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Noemi, or, the Silver Ribbon by Anna Kingsford

 

I.

I have often heard practising physicians and students of pathology assert that no one ever died of "a broken heart,"—that is, of course, in the popular sense of the phrase. Rupture of the heart, such as that which killed the passionate tyrant John of Muscovy, is a rare accident, and has no connection with the mental trouble and strain implied in the common expression "heart-breaking." I have, however, my own theory upon this question,—a theory founded on some tolerably strong evidence which might serve more scientifically-minded persons than myself as a text for a medical thesis; but, as for me, I am no writer of theses, and had much ado to get honestly through the only production of the sort which ever issued from my pen, my These de Doctorat. For I studied the divine art of AEsculapius at the Ecole de Medicine of Paris, and it was there, just before taking my degree, that I became involved in a singular little history, the circumstances of which first led me to adopt my present views on the subject alluded to in the opening words of this story.

It is now many years since I inhabited the "students' quarter" in the gay city, and rented a couple of little rooms in an hotel meuble not far from the gardens of the Luxembourg. Medical students are never rich, and I was no exception to the rule, though, compared with many of my associates, my pecuniary position was one of enviable affluence. I had a library of my own, I drank wine at a franc the litre, and occasionally smoked cigars. My little apartment overlooked a wide street busy with incessant traffic, and on warm evenings, after returning from dinner at the restaurant round the corner, it was my habit to throw open my window-casement and lean out to inhale the fresh cool air of the coming night, and to watch the crowds of foot-passengers and vehicles going and coming like swarms of ants along the paved street below.

On a certain lovely July evening towards the close of my student career, I took up my favourite position as usual, luxuriating in the fumes of my cigarette and in that sweetest of mental enjoyments, absolute idleness, carried at the cost of hard and long-continued toil. The sun had but just gone down, the sky was brilliant with pink lights and mellow tints of golden green blending with the blue of the deep vault overhead, scores of swift-darting birds were wheeling about in the still air, uttering sharp clear cries, as though calling one another to rest below, women stood at their house-doors gossiping with their neighbours; peals of laughter and the incessant chatter of feminine voices mingled with the din of horses' hoofs on the hard road and with the never-ending jingle of the harness-bells.

Gazing lazily down into the street, my attention was suddenly arrested by the singular appearance and behavior of an odd-looking brown dog, which seemed to be seeking someone among the hurrying crowds and rattling carts. Half-a- dozen times he ran up the street and disappeared from view, only to retrace his steps, each time with increasing agitation and eagerness of manner. I saw him cross the street again and again, scan the faces of the passersby, dash up the various turnings and come panting back, his tongue, his tail drooping; one could even fancy there were tears in his eyes. At length, exhausted or despairing, he crossed the street for the last time and sat down on the doorstep of the house I inhabited, the picture of grief and dismay. He was lost! Now I had not served my five years' apprenticeship to medical science in Paris without becoming intimate with the horrible secrets of physiological laboratories. I knew that a lost dog in Paris, if not handsome, and valuable to sell as a pet, runs a terrible chance of falling directly or indirectly into the hands of vivisecting professors, and dying a death of torture. He may be picked up by an employee engaged in the search for fitting victims, and so handed over to immediate martyrdom, or he may be hurried off to languish for weeks in that horrible fourriere for lost dogs whose managers hang their wretched captives by fifties every Tuesday, and liberally supply the demands of all the physiologists who take the trouble to send to them for "subjects." Knowing these things, and perceiving that my concierge was absorbed in discussing scandal on the opposite side of the street, I took advantage of her absence from her post to slip down to the rez-de-chaussee, pounce on the unfortunate dog, whom I found seated hopelessly at the entrance, and smuggle him upstairs into my rooms. There I deposited him on the floor, patted him encouragingly, and gave him water and a couple of sweet biscuits. But he was abjectly miserable, and though he drank a little, would eat nothing. After taking two or three turns round the apartment and sniffing suspiciously at the legs of the chairs and wainscot of the walls, he returned to me where I stood with my back to the window watching him, looked up in my face, wagged his tail feebly, and whined. I stooped again to caress him, and, so doing, observed that he had, tied round his neck, and half-hidden in his rough brown hair, a ribbon of silver tinsel, uncommon both in material and design. I felt assured that the dog's owner must be a woman, and hastily removed the ribbon, expecting to find embroidered upon it some such name as "Amelie" or "Leontine." But my examination proved futile, the silver ribbon afforded me no clue to the antecedents of my canine waif. And indeed, as I stood contemplating him in some perplexity, the conviction forced itself on my mind that he was not exactly the kind of animal that Amelie or Leontine would be likely to select for a pet. He was a poodle certainly, but of an ill-bred and uncouth description, and instead of being shaved to his centre, and wearing frills round his paws, his coat had been suffered to grow in its natural manner,— an indication either of neglect or of want of taste impossible in a feminine proprietor. But his fact was the most puzzling and at the same time the most fascinating thing about him. It bore a more human expression than I had ever before seen upon a dog's countenance, an expression of singular appeal and childishness, so comic withal in its contrast with the rough hair, round eyes, and long nose of the creature, that as I watched him an involuntary laugh escaped me. "Certainly," I said to him, "you are a droll dog. One might do a good deal with you in a traveling caravan!" As the evening wore on he became more tranquil. Perhaps he began to have confidence in me and to believe that I should restore him to his owner. At any rate, before we retired to rest he prevailed on himself to eat some supper which I prepared for him, pausing every now and then in his meal to lift his infantile face to mine and wag his tail in a half-hearted manner, as though he said, "You see I am doing my best to trust you, though you are a medical student!" Poor innocent beast! Well indeed for him that he had not chanced to stop at the door of my neighbor and camarade, Paul Bouchard, who had a passion for practical physiology, and with whom no amount of animal suffering was of the smallest importance when weighed against the remote chance of an insignificant discovery, which would be challenged and contradicted as soon as announced by scores of his fellow-experimentalists. If torture were indeed the true method of science, then would the vaunted tree of knowledge be no other than the upas tree of oriental legend, beneath whose fatal shadow lie hecatombs of miserable victims slain by its poisonous exhalations, the odour of which is fraught with agony and death!

