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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 2. The School In The Avenue Montaigne
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Jack - Chapter 2. The School In The Avenue Montaigne Post by :pgoodison Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :1607

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Jack - Chapter 2. The School In The Avenue Montaigne


"23 Avenue Montaigne, in the best quarter of Paris," said the prospectus. And no one can deny that the Avenue Montaigne is well situated in the Champs Elysees, but it has an incongruous unfinished aspect, as of a road merely sketched and not completed.

By the side of the fine hotels with their plate-glass windows hung with silken draperies, stand the houses of workmen, whence issue the noise of hammers and grating of saws. One part of the Faubourg seems also to be relinquished to gardens after the style of Mabille.

At the time of which I speak, and possibly now? from the avenue ran two or three narrow lanes whose sordid aspect offered a strange contrast to the superb buildings near them. One of these lanes opened at the number 23, and announced on a gilded sign swinging in the passage, that the Moronval Academy was there situated. This sign, however, once passed, it seemed to you that you were taken back forty years, and to the other end of Paris. The black mud, the stream in the centre of the lane, the reverberations from the high walls, the drinking-shops built from old planks, all seemed to belong to the past. From every nook and cranny, from stairs and balconies, whence fluttered linen hung to dry, streamed forth a crowd of children escorted by an army of lean and hungry cats. It was amazing to see that so small a spot could accommodate such a number of persons. English grooms in shabby liveries, worn-out jockeys, and dilapidated body-servants, seemed there to congregate. To these must be added the horde of workpeople who returned at sunset; those who let chairs, or tiny carriages drawn by goats; dog-fanciers, beggars of all sorts, dwarfs from the hippodrome and their microscopic ponies. Picture all these to yourself, and you will have some idea of this singular spot--so near to the Champs Elysees that the tops of the green trees were to be seen, and the roar of carriages was but faintly subdued.

It was in this place that the Moronval Academy was situated. Two or three times during the day a tall, thin mulatto made his appearance in the street. He wore on his head a broad-brimmed Quaker hat placed so far back that it resembled a halo; long hair swept over his shoulders, and he crossed the street with a timid, terrified air, followed by a troop of boys of every shade of complexion varying from a coffee tint to bright copper, and thence to profound black. These lads wore the coarse uniform of the school, and had an unfed and uncared-for aspect.

The principal of the Moronval Academy himself took his pupils--his children of the sun, as he called them--out for their daily walks; and the comings and goings of this singular party gave the finishing touch of oddity to the appearance of the _Passage des Douze Maisons_.

Most assuredly, had Madame de Barancy herself brought her child to the Academy, the sight of the place would have terrified her, and she would never have consented to leave her darling there. But her visit to the Jesuits had been so unfortunate, her reception so different from that which she had anticipated, that the poor creature, timid at heart and easily disconcerted, feared some new humiliation, and delegated to Madame Constant, her maid, the task of placing Jack at the school chosen for him by her servants.

It was one cold, gray morning that Ida's carriage drew up in front of the gilt sign of the Moronval Academy. The lane was deserted, but the walls and the signs all had a damp and greenish look, as if a recent inundation had there left its traces. Constant stepped forward bravely, leading the child by one hand, and carrying an umbrella in the other. At the twelfth house she halted. It was at the end of the lane just where it closes, save for a narrow passage into La Rue Marbouf, between two high walls on which grated the dry branches of old shrubbery and ancient trees. A certain cleanliness indicated the vicinity of the aristocratic institution; and the oyster-shells, old sardine-boxes, and empty bottles were carefully swept away from the green door, that was as solid and distrustful in aspect as if it led to a prison or a convent.

The profound silence that reigned was suddenly broken by a vigorous assault of the bell by Madame Constant. Jack felt chilled to the heart by the sound of this bell, and the sparrows on the one tree in the garden fluttered away in sudden fright.

No one opened the door, but a panel was pushed away, and behind the heavy grating appeared a black face, with protuberant lips and astonished eyes.

"Is this the Moronval Academy?" said Madame de Barancy's imposing maid.

The woolly head now gave place to one of a different type,--a Tartar, possibly,--with eyes like slits, high cheekbones, and narrow, pointed head. Then a Creole, with a pale yellow skin, was also inspired by curiosity and peered out. But the door still remained closed, and Madame Constant was losing her temper, when a sharp voice cried from a distance,--

"Well do you never mean to open that door, idiots?"

