, and making him in one minute a dog of the brightest orange color, by plunging him into my cauldron, which is already on the fire."
"Dye my pet yellow!" cried Mrs. Grivois, in great wrath, as she descended from the hackney-coach, clasping My Lord tenderly to her bosom, and surveying Father Loriot with a savage look.
"I told you, Mrs. Baudoin is not at home," said the dyer, as he saw the pug-dog's mistress advance in the direction of the dark staircase.
"Never mind; I will wait for her," said Mrs. Grivois tartly. "On which story does she live?"
"Up four pair!" answered Father Loriot, returning abruptly to his shop. And he added to himself, with a chuckle at the anticipation: "I hope Father Dagobert's big prowler will be in a bad humor, and give that villainous pug a shaking by the skin of his neck."
Mrs. Grivois mounted the steep staircase with some difficulty, stopping at every landing-place to take breath, and looking about her with profound disgust. At length she reached the fourth story, and paused an instant at the door of the humble chamber, in which the two sisters and Mother Bunch then were.
The young sempstress was occupied in collecting the different articles that she was about to carry to the pawnbroker's. Rose and Blanche seemed happier, and somewhat less uneasy about the future; for they had learned from Mother Bunch, that, when they knew how to sew, they might between them earn eight francs a week, which would at least afford some assistance to the family.
The presence of Mrs. Grivois in Baudoin's dwelling was occasioned by a new resolution of Abbe d'Aigrigny and the Princess de Saint-Dizier; they had thought it more prudent to send Mrs. Grivois, on whom they could blindly depend, to fetch the young girls, and the confessor was charged to inform Frances that it was not to his housekeeper, but to a lady that would call on her with a note from him, that she was to deliver the orphans, to be taken to a religious establishment.
Having knocked at the door, the waiting-woman of the Princess de Saint Dizier entered the room, and asked for Frances Baudoin.
"She is not at home, madame," said Mother Bunch timidly, not a little astonished at so unexpected a visit, and casting down her eyes before the gaze of this woman.
"Then I will wait for her, as I have important affairs to speak of," answered Mrs. Grivois, examining with curiosity and attention the faces of the two orphans, who also cast down their eyes with an air of confusion.
So saying, Madame Grivois sat down, not without some repugnance, in the old arm-chair of Dagobert's wife, and believing that she might now leave her favorite at liberty, she laid him carefully on the floor. Immediately, a low growl, deep and hollow, sounding from behind the armchair, made Mrs. Grivois jump from her seat, and sent the pug-dog, yelping with affright, and trembling through his fat, to take refuge close to his mistress, with all the symptoms of angry alarm.
"What! is there a dog here?" cried Mrs. Grivois, stooping precipitately to catch up My Lord, whilst, as if he wished himself to answer the question, Spoil-sport rose leisurely from his place behind the arm-chair, and appeared suddenly, yawning and stretching himself.
At sight of this powerful animal, with his double row of formidable pointed fangs, which he seemed to take delight in displaying as he opened his large jaws, Mrs. Grivois could not help giving utterance to a cry of terror. The snappish pug had at first trembled in all his limbs at the Siberian's approach; but, finding himself in safety on the lap of his mistress, he began to growl insolently, and to throw the most provoking glances at Spoil-sport. These the worthy companion of the deceased Jovial answered disdainfully by gaping anew; after which he went smelling round Mrs. Grivois with a sort of uneasiness, turned his back upon My Lord, and stretched himself at the feet of Rose and Blanche, keeping his large, intelligent eyes fixed upon them, as if he foresaw that they were menaced with some danger.
"Turn out that beast," said Mrs. Grivois, imperiously; "he frightens my dog, and may do him some harm."
"Do not be afraid, madame," replied Rose, with a smile; "Spoil-sport will do no harm, if he is not attacked."
"Never mind!" cried Mrs. Grivois; "an accident soon happens. The very sight of that enormous dog, with his wolf's head and terrible teeth, is enough to make one tremble at the injuries he might do one. I tell you to turn him out."
Mrs. Grivois had pronounced these last words in a tone of irritation, which did not sound at all satisfactory in Spoil-sport's ears; so he growled and showed his teeth, turning his head in the direction of the stranger.
"Be quiet, Spoil-sport!" said Blanche sternly.
A new personage here entered the room, and put an end to this situation, which was embarrassing enough for the two young girls. It was a commissionaire, with a letter in his hand.
"What is it, sir?" asked Mother Bunch.
"A very pressing letter from the good man of the house; the dyer below stairs told me to bring it up here."
"A letter from Dagobert!" cried Rose and Blanche, with a lively expression of pleasure. "He is returned then? where is he?"
"I do not know whether the good man is called Dagobert or not," said the porter; "but he is an old trooper, with a gray moustache, and may be found close by, at the office of the Chartres coaches."
