“There oft are heard the notes of infant woe,
The short thick sob, loud scream, and shriller squall.
How can you, mothers, vex your infants so?”— POPE.
“D’abord, madame, c’est impossible! — Madame ne descendra pas ici?12” said François, the footman of Mad. de Fleury, with a half expostulatory, half indignant look, as he let down the step of her carriage at the entrance of a dirty passage, that led to one of the most miserable-looking houses in Paris.
12 In the first place, my lady, it is impossible! Surely my lady will not get out of her carriage here?]
“But what can be the cause of the cries which I hear in this house?” said Mad. de Fleury.
“’Tis only some child, who is crying,” replied François: and he would have put up the step, but his lady was not satisfied.
“’Tis nothing in the world,” continued he, with a look of appeal to the coachman, “it can be nothing, but some children, who are locked up there above. The mother, the workwoman my lady wants, is not at home, that’s certain.”
“I must know the cause of these cries; I must see these children,” said Mad. de Fleury, getting out of her carriage.
François held his arm for his lady as she got out.
“Bon!” cried he, with an air of vexation. “Si madame la veut absolument, à la bonne heure! — Mais madame sera abimée. Madame verra que j’ai raison. Madame ne montera jamais ce vilain escalier. D’ailleurs c’est an cinquième. Mais, madame, c’est impossible.”13
13 To be sure it must be as my lady pleases — but my lady will find it terribly dirty! — my Lady will find I was right — my lady will never get up that shocking staircase — it is impossible!]
Notwithstanding the impossibility, Mad. de Fleury proceeded; and bidding her talkative footman wait in the entry, made her way up the dark, dirty, broken staircase, the sound of the cries increasing every instant, till, as she reached the fifth story, she heard the shrieks of one in violent pain. She hastened to the door of the room from which the cries proceeded; the door was fastened, and the noise was so great, that though she knocked as loud as she was able, she could not immediately make herself heard. At last the voice of a child from within answered, “The door is locked — mamma has the key in her pocket, and won’t be home till night; and here’s Victoire has tumbled from the top of the big press, and it is she that is shrieking so.”
Mad. de Fleury ran down the stairs which she had ascended with so much difficulty, called to her footman, who was waiting in the entry, despatched him for a surgeon, and then she returned to obtain from some people who lodged in the house assistance to force open the door of the room in which the children were confined.
On the next floor there was a smith at work, filing so earnestly that he did not hear the screams of the children. When his door was pushed open, and the bright vision of Mad. de Fleury appeared to him, his astonishment was so great that he seemed incapable of comprehending what she said. In a strong provincial accent he repeated, “Plait-il?” and stood aghast till she had explained herself three times: then suddenly exclaiming, “Ah! c’est ça!”— he collected his tools precipitately, and followed to obey her orders. The door of the room was at last forced half open, for a press that had been overturned prevented its opening entirely. The horrible smells that issued did not overcome Mad. de Fleury’s humanity: she squeezed her way into the room, and behind the fallen press saw three little children: the youngest, almost an infant, ceased roaring, and ran to a corner: the eldest, a boy of about eight years old, whose face and clothes were covered with blood, held on his knee a girl younger than himself, whom he was trying to pacify, but who struggled most violently, and screamed incessantly, regardless of Mad. de Fleury, to whose questions she made no answer.
“Where are you hurt, my dear?” repeated Mad. de Fleury in a soothing voice. “Only tell me where you feel pain?”
The boy, showing his sister’s arm, said, in a surly tone —“It is this that is hurt — but it was not I did it.”
“It was, it was,” cried the girl as loud as she could vociferate: “it was Maurice threw me down from the top of the press.”
“No — it was you that were pushing me, Victoire, and you fell backwards. — Have done screeching, and show your arm to the lady.”
“I can’t,” said the girl.
“She won’t,” said the boy.
“She cannot,” said Mad. de Fleury, kneeling down to examine it. “She cannot move it: I am afraid that it is broken.”
“Don’t touch it! don’t touch it!” cried the girl, screaming more violently.
“Ma’am, she screams that way for nothing often,” said the boy. “Her arm is no more broke than mine, I’m sure; she’ll move it well enough when she’s not cross.”
“I am afraid,” said Mad. de Fleury, “that her arm is broken.”
“Is it indeed?” said the boy, with a look of terror.
“Oh! don’t touch it — you’ll kill me, you are killing me,” screamed the poor girl, whilst Mad. de Fleury with the greatest care endeavoured to join the bones in their proper place, and resolved to hold the arm till the arrival of the surgeon.
