THE ASPIRATIONS OF JEAN SERVIEN
BY ANATOLE FRANCE
A TRANSLATION BY ALFRED ALLINSON
Jean Servien was born in a back-shop in the Rue Notre-Dame des Champs. His father was a bookbinder and worked for the Religious Houses. Jean was a little weakling child, and his mother nursed him at her breast as she sewed the books, sheet by sheet, with the curved needle of the trade. One day as she was crossing the shop, humming a song, in the words of which she found expression for the vague, splendid visions of her maternal ambition, her foot slipped on the boards, which were moist with paste.
Instinctively she threw up her arm to guard the child she held clasped to her bosom, and struck her breast, thus exposed, a severe blow against the corner of the iron press. She felt no very acute pain at the time, but later on an abscess formed, which got well, but presently reopened, and a low fever supervened that confined her to her bed.
There, in the long, long evenings, she would fold her little one in her one sound arm and croon over him in a hot, feverish whisper bits of her favourite ditty:
The fisherman, when dawn is nigh, Peers forth to greet the kindling sky....
Above all, she loved the refrain that recurred at the end of each verse with only the change of a word. It was her little Jean's lullaby, who became, at the caprice of the words, turn and turn about, General, Lawyer, and ministrant at the altar in her fond hopes.
A woman of the people, knowing nothing of the circumstances of fashionable life, save from a few peeps at their outward pomp and the vague tales of concierges, footmen, and cooks, she pictured her boy at twenty more beautiful than an archangel, his breast glittering with decorations, in a drawing-room full of flowers, amid a bevy of fashionable ladies with manners every whit as genteel as had the actresses at the Gymnase:
But for the nonce, on mother's breast, Sweet wee gallant, take thy rest.
Presently the vision changed; now her boy was standing up gowned in Court, by his eloquence saving the life and honour of some illustrious client:
But for the nonce, on mother's breast, Sweet wee pleader, take thy rest.
Presently again he was an officer under fire, in a brilliant uniform, on a prancing charger, victorious in battle, like the great Generals whose portraits she had seen one Sunday at Versailles:
But for the nonce, on mother's breast, Sweet wee general, take thy rest.
But when night was creeping into the room, a new picture would dazzle her eyes, a picture this of other and incomparably greater glories.
Proud in her motherhood, yet humble too at heart, she was gazing from the dim recesses of a sanctuary at her son, her Jean, clad in sacerdotal vestments, lifting the monstrance in the vaulted choir censed by the beating wings of half-seen Cherubim. And she would tremble awestruck as if she were the mother of a god, this poor sick work-woman whose puling child lay beside her drooping in the poisoned air of a back-shop:
But for the nonce, on mother's breast, My sweet boy-bishop, take thy rest.
One evening, as her husband handed her a cooling drink, she said to him in a tone of regret:
"Why did you disturb me? I could see the Holy Virgin among flowers and precious stones and lights. It was so beautiful! so beautiful!"
She said she was no longer in pain, that she wished her Jean to learn Latin. And she passed away.
The widower, who from the Beauce country, sent his son to his native village in the Eure-et-Loir to be brought up by kinsfolk there. As for himself, he was a strong man, and soon learned to be resigned; he was of a saving habit by instinct in both business and family matters, and never put off the green serge apron from week's end to week's end save for a Sunday visit to the cemetery. He would hang a wreath on the arm of the black cross, and, if it was a hot day, take a chair on the way back along the boulevard outside the door of a wine-shop. There, as he sat slowly emptying his glass, his eye would rest on the mothers and their youngsters going by on the sidewalk.
These young wives, as he watched them approach and pass on, were so many passing reminders of his Clotilde and made him feel sad without his quite understanding why, for he was not much given to thinking.
Time slipped by, and little by little his dead wife grew to be a tender, vague memory in the bookbinder's mind. One night he tried in vain to recall Clotilde's features; after this experience, he told himself that perhaps he might be able to discover the mother's lineaments in the child's face, and he was seized with a great longing to see this relic of the lost one once more, to have the child home again.
In the morning he wrote a letter to his old sister, Mademoiselle Servien, begging her to come and take up her abode with the little one in the Rue Notre-Dame des Champs. The sister, who had lived for many years in Paris at her brother's expense, for indolence was her ruling passion, agreed to resume her life in a city where, she used to say, folks are free and need not depend on their neighbours.
One autumn evening she arrived at the Gare de l'Ouest with Jean and her boxes and baskets, an upright, hard-featured, fierce-eyed figure, all ready to defend the child against all sorts of imaginary perils. The bookbinder kissed the lad and expressed his satisfaction in two words.
Then he lifted him pickaback on his shoulders, and bidding him hold on tight to his father's hair, carried him off proudly to the house.
Jean was seven. Soon existence settled down to a settled routine. At midday the old dame would don her shawl and set off with the child in the direction of Grenelle.
The pair followed the broad thoroughfares that ran between shabby walls and red-fronted drinking-shops. Generally speaking, a sky of a dappled grey like the great cart-horses that plodded past, invested the quiet suburb with a gentle melancholy. Establishing herself on a bench, while the child played under a tree, she would knit her stocking and chat with an old soldier and tell him her troubles—what a hard life it was in other people's houses.
One day, one of the last fine days of the season, Jean, squatted on the ground, was busy sticking up bits of plane-tree bark in the fine wet sand. That faculty of "pretending," by which children are able to make their lives one unending miracle, transformed a handful of soil and a few bits of wood into wondrous galleries and fairy castles to the lad's imagination; he clapped his hands and leapt for joy. Then suddenly he felt himself wrapped in something soft and scented. It was a lady's gown; he saw nothing except that she smiled as she put him gently out of her way and walked on. He ran to tell his aunt:
"How good she smells, that lady!"
Mademoiselle Servien only muttered that great ladies were no better than others, and that she thought more of herself with her merino skirt than all those set-up minxes in their flounces and finery, adding:
"Better a good name than a gilt girdle."
But this talk was beyond little Jean's comprehension. The perfumed silk that had swept his face left behind a vague sweetness, a memory as of a gentle, ghostly caress.
One evening in summer the bookbinder was enjoying the fresh air before his door when a big man with a red nose, past middle age and wearing a scarlet waistcoat stained with grease-spots, appeared, bowing politely and confidentially, and addressed him in a sing-song voice in which even Monsieur Servien could detect an Italian accent:
"Sir, I have translated the Gerusalemme Liberata, the immortal masterpiece of Torquato Tasso"—and a bulging packet of manuscript under his arm confirmed the statement.
"Yes, sir, I have devoted sleepless nights to this glorious and ungrateful task. Without family or fatherland, I have written my translation in dark, ice-cold garrets, on chandlers' wrappers, snuff papers, the backs of playing cards! Such has been the exile's task! You, sir, you live in your own land, in the bosom of a happy family—at least I hope so."
This speech, which impressed him by its magniloquence and its strangeness, set the bookbinder dreaming of the dead woman he had loved, and he saw her in his mind's eye coiling her beautiful hair as in the early days of their married life.
The big man proceeded:
"Man is like a plant which perishes when the storms uproot it.
"Here is your son, is it not so? He is like you"—and laying his hand on Jean's head, who clung to his father's coat-tails in wonder at the red waistcoat and the sing-song voice, he asked if the child learned his lessons well, if he was growing up to be a clever man, if he would not soon be beginning Latin.
"That noble language," he added, "whose inimitable monuments have often made me forget my misfortunes.
"Yes, sir, I have often breakfasted on a page of Tacitus and supped on a satire of Juvenal."
As he said the words, a look of sadness over-spread his shining red face, and dropping his voice:
"Forgive me, sir, if I hold out to you the casque of Belisarius. I am the Marquis Tudesco, of Venice. When I have received from the bookseller the price of my labour, I will not forget that you succoured me with a small coin in the time of my sharpest trial."
The bookbinder, case-hardened as he was against beggars, who on winter evenings drifted into his shop with the east wind, nevertheless experienced a certain sympathy and respect for the Marquis Tudesco. He slipped a franc-piece into his hand.
Thereupon the old Italian, like a man inspired, exclaimed:
"One Nation there is that is unhappy—Italy, one generous People—France; and one bond that unites the twain—humanity. Ah! chiefest of the virtues, humanity, humanity!"
Meantime the bookbinder was pondering his wife's last words: "I wish my Jean to learn Latin." He hesitated, till seeing Monsieur Tudesco bowing and smiling to go:
"Sir," he said, "if you are ready, two or three times a week, to give the boy lessons in French and Latin, we might come to terms."
The Marquis Tudesco expressed no surprise. He smiled and said:
"Certainly, sir, as you wish it, I shall find it a delightful task to initiate your son in the mysteries of the Latin rudiments.
"We will make a man of him and a good citizen, and God knows what heights my pupil will scale in this noble land of freedom and generosity. He may one day be ambassador, my dear sir. I say it: knowledge is power."
"You will know the shop again," said the bookbinder; "there is my name on the signboard."
The Marquis Tudesco, after tweaking the son's ear amicably and bowing to the father with a dignified familiarity, walked away with a step that was still jaunty.