"That is he!" cried Blanche. "Give me the letter."
The porter handed it to the young girl, who opened it in all haste.
Mrs. Grivois was struck dumb with dismay; she knew that Dagobert had been decoyed from Paris, that the Abbe Dubois might have an opportunity to act with safety upon Frances. Hitherto, all had succeeded; the good woman had consented to place the young girls in the hands of a religious community—and now arrives this soldier, who was thought to be absent from Paris for two or three days at least, and whose sudden return might easily ruin this laborious machination, at the moment when it seemed to promise success.
"Oh!" said Blanche, when she had read the letter. "What a misfortune!"
"What is it, then, sister?" cried Rose.
"Yesterday, half way to Chartres, Dagobert perceived that he had lost his purse. He was unable to continue his journey; he took a place upon credit, to return, and he asks his wife to send him some money to the office, to pay what he owes."
"That's it," said the porter; "for the good man told me to make haste, because he was there in pledge."
"And nothing in the house!" cried Blanche. "Dear me! what is to be done?"
At these words, Mrs. Grivois felt her hopes revive for a moment, they were soon, however, dispelled by Mother Bunch, who exclaimed, as she pointed to the parcel she had just made up: "Be satisfied, dear young ladies! here is a resource. The pawnbroker's, to which I am going, is not far off, and I will take the money direct to M. Dagobert: in half an hour, at latest, he will be here."
"Oh, my dear friend! you are right," said Rose. "How good you are! you think of everything."
"And here," said Blanche, "is the letter, with the address upon it. Take that with you."
"Thank you," answered Mother Bunch: then, addressing the porter, she added: "Return to the person who sent you, and tell him I shall be at the coach-office very shortly."
"Infernal hunchback!" thought Mrs. Grivois, with suppressed rage, "she thinks of everything. Without her, we should have escaped the plague of this man's return. What is to be done now? The girls would not go with me, before the arrival of the soldier's wife; to propose it to them would expose me to a refusal, and might compromise all. Once more, what is to be done?"
"Do not be uneasy, ladies," said the porter as he went out; "I will go and assure the good man, that he will not have to remain long in pledge."
Whilst Mother Bunch was occupied in tying her parcel, in which she had placed the silver cup, fork, and spoon, Mrs. Grivois seemed to reflect deeply. Suddenly she started. Her countenance, which had been for some moments expressive of anxiety and rage, brightened up on the instant. She rose, still holding My Lord in her arms, and said to the young girls: "As Mrs. Baudoin does not come in, I am going to pay a visit in the neighborhood, and will return immediately. Pray tell her so!"
With these words Mr. Grivois took her departure, a few minutes before Mother Bunch left.
CHAPTER L. APPEARANCES.
After she had again endeavored to cheer up the orphans, the sewing-girl descended the stairs, not without difficulty, for, in addition to the parcel, which was already heavy, she had fetched down from her own room the only blanket she possessed—thus leaving herself without protection from the cold of her icy garret.
The evening before, tortured with anxiety as to Agricola's fate, the girl had been unable to work; the miseries of expectation and hope delayed had prevented her from doing so; now another day would be lost, and yet it was necessary to live. Those overwhelming sorrows, which deprive the poor of the faculty of labor, are doubly dreaded; they paralyze the strength, and, with that forced cessation from toil, want and destitution are often added to grief.
But Mother Bunch, that complete incarnation of holiest duty, had yet strength enough to devote herself for the service of others. Some of the most frail and feeble creatures are endowed with extraordinary vigor of soul; it would seem as if, in these weak, infirm organizations, the spirit reigned absolutely over the body, and knew how to inspire it with a factitious energy.
Thus, for the last twenty-four hours, Mother Bunch had neither slept nor eaten; she had suffered from the cold, through the whole of a frosty night. In the morning she had endured great fatigue, in going, amid rain and snow, to the Rue de Babylone and back, twice crossing Paris and yet her strength was not exhausted—so immense is the power of the human heart!
She had just arrived at the corner of the Rue Saint Mery. Since the recent Rue des Prouvaires conspiracy, there were stationed in this populous quarter of the town a much larger number of police-officers than usual. Now the young sempstress, though bending beneath the weight of her parcel, had quickened her pace almost to a run, when, just as she passed in front of one of the police, two five-franc pieces fell on the ground behind her, thrown there by a stout woman in black, who followed her closely.
Immediately after the stout woman pointed out the two pieces to the policeman, and said something hastily to him with regard to Mother Bunch. Then she withdrew at all speed in the direction of the Rue Brise-Miche.
The policeman, struck with what Mrs. Grivois had said to him ( for it was that person), picked up the money, and, running after the humpback, cried out to her: "Hi, there! young woman, I say—stop! stop!"
On this outcry, several persons turned round suddenly and, as always happens in those quarters of the town, a nucleus of five or six persons soon grew to a considerable crowd.
