A Book of Ghosts/Jean Bouchon
I was in Orléans a good many years ago. At the time it was my purpose to write a life of Joan of Arc, and I considered it advisable to visit the scenes of her exploits, so as to be able to give to my narrative some local colour.
But I did not find Orléans answer to my expectations. It is a dull town, very modern in appearance, but with that measly and decrepit look which is so general in French towns. There was a Place Jeanne d'Arc, with an equestrian statue of her in the midst, flourishing a banner. There was the house that the Maid had occupied after the taking of the city, but, with the exception of the walls and rafters, it had undergone so much alteration and modernisation as to have lost its interest. A museum of memorials of la Pucelle had been formed, but possessed no genuine relics, only arms and tapestries of a later date.
The city walls she had besieged, the gate through which she had burst, had been levelled, and their places taken by boulevards. The very cathedral in which she had knelt to return thanks for her victory was not the same. That had been blown up by the Huguenots, and the cathedral that now stands was erected on its ruins in 1601.
There was an enormous figure of Jeanne on the clock—never wound up—upon the mantelshelf in my room at the hotel, and there were chocolate figures of her in the confectioners' shop- windows for children to suck. When I sat down at 7 p.m. to table d'hôte, at my inn, I was out of heart. The result of my exploration of sites had been unsatisfactory; but I trusted on the morrow to be able to find material to serve my purpose in the municipal archives of the town library.
My dinner ended, I sauntered to a cafe.
That I selected opened on to the Place, but there was a back entrance near to my hotel, leading through a long, stone-paved passage at the back of the houses in the street, and by ascending three or four stone steps one entered the long, well-lighted café. I came into it from the back by this means, and not from the front.
I took my place and called for a café-cognac. Then I picked up a French paper and proceeded to read it—all but the feuilleton. In my experience I have never yet come across anyone who reads the feuilletons in a French paper; and my impression is that these snippets of novel are printed solely for the purpose of filling up space and disguising the lack of news at the disposal of the editors. The French papers borrow their information relative to foreign affairs largely from the English journals, so that they are a day behind ours in the foreign news that they publish.
Whilst I was engaged in reading, something caused me to look up, and I noticed standing by the white marble-topped table, on which was my coffee, a waiter, with a pale face and black whiskers, in an expectant attitude.
I was a little nettled at his precipitancy in applying for payment, but I put it down to my being a total stranger there; and without a word I set down half a franc and a ten centimes coin, the latter as his pourbaire. Then I proceeded with my reading.
I think a quarter of an hour had elapsed, when I rose to depart, and then, to my surprise, I noticed the half-franc still on the table, but the sous piece was gone.
I beckoned to a waiter, and said: ' One of you came to me a little while ago demanding payment. I think he was somewhat hasty in pressing for it; however, I set the money down, and the fellow has taken the tip, and has neglected the charge for the coffee.”
“Sapristi!” exclaimed the garçon; 'Jean Bouchon has at his tricks again.” I said nothing further; asked no questions. The matter did not concern me, or indeed interest me in the smallest degree; and I left.
Next day I worked hard in the town library. I cannot say that I lighted on any unpublished documents that might serve my purpose.
I had to go through the controversial literature relative to whether Jeanne d'Arc was burnt or not, for it has been maintained that a person of the same name, and also of Arques, died a natural death some time later, and who postured as the original warrior-maid. I read a good many monographs on the Pucelle, of various values; some real contributions to history, others mere second-hand cookings-up of well-known and often-used material. The sauce in these latter was all that was new.
In the evening, after dinner, I went back to the same café and called for black coffee with a nip of brandy. I drank it leisurely, and then retreated to the desk where I could write some letters.
I had finished one, and was folding it, when I saw the same pale-visaged waiter standing by with his hand extended for payment. I put my hand into my pocket, pulled out a fifty centimes piece and a coin of two sous, and placed both beside me, near the man, and proceeded to put my letter in an envelope, which I then directed.
