Towards the close of a dismal afternoon in March, 1700, the Sieur de Jambac, having completed the ascent of the fourth flight of stairs in one of the oldest and most ramshackle houses of the Rue du Mail, Paris, paused for a moment on the top landing to recover his breath, adjust his wig, and put his attire to rights. He next proceeded to examine the card, yellow with age, which was pinned to the door immediately facing him, and found it to bear the superscription: “Monsieur Jean Fleurus, Notary Public.” This being the individual he had come to seek, he set his hand on the latch, and entered without ceremony.
The lawyer, whose face was shaped somewhat like that of a horse, looked sharply up from his desk by the window, to behold a gentleman of sixty or thereabouts, stately, tranquil in manner, and even fashionably dressed, but still obviously from the provinces. To the length and leanness of his body was joined a certain self-conscious stiffness which could only arise from an existence passed in a small and friendly society, outside which the world was full of pitfalls to be guarded against. However, since country purses were as good as town ones, Fleurus promptly descended from his stool, bowed respectfully to the stranger, and stepped across the room.
“You are the notary Fleurus?” asked the gentleman.
“At your service, monsieur.”
“I am the Sieur de Jambac. . . . Is that person asleep?”
He pointed a finger to a young man lying at full length on a wooden bench for callers near the door. His eyes were closed, his breathing was heavy and regular, but as he was not actually1 snoring, the question was legitimate. Hat, wig, and sword, in a heap on the floor beneath him, seemed to establish his gentility, yet why a gentleman should elect to sleep in daytime in a lawyer’s office, Jambac could not fathom. Whatever his reasons might be, he was a remarkably ugly fellow, though of a good-humoured type of ugliness—short, broad-chested, a pale face, pitted by the ravages of smallpox, with black hair, a wide mouth, excellent teeth, and eyebrows arching outwards, the sign of an imaginative mind. A countenance full of character.
Fleurus followed his prospective client’s gaze with a shrug of vexation.
“Yes, he is asleep. It is a customer.”
“The law is very fatiguing!” said Jambac dryly.
Recognising a mot, the notary hastened to complete his resemblance to a horse by neighing loudly.
“That is to say, he has patience, monsieur; and patience is the main thing.”
“I have no doubt. But do you always laugh in that way?”
Fleurus made all speed to restore to his face its professional gravity. “I do not often laugh at all, monsieur. In my trade there is not much to laugh at. It was that your remark appeared to me droll.”
“H’m. . . .” The visitor stared around him critically. “However! I have heard of you, and I have come here with a case. You will see what you can make of it. Bring me a chair, and send your sleepy gentleman packing!”
“He is better so, monsieur. He is really asleep, but when he wakes he will start to be troublesome again, and I shall not easily get rid of him.”
“Then set the chair as far from him as may be, and I will speak softly.”
Fleurus brought, not one chair, but two, to the desk by the window.
“Do you mean to sit also?” demanded Jambac bluntly.
“So I shall listen more at ease. Also my legs are weak.”
“Since, however, my case does not concern itself with your legs, but with your head only, I shall beg you to treat me with the customary respect.”
“Monsieur . . .”
“A gentleman, because he entrusts his affairs to you, is not thereby constituted a tavern companion, I hope.”
The notary bowed angrily, and withdrew the second chair.
“It seems you are not very well up in these civilities,” pursued Jambac, staring hard at him. He seated himself. “Let us have confidence that you are better versed in the interpretation of the law. You claim to know your profession?”
Not trusting himself to speak, Fleurus bowed again.
“We shall see! Your manners do not reassure me, and it may yet be that I shall have to take my case elsewhere. It is not straightforward, to begin with. It is not a quarrel over a bone. No one has stolen my property, and no one has run off with my wife—even if I had one, which I have not. My affair is not any of these. If you handle the simpler sort of cases only, you will say so at once.”
“I undertake all sorts, monsieur; and, for example, I do not violate any confidence when I inform you that I have at this very moment some half-dozen of a complicated interest which I think will challenge comparison with that of an equal number on the list of any other lawyer in Paris; in other words, in France.”
Jambac produced a snuff-box, and fed his nostrils with composure.
“Yes, but there are cases which do not come within the purview of the law at all, and I do not know that mine is not such. Certainly, equity must pronounce for me, but that is another matter. . . . However, since I am here, I shall tell you. I find myself, then, in an intolerable impasse. I am persecuted.”
“There will be no difficulty in bringing an action for a real persecution, monsieur, but if it be imagined only, it will largely depend.”
“I do not want an action. I desire the persecution to cease.”
“Describe its nature, if you please!”
Jambac made an airy, yet dignified gesture.
“It is a woman.”
