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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
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CHARLES THEODORE MURRAY
ILLUSTRATED BY W.H. RICHARDSON E. BENSON KENNEDY & FRANCIS DAY
PHILADELPHIA & LONDON J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY MCMII
COPYRIGHT, 1902 BY CHARLES THEODORE MURRAY
All rights reserved
Published March, 1902
Printed by J. B Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, U.S.A.
MR. R.F. ("TODY") HAMILTON
A CHARMING GENTLEMAN, DELIGHTFUL TRAVELLING COMPANION, PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHER, AND RELIABLE FRIEND
HIS STILL UNCONSCIOUS BURDEN Page 136
SHE SEIZED JEAN BY THE ARM " 182
IT WAS A CRITICAL MOMENT " 383
"Get along, you little beast!"
Madame Podvin accompanied her admonition with a vigorous blow from her heavy hand.
"Out, I say!"
"You lazy caniche!"
"You get no breakfast here this morning!"
"Out with you!"
In the mean time the unhappy object of these objurgations and blows had been rapidly propelled towards the open door, and was with a final thump knocked into the street.
A stray dog? Oh, no; a dog is never abused in this way in Paris. It would probably cause a riot.
It was only a wee bit of a child,—dirty, clothed in rags, with tangled blonde hair that had never, apparently, seen a comb, and whose little bare feet and thin ankles were incrusted with the dried filth of the gutters.
Being only a child, the few neighbors who were abroad at that early hour merely grinned at her as she picked herself up and limped away without a cry or a word.
"She's a tough one," muttered a witness.
"She's got to be mighty tough to stand the Podvin," responded another.
In the rapidly increasing distance the child seemed to justify these remarks; for she began to step out nimbly towards the town of Charenton without wasting time over her grievances.
"All the same, I'm hungry," she said to herself, "and the streets of Charenton will be mighty poor picking half an hour hence."
She paused presently to examine a pile of garbage in front of a house. But the dogs had been there before her,—there was nothing to eat there.
These piles of garbage awaited the tour of the carts; they began to appear at an early hour in the morning, and within an hour had been picked over by rag-pickers, dogs, and vagrants until absolutely nothing was left that could be by any possibility utilized by these early investigators. Here and there two or three dogs contested the spoils of a promising pile, to separate with watchful amity to gnaw individual bones.
As it was a principal highway from the Porte de Charenton to the town, the piles of refuse had been pretty thoroughly overhauled by the dogs and human scum that infested the barrier.
Finally, the girl stopped as a stout woman appeared at a grille with a paper of kitchen refuse which she was about to throw into the street.
They looked at each other steadily,—the child with eager, hungry eyes; the woman with resentment.
"There is nothing here for you," rasped the latter, retaining her hold upon the folded parcel as she advanced to the curb and glanced up and down the street.
The child, who had unconsciously carried her rag-picker's hook, stood waiting in the middle of the road.
"Don't you hear me?" repeated the woman, threateningly. "Be off with you!"
"It is a public road," said the little one.
"I haven't asked you for anything, madame," interrupted the child, with quivering voice,—"I'd die before asking you for anything,—but I have as much right to the road as you."
There was a flash of defiance in the small blue eyes now.
Two street dogs came up on a run. The woman threw down her parcel to them and, retreating, slammed the iron gate after her.
With a wicked swing of her hook the child drove the dogs away and hastily inspected the garbage. A piece of stale crust and some half-decayed fruit rewarded her. A gristled end of beef she threw to the dogs, that watched her wistfully a few yards away.
"Voila! I divide fair, messieurs," said she, skilfully munching the sound spots out of the fruit and casting the rest on the ground.
"One would have thought madame was about to spread a banquet," she muttered.
She sauntered away, stopping to break the crust with a piece of loose paving, with a sharp eye out for other windfalls.
A young girl saw her from a garden, and shyly peeped through the high wrought-iron fence at the little savage.
Though the latter never stopped a second in her process of mastication, she eyed the other quite as curiously,—something as she might have regarded a strange but beautiful animal through the bars of its cage.
In experience and practical knowledge of life the respective ages of these two might have been reversed; the child of the street been sixteen instead of twelve.
Undersized, thin, sallow, and sunburned,—bareheaded, barefooted, dirty, and ragged,—she formed a striking contrast to the rosy-cheeked, plump, full-lipped, and well-dressed young woman within.
The extraordinary sound of crunching very naturally attracted the first attention of the elder.
"What in the world is that which you are eating, child?" she asked.
"Bread! Why, it's covered with dirt!"
Redoubled exertion of the sound young teeth.
"Why do you eat that?"
Continuous crunching, while the child knocks the remaining crust against the wall to get the sand out of it, the dirt of the paving-stone.
"What's your name?"
"Fouchette? Fouchette what?"
"Nothing, ma'm'selle,—just Fouchette."
"Where do you live, Fouchette? Do throw that dirty bread away, child!"
"Say, now, ma'm'selle, do you see anything green in my eye?"
The young woman seriously inspects the blue eye that is rolled up at her and shakes her head.
"N-no; I don't see anything."
"Very well," said Fouchette, continuing her attack on the slowly dissolving crust.
"Throw it away, I tell you!—I'll run and get you some,—that's a good child!"
Fouchette stopped suddenly and remained immobile, regarding her interlocutor sharply.
"Truly?" she asked.
The child looked at what remained of the crust, hesitated, sighed, then dropped it on the ground. The young woman hastily re-entered the house and presently reappeared with a huge sandwich with meat on a liberal scale.
"Oh, how good you are, ma'm'selle!" cried Fouchette.
Her blue eyes sparkled with pleasure,—her young mouth watered as the sandwich was passed between the railing.
"What is that,—why, there is blood on your neck, Fouchette!"
The child felt her neck with her hand and brought it away.
"So it is," said she, sinking her teeth into the sandwich.
"Here,—come closer,—turn this way. It's running down now. How did you hurt yourself?"
"Dame! It is nothing, ma'm'selle."
"Nothing! You are just black and blue!"
"Mostly black," said Fouchette. The world looked ever so much brighter.
"You've been fighting," suggested the young woman, tentatively.
"Then somebody struck you."
"Quite right, ma'm'selle."
This was delivered with such an air of nonchalance that the young lady smiled.
"You speak as if it were a common occurrence," she observed.
"It is," said Fouchette, with a desperate swallow,—"Podvin."
"Person you live with?"
Fouchette nodded,—she had her mouth full.
"They beat you?"
"Most every day."
"Er—exercise, mostly, I think."
The half-sly, half-humorous squint of the left blue eye set the sympathetic young woman laughing in spite of herself. The remarkable precocity of these petites miserables of the slums was new to her.
"But you had father and mother——"
"I don't know, ma'm'selle,—at least they never showed up."
"But, my child, you must have started——"
"I started in a rag-heap, ma'm'selle. There's where the Podvin found me."
"In a rag-heap!"
"Yes, ma'm'selle,—so they say."
"But don't you remember anything at all before that?"
"Precious little. Only this: that I came a long ways off, walking, and riding in market carts, and walking some more,—and then the Podvin found me,—near here,—and here I am. That's all."
"What does Podvin do for a living?"
"Ah! And madame?"
"Now, Fouchette, which is 'the' Podvin?"
"Madame, of course!"
The young woman laughed merrily, and Fouchette gave forth a singular, low, unmusical tinkle. She was astonished that the young lady should put such a question, then amused as she thought of Mother Podvin playing second to anybody.
"What a lively little girl you are, Fouchette!" said her questioner, pleasantly.
"It's the fleas, ma'm'selle."
"I sleep with Tartar."
"Who's Tartar, and what——"
"He's the dog, ma'm'selle."
"Oh, he's the best of the family, ma'm'selle, very sure!" protested Fouchette, naively.
"No doubt of it, poor child!"
"Only for him I'd freeze in winter; and sometimes he divides his dinner with me—as well as his fleas—when he is not too hungry, you know. This amuses the Podvin so that sometimes, when we have company, she will not give me any dinner, so I'll have to beg of Tartar. And we have lots of fun, and I dance——"
"You dance after that? Why——"
"Oh, I love to dance, ma'm'selle. I can——"
Fouchette elevated her dirty little bare foot against the railing above her head by way of illustration; while, half shocked, half laughing, the other hastily exclaimed,—
"La, la, la! Put it down, Fouchette! Put it down!"
A restless glance up and down the road and back towards the house seemed to relieve the young woman materially; she laughed now with delightful abandon.
"So Tartar and you are good friends in spite of the—the——"
"The fleas,—yes, ma'm'selle. He loves me and me alone. Nobody dares come near him when we sleep—or eat,—and I love him dearly. Did you ever love anybody, ma'm'selle?"
This artless question appeared to take the young woman by surprise; for she grew confused and quite red, and finally told little Fouchette to "run along, now, and don't be silly."
"Not with fleas,—oh, no; I didn't mean that!" cried the child, conscious of having made a faux pas, but not clear.
But the young woman was already flying through the flower-garden, and quickly disappeared around the corner of the house without once looking back.
Fouchette then let go of her breath and heaved a deep sigh as she turned away.
It was the only occasion within her childish recollection when one of her own sex had spoken to her in kindness. Now and then she had dreamed of such a thing as having occurred in the long ago,—in some other world, perhaps,—this was real, tangible, perceptible to the eye and ear.
"Sweet words Are like the voices of returning birds, Filling the soul with summer."
For the moment the starved soul of the child was filled with summer softness, as she slowly returned along the route she had recently come, thinking of the beautiful young lady and the sensuous odor of the flowers which had penetrated to the innermost recesses of her being.
As she neared the barriers, however, and was gradually recalled to the harsh realities of her daily environment, these fleeting dreams had disappeared with the rest, leaving the old, fixed feelings of hopelessness and sullen combativeness. With this revival came the pain from the still recent blows of the morning, temporarily forgotten.
