Open main menu

The Elegant De Fronsac

By Leonard Merrick

Like many another poet, Théophile de Fronsac made a reputation before he made a living. But, though his publishers knew his address to be undesirable, they did not know that he lodged in an attic; they did not know that he buttoned his coat because he had pawned his waistcoat, and that under his patent-leather boots his feet were bare. Even his associates did not know it--indeed, there were writers no poorer than himself who talked enviously of the money he made. And that was de Fronsac's single solace. His hereditary dignity forbade him to confess his straits to the bohemian circle; he liked to pose in it elegantly as a poet who was well-to-do.

One person only knew the grim facts about de Fronsac--Mariette, the daughter of his concierge. In her he confided. And when his plight had grown so desperate that he changed his name and disappeared from Paris, only the devoted Mariette knew where he had gone.

He had become a cook.

Yes; by a stroke of irony, this poet, who had nothing to eat, possessed a skill in cookery, acquired during a less penurious youth; and, although the ignominy of the resource had wrung his withers, there had been a crisis when he crept to a bureau de placement and offered himself as chef at the wages of a bonne-à-tout-faire.

It was thanks to the modesty of his demands that he had found a situation.

Madame Dolidon had never boasted a chef before. She lived economically in Meudon-Val-Fleury, where she bowed stiffly and was spoken of as being very "proud." Her husband also had that reputation. The long-nosed Mesdemoiselles Dolidon put on a good deal of side, too. The proposal of a male cook attracted the lady much, and when it transpired that the very superior "Dupont" was actually willing to come for forty francs a month, the prospect of her neighbors' jealousy enchanted her to such an degree that she dispensed with a character on the spot. As in France nobody ever tells the truth about a servant, for fear of an action for libel, she, of course, waived nothing of any consequence.

Under the name of Dupont, Théophile de Fronsac entered Madame Dolidon's service on the ninth day of May. His mortification was intense, and he did not attempt to decide for how long he was prepared to endure his descent in the social scale; but he enjoyed his meals, in spite of it, and began to put on flesh. Truth to tell, the novelty of being amply nourished was so welcome that at the end of the first week, when his employer remonstrated with him upon the quantity of butter that he used in his sauces, he trembled lest she was about to discharge him.

Now, the quantity of butter that he had been using was prodigious--to say nothing of the cream; and if his predecessor, Augustine, could have overheard madame's remonstrance, she would have been struck dumb with amazement at its gentleness. For Madame Dolidon had become conscious of a new and startling interest in her life. Her chef's melancholy eyes, his romantic bearing, impressed her, against her will. For the first time since her marriage, she encouraged a domestic to confide private matters to her ear; and the graceful ambiguities with which Dupont parried the encouragement piqued her interest more still. Never had she visited the basement so often as now. In short, this blameless matron of middle age, this unimpeachable wife and exemplary mother, was growing sentimental about her cook.

And her pride suffered sorely to perceive it. The poet's dignity smarted in the kitchen, and the lady's in the parlor.

No one can question that her self-respect would have impelled her to dismiss him in any case, but the tradesmen's accounts precipitated the scene. De Fronsac, being an artist, could no more stint the butter for his dishes than he could measure the ink for his odes. At the end of two months the climax came.

"I will economize!" he vowed, paling.

"You have promised it often," she reminded him, with a sigh. "No; this time, we are determined, we must lose you! I make no reproaches. With us a chef was an experiment; you were a temptation by reason of your terms. But the bills are appalling, and we must revert to a bonne."

After a despairing silence, during which he saw again his attic and a crust, the poet asked forlornly: "Would madame consent to retain me if I stayed for nothing?"

The matron caught her breath. She trembled. She could not doubt that the fascination was mutual, and for some seconds emotion held her dumb.

"No," she said heroically; "the bills forbid!"

"Kismet!" groaned the chef. "Madame desires to give me my eight days' notice?"

"We have resolved," she said, "to pay you the eight days' money instead; we must part with you at once."

Well, after all, he was possessed of nearly ninety francs! De Fronsac did not repine very long. As the train jolted him into Paris, he on the whole rejoiced to feel himself a man again. His haunting terror was lest the explanation of his absence should ever be whispered on the boulevards. If, even in years to come, his secret leaked out, he was sure he would drain poison or drop into the Seine. He affirmed this to Mariette again as soon as he arrived, and Mariette cried: "How can it leak out unless I betray you?" and became very dramatic indeed.

