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    Chapter 11

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    Chapter 11
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    It was at breakfast the next morning that Jean noticed, for the first time, the venerable, kindly look of his father's face. In truth, advancing years had invested the bookbinder's appearance with a sort of beauty. The smooth forehead under the curling white locks betokened a habit of peaceful and honest thoughts. Old age, while rendering the play of the muscles less active, veiled the distortion of the limbs due to long hours of labour at the bench under the more affecting disfigurements which life and _its_ long-drawn labours impress on all men alike. The old man had read, thought, striven honestly to do his best, and won the saving grace a simple faith bestows on the humble of heart; for he had become a religious man and a regular attendant at the church of his parish. Jean told himself it would be an easy and a grateful task to cherish such a father, and he resolved to inaugurate a life of toil and sacrifice. But he had no employment and no notion what to do.

    Shut up in his room, he was filled with a great pity for himself and longed to recover the peace of mind, the calm of the senses, the happy life that had vanished along with the leaf he had abandoned that evening to the drifting current. He opened a novel, but at the first mention of love he pitched the volume down, and fell to reading a book of travel, following the steps of an English explorer into the reed palace of the King of Uganda. He ascended the Upper Nile to Urondogami; hippopotamuses snorted in the swamps, waders and guinea-fowl rose in flight, while a herd of antelopes sped flying through the tall grasses. He was recalled from far, far away by his aunt shouting up the stairs:

    "Jean! Jean! come down into the shop; your father wants you."

    A stout, red-faced man, with the bent shoulders that come of much stooping over the desk, sat beside the counter. Monsieur Servien's eyes rested on his face with a deprecating air.

    When the boy appeared, the stranger asked if this was the young man in question, adding in a scolding voice:

    "You are all the same. You work and sweat and wear yourselves out to make your sons bachelors of arts, and you think the day after the examination the fine fellows will be posted Ambassadors. For God's sake! no more graduates, if you please! We can't tell what to do with 'em.... Graduates indeed! Why, they block the road; they are cab-drivers, they distribute handbills in the streets. You have 'em dying in hospital, rotting in the hulks! Why didn't you teach your son your own trade? Why didn't you make a bookbinder of him? ... Oh! I know why; you needn't tell me,--out of ambition! Well, then! some day your son will die of starvation, blushing for your folly--and a good job too! The State! you say, the State! it's the only word you can put your tongues to. But it's cluttered up, the State is! Take the Treasury; you send us graduates who can't spell; what d'ye expect us to do with all these loafers?"

    He drew his hand across his hot forehead. Then pointing a finger to show he was addressing Jane:

    "At any rate, you write a good hand?"

    Monsieur Servien answered for his son, saying it was legible.

    "Legible! Legible!" repeated the great man--throwing his fat hands about. "A copying clerk must write an even hand. Young man, do you write an even hand?"

    Jean said he did not know, his handwriting might have been spoilt, he had never thought very much about it. His questioner frowned:

    "That's very wrong," he blustered; "and I dare swear you young fellows make a silly affectation of not writing decently.... I may have a bit of influence at the Ministry, but you mustn't ask me to do impossibilities."

    The bookbinder shrunk back with a scared glance. _He_ certainly did not look the man to ask impossibilities.

    The other got up:

    "You will take lessons," he said, turning to Jean, "in writing and ciphering. You have eight months before you. Eight months from now the Minister will hold an examination. I will put your name down. Do you set to work without losing a minute!"

    So saying, he pulled out his watch, as though to see if his protégé was actually going to waste a single minute before beginning his studies. He directed Monsieur Servien to get to work without delay on the books he was giving him to bind, and walked out of the shop. After the bookbinder had seen him to his carriage:

    "Jean, my boy," said he, "that is Monsieur Bargemont; I have spoken to him about you and you have heard what he had to say; he is going to help you to get into the Treasury Office, where he holds a high post. You understand what he told you about the examinations; you know more about such things, praise God! than I do. I am only an ignoramus, my lad, but I am your father. Now listen; I want to have a word of explanation with you, so that from this day on till I go to where your dear mother is we can look each other calmly in the face and understand one another at the first glance. Your mother loved you right well, Jean. There's not a gold mine in the world could give a notion of the wealth of affection that woman possessed. From the first moment you saw the light, she lived, so to say, more in you than in herself. Her love was stronger than she could bear. Well, well, she is dead. It was nobody's fault."

