9. The Surprise
La Goualeuse remained seated on the overturned tree trunk. Suddenly, a man rose from the bottom of the ditch, shook the bedding beneath which he had been sleeping, and exploded with laughter. La Goualeuse turned and shrieked with fright. It was Chourineur.
“Don’t be afraid, girl,” said Chourineur seeing the expression of fear on the young woman’s face as she took refuge behind her companion. “Now, how’s that for a noteworthy encounter! You didn’t expect it, did you, Master Rodolphe? Neither did I.” Then he added, more seriously, “Say what you will, there’s something going on—up there. The big man upstairs is a clever one. It’s as if he were saying to me, ‘Go where I tell you to go’—seeing how he sent you here, which is devilishly strange!”
“What are you doing here?” asked Rodolphe, surprised.
“I’m keeping a look out for you, Master. What a coincidence that you ended up at my little country home. Something’s going on I tell you; something’s definitely going on.”
“I asked you what you were doing here.”
“You’ll know soon enough. Just give me a moment to climb on top of your rolling observatory.”
And Chourineur ran to the carriage, which had stopped a short distance away, cast a piercing glance from side to side across the immense plain, and returned quickly to join Rodolphe.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Patience, patience, Master. One more thing. What time is it?”
“12:30,” Rodolphe answered, glancing at his watch.
“Good. We have time. The Owl won’t be here for another half hour.”
“The Owl!” exclaimed Rodolphe and La Goualeuse simultaneously.
“Yes, the Owl. Here’s the story: Yesterday, when you left the bar, in walked...”
“A tall man accompanied by a woman dressed as a man. They inquired about me. I know that. And then?”
“And then they bought me a drink and started asking questions about you. I didn’t wish to say anything. Besides, the only thing I knew was the beating you were kind enough to give me. That’s all I know about your secrets. Even if I had known something, I would have done the same. It stays between us, in life and in death, Monsieur Rodolphe. Devil take me if I know why I feel about you the way a bulldog feels for its master. But it’s all the same. It’s stronger than me. I’m not going to get involved any further. It’s your business, you take care of it.”
“Thank you, please continue.”
“The tall man and the little woman dressed as a man, seeing how they couldn’t get anything out of me, left the bar, and I did too. They made their way toward the Palais de Justice; I headed for Nôtre-Dame. By the time I reached the end of the street, it was coming down cats and dogs, a veritable downpour. There was a half-ruined house nearby. I said to myself: If the storm continues like this, I’ll sleep just as well here as in my room. I crawled into a cellar of sorts, where I was protected from the storm. I used an old beam for my mattress, a pile of plaster for my pillow, and there I was cozy as a king.”
“We had had a few drinks together, Monsieur. I had a few more with the tall man and the little woman—just to let you know that my head was a bit heavy—and nothing puts me to sleep faster than the sound of rainfall. I began to doze off. I couldn’t have been asleep for long when a noise suddenly woke me. It was the Schoolmaster, chatting in a friendly way with somebody. I listen. And what do you think I hear? The voice of the tall man who had come to the bar with the little lady.”
“They were talking with the Schoolmaster and the Owl?” asked Rodolphe, stupefied.
“With the Schoolmaster and the Owl. They were talking about a meeting the following day.”
“At one o’clock.”
“It’s almost one now!”
“At the fork between the road to Saint-Denis and the road to La Révolte.”
“Like you said, Monsieur, that’s here!”
“The Schoolmaster. Be careful, Monsieur,” cried Fleur-de-Marie.
“Calm yourself child, he’s not coming, only the Owl.”
“How could that man make a deal with those two despicable creatures?” asked Rodolphe.
“I have no idea. After that, it’s possible I didn’t wake up until they were finished, because the tall man asked for his wallet back, which the Owl was supposed to bring here in exchange for five-hundred francs. Most likely, the Schoolmaster robbed them first and it was only then they began their friendly little talk.”
“That’s very strange.”
“Heavens, I’m afraid for you, Monsieur,” said Fleur-de-Marie.
“Master Rodolphe isn’t a child, my girl; but like you said, things could get hot for him, and here I am.”
“The tall one and the short one promised the Schoolmaster two-thousand francs to do—I don’t know what they’re planning exactly. The Owl is supposed to bring the wallet here and find out what’s up. She’ll inform the Schoolmaster, and he’ll take care of the rest.”
Fleur-de-Marie shivered. Rodolphe smiled disdainfully.
