During the severe winter of 1860 the river Oise was frozen over and the plains of Lower Picardy were covered with deep snow. On Christmas Day, especially, a heavy squall from the north-east had almost buried the little city of Beaumont. The snow, which began to fall early in the morning, increased towards evening and accumulated during the night; in the upper town, in the Rue des Orfevres, at the end of which, as if enclosed therein, is the northern front of the cathedral transept, this was blown with great force by the wind against the portal of Saint Agnes, the old Romanesque portal, where traces of Early Gothic could be seen, contrasting its florid ornamentation with the bare simplicity of the transept gable.
The inhabitants still slept, wearied by the festive rejoicings of the previous day. The town-clock struck six. In the darkness, which was slightly lightened by the slow, persistent fall of flakes, a vague living form alone was visible: that of a little girl, nine years of age, who, having taken refuge under the archway of the portal, had passed the night there, shivering, and sheltering herself as well as possible. She wore a thin woollen dress, ragged from long use, her head was covered with a torn silk handkerchief, and on her bare feet were heavy shoes much too large for her. Without doubt she had only gone there after having well wandered through the town, for she had fallen down from sheer exhaustion. For her it was the end of the world; there was no longer anything to interest her. It was the last surrender; the hunger that gnaws, the cold which kills; and in her weakness, stifled by the heavy weight at her heart, she ceased to struggle, and nothing was left to her but the instinctive movement of preservation, the desire of changing place, of sinking still deeper into these old stones, whenever a sudden gust made the snow whirl about her.
Hour after hour passed. For a long time, between the divisions of this double door, she leaned her back against the abutting pier, on whose column was a statue of Saint Agnes, the martyr of but thirteen years of age, a little girl like herself, who carried a branch of palm, and at whose feet was a lamb. And in the tympanum, above the lintel, the whole legend of the Virgin Child betrothed to Jesus could be seen in high relief, set forth with a charming simplicity of faith. Her hair, which grew long and covered her like a garment when the Governor, whose son she had refused to marry, gave her up to the soldiers; the flames of the funeral pile, destined to destroy her, turning aside and burning her executioners as soon as they lighted the wood; the miracles performed by her relics; Constance, daughter of the Emperor, cured of leprosy; and the quaint story of one of her painted images, which, when the priest Paulinus offered it a very valuable emerald ring, held out its finger, then withdrew it, keeping the ring, which can be seen at this present day. At the top of the tympanum, in a halo of glory, Agnes is at last received into heaven, where her betrothed, Jesus, marries her, so young and so little, giving her the kiss of eternal happiness.
But when the wind rushed through the street, the snow was blown in the child’s face, and the threshold was almost barred by the white masses; then she moved away to the side, against the virgins placed above the base of the arch. These are the companions of Agnes, the saints who served as her escort: three at her right — Dorothea, who was fed in prison by miraculous bread; Barbe, who lived in a tower; and Genevieve, whose heroism saved Paris: and three at her left — Agatha, whose breast was torn; Christina, who was put to torture by her father; and Cecilia, beloved by the angels. Above these were statues and statues; three close ranks mounting with the curves of the arches, decorating them with chaste triumphant figures, who, after the suffering and martyrdom of their earthly life, were welcomed by a host of winged cherubim, transported with ecstasy into the Celestial Kingdom.
There had been no shelter for the little waif for a long time, when at last the clock struck eight and daylight came. The snow, had she not trampled it down, would have come up to her shoulders. The old door behind her was covered with it, as if hung with ermine, and it looked as white as an altar, beneath the grey front of the church, so bare and smooth that not even a single flake had clung to it. The great saints, those of the sloping surface especially, were clothed in it, and were glistening in purity from their feet to their white beards. Still higher, in the scenes of the tympanum, the outlines of the little saints of the arches were designed most clearly on a dark background, and this magic sect continued until the final rapture at the marriage of Agnes, which the archangels appeared to be celebrating under a shower of white roses. Standing upon her pillar, with her white branch of palm and her white lamp, the Virgin Child had such purity in the lines of her body of immaculate snow, that the motionless stiffness of cold seemed to congeal around her the mystic transports of victorious youth. And at her feet the other child, so miserable, white with snow — she also grew so stiff and pale that it seemed as if she were turning to stone, and could scarcely be distinguished from the great images above her.
