Number 7639 by Mary Frances Peard

CHAPTER I.

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 quieter seasons.

"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 about?"

"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 bayonet scratch.

"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 or foot.

"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 Périne's lesson.

"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 cheerfully:

"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 seven."

In the same whisper she answered "Hush!" warningly, before repeating the figures aloud and correctly. The girl, on her part, returned rapidly and indifferently:

"Twenty-five hundred."

"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 and—fifty—nine—take—eight—thousand—five hundred—and—four."

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 favoured him.

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 with displeasure.

"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 something."

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.



PART II.

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 pleasure."

"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."

"Heavens, no!"

"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 pocket."

"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 is fabulous."

"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 haven't got."

"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 shriek.

"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 talking about."

"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 be mistaken!"

"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 hair.

"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.

"No, no!"

"You'd get on better without me."

"No, no!"

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 tobacco."

"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.

"Jean!"

"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."

"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."


PART III.


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 summoned her.

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 says?"

"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 robbery?"

"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 working:

"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 was asleep.

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 Didier."

"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 violon."

"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 wait!"

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 madame?

"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 man?"

"My husband, monsieur," sobbed Marie, springing up and putting her hand in Jean's.

"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."

"His name?"

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 correct?"

"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 house?"

"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 note-book."

"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