The week ended as it had begun, in continual torture. Sylvie grew ingenious, and found refinements of tyranny with almost savage cruelty; the red Indians might have taken a lesson from her. Pierrette dared not complain of her vague sufferings, nor of the actual pains she now felt in her head. The origin of her cousin’s present anger was the non-revelation of Brigaut’s arrival. With Breton obstinacy Pierrette was determined to keep silence — a resolution that is perfectly explicable. It is easy to see how her thoughts turned to Brigaut, fearing some danger for him if he were discovered, yet instinctively longing to have him near her, and happy in knowing he was in Provins. What joy to have seen him! That single glimpse was like the look an exile casts upon his country, or the martyr lifts to heaven, where his eyes, gifted with second-sight, can enter while flames consume his body.
Pierrette’s glance had been so thoroughly understood by the major’s son that, as he planed his planks or took his measures or joined his wood, he was working his brains to find out some way of communicating with her. He ended by choosing the simplest of all schemes. At a certain hour of the night Pierrette must lower a letter by a string from her window. In the midst of the girl’s own sufferings, she too was sustained by the hope of being able to communicate with Brigaut. The same desire was in both hearts; parted, they understood each other! At every shock to her heart, every throb of pain in her head, Pierrette said to herself, “Brigaut is here!” and that thought enabled her to live without complaint.
One morning in the market, Brigaut, lying in wait, was able to get near her. Though he saw her tremble and turn pale, like an autumn leaf about to flutter down, he did not lose his head, but quietly bought fruit of the market-woman with whom Sylvie was bargaining. He found his chance of slipping a note to Pierrette, all the while joking the woman with the ease of a man accustomed to such manoeuvres; so cool was he in action, though the blood hummed in his ears and rushed boiling through his veins and arteries. He had the firmness of a galley-slave without, and the shrinkings of innocence within him, — like certain mothers in their moments of mortal trial, when held between two dangers, two catastrophes.
Pierrette’s inward commotion was like Brigaut’s. She slipped the note into the pocket of her apron. The hectic spots upon her cheekbones turned to a cherry-scarlet. These two children went through, all unknown to themselves, many more emotions than go to the make-up of a dozen ordinary loves. This moment in the market-place left in their souls a well-spring of passionate feeling. Sylvie, who did not recognize the Breton accent, took no notice of Brigaut, and Pierrette went home safely with her treasure.
The letters of these two poor children were fated to serve as documents in a terrible judicial inquiry; otherwise, without the fatal circumstances that occasioned that inquiry, they would never have been heard of. Here is the one which Pierrette read that night in her chamber:—
My dear Pierrette — At midnight, when everybody is asleep but me, who am watching you, I will come every night under your window. Let down a string long enough to reach me; it will not make any noise; you must fasten to the end of it whatever you write to me. I will tie my letter in the same way. I hear they have taught you to read and write — those wicked relations who were to do you good, and have done you so much harm. You, Pierrette, the daughter of a colonel who died for France, reduced by those monsters to be their servant! That is where all your pretty color and health have gone. My Pierrette, what has become of her? what have they done with her. I see plainly you are not the same, not happy. Oh! Pierrette, let us go back to Brittany. I can earn enough now to give you what you need; for you yourself can earn three francs a day and I can earn four or five; and thirty sous is all I want to live on. Ah! Pierrette, how I have prayed the good God for you ever since I came here! I have asked him to give me all your sufferings, and you all pleasures. Why do you stay with them? why do they keep you? Your grandmother is more to you than they. They are vipers; they have taken your gaiety away from you. You do not even walk as you once did in Brittany. Let us go back. I am here to serve you, to do your will; tell me what you wish. If you need money I have a hundred and fifty francs; I can send them up by the string, though I would like to kiss your dear hands and lay the money in them. Ah, dear Pierrette, it is a long time now that the blue sky has been overcast for me. I have not had two hours’ happiness since I put you into that diligence of evil. And when I saw you the other morning, looking like a shadow, I could not reach you; that hag of a cousin came between us. But at least we can have the consolation of praying to God together every Sunday in church; perhaps he will hear us all the more when we pray together.
