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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 14. A Midnight Interview
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Jack - Chapter 14. A Midnight Interview Post by :wfelixb69 Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :3202

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Jack - Chapter 14. A Midnight Interview

CHAPTER XIV. A MIDNIGHT INTERVIEW

"Chateau des Aulnettes.

"I am not pleased with you, my child. M. Rondic has written to his brother a long letter, in which he says, that in the year that you have been at Indret you have made no progress. He speaks kindly of you, nevertheless, but does not seem to think you adapted for your present life. We are all grieved to hear this, and feel that you are not doing all that you might do. M. Rondic also says that the air of the workshops is not good for you, that you are pale and thin, and that at the least exertion the perspiration rolls down your face. I cannot understand this, and fear that you are imprudent, that you go out in the evening uncovered, that you sleep with your windows open, and that you forget to tie your scarf around your throat. This must not be; your health is of the first importance.

"I admit that your present occupation is not as pleasant as running wild in the forest would be, but remember what M. D'Argenton told you, that 'life is not a romance.' He knows this very well, poor man!--better, too, to-day, than ever before. You have no conception of the annoyances to which this great poet is exposed. The low conspiracies that have been formed against him are almost incredible. They are about to bring out a play at the Theatre Francais called '_La Fille de Faust_' It is not D'Argenton's play, because his is not written, but it is his idea, and his title! We do not know whom to suspect, for he is surrounded with faithful friends. Whoever the guilty party may be, our friend has been most painfully affected, and has been seriously ill. Dr. Hirsch fortunately was here, for Dr. Rivals still continues to sulk. That reminds me to tell you that we hear that you keep up your correspondence with the doctor, of which M. d'Argenton entirely disapproves. It is not wise, my child, to keep up any association with people above your station; it only leads to all sorts of chimerical aspirations. Your friendship for little Cecile M. d'Argenton regards also as a waste of time. You must, therefore, relinquish it, as we think that you would then enter with more interest into your present life. You will understand, my child, that I am now speaking entirely in your interest. You are now fifteen. You are safely launched in an enviable career. A future opens before you, and you can make of yourself just what you please.

"Your loving mother,

"Charlotte."

"P. S. Ten o'clock at night.

"Dearest,--I am alone, and hasten to add a good night to my letter, to say on paper what I would say to you were you here with me now. Do not be discouraged. You know just what he is. _He is very determined, and has resolved that you shall be a machinist, and you must be. Is he right? I cannot say. I beg of you to be careful of your health; it must be damp where you are; and if you need anything, write to me under cover to the Archambaulds. Have you any more chocolate? For this, and for any other little things you want, I lay aside from my personal expenses a little money every month. So you see that you are teaching me economy. Remember that some day I may have only you to rely upon.

"If you knew how sad I am sometimes in thinking of the future! Life is not very gay here, and I am not always happy. But then, as you know, my sad moments do not last long. I laugh and cry at the same time without knowing why. I have no reason to complain, either. He is nervous like all artists, but I comprehend the real generosity and nobility of his nature. Farewell! I finish my letter for Mere Archambauld to mail as she goes home. We shall not keep the good woman long. M. d'Argenton distrusts her. He thinks she is paid by his enemies to steal his ideas and titles for books and plays! Good night, my dearest."

Between the lines of this lengthy letter Jack saw two faces,--that of D'Argenton, dictatorial and stern,--and his mother's, gentle and tender. How under subjection she was! How crushed was her expansive nature! A child's imagination supplies his thoughts with illustrations. It seemed to Jack, as he read, that his Ida--she was always Ida to her boy--was shut up in a tower, making signals of distress to him.

Yes, he would work hard, he would make money, and take his mother away from such tyranny; and as a first step he put away all his books.

"You are right," said old Rondic; "your books distract your attention."

In the workshop Jack heard constant allusions made to the Rondic household, and particularly to the relations existing between Clarisse and Chariot.