The Marquis Tudesco returned in due course, smiled at Mademoiselle Servien, who darted poisonous looks at him, greeted the bookbinder with a discreet air of patronage, and had a supply of grammars and dictionaries bought.
At first he gave his lessons with exemplary regularity. He had taken a liking to these repetitions of nouns and verbs, which he listened to with a dignified, condescending air, slowly unrolling his screw of snuff the while; he only interrupted to interject little playful remarks with a geniality just touched with a trace of ferocity, that bespoke his real nature as an unctuous, cringing bully. He was jocular and pompous at the same time, and always made a pretence of being a long time in seeing the glass of wine put on the table for his refreshment.
The bookbinder, regarding him as a clever man of ill-regulated life, always treated him with great consideration, for faults of behaviour almost cease to shock us except among neighbours, or at most fellow-countrymen. Without knowing it, Jean found a fund of amusement in the witticisms and harangues of his old teacher, who united in himself the contradictory attributes of high-priest and buffoon. He was great at telling a story, and though his tales were beyond the child's intelligence, they did not fail to leave behind a confused impression of recklessness, irony, and cynicism. Mademoiselle Servien alone never relaxed her attitude of uncompromising dislike and disdain. She said nothing against him, but her face was a rigid mask of disapproval, her eyes two flames of fire, in answer to the courteous greeting the tutor never failed to offer her with a special roll of his little grey eyes.
One day the Marquis Tudesco walked into the shop with a staggering gait; his eyes glittered and his mouth hung half open in anticipation of racy talk and self-indulgence, while his great nose, his pink cheeks, his fat, loose hands and his big belly, gallantly carried, gave him, beneath his jacket and felt hat, a perfect likeness to a little rustic god his ancestors worshipped, the old Silenus.
Lessons that day were fitful and haphazard. Jean was repeating in a drawling voice: moneo, mones, monet ... monebam, monebas, monebat... Suddenly Monsieur Tudesco sprang forward, dragging his chair along the floor with a horrid screech, and clapping his hand on his pupil's shoulder:
"Child," he said, "to-day I am going to give you a more profitable lesson than all the pitiful teaching I have confined myself to up to now.
"It is a lesson of transcendental philosophy. Hearken carefully, child. If one day you rise above your station and come to know yourself and the world about you, you will discover this, that men act only out of regard for the opinion of their fellows—and per Bacco! they are consummate fools for their pains. They dread other folks' blame and crave their approval.
"The idiots fail to see that the world does not care a straw for them, and that their dearest friends will see them glorified or disgraced without missing one mouthful of their dinner. This is my lesson, caro figliuolo, that the world's opinion is not worth the sacrifice of a single one of our desires. If you get this into your pate, you will be a strong man and can boast you were once the pupil of the Marquis Tudesco, of Venice, the exile who has translated in a freezing garret, on scraps of refuse paper, the immortal poem of Torquato Tasso. What a task!"
The child listened to the tipsy philosopher without understanding one word of his rigmarole; only Monsieur Tudesco struck him as a strange and alarming personage, and taller by a hundred feet than anybody he had ever seen before.
The professor warmed to his subject:
"Ah!" he cried, springing from his seat, "and what profit did the immortal and ill-starred Torquato Tasso win from all his genius? A few stolen kisses on the steps of a palace. And he died of famine in a madhouse. I say it: the world's opinion, that empress of humankind, I will tear from her her crown and sceptre. Opinion tyrannizes over unhappy Italy, as over all the earth. Italy! what flaming sword will one day come to break her fetters, as now I break this chair?"
In fact, he had seized his chair by the back and was pounding it fiercely on the floor.
But suddenly he stopped, gave a knowing smile, and said in a low voice:
"No, no, Marquis Tudesco, let be, let Venice be a prey to Teuton savagery. The fetters of the fatherland are daily bread to the exiled patriot."
His chin buried in his cravat, he stood chuckling to himself, and his red waistcoat rose and fell in jerks.
Mademoiselle Servien, who sat by at the lesson knitting a stocking and for some moments had been watching the tutor, her spectacles pushed half-way up her forehead, with a look of amazement and suspicion, exclaimed, as if talking to herself:
"If it isn't abominable to come to people's houses in drink!"
Monsieur Tudesco did not seem to hear her. His manner was quiet and jocular again.
"Child," he ordered, "write down the theme for an essay. Write down: 'The worst thing... yes, the worst thing of all,' write it down... 'is an old woman with a spiteful temper.'"
And rising with the gracious dignity of a Prince of the Church, he bowed low to the aunt, gave the nephew's cheek a friendly tap, and marched out of the room.
However, beginning with the very next lesson, he lavished every mark of respect on the old lady, and treated her to all his choicest airs and graces, rounding his elbows, pursing his lips, strutting and swaggering. She would not relax a muscle, and sat there as silent and sulky as an owl.
But one day when she was hunting for her spectacles, as she was always doing, Monsieur Tudesco offered her his and persuaded her to try them; she found they suited her sight and felt a trifle less unamiable towards him. The Italian, pursuing his advantage, got into talk with her, and artfully turned the conversation upon the vices of the rich. The old lady approved his sentiments, and an exchange of petty confidences ensued. Tudesco knew a sovereign remedy for catarrh, and this too was well received. He redoubled his attentions, and the concierge, who saw him smiling to himself on the doorstep, told Aunt Servien: "The man's in love with you." Of course she declared: "At my time of life a woman doesn't want lovers," but her vanity was tickled all the same. Monsieur Tudesco got what he wanted—to have his glass filled to the brim every lesson. Out of politeness they would even leave him the pint jug only half empty, which he was indiscreet enough to drain dry.
One day he asked for a taste of cheese—"just enough to make a mouse's dinner," was his expression. "Mice are like me, they love the dark and a quiet life and books; and like me they live on crumbs."
This pose of the wise man fallen on evil days made a bad impression, and the old lady became silent and sombre as before.
When springtime came Monsieur Tudesco vanished.
The bookbinder, for all his scanty earnings, was resolved to enter Jean at a school where the boy could enjoy a regular and complete course of instruction. He selected a day-school not far from the Luxembourg, because he could see the top branches of an acacia overtopping the wall, and the house had a cheerful look.
Jean, as a little new boy (he was now eleven), was some weeks before he shook off the shyness with which his schoolfellows' loud voices and rough ways and his masters' ponderous gravity had at first overwhelmed him. Little by little he grew used to the work, and learned some of the tricks by means of which punishments were avoided; his schoolfellows found him so inoffensive they left off stealing his cap and initiated him in the game of marbles. But he had little love for school-life, and when five o'clock came, prayers were over and his satchel strapped, it was with unfeigned delight he dashed out into the street basking in the golden rays of the setting sun. In the intoxication of freedom, he danced and leapt, seeing everything, men and horses, carriages and shops, in a charmed light, and out of sheer joy of life mumbling at his Aunt Servien's hand and arm, as she walked home with him carrying the satchel and lunch-basket.
The evening was a peaceful time. Jean would sit drawing pictures or dreaming over his copy-books at one end of the table where Mademoiselle Servien had just cleared away the meal. His father would be busy with a book. As age advanced he had acquired a taste for reading, his favourites being La Fontaine's Fables, Anquetil's History of France, and Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique, "to get the hang of things," as he put it. His sister made fruitless efforts to distract his attention with some stinging criticism of the neighbours or a question about "our fat friend who had not come back," for she made a point of never remembering the Marquis Tudesco's name.
Before long Jean's whole mind was given over to the catechizings and sermons and hymns preparatory to the First Communion. Intoxication with the music of chants and organ, drowned in the scent of incense and flowers, hung about with scapularies, rosaries, consecrated medals, and holy images, he, like his companions, assumed a certain air of self-importance and wore a smug, sanctified look. He was cold and unbending towards his aunt, who spoke with far too much unconcern about the "great day." Though she had long been in the habit of taking her nephew to Mass every Sunday, she was not "pious." Most likely she confounded in one common detestation the luxury of the rich and the pomps of the Church service. She had more than once been overheard informing one of the cronies she used to meet on the boulevards that she was a religious woman, but she could not abide priests, that she said her prayers at home, and these were every bit as good as the fine ladies' who flaunted their crinolines in church. His father was more in sympathy with the lad's new-found zeal; he was interested and even a little impressed. He undertook to bind a missal with his own hands against the ceremony.
When the days arrived for retreats and general confessions, Jean swelled with pride and vague aspirations. He looked for something out of the ordinary to happen. Coming out at evening from Saint-Sulpice with two or three of his schoolfellows, he would feel an atmosphere of miracle about him; some divine interposition must be forthcoming. The lads used to tell each other strange stories, pious legends they had read in one of their little books of devotion. Now it was a phantom monk who had stepped out of the grave, showing the stigmata on hands and feet and the pierced side; now a nun, beautiful as the veiled figures in the Church pictures, expiating in the fires of hell mysterious sins. Jean had his favourite tale. Shuddering, he would relate how St. Francis Borgia, after the death of Queen Isabella, who was lovely beyond compare, must have the coffin opened wherein she lay at rest in her robe embroidered with pearls; in imagination he pictured the dead Queen, invested her form with all the magic hues of the unknown, traced in her lineaments the enchantments of a woman's beauty in the dark gulf of death. And as he told the tale, he could hear, in the twilight gloom, a murmur of soft voices sighing in the plane trees of the Luxembourg.
