My Nineteenth Birthday — Its Celebration and the Entrance of M. d’Asterac.
On that night, the night of Epiphany and the nineteenth anniversary of my birth, the sky poured down with the melting snow a cold ill-humour, penetrating to the bone, while an icy wind made the signboard of the Queen Pédauque grate, a clear fire, perfumed by goose grease, sparkled in the shop and the soup steamed in the tureen on the table; round which M. Jérôme Coignard, my father and myself were seated. My mother, as was her habit, stood behind her husband’s chair, ready to serve him. He had already filled the priest’s dish when, through the suddenly open door, we saw Friar Ange, very pale, the nose red, the beard soaked. In his surprise my father elevated the soup ladle up to the smoked beams of the ceiling.
My father’s surprise was easily explained. Friar Ange, after his fight with the cutler, had at first disappeared for a lapse of six months, and now two whole years had passed without his giving any sign of life. On a certain day in spring he went off with a donkey laden with relics, and, worse still, he had taken with him Catherine dressed as a nun. Nobody knew what had become of them, but there was a rumour at the Little Bacchus that the little friar and the little sister had had some sort of difference with the authorities between Tours and Orleans. Without forgetting that one of the vicars of St Benoît shouted everywhere, and like one possessed, that that rascal of a Capuchin had stolen his donkey.
“What,” exclaimed my father, “this rogue does not lie in a dungeon? There is then no more justice in this kingdom.”
But Friar Ange recited the Benedicite and made the sign of the cross over the soup-tureen.
“Hola!” continued my father. “Peace to all cant, my beautiful monk! Confess that you have passed in an ecclesiastical prison at least one of the two years that your Beelzebub-face has not been seen in our parish. James Street has been more honest for your absence and the whole quarter of the town more respectable. Look on that fine Olibrius, who goes into the fields with the donkey of someone and the girl of everyone.”
“Maybe,” replied Friar Ange, eyes on the ground and hands in his sleeves. “Maybe, Master Léonard, you have Catherine in mind. I have had the happiness to convert her to a better life, so much and so well that she ardently wished to follow me, and the relics I was carrying, and to go with me on some nice pilgrimage, especially to the Black Virgin of Chartres! I consented under the condition that she clad herself in ecclesiastical dress, which she did without a murmur.”
“Hold your tongue!” replied my father, “you are a dissipated fellow. You have no respect for your cloth. Return to where you came from and look, if you please, in the street, if Queen Pédauque is suffering from chilblains.”
But my mother made the friar a sign to sit down under the chimney-mantel, which he softly did.
“One has to forgive much to Capuchins,” said the abbé, “because they sin without malice.”
My father begged of M. Coignard not to speak any more of the breed, the name alone of which burnt his ears.
“Master Léonard,” said the priest, “philosophy conducts the soul to clemency. As far as I am concerned I willingly give absolution to knaves, rogues and rascals and all the wretched. And more, I owe no grudge to good people, though in their case there is much insolence. And if, Master Léonard, like myself, you should have been familiar with respectable people, you would know that they are not a rap better than the others, and are often of a less agreeable companionship. I have been seated at the third table of the Bishop of Séez and two attendants, both clad in black, were at my sides: constraint and weariness.”
“It must be acknowledged,” said my mother, “that the servants of his Grace had some queer names. Why did he not call them Champagne, Olive or Frontin as is usual?”
The priest continued:
“It’s true, certain persons get easily accustomed to the inconveniences to be borne by living with the great. There was at the second table of the bishop a very polite canon who kept on ceremony till his last moment. When the news of his bodily decline reached the bishop he went to his room and found him dying. ‘Alas,’ said the canon, ‘I beg your Grace’s pardon to be obliged to die before your eyes.’ ‘Do, do! Don’t mind me,’ said the bishop with the utmost kindness.”
At this moment my mother brought the roast and put it on the table with a movement of homely gravity which caused my father some emotion; with his mouth full he shouted:
“Barbe, you’re a holy and worthy woman.”
