To tell the truth, the whole establishment was one vast infirmary. The children had hardly arrived when they fell ill, languished, and ended by dying, if their parents did not quickly take them away and put them again under the protection of home. The cure of Nanterre had to go so often to Bethlehem with his black vestments and his silver cross, the undertaker had so many orders from the house, that it became known in the district, and indignant mothers shook their fists at the model nurse; from a long way off, it is true, for they might chance to have in their arms pink-and-white babies to be preserved from all the contagions of the place. It was these things that gave to the poor place so heart-rending an aspect. A house in which children die cannot be gay; you cannot see trees break into flower there, birds building, streams flowing like rippling laughter.
The thing seemed altogether false. Excellent in itself, Jenkins’s scheme was difficult, almost impracticable in its application. Yet, God knows, the affair had been started and carried out with the greatest enthusiasm to the last details, with as much money and as large a staff as were requisite. At its head, one of the most skilful of practitioners, M. Pondevez, who had studied in the Paris hospitals; and by his side, to attend to the more intimate needs of the children, a trusty matron, Mme. Polge. Then there were nursemaids, seamstresses, infirmary-nurses. And how many the arrangements and how thorough was the maintenance of the establishment, from the water distributed by a regular system from fifty taps to the omnibus trotting off with jingling of its posting bells to meet every train of the day at Rueil station! Finally, magnificent goats, Thibetan goats, silky, swollen with milk. In regard to organization, everything was admirable; but there was a point where it all failed. This artificial feeding, so greatly extolled by the advertisements, did not agree with the children. It was a singular piece of obstinacy, a word which seemed to have been passed between them by a signal, poor little things! for they couldn’t yet speak, most of them indeed were never to speak at all: “Please, we will not suck the goats.” And they did not suck them, they preferred to die one after another rather than suck them. Was Jesus of Bethlehem in his stable suckled by a goat? On the contrary, did he not press a woman’s soft breast, on which he could go to sleep when he was satisfied? Who ever saw a goat between the ox and the ass of the story on that night when the beasts spoke to each other? Then why lie about it, why call the place Bethlehem?
The director had been moved at first by the spectacle of so many victims. This Pondevez, a waif of the life of the “Quarter,” mere student still after twenty years, and well known in all the resorts of the Boulevard St. Michel under the name of Pompon, was not an unkind man. When he perceived the small success of the artificial feeding, he simply brought in four or five vigorous nurses from the district around and the children’s appetites soon returned. This humane impulse went near costing him his place.