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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 13. Indret
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Jack - Chapter 13. Indret Post by :wfelixb69 Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :2368

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Jack - Chapter 13. Indret

CHAPTER XIII. INDRET

The opera-singer stood upright in the boat and cried, "Is not the scene beautiful, Jack?"

It was about four o'clock--a July evening; the waves glittered in the sunlight, and the air palpitated with heat. Large sails, that in the golden atmosphere looked snowy white, passed by from time to time; they were boats from Noirmoutiers, loaded to the brim with sparkling white salt. Peasants in their picturesque costumes were crowded in, and the caps of the women were as white as the salt Other boats were laden with grain. Occasionally a three-masted vessel came slowly up the stream, arriving, perhaps, from the end of the world after a two years' voyage, and bearing with it something of the poetry and mystery of other lands. A fresh breeze came from the sea, and made one long for the deep blue of the ocean.

"And Indret--where is it?" asked Jack.

"There, that island opposite."

Through the silvery mists that enveloped the island, Jack saw dimly a row of poplar-trees, and some high chimneys from which poured out a thick black smoke; at the same time he heard loud blows of hammers on iron, and a continual whistling and puffing, as if the island itself had been an enormous steamer. As the boat slowly made her way to the wharf, the child saw long, low buildings on every side, and close at the river-side a row of enormous furnaces, which were filled from the water by coal barges.

"There is Rondic!" cried the opera-singer, and from his stupendous chest sent forth a hurrah so formidable that it was heard above all the clatter of machinery.

The boat stopped, and the brothers met with effusion. The two resembled each other very much, though Rondic was older and not so stout. His face was closely shaven, and he wore a sailor's hat that shaded a true Breton peasant face tanned by the sea, and a pair of eyes as keen as steel.

"And how are you all?" asked Labassandre.

"Well enough, well enough, thank Heaven! And this is our new apprentice?--he looks very small and not over-strong."

"Strong as an ox, my dear; and warranted by all the physicians in Paris!"

"So much the better, for it is a hard life here. But now hasten, for we must present ourselves to the Director at once."

They turned into a long avenue lined by fine trees. The avenue terminated in a village street, with white houses on both sides, inhabited by the master and head-workmen. At this hour all was silent; life and movement were concentrated at the factory; and, but for the linen drying in the yards, an occasional cry of an infant, and a pot of flowers at the window, one would have supposed the place uninhabited.

"Ah, the flag is lowered!" said the singer, as they reached the door. "Once that terrified me!" and he explained to Jack that when the flag was dropped from the top of the staff, it meant that the doors of the factory were closed. So much the worse for late comers; they were marked as absent, and at the third offence dismissed. They were now admitted by the porter. There was a frightful tumult pervading the large halls which were crossed by tramways. Iron bars and rolls of copper were piled between old cannons brought there to be recast. Rondic pointed out all the different branches of the establishment; he could not make himself understood save by gestures, for the noise was deafening.

Jack was able to see the interiors of the various workshops, the doors being set widely open on account of the heat; he saw rapid movements of arms and blackened faces; he saw machines in motion, first in shadow, and then with a red light playing over their polished surface.

Puffs of hot air, a smell of oil and of iron, accompanied by an impalpable black dust, a dust that was as sharp as needles and sparkled like diamonds,--all this Jack felt; but the peculiar characteristic of the place was a certain jarring, something like the effort of an enormous beast to shake off the chains that bound him in some subterranean dungeon.

They had now reached an old chateau of the time of the League.

"Here we are," said Rondic; and addressing his brother, "Will you go up with us?"

"Indeed I will; I am, besides, by no means unwilling to see 'the monkey' once more, and to show him that I have become somebody and something."

He pulled down his velvet vest, and glanced at his yellow boots and knapsack. Rondic made no remark, but seemed somewhat annoyed.

They passed through the low postern; on either side of the hall were small and badly lighted rooms, where clerks were very busy writing. In the inner room, a man with a stern and haughty face sat writing under a high window.

