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- The Queen Pedauque - 6/43 -


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.

CHAPTER V

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 to-day, 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."


The Queen Pedauque - 6/43

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