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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nabob - Chapter 8. The Bethlehem Society
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The Nabob - Chapter 8. The Bethlehem Society Post by :linksavage Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :2014

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The Nabob - Chapter 8. The Bethlehem Society

CHAPTER VIII. THE BETHLEHEM SOCIETY

BETHLEHEM! Why did it give one such a chill to see written in letters of gold over the iron gate that historic name, sweet and warm like the straw of the miraculous stable! Perhaps it was partly to be accounted for by the melancholy of the landscape, that immense gloomy plain which stretches from Nanterre to Saint Cloud, broken only by a few clumps of trees or the smoke of factory chimneys. Possibly also by the disproportion that existed between the humble little straggling village which you expected to find and the grandiose establishment, this country mansion in the style of Louis XIII, an agglomeration of mortar looking pink through the branches of its leafless park, ornamented with wide pieces of water thick with green weeds. What is certain is that as you passed this place your heart was conscious of an oppression. When you entered it was still worse. A heavy inexplicable silence weighed on the house, and the faces you might see at the windows had a mournful air behind the little, old-fashioned greenish panes. The goats scattered along the paths nibbled languidly at the new spring grass, with "baas" at the woman who was tending them, and looked bored, as she followed the visitors with a lack-lustre eye. A mournfulness was over the place, like the terror of a contagion. Yet it had been a cheerful house, and one where even recently there had been high junketings. Replanted with timber for the famous singer who had sold it to Jenkins, it revealed clearly the kind of imagination which is characteristic of the opera-house in a bridge flung over the miniature lake, with its broken punt half filled with mouldy leaves, and in its pavilion all of rockery-work, garlanded by ivy. It had witnessed gay scenes, this pavilion, in the singer's time; now it looked on sad ones, for the infirmary was installed in it.

To tell the truth, the whole establishment was one vast infirmary. The children had hardly arrived when they fell ill, languished, and ended by dying, if their parents did not quickly take them away and put them again under the protection of home. The cure of Nanterre had to go so often to Bethlehem with his black vestments and his silver cross, the undertaker had so many orders from the house, that it became known in the district, and indignant mothers shook their fists at the model nurse; from a long way off, it is true, for they might chance to have in their arms pink-and-white babies to be preserved from all the contagions of the place. It was these things that gave to the poor place so heart-rending an aspect. A house in which children die cannot be gay; you cannot see trees break into flower there, birds building, streams flowing like rippling laughter.

The thing seemed altogether false. Excellent in itself, Jenkins's scheme was difficult, almost impracticable in its application. Yet, God knows, the affair had been started and carried out with the greatest enthusiasm to the last details, with as much money and as large a staff as were requisite. At its head, one of the most skilful of practitioners, M. Pondevez, who had studied in the Paris hospitals; and by his side, to attend to the more intimate needs of the children, a trusty matron, Mme. Polge. Then there were nursemaids, seamstresses, infirmary-nurses. And how many the arrangements and how thorough was the maintenance of the establishment, from the water distributed by a regular system from fifty taps to the omnibus trotting off with jingling of its posting bells to meet every train of the day at Rueil station! Finally, magnificent goats, Thibetan goats, silky, swollen with milk. In regard to organization, everything was admirable; but there was a point where it all failed. This artificial feeding, so greatly extolled by the advertisements, did not agree with the children. It was a singular piece of obstinacy, a word which seemed to have been passed between them by a signal, poor little things! for they couldn't yet speak, most of them indeed were never to speak at all: "Please, we will not suck the goats." And they did not suck them, they preferred to die one after another rather than suck them. Was Jesus of Bethlehem in his stable suckled by a goat? On the contrary, did he not press a woman's soft breast, on which he could go to sleep when he was satisfied? Who ever saw a goat between the ox and the ass of the story on that night when the beasts spoke to each other? Then why lie about it, why call the place Bethlehem?

The director had been moved at first by the spectacle of so many victims. This Pondevez, a waif of the life of the "Quarter," mere student still after twenty years, and well known in all the resorts of the Boulevard St. Michel under the name of Pompon, was not an unkind man. When he perceived the small success of the artificial feeding, he simply brought in four or five vigorous nurses from the district around and the children's appetites soon returned. This humane impulse went near costing him his place.

