E-text prepared by Al Haines
A CARDINAL SIN
Translated by Alexina Loranger
Chicago W. B. Conkey Company Copyright, 1892 by Morrill, Higgins & Co. Copyright, 1893 by W. B. Conkey Company
A CARDINAL SIN.
On a beautiful, bright morning of the month of May, 18—, a young girl of eighteen years or thereabouts, whose pale, melancholy face reflected only too plainly the wretchedness and privations of her daily life, was wending her way, timidly and with hesitating steps, through that populous quarter of the city known as the Charnier des Innocents, a dreary spot, principally noted for its large number of public scribes, who make a precarious living by acting as secretaries to the ignorant people of the vicinity.
Two or three times she paused, undecided, before an open door; then, thinking perhaps that the writer was either too young or unprepossessing, she slowly resumed her search. She had reached the last of the row, and was on the point of retracing her steps, when her gaze fell on a venerable old man, whose benign countenance beamed kindly on her from his desk; and without further hesitation she resolutely entered the little shop.
Struck by the touching beauty and modest attitude of the young girl, the scribe greeted her with paternal affability, and discreetly drawing the curtain over the dingy window, motioned her to a seat, while he sank back into his old leather-covered arm-chair and waited for her to speak.
The girl's pretty face flushed and she cast down her large, blue eyes in embarrassment, while a painful silence followed. She was evidently agitated by a deep emotion, for her breast heaved visibly beneath the worn merino shawl she wore over her faded gingham dress, and her hands trembled slightly as she folded them on her lap.
"Why this embarrassment, my dear child?" said the old man kindly. "Do you wish me to draw up a petition, a request, or write a letter?"
"Yes, monsieur, I want a letter written," she replied in a low, soft voice, her face flushing still more painfully.
"Can you not write?"
She shook her head and cast down her eyes once more.
Fearing he had needlessly humiliated his client, the old man hastened to add:
"Poor child, do you suppose me capable of blaming your ignorance?"
"Monsieur!—" she began in protestation.
"Ah! believe me," he interrupted, "I feel a great deal of compassion for persons who, having no education, are forced to have recourse to men of my profession, to admit them into their confidence, and reveal their most secret and dearest thoughts! It is very painful, is it not?"
"Yes, indeed, monsieur!" exclaimed the girl, touched by these words. "To be obliged to address myself to a stranger, to—"
Her eyes filled with tears and she paused in confusion.
"My dear child, pray recover your composure," entreated the scribe. "You need fear neither indiscretion nor ridicule with me. The confidence reposed in me by persons whom chance or misfortune has deprived of the benefits of education, has always been considered as sacred to me."
"Oh! thank you, monsieur; you relieve me of half my grief by understanding and excusing my embarrassment," said Mariette, gratefully. "Oh! yes," she went on with a sigh, "it is very cruel to know neither how to read nor write; but alas! it is not my fault."
"Ah! my poor child, like many others who come to me, it is the want of opportunity, and not the absence of good will, which has deprived you of knowledge. Some are forced to assume the care of younger brothers and sisters while the parents work; others are sent out as apprentices at an early age—"
"I was placed as an apprentice at the age of nine," sighed Mariette, "and until that time I was retained at home to care for a little brother, who died shortly before my parents."
"Poor child, your story is similar to those of your companions that come to me. But why did you not try to gain some education when you had finished your apprenticeship?"
"Where would I find the time, monsieur? I work almost day and night to provide for my godmother and myself—"
"Time, alas! is the bread of the poor!" broke in the old man; "they must starve to death or live in ignorance."
He paused for a moment, then asked with renewed interest: "You speak of your godmother; have you no other relative?"
"No, Monsieur," replied the girl sadly.
"But forgive me, I am taking up your time uselessly instead of coming to the purpose of my visit."
"My time could not be better employed than in listening to you, my child; for I am sure you are a good and honest girl. Now let us see about the letter. Will you merely state what you wish to write, or do you prefer to dictate to me?"
"I prefer to dictate the letter."
"Very well, I am ready," declared the old man, adjusting his glasses and bending over his desk that he might not increase his pretty client's confusion.
With down-cast eyes, and after a moment of hesitation, Mariette began:
At the name of Louis the old man started, but said quietly: "It is written, my child."
Nothwithstanding her confidence in the old man, the girl instinctively shrank from revealing her inmost thoughts to a stranger. But after a momentary pause, she went on hesitatingly:
"I have received no word from you, and I am very sad. Yet, you had promised to write during your voyage—"
"During your voyage," repeated the writer, who had become suddenly thoughtful. "A strange coincidence," he said to himself, with growing anxiety. "His name is Louis, and he is away."
"I hope that you are well," continued the girl, "and that your silence is not caused by illness, for my grief would be doubled."
"To-day is the sixth of May, Monsieur Louis—the sixth of May—and I would not let the day pass without reminding you of me. Perhaps you had the same thought also, and I may receive a letter from you when you receive this from me, the day after to-morrow. Then I shall know that the delay was not caused by illness or forgetfulness, and how happy I shall be! I shall therefore await the day after to-morrow with much impatience. May heaven protect me from disappointment, Monsieur Louis—"
Mariette stifled a sigh and wiped a tear from her pale cheek.
The features of the writer, who still bent low over his desk, were invisible to the young girl, and she was unconscious of the expression of alarm that had crept over them. Two or three times, while writing, he had cast furtive, scrutinizing glances at his client; and it was evident that his first impulse of sympathetic interest was changing to restraint caused by serious apprehensions.
Folding her hands once more on her lap, Mariette resumed:
"I have nothing new to tell you, Monsieur Louis. My godmother is still ill, she suffers very much, and the torture she undergoes embitters her character more and more. That I may be near her as much as possible, I now work at home instead of going to Mme. Jourdan. The days seem wretchedly long and sad, for working at the shop with my companions is much more cheerful, and I can accomplish more. I am therefore obliged to stay up very late; and I sleep but little, as my godmother always suffers more at night and, consequently needs more care. Sometimes I fail to hear her first call, I sleep so soundly; then she scolds me, which is only natural when she suffers so much.
"I tell you these things to show you that my life is not a happy one, and that one word of friendship from you would encourage and console me for so many sad things.
"Farewell, Monsieur Louis. I counted on Augustine to write; but she has gone away and I am dictating this letter to another person. Ah! never have I so much regretted my inability to read and write as at this moment. Farewell, once more, Monsieur Louis; think of me I beg you, for I think of you always."
"Is this all, my child?" queried the old man, after a moment of silence.
"And what name shall I sign?"
"Mariette Moreau, if you please."
"Mariette Moreau," repeated the old man, as he inscribed the name.
Then folding the letter, he made a violent effort to conceal the secret anguish with which he awaited the reply to his question, and asked:
"To whom shall I address it?"
"To M. Louis Richard, at Dreux, to be called for."
"No more doubt of it," thought the old man, as he prepared to address the letter.
Had the young girl been less pre-occupied with her, own thoughts, she could not have failed to remark the harsh expression which darkened the public writer's countenance when he learned beyond doubt to whom this innocent missive was addressed. In fact, he seemed unable to make up his mind to inscribe the name given, for when he had written the word "Monsieur," he suddenly dropped the pen and looked up.
"My dear child," he began, trying to smile with his usual benevolence, that he might not betray his resentment and apprehensions, "although this is the first time we meet, it seems to me that I have inspired confidence in you."
"Indeed you have, monsieur," she assured him. "Before entering your house I feared I would not find the courage to dictate the letter to a total stranger; but you received me with so much kindness that my embarrassment has almost completely melted away."
"Why should you have felt any embarrassment, my child? Even though I were your father, I could not find a word to reproach you in what you have written to—to M. Louis—and it I did not fear to abuse your confidence in me I would ask—but no—it would be an indiscretion."
"What would you ask, monsieur?"
"Who this M. Louis Richard is."
"Oh! that's no secret, I assure you. M. Louis is a student; the notary's office in which he is employed is in the same building as the shop in which I work. That is how we met, just one year ago to-day."
"Ah! I now understand why you insisted on the date of your letter; to-day is the anniversary of your first meeting!"
"And you love each other. There, don't blush, my child—I suppose you will marry some day?"
"Has M. Louis' family consented to the marriage?"
"M. Louis has no one to consult but his father, and we hope he will not refuse his consent."
"And what kind of a man is he?"
"The best of fathers—so M. Louis tells me—and a man who endures his poverty most courageously, although he once had a comfortable home. But M. Louis and his father are now as poor as godmother and myself; and this is why we expect no opposition to our marriage. No difficulty can arise between poor people."
"It seems to me that your godmother does not make life very happy for you, my child."
"What will you? it is so natural to be ill-humored when one suffers incessantly and life is but a continual round of misfortunes."
"Is she a cripple?"
"She has lost one hand, besides being afflicted with a lung disease which has kept her confined to her bed for more than a year."
"How did she lose that hand?"
