At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 2

My Home at the Queen Pédauque Cookshop — I turn the Spit and learn to read — Entry of Abbe Jerome Coignard.

My name is Elme Laurent Jacques Ménétrier. My father, Léonard Ménétrier, kept a cookshop at the sign of Queen Pédauque, who, as everyone knows, wag web-footed like the geese and ducks.

His penthouse was opposite Saint Benoit le Bétourné between Mistress Gilles the haberdasher at the Three Virgins and M. Blaizot, the bookseller at the sign of Saint Catherine, not far from the Little Bacchus, the gate of which, decorated with vine branches, was at the corner of the Rue des Cordiers. He loved me very much, and when, after supper, I lay in my little bed, he took my hand in his, lifted one after the other of my fingers, beginning with the thumb, and said:

“This one has killed him, this one has plucked him, this one has fricasseed him and that one has eaten him, and the little Riquiqui had nothing at all. Sauce, sauce, sauce,” he used to add, tickling the hollow of my hand with my own little finger.

And mightily he laughed, and I laughed too, dropping off to sleep, and my mother used to affirm that the smile still remained on my lips on the following morning.

My father was a good cookshop-keeper and feared God. For this he carried on holidays the banner of the Cooks’ Guild, on which a fine-looking St Laurence was embroidered, with his grill and a golden palm. He used to say to me:

“Jacquot, thy mother is a holy and worthy woman.”

He liked to repeat this sentence frequently. True, my mother went to church every Sunday with a prayer-book printed in big type. She could hardly read small print, which, as she said, drew the eyes out of her head.

My father used to pass an hour or two nightly at the tavern of the Little Bacchus; there also Jeannetæ the hurdy-gurdy player and Catherine the lacemaker were regular frequenters. And every time he returned home somewhat later than usual he said in a soft voice, while pulling his cotton night-cap on:

“Barbe, sleep in peace; as I have just said to the limping cutler: ‘You are a holy and worthy woman.’”

I was six years old when, one day, readjusting his apron, with him always a sign of resolution, he said to me:

“Miraut, our good dog, has turned my roasting-spit during these last fourteen years. I have nothing to reproach him with. He is a good servant, who has never stolen the smallest morsel of turkey or goose. He was always satisfied to lick the roaster as his wage. But he is getting old. His legs are getting stiff; he can’t see, and is no more good to turn the handle. Jacquot, my boy, it is your duty to take his place. With some thought and some practice, you certainly will succeed in doing as well as he.”

Miraut listened to these words and wagged his tail as a sign of approbation. My father continued:

“Now then, seated on this stool, you’ll turn the spit. But to form your mind you’ll con your horn-book, and when, afterwards, you are able to read type, you’ll learn by heart some grammar or morality book, or those fine maxims of the Old and New Testaments. And that because the knowledge of God and the distinction between good and evil are also necessary in a working position, certainly of but trifling importance but honest as mine is, and which was my father’s and also will be yours, please God.”

And from this very day on, sitting from morn till night, at the corner of the fireplace, I turned the spit, the open horn-book on my knees. A good Capuchin friar, who with his bag came a-begging to my father, taught me how to spell. He did so the more willingly as my father, who had a consideration for knowledge, paid for his lesson with a savoury morsel of roast turkey and a large glass of wine, so liberally that by-and-by the little friar, aware that I was able to form syllables and words tolerably well, brought me a fine “Life of St Margaret,” wherewith he taught me to read fluently.

On a certain day, having as usual laid his wallet on the counter, he sat down at my side, and, warming his naked feet on the hot ashes of the fireplace, he made me recite for the hundredth time:

“Pucelle sage, nette et fine, Aide des femmes en gésine Ayez pitié de nous.”

At this moment a man of rather burly stature and withal of noble appearance, clad in the ecclesiastical habit, entered the shop and shouted out with an ample voice:

“Hello! host, serve me a good portion!” With grey hair, he still looked full of health and strength. His mouth was laughing and his eyes were sprightly, his cheeks were somewhat heavy and his three chins dropped majestically on a neckband which, maybe by sympathy, had become as greasy as the throat it enveloped.

My father, courteous by profession, lifted his cap and bowing said:

“If your reverence will be so good as to warm yourself near the fire, I’ll soon serve you with what you desire.”

Without any further preamble the priest took a seat near the fire by the side of the Capuchin friar.

Hearing the good friar reading aloud:

“Pucelle sage, nette et fine, Aide des femnies en gésine,”

he clapped his hands and said:

“Oh, the rare bird! The unique man! A Capuchin who is able to read! Eh, little friar, what is your name?”

“Friar Ange, an unworthy Capuchin,” replied my teacher.

My mother, hearing the voices from the upper room descended to the shop, attracted by curiosity.

