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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897)

Father Gaucher’s Elixir

From “Letters from My Mill”

“DRINK this, neighbor; you’ll have something to tell me about it.” And drop by drop, with the minute care with which a lapidary counts his pearls, the vicar of Graveson poured out for me ten drops of a greenish-gold, sparkling, exquisite cordial. A flood of sunshine seemed to enter my stomach.

“That is the elixir of Father Gaucher, the joy and health of our land of Provence,” the good man said to me with a triumphant air. “It is distilled at the convent of the Prémontrés brothers, two miles from your mill. Isn’t that worth all the Chartreuse cordials in the world? And if you only knew how amusing the history of this cordial is! You had better hear it.”

And then, very simply, without the slightest intention of malice—there, in the dining-room of his parsonage, so white and calm with its pictures of our Lord’s Passion, its clean, pretty curtains folded like surplices—the good priest told me a slightly skeptical and irreverent story, after the manner of Erasmus or Assoucy.


Twenty years ago the Prémontrés, or rather the white fathers, as our people of Provence call them, had fallen into great poverty. If you had seen their house at that time you would have felt sorry.

The great wall and the tower were crumbling away. All about the cloister the statues and saints of stone in their niches were overgrown with grass, and falling into ruins. Not a colored window that was whole, not a door that would lock. In the oratories, in the chapels, blew the wind of the Rhône, extinguishing the tapers, breaking the lead from the windows, spilling the holy water. But the saddest sight of all was the clock-tower of the convent, silent as an empty pigeon-house; and the fathers, having no money to buy chimes, were obliged to sound matins by clicking bits of almond-wood together.

Poor white fathers! I see them still in procession on Corpus Christi day, passing by sadly in their patched capes, pale, thin, fed on melons, and behind them their abbot with bowed head, ashamed of showing his giltless crozier in the sun, and his woolen miter. The members of the ladies’ society in the procession wept with pity, and the standard-bearer sneered down at the poor monks:

“The starlings grow thin when they flock together.”

The fact is, that the white fathers had themselves come to the point where they began to ask themselves whether it would not be better for them to take their flight out into the world, each to seek his own subsistence.

But one day, when this grave question was being debated in the chapter, it was announced to the prior that Father Gaucher wished to be heard in counsel. You must know that this Father Gaucher was the cowherd of the convent—that is to say, that he passed his days in driving before him the two lean cows of the convent, who nibbled their grass from the cracks of the pavement. Brought up until he was twelve by a foolish old woman of the Baux country, who was called Aunt Bégon, then taken in by the monks, the poor cowherd had never been able to learn anything but to drive the cows and say his paternoster. Thus they said, after the manner of Provence, that he had a hard head, and a soul like a lump of lead. Otherwise he was a fervent Christian, though a little visionary, comfortable under his haircloth, and administering the discipline of the Church to himself with robust conviction and stout arms.

When he was seen to enter the chapter hall, stupid and awkward, saluting the assembly with one leg behind him, the prior, the canons, the treasurer—everybody began to laugh. That vacant gray face, with its goatlike beard and its dull eyes, produced the same effect wherever it appeared, a fact that made no impression on Father Gaucher.

“Reverend fathers,” he said in his innocent tone, playing with his rosary of olive-wood, “it is a true saying that empty barrels have the loudest echo. Just think, by racking my poor brains, which are so muddled already, I believe that I have found a way of getting us out of our troubles.

“This is the way to do it. You know Aunt Bégon well, that good woman who took care of me when I was small. God rest her soul, the old wretch, but she used to sing wicked songs when she had been drinking. But let me tell you, reverend fathers, that old Aunt Bégon, when she was alive, knew as much about the herbs that grow on the mountains, if not more, than an old Corsican blackbird. Indeed, toward the end of her life she compounded an incomparable cordial by blending five or six kinds of herbs which we can gather on the hills. It’s many years ago now, but with the help of St. Augustine and the permission of our father abbot, I think that I may yet, by a good search, rediscover the composition of that mysterious elixir. All we need then do is to bottle it and sell it at a good price, and thus our community will grow comfortably wealthy, as our brothers of La Trappe and La Grande Chartreuse are.”

He was hardly allowed to finish. The abbot had sprung up to fall on his neck. The canons pressed his hands. The treasurer, more deeply moved than the others, respectfully kissed the frayed hem of his cowl. Then they returned to their seats to deliberate, and finally the chapter decided to confide the cows henceforth to Brother Thrasybulus, in order that Brother Gaucher be able to devote himself wholly to the manufacture of his cordial.

How did the good brother succeed in recovering the prescription of Aunt Bégon? At the cost of what efforts, of what long watches, his story does not relate. But the fact of the matter is that at the end of six months the elixir of the white fathers had already attained popularity. In all Comté, in the whole land of Arles, there was not a house that had not in its pantry, among its wine-flasks and olive-jars, a little brown earthenware jar, bearing the arms of Provence, and an ecstatic monk on a silver label. Thanks to the popularity of its elixir, the house of the white fathers quickly grew rich. The tower was rebuilt. The prior had a new miter, the church new windows of stained glass; under the fretted stone of the clock-tower a set of chimes and bells was ready to ring, and one fair Easter morning there tinkled and chimed peal on peal.