"She pricked her finger with a mattress needle, and as she could not stop work, blood poisoning followed, and she was forced to have her arm amputated."
"Poor woman," broke in the old man, absent-mindedly.
"As for her lung trouble, it is very common among women who continually breathe the dust arising from the wool used in mattresses. My godmother is almost bent double, and during her long paroxysms of coughing I am sometimes obliged to support her in my arms for hours."
"You alone, then, contribute to her support?"
"Certainly, since she is unable to work."
"Such devotion on your part is very generous."
"I only do my duty, monsieur. She gave me shelter after my parents died, and paid for my three years of apprenticeship in the shop. Is it not just that I should now care for her?"
"You must work very hard to earn sufficiently."
"From fifteen to eighteen hours a day."
"And instead of taking a much needed rest at night, you watch over your godmother?"
"Who would care for her if I did not?"
"Why not try to place her in the hospital?"
"She would not be admitted, as her case is incurable. Besides, I scarcely think I would have the courage to desert her thus."
"You are indeed a noble girl, my child, and I judged you rightly," declared the old man, grasping her hand in his.
"Oh! my God!" cried Mariette, as she saw his sleeve catch the inkstand, spilling the contents over the precious letter. "Ah! monsieur, what a misfortune!"
"What awkwardness!" exclaimed the writer angrily. "But never mind, I can copy it in a very few minutes. I shall read it aloud as I go on, so that you may suggest any change you may think proper."
"I am so grieved to give you all this trouble," she murmured, evidently much distressed.
"It serves me right, my dear,—I alone am to blame."
As he resumed his work, a violent internal conflict seemed reflected on his features; from time to time a sigh of relief and satisfaction escaped his lips; then again he appeared confused and avoided Mariette's limpid gaze; while she leaned on the table, her head supported on one hand, anxiously and enviously following the rapid pen of the writer, as he traced the magic characters that would convey her thoughts to her lover.
"How much do I owe you, monsieur?" she asked timidly, when he had folded the missive and addressed it.
"Fifty centimes," rejoined the old man, after a moment of hesitation, "and remember that I charge you for one of the letters only. I alone am responsible for my awkwardness."
"You are very kind, monsieur," said Mariette, touched by what she considered a proof of generosity on his part. "Indeed," she added, as she replaced her slender purse into her pocket, "you have been so good to me that I shall ask you a very great service—"
"Go on, my child."
"If I have more letters to send, it will be almost impossible for me to go to a stranger—"
"I shall always be at your service, my child."
"What I wished to say was, that my godmother is also unable to write or read, and the friend who was my confidante has gone to the country. So if I should receive a letter from M. Louis, would you have the goodness to read it for me? I would then dictate the answer at once."
"Certainly, my child; bring me all your letters," rejoined the old man, dissimulating his satisfaction. "I am indeed much gratified by the confidence you show in me. Good-bye, then. I hope you feel less embarrassment now than when you entered?"
"I did not expect so much kindness, monsieur."
"Try to look on me as your reader and secretary, my child. Does it not seem as though we had known each other for ten years."
"Indeed it does—Good-bye, monsieur."
Mariette had scarcely vanished, when the postman pushed the door open and handed in a letter, saying: "Here is a letter from Dreux, pere Richard."
"A letter from Dreux!" exclaimed the old man, grasping it eagerly and examining the writing closely. "Ah! it comes from Ramon," he muttered to himself. "I wonder what he thinks of my son? Alas! what will now become of the fine projects so long formed between us!"
"Six sous, pere Richard," observed the postman, arousing him from his reverie.
"Six sous!" cried the old man. "The devil! was it not prepaid? Ah! true enough," he sighed, as he regretfully handed the man the coin he had just received from Mariette.
In the meantime, Mariette was hurrying homeward, somewhat uneasy at the thought of her long absence. Having reached that sad, gloomy street known as the Rue des Pretres-Saint-Germain, she walked rapidly along until she came to the last dingy house facing the dark walls of the church, where she entered. Crossing an obscure passage, the girl ascended a rickety stairway, only dimly lighted from a small court-yard that resembled nothing more than a narrow well, and stopped at the door of the portiere.
"Madame Justin," she said to the woman, who stood on the threshold, "have you been up to see if my godmother wanted anything?"
"I carried up her milk, Mademoiselle Mariette," replied the woman, "but she was in such a temper that she received me like a dog."
"We must take pity on her, Madame Justin; she suffers so much."
"Of course you always excuse her and suffer everything in silence, Mademoiselle Mariette. It shows your kind heart, but it does not alter the fact that your godmother is as wicked as a red mule. Poor child! you are doing your purgatory on earth; and if there is no Heaven, you will be well cheated."
"Good-bye, Madame Justin, I must go up now."
"Wait a moment, I have a letter for you."
"A letter!" cried Mariette, her cheeks flushing and her heart throbbing violently. "Is it from the provinces?"
"Yes; the postmark is from Dreux, and it costs her six sous. Here it is. The word 'Urgent' is written in one corner of the envelope."
The girl thrust the missive in her bosom; then drawing her purse, she took out her last ten-sou piece and paid the woman. Taking her key, she then ran up the last stairs, her heart beating wildly with a sensation of mingled happiness and sadness. Though she was happy in the possession of the letter, the word "Urgent" on the corner of the envelope filled her with misgivings; besides, what sadness filled her heart at the thought that perhaps several hours must elapse before she could learn what Louis Richard had written.
Having finally reached the fifth floor of the dilapidated house, so gloomy and ill-smelling, with its atmosphere poisoned by stagnant water in the defective sinks and sewers, she hesitatingly entered the dingy room occupied by her godmother and herself.
A woman was lying with her face to the wall, on the only bed that the room boasted; while the thin mattress that served Mariette as a couch was rolled in a corner, as much out of the way as possible. A work table, an old dresser, two chairs, and a few kitchen utensils hanging around the chimney, composed the sole furniture of this humble home, lighted only by a narrow window overlooking the gloomy yard, but the most rigorous neatness was remarkable everywhere.
The girl's godmother, Madame Lacombe, was a tall, gaunt woman of fifty years, with a cadaverous complexion and harsh, disagreeable features. A bitter, sardonic smile, caused by a lifetime of misery and suffering, habitually contracted her livid lips, her form being almost bent double; her mutilated arm and bilious face, enframed in a ragged cap, through which hung long wisps of gray hair, were alone visible outside the coverings.
"Where have you been?" she cried, in a rasping voice, making an effort to tarn in her bed as the girl entered.
"Dear godmother, I—" began Mariette.
"Oh, yes; you go running about the streets, leaving me here alone to fret and fume!" interrupted the woman furiously.
"But I was scarcely gone an hour," protested the girl.
"And you hoped to find me dead on your return, eh?"
"Heavens! how can you think such a thing!" sobbed Mariette.
"Oh! yes; you may whine now. But I am not your dupe! You have had enough of me; and the day when I am screwed down in my coffin will be a day of rejoicing for you—and so will it be for me, too—Oh! my God! this is too much agony," she groaned, pressing her thin hand to her breast.
Mariette wiped away the tears drawn by this harsh sarcasm, and approaching the bed, said sweetly: "You had such a bad night that I thought you might sleep a little in my absence."
"Oh! yes—you leave me here alone, to die like a dog, while you run about the streets."
"I was obliged to go out; but Madame Justin promised—"
"I had rather see death itself than that creature," interrupted the sick woman angrily, "and you take every opportunity to send her to me."
A bitter smile flitted over the girl's lips; but she passed this new sarcasm unnoticed and said gently: "Shall I put fresh bandages on your arm?"
"It's too late now; you stayed away purposely."
"I am sorry I was delayed; but allow me to do it now."
"Leave me alone."
"But the wound will be inflamed."
"That's exactly what you are aiming at."
"Godmother, I beg you!"
"Don't come near me!" shrieked the sick woman furiously.
"I shall wait then," sighed the girl. "Shall I warm up your milk?"
"Milk! milk! and nothing but milk!—I am just sick of it. The doctor prescribed good chicken broth; and here it is Sunday, and I have had none since Tuesday."
"It's no fault of mine, godmother. The doctor prescribes—but money must be found to provide what he orders. And I can scarcely make twenty sous a day now."
"You don't mind what you spend on yourself," snapped Mme. Lacombe.
"You know well that I have worn nothing but this faded print dress all winter," rejoined Mariette, with touching resignation. "I economize as much as I can—and we owe two quarters of rent."
"You might as well say right now that I am a burden to you. These are the thanks I get for taking you out of the streets and paying for your apprenticeship!—you ungrateful, heartless child!"
"No, no, I am not ungrateful, godmother!" protested Mariette, restraining her tears with difficulty. "And, if you suffered less, you would not be so unjust to me—but do take something, or else you will be ill."
"I know it, I feel a terrible gnawing at my stomach."
"Please have some milk, godmother," entreated the girl.