My poodle remained with me many days. No one appeared to claim him, and no inquiries elicited the least information regarding him. A douceur of five francs had soothed the natural indignation and resentment displayed by my concierge at the first sight of my canine protege; the restlessness and suspicion he had evinced on making my acquaintance had subsided; and we were getting on in a very comfortable and friendly manner together, when accident threw in my way the clue I had laboriously but vainly sought. Returning one day from a lecture, and being unusually pressed for time, I took a shorter cut homeward than was my wont, and at the corner of a narrow and ill-smelling street I came upon a little heterogeneous shop, in the windows of which were set out a variety of faded and bizarre articles of millinery. Hanging from a front shelf in a conspicuous position among the collection was a strip of the identical silver ribbon which had encircled Pepin's throat—I called the dog Pepin—on the night I rescued him from the streets. Without hesitation I entered the shop and questioned a slatternly woman who sat behind the counter munching gruyere cheese and garlic.

"Will you tell me, madame," said I with my most agreeable air, "whether you recollect having sold any of that tinsel ribbon lately, and to whom?"

She was not likely to have much custom, I thought, and her clients would be easily remembered.

"What's that to you?" was her retort, as she paused in her meal and stared at me; "do you want to buy the rest of it?"

I took the hint immediately, and produced my purse. "With all the pleasure in life," I said, "if you will do me the favour I ask."

She darted a keen look at me, laughed, pushed her cheese aside, and took the ribbon from its place in the shop window.

"I sold half a metre of it about three weeks ago," said she slowly, "to Noemi Bergeron; you know her, perhaps? She's not been this way lately. There's a metre of it left; it's one franc twenty, monsieur."

"And where does Noemi Bergeron live?" I asked, as she dropped the money into her till.

"Well, she used to lodge at number ten in this street, with Maman Paquet. Maybe she's gone. I've not seen either her or her dog this fortnight."

"A poodle dog," cried I eagerly, "with his coat unclipped,—a rough brown dog?"

"Yes, exactly. Ah, you know Noemi,—bien sur!" And she leered at me, and laughed again unpleasantly.

"I never saw her in my life," said I hotly; "but her dog has come astray to my lodgings, and he had a piece of this ribbon of yours round his throat; nothing more than that."

"Ah? Well, she lives at number ten. Tenez,—there's Maman Paquet the other side of the street; you'd better go and speak to her."

She pointed to a hideous old harridan standing on the opposite pavement, her bare arms resting on her hips, and a greasy yellow kerchief twisted turban-wise round her head. My heart sank. Noemi must be very poor, or very unfortunate, to live under the same roof with such an old sorciere! Nevertheless, I crossed the street, and accosted the hag with a smile.

"Good-day, Maman Paquet. Can you tell me anything of your lodger, Noemi Bergeron?"

"Hein?" She was deaf and surly. I repeated my question in a louder key. "I know nothing of her," she answered, in a voice that sounded like the croak of a frog. "She couldn't pay me her rent, and I told her to be off. Maybe she's drowned by this."

"You turned her out?" I cried.

"Yes, turned her out," repeated the hag, with a savage oath. "It was her own fault; she might have sold her beast of a poodle to pay me, and she wouldn't. Why not, I should like to know,—she sold everything else she had!"

"And you can tell me nothing about her now,—you know no more than that?"

"Nothing. Go and find her!" She muttered a curse, glared at me viciously, and hobbled off. I had turned to depart in another direction, when a skinny hand suddenly clutched my arm, and looking round, I found that Maman Paquet had followed and overtaken me. "You know the girl," she squeaked, eyeing me greedily,—"will you pay her rent? She owed me a month's lodging, seven francs."

She looked so loathsome and horrible with her withered evil face so close to mine that I gave a gesture of disgust and shook her off as though she had been a toad.

