To the listening child in the bed, however, it seemed as if voices were whispering near her—as if she heard a stifled sob. Then cautious footsteps crossed the floor, and after an interval of silence the street door opened and closed.
Very soon afterward a light was struck in the adjoining room, and the elder man came through the doorway—alone.
He flung back the doors of the fireplace, and stirred the embers; then he proceeded to perform a singular task. First he tossed a number of letters and papers into the flames, then several dainty articles of girls’ clothing. He watched them until they had burned to ashes; then he flung himself into an arm-chair; his head sank forward on his breast, in which position he sat motionless for several hours.
When the younger of the two men stepped into the street he carried in his arms a little girl wrapped in a faded red shawl, to whom he was speaking encouragingly, in tones loud enough for any passer-by to hear:
“I know the little countess will be able to find her mama’s palace; for there is a fountain in front of it in which there is a stone man with a three-pronged fork, and a stone lady with a fish-tail! Oh, yes; we shall be sure to find it; and very soon we shall be with mama.”
Here the child in his arms began to sob bitterly.
“For heaven’s sake, do not weep; do not let your voice be heard,” whispered the young man in her ear.
At this moment a man wearing a coarse blouse, with his cap drawn over his eyes and a short pipe between his lips, came staggering toward them. The young man, in order to make room for him, pressed close to the wall, whereupon the new-comer, who seemed intoxicated, began in drunken tones:
“Hello, citizen! What do you mean? Do you want me to walk in the gutter?—because you have got on fine boots, and I have only wooden sabots! I am a citizen like yourself, and as good as you. We are alike, are n’t we?”
The young man now knew with whom he had to deal—a police spy whose duty it was to watch him. He therefore replied quietly:
“No, we are not alike, citizen; for I have in my arms an unfortunate child who has strayed from its mother. Every Frenchman respects a child and misfortune. Is not that so, citizen?”
“Yes, that is so, citizen. Let ’s have a little conversation about it”; and the pretended drunkard seized hold of the young man’s mantle to detain him.
“It is very cold,” returned the young man. “Instead of talking here, suppose you help me get this child to its home. Go to the nearest corner and fetch a coach. I will wait here for you.”
The blouse-wearer hesitated a moment, then walked toward the street-corner, managing, however, to keep an eye on the young man and his charge. At the corner he whistled in a peculiar manner, whereupon the rumbling of wheels was heard. In a few moments the leather-covered vehicle drew up beside the curb where the young man was waiting.