Recalled for the third time by his young listener to Gabrielle T——'s mother:
"She never had any great success on the stage," he declared; "but she was a careful woman and saved money. She was near on fifty when I came upon her again in Paris living with Adolphe, a very handsome young fellow of twenty-five or twenty-six, nephew of a stockbroker. It was the most loving couple, the merriest, happiest household in the world. Never once did I breakfast at their little flat, fifth floor of a house in the Rue Taitbout, without being melted to tears. 'Eat, my kitten,' 'Drink, my lamb!' and such looks and endearments, and each so pleased with the other! One day he said to her: 'My kitten, your money does not bring you in what it ought; give me your scrip and in forty-eight hours I shall have doubled your capital.' She went softly to her cupboard and opening the glass doors, handed him her securities one by one with hands that trembled a little.
"He took them unconcernedly and brought her a receipt the same evening bearing his uncle's signature. Three months after she was pocketing a very handsome income. The sixth month Adolphe disappeared. The old girl goes straight to the uncle with her screed of paper. 'I never signed that,' says the stockbroker, 'and my nephew never deposited any securities with me.' She flies like a mad-woman to the Commissary of Police, to learn that Adolphe, hammered at the Bourse, is off to Belgium, carrying with him a hundred and twenty thousand francs he had done another old woman out of. She never got over the blow; but we must say this of her, she brought up her daughter mighty strictly, and showed herself a very dragon of virtue. Poor Gabrielle must feel her cheeks burn to this day only to think of her years at the Conservatoire; for in those days her mother used to smack them soundly for her, morning and evening. Gabrielle, why I can see her now, in her sky-blue frock, running to lessons nibbling coffee-berries between her teeth. She was a good girl, that."
"You knew her!" cried Jean, for whom these confidences formed the most exciting love adventure he had ever known.
The old man assured him:
"We used to have fine rides with her and a lot of artists in old days on horseback and donkey-back in the woods of Ville d'Avray; she used to dress as a man, and I remember one day..." He finished his story in a whisper,—it was just as well. He went on to say he hardly ever saw her now that she was with Monsieur Didier, of the Credit Bourguignon. The financier had sent the artists to the right-about; he was a conceited, narrow-minded fellow, a dull, tiresome prig.
Jean was neither surprised nor excessively shocked to hear that she had a lover, because having studied the ways of the ladies of the theatre in the proverbs in verse of Alfred de Musset, he pictured the life of Parisian actresses without exception as one continual feast of wit and gallantry. He loved her; with or without Didier, he loved her. She might have had three hundred lovers, like Lesbia,—he would have loved her just as much. Is it not always so with men's passions? They are in love because they are in love, and in spite of everything.
As for feeling jealousy of Monsieur Didier, he never so much as thought of it. The infatuation of the lad! He was jealous of the men and women who saw her pass to and fro in the street, of the scene-shifters and workmen whom the business of the stage brought into contact with her. For the present these were his only rivals. For the rest, he trusted to the future, the ineffable future big whether with bliss or torment. Indeed, the literature of romance had inspired him with no small esteem of courtesans, if only their attitude was as it should be—leaning pensively on the balcony-rail of their marble palace.
What did shock him in the rapscallion architect's stories, what wounded his love without weakening it, was all the rather squalid elements these narratives implied in the actress's young days. Of all things in the world he thought anything sordid the most repugnant.
Monsieur Tudesco, feeling sure his brandy-cherries would be paid for, did not trouble himself to talk, and the conversation was languishing when the architect remarked casually:
"By-the-by! As I was going to Bellevue yesterday on business of my own, I came upon that actress of yours, young man, at her gate... oh! a rubbishy little villa, run up to last through a love affair, standing in six square yards of garden, meant to give a stock-broker some sort of notion what the country's like. She invited me in—but what was the use?"...
She was at Bellevue! Jean forgot all the humiliating details the old man had told him, retaining the one fact only, that she was at Bellevue and it was possible to see her there in the sweet intimacy of the country.
He got up to go. Monsieur Tudesco caught him by the skirt of his jacket to detain him:
"My young friend, you have my admiration; for I see you rise on daring pinions above the hindrances of a lowly station to the realms of beauty, fame and wealth. You will yet cull the splendid blossom that fascinates you, at least I hope so. But how much better had you loved a simple work-girl, whose affections you could have beguiled by offering her a penn'orth of fried potatoes and a seat among the gods to see a melodrama. I fear you are a dupe of men's opinion, for one woman is not very different from another, and it is opinion, that mistress of the world, and nothing else, which sets a high price on some and a low one on others. Do you profit, my young and very dear friend, by the experience afforded me by the vicissitudes of fortune, which are such that I am obliged at this present moment to borrow of you the modest sum of two and a half francs."
So spake the Marquis Tudesco.
Jean had trudged afoot up the hill of Bellevue. Evening was falling. The village street ran upwards between low walls, brambles and thistles lining the roadway on either side. In front the woods melted into a far-off blue haze; below him stretched the city, with its river, its roofs, its towers and domes, the vast, smoky town which had kindled Servien's aspirations at the flaring lights of its theatres and nurtured his feverish longings in the dust of its streets. In the west a broad streak of purple lay between heaven and earth. A sweet sense of peace descended on the landscape as the first stars twinkled faintly in the sky. But it was not peace Jean Servien had come to find.
A few more paces on the stony high road and there stood the gate festooned with the tendrils of a wild vine, just as it had been described to him.
He gazed long, in a trance of adoration. Peering through the bars, between the sombre boughs of a Judas tree, he saw a pretty little white house with a flight of stone steps before the front door, flanked by two blue vases. Everything was still, nobody at the windows, nobody stirring on the gravel of the drive; not a voice, not a whisper, not a footfall. And yet, after a long, long look, he turned away almost happy, his heart filled with satisfaction.
He waited under the old walnut trees of the avenue till the windows lighted up one by one in the darkness, and then retraced his steps. As he passed the railway station, to which people were hurrying to catch an incoming train, he saw amid the confusion a tall woman in a mantilla kiss a young girl who was taking her leave. The pale face under the mantilla, the long, delicate hands, that seemed ungloved out of a voluptuous caprice, how well he knew them! How he saw the woman from head to foot in a flash! His knees bent under him. He felt an exquisite languor, as if he would die there and then! No, he never believed she was so beautiful, so beyond price! And he had thought to forget her! He had imagined he could live without her, as if she did not sum up in herself the world and life and everything!
She turned into the lane leading to her house, walking at a smart pace, with her dress trailing and catching on the brambles, from which with a backward sweep of the hand and a rough pull she would twitch it clear.
Jean followed her, pushing his way deliberately through the same bramble bushes and exulting to feel the thorns scratch and tear his flesh.
She stopped at the gate, and Jean saw her profile, in its purity and dignity, clearly defined in the pale moonlight. She was a long time in turning the key, and Jean could watch her face, the more enthralling to the senses for the absence of any tokens of disturbing intellectual effort. He groaned in grief and rage to think how in another second the iron bars would be close between her and him.
No, he would not have it so; he darted forward, seized her by the hand, which he pressed in his own and kissed.
She gave a loud cry of terror, the cry of a frightened animal. Jean was on his knees on the stone step, chafing the hand he held against his teeth, forcing the rings into the flesh of his lips.
A servant, a lady's maid, came running up, holding a candle that had blown out.
"What is all this?" she asked breathlessly.
Jean released the hand, which bore the mark of his violence in a drop of blood, and got to his feet.
Gabrielle, panting and holding the wounded hand against her bosom, leant against the gate for support.
"I want to speak to you; I must," cried Jean.
"Here's pretty manners!" shrilled the maid-servant. "Go your ways," and she pointed with her candlestick first to one end, then to the other of the street.
The actress's face was still convulsed with the shock of her terror. Her lips were trembling and drawn back so as to show the teeth glittering. But she realized that she had nothing to fear.
"What do you want with me?" she demanded.
He had lost his temerity since he had dropped her hand. It was in a very gentle voice he said:
"Madame, I beg and beseech you, let me say one word to you alone."
"Rosalie," she ordered, after a moment's hesitation, "take a turn or two in the garden. Now speak, sir," and she remained standing on the step, leaving the gate half-way open, as it had been at the moment he had kissed her hand.
He spoke in all the sincerity of his inmost heart:
"All I have to say to you, Madame, is that you must not, you ought not, to repulse me, for I love you too well to live without you."
She appeared to be searching in her memory.
"Was it not you," she asked, "who sent me some verses?"
He said it was, and she resumed:
"You followed me one evening. It is not right, sir, not the right thing, to follow ladies in the street."