"No," said I, quickening my steps; "she is a stranger to me, and my pockets are empty."

Maman Paquet flung a curse after me, more foul and emphatic than the last, and went her way blaspheming.

I returned home to Pepin saddened and disquieted. "So, after all," I said to him, "your owner belongs to the fair sex! But, heaven! in what misery she and you must have lived! And yet you cried for her, Pepin!"

Not long after these incidents—three or four days at the latest—a party of my fellow-students came to smoke with me, and as the shell always sounds of the sea, our conversation naturally savoured of our professional pursuits. We discussed our hospital chefs, their crotchets, their inventions, their medical successes, their politics; we criticised new methods of operation, related anecdotes of the theatre and consulting-room, and speculated on the chances of men about to go up for examination. Then we touched on the subject of obscure diseases, unusual mental conditions, prolonged delirium, and kindred topics. It was at this point that one of us, Eugene Grellois, a house-surgeon at a neighbouring hospital, remarked,—

"By the way, we have a curious case now in the women's ward of my service, a pretty little Alsatian girl of eighteen or twenty. She was knocked down by a cart about three weeks ago and was brought in with a fracture of the neck of the left humerus, and two ribs broken. Well, there was perforation of the pleura, traumatic pleurisy and fever, and her temperature went up as high as 41-8. She was delirious for three days, and talked incessantly; we had to put her in a separate cabinet, so that the other patients might not be disturbed. I sat by her bed for hours and listened. You never heard such odd things as she said. She let me into the whole of her history that way. I don't think I should have cared for it though, if she were not so wonderfully pretty!"

"Was it a love story, Eugene?" asked Auguste Villemin, laughing.

"Not a bit of it; it was all about a dog who seemed to be her pet. Such an extraordinary dog! From what she said I gathered that he was a brown poodle, that he could stand on his head, and walk on his hind paws, that he followed her about wherever she went, that he carved in wood for illustrated books and journals, that he wore a silver collar, that she was engaged to be married to him when he had earned enough to keep house, and that his name was Antoine!"

All his hearers laughed except myself. As for me, my heart bounded, my face flushed, I was sensible of a keen sensation of pleasure in hearing Eugene describe his patient as "wonderfully pretty." I leapt from my chair, pointed to Pepin, who lay dozing in a corner of the room, and exclaimed,—

"I will wager anything that the name of your Alsatian is Noemi Bergeron, and that my dog there is Antoine himself!" And before any questions could be put I proceeded to recount the circumstances with which my reader is already acquainted. Of course Pepin was immediately summoned into the midst of the circle we had formed round the open window to have his reputed accomplishments tested as a criterion of his identity with Antoine. Amid bursts of laughter and a clamour of encouragement and approbation, it was discovered that my canine protege possessed at least the first two of the qualifications imputed to him, and could walk on his hind legs or stand on his head for periods apparently unlimited.

In fact, so obedient and willing we found him, that when for the third time he had inverted himself, no persuasion short of picking him up by his tail, a proceeding which I deemed necessary to avert asphyxia, could induce him to resume his normal position. But that which rendered the entertainment specially fascinating and ludicrous was the inimitable and unbroken gravity of Pepin's expression. No matter what his attitude, his eyes retained always the solemnity one observes in the eyes of an infant to whom everything in the world is serious and nothing grotesque.

"But now for the engraving on wood!" cried Jules Leuret, when we had exhausted ourselves with laughing. "What a pity you have no implements of the art here, Gervais!"

"That's Eugene's chaff!" I cried. "Noemi never said anything of the sort, I warrant!"

"On my honour she did," said he, emphatically. "Come and see her tomorrow; she's quite sane now, no fever left at all. She'll be delighted to hear that you have her dog, and will tell you all about him, no doubt."

"After the chefs visit, then, and we'll breakfast together at noon."

"Agreed. Laughing makes one dry, mon ami; let me have some more of your wine. We can't afford good wine like that, nous autres!"

II.

When the following morning arrived, I rose sooner than my wont: Eugene's service was an early one, and by half-past ten o'clock he and I were alone in the wards of his hospital. He led me to a bed in one of the little spaces partitioned off from the common salle for the reception of special cases or refractory patients. There, propped up on her pillows, her arm bandaged and supported by a cushion, lay a young girl with fair braided hair and the sweetest face I had ever seen out of a picture. Something in the childish and wistful look of her deep eyes and serious mouth reminded me strangely of Pepin; it was Pepin's plaintive expression refined and intensified by spiritual influence, a look such as one might imagine on the face of some young novice, brought up in a convent and innocent of all evil,—an ingenue untainted by the world and ignorant of its ways. Could such a creature as this come out of the foul and sin-reeking quartier I had visited four days ago, with its filthy houses, its fetid alleys, its coarse blaspheming women and drunken men? My mind misgave me: surely, after all, this could not be Noemi Bergeron!

I put the question to her fearfully, for I dreaded to hear her deny it. She was so beautiful; if she should say "no" I should be in despair.