"Nurses at Bethlehem!" said Jenkins, furious, when he came to pay his weekly visit. "Are you out of your mind? Well! why then have we goats at all, and meadows to pasture them; what becomes of my idea, and the pamphlets upon my idea? What happens to all that? But you are going against my system. You are stealing the founder's money."

"All the same, _mon cher maitre_," the student tried to reply, passing his hands through his long red beard, "all the same, they will not take this nourishment."

"Well, then, let them go without, but let the principle of artificial lactation be respected. That is the whole point. I do not wish to have to repeat it to you again. Send off these wretched nurses. For the rearing of our children we have goats' milk, cows' milk in case of absolute necessity. I can make no further concession in the matter."

He added, with an assumption of his apostle's air: "We are here for the demonstration of a philanthropic idea. It must be made to triumph, even at the price of some sacrifices."

Pondevez insisted no further. After all the place was a good one, near enough to Paris to allow of descents upon Nanterre of a Sunday from the Quarter, or to allow the director to pay a visit to his old _brasseries_. Mme. Polge, to whom Jenkins always referred as "our intelligent superintendent," and whom he had placed there to superintend everything, and chiefly the director himself, was not so austere, as her prerogatives might have led one to suppose, and submitted willingly to a few liqueur-glasses of cognac or to a game of bezique. He dismissed the nurses, therefore, and endeavoured to harden himself in advance to everything that could happen. What did happen? A veritable Massacre of the Innocents. Consequently the few parents in fairly easy circumstances, workpeople or suburban tradesfolk, who, tempted by the advertisements, had severed themselves from their children, very soon took them home again, and there only remained in the establishment some little unfortunates picked up on doorsteps or in out-of-the-way places, sent from the foundling hospitals, doomed to all evil things from their birth. As the mortality continued to increase, even these came to be scarce, and the omnibus which had posted to the railway station would return bouncing and light as an empty hearse. How long would the thing last? How long would the twenty-five or thirty little ones who remained take to die? This was what Monsieur the Director, or rather, to give him the nickname which he had himself invented, Monsieur the Grantor-of-Certificates-of-death Pondevez, was asking himself one morning as he sat opposite Mme. Polge's venerable ringlets, taking a hand in this lady's favourite game.

"Yes, my good Mme. Polge, what is to become of us? Things cannot go on much longer as they are. Jenkins will not give way; the children are as obstinate as mules. There is no denying it, they will all slip through our fingers. There is the little Wallachian--I mark the king, Mme. Polge--who may die from one moment to another. Just think, the poor little chap for the last three days has had nothing in his stomach. It is useless for Jenkins to talk. You cannot improve children like snails by making them go hungry. It is disheartening all the same not to be able to save one of them. The infirmary is full. It is really a wretched outlook. Forty and bezique."

A double ring at the entrance gate interrupted his monologue. The omnibus was returning from the railway station and its wheels were grinding on the sand in an unusual manner.

"What an astonishing thing," remarked Pondevez, "the conveyance is not empty."

Indeed it did draw up at the foot of the steps with a certain pride, and the man who got out of it sprang up the staircase at a bound. He was a courier from Jenkins bearing a great piece of news. The doctor would arrive in two hours to visit the Home, accompanied by the Nabob and a gentleman from the Tuileries. He urgently enjoined that everything should be ready for their reception. The thing had been decided at such short notice that he had not had the time to write; but he counted on M. Pondevez to do all that was necessary.

"That is good!--necessary!" murmured Pondevez in complete dismay. The situation was critical. This important visit was occurring at the worst possible moment, just as the system had utterly broken down. The poor Pompon, exceedingly perplexed, tugged at his beard, thoughtfully gnawing wisps of it.

"Come," said he suddenly to Mme. Polge, whose long face had grown still longer between her ringlets, "we have only one course to take. We must remove the infirmary and carry all the sick into the dormitory. They will be neither better nor worse for passing another half-day there. As for those with the rash, we will put them out of the way in some corner. They are too ugly, they must not be seen. Come along, you up there! I want every one on the bridge."

