THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD
THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD
Part I--The Log
December 24 1849.
I had put on my slippers and my dressing-gown. I wiped away a tear
with which the north wind blowing over the quay had obscured my
vision. A bright fire was leaping in the chimney of my study.
Ice-crystals shaped like fern-leaves were sprouting over the
windowpanes and concealed from me the Seine with its bridges and
the Louvre of the Valois.
I drew up my easy-chair to the hearth and my table-volante and
took up so much of my place by the fire as Hamilcar deigned to allow
me. Hamilcar was lying in front of the andirons curled up on a
cushion with his nose between his paws. His think find fur rose
and fell with his regular breathing. At my coming he slowly slipped
a glance of his agate eyes at me from between his half-opened lids
which he closed again almost at once thinking to himself "It is
nothing; it is only my friend."
"Hamilcar" I said to him as I stretched my legs--"Hamilcar somnolent
Prince of the City of Books--thou guardian nocturnal! Like that
Divine Cat who combated the impious in Heliopolis--in the night of
the great combat--thou dost defend from vile nibblers those books
which the old savant acquired at the cost of his slender savings and
indefatigable zeal. Sleep Hamilcar softly as a sultana in this
library that shelters thy military virtues; for verily in thy person
are united the formidable aspect of a Tatar warrior and the slumbrous
grace of a woman of the Orient. Sleep thou heroic and voluptuous
Hamilcar while awaiting the moonlight hour in which the mice will
come forth to dance before the Acta Sanctorum of the learned
The beginning of this discourse pleased Hamilcar who accompanied
it with a throat-sound like the song of a kettle on the fire. But
as my voice waxed louder Hamilcar notified me by lowering his ears
and by wrinkling the striped skin of his brow that it was bad taste
on my part so to declaim.
"This old-book man" evidently thought Hamilcar "talks to no purpose
at all while our housekeeper never utters a word which is not full
of good sense full of significance--containing either the announcement
of a meal or the promise of a whipping. One knows what she says.
But this old man puts together a lot of sounds signifying nothing."
So thought Hamilcar to himself. Leaving him to his reflections I
opened a book which I began to read with interest; for it was a
catalogue of manuscripts. I do not know any reading more easy more
fascinating more delightful than that of a catalogue. The one
which I was reading--edited in 1824 by Mr. Thompson librarian to
Sir Thomas Raleigh--sins it is true by excess of brevity and
does not offer that character of exactitude which the archivists
of my own generation were the first to introduce into works upon
diplomatics and paleography. It leaves a good deal to be desired
and to be divined. This is perhaps why I find myself aware while
reading it of a state of mind which in nature more imaginative than
mine might be called reverie. I had allowed myself to drift away
this gently upon the current of my thoughts when my housekeeper
announced in a tone of ill-humor that Monsieur Coccoz desired
to speak with me.
In fact some one had slipped into the library after her. He was a
little man--a poor little man of puny appearance wearing a thin
jacket. He approached me with a number of little bows and smiles.
But he was very pale and although still young and alert he looked
ill. I thought as I looked at him of a wounded squirrel. He
carried under his arm a green toilette which he put upon a chair;
then unfastening the four corners of the toilette he uncovered
a heap of little yellow books.
"Monsieur" he then said to me "I have not the honour to be known
to you. I am a book-agent Monsieur. I represent the leading
houses of the capital and in the hope that you will kindly honour
me with your confidence I take the liberty to offer you a few
Kind gods! just gods! such novelties as the homunculus Coccoz showed
me! The first volume that he put in my hand was "L'Histoire de la
Tour de Nesle" with the amours of Marguerite de Bourgogne and the
"It is a historical book" he said to me with a smile--"a book of
"In that case" I replied "it must be very tiresome; for all the
historical books which contain no lies are extremely tedious. I
write some authentic ones myself; and if you were unlucky enough to
carry a copy of any of them from door to door you would run the risk
of keeping it all your life in that green baize of yours without ever
finding even a cook foolish enough to buy it from you."
"Certainly Monsieur" the little man answered out of pure good-nature.
And all smiling again he offered me the "Amours d'Heloise et d'Abeilard";
but I made him understand that at my age I had no use for love-stories.
