Cousin Betty/Section 46

Among the many noble associations founded in Paris by Catholic charity, there is one, originated by Madame de la Chanterie, for promoting civil and religious marriages between persons who have formed a voluntary but illicit union. Legislators, who draw large revenues from the registration fees, and the Bourgeois dynasty, which benefits by the notary's profits, affect to overlook the fact that three-fourths of the poorer class cannot afford fifteen francs for the marriage-contract. The pleaders, a sufficiently vilified body, gratuitously defend the cases of the indigent, while the notaries have not as yet agreed to charge nothing for the marriage-contract of the poor. As to the revenue collectors, the whole machinery of Government would have to be dislocated to induce the authorities to relax their demands. The registrar's office is deaf and dumb.

Then the Church, too, receives a duty on marriages. In France the Church depends largely on such revenues; even in the House of God it traffics in chairs and kneeling stools in a way that offends foreigners; though it cannot have forgotten the anger of the Saviour who drove the money-changers out of the Temple. If the Church is so loath to relinquish its dues, it must be supposed that these dues, known as Vestry dues, are one of its sources of maintenance, and then the fault of the Church is the fault of the State.

The co-operation of these conditions, at a time when charity is too greatly concerned with the negroes and the petty offenders discharged from prison to trouble itself about honest folks in difficulties, results in the existence of a number of decent couples who have never been legally married for lack of thirty francs, the lowest figure for which the Notary, the Registrar, the Mayor and the Church will unite two citizens of Paris. Madame de la Chanterie's fund, founded to restore poor households to their religious and legal status, hunts up such couples, and with all the more success because it helps them in their poverty before attacking their unlawful union.

As soon as Madame Hulot had recovered, she returned to her occupations. And then it was that the admirable Madame de la Chanterie came to beg that Adeline would add the legalization of these voluntary unions to the other good works of which she was the instrument.

One of the Baroness' first efforts in this cause was made in the ominous-looking district, formerly known as la Petite Pologne—Little Poland—bounded by the Rue du Rocher, Rue de la Pepiniere, and Rue de Miromenil. There exists there a sort of offshoot of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. To give an idea of this part of the town, it is enough to say that the landlords of some of the houses tenanted by working men without work, by dangerous characters, and by the very poor employed in unhealthy toil, dare not demand their rents, and can find no bailiffs bold enough to evict insolvent lodgers. At the present time speculating builders, who are fast changing the aspect of this corner of Paris, and covering the waste ground lying between the Rue d'Amsterdam and the Rue Faubourg-du-Roule, will no doubt alter the character of the inhabitants; for the trowel is a more civilizing agent than is generally supposed. By erecting substantial and handsome houses, with porters at the doors, by bordering the streets with footwalks and shops, speculation, while raising the rents, disperses the squalid class, families bereft of furniture, and lodgers that cannot pay. And so these districts are cleared of such objectionable residents, and the dens vanish into which the police never venture but under the sanction of the law.

In June 1844, the purlieus of the Place de Laborde were still far from inviting. The genteel pedestrian, who by chance should turn out of the Rue de la Pepiniere into one of those dreadful side-streets, would have been dismayed to see how vile a bohemia dwelt cheek by jowl with the aristocracy. In such places as these, haunted by ignorant poverty and misery driven to bay, flourish the last public letter-writers who are to be found in Paris. Wherever you see the two words "Ecrivain Public" written in a fine copy hand on a sheet of letter-paper stuck to the window pane of some low entresol or mud-splashed ground-floor room, you may safely conclude that the neighborhood is the lurking place of many unlettered folks, and of much vice and crime, the outcome of misery; for ignorance is the mother of all sorts of crime. A crime is, in the first instance, a defect of reasoning powers.

