Gridou's Pity: In Two Parts. Part One
ONan August evening of the year 1792, a girl was sitting on the terrace of a chateau about a day’s journey from Paris, as journeys went at that time, though even then there was one mode of rapid transit which is in use at the present day. Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, with her eyes fixed dreamily on the stiff magnificence of the garden in the moonlight, had in thought returned to Paris, where she had left her father on coming to make a visit to her maternal grandmother.
“ Mademoiselle,” said an old servant, approaching her with a bow and in reckless defiance of national decrees, “ madame the countess is asking for you.”
“ Has anything happened ? ” she inquired quickly, fancying there was something of perturbation in his voice.
“ Madame the countess did not say so, mademoiselle.”
The countess was found in conference with a stranger of bourgeois appearance, who stood before her ; but the conversation ceased as Mademoiselle de Sombreuil entered the room, and the silence which followed was of such duration that she had begun to look from the stranger to her grandmother and back again, when he spoke : “ My wig must be an excellent disguise, if Mademoiselle Marie does not know me.”
“ Monsieur l’Abbé de Saint-Mart !” she exclaimed in astonishment.
“ At your service, mademoiselle,” he returned, with a courtly bow. And then there was silence again.
“ Oh, what is it ? what has happened ? ” she cried.
“ There has been an insurrection in Paris, Marie,” said her grandmother. “ The people have attacked the Tuileries, and the king and all the royal family are imprisoned at the Temple.”
“ How terrible ! How dare they ? The queen ! The royal children ! ” And yet, with all her indignation and horror, there was something of relief in her looks.
“ And they pretend to have discovered a plot among the nobles. There have been — there have been arrests ” — continued the old lady, beginning to falter, But that was enough. A pallor overspread the girl’s face.
“ My father ! ”
“ Yes, Marie, alas ! ”
Then it was the abbé who had her rapid questions to answer. How ? When ? Where ? And, “ Oh, why was I not with him ? ” But at that thought a change came over her countenance, a look as of a sudden resolution. “ I can go to him now ! I can beg to be imprisoned with him ! They will never refuse me that ! ”
“ Marie, you are mad ! ”
“ No, no, I must ! I cannot stay here !
I should die ! I must go ! ” Then appealing to the abbé, “ Oh, speak for me ! You know what we are to each other.
I could cheer him and comfort him — my poor father ! ”
The abbé looked at her with evident sympathy, and after a moment’s reflection said, “ Countess, perhaps the idea is not so wild as it seems.”
“ Impossible ! How could Sombreuil wish it ? His daughter in a prison ! Are you mad too, abbé ? Say no more, Marie ! ”
But Marie was not to be silenced.
“Grandmamma, it is true that if you asked him he would say no, and yet if I wore there he would be glad. He is not well of late. He needs me ; he docs indeed ! ”
“ The marquis is not strong,” said the abbé, “ that is true, and if Mademoiselle Marie were there, there might be alleviations, — unless the jailer is more of a clod than most men.” He spoke with the air of one in the habit of saying pretty things.
And so, after numberless arguments back and forth, and since it was two to one, for the abbé was completely captivated by the young girl’s filial devotion, the countess was finally brought so far as to say, But how could Marie get to Paris ? She herself being “ nailed to her chair ” by infirmity, to whom could she trust her granddaughter ?
“ You can trust her to me, madarae. I am on my way there.”
“ You ! With a warrant out against you, and when you have the luck to be out of that accursed city ! It is putting your head in the lion’s mouth, abbé.”
“ Ah well, I shall take it out again as soon as possible. I am going over to England.”
“ But to go through Paris ! I beg of you ! If it is anything to do with money, let me ” —
“ Thank you, countess, but it is not money, though I have some lying there which I shall take as I pass. No, but there is some one who has been of use to me in the little affair I have had in hand ; it does n’t seem quite right to give him no warning now that the plan is abandoned, and it ’s ‘ devil take the hindmost.’ ”
That indeed was indisputable, but the old lady’s face still wore a foreboding look.
Then, finally, came the question of where Marie could go in Paris. What friends had they left there in these days ?
“I can goto my good Louison, grandmamma.” That was her old nurse, as she explained to the abbé. Louison was married, and was living in Paris. “ And she will be delighted to have me. She is a royalisl at heart, and much attached to us all, though her husband is a ‘ patriot.’ But he would go with me to the people I must see in order to get admission to the prison. Louison will arrange that.”
“ The very place for you ! ” said the abbé enthusiastically. “ You could not be better off than there.”
By singular good fortune, the abbé was possessed of a passport which corresponded to the situation. A lady, a relative of his own, had started to go under his escort to Paris, but had stopped short at a neighboring chateau. Now Marie had but to take her place, the description would answer at a pinch, and he would be spared making explanations to the first local authority on the road, and procuring, perhaps with difficulty and danger, a fresh passport for himself alone. He was traveling under his family name of Bertin, and Marie was to pass as his niece. They were to start very early the next morning, in order that she might be safe under her nurse’s roof by nightfall ; and they had also to take a circuitous route, for on the usual road to Paris Mademoiselle de Sombreuil would be recognized, and curiosity would be awakened if she were seen with a person of the abbé’s apparent condition. Furthermore, considering the times, it was evidently undesirable to stand out for etiquette ; a maid or servant would simply attract attention, which the abbé had above all things to avoid.
“ No, we will go in a post-chaise, like honest bourgeois,” said he. “ Mademoiselle Marie will have the goodness to dress very plainly, and I, her uncle, shall be taking her to her father. Nobody can have anything to say to that, I imagine.”
