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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 17. In The Engine-Room
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Jack - Chapter 17. In The Engine-Room Post by :wfelixb69 Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :1248

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Jack - Chapter 17. In The Engine-Room


How is it that days of such interminable length can be merged into such swiftly-passing years? Two have passed since Zenaide was married, and since Jack's terrible adventure. He has worked conscientiously, and loathes the thought of a wineshop. The house is sad and desolate since Zenaide's marriage; Madame Rondic rarely goes out, and occupies her accustomed seat at the window, the curtain of which, however, is never lifted, for she expects no one now. Her days and nights are all alike monotonous and dreary. Father Rondic alone preserves his former serenity.

The winter has been a cold one. The Loire has overflowed the island, part of which remained under water four months, and the air was filled with fogs and miasma. Jack has had a bad cough, and has passed some weeks in the infirmary. Occasionally a letter has come for him, tender and loving when his mother wrote in secret, didactic and severe when the poet looked over her shoulder. The only news sent by his mother was, that her poet had had a grand reconciliation with the Moronvals, who now came on Sundays, with some of their pupils, to dine at Aulnettes.

Moronval, Madou, and the academy seemed far enough away to Jack, who thought of himself in those old days as of a superior being, and could see little resemblance between his coarse skin and round shoulders, and the dainty pink and white child whose face he dimly remembered.

Thus were Dr. Rivals' words justified: "It is social distinctions that create final and absolute separations."

Jack thought often of the old doctor and of Cecile, and on the first of January each year had written them a long letter. But the two last had remained unanswered.

One thought alone sustained Jack in his sad life: his mother might need him, and he must work hard for her sake.

Unfortunately wages are in proportion to the value of the work, and not to the ambition of the workman, and Jack had no talent in the direction of his career. He was seventeen, his apprenticeship over, and yet he received but three francs per day. With these three francs he must pay for his room, his food, and his dress; that is, he must replace his coarse clothing as it was worn out; and what should he do if his mother were to write and say, "I am coming to live with you "?

"Look here," said Pere Rondic, "your parents made a great mistake in not listening to me. You have no business here; now how would you like to make a voyage? The chief engineer of the 'Cydnus' wants an assistant. You can have six francs per day, be fed, lodged, and warmed. Shall I write and say you will like the situation?"

The idea of the double pay, the love of travel that Madou's wild tales had awakened in his childish nature, combined to render Jack highly pleased at the proposed change. He left Indret one July morning, just four years after his arrival. What a superb day it was! The air became more fresh as the little steamer he was on approached the ocean. Jack had never seen the sea. The fresh salt breeze inspired him with restless longing. Saint Nazarre lay before him,--the harbor crowded with shipping. They landed at the dock, and there learned that the Cydnus, of the _Compagnie Transatlantique_, would sail at three o'clock that day, and was already lying outside,--this being, in fact, the only way to have the crew all on board at the moment of departure.

Jack and his companion--for Father Rondic had insisted on seeing him on board his ship--had no time to see anything of the town, which had all the vivacity of a market-day.

The wharf was piled with vegetables, with baskets of fruit, and with fowls which, tied together, were wildly struggling for liberty. Near their merchandise stood the Breton peasants waiting quietly for purchasers. They were in no hurry, and made no appeal to the passers-by. In contrast to these, there was a number of small peddlers, selling pins, cravats, and portemonnaies, who were loudly crying their wares. Sailors were hurrying to and fro, and Rondic learned from one of them that the chief engineer of the Cydnus was in a very bad humor because he had not his full number of stokers on board.

"We must hasten," said Rondic; and they hailed a boat, and rapidly threaded their way through the harbor. The enormous transatlantic steamers lay at their wharves as if asleep; the decks of two large English ships just arrived from Calcutta were covered with sailors, all hard at work. They passed between these motionless masses, where the water was as dark as a canal running through the midst of a city under high walls; then they saw the Cydnus lying, with her steam on. A wiry little man, in his shirt-sleeves, with three stripes on his cap, hailed Jack and Rondic as their boat came alongside the steamer.