Then they all began to whisper; keys were turned, bolts were pushed back, oaths were muttered, kicks were administered, and after many ineffectual struggles the door was finally opened; but Jack saw only the retreating forms of the schoolboys, who ran off in as much fright as did the sparrows just before.

In the doorway stood a tall, colored man, whose large white cravat made his face look still more black. M. Moronval begged Madame Constant to walk in, offered her his arm, and conducted her through a garden, large enough, but dismal with the dried leaves and debris of winter storms.

Several scattered buildings occupied the place of former flower-beds. The academy, it seemed, consisted of several old buildings altered by Moronval to suit his own needs.

In one of the alleys they met a small negro with a broom and a pail. He respectfully stood aside as they passed, and when M. Moronval said, in a low voice, "A fire in the drawing-room," the boy looked as much startled as if he had been told that the drawing-room itself was burning.

The order was by no means an unnecessary one. Nothing could have been colder than this great room, whose waxed floor looked like a frozen, slippery lake. The furniture itself had the same polar aspect, enveloped in coverings not made for it. But Madame Constant cared little for the naked walls and the discomforts of the apartment; she was occupied with the impression she was making, and the part she was playing, that of a lady of importance. She was quite condescending, and felt sure that children must be well off in this place, the rooms were so spacious,--just as well, in fact, as if in the country.

"Precisely," said Moronval, hesitatingly.

The black boy kindled the fire, and M. Moronval looked for a chair for his distinguished visitor. Then Madame Moronval, who had been summoned, made her appearance. She was a small woman, very small, with a long, pale face all forehead and chin. She carried herself with great erectness, as if reluctant to lose an inch of her height, and perhaps to disguise a trifling deformity of the shoulders; but she had a kind and womanly expression, and drawing the child towards her, admired his long curls and his eyes.

"Yes, his eyes are like his mother's," said Moronval, coolly, examining Madame Constant as he spoke.

She made no attempt to disclaim the honor; but Jack cried out in indignation, "She is not my mamma! She is my nurse!"

Upon which Madame Moronval repented of her urbanity, and became more reserved. Fortunately her husband saw matters in a different light, and concluded that a servant trusted to the extent of placing her master's children at school, must be a person of some importance in the house.

Madame Constant soon convinced him of the correctness of this conclusion. She spoke loudly and decidedly--stated that the choice of a school had been left entirely to her own discretion, and each time that she pronounced the name of her mistress, it was with a patronizing air that drove poor Jack to the verge of despair.

The terms of the school were spoken of: three thousand francs per annum was named as the amount asked; and then Moronval launched forth on the superior advantages of his institution; it combined everything needed for the development of both soul and body. The pupils accompanied their masters to the theatre and into the world. Instead of making of the boys intrusted to his charge mere machines of Greek and Latin, he sought to develop in them every good quality, to prepare them for their duties in every position in life, and to surround them with those family influences of which they had too many of them been totally deprived. But their mental instruction was by no means neglected; quite the contrary. The most eminent men, savans and artists, did not shrink from the philanthropic duty of instructing the young in this remarkable institution, and were employed as professors of sciences, history, music, and literature. The French language was made a matter of especial importance, and the pronunciation was taught by a new and infallible method of which Madame Moronval was the author. Besides all this, every week there was a public lecture, to which friends and relatives of the pupils were invited, and where they could thoroughly convince themselves of the excellence of the system pursued at the Moronval Academy.

This long tirade of the principal, who needed, possibly, more than any one else the advantages of lessons in pronunciation from his wife, was achieved more quickly for the reason that, in Creole fashion, he swallowed half his words, and left out many of his consonants.

It mattered not, however, for Madame Constant was positively dazzled.

The question of terms, of course, was nothing to her, she said; but it was necessary that the child should receive an aristocratic and finished education.

"Unquestionably," said Madame Moronval, growing still more erect.

Here her husband added that he only received into his establishment strangers of great distinction, scions of great families, nobles, princes, and the like. At that very time he had under his roof a child of royal birth,--a son of the king of Dahomey. At this the enthusiasm of Madame Constant burst all boundaries.

"A king's son! You hear, Master Jack--you will be educated with the son of a king!"