"If she should poke and pry, that fat woman in Meudon?" said de Fronsac gloomily. "I have an idea that she smelt a rat; she was always trying to pump me."

"Ah! When you were alone?" exclaimed Mariette in another voice. "Tell me, did you, by any chance, break any china?"

"Often. Why?"

"And she never stopped it out of your wages? Mon Dieu, how blind you are! She was making up to you, the fat woman; that is all. It is well you have returned to me!"

It was well, so far as it went; but the ninety francs did not last for ever, nor did the flesh that he had put on at Meudon-Val-Fleury. The time came when de Fronsac was even gaunter and whiter than he had been before he went there.

One day he lay abed. In itself this would not have been surprising; but he turned from the charcuterie that Mariette had purloined from her mother's meat-safe.

"I have no appetite," he murmured. And at these unprecedented words she fled for a doctor.

His diagnosis was definite.

"Monsieur," he announced, "you are sinking for the lack of nourishment. I recommend bouillon, fish, chicken, and a little Burgundy." Then, as a matter of form, he wrote a prescription.

An ironical laugh came from the bed, and Mariette burst into tears.

"Come, come," said the doctor, dropping his nonsense. "Providing it is regular, almost any wholesome diet will do! But it must be regular. Otherwise--" His shrug betokened undertakers.

Unhappily, Mariette's interest in the top floor tenant was not shared by her mother, and the best the girl could do that evening was to annex an egg and pretend that she had broken it. De Fronsac bade her resign herself to the prospect of a "beautiful room" being "to let" shortly; but she stamped her foot, and all night she racked her brains. She racked them to such purpose that she produced an idea.

In the early morning the poet heard himself addressed, and fancied that it was the voice of de Musset inviting him to dinner.

"Such an honor!" he stammered.

And Mariette exclaimed piteously: "Do not, I pray you, become delirious, just when I have an inspiration!"

She began by intimating, modestly enough, that her scheme was not original. In a newspaper, long ago, she had read of a good-for-nothing who had simulated insanity, with a view to obtaining free board and lodging in an asylum. His histrionics had been indifferent, and he had been detected and kicked out.

"But you," she continued, with an encouraging smile, "you could pull it off quite easily! You have culture, you have taste, you have artistic sensibilities. To you it would be as simple as shelling peas."

"Your simile is harrowing, my child," said the poet, a twinkle in his hollow eyes. "It evokes a vision of roast ducklings. Further, I am not a good-for-nothing: I am a man of honor, and a de Fronsac."

"You are a genius, and in such a pass you are entitled to be fed by the state!" she cried.

"Eve!" he rejoined. "And now you are making me dream of fruit!"

"What original poems will occur to you in an asylum!" persisted the temptress. "Why, I see you coming back bubbling with the weirdest notions! And one day you could send to the institution, anonymously, a handsome gift."

"I have no longer the physical force; I am too weak to mop and mow."

"There would be no need to rave. Hallucinations or idiocy would suffice."

"For an idiot I could never be taken. As for hallucinations, they would require more wit than remains to me--not to mention the fatigue of the rehearsals. Occupy yourself with me no more, my faithful friend; permit me to starve in peace!" He turned his pillow, and slept.

By and by Mariette came back with a glass of milk and a new suggestion.

"Do you think you could lose your memory?" she asked.

"'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished," said the poet, quoting Hamlet in French.

"If you could suffer from troubles of memory," she went on, "you might be introduced as a victim of absinthe. I am sure you look odd enough, and it would necessitate no rehearsals for you to lose your memory. I have been making inquiries discreetly of the wife of the charbonnier--he used to drink. I find that you would have nothing to do but to present yourself at the establishment and say that you desired to be cured. The charbonnier,'s wife tells me also that the life is most agreeable--as good as staying in a hotel."

"Really?" said de Fronsac, with interest. "Perhaps she exaggerates?"