As for Father Gaucher, whose rusticities were a source of gaiety to the whole chapter—he was no longer known in the convent. In his place had appeared the Rev. Father Gaucher, a wise and learned man, who lived in entire isolation amid the many petty duties of the convent, and was shut up all day in his distillery, while thirty monks hunted the mountains to procure his aromatic herbs. This distillery, which no one, not even the prior, had the right to enter, was an old abandoned chapel at the end of the canons’ garden. The good fathers, in their simplicity, had invested it with a reputation of mystery and peril; and if by chance some bold and inquisitive novice, climbing along the running vines, arrived at the rose-shaped window of the gate, he tumbled down quickly enough, frightened at having seen Father Gaucher, with his beard like a wizard, bending over his furnace, hydrometer in his hand. All about him were ranged jars of red sandstone, gigantic retorts, curiously shaped crystals—a grotesque assortment that flamed as if bewitched, shimmering luridly against the window-panes.

At sunset, when the last Angelus rang out, the door of this mysterious place opened discreetly, and the reverend father went to church for the evening service. You should have seen the respect shown him in the monastery. The brothers drew up in line as he passed, and whispered:

“Hush, he has the secret!”

The treasurer truckled to him, and spoke to him with bowed head. Amid this adulation the good monk went his way, wiping his forehead, his cowl with its white borders thrown back so that it looked like an aureole; with great satisfaction he contemplated the orange-trees in the courts, the blue roofs on which new weathercocks were turning, and, in the gleaming cloister, between graceful flowery columns, the sumptuously dressed canons, as they passed two by two, peace written in their faces.

“All this they owe to me!” Father Gaucher said to himself; and each time this thought puffed him up with pride.

The poor man was well punished for his pride, as you shall see.

Now imagine that one evening, during the sacred service, he came to church extraordinarily agitated: red, panting, his cowl crosswise and so confused that when he came to the holy water he steeped his sleeves into it up to the elbow. It was thought at first that he was confused at being late; but when he began to bow low before the organ and the galleries instead of kneeling at the high altar, when he skipped across the church in three strides, wandered about the choir five minutes before he found his stall, and then bowed right and left with a beatified grin, a murmur of astonishment ran through the naves. From breviary to breviary went the whisper:

“What can be the matter with Father Gaucher?”

Twice the impatient prior let his crozier fall on the marble slabs to command silence. In the choir the psalms were sung, but never a response.

Suddenly, in the midst of the ave verum, our good Father Gaucher turned about in his stall, and intoned in a resounding voice:

  • “In Paris a white father dwells,
  • Patatin, patatan, tarabin, taraban——”
  • Universal consternation. Everybody rose. They cried:

    “Take him away! He is possessed!”

    The canons crossed themselves. The abbot’s crozier rolled down. But Father Gaucher saw nothing, heard nothing. Two stout monks had to take him off through the little choir-gate. He struggled like a madman, and continued his “Patatin, patatan——”

    The next day, in the early morning, the unhappy man was on his knees in the prior’s oratory, confessing his sin with a stream of tears.

    “The elixir, my Lord, that elixir took me by surprise,” he said, beating his breast. And at seeing him so crushed, so repentant, the good prior was himself moved.

    “Come, come, Father Gaucher, be calm; it will all dry up like moisture in the sun. After all, the scandal was not as great as you think. It was only the song that was a little—Well, well, it’s to be hoped that the novices did not hear it. But now tell me how the thing happened to you. It came from tasting the elixir, didn’t it? Yes, yes, I understand. Like our Brother Schwarz, the inventor of gunpowder, you have fallen a victim to your own ingenuity. But tell me, my dear friend, is it quite necessary that you try this terrible elixir yourself?”

    “Unfortunately, it is. Instruments may test the quantity and strength of the alcohol, but for the exquisite finish, for the smoothness of taste, the tongue alone will do.”

    “Ah, very well. But tell me one thing. When you are thus obliged to taste the cordial, does it seem good to you? Do you take pleasure in it?”

    “Alas, yes,” said the poor father, and turned red. “For the last two evenings it has had a flavor, an aroma! Surely Satan himself is playing me this evil trick. But henceforth I am determined to use the test-tube alone. So much the worse if the cordial is not quite so delicate, nor has so pearly a flow.”

    “By no means!” the prior objected quickly. “We must not risk the dissatisfaction of our customers. All you have to do, now that you know your danger, is to be on your guard. How much do you need to take to test the cordial’s quality? Fifteen or twenty drops. Let’s put it at twenty. The devil must be very sharp to catch you with twenty drops. However, to prevent accidents, I henceforth dispense you from attendance at vespers. You will repeat the service in your distillery. And now go in peace, dear Brother; but be sure to count your drops.”

