Part 1 out of 5
Produced by John Bickers and Dagny
THE BROTHERHOOD OF CONSOLATION
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
MADAME DE LA CHANTERIE
THE MALADY OF THE AGE
On a fine evening in the month of September, 1836, a man about thirty
years of age was leaning on the parapet of that quay from which a
spectator can look up the Seine from the Jardin des Plantes to
Notre-Dame, and down, along the vast perspective of the river, to the
Louvre. There is not another point of view to compare with it in the
capital of ideas. We feel ourselves on the quarter-deck, as it were,
of a gigantic vessel. We dream of Paris from the days of the Romans to
those of the Franks, from the Normans to the Burgundians, the
Middle-Ages, the Valois, Henri IV., Louis XIV., Napoleon, and
Louis-Philippe. Vestiges are before us of all those sovereignties, in
monuments that recall their memory. The cupola of Sainte-Genevieve
towers above the Latin quarter. Behind us rises the noble apsis of the
cathedral. The Hotel de Ville tells of revolutions; the Hotel-Dieu, of
the miseries of Paris. After gazing at the splendors of the Louvre we
can, by taking two steps, look down upon the rags and tatters of that
ignoble nest of houses huddling between the quai de la Tournelle and
the Hotel-Dieu,--a foul spot, which a modern municipality is
endeavoring at the present moment to remove.
In 1836 this marvellous scene presented still another lesson to the
eye: between the Parisian leaning on the parapet and the cathedral lay
the "Terrain" (such was the ancient name of this barren spot), still
strewn with the ruins of the Archiepiscopal Palace. When we
contemplate from that quay so many commemorating scenes, when the soul
has grasped the past as it does the present of this city of Paris,
then indeed Religion seems to have alighted there as if to spread her
hands above the sorrows of both banks and extend her arms from the
faubourg Saint-Antoine to the faubourg Saint-Marceau. Let us hope that
this sublime unity may be completed by the erection of an episcopal
palace of the Gothic order; which shall replace the formless buildings
now standing between the "Terrain," the rue d'Arcole, the cathedral,
and the quai de la Cite.
This spot, the heart of ancient Paris, is the loneliest and most
melancholy of regions. The waters of the Seine break there noisily,
the cathedral casts its shadows at the setting of the sun. We can
easily believe that serious thoughts must have filled the mind of a
man afflicted with a moral malady as he leaned upon that parapet.
Attracted perhaps by the harmony between his thoughts and those to
which these diverse scenes gave birth, he rested his hands upon the
coping and gave way to a double contemplation,--of Paris, and of
himself! The shadows deepened, the lights shone out afar, but still he
did not move, carried along as he was on the current of a meditation,
such as comes to many of us, big with the future and rendered solemn
by the past.
After a while he heard two persons coming towards him, whose voices
had caught his attention on the bridge which joins the Ile de la Cite
with the quai de la Tournelle. These persons no doubt thought
themselves alone, and therefore spoke louder than they would have done
in more frequented places. The voices betrayed a discussion which
apparently, from the few words that reached the ear of the involuntary
listener, related to a loan of money. Just as the pair approached the
quay, one of them, dressed like a working man, left the other with a
despairing gesture. The other stopped and called after him, saying:--
"You have not a sou to pay your way across the bridge. Take this," he
added, giving the man a piece of money; "and remember, my friend, that
God Himself is speaking to us when a good thought comes into our
This last remark made the dreamer at the parapet quiver. The man who
made it little knew that, to use a proverbial expression, he was
killing two birds with one stone, addressing two miseries,--a working
life brought to despair, a suffering soul without a compass, the
victim of what Panurge's sheep call progress, and what, in France, is
called equality. The words, simple in themselves, became sublime from
the tone of him who said them, in a voice that possesses a spell. Are
there not, in fact, some calm and tender voices that produce upon us
the same effect as a far horizon outlook?
By his dress the dreamer knew him to be a priest, and he saw by the
last gleams of the fading twilight a white, august, worn face. The
sight of a priest issuing from the beautiful cathedral of
Saint-Etienne in Vienna, bearing the Extreme Unction to a dying
person, determined the celebrated tragic author Werner to become a
Catholic. Almost the same effect was produced upon the dreamer when he
looked upon the man who had, all unknowing, given him comfort; on the
threatening horizon of his future he saw a luminous space where shone
the blue of ether, and he followed that light as the shepherds of the
Gospel followed the voices that cried to them: "Christ, the Lord, is
born this day."
The man who had said the beneficent words passed on by the wall of the
cathedral, taking, as a result of chance, which often leads to great
results, the direction of the street from which the dreamer came, and
to which he was now returning, led by the faults of his life.
This dreamer was named Godefroid. Whoever reads this history will
understand the reasons which lead the writer to use the Christian
names only of some who are mentioned in it. The motives which led
Godefroid, who lived in the quarter of the Chaussee-d'Antin, to the
neighborhood of Notre-Dame at such an hour were as follows:--
The son of a retail shopkeeper, whose economy enabled him to lay by a
sort of fortune, he was the sole object of ambition to his father and
mother, who dreamed of seeing him a notary in Paris. For this reason,
at the age of seven, he was sent to an institution, that of the Abbe
Liautard, to be thrown among children of distinguished families who,
during the Empire, chose this school for the education of their sons
in preference to the lyceums, where religion was too much overlooked.
Social inequalities were not noticeable among schoolmates; but in
1821, his studies being ended, Godefroid, who was then with a notary,
became aware of the distance that separated him from those with whom
he had hitherto lived on familiar terms.
Obliged to go through the law school, he there found himself among a
crowd of the sons of the bourgeoisie, who, without fortunes to inherit
or hereditary distinctions, could look only to their own personal
merits or to persistent toil. The hopes that his father and mother,
then retired from business, placed upon him stimulated the youth's
vanity without exciting his pride. His parents lived simply, like the
thrifty Dutch, spending only one fourth of an income of twelve
thousand francs. They intended their savings, together with half their
capital, for the purchase of a notary's practice for their son.
Subjected to the rule of this domestic economy, Godefroid found his
immediate state so disproportioned to the visions of himself and his
parents, that he grew discouraged. In some feeble natures
discouragement turns to envy; others, in whom necessity, will,
reflection, stand in place of talent, march straight and resolutely in
the path traced out for bourgeois ambitions. Godefroid, on the
contrary, revolted, wished to shine, tried several brilliant ways, and
blinded his eyes. He endeavored to succeed; but all his efforts ended
in proving the fact of his own impotence. Admitting at last the
inequality that existed between his desires and his capacities, he
began to hate all social supremacies, became a Liberal, and attempted
to reach celebrity by writing a book; but he learned, to his cost, to
regard talent as he did nobility. Having tried the law, the notariat,
and literature, without distinguishing himself in any way, his mind
now turned to the magistracy.
About this time his father died. His mother, who contented herself in
her old age with two thousand francs a year, gave the rest of the
fortune to Godefroid. Thus possessed, at the age of twenty-five, of
ten thousand francs a year, he felt himself rich; and he was so,
relatively to the past. Until then his life had been spent on acts
without will, on wishes that were impotent; now, to advance with the
age, to act, to play a part, he resolved to enter some career or find
some connection that should further his fortunes. He first thought of
journalism, which always opens its arms to any capital that may come
in its way. To be the owner of a newspaper is to become a personage at
once; such a man works intellect, and has all the gratifications of it
and none of the labor. Nothing is more tempting to inferior minds than
to be able to rise in this way on the talents of others. Paris has
seen two or three parvenus of this kind,--men whose success is a
disgrace, both to the epoch and to those who have lent them their
In this sphere Godefroid was soon outdone by the brutal
Machiavellianism of some, or by the lavish prodigality of others; by
the fortunes of ambitious capitalists, or by the wit and shrewdness of
editors. Meantime he was drawn into all the dissipations that arise
from literary or political life, and he yielded to the temptations
incurred by journalists behind the scenes. He soon found himself in
bad company; but this experience taught him that his appearance was
insignificant, that he had one shoulder higher than the other, without
the inequality being redeemed by either malignancy or kindness of
nature. Such were the truths these artists made him feel.
Small, ill-made, without superiority of mind or settled purpose, what
chance was there for a man like that in an age when success in any
career demands that the highest qualities of the mind be furthered by
luck, or by tenacity of will which commands luck.
The revolution of 1830 stanched Godefroid's wounds. He had the courage
of hope, which is equal to that of despair. He obtained an
appointment, like other obscure journalists, to a government situation
in the provinces, where his liberal ideas, conflicting with the
necessities of the new power, made him a troublesome instrument.
Bitten with liberalism, he did not know, as cleverer men did, how to
steer a course. Obedience to ministers he regarded as sacrificing his
opinions. Besides, the government seemed to him to be disobeying the
laws of its own origin. Godefroid declared for progress, where the
object of the government was to maintain the /statu quo/. He returned
to Paris almost poor, but faithful still to the doctrines of the
Alarmed by the excesses of the press, more alarmed still by the
attempted outrages of the republican party, he sought in retirement
from the world the only life suitable for a being whose faculties were
incomplete, and without sufficient force to bear up against the rough
jostling of political life, the struggles and sufferings of which
confer no credit,--a being, too, who was wearied with his many
miscarriages; without friends, for friendship demands either striking
merits or striking defects, and yet possessing a sensibility of soul
more dreamy than profound. Surely a retired life was the course left
for a young man whom pleasure had more than once misled,--whose heart
was already aged by contact with a world as restless as it was
His mother, who was dying in the peaceful village of Auteuil, recalled
her son to live with her, partly to have him near her, and partly to
put him in the way of finding an equable, tranquil happiness which
might satisfy a soul like his. She had ended by judging Godefroid,
finding him at twenty-eight with two-thirds of his fortune gone, his
desires dulled, his pretended capacities extinct, his activity dead,
his ambition humbled, and his hatred against all that reached
legitimate success increased by his own shortcomings.
She tried to marry him to an excellent young girl, the only daughter
of a retired merchant,--a woman well fitted to play the part of
guardian to the sickened soul of her son. But the father had the
business spirit which never abandons an old merchant, especially in
matrimonial negotiations, and after a year of attentions and
neighborly intercourse, Godefroid was not accepted. In the first
place, his former career seemed to these worthy people profoundly
immoral; then, during this very year, he had made still further
inroads into his capital, as much to dazzle the parents as to please
the daughter. This vanity, excusable as it was, caused his final
rejection by the family, who held dissipation of property in holy
horror, and who now discovered that in six years Godefroid had spent
or lost a hundred and fifty thousand francs of his capital.
