Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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Maxence had not spoken to Mlle. Lucienne for nearly a month. He tried to persuade himself that she despised him because he was poor. He kept watching for her, for he could not help it; but as much as possible he avoided her.
"I shall be miserable," he thought, "the day when she does not come home; and yet it would be the very best thing that could happen for me."
Nevertheless, he spent all his time trying to find some explanations for the conduct of this strange girl, who, beneath her woolen dress, had the haughty manners of a great lady. Then he delighted to imagine between her and himself some of those subjects of confidence, some of those facilities which chance never fails to supply to attentive passion, or some event which would enable him to emerge from his obscurity, and to acquire some rights by virtue of some great service rendered.
But never had he dared to hope for an occasion as propitious as the one he had just seized. And yet, after he had returned to his room, he hardly dared to congratulate himself upon the promptitude of his decision. He knew too well Mlle. Lucienne's excessive pride and sensitive nature.
"I should not be surprised if she were angry with me for what I've done," he thought.
The evening being quite chilly, he had lighted a few sticks; and, sitting by the fireside, he was waiting, his mind filled with vague hopes. It seemed to him that his neighbor could not absolve herself from coming to thank him; and he was listening intently to all the noises of the house, starting at the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and at the slamming of doors. Ten times, at least, he went out on tiptoe to lean out of the window on the landing, to make sure that there was no light in Mlle. Lucienne's room. At eleven o'clock she had not yet come home; and he was deliberating whether he would not start out in quest of information, when there was a knock at the door.
"Come in!" he cried, in a voice choked with emotion. Mlle. Lucienne came in. She was somewhat paler than usual, but calm and perfectly self-possessed. Having bowed without the slightest shade of embarrassment, she laid upon the mantel- piece the thirty five-franc-notes which Maxence had thrown down to the Fortins; and, in her most natural tone, "Here are your hundred and fifty francs, sir," she uttered. "I am more grateful than I can express for your prompt kindness in lending them to me; but I did not need them."
Maxence had risen from his seat, and was making every effort to control his own feelings.
"Still," he began, "after what I heard--"
"Yes," she interrupted, "Mme. Fortin and her husband were trying to frighten me. But they were losing their time. When, after the Commune, I settled with them the manner in which I would discharge my debt towards them, having a just estimate of their worth, I made them write out and sign our agreement. Being in the right, I could resist them, and was resisting them when you threw them those hundred and fifty francs. Having laid hands upon them, they had the pretension to keep them. That's what I could not suffer. Not being able to recover them by main force, I went at once to the commissary of police. He was luckily at his office. He is an honest man, who already, once before, helped me out of a scrape. He listened to me kindly, and was moved by my explanations. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, he put on his overcoat, and came with me to see our landlord. After compelling them to return me your money, he signified to them to observe strictly our agreement, under penalty of incurring his utmost severity."
Maxence was wonderstruck.
"How could you dare?" he said.
"Wasn't I in the right?"
"Oh, a thousand times yes! Still--"
"What? Should my right be less respected because I am but a woman? And, because I have no one to protect me, am I outside the law, and condemned in advance to suffer the iniquitous fancies of every scoundrel? No, thank Heaven! Henceforth I shall feel easy. People like the Fortins, who live off I know not what shameful traffic, have too much to fear from the police to dare to molest me further."
The resentment of the insult could be read in her great black eyes; and a bitter disgust contracted her lips.
"Besides," she added, "the commissary had no need of my explanations to understand what abject inspirations the Fortins were following. The wretches had in their pocket the wages of their infamy. In refusing me my key, in throwing me out in the street at ten o'clock at night, they hoped to drive me to seek the assistance of the base coward who paid their odious treason. And we know the price which men demand for the slightest service they render to a woman."
Maxence turned pale. The idea flashed upon his mind that it was to him, perhaps, that these last words were addressed.
"Ah, I swear it!" he exclaimed, "it is without after-thought that I tried to help you. You do not owe me any thanks even."
"I do not thank you any the less, though," she said gently, "and from the bottom of my heart."
"It was so little!"
"Intention alone makes the value of a service, neighbor. And, besides, do not say that a hundred and fifty francs are nothing to you: perhaps you do not earn much more each month."
"I confess it," he said, blushing a little.
"You see, then? No, it was not to you that my words were addressed, but to the man who has paid the Fortins. He was waiting on the Boulevard, the result of the manoeuvre, which, they thought, was about to place me at his mercy. He ran quickly to me when I went out, and followed me all the way to the office of the commissary of police, as he follows me everywhere for the past month, with his sickening gallantries and his degrading propositions."
The eye flashing with anger, "Ah, if I had known!" exclaimed Maxence. "If you had told me but a word!" She smiled at his vehemence.
"What would you have done?" she said. "You cannot impart intelligence to a fool, heart to a coward, or delicacy of feeling to a boor."
"I could have chastised the miserable insulter." She had a superb gesture of indifference.
"Bash!" she interrupted. "What are insults to me? I am so accustomed to them, that they no longer have any effect upon me. I am eighteen: I have neither family, relatives, friends, nor any one in the world who even knows my existence; and I live by my labor. Can't you see what must be the humiliations of each day? Since I was eight years old, I have been earning the bread I eat, the dress I wear, and the rent of the den where I sleep. Can you understand what I have endured, to what ignominies I have been exposed, what traps have been set for me, and how it has happened to me sometimes to owe my safety to mere physical force? And yet I do not complain, since through it all I have been able to retain the respect of myself, and to remain virtuous in spite of all."
She was laughing a laugh that had something wild in it.
And, as Maxence was looking at her with immense surprise, "That seems strange to you, doesn't it?" she resumed. "A girl of eighteen, without a sou, free as air, very pretty, and yet virtuous in the midst of Paris. Probably you don't believe it, or, if you do, you just think, 'What on earth does she make by it?'
"And really you are right; for, after all, who cares, and who thinks any the more of me, if I work sixteen hours a day to remain virtuous? But it's a fancy of my own; and don't imagine for a moment that I am deterred by any scruples, or by timidity, or ignorance. No, no! I believe in nothing. I fear nothing; and I know as much as the oldest libertines, the most vicious, and the most depraved. And I don't say that I have not been tempted sometimes, when, coming home from work, I'd see some of them coming out of the restaurants, splendidly dressed, on their lover's arm, and getting into carriages to go to the theatre. There were moments when I was cold and hungry, and when, not knowing where to sleep, I wandered all night through the streets like a lost dog. There were hours when I felt sick of all this misery, and when I said to myself, that, since it was my fate to end in the hospital, I might as well make the trip gayly. But what! I should have had to traffic my person, to sell myself!"
She shuddered, and in a hoarse voice, "I would rather die," she said.
It was difficult to reconcile words such as these with certain circumstances of Mlle. Lucienne's existence,--her rides around the lake, for instance, in that carriage that came for her two or three times a week; her ever renewed costumes, each time more eccentric and more showy. But Maxence was not thinking of that. What she told him he accepted as absolutely true and indisputable. And he felt penetrated with an almost religious admiration for this young and beautiful girl, possessed of so much vivid energy, who alone, through the hazards, the perils, and the temptations of Paris, had succeeded in protecting and defending herself.
"And yet," he said, "without suspecting it, you had a friend near you."
She shuddered; and a pale smile flitted upon her lips. She knew well enough what friendship means between a youth of twenty-five and a girl of eighteen.
"A friend!" she murmured.
