Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Robert J. Hall
THE ASPIRATIONS OF JEAN SERVIEN
BY ANATOLE FRANCE
A TRANSLATION BY ALFRED ALLINSON
Jean Servien was born in a back-shop in the _Rue Notre-Dame
des Champs_. His father was a bookbinder and worked for the
Religious Houses. Jean was a little weakling child, and his mother
nursed him at her breast as she sewed the books, sheet by sheet,
with the curved needle of the trade. One day as she was crossing
the shop, humming a song, in the words of which she found expression
for the vague, splendid visions of her maternal ambition, her
foot slipped on the boards, which were moist with paste.
Instinctively she threw up her arm to guard the child she held
clasped to her bosom, and struck her breast, thus exposed, a
severe blow against the corner of the iron press. She felt no
very acute pain at the time, but later on an abscess formed,
which got well, but presently reopened, and a low fever supervened
that confined her to her bed.
There, in the long, long evenings, she would fold her little
one in her one sound arm and croon over him in a hot, feverish
whisper bits of her favourite ditty:
The fisherman, when dawn is nigh,
Peers forth to greet the kindling sky....
Above all, she loved the refrain that recurred at the end of
each verse with only the change of a word. It was her little
Jean's lullaby, who became, at the caprice of the words, turn
and turn about, General, Lawyer, and ministrant at the altar
in her fond hopes.
A woman of the people, knowing nothing of the circumstances of
fashionable life, save from a few peeps at their outward pomp
and the vague tales of _concierges_, footmen, and cooks, she
pictured her boy at twenty more beautiful than an archangel,
his breast glittering with decorations, in a drawing-room full
of flowers, amid a bevy of fashionable ladies with manners every
whit as genteel as had the actresses at the _Gymnase_:
_But for the nonce, on mother's breast,
Sweet wee gallant, take thy rest._
Presently the vision changed; now her boy was standing up gowned
in Court, by his eloquence saving the life and honour of some
_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
Time slipped by, and little by little his dead wife grew to be a
tender, vague memory in the bookbinder's mind. One night he tried
in vain to recall Clotilde's features; after this experience,
he told himself that perhaps he might be able to discover the
mother's lineaments in the child's face, and he was seized with
a great longing to see this relic of the lost one once more,
to have the child home again.
In the morning he wrote a letter to his old sister, Mademoiselle
Servien, begging her to come and take up her abode with the little
one in the _Rue Notre-Dame des Champs_. The sister, who had lived
for many years in Paris at her brother's expense, for indolence
was her ruling passion, agreed to resume her life in a city where,
she used to say, folks are free and need not depend on their
One autumn evening she arrived at the _Gare de l'Ouest_ with Jean
and her boxes and baskets, an upright, hard-featured, fierce-eyed
figure, all ready to defend the child against all sorts of
imaginary perils. The bookbinder kissed the lad and expressed his
satisfaction in two words.
Then he lifted him pickaback on his shoulders, and bidding him
hold on tight to his father's hair, carried him off proudly to
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
"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
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
The Marquis Tudesco expressed no surprise. He smiled and said:
"Certainly, sir, as you wish it, I shall find it a delightful
task to initiate your son in the mysteries of the Latin rudiments.
"We will make a man of him and a good citizen, and God knows
what heights my pupil will scale in this noble land of freedom
and generosity. He may one day be ambassador, my dear sir. I
say it: knowledge is power."
"You will know the shop again," said the bookbinder; "there is
my name on the signboard."
The Marquis Tudesco, after tweaking the son's ear amicably and
bowing to the father with a dignified familiarity, walked away
with a step that was still jaunty.
The Marquis Tudesco returned in due course, smiled at Mademoiselle
Servien, who darted poisonous looks at him, greeted the bookbinder
with a discreet air of patronage, and had a supply of grammars
and dictionaries bought.
At first he gave his lessons with exemplary regularity. He had
taken a liking to these repetitions of nouns and verbs, which he
listened to with a dignified, condescending air, slowly unrolling
his screw of snuff the while; he only interrupted to interject
little playful remarks with a geniality just touched with a trace
of ferocity, that bespoke his real nature as an unctuous, cringing
bully. He was jocular and pompous at the same time, and always
made a pretence of being a long time in seeing the glass of wine
put on the table for his refreshment.
The bookbinder, regarding him as a clever man of ill-regulated
life, always treated him with great consideration, for faults
of behaviour almost cease to shock us except among neighbours,
or at most fellow-countrymen. Without knowing it, Jean found a
fund of amusement in the witticisms and harangues of his old
teacher, who united in himself the contradictory attributes of
high-priest and buffoon. He was great at telling a story, and
though his tales were beyond the child's intelligence, they did
not fail to leave behind a confused impression of recklessness,
irony, and cynicism. Mademoiselle Servien alone never relaxed her
attitude of uncompromising dislike and disdain. She said nothing
against him, but her face was a rigid mask of disapproval, her
eyes two flames of fire, in answer to the courteous greeting
the tutor never failed to offer her with a special roll of his
little grey eyes.
One day the Marquis Tudesco walked into the shop with a staggering
gait; his eyes glittered and his mouth hung half open in anticipation
of racy talk and self-indulgence, while his great nose, his pink
cheeks, his fat, loose hands and his big belly, gallantly carried,
gave him, beneath his jacket and felt hat, a perfect likeness to
a little rustic god his ancestors worshipped, the old Silenus.
Lessons that day were fitful and haphazard. Jean was repeating
in a drawling voice: _moneo, mones, monet ... monebam, monebas,
monebat..._ Suddenly Monsieur Tudesco sprang forward, dragging
his chair along the floor with a horrid screech, and clapping
his hand on his pupil's shoulder:
"Child," he said, "to-day I am going to give you a more profitable
lesson than all the pitiful teaching I have confined myself to
up to now.
"It is a lesson of transcendental philosophy. Hearken carefully,
child. If one day you rise above your station and come to know
yourself and the world about you, you will discover this, that
men act only out of regard for the opinion of their fellows--and
_per Bacco!_ they are consummate fools for their pains. They
dread other folks' blame and crave their approval.
"The idiots fail to see that the world does not care a straw
for them, and that their dearest friends will see them glorified
or disgraced without missing one mouthful of their dinner. This
is my lesson, _caro figliuolo_, that the world's opinion is not
worth the sacrifice of a single one of our desires. If you get
this into your pate, you will be a strong man and can boast you
were once the pupil of the Marquis Tudesco, of Venice, the exile
who has translated in a freezing garret, on scraps of refuse
paper, the immortal poem of Torquato Tasso. What a task!"
The child listened to the tipsy philosopher without understanding
one word of his rigmarole; only Monsieur Tudesco struck him as
a strange and alarming personage, and taller by a hundred feet
than anybody he had ever seen before.
The professor warmed to his subject:
"Ah!" he cried, springing from his seat, "and what profit did
the immortal and ill-starred Torquato Tasso win from all his
genius? A few stolen kisses on the steps of a palace. And he
died of famine in a madhouse. I say it: the world's opinion,
that empress of humankind, I will tear from her her crown and
sceptre. Opinion tyrannizes over unhappy Italy, as over all the
earth. Italy! what flaming sword will one day come to break her
fetters, as now I break this chair?"
In fact, he had seized his chair by the back and was pounding
it fiercely on the floor.
But suddenly he stopped, gave a knowing smile, and said in a low
"No, no, Marquis Tudesco, let be, let Venice be a prey to Teuton
savagery. The fetters of the fatherland are daily bread to the
His chin buried in his cravat, he stood chuckling to himself,
and his red waistcoat rose and fell in jerks.
