She pronounced these last words with so much animation that her cheeks became slightly flushed. The superior had too much tact and experience not to perceive the sincerity of the words. Thinking herself lucky that the young girl should put this construction upon the affair, she smiled upon her affectionately, and stretched out her arms to her, saying: "It is well, my dear daughter. Come and embrace me!"
"Mother—I am really confused—with so much kindness—"
"No—you deserve it—your words are so full of truth and honesty. Only be persuaded that I have not put you to any trial, because there is no resemblance between the act of a spy and the marks of filial confidence that we require of our members for the sake of watching over their morals. But certain persons—I see you are of the number, my dear daughter—have such fixed principles, and so mature a judgment, that they can do without our advice and guardianship, and can appreciate themselves whatever might be dangerous to their salvation. I will therefore leave the entire responsibility to yourself, and only ask you for such communications as you may think proper to make."
"Oh, madame! how good you are!" said poor Mother Bunch, for she was not aware of the thousand devices of the monastic spirit, and thought herself already sure of gaining just wages honorably.
"It is not goodness—but justice!" answered Mother Sainte-Perpetue, whose tone was becoming more and more affectionate. "Too much tenderness cannot be shown to pious young women like you, whom poverty has only purified because they have always faithfully observed the divine laws."
"One last question, my child! how many times a month do you approach the Lord's table?"
"Madame," replied the hunchback, "I have not taken the sacrament since my first communion, eight years ago. I am hardly able, by working every day, and all day long, to earn my bread. I have no time—"
"Gracious heaven!" cried the superior, interrupting, and clasping her hands with all the signs of painful astonishment. "Is it possible? you do not practise?"
"Alas, madame! I tell you that I have no time," answered Mother Bunch, looking disconcertedly at Mother Saint-Perpetue.
"I am grieved, my dear daughter," said the latter sorrowfully, after a moment's silence, "but I told you that, as we place our friends in none but pious houses, so we are asked to recommend none but pious persons, who practise their religious duties. It is one of the indispensable conditions of our institution. It will, therefore, to my great regret, be impossible for me to employ you as I had hoped. If, hereafter, you should renounce your present indifference to those duties, we will then see."
"Madame," said Mother Bunch, her heart swollen with tears, for she was thus forced to abandon a cheering hope, "I beg pardon for having detained you so long—for nothing."
"It is I, my dear daughter, who regret not to be able to attach you to the institution; but I am not altogether hopeless, that a person, already so worthy of interest, will one day deserve by her piety the lasting support of religious people. Adieu, my dear daughter! go in peace, and may God be merciful to you, until the day that you return with your whole heart to Him!"
So saying, the superior rose, and conducted her visitor to the door, with all the forms of the most maternal kindness. At the moment she crossed the threshold, she said to her: "Follow the passage, go down a few steps, and knock at the second door on the right hand. It is the press-room, and there you will find Florine. She will show you the way out. Adieu, my dear daughter!"
As soon as Mother Bunch had left the presence of the superior, her tears, until now restrained, gushed forth abundantly. Not wishing to appear before Florine and the nuns in this state, she stopped a moment at one of the windows to dry her eyes. As she looked mechanically towards the windows of the next house, where she fancied she had seen Adrienne de Cardoville, she beheld the latter come from a door in the building, and advance rapidly towards the open paling that separated the two gardens. At the same instant, and to her great astonishment, Mother Bunch saw one of the two sisters whose disappearance had caused the despair of Dagobert, with pale and dejected countenance, approach the fence that separated her from Mdlle. de Cardoville, trembling with fear and anxiety, as though she dreaded to be discovered.
CHAPTER VIII. MOTHER BUNCH AND MDLLE. DE CARDOVILLE.
Agitated, attentive, uneasy, leaning from one of the convent-windows, the work-girl followed with her eyes the movements of Mdlle. de Cardoville and Rose Simon, whom she so little expected to find together in such a place. The orphan, approaching close to the fence, which separated the nunnery-garden from that of Dr. Baleinier's asylum, spoke a few words to Adrienne, whose features at once expressed astonishment, indignation, and pity. At this juncture, a nun came running, and looking right and left, as though anxiously seeking for some one; then, perceiving Rose, who timidly pressed close to the paling, she seized her by the arm, and seemed to scold her severely, and notwithstanding some energetic words addressed to her by Mdlle. de Cardoville, she hastily carried off the orphan, who with weeping eyes, turned several times to look back at Adrienne; whilst the latter, after showing the interest she took in her by expressive gestures, turned away suddenly, as if to conceal her tears.
The passage in which the witness stood, during this touching scene, was situated on the first story. The thought immediately occurred to the sempstress, to go down to the ground-floor, and try to get into the garden, so that she might have an opportunity of speaking to the fair girl with the golden hair, and ascertaining if it were really Mdlle. de Cardoville, to whom; if she found her in a lucid interval, she might say that Agricola had things of the greatest importance to communicate, but that he did not know how to inform her of them. The day was advancing, the sun was on its decline, and fearing that Florine would be tired of waiting for her, Mother Bunch made haste to act; with a light step, listening anxiously as she went, she reached the end of the passage, where three or four stairs led down to the landing-place of the press room, and then formed a spiral descent to the ground-floor. Hearing voices in the pressroom, the sempstress hastened down the stairs, and found herself in a long passage, in the centre of which was a glass door, opening on that part of the garden reserved for the superior. A path, bordered by a high box-hedge, sheltered her from the gaze of curious eyes, and she crept along it, till she reached the open paling; which, at this spot, separated the convent-garden from that of Dr. Baleinier's asylum. She saw Mdlle. de Cardoville a few steps from her, seated, and with her arm resting upon a rustic bench. The firmness of Adrienne's character had for a moment been shaken by fatigue, astonishment, fright, despair, on the terrible night when she had been taken to the asylum by Dr. Baleinier; and the latter, taking a diabolical advantage of her weakness and despondency, had succeeded for a moment in making her doubt of her own sanity. But the calm, which necessarily follows the most painful and violent emotions, combined with the reflection and reasoning of a clear and subtle intellect, soon convinced Adrienne of the groundlessness of the fears inspired by the crafty doctor. She no longer believed that it could even be a mistake on the part of the man of science. She saw clearly in the conduct of this man, in which detestable hypocrisy was united with rare audacity, and both served by a skill no less remarkable, that M. Baleinier was, in fact, the blind instrument of the Princess de Saint-Dizier. From that moment, she remained silent and calm, but full of dignity; not a complaint, not a reproach was allowed to pass her lips. She waited. Yet, though they left her at liberty to walk about (carefully depriving her of all means of communicating with any one beyond the walls), Adrienne's situation was harsh and painful, particularly for her, who so loved to be surrounded by pleasant and harmonious objects. She felt, however, that this situation could not last long. She did not thoroughly understand the penetration and action of the laws; but her good sense taught her, that a confinement of a few days under the plea of some appearances of insanity, more or less plausible in themselves, might be attempted, and even executed with impunity; but that it could not be prolonged beyond certain limits, because, after all, a young lady of her rank in society could not disappear suddenly from the world, without inquiries being made on the subject—and the pretence of a sudden attack of madness would lead to a serious investigation. Whether true or false, this conviction had restored Adrienne to her accustomed elasticity and energy of character. And yet she sometimes in vain asked herself the cause of this attempt on her liberty. She knew too well the Princess de Saint-Dizier, to believe her capable of acting in this way, without a certain end in view, and merely for the purpose of inflicting a momentary pang. In this, Mdlle. de Cardoville was not deceived: Father d'Aigrigny and the princess were both persuaded, that Adrienne, better informed than she wished to acknowledge, knew how important it was for her to find herself in the house in the Rue Saint-Francois on the 13th of February, and was determined to maintain her rights. In shutting up Adrienne as mad, it was intended to strike a fatal blow at her future prospects; but this last precaution was useless, for Adrienne, though upon the true scent of the family-secret they lead wished to conceal from her, had not yet entirely penetrated its meaning, for want of certain documents, which had been lost or hidden.
Whatever had been the motives for the odious conduct of Mdlle. de Cardoville's enemies, she was not the less disgusted at it. No one could be more free from hatred or revenge, than was this generous young girl, but when she thought of all the sufferings which the Princess de Saint Dizier, Abbe d'Aigrigny, and Dr. Baleinier had occasioned her, she promised herself, not reprisals, but a striking reparation. If it were refused her, she was resolved to combat—without truce or rest—this combination of craft, hypocrisy, and cruelty, not from resentment for what she had endured, but to preserve from the same torments other innocent victims, who might not, like her, be able to struggle and defend themselves. Adrienne, still under the painful impression which had been caused by her interview with Rose Simon, was leaning against one of the sides of the rustic bench on which she was seated, and held her left hand over her eyes. She had laid down her bonnet beside her, and the inclined position of her head brought the long golden curls over her fair, shining cheeks. In this recumbent attitude, so full of careless grace, the charming proportions of her figure were seen to advantage beneath a watered green dress, while a broad collar, fastened with a rose-colored satin bow, and fine lace cuffs, prevented too strong a contrast between the hue of her dress and the dazzling whiteness of the swan-like neck and Raphaelesque hands, imperceptibly veined with tiny azure lines. Over the high and well-formed instep, were crossed the delicate strings of a little, black satin shoe—for Dr. Baleinier had allowed her to dress herself with her usual taste, and elegance of costume was not with Adrienne a mark of coquetry, but of duty towards herself, because she had been made so beautiful. At sight of this young lady, whose dress and appearance she admired in all simplicity, without any envious or bitter comparison with her own poor clothes and deformity of person, Mother Bunch said immediately to herself, with the good sense and sagacity peculiar to her, that it was strange a mad woman should dress so sanely and gracefully. It was therefore with a mixture of surprise and emotion that she approached the fence which separated her from Adrienne—reflecting, however, that the unfortunate girl might still be insane, and that this might turn out to be merely a lucid interval. And now, with a timid voice, but loud enough to be heard, Mother Bunch, in order to assure herself of Adrienne's identity, said, whilst her heart beat fast: "Mdlle. de Cardoville!"