This blow struck the young man's already wounded heart the more deeply
because the girl herself had no personal beauty. But, guided by his
mother in judging her character, he had ended by recognizing in the
woman he sought the great value of an earnest soul, and the vast
advantages of a sound mind. He had grown accustomed to the face; he
had studied the countenance; he loved the voice, the manners, the
glance of that young girl. Having cast on this attachment the last
stake of his life, the disappointment he endured was the bitterest of
all. His mother died, and he found himself, he who had always desired
luxury, with five thousand francs a year for his whole fortune, and
with the certainty that never in his future life could he repair any
loss whatsoever; for he felt himself incapable of the effort expressed
in that terrible injunction, to /make his way/.
Weak, impatient grief cannot easily be shaken off. During his
mourning, Godefroid tried the various chances and distractions of
Paris; he dined at table-d'hotes; he made acquaintances heedlessly; he
sought society, with no result but that of increasing his
expenditures. Walking along the boulevards, he often suffered deeply
at the sight of a mother walking with a marriageable daughter,--a
sight which caused him as painful an emotion as he formerly felt when
a young man passed him riding to the Bois, or driving in an elegant
equipage. The sense of his impotence told him that he could never hope
for the best of even secondary positions, nor for any easily won
career; and he had heart enough to feel constantly wounded, mind
enough to make in his own breast the bitterest of elegies.
Unfitted to struggle against circumstances, having an inward
consciousness of superior faculties without the will that could put
them in action, feeling himself incomplete, without force to undertake
any great thing, without resistance against the tastes derived from
his earlier life, his education, and his indolence, he was the victim
of three maladies, any one of which would be enough to sicken of life
a young man long alienated from religious faith.
Thus it was that Godefroid presented, even to the eye, the face that
we meet so often in Paris that it might be called the type of the
Parisian; in it we may see ambitions deceived or dead, inward
wretchedness, hatred sleeping in the indolence of a life passed in
watching the daily and external life of Paris, apathy which seeks
stimulation, lament without talent, a mimicry of strength, the venom
of past disappointments which excites to cynicism, and spits upon all
that enlarges and grows, misconceives all necessary authority,
rejoicing in its embarrassments, and will not hold to any social form.
This Parisian malady is to the active and permanent impulse towards
conspiracy in persons of energy what the sapwood is to the sap of the
trees; it preserves it, feeds it, and conceals it.
OLD HOUSE, OLD PEOPLE, OLD CUSTOMS
Weary of himself, Godefroid attempted one day to give a meaning to his
life, after meeting a former comrade who had been the tortoise in the
fable, while he in earlier days had been the hare. In one of those
conversations which arise when schoolmates meet again in after years,
--a conversation held as they were walking together in the sunshine on
the boulevard des Italiens,--he was startled to learn the success of a
man endowed apparently with less gifts, less means, less fortune than
himself; but who had bent his will each morning to the purpose
resolved upon the night before. The sick soul then determined to
imitate that simple action.
"Social existence is like the soil," his comrade had said to him; "it
makes us a return in proportion to our efforts."
Godefroid was in debt. As a first test, a first task, he resolved to
live in some retired place, and pay his debts from his income. To a
man accustomed to spend six thousand francs when he had but five, it
was no small undertaking to bring himself to live on two thousand.
Every morning he studied advertisements, hoping to find the offer of
some asylum where his expenses could be fixed, where he might have the
solitude a man wants when he makes a return upon himself, examines
himself, and endeavors to give himself a vocation. The manners and
customs of bourgeois boarding-houses shocked his delicacy, sanitariums
seemed to him unhealthy, and he was about to fall back into the fatal
irresolution of persons without will, when the following advertisement
met his eye:--
"To Let. A small lodging for seventy francs a month; suitable for
an ecclesiastic. A quiet tenant desired. Board supplied; the rooms
can be furnished at a moderate cost if mutually acceptable.
"Inquire of M. Millet, grocer, rue Chanoinesse, near Notre-Dame,
where all further information can be obtained."
Attracted by a certain kindliness concealed beneath these words, and
the middle-class air which exhaled from them, Godefroid had, on the
afternoon when we found him on the quay, called at four o'clock on the
grocer, who told him that Madame de la Chanterie was then dining, and
did not receive any one when at her meals. The lady, he said, was
visible in the evening after seven o'clock, or in the morning between
ten and twelve. While speaking, Monsieur Millet examined Godefroid,
and made him submit to what magistrates call the "first degree of
"Was monsieur unmarried? Madame wished a person of regular habits; the
gate was closed at eleven at the latest. Monsieur certainly seemed of
an age to suit Madame de la Chanterie."
"How old do you think me?" asked Godefroid.
"About forty!" replied the grocer.
This ingenuous answer threw the young man into a state of misanthropic
gloom. He went off and dined at a restaurant on the quai de la
Tournelle, and afterwards went to the parapet to contemplate
Notre-Dame at the moment when the fires of the setting sun were
rippling and breaking about the manifold buttresses of the apsis.
The young man was floating between the promptings of despair and the
moving voice of religious harmonies sounding in the bell of the
cathedral when, amid the shadows, the silence, the half-veiled light
of the moon, he heard the words of the priest. Though, like most of
the sons of our century, he was far from religious, his sensibilities
were touched by those words, and he returned to the rue Chanoinesse,
although he had almost made up his mind not to do so.
The priest and Godefroid were both surprised when they entered
together the rue Massilon, which is opposite to the small north portal
of the cathedral, and turned together into the rue Chanoinesse, at the
point where, towards the rue de la Colombe, it becomes the rue des
Marmousets. When Godefroid stopped before the arched portal of Madame
de la Chanterie's house, the priest turned towards him and examined
him by the light of the hanging street-lamp, probably one of the last
to disappear from the heart of old Paris.
"Have you come to see Madame de la Chanterie, monsieur?" said the
"Yes," replied Godefroid. "The words I heard you say to that workman
show me that, if you live here, this house must be salutary for the
"Then you were a witness of my defeat," said the priest, raising the
knocker of the door, "for I did not succeed."
"I thought, on the contrary, it was the workman who did not succeed;
he demanded money energetically."
"Alas!" replied the priest, "one of the great evils of revolutions in
France is that each offers a fresh premium to the ambitions of the
lower classes. To get out of his condition, to make his fortune (which
is regarded to-day as the only social standard), the working-man
throws himself into some of those monstrous associations which, if
they do not succeed, ought to bring the speculators to account before
human justice. This is what trusts often lead to."
The porter opened a heavy door. The priest said to Godefroid:
"Monsieur has perhaps come about the little suite of rooms?"
The priest and Godefroid then crossed a wide courtyard, at the farther
end of which loomed darkly a tall house flanked by a square tower
which rose above the roof, and appeared to be in a dilapidated
condition. Whoever knows the history of Paris, knows that the soil
before and around the cathedral has been so raised that there is not a
vestige now of the twelve steps which formerly led up to it. To-day
the base of the columns of the porch is on a level with the pavement;
consequently what was once the ground-floor of the house of which we
speak is now its cellar. A portico, reached by a few steps, leads to
the entrance of the tower, in which a spiral stairway winds up round a
central shaft carved with a grape-vine. This style, which recalls the
stairways of Louis XII. at the chateau of Blois, dates from the
fourteenth century. Struck by these and other evidences of antiquity,
Godefroid could not help saying, with a smile, to the priest: "This
tower is not of yesterday."
"It sustained, they say, an assault of the Normans, and probably
formed part of the first palace of the kings of Paris; but, according
to actual tradition, it was certainly the dwelling of the famous Canon
Fulbert, the uncle of Heloise."
As he ended these words, the priest opened the door of the apartment
which appeared now to be the ground-floor of the house, but was in
reality towards both the front and back courtyard (for there was a
small interior court) on the first floor.
In the antechamber a maid-servant, wearing a cambric cap with fluted
frills for its sole decoration, was knitting by the light of a little
lamp. She stuck her needles into her hair, held her work in her hand,
and rose to open the door of a salon which looked out on the inner
court. The dress of the woman was somewhat like that of the Sisters of
"Madame, I bring you a tenant," said the priest, ushering Godefroid
into the salon, where the latter saw three persons sitting in
armchairs near Madame de la Chanterie.
These three persons rose; the mistress of the house rose; then, when
the priest had drawn up another armchair for Godefroid, and when the
future tenant had seated himself in obedience to a gesture of Madame
de la Chanterie, accompanied by the old-fashioned words, "Be seated,
monsieur," the man of the boulevards fancied himself at some enormous
distance from Paris,--in lower Brittany or the wilds of Canada.
Silence has perhaps its own degrees. Godefroid, already penetrated
with the silence of the rues Massillon and Chanoinesse, where two
carriages do not pass in a month, and grasped by the silence of the
courtyard and the tower, may have felt that he had reached the very
heart of silence in this still salon, guarded by so many old streets,
old courts, old walls.
This part of the Ile, which is called "the Cloister," has preserved
the character of all cloisters; it is damp, cold, and monastically
silent even at the noisiest hours of the day. It will be remarked,
also, that this portion of the Cite, crowded between the flank of
Notre-Dame and the river, faces the north, and is always in the shadow
of the cathedral. The east winds swirl through it unopposed, and the
fogs of the Seine are caught and retained by the black walls of the
old metropolitan church. No one will therefore be surprised at the
sensations Godefroid felt when he found himself in this old dwelling,
in presence of four silent human beings, who seemed as solemn as the
things which surrounded them.
He did not look about him, being seized with curiosity as to Madame de
la Chanterie, whose name was already a puzzle to him. This lady was
evidently a person of another epoch, not to say of another world. Her
face was placid, its tones both soft and cold; the nose aquiline; the
forehead full of sweetness; the eyes brown; the chin double; and all
were framed in silvery white hair. Her gown could only be called by
its ancient name of "fourreau," so tightly was she sheathed within it,
after the fashion of the eighteenth century. The material--a brown
silk, with very fine and multiplied green lines--seemed also of that
period. The bodice, which was one with the skirt, was partly hidden
beneath a mantle of /poult-de-soie/ edged with black lace, and
fastened on the bosom by a brooch enclosing a miniature. Her feet, in
black velvet boots, rested on a cushion. Madame de la Chanterie, like
her maid, was knitting a stocking, and she, too, had a needle stuck
through her white curls beneath the lace of her cap.
"Have you seen Monsieur Millet?" she said to Godefroid, in the head
voice peculiar to the dowagers of the faubourg Saint-Germain,
observing that her visitor seemed confused, and as if to put the words
into his mouth.
"I fear that the apartment will scarcely suit you," she said, noticing
the elegance and newness of his clothes.