At last, in one of the long line of houses in which all seemed to be sleeping, the noise from the drawing up of a blind made her raise her eyes. It was at her right hand, in the second story of a house at the side of the Cathedral. A very handsome woman, a brunette about forty years of age, with a placid expression of serenity, was just looking out from there, and in spite of the terrible frost she kept her uncovered arm in the air for a moment, having seen the child move. Her calm face grew sad with pity and astonishment. Then, shivering, she hastily closed the window. She carried with her the rapid vision of a fair little creature with violet-coloured eyes under a head-covering of an old silk handkerchief. The face was oval, the neck long and slender as a lily, and the shoulders drooping; but she was blue from cold, her little hands and feet were half dead, and the only thing about her that still showed life was the slight vapour of her breath.
The child remained with her eyes upturned, looking at the house mechanically. It was a narrow one, two stories in height, very old, and evidently built towards the end of the fifteenth century. It was almost sealed to the side of the Cathedral, between two buttresses, like a wart which had pushed itself between the two toes of a Colossus. And thus supported on each side, it was admirably preserved, with its stone basement, its second story in wooden panels, ornamented with bricks, its roof, of which the framework advanced at least three feet beyond the gable, its turret for the projecting stairway at the left corner, where could still be seen in the little window the leaden setting of long ago. At times repairs had been made on account of its age. The tile-roofing dated from the reign of Louis XIV, for one easily recognised the work of that epoch; a dormer window pierced in the side of the turret, little wooden frames replacing everywhere those of the primitive panes; the three united openings of the second story had been reduced to two, that of the middle being closed up with bricks, thus giving to the front the symmetry of the other buildings on the street of a more recent date.
In the basement the changes were equally visible, an oaken door with mouldings having taken the place of the old one with iron trimmings that was under the stairway; and the great central arcade, of which the lower part, the sides, and the point had been plastered over, so as to leave only one rectangular opening, was now a species of large window, instead of the triple-pointed one which formerly came out on to the street.
Without thinking, the child still looked at this venerable dwelling of a master-builder, so well preserved, and as she read upon a little yellow plate nailed at the left of the door these words, “Hubert, chasuble maker,” printed in black letters, she was again attracted by the sound of the opening of a shutter. This time it was the blind of the square window of the ground floor. A man in his turn looked out; his face was full, his nose aquiline, his forehead projecting, and his thick short hair already white, although he was scarcely yet five-and-forty. He, too, forgot the air for a moment as he examined her with a sad wrinkle on his great tender mouth. Then she saw him, as he remained standing behind the little greenish-looking panes. He turned, beckoned to someone, and his wife reappeared. How handsome she was! They both stood side by side, looking at her earnestly and sadly.
For four hundred years, the line of Huberts, embroiderers from father to son, had lived in this house. A noted maker of chasubles had built it under Louis XI, another had repaired it under Louis XIV, and the Hubert who now occupied it still embroidered church vestments, as his ancestors had always done. At twenty years of age he had fallen in love with a young girl of sixteen, Hubertine, and so deep was their affection for each other, that when her mother, widow of a magistrate, refused to give her consent to their union, they ran away together and were married. She was remarkably beautiful, and that was their whole romance, their joy, and their misfortune.
When, a year later, she went to the deathbed of her mother, the latter disinherited her and gave her her curse. So affected was she by the terrible scene, that her infant, born soon after, died, and since then it seemed as if, even in her coffin in the cemetery, the willful woman had never pardoned her daughter, for it was, alas! a childless household. After twenty-four years they still mourned the little one they had lost.
Disturbed by their looks, the stranger tried to hide herself behind the pillar of Saint Agnes. She was also annoyed by the movement which now commenced in the street, as the shops were being opened and people began to go out. The Rue des Orfevres, which terminates at the side front of the church, would be almost impassable, blocked in as it is on one side by the house of the Huberts, if the Rue du Soleil, a narrow lane, did not relieve it on the other side by running the whole length of the Cathedral to the great front on the Place du Cloitre. At this hour there were few passers, excepting one or two persons who were on their way to early service, and they looked with surprise at the poor little girl, whom they did not recognise as ever having seen at Beaumont. The slow, persistent fall of snow continued. The cold seemed to increase with the wan daylight, and in the dull thickness of the great white shroud which covered the town one heard, as if from a distance, the sound of voices. But timid, ashamed of her abandonment, as if it were a fault, the child drew still farther back, when suddenly she recognised before her Hubertine, who, having no servant, had gone out to buy bread.
