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Authors: Roger Martin Du Gard

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BOOK: The Thibaults
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“ ‘Yes, Madame’!” She laughed. “That’s good! Well, well, you’ll have to go back home; there’s no two ways about it. I’ve been through it myself, and I
know
. And, as you’ll have to do it, what’s the use of waiting? The more you put it off, the worse it is.” Puzzled by his silence, she asked in a lower voice: “Are you afraid of getting a hiding from your dad?” Her manner of asking it was that of a fellow-conspirator, friendly but inquisitive.

He still said nothing.

“Ain’t he a card!” she laughed. “And that pig-headed he’d rather spend the night out in the street! Oh, well, come along then. There’s no one at my place and I can give you a mattress on the floor. I couldn’t bring myself to leave a poor kid out all night in the street.”

She looked decent enough, but he felt a vast relief at having someone to talk to at last. He would have liked to say: “Thank you, Madame,” but he said nothing, and followed her.

They came to a low door. She rang the bell but the door was long in opening. The hall smelt of washing. He stumbled against the bottom step of a flight of stairs.

“I’ll lead the way,” she said. “Give me your hand.”

The lady’s hand was gloved and warm. He followed her meekly. The air, too, was warm inside the house. Daniel was glad to be no longer out of doors. They went up several flights of stairs; then she produced a key, opened a door, and lit a lamp. He saw an untidy room, an unmade bed. He remained standing, blinking in the sudden light, worn out and half asleep. Without waiting to take off her hat, she pulled a mattress off the bed and dragged it into another room. Turning, she began laughing again.

“Why, he’s half asleep already, poor kid… . Look here, you’d better take your shoes off, anyhow.”

He complied, with nerveless hands. His project of returning next morning to the station buffet, at exactly five, in the hope that Jacques might have the same idea, was haunting him like an obsession.

“Would you please wake me very early?”

“Don’t you worry! I’ll see you’re up in time,” she laughed.

He vaguely felt her helping him to take off his tie and undress. Then he dropped like a log onto the mattress, and lost consciousness at once… .

When Daniel opened his eyes, it was already day. He thought at first that he was in his bedroom at home. Then he was struck by the colour of the light filtering through the curtains. A young voice was singing in the next room, the door of which was open. Then he remembered.

Glancing into the room, he saw a little girl (or so she seemed) washing her face over a basin. Turning, she saw him lying on the mattress, propped up on an elbow.

“Ah, so you’re awake. Good for you!” she laughed.

Could this be the lady of the night before? In a chemise and short skirt, her arms and legs bare, she looked like a child. Now that she was not wearing a hat he noticed that she had short brown hair, cut like a boy’s and brushed vigorously back.

Suddenly a memory of Jacques appalled him.

“Good heavens, and I’d meant to be at the buffet first thing!”

But the warmth of the blankets she had tucked round him while he was asleep made him disinclined to move. And anyhow he did not dare to get up while the door stood open. Just then she came in, carrying a steaming cup and a hunk of buttered bread.

“Look here! Get your teeth into this, and then clear off. I don’t want to have your pa coming round and making trouble for me.”

He felt embarrassed at being seen by her half dressed, in his shirt and with his collar open, and even more embarrassed at seeing her come towards him, for her neck, too, was bare and so were her shoulders. She bent towards him. Lowering his eyes, he took the cup and, to hide his bashfulness, began to eat the bread and butter. Shuffling her slippers and singing, she moved from one room to the other. He dared not lift his eyes from the cup, but, when she passed close by, he could not help noticing her naked, slender, blue-veined legs almost level with his eyes and, gliding above the deal floor, her reddened heels emerging from the slippers. The bread stuck in his throat. He felt unnerved, incapable of facing this new day, big with unpredictable events. It flashed across his mind that at home, at the breakfast table, his chair was empty.

A sudden burst of sunlight flooded the room; the girl had just thrown the shutters open, and her young voice trilled in the bright air like bird-song.

“Ah, si I’amour prenait racine

J’en planterais dans mon jardin!”

His self-control gave way. The sunshine, her careless joy—at the very moment when he was fighting down his despair! His eyes filled with tears.

“Come along! Hurry up!” she cried gaily, picking up his empty cup.

