" How you must miss him! How old is he?"
" Only eleven weeks. Miss him ? Mon Dieu ! But I had to leave him, or we should both have starved; if I had brought him with me, who would have looked after him all day while I was out? Besides, in this work, there is no telling how long one may remain in any city—I might be packed off to some other branch of the concern to-morrow".
" Oh yes; one never knows. Last week one of our professors was sent at a day's notice to Russia. What a life ! Of course, one need not consent to go, but it is never prudent to refuse. You used to make me cry in there for my baby, when you played the piano. The poor little soul is called ' Paul,' after his father; he is with a person who used to be my servant; she is married now, and has a little business, a dairy. I know she is good to him, but imagine how I suffer—in less than a year I have lost my husband and my child. Alors, vrai! what an egotist I am ! How go your own affairs? Still no luck? "
In the Garden of the Luxembourg on Sundays, the two lonely women sauntered under the chestnut-trees and talked of their sorrows and their hopes. The hopes of the widow were centred upon the lotteries de Bienfaisance, which had lured a louis from her time and again. She was emerging from a period of enforced discretion, and she asked : " What do you say to our buying a ticket between us? "
The present lottery had neared its end; only one drawing remained, and the price of tickets was accordingly much reduced. The friends bought their microscopic chance for five francs each.
The prizes that were dangled varied between a mite and a fortune; and now, in the murky lamplight of the garret, the pianist saw visions. Rebuffed, intimidated, she had suddenly a prospect; chimerical as the prospect was, she might gain the means to buy a hearing for her art!
For the woman seeking recognition, opportunity. For the woman divided from her child, a home. Every night they spoke of it. Often while the lamp burnt low, and a horse-bell jangled sadly, they laughed together in a castle-in-the-air.
But those brats from the Assistance publique, who blindly dispensed destinies at the drawing, dipped their red hands upon the wrong numbers.
" As usual! I am sorry I proposed it to you. It is an imbecility to waste one's earnings in such a fashion—one might as well toss money in the Seine. Well, I have had enough ! I have finished. I am determined never to gamble any more," cried madame Branthonne, who had made the same resolve a dozen times.
Marie said less. But her disappointment was black; it was only now that she knew how vivid had been her hope. And in the meanwhile her little hoard had dwindled terribly, and she was seeking other pupils.
" What if you get them—you will be no nearer to renown ? In Chauville you have a living waiting for you—why wear out shoe-leather to find bread in Paris? Poverty in Paris is no sweeter than poverty elsewhere".
" If I go back to Chauville, it means the end," she answered. " I shall never have anything to look forward to there—never, to the day of my death. Year after year I shall sit teaching exercises and little pieces to schoolgirls who will never play. The girls will escape, and marry, but I shall sit teaching the same exercises and little pieces to their children. Here, if I can hold out, if only I can hold out long enough, I may batter my way up. I want to get on—I've a right to get on. You don't suppose that no one has ever made a career who couldn't pay for it? "
" No," sighed her confidante; " I don't suppose it's so bad as that—men do help one sometimes." But in her heart she felt, " You aren't the kind of woman that men do things for".
And, to a stranger, even pupils at five francs an hour proved hard to find. A pianist of talent— and she couldn't earn a living in Paris, even by elementary lessons. It was one of those cases which the uninitiated call " improbable," and which are happening all the time.
Yet it fell to madame Branthonne to quit Paris first. When Marie Lamande could no longer sleep at night, or slept only to see the desolation of Chauville in her dreams, the teacher of French was required to go to one of the London branches of the school. It occurred abruptly; the news and the good-bye were almost simultaneous.
A, new proclamation of millions to be won, aggrandised " par arrêté ministériel" was blazoned across the pages of the newspapers; and, on impulse, the woman who was " determined never to gamble any more " left a louis with the other, to buy a ticket for her.
" You know you can't spare it," urged Marie. " I wouldn't, if I were you ! "
Momentarily the widow hesitated ; and then she gave a shrug.
" Oh, of course, I'm an idiot," she exclaimed. " But what else have I got to hope for? Yes, get it and send it to me!"
Early in the journey she vacillated again. But her instructions were not revoked, because soon afterwards no more than a third of the train remained on the rails, and madame Branthonne was among the victims killed.
Her aghast friend heard of the catastrophe twelve hours later than multitudes for whom it had no personal interest. Dazed, she wondered whether the ex-servant in Amiens would see the name of " Branthonne " in the list of the dead, and what would become of the baby now. She had a confused notion that she ought to communicate with the woman, but she was ignorant of the address. She went hysterically to the head office of the school, where the manager undertook to make inquiries at the Amiens branch.
When the sickness of horror passed, her thoughts reverted to the ticket that she had been enjoined to buy; and on the way to fulfil the duty, it was as if the dead woman, as she had seen her last, with her hat and coat on, were close to her again. " What name ? " inquired the clerk in the big bank. " Lamande," she answered—and asked herself afterwards if it would have been more businesslike to say " Branthonne." But it didn't seem to matter. The point that perplexed her was, in whose charge ought the ticket to be ? It belonged to the baby now, and its possibilities extended through the year. " Serie No. 78, Billet No. 19,333." Ought she to post it confidingly to the dairy-keeper when she learnt where she lived ?