Number 7639 by Mary Frances
A poor garret on the sixth floor of one of the poorest houses in the
poorest quarters of Paris, does not give much opportunity for a detailed
description. There is little to be said about the furniture, which in
this case consisted of a rickety old table, a wooden stool, and a small
charcoal stove, all of the commonest kind, but all clean, and the room
was not quite without adornment. The window, to be sure, was in the
roof, but pinned to the wall were a few newspaper prints in strong
blacks and whites, and—most remarkable of all—there was an alcove for
the bed, which was carefully shut off from the room by a gaily
variegated chintz. In spite of its poverty and bareness, there was
nothing squalid or unwholesome about the place.
The house itself was a tall narrow slip. People of different callings,
and different degrees of respectability, lived in it; on the whole it
had not a bad character. The landlord was an immensely fat man, called
Plon—a name which, irresistibly converted into Plon-Plon, seemed to
give an aristocratic air to the house—and he lived and made shoes in a
small room at the foot of the lowest flight of stairs, so that he acted
as his own concierge, and boasted that no one came in or out without
his knowledge. Probably some of his lodgers contrived to elude his
vigilance, but he was as obstinate in his belief as an old Norman has a
right to be, and was a kind-hearted old fellow in the main, though with
the reputation of a grognard, and a ridiculous fear of being
discovered in a good action. Perhaps with this fear, the more credit was
due to him for occasionally running the risk, as when he saw young
Monnier, the artist, coming down the stairs one evening with a look in
his eyes, which Plon told himself gave him an immediate shuddering
back-sensation, as of cold water and marble slabs. Plon did something
for him, perhaps knocked off the rent, but he implored Monnier to show
his gratitude by saying nothing, and he never gave him more of a
greeting than the sidelong twist he vouchsafed to the other lodgers. For
the rest, his benevolence depended in a great measure upon his temper,
and he prided himself upon being very terrible at times.
With five floors we have nothing to do, and need waste no time over
them. The inmates mostly went out early and came in late, but the house
kept better hours than its neighbours, for the simple reason that those
who arrived after a certain time found themselves shut into the street
for the night. They might hammer and appeal in the strongest language
of their vocabulary, but Plon snored unmoved, and nothing short of a
fire in the house would have turned him out of his bed. Gradually this
became so well understood, that his lodgers accommodated themselves to
it as to any other of the inexorable laws of fate.
On the sixth and highest floor the crowded house resolved itself into
comparative quiet. Besides the garret of which we have spoken, there
were two other rooms, but for some years past these had been used merely
as store-rooms for furniture. No one knew to whom the furniture
belonged, some curious speculators avowing that Plon had a child—a
girl—at school in Normandy, and had collected it as part of her dowry;
others that some mysterious tie of gratitude bound him to the owner.
Whoever was right or wrong, the rooms remained closed and unlet.
The garret itself was inhabited by a young widow, whose story was
sufficiently sad. She was the daughter of a farmer in the north of
France, and married to a glazier, Jean Didier by name, with whom she had
come to Paris in search of work. If there had been no war, and, above
all, no Commune, things might have gone well with the young couple, but,
unhappily, one followed the other, and there was an end of peace. Jean
was no fool, but he was too certain that he was extremely wise not to
make mistakes, and he possessed enough of the French nature to be easily
influenced by the brag and fine promises which filled the air at that
time. It is always satisfactory to reflect on changes which assure us
the highest step of a ladder, which ordinarily takes a life-time for a
step. Jean talked a great deal about it, not only to Marie, who would
have been safe, but to others who agreed with him more thoroughly, and
were dangerous. Nevertheless, when the Commune, in March, 1871, broke
into actual life, and Jean began to see what it all meant, he was
terrified by the outburst and held back. Things which look seductive in
theory, have a way of losing their gloss when they appear as hard
realities, with accompaniments which do not belong to the ideals; and
the rabble rout of half-drunk citizens who marched, shouting, through
the streets of the 19th arrondissement, frightened Marie out of her
senses. She clung to Jean, and implored him not to join them on pain of
breaking her heart. To do him justice, common sense, perhaps aided by a
desire to keep out of the way of rifle-balls, was proving stronger than
bombast; and, to do him justice again, he was desirous to keep others
than himself from danger.
It was this which brought about the catastrophe. May came, and with it
the conquering troops from Versailles poured into the city. It was
sufficiently clear what the end would be; Jean, who never distrusted his
own reasoning powers, insisted, in spite of his wife's prayers and
Plon's expostulations, in going out into the streets, and trying to
dissuade some of his comrades from fighting. He promised to return
immediately, but he did not come, Marie became almost frenzied with
terror. She would have rushed out to seek him, but that she knew not
where to turn, and if he came, wanting help, and she was not there to
give it, matters might go hardly with him. The din of battle drew
nearer, shells were falling, bullets were whizzing, it seemed hardly
possible that any one could escape, and yet, men went by shouting and
singing, mad with either drink or excitement. Plon, after entreating
Madame Didier to come farther into shelter, shut himself into his little
room with a white face, and was seen no more. Everything seemed to grow
more horrid as the night drew on.
At about ten o'clock, Plon, hearing voices in the passage, peeped out.
There still stood Madame Didier, wan as a ghost, but with the restless
excitement gone. A man was speaking to her, an elderly, grimy,
frightened-looking man, with a bald head. He was telling a story in a
dull, hopeless kind of way, as if at such a time no one story was
particularly distinguished from another, and pity had to wait for
"He was shot in the next street; Jean says he never wished to go with
them, but they forced him along. After that he got into a doorway, where
he might have hidden himself, but Fort saw him, and denounced him. Fort
might have left him alone, as it was he your husband was trying to
persuade, but at such a time men look after their own skins. They
dragged him out and set him up with some others against a wall, and
that was the end of him, and of a good many others."
His listener flung up her hands with a gesture of wild despair, and
turned her face to the wall, speechless. The man, who was by trade a
trieur or chief chiffonnier, seeing Plon's head appear,
turned round and addressed himself to him.