"Who calls me?" said Adrienne. On hastily raising her head, and perceiving the hunchback, she could not suppress a slight cry of surprise, almost fright. For indeed this poor creature, pale, deformed, miserably clad, thus appearing suddenly before her, must have inspired Mdlle, de Cardoville, so passionately fond of grace and beauty, with a feeling of repugnance, if not of terror—and these two sentiments were both visible in her expressive countenance.
The other did not perceive the impression she had made. Motionless, with her eyes fixed, and her hands clasped in a sort of adoring admiration, she gazed on the dazzling beauty of Adrienne, whom she had only half seen through the grated window. All that Agricola had told her of the charms of his protectress, appeared to her a thousand times below the reality; and never, even in her secret poetic visions, had she dreamed of such rare perfection. Thus, by a singular contrast, a feeling of mutual surprise came over these two girls—extreme types of deformity and beauty, wealth and wretchedness. After rendering, as it were, this involuntary homage to Adrienne, Mother Bunch advanced another step towards the fence.
"What do you want?" cried Mdlle. de Cardoville, rising with a sentiment of repugnance, which could not escape the work-girl's notice; accordingly, she held down her head timidly, and said in a soft voice: "I beg your pardon, madame, to appear so suddenly before you. But moments are precious, I come from Agricola."
As she pronounced these words, the sempstress raised her eyes anxiously, fearing that Mdlle. de Cardoville might have forgotten the name of the workman. But, to her great surprise and joy, the fears of Adrienne seemed to diminish at the name of Agricola, and approaching the fence, she looked at the speaker with benevolent curiosity.
"You come from M. Agricola Baudoin?" said she. "Who are you?"
"His adopted sister, madame—a poor needlewoman, who lives in the same house."
Adrienne appeared to collect her thoughts, and said, smiling kindly, after a moment's silence: "It was you then, who persuaded M. Agricola to apply to me to procure him bail?"
"Oh, madame, do you remember—"
"I never forget anything that is generous and noble. M. Agricola was much affected when he spoke of your devotion. I remember it well; it would be strange if I did not. But how came you here, in this convent?"
"They told me that I should perhaps be able to get some occupation here, as I am out of work. Unfortunately, I have been refused by the lady superior."
"And how did you recognize me?"
"By your great beauty, madame, of which Agricola had told me."
"Or rather by this," said Adrienne, smiling as she lifted, with the tips of her rosy fingers, one end of a long, silky ringlet of golden hair.
"You must pardon Agricola, madame," said the sewing girl, with one of those half smiles, which rarely settled on her lips: "he is a poet, and omitted no single perfection in the respectful and admiring description which he gave of his protectress."
"And what induced you to come and speak to me?"
"The hope of being useful to you, madame. You received Agricola with so much goodness, that I have ventured to go shares in his gratitude."
"You may well venture to do so, my dear girl," said Adrienne, with ineffable grace; "until now, unfortunately, I have only been able to serve your adopted brother by intention."
As they exchanged these words, Adrienne and Mother Bunch looked at each other with increasing surprise. The latter was, first of all, astonished that a person who passed for mad should express herself as Adrienne did; next, she was amazed at the ease and freedom with which she herself answered the questions of Mdlle. de Cardoville—not knowing that the latter was endowed with the precious privilege of lofty and benevolent natures, to draw out from those who approached her whatever sympathized with herself. On her side, Mdlle. de Cardoville was deeply moved and astonished to hear this young, low-born girl, dressed almost like a beggar, express herself in terms selected with so much propriety. The more she looked at her, the more the feeling of repugnance she at first experienced wore off, and was at length converted into quite the opposite sentiment. With that rapid and minute power of observation natural to women, she remarked beneath the black crape of Mother Bunch's cap, the smoothness and brilliancy of the fair, chestnut hair. She remarked, too, the whiteness of the long, thin hand, though it displayed itself at the end of a patched and tattered sleeve—an infallible proof that care, and cleanliness, and self-respect were at least struggling against symptoms of fearful distress. Adrienne discovered, also, in the pale and melancholy features, in the expression of the blue eyes, at once intelligent, mild and timid, a soft and modest dignity, which made one forget the deformed figure. Adrienne loved physical beauty, and admired it passionately, but she had too superior a mind, too noble a soul, too sensitive a heart, not to know how to appreciate moral beauty, even when it beamed from a humble and suffering countenance. Only, this kind of appreciation was new to Mdlle. de Cardoville; until now, her large fortune and elegant habits had kept her at a distance from persons of Mother Bunch's class. After a short silence, during which the fair patrician and the poor work-girl had closely examined each other, Adrienne said to the other: "It is easy, I think, to explain the cause of our mutual astonishment. You have, no doubt, discovered that I speak pretty reasonably for a mad woman—if they have told you I am one. And I," added Mdlle. de Cardoville, in a tone of respectful commiseration, "find that the delicacy of your language and manners so singularly contrast with the position in which you appear to be, that my surprise must be even greater than yours."
"Ah, madame!" cried Mother Bunch, with a welling forth of such deep and sincere joy that the tears started to her eyes; "is it true?—they have deceived me—you are not mad! Just now, when I beheld you so kind and beautiful, when I heard the sweet tone of your voice, I could not believe that such a misfortune had happened to you. But, alas! how is it then, madame, that you are in this place?"
"Poor child!" said Adrienne, touched by the affectionate interest of this excellent creature; "and how is it that you, with such a heart and head, should be in such distress? But be satisfied! I shall not always be here—and that will suffice to tell you, that we shall both resume the place which becomes us. Believe me, I shall never forget how, in spite of the painful ideas which must needs occupy your mind, on seeing yourself deprived of work—your only resource—you have still thought of coming to me, and of trying to serve me. You may, indeed, be eminently useful to me, and I am delighted at it, for then I shall owe you much—and you shall see how I will take advantage of my gratitude!" said Adrienne, with a sweet smile. "But," resumed she, "before talking of myself, let us think of others. Is your adopted brother still in prison?"
"By this time, madame, I hope he has obtained his freedom; thanks to the generosity of one of his comrades. His father went yesterday to offer bail for him, and they promised that he should be released to-day. But, from his prison, he wrote to me, that he had something of importance to reveal to you."
"Yes, madame. Should Agricola be released immediately by what means can he communicate with you?"
"He has secrets to tell me!" resumed Mdlle. de Cardoville, with an air of thoughtful surprise. "I seek in vain to imagine what they can be; but so long as I am confined in this house, and secluded from every one, M. Agricola must not think of addressing himself directly or indirectly to me. He must wait till I am at liberty; but that is not all, he must deliver from that convent two poor children, who are much more to be pitied than I am. The daughters of Marshal Simon are detained there against their will."
"You know their name, madame?"
"When M. Agricola informed me of their arrival in Paris, he told me they were fifteen years old, and that they resembled each other exactly—so that, the day before yesterday, when I took my accustomed walk, and observed two poor little weeping faces come close to the windows of their separate cells, one on the ground floor, the other on the first story, a secret presentiment told me that I saw in them the orphans of whom M. Agricola had spoken, and in whom I already took a lively interest, as being my relations."
"They are your relations, madame, then?"
"Yes, certainly. So, not being able to do more, I tried to express by signs how much I felt for them. Their tears, and the sadness of their charming faces, sufficiently told me that they were prisoners in the convent, as I am myself in this house."
"Oh! I understand, madame—the victim of the animosity of your family?"
"Whatever may be my fate, I am much less to be pitied than these two children, whose despair is really alarming. Their separation is what chiefly oppresses them. By some words that one of them just now said to me, I see that they are, like me, the victims of an odious machination. But thanks to you, it will be possible to save them: Since I have been in this house I have had no communication with any one; they have not allowed me pen or paper, so it is impossible to write. Now listen to me attentively, and we shall be able to defeat an odious persecution."
"Oh, speak! speak, madame!"
"The soldier, who brought these orphans to France, the father of M. Agricola, is still in town?"
"Yes, madame. Oh! if you only knew his fury, his despair, when, on his return home, he no longer found the children that a dying mother had confided to him!"
"He must take care not to act with the least violence. It would ruin all. Take this ring," said Adrienne, drawing it from her finger, "and give it to him. He must go instantly—are you sure that you can remember a name and address?"
"Oh! yes, madame. Be satisfied on that point. Agricola only mentioned your name once, and I have not forgotten it. There is a memory of the heart."
"I perceive it, my dear girl. Remember, then, the name of the Count de Montbron."