"Go to the devil with your milk!" she snapped angrily.
"Shall I get you some fresh eggs?"
"Will you have some rice?"
"I want some chicken!"
"But I can't get one on credit."
"You had twenty-seven sous in your purse this morning, and the quarter of a chicken will do me."
"But, godmother, that money—"
"Well, what about that money?"
"It's gone; I have only a few sous left."
"And where are those two ten-sous pieces?—Will you answer me?"
"I—I don't know," faltered the girl, reproaching herself bitterly for spending her money on the letters. "They must have dropped from my purse; for I have lost them."
"You lie!—I see it in your face."
"I assure you—"
"That's it," rejoined the sick woman, with a sardonic laugh, "she leaves me to rot on this wretched pallet, while she feasts on cakes and sweetmeats!"
"I?—Oh, my God!" moaned the girl.
"Out of here, you wretched creature! You may leave me to starve; but don't let me see your face again!" cried the unhappy woman, driven to desperation by the tortures she endured and the exasperating animosity of fate against her. "Ah! yes, you are very anxious to make me swallow that milk," she added, with a still more ironical laugh; "I am such a burden that you may have dropped something in it!"
At this accusation—still more senseless than atrocious—Mariette remained for a moment dumbfounded, not realizing the full meaning of the horrible words. But when their full sense burst upon her, she clasped her two hands together and shrank back in terror; then, unable to restrain her sobs any longer, and yielding to an irresistible impulse, she threw her arms about the sick woman's neck and, covering her face with tears and kisses, murmured brokenly: "Oh! godmother! godmother!"
This heart-broken protestation against an accusation which could have had its birth in a delirious brain only, fortunately recalled the sick woman to reason. Her heart relaxed a little under this flow of tears, and she realized her injustice.
"There, there, little one," she said with emotion, as she took one of the girl's trembling hands in hers and pressed the quivering form against her breast, "don't cry so—how foolish you are!—don't you see I was only jesting?"
Jesting! A sad jest, alas! worthy only of such abject misery.
"Yes; I was wrong to take your words seriously," returned Mariette, wiping away the tears from her pale cheeks.
"What will you? you must take pity on your poor godmother, my little Mariette. By dint of suffering, you see, my gall has overflowed, and my heart is like my mouth—bitter, Oh, so bitter!"
"I know that you grumble in spite of yourself sometimes, godmother—Ah, it is so easy to be always cheerful and contented when one is happy; while you have found little happiness in your life."
"True enough," said the old woman, feeling a sort of cruel satisfaction in justifying her embittered character by the enumeration of her wrongs against an implacable destiny; "true enough, many have fared as badly as myself, but few have fared worse. Beaten in my apprenticeship, beaten by a drunken husband, crippled and ill, I have dragged my chains for fifty years, and none can say that I have had one happy day—one single happy day in my accursed life. As we say, my little Mariette, my life has been without a single Sunday, while each day is a holiday to so many."
"Poor godmother, I can understand what you have suffered," murmured the girl, sympathetically.
"No, no, you can never understand, although you have known much sorrow in your eighteen years. You are pretty, at least, and when you have a new frock, with a fresh bit of ribbon in your golden hair, you can smile at your reflection in the mirror and feel a moment of happiness."
"Oh, godmother! I—"
"Be frank, little one; admit that it makes you happy, and perhaps a little proud, too, when people turn their heads to look at you, in spite of your faded gown and coarse shoes."
"Indeed you are mistaken, godmother; it makes me blush to have any one look at me. When I worked at the shop, there was a gentleman who came every day and always gazed persistently at me while talking to Madame Jourdan, and it mortified me to death."
"Yes, but at heart you were pleased; and when you are old you will remember it. You will then have something like a reflection of your youth; while I see nothing but gloom, and don't even know if I was ever young. But as for being ugly, I am sure of that."
"Yes, I was so ugly that I could not bear the sight of a mirror. The consequence was that I found nothing better than a drunken husband, who nearly killed me with blows; and I was even deprived of the chance of rejoicing over his death, for I was obliged to pay his debts at the wine-shop. Then I became a cripple, and would starve were it not for you."
"You are unjust, godmother," observed Mariette, with a tender smile, trying to dispel her melancholy. "To my knowledge, you have had one happy day, at least, in your life."
"Which was that?"
"The day you gave me shelter, after my mother's death. Did not the good action give you satisfaction and make you happy for the day?"
"Well, if you call that a happy day—I want no more like it."
"It was rather one of my worst days!"
"Oh! godmother!" expostulated the girl sadly.
"Since my wretched husband's death, I had but myself to care for; but in taking charge of you, it was like being left a widow with a child to support. I call that anything but gay, when a woman can scarcely earn her own living. But you looked so charming with your pretty curly head and large blue eyes, and you seemed so sad kneeling beside your mother's coffin, that I had not the heart to let them take you to the asylum. And what a dreary night I spent, wondering what I would do with you, and what would become of you if work failed me! And you call that a happy day? No, no! Had I been in comfortable circumstances, I would have felt that your future was assured and been happy. But to merely exchange your misery for worse still was nothing to rejoice over."
"Well, let us say no more about days," said Mariette soothingly, smiling through her tears, "but let us speak of moments; for I am determined to show that you have experienced some happiness. Now, for instance, take this moment—"
"Well, what of it?"
"I am sure that you are happy to see that I have dried my tears, thanks to your kind words."
The sick woman shook her head sadly.
"Do you know what I think when I get over my bad humor?" she said, with a sigh. "Well, I think that you must hate me for my harshness and injustice toward you. And I deserve it, too."
"Now you are going back to your melancholy thoughts," said the girl reproachfully.
"Admit that I am right. It's only natural, after all. You kill yourself working for me, you feed and nurse me, and I repay you with harsh words only. My death would indeed be a relief to you; and the sooner I am laid in my coffin the better."
"I know you are jesting once more," rejoined Mariette, making an effort to smile, though her heart was full to bursting.
"Well, if I am only jesting, little one, don't look so grieved," returned the old woman, touched by the girl's evident distress. "Now put the milk on the fire, and bandage my arm while waiting for it to boil."
Mariette was as delighted over these orders as though they had been the kindest words in the world. She hastily lighted the fire; cut up their only remaining piece of bread into a dish of milk, placed it on the stove, and returned to the invalid.
In spite of the repugnance which the putrid sore inspired in her, Mariette showed as much patience as dexterity in cleansing and bandaging the mutilated arm; and the young girl's devotion, as well as her noble resignation, touched the woman's heart anew.
"Sisters of Charity are often praised, my dear," she said admiringly, "but none of them deserve half the praise you do."
"But those good sisters devote their time to strangers, godmother," protested the girl modestly, "while you are like a mother to me. I only do my duty, and therefore have no merit."
"Poor child, my affection for you brings you but little happiness. Only a few moments ago I made you burst into tears; and to-morrow will be the same as to-day."
To escape from a reply to these bitter words, Mariette brought the steaming milk, which the invalid drank with appetite, and then busied herself in making the bed more comfortable.
"What will you eat, Mariette?" asked the old woman, as she swallowed the last spoonful.
"Oh! I have had my breakfast," said the girl bravely. "I bought a small loaf of rye bread this morning and ate it on my way—there, now," giving a last shake to the pillow, "you must try to sleep, you had such a bad night—are you more comfortable now?"
"Yes, thank you, child."
"I shall take my work near the window; the room is dark and this is very delicate work."
"What is it?"
"A fine cambric chemise, godmother. Madame Jourdan trusted me with it only after many recommendations not to lose this magnificent Valencienne trimming, which alone is worth two hundred francs. This brings the cost to three hundred francs apiece, and there are two dozen to make. It seems they are intended for somebody's mistress," concluded the girl naively.
The invalid burst into a sardonic laugh.
"What is it?" asked Mariette in surprise.
"Such a funny idea."
"Ah!" ejaculated Mariette, with a vague feeling of apprehension, for she knew only too well the habitual character of her godmother's jests. "What idea, godmother?"
"I was asking myself of what use such people as you and I are in this world—wretched creatures, who know nothing but the sorrows and miseries of life; do you know, child?"
"Indeed, godmother, I scarcely know what to say."
"Why should a respectable girl like you, who has but two or three ragged chemises to her name, earn the paltry sum of twenty sous per day sewing chemises worth three hundred francs apiece, for—" She burst into another bitter laugh, and turned her face to the wall, saying: "Take up your work courageously, child! I shall try to dream of cemeteries to cheer me up!"
Mariette's heart was fortunately too pure, and she was, moreover, too preoccupied with her own thoughts to feel the wretched bitterness of this last sarcasm. Drawing the letter she had received from her bosom, she placed it on her lap where her godmother's eyes could not reach it, and gazed longingly at it while continuing her work.
