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The Aspirations of Jean Servien
by Anatole France
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Garneret told him it was Mont Valerien firing on the fortifications. The Commune was in full swing.

"Vive la Commune!" cried Jean Servien, and he dropped his head back on the pillow with a smile.



XXXII

He was recovered and, with a book in his hand, was talking a quiet walk in the Luxembourg gardens. He had that feeling of harmless selfishness, that self-pity that comes with convalescence. Of his previous life, all he cared to remember was a charming face bending over him and a voice sweeter than the loveliest music murmuring: "So you love me still?" Oh! never fear, he would not answer now as he did on that dreadful staircase: "I don't love you any longer." No, he would answer with eyes and lips and open arms: "I shall love you always!" Still the odious spectre of his rival would cross his memory at times and cause him agonies. Suddenly his eyes were caught by an extraordinary sight.

Two yards away from him in the garden, in front of the orange-house, was Monsieur Tudesco, burly and full-blown as usual, but how metamorphosed in costume! He wore a National Guard's tunic, covered with glittering aiguillettes; from his red sash peeped the butts of a brace of pistols. On his head was perched a kepi with five gold bands. The central figure of a group of women and children, he was gazing at the heavens with as much tender emotion as his little green eyes were capable of expressing. His whole person breathed a sense of power and kindly patronage. His right hand rested at arm's length on a little boy's head, and he was addressing him in a set speech:

"Young citizen, pride of your mother's heart, ornament of the public parks, hope of the Commune, hear the words of the proscribed exile. I say it: Young citizen, the 18th of March is a great day; it witnessed the foundation of the Commune, it rescued you from slavery. Grave on your heart's core that never-to-be-forgotten date. I say it: We have suffered and fought for you. Son of the disinherited and despairing, you shall be a free man!"

He ended, and restoring the child to its mother, smiled upon his listeners of the fair sex, who were lost in admiration of his eloquence, his red sash, his gold lace and his green old age.

Albeit it was three o'clock in the afternoon, he had not drunk more than he could carry, and he trod the sandy walks with a mien of masterful assurance amid the plaudits of the people.

Jean advanced to meet him; he had a soft place in his heart for the old man. Monsieur Tudesco grasped his hand with a fatherly affection and declaimed:

"I am overjoyed to see my dear disciple, the child of my intellect. Monsieur Servien, look yonder and never forget the sight; it is the spectacle of a free people."

The fact is, a throng of citizens of both sexes was tramping over the lawns, picking the flowers in the beds and breaking branches from the trees.

The two friends tried to find seats on a bench; but these were all occupied by federes of all ranks huddled up on them and snoring in chorus. For this reason Monsieur Tudesco opined it was better to adjourn to a cafe.

They came upon one in the Place de l'Odeon, where Monsieur Tudesco could display his striking uniform to his own satisfaction.

"I am an engineer," he announced, when he was seated with his bitter before him, "an engineer in the service of the Commune, with the rank of Colonel."

Jean thought it mighty strange all the same. No doubt he had heard his old tutor's tales about his confabulations at the dram-shop with the leaders of the Commune, but it struck him as extraordinary that the Monsieur Tudesco he knew should have blossomed into an engineer and Colonel under any circumstances. But there was the fact. Monsieur Tudesco manifested no surprise, not he!

"Science!" he boasted, "science is everything! It's study does it! Knowledge is power! To vanquish the myrmidons of despotism, we must have science. That is why I am an engineer with the rank of Colonel."

And Monsieur Tudesco went on to relate how he was charged with very special duties—to discover the underground passages which the instruments of tyranny had dug beneath the capital, tunnelling under the two branches of the Seine, for the transport of munitions of war. At the head of a gang of navvies, he inspected the palaces, hospitals, barracks and religious houses, breaking up cellars and staving in drain-pipes. Science! science is everything! He also inspected the crypts of churches, to unearth traces of the priests' lubricity. Knowledge is power!

After the bitter came absinthe, and Colonel Tudesco proposed for Servien's consideration a lucrative post at the Delegacy for Foreign Affairs.

But Jean shook his head. He felt tired and had lost all heart.

"I see what it is," cried the Colonel, patting him on the shoulder; "you are young and in love. There are two spirits breathe their inspiration alternately in the ear of mankind—Love and Ambition. Love speaks the first; and you are still hearkening to his voice, my young friend."