“What are you doing there, little one? Who are you?”
She did not answer, but hid her face. Then she was no longer conscious of suffering; her whole being seemed to have faded away, as if her heart, turned to ice, had stopped beating. When the good lady turned away with a pitying look, she sank down upon her knees completely exhausted, and slipped listlessly into the snow, whose flakes quickly covered her.
And the woman, as she returned with her fresh rolls, seeing that she had fallen, again approached her.
“Look up, my child! You cannot remain here on this doorstep.”
Then Hubert, who had also come out, and was standing near the threshold, took the bread from his wife, and said:
“Take her up and bring her into the house.”
Hubertine did not reply, but, stooping, lifted her in her strong arms. And the child shrank back no longer, but was carried as if inanimate; her teeth closely set, her eyes shut, chilled through and through, and with the lightness of a little bird that had just fallen from its nest.
They went in. Hubert shut the door, while Hubertine, bearing her burden, passed through the front room, which served as a parlour, and where some embroidered bands were spread out for show before the great square window. Then she went into the kitchen, the old servants’ hall, preserved almost intact, with its heavy beams, its flagstone floor mended in a dozen places, and its great fireplace with its stone mantelpiece. On shelves were the utensils, the pots, kettles, and saucepans, that dated back one or two centuries; and the dishes were of old stone, or earthenware, and of pewter. But on the middle of the hearth was a modern cooking-stove, a large cast-iron one, whose copper trimmings were wondrously bright. It was red from heat, and the water was bubbling away in its boiler. A large porringer, filled with coffee-and-milk, was on one corner of it.
“Oh! how much more comfortable it is here than outside,” said Hubert, as he put the bread down on a heavy table of the style of Louis XIII, which was in the centre of the room. “Now, seat this poor little creature near the stove that she may be thawed out!”
Hubertine had already placed the child close to the fire, and they both looked at her as she slowly regained consciousness. As the snow that covered her clothes melted it fell in heavy drops. Through the holes of her great shoes they could see her little bruised feet, whilst the thin woollen dress designed the rigidity of her limbs and her poor body, worn by misery and pain. She had a long attack of nervous trembling, and then opened her frightened eyes with the start of an animal which suddenly awakes from sleep to find itself caught in a snare. Her face seemed to sink away under the silken rag which was tied under her chin. Her right arm appeared to be helpless, for she pressed it so closely to her breast.
“Do not be alarmed, for we will not hurt you. Where did you come from? Who are you?”
But the more she was spoken to the more frightened she became, turning her head as if someone were behind her who would beat her. She examined the kitchen furtively, the flaggings, the beams, and the shining utensils; then her glance passed through the irregular windows which were left in the ancient opening, and she saw the garden clear to the trees by the Bishop’s house, whose white shadows towered above the wall at the end, while at the left, as if astonished at finding itself there, stretched along the whole length of the alley the Cathedral, with its Romanesque windows in the chapels of its apses. And again, from the heat of the stove which began to penetrate her, she had a long attack of shivering, after which she turned her eyes to the floor and remained quiet.
“Do you belong to Beaumont? Who is your father?”
She was so entirely silent that Hubert thought her throat must be too dry to allow her to speak.
Instead of questioning her he said: “We would do much better to give her a cup of coffee as hot as she can drink it.”
That was so reasonable that Hubertine immediately handed her the cup she herself held. Whilst she cut two large slices of bread and buttered them, the child, still mistrustful, continued to shrink back; but her hunger was too great, and soon she ate and drank ravenously. That there need not be a restraint upon her, the husband and wife were silent, and were touched to tears on seeing her little hand tremble to such a degree that at times it was difficult for her to reach her mouth. She made use only of her left hand, for her right arm seemed to be fastened to her chest. When she had finished, she almost broke the cup, which she caught again by an awkward movement of her elbow.
“Have you hurt your arm badly?” Hubertine asked. “Do not be afraid, my dear, but show it to me.”
But as she was about to touch it the child rose up hastily, trying to prevent her, and as in the struggle she moved her arm, a little pasteboard-covered book, which she had hidden under her dress, slipped through a large tear in her waist. She tried to take it, and when she saw her unknown hosts open and begin to read it, she clenched her fist in anger.