"Yes," resumed the instructor, gravely; "I have been intrusted by his Dahomian Majesty with the education of his royal Highness, and I believe that I shall be able to make of him a most remarkable man."

What was the matter with the black boy, who was still at work at the fire, that he shook so convulsively, and made such a hideous noise with the shovel and tongs?

M. Moronval continued. "I hope, and Madame Moronval hopes, that the young king, when on the throne of his ancestors, will remember the good advice and the noble examples afforded him by his teachers in Paris, the happy years spent with them, their indefatigable cares and assiduous efforts on his behalf."

Here Jack was surprised to see the black boy kneeling before the chimney, turn toward him, and shake his woolly head violently, while his mouth opened wide in silent but furious denial.

Did he wish to say that his royal Highness would never remember the good lessons received at the academy, or did he mean that he would never forget them? But what could this poor black boy know about it?

Madame Constant announced, in pompous terms, that she was willing to pay a quarter in advance. Moronval waved his hand condescendingly, as if to say, "There is no need of that."

But the old house told a far different tale,--the shabby furniture, the dismantled walls, the worn carpets, as well as the threadbare coat of Moronval himself, and the shiny scant robe of the little woman with the long chin.

But that which proved the fact more than anything else was the eagerness with which the pair went to find in another room the superb register in which they inscribed the ages of the pupils, their names, and the date of their entrance into the academy.

While these important facts were being written, the black boy remained crouched in front of the fire, which seemed quite useless while he absorbed all its heat. The chimney, which at first had refused to consume the least bit of wood, as stomachs after too long fasting reject food, had now revived, and a beautiful red flame was to be seen. The negro, with his head on his hands, his eyes fixed as in a trance, looked like a little black silhouette against a scarlet background. His mouth opened in intense delight, and his eyes were perfectly round. He seemed to be drinking in the heat and the light with the greatest avidity, while outside the snow had begun to fall silently and slowly.

Jack was very sad, for he fancied that Moronval had a wicked look, notwithstanding his honeyed words. And, then, in this strange house the poor child felt himself utterly lost and desolate, discarded by his mother, and rendered still more miserable by the vague idea that these colored pupils, from every corner of the globe, had brought with them an atmosphere of unhappiness and of restlessness. He remembered, too, the Jesuits' college, so fresh and sweet; the fine trees, the green-houses, the whole appearance of refinement, and the kind hand of the Superior laid for a moment upon his head.

Ah! why had he not remained there? And as this occurred to him, he said to himself, that perhaps they would not have him here either. He looked toward the table. There by the big register the husband and wife were busy whispering with Madame Constant. They looked at him, and he caught a word now and then. The little woman sighed, and twice Jack heard her say, as did the priest,--"Poor child!"

She also pitied him. And why? What was he, then, that they pitied him? Jack asked himself.

This compassion that others felt for him weighed sorely on his little heart. He could have wept with shame, for in his childish mind he attributed this disdainful compassion to some peculiarity of costume, his bare legs, or his long curls.

But he thought of his mother's despair. Should he meet with another refusal? Suddenly he saw Constant draw her purse and hand to the principal some notes and gold pieces. Yes, they were going to keep him. He was delighted, poor child, for he little knew that the great misfortune of his life was now inaugurated there in that room.

At this moment a tremendous bass voice came up from the garden below, singing the chorus of an old song. The windows of the room had not recovered from the shock, when a stout, short man, in a velvet coat, close-cut hair, and heavy beard, burst into the room.

"Hallo!" he cried, in a tone of comic astonishment, "a fire in the parlor? What a luxury!" and he drew a long breath. In fact, the new-comer was in the habit of drawing long breaths at the end of each sentence, a habit he had acquired in singing; and these breaths were almost like the roaring of a wild beast. Catching sight of the strangers and the pile of money, he stopped short with the words on his lips. Delight and surprise succeeded each other on his countenance, whose muscles seemed habituated to all facial contortions.

Moronval turned gravely toward the waiting woman. "M. Labassandre, of the Imperial Academy of Music, our Professor of Music." Labassandre bowed once, twice, three times, and then, by way of restoring his self-possession, and putting matters at once on a pleasant footing for all parties, administered a kick to the black boy, who did not seem at all astonished, but picked himself up and disappeared from the room.

