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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Jack is Invited to Take Up a “Profession”

By Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897)

From ‘Jack’

“DO you hear, Jack?” resumed D’Argenton, with flashing eyes and outstretched arm. “In four years you will be a good workman; that is to say, the noblest, grandest thing that can exist in this world of slavery and servitude. In four years you will be that sacred, venerated thing, a good workman!”

Yes, indeed he heard it!—“a good workman.” Only he was bewildered and was trying to understand.

The child had seen workmen in Paris. There were some who lived in the Passage des Douze Maisons, and not far from the Gymnase there was a factory, from which he often watched them as they left work at about six o’clock; a crowd of dirty-looking men with their blouses all stained with oil, and their rough hands blackened and deformed by work.

The idea that he would have to wear a blouse struck him at once. He remembered the tone of contempt with which his mother would say: “Those are workmen, men in blouses,”—the care she took in the streets to avoid the contact of their soiled garments. Labassindre’s fine speeches on the duties and influence of the workingman in the nineteenth century attenuated and contradicted, it is true, these vague impressions. But what he did understand, and that most clearly and bitterly, was that he must go away, leave the forest whose tree-tops he saw from the window, leave the Rivalses, leave his mother, his mother whom he had recovered at the cost of so much pain, and whom he loved so tenderly.

What on earth was she doing at that window all this time, seeming so indifferent to all that was going on around her? Within the last few minutes, however, she had lost her immovable indifference. A convulsive shudder seemed to shake her from head to foot, and the hand she held over her eyes closed over them as if she were hiding tears. Was it then so sad a sight that she beheld yonder in the country, on the far horizon where the sun sets, and where so many dreams, so many illusions, so many loves and passions sink and disappear, never to return?

“Then I shall have to go away?” inquired the child in a smothered voice, and the automatic air of one who lets his thought speak, the one thought that absorbed him.

At this artless question all the members of the tribunal looked at each other with a smile of pity; but over there at the window a great sob was heard.

“We shall start in a week, my lad,” answered Labassindre briskly. “I have not seen my brother for a long time. I shall avail myself of this opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the fire of my old forge, by Jove!”

As he spoke, he turned back his sleeve, distending the muscles of his brawny, hairy, tattooed arm, till they looked ready to burst.

“He is superb,” said Dr. Hirsch.

D’Argenton, however, who did not lose sight of the sobbing woman standing at the window, had an absent air, and a terrible frown gathering on his brow.

“You can go, Jack,” he said to the child, “and prepare to start in a week.”

Jack went down-stairs, dazed and stupefied, repeating to himself, “In a week! in a week!” The street door was open; he rushed out, bare-headed, just as he was, dashed through the village to the house of his friends, and meeting the Doctor, who was just going out, informed him in a few words of what had taken place.

Monsieur Rivals was indignant.

“A workman! They want to make a workman of you? Is that what they call looking after your prospects in life? Wait a moment. I am going to speak myself to monsieur your stepfather.”

The villagers who saw them pass by, the worthy Doctor gesticulating and talking out loud, and little Jack, bare-headed and breathless from running, said, “There is certainly some one very ill at Les Aulnettes.”

No one was ill, most assuredly. When the Doctor arrived they were sitting down to table; for on account of the capricious appetite of the master of the house, and as in all places where ennui reigns supreme, the hours for the meals were constantly being changed.

The faces around were cheerful; Charlotte could even be heard humming on the stairs as she came down from her room.

“I should like to say a word to you, M. d’Argenton,” said old Rivals with quivering lips.

The poet twirled his moustache:—

“Well, Doctor, sit down there. They shall give you a plate and you can say your word while you eat your breakfast.”

“No, thank you, I am not hungry; besides, what I have to say to you as well as to Madame”—he bowed to Charlotte, who had just come in—“is strictly private.”

“I think I can guess your errand,” said D’Argenton, who did not care for a tête-à-tête conversation with the Doctor. “It is about the child, is it not?”

“You are right; it is about the child.”

“In that case you can speak. These gentlemen know the circumstances, and my actions are always too loyal and too disinterested for me to fear the light of day.”

“But, my dear!” Charlotte ventured to say, shocked for many reasons at the idea of this discussion before strangers.

“You can speak, Doctor,” said D’Argenton coldly.