Godefroid was wearing polished leather boots, yellow gloves, handsome
studs, and a very pretty gold chain passed through the buttonhole of
his waistcoat of black silk with blue flowers. Madame de la Chanterie
took a little silver whistle from her pocket and blew it. The
"Manon, my child, show this gentleman the apartment. Would you, my
dear vicar, be so kind as to accompany him?" she said, addressing the
priest. "If by chance," she added, rising and again looking at
Godefroid, "the apartment suits you, we will talk of the conditions."
Godefroid bowed and went out. He heard the rattle of keys which Manon
took from a drawer, and he saw her light the candle in a large brass
candlestick. Manon went first, without uttering a word. When Godefroid
found himself again on the staircase, winding up two flights, he
doubted the reality of life, he dreamed awake, he saw with his eyes
the fantastic world of romances he had read in his idle hours. Any
Parisian leaving, as he did, the modern quarter, with its luxury of
houses and furniture, the glitter of its restaurants and theatres, the
tumult and movement of the heart of Paris, would have shared his
The candle carried by the woman feebly lighted the winding stair,
where spiders swung their draperies gray with dust. Manon wore a
petticoat with heavy plaits of a coarse woollen stuff; the bodice was
square before and square behind, and all her clothes seemed to hang
together. When she reached the second floor, which, it will be
remembered, was actually the third, Manon stopped, turned a key in an
ancient lock, and opened a door painted in a coarse imitation of
"This is it," she said, entering first.
Was it a miser, was it an artist dying in penury, was it a cynic to
whom the world was naught, or some religious soul detached from life,
who had occupied this apartment? That triple question might well be
asked by one who breathed the odor of that poverty, who saw the greasy
spots upon the papers yellow with smoke, the blackened ceilings, the
dusty windows with their casement panes, the discolored floor-bricks,
the wainscots layered with a sort of sticky glaze. A damp chill came
from the chimneys with their mantels of painted stone, surmounted by
mirrors in panels of the style of the seventeenth century. The
apartment was square, like the house, and looked out upon the inner
court, which could not now be seen because of the darkness.
"Who has lived here?" asked Godefroid of the priest.
"A former councillor of the parliament, a great-uncle of madame,
Monsieur de Boisfrelon. After the Revolution he fell into dotage; but
he did not die until 1832, at the age of ninety-six. Madame could not
at first make up her mind to let his rooms to a stranger, but she
finds she cannot afford to lose the rent."
"Madame will have the apartment cleaned and furnished in a manner to
satisfy monsieur," said Manon.
"That will depend on the arrangement you make with her," said the
priest. "You have here a fine parlor, a large sleeping-room and
closet, and those little rooms in the angle will make an excellent
study. It is the same arrangement as in my apartment below, also in
the one overhead."
"Yes," said Manon, "Monsieur Alain's apartment is just like this, only
his has a view of the tower."
"I think I had better see the rooms by daylight," said Godefroid,
"Perhaps so," said Manon.
The priest and Godefroid went downstairs, leaving the woman to lock
the doors. When they re-entered the salon, Godefroid, who was getting
inured to the surroundings, looked about him while discoursing with
Madame de la Chanterie, and examined the persons and things there
The salon had curtains at its windows of old red damask, with
lambrequins, tied back at the sides with silken cords. The red-tiled
floor showed at the edges of an old tapestry carpet too small to cover
the whole room. The woodwork was painted gray. The plastered ceiling,
divided in two parts by a heavy beam which started from the fireplace,
seemed a concession tardily made to luxury. Armchairs, with their
woodwork painted white, were covered with tapestry. A paltry clock,
between two copper-gilt candlesticks, decorated the mantel-shelf.
Beside Madame de la Chanterie was an ancient table with spindle legs,
on which lay her balls of worsted in a wicker basket. A hydrostatic
lamp lighted the scene. The four men, who were seated there, silent,
immovable, like bronze statues, had evidently stopped their
conversation with Madame de la Chanterie when they heard the stranger
returning. They all had cold, discreet faces, in keeping with the
room, the house, the quarter of the town.
Madame de la Chanterie admitted the justice of Godefroid's
observations; but told him that she did not wish to make any change
until she knew the intentions of her lodger, or rather her boarder. If
he would conform to the customs of the house he could become her
boarder; but these customs were widely different from those of Paris.
Life in the rue Chanoinesse was like provincial life: the lodger must
always be in by ten o'clock at night; they disliked noise; and could
have no women or children to break up their customary habits. An
ecclesiastic might conform to these ways. Madame de la Chanterie
desired, above all, some one of simple life, who would not be
exacting; she could afford to put only the strictest necessaries into
the apartment. Monsieur Alain (here she designated one of the four men
present) was satisfied, and she would do for a new tenant just as she
did for the others.
"I do not think," said the priest, "that monsieur is inclined to enter
"Eh! why not?" said Monsieur Alain; "we are all well off here; we have
nothing to complain of."
"Madame," said Godefroid, rising, "I shall have the honor of calling
Though he was a young man, the four old men and Madame de la Chanterie
rose, and the vicar accompanied him to the portico. A whistle sounded.
At that signal the porter came with a lantern, guided Godefroid to the
street, and closed behind him the enormous yellow door,--ponderous as
that of a prison, and decorated with arabesque ironwork of a remote
period that was difficult to determine.
Though Godefroid got into a cabriolet, and was soon rolling into the
living, lighted, glowing regions of Paris, what he had seen still
appeared to him a dream, and his impressions, as he made his way along
the boulevard des Italiens, had already the remoteness of a memory. He
asked himself, "Shall I to-morrow find those people there?"
THE HOUSE OF MONGENOD
The next day, as Godefroid rose amid the appointments of modern luxury
and the choice appliances of English "comfort," he remembered the
details of his visit to that cloister of Notre-Dame, and the meaning
of the things he had seen there came into his mind. The three unknown
and silent men, whose dress, attitude, and stillness acted powerfully
upon him, were no doubt boarders like the priest. The solemnity of
Madame de la Chanterie now seemed to him a secret dignity with which
she bore some great misfortune. But still, in spite of the
explanations which Godefroid gave himself, he could not help fancying
there was an air of mystery about those sober figures.
He looked around him and selected the pieces of furniture that he
would keep, those that were indispensable to him; but when he
transported them in thought to the miserable lodging in the rue
Chanoinesse, he began to laugh at the contrast they would make there,
resolving to sell all and let Madame de la Chanterie furnish the rooms
for him. He wanted a new life, and the very sight of these objects
would remind him of that which he wished to forget. In his desire for
transformation (for he belonged to those characters who spring at a
bound into the middle of a situation, instead of advancing, as others
do, step by step), he was seized while he breakfasted with an idea,
--he would turn his whole property into money, pay his debts, and
place the remainder of his capital in the banking-house with which his
father had done business.
This house was the firm of Mongenod and Company, established in 1816
or 1817, whose reputation for honesty and uprightness had never been
questioned in the midst of the commercial depravity which smirched,
more or less, all the banking-houses of Paris. In spite of their
immense wealth, the houses of Nucingen, du Tillet, the Keller
Brothers, Palma and Company, were each regarded, more or less, with
secret disrespect, although it is true this disrespect was only
whispered. Evil means had produced such fine results, such political
successes, dynastic principles covered so completely base workings,
that no one in 1834 thought of the mud in which the roots of these
fine trees, the mainstay of the State, were plunged. Nevertheless
there was not a single one of those great bankers to whom the
confidence expressed in the house of Mongenod was not a wound. Like
English houses, the Mongenods made no external display of luxury. They
lived in dignified stillness, satisfied to do their business
prudently, wisely, and with a stern uprightness which enabled them to
carry it from one end of the globe to the other.
The actual head of the house, Frederic Mongenod, is the brother-in-law
of the Vicomte de Fontaine; therefore, this numerous family is allied
through the Baron de Fontaine to Monsieur Grossetete, the
receiver-general, brother of the Grossetete and Company of Limoges, to
the Vandenesses, and to Planat de Baudry, another receiver-general.
These connections, having procured for the late Mongenod, father of
the present head of the house, many favors in the financial operations
under the Restoration, obtained for him also the confidence of the old
/noblesse/, whose property and whose savings, which were immense, were
deposited in this bank. Far from coveting a peerage, like the Kellers,
Nucingen, and du Tillet, the Mongenods kept away from politics, and
only knew as much about them as their banking interests demanded.
The house of Mongenod is established in a fine old mansion in the rue
de la Victoire, where Madame Mongenod, the mother, lived with her two
sons, all three being partners in the house,--the share of the
Vicomtesse de Fontaine having been bought out by them on the death of
the elder Mongenod in 1827.
Frederic Mongenod, a handsome young man about thirty-five years of
age, cold, silent, and reserved in manner like a Swiss, and neat as an
Englishman, had acquired by intercourse with his father all the
qualities necessary for his difficult profession. Better educated than
the generality of bankers, his studies had the breadth and
universality which characterize the polytechnic training; and he had,
like most bankers, predilections and tastes outside of his business,
--he loved mechanics and chemistry. The second brother, who was ten
years younger than Frederic, held the same position in the office of
his elder brother that a head clerk holds in that of a notary or
lawyer. Frederic trained him, as he had himself been trained by his
father, in the variety of knowledge necessary to a true banker, who is
to money what a writer is to ideas,--they must both know all of that
with which they have to deal.
When Godefroid reached the banking house and gave his name, he saw at
once the estimation in which his father had been held; for he was
ushered through the offices without delay to the private counting-room
of the Mongenods. This counting-room was closed with a glass door, so
that Godefroid, without any desire to listen, overheard as he
approached it what was being said there.
"Madame, your account is balanced to sixteen hundred thousand francs,"
said the younger Mongenod. "I do not know what my brother's intentions
are; he alone can say whether an advance of a hundred thousand francs
can be made. You must have been imprudent. Sixteen hundred thousand
francs should not be entrusted to any business."
"Do not speak so loud, Louis!" said a woman's voice. "Your brother has
often told you to speak in a low voice. There may be some one in the
At this moment Frederic Mongenod himself opened the door of
communication between his private house and the counting-room. He saw
Godefroid and crossed the room, bowing respectfully to the lady who
was conversing with his brother.
"To whom have I the honor of speaking?" he said to Godefroid.
As soon as Godefroid gave his name, Frederic begged him to be seated;
and as the banker opened the lid of his desk, Louis Mongenod and the
lady, who was no other than Madame de la Chanterie, rose and went up
to him. All three then moved into the embrasure of a window and talked
in a low voice with Madame Mongenod, the mother, who was sitting
there, and to whom all the affairs of the bank were confided. For over
thirty years this woman had given, to her husband first and then to
her sons, such proofs of business sagacity that she had long been a
managing partner in the firm and signed for it.
