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The Aspirations of Jean Servien by Anatole France

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"Shoot him!"

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They formed up in platoon.

"Fire!" cried the _cantiniere_.

Jean threw out his arms before him.

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

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

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

"Fire! Fire! Fire!"

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

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

One of the _Vengeurs_ cast a look in the direction of the
_Pont-au-Change_ and saw that the _federes_ were losing ground.
Shouldering his musket, he said:

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

The men hesitated; some began to slink away.

At this the _cantiniere_ shrieked:

"Bl--sted hounds! Then _I'll_ have to do his business for him!"

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

Then he felt all was over and waited.

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

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


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