The Bachelor of St. Honoré
When the crowd of promenaders and gay equipages had left the Rue St. Honoré, a youth plainly dressed but not in the blouse and sabots of a peasant, crossed the corner near the Palace of L’Elysée Bourbon, and entered the porter’s lodge of an adjoining hotel. With more courtesy than he expected, the splendid servants ushered him to the door of the salon, bidding him present his credentials.
Wrapped in a red brocade and sunk in an invalid’s chair, sat a man still in the prime of life, rendered lame by and accident which had changed his features and articulation. He received the letter presented by his visitor; threw it unopened on the table and said in a voice sharp as his glance, “Well!”
Though a novice in Paris, the young stranger was not startled by the imperious vivacity of this single word. As if it had implied a question, he said, “The English lord will pardon a Frenchman for presuming to offer himself as a secretary.”
“Can you read?” was the brief rejoinder.
The soi-disant candidate for office took up the first among a hundred gorgeous volumes near his examiner. It was Milton’s and he read uninterrupted two Books of “Paradise Lost.”
Begin the third,” said the Bachelor of St. Honoré. The time-piece told another and another hour, and still another book was demanded. The young man paused at last and pointed to the twelfth number on the dial, and his master answered by pointing to the third and to the door.
“You are chosen,” whispered the old valet as he ushered him to the portiêre. “Our Bachelor receives company every day in the week — come at three and mind nobody.”
Thus encouraged and content to live on hope and a crust steeped in meagre soup, the secretary-elect returned to his Mansard, and at the appointed hour of reception, to his patron.
Another and more ancient English poet was begun, and the listener profoundly silent when the Curé was announced and entered. He received no word, look or gesture of welcome, but the Bachelor of St. Honoré was known to all Paris.
“Knowing the bounty of Monseigneur, my ministry permits me to hope it will extend to a poor author who has had few gleams of sunshine —”
“Gleams of what?” shouted the Englishman.
“He means —” hazarded the attaché in the lowest whisper — “his reverence had better leave the room — my lord cannot abide those words since a rhyming woman called love-children gleams of moonshine.”
The priest understood and retired, quite satisfied that his mission had not failed. But the young secretary closed his book, and was preparing to depart, when the Bachelor raised his finger. “Enough of that fool Adam. Bring me a newer liar.”
Very anxiously and much doubting his success, the reader brought a small essay on the concordance of reason and religion by the author of whose name the good priest had intended to place among the many objects of the Englishman’s bounty. It was heard in silence almost stern, but when finished, the lean hand was stretched to the ink-standish.
“Write, and tell that man he may be chaplain [to the Earl of Mornay] if he will live with a lame churl for three hundred a year.”
The secretary’s pen trembled as he obeyed and when he looked up, his eye met his patron’s, reading the honest joy in his face with a smile which entirely changed his own. From that moment they seemed to have exchanged signals of free-masonry, and the patron’s language was in his acts rather than in speech or gesture. His young secretary came daily, and remained by his side till midnight, reading and writing but seldom noticed by word of praise, and sometimes hours past without a look or sign.
Almost every evening men of rank and literary talent held conversations in his saloon or played piquet as unobserved, or at least unshared by the owner as in a public club-room. His young scribe and reader sat near him during these soirées, studying the comic or cynical expression of his glance, the only comment on his guests or their opinions. Of himself or his early life he never spoke and his servants knew little except the grotesque contrast between his bitter humours of silent charities. One day, by the usual mute signal, his attendant was required to come three hours before noon. The time-piece was covered with crape and the brocade wrapper concealed under a mourning-cloak.
“This,” he said, “is my birthday, and this [my Mother’s] last letter — read it — and then read the prayers for the Dead.”
The paper, worn and faded, hardly bore the pressure of the reader’s hand, and its tender counsels seemed to need no appeal to the son’s ears. His hands covered his face, but the tremor of his voice as he added his response to the most solemn prayer, witnessed their living influence. Suddenly raising his head, and grasping the young man’s hand, he said, “Did you think I had no memory and no hope? What use to me would be this wealth of books — to me, a paralysed cripple, if I did not believe these treasuries of noble thought would enrich me in a long future? The instinct of a meaner self-love teaches the savage to provide food for his surviving spirit. Shall I be less prepared?”
His companion was silent — awed, almost startled by the brightness of the rare smile which shewed for one instant the beauty of his better self. But as if to prove that he had two natures, or as learned men have since said, a “duality of spirit,” he threw aside is cloak, called his dozen dogs, and enquired why his carriage was not waiting. The most favored servant ventured to remind him that the coachman had asked leave to go to a hospital. “Let him take off my livery, then — no man shall wear it who dares think I have no room for a sick servant. And you, rascals! Why did you not send for my physician? And what uproar is this?”
Nobody durst reply till his librarian ran into the hall and returned.
“My lord, your gates are closed, and the commissaries of the Republic demand this hotel as National property — they come to take instant possession.”
Two of the English servants seized their muskets — all gathered round their master.
“Silence, fellows!” he exclaimed in a loud firm tone. “Give me my ivory staff — carry me to my chair and open the doors. These new Gauls shall find a patrician-senator in a Roman’s place.”
The officials, much surprised at this free admission, entered his chamber with airs of insolent authority.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “I belong to a sovereign people where every man is king. If you dare to send an Englishman to die in your streets, France will lose one honest citizen and you will lose English gold. We have no women here.”
One of the commissaires took the purse, the other would have insisted on an arrest, but the young man opposed his rude grasp with an arm so vigorous and speech so well addressed to French ears that the citizens in the street joined in clearing the hotel from its intruders. The Englishman’s champion returned to beg he might remain a sentinel. “No, my young orator — you shall not lose your life among free citizens by serving an Earl. You may live to be Dictator of a newspaper and a republic — take this bag of silver and that baton, but reason no more with them. Solon himself could not stand on a three-legged stool.”
The young man’s heart was too full for words. He threw away the bag to grasp a bronze medal of his patron, whose brilliant smile returned. “Well, keep that counterfeit and throw it into the Seine - fools will find it and mistake an old aristocrat for a philosopher or an emperor.”
“But, my dear Benefactor, you — you will be alone among these witless and lawless Girondists —”
“No, my friend, you will be their poet or their Prefect — and I can find a wife.”