Every one knew that the two met continually at a town half-way between Saint Nazarre and Indret. Here Clarisse went under pretence of purchasing provisions that could not be procured on the island. In the contemptuous glances of the men who met her, in their familiar nods, she read that her secret was known, and yet with blushes of shame dyeing the cheeks that all the fresh breezes from the Loire had no power to cool, she went on. Jack knew all this. No delicacy was observed in the discussion of such subjects before the child. Things were called by their right names, and they laughed as they talked. Jack did not laugh, however. He pitied the husband so deluded and deceived. He pitied also the woman whose weakness was shown in her very way of knotting her hair, in the way she sat, and whose pleading eyes always seemed to be asking pardon for some fault committed. He wanted to whisper to her, "Take care--you are watched." But to Char-lot he would have liked to say, "Go away, and let this woman alone!"

He was also indignant in seeing his friend Belisaire playing such a part in this mournful drama. The pedler carried all the letters that passed between the lovers. Many a time Jack had seen him drop one into Madame Rondic's apron while she changed some money, and, disgusted with his old ally, the child no longer lingered to speak when they met in the street.

Belisaire had no idea of the reason of this coolness. He suspected it so little, that one day, when he could not find Clarisse, he went to the machine-shop, and with an air of great mystery gave the letter to the apprentice. "It is for madame; give it to her secretly!"

Jack recognized the writing of Chariot. "No," he said at once; "I will not touch this letter, and I think you would do better to sell your hats than to meddle with such matters."

Belisaire looked at him with amazement.

"You know very well," said the boy, "what these letters are; and do you think that you are doing right to aid in deceiving that old man?"

The pedler's face turned scarlet.

"I never deceived any one; if papers are given to me to carry, I carry them, that is all. Be sure of one thing, and that is, if I were the sort of person you call me, I should be much better off than I am today!"

Jack tried to make him see the thing as he saw it, but evidently the man, however honest, was without any delicacy of perception. "And I, too," thought Jack, suddenly, "am of the people now. What right have I to any such refinements?"

That Father Rondic knew nothing of all that was going on, was not astonishing. But Zenaide, where was she? Of what was she thinking?

Zenaide was on the spot,--more than usual, too, for she had not been at the chateau for a month. Her eyes were also widely open, and were more keen and vivacious than ever, for Zenaide was about to be married to a handsome young soldier attached to the customhouse at Nantes, and the girl's dowry was seven thousand francs. Pere Rondic thought this too much, but the soldier was firm. The old man had made no provision for Clarisse. If he should die, what would become of her?

But his wife said, "You are yet young--we will be economical. Let the soldier have Zenaide and the seven thousand francs, for the girl loves him!"

Zenaide spent a great deal of time before her mirror. She did not deceive herself. "I am ugly, and M. Maugin will not marry me for my beauty, but let him marry me, and he shall love me later."

And the girl gave a little nod, for she knew the unselfish devotion of which she was capable, the tenderness and patience with which she would watch over her husband. But all these new interests had so absorbed her that Zenaide had partially forgotten her suspicions; they returned to her at intervals, while she was sewing on her wedding-dress, but she did not notice her mother's pallor nor uneasiness, nor did she feel the burning heat of those slender hands. She did not notice her long and frequent disappearances, and she heard nothing of what was rumored in the town. She saw and heard nothing but her own radiant happiness. The banns were published, the marriage-day fixed, and the little house was full of the joyous excitement that precedes a wedding. Zenaide ran up and down stairs twenty times each day with the movements of a young hippopotamus. Her friends came and went, little gifts were pouring in, for the girl was a great favorite in spite of her occasional abruptness. Jack wished to make her a present; his mother had sent him a hundred francs.

"This money is your own, my Jack," Charlotte wrote. "Buy with it a gift for M'lle Rondic, and some clothes for yourself. I wish you to make a good appearance at the wedding, and I am afraid that your wardrobe is in a pitiable condition. Say nothing about it in your letters, nor of me to the Rondics. They would thank me, which would be an annoyance, and bring me a reproof besides."

For two days Jack carried this money with pride in his pocket. He would go to Nantes and buy a new suit. What a delight it would be! and how kind his mother was! One thing troubled him: What could he purchase for Zenaide; he must first see what she had.

So thinking one dark night, as he entered the house, he ran against some one who was coming down the steps.