Two travelers had arrived in a postchaise, at noon, in the little village of N——, and were dining at the Golden Lion.
“ She is as pretty as an angel,” said the hostess, as she stood at the inn door after serving her guests.
“ And the bourgeois gave the postilion a famous tip,” said the stable-boy who passed just then.
At that, a man sitting with several others on a bench in front of the house got up and peered in at a window of the public room, as if a bourgeois who was free with his money were something to look at, though it may have been the hostess’s remark which led him to think that “ she ” must be worth seeing. His example was followed by one and another, until there was a row of heads at each window, — a state of things which attracted attention from within, for presently somebody announced, “ He ’s laughing at us.”
None of them liked that ; but the one who liked it least remained at his post of observation when the others went back to their bench to finish the nooning ; only whereas he had looked before in idle curiosity, it was now with a certain malevolence that he watched the stranger’s every movement. To his mind, a man who laughed at people, especially if he wore a better coat than they, could not be imbued with proper respect for the doctrine of equality ; he felt disposed to keep an eye on such a person, and he was unfavorably impressed by what he saw. The traveler scrutinized the hostess’s good things with a doubtful air, helped himself sparingly, and always began by tasting the least little bit, as if he thought they might be in the habit of poisoning people at the Golden Lion. Such ways appeared to the spectator much of a piece with laughing at one’s equals. But just because he was displeased he continued to look ; and so it happened that in the end he saw something worth while, and made what he Believed to be an important discovery. This was nothing more nor less than that the bourgeois, in his neat brown homespun suit, had the hand of an “ aristocrat.” As he sat there negligently stroking the old house-dog which had come in to make friends, his hand, standing out in relief against the creature’s dark head, looked as slender and white as a fine lady’s. Whereupon the spy, after calling his companions to verify the fact, went in great excitement to tell the innkeeper that he was harboring suspicious company.
At first that worthy was much put about by the announcement, and thought his neighbor the cobbler rather meddlesome. For really, supposing the guest were an aristocrat, when he had paid for “ the excellent dinner he had eaten,”as he courteously expressed it, the host was quite willing he should go and get arrested elsewhere ; he did not wish to have any disturbance made in his house. And what if he sent for a detachment of the national guard, and the man turned out to be only a bourgeois, after all ? A pretty to-do there would be then with the military ! Still, these were only first thoughts, and all he said was, “ Pooh ! pooh ! ” being a cautious man, and not wishing to appear unpatriotic. When he was reminded of Drouet, at SainteMenehould, who had got thirty thousand francs and a seat in the National Assembly for his timely action, to say nothing of immortal fame, he began to see that it might be a duty he owed to the country to take steps in this matter. For it was perfectly possible that this was, as the cobbler said, some nobleman who had been concerned in the late conspiracy, or somebody who was getting up a fresh one, or even the Count d’Artois himself ; and the lady with him would then be some friend of the Austrian woman. All this was whirling round in the innkeeper’s head, the Count d’Artois and the thirty thousand francs coming continually uppermost, together, however, with a suspicion that it was not “ the grand opportunity for the village to display its patriotism ” that actuated the cobbler so much as a secret design of claiming half the reward. He was thinking of all these things when the post-chaise, which had not yet been countermanded, rattled to the front of the house, and the travelers appeared in the doorway ready to set off.
The village consisted merely of a few houses close about the inn, and it never took long to get the whole population together on occasion. The bourgeois, therefore, looked in surprise upon an assemblage of men, women, and children gathered between him and his vehicle, and asked, “ Why, what is going on here ? Is it a holiday ? ” And then, signing to the postilion, “ Drive up, friend. It is time we were off.”
But the postilion sat his horse like a statue ; and, moreover, as nobody else offered to move, driving up to the door was plainly out of the question.
Upon that the traveler looked more astonished still, and even a little annoyed as he turned to the innkeeper to inquire whether that was not his chaise, and why then he was unable to get into it. It was some one out of the crowd who said by way of answer, “ You ’re an aristocrat ! ”
“ What ? ”
“ You ’re an aristocrat ! ” the voice repeated.
It was not a pleasant group to face, for at the word “ aristocrat ” every countenance darkened, and the men who had implements of labor with them, such as axes and pitchforks, looked quite capable of using them on behalf of the nation, if need were. Nevertheless, the bourgeois gazed steadily at his accuser, though still with an air of perplexity and amazement which, as he turned again to the postmaster, said as plainly as words, Can I believe my ears ? Did you hear it, too ?
“ Monsieur, said that personage, already realizing the difficulty of telling a man he was the Count d’Artois, when he looked as innocent as a baby, “ monsieur, there is some idea that — that — In short, you would do well to state who you are.”
“ Who I am ? I am Jean-George Bertin, as my passport informs you ! And when I’m called an aristocrat, I should like to know the reason why ! ” said the bourgeois in a rather high key. “ Just tell me now, you who have seen plenty of people of one sort and another, and know what ’s what, do I look like an aristocrat ?" He stepped back a little, and stood with his legs firmly planted, as if to afford every facility for judging whether or no his figure deserved to be styled aristocratic.
Now nothing was more fixed in the innkeeper’s mind than the conviction that he did know what was what ; and furthermore, in the emphasis laid on the word “you ” he felt an acknowledgment of the, to him, equally patent fact that in this respect he was in advance of his neighbors. Still, a man may be never so superior, and yet be slightly taken aback when he is challenged to prove it on the spur of the moment ; whence it happened in this instance that the innkeeper first looked rather foolish, and then laughed a little, as the safest thing to do.
