In Madeira Place
by Heman White Chaplin
IN MADEIRA PLACE
By Heman White Chaplin
Turning from the street which follows the line of the wharves, into
Madeira Place, you leave at once an open region of docks and spars for
comparative retirement. Wagons seldom enter Madeira Place: it is too
hard to turn them in it; and then the inhabitants, for the most part,
have a convenient way of buying their coal by the basket. How much
trouble it would save, if we would all buy our coal by the basket!
A few doors up the place a passageway makes off to the right,
through a high wooden gate that is usually open; and at the upper
corner of this passage stands a brick house, whose perpetually closed
blinds suggest the owner's absence. But the householders of Madeira
Place do not absent themselves, even in summer; they could hardly get
much nearer to the sea. And if you will take the pains to seat
yourself, toward the close of day, upon an opposite doorstep, between
two rows of clamorous little girls sliding, with screams of painful
joy, down the rough hammered stone, to the improvement of their
clothing, you will see that the house is by-no means untenanted.
Every evening it is much the same thing. First, following close upon
the heels of sunset, comes a grizzly, tall, and slouching man, in the
cap and blouse of a Union soldier, bearing down with his left hand upon
a cane, and dragging his left foot heavily behind him, while with his
right hand he holds by a string a cluster of soaring toy balloons, and
also drags, by its long wooden tongue, a rude child's cart, in which is
a small hand-organ.
Next will come, most likely, a dark, bent, keen-eyed old woman, with
her parchment face shrunk into deep wrinkles. She bears a dangling
placard, stating, in letters of white upon a patent-leather background,
what you might not otherwise suspect,that she was a soldier under the
great Napoleon, and fought with him at Waterloo. She also bears, since
music goes with war, a worn accordion. She is the old woman to whose
shrivelled, expectant countenance you sometimes offer up a copper coin,
as she kneels by the flagged crossway path of the Park.
She is succeeded, perhaps, by a couple of black-haired, short,
broad-shouldered men, leading a waddling, unconcerned bear, and talking
earnestly together in a language which you will hardly follow.
Then you will see six or eight or ten other sons and daughters of
toil, most of them with balloons.
All these people will turn, between the high, ball-topped
gate-posts, into the alley, and descend at once to the left, by a
flight of three or four steps, to a side basement door.
As they begin to flock in, you will see through the alley gate a
dark, thick-set man, of middle age, but with very little hair, come and
stand at the foot of the steps, in the doorway. It is Sorel, the master
of the house; for this is the Maison Sorel. Some of his guests
he greets with a Noachian deluge of swift French words and high-pitched
cries of welcome. It is thus that he receives those capitalists, the
bear-leaders from the Pyrenees; it is thus that he greets the grizzled
man in the blue cap and blouse,Fidèle the old soldier, Fidèle the
pensioner, to whom a great government, far away, at Washington,
doubtless with much else on its mind, never forgets to send by mail,
each quarter-day morning, a special, personal communication, marked
with Fidèle's own name, enclosing the preliminaries of a remittance:
Accept (as it were) this slight tribute. Ah! que c'est un
gouvernement! Voilà une république!
Even a Frenchman may be proud to be an American!
Most of his guests, however, Sorel receives with a mere pantomime of
wide-opened eyes and extended hands and shrugged-up shoulders,
accompanied by a long-drawn Eh! by which he bodies forth a
thousand refinements of thought which language would fail to express.
Does a fresh immigrant from the Cévennes bring back at night but one or
two of the gay balloons with which she was stocked in the morning, or,
better, none; or, on the other hand, does a stalwart man just from the
rich Brie country return at sundown in abject despair, bringing back
almost all of the red and blue globes which floated like a radiant
constellation of hope about his head when he set forth in the early
morning, Sorel can express, by his Eh! and some slight
movement, with subtle exactness and with no possibility of being
misapprehended, the precise shade of feeling with which the result
But there he stops. Nothing is said. Sorel is a philosopher: he has
indicated volumes, and he will not dilute with language. One who has
fired a little lead bullet does not need to throw after it a bushel of
The company, as they come in, one by one, wash their hands and
faces, if they see fit, at the kitchen sink, and dry them on a long
roller-towel,a device adopted, probably, from the Americans. Then
they retire to the room behind the kitchen, and seat themselves at a
long table, at which the bear-leaders place themselves only after
seeing their animal fed, in the coalhole, where he is quartered.
At the supper-table all is joy, even with the hopeless. Fidèle beams
with good-humor, and not infrequently is called on to describe, amid a
general hush, for the benefit of some new-comer from la belle
France the quarterly receipt of the communication from Washington:
how he stays at home that day, and shaves, and waits at the door for
la poste; how the gray-uniformed letter-carrier appears, hands out
a letter as large as that, and nods smilingly to Fidèle: he, too,
fought at la Montagne du Lookout. The amount of the sergeant's
pension astonishes them, wonted as they are to the pecuniary treatment
of soldiers in the Old World. Mais, it is a fortune! Fidèle is
a vrai rentier! Ah! une république comme ça!
