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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 8. Jack's Departure
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Jack - Chapter 8. Jack's Departure Post by :iwzone Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :3666

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Jack - Chapter 8. Jack's Departure

CHAPTER VIII. JACK'S DEPARTURE

The only sincere grief for the negro boy was felt by little Jack. The death of his comrade had impressed him to an extraordinary degree, and the lonely deathbed he had witnessed haunted him for days. Jack knew too that now he must bear alone all Moronval's whims and caprices, for the other pupils all had some one who came occasionally to see them, and who would report any brutalities of which they were the victims. Jack's mother never wrote to him nowadays, and no one at the Institute knew even where she was. Ah! had he but been able to ascertain, how quickly would the child have gone to her, and told her all his sorrows. Jack thought of all this as they returned from the cemetery. Labassandre and Dr. Hirsch were in front of him, talking to each other.

"She is in Paris," said Labassandre, "for I saw her yesterday."

Jack listened eagerly.

"And was he with her?"

She--he. These designations were certainly somewhat vague, and yet Jack knew of whom they were speaking. Could his mother be in Paris and yet not have hastened to him? All the way back to the Institute he was meditating his escape.

Moronval, surrounded by his professors and friends, walked at the head of the procession, and turned occasionally to look back upon them with a rallying gesture. This gesture was repeated by Said to the little boys, whose legs were very weary with the distance they had walked. They would increase their speed for a few rods, and then gradually drop off again. Jack contrived to linger more and more among the last.

"Come!" cried Moronval.

"Come, come!" repeated Said.

At the entrance of the Champs Elysees Said turned for the last time, gesticulating violently to hasten the little group. Suddenly the Egyptian's arms fell at his side in amazement, for Jack was missing!

At first the child did not run, he was sagacious enough to avoid any look of haste. He affected, on the contrary, a lounging air. But as he drew nearer the Boulevard Haussmann, a mad desire to run took possession of him, and his little feet, in spite of himself, went faster and faster. Would the house be closed? And if Labassandre were mistaken, and his mother not in Paris, what would become of him? The alternative of a return to the academy never occurred to him. Indeed, if he had thought of it, the remembrance of the heavy blows and heartfelt sobs that he had heard all one afternoon would have filled him with terror.

"She is there," cried the child, in a transport of joy, as he saw all the windows of the house open, and the door also as it was always when his mother was about going out. He hastened on, lest the carriage should take her away before he could arrive. But as he entered the vestibule, he was struck by something extraordinary in its appearance. It was full of people all busily talking. Furniture was being carried away: sofas and chairs, covered for a boudoir in such faint and delicate hues that in the broad light of day they looked faded. A mirror, framed in silver, and ornamented with cupids, was leaning against one of the stone pillars; a jardiniere without flowers, and curtains that bad been taken down and thrown over a chair, were near by. Several women richly dressed were talking together of the merits of a crystal chandelier.

Jack, in great astonishment, made his way through the crowd, and could hardly recognize the well-known rooms, such was their disorder. The visitors opened the drawers wide, tapped on the wood of the sideboard, felt of the curtains, and sometimes, as she passed the piano, a lady, without stopping or removing her gloves, would lightly strike a chord or two. The child thought himself dreaming. And his mother, where was she? He went toward her room, but the crowd surged at that moment in the same direction. The child was too little to see what attracted them, but he heard the hammer of the auctioneer, and a voice that said,--

"A child's bed, carved and gilded, with curtains!"

And Jack saw his own bed, where he had slept so long, handled by rough men. He wished to exclaim,

"The bed is mine--my very own--I will not have it touched;" but a certain feeling of shame withheld him, and he went from room to room looking for his mother, when suddenly his arm was seized.

"What! Master Jack, are you no longer at the school?"

It was Constant, his mother's maid--Constant, in her Sunday dress, wearing pink ribbons, and with an air of great importance.

"Where is mamma?" asked the child, in a low voice, a voice that was so pitiful and troubled that the woman's heart was touched.

"Your mother is not here, my poor child," she said.

"But where is she? And what are all these people doing?"