"Ah, it is you, Pere Rondic!"

"Yes, sir; I come to present the new apprentice, and to thank you for--"

"This is the prodigy, then, is it? It seems, young man, that you have an absolute talent for mechanics. But, Rondic, he does not look very strong. Is he delicate?"

"No, sir; on the contrary, I have been assured that he is remarkably robust."

"Remarkably," repeated Labassandre, coming forward, and, in reply to the astonished glance of the Director, proceeded to say that he left the manufactory six years before to join the opera in Paris.

"Ah, yes, I remember," answered the Director, coldly enough, rising at the same time as if to indicate that the conversation was at an end. "Take away your apprentice, Rondic, and try and make a good workman of him. Under you he must turn out well."

The opera-singer, vexed at having produced no effect, went away somewhat crestfallen. Rondic lingered and said a few words to his master, and then the two men and the child descended the stairs together, each with a different impression. Jack thought of the words "he does not look very strong," while Labassandre digested his own mortification as he best might. "Has anything gone wrong?" he suddenly asked his brother,--"the Director seems even more surly now than in my day."

"No; he spoke to me of Chariot, our poor sister's son, who is giving us a great deal of trouble."

"In what way?" asked the artist.

"Since his mother's death he drinks and gambles, and has contracted debts. He is a wonderful draughtsman, and has high wages, but spends them before he has them. He has promised us all to reform, but he breaks his promises as fast as he makes them. I have paid his debts for him several times, but I can never do it again. I have my own family, you see, and Zenaide is growing up, and she must be established. Poor girl! Women have more sense than we. I wanted her to marry her cousin, but she would not consent. Now we are trying to separate him from his bad acquaintances here, and the Director has found a situation at Nantes; but I dare say the obstinate fellow will object. You will reason with him to-night, can't you? He will, perhaps, listen to you."

"I will see what I can do," answered Labassandre, pompously.

As they talked they reached the main street, crowded at this hour with all classes of people, some in mechanics' blouses, others wearing coats. Jack was struck with the contrast presented by a crowd like this to one in Paris, composed of similar classes.

Labassandre was greeted with enthusiasm. The whisper went about that he received a hundred thousand francs per year for merely singing. His theatrical costume won universal admiration, and his bland smile shone first on one side and then on the other, as he nodded patronizingly to first one and then another of his old friends.

At the door of Rondic's house stood a young woman talking to a youth two or three steps below. Jack thought she must be the old man's daughter, and then remembered that he had married a second time. She was tall and slender, young and pretty, with a gentle face, white throat, and a graceful head which bent slightly forward as if bowed by its rich weight of hair. Unlike the Breton peasants, she wore no cap; her light dress and black apron were totally unlike the costume of a working woman.

"Is she not pretty?" asked Rondic of his brother. "She has been giving a lecture to her nephew."

Madame Rondic turned at that moment, and greeted them warmly. "I hope," she said to the child, "that you will be happy with us."

They entered the house, and as they took their seats at the table, Labassandre said with a theatrical start, "And where is Zenaide?"

"We will not wait for her," answered Rondic; "she will be here presently. She is at work now at the chateau, for she has become a famous seamstress."

"Indeed! Then she must have learned also to keep her temper well under control, if she can work at the Director's," said Labassandre, "for he is such an arrogant, haughty person--"

"You are very much mistaken," interrupted Ron-die; "he is, on the contrary, a most excellent man; strict, perhaps, but when a master has to manage two thousand operatives, he must be somewhat of a disciplinarian. Is not that so, Clarisse?" and the old man turned to his wife, who, seemingly occupied with her dinner, paid no attention to him. A certain preoccupation was very evident.