Then she saw he was crying.

“Feeling low?” she asked.

She had a kind, big-sisterly voice; he could not keep back a sob. She sat down on the edge of the mattress, slipped her arm round his neck, and, with a mothering gesture of consolation—the final argument of women all the world over—pillowed his head upon her breast. He dared not make the slightest movement; he could feel, through her chemise, the rise and fall of her breast, and its soft warmth against his cheeks. He felt his breath failing him.

“You silly boy!” Drawing back, she hid her breast with her bare arm. “It’s seeing that, is it, that makes you go all funny! Why, I’d never have believed it of you—at your age! By the by, how old are you?”

The lie came out automatically after his practice during the past two days.

“Sixteen.”

“Sixteen?” She sounded surprised.

She had taken his hand and was examining it absent-mindedly. Pushing back the sleeve, she uncovered his arm.

“My word, the kid’s skin is as white as a girl’s,” she smiled.

She had raised the boy’s wrist and was fondling his hand with her cheek. The smile died from her face. Taking a deep breath, she dropped his hand. Before he realized what she was doing, she had unfastened her skirt.

“I’m cold. Warm me up!” she whispered, slipping between the blankets.

Jacques had slept badly under the tarpaulin stiffened by the cold rain. Before dawn he had crept from his hiding-place and begun to wander aimlessly in the dim light of daybreak. “It’s certain,” he mused, “that if Daniel’s free, he’ll have the idea of going to the station buffet as we did yesterday.” He was there, himself, before five o’clock. At six he still could not make up his mind where to go.

What was he to think? What should he do? He ascertained where the prison was. Sick at heart, he hardly dared to raise his eyes to the closed entrance-gate: CITY JAIL.

There, perhaps, Daniel … He dared not complete the thought. He walked all round the endless wall, stepped back to judge the height of the barred windows; then, seized with sudden fear, he fled.

All that morning he scoured the town. The sun was blazing hot and the bright colours of the linen hanging out to dry made the crowded streets seem gay with bunting. On doorsteps gossips laughed and chattered in acrimonious tones. The sights of the street, its freedom and adventurous possibilities, gave him a brief exhilaration. But at once his thoughts harked back to Daniel. He held the bottle of iodine clutched in his hand, deep down in his pocket; if he did not find Daniel before night, he would kill himself. He swore it, raising his voice a little to bind himself more strongly; inwardly he wondered if he would have the necessary courage.

It was not till nearly eleven, when he was passing for the hundredth time in front of the cafe where, the evening before, they had asked the way to the shipping office, that—yes, there he was!

Jacques charged down on him between the tables and chairs lining the terrace. Daniel, more self-controlled, had risen.

“Steady there!”

People were staring at them. They shook hands, Daniel paid, and, leaving the cafe, they turned down the nearest side-street. Then Jacques clutched his friend’s arm and, clinging to him, hugged him passionately. Suddenly he began to sob, his forehead pressed to Daniel’s shoulder. Daniel was not crying, but he was very pale. He walked steadily on, his gaze untender and focused far ahead, but he was pressing Jacques’s small hand to his side. His upper lip, drawn back across his teeth on one side of his mouth, was trembling.

Jacques described his adventures. “Just think, I slept on the quay like a thief, under a tarpaulin! What about you?”

Daniel was embarrassed. His respect for his friend and for their friendship was immense; yet now, for the first time, he was bound to conceal something from Jacques, something of vital importance. The enormity of the secret that had come between them overpowered him. He was on the point of letting himself go, of telling everything; but no, he could not. He remained ill at ease and tongue-tied, unable to expel the haunting memory of all that had befallen him.

“What about you?” Jacques repeated. “Where did you spend the night?”

Daniel made a vague gesture. “On a seat, over there. But most of the time I just mooned about.”

After a meal, they talked things over. To stay in Marseille would be imprudent: their movements would be bound to arouse suspicion, sooner or later.

“In that case …?” Daniel murmured tentatively.

“In that case,” Jacques replied, “I know what to do. We must go to Toulon. It’s only ten or twenty miles from here, over there on the left, along the coast. We’ll go on foot; they’ll think we’re schoolboys out for a walk. At Toulon there ,are any number of boats, and we’ll manage somehow or other to get on board one.”

