Part 2 out of 4
Little by little the hall became thronged with interested or merely
curious spectators; and, after half an hour's delay, the auctioneer
with his ivory hammer, the clerk with his bundle of memorandum-papers,
and the crier, carrying his collection-box fixed to the end of a
pole, all took their places on the platform in the most solemn
business manner. The attendants ranged themselves at the foot of the
desk. The presiding officer having declared the sale open, a partial
A commonplace series of Preces dia, with miniatures, were first sold
off at mediocre prices. Needless to say, the illuminations of these
books were in perfect condition!
The lowness of the bids gave courage to the gathering of second-hand
booksellers present, who began to mingle with us, and become more
familiar. The dealers in old brass and bric-a-brac pressed forward
in their tun, waiting for the doors of an adjoining room to be
opened; and the voice of the auctioneer was drowned by the jests of
A magnificent codex of the "Guerre des Juifs" revived attention. It
was long disputed for. "Five thousand francs! five thousand!" called
the crier, while the bric-a-brac dealers remained silent with
admiration. Then seven or eight antiphonaries brought us back again
to low prices. A fat old woman, in a loose gown, bareheaded--a
dealer in second-hand goods--encouraged by the size of the books and
the low prices bidden, had one of the antiphonaries knocked down to
her for thirty francs.
At last the expert Polizzi announced No. 42: "The 'Golden Legend';
French MS.; unpublished; two superb miniatures, with a starting bid
of three thousand francs."
"Three thousand! three thousand bid!" yelled the crier.
"Three thousand!" dryly repeated the auctioneer.
There was a buzzing in my head, and, as through a cloud, I saw a host
of curious faces all turning towards the manuscript, which a boy was
carrying open through the audience.
"Three thousand and fifty!" I said.
I was frightened by the sound of my own voice, and further confused
by seeing, or thinking that I saw, all eyes turned on me.
"Three thousand and fifty on the right!" called the crier, taking
up my bid.
"Three thousand one hundred!" responded Signor Polizzi.
Then began a heroic duel between the expert and myself.
"Three thousand five hundred!"
"Four thousand five hundred."
Then by a sudden bold stroke, Signor Polizzi raised the bid at once
to six thousand.
Six thousand francs was all the money I could dispose of. It
represented the possible. I risked the impossible.
"Six thousand one hundred!"
Alas! even the impossible did not suffice.
"Six thousand five hundred!" replied Signor Polizzi, with calm.
I bowed my head and sat there stupefied, unable to answer either yes
or no to the crier, who called to me:
"Six thousand five hundred, by me--not by you on the right there!--it
is my bid--no mistake! Six thousand five hundred!"
"Perfectly understood!" declared the auctioneer. "Six thousand five
hundred. Perfectly clear; perfectly plain.... Any more bids? The
last bid is six thousand five hundred francs."
A solemn silence prevailed. Suddenly I felt as if my head had burst
open. It was the hammer of the officiant, who, with a loud blow on
the platform, adjudged No. 42 irrevocably to Signor Polizzi.
Forthwith the pen of the clerk, coursing over the papier-timbre,
registered that great fact in a single line.
I was absolutely prostrated, and I felt the utmost need of rest and
quiet. Nevertheless, I did not leave my seat. My powers of
reflection slowly returned. Hope is tenacious. I had one more hope.
It occurred to me that the new owner of the "Legende Doree" might be
some intelligent and liberal bibliophile who would allow me to examine
the MS., and perhaps even to publish the more important parts. And,
with this idea, as soon as the sale was over I approached the expert
as he was leaving the platform.
"Monsieur," I asked him, "did you buy in No. 42 on your own account,
or on commission?"
"On commission. I was instructed not to let it go at any price."
"Can you tell me the name of the purchaser?"
"Monsieur, I regret that I cannot serve you in that respect. I have
been strictly forbidden to mention the name."
I went home in despair.
December 30, 1859.
"Therese! don't you hear the bell? Somebody has been ringing at the
door for the last quarter of an hour?"
Therese does not answer. She is chattering downstairs with the
concierge, for sure. So that is the way you observe your old master's
birthday? You desert me even on the eve of Saint-Sylvestre! Alas!
if I am to hear any kind wishes to-day, they must come up from the
ground; for all who love me have long been buried. I really don't
know what I am still living for. There is the bell again!... I get
up slowly from my seat at the fire, with my shoulders still bent
from stooping over it, and go to the door myself. Whom do I see at
the threshold? It is not a dripping love, and I am not an old
Anacreon; but it is a very pretty little boy of about ten years old.
He is alone; he raises his face to look at me. His cheeks are
blushing; but his little pert nose gives one an idea of mischievous
pleasantry. He has feathers in his cap, and a great lace-ruff on
his jacket. The pretty little fellow! He holds in both arms a
bundle as big as himself, and asks me if I am Monsieur Sylvestre
Bonnard. I tell him yes; he gives me the bundle, tells me his mamma
sent it to me, and then he runs downstairs.
I go down a few steps; I lean over the balustrade, and see the little
cap whirling down the spiral of the stairway like a feather in the
wind. "Good-bye, my little boy!" I should have liked so much to
question him. But what, after all, could I have asked? It is not
polite to question children. Besides, the package itself will
probably give me more information than the messenger could.
It is a very big bundle, but not very heavy. I take it into my
library, and there untie the ribbons and unfasten the paper wrappings;
and I see--what? a log! a first-class log! a real Christmas log, but
so light that I know it must be hollow. Then I find that it is
indeed composed of two separate pieces, opening on hinges, and
fastened with hooks. I slip the hooks back, and find myself inundated
with violets! Violets! they pour over my table, over my knees, over
the carpet. They tumble into my vest, into my sleeves. I am all
perfumed with them.
"Therese! Therese! fill me some vases with water, and bring them
here, quick! Here are violets sent to us I know not from what country
nor by what hand; but it must be from a perfumed country, and by a
very gracious hand.... Do you hear me, old crow?"
I have put all the violets on my table--now completely covered by the
odorous mass. But there is still something in the log...a book--a
manuscript. It is...I cannot believe it, and yet I cannot doubt
it.... It is the "Legende Doree"!--It is the manuscript of the Clerk
Alexander! Here is the "Purification of the Virgin" and the
"Coronation of Proserpine";--here is the legend of Saint Droctoveus.
I contemplate this violet-perfumed relic. I turn the leaves of it--
between which the dark rich blossoms have slipped in here and there;
and, right opposite the legend of Saint-Cecilia, I find a card
bearing this name:
Princess Trepof!--you who laughed and wept by turns so sweetly under
the fair sky of Agrigentum!--you, whom a cross old man believed to be
only a foolish little woman!--to-day I am convinced of your rare and
beautiful folly; and the old fellow whom you now overwhelm with
happiness will go to kiss your hand, and give you back, in another
form, this precious manuscript, of which both he and science owe you
an exact and sumptuous publication!
Therese entered my study just at that moment; she seemed to be very
"Monsieur!" she cried, "guess whom I saw just now in a carriage, with
a coat-of-arms painted on it, that was stopping before the door?"
"Parbleu!--Madame Trepof," I exclaimed.
"I don't know anything about any Madame Trepof," answered my
housekeeper. "The woman I saw just now was dressed like a duchess,
and had a little boy with her, with lace-frills all along the seams
of his clothes. And it was that same little Madame Coccoz you once
sent a log to, when she was lying-in here about eleven years ago.
I recognized her at once."
"What!" I exclaimed, "you mean to say it was Madame Coccoz, the widow
of the almanac-peddler?"
"Herself, Monsieur! The carriage-door was open for a minute to let
her little boy, who had just come from I don't know where, get in.
She hasn't changed scarcely at all. Well, why should those women
change?--they never worry themselves about anything. Only the Coccoz
woman looks a little fatter than she used to be. And the idea of a
woman that was taken in here out of pure charity coming to show off
her velvets and diamonds in a carriage with a crest painted on it!
Isn't it shameful!"
"Therese!" I cried, in a terrible voice, "if you ever speak to me
again about that lady except in terms of the deepest respect, you
and I will fall out! ...Bring me the Sevres vases to put those
violets in, which now give the City of Books a charm it never had
While Therese went off with a sigh to get the Sevres vases, I
continued to contemplate those beautiful scattered violets, whose
odour spread all about me like the perfume of some sweet presence,
some charming soul; and I asked myself how it had been possible for
me never to recognise Madame Coccoz in the person of the Princess
Trepof. But that vision of the young widow, showing me her little
child on the stairs, had been a very rapid one. I had much more
reason to reproach myself for having passed by a gracious and lovely
soul without knowing it.
"Bonnard," I said to myself, "thou knowest how to decipher old texts;
but thou dost not know how to read in the Book of Life. That giddy
little Madame Trepof, whom thou once believed to possess no more
soul than a bird, has expended, in pure gratitude, more zeal and finer
tact than thou didst ever show for anybody's sake. Right royally
hath she repaid thee for the log-fire of her churching-day!
"Therese! Awhile ago you were a magpie; now you are becoming a
tortoise! Come and give some water to these Parmese violets."
Part II -- The Daughter of Clementine
Chapter I -- The Fairy
When I left the train at the Melun station, night had already spread
its peace over the silent country. The soil, heated through all the
long day by a strong sun--by a "gros soleil," as the harvesters of
the Val de Vire say--still exhaled a warm heavy smell. Lush dense
odours of grass passed over the level of the fields. I brushed
away the dust of the railway carriage, and joyfully inhaled the pure
air. My travelling-bag--filled by my housekeeper wit linen and
various small toilet articles, munditiis, seemed so light in my
hand that I swung it about just as a schoolboy swings his strapped
package of rudimentary books when the class is let out.
Would to Heaven that I were again a little urchin at school! But it
is fully fifty years since my good dead mother made me some tartines
of bread and preserves, and placed them in a basket of which she
slipped the handle over my arm, and then led me, thus prepared, to
the school kept by Monsieur Douloir, at a corner of the Passage du
Commerce well known to the sparrows, between a court and a garden.
The enormous Monsieur Douloir smiled upon us genially, and patted
my cheek to show, no doubt, the affectionate interest which my first
appearance had inspired. But when my mother had passed out of the
court, startling the sparrows as she went, Monsieur Douloir ceased
to smile--he showed no more affectionate interest; he appeared, on
the contrary, to consider me as a very troublesome little fellow.
I discovered, later on, that he entertained the same feelings
towards all his pupils. He distributed whacks of his ferule with
an agility no one could have expected on the part of so corpulent
a person. But his first aspect of tender interest invariably
reappeared when he spoke to any of our mothers in our presence; and
always at such times, while warmly praising our remarkable aptitudes,
he would cast down upon us a look of intense affection. Still,
those were happy days which I passed on the benches of the Monsieur
Couloir with my little playfellows, who, like myself, cried and
laughed by turns with all their might, from morning till evening.