Generally, however, Fidèle contents himself at the evening meal with
smiling good-humoredly on everybody and rapidly passing in, under his
drooping mustache, spoonfuls of soup, morsels from the long French
loaf, and draughts of lager beer; for only the rich can have wine in
this country, and in the matter of drink an exile must needs lower his
standard, as the prodigal lowered his.
While Sorel and his wife and their busy maid fly in and out with
potage and rôti, t-r-r-rès succulent, the history
of which we must not pry too deeply into, there is much excited
conversation. You see at once that many amusing things happen to one
who sells balloons all day upon the Park. And there are varied fortunes
to recount. Such a lady actually wished to buy three for fifty cents!
Such a police-er-mann is to be highly commended; such another looks
with an evil eye upon all: he should truly be removed from office.
There is a rumor that a license fee is to be required by the city.
All this is food for discussion.
After supper they all sit about the kitchen or in the alley-way,
chatting, smoking. She who has been lucky in her sales basks in Sorel's
favor. The unfortunate peasant from the Brie country feels the little
bullet in his heart, and nurses a desperate resolution to redeem
himself on the morrow: one must live.
Sometimes, if you happen to pass there on a warm evening, you may
see a young woman, rather handsome, sitting sidewise on the outer
basement steps, looking absently before her, straight-backed, upright,
with her hands clasped about one knee, with her skirt sweeping away: a
picture of Alsace. I have never been able to find out who she is.
One evening there is a little flutter among this brood. A gentleman,
at the alley door, wishes to see M. Sorel. M. Sorel leads the gentleman
out, through the alley gate, to the front street-door; then, retiring
whence he came, he shortly appears from within at the front door, which
opens only after a struggle. A knot of small boys has instantly
gathered, apparently impressed with a vague, awful expectation that the
gentleman about to enter will never come out. Realizing, however, that
in that case there will be nothing to see, they slowly disperse when
the door is closed, and resume their play.
Sorel ushers the gentleman into the front parlor, which is Sorel's
bedroom, which is also the storehouse of his merchandise, which is also
the nursery. At this moment an infant is sleeping in a trundle-bed.
The gentleman takes a chair. So does Sorel.
The gentleman does not talk French. Fortunately, M. Sorel can speak
the English: he has learned it in making purchases for his table.
I am an officer of the government, says Mr. Fox, with a very
sharp, distinct utterance, in the custom-house. You know
M. Sorel does not commit himself. He is an importer of toys. One
must be on his guard.
Thereupon, a complicated explanation: this street, and that street,
and the other street, and this building, and the market, and the great
building standing here.
Ah! yes! M. Sorel identifies the building. Then he is informed that
many government officers are there. He knew it very well before.
The conversation goes a step farther.
Mr. Fox is one of those officers. The government is at present in
need of a gentleman absolutely trustworthy, for certain important
duties: perhaps to judge of silks; perhaps to oversee the weighing of
sugar, of iron, of diamonds; perhaps to taste of wines. Who can say
what service this great government may not need from its children!
With some labor, since the English is only a translucent, and not a
transparent medium to Sorel, this is made clear. Still the horizon is
Mr. Fox draws his chair nearer, facing Sorel, who looks uneasy:
Sorel's feelings, to the thousandth degree of subdivision, are always
declaring themselves in swift succession upon his face.
Mr. Fox proceeds.
The great officer of the custom-house, the collector
Le chef? interrupts Sorel.
yes, the chef (Mr. Fox seizes upon the word and clings to
it),the chef has been speaking anxiously to Mr. Fox about this
vacancy: Mr. Fox is in the chefs confidence.
Ah! from Sorel, in a tone of utter bewilderment.
We must have, the chef had said to Mr. Fox,we must have
for this place a noble man, a man with a large heart (the exact
required dimensions Mr. Fox does not give); a man who loves his
government, a man who has showed himself ready to die for her; we must
havehere Mr. Fox bends forward and lays his hand upon Sorel's knee,
and looks him in the eye,we must havea soldier!
Ah! says Sorel, moving his chair back a little, unconsciously,
il faut un soldat! I un-'stan',le chef 'e boun' to 'ave one
Still no comprehension of the stranger's object. Curiosity, however,
prompts Sorel at this point to an inquiry: 'Ow much 'e goin' pay 'im?
Mr. Fox suggests that he guess. M. Sorel guesses, boldly, and
high,almost insolently high,eight dollars a week: she is so
generous, la République!
Higher! Sorel's eyes open. He guesses again, and recklessly:
Dix dollars par semaine; you knowten dol-lar ever-y week.
Try again,again,again! He guesses,madly now, as one risks his
gold at Baden: twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen.
Yes, eighteen dollars a week, and morea thousand dollars every
Sorel wipes his brow. A thousand dollars in one year! It is like a
temptation of the devil.