"Is that you, Belisaire?"

There was no reply, but as Jack pushed open the door, he saw that he was not mistaken, that Belisaire had been there.

Clarisse was in the corridor, shivering with the cold, and so absorbed by the letter she was reading in the gleam of light from the half open door of the parlor, that she did not even look up as Jack went in. The letter evidently contained some startling intelligence, and the boy suddenly remembered having that day heard that Chariot had lost a large sum of money in gambling with the crew of an English ship that had just arrived at Nantes from Calcutta.

In the parlor Zenaide and Maugin were alone.

Pere Rondic had gone to Chateaubriand and would not return until the next day, which did not prevent her future husband from dining with them. He sat in the large arm-chair, his feet comfortably extended. While Zenaide, carefully dressed, and her hair arranged by her stepmother, laid the table, this calm and reasonable lover entertained her by an estimate of the prices of the various grains, indigos, and oils that entered the port of Nantes. And such a wonderful prestidigitateur is love that Zenaide was moved to the depths of her soul by these details, and listened to them as to music.

Jack's entrance disturbed the lovers. "Ah, here is Jack I I had no idea it was so late!" cried the girl. "And mamma, where is she?"

Clarisse came in, pale but calm.

"Poor woman!" thought Jack, as he watched her trying to smile, to talk, and to eat, swallowing at intervals great draughts of water, as if to choke down some terrible emotion. Zenaide was blind to all this. She had lost her own appetite, and watched her soldier's plate, seeming delighted at the rapidity with which the delicate morsels disappeared.

Maugin talked well, and ate and drank with marvellous appetite; he weighed his words as carefully as he did the square bits into which he cut his bread; he held his wine-glass to the light, testing and scrutinizing it each time he drank. A dinner, with him, was evidently a matter of importance as well as of time. This evening it seemed as if Clarisse could not endure it; she rose from the table, went to the window, listened to the rattling of the hail on the glass, and then turning round, said,--

"What a night it is, M. Maugin I I wish you were safely at home."

"I don't, then!" cried Zenaide, so earnestly that they all laughed. But the remark made by Clarisse bore its fruit, and the soldier rose to go. But it took him some time to get off. There was his lantern to light, his gloves to button; and the girl took all these duties on herself. At last the soldier was in readiness; his hood was pulled over his eyes, a scarf wound about his throat, then Zenaide said good night, and watched her Esquimau-looking lover somewhat anxiously down the street. What perils might he not have to run in that thick darkness!

Her stepmother called her impatiently. The nervous excitement of Clarisse had momentarily increased. Jack had noticed this, and also that she looked constantly at the clock.

"How cold it must be to-night on the Loire," said Zenaide.

"Cold, indeed!" answered Clarisse, with a shiver.

"Come," she said, as the clock struck ten, "let us go to bed."

Then seeing that Jack was about to lock the outer door as usual, she stopped him, saying,--

"I have done it myself. Let us go up stairs."

But Zenaide had not finished talking of M. Maugin. "Do you like his moustache, Jack?" she asked.

"Will you go to bed?" asked Madame Rondic, pretending to laugh, but trembling nervously.

At last the three are on the narrow staircase.

"Good night," said Clarisse; "I am dying with sleep."

But her eyes were very bright. Jack put his foot on his ladder, but Zenaide's room was so crowded with her gifts and purchases, that it seemed to him a most auspicious occasion to pass them in review. Friends had had them under examination, and they were still displayed on the commode: some silver spoons, a prayer-book, gloves, and all about tumbled bits of paper and the colored ribbon that had fastened these gifts from the chateau; then came the more humble presents from the wives of the employes. Zenaide showed them all with pride. The boy uttered exclamations of wonder. "But what shall I give her?" he said to himself over and over again.

"And my trousseau, Jack, you have not seen it! Wait, and I will show it to you."

With a quaint old key she opened the carved wardrobe that had been in the family for a hundred years; the two doors swung open, a delicious violet perfume filled the room, and Jack could see and admire the piles of sheets spun by the first Madame Rondic, and the ruffled and fluted linen piled in snowy masses.