"The Count de Montbron—I shall not forget."
"He is one of my good old friends, and lives on the Place Vendome, No. 7."
"Place Vendome, No. 7—I shall remember."
"M. Agricola's father must go to him this evening, and, if he is not at home, wait for his coming in. He must ask to speak to him, as if from me, and send him this ring as a proof of what he says. Once with him, he must tell him all—the abduction of the girls, the name of the convent where they are confined, and my own detention as a lunatic in the asylum of Dr. Baleinier. Truth has an accent of its own, which M. de Montbron will recognize. He is a man of much experience and judgment, and possessed of great influence. He will immediately take the necessary steps, and to-morrow, or the day after, these poor orphans and myself will be restored to liberty—all thanks to you! But moments are precious; we might be discovered; make haste, dear child!"
At the moment of drawing back, Adrienne said to Mother Bunch, with so sweet a smile and affectionate a tone, that it was impossible not to believe her sincere: "M. Agricola told me that I had a heart like yours. I now understand how honorable, how flattering those words were for me. Pray, give me your hand!" added Mdlle. de Cardoville, whose eyes were filling with tears; and, passing her beautiful hand through an opening in the fence, she offered it to the other. The words and the gesture of the fair patrician were full of so much real cordiality, that the sempstress, with no false shame, placed tremblingly her own poor thin hand in Adrienne's, while the latter, with a feeling of pious respect, lifted it spontaneously to her lips, and said: "Since I cannot embrace you as my sister, let me at least kiss this hand, ennobled by labor!"
Suddenly, footsteps were heard in the garden of Dr. Baleinier; Adrienne withdrew abruptly, and disappeared behind some trees, saying: "Courage, memory, and hope!"
All this had passed so rapidly that the young workwoman had no time to speak or move; tears, sweet tears, flowed abundantly down her pale cheeks. For a young lady, like Adrienne de Cardoville, to treat her as a sister, to kiss her hand, to tell her that she was proud to resemble her in heart—her, a poor creature, vegetating in the lowest abyss of misery—was to show a spirit of fraternal equality, divine, as the gospel words.
There are words and impressions which make a noble soul forget years of suffering, and which, as by a sudden flash, reveal to it something of its own worth and grandeur. Thus it was with the hunchback. Thanks to this generous speech, she was for a moment conscious of her own value. And though this feeling was rapid as it was ineffable, she clasped her hands and raised her eyes to heaven with an expression of fervent gratitude; for, if the poor sempstress did not practise, to use the jargon of ultramontane cant, no one was more richly endowed with that deep religious sentiment, which is to mere dogmas what the immensity of the starry heaven is to the vaulted roof of a church.
Five minutes after quitting Mdlle. de Cardoville, Mother Bunch, having left the garden without being perceived, reascended to the first story, and knocked gently at the door of the press-room. A sister came to open the door to her.
"Is not Mdlle. Florine, with whom I came, still here, sister?" asked the needlewoman.
"She could not wait for you any longer. No doubt, you have come from our mother the superior?"
"Yes, yes, sister," answered the sempstress, casting down her eyes; "would you have the goodness to show me the way out?"
"Come with me."
The sewing-girl followed the nun, trembling at every step lest she should meet the superior, who would naturally have inquired the cause of her long stay in the convent.
At length the inner gate closed upon Mother Bunch. Passing rapidly across the vast court-yard and approaching the porter's lodge, to ask him to let her out, she heard these words pronounced in a gruff voice: "It seems, old Jerome, that we are to be doubly on our guard to-night. Well, I shall put two extra balls in my gun. The superior says we are to make two rounds instead of one."
"I want no gun, Nicholas," said the other voice; "I have my sharp scythe, a true gardener's weapon—and none the worse for that."
Feeling an involuntary uneasiness at these words, which she had heard by mere chance, Mother Bunch approached the porter's lodge, and asked him to open the outer gate.
"Where do you come from?" challenged the porter, leaning half way out of his lodge, with a double barrelled gun, which he was occupied in loading, in his hand, and at the same time examining the sempstress with a suspicious air.
"I come from speaking to the superior," answered Mother Bunch timidly.
"Is that true?" said Nicholas roughly. "You look like a sanctified scarecrow. Never mind. Make haste and cut!"
The gate opened, and Mother Bunch went out. Hardly had she gone a few steps in the sweet, when, to her great surprise, she saw the dog Spoil sport run up to her, and his master, Dagobert, a little way behind him, arriving also with precipitation. She was hastening to meet the soldier, when a full, sonorous voice exclaimed from a little distance: "Oh my good sister!" which caused the girl to turn round. From the opposite side to that whence Dagobert was coming, she saw Agricola hurrying towards the spot.
CHAPTER IX. THE ENCOUNTERS.
At the sight of Dagobert and Agricola, Mother Bunch remained motionless with surprise, a few steps from the convent-gate. The soldier had not yet perceived the sempstress. He advanced rapidly, following the dog, who though lean, half-starved, rough-coated, and dirty, seemed to frisk with pleasure, as he turned his intelligent face towards his master, to whom he had gone back, after caressing Mother Bunch.
"Yes, yes; I understand you, old fellow!" said the soldier, with emotion. "You are more faithful than I was; you did not leave the dear children for a minute. Yes, you followed them, and watched day and night, without food, at the door of the house to which they were taken—and, at length, weary of waiting to see them come forth, ran home to fetch me. Yes; whilst I was giving way to despair, like a furious madman, you were doing what I ought to have done—discovering their retreat. What does it all prove? Why, that beasts are better than men—which is well known. Well, at length I shall see them again. When I think that tomorrow is the 13th, and that without you, my did Spoil-sport, all would be lost—it makes me shudder. But I say, shall we soon be there? What a deserted quarter! and night coming on!"
Dagobert had held this discourse to Spoil-sport, as he walked along following the good dog, who kept on at a rapid pace. Suddenly, seeing the faithful animal start aside with a bound, he raised his eyes, and perceived the dog frisking about the hunchback and Agricola, who had just met at a little distance from the convent-gate.
"Mother Bunch?" exclaimed both father and son, as they approached the young workwoman, and looked at her with extreme surprise.
"There is good hope, M. Dagobert," said she with inexpressible joy. "Rose and Blanche are found!" Then, turning towards the smith, she added, "There is good hope, Agricola: Mdlle. de Cardoville is not mad. I have just seen her."
"She is not mad? what happiness!" exclaimed the smith.
"The children!" cried Dagobert, trembling with emotion, as he took the work-girl's hands in his own. "You have seen them?"
"Yes; just now—very sad—very unhappy—but I was not able to speak to them."
"Oh!" said Dagobert, stopping as if suffocated by the news, and pressing his hands on his bosom; "I never thought that my old heart could beat so!—And yet, thanks to my dog, I almost expected what has taken place. Anyhow, I am quite dizzy with joy."
"Well, father, it's a good day," said Agricola, looking gratefully at the girl.
"Kiss me, my dear child!" added the soldier, as he pressed Mother Bunch affectionately in his arms; then, full of impatience, he added: "Come, let us go and fetch the children."
"Ah, my good sister!" said Agricola, deeply moved; "you will restore peace, perhaps life, to my father—and Mdlle. de Cardoville—but how do you know?"
"A mere chance. And how did you come here?"
"Spoil-sport stops and barks," cried Dagobert, who had already made several steps in advance.
Indeed the dog, who was as impatient as his master to see the orphans, and far better informed as to the place of their retreat, had posted himself at the convent gate, and was beginning to bark, to attract the attention of Dagobert. Understanding his dog, the latter said to the hunchback, as he pointed in that direction with his finger: "The children are there?"
"Yes, M. Dagobert."
"I was sure of it. Good dog!—Oh, yes! beasts are better than men—except you, my dear girl, who are better than either man or beast. But my poor children! I shall see them, I shall have them once more!"
So saying, Dagobert, in spite of his age, began to run very fast towards Spoil-sport. "Agricola," cried Mother Bunch, "prevent thy father from knocking at that door. He would ruin all."
In two strides, the smith had reached his father, just as the latter was raising his hand to the knocker. "Stop, father!" cried the smith, as he seized Dagobert by the arm.
"What the devil is it now?"
"Mother Bunch says that to knock would ruin all."
"She will explain it to you." Although not so nimble as Agricola, Mother Bunch soon came up, and said to the soldier: "M. Dagobert, do not let us remain before this gate. They might open it, and see us; and that would excite suspicion. Let us rather go away—"
"Suspicion!" cried the veteran, much surprised, but without moving from the gate; "what suspicion?"
"I conjure you, do not remain there!" said Mother Bunch, with so much earnestness, that Agricola joined her, and said to his father: "Since sister rashes it, father, she has some reason for it. The Boulevard de l'Hopital is a few steps from here; nobody passes that way; we can talk there without being interrupted."
"Devil take me if I understand a word of all this!" cried Dagobert, without moving from his post. "The children are here, and I will fetch them away with me. It is an affair of ten minutes."
"Do not think that, M. Dagobert," said Mother Bunch. "It is much more difficult than you imagine. But come! come!—I can hear them talk in the court-yard."
In fact, the sound of voices was now distinctly audible. "Come father!" said Agricola, forcing away the soldier, almost in spite of himself. Spoil-sport, who appeared much astonished at these hesitations, barked two or three times without quitting his post, as if to protest against this humiliating retreat; but, being called by Dagobert, he hastened to rejoin the main body.