Maxence guessed her thought; and, in all the sincerity of his soul, "Yes, a friend," he repeated, "a comrade, a brother." And thinking to touch her, and gain her confidence, "I could understand you," he added; "for I, too, have been very unhappy."
But he was singularly mistaken. She looked at him with an astonished air, and slowly, "You unhappy!" she uttered,--"you who have a family, relations, a mother who adores you, a sister." Less excited, Maxence might have wondered how she had found this out, and would have concluded that she must feel some interest in him, since she had doubtless taken the trouble of getting information.
"Besides, you are a man," she went on; "and I do not understand how a man can complain. Have you not the freedom, the strength, and the right to undertake and to dare any thing? Isn't the world open to your activity and to your ambition? Woman submits to her fate: man makes his."
This was hurting the dearest pretensions of Maxence, who seriously thought that he had exhausted the rigors of adversity.
"There are circumstances," he began.
But she shrugged her shoulders gently, and, interrupting him, "Do not insist," she said, "or else I might think that you lack energy. What are you talking of circumstances? There are none so adverse but that can be overcome. What would you like, then? To be born with a hundred thousand francs a year, and have nothing to do but to live according to your whim of each day, idle, satiated, a burden upon yourself, useless, or offensive to others? Ah! If I were a man, I would dream of another fate. I should like to start from the Foundling Asylum, without a name, and by my will, my intelligence, my daring, and my labor, make something and somebody of myself. I would start from nothing, and become every thing!"
With flashing eyes and quivering nostrils, she drew herself up proudly. But almost at once, dropping her head,
"The misfortune is," she added, "that I am but a woman; and you who complain, if you only knew--"
She sat down, and with her elbow on the little table, her head resting upon her hand, she remained lost in her meditations, her eyes fixed, as if following through space all the phases of the eighteen years of her life.
There is no energy but unbends at some given moment, no will but has its hour of weakness; and, strong and energetic as was Mlle. Lucienne, she had been deeply touched by Maxence's act. Had she, then, found at last upon her path the companion of whom she had often dreamed in the despairing hours of solitude and wretchedness? After a few moments, she raised her head, and, looking into Maxence's eyes with a gaze that made him quiver like the shock of an electric battery, "Doubtless," she said, in a tone of indifference somewhat forced, "you think you have in me a strange neighbor. Well, as between neighbors; it is well to know each other. Before you judge me, listen."
The recommendation was useless. Maxence was listening with all the powers of his attention.
"I was brought up," she began, "in a village of the neighborhood of Paris,--in Louveciennes. My mother had put me out to nurse with some honest gardeners, poor, and burdened with a large family. After two months, hearing nothing of my mother, they wrote to her: she made no answer. They then went to Paris, and called at the address she had given them. She had just moved out; and no one knew what had become of her. They could no longer, therefore, expect a single sou for the cares they would bestow upon me. They kept me, nevertheless, thinking that one child the more would not make much difference. I know nothing of my parents, therefore, except what I heard through these kind gardeners; and, as I was still quite young when I had the misfortune to lose them, I have but a very vague remembrance of what they told me. I remember very well, however, that according to their statements, my mother was a young working-woman of rare beauty, and that, very likely, she was not my father's wife. If I was ever told the name of my mother or my father, if I ever knew it, I have quite forgotten it. I had myself no name. My adopted parents called me the Parisian. I was happy, nevertheless, with these kind people, and treated exactly like their own children. In winter, they sent me to school; in summer, I helped weeding the garden. I drove a sheep or two along the road, or else I went to gather violets and strawberries through the woods.
"This was the happiest, indeed, the only happy time of my life, towards which my thoughts may turn when I feel despair and discouragement getting the better of me. Alas! I was but eight, when, within the same week, the gardener and his wife were both carried off by the same disease,--inflammation of the lungs.
"On a freezing December morning, in that house upon which the hand of death had just fallen, we found ourselves, six children, the oldest of whom was not eleven, crying with grief, fright, cold, and hunger.
"Neither the gardener nor his wife had any relatives; and they left nothing but a few wretched pieces of furniture, the sale of which barely sufficed to pay the expenses of their funeral. The two younger children were taken to an asylum: the others were taken charge of by the neighbors.
"It was a laundress of Marly who took me. I was quite tall and strong for my age. She made an apprentice of me. She was not unkind by nature; but she was violent and brutal in the extreme. She compelled me to do an excessive amount of work, and often of a kind above my strength.
"Fifty times a day, I had to go from the river to the house, carrying on my shoulders enormous bundles of wet napkins or sheets, wring them, spread them out, and then run to Rueil to get the soiled clothes from the customers. I did not complain (I was already too proud to complain); but, if I was ordered to do something that seemed to me too unjust, I refused obstinately to obey, and then I was unmercifully beaten. In spite of all, I might, perhaps, have become attached to the woman, had she not had the disgusting habit of drinking. Every week regularly, on the day when she took the clothes to Paris (it was on Wednesdays), she came home drunk. And then, according as, with the fumes of the wine, anger or gayety rose to her brain, there were atrocious scenes or obscene jests.
"When she was in that condition, she inspired me with horror. And one Wednesday, as I showed my feelings too plainly, she struck me so hard, that she broke my arm. I had been with her for twenty months. The injury she had done me sobered her at once. She became frightened, overpowered me with caresses, begging me to say nothing to any one. I promised, and kept faithfully my word.
"But a physician had to be called in. There had been witnesses who spoke. The story spread along the river, as far as Bougival and Rueil. And one morning an officer of gendarmes called at the house; and I don't exactly know what would have happened, if I had not obstinately maintained that I had broken my arm in falling down stairs."
What surprised Maxence most was Mlle. Lucienne's simple and natural tone. No emphasis, scarcely an appearance of emotion. One might have thought it was somebody's else life that she was narrating. Meantime she was going on, "Thanks to my obstinate denials the woman was not disturbed. But the truth was known; and her reputation, which was not good before, became altogether bad. I became an object of interest. The very same people who had seen me twenty times staggering painfully under a load of wet clothes, which was terrible, began to pity me prodigiously because I had had an arm broken, which was nothing.
"At last a number of our customers arranged to take me out of a house, in which, they said, I must end by perishing under bad treatment.
"And, after many fruitless efforts, they discovered, at last, at La Jonchere, an old Jewess lady, very rich, and a widow without children, who consented to take charge of me.
"I hesitated at first to accept these offers; but noticing that the laundress, since she had hurt me, had conceived a still greater aversion for me, I made up my mind to leave her.
"It was on the day when I was introduced to my new mistress that I first discovered I had no name. After examining me at length, turning me around and around, making me walk, and sit down, 'Now,' she inquired, 'what is your name?'
"I stared at her in surprise; for indeed I was then like a savage, not having the slightest notions of the things of life.
"'My name is the Parisian,' I replied.
"She burst out laughing, as also another old lady, a friend of hers, who assisted at my presentation; and I remember that my little pride was quite offended at their hilarity. I thought they were laughing at me.
"'That's not a name,' they said at last. 'That's a nickname.' "'I have no other.'
"They seemed dumfounded, repeating over and over that such a thing was unheard of; and on the spot they began to look for a name for me.
"'Where were you born?' inquired my new mistress. "'At Louveciennes.'
"'Very well,' said the other: 'let us call her Louvecienne.'
"A long discussion followed, which irritated me so much that I felt like running away; and it was agreed at last, that I should be called, not Louvecienne, but Lucienne; and Lucienne I have remained.