The barriers at Paris have long been the popular haunts of poverty and crime,—though their moral conditions have been greatly modified by the multitude of tramways that afford the poor of Paris more extended outings. The barriers run along the line of fortifications and form the "octroi," or tax limit of the city. These big iron gates of the barriers intercept every road entering Paris and are manned by customs officials, who inspect all incoming vehicles and packages for dutiable goods.
Within the barriers is Paris,—beyond is the rest of the world. Inside are the police agents,—outside are the gendarmes.
Cheap shows, gypsy camps, merry-go-rounds, and all sorts of games hover about the barriers, where no special tax is exacted and where the regulations with reference to public order are somewhat lax. They attract noisy and unruly crowds on Sundays and holidays. A once popular song ran:
"Pour rigoler montons, Montons a la barriere."
Which means, that to have a good time let us go up to the barrier.
These resorts are infested by the human vermin that prey on the ignorant,—thieves, pickpockets, robbers, and cutthroats of every description. This very wood of Vincennes near at hand, now the glory of picnickers, was for centuries the home and stronghold of the robber and professional assassin. And it is a rash man at this day who would voluntarily risk his purse and life by being found alone in the neighborhood after nightfall.
Fouchette's territory lay chiefly in the streets and suburbs of Charenton. To cover it she was compelled to get out before daylight. If she had good luck and brought in anything valuable she got an extra allowance of soup, sometimes with a scrap of meat, to be invariably divided between her and Tartar, or a small glass of red wine; if her find was poor her fare was reduced, and instead of food she often received blows.
These blows, however, were never administered in the sight of the dog, Tartar,—only once, when the savage animal resented this treatment of his side partner by burying his teeth in Mother Podvin's arm.
Little Fouchette remembered this friendly intervention by bringing home any choice bits of meat found in the house garbage during her morning tour. Mother Podvin remembered it by thereafter thumping Fouchette out of sight of her canine friend and protector. The infuriated woman would have slaughtered the offending spaniel on the spot, only Tartar was of infinite service to her husband in his business. She dared not, so she took it out on Fouchette.
Monsieur Podvin's business was not confined wholly to drinking, though it was perhaps natural that Fouchette should have reached that conclusion, since she had seen him in no other occupation. Monsieur Podvin, like many others of the mysterious inhabitants of the barriers, worked nights. Not regularly, but as occasion invited him or necessity drove him. On such occasions Tartar was brought forth from the cellar, where he reposed peacefully by the side of his little protegee, and accompanied his master. As Tartar was held in strict confinement during the day, he was invariably delighted when the call of duty gave him this outing. And as he returned at all sorts of hours in the early morning, his frail partner and bedfellow never felt that it was necessary to sit up for him. Nevertheless, Fouchette was quite nervous, and sometimes sleepless, down there among the wine-bottles in the dark, on her pallet of straw, when she awoke to find her hairy protector missing; though, usually, she knew of his absence only by his return, when he licked her face affectionately before curling down closely as possible by her side.
Now, Monsieur Podvin's business, ostensibly, was that of keeping a low cabaret labelled "Rendez-Vous pour Cochers." It might have been more appropriately called a rendezvous for thieves, though this seems rather hypercritical when one knows the cabbies of the barriers. But the cabaret was really run by Madame Podvin, which robs monsieur of the moral responsibilities.
As a matter of fact, Monsieur Podvin was a mighty hunter, like Nimrod and Philippe Augustus, and other distinguished predecessors. His field of operations was the wood of Vincennes, where Philippe was wont to follow the chase some hundreds of years ago, and wherein a long line of royal chasseurs have subsequently amused themselves.
With the simple statement that they were all hunters and robbers, from Augustus to Podvin, inclusive, the resemblance ends; for the nobles and their followers followed the stag and wild boar, whereas Monsieur Podvin was a hunter of men.
At first blush the latter would appear to be higher game and a more dangerous amusement. Not at all. For the men thus run down by Monsieur Podvin and his faithful dog, Tartar, were little above the beasts from self-indulgence at any time, and were wholly devoid of even the lowest animal instincts when captured. They were the victims of their own bestiality before they became the victims of Podvin.
Every gala-day in the popular wood of Vincennes left a certain amount of human flotsam and jetsam lying around under the trees and in the dark shadows, helpless from a combination of wood alcohol and water treated with coloring matter and called "wine." It was Monsieur Podvin's business to hunt these unfortunates up and to relieve them of any valuables of which they might be possessed, and which they had no use for for the time being. It was quite as inspiriting and ennobling as going over a battlefield and robbing the dead, and about as safe for the operators. The intelligence of Tartar and his indefatigable industry lent an additional zest to the hunt and made it at once easy and remunerative. Tartar pointed and flushed the prey; all his master had to do was to go through the victims, who were usually too helpless to object. If, as was sometimes the case, one so far forgot himself as to do so, the sight of a gleaming knife-blade generally reconciled the victim to the peaceful surrender of his property. On special occasions Monsieur Podvin was assisted by a patron of the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers; but he usually worked alone, being of a covetous nature and unwilling to share profits. When accompanied, it was with the understanding that the booty was to be divided into equal shares, Tartar counting as an individual and coming in on equal terms, and one share on account of Fouchette,—all of which went to Monsieur Podvin.
For, without any knowledge or reward, Fouchette was made to do the most dangerous part of the business,—which lay in the disposal of the proceeds of the chase. It was innocently carried by her in her rag-basket to the receiver inside the barriers.
Where adults would have been suspected and probably searched, first by the customs officers and then by the police, Fouchette went unchallenged. Her towering basket, under which bent the frail little half-starved figure, marked her scarcely more conspicuously than her ready wit and cheerful though coarse retorts to would-be sympathizers. Her load was delivered to those who examined its contents out of her sight. The price went back by another carrier,—a patron of the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers. "La petite chiffonniere" was widely known in the small world of the Porte de Charenton.
As for Fouchette,—well, she has already, in her laconic way, given about all that she knew of her earlier history. Picked up in a rag-heap by a chiffonniere of the barrier, she had succeeded to a brutal life that had in five years reduced her to the physical level of the spaniel, Tartar. In fact, her position was really inferior, since the dog was never beaten and had always plenty to eat.
Instead of killing her, as would have been the fate of one of the lower animals subjected to the same treatment, all this had seemed to toughen the child,—to render her physically and morally as hard as nails.
It would be too much or too little—according to the point of view—to assume that Fouchette was patient under her yoke and that she went about her tasks with the docility of a well-trained animal. On the contrary, she not only rebelled in spirit, but she often resisted with all her feeble strength, fighting, feet, hands, and teeth, with feline ferocity. Having been brought to the level of brutes, she had become a brute in instinct, in her sensibility to kindness, her pig-headedness, resentment of injury, and dogged resistance.
On her ninth birthday—which, however, was unknown—Monsieur Podvin, over his fourth bottle, offered to put her up against the dog of his convive of the moment, so much was he impressed with Fouchette's fighting talent. Fouchette, who was serving the wine, was not unmindful of the implied compliment. She glanced at the animal and then at its owner with a bitter smile that in her catlike jaws seemed almost a snarl,—
"I'd much rather fight le Cochon," said she.
"Ho! ho! ho!" roared the man, who was a dirty ruffian of two hundred pounds, mostly alcohol, and who enjoyed the fitting sobriquet of "le Cochon," from his appearance and characteristic grunt.
"Voila!" cried Monsieur Podvin; "that's Fouchette!"
"Pardieu! but what a little scorcher!" exclaimed the ruffian, rather admiringly.
"The dog is honest and decent," said the child, turning her steely blue eyes on the man.
The peremptory voice was that of "the" Podvin behind the zinc. Such plain talk—any talk at all about "honesty" and "decency"—at the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers was interdicted. And had the girl noted the look which followed her retreating figure she might have gone abroad the next morning with less confidence.
From that time on these two, ruffian and child, snapped at each other whenever they came in contact,—which, as the man was an habitue of the place, and occasional assistant of Monsieur Podvin in his business of scouring the wood of Vincennes for booty, was pretty nearly every day. For in addition to her labors as a rag-picker Fouchette was compelled to wait upon customers in the wine-shop and run errands and perform pretty much all the work of housekeeping for the Podvins. Her foraging expeditions merely filled in the time when customers were not expected.
Strange as it may appear, Fouchette liked this extra hour or so abroad better than any other duty of the day,—it was freedom and independence. With her high pannier strapped to her slender back and iron hook in hand she roamed about the streets of Charenton, sometimes crossing over through ancient Conflans and coming home by the Marne and Seine. There were only footpads, low-browed rascals, thieves, and belated robbers about at this hour, before the trams began to make their trips to and from Paris, but these people never disturbed the petite chiffonniere, save to sometimes exchange the foul witticisms of the slums, in which contests the ready tongue and extensive vocabulary of little Fouchette invariably left a track of good-humor. They knew she hadn't a sou, and, besides, was one of their class.
Fouchette was a shining example of what environment can make of any human being, taken sufficiently young and having no vacation.
Up to this particular morning Fouchette had accepted her position in life philosophically as a necessary condition, and with no more consideration of the high and mighty of this world than the high and mighty had for her. Slowly and by insensible degrees, since she was too young to mark the phenomena in any case, she had been forged and hammered into a living piece of moral obliquity,—and yet the very first contact with an innocent mind and kindly sympathy awoke in her childish breast a subtle consciousness that something was wrong.
She fell asleep later, worn out with toil and sore from bruises, her thin arm flung across Tartar's neck, to dream of a plump young face, a pair of big, dark, soulful eyes that searched and found her heart. The noise of the revelling robbers above her faded into one sweet, deep, mellow voice that was music to her ears. And the powerful odors that impregnated the atmosphere of the cellar and rendered it foul to suffocation—dampness and dog and dregs of wine, and garlic and decaying vegetables—became the languorous breath of June flowers.
Ah! the beautiful young lady! The beautiful flowers!
Their perfume seemed to choke her, like the deadly tuberoses piled upon a coffin.