Sorel ventures another inquiry. The chef of the customhouse,
esteeming the old sol'iers so highly, is an old sol'ier himself,is it
not so? He has fought for his country? Doubtless he has lost an arm.
And Sorel instinctively lets his right arm hang limp, as if the sleeve
No; the chef was an editor and a statesman in the time of the
war. He had greatly desired to go to fight, but his duties did not
permit it. Still, he loves the old soldier.
Another advance in the conversation, this time by Mr. Fox.
The government, it seems, has now awakened, with deep distress, to
the fact that one class of her soldiers she has hitherto forgotten. The
governmentthat is, the chef of the customhousehad this very
morning said to Mr. Fox that this class of old soldiers must be brought
forward, for trust and for honor. We must choose, for this vacant
place, the chef had said,here Mr. Fox brings his face forward
in close proximity to Sorel's astonished countenance,we must have,
not only an old soldier, buta Frenchman!
Such a soldier lives here, says Mr. Fox; is it not true? So
brave, so honest, so modest, so faithful! Ready to die for his country;
worthy of trust and worthy of reward!
Mais! with amazement. Yes, such a sol-'ier lives here. But
can it be that monsieur refers to our Fidèle?
Whereupon Sorel, hard, hairless, but French, weeps, and embraces Mr.
Fox as the representative of the great government at Washington; and,
weeping and laughing, leads him downstairs and presents him to Fidèle
and to the bear-leaders, and opens a bottle of weak vinegar.
Such an ovation as Fidèle receives! And such a generous government!
To send a special messenger to seek out the old sergeant in his
retirement! So thoughtful! But it is all of a piece with its unfailing
care in the past.
Fidèle begins, on the spot, to resume something of his former
erectness and soldierly bearing; to shake off the stoop and slouch
which lameness and the drawing about of his musique have given
him. He wishes to tell the story of Lookout Mountain.
As Mr. Fox is about to go, he recollects himself. Oh, by the way,
one thing more. It is not pleasant to mingle sadness with rejoicing.
But Mr. Fox is the reluctant bearer of a gentle reproach from the great
government at Washington. Her French children,are they not just a
little remiss? And when she is so bountiful, so thoughtful!
Maishow you mean? (with surprise.)
Why,and there is a certain pathos in Mr. Fox's tone, as he stands
facing Sorel, with the gaze of a loving, reproachful friend,why, how
many of the Frenchmen of this quarter are ever seen now at the pleasant
gatherings of the Republicans, in the wardroom? The Republic, the
Republicans,it is all one. Is that quite kind to the Republic? Should
not her French children, on their part, show filial devotion to the
Mais, M. Sorel swiftly explains, they are weary of going;
they understand nothing. One sits and smokes a little while, and one
talks; then one puts a little ticket into one's hand; one is jammed
into a long file; one slips his ticket into a box; he knows not for
whom he is voting; it is like a flock of sheep. What is the use of
Ah! that is the trouble? Then they are unjustly reproached. The
government has indeed neglected to guide them. But suppose that some
officer of the governmentMr. Fox himself, for instancewill be at
the meeting? Then can M. Sorel induce those good French citizens to
Induce them! They will be only too ready; in fact, at a word from M.
Sorel, and particularly when the news of this great honor to Fidèle
shall have spread abroad, twenty, thirty, forty will go to every
meeting,that is, if a friend be there to guide them. At the very next
meeting, monsieur shall see whether the great government's
French children are neglectful!
Whereupon the great government, in the person of Mr. Fox, then and
there falls in spirit upon the neck of her French citizen-children,
represented by Sorel and Fidèle, and full reconciliation is made.
Yes, Mr. Fox will come again. M. Sorel must introduce him to those
brave Frenchmen, his friends and neighbors; Mr. Fox must grasp them by
the hand, one by one. Sorel must take him to the Société des
Franco-Américains, where they gather. The government wishes to know
them better. And (this in a confidential whisper) there may be other
places to be filled. What! Suppose, now, that the government should
some day demand the services of M. Sorel himself in the custom-house;
and, since he is a business man, at a still larger salary than a
thousand dollars a year!
Ah, monsieur (in a tone of playful reproach), vous êtes
un flatteur, n'est ce pas? You know,I guess you giv'n' me taffy.
Such a hero as Fidèle is! No more balloons, no more carting about of
ma musique; a square room upstairs, a bottle of wine at
dinner, short hours, distinction,in fine, all that the heart can
I have been speaking in the present: I should have spoken in the
It was shortly after Fidèle's appointmentin the early autumnthat
I first made his and Sorel's acquaintance.
I was teaching in an evening school, not far from Madeira Place, and
among my scholars was Sorel's only son, a boy of perhaps fourteen, whom
his father had left behind, for a time, at school in France, and had
but lately brought over. He was a shy, modest, intelligent little
fellow, utterly out of place in his rude surroundings. From the
pleasant village home-school, of which he sometimes told me, to the
Maison Sorel, was a grating change.
