A Mystery with a Moral
by Laurence Sterne
I remained at the gate of the hotel for some time, looking at
everyone who passed by, and forming conjectures upon them, till my
attention got fixed upon a single object, which confounded all kind
of reasoning upon him.
It was a tall figure of a philosophic, serious adult look, which
passed and repassed sedately along the street, making a turn of about
sixty paces on each side of the gate of the hotel. The man was about
fifty-two, had a small cane under his arm, was dressed in a dark
drab-colored coat, waistcoat, and breeches, which seemed to have seen
some years' service. They were still clean, and there was a little
air of frugal propriete throughout him. By his pulling off his hat,
and his attitude of accosting a good many in his way, I saw he was
asking charity; so I got a sous or two out of my pocket, ready to give
him as he took me in his turn. He passed by me without asking
anything, and yet he did not go five steps farther before he asked
charity of a little woman. I was much more likely to have given of
the two. He had scarce done with the woman, when he pulled his hat
off to another who was coming the same way. An ancient gentleman came
slowly, and after him a young smart one. He let them both pass and
asked nothing. I stood observing him half an hour, in which time he
had made a dozen turns backward and forward, and found that he
invariably pursued the same plan.
There were two things very singular in this which set my brain to
work, and to no purpose; the first was, why the man should only tell
his story to the sex; and secondly, what kind of a story it was and
what species of eloquence it could be which softened the hearts of the
women which he knew it was to no purpose to practice upon the men.
There were two other circumstances which entangled this mystery.
The one was, he told every woman what he had to say in her ear, and
in a way which had much more the air of a secret than a petition; the
other was, it was always successfulhe never stopped a woman but she
pulled out her purse and immediately gave him something.
I could form no system to explain the phenomenon.
I had got a riddle to amuse me for the rest of the evening, so I
walked upstairs to my chamber.
The man who either disdains or fears to walk up a dark entry may be
an excellent, good man, and fit for a hundred things, but he will not
do to make a sentimental traveler. I count little of the many things
I see pass at broad noonday, in large and open streets; Nature is shy,
and hates to act before spectators; but in such an unobservable corner
you sometimes see a single short scene of hers worth all the
sentiments of a dozen French plays compounded together; and yet they
are ABSOLUTELY fine, and whenever I have a more brilliant affair upon
my hands than common, as they suit a preacher just as well as a hero,
I generally make my sermon out of them, and for the text, "Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia," is as good as anyone in the
There is a long, dark passage issuing out from the Opera Comique
into a narrow street. It is trod by a few who humbly wait for a
fiacre* or wish to get off quietly o' foot when the opera is done. At
the end of it, toward the theater, 'tis lighted by a small candle, the
light of which is almost lost before you get halfway down, but near
the doorit is more for ornament than useyou see it as a fixed star
of the least magnitude; it burns, but does little good to the world
that we know of.
In returning [from the opera] along this passage, I discerned, as I
approached within five or six paces of the door, two ladies standing
arm in arm with their backs against the wall, waiting, as I imagined,
for a fiacre. As they were next the door, I thought they had a prior
right, so I edged myself up within a yard or little more of them, and
quietly took my stand. I was in black and scarce seen.
The lady next me was a tall, lean figure of a woman of about
thirty-six; the other, of the same size and make of about forty.
There was no mark of wife or widow in any one part of either of them.
They seemed to be two upright vestal sisters, unsapped by caresses,
unbroke in upon by tender salutations. I could have wished to have
made them happy. Their happiness was destined, that night, to come
from another quarter.
A low voice with a good turn of expression and sweet cadence at the
end of it, begged for a twelve-sous piece between them for the love
of heaven. I thought it singular that a beggar should fix the quota
of an alms, and that the sum should be twelve times as much as what is
usually given in the dark. They both seemed astonished at it as much
as myself. "Twelve sous," said one. "A twelve-sous piece," said the
other, and made no reply.
The poor man said he knew not how to ask less of ladies of their
rank, and bowed down his head to the ground.
"Pooh!" said they, "we have no money."
The beggar remained silent for a moment or two, and renewed his
"Do not, my fair young ladies," said he, "stop your good ears
"Upon my word, honest man," said the younger, "we have no change."
"Then God bless you," said the poor man, "and multiply those joys
which you can give to others without change."
I observed the older sister put her hand into her pocket. "I will
see," said she, "if I have a sous."
"A sous! Give twelve," said the suppliant. "Nature has been
bountiful to you; be bountiful to a poor man."
"I would, friend, with all my heart," said the younger, "if I had
"My fair charitable," said he, addressing himself to the elder,
"what is it but your goodness and humanity which make your bright
eyes so sweet that they outshine the morning even in this dark
passage? And what was it which made the Marquis de Santerre and his
brother say so much of you both, as they just passed by?"