"There was nothing said about baptism, since my new mistress was a Jewess. "She was an excellent woman, although the grief she had felt at the loss of her husband had somewhat deranged her faculties.
"As soon as it was decided that I was to remain, she desired to inspect my trousseau. I had none to show her, possessing nothing in the world but the rags on my back. As long as I had remained with the laundress, I had finished wearing out her old dresses; and I had never worn any other under-clothing save that which I borrowed, 'by authority,' from the clients,--an economical system adopted by many laundresses.
"Dismayed at my state of destitution, my new mistress sent for a seamstress, and at once ordered wherewith to dress and change me.
"Since the death of the poor gardeners, this was the first time that any one paid any attention to me, except to exact some service of me. I was moved to tears; and, in the excess of my gratitude, I would gladly have died for that kind old lady.
"This feeling gave me the courage and the constancy required to bear with her whimsical nature. She had singular manias, disconcerting fancies, ridiculous and often exorbitant exactions. I lent myself to it all as best I could.
"As she already had two servants, a cook and a chambermaid, I had myself no special duties in the house. I accompanied her when she went out riding. I helped to wait on her at table, and to dress her. I picked up her handkerchief when she dropped it; and, above all, I looked for her snuff-box, which she was continually mislaying.
"She was pleased with my docility, took much interest in me, and, that I might read to her, she made me learn to read, for I hardly knew my letters. And the old man whom she gave me for a teacher, finding me intelligent, taught me all he knew, I imagine, of French, of geography, and of history.
"The chambermaid, on the other hand, had been commissioned to teach me to sew, to embroider, and to execute all sorts of fancy-work; and she took the more interest in her lessons, that little by little she shifted upon me the most tedious part of her work.
"I would have been happy in that pretty house at La Jonchere, if I had only had some society better suited to my age than the old women with whom I was compelled to live, and who scolded me for a loud word or a somewhat abrupt gesture. What would I not have given to have been allowed to play with the young girls whom I saw on Sundays passing in crowds along the road!
"As time went on, my old mistress became more and more attached to me, and endeavored in every way to give me proofs of her affection. I sat at table with her, instead of waiting on her, as at first. She had given me clothes, so that she could take me and introduce me anywhere.
"She went about repeating everywhere that she was as fond of me as of a daughter; that she intended to set me up in life; and that certainly she would leave a part of her fortune to me.
"Alas! She said it too loud, for my misfortune,--so loud, that the news reached at last the ears of some nephews of hers in Paris, who came once in a while to La Jonchere.
"They had never paid much attention to me up to this time. Those speeches opened their eyes: they noticed what progress I had made in the heart of their relative; and their cupidity became alarmed.
"Trembling lest they should lose an inheritance which they considered as theirs, they united against me, determined to put a stop to their aunt's generous intentions by having me sent off.
"But it was in vain, that, for nearly a year, their hatred exhausted itself in skillful manoeuvres.
"The instinct of preservation stimulating my perspicacity I had penetrated their intentions, and I was struggling with all my might. Every day, to make myself more indispensable, I invented some novel attention.
"They only came once a week to La Jonchere: I was there all the time. I had the advantage. I struggled successfully, and was probably approaching the end of my troubles, when my poor old mistress was taken sick. After forty-eight hours, she was very low. She was fully conscious, but for that very reason she could appreciate the danger; and the fear of death made her crazy.
"Her nieces had come to sit by her bedside; and I was expressly forbidden to enter the room. They had understood that this was an excellent opportunity to get rid of me forever.
"Evidently gained in advance, the physicians declared to my poor benefactress that the air of La Jonchere was fatal to her, and that her only chance of recovery was to establish herself in Paris. One of her nephews offered to have her taken to his house in a litter. She would soon get well, they said; and she could then go to finish her convalescence in some southern city.
"Her first word was for me. She did not wish to be separated from me, she protested, and insisted absolutely upon taking me with her. Her nephews represented gravely to her that this was an impossibility; that she must not think of burdening herself with me; that the simplest thing was to leave me at La Jonchere; and that, moreover, they would see that I should get a good situation.
"The sick woman struggled for a long time, and with an energy of which I would not have thought her capable.
"But the others were pressing. The physicians kept repeating that they could not answer for any thing, if she did not follow their advice. She was afraid of death. She yielded, weeping.
"The very next morning, a sort of litter, carried by eight men, stopped in front of the door. My poor mistress was laid into it; and they carried her off, without even permitting me to kiss her for the last time.
"Two hours later, the cook and the chambermaid were dismissed. As to myself, the nephew who had promised to look after me put a twenty-franc-piece in my hand saying, 'Here are your eight days in advance. Pack up your things immediately, and clear out!'"
It was impossible that Mlle. Lucienne should not be deeply moved whilst thus stirring the ashes of her past. She showed no evidence of it, however, except, now and then, a slight alteration in her voice.
As to Maxence, he would vainly have tried to conceal the passionate interest with which he was listening to these unexpected confidences.
"Have you, then, never seen your benefactress again?" he asked.
"Never," replied Mlle. Lucienne. "All my efforts to reach her have proved fruitless. She does not live in Paris now. I have written to her: my letters have remained without answer. Did she ever get them? I think not. Something tells me that she has not forgotten me."
She remained silent for a few moments, as if collecting herself before resuming the thread of her narrative. And then, "It was thus brutally," she resumed, "that I was sent off. It would have been useless to beg, I knew; and, moreover, I have never known how to beg. I piled up hurriedly in two trunks and in some bandboxes all I had in the world,--all I had received from the generosity of my poor mistress; and, before the stated hour, I was ready. The cook and the chambermaid had already gone. The man who was treating me so cruelly was waiting for me. He helped me carry out my boxes and trunks, after which he locked the door, put the key in his pocket; and, as the American omnibus was passing, he beckoned to it to stop. And then, before entering it, "'Good luck, my pretty girl!' he said with a laugh.
"This was in the month of January, 1866. I was just thirteen. I have had since more terrible trials, and I have found myself in much more desperate situations: but I do not remember ever feeling such intense discouragement as I did that day, when I found myself alone upon that road, not knowing which way to go. I sat down on one of my trunks. The weather was cold and gloomy: there were few persons on the road. They looked at me, doubtless wondering what I was doing there. I wept. I had a vague feeling that the well-meant kindness of my poor benefactress, in bestowing upon me the blessings of education, would in reality prove a serious impediment in the life-struggle which I was about to begin again. I thought of what I suffered with the laundress; and, at the idea of the tortures which the future still held in store for me, I desired death. The Seine was near: why not put an end at once to the miserable existence which I foresaw?
"Such were my reflections, when a woman from Rueil, a vegetable-vender, whom I knew by sight, happened to pass, pushing her hand-cart before her over the muddy pavement. She stopped when she saw me; and, in the softest voice she could command, "'What are you doing there, my darling?' she asked.
"In a few words I explained to her my situation. She seemed more surprised than moved.
"'Such is life,' she remarked,--'sometimes up, sometimes down.' "And, stepping up nearer, "'What do you expect to do now?' she interrogated in a tone of voice so different from that in which she had spoken at first, that I felt more keenly the horror of my altered situation.
"'I have no idea,' I replied. "After thinking for a moment,
"'You can't stay there,' she resumed: 'the gendarmes would arrest you. Come with me. We will talk things over at the house; and I'll give you my advice.'