A voice as sweet as the face answered me, with jus' a faint inflexion of surprise in it, and as she spoke a slight blush suffused her cheeks and showed the delicate transparency of her skin.

"Yes, that is my name. Does monsieur know me, then?"

In my turn I blushed, but with delight. No wonder Pepin had repined at separation from so lovely a mistress!

"I went to your house to inquire for you the other day, mademoiselle," stammered I, "for I think I have a dog which belongs to you. Have you not lost a brown poodle with a ribbon like this round his throat?"

As I spoke I produced the tinsel ornament from my pocket, but before I finished my last sentence she started forward with a joyous cry, and but for the timely intervention of Eugene, who stood beside the bed, the injured arm might have suffered seriously from the effects of her excitement.

"Ah!" she cried, weeping with joy; "my Bambin, my dear Bambin! He is found then,—he is safe, and I shall see him again!"

"Bambin!" repeated I, dubiously. "Monsieur Grellois thought that his name was Antoine!"

The rosy color deepened under her delicate cheeks and crept to the roots of her braided hair.

"No," she replied in a lower tone, "monsieur is mistaken. My dog's name is Bambin; we called him so because he is so like a baby. Don't you think him like a baby, monsieur?"

She looked wondrously like a baby herself, and I longed to tell her so; I could not restrain my curiosity, her blushes were so enticing.

"And Antoine?" persisted I.

"He is a friend of mine, monsieur; an engraver on wood, an artist."

Eugene and I exchanged glances.

"And you and he are engaged to be married, is it not so?" Unconsciously I questioned her as I might have questioned a child. She hardly seemed old enough to have the right over her own secrets.

"Yes, monsieur. But I do not know where he is; and I have looked for him so long, ah, so long!"

What, have you lost him too, then, as well as Bambin?"

She shook her head, and looked troubled

"Tell me," said I, coaxing her, "perhaps I may be able to find him also."

"We are Alsatians," said Noemi, with her eyelids drooping, doubtless to hide the tears gathering behind them; "and we lived in the same village and were betrothed. Antoine was very clever, and could cut pictures in wood beautifully,— oh so beautifully,—and they sent him to Paris to be apprenticed to a great house of business, and to learn engraving thoroughly. And I stayed at home with my father, and Antoine used to write to me very often, and say how well he was getting on, and how he had invented a new method of wood-carving, and how rich he should be some day, and that we were to be married very soon. And then my father died, quite suddenly, and I was all alone in the house. And Antoine did not write; week after week there was no letter, though I never ceased writing to him. So I grew miserable and frightened, and I took Bambin— Antoine gave me Bambin, and taught him all his tricks—and I came to Paris to try and find him. I had a little money then, and besides, I can make lace, and I thought it would not be long before Antoine and I got married. But he had left the house of business for which he had worked, and they knew nothing of him at his lodgings, and there were ever so many of my letters on the table in the conciergerie unopened.—So I could learn nothing, for no one knew where he had gone, and little by little the money I had brought with me went in food for me and Bambin. Then somebody told me that Maman Paquet had a room to let that was cheap, and I went there and tried to live on my lace-making, always hoping that Antoine would come to find me. But the air of the pace was so horrible—oh, so horrible after our village!—and I got the fever, and fell sick, and could do no work at all. And by degrees I sold all the things I had—my lace-pillow and all—and when they were gone the old woman wanted me to sell Bambin, because he was clever, and she was sure I could get a good price for him. But I would rather have sold the heart out of my body, and so I told her. Then she was angry, and turned us both out, Bambin and me, and we went wandering about all day till at last I got very faint and tired, for I had been ill a long time, monsieur, and we had nothing to eat, so that I lost my senses and fell in the road all at once, and a cart went over me. Then the people picked me up, and carried me here, but none of them knew Bambin, and I had fainted and could tell them nothing. So they must have driven him away, thinking he was a strange dog, and had no right to follow me. And when my senses came back I was in the hospital, and Bambin was gone, and I thought I never should see him again."

She sank down on her pillow and drew a great sigh of relief. It had evidently comforted her to tell her story to sympathetic listeners. Poor child! Scant sympathy could she have found in Maman Paquet's unwomanly breast and evil associations. We were silent when she had finished, and in the silence we heard through the open window the joyous song of the birds, and the hum of the bees wandering blithely from flower to flower, laden with their sweets,—sounds that never cease through all the long summer days. Alas! how strange and sad a contrast it is,—the eternal and exuberant gladness of Nature's soulless children,— the universal inevitable misery of human lives!

Presently the religieuse who had the charge of the adjoining ward opened the door softly and called Eugene.

"Monsieur, will you come to No. 7 for a moment? Her wound is bleeding again badly."

He looked up, nodded, and rose from his seat.

"I must go for the present, Gervais," said he. "If you stay with our little friend, don't let her disarrange her arm. The ribs are all right now, but the humerus is a longer affair. Au revoir!"

But I found Noemi too much excited and fatigued for further conversation; so, promising to take every possible care of Bambin and to come again and see her very soon, I withdrew to the adjoining ward and joined Eugene.