Godefroid, as he looked about him, noticed on a shelf certain boxes
ticketed with the words "De la Chanterie," and numbered 1 to 7. When
the conference was ended by the banker saying to his brother, "Very
good; go down to the cashier," Madame de la Chanterie turned round,
saw Godefroid, checked a gesture of surprise, and asked a few
questions of the banker in a low voice, to which he replied in a few
words spoken equally in a whisper.
Madame de la Chanterie now wore gray silk stockings and small prunella
shoes; her gown was the same as before, but she was wrapped in a
Venetian "mantua,"--a sort of cloak which was just then returning into
fashion. On her head was a drawn bonnet of green silk, lined with
white silk, of a style called /a la bonne femme/. Her face was framed
by a cloud of lace. She held herself very erect, in an attitude which
bespoke, if not noble birth, certainly the habits of an aristocratic
life. Without the extreme affability of her manner, she might have
seemed haughty; she was certainly imposing.
"It is the will of Providence rather than mere chance that has brought
us here together, monsieur," she said to Godefroid; "for I had almost
decided to refuse a lodger whose ways of life seemed to me quite
antipathetic to those of my household; but Monsieur Mongenod has just
given me some information about your family which--"
"Ah, madame,--monsieur!" said Godefroid, addressing both Madame de la
Chanterie and the banker, "I have no longer a family; and I have come
here now to ask some financial advice of my father's business advisers
as to the best method of adapting my means to a new way of life."
Godefroid then succinctly, and in as few words as possible, related
his history, and expressed his desire to change his existence.
"Formerly," he said, "a man in my position would have made himself a
monk; but there are no longer any religious orders."
"Go and live with madame, if she is willing to take you," said
Frederic Mongenod, after exchanging a glance with Madame de la
Chanterie, "and do not sell out your property; leave it in my hands.
Give me the exact amount of your debts; I will agree with your
creditors for payment at certain dates, and you can have for yourself
about a hundred and fifty francs a month. It will thus take two years
to clear you. During those two years, if you take those quiet
lodgings, you will have time to think of a career, especially among
the persons with whom you will live, who are all good counsellors."
Here Louis Mongenod returned, bringing in his hand a hundred notes of
a thousand francs each, which he gave to Madame de la Chanterie.
Godefroid offered his arm to his future hostess, and took her down to
the hackney-coach which was waiting for her.
"I hope I shall see you soon, monsieur," she said in a cordial tone of
"At what hour shall you be at home, madame?" he asked.
"At two o'clock."
"I shall have time to sell my furniture," he said, as he bowed to her.
During the short time that Madame de la Chanterie's arm rested upon
his as they walked to the carriage, Godefroid could not escape the
glamour of the words: "Your account is for sixteen hundred thousand
francs!"--words said by Louis Mongenod to the woman whose life was
spent in the depths of the cloisters of Notre-Dame. The thought, "She
must be rich!" entirely changed his way of looking at the matter. "How
old is she?" he began to ask himself; and a vision of a romance in the
rue Chanoinesse came to him. "She certainly has an air of nobility!
Can she be concerned in some bank?" thought he.
In our day nine hundred and ninety-nine young men out of a thousand in
Godefroid's position would have had the thought of marrying that
A furniture dealer, who also had apartments to let, paid about three
thousand francs for the articles Godefroid was willing to sell, and
agreed to let him keep them during the few days that were needed to
prepare the shabby apartment in the rue Chanoinesse for this lodger
with a sick mind. Godefroid went there at once, and obtained from
Madame de la Chanterie the address of a painter who, for a moderate
sum, agreed to whiten the ceilings, clean the windows, paint the
woodwork, and stain the floors, within a week. Godefroid took the
measure of the rooms, intending to put the same carpet in all of them,
--a green carpet of the cheapest kind. He wished for the plainest
uniformity in this retreat, and Madame de la Chanterie approved of the
idea. She calculated, with Manon's assistance, the number of yards of
white calico required for the window curtains, and also for those of
the modest iron bed; and she undertook to buy and have them made for a
price so moderate as to surprise Godefroid. Having brought with him a
certain amount of furniture, the whole cost of fitting up the rooms
proved to be not over six hundred francs.
"We lead here," said Madame de la Chanterie, "a Christian life, which
does not, as you know, accord with many superfluities; I think you
have too many as it is."
In giving this hint to her future lodger, she looked at a diamond
which gleamed in the ring through which Godefroid's blue cravat was
"I only speak of this," she added, "because of the intention you
expressed to abandon the frivolous life you complained of to Monsieur
Godefroid looked at Madame de la Chanterie as he listened to the
harmonies of her limpid voice; he examined that face so purely white,
resembling those of the cold, grave women of Holland whom the Flemish
painters have so wonderfully reproduced with their smooth skins, in
which a wrinkle is impossible.
"White and plump!" he said to himself, as he walked away; "but her
hair is white, too."
Godefroid, like all weak natures, took readily to a new life,
believing it satisfactory; and he was now quite eager to take up his
abode in the rue Chanoinesse. Nevertheless, a prudent thought, or, if
you prefer to say so, a distrustful thought, occurred to him. Two days
before his installation, he went again to see Monsieur Mongenod to
obtain some more definite information about the house he was to enter.
During the few moments he had spent in his future lodgings overlooking
the changes that were being made in them, he had noticed the coming
and going of several persons whose appearance and behavior, without
being exactly mysterious, excited a belief that some secret occupation
or profession was being carried on in that house. At that particular
period there was much talk of attempts by the elder branch of the
Bourbons to recover the throne, and Godefroid suspected some
conspiracy. When he found himself in the banker's counting-room held
by the scrutinizing eye of Frederic Mongenod while he made his
inquiry, he felt ashamed as he saw a derisive smile on the lips of the
"Madame la Baronne de la Chanterie," replied the banker, "is one of
the most obscure persons in Paris, but she is also one of the most
honorable. Have you any object in asking for information?"
Godefroid retreated into generalities: he was going to live among
strangers; he naturally wished to know something of those with whom he
should be intimately thrown. But the banker's smile became more and
more sarcastic; and Godefroid, more and more embarrassed, was ashamed
of the step he had taken, and which bore no fruit, for he dared not
continue his questions about Madame de la Chanterie and her inmates.
FAREWELL TO THE LIFE OF THE WORLD
Two days later, of a Monday evening, having dined for the last time at
the Cafe Anglais, and seen the two first pieces at the Varietes, he
went, at ten o'clock, to sleep for the first time in the rue
Chanoinesse, where Manon conducted him to his room.
Solitude has charms comparable only to those of savage life, which no
European has ever really abandoned after once tasting them. This may
seem strange at an epoch when every one lives so much to be seen of
others that all the world concern themselves in their neighbors'
affairs, and when private life will soon be a thing of the past, so
bold and so intrusive are the eyes of the press,--that modern Argus.
Nevertheless, it is a truth which rests on the authority of the first
six Christian centuries, during which no recluse ever returned to
social life. Few are the moral wounds that solitude will not heal.
So, at first, Godefroid was soothed by the deep peace and absolute
stillness of his new abode, as a weary traveller is relaxed by a bath.
The very day after his arrival at Madame de la Chanterie's he was
forced to examine himself, under the sense that he was separated from
all, even from Paris, though he still lived in the shadow of its
cathedral. Stripped of his social vanities, he was about to have no
other witnesses of his acts than his own conscience and the inmates of
that house. He had quitted the great high-road of the world to enter
an unknown path. Where was that path to lead him to? to what
occupation should he now be drawn?
He had been for two hours absorbed in such reflections when Manon, the
only servant of the house, knocked at his door to tell him that the
second breakfast was served and the family were waiting for him.
Twelve o'clock was striking. The new lodger went down at once, stirred
by a wish to see and judge the five persons among whom his life was in
future to be spent.
When he entered the room he found all the inmates of the house
standing; they were dressed precisely as they were on the day when he
came to make his first inquiries.
"Did you sleep well?" asked Madame de la Chanterie.
"So well that I did not wake up till ten o'clock," replied Godefroid,
bowing to the four men, who returned the bow with gravity.
"We thought so," said an old man named Alain, smiling.
"Manon spoke of a second breakfast," said Godefroid; "but I fear that
I have already broken some rule. At what hour do you rise?"
"Not quite so early as the old monks," said Madame de la Chanterie,
courteously, "but as early as the working-men,--six in winter,
half-past three in summer. Our bed-time is ruled by that of the sun.
We are always asleep by nine in winter and eleven in summer. On rising,
we all take a little milk, which comes from our farm, after saying our
prayers, except the Abbe de Veze, who says the first mass, at six
o'clock in summer and seven o'clock in winter, at Notre-Dame, where
these gentlemen are present daily, as well as your humble servant."
Madame de la Chanterie ended her explanation as the five lodgers took
their seats at table.
The dining-room, painted throughout in gray, the design of the
woodwork being in the style of Louis XIV., adjoined the sort of
antechamber in which Manon was usually stationed, and it seemed to be
parallel with Madame de la Chanterie's bedroom, which also opened into
the salon. This room had no other ornament than a tall clock. The
furniture consisted of six chairs with oval backs covered with
worsted-work, done probably by Madame de la Chanterie's own hand, two
buffets and a table, all of Mahogany, on which Manon did not lay a
cloth for breakfast. The breakfast, of monastic frugality, was
composed of a small turbot with a white sauce, potatoes, a salad, and
four dishes of fruit,--peaches, grapes, strawberries, and fresh
almonds; also, for relishes, honey in the comb (as in Switzerland),
radishes, cucumbers, sardines, and butter,--the whole served in the
well-known china with tiny blue flowers and green leaves on a white
ground, which was no doubt a luxury in the days of Louis XIV., but had
now, under the growing demands of luxury, come to be regarded as
"We keep the fasts," said Monsieur Alain. "As we go to mass every
morning, you will not be surprised to find us blindly following all
the customs of the Church, even the severest."
"And you shall begin by imitating us," said Madame de la Chanterie,
with a glance at Godefroid, whom she had placed beside her.
Of the five persons present Godefroid knew the names of three,--Madame
de la Chanterie, the Abbe de Veze, and Monsieur Alain. He wished to
know those of the other two; but they kept silence and ate their food
with the attention which recluses appear to give to every detail of a
"Does this fine fruit come also from your farm, madame?" asked
"Yes, monsieur," she replied. "We have a little model farm, like the
government itself; we call it our country house; it is twelve miles
from here, on the road to Italy, near Villeneuve-Saint-Georges."
"It is a property that belongs to us all, and is to go to the
survivor," said the goodman Alain.
"Oh, it is not very considerable!" added Madame de la Chanterie,
rather hastily, as if she feared that Godefroid might think these
remarks a bait.
