By Alphonse Daudet
Translated by Mary Neal Sherwood
From The Fortieth Thousand, French Edition.
Estes And Lauriat, 1877
"With a k, sir; with a k. The name is written and pronounced as in English. The child's godfather was English. A major-general in the Indian army. Lord Pembroke. You know him, perhaps? A man of distinction and of the highest connections. But—you understand—M. l'Abbe! How deliciously he danced! He died a frightful death at Singapore some years since, in a tiger-chase organized in his honor by a rajah, one of his friends. These rajahs, it seems, are absolute monarchs in their own country,—and one especially is very celebrated. What is his name? Wait a moment. Ah! I have it. Rana-Ramah."
"Pardon me, madame," interrupted the abbe, smiling, in spite of himself, at the rapid flow of words, and at the swift change of ideas. "After Jack, what name?"
With his elbow on his desk, and his head slightly bent, the priest examined from out the corners of eyes bright with ecclesiastical shrewdness, the young woman who sat before him, with her Jack standing at her side.
The lady was faultlessly dressed in the fashion of the day and the hour. It was December, 1858. The richness of her furs, the lustrous folds of her black costume, and the discreet originality of her hat, all told the story of a woman who owns her carriage, and who steps from her carpets to her coupe without the vulgar contact of the streets. Her head was small, which always lends height to a woman. Her pretty face had all the bloom of fresh fruit. Smiling and gay, additional vivacity was imparted by large, clear eyes and brilliant teeth, which were to be seen even when her face was in repose. The mobility of her countenance was extraordinary. Either this, or the lips half parted as if about to speak, or the narrow brow,—something there was, at all events, that indicated an absence of reflective powers, a lack of culture, and possibly explained the blanks in the conversation of this pretty woman; blanks that reminded one of those little Japanese baskets fitting one into another, the last of which is always empty.
As to the child, picture to yourself an emaciated boy of seven or eight, who had evidently outgrown his strength. He was dressed as English boys are dressed, and as befitted his name spelled with a k. His legs were bare, and he wore a Scotch cap and a plaid. The costume was in accordance with his years, but not with his long neck and slim figure.
He seemed embarrassed by it himself, for, awkward and timid, he would occasionally glance at his half-frozen legs with a despairing expression, as if he cursed within his soul Lord Pembroke and the whole Indian army.
Physically, he resembled his mother, with a look of higher breeding, and with the transformation of a pretty woman's face to that of an intelligent man. There were the same eyes, but deeper in color and in meaning; the same brow, but wider; the same mouth, but the lips were firmly closed.
Over the woman's face, ideas and impressions glided without leaving a furrow or a trace; in fact, so hastily, that her eyes always seemed to retain a certain astonishment at their flight. With the child, on the contrary, one felt that impressions remained, and his thoughtful air would have been almost painful, had it not been combined with a certain caressing indolence of attitude that indicated a petted child.
Now leaning against his mother, with one hand in her muff, he listened to her words with adoring attention, and occasionally looked at the priest and at all the surroundings with timid curiosity. He had promised not to cry, but a stifled sob shook him at times from head to foot. Then his mother looked at him, and seemed to say, "You know what you promised." Then the child choked back his tears and sobs; but it was easy to see that he was a prey to that first agony of exile and abandonment which the first boarding-school inflicts on those children who have lived only in their homes.
This examination of mother and child, made by the priest in two or three minutes, would have satisfied a superficial observer; but Father O———, who had been the director for twenty-five years of the aristocratic institution of the Jesuits at Vaurigard, was a man of the world, and knew too well the best Parisian society, all its shades of manner and dialect, not to understand that in the mother of his new pupil he beheld a representative of an especial class.
The self-possession with which she entered his office,—self-possession too apparent not to be forced,—her way of seating herself, her uneasy laugh, and above all, the overwhelming flood of words with which she sought to conceal a certain embarrassment, all created in the mind of the priest a vague distrust. Unhappily, in Paris the circles are so mixed, the community of pleasures and similarity of toilets have so narrowed the line of demarcation between fashionable women of good and bad society, that the most experienced may at times be deceived, and this is the reason that the priest regarded this woman with so much attention. The principal difficulty in arriving at a decision arose from the unconnected style of her conversation; but the embarrassed air of the mother when he asked for the other name of the child, settled the question in his mind.
She colored, hesitated. "True," she said; "excuse me; I have not yet presented myself. What could I have been thinking of?" and drawing a small, highly-perfumed case from her pocket, she took from it a card, on which, in long letters, was to be read the insignificant name—
Ida de Barnacy
Over the face of the priest flashed a singular smile.
"Is this the child's name?" he asked.
The question was almost an impertinence. The lady understood him, and concealed her embarrassment under an assumption of great dignity.
"Certainly, sir, certainly."
"Ah!" said the priest, gravely.
It was he now who found it difficult to express what he wished to say. He rolled the card between his fingers with a little movement of the lips natural to a man who measures the weight and effect of the words he is about to speak.
Suddenly he arose from his chair, and approaching one of the large windows that looked on a garden planted with fine trees, and reddened by the wintry sun, tapped lightly on the glass. A black silhouette was drawn on the window, and a young priest appeared immediately within the room.
"Duffieux," said the Superior, "take this child out to walk with you. Show him our church and our hot-houses; he is tired of us, poor little man!"
Jack supposed that he was sent out to walk so that he might be spared the pain of saying good-bye to his mother, and his terrified, despairing expression so touched the kind priest that he hastily added,—
"Don't be frightened, Jack. Your mother is not going away; you will find her here."
The child still hesitated.
"Go, my dear," said Madame de Barancy, with a queenly gesture.
Then he went without another word, as if he were already conquered by life, and prepared for all its evils.
When the door closed behind him, there was a moment of silence. The steps of the child and his companion were heard on the frozen gravel, and dying away, left no sound save the crackling of the fire, the chirps of the sparrows on the eaves, the distant pianos, and an indistinct murmur of voices—the hum of a great boarding-school.
"This child seems to love you, madame," said the Superior, touched by Jack's submission.
"Why should he not love me?" answered Madame de Barancy, somewhat melodramatically; "the poor dear has but his mother in the world."
"Ah! you are a widow?"
"Alas! yes, sir. My husband died ten years ago, the very year of our marriage, and under the most painful circumstances. Ah! Monsieur l'Abbe, romance-writers, who are at a loss to invent adventures for their heroines, do not know that many an apparently quiet life contains enough for ten novels. My own story is the best proof of that. The Comte de Barancy belonged, as his name will tell you, to one of the oldest families in Touraine."
She made a fatal mistake here, for Father O——— was born at Amboise, and knew the nobility of the entire province. So he at once consigned the Comte de Barancy to the society of Major-General Pembroke and the Rajah of Singapore. He did not let this appear, however, and contented himself with replying gently to the soi-disant comtesse,—
"Do you not think with me, madame, that there would be some cruelty in sending away a child that seems so warmly attached to you? He is still very young; and do you think his physical health good enough to support the grief of such a separation?"
"But you are mistaken, sir," she answered, promptly. "Jack is a very robust child; he has never been ill. He is a little pale, perhaps, but that is owing to the air of Paris, to which he has never been accustomed."
Annoyed to find that she was not disposed to comprehend him, the priest continued,—
"Besides, just now our dormitories are full; the scholastic year is very far advanced; we have even been obliged to decline receiving new pupils until the next term. You would be compelled to wait until then, madame; and even then—"
She understood him at last.
"So," she said, turning pale, "you refuse to receive my son. Do you refuse also to tell me why?"
"Madame," answered the priest, "I would have given much if this explanation could have been avoided. But since you force it upon me, I must inform you that this institution, whose head I am, exacts from the families who confide their children to us the most unexceptionable conduct and the strictest morality. In Paris there are many laical institutions where your little Jack will receive every care, but with us it would be impossible. I beg of you," he added, with a gesture of indignant protestation, "do not make me explain further. I have no right to question you, no right to reproach you. I regret the pain I am now giving, and believe me when I say that my words are as painful to myself as to you."
While the priest spoke, over the countenance of Madame de Barancy flitted shadows of anger, grief, and confusion. At first she tried to brave it out, throwing her head back disdainfully; but the kind words of the priest falling on her childish soul made her burst suddenly into a passion of sobs and tears.
"She was so unhappy," she cried, "no one could ever know all she had done for that child! Yes, the poor little fellow had no name, no father, but was that any reason why a crime should be made of his misfortune, and that he should be made responsible for the faults of his parents? Ah! M. l'Abbe, I beg of you—"
As she spoke she took the priest's hand. The good father sought to disengage it with some little embarrassment.
