Part 3 out of 4
The first Thursday in May I set out to pay a visit to Mademoiselle
Prefere, whose establishment I discerned from afar off by a big
sign, painted with blue letters. That blue tint was the first
indication I received of Mademoiselle Prefere's character, which
I was able to see more of later on. A scared-looking servant took
my card, and abandoned me without one word of hope at the door of
a chilly parlour full of that stale odour peculiar to the dining-
rooms of educational establishments. The floor of this parlour had
been waxed with such pitiless energy, that I remained for awhile
in distress upon the threshold. But happily observing that little
strips of woollen carpet had been scattered over the floor in front
of each horse-hair chair, I succeeded, by cautiously stepping from
one carpet-island to another in reaching the angle of the mantlepiece,
where I sat down quite out of breath.
Over the mantelpiece, in a large gilded frame, was a written document,
entitled in flamboyant Gothic lettering, Tableau d'Honneur, with
a long array of names underneath, among which I did not have the
pleasure of finding that of Jeanne Alexandre. After having read over
several times the names of those girl-pupils who had thus made
themselves honoured in the eyes of Mademoiselle Prefere, I began to
feel uneasy at not hearing any one coming. Mademoiselle Prefere
would certainly have succeeded in establishing the absolute silence
of interstellar spaces throughout her pedagogical domains, had it
not been that the sparrows had chosen her yard to assemble in by
legions, and chirp at the top of their voices. It was a pleasure
to hear them. But there was no way of seeing them--through the
ground-glass windows. I had to content myself with the sights of
the parlour, decorated from floor to ceiling, on all of its four
walls, with drawings executed by the pupils of the institution.
There were Vestals, flowers, thatched cottages, column-capitals,
and an enormous head of Tatius, King of the Sabines, bearing the
signature Estelle Mouton.
I had already passed some time in admiring the energy with which
Mademoiselle Mouton had delineated the bushy eyebrows and the fierce
gaze of the antique warrior, when a sound, faint like the rustling
of a dead leaf moved by the wind, caused me to turn my head. It was
not a dead leaf at all--it was Mademoiselle Prefere. With hands
jointed before her, she came gliding over the mirror-polish of that
wonderful floor as the Saints of the Golden Legend were wont to glide
over the crystal surface of the waters. But upon any other occasion,
I am sure, Mademoiselle Prefere would not have made me think in the
least about those virgins dear to mystical fancy. Her face rather
gave me the idea of a russet-apple preserved or a whole winter in an
attic by some economical housekeeper. Her shoulders were covered
with a fringed pelerine, which had nothing at all remarkable about
it, but which she wore as if it were a sacerdotal vestment, or the
symbol of some high civic function.
I explained to her the purpose of my visit, and gave her my letter of
"Ah!--so you are Monsieur Mouche!" she exclaimed. "Is his health
VERY good? He is the most upright of men, the most---"
She did not finish the phrase, but raised her eyes to the ceiling.
My own followed the direction of their gaze, and observed a little
spiral of paper lace, suspended from the place of the chandelier,
which was apparently destined, so far as I could discover, to attract
the flies away from the gilded mirror-frames and the Tableau
"I have met Mademoiselle Jeanne Alexandre," I observed, "at the
residence of Madame de Gabry and had reason to appreciate the
excellent character and quick intelligence of the young girl. As
I used to know her parents very well, the friendship which I felt
for them naturally inclines me to take an interest in her."
Mademoiselle Prefere, in lieu of making any reply, sighed profoundly,
pressed her mysterious pelerine to her heart, and again contemplated
the paper spiral.
At last she observed,
"Since you were once the friend of Monsieur and Madame Alexandre, I
hope and trust that, like Monsieur Mouche and myself, you deplore
those crazy speculations which led them to ruin, and reduced their
daughter to absolute poverty!"
I thought to myself, on hearing these words, how very wrong it is to
be unlucky, and how unpardonable such an error on the part of those
previously in a position worthy of envy. Their fall at once avenges
and flatters us; and we are wholly pitiless.
After having answered, very frankly, that I knew nothing whatever
about the history of the bank, I asked the schoolmistress if she
was satisfied with Mademoiselle Alexandre.
"That child is indomitable!" cried Mademoiselle Prefere.
And she assumed an attitude of lofty resignation, to symbolise the
difficult situation she was placed in by a pupil so hard to train.
Then, with more calmness of manner, she added:
"The young person is not unintelligent. But she cannot resign herself
to learn things by rule."
What a strange old maid was this Mademoiselle Prefere! She walked
without lifting her legs, and spoke without moving her lips! Without,
however, considering her peculiarities for more than a reasonable
instant, I replied that principles were, no doubt, very excellent
things, and that I could trust myself to her judgement in regard to
their value; but that, after all, when one had learned something, it
very little difference what method had been followed in the learning
Mademoiselle made a slow gesture of dissent. Then with a sigh, she
"Ah, Monsieur! those who do not understand educational methods are
apt to have very false ideas on these subjects. I am certain they
express their opinions with the best intentions in the world; but
they would do better, a great deal better, to leave all such
questions to competent people."
I did not attempt to argue further; and simply asked her whether I
could see Mademoiselle Alexandre at once.
She looked at her pelerine, as if trying to read in the entanglements
of its fringes, as in a conjuring book, what sort of answer she ought
to make; then said,
"Mademoiselle Alexandre has a penance to perform, and a class-lesson
to give; but I should be very sorry to let you put yourself to the
trouble of coming here all to no purpose. I am going to send for her.
Only first allow me, Monsieur--as is our custom--to put your name on
the visitors' register."
She sat down at the table, opened a large copybook, and, taking out
Maitre Mouche's letter again from under her pelerine, where she had
placed it, looked at it, and began to write.
"'Bonnard'--with a 'd,' is it not?" she asked. "Excuse me for being
so particular; but my opinion is that proper names have an
orthography. We have dictation-lessons in proper names, Monsieur,
at this school--historical proper names, of course!"
After I had written down my name in a running hand, she inquired
whether she should not put down after it my profession, title,
quality--such as "retired merchant," "employe," "independent
gentleman," or something else. There was a column in her register
expressly for that purpose.
"My goodness, Madame!" I said, "if you must absolutely fill that
column of yours, put down 'Member of the Institute.'"
It was still Mademoiselle Prefere's pelerine I saw before me; but
it was not Mademoiselle Prefere who wore it; it was a totally
different person, obliging, gracious, caressing, radiant, happy. Her eyes,
smiled; the little wrinkles of her face (there were a vast number of
them!) also smiled; her mouth smiled likewise, but only on one side.
I discovered afterwards that was her best side. She spoke: her
voice had also changed with her manner; it was now sweet as honey.
"You said, Monsieur, that our dear Jeanne was very intelligent. I
discovered the same thing myself, and I am proud of being able to
agree with you. This young girl has really made me feel a great deal
of interest in her. She has what I call a happy disposition....
But excuse me for thus drawing upon your valuable time."
She summoned the servant-girl, who looked much more hurried and
scared than before, and who vanished with the order to go and tell
Mademoiselle Alexandre that Monsieur Sylvestre Bonnard, Member of
the Institute, was waiting to see her in the parlour.
Mademoiselle Prefere had barely time to confide in me that she had
the most profound respect for all decisions of the Institute--whatever
they might be--when Jeanne appeared, out of breath, red as a poppy,
with her eyes very wide open, and her arms dangling helplessly at
her sides--charming in her artless awkwardness.
"What a state you are in, my dear child!" murmured Mademoiselle
Prefere, with maternal sweetness, as she arranged the girl's collar.
Jeanne certainly did present an odd aspect. Her hair combed back,
and imperfectly held by a net from which loose curls were escaping;
her slender arms, sheathed down to the elbows in lustring sleeves;
her hands, which she did not seem to know what to do with, all red
with chillblains; her dress, much too short, revealing that she had
on stockings much too large for her, and shoes worn down at the heel;
and a skipping-rope tied round her waist in lieu of a belt,--all
combined to lend Mademoiselle Jeanne an appearance the reverse of
"Oh, you crazy girl!" sighed Mademoiselle Prefere, who now seemed no
longer like a mother, but rather like an elder sister.
Then she suddenly left the room, gliding like a shadow over the
I said to Jeanne,
"Sit down, Jeanne, and talk to me as you would to a friend. Are you
not better satisfied here now than you were last year?"
She hesitated; then answered with a good-natured smile of resignation,
"Not much better."
I asked her to tell me about her school life. She began at once to
enumerate all her different studies--piano, style, chronology of the
Kings of France, sewing, drawing, catechism, deportment... I could
never remember them all! She still held in her hands, all
unconsciously, the two ends of her skipping-rope, and she raised and
lowered them regularly while making her enumeration. Then all at
once she became conscious of what she was doing, blushed, stammered,
and became so confused that I had to renounce my desire to know the
full programme of study adopted in the Prefere Institution.
After having questioned Jeanne on various matters, and obtained only
the vaguest of answers, I perceived that her young mind was totally
absorbed by the skipping-rope, and I entered bravely into that grave
"So you have been skipping?" I said. "It is a very nice amusement,
but one that you must not exert yourself too much at; for any
excessive exercise of that kind might seriously injure your health,
and I should be very much grieved about it Jeanne--I should be very
much grieved, indeed!"
"You are very kind, Monsieur," the young girl said, "to have come
to see me and talk to me like this. I did not think about thanking
you when I came in, because I was too much surprised. Have you seen
Madame de Gabry? Please tell me something about her, Monsieur."
"Madame de Gabry," I answered, "is very well. I can only tell you
about her, Jeanne, what an old gardener once said of the lady of
the castle, his mistress, when somebody anxiously inquired about her:
'Madame is in her road.' Yes, Madame de Gabry is in her own road;
and you know, Jeanne, what a good road it is, and how steadily she
can walk upon it. I went out with her the other day, very, very
far away from the house; and we talked about you. We talked about
you, my child, at your mother's grave."
"I am very glad," said Jeanne.
And then, all at once, she began to cry.
I felt too much reverence for those generous tears to attempt in any
way to check the emotion that had evoked them. But in a little
while, as the girl wiped her eyes, I asked her,
"Will you not tell me, Jeanne, why you were thinking so much about
that skipping-rope a little while ago?"