She tried to cry out, but her mouth was crowded full of something, and she awoke to find herself in the brutal hands of some one in the darkness. She kicked and scratched and struggled in vain, to be quickly vanquished by a brutish blow.
Oh, if Tartar were only there!
When she came to herself she was conscious of being carried in her own basket on the back of one who stepped heavily and somewhat uncertainly along the road.
She was doubled up like a half-shut jack-knife, her feet and head uppermost, and had great difficulty in breathing by reason of her cramped position and the ill-smelling rags with which she was covered. Besides which, she felt sick from the cruel blow in her stomach.
Yet her senses were keenly alert.
She was well aware who had her; for the man gave out his characteristic grunt with every misstep, and there was no one else in the world likely to do her serious physical injury.
She knew that it was still dark, both from the way the man walked and from the cool dampness of the atmosphere with which she was familiar.
Yes, it was le Cochon.
She knew him for an escaped convict, for a murderer as well as a robber, and that he would slit a throat for twenty sous if there were fair promise of immunity.
She felt instinctively that she was lost.
All at once the man stopped, went on, paused again.
Then she heard other footsteps. They grew louder. They were evidently approaching. They were the heavy, hob-nailed shoes of some laborer on his way to work.
Her heart stood still for a few moments as she listened, then beat wildly with renewed hope.
If she could only cry out; but the rag that filled her mouth made giving the alarm impossible.
Finally, after some hesitation, her abductor moved on as if to meet the coming footsteps, slowly, and leaning far over now and then, in apparent attempt to counterfeit the occupation of a rag-picker. And at such moments the child felt that she was standing on the back of her neck.
The heavy tramp of the stranger grew nearer—was upon them.
"Bonjour!" called out a cheerful, manly voice.
"Bonjour, monsieur!" replied le Cochon, humbly.
"You are abroad early this morning."
"It is necessary, if an honest chiffonnier would live these times."
"Possible. Good luck to you."
The steps had never paused and were quickly growing fainter down the road, while the young heart within the basket grew fainter and fainter with the fading sounds.
This temporary hope thus crushed was more cruel than her former despair.
Her bearer uttered a low volley of horrible imprecations directed towards the unknown.
He stopped suddenly, and, unstrapping the basket from his shoulders, placed it on the ground.
Fouchette smelled the morning vapors of the river; discerned now the distinct gurgle of the flood.
As the robber took the rags from the basket and pulled her roughly forth, the full significance of her perilous situation rushed upon her. She trembled so that she could scarcely stand,—would have toppled over the edge of the quai but for the strong arm of le Cochon, who restrained her.
"Not yet, petite," said he.
And he began to strap the basket upon her young shoulders.
"Pardieu! we must regard conventionalities," he added, with devilish malignity.
It was early gray of morning, and a mist hung over the dark waters of the Seine. No attempt had been made to obstruct her vision, which, long habituated to the hour, took in the road, the stone quai, the boats moored not far away, the human monster at her side, all at a single sweeping glance.
Her feet and arms were bound, the gag was still in her mouth,—there was no escape, no succor.
There was the river; there was le Cochon.
What more, indeed, was necessary to complete the picture?
Nothing was easier. No conclusion more mathematically certain.
With his knife between his teeth the assassin hastily adjusted the straps under her arms. It was but the work of half a minute from the time he had stopped, though to the terror-stricken child it seemed an age of torment.
The rags were packed tightly down in the bottom of the basket.
"It'll do for a sinker," said the man.
Then he cut the thongs that held her arms, severed the ligament that bound her feet, and with one hand removed the cloth from her mouth, while with the other he suddenly pushed his victim over the edge of the stone quai.
Short as was the opportunity, Fouchette gave one terrified shriek as she went over the brink,—a shriek that pierced the river mists and reverberated from the stone walls and parapets and went ringing up and down the surface of the swiftly swirling stream.
Again, as she reappeared, battling with the murky waters with desperate stroke and splash, her childish voice rose,—
And yet again, choking with the flood,—
It was the last thought,—the last appeal,—this despairing cry for the only one on earth she loved,—the only being on earth who loved her.
The piercing cry of Fouchette seemed yet to linger in the misty morning air, thrilling the distant ear, vibrating upon the unstrung nerves of the outcasts beneath the far-away bridges, borne upon the surface of the waters, when it was answered out of the darkness by a sharp, shrill note of sympathy.
Those who have heard the wild hyena in his native fastnesses responding to the appeal of its imperilled young might have understood this half-human, half-savage cry of the roused animal.
And almost simultaneously came the swift rush of feet that seemed to claw the granite into flying electric sparks.
The repulsive face of the convict murderer turned pale at the sound, and at the sight of the glowing eye-balls his ugly teeth clattered against each other. Nevertheless, the instinct of self-preservation made him crouch low, deadly knife in hand, to receive the expected attack.
At the sight of le Cochon the dog emitted a howl of wrath. With the marvellous judgment, however, of the trained animal that will not be turned from the trail of a deer by the scent of skunk, this sight scarcely checked his plunge.
Tartar's divination was unerring. He wasted no effort in battling with the current or paddling around in a circle, but turned at once and swam rapidly with the stream. He spent no breath in useless vociferation. All his canine strength was put forth to an end. And these instincts were quickly rewarded by the sight of a strange object floating ahead of him,—something a little higher, than the water.
The fiend who had packed the old rags into the bottom of the pannier with the double motive of indicating an accident and of carrying the child under beneath its weight had overdone the trick. For the rags, once soaked, proved so much heavier than the frail body that it turned turtle and threw the child face upward and partially above the surface. The load instead of sinking buoyed her up, and, being strapped securely to it, she could not fall off. Whereas if she had simply been thrown into the river without these precautions, she would have gone to the bottom.
With a succession of low whines now that were almost human sobs, the excited spaniel quickened his stroke, if, indeed, such a thing were possible, and redoubled his energies. He saw that it was the body of his beloved mate.
But when he reached the floating object and seized it with his teeth it was to find that he was powerless to drag it ashore. In vain he struggled and splashed and tugged at it. The load was too much for him. Almost frantic from disappointment, he soon became exhausted. He seemed to realize that he would not only be unable to save his little mistress, but was likely to perish with her. It was not long before his fight ceased. He hung on by his teeth now to keep from sinking.
Thus the combination, waterlogged basket, unconscious girl, and exhausted dog, floated silently along, under the National Bridge, past the bridge of Tolbiac, and came opposite the great freight-yards of the Orleans Railway on the left and the greater Entrepots de Bercy on the right.
The homeless of both sexes that swarm the shelter of the bridges of the Seine were just awakening to life and a renewed sense of misery. The thin fog had begun to lift. The sharper eyes of the dog discovered the proximity of human beings before the latter could see him, and he let go of his floater long enough to utter a few sharp yelps of distress.
A tramp, wider awake or less benumbed by liquor than his fellows, heard the sounds from the river and called the attention of companions.
A dog in distress,—it was enough to rouse the sympathetic blood of any true Parisian. The more active of the men ran vociferously along the bank, raising the watchmen of either shore.
Numerous barges and tugs lay moored along the Quai de la Gare. From these lights began to show. Men sprang up as if by magic. Those on one side of the river shouted to those on the other side to find out what was the matter, and the other side shouted back that they didn't know,—but it was somebody or something in the river. As there is always "somebody" in the river, the idea did not attract so much attention as the possibility that it was "something."
When it was ascertained that it was a dog—which followed upon additional pathetic appeals from the water—there was wild excitement all along the line. Men tumbled over barrels and boxes, and ran plump up against walls, and fell into pits, and even into the river itself, in their anxiety to keep pace with the sounds from the fog.
Others began hastily to get out boats, and ran about with lanterns and oars and ends of rope and other life-saving paraphernalia. These boats put off simultaneously from either side, and contained police agents, bargemen, roustabouts, watchmen, watermen, and bums. As the inhabitants of the Long Island shore at the cry of "A whale!" man the boats and race to get in the first harpoon, so these rivermen of the Seine now pulled for a drowning dog.
The conflicting sounds of human voices, the grating of boats against the stones, the rattle of chains, the splash of oars, were plainly heard and as plainly understood by the intelligent animal now struggling with death. Through his set jaws, which still clung to the child's clothing, or, rather, through his nose, there came occasional whines of distress that were almost heart-rending in their intensity.
These last faint appeals for help directed the rescuers.
"Mon Dieu!" exclaimed a waterman, nearing the spot and rowing alongside.
"It's a child!" screamed another.
"No, it's a dog," said a third.
The light was still uncertain and objects confusing.
"It's dog and child——"
"Not yet, monsieur."
"I mean the child."
"No; the dog has held its face above water."
"The dog,—quick! he's sinking!"
"No, no! Catch him by the neck!"
"Save the child first!"
"I've got him!"
"And I've got her!"
"Hang on to the dog! Pull him into the boat, stupid!"
"Why, she's strapped down to something!"
"What is this, anyhow?"
"Pull the dog loose, man!—he'll drown her yet!"
"Your knife, Pierre!"
This was from the river policeman, who held up his bull's-eye lantern so that it threw a yellow glare on the white upturned face.
"She's dead, poor little thing!"
"We shall bring in the body just as it is," said the official.
"That's the law!"
"Tonnerre! Is it the law to let a child drown in one's sight?"
"Oh, she's dead enough, I'm afraid."
"I don't know about that."
"Bring it in just as it is," repeated the official, adjusting a rope to the mysterious thing beneath the body.
"Sacre bleu! And if she's alive?"
"Poor doggie! He's about done for too."
And so it really seemed, for Tartar lay in the bottom of the boat, still breathing, but in convulsive gasps. In his teeth remained a portion of the child's clothing, torn away with him. He had hung to his charge to the last. His jaws had never relaxed.
In the mean time the whole fleet with its spoils had been floating steadily down with the powerful current. Amidst the wrangle of contending voices, and with some angry altercation, the police boat and its accompanying consorts were towing the yet unknown object and its silent burden towards the shore.
