inSerial: part seven
The Mysteries of Paris
13. Murph and Rodolphe
Rodolphe headed toward the courtyard, where he found the tall man who, the evening before, disguised as a coal porter, had come to warn him of the arrival of Tom and Sarah. Murph, for that is his name, was about fifty years old. A few silvery strands highlighted two small tufts of bright blond hair that stuck out on either side of his otherwise bald head. His large, ruddy face was completely shaven, except for closely cropped blond mutton-chops that descended no further than the bottom of his ears and curved across his well-rounded cheeks. In spite of his age and girth, Murph was alert and strong. His physiognomy, although phlegmatic, was both benevolent and resolute. He wore a white tie, a loose waistcoat, and a long black coat with broad skirts. His trousers, of a greenish gray, were made of the same fabric as his pearl buttoned gaiters, which failed to completely meet his garters, thereby revealing a pair of traveling stockings of ecru colored wool. Murph's dress and appearance were the perfect image of what the English know as the gentleman farmer. We hasten to add that while Murph was an English gentleman (a squire), he was not a farmer.
As Rodolphe entered the courtyard, Murph placed into the pocket of a small calash a brace of pistols he had been carefully cleaning.
"What the devil are you doing with those pistols?" Rodolphe asked.
"That concerns me, Your Highness," said Murph, as he climbed down from the carriage. "You stick to your business, I'll stick to mine."
"When are the horses arriving?"
"Nightfall, just as you ordered."
"You arrived this morning?"
"At eight. Madame Georges had time to get everything ready."
"You're in a fine humor. Have I said something to annoy you?"
"Not at all, Your Highness, not at all. One day or the next—with the risks you take. Well, it's your life."
"Easy for you to say. If I left it to you, the danger would all be yours, and …"
"Can't you get involved without risking your life? Where's the harm in that, Your Highness."
"Where would the pleasure be, Master Murph?"
"But you," said the squire, hunching his shoulders, "for you to enter such places!"
"There you go again, you and the other John Bulls, with your aristocratic scruples, who think the great lords are made of an essence superior to your own. Poor sheep, proud of your butchers!"
"If you were English, Your Highness, you would understand—honor to those who honor. Besides, were I a Turk, a Chinaman, or an American, I would still believe you were wrong to expose yourself thus. Last night, in that foul Rue de la Cité, as we went to find Bras-Rouge—devil take him—only the fear of irritating you, of disobeying you, led me to restrain myself from joining your fight with that reprobate you found in the alley."
"Which is to say, Murph, that you doubt both my strength and my courage."
"Unfortunately, you've taught me a hundred times not to doubt either one. Crabb of Ramsgate taught you to box. Lacour of Paris taught you savate and the use of the baton, and—out of mere whimsy—argot. You learned to fence from the renowned Bertrand. And you often got the better of those men when you sparred. I've seen you shoot a swallow in flight with an ordinary pistol. You have muscles of steel. And though you are of slender build, in a fight you would get the better of me as easily as a racehorse could outrun a brewer's nag. And I speak the truth."
Rodolphe listened complacently to the enumeration of his gladiatorial skills. He then resumed with a smile: "So, what are you afraid of?"
"I maintain, Your Highness, that it is unseemly for you to stick out your neck for the first blackguard that comes along. I do not say this simply because it is improper for an honorable gentleman of my acquaintance to soil his hands with coal and cavort like the devil. I may have gray hair, a paunch, and a dour expression, but I would disguise myself as a tightrope walker if it were of use to you. However, I prefer to follow my earlier counsel."
"Oh, how well I know it, old fellow. Once an idea gets lodged in that ironclad skull of yours, once your sense of devotion fills your heart, steadfast and bold, the devil himself, fighting tooth and nail, could not unseat them."
"You're flattering me, Your Highness. You're planning something."
"Nothing to worry about."
"Folly, Your Highness."
"My poor Murph, you're wasting your time lecturing me."
"Because I am filled with pride and happiness. Why, just being here …"
"Because you have done something good?"
"This is a place of refuge against your sermons, it's my Temple Bar."
"If that's the case, where the devil can I lecture you, Your Highness?"