"Be calm, dear madame," he cried, terrified by these tears and outcries, for she wept, like the child that she was, with vehement sobs, and with the abandonment in fact of a somewhat coarse nature. The poor man thought, "What could I do with her if this lady should be taken ill?"
But the words he used to calm her only excited her more.
She wished to justify herself, to explain things, to narrate the story of her life, and, willing or not, the Superior found himself compelled to follow her through an obscure recital, whose connecting thread she broke at every step, without looking to see how she should ever get back again to the light.
The name of Barancy was not hers, but if she should tell him her name, he would be astonished. The honor of one of the oldest families in France was concerned, and she would rather die than speak.
The Superior hastened to assure her that he had no intention of questioning her, but she would not listen to him. She was started, and a wind-mill under full sail would have been more easily arrested than her torrent of words, of which probably not one was true, for she contradicted herself perpetually throughout her incoherent discourse, yet withal there was something sincere, something touching even in this love between mother and child. They had always been together. He had been taught at home by masters, and she wished now to separate from him only because of his intelligence and his eyes that saw things that were not intended for his vision.
"The best thing to do, it seems to me," said the priest, gravely, "would be to live such a life that you need fear neither the scrutiny of your child nor of any one else."
"That was my wish, sir," she answered. "As Jack grew older, I wished to make his home all that which it ought to be. Besides, before long, my position will be assured. For some time I have been thinking of marrying, but to do this it was necessary to send my boy away for a time that he might obtain the education worthy of the name he ought to bear. I thought that nowhere could he do as well as here, but at one blow you repulse him and discourage his mother's good resolutions."
Here the Superior arrested her with an exclamation of astonishment. He hesitated a moment; then looking her straight in her eyes, said,—
"So be it, madame. I yield to your wishes. Little Jack pleases me very much; I consent to receive him among our pupils."
"My dear sir!"
"But on two conditions."
"I am ready to accept all."
"The first is, that until the day that your position is assured, the child shall spend his vacations under this roof, and shall not return to yours."
"But he will die, my poor Jack, if he does not see his mother!"
"Oh, you can come here whenever you please; only—and this is my second condition—you will not see him in the parlor, but always here in my private room, where I shall take care that you are not interfered with and that no one sees you."
She rose in indignation.
The idea that she could never enter the parlor, or be present on the reception-days, when she could astonish the other guests with the beauty of her child, with the richness of her toilette, that she could never say to her friends, "I met at the school, yesterday, Madame de C———, or Madame de V———," that she must meet Jack in secret, all this revolted her.
The astute priest had struck well.
"You are cruel with me, sir. You oblige me to refuse the favor for which I have so earnestly entreated, but I must protect my dignity as woman and mother. Your conditions are impossible. And what would my child think—"
She stopped, for outside the glass she saw the fair, curly head of the child, with eyes brightened by the fresh air and by his anxiety. Upon a sign from his mother, he entered quickly.
"Ah, mamma, how good you are! I was afraid you were gone!"
She took his hand hastily.
"You will go with me," she answered; "we are not wanted here."
And she sailed out erect and haughty, leading the boy, who was stupefied by this departure which so strongly resembled a flight. She hardly acknowledged the respectful salute of the good father, who had also risen hastily from his chair; but quickly as she moved, it was not too quick for Jack to hear a gentle voice murmur, "Poor child! poor child!" in a tone of compassion that went to his heart. He was pitied—and why? For a long time he pondered over this.
The Superior was not mistaken. Madame la Comtesse Ida de Barancy was not a comtesse at all. Her name was not Barancy, and possibly not even Ida. Whence came she? Who was she? No one could say. These complicated existences have fortunes so diverse, a past so long and so varied, that one never knows the last shape they assume. One might liken them to those revolving lighthouses that have long intervals of shadow between their gleams of fire. Of one thing only was there any certainty: she was not a Parisian, but came from some provincial town whose accent she still retained. It was said that at the Gymnase, one evening, two Lyons merchants thought they recognized in her a certain Melanie Favrot, who formerly kept an establishment of "gloves and perfumery;" but these merchants were mistaken.
Again, an officer in the Hussars insisted that he had seen her eight years before at Orleans. He also was mistaken. And we all know that resemblances are often impertinences.
Madame de Barancy had however travelled much, and made no concealment of the fact, but an absolute sorcerer would have been needed to evolve any facts from the contradictory accounts she gave of her origin and her life. One day Ida was born in the colonies, spoke of her mother, a charming creole, of her plantation and her negroes. Another time she had passed her childhood in a great chateau on the Loire. She seemed utterly indifferent as to the manner in which her hearers would piece together these dislocated bits of her existence.
As may be imagined, in these fantastic recitals, vanity reigned triumphant, the vanity of a chattering paroquet. Bank and money, titles and riches, were the texts of her discourse. Rich she certainly was. She had a small hotel on the Boulevard Haussmann; she had horses and carriages, gorgeous furniture in most questionable taste, three or four servants, and led a most indolent existence, trifling away her life among women like herself, less confident in her bearing, perhaps, than they, from her provincial birth and breeding. This, and a certain freshness, the result of a childhood passed in the open air, all kept her somewhat out of the current of Parisian life, where, too, being so newly arrived, she had not yet found her place.
Once each week, a man of middle age, and of distinguished appearance, came to see her. In speaking of him, Ida always said "Monsieur" with an air of such respect that one would have supposed him to be at the court of France in the days when the brother of the king was so denominated. The child spoke of him simply as "our friend." The servants announced him as "M. le Comte," but among themselves they called him "the old gentleman."
The old gentleman was very rich, for madame spared nothing, and there was an enormous expenditure going on constantly in the house. This was managed by Mademoiselle Constant, Ida's waiting-maid. It was this woman who gave her mistress the addresses of the tradespeople, who guided her inexperience through the mazes of life in Paris; for Ida's pet dream and hope was to be taken for a woman of irreproachable character, and of the highest fashion.
Thus it will be seen into what state of mind the reception of Father O——— had thrown her, and in what a rage she left his presence. An elegant coupe awaited her at the door of the Institution. She threw herself into it with her child, retaining only sufficient self-command to say "home," in so loud a voice that she was heard by a group of priests who were talking together, and who quickly dispersed before this whirlwind of furs and curled hair. In fact, as soon as the carriage-door was closed, the unhappy woman sank into a corner, not in her usual coquettish position, but overwhelmed and in tears, stifling her sobs in the quilted cushions.
What a blow! The priest had refused to take her child, and at the first glance had discovered the humiliating truth that she believed to have thoroughly disguised under the luxurious surroundings of a woman of the world and of an irreproachable mother.
Her wounded pride recalled with renewed flushes of shame the keen eyes of the good father. She recalled all her falsehood, all her folly, and remembered his incredulous smile at almost her first words.
Silent and motionless in the other corner of the carriage sat Jack, looking sadly at his mother, unable to comprehend her despair. He vaguely conceived himself to be in fault, the dear little fellow, and yet was secretly glad that he had not been left at the school.
For a fortnight he had heard of it night and day; his mother had extorted a promise from him not to weep; his trunk was packed, and all was ready, and the child's heart was full of trouble; and now at the last moment he was reprieved.
If his mother had not been in so much trouble now, he would have thanked her; how happy would he have been curled up at her side, under her furs, in the little coupe in which they had had so many happy hours together—hours which were now to be repeated. And Jack thought of the afternoons in the Bois, of the long drives through the gay city of Paris—a city so new to both of them, and full of excitement and interest. A monument, perhaps, or even a mere street incident, delighted them.
They were two children together, and together they peered from the window,—the child's head with its golden curls close to the mother's face tightly veiled in black lace.
A despairing cry from Madame de Barancy aroused the boy from all these sweet recollections. "Mon dieu!" she cried, wringing her hands, "what have I done to be so wretched?"
This exclamation naturally elicited no response, and little Jack, not knowing what to say, or how to console her, timidly caressed her hand, even at last kissing it with the fervor of a lover.
She started and looked wildly at him.
"Ah! cruel, cruel child, what harm you have done me in this world!"
Jack turned pale. "I? What have I done?"
He loved but one person on the face of the earth, his mother. He thought her absolutely perfect; and without knowing it, he had injured her in some mysterious way. The poor child was now overwhelmed with despair also, but remained utterly silent, as if the noisy demonstrations of his mother had shocked him, and made him ashamed of any manifestations on his own part. He was seized with a sort of nervous spasm. His mother took him in her arms. "No, no, dear child, I was only in jest; be sensible, dear. What! must I rock my long-legged boy as if he were a baby? No, little Jack, you never did me any harm. It is I who did wrong. Come, do not weep any more. See, I am not crying."