“ Ah, very well ! ” began Monsieur Bertin, with an air of relief at finding one person, at any rate, in his senses, when again he was interrupted by a voice : —
“ You have hands like a fine lady ! ”
“ Indeed ! ” he exclaimed, facing round in an instant, and glancing over the crowd with mingled contempt and indignation. Then raising one of those offending members, — which looked no longer so phenomenally delicate, encased as it now was in a baggy glove, — he said slowly and impressively, “ My mother was a good woman, which I consider something more than a fine lady ; and if I have her hand, I am not ashamed of it.”
It is highly probable that they all shared his opinion with regard to the intrinsic worth of good women, but, as a matter of fact, they were left under the imputation of an undue regard for rank and wealth when he re-addressed himself, with dignity, to the innkeeper : —
“ To you, citoyen, I am prepared to give any explanation which you require. As master of the post, you would be solely responsible were I prevented from continuing my journey, and it is but right that you should know all I can tell you before you take a, step which would certainly be attended with serious consequences. My name you are already acquainted with. I will add that I was born in S——; that my business has been chiefly in the province of X——. where I have had to do with flocks on a somewhat large scale ; that I have lately retired from this occupation ; and that the object of my journey to Paris is to see some one with whom I have been transacting matters of importance, and to get some money which I have lying there. So much for myself. My niece’s name you have seen in my passport, and you have only to compare her description with the demoiselle here,” indicating his companion, who had been looking quietly on at the controversy ; “ and I will add, for your further satisfaction, that I am taking her to Paris, to her father, who lives in the Rue Sainte-Marguerite, and from whom we have had bad news. If now you wish to ask any questions, I am ready to answer them to the best, of my ability.”
But the only question in the postmaster’s mind, by that time, was how he himself could have been led by the nose into such a scrape. As his own prospects for acquiring thirty thousand francs declined, he felt so much the more respect for a man who had perhaps accumulated twice that sum as a great sheep-farmer, and was now retiring from business to live in dignified seclusion on his income. He hastened to protest that he was entirely satisfied ; that in fact he had always been satisfied, though, unfortunately, there were persons who conceived it their duty to interfere in what did not concern them, — casting a furious glance at the cobbler who had so nearly involved him in the “ serious consequences ” of a government inquiry.
“ But you will understand, citoyen, that no harm was intended ? ”
“ Really ! ” replied the worthy man. “ I am glad to know it. I thought from appearances there was an intention of detaining me here, which I should have considered harmful in the extreme, seeing that my business will brook no delay.”
“ Drive up, postilion ! ” cried the innkeeper ; and this time the villagers scattered to the right and left, and the chaise stopped before the door with a flourish.
The young girl got in at once, but Monsieur Berlin, notwithstanding the pressing nature of his affairs, seemed disposed to linger and relieve his mind of a growing sense of injury.
“ I never in all my life before was told that I was not what I pretended to be,”he observed.
“ Of course not, monsieur, of course not. But you see, in these times, and when one has just heard of an abominable plot, people’s minds are excited. I assure you, I regret it exceedingly.”
“ So do I! ” snapped out the sheepfarmer. And even when the other had him by the elbow and was impelling him gently towards the chaise, with wishes for a pleasant journey, he suddenly turned himself about, and began indignantly, “ In all the years I have traveled ” —
But the young bourgeoise interposed from the vehicle, with her flutelike voice : “ Oh, come, uncle, think no more about it! The good people believed they were doing right. It was for the sake of the nation.”
So he was got into the chaise, and the door closed on him ; and at the last he seemed to regret his display of ill humor, for he looked out of the window and said quite amiably, “ There, there ! Good-day, citoyen. Mistakes will occur sometimes, — mistakes will occur.” Then, as the chaise clattered off, he sank back into his corner of the carriage and burst into smothered laughter.
“ Oh, monsieur l’abbé, it is nothing to laugh at ! ” said Marie. “ One ought to be very seriously thankful.” Nevertheless, she was infected by his merriment.
Once on the road, they could talk freely : there was no danger of the postilion overhearing, with the front window up.
“ How I trembled for you ! ” Marie continued, as she recovered herself.
“ And how much indebted I am to you for trembling so discreetly, mademoiselle! You acted my niece to perfection.”
“ Why, I merely stood there, and did nothing at all.”
“ Which is precisely what she would have done if she knew it was all right and there was no occasion for alarm. And when she did call at last, in her coaxing little voice, to her irate old uncle, it was only he who could guess that Mademoiselle Marie had had enough of the comedy.”
“ Yes, so she had. But I really believe that you, monsieur I’abbé, would have liked to stay there another half hour and fool that poor man.”
He laughed delightedly. “ And please to note that everything I told him was perfectly true. Had I not, as grand-vicar of X——, my flocks scattered over a whole diocese ? Perhaps I did n’t succeed in the business so well as it may have appeared to our friend the innkeeper,” he added, with a momentary gravity.
“ However, I am not responsible for the inferences drawn.”
“ But you said my father lived in the Rue Sainte-Marguerite.”
“ My dear young lady, you don’t know your Paris as I do. He does live there just now, though we hope it is not for long.” And then, to divert her mind from that too absorbing subject, he inquired cheerfully, “ And how did I act the honest bourgeois, mademoiselle ? Also to perfection ? Well, I have a little bit of talent for the stage, I believe.”
The day wore on, and the travelers stopped nowhere longer than was necessary to make changes of carriage, until late in the afternoon, when clouds rolled up black and threatening, and a thunderstorm was imminent. They were then approaching the station next before Paris, and it was plain they would be obliged to remain there until the tempest should be over.
