At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 16

Jahel comes to my Room — What the Abbé saw on the Stairs — His Encounter with Mosaïde.

Jahel kept her word. On the second day after, she scratched at my door. We were a great deal more comfortable in my room than we had been in M. d’Asterac’s study, and what had taken place at our first meeting was but child’s play in comparison to what love inspired us at our second opportunity. She tore herself out of my arms at the dawn with a thousand oaths to join me again very soon, calling me her soul, her life, her dearest sweetheart.

That day I rose very late. When I reached the library, my master was already sitting over the papyrus of Zosimus, his pen in one hand, his magnifying-glass in the other, and worthy of the admiration of anyone having due consideration for good literature.

“Jacques Tournebroche,” he said to me, “the principal difficulty of this reading consists in not a few of the letters being easily confounded with others, and it is important for the success of the deciphering to make a list of the characters lending themselves to similar mistakes, because by not taking such precautions we are running the risk of employing the wrong terminations, to our eternal shame and just vituperation. I have today already committed some ridiculous blunders. It must have been because, since daybreak, my mind has been troubled by what I saw last night, and of which I will give you an account.

“I woke up in the morning twilight, and I felt a longing for a glass of that light white wine about which I made yesterday my compliments to M. d’Asterac, if you remember. For there exists, my son, between white wine and the crowing of the cock a sympathy, doubtless dating from Noah’s time, and I am certain that if Saint Peter, in that sacred night he passed in the yard of the great high priest, had had just a mouthful of Moselle claret or only wine of Orleans, he never would have disowned Jesus Christ before the cock crowed a second time. But in no sense, my boy, have we to regret that bad action; it was of the utmost importance that the prophecies were fulfilled, and if Peter, or Cephas, had not committed on that very night the worst of infamies, he would not now be the greatest saint in heaven, and the corner-stone of our holy Church, to the confusion of honest men according to the world, who have to see the keys of their eternal bliss held by a dastardly knave. O salutary example, which, drawing man out of the fallacious inspirations of human honour, leads him on the road of salvation! O masterly disposition of religion! O divine wisdom, exalting the meek and wretched to the humiliation of the haughty! O marvel! O mystery! To the eternal shame of the Pharisees and lawyers, a common mariner of the Lake of Tiberias, who by his gross cowardice had become the laughing-stock of the kitchen wenches who warmed themselves with him in the courtyard of the high priest, a churl and a dastard, who denied his master and his faith before slatterns certainly not so pretty by far as the chamber-maid of the bailiff’s wife at Séez, wears the triple crown, the pontifical ring on his finger and rules over princes and bishops, over kings and emperors, is invested with the right to bind and loose; the most respectable of men, the most honest dame, cannot enter heaven unless he gives them admission.

“But tell me, Tournebroche, my boy, at what part of my narrative had I arrived when I got muddled over that great Saint Peter, the prince of apostles? If I remember well I spoke to you of a glass of white wine I drank at daybreak. I came down to the pantry in my shirt, and took out of a certain cupboard, the key of which I had prudently kept by me the day before, a bottle, the contents of which I emptied with no little pleasure. Afterwards reascending the stairs I met, between the second and third flights, a tiny damsel clad as a pierrot, who descended the steps. She seemed to be mightily afraid, and fled into the farthest corner of the passage. I followed her, caught her, took her in my arms, and kissed her in a sudden and irresistible outbreak of sympathy. Don’t blame me, my boy; in my place you would have done as much, perhaps more. It was a pretty girl, reminding me of the serving-maid of the bailiff’s wife, but with more vivacity in her looks. She did not dare to scream. She whispered breathless in my ear: ‘Leave me, leave me; you’re mad!’ Look here, Tournebroche, I still have the marks of her finger nails on my wrist. O that I could keep as vivid on my lips the impression of the kiss she gave me!”

“What, Monsieur Abbé,” I exclaimed, “she gave you a kiss?”

“Be sure, my boy, that in my place you would have had one too — that is to say, if you, as I did, seized the opportunity. I believe I told you that I held the damsel in close embrace. She tried to fly from me, she suppressed her screams, she murmured groans. ‘For heaven’s sake, leave me! It begins to be light, a moment more and I am lost.’ Her fears, her fright, her danger — who could be barbarous enough not to be affected by them? I am not inhuman. I gave her freedom at the price of a kiss, which she gave me quickly. On my word, I never enjoyed a more delicious one.”

At this part of his tale, my dear tutor, raising his nose to sniff a pinch of snuff, became aware of my confusion and pain, which he thought to be utter astonishment, and continued to say:

“Jacques Tournebroche, all that remains for me to tell will astonish you still more. To my regret I let the pretty girl go, but curiosity tempted me to follow her. I went down the stairs after her, saw her cross the lobby, go out by a little door opening on the fields in the direction where the park extends farthest, and run up the lane. I followed swiftly. I was quite sure that she would not go far, dressed as a pierrot and wearing a night-cap. She took the path wherein the mandrakes dwell. My curiosity doubled, and I followed her up to Mosaïde’s lodge. At this moment the hideous Jew appeared at a window in his dressing-gown and monstrous headgear, like one of those figures who show themselves at the stroke of noon, outside those old clocks more Gothic and more ridiculous than the churches wherein they are kept, for the enjoyment of the yokels and the profit of the beadle.

