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I knew the table d'h&te was not till five o'clock.
"I shall get a brioche at Madame Chuquet's," I said to myself, "and then I'll go on to St. Etienne, and make a few notes."
Looking back on what I have written, I see that I have likened myself to the iron squire of Britomart's knight, and my readers will naturally infer that, having come to St. Roque with the idea of expiation, I shall stride on vigorously through the Rue Notre Dame, looking neither to the right nor to the left till I reach the cathedral. But, alas! if " it is never too late to mend," there is another truth equally certain—" We none of us know what we can do till we try."
A little way on I came to the tempting window above which shone in large golden capitals the words, " Victorine Chuquet, VVE Patissier." Nature stirred within me at the sight. I had only got a mouthful of roll and one cup of coffee at Havre before the boat started. I went in and asked for a brioche.
Madame Chuquet was alone, as bland and gracious as ever. Her fair, handsome, Norman face was rounder and fuller, but she was little changed. In the midst of an eloquent description of the beauty of the children of her daughter, Madame Leroux, she stopped and gave a sudden—
"Ciel! there is that good-for-nothing again! Ah, ca! go along with thee! We don't keep bread here for such as thou."
At the half-open door stood a woman with large hungry eyes bent on the tempting counter within. On this some twenty different kind of cakes, each more enticing-looking than the other, were ranged in tempting array—not piled in the tasteless confusion of an English pastrycook's.
The poor creature's eyes roved over these delicacies, but seemed to be searching for something else. Her face was very thin and sunburnt; the stocking-cap she wore, without any strings, showed deep hollows behind the cheek-bones, and a wasted, attenuated throat; a miserable washed-out cotton-neckerchief covered her shoulders; and below this came what had once been a black stuff gown—manycolored itself from constant exposure, and with many-hued patches besides; her feet were bare, but she wore heavy black
sabots. And yet I noticed, in the midst of this abject misery, that the woman's face was clean, and that the kerchief was arranged neatly and modestly.
Suddenly the roving eyes met mine, and I recognized the face; in a minute more I remembered all about it. This was my street-sweeper—my poor devote of St. Etienne of two years ago.
I paid hastily for my brioche, and went out of the shop; it would have been a mockery to offer those cream-tarts and nougats to the starving creature on the steps.
She crept humbly away when she saw me coming out. I beckoned her to follow me. There was a baker's shop a little further on, and I went in and bought one of those wonderful loaves, in the shape of a great ring, which seem made to carry on your arm. I gave it to my street-sweeper, and then I said, "Suivez moi," in my best French manner, and walked on in front.
"Now," I said to myself, "by the time I reach St. Etienne she will have told me her story. These French people dearly love to chatter about themselves, and I shall have quite a little romance for Jemima when I get to Bayeux."
After a little I looked behind me. I expected to see the loaf half gone at least, but she had only eaten a very moderate portion, and she was crying.
"Poor creature! how very distressing! and she hasn't got a pocket-handkerchief of course. Jemima would give her hers directly, but then Jemima is so eccentric."
I found myself getting uncomfortably hot in the face. I am neither conventional nor priggish, but a single woman is expected to be decorous in her behavior, because she has no one constantly at hand to keep her in order: which I take to be the chief use of a husband. How very ridiculous it must look—to be marching down the Rue Notre Dame in this majestic fashion, a beggar woman blubbering behind me with a loaf in her arms!
St. Etienne and all my sage determination about it went out of my memory. I turned into the first by-street I came to. It was a narrow silent turning, and it led into a street as silent, though broader, parallel with the Rue Notre Dame.
"If I mean to ask any questions, here is the place," thought I; but my false shame had found me out even across the water, and I scarcely knew how to begin. I glanced back. The woman had left off crying, but she had left off eating, too; and it seemed to ine she looked sadder than ever.
A sudden thought came to aid me. I turned round, and waited for her to come up.
"Where do you keep your broom—the broom you sweep with?"
"I will show madame."
The voice and the accent startled me, both were so refined for the abject creature who spoke. She led the way now, and I followed. Spite of her rags and her sabots, she moved well, and with a certain amount of grace.