"I only followed you, and that was because I could not help it."
"You are very young."
"Yes, but it was long ago I began to love you."
"It came upon you all in a moment, did it not?"
"Yes, when I saw you."
"That is what I thought. You are inflammable, so it seems."
"I do not know, Madame. I love you and I am very unhappy. I have lost the heart to live, and I cannot bear to die, for then I should not see you any more. Let me be near you sometimes. It must be so heavenly!"
"But, sir, I know nothing about you."
"That is my misfortune. But how can I be a stranger for you? You are no stranger, no stranger in my eyes. I do not know any woman, for me there is no other woman in the world but you."
And again he took her hand, which she let him kiss. Then:
"It is all very pretty," she said, "but it is not an occupation, being in love. What are you? What do you do?"
He answered frankly enough:
"My father is in trade; he is looking out for a post for me."
The actress understood the truth; here was a little bourgeois, living contentedly on next to nothing, reared in habits of penuriousness, a hidebound, mean creature, like the petty tradesmen who used to come to her whining for their bills, and whom she encountered of a Sunday in smart new coats in the Meudon woods. She could feel no interest in him, such as he might have inspired, whether as a rich man with bouquets and jewels to offer her, or a poor wretch so hungry and miserable as to bring tears to her eyes. Dazzle her eyes or stir her compassion, it must be one or the other! Then she was used to young fellows of a more enterprising mettle. She thought of a young violinist at the Conservatoire who, one evening, when she was entertaining company, had pretended to leave with the rest and concealed himself in her dressing-room; as she was undressing, thinking herself alone, he burst from his hiding-place, a bottle of champagne in either hand and laughing like a mad-man. The new lover was less diverting. However, she asked him his name.
"Well, Monsieur Jean Servien, I am sorry, very sorry, to have made you unhappy, as you say you are."
At the bottom of her heart she was more flattered than grieved at the mischief she had done, so she repeated several times over how very sorry she was.
"I cannot bear to hurt people. Every time a young man is unhappy because of me, I am so distressed; but, honour bright, what do you want me to do for you? Take yourself off, and be sensible. It's no use your coming back to see me. Besides, it would be ridiculous. I have a life of my own to live, quite private, and it is out of the question for me to receive strange visitors."
He assured her between his sobs:
"Oh! how I wish you were poor and forsaken. I would come to you then and we should be happy."
She was a good deal surprised he did not take her by the waist or think of dragging her into the garden under the clump of trees where there was a bench. She was a trifle disappointed and in a way embarrassed not to have to defend her virtue. Finding the conclusion of the interview did not match the beginning and the young man was getting tedious, she slammed the gate in his face and slipped back into the garden, where he saw her vanish in the darkness.
She bore on her hand, beside a sapphire on her ring finger, a drop of blood. In her chamber, as she emptied a jug of water over her hands to wash away the stain, she could not help reflecting how every drop of blood in this young man's veins would be shed for her whenever she should give the word. And the thought made her smile. At that moment, if he had been there, in that room, at her side, it may be she would not have sent him away.
Jean hurried down the lane and started off across country in such a state of high exaltation as robbed him of all senses of realities and banished all consciousness whether of joy or pain. He had no remembrance of what he had been before the moment when he kissed the actress's hand; he seemed a stranger to himself. On his lips lingered a taste that stirred voluptuous fancies, and grew stronger as he pressed them one against the other.
Next morning his intoxication was dissipated and he relapsed into profound depression. He told himself that his last chance was gone. He realized that the gate overhung with wild vine and ivy was shut against him by that careless, capricious hand more firmly and more inexorably than ever it could have been by the bolts and bars of the most prudish virtue. He felt instinctively that his kiss had stirred no promptings of desire, that he had been powerless to win any hold on his mistress's senses.
He had forgotten what he said, but he knew that he had spoken out in all the frank sincerity of his heart. He had exposed his ignorance of the world, his contemptible candour. The mischief was irreparable. Could anyone be more unfortunate? He had lost even the one advantage he possessed, of being unknown to her.
Though he entertained no very high opinion of himself, he certainly held fate responsible for his natural deficiencies. He was poor, he reasoned, and therefore had no right to fall in love. Ah! if only he were wealthy and familiar with all the things idle, prosperous people know, how entirely the splendour of his material surroundings would be in harmony with the splendour of his passion! What blundering, ferocious god of cruelty had immured in the dungeon of poverty this soul of his that so overflowed with desires?
He opened his window and caught sight of his father's apprentice on his way back to the workshop. The lad stood there on the pavement talking with naive effrontery to a little book-stitcher of his acquaintance. He was kissing the girl, without a thought of the passers-by, and whistling a tune between his teeth. The pretty, sickly-looking slattern carried her rags with an air, and wore a pair of smart, well-made boots; she was pretending to push her admirer away, while really doing just the opposite, for the slim yet broad-shouldered stripling in his blue blouse had a certain townified elegance and the "conquering hero" air of the suburban dancing-saloons. When he left her, she looked back repeatedly; but he was examining the saveloys in a pork-butcher's window, never giving another thought to the girl.
Jean, as he looked on at the little scene, found himself envying his father's apprentice.
He read the same morning on the posters that she was playing that evening. He watched for her after the performance and saw her distributing hand-shakes to sundry acquaintances before driving off. He was suddenly struck with something hard and cruel in her, which he had not observed in the interview of the night before. Then he discovered that he hated her, abominated her with all the force of his mind and muscles and nerves. He longed to tear her to pieces, to rend and crush her. It made him furious to think she was moving, talking, laughing,—in a word, that she was alive. At least it was only fair she should suffer, that life should wound her and make her heart bleed. He was rejoiced at the thought that she must die one day, and then nothing of her would be left, of her rounded shape and the warmth of her flesh; none would ever again see the superb play of light in her hair and eyes, the reflections, now pale, now pearly, of her dead-white skin. But her body, that filled him with such rage, would be young and warm and supple for long years yet, and lover after lover would feel it quiver and awake to passion. She would exist for other men, but not for him. Was that to be borne? Ah! the deliciousness of plunging a dagger in that warm, living bosom! Ah! the bliss, the voluptuousness of holding her pinned beneath one knee and demanding between two stabs:
"Am I ridiculous now?"
He was still muttering suchlike maledictions when he felt a hand laid on his shoulder. Wheeling round, he saw a quaint figure—a huge nose like a pothook, high, massive shoulders, enormous, well-shaped hands, a general impression of uncouthness combined with vigour and geniality. He thought for a moment where this strange monster could have come from; then he shouted: "Garneret!"
Instantly his memory flew back to the court-yard and class-rooms of the school in the Rue d'Assas, and he saw a heavily built lad, for ever under punishment, standing out face to the wall during playtime, getting and giving mighty fisticuffs, a terrible fellow for plain speaking and hard hitting, industrious, yet a thorn in the side of masters, always in ill-luck, yet ever and anon electrifying the class with some stroke of genius.
He was glad enough to see his old school-fellow again, who struck him as looking almost old with his puckered lids and heavy features. They set off arm in arm along the deserted Quai, and to the accompaniment of the faint lapping of the water against the retaining walls, told each other the history of their past—which was succinct enough, their present ideas, and their hopes for the future—which were boundless.
The same ill-luck still pursued Garneret; from morn to eve he was engaged on prodigiously laborious hack-work for a map-maker, who paid him the wages of one of his office boys; but his big head was crammed with projects. He was working at philosophy and getting up before the sun to make experiments on the susceptibility to light of the invertebrates; by way of studying English and politics at the same time, he was translating Mr. Disraeli's speeches; then every Sunday he accompanied Monsieur Hebert's pupils on their geological excursions in the environs of Paris, while at night he gave lectures to working men on Italian painting and political economy. There was never a week passed but he was bowled over for twenty-four or forty-eight hours with an agonizing sick-headache. He spent long hours too with his fiancee, a girl with no dowry and no looks, but of a loving, sensitive temper, whom he adored and fully intended to marry the moment he had five hundred francs to call his own.
Servien could make nothing of the other's temperament, one that looks upon the world as an immense factory where the good workman labours, coat off and sleeves rolled up, the sweat pouring from his brow and a song on his lips. He found it harder still to conceive a love with which the glamour of the stage or the splendours of luxurious living had nothing to do. Yet he felt there was something strong and sensible and true about it all, and craving sympathy he made Garneret the confidant of his passion, telling the tale in accents of despair and bitterness, though secretly proud to be the tortured victim of such fine emotions.
But Garneret expressed no admiration.