And the strange creature, forgetful of her recent grief, laughed gayly, that Jack too might laugh. It was one of the privileges of this inconsequent nature never to retain impressions for any length of time. Singularly enough, too, the tears she had just shed only seemed to add new freshness and brilliancy to her youthful beauty, as a sudden shower upon a dove's plumage seems to bring out new lustre without penetrating below the surface.
"Where are we now?" said she, suddenly dropping the window that was covered with mist. "At the Madeleine. How quickly we have come! We must stop somewhere; at the pastry-cook's, I think. Dry your eyes, little one, we will buy some meringues."
They alighted at the fashionable confectioner's, where there was a great crowd. Rich furs and rustling silks crushed each other; and women's faces with veils half lifted were reflected in the surrounding mirrors which were set in gilt frames and cream-colored panels; glittering glass, and a variety of cakes and dainties delighted the spectators. Madame de Barancy and her child were much looked at. This charmed her, and this small success following upon the mortification of the previous hour, gave her an appetite. She called for a quantity of meringues and nougat, and finished by a glass of wine. Jack followed her example, but with more moderation, his great grief having filled his eyes with unshed tears and his heart with suppressed sighs.
When they left the shop the weather was so fine, although cold, and the flower-market of the Madeleine so fragrant with the sweet perfume of violets, that Ida determined to dismiss the carriage and return on foot. Briskly, and yet with a certain slowness of step, that indicated a woman accustomed to admiration, she started on her walk, leading Jack by the hand. The fresh air, the gay streets and attractive shops, quite restored Ida's good-humor. Then suddenly, by what connection of ideas I know not, she remembered a masqued ball to which she was going that night, preceded by a restaurant dinner.
"Mercy! I had forgotten. Hurry! little Jack—quick!" She wanted flowers, a bouquet, a dozen forgotten trifles: and the child, whose life had always been made up of just such trifles, and who felt as much as his mother the subtile charm of these elegances, followed her in high glee, delighted by the idea of the fete that he was not to see. The toilette of his mother always interested him, and he fully appreciated the admiration her beauty excited as they went through the streets and into the various shops.
"Exquisite! exquisite! Yes, you may send it to me—Boulevard Haussmann."
Madame de Barancy tossed down her card, and went out, talking gayly to Jack of the beauty of her purchases. Suddenly she assumed a graver air. "Remember, Jack, what I say. Do not tell our good friend that I went to this ball; it is a great secret, It is five o'clock. How Constant will scold!"
She was not mistaken.
Her maid, a tall, stout person of forty years, ugly and masculine, rushed toward Ida as she entered the house.
"The costume is here. There is no sense in being so late. Madame will not be ready in season. No one could make her toilette in such a little while."
"Don't scold, Constant. If you only knew what had happened. Look!" and she pointed to Jack.
The factotum seemed utterly out of patience. "What! Master Jack back again! That is very naughty, sir, after all you promised. The police will have to come and take you to school; your mother is too good."
"No, no, it was not he. The priest would not have him. Do you understand? They insulted me!" Whereupon she began to cry again, and to ask of heaven why she was so unhappy. What with the meringues and the nougat, the wine and the heat of the room, she soon felt very ill. She was carried to her bed; salts and ether were hastily sought. Mademoiselle Constant acquitted herself with the propriety of a woman who is no stranger to such scenes, went in and out of the room, opened and shut wardrobes, with a certain self-possession that seemed to say, "This will soon pass off." But she did not perform her duties in silence.
"What folly it was to take this child to the Fathers! As if it was a place for him in his position! It would not have been done certainly, had I been consulted. I would engage to find a place for this boy at very short notice."
Jack, terrified at seeing his mother so ill, had seated himself on the edge of the bed; where, looking at her anxiously, he in silence asked her pardon for the sorrow he had caused her.
"There! get away, Master Jack. Your mother is all right. I must help her dress now."
"What! You do not mean, Constant, that I must go to this ball. I have no heart to amuse myself."
"Pshaw! I know you, madame. You have but five minutes. Just look at this pretty costume, these rose-colored stockings, and your little cap."
She shook out the skirts, displayed the trimming, and jingled the little bells which adorned it, and Ida ceased to resist.
While his mother was dressing, Jack went into the boudoir, and remained alone in the dark. The little room, perfumed and coquettish, was, it is true, partially illuminated by the gas lamps on the boulevard. Sadly enough the child leaned against the windows and thought of the day that was just over. By degrees, without knowing how, he felt himself to be "the poor child" of whom the priest had spoken in such compassionate tones.
It is so singular to hear one's self pitied when one believes one's self to be happy. There are sorrows, in fact, so well concealed, that those who have caused them, and even sometimes their victims, do not divine them.
The door opened—his mother was ready.
"Come in, Master Jack, and see if this is not lovely."
Ah! what a charming Folly! Silver and pink, lustrous satin and delicate lace. What a lovely rustling of spangles when she moved!
The child looked on in admiration, while the mother, light and airy, waving her Momus staff, smiled at Jack, and smiled at herself in the Psyche, without at that time asking heaven why she was so unhappy. Then Constant threw over her shoulders a warm cloak, and accompanied her to the carriage, while Jack, leaning over the railing, watched from stair to stair, moving almost as if she were dancing the little pink slippers embroidered with silver, that bore his mother to balls where children could not go. As the last sound of the silver bells died away, he turned towards the salon, disturbed and anxious for the first time by the solitude in which he ordinarily passed his evenings.
When Madame de Barancy dined out, Master Jack was confided to the tender mercies of Constant. "She will dine with you," said Ida.
Two places were laid in the dining-room that seemed so huge on such days. But very often Constant, finding her dinner anything but cheerful, took the child and joined her companions below, where they feasted gayly. The table-cloth was soiled, and the conversation was not of the purest; and very often the conduct of the mistress of the house was commented upon, in words to be sure that were slightly veiled, so as not to frighten the child. This evening there was a grand discussion as to the refusal of the Fathers to receive the boy. The coachman declared that it was all for the best,—that the priests would have made of the child "a hypocrite and a Jesuit."
Constant protested against these words. She was not a professor of religion, she said, but she would not hear it spoken ill of. Then the discussion changed to the great disappointment of Jack, who listened with all his little ears, hoping to hear why this priest, who appeared so good, was not willing to receive him.
But for the moment Jack was of little consequence; each was absorbed in narrating his or her religious convictions.
The coachman, who had been drinking, said that his God was the sun; in fact, he, like the elephants, adored the sun! Suddenly some one asked how he knew that elephants adored the sun.
"I saw it once in a photograph," said he, sternly. Upon which Mademoiselle Constant vehemently accused him of impiety and atheism; while the cook, a stout Picardian with true peasant shrewdness, told them to be quiet.
"Hush!" she said; "you should never quarrel over your religions."
And Jack—what was he doing all this time?
At the end of the table, stupefied by the heat and the interminable discussions of these brutes, he slept, with his head on his arms, and his fair curls spread over his velvet sleeves. In his unrestful slumber he heard the hum of the servants' voices, and at last he fancied that they were talking of him; but the voices seemed to reach from afar off—through a fog, as it were.
"Who is he, then?" asked the cook.
"I don't know," answered Constant; "but one thing is certain, he can't remain here, and she wishes me to find a school for him."
Between a yawn and a hiccough, the coachman spoke,—
"I know a capital school, and one that will, just answer your purpose. It is called the Moronval College—no, not college—but the Moronval Academy. But what of that? it is a college all the same. I put my child there once, when I was ordered off with the Egyptian army. The grocer gave me the prospectus, and I think I have it still."
He looked in his portfolio, and from among the tumbled and soiled papers he extracted one, dirtier even than the others.
"Here it is!" he cried, with an air of triumph.
He unfolded the prospectus and began to read, or rather to spell with difficulty:
"Gymnase Moronval—in the—in the—"
"Give it to me," said Mademoiselle Constant; and taking it from him, she read it at one glance.
"Moronval Academy—situated in the finest quarter of Paris—a family school—large garden—the number of pupils limited—course of instruction—particular attention paid to the correction of the accent of foreigners—"
Mademoiselle Constant interrupted herself here to breathe, and to exclaim, "This seems all right enough!"
"I think so," said the cook.
The reading of the prospectus was resumed, but Jack was soundly asleep, and heard no more.
He was dreaming. Yes, while his future was thus under discussion around this kitchen-table, while his mother was dancing as Folly in her rose-colored skirts and silver bells, he was dreaming of the kind priest, and of the tender voice that had murmured—"Poor child!"