The great day arrived. The bookbinder, who attended the ceremony with his sister, thought of his wife and wept.
He was most favourably impressed by the cure's homily, in which a young man without faith was compared to an unbridled charger that plunges over precipices. The simile struck his fancy, and he would quote it years after with approbation. He made up his mind to read the Bible, as he had read Voltaire, "to get the hang of things."
Jean withdrew from the houselling cloth, wondering to be just the same as ever and already disillusioned. He was never again to recover the first fervent rapture.
The holidays were near. An noon of a blazing hot day Jean was seated in the shade on the dwarf-wall that bounded the school count towards the headmaster's garden, He was playing languidly at shovel-board with a schoolfellow, a lad as pretty as a girl with his curls and his jacket of white duck.
"Ewans," said Jean, as he pushed a pebble along one of the lines drawn in charcoal on the stone coping, "Ewans, you must find it tiresome to be a boarder?"
"Mother cannot have me with her at home," replied the boy.
Servien asked why.
"Oh! Because——" stammered Ewans.
He stared a long time at the white pebble he held in his hand ready to play, before he added:
"My mother goes travelling."
"And your father?"
"He is in America. I have never seen him. You've lost. Let's begin again."
Servien, who felt interested in Madame Ewans because of the superb boxes of chocolates she used to bring to school for her boy, put another question:
"You love her very much, your mother I mean?"
"Of course I do!" cried the other, adding presently:
"You must come and see me one day in the holidays at home. You'll find our house is very pretty, there's sofas and cushions no end. But you must not put off, for we shall be off to the seaside soon."
At this moment a servant, a tall, thin man, appeared in the playground and called out something which the shrill cries of their companions at play prevented the two seated on the wall from hearing. A fat boy, standing by himself with his face to the wall with the unconcern born of long familiarity with this form of punishment, clapped his two hands to his mouth trumpetwise and shrieked:
"Ewans, you're wanted in the parlour."
The usher marched up:
"Garneret," he ordered, "you will stand half an hour this evening at preparation speaking when you were forbidden to. Ewans, go to the parlour."
The latter clapped his hands and danced for joy, telling his friend:
"It's my mother! I'll tell her you are coming to our house."
Servien reddened with pleasure, and stammered out that he would ask his father's leave. But Ewans had already scampered across the yard, leaving a dusty furrow behind him.
Leave was readily granted by Monsieur Servien, who was fully persuaded that all boys admitted to so expensive a school born of well-to-do parents, whose society could not but prove advantageous to his son's manners and morals and to his future success in life.
Such information as Jean could give him about Madame Ewans was extremely vague, but the bookbinder was well used to contemplating the ways of rich folks through a veil of impenetrable mystery.
Aunt Servien indulged in sundry observations on the occasion of a very general kind touching people who ride in carriages. Then she repeated a story about a great lady who, just like Madame Ewans, had put her son to boarding-school, and who was mixed up in a case of illicit commissions, in the time of Louis-Philippe.
She added, to clinch the matter, that the cowl does not make the monk, that she thought herself, for all she did not wear flowers in her hat, a more honest woman than your society ladies, false jades everyone, concluding with her pet proverb: Better a good name than a gilt girdle!
Jean had never seen a gilt girdle, but he thought in a vague way he would very much like to have one.
The holidays came, and one Thursday after breakfast his aunt produced a white waistcoat from the wardrobe, and Jean, dressed in his Sunday best, climbed on an omnibus which took him to the Rue de Rivoli. He mounted four flights of a staircase, the carpet and polished brass stair-rods of which filled him with surprise and admiration.
On reaching the landing, he could hear the tinkling of a piano. He rang the bell, blushed hotly and was sorry he had rung. He would have given worlds to run away. A maid-servant opened the door, and behind her stood Edgar Ewans, wearing a brown holland suit, in which he looked entirely at his ease.
"Come along," he cried, and dragged him into a drawing-room, into which the half-drawn curtains admitted shafts of sunlight that were flashed back in countless broken reflections from mirrors and gilt cornices. A sweet, stimulating perfume hung about the room, which was crowded with a superabundance of padded chairs and couches and piles of cushions.
In the half-light jean beheld a lady so different from all he had ever set eyes on till that moment that he could form no notion of what she was, no idea of her beauty or her age. Never had he seen eyes that flashed so vividly in a face of such pale fairness, or lips so red, smiling with such an unvarying almost tired-looking smile. She was sitting at a piano, idly strumming on the keys without playing any definite tune. What drew Jean's eyes above all was her hair, arranged in some fashion that struck him with a sense of mystery and beauty.
She looked round, and smoothing the lace of her peignoir with one hand:
"You are Edgar's friend?" she asked, in a cordial tone, though her voice struck Jean as harsh in this beautiful room that was perfumed like a church.
"You like being at school?"
"The masters are not too strict?"
"You have no mother?"
As she put the question Madame Evans' voice softened.
"What is your father?"
"A bookbinder, Madame"—and the bookbinder's son blushed as he gave the answer. At that moment he would gladly have consented never to see his father more, his father whom he loved, if by the sacrifice he could have passed for the son of a Captain in the Navy or a Secretary of Embassy. He suddenly remembered that one of his fellow-pupils was the son of a celebrated physician whose portrait was displayed in the stationers' windows.
If only he had had a father like that to tell Madame Ewans of! But that was out of the question—and how cruelly unjust it was! He felt ashamed of himself, as if he had said something shocking.
But his friend's mother seemed quite unaffected by the dreadful avowal. She was still moving her hands at random up and down the keyboard. Then presently:
"You must enjoy yourself finely to-day, boys," she cried. "We will all go out. Shall I take you to the fair at Saint-Cloud?"
Yes, Edgar was all for going, because of the roundabouts.
Madame Ewans rose from the piano, patted her pale flaxen hair in place with a pretty gesture, and gave a sidelong look in the mirror as she passed.
"I'm going to dress," she told them; "I shall not be long."
While she was dressing, Edgar sat at the piano trying to pick out a tune from an opera bouffe, and Jean, perched uncomfortably on the edge of his chair, stared about the room at a host of strange and sumptuous objects that seemed in some mysterious way to be part and parcel of their beautiful owner, and affected him almost as strangely as she herself had done.
Preceded by a faint waft of scent and a rustle of silk, she reappeared, tying the strings of the hat that made a dainty diadem above her smiling eyes.
Edgar looked at her curiously:
"Why, mother, there's something... I don't know what. . . something that alters you."
She glanced in the mirror, examining her hair, which showed pale violet shadows amid the flaxen plaits.
"Oh! it's nothing," she said; "only I have put some powder in my hair. Like the Empress," she added, and broke into another smile.
As she was drawing on her gloves, a ring was heard, and the maid came in to tell her mistress that Monsieur Delbeque was waiting to see her.
Madame Ewans pouted and declared she could not receive him, whereupon the maid spoke a few words in a very peremptory whisper. Madame Ewans shrugged her shoulders.
"Stay where you are!" she told the boys, and passed into the dining-room, whence the murmur of two voices could presently be heard.
Jean asked Edgar, under his breath, who the gentleman was.
"Monsieur Delbeque," Edgar informed him. "He keeps horses and a carriage. He deals in pigs. One evening he took us to the theatre, mother and me."
Jean was surprised and rather shocked to find Monsieur Delbeque dealt in pigs. But he hid his surprise and asked if he was a relation.
"Oh! no," said Edgar, "he's one of our friends. It's a long time... at least a year we have known him."
Jean, harking back to his first idea, put the question:
"Have you ever seen him selling his pigs?"
"How stupid you are!" retorted Edgar; "he deals in them wholesale. Mother says it's a famous trade. He has a cigar-holder with an amber mouthpiece and a woman all naked carved in meerschaum. Just think, the other day he came and told mother his wife was making him atrocious scenes."
Madame Ewans put in her head at the half-open door:
"Come along," she said, and they set out. No sooner were they in the street than a man, who was smoking, greeted Madame with a friendly wave of his gloved hand. She muttered between her teeth:
"Shall we never be done with them?"
The man began in a guttural voice:
"I was just going to your place, my dear, to offer you a box of Turkish cigarettes. But I see you are taking a boarding-school out for a walk—a regular boarding-school, 'pon my word! You take pupils, eh? I congratulate you. Make men of 'em, my dear, make men of 'em."
Madame Ewans frowned and replied with a curl of the lips:
"I am with my son and one of my son's friends."
The gentleman threw a careless look at one of the lads—Jean Servien as it happened.
"Capital, capital!" he exclaimed. "Is that one your son?"
"Not he, indeed!" she cried hotly.