"My dear fellow," said he, "you have got all these romantic notions out of trashy novels. How can you love the woman when you don't know her?"
How, indeed? Jean Servien did not know; but his nights and days, the throbbings of his heart, the thoughts that possessed his mind to the exclusion of all else, everything convinced him that it was so. He defended himself, talking of mystic influences, natural affinities, emanations, a divine unity of essence.
Garneret only buried his face between his hands. It was above his comprehension.
"But come," he said, "the woman is no differently constituted from other women!"
Obvious as it was, this consideration filled Jean Servien with amazement. It shocked him so much that, rather than admit its truth, he racked his brains in desperation to find arguments to controvert the blasphemy.
Garneret gave his views on women. He had a judicial mind, had Garneret, and could account for everything in the relations of the sexes; but he could not tell Jean why one face glimpsed among a thousand gives joy and grief more than life itself seemed able to contain. Still, he tried to explain the problem, for he was of an eminently ratiocinative temper.
"The thing is quite simple," he declared. "There are a dozen violins for sale at a dealer's. I pass that way, common scraper of catgut that I am, I tune them and try them, and play over on each of them in turn, with false notes galore, some catchy tune—Au clair de la lune or J'ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatiere—stuff fit to kill the old cow. Then Paganini comes along; with one sweep of the bow he explores the deepest depths of the vibrating instruments. The first is flat, the second sharp, the third almost dumb, the fourth is hoarse, five others have neither power nor truth of tone; but lo! the twelfth gives forth under the master's hand a mighty music of sweet, deep-voiced harmonies. It is a Stradivarius; Paganini knows it, takes it home with him, guards it as the apple of his eye; from an instrument that for me would never have been more than a resonant wooden box he draws chords that make men weep, and love, and fall into a very ecstasy; he directs in his will that they bury this violin with him in his coffin. Well, Paganini is the lover, the instrument with its strings and tuning-pegs is the woman. The instrument must be beautifully made and come from the workshop of a right skilful maker; more than that, it must fall into the hands of an accomplished player. But, my poor lad, granting your actress is a divine instrument of amorous music, I don't believe you capable of drawing from it one single note of passion's fugue.... Just consider. I don't spend my nights supping with ladies of the theatre; but we all know what an actress is. It is an animal generally agreeable to see and hear, always badly brought up, spoilt first by poverty and afterwards by luxury. Very busy into the bargain, which makes her as unromantic as anybody can well be. Something like a concierge turned princess, and combining the petty spite of the porter's lodge with the caprices of the boudoir and the fagged nerves of the student.
"You can hardly expect to dazzle T—— with the munificence and tastefulness of your presents. Your father gives you a hundred sous a week to spend; a great deal for a bookbinder, but very little for a woman whose gowns cost from five hundred to three thousand francs apiece. And, as you are neither a Manager to sign agreements, nor a Dramatic Author to apportion roles, nor a Journalist to write notices, nor a young man from the draper's to take advantage of a moment's caprice as opportunity offers when delivering a new frock, I don't see in the least how you are to make her favour you, and I think your tragedy queen did quite right to slam her gate in your face."
"Ah, well!" sighed Jean Servien, "I told you just now I loved her. It is not true. I hate her! I hate her for all the torments she has made me suffer, I hate her because she is adorable and men love her. And I hate all women, because they all love someone, and that someone is not I!"
Garneret burst out laughing.
"Candidly," he grinned, "they are not so far wrong. Your love has no spark of anything affectionate, kindly, useful in it. Since the day you fell in love with Mademoiselle T——, have you once thought of sparing her pain? Have you once dreamed of making a sacrifice for her sake? Has any touch of human kindness ever entered into your passion? Can it show one mark of manliness or goodness? Not it. Well, being the poor devils we are, with our own way to push in life and nothing to help us on, we must be brave and good. It is half-past one, and I have to get up at five. Good night. Cultivate a quiet mind, and come and see me."
Jean had only three days left to prepare for his examination for admission to the Ministry of Finance. These he spent at home, where the faces of father, aunt, and apprentice seemed strange and unfamiliar, so completely had they disappeared from his thoughts. Monsieur Servien was displeased with his son, but was too timid as well as too tactful to make any overt reproaches. His aunt overwhelmed him with garrulous expressions of doting affection; at night she would creep into his room to see if he was sound asleep, while all day long she wearied him with the tale of her petty grievances and dislikes.
Once she had caught the apprentice with her spectacles, her sacred spectacles, perched on his nose, and the profanation had left a kind of religious horror in her mind.
"That boy is capable of anything," she used to say. One of the boy's pet diversions was to execute behind the old lady's back a war-dance of the Cannibal Islanders he had seen once at a theatre. Sticking feathers he had plucked from a feather-broom in his hair, and holding a big knife without a handle between his teeth, he would creep nearer and nearer, crouching low and advancing by little leaps and bounds, with ferocious grimaces which gradually gave place to a look of disappointed appetite, as a closer scrutiny showed how tough and leathery his victim was. Jean could not help laughing at this buffoonery, trivial and ill-bred as it was. His aunt had never got clearly to the bottom of the little farce that dogged her heels, but more than once, turning her head sharply, she had found reason to suspect something disrespectful was going on. Nevertheless, she put up with the lad because of his lowly origin. The only folks she really hated were the rich. She was furious because the butcher's wife had gone to a wedding in a silk dress.
At the upper end of the Rue de Rennes, beside a plot of waste and, was a stall where an old woman sold dusty ginger-bread and sticks of stale barley-sugar. She had a face the colour of brick dust under a striped cotton sun-bonnet, and eyes of a pale, steely blue. Her whole stock-in-trade had not cost a couple of francs, and on windy days the white dust from houses building in the neighbourhood covered it like a coat of whitewash. Nurses and mothers would anxiously pull away their little ones who were casting sheep's eyes at the sweetstuff:
"Dirty!" they would say dissuasively; "dirty!"
But the woman never seemed to hear; perhaps she was past feeling anything. She did not beg. Mademoiselle Servien used to bid her good-day in passing, address her by name and fall into talk with her before the stall, sometimes for a quarter of an hour at a time. The staple of conversation with them both was the neighbours, accidents that had occurred in the public thoroughfares, cases of coachmen ill-using their horses, the troubles and trials of life and the ways of Providence, "which are not always just."
Jean happened to be present at one of these colloquies. He was a plebeian himself, and this glimpse of the petty lives of the poor, this peep into sordid existences of idle sloth and spiritless resignation, stirred all the blood in his veins. In an instant, as he stood between the two old crones, with their drab faces and no outlook on life save that of the streets, now gloomy and empty, now full of sunshine and crowded traffic, the young man learned more of human conditions than he had ever been taught at school. His thoughts flew from this woman to that other, who was so beautiful and whom he loved, and he saw life before him as a whole—a melancholy panorama. He told himself they must die both of them, and a hideous old woman, squatted before a few sodden sweetmeats, gave him the same impression of solemn serenity he had experienced at sight of the jewels from the Queen of Egypt's sepulchre.
After sitting all day over little problems in arithmetic, he set off in the evening in working clothes for the Avenue de l'Observatoire. There, between two tallow candles, in front of a hoarding covered with ballads in illustrated covers, a fellow was singing in a cracked voice to the accompaniment of a guitar. A number of workmen and work-girls stood round listening to the music. Jean slipped into the circle, urged by the instinct that draws a stroller with nothing to do to the neighbourhood of light and noise and that love of a crowd which is characteristic of your Parisian. More isolated in the press, more alone than ever, he stood dreaming of the splendour and passion of some noble tragedy of Euripides or Shakespeare. It was some time before he noticed something soft touching and pressing against him from behind. He turned round and saw a work-girl in a little black hat with blue ribbons. She was young and pretty enough, but his mind was fixed on the awe-inspiring and superhuman graces of an Electra or a Lady Macbeth. She went on nuzzling against his back till he looked round again.
"Monsieur," she said then; "will you just let me slip in front of you? I am so little; I shan't stop your seeing."
She had a nice voice. The poise of her head, lifted and thrown back on a plump neck, showed a pair of bright eyes and good teeth between pouting lips. She glided, merry and alert, into the place Jean made for her without a word.
The man with the guitar sang a ballad about caged birds and blossoms in flower-pots.
"Mine," observed the work-girl to Jean, "are carnations, and I have birds too—canaries they are."
At the moment he was thinking of some fair-faced chatelaine roaming under the battlements of a donjon.
The work-girl went on:
"I have a pair,—you understand, to keep each other company. Two is a nice number, don't you think so?"
