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- THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD - 2/39 -
of common sense! does it become a woman that has been received here out of charity to make eyes and to wear dresses like that? For they allowed the couple to occupy the attic during the time the roof was being repaired, in consideration of the fact that the husband is sick and the wife in an interesting condition. The concierge even says that the pain came on her this morning, and that she is now confined. They must have been very badly off for a child!"
"Therese," I replied, "they had no need of a child, doubtless. But Nature had decided that they should bring one into the world; Nature made them fall into her snare. One must have exceptional prudence to defeat Nature's schemes. Let us be sorry for them and not blame them! As for silk dresses, there is no young woman who does not like them. The daughters of Eve adore adornment. You yourself, Therese-- who are so serious and sensible--what a fuss you make when you have no white apron to wait at table in! But, tell me, have they got everything necessary in their attic?"
"How could they have it, Monsieur?" my housekeeper made answer. "The husband, whom you have just seen, used to be a jewellery-peddler-- at least, so the concierge tells me--and nobody knows why he stopped selling watches. you have just seen that his is now selling almanacs. That is no way to make an honest living, and I never will believe that God's blessing can come to an almanac-peddler. Between ourselves, the wife looks to me for all the world like a good-for-nothing-- a Marie-couche toi-la. I think she would be just as capable of bringing up a child as I should be of playing the guitar. Nobody seems to know where they came from; but I am sure they must have come by Misery's coach from the country of Sans-souci."
"Wherever they have come from, Therese, they are unfortunate; and their attic is cold."
"Pardi!--the roof is broken in several places and the rain comes through in streams. They have neither furniture nor clothing. I don't think cabinet-makers and weavers work much for Christians of that sect!"
"That is very sad, Therese; a Christian woman much less well provided for than this pagan, Hamilcar here!--what does she have to say?"
"Monsieur, I never speak to those people; I don't know what she says or what she sings. But she sings all day long; I hear her from the stairway whenever I am going out or coming in."
"Well! the heir of the Coccoz family will be able to say, like the Egg in the village riddle: Ma mere me fit en chantant. ["My mother sang when she brought me into the world."] The like happened in the case of Henry IV. When Jeanne d'Albret felt herself about to be confined she began to sing an old Bearnaise canticle:
"Notre-Dame du bout du pont, Venez a mon aide en cette heure! Priez le Dieu du ciel Qu'il me delivre vite, Qu'il me donne un garcon!
"It is certainly unreasonable to bring little unfortunates into the world. But the thing is done every day, my dear Therese and all the philosophers on earth will never be able to reform the silly custom. Madame Coccoz has followed it, and she sings. This is creditable at all events! But, tell me, Therese, have you not put the soup to boil to-day?"
"Yes, Monsieur; and it is time for me to go and skim it."
"Good! but don't forget, Therese, to take a good bowl of soup out of the pot and carry it to Madame Coccoz, our attic neighbor."
My housekeeper was on the point of leaving the room when I added, just in time:
"Therese, before you do anything else, please call your friend the porter, and tell him to take a good bundle of wood out of our stock and carry it up to the attic of those Coccoz folks. See, above all, that he puts a first-class log in the lot--a real Christmas log. As for the homunculus, if he comes back again, do not allow either himself or any of his yellow books to come in here."
Having taken all these little precautions with the refined egotism of an old bachelor, I returned to my catalogue again.
With what surprise, with what emotion, with what anxiety did I therein discover the following mention, which I cannot even now copy without feeling my hand tremble:
"LA LEGENDE DOREE DE JACQUES DE GENES (Jacques de Voragine);-- traduction francaise, petit in-4.
"This MS. of the fourteenth century contains, besides the tolerably complete translation of the celebrated work of Jacques de Voragine, 1. The Legends of Saints Ferreol, Ferrution, Germain, Vincent, and Droctoveus; 2. A poem 'On the Miraculous Burial of Monsieur Saint-Germain of Auxerre.' This translation, as well as the legends and the poem, are due to the Clerk Alexander.
"This MS. is written upon vellum. It contains a great number of illuminated letters, and two finely executed miniatures, in a rather imperfect state of preservation:--one represents the Purification of the Virgin, and the other the Coronation of Proserpine."
What a discovery! Perspiration moistened my forehead, and a veil seemed to come before my eyes. I trembled; I flushed; and, without being able to speak, I felt a sudden impulse to cry out at the top of my voice.