The dinner-bell being violently rung, immediately hurried steps are heard. Seamstresses, infirmary-nurses, servants, goatherds, issue from all directions, running, jostling each other across the court-yards. Others fly about, cries, calls; but that which dominates is the noise of a mighty cleansing, a streaming of water as though Bethlehem had been suddenly attacked by fire. And those groanings of sick children snatched from the warmth of their beds, all those little screaming bundles carried across the damp park, their coverings fluttering through the branches, powerfully complete the impression of a fire. At the end of two hours, thanks to a prodigious activity, the house is ready from top to bottom for the visit which it is about to receive, all the staff at their posts, the stove lighted, the goats picturesquely sprinkled over the park. Mme. Polge has donned her green silk dress, the director a costume somewhat less _neglige than usual, but of which the simplicity excluded all idea of premeditation. The Departmental Secretary may come.

And here he is.

He alights with Jenkins and Jansoulet from a splendid coach with the red and gold livery of the Nabob. Feigning the deepest astonishment, Pondevez rushes forward to meet his visitors.

"Ah, M. Jenkins, what an honour! What a surprise!"

Greetings are exchanged on the flight of steps, bows, shakings of hands, introductions. Jenkins with his flowing overcoat wide open over his loyal breast, beams his best and most cordial smile; there is a significant wrinkle on his brow, however. He is uneasy about the surprises which may be held in store for them by the establishment, of the distressful condition of which he is better aware than any one. If only Pondevez had taken proper precautions. Things begin well, at any rate. The rather theatrical view from the entrance, of those white fleeces frisking about among the bushes, have enchanted M. de la Perriere, who himself, with his honest eyes, his little white beard, and the continual nodding of his head, resembles a goat escaped from its tether.

"In the first place, gentlemen, the apartment of principal importance in the house, the nursery," said the director, opening a massive door at the end of the entrance-hall. His guests follow him, go down a few steps and find themselves in an immense, low room, with a tiled floor, formerly the kitchen of the mansion. The most striking object on entering is a lofty and vast fireplace built on the antique model, of red brick, with two stone benches opposite one another beneath the chimney, and the singer's coat of arms--an enormous lyre barred with a roll of music--carved on the monumental pediment. The effect is startling; but a frightful draught comes from it, which joined to the coldness of the tile floor and the dull light admitted by the little windows on a level with the ground, may well terrify one for the health of the children. But what was do be done? The nursery had to be installed in this insalubrious spot on account of the sylvan and capricious nurses, accustomed to the unconstraint of the stable. You only need to notice the pools of milk, the great reddish puddles drying up on the tiles, to breathe in the strong odour that meets you as you enter, a mingling of whey, of wet hair, and of many other things besides, in order to be convinced of the absolute necessity of this arrangement.

The gloomy-walled apartment is so large that to the visitors at first the nursery seems to be deserted. However, at the farther end, a group of creatures, bleating, moaning, moving about, is soon distinguished. Two peasant women, hard and brutalized in appearance, with dirty faces, two "dry-nurses," who well deserve the name, are seated on mats, each with an infant in her arms and a big nanny-goat in front of her, offering its udder with legs parted. The director seems pleasantly surprised.

"Truly, gentlemen, this is lucky. Two of our children are having their little luncheon. We shall see how well the nurses and infants understand each other."

"What can he be doing? He is mad," said Jenkins to himself in consternation.

But the director on the contrary knows very well what he is doing and has himself skilfully arranged the scene, selecting two patient and gentle beasts and two exceptional subjects, two little desperate mortals who want to live at any price and open their mouths to swallow, no matter what food, like young birds still in the nest.

"Come nearer, gentlemen, and observe."

Yes, they are indeed sucking, these little cherubs! One of them, lying close to the ground, squeezed up under the belly of the goat, is going at it so heartily that you can hear the gurglings of the warm milk descending, it would seem, even into the little limbs that kick with satisfaction at the meal. The other, calmer, lying down indolently, requires some little encouragement from his Auvergnoise attendant.

"Suck, will you suck then, you little rogue!" And at length, as though he had suddenly come to a decision, he begins to drink with such avidity that the woman leans over to him, surprised by this extraordinary appetite, and exclaims laughing:

"Ah, the rascal, is he not cunning?--it is his thumb that he is sucking instead of the goat."

The angel has hit on that expedient so that he may be left in peace. The incident does not create a bad impression. M. de la Perriere is much amused by this notion of the nurse that the child was trying to take them all in. He leaves the nursery, delighted. "Positively de-e-elighted," he repeats, nodding his head as they ascend the great staircase with its echoing walls decorated with the horns of stags, leading to the dormitory.