We came at last to an old Norman church. I fancied I had seen all the churches of St. Roque, but this was new to me. It looked weather-stained and dilapidated, and the huge doors were worm-eaten and falling to decay. One of these stood half open. To my surprise my guide entered through the gap, and looked over her shoulder for me to follow. I went in. Above me was the groined roof, with its bold stone ribs; the capitals of the piers that supported the four arches of the tower were massively sculptured; and beyond, melting dimly into darkness, was the church. A church no longer. Hay and straw, fodder of all kinds, were piled high, reaching above the pillars of the nave; and in and about the tower where I stood were carts and trucks, firearms and faggots, in a sort of grotesque confusion. I felt stupefied with surprise, for, spite of the worm-eaten doors, the exterior had given no tokens of this desecration. But my companion roused me.
"Voici, madame!" she said, and pointed behind the door.
It might have been the ante-chamber to a witches' Sabbath gathering. There stood stiffly in the angle formed by the half-open door at least fifty besoms.
"VVhen do you use them ?" I said, by way of answer.
"Every evening, madame, unless it rains—it rains now," she said.
I was not surprised to see heavy drops falling, the heat had been so intense. I felt sure a storm was coming; but it was a relief to hear those heavy drops, instead of the thunder I had dreaded. I don't like English thunder but I am used to
that. I know nothing about French thunder, and I would rather not encounter it, until I am safe with Jemima Brown.
"Will not madame be seated?"
There was my sweeper, with true French courtesy, dusting a chair with her poor, many-colored gown; and then I saw that several of these chairs were stacked together near the brooms, possibly for the convenience of the sweepers.
"You had better sit down, too."
She thanked me, but she shook her head, and kept standing at a respectful distance. I felt, spite of her rags and misery, quite ashamed of having given her that loaf—she was so gentle and wellmannered.
Well, here I was alone with the object of my curiosity, and judging by the sound of the rain, I must remain a prisoner till it subsided; and yet I did not know how to frame a question to lead her on to telling her story. I looked up at her; her eyes were fixed on me with a searching, inquiring gaze.
"I wonder if she wants to know my story," said I; and I felt, I suppose, as the knife-grinder did when he made that memorable answer. "Dear me," said I, peevishly, "I hope this isn't a female grinder." It was a foolish thought, but then I am not a sensible person.
Whatever her story might be, so much revealed itself in the woman's face—she was humbly ashamed of her estate; in this I read, as I thought, that she had brought herself to it, and had repented. There was no trace of proud humility; and also, spite of the outward degradation, the inner light of the spirit shone yet in the large, earnest eyes and thoughtful mouth.
"What is your name?"
I really did not mean to ask; but I fancy my tongue had got tired of the long silence, and just put me on one side. The woman was evidently startled out of a reverie—her lips quivered.
"I am called Th6r6sine, madame."
"But what other name have you?"
Poor creature! Looking at that tanned, weather-stained skin, I had got to fancy her quite hardened out of sentiment; but a deep flush rose up to her brown forehead.
She shook her head.
"I have no name, madame. I have lost mine. It is dead now."
The tone was so sad, so uncomplaining, that I found my eyes full of tears before I knew it.
I could not sit there with this poor creature standing in front of me as if I were a judge and she a criminal. Let her have done what she would, she was better than I was. She had found me a shelter, shown courtesy, and then confessed herself a sinner to a fellow-mortal. I got up and went close to her.
"Theresine, I am sure you are unhappy; what is your grief? Perhaps I can help you, if you will let me." My tongue really was quite beyond my control. I was growing just as eccentric as Jemima Brown, and I expected to see the Frenchwoman fling herself at my knees, and embrace them in an effusion of feeling.
"Good gracious! what shall I do? I hate scenes, and I can't get away because of the rain."
Not a bit of a scene followed. My street-sweeper turned away from me, and looked steadfastly into the-dimness behind her.
It seemed to me that she looked taller than I fancied. I am apt to be afraid of women taller than myself, let the cause be what it may. I heartily wished I had left Theresine and her story alone.
I went to the door and looked out. One might have thought there was a leak in the great heavy clouds, in hue like a leaden cistern; for the rain came down in streams rather than in drops.
"Madame "—Th6r6sine had followed me—" you are an English lady. Is it not so?"
I must tell this story as it happened, though some of it puts me to shame; but I really thought -she was going to ask for money after this preface.
"Well, madame, in six years of shame and sorrow one other voice spoke kind words to me, and that was the voice of an Englishman. 1 was proud then, I would not answer, and he went away. When you spoke just now, I thought, 'I have not long to live, why not bear yet a little .longer, and then hide all that is left of me away forever?' But, madame, that thought was pride, too. And what have I to do with pride ?—-unless, indeed, it is— and I think it is—the lowest of sins."