"Why, indeed I will, Monsieur. It was only because I had no right to
come into the parlour with a skipping-rope. You know, of course,
that I am past the age for playing at skipping. But when the servant
said there was an old gentleman...oh!...I mean...that a gentleman
was waiting for me in the parlour, I was making the little girls
jump. Then I tied the rope round my waist in a hurry, so that it
might not get lost. It was wrong. But I have not been in the habit
of having many people come to see me. And Mademoiselle Prefere
never lets us off if we commit any breach of deportment: so I know
she is going to punish me, and I am very sorry about it."...
"That is too bad, Jeanne!"
She became very grave, and said,
"Yes, Monsieur, it is too bad; because when I am punished myself, I
have no more authority over the little girls."
I did not at once fully understand the nature of this unpleasantness;
but Jeanne explained to me that, as she was charged by Mademoiselle
Prefere with the duties of taking care of the youngest class, of
washing and dressing the children, of teaching them how to behave,
how to sew, how to say the alphabet, of showing them how to play,
and, finally, of putting them to bed at the close of the day, she
could not make herself obeyed by those turbulent little folks on
the days she was condemned to wear a night-cap in the class-room,
or to eat her meals standing up, from a plate turned upside down.
Having secretly admired the punishments devised by the Lady of the
Enchanted Pelerine, I responded:
"Then, if I understand you rightly, Jeanne, you are at once a pupil
here and a mistress? It is a condition of existence very common
in the world. You are punished, and you punish?"
"Oh, Monsieur!" she exclaimed. "No! I never punish!"
"Then, I suspect," said I, "that your indulgence gets you many
scoldings from Mademoiselle Prefere?"
She smiled, and blinked.
Then I said to her that the troubles in which we often involve
ourselves, by trying to act according to our conscience and to do
the best we can, are never of the sort that totally dishearten and
weary us, but are, on the contrary, wholesome trials. This sort
of philosophy touched her very little. She even appeared totally
unmoved by my moral exhortations. But was not this quite natural
on her part?--and ought I not to have remembered that it is only
those no longer innocent who can find pleasure in the systems of
moralists?... I had at least good sense enough to cut short my
"Jeanne," I said, "you were asking a moment ago about Madame de
Gabry. Let us talk about that Fairy of yours She was very prettily
made. Do you do any modelling in wax now?"
"I have not a bit of wax," she exclaimed, wringing her hands--"no
wax at all!"
"No wax!" I cried--"in a republic of busy bees?"
"And, then, you see, Monsieur, my FIGURINES, as you call them, are
not in Mademoiselle Prefere's programme. But I had begun to make
a very small Saint-George for Madame de Gabry--a tiny little
Saint-George, with a golden cuirass. Is not that right, Monsieur
Bonnard--to give Saint-George a gold cuirass?"
"Quite right, Jeanne; but what became of it?"
"I am going to tell you, I kept it in my pocket because I had no
other place to put it, and--and I sat down on it by mistake."
She drew out of her pocket a little wax figure, which had been
squeezed out of all resemblance to human form, and of which the
dislocated limbs were only attached to the body by their wire
framework. At the sight of her hero thus marred, she was seized
at once with compassion and gaiety. The latter feeling obtained
the mastery, and she burst into a clear laugh, which, however,
stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Mademoiselle Prefere stood at the parlour door, smiling.
"That dear child!" sighed the schoolmistress in her tenderest tone.
"I am afraid she will tire you. And, then, your time is so
I begged Mademoiselle Prefere to dismiss that illusion, and,
rising to take my leave, I took from my pocket some chocolate-cakes
and sweets which I had brought with me.
"That is so nice!" said Jeanne; "there will be enough to go round
the whole school."
The lady of the pelerine intervened.
"Mademoiselle Alexandre," she said, "thank Monsieur for his
Jeanne looked at her for an instant in a sullen way; then, turning
to me, said with remarkable firmness,
"Monsieur, I thank you for your kindness in coming to see me."
"Jeanne," I said, pressing both her hands, "remain always a good,
truthful, brave girl. Good-bye."
As she left the room with her packages of chocolate and
confectionery, she happened to strike the handles of her skipping-
rope against the back of a chair. Mademoiselle Prefere, full of
indignation, pressed both hands over her heart, under her pelerine;
and I almost expected to see her give up her scholastic ghost.
When we found ourselves alone, she recovered her composure; and I
must say, without considering myself thereby flattered, that she
smiled upon me with one whole side of her face.
"Mademoiselle," I said, taking advantage of her good humour, "I
noticed that Jeanne Alexandre looks a little pale. You know better
than I how much consideration and care a young girl requires at
her age. It would only be doing you an injustice by implication
to recommend her still more earnestly to your vigilance."
These words seemed to ravish her with delight. She lifted her eyes,
as in ecstasy, to the paper spirals of the ceiling, and, clasping
her hands exclaimed,
"How well these eminent men know the art of considering the most
I called her attention to the fact that the health of a young girl
was not a trifling detail, and made my farewell bow. But she
stopped me on the threshold to say to me, very confidentially,
"You must excuse me, Monsieur. I am a woman, and I love gloy. I
cannot conceal from you the fact that I feel myself greatly honoured
by the presence of a Member of the Institute in my humble
I duly excused the weakness of Mademoiselle Prefere; and, thinking
only of Jeanne, with the blindness of egotism, kept asking myself
all along the road, "What are we going to do with this child?"
I had escorted to the Cimetiere de Marnes that day a very aged
colleague of mine who, to use the words of Goethe, had consented to
die. The great Goethe, whose own vital force was something
extraordinary, actually believed that one never dies until one really
wants to die--that is to say, when all those energies which resist
dissolution, and teh sum of which make up life itself, have been
totally destroyed. In other words, he believed that people only
die when it is no longer possible for them to live. Good! it is
merely a question of properly understanding one another; and when
fully comprehended, the magnificent idea of Goethe only brings
us quietly back to the song of La Palisse.
Well, my excellent colleague had consented to die--thanks to several
successive attacks of extremely persuasive apoplexy--the last of
which proved unanswerable. I had been very little acquainted with
him during his lifetime; but it seems that I became his friend the
moment he was dead, for our colleagues assured me in a most serious
manner, with deeply sympathetic countenances, that I should act as
one of the pall-bearers, and deliver an address over the tomb.
After having read very badly a short address I had written as well
as I could--which is not saying much for it--I started out for a
walk in the woods of Ville-d'Avray, and followed, without leaning
too much on the Captain's cane, a shaded path on which the sunlight
fell, through foliage, in little discs of gold. Never had the scent
of grass and fresh leaves,--never had the beauty of the sky over the
trees, and the serene might of noble tree contours, so deeply
affected my senses and all my being; and the pleasure I felt in that
silence, broken only by faintest tinkling sounds, was at once of
the senses and of the soul.
I sat down in the shade of the roadside under a clump of young oaks.
And there I made a promise to myself not to die, or at least not
to consent to die, before I should be again able to sit down under
and oak, where--in the great peace of the open country--I could
meditate on the nature of the soul and the ultimate destiny of man.
A bee, whose brown breast-plate gleamed in the sun like armour of
old gold, came to light upon a mallow-flower close by me--darkly
rich in colour, and fully opened upon its tufted stalk. It was
certainly not the first time I had witnessed so common an incident;
but it was the first time that I had watched it with such
comprehensive and friendly curiosity. I could discern that there
were all sorts of sympathies between the insect and the flower--a
thousand singular little relationships which I had never before even
Satiated with nectar, the insect rose and buzzed away in a straight
line, while I lifted myself up as best I could, and readjusted myself
upon my legs.
"Adieu!" I said to the flower and to the bee. "Adieu! Heaven grant
I may live long enough to discover the secret of your harmonies. I
am very tired. But man is so made that he can only find relaxation
from one kind of labour by taking up another. The flowers and
insects will give me that relaxation, with God's will, after my
long researches in philology and diplomatics. How full of meaning
is that old myth of Antaeus! I have touched the Earth and I am a
new man; and now at seventy years of age, new feelings of curiosity
take birth in my mind, even as young shoots sometimes spring up
from the hollow trunk of an aged oak!"
I like to look out of my window at the Seine and its quays on those
soft grey mornings which give such an infinite tenderness of tint
to everything. I have seen that azure sky which flings so luminous
a calm over the Bay of Naples. But our Parisian sky is more
animated, more kindly, more spiritual. It smiles, threatens,
caresses--takes an aspect of melancholy or a look of merriment
like a human gaze. At this moment it is pouring down a very gentle
light on the men and beasts of the city as they accomplish their
daily tasks. Over there, on the opposite bank, the stevedores of
the Port Saint-Nicholas are unloading a cargo of cow's horns;
while two men standing on a gangway are tossing sugar-loaves from
one to the other, and thence to somebody in the hold of a steamer.
On the north quay, the cab-horses, standing in a line under the
shade of the plane-trees each with its head in a nose-bag, are
quietly munching their oats, while the rubicund drivers are drinking
at the counter of the wine-seller opposite, but all the while
keeping a sharp lookout for early customers.
The dealers in second-hand books put their boxes on the parapet.
These good retailers of Mind, who are always in the open air, with
blouses loose to the breeze, have become so weatherbeaten by the
wind, the rain, the frost, the snow, the fog, and the great sun,
that they end by looking very much like the old statues of
cathedrals. They are all friends of mine, and I scarcely ever
pass by their boxes without picking out of one of them some old book
which I had always been in need of up to that very moment, without
any suspicion of the fact on my part.
Then on my return home I have to endure the outcries of my
housekeeper, who accuses me of bursting all my pockets and filling
the house with waste paper to attract the rats. Therese is wise
about that, and it is because she is wise that I do not listen to
her; for in spite of my tranquil mien, I have always preferred the
folly of the passions to the wisdom of indifference. But just
because my own passions are not of that sort which burst out with
violence to devastate and kill, the common mind is not aware of
their existence. Nevertheless, I am greatly moved by them at times,
and it has more than once been my fate to lose my sleep for the
sake of a few pages written by some forgotten monk or printed by
some humble apprentice of Peter Schaeffer. And if these fierce
enthusiasms are slowly being quenched in me, it is only because
I am being slowly quenched myself. Our passions are ourselves.
My old books are Me. I am just as old and thumb-worn as they are.
