The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet (5 page)

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
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"Ah! Poor dear Eyssette (Jacques)! How gladly I should have fallen upon his neck, if I had dared. But I did not dare. Only think! Religion ! Religion ! A Poem in Twelve Cantos I Nevertheless, truth compels me to acknowledge that this poem in twelve cantos was far from being completed. I believe even, that no more than the four first lines of the first canto had as yet been written; but you know that in works of this kind it is always the beginning that is most difficult, and as Eyssette (Jacques) said very reasonably : " Now

that I have my four first lines, the rest is nothing ; it is but an affair of time." ^

Though the rest was merely an affair of time, Eyssette (Jacques) could never come to the end of it. What can you expect? Poems have their destinies, and it seems that the destiny of Religion ! Religion ! A Poem in Twelve Cantos, was not to be in twelve cantos at all. The poet might do his best, but he could never get farther than the first four lines. There was a fatality about it. Finally, the poor boy, growing impatient, let the poem go to the devil and said farewell to the Muse. (They still talked of the Muse at that time.) The same day, sobs again took possession of him, and the little glue-pots reappeared before the fire. And what about the red copybook ? Oh! The red copybook had its destiny, too.

Jacques said to me: " I will give it to you; put what you like in it." And do you know what I put in it? Why, my own poetry! Little What's-His-Name's poetry. I had caught Jacques's disease.

And now, if the reader will permit, while Little What's-His-Name is busy choosing rhymes, we are going to clear six or seven years of his life at one

1 Here are the four lines. I give them just as I saw them that evening, written in a large round hand, on the first page of the red copybook:

" Religion I Religion ! Sublime mysterious word I A touching voice in silence heard. Compassion I Compassion I"

Do not laugh; this had cost him much trouble.

leap. I am in haste to reach the spring of 18—, the recollection of which remains in the Eyssette household. Certain dates are remembered in all families.

Moreover, the reader will lose nothing in not knowing the fragment of my life that I pass over in silence. It is all the same old story; tears and poverty, delays about the rent, creditors making scenes, my mother's diamonds sold, our plate in pawn, holes in the sheets, ragged trousers, privations of all kinds; daily humiliations, the eternal " What shall we do to-morrow? " the sheriffs insolent ring at the bell, the porter's smile as we passed him; then loans, then protests, and then, and then —

Here we are now in 18—.

It was in that year Little What 's-His-Name was finishing his course in philosophy.

He was, if my memory serve me, a very pretentious young fellow, taking himself entirely seriously as a philosopher, and as a poet too; besides that, he was no higher than Hop-o*-my-Thumb, and without a hair to his chin.

Now, one morning that this great philosopher. Little What 's-His-Name, was getting ready to go to his class, M. Eyssette, the elder, called him into the shop, and, as he entered, said roughly:

"Daniel, throw away your books; you are not to go to school any more."

Having said this, M. Eyssette, the elder, began to stride up and down the shop without speaking. He seemed much moved, and Little What's-His-

Name too, I assure you. After a few minutes* silence, M. Eyssette, the elder, resumed:

" My boy," said he, " I have some bad news to give you, very bad indeed. We are all going to be obliged to separate, and this is why —"

Here a great heartbreaking sob resounded behind the door that stood ajar. "Jacques, you are a fool! " cried M. Eyssette, without turning round; then he went on:

" When we came to Lyons, eight years ago, ruined by the Revolutionists, I hoped, by dint of hard work to build up our fortunes again; but the devil has been in it. I have succeeded only in plunging us up to our necks in debt and poverty. Now, it is all over, and we are stuck in the mire. In order to get out there is but one course to take, now that you are all grown up, and that is to sell the little we have left, and each one to seek his fortune independently."

Another sob from the invisible Jacques interrupted M. Eyssette; but he was so much agitated himself that he was not angry. He only made a sign to Daniel to shut the door, and when the door was shut, he continued:

"This is what I have decided upon: until a new disposition of things, your mother will go to live in the South with her brother, your uncle Baptiste, Jacques will stay at Lyons; he has got a little place at the Mont-de-piete. I mean to become a commercial traveller in the service of the Associated Company of Wine-Merchants. And you, too, my poor boy, must also make your living.

f have just now received a letter from the rector proposing a place as under-master for you; there, read what he says."