"Fort is a traitor, he has denounced others. They will be here presently
searching for arms. It is short work I can tell you."
"And my—my locataire is shot!" murmured Plon, panic-struck. But the
man whose mission was ended, turned round without another word and went
out into the lurid darkness.
The landlord made a trembling effort to stagger across the passage, and
to pluck at Marie's gown. When he spoke, his voice quavered with fright.
"Come, come, Madame Didier, go upstairs, and—and—cry there like a good
woman. Here it isn't safe. Besides, if they know who you are, I might be
compromised. Poor Jean! Heavens!--"
For a volley of rifle shot poured down the street, a rush of feet
followed; and Plon fled precipitously to his den, double-bolted his
door, and rolled his mattress round him for protection. Marie Didier
slowly turned her head, and, as if recognising the wisdom of his advice,
felt her way along the wall and groped up the dark staircase. No one had
lit the small oil lamp on the premier, but light from burning houses
flashed in at windows; a child had been killed by the fragment of a
shell, and the mother was loudly wailing; some were peering out of
their doorways; they stared at Marie, who crept up like a ghost. In this
rookery the young couple had kept themselves apart, and had no friends.
But it was instinctively known that something had happened to Jean, and
only one woman was bold enough to question the wife. She answered
steadily in a strange strained voice:
"They are searching the houses. We shall have them soon."
It was, however, an hour before a party of soldiers made a rough
visitation. They dragged Plon out of his mattress, and made him climb
the stairs, panting and protesting. When they reached the top garret,
Marie was sitting in the darkness, with her arms on the poor table; she
did not move as they entered.
"Bring in the lantern!" shouted the sergeant. "Now, good woman, who have
you got hiding here?"
She turned a white face upon him, speechless. Plon, who was recovering
his pomposity, pressed forward, and laid a hand on the soldier's arm.
"Don't worry her, sergeant," he said, "her husband has just been shot."
"Serve him right," said the man brutally. "Are there more of the brood
"Not a soul. They lived here alone, these two."
"Well, we'll see."
"No cupboards here," said a soldier, whose face was bleeding from a
"There's a trap door, though," said the sergeant, holding the lantern
up to the ceiling. He glanced sharply at Marie, but she remained
immovable. "Humph," he grumbled, "if he is shot he is out of the way.
Now, friend Porpoise, the other rooms if you please."
They searched these thoroughly with no better success. But when they had
satisfied themselves and were out again, the sergeant, whose suspicions
seemed to have been aroused, flung open the door of the Didiers' garret,
and turned the lantern full upon Marie once more. She had not moved hand
"What is that blood?" said the sergeant, pointing to a trail of red
drops on the floor.
For answer she silently rolled back her sleeve, and unbandaging her arm,
showed a deep cut, from which the blood still oozed.
"Good. She has no one," said the man, withdrawing the light.
This, as all the world knows, was in 1871. Four years afterwards, at the
time my story begins, Marie Didier still occupied that attic. She lived
by taking in needlework, and it was sometimes a wonder to the few who
knew her, that working so hard as she did, she should remain so poor.
The furniture of her attic I have described, the sole addition she had
made to it was the gay chintz which curtained off the alcove with the
bed. She was always ready to do a kindness, but made no acquaintances,
and the only persons who ever climbed to her attic were Plon, who made
occasional weighty visitations, often discoursed upon his prowess at the
time of the Commune; and an idiot girl called Périne, whom Marie one day
found crying in the street; she had no father or mother, and the old
rag-picker she lived with beat her. Once or twice Marie gave her food,
and the poor creature attached herself to her like a dog, followed her
upstairs and lay across her door. After a while Madame Didier admitted
her into her room at times, and let her share her poor meals, and sleep
on a heap of sacking outside the door. Périne, in such prosperity, was
as happy as a queen. It is true that Plon at first objected, but Marie
could persuade him into anything, and he only grumbled.
On one winter day, Marie was stooping over the stove stirring something
in an earthen pipkin; Périne, seated on the wooden stool, leaned forward
and watched her operations with excessive interest. Perhaps for want of
an intelligent companion, Madame Didier was in the habit of
soliloquising aloud, and at this moment she was saying cheerfully:
"Not much, to be sure, but something! I should have liked a carrot or
two, but in these hard times that would have been extravagant. And,
after all, there is some credit in making good soup out of nothing at
all. If one could run here and there in the market—'A pound of your
best veal, monsieur'—'A bunch of those fine turnips, and a stick of
celery, madame'—well, truth obliges me to admit that it is possible
the soup would have a finer flavour, but there would not be the
satisfaction of seeing it grow out of a few onions a crust of bread, and
a pinch of salt. And that is a satisfaction which I am favoured with
tolerably often. Well, Périne, my child, it interests you—this
occupation—does it not? Do you think you will ever learn to make soup?"
The girl nodded many times.
"Périne eat it," she said.
"Listen to her!" Marie exclaimed, patting her cheek approvingly. "And
that any one should say she has no sense! She knows as well as any of
us, that the great thing in soup is to eat it with an appetite, and so
she puts together two and two—"
She was interrupted by the girl.
"Four!" she said abruptly.
Madame Didier, instead of showing astonishment, began to laugh.
"There she is with her numbers again! How strange it is that she should
never forget a number or make a mistake in a sum! In taking away or
adding together one can't puzzle her. I don't mean that I can't," she
continued, apparently addressing no one in particular, "because I am a
poor ignorant woman; but wiser people than I. Now, Périne, you shall
have your lesson. See here, I shall stand near my bed, and you over
there with your face to the wall. Do you understand?"
The girl nodded, and stumbling along towards the place indicated,
contrived on her way to knock down and break into atoms a white dish.
"Oh, the unfortunate child!" cried Marie, darting forward. "Another! and
it was my last! How many more things will you destroy!"
At this reproach the guilt-stricken Périne covered her face and howled
aloud, and Madame Didier's momentary anger passed.
"There, don't cry!" she said, "crying does no good, and it was an
accident. You'll be more careful another time, won't you? Try to move
gently, and look where you go, or some day you will hurt yourself. At
present let me see you stand well against the wall, so! I put on the
soup—and we are ready."