The two ladies seemed much affected, and impulsively at the same
time they put their hands into their pockets and each took out a
The contest between them and the poor suppliant was no more. It
was continued between themselves which of the two should give the
twelve-sous piece in charity, and, to end the dispute, they both gave
it together, and the man went away.
I stepped hastily after him; it was the very man whose success in
asking charity of the woman before the door of the hotel had so
puzzled me, and I found at once his secret, or at least the basis of
it: it was flattery.
Delicious essence! how refreshing art thou to Nature! How strongly
are all its powers and all its weaknesses on thy side! How sweetly
dost thou mix with the blood, and help it through the most difficult
and tortuous passages to the heart!
The poor man, as he was not straitened for time, had given it here
in a larger dose. It is certain he had a way of bringing it into
less form for the many sudden causes he had to do with in the
streets; but how he contrived to correct, sweeten, concenter, and
qualify itI vex not my spirit with the inquiry. It is enough, the
beggar gained two twelve-sous pieces, and they can best tell the rest
who have gained much greater matters by it.
We get forward in the world not so much by doing services as
receiving them. You take a withering twig and put it in the ground,
and then you water it because you have planted it.
Monsieur le Comte de B, merely because he had done me one
kindness in the affair of my passport, would go on and do me another
the few days he was at Paris, in making me known to a few people of
rank; and they were to present me to others, and so on.
I had got master of my SECRET just in time to turn these honors to
some little account; otherwise, as is commonly the case, I should
have dined or supped a single time or two round, and then by
TRANSLATING French looks and attitudes into plain English, I should
presently have seen that I had got hold of the couvert* of some more
entertaining guest; and in course of time should have resigned all my
places one after another, merely upon the principle that I could not
keep them. As it was, things did not go much amiss.
* Plate, napkin, knife, fork, and spoon.
I had the honor of being introduced to the old Marquis de B.
In days of yore he had signalized himself by some small feats of
chivalry in the Cour d'Amour, and had dressed himself out to the idea
of tilts and tournaments ever since. The Marquis de B wished to
have it thought the affair was somewhere else than in his brain. "He
could like to take a trip to England," and asked much of the English
ladies. "Stay where you are, I beseech you, Monsieur le Marquis,"
said I. "Les Messieurs Anglais can scarce get a kind look from them
as it is." The marquis invited me to supper.
M. P, the farmer-general, was just as inquisitive about our
taxes. They were very considerable, he heard. "If we knew but how
to collect them," said I, making him a low bow.
I could never have been invited to M. P's concerts upon any
I had been misrepresented to Mme. de Q as an espritMme. de
Q was an esprit herself; she burned with impatience to see me and
hear me talk. I had not taken my seat before I saw she did not care
a sou whether I had any wit or no. I was let in to be convinced she
had. I call Heaven to witness I never once opened the door of my
Mme. de V vowed to every creature she met, "She had never had a
more improving conversation with a man in her life."
There are three epochs in the empire of a Frenchwomanshe is
coquette, then deist, then devote. The empire during these is never
lostshe only changes her subjects. When thirty-five years and more
have unpeopled her dominion of the slaves of love she repeoples it
with slaves of infidelity, and, then with the slaves of the church.
Mme. de V was vibrating between the first of these epochs; the
color of the rose was fading fast away; she ought to have been a
deist five years before the time I had the honor to pay my first
She placed me upon the same sofa with her for the sake of disputing
the point of religion more closely. In short, Mme. de V told me
she believed nothing.
I told Mme. de V it might be her principle, but I was sure it
could not be her interest, to level the outworks, without which I
could not conceive how such a citadel as hers could be defended; that
there was not a more dangerous thing in the world than for a beauty to
be a deist; that it was a debt I owed my creed not to conceal it from
her; that I had not been five minutes upon the sofa beside her before
I had begun to form designs; and what is it but the sentiments of
religion, and the persuasion they had existed in her breast, which
could have checked them as they rose up?
"We are not adamant," said I, taking hold of her hand, "and there
is need of all restraints till age in her own time steals in and lays
them on us; but, my dear lady," said I, kissing her hand, "it is
I declare I had the credit all over Paris of unperverting Mme. de
V. She affirmed to M. D and the Abbe M that in one half
hour I had said more for revealed religion than all their
encyclopaedia had said against it. I was listed directly into Mme.
de Vo's coterie, and she put off the epoch of deism for two
I remember it was in this coterie, in the middle of a discourse, in
which I was showing the necessity of a first cause, that the young
Count de Faineant took me by the hand to the farthest corner of the
room, to tell me that my solitaire was pinned too strait about my
neck. "It should be plus badinant," said the count, looking down
upon his own; "but a word, M. Yorick, to the wise"
"And from the wise, M. le Comte," replied I, making him a bow, "is
The Count de Faineant embraced me with more ardor than ever I was
embraced by mortal man.
For three weeks together I was of every man's opinion I met.