After a whole half-century these souvenirs float up again, fresh and
bright as ever, to the surface of memory, under this starry sky,
whose face has in no wise changed since then, and whose serene and
immutable lights will doubtless see many other schoolboys such as
I was slowly turn into grey-headed servants, afflicted with catarrh.
Stars, who have shown down upon each wise or foolish head among all
my forgotten ancestors, it is under your soft light that I now feel
stir within me a certain poignant regret! I would that I could have
a son who might be able to see you when I shall see you no more.
How I should love him! Ah! such a son would--what am I saying?--
why, he would be no just twenty years old if you had only been
willing, Clementine--you whose cheeks used to look so ruddy under
your pink hood! But you are married to that young bank clerk,
Noel Alexandre, who made so many millions afterwards! I never met
you again after your marriage, Clementine, but I can see you now,
with your bright curls and your pink hood.
A looking-glass! a looking-glass! a looking-glass! Really, it would
be curious to see what I look like now, with my white hair, sighing
Clementine's name to the stars! Still, it is not right to end with
sterile irony the thought begun in the spirit of faith and love. No,
Clementine, if your name came to my lips by chance this beautiful
night, be it for ever blessed, your dear name! and may you ever, as
a happy mother, a happy grandmother, enjoy to the very end of life
with your rich husband the utmost degree of that happiness which
you had the right to believe you could not win with the poor young
scholar who loved you! If--though I cannot even now imagine it--if
your beautiful hair has become white, Clementine, bear worthily the
bundle of keys confided to you by Noel Alexandre, and impart to your
grandchildren the knowledge of all domestic virtues!
Ah! beautiful Night! She rules, with such noble repose, over men and
animals alike, kindly loosed by her from the yoke of daily toil;
and even I feel her beneficent influence, although my habits of
sixty years have so changed me that I can feel most things only
through the signs which represent them. My world is wholly formed
of words--so much of a philologist I have become! Each one dreams
the dream of life in his own way. I have dreamed it in my library;
and when the hour shall come in which I must leave this world, may
it please God to take me from my ladder--from before my shelves of
"Well, well! it is really himself, pardieu! How are you, Monsieur
Sylvestre Bonnard? And where have you been travelling to all this
time, over the country, while I was waiting for you at the station
with my cabriolet? You missed me when the train came in, and I was
driving back, quite disappointed, to Lusance. Give me your valise,
and get up here beside me in the carriage. Why, do you know it is
fully seven kilometres from here to the chateau?"
Who addresses me thus, at the very top of his voice from the height
of his cabriolet? Monsieur Paul de Gabry, nephew and heir of
Monsieur Honore de Gabry, peer of France in 1842, who recently died
at Monaco. And it was precisely to Monsieur Paul de Gabry's house
that I was going with that valise of mine, so carefully strapped by
my housekeeper. This excellent young man has just inherited,
conjointly with his two brothers-in-law, the property of his uncle,
who, belonging to a very ancient family of distinguished lawyers,
had accumulated in his chateau at Lusance a library rich in MSS.,
some dating back to the fourteenth century. It was for the purpose
of making an inventory and catalogue of these MSS. that I had come
to Lusance at the urgent request of Monsieur Paul de Gabry, whose
father, a perfect gentleman and distinguished bibliophile, had
maintained the most pleasant relations with me during his lifetime.
To tell the truth, Monsieur Paul has not inherited the fine tastes
of his father. Monsieur Paul likes sporting; he is a great authority
on horses and dogs; and I much fear that of all the sciences capable
of satisfying or of duping the inexhaustible curiosity of mankind,
those of the stable and the dog-kennel are the only ones thoroughly
mastered by him.
I cannot say I was surprised to meet him, since we had made a
rendezvous; but I acknowledge that I had become so preoccupied with
my own thoughts that I had forgotten all about the Chateau de
Lusance and its inhabitants, and that the voice of the gentleman
calling out to me as I started to follow the country road winding
away before me--"un bon ruban de queue," as they say--had given me
quite a start.
I fear my face must have betrayed my incongruous distraction by a
certain stupid expression which it is apt to assume in most of my
social transactions. My valise was pulled up into the carriage,
and I followed my valise. My host pleased me by his straightforward
"I don't know anything myself about your old parchments," he said;
"but I think you will find some folks to talk to at the house.
Besides the cure, who writes books himself, and the doctor, who is a
very good fellow--although a radical--you will meet somebody able to
keep your company. I mean my wife. She is not a very learned woman,
but there are few things which she can't divine pretty well. Then
I count upon being able to keep you with us long enough to make you
acquainted with Mademoiselle Jeanne, who has the fingers of a magician
and the soul of an angel."
"And is this delightfully gifted young lady one of your family?" I
"Not at all," replied Monsieur Paul.
"Then she is just a friend of yours?" I persisted, rather stupidly.
"She has lost both her father and mother," answered Monsieur de Gabry,
keeping his eyes fixed upon the ears of his horse, whose hoofs rang
loudly over the road blue-tinted by the moonshine. "Her father
managed to get us into some very serious trouble; and we did not get
off with a fright either!"
Then he shook his head, and changed the subject. He gave me due
warning of the ruinous condition in which I should find the chateau
and the park; they had been absolutely deserted for thirty-two years.
I learned from him that Monsieur Honore de Gabry, his uncle, had been
on very bad terms with some poachers, whom he used to shoot at like
rabbits. One of them, a vindictive peasant, who had received a whole
charge of shot in his face, lay in wait for the Seigneur one evening
behind the trees of the mall, and very nearly succeeded in killing
him, for the ball took off the tip of his ear.
"My uncle," Monsieur Paul continued, "tried to discover who had fired
the shot; but he could not see any one, and he walked back slowly
to the house. The day after he called his steward and ordered him
to close up the manor and the park, and allow no living soul to enter.
He expressly forbade that anything should be touched, or looked after,
or any repairs made on the estate during his absence. He added,
between his teeth, that he would return at Easter, or Trinity Sunday,
as they say in the song; and, just as the song has it, Trinity
Sunday passed without a sign of him. He died last year at Monaco;
my brother-in-law and myself were the first to enter the chateau
after it had been abandoned for thirty-two years. We found a
chestnut-tree growing in the middle of the parlour. As for the park,
it was useless trying to visit it, because there were no longer any
paths or alleys."
My companion ceased to speak; and only the regular hoof-beat of the
trotting horse, and the chirping of insects in the grass, broke the
silence. On either hand, the sheaves standing in the fields took,
in the vague moonlight, the appearance of tall white women kneeling
down; and I abandoned myself awhile to those wonderful childish
fancies which the charm of night always suggests. After driving
under the heavy shadows of the mall, we turned to the right and
rolled up a lordly avenue at the end of which the chateau suddenly
rose into view--a black mass, with turrets en poivriere. We
followed a sort of causeway, which gave access to the court-of-honor,
and which, passing over a moat full of running water, doubtless
replaced a long-vanished drawbridge. The loss of that draw-bridge
must have been, I think, the first of various humiliations to which
the warlike manor had been subjected ere being reduced to that
pacific aspect with which it received me. The stars reflected
themselves with marvelous clearness in the dark water. Monsieur
Paul, like a courteous host, escorted me to my chamber at the very
top of the building, at the end of a long corridor; and then,
excusing himself for not presenting me at once to his wife by reason
of the lateness of the hour, bade me good-night.
My apartment, painted in white and hung with chintz, seemed to keep
some traces of the elegant gallantry of the eighteenth century.
A heap of still-glowing ashes--which testified to the pains taken
to dispel humidity--filled the fireplace, whose marble mantlepiece
supported a bust of Marie Antoinette in bisuit. Attached to the
frame of the tarnished and discoloured mirror, two brass hooks, that
had once doubtless served the ladies of old-fashioned days to hang
their chatelaines on, seemed to offer a very opportune means of
suspending my watch, which I took care to wind up beforehand; for,
contrary to the opinion of the Thelemites, I hold that man is only
master of time, which is Life itself, when he has divided it into
hours, minutes and seconds--that is to say, into parts proportioned
to the brevity of human existence.
And I thought to myself that life really seems short to us only
because we measure it irrationally by our own mad hopes. We have all
of us, like the old man in the fable, a new wing to add to our
building. I want, for example, before I die, to finish my "History
of the Abbots of Saint-Germain-de-Pres." The time God allots to
each one of us is like a precious tissue which we embroider as we
best know how. I had begun my woof with all sorts of philological
illustrations.... So my thoughts wandered on; and at last, as I
bound my foulard about my head, the notion of Time led me back to
the past; and for the second time within the same round of the dial
I thought of you, Clementine--to bless you again in your prosperity,
if you have any, before blowing out my candle and falling asleep
amid the chanting of the frogs.
During breakfast I had many opportunities to appreciate the good
taste, tact, and intelligence of Madame de Gabry, who told me that
the chateau had its ghosts, and was especially haunted by the "Lady-
with-three-wrinkles-in-her-back," a prisoner during her lifetime,
and thereafter a Soul-in-pain. I could never describe how much wit
and animation she gave to this old nurse's tale. We took out, coffee
on the terrace, whose balusters, clasped and forcibly torn away from
their stone coping by a vigorous growth of ivy, remained suspended
in the grasp of the amorous plant like bewildered Athenian women in
the arms of ravishing Centaurs.
The chateau, shaped something like a four-wheeled wagon, with a turret
at each of the four angles, had lost all original character by
reason of repeated remodellings. It was merely a fine spacious
building, nothing more. It did not appear to me to have suffered
much damage during its abandonment of thirty-two years. But when
Madame de Gabry conducted me into the great salon of the ground-
floor, I saw that the planking was bulged in and out, the plinths
rotten, the wainscotings split apart, the paintings of the piers
turned black and hanging more than half out of their settings. A
chestnut-tree, after forcing up the planks of the floor, had grown
tall under the ceiling, and was reaching out its large-leaved
branches towards the glassless windows.
This spectacle was not devoid of charm; but I could not look at it
without anxiety as I remembered that the rich library of Monsieur
Honore de Gabry, in an adjoining apartment, must have been exposed
for the same length of time to the same forces of decay. Yet, as I
looked at the young chestnut-tree in the salon, I could not but
admire the magnificent vigour of Nature, and that resistless power
which forces every germ to develop into life. On the other hand I
felt saddened to think that, whatever effort we scholars may make to
preserve dead things from passing away, we are labouring painfully
in vain. Whatever has lived becomes the necessary food of new
existences. And the Arab who builds himself a hut out of the marble
fragments of a Palmyra temple is really more of a philosopher than
all the guardians of museums at London, Munich, or Paris.