“Two-thousand francs in exchange for Monsieur Rodolphe. That makes me think—although I’m not making a comparison—that when I see a reward of five-hundred francs for a missing dog, I say to myself: dog, no one would give even a hundred sous to get you back. So, two-thousand francs to take care of you? Just who are you?”
“I’ll let you know in due time.”
“Fair enough. When I heard the deal made with the Owl, I said to myself: I have to find out where those swells live as they’re willing to set the Schoolmaster on Monsieur Rodolphe’s heels. When they had gone, I climbed out of the ruins and followed them quietly. The tall man and the little woman were met by a carriage on the parvis of Notre-Dame. They climbed in and I climbed on behind. We went as far as the Boulevard de l’Observatoire. It was dark as an oven and I couldn’t see a thing. So I made a mark on a tree to find my bearings when I returned.”
“Very good, my boy.”
“I went back this morning. Ten steps from the tree I noticed an alleyway closed by a gate. The alley was muddy and there were small footprints and large footprints, and at the end of the alleyway—the tall man and the little woman must make their nest there.”
“Thank you, Chourineur. You’ve done me a great service without realizing it.”
“How’s that, Monsieur? But I did realize it, that’s why I went back!”
“I know, and I would like to compensate you for your efforts with something more than a simple thank you. Unfortunately, I’m just a poor devil of a worker, even though, as you say, they’re willing to pay two-thousand francs for who knows what. Let me explain.”
“Sure, if it makes you happy. Otherwise, it’s all the same to me. They’re planning something. I’m against it. The rest is none of my affair.”
“I have an idea of what they want. Listen carefully. I have a secret for mechanically cutting the ivory in my fans, but this secret doesn’t belong to me alone. I’m waiting for my associate to put it into practice. It must be the model of the machine I have at home that they want so badly. There’s a great deal of money to be made with this invention.”
“So, the tall one and the short one . . . ?”
“I am in their employ. I didn’t wish to divulge my secret.”
This explanation appeared to satisfy Chourineur, whose intelligence was not particularly developed.
“Now I understand. They are the scoundrels! They don’t even have the courage to do their dirty work themselves. But, to return to what I was saying. This morning, I said to myself, ‘I know about the Owl’s meeting with the tall man. I’m going to wait for them, I’ve got a good pair of legs. My foreman can wait for me—too bad.’ When I arrive here, I see this hole. I grab an armful of manure over there and I bury myself up to my nose. Poor Goualeuse comes and sits herself right on the edge of my little park. So I decide to play a joke and yell like a banshee as I jump out of my hiding place.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“I’ll wait for the Owl, who is sure to arrive first, and listen to what she says to the tall man, as that might be useful. The only thing in the field is this overturned tree trunk but from here you can see across the entire plain. It was made for sitting. The Owl is supposed to meet him close by, near the turn off in the road. I’ll wager they come over here to sit down. If they don’t, if I can’t hear them, as soon as they separate I’ll grab the Owl, and that will be that. I’ll pay her what I owe her for Goualeuse’s tooth, and I’ll wring her neck until she tells me the name of this poor girl’s parents. What do you think of my plan, Monsieur?”
“There’s some good in it, but we need to make a few alterations.”
“Please, Chourineur, don’t start an argument on my behalf. If you harm the Owl, the Schoolmaster will . . .”
“Enough, child. I’ll get my hands on the Owl. Confound it! It’s precisely because she has the Schoolmaster on her side that I’ll double the dose.”
“Listen, Chourineur, I have a better way to revenge Goualeuse for the Owl’s cruelties. We’ll discuss it later. For now,” said Rodolphe, as he moved a few steps away from La Goualeuse and lowered his voice, “for now, will you do something for me?”
“The Owl doesn’t know you, correct?”
“I saw her yesterday for the first time at the bar.”
“Here’s what you must do. First, find a place where she can’t see you. When you catch sight of her, you’ll leave your hiding place.”
“So I can wring her neck?”
“No, that can wait! Today, you need only prevent her from speaking to the tall man. When he sees she is not alone, he won’t dare approach. If he does, don’t leave her side for a minute. He won’t be able to make his offer in your presence.”
“If he gets suspicious, I’ll take care of business. He’s no Schoolmaster and no Master Rodolphe.”
“I know the man, he won’t give you any trouble.”
“Very well. I’ll stick with the Owl like her shadow. Not a word the man says shall escape me. And then, he’ll be on his way.”
“Should they agree to another meeting, you’ll know about it, since you’ll be with them the entire time. Why, your presence alone will hasten his departure.”
“Excellent. And then can I take the Owl out for a spin? I’d like that.”