A light breeze sweeps away, along with the dust of the pavements,
the winged seeds of the plane trees, and the fragments of hay
dropped from the mouths of the horses. The dust is nothing remarkable
in itself; but as I watch it flying, I remember a moment in my
childhood when I watched just such a swirl of dust; and my old
Parisian soul is much affected by that sudden recollection. All
that I see from my window--that horizon which extends to the left
as far as the hills of Chaillot, and enables me to distinguish the
Arc de Triomphe like a die of stone, the Seine, river of glory, and
its bridges, the ash-trees of the terrace of the Tuileries, the
Louvre of the Renaissance, cut and graven like goldsmithwork; and
on my right, towards the Pont-Neuf (pons Lutetiae Novus dictus,
as it is named on old engravings), all the old and venerable part
of Paris, with its towers and spires:--all that is my life, it is
myself; and I should be nothing but for all those things which are
thus reflected in me through my thousand varying shades of thought,
inspiring me and animating me. That is why I love Paris with an
And nevertheless I am weary, and I know that there can be no rest
for me in the heart of this great city which thinks so much, which
has taught me to think, and which for ever urges me to think more.
And how avoid being exited among all these books which incessantly
tempt my curiosity without ever satisfying it? At one moment it
is a date I have to look for; at another it is the name of a place
I have to make sure of, or some quaint term of which it is important
to determine the exact meaning. Words?--why, yes! words. As a
philologist, I am their sovereign; they aer my subjects, and, like
a good king, I devote my whole life to them. But shall I not be able
to abdicate some day? I have an idea that there is somewhere or
other, quite far from here, a certain little cottage where I could
enjoy the quiet I so much need, while awaiting that day in which a
greater quiet--that which can be never broken--shall come to wrap
me all about. I dream of a bench before the threshold, and of
fields spreading away out of sight. But I must have a fresh smiling
young face beside me, to reflect and concentrate all that freshness
of nature. I could then imagine myself a grandfather, and all the
long void of my life would be filled....
I am not a violent man, and yet I become easily vexed, and all my
works have caused me quite as much pain as pleasure. And I do not
know how it is that I still keep thinking about that very conceited
and very inconsiderated impertinence which my young friend of the
Luxembourg took the liberty to utter about me some three months ago.
I do not call him "friend" in irony, for I love studious youth with
all it temerities and imaginative eccentricities. Still, my young
friend certainly went beyond all bounds. Master Ambroise Pare, who
was the first to attempt the ligature of arteries, and who, having
commenced his profession at a time when surgery was only performed
by quack barbers, nevertheless succeeded in lifting the science to
the high place it now occupies, was assailed in his old age by all
the young sawbones' apprentices. Being grossly abused during a
discussion by some young addlehead who might have been the best
son in the world, but who certainly lacked all sense of respect,
the old master answered him in his treatise De la Mumie, de la
Licorne, des Venins et de la Peste. "I pray him," said the great
man--"I pray him, that if he desire to make any contradictions to
my reply, he abandon all animosities, and treat the good old man
with gentleness." This answer seems admirable from the pen of
Ambroise Pare; but even had it been written by a village bonesetter,
grown grey in his calling, and mocked by some young stripling, it
would still be worthy of all praise.
It might perhaps seem that my memory of the incident had been kept
alive only by a base feeling of resentment. I thought so myself at
first, and reproached myself for thus dwelling on the saying of a
boy who could not yet know the meaning of his own words. But my
reflections on this subject subsequently took a better course:
that is why I now note them down in my diary. I remembered that one
day when I was twenty years old (that was more than half a century
ago) I was walking about in that very same garden of the Luxembourg
with some comrades. We were talking about our old professors; and
one of us happened to name Monsieur Petit-Radel, an estimable and
learned man, who was the first to throw some light upon the origins
of early Etruscan civilisation, but who had been unfortunate
enough to prepare a chronological table of the lovers of Helen. We
all laughed a great deal about that chronological table; and I
cried out, "Petit-Radel is an ass, not in three letters, but in
twelve whole volumes!"
This foolish speech of my adolescence was uttered too lightly to
be a weight on my conscience as an old man. May God kindly prove
to me some day that I never used an less innocent shaft of speech
in the battle of life! But I now ask myself whether I really
never wrote, at any time in my life, something quite as unconsciously
absurd as the chronological table of the lovers of Helen. The
progress of science renders useless the very books which have been
the greatest aids to that progress. As those works are no longer
useful, modern youth is naturally inclined to believe they never had
any value; it despises them, and ridicules them if they happen to
contain any superannuated opinion whatever. That is why, in my
twentieth year, I amused myself at the expense of Monsieur
Petit-Radel and his chronological table; and that was why, the
other day, at the Luxembourg, my young and irreverent friend...
"Rentre en toi-meme, Octave, et cesse de te plaindre. Quoi! tu
veux qu'on t'epargne et n'as rien epargne!" [ "Look into thyself,
Octavius, and cease complaining. What! thou wouldst be spared,
and thou thyself hast spared none!"]
It was the first Thursday in June. I shut up my books and took my
leave of the holy abbot Droctoveus, who, being now in the enjoyment
of celestial bliss, cannot feel very impatient to behold his name
and works glorified on earth through the humble compilation being
prepared by my hands. Must I confess it? That mallow-plant I
saw visited by a bee the other day has been occupying my thoughts
much more than all the ancient abbots who ever bore croisers or
wore mitres. There is in one of Sprengel's books which I read in
my youth, at that time when I used to read in my youth, at that
time when I used to read anything and everything, some ideas about
"the loves of flowers" which now return to memory after having been
forgotten for half a century, and which to-day interest me so much
that I regret not to have devoted the humble capacities of my
mind to the study of insects and of plants.
And only awhile ago my housekeeper surprised me at the kitchen window,
in the act of examining some wallflowers through a magnifying-
It was while looking for my cravat that I made these reflections.
But after searching to no purpose in a great number of drawers, I
found myself obliged, after all, to have recourse to my housekeeper.
Therese came limping in.
"Monsieur," she said, "you ought to have told me you were going out,
and I would have given you your cravat!"
"But Therese," I replied, "would it not be a great deal better to
put in some place where I could find it without your help?"
Therese did not deign to answer me.
Therese no longer allows me to arrange anything. I cannot even have
a handkerchief without asking her for it; and as she is deaf,
crippled, and, what is worse, beginning to lose her memory, I
languish in perpetual destitution. But she exercises her domestic
authority with such quiet pride that I do not feel the courage
to attempt a coup d'etat against her government.
"My cravat! Therese!--do you hear?--my cravat! if you drive me wild
like this with your slow ways, it will not be a cravat I shall need,
but a rope to hang myself!"
"You must be in a very great hurry, Monsieur," replied Therese.
"Your cravat is not lost. Nothing is ever lost in this house,
because I have charge of everything. But please allow me the time
at least to find it."
"Yet here," I thought to myself--"here is the result of half a
century of devotedness and self-sacrifice!... Ah! if by any happy
chance this inexorable Therese had once in her whole life, only
once, failed in her duty as a servant--if she had ever been at fault
for one single instant, she could never have assumed this inflexible
authority over me, and I should at least have the courage to resist
her. But how can one resist virtue? The people who have no
weaknesses are terrible; there is no way of taking advantage of them.
Just look at Therese, for example; she has not a single fault for
which you can blame her! She has no doubt of herself; nor of God,
nor of the world. She is the valiant woman, the wise virgin of
Scripture; others may know nothing about her, but I know her worth.
In my fancy I always see her carrying a lamp, a humble kitchen lamp,
illuminating the beams of some rustic roof--a lamp which will never
go out while suspended from that meagre arm of hers, scraggy and
strong as a vine-branch.
"Therese, my cravat! Don't you know, wretched woman, that to-day
is the first Thursday in June, and that Mademoiselle Jeanne will
be waiting for me? The schoolmistress has certainly had the
parlour floor vigorously waxed: I am sure one can look at oneself
in it now; and it will be quite a consolation for me when I slip
and break my old bones upon it--which is sure to happen sooner
or later--to see my rueful countenance reflected in it as in a
looking-glass. Then taking for my model that amiable and admirable
hero whose image is carved upon the handle of Uncle Victor's
walking-stick, I will control myself so as not to make too ugly a
grimace.... See what a splendid sun! The quays are all gilded by
it, and the Seine smiles in countless little flashing wrinkles.
The city is gold: a dust-haze, blonde and gold-toned as a woman's
hair, floats above its beautiful contours.... Therese, my cravat!...
Ah! I can now comprehend the wisdom of that old Chrysal who used
to keep his neckbands in a big Plutarch. Hereafter I shall follow
his example by laying all my neckties away between the leaves
of the Acta Sanctorum."
Therese let me talk on, and keeps looking for the necktie in silence.
I hear a gentle ringing at our door-bell.
"Therese," I exclaim; "there is somebody ringing the bell! Give me
my cravat, and go to the door; or, rather, go to the door first,
and then, with the help of Heaven, you will give me my cravat. But
please do not stand there between the clothes-press and the door
like an old hack-horse between two saddles.
Therese marched to the door as if advancing upon the enemy. My
excellent housekeeper becomes more inhospitable the older she grows.
Every stranger is an object of suspicion to her. According to her
own assertion, this disposition is the result of a long experience
with human nature. I had not the time to consider whether the same
experience on the part of another experimenter would produce the
same results. Maitre Mouche was waiting to see me in the ante-room.
Maitre Mouche is still more yellow than I had believed him to be.
He wears blue glasses, and his eyes keep moving uneasily behind them,
like mice running about behind a screen.
Maitre Mouche excuses himself for having intruded upon me at a moment
when.... He does not characterise the moment; but I think he means
to say a moment in which I happen to be without my cravat. It is
not my fault, as you very well know. Maitre Mouche, who does not
know, does not appear to be at all shocked, however. He is only
afraid that he might have dropped in at the wrong moment. I
succeeded in partially reassuring him at once upon that point. He
then tells me it is as guardian of Mademoiselle Alexandre that he
has come to talk with me. First of all, he desires that I shall
not hereafter pay any heed to those restrictions he had at first
deemed necessary to put upon the permit given to visit Mademoiselle
Jeanne at the boarding-school. Henceforth the establishment of
Mademoiselle Prefere will be open to me any day that I might choose
to call--between the hours of midday and four o'clock. Knowing
the interest I have taken in the young girl, he considers it his
duty to give me some information about the person to whom he has
confided his ward. Mademoiselle Prefere, whom he has known for
many years, is in possession of his utmost confidence. Mademoiselle
Prefere is, in his estimation, an enlightened person, of excellent
morals, and capable of giving excellent counsel.