The priest greeted her with an already familiar politeness and said:

“That is really wonderful, mistress; Friar Ange is a Capuchin and knows how to read.”

“He is able to read all sorts of writing,” replied my mother.

And going near the friar, she recognised the prayer of St Margaret by the picture representing the maiden martyr with a holy-water sprinkler in her hand.

“This prayer,” she added, “is difficult to read because the words of it are very small and hardly divided, but happily it is quite sufficient, when in labour-pains, to apply it like a plaster on the place where the most pain is felt and it operates just as well, and rather better, than when it is recited. I had the proof of it, sir, when my son Jacquot was born, who is here present.”

“Do not doubt about it, my good dame,” said Friar Ange. “The orison of St Margaret is sovereign for what you mentioned, but under the special condition that the Capuchins get their Maundy.”

In saying so, Friar Ange emptied the goblet of wine which my mother had filled up for him and, throwing his wallet over his shoulder, went off in the direction of the Little Bacchus.

My father served a quarter of fowl to the priest, who took out of his pocket a piece of bread, a flagon of wine and a knife, the copper handle of which represented the late king on a column in the costume of a Roman emperor, and began to have his supper.

But having hardly taken the first morsel in his mouth he turned round on my father and asked for some salt, rather surprised that no salt cellar had been presented to him offhand.

“So did the ancients use it,” he said, “they offered salt as a sign of hospitality. They also placed salt cellars in the temples on the tablecloths of the gods.”

My father presented him with some bay salt out of the wooden shoe which was hung on the mantelpiece. The priest took what he wanted of it and said:

“The ancients considered salt to be a necessary seasoning of all repasts, and held it in so high esteem that they metaphorically called salt the wit which gives flavour to conversation.”

“Ah!” said my father, “high as the ancients may have valued it, the excise of our days puts it still higher.”

My mother, listening the while she knitted a woollen stocking, was glad to say a word:

“It must be believed that salt is a good thing, because the priests put a grain of it on the tongues of the babies held over the christening font. When my Jacques felt the salt on his tongue he made a grimace; as tiny as he was he already had some sense. I speak, Sir Priest, of my son Jacques here present.”

The priest looked on me and said:

“Now he is already a grown-up boy. Modesty is painted on his features and he reads the ‘Life of St Margaret’ with attention.”

“Oh!” exclaimed my mother, “he also reads the prayer for chilblains and that of ‘St Hubert,’ which Friar Ange has given him, and the history of that fellow who has been devoured, in the Saint Marcel suburb, by several devils for having blasphemed the holy name of our Lord.”

My father looked admiringly on me, and then he murmured into the priest’s ear that I learned anything I wanted to know with a native and natural facility.

“Wherefore,” replied the priest, “you must form him to become a man of letters, which to be, is one of the honours of mankind, the consolation of human life and a remedy against all evils, actually against those of love, as it is affirmed by the poet Theocritus.”

“Simple cook as I am,” was my father’s reply, “I hold knowledge in high esteem, and am quite willing to believe that it also is, as your reverence says, a remedy for love. But I do not think that it is a remedy against hunger.”

“Well, perhaps it is not a sovereign ointment,” replied the priest; “but it gives some solace, like a sweet balm, although somewhat imperfect.”

As he spoke Catherine the lacemaker appeared on the threshold, with her bonnet sideways over her ear and her neckerchief very much creased. Seeing her, my mother frowned and let slip three meshes of her knitting.

“Monsieur Ménétrier,” said Catherine to my father, “come and say a word to the sergeants of the watch. If you do not, they doubtless will lock up Friar Ange. The good friar came to the Little Bacchus, where he drank two or three pots without paying for them, so as not to go contrary to the rules of St Francis, he said. But the worst of it is, that he, seeing me in company under the arbour, came near me to teach me a new prayer. I told him it was not the right moment to do so, and he insisting on it, the limping cutler, who was sitting by me, tore his beard rather roughly. Friar Ange threw himself on the cutler, who fell to the ground, and by his fall upset the table and pitchers.

“The taverner, running up, seeing the table knocked over, the wine spilt, and Friar Ange with one foot on the cutler’s head, swinging a stool with which he struck anyone approaching him, this vile taverner swore like a real devil and called for the watch. Monsieur Ménétrier, do come at once and take the little friar out of the watch’s clutches. He is a holy man, and quite excusable in this affair.”

My father was inclined to oblige Catherine, but for this once the lacemaker’s words had not the effect she expected. He said plainly that he could not find any excuse for the Capuchin, and that he wished him to get a good punishment by bread and water in the darkest corner of the cellars of the convent, of which he was the shame and disgrace.

He warmed up in talking:

“A drunkard and a dissipated fellow, to whom I give daily good wine and good morsels and who goes to the tavern to play the deuce with some ill-famed creatures, depraved enough to prefer the company of a hawking cutler and a Capuchin friar to that of honest sworn tradesmen of the quarter. Fie! fie!”