In fact, Jack had never seen such a display. His mother's wardrobe held laces and fine embroideries, not household articles. Then, lifting a heavy pile, she showed Jack a casket. "Guess what is in this," Zenaide said, with a laugh; "it contains my dowry, my dear little dowry, that in a fortnight will belong to M. Maugin. Ah, when I think of it, I could sing and dance with joy!"

And the girl held out her skirts with each hand, and executed an elephantine gambol, shaking the casket she still held in her hand. Suddenly she stopped; some one had rapped on the wall.

"Let the boy go to bed," said her stepmother in an irritated tone; "you know he must be up early."

A little ashamed, the future Madame Maugin shut her wardrobe, and said good night to Jack, who ascended his ladder; and five minutes later the little house, wrapped in snow and rocked by the wind, slept like its neighbors in the silence of the night.

There is no light in the parlor of the Rondic mansion save that which comes from the fitful gleam of the dying fire in the chimney. A woman sat there, and at her feet knelt a man in vehement supplication.

"I entreat you," he whispered, "if you love me--"

If she loved him! Had she not at his command left the door open that he might enter? Had she not adorned herself in the dress and ornaments that he liked, to make herself beautiful in his eyes? What could it be that he was asking her now to grant to him? How was it that she, usually so weak, was now so strong in her denials? Let us listen for a moment.

"No, no," she answered, indignantly, "it is impossible."

"But I only ask it for two days, Clarisse. With these six thousand francs I will pay the five thousand I have lost, and with the other thousand I will conquer fortune."

She looked at him with an expression of absolute terror.

"No, no," she repeated, "it cannot be. You must find some other way."

"But there is none."

"Listen. I have a rich friend; I will write to her and ask her to lend me the money."

"But I must have it to-morrow."

"Well, then, find the Director; tell him the truth."

"And he will dismiss me instantly. No; my plan is much the best. In two days I will restore the money."

"You only say that."

"I swear it." And, seeing that his words did not convince her, he added, "I had better have said nothing to you, but have gone at once to the wardrobe and taken what I needed."

But she answered, trembling, for she feared that he would yet do this, "Do you not know that Zenaide counts her money every day? This very night she showed the casket to the apprentice."

Chariot started. "Is that so?" he asked.

"Yes; the poor girl is very happy. It would kill her to lose it. Besides, the key is not in the wardrobe."

Suddenly perceiving that she was weakening her own position, she was silent. The young man was no longer the supplicating lover, he was the spoiled child of the house, imploring his aunt to save him from dishonor.

Through her tears she mechanically repeated the words, "It is impossible."

Suddenly he rose to his feet.

"You will not? Very good. Only one thing remains then. Farewell! I will not survive disgrace."

He expected a cry. No; she came toward him.

"You wish to die! Ah, well, so do I! I have had enough of life, of shame, of falsehood, and of love--love that must be concealed with such care that I am never sure of finding it. I am ready."

He drew back. "What folly!" he said, sullenly. "This is too much," he added, vehemently, after a moment's silence, and hurried to the stairs.

She followed him. "Where are you going?" she asked.

"Leave me!" he said, roughly. She snatched his arm.

"Take care!" she whispered with quivering lips. "If you take one more step in that direction, I will call for assistance!"

"Call, then! Let the world know that your nephew is your lover, and your lover a thief."

He hissed these words, in her ear, for they both spoke very low, impressed, in spite of themselves, by the silence and repose of the house. By the red light of the dying fire he appeared to her suddenly in his true colors, just what he really was, unmasked by one of those violent emotions which show the inner workings of the soul.

She saw him with his keen eyes reddened by constant examination of the cards; she thought of all she had sacrificed for this man; she remembered the care with which she had adorned herself for this interview. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by profound disgust for herself and for him, and sank, half-fainting, on the couch; and while the thief crept up the familiar staircase, she buried her face in the pillows to stifle her cries and sobs, and to prevent herself from seeing and hearing anything.

The streets of Indret were as dark as at midnight, for it was not yet six o'clock. Here and there a light from a baker's window or a wine-shop shone dimly through the thick fog. In one of these wineshops sat Chariot and Jack.

