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    Chapter 35

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    Chapter 35
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    He had been in solitary confinement in a cell at the _depôt_ for sixteen days now--or was it fifteen?--he was not sure. The hours dragged by with an excruciating monotony and tediousness.

    At the start he had demanded justice and loudly protested his innocence. But he had come to realize at last that justice had no concern with his case or that of the priests and gendarmes confined within the same walls. He had given up all thought of persuading the savage frenzy of the Commune to listen to reason, and deemed it the wisest thing to hold his tongue and the best to be forgotten. He trembled to think how easily it might end in tragedy, and his anguish seemed to choke him.

    Sometimes, as he sat dreaming, he could see a tree against a patch of blue sky, and great tears would rise to his eyes.

    It was there, in his prison cell, Jean learned to know the shadowy joys of memory.

    He thought of his good old father sitting at his work-bench or tightening the screw of the press; he thought of the shop packed with bound volumes and bindings, of his little room where of evenings he read books of travel--of all the familiar things of home. And every time he reviewed in spirit the poor thin romance of his unpretending life, he felt his cheeks burn to think how it was all dominated, almost every episode controlled, by this drunken parasite of a Tudesco! It was true nevertheless! Paramount over his studies, his loves, his dangers, over all his existence, loomed the rubicund face of the old villain! The shame of it! He had lived very ill! but what a meagre life it had been too. How cruel it was, how unjust! and there was more of self-pity in the poor, sore heart than of anger.

    Every day, every hour he thought of Gabrielle; but how changed the complexion of his love for her! Now it was a tender, tranquil sentiment, a disinterested affection, a sweet, soothing reverie. It was a vision of a wondrous delicacy, such as loneliness and unhappiness alone can form in the souls they shield from the rude shocks of the common life--the dream of a holy life, a life dim and overshadowed, vowed wholly and completely, without reward or recompense, to the woman worshipped from afar, as that of the good country _curé_ is vowed to the God who never steps down from the tabernacle of the altar.

    His gaoler was a good-natured _sous-officier_ who, amazed and horrified at what was going forward, clung to discipline as a sheet-anchor in the general shipwreck. He felt a rough, uncouth pity for his prisoners, but this never interfered with the strict performance of his duties, and Jean, who had no experience of soldiers' ways, never guessed the man's true character. However, he grew less and less unbending and taciturn the nearer the army of order approached the city.

    Finally, one day he had told his prisoner, with a wink of the eye:

    "Courage, lad! something's going to turn up soon."

    The same afternoon Jean heard a distant sound of musketry; then, all in a moment, the door of his cell opened and he saw an avalanche of prisoners roll from one end of the corridor to the other. The gaoler had unlocked all the cells and shouted the words, "Every man for himself; run for it!" Jean himself was carried along, down stairs and passages, out into the prison courtyard, and pitched head foremost against the wall. By the time he recovered from the shock of his fall, the prisoners had vanished, and he stood alone before the open wicket.

    Outside in the street he heard the crackle of musketry and saw the Seine running grey under the lowering smoke-cloud of burning Paris. Red uniforms appeared on the _Quai de l'École_. The _Pont-au-Change_ was thick with _fédérés_. Not knowing where to fly, he was for going back into the prison; but a body of _Vengeurs de Lutèce_, in full flight, drove him before their bayonets towards the _Pont-au-Change_. A woman, a _cantinière_, kept shouting: "Don't let him go, give him his gruel. He's a Versaillais." The squad halted on the _Quai-aux-Fleurs_, and Jean was pushed against the wall of the _Hôtel-Dieu_, the _cantinière_ dancing and gesticulating in front of him. Her hair flying loose under her gold-laced _képi_, with her ample bosom and her elastic figure poised gallantly on the strong, well-shaped limbs, she had the fierce beauty of some magnificent wild animal. Her little round mouth was wide open, yelling menaces and obscenities, as she brandished a revolver. The _Vengeurs de Lutèce_, hard-pressed and dispirited, looked stolidly at their white-faced prisoner against the wall, and then looked in each other's faces. Her fury redoubled; threatening them collectively, addressing each man by some vile nickname, pacing in front of them with a bold swing of the powerful hips, the woman dominated them, intoxicated them with her puissant influence.

    They formed up in platoon.

    "Fire!" cried the _cantinière_.

    Jean threw out his arms before him.

    Two or three shots went off. He could hear the balls flatten against the wall, but he was not hit.

    "Fire! fire!" The woman repeated the cry in the voice of an angry, self-willed child.

    She had been through the fighting, this girl, she had drunk her fill from staved-in wine-casks and slept on the bare ground, pell-mell with the men, out in the public square reddened with the glare of conflagration. They were killing all round her, and nobody had been killed yet _for her_. She was resolved they should shoot her someone, before the end! Stamping with fury, she reiterated her cry:

    "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

    Again the guns were cocked and the barrels levelled. But the _Vengeurs de Lutèce_ had not much heart left; their leader had vanished; they were disorganized, they were running away; sobered and stupefied, they knew the game was up. They were quite willing all the same to shoot the bourgeois there at the wall, before bolting for covert, each to hide in his own hole.

    Jean tried to say: "Don't make me suffer more than need be!" but his voice stuck in his throat.

    One of the _Vengeurs_ cast a look in the direction of the _Pont-au-Change_ and saw that the _fédérés_ were losing ground. Shouldering his musket, he said:

    "Let's clear out of the bl--y place, by God!"

    The men hesitated; some began to slink away.

    At this the _cantinière_ shrieked:

    "Bl--sted hounds! Then _I'll_ have to do his business for him!"

    She threw herself on Jean Servien and spat in his face; she abandoned herself to a frantic orgy of obscenity in word and gesture and clapped the muzzle of her revolver to his temple.

    Then he felt all was over and waited.

    A thousand things flashed in a second before his eyes; he saw the avenues under the old trees where his aunt used to take him walking in old days; he saw himself a little child, happy and wondering; he remembered the castles he used to build with strips of plane-tree bark... The trigger was pulled. Jean beat the air with his arms and fell forward face to the ground. The men finished him with their bayonets; then the woman danced on the corpse with yells of joy.

    The fighting was coming closer. A well-sustained fire swept the _Quai_. The woman was the last to go. Jean Servien's body lay stretched in the empty roadway. His face wore a strange look of peacefulness; in the temple was a little hole, barely visible; blood and mire fouled the pretty hair a mother had kissed with such transports of fondness.

    THE END.

    * * * * * * *
    Chapter 35
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