"They have come for the auction. But come with me to the kitchen, Master Jack, we can talk better there."

There was quite a party in the kitchen,--the old cook, Augustin, and several servants in the neighborhood. They were drinking champagne around the same table where Jack's future had been one evening decided. The child's arrival made quite a sensation. He was caressed by them all, for the servants were really attached to his kind-hearted mother. As he was afraid that they would take him back to the Institute, Jack took good care not to say that he had run away, and merely spoke of an imaginary permission he had received to enable him to visit his mother.

"She is not here, Master Jack," said Constant, "and I really do not know whether I ought--" Then, interrupting herself, Constant exclaimed, "O! it is too bad. I cannot keep this child from his mother!"

Then she informed little Jack that madame was at Etiolles.

The child repeated the name over and over again to himself. "Is it far from here?" he asked.

"Eight good leagues," answered Augustin.

But the cook disputed this point; and then followed an animated discussion as to the route to be taken to reach _Etiolles_. Jack listened eagerly, for he had already decided to attempt the journey alone and on foot.

"Madame lives in a pretty little cottage just at the edge of a wood," said Constant.

Jack understood by this time which side of Paris he should go out. This and the name of the village were the two distinct ideas he had. The distance did not frighten him. "I can walk all night," he said to himself, "even if my legs are little." Then he spoke aloud. "I must go now," he said, "I must go back to school." One question, however, burned on his lips. Was Argenton at Etiolles? Should he find this powerful barrier between his mother and himself? He dared not ask Constant, however. Without understanding the truth precisely, he yet felt very keenly that this. Was not the best side of his mother's life, and he avoided all mention of it.

The servants said "good-bye," the coachman shook hands with him, and then the boy found himself in the vestibule among a bustling crowd. He did not linger in this chaos, for the house had no longer any interest for him, but hurried into the street, eager to start on the journey that would end by placing him with his mother.

Bercy! Yes, Bercy was the name of the village the cook had mentioned as the first after leaving Paris. The way was not difficult to find, although it was a good distance off, but the fear of being caught by Moronval spurred him on. An inquisitive look from a policeman startled him, a shadow on the wall, or a hurried step behind, made his heart beat, and over and above the noise and confusion of the streets he seemed to hear the cry of "Stop him! Stop him!" At last he climbed over the bank and began to run on the narrow path by the water's edge. The day was coming to an end. The river was very high and yellow from recent rains, the water rolled heavily against the arches of the bridge, and the wind curled it in little waves, the tops of which were just touched by the level rays of the setting sun. Women passed him bearing baskets of wet linen, fishermen drew in their lines, and a whole river-side population, sailors and bargemen, with their rounded shoulders and woollen hoods, hurried past him. With these there was still another class, rough and ferocious of aspect, who were quite capable of pulling you out of the Seine for fifteen francs, and of throwing you in again for a hundred sous. Occasionally one of these men would turn to look at this slender schoolboy who seemed in such a hurry.

The appearance of the shore was continually changing. In one place it was black, and long planks were laid to boats laden with charcoal. Farther on, similar boats were crowded with fruit, and a delicious odor of fresh orchards was wafted on the air. Suddenly there was a look of a great harbor; steamboats were loading at the wharves; a few rods more, and a group of old trees bathed their distorted roots in a limpid stream, and one could easily fancy one's self twenty leagues from Paris, and in an earlier century.

But night was close at hand.

The arches of the bridges vanished in darkness; the bank was deserted, and illuminated only by that vague light which comes from even the very darkest body of water.

But still the child toiled on, and at last found himself on a long wharf, covered with warehouses and piled with merchandise. He had reached Bercy, but it was night, and he was filled with terror lest he should be stopped at the gate; but the little fugitive was hardly noticed. He passed the barrier without hindrance, and soon found himself in a long, narrow street, solitary and dimly lighted. While the child was in the life and motion of the city, he was terrified only by one thought, and that was that Moronval would find him. Now he was still afraid, but his fear was of another character--born of silence and solitude.