All day long I have been classifying MSS.... The sun came in through
the loft uncurtained windows; and, during my reading, often very
interesting, I could hear the languid bumblebees bump heavily against
the windows, and the flies intoxicated with light and heat, making
their wings hum in circles around my head. So loud became their
humming about three o'clock that I looked up from the document I was
reading--a document containing very precious materials for the history
of Melun in the thirteenth century--to watch the concentric movements
of those tiny creatures. "Bestions," Lafontaine calls them: he
found this form of the word in the old popular speech, whence also
the term, tapisserie-a-bestions, applied to figured tapestry. I
was compelled to confess that the effect of heat upon the wings of a
fly is totally different from that it exerts upon the brain of a
paleographical archivist; for I found it very difficult to think,
and a rather pleasant languor weighing upon me, from which I could
rouse myself only by a very determined effort. The dinner-bell then
startled me in the midst of my labours; and I had barely time to put
on my new dress-coat, so as to make a respectable appearance before
Madame de Gabry.
The repast, generously served, seemed to prolong itself for my
benefit. I am more than a fair judge of wine; and my hostess, who
discovered my knowledge in this regard, was friendly enough to open
a certain bottle of Chateau-Margaux in my honour. With deep respect
I drank of this famous and knightly old wine, which comes from the
slopes of Bordeaux, and of which the flavour and exhilarating power
are beyond praise. The ardour of it spread gently through my veins,
and filled me with an almost juvenile animation. Seated beside
Madame de Gabry on the terrace, in the gloaming which gave a charming
melancholy to the park, and lent to every object an air of mystery,
I took pleasure in communicating my impression of the scene to my
hostess. I discoursed with a vivacity quite remarkable on the part
of a man so devoid of imagination as I am. I described to her
spontaneously, without quoting from an old texts, the caressing
melancholy of the evening, and the beauty of that natal earth which
feeds us, not only with bread and wine, but also with ideas,
sentiments, and beliefs, and which will at last take us all back to
her maternal breast again, like so many tired little children at
the close of a long day.
"Monsieur," said the kind lady, "you see these old towers, those
trees, that sky; is it not quite natural that the personage of the
popular tales and folk-songs should have been evoked by such scenes?
Why, over there is the very path which Little Red Riding-hood
followed when she went to the woods to pick nuts. Across this
changeful and always vapoury sky the fairy chariots used to roll;
and the north tower might have sheltered under its pointed roof that
same old spinning woman whose distaff picked the Sleeping Beauty
in the Wood."
I continued to muse upon her pretty fancies, while Monsieur Paul
related to me, as he puffed a very strong cigar, the history of some
suit he had brought against the commune about a water-right. Madame
de Gabry, feeling the chill night air, began to shiver under the
shawl her husband had wrapped about her, and left us to go to her
room. I then decided, instead of going to my own, to return to the
library and continue my examination of the manuscripts. In spite
of the protests of Monsieur Paul, I entered what I may call, in
old-fashioned phrase, "the book-room," and started to work by the
light of a lamp.
After having read fifteen pages, evidently written by some ignorant
and careless scribe, for I could scarcely discern their meaning,
I plunged my hand into the pocket of my coat to get my snuff-box;
but this movement, usually so natural and almost instinctive, this
time cost me some effort and even fatigue. Nevertheless, I got out
the silver box, and took from it a pinch of the odorous powder, which,
somehow or other, I managed to spill all over my shirt-bosom under
my baffled nose. I am sure my nose must have expressed its
disappointment, for it is a very expressive nose. More than once it
has betrayed my secret thoughts, and especially upon a certain
occasion at the public library of Coutances, where I discovered,
right in front of my colleague Brioux, the "Cartulary of Notre-
What a delight! My little eyes remained as dull and expressionless
as ever behind my spectacles. But at the mere sight of my thick pug-
nose, which quivered with joy and pride, Brioux knew that I had
found something. He noted the volume I was looking at, observed the
place where I put it back, pounced upon it as soon as I turned my
heel, copied it secretly, and published in haste, for the sake of
playing me a trick. But his edition swarms with errors, and I had
the satisfaction of afterwards criticising some of the gross blunders
But to come back to the point at which I left off: I began to suspect
that I was getting very sleepy indeed. I was looking at a chart of
which the interest may be divined from the fact that it contained
mention of a hutch sold to Jehan d'Estonville, priest, in 1312. But
although, even then, I could recognise the importance of the document,
I did not give it that attention it so strongly invited. My eyes
would keep turning, against my will, towards a certain corner of the
table where there was nothing whatever interesting to a learned mind.
There was only a big German book there, bound in pigskin, with brass
studs on the sides, and very thick cording upon the back. It was a
find copy of a compilation which has little to recommend it except
the wood engravings it contains, and which is known as the
"Cosmography of Munster." This volume, with its covers slightly open,
was placed upon edge with the back upwards.
I could not say for how long I had been staring causelessly at the
sixteenth-century folio, when my eyes were captivated by a sight so
extraordinary that even a person as devoid of imagination as I could
not but have been greatly astonished by it.
I perceived, all of a sudden, without having noticed her coming into
the room, a little creature seated on the back of the book, with one
knee bent and one leg hanging down--somewhat in the attitude of the
amazons of Hyde Park or the Bois de Boulogne on horseback. She was
so small that her swinging foot did not reach the table, over which
the trail of her dress extended in a serpentine line. But her face
and figure were those of an adult. The fulness of her corsage and
the roundness of her waist could leave no doubt of that, even for
an old savant like myself. I will venture to add that she was
very handsome, with a proud mien; for my iconographic studies have
long accustomed me to recognise at once the perfection of a type and
the character of a physiognomy. The countenance of this lady who
had seated herself inopportunely on the back of "Cosmography of
Munster" expressed a mingling of haughtiness and mischievousness.
She had the air of a queen, but a capricious queen; and I judged,
from the mere expression of her eyes, that she was accustomed to
wield great authority somewhere, in a very whimsical manner. Her
mouth was imperious and mocking, and those blue eyes of hers seemed
to laugh in a disquieting way under her finely arched black eyebrows.
I have always heard that black eyebrows are very becoming to blondes;
but this lady was very blonde. On the whole, the impression she gave
me was one of greatness.
It may seem odd to say that a person who was no taller than a wine-
bottle, and who might have been hidden in my coat pocket--but that
it would have been very disrespectful to put her in it--gave me
precisely an idea of greatness. But in the fine proportions of the
lady seated upon the "Cosmography of Munster" there was such a proud
elegance, such a harmonious majesty, and she maintained an attitude
at once so easy and so noble, that she really seemed to me a very
great person. Although my ink-bottle, which she examined with an
expression of such mockery as appeared to indicate that she knew in
advance every word that would come out of it at the end of my pen,
was for her a deep basin in which she would have blackened her gold-
clocked pink stockings up to the garter, I can assure you that she
was great, and imposing even in her sprightliness.
Her costume, worthy of her face, was extremely magnificent; it
consisted of a robe of gold-and-silver brocade, and a mantle of
nacarat velvet, lined with vair. Her head-dress was a sort of
hennin, with two high points; and pearls of splendid lustre made
it bright and luminous as a crescent moon. Her little white hand
held a wand. That wand drew my attention very strongly, because my
archaeological studies had taught me to recognise with certainty
every sign by which the notable personages of legend and of history
are distinguished. This knowledge came to my aid during various
very queer conjectures with which I was labouring. I examined the
wand, and saw that it appeared to have been cut from a branch of
"Then its a fairy's wand," I said to myself; "consequently the lady
who carries it is a fairy."
Happy at thus discovering what sort of a person was before me, I tried
to collect my mind sufficiently to make her a graceful compliment.
It would have given me much satisfaction, I confess, if I could have
talked to her about the part taken by her people, not less in the
life of the Saxon and Germanic races, than in that of the Latin
Occident. Such a dissertation, it appeared to me, would have been
an ingenious method of thanking the lady for having thus appeared to
an old scholar, contrary to the invariable custom of her kindred,
who never show themselves but to innocent children or ignorant
Because one happens to be a fairy, one is none the less a woman, I
said to myself; and since Madame Recamier, according to what I heard
J. J. Ampere say, used to blush with pleasure when the little chimney-
sweeps opened their eyes as wide as they could to look at her, surely
the supernatural lady seated upon the "Cosmography of Munster" might
feel flattered to hear an erudite man discourse learnedly about her,
as about a medal, a seal, a fibula, or a token. But such an
undertaking, which would have cost my timidity a great deal, became
totally out of the question when I observed the Lady of the
Cosmography suddenly take from an alms purse hanging at her girdle
the very smallest of nuts I had ever seen, crack the shells between
her teeth, and throw them at my nose, while she nibbled the kernels
with the gravity of a sucking child.
At this conjuncture, I did what the dignity of science demanded of
me--I remained silent. But the nut-shells caused such a painful
tickling that I put up my hand to my nose, and found, to my great
surprise, that my spectacles were straddling the very end of it--
so that I was actually looking at the lady, not through my spectacles,
but over them. This was incomprehensible, because my eyes, worn out
over old texts, cannot ordinarily distinguish anything without
glasses--could not tell a melon from a decanter, though the two were
placed close up to my nose.
That nose of mine, remarkable for its size, its shape, and its
coloration, legitimately attracted the attention of the fairy; for
she seized my goose-quill pen, which was sticking up from the ink-
bottle like a plume, and she began to pass the feather-end of that
pen over my nose. I had had more than once, in company, occasion
to suffer cheerfully from the innocent mischief of young ladies,
who made me join their games, and would offer me their cheeks to
kiss through the back of a chair, or invite me to blow out a candle
which they would lift suddenly above the range of my breath. But
until that moment no person of the fair sex had ever subjected me to
such a whimsical piece of familiarity as that of tickling my nose
with my own feather pen. Happily I remembered the maxim of my late
grandfather, who was accustomed to say that everything was permissible
on the part of ladies, and that whatever they do to us is to be
regarded as a grace and a favour. Therefore, as a grace and a favour
I received the nutshells and the titillations with my own pen, and
I tried to smile. Much more!--I even found speech.
"Madame," I said, with dignified politeness, "you accord the honour
of a visit not to a silly child, not to a boor, but to a bibliophile
who is very happy to make your acquaintance, and who knows that long
ago you used to make elf-knots in the manes of mares at the crib,
drink the milk from the skimming-pails, slip graines-a-gratter down
the backs of our great-grandmothers, make the hearth sputter in the
faces of the old folks, and, in short, fill the house with disorder
and gaiety. You can also boast of giving the nicest frights in the
world to lovers who stayed out in the woods too late of evenings.
But I thought you had vanished out of existence at least three
centuries ago. Can it really be, Madame, that you are still to be
seen in this age of railways and telegraphs? My concierge, who used
to be a nurse in her young days, does not know your story; and my
little boy-neighbour, whose nose is still wiped for him by his
bonne, declares that you do not exist."
"What do you yourself think about it?" she cried, in a silvery voice,
straightening up her royal little figure in a very haughty fashion,
and whipping the back of the "Cosmography of Munster" as though it
were a hippogriff.
"I don't really know," I answered rubbing my eyes.
This reply, indicating a deeply scientific scepticism, had the most
deplorable effect upon my questioner.