“That does not make your affair better, but worse, monsieur. A case in which a woman appears already promises to be vexatious. Proceed, however! you would say that this woman persecutes you. Then we shall see if there is no statute to fit her malpractices.”
“It is a lady, a country neighbour, who is set upon joining herself to me in matrimony, against my inclination.”
Fleurus smiled. “That she cannot do, save by persuasion.”
“However, you had better wait to hear the particulars. I say it is my nearest neighbour, where I live, at a place not fifty leagues from Paris. Also, I will not go so far as to affirm that the match is in itself unsuitable. Her birth is good, her connections are great and influential, she has not always been unknown at Court, her estate is vast; if she is fifty, I am still older; if she has the stature of a grenadier and the manners of one, it cannot be denied that she possesses a high degree of esprit and character. It simply is, then, that I do not wish at my age to become entangled in a petticoat, having had the good fortune hitherto to view the sex from a prudent distance. In respect of marriage, I am quite of Montaigne’s opinion. A marriage is an unequal contract. If women gain by the state—and unless they gain, why have they made it the principal affair in life?—then men must lose to an equivalent extent. The argument has a mathematical exactness which cannot be gainsaid, and until someone can clearly demonstrate to me its fallacy, I shall not, by the free exercise of my will, marry. . . . In any case, I do not think that I have, during my sixty-two years of life, steeled my resolution against a score of youthful beauties, only to sink upon the withered bosom of a dowager at last!”
“That might at another time form the ground of a very agreeable debate, monsieur. As it happens, I myself am married, and extremely happily; my sympathies, therefore, are not with your logic. However, the point is, you do not want to marry. Continue, I pray!”
Jambac stared him to silence.
“If you are to interrupt me so persistently, I shall not know where I am.”
“Having described the lady, monsieur, you were about to come to her misconduct.”
“Then her misconduct is this. She wearies me with her attentions, she makes me a laughing-stock, and the thing rapidly approaches a scandal. That is everything in brief. I could furnish twenty instances, but refrain from doing so. If you cannot, from the bare summary, comprehend the sort of persecution that I mean, there is little use in going forward. Either you are acquainted with women, or you are not.”
“Nevertheless, the mere infatuation of a woman for a man, however publicly expressed, is not in itself an offence against law,” said Fleurus sharply. “You do not pretend that she has assaulted you, monsieur?—and in this sense, a kiss or an embrace, for example, might be construed, technically, as an assault.”
“Pardieu! she has not yet forgotten herself to that extent, though who can say what is germinating within her?”
“Until the seed has become an individual, the law cannot recognise it. You will have to say what she really has done, monsieur. Has she trespassed on your estate? That might be used against her.”
Jambac moved impatiently. “Pshaw! we cannot avoid our neighbours in the country. You would not have me shut myself up a prisoner in my house, I hope? There are constantly visits of ceremony, parties of pleasure, the chase, and what not. I suppose that we encounter each other thrice or four times a week, in the ordinary course, without premeditation. It cannot be avoided. In the country we are a happy family, living in a residence the apartments of which, it may be, are separated by leagues of field and forest. What the devil would it effect to have my fellows keep her out? The scandal would suddenly explode, that is all.”
“Then I can only see slander. Slander is a reasonably elastic plaint, and if you can bring witnesses to prove that she has put sentiments into your breast which do not properly belong there—if she is disseminating injurious reports concerning an affection for her on your part which has no existence in fact . . .”
“Yes, but I keep telling you that I do not want an action. The affair has gone quite far enough, I fancy, without dragging it into the courts. Because twenty now snigger at me behind their hands, is that a reason why I should procure all France to roar aloud? The absurdity is not that she slanders me, but that she forgets her sex to court me. It is humiliating that the Sieur de Jambac must blush and stammer in society because of the mad fancies of a witch without beauty to recommend her; but assuredly it will not improve matters to have each one of her sighs, glancings and oglings neatly set forth for the edification of a crowd of grinning judges and lawyers, thence to be circulated to the whole world! You must think of something better than that!”
Fleurus scratched his head in perplexity.
“Well, then, monsieur, we must frighten her. We must threaten her with this action, without actually bringing it to the push. We must make a show of suborning witnesses, and so forth. She will see that you are in earnest in detesting her, and, being after all mature and wealthy, she will think twice before sending good money after a failed passion. I shall write her a preliminary letter. In the majority of cases, a preliminary letter is all that is required.”
“The scheme is admirable!” said Jambac dryly, again helping himself to snuff. “The only objection to it is that a suit, I suppose, will take six months at the least to come before the court. . . ?”
“It will depend.”
“Whereas, if things go on as at present, she will have married me in as many weeks! Judge if she will be exceedingly alarmed at a lawsuit of which the plaintiff will be her own husband, and the disputed matter, her right to annoy him with attentions! You must still think better.”