This was not an easy job, since the river becomes more narrow as it threads the city, and the current proportionately stronger, and the undertow caught at the low-hanging mass as if determined to bear it down to the morgue just below. They had been carried under the Pont de Bercy and were drawing near the Quai d'Austerlitz. Finally they got ashore at the Gare d'Orleans.
"Parbleu! it's a little chiffonniere!"
"She has evidently fallen into the river with her basket on her back."
They had now, in the rapidly growing daylight, discovered the character of the object that held her in its embrace. In fact, when half a dozen stout fellows had attempted to lift the whole thing out of the water the rags had dropped out unseen and were borne away by the current, leaving the light empty pannier and the body of the child in their hands. And the men marvelled at the resistance they had encountered.
A messenger had been at once despatched for medical assistance. The great hospital of Salpetriere was near at hand.
"May as well take her to the morgue," muttered one.
"Soon enough,—soon enough," replied the river policeman. "Follow the custom."
Notwithstanding the general opinion that it was too late, a rough boatman had torn off a section of his flannel shirt and was chafing the cold little hands, while another rubbed the legs and a third tried to restore respiration. These people were familiar with cases of drowning, and knew the best and simplest immediate first aid by heart.
To their very great surprise a few minutes sufficed to show that the child was still alive. By the time the doctor arrived she gave decided signs of returning animation. Under the influence of his restoratives she opened her eyes.
"Tartar!" she gasped.
"What's that, little one?" inquired the doctor, bending low over her. She still lay on the stone quai, a laborer's coat beneath her extended figure.
"Tar—Tartar," she repeated, again closing her eyes. "Oh, mon Dieu! I remember now. That wretch!—it could not have been!"
"Maybe it's her dog," suggested a man.
"There, my child,—don't! Is it the dog?"
"Oh, he's all right.—Say!"
He hailed the group gathered about the other victim of the river.
"How's the dog?"
"All right, Monsieur le Docteur!"
Fouchette heard and brightened perceptibly. The doctor increased the effect by observing that the dog was coming around all right.
"But he's had a pretty close call."
"So it was Tartar, after all," whispered Fouchette. "Dear Tartar!"
"A brave dog, Tartar,—stuck to you to the last," put in the policeman.
Half a dozen men cried at once, "Vive Tartar!" with the enthusiasm of true Frenchmen.
And if a dog ever did deserve the encomiums that were showered upon him Tartar certainly was that dog.
As soon as Fouchette began to revive, a stalwart bargewoman, awakened in her little cubby by the cries of the men in the vicinity, and who had hastily turned out to see for herself, had disappeared for a moment in her floating home, and shortly afterwards returned with some substantial clothing borrowed from her family wardrobe.
"How thin the child is!" she remarked, as she substituted the dry clothing on the spot.
"Thin!" growled a bystander; "she had to be mighty thin to come down the river on an empty basket!"
"You see, she must have fallen in with the basket on her back——"
"I was pushed in," corrected Fouchette.
"Pushed into the river?"
"Who did it, child?"
"There is some devilish crime here."
"It's a case for the police."
This last observation came from the policeman as he brought out his note-book, while a buzz of indignation ran through the crowd.
Fouchette heard these mutterings and saw the inquisitorial pencil of the official in uniform. He had shut off his light with a snap.
At this moment Tartar, having heard the voice of his mistress, had struggled to his feet, and now dragged himself over to where she lay. The crowd separated for him.
"Ah! Tartar!" exclaimed Fouchette, affectionately, raising her hand to his head.
With a whimper of joy the noble animal licked her hand, her face and neck, wagging his bedraggled tail with intense satisfaction, winding up this demonstration by lying down by her side as closely as he could get, and giving a long breath, which in a human being would be called a sigh.
The act moved the coarse bargewoman to tears, while the men turned away to hide their emotion.
The silence was profound,—the testimony of a sentiment too deep for mere words.
The police agent was the first to come to the practical point in the situation. The violence phase of the case made him consequential. It would invite the attention of his superiors. It would get his name in the daily journals.
"What is your name, child?"
The intended victim of police interrogatory closed her eyes without answering.
"You were thrown into the river. It is necessary for us to know the name of the person who committed this outrage. If you do not know, it is our business to find out. The miscreant must be arrested and punished. Where do you live?"
"Speak, my child! Speak up!"
She had reopened her eyes and now looked at him steadily, stonily, but without a word. He was nonplussed.
As Fouchette began rapidly to recover her strength she also recovered her self-possession, also the results of her training. Foremost among these were her suspicions of the police, whom she had come to believe were organized by society to restrain and harass the poor; that the informer was the lowest grade of humanity.
In addition to these precepts of the barriers, Fouchette was afraid. She knew the character of those whom she had left behind. She felt certain that if she betrayed them to the police she would be put out of the way.
Nor was this fear at all unreasonable. Without her recent terrible experience she would have been fully aware of the danger that attended a too loquacious tongue. The question of putting this one or that one "out of the way" had frequently been discussed openly and seriously at the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers. A word from her now would send the police down on that resort. Just a little while ago she was nervous and unstrung, but, while she had at first formed the intention of bringing le Cochon to book, the very first question brought her face to face with the consequences. The second query increased her obstinacy. The peremptory command to speak out left her mute. By saying nothing she could compromise nobody.
"Only a street waif," suggested the doctor,—"probably has no home."
Fouchette, who had now risen to a sitting posture, nodded vivaciously.
"Then why didn't you say so?" growled the police agent. "Have you any parents?"
"Whom were you living with, and where?"
"Now, again,—what is your name?"
"Why don't you answer?"
"Because it's none of your business," snapped Fouchette.
"We'll see about that before the Commissaire," retorted the agent. "He'll take the sulk out of you."
"Hold on," put in the bargewoman; "don't be harsh with her, monsieur. She has been abused dreadfully. Her body is covered with bruises."
"So much more reason we should find out who did it,—who has attempted to murder the child into the bargain."
"She has been cruelly beaten."
"I'll have to take you to the Commissariat, my child."
"I don't care where you take me,—that is, if Tartar goes along."
The dog regarded her inquiringly.
"Certainly," responded the agent,—"Tartar is a part of the case. Allons!"
He would have picked her up in his powerful arms, but she rebelled vigorously, protesting that she could walk.
"Very well. Good! You're a plucky one. You're the right stuff."
The little official party—the agent, Fouchette, Tartar, a waterman carrying the basket, the stout bargewoman bearing the child's wet clothing—took up the march, followed by several idlers in search of sensation.
Having arrived at the Commissariat, it was necessary to await the hour when it pleased Monsieur le Commissaire to put in an appearance. In the mean time Fouchette was disposed of on a bench within a railed space, her bare feet dangling, momentarily growing physically better and more mentally perplexed.
What would they do with her?
She dared not return to the Podvins. She knew of no other place to go. She was desperately alone in the world. Only Tartar, who once more stretched himself at her feet, with his head in a position where he could keep a half-open eye on his mistress. Tartar needed rest, and was getting it.
The police! Next to the murderer of the barrier she hated and feared the police.
Would they send her to prison?
After all, she thought, one might as well have been drowned to a finish. It would have been an easy escape from this uncertainty and agony of mind.
She began to feel hungry. Gradually the thoughts of what she should do for something to eat, and where she would be able to get something for Tartar, drove out all other thoughts. If they could only get away now,—at this hour something might be found in the streets. She calculated the chances of escape by a sudden dash for the door. But there were several police agents lounging in the anteroom, and her conductor sat at the little gate of the enclosure. So the scheme was reluctantly dismissed. Anyhow, if they would let Tartar remain with her she didn't care much.
During this time several successive attempts were made by the police agents to get her to talk. She responded by "Yes" or "No" or a motion of the head to all questions not connected with her case. On this subject she was persistently silent.
An hour later the bargewoman, who had been in secret consultation with the police agents, went out and got Fouchette a roll and some cheese, which she ate eagerly. This woman was a coarse, masculine-looking creature with hands as hard and rough as a fowl's foot, a distinct moustache and tufts of hair cropping out here and there on her neck and chin, but her voice assumed a kindly tone. She led Fouchette to the farther corner of the room.
"I must go back to my boat now, cherie. Cheer up! And promise me one thing,—don't try the river again. You were not born to be drowned, anyhow. If you really want to die you'll have to try something else."
"But I don't want to die," protested Fouchette.
"And they send people to prison who attempt suicide," continued the woman.
"But I didn't, madame."
"The bodies spoil the water. There are so many of them floating by. I've seen hundreds of 'em in my time."
"No, indeed; I would rather live."
"That's right,—that's a dear! My barge is 'La Therese,'—named after me. We are in the coal trade. I want you to come and see me, petite. You shall take a trip to Rouen. Yes,—would you like to——"
"Oh, very much, madame!" interrupted Fouchette, joyfully.
"Shall go too. We'll have fine times, I promise you. You will find us at the Quai d'Austerlitz when in Paris."
"Thank you,—so much! I've seen the big boats go by lots of times and wished I was on one—one with flowers and vines and a dog—Tartar. And sometimes I've seen 'em in my sleep—yes."
Fouchette at once lost herself in this prospect. It would be the most delightful thing in her life.
"Yes, it is very nice," continued the bargewoman. "Remember, cherie,—'La Therese.' You can bring the clothes with you. Ask for me,—'Therese.' My husband named the barge after me long ago."
"It's a pretty name," said the child.
"You think so? A name is—what is your real name, petite?"
"I don't know, madame," replied Fouchette, promptly and truthfully.
"What! Don't know your own name? Impossible!"
The woman was vexed, and made no effort to conceal her vexation. To be outwitted by a mere child was too much to bear with equanimity. As kindly disposed as she was by nature, she lost her temper at once at what she considered a stupid falsehood.
"You're an obstinate little brute!" she exclaimed, in a passion,—a state of mind aggravated by the laughter of the police agents in the room.
"Yes, and a little liar," she added.
"M—mad—madame!" stammered the trembling child, whose bright visions vanished in a twinkling.
"I don't wonder they threw you in the river,—not a bit!"