Jean felt he was looked down upon, and as she laid her hand on her son's shoulder with a proud gesture, he could not help noticing his schoolfellow's easy air and elegant costume, at the same time casting a glance of disgust at his own jacket, which had been cut down for him by his aunt out of an overcoat of his father's.
"Shall we be honoured by your presence to-night at the Bouffes?" asked the gentleman.
"No!" replied Madame Ewans, and pushed the two children forward with the tip of her sunshade.
Stepping out gaily, they soon arrive under the chestnuts of the Tuileries, cross the bridge, then down the river-bank, over the shaky gangway, and so on to the steamer pontoon.
Now they are aboard the boat, which exhales a strong, healthy smell of tar under the hot sun. The long grey walls of the embankments slip by, to be succeeded presently by wooded slopes.
Saint-Cloud! The moment the ropes are made fast, Madame Ewans springs on to the landing-stage and makes straight for the shrilling of the clarinettes and thunder of the big drums, steering her little charges through the press with the handle of her sunshade.
Jean was mightily surprised when Madame Ewans made him "try his luck" in a lottery. He had before now gone with his aunt to sundry suburban fairs, but she had always dissuaded him so peremptorily from spending anything that he was firmly persuaded revolving-tables and shooting-galleries were amusements only permitted to a class of people to which he did not belong. Madame Ewans showed the greatest interest in her son's success, urging him to give the handle a good vigorous turn.
She was very superstitious about luck, "invoking" the big prizes, clapping her hands in ecstasy whenever Edgar won a halfpenny egg-cup, falling into the depths of despair at every bad shot. Perhaps she saw an omen in his failure; perhaps she was just blindly eager to have her darling succeed. After he had lost two or three times, she pulled the boy away and gave the wooden disk such a violent push round as set its cargo of crockery-ware and glass rattling, and proceeded to play on her own account—once, twice, twenty times, thirty times, with frantic eagerness. Then followed quite a business about exchanging the small prizes for one big one, as is commonly done. Finally, she decided for a set of beer jugs and glasses, half of which she gave to each of the two friends to carry.
But this was only a beginning. She halted the children before every stall. She made them play for macaroons at rouge et noir. She had them try their skill at every sort of shooting-game, with crossbows loaded with little clay pellets, with pistols and carbines, old-fashioned weapons with caps and leaden bullets, at all sorts of distances, and at all kinds of targets—plaster images, revolving pipes, dolls, balls bobbing up and down on top of a jet of water.
Never in his life had Jean Servien been so busy or done so many different things in so short a space of time.
His eyes dazzled with uncouth shapes and startling colours, his throat parched with dust, elbowed, crushed, mauled, hustled by the crowd, he was intoxicated with this debauch of diversions.
He watched Madame Ewans for ever opening her little purse of Russia leather, and a new power was revealed to him. Nor was this all. There was the Dutch top to be set twirling, the wooden horses of the merry-go-round to be mounted; they had to dash down the great chute and take a turn in the Venetian gondolas, to be weighed in the machine and touch the arm of the "human torpedo."
But Madame Ewans could not help returning again and again to stand before the booth of a hypnotist from Paris, a clairvoyante boasting a certificate signed by the Minster of Agriculture and Commerce and by three Doctors of the Faculty. She gazed enviously at the servant-girls as they trooped up blushing into the van meagrely furnished with a bed and a couple of chairs; but she could not pluck up courage to follow their example.
She recalled to mind how a hypnotist had once helped a friend of hers to recover some stolen forks and spoons. She had even gone so far as to consult a fortune-teller shortly before Edgar's birth, and the cards had foretold a boy.
All three were tired out and overloaded with crockery, glass, reed-pipes, sticks of sugar-candy, cakes of ginger-bread and macaroons. For all that, they paid a visit to the wax-works, where they saw Monseigneur Sibour's body lying in state at the Archbishop's Palace, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, models of people's legs and arms disfigured by various hideous diseases, and a Circassian maiden stepping out of the bath—"the purest type of female beauty," as a placard duly informed the public. Madame Ewans examined this last exhibit with a curiosity that very soon became critical.
"People may say what they please," she muttered; "if you offered me the whole world, I wouldn't have such big feet and such a thick waist. And then, your regular features aren't one bit attractive. Men like a face that says something."
When they left the tent, the sun was low and the dust hovered in golden clouds over the throng of women, working-men, and soldiers.
It was time for dinner; but as they passed the monkey-cage, Madame Ewans noticed such a crush of eager spectators squeezing in between the baize curtains on the platform in front that she could not resist the temptation to follow suit. Besides which, she was drawn by a motive of curiosity, having been told that monkeys were not insensible to female charms. But the performance diverted her thoughts in another direction. She saw an unhappy poodle in red breeches shot as a deserter in spite of his honest looks. Tears rose to her eyes, she was so sensitive, so susceptible to the glamour of the stage!
"Yes, it's quite true," she sobbed; "yes, poor soldiers have been shot before now just for going off without leave to stand by their mother's death-bed or for smacking a bullying officer's face."
Some old refrain of Beranger she had heard working folks sing in her plebeian childhood rose to her memory and intensified her emotion. She told the children the lamentable tale of the canine deserter's pitiful doom, and made them feel quite sad.
No sooner were they outside the place, however, than an itinerant toy-seller with a paper helmet on his head set them splitting with laughter.
Dinner must be thought of. She knew of a tavern by the river-side where you could eat a fry of fish in the arbour, and thither they betook themselves.
The lady from Paris and the landlady of the inn greeted each other with a wink of the eye. It was a long time since she had seen Madame; she had no idea who the two young gentlemen were, but anyway they were dear little angels. Madame Ewans ordered the meal like a connoisseur, with a knowing air and all the proper restaurant tricks of phrase. All three sat silent, agreeably tired and enjoying the sensation, she with her bonnet-strings flying loose, the boys leaning back against the trellis. They could see the river and its grassy banks through an archway of wild vine. Their thoughts flowed softly on like the current before their eyes, while the dusk and cool of the evening wrapped them in a soft caress. For the first time Jean Servien, as he gazed at Madame Ewans, felt the thrill of a woman's sweet proximity.
Presently, warmed by a trifle of wine and water he had drunk, he became wholly lost in his dreams—visions of all sorts of elegant, preposterous, chivalrous things. His head was still full of these fancies when he was dragged back to the fair-ground by Madame Ewans, who could never have enough of sight-seeing and noise. Illuminated arches spanned at regular intervals the broad-walk, lined on either side by stalls and trestle-tables, but the lateral avenues gloomed dark and deserted under the tall black trees. Loving couples paced them slowly, while the music from the shows sounded muffled by the distance. They were still there when a band of fifes, trombones, and trumpets struck up close by, playing a popular polka tune. The very first bar put Madame Ewans on her mettle. She drew Jean to her, settled his hands in hers and lifting him off the ground with a jerk of the hip, began dancing with him. She swung and swayed to the lilt of the music; but the boy was awkward and embarrassed, and only hindered his partner, dragging back and bumping against her. She threw him off roughly and impatiently, saying sharply:
"You don't know how to dance, eh? You come here, Edgar."
She danced a while with him in the semi-darkness. Then, rosy and smiling:
"Bravo!" she laughed; "we'll stop now."
Servien stood by in gloomy silence, conscious of his own inefficiency. His heart swelled with a sullen anger. He was hurt, and longed for somebody or something to vent his hate upon.
The drive home was a silent one. Jean nearly gave himself cramp in his determined efforts not to touch with his own the knees of Madame Ewans' who dozed on the back seat of the conveyance. She hardly awoke enough to bid him good-bye when he alighted at his father's door.
As he entered, he was struck for the first time by a smell of paste that seemed past bearing. The room where he had slept for years, happy in himself and loved by others, seemed a wretched hole. He sat down on his bed and looked round gloomily and morosely at the holy-water stoup of gilt porcelain, the print commemorating his First Communion, the toilet basin on the chest of drawers, and stacked in the corners piles of pasteboard and ornamental paper for binding.
Everything about him seemed animated by a hostile, malevolent, unjust spirit. In the next room he could hear his father moving. He pictured him at his work-bench, with his serge apron, calm and content. What a humiliation! and for the second time in a dozen hours he blushed for his parentage.
His slumbers were broken and uneasy; he dreamed he was turning, turning unendingly in complicated figures, and it was impossible always to avoid touching Madame Evans' knee, though all the time he was horribly afraid of doing it. Then there was a great field full of thousands and thousands of marble pigs stuck up on stone pedestals, among which he could see Monsieur Delbeque promenading slowly up and down.
Next morning he awoke feeling sour-tempered and low-spirited.
"Well, my boy," his father asked him, blowing noisily at each spoonful of soup he absorbed, "well, did you enjoy yourself yesterday?"
He answered curtly and crossly. Everything stirred his gorge. His aunt's print gown filled him with a sort of rage.
His father propounded a hundred minute inquiries; he would fain have pictured the whole expedition to himself as he consumed his bowl of soup. He had seen Saint-Cloud in his soldiering days; but he had never been there since. He had a bright idea; they would go to Versailles, the three of them; his sister would see to having a bit of veal cooked overnight, and they could take it with them. They would have a look at the pictures, eat their snack on the great lawn, and have a fine time generally.