No need to say that both these promises were faith-fully observed.

Throughout the whole of July and of the ensuing month Noemi remained an inmate of the hospital, and it was not until the first two weeks of September were spent that the fractured arm was consolidated and the mandate for dismissal issued. Two days before that fixed for her departure I went to pay her the last of my customary visits, and found her sitting at the open window busily engaged in weaving lace upon a new pillow, which she exhibited to me with childish glee.

"See, monsieur, what a beautiful present I have had!" she cried, holding up the cushion for me to examine. "It is much better than the old one I sold; only look how prettily the bobbins on it are painted!"

I had never before beheld a lace pillow, and the curiosity which I displayed fairly delighted Noemi.

"And who is your generous benefactor?" I asked, replacing the cushion in her lap.

"Don't you know?" she asked in turn, opening her eyes wide with surprise. "I thought he would have been sure to tell you. Why, it was that good Monsieur Grellois, to be sure! He gave some money to the sister to buy it for me."

Kind Eugene! He had very little money to live upon, and must, I know, have economised considerably in order to purchase this gift for his little patient. Still I was not jealous of his bounty, since for many days past I had been greatly occupied with Noemi's future welfare, and had busied myself in secret with certain schemes and arrangements the issue of which it remained only to announce.

"So," said I, taking a chair beside her, "you are going to earn your living again by making lace?"

"To try," she answered with a sad emphasis.

"Lace-making does not pay well, then?"

"Oh no, monsieur! It cannot be done quickly, you see,—only a little piece like this every day, working one's best,—and so much lace is made by machines now!"

"But it cannot cost you much to live, Noemi?"

"The eating and drinking is not much, monsieur; it is the rent; and all the cheap lodgings are so dirty! It is that which is the most terrible. I can't bear to have ugly things about me and hideous faces,—like Maman Paquet's!"

She had the poet's instincts, this little Alsatian peasant. Most girls in her case would have cared little for the unlovely surroundings, so long as food and drink were plentiful.

"But supposing you had a nice room of your own, clean and comfortable, with an iron bedstead like this one here, and chairs and a table, and two windows looking out over the Luxembourg gardens,—and nothing to pay."

"Ah, monsieur!"

She dropped her pillow, and fixed her great brown eyes earnestly on my face.

"It is impossible," pursued I, reddening under her gaze, "for you to return to the horrible quartier in which Maman Paquet lives. It is not fit for a young girl; you would grow wicked and base like the people who live there,—or else you would die,—and I think you would die, Noemi."

"But I have no money, monsieur."

If you have no money, you have friends; a friend has given you your new pillow, you know, and another friend, perhaps, may give you a room to live in."

Her eyelids drooped, her color came and went quickly, I detected beneath her bodice the convulsive movement of her heart. The agitation she betrayed communicated itself to me; I rose from my chair and leaned against the window-sill, so that my face might be no longer on a level with her eyes.

"I understand you, monsieur!" she cried, and immediately burst into tears.

"Yes, Noemi," I said, "I see you understand me. There is really a room for you such as I have described. In two days you will leave the hospital, but you are not without a home. The woman of the house in which you will live is kind and good, she knows all about you and Bambin, and has promised me to take care of you. Your furniture is bought, your rent is paid,—you have nothing to do but to go and take possession of the room. I hope you and Bambin will be happy there."

She made me no reply in words, but bending forward over her pillow she took my hand and timidly kissed it.

It would be hard to say which of us was the happier on the day which saw Noemi installed in her new abode,—-she, or I, or Bambin. Bambin's delight was certainly the most demonstrative; he careered round and round the room uttering joyous barks, returning at intervals in a panting and exhausted condition to his pretty mistress to give and receive caresses which I own I felt greatly disposed to envy him. I left my four-footed friend with some regret, for he and I had been good companions during Noemi's sojourn at the hospital, and I knew that my rooms would at first seem lonely without him. His fair owner, as she bade me goodbye at the door of her new domicile, begged me to return often and see them both, but hard as I found it to refuse the tempting request, I summoned up resolution to tell her that it would be best for us to meet very seldom indeed, perhaps only once or twice more, but that her landlady had my name and address and would be able to give me tidings of her pretty often.

Her childlike nature and instincts were never more apparent than on this occasion.

"What have I done, monsieur?" she asked with a bewildered expression, her brown eyes lifted pleadingly, and the corners of her mouth depressed. "I thought you would like to come and see us. Bambin is so fond of you, too,—we shall both be so sorry if you don't come."

As gently and as tenderly as I could, I tried to explain to her our mutual position and the evil construction which others would be sure to place on any friendship between us. But she only shook her head in a troubled way and sighed.

"I don't understand," she said, "but of course you know best. I used to hear something like that at Maman Paquet's, about other girls, but I never understood it. Only say that you are not angry with me, and let me hear about you as often as you can."

I promised, smiling, and left her standing at the open door with Bambin tucked under her arm, looking after me down the street and nodding her pretty golden head.