Fouchette's lips were now set in mute rage. She was up in arms at once. Her steely eyes shot fire. The honest bargewoman had almost won her childish confidence. Another word or two of kindness and she would have gained an easy victory. Now, however, everything was upset and the fat was in the fire.
Without a word Fouchette began to hurriedly divest herself of the clothing she wore and to throw the garments, piece by piece, on the floor.
So quickly was this accomplished that neither the astonished woman nor the puzzled police agents could interfere before the child stood there perfectly nude in the midst of them. Her frame, which was little more than a living skeleton covered with marks of violence, fairly quivered with anger. She choked so that she could not speak. In another minute she had resumed her wet rags.
"Voila!" she finally cried, pointing to the discarded garments. "At least you can never say that I asked for them or didn't return them!"
"Mon Dieu!" The woman was overwhelmed,—breathless.
To be misunderstood is often the bitterest thing to bear in this life. Madame Therese and little Fouchette were suffering simultaneously from this evil.
"Take 'em away!"
"But listen, child! I——"
"Take 'em away!" she screamed.
Tartar rose with an ominous growl and looked from his mistress to the woman.
"We don't need 'em, do we, Tartar? No! Let them take their gall and honey with 'em. Yes! They make us tired. Yes!"
To all of these observations—somewhat heavily weighted with barrier billingsgate—Tartar showed his approval by wagging his tail knowingly and by covering the small face bent down to him with canine kisses.
"Better come away, madame," said an agent, in a low voice, to the stupefied woman thus assailed. He laughed at her discomfiture. "It is waste kindness and waste time. You can't do anything with that sort of riffraff. It's only a stray cat fed to scratch you. They're a bad lot."
The "bad lot" had overheard this police philosophy, and it confirmed her pre-existing opinion of the police.
Monsieur le Commissaire was a grave and burly gentleman of middle life, with iron-gray hair and moustache, and eyes that seemed to read their object through and through. He pulled this moustache thoughtfully as he listened to the report of the river police agent, all the time keeping the eyes upon the diminutive but defiant child before him. When he had learned everything,—including the scene in the station,—he said, abruptly,—
"Come in here, my child. Don't be afraid,—nobody's going to hurt you. Yes, bring the dog. Brave dog! Splendid fellow! Come! I'd like to own that dog, now,—I would, indeed!" he observed, as he closed the door of his private office; "but I suppose you wouldn't part with him for the world now, would you?"
"N-no. But he isn't mine, monsieur," she replied, regretfully.
"No? What a pity! Then perhaps I could buy him, eh?"
"I—I don't know. Monsieur Podvin——"
She stopped suddenly. But the magistrate was looking abstractedly over her head and did not appear to notice her slip of the tongue. He was thinking. It gave little Fouchette time to recover.
He was something like the enthusiastic physician who sees in his patient only "a case,"—something devoid of personality. He recognized in this waif a condition of society to be treated. In his mind she was a wholly irresponsible creature. Not the whole case in question,—oh, no; but a part of the case. What she had been, was now, or would be were questions that did not enter into the consideration. Nothing but the case.
Instead of putting the child through a course of questions,—what she anticipated and had steeled herself against,—he merely talked to her on what appeared to be topics foreign to the subject immediately in hand.
"You must be taken care of in some way," he declared. "Yes,—a child like you should not be left in the streets of Paris to beg or starve,—and it's against the law to beg——"
"But I never begged, monsieur," interrupted the child,—"never!"
"Of course not,—of course not! No; you are too proud to beg. That's right. But you couldn't make a living picking rags, and the law doesn't permit a child to pick rags in the streets of Paris."
"I never did, monsieur, never!"
"Of course not,—you would be arrested. But outside the barriers the work is not lucrative. Charenton, for instance, is not as prolific of rags as it is of rascals."
At the mention of Charenton Fouchette started visibly; but her interlocutor did not seem to notice it.
"No; it does not even give as brave a child as you enough to eat,—not if you work ever so hard,—let alone to provide comfortably for Tar—for Tartar. Eh, my brave spaniel? We must get Tartar some breakfast. Has Tartar had any breakfast?"
"No, monsieur,—oh, no! And he is so hungry!"
She was all eagerness and softness when it came to her faithful companion. Tartar began to take a lively interest in the conversation of which he knew himself the subject.
"Exactly," said the Commissaire, suddenly getting up. He had reached his conclusion. "Now, remain here a few minutes, little one, while I see about it."
He disappeared into the outer office and remained closeted in a small cabinet with a telephone. Then, calling one of his men in plain clothes aside, he gave some instructions in a rapid manner.
When he re-entered the private office he knew that a rascal named Podvin kept a disreputable cabaret near the Porte de Charenton, and that a small, thin child called Fouchette lived with the Podvins, who also kept a dog, liver-colored, with dark-brown splotches, named Tartar, but that the child was not yet missed, probably owing to the fact that it was her customary hour in the streets of Charenton. In the same time he had notified the Prefecture that a murderous attempt had been made on a child, probably by some one of the gang that infested the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers, and had been directed to co-operate with two skilled Central men in an investigation.
"All right, petite," said the Commissaire, rubbing his hands and assuming his most oily tone. "First we are going to have some dry clothes and some shoes and stockings and——"
"I only—I never wore shoes and stockings," interrupted Fouchette, somewhat embarrassed by this flood of finery. "I don't need 'em, monsieur. It is only Tartar's——"
"Oh, we'll attend to Tartar also,—don't be afraid."
"Monsieur is very kind."
"It is nothing. Come along, now. You're going to ride in a nice carriage, too,—for the crowd might follow you in the street, you know,—and I'll send a man with you to take good care of you."
"You can take him in the carriage with you if you wish,—yes, it is better, perhaps. He might get run over or lost."
And thus Fouchette rode in state, and in wet rags at the same time, down past the great Jardin des Plantes, the Halle aux Vins, and along the Boulevard St. Germain to Rue St. Jacques, where they turned down across the Petit Pont and stopped in the court-yard of an immense building across the plaza from Notre Dame. Tartar was somewhat uneasy, as well as his little mistress, at this novelty of locomotion, but as long as they were together it seemed to be all right. So they looked out of the carriage windows at the sights that were as strange to their eyes as if they had never before been in the city of Paris. Meanwhile, to divert the child, the man at her side had gayly pointed out the objects of interest.
"Ah! and there is grand old Notre Dame," said he.
"It's a big house."
"Yes; but you've seen it, of course."
"What!" he exclaimed, in astonishment; "you, a little Parisienne, and never saw Notre Dame?"
"You—you, monsieur, you have then seen everything in Paris?"
There was a vein of cold irony in the small voice.
"Er—w-well, not quite. Not quite, perhaps," he smilingly answered.
"No, nor I," she said.
"But Notre Dame——"
"What's Notre Dame to me? Nothing!"
A slight gesture of impatience.
"What's it for?"
"Why, it's a church, petite."
"A church! And what's that to me?"
"Well, truly, I don't know, child. Nothing, I suppose."
She snapped her fingers contemptuously.
"Here is the Prefecture."
It was the Prefecture de Police and not Notre Dame that had to do with little Fouchette and her kind. She knew what the Prefecture was, though she now saw it for the first time. And she shivered in her wet rags as the carriage turned into the great court-yard surrounded by the immense stone quadrangle that fronts upon the quai.
A troop of the Garde de Paris was drilling at the upper end of the court. Sentinels with gay uniforms and fixed bayonets solemnly paraded at the three gate-ways.
"Come, petite," said the man, flinging open the carriage doors and lifting the child in his arms to the ground. The dog leaped out after her and looked uneasily up and down.
Half an hour later when Fouchette emerged with her conductor she had undergone a transformation that would have rendered her unrecognizable in Charenton. She had not only been washed and combed and rubbed down, but had been arrayed in a frock of grayish material, a chip hat with flowers in it, and shoes and stockings. She was so excited over the grandeur of her personal appearance that she had completely lost her bearings. It is true the hat was too old for a child of her years, and the coarse new costume was several sizes too large for her bony little frame, and the shoes were very embarrassing, but to Fouchette they seemed the outfit of a "real lady."
She had entered the Prefecture sullenly, desperately, half expecting to be sent to a lonely cell and perhaps loaded with chains,—she had heard tell of such things,—and, instead, had been treated with kindness by a gentle matron, her body washed and clothed, her stomach made glad with rich soup and bread and milk, while Tartar was amply provided for before her own eyes.
Fouchette was still in a daze when she found herself again in the closed carriage, with Tartar at her feet, being whirled away at a pace that seemed to threaten the lives of everybody in the streets. The same man sat beside her, and an extra man had, at the last moment, clambered up by the side of the driver.
This furious speed was continued for a long time, until Fouchette began to wonder more and more where they were going. She could not recognize anything en route, and the man was now serious and taciturn.
All at once she saw that they were approaching the barrier. Things looked differently from a carriage window, and yet there was a familiar air about the surroundings.
The man noticed her uneasiness and pulled down the blinds.
A terrible fear now seized her. Were they going to take her back to the Podvins?
This fear increased as the speed of the vehicle lessened and as Tartar began to move about impatiently. He was trying to get his nose under the curtain.
"Hold him down!" said the man in a low voice. He was afraid to touch the dog himself.
"Oh, monsieur!" she finally exclaimed, "we are not going to—to——"
"The Rendez-Vous pour Cochers, my little Fouchette," he put in, with a smile.
"Oh, mon Dieu! Please, monsieur! Take me anywhere else,—back to the Prefecture—to prison—anywhere but to this place! They'll kill me! Oh, they'll kill me, monsieur!"
"Bah! No, they won't, little one. We'll take care of that."
"Besides," he continued, reassuringly, "we're not going to leave you there, so don't be afraid. Maybe you won't have to get out, or be seen even, if you do as I tell you. Have no fear."
"Mon Dieu! monsieur does not know. They'll kill you, too!"
"No, they won't. And I know all about them, my child. There are four of us, and—— Keep the dog down till I open the door."
The carriage had stopped.