"Another glass, my boy!"

"No more, thank you. I fear it would make me very ill."

Chariot laughed. "And you a Parisian! Waiter, bring more wine!"

The boy dared make no farther objection. The attentions of which he was the object flattered him immensely. That this man, who for eighteen months had never vouchsafed him any notice, should, meeting him by chance that morning in the streets, have invited him to the cabaret and treated him, was a matter of surprise and congratulation to himself. At first Jack was somewhat distrustful of such courtesy, for the other had such a singular way of repeating his question, "Is there nothing new at the Rondics? Really, nothing new?"

"I wonder," thought the apprentice, "if he wishes me to carry his letters, instead of Belisaire!"

But after a little while the boy became more at ease. Perhaps Chariot, he thought, may not be such a bad fellow. A good friend might induce him to relinquish play, and make him a better man.

After Jack had taken his third glass of wine, he became very cordial, and offered to become this good friend. Chariot accepting the offer with enthusiasm, the boy thought himself justified in at once offering his advice.

"Look here, M. Chariot, listen to me, and don't play any more."

The blow struck home, for the young man's lips trembled nervously, and he swallowed a glass of brandy at one gulp.

At that moment the factory-bell sounded.

"I must go," cried Jack, starting to his feet. And, as his friend had paid for the first and second wine they had drank, he considered it essential that he should now pay in his turn; so he drew a louis from his pocket, and tossed it on the table.

"Hallo! a yellow boy!" said the barkeeper, unaccustomed to seeing such in the possession of apprentices. Chariot started, but made no remark.

"Had Jack been to the wardrobe also?" he said to himself. The boy was delighted at the sensation he had created. "And I have more of the same kind," he added, tapping his pocket. And then he whispered in his companion's ear, "It is for a present that I mean to buy Zenaide."

Chariot said, mechanically, "Is it?" and turned away with a smile.

The innkeeper fingered the gold piece with some uneasiness.

"Hurry," said Jack, "or I shall be late."

"I wish, my boy," said Chariot, "that you could have remained with me until my boat left, which will not be for an hour."

And he gently drew the lad toward the Loire. It was easily done, for, coming out from the cabaret into the cold air, the wine the child had drank made him giddy. It seemed to him that his head weighed a thousand pounds. This did not last long, however. "Hark!" he said; "the bell has stopped, I think." They turned back. Jack was terrified, for it was the first time that he had ever been late at the Works. But Chariot was in despair. "It is my fault," he reiterated. He declared that he would see the Director and explain matters, and was altogether so utterly miserable, that Jack was obliged to console him by saying that it was of no great consequence, after all; that he could afford to be marked 'absent' for once. "I will go with you to the boat."

The boy was so gratified by what he believed to be the good effect of his words on Chariot, that he enlarged on the noble nature of Pere Rondic and of Clarisse.

"O, had you seen her this morning, you would have pitied her. She was so pale that she looked as if she were dead."

Chariot started.

"And she ate nothing. I am afraid she will be ill. And she never spoke."

"Poor woman!" said Chariot, with a sigh of relief which Jack took for one of sorrow.

They reached the wharf. The boat was not there. A thick fog covered the river from one shore to the other.

"Let us go in here," said Chariot It was a little wooden shed, intended as a shelter for workmen while waiting in bad weather. Clarisse knew this shed very well, and the old woman who sold brandy and coffee in the corner had seen Madame Rondic many a time when she crossed the Loire.

"Let us take a drop of brandy to keep out the cold," said Chariot. At that moment a shrill whistle was heard; it was the boat for Saint Nazarre. "Good-bye, Jack, and a thousand thanks for your good advice!"

"Don't mention it," said the lad, heartily; "but pray give up gambling."

"Of course I will," answered the other, hurrying on board to hide his amusement. When Jack was again alone he felt no desire to return to the Works; he was in a state of unusual excitement. Even the heavy fog hanging over the Loire interested him. Suddenly he said to himself, "Why do I not go to Nantes and buy Zenaide's gift to-day?" A few moments saw him on the way; but as there was no train until noon, he must wait for some time, and was compelled to pass that time in a room where there were several of the old employes of the Works, who had been discharged for various misdemeanors. They received the lad civilly enough, and listened attentively when he took up some remark that was made, and uttered some platitudes, stolen from D'Ar-genton, on the rights of labor.

