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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJack - Chapter 3. Madou
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Jack - Chapter 3. Madou Post by :pgoodison Category :Long Stories Author :Alphonse Daudet Date :May 2012 Read :2196

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Jack - Chapter 3. Madou

CHAPTER III. MADOU

If the Moronval Academy still exists, I desire to stigmatize it now and forever as the most unhealthy spot I ever knew. Its dampness makes it most objectionable for children.

Imagine a long building all _rez-de-chaussee_, without windows, and lighted only from above. About the room hung an indescribable odor of collodion and ether, as if it had once been used by a photographer. The garden was shut in by high walls covered with ivy which dripped with moisture. The dormitory stood against a superb hotel; and on one side was a stable, always noisy with the oaths of grooms, the trampling of horses' feet, and the rattling of pumps. From one end of the year to the other the place was always damp, the only difference being that, according to the different seasons of the year, the dampness was either very cold or very warm. In summer it was filled with moisture like a bathroom. In addition, a crowd of winged creatures, who lived among the old ivy on the walls, attracted by the brightness of the glass in the low roof, introduced themselves into the dormitory through the smallest crevice, and struck their wings against the glass, humming loudly, and finally falling on the beds in clouds.

The winter's humidity was worse still; the cold crept into the dormitory through the uneven floors and the thin walls, but after two hours of shivering the pupils might succeed in getting warm if they drew their knees up to their chins and kept the bedclothes well over their heads. The paternal eye of Moronval saw at once the propriety of utilizing this otherwise unemployed building.

"This shall be the dormitory," he said.

"May it not be somewhat damp?" Madame Moronval ventured to ask.

"What of that?" he answered, sternly.

In reality there was but room for ten beds; but twenty were placed there, with a lavatory at the end, a wretched bit of carpet near the door, and all was in readiness.

Why not? After all, a dormitory is only a place to sleep in, and children should be able to sleep anywhere, in spite of heat or cold, of bad air and of creeping things, in spite of the noise of pumps and of horses. They catch rheumatism, ophthalmia, and bronchitis, to be sure, but they sleep all the same the calm sweet sleep of children worn out by out-door exercise and play, and undisturbed by anxieties for the morrow. This is the popular belief in regard to children, but too many of us know that the truth is quite different. For example, the first night little Jack could not close his eyes. He had never slept in a strange house, and the change was great from his own little room at home, dimly lighted by a night-lamp, and littered with his favorite playthings, to the strange and comfortless place where he now found himself.

As soon as the pupils were in bed, a black servant took away the light, and Jack remained wide awake.

A pale moon, reflected from the snow that covered a portion of the skylight, filled the room with a bluish light. He looked at the beds, standing close together foot to foot the length of the room, most of them unoccupied, their coverings rolled up in a bundle at one end. Seven or eight were animated by an occasional snore, by a hollow cough, or a stifled exclamation.

The new-comer had the best place, a little sheltered from the wind of the door. Nevertheless, he was far from warm, and the cold kept him from sleep as much as the novelty of his surroundings. He went over and over again in his memory every trifling detail of the day's events. He saw Moronval's bulky white cravat, the enormous spectacles of Dr. Hirsch--his soiled and spotted overcoat; but above all he recalled the cold and haughty eyes of "his enemy," as he already in his innermost heart called D'Argenton.

This thought struck such terror to his soul that involuntarily he looked to his mother for protection and defence.

Where was she at that moment? A dozen different clocks at that instant struck eleven. She was probably at some ball or theatre. She would soon come in, all wrapped in furs and laces. When she came, it mattered not how late, she always opened Jack's door and bent over his bed to kiss him. Even in his sleep he was generally conscious of her presence, and smilingly opened his eyes to admire her toilette. And now he shuddered as he thought of the change; and yet it was not altogether painful, for the chevrons of his uniform delighted him, and he was happy in concealing his long legs in the skirt of his tunic. He had made two or three new acquaintances,--a thing very agreeable to most children; he had found his fellow-pupils odd enough, but their oddities interested him. They had snowballed each other in the garden, which, to a child who had been living in the warm boudoir of a pretty woman, was a very novel amusement.

One thing puzzled Jack: he had not yet seen his royal Highness. Where was the little king of Dahomey, of whom M. Moronval had spoken so warmly? Was he in the Infirmary? Ah! if he could only see him, talk with him, and make him his friend. He repeated to himself the names of the "eight children of the sun," but there was no prince among them. Then he thought he would ask the boy Said.