Little What's-His-Name took the letter. " From what I see," said he, as he read, " I have no time to lose."

" You must go to-morrow," " Very well; I will go."

Thereupon, Little What 's-His-Name folded the letter and returned it to his father with a steady hand. He was a great philosopher, as you see. At this moment, Mme. Eyssette entered the shop, and Jacques came timidly behind her. Both went up to Little What's-His-Name and kissed him in silence; they had known what was to happen since the night before.

" Pack his trunk," said M. Eyssette shortly, " he is going by the boat to-morrow morning."

Mme. Eyssette heaved a deep sigh, Jacques gave a hasty sob, and nothing more was said.

We began to be accustomed to misfortune in our household.

The day after this memorable one, the whole family accompanied Little What 's-His-Name to the boat. By a singular coincidence it was the same boat that had carried the Eyssettes to Lyons, six years before, — Captain Genies, and chief cook Montelimart. We naturally remembered Annou's umbrella, Robinson Crusoe's parrot, and other incidents of our landing. These recollections did something toward cheering my sad departure, and brought the shadow of a smile to Mme. Eyssette's lips.

Suddenly the bell rang; it was time to go.

Little What's-His-Name tore himself from the embraces of his friends, and bravely crossed the gang-plank.

" Be a good boy," called his father.

" Keep well," said Mme. Eyssette.

Jacques tried to speak, but he could not, for he was crying too hard.

Little What's-His-Name was not crying, not he. As I have had the honor of telling you, he was a great philosopher, and it is absolutely necessary for a philosopher to be unmoved.

And yet, God knows he loved those dear creatures that he left behind him in the fog; God knows he would have gladly given his flesh and blood for them. But what else can you expect? The joy of leaving Lyons, the excitement of the journey, the pride of finding himself a man, a grown man and free, travelling by himself and earning his living, — all this intoxicated Little What's-His-Name, and prevented him from think ing, as he should have done, of the three beloved beings who stood sobbing on the quays of the Rhone.

Ah, those three were not philosophers! Anxiously and tenderly they watched the asthmatic progress of the steamboat, and when its plume of smoke was no larger than a swallow on the horizon they were still waving and calling good-bye.

All this time our philosopher was walking up and down the deck, with his hands in his pockets, and his head very high. He whistled, spat a long

distance, stared at the women, inspected the working of the boat, swaggering as if he were a big fellow, and thinking himself charming. Before they had even reached Vienne, he had told Monte-limart, the cook, and his two scullions that he had a position in a school, and made a good living there. These gentlemen congratulated him, and this made him very proud.

Once, as he was walking from one end of the ship to the other, our philosopher stumbled against a pile of rope in the bow, near the big gong, upon which, six years ago, Robinson Crusoe had sat for so many hours, with his parrot between his legs. The pile of rope made him laugh a great deal, and blush a little.

" How silly I must have seemed," thought he, *' dragging that big blue cage and that absurd parrot about with me everywhere."

Poor philosopher! He did not foresee that, all through his life, he should be condemned to drag about in the same silly way, a blue cage, the color of illusion, and a green parrot, the color of hope!

Ah, as I now write these lines, the poor boy still carries his big blue cage; only day by day, the blue paint is peeling off from the bars, and the green parrot has lost half his feathers, alas!

Little What's-His-Name's first care, upon arriving at his native place, was to go to the academy where the rector lived.

The rector, a friend of his father, was a tall fine-

looking man, spare and active, with nothing of the pedant or anything resembling it about him. He received Eyssette with great kindness, and yet, as the boy was shown into the room, the good man could not repress a gesture of surprise.

" Heavens ! " said he, " how little he is! "

The truth is that Little What's-His-Name was ridiculously small; and then, he looked so young and slight, too.

The rector's exclamation was a terrible blow to him.

*' They will not have anything to do with me," thought he, and he trembled all over.