"Monsieur Sylvestre Bonnard," she said to me, "you are nothing but an
old pedant. I always suspected as much. The smallest little
ragamuffin who goes along the road with his shirt-tail sticking
out through a hole in his pantaloons knows more about me than all
the old spectacled folks in your Institutes and your Academies. To
know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything. Nothing exists
except that which is imagined. I am imaginary. That is what it is
to exist, I should think! I am dreamed of, and I appear. Everything
is only dream; and as nobody ever dreams about you, Sylvestre Bonnard,
it is YOU who do not exist. I charm the world; I am everywhere--on
a moon-beam, in the trembling of a hidden spring, in the moving of
leaves that murmur, in the white vapours that rise each morning from
the hollow meadow, in the thickets of pink brier--everywhere!...
I am seen; I am loved. There are sighs uttered, weird thrills of
pleasure felt by those who follow the light print of my feet, as I
make the dead leaves whisper. I make the little children smile; I
give wit to the dullest-minded nurses. Leaning above the cradles,
I play, I comfort, I lull to sleep--and you doubt whether I exist!
Sylvestre Bonnard, your warm coat covers the hide of an ass!"
She ceased speaking; her delicate nostrils swelled with indignation;
and while I admired, despite my vexation, the heroic anger of this
little person, hse pushed my pen about in the ink-bottle, backward
and forward, like an oar, and then suddenly threw it at my nose,
I rubbed by face, and felt it all covered with ink. She had
disappeared. My lamp was extinguished. A ray of moonlight streamed
down through a window and descended upon the "Cosmography of Munster."
A strong cool wind, which had arisen very suddenly without my
knowledge, was blowing my papers, pens, and wafers about. My table
was all stained with ink. I had left my window open during the storm.
What an imprudence!
I wrote to my housekeeper, as I promised, that I was safe and sound.
But I took good care not to tell her that I had caught a cold from
going to sleep in the library at night with the window open; for the
good woman would have been as unsparing in her remonstrances to me
as parliaments to kings. "At your age, Monsieur," she would have
been sure to say, "one ought to have more sense." She is simple
enough to believe that sense grows with age. I seem to her an
exception to this rule.
Not having any similar motive for concealing my experiences from
Madame de Gabry, I told her all about my vision, which she seemed
to enjoy very much.
"Why, that was a charming dream of yours," she said; "and one must
have real genius to dream such a dream."
"Then I am a real genius when I am asleep," I responded.
"When you dream," she replied; "and you are always dreaming."
I know that Madame de Gabry, in making this remark, only wished to
please me; but that intention alone deserves my utmost gratitude;
and it is therefore in a spirit of thankfulness and kindliest
remembrance that I write down her words, which I will read over and
over again until my dying day, and which will never be read by any
one save myself.
I passed the next few days in completing the inventory of the
manuscripts in the Lusance library. Certain confidential observations
dropped by Monsieur Paul de Gabry, however, caused me some painful
surprise, and made me decide to pursue the work after a different
manner from that in which I had begun it. From those few words I
learned that the fortune of Monsieur Honore de Gabry, which had been
badly managed for many years, and subsequently swept away to a large
extent through the failure of a banker whose name I do not know,
had been transmitted to the heirs of the old French nobleman only
under the form of mortgaged real estate and irrecoverable assets.
Monsieur Paul, by agreement with his joint heirs, had decided to sell
the library, and I was intrusted with the task of making arrangements
to have the sale effected upon advantageous terms. But totally
ignorant as I was of all the business methods and trade-customs, I
thought it best to get the advice of a publisher who was one of my
private friends. I wrote him at once to come and join me at Lusance;
and while waiting for his arrival I took my hat and cane and made
visits to the different churches of the diocese, in several of which
I knew there were certain mortuary inscriptions to be found which had
never been correctly copied.
So I left my hosts and departed my pilgrimage. Exploring the churches
and the cemeteries every day, visiting the parish priests and the
village notaries, supping at the public inns with peddlers and cattle-
dealers, sleeping at night between sheets scented with lavender, I
passed one whole week in the quiet but profound enjoyment of observing
the living engaged in their various daily occupations even while I
was thinking of the dead. As for the purpose of my researches, I
made only a few mediocre discoveries, which caused me only a mediocre
joy, and one therefore salubrious and not at all fatiguing. I copied
a few interesting epitaphs; and I added to this little collection a
few recipes for cooking country dishes, which a certain good priest
kindly gave me.
With these riches, I returned to Lusance; and I crossed the court-
of-honour with such secret satisfaction as a bourgeois fells on
entering his own home. This was the effect of the kindness of my
hosts; and the impression I received on crossing their threshold
proves, better than any reasoning could do, the excellence of their
I entered the great parlour without meeting anybody; and the young
chestnut-tree there spreading out its broad leaves seemed to me
like an old friend. But the next thing which I saw--on the
pier-table--caused me such a shock of surprise that I readjusted my
glasses upon my nose with both hands at once, and then felt myself
over so as to get at least some superficial proof of my own existence.
In less than one second there thronged from my mind twenty different
conjectures--the most rational of which was that I had suddenly
become crazy. It seemed to me absolutely impossible that what I was
looking at could exist; yet it was equally impossible for me not to
see it as a thing actually existing. What caused my surprise was
resting on the pier-table, above which rose a great dull speckled
I saw myself in that mirror; and I can say that I saw for once in my
life the perfect image of stupefaction. But I made proper allowance
for myself; I approved myself for being so stupefied by a really
The object I was thus examining with a degree of astonishment that
all my reasoning power failed to lessen, obtruded itself on my
attention though quite motionless. The persistence and fixity of
the phenomenon excluded any idea of hallucination. I am totally
exempt from all nervous disorders capable of influencing the sense
of sight. The cause of such visual disturbance is, I think,
generally due to stomach trouble; and, thank God! I have an excellent
stomach. Moreover, visual illusions are accompanied with special
abnormal conditions which impress the victims of hallucination
themselves, and inspire them with a sort of terror. Now, I felt
nothing of this kind; the object which I saw, although seemingly
impossible in itself, appeared to me under all the natural conditions
of reality. I observed that it had three dimensions, and colours,
and that it cast a shadow. Ah! how I stared at it! The water came
into my eyes so that I had to wipe the glasses of my spectacles.
Finally I found myself obliged to yield to the evidence, and to
affirm that I had really before my eyes the Fairy, the very same
Fairy I had been dreaming of in the library a few evenings before.
It was she, it was her very self, I assure you! She had the same
air of child-queen, the same proud supple poise; she held the same
hazel wand in her hand; she still wore her double-peaked head-dress,
and the train of her long brocade robe undulated about her little
feet. Same face, same figure. It was she indeed; and to prevent
any possible doubt of it, she was seated on the back of a huge old-
fashioned book strongly resembling the "Cosmography of Munster."
Her immobility but half reassured me; I was really afraid that she
was going to take some more nuts out of her alms-purse and throw the
shells at my face.
I was standing there, waving my hands and gaping, when the musical
and laughing voice of Madame de Gabry suddenly rang in my ears.
"So you are examining your fairy, Monsieur Bonnard!" said my hostess.
"Well, do you think the resemblance good?"
It was very quickly said; but even while hearing it I had time to
perceive that my fairy was a statuette in coloured wax, modeled with
much taste and spirit by some novice hand. But the phenomenon, even
thus reduced by a rational explanation, did not cease to excite my
surprise. How, and by whom, had the Lady of the Cosmography been
enabled to assume plastic existence? That was what remained for me
Turning towards Madame de Gabry, I perceived that she was not alone.
A young girl dressed in black was standing beside her. She had
large intelligent eyes, of a grey as sweet as that of the sky of the
Isle of France, and at once artless and characteristic in their
expression. At the extremities of her rather thin arms were
fidgeting uneasily two slender hands, supple but slightly red, as it
becomes the hands of young girls to be. Sheathed in her closely
fitting merino robe, she had the slim grace of a young tree; and her
large mouth bespoke frankness. I could not describe how much the
child pleased me at first sight! She was not beautiful; but the
three dimples of her cheeks and chin seemed to laugh, and her whole
person, which revealed the awkwardness of innocence, had something
in it indescribably good and sincere.
My gaze alternated from the statuette to the young girl; and I saw
her blush--so frankly and fully!--the crimson passing over her face
as by waves.
"Well," said my hostess, who had become sufficiently accustomed to
my distracted moods to put the same question to me twice, "is that
the very same lady who came in to see you through the window that
you left open? She was very saucy, but then you were quite
imprudent! Anyhow, do you recognise her?"
"It is her very self," I replied; "I see her now on that pier-table
precisely as I saw her on the table in the library."
"Then, if that be so," replied Madame de Gabry, "you have to blame
for it, in the first place, yourself, as a man who, although devoid
of all imagination, to use your own words, knew how to depict your
dream in such vivid colours; in the second place, me, who was able
to remember and repeat faithfully all your dream; and lastly,
Mademoiselle Jeanne, whom I now introduce to you, for she herself
modeled that wax figure precisely according to my instructions."
Madame de Gabry had taken the young girl's hand as she spoke; but the
latter had suddenly broken away from her, and was already running
through the park with the speed of a bird.
"Little crazy creature!" Madame de Gabry cried after her. "How can
one be so shy? Come back here to be scolded and kissed!"
But it was all of no avail; the frightened child disappeared among
the shrubbery. Madame de Gabry seated herself in the only chair
remaining in the dilapidated parlour.
"I should be much surprised," she said, "If my husband had not
already spoken to you of Jeanne. She is a sweet child, and we both
lover her very much. Tell me the plain truth; what do you think
of her statuette?"
I replied that the work was full of good taste and spirit, but that
it showed some want of study and practice on the author's part;
otherwise I had been extremely touched to think that those young
fingers should have thus embroidered an old man's rough sketch of
fancy, and given form so brilliantly to the dreams of a dotard like
"The reason I ask your opinion," replied Madame de Gabry, seriously,
"is that Jeanne is a poor orphan. Do you think she could earn her
living by modelling statuettes like this one?"
"As for that, no!" I replied; "and I think there is no reason to
regret the fact. You say the girl is affectionate and sensitive;
I can well believe you; I could believe it from her face alone. There
are excitements in artist-life which impel generous hearts to act
out of all rule and measure. This young creature is made to love;
keep her for the domestic hearth. There only is real happiness."
"But she has no dowry!" replied Madame de Gabry.
Then, extending her hand to me, she continued:
"You are our friend; I can tell you everything. The father of this
child was a banker, and one of our friends. He went into a colossal
speculation, and it ruined him. He survived only a few months after
his failure, in which, as Paul must have told you, three-fourths of
my uncle's fortune were lost, and more than half of our own.
"We had made his acquaintance at Manaco, during the winter we passed
there at my uncle's house. He had an adventurous disposition, but
such an engaging manner! He deceived himself before ever he deceived
others. After all, it is in the ability to deceive oneself that the
greatest talent is shown, is it not? Well, we were captured--my
husband, my uncle, and I; and we risked much more than a reasonable
amount in a very hazardous undertaking. But, bah! as Paul says,
since we have no children we need not worry about it. Besides, we
have the satisfaction of knowing that the friend in whom we trusted
was an honest man.... You must know his name, it was so often in
the papers an on public placards--Noel Alexandre. His wife was a
very sweet person. I knew her only when she was already past her
prime, with traces of having once been very pretty, and a taste for
fashionable style and display which seemed quite becoming to her.