Still smiling he proposed me the "Regle des Jeux de la Societe"--
piquet bezique ecarte whist dice draughts and chess.
"Alas!" I said to him "if you want to make me remember the rules of
bezique give me back my old friend Bignan with whom I used to play
cards every evening before the Five Academies solemnly escorted him
to the cemetery; or else bring down to the frivolous level of human
amusements the grave intelligence of Hamilcar whom you see on that
cushion for he is the sole companion of my evenings."
The little man's smile became vague and uneasy.
"Here" he said "is a new collection of society amusements--jokes
and puns--with a receipt for changing a red rose to a white rose."
I told him that I had fallen out with the roses for a long time and
that as to jokes I was satisfied with those which I unconsciously
permitted myself to make in the course of my scientific labours.
The homunculus offered me his last book with his last smile. He
said to me:
"Here is the Clef des Songes--the 'Key of Dreams'--with the explanation
of any dreams that anybody can have; dreams of gold dreams of robbers
dreams of death dreams of falling from the top of a tower.... It
I had taken hold of the tongs and brandishing them energetically I
replied to my commercial visitor:
"Yes my friend; but those dreams and a thousand others joyous or
tragic are all summed up in one--the Dream of Life; is your little
yellow book able to give me the key to that?"
"Yes Monsieur" answered the homunculus; "the book is complete and
it is not dear--one franc twenty-five centimes Monsieur."
I called my housekeeper--for there is no bell in my room--and said
"Therese Monsieur Coccoz--whom I am going to ask you to show out--has
a book here which might interest you: the 'Key of Dreams.' I shall
be very glad to buy it for you."
My housekeeper responded:
"Monsieur when one has not even time to dream awake one has still
less time to dream asleep. Thank God my days are just enough for my
work and my work for my days and I am able to say every night
'Lord bless Thou the rest which I am going to take.' I never dream
either on my feet or in bed; and I never mistake my eider-down coverlet
for a devil as my cousin did; and if you will allow me to give my
opinion about it I think you have books enough here now. Monsieur
has thousands and thousands of books which simply turn his head; and
as for me I have just tow which are quite enough for all my wants
and purposes--my Catholic prayer-book and my Cuisiniere Bourgeoise."
And with those words my housekeeper helped the little man to fasten
up his stock again within the green toilette.
The homunculus Coccoz had ceased to smile. His relaxed features took
such an expression of suffering that I felt sorry to have made fun
of so unhappy a man. I called him back and told him that I had
caught a glimpse of a copy of the "Histoire d'Estelle et de Nemorin"
which he had among his books; that I was very fond of shepherds and
shepherdesses and that I would be quite willing to purchase at a
reasonable price the story of these two perfect lovers.
"I will sell you that book for one franc twenty-five centimes
Monsieur" replied Coccoz whose face at once beamed with joy. "It
is historical; and you will be pleased with it. I know now just
what suits you. I see that you are a connoisseur. To-morrow I will
bring you the Crimes des Papes. It is a good book. I will bring
you the edition d'amateur with coloured plates."
I begged him not to do anything of the sort and sent him away happy.
When the green toilette and the agent had disappeared in the
shadow of the corridor I asked my housekeeper whence this little
man had dropped upon us.
"Dropped is the word" she answered; "he dropped on us from the roof
Monsieur where he lives with his wife."
"You say he has a wife Therese? That is marvelous! Women are
very strange creatures! This one must be a very unfortunate little
"I don't really know what she is" answered Therese; "but every
morning I see her trailing a silk dress covered with grease-spots
over the stairs. She makes soft eyes at people. And in the name
of common sense! does it become a woman that has been received here
out of charity to make eyes and to wear dresses like that? For
they allowed the couple to occupy the attic during the time the roof
was being repaired in consideration of the fact that the husband
is sick and the wife in an interesting condition. The concierge even
says that the pain came on her this morning and that she is now
confined. They must have been very badly off for a child!"
"Therese" I replied "they had no need of a child doubtless. But
Nature had decided that they should bring one into the world; Nature
made them fall into her snare. One must have exceptional prudence
to defeat Nature's schemes. Let us be sorry for them and not blame
them! As for silk dresses there is no young woman who does not like
them. The daughters of Eve adore adornment. You yourself Therese--