He was always waiting for me at the schoolroom door, and was always
the last one to speak to me at closing. Perhaps I reminded him of some
young usher whom he had known when life was more pleasant.
If, however, the Maison Sorel chafed Auguste, it was not for
lack of affection on his father's part Sorel often came with him to the
door of the school-room; and every night, rain or shine, he was there
at nine to accompany him home. It was in this way that I first came to
know Sorel; and whether it was from some kindness that Auguste may have
thought I showed, or because I could talk a little French, Sorel took a
great liking to me. At first, he and Auguste would walk with me a few
blocks after school; then he would look in upon me for a few minutes at
the law-office where I was studying, where I had a large anteroom to
myself; finally, nothing would do but that I should visit him at his
house. I had always been fond of strolling about the wharves, and I
should have liked very well to stop occasionally at Sorel's, if I could
have been allowed to sit in the kitchen and hear the general
conversation. But this was not sufficient state for M. le maître
d'école. I must be drawn off upstairs to the bedroom parlor, to hear
of Auguste's virtues. Such devotion I have seldom seen. Sorel would
have praised Auguste, with tears in his eyes, for hours together, if I
would have stayed to listen.
He had many things to show in that parlor. He had gyroscopes: and he
would wind them up and set half-a-dozen of those anti-natural tops
spinning straight out in the air for my diversion. There were great
sacks of uninflated balloons, and delicate sheet-rubber, from which
Sorel made up balloons. There were other curious things in rubber,a
tobacco-pouch, for example, in perfect outward imitation of an iron
kilogramme-weight, with a ring to lift it by, warranted to create
immense surprise among those who should lift it for iron;
tobacco-pouches, too, in fac-simile of lobsters and crabs and reptiles,
colored to nature, which Sorel assured me would cause roars of laughter
among my friends: there was no pleasanter way, he said, of entertaining
an evening company than suddenly to display one of these creatures, and
make the ladies scream and run about. He presented me, at different
times, with a gyroscope, a kilogramme-weight and a lobster with a blue
As time ran on, and, in the early winter, I began practice, Sorel
brought me a little business. He had to sue two Graeco-Roman wrestlers
for board and attach their box-office receipts. Some Frenchman had
heard of a little legacy left him in the Calvados, and wanted me to
look up the matter.
Fidèle, too, came to me every quarter-day, to make oath before me to
his pension certificate, and stopped and made a short call. He had
little to say about France. His great romance had been the war,
although it seemed to have fused itself into a hazy, high-colored dream
of danger, excitement, suffering, and generous devotion. Tears always
rose in his eyes when he spoke of la république?
In those first days of practice, anything by the name of law
business wore a halo, and I used to encourage Sorel's calls, partly for
this reason and partly for practice in talking French with a common
man. I hoped to go to France some day, and I wanted to be able then to
talk not only with the grammatical, but with the dear people who say,
I guess likely, and How be you? in French.
Moreover, Sorel was rather amusing. He was something of a humorist.
Once he came to tell me, excitedly, that Auguste was learning music:
Il touche au violon,mais'e play so bien! And Sorel's
eyes opened in wonder at the boy's quickness.
Who teaches him? I asked. Some Frenchman who plays in the
Mais, no, Sorel replied, with a broad drollery in his eye;
un professeur d'occasion! It was a ruined music-teacher,
engaged now in selling balloons from Madeira Place, who was the
One day Sorel appeared with a great story to tell. Auguste, it
seemed, had wearied of home, and was determined to go to sea. Nothing
could deter him. Whereupon M. Sorel had hit upon a stratagem. He had
hunted up, somewhere along the wharves, two French sailors with
conversational powers, and had retained them to stay at his house for
two or three days, as chance comers. It was inevitable that Auguste
should ply them with eager questions,and they knew their part.
As Sorel, entering into the situation now with all his dramatic
nature, with his eyes wide open, repeated to me some of the tales of
horror which they had palmed off upon innocent Auguste as spontaneous
truth, I could see, myself, the rigging covered with ice an inch thick;
sailors climbing up (Ah! comme ils grimpent,ils grimpent!)
bare-handed, their hands freezing to the ropes at every touch, and
leaving flesh behind, comme if you put your tongue to a
lam'post in the winter. I could see the seamen's backs cut up with
lashes for the slightest offences; I tasted the foul, unwholesome food.
I think that Sorel half believed it all himself,his imagination was
so powerful,forgetting that he had paid in silver coin for every word
of it. At any rate, the ruse had been successful. Auguste had been
thoroughly scared and had consented to stay at home, and the most
threatening cloud of Sorel's life had blown over.