CHAPTER II.~~THE SCHOOL IN THE AVENUE MONTAIGNE.
"23 Avenue Montaigne, in the best quarter of Paris," said the prospectus. And no one can deny that the Avenue Montaigne is well situated in the Champs Elysees, but it has an incongruous unfinished aspect, as of a road merely sketched and not completed.
By the side of the fine hotels with their plate-glass windows hung with silken draperies, stand the houses of workmen, whence issue the noise of hammers and grating of saws. One part of the Faubourg seems also to be relinquished to gardens after the style of Mabille.
At the time of which I speak, and possibly now? from the avenue ran two or three narrow lanes whose sordid aspect offered a strange contrast to the superb buildings near them. One of these lanes opened at the number 23, and announced on a gilded sign swinging in the passage, that the Moronval Academy was there situated. This sign, however, once passed, it seemed to you that you were taken back forty years, and to the other end of Paris. The black mud, the stream in the centre of the lane, the reverberations from the high walls, the drinking-shops built from old planks, all seemed to belong to the past. From every nook and cranny, from stairs and balconies, whence fluttered linen hung to dry, streamed forth a crowd of children escorted by an army of lean and hungry cats. It was amazing to see that so small a spot could accommodate such a number of persons. English grooms in shabby liveries, worn-out jockeys, and dilapidated body-servants, seemed there to congregate. To these must be added the horde of workpeople who returned at sunset; those who let chairs, or tiny carriages drawn by goats; dog-fanciers, beggars of all sorts, dwarfs from the hippodrome and their microscopic ponies. Picture all these to yourself, and you will have some idea of this singular spot—so near to the Champs Elysees that the tops of the green trees were to be seen, and the roar of carriages was but faintly subdued.
It was in this place that the Moronval Academy was situated. Two or three times during the day a tall, thin mulatto made his appearance in the street. He wore on his head a broad-brimmed Quaker hat placed so far back that it resembled a halo; long hair swept over his shoulders, and he crossed the street with a timid, terrified air, followed by a troop of boys of every shade of complexion varying from a coffee tint to bright copper, and thence to profound black. These lads wore the coarse uniform of the school, and had an unfed and uncared-for aspect.
The principal of the Moronval Academy himself took his pupils—his children of the sun, as he called them—out for their daily walks; and the comings and goings of this singular party gave the finishing touch of oddity to the appearance of the Passage des Douze Maisons.
Most assuredly, had Madame de Barancy herself brought her child to the Academy, the sight of the place would have terrified her, and she would never have consented to leave her darling there. But her visit to the Jesuits had been so unfortunate, her reception so different from that which she had anticipated, that the poor creature, timid at heart and easily disconcerted, feared some new humiliation, and delegated to Madame Constant, her maid, the task of placing Jack at the school chosen for him by her servants.
It was one cold, gray morning that Ida's carriage drew up in front of the gilt sign of the Moronval Academy. The lane was deserted, but the walls and the signs all had a damp and greenish look, as if a recent inundation had there left its traces. Constant stepped forward bravely, leading the child by one hand, and carrying an umbrella in the other. At the twelfth house she halted. It was at the end of the lane just where it closes, save for a narrow passage into La Rue Marbouf, between two high walls on which grated the dry branches of old shrubbery and ancient trees. A certain cleanliness indicated the vicinity of the aristocratic institution; and the oyster-shells, old sardine-boxes, and empty bottles were carefully swept away from the green door, that was as solid and distrustful in aspect as if it led to a prison or a convent.
The profound silence that reigned was suddenly broken by a vigorous assault of the bell by Madame Constant. Jack felt chilled to the heart by the sound of this bell, and the sparrows on the one tree in the garden fluttered away in sudden fright.
No one opened the door, but a panel was pushed away, and behind the heavy grating appeared a black face, with protuberant lips and astonished eyes.
"Is this the Moronval Academy?" said Madame de Barancy's imposing maid.
The woolly head now gave place to one of a different type,—a Tartar, possibly,—with eyes like slits, high cheekbones, and narrow, pointed head. Then a Creole, with a pale yellow skin, was also inspired by curiosity and peered out. But the door still remained closed, and Madame Constant was losing her temper, when a sharp voice cried from a distance,—
"Well do you never mean to open that door, idiots?"
Then they all began to whisper; keys were turned, bolts were pushed back, oaths were muttered, kicks were administered, and after many ineffectual struggles the door was finally opened; but Jack saw only the retreating forms of the schoolboys, who ran off in as much fright as did the sparrows just before.
In the doorway stood a tall, colored man, whose large white cravat made his face look still more black. M. Moronval begged Madame Constant to walk in, offered her his arm, and conducted her through a garden, large enough, but dismal with the dried leaves and debris of winter storms.
Several scattered buildings occupied the place of former flower-beds. The academy, it seemed, consisted of several old buildings altered by Moronval to suit his own needs.
In one of the alleys they met a small negro with a broom and a pail. He respectfully stood aside as they passed, and when M. Moronval said, in a low voice, "A fire in the drawing-room," the boy looked as much startled as if he had been told that the drawing-room itself was burning.
The order was by no means an unnecessary one. Nothing could have been colder than this great room, whose waxed floor looked like a frozen, slippery lake. The furniture itself had the same polar aspect, enveloped in coverings not made for it. But Madame Constant cared little for the naked walls and the discomforts of the apartment; she was occupied with the impression she was making, and the part she was playing, that of a lady of importance. She was quite condescending, and felt sure that children must be well off in this place, the rooms were so spacious,—just as well, in fact, as if in the country.
"Precisely," said Moronval, hesitatingly.
The black boy kindled the fire, and M. Moronval looked for a chair for his distinguished visitor. Then Madame Moronval, who had been summoned, made her appearance. She was a small woman, very small, with a long, pale face all forehead and chin. She carried herself with great erectness, as if reluctant to lose an inch of her height, and perhaps to disguise a trifling deformity of the shoulders; but she had a kind and womanly expression, and drawing the child towards her, admired his long curls and his eyes.
"Yes, his eyes are like his mother's," said Moronval, coolly, examining Madame Constant as he spoke.
She made no attempt to disclaim the honor; but Jack cried out in indignation, "She is not my mamma! She is my nurse!"
Upon which Madame Moronval repented of her urbanity, and became more reserved. Fortunately her husband saw matters in a different light, and concluded that a servant trusted to the extent of placing her master's children at school, must be a person of some importance in the house.
Madame Constant soon convinced him of the correctness of this conclusion. She spoke loudly and decidedly—stated that the choice of a school had been left entirely to her own discretion, and each time that she pronounced the name of her mistress, it was with a patronizing air that drove poor Jack to the verge of despair.
The terms of the school were spoken of: three thousand francs per annum was named as the amount asked; and then Moronval launched forth on the superior advantages of his institution; it combined everything needed for the development of both soul and body. The pupils accompanied their masters to the theatre and into the world. Instead of making of the boys intrusted to his charge mere machines of Greek and Latin, he sought to develop in them every good quality, to prepare them for their duties in every position in life, and to surround them with those family influences of which they had too many of them been totally deprived. But their mental instruction was by no means neglected; quite the contrary. The most eminent men, savans and artists, did not shrink from the philanthropic duty of instructing the young in this remarkable institution, and were employed as professors of sciences, history, music, and literature. The French language was made a matter of especial importance, and the pronunciation was taught by a new and infallible method of which Madame Moronval was the author. Besides all this, every week there was a public lecture, to which friends and relatives of the pupils were invited, and where they could thoroughly convince themselves of the excellence of the system pursued at the Moronval Academy.
This long tirade of the principal, who needed, possibly, more than any one else the advantages of lessons in pronunciation from his wife, was achieved more quickly for the reason that, in Creole fashion, he swallowed half his words, and left out many of his consonants.
It mattered not, however, for Madame Constant was positively dazzled.
The question of terms, of course, was nothing to her, she said; but it was necessary that the child should receive an aristocratic and finished education.
"Unquestionably," said Madame Moronval, growing still more erect.
Here her husband added that he only received into his establishment strangers of great distinction, scions of great families, nobles, princes, and the like. At that very time he had under his roof a child of royal birth,—a son of the king of Dahomey. At this the enthusiasm of Madame Constant burst all boundaries.
"A king's son! You hear, Master Jack—you will be educated with the son of a king!"
"Yes," resumed the instructor, gravely; "I have been intrusted by his Dahomian Majesty with the education of his royal Highness, and I believe that I shall be able to make of him a most remarkable man."