The regular breathing of the invalid soon convinced her that she was asleep, however, and she paused in her work long enough to tear open the envelope and spread the letter before her eyes. Vain and puerile curiosity! The characters were undecipherable to her! No picture could be more sorrowful and touching than the sight of this young girl, gazing with a fast beating heart at the unintelligible missive. One thing she remarked, however; the letter was very short, and this fact filled her with hope and uneasiness both.
Did this short, urgent letter announce good or bad news? she anxiously asked herself.
With her eyes fixed on the mysterious words, Mariette lost herself in conjectures and suppositions, fully convinced that so short a letter, after a prolonged absence, must inevitably bring unexpected news. In her poignant perplexity Mariette endured torments and excruciating torture, to which the uneducated are continually exposed. To hold in our grasp, and beneath our eyes, the few lines that bring us joy or sorrow, and be unable to penetrate the secret; to be under the necessity of asking a stranger to read these lines, and to receive from indifferent lips the announcement of something on which life itself almost depends, is an agony beyond words!
Mariette's anguish soon reached such a point that she resolved, at the risk of being cruelly treated on her return, to have recourse to the public scribe at once. Cautiously arising from her seat, that she might not arouse the sick woman, she tiptoed softly to the door; but as she crossed the threshold, a sudden painful thought stopped her. She could not ask the scribe to read the letter without dictating a reply, and she possessed barely enough money to purchase the bread necessary for the day. She already owed the baker twenty francs, and he had refused her further credit; she could not, therefore, spend her last sou on what she considered as culpable prodigality. The reader may smile at this picture of overwhelming grief and cruel recriminations against herself apropos of a couple of fifty centime pieces. Alas! no sum is small or insignificant to the poor; an increase of ten sous in wages brings back life to the starved bodies, alleviates that living agony which leads so many to a premature grave.
For a moment the young girl was tempted to carry Louis' letter to the janitress; but fearing the gossip and perhaps the raillery of the woman, she preferred to make a painful sacrifice and not expose herself to new humiliations. She still possessed a pretty dress, bought at the Temple and altered to her figure, which she had worn only on the few occasions she had gone out with Louis. Taking the gown from its accustomed peg in the corner, she folded it into a basket with a silk fichu that was almost new, and walked cautiously to the door once more.
"Going out again—" muttered her godmother, drowsily, as she turned over in her bed and dropped asleep once more.
Mariette stood motionless for a moment, then glided softly through the door and ran swiftly down the stairs.
Having obtained fifty sous on the gown and fichu at the Mont-de-Piete, she hurried toward the Charnier des Innocents in quest of the old scribe. Since Mariette's departure, and more especially since he had read his son's letter in the morning, the old man had reflected with ever-growing anxiety over the obstacles he might have to overcome to accomplish his cherished project, in view of the secret he had discovered during his interview with the young girl. He was still buried in painful meditation when Mariette suddenly appeared at the door.
"What is it, my child?" he asked, alarmed at this unexpected return. "I did not expect to see you back so soon."
"I have a letter from M. Louis, monsieur," she replied, her voice quivering slightly, as she drew the missive from her bosom, "and I have come to beg you to read it for me—and answer it if necessary."
Trembling with uneasiness and curiosity, she gazed intently at the old man while he glanced through the short letter, making a strong effort to conceal the annoyance given him by the few lines. Then suddenly starting up, and feigning great indignation, he tore the letter into shreds, crushed the pieces between his hands and hurled them under his desk.
"Ah, monsieur, what have you done!" cried Mariette in dismay.
"Ah! my poor child!" sighed the old man, looking at her pityingly.
"My God! something has happened M. Louis!" she gasped, clasping her hands together.
"No, my child—but you must forget him."
"Yes, believe me; you must renounce your cherished hopes."
"Heavens! what has happened?"
"Ignorance is a very sad thing, my poor child; and yet, at this moment, I would pity you if you could read."
"But, monsieur, what does the letter contain?"
"You must think no more of your marriage—"
"Does M. Louis write that?"
"Yes; he appeals to your generosity and delicacy, as well as your kindness of heart."
"M. Louis gives me up—and tells me to give him up also," she said slowly.
"Alas! yes, poor child! Come, be brave and resigned."
Mariette turned ghastly pale and stood silent for a moment, while big tears rolled down her cheeky; then, falling to her knees, she gathered the fragments of the torn letter and placed them on the desk before the old man's eyes.
"I shall have the courage to hear it through," she said sadly; "replace the pieces and read it."
"Please don't insist, my child, I beg of you," he rejoined, with hypocritical sympathy.
"In mercy, read it, monsieur!"
"However painful it may be for me to listen, I must know its contents."
"I have already told you what it contained—spare yourself useless pain."
"Have pity on me, monsieur! In the name of heaven, read it—read it! I must at least know the full extent of my misfortune—and, besides, there may be one line or word of consolation."
"Since you insist on it, my poor child, I shall read it," said the old man, readjusting the torn pieces, while Mariette looked on with eyes dimmed with tears, her heart throbbing with anguish. "Here it is."
"My Dear Mariette:
"I write these few words in haste, my soul filled with the sadness of death. We must renounce our hopes, for I must secure comfort and rest for my father in his old days. You know how much I love my father. I have given my word, and we shall never meet again.
"One last prayer: I address myself to your delicacy of feelings and generosity of heart—do not attempt to see me again, or change my resolution. I must choose between you and my father; and if I see you again I may not have the courage to do my duty as a son. My father's fate lies in your hands, and I count on your generosity. Farewell, I can write no more.
"Farewell once more, Farewell forever! Louis."
Standing motionless beside the writer's desk, with downcast eyes and the tears rolling silently down her pale cheeks, her lips quivering and her hands clasped convulsively together, Mariette presented a fit model for the picture of "Despair," as she listened to the words that crushed her heart with such cruel force.
"There. I was sure the letter would pain you frightfully," observed the old man, looking up as he finished reading.
Mariette made no reply.
"Don't tremble so, my child," resumed the old scribe. "Sit down—here, take this glass of fresh water."
Mariette did not even hear; but still stood gazing fixedly at the torn letter, though she saw it but dimly through her tears.
"It is all over, then," she murmured brokenly. "Nothing—nothing more in this world!—I was too happy. Ah! I am like godmother; happiness was not made for me!—"
Her voice died out in a stifled sob, and a pang of remorse smote the old man as he gazed at her white, set face.
"My dear child," he said soothingly, "pray don't give way to despair."
These words recalled the young girl to herself; she wiped away her tears and, bending down, slowly gathered the pieces of the letter.
"What are you doing?" cried the scribe, in alarm. "Why should you preserve these fragments, which can only recall cruel souvenirs?"
"The tomb of some one we have loved, also recalls painful and cherished souvenirs," said Mariette, sadly, "and yet we do not desert it."
Having replaced the pieces in the envelope, she again thrust it in her bosom; and, drawing her thin shawl closely about her shoulders, turned toward the door. On the threshold, however, she paused hesitatingly and looked back at the old man.
"Thank you very much for your kindness, monsieur," she said gratefully; then, after a moment's silence, she added timidly: "Although there is no answer to this letter, I feel that after so much trouble I should offer you—"
"It will be ten sous, the same as a letter," interrupted the scribe; and without the least scruple or hesitation, he pocketed the remuneration with a sort of sensual pleasure, entirely unimpaired by the girl's wretchedness.
"Good-bye, my poor child," he said, "I hope we shall meet again under happier circumstances."
"May heaven grant it, monsieur."
She walked slowly away, while old Richard closed the shutters of his shop and prepared to return home.
Haunted by the most somber thoughts, and a prey to the most poignant emotions, Mariette walked mechanically onward, unconscious of surroundings, and of the way she went, until startled by the sight of the river.
"Fate has brought me here," she said with a shudder.
Crossing to the opposite side of the bridge, she leaned on the parapet and gazed at the rapid waters of the stream. Little by little, she began to experience that strange fascination caused by the attraction of the abyss; and as her eyes followed the swift current, she felt overtaken by a sort of vertigo and drawn more and more toward the flowing waters.
"Here is oblivion and an end to all sorrows!" thought the unhappy girl. "It is a sure refuge against all miseries, against fear and hunger, illness and unhappy old age—wretched as that of my godmother's—Ah! what would become of her without me?—"
At that moment she felt her arm grasped violently, and a frightened voice cried out:
"Look out, child, or you will fall into the river!"
The girl drew back shuddering, and gazed wildly around her.
"Do you know that you are very imprudent, to say the least of it, my child," said a good-natured looking woman, who stood beside her. "You were leaning so far over the parapet that I thought you would lose your footing any moment."
"Thank you, madame," replied Mariette, "I am very careless, indeed."
"You must be more careful, my dear," returned the woman warningly. "Heavens! how pale you are—are you ill?"
"I feel a little faint, madame," said the girl, feeling a painful dizziness come over her, "but it will pass away."
"Lean on me, then. You are, no doubt, just recovering from a serious illness?"
"Yes—that's it, madame," responded Mariette, passing her hand over her brow, "but where am I?"
