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Jack - Chapter 18. D'argenton's Magazine Post by :wfelixb69 Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :1460

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Jack - Chapter 18. D'argenton's Magazine


In a narrow street, quiet and orderly, in one of those houses belonging to the last century, D'Argen-ton had established himself as editor of the new magazine; while Jack, our friend Jack, was its proprietor. Do not smile: this was really the case; his money had been used to establish it Charlotte had some little scruple at first in so employing these funds, which she wished to preserve intact for the boy on his attaining his majority; but she yielded to the poet's persuasions.

"Come, my dear, listen! Figures are figures, you' know. Can there be a better investment than this Review? It is far safer than any railroad, at least Have I not placed my own funds in it?"

Within six months D'Argenton had sacrificed thirty thousand francs, and the receipts had been nothing, while the expenses were enormous. Besides the offices of the magazine, D'Argenton had hired in the same house a large apartment, from which he had a superb view. The city, the Seine, Notre Dame, numberless spires and domes, were all spread before his eyes. He saw the carriages pass over the bridges, and the boats glide through the arches. "Here I can live and breathe," he said to himself. "It was impossible for me to accomplish anything in that dull little hole of Aulnettes! How could one work in such a lethargic atmosphere?"

Charlotte was still young and gay; she managed the house and the kitchen, which was no small matter with the number of persons who daily assembled around her table. The poet, too, had recently acquired the habit of dictating instead of writing, and as Charlotte wrote a graceful English hand, he employed her as secretary. Every evening, when they were alone, he walked up and down the large room and dictated for an hour. In the silent old house, his solemn voice, and another sweeter and fresher, awakened singular echoes. "Our author is composing," said the concierge with respect.

Let us look in upon the D'Argenton menage. We find them installed in a charming little room, filled with the aroma of green tea and of Havana cigars. Charlotte is preparing her writing-table, arranging her pens, and straightening the ream of thick paper. D'Argenton is in excellent vein; he is in the humor to dictate all night, and twists his moustache, where glitter many silvery hairs. He waits to be inspired. Charlotte, however, as is often the case in a household, is very differently disposed: a cloud is on her face, which is pale and anxious; but notwithstanding her evident fatigue, she dips her pen in the inkstand.

"Let us see--we are at chapter first. Have you written that?"

"Chapter first," repeated Charlotte, in a low, sad voice.

The poet looked at her with annoyance; then, with an evident determination not to question her, he continued,--

"In a valley among the Pyrenees, those Pyrenees so rich in legendary lore--"

He repeated these words several times, then turning to Charlotte, he said, "Have you written this?"

She made an effort to repeat the words, but stopped, her voice strangled with sobs. In vain did she try to restrain herself, her tears flowed in torrents.

"What on earth is the matter?" said D'Argenton. "Is it this news of the Cydnus? It is a mere flying report, I am sure, and I attach no importance to it. Dr. Hirsch was to call at the office of the Company to-day, and he will be here directly."

He spoke in a satirical tone, slightly disdainful, as the weak, children, fools, and invalids are often addressed. Was she not something of all these?

"Where were we?" he continued, when she was calmer. "You have made me lose the thread. Read me all you have written."

Charlotte wiped her tears away.

"In a valley among the Pyrenees, those Pyrenees so rich in legendary lore--"

"Go on."

"It is all," she answered.

The poet was very much surprised; it seemed to him that he had dictated much more. The terrible advantage thought has over expression bewildered him. All that he dreamed, all that was in embryo within his brain, he fancied was already in form and on the page, and he was aghast at the disproportion between the dream and the reality. His delusion was like that of Don Quixote,--he believed himself in the Empyrean, and took the vapors from the kitchen for the breath of heaven, and, seated on his wooden horse, felt all the shock of an imaginary fall.. Had he been in such a state of mental exaltation merely to produce those two lines? Were these the only result of that frantic rubbing of his dishevelled hair, of that weary pacing to and fro?'

He was furious, for he felt that he was ridiculous. "It is your fault," he said to Charlotte. "How can a man work in the face of a crying woman? It is always the same thing--nothing is accomplished. Years pass away and the places are filled. Do you not know how small a thing disturbs literary composition? I ought to live in a tower a thousand feet above all the futilities of life, instead of being surrounded by caprices, disorder, and childishness." As he speaks he strikes a furious blow upon the table, and poor Charlotte, with the tears pouring from her eyes, gathers up the pens and papers that have flown about the room in wild confusion.

The arrival of Dr. Hirsch ends this deplorable scene, and after a while tranquillity is restored. The doctor is not alone; Labassandre comes with him, and both are grave and mysterious in their manner.

Charlotte turns hastily. "What-news, doctor?" she asks.

"None, madame; no news whatever."

But Charlotte detected a covert glance at D'Argenton, and knew that the physician's words were false.

"And what do the officers of the Company say?" continued the mother, determined to learn the truth.

Labassandre undertook to answer, and while he spoke, the doctor contrived to convey to D'Argenton that the Cydnus had gone to the bottom",--"a collision at sea--every soul was lost."