While the Baroness had been ill, this quarter, to which she was a minor Providence, had seen the advent of a public writer who settled in the Passage du Soleil—Sun Alley—a spot of which the name is one of the antitheses dear to the Parisian, for the passage is especially dark. This writer, supposed to be a German, was named Vyder, and he lived on matrimonial terms with a young creature of whom he was so jealous that he never allowed her to go anywhere excepting to some honest stove and flue-fitters, in the Rue Saint-Lazare, Italians, as such fitters always are, but long since established in Paris. These people had been saved from a bankruptcy, which would have reduced them to misery, by the Baroness, acting in behalf of Madame de la Chanterie. In a few months comfort had taken the place of poverty, and Religion had found a home in hearts which once had cursed Heaven with the energy peculiar to Italian stove-fitters. So one of Madame Hulot's first visits was to this family.

She was pleased at the scene that presented itself to her eyes at the back of the house where these worthy folks lived in the Rue Saint-Lazare, not far from the Rue du Rocher. High above the stores and workshops, now well filled, where toiled a swarm of apprentices and workmen—all Italians from the valley of Domo d'Ossola—the master's family occupied a set of rooms, which hard work had blessed with abundance. The Baroness was hailed like the Virgin Mary in person.

After a quarter of an hour's questioning, Adeline, having to wait for the father to inquire how his business was prospering, pursued her saintly calling as a spy by asking whether they knew of any families needing help.

"Ah, dear lady, you who could save the damned from hell!" said the Italian wife, "there is a girl quite near here to be saved from perdition."

"A girl well known to you?" asked the Baroness.

"She is the granddaughter of a master my husband formerly worked for, who came to France in 1798, after the Revolution, by name Judici. Old Judici, in Napoleon's time, was one of the principal stove-fitters in Paris; he died in 1819, leaving his son a fine fortune. But the younger Judici wasted all his money on bad women; till, at last, he married one who was sharper than the rest, and she had this poor little girl, who is just turned fifteen."

"And what is wrong with her?" asked Adeline, struck by the resemblance between this Judici and her husband.

"Well, madame, this child, named Atala, ran away from her father, and came to live close by here with an old German of eighty at least, named Vyder, who does odd jobs for people who cannot read and write. Now, if this old sinner, who bought the child of her mother, they say for fifteen hundred francs, would but marry her, as he certainly has not long to live, and as he is said to have some few thousand of francs a year—well, the poor thing, who is a sweet little angel, would be out of mischief, and above want, which must be the ruin of her."

"Thank you very much for the information. I may do some good, but I must act with caution.—Who is the old man?"

"Oh! madame, he is a good old fellow; he makes the child very happy, and he has some sense too, for he left the part of town where the Judicis live, as I believe, to snatch the child from her mother's clutches. The mother was jealous of her, and I dare say she thought she could make money out of her beauty and make a mademoiselle of the girl.

"Atala remembered us, and advised her gentleman to settle near us; and as the good man sees how decent we are, he allows her to come here. But get them married, madame, and you will do an action worthy of you. Once married, the child will be independent and free from her mother, who keeps an eye on her, and who, if she could make money by her, would like to see her on the stage, or successful in the wicked life she meant her to lead."

"Why doesn't the old man marry her?"

"There was no necessity for it, you see," said the Italian. "And though old Vyder is not a bad old fellow, I fancy he is sharp enough to wish to remain the master, while if he once got married—why, the poor man is afraid of the stone that hangs round every old man's neck."

"Could you send for the girl to come here?" said Madame Hulot. "I should see her quietly, and find out what could be done—"

The stove-fitter's wife signed to her eldest girl, who ran off. Ten minutes later she returned, leading by the hand a child of fifteen and a half, a beauty of the Italian type. Mademoiselle Judici inherited from her father that ivory skin which, rather yellow by day, is by artificial light of lily-whiteness; eyes of Oriental beauty, form, and brilliancy, close curling lashes like black feathers, hair of ebony hue, and that native dignity of the Lombard race which makes the foreigner, as he walks through Milan on a Sunday, fancy that every porter's daughter is a princess.

Atala, told by the stove-fitter's daughter that she was to meet the great lady of whom she had heard so much, had hastily dressed in a black silk gown, a smart little cape, and neat boots. A cap with a cherry-colored bow added to the brilliant effect of her coloring. The child stood in an attitude of artless curiosity, studying the Baroness out of the corner of her eye, for her palsied trembling puzzled her greatly.