Jean, who had drunk his share of absinthe, confessed that he was deeper in love than ever and that he was jealous. He related the episode of the staircase and inveighed bitterly against Monsieur Bargemont. Nor did he fail to identify his case with the good of the Commune, by making out Gabrielle's lover to be a Bonapartist and an enemy of the people.

Colonel Tudesco drew a note-book from his pocket, inscribed Bargemont's name and address in it, and cried:

"If the man has not fled like a poltroon, we will make a hostage of him! I am the friend of the Citizen Delegate in charge of the Prefecture of Police, and I say it: you shall be avenged on the infamous Bargemont! Have you read the decree concerning hostages? No? Read it then; it is an inimitable monument of the wisdom of the people.

"I tear myself regretfully from your company, my young friend. But I must be gone to discover an underground passage the Sisters of Marie-Joseph, in their contumacy, have driven right from the Prison of Saint-Lazare to the Mother Convent in the village of Argenteuil. It is a long tunnel by which they communicate with the traitors at Versailles. Come and see me in my quarters at the General Staff, in the Place Vendome. Farewell and fraternal greeting!"

Jean paid the Colonel's score and set out for home. The walls were all plastered over with posters and proclamations. He read one that was half hidden under bulletins of victories:

"Article IV. All persons detained in custody by the verdict of the jury of accusation shall be hostages of the people of Paris.

"Article V. Every execution of a prisoner of war or a partisan of the government of the Commune of Paris shall be followed by the instant execution of thrice the number of hostages detained in virtue of Article IV, the same being chosen by lot."

He frowned dubiously and asked himself:

"Can it be I have denounced a man as hostage?"

But his fears were soon allayed; Colonel Tudesco was only a wind-bag, and could not really arrest people. Besides, was it credible that Bargemont, head of a Ministerial Department, was still in Paris? And after all, if he did come to harm, well, so much the worse for him!



XXXIII

Two days after a cab with a musket barrel protruding from either window stopped before the bookbinder's shop. The two National Guards who stumbled out of it demanded to see the citizen Jean Servien, handed him a sealed packet and signed to him to open the door wide and wait for them. Next minute they reappeared carrying a full-length portrait.

It represented a woman of forty or thereabouts, with a yellow face, very long and disproportionately large for the frail, sickly body it surmounted, and dressed in an unpretending black gown. She wore a sad, submissive look. Her grey eyes bespoke a contrite and fearful heart, the cheeks were pendulous and the loose chin almost touched the bosom. Jean scrutinized the poor, pitiful face, but could recall no memory in connection with it. He opened the letter and read:

"Commune of Paris—General Staff.

"Order to deliver to the citizen Jean Servien the portrait of Madame Bargemont.

"Tudesco.

"Colonel commanding the Subterranean Ways of the Commune."

Jean wanted to ask the National Guards what it all meant, but already the cab was driving off, bayonets protruding from both windows. The passers-by, who had long ceased to be surprised at anything, cast a momentary glance after the retreating vehicle.

Jean, left alone with Madame Bargemont's portrait before him, began to ask himself why his disconcerting friend Tudesco had sent it to him.

"The wretch," he told himself, "must have arrested Bargemont and sacked his apartments."

Meantime Madame Bargemont was gazing at him with a martyr's haunting eyes. She looked so unhappy that Jean was filled with pity.

"Poor woman!" he ejaculated, and turning the canvas face to the wall, he left the house.

Presently the bookbinder returned to his work and, though anything but an inquisitive man, was tempted to look at this big picture that blocked up his shop. He scratched his head, wondering if this could be the actress his son was in love with. He opined she must be mightily taken with the young man to send him so large a portrait in so handsome a frame. He could not see anything to capture a lover's fancy.

"At any rate," he thought, "she does not look like a bad woman."



XXXIV

Jean stepped over the bodies of two or three drunked National Guards and found himself in the room occupied by Colonel Tudesco and in that worthy's presence. The Colonel lay snoring on a satin sofa, a cold chicken on the table at his elbow. He wore his spurs. Jean shook him roughly by the shoulder and asked him where the portrait came from, declaring that he, Jean, had not the smallest wish to keep it. The Colonel woke, but his speech was thick and his memory confused. His mind was full of his underground passages. He was commander of them all and could not find one. There was something in this fact that offended his sense of justice. The Lady Superior of the Nuns of Marie-Joseph had refused to betray the secret of the famous Saint-Lazare tunnel.