"Mademoiselle Prefer," he said to me, "has principles; and principles
are rare these days, Monsieur. Everything has been totally changed;
and this epoch of ours cannot compare with the preceding ones."
"My stairway is a good example, Monsieur," I replied; "twenty-five
years ago it used to allow me to climb it without any trouble, and
now it takes my breath away, and wears my legs out before I have
climbed half a dozen steps. It has had its character spoiled. Then
there are those journals and books I used once to devour without
difficulty by moonlight: to-day, even in the brightest sunlight,
they mock my curiosity, and exhibit nothing but a blur of white and
black when I have not got my spectacles on. Then the gout has got
into my limbs. That is another malicious trick of the times!"
"Not only that, Monsieur," gravely replied Maitre Mouche, "but what
is really unfortunate in our epoch is that no one is satisfied with
his position. From the top of society to the bottom, in every class,
there prevails a discontent, a restlessness, a love of comfort...."
"Mon Dieu, Monsieur!" I exclaimed. "You think this love of comfort
is a sign of the times? Men have never had at any epoch a love of
discomfort. They have always tried to better their condition. This
constant effort produces constant changes, and the effort is always
going on--that is all there is about it!"
"Ah! Monsieur," replied Maitre Mouche, "it is easy to see that you
live in your books--out of the business world altogether. You do
not see, as I see them, the conflicts of interest, the struggle
for money. It is the same effervescence in all minds, great or
small. The wildest speculations are being everywhere indulged in.
What I see around me simply terrifies me!"
I wondered within myself whether Maitre Mouche had called upon me
only for the purpose of expressing his virtuous misanthropy; but
all at once I heard words of a more consoling character issue from
his lips. Maitre Mouche began to speak to me of Virginie Prefere
as a person worthy of respect, of esteem, and of sympathy,--highly
honourable, capable of great devotedness, cultivated, discreet,--able
to read aloud remarkably well, extremely modest, and skillful in
the art of applying blisters. Then I began to understand that he
had only been painting that dismal picture of universal corruption
in order the better to bring out, by contrast, the virtues of the
schoolmistress. I was further informed that the institution in the
Rue Demours was well patronised, prosperous, and enjoyed a high
reputation with the public. Maitre Mouche lifted up his hand--with
a black woollen glove on it--as if making oath to the truth of these
statements. Then he added:
"I am enabled, by the very character of my profession, to know a
great deal about people. A notary is, to a certain extent, a
"I deemed it my duty, Monsieur, to give you this agreeable
information at the moment when a lucky chance enabled you to meet
Mademoiselle Prefere. There is only one thing more which I would
like to say. This lady--who is, of course, quite unaware of my
action in the matter--spoke to me of you the other day in terms
of deepest sympathy. I could only weaken their expression by
repeating them to you; and furthermore, I could not repeat them
without betraying, to a certain extent, the confidence of Mademoiselle
"Do not betray it, Monsieur; do not betray it!" I responded. "To
tell you the truth, I had no idea that Mademoiselle Prefere knew
anything whatever about me. But since you have the influence of
an old friend with her, I will take advantage of your good will,
Monsieur, to ask you to exercise that influence in behalf of
Mademoiselle Jeanne Alexandre. The child--for she is still a
child--is overloaded with work. She is at once a pupil and a
mistress--she is overtasked. Besides, she is punished in petty
disgusting ways; and hers is one of those generous natures which
will be forced into revolt by such continual humiliation."
"Alas!" replied Maitre Mouche, "she must be trained to take her part
in the struggle of life. One does not come into this world simply
to amuse oneself, and to do just what one pleases."
"One comes into this world," I responded, rather warmly, "to enjoy
what is beautiful and what is good, and to do as one pleases, when
the things one wants to do are noble, intelligent, and generous.
An education which does not cultivate the will, is an education
that depraves the mind. It is a teacher's duty to teach the pupil
HOW to will."
I perceived that Maitre Mouche began to think me a rather silly man.
With a great deal of quiet self-assurance, he proceeded:
"You must remember, Monsieur, that the education of the poor has to
be conducted with a great deal of circumspection, and with a view to
that future state of dependence they must occupy in society. Perhaps
you are not aware that the late Noel Alexandre died a bankrupt, and
that his daughter is being educated almost by charity?"
"Oh! Monsieur!" I exclaimed, "do not say it! To say it is to pay
oneself back, and then the statement ceases to be true."
"The liabilities of the estate," continued the notary, "exceeded the
assets. But I was able to effect a settlement with the creditors
in favour of the minor."
He undertook to explain matters in detail. I declined to listen to
these explanations, being incapable of understanding business methods
in general, and those of Maitre Mouche in particular. The notary
then took it upon himself to justify Mademoiselle Prefere's
educational system, and observed by way of conclusion,
"It is not by amusing oneself that one can learn."
"It is only by amusing oneself that one can learn," I replied. "The
whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural
curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards;
and curiosity itself can be vivid and wholesome only in proportion
as the mind is contented and happy. Those acquirements crammed by
force into the minds of children simply clog and stifle intelligence.
In order that knowledge be properly digested, it must have been
swallowed with a good appetite. I know Jeanne! If that child were
intrusted to my care, I should make of her--not a learned woman, for
I would look to her future happiness only--but a child full of
bright intelligence and full of life, in whom everything beautiful
in art or nature would awaken some gentle responsive thrill. I
would teach her to live in sympathy with all that is beautiful--comely
landscapes, the ideal scenes of poetry and history, the emotional
charm of noble music. I would make lovable to her everything I would
wish her to love. Even her needlework I would make pleasurable to
her, by a proper choice of fabrics, the style of embroideries, the
designs of lace. I would give her a beautiful dog, and a pony to
teach her how to manage animals; I would give her birds to take care
of, so that she could learn the value of even a drop of water and a
crumb of bread. And in order that she should have a still higher
pleasure, I would train her to find delight in exercising charity.
And inasmuch as none of us may escape pain, I should teach her that
Christian wisdom which elevates us above all suffering, and gives
a beauty even to grief itself. That is my idea of the right way to
educate a young girl."
"I yield, Monsieur," replied Maitre Mouche, joining his black-gloved
And he rose.
"Of course you understand," I remarked, as I went to the door with
him, "that I do not pretend for a moment to impose my educational
system upon Mademoiselle Prefere; it is necessarily a private one,
and quite incompatible with the organisation of even the best-managed
boarding schools. I only ask you to persuade her to give Jeanne
less work and more play, and not to punish her except in case of
absolute necessity, and to let her have as much freedom of mind
and body as the regulations of the institution permit."
It was with a pale and mysterious smile that Maitre Mouche informed
me that my observations would be taken in good part, and should
receive all possible consideration.
Therewith he made me a little bow, and took his departure, leaving
me with a peculiar feeling of discomfort and uneasiness. I have
met a great many strange characters in my time, but never any at
all resembling either this notary or this schoolmistress.
Maitre Mouche has so much delayed me by his visit that I gave up
going to see Jeanne that day. Professional duties kept me very busy
for the rest of the week. Although at the age when most men retire
altogether from active life, I am still attached by a thousand ties
to the society in which I have lived. I have to reside at meetings
of academies, scientific congresses, assemblies of various learned
bodies. I am overburdened with honorary functions; I have seven of
these in one governmental department alone. The bureaux would be
very glad to get rid of them. But habit is stronger than both of us
together, and I continue to hobble up the stairs of various
government buildings. Old clerks point me out to each other as I go
by like a ghost wandering through the corridors. When one has become
very old one finds it extremely difficult to disappear. Nevertheless,
it is time, as the old song says, 'de prendre ma retraite et de
songer a faire un fin"--to retire on my pension and prepare myself
to die a good death.
An old marchioness, who used to be a friend of Hevetius in her youth,
and whom I once met at my father's house when a very old woman, was
visited during her last sickness by the priest of her parish, who
wanted to prepare her to die.
"Is that really necessary?" she asked. "I see everybody else manage
it perfectly well the first time."
My father went to see her very soon afterwards and found her extremely
"Good-evening, my friend!" she said, pressing his hand. "I am going
to see whether God improves upon acquaintance."
So were wont to die the belles amies of the philosophers. Such
an end is certainly not vulgar nor impertinent, and such levities
are not of the sort that emanate from dull minds. Nevertheless, they
shock me. Neither my fears nor my hopes could accommodate themselves
to such a mode of departure. I would like to make mine with a
perfectly collected mind; and that is why I must begin to think, in
a year or two, about some way of belonging to myself; otherwise, I
should certainly risk.... But, hush! let Him not hear His name and
turn to look as He passes by! I can still lift my fagot without His
...I found Jeanne very happy indeed. She told me that, on the
Thursday previous, after the visit of her guardian, Mademoiselle
Prefere had set her free from the ordinary regulations and lightened
her tasks in several ways. Since that lucky Thursday she could walk
in the garden--which only lacked leaves and flowers--as much as
she liked; and she had been given facilities to work at her
unfortunate little figure of Saint-George.
She said to me, with a smile,
"I know very well that I owe all of this to you."
I tried to talk with her about other matters, but I remarked that
she could not attend to what I was saying, in spite of her effort
to do so.
"I see you are thinking about something else," I said. "Well, tell
me what it is; for, if you do not, we shall not be able to talk to
each other at all, which would be very unworthy of both of us."
"Oh! I was really listening to you, Monsieur; but it is true that I
was thinking about something else. You will excuse me, won't you?
I could not help thinking that Mademoiselle Prefere must like you
very, very much indeed, to have become so good to me all of a
Then she looked at me in an odd, smiling, frightened way, which made
"Does that surprise you?" I asked.
"Very much," she replied.
"Please tell me why?"
"Because I can see no reason, no reason at all...but there!...no
reason at all why you should please Mademoiselle Prefere so much."
"So, then, you think I am very displeasing, Jeanne?"
She bit her lips, as if to punish them for having made a mistake;
and then, in a coaxing way, looking at me with great soft eyes, gentle
and beautiful as a spaniel's, she said,
"I know I said a foolish think; but, still, I do not see any reason
why you should be so pleasing to Mademoiselle Prefere. And,
nevertheless, you seem to please her a great deal--a very great deal.