"Murph, you flatter me. You insist on trying to prevent me from committing some folly."
"Your Highness, for certain follies I am indulgent."
"Yes. After all, with nearly two million in income …"
"It's more trouble than you think, my poor Murph."
"You're preaching to the converted, Your Highness."
"And yet, some pleasures are so poignant, so pure, so profound and cost so little. Can anything compare to what I felt just now when that unhappy creature discovered she was safe and protected here, and kissed my hand in gratitude? But that is not all. My happiness has a long future before it. Tomorrow, after-tomorrow, for days on end, I shall imagine with delight what that poor child will feel upon waking in this tranquil retreat, with the excellent Madame Georges nearby, to love her tenderly. For misfortune calls to misfortune."
"Yes, in the case of Madame Georges, no generosity was put to better use. A noble, courageous woman! An angel of virtue, an angel! I am rarely emotional, but the misfortunes of Madame Georges touched me greatly. Your new protégé, however! Let's not discuss this any further, Highness."
"Your Highness, do what you feel is right."
"I do what I feel is just," Rodolphe said with a trace of impatience.
"What is just according to you."
"What is just before God and my conscience," Rodolphe retorted with severity.
"Your Highness, we disagree on this. Let's not discuss it any further."
"And I command you to discuss it," Rodolphe shouted haughtily.
"I have never been so circumstanced that Your Highness has ordered me to remain silent; I hope he will not order me to speak," Murph responded proudly.
"Murph!" Rodolphe shouted with a hint of irritation.
"You know, Sir, I am not fond of such reticence."
"I find such reticence suitable to my temperament," Murph said with some brusqueness.
"Be advised, Sir, that if I am willing to stoop to being your familiar, I do so only with the proviso that you rise to the level of candor." As he spoke these words, Rodolphe's features were an image of regal disdain.
"Your Highness, I am 50 years old and a gentleman. You must not speak to me thus."
"Be silent, I said!"
"Your Highness, it is unworthy to force a man of honor to recall the services he has performed."
"Your services? Don't I pay for them?"
Although Rodolphe had not attached to these cruel words a sense of humiliation that placed Murph in the position of a mercenary, he unfortunately interpreted them in that way. He turned red with shame and raised his two clenched fists to his bald temples with an expression of painful indignation. Then, just as suddenly, in an unexpected reversal, Murph, looking at Rodolphe, whose noble features were still contorted with anger, disfigured with the violence of his disdain, suppressed a sigh, looked at the young man with tender commiseration, and said to him in a voice that cracked with emotion: "Your Highness, please, you're not being reasonable."
The words merely exacerbated Rodolphe's irritation. His eyes glowed with savage brilliance, his lips turned white, and, advancing toward Murph threateningly, he shouted: "How dare you!"
Murph recoiled and said, hastily and almost without realizing it: "Highness, January 13. Do you recall?"
The words had a magical effect on Rodolphe. His face, twisted with rage, relaxed. He looked hard at Murph and lowered his head. Then, after a moment of silence, he murmured in a changed voice: "Sir, you are indeed cruel. And here I thought … And you too? You!"
Rodolphe was unable to complete his thought. His voice grew silent and he crumpled onto a stone bench, concealing his head between his hands.
"Your Highness," Murph cried out in remorse, "my good lord. Forgive me. Forgive your old, loyal Murph! Only because I was at my wit's end and feared—not for myself but for you—the consequences of your temper did I utter those words. I did so without anger, without reproach, in spite of myself and with compassion. Your Highness, I was wrong to be so vulnerable. Why, who knows your character better than I, who has not left your side since you were a child. I beg you, please forgive me for mentioning it at all. You've suffered enough already."
Rodolphe raised his head. His pallor was extreme. In a voice both gentle and sad, he said to his companion, "Enough, enough, old friend. You silenced my fatal transport with a word, and I thank you for it. I make no excuses for the harsh things I've said. You know the old adage about not expressing our sentiments. I was mad. We shall speak of it no longer."
