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FROM THE FRENCH OF MADAME CHARLES REYBAUD.
I. ONE winter evening, in the year 174, two old women crossed the port of Marseilles, to reach the Rue Saint-Laurent, where they lived. The weather was stormy, a chill breeze whistled among the thousand ropes of the ships, and shook the lanterns which cast their doubtful lights along the quay ; the two women hid their faces under the hoods of their printed cotton mantles, and warmed their hands alternately at a small horn lantern, whose reddish light cast a sinister reflexion on their faces. The boatman rowed vigorously, while singing in a frightened manner, as if he wished to conquer an impression of involuntary terror ; but from time to time he ventured to cast his eyes on the two dark shades seated before him. These three persons uttered not a word while crossing from the Quai de Rive-Neuve to the Fort Saint-Jean. On landing, the boatman sprang ashore and moored his boat, afterwards remained standing immovable, not daring to offer his large rough hand to the passengers, who got out without assistance.
“Here, Patron Tounin," said one of them, offering a sou.
“No,” replied he, drawing back, "give it in charity to some poor person to-morrow morning." " It seems that you are rich enough, and that
you sure,” said the other old woman, sourly; "your late father did not work in such a glorious way; he gave charity to himself, and there was not too much abundance in his house."
“I am not richer than he,” replied the boatman; “but by Notre Dame de la Garde ! I can do this good work without going to bed fasting this evening."
“ Then do it with your hands, Patron Tounin, it will bring you greater happiness,” said the old woman, again offering the sou in a displeased and sullen manner.
“ Away!" cried he, in a burst of anger mixed with fear; “ your money will bring misfortune on me. I do not wish it; take it back, it is the money of the dead !”
“Oh, oh!" exclaimed the enraged old woman; “take care that not soon have good work in sewing you up in an old sheet.”
At this threat the boatman became pale, and trembled; then regaining courage, he stepped forward with his hand raised, crying,
“Old sorceress! servant of the devil! thou shalt neither touch me dead or living! Thy soul shall go to hell before mine!"
At these words, and especially at this action, the two old women turned to go away, but the Patron Tounin placed himself before them, and continued his maledictions. Just then, a young man stepped on the deserted quay, drew forth his right arm from beneath his cloak, and, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword, came forward to ascertain what was the matter.
“Ah, my good sir,” the two old women exclaimed, “ desire this man, who is insulting us, to withdraw; he will not allow us to go home quietly."
“ Patron," said the young man, who recognised Tounin's profession by his red cap and his brown cloak, “it is not manly thus to insult and frighten poor old women. If you did not belong to the honourable corporation of boatmen of the port, I should very likely have taken you
for a thief, and treated you as such.”
Monseigneur,” said the Patron, perceiving that he had to do with a person of rank, “ these women threatened me because I would not take their money."
“ That is hardly possible,” exclaimed the young man.
“ It is the truth,” said one of the old women, angrily; “the Patron Tounin insulted us by acting in this way. Our money is worth as much as that which his reverence the Abbé Saint Victor distributes to the poor during the holy week : a blessed money!”
"Yes, yes, money of the dead," interrupted the Patron Tounin. Monseigneur,
you not recognise them? They are old sorceresses. To-morrow I shall fasten a holy branch to my mast in order to secure myself from any misfortune which might happen to me for having conveyed them across here this evening.”
On saying this he contemptuously kicked the sou which the old woman had dropped before him, and jumped into his boat.
“What does all this mean?” asked the young man, astonished. “This good man appears mad. Why did he believe that your presence would bring evil upon him?"
“ Indeed I can't tell ; we have never done harm to any one,” said the old woman, while stooping to look for the sou. My good sir, you came just in time to help us. May God reward you !"
“ May God reward you !" repeated the other. “Holy Mary! the lantern is going out, and it is as dark here as in a gloomy pit ! Sister, we ought not to stop longer. Our home is not far off, but so many vagabonds stroll about during the night.”
“ You are afraid,” said the young man, moved with compassion on seeing these poor women cling to each other, and look around them in fear. “ I will walk by your side till reach the door of your house."
May God bless you!" they both exclaimed. There was at that time, at the entrance of the Rue Saint-Laurent, a small house, whose front had not been whitewashed for fifty years. It was there the two old women stopped. While one opened the door with a pass-key, the other turned towards the young man, and said, while curtseying humbly :
“My good sir, I would like to know your name; I should never forget it in my prayers, morning or night."
