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XVIII

In fact, the news had just come, that the Western Railroad, the last
one that had remained open, was now cut off.

Paris was invested; and so rapid had been the investment, that it
could hardly be believed.

People went in crowds on all the culminating points, the hills of
Montmartre, and the heights of the Trocadero. Telescopes had been
erected there; and every one was anxious to scan the horizon, and
look for the Prussians.

But nothing could be discovered. The distant fields retained their
quiet and smiling aspect under the mild rays of the autumn sun.

So that it really required quite an effort of imagination to realize
the sinister fact, to understand that Paris, with its two millions
of inhabitants, was indeed cut off from the world and separated from
the rest of France, by an insurmountable circle of steel.

Doubt, and something like a vague hope, could be traced in the tone
of the people who met on the streets, saying,

"Well, it's all over: we can't leave any more. Letters, even,
cannot pass. No more news, eh?"

But the next day, which was the 19th of September, the most
incredulous were convinced.

For the first time Paris shuddered at the hoarse voice of the cannon,
thundering on the heights of Chatillon. The siege of Paris, that
siege without example in history, had commenced.

The life of the Favorals during these interminable days of anguish
and suffering, was that of a hundred thousand other families.

Incorporated in the battalion of his ward, the cashier of the Mutual
Credit went off two or three times a week, as well as all his
neighbors, to mount guard on the ramparts, - a useless service
perhaps, but which those that performed it did not look upon as such,
- a very arduous service, at any rate, for poor merchants, accustomed
to the comforts of their shops, or the quiet of their offices.

To be sure, there was nothing heroic in tramping through the mud,
in receiving the rain or the snow upon the back, in sleeping on the
ground or on dirty straw, in remaining on guard with the thermometer
twenty degrees below the freezing-point. But people die of pleurisy
quite as certainly as of a Prussian bullet; and many died of it.

Maxence showed himself but rarely at Rue St. Gilles: enlisted in a
battalion of sharpshooters, he did duty at the advanced posts. And,
as to Mme. Favoral and Mlle. Gilberte, they spent the day trying to
get something to live on. Rising before daylight, through rain or
snow, they took their stand before the butcher's stall, and, after
waiting for hours, received a small slice of horse-meat.

Alone in the evening, by the side of the hearth where a few pieces
of green wood smoked without burning, they started at each of the
distant reports of the cannon. At each detonation that shook the
window-panes, Mme. Favoral thought that it was, perhaps, the one
that had killed her son.

And Mlle. Gilberte was thinking of Marius de Tregars. The accursed
days of November and December had come. There were constant rumors
of bloody battles around Orleans. She imagined Marius, mortally
wounded, expiring on the snow, alone, without help, and without a
friend to receive his supreme will and his last breath.

One evening the vision was so clear, and the impression so strong,
that she started up with a loud cry.

"What is it?" asked Mme. Favoral, alarmed. "What is the matter?"

With a little perspicacity, the worthy woman could easily have
obtained her daughter's secret; for Mlle. Gilberte was not in
condition to deny anything. But she contented herself with an
explanation which meant nothing, and had not a suspicion, when
the girl answered with a forced smile,

"It's nothing, dear mother, nothing but an absurd idea that crossed
my mind."

Strange to say, never had the cashier of the Mutual Credit been for
his family what he was during these months of trials.

During the first weeks of the siege he had been anxious, agitated,
nervous; he wandered through the house like a soul in trouble; he
had moments of inconceivable prostration, during which tears could
be seen rolling down upon his cheeks, and then fits of anger
without motive.

But each day that elapsed had seemed to bring calm to his soul.
Little by little, he had become to his wife so indulgent and so
affectionate, that the poor helot felt her heart touched. He had
for his daughter attentions which caused her to wonder.

Often, when the weather was fine, he took them out walking, leading
them along the quays towards a part of the walls occupied by the
battalion of their ward. Twice he took them to St. Onen, where the
sharp-shooters were encamped to which Maxence belonged.

Another day he wished to take them to visit M. de Thaller's house,
of which he had charge. They refused, and instead of getting angry,
as he certainly would have done formerly, he commenced describing to
hem the splendors of the apartments, the magnificent furniture, the
carpets and the hangings, the paintings by the great masters, the
objects of arts, the bronzes, in a word, all that dazzling luxury
of which financiers make use, somewhat as hunters do of the mirror
with which larks are caught.

Of business, nothing was ever said.

He went every morning as far as the office of the Mutual Credit;
but, as he said, it was solely as a matter of form. Once in a long
while, M. Saint Pavin and the younger Jottras paid a visit to the
Rue St. Gilles. They had suspended, - the one the payments of his
banking house; the other, the publication of "The Financial Pilot."

But they were not idle for all that; and, in the midst of the public
distress, they still managed to speculate upon something, no one
knew what, and to realize profits.

They rallied pleasantly the fools who had faith in the defence, and
imitated in the most laughable manner the appearance, under their
soldier's coat, of three or four of their friends who had joined
the marching battalions. They boasted that they had no privations
to endure, and always knew where to find the fresh butter wherewith
to dress the large slices of beef which they possessed the art of
finding. Mme. Favoral heard them laugh; and M. Saint Pavin, the
manager of " The Financial Pilot," exclaimed,

"Come, come! we would be fools to complain. It is a general
liquidation, without risks and without costs." Their mirth had
something revolting in it; for it was now the last and most acute
period of the siege.

At the beginning. the greatest optimists hardly thought that Paris
could hold out longer than six weeks. And now the investment had
lasted over four months. The population was reduced to nameless
articles of food. The supply of bread had failed; the wounded, for
lack of a little soup, died in the ambulances; old people and
children perished by the hundred; on the left bank the shells came
down thick and fast, the weather was intensely cold, and there was
no more fuel.

And yet no one complained. From the midst of that population of
two millions of inhabitants, not one voice rose to beg for their
comfort, their health, their life even, at the cost of a
capitulation.

Clear-sighted men had never hoped that Paris alone could compel
the raising of the siege; but they thought, that by holding out,
and keeping the Prussians under its walls, Paris would give to
France time to rise, to organize armies, and to rush upon the enemy.
There was the duty of Paris; and Paris was toiling to fulfil it to
the utmost limits of possibility, reckoning as a victory each day
that it gained.

Unfortunately, all this suffering was to be in vain. The fatal
hour struck, when, supplies being exhausted, it became necessary
to surrender. During three days the Prussians camped in the Champs
Elysees, gazing with longing eyes upon that city, object of their
most eager desires, - that Paris within which, victorious though
they were, they had not dared to venture. Then, soon after,
communications were reopened; and one morning, as he received a
letter from Switzerland,

"It is from the Baron de Thaller!" exclaimed M. Favoral.

Exactly so. The manager of the Mutual Credit was a prudent man.
Pleasantly situated in Switzerland, he was in nowise anxious to
return to Paris before being quite certain that he had no risks
to run.

Upon receiving M. Favoral's assurances to that effect, he started;
and, almost at the same time the elder Jottras and M. Costeclar
made their appearance.





Other People's Money by Emile Gaboriau
Category:
General Fiction
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