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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK I - Chapter V. A FRUITLESS SEARCH
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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK I - Chapter V. A FRUITLESS SEARCH Post by :bluemoonoffers Category :Long Stories Author :Rene Bazin Date :April 2012 Read :3244

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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK I - Chapter V. A FRUITLESS SEARCH

January 1, 1885.

The first of January! When one is not yet an uncle and no longer a godson, if one is in no government employ and goes out very little, the number of one's calls on New Year's Day is limited. I shall make five or six this afternoon. It will be "Not at home" in each case; and that will be all my compliments of the season.

No, I am wrong. I have received the compliments of the season. My porter's wife came up just now, wreathed in smiles.

"Monsieur Mouillard, I wish you a Happy New Year, good health, and Heaven to end your days." She had just said the same to the tenants on the first, second, and third floors. My answer was the same as theirs. I slipped into her palm (with a "Many thanks!" of which she took no notice) a piece of gold, which brought another smile, a curtsey, and she is gone.

This smile comes only once a year; it is not reproduced at any other period, but is a dividend payable in one instalment. This, and a tear on All Souls' Day, when she has been to place a bunch of chrysanthemums on her baby's grave, are the only manifestations of sensibility that I have discovered in her. From the second of January to the second of November she is a human creature tied to a bell-rope, with an immovably stolid face and a monosyllabic vocabulary in which politer terms occur but sparsely.

This morning, contrary to her habits, she has brought up by post two letters; one from my Uncle Mouillard (an answer), and the other--I don't recognize the other. Let's open it first: big envelope, ill-written address, Paris postmark. Hallo! a smaller envelope inside, and on it:

ANTOINE AND MARIE PLUMET.

Poor souls! they have no visiting-cards. But kind hearts are more than pasteboard.

Ten months ago little Madame Plumet, then still unmarried, was in a terrible bother. I remember our first meeting, on a March day, at the corner of the Rue du Quatre-Septembre and the Rue Richelieu. I was walking along quickly, with a bundle of papers under my arm, on my way back to the office where I was head clerk. Suddenly a dressmaker's errand-girl set down her great oilcloth-covered box in my way. I nearly went head first over it, and was preparing to walk around it, when the little woman, red with haste and blushes, addressed me. "Excuse me, sir, are you a lawyer?"

"No, Mademoiselle, not yet."

"Perhaps, sir, you know some lawyers?"

"To be sure I do; my master, to begin with, Counsellor Boule. He is quite close, if you care to follow me."

"I am in a terrible hurry, but I can spare a minute or two. Thank you very much, Monsieur."

And thus I found myself escorted by a small dressmaker and a box of fashions. I remember that I walked a little ahead for fear of being seen in such company by a fellow-clerk, which would have damaged my reputation.

We got to the office. Down went the box again. The little dressmaker told me that she was engaged to M. Plumet, frame-maker. She told her tale very clearly; a little money put by, you see, out of ten years' wages; one may be careful and yet be taken in; and, alas! all has been lent to a cousin in the cabinetmaking trade, who wanted to set up shop; and now he refuses to pay up. The dowry is in danger, and the marriage in suspense.

"Do not be alarmed, Mademoiselle; we will summons this atrocious cabinet-maker, and get a judgment against him. We shall not let him go until he has disgorged, and you shall be Madame Plumet."

We kept our word. Less than two months later--thanks to my efforts--the dowry was recovered; the banns were put up; and the little dressmaker paid a second visit to the office, this time with M. Plumet, who was even more embarrassed than she.

"See, Antoine! this is Monsieur Mouillard, who undertook our case! Thank you again and again, Monsieur Mouillard, you really have been too kind! What do I owe you for your trouble?"

"You must ask my master what his fees come to, Mademoiselle."

"Yes, but you? What can I do for you?"

The whole office, from the messenger to the clerk who came next to me, had their eyes upon me. I rose to the occasion, and in my uncle's best manner I replied:

"Be happy, Mademoiselle, and remember me."

We laughed over it for a week.

She has done better, she has remembered it after eight months. But she has not given her address. That is a pity. I should have liked to see them both again. These young married folk are like the birds; you hear their song, but that does not tell you the whereabouts of their nest.

Now, uncle, it's your turn.