"She assures me that her husband had such a good time that he has detested work ever since. Do you know what I mean to do? I am going there to make an application for you, as soon as I have changed my frock! And if all she says is true, if there are no delays or difficulties, you begin your cure to-morrow morning." He essayed to speak. "Do not argue! Go to sleep again, and be glad you have some one with a head on her shoulders to look after you. All is said!"

It was in these circumstances that Théophile de Fronsac took a step that led to the most unforeseen and undesired publicity.

Mistakes, as the press has put on record, happen in the best regulated institutions, and de Fronsac was "passed." After that, he found that nothing was expected of him but to express a strenuous craving for absinthe that he did not want; and, as he had seen something of the absinthe craving in others, he described his symptoms very nicely. All was going well, and he was getting as plump as a partridge again, when a fellow patient accosted him in the following words:

"Good morning. Humbug!"

Now, considering the nature of the place, de Fronsac would have dismissed the greeting with an indulgent smile; but the patient's leer was too significant.

"I do not understand you," he replied haughtily. Whereupon the other, who resembled a monkey more than a man, placed his finger upon his nose and tapped it with derision. The poet turned pale. His tormentor then uttered a singularly disagreeable laugh, and, linking his arm in de Fronsac's, proposed that they should take a little promenade round the recreation-yard; and, because he was afraid to say no, the impostor said that he would be very much pleased to do so.

"My name is Pierre Péricat," volunteered his companion. "By profession I am a rag-picker, a calling which, I assure you, is prettier than picking flowers."

De Fronsac breathed again. The fellow was, after all, out of his mind! He wondered what was Péricat's specialty.

"Hallucinations," said Péricat, as if divining his interest, "hallucinations are my affair! And they are unique--so natural, so heartrending. When I am otherwise than sane this is one of my lucid intervals--I shriek at the sight of any person wearing white. Whether it be a nun in her cap, a servant in her apron, or a workman in his blouse, I imagine that it is the spirit of my wife who died. It is very pathetic; everybody pities me much."

"Supposing," said de Fronsac suavely, "we walk in the shade?"

Péricat cast a cunning glance at him. "What, don't you twig? You and I ought to understand each other very well! But wait till you have seen me carry on--you will begin to wonder whether I am not really dotty. You should have seen my crematorium farce!"

"Your what?"

"Are you going to tell me you have not heard of a body being cremated? I once witnessed it, and it upset me shockingly. Well, the slightest illumination recalls it to me--the flicker of a match in my presence has been known to disorganize the whole asylum. It took three attendants to pick me up and put me into the jacket. But I found the jacket most uncomfortable; I shall not favor them with my crematorium agonies again. What is your own little comedy?"

De Fronsac jumped.

"My complaint? I am suffering from frequent loss of memory, caused, I am ashamed to say, by my excesses. Had I listened to advice, I should not have been brought here."

And again Péricat tapped his nose.

The man's suspicion would have made de Fronsac very uneasy if he had not repeated to himself that the man was a lunatic; and, even as it was, he sought to give him a wide berth. But Péricat was persistent in his friendly attentions; one would have said that he had conceived a warm affection for Théophile.

"I can not shake him off," the victim complained, when Mariette paid a visit there. "He takes my arm all day! It is no joke, believe me!"

"What does it matter?" she said. "Remember how nicely you are getting on. Soon you will have rosy cheeks."

He grimaced. "It is not due to the variety or excellence of the cuisine. Your friend, the charbonnier's wife, is a liar. The monotony of the life! And when I am not hiding from this Péricat, I am positively pinned to his side. He insists that we have a great deal in common, because he is a rag-picker and I am a poet."

"You have exchanged confidences with the poor demented creature?"

"'Confidences' is too large a word; but, naturally, I have talked. I tell you, I can not get rid of him! I can not promenade in silence! Don't you think that by this time I might find my memory so much improved that I could say I wanted to go?"

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "Not yet. You would be sure to fall ill again! Now that you are here, for goodness' sake, wait until your health is thoroughly reestablished. Do not play ducks and drakes with an opportunity like this; make the most of it, I implore you!"

At that moment Péricat passed by, and, regarding both with his wicked little eyes, solemnly tapped his nose.

"What does he mean?" asked Mariette under her breath.