"Listen!" they said to each other; "it is easy to see that the boy comes from Paris."

Jack, excited by this applause and sympathy, talked fast and freely. Suddenly the room swam around--all grew dark. A fresh breeze restored him to consciousness. He was seated on the bank of the river, and a sailor was bathing his forehead.

"Are you better?" said the man.

"Yes, much better," answered Jack, his teeth chattering.

"Then go on board."

"Go where?" said the apprentice, in amazement.

"Why, have you forgotten that you hired a boat, and sent for provisions? And here comes the man with them."

Jack was stupefied with amazement, but he was too weak to argue any point; he embarked without remonstrance. He had a little money left, with which he could buy some little souvenir for Zenaide, so that his trip to Nantes would not be thrown away absolutely. He breakfasted with a poor enough appetite, and sat at the end of the boat, wrapped in thought. He dreamily recalled books that he had read--tales of strange adventures on the sea; but why did a certain old volume of Robinson Crusoe persistently come before him? He saw the rubbed and yellowed page, the vignette of Robinson in his hammock surrounded by drunken sailors, and above it the inscription, "And in a night of debauch I forgot all my good resolutions."

He was brought back to real life by the songs of his companions, and by a pair of keen bright eyes that were fixed upon his own. Jack was annoyed by this gaze, and leaned forward with a bottle in his hand.

"Drink with me, captain!" he said.

The man declined abruptly. The younger sailor whispered to Jack, "Let him alone; he did not wish to take you on board; his wife settled things for him; he thought you had more money than you ought to have!"

Jack was indignant at being treated like a thief. He exclaimed that his money was his own, that it had been given him by------. Here he stopped, remembering that his mother had forbidden him to mention her name. "But," he continued, "I can have more money when I wish it, and I am going to buy a wedding present for Zenaide."

He talked on, but no one listened, for a grand dispute between the two men was well under way as to the place where they should land.

At last they entered the harbor of Nantes. Old houses, with carved fronts and stone balconies, met his eyes, crowded as it were among the shipping at the wharves. Large vessels lay at anchor in the harbor, looking to the boy like captives who panted for liberty, sunshine, and space. Then he thought of Madou, of his flight and concealment among the cargo in the hold. But this thought was gone in a moment, and he found himself on shore between his two companions, whom he soon loses and finds again. They cross one bridge, and then another, and wander with neither end nor aim. They drink at intervals; night comes, and the boy accompanies the sailors to a low dance-house, still in the strange excitement in which he has been all day. Finally, he finds himself alone on a bench, in a public square, in a state of exhaustion that is far from sleep. The profound solitude terrifies him, when suddenly he hears the well-known cry,--

"Hats! hats! Hats to sell!"

"Belisaire!" called the boy.

It was Belisaire. Jack made a futile effort at explanation. The man scolded the boy gently, lifted him up, and led him away.

Where are they going? And who comes here? and what do they want of him? Rough men accost him; they shake him and put irons on his wrists, and he cannot resist, for he is still more than half asleep. He sleeps in the wagon into which he is thrust; in the boat, where he lies utterly inert; and how happy he is after being thus buffeted about to finally throw himself on a straw pallet, shut out from all further disturbance by huge locks and bolts.

In the morning a frightful noise over his head awoke Jack suddenly. Ah, what a dismal awakening is that of drunkenness! The nervous trembling in every limb, the intense thirst and exhaustion, the shame and inexpressible anguish of the human being seeing himself reduced to the level of a beast, and so disgusted with his tarnished existence that he feels incapable of beginning life again.

It was still too dark to distinguish objects, but he knew that he was not in his little attic. He caught a glimpse of the coming dawn in the white light from two high windows. Where was he? In the corner he began to see a confused mass of cords and pulleys. Suddenly he heard the same noise that had awakened him: it was a clock, and one that he well knew. He was at Indret, then, but where?