Standing upright in front of the table, the Doctor began:—

“Jack has just told me that you intend to send him as an apprentice to the iron works at Indret. Is this serious? Come!”

“Quite serious, my dear Doctor.”

“Take care,” pursued M. Rivals, restraining his anger; “that child has not been brought up for so hard a life. At a growing age you are going to throw him out of his element into new surroundings, a new atmosphere. His health, his life are involved. He has none of the requisites needed to bear this. He is not strong enough.”

“Oh! allow me, my dear colleague,” put in Dr. Hirsch solemnly.

M. Rivals shrugged his shoulders, and without even looking at him, went on:—

“It is I who tell you so, Madame.”

He pointedly addressed himself to Charlotte, who was singularly embarrassed by this appeal to her repressed feelings.

“Your child cannot possibly endure a life of this sort. You surely know him, you who are his mother. You know that his nature is a refined and delicate one, and that it will be unable to resist fatigue. And here I only speak of the physical pain. But do you not know what terrible sufferings a child so well gifted, with a mind so capable and ready to receive all kinds of knowledge, will feel in the forced inaction, the death of intellectual faculties to which you are about to condemn him?”

“You are mistaken, Doctor,” said D’Argenton, who was getting very angry. “I know the fellow better than any one. I have tried him. He is only fit for manual labor. His aptitudes lie there, and there only. And it is when I furnish him with the means of developing his aptitudes, when I put into his hands a magnificent profession, that instead of thanking me, my fine gentleman goes off complaining to strangers, seeking protectors outside of his own home.”

Jack was going to protest. His friend however saved him the trouble.

“He did not come to complain. He only informed me of your decision, and I said to him what I now repeat to him before you all:—‘Jack, my child, do not let them do it. Throw yourself into the arms of your parents, of your mother who loves you, of your mother’s husband, who for her sake must love you. Entreat them, implore them. Ask them what you have done to deserve to be thus degraded, to be made lower than themselves!’”

“Doctor,” exclaimed Labassindre, bringing his fist heavily down upon the table, making it tremble and shake, “the tool does not degrade the man, it ennobles him. The tool is the regenerator of mankind. Christ handled a plane when he was ten years of age.”

“That is indeed true,” said Charlotte, who at once conjured up the vision of her little Jack dressed for the procession of the Fête-Dieu as the child Jesus, armed with a little plane.

“Don’t be taken in by such balderdash, Madame,” said the exasperated doctor. “To make a workman of your son is to separate him from you forever. If you were to send him to the other end of the world, he could not be further from your mind, from your heart; for you would have, in this case, means of drawing together again, whereas social distances are irremediable. You will see. The day will come when you will be ashamed of your child, when you will find his hands rough, his language coarse, his sentiments totally different from yours. He will stand one day before you, before his mother, as before a stranger of higher rank than himself,—not only humbled, but degraded.”

Jack, who had hitherto not uttered a word, but had listened attentively from a corner near the sideboard, was suddenly alarmed at the idea of any possible disaffection springing up between his mother and himself.

He advanced into the middle of the room, and steadying his voice:—

“I will not be a workman,” he said in a determined manner.

“O Jack!” murmured Charlotte, faltering.

This time it was D’Argenton who spoke.

“Oh, really! you will not be a workman? Look at this fine gentleman who will or who will not accept a thing that I have decided. You will not be a workman, eh? But you are quite willing to be clothed, fed, and amused. Well, I solemnly declare that I have had enough of you, you horrid little parasite; and that if you do not choose to work, I for my part refuse to be any longer your victim.”

He stopped abruptly, and passing from his mad rage to the chilly manner which was habitual to him:—

“Go up to your room,” he said; “I will consider what remains to be done.”

“What remains to be done, my dear D’Argenton, I will soon tell you.”

But Jack did not hear the end of Monsieur Rivals’s phrase, D’Argenton with a shove having thrust him out.

The noise of the discussion reached him in his room, like the various parts in a great orchestra. He distinguished and recognized all the voices, but they melted one into the other, united by their resonance, and made a discordant uproar through which some bits of phrases were alone intelligible.

“It is an infamous lie.”

“Messieurs! Messieurs!”

“Life is not a romance.”

“Sacred blouse, beûh! beûh!”

At last old Rivals’s voice could be heard thundering as he crossed the threshold:—

“May I be hanged if ever I put my foot in your house again!”