At this moment the youth, with whom Madame Rondic had been talking at the door, came in and shook hands with his uncle Labassandre, who replied coldly to his greeting; thinking, possibly, of the remonstrances he had promised to lavish upon him. Zenaide quickly followed: a plump little girl, red and out of breath; not pretty, and square in face and figure, she looked like her father. She wore a white cap, and her short skirts, and small shawl pinned over her shoulders, increased her general clumsiness. But her heavy eyebrows and square chin indicated an unusual amount of firmness and decision, offering the strongest possible contrast to the gentle, irresolute expression of her stepmother's sweet face. Without a moment's delay, not waiting to detach the enormous shears that hung at her side, or to disembarrass herself of the needles and pins which glittered on her breast like a cuirass, the girl slipped into a seat next to Jack. The presence of the strangers did not abash her in the least. Whatever she had to say she said, simply and decidedly; but when she spoke to her cousin Chariot, it was in a vexed tone.

He did not appear to notice this, but replied with jests which left more than one scar.

"And I wished them to marry each other," said Father Rondic, in a despairing, complaining tone, as he heard them dispute.

"And I made no objection," said the young man with a laugh, as he looked at his cousin.

"But I did, then," answered the girl abruptly, frowning and unabashed. "And I am glad of it. Had I married you, my handsome cousin, I should have drowned myself by this time!"

These words were said with so much unction that for a few moments the handsome cousin was silent and discomfited.

Clarisse was startled, and turned to her daughter-in-law with a timid look of appeal.

"Listen, Chariot," said Rondic, anxious to change the conversation: "to prove to you that the Director is a good man. He has found a splendid place at Guerigny for you. You will have a better salary there than here, and "--here Rondic hesitated, glanced at the irresponsive face of the youth, then at his daughter and at his wife, as if at a loss to finish his phrase.

"And, it is better to go away, uncle, than to be dismissed!" answered Chariot, roughly. "But I do not agree with you. If the Director does not want me, let him say so,--and I will then look out for myself!"

"He is right!" cried Labassandre, thumping loud applause on the table. A hot discussion now arose; but Chariot was firm in his refusal.

Zenaide did not open her lips, but she never took her eyes from her stepmother, who was busy about the table.

"And you, mamma," said she at last, "is it not your opinion that Chariot should go to Guerigny?"

"Certainly, certainly," answered Madame Rondic, quickly, "I think he ought to accept the offer."

Chariot rose quickly from his chair.

"Very well," he said, moodily, "since every one wishes to get rid of me here, it is easy for me to decide. I shall leave in a week; in the meantime I do not wish to hear any more about it."

The men now adjourned to a table in the garden, neighbors came in, and to each as he entered Rondic offered a measure of wine; they smoked their pipes, and talked and laughed loudly and roughly.

Jack listened to them sadly. "Must I become like these?" he said to himself, with a thrill of horror.

During the evening Rondic presented the lad to the foreman of the workshops. Labescam, a heavy Cyclops, opened his eyes wide when he saw his future apprentice, dressed like a gentleman, with such dainty white hands. Jack was very delicate and girlish in his appearance. His curls were cut, to be sure, but the short hair was in crisp waves, and the air of distinction characteristic of the boy, and which so irritated D'Argenton, was more apparent in his present surroundings than in his former home. Labescam muttered that he looked like a sick chicken.

"O," said Rondic, "it is only the fatigue of his journey and these clothes that give him that look;" and then turning to his wife, the good man said,

"You must find a blouse for the apprentice; and now send him to bed, he is half asleep, and to-morrow the poor lad must be up at five o'clock!"

The two women took Jack into the house: it was small and of two stories, the first floor divided into two rooms--one called the parlor, which had a sofa, armchairs, and some large shells on the chimney-piece.

One of the rooms above was nearly filled by a very large bed hung with damask curtains trimmed with heavy ball fringe. In Zenaide's room the bed was in the wall, in the old Breton style. A wardrobe of carved oak filled one side of the room; a crucifix and holy images, hung over by rosaries of all kinds, made of ivory, shells, and American corn, completed the simple arrangements. In a corner, however, stood a screen which concealed the ladder that led to the loft where the apprentice was to sleep.