Here it is again, your unfailing letter anticipated, like the return of the comets, but less difficult to analyze than the weird substance of which comets are composed. Every year I write to you on December 28th, and you answer me on the 31st in time for your letter to reach me on New Year's morning. You are punctual, dear uncle; you are even attentive; there is something affectionate in this precision. But I do not know why your letters leave me unmoved. The eighteen to twenty-five lines of which each is composed are from your head, rather than your heart. Why do you not tell me of my parents, whom you knew; of your daily life; of your old servant Madeleine, who nursed me as a baby; of the Angora cat almost as old as she; of the big garden, so green, so enticing, which you trim with so much care, and which rewards your attention with such luxuriance. It would be so nice, dear uncle, to be a shade more intimate.

Ah, well! let us see what he writes:

"BOURGES, December 31, 1884.

"MY DEAR NEPHEW:

"The approach of the New Year does not find me with the same sentiments with which it leaves you. I make up my yearly accounts from July 31st, so the advent of the 31st of December finds me as indifferent as that of any other day of the said month. Your repinings appear to me the expressions of a dreamer.

"It would, however, not be amiss if you made a start in practical life. You come of a family not addicted to dreaming. Three Mouillards have, if I may say so, adorned the legal profession at Bourges. You will be the fourth.

"As soon as you have taken your doctor's degree-which I presume should not be long--I shall expect you the very next day, or the day after that at the furthest; and I shall place you under my supervision.

"The practice is not falling off, I can assure you. In spite of age, I still possess good eyes and good teeth, the chief qualifications for a lawyer. You will find everything ready and in good order here.

"I am obliged to you for your good wishes, which I entirely reciprocate.

"Your affectionate uncle,

"BRUTUS MOUILLARD."

"P. S.--The Lorinet family have been to see me. Mademoiselle Berthe is really quite pretty. They have just inherited 751,351 francs.

"I was employed by them in an action relating thereto."

Yes, my dear uncle, you were employed, according to the formula, "in virtue of these and subsequent engagements," and among the "subsequent engagements" you are kind enough to reckon one between Mademoiselle Berthe Lorinet, spinster, of no occupation, and M. Fabien Mouillard, lawyer. "Fabien Mouillard, lawyer"--that I may perhaps endure, but "Fabien Mouillard, son-in-law of Lorinet," never! One pays too dear for these rich wives. Mademoiselle Berthe is half a foot taller than I, who am moderately tall, and she has breadth in proportion. Moreover, I have heard that her wit is got in proportion. I saw her when she was seventeen, in a short frock of staring blue; she was very thin then, and was escorted by a brother, squeezed inside a schoolboy's suit; they were out for their first walk alone, both red-faced, flurried, shuffling along the sidewalks of Bourges. That was enough. For me she will always wear that look, that frock, that clumsy gait. Recollections, my good uncle, are not unlike instantaneous photographs; and this one is a distinct negative to your designs.

March 3d.

The year is getting on. My essay is growing. The Junian Latin emerges from the fogs of Tiber.

I have had to return to the National Library. My first visits were not made without trepidation. I fancied that the beadle was colder, and that the keepers were shadowing me like a political suspect. I thought it wise to change my side, so now I make out my list of books at the left-hand desk and occupy a seat on the left side of the room.

M. Charnot remains faithful to his post beneath the right-hand inkstand.

I have been watching him. He is usually one of the first to arrive, with nimble, almost springy, step. His hair, which he wears rather long, is always carefully parted in the middle, and he is always freshly shaven. His habit of filling the pockets of his frock-coat with bundles of notes has made that garment swell out at the top into the shape of a basket. He puts on a pair of spectacles mounted in very thin gold, and reads determinedly, very few books it is true, but they are all bound in vellum, and that fixes their date. In his way of turning the leaves there is something sacerdotal. He seems popular with the servants. Some of the keepers worship him. He has very good manners toward every one. Me he avoids. Still I meet him, sometimes in the cloakroom, oftener in the Rue Richelieu on his way to the Seine. He stops, and so do I, near the Fontaine Moliere, to buy chestnuts. We have this taste in common. He buys two sous' worth, I buy one; thus the distinctions of rank are preserved. If he arrives after me, I allow him the first turn to be served; if he is before me, I await my turn with a patience which betokens respect. Yet he never seems to notice it. Once or twice, certainly, I fancied I caught a smile at the corners of his mouth, and a sly twinkle in the corners of his eyes; but these old scholars smile so austerely.

He must have guessed that I wish to meet him. For I can not deny it. I am looking out for an opportunity to repair my clumsy mistake and show myself in a less unfavorable light than I did at that ill-starred visit. And she is the reason why I haunt his path!