Mademoiselle Servien, who sat by at the lesson knitting a stocking
and for some moments had been watching the tutor, her spectacles
pushed half-way up her forehead, with a look of amazement and
suspicion, exclaimed, as if talking to herself:
"If it isn't abominable to come to people's houses in drink!"
Monsieur Tudesco did not seem to hear her. His manner was quiet
and jocular again.
"Child," he ordered, "write down the theme for an essay. Write
down: 'The worst thing... yes, the worst thing of all,' write
it down... 'is an old woman with a spiteful temper.'"
And rising with the gracious dignity of a Prince of the Church,
he bowed low to the aunt, gave the nephew's cheek a friendly
tap, and marched out of the room.
However, beginning with the very next lesson, he lavished every
mark of respect on the old lady, and treated her to all his choicest
airs and graces, rounding his elbows, pursing his lips, strutting
and swaggering. She would not relax a muscle, and sat there as
silent and sulky as an owl.
But one day when she was hunting for her spectacles, as she was
always doing, Monsieur Tudesco offered her his and persuaded her
to try them; she found they suited her sight and felt a trifle
less unamiable towards him. The Italian, pursuing his advantage,
got into talk with her, and artfully turned the conversation upon
the vices of the rich. The old lady approved his sentiments, and
an exchange of petty confidences ensued. Tudesco knew a sovereign
remedy for catarrh, and this too was well received. He redoubled
his attentions, and the _concierge_, who saw him smiling to himself
on the doorstep, told Aunt Servien: "The man's in love with you."
Of course she declared: "At my time of life a woman doesn't want
lovers," but her vanity was tickled all the same. Monsieur Tudesco
got what he wanted--to have his glass filled to the brim every
lesson. Out of politeness they would even leave him the pint jug
only half empty, which he was indiscreet enough to drain dry.
One day he asked for a taste of cheese--"just enough to make
a mouse's dinner," was his expression. "Mice are like me, they
love the dark and a quiet life and books; and like me they live
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
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 another question:
"You love her very much, your mother I mean?"
"Of course I do!" cried the other, adding presently:
"You must come and see me one day in the holidays at home. You'll
find our house is very pretty, there's sofas and cushions no end.
But you must not put off, for we shall be off to the seaside
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
"Ewans, you're wanted in the parlour."
The usher marched up:
"Garneret," he ordered, "you will stand half an hour this evening
at preparation speaking when you were forbidden to. Ewans, go
to the parlour."
The latter clapped his hands and danced for joy, telling his friend:
"It's my mother! I'll tell her you are coming to our house."
Servien reddened with pleasure, and stammered out that he would
ask his father's leave. But Ewans had already scampered across
the yard, leaving a dusty furrow behind him.
Leave was readily granted by Monsieur Servien, who was fully
persuaded that all boys admitted to so expensive a school born of
well-to-do parents, whose society could not but prove advantageous
to his son's manners and morals and to his future success in
Such information as Jean could give him about Madame Ewans was
extremely vague, but the bookbinder was well used to contemplating
the ways of rich folks through a veil of impenetrable mystery.
Aunt Servien indulged in sundry observations on the occasion of
a very general kind touching people who ride in carriages. Then
she repeated a story about a great lady who, just like Madame
Ewans, had put her son to boarding-school, and who was mixed up
in a case of illicit commissions, in the time of Louis-Philippe.
She added, to clinch the matter, that the cowl does not make
the monk, that she thought herself, for all she did not wear
flowers in her hat, a more honest woman than your society ladies,
false jades everyone, concluding with her pet proverb: Better
a good name than a gilt girdle!
Jean had never seen a gilt girdle, but he thought in a vague way
he would very much like to have one.
The holidays came, and one Thursday after breakfast his aunt
produced a white waistcoat from the wardrobe, and Jean, dressed
in his Sunday best, climbed on an omnibus which took him to the
Rue de Rivoli. He mounted four flights of a staircase, the carpet
and polished brass stair-rods of which filled him with surprise
On reaching the landing, he could hear the tinkling of a piano.
He rang the bell, blushed hotly and was sorry he had rung. He
would have given worlds to run away. A maid-servant opened the
door, and behind her stood Edgar Ewans, wearing a brown holland
suit, in which he looked entirely at his ease.
"Come along," he cried, and dragged him into a drawing-room, into
which the half-drawn curtains admitted shafts of sunlight that
were flashed back in countless broken reflections from mirrors
and gilt cornices. A sweet, stimulating perfume hung about the
room, which was crowded with a superabundance of padded chairs
and couches and piles of cushions.
In the half-light jean beheld a lady so different from all he had
ever set eyes on till that moment that he could form no notion of
what she was, no idea of her beauty or her age. Never had he seen
eyes that flashed so vividly in a face of such pale fairness, or
lips so red, smiling with such an unvarying almost tired-looking
smile. She was sitting at a piano, idly strumming on the keys
without playing any definite tune. What drew Jean's eyes above
all was her hair, arranged in some fashion that struck him with
a sense of mystery and beauty.
She looked round, and smoothing the lace of her _peignoir_ with
"You are Edgar's friend?" she asked, in a cordial tone, though
her voice struck Jean as harsh in this beautiful room that was
perfumed like a church.
"You like being at school?"
"The masters are not too strict?"
"You have no mother?"
As she put the question Madame Evans' voice softened.
"What is your father?"
"A bookbinder, Madame"--and the bookbinder's son blushed as he
gave the answer. At that moment he would gladly have consented
never to see his father more, his father whom he loved, if by
the sacrifice he could have passed for the son of a Captain in
the Navy or a Secretary of Embassy. He suddenly remembered that
one of his fellow-pupils was the son of a celebrated physician
whose portrait was displayed in the stationers' windows.
If only he had had a father like that to tell Madame Ewans of!
But that was out of the question--and how cruelly unjust it was!
He felt ashamed of himself, as if he had said something shocking.
But his friend's mother seemed quite unaffected by the dreadful
avowal. She was still moving her hands at random up and down
the keyboard. Then presently:
"You must enjoy yourself finely to-day, boys," she cried. "We
will all go out. Shall I take you to the fair at Saint-Cloud?"
Yes, Edgar was all for going, because of the roundabouts.
Madame Ewans rose from the piano, patted her pale flaxen hair
in place with a pretty gesture, and gave a sidelong look in the
mirror as she passed.
"I'm going to dress," she told them; "I shall not be long."
While she was dressing, Edgar sat at the piano trying to pick
out a tune from an opera bouffe, and Jean, perched uncomfortably
on the edge of his chair, stared about the room at a host of
strange and sumptuous objects that seemed in some mysterious
way to be part and parcel of their beautiful owner, and affected
him almost as strangely as she herself had done.
Preceded by a faint waft of scent and a rustle of silk, she
reappeared, tying the strings of the hat that made a dainty diadem
above her smiling eyes.
Edgar looked at her curiously:
"Why, mother, there's something... I don't know what. . . something
that alters you."
She glanced in the mirror, examining her hair, which showed pale
violet shadows amid the flaxen plaits.
"Oh! it's nothing," she said; "only I have put some powder in
my hair. Like the Empress," she added, and broke into another
As she was drawing on her gloves, a ring was heard, and the maid
came in to tell her mistress that Monsieur Delbeque was waiting
to see her.
Madame Ewans pouted and declared she could not receive him, whereupon
the maid spoke a few words in a very peremptory whisper. Madame
Ewans shrugged her shoulders.
"Stay where you are!" she told the boys, and passed into the
dining-room, whence the murmur of two voices could presently be
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
"Oh! no," said Edgar, "he's one of our friends. It's a long time...
at least a year we have known him."