"There are thirty acres of tilled land," said one of the two
personages still unknown to Godefroid, "six of meadow, and an
enclosure containing four acres, in which our house, which adjoins
the farmhouse, stands."
"But such a property as that," said Godefroid, "must be worth a
hundred thousand francs."
"Oh, we don't get anything out of it but our provisions!" said the
He was a tall, grave, spare man, with all the appearance of having
served in the army. His white hair showed him to be past sixty, and
his face betrayed some violent grief controlled by religion.
The second unnamed person, who seemed to be something between a master
of rhetoric and a business agent, was of ordinary height, plump, but
active withal. His face had the jovial expression which characterizes
those of lawyers and notaries in Paris.
The dress of these four personages revealed a neatness due to the most
scrupulous personal care. The same hand, and it was that of Manon,
could be seen in every detail. Their coats were perhaps ten years old,
but they were preserved, like the coats of vicars, by the occult power
of the servant-woman, and the constant care with which they were worn.
These men seemed to wear on their backs the livery of a system of
life; they belonged to one thought, their looks said the same word,
their faces breathed a gentle resignation, a provoking quietude.
"Is it an indiscretion, madame," said Godefroid, "to ask the names of
these gentlemen? I am ready to explain my life; can I know as much of
theirs as custom will allow?"
"That gentleman," said Madame de la Chanterie, motioning to the tall,
thin man, "is Monsieur Nicolas; he is a colonel of gendarmerie,
retired with the rank of brigadier-general. And this," she added,
looking towards the stout little man, "is a former councillor of the
royal courts of Paris, who retired from the magistracy in 1830. His
name is Monsieur Joseph. Though you have only been with us one day, I
will tell you that in the world Monsieur Nicolas once bore the name of
the Marquis de Montauran, and Monsieur Joseph that of Lecamus, Baron
de Tresnes; but for us, as for the world, those names no longer exist.
These gentlemen are without heirs; they only advance by a little the
oblivion which awaits their names; they are simply Monsieur Nicolas
and Monsieur Joseph, as you will be Monsieur Godefroid."
As he heard those names,--one so celebrated in the annals of royalism
by the catastrophe which put an end to the uprising of the Chouans;
the other so revered in the halls of the old parliament of Paris,
--Godefroid could not repress a quiver. He looked at these relics of
the grandest things of the fallen monarchy,--the /noblesse/ and the law,
--and he could see no movement of the features, no change in the
countenance, that revealed the presence of a worldly thought. Those
men no longer remembered, or did not choose to remember, what they had
been. This was Godefroid's first lesson.
"Each of your names, gentlemen, is a whole history in itself," he said
"Yes, the history of my time,--ruins," replied Monsieur Joseph.
"You are in good company," said Monsieur Alain.
The latter can be described in a word: he was the small bourgeois of
Paris, the worthy middle-class being with a kindly face, relieved by
pure white hair, but made insipid by an eternal smile.
As for the priest, the Abbe de Veze, his presence said all. The priest
who fulfils his mission is known by the first glance he gives you, and
by the glance that others who know him give to him.
That which struck Godefroid most forcibly at first was the profound
respect which the four lodgers manifested for Madame de la Chanterie.
They all seemed, even the priest, in spite of the sacred character his
functions gave him, to regard her as a queen. Godefroid also noticed
their sobriety. Each seemed to eat only for nourishment. Madame de la
Chanterie took, as did the rest, a single peach and half a bunch of
grapes; but she told her new lodger, as she offered him the various
dishes, not to imitate such temperance.
Godefroid's curiosity was excited to the highest degree by this first
entrance on his new life. When they returned to the salon after
breakfast, he was left alone; Madame de la Chanterie retired to the
embrasure of a window and held a little private council with her four
friends. This conference, entirely devoid of animation, lasted half an
hour. They spoke together in a low voice, exchanging words which each
of them appeared to have thought over. From time to time Monsieur
Alain and Monsieur Joseph consulted a note-book, turning over its
"See the faubourg," said Madame de la Chanterie to Monsieur Joseph,
who left the house.
That was the only word Godefroid distinguished.
"And you the Saint-Marceau quarter," she continued, addressing
Monsieur Nicolas. "Hunt through the faubourg Saint-Germain and see if
you can find what we want;" this to the Abbe de Veze, who went away
immediately. "And you, my dear Alain," she added, smiling at the
latter, "make an examination. There, those important matters are all
settled," she said, returning to Godefroid.
She seated herself in her armchair, took a little piece of linen from
the table before her, and began to sew as if she were employed to do
Godefroid, lost in conjecture, and still thinking of a royalist
conspiracy, took his landlady's remark as an opening, and he began to
study her as he seated himself beside her. He was struck by the
singular dexterity with which she worked. Although everything about
her bespoke the great lady, she showed the dexterity of a workwoman;
for every one can see at a glance, by certain manipulations, the work
of a workman or an amateur.
"You do that," said Godefroid, "as if you knew the trade."
"Alas!" she answered, without raising her head, "I did know it once
out of necessity."
Two large tears came into her eyes, and rolled down her cheeks to the
linen in her hand.
"Forgive me, madame!" cried Godefroid.
Madame de Chanterie looked at her new lodger, and saw such an
expression of genuine regret upon his face, that she made him a
friendly sign. After drying her eyes, she immediately recovered the
calmness that characterized her face, which was less cold than
"You are here, Monsieur Godefroid,--for you know already that we shall
call you by your baptized name,--you are here in the midst of ruins
caused by a great tempest. We have each been struck and wounded in our
hearts, our family interests, or our fortunes, by that whirlwind of
forty years, which overthrew religion and royalty, and dispersed the
elements of all that made old France. Words that seem quite harmless
do sometimes wound us all, and that is why we are so silent. We speak
rarely of ourselves; we forget ourselves, and we have found a way to
substitute another life for our lives. It is because, after hearing
your confidence at Monsieur Mongenod's, I thought there seemed a
likeness between your situation and ours, that I induced my four
friends to receive you among us; besides, we wanted another monk in
our convent. But what are you going to do? No one can face solitude
without some moral resources."
"Madame, I should be very glad, after hearing what you have said, if
you yourself would be the guide of my destiny."
"You speak like a man of the world," she answered, "and are trying to
flatter me,--a woman of sixty! My dear child," she went on, "let me
tell you that you are here among persons who believe strongly in God;
who have all felt his hand, and have yielded themselves to him almost
as though they were Trappists. Have you ever remarked the profound
sense of safety in a true priest when he has given himself to the
Lord, when he listens to his voice, and strives to make himself a
docile instrument in the hand of Providence? He has no longer vanity
or self-love,--nothing of all that which wounds continually the hearts
of the world. His quietude is equal to that of the fatalist; his
resignation does truly enable him to bear all. The true priest, such a
one as the Abbe de Veze, lives like a child with its mother; for the
Church, my dear Monsieur Godefroid, is a good mother. Well, a man can
be a priest without the tonsure; all priests are not in orders. To vow
one's self to good, that is imitating a true priest; it is obedience
to God. I am not preaching to you; I am not trying to convert you; I
am explaining our lives to you."
"Instruct me, madame," said Godefroid, deeply impressed, "so that I
may not fail in any of your rules."
"That would be hard upon you; you will learn them by degrees. Never
speak here of your misfortunes; they are slight compared to the
catastrophes by which the lives of those you are now among were
While speaking thus, Madame de la Chanterie drew her needle and let
her stitches with unbroken regularity; but here she paused, raised her
head, and looked at Godefroid. She saw him charmed by the penetrating
sweetness of her voice, which possessed, let us say it here, an
apostolic unction. The sick soul contemplated with admiration the
truly extraordinary phenomenon presented by this woman, whose face was
now resplendent. Rosy tints were spreading on the waxen cheeks, her
eyes shone, the youthfulness of her soul changed the light wrinkles
into gracious lines, and all about her solicited affection. Godefroid
in that one moment measured the gulf that separated this woman from
common sentiments. He saw her inaccessible on a peak to which religion
had led her; and he was still too worldly not to be keenly piqued, and
to long to plunge through the gulf and up to the summit on which she
stood, and stand beside her. Giving himself up to this desire, he
related to her all the mistakes of his life, and much that he could
not tell at Mongenod's, where his confidences had been confined to his
That exclamation, falling now and then from Madame de la Chanterie's
lips as he went on, dropped like balm upon the heart of the sufferer.
"What can I substitute for so many hopes betrayed, so much affection
wasted?" he asked, looking at his hostess, who had now grown
thoughtful. "I came here," he resumed, "to reflect and choose a course
of action. I have lost my mother; will you replace her?"
"Will you," she said, "show a son's obedience?"
"Yes, if you will have the tenderness that commands it."
"I will try," she said.
Godefroid put out his hand to take that of his hostess, who gave it to
him, guessing his intentions. He carried it respectfully to his lips.
Madame de la Chanterie's hand was exquisitely beautiful,--without a
wrinkle; neither fat nor thin; white enough to be the envy of all
young women, and shapely enough for the model of a sculptor. Godefroid
had already admired those hands, conscious of their harmony with the
spell of her voice, and the celestial blue of her glance.
"Wait a moment," said Madame de la Chanterie, rising and going into
her own room.
Godefroid was keenly excited; he did not know to what class of ideas
her movement was to be attributed. His perplexity did not last long,
for she presently returned with a book in her hand.
"Here, my dear child," she said, "are the prescriptions of a great
physician of souls. When the things of ordinary life have not given us
the happiness we expected of them, we must seek for happiness in a
higher life. Here is the key of a new world. Read night and morning a
chapter of this book; but bring your full attention to bear upon what
you read; study the words as you would a foreign language. At the end
of a month you will be another man. It is now twenty years that I have
read a chapter every day; and my three friends, Messieurs Nicolas,
Alain, and Joseph, would no more fail in that practice than they would
fail in getting up and going to bed. Do as they do for love of God,
for love of me," she said, with a divine serenity, an august
Godefroid turned over the book and read upon its back in gilt letters,
IMITATION OF JESUS CHRIST. The simplicity of this old woman, her
youthful candor, her certainty of doing a good deed, confounded the
ex-dandy. Madame de la Chanterie's face wore a rapturous expression,
and her attitude was that of a woman who was offering a hundred
thousand francs to a merchant on the verge of bankruptcy.
"I have used that volume," she said, "for twenty-six years. God grant
its touch may be contagious. Go now and buy me another copy; for this
is the hour when persons come here who must not be seen."
Godefroid bowed and went to his room, where he flung the book upon the
"Poor, good woman! Well, so be it!"