As she said these words she went back to the alcove. And then a strange
thing happened. For from behind the gaily-figured chintz, there issued a
strange hoarse whisper, which caused so little astonishment to Madame
Didier, that she merely echoed the words aloud. Apparently this was
"Seven six nine, and eight five four," repeated Madame Didier.
The answer from the girl came instantaneously:
"Sixteen hundred and twenty-three."
Her teacher paused for a moment, perhaps to allow the whisperer time for
objection, if there were one to make, but as nothing came she said
"Good! Now let me think of another."
"Nine ought three, and fifteen nine seven," prompted the hidden voice.
"Ah, here is a fine one! Nine ought—" she hesitated, "fifteen—"
The voice corrected her impatiently: "Nine ought three, and fifteen nine
In the same whisper she answered "Hush!" warningly, before repeating the
figures aloud and correctly. The girl, on her part, returned rapidly and
"She seems a different creature when she is doing it!" Marie exclaimed
admiringly. "Now one more, and then I must run down and see in what sort
of a temper Monsieur Plon finds himself. If it is good, he will lend me
his journal. At any rate, I shall only be gone a moment. Allons!
Something difficult, something to take away, shall it be?"
As before the whisper responded:
"From thirteen thousand nine hundred and fifty-nine, take eight thousand
five hundred and four."
Madame Didier began in a puzzled voice, "From eight thousand five
hundred and four, take thirteen—" but, seeing Périne shake her head,
caught herself up. "No, no, not that, of course not that!"
"The other way, stupid woman!" said the whisper.
Slowly she started again, "From thirteen thousand," and, interprompted
by the mysterious voice, arrived at the end of her sum, "nine hundred
Quick as thought came the answer:
"Five thousand four hundred and fifty-five."
"All those fives! You are really a wonder, Périne!" said Marie happily.
"I never could do anything like that, decidedly I am only fit to make
soup. Well, every one to his trade—we can't dine upon figures. If we
could you would provide us with plenty, eh, my child? But now I have
something for you to do while I am away. Here is the stool; I am going
to put it before the fire, so, and you shall sit upon it and watch the
pot for me. Don't move, and don't look behind you, and then, by-and-by,
you shall have a basin of the soup. If only I had something to put into
it, something good, for bread and onions are not too fattening. However,
there is plenty to be thankful for. Remember, Périne, you must not take
your eyes off the soup."
The girl, who seemed to have the faculty of obedience, sat down where
she was directed, and fastened her stolid gaze upon the pot. For a time
there was absolute silence in the garret, a ray of cold winter sunshine,
cold but bright (for this was Paris), streamed in through the little
window in the roof, and fell on Périne's slouching figure and coarse
hair. Less than five minutes, however, had passed, when the chintz
curtains of the alcove shook, parted, and from between them looked out
a pale and haggard man's face.
It will be guessed that this third inhabitant of the sixth floor attic
was no other than Jean Didier, whose name had been entered in the
bureau of police—when they tried to get some imperfect statistics of
missing men—as "Jean Didier, glazier; fought with the insurgents,
wounded at the barricade of the Rue Soleil d'Or, May 28th, 1871;
denounced as Communist by André Fort; executed on the spot."
Nevertheless, for once the police were wrong. Jean was not shot, though
it was true he was shot at. Fear, or loss of blood, or an instinctive
effort at self-preservation, caused him to reel and fall just a second
before a couple of bullets which should have found a home in his body,
spent themselves in the blood-stained wall over his head. The tide of
slaughter ebbed away, leaving ghastly heaps of dead men. From one of
these a shadow by-and-by detached itself, and drifted homewards, to the
spot where Marie was waiting in terrible anguish.
Her courage came back with the need for it; it took very little to add
to the disguise which fire and a wound had brought upon him; the people
in the house were at that moment much occupied with dragging down the
papers they had pasted over their windows. He crawled upstairs, and when
she had hastily bound up his wound, and given him some food, he managed
to get out on the roof through the trap-door. There he spent three days,
coming down at night, till she was able to put up her new chintz
curtains, and here in the garret he had remained ever since, sometimes
fairly patient, sometimes finding his lot insupportable, and railing at
fate, at Marie, and at Providence. He had had a few narrow escapes, but
his wife was as cunning as a fox when he was concerned, and fortune had
Périne's presence had a double aspect. The loneliness of the position
was so difficult for a man of his temperament to support, that he
welcomed it at times as a distraction, and these exercises of the
strange ingenuity of brain which she possessed, at the cost, as it
seemed, of all other intelligences, would very often interest and amuse
him. On the other hand she was quite as valuable as a grievance. If he
had no other fault to find with his wife, he could always blame her for
suffering the idiot girl to hang about the place, and the relief of this
was enormous. On the present occasion he contemplated her broad back
"Wretched creature! There she sits, and will sit till Marie comes back;
I wonder what she thinks would happen to her if she were to look round?
Lucky for me if she pictures some terrible fate. What sort of confused
nonsense is running through her head now? Soup and Marie take a
prominent place, I wager. So precious hard up does one become in this
rat's hole, that I make her my problem as she makes the soup hers, poor
wretch! Yet, my excellent friend, Jean Didier, I would counsel you to
keep your compassion for yourself, for, believe me, you want it at least
as much. As much? Rather, a hundred times more! For she—she knows
nothing of the blessings she has missed, while I—Heavens, I know too
well! To be cooped up here, to see no one but Marie and this idiot; to
be aware that at any moment any thing, the merest trifle, might betray
me to death, or at least transportation to New California,—was ever man
so unhappy in this world!"
Jean, who had a turn for the melodramatic, tugged despairingly with both
hands at his hair, Périne, meanwhile, intent upon the soup, bent forward
and stirred it.
"Soup for mother and Périne," she muttered.
