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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK I - Chapter III. AN APOLOGY
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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK I - Chapter III. AN APOLOGY Post by :cofton Category :Long Stories Author :Rene Bazin Date :April 2012 Read :1134

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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK I - Chapter III. AN APOLOGY

9 P.M.

I have made up my mind. I shall go to see M. Charnot. But before that I shall go to his publisher's and find out something about this famous man's works, of which I know nothing whatever.

December 31st

He lives in the Rue de l'Universite.

I have called. I have seen him. I owe this to an accident, to the servant's forgetting her orders.

As I entered, on the stroke of five, he was spinning a spiral twist of paper beneath the lamplight to amuse his daughter--he a member of the Institute, she a girl of eighteen. So that is how these big-wigs employ their leisure moments!

The library where I found them was full of book cases-open bookcases, bookcases with glass doors, tall bookcases, dwarf bookcases, bookcases standing on legs, bookcases standing on the floor--of statuettes yellow with smoke, of desks crowded with paper-weights, paper-knives, pens, and inkstands of "artistic" pat terns. He was seated at the table, with his back to the fire, his arm lifted, and a hairpin between his finger and thumb--the pivot round which his paper twist was spinning briskly. Across the table stood his daughter, leaning forward with her chin on her hands and her white teeth showing as she laughed for laughing's sake, to give play to her young spirits and gladden her old father's heart as he gazed on her, delighted.

I must confess it made a pretty picture; and M. Charnot at that moment was extremely unlike the M. Charnot who had confronted me from behind the desk.

I was not left long to contemplate.

The moment I lifted the 'portiere' the girl jumped up briskly and regarded me with a touch of haughtiness, meant, I think, to hide a slight confusion. To compare small things with great, Diana must have worn something of that look at sight of Actaeon. M. Charnot did not rise, but hearing somebody enter, turned half-round in his armchair, while his eyes, still dazzled with the lamplight, sought the intruder in the partial shadow of the room.

I felt myself doubly uneasy in the presence of this reader of the Early Text and of this laughing girl.

"Sir," I began, "I owe you an apology--"

He recognized me. The girl moved a step.

"Stay, Jeanne, stay. We shall not take long. This gentleman has come to offer an apology."

This was a cruel beginning.

She thought so, too, perhaps, and withdrew discreetly into a dim corner, near the bookcase at the end of the room.

"I have felt deep regret, sir, for that accident the other day--I set down the penholder clumsily, in equilibrium--unstable equilibrium --besides, I had no notion there was a reader behind the desk. Of course, if I had been aware, I should--I should have acted differently."

M. Charnot allowed me to flounder on with the contemplative satisfaction of an angler who has got a fish at the end of his line. He seemed to find me so very stupid, that as a matter of fact I became stupid. And then, there was no answer--not a word. Silence, alas! is not the reproof of kings alone. It does pretty well for everybody. I stumbled on two or three more phrases quite as flatly infelicitous, and he received them with the same faint smile and the same silence.

To escape from my embarrassment:

"Sir," I said, "I came also to ask for a piece of information."

"I am at your service, sir."

"Monsieur Flamaran has probably written to you on the matter?"

"Flamaran?"

"Yes, three days ago."

"I have received no letter; have I, Jeanne?"

"No, father."

"This is not the first time that my excellent colleague has promised to write a letter and has not written it. Never mind, sir; your own introduction is sufficient."

"Sir, I am about to take my doctor's degree."

"In arts?"

"No, in law; but I have a bachelor's degree in arts."

"You will follow it up with a degree in medicine, no doubt?"

"Really, sir--"

"Why--Why not, since you are collecting these things? You have, then, a bent toward literature?"

"So I have been told."

"A pronounced inclination--hey? to scribble verse."

"Ah, yes!"

"The old story; the family driving a lad into law; his heart leaning toward letters; the Digest open on the table, and the drawers stuffed with verses! Isn't that so?"

I bowed. He glanced toward his daughter.

"Well, sir, I confess to you that I don't understand--don't understand at all--this behavior of yours. Why not follow your natural bent? You youngsters nowadays--I mean no offence--you youngsters have no longer any mind of your own. Take my case; I was seventeen when I began to take an interest in numismatics. My family destined me for the Stamp Office; yes, sir, the Stamp Office. I had against me two grandfathers, two grandmothers, my father, my mother, and six uncles--all furious. I held out, and that has led me to the Institute. Hey, Jeanne?"

Mademoiselle Jeanne had returned to the table, where she was standing when I entered, and seemed, after a moment, to busy herself in arranging the books scattered in disarray on the green cloth. But she had a secret object--to regain possession of the paper spiral that lay there neglected, its pin sticking up beside the lamp-stand. Her light hand, hovering hither and thither, had by a series of cunning manoeuvres got the offending object behind a pile of duodecimos, and was now withdrawing it stealthily among the inkstands and paperweights.

M. Charnot interrupted this little stratagem.

She answered very prettily, with a slight toss of the head:

"But, father, not everybody can be in the Institute."

"Far from it, Jeanne. This gentleman, for instance, devotes himself to one method of inking parchment that never will make him my colleague. Doctor of Laws and Master of Arts,--I presume, sir, you are going to be a notary?"

"Excuse me, an advocate."