Jean, harking back to his first idea, put the question:
"Have you ever seen him selling his pigs?"
"How stupid you are!" retorted Edgar; "he deals in them wholesale.
Mother says it's a famous trade. He has a cigar-holder with an
amber mouthpiece and a woman all naked carved in meerschaum.
Just think, the other day he came and told mother his wife was
making him atrocious scenes."
Madame Ewans put in her head at the half-open door:
"Come along," she said, and they set out. No sooner were they
in the street than a man, who was smoking, greeted Madame with
a friendly wave of his gloved hand. She muttered between her
"Shall we never be done with them?"
The man began in a guttural voice:
"I was just going to your place, my dear, to offer you a box of
Turkish cigarettes. But I see you are taking a boarding-school
out for a walk--a regular boarding-school, 'pon my word! You
take pupils, eh? I congratulate you. Make men of 'em, my dear,
make men of 'em."
Madame Ewans frowned and replied with a curl of the lips:
"I am with my son and one of my son's friends."
The gentleman threw a careless look at one of the lads--Jean Servien
as it happened.
"Capital, capital!" he exclaimed. "Is that one your son?"
"Not he, indeed!" she cried hotly.
Jean felt he was looked down upon, and as she laid her hand on
her son's shoulder with a proud gesture, he could not help noticing
his schoolfellow's easy air and elegant costume, at the same time
casting a glance of disgust at his own jacket, which had been
cut down for him by his aunt out of an overcoat of his father's.
"Shall we be honoured by your presence to-night at the _Bouffes_?"
asked the gentleman.
"No!" replied Madame Ewans, and pushed the two children forward
with the tip of her sunshade.
Stepping out gaily, they soon arrive under the chestnuts of the
Tuileries, cross the bridge, then down the river-bank, over the
shaky gangway, and so on to the steamer pontoon.
Now they are aboard the boat, which exhales a strong, healthy
smell of tar under the hot sun. The long grey walls of the
embankments slip by, to be succeeded presently by wooded slopes.
Saint-Cloud! The moment the ropes are made fast, Madame Ewans
springs on to the landing-stage and makes straight for the shrilling
of the clarinettes and thunder of the big drums, steering her
little charges through the press with the handle of her sunshade.
Jean was mightily surprised when Madame Ewans made him "try his
luck" in a lottery. He had before now gone with his aunt to sundry
suburban fairs, but she had always dissuaded him so peremptorily
from spending anything that he was firmly persuaded revolving-tables
and shooting-galleries were amusements only permitted to a class
of people to which he did not belong. Madame Ewans showed the
greatest interest in her son's success, urging him to give the
handle a good vigorous turn.
She was very superstitious about luck, "invoking" the big prizes,
clapping her hands in ecstasy whenever Edgar won a halfpenny
egg-cup, falling into the depths of despair at every bad shot.
Perhaps she saw an omen in his failure; perhaps she was just
blindly eager to have her darling succeed. After he had lost two
or three times, she pulled the boy away and gave the wooden disk
such a violent push round as set its cargo of crockery-ware and
glass rattling, and proceeded to play on her own account--once,
twice, twenty times, thirty times, with frantic eagerness. Then
followed quite a business about exchanging the small prizes for
one big one, as is commonly done. Finally, she decided for a
set of beer jugs and glasses, half of which she gave to each of
the two friends to carry.
But this was only a beginning. She halted the children before
every stall. She made them play for macaroons at _rouge et
noir_. She had them try their skill at every sort of
shooting-game, with crossbows loaded with little clay pellets,
with pistols and carbines, old-fashioned weapons with caps and
leaden bullets, at all sorts of distances, and at all kinds of
targets--plaster images, revolving pipes, dolls, balls bobbing
up and down on top of a jet of water.
Never in his life had Jean Servien been so busy or done so many
different things in so short a space of time.
His eyes dazzled with uncouth shapes and startling colours, his
throat parched with dust, elbowed, crushed, mauled, hustled by
the crowd, he was intoxicated with this debauch of diversions.
He watched Madame Ewans for ever opening her little purse of
Russia leather, and a new power was revealed to him. Nor was
this all. There was the Dutch top to be set twirling, the wooden
horses of the merry-go-round to be mounted; they had to dash
down the great chute and take a turn in the Venetian gondolas,
to be weighed in the machine and touch the arm of the "human
But Madame Ewans could not help returning again and again to
stand before the booth of a hypnotist from Paris, a clairvoyante
boasting a certificate signed by the Minster of Agriculture and
Commerce and by three Doctors of the Faculty. She gazed enviously
at the servant-girls as they trooped up blushing into the van
meagrely furnished with a bed and a couple of chairs; but she
could not pluck up courage to follow their example.
She recalled to mind how a hypnotist had once helped a friend
of hers to recover some stolen forks and spoons. She had even
gone so far as to consult a fortune-teller shortly before Edgar's
birth, and the cards had foretold a boy.
All three were tired out and overloaded with crockery, glass,
reed-pipes, sticks of sugar-candy, cakes of ginger-bread and
macaroons. For all that, they paid a visit to the wax-works,
where they saw Monseigneur Sibour's body lying in state at the
Archbishop's Palace, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, models
of people's legs and arms disfigured by various hideous diseases,
and a Circassian maiden stepping out of the bath--"the purest
type of female beauty," as a placard duly informed the public.
Madame Ewans examined this last exhibit with a curiosity that
very soon became critical.
"People may say what they please," she muttered; "if you offered
me the whole world, _I_ wouldn't have such big feet and such
a thick waist. And then, your regular features aren't one bit
attractive. Men like a face that says something."
When they left the tent, the sun was low and the dust hovered in
golden clouds over the throng of women, working-men, and soldiers.
It was time for dinner; but as they passed the monkey-cage, Madame
Ewans noticed such a crush of eager spectators squeezing in between
the baize curtains on the platform in front that she could not
resist the temptation to follow suit. Besides which, she was
drawn by a motive of curiosity, having been told that monkeys
were not insensible to female charms. But the performance diverted
her thoughts in another direction. She saw an unhappy poodle in
red breeches shot as a deserter in spite of his honest looks.
Tears rose to her eyes, she was so sensitive, so susceptible
to the glamour of the stage!
"Yes, it's quite true," she sobbed; "yes, poor soldiers have
been shot before now just for going off without leave to stand
by their mother's death-bed or for smacking a bullying officer's
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
Dinner must be thought of. She knew of a tavern by the river-side
where you could eat a fry of fish in the arbour, and thither
they betook themselves.
The lady from Paris and the landlady of the inn greeted each
other with a wink of the eye. It was a long time since she had
seen Madame; she had no idea who the two young gentlemen were,
but anyway they were dear little angels. Madame Ewans ordered the
meal like a connoisseur, with a knowing air and all the proper
restaurant tricks of phrase. All three sat silent, agreeably
tired and enjoying the sensation, she with her bonnet-strings
flying loose, the boys leaning back against the trellis. They
could see the river and its grassy banks through an archway of
wild vine. Their thoughts flowed softly on like the current before
their eyes, while the dusk and cool of the evening wrapped them
in a soft caress. For the first time Jean Servien, as he gazed
at Madame Ewans, felt the thrill of a woman's sweet proximity.