What a treasure! For more than forty years I had been making a special study of the history of Christian Gaul, and particularly of that glorious Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, whence issued forth those King-Monks who founded our national dynasty. Now, despite the culpable insufficiency of the description given, it was evident to me that the MS. of the Clerk Alexander must have come from the great Abbey. Everything proved this fact. All the legends added by the translator related to the pious foundation of the Abbey by King Childebert. Then the legend of Saint-Droctoveus was particularly significant; being the legend of the first abbot of my dear Abbey. The poem in French verse on the burial of Saint-Germain led me actually into the nave of that venerable basilica which was the umbilicus of Christian Gaul.
The "Golden Legend" is in itself a vast and gracious work. Jacques de Voragine, Definitor of the Order of Saint-Dominic, and Archbishop of Genoa, collected in the thirteenth century the various legends of Catholic saints, and formed so rich a compilation that from all the monasteries and castles of the time there arouse the cry: "This is the 'Golden Legend.'" The "Legende Doree" was especially opulent in Roman hagiography. Edited by an Italian monk, it reveals its best merits in the treatment of matters relating to the terrestrial domains of Saint Peter. Voragine can only perceive the greater saints of the Occident as through a cold mist. For this reason the Aquitanian and Saxon translators of the good legend-writer were careful to add to his recital the lives of their own national saints.
I have read and collated a great many manuscripts of the "Golden Legend." I know all those described by my learned colleague, M. Paulin Paris, in his handsome catalogue of the MSS. of the Biblotheque du Roi. There were two among them which especially drew my attention. One is of the fourteenth century and contains a translation by Jean Belet; the other, younger by a century, presents the version of Jacques Vignay. Both come from the Colbert collection, and were placed on the shelves of that glorious Colbertine library by the Librarian Baluze--whose name I can never pronounce without uncovering my head; for even in the century of the giants of erudition, Baluze astounds by his greatness. I know also a very curious codex in the Bigot collection; I know seventy-four printed editions of the work, commencing with the venerable ancestor of all--the Gothic of Strasburg, begun in 1471, and finished in 1475. But no one of those MSS., no one of those editions, contains the legends of Saints Ferreol, Ferrution, Germain, Vincent, and Droctoveus; no one bears the name of the Clerk Alexander; no one, in find, came from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Compared with the MS. described by Mr. Thompson, they are only as straw to gold. I have seen with my eyes, I have touched with my fingers, an incontrovertible testimony to the existence of this document. But the document itself--what has become of it? Sir Thomas Raleigh went to end his days by the shores of the Lake of Como, whither he carried with him a part of his literary wealth. Where did the books go after the death of that aristocratic collector? Where could the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander have gone?
"And why," I asked myself, "why should I have learned that this precious book exists, if I am never to possess it--never even to see it? I would go to seek it in the burning heart of Africa, or in the icy regions of the Pole if I knew it were there. But I do not know where it is. I do not know if it be guarded in a triple- locked iron case by some jealous biblomaniac. I do not know if it be growing mouldy in the attic of some ignoramus. I shudder at the thought that perhaps its tore-out leaves may have been used to cover the pickle-jars of some housekeeper."
August 30, 1850
The heavy heat compelled me to walk slowly. I kept close to the walls of the north quays; and, in the lukewarm shade, the shops of the dealers in old books, engravings, and antiquated furniture drew my eyes and appealed to my fancy. Rummaging and idling among these, I hastily enjoyed some verses spiritedly thrown off by a poet of the Pleiad. I examined an elegant Masquerade by Watteau. I felt, with my eye, the weight of a two-handed sword, a steel gorgerin, a morion. What a thick helmet! What a ponderous breastplate-- Seigneur! A giant's garb? No--the carapace of an insect. The men of those days were cuirassed like beetles; their weakness was within them. To-day, on the contrary, our strength is interior, and our armed souls dwell in feeble bodies.
...Here is a pastel-portrait of a lady of the old time--the face, vague like a shadow, smiles; and a hand, gloved with an openwork mitten, retains upon her satiny knees a lap-dog, with a ribbon about its neck. That picture fills me with a sort of charming melancholy. Let those who have no half-effaced pastels in their own hearts laugh at me! Like the horse that scents the stable, I hasten my pace as I near my lodgings. There it is--that great human hive, in which I have a cell, for the purpose of therein distilling the somewhat acrid honey of erudition. I climb the stairs with slow effort. Only a few steps more, and I shall be at my own door. But I divine, rather than see, a robe descending with a sound of rustling silk. I stop, and press myself against the balustrade to make room. The
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