It was an official certificate, given by the Administration des Enfants Assistes in the Department of the Seine. On the first page, under a medallion containing a likeness of Saint Vincent de Paul, were the printed prescribed forms. For the family name, a simple black line filled the allotted space. Then for the Christian names were those of Angelique Marie; for the dates, born January 22, 1851, admitted the 23rd of the same month under the registered number of 1,634. So there was neither father nor mother; there were no papers; not even a statement of where she was born; nothing but this little book of official coldness, with its cover of pale red pasteboard. No relative in the world! and even her abandonment numbered and classed!
“Oh! then she is a foundling!” exclaimed Hubertine.
In a paroxysm of rage the child replied: “I am much better than all the others — yes — yes! I am better, better, better. I have never taken anything that did not belong to me, and yet they stole all I had. Give me back, now, that which you also have stolen from me!”
Such powerless passion, such pride to be above the others in goodness, so shook the body of the little girl, that the Huberts were startled. They no longer recognised the blonde creature, with violet eyes and graceful figure. Now her eyes were black, her face dark, and her neck seemed swollen by a rush of blood to it. Since she had become warm, she raised her head and hissed like a serpent that had been picked up on the snow.
“Are you then really so naughty?” asked Hubert gently. “If we wish to know all about you, it is because we wish to help you.”
And looking over the shoulders of his wife he read as the latter turned the leaves of the little book. On the second page was the name of the nurse. “The child, Angelique Marie, had been given, on January 25, 1851, to the nurse, Francoise, sister of Mr. Hamelin, a farmer by profession, living in the parish of Soulanges, an arrondissement of Nevers. The aforesaid nurse had received on her departure the pay for the first month of her care, in addition to her clothing.” Then there was a certificate of her baptism, signed by the chaplain of the Asylum for Abandoned Children; also that of the physician on the arrival and on the departure of the infant. The monthly accounts, paid in quarterly installments, filled farther on the columns of four pages, and each time there was the illegible signature of the receiver or collector.
“What! Nevers!” asked Hubertine. “You were brought up near Nevers?”
Angelique, red with anger that she could not prevent them from reading, had fallen into a sullen silence. But at last she opened her mouth to speak of her nurse.
“Ah! you may be sure that Maman Nini would have beaten you. She always took my part against others, she did, although sometimes she struck me herself. Ah! it is true I was not so unhappy over there, with the cattle and all!”
Her voice choked her and she continued, in broken, incoherent sentences, to speak of the meadow where she drove the great red cow, of the broad road where she played, of the cakes they cooked, and of a pet house-dog that had once bitten her.
Hubert interrupted her as he read aloud: “In case of illness, or of bad treatment, the superintendent is authorised to change the nurses of the children.” Below it was written that the child Angelique Marie had been given on June 20 to the care of Theresa, wife of Louis Franchomme, both of them makers of artificial flowers in Paris.
“Ah! I understand,” said Hubertine. “You were ill, and so they took you back to Paris.”
But no, that was not the case, and the Huberts did not know the whole history until they had drawn it, little by little from Angelique. Louis Franchomme, who was a cousin of Maman Nini, went to pass a month in his native village when recovering from a fever. It was then that his wife, Theresa, became very fond of the child, and obtained permission to take her to Paris, where she could be taught the trade of making flowers. Three months later her husband died, and she herself, being delicate in health, was obliged to leave the city and to go to her brother’s, the tanner Rabier, who was settled at Beaumont. She, alas! died in the early days of December, and confided to her sister-in-law the little girl, who since that time had been injured, beaten, and, in short, suffered martyrdom.
“The Rabiers?” said Hubert. “The Rabiers? Yes, yes! They are tanners on the banks of the Ligneul, in the lower town. The husband is lame, and the wife is a noted scold.”
“They treated me as if I came from the gutter,” continued Angelique, revolted and enraged in her mortified pride. “They said the river was the best place for me. After she had beaten me nearly to death, the woman would put something on the floor for me to eat, as if I were a cat, and many a time I went to bed suffering from hunger. Oh! I could have killed myself, at last!” She made a gesture of furious despair.