Usually, however, Sorel and I talked politics; and to our common
pleasure we generally agreed. Sorel knew very little about the details
of our government, and he would listen to me with the utmost eagerness
while I practised my French upon him, explaining to his wondering mind
the relations of the States to each other and to the general
government, and the system of State and Federal courts. He was very
quick, and he took in the ingenious scheme with great facility. Then he
would tell me about the workings of government in the French villages
and departments; and as he read French papers, he had always something
in the way of news or explanation of recent events. I have since come
to believe that he was exceedingly well informed.
The most singular thing about him to me was how he could cherish on
the one hand such devotion as he plainly did, to France, and on the
other hand such a passionate attachment to the United States. In truth,
that double patriotism is one of the characteristic features of our
I could lead him, in twenty minutes, through the whole gamut of
emotion, by talking about Auguste, and then of politics. It was
irresistible, the temptation to lead him out. A word about Auguste, and
he would wipe tears from his eyes. A mention of Gambetta, and the bare
idea filled him with enthusiasm; he was instantly, in imagination, one
of a surging crowd, throwing his hat in the air, or drawing Gambetta's
carriage through the streets of Paris. I had only to speak of Alsace to
bring him to a mood of sullen ugliness and hatred. He was, I have no
doubt, a pretty good-tempered man; he was certainly warm-hearted; his
apparent harshness to his balloon-venders was probably nothing more
than necessary parental severity, and he was always ready to recognize
their successes. But I have never seen a more wicked and desperate
expression than an allusion to Alsace called up in his face and in his
whole bearing. Sometimes he would laugh, when I mentioned the severed
province; but it was with a hard, metallic, cruel laugh.' He felt the
loss as he would have felt the loss of a limb. The first time I brought
up the topic, I saw the whole bitter story of the dismembering of
There was another subject which called out that same bitter
revengeful look, and that cruel nasal laugh,the royalist factions and
the Bonapartists. When we spoke of them, and I watched his face and
heard his soulless laughter, I saw the French Revolution.
But he could always be brought back to open childish delight and
warmth by a reference to the United States. Our government, in his
eyes, embodied all that was good. France was now a république,
to be sure, and he rejoiced in the fact; but he plainly felt the power
and settled stability of our republic, and he seemed to have a filial
devotion toward it closely akin to his love for Auguste.
How fortunate we were! Here were no Légitimistes, no
Orléanistes, no Bonapartistes, for a perpetual menace! Here
all citizens, however else their views might differ, believed, at
least, in the republic, and desired to stay her hands. There were no
factions here continually plotting in the darkness. Here the machinery
of government was all in view, and open to discussion and improvement
Ah, what a proud, happy country is this!Que c'est une république!
I gathered enthusiasm myself from this stranger's ardor for the
country of his adoption. I think that I appreciated better, through
him, the free openness of our institutions. It is of great advantage to
meet an intense man, of associations different from your own, who, by
his very intensity and narrowness, instantly puts you at his
standpoint. I viewed the United States from the shores of a sister
republic which has to contend against strong and organized political
forces not fully recognized in the laws, working beneath the surface,
which nevertheless are facts.
One acquaintance leads to another. Through Sorel, whose house was
the final resort of Frenchmen in distress, and their asylum if they
were helpless, not only Fidèle, but a number of other Frenchmen of that
neighborhood, began to come to me with their small affairs. I was the
avocat who speak French. I am afraid that they were surprised at
my French when they heard it.
There was a willow-worker from the Pas-de-Calais, a deformed man,
walking high and low, and always wanting to rise from his chair and lay
his hand upon my shoulder, as he talked, who came to consult me about
the recovery of a hundred francs which he had advanced at Anvers
to a Belgian tailor upon the pledge of a sewing-machine, on
consideration that the tailor, who was to come in a different steamer,
should take charge of the willow-worker's dog on the voyage: the
willow-worker had a wife and six children to look after. This was a
lofty contest; but I had time then. I found a little amusement in the
case, and I had the advantage of two or three hours in all of practical
French conversation with men thoroughly in earnest. Finally, I had the
satisfaction of settling their dispute, and so keeping them from a
Then there was a French cook, out of a job, who wanted me to find
him a place. He was gathering mushrooms, meanwhile, for the hotels. One
day he surprised me by coming into my office in a white linen cap,
brandishing in his hand a long, gleaming knife. He only desired,
however, to tell me that he had found a place at one of the clubs, and
to show, in his pride, the shining blade which he had just bought as
But the man who impressed me most, after Sorel, was Carron. He first
appeared as the friend of the cook,whom he introduced to me, with
many flourishes and compliments, although he was an utter stranger
himself. Carron was a well-built and rather handsome man, of medium
height, and was then perhaps fifty years of age. He had a remarkably
bright, intelligent face, curling brown hair, and a full, wavy brown
beard. He kept a rival boarding-house, not far from Sorel's, in a
gabled wooden house two hundred years old, which was anciently the home
