Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1298
Bonnard was a retiring philologist, a Member of the Institute, and a bachelor. Therese, his maid, looked after him firmly; she was the real mistress of his domestic arrangements. Bonnard, his mind stuffed with anti-quarian lore about the old abbeys of Paris, lived mostly in the past.
One day a sickly bookseller called and unsuccessfully showed him some cheap editions. Although he bought no books, Bonnard was moved by the thin, intense man. When he inquired of Therese, she told him that the bookseller, Monsieur Coccoz, lived up in the attic under a leaky roof with seldom even a fire, and his wife had just had a baby. Moved to pity, Bonnard sent up some logs for the indigent couple to burn.
Shortly afterward, he heard that the husband had died. Therese sniffed virtuously at the widow, who had far too many admirers. Bonnard saw the beautiful Madame Coccoz only once on the stairs. She showed him her healthy baby and remarked on his kindness in sending firewood.
Ten years later, Bonnard read in a catalog of a manuscript of the GOLDEN LEGEND, a work he wished very much to own. He finally tracked it down, discovering that it was owned by Signor Polizzi, who lived in Sicily. The Italian refused to lend the manuscript, but he invited Bonnard to come to Sicily to read it at his leisure. Although it was a long, hard trip for a shy man of letters, Bonnard set out for Sicily.
On the island he met Prince Trepof, a Russian, and his beautiful wife, whom Bonnard never associated with the young widow he had met once on the stairs years before. They were rich travelers who had nothing to do but to look for matchboxes for the prince’s collection. The princess gently decried her nomadic existence, but she adored her husband.
Signor Polizzi’s house was difficult to reach. Bonnard had to make the last part of the trip by mule litter. When he at last arrived, he found that Polizzi, a slippery jack-of-all-trades, had given the GOLDEN LEGEND to his son, who had opened a shop in Paris. While Bonnard was making the long trip to Sicily, the manuscript had all the time been in a bookshop not far from his apartment. Furious at the unkindness done him, Bonnard poured out his bitter story to the sympathetic princess.
Back in Paris, Bonnard went to the son’s shop; there was the manuscript. The son refused to quote a price on it because he was putting it up at auction. When the sale took place, Bonnard hopefully bid up to six thousand francs, but someone always outbid him. To his consternation, he found that it was Polizzi who had successfully bid on the manuscript. The dealer was acting as agent for a client who had instructed him to buy back the manuscript at any cost.
Back in his apartment, while Bonnard was gloomily thinking of his troubles, a young boy was shown in. The youngster gave him a package from his mother and disappeared, but not before Therese had seen the carriage. The package contained a make-believe log. Inside was a card from the Princess Trepof and a profusion of violets. Under the flowers, Bonnard found the manuscript. Just then, Therese lumbered in to ask what Madame Coccoz was doing in such a rich carriage and why she had stopped at their door.
Monsieur de Gabry invited Bonnard to come to his country estate to catalog the library he had inherited. Bonnard found the estate in run-down condition, but the library was extensive. He happily settled down to his long task.
In front of him on the desk was a tiny fairy who scolded him for his dry preoccupations and threw ink at him. Bonnard awoke with a start and found that a sudden wind had upset his ink bottle. Mme de Gabry listened to the story of his dream with much interest. A few days later, Bonnard came back from a walk to find his dream fairy perched on a console in the hall. As he stared in astonishment, Mme de Gabry came up to introduce Jeanne Alexandre.
Jeanne was a shy girl with red hands. After Mme de Gabry had described the fairy to her, she made a like statuette to surprise Bonnard. The old man was pleased by the gift, and when he heard something of Jeanne’s story, he was moved to emotions he had not felt for years. Jeanne was the granddaughter of Clementine, a girl whom he had loved long ago. Now Jeanne’s relatives were dead, and she was staying a few days with Mme de Gabry. Bonnard resolved to look after the girl for the sake of his dead Clementine.
In Paris Mme de Gabry went with him to Clementine’s grave and there listened to his nostalgic tale. When Bonnard, a young man, had loved her, Clementine’s mother was dead, and she lived with her choleric father, who was a mapmaker. They were renting rooms temporarily from Bonnard’s father. Bonnard was afraid to disclose his love for Clementine, but she seemed to know how he felt. One evening a great quarrel arose between Clementine’s father, a Royalist, and Bonnard’s uncle, a Bonapartist. After the quarrel, Clementine was taken away, and Bonnard never saw her again.
After telling his story, Bonnard asked Mme de Gabry how he could best help the orphan Jeanne. She reminded him that Jeanne had a guardian, Maitre Mouche the notary, who would have to be consulted.
The honest bibliophile cared little for Maitre Mouche’s shifty ways, but the notary gave him permission to visit Jeanne each Thursday afternoon. Jeanne was in Mademoiselle Prefere’s select school, where at first Bonnard was received with suspicion. As soon as Mademoiselle Prefere learned, however, that Bonnard was a Member of the Institute, she was effusive. Immediately, Jeanne began to receive better treatment than she had as a charity student.
During the vacation period, Mlle Prefere frequently brought Jeanne to Bonnard’s apartment. The schoolmistress quickly made herself at home and soon had her favorite rocker and her shelf for her knitting. One afternoon, while Jeanne was in the kitchen, Mlle Prefere proposed marriage to Bonnard, who was thunderstruck at the idea.
The next time he went to the school to see Jeanne, Mlle Prefere received him coldly and forbade him to have anything to do with the girl. Bonnard complained to Maitre Mouche, who upheld Mlle Prefere. Then on a rainy day, Bonnard waited outside the school wall until he saw Jeanne and passed her through the gate by a ruse. Amazed at his own daring in kidnaping a minor, he took her to the de Gabry house.
M. de Gabry undertook to settle the affair with Maitre Mouche, but that worthy had disappeared after embezzling his clients’ funds. Bonnard was legally appointed Jeanne’s guardian and took her home with him.
A young student, Henri Gelis, called on Bonnard for help with his thesis. He soon had eyes only for Jeanne, and eventually he proposed to marry her, even though she had no dowry. Bonnard made arrangements to sell his library so that his ward could have a respectable financial start in her married life. One evening, just before the books were sold, he guiltily took a book and hid it. He would have one volume left, at any rate.
After Jeanne and Gelis were married, Bonnard went to live in Brolles, a small village. There Jeanne and her husband visited him twice each year, and there also he kept the cradle of little Sylvestre, their child who had died. Bonnard often reflected that the parents were young and healthy. There would be more family.
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