“He discovered me, hidden as I was behind the foliage, at the very moment when that pretty girl, fleet as Galatea, slipped into the lodge. It looked as if I had followed her up in the manner, way and habit of those satyrs of which we have spoken of late when conferring on the finest passages of Ovid. My dress could but add to such resemblance — did I tell you, my boy, that I wore only a shirt? Seeing me, Mosaide’s eyes vomited fire. Out of his dirty yellow greatcoat he drew a neat little stiletto and shook it through the window with an arm in no way weighed down by age. He roared bilingual curses on me. Yes, Tournebroche, my grammatical knowledge authorises me to say that his curses were bilingual, that Spanish, or rather Portuguese, was mixed in them with Hebrew. I went into a rage at not being able to catch their exact sense, as I do not know these languages, although I can recognise them by certain sounds which are frequent when they are spoken. It is very possible that he accused me of wanting to corrupt that girl, whom I believe to be his niece Jahel, whom, as you will remember, M. d’Asterac has repeatedly mentioned to us. As such his invectives were rather flattering to me, as I have become, my boy, by the progress of age and the fatigues of an agitated life, so that I cannot aspire any longer to the love of juvenile maidens. Alas! should I become a bishop that is a dish of which I shall never taste. I am sorry for it. But it is no good to be closely attached to the perishable things of this world, and we are compelled to leave what leaves us. Accordingly Mosaïde, brandishing his stiletto, squalled out his hoarse sounds mingled with sharp yelpings in such a manner that I felt insulted, as well as vituperated, in a chant or song. And without flattering myself, my dear boy, I can say that I have been treated as a rake and a seducer in a tune solemn and ceremonious. When yonder Mosaide brought his imprecations to an end, I endeavoured to let him have my reply in two languages also. I replied in a mixture of Latin and French that he was a manslayer and a sacrilegist, who murdered tiny babes and stabbed sacred hosts. The fresh morning wind blowing between my naked legs reminded me that I wore a shirt only. I felt somewhat embarrassed, because it is evident, my boy, that a man without breeches is in a state highly inconvenient to speak of sacred truth, to confound error and to prevent crime. Withal I gave him a prodigious sketch of his outrages, and I threatened him with the terrors of justice both human and divine.”

“What do you say, my good master?” I nearly screamed, “yonder Mosaïde, who has such a pretty niece, kills newborn babes and stabs hosts?”

“I don’t know anything about him,” M. Jérôme Coignard replied, “and besides cannot know it. But those crimes are his, they are of his race, and I can charge him with them without slandering him. I place on that miscreant’s back a long array of flagitious ancestors. You cannot have remained ignorant of all that is said of the Jews and of their abominable rites. You may see in an ancient cosmography of Munster in Westphalia a drawing representing some Jews mutilating a child; they are recognisable by the wheel or round of cloth they wear on their clothes in sign of infamy. For all that I do not believe these misdeeds to be of their daily and domestic use. I also doubt that the majority of Israelites are inclined to outrage the holy wafers. To accuse them of doing so would be to believe that they are as deeply convinced of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ as we are ourselves. Sacrilege without faith is unbelievable, and the Jew who stabbed a host rendered by that very deed a sincere homage to the truth of transubstantiation. These are fables, my boy, to be left to the ignorant and, if I throw them in the face of that horrible Mosaïde, I do it less by the counsels of sound criticism than by the impressive suggestions of resentment and anger.”

“Oh! sir,” I said, “you might have contented yourself with reproaching him for the murder of the Portuguese he killed in the frenzy of his jealousy; that certainly was a murder.”

“What!” broke out my good master. “Mosaïde has killed a Christian? He is dangerous, my dear Tournebroche. You’ll have to come to the same conclusion that I have arrived at myself about this adventure. It is quite certain that his niece is the mistress of M. d’Asterac, whose room she doubtless had just left when I met her on the stairs.

“I am too religious a man not to be sorry that so amiable a person comes of the Jewish race, who crucified Jesus Christ. Alas! do not doubt, my dear boy, that villain Mordecai is the uncle of an Esther who does not need to macerate six months in myrrh to become worthy of the bed of a king. That old spagyric raven is not the man fit for such a beauty, and I am rather inclined to take an interest in her myself.

“Mosaïde will have to hide her very secretly and carefully; should she show herself once only at the promenade or the theatre, she would have all the world at her feet on the following morning. Don’t you wish to see her, Tournebroche?”

I replied that I wished it very much. And then both of us drove deeper in our Greek.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54