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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 15. Charlotte's Journey
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Jack - Chapter 15. Charlotte's Journey Post by :wfelixb69 Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :3415

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Jack - Chapter 15. Charlotte's Journey

CHAPTER XV. CHARLOTTE'S JOURNEY

One gray morning Charlotte was cutting the last bunches from the vines; the poet was at work, and Dr. Hirsch was asleep, when the postman reached Aulnettes.

"Ah! a letter from Indret!" said D'Argenton, slowly opening his newspapers,--"and some verses by Hugo!"

Why did the poet watch this unopened letter as a dog watches a bone that he does not wish himself, and is yet determined that no one else shall touch? Simply because Charlotte's eyes had kindled at the sight of it, and because this most selfish of beings felt that for a moment he had become a secondary object in the mother's eyes.

From the hour of Jack's departure, his mother's love for him had increased. She avoided speaking of him, however, lest she should irritate her poet He divined this, and his hatred and jealousy of the child increased. And when the early letters of Ron-die contained complaints of Jack, he was very much delighted. But this was not enough. He wished to mortify and degrade the boy still more. His hour had come. At the first words of the letter, for he finally opened it, his eyes flamed with malicious joy. "Ah! I knew it!" he cried, and he handed the sheet to Charlotte.

What a terrible blow for her! Wounded in her maternal pride before the poet, wounded, too, by his evident satisfaction, the poor woman was still more overwhelmed by the reproaches of her own conscience. "It is my own fault!" she said to herself, "why did I abandon him?"

Now he must be saved, and at all hazards. But where should she find the money? She had nothing. The sale of her furniture had brought in some millions of francs, but they had been quickly spent. The trifles of jewelry she had would not bring half the necessary sum. She never thought of appealing to D'Argenton. First, he hated the boy; and next, he was very miserly. Besides, he was far from rich. They lived with great economy in the winter, the better to keep up their hospitality during the summer.

"I have always felt," said D'Argenton, after leaving her time to finish the letter, "that this boy was bad at heart!"

She made no reply; indeed she hardly heard what he said. She was thinking that her child would go to prison if she could not obtain the money.

He continued, "What a disgrace this is to me!" The mother was still saying to herself, "The money, where shall I get it?"

He determined to prevent her asking him the question he saw on her lips.

"We are not rich enough to do anything!"

"Ah! if you could," she murmured.

He became very angry. "If I could!" he cried. "I expected that! You know better than any one else how enormous our expenses are here. It is enough that for two years I have supported that boy without paying for the thefts he has committed. Six thousand francs! where shall I find them?"

"I did not think of you," she answered, slowly.

"Of whom, then?" he questioned, sternly.

With heightened color, and with lips quivering with shame, she uttered a name, expecting from her poet an explosion of wrath.

He was silent for a moment.

"I can but make one more sacrifice for you, Charlotte," he said, pompously.

"Thanks! thanks! How good you are!" she cried.

And they lowered their voices, for Dr. Hirsch was heard descending the stairs.

It was a most singular conversation--syllabic and disjointed--he affecting great repugnance, she great brevity. "It was impossible to trust to a letter," Charlotte said. Then, terrified at her own audacity, she added, "Suppose I go to Tours myself."

With the utmost tranquillity he answered, "Very well, we will go."

"How good you are, dear!" she cried: "you will go with me there, and then to Indret with the money!" and the foolish creature kissed his hands with tears. The truth was that he did not care for her to go to Tours without him; he knew that she had lived there and been happy. Suppose she should never return to him! She was so weak, so shallow, so inconsistent! The sight of her old lover, of the luxury she had relinquished--the influence of her child, might decide her to cast aside the heavy chains with which he had loaded her. In addition, he was by no means averse to this little journey, nor to playing his part in the drama at Indret.

He told Charlotte that he would never abandon her, that he was ready to share her sorrows as well as her joys; and, in short, convinced Charlotte that he loved her more than ever.

At dinner he said to Doctor Hirsch, "We are obliged to go to Indret, the child has got into trouble, and you must keep house in our absence." They left by the night express and reached Tours early in the morning. The old friend of Ida de Barancy lived in one of those pretty chateaux overlooking the Loire. He was a widower without children, an excellent man, and a man of the world. In spite of her infidelity, he had none but the kindest recollection of the light-hearted woman who for a time had brightened his solitude. He consequently replied to a little note sent by Charlotte that he was ready to receive her.

D'Argenton and she took a carriage from the hotel, and as they approached the chateau, Charlotte began to grow uneasy. "It cannot be," she said to herself, "that he intends to go in with me!" She sat in the corner of the carriage, looking out at the fields where she had so often wandered with the boy, who was now wearing a workman's blouse.

D'Argenton watched her from the corner of his eyes, gnawing his moustache with fury. She was very pretty that morning, a little pale from emotion and from a night of travel. D'Argenton was uneasy and restless; he began to regret having accompanied her, and felt embarrassed by the part he was playing.