Adeline sighed deeply as she saw this jewel of womanhood in the mire of prostitution, and determined to rescue her to virtue.

"What is your name, my dear?"

"Atala, madame."

"And can you read and write?"

"No, madame; but that does not matter, as monsieur can."

"Did your parents ever take you to church? Have you been to your first Communion? Do you know your Catechism?"

"Madame, papa wanted to make me do something of the kind you speak of, but mamma would not have it—"

"Your mother?" exclaimed the Baroness. "Is she bad to you, then?"

"She was always beating me. I don't know why, but I was always being quarreled over by my father and mother—"

"Did you ever hear of God?" cried the Baroness.

The girl looked up wide-eyed.

"Oh, yes, papa and mamma often said 'Good God,' and 'In God's name,' and 'God's thunder,'" said she, with perfect simplicity.

"Then you never saw a church? Did you never think of going into one?"

"A church?—Notre-Dame, the Pantheon?—I have seen them from a distance, when papa took me into town; but that was not very often. There are no churches like those in the Faubourg."

"Which Faubourg did you live in?"

"In the Faubourg."

"Yes, but which?"

"In the Rue de Charonne, madame."

The inhabitants of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine never call that notorious district other than the Faubourg. To them it is the one and only Faubourg; and manufacturers generally understand the words as meaning the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.

"Did no one ever tell you what was right or wrong?"

"Mamma used to beat me when I did not do what pleased her."

"But did you not know that it was very wicked to run away from your father and mother to go to live with an old man?"

Atala Judici gazed at the Baroness with a haughty stare, but made no reply.

"She is a perfect little savage," murmured Adeline.

"There are a great many like her in the Faubourg, madame," said the stove-fitter's wife.

"But she knows nothing—not even what is wrong. Good Heavens!—Why do you not answer me?" said Madame Hulot, putting out her hand to take Atala's.

Atala indignantly withdrew a step.

"You are an old fool!" said she. "Why, my father and mother had had nothing to eat for a week. My mother wanted me to do much worse than that, I think, for my father thrashed her and called her a thief! However, Monsieur Vyder paid all their debts, and gave them some money—oh, a bagful! And he brought me away, and poor papa was crying. But we had to part!—Was it wicked?" she asked.

"And are you very fond of Monsieur Vyder?"

"Fond of him?" said she. "I should think so! He tells me beautiful stories, madame, every evening; and he has given me nice gowns, and linen, and a shawl. Why, I am figged out like a princess, and I never wear sabots now. And then, I have not known what it is to be hungry these two months past. And I don't live on potatoes now. He brings me bonbons and burnt almonds, and chocolate almonds.—Aren't they good?—I do anything he pleases for a bag of chocolate.—Then my old Daddy is very kind; he takes such care of me, and is so nice; I know now what my mother ought to have been.—He is going to get an old woman to help me, for he doesn't like me to dirty my hands with cooking. For the past month, too, he has been making a little money, and he gives me three francs every evening that I put into a money-box. Only he will never let me out except to come here—and he calls me his little kitten! Mamma never called me anything but bad names—and thief, and vermin!"

"Well, then, my child, why should not Daddy Vyder be your husband?"

"But he is, madame," said the girl, looking at Adeline with calm pride, without a blush, her brow smooth, her eyes steady. "He told me that I was his little wife; but it is a horrid bore to be a man's wife—if it were not for the burnt almonds!"

"Good Heaven!" said the Baroness to herself, "what monster can have had the heart to betray such perfect, such holy innocence? To restore this child to the ways of virtue would surely atone for many sins.—I knew what I was doing." thought she, remembering the scene with Crevel. "But she—she knows nothing."

"Do you know Monsieur Samanon?" asked Atala, with an insinuating look.

"No, my child; but why do you ask?"

"Really and truly?" said the artless girl.

"You have nothing to fear from this lady," said the Italian woman. "She is an angel."

"It is because my good old boy is afraid of being caught by Samanon. He is hiding, and I wish he could be free—"

"Why?"

"On! then he would take me to Bobino, perhaps to the Ambigu."

"What a delightful creature!" said the Baroness, kissing the girl.