It was now about five o'clock in the evening. A high wind swept thick masses of grayish, rainy cloud rapidly across the sky. The Boulevard de l'Hopital, which bordered on this portion of the convent-garden, was, as we before said, almost deserted. Dagobert, Agricola, and the serving girl could hold a private conference in this solitary place.
The soldier did not disguise the extreme impatience that these delays occasioned in him. Hardly had they turned the corner of the street, when he said to Mother Bunch: "Come, my child, explain yourself. I am upon hot coals."
"The house in which the daughters of Marshal Simon are confined is a convent, M. Dagobert."
"A convent!" cried the soldier: "I might have suspected it." Then he added: "Well, what then? I will fetch them from a convent as soon as from any other place. Once is not always."
"But, M. Dagobert, they are confined against their will and against yours. They will not give them up."
"They will not give them up? Zounds! we will see about that." And he made a step towards the street.
"Father," said Agricola, holding him back, "one moment's patience; let us hear all."
"I will hear nothing. What! the children are there—two steps from me—I know it—and I shall not have them, either by fair means or foul? Oh! that would indeed be curious. Let me go."
"Listen to me, I beseech you, M. Dagobert," said Mother Bunch, taking his hand: "there is another way to deliver these poor children. And that without violence—for violence, as Mdlle. de Cardoville told me, would ruin all."
"If there is any other way—quick—let me know it!"
"Here is a ring of Mdlle. de Cardoville's."
"And who is this Mdlle. de Cardoville?"
"Father," said Agricola, "it is the generous young lady, who offered to be my bail, and to whom I have very important matters to communicate."
"Good, good," replied Dagobert; "we will talk of that presently. Well, my dear girl—this ring?"
"You must take it directly, M. Dagobert, to the Count de Montbron, No. 7, Place Vendome. He appears to be a person of influence, and is a friend of Mdlle. de Cardoville's. This ring will prove that you come on her behalf, and you will tell him, that she is confined as a lunatic in the asylum next door to this convent, in which the daughters of Marshal Simon are detained against their will."
"Well, well—what next?"
"Then the Count de Montbron will take the proper steps with persons in authority, to restore both Mdlle. de Cardoville and the daughters of Marshal Simon to liberty—and perhaps, to-morrow, or the day after—"
"To-morrow or the day after!" cried Dagobert; "perhaps?—It is to-day, on the instant, that I must have them. The day after to-morrow would be of much use! Thanks, my good girl, but keep your ring: I will manage my own business. Wait for me here, my boy."
"What are you going to do, father?" cried Agricola, still holding back the soldier. "It is a convent, remember."
"You are only a raw recruit; I have my theory of convents at my fingers' end. In Spain, I have put it in practice a hundred times. Here is what will happen. I knock; a portress opens the door to me; she asks me what I want, but I make no answer; she tries to stop me, but I pass on; once in the convent, I walk over it from top to bottom, calling my children with all my might."
"But, M. Dagobert, the nuns?" said Mother Bunch, still trying to detain the soldier.
"The nuns run after me, screaming like so many magpies. I know them. At Seville I fetched out an Andalusian girl, whom they were trying to keep by force. Well, I walk about the convent calling for Rose and Blanche. They hear me, and answer. If they are shut in, I take the first piece of furniture that comes to hand, and break open the door."
"But, M. Dagobert—the nuns—the nuns?"
"The nuns, with all their squalling, will not prevent my breaking open the door, seizing my children in my arms, and carrying them off. Should the outer door be shut, there will be a second smash—that's all. So," added Dagobert, disengaging himself from the grasp, "wait for me here. In ten minutes I shall be back again. Go and get a hackney-coach ready, my boy."
More calm than Dagobert, and, above all, better informed as to the provisions of the Penal Code, Agricola was alarmed at the consequences that might attend the veteran's strange mode of proceeding. So, throwing himself before him, he exclaimed: "One word more, I entreat you."
"Zounds! make haste!"
"If you attempt to enter the convent by force, you will ruin all."
"First of all, M. Dagobert," said Mother Bunch, "there are men in the convent. As I came out just now, I saw the porter loading his gun, and heard the gardener talking of his sharp scythe, and the rounds he was to make at night."
"Much I care for a porter's gun and a gardener's scythe!"
"Well, father; but listen to me a moment, I conjure you. Suppose you knock, and the door is opened—the porter will ask you what you want.'
"I tell him that I wish to speak to the superior, and so walk into the convent."
"But, M. Dagobert," said Mother Bunch, "when once you have crossed the court-yard, you reach a second door, with a wicket. A nun comes to it, to see who rings, and does not open the door till she knows the object of the visit."
"I will tell her that I wish to see the lady superior."
"Then, father, as you are not known in the convent, they will go and inform the superior."
"Well, what then?"
"She will come down."
"She will ask you what you want, M. Dagobert."
"What I want?—the devil! my children!"
"One minute's patience, father. You cannot doubt, from the precautions they have taken, that they wish to detain these young ladies against their will, and against yours."
"Doubt! I am sure of it. To come to that point, they began by turning the head of my poor wife."
"Then, father, the superior will reply to you that she does not know what you mean, and that the young ladies are not in the convent."
"And I will reply to her, that they are in the convent witness—Mother Bunch and Spoil-sport."
"The superior will answer, that she does not know you; that she has no explanations to give you; and will close the wicket."
"Then I break it open—since one must come to that in the end—so leave me alone, I tell you! 'sblood! leave me alone!"
"And, on this noise and violence, the porter will run and fetch the guard, and they will begin by arresting you."
"And what will become of your poor children, then, M. Dagobert?" said Mother Bunch.
Agricola's father had too much good sense not to feel the truth of these observations of the girl and his son; but he knew also, that, cost what it might, the orphans must be delivered before the morrow. The alternative was terrible—so terrible, that, pressing his two hands to his burning forehead, Dagobert sunk back upon a stone bench, as if struck down by the inexorable fatality of the dilemma.
Agricola and the workwoman, deeply moved by this mute despair, exchanged a sad look. The smith, seating himself beside the soldier, said to him: "Do not be down-hearted, father. Remember what's been told you. By going with this ring of Mdlle. de Cardoville's to the influential gentleman she named, the young ladies may be free by to-morrow, or, at worst, by the day after."
"Blood and thunder! you want to drive me mad!" exclaimed Dagobert, starting up from the bench, and looking at Mother Bunch and his son with so savage an expression that Agricola and the sempstress drew back, with an air of surprise and uneasiness.
"Pardon me, my children!" said Dagobert, recovering himself after a long silence. "I am wrong to get in a passion, for we do not understand one another. What you say is true; and yet I am right to speak as I do. Listen to me. You are an honest man, Agricola; you an honest girl; what I tell you is meant for you alone. I have brought these children from the depths of Siberia—do you know why? That they may be to-morrow morning in the Rue Saint-Francois. If they are not there, I have failed to execute the last wish of their dying mother."
"No. 3, Rue Saint Francois?" cried Agricola, interrupting his father.
"Yes; how do you know the number?" said Dagobert.
"Is not the date inscribed on a bronze medal?"
"Yes," replied Dagobert, more end more surprised; "who told you?"
"One instant, father!" exclaimed Agricola; "let me reflect. I think I guess it. Did you not tell me, my good sister, that Mdlle. de Cardoville was not mad?"
"Not mad. They detain her in this asylum to prevent her communicating with any one. She believes herself, like the daughters of Marshal Simon, the victim of an odious machination."
"No doubt of it," cried the smith. "I understand all now, Mdlle. de Cardoville has the same interest as the orphans to appear to-morrow at the Rue Saint-Francois. But she does not perhaps know it."
"One word more, my good girl. Did Mdlle. de Cardoville tell you that she had a powerful motive to obtain her freedom by to-morrow?"
"No; for when she gave me this ring for the Count de Montbron, she said to me: 'By this means both I and Marshal Simon's daughters will be at liberty either to-morrow or the day after—'"
"But explain yourself, then," said Dagobert to his son, with impatience.
"Just now," replied the smith, "when you came to seek me in prison, I told you, father, that I had a sacred duty to perform, and that I would rejoin you at home."
"Yes; and I went, on my side, to take some measures, of which I will speak to you presently."
"I ran instantly to the house in the Rue de Babylone, not knowing that Mdlle. de Cardoville was mad, or passed for mad. A servant, who opened the door to me, informed me that the young lady had been seized with a sudden attack of madness. You may conceive, father, what a blow that was to me! I asked where she was: they answered, that they did not know. I asked if I could speak to any of the family; as my jacket did not inspire any great confidence, they replied that none of her family were at present there. I was in despair, but an idea occurred to me. I said to myself: 'If she is mad, her family physician must know where they have taken her; if she is in a state to hear me, he will take me to her; if not, I will speak to her doctor, as I would to her relations. A doctor is often a friend.' I asked the servant, therefore, to give me the doctor's address. I obtained it without difficulty—Dr. Baleinier, No. 12, Rue Taranne. I ran thither, but he had gone out; they told me that I should find him about five o'clock at his asylum, which is next door to the convent. That is how we have met."
"But the medal—the medal?" said Dagobert, impatiently; "where did you see it?"
