The household lived frugally on the meager income derived from the husband’s insignificant appointments. Two children had been born of the marriage, and the earlier condition of the strictest economy had become one of quiet, concealed, shamefaced misery, the poverty of a noble family–which in spite of misfortune never forgets its rank.
Hector de Gribelin had been educated in the provinces, under the paternal roof, by an aged priest. His people were not rich, but they managed to live and to keep up appearances.
At twenty years of age they tried to find him a position, and he entered the Ministry of Marine as a clerk at sixty pounds a year. He foundered on the rock of life like all those who have not been early prepared for its rude struggles, who look at life through a mist, who do not know how to protect themselves, whose special aptitudes and faculties have not been developed from childhood, whose early training has not developed the rough energy needed for the battle of life or furnished them with tool or weapon.
His first three years of office work were a martyrdom.
He had, however, renewed the acquaintance of a few friends of his family –elderly people, far behind the times, and poor like himself, who lived in aristocratic streets, the gloomy thoroughfares of the Faubourg Saint- Germain ; and he had created a social circle for himself.
Strangers to modern life, humble yet proud, these needy aristocrats lived in the upper stories of sleepy, old-world houses. From top to bottom of their dwellings the tenants were titled, but money seemed just as scarce on the ground floor as in the attics.
Their eternal prejudices, absorption in their rank, anxiety lest they should lose caste, filled the minds and thoughts of these families once so brilliant, now ruined by the idleness of the men of the family. Hector de Gribelin met in this circle a young girl as well born and as poor as himself and married her.
They had two children in four years.
For four years more the husband and wife, harassed by poverty, knew no other distraction than the Sunday walk in the Champs-Elysees and a few evenings at the theatre (amounting in all to one or two in the course of the winter) which they owed to free passes presented by some comrade or other.
But in the spring of the following year some overtime work was entrusted to Hector de Gribelin by his chief, for which he received the large sum of three hundred francs.
The day he brought the money home he said to his wife:
“My dear Henrietta, we must indulge in some sort of festivity–say an outing for the children.”
And after a long discussion it was decided that they should go and lunch one day in the country.
“Well,” cried Hector, “once will not break us, so we’ll hire a wagonette for you, the children and the maid. And I’ll have a saddle horse; the exercise will do me good.”
The whole week long they talked of nothing but the projected excursion.
Every evening, on his return from the office, Hector caught up his elder son, put him astride his leg, and, making him bounce up and down as hard as he could, said:
“That’s how daddy will gallop next Sunday.”
And the youngster amused himself all day long by bestriding chairs, dragging them round the room and shouting:
“This is daddy on horseback!”
The servant herself gazed at her master with awestruck eyes as she thought of him riding alongside the carriage, and at meal-times she listened with all her ears while he spoke of riding and recounted the exploits of his youth, when he lived at home with his father. Oh, he had learned in a good school, and once he felt his steed between his legs he feared nothing–nothing whatever!
Rubbing his hands, he repeated gaily to his wife:
“If only they would give me a restive animal I should be all the better pleased. You’ll see how well I can ride; and if you like we’ll come back by the Champs-Elysees just as all the people are returning from the Bois. As we shall make a good appearance, I shouldn’t at all object to meeting some one from the ministry. That is all that is necessary to insure the respect of one’s chiefs.”
On the day appointed the carriage and the riding horse arrived at the same moment before the door. Hector went down immediately to examine his mount. He had had straps sewn to his trousers and flourished in his hand a whip he had bought the evening before.
He raised the horse’s legs and felt them one after another, passed his hand over the animal’s neck, flank and hocks, opened his mouth, examined his teeth, declared his age; and then, the whole household having collected round him, he delivered a discourse on the horse in general and the specimen before him in particular, pronouncing the latter excellent in every respect.
When the rest of the party had taken their seats in the carriage he examined the saddle-girth; then, putting his foot in the stirrup, he sprang to the saddle. The animal began to curvet and nearly threw his rider.
Hector, not altogether at his ease, tried to soothe him:
“Come, come, good horse, gently now!”
Then, when the horse had recovered his equanimity and the rider his nerve, the latter asked:
“Are you ready?”
The occupants of the carriage replied with one voice:
“Forward!” he commanded.
And the cavalcade set out.
All looks were centered on him. He trotted in the English style, rising unnecessarily high in the saddle; looking at times as if he were mounting into space. Sometimes he seemed on the point of falling forward on the horse’s mane; his eyes were fixed, his face drawn, his cheeks pale.
His wife, holding one of the children on her knees, and the servant, who was carrying the other, continually cried out:
“Look at papa! look at papa!”
And the two boys, intoxicated by the motion of the carriage, by their delight and by the keen air, uttered shrill cries. The horse, frightened by the noise they made, started off at a gallop, and while Hector was trying to control his steed his hat fell off, and the driver had to get down and pick it up. When the equestrian had recovered it he called to his wife from a distance:
“Don’t let the children shout like that! They’ll make the horse bolt!”
They lunched on the grass in the Vesinet woods, having brought provisions with them in the carriage.
Although the driver was looking after the three horses, Hector rose every minute to see if his own lacked anything; he patted him on the neck and fed him with bread, cakes and sugar.
“He’s an unequal trotter,” he declared. “He certainly shook me up a little at first, but, as you saw, I soon got used to it. He knows his master now and won’t give any more trouble.”
As had been decided, they returned by the Champs-Elysees.
That spacious thoroughfare literally swarmed with vehicles of every kind, and on the sidewalks the pedestrians were so numerous that they looked like two indeterminate black ribbons unfurling their length from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. A flood of sunlight played on this gay scene, making the varnish of the carriages, the steel of the harness and the handles of the carriage doors shine with dazzling brilliancy.