of an eminent Puritan divine. In the oak-panelled room where the
theologian wrote his famous tract upon the Carpenter who Profanely
undertook to Dispense the Word in the way of Public Ministration, and
was Divinely struck Dumb in consequence, Carron now sold beer from a
It was plain at a glance that his present was not of a piece with
his past I could not place him. His manners were easy and agreeable,
and yet he was not a gentleman. He was well informed, and evidently of
some mental training, and yet he was not quite an educated man. After
his first visit to me, with the cook, he, too, occasionally looked in
upon me, generally late in the afternoon, when I could call the day's
work done and could talk French for half an hour with him, in place of
taking a walk. He was strongly dramatic, like Sorel, but in a different
way. Sorel was intense; Carron was théâtral. He was very fond of
declamation; and seeing from the first my wish to learn French,which
Sorel would never very definitely recognize,he often recited to me,
for ear practice, and in an exceedingly effective way, passages from
the Old Testament. He seemed to know the Psalms by heart. He was a good
deal of an actor, and he took the part of a Hebrew prophet with great
effect. But his fervor was all stage fire, and he would turn in an
instant from a denunciatory Psalm to a humorous story. Even his stories
were of a religious cast, like those which ministers relate when they
gather socially. He told me once about a priest who was strolling along
the bank of the Loire, when a drunken sailor accosted him and reviled
him as a lazy good-for-nothing, a fainéant, and slapped his
face. The priest only turned the other cheek to him. Strike again, he
said; and the sailor struck. Now, my friend, said the priest, the
Scripture tells us that when one strikes us we are to turn the other
cheek. There it ends its instruction and leaves us to follow our own
judgment. Whereupon, being a powerful man, he collared the sailor and
plunged him into the water. He told me, too, with great unction, and
with a roguish gleam in his eye, a story of a small child who was
directed to prepare herself for confession, and, being given a manual
for self-examination, found the wrong places, and appeared with this
array of sins: I have been unfaithful to my marriage vows.... I have
not made the tour of my diocese.
Carron had an Irish wife (une Irlandaise), much younger than
he, whom he worshipped. He told me, one day, about his courtship. When
he first met her, she knew not a word of French, and he not a word of
English. He was greatly captivated (épris), and he had to contrive some
mode of communication. They were both Catholics. He had a prayer-book
with Latin and French in parallel columns; she had a similar
prayer-book but in Latin and English. They would seat themselves;
Carron would find in his prayer-book a sentence in French which would
suit his turn, on a pinch, and through the medium of the Latin would
find the corresponding passage in English in Norah's prayer-book and
point it out to her. Norah, in her turn, would select and point out
some passage in English which would serve as a tribute to Carron's
charms, and he would discover in his prayer-book, in French, what that
tribute was. Why should we deem the dead languages no longer a
practical study, when Latin can gain for a Frenchman an Irish wife!
Carron, as I have said, puzzled me. He had not the pensive air of
one who has seen better days. He was more than cheerful in his present
life: he was full of spirits; and yet it was plain that he had been
brought up for something different. I asked him once to tell me, for
French lessons, the story of his life. With the most charming
complaisance, he at once consented; but he proceeded in such endless
detail, the first time, in an account of his early boyhood in a strict
Benedictine monastery school, in the south of France, as to suggest
that he was talking against time. And although his spirited and amusing
picture of his childhood days only awakened my curiosity, I could never
persuade him to resume the history. It was always the next time.
He seemed to be poor: but he never asked a favor except for others.
On the contrary, he brought me some little business. A Belge had
been cheated out of five hundred dollars; I recovered half of it for
him. A Frenchman from le Midi had bought out a little business,
and the seller had immediately set up shop next door; I succeeded in
shutting up the rival. I was a prodigy.
After a time I was told something further as to Carron's life. He
had been a Capuchin monk, in a monastery at or near Paris. The instant
that I heard this statement, I felt in my very soul that it was true.
My eye had always missed something in Carron. I now knew exactly what
it was,a shaved crown, bare feet, and a cowl.
It was the usage for the brethren of his order to go about Paris
barefoot, begging. They were not permitted by the concierges to
go into the great apartment hotels. But Carron, il est très fin, said my informant; you know,'e is var' smart. Carron would learn,
by careful inquiry, the name of a resident on an upper floor; then he
would appear at the concierge's door, and would mention the name
of this resident with such adroit, demure, and absolute confidence that
he would be permitted at once to ascend. Once inside, he would go the
rounds of the apartments. So he would get five times as much in a day
as any of his fellows. A certain amount of the receipts he would yield
up to the treasury of the monastery; the rest he kept for himself.
After a while this came to be suspected, and he quietly withdrew to a
There was not the slightest tangible corroboration of this story. It
might have been the merest gossip or the invention of an enemy. But it
fitted Carron so perfectly, that from the day I heard it I could never,
somehow, question its substantial truth. If I had questioned it, I
should have repeated the story to him, to give him an opportunity to
answer. But something warned me not to do so.