What was the matter with the black boy, who was still at work at the fire, that he shook so convulsively, and made such a hideous noise with the shovel and tongs?
M. Moronval continued. "I hope, and Madame Moronval hopes, that the young king, when on the throne of his ancestors, will remember the good advice and the noble examples afforded him by his teachers in Paris, the happy years spent with them, their indefatigable cares and assiduous efforts on his behalf."
Here Jack was surprised to see the black boy kneeling before the chimney, turn toward him, and shake his woolly head violently, while his mouth opened wide in silent but furious denial.
Did he wish to say that his royal Highness would never remember the good lessons received at the academy, or did he mean that he would never forget them? But what could this poor black boy know about it?
Madame Constant announced, in pompous terms, that she was willing to pay a quarter in advance. Moronval waved his hand condescendingly, as if to say, "There is no need of that."
But the old house told a far different tale,—the shabby furniture, the dismantled walls, the worn carpets, as well as the threadbare coat of Moronval himself, and the shiny scant robe of the little woman with the long chin.
But that which proved the fact more than anything else was the eagerness with which the pair went to find in another room the superb register in which they inscribed the ages of the pupils, their names, and the date of their entrance into the academy.
While these important facts were being written, the black boy remained crouched in front of the fire, which seemed quite useless while he absorbed all its heat. The chimney, which at first had refused to consume the least bit of wood, as stomachs after too long fasting reject food, had now revived, and a beautiful red flame was to be seen. The negro, with his head on his hands, his eyes fixed as in a trance, looked like a little black silhouette against a scarlet background. His mouth opened in intense delight, and his eyes were perfectly round. He seemed to be drinking in the heat and the light with the greatest avidity, while outside the snow had begun to fall silently and slowly.
Jack was very sad, for he fancied that Moronval had a wicked look, notwithstanding his honeyed words. And, then, in this strange house the poor child felt himself utterly lost and desolate, discarded by his mother, and rendered still more miserable by the vague idea that these colored pupils, from every corner of the globe, had brought with them an atmosphere of unhappiness and of restlessness. He remembered, too, the Jesuits' college, so fresh and sweet; the fine trees, the green-houses, the whole appearance of refinement, and the kind hand of the Superior laid for a moment upon his head.
Ah! why had he not remained there? And as this occurred to him, he said to himself, that perhaps they would not have him here either. He looked toward the table. There by the big register the husband and wife were busy whispering with Madame Constant. They looked at him, and he caught a word now and then. The little woman sighed, and twice Jack heard her say, as did the priest,—"Poor child!"
She also pitied him. And why? What was he, then, that they pitied him? Jack asked himself.
This compassion that others felt for him weighed sorely on his little heart. He could have wept with shame, for in his childish mind he attributed this disdainful compassion to some peculiarity of costume, his bare legs, or his long curls.
But he thought of his mother's despair. Should he meet with another refusal? Suddenly he saw Constant draw her purse and hand to the principal some notes and gold pieces. Yes, they were going to keep him. He was delighted, poor child, for he little knew that the great misfortune of his life was now inaugurated there in that room.
At this moment a tremendous bass voice came up from the garden below, singing the chorus of an old song. The windows of the room had not recovered from the shock, when a stout, short man, in a velvet coat, close-cut hair, and heavy beard, burst into the room.
"Hallo!" he cried, in a tone of comic astonishment, "a fire in the parlor? What a luxury!" and he drew a long breath. In fact, the new-comer was in the habit of drawing long breaths at the end of each sentence, a habit he had acquired in singing; and these breaths were almost like the roaring of a wild beast. Catching sight of the strangers and the pile of money, he stopped short with the words on his lips. Delight and surprise succeeded each other on his countenance, whose muscles seemed habituated to all facial contortions.
Moronval turned gravely toward the waiting woman. "M. Labassandre, of the Imperial Academy of Music, our Professor of Music." Labassandre bowed once, twice, three times, and then, by way of restoring his self-possession, and putting matters at once on a pleasant footing for all parties, administered a kick to the black boy, who did not seem at all astonished, but picked himself up and disappeared from the room.
The door again opened, and two persons entered. One was very ugly—a mean face without a beard, huge spectacles with convex glasses, and wearing an overcoat buttoned to the chin, which bore all up and down the front too visible indications of-the awkwardness of a near-sighted man. This was Dr. Hirsch, Professor of Mathematics and of Natural Sciences. He exhaled a strong odor of alkalies, and, thanks to his chemical manipulations, his fingers were every color of the rainbow. The last comer was very different. Imagine a handsome man, dressed with the greatest care, scrupulously gloved and shod, his hair thrown back from a forehead already unnaturally high. He had a haughty, aggressive air; his heavy blonde moustache, much twisted at the ends, and a large, pale face, gave him the look of a sick soldier.
Moronval presented him as "our great poet, Amaury d'Argenton, Professor of Literature."
He, too, looked as astonished, when he caught sight of the gold pieces, as did Dr. Hirsch and the singer Labassandre. His cold eyes had a gleam of light, but it disappeared as he glanced from the child to his nurse.
Then he approached the other professors standing in front of the fire, and, saluting them, listened in silence. Madame Constant thought this Argenton looked proud; but upon Jack the man made a very strong impression, and the child shrank from him with terror and repugnance.
Jack felt that all these men might make him wretched, but this one more than all others. Instinctively, on seeing him enter, the child felt him to be his future enemy, and that cold, hard glance meeting his own, froze him to the core of his heart. How many times, in days to come, was he to encounter those pale, blue eyes, with half-shut, heavy lids, whose glances were cold as steel! The eyes have been called the windows of the soul, but D'Argenton's eyes were windows so closely barred and locked, that one had no reason to suppose that there was a soul behind them.
The conversation finished between Moronval and Constant, the principal approached his new pupil, and giving him a little friendly tap on the cheek, he said, "Come, come, my young friend, you must look brighter than this."
And in fact, Jack, as the moment drew near that he must say farewell to his mother's maid, felt his eyes swimming in tears. Not that he had any great affection for this woman, but she was a part of his home, she saw his mother daily, and the separation was final when she was gone.
"Constant," he whispered, catching her dress, "you will tell mamma to come and see me."
"Certainly. She will come, of course. But don't cry."
The child was sorely tempted to burst into tears; but it seemed to him that all these strange eyes were fixed upon him, and that the Professor of Literature examined him with especial severity: and he controlled himself.
The snow fell heavily. Moronval proposed to send for a carriage, but the maid said that Augustin and the coupe were waiting at the end of the lane.
"A coupe!" said the principal to himself, in astonished admiration.
"Speaking of Augustin," said she: "he charged me with a commission. Have you a pupil named Said?"
"To be sure—certainly—a delightful person," said Moronval.
"And a superb voice. You must hear him," interrupted Labassandre, opening the door and calling Said in a voice of thunder.
A frightful howl was heard in reply, followed by the appearance of the delightful person.
An awkward schoolboy appeared, whose tunic, like all tunics, and, indeed, like all the clothing of boys of a certain age, was too short and too tight for him; drawn in, in the fashion of a caftan, it told the story at once of an Egyptian in European clothing. His features were regular and delicate enough, but the yellow skin was stretched so tightly over the bones and muscles that the eyes seemed to close of themselves whenever the mouth opened, and vice versa.
This miserable young man, whose skin was so scanty, inspired you with a strong desire to relieve his sufferings by cutting a slit somewhere. He at once remembered Augustin, who had been his parents' coachman, and who had given him all his cigar-stumps.
"What shall I say to him from you?" asked Constant, in her most amiable tone.
"Nothing," answered Said, promptly.
"And your parents, how are they? Have you had any news from them lately?"
"Have they returned to Egypt, as they thought of doing?"
"Don't know: they never write."
It was evident that this pupil of the Moronval Academy had not been educated in the art of conversation, and Jack listened with many misgivings.
The indifferent fashion with which this youth spoke of his parents, added to what M. Moronval had previously said of the family influences of which most of his pupils had been deprived since infancy, impressed him unfavorably.
It seemed to the child that he was to live among orphans or cast-off children, and would be himself as much cast off as if he had come from Timbuctoo or Otaheite.
Again he caught the dress of his mother's servant. "Tell her to come and see me," he whispered; "O, tell her to come."
And when the door closed behind her, he understood that one chapter in his life was finished; that his existence as a spoiled child, as a petted baby, had vanished into the past, and those dear and happy days would never again return.
While he stood silently weeping, with his face pressed against a window that led into the garden, a hand was extended over his shoulder containing something black.
It was Said, who, as a consolation, offered him the stump of a cigar.