“ If only we meet with no ill fortune ! ” sighed Marie.
“ To which end I shall perhaps do well to keep my gloves on,” the abbé responded coolly.
They drove up to the inn with the first flash of lightning and roll of thunder, and were welcomed by the hostess, who congratulated them volubly on escaping a storm which promised to be violent. Her husband was absent, it appeared, but Madame Leroux was quite capable of fulfilling his functions, and ushered them into the public room, talking all the while. The new form of address was not yet universal, and from old habit it was “ monsieur ” and “ mademoiselle ” with her, in spite of her being very patriotic, as they presently discovered ; for she gave them the pleasure of her company, and began at once upon the late events in Paris. She was accustomed to read the newspapers, she informed them, and moreover she “ reasoned ” and “ reflected ” on what she read ; so it was the result of these combined mental processes with which she now favored them in the form of a monologue. Marie was glad not to be obliged to answer, though it was trying to her loyalty to seem to assent by silence while the good woman talked about the king. Not that she was virulent against him, — she called him “ poor man,” even ; but royalty, for her, was unquestionably a thing of the past.
“ And it ’s only a monstrous pity we did n’t perceive a year ago, when the king tried to escape, that that was the best thing which could happen to us. Now we ’ve got him in the Temple and don’t know what to do with him, whereas if we had had the sense then to say, ‘ A pleasant journey to you ! ’ we should have seen the last of him for good and all, with no trouble to us, and his own fault for running away. But there ! people never know when they ’re well off. Why, even when those old princesses, the king’s aunts, undertook to depart, it was as much as ever if we let them go. To be sure, we talk of the nation being in its infancy, and so we may regard them as two old dolls that we could n’t bear to give up. Though why, goodness knows, for it cost us a pretty penny to keep them in food and frippery. Really, now that we ’ve discovered at last where all the money went to that has been ground out of the people in taxes, it is astounding ! Just for those old ladies and their hangers-on, so many hundred thousand francs a year for fish, so many for fowls, and all the rest in proportion. One would think they were ogres ! No wonder there was nothing left for the soldiers to cat ! It seems as if we could n’t have been in too great a hurry to get rid of such people. And it ’s just the same with the nobility. I don’t regret the emigration ; it is n’t to the credit of those who go, to be sure, but it ’s a gain to us who stay.” She paused suddenly, and remarked, to Marie’s alarm, “ Mademoiselle looks as if she did n’t agree with me.”
“ Ah, madame,” said the abbé, “ when one is young and romantic, a castle is a pretty feature in the landscape, and one thinks the people who live there must be something remarkable.”
This was very well by way of coming to the rescue, but it had for a consequence that Madame Leroux now addressed herself particularly to Marie.
“ Yes, yes, the chateau is beautiful, no doubt ; but did you ever think of the village below it, mademoiselle ? Of course not, — people who live in towns know nothing of the country ; but I can tell you that the village is n’t beautiful, for I ’ve seen the wretchedness of it with my own eyes. And the cottages are worse inside than they are out. How many human beings do you suppose those deplorable hovels hold sometimes ? Father and mother, and grown children and babies ; and if there is n’t a grandmother or grandfather into the bargain, it ’s good luck ! And all that in two little rooms with the bare ground for a floor, and the only light from a window as big as your hand. Can there be cleanliness or decency in such a place ? Why, the pigs of monsieur le marquis, up at the chateau, are better housed ! Or if not the pigs, then the horses, and that nobody can deny. Is there a leak in the stable-roof ? Send for the workmen immediately ! The hay will be injured, and the valuable animals may take harm. But when the cottage-roof leaks, what happens ? Why, nothing, except that the children get up in the night, and drag the sack of straw, on which they are lying like a litter of kittens, away from under the dripping. You see, there ’s nothing to injure there, and that sort of animal is n’t valuable. They are raised at no expense to monsieur le marquis. When one of them is sick, there ’s no need even to send for the horse-doctor, for if they die there are always plenty more. Why they don’t die by the dozen is the only wonder. It is n’t the cave they get that keeps them alive, when their mother is working in the fields. I suppose it ’s the food, though you might n’t think so, to look at it. And when there is n’t enough of it, such as it is, the children go out on the highway and beg, or they go up to the chateau, maybe, and twitter around the door like sparrows ; and if a few crusts are thrown to them, that ’s charity ! Well, they grow up on it somehow, but it tells, too. Among peasants, mademoiselle, a girl of your age, what with hard work and poor fare, is no longer young, and a woman of thirty is old. Probably the grand people at the chateau suppose peasants ought to look like that, — that it ’s because they ’re coarse, common folk. But it is n’t ; it ’s because they work like cattle, and with all their labor can’t get black bread enough to satisfy their hunger. And it is only three years ago that if, in an evil moment, they thought to put something in the pot by killing a hare, even in their own field, it was a case for the galleys, though the noble family at the chateau and their friends might ride through the field any day, when they were hunting, and trample down the grain. That was one of their ‘ rights.’ And then consider, mademoiselle, that it ’s these same peasants who have paid all the taxes hitherto. Yes, your remarkable people at the chateau were ‘ exempt ’ from this and ‘ exempt ’ from that, by reason of their nobility, until in the end they contributed as good as nothing at all to the state. They could n’t afford to, for their daughters must make a fine appearance at court, and their sons must be well placed in the army ; and so it was the peasant who paid the tally and the twentieth and the poll-tax to the king, and the salt-tax and half a dozen other taxes to the treasury, and tithes to the clergy, and feudal dues to the lord of the manor into the bargain. Is it surprising, then, if he had n’t enough left to keep body and soul together ?