“Not yet. The old cyclops doesn’t know whether or not you’re one of the family does she?”
“No. Unless the Schoolmaster told her something.”
“If he has, you will inform her that you’ve changed your mind.”
“Confound it, Monsieur Rodolphe! One moment. I’m not sure I like this idea.”
“You’ll do as you please, of course. However, if you feel that what I’m asking you to do is wrong . . .”
“Oh, I’m not concerned about that.”
“And you’re right not to be.”
“Speak. I’m listening.”
“Once the man leaves, you’ll try to persuade the Owl.”
“Me? That old whore! I’d prefer to fight the Schoolmaster. It will be hard enough to stop myself from throttling her at once.”
“If you do, you’ll give the game away.”
“What then am I supposed to do?”
“The Owl will be furious that she lost her ransom money. You’ll try to calm her by telling her that you know of an easy mark, that you have come here to wait for an accomplice, and that if the Schoolmaster wants a part of it, there’s a great deal to be made.”
“After waiting around for an hour, you’ll tell her your friend isn’t coming, and you’ll arrange a meeting with her and the Schoolmaster for tomorrow, early in the day. Is that clear?”
“Tonight, at ten, be at the corner of the Champs-Élysées and the Allée des Veuves. I’ll meet you there and tell you the rest.”
“It may be a trap, so be on your guard. The Schoolmaster is devious. You have beaten him once already. If he has the slightest suspicion, he’s capable of killing you.”
“An excellent plan! But do as you wish with me, I’m not worried. However, something tells me the Schoolmaster and the Owl are in for it. But, there is one more thing, Monsieur.”
“What is it?”
“It’s not that I think you’re incapable of springing a trap on the Schoolmaster and having him pinched by the police. He’s a hard wretch and deserves to die a hundred times over. But as for arresting him, I want no part of it.”
“Nor do I. But I have a score to settle with him and the Owl. They’ve conspired with those who wish my destruction, but together we’ll see this through—if you’ll help me.”
“Oh well, since the cock is as good as the hen, I’m in.”
“And if we succeed,” Rodolphe added, in a serious, almost solemn, tone of voice, which struck Chourineur, “you shall be as proud as when you saved from fire and water the man and woman who owe you their life!”
“You have a way with words, Monsieur Rodolphe. That’s something about you I’ve never noticed before. But hurry,” cried Chourineur, “I see a small white speck over there. It must be the Owl’s bonnet. Go now. I’ll crawl back into my hole.”
“This evening, at ten o’clock.”
“At the corner of the Allée des Veuves and the Champs-Élysées.”
Fleur-de-Marie, who hadn’t heard the last part of their exchange, climbed back into the carriage with her companion.
10. The Farm
After his meeting with Chourineur, for several moments Rodolphe remained preoccupied, pensive. Fleur-de-Marie, who didn’t dare interrupt her companion’s silence, observed him disconsolately. Lifting his head, Rodolphe smiled graciously and said to her: “What’s on your mind, child? The meeting with Chourineur has upset you, is that it? We were having such a good time!”
“On the contrary, Monsieur Rodolphe, it’s very good for us; Chourineur may be useful to you.”
“Of all the patrons in the bar, he is one of the few who harbors a certain generosity of spirit. Don’t you agree?”
“I don’t know, Monsieur Rodolphe. Before yesterday, I saw him often but rarely spoke to him. He was as unkind as the rest of them.”
“Put that out of your head, Fleur-de-Marie. It would pain me to see you sad, especially when I wish you to enjoy yourself.”
“Oh but I am happy! It’s been so long since I’ve been out of Paris.”
“Not since your carriage rides with Rigolette.”
“My word, yes, Monsieur Rodolphe, that was in the spring. But even though it’s nearly winter, it makes me just as happy. The sun is splendid today! Look at those little pink clouds over there . . . there . . . and that hill with the pretty white houses among the trees. They still have leaves! That’s quite amazing for November, isn’t it, Monsieur Rodolphe? In Paris the leaves fall so quickly. And here, there are flocks of pigeons. There they are! On the roof of that mill. One never tires of looking at things out in the countryside, everything is interesting.”
“It’s a pleasure to see how much feeling you have for the little things that make these surroundings so agreeable.”
As the young woman observed the calm, gay scene that unfolded before her, her physiognomy again radiated happiness.
“And over there, the burning stubble in those fields, the lovely white smoke that climbs skyward, and that wagon with the two big gray horses. If I were a man, I would like to work the fields. To be in the middle of a silent plain and follow the plow, observing the large wood in the distance on a day such as this. That would make me want to sing one of those sad songs that brings tears to your eyes, like Geneviève de Brabant. Do you know it, Monsieur?”