Not good-by, my dear, Pierrette, but to-night.
This letter so affected Pierrette that she sat for more than an hour reading and re-reading and gazing at it. Then she remembered with anguish that she had nothing to write with. She summoned courage to make the difficult journey from her garret to the dining-room, where she obtained pen, paper, and ink, and returned safely without waking her terrible cousin. A few minutes before midnight she had finished the following letter:—
My Friend — Oh! yes, my friend; for there is no one but you, Jacques, and my grandmother to love me. God forgive me, but you are the only two persons whom I love, both alike, neither more nor less. I was too little to know my dear mamma; but you, Jacques, and my grandmother, and my grandfather — God grant him heaven, for he suffered much from his ruin, which was mine — but you two who are left, I love you both, unhappy as I am. Indeed, to know how much I love you, you will have to know how much I suffer; but I don’t wish that, it would grieve you too much. They speak to me as we would not speak to a dog; they treat me like the worst of girls; and yet I do examine myself before God, and I cannot find that I do wrong by them. Before you sang to me the marriage song I saw the mercy of God in my sufferings; for I had prayed to him to take me from the world, and I felt so ill I said to myself, “God hears me!” But, Jacques, now you are here, I want to live and go back to Brittany, to my grandmamma who loves me, though they say she stole eight thousand francs of mine. Jacques, is that so? If they are mine could you get them! But it is not true, for if my grandmother had eight thousand francs she would not live at Saint–Jacques.
I don’t want to trouble her last days, my kind, good grandmamma, with the knowledge of my troubles; she might die of it. Ah! if she knew they made her grandchild scrub the pots and pans — she who used to say to me, when I wanted to help her after her troubles, “Don’t touch that, my darling; leave it — leave it — you will spoil your pretty fingers.” Ah! my hands are never clean now. Sometimes I can hardly carry the basket home from market, it cuts my arm. Still I don’t think my cousins mean to be cruel; but it is their way always to scold, and it seems that I have no right to leave them. My cousin Rogron is my guardian. One day when I wanted to run away because I could not bear it, and told them so, my cousin Sylvie said the gendarmes would go after me, for the law was my master. Oh! I know now that cousins cannot take the place of father or mother, any more than the saints can take the place of God.
My poor Jacques, what do you suppose I could do with your money? Keep it for our journey. Oh! how I think of you and Pen–Hoel, and the big pong — that’s where we had our only happy days. I shall have no more, for I feel I am going from bad to worse. I am very ill, Jacques. I have dreadful pains in my head, and in my bones, and back, which kill me, and I have no appetite except for horrid things — roots and leaves and such things. Sometimes I cry, when I am all alone, for they won’t let me do anything I like if they know it, not even cry. I have to hide to offer my tears to Him to whom we owe the mercies which we call afflictions. It must have been He who gave you the blessed thought to come and sing the marriage song beneath my window. Ah! Jacques, my cousin heard you, and she said I had a lover. If you wish to be my lover, love me well. I promise to love you always, as I did in the past, and to be Your faithful servant, Pierrette Lorrain.
You will love me always, won’t you?
She had brought a crust of bread from the kitchen, in which she now made a hole for the letter, and fastened it like a weight to her string. At midnight, having opened her window with extreme caution, she lowered the letter with the crust, which made no noise against either the wall of the house or the blinds. Presently she felt the string pulled by Brigaut, who broke it and then crept softly away. When he reached the middle of the square she could see him indistinctly by the starlight; but he saw her quite clearly in the zone of light thrown by the candle. The two children stood thus for over an hour, Pierrette making him signs to go, he starting, she remaining, he coming back to his post, and Pierrette again signing that he must leave her. This was repeated till the child closed her window, went to bed, and blew out the candle. Once in bed she fell asleep, happy in heart though suffering in body — she had Brigaut’s letter under her pillow. She slept as the persecuted sleep — a slumber bright with angels; that slumber full of heavenly arabesques, in atmospheres of gold and lapis-lazuli, perceived and given to us by Raffaelle.