Many days went by. I concentrated my mind upon my books, and devoted the whole of my time and of my thoughts to preparation for my last two doctorate examinations, contenting myself with only a few passing inquiries of Noemi's landlady concerning the welfare of her lodger, and with the assurance that both she and her dog were well and happy.

But one evening late in September, as I sat immersed in study, my ear caught the sound of light girlish footsteps on the staircase leading to my rooms; then came a momentary pause, a tap on the door, and the next minute Noemi herself, closely followed by the faithful Bambin, burst upon my solitude.

"I have found him, monsieur!" she cried breathlessly. "I came at once to tell you,— I knew you would be so glad!"

"What,—Antoine?" I asked, rising and laying my book aside.

"Yes; Antoine! I met him in the street. He was dressed like a gentleman; no one would have known him except me! He had no idea I was in Paris; he turned quite white with the surprise of seeing me. And I told him what a search I had made for him, and how miserable I had been, and how good you were to me, and where I was living. And he is coming to see me this very evening! Oh, I am so happy!"

"You should have sent me word of this, Noemi," said I gravely. "You ought not to have come here. It is very foolish—"

She interrupted me with an imploring gesture.

"Oh, yes, I know; I am so sorry! But just at the moment I forgot. I longed to tell you about Antoine, and everything else went out of my head. Don't be cross with me!"

Could any one be angry with her? She was thoroughly innocent, and natural, as innocence always is.

"My child, it is only of yourself I am thinking. Antoine will teach you to be wiser by-and-by. Tell him to come and see me. I suppose you will be married soon now, won't you?"

"Oh, yes, monsieur, very soon! Antoine only wanted money, and he has plenty now; he has a business of his own, and is a patron himself!"

"Well, Noemi, I am very glad. You must let me come to your wedding. I shall call at your house tomorrow, and ask all about it; for no doubt Antoine will want you to settle the arrangements at once. And now run home, for your own sake, my child."

"Goodbye! monsieur." She paused at the door and added shyly, "You will really come tomorrow morning?"

"Yes, yes; before breakfast. Goodbye, Noemi."

III.

At about ten on the ensuing day I repaired to Noemi's lodging, and found Madame Jeannel, the landlady, on the look-out for me.

"Noemi told me you were coming," she said; "I will go and fetch her. Her fiance was here last night, and she has a great deal to tell you."

In two minutes she returned with my pretty friend, radiant as the sunlight with happiness and renewed hope. Antoine loved her more than ever, she said, and he had brought her a beautiful present, a silver cross, which she meant to wear on her wedding-day, tied round her throat upon the bit of tinsel ribbon I had given her, and which matched it exactly. And was the wedding-day fixed? I asked. No, not the precise day; Antoine had said nothing about it; but he had spoken much of his love; and of the happiness in store for them both, and of the lovely things he should give her. The day was nothing; that could be settled in a minute at any time. Then she fetched me some lace she had made, and told me that Antoine knew of a rich lady who would buy it,—a marquise, who doated on lace of the sort, and who gave enormous sums for a few yards; and the money would do for her dot, it would buy her wedding-dress, perhaps. So she prattled on, blithe and ingenuous, the frank simplicity of her guileless soul reflected in the clear depths of her eyes, as the light of heaven is mirrored in pure waters.

Days went by, and weeks, but Antoine never came to see me, and whenever I called at Madame Jeannel's and asked for Noemi—which I ventured to do several times, now that the good woman knew she was engaged to be married, and understood so well our relations with each other—I always heard the same story; and always received, on Antoine's behalf, the same vague excuses for the postponement of the visit I had invited him to pay me. At one time, he bade Noemi tell me his work was too pressing, and he could find no time to come; at another, that he feared to disturb me, knowing I was very busy; and again, that he had been just about to start when an important letter or an inopportune customer had arrived and detained him. As for the wedding-day, he would never come to the point about it, and Noemi, naturally shy of the subject, never pressed him. She was quite happy and confident; Antoine loved her with all his heart, and told her so every day. What more could she want? He brought her lovely bunches of red and white roses, little trinkets, sweetmeats, ribbons; indeed, he seemed never to come empty-handed. She used to take walks with him when his day's work was over, in the Luxembourg gardens, and once or twice they went out as far as the Champs-Elysees. Oh, yes, Antoine loved her dearly, and she was very happy; they should certainly be married before long. We were already in November, the days were getting bleak and chill, I had to light my lamp early and close my windows against the damp evening air. One afternoon, just as it was beginning to grow dark, Madame Jeannel came to see me, looking very disturbed and anxious.

"Monsieur," she said, "a strange thing has happened which makes me so uneasy that I cannot help coming to tell you of it, and to ask your opinion and advice. Antoine came about half-an-hour ago and took Noemi out for a walk. Not ten minutes after they had left the house, a lady whom I do not know came to my door and asked if Mademoiselle Bergeron lived there. I said yes, but that she was out. The strange lady stared hard at me and asked if she had gone out alone. I told her no, she was with her fiance, but that if any message could be left for her I would be careful to give it directly she should return. Immediately the lady seized me by the arm so tightly I almost screamed. She grew white, and then red, then she seemed to find her voice, and asked me if she could wait upstairs in Noemi's room till she came back. At first I said `No,' but she would not take a refusal; she insisted upon waiting; and there she is, I could not get her to leave the place."