He marched off with his visions under the old trees of the Avenue. After a turn or two up and down, he espied the little work-girl hanging on the arm of a handsome young fellow, fashionably dressed, wearing a heavy gold watch-chain. Her admirer was catching her by the waist in the dusk of the trees, and she was laughing.
Then Jean Servien felt sorry he had scorned her advances.
Jean was called up for examination, but with his insufficient preparation he got hopelessly fogged in the intricacies of a difficult, tricky piece of dictation and sums that were too long to be worked in the time allowed the candidates. He came home in despair. His father tried in his good-nature to reassure him. But a fortnight after came an unstamped letter summoning him to the Ministry, and after a three hours' wait he was shown into Monsieur Bargemont's private room. He recognized his own dictation in the big man's hand.
"I am sorry," the functionary began, "to inform you that you have entirely failed to pass the tests set you. You do not know the language of your own country, sir; you write Maisons-Lafitte without an 's' to Maisons. You cannot spell! and what is more, you do not cross your 't's.' You must know at your age that a 't' ought to be crossed. It's past understanding, sir!"
And striking fiercely at the sheet of foolscap on which the mistakes were marked in red ink, he kept muttering: "It's past understanding, past understanding!" His face grew purple, and a swollen vein stood out on his forehead. A queer look in Jean's face gave him pause:
"Young man," he resumed in a calmer voice, "whatever I can do for you, I will do, be sure of that; but you must not ask me to do impossibilities. We cannot enlist in the service of the State young men who spell so badly they write Maisons-Lafitte without an 's' to the Maisons. It is in a way a patriotic duty for a Frenchman to know his own language. A year hence, the Ministry will hold another examination, and I will enter your name. You have a year before you; work hard, sir, and learn your mother-tongue."
Jean stood there scarlet with rage, hate in his heart, his eyes aflame, his throat dry, his teeth clenched, unable to articulate a word; then he swung round like an automaton and darted from the room, banging the door after him with a noise of thunder; piles of books and papers rolled on to the floor of the Chief's office at the shock.
Monsieur Bargemont was left alone to digest his stupefaction; even so his first thought was to save the honour of his Department. He reopened the door and shouted, "Leave the room!" after Jean, who, mastered once more by his natural timidity, was flying like a thief down the corridors.
In the court, which was enlivened by a parterre of roses, Jean, carrying a letter in his hand, was trying to find his bearings according to the directions given him in a low voice, as if it were a secret, by the lay-brother who acted as doorkeeper. He was wandering uncertainly from door to door along the walls of the old silent buildings when a little boy noticed his plight and accosted him:
"Do you want to see the Director? He is in his study with mamma. Go and wait in the parlour."
This was a large hall with bare walls, a noble enough apartment in its unadorned simplicity, in spite of the mean horsehair chairs that stood round it. Above the fire-place, instead of a mirror, was a Mater dolorosa that caught the eye by its dazzling whiteness. Big marble tears stood arrested in mid-career down the cheeks, while the features expressed the pious absorption of the Divine Mother's grief. Jean Servien read the inscription cut in red letters on the pedestal, which ran thus:
PRESENTED TO THE REVEREND ABBE BORDIER, IN MEMORY OF PHILIPPE-GUY DE THIERERCHE, WHO DIED AT PAU, NOVEMBER 11, 1867, IN THE SEVENTEENTH YEAR OF HIS AGE, BY THE COUNTESS VALENTINE DE THIERERCHE, NEE DE BRUILLE DE SAINT-AMAND. LAUDATE PUERI DOMINUM
Then he forgot his anxieties, forgot he was there to beg for employment, shook off the instinctive dread that had seized him on the threshold of the great silent house. He forgot his fears and hopes—hopes of being promoted usher! He was absorbed by this cruel domestic drama revealed to him in the inscription. A scion of one of the greatest families of France, a pupil of the Abbe Bordier, attacked by phthisis in the midst of his now profitless studies and leaving school, not to enjoy life and taste the glorious pleasures only those contemn who have drained them to the dregs, but to die at a southern town in the arms of his mother whose overwhelming, but still self-conscious grief was symbolized by this pompous memorial of her sorrow. He could feel, he could see it all. The three Latin words that represent the stricken mother saying: "Children, praise ye the Lord who hath taken away my child," astonished him by their austere piety, while at the same time he admired the aristocratic bearing that was preserved even in the presence of death.
He was still lost in these day-dreams when an old priest beckoned him to walk into an inner room. The worthy man took the letter of recommendation which Jean handed him, set on his big nose a pair of spectacles with round glasses for all the world like the two wheels of a miniature silver chariot, and proceeded to read the letter, holding it out at the full stretch of his arm. The windows giving on the garden stood open, and a tendril of wild vine hung down on to the desk at the foot of a crucifix of old ivory, while a light breeze set the papers on it fluttering like white wings.
The Abbe Bordier, his reading concluded, turned to the young man, showing a deeply lined countenance and a forehead beautifully polished by age. He took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. Then the worn eyelids lifted slowly and discovered a pair of grey eyes of a shade that somehow reminded you of an autumn morning. He lay back in his armchair, his legs stretched out in front of him, displaying his silver-buckled shoes and black stockings.
"It seems then, my dear boy," he began, "you wish, so my venerable friend the Abbe Marguerite informs me, to devote yourself to teaching; and your idea would be to prepare for your degree while at the same time performing the duties of an assistant master to supervise the boys at their work. It is a humble office; but it will depend entirely on yourself, my dear young friend, to dignify it by a heartfelt zeal and a determination to succeed. I shall entrust the studies of the Remove to your care. Our bursar will inform you of the conditions attaching to the post."
Jean bowed and made to leave the room; but suddenly the Abbe Bordier beckoned him to stop and asked abruptly:
"You understand the rules of verse?"
"Latin verse?" queried Jean.
"No, no! French verse. Now, would you rhyme trone with couronne? The rhyme is not, it must be allowed, quite satisfactory to the ear, yet the usage of the great writers authorizes it."
So saying, the old fellow laid hold of a bulky manuscript book.
"Listen," he cried, "listen. It is St. Fabricius addressing the Proconsul Flavius:
Acheve, fais dresser l'appareil souhaite De ma mort, ou plutot de ma felicite. Le Roi des Rois, du haut de son celeste trone, Deja me tend la palme et tresse ma couronne.
"Do you think it would be better if he said:
Acheve, fais dresser l'appareil souhaite De ma mort, ou plutot de ma felicite. Je vois le Roi des Rois me tendre la couronne, Quel n'en est le prix quand c'est Dieu qui la donne!
"Doubtless these latter lines are more correct than the others, but they are less vigorous, and a poet should never sacrifice meaning to metre.
Le Roi des Rois, du haut de son celeste trone, Deja me tend la palme et tresse ma couronne."
This time, as he declaimed the verses, he went through the corresponding gestures of tendering a gift and plaiting a garland.
"It is better so," he added, "better so!"
Jean, in some surprise, said yes, it was certainly better.
"Certainly better, yes," cried the old poet, smiling with the happy innocence of a little child.
Then he confided in Jean that it was a very difficult thing indeed to write poetry. You must get the caesura in the right place, bring in the rhyme naturally, make your rhythm run in divers cadences, now strong, now sweet, sometimes onomatopoetic, use only words either elevated in themselves or dignified by the circumstances.
He read one passage of his Tragedy because he had his doubts about the number of feet in the line, another because he thought it contained some bold strokes happily conceived, then a third to elucidate the two first, eventually the whole five acts from start to finish. He acted the words as he read, modulating his voice to suit the various characters, stamping and storming, and to adjust his black skullcap—it would tumble off at the pathetic parts—dealing himself a succession of sounding slaps on the crown of his head.
This sacred drama, in which no woman appeared, was to be played by the pupils of the Institution at a forthcoming function. The previous year he had staged his first tragedy, le Bapteme de Clovis, in the same approved style. A regular, Monsieur Schuver, had arranged garlands of paper roses to represent the battlefield of Tolbiac and the basilica at Rheims. To give a wild, barbaric look to the boys who represented Clovis' henchmen, the sister superintendent of the wardrobe had tacked up their white trousers to the knee. But the Abbe Bordier hoped greater things still for his new piece.
Jean applauded and improved upon these ambitious projects. His suggestions for scenery and costumes were admirable. He would have the ruthless Flavius seated on a curule chair of ivory, draped with purple, erected before a portico painted on the back cloth. The costumes of the Roman soldiers, he insisted, must be copied from those on Trajan's Column.
