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    Chapter 7

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    Chapter 7
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    The holidays were near. An noon of a blazing hot day Jean was seated in the shade on the dwarf-wall that bounded the school count towards the headmaster's garden, He was playing languidly at shovel-board with a schoolfellow, a lad as pretty as a girl with his curls and his jacket of white duck.

    "Ewans," said Jean, as he pushed a pebble along one of the lines drawn in charcoal on the stone coping, "Ewans, you must find it tiresome to be a boarder?"

    "Mother cannot have me with her at home," replied the boy.

    Servien asked why.

    "Oh! Because----" stammered Ewans.

    He stared a long time at the white pebble he held in his hand ready to play, before he added:

    "My mother goes travelling."

    "And your father?"

    "He is in America. I have never seen him. You've lost. Let's begin again."

    Servien, who felt interested in Madame Ewans because of the superb boxes of chocolates she used to bring to school for her boy, put another question:

    "You love her very much, your mother I mean?"

    "Of course I do!" cried the other, adding presently:

    "You must come and see me one day in the holidays at home. You'll find our house is very pretty, there's sofas and cushions no end. But you must not put off, for we shall be off to the seaside soon."

    At this moment a servant, a tall, thin man, appeared in the playground and called out something which the shrill cries of their companions at play prevented the two seated on the wall from hearing. A fat boy, standing by himself with his face to the wall with the unconcern born of long familiarity with this form of punishment, clapped his two hands to his mouth trumpetwise and shrieked:

    "Ewans, you're wanted in the parlour."

    The usher marched up:

    "Garneret," he ordered, "you will stand half an hour this evening at preparation speaking when you were forbidden to. Ewans, go to the parlour."

    The latter clapped his hands and danced for joy, telling his friend:

    "It's my mother! I'll tell her you are coming to our house."

    Servien reddened with pleasure, and stammered out that he would ask his father's leave. But Ewans had already scampered across the yard, leaving a dusty furrow behind him.

    Leave was readily granted by Monsieur Servien, who was fully persuaded that all boys admitted to so expensive a school born of well-to-do parents, whose society could not but prove advantageous to his son's manners and morals and to his future success in life.

    Such information as Jean could give him about Madame Ewans was extremely vague, but the bookbinder was well used to contemplating the ways of rich folks through a veil of impenetrable mystery.

    Aunt Servien indulged in sundry observations on the occasion of a very general kind touching people who ride in carriages. Then she repeated a story about a great lady who, just like Madame Ewans, had put her son to boarding-school, and who was mixed up in a case of illicit commissions, in the time of Louis-Philippe.

    She added, to clinch the matter, that the cowl does not make the monk, that she thought herself, for all she did not wear flowers in her hat, a more honest woman than your society ladies, false jades everyone, concluding with her pet proverb: Better a good name than a gilt girdle!

    Jean had never seen a gilt girdle, but he thought in a vague way he would very much like to have one.

    The holidays came, and one Thursday after breakfast his aunt produced a white waistcoat from the wardrobe, and Jean, dressed in his Sunday best, climbed on an omnibus which took him to the Rue de Rivoli. He mounted four flights of a staircase, the carpet and polished brass stair-rods of which filled him with surprise and admiration.

    On reaching the landing, he could hear the tinkling of a piano. He rang the bell, blushed hotly and was sorry he had rung. He would have given worlds to run away. A maid-servant opened the door, and behind her stood Edgar Ewans, wearing a brown holland suit, in which he looked entirely at his ease.

    "Come along," he cried, and dragged him into a drawing-room, into which the half-drawn curtains admitted shafts of sunlight that were flashed back in countless broken reflections from mirrors and gilt cornices. A sweet, stimulating perfume hung about the room, which was crowded with a superabundance of padded chairs and couches and piles of cushions.

    In the half-light jean beheld a lady so different from all he had ever set eyes on till that moment that he could form no notion of what she was, no idea of her beauty or her age. Never had he seen eyes that flashed so vividly in a face of such pale fairness, or lips so red, smiling with such an unvarying almost tired-looking smile. She was sitting at a piano, idly strumming on the keys without playing any definite tune. What drew Jean's eyes above all was her hair, arranged in some fashion that struck him with a sense of mystery and beauty.

    She looked round, and smoothing the lace of her _peignoir_ with one hand:

    "You are Edgar's friend?" she asked, in a cordial tone, though her voice struck Jean as harsh in this beautiful room that was perfumed like a church.