THE INFLUENCE OF BOOKS
The book, like all books frequently read, opened in a particular
place. Godefroid sat down as if to put his ideas in order, for he had
gone through more emotion during this one morning than he had often
done in the agitated months of his life; but above all, his curiosity
was keenly excited. Letting his eyes fall by chance, as people will
when their souls are launched in meditation, they rested mechanically
on the two open pages of the book; almost unconsciously he read the
THE ROYAL WAY OF THE HOLY CROSS
He took up the book; a sentence of that noble chapter caught his eye
like a flash of light:--
"He has walked before thee, bearing his cross; he died for thee,
that thou mightest bear thy cross, and be glad to die upon it.
"Go where thou wilt, seek what thou wilt, never canst thou find a
nobler, surer path than the royal way of the holy cross.
"Dispose and order all things according to thy desires and thine
own judgment and still thou shalt find trials to suffer, whether
thou wilt or no; and so the cross is there; be it pain of body or
pain of mind.
"Sometimes God will seem to leave thee, sometimes men will harass
thee. But, far worse, thou wilt find thyself a burden to thyself,
and no remedy will deliver thee, no consolation comfort thee:
until it pleases God to end thy trouble thou must bear it; for it
is God's will that we suffer without consolation, that we may go
to him without one backward look, humble through tribulation."
"What a strange book!" thought Godefroid, turning over the leaves.
Then his eyes lighted on the following words:--
"When thou hast reached the height of finding all afflictions
sweet, since they have made thee love the love of Jesus Christ,
then know thyself happy; for thou hast found thy paradise in this
Annoyed by this simplicity (the characteristic of strength), angry at
being foiled by a book, he closed the volume; but even then he saw, in
letters of gold on the green morocco cover, the words:--
SEEK THAT WHICH IS ETERNAL, AND THAT ONLY.
"Have they found it here?" he asked himself.
He went out to buy the handsomest copy he could find of the "Imitation
of Jesus Christ" thinking that Madame de la Chanterie would wish to
read her chapter that night. When he reached the street he stood a
moment near the door, uncertain which way to take and debating in what
direction he was likely to find a bookseller. As he stood there he
heard the heavy sound of the massive porte-cochere closing.
Two men were leaving the hotel de la Chanterie. If the reader has
fully understood the character of this old house he will know that it
was one of the ancient mansions of the olden time. Manon, herself,
when she called Godefroid that morning, had asked him, smiling, how he
had slept in the hotel de la Chanterie.
Godefroid followed the two men without the slightest intention of
watching them; they took him for an accidental passer, and spoke in
tones which enabled him to hear distinctly in those lonely streets.
The two men passed along the rue Massillon beside the church and
crossed the open space in front of it.
"Well, you see, old man, it is easy enough to catch their sous. Say
what they want you to say, that's all."
"But we owe money."
"To that lady--"
"I'd like to see that old body try to get it; I'd--"
"You'd pay her."
"Well, you're right, for if I paid her I'd get more another time."
"Wouldn't it be better to do as they advise, and build up a good
"But she said she would get some one to lend us the money."
"Then we should have to give up the life of--"
"Well, I'd rather; I'm sick of it; it isn't being a man at all to be
drunk half one's time."
"Yes, but you know the abbe turned his back on old Marin the other
day; he refused him everything."
"Because old Marin tried to swindle, and nobody can succeed in that
Just then the two men, whose dress seemed to show that they were
foremen in some workshop, turned abruptly round towards the place
Maubert by the bridge of the Hotel-Dieu. Godefroid stepped aside to
let them pass. Seeing him so close behind them they looked rather
anxiously at each other, and their faces expressed a regret for having
Godefroid was the more interested by this conversation because it
reminded him of the scene between the Abbe de Veze and the workman the
day of his first visit.
Thinking over this circumstance, he went as far as a bookseller's in
the rue Saint-Jacques, whence he returned with a very handsome copy of
the finest edition published in France of the "Imitation of Jesus
Christ." Walking slowly back, in order that he might arrive exactly at
the dinner hour, he recalled his own sensations during this morning
and he was conscious of a new impulse in his soul. He was seized by a
sudden and deep curiosity, but his curiosity paled before an
inexplicable desire. He was drawn to Madame de la Chanterie; he felt
the keenest desire to attach himself to her, to devote himself to her,
to please her, to deserve her praise: in short, he felt the first
emotions of platonic love; he saw glimpses of the untold grandeur of
that soul, and he longed to know it in its entirety. He grew impatient
to enter the inner lives of these pure Catholics. In that small
company of faithful souls, the majesty of practical religion was so
thoroughly blended with all that is most majestic in a French woman
that Godefroid resolved to leave no stone unturned to make himself
accepted as a true member of the little body. These feelings would
have been unnaturally sudden in a busy Parisian eagerly occupied with
life, but Godefroid was, as we have seen, in the position of a
drowning man who catches at every floating branch thinking it a solid
stay, and his soul, ploughed and furrowed with trial, was ready to
receive all seed.
He found the four friends in the salon, and he presented the book to
Madame de la Chanterie, saying:
"I did not like to deprive you of it to-night."
"God grant," she said, smiling, as she looked at the magnificent
volume, "that this may be your last excess of elegance."
Looking at the clothes of the four men present and observing how in
every particular they were reduced to mere utility and neatness, and
seeing, too, how rigorously the same principle was applied to all the
details of the house, Godefroid understood the value of the reproach
so courteously made to him.
"Madame," he said, "the persons whom you obliged this morning are
scoundrels; I overheard, without intending it, what they said to each
other when they left the house; it was full of the basest
"They were the two locksmiths of the rue Mouffetard," said Madame de
la Chanterie to Monsieur Nicolas; "that is your affair."
"The fish gets away more than once before it is caught," said Monsieur
The perfect indifference of Madame de la Chanterie on hearing of the
immediate ingratitude of persons to whom she had, no doubt, given
money, surprised Godefroid, who became thoughtful.
The dinner was enlivened by Monsieur Alain and Monsieur Joseph; but
Monsieur Nicolas remained quiet, sad, and cold; he bore on his
features the ineffaceable imprint of some bitter grief, some eternal
sorrow. Madame de la Chanterie paid equal attentions to all. Godefroid
felt himself observed by these persons, whose prudence equalled their
piety; his vanity led him to imitate their reserve, and he measured
This first day was much more interesting than those which succeeded
it. Godefroid, who found himself set aside from all the serious
conferences, was obliged, during several hours in mornings and
evenings when he was left wholly to himself, to have recourse to the
"Imitation of Jesus Christ;" and he ended by studying that book as a
man studies a book when he has but one, or is a prisoner. A book is
then like a woman with whom we live in solitude; we must either hate
or adore that woman, and, in like manner, we must either enter into
the soul of the author or not read ten lines of his book.
Now, it is impossible not to be impressed by the "Imitation of Jesus
Christ," which is to dogma what action is to thought. Catholicism
vibrates in it, pulses, breathes, and lives, body to body, with human
life. The book is a sure friend. It speaks to all passions, all
difficulties, even worldly ones; it solves all problems; it is more
eloquent than any preacher, for its voice is your own, it is the voice
within your soul, you hear it with your spirit. It is, in short, the
Gospel translated, adapted to all ages, the summit and crest of all
human situations. It is extraordinary that the Church has never
canonized John Gersen, for the Divine Spirit evidently inspired his
For Godefroid, the hotel de la Chanterie now held a woman and a book;
day by day he loved the woman more; he discovered flowers buried
beneath the snows of winter in her heart; he had glimpses of the joys
of a sacred friendship which religion permits, on which the angels
smile; a friendship which here united these five persons and against
which no evil could prevail.
This is a sentiment higher than all others; a love of soul to soul,
resembling those rarest flowers born on the highest peaks of earth; a
love of which a few examples are offered to humanity from age to age,
by which lovers are sometimes bound together in one being, and which
explains those faithful attachments which are otherwise inexplicable
by the laws of the world. It is a bond without disappointment, without
misunderstanding, without vanity, without strife, without even
contradictions; so completely are the moral natures blended into one.
This sentiment, vast, infinite, born of Catholic charity, Godefroid
foresaw with all its joys. At times he could not believe the spectacle
before his eyes, and he sought for reasons to explain the sublime
friendship of these five persons, wondering in his heart to find true
Catholics, true Christians of the early Church, in the Paris of 1836.
THE BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE OF CHANTERIE AND COMPANY
Within a week after his arrival Godefroid had seen such a concourse of
persons, he had overheard fragments of conversation relating to so
many serious topics, that he began to perceive an enormous activity in
the lives of the five inmates of the house. He noticed that none of
them slept more than five hours at the most.
They had all made, in some sort, a first day, before the second
breakfast. During that time strangers came and went, bringing or
carrying away money, sometimes in considerable sums. A messenger from
the Mongenod counting-room often came,--always very early in the
morning, so that his errand might not interfere with the business of
One evening Monsieur Mongenod came himself, and Godefroid noticed that
he showed to Monsieur Alain a certain filial familiarity added to the
profound respect which he testified to the three other lodgers of
Madame de la Chanterie.
On that evening the banker merely put a few matter-of-fact questions
to Godefroid: "Was he comfortable? Did he intend to stay?" etc.,--at
the same time advising him to persevere in his plan.
"I need only one thing to make me contented," said Godefroid.
"What is that?" asked the banker.
"An occupation!" remarked the Abbe de Veze. "Then you have changed
your mind? I thought you came to our cloister for rest."
"Rest, without the prayers that enlivened monasteries, without the
meditation which peopled the Thebaids, becomes a disease," said
Monsieur Joseph, sententiously.
"Learn book-keeping," said Monsieur Mongenod, with a smile; "you might
become in a few months very useful to my friends here."
"Oh! with pleasure," cried Godefroid.
The next day was Sunday; Madame de la Chanterie requested him to give
her his arm to high mass.
"It is," she said, "the only coercion I shall put upon you. Several
times during the past week I have wished to speak to you of religion,
but it did not seem to me that the time had come. You would find
plenty of occupation if you shared our beliefs, for then you would
share our labors as well."
During mass Godefroid noticed the fervor of Messieurs Nicolas, Joseph,
and Alain; and as during the last few days he had also noticed their
superiority and intelligence, and the vast extent of their knowledge;
he concluded, when he saw how they humbled themselves, that the
Catholic religion had secrets which had hitherto escaped him.
"After all," he said to himself, "it is the religion of Bossuet,
Pascal, Racine, Saint-Louis, Louis XIV., Raffaelle, Michel-Angelo,
Ximenes, Bayard, du Guesclin; and how could I, weakling that I am,
compare myself to those intellects, those statesmen, those poets,
If there were not some real instruction in these minor details it
would be imprudent to dwell upon them in these days; but they are
indispensable to the interests of this history, in which the present
public will be none too ready to believe, and which presents at the
outset a fact that is almost ridiculous,--namely, the empire which a
woman of sixty obtained over a young man disappointed with the world.