Fidèle held on well at the custom-house, and I think that he became
a general favorite. No one who took the old soldier by the hand and
looked him in the eye could question his absolute honesty; and as for
skill in his duties,well, it was the custom-house.
But he was not saving much money. He was free to give and free to
lend to his fellow-countrymen; and, moreover, various ways were pointed
out to him by Mr. Fox, from time to time, in which an old soldier,
delighting to aid his country, could serve her pecuniarily. The
republic,that is, the Republicans,it was all one.
One afternoon, late in summer, Fidèle appeared at my office. He
seldom visited me, except quarterly for his pension affidavit. As he
came in now, I saw that something had happened. His grisly face wore
the same kindly smile that it had always borne, but the light had gone
out of it. His story was short. He had lost his place. He had been
notified that his services would not be needed after Saturday. No
reason had been given him; he was simply dismissed in humiliation.
There must be some misunderstanding, such as occurs between the warmest
friends. And was not the great government his friend? Did it not send
him his pension regularly? Had it not sent a special messenger to seek
him out, in his obscurity, for this position; and was he not far better
suited to it now than at the outset?
In reply to questions from me, he told me more about Mr. Fox's first
visit than I had hitherto known. I asked him, in a casual way, about
the ward-meetings, and whether the French citizens generally attended
them. No, they had been dropping off; they had become envious, perhaps,
of him; they had formed a club, with Carron for president, and had
voted to act in a body (en solidarité).
Then I told Fidèle that I knew no way to help him, and that I feared
his dismission was final. He could not understand me, but went away,
leaning on his cane, dragging his left foot sidewise behind him, with
something of the air of an old faithful officer who has been deprived
of his sword.
He had not been gone more than an hour, when the door opened again,
and Carron looked in. Seeing that I was alone, he closed the door and
walked very slowly toward my desk,erect, demure, impassive, looking
straight forward and not at me, with an air as if he were bearing a
candle in high mass, intoning, as he came, a passage from the Psalms:
Je me ré-jouirai; je partagerai Sichem, et je mesurerai la vallée de
Succoth. Galaad sera à moi, Manassé sera à moi.... Moab sera le bassin
où je me laverai et je jetterai mon soulier sur Édom.... Qui est-ce qui
me conduira dans la ville forte? Qui est-ce qui me conduira jusquen
Édom? (I will rejoice; I will divide Shechem and mete out the
valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine; Ma-nasseh is mine.... Moab is my
washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe.... Who will bring me into
the strong city? Who will lead me into Edom?)
Carron propounded the closing inquiry with great unction; his manner
expressed entire confidence that some one would be found to lead him
into the strong city, to lead him into Edom.
I had lost something of my interest in Carron since I had heard the
story of his Parisian exploits; but I could not help being amused at
his manner. It portended something. He made no disclosure, however.
Whatever he had to tell, he went away without telling it, contenting
himself for the present with intimating by his triumphal manner that
great good fortune was in the air.
On Saturday afternoon, as I was about closing my desk,a little
earlier than usual, for it was a most tempting late September day, and
the waves of the harbor, which I could just see from my office window,
called loudly to me,Sorel appeared. I held out my hand, but he
affected not to see it, and he sat down without a word. He was plainly
disturbed and somewhat excited.
Of course I knew that it was his old friend's misfortune which
weighed upon him; he was proud and fond of Fidèle.
I seated myself, and waited for him to speak. In a moment he began,
with a low, hard laugh: Semble que notre bon Fidèle a sa démission
: you know,our Fidèle got bounced!
Yes, I said, Fidèle had told me so, and I was very sorry to hear it.
Evidemment (this in a tone of irony) il faut un homme
plus juste, plus loyale, que le pauvre Fidèle! (You know,they got
to 'ave one more honester man!) Bien! You know who goin' 'ave
I shook my head.
Sorel laid down his hat, and wiped his brow with his handkerchief.
Then he went on, no longer speaking in French and then
translating,his usual concession to my supposed desires,but mostly
now in quasi-English: Mais, you thing this great
gouvernement wan' hones' men work for her, n'est-ce pas?
The government ought to have the most honest men, I said.
Bien. Now you thing the gouvernement boun' to 'ave
some men w'at mos' know the business, n'est-ce pas?
It ought to have them.
Sorel wiped his brow again. Now, w'ich you thing the mos' honestes'
man,Fidèle, orCarron? W'ich you thing know the business
bes',Fidèle, w'at been there, or Carron, w'at ain' been there?
Fidèle, of course.
Then tell me, w'at for they bounce' our Fidèle, and let Carron got
'is place? and he burst into a harsh, resonant, contemptuous laugh. In
a moment he resumed: Now, he said, I only got one more thing to ax
you, and taking his felt hat in his hands, he held it on his knees,
before him, and stooping a little forward, eyed me closely: You know
w'at we talk sometimes, you an' me, 'bout our Frensh république
some Orléanistes, some Légitimistes, some
Bonapartistes? You merember 'ow we talk, you and me?
