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music murmuring: "So you love me still?" Oh! never fear, he would
not answer now as he did on that dreadful staircase: "I don't
love you any longer." No, he would answer with eyes and lips and
open arms: "I shall love you always!" Still the odious spectre of
his rival would cross his memory at times and cause him agonies.
Suddenly his eyes were caught by an extraordinary sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He frowned dubiously and asked himself:

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

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




XXXIII

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

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

"_Commune of Paris - General Staff_.

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

"Tudesco.

"Colonel commanding the Subterranean
Ways of the Commune."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




XXXIV

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

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

His wits came back little by little.

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

"About Bargemont? About that portrait?"

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

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

"The cognac of an enemy tastes well."

Then he fell back on the sofa, muttering:

"The soldier reposing - - "

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

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

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

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

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

"Off with him to the lock-up!"

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

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

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

"Pitch him in the river!"

"Swing him on a lamp-post."

"Shoot him!"

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




XXXV

He had been in solitary confinement in a cell at the _depôt_
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 _curé_ is vowed to the God who never steps down
from the tabernacle of the altar.

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

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

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

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

Outside in the street he heard the crackle of musketry and saw
the Seine running grey under the lowering smoke-cloud of burning
Paris. Red uniforms appeared on the _Quai de l'École_. The
_Pont-au-Change_ was thick with _fédérés_. Not knowing where
to fly, he was for going back into the prison; but a body of
_Vengeurs de Lutèce_, in full flight, drove him before their
bayonets towards the _Pont-au-Change_. A woman, a _cantinière_,
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 _Hôtel-Dieu_, the _cantinière_
dancing and gesticulating in front of him. Her hair flying loose
under her gold-laced _képi_, 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 Lutèce_, 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 _cantinière_.

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 Lutèce_ 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 _fédérés_ 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 _cantinière_ shrieked:

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

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

Then he felt all was over and waited.

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

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

THE END







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Online LibraryAnatole FranceThe Aspirations of Jean Servien → online text (page 8 of 8)