"Is not his royal Highness in the school at present?" he asked.

The young man looked at him with wide-opened eyes, in astonished silence. Jack's question remained unanswered, and the child's thoughts ran on as he lay in his bed, listening to occasional gusts of music that rang through the house from the lungs of Labassandre, and to the perpetual sound of the pumps in the stable.

Moronval's guests were gone, with a final bang of the large gate, and all was silent. Suddenly the dormitory door was thrown open, and the small black servant entered, with a lantern in his hand.

He shook off the snow that lay thick on his black head, and crept between the two rows of beds, with his head drawn down between his shoulders, and his teeth chattering.

Jack looked at the grotesque shadows on the wall, which exaggerated all the peculiarities of the black boy--the protruding mouth, the enormous ears, and retreating forehead.

The boy hung his lantern at the end of the dormitory and stood there warming his hands, which were covered with chilblains. His face, though dirty, was so honest and kindly, that Jack's heart warmed toward him. As he stood there the negro looked out into the garden. "Ah! the snow I the snow!" he murmured sadly.

His way of speaking, and the sweet voice, touched little Jack, who looked at the boy with lively pity and curiosity. The negro saw it, and said, half to himself, "Ah! the new pupil! Why don't you go to sleep, little boy?"

"I cannot," said Jack, sighing.

"It is good to sigh if you are sorry," said the negro, cententiously. "If the poor world could not sigh, the poor world would stifle!"

As he spoke, he threw a blanket on the bed next to Jack.

"Do you sleep there?" asked the child, astonished that a servant should occupy a bed in the dormitory of the pupils. "But there are no sheets!"

"Sheets are not good for me, my skin is too black." The negro laughed gently as he said these words, and prepared to glide into bed, half clothed as he was, when suddenly he stopped, drew from his breast an ivory smelling-bottle, and kissed it devoutly.

"What a funny medal!" cried Jack.

"It is not a medal," answered the negro; "it is my _Gri-qri_."

But Jack had no idea what a Gri-gri was, and the other explained that it was an amulet--something to bring him good luck. His Aunt Kerika had given it to him when he left his native land,--the aunt who had brought him up, and to whom he hoped to return at some future day.

"As I shall to my mamma," said little Barancy; and both children were silent, each thinking of the one he loved most on earth.

Jack returned to the charge in a few minutes. "And your country--is it a pretty place? Is it far off? and what is its name?"

"Dahomey," answered the negro.

Jack started up in bed.

"What! Do you know him? Did you come to this country with him?"

"Who?"

"Why, his royal Highness,--you know him,--the little king of Dahomey."

"I am he," said the negro, quietly.

The other looked at him in amazement. A king! this servant, whom he had seen at work all day making fires, sweeping the corridors, waiting on the table, and rinsing glasses!

The negro spoke the truth, nevertheless. The expression of his face grew very sad, and his eyes were fixed as if he were looking into the past, or toward some dear, lost land. Was it the magical word of king that led Jack to examine this black boy, seated on the edge of his bed, his white shirt open, while on his dark breast shone the ivory amulet, with new interest?

"How did all this happen?" asked the child, timidly.

The black boy turned quickly to extinguish the lantern. "M. Moronval not like it if Madou lets it burn." Then he pulled his couch close to that of Jack.

"You are not sleepy," he said; "and I never wish to sleep if I can talk of Dahomey. Listen!"

And in the darkness, where the whites only of his eyes could be seen, the little negro began his dismal tale.

He was called Madou,--the name of his father, an illustrious warrior, one of the most powerful sovereigns in the land of gold and ivory: to whom France, Holland, and England sent presents and envoys. His father had cannon, and soldiers, troops of elephants with trappings for war, musicians and priests, four regiments of Amazons, and two hundred wives. His palace was immense, and ornamented by spears on which hung human heads after a battle or a sacrifice. Madou was born in this palace. His Aunt Kerika, general-in-chief of the Amazons, took him with her in all her expeditions. How beautiful she was, this Kerika! tall and large as a man,--in a blue tunic; her naked arms and legs loaded with bracelets and anklets; her bow slung over her shoulder, and the tail of a horse streaming below her waist. Upon her head, in her woolly locks, she wore two small antelope horns joining in a half-moon; as if these black warriors had preserved among themselves the tradition of Diana the white huntress! And what an eye she had, what deftness of hand! Why, she could cut off the head of an Ashantee at a single blow. But, however terrible Kerika might have been on the battlefield, to her nephew Madou she was always very gentle, bestowing on him gifts of all kinds: necklaces of coral and of amber, and all the shells he desired,--shells being the money in that part of the world. She even gave him a small but gorgeous musket, presented to herself by the Queen of England, and which Kerika found too light for her own use. Madou always carried it when he went to the forests to hunt with his aunt.