    "Yes, Madame."

    "You like being at school?"

    "Yes, madame."

    "The masters are not too strict?"

    "No, Madame."

    "You have no mother?"

    As she put the question Madame Evans' voice softened.

    "No, Madame."

    "What is your father?"

    "A bookbinder, Madame"--and the bookbinder's son blushed as he gave the answer. At that moment he would gladly have consented never to see his father more, his father whom he loved, if by the sacrifice he could have passed for the son of a Captain in the Navy or a Secretary of Embassy. He suddenly remembered that one of his fellow-pupils was the son of a celebrated physician whose portrait was displayed in the stationers' windows.

    If only he had had a father like that to tell Madame Ewans of! But that was out of the question--and how cruelly unjust it was! He felt ashamed of himself, as if he had said something shocking.

    But his friend's mother seemed quite unaffected by the dreadful avowal. She was still moving her hands at random up and down the keyboard. Then presently:

    "You must enjoy yourself finely to-day, boys," she cried. "We will all go out. Shall I take you to the fair at Saint-Cloud?"

    Yes, Edgar was all for going, because of the roundabouts.

    Madame Ewans rose from the piano, patted her pale flaxen hair in place with a pretty gesture, and gave a sidelong look in the mirror as she passed.

    "I'm going to dress," she told them; "I shall not be long."

    While she was dressing, Edgar sat at the piano trying to pick out a tune from an opera bouffe, and Jean, perched uncomfortably on the edge of his chair, stared about the room at a host of strange and sumptuous objects that seemed in some mysterious way to be part and parcel of their beautiful owner, and affected him almost as strangely as she herself had done.

    Preceded by a faint waft of scent and a rustle of silk, she reappeared, tying the strings of the hat that made a dainty diadem above her smiling eyes.

    Edgar looked at her curiously:

    "Why, mother, there's something... I don't know what. . . something that alters you."

    She glanced in the mirror, examining her hair, which showed pale violet shadows amid the flaxen plaits.

    "Oh! it's nothing," she said; "only I have put some powder in my hair. Like the Empress," she added, and broke into another smile.

    As she was drawing on her gloves, a ring was heard, and the maid came in to tell her mistress that Monsieur Delbèque was waiting to see her.

    Madame Ewans pouted and declared she could not receive him, whereupon the maid spoke a few words in a very peremptory whisper. Madame Ewans shrugged her shoulders.

    "Stay where you are!" she told the boys, and passed into the dining-room, whence the murmur of two voices could presently be heard.

    Jean asked Edgar, under his breath, who the gentleman was.

    "Monsieur Delbèque," Edgar informed him. "He keeps horses and a carriage. He deals in pigs. One evening he took us to the theatre, mother and me."

    Jean was surprised and rather shocked to find Monsieur Delbèque dealt in pigs. But he hid his surprise and asked if he was a relation.

    "Oh! no," said Edgar, "he's one of our friends. It's a long time... at least a year we have known him."

    Jean, harking back to his first idea, put the question:

    "Have you ever seen him selling his pigs?"

    "How stupid you are!" retorted Edgar; "he deals in them wholesale. Mother says it's a famous trade. He has a cigar-holder with an amber mouthpiece and a woman all naked carved in meerschaum. Just think, the other day he came and told mother his wife was making him atrocious scenes."

    Madame Ewans put in her head at the half-open door:

    "Come along," she said, and they set out. No sooner were they in the street than a man, who was smoking, greeted Madame with a friendly wave of his gloved hand. She muttered between her teeth:

    "Shall we never be done with them?"

    The man began in a guttural voice:

    "I was just going to your place, my dear, to offer you a box of Turkish cigarettes. But I see you are taking a boarding-school out for a walk--a regular boarding-school, 'pon my word! You take pupils, eh? I congratulate you. Make men of 'em, my dear, make men of 'em."

    Madame Ewans frowned and replied with a curl of the lips:

    "I am with my son and one of my son's friends."

    The gentleman threw a careless look at one of the lads--Jean Servien as it happened.

    "Capital, capital!" he exclaimed. "Is that one your son?"

    "Not he, indeed!" she cried hotly.