His words were inaudible through the din and tumult, but his gestures were eloquent enough. This was Blanchet, the chief engineer.

"You have come, then, have you?" he shouted. "I was afraid you meant to leave me in the lurch."

"It was my fault," said Rondic; "I wished to accompany the lad, and I could not get away yesterday."

"On board with you, quick!" returned the engineer; "he must get into his place at once."

They descended first one ladder, then another, and another. Jack, who had never been on board a large steamer, was stupefied at the size and the depth of this one. They descended to an abyss where the eyes accustomed to the light of day could distinguish absolutely nothing. The heat was stifling, and a final ladder led to the engine-room, where the heavy atmosphere, charged with a smell of oil, was almost insupportable. Great activity reigned in this room; a general examination was being made of the machinery, which glittered with cleanliness. Jack looked on curiously at the enormous structure, knowing that it would soon be his duty to watch it day and night.

At the end of the engine-room was a long passage. "That is where the coal is kept," said the engineer, carelessly; "and on the other side the stokers sleep."

Jack shuddered. The dormitory at the academy, the garret-room at the Rondics, were palaces in comparison.

The engineer pushed open a small door. Imagine a long cave, reddened by the reflection of a dozen furnaces in full blast; men, almost naked, were stirring the fire, the sweat pouring from their faces.

"Here is your man," said Blanchet to the head workman.

"All right, sir," said the other without turning round.

"Farewell," said Rondic. "Take care of yourself, my boy!" and he was gone.

Jack was soon set to work; his task was to carry the cinders from the furnace to the deck, and there throw them into the sea. It was very hard work: the baskets were heavy, the ladders narrow, and the change from the pure air above to the stifling atmosphere below absolutely suffocating. On the third trip Jack felt his legs giving way under him. He found it impossible to even lift his basket, and sank into a corner half fainting. One of the stokers, seeing his condition, brought him a large flask of brandy.

"Thank you; I never drink anything," said Jack.

The other laughed. "You will drink here," he answered.

"Never," murmured Jack; and lifting the heavy basket, more by an effort of will than by muscular force, he ascended the ladder.

From the deck an animated spectacle was to be seen. The little steamer ran to and fro from the wharf to the ship, laden with passengers who came hurriedly on board. The passengers were representatives of all nations. Some were gay, and others were weeping, but in the faces of all was to be read an anxiety or a hope; for these displacements, these movings, are almost invariably the result of some great disturbance, and are, in general, the last quiver of the shock that throws you from one continent to the other.

This same feverish element pervaded everything, even the vessel that strained at its anchor. It animated the curious crowd on the jetty who had come, some of them, to catch a last look of some dear face. It animated the fishing-boats, whose sails were spread for a night of toil.

Jack, with his empty basket at his feet, stood looking down at the passengers,--those belonging to the cabins comfortably established, those of the steerage seated on their slender luggage. Where were they going? What wild fancy took them away? What cold and stern reality awaited them on their landing? One couple interested him especially: it was a mother and a child who recalled to him the memory of Ida and little Jack. The lady was young and in black, with a heavy wrap thrown about her, a Mexican sarape with wide stripes. She had a certain air of independence characteristic of the wives of military or naval officers, who, from the frequent absence of their husbands, are thrown on their own resources. The child, dressed in the English fashion, looked as if he might have belonged to Lord Pembroke. When they passed Jack they both turned aside, and the long silk skirts were lifted that they might not touch his blackened garments. It was an almost imperceptible movement, but Jack understood it. A rough oath and a slap on the shoulder interrupted his sad thoughts.

"What the deuce are you up here for, sir? Go down to your post!" It was the engineer making his rounds. Jack went down without a word, humiliated at the reproof.

As he put his foot on the last ladder, a shudder was felt throughout the ship: she had started.