"At the Pont au Change—Are you a stranger in Paris?" asked the woman, curiously.
"No, madame; but I was overcome with a strange feeling of dizziness a few moments ago. It is passing over now, and I recognize the surroundings."
"You had better take my arm, you are trembling so," suggested the kind-hearted woman.
"Thank you, madame; it's not necessary, I live only a few steps from here."
"Well, good-bye, and be very cautious."
Having recovered the entire possession of her senses, Mariette now felt her bitter sorrows even more keenly than before; and she trembled at the thought of the harsh reception that awaited her in her desolate home, when she had so much need of consolation, or, at least, of that isolation and sad tranquility which lulls the most intense grief into calm hopelessness.
Being anxious to mitigate the cruel reproaches which her prolonged absence would inevitably draw upon her, she bethought herself of her godmother's desire to obtain the part of a chicken, and determined to satisfy this whim in the hope of being forgiven. She therefore hastened to the neighboring shops, purchased the quarter of a fowl and two white rolls with what remained of the money obtained on her gown and fichu, and turned homeward once more.
As she neared the house she was somewhat surprised to see an elegant cabriolet before the door; but she entered without giving the circumstance another thought, and stopping at the lodge asked for her key.
"Your key, Mademoiselle Mariette?" said Madame Justin, "why, a gentleman has just gone up with it."
"What gentleman?" queried the girl.
"A decorated gentleman. And finely decorated, too, I assure you. A ribbon two good inches wide—and such a loop! Upon my word, I never saw a man more beautifully decorated."
"But I don't know any decorated gentleman," exclaimed the girl in astonishment. "He must be mistaken."
"No, indeed. He inquired for a woman named Lacombe, a cripple living with her goddaughter, who is a seamstress. There is no mistake, as you see."
"Didn't you tell him that my god-mother was ill and could see no one?"
"Yes, I did. But he said he must see her on very important and urgent business; so I gave him the key and let him go up alone, having no desire to be abused by your godmother."
More and more astonished, Mariette ascended the rickety stairs to the fifth floor, pausing on the landing to recover her breath and find some excuse for her long absence. The door being ajar, she caught a glimpse of a stranger within the room, and the next moment distinctly heard these words:
"I am delighted to find your god-daughter away, my good woman; I can explain myself more clearly without her presence."
Mariette, who had been on the point of entering, yielded to an involuntary sentiment of curiosity instead, and remained where she stood.
The stranger was a man of forty-five years, or thereabouts, with worn but regular features, bearing deep traces of excessive dissipation and the most absolute profligacy. His physiognomy offered a strange mixture of deceit and impertinence; and these disagreeable traits were still more emphasized by a dark heavy moustache, which shone with a lustre equaled only by the false ebony of his artistically curled hair. His hands and feet were large; and, notwithstanding his visible pretentions, he at once betrayed the vulgar personage destined, not to imitate, but to parody veritable elegance. His dress was pompous, and in exceedingly bad taste; and even Mariette could not refrain from a smile at his affected military attitude and the ridiculously large red ribbon that adorned his button-hole.
Madame Lacombe, who had once more returned to her gloomy and sardonic humor, was gazing at the stranger with as much astonishment as distrust, feeling an almost invincible aversion against this insolent and patronizing personage, who had unceremoniously taken a seat at some distance from the bed, and was nibbling at the gold head of his cane while pursuing the conversation with her.
"Yes," repeated the visitor, "I am delighted to find you alone; as I was saying, I can explain myself more clearly."
"Monsieur," said the invalid, in a crabbed tone, "you have asked me if my name was Lacombe and if I was Mariette Moreau's godmother. I have already told you yes. Now what do you want of me? Explain yourself."
"To begin with, my good woman—" he began.
"I am called Madame Lacombe!" interrupted the woman.
"The devil! Well, then, Madame Lacombe," resumed the stranger with mock deference, "I shall first tell you who I am, and then proceed to explain what I want."
"I am called Commander de La Miraudiere, an old military officer, as you see," pointing to the red ribbon on his coat, "ten campaigns and five wounds!"
"That's nothing to me. And then?"
"I have the most brilliant acquaintances in Paris: dukes, counts, marquises—"
"What's that to me?"
"I keep a carriage, and spend at least twenty thousand francs a year."
"While my god-daughter and myself are starving on twenty sous per day—that is, when she can earn them!" exclaimed the invalid bitterly. "Such is the justice of the world!"
"No! it is not justice!" protested the commander. "It is not just, and I am here to put an end to such injustice!"
"If you are here to laugh at me," rejoined the woman, with an ominous scowl, "you had better go."
"Laugh at you, madame!—I!—judge me by what I offer. Do you want a pretty room, in a fine house, a servant to wait on you, two delicious meals every day, coffee every morning, and fifty francs a month for your snuff or other little fancies? Eh! what do you say to that?"
"I say—I say—that it's all a lie—or else there is something beneath it. When one offers so much to a poor, crippled old woman, it is not for the love of God, I am sure."
"You are right, Mamma Lacombe; it's for the love of two beautiful eyes."
"Your god-daughter's eyes, Mamma Lacombe," returned Commander de La Miraudiere cynically. "No use beating around the bush, you know."
"You know Mariette, then?" she said, with a piercing glance at his dissipated face.
"I often visit Madame Jourdan's establishment, for I am exceedingly fond of fine linen," he observed, casting a complaisant glance on the embroidered folds of his shirt. "I therefore found frequent occasion to admire you god-daughter; I think her beautiful and charming, and—"
"And you want to buy her from me?"
"Bravo! you are a woman of intelligence and good sense, Mamma Lacombe. You understand things without needless words. Now, this is my proposition: A fine, elegantly furnished apartment for Mariette, with whom you shall live, of course; five hundred francs per month for her expenses, exclusive of maid and cook; a suitable trousseau for the girl; and a purse of fifty louis to begin housekeeping, not counting costly gifts for good conduct. Besides this, there will be carriages, operas, balls, and a host of friends among ladies of my acquaintance. In a word, she will lead an enchanted existence—the existence of a duchess! What do you think of it?"
"Why not?" murmured the woman, with a strange smile. "Poor wretches like us are only good to sell ourselves when we are young, or sell others when we are old."
"Come now, Mamma Lacombe; to quiet your honest scruples, we shall say sixty francs per month for your pin money, and throw a superb shawl into the bargain. This will enable you to appear to advantage beside Mariette, whom you must watch with motherly solicitude, and never allow out of your sight, for I am jealous as a tiger, and don't like to be deceived."
"Only this very morning," put in the sick woman, "I was saying to Mariette, 'You are a respectable girl, and barely earn twenty sous per day sewing on chemises worth three hundred francs apiece, for a kept woman.'"
"Chemises worth three hundred francs apiece, ordered from Madame Jourdan? Let me see—ah! yes, I know. They must be for Amandine, the mistress of the Marquis de Saint-Herem, my most intimate friend—I recommended the establishment—a veritable fortune for Madame Jourdan, although that devil of a marquis seldom pays. But, on the other hand, all the furnishers and women he patronizes become the rage. Amandine was but an obscure little shop-girl six months ago, and now she is the most fashionable woman in Paris. And Mariette may have the same luck, you know. Fancy her wearing chemises worth three hundred francs apiece, instead of sewing them! Doesn't it make you feel like bursting with pride, Mamma Lacombe?"
"Unless Mariette ended like a girl of my acquaintance, who also sold herself through misery."
"What happened her?"
"She was robbed."
"She was promised mountains of gold, too; but at the end of three months she was deserted and left without a single sou. Then she killed herself in despair."
"The devil! what do you take me for?" cried the visitor, haughtily. "Do I look like a swindler; a Robert Macaire?"
"I don't know what you are."
"I, an old soldier! twenty campaigns and ten times wounded! The intimate companion and friend of all the lions of Paris! a man with his own carriage and who spends twenty thousand francs per annum! The devil! be frank with me! Do you require securities or advances? Very well, then; the house shall be furnished within a week and the lease signed in your own name to-morrow, with the payment of a whole year in advance; besides, if we come to terms, here are twenty-five to thirty louis to bind the bargain."
Drawing twenty-eight gold pieces from his pocket, he tossed them on the work-table beside the bed, saying: "I am not like you, Mamma Lacombe; I am not afraid of being robbed."
At the clinking of gold, the sick woman leaned out of her bed and cast a glance of covetousness at the glittering pieces.
In all the course of her miserable existence, she had never possessed a single gold piece, and the sight of the scattered louis before her eyes almost dazzled her. Grasping a few in her withered fingers, she held them up to the light, trying to catch the sun's rays that she might feast her hungry eyes on their sparkling beauty.
"I had to show the bait to catch the old witch," said the tempter to himself, with a contemptuous smile.
"At last, at last I have touched the glittering gold!" muttered the old woman, jingling the yellow pieces in her hand.
"Touching them is nothing; the agreeable part of it is to spend them, Mamma Lacombe."