The moral nature had such empire over that frail physical nature that on the morrow Pierrette rose light and joyous as a lark, as radiant and as gay. Such a change could not escape the vigilant eye of her cousin Sylvie, who, this time, instead of scolding her, set about watching her with the scrutiny of a magpie. “What reason is there for such happiness?” was a thought of jealousy, not of tyranny. If the colonel had not been in Sylvie’s mind she would have said to Pierrette as formerly, “Pierrette, you are very noise, and very regardless of what you have often been told.” But now the old maid resolved to spy upon her as only old maids can spy. The day was still and gloomy, like the weather that precedes a storm.
“You don’t appear to be ill now, mademoiselle,” said Sylvie at dinner. “Didn’t I tell you she put it all on to annoy us?” she cried, addressing her brother, and not waiting for Pierrette’s answer.
“On the contrary, cousin, I have a sort of fever —”
“Fever! what fever? You are as gay as a lark. Perhaps you have seen some one again?”
Pierrette trembled and dropped her eyes on her plate.
“Tartufe!” cried Sylvie; “and only fourteen years old! what a nature! Do you mean to come to a bad end?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Pierrette, raising her sweet and luminous brown eyes to her cousin.
“This evening,” said Sylvie, “you are to stay in the dining-room with a candle, and do your sewing. You are not wanted in the salon; I sha’n’t have you looking into my hand to help your favorites.”
Pierrette made no sign.
“Artful creature!” cried Sylvie, leaving the room.
Rogron, who did not understand his sister’s anger, said to Pierrette: “What is all this about? Try to please your cousin, Pierrette; she is very indulgent to you, very gentle, and if you put her out of temper the fault is certainly yours. Why do you squabble so? For my part I like to live in peace. Look at Mademoiselle Bathilde and take pattern by her.”
Pierrette felt able to bear everything. Brigaut would come at midnight and bring her an answer, and that hope was the viaticum of her day. But she was using up her last strength. She did not go to bed, and stood waiting for the hour to strike. At last midnight sounded; softly she opened the window; this time she used a string made by tying bits of twine together. She heard Brigaut’s step, and on drawing up the cord she found the following letter, which filled her with joy:—
My dear Pierrette — As you are so ill you must not tire yourself by waiting for me. You will hear me if I cry like an owl. Happily my father taught me to imitate their note. So when you hear the cry three times you will know I am there, and then you must let down the cord. But I shall not come again for some days. I hope then to bring you good news.
Oh! Pierrette, don’t talk of dying! Pierrette, don’t think such things! All my heart shook, I felt as though I were dead myself at the mere idea. No, my Pierrette, you must not die; you will live happy, and soon you shall be delivered from your persecutors. If I do not succeed in what I am undertaking for your rescue, I shall appeal to the law, and I shall speak out before heaven and earth and tell how your wicked relations are treating you. I am certain that you have not many more days to suffer; have patience, my Pierrette! Jacques is watching over you as in the old days when we slid on the pond and I pulled you out of the hole in which we were nearly drowned together.
Adieu, my dear Pierrette; in a few days, if God wills, we shall be happy. Alas, I dare not tell you the only thing that may hinder our meeting. But God loves us! In a few days I shall see my dear Pierrette at liberty, without troubles, without any one to hinder my looking at you — for, ah! Pierrette, I hunger to see you — Pierrette, Pierrette, who deigns to love me and to tell me so. Yes, Pierrette, I will be your lover when I have earned the fortune you deserve; till then I will be to you only a devoted servant whose life is yours to do what you please with it. Adieu.
Here is a letter of which the major’s son said nothing to Pierrette. He wrote it to Madame Lorrain at Nantes:—
Madame Lorrain — Your granddaughter will die, worn-out with ill-treatment, if you do not come to fetch her. I could scarcely recognize her; and to show you the state of things I enclose a letter I have received from Pierrette. You are thought here to have taken the money of your granddaughter, and you ought to justify yourself. If you can, come at once. We may still be happy; but if delay Pierrette will be dead.
I am, with respect, your devoted servant, Jacques Brigaut.