Very bright, very airy, is this vast room, running the whole length of one side of the house, with numerous windows and cots, separated one from another by a little distance, hung with fleecy white curtains like clouds. Women go and come through the large arch in the centre, with piles of linen on their arms, or keys in their hands, nurses with the special duty of washing the babies.

Here too much has been attempted and the first impression of the visitors is a bad one. All this whiteness of muslin, this polished parquet, the brightness of the window-panes reflecting the sky sad at beholding these things, seem to throw into bold relief the thinness, the unhealthy pallor of these dying little ones, already the colour of their shrouds. Alas! the oldest are only aged some six months, the youngest barely a fortnight, and already there is in all these faces, these faces in embryo, a disappointed expression, a scowling, worn look, a suffering precocity visible in the numerous lines on those little bald foreheads, cramped by linen caps edged with poor, narrow hospital lace. What are they suffering? What diseases can they have? They have everything, everything that one can have: diseases of children and diseases of men. The fruit of vice and poverty, they bring into the world hideous phenomena of heredity at their very birth. This one has a perforated palate, and this great copper-coloured patches on the forehead, all of them rickety. Then they are dying of hunger. Notwithstanding the spoonfuls of milk, of sweetened water, which are forced down their throats, notwithstanding the feeding-bottle employed now and then, though against orders, they perish of inanition. These little creatures, worn out before birth, require the most tender and the most strengthening food; the goats might perhaps be able to give it, but apparently they have sworn not to suck the goats. And this is what makes the dormitory mournful and silent, not one of those little clinched-fisted tempers, one of those cries showing the pink and firm gums in which the child makes trial of his lungs and strength; only a plaintive moaning, as it were the disquiet of a soul that turns over and over in a little sick body, without being able to find a comfortable place to rest there.

Jenkins and the director, who have seen the bad impression produced on their guests by this inspection of the dormitory, try to put a little life into the situation, talk very loudly in a good-natured, complacent, satisfied way. Jenkins shakes hands warmly with the superintendent.

"Well, Mme. Polge, and how are our little nurslings getting on?"

"As you see, M. le Docteur," she replies, pointing to the beds.

This tall Mme. Polge is funereal in her green dress, the ideal of dry-nurses. She completes the picture.

But where has Monsieur the Departmental Secretary gone? He has stopped before a cot which he examines sadly, as he stands nodding his head.

"_Bigre de bigre!_" says Pompon in a low voice to Mme. Polge. "It is the Wallachian."

The little blue placard hung over the cot, as in the foundling hospitals, states the child's nationality: "Moldo, Wallachian." What a piece of ill-luck that Monsieur the Secretary's attention should have been attracted to that particular child! Oh, that poor little head lying on the pillow, its linen cap askew, with pinched nostrils, and mouth half opened by a quick, panting respiration, the breathing of the newly born, of those also who are about to die.

"Is he ill?" asked Monsieur the Secretary softly of the director, who has come up to him.

"Not the least in the world," the shameless Pompon replies, and, advancing to the side of the cot, he tries to make the little one laugh by tickling him with his finger, straightens the pillow, and says in a hearty voice, somewhat overcharged with tenderness: "Well, old fellow?" Shaken out of his torpor, escaping for a moment from the shades which already are closing on him, the child opens his eyes on those faces leaning over him, glances at them with a gloomy indifference, then, returning to his dream which he finds more interesting, clinches his little wrinkled hands and heaves an elusive sigh. Mystery! Who shall say for what end that baby had been born into life? To suffer for two months and to depart without having seen anything, understood anything, without any one even knowing the sound of his voice.

"How pale he is!" murmurs M. de la Perriere, very pale himself. The Nabob is livid also. A cold breath seems to have passed over the place. The director assumes an air of unconcern.

"It is the reflection. We are all of us green here."

"Yes, yes, that is so," remarks Jenkins, "it is the reflection of the lake. Come and look, Monsieur the Secretary." And he draws him to the window to point out to him the large sheet of water with its dipping willows, while Mme. Polge makes haste to draw over the eternal dream of the little Wallachian the parted curtains of his cradle.

The inspection of the establishment must be continued very quickly in order to destroy this unfortunate impression.