"And this is enough to live in comfort for four or five months," she went on, piling up the coins with childish glee.
"You and Mariette will have as much for every month of the year, if you only say so," said the tempter. "Yes, all this gold; do you hear? in pure, glittering gold!"
There was a long interval of silence; then, raising her sunken eyes to the visitor, the invalid said wistfully: "You think Mariette pretty and charming, monsieur, do you not? You are right; there is not a better creature in the world. Now, be generous toward her! This sum is nothing for a rich man like you—give it to us as a gift."
"What!" gasped the astounded man.
"Monsieur, you are good and kind, pray be charitable also," pleaded the woman.
"This sum, so insignificant to you, would set us afloat once more. We could pay our debts, and Mariette would not be obliged to kill herself working. She would then find time to seek a more remunerative position, and we would owe you five or six months of tranquillity, of paradise—we live on so little! Come, my good sir, do that and we shall bless your name forever—and I can say that I was happy once in my life."
The request was so naive, the tone so sincere and earnest that the decorated visitor was more hurt than surprised at this proposition. He could neither understand nor believe that a human being could be stupid enough to seriously make such a request to a man of his stamp.
"This is anything but flattering," he muttered to himself; "the old witch must take me for a young duckling ready to be plucked."
"The devil! Mamma Lacombe," he added aloud, bursting into a sneering laugh, "do you take me for a philanthropist, the inspector of charitable institutions, or a candidate for the Montyon prize? Tut, tut, you will rot in your bed before you receive charitable gifts of six hundred francs, redeemable in blessings and grateful thanks, my good woman! Bless my stars, I am not a bank of that sort!"
The sick woman had yielded to one of those wild, sudden hopes, which sometimes sway the most distrustful beings, and even the most hardened victims of implacable destiny. But the withering scorn it had brought upon her aroused all her ire and bitterness of heart.
"Pardon me, Monsieur, if I have insulted you!" she rejoined, with her habitual sardonic laugh.
"I am not offended, Mamma Lacombe," he returned magnanimously; "but let us come to the point. Shall I, yes or no, re-pocket these beautiful louis, which you take so much pleasure in handling?"
He stretched his hand toward the gold pieces, but she thrust it away with an instinctive movement and drew the shining coins nearer to her.
"One moment," she said hoarsely, her eyes glittering with cupidity in their deep orbits, "I shall not eat your gold!"
"That is just what I am urging you to do, Mamma Lacombe; I want you to eat that gold, on condition—"
"I know Mariette," she interrupted, her wistful gaze still fixed on the gold, "she will never consent."
"I tell you she is an upright girl. She might, like many others, yield to a man she loved; but to you—never! She would refuse, I am sure. You may laugh, but she has ideas of her own."
"Granted, my good woman. I believe in Mariette's good principles, for Madame Jourdan has known her many years and she has full confidence in her."
"Well, I also know, Mamma Lacombe, that you possess great influence over her and that she fears you like the devil himself—so Madame Jourdan informed me. Now, you can induce, or, it need be, compel Mariette to accept happiness! For, after all, you are lodged like beggars and starving to death. Besides, if you refuse, do you know what will happen? The girl, with her fine sentiments of disinterestedness, will, sooner or later, become the victim of some unscrupulous rascal as poor as herself."
"That may be, but she will not have sold her soul."
"Tut, tut, tut, those are mere phrases. Some fine day, this lover of her choice will probably desert her; then, to save herself from starvation, she will end like the rest—mark my word."
"Yes, that may be," she repeated, with a dismal moan. "Hunger is a bad counselor, when we and our children have known its pangs. And how many of those poor, unhappy girls might be saved with this gold! And if Mariette were destined to end like them—would it not be better to yield now?"
For a few moments, the most varied emotions were depicted on the pale, emaciated features of the unhappy, crippled creature. With eyes still fixed hungrily on the glittering pieces, she strove to calm the struggle waged between misery and virtue in her heart; then, by a desperate effort, she closed her eyes as if to escape the fascination of the gold, and sank back wearily on her wretched pallet.
"Go, and leave me in peace!" she said feebly, as if exhausted by the violent conflict.
"What! you refuse?" he cried in amazement.
"Very well, I shall take back my gold," he rejoined, slowly picking up the louis and jingling them together. "I shall refill my pockets with the glittering yellow coins."
"The devil take you and your gold!" cried the exasperated woman. "Take it, and go! I have not sheltered Mariette all these years to sell her, body and soul. Rather than eat such bread, I would build a charcoal fire and make on end to us both."
At these words Mariette entered, pale and indignant, her cheeks bathed in tears and her eyes flashing with anger and scorn.
"Ah! god-mother," she cried, throwing her arms around the woman's neck, "I knew that you loved me as a daughter!" Then turning toward Commander de La Miraudiere, whom she recognized as the man whose persistent gaze had so frequently annoyed her at Madame Jourdan's establishment, she added with withering scorn: "Go, this moment, monsieur!"
"But, my dear little dove—" he began.
"I was there at the door, monsieur, and heard all," she interrupted quickly.
"So much the better then, my dear. You know my offer; you are still at liberty to accept it."
"Once more, monsieur, I beg you to go out."
"There, there, I am going my little Lucretia! But I give you a week for reflection," said the visitor, as he moved toward the door, Pausing on the threshold, however, he added:
"Don't forget my name, my dear—Commander de La Miraudiere. Madame Jourdan has my address," and he vanished with these words.
"Ah! godmother," cried the girl, kissing the sick woman with new effusion, "how warmly you defended me! how your heart spoke for me!"
"Yes, yes," muttered the invalid, roughly disengaging herself from the girl's embrace, "and with those fine principles we starve instead of rolling in luxury."
"But, my dear godmother—" Mariette tried to protest.
"There, there, it's all said and done now," cried the woman impatiently. "I have done my duty, and you have done yours—and it's small good it will do either of us, you may count on that!"
"But godmother, listen to me—"
"And if some fine morning we are both found dead with a charcoal fire between us, we shall only have done our duty once more. Ha! ha! ha!—" and with this grim laugh, this unhappy creature, so pursued and exasperated by wretchedness and misfortune, cut short the conversation by turning her face to the wall.
Mariette silently brought in the basket containing her purchases, arranged the supper on the table near the bed, and quietly withdrew to the narrow window through which filtered the deepening twilight. Then drawing the torn fragments of Louis' letter from her bosom, she gazed at them sadly, and sank back into grim despair.
* * * * * *
In the meantime, Commander de La Miraudiere had reached the street and was rolling away rapidly in his dashing cabriolet.
"Bah! this is only a first rebuff," he was saying complacently to himself; "the girl will reflect, and that old schemer will think better of it. Her round eyes fairly blinked at the sight of my gold; it dazzled her like the noonday sun. Besides, their abject misery will plead in my favor, and I have no reason to despair. Two months of fat living will suffice to make the girl the prettiest woman in Paris; and she will do me credit at very small cost. But I must think of business now; I have made a precious discovery."
Having reached the Rue Grenelle-Saint-Honore, he stopped his horse before a house of modest appearance and alighted.
"Does M. Richard reside here?" he inquired of the concierge.
"Yes, monsieur, both the father and son live here," replied the man.
"I want to speak to the son, M. Louis Richard; is he at home?"
"He has just arrived in Paris; you will find him with his father."
"I must see him alone."
"That's rather difficult, as they have but one room between them."
The commander drew a card from his pocket, and wrote the following words above his own name: "Will expect M. Louis Richard at my home, between nine and ten o'clock tomorrow morning, to communicate something of grave importance, which admits of no delay."
"My dear fellow," he said, addressing the concierge, when he had replaced his pencil, "here are forty sous for a pourboire."
"Thank you, monsieur," rejoined the man, pocketing the money; "but what do you expect me to do for it?"
"Remit this card to M. Louis Richard."
"Nothing difficult about that."
"It must be given him to-morrow morning as he goes out, and without his father's knowledge; do you understand?"
"Perfectly. It can be easily done, as M. Louis goes to his studies at seven o'clock, while old Richard leaves only at nine for his writing office."
"I may count on you then?" said the commander, leaping into the cabriolet.
"Consider it done, monsieur," was the reassuring reply.
The carriage had scarcely vanished when the postman appeared with a letter addressed to M. Louis Richard. It was Mariette's missive, which the old scribe had addressed Rue de Grenelle, Paris, instead of Dreux, according to the girl's request.
Old Richard and his son jointly occupied a dreary room on the fifth floor of a dilapidated house, which might have made a fit adjunct to the home of Mariette and her god-mother. The same wretchedness, the same destitution was visible everywhere. A thin mattress in one corner for the father, a straw bed in the other for the son, a mouldy table, a few chairs and an old wardrobe, composed the entire furniture of the dingy apartment.