"She has refused," declared the old Italian, "out of contumacy—and also, perhaps, because there is no tunnel. And, since truth must out, I'm bound to say, if I was not Commandant of the subterranean passages of the capital, I should really think there were none."

His wits came back little by little.

"Young man, you have seen the soldier reposing from his labours. What question have you come to ask the veteran champion of freedom?"

"About Bargemont? About that portrait?"

"I know, I know. I proceeded with a dozen men to his domicile to arrest him, but he had taken to flight, the coward! I carried out a perquisition in his rooms. In the salon I saw Madame Bargemont's portrait and I said: 'That lady looks as sad as Monsieur Jean Servien. They are both victims of the infamous Bargemont; I will bring them together and they shall console each other.' Monsieur Servien, oblige me by tasting that cognac; it comes from the cellar of your odious rival."

He poured the brandy into two big glasses and hiccuped with a laugh:

"The cognac of an enemy tastes well."

Then he fell back on the sofa, muttering:

"The soldier reposing——"

His face was crimson. Jean shrugged his shoulders and left the room. He had hardly opened the door when the old man began howling in his sleep: "Help! help! they're murdering me."

In an instant the federes on guard hurled themselves upon Jean; he could feel the cold muzzles of revolvers at his temples and hear rifles banging off at random in the ante-room.

The Colonel was raving in the frenzy of alcoholic delirium, writhing in horrible convulsions and yelling: "He has killed me! he has murdered me!"

"He has murdered the Colonel," the federes took up the cry. "He has poisoned him. Take him before the court martial."

"Shoot him right away. He's an assassin; the Versaillais have sent him."

"Off with him to the lock-up!"

Servien's denials and struggles were in vain. Again and again he protested:

"You can see for yourselves he's drunk and asleep!"

"Listen to him—he is insulting the sovereign people."

"Pitch him in the river!"

"Swing him on a lamp-post."

"Shoot him!"

Bundled down the stairs, rifle-butts prodding him in the back to help him along, Jean was haled before an officer, who there and then signed an order of arrest.



XXXV

He had been in solitary confinement in a cell at the depot for sixteen days now—or was it fifteen?—he was not sure. The hours dragged by with an excruciating monotony and tediousness.

At the start he had demanded justice and loudly protested his innocence. But he had come to realize at last that justice had no concern with his case or that of the priests and gendarmes confined within the same walls. He had given up all thought of persuading the savage frenzy of the Commune to listen to reason, and deemed it the wisest thing to hold his tongue and the best to be forgotten. He trembled to think how easily it might end in tragedy, and his anguish seemed to choke him.

Sometimes, as he sat dreaming, he could see a tree against a patch of blue sky, and great tears would rise to his eyes.

It was there, in his prison cell, Jean learned to know the shadowy joys of memory.

He thought of his good old father sitting at his work-bench or tightening the screw of the press; he thought of the shop packed with bound volumes and bindings, of his little room where of evenings he read books of travel—of all the familiar things of home. And every time he reviewed in spirit the poor thin romance of his unpretending life, he felt his cheeks burn to think how it was all dominated, almost every episode controlled, by this drunken parasite of a Tudesco! It was true nevertheless! Paramount over his studies, his loves, his dangers, over all his existence, loomed the rubicund face of the old villain! The shame of it! He had lived very ill! but what a meagre life it had been too. How cruel it was, how unjust! and there was more of self-pity in the poor, sore heart than of anger.

Every day, every hour he thought of Gabrielle; but how changed the complexion of his love for her! Now it was a tender, tranquil sentiment, a disinterested affection, a sweet, soothing reverie. It was a vision of a wondrous delicacy, such as loneliness and unhappiness alone can form in the souls they shield from the rude shocks of the common life—the dream of a holy life, a life dim and overshadowed, vowed wholly and completely, without reward or recompense, to the woman worshipped from afar, as that of the good country cure is vowed to the God who never steps down from the tabernacle of the altar.

