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The Way of a Virgin/The Breaker of Eggs


Once upon a time there lived alone in a lodging near St. Ives a young man. 'Twas at the time when the debate was running high 'twixt the monks and the ministers whether 'twere better to say: "Blessed are they that have dined well," or, "Blessed are they that laugh." The young man took but scant interest in these theological discussions, and devoted his attention to the maid, who was a fine enough young thing, though somewhat green. He would talk with her cooly and discreetly, and one day said:

"Thou art from the country, little friend?"

"Truly, sir."

"I was assured of it and shall love thee none the less: thou art a good girl and a good housekeeper."

"I thank thee kindly, sir."

"Well, little friend, since I love thee so much, and that thou mayst serve us well, I must e'en tell thee, for thine own good profit, of a certain ill that befalleth country maids when they come to dwell in the town; 'tis that small eggs do grow in their bellies and harden there, so that these poor maids have to show their posteriors to the doctor. I would grieve shouldst thou come to that, and it shall not be so an thou wilt hear me. I will do something for thee, and I see that 'tis full time to begin, for, by thy colour, I can tell that the eggs are already there."

"Indeed, sir, I am greatly beholden, for truly I am not what I was."

"To-morrow morning I will give thee something for this malady."

When morning came, she went to his chamber and he gave her a spoonsful of white hypocras,[2] telling her to go about her house-work and, anon, to break her fast on a little dry bread. This treatment was continued for two or three days, but one morning, when her mistress was out of the way, he took hold of the maid and, laughing gently, pushed her against the bed as if to look into her mouth.

"Alas! sir! what wouldst do?" she cried.

"I shall do thee no ill; I would break an egg which is fast hardening."

She let him do it, and he did it so well that he put live flesh in live flesh.[3] So he finished as soon as he had begun, and she found the business so much to her liking, although he had cooked her somewhat, that she came back again and again to have the eggs broken; in sooth, she had wished for a belly in which one might break eggs for an hundred years without doing aught else.

One day she loitered over long at this pleasant pursuit, and her mistress fell to scolding her when she descended, saying:

"Thou sly wench! Thou hast been in mischief with that man above! Idiot! Little hussy! What hast been about up there?"

"Naught, madam. Be not wroth; 'tis as I shall tell thee."

"Thou hast been after no good with that man above."

"Nay, madam, thou dost him wrong; he is the most honest man in the world. I had eggs in my belly, and he broke them for me."

"Eggs, thou slut! what eggs?"

"Behold, madam, if 'tis not so; I will lift my smock; thou canst see my front part, which is yet all damp with the white of the eggs, which came out when he broke them."


Le Moyen de Parvenir of Béroalde de Verville, Canon of St. Gatien at Tours, once a Hugenot, then a Catholic, finally "neither one nor the other,"[4] is a work little known to the English reader, be he studentor bibliophile. The cause is not far to seek; no complete and unexpurgated English translation of this much censured book exists. Machen's rendering, while claiming to be the first in our language, is in no sense full and literal, although free and full-flavoured; the translator, as he admits in his humourous preface, "has been forced, much to his sorrow, to weed out some strongly-scented flowers from this Canonical Garden." His text, indeed, shows many notable omissions, in particular the more licentious asides and interjections which have no actual bearing on the stories; further, there are sundry additions not found in the old French text—"odd scraps from his own workshop," as Machen terms them.

For the student, then, there are: Machen's delightful (but partial) translation, limited to 500 numbered copies and now a rare book,[5] and numerous editions in old French, some expurgated, and all difficult of understanding where the average English reader is concerned. As we note in the preface to Garnier's latest issue, the work, for the greater part, "is an enigma to modern readers and contains a crowd of obscurities.... it would need volume after volume to explain and comment upon everything that calls for explanation and comment."

The Way to Attain or The Right Way with Women (the title of de Verville's book has suffered various translations) would seem to have a dual personality; one: a clear-cut collection of stories, witty, realistic, free, Rabelaisian, or obscene as you choose to term them; another: the same stories, enmeshed in a mass of innuendo, obscure sayings, licentious and scatalogical asides, and—sometimes—almost meaningless phraseology. The trouble is to separte the grain from the chaff, the stories from the irrelevant verbiage—not that the latter is not often highly entertaining. Bernard de la Monnoye, in his Dissertation (cit. sup.), bears out our criticism when explaining the plan of the book. "The author supposes a sort of general banquet," he writes, "where, without regard for rank or degree, he introduces persons of every kind and age, scallawags for the most part, who, with no object but their, own amusements, talk with the utmost freedom, and passing almost imperceptibly from subject to subject, cause the stories to be lost to sight. In fact, they are so jumbled up in the book that one is hard put to find them...."

