The Valain Family.
It was January 7; the winter was cold and foggy; the icy north wind roared around the ancient buildings of old Paris blew off the snow, which, like a white shroud, covered their dome. The inhabitant of the sumptuous hotel, dressed in silk, cashmere andfur, stretched idly on the duvet, and a warm and fragrant atmosphere, watched the sparks that outlined the rich mantelpiece of his fireplace twinkle, all while savoring the exquisite wines and delicate dishes served in their fancy dishes. He waited in a sweet indolence for the night to bring his the pleasures of the ball, the Opera or the cocktail party. The poor man, in his attic room, wrapped in clothes that could not protect him against the assaults of the season, struggled against the cold which slowed his labors, against the hunger that twisted his bowels and brought tears to his poor children.
In an elegant boudoir in a hotel in the Noble Faubourg, a pretty young woman, sunk in a cozy armchair, appeared to read closely one of the newspapers placed on a light table of finely sculpted wood. Her noble and intelligent face sometimes expressed astonishment and sadness, sometimes disbelief, and she rain her little pink fingers over her smooth, pure brow, as if to brush away a somber image, when the door was opened gently.
“Is Madame the baroness home to the doctor?” asked the fresh voice of a young maid.
“Let him enter, Victoire; you know that I am always here for him,” responded the young woman.
Seconds later, Dr. Dorian trod the soft carpets which covered the parquet floor, and paid his respects to the baroness, who gestured to an armchair placed close to her own.
“You who have more knowledge and experience than I, my good dear doctor,” said the young women, after the customary compliments, “tell me then if it is true that there are people who die of cold, and of hunger, while still others seek in suicide a refuge from misery? I just read a part of these papers, and what I have seen there is frightful; all these things are exaggerated, aren’t they?”
“The papers, Madame, tell only what they know, and they are ignorant of nine hundred and ninety-nine misfortunes out of every thousand.”
The baroness opened her eyes in astonishment and fright.
“My profession,” added the doctor, “reveals to me the pains of body and soul that are the portion of the masses; that sad truth remains unknown to you, the privileged of this world, for your flatterers fear troubling your digestion and your slumber, of attaching regret to your joys. Oh! Believe me, Madame, that the real miseries are very numerous and above all very unknown. Certainly, few people know those of an unfortunate family that I must go to visit when I leave your hotel.”
“So, doctor, what are the misfortunes of that family?” asked the baroness.
While the doctor, sitting bya roaring fire, satisfies the curiosityof the young woman, let us lead ourreader down the Rue Saint-Jacques.
Not far from the Church of St. Jacques du Haut-Pas sits a dilapidated house, which oneenters through a dark, wet and cold alley, which leads to a no less ramshackle staircase, lit by a few “guillotine” windows which gave onto a narrow courtyard, from which rises the sickening stench of sewage; the walls, cracked by the weather, soiled by dust, oozing with the damp. Mounting the warped and uneven steps, you feel the cold touch your soul, and ask how human creatures, children of God, can roost in this frightful vulture’s nest. Alas! is the worker free to choose his residence? If he has, like the fortunate ones in the world, a taste for luxury and a need for well-being, is he allowed to obtain a fragment of the things which are the fruits of his constant labor? Is he not the sheep who is only covered with wool for the profit of his possessor? Isn’t he the worker bee who only produces honey to satisfy the sensuality of beings foreign to his species?
In the top floor of the hovel, in two narrow attic rooms, lived the Valain family, consisting of a father, a mother and three children. For three months, the head of the family, drained by labor and privations of every sort, remained in bed, not even thinking of calling for a doctor, whom he could not pay, and whose prescriptions he could not follow. The forced idleness had put him in arrears with his landlord, a hard man, who had told them to move out on January 8; the baker no longer wanted to give them bread, which they must have; the wood merchant would be careful not to sell a log without immediately receiving the payment for it: let one judge the distress of these five unfortunates having for resources, in this harsh season, only the daily wage of Mrs. Valain, which did not exceed one franc. They lacked even the bare necessities
Midi had just struck at the old church of Saint-Jacques; the whole family had gathered in the first room; the father slept; his face ashen, his cheeks hollow, his eyes deeplysunken in their sockets, his extreme gauntness, all indicated a consumption which would soon have a fatal issue. The three children, all hunkered close together to keep warm, blew on the fingers and looked sadly at the hearth, which did not even contain cool cinders. The mother, pale, thin, and chilled, worked without looking up.
The youngest of the children, barely three years old, broke the sad silence which ranged around the sick man with his weeping.
“Hush! Hush! You’ll wake your father,” said Mrs. Valain.
“But I am hungry and cold, mama.”
“Poor thing!” said the mother, drawing the blond head of her son to her breast, on which she let flow some desperate tears. “Weep no more, my Charles; you see, my shirt is almost finished; when it is done, you will have bread.”
“What is it?” asked the father, who had been awakened by the sobbing of his child.
“Nothing, my friend,” responded the mother.
The child approached the patient, who took his little hand.
“Poor boy! You are frozen! Climb on the bed, Charles, and lie down next to me. It will warm you.”