Fortunately, as if he guessed all that passed through the poor little brain, the rector resumed:

" Come here, my boy. We are going to make an under-master of you. At your age, with your face and figure, the business will be harder than for others. Still, my dear child, as it is absolutely necessary for you to earn your own living, we shall arrange for you for the best. To begin with, we shall not put you in a great establishment; I shall send you to a communal school, a few miles from here, at Sarlande, in the mountains. There you will serve your apprenticeship as a man, you will become seasoned to the trade, and will put on a beard ; when that has grown, we shall see ! "

While he was speaking, the rector wrote to the principal of the school of Sarlande, to introduce his protege. Having finished his letter, he handed it to Little What's-His-Name, and recommended him to leave the same day. He then gave him

some wise advice, and dismissed him with a friendly tap on the cheek, promising not to lose sight of him.

Little What's-His-Name was very happy. He raced down the old staircase at full speed, and, without stopping to take breath, was off to engage his place for Sarlande.

The stage does not go till afternoon, so there are four hours to wait. Little What's-His-Name profits by them to parade in the sun on the esplanade, and show himself to his compatriots. This first duty accomplished, it occurs to him to get something to eat, and he goes in quest of a tavern adapted to his purse. Just opposite the barracks, he sees one that looks spick and span and has a fine new signboard:

The Inn of the jfolly Travellers.

" This is exactly what I want," he thinks. And after a few minutes' hesitation, for it is the first time Little What's-His-Name has entered a restaurant, he opens the door resolutely.

The tavern happens at this moment to be empty. Within are whitewashed walls, and a few oaken tables; in a corner some tall canes, tipped with copper and ornamented with many colored ribbons, belonging to the guests of the tavern; at the desk sits a big man bending over a newspaper, snoring.

" Hulloa! I want somebody," said Little What 's-His-Name, striking with his clenched fist on the table, like an old frequenter of taverns.

The big man at the desk does not wake for such a trifle, but the landlady appears from the depths of a back room. As she sees the new customer the angel of chance has brought her, she utters a loud cry.

" Oh, mercy ! Monsieur Daniel! "

" Annou ! dear old Annou ! " answers Little What's-His-Name, and there they are in each other's arms.

Ah, yes! It is Annou, old Annou, former servant of the Eyssettes, now a tavern-keeper's wife, and the devoted friend of her customers, married to Jean Peyrol, the big fellow snoring over there at the desk. And how happy she is, if you only knew, dear kind Annou; how happy she is to see M. Daniel again! How she hugs and kisses him, nearly stifling him!

In the midst of these effusions, the man at the desk wakes up.

At first he is a little surprised by the warm reception his wife is giving the young stranger, but when he hears the young stranger is M. Daniel Eyssette in person, Jean Peyrol turns red with pleasure and is all eagerness to serve his illustrious visitor.

" Have you breakfasted, Monsieur Daniel?"

" No, indeed, I have not, thank you, Peyrol, and that is precisely why I came in here."

Gracious Heavens! M. Eyssette has not breakfasted ! Old Annou runs to the kitchen, Jean Peyrol rushes to the cellar, — a noble cellar his customers called it.

In a twinkling the cloth is spread, and the table is laid; Little What's-His-Name has but to sit down and set to work. On his left, Annou cuts slices of bread for him to eat with his eggs, fresh laid eggs, white and flaky. At his right, Jean Peyrol pours him out some old Chdteau-Neuf-des-Papes, which looks like a handful of rubies thrown into his glass. Little What 's-His-Name is very happy ; he eats like a Templar, drinks like a Knight of Malta, and yet finds it possible to relate, between his mouthfuls, how he has just received an appointment in a school, which will enable him to make an honorable living. You ought to see with what an air he says " make an honorable living !" Old Annou almost faints with admiration.

Jean Peyrol's enthusiasm is less intense; it seems to him quite natural that M, Eyssette should earn his living, since he is old enough to do so. At M. Daniel's age, he, Jean Peyrol, had already been running about the world for four or five years, and did not cost his family a farthing; on the contrary —

You must understand, however, the worthy tavern-keeper keeps his reflections to himself. What! dare to compare Jean Peyrol with Daniel Eyssette ! Annou would never allow it!

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
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