To begin with, M. de la Perriere is shown a splendid laundry, with stoves, drying-rooms, thermometers, immense presses of polished walnut, full of babies' caps and frocks, labelled and tied up in dozens. When the linen has been warmed, the linen-room maid passes it out through a little door in exchange for the number left by the nurse. A perfect order reigns, one can see, and everything, down to its healthy smell of soap-suds, gives to this apartment a wholesome and rural aspect. There is clothing here for five hundred children. That is the number which Bethlehem can accommodate, and everything has been arranged upon a corresponding scale; the vast pharmacy, glittering with bottles and Latin inscriptions, pestles and mortars of marble in every corner, the hydropathic installation, its large rooms built of stone, with gleaming baths possessing a huge apparatus including pipes of all dimensions for douches, upward and downward, spray, jet, or whip-lash, and the kitchens adorned with superb kettles of copper, and with economical coal and gas ovens. Jenkins wished to institute a model establishment; and he found the thing easy, for the work was done on a large scale, as it can be when funds are not lacking. You feel also over it all the experience and the iron hand of "our intelligent superintendent," to whom the director cannot refrain from paying a public tribute. This is the signal for general congratulations. M. de la Perriere, delighted with the manner in which the establishment is equipped, congratulates Dr. Jenkins upon his fine creations, Jenkins compliments his friend Pondevez, who, in his turn, thanks the Departmental secretary for having consented to honour Bethlehem with a visit. The good Nabob makes his voice heard in this chorus of eulogy, finds a kind word for each one, but is a little surprised all the same that he has not been congratulated himself, since they were about it. It is true that the best of congratulations awaits him on the 16th March on the front page of the _Official Journal in a decree which flames in advance before his eyes and makes him glance every now and then at his buttonhole.

These pleasant words are exchanged as the party passes along a big corridor in which the voices ring out in all their honest accents; but suddenly a frightful noise interrupts the conversation and the advance of the visitors. It seems to be made up of the mewing of cats in delirium, of bellowings, of the howlings of savages performing a war-dance, an appalling tempest of human cries, reverberated, swelled, and prolonged by the echoing vaults. It rises and falls, ceases suddenly, then goes on again with an extraordinary effect of unanimity.

Monsieur the Director begins to be uneasy, makes an inquiry. Jenkins rolls furious eyes.

"Let us go on," says the director, rather anxious this time. "I know what it is."

He knows what it is; but M. de la Perriere wishes to know also what it is, and, before Pondevez has had the time to unfasten it, he pushes open the massive door whence this horrible concert proceeds.

In a sordid kennel which the great cleansing has passed over, for, in fact, it was not intended to be exhibited, on mattresses ranged on the floor, a dozen little wretches are laid, watched over by an empty chair on which the beginning of a knitted vest lies with an air of dignity, and by a little broken saucepan, full of hot wine, boiling on a smoky wood fire. These are the children with ringworm, with rashes, the disfavoured of Bethlehem, who had been hidden in this retired corner with recommendation to their dry-nurse to rock them, to soothe them, to sit on them, if need were, in order to keep them from crying; but whom this country-woman, stupid and inquisitive, had left alone there in order to see the fine carriage standing in the court-yard. Her back turned, the infants had very quickly grown weary of their horizontal position; and then all these little scrofulous patients raised their lusty concert, for they, by a miracle, are strong, their malady saves and nourishes them. Bewildered and kicking like beetles when they are turned on their backs, helping themselves with their hips and their elbows, some fallen on one side and unable to regain their balance, others raising in the air their little benumbed, swaddled legs, spontaneously they cease their gesticulations and cries as they see the door open; but M. de la Perrier's nodding goatee beard reassures them, encourages them anew, and in the renewed tumult the explanation given by the director is only heard with difficulty: "Children kept separate--Contagion--Skin-diseases." This is quite enough for Monsieur the Departmental Secretary; less heroic than Bonaparte on his visit to the plague-stricken of Jaffa, he hastens towards the door, and in his timid anxiety, wishing to say something and yet not finding words, murmurs with an ineffable smile: "They are char-ar-ming."