The child did not make him repeat it.
“I fear that it will hurt you,” said Mrs. Valain to her husband.
“I must give him what I have to give, a bit of warmth,” responded the sick man, and onto his pale lips wandered a bitter smile.
At that moment someone knocked, and the oldest of the boys opened the door. It was the landlord.
“Ah!” he said, without greeting anyone. “You remember, I hope, that you must be gone by tomorrow.”
Mrs. Valain, turning more pale, rose.
“Oh! Sir,” she said in a pleading voice, “please, have mercy on us. You see, we lack everything.We can not get my husband to the hospital, because there are no beds. What shall we ifyou put us out the door?”
“Do what you want, but you must leave tomorrow.”.
“Alas! Sir, we have no place to go. My husband and children must sleep in the street…
“Wherever you wish…”
“Oh! My God!” cried that unhappy woman. “We have no fire, no bread, and tomorrow no home… My God! My God! to see my husband and children die, while so many others have a hundred times what they need!…”
And the unfortunate woman, half-mad with grief, wrung her hands in despair.
“Console yourself, my wife,” said the sick man; “one night under the stars and we will all go together to the grave… Bah! Sooner is always better for us workers…”
But Mrs. Valain did not hear. She felt all the anguish of a wife and mother’s heart; she fell at the feet of the landlord, and gripped him with her wizened arms:
“Oh! Sir,” she cried, “for the love of God, let us die here. Do not evict us!”
“I do not have a house to lodge beggars,” responded that cruel man harshly; you bore me with your lamentations, and if tomorrow, at noon, you have vacated this place…”
“It’s shameful what you are doing here, sir,” interrupted a young andelegant woman who had witnessed the last few moments with this heartbreaking scene, without the actors being aware… “How much do these unfortunates owe you?” she added, in a haughty, contemptuous tone.
“Three payments, which amounts to 112 fr. 50 c., stammered the landlord.
“Call this evening at the home of Mme. the baroness de X…,” replied the land, “and you will be paid…”
And that lovely lady passed him without further greeting, and entered the attic room, followed by Dr. Dorian.
Mrs. Valain, dumbfounded, remained on her knees, mouth open and eyes wide. Mr. Valain, no less astonished, half-rose, looking at the young woman and her companion. The baroness approached the poor mother and kindly offered her finely gloved hand. This gesture recalled Mrs. Valain to herself; she kissed the hand of the unknown woman and got to her feet. A rapid glance around her informed the baroness of the terrible plight of this honest family; she approached the oldest of the boys, gave him 5 francs, whispered a few words to him and approached the patient, who spoke with Dr. Dorian.
“Well, sir…?” she asked when he had ceased to question Mr. Valain.
“The honest father needs a tonic regimen and no anxiety,” responded the doctor.
The young woman held out her hand tenderly to the sick man.
“You will allow me to rid you of all anxiety, won’t you, Sir?” she said to him.
Mr. Valain lowered his eyes. It seemed hard for him to receive what he had not earned.
At that moment the eldest of the children returned, carrying bread, meat, and a bottle of wine; he was followed by a charbonnierloaded with a basket of wood. Little Charles slipped nimbly out of bed and approached the provisions; his mother beckoned him to wait. The baroness saw it. It would have been cruelty to prolong the hunger of these unfortunate beings: she rose.
“We will be going,” she said to the sick man. “I will return to see you in a dew days, Sir.”
Then, approaching Mrs. Valain, she slid into her hand a twenty-franc piece.
“Make a good broth for your husband, Madame. In an hour you will have chicken and a Bordeaux wine for him.”
“God bless you and reward you, Madame!…” stammered the poor woman bursting into tears, while the baroness clasped her hand, sanctified by labor.
“Well, Madame,” said the doctor to his companion, when they were outside, “do you still believe that the papers exaggerate?”
The baroness did not respond; tears of pity rolled down her rosy cheeks.
“That family, thanks to your providential intervention, is pulled from poverty,” said the doctor. “But, at that time, thousands of workers suffer the same conditions, suffer and die without anyone thinking of doing what you have done.”
“Oh! That’s awful, doctor,” said the young woman, shuddering.
“The number of proletarians increases, while labor and compensation decreases: imagine the increase in misery!…”
“My God! but is there no remedy for this hideous state of things?” responded the baroness.
“There is one, Madame; it is a social order based on Christianity, which is just the fatherhood of God and human fraternity.”
“Yes, but who will outline that social order, doctor?”
“It has been outlined, Madame. Do you wish to concern yourself with the question? I will lend you a little book which explains the basics.”
“It is undoubtedly very serious, very metaphysical, and I admit that that scares me.”
“The work is serious in content, but not in form, for its form is just that of a voyage or of a novel written with speed and in a style that stirs the heart and imagination. It is written in a way that may interest women.”
“Ah! really; and what is that work called?”
“Le Voyage en Icarie.”
“Then I would be obliged if you would bring it to me, since it will instruct me without tiring me.”
Source: Almanach Icarien, astronomique, scientifique, pratique, industriel …, Volume 5. 1847. Pp. 120-128.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]