“Mistress,” said my dear teacher, “is as a fact to be compared to the strong women of the scripture. She is a godly wife.”
“Thank God!” said my mother, “I have never been a traitor to the faithfulness I owe unto Léonard Ménétrier, my husband, and I reckon well, now that the most difficult part is passed, not to fail him till my last hour is come. I wish he would keep his faith to me as I keep mine to him.”
“Madam, when first I looked on you I could see you to be an honest woman,” replied the priest, “because I have experienced near you a quietude more connected with heaven than with this world.”
My mother, who was simple-minded, but not stupid, understood very well what he wanted to say, and replied that if he had known her twenty years ago, he would have found her to be quite another than she had become in this cookshop, where her good looks had vanished with the fire of the spit and the fumes of the dishes. And as she was touched she mentioned that the baker at Auneau had found her to be so much to his liking that he had offered her cakes every time she passed his shop. “Besides,” she added angrily, “there is neither girl nor woman ugly enough to be incapable of doing wrong if she had a fancy to do it.”
“This good woman is right,” said my father. “I remember when I was a prentice at the cookshop of the Royal Goose near the Gate of St Denis, my master, who was then the banner-bearer of the guild, as I myself am today, said to me: ‘I’ll never be a cuckold, my wife is too ugly.’ This saying gave me the idea to attempt what he thought to be impossible. I succeeded at my first attempt, one morning when he went to La Vallée. He spoke the truth, his wife was very ugly, but high spirited and grateful.”
At this anecdote my mother broke out and said that such things ought not to be told by a father to his wife and son, if he wanted to have their respect.
M. Jérôme Coignard, seeing her become red with anger, changed the conversation with kindly meant ability. He addressed himself abruptly to Friar Ange, who, hands in his sleeves, sat humbly at the corner of the fireside:
“Little friar, what kind of relics did you carry on the second vicar’s donkey’s back in company with Sister Catherine? Was it your small clothes you gave the devotees to kiss, in the manner of some grey friars, of whom Henry Estienne has narrated the adventures?”
“Ah! your reverence,” meekly said Friar Ange with the expression of a martyr suffering for truth, “it was not my small clothes, it was a foot of St Eustache.”
“I should have taken my oath on it, if it would not be a sin to do so,” exclaimed the priest, brandishing the drumstick of a fowl. “Those Capuchins turn out saints utterly ignored by good authors, who work on ecclesiastical history. Neither Tillemont nor Fleury speak of that St Eustache to whom a church is consecrated, very wrongly, at Paris, when so many saints recognised by writers well deserving to be believed, are still waiting for a similar honour. The ‘Life of St Eustache’ is a tissue of ridiculous fables; the same is the case of that of St Catherine, who has never existed except in the imagination of some wicked Byzantine monk. But I do not want to attack her too hardly, as he is the patroness of men of letters, and serves as a signboard to the bookshop of that good M. Blaizot, which is the most delectable abode in this world.”
“I also had,” continued quickly the little friar, “a rib of St Mary the Egyptian.”
“Ah! Ah!’” shouted the priest, throwing the chicken bone across the room, “concerning this one, I do consider her to be very, very holy, as during her lifetime she gave a fine example of humility.”
“You know, madam,” he said and took mother’s sleeve, “that St Mary the Egyptian, going on pilgrimage to the sepulchre of our Lord, was stopped by a deep flowing river, and not possessing a single farthing to pay for the passage on the ferry-boat she offered to the boatmen her own body as a payment. What do you say to that, my good mistress?”
First of all my mother asked if the story was quite true. After she had been assured that the matter had been printed in a book and painted on a stained window in the Church of La Jussienne she believed it.
“I think,” she said, “that one has to be as holy as she was to do the like without committing a sin. I must say that I should not like to do it.”