Not knowing that the policeman was calling to her, Mother Bunch only quickened her speed, wishing to get to the pawnbroker's as soon as possible, and trying to avoid touching any of the passers-by, so much did she dread the brutal and cruel railleries, to which her infirmity so often exposed her.
Suddenly, she heard many persons running after her, and at the same instant a hand was laid rudely on her shoulder. It was the policeman, followed by another officer, who had been drawn to the spot by the noise. Mother Bunch turned round, struck with as much surprise as fear.
She found herself in the centre of a crowd, composed chiefly of that hideous scum, idle and in rags, insolent and malicious, besotted with ignorance, brutalized by want, and always loafing about the corners. Workmen are scarcely ever met with in these mobs, for they are for the most part engaged in their daily labors.
"Come, can't you hear? you are deaf as Punch's dog," said the policeman, seizing Mother Bunch so rudely by the arm, that she let her parcel fall at her feet.
When the unfortunate girl, looking round in terror, saw herself exposed to all those insolent, mocking, malicious glances, when she beheld the cynical and coarse grimace on so many ignoble and filthy countenances, she trembled in all her limbs, and became fearfully pale. No doubt the policeman had spoken roughly to her; but how could he speak otherwise to a poor deformed girl, pale and trembling, with her features agitated by grief and fear—to a wretched creature, miserably clad, who wore in winter a thin cotton gown, soiled with mud, and wet with melted snow—for the poor sempstress had walked much and far that morning. So the policeman resumed, with great severity, following that supreme law of appearances which makes poverty always suspected: "Stop a bit, young woman! it seems you are in a mighty hurry, to let your money fall without picking it up."
"Was her blunt hid in her hump?" said the hoarse voice of a match-boy, a hideous and repulsive specimen of precocious depravity.
This sally was received with laughter, shouts, and hooting, which served to complete the sewing-girl's dismay and terror. She was hardly able to answer, in a feeble voice, as the policeman handed her the two pieces of silver: "This money, sir, is not mine."
"You lie," said the other officer, approaching; "a respectable lady saw it drop from your pocket."
"I assure you, sir, it is not so," answered Mother Bunch, trembling.
"I tell you that you lie," resumed the officer; "for the lady, struck with your guilty and frightened air, said to me: 'Look at yonder little hunchback, running away with that large parcel, and letting her money fall without even stopping to pick it up—it is not natural.'"
"Bobby," resumed the match-vendor in his hoarse voice, "be on your guard! Feel her hump, for that is her luggage-van. I'm sure that you'll find boots, and cloaks, and umbrellas, and clocks in it—for I just heard the hour strike in the bend of her back."
Then came fresh bursts of laughter and shouts and hooting, for this horrible mob has no pity for those who implore and suffer. The crowd increased more and more, and now they indulged in hoarse cries, piercing whistles, and all kinds of horse play.
"Let a fellow see her; it's free gratis."
"Don't push so; I've paid for my place!"
"Make her stand up on something, that all may have a look."
"My corns are being ground: it was not worth coming."
"Show her properly—or return the money."
"That's fair, ain't it?"
"Give it us in the 'garden' style."
"Trot her out in all her paces! Kim up!"
Fancy the feelings of this unfortunate creature, with her delicate mind, good heart, and lofty soul, and yet with so timid and nervous a character, as she stood alone with the two policemen in the thick of the crowd, and was forced to listen to all these coarse and savage insults.
But the young sempstress did not yet understand of what crime she was accused. She soon discovered it, however, for the policeman, seizing the parcel which she had picked up and now held in her trembling hands, said to her rudely: "What is there in that bundle?"
"Sir—it is—I am going—" The unfortunate girl hesitated—unable, in her terror, to find the word.
"If that's all you have to answer," said the policeman, "it's no great shakes. Come, make haste! turn your bundle inside out."
So saying, the policeman snatched the parcel from her, half opened it, and repeated, as he enumerated the divers articles it contained: "The devil!—sheets—a spoon and fork—a silver mug—a shawl—a blanket—you're a downy mot! it was not so bad a move. Dressed like a beggar, and with silver plate about you. Oh, yes! you're a deep 'un."
"Those articles do not belong to you," said the other officer.
"No, sir," replied Mother Bunch, whose strength was failing her; "but—"
"Oh, vile hunchback! you have stolen more than you are big!"
"Stolen!" cried Mother Bunch, clasping her hands in horror, for she now understood it all. "Stolen!"
"The guard! make way for the lobsters!" cried several persons at once.
"Oh, ho! here's the lobsters!"
"The Arab devourers!"
"Come for their dromedary!"
In the midst of these noisy jests, two soldiers and a corporal advanced with much difficulty. Their bayonets and the barrels of their guns were alone visible above the heads of this hideous and compact crowd. Some officious person had been to inform the officer at the nearest guard house, that a considerable crowd obstructed the public way.