An intoxication of life and motion seemed to have invaded this assemblage of human beings, carriages and horses. In the distance the outlines of the Obelisk could be discerned in a cloud of golden vapor.
As soon as Hector’s horse had passed the Arc de Triomphe he became suddenly imbued with fresh energy, and, realizing that his stable was not far off, began to trot rapidly through the maze of wheels, despite all his rider’s efforts to restrain him.
The carriage was now far behind. When the horse arrived opposite the Palais de l’Industrie he saw a clear field before him, and, turning to the right, set off at a gallop.
An old woman wearing an apron was crossing the road in leisurely fashion. She happened to be just in Hector’s way as he arrived on the scene riding at full speed. Powerless to control his mount, he shouted at the top of his voice:
“Hi! Look out there! Hi!”
She must have been deaf, for she continued peacefully on her way until the awful moment when, struck by the horse’s chest as by a locomotive under full steam, she rolled ten paces off, turning three somersaults on the way.
Hector, frantic with terror, clung to the horse’s mane and shouted:
A terrible jolt hurled him, as if shot from a gun, over his horse’s ears and cast him into the arms of a policeman who was running up to stop him.
In the space of a second a furious, gesticulating, vociferating group had gathered round him. An old gentleman with a white mustache, wearing a large round decoration, seemed particularly exasperated. He repeated:
“Confound it! When a man is as awkward as all that he should remain at home and not come killing people in the streets, if he doesn’t know how to handle a horse.”
Four men arrived on the scene, carrying the old woman. She appeared to be dead. Her skin was like parchment, her cap on one side and she was covered with dust.
“Take her to a druggist’s,” ordered the old gentleman, “and let us go to the commissary of police.”
Hector started on his way with a policeman on either side of him, a third was leading his horse. A crowd followed them–and suddenly the wagonette appeared in sight. His wife alighted in consternation, the servant lost her head, the children whimpered. He explained that he would soon be at home, that he had knocked a woman down and that there was not much the matter. And his family, distracted with anxiety, went on their way.
When they arrived before the commissary the explanation took place in few words. He gave his name–Hector de Gribelin, employed at the Ministry of Marine; and then they awaited news of the injured woman. A policeman who had been sent to obtain information returned, saying that she had recovered consciousness, but was complaining of frightful internal pain. She was a charwoman, sixty-five years of age, named Madame Simon.
When he heard that she was not dead Hector regained hope and promised to defray her doctor’s bill. Then he hastened to the druggist’s. The door way was thronged; the injured woman, huddled in an armchair, was groaning. Her arms hung at her sides, her face was drawn. Two doctors were still engaged in examining her. No bones were broken, but they feared some internal lesion.
Hector addressed her:
“Do you suffer much?”
“Where is the pain?”
“I feel as if my stomach were on fire.”
A doctor approached.
“Are you the gentleman who caused the accident?”
“This woman ought to be sent to a home. I know one where they would take her at six francs a day. Would you like me to send her there?”
Hector was delighted at the idea, thanked him and returned home much relieved.
His wife, dissolved in tears, was awaiting him. He reassured her.
“It’s all right. This Madame Simon is better already and will be quite well in two or three days. I have sent her to a home. It’s all right.”
When he left his office the next day he went to inquire for Madame Simon. He found her eating rich soup with an air of great satisfaction.
“Well?” said he.
“Oh, sir,” she replied, “I’m just the same. I feel sort of crushed–not a bit better.”
The doctor declared they must wait and see; some complication or other might arise.
Hector waited three days, then he returned. The old woman, fresh-faced and clear-eyed, began to whine when she saw him:
“I can’t move, sir; I can’t move a bit. I shall be like this for the rest of my days.”
A shudder passed through Hector’s frame. He asked for the doctor, who merely shrugged his shoulders and said:
“What can I do? I can’t tell what’s wrong with her. She shrieks when they try to raise her. They can’t even move her chair from one place to another without her uttering the most distressing cries. I am bound to believe what she tells me; I can’t look into her inside. So long as I have no chance of seeing her walk I am not justified in supposing her to be telling lies about herself.”
The old woman listened, motionless, a malicious gleam in her eyes.
A week passed, then a fortnight, then a month. Madame Simon did not leave her armchair. She ate from morning to night, grew fat, chatted gaily with the other patients and seemed to enjoy her immobility as if it were the rest to which she was entitled after fifty years of going up and down stairs, of turning mattresses, of carrying coal from one story to another, of sweeping and dusting.
Hector, at his wits’ end, came to see her every day. Every day he found her calm and serene, declaring:
“I can’t move, sir; I shall never be able to move again.”
Every evening Madame de Gribelin, devoured with anxiety, said:
“How is Madame Simon?”
And every time he replied with a resignation born of despair:
“Just the same; no change whatever.
They dismissed the servant, whose wages they could no longer afford. They economized more rigidly than ever. The whole of the extra pay had been swallowed up.
Then Hector summoned four noted doctors, who met in consultation over the old woman. She let them examine her, feel her, sound her, watching them the while with a cunning eye.
“We must make her walk,” said one.
“But, sirs, I can’t!” she cried. “I can’t move!”
Then they took hold of her, raised her and dragged her a short distance, but she slipped from their grasp and fell to the floor, groaning and giving vent to such heartrending cries that they carried her back to her seat with infinite care and precaution.
They pronounced a guarded opinion–agreeing, however, that work was an impossibility to her.
And when Hector brought this news to his wife she sank on a chair, murmuring:
“It would be better to bring her here; it would cost us less.”
He started in amazement.
“Here? In our own house? How can you think of such a thing?”
But she, resigned now to anything, replied with tears in her eyes:
“But what can we do, my love? It’s not my fault!”