Then the door was violently slammed, and a great silence fell on the dining-room, broken only by the clatter of knives and forks.

They were breakfasting.

“You wish to degrade him, to make him something lower than yourself.” The child remembered that phrase, and he felt that this was indeed his enemy’s intention.

Well, no; a thousand times no—he would not be a workman.

The door opened, and his mother came in.

She had cried a great deal, had shed real tears, tears such as furrow the cheek. For the first time, a mother showed herself in that pretty woman’s face, an afflicted and sorrowing mother.

“Listen to me, Jack,” she said, striving to appear severe; “I must speak very seriously to you. You have made me very unhappy by putting yourself in open rebellion against your real friends, and by refusing to accept the situation they offer you. I am well aware that there is in the new existence—”

While she spoke, she carefully avoided meeting the child’s eyes, for they had such an expression of desperate grief and heartfelt reproach that she would not have been able to resist their appeal.

“—That there is, in the new existence we have chosen for you, an apparent inconsistency with the life you have hitherto been leading. I confess that I was myself at first rather startled by it, but you heard, did you not, what was said to you? The position of a workman is no longer what it used to be; oh no! not at all the same thing, not at all. You must know that the time of the working-man has now come. The middle classes have had their day, the aristocracy likewise. Although, I must say, the aristocracy— Moreover, is it not more natural at your age, to allow yourself to be guided by those who love you, and who are experienced?”

A sob from the child interrupted her.

“Then you too send me away; you too send me away.”

This time the mother could no longer resist. She took him in her arms, clasped him passionately to her heart:—

“I send you away? How can you imagine such a thing? Is it possible? Come, be calm; don’t tremble and give way like that. You know how I love you, and how, if it only depended on me, we would never leave each other. But we must be reasonable, and think a little of the future. Alas! the future is already dark enough for us.”

And in one of those outbursts of words that she still had sometimes when freed from the presence of the master, she endeavored to explain to Jack, with all kinds of hesitations and reticences, the irregularity of their position.

“You see, my darling, you are still very young; there are many things you cannot understand. Some day, when you are older, I will reveal to you the secret of your birth; quite a romance, my dear! Some day I will tell you the name of your father, and the unheard-of fatality of which your mother and yourself have been the victims. But for the present, what you must know and thoroughly comprehend, is that nothing here belongs to us, my poor child, and that we are absolutely dependent on him. How can I therefore oppose your departure, especially when I know that he wants you to leave for your good? I cannot ask him for anything more. He has already done so much for us. Besides, he is not rich, and this terrible artistic career is so expensive! He could not undertake the expense of your education. What will become of me between you two? We must come to a decision. Remember that it was a profession you were being given. Would you not be proud of being independent, of gaining your own livelihood, of being your own master?”

She saw at once by the flash in the child’s eye that she had struck home; and in a low tone, in the caressing, coaxing voice of a mother, she murmured:—

“Do it for my sake, Jack; will you? Put yourself in a position that will enable you soon to gain your livelihood. Who knows if some day I may not be obliged myself to have recourse to you as my only protector, my only friend?”

Did she really think what she said? Was it a presentiment, one of those sudden glimpses into the future which unfold to us our destiny and reveal the failure and disappointments of our existence? Or had she been merely carried away in the whirlwind words of her impulsive sentimentality?

In any case she could not have found a better argument to convince that little generous spirit. The effect was instantaneous. The idea that his mother might want him, that he could help her by his work, suddenly decided him.

He looked her straight in the face.

“Swear that you will always love me, that you will never be ashamed of me when my hands are blackened!”

“If I shall love you, my Jack!”

Her only answer was to cover him with kisses, hiding her agitation and her remorse under her passionate embraces; but from that moment the wretched woman knew remorse, knew it for the rest of her life; and could never think of her child without feeling a stab in her heart.

He however, as though he understood all the shame, uncertainty, and terror concealed under these caresses, dashed towards the stairs, to avoid dwelling on it.

“Come, mamma, let us go down. I am going to tell him I accept his offer.”

Down-stairs the “Failures” were still at table. They were all struck by the grave and determined look on Jack’s face.

“I beg your pardon,” he said to D’Argenton. “I did wrong in refusing your proposal. I now accept it, and thank you.”