Next I wrote a second letter, and that concluded, I rose to go to one of the tables and to call for stamps, when I noticed that again the silver coin had been left untouched, but the copper piece had been taken away.
I tapped for a waiter. “Tiens,” said I, “that fellow of yours has been bungling again. He has taken the tip and has left the half-franc.”
“Ah! Jean Bouchon once more!”
“But who is Jean Bouchon?”
The man shrugged his shoulders, and, instead of answering my query, said: “I should recommend monsieur to refuse to pay Jean Bouchon again—that is, supposing monsieur intends revisiting this café.”
“I most assuredly will not pay such a noodle,” I said; “and it passes my comprehension how you can keep such a fellow on your staff”
I revisited the library next day, and then walked by the Loire, that rolls in winter such a full and turbid stream, and in summer, with a reduced flood, exposes gravel and sand-banks. I wandered around the town, and endeavoured vainly to picture it, enclosed by walls and drums of towers, when on April 29th, 1429, Jeanne threw herself into the town and forced the English to retire, discomfited and perplexed.
In the evening I revisited the café and made my wants known as before. Then I looked at my notes, and began to arrange them.
Whilst thus engaged I observed the waiter, named Jean Bouchon, standing near the table in an expectant attitude as before. I now looked him full in the face and observed his countenance. He had puffy white cheeks, small black eyes, thick dark mutton-chop whiskers, and a broken nose. He was decidedly an ugly man, but not a man with a repulsive expression of face.
“No,” said I, “I will give you nothing. I will not pay you. Send another garçon to me.” As I looked at him to see how he took this refusal, he seemed to fall back out of my range, or, to be more exact, the lines of his form and features became confused. It was much as though I had been gazing on a reflection in still water; that something had ruffled the surface, and all was
broken up and obliterated. I could see him no more. I was puzzled and a bit startled, and I rapped my coffee-cup with the spoon to call the attention of a waiter. One sprang to me immediately.
“See!” said I, “Jean Bouchon has been here again; I told him that I would not pay him one sou, and he has vanished in a most perplexing manner. I do not see him in the room.”
“No, he is not in the room.”
“When he comes in again, send him to me. I want to have a word with him.” The waiter looked confused, and replied: “I do not think that Jean will return.”
“How long has he been on your staff?”
“Oh! he has not been on our staff for some years.”
“Then why does he come here and ask for payment for coffee and what else one may order?”
“He never takes payment for anything that has been consumed. He takes only the tips.”
“But why do you permit him to do that?”
“We cannot help ourselves.”
“He should not be allowed to enter the café.”
“No one can keep him out.”
“This is surpassing strange. He has no right to the tips. You should communicate with the police.”
The waiter shook his head. “They can do nothing. Jean Bouchon died in 1869.”
“Died in 1869!” I repeated.
“It is so. But he still comes here. He never pesters the old customers, the inhabitants of the town—only visitors, strangers.”
“Tell me all about him.”
Monsieur must pardon me now. We have many in the place, and I have my duties.”
“In that case I will drop in here to-morrow morning when you are disengaged, and I will ask you to inform me about him. What is your name?”
“At monsieur's pleasure—Alphonse.”
Next morning, in place of pursuing the traces of the Maid of Orleans, I went to the café to hunt up Jean Bouchon. I found Alphonse with a duster wiping down the tables. I invited him to a table and made him sit down opposite me. I will give his story in substance, only where advisable recording his exact words.
Jean Bouchon had been a waiter at this particular café. Now in some of these establishments the attendants are wont to have a box, into which they drop all the tips that are received; and at the end of the week it is opened, and the sum found in it is divided pro rata among the waiters, the head waiter receiving a larger portion than the others. This is not customary in all such places of refreshment, but it is in some, and it was so in this café. The average is pretty constant, except on special occasions, as when a fête occurs; and the waiters know within a few francs what their perquisites will be.