    Jean felt he was looked down upon, and as she laid her hand on her son's shoulder with a proud gesture, he could not help noticing his schoolfellow's easy air and elegant costume, at the same time casting a glance of disgust at his own jacket, which had been cut down for him by his aunt out of an overcoat of his father's.

    "Shall we be honoured by your presence to-night at the _Bouffes_?" asked the gentleman.

    "No!" replied Madame Ewans, and pushed the two children forward with the tip of her sunshade.

    Stepping out gaily, they soon arrive under the chestnuts of the Tuileries, cross the bridge, then down the river-bank, over the shaky gangway, and so on to the steamer pontoon.

    Now they are aboard the boat, which exhales a strong, healthy smell of tar under the hot sun. The long grey walls of the embankments slip by, to be succeeded presently by wooded slopes.

    Saint-Cloud! The moment the ropes are made fast, Madame Ewans springs on to the landing-stage and makes straight for the shrilling of the clarinettes and thunder of the big drums, steering her little charges through the press with the handle of her sunshade.

    Jean was mightily surprised when Madame Ewans made him "try his luck" in a lottery. He had before now gone with his aunt to sundry suburban fairs, but she had always dissuaded him so peremptorily from spending anything that he was firmly persuaded revolving-tables and shooting-galleries were amusements only permitted to a class of people to which he did not belong. Madame Ewans showed the greatest interest in her son's success, urging him to give the handle a good vigorous turn.

    She was very superstitious about luck, "invoking" the big prizes, clapping her hands in ecstasy whenever Edgar won a halfpenny egg-cup, falling into the depths of despair at every bad shot. Perhaps she saw an omen in his failure; perhaps she was just blindly eager to have her darling succeed. After he had lost two or three times, she pulled the boy away and gave the wooden disk such a violent push round as set its cargo of crockery-ware and glass rattling, and proceeded to play on her own account--once, twice, twenty times, thirty times, with frantic eagerness. Then followed quite a business about exchanging the small prizes for one big one, as is commonly done. Finally, she decided for a set of beer jugs and glasses, half of which she gave to each of the two friends to carry.

    But this was only a beginning. She halted the children before every stall. She made them play for macaroons at _rouge et noir_. She had them try their skill at every sort of shooting-game, with crossbows loaded with little clay pellets, with pistols and carbines, old-fashioned weapons with caps and leaden bullets, at all sorts of distances, and at all kinds of targets--plaster images, revolving pipes, dolls, balls bobbing up and down on top of a jet of water.

    Never in his life had Jean Servien been so busy or done so many different things in so short a space of time.

    His eyes dazzled with uncouth shapes and startling colours, his throat parched with dust, elbowed, crushed, mauled, hustled by the crowd, he was intoxicated with this debauch of diversions.

    He watched Madame Ewans for ever opening her little purse of Russia leather, and a new power was revealed to him. Nor was this all. There was the Dutch top to be set twirling, the wooden horses of the merry-go-round to be mounted; they had to dash down the great chute and take a turn in the Venetian gondolas, to be weighed in the machine and touch the arm of the "human torpedo."

    But Madame Ewans could not help returning again and again to stand before the booth of a hypnotist from Paris, a clairvoyante boasting a certificate signed by the Minster of Agriculture and Commerce and by three Doctors of the Faculty. She gazed enviously at the servant-girls as they trooped up blushing into the van meagrely furnished with a bed and a couple of chairs; but she could not pluck up courage to follow their example.

    She recalled to mind how a hypnotist had once helped a friend of hers to recover some stolen forks and spoons. She had even gone so far as to consult a fortune-teller shortly before Edgar's birth, and the cards had foretold a boy.

    All three were tired out and overloaded with crockery, glass, reed-pipes, sticks of sugar-candy, cakes of ginger-bread and macaroons. For all that, they paid a visit to the wax-works, where they saw Monseigneur Sibour's body lying in state at the Archbishop's Palace, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, models of people's legs and arms disfigured by various hideous diseases, and a Circassian maiden stepping out of the bath--"the purest type of female beauty," as a placard duly informed the public. Madame Ewans examined this last exhibit with a curiosity that very soon became critical.

    "People may say what they please," she muttered; "if you offered me the whole world, _I_ wouldn't have such big feet and such a thick waist. And then, your regular features aren't one bit attractive. Men like a face that says something."

    When they left the tent, the sun was low and the dust hovered in golden clouds over the throng of women, working-men, and soldiers.

