At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 24

I am pardoned and return to Paris — Again at the Queen Pedauque — I go as Assistant to M. Blaizot — Burning of the Castle of Sablons — Death of Mosaide and of M. d’Asterac.

From now onwards my life loses the interest which events had lent it, and my destiny, having again become in conformity with my character, offers nothing but ordinary occurrences. If I should prolong my memoirs my narrative would very soon become tiresome. I’ll bring it to a close with but few words. The Vicar of Vallars gave me a letter of introduction to a wine merchant at Macon, with whom I was employed for a couple of months, after which my father wrote to me that he had arranged my affair and that I was free to return to Paris.

I took coach immediately and travelled with some recruits. My heart beat violently when I again saw the Rue Saint Jacques, the clock of Saint Benoit le Betourne, the signboard of the Three Virgins and the Saint Catherine of M. Blaizot.

My mother cried when she saw me; I also cried, and we embraced and cried together again.

My father came in haste from the Little Bacchus and said with a moving dignity:

“Jacquot, my son, I cannot and will not deny that I Was very angry when I saw the constables enter the Queen Pedauque in search of you, or, in default of you, arresting me. They would not listen to any sort of remonstrance, alleging that I could easily explain myself after being taken to jail. They looked for you on a complaint of M. de la Gueritude. I conceived a most horrible idea of your disorders. But having been informed by letter that it was a question only of some peccadillo I had no other thought but to see you again. Many a time I consulted the landlord of the Little Bacchus on the means to hush up your affair. He always replied: ‘Master Leonard, go to the judge with a big bag full of crown pieces and he will give you back your lad as white as snow.’ But crown pieces are scarce with us, and there is neither hen nor goose nor duck who lays golden eggs in my house. At present I hardly get sufficient by my poultry to pay the expenses of the roasting. By good luck, your saintly and worthy mother had the good idea of going to the mother of M. d’Anquetil whom we knew to be busy in favour of her son, who was sought after at the same time as you were, and for the identical affair. I am quite aware, my Jacquot, that you played the man about town in company with a nobleman, and my head is too well placed not to feel the honour which it reflects on our whole family. Mother dressed as if she intended to go to mass; and Madame d’Anquetil received her with kindness. Thy mother, Jacquot, is a holy woman, but she has not the best of society manners, and at first she talked without aim or reason. She said: ‘Madame, at our age, besides God Almighty nothing remains to us but our children.’ That was not the right thing to say to that great lady who still has her gallants.”

“Hold your tongue, Leonard,” exclaimed my mother. “The behaviour of Madame d’Anquetil is unknown to you, and it appears that I spoke to her in the right way, because she said to me: ‘Don’t be troubled, Madame Menetrier; I will employ my influence in favour of your son; be sure of my zeal.’ And you know, Leonard, that we received before the expiration of two months the assurance that our Jacquot could return unmolested to Paris.”

We supped with a good appetite. My father asked me if was my intention to re-enter the service of M. d’Asterac. I replied that after the lamented death of my kind master I did not wish to encounter that cruel Mosaide in the house of a nobleman who paid his servants with fine speeches and nothing else. My father very kindly invited me to turn the spit as in former days,

“Latterly, Jacquot,” he said, “I gave the place to Friar Ange, but he did not do as well as Miraut or yourself. Don’t you want to take your old place at the corner of the fireside?”

My mother, plain and simple as she was, did not want common-sense and said:

“M. Blaizot, the bookseller of the Image of Saint Catherine, is in want of an assistant. This employment, Jacquot, ought to suit you like a glove. Thy dispositions are sweet, thy manners are good, and that’s what’s wanted to sell Bibles.”

I went at once to M. Blaizot, who took me into his service.

My misfortunes had made me wise. I did not feel discouraged by the humbleness of my employment, and I fulfilled my duties with exactitude, handling the duster and broom to the satisfaction of my employer.

One of my duties was to pay a visit to M. d’Asterac. I went to the great alchemist on the last Sunday of November, after the midday dinner. It’s a long way from the Rue Saint Jacques to the Croix-desSablons, and the almanac does not lie when it announces that in November the days are short. “When I arrived at the Roule it was quite dark, and a black haze covered the deserted road. And sorrowful were my thoughts in the darkness.

“Alas,” I said to myself, “it will soon be a full year since I first walked on this road, in the snow, in company with my dear master, who now rests in a small village in Burgundy encircled by vineyards. He sleeps in the hope of eternal life. And it is but right to have the same hope as a man as wise as he. God preserve me from ever doubting of the immortality of the soul! But, one must confess to oneself, all that is connected with a future existence and another world is of those verities in which one believes without being moved and which have neither taste nor savour of any kind, so that one swallows them without perceiving it. As for me I find no consolation in the idea of meeting again the Abbe Coignard in Paradise. Surely I could not recognise him, and his speeches would not contain the agreeableness which he derived from circumstances.”

Occupied with these reflections, I saw before me a fierce light covering one-half of the sky; the fog was reddened by it, and the light palpitated in the centre. A heavy smoke mixed with the vapours of the air. I at once became afraid that the fire had broken out at the d’Asterac castle. I quickened my steps, and very soon ascertained that my fears were but too well founded. I discovered the calvary of the Sablons, an opaque black on a background of flame, and I saw nearly all the windows of the castle flaring as for a sinister feast. The little green door was broken in. Shadows gesticulated in the park and murmured the horror they felt. They were the inhabitants of the borough of Neuilly, who had come for curiosity’s sake and to bring help. Some threw water from a fire engine on the burning edifice, making a fiery rain of sparks arise. A thick volume of smoke rose over the castle. A shower of sparks and of cinders fell round me, and I soon became aware that my garments and my hands were blackened. With much mortification I thought that all that burning dust in the air was the end of so many fine books and precious manuscripts, which were the joy of my dear master, the remains, perhaps, of Zosimus the Panopolitan, on which we had worked together during the noblest hours of my life.

I had seen the Abbe Jerome Coignard die. Now, it was his soul, his sparkling and sweet soul, which I fancied reduced to ashes together with the queen of libraries. The wind strengthened the fire and the flames roared like voracious beasts.

Questioning a man of Neuilly still blacker than myself, and wearing only his vest, I asked him if M. d’Asterac and his people had been saved.

“Nobody,” he said, “has left the castle except an old Jew, who was seen running laden with packages in the direction of the swamps. He lived in the keeper’s cottage on the river, and was hated for his origin and for the crimes of which he was suspected. Children pursued him. And in running away he fell into the Seine. He was fished out when dead, pressing on his heart a cup and six golden plates. You can see him on the river bank in his yellow gown. With his eyes open he is horrible.”

“Ah!” I replied, “his end is due to his crimes. But his death does not give me back the best of masters whom he slew. Tell me again; has nobody seen M. d’Asterac?”

At the very moment when I put the question I heard near me one of the moving shadows cry out:

“Thereof is falling in!”

And now I recognised with unspeakable horror the great black form of M. d’Asterac running along the gutters. The alchemist shouted with a sounding voice:

“I rise on wings of flame up to the seat of life divine!”

So he said, and suddenly the roof fell in with a tremendous crash, and the flames as high as mountains enveloped the friend of the Salamanders.

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