While he spoke, Daniel could not take his eyes off the loved face that he had found again, the freckled cheeks, the frail, almost transparent ears, and the blue eyes in which seemed to come and go pictures of the things he was describing: Toulon and ships and the vast horizons of the sea. But, however great his desire to share Jacques’s fine tenacity of purpose, his common sense made him sceptical; he felt sure they would never set out on that voyage… . And yet was it really so impossible? At times almost he hoped he was wrong, that dreams might prove truer than common sense.

They bought some food and started for Toulon. Two women of the town stared at them, and smiled. Daniel blushed; their skirts no longer hid from him the secrets of their bodies. Fortunately Jacques was whistling, and noticed nothing. Daniel felt that that experience, the mere memory of which made his heart beat faster, would be from now on a barrier between them. Jacques could never now be his friend in the fullest sense; he was only a “kid.”

After passing through the suburbs they reached at last a road ribboning the windings of the coast like a line traced in pink chalk along the seashore. A light breeze met them, with a tang that had an aftertaste of brine. Their shoulders scorched by the sun, they trudged through the white dust. The nearness of the sea intoxicated them; they left the road and ran to it, crying: “
Thalassa! ThalassaI
” and reaching eager hands towards the sparkling blue waves. But the sea proved less easy of access than they had hoped. At the point where they approached it, the shore did not shelve down to the water’s edge along the reach of golden sand their eagerness had pictured. It overhung a deep gulf of equal width throughout, in which the sea was breaking over dark, jagged rocks. Immediately below them a mass of tumbled boulders projected like a Cyclopean breakwater; waves were charging furiously against the granite ledges only to slip back in impotent confusion, foam-flecked, along the smooth, steep flanks. They had joined hands and, bending over the abyss, forgot everything in contemplation of the seething eddies faceted with broken lights. And in their wordless ecstasy there was a certain awe.

“Look!” Daniel said.

A few hundred yards out a boat, a miracle of dazzling whiteness, was gliding over the dark blue expanse. The hull was painted green beneath the water-line, the bright green of a young leaf, and the boat was moving forward to a strong rhythm of oars that lifted the bows clean out of the water and with each stroke displayed a streaming glint of green, vivid as an electric spark.

“Ah, if only one could describe all that!” Jacques murmured, crushing the note-book in his pocket between his fingers. “But you’ll see!” he cried, with a jerk of his shoulders. “Africa is even more lovely! Come along!”

He dashed back, between the rocks, onto the road. Daniel ran beside him, and for the moment his heart was care-free, emptied of regret, all eagerness for adventure.

They came to a place where the road climbed and turned off at a right angle, to reach a group of houses. Just when they came to the bend, a terrific uproar made them stop abruptly; they saw charging down at break-neck speed towards them, zigzagging across the road, what seemed to be a confused mass of horses, wheels, and barrels. Before they could make a movement to get out of the way, it had crashed, fifty yards off, against an iron railing. A large, heavily laden dray, coming down the slope, had not been braked in time. The momentum of its downward rush had swept the four horses drawing it off their feet and, rearing, struggling, tripping over one another, they had fallen at the turn. Wine was gushing out onto the road and a crowd of excited men, shouting and swearing and waving their arms, was gathering round a hideous, inextricable tangle of bleeding nostrils, hoofs, and cruppers floundering in the dust. Suddenly across the thuds of steel-shod hoofs against the iron apron, the clank of chains, jangling bells, the neighing of the other horses, and the imprecations of the drivers, there sounded a hoarse, grating cough that dominated all the other sounds. It was the death-rattle of the leader, a grey horse on. which the others were trampling and which, its legs pinned under him, was suffocating, strangled by the harness. A man dashed in amongst the maddened horses, brandishing an axe. They saw him stumble, fall, and rise again; now he was holding the grey horse by an ear and desperately hacking at his collar. But the collar was of iron and he merely dented the edge of his axe upon it. The man drew himself up, his features convulsed with helpless rage, and flung the axe against the wall, while the rattle rose to a strident gasping that grew shriller and shriller, and a stream of blood gushed from the dying horse’s nostrils.

BOOK: The Thibaults
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