"Stay right where you are," he whispered. "Let the dog out."
Tartar could not have been held in by both of them. He jumped to the ground with joyous barks of recognition.
It was now ten o'clock, and the usual odors of a Parisian second breakfast permeated the atmosphere of the cabaret.
Four or five rough-looking men were lounging about, gossiping over their absinthe or aperatif. Monsieur Podvin was already, at this early hour in the day, on his second bottle of ordinaire. Opposite, as usual, sat le Cochon.
Madame Podvin was busily burnishing up the zinc bar, and the vigorous and spiteful way in which she did this betrayed the fact that she was in bad temper. She was reserving an extra force of pent-up wrath against the moment when that "lazy little beast Fouchette" should put in an appearance.
Monsieur Podvin was also irritated, but not because of Fouchette's prolonged absence. He was concerned about Tartar.
Le Cochon sympathized with both of them.
Among the various theories offered for these disappearances madame thought that Fouchette was simply playing truant. The dog did not bother her calculation, as he would not share the punishment.
Monsieur was certain that the girl had enticed the dog away from home; though why she had taken her basket and hook if she were not coming back he could not say.
Le Cochon took a gloomy view of it. He was afraid some accident had befallen her,—she might have got run over by a fiacre, or have fallen into the river.
"Nonsense!" protested M. Podvin. "The dog would come home. He wouldn't get run over too, and you couldn't drown a spaniel."
It was precisely at this moment that the loud barking of Tartar broke upon their ears, confirming his master's judgment and sending a thrill through everybody in the room. This sensation, however, was by no means the same.
The brute master alone rejoiced for pure love of the dog and for the dog's sake.
Madame Podvin went in search of a certain stout strap used upon Fouchette on special occasions of ceremonial penological procedure.
Two strange men seated at some distance from each other, and who up to that moment had ignored each other's existence, exchanged looks of intelligence and rose as if to leave the place.
Le Cochon alone seemed disconcerted. His beetle brows clouded, and his right hand involuntarily sought the handle of his knife.
The instincts of the robber were this time unerring. For Tartar had scarcely licked the dirty hand of his master, when his eyes fell upon the would-be murderer of his beloved mistress. The sight appeared to startle the animal at first. But only for a second. Then, with a growl of rage that began low and ominously, like the first notes of a thunder-storm, and swelled into a howl, the spaniel sprang upon the villain and fastened his fangs in his fleshy throat.
The onset was so sudden and swift, and the animal had received such a powerful impetus from his spring, that the burly robber went down with a tremendous crash.
Man and dog rolled together in the dirt, upsetting tables and chairs and raising a terrible uproar. The desperate wretch plunged his knife again and again into the body of the enraged spaniel; the latter only clinched his teeth tighter and endeavored to tear his enemy by main brute strength.
Madame Podvin, having been diverted from her original purpose by this unexpected melee, set up a scream that would have drowned an active calliope.
"That's our bird!" shouted the man who had been serving as Fouchette's footman.
Whereupon his partner and the two agents from the Prefecture who had been waiting within fell upon the struggling pair.
It was all over in a few seconds.
Yet within that brief period Tartar lay dead from a knife-thrust in the heart, and the robber was extended alongside of his victim, his hands securely manacled upon his back.
"Hold on, gentlemen!" broke in M. Podvin at this juncture, having found his voice for the first time, "what does this mean?"
"It means, my dear Podvin, that this amiable gentleman, who has always been so handy with his knife, is wanted at the Prefecture——"
"And that you are politely requested to accompany him," added the other Central man, tapping M. Podvin on the shoulder.
"But, que diable!"
"Come! Madame will conduct the business all right, no doubt, while her patriot husband serves the State."
"That cursed dog has finished me," growled the prostrate robber. "C'est egal! I've done for him and F—— If it had only been one of you, curse you!"
This benevolent wish was addressed to the police agent who was at that moment engaged in binding up the horrible wound in the man's throat. Both were drenched with blood, partly from the dog and partly from the man. Le Cochon had been assisted to a sitting posture, sullen, revengeful, with murder in his black heart.
All at once his inflamed eyes rested upon something in the doorway. At first it was but casually, then fixedly, while the bloated face turned ashen.
He started to rise to his feet, and would have warded off the apparition with his hands, only they were laced in steel behind him, then, with a deep groan of terror, pitched forward upon his face, senseless.
It was Fouchette.
The others turned towards the doorway to see,—there was nothing there.
Cowering for a few moments in the darkest corner of the carriage, she had heard the voice of Tartar raised in anger, followed by the tumult. The latter she had anticipated with fear and trembling. She had divined at the last moment that these were agents of the police, and that the object was arrests. The noise of combat roused her fighting blood, the silence that so soon followed heated her curiosity to the boiling-point. It was intolerable. Perhaps the agents were being killed. The suspense was dreadful. She felt that she could not endure it another second.
The man had ordered her to remain in the carriage. The blinds were down; the coachman stood on the side next to the cabaret.
Come what might, she must know. So Fouchette slipped softly out on the opposite side and sneaked swiftly around the horses' heads.
The coachman on guard was for the same moment completely wrapped up in the riot that had been going on inside the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers; he saw the child just as she reached the doorway, and then he made a dash for her, grabbed her, and put her back in the carriage.
Thus, it so happened that but a single pair of eyes within had seen Fouchette, and these eyes belonged to the man who believed her to be dead.
It was for the purpose of the identification of her assailant that Fouchette had been brought to the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers. Tartar had spared her that trouble, though it was for quite another reason that le Cochon fell into the grip of the police.
The latter had experienced no difficulty in identifying Fouchette in spite of her obstinate silence. As she had come down the river from outside the barrier, it was clear that she made her living in some river suburb. A telephonic inquiry brought not only immediate confirmation from the authorities at Charenton, but had elicited the important details that brought the specials from the Prefecture down upon the suspected cabaret. In the man described as "le Cochon" the officials at once recognized a notorious escaped convict.
It was not until Fouchette was on her way back to the Prefecture that it was learned that in their prisoner, le Cochon, they also had an assassin who up to this moment had eluded arrest.
When the agent had informed her of the death of Tartar she was first overcome with grief. The sense of her utter loneliness rushed upon her. She wept convulsively. Her sorrow was bitter and profound.
"Cheer up, my child; don't give way like that."
Her companion tried now and then to comfort her in his rough way.
"Ah, monsieur! but he was the only friend I had in the world!" she sobbed.
"There, there!" he said, soothingly; "you'll have more friends. You'll be taken care of all right."
"I don't care what becomes of me, now poor Tartar's gone! He loved me! Nobody will ever love me like he did,—never!"
But when she had recovered from this tempest of tears it was to succumb to a tempest of wrath.
"That wretch! I'll see him under the razor!" she exclaimed, meaning the guillotine. "He tried to drown me, the assassin! Yes, I know him for an assassin,—a murderer! It was he who pushed me into the river!"
"It is true! That man is a fiend,—an assassin! I am ready to tell everything, monsieur! Everything!"
Not for love of truth,—not for fear of law,—but for the love of a dog.
In this mood she was encouraged by all the wiles and insinuating ways known to the professional student of human nature. So that, when Fouchette reached the Prefecture, she had not only imparted valuable information, she had astounded her official auditor. Not altogether by what she had revealed, but quite as much by her precocious cleverness and judgment.
She was taken at once before Inspector Loup, of the Secret Service.
Fouchette was not in the least intimidated when she found herself closeted alone with this mighty personage. For she did not know the extraordinary power wielded by Inspector Loup, and was in equal ignorance of the stenographer behind the screen. She was thinking only of her revenge. She had sworn, mentally, to have the head of le Cochon. She would see him writhing under the guillotine. Not because he had tried to drown her,—she would never have betrayed him for that,—but because he had murdered her dog. She would have vengeance. She would have overlooked his cowardly butchery of a stranger in the wood of Vincennes; but for the killing of Tartar she was ready and eager to see the head of le Cochon fall in the Place de la Roquette.
Therefore Fouchette confronted Inspector Loup intent upon her own wrongs, and with a face which might have been deemed impudent but for its premature hardness.
Inspector Loup was a tall, thin man, with small, keen, fishy eyes,—so small they seemed like beads, all pupil, so keen they glistened like diamonds, so fishy they appeared to swim round in two heavily fringed ponds. And they were always swimming,—indolently, as if it were not really worth while, but still leaving the vague and sometimes uncomfortable impression that they were on you, under you, around you, through you; that they were weighing you, analyzing you, and knew what was in your mind and stomach, as well as the contents of your inside pockets.
It was the habit of Inspector Loup to turn these peculiar orbs upon whoever came under his personal jurisdiction for a minute or two without uttering a word, though usually before that time had expired the individual had succumbed to their mysterious influence and was ready to make a clean breast of it.
Their awful influence upon the wrongdoer was intensified by the softness of his insinuating voice, that seemed to pry down into human secrets as a sort of intellectual jimmy, delicate but powerful, and by the noiselessness of his tread, which had the effect of creeping upon his victim preparatory to the final spring.
In other words, Inspector Loup accomplished by moral force what others believed possible only to physical intimidation. Yet those law-breakers who had presumed too much upon his gentleness had invariably come to grief, and Inspector Loup had reached his present confidential position through thrilling experiences that had left his lank body covered with honorable scars.
Inspector Loup was practically chief of the Secret System,—or, rather, was director of that system under the eye of the Minister of the Interior. He had served a dozen ministries. He had adopted the great Fouche as a standard, and no government could change quicker than Inspector Loup could. If he had been of the Napoleonic period he might have rivalled his distinguished model. As it was, he did as well as was possible with the weak governing material with which France was afflicted.
The word "spy" being obnoxious in all languages and at all times and in all places, the myriad smaller particles of the Secret System were called "Agents."
The Paris "agent" of this class has, happily, no counterpart in the American government. Our "detectives," or "plain clothes men," are limited to legitimate police duties in the discovery of crime and prosecution of criminals. They are known, are borne on pay-rolls, usually have good character and some official standing.