Could it be that he was shut in the tower where refractory apprentices were occasionally put? And what had he done? He tried to recall the events of the day before, and, confused as his mind still was, he remembered enough to cover him with shame. He groaned heavily. The groan was answered by a sigh from the corner. He was not alone, then!

"Who is there?" asked Jack, uneasily; "is it Belisaire?" he added. But why should Belisaire be there with him?

"Yes, it is I," answered the man, in a tone of desperation.

"In the name of heaven tell me why we are shut up here like two criminals?"

"What other people have been doing I can't tell," muttered the old man; "I only speak for myself, and I have done no harm to any one. My hats are ruined,--and I, too, for that matter!" continued Belisaire, dolefully.

"But what have I done?" asked Jack, for he could not imagine that among the many follies of which he had been guilty there was one more grave than another.

"They say--But why do you make me tell you? You know well enough what they say."

"Indeed, I do not; pray, go on."

"Well, they say that you have stolen Zenaide's dowry."

The boy uttered an exclamation of horror. "But you do not believe this, Belisaire?"

The old man did not answer. Every one at Indret thought Jack guilty. Every circumstance was against the boy. On the first report of the robbery, Jack was looked for, but was not to be found. Chariot had very well managed matters. All along the road there were traces of the robbery in the gold pieces displayed so liberally. Only one thing disturbed the belief of the boy's guilt in the minds of the villagers: what could he have done with the six thousand francs? Neither Belisaire's pocket nor his own displayed any indication that such a sum of money had been in their possession.

Soon after daybreak the superintendent sent for the prisoners. They were covered with mud, and were unwashed and unshorn; yet Jack had a certain grace and refinement in spite of all this; but Belisaire's naturally ugly countenance was so distorted by grief and anxiety, that, as the two appeared, the spectators unanimously decided that this gentle-looking child was the mere instrument of the wretched being with whom he was unfortunately connected. As Jack looked about he saw several faces which seemed like those of some terrible nightmare, and his courage deserted him. He recognized the sailors, and the proprietors of several of the wineshops, with many others of those whom he had seen on that disastrous yesterday. The child begged for a private interview with the superintendent, and was admitted to the office, where he found Father Rondic, whom Jack went forward at once to greet with extended hand. The old man drew back sadly but resolutely.

"Out of regard for your youth, Jack," said the Director, "and from respect to your parents, and in consideration of your hitherto good behavior, I have begged that, instead of being carried to Nantes and placed in prison, you shall remain here. I now tell you that it is for you to decide what will be done. Tell me the truth. Tell Father Rondic and myself what you have done with the money, give him back what is left, and--no, do not interrupt me," continued the Director, with a frown. "Return the money, and I will then send you to your parents."

Here Belisaire attempted to speak. "Be quiet, fellow!" said the superintendent; "I cannot understand how you can have the audacity to speak. We believe you to be in reality the guilty party, and that this child has simply been your tool."

Jack wished to protest against this condemnation of his friend; but old Rondic gave him no time.

"You are quite right, sir, it is bad company that has led the lad astray. Everybody loved him in my house; we had every confidence in him until he met this miserable wretch."

Belisaire looked so heart-broken at this wholesale condemnation that Jack rushed boldly forward in his defence. "I assure you, air, that I met Belisaire late in the day."

"Do you mean," said the superintendent, "that you committed this robbery all alone?"

"I have done no wrong, sir."

"Take care, my lad--you are going down hill with rapidity. Your guilt is very evident, and it is useless to deny it. You were alone with the Rondic women in their house all night. Zenaide showed you the casket, and even showed you where it was kept. In the night she heard some one moving in your attic; she spoke; naturally you made no reply. She knew that it must be you, for there was no one else in the house. Then you must remember that we know how much money you threw away yesterday."

Jack was about to say, "My mother sent it to me," when he remembered that she had forbidden him to mention this. So he hesitatingly murmured that he had been saving his money for some time.

"What nonsense!" cried the Director. "Do you think you can make us believe that with your small wages you could have laid aside the amount you squandered yesterday? Tell the truth, my lad, and repair the evil you have done as well as possible."