At Monsieur Frappier’s, Cabinet-maker, Grand’Rue, Provins.
Brigaut’s fear was that the grandmother was dead.
Though this letter of the youth whom in her innocence she called her lover was almost enigmatical to Pierrette, she believed in it with all her virgin faith. Her heart was filled with that sensation which travellers in the desert feel when they see from afar the palm-trees round a well. In a few days her misery would end — Jacques said so. She relied on this promise of her childhood’s friend; and yet, as she laid the letter beside the other, a dreadful thought came to her in foreboding words.
“Poor Jacques,” she said to herself, “he does not know the hole into which I have now fallen!”
Sylvie had heard Pierrette, and she had also heard Brigaut under her window. She jumped out of bed and rushed to the window to look through the blinds into the square and there she saw, in the moonlight, a man hurrying in the direction of the colonel’s house, in front of which Brigaut happened to stop. The old maid gently opened her door, went upstairs, was amazed to find a light in Pierrette’s room, looked through the keyhole, and could see nothing.
“Pierrette,” she said, “are you ill?”
“No, cousin,” said Pierrette, surprised.
“Why is your candle burning at this time of night? Open the door; I must know what this means.”
Pierrette went to the door bare-footed, and as soon as Sylvie entered the room she saw the cord, which Pierrette had forgotten to put away, not dreaming of a surprise. Sylvie jumped upon it.
“What is that for?” she asked.
“Nothing!” she cried. “Always lying; you’ll never get to heaven that way. Go to bed; you’ll take cold.”
She asked no more questions and went away, leaving Pierrette terrified by her unusual clemency. Instead of exploding with rage, Sylvie had suddenly determined to surprise Pierrette and the colonel together, to seize their letters and confound the two lovers who were deceiving her. Pierrette, inspired by a sense of danger, sewed the letters into her corset and covered them with calico.
Here end the loves of Pierrette and Brigaut.
Pierrette rejoiced in the thought that Jacques had determined to hold no communication with her for some days, because her cousin’s suspicions would be quieted by finding nothing to feed them. Sylvie did in fact spend the next three nights on her legs, and each evening in watching the innocent colonel, without discovering either in him or in Pierrette, or in the house or out of it, anything that betrayed their understanding. She sent Pierrette to confession, and seized that moment to search the child’s room, with the method and penetration of a spy or a custom-house officer. She found nothing. Her fury reached the apogee of human sentiments. If Pierrette had been there she would certainly have struck her remorselessly. To a woman of her temper, jealousy was less a sentiment than an occupation; she existed in it, it made her heart beat, she felt emotions hitherto completely unknown to her; the slightest sound or movement kept her on the qui vive; she watched Pierrette with gloomy intentness.
“That miserable little wretch will kill me,” she said.
Sylvie’s severity to her cousin reached the point of refined cruelty, and made the deplorable condition of the poor girl worse daily. She had fever regularly, and the pains in her head became intolerable. By the end of the week even the visitors at the house noticed her suffering face, which would have touched to pity all selfishness less cruel than theirs. It happened that Doctor Neraud, possibly by Vinet’s advice, did not come to the house during that week. The colonel, knowing himself suspected by Sylvie, was afraid to risk his marriage by showing any solicitude for Pierrette. Bathilde explained the visible change in the girl by her natural growth. But at last, one Sunday evening, when Pierrette was in the salon, her sufferings overcame her and she fainted away. The colonel, who first saw her going, caught her in his arms and carried her to a sofa.
“She did it on purpose,” said Sylvie, looking at Mademoiselle Habert and the rest who were playing boston with her.
“I assure you that your cousin is very ill,” said the colonel.
“She seemed well enough in your arms,” Sylvie said to him in a low voice, with a savage smile.
“The colonel is right,” said Madame de Chargeboeuf. “You ought to send for a doctor. This morning at church every one was speaking, as they came out, of Mademoiselle Lorrain’s appearance.”
“I am dying,” said Pierrette.
Desfondrilles called to Sylvie and told her to unfasten her cousin’s gown. Sylvie went up to the girl, saying, “It is only a tantrum.”
