This subject of Latin that has been dinned into our ears for some time past recalls to my mind a story—a story of my youth.
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I was finishing my studies with a teacher, in a big central town, at the Institution Robineau, celebrated through the entire province for the special attention paid there to the study of Latin.
For the past ten years, the Robineau Institute beat the imperial lycee of the town at every competitive examination, and all the colleges of the subprefecture, and these constant successes were due, they said, to an usher, a simple usher, M. Piquedent, or rather Pere Piquedent.
He was one of those middle-aged men quite gray, whose real age it is impossible to tell, and whose history we can guess at first glance. Having entered as an usher at twenty into the first institution that presented itself so that he could proceed to take first his degree of Master of Arts and afterward the degree of Doctor of Laws, he found himself so enmeshed in this routine that he remained an usher all his life. But his love for Latin did not leave him and harassed him like an unhealthy passion. He continued to read the poets, the prose writers, the historians, to interpret them and penetrate their meaning, to comment on them with a perseverance bordering on madness.
One day, the idea came into his head to oblige all the students in his class to answer him in Latin only; and he persisted in this resolution until at last they were capable of sustaining an entire conversation with him just as they would in their mother tongue. He listened to them, as a leader of an orchestra listens to his musicians rehearsing, and striking his desk every moment with his ruler, he exclaimed:
“Monsieur Lefrere, Monsieur Lefrere, you are committing a solecism! You forget the rule.
“Monsieur Plantel, your way of expressing yourself is altogether French and in no way Latin. You must understand the genius of a language. Look here, listen to me.”
Now, it came to pass that the pupils of the Institution Robineau carried off, at the end of the year, all the prizes for composition, translation, and Latin conversation.
Next year, the principal, a little man, as cunning as an ape, whom he resembled in his grinning and grotesque appearance, had had printed on his programmes, on his advertisements, and painted on the door of his institution:
“Latin Studies a Specialty. Five first prizes carried off in the five classes of the lycee.
“Two honor prizes at the general examinations in competition with all the lycees and colleges of France.”
For ten years the Institution Robineau triumphed in the same fashion. Now my father, allured by these successes, sent me as a day pupil to Robineau’s—or, as we called it, Robinetto or Robinettino’s—and made me take special private lessons from Pere Piquedent at the rate of five francs per hour, out of which the usher got two francs and the principal three francs. I was then eighteen, and was in the philosophy class.
These private lessons were given in a little room looking out on the street. It so happened that Pere Piquedent, instead of talking Latin to me, as he did when teaching publicly in the institution, kept telling me his troubles in French. Without relations, without friends, the poor man conceived an attachment to me, and poured out his misery to me.
He had never for the last ten or fifteen years chatted confidentially with any one.
“I am like an oak in a desert,” he said—“‘sicut quercus in solitudine’.”
The other ushers disgusted him. He knew nobody in the town, since he had no time to devote to making acquaintances.
“Not even the nights, my friend, and that is the hardest thing on me. The dream of my life is to have a room with my own furniture, my own books, little things that belong to myself and which others may not touch. And I have nothing of my own, nothing except my trousers and my frock-coat, nothing, not even my mattress and my pillow! I have not four walls to shut myself up in, except when I come to give a lesson in this room. Do you see what this means—a man forced to spend his life without ever having the right, without ever finding the time, to shut himself up all alone, no matter where, to think, to reflect, to work, to dream? Ah! my dear boy, a key, the key of a door which one can lock—this is happiness, mark you, the only happiness!
“Here, all day long, teaching all those restless rogues, and during the night the dormitory with the same restless rogues snoring. And I have to sleep in the bed at the end of two rows of beds occupied by these youngsters whom I must look after. I can never be alone, never! If I go out I find the streets full of people, and, when I am tired of walking, I go into some cafe crowded with smokers and billiard players. I tell you what, it is the life of a galley slave.”
“Why did you not take up some other line, Monsieur Piquedent?”
“What, my little friend? I am not a shoemaker, or a joiner, or a hatter, or a baker, or a hairdresser. I only know Latin, and I have no diploma which would enable me to sell my knowledge at a high price. If I were a doctor I would sell for a hundred francs what I now sell for a hundred sous; and I would supply it probably of an inferior quality, for my title would be enough to sustain my reputation.”
Sometimes he would say to me:
“I have no rest in life except in the hours spent with you. Don’t be afraid! you’ll lose nothing by that. I’ll make it up to you in the class-room by making you speak twice as much Latin as the others.”
One day, I grew bolder, and offered him a cigarette. He stared at me in astonishment at first, then he gave a glance toward the door.