"It is with regard to this and other things that I wished to make important communications to Mdlle. de Cardoville."
"And what are these communications?"
"The fact is, father, I had gone to her the day of your departure, to beg her to get me bail. I was followed; and when she learned this from her waiting-woman, she concealed me in a hiding-place. It was a sort of little vaulted room, in which no light was admitted, except through a tunnel, made like a chimney; yet in a few minutes, I could see pretty clearly. Having nothing better to do, I looked all about me and saw that the walls were covered with wainscoting. The entrance to this room was composed of a sliding panel, moving by means of weights and wheels admirably contrived. As these concern my trade, I was interested in them, so I examined the springs, spite of my emotion, with curiosity, and understood the nature of their play; but there was one brass knob, of which I could not discover the use. It was in vain to pull and move it from right to left, none of the springs were touched. I said to myself: 'This knob, no doubt, belongs to another piece of mechanism'—and the idea occurred to me, instead of drawing it towards me, to push it with force. Directly after, I heard a grating sound, and perceived, just above the entrance to the hiding-place, one of the panels, about two feet square, fly open like the door of a secretary. As I had, no doubt, pushed the spring rather too hard, a bronze medal and chain fell out with a shock."
"And you saw the address—Rue Saint-Francois?" cried Dagobert.
"Yes, father; and with this medal, a sealed letter fell to the ground. On picking it up, I saw that it was addressed, in large letters: 'For Mdlle. de Cardoville. To be opened by her the moment it is delivered.' Under these words, I saw the initials 'R.' and 'C.,' accompanied by a flourish, and this date: 'Paris, November the 13th, 1830.' On the other side of the envelope I perceived two seals, with the letters 'R.' and 'C.,' surmounted by a coronet."
"And the seals were unbroken?" asked Mother Bunch.
"No doubt, then, Mdlle. de Cardoville was ignorant of the existence of these papers," said the sempstress.
"That was my first idea, since she was recommended to open the letter immediately, and, notwithstanding this recommendation, which bore date two years back, the seals remained untouched."
"It is evident," said Dagobert. "What did you do?"
"I replaced the whole where it was before, promising myself to inform Mdlle. de Cardoville of it. But, a few minutes after, they entered my hiding-place, which had been discovered, and I did not see her again. I was only able to whisper a few words of doubtful meaning to one of her waiting-women, on the subject of what I had found, hoping thereby to arouse the attention of her mistress; and, as soon as I was able to write to you, my good sister, I begged you to go and call upon Mdlle. de Cardoville."
"But this medal," said Dagobert, "is exactly like that possessed by the daughter of Marshal Simon. How can you account for that?"
"Nothing so plain, father. Mdlle. de Cardoville is their relation. I remember now, that she told me so."
"A relation of Rose and Blanche?"
"Yes," added Mother Bunch; "she told that also to me just now."
"Well, then," resumed Dagobert, looking anxiously at his son, "do you now understand why I must have my children this very day? Do you now understand, as their poor mother told me on her death-bed, that one day's delay might ruin all? Do you now see that I cannot be satisfied with a perhaps to-morrow, when I have come all the way from Siberia, only, that those children might be to-morrow in the Rue Saint-Francois? Do you at last perceive that I must have them this night, even if I have to set fire to the convent?"
"But, father, if you employ violence—"
"Zounds! do you know what the commissary of police answered me this morning, when I went to renew my charge against your mother's confessor? He said to me that there was no proof, and that they could do nothing."
"But now there is proof, father, for at least we know where the young girls are. With that certainty we shall be strong. The law is more powerful than all the superiors of convents in the world."
"And the Count de Montbron, to whom Mdlle. de Cardoville begs you to apply," said Mother Bunch, "is a man of influence. Tell him the reasons that make it so important for these young ladies, as well as Mdlle. de Cardoville, to be at liberty this evening and he will certainly hasten the course of justice, and to-night your children will be restored to you."
"Sister is in the right, father. Go to the Count. Meanwhile, I will run to the commissary, and tell him that we now know where the young girls are confined. Do you go home, and wait for us, my good girl. We will meet at our own house!"
Dagobert had remained plunged in thought; suddenly, he said to Agricola: "Be it so. I will follow your counsel. But suppose the commissary says to you: 'We cannot act before to-morrow'—suppose the Count de Montbron says to me the same thing—do not think I shall stand with my arms folded until the morning."
"It is enough," resumed the soldier in an abrupt voice: "I have made up my mind. Run to the commissary, my boy; wait for us at home, my good girl; I will go to the Count. Give me the ring. Now for the address!"
"The Count de Montbron, No. 7, Place Vendome," said she; "you come on behalf of Mdlle. de Cardoville."
"I have a good memory," answered the soldier. "We will meet as soon as possible in the Rue Brise-Miche."
"Yes, father; have good courage. You will see that the law protects and defends honest people."
"So much the better," said the soldier; "because, otherwise, honest people would be obliged to protect and defend themselves. Farewell, my children! we will meet soon in the Rue Brise-Miche."
When Dagobert, Agricola, and Mother Bunch separated, it was already dark night.
CHAPTER X. THE MEETING.
It is eight o'clock in the evening, the rain dashes against the windows of Frances Baudoin's apartment in the Rue Brise-Miche, while violent squalls of wind shake the badly dosed doors and casements. The disorder and confusion of this humble abode, usually kept with so much care and neatness, bore testimony to the serious nature of the sad events which had thus disturbed existences hitherto peaceful in their obscurity.
The paved floor was soiled with mud, and a thick layer of dust covered the furniture, once so bright and clean. Since Frances was taken away by the commissary, the bed had not been made; at night Dagobert had thrown himself upon it for a few hours in his clothes, when, worn out with fatigue, and crushed by despair, he had returned from new and vain attempts to discover Rose and Blanche's prison-house. Upon the drawers stood a bottle, a glass, and some fragments of dry bread, proving the frugality of the soldier, whose means of subsistence were reduced to the money lent by the pawnbroker upon the things pledged by Mother Bunch, after the arrest of Frances.
By the faint glimmer of a candle, placed upon the little stove, now cold as marble, for the stock of wood had long been exhausted, one might have seen the hunchback sleeping upon a chair, her head resting on her bosom, her hands concealed beneath her cotton apron, and her feet resting on the lowest rung of the chair; from time to time, she shivered in her damp, chill garments.
After that long day of fatigue and diverse emotions, the poor creature had eaten nothing. Had she even thought of it, she would have been at a loss for bread. Waiting for the return of Dagobert and Agricola, she had sunk into an agitated sleep—very different, alas! from calm and refreshing slumber. From time to time, she half opened her eyes uneasily, and looked around her. Then, again, overcome by irresistible heaviness, her head fell upon her bosom.
After some minutes of silence, only interrupted by the noise of the wind, a slow and heavy step was heard on the landing-place. The door opened, and Dagobert entered, followed by Spoil-sport.
Waking with a start, Mother Bunch raised her head hastily, sprang from her chair, and, advancing rapidly to meet Agricola's father, said to him: "Well, M. Dagobert! have you good news? Have you—"
She could not continue, she was so struck with the gloomy expression of the soldier's features. Absorbed in his reflections, he did not at first appear to perceive the speaker, but threw himself despondingly on a chair, rested his elbows upon the table, and hid his face in his hands. After a long meditation, he rose, and said in a low voice: "It must—yes, it must be done!"
Taking a few steps up and down the room, Dagobert looked around him, as if in search of something. At length, after about a minute's examination, he perceived near the stove, a bar of iron, perhaps two feet long, serving to lift the covers, when too hot for the fingers. Taking this in his hand, he looked at it closely, poised it to judge of its weight, and then laid it down upon the drawers with an air of satisfaction. Surprised at the long silence of Dagobert, the needlewoman followed his movements with timid and uneasy curiosity. But soon her surprise gave way to fright, when she saw the soldier take down his knapsack, place it upon a chair, open it, and draw from it a pair of pocket-pistols, the locks of which he tried with the utmost caution.
Seized with terror, the sempstress could not forbear exclaiming: "Good gracious, M. Dagobert! what are you going to do?"
The soldier looked at her as if he only now perceived her for the first time, and said to her in a cordial, but abrupt voice: "Good-evening, my good girl! What is the time?"
"Eight o'clock has just struck at Saint-Mery's, M. Dagobert."
"Eight o'clock," said the soldier, speaking to himself; "only eight!"
Placing the pistols by the side of the iron bar, he appeared again to reflect, while he cast his eyes around him.
"M. Dagobert," ventured the girl, "you have not, then, good news?"
That single word was uttered by the soldier in so sharp a tone, that, not daring to question him further, Mother Bunch sat down in silence. Spoil sport came to lean his head on the knees of the girl, and followed the movements of Dagobert with as much curiosity as herself.
After remaining for some moments pensive and silent, the soldier approached the bed, took a sheet from it, appeared to measure its length, and then said, turning towards Mother Bunch: "The scissors!"
"But, M. Dagobert—"
"Come, my good girl! the scissors!" replied Dagobert, in a kind tone, but one that commanded obedience. The sempstress took the scissors from Frances' work-basket, and presented them to the soldier.
"Now, hold the other end of the sheet, my girl, and draw it out tight."
