Read A TRANSLATION BY ALFRED ALLINSON XXX of The Aspirations of Jean Servien, free online book, by Anatole France, on

She was Bargemont’s mistress!  The thought was torture to Jean Servien, the more atrocious from the unexpectedness of the discovery.  He both hated and despised the coarse ruffian whose sham good-nature did not impose on him, and whom he knew for a brutal, dull-witted, mean-spirited bully.  That pimply face, those goggle eyes, that forehead with the swollen black vein running across it, that heavy hand, that ugly, vulgar soul, could it be ­ It sickened him to think of it!  And disgust was the thing of all others Servien’s delicately balanced nature felt most keenly.  His morality was shaky, and he could have found excuse for elegant vices, refined perversions, romantic crimes.  But Bargemont and his pot of butter!...  Never to possess the most adorable of women, never to see her more, he was quite willing for the sacrifice still, but to know her in the arms of that coarse brute staggered the mind and rendered life impossible.

Absorbed in such thoughts, he found his way back instinctively to his own quarter of the city.  Shells whistled over his head and burst with terrific reports.  Flying figures passed him, their heads enveloped in handkerchiefs and carrying mattresses on their backs.  At the corner of the Rue de Rennes he tripped over a lamp-post lying across the pavement beside a half-demolished wall.  In front of his father’s shop he saw a huge hole.  He went to open the door; a shell had burst it in and he could see the work-bench capsized in a dark corner.

Then he remembered that the Germans were bombarding the left bank, and he felt a sudden impulse to roam the streets under the rain of iron.

A voice hailed him, issuing from underground: 

“Is it you, my lad?  Come in quick; you’ve given me a fine fright.  Come down here; we are settled in the cellars.”

He followed his father and found beds arranged in the underground chambers, while the main cellar served as kitchen and sitting-room.  The bookbinder had a map, and was pointing out to the concierge and tenants the position of the relieving armies.  Aunt Servien sat in a dim corner, her eyes fixed in a dull stare, mumbling bits of biscuit soaked in wine.  She had no notion of what was happening, but maintained an attitude of suspicion.

The little assemblage, which had been living this subterranean life since the evening of the day before, asked what news young Servien brought.  Then the bookbinder resumed the explanations which as an old soldier and a responsible man he had been asked to give the company.

“The thing to do is,” he continued, “to join hands with the Army of the Loire, piercing the circle of iron that shuts us in.  Admiral La Roncière has carried the positions at Epinay away beyond Longjumeau ­”

Then turning to Jean: 

“My lad, just find me Longjumeau on the map; my eyes are not what they were at twenty, and these tallow candles give a very poor light.”

At that moment a tremendous explosion shook the solid walls and filled the cellar with dust.  The women screamed; the porter went off to make his round of inspection, tapping the walls with his heavy keys; an enormous spider scampered across the vaulted roof.

Then the conversation was resumed as if nothing had happened, and two of the lodgers started a game of cards on an upturned cask.

Jean was dog-tired and fell asleep on the floor ­a nightmare sleep.

“Has the little lad come home?” asked Aunt Servien, still sucking at her biscuit.