"What red hands she has!" continued Jean with a grimace, "and I hate to
hear her call Marie, mother. But it's just Marie all over. She never
could see a poor wretch, were it only a hunted rat, but she must take it
up, and give herself all the trouble in the world, when she might have
left it alone. She was just the same as a little girl, I see her now, in
her little round cap and woollen frock, scattering food for the
frozen-out birds in the hard winters. Such a pretty, rosy-faced little
thing as she was, and they all so fond of her! I recollect taking her to
school in my wooden sledge, and she—What's the girl about now?
Why—what dog has bitten her! She has taken my tobacco from the
shelf—she—not—! Yes, by heaven, she has poured it all into the soup!"
"Périne heard mother say she wanted something to make the soup good,"
laughed the girl, nodding her head, and quite unconscious that behind
her the enraged Jean was violently shaking his fist.
"Horror! To see tobacco, dinner, everything ruined by that creature
without being able to say a word! It is simply atrocious of Marie to go
away, leave her to do all this mischief, and then expect me to put up
with it! My pipe, my one comfort! Ah-h-h-h! if only I could box her ears
and stop her from grinning away as if she had done a clever thing!"
It was at this moment that Marie returned, carrying in her arms a
cabbage. At the door, seeing the angry and distracted gesture of her
husband, she paused in consternation.
"But what then? Has anything gone wrong? The soup—Périne, you
unfortunate child, have you touched the soup?"
The girl pointed with triumph to where the tobacco had been.
"Good stuff, mother," she said, nodding.
"The tobacco! You have it put in!--Oh, my poor friend, no wonder you are
angry!" said Madame Didier in an undertone.
"Out with her!" cried her husband in a fierce whisper.
"Périne, Périne, and I have warned you so often to touch nothing without
leave! Now you have spoilt the soup, and we can have no dinner."
There was this inconvenience in the quick remorse which seized the girl
when Marie reproved her, however gently, that she broke at once into
sobs, which were as clumsy and unmanageable as her hands and feet. Jean
disliked them intensely, and he now made frantic signs to his wife that
she was to be sent away. "But she is as hungry as we are," pleaded
Marie, "and see, M. Plon has given me a cabbage, I can manage
He was, however, inexorable; and his wife, always afraid of his
committing some imprudence, though on the whole Jean might be trusted to
take care of himself, said sorrowfully:
"Périne, my poor child, you must go; there is no dinner for you today.
Don't cry, don't cry; you meant no harm—you did not know, and Heaven is
witness how sorely we sometimes suffer for that!"
Between her sobs the girl jerked out piteously:
"Périne come back?"
Marie looked imploringly at her husband, but he shook his head.
"Not tonight, not to-night, my child. As you go out beg for a bit of
bread from M. Plon, he is in a splendid temper, and will not refuse it.
There make haste, go!"
She took her by the shoulders and pushed her towards the door, but when
she left her outside, kissed her.
Périne had no sooner gone than Jean came out and flung himself angrily
on a chair.
"I shall stand this no longer. I give you notice of my determination,
Marie. You have her here, I believe, solely to torment me. Figure to
yourself having to stand by helpless, and see the creature put an end to
both one's dinner and one's pipe! She is not to come here any more,
those are my orders. Do you hear?"
"Yes, I hear," said Marie quietly, "but I beg of you to change your
mind. We are badly off, I allow, yet somehow or other we can always rub
along, and this poor child is in worse plight than we are."
"Worse? Nonsense. No one can be worse off than I am. Denounced,
executed, for I assure you I felt that bullet go through my brain, saved
just by the hair of my head—"
"Such a mercy!" breathed the wife.
"A mercy, yes—but you who can go and come and amuse yourself, never
think what this life must be to me, cooped up like a rat in his hole.
There are times when I believe I should do better to give myself up."
"For the sake of Heaven, Jean—!"
"At any rate," said Jean, descending from his heights, "I will not have
that imbécile here. You understand?"
Marie looked at him indulgently. "Yes, my friend, I understand."
"I'll lay a wager you never got that journal from old Plon-Plon?"
"He had not finished with it."
"Of course not. Then I shall go to sleep, for there is nothing else for
me to do."
He flung a handkerchief over his eyes as he spoke, put his feet on
Périne's stool, and his elbow on the table. Marie moved quietly about,
set the saucepan again on the stove, and taking some needlework from a
box, sat down near her husband, stitching rapidly. Every now and then
she glanced at him, and her mind was tenderly busy over his concerns all
the while, so that tears would have stood in her eyes if they had not
had other work to do.
"How sad the poor fellow looks!" she thought. "I'm glad he's asleep,
after that unfortunate affair with the pipe. When I remember how hard it
is to get tobacco for him, for I am dreadfully afraid that some one will
suspect me when I ask for it, I must own that Périne is an unlucky
child. But as for her not coming again, he doesn't mean that, no,
no—he's so kind hearted that he would be the last to keep her away;
besides, I know very well that while he grumbles he feels an interest in
hearing her do those wonderful sums. Anything is better for him than
seeing no one but stupid me from year's end to year's end—my poor Jean!
Three years! I declare it quite hurts me to go out and about, though to
be sure I must. But it seems so selfish."
There is no knowing to what depths of accusing wickedness Madame
Didier's meditations would have led her, but that presently she heard a
heavy creaking step upon the stairs; and flew to awake her husband and
to hustle him into his refuge. M. Plon's visits were rare, and she
discouraged them with all her might, yet when he arrived panting and
puffing at the door, she was standing by the stove working, with a
little coquettish air of greeting about her.
"You don't mean to say that you have brought the journal yourself, M.
Plon! Now that is kind of you, but it is disarranging yourself too much
to climb up those steep stairs, when I could have fetched it with
"Ugh, ugh, they are steep, there's no denying it," said Plon, sinking
into the rickety chair. "But what would you have? Up here on the sixth,
you can't expect all the luxuries of the first or second."
"You should cultivate a contented frame of mind. Madame Didier, and
beware of grumbling."
"Was I grumbling?"
"You were complaining—complaining of the stairs, and it is a pernicious
habit. Don't encourage it."
"But, indeed—" Marie was beginning with a smile, when he interrupted
her with a majestic wave of his hand.