But in the café where served Jean Bouchon the sum did not reach the weekly total that might have been anticipated; and after this deficit had been noted for a couple of months the waiters were convinced that there was something wrong, somewhere or somehow. Either the common box was tampered with, or one of them did not put in his tips received. A watch was set, and it was discovered that Jean Bouchon was the defaulter. When he had received a gratuity, he went to the box, and pretended to put in the coin, but no sound followed, as would have been the case had one been dropped in.
There ensued, of course, a great commotion among the waiters when this was discovered. Jean Bouchon endeavoured to brave it out, but the patron was appealed to, the case stated, and he was
dismissed. As he left by the back entrance, one of the younger garçons put out his leg and tripped Bouchon up, so that he stumbled and fell headlong down the steps with a crash on the stone floor of the passage. He fell with such violence on his forehead that he was taken up insensible. His bones were fractured, there was concussion of the brain, and he died within a hew hours without recovering consciousness.
“We were all very sorry and greatly shocked,” said “we did not like the man, he had dealt dishonourably by us, but we wished him no ill, and our resentment was at an end when he was dead. The waiter who had tripped him up was arrested, and was sent to prison for some months, but the accident was due to une mauvaise plaisanterie and no malice was in it, so that the young fellow got off with a light sentence. He afterwards married a widow with a café at Vierzon, and is there, I believe, doing well.
“Jean Bouchon was buried,” continued Alphonse; “and we waiters attended the funeral and held white kerchiefs to our eyes. Our head waiter even put a lemon into his, that by squeezing it he might draw tears from his eyes. We all subscribed for the interment, that it should be dignified—majestic as becomes a waiter.”
“And do you mean to tell me that Jean Bouchon has haunted this café ever since?”
“Ever since 1869,” replied Alphonse.
“And there is no way of getting rid of him?”
“None at all, monsieur. One of the Canons of Bourges came in here one evening. We did suppose that Jean Bouchon would not approach, molest an ecclesiastic, but he did. He took his pourboire and left the rest, just as he treated monsieur. Ah! monsieur! but Jean Bouchon did well in 1870 and 1871 when those pigs of Prussians were here in occupation. The officers came nightly to our café, and Jean Bouchon was greatly on the alert. He must have carried away half of the gratuities they offered. It was a sad loss to us.”
“This is a very extraordinary story,” said I.
“But it is true,” replied Alphonse.
Next day I left Orléans. I gave up the notion of writing the life of Joan of Arc, as I found that there was absolutely no new material to be gleaned on her history—in fact, she had been thrashed out.
Years passed, and I had almost forgotten about Jean Bouchon, when, the other day, I was in Orleans once more, on my way south, and at once the whole story recurred to me.
I went that evening to the same café. It had been smartened up since I was there before. There was more plate glass, more gilding; electric light had been introduced, there were more mirrors, and there were also ornaments that had not been in the café before.
I called for café-cognac and looked at a journal, but turned my eyes on one side occasionally, on the look-out for Jean Bouchon. But he did not put in an appearance. I waited for a quarter of an hour in expectation, but saw no sign of him.
Presently I summoned a waiter, and when he came up I inquired: “But where is Jean Bouchon?”
“Monsieur asks after Jean Bouchon?” The man looked surprised.
“Yes, I have seen him here previously. Where is he at present?”
“Monsieur has seen Jean Bouchon? Monsieur perhaps knew him. He died in 1869.”
“I know that he died in 1869, but I made his acquaintance in 1874. I saw him then thrice, and he accepted some small gratuities of me.”
“Monsieur tipped Jean Bouchon?”
“Yes, and Jean Bouchon accepted my tips.”
“Tiens, and Jean Bouchon died five years before.”
“Yes, and what I want to know is how you have rid yourselves of Jean Bouchon, for that you have cleared the place of him is evident, or he would have been pestering me this evening.” The man looked disconcerted and irresolute.