Next, the inspection at an end, see them all gathered in the salon on the ground floor, where Mme. Polge has prepared a little luncheon. The cellar of Bethlehem is well stocked. The keen air of the table-land, these climbs up and downstairs have given the old gentleman from the Tuileries an appetite such as he has not known for a long time, so that he chats and laughs as if he were at a picnic, and at the moment of departure, as they are all standing, raises his glass, nodding his head, to drink, "To Be-Be-Bethlehem!" Those present are moved, glasses are touched, then, at a quick trot, the carriage bears the party away down the long avenue of limes, over which a red and cold sun is just setting. Behind them the park resumes its dismal silence. Great dark masses gather in the depths of the copses, surround the house, gain little by little the paths and open spaces. Soon all is lost in gloom save the ironical letters embossed above the entrance-gate, and, away over yonder, at a first-floor window, one red and wavering spot, the light of a candle burning by the pillow of the dead child.

"By a decree dated the 12th March, 1865, issued upon the proposal of the Minister of the Interior, Monsieur the Doctor Jenkins, President and Founder of the Bethlehem Society is named a Chevalier of the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honour. Great devotion to the cause of humanity."

As he read these words on the front page of the _Official Journal_, on the morning of the 16th, the poor Nabob felt dazed.

Was it possible?

Jenkins decorated, and not he!

He read the paragraph twice over, distrusting his own eyes. His ears buzzed. The letters danced double before his eyes with those great red rings round them which they have in strong sunlight. He had been so confident of seeing his name in this place; Jenkins, only the evening before, had repeated to him with so much assurance, "It is already done!" that he still thought his eyes must have deceived him. But no, it was indeed Jenkins. The blow was heavy, deep, prophetic, as it were a first warning from destiny, and one that was felt all the more intensely because for years this man had been unaccustomed to failure. Everything good in him learned mistrust at the same time.

"Well," said he to de Gery as he came as usual every morning into his room, and found him visibly affected, holding the newspaper in his hand, "have you seen? I am not in the _Official_."

He tried to smile, his features puckered like those of a child restraining his tears. Then, suddenly, with that frankness which was such a pleasing quality in him: "It is a great disappointment to me. I was looking forward to it too confidently."

The door opened upon these words, and Jenkins rushed in, out of breath, stammering, extraordinarily agitated.

"It is an infamy, a frightful infamy! The thing cannot be, it shall not be!"

The words stumbled over each other in disorder on his lips, all trying to get out at once; then he seemed to despair of finding expression for his thoughts and in disgust threw on the table a small box and a large envelope, both bearing the stamp of the chancellor's office.

"There are my cross and my brevet. They are yours, friend. I could not keep them."

At bottom the words did not signify much. Jansoulet adorning himself with Jenkins's ribbon might very well have been guilty of illegality. But a piece of theatrical business is not necessarily logical; this one brought about between the two men an effusion of feeling, embraces, a generous battle, at the end of which Jenkins replaced the objects in his pocket, speaking of protests, letters to the newspapers. The Nabob was again obliged to check him.

"Be very careful you do no such thing. To begin with, it would be to injure my chances for another time--who knows, perhaps on the 15th of August, which will soon be here."

"Oh, as to that," said Jenkins, jumping at this idea, and stretching out his arm as in the _Oath of David, "I solemnly swear it."

The matter was dropped at this point. At luncheon the Nabob was as gay as usual. This good humour was maintained all day, and de Gery, for whom the scene had been a revelation of the true Jenkins, the explanation of the ironies and the restrained wrath of Felicia Ruys whenever she spoke of the doctor, asked himself in vain how he could enlighten his dear patron about such hypocrisy. He should have been aware, however, that in southerners, with all their superficiality and effusion, there is no blindness, no enthusiasm, so complete as to remain insensible before the wisdom of reflection. In the evening the Nabob had opened a shabby little letter-case, worn at the corners, in which for ten years he had been accustomed to work out the calculations of his millions, writing down in hieroglyphics understood only by himself his receipts and expenditures. He buried himself in his accounts for a moment, then turning to de Gery:

"Do you know what I am doing, my dear Paul?" he asked.

"No, sir."

"I am just calculating"--and his mocking glance thoroughly characteristic of his race, rallied the good nature of his smile--"I am just calculating that I have spend four hundred and thirty thousand francs to get a decoration for Jenkins."

Four hundred and thirty thousand francs! And that was not the end.

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