"I was so completely crushed, that I had neither strength nor will. Besides, what was the use of thinking? Had I any choice of resolutions? Finally, the woman's offer seemed to me a last favor of destiny.
"'I shall do as you say, madame,' I replied.
"She proceeded at once to load up my little baggage on her cart. We started; and soon we arrived 'home.'
"What she called thus was a sort of cellar, at least twelve inches lower than the street, receiving its only light through the glass door, in which several broken panes had been replaced by sheets of paper. It was revoltingly filthy, and filled with a sickening odor. On all sides were heaps of vegetables,--cabbages, potatoes, onions. In one corner a nameless heap of decaying rags, which she called her bed; in the centre, a small cast-iron stove, the worn-out pipe of which allowed the smoke to escape in the room.
"'Anyway,' she said to me, 'you have a home now!'
"I helped her to unload the cart. She filled the stove with coal, and at once declared that she wanted to inspect my things.
"My trunks were opened; and it was with exclamations of surprise that the woman handled my dresses, my skirts, my stockings.
"'The mischief!' she exclaimed, 'you dressed well, didn't you?'
"Her eyes sparkled so, that a strong feeling of mistrust arose in my mind. She seemed to consider all my property as an unexpected godsend to herself. Her hands trembled as she handled some piece of jewelry; and she took me to the light that she might better estimate the value of my ear-rings.
"And so, when she asked me if I had any money, determined to hide at least my twenty-franc-piece, which was my sole fortune, I replied boldly, 'No.'
"'That's a pity,' she grumbled.
"But she wished to know my history, and I was compelled to tell it to her. One thing only surprised her,--my age; and in fact, though only thirteen, I looked fully sixteen.
"When I had done, "'Never mind!' she said. 'It was lucky for you that you met me. You are at least certain now of eating every day; for I am going to take charge of you. I am getting old: you'll help me to drag my cart. If you are as smart as you are pretty, we'll make money.'
"Nothing could suit me less. But how could I resist? She threw a few rags upon the floor; and on them I had to sleep. The next day, wearing my meanest dress, and a pair of wooden shoes which she had bought for me, and which bruised my feet horribly, I had to harness myself to the cart by means of a leather strap, which cut my shoulders and my chest. She was an abominable creature, that woman; and I soon found out that her repulsive features indicated but too well her ignoble instincts. After leading a life of vice and shame, she had, with the approach of old age, fallen into the most abject poverty, and had adopted the trade of vegetable-vender, which she carried on just enough to escape absolute starvation. Enraged at her fate, she found a detestable pleasure in ill-treating me, or in endeavoring to stain my imagination by the foulest speeches.
"Ah, if I had only known where to fly, and where to take refuge! But, abusing my ignorance, that execrable woman had persuaded me, that, if I attempted to go out alone, I would be arrested. And I knew no one to whom I could apply for protection and advice. And then I began to learn that beauty, to a poor girl, is a fatal gift. One by one, the woman had sold every thing I had,--dresses, underclothes, jewels; and I was now reduced to rags almost as mean as when I was with the laundress.
"Every morning, rain or shine, hot or cold, we started, wheeling our cart from village to village, all along the Seine, from Courbevoie to Pont-Marly. I could see no end to this wretched existence, when one evening the commissary of police presented himself at our hovel, and ordered us to follow him.
"We were taken to prison; and there I found myself thrown among some hundred women, whose faces, words, and gestures frightened me. The vegetable-woman had committed a theft; and I was accused of complicity. Fortunately I was easily able to demonstrate my innocence; and, at the end of two weeks, a jailer opened the door to me, saying, 'Go: you are free!'"
Maxence understood now the gently ironical smile with which Mlle. Lucienne had heard him assert that he, too, had been very unhappy. What a life hers had been! And how could such things be within a step of Paris, in the midst of a society which deems its organization too perfect to consent to modify it!
Mlle. Lucienne went on, speaking somewhat faster, "I was indeed free; but of what use could my freedom be to me? I knew not which way to go. A mechanical instinct took me back to Rueil. I fancied I would be safer among people who all knew me, and that I might find shelter in our old lodgings. But this last hope was disappointed. Immediately after our arrest, the owner of the building had thrown out every thing it contained, and had rented it to a hideous beggar, who offered me, with a giggle, to become his housekeeper. I ran off as fast as I could.
"The situation was certainly more horrible now than the day when I had been turned out of my benefactress' house. But the eight months I had just spent with the horrible woman had taught me anew how to bear misery, and had nerved up my energy.
"I took out from a fold of my dress, where I had kept it constantly hid, the twenty- franc-piece I had received; and, as I was hungry, I entered a sort of eating and lodging house, where I had occasionally taken a meal. The proprietor was a kind– hearted man. When I had told him my situation, he invited me to remain with him until I could find something better. On Sundays and Mondays the customers were plenty; and he was obliged to take an extra servant. He offered me that work to do, promising, in exchange, my lodging and one meal a day. I accepted. The next day being Sunday, I commenced the arduous duties of a bar-maid in a low drinking house. My _pourboires_ amounted sometimes to five or ten francs; I had my board and lodging free; and at the end of three months I had been able to provide myself with some decent clothing, and was commencing to accumulate a little reserve, when the lodging-house keeper, whose business had unexpectedly developed itself to a considerable extent, concluded to engage a man-waiter, and urged me to look elsewhere for work. I did so. An old neighbor of ours told me of a situation at Bougival, where she said I would be very comfortable. Overcoming my repugnance, I applied, and was accepted. I was to get thirty francs a month.
"The place might have been a good one. There were only three in the family,--the gentleman and his wife, and a son of twenty-five. Every morning, father and son left for Paris by the first train, and only came home to dinner at about six o'clock. I was therefore alone all day with the woman. Unfortunately, she was a cross and disagreeable person, who, never having had a servant before, felt an insatiable desire of showing and exercising her authority. She was, moreover, extremely suspicious, and found some pretext to visit regularly my trunks once or twice a week, to see if I had not concealed some of her napkins or silver spoons. Having told her that I had once been a laundress, she made me wash and iron all the clothes in the house, and was forever accusing me of using too much soap and too much coal. Still I liked the place well enough; and I had a little room in the attic; which I thought charming, and where I spent delightful evenings reading or sewing.
"But luck was against me. The young gentleman of the house took a fancy to me, and determined to make me his mistress. I discouraged him in a way; but he persisted in his loathsome attention, until one night he broke into my room, and I was compelled to shout for help with all my might, before I could get rid of him.
"The next day I left that house; but I tried in vain to find another situation in Bougival. I resolved then to seek a place in Paris. I had a big trunk full of good clothes, and about a hundred francs of savings; and I felt no anxiety.
"When I arrived in Paris, I went straight to an intelligence-office. I was extremely well received by a very affable old woman who promised to get me a good place, and, in the mean time, solicited me to board with her. She kept a sort of boarding-house for servants out of place; and there were there some fifty or sixty of us, who slept at night in long dormitories.
"Time went by, and still I did not find that famous place. The board was expensive, too, for my scanty means; and I determined to leave. I started in quest of new lodgings, followed by a porter, carrying my trunk; but as I was crossing the Boulevard, not getting quick enough out of the way of a handsome private carriage which was coming at full trot, I was knocked down, and trampled under the horses's feet."
Without allowing Maxence to interrupt her, "I had lost consciousness," went on Mlle. Lucienne. "When I came to my senses, I was sitting in a drugstore; and three or four persons were busy around me. I had no fracture, but only some severe contusions, and a deep cut on the head.