“As far as I am concerned,” said the priest, “I approve of the conduct of that saint, quite in accord with the most subtle doctors. It is a lesson for honest women stubborn in too much pride of their haughty virtue. Thinking well over it there is some sensuality in prizing too highly the flesh and guarding excessively what one ought to despise. There are some matrons to be met with who believe they have a treasure and who visibly exaggerate the interest God and the angels may have in them. They believe themselves to be a kind of natural Holy Sacrament. St Mary the Egyptian was a better judge. Pretty and divinely shaped as she was, she considered that it would be all too proud of her flesh to stop in the course of a holy pilgrimage for a paltry indifferent reason which is no more than a piece of mortification and far from being a precious jewel. She humbled herself, madam, and entered by using so admirable a humility the road of penitence, where she accomplished marvellous works.”
“Your reverence,” said my mother, “I do not understand you. You are too learned for me.”
“That grand saint.” said Friar Ange, “is painted in a state of nature in the chapel of my convent, and by the grace of God all her body is covered with long and thick hair. Reproductions of this picture have been printed, and I’ll bring you a fully blessed one, my dear madam.”
Tenderly touched, my mother passed the soup-tureen to him, behind the back of my teacher. And the holy friar, seated on the cinder board, silently soaked his bread in the savoury liquid.
“Now is the moment,” said my father, “to uncork one of those bottles which I keep in reserve for the great feasts, which are Christmas, Twelfth Night, and St Laurence’s Day. Nothing is more agreeable than to drink a good wine quietly at home secure of unwelcome intruders.”
Hardly had these words been uttered when the door was opened and a tall man in black entered the shop in a squall of snow and wind exclaiming:
“A Salamander! A Salamander!”
And without taking notice of anyone he bent over the grate, rummaging in the cinders with the end of his walking stick, very much to the detriment of Friar Ange, who coughed fit to give up the ghost, swallowing the ashes and coal-dust thrown into his soup plate. And the man in black still continued to rummage in the fire, shouting, “A Salamander! I see a Salamander!” while the stirred-up flames made the shadow of his bodily form tremble on the ceiling like a large bird of prey.
My father was surprised and rather annoyed by the manners of the visitor. But he knew how to restrain himself. And so he rose, his napkin under his arm, and went to the fireplace, bending to the hearth, both his fists on his thighs.
When he had sufficiently considered the disordered fireplace, and Friar Ange covered with ashes, he said:
“Your lordship will excuse me. I cannot see anything but this paltry monk, and no Salamander.
“Besides,” my father went on, “I have but little regret over it. I have it from hearsay that it is an ugly beast, hairy and horned, with big claws.”
“What an error!” replied the man in black. “Salamanders resemble women, or, to speak precisely, nymphs, and they are perfectly beautiful! But I feel myself rather a simpleton to ask you if you’re able to see this one. One has to be a philosopher to see a Salamander, and I do not think philosophers could be found in this kitchen.”
“You may be mistaken, sir,” said the Abbé Coignard. “I am a Doctor of Divinity and Master of Arts. I have also studied the Greek and Latin moralists, whose maxims have strengthened my soul in the vicissitudes of my life, and I have particularly applied Boethius as an antidote for the evils of existence. And here near me is Jacobus Tournebroche, my disciple, who knows the sentences of Publius Syrus by heart.”
The stranger turned his yellow eyes on the priest, eyes strangely marked over a nose like the beak of an eagle, and excused himself with more courtesy than his fierce mien led one to expect, for not having at once recognised a person of merit, and further he said:
“It is very likely that this Salamander has come for you or your pupil. I saw it very distinctly in passing along the street before this cookshop. She would appear better if the fire were fiercer; for this reason it is necessary to stir the fire vigorously when you believe A Salamander to be in it.”
At the first movement the stranger made to rummage again in the fire, Friar Ange anxiously covered the soup-tureen with a flap of his frock and shut his eyes.
“Sir,” said the Salamander-man, “allow your young pupil to approach the fireplace to say if he does not see something resembling a woman hovering over the flames.”