There the trees were so close together, and the foliage so thick, that the sun never penetrated to these green temples. Then Madou described with enthusiasm the flowers and the fruits, the butterflies, and birds with wonderful plumage, and Jack listened in delight and astonishment. There were serpents, too, but they were harmless; and black monkeys leaped from tree to tree; and large mysterious lakes, that had never reflected the skies in their brown depths, lay here and there in the forests.

At this, Jack uttered an exclamation, "O, how beautiful it must be!"

"Yes, very beautiful," said the black boy, who undoubtedly exaggerated a little, and saw his dear native land through the prism of absence, of childish recollections, and with the enthusiasm of his southern nature; but encouraged by his comrade's sympathy, Madou continued his story.

At night the forests were very different; hunting-parties bivouacked in the jungles, building huge fires to drive away wild beasts, who were heard in the distance roaring horribly. The birds were aroused; and the bats, silent and black as shadows, attracted by the fire-light, hovered over and about it until daybreak, when they assembled on some gigantic tree, motionless, and pressed against each other, looking like some singular leaves, dry and dead.

In this open-air life the little prince grew strong and manly,--could wield a sabre and carry a gun at an age when children are usually tied to their mother's apron-string. The king was proud of his son, the heir to his throne. But, alas! it seemed that it was not enough, even for a negro prince, to know how to shoot an elephant through the eye; he must also learn to read books and writing, for, said the wise king to his son, "White man always has paper in his pocket to cheat black man with." Of course some European might have been found in Dahomey who could instruct the prince,--for French and English flags floated over the ships in the harbors. But the king had himself been sent by his father to a town called Marseilles, very far at the end of the world; and he wished his son to receive a similar education.

How unhappy the little prince was in leaving Kerika; he looked at his sabre, hung his gun against the wall, and set sail with M. Bonfils, a clerk in a mercantile house, who sent him home every year with the gold dust stolen from the poor negroes.

Madou, however, was resigned; he wished to be a great king some day, to command the troop of Amazons, to be the proprietor of these fields of corn and wheat, and of the palace filled with jars of palm-oil and with treasures of gold and ivory. To own these riches he must deserve them, and be capable of defending them when necessary,--and Madou early learned that it is hard to be a king; for when one has more pleasures than the rest of the world, one has also greater responsibilities.

His departure was the occasion of great public fetes, of sacrifices to the fetish and to the divinities of the sea. All the temples were thrown open for these solemnities, the prayers of the nation were offered there, and at the last moment, when the ship set sail, fifteen prisoners of war were executed on the shore, and the executioner threw their heads into a great copper basin.

"Good gracious!" gasped Jack, pulling the bedclothes over his head.

It is certainly not very agreeable to hear such stories told by the actors in them; and Jack was very glad that he was in the Moronval Academy rather than in that terrible land of Dahomey.

Madou seeing the effect he had produced, dwelt no longer on the ceremonies preceding his departure, but proceeded to describe his arrival and life at Marseilles.

He told of the college there, of the high walls and the benches in the court-yard, where the pupils cut their names; of the solemn professor, who sternly said, if a whisper was heard, "Not so much noise, if you please!" The close air of the recitation-rooms, the monotonous scratching of pens, the lessons repeated over and over again, were all new and very trying to Madou. His one idea was to get into the sun; but the walls were so high, the court-yard so narrow, that he could never find enough to bask in. Nothing amused or interested him. He was never allowed to go out as were the other pupils, and for a very good reason. At first he had induced M. Bonfils to take him to the wharves, where he often saw merchandise from his own country, and sometimes went into ecstasies at some well-known mark.

The steamers puffing and blowing, and the great ships setting their sails, all spoke to him of departure and deliverance.