"Halte là! Now you are contradicting, and that is another bad habit,
particularly for a woman. But nobody knows when they are well off in
these days. I often say to my friends: 'There is Madame Didier, she
lives in that nice airy attic of ours; she has no one to think of but
herself, no cares, no responsibilities; she ought to be as happy as a
bird.' Look at me, I entreat you; what a contrast! At everybody's beck
and call, cooped up in a draughty little den, making shoes with a
thousand interruptions. I ask you what sort of a life is that for a man
of my stamp? If you were to try it for a week, you'd find out whether
you were not a lucky woman! But, there, as I said before, nobody ever
knows when they are well off—not even widows. I say all this because I
take a real interest in you."
"I know you do, M. Plon, if only for the sake of my poor husband," said
Marie demurely. To say the truth she was often in a state of
uncomfortable doubt as to whether M. Plon's interest might not be going
to take a warmer form, in which case it might be more difficult than
ever for Jean to forget that he was no longer in the land of the living.
"But I must say I don't think you are the best of managers," said M.
Plon with a magisterial sweep of his hand which took in all the poor
surroundings. "With your earnings you might do better than you do,
Madame Didier. One mouth to feed, one person to dress—"
"There is Périne," faltered poor Marie.
"Yes, there is Périne, and it is true those imbeciles have appetites
like wolves. Still—well, well, you must not suppose that I am blaming
you; on the contrary, it might surprise you to hear—"
M. Plon was edging his chair a little nearer to Madame Didier, and she
thought it was time to interrupt his explanation, so she said briskly:
"Ah, by the way, what news is there to-day in Le Petit Journal?"
"There is the great robbery."
"The great robbery! Where?"
"In the Rue Vivienne. The paper is full of it—jewellery, diamonds,
plate, treasures of all kinds carried off, chest and all, that's the
wonderful part of it, for a chest is not a thing to hide in your
"And have they no clue?" asked Marie, much interested.
"Not yet, but there must have been a cart or a cab, or some vehicle in
the affair. It is clear enough that this belongs to the haute pègre,
none of your common burglars would have attempted such a daring stroke;
and I would lay a wager, too, that they're not so far off from here, if
they're in Paris, that is. I shall keep a sharp look-out, for the reward
"Really!" said Madame Didier with a sigh.
"One would suppose you wanted it yourself," said Plon angrily. "Now what
possible good could it do to you? It is extraordinary that people—women
especially—can't be contented, but must always be wishing for what they
"I was only thinking," Marie answered apologetically.
"Then don't think. Women should leave that to others," Having delivered
which sententious maxim, M. Plon rose with some difficulty from his
chair, and gazed round the room. It was a habit of his, but it always
frightened Marie, and it frightened her yet more when he turned towards
the recess and stood contemplating the curtains. "You keep those so
tightly drawn one would—Eh! what's the matter!"
For Madame Didier, stooping over the stove, had uttered a sharp feminine
"I have burnt my finger?" she exclaimed, wringing her hand.
"That comes of thinking. Does it hurt?"
"Hurt! Of course it does."
"Let me see," he said coming over.
But Marie hastily bound a bit of rag round her hand.
"The great thing is to exclude the air," she said quickly. "Then you
mean to be on the lookout for these grand robbers, M. Plon?"
"Yes, instead of idling away my time up here," he said, rolling towards
the door. "But you women dearly love a little gossip, don't you? And
though you are not the best of managers, Madame Didier, no one can say
you don't work with industry. So keep a good heart. You shall hear if I
get the reward."
As the sound of his heavy footsteps creaked down the stairs, Jean came
out and flung himself on the chair which M. Plon had occupied.
"Now that that old idiot has taken himself off, let's see what he was
"Is it true about the robbery?" asked Marie, leaning over his shoulder.
"So it seems."
"And the reward?"
"Twelve thousand francs."
"Twelve thousand francs!" repeated his wife in amazement. "Oh, you must
"There are the figures at any rate, see for yourself."
"Yes, I see. I suppose it must be so, as it is in the paper;
but—but—if we could only have a little part of it!"
"Ah, if!" said Jean with a shrug. "But how will you manage? Stand about
the corners of the Streets and ask every escarpe that passes?"
"I could almost do that," his wife answered stoutly, "when I reflect
that with money we might have an advocate, and you might be free. My
store grows so slowly, Jean!"
Jean dashed the paper to the ground, and thrust his hands through his
"Don't talk of it, if you wouldn't madden me!" he exclaimed.
"Might—might—I am sick of mights! Cooped up here I can do nothing, but
if I had only common luck I might get the end of a clue as well as any
other poor devil. I tell you, Marie, I have half a mind to give myself
up, and end everything."
She clung to him, pale as death.
"You'd get on better without me."
Jean's tragic air vanished in a rush of real emotion. He put his wife
from him and looked at her sorrowfully.
"Poor soul!" he said slowly. "And you really mean that I haven't tired
you out yet with all my moods and cross words? No? Then, decidedly, we
must rub on a little longer still."
She embraced him with all the gratitude a woman feels when her good
offices are accepted.
"To-morrow," she said cheerfully, "to-morrow will bring you some
"To-morrow will also, I imagine, bring Périne," he replied, with a
laugh, and when he laughed it was possible to see what a handsome young
fellow the haggard man had been. "Well, I am not sure that Périne isn't
preferable to old Plon-Plon. When I hear him prosing away to you on the
duty of being contented, it's all I can do not to knock him down. You a
bad manager, indeed!"
"Do not talk of anything so imprudent."
"He would roll like a ball," said Jean longingly.
"Bah, you need not fear. To do things sometimes in imagination is the
only way of keeping my muscles in exercise. Oh, if I could only get a
little fresh air, or drop in at the brasserie and hear what is doing!"
"See, here," said Marie, true to her mission of comforter, "to-night we
shall have a luxury, for this work must be finished and carried home
to-morrow morning, and so I shall allow myself a candle. Sometimes I am
afraid that I want more light than in old days, but I daresay that is a
foolish fancy. The cabbage will be ready in a few minutes; meanwhile,
tell me what more news you have got there in the paper. M. Plon has a
great respect for my scholarship, but he is afraid I waste my time over
his journals—aha, M. Plon, you little know that I have got my reader!"