At this very moment the smoke rising under the slab of the chimney bent itself with a peculiar gracefulness, and formed rotundities quite likely to be taken for well-arched loins by a rather strangely strained imagination. Therefore I did not tell an absolute lie by saying that, maybe, I saw something.
No sooner had I given this reply than the stranger, raising his huge arm, gave me a straight hander on the shoulder so powerful that I thought my collar-bone was broken. But at once he said to me, with a very sweet voice and a benevolent look:
“My child, I have been obliged to give you so strong an impression that you may never forget that you have seen a Salamander, which is a sign that your destiny is to become a learned man, perhaps a magician. Your face also made me surmise favourably of your intelligence.”
“Sir,” said my mother, “he learns anything he wants to know and he’ll be a priest if it pleases our Lord.”
M. Jérôme Coignard added that I had profited in a certain way by his lessons, and my father asked the stranger if his lordship would not be disposed to eat a morsel.
“I am not in want of anything,” said the stranger, “and it’s easy for me to go without any food for a year or longer because of a certain elixir the composition of which is known only to the philosophical. This faculty is not confined to myself alone, it is the common property of all wise men, and it is known that the illustrious Cardan went without food during several years without being incommoded by it. On the contrary his mind became singularly vivacious. But still I’ll eat what it pleases you to offer me, simply to please you.”
And he took a seat at our little table without any ceremony. At once Friar Ange also noiselessly pushed his stool between mine and that of my teacher and sat on it to receive his portion of the partridge pie my mother was dishing up.
The philosopher having thrown his cape over the back of his seat, we could see that he wore diamond buttons on his coat. He remained thoughtful. The shadow of his nose fell on his mouth and his hollow cheeks went deep into his jaws. His gloomy humour took possession of the whole company. No other noise was audible but the one made by the little friar munching his pie.
Suddenly the philosopher said:
“The more I think it over, the more I am convinced that yonder Salamander came for this lad.” And he pointed his knife at me.
“Sir,” I replied, “if the Salamanders are really as you say, this one honours me very much, and I am truly obliged to her. But, to say the truth, I have rather guessed than seen her, and this first encounter has only awakened my curiosity without giving me full satisfaction.”
Unable to speak at his ease, my good teacher was suffocating. Suddenly, breaking out very loud, he said to the philosopher:
“Sir, I am fifty-one years old, a master of arts and a doctor of divinity. I have read all the Greek and Latin authors, who have not been annihilated either by time’s injury or by man’s malice, and I have never seen a Salamander, wherefrom I conclude that no such thing exists.”
“Excuse me,” said Friar Ange, half suffocated by partridge pie and half by dismay; “excuse me! Unhappily some Salamanders do exist and a learned Jesuit father, whose name I have forgotten, has discoursed on their apparition. I myself have seen, at a place called St Claude, at a cottager’s, a Salamander in a fireplace close to a kettle. She had a cat’s head, a toad’s body and the tail of a fish. I threw a handful of holy water on the beast, and it at once disappeared in the air, with a frightful noise like sudden frying and I was enveloped in acrid fumes, which very nearly burnt my eyes out. And what I say is so true that for at least a whole week my beard smelt of burning, which proves better than anything else the maliciousness of the beast.”
“You want to make game of us, little friar,” said the abbé. “Your toad with a cat’s head is no more real than the Nymph of that gentleman, and it is quite a disgusting invention.”
The philosopher began to laugh, and said Friar Ange had not seen the wise man’s Salamander. When the Nymphs of the fire meet with a Capuchin they turn their back on him.
“Oh! Oh!” said my father, bursting out laughing, “the back of a Nymph is still too good for a Capuchin.”
And being in a good humour, he sent a mighty slice of the pie to the little friar.
My mother placed the roast in the middle of the table, and took advantage of it to ask if the Salamanders are good Christians, of which she had her doubts, as she had never heard that the inhabitants of fire praised the Lord.
