And one Sunday, too, they had all gone to the theatre, in the upper galleries. A melodrama was being played, and the sailors, exasperated against the villain, greeted him with a howl, which they all roared together, like a blast of the Atlantic cyclones.
One day Sylvestre was summoned before the officer of his company; and they told him he was among those ordered out to China—in the squadron for Formosa. He had been pretty well expecting it for some time, as he had heard those who read the papers say that out there the war seemed never-ending.
And because of the urgency of the departure, he was informed at the same time that he would not be able to have the customary leave for his home farewells; in five days’ time he would have to pack up and be off.
Then a bitter pain came over him; though charmed at the idea of far-off travels amid the unknown and of the war. There also was agony at the thought of leaving all he knew and loved, with the vague apprehension that he might never more return.
A thousand noises rang in his head. Around was the bustle of the barrack-rooms, where hundreds of others were called up, like himself, chosen for the Chinese squadron. And rapidly he wrote to his old grandmother, with a stump of pencil, crouching on the floor, alone in his own feverish dream, though in the thick of the continual hurry and hubbub amidst all the young sailors hurried away like himself.
“His sweetheart’s a trifle old!” said the others, a couple of days later, as they laughed after Sylvestre and his grandmother, “but they seem to get on fine together all the same.”
It amused them to see the boy, for the first time, walk through the streets of Recouvrance, with a woman at his side, like the rest of them; and, bending towards her with a tender look, whisper what seemed to be very soft nothings.
She was a very quick, diminutive person seen from behind, with rather short skirts for the fashion of the day; and a scanty brown shawl, and a high Paimpol coiffe. She, too, hanging on his arm, turned towards him with an affectionate glance.
“A trifle old was his sweetheart!”
That’s what the others called after him, we say, but without spite, for any one could see that she was his old granny, come up from the country. She had come, too, in a hurry, suddenly terrified at the news of his sudden departure; for this Chinese war had already cost Paimpol many sailors. So she had scraped together all her poor little savings, put her best Sunday dress and a fresh clean coiffe in a box, and had set out to kiss him once again.
She had gone straight to the barracks to ask for him; at first his adjutant had refused to let him go out.
“If you’ve anything to say, my good woman, go and speak to the captain yourself. There he is, passing.”