At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 20

Illness of M. Jerome Coignard

The next morning, at daybreak, I returned to the surgeon’s house, and there found Jahel at the bedside of my dear tutor, sitting upright on a straw chair, with her head wrapped up in her black cape, attentive, grave and docile, like a sister of charity. M. Coignard, very red, dozed.

“The night was not a good one,” she said to me in a whisper. “He has talked, he sang, he called me Sister Germaine, and has made proposals to me. I am not offended, but it is a proof that his mind wanders.”

“Alas!” I exclaimed, “if you had not betrayed me, Jahel, to ramble about the country in company with a gallant, my dear master would not lie in bed stabbed in his breast.”

“It is the misery of our friend,” she replied, “that causes me bitter regrets. As for the rest, it is not worth while to think of it, and I cannot understand, Jacques, how you can occupy your mind with it just now.”

“I think of it always.”

“For my part, I hardly think of it. You are the cause of three-fourths of your own unhappiness.”

“What do you mean by that, Jahel?”

“I mean, my friend, that I have given the cloth, but that you do the embroidery, and that your imagination enriches far too much the plain reality. I give you my oath that the present hour I cannot remember the quarter of what causes you grief, and you meditate over it so obstinately that your rival is more present to your mind than I am myself. Do not think of it any more, and let me give the abbe a cooling drink, for he wakes up.”

At this very moment M. Coquebert approached the bedside, his instrument-case in hand, dressed the wound anew, and said aloud that the wound was on the best way to heal up. But taking me aside he said:

“I can assure you, sir, that the good abbe will not die from the wound he has received, but to tell the truth I am afraid it will be difficult for him to escape from a pleurisy caused by his wound. He is at present the prey of a heavy fever. But here comes the vicar”

My good master recognised him without any difficulty, and inquired after his health.

“Better than the grapes,” replied the vicar. “They are all spoiled by fleurebers and vermin, against which the clergy of Dijon organised this year a fine procession with cross and banners. Next year a still finer one will have to be arranged, and more candles burnt. It also will be necessary for the official to excommunicate anew the flies which destroy the grapes.”

“Vicar,” said my good master, “it is said that you seduce the girls in your vineyards. Fie! it is not right at your age. In my youth, like you I had a weakness for the creatures. But time has altered me very much, and quite lately I let a nun pass without saying anything to her. You do otherwise with the damsels and the bottles, vicar. But you do worse by not celebrating the masses you have been paid for, and by trafficking the goods and chattels of the Church. You are a bigamist and a simoniac.”

Hearing this discourse the vicar was painfully surprised; his mouth remained open, and his cheeks dropped wistfully on both sides of his big face. And at last, with eyes on the ground, he sighed:

“What an unworthy attack on the character of my profession! What talk for a man so near the tribunal of God! Oh, Monsieur l’Abbé, is it for you to speak in that way, you who have lived a holy life and studied in so many books?”

My dear master raised himself on his elbows. The fever gave him, unhappily, that jovial mien of his that we had always liked so much.

“It is true,” he said, “that I have studied the ancient authors. But I have read much less than the second vicar of the Bishop of Séez, for, as he had the look and the mind of an ass, he was able to read two pages at the same time, one with each eye. What do you say to that, you villain of a vicar, you old seducer, who runs after the chicks by moonlight? Vicar, your lady friend is built like a witch. She has hairs on her chin, she’s the barber-surgeon’s wife. He is fully a cuckold, and well he deserves it, that homunculus, whose whole medical science consists in the art of blood-letting and giving a clyster.”

“God Almighty! What does he say?” exclaimed Madame Coquebert, “for sure he has the devil in him.”

“I have heard the talk of many delirious patients,” said M. Coquebert, “but not one has said such wicked things.”

“I am discovering,” said the vicar, “that we’ll have more trouble than we expected to conduct this unhappy man to a peaceful end. There is a biting humour in his nature and impurities I did not find out at first. His speech is malicious, and unfit for a priest and a patient.”

“It’s the effect of the fever,” said the barber-surgeon. “But,” continued the vicar, “that fever, if it’s not stopped, will bring him to hell. He has gravely offended against what is due to a priest. But still, I’ll come back tomorrow and exhort him, for I owe him, by the example of our Lord, unlimited compassion. But I have my doubts about it. Unhappily there is a break in my winepress, and all the labourers are in the vineyard. Coquebert, do not fail to give word to the carpenter, and to call me to your patient if he should suddenly get worse. These are many troubles, Coquebert!”

The following day was such a good one for M. Coignard that we hoped he would remain with us. He drank meat broth, and was able to rise in his bed. He talked to each of us with his accustomed grace and sweetness. M. d’Anquetil, who dwelt at Gaulard’s, came to see him, end rather indiscreetly asked him to play piquet Smiling, my good master promised to do so next week. But in the evening the fever returned. With pale eyes swiming in unspeakable terror, and shivering and chattering teeth, he shouted:

“There he is, the old fornicator. He is the son of Judas Iscariot begot on a female devil, taking the form of a goat. But hanged he will be on his father’s fig-tree, and his intestines will gush out to earth. Arrest him. . . . He kills me! I feel cold!”