“Madam,” replied my teacher, “several theologians of the Society of Jesus have recognised the existence of a people of incubus and succubus who are not properly demons, because they do not let themselves be routed by an aspersion of holy water and who do not belong to the Church Triumphant; glorified spirits would never have attempted, as has been the case at Perouse, to seduce the wife of a baker. But if you wish for my opinion, they are rather the dirty imaginations of a sneak than the views of a doctor.
“You must hate and bewail that sons of the Church, born in light, could conceive of the world and of God a less sublime idea than that formed by a Plato or a Cicero in the night of ignorance and of paganism. God is less absent, I dare say, from the Dream of Scipio than from those black tractates of demonology the authors of which call themselves Christians and Catholics.”
“Sir,” replied the priest, “I found a very old MS. of Cicero spoke with effluence and facility, but he was but a commonplace intellect, and not very learned in holy sciences. Have you ever heard of Hermes Trismegistus and of the Emerald Table?”
“Sir,” replied the priest, “I found a very old MS. of the Emerald Table in the library of the Bishop of Séez, and I should have marvelled over it one day or another, but for the chamber-maid of the bailiff’s lady who went to Paris to make her fortune and who made me ride in the coach with her. There was no witchcraft used, Sir Philospher, and I only succumbed to natural charms:
‘Non facit hoc verbis; facie tenerisque lacertis Devovet et flavis nostra puella comis.’”
“That’s a new proof,” said the philosopher, “women are great enemies of science, and the wise man ought to keep himself aloof from them.”
“In legitimate marriage also?” inquired my father.
“Especially in legitimate marriage,” replied the philosopher.
“Alas!” my father continued to question, “what remains to your poor wise men when they feel disposed for a little fun?”
The philosopher replied:
“There remains for them the Salamanders.”
At these words Friar Ange raised a frightened nose over his plate and murmured:
“Don’t speak like that, my good sir; in the name of all the saints of my order, do not speak like that! And do not forget that the Salamander is naught but the devil, who assumes, as everyone knows, the most divergent forms, pleasant now and then when he succeeds in disguising his natural ugliness, hideous sometimes when he shows his true constitution.”
“Take care on your part, Friar Ange,” replied the philosopher, “and as you’re afraid of the devil, don’t offend him too much and do not excite him against you by inconsiderate tittle-tattle. You know that this old Adversary, this powerful Contradictor, has kept, in the spiritual world, such a power, that God Almighty Himself reckons with him. I’ll say more, God, who was in fear of him, made him His business man. Be on your guard, little friar, the two understand one another.”
In listening to this speech, the poor Capuchin thought he heard and saw the devil himself, whom the stranger resembled, pretty near, by his fiery eyes, his hooked nose, his black complexion and his long and thin body. His soul, already astonished, became engulfed in a kind of holy terror, feeling on him the claws of the Malignant, he began to tremble in all his limbs, hastily put in his wide pockets all the decent eatables he could get hold of, rose gently and reached the door by backward steps, muttering exorcisms all the while.
The philosopher did not take any notice of this. He took from his pocket a little book covered with horny parchment, which he opened and presented to my dear teacher and myself. It contained an old Greek text, full of abbreviations and ligatures which at first gave me the effect of an illegible scrawl. But M. Coignard, having put on his barnacles and placed the book at the necessary distance, began to read the characters easily; they looked more like balls of thread that had been unrolled by a kitten than the simple and quiet letters of my St John Chrysostom, out of which I studied the language of Plato and the New Testament. Having come to the end of his reading he said:
“Sir, this passage is to be translated as: Those of the Egyptians who are well informed study first the writings called epistolographia, then the hieratic, of which the hierogrammatists make use, and finally the hieroglyphics.”
And then taking off his barnacles and shaking them triumphantly he continued:
“Ah! Ah! Master Philosopher, I am not to be taken as a greenhorn. This is an extract of the fifth book of the Stromata, the author of which, Clement of Alexandria, is not mentioned in the martyrology, for different reasons, which His Holiness Benedict XI. has indicated, the principal of which is, that this Father was often erroneous in matters of faith. It may be supposed that this exclusion was not sensibly felt by him, if one takes into consideration what philosophical estrangement had during his lifetime inspired this martyr. He gave preference to exile and took care to save his persecutors a crime, because he was a very honest man. His style of writing was not elegant; his genius was lively, his morals were pure, even austere. He had a very pronounced liking for allegories and for lettuces.”