“ Perhaps some of the nobles were more considerate, do you say, mademoiselle ? But even if now and then, after a bad harvest, they did n’t press for their dues, it was in their own interest that they abstained, for the peasant must eat. It’s an unfortunate arrangement of nature, no doubt, but, like the ox, he must have a certain amount of food, or he can’t work ; and then who would till the fields ?
“ But there ! what ’s the use of talking and exciting one’s self ? We ’ve got matters in our own hands now, and can do better than talk. And after all, there ’s this to be said for the nobles : they were born into the abuses they called their ‘ rights,’ and they took things as they found them ; but the clergy, — that ’s different. A man is n’t born a priest ; he takes it upon himself ; he promises to follow Christ. And how has he done it in this land of ours ? Mind you, I ’m not talking against religion, mademoiselle ; I believe in religion, but I don’t believe in men who were a shame and a scandal to the flocks they professed to tend. And I ’m not saying a word against the country curés, either ; there are good men among them, and Heaven knows they ’re as hard put to it as the peasants themselves sometimes ; and when they resign their little pittance for conscience’ sake, I respect them, mistaken though they are. Yes, even when they go about persuading the poor ignorant people that a constitutional mass is worse than none, and will take them straight where they don’t want to go when they die, — that too may be only an unfortunate crook they ’ve got in their conscience. But to hear that the higher clergy can’t think it right to take the oath is a little too much ! The simple truth is that they are nobles, and go with their class ; they are for the king because the king is for them ; and as to all the conscience they ’ve got amongst them, I would n’t give that for it ! ” with a contemptuous snap of her fingers. “ For if they had any, would n’t they have shown it before now ? Would a Cardinal de Rohan have kitchen utensils of solid silver when the people were dying by thousands of starvation ? Would all those bishops and abbés and what not have left their work to others, and gone to spend their enormous revenues in Paris and Versailles ? Oh, you need n’t look shocked at me, mademoiselle ! Your uncle would tell you the same thing. He is a man, and he knows. I ask you, monsieur, were not those noble priests a scandal to Christian people ? ”
“ Ah, madame, it is to be feared they often were.”
She looked at Marie in triumph, and continued : “They follow Christ ! When they rolled in their gilt coaches, monsieur, and fared sumptuously every day, when they carried jeweled snuffboxes costly enough to support a whole parish, when they passed their time acting plays with gay ladies and writing verses in their honor, — I ask you once more, was there anything of our blessed Lord in all that ? ”
“ No, madame,” he answered very gently.
Marie went to the window to hide the confusion she felt for the poor abbé.
“ Well, then,” continued Madame Leroux, “ am I not right in saying that they have no conscience in the matter ?”
But at that he hesitated, and finally replied, “ Let us be charitable, madame.
I believe there are good men, too, in the ranks of the higher clergy, and perhaps even among those whom you condemn so justly there may be some who find themselves, when it comes to the point, a little more faithful to their vows than one would have supposed from their way of living.
“ Well, perhaps so,” she admitted rather reluctantly ; one or two there might be, but not many. And then, suddenly remembering her duties as hostess, she cried, “ But see ! it is clearing off. You will want to be going.”
She had one thing more to say, though. As they stood ready to get into the chaise, she called their attention to a fine old linden-tree, from which the wind had torn many of the leaves and scattered them far and wide.
“ Before the storm they looked green and fresh, but they were ready to fall. And it ’s just the same with the people we ’ve been talking about : they looked to be in their glory, but the Revolution is sweeping them all away.”
The last stage of the journey was a very silent one. The travelers talked a little only at the start, about indifferent things, because each, for the sake of the other, wished to ignore the painful impression of their late experience.
The abbé, however, knew very well that this extremely gentle but perfectly self-possessed young lady had always held pretty much the same opinion of him that the innkeeper’s wife had proclaimed. As a well-bred girl, she had treated the friend of her family with all due consideration, and he, as a well-bred man, had made no sign of his intuitive discovery ; but there it was, an impalpable, though none the less impassable barrier between them.
He was right. When others deplored his missing a bishopric, to which but for the social cataclysm he would have attained, Mademoiselle de Sombreuil had discreetly reflected that she knew of no qualification he possessed for that office, unless it were his having supereminently beautiful hands and his being such very good company. Yet now, remembering what he had just said, — the pitiful little plea for “ some, at least, even though justly condemned,” —she asked herself if, in his refusing the oath to the Constitution, there might not have been another motive than the mere fact that he was a noble and went with his class. Then, by an insensible transition of ideas, she was thinking of his “ white mass,” — the first mass of a young priest, — which his lady mother must have followed with profound devotion ; for to her, “ good woman ” as she was, the entrance of her youngest into the Church would have meant something beyond the certainty of a respectable provision in life ; and perhaps to him too, then, — who could say ? Yes, surely, to him too, then.
But reflections of this nature could not long detain Marie from plans of what must be done on the morrow, and what she should say to the revolutionary leaders whom she meant to approach with her petition ; for if one refused, she would appeal to another. As often as the possibility of a repulse occurred to her, she said to herself, “ But I must, I will go to him ! ” and then, in fancy, she pleaded her cause all over again to somebody else whose heart might be softer.
The abbé was equally absorbed in his reflections, whatever they were ; and as he looked far off into the distance, his delicate face wore an intensely serious expression. Now and then, when he turned and their eyes met, he would smile a little absently as acknowledging a sense of companionship, and then resume his study of the distant landscape.