When he saw the chateau, with its grounds and fountains, its air of wealth, he reproached himself for his own imprudence. "She will never return to Aulnettes," he thought. At the end of the avenue he stopped the carriage. "I will wait here," he said, abruptly; and added, with a sad smile, "Do not be long."

Ten minutes later he saw Charlotte on the terrace with a tall and elegant-looking man. Then began for him a terrible anguish. What were they saying? Should he ever see her again? And it was that detestable boy that had given him all this disturbance. The poet sat on the fallen trunk of a tree, watching feverishly the distant door. Before him was outspread a charming landscape--wooded hills, sloping vineyards, and meadows overhung with willows; on one side a ruin of the time of Louis IX., and on the other, one of those chateaux common enough on the shores of the Loire. Just below him a sort of canal was in process of building. He watched the workmen in a mechanical sort of way; they were clothed in uniform, and seemed an organized body. He rose and sauntered toward them. The laborers were only children, and their reddened eyes and pale faces told the story of their confinement to the poorer quarters of the town.

"Who are these children?" questioned the poet.

"They belong to the penitentiary," was the answer from the official who superintended them.

D'Argenton asked question after question, saying that he was intimately connected with a family whose only son had just plunged them into deep affliction.

"Send him to us," was the curt reply, "as soon as he leaves the prison."

"But I doubt if he goes to prison," said D'Argen-ton, with a shade of regret in his voice; "the parents have paid the amount."

"Well, then, we have another establishment--the _Maison Paternelle_. I have some of the circulars here in my pocket, and perhaps you would glance over them, sir."

D'Argenton took the papers and turned back toward the house. The carriage was coming down the avenue, and soon Charlotte, her color heightened and her eyes bright with hope for her child, appeared.

"I have succeeded," she cried, as the poet entered the carriage.

"Ah!" he answered, dryly, relapsing into silence, turning over his circulars with an air of affected interest. Charlotte, too, was silent, supposing his pride wounded; and finally he was obliged to say, "You succeeded, then?"

"Completely. It has always been his intention to give Jack, on his coming of age, a present of ten thousand francs. He has given it to me now. Six thousand will repay the money, and the other four thousand I am to employ as I think best for my child's advantage."

"Employ it, then, in placing him in the _Maison Paternelle_, at Mertray, for two or three years. It is there only that one can learn to make an honest man from out of a thief."

She started, for the harsh word recalled her to reality. We know that in that poor little brain impressions are very transitory.

"I am ready to do whatever you choose," she said, "you have been so good and generous!"

The poet was enchanted; he was still master, and he proceeded to read Charlotte a long lecture. Her maternal weakness was the cause of all that had happened. The master-hand of a man was absolutely essential. She did not answer, being occupied with joy at the thought of her child not being sent to prison.

It was on Sunday morning that they reached Basse Indret. The poet went at once to the superintendent's, while Charlotte remained alone at the inn, for hotel there was none at the village. The rain beating against the windows, and the loud talking in the house, gave her the first clear impression she had received of the exile to which she had condemned her boy. However guilty he might be, he was still her child--her Jack. She remembered him as a little fellow, bright, intelligent, and sensitive, and the idea that he would presently appear before her as a thief and in a workman's blouse, seemed almost incredible. Ah! had she kept her child with her, or had she sent him with other boys of his age to school, he would have been kept from temptation. The old doctor was right, after all. And Jack had lived with these people for two years! All the prejudices of her superficial nature revolted against her surroundings. She was incapable of comprehending the grandeur of a task accomplished, of a life purchased by the fatigue of the body and the labor of the hands. To change the current of her thoughts, she took up the prospectus of which we have spoken--"_Maison Paternelle_." The system adopted was absolute isolation. The mother's heart swelled with anguish, and she closed the book and went to the window, where she stood with her eyes fixed on a small bit of the Loire that she saw at the foot of a street, where the water was as rough as the sea itself.

D'Argenton, in the meantime, was accomplishing his mission. He would not have relinquished the duty for any amount of money. He was fond of attitudes and scenes. He prepared in advance the terms in which he should address the criminal.

An old woman pointed out the house of the Rondics, but when he reached it he hesitated. Must he not have made a mistake? From the wide open windows came the sound of gay music, and heavy feet were heard keeping time to it. "No, this cannot be it," said D'Argenton, who naturally expected to find a desolate house.

"Come, Zenaide, it is your turn," called some one.

"Zenaide"--why, that was Rondic's daughter! These people certainly did not take this affair much to heart. All at once a crowd of white-capped women passed the window, singing loudly.

"Come, Brigadier I come, Jack!" said some one.

Somewhat mystified, the poet pushed open the door, and amid the dust and crowd he saw Jack, radiant with happiness, dancing with a stout girl, who smiled with her whole heart at a good-looking fellow in uniform. In a corner sat a gray-haired man, much amused by all that was going on; with him was a tall, pale, young woman, who looked very sad.

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