"The physician who had attended me requested me to try and walk; but I could not even stand on my feet. Then he asked me where I lived, that I might be taken there; and I was compelled to own that I was a poor servant out of place, without a home or a friend to care for me.
"'In that case,' said the doctor to the druggist, 'we must send her to the hospital.' "And they sent for a cab.
"In the mean time, quite a crowd had gathered outside, and the conduct of the person who was in the carriage that had run over me was being indignantly criticised. It was a woman; and I had caught a glimpse of her at the very moment I was falling under the horses' feet. She had not even condescended to get out of her carriage; but, calling a policeman, she had given him her name and address, adding, loud enough to be heard by the crowd, 'I am in too great a hurry to stop. My coachman is an awkward fellow, whom I shall dismiss as soon as I get home. I am ready to pay any thing that may be asked.'
"She had also sent one of her cards for me. A policeman handed it to me; and I read the name, Baronne de Thaller.
"'That's lucky for you,' said the doctor. 'That lady is the wife of a very rich banker; and she will be able to help you when you get well.'
"The cab had now come. I was carried into it; and, an hour later, I was admitted at the hospital, and laid on a clean, comfortable bed.
"But my trunk!--my trunk, which contained all my things, all I had in the world, and, worse still, all the money I had left. I asked for it, my heart filled with anxiety. No one had either seen or heard of it. Had the porter missed me in the crowd? or had he basely availed himself of the accident to rob me? This was hard to decide.
"The good sisters promised that they would have it looked after, and that the police would certainly be able to find that man whom I had engaged near the intelligence-office. But all these assurances failed to console me. This blow was the finishing one. I was taken with fever; and for more than two weeks my life was despaired of. I was saved at last: but my convalescence was long and tedious; and for over two months I lingered with alternations of better and of worse.
"Yet such had been my misery for the past two years, that this gloomy stay in a hospital was for me like an oasis in the desert. The good sisters were very kind to me; and, when I was able, I helped them with their lighter work, or went to the chapel with them. I shuddered at the thought that I must leave them as soon as I was entirely well; and then what would become of me? For my trunk had not been found, and I was destitute of all.
"And yet I had, at the hospital, more than one subject for gloomy reflections. Twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, visitors were admitted; and there was not on those days a single patient who did not receive a relative or a friend. But I, no one, nothing, never!
"But I am mistaken. I was commencing to get well, when one Sunday I saw by my bedside an old man, dressed all in black, of alarming appearance, wearing blue spectacles, and holding under his arm an enormous portfolio, crammed full of papers.
"'You are Mlle. Lucienne, I believe,' he asked. "'Yes,' I replied, quite surprised.
"'You are the person who was knocked down by a carriage on the corner of the Boulevard and the Faubourg St. Martin?' "'Yes sir.'
"'Do you know whose equipage that was?' "'The Baronne de Thaller's, I was told.'
"He seemed a little surprised, but at once,
"'Have you seen that lady, or caused her to be seen in your behalf?' "'No.'
"'Have you heard from her in any manner?'
"A smile came back upon his lips.
"'Luckily for you I am here,' he said. 'Several times already I have called; but you were too unwell to hear me. Now that you are better, listen.'
"And thereupon, taking a chair, he commenced to explain his profession to me. "He was a sort of broker; and accidents were his specialty. As soon as one took place, he was notified by some friends of his at police headquarters. At once he started in quest of the victim, overtook her at home or at the hospital, and offered his services. For a moderate commission he undertook, if needs be, to recover damages. He commenced suit when necessary; and, if he thought the case tolerably safe, he made advances. He stated, for instance, that my case was a plain one, and that he would undertake to obtain four or five thousand francs, at least, from Mme. de Thaller. All he wanted was my power of attorney. But, in spite of his pressing instances, I declined his offers; and he withdrew, very much displeased, assuring me that I would soon repent.
"Upon second thought, indeed, I regretted to have followed the first inspiration of my pride, and the more so, that the good sisters whom I consulted on the subject told me that I was wrong, and that my reclamation would be perfectly proper. At their suggestion, I then adopted another line of conduct, which, they thought, would as surely bring about the same result.
"As briefly as possible, I wrote out the history of my life from the day I had been left with the gardeners at Louveciennes. I added to it a faithful account of my present situation; and I addressed the whole to Mme. de Thaller.
"'You'll see if she don't come before a day or two,' said the sisters.
"They were mistaken. Mme. de Thaller came neither the next nor the following days; and I was still awaiting her answer, when, one morning, the doctor announced that I was well enough to leave the hospital.
"I cannot say that I was very sorry. I had lately made the acquaintance of a young workwoman, who had been sent to the hospital in consequence of a fall, and who occupied the bed next to mine. She was a girl of about twenty, very gentle, very obliging, and whose amiable countenance had attracted me from the first.
"Like myself, she had no parents. But she was rich, very rich. She owned the furniture of the room, a sewing-machine, which had cost her three hundred francs, and, like a true child of Paris, she understood five or six trades, the least lucrative of which yielded her twenty-five or thirty cents a day. In less than a week, we had become good friends; and, when she left the hospital, "'Believe me,' she said: 'when you come out yourself, don't waste your time looking for a place. Come to me: I can accommodate you. I'll teach you what I know; and, if you are industrious, you'll make your living, and you'll be free.'
"It was to her room that I went straight from the hospital, carrying, tied in a handkerchief, my entire baggage,--one dress, and a few undergarments that the good sisters had given me.
"She received me like a sister, and after showing me her lodging, two little attic- rooms shining with cleanliness,
"'You'll see,' she said, kissing me, 'how happy we'll be here.'"
It was getting late. M. Fortin had long ago come up and put out the gas on the stairs. One by one, every noise had died away in the hotel. Nothing now disturbed the silence of the night save the distant sound of some belated cab on the Boulevard. But neither Maxence nor Mlle. Lucienne were noticing the flight of time, so interested were they, one in telling, and the other in listening to, this story of a wonderful existence. However, Mlle. Lucienne's voice had become hoarse with fatigue. She poured herself a glass of water, which she emptied at a draught, and then at once, "Never yet," she resumed, "had I been agitated by such a sweet sensation. My eyes were full of tears; but they were tears of gratitude and joy. After so many years of isolation, to meet with such a friend, so generous, and so devoted: it was like finding a family. For a few weeks, I thought that fate had relented at last. My friend was an excellent workwoman; but with some intelligence, and the will to learn, I soon knew as much as she did.
"There was plenty of work. By working twelve hours, with the help of the thrice- blessed sewing-machine, we succeeded in making six, seven, and even eight francs a day. It was a fortune.
"Thus several months elapsed in comparative comfort.
"Once more I was afloat, and I had more clothes than I had lost in my trunk. I liked the life I was leading; and I would be leading it still, if my friend had not one day fallen desperately in love with a young man she had met at a ball. I disliked him very much, and took no trouble to conceal my feelings: nevertheless, my friend imagined that I had designs upon him, and became fiercely jealous of me. Jealousy does not reason; and I soon understood that we would no longer be able to live in common, and that I must look elsewhere for shelter. But my friend gave me no time to do so.
"Coming home one Monday night at about eleven, she notified me to clear out at once. I attempted to expostulate: she replied with abuse. Rather than enter upon a degrading struggle, I yielded, and went out.