"Plon is an ass," said Jean gruffly, for he did not like any one to find
a flaw in the wife whom he often scolded himself.
"Perhaps," said Marie happily. "But now, find me something horribly
delightful to-night, something to make me shudder."
"Capture of a wolf in Auvergne."
"Of a wolf! Is it possible!" demanded Madame Didier, much interested.
"And how many people did he eat?"
"Only one! What a stupid wolf! Go on, my friend."
"Suicide of a husband."
"Not that, I do not like anything so sad," she said in a changed voice.
"And where was his wife all the time, that she could not prevent it, I
should like to know? No, let me hear a little more about this robbery,
and then we will have our dinner."
The hours passed, the light faded in the little garret where Marie's
busy fingers toiled day after day to add to the little hoard so slowly
accumulating, and Marie's cheerful heart brought out greater treasures
of unselfish devotion, if her husband had only known it. Perhaps he did
know it—in a fashion. Through the night, when it came, she thought
often uneasily of Périne out in the heart of the great wicked city. But
Périne had a haunt or two of her own, and Marie said prayers for her,
and slept, hoping the girl would be safe.
She got up early the next morning while Jean was yet asleep, and cheered
herself as she looked at her scanty supply of poor coffee with the
thought that she would be paid for her work in the course of the day.
Meanwhile the breakfast would not be a very rich affair, and she was
pondering whether she could be so extravagant as to run to a crêmerie
near at hand for two sous-worth of milk, when an unexpected sound
filled her with dismay. It was Périne's shuffling steps upon the stairs,
and she was by no means sure how Jean would receive such an early
visitor. Moreover, she did not care that he should be disturbed, and she
went hastily to the door to moderate the noise of the girl's awkward
entry. For a wonder no word or look of hers could do this. Périne, who
generally was obedient to her smallest sign, was in a state of
uncontrollable excitement; she fled to Marie's arms, buried her rough
head there, sobbed her loudest, and presently, in the thick of
incoherent lamentations, pulled down her dress, and showed a heavy
bruise on her shoulder. Then she sobbed again, and implored Madame
Didier not to let them beat her.
"Come, come, come!" said Marie reassuringly, "tell me a little more
about this, and don't be a baby, Périne. Remember that you are a big
girl. No one will come here to beat you; if they did, good M. Plon would
not let them come up the stairs. Tell me who did it?"
She sat down on the stool as she spoke, and let the poor clumsy creature
rest on her knee.
"The man, the bad man!" howled Périne.
"That I hear; but what were you doing to make any one so cruel?"
"Périne only looking at pretty bright figures, mother; so pretty with
the light on them. 7639."
"What is she talking about?" said Madame Didier, puzzled, "7639?"
"Yes, yes," said the girl eagerly, and then she broke off again into her
lamentations, which lasted until Marie had bathed her hurt, and soothed
her by degrees. But when she proposed to take her to the crêmerie,
Périne began to wail again, and it was evident that something had so
terrified her, that it would be cruelty to force her out into the
streets. Every now and then she let drop another word or two on the
subject of her fright; her poor disconnected brain seemed unable to
grasp anything as a whole; something would float across it and be lost.
Marie had grown apt at gathering together these cobweb strands, and
disentangling them, but now even her ingenuity was at fault, and the
number was the only point which stood out clearly from wavering words
about a man and a box. She gathered at last that somewhere or other this
number with the light shining on it had attracted Périne's attention,
that she went to look, and that a man pushed her away with a blow, and
with threats which had been strong enough to send her terrified from the
spot. Evidently she scarcely felt secure in her present quarters, and
piteously implored Marie not to suffer him to come. Marie soothed her,
and hoped that Jean's compassion might be as strong as her own. Had she
not been taken up with Périne, she would have more quickly caught the
impatient scratching like a mouse in the wainscot, with which he
He made signs that he must speak, and with some difficulty she got
Périne into the landing, thrusting into her hands the bread which would
have been her own portion. Then she locked her door and went back to
Jean, who was eagerly waiting.
"Marie, I have a thought," he began. "What do you make out of all she
"Next to nothing," said his wife, shrugging her shoulders.
"No?" said Jean, feverishly and a little contemptuously. "Suppose I
suggested that she saw the figures on the lamp of a cab, what then?"
"What then?" repeated she, puzzled.
"And a box, and a man angry with her for looking. What then?"
"Oh, I don't understand!" said Marie, shaking her head.
"Heavens, that any one should be so dense! Have you forgotten the
"In the Rue Vivienne—oh, do you mean—do you think it possible! Jean,
how clever you are! I wonder whether—shall I run to the place and see?"
"To the place, and even if they were still there, get yourself knocked
on the head!"
"I should not mind," cried Marie eagerly. "I should mind nothing with
such a hope before me."
"No, my good Marie," Jean returned grandly; "you have excellent
intentions, but it is well you have some one to guide you. The first
thing is to find a commissaire of police."
The name seemed terrible; she turned pale, but he hurried on, losing
himself again in his excitement, and with all his haggard features
"Yes, yes, I know what you will say, but do you not understand that if
this is what I believe, anything will be forgiven to the man who can put
the sergent de ville on the track?"
"If! At any rate I will do what you bid me," the young wife said,
trembling. "There is a bureau not so far away. Only promise me you
will be prudent, for I must leave Périne here, though I will lock the
door. Remember, M. Plon has his own keys."
Nor would she relax one of her precautions in spite of his heated
impatience. But she had spoken truly, for after the daily fear of years,
the personal danger of encountering the robbers assuredly seemed nothing
in comparison with having to do with the police. She told Périne where
she was to sit, and tried to extract more coherent details, but only as
to the figures was Périne clear. These she repeated again and again,
while more than once Jean's sharp whisper reached his wife's ears. "Make
haste, make haste!" and she signed caution in return.