“If any one were to come in, my dear boy?”
“Well, let us smoke at the window,” said I.
And we went and leaned our elbows on the windowsill looking on the street, holding concealed in our hands the little rolls of tobacco. Just opposite to us was a laundry. Four women in loose white waists were passing hot, heavy irons over the linen spread out before them, from which a warm steam arose.
Suddenly, another, a fifth, carrying on her arm a large basket which made her stoop, came out to take the customers their shirts, their handkerchiefs, and their sheets. She stopped on the threshold as if she were already fatigued; then, she raised her eyes, smiled as she saw us smoking, flung at us, with her left hand, which was free, the sly kiss characteristic of a free-and-easy working-woman, and went away at a slow place, dragging her feet as she went.
She was a woman of about twenty, small, rather thin, pale, rather pretty, with a roguish air and laughing eyes beneath her ill-combed fair hair.
Pere Piquedent, affected, began murmuring:
“What an occupation for a woman! Really a trade only fit for a horse.”
And he spoke with emotion about the misery of the people. He had a heart which swelled with lofty democratic sentiment, and he referred to the fatiguing pursuits of the working class with phrases borrowed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and with sobs in his throat.
Next day, as we were leaning our elbows on the same window sill, the same woman perceived us and cried out to us:
“Good-day, scholars!” in a comical sort of tone, while she made a contemptuous gesture with her hands.
I flung her a cigarette, which she immediately began to smoke. And the four other ironers rushed out to the door with outstretched hands to get cigarettes also.
And each day a friendly intercourse was established between the working-women of the pavement and the idlers of the boarding school.
Pere Piquedent was really a comical sight. He trembled at being noticed, for he might lose his position; and he made timid and ridiculous gestures, quite a theatrical display of love signals, to which the women responded with a regular fusillade of kisses.
A perfidious idea came into my mind. One day, on entering our room, I said to the old usher in a low tone:
“You would not believe it, Monsieur Piquedent, I met the little washerwoman! You know the one I mean, the woman who had the basket, and I spoke to her!”
He asked, rather worried at my manner:
“What did she say to you?”
“She said to me—why, she said she thought you were very nice. The fact of the matter is, I believe, I believe, that she is a little in love with you.” I saw that he was growing pale.
“She is laughing at me, of course. These things don’t happen at my age,” he replied.
I said gravely:
“How is that? You are all right.”
As I felt that my trick had produced its effect on him, I did not press the matter.
But every day I pretended that I had met the little laundress and that I had spoken to her about him, so that in the end he believed me, and sent her ardent and earnest kisses.
Now it happened that one morning, on my way to the boarding school, I really came across her. I accosted her without hesitation, as if I had known her for the last ten years.
“Good-day, mademoiselle. Are you quite well?”
“Very well, monsieur, thank you.”
“Will you have a cigarette?”
“Oh! not in the street.”
“You can smoke it at home.”
“In that case, I will.”
“Let me tell you, mademoiselle, there’s something you don’t know.”
“What is that, monsieur?”
“The old gentleman—my old professor, I mean—”
“Yes, Pere Piquedent. So you know his name?”
“Faith, I do! What of that?”
“Well, he is in love with you!”
She burst out laughing wildly, and exclaimed:
“You are only fooling.”
“Oh! no, I am not fooling! He keeps talking of you all through the lesson. I bet that he’ll marry you!”
She ceased laughing. The idea of marriage makes every girl serious. Then she repeated, with an incredulous air:
“This is humbug!”
“I swear to you, it’s true.”
She picked up her basket which she had laid down at her feet.
“Well, we’ll see,” she said. And she went away.
Presently when I had reached the boarding school, I took Pere Piquedent aside, and said:
“You must write to her; she is infatuated with you.”
And he wrote a long letter, tenderly affectionate, full of phrases and circumlocutions, metaphors and similes, philosophy and academic gallantry; and I took on myself the responsibility of delivering it to the young woman.
She read it with gravity, with emotion; then she murmured:
“How well he writes! It is easy to see he has got education! Does he really mean to marry me?”
I replied intrepidly: “Faith, he has lost his head about you!”
“Then he must invite me to dinner on Sunday at the Ile des Fleurs.”
I promised that she should be invited.
Pere Piquedent was much touched by everything I told him about her.
“She loves you, Monsieur Piquedent, and I believe her to be a decent girl. It is not right to lead her on and then abandon her.”
He replied in a firm tone:
“I hope I, too, am a decent man, my friend.”
I confess I had at the time no plan. I was playing a practical joke a schoolboy joke, nothing more. I had been aware of the simplicity of the old usher, his innocence and his weakness. I amused myself without asking myself how it would turn out. I was eighteen, and I had been for a long time looked upon at the lycee as a sly practical joker.