Then Father Rondic spoke. "Tell us, my boy, where this money is. Remember that it is Zenaide's dowry, that I have toiled day and night to lay it aside for her, feeling that with it I might make her happy. You did not think of all this, I am sure, and were led away by the temptation of the moment. But now that you have had time to reflect, you will tell us the truth. Remember, Jack, that I am old, that time may not be given me to replace this money. Ah, my good lad, speak!"

The poor man's lips trembled. It must have been a hardened criminal who could have resisted such a touching appeal. Belisaire was so moved that he made ar series of the most extraordinary gestures. "Give him the money, Jack, I beg of you!" he whispered.

Alas I if the child had had the money, how gladly he would have placed it in the hands of old Rondic, but he could only say,--

"I have stolen nothing--I swear I have not!"

The superintendent rose from his chair impatiently. "We have had enough of this. Your heart must be of adamant to resist such an appeal as has been made to you. I shall send you up-stairs again, and give you until to-night to reflect. If you do not then make a full confession, I shall hand you over to the proper tribunal."

The boy was then left all the long day in solitude. He tried to sleep, but the knowledge that every one thought him guilty, that his own shameful conduct had given ample reason for such a judgment, overwhelmed him with sorrow. How could he prove his innocence? By showing his mother's letter. But if D'Argenton should know of it? No, he could not sacrifice his mother! What, then, should he do? And the boy lay on the straw bed, turning over in his bewildered brain the difficulties of his position. Around him went on the business of life; he heard the workmen come and go. It was evening, and he would be sent to prison. Suddenly he heard the stairs creak under a heavy tread, then the turning of the key, and Zenaide entered hastily.

"Good heavens," she cried, "how high up you are!"

She said this with a careless air, but she had wept so much that her eyes were red and inflamed, her hair was roughened and carelessly put up. The poor girl smiled at Jack. "I am ugly, am I not? I have no figure nor complexion. I have a big nose and small eyes; but two days ago I had a handsome dowry, and I cared but little if some of the malicious young girls said, 'It is only for your money that Maugin wishes to marry you,' as if I did not know this! He wanted my money, but I loved him! And now, Jack, all is changed. To-night he will come and say farewell, and I shall not complain. Only, Jack, before he comes, I thought I would have a little talk with you."

Jack had hidden his face, and was crying. Zenaide felt a ray of hope at this.

"You will give me back my money, Jack, will you not?" she added entreatingly.

"But I have not got it, I assure you."

"Do not say that. You are afraid of me, but I will not reproach you. If you have spent a little you are quite welcome, but tell me where the rest is!"

"Listen to me, Zenaide: this is horrible. Why should every one think me guilty?"

She went on as if he had not spoken. "Do you understand that without this money I shall be miserable? In your mother's name I entreat you here on my knees!"

She threw herself on the floor by the side of the bed where the boy sat, and gave way to tears and sobs. Jack, who was as unhappy as she, tried to take her hand. Suddenly she started up. "You will be punished. No one will ever love you because your heart is bad!" and she left the room. She ran hastily down the stairs to the superintendent's room, whom she found with her father. She could not speak, for her tears choked her.

"Be comforted, my child!" said the Director. "Your father tells me that the mother of this boy is married to a very rich man. We will write to them. If they are good people, your dowry will be restored to you."

He wrote the following letter:--

"Madame: Your son has stolen a sum of money from the honest and hard-working man with whom he lived. This sum represents the savings of years. I have not yet handed him over to the authorities, hoping that he might be induced to restore at least a portion of this money. But I am afraid that it has all been squandered among drunken companions. If that is the case, you should indemnify the Rondics for their loss. The amount is six thousand francs. I await your decision before taking any further steps."

And he signed his name.

"Poor things--it is terrible news for them!" said Pere Rondic, who amid his own sorrows could still think of those of others.

Zenaide looked up indignantly. "Why do you pity these people? If the boy has taken my money, let them replace it."

How pitiless is youth! The girl gave not one thought to the mother's despair when she should hear of her son's crime. Old Rondic, on the contrary, said to himself, "She will die of shame!"

In due time this letter written by the superintendent reached its destination, as letters which contain bad news generally do.

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