When she had gone there was for some time absolute silence in the
garret, Jean having flung himself on his bed, and given himself up to a
wild delirium of hope. By-and-by this took the form of restlessness. He
tossed and tumbled on his bed, and, his ear full of sounds which
expectation and imagination brought there, sometimes started up, keen to
listen, and the next moment pressed his fingers into his ears, to try to
shut out these delusive sounds. Then he became almost as reckless as to
Périne; what did her seeing him matter when so soon he would be a free
man? Once or twice the bed creaked and groaned under his tossings, so
that he imagined she would surely look round. But no, the girl was blind
and deaf to everything but Marie's orders, she sat squarely on the
wooden stool with her elbows on her knees, and her chin on her hands,
every now and then uttering a disjointed sob, until fatigue and tears
brought about their natural consequence, and it became evident that she
Jean got up and shook himself and looked out at her, his head in a
whirl. He began to think that Marie was long absent, and to lay the
blame on the back which was always ready to bear his burdens.
"She will not know where to go, she will stand gossipping with any fool
who asks her a question, and in this time I would wager a piece of
twenty sous the police or some other busy-body will have got on the
track. What more likely? And there's an end to our luck. Why did I let
her waste all these moments? Why didn't I go myself? Women always muddle
things. There would have been a scene, beyond doubt. 'Holà!—thunder
and lightning, who may this be?'" Jean planted himself in an attitude,
and struck his chest violently. "Then I should have drawn myself up,
always with dignity—thus—'This, gentlemen, is none other than Jean
Didier!'—'Who? What!'—'Jean Didier, at your service, gentlemen,
falsely denounced as Communist, executed and reported dead, but, as you
see alive, and able to render an important service to an ungrateful
country.'—That sounds sublime! I flatter myself it would have produced
an impression. Why didn't I go? Women, with all their good intentions,
haven't an idea of the value of a stroke like that! It requires genius.
And I foresee my excellent Marie will muddle the whole affair, very
likely allow them to pick her brains and cajole the number out of her,
then one of these messieurs will slip off and secure the reward."
Excitement got a strong hold upon Jean as this idea presented itself,
and his castles toppled over. "That's it, that's how it will go! And I
deserve it for having left such a delicate affair in the hands of a
woman. I could have managed it to a turn, and here I have let her go
off, and the whole thing will slip through her fingers. I could beat
myself with vexation."
In effect, he stamped his foot with such violence that Périne jumped up
and, looking round, saw him vanishing behind the curtains. She shrieked
with terror, "The man! Oh, it's the man!"
White as death, Jean rushed out and tried to calm her.
"Hush, child, hush! it's only me!"
But Périne was past all control, she screamed for "Mother!" for "M.
Plon!" until it seemed to Jean that not only the house but the whole
neighbourhood would presently be on him. He tried coaxing, he tried
menace, but Périne shrieked the more.
"Will you hold your tongue!" he cried, with a wild thought of strangling
her. "I'm a friend, I'm not the man; I won't touch you. Périne, Périne,
don't cry out so, look at me!"
At this appeal she hid her eyes with her hands.
"The man! the man! Mother! Help!" Nevertheless, though it seemed to poor
Jean that the very streets must tingle with her cries, it is possible,
for the upper-stories of the house had early risers for their dwellers,
that the deaf old woman left on the fifth floor might have heard
nothing; but unfortunately M. Plon had taken it into his head to make a
visitation to those uninhabited rooms of his in which some one had
housed his furniture, and at this moment was on his way. He knew that
Madame Didier was out, and Périne's screams seemed to point to fire or
something equally disastrous. The door was locked, but he had all his
keys about him, and soon succeeded in opening it, when Périne in a
transport of terror rushed at him, and flung herself into his arms with
a force which might have knocked over a less ponderous rescuer, and
effectually blocked the door at which Jean glanced longingly.
"Holà!" cried the astonished landlord. "Que diable! A man in
Madame Didier's room! What's the meaning of all this? Police!"
Jean advanced with a threatening gesture, and the valiant Plon quickly
retreated. For one wild moment his lodger contemplated the chances which
lay in knocking him down, and taking refuge in flight, but he reflected
that if the house were alarmed he would not get off, and if not, it
might be possible to enlist M. Plon on his side. He therefore went
quietly back into the room, saying, "Do not fear, M. Plon.... I give
you my word, I am not going to fight."
"You had better not," said the other blusteringly. "You had better not!"
"Oh, as to that ..." said Jean with anger.
M. Plon retreated a second time before this demonstration, and again
lifted his voice for the police.
"They'll be here fast enough, no doubt," said Jean quietly, though there
was a bitter feeling of downfall in his heart. "Meanwhile, perhaps it
might be as well for me to tell you who I am."
"Who you are?" repeated M. Plon indignantly. "It's easy enough to see
that, my fine fellow, though what you could expect to steal here is not
so clear. You've got the air of a gallows bird, and it's well this poor
child has me—the brave Plon—to protect her."
"Come, come, M. Plon—listen to reason. I'm the husband of Madame
"The husband of Madame Didier? What, when she hasn't got one!" cried the
other, now fairly enraged.
"Nevertheless, you might remember Jean Didier—if only you would," said
Jean imploringly, for he began to think there was yet a chance for him
if he could conciliate his landlord, and he made a few steps towards him
holding out his hands. But Périne screamed and Plon waved him
energetically back. Finding his prisoner cowed he launched some strong
invectives at him.
"You're a thief and a cut-throat, that's what you are!" he said,
shivering. "Keep off, keep off! You could no more stand in Jean Didier's
shoes than you could in mine, for he was a decent, peaceable young
fellow, and more than that, he was shot. So you've got hold of the wrong
story here, Monsieur Blacklegs, and one that won't serve you much in the
"It's true, I give you my word," said Jean.
"They did their best to shoot me, but I was only wounded. Marie got me
up here, and here I have been ever since."
"Was there ever such a cool hand!" cried Plon wrathfully. "And you
absolutely think to persuade me of this when not a soul comes in and out
of this house without my knowing. A pretty tale!"
