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The Aspirations of Jean Servien   By: (1844-1924)

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THE ASPIRATIONS OF JEAN SERVIEN

BY ANATOLE FRANCE

A TRANSLATION BY ALFRED ALLINSON

I

Jean Servien was born in a back shop in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs . His father was a bookbinder and worked for the Religious Houses. Jean was a little weakling child, and his mother nursed him at her breast as she sewed the books, sheet by sheet, with the curved needle of the trade. One day as she was crossing the shop, humming a song, in the words of which she found expression for the vague, splendid visions of her maternal ambition, her foot slipped on the boards, which were moist with paste.

Instinctively she threw up her arm to guard the child she held clasped to her bosom, and struck her breast, thus exposed, a severe blow against the corner of the iron press. She felt no very acute pain at the time, but later on an abscess formed, which got well, but presently reopened, and a low fever supervened that confined her to her bed.

There, in the long, long evenings, she would fold her little one in her one sound arm and croon over him in a hot, feverish whisper bits of her favourite ditty:

The fisherman, when dawn is nigh, Peers forth to greet the kindling sky....

Above all, she loved the refrain that recurred at the end of each verse with only the change of a word. It was her little Jean's lullaby, who became, at the caprice of the words, turn and turn about, General, Lawyer, and ministrant at the altar in her fond hopes.

A woman of the people, knowing nothing of the circumstances of fashionable life, save from a few peeps at their outward pomp and the vague tales of concierges , footmen, and cooks, she pictured her boy at twenty more beautiful than an archangel, his breast glittering with decorations, in a drawing room full of flowers, amid a bevy of fashionable ladies with manners every whit as genteel as had the actresses at the Gymnase :

But for the nonce, on mother's breast, Sweet wee gallant, take thy rest.

Presently the vision changed; now her boy was standing up gowned in Court, by his eloquence saving the life and honour of some illustrious client:

But for the nonce, on mother's breast, Sweet wee pleader, take thy rest.

Presently again he was an officer under fire, in a brilliant uniform, on a prancing charger, victorious in battle, like the great Generals whose portraits she had seen one Sunday at Versailles:

But for the nonce, on mother's breast, Sweet wee general, take thy rest.

But when night was creeping into the room, a new picture would dazzle her eyes, a picture this of other and incomparably greater glories.

Proud in her motherhood, yet humble too at heart, she was gazing from the dim recesses of a sanctuary at her son, her Jean, clad in sacerdotal vestments, lifting the monstrance in the vaulted choir censed by the beating wings of half seen Cherubim. And she would tremble awestruck as if she were the mother of a god, this poor sick work woman whose puling child lay beside her drooping in the poisoned air of a back shop:

But for the nonce, on mother's breast, My sweet boy bishop, take thy rest.

One evening, as her husband handed her a cooling drink, she said to him in a tone of regret:

"Why did you disturb me? I could see the Holy Virgin among flowers and precious stones and lights. It was so beautiful! so beautiful!"

She said she was no longer in pain, that she wished her Jean to learn Latin. And she passed away.

II

The widower, who from the Beauce country, sent his son to his native village in the Eure et Loir to be brought up by kinsfolk there. As for himself, he was a strong man, and soon learned to be resigned; he was of a saving habit by instinct in both business and family matters, and never put off the green serge apron from week's end to week's end save for a Sunday visit to the cemetery. He would hang a wreath on the arm of the black cross, and, if it was a hot day, take a chair on the way back along the boulevard outside the door of a wine shop. There, as he sat slowly emptying his glass, his eye would rest on the mothers and their youngsters going by on the sidewalk... Continue reading book >>




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