Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  The Founding of the Brotherhood

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

Henri Murger (1822–1861)

The Founding of the Brotherhood

From “Bohemian Life”

SCHAUNARD had elevated borrowing into a fine art. Foreseeing that it might be necessary to “oppress” foreigners, he had learned the requisite formulas for borrowing five francs in every language under the sun. He had made a profound study of the whole repertory of ruses by which the precious metals are wont to escape their pursuers. No pilot is better acquainted with the state of the tides than he with the times of low and high water; which is to say, the days when his friends and acquaintances were sure to be in funds. So much so, indeed, that if he were seen entering any particular house, people would say, not, “There is M. Schaunard,” but, “To-day is the first, or the fifteenth, of the month.”

Partly to facilitate the collection of this kind of tithe which he levied when hard up, partly to spread it evenly over the area of persons capable of meeting the call, Schaunard had drawn up alphabetical lists of all his acquaintances, and tabulated them under the headings of quarters and districts. Opposite each name he set down the highest possible sum that he could expect to borrow in proportion to the owner’s means, the dates when he was in funds, a time-table of meals, together with the probable bill of fare. Schaunard kept besides a little set of books in perfect order, in which he entered all the sums that he borrowed, down to the most minute fractions, for he had no mind to burden himself with debt beyond a certain figure, and the amount of that figure still hung on the pen of an uncle in Normandy whose property he was one day to inherit. So soon as Schaunard owed twenty francs to any one individual, he stopped borrowing and repaid the money in a lump, even if he had to borrow from others to whom he owed smaller amounts. In this way he always kept up a certain credit on the market, which credit he was pleased to style his “floating debt,” and as it was known that he invariably paid his debts so soon as his resources permitted him to do so, people were very ready to oblige him whenever they could.

But to-day, since eleven o’clock in the morning, when he started out to scrape together those seventy-five indispensable francs, he had only succeeded in making up one poor little five-franc piece. This had been done with the collaboration of the letters M, V, and R on his famous list; all the rest of the alphabet was passing through a precisely similar crisis, and this brought his quest to an end.

By six o’clock a ferocious appetite was ringing the dinner-bell within, and he had reached the Barrière du Maine, where the letter U was domiciled. Schaunard had a napkin-ring in U’s establishment, whenever there were napkins. The porter called after him as he went past.

“Where are you going, sir?”

“Up to Monsieur U——’s.”

“He is out.”

“And the lady of the house?”

“She is out too. They went out to dinner and left a message with me for one of their friends who was sure to come this evening, they said. In fact, they were expecting you, and this is the address they left with me,” added the porter, holding out a scrap of paper.

Schaunard read these words in his friend U’s handwriting:

“Gone to dine with Schaunard, Rue ——. Come and look us up.”

“Well, well,” thought he, as he went away, “when chance comes in, pretty tricks she plays!”

Then Schaunard bethought himself of a little eating-house only a few steps away, where he had made a meal once or twice before for a trifling sum. To this establishment, known to lower Bohemia as La Mère Cadet, he now betook himself. La Mère Cadet, half tavern, half restaurant, situated in the Chaussée du Maine, is patronized largely by carters of the Orléans Road, with a sprinkling of lady-singers from Montparnasse and first walking-gentlemen from Bobino’s. In summer the place is crammed with young aspirants from studios round about the Luxembourg, literary gentlemen unknown to fame, and scribblers attached to more or less mysterious journals, who flock to La Mère Cadet, famous for stewed rabbit, genuine sauerkraut, and a thin white wine with a smack of brimstone.

Two or three stunted trees spread a few sickly green leaves over the heads of diners in the establishment; and beneath the shadow of these shrubs, known to frequenters of La Mère Cadet as “the grove,” Schaunard now took his seat.

“My word! what must be, must!” said he to himself. “Now for a blowout, a private jollification all to myself.”

And, without more ado, he called for soup, a half-portion of sauerkraut, and two half-portions of stewed rabbit, having remarked that in this case two halves are greater than the whole by at least a quarter.

His order attracted the attention of a young person in white, with a wreath of orange-blossoms in her hair; she wore dancing-slippers, and a veil of imitated imitation floated over a pair of shoulders which might have been suffered to preserve their incognito. She was a singer from the Montparnasse theater, where the wings are entrances, as one may say, of La Mère Cadet’s kitchen. The lady, having stepped in for refreshments between the acts of Lucia di Lammermoor, was taking a half-cup of coffee, after a dinner composed simply and solely of an artichoke with oil and vinegar.

“Two portions of stewed rabbit, the dog!” she muttered to the waitress; “the young man goes in for high feeding. What is to pay, Adèle?”

“One artichoke, four; one half-cup, four; and bread, one sou. Nine sous altogether.”

“Here it is,” returned the vocalist, and out she went, humming, This sweet love, the gift of Heaven.