"Come, here is the guard—so march to the guard-house!" said the policeman, taking Mother Bunch by the arm.
"Sir," said the poor girl, in a voice stifled by sobs, clasping her hands in terror, and sinking upon her knees on the pavement; "sir,—have pity—let me explain—"
"You will explain at the guard-house; so come on!"
"But, sir—I am not a thief," cried Mother Bunch, in a heart-rending tone; "have pity upon me—do not take me away like a thief, before all this crowd. Oh! mercy! mercy!"
"I tell you, there will be time to explain at the guard-house. The street is blocked up; so come along!" Grasping the unfortunate creature by both her hands, he set her, as it were, on her feet again.
At this instant, the corporal and his two soldiers, having succeeded in making their way through the crowd, approached the policeman. "Corporal," said the latter, "take this girl to the guard-house. I am an officer of the police."
"Oh, gentlemen!" cried the girl, weeping hot tears, and wringing her hands, "do not take me away, before you let me explain myself. I am not a thief—indeed, indeed, I am not a thief! I will tell you—it was to render service to others—only let me tell you—"
"I tell you, you should give your explanations at the guard-house; if you will not walk, we must drag you along," said the policeman.
We must renounce the attempt to paint this scene, at once ignoble and terrible.
Weak, overpowered, filled with alarm, the unfortunate girl was dragged along by the soldiers, her knees sinking under her at every step. The two police-officers had each to lend an arm to support her, and mechanically she accepted their assistance. Then the vociferations and hootings burst forth with redoubled fury. Half-swooning between the two men, the hapless creature seemed to drain the cup of bitterness to the dregs.
Beneath that foggy sky, in that dirty street, under the shadow of the tall black houses, those hideous masses of people reminded one of the wildest fancies of Callot and of Goya: children in rags, drunken women, grim and blighted figures of men, rushed against each other, pushed, fought, struggled, to follow with howls and hisses an almost inanimate victim—the victim of a deplorable mistake.
Of a mistake! How one shudders to think, that such arrests may often take place, founded upon nothing but the suspicion caused by the appearance of misery, or by some inaccurate description. Can we forget the case of that young girl, who, wrongfully accused of participating in a shameful traffic, found means to escape from the persons who were leading her to prison, and, rushing up the stairs of a house, threw herself from a window, in her despair, and was crushed to death upon the paving-stones?
Meanwhile, after the abominable denunciation of which Mother Bunch was the victim, Mrs. Grivois had returned precipitately to the Rue Brise Miche. She ascended in haste to the fourth story, opened the door of Frances Baudoin's room, and saw—Dagobert in company with his wife and the two orphans!
CHAPTER LI. THE CONVENT.
Let us explain in a few words the presence of Dagobert. His countenance was impressed with such an air of military frankness that the manager of the coach-office would have been satisfied with his promise to return and pay the money; but the soldier had obstinately insisted on remaining in pledge, as he called it, till his wife had answered his letter. When, however, on the return of the porter, he found that the money was coming, his scruples were satisfied, and he hastened to run home.
We may imagine the stupor of Mrs. Grivois, when, upon entering the chamber, she perceived Dagobert (whom she easily recognized by the description she had heard of him) seated beside his wife and the orphans. The anxiety of Frances at sight of Mrs. Grivois was equally striking. Rose and Blanche had told her of the visit of a lady, during her absence, upon important business; and, judging by the information received from her confessor, Frances had no doubt that this was the person charged to conduct the orphans to a religious establishment.
Her anxiety was terrible. Resolved to follow the counsels of Abbe Dubois, she dreaded lest a word from Mrs. Grivois should put Dagobert on the scent—in which case all would be lost, and the orphans would remain in their present state of ignorance and mortal sin, for which she believed herself responsible.
Dagobert, who held the hands of Rose and Blanche, left his seat as the Princess de Saint-Dizier's waiting-woman entered the room and cast an inquiring glance on Frances.
The moment was critical—nay, decisive; but Mrs. Grivois had profited by the example of the Princess de Saint-Dizier. So, taking her resolution at once, and turning to account the precipitation with which she had mounted the stairs, after the odious charge she had brought against poor Mother Bunch, and even the emotion caused by the unexpected sight of Dagobert, which gave to her features an expression of uneasiness and alarm—she exclaimed, in an agitated voice, after the moment's silence necessary to collect her thoughts: "Oh, madame! I have just been the spectator of a great misfortune. Excuse my agitation! but I am so excited—"
"Dear me! what is the matter?" said Frances, in a trembling voice, for she dreaded every moment some indiscretion on the part of Mrs. Grivois.
"I called just now," resumed the other, "to speak to you on some important business; whilst I was waiting for you, a poor young woman, rather deformed, put up sundry articles in a parcel—"