The notary smiled. “There is always one more way with the law, monsieur! Provided that I am able to satisfy the court officers that the case is not intended to come on, I have no doubt that I can procure the announcement of its coming on immediately; but it will cost money. It is for you to decide.”
“I do not know. How much will it cost?”
“I shall make some circumspect inquiries. Monsieur stays in Paris awhile?”
“For a few days. I am here with my nephew, M. de Fargues. We lodge at a tavern in the Rue des Capucines. You had better send to me there; and in the meantime I shall have thought whether this contrivance of yours is the best. I may tell you at once that I am not a fool; consequently I am quite agreeable to parting with gold, but only on condition that I am the principal one to be benefited. Because I am a provincial gentleman, while you are a Paris lawyer, that is not to say that I am to be pumped by you. So we shall investigate what your notion is worth. You may wait upon me in person if you prefer it, but I am never visible till after noon.”
“I shall appear to-morrow, then, monsieur. But what is the name of your tavern?”
“My memory grows worse; it has escaped me. . . . I fancy it is some animal. I am nearly sure that it is the Cheval Blanc.”
“Then I am very sorry for you, monsieur!” A pleasant voice sounded from the bench by the door.
Jambac and the notary turned quickly, to perceive the gentleman with the pitted face in the act of stooping to pick up his wig. He retrieved it, to clap it carelessly on his head; then, after assuming his hat and sword, he sat upright on the bench, facing the pair with a good-humoured smile.
“They say, monsieur,” he continued, “and my experience tends to confirm it, that the wine sold there is so vile that an apothecary is permanently resident on the premises for the purpose of treating sick customers. ’Tis also affirmed that the beds are not exactly as peaceful as the tomb; but on that point I cannot personally pronounce.”
Fleurus strode towards him furiously.
“The Cheval Blanc is known to everyone in Paris as an establishment of the first class, regularly patronised by the most distinguished persons. Do not heed this gentleman, monsieur! He is a wit.”
Jambac brushed a trace of dust from his coat nonchalantly.
“I do not object to wit, but I dislike people who fall asleep in the wrong place, in order to awake at the wrong time!”
The young man rose to his feet, stretched his limbs, with fists clenched, and stifled a yawn.
“Monsieur, you do not speak at all rationally. When my eyes closed, you were not here; they open themselves, and you are here. Was I to know that you intended this visit? You should have waked me at the beginning. The complaint is silly.”
“M. de Mailly,” said the notary, “I beg you to go away quietly at once. I discuss business with a client. You have no right in my office, and I insist upon your immediate departure, without another word!”
Mailly smiled provokingly. “Thus it turns out well that I have an appointment for this hour. Yet how am I to fulfil it? ’Tis at the Trois Fontaines, these fountains spout wine only, which must be paid for, and my purse . . .”
“In a word, monsieur, you want money, as usual! Very well, I shall give you some, but on one condition only; that you do not babble over your cups of what you may perhaps have dreamt during your slumber here. There are five pistoles! ’Tis more than you deserve, seeing that you deserve none at all, and I cordially hope that you will not show your face again for many weeks.”
Mailly pocketed the coins carelessly.
“Peste! you compel your money to work hard for you, Fleurus! And have not I told you over and over again that I do not accept bribes? It is not five miserable pistoles which will prevent my relating a ridiculous dream, if I choose to do so. Fortunately for you, I am a gentleman. You have my word for it that I shall not publish the intelligence that Monsieur stays with his nephew at the Cheval Blanc, perhaps to study the grape in its most curious forms.”
Fleurus flung the door wide.
“I cannot tell whether you have overheard everything or not,” he said in a quick, low voice, intended only for Mailly’s ear, “but do not be in haste to spoil this case for me, for I promise you that will finally close our acquaintance. Prudently handled, it will bring me something substantial; and you shall participate. Do not come to me till next week. The situation is very delicate. Do not speak a word to anybody. I confide in your honour and good sense.”
Mailly went downstairs laughing, and, upon reaching the bottom, gave an additional cock to his hat, before passing into the street.
In the gathering dusk lights were being lit in the tall houses, the upper storeys of which nearly met overhead, across the narrow thoroughfare. A melancholy drizzle descended, and the gutter swam with liquid mud. Whether it were due to abstraction or whether he had another and more urgent appointment at the Cheval Blanc, it was to that hostelry, in the first place, and not to the Trois Fontaines that he directed his steps. In so doing, he utilised his intimacy with the geography of Paris especially to avoid those streets which permitted wheeled traffic; for there, on such an evening as this, the flying splashes of undesirable black paste would amount to a veritable cannonade.