Yet the place where he now found himself was not the country. The street was bordered with houses on both sides, but as the child slowly toiled on, these buildings became farther and farther apart, and considerably lower in height. Although barely eight o'clock, this road was almost deserted. Occasional pedestrians walked noiselessly over the damp ground, while the dismal howling of a dog added to the cheerlessness of the scene. Jack was troubled. Each step that he took led him further from Paris, its light and its noise. He reached the last wineshop. A broad circle of light barred the road, and seemed to the child the limits of the inhabited world.

After he had passed that shop, he must go on in the dark. Should he go into the shop and ask his way? He looked in. The proprietor was seated at his desk; around a small table sat two men and a woman, drinking and talking. When Jack lifted the latch, they looked up; the three had hideous faces--such faces as he had seen at the police stations the day they were looking for Madou. The woman, above all, was frightful.

"What does he want?" said one of the men.

The other rose; but little Jack with one bound leaped the stream of light from the open door, hearing behind him a volley of abuse. The darkness now seemed to the child a refuge, and he ran on quickly until he found himself in the open country. Before him stretched field after field; a few small, scattered houses, white cubes, alone varied the monotony of the scene. Below was Paris, known by its long line of reddish vapor, like the reflection of a blacksmith's forge. The child stood still. It was the first time that he had ever been alone out of doors at night. He had neither eaten nor drank all day, and was now suffering from intense thirst. He was also beginning to understand what he had undertaken.

Had he strength enough to reach his mother?

He finally decided to lie down in a furrow in the bank on the side of the road, and sleep there until daybreak. But as he went toward the spot he had selected, he heard heavy breathing, and saw that a man was stretched out there, his rags making a confused mass of dark shadow against the white stones.

Jack stood petrified, his heart in his mouth, unable to take a step forward or back. At this instant the sleeping figure began to move, and to talk, still without waking. The child thought of the woman in the wine-shop, and feared that this creature was she, or some other equally repulsive.

The shadows all about were now to his fancy peopled with these frightful beings. They climbed over the bank, they barred his further progress. If he extended his hand to the right or the left, he felt certain that he should touch them. A light and a voice aroused the child from this stupor. An officer, accompanied by his orderly, bearing a lantern, suddenly appeared.

"Good evening, gentlemen," said the child, gently, breathless with emotion.

The soldier who carried the lantern raised it in the direction of the voice.

"This is a bad hour to travel, my boy," remarked the officer; "are you going far?"

"O, no, sir; not very far," answered Jack, who did not care to tell the truth.

"Ah, well! we can go on together as far as Charenton."

What a delight it was to the child to walk for an hour at the side of these two honest soldiers, to regulate his steps by theirs, and to see the cheerful light from the lantern! From the soldier, too, he casually learned that he was on the right road.

"Now we are at home," said the officer, halting suddenly. "Good night. And take my advice, my lad, and don't travel alone again at night--it is not safe." And with these parting words, the men turned up a narrow lane, swinging the lantern, leaving Jack alone at the entrance of the principal street in Charenton. The child wandered on until he found himself on the quay; he crossed a bridge which seemed to him to be thrown over an abyss, so profound were the depths below. He lingered for a moment, but rough voices singing and laughing so startled him that he took to his heels and ran until he was out of breath, and was again in the open fields. He turned and looked back; the red light of the great city was still reflected on the horizon. Afar off he heard the grinding of wheels. "Good!" said the child; "something is coming." But nothing appeared. And the invisible wagon, whose wheels moved apparently with difficulty, turned down some unseen lane.

Jack toiled on slowly. Who was that man that stood waiting for him at the turning of the road? One man! Nay, there were two or three. But they were trees,--tall, slender poplars,--or a clump of elms--those lovely old elms which grow to such majestic beauty in France; and Jack was environed by the mysteries of nature,--nature in the springtime of the year, when one can almost hear the grass grow, the buds expand, and the earth crackle as the tender herbage shoots forth. All these faint, vague noises bewildered little Jack, who began to sing a nursery rhyme with which his mother formerly rocked him to sleep.