Jean, who was horrified at the whole project, opened his exercise-books and buried his head in his lessons, to avoid the necessity of hearing any more and answering questions. He did not as a rule show such alacrity about setting to work. His father remarked on the fact, commending him for his zeal.
"We should play," he announced, "when it is play-time, and work when it is the time to work," and he set to work flattening a piece of shagreen.
Jean fell into a brown study. He had caught a glimpse of a world he knew to be for ever closed against him, but towards which all the forces of his young heart drew him irresistibly. He did not dream Madame Ewans could ever be different from what he had seen her. He could not imagine her otherwise dressed or amid any other surroundings. He knew nothing whatever of women; this one had seemed motherly to him, and it was a mother such as Madame Ewans he would have liked to have. But how his heart beat and his brow burned as he pictured this imaginary mother a reality!
Dating from the day at Saint-Cloud, Jean thought himself unhappy, and unhappy he became in fact. He was wilfully, deliberately insubordinate, proud of breaking rules and defying punishments.
He and his school-mates attended the classes of a Lycee in the Quartier Latin. Directly he had taken his place on the remotest bench in the well-warmed lecture-room, he would become absorbed in some sentimental novel concealed under piles of Latin and Greek authors. Sometimes the master, short-sighted as he was, would catch the culprit in the act.
Still, Jean had his hours of triumph. His translations were remarkable, not for accuracy, but at any rate for elegance. So, too, his compositions sometimes contained happy phrases that earned him high praise. On the theme, "The maiden Theano defending Alcibiades against the incensed Athenians," he wrote a Latin oration that was warmly commended by Monsieur Duruy, the then Inspector of Public Instruction, and gained the young author some weeks of scholastic fame.
On holidays he would roam the boulevards and gaze with greedy eyes at the jewels, the silks and satins, the bronzes, the photographs of women, displayed in the shop-windows—the thousand and one gewgaws and frivolities of fashion that seemed to him to sum up the necessary conditions of happiness.
His entry into the philosophy class was a red-letter day; he sported his first tall hat and smoked his first non-surreptitious cigarettes. He possessed a certain brilliancy of mind and a keen wit that amused his companions, whose superior he was in gifts of imagination.
His last vacation was passed in tolerable content. His father, thinking him looking pale, sent him on a visit to relatives living in a village near Chartres. Jean, the tedious farm dinner ended, would go and sit under a tree and bury himself in a novel. Occasionally he would ride to the city in the miller's cart. Often he would be drenched all the way by the rain that fell drearily at nightfall. Then he would enjoy the fun of drying himself before the huge fireplace of some inn on the outskirts of the town, beside the savoury roast on the turning spit. He even had a day's shooting with an old flint-lock fowling-piece under the auspices of his cousin the miller. In short, he could boast on his return of having had a country holiday.
At eighteen he took his bachelor's degree. The evening after the examination Monsieur Servien uncorked a bottle with a special seal, which he had hoarded for years in anticipation of this domestic solemnity, and the contents of which had turned from red to pink as they slowly fined.
"A young man who carries his diploma in his pocket can enter every door," Monsieur Servien observed, as he imbibed the wine with fitting respect; it had been good stuff once, but was past its prime.
Jean polished off the family repast rapidly and hurried away to the theatre. His only ideas as yet of what a play was like were derived from the posters he had seen. He selected for tonight one of the big theatres where a tragedy was on the bill. He took his ticket for the pit with a vague idea it would be the talisman admitting him to a new wonder-world of passion and emotion. Every trifle is disconcerting to a troubled spirit, and on his entrance he was surprised and sobered to see how few spectators there were in the stalls and boxes. But at the first scraping of the violins as the orchestra tuned up, he glued his eyes to the curtain, which rose at last.
Then, then he saw, in a Roman palace, leaning on the back of a chair of antique shape, a woman who wore over her robe of white woollen the saffron-hued palla. Amid the trampling of feet, the rustle of dresses and the shifting of stools, she was reciting a long soliloquy, accompanied by slow, deliberate gestures. He felt, as he gazed, a strange, unknown pleasure, that grew more and more acute till it was almost pain. As scene followed scene, there entered a confidante, then a hero, then a crowd of supers. But he saw nothing but the apparition that had first fascinated him. His eyes fastened greedily on her beauty, caressing the two bare arms, encircled with rings of metal, gliding along the curve of the hips below the high girdle, plunging amid the brown locks that waved above the brow and were tied back with three white fillets; they clung to the moving lips and the white, moist teeth that ever and anon flashed in the glare of the footlights. He longed to feel, to seize, to hold this lovely, living thing that moved before his eyes; in imagination he enfolded and embraced the beautiful vision.
The wait between the acts (for the tragedy involved a change of scenery) was intolerably tedious. His neighbours were talking politics and passing one another quarters of orange across him; the newspaper boy and the man who hired out opera-glasses deafened him with their bawling. He was in terror of some sudden catastrophe that might interrupt the play.
The curtain rose once more, on a succession of scenes of political intrigue a la Corneille which had no meaning for Servien. To his joy the lovely being in the white robe came on again. But he had strained his sight too hard; he could see nothing; by dint of riveting his gaze on the long gold pendants that hung from the actress's ears, he was dazzled; his eyes swam and closed involuntarily, and he could hear no sound but the beating of the blood in his temples.
By a supreme effort, in the last scene, he saw and heard her again clearly and distinctly, yet not as with his ordinary senses, for she wore for him the elemental guise of a supernatural vision. When the prompter's bell tinkled and the curtain descended for the last time, he had a feeling as though the universe had collapsed in irretrievable ruin.
Tartuffe was the after-piece; but neither the spirit and perfection of the acting, nor the pretty face and plump shoulders of Elmire, nor the soubrette's dimpled arms, nor the ingenue's innocent eyes, nor the noble, witty lines that filled the theatre and roused the audience to fresh attention, could stir his spirit that hung entranced on the lips of a tragic heroine.
As he stepped out into the street, the first breath of the cool night air on his face blew away his intoxication. His senses came back to him and he could think again; but his thoughts never left the object of his infatuation, and her image was the only thing he saw distinctly. He was entranced, possessed; but the feeling was delicious, and he roamed far and wide in the dark streets, making long detours by the river-side quays to lengthen out his reveries, his heart full, overfull of passionate, voluptuous imaginings. He was content because he was weary; his soul lay drowned in a delicious languor that no pang of desire troubled; to look and long was more than sufficient as yet to still the cravings of his virgin appetites.
He threw himself half dressed on his bed, overjoyed to cherish the picture of her beauty in his heart. All he wanted was to lose himself in the enchanted sleep that weighed down his boyish lids.
On waking, he gazed about him for something—he knew not what. Was he in love? He could not tell, but there was a void somewhere. Still, he felt no overmastering impulse, except to read the verses he had heard the actress declaim. He took down from his shelves a volume of Corneille and read through Emilie's part. Every line enchanted him, one as much as another, for did they not all evoke the same memory for him?
His father and his aunt, with whom he passed his days, had grown to be only vague, meaningless shapes to him. Their broadest pleasantries failed to raise a smile, and the coarse realities of a narrow, penurious existence had no power to disturb his happy serenity. All day long, in the back-shop where the penetrating smell of paste mingled with the fumes of the cabbage-soup, he lived a life of his own, a life of incomparable splendours. His little Corneille, scored thickly with thumb-nail marks at every couplet of Emilie's, was all he needed to foster the fairest of illusions. A face and the tones of a voice were his world.
In a few days he knew the whole tragedy by heart. He would declaim the lines in a slow, pompous voice, and his aunt would remark after each speech, as she shredded the vegetables for dinner:
"So you're for being a cure, are you, that you preach like they do in church?"
But in the main she approved of these exercises, and when Monsieur Servien scratched his head doubtfully and complained that his son would not make up his mind to any way of earning a living, she always took up the cudgels for the "little lad" and silenced the bookbinder by telling him roundly he knew nothing about it—or about anything else.
So the worthy man went back to his calf-skins. All the same, albeit he could form no very clear idea of what was in his son's head, for the latter having become a "gentleman" was beyond his purview, he felt some disquietude to see a holiday, legitimate enough no doubt after a successful examination, dragging out to such a length. He was anxious to see his son earning money in some department of administration or other. He had heard speak of the Hotel de Ville and the Government Offices, and he racked his brains to think of someone among his customers who might interest himself in his son's future. But he was not the man to act precipitately.
One day, when Jean Servien was out on one of the long walks he had got into the habit of taking, he read on a poster that his Emilie, Mademoiselle Gabrielle T——, was appearing in that evening's piece. This time, ignoring his aunt's disapproval, he donned his Sunday clothes, had his hair frizzed and curled, and took his seat in the orchestra stalls.