She was naturally fond of social excitement; but she showed a great
deal of courage and dignity after the death of her husband. She
died a year after him, leaving Jeanne alone in the world."
"Clementine!" I cried out.
And on thus learning what I had never imagined--the mere idea of which
would have set all the forces of my soul in revolt--upon hearing
that Clementine was no longer in this world, something like a great
silence came upon me; and the feeling which flooded my whole being
was not a keen, strong pain, but a quiet and solemn sorrow. Yet I
was conscious of some incomprehensible sense of alleviation, and my
thought rose suddenly to heights before unknown.
"From wheresoever thou art at this moment, Clementine," I said to
myself, "look down upon this old heart now indeed cooled by age, yet
whose blood once boiled for thy sake, and say whether it is not
reanimated by the mere thought of being able to love all that remains
of thee on earth. Everything passes away since thou thyself hast
passed away; but Life is immortal; it is that Life we must love in
its forms eternally renewed. All the rest is child's play; and I
myself, with all my books, am only like a child playing with marbles.
The purpose of life--it is thou, Clementine, who has revealed it to
Madame de Gabry aroused me from my thoughts by murmuring,
"The child is poor."
"The daughter of Clementine is poor!" I exclaimed aloud; "how
fortunate that is so! I would not whish that any one by myself
should proved for her and dower her! No! the daughter of Clementine
must not have her dowry from any one but me."
And, approaching Madame de Gabry as she rose from her chair, I took
her right hand; I kissed that hand, and placed it on my arm, and
"You will conduct me to the grave of the widow of Noel Alexandre."
And I heard Madame de Gabry asking me:
"Why are you crying?"
Chapter IV -- The Little Saint-George
Saint Drocoveus and the early abbots of Saint-Germain-des-Pres have
been occupying me for the past forty years; but I do not know if I
shall be able to write their history before I go to join them. It
is already quite a long time since I became an old man. One day
last year, on the Pont des Arts, one of my fellow members at the
Institute was lamenting before me over the ennui of becoming old.
"Still," Saint-Beuve replied to him, "it is the only way that has
yet been found of living a long time."
I have tried this way, and I know just what it is worth. The trouble
of it is not that one lasts too long, but that one sees all about
him pass away--mother, wife, friends, children. Nature makes and
unmakes all these divine treasures with gloomy indifference, and
at last we find that we have not loved, we have only been embracing
shadows. But how sweet some shadows are! If ever creature glided
like a shadow through the life of a man, it was certainly that
young girl whom I fell in love with when--incredible though it
now seems--I was myself a youth.
A Christian sarcophagus from the catacombs of Rome bears a formula
of imprecation, the whole terrible meaning of which I only learned
with time. It says: "Whatsoever impious man violates this sepulchre,
may he die the last of his own people!" In my capacity of
archaeologist, I have opened tombs and disturbed ashes in order to
collect the shreds of apparel, metal ornaments, or gems that were
mingled with those ashes. But I did it only through that scientific
curiosity which does not exclude feelings of reverence and of piety.
May that malediction graven by some one of the first followers of
the apostles upon a martyr's tomb never fall upon me! I ought not
to fear to survive my own people so long as there are men in the
world; for there are always some whom one can love.
But the power of love itself weakens and gradually becomes lost with
age, like all the other energies of man. Example proves it; and
it is this which terrifies me. Am I sure that I have not myself
already suffered this great loss? I should surely have felt it,
but for the happy meeting which has rejuvenated me. Poets speak of
the Fountain of Youth; it does exist; it gushes up from the earth
at every step we take. And one passes by without drinking of it!
The young girl I loved, married of her own choice to a rival, passed,
all grey-haired, into the eternal rest. I have found her daughter--
so that my life, which before seemed to me without utility, now
once more finds a purpose and a reason for being.
To-day I "take the sun," as they say in Provence; I take it on the
terrace of the Luxembourg, at the foot of the statue of Marguerite
de Navarre. It is a spring sun, intoxicating as young wine. I sit
and dream. My thoughts escape from my head like the foam from a
bottle of beer. They are light, and their fizzing amuses me. I
dream; such a pastime is certainly permissible to an old fellow who
has published thirty volumes of texts, and contributed to the 'Journal
des Savants' for twenty-six years. I have the satisfaction of
feeling that I performed my task as well as it was possible for me
to do, and that I utilised to their fullest extent those mediocre
faculties with which Nature endowed me. My efforts were not all in
vain, and I have contributed, in my own modest way, to that
renaissance of historical labours which will remain the honour of
this restless century. I shall certainly be counted among those ten
or twelve who revealed to France her own literary antiquities. My
publication of the poetical works of Gautier de Coincy inaugurated
a judicious system and fixed a date. It is in the austere calm of
old age that I decree to myself this deserved credit, and God, who
sees my heart, knows whether pride or vanity have aught to do with
this self-award of justice.
But I am tired; my eyes are dim; my hand trembles, and I see an
image of myself in those old me of Homer, whose weakness excluded
them from the battle, and who, seated upon the ramparts, lifted up
their voices like crickets among the leaves.
So my thoughts were wandering when three young men seated themselves
near me. I do not know whether each one of them had come in three
boats, like the monkey of Lafontaine, but the three certainly
displayed themselves over the space of twelve chairs. I took pleasure
in watching them, not because they had anything very extraordinary
about them, but because I discerned in them that brave joyous manner
which is natural to youth. They were from the schools. I was less
assured of it by the books they were carrying than by the character
of their physiognomy. For all who busy themselves with the things
of the mind can be at once recognised by an indescribably something
which is common to all of them. I am very fond of young people;
and these pleased me, in spite of a certain provoking wild manner
which recalled to me my own college days with marvellous vividness.
But they did not wear velvet doublets and long hair, as we used to
do; they did not walk about, as we used to do, "Hell and malediction!"
They were quite properly dressed, and neither their costume nor their
language had anything suggestive of the Middle Ages. I must also
add that they paid considerable attention to the women passing on the
terrace, and expressed their admiration of some of them in very
animated language. But their reflections, even on this subject,
were not of a character to oblige me to flee from my seat. Besides,
so long as youth is studious, I think it has a right to its gaieties.
One of them, having made some gallant pleasantry which I forget, the
smallest and darkest of the three exclaimed, with a slight Gascon
"What a thing to say! Only physiologists like us have any right to
occupy ourselves about living matter. As for you, Gelis, who only
live in the past--like all your fellow archivists and paleographers--
you will do better to confine yourself to those stone women over
there, who are your contemporaries."
And he pointed to the statues of the Ladies of Ancient France which
towered up, all white, in a half-circle under the trees of the
terrace. This joke, though in itself trifling, enabled me to know
that the young man called Gelis was a student at the Ecole des
Chartes. From the conversation which followed I was able to learn
that his neighbor, blond and wan almost to diaphaneity, taciturn
and sarcastic was Boulmier, a fellow student. Gelis and the future
doctor (I hope he will become one some day) discoursed together
with much fantasy and spirit. In the midst of the loftiest
speculations they would play upon words, and make jokes after the
peculiar fashion of really witty persons--that is to say, in a style
of enormous absurdity. I need hardly say, I suppose, that they only
deigned to maintain the most monstrous kind of paradoxes. They
employed all their powers of imagination to make themselves as
ludicrous as possible, and all their powers of reasoning to assert
the contrary of common sense. All the better for them! I do not
like to see young folks too rational.
The student of medicine, after glancing at the title of the book that
Boulmier held in his hand, exclaimed,
"What!--you read Michelet--you?"
"Yes," replied Boulmier, very gravely. "I like novels."
Gelis, who dominated both by his fine stature, imperious gestures,
and ready wit, took the book, turned over a few pages rapidly, and
"Michelet always had a great propensity to emotional tenderness. He
wept sweet tears over Maillard, that nice little man introduced la
paperasserie into the September massacres. But as emotional
tenderness leads to fury, he becomes all at once furious against
the victims. There was no help for it. It is the sentimentality of
the age. The assassin is pitied, but the victim is considered quite
unpardonable. In his later manner Michelet is more Michelet than
ever before. There is no common sense in it; it is simply wonderful!
Neither art nor science, neither criticism nor narrative; only furies
and fainting-spells and epileptic fits over matters which he never
deigns to explain. Childish outcries--envies de femme grosse!--and
a style, my friends!--not a single finished phrase! It is
And he handed the book back to his comrade. "This is amusing
madness," I thought to myself, "and not quite so devoid of common
sense as it appears. This young man, though only playing has sharply
touched the defect in the cuirass."
But the Provencal student declared that history was a thoroughly
despicable exercise of rhetoric. According to him, the only true
history was the natural history of man. Michelet was in the right
path when he came in contact with the fistula of Louis XIV., but he
fell back into the old rut almost immediately afterwards.
After this judicious expression of opinion, the young physiologist
went to join a party of passing friends. The two archivists, less
well acquainted in the neighbourhood of a garden so far from the
Rue Paradis-au-Marais, remained together, and began to chat about
their studies. Gelis, who had completed his third class-year, was
preparing a thesis on the subject of which he expatiated with
youthful enthusiasm. Indeed, I thought the subject a very good one,
particularly because I had recently thought myself called upon to
treat a notable part of it. It was the Monasticon Gallicanum.
The young erudite (I give him the name as a presage) wanted to
describe all the engravings made about 1690 for the work which Dom
Michel Germain would have had printed but for the one irremediable
hindrance which is rarely foreseen and never avoided. Dom Michel
Germain would have had printed but for the one irremediable hindrance
which is rarely foreseen and never avoided. Dom Michel Germain left
his manuscript complete, however, and in good order when he died.
Shall I be able to do as much with mine?--but that is not the present
question. So far as I am able to understand, Monsieur Gelis intends
to devote a brief archaeological notice to each of the abbeys
pictured by the humble engravers of Dom Michel Germain.
His friend asked him whether he was acquainted with all the
manuscripts and printed documents relating to the subject. It was
then that I pricked up my ears. They spoke at first of original
sources; and I must confess they did so in a satisfactory manner,
despite their innumerable and detestable puns. Then they began to
speak about contemporary studies on the subject.
"Have you read," asked Boulmier, "the notice of Courajod?"
"Good!" I thought to myself.
"Yes," replied Gelis; "it is accurate."
"Have you read," said Boulmier, "the article of Tamisey de Larroque
in the 'Revue des Questions Historiques'?"
"Good!" I thought to myself, for the second time.
"Yes," replied Gelis, "it is full of things."...
"Have you read," said Boulmier, "the 'Tableau des Abbayes
Benedictines en 1600,' by Sylvestre Bonnard?"
"Good!" I said to myself, for the third time.