"Your unhappiness has endured for a long while, however. And this contributes to my sorrow. I wish nothing more than to see your dark mood lift and now my foolish sensitivity has brought it back. Confound it! What good does it do to be an honest man with gray hair unless it's to patiently endure reproaches one doesn't deserve. But no," Murph resumed with comic exaggeration, which contrasted strongly with his customary self-possession, "no, obviously I need to be flattered all day long. I need someone to tell me, 'Mr. Murph, you're a model servant. Mr. Murph, no one is as loyal as you. Mr. Murph, you're an admiral man. Mr. Murph! Devil! Pest! Oh, how handsome is Mr. Murph. How brave!' Go on, you old parrot, go scratch that gray head of yours."
Then, recalling the affectionate words Rodolphe had addressed to him at the beginning of their conversation, he cried out in a further outburst of grotesque violence, "But no. He called me his good, his old, his faithful Murph! And there I am, behaving like some bumpkin because of an offhand comment. At my age! Why, I could tear my hair out."
And the worthy gentleman raised his hands to his temples.
Murph's words and gestures were the sign of a despair that had reached a state of paroxysm. Unfortunately, or fortunately for Murph, he was almost entirely bald, which rendered his follicular display harmless—to his great and sincere regret. For when action succeeded words, when his clenched fingers came into contact with nothing more than the brightly polished and marble-like surface of his head, the worthy squire grew confused and ashamed of his presumption, perceiving himself to be nothing more than a conceited swaggerer. We hasten to report, to exonerate Murph of any suspicion of boastfulness, that he had once possessed the thickest, most golden locks ever to grace the head of a Yorkshire gentleman.
Ordinarily, Rodolphe was greatly amused by Murph's disappointment regarding his hair. But his thoughts had grown serious, painful. Not wishing to increase his companion's regrets, he said to him with a gentle smile: "Listen to me, my good Murph, you were about to offer your unreserved praise for my gift to Madame Georges."
"And you are surprised at my interest in this poor, lost girl?"
"Forgive me, Your Highness, I was wrong. Wrong."
"No. I realize that appearances may have been misleading. But as you are familiar with my past and have assisted me with loyalty and courage in the task I have undertaken, it is my duty—or gratitude, if you prefer—to convince you that my actions are not taken lightly."
"I know, Your Highness."
"You are familiar with my ideas on the subject of man's capacity for kindness. Assisting those unfortunates who ask for our help is all well and good. To discover those who struggle with honor and zeal and come to their aid, occasionally without their awareness, to ward off poverty or the temptation that leads to crime is better. To rehabilitate in their own eyes, to restore to honesty and virtue, those who have managed to retain the purity of generous sentiments in the midst of the contempt they are scourged with, the poverty that eats away at them, the corruption that surrounds them while risking contact with that poverty, corruption and filth, is better still. To pursue vice, infamy, and crime with vigorous hatred and implacable vengeance, whether they rise from the mud or are swathed in silk, is merely justice. But to blindly assist a well-merited poverty, to degrade charity and pity, to prostitute the chaste and pious comforters of my wounded soul, bartering them to the unworthy and dishonorable, would be horrible, impious, sacrilegious—it would be to doubt in God. And in Him we must believe if we are to be generous."
"Your Highness, I wasn't implying that your generosity was misplaced."
"One thing more, old friend. Madame Georges and the poor girl I entrusted to her charge started from opposite ends before finding themselves in the same abyss of misfortune. One of them, happy, rich, loved, honored, endowed with every virtue, watched herself wither and die in the grasp of the hypocritical wretch to whom her unseeing parents had given her in marriage. I say this with joy, without me that unfortunate woman would have died of poverty and need; shame would not allow her to seek help."
"Your Highness, what dreadful poverty when we first arrived in that attic! It was terrible, so terrible. Recall her surprise when, after a lengthy illness, she awoke here, in this quiet home. How grateful she was. You are right, Highness. To succor such unfortunates is to believe in God."