On nearing Paris, however, they both roused themselves : the abbé to express once more the deep interest he felt in the success of Marie’s errand, while she begged him not to think of trying to see her again after they should have parted at her nurse’s house, but to accomplish what he had come for, and get away from the city as soon as possible.
“ Louison will take great care of me, and the citizen Picard, her husband, will go with me everywhere and do just as she tells him ; he always does.”
“ What a delightful family arrangement ! ” exclaimed the abbé, in admiration. “ If only every patriot had a Louison attached to him ! ”
But as he must hear, he said, how her affairs had sped, it was agreed that she should leave a letter with her nurse, which he would find means to get in one way or another.
“ And now see what a superb sunset, Mademoiselle Marie ! Let us take it as a good omen for us both.”
The outlying district around a great city usually presents a dismal appearance, but just then the waste fields and poor hovels were glorified by a reflection from the sky, crimson to the very zenith.
“ Look at the water,” continued the abbé ; “ even that is red.”
And so it was ; little pools had formed everywhere on the low-lying land from the heavy rain, and they too gave back the sunset flush.
“ Why, it looks like blood ! ” exclaimed Marie.
In a few moments more they were at the guard-house, where soldiers and idlers were grouped together, and one or two vehicles were either coming or going. A man in civilian’s dress, but wearing the tri-colored scarf which denoted that he was on official business, stood somewhat apart, and as the chaise began to draw up he moved towards it, followed by everybody else. There was just time to think that this looked as if they were expected, when the door was opened by a guard, and the man with the scarf said abruptly, “ Descend, if you please.”
They did so amid a portentous silence ; and us they stood, a half circle of eager gazers formed before them, leaving a free space for the dignitary of the tri-color, from whom every one seemed to hold aloof with a certain respect. No notice was taken of Marie ; it was to get a good view of the abbé that the people pushed and elbowed one another, and those behind stretched their necks ; the official personage also fixed his eyes upon him, as if to strike terror into his very soul. But there he mistook his man. Although from the first moment of painful surprise the abbé knew that his fate had overtaken him, he was far from being overcome by it, and returned the look with an appearance of saying, “ Two can play at this game.”
“ Abbé Saint-Mart, I arrest you in the name of the nation ! ” said he of the scarf sternly, and then added his credentials :
“ Commissioned thereto by the Commune of Paris.”
Marie gave a little cry, and there was a murmur of approval among the bystanders : but the person most concerned simply took off his hat, and tossed his wig into the gutter as something for which he had no further use, remarking as he did so that it was very hot and uncomfortable. So he stood self-confessed, with his tonsure and the crisp curling dark hair which became him better than the rather frouzy disguise he had adopted.
Angered by this manifestation of indifference to the majesty of the law, the commissioner said quickly, "I advise you to keep that on.”
“ And why ? ”
“ Because you may be recognized in passing through the streets ; and if the people, to show their appreciation of you as a burning and shining light in the Church, should undertake to hang you up instead of the lantern, I am not sure that I could prevent it.”
“ I am sure you could not,” said the abbé calmly. “ This government has not yet proved itself strong enough to cope with little disorders of that kind. However, I will take the risk.” Then he turned to Marie, who stood in mute distress, and, clasping her hands in his, said gently, “ Why, dear child, you must n’t mind so much ! I was watched, you see, and it would have been either there or here, so I am glad to have come with you thus far.”
“ Who is this.?'” burst in the commissioner, ready to vent his wrath on whomsoever it might be.
“ This is Mademoiselle de Sombreuil,” answered the abbé unhesitatingly ; for he believed that to make any further mystery was useless ; he hoped, too, that her filial devotion would awaken sympathy. “ Her father has been arrested, and she has come to Paris to beg the favor of being imprisoned with him.”
“ Aha ! Involved in the late conspiracy ! ” sneered the commissioner, as if he had expected nothing better, in view of the company she was in. But it was not for him to concern himself with persons who wished to be imprisoned, and he said no more. His sentiments were echoed, however, among the lookers-on, and the inevitable word “ aristocrat ” began to circulate at once.
“ Yes,” said the abbé, taking it up boldly and addressing himself now to them, “ an aristocrat, if you choose to call her so, but also a woman, — youug, alone, and unprotected, now that I must leave her.” His eyes wandered over the crowd. “ Which of you will conduct her safely where she wants to go ? ”
It was the sort of appeal that would seldom fail to meet with a response even from the roughest mob, and here there were some very respectable elements. There were also elements not so respectable, men who perhaps had been attracted to that vicinity by the little dramshop close at hand ; but the abbé had fixed his hopes on a decent-looking citizen of middle age who seemed as if he might be returning from a stroll in the fields ; or, he thought, possibly one of the guards would be off duty, and in his uniform would make Marie a very proper escort. Instead of this, however, it was the unexpected that happened. Before any one else could answer, the least prepossessing individual of them all stepped forward and said, “ Priest, I will.”
Decidedly unprepossessing he was, at the first glance : a gaunt figure, a haggard face, clothes greatly the worse for wear, altogether a strange companion for Mademoiselle de Sombreuil ; and yet the abbé, when he looked him straight in the eyes, could see that he meant what he said, and that being the case, there was nothing for it but to accept. He answered simply, “ I thank you, citoyen.”
But he was ill advised in making any suggestions, such as that the chaise would take Marie into the city as far as the post-house, and there a carriage could be procured.
“ Priest,” said the man again, ” I have promised to conduct her safely where she is going. It is enough ! ” He had evidently just that sort of regard for an ecclesiastic to which the commissioner had alluded, and he wanted no directions from such an one.