"This is my room," said Zenaide, "and you, my boy, will be up there just over my head. But never mind that; you may dance as much as you please, I sleep too soundly to be disturbed."

A lantern was given to him. He said good-night, and climbed to his loft, which even at that hour of the night was stifling. A narrow window in the roof was all there was. The dormitory at Moronval had prepared Jack for strange sleeping-places; but there he had companionship in his miseries: here he had no Madou, here he had nobody. The child looked about him. On the bed lay his costume for the next day; the large pantaloons of blue cloth and the blouse looked as if some person had thrown himself down exhausted with fatigue.

Jack said half aloud, "It is I lying there!" and while he stood, sadly enough, he heard the confused noise of the men in the garden, and at the same time an earnest discussion in the room below between Zenaide and her stepmother.

The young girl's voice was easily distinguished, heavy like a man's; Madame Rondic's tones, on the contrary, were thin and flute-like, and seemed at times choked by tears.

"And he is going!" she cried, with more passion than her ordinary appearance would have led one to suppose her capable of.

Then Zenaide spoke--remonstrating, reasoning.

Jack felt himself in a new world; he was half afraid of all these people, but the memory of his mother sustained him. He thought of her as he looked at the sky set thick with stars. Suddenly he heard a long, shivering sigh and a sob, and found that Madame Rondic was looking out into the night, and weeping like himself, at a window below.

In the morning, Father Rondic called him; he swallowed a tumbler of wine and ate a crust of bread, and hurried to the machine-shop. And there, could his foolish mother have seen him, how quickly would she have taken her child from his laborious task, for which he was so totally unfitted by nature and education. The regulations for, lack of punctuality were very strict. The first offence was a fine, and the third absolute dismissal. Jack was generally at the door before the first sound of the bell; but one day, two or three months after his arrival on the island, he was delayed by the ill-nature of others. His hat had been blown away by a sudden gust of wind just as he reached the forge. "Stop it!" cried the child, running after it. Just as he reached it, an apprentice coming up the street gave the hat a kick and sent it on; another did the same, and then another. This was very amusing to all save Jack, who, out of breath and angry, felt a strong desire to weep, for he knew that a positive hatred toward him was hidden under all this apparent jesting. In the meantime the bell was sounding its last strokes, and the child was compelled to relinquish the useless pursuit. He was utterly wretched, for it was no small expense to buy a new cap; he must write to his mother for money, and D'Argenton would read the letter. This was bad enough; but the consciousness that he was disliked among his fellow-workmen troubled him still more.

Some persons need tenderness as plants need heat to sustain life. Jack was one of these, and he asked himself sadly why no one loved him in his new abiding-place. Just as he arrived at the open door, he heard quick breathing behind him, a heavy hand was laid on his shoulder, and turning, he saw a smiling, hideous face, while a rough hand extended the missing cap.

Where had he seen that face? "I have it!" he cried at last; but at that moment there was no time to renew his acquaintance with the pedler, to whom, and to whose fragile stock of goods, he had given such timely shelter on that showery summer's day.

The child's spirits rose, he was less sad, less lonely. While his hands were busy with his monotonous toil, his mind was occupied with thoughts of the past: he saw again the lovely country road near his mother's house; he heard the low rumbling of the doctor's gig, and felt the fresh breeze from the river, even there in the stifling atmosphere of the machine-shop.

That evening he searched for Belisaire, but in vain; again the next day, but could learn nothing of him; and by degrees the uncouth face that had revived so many beautiful memories, in the child's sick heart faded and died away, and he was again left alone.

The boy was far from a favorite among the men; they teased, and played practical jokes upon him. Sunday was his only day of rest and relaxation. Then, with one of Dr. Rivals' books, Jack sought a quiet nook on the bank of the river. He had found a deep fissure in the rocks, where he sat quite concealed from view, his book open on his knee, the rush, the magic, and the extent of the water before him. The distant church-bells rang out praises to the Lord, and all was rest and peace. Occasionally a vessel drifted past, and from afar came the laughter of children at play.