His words opened superb vistas before the old priest's eyes; he was enchanted, ravished, yet full of doubts and fears. Alas! Monsieur Schuver was quite helpless if it came to designing anything more ambitious than his paper roses. Then Jean must needs take a look round in the shed where the properties were stored, and the two discussed together how the stage must be set and the side-scenes worked. Jean took measurements, drew up a plan, worked out an estimate. He manifested a passionate eagerness that was surprising, albeit the old priest took it all as a matter of course. A batten would come here, a practicable door there. The actor would enter there...
But the worthy priest checked him:
"Say the reciter, my dear boy; actor is not a word for self-respecting people."
Barring this trifling misunderstanding, they were in perfect accord. The sun was setting by this time and the Abbe Bordier's shadow, grotesquely elongated, danced up and down the sandy floor of the shed, while the old, broken voice declaimed tags of verse that echoed to the furthest recesses of the court. But Jean Servien was smiling at the vision only his eyes could see of Gabrielle, the inspirer of all his enthusiasm.
It was nearly the end of the long evening preparation and absolute quiet reigned in the schoolroom. The broad lamp-shades concentrated the light on the tangled heads of the boys, who were working at their lessons or sitting in a brown study with their noses on the desks. The only sounds were the crackling of paper, the lads' breathing and the scratch, scratch of steel pens. The youngest there, his cheeks still browned by the sea-breezes, was dreaming over his half-finished exercise of a beach on the Normandy coast and the sand-castles he and his friends used to build, to see them swept away presently by the waves of the rising tide.
At the top of the great room, at the high desk where the Superintendent of Studies had solemnly installed him underneath the great ebony crucifix, Jean Servien, his head between his two hands, was reading a Latin poet.
He felt utterly sad and lonely; but he had not realized yet that his new life was an actual fact, and from moment to moment he expected the schoolroom would suddenly vanish and the desks with their litter of dictionaries and grammars and the young heads gilded by the lamp-light melt into thin air.
Suddenly a paper pellet, shot from the far end of the hall, struck him on the cheek. He turned pale and cried in a voice shaking with anger:
"Monsieur de Grizolles, leave the room!"
There was some whispering and stifled laughter, then peace was restored. The scratching of pens began again, and exercises were passed surreptitiously from hand to hand for cribbing purposes.
He was an usher.
His father had come to this decision by the advice of Monsieur Marguerite, the vicaire of his parish and a friend of the Abbe Bordier. The bookbinder, having a high respect for knowledge, entertained a correspondingly high idea of the status of all its ministers. Assistant master struck him as an imposing title, and he was delighted to have his son connected with an aristocratic and religious foundation.
"Your son," the Abbe Marguerite told him, "will read for his Master's degree in the intervals of his duties, and the title of Licencie-es-Lettres will open the door to the higher walks of teaching. We have known assistants rise to high positions in the University and even occupy Monsieur de Fontanes' chair."
These considerations had clenched the bookbinder's resolution, and this was now the third day of Jean's ushership.
Three months had dragged by. It was a Friday; a hot, nauseating smell of fried fish filled the refectory; a strong drought blew cold about feet encased in wet boots; the walls dripped with moisture, and outside the barred windows a fine rain was falling from a grey sky. The boys, seated at marble-topped tables, were making a hideous rattle with their forks and tin cups, while one of their schoolfellows, seated at the desk in the middle of the great room, was reading aloud, as the regulations direct, a passage from Rollin's Ancient History.
Jean, at the head of a table, his nose in his ill-washed earthenware plate, had cold feet and a sore heart. Something resembling rotten wood formed a deposit at the bottom of his glass, while the servers were handing round dishes of prunes with their thumbs washing in the juice. Now and again, amid the rattle of plates, the rasping voice of the reader, a lad of seventeen, reached the usher's ears. He caught the name of Cleopatra and some scraps of sentences: "She was about to appear before Antony at an age when women unite with the flower of their beauty every charm of wit and intellect... her person more compelling than any magnificence of adornment.... Her galley entered the Cydnus... the poop of the vessel shone resplendent with gold, the sails were of Tyrian purple, the oars of silver."
Then the seductive names of Nereids, flutes, perfumes. The hot blood flooded his cheeks. The woman who for him was the sole and only incarnation of the whole race of womankind throughout the ages rose before his mental sight with a surprising clearness; every hair of his body stood on end in an agonizing spasm of desire, and he dug his nails into the palms of his hands. The vision caused him an unspeakable yet delicious pain—Gabrielle in a loose peignoir at a small, daintily ordered table gay with flowers and glasses. He saw it all quite clearly; his gaze searched every fold of the soft material that covered her bosom and rose and fell at each breath she drew. Face and neck and lively hands had a surprisingly brilliant yet so natural a sheen that they exhaled amorous invitation as if they had been verily of flesh and blood. The superb moulding of the lips, pouting like a ripe mulberry, and the exquisite grain of the skin were manifest—treasures such as men risk death and crime to win. It was the actress, in fine, seen by the two eyes which of all eyes in the whole world had learned to see her best. She was not alone; a man was looking at her with a penetrating intensity as he filled her glass. They were straining one towards the other. Jean could not restrain his sobs. Suddenly he seemed to be falling from the top of a high tower. The Superintendent of Studies was standing in front of him and saying:
"Monsieur Servien, will you see about punishing that boy Laboriette, who is emptying his leavings in his neighbour's pocket?"
The Superintendent, with his large, flat face and the sly ways of a peasant turned monk, was a constant thorn in Jean's side. "Be firm, be firm, sir," was his parable every day, and he never missed an opportunity of doing the usher an ill turn with the Director.
The early days of Jean's servitude had slipped by in an enervating monotony. With his quiet ways, tactful temper and air of kindly aloofness, he was popular with the more sensible boys, while the others left him in peace, as he did them. But there was one exception; Henri de Grizolles, a handsome young savage, proud of his aristocratic name, which he scribbled in big letters on his light trousers, and overjoyed at the chance of hurting an inferior's feelings, had from the very first day declared war against the poor usher. He used to empty ink-bottles into his desk, stick cobbler's wax on his chair, and let off crackers in the middle of school.
Hearing the disturbance, the Superintendent would march in with the airs of a Police Inspector and bid Jean: "Be firm, sir! be firm!"
Far from taking his advice, Jean affected an excessive easiness of temper. One day he caught a boy in the act of drawing a caricature of himself; he picked it up and glanced at it, then handed it back to the artist with a shrug of the shoulders.
Such mildness was misconstrued and only weakened his authority. The usher's miseries grew acute, and he lost the patience that alleviated his sufferings. He could not put up with the lads' restlessness, their happy laughter and light-hearted enjoyment of life. He showed temper, venting his spite on mere acts of thoughtlessness or simple ebullitions of high spirits. Then he would fall into a sort of torpor. He had long fits of absentmindedness, during which he was deaf to every noise. It became the fashion to keep birds, plait nets, shoot arrows, and crow like a cock in Monsieur Jean Servien's class-room. Even the boys from other divisions would slip out of their own classrooms to peep in at the windows of this one, about which such amazing stories were told, and the ceiling of which was decorated with little figures swinging at the end of a string stuck to the plaster with chewed paper.
De Grizolles had installed a regular Roman catapult for shooting kidney-beans at the usher's head.
Jean would drive the young gentleman out of the room. The Superintendent of Studies would reinstate him, only to be turned out again. And each time meant a fresh report to the Director. The Abbe Bordier, who never found patience to hear the worthy Superintendent out to the end, could only throw up his hands to heaven and declare they would be the death of him between them. But the impression became fixed in his mind that the Assistant in charge of the Remove was a source of trouble.
Sunday was a day of cheerful indolence, devoted to attending the services in the Chapel, which was filled with the scent of incense all day long. At Vespers, while the clear, boyish voices intoned the long-drawn canticles, Jean would be gazing at some woman's face half seen in the dusk of the galleries where the pupils' mothers and sisters knelt during the office, their haughty air contradicting the humble attitude. At the sound of the Ave maris stella, the lowly bookbinder's son would lift his eyes to these ladies of high degree, the plainest of whom feels herself a jewel of price and cherishes a natural and unaffected pride of birth. The chants and incense, the flowers and sacred images, whatever troubles the imagination and stimulates to prayer, all these things united to enervate his spirit and deliver him a trembling victim to the glamour of these patrician dames.
But it was Gabrielle he worshipped in them, Gabrielle to whom he offered up his prayers, his supplications. All that element in religion which gives to love the fascination of forbidden fruit appealed powerfully to his imagination. Unbeliever though he was, he loved the Magdalen's God and savoured the creed that has bestowed on lovers one amorous bliss the more—the bliss of losing their immortal souls.