“Hold,” said I; “is Alphonse here?”
“No, monsieur, Alphonse has left two or three years ago. And monsieur saw Jean Bouchon in r874. I was not then here. I have been here only six years.”
“But you can in all probability inform me of the manner of getting quit of Jean.”
“Monsieur! I am very busy this evening, there are so many gentlemen come in.”
“I will give you five francs if you will tell me all—all—succinctly about Jean Bouchon.”
“Will monsieur be so good as to come here to-morrow during the morning? and then I place myself at the disposition of monsieur.”
“I shall be here at eleven o'clock.”
At the appointed time I was at the café. If there is an institution that looks ragged and dejected and dissipated, it is a café in the morning, when the chairs are turned upside-down, the waiters are in aprons and shirt-sleeves, and a smell of stale tobacco lurks about the air, mixed with various other unpleasant odours.
The waiter I had spoken to on the previous evening was looking out for me. I made him seat himself at a table with me. No one else was in the saloon except another garçon, who was dusting with a long feather-brush.
“Monsieur,” began the waiter, “I will tell you the whole truth. The story is curious, and perhaps everyone would not believe it, but it is well documetée. Jean Bouchon was at one time in service here. We had a box. When I say we, I do not mean myself included, for I was not here at the time.”
“I know about the common box. I know the story down to my visit to Orleans in 1874, when I saw the man.”
“Monsieur has perhaps been informed that he was buried in the cemetery?”
“I do know that, at the cost of his fellow-waiters.”
“Well, monsieur, he was poor, and his fellow-waiters, though well-disposed, were not rich. So he did not have a grave en perpétuité Accordingly, after many years, when the term of consignment was expired, and it might well be supposed that Jean Bouchon had mouldered away, his grave was cleared out to make room for a fresh occupant. Then a very remarkable discovery was made. It was found that his corroded coffin was crammed—literally stuffed—with five and ten centimes pieces, and with them were also some German coins, no doubt received from those pigs of Prussians during the occupation of Orleans. This discovery was much talked about. Our proprietor of the café and the head waiter went to the mayor and represented to him how matters stood—that all this money had been filched during a series of years since 1869 from the waiters. And our patron represented to him that it should in all propriety and justice be restored to us. The mayor was a man of intelligence and heart, and he quite accepted this view of the matter, and ordered the surrender of the whole coffin-load of coins to us, the waiters of the café.”
“So you divided it amongst you.”
“Pardon, monsieur; we did not. It is true that the money might legitimately be regarded as belonging to us. But then those defrauded, or most of them, had left long ago, and there were among us some who had not been in service in the café more than a year or eighteen months. We could not trace the old waiters. Some were dead, some had married and left this part of the
country. We were not a corporation. So we held a meeting to discuss what was to be done with the money. We feared, moreover, that unless the spirit of Jean Bouchon were satisfied, he might continue revisiting the café and go on sweeping away the tips. It was of paramount importance to please Jean Bouchon, to lay out the money in such a manner as would commend itself to his feelings. One suggested one thing, one another. One proposed that the sum should be expended on masses for the repose of Jean's soul. But the head waiter objected to that. He said that he thought he knew the mind of Jean Bouchon, and that this would not commend itself to it. He said, did our head waiter, that he knew Jean Bouchon from head to heels. And he proposed that all the coins should be melted up, and that out of them should be cast a statue of Jean Bouchon in bronze, to be set up here in the café, as there were not enough coins to make one large enough to be erected in a Place. If monsieur will step with me he will see the statue; it is a superb work of art.”
He led the way, and I followed.
In the midst of the café stood a pedestals and on this basis a bronze figure about four feet high. It represented a man reeling backward, with a banner in his left hand, and the right raised towards his brow, as though he had been struck there by a bullet. A sabre, apparently fallen from his grasp, lay at his feet. I studied the face, and it most assuredly was utterly unlike Jean Bouchon with his puffy cheeks, mutton-chop whiskers, and broken nose, as I recalled him.