Presently, warmed by a trifle of wine and water he had drunk,
he became wholly lost in his dreams--visions of all sorts of
elegant, preposterous, chivalrous things. His head was still
full of these fancies when he was dragged back to the fair-ground
by Madame Ewans, who could never have enough of sight-seeing
and noise. Illuminated arches spanned at regular intervals the
broad-walk, lined on either side by stalls and trestle-tables,
but the lateral avenues gloomed dark and deserted under the tall
black trees. Loving couples paced them slowly, while the music
from the shows sounded muffled by the distance. They were still
there when a band of fifes, trombones, and trumpets struck up
close by, playing a popular polka tune. The very first bar put
Madame Ewans on her mettle. She drew Jean to her, settled his
hands in hers and lifting him off the ground with a jerk of the
hip, began dancing with him. She swung and swayed to the lilt
of the music; but the boy was awkward and embarrassed, and only
hindered his partner, dragging back and bumping against her.
She threw him off roughly and impatiently, saying sharply:
"You don't know how to dance, eh? You come here, Edgar."
She danced a while with him in the semi-darkness. Then, rosy and
"Bravo!" she laughed; "we'll stop now."
Servien stood by in gloomy silence, conscious of his own
inefficiency. His heart swelled with a sullen anger. He was hurt,
and longed for somebody or something to vent his hate upon.
The drive home was a silent one. Jean nearly gave himself cramp
in his determined efforts not to touch with his own the knees
of Madame Ewans' who dozed on the back seat of the conveyance.
She hardly awoke enough to bid him good-bye when he alighted
at his father's door.
As he entered, he was struck for the first time by a smell of
paste that seemed past bearing. The room where he had slept for
years, happy in himself and loved by others, seemed a wretched
hole. He sat down on his bed and looked round gloomily and morosely
at the holy-water stoup of gilt porcelain, the print commemorating
his First Communion, the toilet basin on the chest of drawers,
and stacked in the corners piles of pasteboard and ornamental
paper for binding.
Everything about him seemed animated by a hostile, malevolent,
unjust spirit. In the next room he could hear his father moving.
He pictured him at his work-bench, with his serge apron, calm
and content. What a humiliation! and for the second time in a
dozen hours he blushed for his parentage.
His slumbers were broken and uneasy; he dreamed he was turning,
turning unendingly in complicated figures, and it was impossible
always to avoid touching Madame Evans' knee, though all the time
he was horribly afraid of doing it. Then there was a great field
full of thousands and thousands of marble pigs stuck up on stone
pedestals, among which he could see Monsieur Delbeque promenading
slowly up and down.
Next morning he awoke feeling sour-tempered and low-spirited.
"Well, my boy," his father asked him, blowing noisily at each
spoonful of soup he absorbed, "well, did you enjoy yourself
He answered curtly and crossly. Everything stirred his gorge.
His aunt's print gown filled him with a sort of rage.
His father propounded a hundred minute inquiries; he would fain
have pictured the whole expedition to himself as he consumed his
bowl of soup. He had seen Saint-Cloud in his soldiering days;
but he had never been there since. He had a bright idea; they
would go to Versailles, the three of them; his sister would see
to having a bit of veal cooked overnight, and they could take
it with them. They would have a look at the pictures, eat their
snack on the great lawn, and have a fine time generally.
Jean, who was horrified at the whole project, opened his
exercise-books and buried his head in his lessons, to avoid the
necessity of hearing any more and answering questions. He did not
as a rule show such alacrity about setting to work. His father
remarked on the fact, commending him for his zeal.
"We should play," he announced, "when it is play-time, and work
when it is the time to work," and _he_ set to work flattening
a piece of shagreen.
Jean fell into a brown study. He had caught a glimpse of a world
he knew to be for ever closed against him, but towards which
all the forces of his young heart drew him irresistibly. He did
not dream Madame Ewans could ever be different from what he had
seen her. He could not imagine her otherwise dressed or amid any
other surroundings. He knew nothing whatever of women; this one
had seemed motherly to him, and it was a mother such as Madame
Ewans he would have liked to have. But how his heart beat and
his brow burned as he pictured this imaginary mother a reality!
Dating from the day at Saint-Cloud, Jean thought himself unhappy,
and unhappy he became in fact. He was wilfully, deliberately
insubordinate, proud of breaking rules and defying punishments.
He and his school-mates attended the classes of a _Lycee_ in
the _Quartier Latin_. Directly he had taken his place on the
remotest bench in the well-warmed lecture-room, he would become
absorbed in some sentimental novel concealed under piles of
Latin and Greek authors. Sometimes the master, short-sighted as
he was, would catch the culprit in the act.
Still, Jean had his hours of triumph. His translations were
remarkable, not for accuracy, but at any rate for elegance. So,
too, his compositions sometimes contained happy phrases that
earned him high praise. On the theme, "The maiden Theano defending
Alcibiades against the incensed Athenians," he wrote a Latin
oration that was warmly commended by Monsieur Duruy, the then
Inspector of Public Instruction, and gained the young author
some weeks of scholastic fame.
On holidays he would roam the boulevards and gaze with greedy
eyes at the jewels, the silks and satins, the bronzes, the
photographs of women, displayed in the shop-windows--the thousand
and one gewgaws and frivolities of fashion that seemed to him
to sum up the necessary conditions of happiness.
His entry into the philosophy class was a red-letter day; he
sported his first tall hat and smoked his first non-surreptitious
cigarettes. He possessed a certain brilliancy of mind and a keen
wit that amused his companions, whose superior he was in gifts
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
Jean polished off the family repast rapidly and hurried away to
the theatre. His only ideas as yet of what a play was like were
derived from the posters he had seen. He selected for tonight
one of the big theatres where a tragedy was on the bill. He took
his ticket for the pit with a vague idea it would be the talisman
admitting him to a new wonder-world of passion and emotion. Every
trifle is disconcerting to a troubled spirit, and on his entrance
he was surprised and sobered to see how few spectators there were
in the stalls and boxes. But at the first scraping of the violins
as the orchestra tuned up, he glued his eyes to the curtain,
which rose at last.
Then, then he saw, in a Roman palace, leaning on the back of a
chair of antique shape, a woman who wore over her robe of white
woollen the saffron-hued _palla_. Amid the trampling of feet, the
rustle of dresses and the shifting of stools, she was reciting
a long soliloquy, accompanied by slow, deliberate gestures. He
felt, as he gazed, a strange, unknown pleasure, that grew more
and more acute till it was almost pain. As scene followed scene,
there entered a confidante, then a hero, then a crowd of supers.
But he saw nothing but the apparition that had first fascinated
him. His eyes fastened greedily on her beauty, caressing the two
bare arms, encircled with rings of metal, gliding along the curve
of the hips below the high girdle, plunging amid the brown locks
that waved above the brow and were tied back with three white
fillets; they clung to the moving lips and the white, moist teeth
that ever and anon flashed in the glare of the footlights. He
longed to feel, to seize, to hold this lovely, living thing that
moved before his eyes; in imagination he enfolded and embraced
the beautiful vision.
The wait between the acts (for the tragedy involved a change of
scenery) was intolerably tedious. His neighbours were talking
politics and passing one another quarters of orange across him;
the newspaper boy and the man who hired out opera-glasses deafened
him with their bawling. He was in terror of some sudden catastrophe
that might interrupt the play.
The curtain rose once more, on a succession of scenes of political
intrigue a la Corneille which had no meaning for Servien. To
his joy the lovely being in the white robe came on again. But
he had strained his sight too hard; he could see nothing; by
dint of riveting his gaze on the long gold pendants that hung
from the actress's ears, he was dazzled; his eyes swam and closed
involuntarily, and he could hear no sound but the beating of
the blood in his temples.
By a supreme effort, in the last scene, he saw and heard her again
clearly and distinctly, yet not as with his ordinary senses, for
she wore for him the elemental guise of a supernatural vision.
When the prompter's bell tinkled and the curtain descended for the
last time, he had a feeling as though the universe had collapsed
in irretrievable ruin.