Madou dreamed of these ships all through school-hours,--one had brought him to that cold gray land, another would take him away. And possessed by this fixed idea, he paid no attention to his A B C's, for his eyes saw nothing save the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky above. The result of this was, that one fine day he escaped from the college and hid himself on one of the vessels of M. Bonfils; he was found in time, but escaped again, and the second time was not discovered until the ship was in the middle of the Gulf of Lyons. Any other child would have been kept on board; but when Madou's name was known, the captain took his royal Highness back to Marseilles, relying on a reward.

After that, the boy became more and more unhappy, for he was kept a very close prisoner. Notwithstanding all this, he escaped once more; and this time, on being discovered, made no resistance, but obeyed so gently, and with such a sad smile, that no one had the heart to punish him. At last the principal of the institution declined the responsibility of so determined a pupil. Should he send the little prince back to Dahomey? M. Bonfils dared not permit this, fearing thereby to lose the good graces of the king. In the midst of these perplexities Moronvol's advertisement appeared, and the prince was at once dispatched to 23 Avenue Montaigne,--"the most beautiful situation in Paris,"--where he was received, as you may well believe, with open arms. This heir of a far-off kingdom was a godsend to the academy. He was constantly on exhibition; M. Moronval showed him at theatres and concerts, and along the boulevards, reminding one of those perambulating advertisements that are to be seen in all large cities.

He appeared in society, such society at least as admitted M. Moronval, who entered a room with all the gravity of Fenelon conducting the Duke of Burgundy. The two were announced as "His Royal Highness the Prince of Dahomey, and M. Moronval, his tutor."

For a month the newspapers were full of anecdotes of Madou; an attache of a London paper was sent to interview him, and they had a long and serious talk as to the course the young prince should pursue when called to the throne of his ancestors. The English journal published an account of the curious dialogue, and the vague replies certainly left much to be desired.

At first all the expenses of the academy were discharged by this solitary pupil, Monsieur Bonfils paying the bill that was presented to him without a word of dispute. Madou's education, however, made but little progress. He still continued among the A B C's, and Madame Moronval's charming method made no impression upon him. His defective pronunciation was still retained, and his half-childish way of speaking was not changed. But he was gay and happy. All the other children were compelled to yield to him a certain deference. At first this was a difficult matter, as his intense blackness seemed to indicate to these other children of the sun that he was a slave.

And how amiable the professors were to this bullet-headed boy, who, in spite of his natural amiability, so sturdily refused to profit by their instructions! Every one of the teachers had his own private idea of what could be done in the future under the patronage of this embryo king. It was the refrain of all their conversations. As soon as Madou was crowned, they would all go to Dahomey. Labassandre intended to develop the musical taste of Dahomey, and saw himself the director of a conservatory, and at the head of the Royal Chapel.

Madame Moronval meant to apply her method to class upon class of crisp black heads. But Dr. Hirsch saw innumerable beds in a hospital, upon the inmates of which he could experiment without fear of any interference from the police. The first few weeks, therefore, of his sojourn at Paris seemed to Madou very sweet. If only the sun would shine out brightly, if the fine rain would cease to fall, or the thick fog clear away; if, in short, the boy could once have been thoroughly warm, he would have been content; and if Kerika, with her gun and her bow, her arms covered with clanking bracelets, could occasionally have appeared in the _Passage des Douze Maison_, he would have been very happy.

But Destiny altered all this. M. Bonfils arrived suddenly one day, bringing most disastrous news of Dahomey. The king was dethroned, taken prisoner by the Ashantees, who meant to found a new dynasty. The royal troops and the regiment of Amazons had all been conquered and dispersed. Kerika alone was saved, and she dispatched M. Bonfils to Madou to tell him to remain in France, and to take good care of his Gri-gri, for it was written in the great book that if Madou did not lose that amulet, he would come into his kingdom. The poor little king was in great trouble. Moronval, who placed no faith in the _gri-gri_, presented his bill--and such a bill!--to M. Bonfils, who paid it, but informed the principal that in future, if he consented to keep Madou, he must not rely upon any present compensation, but upon the gratitude of the king as soon as the fortunes and chances of war should restore him to his throne. Would the principal oblige M. Bonfils by at once signifying his intentions? Moronval promptly and nobly said, "I will keep the child." Observe that it was no longer "his Royal Highness." And the boy at once became like all the other scholars, and was scolded and punished as they were,--more, in fact, for the professors were out of temper with him, feeling apparently, that they had been deluded by false pretences. The child could understand little of this, and tried in vain all the gentle ways that had seemed to win so much affection before. It was worse still the next quarter, when Moronval, receiving no money, realized that Madou was a burden to him. He dismissed the servant, and installed Madou in his place, not without a scene with the young prince. The first time a broom was placed in his hands and its use explained to him, Madou obstinately refused. But M. Moronval had an irresistible argument ready, and after a heavy caning the boy gave up. Besides, he preferred to sweep rather than to learn to read. The prince, therefore, scrubbed and swept with singular energy, and the salon of the Moronvals was scrupulously clean; but Moronval's heart was not softened. In vain did the little fellow work; in vain did he seek to obtain a kindly word from his master; in vain did he hover about him with all the touching humility of a submissive hound: he rarely obtained any other recompense than a blow.

