'That little fellow won't be easy to manage, I fancy,' gently said the sister; 'I distrust them when they haven't a straight face.'

'Yet this one isn't ugly,' murmured Alice. 'To see him look at you, you would think he was eighteen.'

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'That is true,' rejoined Madame Caroline, with a slight shudder; 'he is very advanced for his age.'

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Before going away the ladies wished to have the pleasure of seeing the little convalescent girls eat their bread and jam. One of them especially was very interesting, a little fair-complexioned thing of ten years old, who already had knowing eyes, a womanly look, the sickly precocity peculiar to the Parisian faubourgs. Moreover, hers was the old story: a drunken father who had gone off with a mistress, and a mother who had likewise taken to drink and chosen a paramour. Yet the wretched woman was allowed to come and see her child, for she herself had begged that she might be taken from her, having retained an ardent feeling of maternal love amidst all her degradation. And she happened to be there that very afternoon—a thin, yellow-skinned, worn-out creature with eyelids reddened by tears—and she sat beside the white bed where, propped up by pillows, her little one, neat and clean, lay eating her bread and jam in a pretty, graceful way.

The woman recognised Madame Caroline, for she had previously called at Saccard's for help. 'Ah! madame,' said she, 'so here's my poor Madeleine saved again. She has all our misfortunes in the blood, you see, and the doctor well told me that she wouldn't live if she continued to be hustled about at home, whereas here she has meat and wine, and air and quietness. I pray you, madame, tell that good gentleman that I don't spend an hour of my life without blessing him.'

A sob checked her utterance; her heart was melting with gratitude. It was Saccard whom she alluded to, for, like most of the parents who had children at the institution, she knew him alone. The Princess d'Orviedo did not show herself, whereas he had long lavished his efforts, peopling the establishment, picking little wretches of all kinds out of the gutters[Pg 169] in order that this charitable machine, in some degree his own creation, might the sooner set to work. And, moreover, he had, as usual, grown quite enthusiastic, taking five-franc pieces from his own pocket and distributing them among the sorry parents whose little ones he saved. And to all those wretched folk he remained the one true benefactor.

'And you will tell him, won't you, madame? that there is a poor woman praying for him somewhere. Oh! it isn't that I'm religious. I don't want to be; I've never been a hypocrite. No, between the churches and us it is all over, for we not merely don't think of them any more, but it's of no use to waste one's time in them. Still, that doesn't alter the fact that there's something up above us, and when somebody has been good to you it relieves you, you know, to call down the blessings of Heaven upon him.'

Tears started from her eyes and rolled down her withered cheeks. 'Listen to me, Madeleine, listen,' she resumed.

The little girl, who looked so pale in her snow-white chemise as she lay there licking the jam off the bread with the tip of her greedy tongue, her eyes beaming the while with happiness, raised her head and became attentive, but without interrupting her feast.

'Every evening,' continued the mother, 'before you go to sleep in bed, you must join your hands like this, and say: "Pray, God, grant Monsieur Saccard a reward for all his kindness, and give him a long life and happiness." You hear, Madeleine; you promise me you will say it?'

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'Yes, mother.'

During the following weeks Madame Caroline's mind was sorely troubled. She had no longer a clear opinion of Saccard. The story of Victor's birth and abandonment, of that poor creature Rosalie's sad affair, of the unpaid notes of hand, and of the fatherless child growing up in the midst of mire—all that lamentable past made her feel sick at heart. She brushed aside the visions of it that arose before her in the same way as she had refrained from provoking Maxime's indiscreet revelations. Plainly enough, there were certain old-time[Pg 170] mud stains in all this business, the thought of which frightened her, and the full knowledge of which would have brought her, she felt it, too much grief. And then how strange the contrast. There was that woman in tears, joining her little girl's hands, and teaching her to pray for that very same man. There, in this case, was Saccard worshipped as an incarnation of beneficent Providence; and verily he had given proof of true kindness of heart, had actually saved souls from perdition, by the passionate scheming activity which he evinced, raising himself to virtue whenever the task before him was a fine one. And thus Madame Caroline ended by refusing to judge him, and, like a learned woman who has read and thought too much, sought to quiet her conscience by saying that he, like all other men, was compounded of good and evil.