_Tartuffe_ was the after-piece; but neither the spirit and perfection
of the acting, nor the pretty face and plump shoulders of Elmire,
nor the _soubrette_'s dimpled arms, nor the _ingenue_'s innocent
eyes, nor the noble, witty lines that filled the theatre and
roused the audience to fresh attention, could stir his spirit
that hung entranced on the lips of a tragic heroine.
As he stepped out into the street, the first breath of the cool
night air on his face blew away his intoxication. His senses came
back to him and he could think again; but his thoughts never left
the object of his infatuation, and her image was the only thing
he saw distinctly. He was entranced, possessed; but the feeling
was delicious, and he roamed far and wide in the dark streets,
making long detours by the river-side quays to lengthen out his
reveries, his heart full, overfull of passionate, voluptuous
imaginings. He was content because he was weary; his soul lay
drowned in a delicious languor that no pang of desire troubled;
to look and long was more than sufficient as yet to still the
cravings of his virgin appetites.
He threw himself half dressed on his bed, overjoyed to cherish
the picture of her beauty in his heart. All he wanted was to
lose himself in the enchanted sleep that weighed down his boyish
On waking, he gazed about him for something--he knew not what.
Was he in love? He could not tell, but there was a void somewhere.
Still, he felt no overmastering impulse, except to read the verses
he had heard the actress declaim. He took down from his shelves
a volume of Corneille and read through Emilie's part. Every line
enchanted him, one as much as another, for did they not all evoke
the same memory for him?
His father and his aunt, with whom he passed his days, had grown
to be only vague, meaningless shapes to him. Their broadest
pleasantries failed to raise a smile, and the coarse realities of
a narrow, penurious existence had no power to disturb his happy
serenity. All day long, in the back-shop where the penetrating
smell of paste mingled with the fumes of the cabbage-soup, he
lived a life of his own, a life of incomparable splendours. His
little Corneille, scored thickly with thumb-nail marks at every
couplet of Emilie's, was all he needed to foster the fairest
of illusions. A face and the tones of a voice were his world.
In a few days he knew the whole tragedy by heart. He would declaim
the lines in a slow, pompous voice, and his aunt would remark
after each speech, as she shredded the vegetables for dinner:
"So you're for being a _cure_, are you, that you preach like they
do in church?"
But in the main she approved of these exercises, and when Monsieur
Servien scratched his head doubtfully and complained that his
son would not make up his mind to any way of earning a living,
she always took up the cudgels for the "little lad" and silenced
the bookbinder by telling him roundly he knew nothing about it--or
about anything else.
So the worthy man went back to his calf-skins. All the same,
albeit he could form no very clear idea of what was in his son's
head, for the latter having become a "gentleman" was beyond his
purview, he felt some disquietude to see a holiday, legitimate
enough no doubt after a successful examination, dragging out to
such a length. He was anxious to see his son earning money in
some department of administration or other. He had heard speak
of the _Hotel de Ville_ and the Government Offices, and he
racked his brains to think of someone among his customers who
might interest himself in his son's future. But he was not the
man to act precipitately.
One day, when Jean Servien was out on one of the long walks he had
got into the habit of taking, he read on a poster that his Emilie,
Mademoiselle Gabrielle T----, was appearing in that evening's
piece. This time, ignoring his aunt's disapproval, he donned his
Sunday clothes, had his hair frizzed and curled, and took his
seat in the orchestra stalls.
He saw her again! For the first few moments she did not seem
so beautiful as he had pictured her. So long had he laboured
and lain awake over the first image he had carried away of her
that the impression had become blurred, and the type that had
originally imprinted it on his heart no longer corresponded with
the result created by his mind's unconscious working. Then he
was disconcerted to see neither the white _stola_ and saffron
mantle nor the bracelets and fillets that had seemed to him part
and parcel of the beauty they adorned. Now she wore the turban
of Roxana and the wide muslin trousers caught in at the ankle.
It was only by degrees he could grow reconciled to the change.
He realized that her arms were a trifle thin, and that a tooth
stood back behind the rest in the row of pearls. But in the end
her very defects pleased him, because they were hers, and he loved
her the better for them. This time, by the law of change which is
of the very essence of life, and by virtue of the imperfection
that characterizes all living creatures, she made a physical
appeal to his senses and called up the idea of a human being of
flesh and blood, a creature you could cling to and make one with
yourself. His admiration was lost in a flood of tenderness and
infinite sadness--and he burst into tears.
The next day he conceived a great desire to see her as she was
in everyday life, dressed for the streets. It would be a sort of
intimacy merely to pass her on the pavement. One evening, when she
was playing, he watched for her at the stage-door, through which
emerged one after the other scene-shifters, actors, constables,
firemen, dressers, and actresses. At last she appeared, muffled
in her fur cloak, a bouquet in her hand, tall and pale--so pale
in the dusk her face seemed to him as if illumined by an inward
light. She stood waiting on the doorstep till a carriage was
He clasped both hands on his breast and thought he was going to
When he found himself alone on the deserted _Quai_, he plucked
a leaf from the overhanging bough of a plane tree. Then, setting
his elbows on the parapet of the bridge, he tossed the leaf into
the river and watched it borne away by the current of the stream
that lay silvery in the moonlight, spangled with quivering lights.
He watched it till he could see it no longer. Was it not the
emblem of himself? He, too, was abandoning himself to the waters
of a passion that shone bright and which he thought profound.
That year the _Champs de Mars_ was occupied by one of the
series of _Expositions Universelles_. Under the trees, in
the heat and dust, crowds were swarming towards the entrance.
Jean passed the turnstiles and entered the palace of glass and
iron. He was still pursuing his passion, for he associated the
being he loved with all manifestations of art and luxury. He
made for the park and went straight to the Egyptian pavilion.
Egypt had filled his dreams from the day when all his thoughts
had been centred on one woman. In the avenue of sphinxes and
before the painted temple he fell under the glamour that women
of olden days and strange lands exercise on the senses,--on those
of lovers with especial force. The sanctuary was venerable in
his eyes, despite the vulgar use it was put to as part of the
Exhibition. Looking at the jewels of Queen Aahotep, who lived
and was lovely in the days of the Patriarchs, he pondered sadly
over all that had been in the world and was no more. He pictured
in fancy the black locks that had scented this diadem with the
sphinx's head, the slim brown arms these, beads of gold and lapis
lazuli had touched, the shoulders that had worn these vulture's
wings, the peaked bosoms these chains and gorgets had confined,
the breast that had once communicated its warmth to yonder gold
scarabaeus with the blue wing-cases, the little royal hand that
once held that poniard by the hilt wrought over with flowers
and women's faces. He could not conceive how what was a dream to
him had been a reality for other men. Vainly he tried to follow
the lapse of ages. He told himself that another living shape
would vanish in its turn, and it would be for nothing then that
it had been so passionately desired. The thought saddened and
calmed him. He thought, as he stood before these gewgaws from
the tomb, of all these men who, in the abyss of bygone time,
had in turn loved, coveted, enjoyed, suffered, whom death had
taken, hungry or satiated, and made an end of the appetites of
all alike. A placid melancholy swept over him and held him
motionless, his face buried in his hands.
It was at breakfast the next morning that Jean noticed, for the
first time, the venerable, kindly look of his father's face. In
truth, advancing years had invested the bookbinder's appearance
with a sort of beauty. The smooth forehead under the curling
white locks betokened a habit of peaceful and honest thoughts.