D'Argenton's face never changed, and it would have been difficult to form any idea of his feelings.

"I have been at work," he said. "Excuse me, I need the fresh air."

"You are right," said Charlotte; "go out for a walk;" and the poor woman, who usually detained her poet in the house lest the high-born ladies of the Faubourg St. Germain should entrap him, is this evening delighted to see him leave her, that she may weep in peace--that she may yield to all the wild terror and mournful presentiments that assail her. This is why even the presence of the servant annoys her, and she sends her to her attic.

"Madame wishes to be alone! Is not madame afraid? The noise of the wind is very dismal on the balcony."

"No, I am not afraid; leave me."

At last she was alone. She could think at her ease, without the voice of her tyrant saying, "What are you thinking about?" Ever since she had read in the Journal the brief words, "There is no intelligence of the Cydnus," the image of her child had pursued her. Her nights had been sleepless, and she listened to the wind with singular terror. It seemed to blow from all quarters, rattling the windows and wailing through the chimneys. But whether it whispered or shrieked, it spoke to her, and said what it always says to the mothers and wives of sailors, who turn pale as they listen. The wind comes from afar, but it comes quickly and has met with many adventures. With one gust it has torn away the sails of a vessel, set fire to a quiet home, and carried death and destruction on its wings. This it is that gives to its voice such melancholy intonations.

This night it was dreary enough: it rattles the windows and whistles under the doors; it wishes to come in, for it bears a message to this poor mother, and it sounds like an appeal or a warning. The ticking of the clock, the distant noise of a locomotive, all take the same plaintive tone and beseeching accent. Charlotte knows only too well what the wind wishes to tell her. It is a story of a ship rolling on the broad ocean, without sails or rudder--of a maddened crowd on the deck, of cries and shrieks, curses and prayers. Her hallucination is so strong that she even hears from the ship a beseeching cry of "Mamma!" She starts to her feet; she bears it again. To escape it, she walks about the room, opens the door and looks down the corridor. She sees nothing, but she hears a sigh, and, raising her lamp higher, discovers a dark shadow crouched in the corner.

"Who is that?" she cried, half in terror, half in hope.

"It is I, dear mother!" said a weak voice.

She ran toward him. It is her boy--a tall, rough sailor--rising as she approached him, with the aid of a pair of crutches. And this is what she has made of her child! Not a word, not an exclamation, not a caress. They look at each other, and tears fill the eyes of both.

A certain fatality attaches itself to some people, which renders them and all that they do absolutely ridiculous. When D'Argenton returned that night, he came with the determination to disclose the fatal news to Charlotte, and to have the whole affair concluded. The manner in which he turned the key in the lock announced this solemn determination. But what was his surprise to find the parlor a blaze of light! Charlotte--and on the table by the fire the remains of a meal. She came to him in a terrible state of agitation.

"Hush! Pray make no noise--he is here and asleep."

"Who is here?"

"Jack, of course. He has been shipwrecked, and is severely injured. He has been saved as by a miracle. He has just come from Rio Janeiro, where he spent two months in a hospital."

D'Argenton forced a smile, which Charlotte endeavored to believe was one of satisfaction. It must be acknowledged that he behaved very well, and said at once that Jack must stay there until he was entirely recovered. In fact, he could do no less for the actual proprietor of his Review.

The first excitement over, the ordinary life of the poet and Charlotte was resumed, changed only by the presence of the poor lame fellow, whose legs were badly burned by the explosion of a boiler, and had not yet healed. He was clothed in a jacket of blue cloth. His light moustache, the color of ripe wheat, was struggling into sight through the thick coating of tan that darkened his face; his eyes were red and inflamed, for the lashes had been burned off; and in a state of apathy painful to witness, the son of Ida de Barancy dragged himself from chair to chair, to the irritation of D'Argenton and to the great shame of his mother. When some stranger entered the house and cast an astonished glance at this figure, which offered so strange a contrast to the quiet, luxurious surroundings, she hastened to say, "It is my son, he has been very ill," in the same way that the mothers of deformed children quickly mention the relationship, lest they should surprise a smile or a compassionate look. But if she was pained in seeing her darling in this state, and blushed at the vulgarity of his manners or his awkwardness at the table, she was still more mortified at the tone of contempt with which her husband's friends spoke of her son.

Jack saw little difference in the habitues of the house, save that they were older, had less hair and fewer teeth; in every other respect they were the same. They had attained no higher social position, and were still without visible means of support.

They met every day to discuss the prospects of the Review, and twice each week they all dined at D'Argenton's table. Moronval generally brought with him his two last pupils. One was a young Japanese prince of an indefinite age, and who, robbed of his floating robes, seemed very small and slender. With his little cane and hat, he looked like a figure of yellow clay fallen from an etagere upon the Parisian sidewalk. The other, with narrow slits of eyes and a black beard, recalled certain vague remembrances to Jack, who at last recognized his old friend Said who had offered him cigar ends on their first interview.