She unfastened the gown and was about to touch the corset, when Pierrette, roused by the danger, sat up with superhuman strength, exclaiming, “No, no, I will go to bed.”
Sylvie had, however, touched the corset and felt the papers. She let Pierrette go, saying to the company:
“What do you think now of her illness? I tell you it is all a pretence. You have no idea of the perversity of that child.”
After the card-playing was over she kept Vinet from following the other guests; she was furious and wanted vengeance, and was grossly rude to the colonel when he bade her good-night. Gouraud threw a look at the lawyer which threatened him to the depths of his being and seemed to put a ball in his entrails. Sylvie told Vinet to remain. When they were alone, she said —
“Never in my life, never in my born days, will I marry the colonel.”
“Now that you have come to that decision I may speak,” said the lawyer. “The colonel is my friend, but I am more yours than his. Rogron has done me services which I can never forget. I am as strong a friend as I am an enemy. Once in the Chamber I shall rise to power, and I will make your brother a receiver-general. Now swear to me, before I say more, that you will never repeat what I tell you.” (Sylvie made an affirmative sign.) “In the first place, the brave colonel is a gambler —”
“Ah!” exclaimed Sylvie.
“If it had not been for the embarrassments this vice has brought upon him, he might have been a marshal of France,” continued Vinet. “He is capable of running through your property; but he is very astute; you cannot be sure of not having children, and you told me yourself the risks you feared. No, if you want to marry, wait till I am in the Chamber and then take that old Desfondrilles, who shall be made chief justice. If you want revenge on the colonel make your brother marry Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf — I can get her consent; she has two thousand francs a year, and you will be connected with the de Chargeboeufs as I am. Recollect what I tell you, the Chargeboeufs will be glad to claim us for cousins some day.”
“Gouraud loves Pierrette,” was Sylvie’s only answer.
“He is quite capable of it,” said Vinet, “and capable of marrying her after your death.”
“A fine calculation!” she said.
“I tell you that man has the shrewdness of the devil. Marry your brother and announce that you mean to remain unmarried and will leave your property to your nephews and nieces. That will strike a blow at Gouraud and Pierrette both! and you’ll see the faces they’ll make.”
“Ah! that’s true,” cried the old maid, “I can serve them both right. She shall go to a shop, and get nothing from me. She hasn’t a sou; let her do as we did — work.”
Vinet departed, having put his plan into Sylvie’s head, her dogged obstinacy being well-known to him. The old maid, he was certain, would think the scheme her own, and carry it out.
The lawyer found the colonel in the square, smoking a cigar while he waited for him.
“Halt!” said Gouraud; “you have pulled me down, but stones enough came with me to bury you —”
“Colonel or not, I shall give you your deserts. In the first place, you shall not be deputy —”
“I control ten votes and the election depends on —”
“Colonel, listen to me. Is there no one to marry but that old Sylvie? I have just been defending you to her; you are accused and convicted of writing to Pierrette; she saw you leave your house at midnight and come to the girl’s window —”
“Stuff and nonsense!”
“She means to marry her brother to Bathilde and leave her fortune to their children.”
“Rogron won’t have any.”
“Yes he will,” replied Vinet. “But I promise to find you some young and agreeable woman with a hundred and fifty thousand francs? Don’t be a fool; how can you and I afford to quarrel? Things have gone against you in spite of all my care; but you don’t understand me.”
“Then we must understand each other,” said the colonel. “Get me a wife with a hundred and fifty thousand francs before the elections; if not — look out for yourself! I don’t like unpleasant bed-fellows, and you’ve pulled the blankets all over to your side. Good-evening.”
“You shall see,” said Vinet, grasping the colonel’s hand affectionately.
* * * * *
About one o’clock that night three clear, sharp cries of an owl, wonderfully well imitated, echoed through the square. Pierrette heard them in her feverish sleep; she jumped up, moist with perspiration, opened her window, saw Brigaut, and flung down a ball of silk, to which he fastened a letter. Sylvie, agitated by the events of the day and her own indecision of mind, was not asleep; she heard the owl.
