The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet (6 page)

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
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In the meantime, Little What's-His-Name goes ahead at a great rate. He talks, drinks, and gets excited ; his eyes sparkle, his cheeks glow. Hulloa ! Master Peyrol, go and get glasses ! Little What's-His-Name is going to drink some toasts. Jean Peyrol brings the glasses, and they drink the

toasts; first to Mme. Eyssctte, next to M. Eyssette, then to Jacques, to Daniel, to old Annou, to Annou's husband, to the school,— to what do not they drink?

Two hours pass thus in libations and chat. They talk of the gloomy past and of the rose-colored future; they recall the factory, Lyons, the Rue Lanterne, and the poor Abbe they all loved so well.

All at once, Little What 's-His-Name rises to

go-

" What, already?" says old Annou sadly.

Little What 's-His-Name excuses himself, he has to see some one in the town before leaving; it is a very important visit. What a pity; it is so pleasant here, and there arc still so many things to talk about. However, since it is necessary, and since M. Daniel has some one to see in town, his friends of the Jolly Travellers will not keep him any longer. " A pleasant journey. Monsieur Daniel! May God take care of you, dear master !" And Jean Peyrol and his wife accompany him to the middle of the street with their benedictions.

Now can you guess who it is in town that Little What's-His-Name wants to see before leaving?

It is the factory, the factory he loved so much, and for which he has so often wept; it is the gardens, the work-rooms, the tall plane-trees, all those friends of his childhood, all his early joys. Why not? The heart of man has its weaknesses; it loves what it can, even wood and stones, even a factory. Besides, history tells us that old Robin-

son Crusoe, after his return to England, took again to the sea, and sailed I know not how many thousand miles to see his desert island again.

So it is not surprising that Little What's-His-Name should go a few steps in order to see his.

The tall plane-trees, looking over the houses with their plumy heads, have already recognized their old friend, who is coming toward them at the top of his speed. From far off, they beckon to him, and bend one to another, as if to say: " There is Daniel Eyssette! Daniel Eyssette has come back! "

And he is hastening, hastening on; but when he reaches the front of the factory he stops in amazement.

High grey walls rise before him, without a branch of oleander or pomegranate showing above them. No more windows or dormers; no more work-rooms, but a chapel. Above the door is a red stone cross with some Latin round it!

O sorrow ! The factory is no longer the factory; it is a convent of Carmelite nuns, where men may never enter.

CHAPTER V.

EARNING A LIVING.

Sarlande is a little town in the C^vennes, built in the depths of a narrow valley that the mountains shut in on all sides with a high wall. When the sun shines it is a furnace ; when the north wind blows it is an ice-house.

On the evening of my arrival, the north wind had been raging all day, and although it was spring, Little What's-His-Name, perched on the top of the stage, felt the cold penetrate the very centre of his being as he entered the town.

The streets were dark and deserted. On the parade-ground, a few people were waiting for the stage and walking to and fro before the ill-lighted office.

As soon as I got down from the top, I engaged somebody to show me the way to the school, without losing a minute. I was in haste to enter upon my duties.

The school was not far from the parade-ground, and after the man who carried my trunk had piloted me through two or three broad silent streets, he stopped before a large house, which looked as if everything in it had been dead for years.

" Here we are," said he, raising the enormous knocker of the door.

The knocker fell heavily, very heavily, and the door opened of its own accord. We went in.

I waited a moment in the dark vestibule. The man put my trunk down on the ground; I paid him, and he went off in haste. The huge door closed behind him, heavily, very heavily. Soon afterwards a drowsy porter, with a big lantern in his hand, approached me.

"I suppose you are a new boy?" he said sleepily.

He took me for one of the scholars. " I am not a scholar; I have come here as under-master, take me to the principal."

The porter seemed surprised ; he lifted his cap slightly, and begged me to enter his lodge for a moment. Just then, the principal was at chapel with the boys, he said, but he would take me to him as soon as evening prayers were over.

They had just finished supper in the lodge. A tall handsome fellow with a blond moustache was enjoying a glass of brandy by the side of a thin sickly little woman, yellow as saffron, and muffled up to her ears in a faded shawl.