The door again opened, and two persons entered. One was very ugly--a mean face without a beard, huge spectacles with convex glasses, and wearing an overcoat buttoned to the chin, which bore all up and down the front too visible indications of-the awkwardness of a near-sighted man. This was Dr. Hirsch, Professor of Mathematics and of Natural Sciences. He exhaled a strong odor of alkalies, and, thanks to his chemical manipulations, his fingers were every color of the rainbow. The last comer was very different. Imagine a handsome man, dressed with the greatest care, scrupulously gloved and shod, his hair thrown back from a forehead already unnaturally high. He had a haughty, aggressive air; his heavy blonde moustache, much twisted at the ends, and a large, pale face, gave him the look of a sick soldier.

Moronval presented him as "our great poet, Amaury d'Argenton, Professor of Literature."

He, too, looked as astonished, when he caught sight of the gold pieces, as did Dr. Hirsch and the singer Labassandre. His cold eyes had a gleam of light, but it disappeared as he glanced from the child to his nurse.

Then he approached the other professors standing in front of the fire, and, saluting them, listened in silence. Madame Constant thought this Argenton looked proud; but upon Jack the man made a very strong impression, and the child shrank from him with terror and repugnance.

Jack felt that all these men might make him wretched, but this one more than all others. Instinctively, on seeing him enter, the child felt him to be his future enemy, and that cold, hard glance meeting his own, froze him to the core of his heart. How many times, in days to come, was he to encounter those pale, blue eyes, with half-shut, heavy lids, whose glances were cold as steel! The eyes have been called the windows of the soul, but D'Argenton's eyes were windows so closely barred and locked, that one had no reason to suppose that there was a soul behind them.

The conversation finished between Moronval and Constant, the principal approached his new pupil, and giving him a little friendly tap on the cheek, he said, "Come, come, my young friend, you must look brighter than this."

And in fact, Jack, as the moment drew near that he must say farewell to his mother's maid, felt his eyes swimming in tears. Not that he had any great affection for this woman, but she was a part of his home, she saw his mother daily, and the separation was final when she was gone.

"Constant," he whispered, catching her dress, "you will tell mamma to come and see me."

"Certainly. She will come, of course. But don't cry."

The child was sorely tempted to burst into tears; but it seemed to him that all these strange eyes were fixed upon him, and that the Professor of Literature examined him with especial severity: and he controlled himself.

The snow fell heavily. Moronval proposed to send for a carriage, but the maid said that Augustin and the coupe were waiting at the end of the lane.

"A coupe!" said the principal to himself, in astonished admiration.

"Speaking of Augustin," said she: "he charged me with a commission. Have you a pupil named Said?"

"To be sure--certainly--a delightful person," said Moronval.

"And a superb voice. You must hear him," interrupted Labassandre, opening the door and calling Said in a voice of thunder.

A frightful howl was heard in reply, followed by the appearance of the delightful person.

An awkward schoolboy appeared, whose tunic, like all tunics, and, indeed, like all the clothing of boys of a certain age, was too short and too tight for him; drawn in, in the fashion of a caftan, it told the story at once of an Egyptian in European clothing. His features were regular and delicate enough, but the yellow skin was stretched so tightly over the bones and muscles that the eyes seemed to close of themselves whenever the mouth opened, and _vice versa_.

This miserable young man, whose skin was so scanty, inspired you with a strong desire to relieve his sufferings by cutting a slit somewhere. He at once remembered Augustin, who had been his parents' coachman, and who had given him all his cigar-stumps.

"What shall I say to him from you?" asked Constant, in her most amiable tone.

"Nothing," answered Said, promptly.

"And your parents, how are they? Have you had any news from them lately?"


"Have they returned to Egypt, as they thought of doing?"

"Don't know: they never write."

It was evident that this pupil of the Moronval Academy had not been educated in the art of conversation, and Jack listened with many misgivings.

The indifferent fashion with which this youth spoke of his parents, added to what M. Moronval had previously said of the family influences of which most of his pupils had been deprived since infancy, impressed him unfavorably.

It seemed to the child that he was to live among orphans or cast-off children, and would be himself as much cast off as if he had come from Timbuctoo or Otaheite.

Again he caught the dress of his mother's servant. "Tell her to come and see me," he whispered; "O, tell her to come."