“I am the Chevalier Gaspard de Gréoulx,” he replied. “Now you are at home. Good night, and may God protect you!"
He walked quickly away, and the old women, stopping at the door, watched him to the turn of the street. Both of them had started on hearing his name, but said not a word to each other, and after a few minutes they entered the house. On the ground floor there was a moderate-sized room, the chimney of which would have been admired by a lover of curiosities. Two small double columns supported the mantelpiece, which was sculptured with infinite art and labour. The walls were adorned with handsome wainscots, but these signs of luxury dated at least a century back, and the furniture, rather more modern, was almost of mean
simplicity. A bed shaded by old green curtains was used by the two sisters, and it could be easily perceived that they did not see much company, for there were no other chairs than the two on which they sat at the corner of the chimney. A large walnut-wood cupboard and a kind of sideboard, on which stood some cracked cups and saucers, completed the furniture of this chamber, which was used as a bedroom, drawingroom, and dining-room. The rest of the house was empty, quite unfurnished, and left to the rats, which were heard running about all night. Things had remained in this state for thirty years. The poorest fisherman of the Quartier Saint-Laurent, he who lived with his family in a small smoky room, the window of which had not a pane of glass, but who paid enough for it, would on no account have dwelt in this house. The two women who inhabited it were well known at Marseilles, and a doubt had never been entertained of their virtue and perfect honesty ; nevertheless, they inspired every one with awe and aversion. They had come to this town about fifty years before, poor, and without any one to assist them. Not knowing how to work for their living, they undertook to nurse the sick, and as they were clever, careful, and zealous, their employers became very numerous ; they were sent for to all the best houses whenever any one was dying ; thus they had been present at the death of all the people of consequence in the town for half a century. Having grown old, they no longer went out as sick-nurses, and they were only sent for to watch and bury the dead. As soon as they were seen to enter a house, people knew that some misfortune had happened. They always came neatly clad in black serge, with sorrowful countenances, and a holy wax-light in their hands. Their constant mourning, their thin faces of a livid paleness, and their gaunt, scraggy figures, had something in them so sad and gloomy, that the people nicknamed them “ The Ravens,” and by degrees their own names of Veronique and Suzanne were forgotten for that of these birds of ill omen.
On their return home this evening, they sat themselves down mechanically before the fire, of which there only remained some cold cinders, and Veronique said, in a trembling voice : “Sister, you heard that this
young man is called Gaspard de Gréoulx !" Well
, what does that signify to us?" replied Suzanne, shaking her head.
Silence ensued, Veronique lighted a handful of brambles, and placed on the table some bread, a jug of water, and a dish of dried fruit.
“ It is now Ember week,” said she, “and really we have not broken our fast; there never is a fire in the kitchen of the houses into which we go.”
“One passes the day with two sips of coffee; to-morrow we must take some before we go out. I have an idea that we shall not be allowed to remain long at home; they are ringing the death-bell at Saint-Laurent.”
In fact, the mournful tolling of a bell was heard mingling with the whistling of the wind down the chimney. Veronique crossed herself and murmured a prayer.
“Let us take some food, and hasten to try and sleep,” said Suzanne ; “it does not often fall to our lot to pass a night in bed.”
"I would rather sit up a little longer," replied Veronique; "it strikes me that we could not sleep-we are out of the habit of sleeping. Let us warm ourselves.”
They drew near the fire, and passed their long wrinkled hands over the flame with an appearance of lazy satisfaction.
“One is, however, much more comfortable at home, particularly when one becomes aged,” said Suzanne. “ Do you know, sister, that you are no longer young, and that I am four years older than you ? It is high time to rest ourselves a little."
“I do not object to do so," replied Veronique, “but I could not all at once give up the habit of working; we must do so gradually, sister.”
“Unhappily, our necessities increase. We have never sewed so much as this week.”
There was again silence; then Veronique said, after reflecting :
“ Sister, what have you done with that letter which we have not yet had time to read? Doubtless it contains the bill of three hundred livres for Gabrielle's board."
“ True; we cannot have lost it!" replied Suzanne, searching in her pocket. “ Here it is !"
