M. Passerot, a modest administrative employee, and his wife lived in Belleville in accommodation on the first floor of a tall house oddly placed in front of one of these last vestiges of old Paris: a two-storey pavilion, covered with tiles , without a shop on the ground floor.
The occupant, Mme Le Guetteux, was a matron who took in boarders – in other words: with whom women, at their term, came to stay for the time of their childbirth. She stood “downstairs,” and had eight rooms “above,” to give birth – to use her own expression. She was an old practitioner, with the face of a jovial witch, known and esteemed by the whole neighborhood.
The Passerots, well-matched Parisians, of the pleasant type, in their thirties, had a little girl and, given the high cost of living, did not want another child.
Now, certainly by local influence, from the age of four, Suzon, already maternal with her doll, began to covet “a real little brother.” ”
It was quite natural: we stayed in front of the merchant.
Suzon could not doubt that it was Mme Le Guetteux who sold the little brothers, since, for her childish eyes, the usual spectacle offered by the pavilion was that of a merchant’s shop: all the incoming ladies had their hands empty and all the outgoing women had a baby in their arms.
Suzon, a rosy fair-haired girl, delicate and sensitive, reproduced the pretty crumpled face of her mother – and had her father’s character, in spirit, in the semi-serious distinction.
First of all, she did not seem to make any difference between her doll and a little brother from Mme Le Guetteux:
– Take care, mom, if you make my Catherine’s dress too tight, it will be like mine, it will have to be lengthened next year.
– Oh, mom, please give her a bib, because she will soon have a toothache.
But this confusion of the factitious and the living had not lasted. The neighbor, door to door on the landing, had bought a baby who moved, who meowed. Suzon watched with jealousy Joséphine, the eight-year-old big sister, carrying him around singing, – then Suzon had claimed such happiness and he had had to promise, every day, to go to Mme Le Guetteux to make a purchase “as soon as one would have enough money. ”
When she was five, she was doing the errands for which “you didn’t need to change the sidewalk.” ”
In the street, she never forgot to watch the midwife’s pavilion – she even stopped waiting for long moments and sometimes she had the supreme joy to see a lady come out carrying a little brother.
One afternoon, at nightfall, a young buyer, with olive skin, of foreign countenance, crossed the street straight towards Suzon, who was on guard and who was agitated in such a meaningful way that this question arose. imposed:
– What do you want, my little one?
Suzon replied with exaltation:
– It’s a little brother that you have wrapped up, – if you would lend it to me a little, I’m strong enough to carry it, you would see …
A silence ; then, at the stranger, the laughter of a malignant inspiration:
– Let see if you can wear it… oh, very well… And you stay here, – so I give it to you; yes, you can take it, run away quickly with …
Suzon rushed forward and began to utter frantic cries even before the door had been opened for her:
– Mom! mom! I have one!… I have a little brother, a lady has just given me one.
Madame Passerot found this joke imprudent; Suzon could let the baby fall, but there was still something to laugh about:
– Where is this lady? is she going up, or is she waiting downstairs?
The lady was not going up, and when, after a moment, the mother looked out the window, she saw no one downstairs. Startled, she ran to the midwife; the latter was not very surprised by the adventure: the outgoing one had spoken of abandoning her child to the Assistance Publique.
M. Passerot returned from his office. What to do? He was of the opinion that it was simply necessary to return the innocent to Mme Le Guetteux who, according to her role, would apply to the municipal administration.
But Suzon, made anxious by the discontented airs and the low-pitched meetings, did not want to let go of her treasure:
– It’s mine… I didn’t take it! I didn’t steal it! it was given to me… I want to keep it.
She made such a scene of tears and howls, a scene so truly frightening, that, my faith, given the late hour, the father consented to the little brother being put to bed with Suzon.
But the next day – what a shock, what despair: he was no longer there.
Suzon did not accept this explanation: that the lady had come to pick him up during the night. No, the lady had given it away for good and she was gone forever, that was a material fact, unchangeable, – but Suzon had clearly seen that the little brother did not please and that they wanted to give him back to Mme. The Watchman.
Suzon was of an extremely sensitive and affectionate nature – by this she had, to an exceptional degree, the perception of what attacked her right, her individuality; she had to an exceptional degree the feeling of justice, this logic of vital conservation.
From the kidnapping of the little brother, his sensitivity gave off an impression of lies, of an attempt, of abuse of force, and consequently: an impression of maternal tenderness and diminished paternal “pampering”.
Truly the revelation of deception, oppression, unjust wickedness, entered her like moral poison.
His desire to have a little brother was a permanent idea – therefore the feeling of loss, of dispossession could not only be fleeting.
The poison attacked Suzon’s organism.
The atmosphere no longer contained the quantity of oxygen-goodness essential for existence.
Suzon, like a plant in a bad climate, began to vegetate – she began to live less; her whole being tightened, she ate and stirred less; his need to talk, to laugh, to play ceased.
She would sit for hours by the window in front of her toys on display – she only pretended to touch them when you looked at her, when you called her out – otherwise she waited, she watched: maybe she would recognize him in the arms of a buyer coming out of Mme Le Guetteux’s, her little brother, who had been taken from her.
And now the consoling promises to go to Mme Le Guetteux as soon as we had enough money no longer had any hold over her.
