At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 4

The Pupil of M. Jérôme Coignard — I receive Lessons in Latin Greek and Life.

The marvellous in the affairs of mankind is the concatenation of effects and causes. M. Jérôme Coignard was quite right in saying: “To consider that strange following of bounds and rebounds wherein our destinies clash, one is obliged to recognise that God in His perfection is in want neither of mind nor of imagination nor comic force; on the contrary He excels in imbroglio as in everything else, and if after having inspired Moses, David and the Prophets He had thought it worth while to inspire M. le Sage or the interluders of a fair, He would dictate to them the most entertaining harlequinade.” And in a similar way it occurred that I became a Latinist because Friar Ange was taken by the watch and put into ecclesiastical penance for having knocked down a cutler under the arbour of the Little Bacchus. M. Jérôme Coignard kept his promise. He gave me lessons and, finding me tractable and intelligent, he took pleasure in instructing me in the ancient languages.

In but a few years he made me a tolerably good Latinist.

In memory of him I have conceived a gratitude which will not come to an end but with my life. The obligation I am under to him is easily to be conceived when I say that he neglected nothing to shape my heart and soul, together with my intellect. He recited to me the “Maxims of Epictetus,” the “Homilies of St Basil” and the “Consolations of Boethius.” By beautiful extracts he opened to me the philosophy of the Stoics, but he did not make it appear in its sublimity without showing its inferiority to Christian philosophy. He was a subtle theologian and a good Catholic. His faith remained whole on the ruins of his most beloved illusions, of his most cherished hopes. His weaknesses, his errors, his faults, none of which he ever tried to dissemble or to colour, have never shaken his confidence in the Divine goodness. And to know him well, it must be known that he took care of his eternal salvation on occasions when, to all appearance, he cared the least about it. He imbued me with the principles of an enlightened piety. He also endeavoured to attach me to virtue as such, and to render it to me, so to say, homely and familiar by examples drawn from the life of Zeno.

To make me acquainted with the dangers of vice, he went for arguments to the nearest fountain-head, confessing to me that by having loved wine and women too much, he had lost the honour of taking the professor’s chair of a college in long gown and square cap.

To these rare merits he joined constancy and assiduity, and he gave his lessons with an exactitude hardly to be expected of a man given as he was to the freaks of a strolling life, and always carried away by a luck less doctoral than picaresque. This zeal was the effect of his kindness and also of his liking of that good St James’s Street, where he found occasion to satisfy equally the appetites of his body and intellect. After having given me, during a succulent repast, some profitable lesson, he indulged in a stroll to the Little Bacchus and the Image of St Catherine, finding in that narrow piece of ground that which was his paradise — fresh wine and books.

He became a constant visitor of M. Blaizot the bookseller, who received him well, notwithstanding that he only used to thumb the books without ever making the smallest purchase. And it was quite marvellous to see my good teacher in the most remote part of the shop, his nose closely buried in some little book recently arrived from Holland, suddenly raising his head to discourse, as it might happen, with the same abundant and laughing knowledge, on the plans of an universal monarchy attributed to the late king, or, it may be, to the aventures galantes of a financier with a ballet girl. M. Blaizot was never tired of listening to him. This M. Blaizot was a little old man, dry and neat, in flea-coloured coat and breeches and grey woollen stockings. I admired him very much, and could not think of anything more glorious than, like him, to sell books at the Image of St Catherine.

One recollection of mine gave to M. Blaizot’s shop quite a mysterious charm. It was there, I was still very young, I saw for the first time the nude figure of a female. I can see her now. It was an Eve in an illustrated Bible. Her stomach was rather big, her legs were rather short, and she held converse with a serpent in a Dutch landscape. The proprietor of this engraving inspired me with a consideration which grew afterwards when I took, thanks to M. Coignard, a great liking for books.

At the age of sixteen I knew Latin pretty well, and also a little Greek. My good teacher said to my father:

“Do you not think, my dear host, that it is rather an indecency to let a young Ciceronian go about dressed as a scullion?”

“I never thought of it,” replied my father.

“It is true,” said mother, “that it would be suitable to give our son a dimity vest. He is of an agreeable appearance, has good manners and is well taught. He will do honour to his dress.”

For a moment my father remained thoughtful and then he asked if it would be quite suitable for a cook to wear a dimity vest. But M. Coignard reminded him that, being suckled by the Muses, I would never become a cook, and that the time was not far off when I should wear a clerical neckband.

My father sighed, thinking that never would I be the banner-bearer of the Guild of Parisian Cooks, and my mother became quite glittering with pleasure and pride at the idea of her son belonging to the Church.

The first effect my dimity vest produced was to give me a certain confidence in myself, and to encourage me to get a more complete idea of women than the one I had from the Eve of M. Blaizot. I reasonably thought first on Jeannette the hurdy-gurdy player, and on Catherine the lacemaker, both of whom I saw pass our shop twenty times a day, showing when it rained, a fine ankle and a tiny foot, the toes of which turned from one stone to the other. Jeannette was not so pretty as Catherine. She was somewhat older and less well dressed. She came from Savoy and did her hair en marmotte, with a checked kerchief covering her head. But her merit was, not to stick to ceremony and to understand what was wanted of her without being spoken to. This character agreed well with my timidity. One evening under the porch of St Benoît le Bétourné, where there are stone seats all round, she taught me what till then I had not known, but which she had known for a long time.

But I was not so grateful to her as it should have been my duty to be, and thought of nothing else but to bring the science she had taught me to others, prettier ones. As an excuse for my ingratitude I ought to say that Jeannette the hurdy-gurdy player did not value her lessons any higher than I did myself, and that she willingly gave them to every ragamuffin of the district.

Catherine was of more reserved manners. I stood in awe of her and did not dare to tell her how pretty I considered her to be. She made me doubly uncomfortable by making game of me and not losing a single occasion of jeering at me. She teased me by reproaching my chin for being hairless. I blushed over it and wished to be swallowed by the earth. On seeing her I affected a sullen mien and chagrin. I pretended to scorn her. But she was really too pretty for my scorn to be true.

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