Madame Jeannel stood opposite to me; I lifted my eyes, and met hers steadily. When I had satisfied myself of her suspicions, I said in a low voice,—

"You have done rightly to fetch me. There is great trouble in store for our poor child. I fear this woman may have a better right to Antoine than Noemi has."

"I am sure of it," responded Madame Jeannel. "If you could but have seen how she looked! Thank the good God she has come in time to save our Noemi from any real harm!"

"It will blight the whole of her life," said I; "she is so innocent of evil, and she loves him so much."

I took up my hat as I spoke, and followed Madame Jeannel downstairs and into the street. When we reached her house, I left her in her own little parlour upon the entresol, and with a resolute step but a heavy heart I went alone to confront the strange woman in Noemi's room. Alas! the worst that could happen had already befallen. Noemi had returned from her walk during the absence of her landlady, and I opened the door upon a terrible scene. My poor child stood before me, with a white scared face, and heaving breast, upon which was pinned a bunch of autumn violets, Antoine's last gift to her. Her slender figure, her fair hair, her pallid complexion looked ghostlike in the uncertain twilight; she seemed like a troubled spirit, beautiful and sorely distressed, but there was no shame in her lovely face, nor any sense of guilt. Seeing me enter, she uttered a cry of relief, and sprang forward as though to seek protection.

"Speak to her, monsieur!" she exclaimed in a voice of piercing entreaty; "oh, speak to her and ask her what it all means! She says she is Antoine's wife!"

The strange woman whose back had been turned towards the door when I opened it, looked round at the words, and her face met mine. She was a brunette, with sharp black eyes and an inflexible mouth, a face which beside Noemi's seemed like a dark cloud beside clear sunlight.

"Yes indeed!" she cried; and her voice was half choked with contending anger and despair, "I am his wife; and what then is she? I tracked him here. He is always away from me now. I found a letter of hers signed with her name; she writes to him as if she loved him! See!"

She flung upon the table a crumpled scrap of paper, and suddenly burying her face in her hands, burst into a torrent of passionate tears and sobs. Noemi stood silent and watched her, terrified and wondering. I closed the door softly, and approaching the unfortunate woman, laid my hand upon her shoulder.

"It is your husband who is alone to blame," I whispered to her. "Do not revile this innocent girl; she suffers quite as much as you do,—perhaps even more, for she was betrothed to him years ago."

My grief for Noemi, and my resentment against Antoine made me imprudent; I spoke unjustly, but the provocation was great.

"You take her part!" she cried, repelling me indignantly. "Innocent—she innocent? Bah! She must have known he was married, for why else did he not marry her? Do you think me a child to be fooled by such a tale?"

"No," answered I sternly, looking away from her at Noemi. "You are not a child, madame, but she is one! Had she been a woman like yourself, your husband would never have deceived her. She trusted him wholly."

With a gesture that was almost fierce in its pride, Antoine's wife turned her back upon Noemi, and moved towards the door. "I thank my God," she said solemnly, choking down her sobs, and bending her dark brows upon me, "that I was never such an innocent as she is! I am not your dupe, monsieur; I know well enough what you are, and what it is that constitutes your right to defend her. The neighbors know her story; trust them for finding it out and repeating it. This room belongs to you, monsieur; your money paid for everything in it, and your `innocent' there no doubt is included in the bargain. Keep her to yourself for the future; Antoine's foot shall never again be set in this wicked house!"

She opened the door with the last words, and vanished into the darkness without.

For a moment there was a deep silence, the voice which had just ceased seemed to me to ring and echo around the dim, still room. The sense of a great shame was upon me; I dared not lift my eyes to Noemi's face.

Suddenly a faint cry startled me. She stretched her arms towards me and fell on her knees at my feet.

"O monsieur! Antoine is lost! My heart is dead!" Then she struck her breast wildly with her clenched hand, and swooned upon the floor.

None of us ever saw Antoine again after that terrible evening. Whether he had been most weak or most wicked we could not tell; but, for my part I always believed that he had really loved Noemi, and that his marriage had been one of worldly convenience, contracted, in an evil hour, for the sake of gain. His wife was rich, Noemi was a beggar. As for her, poor child, she never uttered a word of reproach against him; never a gesture of impatience, or an expression of complaint betrayed her suffering. She had spent all her innocent life upon her love, and with the love her life also went from her. Day after day she lay on her bed like a flower crushed and fading slowly. There were no signs of organic disease in her, there was no appreciable malady; her heart was broken, so said Madame Jeannel, and more than that the wisest could not say. Bambin, dimly comprehending that some great sorrow had befallen his dear mistress, lay always at her feet, watching her with eyes full of tender and wistful affection, refusing to leave her by night or by day. It must have comforted her somewhat to see in him, at least, the evidence of one true and faithful love.