"Mai foi! no!" replied Gelis. "Bonnard is an idiot!" Turning my
head, I perceived that the shadow had reached the place where I was
sitting. It was growing chilly, and I thought to myself what a fool
I was to have remained sitting there, at the risk of getting
rheumatism, just to listen to the impertinence of those two young
"Well! well!" I said to myself as I got up. "Let this prattling
fledgling write his thesis and sustain it! He will find my colleague,
Quicherat, or some other professor at the school, to show him what
an ignoramus he is. I consider him neither more nor less than a
rascal; and really, now that I come to think of it, what he said
about Michelet awhile ago was quite insufferable, outrageous! To
talk in that way about an old master replete with genius! It was
"Therese, give me my new hat, my best frock-coat, and my silver-
But Therese is deaf as a sack of charcoal and slow as Justice.
Years have made her so. The worst is that she thinks she can hear
well and move about well; and, proud of her sixty years of upright
domesticity, she serves her old master with the most vigilant
"What did I tell you?" ...And now she will not give me my silver-
headed cane, for fear that I might lose it! It is true that I often
forget umbrellas and walking-sticks in the omnibuses and booksellers'
shops. But I have a special reason for wanting to take out with me
to-day my old cane with the engraved silver head representing Don
Quixote charging a windmill, lance in rest, while Sancho Panza,
with uplifted arms, vainly conjures him to a stop. That cane is
all that came to me from the heritage of my uncle, Captain Victor,
who in his lifetime resembled Don Quixote much more than Sancho
Panza, and who loved blows quite as much as most people fear them.
For thirty years I have been in the habit of carrying this cane
upon all memorable or solemn visits which I make; and those two
figures of knight and squire give me inspiration and counsel. I
imagine I can hear them speak. Don Quixote says,
"Think well about great things; and know that thought is the only
reality in this world. Lift up Nature to thine own stature; and
let the whole universe be for thee no more than the reflection of
thine own heroic soul. Combat for honour's sake: that alone is
worthy of a man! and if it should fall thee to receive wounds,
shed thy blood as a beneficent dew, and smile."
And Sancho Panza says to me in his turn,
"Remain just what heaven made thee, comrade! Prefer the bread-crust
which has become dry in thy wallet to all the partridges that roast
in the kitchen of lords. Obey thy master, whether he by a wise man
or a fool, and do not cumber thy brain with too many useless things.
Fear blows; 'tis verily tempting God to seek after danger!"
But if the incomparable knight and his matchless squire are imagined
only upon this cane of mine, they are realities to my inner
conscience. Within every one of us there lives both a Don Quixote
and a Sancho Panza to whom we hearken by turns; and though Sancho
most persuades us, it is Don Quixote that we find ourselves obliged
to admire.... But a truce to this dotage!--and let us go to see
Madame de Gabry about some matters more important than the everyday
details of life....
I found Madame de Gabry dressed in black, just buttoning her gloves.
"I am ready," she said.
Ready!--so I have always found her upon any occasion of doing a
After some compliments about the good health of her husband, who was
taking a walk at the time, we descended the stairs and got into the
I do not know what secret influence I feared to dissipate by breaking
silence, but we followed the great deserted drives without speaking,
looking at the crosses, the monumental columns, and the mortuary
wreaths awaiting sad purchasers.
The vehicle at last halted at the extreme verge of the land of the
living, before the gate upon which words of hope are graven.
"Follow me," said Madame de Gabry, whose tall stature I noticed then
for the first time. She first walked down an alley of cypresses,
and then took a very narrow path contrived between the tombs.
Finally, halting before a plain slab, she said to me,
"It is here."
And she knelt down. I could not help noticing the beautiful and
easy manner in which this Christian woman fell upon her knees,
leaving the folds of her robe to spread themselves at random about
her. I had never before seen any lady kneel down with such frankness
and such forgetfulness of self, except two fair Polish exiles, one
evening long ago, in a deserted church in Paris.
This image passed like a flash; and I saw only the sloping stone
on which was graven the name of Clementine. What I then felt was
something so deep and vague that only the sound of some rich music
could convey the idea of it. I seemed to hear instruments of
celestial sweetness make harmony in my old heart. With the solemn
accords of a funeral chant there seemed to mingle the subdued
melody of a song of love; for my soul blended into one feeling the
grave sadness of the present with the familiar graces of the past.
I cannot tell whether we had remained a long time at the tomb of
Clementine before Madame de Gabry arose. We passed through the
cemetery again without speaking to each other. Only when we found
ourselves among the living once more did I feel able to speak.
"While following you there," I said to Madame de Gabry, "I could
not help thinking of those angels with whom we are said to meet on
the mysterious confines of life and death. That tomb you led me
to, of which I knew nothing--as I know nothing, or scarcely
anything, concerning her whom it covers--brought back to me emotions
which were unique in my life, and which seem in the dullness of that
life like some light gleaming upon a dark road. The light recedes
farther and farther away as the journey lengthens; I have now almost
reached the bottom of the last slope; and, nevertheless, each time
I turn to look back I see the glow as bright as ever.
"You, Madame, who knew Clementine as a young wife and mother after
her hair had become grey, you cannot imagine her as I see her still;
a young fair girl, all pink and white. Since you have been so kind
as to be my guide, dear Madame, I ought to tell you what feelings
were awakened in me by the sight of that grave to which you led me.
Memories throng back upon me. I feel myself like some old gnarled
and mossy oak which awakens a nestling world of birds by shaking
its branches. Unfortunately the song my birds sing is old as the
world, and can amuse no one but myself."
"Tell me your souvenirs," said Madame de Gabry. "I cannot read your
books, because they are written only for scholars; but I like very
much to have you talk to me, because you know how to give interest
to the most ordinary things in life. And talk to me just as you
would talk to an old woman. This morning I found three grey threads
in my hair."
"Let them come without regret, Madame," I replied. "Time deals
gently only with those who take it gently. And when in some years
more you will have a silvery fringe under your black fillet, you
will be reclothed with a new beauty, less vivid but more touching
than the first; and you will find your husband admiring your grey
tresses as much as he did that black curl which you gave him when
about to be married, and which he preserves in a locket as a thing
sacred.... These boulevards are broad and very quiet. We can talk
at our ease as we walk along. I will tell you, to begin with, how
I first made the acquaintance of Clementine's father. But you must
not expect anything extraordinary, or anything even remarkable; you
would be greatly deceived.
"Monsieur de Lessay used to live in the second storey of an old house
in the Avenue de l'Observatoire, having a stuccoed front, ornamented
with antique busts, and a large unkept garden attached to it. That
facade and that garden were the first images my child-eyes perceived;
and they will be the last, no doubt, which I still see through my
closed eyelids when the Inevitable Day comes. For it was in that
house that I was born; it was in that garden I first learned, while
playing, to feel and know some particles of this old universe.
Magical hours!--sacred hours!--when the soul, all fresh from the
making, first discoveries the world, which for its sake seems to
assume such caressing brightness, such mysterious charm! And that,
Madame, is indeed because the universe itself is only the reflection
of our soul.
"My mother was being very happily constituted. She rose with the
sun, like the birds; and she herself resembled the birds by her
domestic industry, by her maternal instinct, by her perpetual desire
to sing, and by a sort of brusque grace, which I could feel the
of very well even as a child. She was the soul of the house, which
she filled with her systematic and joyous activity. My father was
just as slow as she was brisk. I can recall very well that placid
face of his, over which at times an ironical smile used to flit.
He was fatigued with active life; and he loved his fatigue. Seated
beside the fire in his big arm-chair, he used to read from morning
till night; and it is from him that I inherit my love of books. I
have in my library a Mably and a Raynal, which he annotated with
his own hand from beginning to end. But it was utterly useless
attempting to interest him in anything practical whatever. When
my mother would try, by all kinds of gracious little ruses, to lure
him out of his retirement, he would simply shake his head with that
inexorable gentleness which is the force of weak characters. He
used in this way greatly to worry the poor woman, who could not
enter at all into his own sphere of meditative wisdom, and could
understand nothing of life except its daily duties and the merry
labour of each hour. She thought him sick, and feared he was going
to become still more so. But his apathy had a different cause.
"My father, entering the Naval office under Monsieur Decres, in 1801,
gave early proof of high administrative talent. There was a great
deal of activity in the marine department in those times; and in
1805 my father was appointed chief of the Second Administrative
Division. That same year, the Emperor, whose attention had been
called to him by the Minister, ordered him to make a report upon
the organisation of the English navy. This work, which reflected
a profoundly liberal and philosophic spirit, of which the editor
himself was unconscious, was only finished in 1807--about eighteen
months after the defeat of Admiral Villeneuve at Trafalgar. Napoleon,
who, from that disastrous day, never wanted to hear the word ship
mentioned in his presence, angrily glanced over a few pages of the
memoir, and then threw it in the fire, vociferating, 'Words!--words!
I said once before that I hated ideologists.' My father was told
afterwards that the Emperor's anger was so intense at the moment
that he stamped the manuscript down into the fire with his boot-
heels. At all events, it was his habit, when very much irritated,
to poke down the fire with his boot-soles. My father never fully
recovered from this disgrace; and the fruitlessness of all his
efforts towards reform was certainly the cause of the apathy which
came upon him at a later day. Nevertheless, Napoleon, after his
return from Elba, sent for him, and ordered him to prepare some
liberal and patriotic bulletins and proclamations for the fleet.
After Waterloo, my father, whom the event had rather saddened than
surprised, retired into private life, and was not interfered with--
except that it was generally averred of him that he was a Jacobin,
a buveur-de-sang--one of those men with whom no one could afford
to be on intimate terms. My mother's eldest brother, Victor Maldent,
and infantry captain--retired on half-pay in 1814, and disbanded in
1815--aggravated by his bad attitude the situation in which the fall
of the Empire had placed my father. Captain Victor used to shout
in the cafes and the public balls that the Bourbons had sold France
to the Cossacks. He used to show everybody a tricoloured cockade
hidden in the lining of his hat; and carried with much ostentation
a walking-stick, the handle of which had been so carved that the
shadow thrown by it made the silhouette of the Emperor.
"Unless you have seen certain lithographs by Charlet, Madame, you
could form no idea of the physiognomy of my Uncle Victor, when he
used to stride about the garden of the Tuileries with a fiercely
elegant manner of his own--buttoned up in his frogged coat, with
his cross-of-honour upon his breast, and a bouquet of violets in
"Idleness and intemperance greatly intensified the vulgar recklessness
of his political passions. He used to insult people whom he happened
to see reading the 'Quotidienne,' or the 'Drapeau Blanc,' and
compel them to fight with him. In this way he had the pain and
the shame of wounding a boy of sixteen in a duel. In short, my
Uncle Victor was the very reverse of a well-behaved person; and as
he came to lunch and dine at our house every blessed day in the
year, his bad reputation became attached to our family. My poor
father suffered cruelly from some of his guest's pranks; but being
very good-natured, he never made any remarks, and continued to give
the freedom of his house to the captain, who only despised him for
"All this which I have told you, Madame, was explained to me
afterwards. But at the time in question, my uncle the captain filled
me with the very enthusiasm of admiration, and I promised myself
to try to become some day as like him as possible. So one fine
morning, in order to begin the likeness, I put my arms akimbo, and
swore like a trooper. My excellent mother at once gave me such
a box on the ear that I remained half stupefied for some little
while before I could even burst out crying. I can still see the
old arm-chair, covered with yellow Utrecht velvet, behind which I
wept innumerable tears that day.
