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STRATEGY AND TACTICS
Marius, with a load upon his breast, was on the point of descending from the species of observatory which he had improvised, when a sound attracted his attention and caused him to remain at his post.
The door of the attic had just burst open abruptly. The eldest girl made her appearance on the threshold. On her feet, she had large, coarse, men's shoes, bespattered with mud, which had splashed even to her red ankles, and she was wrapped in an old mantle which hung in tatters. Marius had not seen it on her an hour previously, but she had probably deposited it at his door, in order that she might inspire the more pity, and had picked it up again on emerging. She entered, pushed the door to behind her, paused to take breath, for she was completely breathless, then exclaimed with an expression of triumph and joy: -
"He is coming!"
The father turned his eyes towards her, the woman turned her head, the little sister did not stir.
"Who?" demanded her father.
"From the church of Saint-Jacques?"
"That old fellow?"
"And he is coming?"
"He is following me."
"You are sure?"
"I am sure."
"There, truly, he is coming?"
"He is coming in a fiacre."
"In a fiacre. He is Rothschild."
The father rose.
"How are you sure? If he is coming in a fiacre, how is it that you arrive before him? You gave him our address at least? Did you tell him that it was the last door at the end of the corridor, on the right? If he only does not make a mistake! So you found him at the church? Did he read my letter? What did he say to you?"
"Ta, ta, ta," said the girl, "how you do gallop on, my good man! See here: I entered the church, he was in his usual place, I made him a reverence, and I handed him the letter; he read it and said to me: `Where do you live, my child?' I said: `Monsieur, I will show you.' He said to me: `No, give me your address, my daughter has some purchases to make, I will take a carriage and reach your house at the same time that you do.' I gave him the address. When I mentioned the house, he seemed surprised and hesitated for an instant, then he said: `Never mind, I will come.' When the mass was finished, I watched him leave the church with his daughter, and I saw them enter a carriage. I certainly did tell him the last door in the corridor, on the right."
"And what makes you think that he will come?"
"I have just seen the fiacre turn into the Rue Petit-Banquier. That is what made me run so."
"How do you know that it was the same fiacre?"
"Because I took notice of the number, so there!"
"What was the number?"
"Good, you are a clever girl."
The girl stared boldly at her father, and showing the shoes which she had on her feet: -
"A clever girl, possibly; but I tell you I won't put these shoes on again, and that I won't, for the sake of my health, in the first place, and for the sake of cleanliness, in the next. I don't know anything more irritating than shoes that squelch, and go ghi, ghi, ghi, the whole time. I prefer to go barefoot."
"You are right," said her father, in a sweet tone which contrasted with the young girl's rudeness, "but then, you will not be allowed to enter churches, for poor people must have shoes to do that. One cannot go barefoot to the good God," he added bitterly.
Then, returning to the subject which absorbed him: -
"So you are sure that he will come?"
"He is following on my heels," said she.
The man started up. A sort of illumination appeared on his countenance.
"Wife!" he exclaimed, "you hear. Here is the philanthropist. Extinguish the fire."
The stupefied mother did not stir.
The father, with the agility of an acrobat, seized a broken-nosed jug which stood on the chimney, and flung the water on the brands.
Then, addressing his eldest daughter: -
"Here you! Pull the straw off that chair!"
His daughter did not understand.
He seized the chair, and with one kick he rendered it seatless. His leg passed through it.
As he withdrew his leg, he asked his daughter: -
"Is it cold?"
"Very cold. It is snowing."
The father turned towards the younger girl who sat on the bed near the window, and shouted to her in a thundering voice: -
"Quick! get off that bed, you lazy thing! will you never do anything? Break a pane of glass!"
The little girl jumped off the bed with a shiver.
"Break a pane!" he repeated.
The child stood still in bewilderment.
"Do you hear me?" repeated her father, "I tell you to break a pane!"
The child, with a sort of terrified obedience, rose on tiptoe, and struck a pane with her fist. The glass broke and fell with a loud clatter.
"Good," said the father.
He was grave and abrupt. His glance swept rapidly over all the crannies of the garret. One would have said that he was a general making the final preparation at the moment when the battle is on the point of beginning.
The mother, who had not said a word so far, now rose and demanded in a dull, slow, languid voice, whence her words seemed to emerge in a congealed state: -
"What do you mean to do, my dear?"
"Get into bed," replied the man.
His intonation admitted of no deliberation. The mother obeyed, and threw herself heavily on one of the pallets.
In the meantime, a sob became audible in one corner.
"What's that?" cried the father.
The younger daughter exhibited her bleeding fist, without quitting the corner in which she was cowering. She had wounded herself while breaking the window; she went off, near her mother's pallet and wept silently.
It was now the mother's turn to start up and exclaim: -
"Just see there! What follies you commit! She has cut herself breaking that pane for you!"
"So much the better!" said the man. "I foresaw that."
"What? So much the better?" retorted his wife.
"Peace!" replied the father, "I suppress the liberty of the press."
Then tearing the woman's chemise which he was wearing, he made a strip of cloth with which he hastily swathed the little girl's bleeding wrist.
That done, his eye fell with a satisfied expression on his torn chemise.
"And the chemise too," said he, "this has a good appearance."
An icy breeze whistled through the window and entered the room. The outer mist penetrated thither and diffused itself like a whitish sheet of wadding vaguely spread by invisible fingers. Through the broken pane the snow could be seen falling. The snow promised by the Candlemas sun of the preceding day had actually come.
The father cast a glance about him as though to make sure that he had forgotten nothing. He seized an old shovel and spread ashes over the wet brands in such a manner as to entirely conceal them.
Then drawing himself up and leaning against the chimney-piece: -
"Now," said he, "we can receive the philanthropist."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VIII
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