On his way homeward, the public scribe had purchased his supper and was now laying the frugal meal on the table; an appetizing slice of ham, placed carefully on a piece of white paper that served as a plate, and a four-pound loaf of bread, the remains of which were to serve as breakfast the next morning. Add to this a bottle of fresh water, standing opposite a thin candle that scarcely dissipated the gloom of the room, and the picture of wretchedness was complete.
Louis Richard was a young man of about twenty-five years, with a frank, open countenance, expressive of gentleness and intelligence, and a natural grace which his shabby, worn-out clothes could not conceal. As he dropped his modest traveling bag to the floor and embraced his father, whom he fairly worshipped, the happiness of being near him once more and the certainty of seeing Mariette the next day, made his face perfectly radiant with joy.
"And so you made a good voyage, my son," observed the old man, his delight over the young man's return somewhat dampened by the uneasiness he felt concerning his cherished projects for the future and the remembrance of the events of the day.
"Excellent, father!" returned Louis.
"I am glad to hear it, my boy, and—but will you have some dinner? We can talk while eating."
"Will I have some dinner? Well, I should say so! I did not share the meals of the other travelers, and for the best of reasons," laughed the young man gaily, slapping his empty wallet.
"Upon my word, you lost but little, my son," rejoined the father, cutting the slice of ham into two unequal pieces and giving the largest to the young man, "those hotel dinners are expensive and not worth much!"
Having offered Louis a formidable piece of bread, the old man helped himself to a crust, and both father and son bravely attacked the meager meal, with robust appetites, sprinkling it plentifully with glorious draughts of clear water.
"Tell me all about your journey now, my boy," resumed the old man, when he had satisfied the first pangs of hunger.
"Really, father, there is not much to tell," remarked Louis. "The notary had given me copies of several deeds, which M. Ramon was to read. Well, he read and studied them most leisurely, taking five whole days! after which the said papers were given back to me, profusely annotated by that wary parsonage, and—thank heaven—here I am at last!"
"Thank heaven?—can it be that you were lonely at Dreux?" queried the old man, looking up anxiously.
"I was bored to death, my dear father."
"What kind of a man must this M. Ramon be, that you were so displeased?"
"The very worst kind in the world—a miser."
"Hum! hum!" coughed the old man, as if swallowing a disagreeable dose. "So he is a miser? He must be rich then?"
"I don't know, but one may be as avaricious with a small fortune as with a great one; and if we are to measure M. Ramon's wealth by his parsimony, he must be a triple millionaire—such a wretched old miser!" continued Louis, contemptuously, biting into his bread with a sort of frenzy.
"Had you been brought up in luxury and abundance, I might understand your recriminations against this old miser—as you call him," rejoined old Richard, testily, "but we have always lived in such poverty that, however miserly M. Ramon may be, you must have found but little difference between his manner of existence and our own."
"But you don't understand me, father. M. Ramon keeps two servants, and we have none; he occupies a whole house and we live in one attic room; he has three or four dishes for his dinner, while we eat anything we may chance to have. And yet, we live a hundred times better than this greedy personage!"
"I really don't understand you, my child," returned the father, more and more annoyed at his son's opinion of his late host. "There can certainly be no comparison between that gentleman's luxury and our poverty."
"My dear father, we are veritably poor, at least! We cheerfully endure our privations; and if in my days of ambition, I have sometimes dreamed of a more comfortable existence, it was not for myself, you may rest assured, for I am perfectly satisfied with my fate."
"I know your kind heart, my dear boy, as well as your love for me; and my only consolation in our poverty is to know that you do not complain of your condition."
"Complain! do you not share it with me? and then, after all, what more could we want?"
"We might want a little more comfort."
"Upon my word, I don't see it in that light, father. We don't eat stuffed chicken, it is true; but we eat all we want and with appetite—witness this empty paper and the disappearance of the four-pound loaf between us. Our clothes are shabby and worn, but they are warm; our room is up five nights of stairs, but it shelters us; we earn from sixteen to eighteen hundred francs per annum between us—the sum is not enormous, but it suffices; we have no debts! Ah! my dear father, may heaven never send us worse days, and I shall never complain."
"My dear boy, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to hear you speak thus, and to see you accept your fate so bravely. Tell me the truth—have you—have you always been happy?"
"Why should I try to deceive you? Now, my dear father, have you ever seen me gloomy or thoughtful? do I look like a discontented person?"
"You are endowed with such an excellent character!"
"Oh, that depends on circumstances! If, for instance, I were obliged to live with M. Ramon, that abominable griping miser, I should certainly become unbearable, unmanageable and frantic!"
"What can you have against that poor man?"
"All the ferocious resentment and rancour gathered during five days of torture!"
"What else can it be, to inhabit a large dilapidated house, so empty, so cold and gloomy, that a tomb would be a cheerful dwelling in comparison? And then, to see the two wan, emaciated servants coming and going like shadows in this sepulchre; to assist at those meals—and what meals, great heavens!—where the master of the house seems to count the bites you swallow! And such a daughter!—for the wretch has a daughter, alas! and, his race may perhaps be perpetuated. It is she who lays aside the servants' insufficient shares and puts the remains of the meager meal under lock and key! All I can say is that, notwithstanding my usual good appetite, five minutes at that table sufficed to disgust me. For one is either one thing or the other; if rich, avarice is contemptible; if poor, it is stupid to attempt any display."
"My dear Louis, I find you strangely hostile to this poor man and his daughter—you who are always so kind and benevolent!"
"His daughter! do you call that a daughter?"
"What in the devil do you mean! do you take her for a monster?"
"I don't take her for a woman."
"My dear boy, you must have taken leave of your senses!"
"But, my dear father, what would, you call a tall, dry creature, growling and snarling, with hands and feet like a man, a face like a nut-cracker, and a nose—great heavens, what a nose!—as long as this knife, and red as a brick! But to be just, I must admit that this incomparable creature has yellow hair and black teeth."
"The portrait is not flattering; but all women cannot be equally beautiful. A kind heart is often better than a pretty face; and as for me, ugliness has always inspired me with pity."
"I will say that I was much inclined to pity her when I saw her disagreeable face at first, especially as she was condemned to live with a man as greedy as her father; but when I saw that red-nosed creature eternally nagging and growling at those two unhappy servants, measure their food, and rival with her father in avarice, my first impulse of compassion was immediately turned to aversion for that wicked red-nose. Notwithstanding my good nature, I felt a strong temptation to contradict and annoy this red-nose; but, fearing to compromise my employer's interests, I kept my peace and swallowed my rancour."
"And you are relieving your mind with a vengeance.
"Ah! what a relief, after five long days of that red-nose!"
"You are painfully prejudiced, my son; I would wager that this lady, who appears so miserly and detestable in your eyes, is merely a woman of firm character and economical habits."
"Well, it matters little to me what she is! Only, I must say, there seems to exist singular contrasts in certain families."
"What do you mean?"
"Imagine my surprise in discovering in one of the rooms of this dull house, the portrait of a woman so beautiful, charming and distingue, that it seemed placed there expressly to continually mock and scoff at that wicked red nose. The portrait so closely resembled one of my old class-mates, that I could not refrain from questioning the old miser about it. He then gruffly informed me that the original was his sister, Madame de Saint-Herem, who died some years since. But you would have died laughing had you seen them when I asked if she had left a son."
"Well, what did they do?"
"At the name of young Saint-Herem you would have thought I had evoked the devil. Red-nose grew fiery and fairly glowed; while her worthy father admitted, with a withering glance at me, that he had the misfortune, in fact, to be the uncle of an infernal young bandit known as Saint-Herem."
"This young man must bear a very bad reputation."
"Florestan?—why, he is the noblest and most charming fellow in the world!"
"But his uncle tells you—"
"My dear father, Saint-Herem and myself were close friends at college, and you must judge of him by what I shall relate. I had lost sight of him for years, when, as I was passing along the boulevard six months ago, I saw everybody turn to look at something on the road, and I did likewise. I then perceived two magnificent horses harnessed to a phaeton, with two tiny domestics behind. This equipage was so elegant and rich that it attracted general attention—and who do you suppose was seated in that carriage? My old classmate Saint-Herem, more brilliant and handsome than ever!"
"It seems to me he must be a reckless spendthrift."
"Wait till I have finished my story, father. The equipage stopped abruptly, and while the two little pages alighted from their seats to hold the horses by the bridles, Saint-Herem leaped from the carriage, ran toward me, and fairly embraced me in his joy to find me again after so long a separation. I was dressed like a poor devil of a notary student, as I am; with my maroon redingote, my black trousers and laced shoes. You must admit that many lions of society would have shrunk from the public recognition of a fellow as shabbily dressed as your humble servant. Florestan was so delighted to see me, however, that he paid no heed to my clothes. As for me, I was very happy and almost ashamed of this proof of friendship; for we presented such a contrast that everybody stared at us. Noticing the attention we attracted, my friend asked me where I was going and proposed to take me to my office, saying it would give us more time to talk. 'What,' I protested, 'enter your beautiful carriage with my umbrella, my shabby coat and coarse shoes!' Florestan shrugged his shoulders, took me by the arm, and led me to the carriage in spite of my remonstrances; and when he left me at the office he made me promise to call on him at his apartments."