“No, my child; but perhaps you’ll be kind enough to sing it for me before we arrive at the farm.”
“Oh, how lovely! We’re going to a farm, Monsieur Rodolphe?”
“Yes, the farm owned by my wet nurse, the good and worthy woman who raised me.”
“And will we be able to have some milk?” cried La Goualeuse as she clapped her hands.
“Milk! No. We shall have excellent cream, if you please, and butter that the farmer will make for us, and very fresh eggs.”
“Can we gather them ourselves?”
“And will we go to see the cows in the stable?”
“I believe so.”
“And will we also visit the dairy?”
“To the dairy as well.”
“And the pigeon coop?”
“And the pigeon coop.”
“Oh, look, Monsieur Rodolphe, I wouldn’t have believed it. How much fun this will be! What a wonderful day. A splendid day!” shouted the girl joyfully.
Then, in a sudden reversal, realizing that after these few hours of freedom spent in the countryside, she would be returning to her filthy room, the unfortunate young woman buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. Rodolphe, surprised, asked: “What’s bothering you, Fleur-de-Marie?”
“Nothing, nothing, Monsieur Rodolphe.” And she dried her eyes and tried to smile. “Forgive me for being so melancholy. Pay no attention to me. It’s nothing, really, it was just a passing thought. I’m going to have a lovely time.”
“But a moment ago you were so happy!”
“That’s why,” she added naively, lifting her eyes still wet with tears to him. Those words were enough for Rodolphe, who now understood everything. Wishing to chase away the girl’s dark mood, he said to her with a smile, “You were thinking about your rose, weren’t you? I’ll wager you regret the fact that you can’t bring it with you on our excursion to the farm. Poor rose bush! You would have been capable of convincing it to eat a bit of cream!”
La Goualeuse used Rodolphe’s witticism as a pretext to smile. Slowly, the airy cloud of sadness lifted and she thought only of enjoying the present moment and ignoring the future. The carriage was almost at Saint-Denis and the tall steeple of the church could be seen in the distance.
“Look at the beautiful bell tower!” cried La Goualeuse.
“It’s Saint-Denis, a magnificent church. Would you like to see it? We can stop the carriage.” The young woman lowered her eyes.
“I haven’t set foot inside a church since I’ve been with the Abbess; I didn’t dare. But in prison I loved to sing at mass and during the feast of Corpus Christi, we made such beautiful bouquets for the altar.”
“But God is good and merciful. Why are you afraid to pray, to enter a church?”
“Oh, no, no, Monsieur Rodolphe! It would be sacrilegious. I’ve done quite enough to offend God in other ways.”
After a moment’s silence, Rodolphe said, “Have you ever been in love?”
“Oh, never, Monsieur Rodolphe.”
“You saw the people who came into the bar. To love, one must be respectable.”
“What do you mean?”
“Depend only on yourself, be able to—if it’s all the same to you, Monsieur Rodolphe, can we not talk about it, please?”
“Certainly, let’s talk about something else. But why do you look at me like that? Your beautiful eyes are filled with tears again. Have I upset you?”
“On the contrary; you’re so good for me that it makes me want to cry. And so polite. It’s almost as if you brought me here for my own sake, because you seem so pleased at my happiness. Not only did you defend me yesterday, but you’ve allowed me to spend another wonderful day with you.”
“Are you truly happy?”
“It will be a long time before I forget how happy I am.”
“It’s so rare, happiness.”
“For myself, considering what I don’t have, I sometimes amuse myself by dreaming about what I would like to have, to tell myself: That’s what I’d like to be. That’s what I’d like to have. And you, Fleur-de-Marie, don’t you have such dreams from time to time, handsome castles in the air?”
“Before, yes, when I was in prison. Before I met the Abbess I spent my life dreaming and singing, but since then, it happens rarely. And you, Monsieur Rodolphe, what would you like to achieve?”
“Me? I’d like to be rich, very rich. To have servants, carriages, a home, to have friends in society, go to the theater every day. And you?”
“I wouldn’t be so demanding. Enough to pay the Abbess, some money saved so I might have time to look for work, a nice clean room from which I could see the trees while working.”
“And lots of flowers on the windowsill.”
“Of course. Or live in the country if that were possible, and that’s about it.”
“A small room, work, those are the necessities. But when we can only desire, we can allow ourselves a few luxuries. Wouldn’t you like to have carriages, diamonds, beautiful clothes?”