The Paris "agent" is a widely different individual, speaking of that branch not in uniform and not regularly employed on routine work. This class is formed of government employes, all persons holding government licenses of any kind, all keepers of public-houses and places of public resort subject to government inspection, returned convicts under police surveillance, criminals under suspension of sentence, all persons under the eye of the police subject to arrest for one thing or another, or who may be intimidated.
Add to these the regular service men and women, then bear in mind that the names of all "agents" are secure from public knowledge, even of a military court, that they can stab in the dark and never be held accountable by their victims, and that appropriations are made in bulk for this service without an accounting, and you will then understand the full strength and appreciate the unique infamy of the French Secret System.
Inspector Loup had finished his inspection of the childish figure before him and was compelled to break the ice.
"Eh, bien, monsieur; it is me."
An obstinate silence ensued.
"Well, what do you want?" finally inquired the inspector, in a tone that clearly implied that, whatever it was, she would not get it.
"Nothing," she replied.
"Then what are you here for?"
"Because I was brought."
"Well, now you are here——"
"What have you got to say?"
"Que diable! child, no fencing!"
Another awkward silence, during which each coolly surveyed the other.
"Why don't you speak?"
"Of what good is it to speak?" she asked, simply,—"monsieur knows."
This child was breaking the record. Inspector Loup contemplated her petite personality once more. Here was a rare diplomate.
"You are called Fouchette?" he said.
"You come from Nantes. No; you don't remember. You were picked up in the streets by the Podvins and have been living with them ever since. Fouchette is the name they gave you. It is not your real name. You are ostensibly a ragpicker, but are the consort and associate of thieves and robbers and assassins, who have used you as well as abused you. You are suspected to be a regular go-between for these and the receivers of stolen goods."
Truly, Monsieur l'Inspecteur knew more of her than she did.
"And I know that it is true. You would have been arrested in the act the next trip. This ruffian, so-called le Cochon, threw you in the river with the intention of drowning you. You were rescued through the sagacity and devotion of a dog. Both this man le Cochon and Podvin have been arrested. There are others——"
"There are others," repeated Fouchette.
"The dead man of the wood of Vincennes—last year. Did they ever find the one who did that?"
"You saw it?"
"Oh, no. I heard them talking."
"Monsieur Podvin and le Cochon."
"Go on, mon enfant; you grow interesting at last."
"Monsieur Podvin was very angry because of it. They quarrelled. I heard them from my bed in the cellar. The man had resisted,—over a few sous, think! And Monsieur Podvin said it was not worth while, for so little, to bring the police down on the neighborhood. It spoiled business. For the twelve sous Monsieur Podvin said he'd lose a thousand francs."
"M. Podvin was undoubtedly right."
"Yes; but le Cochon said it was worth a thousand francs to hear the man squeal."
"Yes. And then Monsieur Podvin wanted to take it out of his share."
"Yes; and so they quarrelled dreadfully."
"And Madame Podvin,—she heard this?"
"Madame is not deaf, monsieur."
"She was at the zinc."
"Truly, Madame Podvin may become of value," muttered Inspector Loup.
"Oh! And so you've kept this to your little self all this time. Why?"
"I was afraid; then——"
"I understand. But you got bravely over all this as soon as this miscreant undertook to put you out of the way, eh?"
"It was not that, monsieur, for what I would be avenged."
"So you confess to the motive?"
"I would surely be revenged, monsieur," she avowed, frankly.
"A mighty small woman, but still a woman, and sure Francaise," observed the inspector.
"He killed my only friend, monsieur."
"What! Another murder? Le Cochon?"
"Tres bien! Go on, mon enfant; you grow more and more interesting!"
"It was only this morning, monsieur," said the child, again reminded of her irreparable loss.
"This morning, eh? The report is not yet in.—There, now, don't blubber, little one.—Another murder for le Cochon! Pardieu! we shall have his head!"
"Truly?" Fouchette brightened up immediately at this prospect.
"The infamous wretch!"
"Yes; go on, monsieur. You grow more interesting!"
"What an infernally impudent child!" observed the inspector to himself, yet aloud.
"What—how about this morning's murder?"
"Le Cochon's dreadful knife! Oh! I would love to see him strapped to the plank and his head in the basket! Yes, ten thousand curses on——"
"La! la! la! Mon Dieu! will you never get on? Who was le Cochon's victim this time?"
"Tartar, monsieur,—yes! Ah! Oh!"
"Tartar? Tartar? Why, that's the name of——"
"Yes, monsieur, the dog! Poor Tartar!"
"So le Cochon killed your dog, eh?"
"Yes, monsieur," sobbed Fouchette.
Monsieur l'Inspecteur was silent for a while, thoughtfully regarding the grieving child with his fishy eyes.
"After all, it was murder," he said. "Had this man committed no other crime, he deserves death for having killed such a noble beast."
"Ah! thank you, monsieur! Thank you very much!"
Having established this happy entente, Inspector Loup and Fouchette entered into a long and interesting conversation,—interesting especially to the chief of the Secret System.
When the interview was over Fouchette was led away almost quite happy. Happier, at least, than she had ever been,—far happier than she had ever hoped to be. First, she had been promised her revenge; second, she was neither to go back to the Rendez-Vous pour Cochers nor to be turned into the street; third, she was to be sent to a beautiful retreat outside of Paris, where she would be taught to read and write and be brought up as a lady.
It seemed to the child that this was too good to be true. The country, in her imagination, was the source and foundation of all real happiness. There was nothing in cities,—nothing but dust and crowds, and human selfishness and universal hardness of heart, and toil and misery.
In the country was freedom and independence. She had tasted it in her furtive morning excursions in the wood of Vincennes. Tartar had loved the country. The woods, the fields, and the flowers,—to range among them daily, openly and without fear, would be heaven!
To the Parisian all outside of Paris is country.
And to learn to read and to write and understand the newspapers and what was in books!
Yes, it seemed really too much, all at once. For of all other things coveted in this world, Fouchette deemed such a knowledge most desirable. Up to this moment it had been beyond the ordinary flight of her youthful imagination. It was one of the impossibilities,—like flying and finding a million of money. But now it had come to her. She might know something she had never seen, or of which she had never heard.
To accomplish all of this and to be in the country at the same time, what more could anybody wish?
Yet she was to have more. The inspector,—what was this wonderful man, anyhow, who knew everything and could do anything?—he, the inspector, had promised it. She was to have human kindness and love!
The inspector was a nice gentleman. And the agents,—it was all a lie about the agents de police. They were all nice men. She had hated and dreaded them; and had they not been good to her? Had they not taken her from the river and fed her and clothed her and visited with swift punishment those who had cruelly abused her?
Fouchette was learning rapidly. The change was so confusing, and events had chased one another so unceremoniously, that she must be pardoned if she grasped new ideas with more tenacity than accuracy. It is what all of us are doing day by day.
* * * * *
It was a long distance by rail.
Fouchette had never dreamed that a railroad could be so long and that the woods and fields with which her mind had been recently filled could become so monotonous and tedious. Even the towns and villages,—of which she had never heard,—that were interesting at first, soon became stupid and tiresome. She had long ceased to notice them particularly, her mind being naturally filled with thoughts of the place to which she was going, and where her whole future seemed to lay yet undeveloped. She finally fell into a sound sleep.
The next thing she knew was that she was roughly shaken by the shoulder, and a voice cried, somewhat impatiently,—
"Come, come! What a little sleepyhead!"
It was that of a "religieuse," or member of a religious order, and its possessor was a stout, ruddy-faced woman of middle life, garbed in solemn black, against which sombre background the white wings of her homely headpiece and the white apron, over which dangled a cross, looked still more white and glaring than they were.
Another woman in the same glaring uniform, though less robust and quite colorless as to face, stood near by on the station platform.
"Bring her things, sister,—if she has anything."
Following these instructions, the red-faced woman rummaged in the netting overhead with one hand while she pulled Fouchette from her corner with the other.
"Come, petite! Is this all you've got, child?"
"Yes, madame," replied the child, respectfully, but with a sinking heart.
"So this is Fouchette, eh?" said the white-faced woman, as her companion joined her with the child and her little bundle.
"Yes, madame," faltered Fouchette.
But for the eyes, which were large and dark and luminous, and which seemed to grasp the object upon which they rested and to hold it in physical embrace, the face might have been that of the dead, so ghastly and rigid and unnatural it was.
"She's not much, very sure," observed the other, turning Fouchette around by the slender shoulder.
"She'll never earn her salt," said the pale-faced sister.
Fouchette noticed that her lips were apparently bloodless and that she scarcely moved them as she spoke.
"Not for long, anyhow," responded the other, with a significance Fouchette did not then understand.
Without other preliminary they led Fouchette down the platform.
"Where's your ticket?" asked the white-faced woman, coldly.
Fouchette nervously searched the bosom of her dress. In France the railway ticket is surrendered at the point where the journey ceases, as the traveller leaves the station platform.
"Sainte Marie!" exclaimed the ruddy-faced sister,—"lost it, I'll wager!"
"Where on earth did you put it, child?"
"Here, madame," said the latter, still fumbling and not a little frightened at the possible consequences of losing the bit of cardboard. "Ah! here—no, it isn't. Mon Dieu!"
The voice of the pale religieuse was stern, though her face rested perfectly immobile, no matter what she said.
"Let me see——"
"Search, Sister Agnes."
The ruddy-faced woman obeyed by plunging her fat hand down the front of the child's dress, where she fished around vigorously but unsuccessfully.
"Nothing but bones!" she ejaculated.
Meanwhile, everybody else had left the platform, and the gatekeeper was growing impatient.
Sister Agnes was a practical woman. She wound up her fruitless search by shaking the child, as if the latter were a plum-tree and might yield over-ripe railway tickets from its branches.
It did. The ticket dropped to the platform from beneath the loose-fitting dress.
"There it is!" cried the gatekeeper.
"Stupid little beast!"