And when the door closed behind her, he understood that one chapter in his life was finished; that his existence as a spoiled child, as a petted baby, had vanished into the past, and those dear and happy days would never again return.

While he stood silently weeping, with his face pressed against a window that led into the garden, a hand was extended over his shoulder containing something black.

It was Said, who, as a consolation, offered him the stump of a cigar.

"Take this: I have a trunk full," said the interesting young man, shutting his eyes so as to be able to speak.

Jack, smiling through his tears, made a sign that he did not dare to accept this singular gift; and Said, whose eloquence was very limited, stood silently planted by his side until M. Moronval returned.

He had escorted Madame Constant to her carriage, and came back inspired with respectful indulgence for the grief of his new pupil.

The coachman, Augustin, had such fine furs, the coupe was so well appointed, that the little fellow, Jack, profited by the magnificence of the equipage.

"That is well," he said, benevolently, to the Egyptian. "Play together; but go to the other room, where it is warmer than here, I shall permit the boys to have a holiday in honor of the new pupil."

Poor little fellow! He was soon surrounded by a noisy crowd, who questioned him without mercy. With his blonde curls, his plaid suit, and bare legs, he sat motionless and timid, wondering at the frantic gestipulations of these little boys of foreign birth, and among them all, looked much like an elegant little Parisian shut up in the great monkey cage in the Jardin des Plantes.

This was the idea that occurred to Moronval, but he was aroused from his silent hilarity by the noise of a discussion too animated to be altogether amiable. He heard the puffs and sighs of Labassandre and the solemn little voice of madame. Easily divining the bone of contention, he hastened to the assistance of his wife, whom he found heroically defending the money paid by Madame Constant against the demands of the professors, whose salaries were greatly in arrear.

Evariste Moronval, lawyer, politician, and litterateur, had been sent from Pointe-a-Petre in 1848 as secretary to a deputy from Guadaloupe. At that time he was just twenty-five, energetic and ambitious, with considerable ability and cultivation. Being poor, however, he accepted a dependent position which insured his expenses paid to Paris, that marvellous city, the heat of whose lurid flames extends so far over the world that it attracts even the moths from the colonies.

On landing, he left his deputy in the lurch, easily made a few acquaintances, and attempted a political career, in which path he had obtained a certain success in Guadaloupe; but he had not taken into account his horrible colonial accent, of which, notwithstanding every effort, he was never able to rid himself. The first time he spoke in public, the shouts of laughter that greeted him proved conclusively that he could never make a name, for himself in Paris as a public speaker. He then resolved to write, but he was clever enough to understand that it was far easier to win a reputation at Pointe-a-Petre than in Paris. Haughty and tenacious, and spoiled by small successes, he passed from journal to journal, without being retained for any length of time on the staff of any one. Then began those hard experiences of life which either crush a man to the earth or harden him to iron. He joined the army of the ten thousand men who live by their wits in Paris, who rise each morning dizzy with hunger and ambitious dreams, make their breakfast from off a penny-roll, black the seams of their coats with ink, whiten their shirt-collars with billiard-chalk, and warm themselves in the churches and libraries.

He became familiar with all these degradations and miseries,--to credit refused at the low eating-house, to the non-admittance to his garret at eleven o'clock at night, and to the scanty bit of candle, and to shoes in holes.

He was one of those professors of--it matters not what, who write articles for the encyclopaedias at a half centime a line, a history of the Middle Ages in two volumes, at twenty-five francs per volume, compile catalogues, and copy plays for the theatres.

He was dismissed from one institution, where he taught English, for having struck one of the pupils in his passionate, Creole fashion.

After three years of this miserable existence, when he had eaten an incalculable number of raw artichokes and radishes, when he had lost his illusions and ruined his stomach, chance sent him to give lessons in a young ladies' school kept by three sisters. The two eldest were over forty; the third was thirty,--small, sentimental, and pretentious. She saw little prospect of marriage, when Moronval offered himself and was accepted.

Once married, they lived some time in the house with the elder sisters; both made themselves useful in giving lessons. But Moronval had retained many of his bachelor habits, which were far from agreeable in that peaceful and well-ordered boarding-school. Besides, the Creole treated his pupils too much as he might have done his slaves at work on the sugar-cane plantation.