"What is it, Monsieur Cassagne?" asked the man with a moustache.

" It is the new under-master," answered the porter, pointing at me. " The gentleman is so small that, at first, I took him for one of the boys."

" The truth is," said the man with a moustache, looking at me over his glass, " that we have some

boys here much bigger and even older than this gentleman. The elder of the two Veillons, for instance."

" And Crouzat," added the porter.

" And Soubeyrol," said the woman.

Thereupon they began to whisper together, bending over their nasty brandy, and staring at me out of the corners of their eyes. Outside we could hear the north wind howling, and the shrill voices of the boys reciting litanies in the chapel.

Suddenly a bell rang, and a loud noise of steps was heard in the halls.

" Prayers are over," said M. Cassagne to me, rising; "let us go up to the principal." He took the lantern, and I followed.

The school seemed to nie immense. There were interminable corridors, large vestibules, wide staircases, with wrought-iron banisters; everything was old, black and smoky. The porter informed me that before '89 the house had been used as a naval school, and had counted as many as eight hundred bo\'s, all of the most aristocratic class.

As he finished giving me these important details. we reached the principal's study. M. Cassagne softly opened a padded folding-door, and tapped twice on the wood-work.

A voice answered: " Come in," and we entered.

It was a very large study, with green hangings. At the far end, in front of a long table, the principal was writing by the pale light of a lamp, that was completely shaded by a screen.

" Sir," said the porter, pushing me before him,

** here is the new master who has come to take M. Serrieres' place."

'* Very well," said the principal, without moving.

The porter bowed, and went out. I stood in the middle of the room, twisting my hat in my fingers.

When the principal had finished, he turned toward me, and I could examine at my ease his little pale, thin face, lighted by a pair of cold, colorless eyes. He, on his side, in order to see me better, raised the lamp-screen, and put an eyeglass on his nose.

" Why, he is a child ! " he cried, bouncing upon his chair. " What do they expect me to do with a child? "

This time, Little What's-His-Name was terribly frightened; he saw himself in the street without resources. He could hardly muster strength enough to stammer a few words, and to hand the principal the letter of introduction he had for him.

The principal took the letter, read it, re-read it, folded it, unfolded it, and read it again; then he ended by saying that, thanks to the very particular recommendation of the rector, and to the respectability of my family, he consented to take me in, although dismayed by my extreme youth. He then launched into a long speech about the gravity of my new duties; but I did not listen to him. The essential thing for me was not to be sent off. I was not sent off, and I was happy, foolishly happy. I could have wished the principal had a thousand hands so I might kiss them all.

A formidable noise of rusty iron stopped my 4

effusions. I turned quickly and found myself face to face with a tall red-whiskered personage, who had just come into the study without my hearing him. This was the inspector-general. His head was bent to one side, like the Eccc Homo ; he looked at me with the sweetest of smiles, shaking a bunch of keys of all sizes that hung from his forefinger. His smile might have prejudiced me in his favor, but the keys clashed with a terrible noise,—clink, clank, clink! which frightened me.

"Monsieur Viot," said the principal, "here is the young man who has just come to take M. Serricres' place."

M. Viot bowed, and gave me the sweetest smile in the world. His keys, on the contrary, stirred ironically and maliciously, as if to say: " This little man to take M. Serrieres' place ! Oh, come now! come now! "

The principal understood, as well as I, what the keys said, and added, with a sigh:

" I know that in losing M. Serrieres we sustain an almost irreparable loss " (here the keys genuinely uttered a sigh), "but I am sure that if M. Viot will take the new master in his special charge, and inculcate in him his valuable ideas upon teaching, the order and discipline of the school will not suffer too much by M. Serrieres* departure."

With the same smile and the same sweetness, M. Viot answered that his good-will was already mine, and that he would gladly help me with his advice; but the keys bore me no good-will. It

was enough to hear them clashing and squeaking angrily: " If you move, little fellow, beware."