Old age, while rendering the play of the muscles less active,
veiled the distortion of the limbs due to long hours of labour
at the bench under the more affecting disfigurements which life
and _its_ long-drawn labours impress on all men alike. The old
man had read, thought, striven honestly to do his best, and won
the saving grace a simple faith bestows on the humble of heart;
for he had become a religious man and a regular attendant at
the church of his parish. Jean told himself it would be an easy
and a grateful task to cherish such a father, and he resolved to
inaugurate a life of toil and sacrifice. But he had no employment
and no notion what to do.
Shut up in his room, he was filled with a great pity for himself
and longed to recover the peace of mind, the calm of the senses, the
happy life that had vanished along with the leaf he had abandoned
that evening to the drifting current. He opened a novel, but at
the first mention of love he pitched the volume down, and fell
to reading a book of travel, following the steps of an English
explorer into the reed palace of the King of Uganda. He ascended
the Upper Nile to Urondogami; hippopotamuses snorted in the swamps,
waders and guinea-fowl rose in flight, while a herd of antelopes
sped flying through the tall grasses. He was recalled from far,
far away by his aunt shouting up the stairs:
"Jean! Jean! come down into the shop; your father wants you."
A stout, red-faced man, with the bent shoulders that come of
much stooping over the desk, sat beside the counter. Monsieur
Servien's eyes rested on his face with a deprecating air.
When the boy appeared, the stranger asked if this was the young
man in question, adding in a scolding voice:
"You are all the same. You work and sweat and wear yourselves
out to make your sons bachelors of arts, and you think the day
after the examination the fine fellows will be posted Ambassadors.
For God's sake! no more graduates, if you please! We can't tell
what to do with 'em.... Graduates indeed! Why, they block the
road; they are cab-drivers, they distribute handbills in the
streets. You have 'em dying in hospital, rotting in the hulks!
Why didn't you teach your son your own trade? Why didn't you
make a bookbinder of him? ... Oh! I know why; you needn't tell
me,--out of ambition! Well, then! some day your son will die of
starvation, blushing for your folly--and a good job too! The State!
you say, the State! it's the only word you can put your tongues
to. But it's cluttered up, the State is! Take the Treasury; you
send us graduates who can't spell; what d'ye expect us to do
with all these loafers?"
He drew his hand across his hot forehead. Then pointing a finger
to show he was addressing Jane:
"At any rate, you write a good hand?"
Monsieur Servien answered for his son, saying it was legible.
"Legible! Legible!" repeated the great man--throwing his fat
hands about. "A copying clerk must write an even hand. Young man,
do you write an even hand?"
Jean said he did not know, his handwriting might have been spoilt,
he had never thought very much about it. His questioner frowned:
"That's very wrong," he blustered; "and I dare swear you young
fellows make a silly affectation of not writing decently.... I
may have a bit of influence at the Ministry, but you mustn't
ask me to do impossibilities."
The bookbinder shrunk back with a scared glance. _He_ certainly
did not look the man to ask impossibilities.
The other got up:
"You will take lessons," he said, turning to Jean, "in writing
and ciphering. You have eight months before you. Eight months
from now the Minister will hold an examination. I will put your
name down. Do you set to work without losing a minute!"
So saying, he pulled out his watch, as though to see if his protege
was actually going to waste a single minute before beginning his
studies. He directed Monsieur Servien to get to work without
delay on the books he was giving him to bind, and walked out of
the shop. After the bookbinder had seen him to his carriage:
"Jean, my boy," said he, "that is Monsieur Bargemont; I have
spoken to him about you and you have heard what he had to say;
he is going to help you to get into the Treasury Office, where
he holds a high post. You understand what he told you about the
examinations; you know more about such things, praise God! than
I do. I am only an ignoramus, my lad, but I am your father. Now
listen; I want to have a word of explanation with you, so that
from this day on till I go to where your dear mother is we can
look each other calmly in the face and understand one another
at the first glance. Your mother loved you right well, Jean.
There's not a gold mine in the world could give a notion of the
wealth of affection that woman possessed. From the first moment
you saw the light, she lived, so to say, more in you than in
herself. Her love was stronger than she could bear. Well, well,
she is dead. It was nobody's fault."
The old man turned his eyes involuntarily towards the darkest
corner of the shop, and Jean, looking in the same direction,
caught sight of the sharp angles of the hand-press in the gloom.
Monsieur Servien went on:
"On her death-bed your mother asked me to make an educated man
of you, for well she knew that education is the key that opens
"I have done what she wished. She was no longer with us, Jean,
and when a voice comes back to you from the grave and bids you do
a thing 'that a blessing may come,' why, one must needs obey. I
did my best; and no doubt God was with me, for I have succeeded.
You have your education; so far so good, but we must not have
a blessing turn into a curse. And idleness is a curse. I have
worked like a packhorse, and given many a hard pull at the collar,
in harness from morning to night. I remember in particular one
lot of cloth covers for the firm of Pigoreau that kept me on
the job for thirty-six hours running. And then there was the
year when your examination fees had to be paid and I accepted
an order in the English style; it was a terrible bit of work,
for it's not in my way at all, and at my time of life a man is
not good at new methods. They wanted a light sort of binding,
with flexible boards as flimsy as paper almost. I shed tears
over it, but I learned the trick! Ah! it is a famous tool, is a
workman's hand! But an educated man's brain is a far more wonderful
thing still, and that tool you have, thanks to God in the first
place, and to your mother in the second. It was she had the notion
of educating you, I only followed her lead. Your work will be
lighter than mine, but you must do it. I am a poor man, as you
know; but, were I rich, I would not give you the means to lead
an idle life, because that would be tempting you to vices and
shaming you. Ah! if I thought your education had given you a
taste for idleness, I should be sorry not to have made you a
working man like myself. But then, I know you have a good heart;
you have not got into your stride yet, that's all! The first
steps will be uphill work; Monsieur Bargemont said so. The State
services are overcrowded; there are over many graduates--though
it is well enough to be one. Besides, I shall be at your back;
I will help you, I will work for you; I have a pair of stout
arms still. You shall have pocket-money, never fear; you will
want it among the folks you will live with. We will save and
pinch. But you must help yourself, lad; never be afraid of hard
work, hit out from the shoulder and strike home. Good work never
spoiled play yet. Your job done, laugh and sing and amuse yourself
to your heart's content; you won't find me interfere. And, when
you are a great man, if I am still in this world, don't you be
afraid; I shall not get in your way. I am not a fellow to make
a noise. We will hide away in some quiet hole, your aunt and
I, and nobody will hear one word said of the old father."
Aunt Servien, who had slipped into the shop and been listening
for the last few moments, broke into sobs; she was quite ready
to follow her brother and hide away in a corner; but when her
nephew had risen to greatness, she would insist on going every day
to keep things straight in his grand house. She was not going to
leave "the little lad" to be a prey to housekeepers--housekeepers,
indeed, she called them housebreakers!
"The creatures keep great hampers," she declared, "that swallow
up bottles of wine, cold chickens, and other titbits, fine linen,
old clothes, oil, sugar, and candles--the best pickings from a
rich man's house. No, I'll not let my little Jean be sucked to
death by such vampires. _I_ mean to keep your house in order. No
one will ever know I am your aunt. And if they did know, there's
nobody, I should hope, could object. I don't know why anyone
should be ashamed of me. They can lay my whole life bare, I have
nothing to blush for. And there's many a Duchess can't say as
much. As for forsaking the lad for fear of doing him a hurt,
well, the notion is just what I expected of you, Servien; you've
always been a bit simple-minded. _I_ mean to stay all my life
with Jean. No, little lad, you'll never drive your old aunt out
of your house, will you? And who could ever make your bed the
way I can, my lamb?"
Jean promised his father faithfully, oh! most faithfully, he
would lead a hardworking life. Then he shut himself up in his
room and pictured the future to himself--long years of austere
and methodical labour.