His gaoler was a good-natured sous-officier who, amazed and horrified at what was going forward, clung to discipline as a sheet-anchor in the general shipwreck. He felt a rough, uncouth pity for his prisoners, but this never interfered with the strict performance of his duties, and Jean, who had no experience of soldiers' ways, never guessed the man's true character. However, he grew less and less unbending and taciturn the nearer the army of order approached the city.

Finally, one day he had told his prisoner, with a wink of the eye:

"Courage, lad! something's going to turn up soon."

The same afternoon Jean heard a distant sound of musketry; then, all in a moment, the door of his cell opened and he saw an avalanche of prisoners roll from one end of the corridor to the other. The gaoler had unlocked all the cells and shouted the words, "Every man for himself; run for it!" Jean himself was carried along, down stairs and passages, out into the prison courtyard, and pitched head foremost against the wall. By the time he recovered from the shock of his fall, the prisoners had vanished, and he stood alone before the open wicket.

Outside in the street he heard the crackle of musketry and saw the Seine running grey under the lowering smoke-cloud of burning Paris. Red uniforms appeared on the Quai de l'Ecole. The Pont-au-Change was thick with federes. Not knowing where to fly, he was for going back into the prison; but a body of Vengeurs de Lutece, in full flight, drove him before their bayonets towards the Pont-au-Change. A woman, a cantiniere, kept shouting: "Don't let him go, give him his gruel. He's a Versaillais." The squad halted on the Quai-aux-Fleurs, and Jean was pushed against the wall of the Hotel-Dieu, the cantiniere dancing and gesticulating in front of him. Her hair flying loose under her gold-laced kepi, with her ample bosom and her elastic figure poised gallantly on the strong, well-shaped limbs, she had the fierce beauty of some magnificent wild animal. Her little round mouth was wide open, yelling menaces and obscenities, as she brandished a revolver. The Vengeurs de Lutece, hard-pressed and dispirited, looked stolidly at their white-faced prisoner against the wall, and then looked in each other's faces. Her fury redoubled; threatening them collectively, addressing each man by some vile nickname, pacing in front of them with a bold swing of the powerful hips, the woman dominated them, intoxicated them with her puissant influence.

They formed up in platoon.

"Fire!" cried the cantiniere.

Jean threw out his arms before him.

Two or three shots went off. He could hear the balls flatten against the wall, but he was not hit.

"Fire! fire!" The woman repeated the cry in the voice of an angry, self-willed child.

She had been through the fighting, this girl, she had drunk her fill from staved-in wine-casks and slept on the bare ground, pell-mell with the men, out in the public square reddened with the glare of conflagration. They were killing all round her, and nobody had been killed yet for her. She was resolved they should shoot her someone, before the end! Stamping with fury, she reiterated her cry:

"Fire! Fire! Fire!"

Again the guns were cocked and the barrels levelled. But the Vengeurs de Lutece had not much heart left; their leader had vanished; they were disorganized, they were running away; sobered and stupefied, they knew the game was up. They were quite willing all the same to shoot the bourgeois there at the wall, before bolting for covert, each to hide in his own hole.

Jean tried to say: "Don't make me suffer more than need be!" but his voice stuck in his throat.

One of the Vengeurs cast a look in the direction of the Pont-au-Change and saw that the federes were losing ground. Shouldering his musket, he said:

"Let's clear out of the bl—y place, by God!"

The men hesitated; some began to slink away.

At this the cantiniere shrieked:

"Bl—sted hounds! Then I'll have to do his business for him!"

She threw herself on Jean Servien and spat in his face; she abandoned herself to a frantic orgy of obscenity in word and gesture and clapped the muzzle of her revolver to his temple.

Then he felt all was over and waited.

A thousand things flashed in a second before his eyes; he saw the avenues under the old trees where his aunt used to take him walking in old days; he saw himself a little child, happy and wondering; he remembered the castles he used to build with strips of plane-tree bark... The trigger was pulled. Jean beat the air with his arms and fell forward face to the ground. The men finished him with their bayonets; then the woman danced on the corpse with yells of joy.

The fighting was coming closer. A well-sustained fire swept the Quai. The woman was the last to go. Jean Servien's body lay stretched in the empty roadway. His face wore a strange look of peacefulness; in the temple was a little hole, barely visible; blood and mire fouled the pretty hair a mother had kissed with such transports of fondness.

THE END

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