Ever since M. Mouillard threatened me with Mademoiselle Berthe Lorinet, the graceful outlines of Mademoiselle Jeanne have haunted me with a persistence to which I have no objection.

It is not because I love her. It does not go as far as that. I am leaving her and leaving Paris forever in a few months. No; the height of my desire is to see her again--in the street, at the theatre, no matter where--to show her by my behavior and, if possible, by my words that I am sorry for the past, and implore her forgiveness. Then there will no longer be a gulf betwixt her and me, I shall be able to meet her without confusion, to invoke her image to put to flight that of Mademoiselle Lorinet without the vision of those disdainful lips to dash me. She will be for me at once the type of Parisian grace and of filial affection. I will carry off her image to the country like the remembered perfume of some rare flower; and if ever I sing 'Hymen Hymnaee'! it shall be with one who recalls her face to me.

I do not think my feelings overpass these bounds. Yet I am not quite sure. I watch for her with a keenness and determination which surprise me, and the disappointment which follows a fruitless search is a shade too lively to accord with cool reason.

After all, perhaps my reason is not cool.

Let me see, I will make up the account of my ventures.

One January afternoon I walked up and down the Rue de l'Universite eight times in succession, from No. 1 to No. 107, and from No. 107 to No. 1. Jeanne did not come out in spite of the brilliancy of the clear winter day.

On the nineteenth of the same month I went to see Andromache, although the classic writers, whom I swear by, are not the writers I most care to hear. I renewed this attempt on the twenty-seventh. Neither on the first nor on the second occasion did I see Mademoiselle Charnot.

And yet if the Institute does not escort its daughters in shoals to applaud Andromache, where on earth does it take them?

Perhaps nowhere.

Every time I cross the Tuileries Garden I run my eyes over the groups scattered among the chestnut-trees. I see children playing and falling about; nursemaids who leave them crying; mothers who pick them up again; a vagrant guardsman. No Jeanne.

To wind up, yesterday I spent five hours at the Bon Marche.

The spring show was on, one of the great occasions of the year; and I presumed, not without an apparent foundation of reason, that no young or pretty Parisian could fail to be there. When I arrived, about one o'clock, the crowd already filled the vast bazaar. It was not easy to stand against certain currents that set toward the departments consecrated to spring novelties. Adrift like a floating spar I was swept away and driven ashore amid the baby-linen. There it flung me high and dry among the shop-girls, who laughed at the spectacle of an undergraduate shipwrecked among the necessaries of babyhood. I felt shy, and attaching myself to the fortunes of an Englishwoman, who worked her elbows with the vigor of her nation, I was borne around nearly twenty counters. At last, wearied, mazed, dusty as with a long summer walk, I took refuge in the reading-room.

Poor simpleton! I said to myself, you are too early; you might have known that. She can not come with her father before the National Library closes. Even supposing they take an omnibus, they will not get here before a quarter past four.

I had to find something to fill up the somewhat long interval which separated me from that happy moment. I wrote a letter to my Uncle Mouillard, taking seven minutes over the address alone. I had not shown such penmanship since I was nine years old. When the last flourish was completed I looked for a paper; they were all engaged. The directory was free. I took it, and opened it at Ch. I discovered that there were many Charnots in Paris without counting mine: Charnot, grocer; Charnot, upholsterer; Charnot, surgical bandage-maker. I built up a whole family tree for the member of the Institute, choosing, of course, those persons of the name who appeared most worthy to adorn its branches. Of what followed I retain but a vague recollection. I only remember that I felt twice as if some inquisitive individual were looking over my shoulder. The third time I woke up with a start.

"Sir," said a shopwalker, with the utmost politeness, "a gentleman has been waiting three quarters of an hour for the directory. Would you kindly hand it to him if you have quite finished with it?"

It was a quarter to six. I still waited a little while, and then I left, having wasted my day.

O Jeanne! where do you hide yourself? Must I, to meet you, attend mass at St. Germain des Pres? Are you one of those early birds who, before the world is up, are out in the Champs Elysees catching the first rays of the morning, and the country breeze before it is lost in the smoke of Paris? Are you attending lectures at the Sorbonne? Are you learning to sing? and, if so, who is your teacher?

You sing, Jeanne, of course. You remind me of a bird. You have all the quick and easy graces of the skylark. Why should you not have the skylark's voice?

Fabien, you are dropping into poetry!

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