    It was time for dinner; but as they passed the monkey-cage, Madame Ewans noticed such a crush of eager spectators squeezing in between the baize curtains on the platform in front that she could not resist the temptation to follow suit. Besides which, she was drawn by a motive of curiosity, having been told that monkeys were not insensible to female charms. But the performance diverted her thoughts in another direction. She saw an unhappy poodle in red breeches shot as a deserter in spite of his honest looks. Tears rose to her eyes, she was so sensitive, so susceptible to the glamour of the stage!

    "Yes, it's quite true," she sobbed; "yes, poor soldiers have been shot before now just for going off without leave to stand by their mother's death-bed or for smacking a bullying officer's face."

    Some old refrain of Béranger she had heard working folks sing in her plebeian childhood rose to her memory and intensified her emotion. She told the children the lamentable tale of the canine deserter's pitiful doom, and made them feel quite sad.

    No sooner were they outside the place, however, than an itinerant toy-seller with a paper helmet on his head set them splitting with laughter.

    Dinner must be thought of. She knew of a tavern by the river-side where you could eat a fry of fish in the arbour, and thither they betook themselves.

    The lady from Paris and the landlady of the inn greeted each other with a wink of the eye. It was a long time since she had seen Madame; she had no idea who the two young gentlemen were, but anyway they were dear little angels. Madame Ewans ordered the meal like a connoisseur, with a knowing air and all the proper restaurant tricks of phrase. All three sat silent, agreeably tired and enjoying the sensation, she with her bonnet-strings flying loose, the boys leaning back against the trellis. They could see the river and its grassy banks through an archway of wild vine. Their thoughts flowed softly on like the current before their eyes, while the dusk and cool of the evening wrapped them in a soft caress. For the first time Jean Servien, as he gazed at Madame Ewans, felt the thrill of a woman's sweet proximity.

    Presently, warmed by a trifle of wine and water he had drunk, he became wholly lost in his dreams--visions of all sorts of elegant, preposterous, chivalrous things. His head was still full of these fancies when he was dragged back to the fair-ground by Madame Ewans, who could never have enough of sight-seeing and noise. Illuminated arches spanned at regular intervals the broad-walk, lined on either side by stalls and trestle-tables, but the lateral avenues gloomed dark and deserted under the tall black trees. Loving couples paced them slowly, while the music from the shows sounded muffled by the distance. They were still there when a band of fifes, trombones, and trumpets struck up close by, playing a popular polka tune. The very first bar put Madame Ewans on her mettle. She drew Jean to her, settled his hands in hers and lifting him off the ground with a jerk of the hip, began dancing with him. She swung and swayed to the lilt of the music; but the boy was awkward and embarrassed, and only hindered his partner, dragging back and bumping against her. She threw him off roughly and impatiently, saying sharply:

    "You don't know how to dance, eh? You come here, Edgar."

    She danced a while with him in the semi-darkness. Then, rosy and smiling:

    "Bravo!" she laughed; "we'll stop now."

    Servien stood by in gloomy silence, conscious of his own inefficiency. His heart swelled with a sullen anger. He was hurt, and longed for somebody or something to vent his hate upon.

    The drive home was a silent one. Jean nearly gave himself cramp in his determined efforts not to touch with his own the knees of Madame Ewans' who dozed on the back seat of the conveyance. She hardly awoke enough to bid him good-bye when he alighted at his father's door.

    As he entered, he was struck for the first time by a smell of paste that seemed past bearing. The room where he had slept for years, happy in himself and loved by others, seemed a wretched hole. He sat down on his bed and looked round gloomily and morosely at the holy-water stoup of gilt porcelain, the print commemorating his First Communion, the toilet basin on the chest of drawers, and stacked in the corners piles of pasteboard and ornamental paper for binding.

    Everything about him seemed animated by a hostile, malevolent, unjust spirit. In the next room he could hear his father moving. He pictured him at his work-bench, with his serge apron, calm and content. What a humiliation! and for the second time in a dozen hours he blushed for his parentage.

    His slumbers were broken and uneasy; he dreamed he was turning, turning unendingly in complicated figures, and it was impossible always to avoid touching Madame Evans' knee, though all the time he was horribly afraid of doing it. Then there was a great field full of thousands and thousands of marble pigs stuck up on stone pedestals, among which he could see Monsieur Delbèque promenading slowly up and down.
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