Therewith he suddenly stopped his scoldings and looked sideways on my mother, who, standing up at the entry to the staircase, pushed her knitting needles with sharp little strokes.

Catherine, surprised by this unfriendly reception, said drily:

“Then you don’t want to say a good word to the taverner and the sergeant?”

“If you wish it, I’ll tell them to take the cutler and the friar.”

“But,” she replied, and laughed, “the cutler is your friend.”

“Less mine than yours,” said my father sharply. “A ragamuffin and a humbug, who hops about ——”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, “that’s true, really true, that he hops. He hops, hops, hops!”

And she left the shop, shaking with laughter.

My father turned round to the priest, who was picking a bone:

“It is as I had the honour to say to your reverence! For each reading and writing lesson that Capuchin friar gives to my child, I pay him with a goblet of wine and a fine piece of meat, hare, rabbit, goose, or a tender poulet or a capon. He is a drunkard and evil liver!”

“Don’t doubt about that,” said the priest.

“But if ever he dares to come over my threshold again, I’ll drive him out with a broomstick.”

“And you’ll do well by it,” said the priest; “that Capuchin is an ass, and he taught your son rather to bray than to talk. You’ll act wisely by throwing into the fire that ‘Life of St Catherine,’ that prayer for the cure of chilblains and that history of the bugbear, with which that monk poisoned your son’s mind. For the same price you paid for Friar Ange’s lessons, I’ll give him my own; I’ll teach him Latin and Greek, and French also, that language which Voiture and Balzac have brought to perfection. And in such way, by a luck doubly singular and favourable, this Jacquot Tournebroche will become learned and I shall eat every day,”

“Agreed!” said my father. “Barbara, bring two goblets. No business is concluded without the contracting parties having a drink together as a token of agreement. We will drink here. I’ll never in my life put my legs into the Little Bacchus again, so repugnant have that cutler and that monk become to me.”

The priest rose and, putting his hands on the back of his chair, said in a slow and serious manner:

“Before all, I thank God, the Creator and Conserver of all things, for having guided me into this hospitable house. It is He alone who governs us and we are compelled to recognise His providence in all matters human, notwithstanding that it is foolhardy and sometimes incongruous to follow Him too closely. Because being universal He is to be found in all sorts of encounters, sublime by the conduct which He keeps, but obscene or ridiculous for the part man takes in it and which is the only part where they appear to us. And therefore one must not shout, in the manner of Capuchin monks and goody-goody women, that God is to be seen in every trifle. Let us praise the Lord; pray to Him to enlighten me in the teachings I’ll give to that child, and for the rest let us rely on His holy will, without searching to understand it in all its details.”

And raising his goblet, he drank deeply.

“This wine,” he said, “infilters into the economy of the human body a sweet and salutary warmth. It is a liquor worthy to be sung at Teos and at the Temple by the princes of bacchic poets, Anacreon and Chaulieu. I will anoint with it the lips of my young disciple.”

He held the goblet under my chin and exclaimed:

“Bees of the Academy, come, come and place yourselves in harmonious swarms on the mouth of Jacobus Tournebroche, henceforth consecrated to the Muses.”

“Oh! Sir Priest,” said my mother, “it is a truth that wine attracts the bees, particularly sweet wine. But it is not to be wished that those nefarious flies should place themselves on the mouth of my Jacquot, as their sting is cruel. One day in biting into a peach a bee stung me on the tongue, and I had to suffer fiendish pains. They would be calmed only by a little earth, mixed up with spittle, which Friar Ange put into my mouth in reciting the prayer of St Comis.”

The priest gave her to understand that he spoke of bees in an allegorical sense only. And my father said reproachfully: “Barbe, you’re a holy and worthy woman, but many a time I have noticed that you have a peevish liking to throw yourself thoughtlessly into serious conversation like a dog into a game of skittles.”

“Maybe,” replied my mother. “But had you followed my counsels better, Léonard, you would have done better. I may not know all the sorts of bees, but I know how to manage a home and understand the good manners a man of a certain age ought to practise, who is the father of a family and standard-bearer of his guild.”

My father scratched his ear, and poured some wine for the priest, who said with a sigh:

“Certainly, in our days, knowledge is not as much honoured in our kingdom of France, as it had been by the Romans, although degenerated at the time when rhetoric brought Eugenius to the Emperor’s throne. It is not a rarity in our century to find a clever man in a garret without fire or candle. Exemplum ut talpa — I am an example.”

Thereafter he gave us a narration of his life, which I’ll report just as it came out of his own mouth — that is, as near it as the weakness of my age allowed me to hear distinctly and hereafter keep in my memory. I believe I have been able to restore it after the confidences he gave me at a later time, when he honoured me with his friendship.

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