He read, but his studies were often too deep for him, and he would lift his eyes from the pages, and listen dreamily to the soft lapping of the water on the pebbles of the shore, while his thoughts wandered to his mother and his little friend.

At last autumnal rains came, and then the child passed his Sundays at the Rondics, who were all very kind to him, Zenaide in particular. The old man felt a certain contempt for Jack's physical delicacy, and said the boy stunted his growth by his devotion to books, but "he was a good little fellow all the same!" In reality, old Rondic felt a great respect for Jack's attainments, his own being of the most superficial description. He could read and write, to be sure, but that was all; and since he had married the second Madame Rondic, he had become painfully conscious of his deficiencies. His wife was the daughter of a subordinate artillery officer, the belle and beauty of a small town. She was well brought up,--one of a numerous family, where each took her share of toil and economy. She accepted Rondic, notwithstanding the disparity of years and his lack of education, and entertained for her husband the greatest possible affection. He adored his wife, and would make any sacrifice for her happiness or her gratification. He thought her prettier than any of the wives of his friends,--who were all, in fact, stout Breton peasants, more occupied with their household cares than with anything else. Clarisse had a certain air about her, and dressed and arranged her hair in a way that offered the greatest contrast to the monastic aspect of the women of the country, who covered their hair with thick folds of linen, and concealed their figures with the clumsy fullness of their skirts.

His house, too, was different from those about him. Behind the full white curtains stood a pot of flowers, sweet basil or gillyflowers, and the furniture was carefully waxed and polished; and Rondic was delighted, when he returned home at night, to find so carefully arranged a home, and a wife as neatly dressed as if it were Sunday. He never asked himself why Clarisse, after the house was in order for the day, took her seat at the window with folded hands, instead of occupying herself with needlework, like other women whose days were far too short for all their duties.

He supposed, innocently enough, that his wife thought only of him while adorning herself; but the whole village of Indret could have told him that another occupied all her thoughts, and in this gossip the names of Madame Rondic and Chariot were never separated. They said that the two had known each other before Madame Rondic's marriage, and that if the nephew had wished he could have married the lady, instead of his uncle.

But the young fellow had no such desire. He merely thought that Clarisse was charmingly pretty, and that it would be very nice to have her for his aunt. But later, when they were thrown so much together, while Father Rondic slept in the arm-chair and Zenaide sewed at the chateau, these two natures were irresistibly attracted toward each other. But no one had a right to make any invidious remark; they had, besides, always watching over them a pair of frightfully suspicious eyes, those of Zenaide. She had a way of interrupting their interviews, of appearing suddenly, when least expected; and, however fatigued she might be by her day's work, she took her seat in the chimney-corner with her knitting. Zenaide, in fact, played the part of the jealous and suspicious husband. Picture to yourself, if you please, a husband with all the instincts and clearsightedness of a woman!

The warfare between herself and Chariot was incessant, and the little outbursts served to conceal the real antipathy; but while Father Rondic smiled contentedly, Clarisse turned pale as if at distant thunder.

Zenaide had triumphed: she had so managed at the chateau that the Director had decided to send Chariot to Guerigny, to study a new model of a machine there. Months would be necessary for him to perfect his work. Clarisse understood very well that Zenaide was at the bottom of this movement, but she was not altogether displeased at Chariot's departure; she flung herself on Zenaide's stronger nature, and entreated her protection.

Jack had understood for some time that between these two women there was a secret. He loved them both: Zenaide won his respect and his admiration, while Madame Rondic, more elegant and more carefully dressed, seemed to be a remnant of the refinements of his former life. He fancied that she was like his mother; and yet Ida was lively, gay, and talkative, while Madame Rondic was always languid and silent. They had not a feature alike, nor was there any similarity in the color of their hair. Nevertheless, they did resemble each other, but it was a resemblance as vague and indefinite as would result from the same perfume among the clothing, or of something more subtile still, which only a skilful chemist of the human soul could have analyzed.