He saw her again! For the first few moments she did not seem so beautiful as he had pictured her. So long had he laboured and lain awake over the first image he had carried away of her that the impression had become blurred, and the type that had originally imprinted it on his heart no longer corresponded with the result created by his mind's unconscious working. Then he was disconcerted to see neither the white stola and saffron mantle nor the bracelets and fillets that had seemed to him part and parcel of the beauty they adorned. Now she wore the turban of Roxana and the wide muslin trousers caught in at the ankle. It was only by degrees he could grow reconciled to the change. He realized that her arms were a trifle thin, and that a tooth stood back behind the rest in the row of pearls. But in the end her very defects pleased him, because they were hers, and he loved her the better for them. This time, by the law of change which is of the very essence of life, and by virtue of the imperfection that characterizes all living creatures, she made a physical appeal to his senses and called up the idea of a human being of flesh and blood, a creature you could cling to and make one with yourself. His admiration was lost in a flood of tenderness and infinite sadness—and he burst into tears.
The next day he conceived a great desire to see her as she was in everyday life, dressed for the streets. It would be a sort of intimacy merely to pass her on the pavement. One evening, when she was playing, he watched for her at the stage-door, through which emerged one after the other scene-shifters, actors, constables, firemen, dressers, and actresses. At last she appeared, muffled in her fur cloak, a bouquet in her hand, tall and pale—so pale in the dusk her face seemed to him as if illumined by an inward light. She stood waiting on the doorstep till a carriage was called.
He clasped both hands on his breast and thought he was going to die.
When he found himself alone on the deserted Quai, he plucked a leaf from the overhanging bough of a plane tree. Then, setting his elbows on the parapet of the bridge, he tossed the leaf into the river and watched it borne away by the current of the stream that lay silvery in the moonlight, spangled with quivering lights. He watched it till he could see it no longer. Was it not the emblem of himself? He, too, was abandoning himself to the waters of a passion that shone bright and which he thought profound.
That year the Champs de Mars was occupied by one of the series of Expositions Universelles. Under the trees, in the heat and dust, crowds were swarming towards the entrance. Jean passed the turnstiles and entered the palace of glass and iron. He was still pursuing his passion, for he associated the being he loved with all manifestations of art and luxury. He made for the park and went straight to the Egyptian pavilion. Egypt had filled his dreams from the day when all his thoughts had been centred on one woman. In the avenue of sphinxes and before the painted temple he fell under the glamour that women of olden days and strange lands exercise on the senses,—on those of lovers with especial force. The sanctuary was venerable in his eyes, despite the vulgar use it was put to as part of the Exhibition. Looking at the jewels of Queen Aahotep, who lived and was lovely in the days of the Patriarchs, he pondered sadly over all that had been in the world and was no more. He pictured in fancy the black locks that had scented this diadem with the sphinx's head, the slim brown arms these, beads of gold and lapis lazuli had touched, the shoulders that had worn these vulture's wings, the peaked bosoms these chains and gorgets had confined, the breast that had once communicated its warmth to yonder gold scarabaeus with the blue wing-cases, the little royal hand that once held that poniard by the hilt wrought over with flowers and women's faces. He could not conceive how what was a dream to him had been a reality for other men. Vainly he tried to follow the lapse of ages. He told himself that another living shape would vanish in its turn, and it would be for nothing then that it had been so passionately desired. The thought saddened and calmed him. He thought, as he stood before these gewgaws from the tomb, of all these men who, in the abyss of bygone time, had in turn loved, coveted, enjoyed, suffered, whom death had taken, hungry or satiated, and made an end of the appetites of all alike. A placid melancholy swept over him and held him motionless, his face buried in his hands.
It was at breakfast the next morning that Jean noticed, for the first time, the venerable, kindly look of his father's face. In truth, advancing years had invested the bookbinder's appearance with a sort of beauty. The smooth forehead under the curling white locks betokened a habit of peaceful and honest thoughts. Old age, while rendering the play of the muscles less active, veiled the distortion of the limbs due to long hours of labour at the bench under the more affecting disfigurements which life and its long-drawn labours impress on all men alike. The old man had read, thought, striven honestly to do his best, and won the saving grace a simple faith bestows on the humble of heart; for he had become a religious man and a regular attendant at the church of his parish. Jean told himself it would be an easy and a grateful task to cherish such a father, and he resolved to inaugurate a life of toil and sacrifice. But he had no employment and no notion what to do.
Shut up in his room, he was filled with a great pity for himself and longed to recover the peace of mind, the calm of the senses, the happy life that had vanished along with the leaf he had abandoned that evening to the drifting current. He opened a novel, but at the first mention of love he pitched the volume down, and fell to reading a book of travel, following the steps of an English explorer into the reed palace of the King of Uganda. He ascended the Upper Nile to Urondogami; hippopotamuses snorted in the swamps, waders and guinea-fowl rose in flight, while a herd of antelopes sped flying through the tall grasses. He was recalled from far, far away by his aunt shouting up the stairs:
"Jean! Jean! come down into the shop; your father wants you."
A stout, red-faced man, with the bent shoulders that come of much stooping over the desk, sat beside the counter. Monsieur Servien's eyes rested on his face with a deprecating air.
When the boy appeared, the stranger asked if this was the young man in question, adding in a scolding voice:
"You are all the same. You work and sweat and wear yourselves out to make your sons bachelors of arts, and you think the day after the examination the fine fellows will be posted Ambassadors. For God's sake! no more graduates, if you please! We can't tell what to do with 'em.... Graduates indeed! Why, they block the road; they are cab-drivers, they distribute handbills in the streets. You have 'em dying in hospital, rotting in the hulks! Why didn't you teach your son your own trade? Why didn't you make a bookbinder of him? ... Oh! I know why; you needn't tell me,—out of ambition! Well, then! some day your son will die of starvation, blushing for your folly—and a good job too! The State! you say, the State! it's the only word you can put your tongues to. But it's cluttered up, the State is! Take the Treasury; you send us graduates who can't spell; what d'ye expect us to do with all these loafers?"
He drew his hand across his hot forehead. Then pointing a finger to show he was addressing Jane:
"At any rate, you write a good hand?"
Monsieur Servien answered for his son, saying it was legible.
"Legible! Legible!" repeated the great man—throwing his fat hands about. "A copying clerk must write an even hand. Young man, do you write an even hand?"
Jean said he did not know, his handwriting might have been spoilt, he had never thought very much about it. His questioner frowned:
"That's very wrong," he blustered; "and I dare swear you young fellows make a silly affectation of not writing decently.... I may have a bit of influence at the Ministry, but you mustn't ask me to do impossibilities."
The bookbinder shrunk back with a scared glance. He certainly did not look the man to ask impossibilities.
The other got up:
"You will take lessons," he said, turning to Jean, "in writing and ciphering. You have eight months before you. Eight months from now the Minister will hold an examination. I will put your name down. Do you set to work without losing a minute!"
So saying, he pulled out his watch, as though to see if his protege was actually going to waste a single minute before beginning his studies. He directed Monsieur Servien to get to work without delay on the books he was giving him to bind, and walked out of the shop. After the bookbinder had seen him to his carriage:
"Jean, my boy," said he, "that is Monsieur Bargemont; I have spoken to him about you and you have heard what he had to say; he is going to help you to get into the Treasury Office, where he holds a high post. You understand what he told you about the examinations; you know more about such things, praise God! than I do. I am only an ignoramus, my lad, but I am your father. Now listen; I want to have a word of explanation with you, so that from this day on till I go to where your dear mother is we can look each other calmly in the face and understand one another at the first glance. Your mother loved you right well, Jean. There's not a gold mine in the world could give a notion of the wealth of affection that woman possessed. From the first moment you saw the light, she lived, so to say, more in you than in herself. Her love was stronger than she could bear. Well, well, she is dead. It was nobody's fault."
The old man turned his eyes involuntarily towards the darkest corner of the shop, and Jean, looking in the same direction, caught sight of the sharp angles of the hand-press in the gloom.
Monsieur Servien went on:
"On her death-bed your mother asked me to make an educated man of you, for well she knew that education is the key that opens every door.
"I have done what she wished. She was no longer with us, Jean, and when a voice comes back to you from the grave and bids you do a thing 'that a blessing may come,' why, one must needs obey. I did my best; and no doubt God was with me, for I have succeeded. You have your education; so far so good, but we must not have a blessing turn into a curse. And idleness is a curse. I have worked like a packhorse, and given many a hard pull at the collar, in harness from morning to night. I remember in particular one lot of cloth covers for the firm of Pigoreau that kept me on the job for thirty-six hours running. And then there was the year when your examination fees had to be paid and I accepted an order in the English style; it was a terrible bit of work, for it's not in my way at all, and at my time of life a man is not good at new methods. They wanted a light sort of binding, with flexible boards as flimsy as paper almost. I shed tears over it, but I learned the trick! Ah! it is a famous tool, is a workman's hand! But an educated man's brain is a far more wonderful thing still, and that tool you have, thanks to God in the first place, and to your mother in the second. It was she had the notion of educating you, I only followed her lead. Your work will be lighter than mine, but you must do it. I am a poor man, as you know; but, were I rich, I would not give you the means to lead an idle life, because that would be tempting you to vices and shaming you. Ah! if I thought your education had given you a taste for idleness, I should be sorry not to have made you a working man like myself. But then, I know you have a good heart; you have not got into your stride yet, that's all! The first steps will be uphill work; Monsieur Bargemont said so. The State services are overcrowded; there are over many graduates—though it is well enough to be one. Besides, I shall be at your back; I will help you, I will work for you; I have a pair of stout arms still. You shall have pocket-money, never fear; you will want it among the folks you will live with. We will save and pinch. But you must help yourself, lad; never be afraid of hard work, hit out from the shoulder and strike home. Good work never spoiled play yet. Your job done, laugh and sing and amuse yourself to your heart's content; you won't find me interfere. And, when you are a great man, if I am still in this world, don't you be afraid; I shall not get in your way. I am not a fellow to make a noise. We will hide away in some quiet hole, your aunt and I, and nobody will hear one word said of the old father."