But a moment later he threw the blanket off and complained of the heat.

“I’m very thirsty,” he said. “Give me some wine! And let it be cool! Madame Coquebert, hasten to cool it in the fountain: the day will be a burning one.”

It was night-time, he confounded the hours in his head.

“Be quick,” he also said to Madame Coquebert, “but do not be as simple as the bell-ringer of the Cathedral of Seez, who, going to lift out of the fountain some bottles he had put there to cool, saw his own shadow in ihe water and shouted: ‘Hello, gentleman; come and help me. There are on the other side some Antipodeans, who’ll drink our wine if we don’t take good care.’”

“He is jovial,” said Madame Coquebert. “But just now he talked of me in a manner quite indecent Should I have deceived Coquebert I certainly would not have done it with the vicar, out of regard for his profession and his age.”

This very moment the vicar entered the room and asked:

“Well, abbe, what are your dispositions now? What is there new?”

“Thank God,” answered M. Coignard, “there is nothing new in my soul, for, as said Saint Chrysostom, beware of new things. Don’t walk in untrodden ways, one wanders without end when one commences to wander. I have had that sad experience, and lost myself for having followed untrodden roads. I have listened to my own counsels, and they have conducted me to the abyss. Vicar, I am a poor sinner, the number of my iniquities oppresses me.”

“These are fine words,” said the vicar. “’Tis God Himself who dictates them to you. I recognise His inimitable style. Do you want to advance somewhat the salvation of your soul?”

“Willingly,” said M. Coignard. “My impurities rise against me. I see big ones and small. I see red ones and black. I see infinitesimals which ride on dogs and pigs, and I see others which are fat and naked, with breasts like leather bottles, bellies in great folds, and thighs of enormous size.”

“Is it possible,” said the vicar, “that you can see as distinctly as that? But if your faults are such as you say, it would be better not to describe them and to be content to detest them in your own mind.”

“Would you, then, vicar,” replied the abbe, “that my sins were all made like an Adonis? Don’t let us speak of it any more. And you, barber, give me a drink. Do you know M. de la Musardiere?”

“Not that I know of,” said M. Coquebert.

“Then know,” replied my dear master, “that he was very taken with the ladies.”

“That’s the way,” interrupted the vicar, “by which the devil takes his advantage over men. But what subject do you follow, my son?”

“You’ll soon know,” said my good master. “M. de la Musardiere gave an appointment to a virgin in a stable. She went, and he let her go away just as she entered it. Do you know why?”

“I do not,” said the vicar, “but let us leave it.”

“Not at all,” continued M. Coignard. “You ought to know that he took good care to have no intercourse with her as he was afraid of begetting a horse, on which account he would have been subject to criminal prosecution.”

“Ah!” said the barber, “he ought rather to have been afraid to engender an ass.”

“Doubtless,” said the vicar. “But such talk does not advance us on the road to heaven. It would be useful to retake the good way. But a little while ago you spoke so edifyingly!”

Instead of giving reply, my good master began to sing, with rather a strong voice:

“Pour mettre en gout le roi Louison On a pris quinze mirlitons Landerinette Qui tous le balai ont roll Landeriri.”

“If you want to sing, my son,” said the vicar, “you’d better sing a fine Burgundian Christmas carol. You’d rejoice your soul by it and sanctify it.”

“With pleasure,” replied my dear tutor. “There are some by Guy Barozai which, I think, in their apparent rusticity, to be finer than diamonds and more precious than gold. This one, for example:

‘Lor qu’au lai saison qu’ai jaule Au monde Jesu-chri vin L’ane et le beu l’echaufin De le leu sofle dans l’etaule. Que d’ane et de beu je sai Dans ce royaume de Gaule, Que d’ane et de beu je sai Qui n’en a rien pas tan fai.’”

The surgeon, his wife and the vicar sang together:

“Que d’ane et de beu je sai Dans ce royaume de Gaule, Que d’ane et de beu je sai Qui n’en a rien pas tan fai.”

And my good master replied in a weaker voice:

“Mais le pu beo de l’histoire Ce fut que l’ane et le beu Ainsin passire to deu La nuit sans manger ni boire Que d’ane et de beu je sai Couver de pane et de moire Que d’ane et de beu je sai Que n’en a rien pas tan fai!”

Then he let his head fall on the pillow and sang no more.

“There is good in this Christian,” said the vicar, “much good, and a while ago he really edified me with his beautiful sentences. But I am not without a certain apprehension, as everything depends on the end, and nobody knows what’s hidden at the bottom of the basket God in His kindness wills that one single moment brings us salvation, but this moment must be the last one, so that everything depends on a single minute, in comparison with which the whole life does not count. That’s what makes me tremble for the patient, over whom angels and devils are furiously quarrelling. But one must never despair of divine mercy.”

For whom the angels and the devils are fighting so fiercely

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