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