"Take this: I have a trunk full," said the interesting young man, shutting his eyes so as to be able to speak.
Jack, smiling through his tears, made a sign that he did not dare to accept this singular gift; and Said, whose eloquence was very limited, stood silently planted by his side until M. Moronval returned.
He had escorted Madame Constant to her carriage, and came back inspired with respectful indulgence for the grief of his new pupil.
The coachman, Augustin, had such fine furs, the coupe was so well appointed, that the little fellow, Jack, profited by the magnificence of the equipage.
"That is well," he said, benevolently, to the Egyptian. "Play together; but go to the other room, where it is warmer than here, I shall permit the boys to have a holiday in honor of the new pupil."
Poor little fellow! He was soon surrounded by a noisy crowd, who questioned him without mercy. With his blonde curls, his plaid suit, and bare legs, he sat motionless and timid, wondering at the frantic gestipulations of these little boys of foreign birth, and among them all, looked much like an elegant little Parisian shut up in the great monkey cage in the Jardin des Plantes.
This was the idea that occurred to Moronval, but he was aroused from his silent hilarity by the noise of a discussion too animated to be altogether amiable. He heard the puffs and sighs of Labassandre and the solemn little voice of madame. Easily divining the bone of contention, he hastened to the assistance of his wife, whom he found heroically defending the money paid by Madame Constant against the demands of the professors, whose salaries were greatly in arrear.
Evariste Moronval, lawyer, politician, and litterateur, had been sent from Pointe-a-Petre in 1848 as secretary to a deputy from Guadaloupe. At that time he was just twenty-five, energetic and ambitious, with considerable ability and cultivation. Being poor, however, he accepted a dependent position which insured his expenses paid to Paris, that marvellous city, the heat of whose lurid flames extends so far over the world that it attracts even the moths from the colonies.
On landing, he left his deputy in the lurch, easily made a few acquaintances, and attempted a political career, in which path he had obtained a certain success in Guadaloupe; but he had not taken into account his horrible colonial accent, of which, notwithstanding every effort, he was never able to rid himself. The first time he spoke in public, the shouts of laughter that greeted him proved conclusively that he could never make a name, for himself in Paris as a public speaker. He then resolved to write, but he was clever enough to understand that it was far easier to win a reputation at Pointe-a-Petre than in Paris. Haughty and tenacious, and spoiled by small successes, he passed from journal to journal, without being retained for any length of time on the staff of any one. Then began those hard experiences of life which either crush a man to the earth or harden him to iron. He joined the army of the ten thousand men who live by their wits in Paris, who rise each morning dizzy with hunger and ambitious dreams, make their breakfast from off a penny-roll, black the seams of their coats with ink, whiten their shirt-collars with billiard-chalk, and warm themselves in the churches and libraries.
He became familiar with all these degradations and miseries,—to credit refused at the low eating-house, to the non-admittance to his garret at eleven o'clock at night, and to the scanty bit of candle, and to shoes in holes.
He was one of those professors of—it matters not what, who write articles for the encyclopaedias at a half centime a line, a history of the Middle Ages in two volumes, at twenty-five francs per volume, compile catalogues, and copy plays for the theatres.
He was dismissed from one institution, where he taught English, for having struck one of the pupils in his passionate, Creole fashion.
After three years of this miserable existence, when he had eaten an incalculable number of raw artichokes and radishes, when he had lost his illusions and ruined his stomach, chance sent him to give lessons in a young ladies' school kept by three sisters. The two eldest were over forty; the third was thirty,—small, sentimental, and pretentious. She saw little prospect of marriage, when Moronval offered himself and was accepted.
Once married, they lived some time in the house with the elder sisters; both made themselves useful in giving lessons. But Moronval had retained many of his bachelor habits, which were far from agreeable in that peaceful and well-ordered boarding-school. Besides, the Creole treated his pupils too much as he might have done his slaves at work on the sugar-cane plantation.
The elder sisters, who adored Madame Moronval, were nevertheless obliged to separate from her, and paid her as an indemnification a satisfactory sum. What should be done with this money? Moronval wished to start a journal, or a review; but to make money was his first wish. Finally, a brilliant idea came to him one day.
He knew that children were sent from all parts of the world to finish their education in Paris. They came from Persia, from Japan, Hindostan, and Guinea, confided to the care of ship-captains, or to merchants. Such people being generally well provided with money, and having but little experience in getting rid of it, Moronval decided that there was an easy mine to work. Besides, the wonderful system of Madame Moronval could be applied in perfection to the correction of foreign accents, to defective pronunciation. The Professor immediately caused advertisements to be inserted in the colonial journals, where were soon to be seen the most amazing advertisements in several languages.
During the first year, the nephew of the Iman of Zanzibar, and two superb blacks from the coast of Guinea, appeared upon the scene. It was not until they arrived that Moronval bestirred himself to find a local habitation and a name. Finally, in order to combine economy with the exigencies of his new position, he hired the buildings we have just visited in this hideous Passage des Douze Maisons, and displayed in the avenue the gorgeous sign we have mentioned.
The owner of the property induced Moronval to believe that certain improvements would soon be made, in fact, that an appropriation was ordered for a new boulevard on one side of the building. This conviction induced Moronval to forget all the inconveniences, the dampness of the dormitory, the cold of certain rooms, the heat of others. This was nothing: the appropriation bill was ready for the signature, and things would be all right soon.
But Moronval was forced to endure that long period of waiting, only too well known to Parisians in the last twenty years; and this wore heavily upon him, costing him more thought and more anxiety than did the improvement or welfare of his pupils. He soon discovered that he had been hugely duped, and this discovery had the worst effect on the passionate, weak nature of the Creole. His discouragement degenerated into absolute incapacity and indolence. The pupils had no supervision whatever. Provided they went to bed early, so that they used the least possible fire and light, he was satisfied. Their day was cut up into class hours, to be sure, but these were interfered with by every caprice of the principal, who sent the pupils hither and thither on his personal service.
And Moronval called about him all his former acquaintances,—a physician without a diploma, a poet who never published, an opera singer without an engagement,—all of whom were in a state of constant indignation against the world which refused to recognize their rare merits.
Have you noticed how such people by a system of mutual attraction seem to herd together, supporting each other as it were by their mutual complaints? Inspired, in fact, by a thorough contempt for each other, they pretend to an admiring sympathy.
Imagine the lessons given, the instruction imparted by such teachers, the greater part of whose time was passed in discussions over their pipes, the smoke from which soon became so thick that they could neither see nor hear. They talked loudly, contradicted each other with vehemence in a vocabulary of their own, where art, science, and literature were picked into fragments as precious stuffs might be under the application of violent acids.
And the "children of the sun," what became of them amid all this? Madame Moronval alone, who preserved the good traditions of her former home and school, made any attempts to perform the duties they had undertaken, but the kitchen, her needle, and the care of the great establishment absorbed a great part of her time.
As it was necessary that they should go out, their uniforms were kept in order, for the pupils were proud of their braided tunics, and of the chevrons reaching to the elbow. In the Moronval Academy, as in certain armies of South America, all were sergeants. It was a trifling compensation for the miseries of exile and for the harsh treatment of surly masters. Moronval was quite pleasant the first days of each new quarter, when his exchequer was full; he had even then been known to smile; but the rest of the time he avenged himself on these black skins for the negro blood in his own veins.
His violence accomplished that which his indolence had begun. Very soon he began to lose his pupils; of the fifteen that were there at one time there remained but eight.
"Number of pupils limited," said the prospectus, and there was a certain amount of melancholy truth in the announcement. A dismal silence seemed to settle down on the great establishment, which was even threatened with a seizure of the furniture, when Jack appeared upon the scene. It of course was no very great sum, this quarter in advance, but Moronval understood certain prospective advantages, and even had a very clear perception of Ida's true nature, having cross-examined Constant with very good results. This day, therefore, witnessed a certain armed neutrality between masters and pupils. A good dinner in honor of the new arrival was served, all the professors were present, and "the children of the sun" even had a drop of wine, which startling event had not happened to them for a long time.
If the Moronval Academy still exists, I desire to stigmatize it now and forever as the most unhealthy spot I ever knew. Its dampness makes it most objectionable for children.