"You did not pray at all," said Madame de la Chanterie to Godefroid as
they left the portal of Notre-Dame; "not for any one,--not even for
the soul of your mother."
Godefroid colored and said nothing.
"Will you do me the favor," continued Madame de la Chanterie, "to go
to your room and not come into the salon for an hour? You can
meditate, if you love me, on the first chapter in the third book of
the 'Imitation'--the one entitled: 'Of inward communing.'"
Godefroid bowed stiffly and went to his room.
"The devil take them!" he exclaimed to himself, giving way to
downright anger. "What do they want with me here? What is all this
traffic they are carrying on? Pooh! all women, even pious ones, are up
to the same tricks. If Madame" (giving her the name by which her
lodgers spoke of her) "wants me out of the way it is probably because
they are plotting something against me."
With that thought in his mind he tried to look from his window into
that of the salon; but the situation of the rooms did not allow it. He
went down one flight, and then returned,--reflecting that according to
the rigid principles of the house he should be dismissed if discovered
spying. To lose the respect of those five persons seemed to him as
serious as public dishonor.
He waited three quarters of an hour; then he resolved to surprise
Madame de la Chanterie and come upon her suddenly before she expected
him. He invented a lie to excuse himself, saying that his watch was
wrong; for which purpose he set it on twenty minutes. Then he went
downstairs, making no noise, reached the door of the salon, and opened
He saw a man, still young, but already celebrated, a poet, whom he had
frequently met in society, Victor de Vernisset, on his knees before
Madame de la Chanterie and kissing the hem of her dress. If the sky
had fallen, and shivered to atoms like glass, as the ancients thought
it was, Godefroid could not have been more astonished. Shocking
thoughts came into his mind, and then a reaction more terrible still
when, before the sarcasm he was about to utter had left his lips, he
saw Monsieur Alain in a corner of the room counting out bank-notes.
In an instant Vernisset was on his feet, and the worthy Alain looked
thunderstruck. Madame de la Chanterie, on her part, gave Godefroid a
look which petrified him; for the twofold expression on the face of
the visitor had not escaped him.
"Monsieur is one of us," she said to the young poet, with a sign
"Then you are a happy man, my dear fellow," said Vernisset; "you are
saved! But, madame," he added, turning to Madame de la Chanterie, "if
all Paris had seen me, I should rejoice in it. Nothing can ever mark
my gratitude to you. I am yours forever; I belong to you utterly.
Command me as you will and I obey. I owe you my life, and it is
"Well, well, young man!" said the kind Alain, "then be wise, be
virtuous,--only, /work/; but do not attack religion in your books.
Moreover, remember that you owe a debt."
And he handed him an envelope thick with the bank-notes he had counted
out. The tears were in Victor de Vernisset's eyes; he kissed Madame de
la Chanterie's hand respectfully, and went away, after shaking hands
with Monsieur Alain and Godefroid.
"You have not obeyed madame," said the goodman Alain solemnly, with a
sad expression on his face that Godefroid had never before seen there;
"and that is a great wrong; if it happens again we must part. This may
seem hard to you after we had begun to give you our confidence."
"My dear Alain," said Madame de la Chanterie, "have the kindness for
my sake to say no more about this piece of thoughtlessness. We ought
not to ask too much a new arrival, who has been spared great
misfortunes and knows nothing of religion; and who, moreover, has only
an excessive curiosity about our vocation, and does not yet believe in
"Forgive me, madame," said Godefroid; "I do desire, from this time
forth, to be worthy of you. I will submit to any trial you think
necessary before initiating me into the secrets of your work; and if
the Abbe de Veze will undertake to instruct me I will listen to him,
soul and mind."
These words made Madame de la Chanterie so happy that a faint color
stole upon her cheeks. She took Godefroid's hand and pressed it, then
she said, with strange emotion, "It is well."
That evening, after dinner, visitors came in: a vicar-general of the
diocese of Paris, two canons, two former mayors of Paris, and one of
the ladies who distributed the charities of Notre-Dame. No cards were
played; but the conversation was gay, without being vapid.
A visit which surprised Godefroid greatly was that of the Comtesse de
Cinq-Cygne, one of the highest personages in aristocratic society,
whose salon was inaccessible to the bourgeoisie and to parvenus. The
presence of this great lady in Madame de la Chanterie's salon was
sufficiently surprising; but the manner in which the two women met and
treated each other seemed to Godefroid inexplicable; for it showed the
closest intimacy and a constant intercourse which gave Madame de la
Chanterie an added value in his eyes. Madame de Cinq-Cygne was
gracious and affectionate in manner to the four friends of her friend,
and showed the utmost respect to Monsieur Nicolas.
We may see here how social vanities still governed Godefroid; for up
to this visit of Madame de Cinq-Cygne he was still undecided; but he
now resolved to give himself up, with or without conviction, to
whatever Madame de la Chanterie and her friends might exact of him, in
order to get affiliated with their order and initiated into their
secrets, assuring himself that in that way he should find a career.
The next day he went to a book-keeper whom Madame de la Chanterie
recommended, and arranged with him the hours at which they should work
together. His whole time was now employed. The Abbe de Veze instructed
him in the mornings; he was two hours a day with the book-keeper; and
he spent the rest of his time between breakfast and dinner in doing
imaginary commercial accounts which his master required him to write
Some time passed thus, during which Godefroid felt the charm of a life
in which each hour has its own employment. The recurrence of a settled
work at settled moments, regularity of action, is the secret of many a
happy life; and it proves how deeply the founders of religious orders
had meditated on the nature of man. Godefroid, who had made up his
mind to listen to the Abbe de Veze, began to have serious thoughts of
a future life, and to find how little he knew of the real gravity of
Moreover, from day to day Madame de la Chanterie, with whom he always
remained for an hour after the second breakfast, allowed him to
discover the treasures that were in her; he knew then that he never
could have imagined a loving-kindness so broad and so complete. A
woman of Madame de la Chanterie's apparent age no longer has the
pettiness of younger women. She is a friend who offers you all
feminine refinements, who displays the graces, the choice attractions
which nature inspires in a woman for man; she gives them, and no
longer sells them. Such a woman is either detestable or perfect; for
her gifts are either not of the flesh or they are worthless. Madame de
la Chanterie was perfect. She seemed never to have had a youth; her
glance never told of a past. Godefroid's curiosity was far from being
appeased by a closer and more intimate knowledge of this sublime
nature; the discoveries of each succeeding day only redoubled his
desire to learn the anterior life of a woman whom he now thought a
saint. Had she ever loved? Had she been a wife,--a mother? Nothing
about her was characteristic of an old maid; she displayed all the
graces of a well-born woman; and an observer would perceive in her
robust health, in the extraordinary phenomena of her physical
preservation, a divine life, and a species of ignorance of the earthly
Except the gay and cheery goodman Alain, all these persons had
suffered; but Monsieur Nicolas himself seemed to give the palm of
martyrdom to Madame de la Chanterie. Nevertheless, the memory of her
sorrows was so restrained by religious resignation, by her secret
avocations, that she seemed to have been always happy.
"You are the life of your friends," Godefroid said to her one day;
"you are the tie that unites them,--the house-mother, as it were, of
some great work; and, as we are all mortal, I ask myself sometimes
what your association would become without you."
"That is what frightens the others; but Providence, to whom we owe our
new book-keeper," she said, smiling, "will provide. Besides, I am on
"Will your new book-keeper soon be allowed to work at your business?"
"That depends on himself," she answered, smiling. "He must be
sincerely religious, truly pious, without the least self-interest, not
concerned about the riches of our house, able to rise above all petty
social considerations on the two wings which God has given us."
"What are they?"
"Singleness of mind and purity," replied Madame de la Chanterie. "Your
ignorance shows that you have neglected the reading of our book." she
added, laughing at the innocent trick she had played to know if
Godefroid had read the "Imitation of Jesus Christ." "And, lastly," she
went on, "fill your soul with Saint Paul's epistle upon Charity. When
that is done," she added, with a sublime look, "it will not be you who
belong to us, we shall belong to you, and you will be able to count up
greater riches than the sovereigns of this world possess; you will
enjoy as we enjoy; yes, let me tell you (if you remember the 'Arabian
Nights') that the treasures of Aladdin are nothing to those we
possess. And so for the last year we have not sufficed for our
affairs, and we needed, as you see, a book-keeper."
While speaking, she studied Godefroid's face; he, on his part, did not
know how to take this extraordinary confidence. But as the scene in
the counting-room at Mongenod's came often to his mind, he hovered
between doubt and belief.
"Ah, you will be very happy!" she said.
Godefroid was so consumed with curiosity that from this moment he
determined to break through the reserve of one of the four friends and
question him. Now, the one to whom he felt the most drawn, and who
seemed naturally to excite the sympathies of all classes, was the
kind, gay, simple Monsieur Alain. By what strange path could
Providence have led a being so guileless into this monastery without a
lock, where recluses of both sexes lived beneath a rule in the midst
of Paris, in absolute freedom, as though they were guarded by the
sternest of superiors? What drama, what event, had made him leave his
own road in life, and take this path among the sorrows of the great
Godefroid resolved to ask.
MONSIEUR ALAIN TELLS HIS SECRETS
One evening Godefroid determined to pay a visit to his neighbor on the
floor above him, with the intention of satisfying a curiosity more
excited by the apparent impossibility of a catastrophe in such an
existence than it would have been under the expectation of discovering
some terrible episode in the life of a corsair.
At the words "Come in!" given in answer to two raps struck discreetly
on the door, Godefroid turned the key which was in the lock and found
Monsieur Alain sitting by the fire reading, before he went to bed, his
accustomed chapter in the "Imitation of Jesus Christ," by the light of
two wax-candles, each protected by a moveable green shade, such as
The goodman wore trousers /a pied/ and his gray camlet dressing-gown.
His feet were at a level with the fire, resting on a cushion done in
worsted-work, as were his slippers, by Madame de la Chanterie. The
fine head of the old man, without other covering than its crown of
white hair, almost like that of a monk, stood out in clear relief
against the brown background of an enormous armchair.
Monsieur Alain gently laid his book, which was much worn at the
corners, on a little table with twisted legs, and signed to the young
man to take another chair, removing as he did so a pair of spectacles
which were hanging on the end of his nose.
"Are you ill, that you have left your room at this hour?" he asked.
"Dear Monsieur Alain," said Godefroid, frankly, "I am tortured with a
curiosity which one word from you will make very harmless or very
indiscreet; and that explains clearly enough the spirit in which I
shall ask my question."