She called me one day, and asked me all sorts of questions about
"Yes; she wanted to find out all about your house. Just think! she
even asked me how old your servant was!"
And Jeanne burst out laughing.
"Well, what do you think about it?" I asked.
She remained a long while with her eyes fixed on the worn-out cloth
of her shoes, and seemed to be thinking very deeply. Finally,
looking up again, she answered,
"I am distrustful. Isn't it very natural to feel uneasy about what
one cannot understand; I know I am foolish; but you won't be offended
with me, will you?"
"Why, certainly not, Jeanne. I am not a bit offended with you."
I must acknowledge that I was beginning to share her surprise; and I
began to turn over in my old head the singular thought of this young
girl--"One is uneasy about what one cannot understand."
But, with a fresh burst of merriment, she cried out,
"She asked me...guess! I will give you a hundred guesses--a thousand
guesses. You give it up?... She asked me if you liked good eating."
"And how did you receive this shower of interrogations, Jeanne?"
"I replied, 'I don't know, Mademoiselle.' And Mademoiselle then said
to me, 'You are a little fool. The least details of the life of an
eminent man ought to be observed. Please to know, Mademoiselle, that
Monsieur Sylvestre Bonnard is one of the glories of France!'"
"Stuff!" I exclaimed. "And what did YOU think about it,
"I thought that Mademoiselle Prefere was right. But I don't care at
all...(I know it is naughty what I am going to say)...I don't care
a bit, not a bit, whether Mademoiselle Prefere is or is not right
"Well, then, content yourself, Jeanne, Mademoiselle Prefere was not
"Yes, yes, she was quite right that time; but I wanted to love
everybody who loved you--everybody without exception--and I cannot
do it, because it would never be possible for me to love Mademoiselle
"Listen, Jeanne," I answered, very seriously, "Mademoiselle Prefere
has become good to you; try now to be good to her."
She answered sharply,
"It is very easy for Mademoiselle Prefere to be good to me, and it
would be very difficult indeed for me to be good to her."
I then said, in a still more serious tone:
"My child, the authority of a teacher is sacred. You must consider
your schoolmistress as occupying the place to you of the mother whom
I had scarcely uttered this solemn stupidity when I bitterly regretted
it. The child turned pale, and the tears sprang to her eyes.
"Oh, Monsieur!" she cried, "how could you say such a thing--YOU?
You never knew mamma!"
Ay, just Heaven! I did know her mamma. And how indeed could I have
been foolish enough to have said what I did?
She repeated, as if to herself:
"Mamma! my dear mamma! my poor mamma!"
A lucky chance prevented me from playing the fool any further. I do
not know how it happened at that moment I looked as if I was going
to cry. At my age one does not cry. It must have been a bad cough
which brought the tears into my eyes. But, anyhow, appearances were
in my favour. Jeanne was deceived by them. Oh! what a pure and
radiant smile suddenly shone out under her beautiful wet eyelashes--
like sunshine among branches after a summer shower! We took each
other by the hand and sat a long while without saying a word--
absolutely happy. Those celestial harmonies which I once thought
I heard thrilling through my soul while I knelt before that tomb
to which a saintly woman had guided me, suddenly awoke again in my
heart, slow-swelling through the blissful moments with infinite
softness. Doubtless the child whose hand pressed my own also heard
them; and then, elevated by their enchantment above the material
world, the poor old man and the artless young girl both knew that a
tender ghostly Presence was making sweetness all about them.
"My child," I said at last, "I am very old, and many secrets of life,
which you will only learn little by little, have been revealed to me.
Believe me, the future is shaped out of the past. Whatever you can
do to live contentedly here, without impatience and without fretting,
will help you live some future day in peace and joy in your own home.
Be gentle, and learn how to suffer. When one suffers patiently one
suffers less. If you should be badly treated, Madame de Gabry and
I would both consider ourselves badly treated in your person."...
"Is your health very good indeed, dear Monsieur?"
It was Mademoiselle Prefere, approaching stealthily behind us, who
had asked the question with a peculiar smile. My first idea was to
tell her to go to the devil; my second, that her mouth was as little
suited for smiling as a frying-pan for musical purposes; my third
was to answer her politely and assure her that I hoped she was very
She sent the young girl out to take a walk in the garden; then,
pressing one hand upon her pelerine and extending the other towards
the Tableau d'Honneur, she showed me the name of Jeanne Alexandre
written at the head of the list in large text.
"I am very much pleased," I said to her, "to find that you are
satisfied with the behaviour of that child. Nothing could delight
me more; and I am inclined to attribute this happy result to your
affectionate vigilance. I have taken the liberty to send you a few
books which I think may serve both to instruct and to amuse young
girls. You will be able to judge by glancing over them whether
they are adapted to the perusal of Mademoiselle Alexandre and her
The gratitude of the schoolmistress not only overflowed in words,
but seemed about to take the form of tearful sensibility. In order
to change the subject I observed,
"What a beautiful day this is!"
"Yes," she replied; "and if this weather continues, those dear
children will have a nice time for their enjoyment."
"I suppose you are referring to the holidays. But Mademoiselle
Alexandre, who has no relatives, cannot go away. What in the world
is she going to do all alone in this great big house?"
"Oh, we will do everything we can to amuse her.... I will take her
to the museums and---"
She hesitated, blushed, and continued,
"--and to your house, if you will permit me."
"Why of course!" I exclaimed. "That is a first-rate idea."
We separated very good friends with one another. I with her, because
I had been able to obtain what I desired; she with me, for no
appreciable motive--which fact, according to Plato, elevated her
into the highest rank of the Hierarchy of Souls.
...And nevertheless it is not without a presentiment of evil that I
find myself on the point of introducing this person into my house.
And I would be very glad indeed to see Jeanne in charge of anybody
else rather than of her. Maitre Mouche and Mademoiselle Prefere
are characters whom I cannot at all understand. I never can imagine
why they say what they do say, nor why they do what they do; they
have a mysterious something in common which makes me feel uneasy.
As Jeanne said to me a little while ago: "One is uneasy about
what one cannot understand."
Alas! at my age one has learned only too well how little sincerity
there is in life; one has learned only too well how much one loses
by living a long time in this world; and one feels that one can no
longer trust any except the young.
I waited for them. In fact, I waited for them very impatiently. I
exerted all my powers of insinuation and of coaxing to induce Therese
to receive them kindly; but my powers in this direction are very
limited. They came. Jeanne was neater and prettier than I had ever
expected to see her. She has not, it is true, anything approaching
the charm of her mother. But to-day, for the first time, I observed
that she has a pleasing face; and a pleasing face is of great
advantage to a woman in this world. I think that her hat was a
little on one side; but she smiled, and the City of Books was all
illuminated by that smile.
I watched Therese to see whether the rigid manners of the old
housekeeper would soften a little at the sight of the young girl. I
saw her turning her lustreless eyes upon Jeanne; I saw her long
wrinkled face, her toothless mouth, and that pointed chin of hers--
like the chin of some puissant old fairy. And that was all I could
Mademoiselle Prefere made her appearance all in blue--advanced,
retreated, skipped, tripped, cried out, sighed, cast her eyes down,
rolled her eyes up, bewildered herself with excuses--said she dared
not, and nevertheless dared--said she would never dare again, and
nevertheless dared again--made courtesies innumerable--made, in
short, all the fuss she could.
"What a lot of books!" she screamed. "And have you really read them
all, Monsieur Bonnard?"
"Alas! I have," I replied, "and that is just the reason that I do not
know anything; for there is not a single one of those books which
does not contradict some other book; so that by the time one has
read them all one does not know what to think about anything. That
is just my condition, Madame."
Thereupon she called Jeanne for the purpose of communicating her
impressions. But Jeanne was looking out of the window.
"How beautiful it is!" she said to us. "How I love to see the river
flowing! It makes you think about all kinds of things."
Mademoiselle Prefere having removed her hat and exhibited a forehead
tricked out with blonde curls, my housekeeper sturdily snatched up
the hat at once, with the observation that she did not like to see
people's clothes scattered over the furniture. Then she approached
Jeanne and asked her for her "things," calling her "my little lady!"
Where-upon the little lady, giving up her cloak and hat, exposed
to view a very graceful neck and a lithe figure, whose outlines were
beautifully relieved against the great glow of the open window;
and I could have wished that some one else might have seen her at
that moment--some one very different from an aged housekeeper, a
schoolmistress frizzled like a sheep, and this old humbug of an
archivist and paleographer.
"So you are looking at the Seine," I said to her. "See how it
sparkles in the sun!"
"Yes," she replied, leaning over the windowbar, "it looks like a
flowing of fire. But see how nice and cool it looks on the other
side over there under the shadow of the willows! That little spot
there pleases me better than all the rest."
"Good!" I answered. "I see that the river has a charm for you. How
would you like, with Mademoiselle Prefere's permission, to make a
trip to Saint-Cloud? We should certainly be in time to catch
the steamboat just below the Pont-Royal."
Jeanne was delighted with my suggestion, and Mademoiselle Prefere
willing to make any sacrifice. But my housekeeper was not at all
willing to let us go off so unconcernedly. She summoned me into
the dining-room, whither I followed her in fear and trembling.
"Monsieur," she said to me as soon as we found ourselves alone, "you
never think about anything, and it is always I who have to think
about everything. Luckily for you I have a good memory."
I did not think that it was a favourable moment for any attempt to
dispel this wild illusion. She continued:
"So you were going off without saying a word to me about what this
little lady likes to eat? At her age one does not know anything,
one does not care about anything in particular, one eats like a
bird. You yourself, Monsieur, are very difficult to please; but
at least you know what is good: it is very different with these
young people--they do not know anything about cooking. It is often
the very best thing which they think the worst, and what is bad
seems to them good, because their stomachs are not quite formed
yet--so that one never knows just what to do for them. Tell me if
the little lady would like a pigeon cooked with green peas, and
whether she is fond of vanilla ice-cream."
"My good Therese," I answered, "just do whatever you think best, and
whatever that may be I am sure it will be very nice. Those ladies
will be quite contented with our humble ordinary fare."
Therese replied, very dryly,
"Monsieur, I am asking you about the little lady: she must not
leave this house without having enjoyed herself a little. As for
that old frizzle-headed thing, if she doesn't like my dinner she
can suck her thumbs. I don't care what she likes!"