"That night I spent on a chair in a neighbor's room. But the next day, when I went for my things, my former friend refused to give them, and presumed to keep every thing. I was compelled, though reluctantly, to resort to the intervention of the commissary of police.
"I gained my point. But the good days had gone. Luck did not follow me to the wretched furnished house where I hired a room. I had no sewing-machine, and but few acquaintances. By working fifteen or sixteen hours a day, I made thirty or forty cents. That was not enough to live on. Then work failed me altogether, and, piece by piece, every thing I had went to the pawnbroker's. On a gloomy December morning, I was turned out of my room, and left on the pavement with a ten-cent-piece for my fortune.
"Never had I been so low; and I know not to what extremities I might have come at last, when I happened to think of that wealthy lady whose horses had upset me on the Boulevard. I had kept her card. Without hesitation, I went unto a grocery, and calling for some paper and a pen, I wrote, overcoming the last struggle of my pride, "'Do you remember, madame, a poor girl whom your carriage came near crushing to death? Once before she applied to you, and received no answer. She is to-day without shelter and without bread; and you are her supreme hope.'
"I placed these few lines in an envelope, and ran to the address indicated on the card. It was a magnificent residence, with a vast court-yard in front. In the porter's lodge, five or six servants were talking as I came in, and looked at me impudently, from head to foot, when I requested them to take my letter to Mme. de Thaller. One of them, however, took pity on me, "'Come with me,' he said, 'come along!'
"He made me cross the yard, and enter the vestibule; and then, "'Give me your letter,' he said, 'and wait here for me.'"
Maxence was about to express the thoughts which Mme. de Thaller's name naturally suggested to his mind, but Mlle. Lucienne interrupted him, "In all my life," she went on, "I had never seen any thing so magnificent as that vestibule with its tall columns, its tessellated floor, its large bronze vases filled with the rarest flowers, and its red velvet benches, upon which tall footmen in brilliant livery were lounging.
"I was, I confess, somewhat intimidated by all of this splendor; and I remained awkwardly standing, when suddenly the servants stood up respectfully.
"A door had just opened, through which appeared a man already past middle age, tall, thin, dressed in the extreme of fashion, and wearing long red whiskers falling over his chest."
"The Baron de Thaller," murmured Maxence. Mlle. Lucienne took no notice of the interruption.
"The attitude of the servants," she went on, "had made me easily guess that he was the master. I was bowing to him, blushing and embarrassed, when, noticing me, he stopped short, shuddering from head to foot.
"'Who are you?' he asked me roughly.
"I attributed his manner to the sad condition of my dress, which appeared more miserable and more dilapidated still amid the surrounding splendors; and, in a scarcely intelligible voice, I began, "'I am a poor girl, sir--' "But he interrupted me.
"'To the point! What do you want?'
"'I am awaiting an answer, sir, to a request which I have just forwarded to the baroness.'
"'Once sir, I was run over in the street by the baroness's carriage: I was severely wounded, and had to be taken to the hospital.'
"I fancied there was something like terror in the man's look.
"'It is you, then, who once before sent a long letter to my wife, in which you told the story of your life?'
"'Yes, sir, it was I.'
"'You stated in that letter that you had no parents, having been left by your mother with some gardeners at Louveciennes?'
"'That is the truth.'
"'What has become of these gardeners?' "'They are dead.'
"'What was your mother's name?' "'I never knew.'
"To M. de Thaller's first surprise had succeeded a feeling of evident irritation; but, the more haughty and brutal his manners, the cooler and the more self- possessed I became.
"'And you are soliciting assistance?' he said.
"I drew myself up, and, looking at him straight in the eyes,
"'I beg your pardon,' I replied: 'it is a legitimate indemnity which I claim.'
"Indeed, it seemed to me that my firmness alarmed him. With a feverish haste, he began to feel in his pockets. He took out their contents of gold and bank-notes all in a heap, and, thrusting it into my hands without counting, "'Here,' he said, 'take this. Are you satisfied?'
"I observed to him, that, having sent a letter to Mme. de Thaller, it would perhaps be proper to await her answer. But he replied that it was not necessary, and, pushing me towards the door, "'You may depend upon it,' he said, 'I shall tell my wife that I saw you.'
"I started to go out; but I had not gone ten steps across the yard, when I heard him crying excitedly to his servants, "'You see that beggar, don't you? Well, the first one who allows her to cross the threshold of my door shall be turned out on the instant.'
"A beggar, I! Ah the wretch! I turned round to cast his alms into his face; but already he had disappeared, and I only found before me the footman, chuckling stupidly.
"I went out; and, as my anger gradually passed off, I felt thankful that I had been unable to follow the dictates of my wounded pride.
"'Poor girl,' I thought to myself, 'where would you be at this hour? You would only have to select between suicide and the vilest existence; whereas now you are above want.'
"I was passing before a small restaurant. I went in; for I was very hungry, having, so to speak, eaten nothing for several days past. Besides, I felt anxious to count my treasure. The Baron de Thaller had given me nine hundred and thirty francs.
"This sum, which exceeded the utmost limits of my ambition, seemed inexhaustible to me: I was dazzled by its possession.
"'And yet,' I thought, 'had M. de Thaller happened to have ten thousand francs in his pockets he would have given them to me all the same.'
"I was at a loss to explain this strange generosity. Why his surprise when he first saw me, then his anger, and his haste to get rid of me? How was it that a man whose mind must be filled with the gravest cares had so distinctly remembered me, and the letter I had written to his wife? Why, after showing himself so generous, had he so strictly excluded me from his house?
"After vainly trying for some time to solve this riddle, I concluded that I must be the victim of my own imagination; and I turned my attention to making the best possible use of my sudden fortune. On the same day, I took a little room in the Faubourg St. Denis; and I bought myself a sewing-machine. Before the week was over, I had work before me for several months. Ah! this time it seemed indeed that I had nothing more to apprehend from destiny; and I looked forward, without fear, to the future. At the end of a month, I was earning four to five francs a day, when, one afternoon, a stout man, very well dressed, looking honest and good-natured, and speaking French with some difficulty, made his appearance at my room. He was an American he stated, and had been sent to me by the woman for whom I worked. Having need of a skilled Parisian work-woman, he came to propose to me to follow him to New York, where he would insure me a brilliant position.
"But I knew several poor girls, who, on the faith of dazzling promises, had expatriated themselves. Once abroad, they had been shamefully abandoned, and had been driven, to escape starvation, to resort to the vilest expedients. I refused, therefore, and frankly gave him my reasons for doing so.
"My visitor at once protested indignantly. Whom did I take him for? It was a fortune that I was refusing. He guaranteed me in New York board, lodging, and two hundred francs a month. He would pay all traveling and moving expenses. And, to prove to me the fairness of his intentions, he was ready, he said, to sign an agreement, and pay me a thousand down.
"These offers were so brilliant, that I was staggered in my resolution.
"'Well,' I said, 'give me twenty-four hours to decide. I wish to see my employer.' "He seemed very much annoyed; but, as I remained firm in my purpose, he left, promising to return the next day to receive my final answer.
"I ran at once to my employer. She did not know what I was talking about. She had sent no one, and was not acquainted with any American.