“Ah, bird of ill-omen!” she thought. “Why, Pierrette is getting up! What is she after?”
Hearing the attic window open softly, Sylvie rushed to her own window and heard the rustle of paper against her blinds. She fastened the strings of her bed-gown and went quickly upstairs to Pierrette’s room, where she found the poor girl unwinding the silk and freeing the letter.
“Ha! I’ve caught you!” cried the old woman, rushing to the window, from which she saw Jacques running at full speed. “Give me that letter.”
“No, cousin,” said Pierrette, who, by one of those strong inspirations of youth sustained by her own soul, rose to a grandeur of resistance such as we admire in the history of certain peoples reduced to despair.
“Ha! you will not?” cried Sylvie, advancing upon the girl with a face full of hatred and fury.
Pierrette fell back to get time to put her letter in her hand, which she clenched with unnatural force. Seeing this manoeuvre Sylvie grasped the delicate white hand of the girl in her lobster claws and tried to open it. It was a frightful struggle, an infamous struggle; it was more than a physical struggle; it assailed the mind, the sole treasure of the human being, the thought, which God has placed beyond all earthly power and guards as the secret way between the sufferer and Himself. The two women, one dying, the other in the vigor of health, looked at each other fixedly. Pierrette’s eyes darted on her executioner the look the famous Templar on the rack cast upon Philippe le Bel, who could not bear it and fled thunderstricken. Sylvie, a woman and a jealous woman, answered that magnetic look with malignant flashes. A dreadful silence reigned. The clenched hand of the Breton girl resisted her cousin’s efforts like a block of steel. Sylvie twisted Pierrette’s arm, she tried to force the fingers open; unable to do so she stuck her nails into the flesh. At last, in her madness, she set her teeth into the wrist, trying to conquer the girl by pain. Pierrette defied her still, with that same terrible glance of innocence. The anger of the old maid grew to such a pitch that it became blind fury. She seized Pierrette’s arm and struck the closed fist upon the window-sill, and then upon the marble of the mantelpiece, as we crack a nut to get the kernel.
“Help! help!” cried Pierrette, “they are murdering me!”
“Ha! you may well scream, when I catch you with a lover in the dead of night.”
And she beat the hand pitilessly.
“Help! help!” cried Pierrette, the blood flowing.
At that instant, loud knocks were heard at the front door. Exhausted, the two women paused a moment.
Rogron, awakened and uneasy, not knowing what was happening, had got up, gone to his sister’s room, and not finding her was frightened. Hearing the knocks he went down, unfastened the front door, and was nearly knocked over by Brigaut, followed by a sort of phantom.
At this moment Sylvie’s eyes chanced to fall on Pierrette’s corset, and she remembered the papers. Releasing the girl’s wrist she sprang upon the corset like a tiger on its prey, and showed it to Pierrette with a smile — the smile of an Iroquois over his victim before he scalps him.
“I am dying,” said Pierrette, falling on her knees, “oh, who will save me?”
“I!” said a woman with white hair and an aged parchment face, in which two gray eyes glittered.
“Ah! grandmother, you have come too late,” cried the poor child, bursting into tears.
Pierrette fell upon her bed, her strength all gone, half-dead with the exhaustion which, in her feeble state, followed so violent a struggle. The tall gray woman took her in her arms, as a nurse lifts a child, and went out, followed by Brigaut, without a word to Sylvie, on whom she cast one glance of majestic accusation.
The apparition of that august old woman, in her Breton costume, shrouded in her coif (a sort of hooded mantle of black cloth), accompanied by Brigaut, appalled Sylvie; she fancied she saw death. She slowly went down the stairs, listened to the front door closing behind them, and came face to face with her brother, who exclaimed: “Then they haven’t killed you?”
“Go to bed,” said Sylvie. “To-morrow we will see what we must do.”
She went back to her own bed, ripped open the corset, and read Brigaut’s two letters, which confounded her. She went to sleep in the greatest perplexity — not imagining the terrible results to which her conduct was to lead.