So it was agreed that Pere Piquedent and I should set out in a hack for the ferry of Queue de Vache, that we should there pick up Angele, and that I should take them into my boat, for in those days I was fond of boating. I would then bring them to the Ile des Fleurs, where the three of us would dine. I had inflicted myself on them, the better to enjoy my triumph, and the usher, consenting to my arrangement, proved clearly that he was losing his head by thus risking the loss of his position.
When we arrived at the ferry, where my boat had been moored since morning, I saw in the grass, or rather above the tall weeds of the bank, an enormous red parasol, resembling a monstrous wild poppy. Beneath the parasol was the little laundress in her Sunday clothes. I was surprised. She was really pretty, though pale; and graceful, though with a rather suburban grace.
Pere Piquedent raised his hat and bowed. She put out her hand toward him, and they stared at one another without uttering a word. Then they stepped into my boat, and I took the oars. They were seated side by side near the stern.
The usher was the first to speak.
“This is nice weather for a row in a boat.”
She dipped her hand into the water, skimming the surface, making a thin, transparent film like a sheet of glass, which made a soft plashing along the side of the boat.
When they were in the restaurant, she took it on herself to speak, and ordered dinner, fried fish, a chicken, and salad; then she led us on toward the isle, which she knew perfectly.
After this, she was gay, romping, and even rather tantalizing.
Until dessert, no question of love arose. I had treated them to champagne, and Pere Piquedent was tipsy. Herself slightly the worse, she called out to him:
He said abruptly:
“Mademoiselle, Monsieur Raoul has communicated my sentiments to you.”
She became as serious as a judge.
“What is your reply?”
“We never reply to these questions!”
He puffed with emotion, and went on:
“Well, will the day ever come that you will like me?”
“You big stupid! You are very nice.”
“In short, mademoiselle, do you think that, later on, we might—”
She hesitated a second; then in a trembling voice she said:
“Do you mean to marry me when you say that? For on no other condition, you know.”
“Well, that’s all right, Monsieur Piquedent!”
It was thus that these two silly creatures promised marriage to each other through the trick of a young scamp. But I did not believe that it was serious, nor, indeed, did they, perhaps.
“You know, I have nothing, not four sous,” she said.
He stammered, for he was as drunk as Silenus:
“I have saved five thousand francs.”
She exclaimed triumphantly:
“Then we can set up in business?”
He became restless.
“In what business?”
“What do I know? We shall see. With five thousand francs we could do many things. You don’t want me to go and live in your boarding school, do you?”
He had not looked forward so far as this, and he stammered in great perplexity:
“What business could we set up in? That would not do, for all I know is Latin!”
She reflected in her turn, passing in review all her business ambitions.
“You could not be a doctor?”
“No, I have no diploma.”
“Or a chemist?”
“No more than the other.”
She uttered a cry of joy. She had discovered it.
“Then we’ll buy a grocer’s shop! Oh! what luck! we’ll buy a grocer’s shop. Not on a big scale, of course; with five thousand francs one does not go far.”
He was shocked at the suggestion.
“No, I can’t be a grocer. I am—I am—too well known: I only know Latin, that is all I know.”
But she poured a glass of champagne down his throat. He drank it and was silent.
We got back into the boat. The night was dark, very dark. I saw clearly, however, that he had caught her by the waist, and that they were hugging each other again and again.
It was a frightful catastrophe. Our escapade was discovered, with the result that Pere Piquedent was dismissed. And my father, in a fit of anger, sent me to finish my course of philosophy at Ribaudet’s school.
Six months later I took my degree of Bachelor of Arts. Then I went to study law in Paris, and did not return to my native town till two years later.
At the corner of the Rue de Serpent a shop caught my eye. Over the door were the words: “Colonial Products—Piquedent”; then underneath, so as to enlighten the most ignorant: “Grocery.”
“‘Quantum mutatus ab illo!’”
Piquedent raised his head, left his female customer, and rushed toward me with outstretched hands.
“Ah! my young friend, my young friend, here you are! What luck! what luck!”
A beautiful woman, very plump, abruptly left the cashier’s desk and flung herself on my breast. I had some difficulty in recognizing her, she had grown so stout.
“So then you’re doing well?”
Piquedent had gone back to weigh the groceries.
“Oh! very well, very well, very well. I have made three thousand francs clear this year!”
“And what about Latin, Monsieur Piquedent?”
“Oh, good heavens! Latin, Latin, Latin—you see it does not keep the pot boiling!”