In a few minutes, Dagobert had cut the sheet into four strips, which he twisted in the fashion of cords, fastening them here and there with bits of tape, so as to preserve the twist, and tying them strongly together, so as to make a rope of about twenty feet long. This, however, did not suffice him, for he said to himself: "Now I must have a hook."
Again he looked around him, and Mother Bunch, more and more frightened, for she now no longer doubted Dagobert's designs, said to him timidly: "M. Dagobert, Agricola has not yet come in. It may be some good news that makes him so late."
"Yes," said the soldier, bitterly, as he continued to cast round his eyes in search of something he wanted; "good news like mine! But I must have a strong iron hook."
Still looking about, he found one of the coarse, gray sacks, that Frances was accustomed to make. He took it, opened it, and said to the work girl: "Put me the iron bar and the cord into this bag, my girl. It will be easier to carry."
"Heavens!" cried she, obeying his directions; "you will not go without seeing Agricola, M. Dagobert? He may perhaps have some good news to tell you."
"Be satisfied! I shall wait for my boy. I need not start before ten o'clock—so I have time."
"Alas, M. Dagobert! have you last all hope?"
"On the contrary. I have good hope—but in myself."
So saying, Dagobert twisted the upper end of the sack, for the purpose of closing it, and placed it on the drawers, by the side of his pistols.
"At all events, you will wait for Agricola, M. Dagobert?"
"Yes, if he arrives before ten o'clock."
"Alas; you have then quite made up your mind?"
"Quite. And yet, if I were weak enough to believe in bad omens—"
"Sometimes, M. Dagobert, omens do not deceive one," said the girl, hoping to induce the soldier to abandon his dangerous resolution.
"Yes," resumed Dagobert; "old women say so—and, although I am not an old woman, what I saw just now weighed heavily on my heart. After all, I may have taken a feeling of anger for a presentiment."
"What have you seen?"
"I will tell it you, my good girl; it may help to pass the time, which appears long enough." Then, interrupting himself, he exclaimed: "Was it the half hour that just struck?"
"Yes, M. Dagobert; it is half-past eight."
"Still an hour and a half," said Dagobert, in a hollow voice. "This," he added, "is what I saw. As I came along the street, my notice was attracted by a large red placard, at the head of which was a black panther devouring a white horse. That sight gave me a turn, for you must know, my good girl, that a black panther destroyed a poor old white horse that I had, Spoil-sport's companion, whose name was Jovial."
At the sound of this name, once so familiar, Spoil-sport, who was crouching at the workwoman's feet, raised his head hastily, and looked at Dagobert.
"You see that beasts have memory—he recollects," said the soldier, sighing himself at the remembrance. Then, addressing his dog he added: "Dost remember Jovial?"
On hearing this name a second time pronounced by his master, in a voice of emotion, Spoil-sport gave a low whine, as if to indicate that he had not forgotten his old travelling companion.
"It was, indeed, a melancholy incident, M. Dagobert," said Mother Bunch, "to find upon this placard a panther devouring a horse."
"That is nothing to what's to come; you shall hear the rest. I drew near the bill, and read in it, that one Morok, just arrived from Germany, is about to exhibit in a theatre different wild beasts that he tamed, among others a splendid lion, a tiger, and a black Java panther named Death."
"What an awful name!" said the hearer.
"You will think it more awful, my child, when I tell you, that this is the very panther which strangled my horse at Leipsic, four months ago."
"Good Heaven! you are right, M. Dagobert," said the girl, "it is awful."
"Wait a little," said Dagobert, whose countenance was growing more and more gloomy, "that is not all. It was by means of this very Morok, the owner of the panther, that I and my poor children were imprisoned in Leipsic."
"And this wicked man is in Paris, and wishes you evil?" said Mother Bunch. "Oh! you are right, M. Dagobert; you must take care of yourself; it is a bad omen."
"For him, if I catch him," said Dagobert, in a hollow tone. "We have old accounts to settle."
"M. Dagobert," cried Mother Bunch, listening; "some one is running up the stairs. It is Agricola's footsteps. I am sure he has good news."
"That will just do," said the soldier, hastily, without answering. "Agricola is a smith. He will be able to find me the iron hook."
A few moments after, Agricola entered the room; but, alas! the sempstress perceived at the first glance, in the dejected countenance of the workman, the ruin of her cherished hopes.
"Well!" said Dagobert to his son, in a tone which clearly announced the little faith he attached to the steps taken by Agricola; "well, what news?"
"Father, it is enough to drive one mad—to make one dash one's brains out against the wall!" cried the smith in a rage.
Dagobert turned towards Mother Bunch, and said: "You see, my poor child—I was sure of it."
"Well, father," cried Agricola; "have you seen the Court de Montbron?"
"The Count de Montbron set out for Lorraine three days ago. That is my good news," continued the soldier, with bitter irony; "let us have yours—I long to know all. I need to know, if, on appealing to the laws, which, as you told me, protect and defend honest people, it ever happens that the rogues get the best of it. I want to know this, and then I want an iron hook—so I count upon you for both."
"What do you mean, father?"
"First, tell me what you have done. We have time. It is not much more than half-past eight. On leaving me, where did you go first?"
"To the commissary, who had already received your depositions."
"What did he say to you?"
"After having very kindly listened to all I had to state, he answered, that these young girls were placed in a respectable house, a convent—so that there did not appear any urgent necessity for their immediate removal—and besides, he could not take upon himself to violate the sanctity of a religious dwelling upon your simple testimony; to-morrow, he will make his report to the proper authorities, and steps will be taken accordingly."
"Yes, yes—plenty of put offs," said the soldier.
"'But, sir,' answered I to him," resumed Agricola, "'it is now, this very night, that you ought to act, for if these young girls should not be present to-morrow morning in the Rue Saint Francois, their interests may suffer incalculable damage. 'I am very sorry for it,' replied he, 'but I cannot, upon your simple declaration, or that of your father, who—like yourself—is no relation or connection of these young persons, act in direct opposition to forms, which could not be set aside, even on the demand of a family. The law has its delays and its formalities, to which we are obliged to submit.'"
"Certainly!" said Dagobert. "We must submit to them, at the risk of becoming cowardly, ungrateful traitors!"
"Didst speak also of Mdlle. de Cardoville to him?" asked the work-girl.
"Yes—but he: answered me on this subject in much the same manner: 'It was very serious; there was no proof in support of my deposition. A third party had told me that Mdlle. de Cardoville affirms she was not mad; but all mad people pretend to be sane. He could not, therefore, upon my sole testimony, take upon himself to enter the house of a respectable physician. But he would report upon it, and the law would have its course—'"
"When I wished to act just now for myself," said Dagobert, "did I not forsee all this? And yet I was weak enough to listen to you."
"But, father, what you wished to attempt was impossible, and you agreed that it would expose you to far too dangerous consequences."
"So," resumed the soldier, without answering his son, "they told you in plain terms, that we must not think of obtaining legally the release of Rose and Blanche this evening or even to-morrow morning?"
"Yes, father. In the eyes of the law, there is no special urgency. The question may not be decided for two or three days."
"That is all I wished to know," said Dagobert, rising and walking up and down the room.
"And yet," resumed his son, "I did not consider myself beaten. In despair, but believing that justice could not remain deaf to such equitable claims, I ran to the Palais de Justice, hoping to find there a judge, a magistrate who would receive my complaint, and act upon it."
"Well?" said the soldier, stopping him.
"I was told that the courts shut every day at five o'clock, and do not open again til ten in the morning. Thinking of your despair, and of the position of poor Mdlle. de Cardoville, I determined to make one more attempt. I entered a guard-house of troops of the line, commanded by a lieutenant. I told him all. He saw that I was so much moved, and I spoke with such warmth and conviction, that he became interested.—'Lieutenant,' said I to him, 'grant me one favor; let a petty officer and two soldiers go to the convent to obtain a legal entrance. Let them ask to see the daughters of Marshal Simon, and learn whether it is their choice to remain, or return to my father, who brought them from Russia. You will then see if they are not detained against their will—'"
"And what answer did he give you, Agricola?" asked Mother Bunch, while Dagobert shrugged his shoulders, and continued to walk up and down.
"'My good fellow,' said he, 'what you ask me is impossible. I understand your motives, but I cannot take upon myself so serious a measure. I should be broke were I to enter a convent by force.—'Then, sir, what am I to do? It is enough to turn one's head.'—'Faith, I don't know,' said the lieutenant; 'it will be safest, I think, to wait.'—Then, believing I had done all that was possible, father, I resolved to come back, in the hope that you might have been more fortunate than I—but, alas! I was deceived!"
So saying, the smith sank upon a chair, for he was worn out with anxiety and fatigue. There was a moment of profound silence after these words of Agricola, which destroyed the last hopes of the three, mute and crushed beneath the strokes of inexorable fatality.
A new incident came to deepen the sad and painful character of this scene.
CHAPTER XI. DISCOVERIES.
The door which Agricola had not thought of fastening opened, as it were, timidly, and Frances Baudoin, Dagobert's wife, pale, sinking, hardly able to support herself, appeared on the threshold.
The soldier, Agricola, and Mother Bunch, were plunged in such deep dejection, that neither of them at first perceived the entrance. Frances advanced two steps into the room, fell upon her knees, clasped her hands together, and said in a weak and humble voice; "My poor husband—pardon!"