My mind being thus set at rest, I returned to the City of Books,
where Mademoiselle Prefere was crocheting as calmly as if she were
at home. I almost felt inclined myself to think she was. She did
not take up much room, it is true, in the angle of the window. But
she had chosen her chair and her footstool so well that those
articles of furniture seemed to have been made expressly for her.
Jeanne, on the other hand, devoted her attention to the books and
pictures--gazing at them in a kindly, expressive, half-sad way, as
if she were bidding them an affectionate farewell.
"Here," I said to her, "amuse yourself with this book, which I am
sure you cannot help liking, because it is full of beautiful
engravings." And I threw open before her Vecellio's collection of
costume-designs--not the commonplace edition, by your leave, so
meagrely reproduced by modern artists, but in truth a magnificent
and venerable copy of that editio princeps which is noble as
those noble dames who figure upon its yellowed leaves, made
beautiful by time.
While turning over the engravings with artless curiousity, Jeanne
said to me,
"We were talking about taking a walk; but this is a great journey
you are making me take. And I would like to travel very, very far
"In that case, Mademoiselle," I said to her, "you must arrange
yourself as comfortably as possible for travelling. But you are now
sitting on one corner of your chair, so that the chair is standing
upon only one leg, and that Vecellio must tire your knees. Sit
down comfortably; put your chair on its four feet, and put your
book on the table."
She obeyed me with a laugh.
I watched her. She cried out suddenly,
"Oh, come look at this beautiful costume!" (It was that of the wife
of a Doge of Venice.) "How noble it is! What magnificent ideas it
gives one of that life! Oh, I must tell you--I adore luxury!"
"You must not express such thoughts as those, Mademoiselle," said
the schoolmistress, lifting up her little shapeless nose from her
"Nevertheless, it was a very innocent utterance," I replied. "There
are splendid souls in whom the love of splendid things is natural
The little shapeless nose went down again.
"Mademoiselle Prefere likes luxury too," said Jeanne; "she cuts out
paper trimmings and shades for the lamps. It is economical luxury;
but it is luxury all the same."
Having returned to the subject of Venice, we were just about to make
the acquaintance of a certain patrician lady attired in an embroidered
dalmatic, when I heard the bell ring. I thought it was some peddler
with his basket; but the gate of the City of Books opened, and...Well,
Master Sylvestre Bonnard, you were wishing awhile ago that the grace
of your protegee might be observed by some other eyes than old
withered ones behind spectacles. Your wishes have been fulfilled
in a most unexpected manner, and a voice cries out to you as to the
"Craignez, Seigneur, craignez que le Ciel rigoureux
Ne vous Haisse assez pour exaucer vos voeux!
Souvent dans sa colere il recoit nos victimes,
Ses presents sont souvent la peine de nos crimes."
["Beware my lord! Beware lest stern Heaven
hate you enough to hear your prayers!
Often 'tis in wrath that Heaven receives our sacrifices:
its gifts are often the punishment of our crimes."]
The gate of the City of Books had opened, and a handsome young man
made his appearance, ushered in by Therese. That good old soul only
knows how to open the door for people and to shut it behind them;
she has no idea whatever of the tact requisite for the waiting-
room and for the parlour. It is not in her nature either to make
any announcements or to make anybody wait. She either throws people
out on the lobby, or simply pitches them at your head.
And here is this handsome young man already inside; and I cannot
really take the girl at once and hide her like a secret treasure in
the next room. I wait for him to explain himself; he does it without
the least embarrassment; but it seems to me that he has already
observed the young girl who is still bending over the table looking
at Vecellio. As I observe the young man it occurs to me that I have
seen him somewhere before, or else I must be very much mistaken.
His name is Gelis. That is a name which I have heard somewhere,--I
can't remember where. At all events, Monsieur Gelis (since there
is a Gelis) is a fine-looking young fellow. He tells me that this
is his third class-year at the Ecole des Chartes, and that he has
been working for the past fifteen or eighteen months upon his
graduation thesis, the subject of which is the Condition of the
Benedictine Abbeys in 1700. He has just read my works upon the
"Monasticon"; and he is convinced that he cannot terminate this
thesis successfully without my advice, to begin with, and in the
second place without a certain manuscript which I possess, and
which is nothing less than the "Register of the Accounts of the
Abbey of Citeaux from 1683 to 1704."
Having thus explained himself, he hands me a letter of introduction
bearing the signature of one of the most illustrious of my
Good! Now I know who he is! Monsieur Gelis is the very same young
man who last year under the chestnut-trees called me an idiot! And
while unfolding his letter of introduction I think to myself:
"Aha! my unlucky youth, you are very far from suspecting that I
overheard what you said, and that I know what you think of me--or,
at least, what you did think of me that day, for these young minds
are so fickle? I have got you now, my friend! You have fallen into
the lion's den, and so unexpectedly, in good sooth, that the
astonished old lion does not know what to do with his prey. But
come now, old lion! do not act like an idiot! Is it not possible
that you were an idiot? If you are not one now, you certainly
were one! You were a fool to have been listening to Monsieur Gelis
at the foot of the statue of Marguerite de Valois; you were doubly
a fool to have heard what he said; and you were trebly a fool not
to have forgotten what it would have been much better never to have
Having thus scolded the old lion, I exhorted him to show clemency.
He did not appear to require much coaxing, and gradually became so
good-natured that he had some difficulty in restraining himself
from bursting out into joyous roarings. From the way in which I
had read my colleague's letter one might have supposed me a man who
did not know his alphabet. I took a long while to read it; and
Monsieur Gelis might have become very tired under different
circumstances; but he was watching Jeanne, and endured the trial
with exemplary patience. Jeanne occasionally turned her face in
our direction. Well you could not expect a person to remain
perfectly motionless, could you? Mademoiselle Prefere was arranging
her curls, and her bosom occasionally swelled with little sighs.
It may be observed that I have myself often been honoured with
those little sighs.
"Monsieur," I said, as I folded up the letter, "I shall be very happy
to be of any service to you. You are occupied with researches in
which I myself have always felt a very lively interest. I have
done all that lay in my power. I know, as you do--and still better
than you can know--how much there remains to do. The manuscript
you asked for is at your disposal; you may take it home with you,
but it is not a manuscript of the smallest kind, and I am afraid---"
"Oh, Monsieur," said Gelis, "big books have never been able to make
me afraid of them."
I begged the young man to wait for me, and I went into the next room
to get the Register, which I could not find at first, and which I
almost despaired of finding, as I discerned, from certain familiar
signs, that Therese had been setting the room in order. But the
Register was so big and so heavy that, luckily for me, Therese had
not been able to put it in order as she had doubtless wished to do.
I could scarcely lift it up myself; and I had the pleasure of
finding it quite as heavy as I could have hoped.
"Wait, my boy," I said, with a smile which must have been very
sarcastic--"wait! I am going to give you something to do which
will break your arms first, and afterwards your head. That will
be the first vengeance of Sylvestre Bonnard. Later on we shall see
what else there is to be done."
When I returned to the City of Books I heard Monsieur Gelis and
Mademoiselle Jeanne chatting--chatting together, if you please! as
if they were the best friends in the world. Mademoiselle Prefere,
being full of decorum, did not say anything; but the other two were
chatting like birds. And what about? About the blond tint used by
Venetian painters! Yes, about the "Venetian blond." That little
serpent of a Gelis was telling Jeanne the secret of the dye with
which, according to the best authorities, the women of Titian and
of Veronese tinted their hair. And Mademoiselle Jeanne was expressing
her opinion very prettily about the honey tint and the golden tint.
I understood that that scamp of a Vecellio was responsible--that
they had been bending over the book together, and that they had been
admiring either that Doge's wife we had been looking at awhile before,
or some other patrician woman of Venice.
Never mind! I appeared with my enormous old book, thinking that
Gelis was going to make a grimace. It was as much as one could have
asked a porter to carry, and my arms were stiff merely with lifting
it. But the young man caught it up like a feather, and slipped it
under his arm with a smile. Then he thanked me with that sort of
brevity which I like, reminded me that he had need of my advice, and,
having made an appointment to meet me another day, took his departure
after bowing to us with the most perfect self-possession conceivable.
"He seems quite a decent lad," I said.
Jeanne turned over a few more pages of Vecellio, and made no answer.
"Aha!" I thought to myself.... And then we went to Saint-Cloud.
The regularity with which visit succeeded visit to the old man's
house thereafter made me feel very grateful to Mademoiselle Prefere,
who succeeded at last in winning her right to occupy a special corner
in the City of Books. She now says "MY chair," "MY footstool,"
"MY pigeon hole." Her pigeon hole is really a small shelf properly
belonging to the poets of La Champagne, whom she expelled therefrom
in order to obtain a lodging for her work-bag. She is very amiable,
and I must really be a monster not to like her. I can only endure
her--in the severest signification of the word. But what would one
not endure for Jeanne's sake? Her presence lends to the City of
Books a charm which seems to hover about it even after she has gone.
She is very ignorant; but she is so finely gifted that whenever I
show her anything beautiful I am astounded to find that I had never
really seen it before, and that it is she who makes me see it. I
have found it impossible so far to make her follow some of my ideas,
but I have often found pleasure in following the whimsical and
delicate course of her own.
A more practical man than I would attempt to teach her to make herself
useful; but is not the capacity of being amiable a useful think in
life? Without being pretty, she charms; and the power to charm is
perhaps, after all, worth quite as much as the ability to darn
stockings. Furthermore, I am not immortal; and I doubt whether she
will have become very old when my notary (who is not Maitre Mouche)
shall read to her a certain paper which I signed a little while ago.
I do not wish that any one except myself should provide for her,
and give her her dowry. I am not, however, very rich, and the
paternal inheritance did not gain bulk in my hands. One does not
accumulate money by poring over old texts. But my books--at the
price which such noble merchandise fetches to-day--are worth
something. Why, on that shelf there are some poets of the sixteenth
century for which bankers would bid against princes! And I think
that those "Heures" of Simon Vostre would not be readily overlooked
at the Hotel Sylvestre any more than would those Preces Piae
compiled for the use of Queen Claude. I have taken great pains to
collect and to preserve all those rare and curious editions which
people the City of Books; and for a long time I used to believe that
they were as necessary to my life as air and light. I have loved
them well, and even now I cannot prevent myself from smiling at them
and caressing them. Those morocco bindings are so delightful to the
eye! These old vellums are so soft to the touch! There is not a
single one among those books which is not worthy, by reason of some
special merit, to command the respect of an honourable man. What
other owner would ever know how to dip into hem in the proper way?