The windows of the Cheval Blanc were brightly illuminated, while throngs passed in and out of its doors. Mailly entered with the rest. Ambert, the short, bow-legged, red-faced, truculent-eyed host, was standing in the centre of a group of gentlemen who obviously were from the country, such was the deferential awe with which they received his conversational pronouncements. Mailly took his salute coldly.
“Good evening, Ambert! Thus you are still coining gold from wine?”
“Fortune smiles on you too, M. de Mailly, since we see you here again!”
“Faith! you have a queer notion of smiling! However, this time I have not come to drink your liquors, but to visit a gentleman who lodges with you—one M. de Fargues.”
The landlord detached himself from his circle.
“He is on the premises, I think, M. de Mailly, but I do not know where. An hour ago he was on his way to drinking himself insensible. As he will certainly not last out the evening, it is lucky you have called so early.”
“Be so good as to have him found for me!”
Ambert beckoned to a server.
“Conduct M. de Mailly to M. de Fargues, wheresoever he may be! It is probable that he has descended to the cellar.”
“In case the house is dark, here is something to light the way!” said Mailly, selecting from the coins which he drew from his pocket a half-pistole, and flicking it to the man, who caught it with a dexterity born of long practice.
At the end of the passage, a wooden ladder went down to the vaults. They lowered themselves. A tallow dip set on the stone floor showed Mailly a tall young gentleman, sitting insecurely astride an empty cask, a glass in one hand, while the other emphasised the points of a discourse he delivered to Charles, the cellarman, who stood before him, in baize apron and turned-up shirt-sleeves, a sheepish grin on his face. The gentleman’s countenance was wooden, impassive, big-featured, and very pimpled. Suddenly aware of newcomers, he broke off his harangue, threw a cold, unseeing glance in their direction, finished his wine at a gulp, and silently passed the glass to Charles to be replenished.
The server smiled. “M. de Fargues, here is one to see you!”
Fargues looked round again.
“’Tis well, and you may go. . . . What can I do for you, monsieur?”
Mailly advanced politely. “I have come to drink with you a little, monsieur.”
“That is good news! But I think I do not know you?”
The server returned upstairs.
“Peste! every acquaintance has to begin,” remarked Mailly lightly. “At least, if you do not know me, your uncle, the Sieur de Jambac, does so. ’Tis a sort of introduction. I hope you are not to be unsociable!”
“My uncle is one person, and I am another,” said Fargues, in a tone of solemnity. “Nevertheless, since you have set your heart upon drinking with me, I am not proud, and I will drink with any gentleman. Therefore, fresh glasses, Charles!”
“But not here, monsieur! I have just awoke from sleep, and my throat is like a furnace. Do not require me to desecrate a virgin thirst by absorbing Ambert’s vinegar.”
“That is a true word. I have felt it from the beginning, but I have put it off and off. Well, then, we will patronise another house. Charles, be obliging enough to assist me to disencumber my legs of this miserable barrel. I am to leave you. Whither do you take me, monsieur?”
“There is a charmingly quiet little place, not a pistol-shot from here. . . . Charles, here is a half-pistole for you! M. de Fargues seeks the Sieur de Jambac. I accompany him to the top of the stairs only. You cannot now be beautiful, so be discreet instead!”
Charles accepted the coin with a cheerful wink.
“I think that he will be discommoded as soon as he feels the fresh air, M. de Mailly.”
“But if so, we shall attribute it to the atmosphere, and not to your cask-wash.”
“And if so, beast,” added Fargues, “the proof will be that I shall return here to cut your ears off! Monsieur—what the devil is your name, again?”
“Then pray precede me up this accursed ladder, while Charles plants my feet from behind. ’Tis a veritable death-trap, and all holes! I have never yet understood why the best part of a house should be approached with so little regard to convenience.”
At the top, Mailly waited for him, laughing.
“Let us link arms,” he suggested. “I have a light dizziness, brought about by the rainy weather.”
“I have noticed that you were unsteady,” replied Fargues gravely. “Do you suffer much in this way?”
“It will pass with the first glass. Therein I flatter myself that I differ from others, who are most certain in their movement when entirely sober. There has been one historical exception—Socrates. It is possible, however, that you are another.”
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, monsieur. I have always admired Socrates stupendously on that very account. For his philosophy, not so greatly. In my opinion, virtue is very much overrated. It is more for shopkeepers.”
They joined arms, and, passing out by the back way and through the stable-yard, presently entered the street. Fargues’s conversation began to take bold leaps. From shopkeepers he travelled to milliners, from milliners to ladies’ maids, from ladies’ maids to husbands, and from husbands to the last joke of M. de Lausun. By the time that he had reached this point, they were already arrived outside the Trois Fontaines.