"I was sure of it. Jeanne, my dear, in country families it is a standing dilemma; if not a notary, then an advocate; if not an advocate, then a notary."

M. Charnot spoke with an exasperating half-smile.

I ought to have laughed, to be sure; I ought to have shown sense enough at any rate to hold my tongue and not to answer the gibes of this vindictive man of learning. Instead, I was stupid enough to be nettled and to lose my head.

"Well," I retorted, "I must have a paying profession. That one or another--what does it matter? Not everybody can belong to the Institute, as your daughter remarked; not everybody can afford himself the luxury of publishing, at his own expense, works that sell twenty-seven copies or so."

I expected a thunderbolt, an explosion. Not a bit of it. M. Charnot smiled outright with an air of extreme geniality.

"I perceive, sir, that you are given to gossiping with the booksellers."

"Why, yes, sir, now and then."

"It's a very pretty trait, at your age, to be already so strong in bibliography. You will permit me, nevertheless, to add something to your present stock of notions. A large sale is one thing to look at, but not the right thing. Twenty-seven copies of a book, when read by twenty-seven men of intelligence, outweigh a popular success. Would you believe that one of my friends had no more than eight copies printed of a mathematical treatise? Three of these he has given away. The other five are still unsold. And that man, sir, is the first mathematician in France!"

Mademoiselle Jeanne had taken it differently. With lifted chin and reddened cheek she shot this sentence at me from the edge of a lip disdainfully puckered:

"There are such things as 'successes of esteem,' sir!"

Alas! I knew that well, and I had no need of this additional lesson to teach me the rudeness of my remark, to make me feel that I was a brute, an idiot, hopelessly lost in the opinion of M. Charnot and his daughter. It was cruel, all the same. Nothing was left for me but to hurry my departure. I got up to go.

"But," said M. Charnot in the smoothest of tones, "I do not think we have yet discussed the question that brought you here."

"I should hesitate, sir, to trespass further on your time."

"Never mind that. Your question concerns?"

"The costume of the Latini Juniani."

"Difficult to answer, like most questions of dress. Have you read the work, in seventeen volumes, by the German, Friedchenhausen?"

"No."

"You must have read, at any rate, Smith, the Englishman, on ancient costume?"

"Nor that either. I only know Italian."

"Well, then, look through two or three treatises on numismatics, the 'Thesaurus Morellianus', or the 'Praestantiora Numismata', of Valliant, or Banduri, or Pembrock, or Pellerin. You may chance upon a scent."

"Thank you, thank you, sir!"

He saw me to the door.

As I turned to go I noticed that his daughter was standing motionless still, with the face of an angry Diana. She held between her fingers the recovered spiral.

I found myself in the street.

I could not have been more clumsy, more ill-bred, or more unfortunate. I had come to make an apology and had given further offence. Just like my luck! And the daughter, too--I had hurt her feelings. Still, she had stood up for me; she had said to her father, "Not every one can be in the Institute," evidently meaning, "Why are you torturing this poor young man? He is bashful and ill at ease. I feel sorry for him." Sorry--yes; no doubt she felt sorry for me at first. But then I came out with that impertinence about the twenty-seven copies, and by this time she hates me beyond a doubt. Yes, she hates me. It is too painful to think of.

Mademoiselle Charnot will probably remain but a stranger to me, a fugitive apparition in my path of life; yet her anger lies heavy upon me, and the thought of those disdainful lips pursues me.

I had rarely been more thoroughly disgusted with myself, and with all about me. I needed something to divert me, to distract me, to make me forget, and so I set off for home by the longest way, going down the Rue de Beaune to the Seine.

I declare, we get some perfect winter days in Paris! Just now, the folks who sit indoors believe that the sun is down and have lighted their lamps; but outside, the sky--a pale, rain-washed blue--is streaked with broad rays of rose-pink. It is freezing, and the frost has sprinkled diamonds everywhere, on the trees, the roofs, the parapets, even on the cabmen's hats, that gather each a sparkling cockade as they pass along through the mist. The river is running in waves, white-capped here and there. On the penny steamers no one but the helmsman is visible. But what a crowd on the Pont de Carrousel! Fur cuffs and collars pass and repass on the pavements; the roadway trembles beneath the endless line of Batignolles--Clichy omnibuses and other vehicles. Every one seems in a hurry. The pedestrians are brisk, the drivers dexterous. Two lines of traffic meet, mingle without jostling, divide again into fresh lines and are gone like a column of smoke. Although slips are common in this crowd, its intelligent agility is all its own. Every face is ruddy, and almost all are young. The number of young men, young maidens, young wives, is beyond belief, Where are the aged? At home, no doubt, by the chimney-corner. All the city's youth is out of doors.

Its step is animated; that is the way of it. It is wideeyed, and in its eyes is the sparkle of life. The looks of the young are always full of the future; they are sure of life. Each has settled his position, his career, his dream of commonplace well-being. They are all alike; and they might all be judges, so serious they appear about it. They walk in pairs, bolt upright, looking neither right nor left, talking little as they hurry along toward the old Louvre, and are soon swallowed out of sight in the gathering mist, out of which the gaslights glimmer faintly.

They are all on their way to dine on the right bank.

I am going to dine on the left bank, at Carre's, where one sees many odd customers. Farewell, river! Good night, old Charnot! Blessings on you, Mademoiselle Jeanne!

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