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Claudine's Doves by Mrs E. W. Latimer


A few days since, as I was driving in the Bois de Boulogne with a friend, a slender, sweet young girl was pointed out to me. She was walking beside her mother, and there was a loving, tender look in her blue eyes, a shrinking modesty in her deportment, which interested me at the first glance. She was apparently about fifteen. I observed to the friend who pointed her out to me that she was fair, modest, and pretty. "Yes," he replied, "and she is the heroine of a very pretty story."

Eight years ago her father and mother occupied an appartement, or flat, in the Rue de Rivoli. Part of the Rue de Rivoli has houses only on one side; the other is bordered by a high iron railing with gilt spear-heads, inclosing the Garden of the Tuileries. At one point (which was nearly opposite the house where Claudine lived) one tall pavilion of the palace abutted on the sidewalk. The Rue de Rivoli is the most beautiful street in Paris. The windows of the sitting-room of Claudine's mother looked over the palace and its gardens, its chestnut-trees and its fountains, the Seine and its quays, with a more distant view of the Place de la Concorde and its obelisk, the Chambers of the Legislature, and the gilded dome of the Tuileries. Every procession passed under Claudine's windows. No little girl, I think, who lives in rooms overlooking the Rue de Rivoli would wish to exchange them for any other home.

Claudine's parents, though of good birth and education, were not rich; they lived on the third story. They had only one old servant. Claudine's mother was her daughter's nurse and governess. Till the German army marched on Paris they had a peaceful, refined, and happy home.

At the moment of which I am about to write, the siege had ceased, and the terrible days of the Commune were almost over. The little family began to breathe more freely—only in a certain sense, however, for they were all gathered together in a little close room, which would have looked into the court-yard of their house had not its windows been blocked up by pillows, mattresses, and furniture. They dared not look into the street, they dared not go into their own sitting-room, for the Versailles troops were entering Paris, bomb-shells were bursting in all directions, and volleys of musketry were being fired round every street corner. Paris was like a city expecting to be sacked, with the additional horror that each man's foes might be those of his own household.

Of a sudden they began to feel a stifling heat. Thick smoke rose all around them. There was the sickening and suggestive smell of coal-oil in the air. Claudine's father felt that he must know what was going on. To look out of the windows might be death to all of them; still he ran into the sitting-room, tore down the beds and pillows from a window, and looked out on the Rue de Rivoli.

The palace before him was in flames. As he looked, the fire swept over the venerable gray pile. Forked tongues of flame darted higher than the Mansard roofs of its tall towers, and threatened the stores and dwelling-houses across the way. Claudine's father looked below into the street: there was no safety there. The men and women of the neighborhood, driven from their rooms by falling fiery flakes from the high roofs of the old palace, clustered together under shelter of the great porte cochères—by which carriages drive into the court-yards of French houses under the rooms of the first story. Muskets, rifles, and mitrailleuses swept the street. To venture into it seemed sure destruction. To stay beneath their blazing roof would expose them all to perish in the flames. Bomb-shells were falling constantly to right and left, knocking off pieces of the cornices of lofty, stately houses, tearing off their iron balconies, and scattering shattered fragments of wood, window-glass, iron, and plaster on the pavement.

The father of Claudine, aghast with fear and horror, stepped back into the sitting-room. "I see no escape for us," he cried.

At that moment hoarse shouts below them in the court-yard announced that a party of insurgents, accompanied by a band of the fiendish women they called pétroleuses, had burst into the house that they inhabited. Already the dangerous fluid from which these women took their name was being poured over the wood-work of the staircase and the two lower appartements.

A cry ran through the house of "Save yourselves!" Claudine's father gathered together some important papers, some money, and a few jewels. The mother and her old servant spread a blanket on the floor, and flung into it such objects as they could gather up in haste, tying it by the four corners. As to Claudine, frantic with terror, she ran into her bedroom and brought out what she valued most—a cage containing two young turtle-doves. They were her only pets. She loved them better than anything else in the world, except old Clémence and her father and mother.

The torches of the Communards had already set fire to the wood-work saturated with coal-oil. Flames were breaking out in every direction. The inhabitants of the doomed houses were forced to make their way into the street, or stay to be burned alive. The first to rush down the staircase was Claudine, cage in hand. She ran into the street. A bomb-shell burst as she reached it, and her terrified parents saw her drop upon the sidewalk, while the cage fell at some distance, rolling away out of her hand.

When her father saw her dead, as he supposed, he rushed into the street, undaunted by the bursting of the shell, and picking up her body, retreated with it under shelter of the porte cochère.

But Claudine was not dead, nor even wounded. She had fainted with fright, and as her parents hung over her with tender words, she opened her blue eyes and smiled at them. A moment after, she remembered her dear doves. Before any one could stop her or forbid her she ran back into the street through bullets thick as hail, caught up her cage, and ran back with her recovered treasures. A pétroleuse who had seen her stopped as she was setting fire to some furniture, and cried out, with a mocking laugh,

"What was the use of running out to pick up those? They will be roast birds anyhow in the next half-hour."

On hearing these cruel words little Claudine began to comprehend for the first time the greatness of the danger. She drew back, darted a look of reproach at the vile woman who stood laughing at her trouble, and then, with the big tears rolling down her cheeks, "God will know how to keep them safe," she said, and opened the cage door. The doves flew out. They poised themselves a moment; then they rose into the air, and flew away to seek a purer sky above the clouds of smoke and sulphur. In spite of what the cruel woman said, the doves were saved.

A few moments later a drum was heard advancing up the street. The drummers marched at the head of a body of troops—the soldiers had come! "Vive l'armée!" cried the frightened householders.

In an instant pétroleuses, robbers, and insurgents scattered in all directions. It is a queer sight to see a French crowd run when the troops charge. Now, however, every soldier "thought on vengeance." The incendiaries dropped fast before the iron hail.

Meantime all hands were busy putting out the flames. The fire was at last got under. The furniture and wood-work of the first and second stories were badly burned and broken, but the rest of the house was saved.

Claudine and her family went back into their rooms, and let in the light of day, the father and mother blessing God for the timely arrival of the troops who had saved all Paris from fire and pillage. By degrees they grew more calm. But one sad heart was inconsolable. Claudine's share in the great catastrophe which had almost laid Paris "even with the ground" was the loss of her dear turtle-doves.

The next morning when she came out early on the balcony to look at the blackened ruins of the noble palace, and to mourn for her lost favorites, she uttered a cry of joy. Her doves sat on the railing of the balcony. They had flown back to their little mistress and their home.

"Mamma! mamma!" she cried, "God has sent me back my doves!" and her little heart recovered the happiness that in her inexperience she fancied had been lost forever.