At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 9

At Work on Zosimus the Panopolitan — I visit my Home and hear Gossip about M. d’Asterac.

During all the next month or six weeks, M. Coignard applied himself, day and night, just as he had promised, to the reading of Zosimus the Panopolitan. During the meals we partook of at the table of M. d’Asterac the conversation turned on the opinions of the gnostics and on the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians. Being only an ignorant scholar I was of little use to my good master. I did my best by making such researches as he wanted me to make; I took no little pleasure in it. Truly, we lived happily and quietly. At about the seventh week, M. d’Asterac gave me leave to go and see my parents at their cookshop. The shop appeared strangely smaller to me. My mother was there alone and sad. She cried aloud on seeing me fitted out like a prince.

“My Jacques,” she said, “I am very happy!”

And she began to cry. We embraced, then wiping her eyes with a corner of her canvas apron she said:

“Your father is at the Little Bacchus. Since you left he often goes there; in your absence the house is less pleasant for him. He’ll be glad to see you again. But say, my Jacques, are you satisfied with your new position? I regretted letting you go with that nobleman; I even accused myself in confession to the third vicar of giving preference to your bodily well-being over that of your soul and not having thought of God in establishing you. The third vicar reproved me kindly over it, and exhorted me to follow the example of the pious women in the Scriptures, of whom he named several to me; but there are names there that I’ll never be able to remember. He did not explain his meaning minutely as it was a Saturday evening and the church was full of penitents.”

I reassured my good mother as well as I could and told her that M. d’Asterac made me work in Greek, which was the language in which the New Testament was written; this pleased her, but she remained pensive.

“You’ll never guess, my dear Jacquot,” she said, “who spoke to me of M. d’Asterac. It was Cadette Saint–Avit, the serving-woman of the Rector of St Benoît. She comes from Gascony, and is a native of a village called Laroque–Timbaut, quite near Saint Eulalie, of which M. d’Asterac is the lord. You know that Cadette Saint–Avit is elderly, as the waiting-woman of a rector ought to be. In her youth she knew, in her country, the three Messieurs d’Asterac, one of whom was captain of a man-of-war and has since been drowned. He was the youngest. The second was colonel of a regiment, went to war and was killed. The eldest, Hercules d’Asterac, is the sole survivor of the three brothers. It is the same one in whose service you are for your good, at least I hope so. He dressed magnificently in his youth, was liberal in his manners but of a sombre humour. He kept aloof from all public business and was not anxious to go into the king’s service, as his two brothers had done and found in it an honourable end. He was accustomed to say that it was no glory to carry a sword at one’s side, that he did not know of a more ignoble thing than the calling of arms, and that a village scavenger was, in his opinion, high over a brigadier or a marshal of France. Those were his sayings. I confess it does not seem to me either bad or malicious, rather daring and whimsical. But in some way they must be blameable, as Cadette Saint–Avit said that the rector of her parish considered them to be contrary to the order established by God in this world and opposed to that part of the Bible where God is given a name which means Lord of Hosts, and that would be a great sin.

“This M. Hercules had so little sympathy with the court that he refused to travel to Versailles to be presented to his Majesty according to his birthright. He said, ‘The king does not come to me and I do not go to him,’ and anyone of sense, my Jacquot, can understand that such is not a natural saying.”

My good mother looked inquiringly and anxiously at me and went on:

“What more I have to inform you about, my dear Jacquot, is still less believable. However, Cadette Saint–Avit spoke of it as of a certainty. And so I will tell you that M. Hercules d’Asterac, when he lived on his estate, had no other care but to bottle the rays of the sun. Cadette Saint–Avit does not know how he managed it, but she is sure that after a time, in the flagons well corked and heated in water baths, tiny little women took form, charming figures and dressed like theatre princesses. You laugh, Jacquot; however, one ought not to joke over such things when one can see the consequence. It is a great sin to create in such a way creatures who cannot be baptised and who never could have a part in the eternal blessings. You cannot suppose that M. d’Asterac carried those grotesque figures to a priest in their bottles to hold them over the christening font. No godmother could have been found for them.”

“But, my dear mamma,” I replied, “the dolls of M. d’Asterac were not in want of christening, they had no participation in original sin.”

“I never thought of that,” said my mother. “And Cadette Saint–Avit herself did not mention it, although she was the servant of a rector. Unhappily she left Gascony when quite young, came to France and had no more news of M. d’Asterac, of his bottles and his puppets. I sincerely hope, my dear Jacquot, that he renounced his wicked works, which could not be accomplished without the help of the devil.”

I asked:

“Tell me, my dear mother, did Cadette Saint–Avit, the rector’s servant, see the bodies in the bottles with her own eyes?”

“No, my dear child; M. d’Asterac kept his dolls very secret and did not show them to anybody. But she heard of them from a churchman of the name of Fulgence, who haunted the castle, and swore he had seen those little creatures step out of their glass prisons and dance a minuet. And she had every reason to believe it. It is possible to doubt of what one sees, but you cannot doubt the word of an honest man, especially when he belongs to the Church. There is another misfortune with such secret practices, they are extremely costly and it is hard to imagine, as Cadette Saint–Avit said, what money M. Hercules spent to procure all those bottles of different forms, those furnaces and conjuring books wherewith he filled his castle. But after the death of his brothers he became the richest gentleman of his province, and while he dissipated his wealth in follies, his good lands worked for him. Cadette Saint–Avit rates him, with all his expenses, as still a very rich man.”

These last words spoken, my father entered the shop. He embraced me tenderly and confided to me that the house had lost half its pleasantness in consequence of my departure and that of M. Jérôme Coignard, who was honest and jovial. He complimented me on my dress and gave me a lesson in deportment, assuring me that trade had accustomed him to easy manners by the continuous obligation he was under to greet his customers like gentlemen, if as a fact they were only vile riff-raff. He gave me, as a precept, to round off the elbows and to turn my toes outward and counselled me, beyond this, to go and see Léandre at the fair of Saint Germain and to adjust myself exactly on him.

We dined together with a good appetite, and we parted shedding floods of tears. I loved them well, both of them, and what principally made me cry was that, after an absence of six weeks only, they had already become somewhat strange to me. And I verily believe that their sadness was caused by the same sentiment.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:53