Aunt Servien, who had slipped into the shop and been listening for the last few moments, broke into sobs; she was quite ready to follow her brother and hide away in a corner; but when her nephew had risen to greatness, she would insist on going every day to keep things straight in his grand house. She was not going to leave "the little lad" to be a prey to housekeepers—housekeepers, indeed, she called them housebreakers!
"The creatures keep great hampers," she declared, "that swallow up bottles of wine, cold chickens, and other titbits, fine linen, old clothes, oil, sugar, and candles—the best pickings from a rich man's house. No, I'll not let my little Jean be sucked to death by such vampires. I mean to keep your house in order. No one will ever know I am your aunt. And if they did know, there's nobody, I should hope, could object. I don't know why anyone should be ashamed of me. They can lay my whole life bare, I have nothing to blush for. And there's many a Duchess can't say as much. As for forsaking the lad for fear of doing him a hurt, well, the notion is just what I expected of you, Servien; you've always been a bit simple-minded. I mean to stay all my life with Jean. No, little lad, you'll never drive your old aunt out of your house, will you? And who could ever make your bed the way I can, my lamb?"
Jean promised his father faithfully, oh! most faithfully, he would lead a hardworking life. Then he shut himself up in his room and pictured the future to himself—long years of austere and methodical labour.
He mapped out his days systematically. In the morning he wrote copies to improve his handwriting, seated at a corner of the workbench. After breakfast he did sums in his bedroom. Every evening he went to the Rue Soufflot by way of the Luxembourg gardens to a private tutor's, and the old man would set him dictations and explain the rules of simple interest. On reaching the gate adjoining the Fontaine Medicis the boy always turned round for a look at the statues of women he could discern standing like white ghosts along the terrace. He had left behind on the path of life another fascinating vision.
He never read a theatrical poster now, and deliberately forgot his favorite poets for fear of renewing his pain.
This new life pleased him; it slipped by with a soothing monotony, and he found it healthful and to his taste. One evening, as he was coming downstairs at his old tutor's, a stout man offered him, with a sweep of the arm, the bill of fare advertising a neighbouring cook-shop; he carried a huge bundle of them under his left arm. Then stopping abruptly:
"Per Bacco!" cried the fellow; "it is my old pupil. Tall and straight as a young poplar, here stands Monsieur Jean Servien!"
It was no other than the Marquis Tudesco. His red waistcoat was gone; instead he wore a sort of sleeved vest of coarse ticking, but his shining face, with the little round eyes and hooked nose, still wore the same look of merry, mischievous alertness that was so like an old parrot's.
Jean was surprised to see him, and not ill-pleased after all. He greeted him affectionately and asked what he was doing now.
"Behold!" replied the Marquis, "my business is to distribute in the streets these advertisements of a local poisoner, and thereby to earn a place at the assassin's table to spread the fame of which I labour. Camoens held out his hand for charity in the streets of Lisbon. Tudesco stretches forth his in the byways of the modern Babylon, but it is to give and not to receive—lunches at 1 fr. 25, dinners at 1 fr. 75," and he offered one of his bills to a passer-by, who strode on, hands in pockets, without taking it.
Thereupon the Marquis Tudesco heaved a sigh and exclaimed:
"And yet I have translated the Gerusalemme Liberata, the masterpiece of the immortal Torquato Tasso! But the brutal-minded booksellers scorn the fruit of my vigils, and in the empyrean the Muse veils her face so as not to witness the humiliation inflicted on her nursling."
"And what has become of you all the time since we last saw you?" asked the young man frankly.
"God only knows, and 'pon my word! I think He has forgotten."
Such was the Marquis Tudesco's oracular answer.
He tied up his bundle of papers in a cloth, and taking his pupil by the arm, urged him in the direction of the Rue Saint-Jacques.
"See, my young friend," he said, "the dome of the Pantheon is half hidden by the fog. The School of Salerno teaches that the damp air of evening is inimical to the human stomach. There is near by a decent establishment where we can converse as two philosophers should, and I feel sure your unavowed desire is to conduct your old instructor thither, the master who initiated you in the Latin rudiments."
They entered a drinking-shop perfumed with so strong a reek of kirsch and absinthe as took Servien's breath away. The room was long and narrow, while against the walls varnished barrels with copper taps were ranged in a long-drawn perspective that was lost in the thick haze of tobacco-smoke hanging in the air under the gas-jets. At little tables of painted deal a number of men were drinking; dressed in black and wearing tall silk hats, broken-brimmed and shiny from exposure to the rain, they sat and smoked in silence. Before the door of the stove several pairs of thin legs were extended to catch the heat, and a thread of steam curled up from the toes of the owners' boots. A heavy torpor seemed to weigh upon all this assemblage of pallid, impassive faces.
While Monsieur Tudesco was distributing hand-shakes to sundry old acquaintances, Jean caught scraps of the conversation of those about him that filled him with a despairing melancholy—school ushers railing at the cookery of cheap eating-houses, tipplers maundering contentedly to one another, enchanted at the profundity of their own wisdom, schemers planning to make a fortune, politicians arguing, amateurs of the fair sex telling highly-spiced anecdotes of love and women—and amongst it all this sentence:
"The harmony of the spheres fills the spaces of infinity, and if we hear it not, it is because, as Plato says, our ears are stopped with earth."
Monsieur Tudesco consumed brandy-cherries in a very elegant way. Then the waiter served two dantzigs in little glass cups. Jean admired the translucent liquor dotted with golden sparkles, and Monsieur Tudesco demanded two more. Then, raising his cup on high:
"I drink to the health of Monsieur Servien, your venerable father," he cried. "He enjoys a green and flourishing old age, at least I hope so; he is a man superior to his mechanic and mercantile condition by the benevolence of his behaviour to needy men of letters. And your respected aunt? She still knits stockings with the same zeal as of yore? At least I hope so. A lady of an austere virtue. I conjecture you are wishing to order another dantzig, my young friend."
Jean looked about him. The dram-shop was transfigured; the casks looked enormous with their taps splendidly glittering, and seemed to stretch into infinity in a quivering, golden mist. But one object was more monstrously magnified than all the rest, and that was the Marquis Tudesco; the old man positively towered as huge as the giant of a fairy-tale, and Jean looked for him to do wonders.
Tudesco was smiling.
"You do not drink, my young friend," he resumed. "I conjecture you are in love. Ah! love! love is at once the sweetest and the bitterest thing on earth. I too have felt my heart beat for a woman. But it is long years ago since I outlived that passion. I am now an old man crushed under adverse fortune; but in happier days there was at Rome a diva of a beauty so magnificent and a genius so enthralling that cardinals fought to the death at the door of her box; well, sir, that sublime creature I have pressed to my bosom, and I have been informed since that with her last sigh she breathed my name. I am like an old ruined temple, degraded by the passage of time and the violence of men's hands, yet sanctified for ever by the goddess."
This tale, whether it recalled in exaggerated terms some commonplace intrigue of his young days in Italy, or more likely was a pure fiction based on romantic episodes he had read in novels, was accepted by Jean as authentic and vastly impressive. The effect was startling, amazing. In an instant he beheld, with all the miraculous clearness of a vision, there, standing between the tables, the queen of tragedy he adored; he saw the locks braided in antique fashion, the long gold pendants drooping from either ear, the bare arms and the white face with scarlet lips. And he cried aloud:
"I too love an actress."
He was drinking, never heeding what the liquor was; but lo! it was a philtre he swallowed that revivified his passion. Then a torrent of words rose flooding to his lips. The plays he had seen, Cinna, Bajazet, the stern beauty of Emilie, the sweet ferocity of Roxana, the sight of the actress cloaked in velvet, her face shining so pale and clear in the darkness, his longings, his hopes, his undying love, he recounted everything with cries and tears.
Monsieur Tudesco heard him out, lapping up a glass of Chartreuse drop by drop the while, and taking snuff from a screw of paper. At times he would nod his head in approval and go on listening with the air of a man watching and waiting his opportunity. When he judged that at last, after tedious repetitions and numberless fresh starts, the other's confidences were exhausted, he assumed a look of gravity, and laying his fine hand with a gesture as of priestly benediction on the young man's shoulder:
"Ah! my young friend," he said, "if I thought that what you feel were true love... but I do not," and he shook his head and let his hand drop.