“But,” said I,” the features do not—pardon me—at all resemble those of Jean Bouchon. This might be the young Augustus, or Napoleon I. The profile is quite Greek.”
“It may be so,” replied the waiter. “But we had no photograph to go by. We had to allow the artist to exercise his genius, and, above all, we had to gratify the spirit of Jean Bouchon.”
“I see. But the attitude is inexact. Jean Bouchon fell down the steps headlong, and this represents a man staggering backwards.”
“It would have been inartistic to have shown him precipitated forwards; besides, the spirit of Jean might not have liked it.”
“Quite so. I understand. But the flag?”
“That was an idea of the artist. Jean could not be made holding a coffee-cup. You will see the whole makes a superb subject. Art has its exigencies. Monsieur will see underneath is an inscription on the pedestal.”
I stooped, and with some astonishment read—
MORT SUR LE CHAMP DR GLOIRE 1870
DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI.”
“Why!” objected I,” he died from falling a cropper in the back passage, not on the field of glory.”
“Monsieur! all Orleans is a field of glory. Under S. Aignan did we not repel Attila and his Huns in 451? Under Jeanne d'Arc did we not repulse the English—monsieur will excuse the allusion—in 1429. Did we not recapture Orleans from the Germans in November, 1870?”
“That is all very true,” I broke in. “But Jean Bouchon neither fought against Attila nor with la Pucelle, nor against the Prussians. Then 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' is rather strong, considering the facts.”
“How? Does not monsieur see that the sentiment is patriotic and magnificent?”
“I admit that, but dispute the application.”
“Then why apply it? The sentiment is all right.”
“But by implication it refers to Jean Bouchon, who died, not for his country, but in a sordid coffee-house brawl. Then, again, the date is wrong. Jean Bouchon died in 1869, not in 1870.”
“That is only out by a year.”
“Yes, but with this mistake of a year, and with the quotation from Horace, and with the attitude given to the figure, anyone would suppose that Jean Bouchon had fallen in the retaking of Orleans from the Prussians.”
“Ah! monsieur, who looks on a monument and expects to find thereon the literal truth relative to the deceased?”
“This is something of a sacrifice to truth,” I demurred.
“Sacrifice is superb!” said the waiter. “There is nothing more noble, more heroic than sacrifice.”
“But not the sacrifice of truth.”
“Sacrifice is always sacrifice.”
“Well,” said I, unwilling further to dispute, “this is certainly a great creation out of nothing”
“Not out of nothing; out of the coppers that Jean Bouchon had filched from us, and which choked up his coffin.”
“Jean Bouchon has been seen no more?”
“No, monsieur. And yet—yes, once, when the statue was unveiled. Our patron did that. The café was crowded. All our habitués were there. The patron made a magnificent oration; he drew a superb picture of the moral, intellectual, social, and political merits of Jean Bouchon. There was not a dry eye among the audience, and the speaker choked with emotion. Then, as we stood in a ring, not too near, we saw—I was there and I distinctly saw, so did the others—Jean Bouchon standing with his back to us, looking intently at the statue of himself. Monsieur, as he thus stood I could discern his black mutton-chop whiskers projecting upon each side of his head. Well, sir, not one word was spoken. A dead silence fell upon all. Our patron ceased to speak, and wiped his eyes and blew his nose. A sort of holy awe possessed us all. Then, after the lapse of some minutes, Jean Bouchon turned himself about, and we all saw his puffy pale cheeks, his thick sensual lips, his broken nose, his little pig's eyes. He was very unlike his idealised portrait in the statue; but what matters that? It gratified the deceased, and it injured no one. Well, monsieur, Jean Bouchon stood facing us, and he turned his head from one side to another, and gave us all what I may term a greasy smile. Then he lifted up his hands as though invoking a blessing on us all, and vanished. Since then he has not been seen.”