“I say! She can take the la!” remarked a mysterious individual sitting at Schaunard’s table behind a rampart of old books.

“Take it!” ejaculated Schaunard. “I rather think she takes it and keeps it to herself. Besides,” he added, pointing to the plate on which Lucia di Lammermoor had just partaken of her artichoke, “nobody has any idea what it is to steep your head-notes in vinegar.”

“It is a powerful acid, and that is a fact,” admitted the other. “The city of Orléans produces a brand which justly enjoys a great reputation.”

Schaunard took a closer look at this person, who angled thus for conversation. The fixed gaze of the man’s big blue eyes, which always seemed to be looking out for something, gave to his face that expression of smug serenity which you may remark in the visages of seminarists. His complexion was of the color of old ivory, except for a dab of opaque brick-red upon the cheeks; his mouth might have been drawn by a student of the first principles of design (if somebody had given a jog to the draftsman’s elbow). The lips turned up a little, negro-fashion, disclosing a set of dog’s teeth; the double chin below reposed on the folds of a white cravat tied so that one end menaced the firmament, while the other pointed to earth. The hair of this personage flowed in a yellow torrent from under the prodigious brim of a tawny-brown felt hat. He wore a long nut-brown overcoat with a cape, a threadbare garment, rough as a nutmeg-grater. A mass of papers and pamphlets protruded from its yawning pockets. He sat with a book propped up before him on the table, careless of Schaunard’s scrutiny, eating his sauerkraut with evident relish, for sounds of unqualified satisfaction escaped him at frequent intervals; and now again, taking a pencil from behind his ear, he jotted down a note in the margin of the work which he was. perusing.

Schaunard all at once struck his knife against a glass. “How about my stewed rabbit, eh?” he called.

The waitress came up with a plate in her hand.

“Sir,” she said, “stewed rabbit is off the bill. Here is the last portion, and this gentleman ordered it,” she added, setting it down in front of the man of books.

“Confound it!” cried Schaunard. And in that “Confound it!” there was such a depth of melancholy disappointment that it went to the heart of the man of books. He effected a breach in the rampart of volumes, and pushed the plate through the gap, saying in his most dulcet tones:

“May I venture, sir, to entreat you to share this dish with me?”

“I cannot think of depriving you of it, sir.”

“Then would you deprive me of the pleasure of obliging you, sir?”

“Since you put it thus, sir—” And Schaunard held out his plate.

“With your permission,” observed the stranger, “I will not offer you the head.”

“Oh, sir,” exclaimed Schaunard, “I shall not be the loser!”

But, drawing back his plate, he perceived that the stranger had helped him to the very morsel which he particularly desired (so he said) to keep for himself.

“Well, well,” Schaunard growled inwardly, “what was he after, with his politeness?”

“If the head is the noblest part of man,” continued the other, “it is the most disagreeable member of the rabbit. So a great many persons cannot endure it. With me it is different; I am extremely fond of it.”

“In that case I feel the liveliest regret that you should have deprived yourself on my account.”

“What? Pardon me,” said the man of books, “I kept the head for myself. I even had the honor to observe to you that——”

“Allow me,” said Schaunard, pushing his plate across for inspection. “What is this morsel?”

“Just Heaven! What do I see? Ye gods! What, another head! ’Tis a bicephalous rabbit!”


“——cephalous. From the Greek. Indeed, M. de Buffon (he who always wrote in full dress) cites examples of this natural curiosity. Well, upon my word! I am not sorry to have partaken of the phenomenon.”

Thanks to this incident, conversation did not languish. Schaunard, not to be behindhand in civility, called for an extra bottle. The bookman ordered another. Schaunard contributed a salad to the feast; the bookman, dessert. By eight o’clock there were six empty bottles on the table. Communicativeness, watered by libations of thin liquor, had brought them both insensibly to the point of autobiography, and they were as well acquainted as if they had been brought up together. The bookman, having listened to Schaunard’s confidences, informed him in return that his name was Gustave Colline, that he exercised the profession of philosopher, and made a living by giving instruction in mathematics, pedagogy, botany, and numerous other sciences which end in y.

What little money Colline made by giving lessons at pupils’ residences, he spent upon old books. His long nut-brown overcoat was known at every bookstall on the quays, from the Pont de la Concorde to the Pont Saint Michel, where his purchases were so numerous that it would have taken a lifetime and more to read them through. Nobody, he himself least of all, could tell what he did with his books. But the hobby had grown to the dimensions of a passion, so that if he chanced to go home at night without a new acquisition, he would adopt the saying of the Emperor Titus, and cry, “I have lost a day!” Schaunard was so fascinated by his engaging manners, by his talk (a mosaic of every known style), and by the atrocious puns which enlivened his conversation, that he asked leave on the spot to add Colline’s name to the famous list mentioned above. And when they left La Mère Cadet, toward nine o’clock, they had, to every appearance, included the bottles in their conversation, and were passably disguised in liquor.