    Alas, the poor reverend father counted his drops in vain! The demon held him, and would not release him.

    The distillery became the scene of strange vesper services. During the day all would go well. Father Gaucher, then quite himself, would prepare his retorts, carefully assort his herbs—those exquisite, shapely herbs of Provence, saturated with scent and sunshine. But in the evening, when all the elements had been compounded, and when the elixir simmered in its great basins of red copper, then the poor man’s martyrdom would begin.


    The drops fell from the reed into a vermilion goblet. The twenty drops—the poor father gulped them down, almost without pleasure. It was the twenty-first drop that excited his appetite. Oh, that twenty-first drop! Then, to escape the temptation, he knelt down at the end of the laboratory and plunged into paternosters. But from the warm cordial there floated to him a little whiff so aromatic that, whether he would or not, he was drawn back to the basins. The cordial was of a beautiful greenish-golden tint. Bent over it with distended nostrils, the father stirred it with a reed, and in the little glittering waves of that emerald flood he seemed to see the green eyes of Aunt Bégon laughing and gleaming at him.

    Ah, one drop more!

    And, from drop to drop, the poor fellow ended by filling his goblet to the brim. Then, at the end of his power of resistance, he fell into a huge armchair, and, with legs stretched out and eyes half closed, he swallowed his sin in little gulps, repeating with a delicious feeling of remorse:

    “I am damning myself, I am damning myself.”

    But the most terrible thing of all was that at the bottom of his goblet he discovered, through some fiendish influence, all the wicked old songs of Aunt Bégon: Three Little Wenches at a Feast, and The Shepherdess Went Alone to the Wood, and, above all, that famous ditty of the white fathers, Patatin, Patatan.

    Think of his confusion on the morrow, when his neighbors said to him, with sly looks:

    “Oh, oh, Father Gaucher, the crickets were chirping in your cell last night.”

    Then came tears and despair and haircloth and fasting and chastising of the body. But nothing could prevail against the demon of the elixir, and every evening at the same hour the evil possession began again.

    And all that time orders rained upon the monastery like a blessing. They came from Nimes, from Aix, from Avignon, from Marseilles. From day to day the convent assumed more and more the appearance of a factory. There were brothers who did the packing, brothers who pasted on the labels, brothers who put the bottles into pasteboard boxes. Many hours were lost to the service of God; but the good people of the district lost nothing by it, I assure you.

    And then, one fine Sunday morning, as the treasurer was reading the year’s accounts to the whole chapter, and while the good canons listened with dancing eyes and smiling lips, suddenly Father Gaucher sprang into the midst of the assembly and cried:

    “This business is over! I’ll have no more of it! Give me my cows!”

    “But what is wrong, Father Gaucher?” asked the abbot, who had a strong suspicion of what was coming.

    “The matter is, my Lord, that I am on the straight path to a fine eternity of flames and tortures. I drink—I drink—like mad!”

    “But did I not tell you to count your drops?”

    “To count my drops! It’s a question of counting goblets now. Yes, reverend Fathers, that’s what I’ve come to: three goblets an evening. You see that that can’t go on. Have your elixir made by whom you will, but may God strike me dead if ever I touch it again!”

    It was not the chapter that laughed now.

    “But you will ruin us!” cried the treasurer, shaking the great ledger at him.

    “Would you rather see me damned?”

    Then the abbot arose.

    “Reverend Brothers,” said he, extending his fair white hand, on which the pastoral ring glittered, “there is a way out of the difficulty. It is in the evening, is it not, my dear son, when the demon tempts you?”

    “Yes, regularly every evening. And at night, too, saving your presence, I have sweats like an ass when he sees the stick preparing for him.”

    “Very well; be easy. Henceforth, every evening at vespers, we will recite for your benefit that prayer of St. Augustine, to which a plenary indulgence is attached. Whatever happens then, you will be safe. You will receive absolution even at the moment of your sin.”

    “Ah, well, in that case—I am much obliged to you.”

    And without another word, swift as a swallow, Father Gaucher hastened back to his retorts.

    So, in fact, every evening, at the end of the service, the celebrant would say:

    “Let us pray for our poor Father Gaucher, who is sacrificing his soul for the sake of the community. Oremus Domine——”

    And while the prayer swept over those white cowls prostrate in the nave, as a winter wind sweeps over snow, far away, at the end of the convent, behind the flaming windows of the distillery, one could hear Father Gaucher singing:

  • “In Paris a white father dwells,
  • Patatin, patatan, tarabin, taraban!
  • In Paris a white father dwells,
  • Who makes the little wenches dance,
  • Trin, trin, trin, in a garden dance,
  • Who makes the little——”

  • *****

    Here the worthy vicar stopped in dismay:

    “Merciful heavens! What if my parishioners heard me!”