" Monsieur Eyssette," concluded the principal, " You may go now. You must spend to-night at the hotel. Come here to-morrow by eight o'clock. Good-night," and he dismissed me with a dignified gesture. M. Viot, more smiling and sweeter than ever, accompanied me to the door; but, before taking leave of me, he slipped a little paper book into my hand. "These are the rules of the house," he said; "read and reflect."

Then he opened the door, and closed it upon me, shaking his keys in a wonderful manner: " clink, clank, clink ! "

The two gentlemen had forgotten to give me a light, and I wandered for some minutes through the long, dark corridors, feeling the walls in my endeavors to find my way. Here and there a little moonlight entered through the grating of a lofty window and helped me to get my bearings. Suddenly, in the gloom of the galleries, a luminous point shone, and came toward me. I went a few steps farther; the light grew larger, approached nearer, passed beside me, moved on, and disappeared. It was like a vision; but fleeting as it was, I was able to catch its most minute details.

Imagine two women, no, two shadows — one of them old, wrinkled, shrivelled up, bent double, with enormous spectacles that hid half her face; the other, young and slim, a little thin like all phantoms, but having—what phantoms generally have not — a pair of black e}'es, very big, and so

black, so very black. The old woman carried a little copper lamp in her hand, but the black eyes carried nothing. The two shadows passed by me, rapidly and silently, without seeing me, and for long after they had vanished, I was still standing there, in the same place, under the double impression of charm and terror.

I began again to feel my way, but my heart was beating very hard, and I kept seeing before me, in the darkness, the horrible fairy in spectacles, walking beside the black eyes.

It was, however, necessary to find a perch for the night, and it was no easy business. Fortunately, the man with the moustache, whom I found smoking his pipe before the porter's lodge, immediately put himself at my disposal, and proposed to take me to a little inn that would not be too dear, and where I should be treated like a prince. You may fancy whether I was glad to accept.

The man with the moustache looked like a good fellow; on the way I learned that his name was Roger, that he was a teacher of dancing, riding, fencing, and gymnastics in the school of Sarlande, and that he had served for a long time in the African light horse. This was enough to make him entirely attractive to me. Children are always inclined to like soldiers. We separated at the door of the inn with much shaking of hands and the explicit promise of becoming friends.

And now, reader, I have a confession to make to you.

When Little What's-His-Name found himself

alone in his cold room, in front of his bed in that strange and vulgar inn, far from those whom he loved, his heart burst, and the great philosopher wept like a child. Life terrified him now; he felt weak and helpless to meet it, and he cried and cried. All at once, in the midst of his tears, the image of his own people passed before his eyes; he saw the house empty, the family dispersed, his mother in one place, his father in another. No roof, no hearth! And then, forgetting his own distress, and thinking only of their common misery. Little What 's-His-Name made a great and beautiful resolution : that of raising again the house of Eyssette and of rebuilding the hearth by himself. After this, proud of having set such a noble aim for his life, he dried the tears that were unworthy of a man, of a rebuilder of the family hearth, and without losing a minute, began to read M. Viot's rules, so as to find out about his new duties.

These rules, which M. Viot, the author, had fondly copied with his own hand, formed a veritable treatise, methodically divided into three parts:

1. Duties of a master toward his superiors.

2. Duties of a master toward his colleagues.

3. Duties of a master toward his pupils.

All possibilities were foreseen, from the broken pane to the two hands lifted in study hour at the same time. All the details of a master's life were recorded, from the figure of his salary to the half bottle of wine to which he was entitled at meals.

The list of regulations ended, with a beautiful

burst of eloquence, in a discourse on the usefulness of the regulations themselves; but in spite of his respect for M. Viot's work, Little What's-IIis-Name had not the strength of mind to read it to the end, and right in the finest passage of the treatise, he went to sleep.

That night I slept ill, and a thousand fantastic dreams troubled my slumbers. Now it was the terrible keys of M. Viot that I thought I heard, clink, clank, clink; or, again, the fairy in spectacles who came to sit by my bedside and awoke me with a start; at other times, the black eyes too — oh! how black they were — stationed themselves at the foot of my bed, and looked at me with strange persistence.

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
12.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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