When he had made his choice of a career, when in spite of remonstrances he had become an actor, his father had felt disgraced. His father was the hatter in the rue de la Paroisse. The shop was not prosperous—in Ville-Nogent people made their hats last a long while—but it was at least a shop, and the old man wished his son to be respectable. This, you see, was France. The little French hatter had not heard that, across the Channel, the scions of noble houses turned actors, and he would not have believed it if he had been told.
Once, the son of a little French tradesman humiliated his father by going on the stage and became the admiration of the world; but this tradesman's son did not distinguish himself like that. Indeed, he did not distinguish himself at all. Many years later the hatter patted the artist's hand, and said feebly : " After I am gone, take a hat, my poor Olivier. Heaven knows thou needest one ! " A hat, and his blessing were well-nigh all he had to give by this time.
In his youthful dreams—day-dreams behind the counter—Olivier Picq had seen himself a leading man in Paris, making impassioned love in the 99 limelight to famous actresses. His engagements had proved so different from his dreams that not once had he attained to the hero's part, even in the least significant of provincial holes. No manager could be induced to regard him as a hero. By-slow degrees he had ceased to expect it. By still slower degrees he ceased to expect even parts of prominence. He was the fatuous valet, who came on, with the laughing chambermaid, to explain what the characters that mattered had been doing between the acts; he was the gaby that made inane remarks, in order that the low comedian might reply with something funny; he was the moody defaulter that committed suicide early in the piece—and he changed his wig (alas ! not his voice) to become the uninteresting figure that broke the tragic tidings to the widow.
" Ah," says the reader, " he wasn't clever. That's why he didn't get on".
Well, it is not pretended that Picq had genius; for such parts as fell to him he had not even marked ability. But the truth is, that in the role of romantic hero, which he had not had a chance to play, he would have been good. The laughing chambermaid used to say he would have been splendid. Often they grieved over the bad luck that had attended him, as they reviewed the years of struggle, hand in hand. He had married the chambermaid.
" Oh, I can guess the end of this story already ! " says the reader. " He became a leading man in Paris, after all".
So he did, madam. But not quite so felicitously as you may think. Picq, dizzied by the sudden transformation, was promoted to be the hero—a gallant, dashing boy—in a revival on a Paris stage, one winter when he was subject to lumbago, and fifty-eight years old. You see, most of the actors of military age that still lived were either in the line or the hospitals, while many of the popular actresses were nursing. A manager who had the temerity to cast a play now was in no position to be fastidious, and playgoers were indulgent. They accepted the elderly man as the gallant boy. He was applauded. And while he declaimed bombast across the footlights—those turgid love appeals to which he had aspired, behind the counter, forty years ago—it was with a heart torn with anxiety for his own boy, who was in the trenches.
When Jean had slept as a baby, the utility actor and the chambermaid had sat by the cradle and talked in low tones of the fine things he was to do when he grew up. Not on the stage—both had outlived its glamour; he was to be an advocate. " It is so refined, dearest," said the chambermaid. " And there is money in it, my love," agreed the father. And for half a lifetime unflinchingly they had scraped and hoarded, to realise that ambition for him. Their salaries were not vast, and there were numerous vacations in which there was no salary at all; often the sum that they had garnered during one tour would melt before the next; but every hundred francs that they could stick to looked a milestone on the journey. Only one annual extravagance did they allow themselves. On Jean's birthday it was Picq's custom to take home a bottle of cheap champagne. The dinner might be meagre, the vacation might be long, but on Jean's birthday they must be joyous. And in a shabby lodging-house bedroom—a parlour was beyond the means of poor players who pinched to make their son an advocate—the pair would festively clink glasses to his future.
" We have not been unhappy together all these years, Nanette, my little wife, though you did throw yourself away in marrying me, hein ?" Picq would say tenderly, embracing her. And Nanette, who still looked almost as young sometimes as she had looked at the wedding breakfast —at any rate, Picq thought so—would answer, with a catch in her voice : " Sweetheart, I have thanked the good God on my knees every night for that ' throwing myself away.' "
" All the same, it is possible that, without me, you would have got on far better—even have made a name".
" Silly ! It is more likely I who have held you back; perhaps alone you would have gone to the top. Ah, no, I cannot bear to think it; I cannot bear to think I have been a hindrance to you ! "
Then Picq, denying it vigorously, would cry : " But a fig for the stage ! Ma foi, have we not each other, and our Jean? It is wealth enough. I tell you he is going to be a famous man one day, our Jean—he has the brow".
By rare good fortune, when he was old enough to have ideas of his own on the subject of a career, Jean had not opposed their plan; he did not, as might easily have been the case, inherit a craving to be the hero. He had long been a student in Paris, and they were playing in a rural district remote from him on the day of the mobilisation. Never while life lasted would they forget that day —that beating on a tocsin, and the glare of a blue sky that turned suddenly black to them; the deathly silence that spread; and then the shrill voice of a child, the first to speak—" Cest la guerre! " The shaking of their limbs held the father and mother apart; only their gaze rushed to each other. " Jean ! " she had moaned.