"Of course, I never saw him again; and I couldn't help thinking of this singular adventure, when, one evening during the following week, as I was coming home at about eleven o'clock, two policemen arrested me, and, in spite of my earnest protestations, took me to the station-house, where I was locked up with a dozen unfortunates who had just been taken up on the Boulevards. I spent the night crying with shame and anger; and I don't know what would have become of me, if the justice of the peace, who examined me the next morning, had not happened to be a just and kind man. As soon as I had explained to him that I was the victim of a most humiliating error he sent an agent in quest of information, and having satisfied himself that I was an honest girl, working for my living, he discharged me. But, before permitting me to go, "'Beware, my child,' he said to me: 'it is upon a formal and well-authenticated declaration that you were arrested. Therefore you must have enemies. People have an interest in getting rid of you.'"
Mademoiselle Lucienne was evidently almost exhausted with fatigue: her voice was failing her. But it was in vain that Maxence begged her to take a few moments of rest.
"No," she answered, "I'd rather get through as quick as possible."
And, making an effort, she resumed her narrative, hurrying more and more.
"I returned home, my mind all disturbed by the judge's warnings. I am no coward; but it is a terrible thing to feel one's self incessantly threatened by an unknown and mysterious danger, against which nothing can be done.
"In vain did I search my past life: I could think of no one who could have any interest in effecting my ruin. Those alone have enemies who have had friends. I had never had but one friend, the kind-hearted girl who had turned me out of her home in a fit of absurd jealousy. But I knew her well enough to knew that she was incapable of malice, and that she must long since have forgotten the unlucky cause of our rupture.
"Weeks after weeks passed without any new incident. I had plenty of work and was earning enough money to begin saving. So I felt comfortable, laughed at my former fears, and neglected the precautions which I had taken at first; when, one evening, my employer, having a very important and pressing order, sent for me. We did not get through our work until long after midnight.
"She wished me to spend the rest of the night with her; but it would have been necessary to make up a bed for me, and disturb the whole household.
"'Bash!' I said, 'this will not be the first time I cross Paris in the middle of the night.'
"I started; and I was going along, walking as fast as I could, when, from the angle of a dark, narrow street, a man sprang upon me, threw me down, struck me, and would doubtless have killed me, but for two brave gentlemen who heard my screams and rushed to my assistance. The man ran off; and I was able to walk the rest of the way home, having received but a very slight wound.
"But the very next morning I ran to see my friend, the justice of the peace. He listened to me gravely, and, when I had concluded, "'How were you dressed?' he inquired.
"'All in black,' I replied, 'very modestly, like a workwoman.'
"'Had you nothing on your person that could tempt a thief?' "'Nothing. No watch-chain, no jewelry, no ear-rings even.'
"'Then,' he uttered, knitting his brows, 'it is not a fortuitous crime: it is another attempt on the part of your enemies.'
"Such was also my opinion. And yet:
"'But, sir,' I exclaimed, 'who can have any interest to destroy me, --a poor obscure girl as I am? I have thought carefully and well, and I have not a single enemy that I can think of.' And, as I had full confidence in his kindness, I went on telling him the story of my life.
"'You are a natural child,' he said as soon as I had done, 'and you have been basely abandoned. That fact alone would be sufficient to justify every supposition. You do not know your parents; but it is quite possible that they may know you, and that they may never have lost sight of you. Your mother was a working-girl, you think? That may be. But your father? Do you know what interests your existence may threaten? Do you know what elaborate edifice of falsehood and infamy your sudden appearance might tumble to the ground?'
"I was listening dumfounded.
"Never had such conjectures crossed my mind; and, whilst I doubted their probability, I had, at least, to admit their possibility.
"'What must I do, then?' I inquired. "The peace-officer shook his head.
"'Indeed, my poor child, I hardly know what to advise. The police is not omnipotent. It can do nothing to anticipate a crime conceived in the brain of an unknown scoundrel.'
"I was terrified. He saw it, and took pity on me.
"'In your place,' he added, 'I would change my domicile. You might, perhaps, thus make them lose your track. And, above all, do not fail to give me your new address. Whatever I can do to protect you, and insure your safety, I shall do.'
"That excellent man has kept his word; and once again I owed my safety to him.
'Tis he who is now commissary of police in this district, and who protected me against Mme. Fortin. I hastened to follow his advice, and two days later I had hired the room in this house in which I am still living. In order to avoid every chance of discovery, I left my employer, and requested her to say, if any one came to inquire after me, that I had gone to America.
"I soon found work again in a very fashionable dress-making establishment, the name of which you must have heard,--Van Klopen's. Unfortunately, war had just been declared. Every day announced a new defeat. The Prussians were coming; then the siege began. Van Klopen had closed his shop, and left Paris. I had a few savings, thank heaven; and I husbanded them as carefully as shipwrecked mariners do their last ration of food, when I unexpectedly found some work.
"It was one Sunday, and I had gone out to see some battalions of National Guards passing along the Boulevard, when suddenly I saw one of the vivandieres, who was marching behind the band, stop, and run towards me with open arms. It was my old friend from the Batignolles, who had recognized me. She threw her arms around my neck, and, as we had at once become the centre of a group of at least five hundred idlers, "'I must speak to you,' she said. 'If you live in the neighborhood, let's go to your room. The service can wait.'
"I brought her here, and at once she commenced to excuse herself for her past conduct, begging me to restore her my friendship. As I expected, she had long since forgotten the young man, cause of our rupture. But she was now in love, and seriously this time, she declared, with a furniture-maker, who was a captain in the National Guards. It was through him that she had become a vivandiere; and she offered me a similar position, if I wished it. But I did not wish it; and, as I was complaining that I could find no work, she swore that she would get me some through her captain, who was a very influential man.
"Through him, I did in fact obtain a few dozen jackets to make. This work was very poorly paid; but the little I earned was that much less to take from my humble resources. In that way I managed to get through the siege without suffering too much.
"After the armistice, unfortunately, M. Van Klopen had not yet returned. I was unable to procure any work; my resources were exhausted; and I would have starved during the Commune, but for my old friend, who several times brought me a little money, and some provisions. Her captain was now a colonel, and was about to become a member of the government; at least, so she assured me. The entrance of the troops into Paris put an end to her dream. One night she came to me livid with fright. She supposed herself gravely compromised, and begged me to hide her. For four days she remained with me. On the fifth, just as we were sitting down to dinner, my room was invaded by a number of police-agents, who showed us an order of arrest, and commanded us to follow them.
"My friend sank down upon a chair, stupid with fright. But I retained my presence of mind, and persuaded one of the agents to go and notify my friend the justice. He happened luckily to be at home, and at once hastened to my assistance. He could do nothing, however, for the moment; the agents having positive orders to take us straight to Versailles.
"'Well,' said he, 'I shall accompany you.'
"From the very first steps he took the next morning, he discovered that my position was indeed grave. But he also and very clearly recognized a new device of the enemy to bring about my destruction. The information filed against me stated that I had remained in the service of the Commune to the last moment; that I had been seen behind the barricades with a gun in my hand; and that I had formed one of a band of vile incendiaries. This infamous scheme had evidently been suggested by my relations with my friend from the Batignolles, who was still more terribly compromised than she thought, the poor girl; her colonel having been captured, and convicted of pillage and murder, and herself charged with complicity.
"Isolated as I was, without resources, and without relatives, I would certainly have perished, but for the devoted efforts of my friend the justice, whose official position gave him access everywhere, and enabled him to reach my judges. He succeeded in demonstrating my entire innocence; and after forty-eight hours' detention, which seemed an age to me, I was set at liberty.
"At the door; I found the man who had just saved me. He was waiting for me, but would not suffer me to express the gratitude with which my heart overflowed.