Can I be even sure that another owner would not leave them to decay
in neglect, or mutilate them at the prompting of some ignorant whim?
Into whose hands will fall that incomparable copy of the "Histoire
de l'Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Pres," on the margins of which the
author himself, in the person of Jacques Bouillard, made such
substantial notes in his own handwriting?... Master Bonnard, you
are an old fool! Your housekeeper--poor soul!--is nailed down upon
her bed with a merciless attack of rheumatism. Jeanne is to come
with her chaperon, and, instead of thinking how you are going to
receive them, you are thinking about a thousand stupidities.
Sylvestre Bonnard, you will never succeed at anything in this world,
and it is I myself who tell you so!
And at this very moment I catch sight of them from my window, as they
get out of the omnibus. Jeanne leaps down lie a kitten; but
Mademoiselle Prefere intrusts herself to the strong arm of the
conductor, with the shy grace of a Virginia recovering after the
shipwreck, and this time quite resigned to being saved. Jeanne
looks up, sees me, laughs, and Mademoiselle Prefere has to prevent
her from waving her umbrella at me as a friendly signal. There is
a certain stage of cvilisation to which Mademoiselle Jeanne never
can be brought. You can teach her all the arts if you like (it is
not exactly to Mademoiselle Prefere that I am now speaking); but you
will never be able to teach her perfect manners. As a charming child
she makes the mistake of being charming only in her own way. Only
an old fool like myself could forgive her pranks. As for young
fools--and there are several of them still to be found--I do not know
what they would think about it; and what they might think is none
of my business. Just look at her running along the pavement, wrapped
in her cloak, with her hat tilted back on her head, and her feather
fluttering in the wind, like a schooner in full rig! And really she
has a grace of poise and motion which suggests a fine sailing-vessel--
so much so, indeed, that she makes me remember seeing one day, when
I was at Havre.... But, Bonnard, my friend, how many times is it
necessary to tell you that your housekeeper is in bed, and that you
must go and open the door yourself?
Open, Old Man Winter! 'tis Spring who rings the bell.
It is Jeanne herself--Jeanne is all flushed like a rose. Mademoiselle
Prefere, indignant and out of breath, has still another whole flight
to climb before reaching our lobby.
I explained the condition of my housekeeper, and proposed that we
should dine at a restaurant. But Therese--all-powerful still, even
upon her sick-bed--decided that we should dine at home, whether we
wanted to or no. Respectable people, in her opinion, never dined
at restaurants. Moreover, she had made all necessary arrangements--
the dinner had been bought; the concierge would cook it.
The audacious Jeanne insisted upon going to see whether the old woman
wanted anything. As you might suppose, she was sent back to the
parlour with short shrift, but not so harshly as I had feared.
"If I want anybody to do anything for me, which, thank God, I do not,"
Therese had replied, "I would get somebody less delicate and dainty
than you are. What I want is rest. That is a merchandise which is
not sold at fairs under the sign of 'Motus with finger on lip.' Go
and have your fun, and don't stay here--for old age might be
Jeanne, after telling us what she had said, added that she liked very
much to hear old Therese talk. Whereupon Mademoiselle Prefere
reproached her for expressing such unladylike tastes.
I tried to excuse her by citing the example of Moliere. Just at that
moment it came to pass that, while climbing the ladder to get a
book, she upset a whole shelf-row. There was a heavy crash; and
Mademoiselle Prefere, being, of course, a very delicate person,
almost fainted. Jeanne quickly followed the books to the foot of
the ladder. she made one think of a kitten suddenly transformed into
a woman, catching mice which had been transformed into old books.
While picking them up, she found one which happened to interest her,
and she began to read it, squatting down upon her heels. It was the
"Prince Grenouille," she told us. Mademoiselle Prefere took occasion
to complain that Jeanne had so little taste for poetry. It was
impossible to get her to recite Casimir Delavigne's poem on the death
of Joan of Arc without mistakes. It was the very most she could do
to learn "Le Petit Savoyard." The schoolmistress did not think that
any one should read the "Prince Grenouille" before learning by heart
the stanzas to Duperrier; and, carried away by her enthusiasm, she
began to recite them in a voice sweeter than the bleating of a sheep:
" Ta douleur, Duperrier, sera donc eternelle,
Et les tristes discours
Que te met en l'esprit l'amitie paternelle
. . . . . . . . .
" Je sais de quels appas son enfance etait pleine,
Et n'ai pas entrepris,
Injurieux ami, de consoler ta peine
Avecque son mepris."
Then in ecstacy, she exclaimed,
"How beautiful that is! What harmony! How is it possible for any
one not to admire such exquisite, such touching verses! But why
did Malherbe call that poor Monsieur Duperrier his injurieux ami
at a time when he had been so severely tied by the death of his
daughter? Injurieux ami--you must acknowledge that the term is
I explained to this poetical person that the phrase "Injurieux ami,"
which shocked her so much, was in apposition, etc. etc. What I said,
however, had so little effect towards clearing her head that she was
seized with a severe and prolonged fit of sneezing. Meanwhile it
was evident that the history of "Prince Grenouille" had proved
extremely funny; for it was all that Jeanne could do, as she crouched
down there on the carpet, to keep herself from bursting into a wild
fit of laughter. But when she had finished with the prince and
princess of the story, and the multitude of their children, she
assumed a very suppliant expression, and begged me as a great favour
to allow her to put on a white apron and go to the kitchen to help
in getting the dinner ready.
"Jeanne," I replied, with the gravity of a master, "I think that if
it is a question of breaking plates, knocking off the edges of
dishes, denting all the pans, and smashing all the skimmers, the
person whom Therese has set to work in the kitchen already will be
able to perform her task without assistance; for it seems to me at
this very moment I can hear disastrous noises in that kitchen. But
anyhow, Jeanne, I will charge you with the duty of preparing the
dessert. So go and get your white apron; I will tie it on for you."
Accordingly, I solemnly knotted the linen apron about her waist; and
she rushed into the kitchen, where she proceeded at once--as we
discovered later on--to prepare various dishes unknown to Vatel,
unknown even to that great Careme who began his treatise upon pieces
montees with these words: "The Fine Arts are five in number:
Painting, Music, Poetry, Sculpture, and Architecture--whereof the
principal branch is Confectionery." But I had no reason to be pleased
with this little arrangement--for Mademoiselle Prefere, on finding
herself alone with me, began to act after a fashion which filled me
with frightful anxiety. She gazed upon me with eyes full of tears
and flames, and uttered enormous sighs.
"Oh, how I pity you!" she said. "A man like you--a man so superior
as you are--having to live alone with a coarse servant (for she is
certainly coarse, that is incontestable)! How cruel such a life
must be! You have need of repose--you have need of comfort, of
care, of every kind of attention; you might fall sick. And yet
there is no woman who would not deem it an honour to bear your name,
and to share your existence. No, there is none; my own heart tells
And she squeezed both hands over that heart of hers--always so ready
to fly away.
I was driven almost to distraction. I tried to make Mademoiselle
Prefere comprehend that I had no intention whatever of changing my
habits at so advanced an age, and that I found just as much
happiness in life as my character and my circumstances rendered
"No, you are not happy!" she cried. "You need to have always beside
you a mind capable of comprehending your own. Shake off your
lethargy, and cast your eyes about you. Your professional connections
are of the most extended character, and you must have charming
acquaintances. One cannot be a Member of the Institute without going
into society. See, judge, compare. No sensible woman would refuse
you her hand. I am a woman, Monsieur; my instinct never deceives
me--there is something within me which assures me that you would find
happiness in marriage. Women are so devoted, so loving (not all, of
course, but some)! And, then, they are so sensitive to glory.
Remember that at your age one has need, like Oedipus, of an Egeria!
Your cook is no longer able--she is deaf, she is infirm. If anything
should happen to you at night! Oh! it makes me shudder even to think
And she really shuddered--she closed her eyes, clenched her hands,
stamped on the floor. Great was my dismay. With awful intensity
"Your health--your dear health! The health of a Member of the
Institute! How joyfully I would shed the very last drop of my blood
to preserve the life of a scholar, of a litterateur, of a man of
worth. And any woman who would not do as much, I should despise her!
Let me tell you, Monsieur--I used to know the wife of a great
mathematician, a man who used to fill whole note-books with
calculations--so many note-books that they filled all the cupboards
in the house. He had heart-disease, and he was visibly pining away.
And I saw that wife of his, sitting there beside him, perfectly calm!
I could not endure it. I said to her one day, 'My dear, you have no
heart! If I were in your place I should...I should...I do not know
what I should do!'"
She paused for want of breath. My situation was terrible. As for
telling Mademoiselle Prefere what I really thought about her advice--
that was something which I could not even dream of daring to do.
For to fall out with her was to lose the chance of seeing Jeanne.
So I resolved to take the matter quietly. In any case, she was in
my house: that consideration helped me to treat her with something
"I am very old, Mademoiselle," I answered her, "and I am very much
afraid that your advice comes to me rather late in life. Still, I
will think about it. In the meanwhile let me beg of you to be
calm. I think a glass of eau sucree would do you good!"
To my great surprise, these words calmed her at once; and I saw her
sit down very quietly in HER corner, close to HER pigeon-hole,
upon HER chair, with her feet upon HER footstool.
The dinner was a complete failure. Mademoiselle Prefere, who seemed
lost in a brown study, never noticed the fact. As a rule I am very
sensitive about such misfortunes; but this one caused Jeanne so
much delight that at last I could not help enjoying it myself. Even
at my age I had not been able to learn before that a chicken, raw
on one side and burned on the other, was a funny thing; but Jeanne's
bursts of laughter taught me that it was. That chicken caused us to
say a thousand very witty things, which I have forgotten; and I was
enchanted that it had not been properly cooked. Jeanne put it back
to roast again; then she broiled it; then she stewed it with butter.