"Bah!" ejaculated the old man contemptuously; "it was merely the result of a first impulse. I always distrust people who make extravagant displays; and, besides, you are not in a position to mix with society lions."
"And yet I had to keep my word and breakfast with him one Sunday. He received me like a prince and welcomed me like a friend. Shortly afterward, however, he left Paris, and I have not seen him since."
"How strange that you never told me of this breakfast, Louis!"
"I feared that in your tender solicitude for me you might imagine that the sight of Florestan's luxury was capable of turning my head and disgust me with my poor condition. The suspicion I knew would grieve you, and I therefore resolved to conceal the fact that once in my life I had breakfasted in the style of a Sardanapalus or a Lucullus!"
"I understand the delicacy of your conduct, and am deeply touched by it, my boy," said the old man, with emotion; "it is another proof of your goodness and generosity of heart. But listen to me, my son, for it is to your kind heart and affection for me that I address myself."
"What is it?"
"It is something very grave and serious; not only for you, but for me also."
The old man's expression was so solemn as he uttered the last words, that the son looked up in surprise.
There was a knock at the door at that moment, and the concierge entered, saying, "Here is a letter for you, Monsieur Louis."
"Very well," said the young man, taking the letter absent-mindedly, his whole attention centered on the grave subject just announced by his father.
"If you should go out this evening, Monsieur Louis," added the man, as he moved away, "don't forget to stop at my lodge; I have something to say to you."
"Very well," replied Louis carelessly, as the man vanished.
Old Richard had recognized Mariette's letter at a first glance, and for a moment he was tempted to allow Louis to read it at once; but on further reflection he resolved to delay the blow.
"My dear boy," he remarked, "you will have plenty of time to read your letter later, and I want you to listen to me just now, for the subject is of the highest importance to us both."
"I am at your service, father," replied Louis, laying the letter on the table.
"As I have already said," observed old Richard, after a moment of silence, "I shall appeal to your kind heart and affection for me.
"You have but to speak, then, my father," rejoined the young man dutifully.
"You declared a few moments ago that if you sometimes dreamed of a more luxurious existence, it was not for yourself, being entirely satisfied with your humble condition, but for me."
"And I repeat it!"
"Well, my child, the realization of your wish depends on yourself only."
"What do you mean?"
"Listen to me. Reverses of fortune, which closely followed your mother's death, while you were still a child, robbed me of nearly all I possessed, leaving me barely enough to provide for your education. When this was all spent I was forced to open a bureau as public scribe—"
"True, my good, kind father," said the young man, with emotion; "and seeing with what courage and resignation you endured ill-fortune, my affection and veneration for you augmented to a degree that falls little short of worship."
"This ill-fortune may pursue us, my child; I am growing old, my sight is dimmed, and I foresee the sad day when it shall become impossible for me to earn our daily bread."
"My father, rely on—"
"On you? You will do your best, I know, but your own future is precarious. You shall never be more than first or second clerk, for it requires money to buy out a notary's office, and I am poor."
"Don't be alarmed, I shall always earn enough for both."
"You are counting without illness or the force of events. How many unexpected circumstances may reduce you to idleness for months! And then how should we live?"
"But, my dear father, if we poor people anticipated all the trouble we may be threatened with, we should certainly lose courage. Let us close our eyes to the future, and think of the present only. Thank God! there is nothing to frighten us in that."
"When the future is threatening, it is assuredly wiser to turn the eyes away; but when it may be happy and smiling, it is better to face it!"
"I don't deny that."
"Well, I repeat it, our future lies in your hands; it depends entirely on you to make it happy and assured."
"Then it is done. Only tell me how?"
"I shall astonish you greatly. That poor M. Ramon, with whom you have just spent a few days and whom you judge so harshly, is an old friend of mine."
"He, your friend?"
"Your visit to Dreux was arranged beforehand between us."
"But those deeds—"
"Your employer obligingly consented to aid us in our little ruse, by entrusting you with valueless papers."
"But what was your purpose?"
"Ramon wanted to observe and study your character without your knowledge, and he assures me he is quite enchanted with you. I received a long letter from him this morning, in which he speaks of you is the highest terms."
"I regret my inability to return the compliment; but why should it matter to me whether he thinks well or ill of me?"
"It matters very much, indeed, my boy; for the happy future of which I spoke depends entirely on Ramon's opinion of you."
"This is an enigma to me."
"Although not exactly rich, Ramon possesses a modest fortune, augmented each day by his economies."
"Humph! I believe that. But what you charitably term economy is sordid avarice, and nothing else."
"Call it what you will; we shall not bandy words about it. Owing to this avarice, however, Ramon will leave a snug fortune after him—I say after him, because he gives nothing away during his life-time."
"I am not surprised at that. But I really cannot understand what you are leading to, father!"
"I feel some hesitation in pursuing; for however false and unjust first impressions may be, they are exceedingly tenacious—and you judged Mademoiselle Ramon so severely—"
"Red-nose! Say rather that I was very indulgent!"
"You will overcome these prejudices, I am sure. Believe me, Mademoiselle Ramon is one of those persons who improve on better acquaintance. She is a woman of firm character and exemplary virtues. What more can be desired in the mother of a family?"
"The mother of a family!" gasped Louis, who until now had not suspected the danger that threatened him, but was beginning to conceive a vague fear. "The mother of a family!" he repeated in dismay, "and what matters it to me whether Mademoiselle Ramon is or is not fitted to become a good mother?"
"It matters more to you than to anyone else."
"And why, pray?"
"Because my most cherished, and only desire is, to see you marry Mademoiselle Ramon," declared the old man, resolutely.
"Marry—Mademoiselle Ramon!" cried Louis, aghast, shrinking back in his chair as if the red-nosed spinster had suddenly appeared before him. "I—marry?—"
"Yes, my child," rejoined old Richard, in his most affectionate tone, "marry Mademoiselle Ramon, and our future is assured. We shall live at Dreux; Ramon's house is sufficiently large for us all. He gives his daughter no dowry; but we shall live in his home, and his influence will obtain a position for you. At the death of your father-in-law, you will inherit a snug fortune—Louis, my beloved son," concluded the old man, beseechingly, grasping the young man's hands in his, "consent to this marriage and you will make me the happiest man in the world; for I can then die without anxiety for your future."
"Ah! my father, you don't realize what you ask!" rejoined Louis reproachfully.
"You may say that you feel no love for Mademoiselle Ramon, but mutual esteem is sufficient in marriage; and you must admit that she is deserving of that esteem. As to her father, I can understand that you may have been shocked at what you term his avarice; but this will seem less odious to you when you reflect that you shall one day enjoy the benefits of this economy. At heart, Ramon is an excellent man. His only ambition is to leave a small fortune to his daughter and her husband; and to attain this aim, he practices the strictest economy. Do you call that a crime? Come, my child, give me one word of hope!"
"Father," said the young man, in a constrained voice, "it grieves me to disappoint you in your projects, but what you ask is impossible."
"Louis, can you really answer thus, when I appeal to your affection for me?"
"To begin with, this marriage will bring you no personal advantage; you think of me only."
"What! do you call it no advantage to live in his house without spending a sou? I tell you it is all arranged; he is to board us gratuitously, instead of giving his daughter a dowry."
"Father, as long as there remains a drop of blood in my veins, you shall receive charity from no one! I have already begged you many times to give up your occupation, pledging myself to provide for both—"
"But, if you were taken ill, my child, I should be forced to seek admittance into the alms-house!"
"I shall not be ill, and you will want for nothing; but if I had the misfortune to be that detestable creature's husband, I should die of grief."
"Yon cannot be serious, my son."
"Perfectly serious, father. In your blind affection for me you sought to contract an advantageous union, and I am deeply grateful for your kind solicitude—but let us dismiss the subject; as I have already said, this marriage is impossible."
"I shall always feel an invincible aversion toward Mademoiselle Ramon, and besides, I love a young girl, and she alone shall be my wife."
"Ah! my son, I believed I enjoyed your full confidence, and yet you formed this grave resolution without consulting me!"
"I was silent on the subject because the young girl and myself agreed to wait a whole year before speaking of marriage, that we might be sure we had not mistaken a passing fancy for a real passion. Thank heaven! our love has resisted all trials. The time of probation expires this very day, and to-morrow we shall fix the wedding day. The young girl I love is as poor as ourselves, but she possesses the noblest heart in the world. Never will you find a more devoted daughter, and I shall double in zeal and energy to make life agreeable to you. Believe me, nothing is more painful to me than to disagree with you, and I beg you to spare me the pain of another refusal. Do not insist on this union, for I shall never resign myself to it, and I swear by my affection for you that I shall have no other wife than Mariette Moreau."