"I was a very little fellow then. One morning my father, lifting
me upon his knees, as he was in the habit of doing, smiled at me
with that slightly ironical smile which gave a certain piquancy to
his perpetual gentleness of manner. As I sat on his knee, playing
with his long white hair, he told me something which I did not
understand very well, but which interested me very much, for the
simple reason that it was mysterious to me. I think but am not
quite sure, that he related to me that morning the story of the
little King of Yvetot, according to the song. All of a sudden we
heard a great report; and the windows rattled. My father slipped
me down gently on the floor at his feet; he threw up his trembling
arms, with a strange gesture; his face became all inert and white,
and his eyes seemed enormous. He tried to speak, but his teeth
were chattering. At last he murmured, 'They have shot him!' I
did not know what he meant, and felt only a vague terror. I knew
afterwards, however, that hew was speaking of Marshal Ney, who fell
on the 7th of December, 1815, under the wall enclosing some waste
ground beside our house.
"About that time I used often to meet on the stairway an old man
(or, perhaps, not exactly an old man) with little black eyes which
flashed with extraordinary vivacity, and an impassive, swarthy face.
He did not seem to me alive--or at least he did not seem to me alive
in the same way that other men are alive. I had once seen, at the
residence of Monsieur Denon, where my father had taken me with him
on a visit, a mummy brought from Egypt; and I believed in good faith
that Monsieur Denon's mummy used to get up when no one was looking,
leave its gilded case, put on a brown coat and powdered wig, and
become transformed into Monsieur de Lessay. And even to-day, dear
Madame, while I reject that opinion as being without foundation,
I must confess that Monsier de Lessay bore a very strong resemblance
to Monsieur Denon's mummy. The fact is enough to explain why this
person inspired me with fantastic terror.
"In reality, Monsieur de Lessay was a small gentleman and a great
philosopher. As a disciple of Mably and Rousseau, he flattered
himself on being a man without any prejudices; and this pretension
itself is a very great prejudice.
"He professed to hate fanaticism, yet was himself a fanatic on the
topic of toleration. I am telling you, Madame, about a character
belonging to an age that is past. I fear I may not be able to make
you understand, and I am sure I shall not be able to interest you.
It was so long ago! But I will abridge as much as possible:
besides, I did not promise you anything interesting; and you could
not have expected to hear of remarkable adventures in the life of
Madame de Gabry encouraged me to proceed, and I resumed:
"Monsieur de Lessay was brusque with men and courteous to ladies.
He used to kiss the hand of my mother, whom the customs of the
Republic and the Empire had not habituated to such gallantry. In
him, I touched the age of Louis XVI. Monsieur de Lessay was a
geographer; and nobody, I believe, ever showed more pride then he
in occupying himself with the face of the earth. Under the Old
Regime he had attempted philosophical agriculture, and thus
squandered his estates to the very last acre. When he had ceased
to own one square foot of ground, he took possession of the whole
globe, and prepared an extraordinary number of maps, based upon
the narratives of travellers. But as he had been mentally nourished
with the very marrow of the "Encyclopedie," he was not satisfied
with merely parking off human beings within so many degrees, minutes,
and seconds of latitude and longitude. he also occupied himself,
alas! with the question of their happiness. It is worthy of remark,
Madame, that those who have given themselves the most concern about
the happiness of peoples have made their neighbors very miserable.
Monsieur de Lessay, who was more of a geometrician than D'Alembert,
and more of a philosopher than Jean Jacques, was also more of a
royalist than Louis XVIII. But his love for the King was nothing
to his hate for the Emperor. He had joined the conspiracy of
Georges against the First Consul; but in the framing of the
indictment he was not included among the inculpated parties, having
been either ignored or despised, and this injury he never could
forgive Bonaparte, whom he called the Ogre of Corsica, and to whom
he used to say he would never have confided even the command of
a regiment, so pitiful a soldier he judged him to be.
"In 1820, Monsieur de Lessay, who had then been a widower for many
years, married again, at the age of sixty, a very young woman, whom
he pitilessly kept at work preparing maps for him, and who gave him
a daughter some years after their marriage, and died in childbed.
My mother had nursed her during her brief illness, and had taken
care of the child. The name of that child was Clementine.
"It was from the time of that birth and that death that the
relations between our family and Monsieur de Lessay began. In the
meanwhile I had been growing dull as I began to leave my true
childhood behind me. I had lost the charming power of being
able to see and feel; and things no longer caused me those delicious
surprises which form the enchantment of the more tender age. For
the same reason, perhaps, I have no distinct remembrance of the
period following the birth of Clementine; I only know that a few
months afterwards I had a misfortune, the mere thought of which
still wrings my heart. I lost my mother. A great silence, a great
coldness, and a great darkness seemed all at once to fill the house.
"I fell into a sort of torpor. My father sent me to the lycee,
but I could only arouse myself from my lethargy with the greatest
"Still, I was not altogether a dullard, and my professors were able
to teach me almost everything they wanted, namely, a little Greek
and a great deal of Latin. My acquaintances were confined to the
ancients. I learned to esteem Miltiades, and to admire Themistocles.
I became familiar with Quintus Fabius, as far, at least, as it was
possible to become familiar with so great a Consul. Proud of these
lofty acquaintances, I scarcely ever condescended to notice little
Clementine and her old father, who, in any event, went away to
Normandy one fine morning without my having deigned to give a moment's
thought to their possible return.
"They came back, however, Madame, they came back! Influences of
Heaven, forces of nature, all ye mysterious powers which vouchsafe
to man the ability to love, you know how I again beheld Clementine!
They re-entered our melancholy home. Monsieur de Lessay no longer
wore a wig. Bald, with a few grey locks about his ruddy temples,
he had all the aspect of robust old age. But that divine being whom
I saw all resplendent, as she leaned upon his arm--she whose
presence illuminated the old faded parlour--she was not an
apparition! It was Clementine herself! I am speaking the simple
truth: her violet eyes seemed to me in that moment supernatural,
and even to-day I cannot imagine how those two living jewels could
have endured the fatigues of life, or become subjected to the
corruption of death.
"She betrayed a little shyness in greeting my father, whom she did
not remember. Her complexion was slightly pink, and her half-open
lips smiled with that smile which makes one think of the Infinite--
perhaps because it betrays no particular thought, and expresses only
the joy of living and the bliss of being beautiful. Under a pink
hood her face shone like a gem in an open casket; she wore a
cashmere scarf over a robe of white muslin plaited at the waist,
from beneath which protruded the tip of a little Morocco shoe....
Oh! you must not make fun of me, dear Madame, that was the fashion
of the time; and I do not know whether our new fashions have nearly
so much simplicity, brightness, and decorous grace.
"Monsieur de Lessay informed us that, in consequence of having
undertaken the publication of a historical atlas, he had come back
to live in Paris, and that he would be pleased to occupy his former
apartment, if it was still vacant. My father asked Mademoiselle de
Lessay whether she was pleased to visit the capital. She appeared
to be, for her smile blossomed out in reply. She smiled at the
windows that looked out upon the green and luminous garden; she
smiled at the bronze Marius seated among the ruins of Carthage above
the dial of the clock; she smiled a the old yellow-velveted arm-
chairs, and at the poor student who was afraid to lift his eyes to
look at her. From that day--how I loved her!
"But here we are already a the Rue de Severs, and in a little while
we shall be in sight of your windows. I am a very bad story-teller;
and if I were--by some impossible chance--to take it into my head
to compose a novel, I know I should never succeed. I have been
drawing out to tiresome length a narrative which I must finish
briefly; for there is a certain delicacy, a certain grace of soul,
which an old man could not help offending by an complacent
expatiation upon the sentiments of even the purest love. Let us
take a short turn on this boulevard, lined with convents; and my
recital will be easily finished within the distance separating us
from that little spire you see over there....
"Monsieur de Lessay, on finding that I had graduated at the Ecole
des Chartes, judged me worthy to assist him in preparing his
historical atlas. The plan was to illustrate, by a series of maps,
what the old philosopher termed the Vicissitudes of Empires from
the time of Noah down to that of Charlemagne. Monsieur de Lessay
had stored up in his head all the errors of the eighteenth century
in regard to antiquity. I belonged, so far as my historical studies
were concerned, to the new school; and I was just at that age when
one does not know how to dissemble. The manner in which the old man
understood, or, rather, misunderstood, the epoch of the Barbarians--
his obstinate determination to find in remote antiquity only
ambitious princes, hypocritical and avaricious prelates, virtuous
citizens, poet-philosophers, and other personages who never existed
outside of the novels of Marmontel,--made me dreadfully unhappy,
and at first used to excite me into attempts at argument,--rational
enough, but perfectly useless and sometimes dangerous, for Monsieur
de Lessay was very irascible, and Clementine was very beautiful.
Between her and him I passed many hours of torment and of delight.
I was in love; I was a coward, and I granted to him all that he
demanded of me in regard to the political and historical aspect which
the Earth--that was at a later day to bear Clementine--presented
in the time of Abraham, of Menes, and of Deucalion.
"As fast as we drew our maps, Mademoiselle de Lessay tinted them in
water-colours. Bending over the table, she held the brush lightly
between two fingers; the shadow of her eyelashes descended upon her
cheeks, and bather her half-closed eyes in a delicious penumbra.
Sometimes she would lift her head, and I would see her lips pout.
There was so much expression in her beauty that she could not breathe
without seeming to sigh; and her most ordinary poses used to throw
me into the deepest ecstasies of admiration. Whenever I gazed at her
I fully agreed with Monsieur de Lessay that Jupiter had once reigned
as a despot-king over the mountainous regions of Thessaly, and that
Orpheus had committed the imprudence of leaving the teaching of
philosophy to the clergy. I am not now quite sure whether I was a
coward or a hero when I accorded al this to the obstinate old man.
"Mademoiselle de Lessay, I must acknowledge, paid very little
attention to me. But this indifference seemed to me so just and so
natural that I never even dreamed of thinking I had a right to
complain about it; it made me unhappy, but without my knowing that
I was unhappy at the time. I was hopeful;--we had then only got
as far as the First Assyrian Empire.
"Monsieur de Lessay came every evening to take coffee with my father.
I do not know how they became such friends; for it would have been
difficult to find two characters more oppositely constituted. My
father was a man who admired very few things, but was still capable
of excusing a great many. Still, as he grew older, he evinced more
and more dislike of everything in the shape of exaggeration. He
clothed his ideas with a thousand delicate shades of expression,
and never pronounced an opinion without all sorts of reservations.