So white and spirituelle she grew as she lay there, day by day, so delicately lovely, her deep lustrous eyes shining as with some inward light, and her hair of gold surrounding her head like the aureole of a pictured saint, that at times I fancied she was becoming dematerialised before our eyes; her spirit seemed as it were to grow visible, as though in the intensity of its pure fire the mere earthly body which had contained it were being re-absorbed and consumed. Sometimes in the evenings her pulse quickened and her cheeks flushed with the hectic touch of fever; it was the only symptom of physical disorder I ever detected in her;— but even that was slight,—the temperature of her system was hardly affected by it.

So she lay, her body fading, day after day and hour after hour.

Madame Jeannel was deeply concerned, for she was a good woman, and could sympathise with others in sorrow, but nothing that she could say or do seemed to reach the senses of Noemi. Indeed, at times I fancied the poor child had no longer eyes or ears for the world from which she was passing away so strangely; she looked as though she were already beginning life in some other sphere and on some other plane than ours, and could see and hear only sights and sounds of which our material natures had no cognisance.

"C'est le chagrin, monsieur," said Madame Jeannel; "c'est comme ca que le chagrin tue,—toujours."

Early in the third week of December I received my summons to pass the final examination for the M.D. degree. The day was bitterly cold, a keen wind swept the empty streets and drove the new-fallen snow into drift-heaps at every corner. Along the boulevards booths and baraques for the sale of New Year's gifts were already in course of erection, the shops were gay with bright colored bonbonnieres. Children, merry with anticipations of good things coming, pressed round the various tempting displays and noisily disputed their respective merits. All the streets were filled with mirth and laughter and preparations for festivity, and close by, in her little lonely room, Noemi lay dying of a broken heart!

I underwent my ordeal with success; yet as I quitted the examination-room and descended into the quadrangle of the Ecole, crowded with sauntering groups of garrulous students, my spirit was heavy within me, and the expression of my face could hardly have been that of a young man who has safely passed the Rubicon of scientific apprenticeship, and who sees the laurels and honors of the world within his reach. The world? The very thought of its possible homage repelled me, for I knew that its best successes and its loudest praise are accorded to men whose hearts are of steel and whose lives are corrupt. I knew that still, as of old, it slays the innocent and the ingenuous and stones the pure of spirit.

Escaping somewhat impatiently from the congratulations of the friends and colleagues whom I chanced to encounter in the quadrangle, I returned gloomily home and found upon my table a twisted note in which was written this brief message:—

"Pray, come at once, monsieur, she cannot live long now. I dare not leave her, and she begs to see you.—Marie Jeannel"

With a shaking hand I thrust the paper into my vest and hastened to obey its summons. Never had the distance between my house and Noemi's been so long to traverse; never had the stairs which led to her room seemed to me so many or so steep. At length I gained the door; it stood ajar; I pushed it open and entered. Madame Jeannel sat at the foot of the little white-draped bed; Bambin lay beside his mistress; the only sound in the room was the crackling of the burning logs on the hearth. As I entered, Madame Jeannel turned her head and looked at me; her eyes were heavy with tears, and she spoke in tones that were hushed and tremulous with the awe which the presence of death inspires.

"Monsieur, you come too late. She is dead."

I sprang forward with a cry of horror.

"Dead?" I repeated, "Noemi dead?"

White and still she lay—a broken lily—beautiful and sweet even in death; her eyes were closed lightly, and upon her lovely lips was the first smile I had seen there since the day which had stricken her innocent life into the dust. Her right hand rested on Bambin's head, in her left she held the piece of silver ribbon I had given her,—the ribbon she had hoped to wear at her wedding.

"They are for you," said Madame Jeannel softly. "She said you were fond of Bambin, and he of you, and that you must take care of him and keep him with you always. And as for the ribbon,—she wished you to take it for her sake, that it might be a remembrance of her in time to come."

I fell on my knees beside the bed and wept aloud.

"Hush, hush!" whispered Madame Jeannel, bending over me; "it is best as it is, she is gone to the angels of God."

Science has ceased to believe in angels, but in the faith of good women they live still.

The chief work of the "wise" among us seems to me to consist in the destruction of all the beautiful hopes and loves and beliefs of the earth; of all that since the beginning of time till now has consoled, or purified, or brought peace to the hearts of men. Some day, perhaps, in the long-distant future, the voice of Nature may speak to us more clearly through the lips of a nobler and purer system of science than any we now know, and we may learn that Matter is not all in all, nor human love and desire given in vain; but that torn hearts may be healed and ruined lives perfected in a higher spiritual existence, where, "beyond these voices, there is peace."

Meanwhile Noemi's body rests in its quiet grave, and upon the faithful bosom lies the silver cross which her lover gave her.

She was one of those who could endure all things for love's sake, but shame and falsehood broke her steadfast heart. And it was the hand of her beloved which dealt the blow of which she died!

 
 
 

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