And every time it came back to the table it was much less appetising
and much more mirth-provoking than before. When we did eat it, at
last, it had become a thing for which there is no name in any
The almond cake was much more extraordinary. It was brought to the
table in the pan, because it never could have got out of it. I
invited Jeanne to help us all to a piece thinking that I was going
to embarrass her; but she broke the pan and gave each of us a
fragment. To think that anybody at my age could eat such things was
an idea possible only to the very artless mind. Mademoiselle Prefere,
suddenly awakened from her dream, indignantly pushed away the sugary
splinter of earthenware, and deemed it opportune to inform me that
she herself was exceedingly skilful in making confectionery.
"Ah!" exclaimed Jeanne, with an air of surprise not altogether without
malice. Then she wrapped all the fragments of the pan in a piece of
paper, for the purpose of giving them to her little playmates--
especially to the three little Mouton girls, who are naturally
inclined to gluttony.
Secretly, however, I was beginning to feel very uneasy. It did not
now seem in any way possible to keep much longer upon good terms
with Mademoiselle Prefere since her matrimonial fury had this burst
forth. And that lady affronted, good-bye to Jeanne! I took advantage
of a moment while the sweet soul was busy putting on her cloak, in
order to ask Jeanne to tell me exactly what her own age was. She
was eighteen years and one month old. I counted on my fingers, and
found she would not come of age for another two years and eleven
months. And how should we be able to manage during all that time?
At the door Mademoiselle Prefere squeezed my hand with so much
meaning that I fairly shook from head to foot.
"Good-bye," I said very gravely to the young girl. "But listen to
me a moment: your friend is very old, and might perhaps fail you
when you need him most. Promise me never to fail in your duty to
yourself, and then I shall have no fear. God keep you, my child!"
After closing the door behind them, I opened the window to get a
last look at her as she was going away. But the night was dark,
and I could see only two vague shadows flitting across the quay.
I heard the vast deep hom of the city rising up about me; and I
suddenly felt a great sinking at my heart.
The King of Thule kept a goblet of gold which his dying mistress
had bequeathed him as a souvenir. When about to die himself, after
having drunk from it for the last time, he threw the goblet into the
sea. And I keep this diary of memories even as that old prince of
the mist-haunted seas kept his carven goblet; and even as he flung
away at last his love-pledge, so will I burn this book of souvenirs.
Assuredly it is not through any arrogant avarice nor through any
egotistical pride, that I shall destroy this record of a humble
life--it is only because I fear lest those things which are dear and
sacred to me might appear before others, because of my inartistic
manner of expression, either commonplace or absurd.
I do not say this in view of what is going to follow. Absurd I
certainly must have been when, having been invited to dinner by
Mademoiselle Prefere, I took my seat in a bergere (it was really
a bergere) at the right hand of that alarming person. The table
had been set in a little parlour; and I could observe from the poor
way in which it was set out that the schoolmistress was one of those
ethereal souls who soar above terrestrial things. Chipped plates,
unmatched glasses, knives with loose handles, forks with yellow
prongs--there was absolutely nothing wanting to spoil the appetite
of an honest man.
I was assured that the dinner had been cooked for me--for me alone--
although Maitre Mouche had also been invited. Mademoiselle Prefere
must have imagined that I had Sarmatian tastes on the subject of
butter; for that which she offered me, served up in little thin pats,
was excessively rancid.
The roast very nearly poisoned me. But I had the pleasure of hearing
Maitre Mouche and Mademoiselle Prefere discourse upon virtue. I
said the pleasure--I ought to have said the shame; for the sentiments
to which they gave expression soared far beyond the range of my
What they said proved to me as clear as day that devotedness was their
daily bread, and that self-sacrifice was not less necessary to their
existence than air and water. Observing that I was not eating,
Mademoiselle Prefere made a thousand efforts to overcome that which
she was good enough to term my "discretion." Jeanne was not of the
party, because, I was told, her presence at it would have been
contrary to the rules, and would have wounded the feelings of the
other school-children, among whom it was necessary to maintian a
certain equality. I secretly congratulated her upon having escaped
from the Merovingian butter; from the huge radishes, empty as funeral-
urns; form the leathery roast, and from various other curiosities of
diet to which I had exposed myself for the love of her.
The extremely disconsolate-looking servant served up some liquid to
which they gave the name of cream--I do not know why--and vanished
away like a ghost.
Then Mademoiselle Prefere related to Maitre Mouche, with extraordinary
transports of emotion, all that she had said to me in the City of
Books, during the time that my housekeeper was sick in bed. Her
admiration for a Member of the Institute, her terror lest I should
be taken ill while unattended, and the certainty she felt that any
intelligent woman would be proud and happy to share my existence--she
concealed nothing, but, on the contrary, added many fresh follies to
the recital. Maitre Mouche kept nodding his head in approval while
cracking nuts. Then, after all this verbiage, he demanded, with
an agreeable smile, what my answer had been.
Mademoiselle Prefere, pressing her hand upon her heart and extending
the other towards me, cried out,
"He is so affectionate, so superior, so good, and so great! He
answered... But I could never, because I am only a humble woman--I
could never repeat the words of a Member of the Institute. I can
only utter the substance of them. He answered, 'Yes, I understand
And with these words she reached out and seized one of my hands.
Then Maitre Mouche, also overwhelmed with emotion, arose and seized
my other hand.
"Monsieur," he said, "permit me to offer my congratulations."
Several times in my life I have known fear; but never before had I
experienced any fright of so nauseating a character. A sickening
terror came upon me.
I disengaged by two hands, and, rising to my feet, so as to give all
possible seriousness to my words, I said,
"Madame, either I explained myself very badly when you were at my
house, or I have totally misunderstood you here in your own. In
either case, a positive declaration is absolutely necessary. Permit
me, Madame, to make it now, very plainly. No--I never did understand
you; I am totally ignorant of the nature of this marriage project
that you have been planning for me--if you really have been planning
one. In any event, I should not think of marrying. It would be
unpardonable folly at my age, and even now, at this moment, I
cannot conceive how a sensible person like you could ever have advised
me to marry. Indeed, I am strongly inclined to believe that I must
have been mistaken, and that you never said anything of the kind
before. In the latter case, please excuse an old man totally
unfamiliar with the usages of society, unaccustomed to the
conversation of ladies, and very contrite for his mistake."
Maitre Mouche went back very softly to his place, where, not finding
any more nuts to crack, he began to whittle a cork.
Mademoiselle Prefere, after staring at me for a few moments with an
expression in her little round dry eyes which I had never seen there
before, suddenly resumed her customary sweetness and graciousness.
Then she cried out in honeyed tones,
"Oh! these learned men!--these studious men! They are like children.
Yes, Monsieur Bonnard, you are a real child!"
Then, turning to the notary, who still sat very quietly in his corner,
with his nose over his cork, she exclaimed, in beseeching tones,
"Oh, do not accuse him! Do not accuse him! Do not think any evil
of him, I beg of you! Do not think it at all! Must I ask you upon
Maitre Mouche continued to examine all the various aspects and
surfaces of his cork without making any further manifestation.
I was very indignant; and I know that my cheeks must have been
extremely red, if I could judge by the flush of heat which I felt
rise to my face. This would enable me to explain the words I
heard through all the buzzing in my ears:
"I am frightened about him! our poor friend!... Monsieur Mouche, be
kind enough to open a window! It seems to me that a compress of
arnica would do him some good."
I rushed out into the street with an unspeakable feeling of shame.
"My poor Jeanne!"
I passed eight days without hearing anything further in regard to
the Prefere establishment. Then, feeling myself unable to remain
any longer without some news of Clementine's daughter, and feeling
furthermore that I owed it as a duty to myself not to cease my visits
with the school without more serious cause, I took my way to Les
the parlour seemed to me more cold, more damp, more inhospitable,
and more insidious than ever before; and the servant much more
silent and much more scared. I asked to see Mademoiselle Jeanne;
but, after a very considerable time, it was Mademoiselle Prefere
who made her appearance instead--severe and pale, with lips compressed
and a hard look in her eyes.
"Monsieur," she said, folding her arms over her pelerine, I regret
very much that I cannot allow you to see Mademoiselle Alexandre to-
day; but I cannot possibly do it."
"Why not?" I asked in astonishment.
"Monsieur," she replied, "the reasons which compel me to request that
your visits shall be less frequent hereafter are of an excessively
delicate nature; and I must beg you to spare me the unpleasantness
of mentioning them."
"Madame," I replied, "I have been authorized by Jeanne's guardian
to see his ward every day. Will you please to inform me of your
reasons for opposing the will of Monsieur Mouche?"
"The guardian of Mademoiselle Alexandre," she replied (and she
dwelt upon that word "guardian" as upon a solid support), "desires,
quite as strongly as I myself do, that your assiduities may come
to an end as soon as possible."
"Then, if that be the case," I said, "be kind enough to let me know
his reasons and your own."
She looked up at the little spiral of paper on the ceiling, and then
replied, with stern composure,
"You insist upon it? Well, although such explanations are very
painful for a woman to make, I will yield to your exaction. This
house, Monsieur is an honourable house. I have my responsibility.
I have to watch like a mother over each one of my pupils. Your
assiduities in regard to Mademoiselle Alexandre could not possibly
be continued without serious injury to the young girl herself; and
it is my duty to insist that they shall cease."
"I do not really understand you," I replied--and I was telling the
plain truth. Then she deliberately resumed:
"Your assiduities in this house are being interpreted, by the most
respectable and the least suspicious persons, in such a manner that
I find myself obliged, both in the interest of my establishment and
in the interest of Mademoiselle Alexandre, to see that they end at
"Madame," I cried, "I have heard a great many silly things in my
life, but never anything so silly as what you have just said!"
She answered me quietly,
"Your words of abuse will not affect me in the slightest. When one
has a duty to accomplish, one is strong enough to endure all."
And she pressed her pelerine over her heart once more--not perhaps
on this occasion to restrain, but doubtless only to caress that
"Madame," I said, shaking my finger at her, "you have wantonly
aroused the indignation of an aged man. Be good enough to act in
such a fashion that the old man may be able at least to forget your
existence, and do not add fresh insults to those which I have already
sustained from your lips. I give you fair warning that I shall never
cease to look after Mademoiselle Alexandre; and that should you
attempt to do her any harm, in any manner whatsoever, you will have
serious reason to regret it!"
The more I became excited, the more she became cool; and she answered
in a tone of superb indifference:
"Monsieur, I am much too well informed in regard to the nature of
the interest which you take in this young girl, not to withdraw her
immediately from that very surveillance with which you threaten me.