From the feminine appearance of this lady, no stranger would have expected such resolution; but with all the natural sensibility and graceful delicacy of her sex, she had none of that weakness or affectation, which incapacitates from being useful in real distress. In most sudden accidents, and in all domestic misfortunes, female resolution and presence of mind are indispensably requisite: safety, health, and life, often depend upon the fortitude of women. Happy they, who, like Mad. de Fleury, possess strength of mind united with the utmost gentleness of manner and tenderness of disposition!
Soothed by this lady’s sweet voice, the child’s rage subsided; and no longer struggling, the poor little girl sat quietly on her lap, sometimes writhing and moaning with pain.
The surgeon at length arrived: her arm was set: and he said, “that she had probably been saved much future pain by Mad. de Fleury’s presence of mind.”
“Sir — will it soon be well?” said Maurice to the surgeon.
“Oh, yes, very soon, I dare say,” said the little girl. “To-morrow, perhaps; for now that it is tied up, it does not hurt me to signify — and after all, I do believe, Maurice, it was not you threw me down.”
As she spoke, she held up her face to kiss her brother. —“That is right,” said Mad. de Fleury; “there is a good sister.”
The little girl put out her lips, offering a second kiss, but the boy turned hastily away to rub the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I am not cross now: am I, Maurice?” said she.
“No, Victoire, I was cross myself when I said that.”
As Victoire was going to speak again, the surgeon imposed silence, observing that she must be put to bed, and should be kept quiet. Mad. de Fleury laid her upon the bed, as soon as Maurice had cleared it of the things with which it was covered; and as they were spreading the ragged blanket over the little girl, she whispered a request to Mad. de Fleury, that she would “stay till her mamma came home, to beg Maurice off from being whipped, if mamma should be angry.”
Touched by this instance of goodness, and compassionating the desolate condition of these children, Mad. de Fleury complied with Victoire’s request; resolving to remonstrate with their mother for leaving them locked up in this manner. They did not know to what part of the town their mother was gone; they could tell only, “that she was to go to a great many different places to carry back work, and to bring home more; and that she expected to be in by five.” It was now half after four.
Whilst Mad. de Fleury waited, she asked the boy to give her a full account of the manner in which the accident had happened.
“Why, ma’am,” said Maurice, twisting and untwisting a ragged handkerchief as he spoke, “the first beginning of all the mischief was, we had nothing to do; so we went to the ashes to make dirt pies: but Babet would go so close that she burnt her petticoat, and threw about all our ashes, and plagued us, and we whipped her: but all would not do, she would not be quiet; so to get out of her reach, we climbed up by this chair on the table to the top of the press, and there we were well enough for a little while, till somehow we began to quarrel about the old scissors, and we struggled hard for them till I got this cut.”
Here he unwound the handkerchief, and for the first time showed the wound, which he had never mentioned before.
“Then,” continued he, “when I got the cut, I shoved Victoire, and she pushed at me again, and I was keeping her off, and her foot slipped, and down she fell; and caught by the press-door, and pulled it and me after her, and that’s all I know.”
“It is well that you were not both killed,” said Mad. de Fleury. “Are you often left locked up in this manner by yourselves, and without any thing to do?”
“Yes, always, when mamma is abroad — except sometimes we are let out upon the stairs, or in the street; but mamma says we get into mischief there.”
This dialogue was interrupted by the return of the mother. She came up stairs slowly, much fatigued, and with a heavy bundle under her arm.
“How now! Maurice, how comes my door open? What’s all this?” cried she, in an angry voice; but seeing a lady sitting upon her child’s bed, she stopped short in great astonishment. Mad. de Fleury related what had happened, and averted her anger from Maurice, by gently expostulating upon the hardship and hazard of leaving her young children in this manner during so many hours of the day.
“Why, my lady,” replied the poor woman, wiping her forehead, “every hard-working woman in Paris does the same with her children; and what can I do else? I must earn bread for these helpless ones, and to do that I must be out backwards and forwards, and to the furthest parts of the town, often from morning till night, with those that employ me; and I cannot afford to send the children to school, or to keep any kind of a servant to look after them; and when I’m away, if I let them run about these stairs and entries, or go into the streets, they do get a little exercise and air to be sure, such as it is; on which account I do let them out sometimes; but then a deal of mischief comes of that, too — they learn all kinds of wickedness, and would grow up to be no better than pickpockets, if they were let often to consort with the little vagabonds they find in the streets. So what to do better for them I don’t know.”
The poor mother sat down upon the fallen press, looked at Victoire, and wept bitterly. Mad. de Fleury was struck with compassion: but she did not satisfy her feelings merely by words or comfort, or by the easy donation of some money — she resolved to do something more, and something better.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54