"And to succor them is to honor God. I realize that nothing is more sacred than a serene and considered virtue, nothing more respectable than a woman such as Madame Georges. Raised by a good and pious mother in the intelligent observance of duty, she has never failed—never!—in that duty, and has courageously endured the most frightful hardships. But do we not also honor God, in a way that is most sacred, when we lift from the mud one of those rare creatures He has been pleased to so richly endow? Isn't she worthy of our pity and concern, our respect as well? Yes, respect. For the unfortunate child, abandoned to her instinct alone; tortured, imprisoned, reviled, sullied, has piously preserved, in the depths of her heart, the noble seeds God has sown there. If you had heard that poor creature. With the first sign of interest I showed, the first honest and friendly word she heard, the most charming instincts, the purest inclinations, the most delicate, most poetic thoughts were awakened in her youthful breast, the way a thousand wildflowers bloom in springtime with the first rays of the sun—unawares! In a one-hour conversation with a poor laborer, I discovered in Fleur-de-Marie a richness of generosity, grace, wisdom—yes, wisdom, my good Murph. A smile played across my lips and a tear came to my eyes when, through her good-natured prattle, endowed with common sense, she showed me how I could save 40 sous a day and rise above my needs and unhealthy temptations. Poor child. She said this with such seriousness, such feeling. She demonstrated such sweet satisfaction in giving me this sage advice, such joy in hearing me promise that I would heed her counsel. I was moved, moved to tears. And I am accused of being indifferent, harsh, inflexible. No! No! Thank God, there are times when I feel my heart beat with ardor and generosity. But you are affected as well, old friend. Come. Fleur-de-Marie won't be jealous of Madame Georges. You too shall soon take an interest in her fate."
"It's true, Your Highness. Showing you how you might save 40 sous a day—believing you to be a worker—rather than having you spend money on her. Yes, it affects me more than it probably should."
"And when I consider that the girl has a wealthy and honorable mother—so I'm told—who ignominiously abandoned her. Should this turn out to be true—and I hope to discover the truth—if this is true, I pity that woman, I pity her. For her punishment shall be terrible, Murph. I have never felt a hatred more implacable than when thinking of this woman, a woman I do not even know. Yes, Murph, revenge is sometimes dear to me, some suffering precious. I thirst for certain kinds of tears!"
"Highness!" said Murph, shocked by the expression of infernal cruelty that took hold of Rodolphe's features as he spoke. "I have heard those who merit consideration and compassion often say you are a 'good angel.' But I have also heard those who deserved your contempt and hatred cry out in their despair, as they cursed you, 'He is a demon!'"
"Quiet. Madame Georges and Marie are coming. Make preparations for our departure. We must be back in Paris early."
Thanks to the attentions of Madame Georges, Marie—as La Goualeuse shall be referred to from now on—was no longer recognizable. A round rustic bonnet and two thick blonde braids framed the young girl's virginal features. A long shawl of white mousseline wrapped around her bosom and partly disappeared beneath the high, square bib of a small apron of shot silk, whose blue and pink reflections glittered against the dark fabric of a light-brown dress that seemed to have been expressly made for her.
Marie's physiognomy was profoundly contemplative; certain forms of happiness cast the soul into a state of ineffable sadness, a hallowed melancholy.
Rodolphe was not surprised by such gravity, he expected it. Had she been happy and talkative, his appreciation of her would have been lowered somewhat. With perfect tact, he made not the slightest remark about her beauty, which shined with a pure light. Rodolphe perceived that something solemn and noble existed in this form of redemption, of a soul torn from vice.
Upon the thoughtful, resigned features of Madame Georges, one found the trace of lengthy suffering and deepest sorrow. She gazed upon Marie with meekness and an almost maternal compassion, such was the grace and gentleness of the young woman.
"What do you think of my child? She has come to thank you for your kindness," said Madame Georges as she presented Marie to Rodolphe.
Upon hearing the words "my child," La Goualeuse slowly turned her large eyes toward her protectress and considered her for a few moments with an expression of profound gratitude.
"Thank you on behalf of Marie, my dear Madame Georges. She deserves your solicitous attention and shall always be worthy of it."
"Monsieur Rodolphe," said Marie in a halting voice, "you understand—you understand that I don't know what to say."
"Your emotions tell me everything, Marie."
"She understands that providence is responsible for the happiness that has entered her life," said Madame Georges. "The first thing she did upon entering my bedroom was to throw herself on her knees before my crucifix."
"Thanks to you, Monsieur Rodolphe, I'm now able to pray," said Marie, looking at her friend.