The mother was not long in worrying about Suzon’s wasting away.
As her husband did not notice anything yet, one day, while he was at the office, she left Suzon at home, (like a grown-up girl), – and came to find the midwife that everyone in the neighborhood, used to consult free for the health of young children, under the pretext that she had brought them into the world.
Indeed, after forty years of practice, Ms. Le Guetteux had an infallible experience. She knew Suzon well, she had even observed her particularly, from her study on the ground floor, where she was currently receiving Madame Passerot.
– Here, madame, from here I see at your place, as if I were there.
Suzon’s condition could not be improved by any diet, or medicine. She belonged to a superior kind of children – children delicious by the gifts of the soul, but singularly delicate and fragile.
Mme Le Guetteux had already seen these children die of jealousy, or of grief, of black disease.
She would gladly take it upon herself to save Suzon by announcing to her, with the resources of her moral authority, with the guarantee of her commercial situation, that the parents had finally started to give her money for the purchase of a little brother and by making her wait, by repeated assurances – she would gladly take care of it, on the express condition that this was true.
Madame Passerot exclaimed:
– But, Madam, my husband doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to…
– Oh! Madame, let’s see if he understands that dear little Suzon’s life is in danger.
Madame Passerot, all in tears, reflected that in fact the question had not yet been asked in this way for her husband; she decided to talk to him right away, as soon as he got home.
Mme Le Guetteux strongly approved of it: when a woman has something difficult or boring, or annoying to say to her husband, if she hesitates, if she wants to choose the occasion, the suit, or else she finally falls silent, or else she does it wrong.
How much better to go straight there, the door barely open, while the husband takes off his hat and overcoat; we have all the benefit of an unexpected attack; he arrives from the outside with his concerns, his thoughts from the outside, we do not give him time to be on his guard, he is forced to listen, to take it …
Madame Passerot was half smiling, embarrassed. She could see the scene well; It had already happened to her to shout good news to her husband at the same time as the usual good evening: “Suzon has pierced a tooth, – Suzon is standing on her legs, she has turned all alone around a chair. But it was not the same to seize him, without preamble, by the announcement of the current danger which threatened the dear child and by the notice of the compulsory means of rescue.
Mme Le Guetteux smiled maliciously:
– Here are some roses from my country house, take them away, you will show them immediately to your husband, you will make him admire them by saying that they come from my house, – you will thus have the beginning of your speech:
– Yes, just imagine that, this afternoon, I went to see Mme Le Guetteux …
A moment later, the two women were addressing each other with signs of intelligence, one at her first-floor window, the other in the frame of her second-floor window, where she was arranging the flowers in a vase.
Then, a furtive gesture from Mme Le Guetteux towards the end of the street:
– Here, your husband … Throw the roses right under his nose.
Ah! the good time! that can be called knowing how to start a speech!
Pretty little Madame Passerot could look poor not knowing which end to start with!
Barely ten minutes after the arrival of M. Passerot, Mme Le Guetteux saw Suzon appear.
– Madame, papa is sending me to your place for a bit, – papa told me that you had something urgent to tell me right away, right away…
– Your dad, or your mom who sent you?
– Daddy, madam, he spoke quickly, he quickly pushed me to the door.
The midwife went to look: the bedroom window that had been opened earlier was now closed.
– Yes, she said mysteriously, my little Suzon, you will be happy, because today it is I who promise you a little brother. Me, it’s for good, you know – it’s not about joking in the children’s business. Here, listen – I have two up there in my store – hear them screaming. Your daddy started bringing me money, he will bring me back whenever he has savings and when there is enough, I will give the little brother. You understand, it can’t be right away.
– Everything is so expensive …
– Children have increased another hundred cents since last week! But listen: if you eat your soup well, if I see you laughing, playing, running, – from time to time, I will show you one, little brother, – it will already be a little as if I gave it to you, you you will be sure, you will think about it, you will make your choice: there are bigger ones, smaller ones, blond ones, brown ones …
Suzon, delighted, wanted to return as soon as possible, to announce the great news to her mother, – but Mme Le Guetteux held her back:
– No, wait a minute, sit down… Look at these pictures. I have to register and calculate.
The midwife had some paper on hand; she drew some figures in pencil. But, to calculate, she held out her face at every moment towards the street, as if she were looking for some sign to hatch in empty space.
From one of the delivery chambers we could hear the moan of a childish woman, but still so weak, so modulated, that it might have been a happy moan.
Then Madame Le Guetteux had an impressed, almost religious lowering of her eyelids.
– You can go now, my little Suzon, I’ve finished my count.
A certain window had slowly ceased to be closed.
Suzon, in terms of images, had not taken her eyes off Madame Le Guetteux for a moment.
She smiles with a knowing air:
– I won’t say anything when I get home, but I will start by kissing daddy, because the money is the one who earns it, – but afterwards, I will kiss mum.
With the imitative humor of children, she reproduced Madame Le Guetteux’s tender expression — as if she sensed a mysterious transmission in her face.
She repeated, her eyelids collected.
– I’ll kiss mum too, because she’s the one who keeps the purse, – daddy will have to tell her that you wait for the money and I’m sure she’ll complain that the little brother is really too much dear and she will say as always: “Oh you, you’re laughing, daddy, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there …”