The elder sisters, who adored Madame Moronval, were nevertheless obliged to separate from her, and paid her as an indemnification a satisfactory sum. What should be done with this money? Moronval wished to start a journal, or a review; but to make money was his first wish. Finally, a brilliant idea came to him one day.

He knew that children were sent from all parts of the world to finish their education in Paris. They came from Persia, from Japan, Hindostan, and Guinea, confided to the care of ship-captains, or to merchants. Such people being generally well provided with money, and having but little experience in getting rid of it, Moronval decided that there was an easy mine to work. Besides, the wonderful system of Madame Moronval could be applied in perfection to the correction of foreign accents, to defective pronunciation. The Professor immediately caused advertisements to be inserted in the colonial journals, where were soon to be seen the most amazing advertisements in several languages.

During the first year, the nephew of the Iman of Zanzibar, and two superb blacks from the coast of Guinea, appeared upon the scene. It was not until they arrived that Moronval bestirred himself to find a local habitation and a name. Finally, in order to combine economy with the exigencies of his new position, he hired the buildings we have just visited in this hideous _Passage des Douze Maisons_, and displayed in the avenue the gorgeous sign we have mentioned.

The owner of the property induced Moronval to believe that certain improvements would soon be made, in fact, that an appropriation was ordered for a new boulevard on one side of the building. This conviction induced Moronval to forget all the inconveniences, the dampness of the dormitory, the cold of certain rooms, the heat of others. This was nothing: the appropriation bill was ready for the signature, and things would be all right soon.

But Moronval was forced to endure that long period of waiting, only too well known to Parisians in the last twenty years; and this wore heavily upon him, costing him more thought and more anxiety than did the improvement or welfare of his pupils. He soon discovered that he had been hugely duped, and this discovery had the worst effect on the passionate, weak nature of the Creole. His discouragement degenerated into absolute incapacity and indolence. The pupils had no supervision whatever. Provided they went to bed early, so that they used the least possible fire and light, he was satisfied. Their day was cut up into class hours, to be sure, but these were interfered with by every caprice of the principal, who sent the pupils hither and thither on his personal service.

And Moronval called about him all his former acquaintances,--a physician without a diploma, a poet who never published, an opera singer without an engagement,--all of whom were in a state of constant indignation against the world which refused to recognize their rare merits.

Have you noticed how such people by a system of mutual attraction seem to herd together, supporting each other as it were by their mutual complaints? Inspired, in fact, by a thorough contempt for each other, they pretend to an admiring sympathy.

Imagine the lessons given, the instruction imparted by such teachers, the greater part of whose time was passed in discussions over their pipes, the smoke from which soon became so thick that they could neither see nor hear. They talked loudly, contradicted each other with vehemence in a vocabulary of their own, where art, science, and literature were picked into fragments as precious stuffs might be under the application of violent acids.

And the "children of the sun," what became of them amid all this? Madame Moronval alone, who preserved the good traditions of her former home and school, made any attempts to perform the duties they had undertaken, but the kitchen, her needle, and the care of the great establishment absorbed a great part of her time.

As it was necessary that they should go out, their uniforms were kept in order, for the pupils were proud of their braided tunics, and of the chevrons reaching to the elbow. In the Moronval Academy, as in certain armies of South America, all were sergeants. It was a trifling compensation for the miseries of exile and for the harsh treatment of surly masters. Moronval was quite pleasant the first days of each new quarter, when his exchequer was full; he had even then been known to smile; but the rest of the time he avenged himself on these black skins for the negro blood in his own veins.

His violence accomplished that which his indolence had begun. Very soon he began to lose his pupils; of the fifteen that were there at one time there remained but eight.

"Number of pupils limited," said the prospectus, and there was a certain amount of melancholy truth in the announcement. A dismal silence seemed to settle down on the great establishment, which was even threatened with a seizure of the furniture, when Jack appeared upon the scene. It of course was no very great sum, this quarter in advance, but Moronval understood certain prospective advantages, and even had a very clear perception of Ida's true nature, having cross-examined Constant with very good results. This day, therefore, witnessed a certain armed neutrality between masters and pupils. A good dinner in honor of the new arrival was served, all the professors were present, and "the children of the sun" even had a drop of wine, which startling event had not happened to them for a long time.

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