As the woman spoke I recognized the secret influence that had mastered me, and
drawn me to her. Whatever she was, she had no ordinary mind, and that mind had been cultivated.
I did not quite know what to say, so I just took her hand and went back to the chairs. "Sit down," I said, "you look very tired."
Poor Ther&ine obeyed; but it seemed as if all her dignity and self-control left her as soon as I touched her hand. She sank down on the chair I gave her, and buried her face in her hands, sobbing.
She sate thus a long while; at last she looked up, her face wet with tears.
"Pardon, madame, but you can never know what it is to be treated like a woman, when you have only been treated like a dog. Once, madame, I was happy and good, at least I might have been if I had been content and obedient; but I was not either. I do not know how it is in your country, but with us the law for marriage is strict. You may not marry without consent of parents. If you do, you are a shame and a disgrace. Well, madame, even before I left the convent where I was learning, I loved. My mother was angry; she forbade me to continue my love. Madame, I was only sixteen, and I was obstinate. I could not bear to wait till the law would give me freedom. My lover urged me ardently. He had got an appointment in Paris, and I went away with him—without consent from any one."
She stopped here so decidedly that I was afraid she was not going on.
"But did not your mother consent when she knew you were married?" I asked.
A sad smile came over Theresine's face, and she drew her chair further from me.
"Pardon, madame, I thought you had understood what I am. I have never had a husband. If I had, do you think the good God would have let me sink so low as this? He does not punish the pure and the impure alike. He punishes us according to our needs; and, madame, my need was to be humbled."
I sat still; but Theresine was roused now, and eager to speak.
"Madame, I am not going to talk of the most shameful part of my life. It is not for you to hear. That was soon over. I had fallen because I loved; but when love forsook me, and I was left alone, I knew what I had done, and I fled away from worse evils I saw all round me. I begged my way back to St. Roque, but when I got here I dared not sh<f\v my face. I used to hide near my mother's door. I have watched her in and out day after day. I was always wishing she would see me, but I could not get courage to speak to her. One Sunday, it was winter, and it was dark when she came in from Benediction; I was watching on the opposite side of the street, I saw her foot slip as she went up the steps to her door, and she fell. Then I could not help it, I ran and helped her up. She knew me before I spoke ; she pushed me from her roughly, and turned her head away. "Go, I don't want you. You are disgraced," she said. I cried, "I am your own child Zizine," but she would not look at me. The door opened and she ran in, and shut it in my face. Madame, I never saw my mother any more. Before next Sunday came she was dead."
Th6resine stopped here.
"But how did you live?" I asked presently. "Did you get employment?"
"But no, madame," she shook her head, "the people of St. Roque say that their town is the cleanest and the purest in France. Terhaps it is, but it is also a town where they judge hardly. I had no character to offer. I had scarcely any clothes. I had got a situation, and then the worst happened—a man came into the shop where I stood, and he knew my face and told all about me." Theresine shrank into herself, as if she had been struck. "Madame, that was worst of all. My pride conquered—I could not bear it; I fled away and hid myself. Never again did I try to hold my head up among my fellows. I got field-work for a little, but I was too weak for it; and then a poor girl like myself told me the sweepers had a few sous each day for keeping clean the streets. I applied, and they took me on. One work is as good as another, and I shall sweep till I can no longer hold my broom."
The glow that had come into her face faded. She looked as haggard and wretched as she had looked at Madame Chuquet*s window.
"But won't the clergy do something for you? Is there no refuge where you could be taken in?"
Theresine looked frightened. She held out her clasped hands towards me.
"Ah, madame, par pitie!" Then she
recovered herself. "Yes, there is £ Asyle near La Maladrerie; but though i am a sinner, I have not led the life of tb women at the Asyle. If I could get sort more fit for a woman than this is, I wak lay down my life to do it."
"But, surely, if you were to speak to; priest, to one of the clergy of St. Ensue now, they wouldn't turn away, they wod: help you to employment. I have sea you in church."
"Yes, madame, I go to confession sac to La Messe ; but the priests do not kiwi me from a hundred such as I. If I Cobm once get courage, I would speak to soae of them ; but it is too late"
"No. it is not too late."
I felt quite in a rage with the food town of St. Roque. It seemed to me as if I would restore my poor sweeper to respectability in spite of it and all its phsv sees.
I did not like to give Theresine money, but I made up my mind to go home and talk to Louison and Monsieur Clopa, and see what could be done.