* * * * *
The letters sent by Brigaut to old Madame Lorrain reached her in a moment of ineffable joy, which the perusal of them troubled. The poor old woman had grieved deeply in living without her Pierrette beside her, but she had consoled her loneliness with the thought that the sacrifice of herself was in the interests of her grandchild. She was blessed with one of those ever-young hearts which are upheld and invigorated by the idea of sacrifice. Her old husband, whose only joy was his little granddaughter, had grieved for Pierrette; every day he had seemed to look for her. It was an old man’s grief — on which such old men live, of which they die.
Every one can now imagine the happiness which this poor old woman, living in a sort of almshouse, felt when she learned of a generous action, rare indeed but not impossible in France. The head of the house of Collinet, whose failure in 1814 had caused the Lorrains a loss of twenty-four thousand francs, had gone to America with his children after his disasters. He had too high a courage to remain a ruined man. After eleven years of untold effort crowned by success he returned to Nantes to recover his position, leaving his eldest son in charge of his transatlantic house. He found Madame Lorrain of Pen–Hoel in the institution of Saint–Jacques, and was witness of the resignation with which this most unfortunate of his creditors bore her misery.
“God forgive you!” said the old woman, “since you give me on the borders of my grave the means of securing the happiness of my dear granddaughter; but alas! it will not clear the debts of my poor husband!”
Monsieur Collinet made over to the widow both the capital and the accrued interest, amounting to about forty-two thousand francs. His other creditors, prosperous, rich, and intelligent merchants, had easily born their losses, whereas the misfortunes of the Lorrains seemed so irremediable to old Monsieur Collinet that he promised the widow to pay off her husband’s debts, to the amount of forty thousand francs more. When the Bourse of Nantes heard of this generous reparation they wished to receive Collinet to their board before his certificates were granted by the Royal court at Rennes; but the merchant refused the honor, preferring to submit to the ordinary commercial rule.
Madame Lorrain had received the money only the day before the post brought her Brigaut’s letter, enclosing that of Pierrette. Her first thought had been, as she signed the receipt: “Now I can live with my Pierrette and marry her to that good Brigaut, who will make a fortune with my money.”
Therefore the moment she had read the fatal letters she made instant preparations to start for Provins. She left Nantes that night by the mail; for some one had explained to her its celerity. In Paris she took the diligence for Troyes, which passes through Provins, and by half-past eleven at night she reached Frappier’s, where Brigaut, shocked at her despairing looks, told her of Pierrette’s state and promised to bring the poor girl to her instantly. His words so terrified the grandmother that she could not control her impatience and followed him to the square. When Pierrette screamed, the horror of that cry went to her heart as sharply as it did to Brigaut’s. Together they would have roused the neighborhood if Rogron, in his terror, had not opened the door. The scream of the young girl at bay gave her grandmother the sudden strength of anger with which she carried her dear Pierrette in her arms to Frappier’s house, where Madame Frappier hastily arranged Brigaut’s own room for the old woman and her treasure. In that poor room, on a bed half-made, the sufferer was deposited; and there she fainted away, holding her hand still clenched, wounded, bleeding, with the nails deep bedded in the flesh. Brigaut, Frappier, his wife, and the old woman stood looking at Pierrette in silence, all four of them in a state of indescribable amazement.
“Why is her hand bloody?” said the grandmother at last.
Pierrette, overcome by the sleep which follows all abnormal displays of strength, and dimly conscious that she was safe from violence, gradually unbent her fingers. Brigaut’s letter fell from them like an answer.
“They tried to take my letter from her,” said Brigaut, falling on his knees and picking up the lines in which he had told his little friend to come instantly and softly away from the house. He kissed with pious love the martyr’s hand.
It was a sight that made those present tremble when they saw the old gray woman, a sublime spectre, standing beside her grandchild’s pillow. Terror and vengeance wrote their fierce expressions in the wrinkles that lined her skin of yellow ivory; her forehead, half hidden by the straggling meshes of her gray hair, expressed a solemn anger. She read, with a power of intuition given to the aged when near their grave, Pierrette’s whole life, on which her mind had dwelt throughout her journey. She divined the illness of her darling, and knew that she was threatened with death. Two big tears painfully rose in her wan gray eyes, from which her troubles had worn both lashes and eyebrows, two pearls of anguish, forming within them and giving them a dreadful brightness; then each tear swelled and rolled down the withered cheek, but did not wet it.