Imagine a long building all rez-de-chaussee, without windows, and lighted only from above. About the room hung an indescribable odor of collodion and ether, as if it had once been used by a photographer. The garden was shut in by high walls covered with ivy which dripped with moisture. The dormitory stood against a superb hotel; and on one side was a stable, always noisy with the oaths of grooms, the trampling of horses' feet, and the rattling of pumps. From one end of the year to the other the place was always damp, the only difference being that, according to the different seasons of the year, the dampness was either very cold or very warm. In summer it was filled with moisture like a bathroom. In addition, a crowd of winged creatures, who lived among the old ivy on the walls, attracted by the brightness of the glass in the low roof, introduced themselves into the dormitory through the smallest crevice, and struck their wings against the glass, humming loudly, and finally falling on the beds in clouds.
The winter's humidity was worse still; the cold crept into the dormitory through the uneven floors and the thin walls, but after two hours of shivering the pupils might succeed in getting warm if they drew their knees up to their chins and kept the bedclothes well over their heads. The paternal eye of Moronval saw at once the propriety of utilizing this otherwise unemployed building.
"This shall be the dormitory," he said.
"May it not be somewhat damp?" Madame Moronval ventured to ask.
"What of that?" he answered, sternly.
In reality there was but room for ten beds; but twenty were placed there, with a lavatory at the end, a wretched bit of carpet near the door, and all was in readiness.
Why not? After all, a dormitory is only a place to sleep in, and children should be able to sleep anywhere, in spite of heat or cold, of bad air and of creeping things, in spite of the noise of pumps and of horses. They catch rheumatism, ophthalmia, and bronchitis, to be sure, but they sleep all the same the calm sweet sleep of children worn out by out-door exercise and play, and undisturbed by anxieties for the morrow. This is the popular belief in regard to children, but too many of us know that the truth is quite different. For example, the first night little Jack could not close his eyes. He had never slept in a strange house, and the change was great from his own little room at home, dimly lighted by a night-lamp, and littered with his favorite playthings, to the strange and comfortless place where he now found himself.
As soon as the pupils were in bed, a black servant took away the light, and Jack remained wide awake.
A pale moon, reflected from the snow that covered a portion of the skylight, filled the room with a bluish light. He looked at the beds, standing close together foot to foot the length of the room, most of them unoccupied, their coverings rolled up in a bundle at one end. Seven or eight were animated by an occasional snore, by a hollow cough, or a stifled exclamation.
The new-comer had the best place, a little sheltered from the wind of the door. Nevertheless, he was far from warm, and the cold kept him from sleep as much as the novelty of his surroundings. He went over and over again in his memory every trifling detail of the day's events. He saw Moronval's bulky white cravat, the enormous spectacles of Dr. Hirsch—his soiled and spotted overcoat; but above all he recalled the cold and haughty eyes of "his enemy," as he already in his innermost heart called D'Argenton.
This thought struck such terror to his soul that involuntarily he looked to his mother for protection and defence.
Where was she at that moment? A dozen different clocks at that instant struck eleven. She was probably at some ball or theatre. She would soon come in, all wrapped in furs and laces. When she came, it mattered not how late, she always opened Jack's door and bent over his bed to kiss him. Even in his sleep he was generally conscious of her presence, and smilingly opened his eyes to admire her toilette. And now he shuddered as he thought of the change; and yet it was not altogether painful, for the chevrons of his uniform delighted him, and he was happy in concealing his long legs in the skirt of his tunic. He had made two or three new acquaintances,—a thing very agreeable to most children; he had found his fellow-pupils odd enough, but their oddities interested him. They had snowballed each other in the garden, which, to a child who had been living in the warm boudoir of a pretty woman, was a very novel amusement.
One thing puzzled Jack: he had not yet seen his royal Highness. Where was the little king of Dahomey, of whom M. Moronval had spoken so warmly? Was he in the Infirmary? Ah! if he could only see him, talk with him, and make him his friend. He repeated to himself the names of the "eight children of the sun," but there was no prince among them. Then he thought he would ask the boy Said.
"Is not his royal Highness in the school at present?" he asked.
The young man looked at him with wide-opened eyes, in astonished silence. Jack's question remained unanswered, and the child's thoughts ran on as he lay in his bed, listening to occasional gusts of music that rang through the house from the lungs of Labassandre, and to the perpetual sound of the pumps in the stable.
Moronval's guests were gone, with a final bang of the large gate, and all was silent. Suddenly the dormitory door was thrown open, and the small black servant entered, with a lantern in his hand.
He shook off the snow that lay thick on his black head, and crept between the two rows of beds, with his head drawn down between his shoulders, and his teeth chattering.
Jack looked at the grotesque shadows on the wall, which exaggerated all the peculiarities of the black boy—the protruding mouth, the enormous ears, and retreating forehead.
The boy hung his lantern at the end of the dormitory and stood there warming his hands, which were covered with chilblains. His face, though dirty, was so honest and kindly, that Jack's heart warmed toward him. As he stood there the negro looked out into the garden. "Ah! the snow I the snow!" he murmured sadly.
His way of speaking, and the sweet voice, touched little Jack, who looked at the boy with lively pity and curiosity. The negro saw it, and said, half to himself, "Ah! the new pupil! Why don't you go to sleep, little boy?"
"I cannot," said Jack, sighing.
"It is good to sigh if you are sorry," said the negro, cententiously. "If the poor world could not sigh, the poor world would stifle!"
As he spoke, he threw a blanket on the bed next to Jack.
"Do you sleep there?" asked the child, astonished that a servant should occupy a bed in the dormitory of the pupils. "But there are no sheets!"
"Sheets are not good for me, my skin is too black." The negro laughed gently as he said these words, and prepared to glide into bed, half clothed as he was, when suddenly he stopped, drew from his breast an ivory smelling-bottle, and kissed it devoutly.
"What a funny medal!" cried Jack.
"It is not a medal," answered the negro; "it is my Gri-qri."
But Jack had no idea what a Gri-gri was, and the other explained that it was an amulet—something to bring him good luck. His Aunt Kerika had given it to him when he left his native land,—the aunt who had brought him up, and to whom he hoped to return at some future day.
"As I shall to my mamma," said little Barancy; and both children were silent, each thinking of the one he loved most on earth.
Jack returned to the charge in a few minutes. "And your country—is it a pretty place? Is it far off? and what is its name?"
"Dahomey," answered the negro.
Jack started up in bed.
"What! Do you know him? Did you come to this country with him?"
"Why, his royal Highness,—you know him,—the little king of Dahomey."
"I am he," said the negro, quietly.
The other looked at him in amazement. A king! this servant, whom he had seen at work all day making fires, sweeping the corridors, waiting on the table, and rinsing glasses!
The negro spoke the truth, nevertheless. The expression of his face grew very sad, and his eyes were fixed as if he were looking into the past, or toward some dear, lost land. Was it the magical word of king that led Jack to examine this black boy, seated on the edge of his bed, his white shirt open, while on his dark breast shone the ivory amulet, with new interest?
"How did all this happen?" asked the child, timidly.
The black boy turned quickly to extinguish the lantern. "M. Moronval not like it if Madou lets it burn." Then he pulled his couch close to that of Jack.
"You are not sleepy," he said; "and I never wish to sleep if I can talk of Dahomey. Listen!"
And in the darkness, where the whites only of his eyes could be seen, the little negro began his dismal tale.
He was called Madou,—the name of his father, an illustrious warrior, one of the most powerful sovereigns in the land of gold and ivory: to whom France, Holland, and England sent presents and envoys. His father had cannon, and soldiers, troops of elephants with trappings for war, musicians and priests, four regiments of Amazons, and two hundred wives. His palace was immense, and ornamented by spears on which hung human heads after a battle or a sacrifice. Madou was born in this palace. His Aunt Kerika, general-in-chief of the Amazons, took him with her in all her expeditions. How beautiful she was, this Kerika! tall and large as a man,—in a blue tunic; her naked arms and legs loaded with bracelets and anklets; her bow slung over her shoulder, and the tail of a horse streaming below her waist. Upon her head, in her woolly locks, she wore two small antelope horns joining in a half-moon; as if these black warriors had preserved among themselves the tradition of Diana the white huntress! And what an eye she had, what deftness of hand! Why, she could cut off the head of an Ashantee at a single blow. But, however terrible Kerika might have been on the battlefield, to her nephew Madou she was always very gentle, bestowing on him gifts of all kinds: necklaces of coral and of amber, and all the shells he desired,—shells being the money in that part of the world. She even gave him a small but gorgeous musket, presented to herself by the Queen of England, and which Kerika found too light for her own use. Madou always carried it when he went to the forests to hunt with his aunt.
There the trees were so close together, and the foliage so thick, that the sun never penetrated to these green temples. Then Madou described with enthusiasm the flowers and the fruits, the butterflies, and birds with wonderful plumage, and Jack listened in delight and astonishment. There were serpents, too, but they were harmless; and black monkeys leaped from tree to tree; and large mysterious lakes, that had never reflected the skies in their brown depths, lay here and there in the forests.