He mapped out his days systematically. In the morning he wrote
copies to improve his handwriting, seated at a corner of the
workbench. After breakfast he did sums in his bedroom. Every
evening he went to the _Rue Soufflot_ by way of the Luxembourg
gardens to a private tutor's, and the old man would set him
dictations and explain the rules of simple interest. On reaching
the gate adjoining the _Fontaine Medicis_ the boy always turned
round for a look at the statues of women he could discern
standing like white ghosts along the terrace. He had left behind
on the path of life another fascinating vision.
He never read a theatrical poster now, and deliberately forgot
his favorite poets for fear of renewing his pain.
This new life pleased him; it slipped by with a soothing monotony,
and he found it healthful and to his taste. One evening, as he
was coming downstairs at his old tutor's, a stout man offered
him, with a sweep of the arm, the bill of fare advertising a
neighbouring cook-shop; he carried a huge bundle of them under
his left arm. Then stopping abruptly:
"_Per Bacco!_" cried the fellow; "it is my old pupil. Tall and
straight as a young poplar, here stands Monsieur Jean Servien!"
It was no other than the Marquis Tudesco. His red waistcoat was
gone; instead he wore a sort of sleeved vest of coarse ticking,
but his shining face, with the little round eyes and hooked nose,
still wore the same look of merry, mischievous alertness that
was so like an old parrot's.
Jean was surprised to see him, and not ill-pleased after all.
He greeted him affectionately and asked what he was doing now.
"Behold!" replied the Marquis, "my business is to distribute
in the streets these advertisements of a local poisoner, and
thereby to earn a place at the assassin's table to spread the
fame of which I labour. Camoens held out his hand for charity
in the streets of Lisbon. Tudesco stretches forth his in the
byways of the modern Babylon, but it is to give and not to
receive--lunches at 1 fr. 25, dinners at 1 fr. 75," and he offered
one of his bills to a passer-by, who strode on, hands in pockets,
without taking it.
Thereupon the Marquis Tudesco heaved a sigh and exclaimed:
"And yet I have translated the _Gerusalemme Liberata_, the
masterpiece of the immortal Torquato Tasso! But the brutal-minded
booksellers scorn the fruit of my vigils, and in the empyrean
the Muse veils her face so as not to witness the humiliation
inflicted on her nursling."
"And what has become of you all the time since we last saw you?"
asked the young man frankly.
"God only knows, and 'pon my word! I think He has forgotten."
Such was the Marquis Tudesco's oracular answer.
He tied up his bundle of papers in a cloth, and taking his pupil by
the arm, urged him in the direction of the _Rue Saint-Jacques_.
"See, my young friend," he said, "the dome of the Pantheon is
half hidden by the fog. The School of Salerno teaches that the
damp air of evening is inimical to the human stomach. There is
near by a decent establishment where we can converse as two
philosophers should, and I feel sure your unavowed desire is to
conduct your old instructor thither, the master who initiated
you in the Latin rudiments."
They entered a drinking-shop perfumed with so strong a reek of
kirsch and absinthe as took Servien's breath away. The room was
long and narrow, while against the walls varnished barrels with
copper taps were ranged in a long-drawn perspective that was
lost in the thick haze of tobacco-smoke hanging in the air under
the gas-jets. At little tables of painted deal a number of men
were drinking; dressed in black and wearing tall silk hats,
broken-brimmed and shiny from exposure to the rain, they sat and
smoked in silence. Before the door of the stove several pairs
of thin legs were extended to catch the heat, and a thread of
steam curled up from the toes of the owners' boots. A heavy torpor
seemed to weigh upon all this assemblage of pallid, impassive
While Monsieur Tudesco was distributing hand-shakes to sundry old
acquaintances, Jean caught scraps of the conversation of those about
him that filled him with a despairing melancholy--school ushers
railing at the cookery of cheap eating-houses, tipplers maundering
contentedly to one another, enchanted at the profundity of their
own wisdom, schemers planning to make a fortune, politicians
arguing, amateurs of the fair sex telling highly-spiced anecdotes
of love and women--and amongst it all this sentence:
"The harmony of the spheres fills the spaces of infinity, and
if we hear it not, it is because, as Plato says, our ears are
stopped with earth."
Monsieur Tudesco consumed brandy-cherries in a very elegant way.
Then the waiter served two dantzigs in little glass cups. Jean
admired the translucent liquor dotted with golden sparkles, and
Monsieur Tudesco demanded two more. Then, raising his cup on
"I drink to the health of Monsieur Servien, your venerable father,"
he cried. "He enjoys a green and flourishing old age, at least
I hope so; he is a man superior to his mechanic and mercantile
condition by the benevolence of his behaviour to needy men of
letters. And your respected aunt? She still knits stockings with
the same zeal as of yore? At least I hope so. A lady of an austere
virtue. I conjecture you are wishing to order another dantzig,
my young friend."
Jean looked about him. The dram-shop was transfigured; the casks
looked enormous with their taps splendidly glittering, and seemed
to stretch into infinity in a quivering, golden mist. But one
object was more monstrously magnified than all the rest, and
that was the Marquis Tudesco; the old man positively towered
as huge as the giant of a fairy-tale, and Jean looked for him
to do wonders.
Tudesco was smiling.
"You do not drink, my young friend," he resumed. "I conjecture
you are in love. Ah! love! love is at once the sweetest and the
bitterest thing on earth. I too have felt my heart beat for a
woman. But it is long years ago since I outlived that passion. I
am now an old man crushed under adverse fortune; but in happier
days there was at Rome a _diva_ of a beauty so magnificent and
a genius so enthralling that cardinals fought to the death at
the door of her box; well, sir, that sublime creature I have
pressed to my bosom, and I have been informed since that with her
last sigh she breathed my name. I am like an old ruined temple,
degraded by the passage of time and the violence of men's hands,
yet sanctified for ever by the goddess."
This tale, whether it recalled in exaggerated terms some commonplace
intrigue of his young days in Italy, or more likely was a pure
fiction based on romantic episodes he had read in novels, was
accepted by Jean as authentic and vastly impressive. The effect
was startling, amazing. In an instant he beheld, with all the
miraculous clearness of a vision, there, standing between the
tables, the queen of tragedy he adored; he saw the locks braided
in antique fashion, the long gold pendants drooping from either
ear, the bare arms and the white face with scarlet lips. And
he cried aloud:
"I too love an actress."
He was drinking, never heeding what the liquor was; but lo! it
was a philtre he swallowed that revivified his passion. Then a
torrent of words rose flooding to his lips. The plays he had
seen, _Cinna, Bajazet_, the stern beauty of Emilie, the
sweet ferocity of Roxana, the sight of the actress cloaked in
velvet, her face shining so pale and clear in the darkness, his
longings, his hopes, his undying love, he recounted everything
with cries and tears.
Monsieur Tudesco heard him out, lapping up a glass of Chartreuse
drop by drop the while, and taking snuff from a screw of paper.
At times he would nod his head in approval and go on listening
with the air of a man watching and waiting his opportunity. When
he judged that at last, after tedious repetitions and numberless
fresh starts, the other's confidences were exhausted, he assumed
a look of gravity, and laying his fine hand with a gesture as
of priestly benediction on the young man's shoulder:
"Ah! my young friend," he said, "if I thought that what you feel
were true love... but I do not," and he shook his head and let
his hand drop.
Jean protested. To suffer so, and not to be really in love?
Monsieur Tudesco repeated:
"If I thought that this were true love... but I do not, so far."
Jean answered with great vehemence; he talked of death and plunging
a dagger in his heart.