Murph suddenly turned aside. As an Englishman and a squire, his self-composure and sense of dignity prevented him from revealing the extent to which Marie's simple words had affected him. Rodolphe said to the young woman, "My child, I'd like to speak with Madame Georges. My friend Murph will take you to the farm, where you'll meet your future protégés. We'll join you shortly. Well, Murph? Murph, didn't you hear me?"
The gentleman turned his back and pretended to blow his nose with a formidable blast on his handkerchief. He replaced the handkerchief in his pocket, jammed his hat down over his eyes and, turning somewhat, offered his arm to Marie. He had maneuvered himself so adroitly that neither Rodolphe nor Madame Georges were able to see his face. Taking the young woman's arm, he made quickly for the farm buildings, walking at such a pace that La Goualeuse had to run to keep up with him, just as she had done in her childhood as she ran behind the Owl.
"Tell me, Madame Georges, what do you think?" asked Rodolphe.
"Monsieur, as I was saying, she had barely entered my bedroom when, seeing my Christ, she hurriedly knelt down. I cannot express how much spontaneity, how much natural religious feeling was present in her movement. At that moment I understood that her soul had not been debased. And no sign of exaggeration, no trace of assertiveness could be seen in her expression of gratitude toward you Monsieur Rodolphe; her sincerity was genuine. But something else occurs to me, which will demonstrate just how strong the religious instinct is within her. I said to her, 'You must have been quite surprised, quite pleased, when Monsieur Rodolphe informed you that you would be staying here from now on. It must have made quite an impression on you.' 'Oh, yes,' she replied, 'when Monsieur Rodolphe told me, I didn't know what was going on inside me; but I felt the kind of pious joy, the feeling of devout respect I used to feel when I entered a church. That is, when I was able to enter,' she added, 'for you know, Madame …' I stopped her there, for her shame was apparent. 'I know my child. And I shall always call you my child if that is your desire. I know you've suffered a great deal, but God casts his blessing on those who love Him and those who fear Him, those who have been unhappy and those who repent.'"
"Then, my dear Madame Georges, I'm doubly satisfied with my work. She will be of interest to you, this poor girl. As you sow, so shall you reap; your intuitions are correct, her instincts are excellent."
"What touched me, Monsieur, is that she made no inquiries about you, even though she must have been very curious. Struck by her delicate reserve, I wanted to know if she was aware of her behavior, so I asked her, 'You must be rather curious to discover your mysterious benefactor?' 'I do know him,' she answered, with charming simplicity, 'he is my benefactor.'"
"You shall love her then? Excellent woman, her company will be sweet. At least she will occupy your heart."
"Yes, I'll look after her as I would have looked after him," Madame Georges responded in a heart-
Rodolphe took her hand.
"Come, come, don't be discouraged. We haven't found anything yet, but one day perhaps …"
Madame Georges shook her head sadly and then, with some bitterness, added, "My boy would be twenty years old now."
"Better to say he is twenty."
"May the Lord hear you and answer your prayers, Monsieur Rodolphe."
"He'll answer them, at least I hope so. Yesterday, I went in search—although in vain—of a strange character by the name of Bras-Rouge, a man I was told might have some information concerning your son. Leaving his apartment, I got into a brawl and that's how I met this unfortunate child."
"Well, so much the better. At least your good intentions toward me placed you on the path to another unfortunate, Monsieur Rodolphe."
"For some time now I've wanted to explore life among the poor, almost certain there were a few souls I could pry from old Satan's grasp. I do amuse myself in thwarting his plans," Rodolphe added with a smile. "I often take his best morsels." Then, in a more serious tone, "No news from Rochefort?"
"Nothing," she replied, with a shiver.
"So much the better. The monster probably met his tired end along the muddy banks while trying to make his escape. His appearance is familiar to many and he's known to be a brazen criminal; they're searching everywhere for him. And in the six months since he's been out of j …"
Rodolphe stopped without continuing what he
"Jail! Say it! Say it," cried the unhappy woman nearly beside herself with distress. "The father of my son. What if the unfortunate child is alive? What if, like me, he hasn't changed his name? How shameful. How shameful! And what if his father kept his promise? Forgive me, Monsieur, but in spite of all you've done for me I'm so very unhappy."