"Stand there!" said the head stoker.

Jack took his place before one of those gaping mouths; it was his duty to fill it, and to rake it, and to keep the fire clear. This was not such an easy matter, as, being unaccustomed to the sea, the pitching of the vessel came near throwing him into the flames. He nevertheless toiled on courageously, but at the end of an hour he was blind and deaf, stifled by the blood that rushed to his head. He did as the others did, and ran to the outer air. Ah, how good it was! Almost immediately, however, an icy blast struck him between the shoulders.

"Quick, give me the brandy!" he cried with a choked voice, to the man who had previously offered it to him.

"Here it is, comrade; I knew very well that you would want it before long."

He swallowed an enormous draught; it was almost pure alcohol, but he was so cold that it seemed like water. After a moment a comfortable warmth spread over his whole system, and then began a burning sensation in his stomach. To extinguish this fire he drank again. Fire within, and fire without,--flame upon flame,--was this the way that he was to live in future?

Then began a life of toil, hardship, and drunkenness that lasted three years:--three years whose seasons were all alike in that heated room down in the bowels of that big ship.

He sailed from country to country; he heard their names, Italian, French, and Spanish, but of them all he saw nothing. The fairer the climes they visited, the hotter was his chamber of torment. When he had emptied his cinders, broken his coal, and filled his furnaces, he slept the sleep of exhaustion and intoxication; for a stoker must drink if he lives. In the darkness of his life there was but one bright spot, his mother. She was like the Madonna in a chapel where all the lights are extinguished save the one that burns before her shrine. Now that he had become a man, much of the mystery of her life had become clear to him. His respect for Charlotte was changed to tender pity, and he loved her as we love those for whom we suffer. Even in his most despairing moments he remembered the end for which he toiled, and a mechanical instinct made him carefully preserve almost every sou of his wages.

Meanwhile, distance and time weakened the intercourse between mother and son. Jack's letters became more and more rare. Those of Charlotte were frequent, but they spoke of things so foreign to his new life, that he read them only to hear their music, the far off echo of a living tenderness.

Letters from Etiolles told him of D'Argenton; later, some from Paris spoke of their having again taken up their residence there, and of the poet having founded a Review, in consequence of the solicitations of friends. This would be a way of bringing his works prominently before the public, as well as to increase his income. At Havana Jack found a large package addressed to him. It was the first number of the magazine. The stoker mechanically turned its leaves, leaving on them the traces of his blackened fingers; and suddenly, as he saw the well-known names of D'Argenton, Moronval, and Hirsch on the smooth pages, he was seized with wild rage and indignation, and he cried aloud, as he shook his fist impatiently in the air, "Wretches, wretches! what have you made of me?"

This emotion was but brief; day by day his intellect weakened, and, strangely enough, he gained in physical health; he was stronger, and better able to support the fatigues of his daily labor; he seemed hardly to recognize any difference between bis days when the ship tossed and groaned, and his nights when he slept a drunken sleep, disturbed only by an occasional nightmare.

Was that frightful shock and crash of the Cydnus one of these dreams? That rushing of water, those cries of frightened women,--was all that a dream? His comrades called him, shook him. "Jack, Jack!" they cried; he staggered out, half naked. The engine-room was already half under water, the compass broken, the fires extinguished. The men ran against each other in the darkness. "What is it?" they cried.

An American ship had run them down. The men struggled up the narrow ladder; at the head stood the chief engineer with a revolver in his hand.

"The first man that attempts to pass me I will shoot! Go to your furnaces! Land is not far off; we shall reach it yet if my orders are obeyed." Each one turned, with rage and despair in his heart. They charged the furnaces with wet coal, and volumes of gas and smoke poured out; while the water still ascending, in spite of the constant work at the pumps, was as cold as ice. The pumps refuse to work, the furnaces will not burn. The stokers are in water up to their shoulders before the voice of the chief engineer is heard: "Save yourselves, my men, if you can!"

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