The education of this unfortunate youth had been long since finished, but his parents had left him with Moronval to be initiated into the manners and customs of fashionable society. All these persons treated Jack with a certain air of condescension. He remained Master Jack to but one person--that was that most amiable of women, Madame Moronval, who wore the same silk dress that he had seen her in years before. He cared little whether he was called "Master Jack," or "My boy,"--his two months in the hospital, his three years of alcoholic indulgence, the atmosphere of the engine-room, and the final tempestuous conclusion, had caused him such profound exhaustion, such a desire for quiet, that he sat with his pipe between his teeth, silent and half asleep.

"He is intoxicated," said D'Argent on sometimes.

This was not the case; but the young man found his only pleasure in the society of his mother on the rare occasions when the poet was absent. Then he drew his chair close to hers, and listened to her rather than talk himself. Her voice made a delicious murmur in his ears like that of the first bees on a warm spring day.

Once, when they were alone, he said to Charlotte, very slowly, "When I was a child I went on a long voyage--did I not?"

She looked at him a little troubled. It was the first time in his life that he had asked a question in regard to his history.

"Why do you wish to know?"

"Because, three years ago, the first day that I was on board a steamer, I had a singular sensation. It seemed to me that I had seen it all before; the cabins, and the narrow ladders, impressed me as familiar; it seemed to me that I had once played on those very stairs."

She looked around to assure herself that they were entirely alone.

"It was not a dream, Jack. You were three years old when we came from Algiers. Your father died suddenly, and we came back to Tours."

"What was my father's name?"

She hesitated, much agitated, for she was not prepared for this sudden curiosity; and yet she could not refuse to answer these questions.

"He was called by one of the grandest names in France, my child--by a name that you and I would bear to-day if a sudden and terrible catastrophe had not prevented him from repairing his fault. Ah, we were very young when we met! I must tell you that at that time I had a perfect passion for the chase. I remember a little Arabian horse called Soliman--"

She was gone, at full speed, mounted on this horse, and Jack made no effort to interrupt her--he knew that it was useless. But when she stopped to take breath, he profited by this brief halt to return to his fixed idea.

"What was my father's name?" he repeated.

How astonished those clear eyes looked! She had totally forgotten of whom they had been speaking. She answered quickly,--"He was called the Marquis de l'Epau." Jack certainly had but little of his mother's respect for high birth, its rights and its prerogatives, for he received with the greatest tranquillity the intelligence of his illustrious descent. What mattered it to him that his father was a marquis, and bore a distinguished name? This did not prevent his son from earning his bread as a stoker on the Cydnus.

"Look here, Charlotte," said D'Argenton impatiently, one day, "something must be done! A decided step must be taken with this boy. He cannot remain here forever without doing anything. He is quite well again; he eats like an ox. He coughs a little still, to be sure, but Dr. Hirsch says that is nothing,--that he will always cough. He must decide on something. If the life in the engine-room of a steamer is too severe for him, let him try a railroad."

Charlotte ventured to say, timidly, "If you could see how he loses his breath when he climbs the stairs, and how thin he is, you would still feel that he is far from well. Can you not employ him on some of the office work?"

"I will speak to Moronval," was the reply.

The result of this was, that Jack for some days did everything in the office except sweep the rooms. With his usual imperturbability, Jack fulfilled these various duties, enduring the contemptuous remarks of Moronval with the same indifference that he opposed to D'Argenton's cold contempt. Moronval had a certain fixed salary on the magazine; it was small, to be sure, but he added to it by supplementary labors, for which he was paid certain sums on account. The subscription books lay open on the desk, expenses went on, but no receipts came in. In fact, there was but one subscriber, Charlotte's friend at Tours, and but one proprietor, and he, with a glue-pot and brush, was at work in a corner. Neither Jack nor any one else realized this; but D'Argenton knew it and felt it hourly, and soon hated more strongly than ever the youth upon whose money he was living.

At the end of a week it was announced that Jack was useless in the office.

"But, my dear," said Charlotte, "he does all he can!"

"And what is that? He is lazy and indifferent; he knows not how to sit nor how to stand, and he falls asleep over his plate at dinner; and since this great, shambling fellow has appeared here, you have grown ten years older, my love. Besides, he drinks, I assure you that he drinks."

Charlotte bowed her head and wept; she knew that her son drank, but whose fault was it? Had they not thrown him into the gulf?

"I have an idea, Charlotte! Suppose we send him to Etiolles for change of air. We will give him a little money, and it will be a good thing for him."

She thanked him enthusiastically, and it was decided that she would go the next day to install her son at Aulnettes.

They arrived there on one of those soft autumnal mornings which have all the beauty of summer without its excessive heat. There was not a breath in the air; the birds sang loudly, the fallen leaves rustled gently, and a perfume of rich maturity of ripened grain and fruit filled the air. The paths through the woods were still green and fresh; Jack recognized them all, and, seeing them, regained a portion of his lost youth. Nature herself seemed to welcome him with open arms, and he was soothed and comforted. Charlotte left her son early the next morning, and the little house, with its windows thrown wide open to the soft air and sunlight, had a peaceful aspect.

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