“Not really. My freedom, a life in the countryside, and to be certain I wouldn’t die in a hospital. That most of all, not to die there! Oh, Monsieur, I often think about that. It’s horrible.”
“Unfortunately, for us poor folk . . .”
“Being poor is not the problem. But afterward, when you’re dead.”
“You don’t know what they do with you after, Monsieur?”
“There was a girl I met in prison. She died in the hospital. They left her body to the surgeons,” she murmured with a shiver.
“Why, that’s terrible! Poor child, how could you have such sinister thoughts?”
“You’re surprised, aren’t you, Monsieur Rodolphe, that I’m ashamed about what will happen when I’m dead. Only, only . . . my God, that’s all they’ve left me.”
Her painful, bitter words struck Rodolphe. He buried his face in his hands and considered the fate that weighed down upon the young woman. He thought of the poor creature’s mother. She was rich, happy, respected possibly. Respected. Rich. Happy. And her child, whom she had no doubt brutally sacrificed out of shame, had left the Owl’s attic for prison, and prison for the Abbess’s cave. From that cave she might die on a hospital bed. And after her death? The thought terrified him.
Goualeuse, seeing her companion’s dark expression, said to him sadly, “Forgive me, Monsieur Rodolphe, I shouldn’t have such thoughts. You brought me with you for my happiness, and I always say such sad, sad things. Lord, I don’t know how that happens, it’s not deliberate. I’ve never been happier than I am today, and yet I can’t help crying all the time. You’re not angry with me, are you, Monsieur Rodolphe? There, you see, the sadness is all gone, just as quickly as it came. I won’t think of it any longer. I’ll be reasonable. Wait, Monsieur Rodolphe, look me in the eye.”
And Fleur-de-Marie, after blinking two or three times to chase away a rebellious tear, opened her eyes wide, very wide, and looked at Rodolphe with a charming naïveté.
“Please, Fleur-de-Marie, don’t force yourself. Be happy, if you feel like being happy; sad, if you feel like being sad. Listen to me. Like you I sometimes have such dark thoughts. I would be miserable if I had to pretend to experience joy I didn’t truly feel.”
“Is that true, Monsieur Rodolphe, are you sometimes sad as well?”
“Yes. My future is hardly any brighter than your own. I have no father or mother. If I fall ill tomorrow, how will I live? I spend everything I earn from one day to the next.”
“Now, that’s wrong, very wrong, Monsieur Rodolphe,” said La Goualeuse in a tone of severe disapproval that made Rodolphe smile. “You should put the money in the bank. All my bad luck comes from the fact that I didn’t save my money. With two-hundred francs before him, a worker never has to sponge off anyone, is never in difficulty—and it’s often such difficulty that results in bad advice.”
“That’s very wise, very reasonable, my sweet little housekeeper. But two hundred-francs, how do you save two-hundred francs?”
“It’s quite simple, Monsieur. We’ll do your accounts. You’ll see. You sometimes earn as much as five francs a day, isn’t that correct?”
“Yes, when I work.”
“You must work every day. What do you have to complain about? You have a good job as a fan painter, and I’m sure you enjoy the work. See here, you’re not being reasonable,” La Goualeuse added severely. “A worker can live, and live quite well, on three francs. That leaves you with forty sous and, after a month, with sixty francs. Sixty francs a month, that’s a considerable amount!”
“Yes, but it’s nice to walk around and do nothing.”
“Monsieur, you have no more sense than a child.”
“Then I’ll be reasonable, my little scold. Your advice is excellent. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Really?” said the young woman clapping her hands with joy. “If only you knew how pleased I am. You’ll save forty sous a day, isn’t that so?”
“Agreed. I’ll save forty sous a day,” said Rodolphe, smiling in spite of himself.
“Oh, will you? Will you?”
“You’ll see how proud you’ll be after you’ve saved up a little. And that’s not all—if you promise not to get angry.”
“Do I look angry?”
“No, certainly not, but I don’t know if I should continue.”
“You should tell me everything,” Fleur-de-Marie.
“Well, it’s quite obvious, since you’re well above your condition, how is it that you spend time in places like the bar run by the Abbess?”
“If I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of being in the countryside with you today.”
“That’s true. But all the same, Monsieur Rodolphe. Why, I’m as pleased as I possibly could be with my day, but I’d gladly give up another like it if I thought it might harm you in some way.”
“On the contrary, since you’ve given me such excellent recommendations.”
“But will you follow them?”
“You have my word. I’ll save at least forty sous a day.”