Little by little the boys wearied of this insubordination, their imaginations proving unequal to the invention of any new forms of mischief. Even de Grizolles himself left off shooting beans. Instead, he conceived the notion of brewing chocolate inside his desk with a spirit-lamp and a silver patty-pan. Jean left him in peace and reopened his Sophocles with a sigh of relief. But the Superintendent, going by in the court, caught a smell of cooking, searched the desks and unearthed the patty-pan, which he offered, still warm, for the Reverend the Director's inspection, with the words: "There! that's what goes on in Monsieur Servien's class-room." The Director slapped his forehead, declared they would be the death of him and ordered the patty-pan to be restored to its owner. Then he sent for the Assistant in charge and administered a severe reprimand, because he believed it to be his bounden duty to do so.
The next day was a whole holiday, and Jean went to spend the day at his father's. The latter asked him if he was ready for his professorial examination.
"My lad," he adjured him, "be quick and find a good post if you want me to see you in it. One of these days your aunt and I will be going out at yonder door feet foremost. The old lady had a fit of dizziness last week on the stairs. I am not ill, but I can feel I am worn out. I have done a hard life's work in the world."
He looked at his tools, and walked away, a bent old man!
Then Jean gathered up in both hands the old work-worn tools, all polished with use, scissors, punches, knives, folders, scrapers, and kissed them, the tears running down his cheeks.
At that moment his aunt came in, looking for her spectacles. Furtively, in a whisper, she asked him for a little money. In old days she used to save the halfpence to slip them into the "little lad's " hand; now, grown feebler than the child, she trembled at the idea of destitution; she hoarded, and asked charity of the priests. The fact is, her wits were weakening. Very often she would inform her brother that she did not mean to let the week pass without going to see the Brideaus. Now the Brideaus, jobbing tailors at Montrouge in their lifetime, had been dead, both husband and wife, for the last two years. Jean gave her a louis, which she took with a delight so ugly to see that the poor lad took refuge out of doors.
Presently, without quite knowing how, he found himself on the Quai near the Pont d'Iena. It was a bright day, but the gloomy walls of the houses and the grey look of the river banks seemed to proclaim that life is hard and cruel. Out in the stream a dredger, all drab with marl, was discharging one after the other its bucket-fuls of miry gravel. By the waterside a stout oaken crane was unloading millstones, wheeling backwards and forwards on its axis. Under the parapet, near the bridge, an old dame with a copper-red face sat knitting stockings as she waited for customers to buy her apple-puffs.
Jean Servien thought of his childhood; many a time had his aunt taken him to the same spot, many a time had they watched together the dredger hauling aboard, bucketful by bucketful, the muddy dregs of the river. Very often his aunt had stopped to exchange ideas with the old stallkeeper, while he examined the counter which was spread with a napkin, the carafe of liquorice-water that stood on it, and the lemon that served as stopper. Nothing was changed, neither the dredger, nor the rafts of timber, nor the old woman, nor the four ponderous stallions at either end of the Pont d'Iena.
Yes, Jean Servien could hear the trees along the Quai, the waters of the river, the very stones of the parapet calling to him:
"We know you; you are the little boy his aunt, in a peasant's cap, used to bring here to see us in former days. But we shall never see your aunt again, nor her print shawl, nor her umbrella which she opened against the sun; for she is old now and does not take her nephew walks any more, for he is a grown man now. Yes, the child is grown into a man and has been hurt by life, while he was running after shadows."
One day, in the midday interval, he was informed that a visitor was asking for him in the parlour; the news filled him with delight, for he was very young and still counted on the possibilities of the unknown. In the parlour he found Monsieur Tudesco, wearing his waistcoat of ticking and holding a peaked hat in one hand.
"My young friend," began the Italian, "I learned from your respected father's apprentice that you were confined in this sanctuary of studious learning. I venture to say your fortune is overcast with clouds, at least I fear it is. The lowliness of your estate is not gilded like that of the Latin poet, and you are struggling with a valiant heart against adverse fortune. That is why I am come to offer you the hand of friendship, and I venture to say you will regard as a mark of my amity and my esteem the request I proffer for a crown-piece, which I find needful to sustain an existence consecrated to learned studies."
The parlour was filling with pupils and their friends and relations. Mothers and sons were exchanging sounding kisses, followed by exclamations of "How hot you are, dear!" and prolonged whisperings. Girls in light summer frocks were making sheep's eyes on the sly at their brothers' friends, while fathers were pulling cakes of chocolate out of their pockets.
Monsieur Tudesco, entirely at his ease among these fine people, did not seem at all aware of the young usher's hideous embarrassment. To the latter's "Come outside; we can talk better there," the old man replied unconcernedly, "Oh, no, I don't think so."
He welcomed each lady who came in with a profound bow, and distributed friendly taps on the cheek among the young aristocrats around him.
Lying back in an arm-chair and displaying his famous waistcoat to the very best advantage, he enlarged on such episodes of his life as he thought most impressive:
"The fates were vanquished," he was telling Servien, "my livelihood was assured. The landlord of an inn had entrusted his books to me, and under his roof I was devoting my attention to mathematical calculations, not, like the illustrious and ill-starred Galileo, to measure the stars, but to establish with exactitude the profits and losses of a trader. After two days' performance of these honourable duties, the Commissary of Police made a descent upon the inn, arrested the landlord and landlady and carried away my account books with him. No, I had not vanquished the fates!"
Every head was turned, every eye directed in amazement towards this extraordinary personage. There was much whispering and some half-suppressed laughter. Jean, seeing himself the centre of mocking glances and looks of annoyance, drew Tudesco towards the door. But just as the Marquis was making a series of sweeping bows by way of farewell to the ladies, Jean found himself face to face with the Superintendent of Studies, who said to him:
"Oh! Monsieur Servien, will you go and take detention in Monsieur Schuver's absence?"
The Marquis pressed his young friend's hand, watched him depart to his duties, and then, turning back to the groups gathered in the parlour, he waved his hand with a gesture at once dignified and appealing to call for silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "I have translated into the French tongue, which Brunetto Latini declared to be the most delectable of all, the Gerusalemme Liberata, the glorious masterpiece of the divine Torquato Tasso. This great work I wrote in a garret without fire, on candle wrappers, on snuff papers——"
At this point, from one corner of the parlour, a crow of childish laughter went off like a rocket.
Monsieur Tudesco stopped short and smiled, his hair flying, his eye moist, his arms thrown open as if to embrace and bless; then he resumed:
"I say it: the laugh of innocence is the ill-starred veteran's joy. I see from where I stand groups worthy of Correggio's brush, and I say: Happy the families that meet together in peace in the heart of their fatherland! Ladies and gentlemen, pardon me if I hold out to you the casque of Belisarius. I am an old tree riven by the levin-bolt."
And he went from group to group holding out his peaked felt hat, into which, amid an icy silence, fell coin by coin a dribble of small silver.
But suddenly the Superintendent of Studies seized the hat and pushed the old man outside.
"Give me back my hat," bawled Monsieur Tudesco to the Superintendent, who was doing his best to restore the coins to the donors; "give back the old man's hat, the hat of one who has grown grey in learned studies."
The Superintendent, scarlet with rage, tossed the felt into the court, shouting:
"Be off, or I will call the police."
The Marquis Tudesco took to his heels with great agility.
The same evening the new Assistant was summoned to the Director's presence and received his dismissal.
"Unhappy boy! unhappy boy!" said the Abbe Bordier, beating his brow; "you have been the cause of an intolerable scandal, of a sort unheard of in this house, and that just when I had so much to do."
And as he spoke, the scattered papers fluttered like white birds on the Director's table.
Making his way through the parlour, Jean saw the Mater dolorosa as before, and read again the names of Philippe-Guy Thiererche and the Countess Valentine.
"I hate them," he muttered through clenched teeth, "I hate them all."
Meantime, the good priest felt a stir of pity. Every day they had badgered him with reports against Jean Servien. This time he had given way; he had sacrificed the young usher; but he really could make nothing of this tale about a beggar. He changed his mind, ran to the door and called to the young man to corne back.
Jean turned and faced him:
"No!" he cried, "no! I can bear the life no longer; I am unhappy, I am full of misery—and hate."
"Poor lad!" sight the Director, letting his arms drop by his side.
That evening he did not write a single line of his Tragedy.
The kind-hearted bookbinder harassed his son with no reproaches.
After dinner he went and sat at his shop-door, and looked at the first star that peeped out in the evening sky.
"My boy," said he, "I am not a man of learning like you; but I have a notion—and you must not rob me of it, because it is a comfort to me—that, when I have finished binding books, I shall go to that star. The idea occurred to me from what I have read in the paper that the stars are all worlds. What is that star called?"
