A Mystery With A Moral


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 six
y 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


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 successful--he 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 Bible.

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 door--it is more for ornament than use--you see

it as a fixed star of the least magnitude; it burns, but does

little good to the world that we know of.

*Hackney coach.

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

against me."

"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

twelve-sous piece.

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 it--I 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


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

other terms.

I had been misrepresented to Mme. de Q---- as an esprit--Mme. 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 lips.

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 Frenchwoman--she is

coquette, then deist, then devote. The empire during these is

never lost--she 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 too--too soon."

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 V----o'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 Italy.


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


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


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

more so.

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 Savoy.

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!

William Makepeace Thackeray