Veronique brought forward the lamp, and put on her spectacles to read the following letter :
“Barcelona, 6th January, 17– “ HONOURED LADIES,—I have the sorrow to announce to you the loss which we have just sustained in the person of Sieur Gabriel de Lescale, a French merchant established in this city. The night before his death he sent for me to communicate to me his last wishes, and the unfortunate state of his affairs. The poor man never had been rich, and on account of a failure, through which he lost forty thousand livres, he died insolvent. His only daughter having remained in France, he had until now provided for her education by allowing you every year the sum of three hundred livres. In consequence of all these misfortunes, the young lady will find herself without resources, and her father expressly charged me to recommend her to your goodness. Not knowing her address, I beg that you will announce to her the sad news. I conclude, honoured ladies, in recommend. ing the deceased to your prayers, and beg you to believe me, “ Your most humble and obedient servant,
“ FRANÇOIS LEPAGE.”
“ This is bad news," said Veronique, letting the letter fall.
- This poor
Monsieur de Lescale never could prosper in anything; he would have brought ill luck on a vessel laden with holy relics! I predicted his unfortunate fate when we were present at his wife's death."
“ We must have some masses for the repose of his soul. But, sister, what shall we do with Gabrielle ?”
“ We cannot keep her at the convent; and even if we could, it is no longer the place for her. She must do as we have done; she must work for her living. She must come to us at first.”
Suzanne nodded her head in assent, and said, after reflecting :
“ It strikes me that this child might help us in our employment; while one of us two took a little rest, the other might carry her to watch. At first, perhaps, she might dislike touching the dead, but that would pass off.
“ They have brought her up like a lady at the Convent de la Visitation,” said Veronique; "who knows that she will submit quietly to do what we wish ?”
6 Can she do otherwise ? They will not keep her for nothing at La Visitation ; if she even wished to become a nun, she must have a dowry. On leaving the convent, what would become of her if we should desert her? Assuredly her poor father did right to count upon us, we will not leave her in the streets, but she really must work with us in order to gain her bread.”
“ To-morrow we will go and hear mass at La Visitation, and afterwards we will speak to the abbess,” said Veronique, taking up the letter. “ This
child does not suspect the news which we are going to give her this year. It is a year, sister, since we last saw her, when we went to pay her board at Christmas.”
* One year and two months, truly,” grumbled Suzanne, "and these two last months must be paid out of our money. That will be a good handful of crowns."
“ A large handful, indeed !” said Veronique, with a sigh. “For the last two months we have ventured to spend twenty sous a day; we must cut that short from to-morrow.”
“ From to-morrow,” repeated the other Raven. “Let us hasten to say a 'De profundis' for the soul of the deceased, and go to sleep."
II. The next morning, at the same hour, there were three persons before the antique chimney where the Ravens had warmed themselves tête-àtête for thirty years. Between these two sharp, parchment-like faces, whose bloodshot eyes were protected by large spectacles, appeared the fair head of a young girl about sixteen. She had large soft blue eyes, a thin delicate nose, a small mouth, whose natural expression was a smile. She had, in fact, one of those charming faces which Greuze delighted to paint. But now this pretty mouth was not smiling, and large tears rolled down her round fresh cheeks. The poor girl held in her hand the fatal letter, and she murmured between her sobs :
“Oh, Heavens! Is it true! my father dead! My father who loved me so much! He wrote me that he would come to fetch me, that I should go with him. I was expecting him. . . . And now he will never come !-never !"
The two Ravens listened to the lamentations from an afflicted heart without uttering a word. They knew that such grief must be left to exhaust itself, and that all consolation is useless at such a time. They calmly reflected on what should be done with Gabrielle, and calculated the means of supporting her at the least possible expense. These women, however, were not cruel or hard-hearted, but they had witnessed so many funerals, had been present at such terrible scenes of desolation and mourning, that they were hardened against all expression of human misery.
“Come, my child,” said Veronique, “ you must resign yourself to the will of God. Since the resurrection of Lazarus,
the dead have never been seen to come to life. Death is an evil without remedy, that's why people console themselves more quickly than for other misfortunes. Dry your eyes, and try to steep a crust of bread in this half glass of warmed wine; that will make you sleep to-night.”.
“ Thank you, my dear demoiselle,” said Gabrielle, taking the glass