"'You will thank me,' he said, 'when I have deserved it better. I have done nothing as yet that any honest man wouldn't have done in my place. What I wish is to discover what interests you are threatening without knowing it, and which must be considerable, if I may judge by the passion and the tenacity of those who are pursuing you. What I desire to do is to lay hands upon the cowardly rascals in whose way you seem to stand.'
"I shook my head.
"'You will not succeed,' I said to him.
"'Who knows? I've done harder things than that in my life.' "And taking a large envelope from his pocket, "'This,' he said, 'is the letter which caused your arrest. I have examined it attentively; and I am certain that the handwriting is not disguised. That's something to start with, and may enable me to verify my suspicions, should any occur to my mind. In the mean time, return quietly to Paris, resume your ordinary occupations, answer vaguely any questions that may be asked about this matter, and above all, never mention my name. Remain at the Hotel des Folies: it is in my district, in my legitimate sphere of action; besides, the proprietors are in a position where they dare not disobey my orders. Never come to my office, unless something grave and unforeseen should occur. Our chances of success would be seriously compromised, if they could suspect the interest I take in your welfare. Keep your eyes open on every thing that is going on around you, and, if you notice any thing suspicious, write to me. I will myself organize a secret surveillance around you. If I can bag one of the rascals who are watching you, that's all I want.'
"'And now,' added this good man, 'good-by. Patience and courage.'
"Unfortunately he had not thought of offering me a little money: I had not dared to ask him for any, and I had but eight sous left. It was on foot, therefore, that I was compelled to return to Paris.
"Mme. Fortin received me with open arms. With me returned the hope of recovering the hundred and odd francs which I owed her, and which she had given up for lost. Moreover, she had excellent news for me. M. Van Klopen had sent for me during my absence, requesting me to call at his shop. Tired as I was, I went to see him at once. I found him very much downcast by the poor prospects of business. Still he was determined to go on, and offered to employ me, not as work-woman, as heretofore, but to try on garments for customers, at a salary of one hundred and twenty francs a month. I was not in a position to be very particular. I accepted; and there I am still.
"Every morning, when I get to the shop, I take off this simple costume, and I put on a sort of livery that belongs to M. Van Klopen, --wide skirts, and a black silk dress.
"Then whenever a customer comes who wants a cloak, a mantle, or some other 'wrapping,' I step up and put on the garment, that the purchaser may see how it looks. I have to walk, to turn around, sit down, etc. It is absurdly ridiculous, often humiliating; and many a time, during the first days, I felt tempted to give back to M. Van Klopen his black silk dress.
"But the conjectures of my friend the peace-officer were constantly agitating my brain. Since I thought I had discovered a mystery in my existence, I indulged in all sorts of fancies, and was momentarily expecting some extraordinary occurrence, some compensation of destiny, and I remained.
"But I was not yet at the end of my troubles."
Since she had been speaking of M. Van Klopen, Mlle. Lucienne seemed to have lost her tone of haughty assurance and imperturbable coolness; and it was with a look of mingled confusion and sadness that she went on.
"What I was doing at Van Klopen's was exceedingly painful to me; and yet he very soon asked me to do something more painful still. Gradually Paris was filling up again. The hotels had re-opened; foreigners were pouring in; and the Bois Boulogne was resuming its wonted animation. Still but few orders came in, and those for dresses of the utmost simplicity, of dark color and plain material, on which it was hard to make twenty-five per cent profit. Van Klopen was disconsolate. He kept speaking to me of the good old days, when some of his customers spent as much as thirty thousand francs a month for dresses and trifles, until one day, "'You are the only one,' he told me, 'who can help me out just now. You are really good looking; and I am sure that in full dress, spread over the cushions of a handsome carriage, you would create quite a sensation, and that all the rest of the women would be jealous of you, and would wish to look like you. There needs but one, you know, to give the good example.'"
Maxence started up suddenly, and, striking his head with hand, "Ah, I understand now!" he exclaimed.
"I thought that Van Klopen was jesting," went on the young girl. "But he had never been more in earnest; and, to prove it, he commenced explaining to me what he wanted. He proposed to get up for me some of those costumes which are sure to attract attention; and two or three times a week he would send me a fine carriage, and I would go and show myself in the Bois.
"I felt disgusted at the proposition. "'Never!' I said.
"'Because I respect myself too much to make a living advertisement of myself.' "He shrugged his shoulders.
"'You are wrong,' he said. 'You are not rich, and I would give you twenty francs for each ride. At the rate of eight rides a month, it would be one hundred and sixty francs added to your wages. Besides,' he added with a wink, 'it would be an excellent opportunity to make your fortune. Pretty as you are, who knows but what some millionaire might take a fancy to you!'
"I felt indignant.
"'For that reason alone, if for no other,' I exclaimed, 'I refuse.'
"'You are a little fool,' he replied. 'If you do not accept, you cease being in my employment. Reflect!'
"My mind was already made up, and I was thinking of looking out for some other occupation, when I received a note from my friend the peace-officer, requesting me to call at his office.
"I did so, and, after kindly inviting me to a seat, "'Well,' he said, 'what is there new?'
"'Nothing. I have noticed no one watching me.' "He looked annoyed.
"'My agents have not detected any thing, either,' he grumbled. 'And yet it is evident that your enemies cannot have given it up so. They are sharp ones: if they keep quiet, it is because they are preparing some good trick. What it is I must and shall find out. Already I have an idea which would be an excellent one, if I could discover some way of throwing you among what is called good society.'
"I explained to him, that, being employed at Van Klopen's, I had an opportunity to see there many ladies of the best society.
"'That is not enough,' he said.
"Then M. Van Klopen's propositions came back to my mind, and I stated them to him.
"'Just the thing!' he exclaimed, starting upon his chair: 'a manifest proof that luck is with us. You must accept.'
"I felt bound to tell him my objections, which reflection had much increased.
"'I know but too well,' I said, 'what must happen if I accept this odious duty.
Before I have been four times to the Bois, I shall be noticed, and every one will imagine that they know for what purpose I come there. I shall be assailed with vile offers. True, I have no fears for myself. I shall always be better guarded by my pride than by the most watchful of parents. But my reputation will be lost.'
"I failed to convince him.
"'I know very well that you are an honest girl,' he said to me; 'but, for that very reason, what do you care what all these people will think, whom you do not know? Your future is at stake. I repeat it, you must accept.'
"'If you command me to do so,' I said.
"'Yes, I command you; and I'll explain to you why.'"
For the first time, Mlle. Lucienne manifested some reticence, and omitted to repeat the explanations of the peace-officer. And, after a few moments' pause, "You know the rest, neighbor," she said, "since you have seen me yourself in that inept and ridiculous role of living advertisement, of fashionable lay-figure; and the result has been just as I expected. Can you find any one who believes in my honesty of purpose? You have heard Mme. Fortin to-night? Yourself, neighbor -- what did you take me for? And yet you should have noticed something of my suffering and my humiliation the day that you were watching me so closely in the Bois de Boulogne."
"What!" exclaimed Maxence with a start, "you know?"
"Have I not just told you that I always fear being watched and followed, and that I am always on the lookout? Yes, I know that you tried to discover the secret of my rides."
Maxence tried to excuse himself.
"That will do for the present," she uttered. "You wish to be my friend, you say?
Now that you know my whole life almost as well as I do myself, reflect, and to- morrow you will tell me the result of your thoughts."
Whereupon she went out.