It was pitiful to hear the child, alone in the darkness, encouraging himself by these reminiscences of his happy, petted infancy. Suddenly the little trembling voice stopped.

Something was coming--something blacker than the darkness itself, sweeping down on the child as if to swallow him up. Cries were heard; human voices, and heavy blows. Then came a drove of enormous cattle, which pressed against little Jack on all sides; he feels the damp breath from their nostrils; their tails switch violently, and the heat of their bodies, and the odor of the stable, is almost stifling. Two boys and two dogs are in charge of these animals; the dogs bark, and the uncouth peasants yell, until the noise is appalling.

As they pass on, the child is absolutely stupefied by terror. These animals have gone, but will there not be others? It begins to rain, and Jack, in despair, fails on his knees, and wishes to die. The sound of a carriage, and the sight of two lamps like friendly eyes coming quickly toward him, revives him suddenly. He calls aloud.

The carriage stops. A head, with a travelling cap drawn closely down over the ears, bends forward to ascertain the whereabouts of the shrill cry.

"I am very tired," pleaded Jack; "would you be so kind as to let me come into your carriage?"

The man hesitated, but a woman's voice came to the child's assistance. "Ah, what a little fellow I Let him come in here."

"Where are you going?" asked the traveller.

The child hesitated. Like all fugitives, he wished to hide his destination. "To Villeneuve St George," he answered, nervously.

"Come on, then," said the man, with gruff kindness.

The child was soon curled up under a comfortable travelling rug, between a stout lady and gentleman, who both examined him curiously by the light of the little lamp.

Where was he going so late, and all alone, too? Jack would have liked to tell the truth, but he was in too great fear of being carried back to the Institute. Then he invented a story to suit the occasion. His mother was very ill in the country, where she was visiting. He had been told of this the night before, and he had at once started off on foot, because he had not patience to wait for the next day's train.

"I understand," said the lady. And the gentleman looked as if he understood also, but made many wise observations as to the imprudence of running about the country alone, there were so many dangers. Then he was asked in what house in Villeneuve his mother's friends resided.

"At the end of the town," answered Jack, promptly,--"the last house on the right."

It was lucky that his rising color was hidden by the darkness. His cross-examination, however, was by no means over. The husband and wife were great talkers, and, like all great talkers, extremely curious, and could not be content until they had learned the private affairs of all those persons with whom they came in contact. They kept a little store, and each Saturday went into the country to get rid of the dust of the week; but they were making money, and some day would live altogether at Soisy-sous-Etiolles.

"Is that place far from Etiolles?" asked Jack, with a start.

"O, no, close by," answered the gentleman, giving a friendly cut with his whip to his beast.

What a fatality for Jack! Had he not told the falsehood, he could have gone on in this comfortable carriage, have rested his poor little weary legs, and had a comfortable sleep, wrapped in the good woman's shawl, who asked him, every little while, if he was warm enough.

If he could but summon courage enough to say, "I have told you a falsehood; I am going to the same place that you are;" but he was unwilling to incur the contempt and distrust of these good people; yet, when they told him that they had reached Villeneuve, the child could not restrain a sob.

"Do not cry, my little friend," said the kind woman; "your mother, perhaps, is not so ill as you think, and the sight of you will make her well."

At the last house the carriage stopped.

"Yes, this is it," said Jack, sadly. The good people said a kind good-bye. "How lucky you are to have finished your journey," said the woman; "we have four good leagues before us."

Little Jack had the same, but durst not say so. He went toward the garden-gate. "Good night," said his new friends, "good night."

He answered in a voice choked by tears, and the carriage turned toward the right. Then the child, overwhelmed with vain regrets, ran after it with all his speed; but his limbs, weakened instead of strengthened by inadequate repose, refused all service. At the end of a few rods he could go no further, but sank on the roadside with a burst of passionate tears, while the hospitable proprietors of the carriage rolled comfortably on, without an idea of the despair they had left behind them.