    The old man turned his eyes involuntarily towards the darkest corner of the shop, and Jean, looking in the same direction, caught sight of the sharp angles of the hand-press in the gloom.

    Monsieur Servien went on:

    "On her death-bed your mother asked me to make an educated man of you, for well she knew that education is the key that opens every door.

    "I have done what she wished. She was no longer with us, Jean, and when a voice comes back to you from the grave and bids you do a thing 'that a blessing may come,' why, one must needs obey. I did my best; and no doubt God was with me, for I have succeeded. You have your education; so far so good, but we must not have a blessing turn into a curse. And idleness is a curse. I have worked like a packhorse, and given many a hard pull at the collar, in harness from morning to night. I remember in particular one lot of cloth covers for the firm of Pigoreau that kept me on the job for thirty-six hours running. And then there was the year when your examination fees had to be paid and I accepted an order in the English style; it was a terrible bit of work, for it's not in my way at all, and at my time of life a man is not good at new methods. They wanted a light sort of binding, with flexible boards as flimsy as paper almost. I shed tears over it, but I learned the trick! Ah! it is a famous tool, is a workman's hand! But an educated man's brain is a far more wonderful thing still, and that tool you have, thanks to God in the first place, and to your mother in the second. It was she had the notion of educating you, I only followed her lead. Your work will be lighter than mine, but you must do it. I am a poor man, as you know; but, were I rich, I would not give you the means to lead an idle life, because that would be tempting you to vices and shaming you. Ah! if I thought your education had given you a taste for idleness, I should be sorry not to have made you a working man like myself. But then, I know you have a good heart; you have not got into your stride yet, that's all! The first steps will be uphill work; Monsieur Bargemont said so. The State services are overcrowded; there are over many graduates--though it is well enough to be one. Besides, I shall be at your back; I will help you, I will work for you; I have a pair of stout arms still. You shall have pocket-money, never fear; you will want it among the folks you will live with. We will save and pinch. But you must help yourself, lad; never be afraid of hard work, hit out from the shoulder and strike home. Good work never spoiled play yet. Your job done, laugh and sing and amuse yourself to your heart's content; you won't find me interfere. And, when you are a great man, if I am still in this world, don't you be afraid; I shall not get in your way. I am not a fellow to make a noise. We will hide away in some quiet hole, your aunt and I, and nobody will hear one word said of the old father."

    Aunt Servien, who had slipped into the shop and been listening for the last few moments, broke into sobs; she was quite ready to follow her brother and hide away in a corner; but when her nephew had risen to greatness, she would insist on going every day to keep things straight in his grand house. She was not going to leave "the little lad" to be a prey to housekeepers--housekeepers, indeed, she called them housebreakers!

    "The creatures keep great hampers," she declared, "that swallow up bottles of wine, cold chickens, and other titbits, fine linen, old clothes, oil, sugar, and candles--the best pickings from a rich man's house. No, I'll not let my little Jean be sucked to death by such vampires. _I_ mean to keep your house in order. No one will ever know I am your aunt. And if they did know, there's nobody, I should hope, could object. I don't know why anyone should be ashamed of me. They can lay my whole life bare, I have nothing to blush for. And there's many a Duchess can't say as much. As for forsaking the lad for fear of doing him a hurt, well, the notion is just what I expected of you, Servien; you've always been a bit simple-minded. _I_ mean to stay all my life with Jean. No, little lad, you'll never drive your old aunt out of your house, will you? And who could ever make your bed the way I can, my lamb?"

    Jean promised his father faithfully, oh! most faithfully, he would lead a hardworking life. Then he shut himself up in his room and pictured the future to himself--long years of austere and methodical labour.

    He mapped out his days systematically. In the morning he wrote copies to improve his handwriting, seated at a corner of the workbench. After breakfast he did sums in his bedroom. Every evening he went to the _Rue Soufflot_ by way of the Luxembourg gardens to a private tutor's, and the old man would set him dictations and explain the rules of simple interest. On reaching the gate adjoining the _Fontaine Médicis_ the boy always turned round for a look at the statues of women he could discern standing like white ghosts along the terrace. He had left behind on the path of life another fascinating vision.

    He never read a theatrical poster now, and deliberately forgot his favorite poets for fear of renewing his pain.
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