“Yesterday, Christmas morning, they had been drinking, and, to amuse themselves, they threatened to put out my eyes. Then, after a while, they began to fight with each other, and dealt such heavy blows that I thought they were dead, as they both fell on the floor of their room. For a long time I had determined to run away. But I was anxious to have my book. Maman Nini had often said, in showing it to me: ‘Look, this is all that you own, and if you do not keep this you will not even have a name.’ And I know that since the death of Maman Theresa they had hid it in one of the bureau drawers. So stepping over them as quietly as possible, while they were lying on the floor, I got the book, hid it under my dress-waist, pressing it against me with my arm. It seemed so large that I fancied everyone must see it, and that it would be taken from me. Oh! I ran, and ran, and ran, and when night came it was so dark! Oh! how cold I was under the poor shelter of that great door! Oh dear! I was so cold, it seemed as if I were dead. But never mind now, for I did not once let go of my book, and here it is.” And with a sudden movement, as the Huberts closed it to give it back to her, she snatched it from them. Then, sitting down, she put her head on the table, sobbing deeply as she laid her cheek on the light red cover. Her pride seemed conquered by an intense humility. Her whole being appeared to be softened by the sight of these few leaves with their rumpled corners — her solitary possession, her one treasure, and the only tie which connected her with the life of this world. She could not relieve her heart of her great despair; her tears flowed continually, and under this complete surrender of herself she regained her delicate looks and became again a pretty child. Her slightly oval face was pure in its outlines, her violet eyes were made a little paler from emotion, and the curve of her neck and shoulders made her resemble a little virgin on a church window. At length she seized the hand of Hubertine, pressed it to her lips most caressingly, and kissed it passionately.
The Huberts were deeply touched, and could scarcely speak. They stammered: “Dear, dear child!”
She was not, then, in reality bad! Perhaps with affectionate care she could be corrected of this violence of temper which had so alarmed them.
In a tone of entreaty the poor child exclaimed: “Do not send me back to those dreadful people! Oh, do not send me back again!”
The husband and wife looked at each other for a few moments. In fact, since the autumn they had planned taking as an apprentice some young girl who would live with them, and thus bring a little brightness into their house, which seemed so dull without children. And their decision was soon made.
“Would you like it, my dear?” Hubert asked.
Hubertine replied quietly, in her calm voice: “I would indeed.”
Immediately they occupied themselves with the necessary formalities. The husband went to the Justice of Peace of the northern district of Beaumont, who was cousin to his wife, the only relative with whom she had kept up an acquaintance, and told him all the facts of the case. He took charge of it, wrote to the Hospice of Abandoned Children — where, thanks to the registered number, Angelique was easily recognised — and obtained permission for her to remain as apprentice with the Huberts, who were well known for their honourable position.
The Sub-Inspector of the Hospice, on coming to verify the little book, signed the new contract as witness for Hubert, by which the latter promised to treat the child kindly, to keep her tidy, to send her to school and to church, and to give her a good bed to herself. On the other side, the Administration agreed to pay him all indemnities, and to give the child certain stipulated articles of clothing, as was their custom.
In ten days all was arranged. Angelique slept upstairs in a room under the roof, by the side of the garret, and the windows of which overlooked the garden. She had already taken her first lessons in embroidery. The first Sunday morning after she was in her new home, before going to mass, Hubertine opened before her the old chest in the working-room, where she kept the fine gold thread. She held up the little book, then, placing it in that back part of one of the drawers, said: “Look! I have put it here. I will not hide it, but leave it where you can take it if you ever wish to do so. It is best that you should see it, and remember where it is.”
On entering the church that day, Angelique found herself again under the doorway of Saint Agnes. During the week there had been a partial thaw, then the cold weather had returned to so intense a degree that the snow which had half melted on the statues had congealed itself in large bunches or in icicles. Now, the figures seemed dressed in transparent robes of ice, with lace trimmings like spun glass. Dorothea was holding a torch, the liquid droppings of which fell upon her hands. Cecilia wore a silver crown, in which glistened the most brilliant of pearls. Agatha’s nude chest was protected by a crystal armour. And the scenes in the tympanum, the little virgins in the arches, looked as if they had been there for centuries, behind the glass and jewels of the shrine of a saint. Agnes herself let trail behind her her court mantle, threaded with light and embroidered with stars. Her lamb had a fleece of diamonds, and her palm-branch had become the colour of heaven. The whole door was resplendent in the purity of intense cold.
Angelique recollected the night she had passed there under the protection of these saints. She raised her head and smiled upon them.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02