The rain had ceased some time ago is suddenly as it came on. I asked Theftsine if she could be at the old church neit morning, and then I said good-bye.
I Tried to get speech of Louison a&i Monsieur Clopin, but I did not succeed Louison had gone for a walk in the Com CafFarelli, and Monsieur Clopin was neva visible after he had carved for his guests. I fancy he went to his Cercle, for he ^ fected politics and literature.
Next morning I came down to breakfast determined to do something for mj poor sweeper. I met Louison in the gallery and told nay story. Louison put he; massive black head on one side and looted at me.
"Hein—yes, it is sad—it is horrfeT sad! but what will you? Madame, there are at least fifty of these sweepers—& good-for-nothings—and madame will nod that each one has a story to match & of Theresine. I know nothing about it'
She shrugged her shoulders, and ma bustling to the end of the gallery, frou which her help, Francoise, was holding i conversation with Desire, the waiter, *i» stood in the court below.
"Chut!" very sharply from Louisa and Francoise disappeared.
I felt sorry and surprised. I could not have believed it. To think of Louison, so tender-hearted and pitiful to little Jean, so hard to this poor soul, Theresine.
And Monsieur Clopin, whom I met in the entrance, was nearly as bad, although he veiled his indifference politely; but when I feebly and timidly suggested that he might get some employment from his numerous customers in the way of washing or needlework for my protegee, the man spoke out—he held up both hands.
"Madame, it is impossible, I assure you ; it would injure my establishment if such a person were seen about it."
I went into the salle like a dog with its tail between its legs. I felt as if I had committed some heinous breach of propriety ; and whatever was to become of my poor Theresine! My coffee and my tartines had lost their savor; I was thoroughly upset. What should I say to my sweeper when I met her at the ruined church? I felt punished for my Quixotic behavior.
An arrival! Out bustled Monsieur Clopin, and on his heels went Desire and Louison. I felt cross with the whole pack, and with myself, too, for being so helpless.
Surely I know that voice and that cheery fat laugh; and a short, stout woman, in brown holland and a broad-leaved brown hat, stands in the entrance of the salle.
"Jemima!" and, instead of going forward, I stand stupefied with my mouth open.
How Jemima laughed, and then wiped her eyes and her face generally, and then laughed again ; and as soon as I recovered myself sufficiently to join in the mirth, Louison and Desirfi joined in the broadest of grins. Monsieur Clopin's mustache curved with delight.
"Oter cafe—oter pang et bur," said Jemima, pointing to my breakfast; and, considering her accent, I am inclined to think the gesture was needful. "Well, my dear, when I got your note, I remembered I wanted to see St. Roque myself; and so I thought it would be a great joke to take you by surprise. And really I am so tired of holding my tongue—they don't understand one word of English at Bayeux, and they are saucy enough
to pretend they can't make out my French."
I coughed, and said this was a pity ; but I was heartily glad to see Jemima, although, of course, I knew I should have to take care of her.
"You look worried," she said, when we had had some more talk; so I told her my troubles about Theresine.
Jemima listened with deep interest; but when I came to my appeal to Louison, she opened her round eyes in wonder at my ignorance.
"Don't you know," she said, "that a respectable well-to-do servant is more hard than any one in a case of this sort. Why don't you go to the Hotel Dieu !"— she added briskly.
"H6tel Dieu !—what is that?" I said in a sort of maze; to think of Jemima, who had never been in France before, talking to me of a place 1 knew nothing about.
"Oh, I've been reading up St. Roque," she said with a shame-faced laugh ; "I've got some curious old books on Normandy. Come along. Send for a voiture, and we'll go there at once."
We went there, and I really felt thoroughly ashamed of myself that I should have stayed twice in St. Roque, and should have contented myself with just a casual glance at the Abbaye-aux-Dames, wholly ignorant of the community of good and holy women who live under its shelter.
We saw the superior, and I told my story. She promised at once to give Therdsine needlework, and to take an interest in her welfare.
"If she is what you believe her to be, madame—a true penitent," the good lady said, "we will soon make a home for her here."
I went on alone to the old church. I thought Theresine would shrink from a fresh face, so I would not ask Jemima to go too. My street-sweeper was waiting for me. I think Thertisine had so given up hope and trust in this world that she could scarcely believe her eyes when she saw me. I told her my news. Her lips quivered— she could not speak ; but when I went on to tell her of some little plans Jemima and I had made, so that she might present herself respectably at the convent, great tears came rolling over the poor sunken face,