At this, Jack uttered an exclamation, "O, how beautiful it must be!"
"Yes, very beautiful," said the black boy, who undoubtedly exaggerated a little, and saw his dear native land through the prism of absence, of childish recollections, and with the enthusiasm of his southern nature; but encouraged by his comrade's sympathy, Madou continued his story.
At night the forests were very different; hunting-parties bivouacked in the jungles, building huge fires to drive away wild beasts, who were heard in the distance roaring horribly. The birds were aroused; and the bats, silent and black as shadows, attracted by the fire-light, hovered over and about it until daybreak, when they assembled on some gigantic tree, motionless, and pressed against each other, looking like some singular leaves, dry and dead.
In this open-air life the little prince grew strong and manly,—could wield a sabre and carry a gun at an age when children are usually tied to their mother's apron-string. The king was proud of his son, the heir to his throne. But, alas! it seemed that it was not enough, even for a negro prince, to know how to shoot an elephant through the eye; he must also learn to read books and writing, for, said the wise king to his son, "White man always has paper in his pocket to cheat black man with." Of course some European might have been found in Dahomey who could instruct the prince,—for French and English flags floated over the ships in the harbors. But the king had himself been sent by his father to a town called Marseilles, very far at the end of the world; and he wished his son to receive a similar education.
How unhappy the little prince was in leaving Kerika; he looked at his sabre, hung his gun against the wall, and set sail with M. Bonfils, a clerk in a mercantile house, who sent him home every year with the gold dust stolen from the poor negroes.
Madou, however, was resigned; he wished to be a great king some day, to command the troop of Amazons, to be the proprietor of these fields of corn and wheat, and of the palace filled with jars of palm-oil and with treasures of gold and ivory. To own these riches he must deserve them, and be capable of defending them when necessary,—and Madou early learned that it is hard to be a king; for when one has more pleasures than the rest of the world, one has also greater responsibilities.
His departure was the occasion of great public fetes, of sacrifices to the fetish and to the divinities of the sea. All the temples were thrown open for these solemnities, the prayers of the nation were offered there, and at the last moment, when the ship set sail, fifteen prisoners of war were executed on the shore, and the executioner threw their heads into a great copper basin.
"Good gracious!" gasped Jack, pulling the bedclothes over his head.
It is certainly not very agreeable to hear such stories told by the actors in them; and Jack was very glad that he was in the Moronval Academy rather than in that terrible land of Dahomey.
Madou seeing the effect he had produced, dwelt no longer on the ceremonies preceding his departure, but proceeded to describe his arrival and life at Marseilles.
He told of the college there, of the high walls and the benches in the court-yard, where the pupils cut their names; of the solemn professor, who sternly said, if a whisper was heard, "Not so much noise, if you please!" The close air of the recitation-rooms, the monotonous scratching of pens, the lessons repeated over and over again, were all new and very trying to Madou. His one idea was to get into the sun; but the walls were so high, the court-yard so narrow, that he could never find enough to bask in. Nothing amused or interested him. He was never allowed to go out as were the other pupils, and for a very good reason. At first he had induced M. Bonfils to take him to the wharves, where he often saw merchandise from his own country, and sometimes went into ecstasies at some well-known mark.
The steamers puffing and blowing, and the great ships setting their sails, all spoke to him of departure and deliverance.
Madou dreamed of these ships all through school-hours,—one had brought him to that cold gray land, another would take him away. And possessed by this fixed idea, he paid no attention to his A B C's, for his eyes saw nothing save the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky above. The result of this was, that one fine day he escaped from the college and hid himself on one of the vessels of M. Bonfils; he was found in time, but escaped again, and the second time was not discovered until the ship was in the middle of the Gulf of Lyons. Any other child would have been kept on board; but when Madou's name was known, the captain took his royal Highness back to Marseilles, relying on a reward.
After that, the boy became more and more unhappy, for he was kept a very close prisoner. Notwithstanding all this, he escaped once more; and this time, on being discovered, made no resistance, but obeyed so gently, and with such a sad smile, that no one had the heart to punish him. At last the principal of the institution declined the responsibility of so determined a pupil. Should he send the little prince back to Dahomey? M. Bonfils dared not permit this, fearing thereby to lose the good graces of the king. In the midst of these perplexities Moronvol's advertisement appeared, and the prince was at once dispatched to 23 Avenue Montaigne,—"the most beautiful situation in Paris,"—where he was received, as you may well believe, with open arms. This heir of a far-off kingdom was a godsend to the academy. He was constantly on exhibition; M. Moronval showed him at theatres and concerts, and along the boulevards, reminding one of those perambulating advertisements that are to be seen in all large cities.
He appeared in society, such society at least as admitted M. Moronval, who entered a room with all the gravity of Fenelon conducting the Duke of Burgundy. The two were announced as "His Royal Highness the Prince of Dahomey, and M. Moronval, his tutor."
For a month the newspapers were full of anecdotes of Madou; an attache of a London paper was sent to interview him, and they had a long and serious talk as to the course the young prince should pursue when called to the throne of his ancestors. The English journal published an account of the curious dialogue, and the vague replies certainly left much to be desired.
At first all the expenses of the academy were discharged by this solitary pupil, Monsieur Bonfils paying the bill that was presented to him without a word of dispute. Madou's education, however, made but little progress. He still continued among the A B C's, and Madame Moronval's charming method made no impression upon him. His defective pronunciation was still retained, and his half-childish way of speaking was not changed. But he was gay and happy. All the other children were compelled to yield to him a certain deference. At first this was a difficult matter, as his intense blackness seemed to indicate to these other children of the sun that he was a slave.
And how amiable the professors were to this bullet-headed boy, who, in spite of his natural amiability, so sturdily refused to profit by their instructions! Every one of the teachers had his own private idea of what could be done in the future under the patronage of this embryo king. It was the refrain of all their conversations. As soon as Madou was crowned, they would all go to Dahomey. Labassandre intended to develop the musical taste of Dahomey, and saw himself the director of a conservatory, and at the head of the Royal Chapel.
Madame Moronval meant to apply her method to class upon class of crisp black heads. But Dr. Hirsch saw innumerable beds in a hospital, upon the inmates of which he could experiment without fear of any interference from the police. The first few weeks, therefore, of his sojourn at Paris seemed to Madou very sweet. If only the sun would shine out brightly, if the fine rain would cease to fall, or the thick fog clear away; if, in short, the boy could once have been thoroughly warm, he would have been content; and if Kerika, with her gun and her bow, her arms covered with clanking bracelets, could occasionally have appeared in the Passage des Douze Maison, he would have been very happy.
But Destiny altered all this. M. Bonfils arrived suddenly one day, bringing most disastrous news of Dahomey. The king was dethroned, taken prisoner by the Ashantees, who meant to found a new dynasty. The royal troops and the regiment of Amazons had all been conquered and dispersed. Kerika alone was saved, and she dispatched M. Bonfils to Madou to tell him to remain in France, and to take good care of his Gri-gri, for it was written in the great book that if Madou did not lose that amulet, he would come into his kingdom. The poor little king was in great trouble. Moronval, who placed no faith in the gri-gri, presented his bill—and such a bill!—to M. Bonfils, who paid it, but informed the principal that in future, if he consented to keep Madou, he must not rely upon any present compensation, but upon the gratitude of the king as soon as the fortunes and chances of war should restore him to his throne. Would the principal oblige M. Bonfils by at once signifying his intentions? Moronval promptly and nobly said, "I will keep the child." Observe that it was no longer "his Royal Highness." And the boy at once became like all the other scholars, and was scolded and punished as they were,—more, in fact, for the professors were out of temper with him, feeling apparently, that they had been deluded by false pretences. The child could understand little of this, and tried in vain all the gentle ways that had seemed to win so much affection before. It was worse still the next quarter, when Moronval, receiving no money, realized that Madou was a burden to him. He dismissed the servant, and installed Madou in his place, not without a scene with the young prince. The first time a broom was placed in his hands and its use explained to him, Madou obstinately refused. But M. Moronval had an irresistible argument ready, and after a heavy caning the boy gave up. Besides, he preferred to sweep rather than to learn to read. The prince, therefore, scrubbed and swept with singular energy, and the salon of the Moronvals was scrupulously clean; but Moronval's heart was not softened. In vain did the little fellow work; in vain did he seek to obtain a kindly word from his master; in vain did he hover about him with all the touching humility of a submissive hound: he rarely obtained any other recompense than a blow.