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- Dreams and Dream Stories - 30/44 -
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."
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
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