Monsieur Tudesco reiterated for the third time:
"I do not believe it is true love."
Then Jean fell into a fury and began to rumple and tear at his
waistcoat as if he would bare his heart for inspection. Monsieur
Tudesco took his hands and addressed him soothingly:
"Well, well, my young friend, since it _is_ true love you feel,
I will help you. I am a great tactician, and if King Carlo Alberto
had read a certain memorial I sent him on military matters he
would have won the battle of Novara. He did not read my memorial,
and the battle was lost, but it was a glorious defeat. How happy
the sons of Italy who died for their mother in that thrice holy
battle! The hymns of poets and the tears of women made enviable
their obsequies. I say it: what a noble, what a heroic thing
is youth! What flames divine escape from young bosoms to rise
to the Creator! I admire above everything young folk who throw
themselves into ventures of war and sentiment with the impetuosity
natural to their age."
Tasso, Novara, and the _diva_ so beloved of cardinals mingled
confusedly in Jean Servien's heated brain, and in a burst of
sublime if fuddled enthusiasm he wrung the old villain's hand.
Everything had grown indistinct; he seemed to be swimming in
an element of molten metal.
Monsieur Tudesco, who at the moment was imbibing a glass of kuemmel,
pointed to his waistcoat of ticking.
"The misfortune is," he observed, "that I am garbed like a
philosopher. How show myself in such a costume among elegant
females? 'Tis a sad pity! for it would be an easy matter for
me to pay my respects to an actress at an important theatre. I
have translated the _Gerusalemme Liberata_, that masterpiece
of Torquato Tasso's. I could propose to the great actress whom
you love and who is worthy of your love, at least I hope so, a
French adaptation of the _Myrrha_ of the celebrated Alfieri.
What eloquence, what fire in that tragedy! The part of Myrrha
is sublime and terrible; she will be eager to play it. Meantime,
you translate _Myrrha_ into French verse; then I introduce you
with your manuscript into the sanctuary of Melpomene, when you
bring with you a double gift--fame and love! What a dream, oh!
fortunate young man!... But alas! 'tis but a dream, for how should
I enter a lady's boudoir in this rude and sordid guise?"
But the tavern was closing and they had to leave. Jean felt so
giddy in the open air he could not tell how he had come to lose
Monsieur Tudesco, after emptying the contents of his purse into
the latter's hand.
He wandered about all night in the rain, stumbling through the
puddles which splashed up the mud in his face. His brains buzzed
with the maddest schemes, that took shape, jostled one another,
and tumbled to pieces in his head. Sometimes he would stop to
wipe the sweat from his forehead, then start off again on his
wild way. Fatigue calmed his nerves, and a clear purpose emerged.
He went straight to the house where the actress lived, and from
the street gazed up at her dark, shuttered windows; then, stepping
up to the _porte-cochere_, he kissed the great doors.
Dating from that night Jean Servien spent his days in translating
_Myrrha_ bit by bit, with an infinity of pains. The task having
taught him something of verse-making, he composed an ode, which
he sent by post to his mistress. The poem was writ in tears of
blood, yet it was as cold and insipid as a schoolboy's exercise.
Still, he did get something said of the fair vision of a woman
that hovered for ever before his eyes, and of the door he had
kissed in a night of frenzy.
Monsieur Servien was disturbed to note how his son had grown
heedless, absent-minded, and hollow-eyed, coming back late at
night, and hardly up before noon. Before the mute reproach in
his father's eyes the boy hung his head. But his home-life was
nothing now; his whole thoughts were abroad, hovering around
the unknown, in regions he pictured as resplendent with poetry,
wealth and pleasure.
Occasionally, at a street corner, he would meet the Marquis Tudesco
again. He had found it impossible to replace his waistcoat of
ticking. Moreover, he now advised Jean to pay his addresses to
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
"T----," exclaimed the artist-architect; "I knew her mother well."
Never in all his life had Jean heard a sentence that interested
him so profoundly.
"I knew her in 1842," Theroulde went on, "at Nantes, where she
created fourteen roles in six weeks. And folks imagine actresses
have nothing to do! A fine thing, the stage! But the mischief is,
there's not a single architect capable of building a playhouse
with any sense. As to scenery, it is simply puerile, even at the
Opera--so childish it might make a South Sea Islander blush.
I have thought out a system of rollers in the flies so as to
get rid of those long top-cloths that represent the sky without
a pretence at deceiving anyone. I have likewise invented an
arrangement of lamps and reflectors so placed as to light the
characters on the stage from above downwards, as the sun does,
which is the rational way, and not from below upwards, as the
footlights do, which is absurd."
"Of course it is," agreed Servien. "But you were speaking of
Gabrielle T----'s mother."
"She was a fine woman," replied the architect; "tall, dark, with
a little moustache that became her to perfection.... You see the
effect of my roller contrivance--a vast sky shedding an equal
illumination over the actors and giving every object its natural
shadows. _La Muette_ is being played, we will say; the famous
_cavatina_, the slumber-song, is heard beneath a transparent
sky, vaulted like the real thing and giving the impression of
boundless space. The effect of the music is doubled! Fenella
wakes, crosses the boards with cadenced tread; her shadow, which
follows her on the floor, is cadenced like her steps; it is nature
and art both together. That is my invention! As for putting it
in execution, why, the means are childishly simple."
Thereupon he entered upon endless explanations, using technical
terms and illustrating his meaning with everything he could lay
hands on--glasses, saucers, matches. His frayed sleeves, as they
swept to and fro, wiped the marble top of the table and set the
glasses rattling. Disturbed by the noise, the Marquis Tudesco,
who was asleep, half opened his eyes mechanically.
Servien kept nodding his approval and repeating that he quite
understood, to stop the old man's babble. Then he advised the
architect to try and put his invention in practice; but he only
shrugged his shoulders--it was years since he had left off trying
anything. After all, what did it matter to him whether his system
was applied or no? He was an inventor!
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 palace.
What did shock him in the rapscallion architect's stories, what
wounded his love without weakening it, was all the rather squalid
elements these narratives implied in the actress's young days.
Of all things in the world he thought anything sordid the most
Monsieur Tudesco, feeling sure his brandy-cherries would be paid
for, did not trouble himself to talk, and the conversation was
languishing when the architect remarked casually:
"By-the-by! As I was going to Bellevue yesterday on business
of my own, I came upon that actress of yours, young man, at her
gate... oh! a rubbishy little villa, run up to last through a
love affair, standing in six square yards of garden, meant to
give a stock-broker some sort of notion what the country's like.
She invited me in--but what was the use?"...
She was at Bellevue! Jean forgot all the humiliating details
the old man had told him, retaining the one fact only, that she
was at Bellevue and it was possible to see her there in the sweet
intimacy of the country.
He got up to go. Monsieur Tudesco caught him by the skirt of his
jacket to detain him:
"My young friend, you have my admiration; for I see you rise
on daring pinions above the hindrances of a lowly station to
the realms of beauty, fame and wealth. You will yet cull the
splendid blossom that fascinates you, at least I hope so. But how
much better had you loved a simple work-girl, whose affections
you could have beguiled by offering her a penn'orth of fried
potatoes and a seat among the gods to see a melodrama. I fear you
are a dupe of men's opinion, for one woman is not very different
from another, and it is opinion, that mistress of the world, and
nothing else, which sets a high price on some and a low one on
others. Do you profit, my young and very dear friend, by the
experience afforded me by the vicissitudes of fortune, which
are such that I am obliged at this present moment to borrow of
you the modest sum of two and a half francs."
So spake the Marquis Tudesco.
Jean had trudged afoot up the hill of Bellevue. Evening was falling.