And Sister Agnes shook her again, although, as there were no more tickets, the act seemed quite superfluous.
Outside the station waited a sort of carryall, or van, drawn by a single horse, which turned his aged head to view the new-comer, as did also the driver.
"Oh! so you're coming, eh?" said the latter.
"Yes,—long enough!" grumbled Sister Agnes.
They had driven some distance through the streets of a big town without a word, when the last speaker addressed her companion in a low voice.
"You noted the ticket?"
"I don't see what they sent her to us for, do you?"
"That is for the Superieure."
A still longer silence.
"It's a pity," continued Sister Agnes.
"Yes, they ought to go to the House of Correction."
"These Parisian police——"
But they need not have taken even this little precaution before Fouchette. She had long been lost in the profound depths of her own gloomy thoughts. In her isolation she required but a single, simple thing to render her happy,—a thing which costs nothing,—something of which there is an abundance and to spare in the world, thank God!—and that was a little show of kindness.
The child was not very sensitive to bad treatment. To that she was inured; but she had tasted the sweets of kindness, and it had inspired hopes that already began to wither, encouraged dreams that had already vanished.
Fouchette was fast falling into her habitual state of childish cynicism. The police had tricked her, no doubt. She was more than suspicious of this as she noted their approach towards a pile of buildings surrounded by a high wall, which reminded her of La Roquette. This wall had great iron spikes and broken glass bottles set in cement on top, and seemed to stretch away out of sight in the growing shadows of evening. Once proceeding parallel with the wall, the buildings beyond were no longer visible to those outside.
They stopped in front of an immense arched gateway, apparently of the mediaeval period, with a porter's lodge on one side, slightly recessed. The gates were of stout oak thickly studded with big-headed nails and bolts. In the heavy oaken door of the lodge was set a brass "judas," a small grille closed by an inner slide, and which might be operated by an unseen hand within so as to betray the identity of any person outside without unbarring the door,—a not uncommon arrangement in French gates and outside doors.
If Fouchette had not been restricted by the sides and top of the van, she might have seen the words "Le Bon Pasteur" carved in the ancient stone above the great gateway. But, inasmuch as she could not have read the inscription, and would not have been able to understand it in any case, it was no great matter.
The driver of the van got down and let fall the old-fashioned iron knocker. The judas showed a glistening eye for a second, then closed. This was immediately followed by a slipping of bolts and a clanging of iron bars, and then the big gates swung inward. They appeared to do this without human aid, and shut again in the same mysterious way when the vehicle had passed.
"Supper, thank goodness!" said Sister Agnes, with a sigh.
"You're always hungry——"
"Always thinking of something to eat," continued the other, reprovingly. "It is not a good example to the young, sister. The carnal appetite, it is a sin, my sister, to flatter it!"
"Dame! As if one could possibly be open to such a charge here!" retorted the ruddy-faced Agnes.
"We are taught to restrain,—mortify,—pluck out,—cut off the offending member. It is——"
"But what are we going to do with this child, Sister Angelique?" interrupted Sister Agnes, and abruptly shutting off the religious enthusiast. "She must be hungry. And the Superieure——"
"Cannot be disturbed at this hour. In the morning is time enough for an unpleasant subject. Take her to No. 17,—it is prepared,—in the right lower corridor."
"Sainte Marie!" cried Sister Agnes, crossing herself, "as if I didn't know! Why, I was taken to that cell myself when I came here forty years ago!"
"Perhaps, and have never had reason to regret it, quite surely. But take this child there. Let her begin her new life with fasting and prayer, as you doubtless did, sister. It will serve to fit her to come before the Superieure in the morning with the humble spirit of one who is to receive so much and who, evidently, can give so little."
Fouchette was so bewildered with her surroundings that she paid little attention to what was being said. The great irregular piles of buildings, the going and coming of the ghostly figures, the silence, impressed her vividly. Of the nearest building, she could see that the windows were grated with iron bars; her ears registered the word "cell." Fouchette did not understand what was meant by the expression "fasting and prayer," but she had a definite idea of a "cell" in a house with grated windows within a high wall.
"Come! hurry up, my child; I want my supper. Yes, and I'll see that they treat you better than they did me. Come this way! Yes,—mon Dieu! Mortify the flesh! Flatter the carnal appetite!"
She muttered continuously, as she led Fouchette along a dark corridor with which her feet were familiar.
"Forty years! Ah! Mother of God! Pluck it out! Cut it off! Blessed Sainte Agnes, give me patience! Forty years! Holy Mother, pardon me! Forty years! Yes! Reason to regret? May the good God forgive me!—Here we are, my child."
She suddenly stopped and turned a key, opened a door, thrust the child within, and paused to look around, as if pursuing her reminiscences, oblivious of everything else.
It was a plain cell, such as was used by the early monks when this building was a monastery, possibly nine by six feet, with a high, small, grated hole for the only light and air. A narrow iron cot, a combination stand, and a low stool constituted the sole furniture. A rusty iron crucifix in the middle of the wall opposite the bed was the only decoration. The rest was blank stone, staring white with crumbling whitewash.
Stone floor, stone walls, stone ceiling,—cold, clammy, cheerless.
The floor was worn into a smooth, shallow furrow lengthwise, showing where countless weary inmates had paced up and down, up and down, during the long hours. And beneath the crucifix were scooped out two round hollows in the solid rock, where countless knees had bent in recognition of the Christ.
The religieuse seemed to forget the presence of Fouchette, for she dropped upon her own knees in the little hollows in the cold stone floor beneath the rusty iron crucifix on the wall.
"Oh, pardon, my child!" she exclaimed, coming back to the present as she arose from prayer, "I forgot. Forty years ago,—it comes upon me here."
She gently removed the little hat with its cheap flowers, then bent over and kissed the thin cheeks, promising to return soon with something to eat.
Fouchette heard the door close, the key grate harshly in the lock.
The moisture of the lips and eyes remained upon her cheeks. She felt it still warm, and involuntarily put up both hands, as if to further convince herself that the kisses were real and to hold them there.
The Christ was to her a myth, the crucifix a vague superstition, prayer a mere unmeaning mummery. But the kisses were tangible and easily understood.
But oh! the country!—the woods! the fields! the flowers!—freedom!
She threw herself on the iron cot and wept passionately.
"La, la, la!" came the cheery but subdued voice of Sister Agnes. She had re-entered the cell to catch the last faint sounds of childish grief coming out of the darkness.
"There! Softly now, petite! Where are you? Oh! If they catch me here at this hour and bringing—sh!"
The good-hearted woman had groped her way to the cot, raised Fouchette to a sitting posture, and, sitting down by her side, pulled the child over in her arms.
Fouchette, who had almost ceased to weep by this time, was at once overcome anew by the motherly caress and broke down completely. She flung her arms wildly about Sister Agnes's neck and buried her face in the ample bosom.
"La, la, la, la! my little skeleton, there is nothing to be afraid of here. Nothing at all! Don't take on so. God is everywhere, and takes care of us in the night as well as by day. Fear not! And here, my child, see what I've brought you! Feel, rather,—taste; you must be half starved. Here is a big, fat sandwich, and here's another. And here's a small flacon of the red wine of Bourgogne. You poor child! You need something for blood. Here's a bit of cheese, too, and, let's see,—by the blessed Sainte! I was told to let you have bread and water and I've actually forgotten the water!
"Now eat! The idea of a big girl like you being afraid in the dark!"
"No, it was not that, madame. Mon Dieu, no! I'm used to that. Indeed, I'm not afraid. It——"
"Then what on earth have you been crying about, child?"
"Oh, madame! it is because—because you are so good to me. Yes, that is it. I'm not used to that,—no!"
Sister Agnes must have been quite agitated by this frank and unexpected avowal, for she pressed the child to her with still greater fervor, kissing her time and again more affectionately, after which she immediately slipped into the religious rut again below the crucifix.
A single ray of moonlight from the high loophole in the wall fell athwart the sombre cell and rested caressingly upon her bowed head as she knelt and seemed to bless her.
When she had recovered her self-possession she resumed her seat by the side of Fouchette, who, meanwhile, had been making havoc with the provisions.
"Oh! I was afraid—dreadfully afraid—that night, forty years ago," she whispered. "It was in this same place. And when they left me I almost cried my eyes out—and screamed,—how I screamed! Yet no one came. The next morning I had bread and water. And the next night and day, too. Ah! Sainte Mere de Dieu! how I suffered!"
"And I was a strong, healthy child, but wilful; yet the dark seemed terrible to me—because I was wicked."
Fouchette wondered what dreadful crime this child of forty years ago had committed to have been thus treated. She must have been very, very wicked.
"Yes, forty years ago——"
"How much did they give you, madame?"
"Er—what's that, petite?"
"Pardon, madame, but how much time yet do you have to serve?"
"I don't understand," replied the puzzled woman, unfamiliar with worldly terms.
"Why, I mean, how long did they send you up for?" asked the child.
"Police? Mon Dieu! my child, the police had nothing to do with me."
"Well, the gendarmes."
"No; you could never have been guilty, madame! Never! Whatever it was they charged you with——"
"Charged? Sainte Marie be praised, I never committed any crime in my life,—unless it was a crime to be thoughtless and happy."
"I was sure of that!" cried Fouchette, much relieved nevertheless.
"Why, I never was charged with any!" protested the astonished Sister Agnes.
"Then they imprisoned you without trial, as they have me. Ah! mon Dieu! madame, I see it all now! And forty years! Oh!"
"Well, blessed be the saints in heaven!" exclaimed the enlightened religieuse. "What do you think this place is, Fouchette?"
"It is"—she hesitated and changed the form of speech—"is it a—a prison?"
"Why, no! Holy Mother, no!—not a prison, child! You thought it——"
"Yes, madame," faltered Fouchette.
"You poor child! Not so bad as that; yet——"
"I see,—a house of correction?"
"No, not that. At least, not—ah! if Sister Angelique had heard you call 'Le Bon Pasteur' a house of correction it would have been worth three days of bread and water!"