The philosopher extended his arm, which seemed to me to be remarkably elongated as it reached right over the whole of the table, to take back the little book from the hands of my learned tutor.
“It is sufficient,” he said, pushing the Stromata back into his pocket. “I see, reverend sir, that you understand Greek, You have well translated this passage, at least in a vulgar and literal sense. I intend to make your and your pupil’s fortune; I’ll employ both of you to translate at my house the Greek texts I have received from Egypt.”
And turning towards my father, he continued:
“I think, Master Cook, you will consent to let me have your son to make him a learned man and a great one. Should it be too much for your fatherly love to give him entirely to me, I would pay out of my own pocket for a scullion as his substitute in your cookshop.”
“As your lordship understands it like that,” replied my father, “I shall not prevent you doing good to my son.”
“Always under the condition,” said my mother, “that it is not to be at the expense of his soul. You’ll have to affirm on your oath to me that you are a good Christian.”
“Barbe,” said my father, “you are a holy and worthy woman, but you oblige me to make my excuses to this gentleman for your want of politeness, which is caused less, to say the truth, by the natural disposition, which is a good one, than by your neglected education.”
“Let the good woman have her say,” remarked the philosopher, “and let her be reassured; I am a very religious man.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed my mother. “One has to worship the holy name of God.”
“I worship all His names, my good lady. He has more than one. He is called Adonai, Tetragrammaton, Jehovah, Otheres, Athanatos and Schyros. And there are many more names.”
“I did not know,” said my mother. “But what you say, sir, does not surprise me; I have remarked that people of condition have always more names than the lower people. I am a native of Auneau, near the town of Chartres, and I was but a child when the lord of our village left this world for another. I remember very well when the herald proclaimed the demise of the late lord, he gave him nearly as many names as you find in the All Saints litany. I willingly believe that God has more names than the Lord of Auneau had, as His condition is a much higher one. Learned people are very happy to know them all. and if you will advance my son Jacques in this knowledge I shall, my dear sir, be very much obliged to you.”
“Well, the matter is understood,” said the philosopher, “and you, reverend sir, I trust it will please you to translate from the Greek, for salary, let it be understood.”
My good tutor, who was collecting all this while the few thoughts in his brain which were not already desperately mixed up with the fumes of wine, refilled his goblet, rose and said:
“Sir Philosopher, I heartily accept your generous offer. You are one of the splendid mortals; it is an honour, sir, for me to be yours. If there are two kinds of furniture I hold in high esteem, they are the bed and the table. The table, filled up by turns with erudite books and succulent dishes, serves as support to the nourishment both of body and spirit; the bed propitious for sweet repose as well as for cruel love. He certainly was a divine fellow who gave to the sons of Deucalion bed and table. If I find with you, sir, those two precious pieces of furniture, I’ll follow your name, as that of my benefactor, with immortal praise, and I’ll celebrate you in Greek and Latin verses of all sorts of metres.”
So he said, and drank deeply.
“That’s well,” replied the philosopher. “I’ll expect both of you tomorrow morning at my house. You will follow the road to St Germain till you come to the Cross of the Sablons, from that cross you’ll count one hundred paces, going westward, and you’ll find a small green door in a garden wall. You’ll use the knocker which represents a veiled figure having a finger in her mouth. An old follower will open the door to you; you’ll ask to see M. d’Asterac.”
“My son,” said my good tutor, pulling my coat sleeve, “put all that in your memory, put cross, knocker, and the rest, so that we’ll be able to find, tomorrow, the enchanted door. And you, Sir Mæcenas ——”
But the philosopher was gone. No one had seen him leaving.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50