"Mad!" said de Fronsac, still wishing to believe it. "Mad as they make them!" But his mind misgave him.

And no later than the following day a detective declared Péricat to be as sane as anybody else. He was identified as the owner of some property,--a clasp-knife that had been left between a citizen's shoulder-blades,--and it was manifest that he had sought temporary shelter in the asylum with a highly intelligent view to a plea of insanity if the crime were brought home to him. He departed from the premises, escorted by two agents of the police; and the authorities whom he had duped, and who foresaw uncomplimentary things being written in the newspapers, looked extremely pensive.

The sensational arrest disturbed de Fronsac, too. More than ever he was convinced that it was none too early for him to be "cured," and he betook himself to the medical superintendent's office as soon as it opened next morning.

"But certainly," acquiesced the doctor, "if you wish it! You are free to go as you came. Your case is not one of involuntary detention."

So warmly gratified was the poet by this prompt response that he shook the gentleman's hand and expressed himself enchanted with his visit. He said that it was only because his friends were missing him so poignantly that he regretfully brought it to a close.

"Then why," demurred the doctor generously, "do you not stay until the probability of a relapse is not so strong? I speak as a friend. In six months you would perhaps have freed yourself from the vice."

"Oh, I have lost it, monsieur," asseverated the poet. "I assure you that I have no craving whatever now! I feel that I shall never touch the abominable stuff again."

"Now you are talking like a child, mon ami! I would wager that you will require treatment again and again--and on each occasion it will be more difficult. One day your memory will serve you not at all! Ah, you shudder? Your mind recoils from such a horror? Well, be discreet, then, and remain until we have done more for you."

His gaze was so kindly behind his glasses, his tone was so sympathetic, that de Fronsac stood, at a loss for a reply.

"Oh, monsieur," he began--and blessed the telephone bell for interrupting them.

"Allo! Allo!" cried the doctor. "Yes, it is I, Blanchard himself!" He listened, and started violently. "What?" His face turned crimson with chagrin. "Impossible!"

As if the weight of the receiver wearied his right hand, he took it in his left. His glance met de Fronsac's, and there was something new in it that de Fronsac did not like. "We await you!" said the doctor briefly. And the next, with a sudden movement, he turned and caught the poet by the wrist.

"So!" he shouted furiously. "That is the explanation of your sudden eagerness to return to your friends? Well, you will see one of them more speedily than you expected! Péricat has given you away, you scoundrel. Péricat has confessed that it was you who incited him to stab the old man! And this fraud you both practiced upon an honorable institution was also your idea, was it? Very ingenious, my young bandit! You have been 'enchanted,' have you? You were regretful to leave? You will be more regretful in the prison to which they come to take you!"

At just what point of the tirade the crowd had been summoned, de Fronsac was too dazed to know; but now the little room was full of attendants. Pinioned, he heard himself denounced as the instigator of a robbery and assassination; petrified, he listened while he was charged with having imposed upon the asylum with the same object as the criminal who was in jail. The unhappy medical man was, not unnaturally, aggrieved, and his address was delivered in the best manner of a prosecuting counsel.

That night the distracted poet lay under the same gloomy roof as the rag-picker, and on the morrow, when Mariette read the tenants' papers before taking them upstairs, she fainted on the kitchen floor.

The interesting scene in which de Fronsac was confronted by Péricat--each of the pair "assisted" by counsel--occurred in the cabinet of the juge d'instruction on the day after Théophile had been interrogated alone. His helpless avowal then that he had lied to an "honorable institution" had produced no feeling in his favor. Péricat was unrecognizable in the presence of the juge d'instruction. Never had an apache been heard to express more noble sentiments; nor did he once tap his nose. His language was as pure as a maiden's, his voice as soft. The more indignant and frenzied de Fronsac, the more gentle and villainous was Péricat.

"But how," raved de Fronsac, "how -mon Dieu!--can I have influenced you to commit the murder, seeing that I never set eyes on you before our meeting in the honorable institution?"

"Oh," protested Péricat, wiping a tear, "you are young and I forgive you. But it is bitter to be abandoned by the one who led me astray."

The poet wrung his hands, and the judge said sternly: "You hear? You led him astray--you, a man of superior education! Atrocious!"