At these words, Agricola and the work-girl—whose backs were towards the door—turned round suddenly, and Dagobert hastily raised his head.
"My mother!" cried Agricola, running to Frances.
"My wife!" cried Dagobert, as he also rose, and advanced to meet the unfortunate woman.
"On your knees, dear mother!" said Agricola, stooping down to embrace her affectionately. "Get up, I entreat you!"
"No, my child," said Frances, in her mild, firm accents, "I will not rise, till your father has forgiven me. I have wronged him much—now I know it."
"Forgive you, my poor wife?" said the soldier, as he drew near with emotion. "Have I ever accused you, except in my first transport of despair? No, no; it was the bad priests that I accused, and there I was right. Well! I have you again," added he, assisting his son to raise Frances; "one grief the less. They have then restored you to liberty? Yesterday, I could not even learn in what prison they had put you. I have so many cares that I could not think of you only. But come, dear wife: sit down!"
"How feeble you are, dear mother!—how cold—how pale!" said Agricola with anguish, his eyes filling with tears.
"Why did you not let us know?" added he. "We would have gone to fetch you. But how you tremble! Your hands are frozen!" continued the smith, as he knelt down before Frances. Then, turning towards Mother Bunch: "Pray, make a little fire directly."
"I thought of it, as soon as your father came in, Agricola, but there is no wood nor charcoal left."
"Then pray borrow some of Father Loriot, my dear sister. He is too good a fellow to refuse. My poor mother trembles so—she might fall ill."
Hardly had he said the words, than Mother Bunch went out. The smith rose from the ground, took the blanket from the bed, and carefully wrapped it about the knees and feet of his mother. Then, again kneeling down, he said to her: "Your hands, dear mother!" and, taking those feeble palms in his own, he tried to warm them with his breath.
Nothing could be more touching than this picture: the robust young man, with his energetic and resolute countenance, expressing by his looks the greatest tenderness, and paying the most delicate attentions to his poor, pale, trembling old mother.
Dagobert, kind-hearted as his son, went to fetch a pillow, and brought it to his wife, saying: "Lean forward a little, and I will put this pillow behind you; you will be more comfortable and warmer."
"How you both spoil me!" said Frances, trying to smile. "And you to be so kind, after all the ill I have done!" added she to Dagobert, as, disengaging one of her hands from those of her son, she took the soldier's hand and pressed it to her tearful eyes. "In prison," said she in a low voice, "I had time to repent."
Agricola's heart was near breaking at the thought that his pious and good mother, with her angelic purity, should for a moment have been confined in prison with so many miserable creatures. He would have made some attempt to console her on the subject of the painful past, but he feared to give a new shock to Dagobert, and was silent.
"Where is Gabriel, dear mother?" inquired he. "How is he? As you have seen him, tell us all about him."
"I have seen Gabriel," said Frances, drying her tears; "he is confined at home. His superiors have rigorously forbidden his going out. Luckily, they did not prevent his receiving me, for his words and counsels have opened my eyes to many things. It is from him that I learned how guilty I had been to you, my poor husband."
"How so?" asked Dagobert.
"Why, you know that if I caused you so much grief, it was not from wickedness. When I saw you in such despair, I suffered almost as much myself; but I durst not tell you so, for fear of breaking my oath. I had resolved to keep it, believing that I did well, believing that it was my duty. And yet something told me that it could not be my duty to cause you so much pain. 'Alas, my God! enlighten me!' I exclaimed in my prison, as I knelt down and prayed, in spite of the mockeries of the other women. 'Why should a just and pious work, commanded by my confessor, the most respectable of men, overwhelm me and mine with so much misery? 'Have mercy on me, my God, and teach me if I have done wrong without knowing it!' As I prayed with fervor, God heard me, and inspired me with the idea of applying to Gabriel. 'I thank Thee, Father! I will obey!' said I within myself. 'Gabriel is like my own child; but he is also a priest, a martyr—almost a saint. If any one in the world imitates the charity of our blessed Saviour, it is surely he. When I leave this prison, I will go and consult him and he will clear up my doubts.'"
"You are right, dear mother," cried Agricola; "it was a thought from heaven. Gabriel is an angel of purity, courage, nobleness—the type of the true and good priest!"
"Ah, poor wife!" said Dagobert, with bitterness; "if you had never had any confessor but Gabriel!"
"I thought of it before he went on his journey," said Frances, with simplicity. "I should have liked to confess to the dear boy—but I fancied Abbe Dubois would be offended, and that Gabriel would be too indulgent with regard to my sins.
"Your sins, poor dear mother?" said Agricola. "As if you ever committed any!"
"And what did Gabriel tell you?" asked the soldier.
"Alas, my dear! had I but had such an interview with him sooner! What I told him of Abbe Dubois roused his suspicions, and he questioned me, dear child, as to many things of which he had never spoken to me before. Then I opened to him my whole heart, and he did the same to me, and we both made sad discoveries with regard to persons whom we had always thought very respectable, and who yet had deceived each of us, unknown to the other."
"Why, they used to tell him, under the seal of secrecy, things that were supposed to come from me; and they used to tell me, under the same seal of secrecy, things that were supposed to come from him. Thus, he confessed to me, that he did not feel at first any vocation for the priesthood; but they told him that I should not believe myself safe in this world or in the next, if he did not take orders, because I felt persuaded that I could best serve the Lord by giving Him so good a servant; and that yet I had never dared to ask Gabriel himself to give me this proof of his attachment, though I had taken him from the street, a deserted orphan, and brought him up as my own son, at the cost of labor and privations. Then, how could it be otherwise? The poor dear child, thinking he could please me, sacrificed himself. He entered the seminary."
"Horrible," said Agricola; "'tis an infamous snare, and, for the priests who were guilty of it, a sacrilegious lie!"
"During all that time," resumed Frances, "they were holding very different language to me. I was told that Gabriel felt his vocation, but that he durst not avow it to me, for fear of my being jealous on account of Agricola, who, being brought up as a workman, would not enjoy the same advantages as those which the priesthood would secure to Gabriel. So when he asked my permission to enter the seminary dear child! he entered it with regret, but he thought he was making me so happy!—instead of discouraging this idea, I did all in my power to persuade him to follow it, assuring him that he could not do better, and that it would occasion me great joy. You understand, I exaggerated, for fear he should think me jealous on account of Agricola."
"What an odious machination!" said Agricola, in amazement. "They were speculating in this unworthy manner upon your mutual devotion. Thus Gabriel saw the expression of your dearest wish in the almost forced encouragement given to his resolution."
"Little by little, however, as Gabriel has the best heart in the world, the vocation really came to him. That was natural enough—he was born to console those who suffer, and devote himself for the unfortunate. He would never have spoken to me of the past, had it not been for this morning's interview. But then I beheld him, who is usually so mild and gentle, become indignant, exasperated, against M. Rodin and another person whom he accuses. He had serious complaints against them already, but these discoveries, he says, will make up the measure."
At these words of Frances, Dagobert pressed his hand to his forehead, as if to recall something to his memory. For some minutes he had listened with surprise, and almost terror, to the account of these secret plots, conducted with such deep and crafty dissimulation.
Frances continued: "When at last I acknowledged to Gabriel, that by the advice of Abbe Dubois, my confessor, I had delivered to a stranger the children confined to my husband—General Simon's daughters—the dear boy blamed me, though with great regret, not for having wished to instruct the poor orphans in the truths of our holy religion, but for having acted without the consent of my husband, who alone was answerable before God and man for the charge entrusted to him. Gabriel severely censured Abbe Dubois' conduct, who had given me, he said, bad and perfidious counsels; and then, with the sweetness of an angel, the dear boy consoled me, and exhorted me to come and tell you all. My poor husband! he would fain have accompanied me, for I had scarcely courage to come hither, so strongly did I feel the wrong I had done you; but, unfortunately, Gabriel is confined at the seminary by the strict order of his superiors; he could not come with me, and—"
Here Dagobert, who seemed much agitated, abruptly interrupted his wife. "One word, Frances," said he; "for, in truth, in the midst of so many cares, and black, diabolical plots, one loses one's memory, and the head begins to wander. Didst not tell me, the day the children disappeared, that Gabriel, when taken in by you, had round his neck a bronze medal, and in his pocket a book filled with papers in a foreign language?"
"Yes, my dear."
"And this medal and these papers were afterwards delivered to your confessor?"
"Yes, my dear."
"And Gabriel never spoke of them since?"
Agricola, hearing this from his mother, looked at her with surprise, and exclaimed: "Then Gabriel has the same interest as the daughters of General Simon, or Mdlle. de Cardoville, to be in the Rue Saint-Francois to-morrow?"
"Certainly," said Dagobert. "And now do you remember what he said to us, just after my arrival—that, in a few days, he would need our support in a serious matter?"
"And he is kept a prisoner at his seminary! And he tells your mother that he has to complain of his superiors! and he asked us for our support with so sad and grave an air, that I said to him—"
"He would speak so, if about to engage in a deadly duel," interrupted Agricola. "True, father! and yet you, who are a good judge of valor, acknowledged that Gabriel's courage was equal to yours. For him so to fear his superiors, the danger must be great indeed."