Jean protested. To suffer so, and not to be really in love?
Monsieur Tudesco repeated:
"If I thought that this were true love... but I do not, so far."
Jean answered with great vehemence; he talked of death and plunging a dagger in his heart.
Monsieur Tudesco reiterated for the third time:
"I do not believe it is true love."
Then Jean fell into a fury and began to rumple and tear at his waistcoat as if he would bare his heart for inspection. Monsieur Tudesco took his hands and addressed him soothingly:
"Well, well, my young friend, since it is true love you feel, I will help you. I am a great tactician, and if King Carlo Alberto had read a certain memorial I sent him on military matters he would have won the battle of Novara. He did not read my memorial, and the battle was lost, but it was a glorious defeat. How happy the sons of Italy who died for their mother in that thrice holy battle! The hymns of poets and the tears of women made enviable their obsequies. I say it: what a noble, what a heroic thing is youth! What flames divine escape from young bosoms to rise to the Creator! I admire above everything young folk who throw themselves into ventures of war and sentiment with the impetuosity natural to their age."
Tasso, Novara, and the diva so beloved of cardinals mingled confusedly in Jean Servien's heated brain, and in a burst of sublime if fuddled enthusiasm he wrung the old villain's hand. Everything had grown indistinct; he seemed to be swimming in an element of molten metal.
Monsieur Tudesco, who at the moment was imbibing a glass of kuemmel, pointed to his waistcoat of ticking.
"The misfortune is," he observed, "that I am garbed like a philosopher. How show myself in such a costume among elegant females? 'Tis a sad pity! for it would be an easy matter for me to pay my respects to an actress at an important theatre. I have translated the Gerusalemme Liberata, that masterpiece of Torquato Tasso's. I could propose to the great actress whom you love and who is worthy of your love, at least I hope so, a French adaptation of the Myrrha of the celebrated Alfieri. What eloquence, what fire in that tragedy! The part of Myrrha is sublime and terrible; she will be eager to play it. Meantime, you translate Myrrha into French verse; then I introduce you with your manuscript into the sanctuary of Melpomene, when you bring with you a double gift—fame and love! What a dream, oh! fortunate young man!... But alas! 'tis but a dream, for how should I enter a lady's boudoir in this rude and sordid guise?"
But the tavern was closing and they had to leave. Jean felt so giddy in the open air he could not tell how he had come to lose Monsieur Tudesco, after emptying the contents of his purse into the latter's hand.
He wandered about all night in the rain, stumbling through the puddles which splashed up the mud in his face. His brains buzzed with the maddest schemes, that took shape, jostled one another, and tumbled to pieces in his head. Sometimes he would stop to wipe the sweat from his forehead, then start off again on his wild way. Fatigue calmed his nerves, and a clear purpose emerged. He went straight to the house where the actress lived, and from the street gazed up at her dark, shuttered windows; then, stepping up to the porte-cochere, he kissed the great doors.
Dating from that night Jean Servien spent his days in translating Myrrha bit by bit, with an infinity of pains. The task having taught him something of verse-making, he composed an ode, which he sent by post to his mistress. The poem was writ in tears of blood, yet it was as cold and insipid as a schoolboy's exercise. Still, he did get something said of the fair vision of a woman that hovered for ever before his eyes, and of the door he had kissed in a night of frenzy.
Monsieur Servien was disturbed to note how his son had grown heedless, absent-minded, and hollow-eyed, coming back late at night, and hardly up before noon. Before the mute reproach in his father's eyes the boy hung his head. But his home-life was nothing now; his whole thoughts were abroad, hovering around the unknown, in regions he pictured as resplendent with poetry, wealth and pleasure.
Occasionally, at a street corner, he would meet the Marquis Tudesco again. He had found it impossible to replace his waistcoat of ticking. Moreover, he now advised Jean to pay his addresses to shop-girls.
When the summer came, the theatrical posters announced in quick succession Mithridate, Adrienne Lecouvreur, Rodogune, les Enfants d'Edouard, la Fiammina. Jean, having secured the money to pay for a seat by hook or by crook, by some bit of trickery or falsehood, by cajoling his aunt or by a surreptitious raid on the cash-box, would watch from an orchestra stall the startling metamorphoses of the woman he loved. He saw her now girt with the white fillet of the virgins of Hellas, like those figures carved with such an exquisite purity in the marble of the Greek bas-reliefs that they seem clad in inviolate innocence, now in a flowered gown, with powdered ringlets sweeping her naked shoulders, that had an inexpressible charm in their spare outlines suggestive of the bitter-sweet taste of an unripe fruit. She reminded him in this attire of some old-time pastel of gallant ladies such as the bookbinder's son had pored over in the dealers' shops on the Quai Voltaire. Anon she would be crowned with a hawk's crest, girdled with plaques of gold on which were traced magic symbols in clustered rubies, clad in the barbaric splendour of an Eastern queen; presently she would be wearing the black hood, pointed above the brow, and the dusky velvet robe of a Royal widow, like the portraits to be seen guarded as holy relics in a chamber of the Louvre; last travesty of all (and it was in this guise he found her most adorable), as a modern horsewoman, clothed from neck to heel in a close-fitting habit, a man's hat set rakishly on her dainty head. He would fain spend his life in these romantic dreams, and devoured Racine, the Greek tragedians, Corneille, Shakespeare, Voltaire's verses on the death of Adrienne Lecouvreur, and whatever in modern literature appealed to him as elegant or fraught with passion. But in all these creations it was one image, and one only, that he saw.
Going one evening to the dram-shop with the Marquis Tudesco, who had given up all idea of discarding his checked waistcoat, he made the acquaintance of an old man whose white hair lay in ringlets on his shoulders and who still had the blue eyes of a child. He was an architect fallen to ruin along with the little Gothic erections he had raised at great expense in the Paris suburbs about 1840. His name was Theroulde, and the old fellow, whose smiling face belied his wretched condition, overflowed with anecdotes of artists and pretty women.
In his prosperous days he had built country villas for actresses and attended many a joyous house-warming, the fun and frolic of which were still fresh in the light-hearted veteran's memory. He had long ceased to care who heard him, and primed with maraschino, he would unfold his reminiscences like some sumptuous tapestry gone to tatters. The bookseller's son, meeting an artist for the first time, listened to the old Bohemian with rapt enthusiasm. All these forgotten celebrities, or half-celebrities, all these old young beauties of whom Theroulde spoke, came to life again for him, fascinated him with an unexpected charm and a piquant sense of familiarity. Servien pictured them as he had seen them represented in the old foxed lithographs that litter the second-hand bookstalls along the Quais, wearing the hair in flat bandeaux with a jewel on a gold chain in the middle of the forehead, or else in heavy ringlets a l'Anglaise brushing the cheeks. Obsessed by his one idea, he endeavoured to recall one who seemed so well acquainted with ladies of the stage to the present day. He spoke of tragedy, but Theroulde said he thought that sort of plays ridiculous, and repeated a number of parodies. Jean mentioned Gabrielle T——.
"T——," exclaimed the artist-architect; "I knew her mother well."
Never in all his life had Jean heard a sentence that interested him so profoundly.
"I knew her in 1842," Theroulde went on, "at Nantes, where she created fourteen roles in six weeks. And folks imagine actresses have nothing to do! A fine thing, the stage! But the mischief is, there's not a single architect capable of building a playhouse with any sense. As to scenery, it is simply puerile, even at the Opera—so childish it might make a South Sea Islander blush. I have thought out a system of rollers in the flies so as to get rid of those long top-cloths that represent the sky without a pretence at deceiving anyone. I have likewise invented an arrangement of lamps and reflectors so placed as to light the characters on the stage from above downwards, as the sun does, which is the rational way, and not from below upwards, as the footlights do, which is absurd."
"Of course it is," agreed Servien. "But you were speaking of Gabrielle T——'s mother."
"She was a fine woman," replied the architect; "tall, dark, with a little moustache that became her to perfection.... You see the effect of my roller contrivance—a vast sky shedding an equal illumination over the actors and giving every object its natural shadows. La Muette is being played, we will say; the famous cavatina, the slumber-song, is heard beneath a transparent sky, vaulted like the real thing and giving the impression of boundless space. The effect of the music is doubled! Fenella wakes, crosses the boards with cadenced tread; her shadow, which follows her on the floor, is cadenced like her steps; it is nature and art both together. That is my invention! As for putting it in execution, why, the means are childishly simple."
Thereupon he entered upon endless explanations, using technical terms and illustrating his meaning with everything he could lay hands on—glasses, saucers, matches. His frayed sleeves, as they swept to and fro, wiped the marble top of the table and set the glasses rattling. Disturbed by the noise, the Marquis Tudesco, who was asleep, half opened his eyes mechanically.
Servien kept nodding his approval and repeating that he quite understood, to stop the old man's babble. Then he advised the architect to try and put his invention in practice; but he only shrugged his shoulders—it was years since he had left off trying anything. After all, what did it matter to him whether his system was applied or no? He was an inventor!