"My poor woman, calm yourself."
"There are times when I'm terribly frightened. I fear my husband escaped safely from Rochefort and is looking for me now. He will want to kill me, the way he killed our boy. Well, isn't that what he did?"
"This mystery darkens my mind like the grave," Rodolphe said pensively. "Why would that wretch have taken the boy with him fifteen years ago, you once asked, when he tried to leave the country? A child that age would only slow him down."
"Monsieur, when my husband (and here the poor woman trembled as she pronounced the word), after being stopped at the border, was brought back to Paris and thrown in jail, they allowed me to see him. He said such terrible things. 'I took your son because you love him and it's the only way to make you give me the money, which may or may not benefit him—but that's my concern. Whether he lives or dies is unimportant, but if he lives, he'll be in good hands. You shall bear the shame of your son just as you have borne the shame of his father.' One month later he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Since then, my appeals, my prayers, my letters, have all been in vain. Never have I been able to discover what has become of my child. Oh, Monsieur Rodolphe! Where is my boy? Where is he? His words keep coming back to haunt me, 'You shall bear the shame of your son just as you have borne the shame of his father!'"
"But such cruelty makes no sense. Why sully, why corrupt the unfortunate child? And why would he abduct him?"
"As I tried to explain, Monsieur, it was to force me to send him money. He ruined me, but I still possessed a few dwindling resources. In spite of his villainy, I cannot believe he hasn't used at least some of the money to raise that unfortunate child."
"And you have heard nothing from your son, nothing that might help identify him?"
"Nothing, other than what we discussed: a small Holy Ghost sculpted in lapis-lazuli, attached to his neck with a slender silver chain. This relic, blessed by the Holy Father, belonged to my mother. She had worn the pendant as a child and cherished it. I wore it as well and it was I who placed it upon my son's neck. Unfortunately, the talisman has lost its power."
"Who knows? God is all powerful."
"Wasn't it providence that placed me on your path, Monsieur?"
"Too late, Madame Georges, too late. Perhaps, I would have been able to spare you a great deal of suffering."
"But, Monsieur, haven't you given me all I need?"
"How is that? I purchased this farm. When you were prosperous, you increased the value of your holdings—by your own choice. You agreed to serve as my steward, and thanks to your excellent care and your intelligence, the farm brings me … "
"Brings you, Monsieur?" said Madame Georges, interrupting Rodolphe. "But I turn the rents over to Father Laporte. Money that, according to your orders, he distributes to the poor."
"Well, isn't that an excellent profit? But, you told the good father of my arrival, did you not? I want to recommend my protégé to him. Did he get my letter?"
"Murph brought it to him this morning upon his arrival."
"In the letter, I briefly recount the story of this poor child's life. But I wasn't sure I would be able to come today, in which case Murph would have accompanied Marie."
A farm hand interrupted their interview, which had taken place in the garden.
"Madame, the priest is waiting for you."
"Have the horses arrived yet?" Rodolphe asked the farm hand.
"Yes, Monsieur Rodolphe, they're being harnessed." And with that the man left the garden.
Madame Georges, the priest, and the inhabitants of the farm knew Fleur-de-Marie's protector only as Monsieur Rodolphe. Murph's discretion was impenetrable. As careful as he was in addressing Rodolphe as "Your Highness" when alone with him, he was equally careful to refer to him only as Monsieur Rodolphe in the presence of strangers.
"I forgot to tell you, Madame Georges," Rodolphe said as they returned to the house, "Marie's health is poor. Poverty and deprivation have altered her constitution. Just this morning, in broad daylight, I was struck by her paleness, even though her cheeks were bright pink. And her eyes shone with a feverish brilliance. She is going to need a great deal of care."
"You can rely on me, Monsieur Rodolphe. But, thank goodness, it's not serious. At her age, here in the countryside, in the open air, with plenty of rest and peace of mind, she'll soon recover."
"I think so too. But never mind. I'm not putting my trust in your country doctors. I'll have Murph bring in a qualified practitioner and he'll tell us how best to handle this. I want frequent updates about Marie's progress. Then, once she's well rested and calm, we can think about her future. Perhaps it might be best if she were to remain here with you. Assuming you find her character and behavior appropriate, of course."