The boy was in despair. The skies grew grayer and grayer, the rain seemed to fall more persistently, and the snow was colder than ever.

O Kerika! Aunt Kerika! so haughty and so tender, where are you? Come and see what they are doing with your little king! How he is treated, how scantily he is fed, how ragged are his clothes, and how cold he is! He has but one suit now, and that a livery--a red coat and striped vest! Now, when he goes out with his master, he does not walk at his side--he follows him.

Madou's honesty and ingenuity had, however, so won the confidence of Madame Moronval, that she sent him to market. Behold, therefore, this last descendant of the powerful _Tocodonon_, the founder of the Dahomian dynasty, staggering daily from the market under the weight of a huge basket, half fed and half clothed, cold to the very heart; for nothing warms him now, neither violent exercise, nor blows, nor the shame of having become a servant; nor even his hatred of "the father with a stick," as he called Moronval.

And yet that hatred was something prodigious; and Madou confided to Jack his projects of vengeance.

"When Madou goes home to Dahomey, he will write a little letter to the father with the stick; he will tell him to come to Dahomey, and he will cut off his head into the copper basin, and afterwards will cover a big drum with his skin, and I will then march against the Ashantees,--Boum! boum! boum!"

Jack could just see in the shadow the gleam of the negro's white eyes, and heard the raps upon the footboard of the bed, that imitated the drum, and was frightened. He fancied that he heard the whizzing of the sabres, and the heavy thud of the falling heads; he pulled the blanket over his head, and held his breath.

Madou, who was excited by his own story, wished to talk on, but he thought his solitary auditor asleep. But when Jack drew a long breath, Madou said gently, "Shall we talk some more, sir?"

"Yes," answered Jack; "only don't let us say any more about that drum, nor the copper basin." The negro laughed silently. "Very well, sir; Madou won't talk--you must talk now. What is your name?"

"Jack, with a _k_. Mamma thinks a great deal about that--"

"Is your mamma very rich?"

"Rich! I guess she is," said Jack, by no means unwilling to dazzle Madou in his turn. "We have a carriage, a beautiful house on the boulevard, horses, servants, and all. And then you will see, when mamma comes here, how beautiful she is. Everybody in the street turns to look at her, she has such beautiful dresses and such jewels. We used to live at Tours; it was a pretty place. We walked in the Rue Royale, where we bought nice cakes, and where we met plenty of officers in uniform. The gentlemen were all good to me. I had Papa Leon, and Papa Charles,--not real papas, you know, because my own father died when I was a little fellow. When we first went to Paris I did not like it; I missed the trees and the country; but mamma petted me so much, and was so good to me, that I was soon happy again. I was dressed like the little English boys, and my hair was curled, and every day we went to the Bois. At last my mamma's old friend said that I ought to learn something; so mamma took me to the Jesuit College--"

Here Jack stopped suddenly. To say that the Fathers would not receive him, wounded his self-love sorely. Notwithstanding the ignorance and innocence of his age, he felt that there was something humiliating to his mother in this avowal, as well as to himself; and then this recital, on which he had so heedlessly entered, carried him back to the only serious trouble of his life. Why had they not been willing to receive him? why did his mother weep? and why did the Superior pity him?

"Say, then, little master," asked the negro suddenly, "what is a cocotte?"

"A cocotte?" asked Jack in astonishment. "I don't know. Is it a chicken?"

"I heard the father with a stick say to Madame Moronval that your mother was a cocotte."

"What an ideal. You misunderstood," and at the thought of his mother being a hen, with feathers, wings, and claws, the boy began to laugh; and Madou, without knowing why, followed his example.

This gayety soon obliterated the painful impressions of their previous conversation, and the two little, lonely fellows, after having confided to each other all their sorrows, fell asleep with smiles on their lips.

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