Three months slipped by, during which she went to see Victor twice every week; and at last, how it came about she hardly knew, she one day again found herself Saccard's mistress. Was it that this child Victor had become as it were a bond, a link, inevitably drawing her, his mother by chance and adoption, towards the father who had abandoned him? Yes, it is probable that in her case there was far less sensuality than a kind of sentimental perversion. In her great sorrow, at being childless herself, the charge of this man's son amid such poignant circumstances had certainly affected her to the point of annihilating her will. And, moreover, her self-surrender was explained by her craving for maternity. Then, too, she was a woman of clear good sense; she accepted the facts of life without wearing herself out in trying to explain their thousand complex causes. The unravelling of heart and brain, the minute splitting and analysing of hairs, was, to her mind, a pastime fit only for idle worldlings with no household to manage, no child to love, intellectual humbugs who ever seek excuses for their frailty in what they call the 'the science of the soul.'

She, with her vast erudition, who formerly had wasted her time in a burning desire to know the whole vast world and join in the disputes of philosophers, had emerged from this phase of her life with a feeling of great contempt for all such psychological[Pg 171] recreations, which threaten to supersede both the pianoforte and the embroidery frame, and of which she would laughingly remark that they had depraved far more women than they had reclaimed. And so, whenever she felt a gap within her, whenever her free will succumbed, she preferred to have the requisite courage to realise the fact and accept it, and relied upon the work of Life to efface the fault, to repair the evil, even as the ever-rising sap closes the gash in the heart of an oak tree, supplying in time fresh wood and bark.

Thus, if she was now Saccard's mistress, without having desired it, without feeling sure if she esteemed him, she did not experience any feeling of ignominy, but buoyed herself up by judging him to be not unworthy of her, attracted as she was by the qualities he showed as a man of action, by the energy to conquer that he evinced, by the belief that he was good and useful to others. In the need we all feel of purifying our errors, her first feeling of shame had passed away, and nothing now appeared more natural, more peaceful than their liaison. Reason, not passion, seemed to link them together; he was happy at having her with him of an evening when he did not go out; and she, with her keen intelligence and uprightness, showed herself almost maternal, evinced a calming affection. And for Saccard, that freebooter of the Parisian streets, whose roguery in all sorts of shady financial affairs had brought him many a scorching and drubbing, the affection of this adorable woman, who, her six and thirty years notwithstanding, was still so young and healthy under the snowy mass of her abundant white hair, who displayed such valiant good sense, such true wisdom in her faith in life, such as it is, and despite all the mud that its torrent rolls along—this affection was really an undeserved stroke of luck, a reward stolen like all others.

Months passed by, and it must be admitted that throughout all the difficult beginnings of the Universal Bank Madame Caroline found Saccard very energetic and very prudent. Indeed, her suspicions of shady transactions, her fears that he might compromise her brother and herself entirely disappeared when she saw him so obstinately, so incessantly struggling[Pg 172] with difficulties, expending his energy from morning till night in order to ensure the perfect working of this huge new machine, whose mechanism was grinding and grating and seemed likely to burst. And she felt grateful to him for it all, she admired him.

The Universal was not progressing as he had hoped it would, for it had against it the covert hostility of great financiers. Evil reports were spread abroad and obstacles were constantly cropping up, preventing the employment of its capital, frustrating all profitable endeavours on a large scale. Accordingly Saccard made a virtue of necessity—of the slow progress to which he was reduced—taking but one step forward at a time, and on solid ground, ever on the look-out for pitfalls, too much absorbed in striving to avoid a fall to dare to launch out into hazardous speculation. He impatiently champed the bit, stamping like a race-horse who is allowed a mere trot. However, never were the beginnings of a financial house more honourable or more correct, and the Bourse talked of it all in astonishment.