"Now that I have heard your mother, I understand it all," said Dagobert. "Gabriel is like Rose and Blanche, like Mdlle. de Cardoville, like your mother, like all of us, perhaps—the victim of a secret conspiracy of wicked priests. Now that I know their dark machinations, their infernal perseverance, I see," added the soldier, in a whisper, "that it requires strength to struggle against them. I had not the least idea of their power."
"You are right, father; for those who are hypocritical and wicked do as much harm as those who are good and charitable, like Gabriel, do good. There is no more implacable enemy than a bad priest."
"I know it, and that's what frightens me; for my poor children are in their hands. But is all lost? Shall I bring myself to give them up without an effort? Oh, no, no! I will not show any weakness—and yet, since your mother told us of these diabolical plots, I do not know how it is but I seem less strong, less resolute. What is passing around me appears so terrible. The spiriting away of these children is no longer an isolated fact—it is one of the ramifications of a vast conspiracy, which surrounds and threatens us all. It seems to me as if I and those I love walked together in darkness, in the midst of serpents, in the midst of snares that we can neither see nor struggle against. Well! I'll speak out! I have never feared death—I am not a coward and yet I confess—yes, I confess it—these black robes frighten me—"
Dagobert pronounced these words in so sincere a tone, that his son started, for he shared the same impression. And it was quite natural. Frank, energetic, resolute characters, accustomed to act and fight in the light of day, never feel but one fear—and that is, to be ensnared and struck in the dark by enemies that escape their grasp. Thus, Dagobert had encountered death twenty times; and yet, on hearing his wife's simple revelation of this dark tissue of lies, and treachery, and crime, the soldier felt a vague sense of fear; and, though nothing was changed in the conditions of his nocturnal enterprise against the convent, it now appeared to him in a darker and more dangerous light.
The silence, which had reigned for some moments, was interrupted by Mother Bunch's return. The latter, knowing that the interview between Dagobert, his wife, and Agricola, ought not have any importunate witness, knocked lightly at the door, and remained in the passage with Father Loriot.
"Can we come in, Mme. Frances?" asked the sempstress. "Here is Father Loriot, bringing some wood."
"Yes, yes; come in, my good girl," said Agricola, whilst his father wiped the cold sweat from his forehead.
The door opened, and the worthy dyer appeared, with his hands and arms of an amaranthine color; on one side, he carried a basket of wood, and on the other some live coal in a shovel.
"Good-evening to the company!" said Daddy Loriot. "Thank you for having thought of me, Mme. Frances. You know that my shop and everything in it are at your service. Neighbors should help one another; that's my motto! You were kind enough, I should think, to my late wife!"
Then, placing the wood in a corner, and giving the shovel to Agricola, the worthy dyer, guessing from the sorrowful appearance of the different actors in this scene, that it would be impolite to prolong his visit, added: "You don't want anything else, Mme. Frances?"
"No, thank you, Father Loriot."
"Then, good-evening to the company!" said the dyer; and, addressing Mother Bunch, he added: "Don't forget the letter for M. Dagobert. I durstn't touch it for fear of leaving the marks of my four fingers and thumb in amaranthine! But, good evening to the company!" and Father Loriot went out.
"M. Dagobert, here is a letter," said Mother Bunch. She set herself to light the fire in the stove, while Agricola drew his mother's arm-chair to the hearth.
"See what it is, my boy," said Dagobert to his son; "my head is so heavy that I cannot see clear." Agricola took the letter, which contained only a few lines, and read it before he looked at the signature.
"At Sea, December 25th, 1831.
"I avail myself of a few minutes' communication with a ship bound direct for Europe, to write to you, my old comrade, a few hasty lines, which will reach you probably by way of Havre, before the arrival of my last letters from India. You must by this time be at Paris, with my wife and child—tell them—I am unable to say more —the boat is departing. Only one word; I shall soon be in France. Do not forget the 13th February; the future of my wife and child depends upon it.
"Adieu, my friend! Believe in my eternal gratitude.
"Agricola—quick! look to your father!" cried the hunchback.
From the first words of this letter, which present circumstances made so cruelly applicable, Dagobert had become deadly pale. Emotion, fatigue, exhaustion, joined to this last blow, made him stagger.
His son hastened to him, and supported him in his arms. But soon the momentary weakness passed away, and Dagobert, drawing his hand across his brow, raised his tall figure to its full height. Then, whilst his eye sparkled, his rough countenance took an expression of determined resolution, and he exclaimed, in wild excitement: "No, no! I will not be a traitor; I will not be a coward. The black robes shall not frighten me; and, this night, Rose and Blanche Simon shall be free!"
CHAPTER XII. THE PENAL CODE.
Startled for a moment by the dark and secret machinations of the black robes, as he called them, against the persons he most loved, Dagobert might have hesitated an instant to attempt the deliverance of Rose and Blanche; but his indecision ceased directly on the reading of Marshal Simon's letter, which came so timely to remind him of his sacred duties.
To the soldier's passing dejection had succeeded a resolution full of calm and collected energy.
"Agricola, what o'clock is it?" asked he of his son.
"Just struck nine, father."
"You must make me, directly, an iron hook—strong enough to support my weight, and wide enough to hold on the coping of a wall. This stove will be forge and anvil; you will find a hammer in the house; and, for iron," said the soldier, hesitating, and looking around him, "as for iron—here is some!"
So saying, the soldier took from the hearth a strong pair of tongs, and presented them to his son, adding: "Come, my boy! blow up the fire, blow it to a white heat, and forge me this iron!"
On these words, Frances and Agricola looked at each other with surprise; the smith remained mute and confounded, not knowing the resolution of his father, and the preparations he had already commenced with the needlewoman's aid.
"Don't you hear me, Agricola," repeated Dagobert, still holding the pair of tongs in his hand; "you must make me a hook directly."
"A hook, father?—for what purpose?"
"To tie to the end of a cord that I have here. There must be a loop at one end large enough to fix it securely."
"But this cord—this hook—for what purpose are they?"
"To scale the walls of the convent, if I cannot get in by the door."
"What convent?" asked Frances of her son.
"How, father?" cried the latter, rising abruptly. "You still think of that?"
"Why! what else should I think of?"
"But, father, it is impossible; you will never attempt such an enterprise."
"What is it, my child?" asked Frances, with anxiety. "Where is father going?"
"He is going to break into the convent where Marshal Simon's daughters are confined, and carry them off."
"Great God! my poor husband—a sacrilege!" cried Frances, faithful to her pious traditions, and, clasping her hands together, she endeavored to rise and approach Dagobert.
The soldier, forseeing that he would have to contend with observations and prayers of all sorts, and resolved not to yield, determined to cut short all useless supplications, which would only make him lose precious time. He said, therefore, with a grave, severe, and almost solemn air, which showed the inflexibility of his determination: "Listen to me, wife—and you also, my son—when, at my age, a man makes up his mind to do anything, he knows the reason why. And when a man has once made up his mind, neither wife nor child can alter it. I have resolved to do my duty; so spare yourselves useless words. It may be your duty to talk to me as you have done; but it is over now, and we will say no more about it. This evening I must be master in my own house."
Timid and alarmed, Frances did not dare to utter a word, but she turned a supplicating glance towards her son.
"Father," said the latter, "one word more—only one."
"Let us hear," replied Dagobert, impatiently.
"I will not combat your resolution; but I will prove to you that you do not know to what you expose yourself."
"I know it all," replied the soldier, in an abrupt tone. "The undertaking is a serious one; but it shall not be said that I neglected any means to accomplish what I promised to do."
"But father, you do not know to what danger you expose yourself," said the smith, much alarmed.
"Talk of danger! talk of the porter's gun and the gardener's scythe!" said Dagobert, shrugging his shoulders contemptuously. "Talk of them, and have done with it for, after all, suppose I were to leave my carcass in the convent, would not you remain to your mother? For twenty years, you were accustomed to do without me. It will be all the less trying to you."
"And I, alas! am the cause of these misfortunes!" cried the poor mother. "Ah! Gabriel had good reason to blame me."
"Mme. Frances, be comforted," whispered the sempstress, who had drawn near to Dagobert's wife. "Agricola will not suffer his father to expose himself thus."
After a moment's hesitation, the smith resumed, in an agitated voice: "I know you too well, father, to think of stopping you by the fear of death."
"Of what danger, then, do you speak?"
"Of a danger from which even you will shrink, brave as you are," said the young man, in a voice of emotion, that forcibly struck his father.
"Agricola," said the soldier, roughly and severely, "that remark is cowardly, you are insulting."
"Cowardly!" resumed the soldier, angrily; "because it is cowardice to wish to frighten a man from his duty—insulting! because you think me capable of being so frightened."
"Oh, M. Dagobert!" exclaimed the sewing-girl, "you do not understand Agricola."
"I understand him too well," answered the soldier harshly.
Painfully affected by the severity of his father, but firm in his resolution, which sprang from love and respect, Agricola resumed, whilst his heart beat violently. "Forgive me, if I disobey you, father; but, were you to hate me for it, I must tell you to what you expose yourself by scaling at night the walls of a convent—"
"My son! do you dare?" cried Dagobert, his countenance inflamed with rage-"Agricola!" exclaimed Frances, in tears. "My husband!"
"M. Dagobert, listen to Agricola!" exclaimed Mother Bunch. "It is only in your interest that he speaks."