The abbé bent his head, and said so quickly and so low that only Marie could hear it, “ Forgive me, my poor child ! But he is honest, and your tact will help you out.”
With that they were forced to part ; and it was a short leave-taking, for the commissioner was impatient : a fatherly embrace, a few encouraging words, thoughtful as the abbé was for her even to the last, then the carriage that was in waiting bore him away, and Marie stood there alone, with a feeling of unspeakable desolation at her heart.
What fate was in store for him, that kind friend ? For he had become a friend to her in her trouble. The man she had thought of slightingly belonged to the old days that were gone beyond recall, that the Revolution had swept away, and she saw now only a man who had more conscience than one might have supposed from his manner of living, and who was at heart more of a priest than he himself had known.
Overcome as she was by the terrible ending of the journey, Marie would have liked to say nothing at all to her singular escort, who got into the chaise with her and took the abbé’s place ; but his offer to accompany her was an act of generosity towards one whom he regarded as a natural enemy, and she did not wish to seem insensible to that, however little she appreciated the benefit in itself, so, after a while, she forced herself to speak.
“ It is kind of you to come with me.”
“ Somebody had to.”
“ I fear you may be tired with your day’s work, and I am taking you out of your way.” She saw that he was, or ought to be, a workingman.
Then there was silence. Marie felt that she had done her part ; and perhaps he thought so, too, for presently, of his own accord, he vouchsafed the information that he worked on the quays, but there was nothing going on there then.
“ That is unfortunate.”
“ No, it does n’t matter.”
“ You have been prudent, no doubt, and laid up something for a rainy day.”
To her surprise, this honorable imputation was taken ill.
“ Why should I lay up money ? ” he asked, fiercely, as it seemed to her.
She suggested that he might do it for his family, if he had one.
At this he glared at her, and she could see that there was something working in his mind. Finally he said,“ I had a wife and children. They are dead.”
“ Oh, I have pained you ! I am so sorry ! ” she exclaimed, with such feeling that he seemed mollified.
Then, like many persons with a great grief, once he had mentioned it, he could not help talking about it. He told her, in his uncouth way, how, three years before, he had lost his wife and two children in the course of a few days.
“ How sad ! And all of the same disuse ? ”
“ Yes, all of starvation. You start,” he continued, “ and you wonder that I let them die. You think I should have worked ; you think I should have laid up money. Yes, that was the time to lay up money ! “ He gave a short, bitter laugh.
“ It was a terrible year,” said Marie.
“ Do you know that ? You ? ”
She looked at him compassionately, but did not say that she had done all in her power, with the resources her father could allow her, to help such unfortunate families as they chanced to hear of.
“ Yes, it was terrible,” he resumed. “ A man might work then as he would, he could n’t buy bread enough, it was so dear. And what bread ! She could n’t eat it, she was so weak and ill already, and with a child to nurse. She pined away till she was nothing but a skeleton.
Then she and the baby died the same day ; the boy two days after.”
Marie looked at him mutely. What could she say ? It was heart-rending.
“ I was glad at the time,” he added. “ I did n’t have to see them suffer any more. But now, when things are going better, I think what I might do if they were alive.”
The interruption of arriving at the post-house came as a relief just there. There was no long delay, however, for a fiacre was easily procured, and they set off once more, having a good part of the city to traverse. Marie experienced a momentary surprise when her companion, instead of mounting the box, put her portmanteau there, and seated himself beside her again in the vehicle ; but it was a proof that he had not found the society of an “ aristocrat ” positively odious, while she, on her part, felt the sincerest sympathy for him, and would have liked to show it.
“ And so things are already better, now ?" she said, hoping to reopen the conversation on a more cheerful basis.
“ Yes, it is a little easier to live. At least, rich people pay their share of the taxes, and the poor are not so ground down. They don’t get the blue man quartered on them, at any rate. We ’ve done with that.”
“ What do you mean by the ‘ blue man ’ ? ”
“ Why, the garnison for the capitation.”1 And when she still looked wondering, he laughed, with a sneer. “ You never heard of that, of course ! No, the nobility did n’t pay it. But the workingman, the day laborer, who had more than he could do to feed his family, he paid such and such a sum out of his earnings ; and when he had n’t the money, they sent a man in a blue coat to live on him till he got it, and he was charged so many sous daily for the man’s board. Well, it was a clever plan, for you paid then just to get rid of the garnison. You sold what you had, — your furniture, your clothes, anything. I sold my wife’s bed for that, and she died on straw.”
“ Oh, don’t ! ” exclaimed Marie, involuntarily putting out her hand as if he hurt her. She had heard too much about the miseries of life in that one short day. For though she had been charitable where she could, her position and her age had made any real personal acquaintance with the sufferings of the poor impossible.
“ Do you care ? ” he asked, eying her curiously. And then, at the reproach in her look, “ Well, nobody cared in the time of it. The king and queen, the nobles and priests, — did it ever make any difference to them ? ”
“ Oh, they were not so hard-hearted as you think ! ” she cried. “ They did n’t know ; they could n’t picture it to themselves.”
“ And why should they ? They were happy. They had all they wanted.”
“ But that is past. You need not feel so bitter towards them any more. They are not happy now.” “ No ; they have to help support the nation now, and they can’t wear the fine clothes they used to, nor dress up their servants like a procession on Shrove Tuesday, “ he pronounced scornfully.
“ You speak as if money were everything ; there are other troubles than the loss of money. How should you feel if some one whom you loved more than anybody else on earth were in prison, and you dared not even think what might come of that ? ”
A recollection dawned in his face. “ Ah yes, your father. That priest said he had been arrested.”