“They have killed her!” she said at last, clasping her hands.
She fell on her knees which struck sharp blows on the brick-laid floor, making a vow no doubt to Saint Anne d’Auray, the most powerful of the madonnas of Brittany.
“A doctor from Paris,” she said to Brigaut. “Go and fetch one, Brigaut, go!”
She took him by the shoulder and gave him a despotic push to send him from the room.
“I was coming, my lad, when you wrote me; I am rich — here, take this,” she cried, recalling him, and unfastening as she spoke the strings that tied her short-gown. Then she drew a paper from her bosom in which were forty-two bank-bills, saying, “Take what is necessary, and bring back the greatest doctor in Paris.”
“Keep those,” said Frappier; “he can’t change thousand franc notes now. I have money, and the diligence will be passing presently; he can certainly find a place on it. But before he goes we had better consult Doctor Martener; he will tell us the best physician in Paris. The diligence won’t pass for over an hour — we have time enough.”
Brigaut woke up Monsieur Martener, and brought him at once. The doctor was not a little surprised to find Mademoiselle Lorrain at Frappier’s. Brigaut told him of the scene that had just taken place at the Rogrons’; but even so the doctor did not at first suspect the horror of it, nor the extent of the injury done. Martener gave the address of the celebrated Horace Bianchon, and Brigaut started for Paris by the diligence. Monsieur Martener then sat down and examined first the bruised and bloody hand which lay outside the bed.
“She could not have given these wounds herself,” he said.
“No; the horrible woman to whom I had the misfortune to trust her was murdering her,” said the grandmother. “My poor Pierrette was screaming ‘Help! help! I’m dying,’— enough to touch the heart of an executioner.”
“But why was it?” said the doctor, feeling Pierrette’s pulse. “She is very ill,” he added, examining her with a light. “She must have suffered terribly; I don’t understand why she has not been properly cared for.”
“I shall complain to the authorities,” said the grandmother. “Those Rogrons asked me for my child in a letter, saying they had twelve thousand francs a year and would take care of her; had they the right to make her their servant and force her to do work for which she had not the strength?”
“They did not choose to see the most visible of all maladies to which young girls are liable. She needed the utmost care,” cried Monsieur Martener.
Pierrette was awakened by the light which Madame Frappier was holding near her face, and by the horrible sufferings in her head caused by the reaction of her struggle.
“Ah! Monsieur Martener, I am very ill,” she said in her pretty voice.
“Where is the pain, my little friend?” asked the doctor.
“Here,” she said, touching her head above the left ear.
“There’s an abscess,” said the doctor, after feeling the head for a long time and questioning Pierrette on her sufferings. “You must tell us all, my child, so that we may know how to cure you. Why is your hand like this? You could not have given yourself that wound.”
Pierrette related the struggle between herself and her cousin Sylvie.
“Make her talk,” said the doctor to the grandmother, “and find out the whole truth. I will await the arrival of the doctor from Paris; and we will send for the surgeon in charge of the hospital here, and have a consultation. The case seems to me a very serious one. Meantime I will send you a quieting draught so that mademoiselle may sleep; she needs sleep.”
Left alone with her granddaughter the old Breton woman exerted her influence over the child and made her tell all; she let her know that she had money enough now for all three, and promised that Brigaut should live with them. The poor girl admitted her martyrdom, not imagining the events to which her admissions would give rise. The monstrosity of two beings without affection and without conception of family life opened to the old woman a world of woe as far from her knowledge as the morals of savages may have seemed to the first discoverers who set foot in America.
The arrival of her grandmother, the certainty of living with her in comfort soothed Pierrette’s mind as the sleeping draught soothed her body. The old woman watched her darling, kissing her forehead, hair, and hands, as the holy women of old kissed the hands of Jesus when they laid him in the tomb.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05