"In my part of the world, they say it is the shepherd's star. It's a beautiful star, and I think your mother is there. That is why I should like to go there."
The old man passed his knotted fingers across his brow, murmuring:
"God forgive me, how one forgets those who are gone!"
Jean sought balm for his wounded spirit in reading poetry and in long, dreamy walks. His head was filled with visions—a welter of sublime imaginings, in which floated such figures as Ophelia and Cassandra, Gretchen, Delia, Phaedra, Manon Lescaut, and Virginia, and hovering amid these, shadows still nameless, still almost formless, and yet full of seduction! Holding bowls and daggers and trailing long veils, they came and went, faded and grew vivid with colour. And Jean could hear them calling to him; "If ever we win to life, it will be through you. And what a bliss it will be for you, Jean Servien, to have created us. How you will love us!" And Jean Servien would answer them; "Come back, come back, or rather do not leave me. But I cannot tell how to make you visible; you vanish away when I gaze at you, and I cannot net you in the meshes of beautiful verse!"
Again and again he tried to write poems, tragedies, romances; but his indolence, his lack of ideas, his fastidiousness brought him to a standstill before half a dozen lines were written, and he would toss the all but virgin page into the fire. Quickly discouraged, he turned his attention to politics. The funeral of Victor Noir, the Belleville risings, the plebiscite, filled his thoughts; he read the papers, joined the groups that gathered on the boulevards, followed the yelping pack of white blouses, and was one of the crowd that hooted the Commissary of Police as he read the Riot Act. Disorder and uproar intoxicated him; his heart beat as if it would burst his bosom, his enthusiasm rose to fever pitch, amid these stupid exhibitions of mob violence. Then to end up, after tramping the streets with other gaping idlers till late at night, he would make his way back, with weary limbs and aching ribs, his head whirling confusedly with bombast and loud talk, through the sleeping city to the Faubourg Saint-Germain. There, as he strode past some aristocratic mansion and saw the scutcheon blazoned on its facade and the two lions lying white in the moonlight on guard before its closed portal, he would cast a look of hatred at the building. Presently, as he resumed his march, he would picture himself standing, musket in hand, on a barricade, in the smoke of insurrection, along with workmen and young fellows from the schools, as we see it all represented in lithographs.
One day in July, he saw a troop of white blouses moving along the boulevard and shouting: "To Berlin!" Ragamuffin street-boys ran yelping round. Respectable citizens lined the sidewalks, staring in wonder, and saying nothing; but one of them, a stout, tall, red-faced man, waved his hat and shouted:
"To Berlin! long live the Emperor!"
Jean recognized Monsieur Bargemont.
On top of the ramparts. Bivouac huts and stacked rifles guarded by a sentinel. National Guards are playing shove ha'-penny. The autumn sunshine lies clear and soft and splendid on the roofs of the beleaguered city. Outside the fortifications, the bare, grey fields; in the distance the barracks of the outlying forts, over which fleecy puffs of smoke sail upwards; on the horizon the hills whence the Prussian batteries are firing on Paris, leaving long trails of white smoke. The guns thunder. They have been thundering for a month, and no one so much as hears them now. Servien and Garneret, wearing the red-piped kepi and the tunic with brass buttons, are seated side by side on sand-bags, bending over the same book.
It was a Virgil, and Jean was reading out loud the delicious episode of Silenus. Two youths have discovered the old god lying in a drunken sleep—he is always drunk and it makes men mock at him, albeit they still revere him—and have bound him in chains of flowers to force him to sing. AEgle, the fairest of the Naiads, has stained his cheeks scarlet with juice of the mulberry, and lo! he sings.
"He sings how from out the mighty void were drawn together the germs of earth and air and sea and of the subtle fire likewise; how of these beginnings came all the elements, and the fluid globe of the firmament grew into solid being; how presently the ground began to harden and to imprison Nereus in the ocean, and little by little to take on the shapes of things. He sings how anon continents marvelled to behold a new-emerging sun; how the clouds broke up in the welkin and the rains descended, what time the woods put forth their first green and beasts first prowled by ones and twos over the unnamed mountain-tops."
Jean broke off to observe:
"How admirably it all brings out Virgil's spirit, so serious and tender! The poet has put a cosmogony in an idyll. Antiquity called him the Virgin. The name well befits his Muse, and we should picture her as a Mnemosyne pondering over the works of men and the causes of things!"
Meanwhile Garneret, with a more concentrated attention and his finger on the lines, was marshalling his ideas. The players were still at their game, and the little copper discs they used for throwing kept rolling close to his feet, and the canteen-woman passed backwards and forwards with her little barrel.
"See this, Servien," he said presently; "in these lines Virgil, or rather the poet of the Alexandrine age who was his model, has anticipated Laplace's great hypothesis and Charles Lyell's theories. He shows cosmic matter, that negative something from which everything must come, condensing to make worlds, the plastic rind of the globe consolidating; then the formation of islands and continents; then the rains ceasing and first appearance of the sun, heretofore veiled by opaque clouds; then vegetable life manifesting itself before animal, because the latter cannot maintain itself and endure save by absorbing the elements of the former——"
At that moment a stir was apparent along the ramparts. The players broke off their game and the two friends lifted their heads. It was a train of wounded going by. Under the curtains of the lumbering ambulance-waggons marked with the Geneva red cross could be seen livid faces tied up in bloodstained bandages. Linesmen and mobiles tramped behind, their arms hanging in slings. The Nationals proffered them handfuls of tobacco and asked for news. But the wounded men only shook their heads and trudged stolidly on their way.
"Aren't we to have some fighting soon as well as other fellows?" cried Garneret.
To which Servien growled back:
"We must first put down the traitors and incapables who govern us, proclaim the Commune and march all together against the Prussians."
Hatred of the Empire which had left him to rot in a back-shop and a school class-room, love of the Republic that was to bring every blessing in its train had, since the proclamation of September 4, raised Jean Servien's warlike enthusiasm to fever heat. But he soon wearied of the long drills in the Luxembourg gardens and the hours of futile sentry-go behind the fortifications. The sight of tipsy shopkeepers in a frenzy of foolish ardour, half drink, half patriotism, sickened him, and this playing at soldiers, tramping through the mud on an empty stomach, struck him as after all an odious, ugly business.
Luckily Garneret was his comrade in the ranks, and Servien felt the salutary effect of that well-stored, well-ordered mind, the servant of duty and stern reality. Only this saved him from a passion, as futile in the past as it was hopeless in the future, which was assuming the dangerous character of a mental disease.
He had not seen Gabrielle again for a long time. The theatres were shut; all he knew, from the newspapers, was that she was nursing the wounded in the theatre ambulance. He had no wish now to meet her.
When he was not on duty, he used to lie in bed and read (it was a hard winter and wood was scarce), or else scour the boulevards and mix with the throng of idlers in search of news. One evening, early in January, as he was passing the corner of the Rue Drouot, his attention was attracted by the clamour of voices, and he saw Monsieur Bargemont being roughly handled by an ill-looking gang of National Guards.
"I am a better Republican than any of you," the big man was vociferating; "I have always protested against the infamies of the Empire. But when you shout: Vive Blanqui!... excuse me... I have a right to shout: Vive Jules Favre! excuse me, I have a perfect right——" But his voice was drowned in a chorus of yells. Men in kepis shook their fists at him, shouting: "Traitor! no surrender! down with Badinguet!" His broad face, distraught with terror, still bore traces of its erstwhile look of smug effrontery. A girl in the crowd shrieked: "Throw him in the river!" and a hundred voices took up the cry. But just at that moment the crowd swayed back violently and Monsieur Bargemont darted into the forecourt of the Mairie. A squad of police officers received him in their ranks and closed in round him. He was saved!
Little by little the crowd melted away, and Jean heard a dozen different versions of the incident as it travelled with ever-increasing exaggeration from mouth to mouth. The last comers learned the startling news that they had just arrested a German general officer, who had sneaked into Paris as a spy to betray the city to the enemy with the connivance of the Bonapartists.
The streets being once more passable, Jean saw Monsieur Bargemont come out of the Mairie. He was very red and a sleeve of his overcoat was torn away.
Jean made up his mind to follow him.
