Whoever could it be, coming at this hour? They had lived in retirement since the mother’s death and saw almost nobody. Andre Maranne, when he came down to spend a few minutes with them, tapped like a familiar friend. Profound silence in the drawing-room, long colloquy on the landing. Finally, the old servant—she had been in the family as long as the lamp—showed in a young man, complete stranger, who stopped, struck with admiration at the charming picture of the four darlings gathered round the table. This made his entrance timid, rather awkward. However, he explained clearly the object of his visit. He had been referred to M. Joyeuse by an honest fellow of his acquaintance, old Passajon, to take lessons in bookkeeping. One of his friends happened to be engaged in large financial transactions in connection with an important joint-stock company. He wished to be of service to him in keeping an eye on the employment of the capital, the straightforwardness of the operations; but he was a lawyer, little familiar with financial methods, with the terms employed in banking. Could not M. Joyeuse in the course of a few months, with three or four lessons a week—
“Yes, indeed, sir, yes, indeed,” stammered the father, quite overcome by this unlooked-for piece of good luck. “Assuredly I can undertake, in a few months, to qualify you for such auditing work. Where shall we have our lessons?”
“Here, at your own house, if you are agreeable,” said the young man, “for I am anxious that no one should know that I am working at the subject. But I shall be grieved if I always frighten everybody away as I have this evening.”
For, at the first words of the visitor, the four curly heads had disappeared, with little whisperings, and with rustlings of skirts, and the drawing-room looked very bare now that the big circle of white light was empty.
Always quick to take offence, where his daughters were concerned, M. Joyeuse replied that “the young girls were accustomed to retire early every evening,” and the words were spoken in a brief, dry tone which very clearly signified: “Let us talk of our lessons, young man, if you please.” Days were then fixed, free hours in the evening.
As for the terms, they would be whatever monsieur desired.
Monsieur mentioned a sum.
The accountant became quite red. It was the amount he used to earn at Hemerlingue’s.
“Oh, no, that is too much.”
But the other was no longer listening. He was seeking for words, as though he had something very difficult to say, and suddenly, making up his mind to it:
“Here is your first month’s salary.”
The young man insisted. He was a stranger. It was only fair that he should pay in advance. Evidently, Passajon has told his secret.
M. Joyeuse understood, and in a low voice said, “Thank you, oh, thank you,” so deeply moved that words failed him. Life! it meant life, several months of life, the time to turn round, to find another place. His darlings would want for nothing. They would have their New Year’s presents. Oh, the mercy of Providence!