We ain' got no Orléanistes, no Bonapartistes' ici, in
this gouvernement, n'est-ce pas?
I intimated that I had never met any.
Now, he proceeded, with an increased bitterness in his tone and
his hard smile, I use' thing you one good frien' to me, mais,
you been makin' fool of me all that time!
You don't think any such thing, I said.
You know, he went on, who bounce our Fidèle?
Sorel received my reply with a low, incredulous laugh. Then he laid
his hat down on the floor, drew his chair closer, held out his finger,
and, with the air of one who shows another that he knows his secret he
Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un 'Boss'?
I sat silent for a moment, looking at him, not knowing just what to
Mais, he went on, all the Américains (they were
chiefly Irish) roun' my 'ouse been tellin' me, long time, 'Le
Boss goin' bounce Fidèle.' Me, I laugh w'en they say so. I say, 'Le
Boss? C'est un créature d'imagination, pour nous effrayer,' you know,
make us scart 'C'est un loup-garou,' you know,w'at make 'fraid
li'l chil'ren. That's w'at I tell them. I thing then you would n't been
makin' fool of me.'
They don't know what they are talking about, I said. How can they
know why Fidèle is removed?
Mais, you jus' wait; I goin' tell you. I fin they do know.
Fidèle take he sol'ier-papers, an' he go see le chef (here
Sorel rose, and acted Fidèle). Fidèle, 'e show 'is papers to le
chef; 'e say, 'Now you boun' tell me why le bon gouvernement, w'at 's been my frien', bounce me now.' 'E say le chef boun' to
tell 'im,il faut absolument! 'E say 'e won' go, way if le
chef don' tell 'im; an' you know, no man can't scare our Fidèle!
Very well, I said; what did the collector, the chef tell
him? Fidèle is too lame, I suppose?
Mais, non, with a suspicious smile. Le chef, he
mos' cry,yas, sar,an' 'e say 'e ain' got no trouble 'gainst Fidèle;
la république, she ain' got no trouble 'gainst Fidèle. 'E say 'e
di'n want Fidèle to go; le gouvernement, she d'n want 'im to go.
Mais, 'e say, 'e can't help hisself; le gouvernement, she
can't help herself. Yas, sar. Then Fidèle know w'at evarybody been
tellin' us was true,'e 'Boss,' 'e make 'im go! And Sorel sat back in
Now, I ax you one time more, he resumed: qu'est-ce que c'est
What could I say! How could I explain, offhand, to this stranger,
the big boss, the little boss, the State boss, the ward boss, the
county boss, all burrowing underneath our theoretical government! How
could I explain to him that Fidèle's department in the custom-house had
been allotted to a Congressman about to run for a second term, who
needed it to control a few more ward-meetings,needed, in the third
ward caucus, those very French votes which Carron had been shrewd
enough to steal away and organize! What could I say to Sorel which he,
innocent as he was, would not misconstrue as inconsistent with our past
glorifications of our republic! What did I say! I do not know. I only
remember that he interrupted me, harshly and abruptly, as he rose to
You an' me got great pitié, ain' we, he said, for notre
France, la pauvre France, 'cause she got so many folks w'at
tourbillonnent sous la surface,les Orléanistes les Bonapartistes;
don' we say so? Mais, il n'y en a pas, ici,you know, we ain'
got none here; don' we say so? We ain' got no factionnaires
here! Mais non! Then, lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper:
Votre bonne république, he said,c'est une république du
He had hardly closed the door behind him, when he opened it again,
and put in his head, and with his hard, mocking laugh, demanded,
Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un 'Boss'? And as he walked down the hall, I
could still hear his scornful laughter.
He never came to see me again. I sometimes heard of him through
Carron, who had succeeded to Fidèle's position and had elevated a
considerable part of his following: for several weeks they were
employed at three dollars a day in the navy-yard, where, to their utter
mystification, they moved, with a certain planetary regularity,
ship-timber from the west to the east side of the yard, and then back
from the east side to the west. You remember reading about this in the
published accounts of our late congressional contest.
Though Sorel never visited me again, I occasionally saw him: once
near the evening-school, when I went as a guest; once in the long
market; once in the post-office; and once he touched me on the
shoulder, as I was leaning over the street railing, by the dock,
looking down at a Swedish bark. Each time he had but one thing to say;
and having said it, he would break into his harsh, ironical laugh, and
Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un 'Boss'?
Still, if you will go to Madeira Place at sunset, you may see the
cap and blouse come slowly in. Still the old sergeant sits at the head
of the table. But his ideal is gone; his idol has clay feet. No longer
does he describe to new-comers from France the receipt of his pension.
All the old fond pride in it is gone, and he takes the money now as
dollars and cents.
In the conversation, however, around the table the great government
at Washington is by no means forgotten. Sometimes Sorel tells his
guests about the Boss.