Both extracts from The Way to Attain given in this volume (Coypeau and His Thread and The Breaker of Eggs) are told without interruption in the original French text, but each is introduced in the most haphazard fashion, preceded and followed by a veritable welter of inconsequent remarks; if Machen found it necessary to weed out the most strongly scented flowers from the Canonical garden, the student will find it equally necessary to dig before he finds the best.

There are other good things, however, besides the stories in The Way to Attain. While many of the asides and interjections are gross, vulgar, and, seemingly, pointless, others show a pretty and pungent wit. The canon is for ever having a thrust at his cloth, the monks, and the nuns, and some of his criticisms are worth repeating:—

"Where there are no monks there can be no shamelessness."

"None sit more at their ease than monks, ministers, and consecrated folk, who, in the place of keeping the holy orders that have been given them, make them into ordure, and leaving the orders of God take the orders of the devil, who giveth them grace to be more lewd and whorish than other men."

"The women that frequent the abodes of churchmen are not their wives,...they are first maids, then mates, then mistresses."

"It is better to have in one's house a wench with whom one can disport theologically than to go about wandering from pillar to post like a high-toby, and run the risk of getting a nip, like Cornu, who sighed as he lay a-dying of the pox: 'Now I begin to appreciate the beauties of domesticity.'"

"Once on a time he was prebendary of Chartres, but he left his stall to marry a pretty lass, and the morning after the wedding, as they lay in bed, he said to her: 'Now, sweetheart, thou dost see how well I love thee, for I left my fair prebend that I might have thee.' She replied: 'Then thou wast a fool; thou shouldst have kept thy prebend, and had me also.'...It would appear that she knew that some canons are given to waggery."

"Such cloisterlings, who love not women, are always ready to fish up some ancient, stinking heresy under the pretence of discoursing against the Reformation, talking of vices they impute to others, the which are more tolerable than their own....It is better to keep a wench than to trouble the peace of Christendom, and to do the work is true godliness,...which is the reason why bishops are called fathers-in-God,...fathers-in-God sounds better han fathers-in-law. And they are certainly godly, that is happy; for happy, thrice happy is the father who hath not the trouble of feeding his children."

"He was as liberal as our bishop, who had rather give a crown to a wench than a groat to a poor man."

"Assuredly she is a strumpet. I saw her talking to the curate of St. Paul's, who had promised his rector to be discreet, and run no more after the wenches, or at least that he would abstain during and on Easter Monday he spoke to his woman, and the parson saw him. When they met he told him of it, saying: 'I saw thee speaking to a wench. Where is thy shame? Canst not refrain, at least during the holy season?' 'Pardon,' he replied, 'I did but make an appointment for next week.'"

We have quoted sufficiently to show that amid this welter of words there is fruit worth the plucking. The general tone of the work, however, is coarse; if the canon desired to refer to what is not usually mentioned in the most Catholic of assemblies, he did so in the crudest language. To our age the grossness of his obscenity seems unnecessary; out of place; unpardonable. Is it so? The conversational atmophere of a present-day smokingroom would have made de Verville blush. The old canon wrote as men in those times spoke; we of today write not as we speak, but as we think we ought to speak. It is this pitiful hypocrisy which blinds us to the fact that in Le Moyen de Parvenir we have some of the brightest tales and sayings ever penned by human hand.

  1. Béroolde de Verville: Le Moyen de Parvenir: Paris, Garnier Fréres; also Fantastic Tales or The Way to Attain translated by Arthur Machen: Carbonnek, 1890. Our extract is a blend of both versions, though we have adhered more closely than Machen to the original text. Vide also Excursus to this story.
  2. An infusion of cinnamon bark, soft almonds, and a little musk and amber, in wine sweetened with sugar. The word is probably derived from Hippocrates, the famous Greek doctor.
  3. We omit the two interjections to be found here in the original text, not because they are highly flavoured, but simply because they have no bearing on the narrative. Nor do they merit translation in a note.
  4. Dissertation de Bernard de la Monnoye sur Le Moyen de Parvenir.
  5. An experienced auctioneer of books recently told us that until December last he had never met with a copy. Strangely enough, two copies were sold in a week of that month, one, in every respect as clean and perfect as when printed over thirty yars ago, realising £4-15s. We believe that a few extra copies on large paper still exist, but the booksellers ask a prohibitive price for them.