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    Chapter 20

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    Chapter 20
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    In the court, which was enlivened by a parterre of roses, Jean, carrying a letter in his hand, was trying to find his bearings according to the directions given him in a low voice, as if it were a secret, by the lay-brother who acted as doorkeeper. He was wandering uncertainly from door to door along the walls of the old silent buildings when a little boy noticed his plight and accosted him:

    "Do you want to see the Director? He is in his study with mamma. Go and wait in the parlour."

    This was a large hall with bare walls, a noble enough apartment in its unadorned simplicity, in spite of the mean horsehair chairs that stood round it. Above the fire-place, instead of a mirror, was a _Mater dolorosa_ that caught the eye by its dazzling whiteness. Big marble tears stood arrested in mid-career down the cheeks, while the features expressed the pious absorption of the Divine Mother's grief. Jean Servien read the inscription cut in red letters on the pedestal, which ran thus:




    Then he forgot his anxieties, forgot he was there to beg for employment, shook off the instinctive dread that had seized him on the threshold of the great silent house. He forgot his fears and hopes--hopes of being promoted usher! He was absorbed by this cruel domestic drama revealed to him in the inscription. A scion of one of the greatest families of France, a pupil of the Abbé Bordier, attacked by phthisis in the midst of his now profitless studies and leaving school, not to enjoy life and taste the glorious pleasures only those contemn who have drained them to the dregs, but to die at a southern town in the arms of his mother whose overwhelming, but still self-conscious grief was symbolized by this pompous memorial of her sorrow. He could feel, he could see it all. The three Latin words that represent the stricken mother saying: "Children, praise ye the Lord who hath taken away my child," astonished him by their austere piety, while at the same time he admired the aristocratic bearing that was preserved even in the presence of death.

    He was still lost in these day-dreams when an old priest beckoned him to walk into an inner room. The worthy man took the letter of recommendation which Jean handed him, set on his big nose a pair of spectacles with round glasses for all the world like the two wheels of a miniature silver chariot, and proceeded to read the letter, holding it out at the full stretch of his arm. The windows giving on the garden stood open, and a tendril of wild vine hung down on to the desk at the foot of a crucifix of old ivory, while a light breeze set the papers on it fluttering like white wings.

    The Abbé Bordier, his reading concluded, turned to the young man, showing a deeply lined countenance and a forehead beautifully polished by age. He took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. Then the worn eyelids lifted slowly and discovered a pair of grey eyes of a shade that somehow reminded you of an autumn morning. He lay back in his armchair, his legs stretched out in front of him, displaying his silver-buckled shoes and black stockings.

    "It seems then, my dear boy," he began, "you wish, so my venerable friend the Abbé Marguerite informs me, to devote yourself to teaching; and your idea would be to prepare for your degree while at the same time performing the duties of an assistant master to supervise the boys at their work. It is a humble office; but it will depend entirely on yourself, my dear young friend, to dignify it by a heartfelt zeal and a determination to succeed. I shall entrust the studies of the _Remove_ to your care. Our bursar will inform you of the conditions attaching to the post."

    Jean bowed and made to leave the room; but suddenly the Abbé Bordier beckoned him to stop and asked abruptly:

    "You understand the rules of verse?"

    "Latin verse?" queried Jean.

    "No, no! French verse. Now, would you rhyme _trône_ with _couronne_? The rhyme is not, it must be allowed, quite satisfactory to the ear, yet the usage of the great writers authorizes it."

    So saying, the old fellow laid hold of a bulky manuscript book.

    "Listen," he cried, "listen. It is St. Fabricius addressing the Proconsul Flavius:

    _Achève, fais dresser l'appareil souhaité De ma mort, ou plutôt de ma félicité. Le Roi des Rois, du haut de son céleste trône, Déjà me tend la palme et tresse ma couronne._ "Do you think it would be better if he said:

    Achève, fais dresser l'appareil souhaité De ma mort, ou plutôt de ma félicité. Je vois le Roi des Rois me tendre la couronne, Quel n'en est le prix quand c'est Dieu qui la donne! "Doubtless these latter lines are more correct than the others, but they are less vigorous, and a poet should never sacrifice meaning to metre.

    Le Roi des Rois, du haut de son céleste trône, Déjà me tend la palme et tresse ma couronne." This time, as he declaimed the verses, he went through the corresponding gestures of tendering a gift and plaiting a garland.

    "It is better so," he added, "better so!"

    Jean, in some surprise, said yes, it was certainly better.

    "Certainly better, yes," cried the old poet, smiling with the happy innocence of a little child.

    Then he confided in Jean that it was a very difficult thing indeed to write poetry. You must get the cæsura in the right place, bring in the rhyme naturally, make your rhythm run in divers cadences, now strong, now sweet, sometimes onomatopoetic, use only words either elevated in themselves or dignified by the circumstances.

    He read one passage of his Tragedy because he had his doubts about the number of feet in the line, another because he thought it contained some bold strokes happily conceived, then a third to elucidate the two first, eventually the whole five acts from start to finish. He acted the words as he read, modulating his voice to suit the various characters, stamping and storming, and to adjust his black skullcap--it _would_ tumble off at the pathetic parts--dealing himself a succession of sounding slaps on the crown of his head.

    This sacred drama, in which no woman appeared, was to be played by the pupils of the Institution at a forthcoming function. The previous year he had staged his first tragedy, _le Baptême de Clovis_, in the same approved style. A regular, Monsieur Schuver, had arranged garlands of paper roses to represent the battlefield of Tolbiac and the basilica at Rheims. To give a wild, barbaric look to the boys who represented Clovis' henchmen, the sister superintendent of the wardrobe had tacked up their white trousers to the knee. But the Abbé Bordier hoped greater things still for his new piece.

    Jean applauded and improved upon these ambitious projects. His suggestions for scenery and costumes were admirable. He would have the ruthless Flavius seated on a curule chair of ivory, draped with purple, erected before a portico painted on the back cloth. The costumes of the Roman soldiers, he insisted, must be copied from those on Trajan's Column.

    His words opened superb vistas before the old priest's eyes; he was enchanted, ravished, yet full of doubts and fears. Alas! Monsieur Schuver was quite helpless if it came to designing anything more ambitious than his paper roses. Then Jean must needs take a look round in the shed where the properties were stored, and the two discussed together how the stage must be set and the side-scenes worked. Jean took measurements, drew up a plan, worked out an estimate. He manifested a passionate eagerness that was surprising, albeit the old priest took it all as a matter of course. A batten would come here, a practicable door there. The actor would enter there...

    But the worthy priest checked him:

    "Say the reciter, my dear boy; _actor_ is not a word for self-respecting people."

    Barring this trifling misunderstanding, they were in perfect accord. The sun was setting by this time and the Abbé Bordier's shadow, grotesquely elongated, danced up and down the sandy floor of the shed, while the old, broken voice declaimed tags of verse that echoed to the furthest recesses of the court. But Jean Servien was smiling at the vision only _his_ eyes could see of Gabrielle, the inspirer of all his enthusiasm.
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