He was cold, the earth was wet. No matter for that; he was too weary to think or to feel. The wind blows violently, and soon the poor little boy sleeps quietly. A frightful noise awakens him. Jack starts up and sees something monstrous--a howling, snorting beast, with two fiery eyes that send forth a shower of sparks. The creature dashed past, leaving behind him a train like a comet's tail. A grove of trees, quite unsuspected by Jack, suddenly flashed out clearly; each leaf could have been counted. Not until this apparition was far away, and nothing of it was visible save a small green light, did Jack know that it was the express train.

What time was it? How long had he slept? He knew not, but he felt ill and stiff in every limb. He had dreamed of Madou,--dreamed that they lay side by side in the cemetery; he saw Madou's face, and shivered at the thought of the little icy fingers touching his own. To get away from this idea Jack resumed his weary journey. The damp earth had stiffened in the cold night wind, and his own footfall sounded in his ears so unnaturally heavy, that he fancied Madou was at his side or behind him.

The child passes through a slumbering village; a clock strikes two. Another village, another clock, and three was sounded. Still the boy plods on, with swimming head and burning feet. He dares not stop. Occasionally he meets a huge covered wagon, driver and horses sound asleep. He asks, in a timid, tired voice, "Is it far now to Etiolles?" No answer comes save a loud snore.

Soon, however, another traveller joins the child--a traveller whose praises are sung by the cheery crowing of the cocks, and the gurgles of the frogs in the pond. It is the dawn. And the child shares the anxiety of expectant nature, and breathlessly awaits the coming of the new-born day.

Suddenly, directly in front of him, in the direction in which lay the town where his mother was, the clouds divide--are torn apart suddenly, as it were; a pale line of light is first seen; this line gradually broadens, with a waving light like flames. Jack walks toward this light with a strength imparted by incipient delirium.

Something tells him that his mother is waiting there for him, waiting to welcome him after this horrible night. The sky was now clear, and looked like a large blue eye, dewy with tears and full of sweetness. The road no longer dismayed the child. Besides, it was a smooth highway, without ditch or pavement, intended, it seemed, for the carriages of the wealthy. Superb residences, with grounds carefully kept, were on both sides of this road. Between the white houses and the vineyards were green lawns that led down to the river, whose surface reflected the tender blue and rosy tints of the sky above. O sun, hasten thy coming; warm and comfort the little child, who is so weary and so sad!

"Am I far from Etiolles?" asked Jack of some laborers who were going to their work.

"No, he was not far from Etiolles; he had but to follow the road straight on through the wood."

The wood was all astir now, resounding with the chirping of birds and the rustling of squirrels. The refrain of the birds in the hedge of wild roses was repeated from the topmost branches of the century-old oak-trees; the branches shook and bent under the sudden rush of winged creatures; and while the last of the shadows faded away, and the night-birds with silent, heavy flight hurried to their mysterious shelters, a lark suddenly rises from the field with its wings wide-spread, and flies higher and higher until it is lost in the sky above. The child no longer walks, he crawls; an old woman meets him, leading a goat; mechanically he asks if it is far to Etiolles.

The ragged creature looks at him ferociously, and then points out a little stony path. The sunshine warms the little fellow, who stumbles over the pebbles, for he has no strength to lift his feet. At last he sees a steeple and a cluster of houses; one more effort, and he will reach them. But he is dizzy and falls; through his half-shut eyes he sees close at hand a little house covered with vines and roses. Over the door, between the wavering shadows of a lilac-tree already in flower, he saw an inscription in gold letters:--

PARVA DOMUS, MAGNA QUIES.

How pretty the house was, bathed in the fresh morning light! All the blinds are still closed, although the dwellers in the cottages are awake, for he hears a woman's voice singing,--singing, too, his own cradle-song, in a fresh, gay voice. Was he dreaming? The blinds were thrown open, and a woman appeared in a white negligee, with her hair lightly twisted in a simple knot.

"Mamma, mamma!" cried Jack, in a weak voice.

The lady turned quickly, shaded her eyes from the sun, and saw the poor little worn and travel-stained lad.

She screamed "Jack!" and in a moment more was beside him, warming him in her arms, caressing and soothing the little fellow, who sobbed out the anguish of that terrible night on her shoulder.

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