The hovel was so dark, that people coming from without felt on entering it the effect produced on entering a cellar. The two newcomers advanced, therefore, with a certain hesitation, being hardly able to distinguish the vague forms surrounding them, while they could be clearly seen and scrutinized by the eyes of the inhabitants of the garret, who were accustomed to this twilight.
M. Leblanc approached, with his sad but kindly look, and said to Jondrette the father:—
"Monsieur, in this package you will find some new clothes and some woollen stockings and blankets."
"Our angelic benefactor overwhelms us," said Jondrette, bowing to the very earth.
Then, bending down to the ear of his eldest daughter, while the two visitors were engaged in examining this lamentable interior, he added in a low and rapid voice:—
"Hey? What did I say? Duds! No money! They are all alike! By the way, how was the letter to that old blockhead signed?"
"Fabantou," replied the girl.
"The dramatic artist, good!"
It was lucky for Jondrette, that this had occurred to him, for at the very moment, M. Leblanc turned to him, and said to him with the air of a person who is seeking to recall a name:—
"I see that you are greatly to be pitied, Monsieur—"
"Fabantou," replied Jondrette quickly.
"Monsieur Fabantou, yes, that is it. I remember."
"Dramatic artist, sir, and one who has had some success."
Here Jondrette evidently judged the moment propitious for capturing the "philanthropist." He exclaimed with an accent which smacked at the same time of the vainglory of the mountebank at fairs, and the humility of the mendicant on the highway:—
"A pupil of Talma! Sir! I am a pupil of Talma! Fortune formerly smiled on me—Alas! Now it is misfortune's turn. You see, my benefactor, no bread, no fire. My poor babes have no fire! My only chair has no seat! A broken pane! And in such weather! My spouse in bed! Ill!"
"Poor woman!" said M. Leblanc.
"My child wounded!" added Jondrette.
The child, diverted by the arrival of the strangers, had fallen to contemplating "the young lady," and had ceased to sob.
"Cry! bawl!" said Jondrette to her in a low voice.
At the same time he pinched her sore hand. All this was done with the talent of a juggler.
The little girl gave vent to loud shrieks.
The adorable young girl, whom Marius, in his heart, called "his Ursule," approached her hastily.
"Poor, dear child!" said she.
"You see, my beautiful young lady," pursued Jondrette "her bleeding wrist! It came through an accident while working at a machine to earn six sous a day. It may be necessary to cut off her arm."
"Really?" said the old gentleman, in alarm.
The little girl, taking this seriously, fell to sobbing more violently than ever.
"Alas! yes, my benefactor!" replied the father.
For several minutes, Jondrette had been scrutinizing "the benefactor" in a singular fashion. As he spoke, he seemed to be examining the other attentively, as though seeking to summon up his recollections. All at once, profiting by a moment when the newcomers were questioning the child with interest as to her injured hand, he passed near his wife, who lay in her bed with a stupid and dejected air, and said to her in a rapid but very low tone:—
"Take a look at that man!"
Then, turning to M. Leblanc, and continuing his lamentations:—
"You see, sir! All the clothing that I have is my wife's chemise! And all torn at that! In the depths of winter! I can't go out for lack of a coat. If I had a coat of any sort, I would go and see Mademoiselle Mars, who knows me and is very fond of me. Does she not still reside in the Rue de la Tour-des-Dames? Do you know, sir? We played together in the provinces. I shared her laurels. Célimène would come to my succor, sir! Elmire would bestow alms on Bélisaire! But no, nothing! And not a sou in the house! My wife ill, and not a sou! My daughter dangerously injured, not a sou! My wife suffers from fits of suffocation. It comes from her age, and besides, her nervous system is affected. She ought to have assistance, and my daughter also! But the doctor! But the apothecary! How am I to pay them? I would kneel to a penny, sir! Such is the condition to which the arts are reduced. And do you know, my charming young lady, and you, my generous protector, do you know, you who breathe forth virtue and goodness, and who perfume that church where my daughter sees you every day when she says her prayers?—For I have brought up my children religiously, sir. I did not want them to take to the theatre. Ah! the hussies! If I catch them tripping! I do not jest, that I don't! I read them lessons on honor, on morality, on virtue! Ask them! They have got to walk straight. They are none of your unhappy wretches who begin by having no family, and end by espousing the public. One is Mamselle Nobody, and one becomes Madame Everybody. Deuce take it! None of that in the Fabantou family! I mean to bring them up virtuously, and they shall be honest, and nice, and believe in God, by the sacred name! Well, sir, my worthy sir, do you know what is going to happen to-morrow? To-morrow is the fourth day of February, the fatal day, the last day of grace allowed me by my landlord; if by this evening I have not paid my rent, to-morrow my oldest daughter, my spouse with her fever, my child with her wound,—we shall all four be turned out of here and thrown into the street, on the boulevard, without shelter, in the rain, in the snow. There, sir. I owe for four quarters—a whole year! that is to say, sixty francs."
Jondrette lied. Four quarters would have amounted to only forty francs, and he could not owe four, because six months had not elapsed since Marius had paid for two.
M. Leblanc drew five francs from his pocket and threw them on the table.
Jondrette found time to mutter in the ear of his eldest daughter:—
"The scoundrel! What does he think I can do with his five francs? That won't pay me for my chair and pane of glass! That's what comes of incurring expenses!"
In the meanwhile, M. Leblanc had removed the large brown great-coat which he wore over his blue coat, and had thrown it over the back of the chair.
"Monsieur Fabantou," he said, "these five francs are all that I have about me, but I shall now take my daughter home, and I will return this evening,—it is this evening that you must pay, is it not?"
Jondrette's face lighted up with a strange expression. He replied vivaciously:—
"Yes, respected sir. At eight o'clock, I must be at my landlord's."
"I will be here at six, and I will fetch you the sixty francs."
"My benefactor!" exclaimed Jondrette, overwhelmed. And he added, in a low tone: "Take a good look at him, wife!"
M. Leblanc had taken the arm of the young girl, once more, and had turned towards the door.
"Farewell until this evening, my friends!" said he.
"Six o'clock?" said Jondrette.
"Six o'clock precisely."
At that moment, the overcoat lying on the chair caught the eye of the elder Jondrette girl.
"You are forgetting your coat, sir," said she.
Jondrette darted an annihilating look at his daughter, accompanied by a formidable shrug of the shoulders.
M. Leblanc turned back and said, with a smile:—
"I have not forgotten it, I am leaving it."
"O my protector!" said Jondrette, "my august benefactor, I melt into tears! Permit me to accompany you to your carriage."
"If you come out," answered M. Leblanc, "put on this coat. It really is very cold."
Jondrette did not need to be told twice. He hastily donned the brown great-coat. And all three went out, Jondrette preceding the two strangers.