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   Chapter 5 No.5

A Mummer's Tale By Anatole France Characters: 8952

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


eturning home, Félicie succumbed to a fit of tears. She saw Chevalier once more imploring her in a despairing voice with the look of a poor man. She had heard that voice and seen that expression when passing tramps, worn out with fatigue, on the high road, when her mother fearing that her lungs were affected, had taken her to spend the winter at Antibes with a wealthy aunt. She despised Chevalier for his gentleness and tranquil manner. But the recollection of that face and that voice disturbed her. She could not eat, she felt as if she were suffocating. In the evening she was attacked by such an excruciating internal pain that she thought she must be dying. She thought this feeling of prostration was due to the fact that it was two days since she had seen Robert. It was only nine o'clock. She hoped that she might find him still at home, and put on her hat.

"Mamma, I have to go to the theatre this evening. I am off."

Out of consideration for her mother, she was in the habit of making such veiled explanations.

"Go, my child, but don't come home too late."

Ligny lived with his parents. He had, on the top floor of the charming house in the Rue Vernet, a small bachelor flat, lit by round windows, which he called his "oeil-de-boeuf." Félicie sent word by the hall-porter that a lady was waiting for him in a carriage. Ligny did not care for women to look him up too often in the bosom of his family. His father, who was in the diplomatic service, and deeply engrossed in the foreign interests of the country, remained in an incredible state of ignorance as to what went on in his own house. But Madame de Ligny was determined that the decencies of life should be observed in her home, and her son was careful to satisfy her requirements in the matter of outward appearances, since they never probed to the bottom of things. She left him perfectly free to love where he would, and only rarely, in serious and expansive moments, did she hint that it was to the advantage of young men to cultivate the acquaintance of women of their own class. Hence it was that Robert had always dissuaded Félicie from coming to him in the Rue Vernet. He had rented, in the Boulevard de Villiers, a small house, where they could meet in absolute freedom. But on the present occasion, after two days without seeing her, he was greatly pleased by her unexpected visit, and he came down immediately.

Leaning back in the cab, they drove through the darkness and the snow, at the quiet pace of their aged hack, through the streets and boulevards, while the darkness of the night cloaked their love-making.

At her door, having seen her home, he said:

"Good-bye till to-morrow."

"Yes, to-morrow, Boulevard de Villiers. Come early."

She was leaning on him preparatory to stepping down from the cab. Suddenly she started back.

"There! There! Among the trees. He has seen us. He was watching us."

"Who, then?"

"A man-some one I don't know."

She had just recognized Chevalier. She stepped out, rang the bell, and, nestling in Robert's fur coat, waited, trembling, for the door to open. When it was opened, she detained him.

"Robert, see me upstairs, I am frightened."

Not without some impatience, he followed her up the stairs.

Chevalier had waited for Félicie, in the little dining-room, before the armour which she had worn as Jeanne d'Arc, together with Madame Nanteuil, until one o'clock in the morning. He had left at that hour, and had watched for her on the pavement, and on seeing the cab stop in front of the door he had concealed himself behind a tree. He knew very well that she would return with Ligny; but when he saw them together it was as if the earth had yawned beneath him, and, so that he should not fall to the ground, he had clutched the trunk of the tree. He remained until Ligny had emerged from the house; he watched him as, wrapped in his fur coat, he got into the cab, took a couple of steps as if to spring on him, stopped short, and then with long strides went down the boulevard.

He went his way, driven by the rain and wind. Feeling too hot, he doffed his felt hat, and derived a certain pleasure from the sense of the icy drops of water on his forehead. He was vaguely conscious that houses, trees, walls, and lights went past him indefinitely; he wandered on, dreaming.

He found himself, without knowing how he had got there, on a bridge which he hardly knew. Half-way across it stood the colossal statue o

f a woman. His mind was now at rest; he had formed a resolution. It was an old idea, which he had now driven into his brain like a nail, which pierced it through and through. He no longer examined it. He calculated coldly the means of carrying out the thing he had determined to do. He walked straight ahead at random, absorbed in thought, and as calm as a mathematician.

On the Pont des Arts he became aware that a dog was following him. He was a big, long-haired farm dog, with eyes of different colours, which were full of gentleness, and an expression of infinite distress. Chevalier spoke to him:

"You've no collar. You are not happy. Poor fellow, I can't do anything for you."

By four o'clock in the morning he found himself in the Avenue de l'Observatoire. On seeing the houses of the Boulevard Saint-Michel he experienced a painful impression and abruptly turned back toward the Observatory. The dog had vanished. Near the monument of the Lion of Belfort, Chevalier stopped in front of a deep trench which cut the road in two. Against the bank of excavated earth, under a tarpaulin supported by four stakes, an old man was keeping vigil before a brazier. The lappets of his rabbit-skin cap were down over his ears; his huge nose was a flaming red. He raised his head; his eyes, which were watering, seemed wholly white, without pupils, each set in a ring of fire and tears. He was stuffing into the bowl of his cutty a few scraps of canteen tobacco, mixed with bread-crumbs, which did not fill half the bowl of his little pipe.

"Will you have some tobacco, old fellow?" asked Chevalier, offering him his pouch.

The man's answer was slow in coming. His understanding was not quick, and courtesies astonished him. Finally, he opened a mouth which was quite black, and said:

"I won't say no to that."

He half rose from his seat. One of his feet was shod in an old slipper; the other was swathed in rags. Slowly, with hands numb with the cold, he stuffed his pipe. It was snowing, a snow that melted as it fell.

"You will excuse me?" said Chevalier, and he slipped under the tarpaulin and seated himself beside the old man.

From time to time they exchanged a remark.

"Rotten weather!"

"It's what we expect at this season. Winter's hard; summer's better."

"So you look after the job at night, old fellow?"

The old man answered readily when questioned. Before he spoke his throat emitted a long, very gentle murmur.

"I do one thing one day; another thing another. Odd jobs. See?"

"You are not a Parisian?"

"No, I was born in La Creuse. I used to work as a navvy in the Vosges. I left there the year the Prussians and other foreigners came. There were thousands of them. Can't understand where they all came from. Maybe you've heard of the war of the Prussians, young man?"

He remained silent for a long spell and then resumed:

"So you are out on a spree, my lad. You don't feel like going back to the works yet?"

"I am an actor," replied Chevalier.

The old man who did not understand, inquired:

"Where is it, your works?"

Chevalier was anxious to rouse the old man's admiration.

"I play comedy parts in a big theatre," he said. "I am one of the principal actors at the Odéon. You know the Odéon?"

The watchman shook his head. No, he did not know the Odéon. After a prolonged silence, he once more opened the black cavern of his mouth:

"And so, young man, you are on the loose. You don't want to go back to the works, eh?"

Chevalier replied:

"Read the paper the day after to-morrow, you will see my name in it."

The old man tried to discover a meaning in these words, but it was too difficult; he gave it up, and reverted to his familiar train of thought.

"When once one's off on the loose, it is sometimes for weeks and months."

At daybreak, Chevalier resumed his wanderings. The sky was milky. Heavy wheels were breaking the silence of the paved roads. Voices, here and there, rang through the keen air. The snow was no longer falling. He walked on at haphazard. The spectacle of the city's reviving life made him feel almost cheerful. On the Pont des Arts he stood for a long time watching the Seine flow by, after which he continued on his way. On the Place du Havre he saw an open café. A faint streak of dawn was reddening the front windows. The waiters were sanding the brick pavement and setting out the tables. He flung himself into a chair.

"Waiter, an absinthe."

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