Along the boulevards he kept him in view at a distance, and not much caring whether he lost track of him or no; but when the Functionary turned up a cross street, the young man closed in on his quarry. He had no particular suspicion even now; a mere instinct urged him to dog the man's heels. Monsieur Bargemont wheeled to the right, into a fairly broad street, empty and badly lighted by petroleum flares that supplied the place of the gas lamps. It was the one street Jean knew better than another. He had been there so often and often! The shape of the doors, the colour of the shop-fronts, the lettering on the sign-boards, everything about it was familiar; not a thing in it, down to the night-bell at the chemist's and druggist's, but called up memories, associations, to touch him. The footsteps of the two men echoed in the silence. Monsieur Bargemont looked round, advanced a few paces more and rang at a door. Jean Servien had now come up with him and stood beside him under the archway. It was the same door he had kissed one night of desperation, Gabrielle's door. It opened; Jean took a step forward and Monsieur Bargemont, going in first, left it open, thinking the National Guard there was a tenant going home to his lodging. Jean slipped in and climbed two flights of the dark staircase. Monsieur Bargemont ascended to the third floor and rang at a door on the landing, which was opened. Jean could hear Gabrielle's voice saying:
"How late you are coming home, dear; I have sent Rosalie to bed; I was waiting up for you, you see."
The man replied, still puffing and panting with his exertions:
"Just fancy, they wanted to pitch me into the river, those scoundrels! But never you mind, I've brought you something mighty rare and precious—a pot of butter."
"Like Little Red Ridinghood," laughed Gabrielle's voice. "Come in and you shall tell me all about it.... Hark! do you hear?"
"What, the guns? Oh! that never stops."
"No, the noise of a fall on the stairs."
"Give me the candle, I'm going to look."
Monsieur Bargemont went down two or three steps and saw Jean stretched motionless on the landing.
"A drunkard," he said; "there's so many of them! They were drunkards, those chaps who wanted to drown me."
He was holding his light to Jean's ashy face, while Gabrielle, leaning over the rail, looked on:
"It's not a drunken man," she said; "he is too white. Perhaps it is a poor young fellow dying of hunger. When you're brought down to rations of bread and horseflesh——"
Then she looked more carefully under frowning brows, and muttered:
"It's very queer, it's really very queer!"
"Do you know him?" asked Bargemont.
"I am trying to remember——"
But there was no need to try; already she had recalled it all—how her hand had been kissed at the gate of the little house at Bellevue.
Running to her rooms, she returned with water and a bottle of ether, knelt beside the fainting man, and slipping her arm, which was encircled by the white band of a nursing sister, under his shoulders, raised Jean's head. He opened his eyes, saw her, heaved the deepest sigh of love ever expelled from a human breast and felt his lids fall softly to again. He remembered nothing; only she was bending over him; and her breath had caressed his cheek. Now she was bathing his temples, and he felt a delicious sense of returning life. Monsieur Bargemont with the candle leant over Jean Servien, who, opening his eyes for the second time, saw the man's coarse red cheek within an inch of the actress's delicate ear. He gave a great cry and a convulsive spasm shook his body.
"Perhaps it is an epileptic fit," said Monsieur Bargemont, coughing; he was catching cold standing on the staircase.
"We cannot leave a sick man without doing something for him. Go and wake Rosalie."
He remounted the stairs, grumbling. Meantime Jean had got to his feet and was standing with averted head.
She said to him in a low tone:
"So you love me still?"
He looked at her with an indescribable sadness:
"No, I don't love you any longer"—and he staggered down the stairs.
Monsieur Bargemont reappeared:
"It's very curious," he said, "but I can't make Rosalie hear."
The actress shrugged her shoulders.
"Look here, go away, will you? I have a horrid headache. Go away, Bargemont."
She was Bargemont's mistress! The thought was torture to Jean Servien, the more atrocious from the unexpectedness of the discovery. He both hated and despised the coarse ruffian whose sham good-nature did not impose on him, and whom he knew for a brutal, dull-witted, mean-spirited bully. That pimply face, those goggle eyes, that forehead with the swollen black vein running across it, that heavy hand, that ugly, vulgar soul, could it be—— It sickened him to think of it! And disgust was the thing of all others Servien's delicately balanced nature felt most keenly. His morality was shaky, and he could have found excuse for elegant vices, refined perversions, romantic crimes. But Bargemont and his pot of butter!... Never to possess the most adorable of women, never to see her more, he was quite willing for the sacrifice still, but to know her in the arms of that coarse brute staggered the mind and rendered life impossible.
Absorbed in such thoughts, he found his way back instinctively to his own quarter of the city. Shells whistled over his head and burst with terrific reports. Flying figures passed him, their heads enveloped in handkerchiefs and carrying mattresses on their backs. At the corner of the Rue de Rennes he tripped over a lamp-post lying across the pavement beside a half-demolished wall. In front of his father's shop he saw a huge hole. He went to open the door; a shell had burst it in and he could see the work-bench capsized in a dark corner.
Then he remembered that the Germans were bombarding the left bank, and he felt a sudden impulse to roam the streets under the rain of iron.
A voice hailed him, issuing from underground:
"Is it you, my lad? Come in quick; you've given me a fine fright. Come down here; we are settled in the cellars."
He followed his father and found beds arranged in the underground chambers, while the main cellar served as kitchen and sitting-room. The bookbinder had a map, and was pointing out to the concierge and tenants the position of the relieving armies. Aunt Servien sat in a dim corner, her eyes fixed in a dull stare, mumbling bits of biscuit soaked in wine. She had no notion of what was happening, but maintained an attitude of suspicion.
The little assemblage, which had been living this subterranean life since the evening of the day before, asked what news young Servien brought. Then the bookbinder resumed the explanations which as an old soldier and a responsible man he had been asked to give the company.
"The thing to do is," he continued, "to join hands with the Army of the Loire, piercing the circle of iron that shuts us in. Admiral La Ronciere has carried the positions at Epinay away beyond Longjumeau——"
Then turning to Jean:
"My lad, just find me Longjumeau on the map; my eyes are not what they were at twenty, and these tallow candles give a very poor light."
At that moment a tremendous explosion shook the solid walls and filled the cellar with dust. The women screamed; the porter went off to make his round of inspection, tapping the walls with his heavy keys; an enormous spider scampered across the vaulted roof.
Then the conversation was resumed as if nothing had happened, and two of the lodgers started a game of cards on an upturned cask.
Jean was dog-tired and fell asleep on the floor—a nightmare sleep.
"Has the little lad come home?" asked Aunt Servien, still sucking at her biscuit.
Old Servien, in his working jacket, stepped up to the bed; then, creeping away again on tip-toe:
"He is asleep, Monsieur Garneret, he is asleep. The doctor tells us he is saved. He is a very good doctor! You know that yourself, for he is your friend, and it was you brought him here. You have been our saviour, Monsieur Garneret."
And the bookbinder turned his head away to wipe his eyes, walked across to the window, lifted the curtain and looked out into the sunlit street.
"The fine weather will quite set him up again. But we have had six terrible weeks. I never lost heart; it is not in the nature of things that a father should despair of his son's life; still, you know, Monsieur Garneret, he has been very ill.
"The neighbours have been very good to us; but it was a hard job nursing him in this cursed cellar. Just think, Monsieur Garneret, for twenty days we had to keep his head in ice."
"You know that is the treatment for meningitis."
The bookbinder came up confidentially to Garneret. He scratched his ear, rubbed his forehead, stroked his chin in great embarrassment.
"My poor lad," he got started at last, "is in love, passionately in love. I have found it out from the things he said when he was delirious. It is not my way to interfere with what does not concern me; but as I see the matter is serious, I am going to ask you, for his own good, to tell me who it is, if you know her."
Garneret shrugged his shoulders:
"An actress! a tragedy actress! pooh!"
The bookbinder pondered a moment; then:
"Look you, Monsieur Garneret, I acted for the best in my poor boy's interest, but I blame myself. I tell myself this, the education I gave him has disqualified him for hard work and practical life.... An actress, you say, a tragedy actress? Tastes of that sort must be acquired in the schools. Those times he was attending his classes, I used to get hold of his exercise books after he had gone to bed and read whatever there was in French. It was my way of checking his work; because, ignoramus as he may be, a man can see, with a little common sense, what is done properly and what is scamped. Well, Monsieur Garneret, I was terrified to find in his themes so many high-flown ideas; some of them were very fine, no doubt, and I copied out on a paper those that struck me most. But I used to tell myself: All these grand speeches, all these histories, taken from the books of the ancient Romans, are going to put my lad's head in a fever, and he will never know the truth of things. I was right, my dear Monsieur Garneret; it is school learning, look you, has made him fall in love with a tragedy actress——"
Jean Servien raised himself up in bed.
"Is that you, Garneret? I am very glad to see you."
Then, after listening a moment:
"Why, what is that noise?" he asked.