Jean muttered "Blockhead!" under his breath. Aloud he said, "But—M.
Plon—am I not here now?"
"No, you are not!" Plon retorted,—"or if you are, you shall soon be out
of it again. Police! Help, help!"
"If only Marie were here!" groaned Jean. "M. Plon, I implore you to have
pity! wait until my wife arrives; you will believe her if you can't
believe your own eyes. Lock me into the room, do whatever you like—only
If M. Plon had indeed had sufficient calmness to contemplate the figure
before him, it is probable that in spite of alteration he would have
found something to recognise. But he was in a state of perturbed
excitement which altogether confused his judgment, and only inclined him
to refuse all his prisoner's suggestions. He therefore set himself more
vigorously than ever to bawl for help, and Périne seconded him with all
her might. The next moment Jean went back to the table, seated himself
upon it and crossed his arms. He had recognised Marie's step.
She came into the room pale as death, and even as she came, hesitated,
and held up her hand, as if she would have prevented a man who was with
her from following. But seeing that she was too late, and that Jean was
already discovered, she rushed into his arms, crying out:
"What has happened?"
M. Plon took up the parable, quite regardless of her action.
"What has happened, Madame Didier? There is no saying what might not
have happened if I had not been on the spot. Here is a rascally,
black-guardly, good-for-nothing!" and as he uttered these bold
invectives, he advanced and shook his fist in Jean's face. "You see him,
M. le Commissaire, you behold what a villain, what a desperate villain
he looks? Listen, then, I hear screams, I meet this poor imbecile flying
out in terror, I rush—I seize—I overpower—I make him my prisoner—"
At this point the police officer interposed a question:
"You used force, M. Plon?"
"I used—but certainly—moral force. He had made his way into this room
through the window, Monsieur—Monsieur—?"
"Leblanc, at your service," said the commissioner carelessly. "Did you
say through the window? That seems scarcely probable."
But Plon was positive there was no other way by which he could have
entered unseen by him. And now he would give M. le Commissaire a dozen
guesses to find out what this rascal had the villainy to pretend. To
look at him, would any one suppose now that he could be the husband of
"Apparently," said the other, glancing at them, "Madame herself is not
averse from that opinion."
"Her husband—hee, hee!" said M. Plon, getting red. "Poor Jean, who was
shot in émeute three years ago! See there, monsieur, it is ridiculous!
If any one should know anything about those times, it is I. I was myself
on the very point of becoming a martyr for my country; and as for Jean
Didier, whether rightly or wrongly, he was shot, and there was an end of
him. To pretend that he turns up three years later...."
Marie was crying, and M. Plon thought his eloquence had provoked her
tears, but she put aside his hand, walked to the commissioner, and
dropped on her knees before him.
"Monsieur, if you have a wife—"
"I have not," said the man roughly.
"But your mother! If her son—"
"I have my duty, that is enough," he said in the same tone, "Get up,
Madame Didier, and let me know the truth of all this matter. This
explains your unwillingness that I should return with you. Who's the
"My husband, monsieur," sobbed Marie, springing up and putting her hand
"How came he here?"
"Monsieur, he escaped and crawled here."
"And how has he been supported?"
"By me," said the wife simply.
Plon had recoiled during this explanation, and gazed helplessly from one
to the other.
"Go on," said Leblanc, taking out a note-book.
"He has not been out of this room for three years—three years! That is
a long time for a man to be shut up," pleaded Marie, with her heart in
her eyes. "And, M. le Commissaire, you must understand it was all a
mistake. He tried to stop them, but they dragged him along, the
Communists, and then one of them turns round and denounces him. There
are very wicked people in the world, M. le Commissaire."
Jean answered for her:
"The name of that man was Fort."
Leblanc turned the pages of his note-book more quickly."
Dumont—Court—ah, here it is, 'Jean Didier, glazier, with insurgents;
pointed out as Communist by one Fort; executed on spot.' Is that
"He was innocent," said Marie, nervously twisting her fingers.
"But am I to understand that you deny his identity?" said the officer,
turning sharply on Plon. "Speak up, man!"
M. Plon looked round, bewildered. "How could he have got into the
"Never mind that. What we want is 'yes' or 'no' Is it Jean Didier? Come
close and see for yourself."
"It is like him," said the landlord, examining him from head to foot,
"certainly it is like him; I could almost believe it was he, only—how
could he have got into the house?"
"As to that—where there's a woman—" said Leblanc, turning away. They
were all watching him, except Périne, who was sobbing stormily on the
wooden stool, and he said shortly, "There is something more in my
"More!" repeated Jean with alarm.
"Would you rather not have it?"
Marie, who had not taken her eyes from him, advanced with her hands
pressed upon her heart.
"Courage, my friend," she said breathlessly. "Yes, M. le
Commissaire, we will hear."
It had struck her that he was smiling.
He began to read in his sing-song voice, "Fort, convicted of forgery,
died last month in the Grande Roquette. Before his death he confessed
his denunciation of Jean Didier to have been false."
Jean Didier's wife turned round, opened her arms and fell upon her
husband's neck, speechless.
So this was the end of that affair. As for No. 7639, which had brought
Leblanc in pursuit of Périne, it did not turn out so romantically as
might have been desired, having nothing to do with the great robbery of
the Rue Vivienne, which remains a mystery—to most people—to this day.
But oddly enough, it set the police on the track of a smaller crime; a
certain reward was handed over to the Didiers for the use of the poor
girl, and no one will deny that it was her unconscious instrumentality
which brought their change of fortune. Jean is almost always kind to
her, but Marie treats her with a sort of reverence.
You may see them sometimes, of a summer evening, walking along the
quays. The great river sweeps slowly down, the busy lights which flit
about the houses or point the span of the bridges with golden dots,
fling long reflections on its surface. Overhead, more peaceful lights
are shining. All about us is the rush of tumult and change, men drifting
here and there, struggling, weeping, jesting, passing away; but over all
God watches, and His world goes on.
FRANCES MARY PEARD