"Oh! oh! and what is your question?" said the good soul, looking at
the young man with an eye that was half mischievous.
"What was it that brought you here to lead the life that you live
here? For, surely, to accept the doctrines of such total renunciation
of all personal interests, a man must have been disgusted with the
world, or else have injured others."
"Eh! my dear lad," replied the old man, letting a smile flicker on his
large lips, which gave to his rosy mouth the kindliest expression that
the genius of a painter ever imagined, "can we not be moved to the
deepest pity by the spectacle of human wretchedness which Paris holds
within her walls? Did Saint Vincent de Paul need the spur of remorse
or wounded vanity to make him devote himself to outcast children?"
"You close my mouth, for if ever a soul resembled that of the
Christian hero, it is yours," said Godefroid.
In spite of the hardness which age had given to the wrinkled yellow
skin of his face, the old man blushed, for he seemed to have provoked
that comparison; though any one who knew his modesty would have been
certain he never dreamed of it. Godefroid was aware by this time that
Madame de la Chanterie's inmates had no taste for that sort of
incense. Nevertheless, the extreme simplicity of the good old soul was
more disturbed by this idea than a young girl would have been by an
"Though I am very far indeed from Saint Vincent de Paul morally," said
Monsieur Alain, "I think I do resemble him physically."
Godefroid was about to speak, but was stopped by a gesture of the old
man, whose nose, it must be owned, had the tuberous appearance of that
of the Saint, and whose face, a good deal like that of an old
vine-dresser, was an exact duplicate of the broad, common face of
the founder of Foundling hospitals.
"As for me, you are right enough," he went on; "my vocation for our
work was brought about by repentance, as the result of a--folly."
"A folly,--you!" Godefroid exclaimed softly, the word entirely putting
out of his head what he meant to say.
"Ah! dear me, what I am going to tell you will seem, I dare say, a
trifle to you,--a mere bit of nonsense; but before the tribunal of
conscience it was another thing. If you persist in wishing to share
our work after hearing what I shall tell you, you will understand that
the power of a sentiment is according to the nature of souls, and that
a matter which would not in the least trouble a strong mind may very
well torment the conscience of a weak Christian."
After a preface of this kind, the curiosity of the disciple of course
knew no bounds. What could be the crime of the worthy soul whom Madame
de la Chanterie called her /paschal lamb/? The thought crossed
Godefroid's mind that a book might be written on it, called "The Sins
of a Sheep." Sheep are sometimes quite ferocious towards grass and
flowers. One of the tenderest republicans of those days was heard to
assert that the best of human beings was cruel to something. But the
kindly Alain!--he, who like my uncle Toby, wouldn't crush a gnat till
it had stung him twenty times,--that sweet soul to have been tortured
This reflection in Godefroid's mind filled the pause made by the old
man after saying, "Now listen to me!"--a pause he filled himself by
pushing his cushion under Godefroid's feet to share it with him.
"I was then about thirty years of age," he said. "It was the year '98,
if I remember right,--a period when young men were forced to have the
experience of men of sixty. One morning, a little before my breakfast
hour, which was nine o'clock, my old housekeeper ushered in one of the
few friends remaining to me after the Revolution. My first word was to
ask him to breakfast. My friend--his name was Mongenod, a fellow about
twenty-eight years of age--accepted, but he did so in an awkward
manner. I had not seen him since 1793!"
"Mongenod!" cried Godefroid; "why, that is--"
"If you want to know the end before the beginning, how am I to tell
you my history?" said the old man, smiling.
Godefroid made a sign which promised absolute silence.
"When Mongenod sat down," continued Monsieur Alain, "I noticed that
his shoes were worn out. His stockings had been washed so often that
it was difficult to say if they were silk or not. His breeches, of
apricot-colored cassimere, were so old that the color had disappeared
in spots; and the buckles, instead of being of steel, seemed to me to
be made of common iron. His white, flowered waistcoat, now yellow from
long wearing, also his shirt, the frill of which was frayed, betrayed
a horrible yet decent poverty. A mere glance at his coat was enough to
convince me that my friend had fallen into dire distress. That coat
was nut-brown in color, threadbare at the seams, carefully brushed,
though the collar was greasy from pomade or powder, and had the white
metal buttons now copper-colored. The whole was so shabby that I tried
not to look at it. The hat--an opera hat of a kind we then carried
under the arm, and not on the head--had seen many governments.
Nevertheless, my poor friend must have spent a few sous at the
barber's, for he was neatly shaved; and his hair, gathered behind his
head with a comb and powdered carefully, smelt of pomade. I saw two
chains hanging down on his breeches,--two rusty steel chains,--but no
appearance of a watch in his pocket. I tell you all these details, as
they come to me," said Monsieur Alain; "I seldom think of this matter
now; but when I do, all the particulars come vividly before me."
He paused a moment and then resumed:--
"It was winter, and Mongenod evidently had no cloak; for I noticed
that several lumps of snow, which must have dropped from the roofs as
he walked along, were sticking to the collar of his coat. When he took
off his rabbit-skin gloves, and I saw his right hand, I noticed the
signs of labor, and toilsome labor, too. Now his father, the advocate
of the Grand Council, had left him some property,--about five or six
thousand francs a year. I saw at once that he had come to me to borrow
money. I had, in a secret hiding-place, two hundred louis d'or,--an
enormous hoard at that time; for they were worth I couldn't now tell
you how many hundred thousand francs in assignats. Mongenod and I had
studied at the same collage,--that of Grassins,--and we had met again
in the same law-office,--that of Bordin,--a truly honest man. When you
have spent your boyhood and played your youthful pranks with the same
comrade, the sympathy between you and him has something sacred about
it; his voice, his glance, stir certain chords in your heart which
only vibrate under the memories that he brings back. Even if you have
had cause of complaint against such a comrade, the rights of the
friendship between you can never be effaced. But there had never been
the slightest jar between us two. At the death of his father, in 1787,
Mongenod was left richer than I. Though I had never borrowed money
from him, I owed him pleasures which my father's economy denied me.
Without my generous comrade I should never had seen the first
representation of the 'Marriage of Figaro.' Mongenod was what was
called in those days a charming cavalier; he was very gallant.
Sometimes I blamed him for his facile way of making intimacies and his
too great amiability. His purse opened freely; he lived in a
free-handed way; he would serve a man as second having only seen him
twice. Good God! how you send me back to the days and the ways of my
youth!" said the worthy man, with his cheery smile.
"Are you sorry?" said Godefroid.
"Oh, no! and you can judge by the minuteness with which I am telling
you all this how great a place this event has held in my life.
"Mongenod, endowed with an excellent heart and fine courage, a trifle
Voltairean, was inclined to play the nobleman," went on Monsieur
Alain. "His education at Grassins, where there were many young nobles,
and his various gallantries, had given him the polished manners and
ways of people of condition, who were then called aristocrats. You can
therefore imagine how great was my surprise to see such symptoms of
poverty in the young and elegant Mongenod of 1787 when my eyes left
his face and rested on his garments. But as, at that unhappy period of
our history, some persons assumed a shabby exterior for safety, and as
he might have had some other and sufficient reasons for disguising
himself, I awaited an explanation, although I opened the way to it.
'What a plight you are in, my dear Mongenod!' I said, accepting the
pinch of snuff he offered me from a copper and zinc snuff-box. 'Sad
indeed!' he answered; 'I have but one friend left, and that is you. I
have done all I could to avoid appealing to you; but I must ask you
for a hundred louis. The sum is large, I know,' he went on, seeing my
surprise; 'but if you gave me fifty I should be unable ever to return
them; whereas with one hundred I can seek my fortune in better ways,
--despair will inspire me to find them.' 'Then you have nothing?' I
exclaimed. 'I have,' he said, brushing away a tear, 'five sous left of
my last piece of money. To come here to you I have had my boots
blacked and my face shaved. I possess what I have on my back. But,' he
added, with a gesture, 'I owe my landlady a thousand francs in
assignats, and the man I buy cold victuals from refused me credit
yesterday. I am absolutely without resources.' 'What do you think of
doing?' 'Enlisting as a soldier if you cannot help me.' 'You! a
soldier, Mongenod?' 'I will get myself killed, or I will be General
Mongenod.' 'Well,' I said, much moved, 'eat your breakfast in peace; I
have a hundred louis.'
"At that point," said the goodman, interrupting himself and looking at
Godefroid with a shrewd air, "I thought it best to tell him a bit of a
"'That is all I possess in the world,' I said. 'I have been waiting
for a fall in the Funds to invest that money; but I will put it in
your hands instead, and you shall consider me your partner; I will
leave to your conscience the duty of returning it to me in due time.
The conscience of an honest man,' I said, 'is a better security than
the Funds.' Mongenod looked at me fixedly as I spoke, and seemed to be
inlaying my words upon his heart. He put out his right hand, I laid my
left into it, and we held them together,--I deeply moved, and he with
two big tears rolling down his cheeks. The sight of those tears wrung
my heart. I was more moved still when Mongenod pulled out a ragged
foulard handkerchief to wipe them away. 'Wait here,' I said; and I
went to my secret hiding-place with a heart as agitated as though I
had heard a woman say she loved me. I came back with two rolls of
fifty louis each. 'Here, count them.' He would not count them; and he
looked about him for a desk on which to write, he said, a proper
receipt. I positively refused to take any paper. 'If I should die,' I
said, 'my heirs would trouble you. This is to be between ourselves.'
"Well," continued Monsieur Alain, smiling, "when Mongenod found me a
good friend he ceased to look as sad and anxious as when he entered;
in fact, he became quite gay. My housekeeper gave us some oysters,
white wine, and an omelet, with broiled kidneys, and the remains of a
pate my old mother had sent me; also some dessert, coffee, and liqueur
of the Iles. Mongenod, who had been starving for two days, was fed up.
We were so interested in talking about our life before the Revolution
that we sat at table till three in the afternoon. Mongenod told me how
he had lost his fortune. In the first place, his father having
invested the greater part of his capital in city loans, when they fell
Mongenod lost two thirds of all he had. Then, having sold his house in
the rue de Savoie, he was forced to receive the price in assignats.
After that he took into his head to found a newspaper, 'La
Sentinelle;' that compelled him to fly at the end of six months. His
hopes, he said, were now fixed on the success of a comic opera called
'Les Peruviens.' When he said that I began to tremble. Mongenod turned
author, wasting his money on a newspaper, living no doubt in the
theatres, connected with singers at the Feydeau, with musicians, and
all the queer people who lurk behind the scenes,--to tell you the
truth, he didn't seem my Mongenod. I trembled. But how could I take
back the hundred louis? I saw each roll in each pocket of his breeches