Sometimes on Sunday, Jack read aloud to the two women and to Rondic. The parlor was the room in which they assembled on these occasions. The apartment was decorated with a highly colored view of Naples, some enormous shells, vitrified sponges, and all those foreign curiosities which their vicinity to the sea seemed naturally to bring to them. Handmade lace trimmed the curtains, and a sofa and an arm-chair of plush made up the furniture of the apartment. In the arm-chair Father Rondic took his seat to listen to the reading, while Clarisse sat in her usual place at the window, idly looking out. Zenaide profited by her one day at home to mend the house-bold linen, disregarding the fact of the day being Sunday. Among the books given to Jack by Dr. Rivals was Dante's _Inferno_. The book fascinated the child, for it described a spectacle that he had constantly before his eyes. Those half naked human forms, those flames, those deep ditches of molten metal, all seemed to him one of the circles of which the poet wrote.

One Sunday he was reading to his usual audience from his favorite book; Father Rondic was asleep, according to his ordinary custom, but the two women listened with fixed attention. It was the episode of Francesca da Rimini. Clarisse bowed her head and shuddered. Zenaide frowned until her heavy eyebrows met, and drove her needle through her work with mad zeal.

Those grand sonorous lines filled the humble roof with music. Tears stood in the eyes of Clarisse as she listened. Without noticing them, Zenaide spoke abruptly as the voice of the reader ceased.

"What a wicked, impudent woman," she cried, "not only to relate her crime, but to boast of it!"

"It is true that she was guilty," said Clarisse, "but she was also very unhappy."

"Unhappy! Don't say that, mamma; one would think that you pitied this Francesca."

"And why should I not, my child? She loved him before her marriage, and she was driven to espouse a man whom she did not love."

"Love him or not makes but little difference. From the moment she married him she was bound to be faithful. The story says that he was old, and that seems to me an additional reason for respecting him more, and for preventing other people from laughing at him. The old man did right to kill them,--it was only what they deserved!"

She spoke with great violence. Her affection as a daughter, her honor as a woman, influenced her words, and she judged and spoke with that cruel candor that belongs to youth, and which judges life from the ideal it has itself created, without comprehending in the least any of the terrible exigencies which may arise.

Clarisse did not answer. She turned her face away, and was looking out of the window. Jack, with his eyes on his book, thought of what he had been reading. Here, amid these humble surroundings, this immortal legend of guilty love had echoed "through the corridors of time," and after four hundred years had awakened a response. Suddenly through the open casement came a cry, "Hats! hats to sell!" Jack started to his feet and ran into the street; but quick as he was, Clarisse had preceded him, and as he went out, she came in, crushing a letter into her pocket.

The pedler was far down the street.

"Belisaire!" shouted Jack.

The man turned. "I was sure it was you," continued Jack, breathlessly. "Do you come here often?"

"Yes, very often;" and then Belisaire added, after a moment, "How happens it, Master Jack, that you are here, and have left that pretty house?"

The boy hesitated, and the pedler seeing this, continued,--

"That was a famous ham, was it not? And that lovely lady, who had such a gentle face, she was your mother, was she not?"

Jack was so happy at hearing her name mentioned that he would have lingered there at the corner of the street for an hour, but Belisaire said he was in haste, that he had a letter to deliver, and must go.

When Jack entered the house, Madame Rondic met him at the door. She was very pale, and said, in a low voice, with trembling lips,--

"What did you want of that man?"

The child answered that he had known him at Etiolles, and that they had been talking of his parents.

She uttered a sigh of relief. But that whole evening she was even quieter than usual, and her head seemed bowed by more than the weight of her blonde braids.

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