“ And so you see, yourself, how easy it is not to think of other people’s sorrows,” she answered gently.
Nothing was spoken after that for a time ; then he began in a mild voice : “ And you are going to your father, citoyenne ? ” That form of address sounded very courteous from him as compared with his brusqueness hitherto.
“ I trust so, but I must get permission.”
“ In what prison is your father, citoyeune ? ”
“ He is at the Abbaye.”
“ They have taken that priest there,” he observed casually, and for a moment Marie felt a joyful surprise, as if she were going to meet the abbé again ; then she reflected how foolish was her hope, since bolts and bars could constitute a far more effectual separation than miles of land or sea. And directly she had something else to think of, for they were nearing her destination.
“ We shall soon be there,” she said, as she gave him money to pay the driver, but then still held her purse in her hand, meditating.
“ It is very kind of you to have put yourself out for me,” she continued presently. “ and having accepted the kindness, I simply say ‘ thank you ; ’ it is all I can do. But you have told me such sad things, and I know you have no work, I should be truly glad if, for fraternity’s sake, you would n’t refuse this.” There was a gold-piece shining between her fingers.
He looked neither hurt nor angry, though he shook his head ; but it was not the mere magic of the word “ fraternity ” that charmed him ; he had already discovered for himself that she could see a brother in any suffering man.
“ I don’t want it,” he answered, simply but decidedly. “ I have enough. I have food and lodging. Sometimes when I don’t work it ’s because I don’t choose. A man who has only himself to provide for needs little.”
Louison was astonished beyond measure when her young lady arrived in such company, and moreover asked that some refreshment might be offered to the citizen Gridou, and then with her own hand presented the wine which was all he would consent to take. The good nurse stood by, wide - eyed ; and when he was gone, and the situation had been hastily made clear to her, she simply passed from one state of amazement into another. She had learned already from the newspaper, to her grief and dismay, of the arrest of monsieur the marquis ; but that Mademoiselle Marie wanted to join him in prison ! — she struck her hands together over her head. The only commendable thing about the plan was that her hospitality should be claimed to further it, and in her pride and pleasure she made Marie feel that the whole little household was turned upside down for her accommodation. The “ patriot ” was unceremoniously sent with his pipe into the shop which ho kept in the front part of their dwelling, in order that a table might be spread for the guest in the family living-room, and she must occupy his great leather-covered armchair, rather to her discomfort, and, as she feared, to his ; and finally she overheard Louison reproaching him for addressing Mademoiselle he Sombreuil as “ citoyenne,” while he protested mildly that that was as proud a title as any one could desire, and that, moreover, her father was not a marquis and she was not Mademoiselle de Sombreuil any longer.
“ And just for that reason, all the more ! ” exclaimed Louison.
But he took that for one of the silly things that women would say sometimes, and, believing you must not expect too much logic from them, made no reply.
After doing what justice she could to Louison’s supper, Marie was left to a period of quiet while further preparations for the night went on elsewhere. The only child of the family, a boy about ten years old, was in the room with her ; but he was shy of the guest, and she, wearied with the emotions of the day, let him alone, and sat thinking, until a monotonous and continuous sound attracted her attention and made her look to see what the child was about.
He was littering the table with bits of paper, using, however, a certain method in his manner of procedure ; for he held a pair of scissors in one hand, while with the other he advanced a strip of paper towards them, along the table, saying as he did so, “ Here comes a fine gentleman,”or “ priest,” or “ officer ;” and when the paper reached the shears, he would duck it down and snip off the end, with “ Click ! and off goes his head ! ” and then instantly recommence the process ; the only variation being in the person who was subjected to this treatment, and who might be any one, as the fancy took him.
He was so absorbed in this singular pastime as to be quite unconscious that Marie was watching him, while she herself was fascinated by the very monotony of it, and there is no saying how long it might have continued but that, on a sudden, just, as he was beginning again, “ Here comes a fine young lady,” it was his mother who came and finished the sentence with “ Click ! and off goes your head ! ” as she gave him a box on the ear and snatched the scissors away from him.
“ The child went the other day with a parcel of rascally boys and saw some executions, ” she explained to Marie, who was almost as much taken by surprise as the young patriot himself at this conclusion of the ceremonies, “ and so we ’ve had nothing but guillotining in the family ever since, and I ’m sick of it.”
Poor little Jean had had enough of it, too, for the moment ; he sat scowling, and Marie said quickly, “ Ah, well, if that is it, it is not a pretty play. Let us think no more of it. Give me the scissors, Louison, and I will cut out some animals with which Jean can stock a farm.”
Louison looked on in admiration to see Mademoiselle Marie relieve the child’s discontent by turning his mind to healthier thoughts, and prophesied that she would “ make that boy adore her, just like everybody else.”In spite of this the young patriot fell into disgrace again later ; for when Marie and his mother were talking together, and it was nothing but “ monsieur le marquis,” and “ my father,” and “ the prison,” and there was evidently something very sad about it all, his unlucky pastime recurred to him, and he must needs inquire, “ Is he going to be guillotined ? ”
He was nimble enough to get out of his mother’s reach on the instant, and he took warning at the terrible threat, “ If you say that word again ! ” But as soon as it appeared to be safe, he returned to where he could gaze at Marie to his heart’s content. She, however, did not feel sure whether he was “ adoring ” her, or merely meditating on future possibilities, and saying to himself, Click !
Grace Howard Peirce.
- This was not a poll-tax, but a tax on capital. The laborer’s wages were accounted his capital, and taxed accordingly.↩