"Are you rich?" asked Atala, who was fingering the Baroness' lace ruffles.

"Yes, and No," replied Madame Hulot. "I am rich for dear little girls like you when they are willing to be taught their duties as Christians by a priest, and to walk in the right way."

"What way is that?" said Atala; "I walk on my two feet."

"The way of virtue."

Atala looked at the Baroness with a crafty smile.

"Look at madame," said the Baroness, pointing to the stove-fitter's wife, "she has been quite happy because she was received into the bosom of the Church. You married like the beasts that perish."

"I?" said Atala. "Why, if you will give me as much as Daddy Vyder gives me, I shall be quite happy unmarried again. It is a grind.—Do you know what it is to—?"

"But when once you are united to a man as you are," the Baroness put in, "virtue requires you to remain faithful to him."

"Till he dies," said Atala, with a knowing flash. "I shall not have to wait long. If you only knew how Daddy Vyder coughs and blows.—Poof, poof," and she imitated the old man.

"Virtue and morality require that the Church, representing God, and the Mayor, representing the law, should consecrate your marriage," Madame Hulot went on. "Look at madame; she is legally married—"

"Will it make it more amusing?" asked the girl.

"You will be happier," said the Baroness, "for no one could then blame you. You would satisfy God! Ask her if she was married without the sacrament of marriage!"

Atala looked at the Italian.

"How is she any better than I am?" she asked. "I am prettier than she is."

"Yes, but I am an honest woman," said the wife, "and you may be called by a bad name."

"How can you expect God to protect you if you trample every law, human and divine, under foot?" said the Baroness. "Don't you know that God has Paradise in store for those who obey the injunctions of His Church?"

"What is there in Paradise? Are there playhouses?"

"Paradise!" said Adeline, "is every joy you can conceive of. It is full of angels with white wings. You see God in all His glory, you share His power, you are happy for every minute of eternity!"

Atala listened to the lady as she might have listened to music; but Adeline, seeing that she was incapable of understanding her, thought she had better take another line of action and speak to the old man.

"Go home, then, my child, and I will go to see Monsieur Vyder. Is he a Frenchman?"

"He is an Alsatian, madame. But he will be quite rich soon. If you would pay what he owes to that vile Samanon, he would give you back your money, for in a few months he will be getting six thousand francs a year, he says, and we are to go to live in the country a long way off, in the Vosges."

At the word Vosges the Baroness sat lost in reverie. It called up the vision of her native village. She was roused from her melancholy meditation by the entrance of the stove-fitter, who came to assure her of his prosperity.

"In a year's time, madame, I can repay the money you lent us, for it is God's money, the money of the poor and wretched. If ever I make a fortune, come to me for what you want, and I will render through you the help to others which you first brought us."

"Just now," said Madame Hulot, "I do not need your money, but I ask your assistance in a good work. I have just seen that little Judici, who is living with an old man, and I mean to see them regularly and legally married."

"Ah! old Vyder; he is a very worthy old fellow, with plenty of good sense. The poor old man has already made friends in the neighborhood, though he has been here but two months. He keeps my accounts for me. He is, I believe, a brave Colonel who served the Emperor well. And how he adores Napoleon!—He has some orders, but he never wears them. He is waiting till he is straight again, for he is in debt, poor old boy! In fact, I believe he is hiding, threatened by the law—"

"Tell him that I will pay his debts if he will marry the child."

"Oh, that will soon be settled.—Suppose you were to see him, madame; it is not two steps away, in the Passage du Soleil."

So the lady and the stove-fitter went out.

"This way, madame," said the man, turning down the Rue de la Pepiniere.

The alley runs, in fact, from the bottom of this street through to the Rue du Rocher. Halfway down this passage, recently opened through, where the shops let at a very low rent, the Baroness saw on a window, screened up to a height with a green, gauze curtain, which excluded the prying eyes of the passer-by, the words:

"ECRIVAIN PUBLIC"; and on the door the announcement:

BUSINESS TRANSACTED.

Petitions Drawn Up, Accounts Audited, Etc.

With Secrecy and Dispatch.