These conversational habits, natural to a finely trained mind, used
greatly to irritate the dry, terse old aristocrat, who was never
in the least disarmed by the moderation of an adversary--quite the
contrary! I always foresaw one danger. That danger was Bonaparte.
My father had not himself retained an particular affection for his
memory; but, having worked under his direction, he did not like to
hear him abused, especially in favour of the Bourbons, against whom
he had serious reason to feel resentment. Monsieur de Lessay, more
of a Voltairean and a Legitimist than ever, now traced back to
Bonaparte the origin of every social, political, and religious evil.
Such being the situation, the idea of Uncle Victor made me feel
particularly uneasy. This terrible uncle had become absolutely
unsufferable now that his sister was no longer there to calm him
down. The harp of David was broken, and Saul was wholly delivered
over to the spirit of madness. The fall of Charles X. had increased
the audacity of the old Napoleonic veteran, who uttered all
imaginable bravadoes. He no longer frequented our house, which had
become too silent for him. But sometimes, at the dinner-hour, we
would see him suddenly make his appearance, all covered with flowers,
like a mausoleum. Ordinarily he would sit down to table with an
oath, growled out from the very bottom of his chest, and brag,
between every two mouthfuls, of his good fortune with the ladies as
a vieux brave. Then, when the dinner was over, he would fold up
his napkin in the shape of a bishop's mitre, gulp down half a
decanter of brandy, and rush away with the hurried air of a man
terrified at the mere idea of remaining for any length of time,
without drinking, in conversation with an old philosopher and a
young scholar. I felt perfectly sure that, if ever he and Monsieur
de Lessay should come together, all would be lost. But that day
"The captain was almost hidden by flowers that day, and seemed so
much like a monument commemorating the glories of the Empire that
one would have liked to pass a garland of immortelles over each of
his arms. He was in an extraordinarily good humour; and the first
person to profit by that good humour was our cook--for he put his
arm around her waist while she was placing the roast on the table.
"After dinner he pushed away the decanter presented to him, observing
that he was going to burn some brandy in his coffee later on. I
asked him tremblingly whether he would not prefer to have his coffee
at once. He was very suspicious, and not at all dull of
comprehension--my Uncle Victor. My precipitation seemed to him in
very bad taste; for he looked at me in a peculiar way, and said,
"'Patience! my nephew. It isn't the business of the baby of the
regiment to sound the retreat! Devil take it! You must be in a
great hurry, Master Pedant, to see if I've got spurs on my boots!'
"It was evident the captain had divined that I wanted him to go.
And I knew him well enough to be sure that he was going to stay.
He stayed. The least circumstances of that evening remain
impressed on my memory. My uncle was extremely jovial. The mere
idea of being in somebody's way was enough to keep him in good
humour. He told us, in regular barrack style, ma foi! a certain
story about a monk, a trumpet, and five bottles of Chambertin,
which must have been much enjoyed in the garrison society, but which
I would not venture to repeat to you, Madame, even if I could
remember it. When we passed into the parlour, the captain called
attention to the bad condition of our andirons, and learnedly
discoursed on the merits of rotten-stone as a brass-polisher. Not
a word on the subject of politics. He was husbanding his forces.
Eight o'clock sounded from the ruins of Carthage on the mantlepiece.
It was Monsieur de Lessay's hour. A few moments later he entered
the parlour with his daughter. The ordinary evening chat began.
Clementine sat down and began to work on some embroidery beside the
lamp, whose shade left her pretty head in a soft shadow, and threw
down upon her fingers a radiance that made them seem almost self-
luminous. Monsieur de Lessay spoke of a comet announced by the
astronomers, and developed some theories in relation to the subject,
which, however audacious, betrayed at least a certain degree of
intellectual culture. My father, who knew a good deal about
astronomy, advanced some sound ideas of his own, which he ended up
with his eternal, 'But what do we know about it, after all?' In
my turn I cited the opinion of our neighbour of the Observatory--
the great Arago. My Uncle Victor declared that comets had a
peculiar influence on the quality of wines, and related in support
of this view a jolly tavern-story. I was so delighted with the
turn the conversation had taken that I did all in my power to
maintain it in the same groove, with the help of my most recent
studies, by a long exposition of the chemical composition of those
nebulous bodies which, although extending over a length of billions
of leagues, could be contained in a small bottle. My father, a
little surprised at my unusual eloquence, watched me with his
peculiar, placid, ironical smile. But one cannot always remain in
heaven. I spoke, as I looked at Clementine, of a certain comete
of diamonds, which I had been admiring in a jeweller's window the
evening before. It was a most unfortunate inspiration of mine.
"'Ah! my nephew,' cried Uncle Victor, that "comete" of yours was
nothing to the one which the Empress Josephine wore in her hair
when she came to Strasburg to distribute crosses to the army.'
"'That little Josephine was very fond of finery and display,'
observed Monsieur de Lessay, between two sips of coffee. 'I do
not blame her for it; she had good qualities, though rather frivolous
in character. She was a Tascher, and she conferred a great honour
on Bonaparte by marrying him. To say a Tascher does not, of course,
mean a great deal; but to say a Bonaparte simply means nothing at
"'What do you mean by that, Monsieur the Marquis?' demanded Captain
"'I am not a marquis,' dryly responded Monsieur de Lessay; 'and I
mean simply that Bonaparte would have been very well suited had he
married one of those cannibal women described by Captain Cook in
his voyages--naked, tattooed, with a ring in her nose--devouring
with delight putrefied human flesh.'
"I had foreseen it, and in my anguish (O pitiful human heart!) my
first idea was about the remarkable exactness of my anticipations.
I must say that the captain's reply belonged to the sublime order.
He put his arms akimbo, eyed Monsieur de Lessay contemptuously from
head to food, and said,
"'Napoleon, Monsieur the Vidame, had another spouse besides Josephine,
another spouse besides Marie-Louise. that companion you know nothing
of; but I have seen her, close to me. She wears a mantle of azure
gemmed with stars; she is crowned with laurels; the Cross-of-Honour
flames upon her breast. Her name is GLORY!'
"Monsieur de Lessay set his cup on the mantlepiece and quietly
"'Your Bonaparte was a blackguard!'
"My father rose up calmly, extended his arm, and said very softly
to Monsieur de Lessay,
"Whatever the man was who died at St. Helena, I worked for ten years
in his government, and my brother-in-law was three times wounded
under his eagles. I beg of you, dear sir and friend, never to
forget these facts in future.'
"What the sublime and burlesque insolence of the captain could not
do, the courteous remonstrance of my father effected immediately,
throwing Monsieur de Lessay into a furious passion.
"'I did forget,' he exclaimed, between his set teeth, livid in his
rage, and fairly foaming at the mouth; 'the herring-cask always
smells of herring and when one has been in the service of rascals---'
"As he uttered the word, the Captain sprang at his throat; I am sure
he would have strangled him upon the spot but for his daughter and
"My father, a little paler than his wont, stood there with his arms
folded, and watched the scene with a look of inexpressible pity.
What followed was still more lamentable--but why dwell further upon
the folly of two old men. Finally I succeeded in separating them.
Monsieur de Lessay made a sign to his daughter and left the room.
As she was following him, I ran out into the stairway after her.
"'Mademoiselle,' I said to her, wildly, taking her hand as I spoke,
'I love you! I love you!'
"For a moment she pressed my hand; her lips opened. What was it
that she was going to say to me? But suddenly, lifting her eyes
towards her father ascending the stairs, she drew her hand away,
and made me a gesture of farewell.
"I never saw her again. Her father went to live in the neighbourhood
of the Pantheon, in an apartment which he had rented for the sale of
his historical atlas. He died in a few months afterward of an
apoplectic stroke. His daughter, I was told, retired to Caen to live
with some aged relative. It was there that, later on, she married
a bank-clerk, the same Noel Alexandre who became so rich and died
"As for me, Madame, I have lived alone, at peace with myself; my
existence, equally exempt from great pains and great joys, has
been tolerably happy. But for many years I could never see an
empty chair beside my own of a winter's evening without feeling a
sudden painful sinking at my heart. Last year I learned from you,
who had known her, the story of her old age and death. I saw her
daughter at your house. I have seen her; but I cannot yet say
like the aged mad of Scripture, 'And now, O Lord, let thy servant
depart in peace!' For if an old fellow like me can be of any use
to anybody, I would wish, with your help, to devote my last
energies and abilities to the care of this orphan."
I had uttered these last words in Madame de Gabry's own vestibule;
and I was about to take leave of my kind guide when she said to me,
"My dear Monsieur, I cannot help you in this matter as much as I
would like to do. Jeanne is an orphan and a minor. You cannot do
anything for her without the authorisation of her guardian."
"Ah!" I exclaimed, "I had not the least idea in the wold that Jeanne
had a guardian!"
Madame de Gabry looked at me with visible surprise. She had not
expected to find the old man quite so simple.
"The guardian of Jeanne Alexandre is Maitre Mouche, notary at
Levallois-Perret. I am afraid you will not be able to come to any
understanding with him; for he is a very serious person."
"Why! good God!" I cried, "with what kind of people can you expect
me to have any sort of understanding at my age, except serious
She smiled with a sweet mischievousness--just as my father used to
"With those who are like you--the innocent folks who wear their
hearts on their sleeves. Monsieur Mouche is not exactly that kind.
He is cunning and light-fingered. But although I have very little
liking for him, we will go together and see him, if you wish, and
ask his permission to visit Jeanne, whom he has sent to a boarding-
school at Les Ternes, where she is very unhappy."
We agreed at once upon a day; I kissed Madame de Gabry's hands,
and we bade each other good-bye.
From May 2 to May 5.
I have seen him in his office, Maitre Mouche, the guardian of Jeanne.
Small, thin, and dry; his complexion looks as if it was made out of
the dust of his pigeon-holes. He is a spectacled animal; for to
imagine him without his spectacles would be impossible. I have
heard him speak, this Maitre Mouche; he has a voice like a tin
rattle, and he uses choice phrases; but I should have been better
pleased if he had not chosen his phrases so carefully. I have
observed him, this Maitre Mouche; he is very ceremonious, and watches
his visitors slyly out of the corner of his eye.
Maitre Mouche is quite pleased, he informs us; he is delighted to
find we have taken such an interest in his ward. But he does not
think we are placed in this world just to amuse ourselves. No: he
does not believe it; and I am free to acknowledge that anybody in
his company is likely to reach the same conclusion, so little is he
capable of inspiring joyfulness. He fears that it would be giving
his dear ward a false and pernicious idea of life to allow her too
much enjoyment. It is for this reason that he requests Madame de
Gabry not to invite the young girl to her house except at very long
We left the dusty notary and his dusty study with a permit in due
form (everything which issues from the office of Maitre Mouche is in
due form) to visit Mademoiselle Jeanne Alexandre on the first
Thursday of each month at Mademoiselle Prefere's private school, Rue
Demours, Aux Ternes.