"Pardi! ce M. Yorick a autant d'esprit que nous autres."
"Il raisonne bien," said another.
"C'est un bon enfant," said a third.
And at this price I could have eaten and drunk and been merry all
the days of my life at Paris; but it was a dishonest reckoning. I
grew ashamed of it; it was the gain of a slave; every sentiment of
honor revolted against it; the higher I got, the more was I forced
upon my beggarly system; the better the coterie, the more children of
Art, I languished for those of Nature. And one night, after a most
vile prostitution of myself to half a dozen different people, I grew
sick, went to bed, and ordered horses in the morning to set out for
A shoe coming loose from the forefoot of the thill horse at the
beginning of the ascent of Mount Taurira, the postilion dismounted,
twisted the shoe off, and put it in his pocket; as the ascent was of
five or six miles, and that horse our main dependence I made a point
of having the shoe fastened on again as well as we could, but the
postilion had thrown away the nails, and the hammer in the chaise box
being of no great use without them, I submitted to go on.
He had not mounted half a mile higher when, coming to a flinty
piece of road, the poor devil lost a second shoe, and from off his
other forefoot. I then got out of the chaise in good earnest, and
seeing a house about a quarter of a mile to the left hand, with a
great deal to do I prevailed upon the postilion to turn up to it. The
look of the house, and of everything about it, as we drew nearer, soon
reconciled me to the disaster. It was a little farmhouse surrounded
with about twenty acres of vineyard, about as much corn, and close to
the house on one side was a potagerie of an acre and a half, full of
everything which could make plenty in a French peasant's house, and on
the other side was a little wood which furnished wherewithal to dress
it. It was about eight in the evening when I got to the house, so I
left the postilion to manage his point as he could, and for mine I
walked directly into the house.
The family consisted of an old gray-headed man and his wife, with
five or six sons and sons-in-laws, and their several wives, and a
joyous genealogy out of them.
They were all sitting down together to their lentil soup. A large
wheaten loaf was in the middle of the table, and a flagon of wine at
each end of it promised joy through the stages of the repast 'twas a
feast of love.
The old man rose up to meet me, and with a respectful cordiality
would have me sit down at the table. My heart was sat down the
moment I entered the room, so I sat down at once like a son of the
family, and to invest myself in the character as speedily as I could,
I instantly borrowed the old man's knife, and taking up the loaf cut
myself a hearty luncheon; and, as I did it, I saw a testimony in every
eye, not only of an honest welcome, but of a welcome mixed with thanks
that I had not seemed to doubt it.
Was it this, or tell me, Nature, what else it was that made this
morsel so sweet, and to what magic I owe it that the draught I took
of their flagon was so delicious with it that they remain upon my
palate to this hour?
If the supper was to my taste, the grace which followed it was much
When supper was over, the old man gave a knock upon the table with
the haft of his knife to bid them prepare for the dance. The moment
the signal was given, the women and girls ran all together into a back
apartment to tie up their hair, and the young men to the door to wash
their faces and change their sabots, and in three minutes every soul
was ready upon a little esplanade before the house to begin. The old
man and his wife came out last, and, placing me betwixt them, sat down
upon a sofa of turf by the door.
The old man had some fifty years ago been no mean performer upon
the vielle,* and at the age he was then of, touched well enough for
the purpose. His wife sung now and then a little to the tune, then
intermitted, and joined her old man again, as their children and
grandchildren danced before them.
* A small violin, such as was used by the wandering jongleurs of
the Middle Ages.EDITOR.
It was not till the middle of the second dance when, from some
pauses in the movement wherein they all seemed to look up, I fancied
I could distinguish an elevation of spirit different from that which
is the cause or the effect of simple jollity. In a word, I thought I
beheld RELIGION mixing in the dance; but, as I had never seen her so
engaged, I should have looked upon it now as one of the illusions of
an imagination, which is eternally misleading me, had not the old man,
as soon as the dance ended, said that this was their constant way, and
that all his life long he had made it a rule, after supper was over,
to call out his family to dance and rejoice, believing, he said, that
a cheerful and contented mind was the best sort of thanks to heaven
that an illiterate peasant could pay
"Or a learned prelate either," said I.
When you have gained the top of Mount Taurira, you run presently
down to Lyons. Adieu then to all rapid movements! It is a journey
of caution, and it fares better with sentiments not to be in a hurry
with them, so I contracted with a volturin to take his time with a
couple of mules and convey me in my own chaise safe to Turin through
Poor, patient, quiet, honest people, fear not! Your poverty, the
treasury of your simple virtues, will not be envied you by the world,
nor will your values be invaded by it. Nature, in the midst of thy
disorders, thou art still friendly to the scantiness thou hast
created; with all thy great works about thee little hast thou left to
give, either to the scythe or to the sickle, but to that little thou
grantest safety and protection, and sweet are the dwellings which
stand so sheltered!