"Was it not?" sobbed Péricat. "I was sleeping, with my back to a wall. The moment of my downfall is scared on my brain. He woke me; he said: 'Hungry, mate? So am I! Why should we not eat as well as others?' And then he whispered, and my blood ran cold. 'Have no fear,' he said; 'I will arrange all--you have only to do it!' And I was very, very poor, and my vitals clamored."

The juge d'instruction desired sympathetically to know the date and hour of this temptation; and Péricat, never at a loss, replied promptly that it had been on the eve of the crime, the 3rd of June, shortly before 10 P.M. He then battled with emotion, and delivered his amazing harangue:

"Monsieur le Juge, is it that you will permit me to say something in the favor of the young man? He is a poet. As such I am bound to respect his gifts, while I deplore his morals. Like all the people of France, I revere the arts, and it grieves me to have been compelled to expose his iniquity. I am not the egotist that I may appear. No doubt it would have seemed to him a noble deed had I kept his secret; but I felt that there was a nobler yet. I said: 'This is his first offense, as it is yours. Save him from himself! Let him realize, in suffering beside you, the enormity of his lapse from the straight and narrow path!' And," he continued piously, "shall gratitude count for nothing? I never forget a generosity, Monsieur je Juge, never! He led me astray--yes; but afterward he allowed me the first chance to dissemble. Since it would have been unwise for two impostors to present themselves at the asylum together, he insisted that I should enter it before him! Does not this show that chivalry is not dead--that the poet m the man is stronger than the criminal--even as, in me, necessity was stronger than resistance?"

How long his rhodomontade might have continued one can not pretend to surmise, for in the French courts they will hearken unto such things indefinitely. De Fronsac, who had been torn by conflicting emotions since the date was mentioned, now interrupted him.

"On the 3rd of June I was absent from Paris!" he proclaimed.

"It might perhaps have been the 2nd," conceded Péricat, with ready courtesy.

"And I was not in Paris on the 2nd--nor on the 1st, nor for many days previous."

But, alas! the statement was bald, and not even his peril could induce him to say enough. To prove that he was not a criminal, he must announce that he had been a cook! All his amour propre revolted.

Removed to the prison cell, he asked himself, distraught, if any self-respecting poet had ever before been put in such a fix.

"How can you falter?" wailed Mariette, when she was allowed an interview. "If you remain here, you will die before the trial comes on."

"If I came out and were called 'cook,' I should die, too!" groaned the artist.

Then Mariette, profiting by her suspicion of the fat matron's sentiment for him, went to her with an appeal; and the matron's smarting self-esteem was vastly assuaged by the revelation that she had been sentimental about a poet and not a chef.

"But how on earth did he come to take such a situation?" she exclaimed, amazed. "Is he so poverty-stricken?"

"Oh, dear, no, madame!" cried Mariette. "It was--if I may dare to speak the truth--because he had become fascinated by you from afar."

"How very preposterous!" said Madame Dolidon, trying to look indignant. "I shall never trust that registry office again! And what in the world made him wish to enter an asylum?" she went on.

"Madame," said Mariette, "that was in the interests of his art; he is writing a masterpiece in which the hero loses his reason for love of a married lady."

After an emotional pause, the matron murmured:

"It would certainly be terribly humiliating for him if it were known that he had been a cook! And, of course, if it were proved that he was stopping with us at the time, that would be quite enough. I will speak to Monsieur Dolidon about it." She hesitated. "The only thing is--er--my husband would naturally, be displeased by the motive for the gentleman's romantic masquerade here."

"I understand," suggested Mariette shyly, "that one of the Mesdemoiselles Dolidon is almost as attractive as her mother--"

The discreet evidence of the Dolidon family established de Fronsac's alibi beyond a shadow of a doubt. Acquaintances eyed his elegant figure with more respect than ever after they read of his visiting at a country house; and editors and publishers outbid one another for that unwritten "masterpiece" for which he had dared so much. The affair proved a most valuable advertisement. He sold his old rejected manuscripts at bazaar prices, and Mariette went out in a hat that turned all the neighbors' heads.

Sentence was passed on Péricat in due course--according to French ideas; that is to say, about a year later. It was a nominal sentence, because in France murder is not a serious offense.