"That is my wish, Monsieur. She will take the place of the child I have longed for all my life."
"Well, let us hope for the best, for both of you."
As Rodolphe and Madame Georges were approaching the farm, Murph and Marie arrived. Marie was animated by her walk. Rodolphe pointed out to Madame Georges the color of the girl's cheeks, which were bright and clearly defined, and contrasted sharply with the fragile pallor of her complexion. The worthy gentleman released Marie's arm and whispered into Rodolphe's ear in some confusion, "This little girl has bewitched me. I don't know who I like more, her or Madame Georges. I've been a beast, fierce and untamed."
"Don't pull your hair out, Murph," Rodolphe said, smiling and shaking the hand of his squire.
Madame Georges, taking Marie by the arm, entered the small ground-floor salon, where Father Laporte was waiting. Murph went to make preparations for their departure. Madame Georges, Marie, Rodolphe and the priest were alone.
The room, plain but quite comfortable, was hung and furnished with chintz, as was the rest of the house, just as it had been described by Rodolphe to La Goualeuse. A thick rug covered the floor, a good fire burned in the hearth, and two enormous bouquets of asters of various shades arranged in two crystal vases spread a subtle aroma of balsam across the room.
Through the green shutters, which were half closed, one could see the prairie, the small river, and beyond them, the hillside planted with chestnuts. Father Laporte, seated next to the chimney, was over eighty years old and had served this poor parish since the final days of the Revolution. There was an air of distinction and quiet solemnity in his elderly face, thin and somewhat sickly, and framed by long white hair that fell on the collar of his black cassock, which had been patched in several places. It was said that the priest would rather clothe two or three poor children in a piece of good, warm cloth than strive for elegance, which would have meant replacing his cassocks every two or three years.
Father Laporte was old, and his hands trembled. There was something touching in this movement, however, and when he raised them while talking, which he sometimes did, it appeared to be a benediction. Rodolphe observed Marie with interest. Had he not known her as he did, or rather, as he intuited, he might have been surprised to see her approach the priest with a kind of pious serenity. Marie's instinct told her that shame ended where repentance and penance began.
"Father," Rodolphe began respectfully, "Madame Georges wishes to take responsibility for this young woman, for whom I ask your indulgence."
"She is entitled to it, Monsieur, as are all those who come to us. God's mercy is inexhaustible, my dear child; he has shown it by not abandoning you … to such painful trials. You see, I know everything." And he took Marie's hand in his own trembling hands. "The generous man who saved you has brought to life the words from scripture: 'The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them.' But your conduct must be such that you are worthy of his kindness. I will always be here to aid and sustain you along the righteous path you have chosen to follow. Madame Georges shall be your example and I your vigilant counsel. The Lord shall complete his work."
"And I'll pray for those who have shown me pity and brought me to the Lord, father," said La Goualeuse. In a gesture apparently involuntary, she sunk to her knees before the old priest and burst into tears. Madame Georges, Rodolphe, and Father Laporte were all deeply moved.
"Rise, my child, you shall soon be worthy of absolution for your wrongs; you are more their victim than their proponent. Recall the words of the prophet once more: 'The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.'"
Rodolphe held out to her a small gold cross attached to a black velvet ribbon. "Goodbye Marie, keep this little cross as a keepsake. I had it engraved with the date of your deliverance, your redemption. I shall return soon."
Marie raised the cross to her lips. At that moment, Murph opened the door to the salon.
"Monsieur, the horses are ready."
"Adieu, Father. Adieu my good Madame Georges. I entrust the child to your care. And adieu once more, Marie."
The elderly priest, leaning on the arms of Madame Georges and La Goualeuse, who supported his hesitant steps, left the salon to observe Rodolphe's departure. A burst of color from the waning sun fell upon this curious yet unhappy group: The old priest, the exemplar of charity, forgiveness, and eternal hope; a woman worn by all the sorrows that can befall a wife and mother; and a young woman, a child still in many ways, whom poverty and the tyranny of crime had cast into an abyss of vice. Rodolphe climbed into the carriage and Murph settled himself by his side. The horses took off at a gallop.