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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1234

Jacques Menetrier’s mother was a long-suffering, plain woman and his father, a merry cook. The father spent several hours each night at a nearby tavern in the company of Jeannette, the hurdy-gurdy woman, and Catherine, the lace maker. Both ladies helped him relive his lusty youth.

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When Jacques was six years old, he was stationed all day long in the chimney corner to turn the spitted roasts. His time was not altogether wasted, however, for he learned his letters at the same time from a beggar Capuchin, Brother Ange. The good Brother Ange ate well at the common table in return for his services, and in secret he sighed for Catherine.

After a drunken brawl, Brother Ange was imprisoned, and Maitre Jerome Coignard, a Greek and Latin scholar, became Jacques’s tutor. As he grew to young manhood, he progressed rapidly under the scholar’s teachings.

Jeannette, complaisant with all, initiated Jacques into the mysteries of love, but, perversely, Jacques was attracted to Catherine, who made fun of Jacques’s beardless chin and refused to take him seriously. Jacques and his father were greatly discomfited when she ran away with Brother Ange.

One evening, a tall, gaunt philosopher entered abruptly, crying that he saw a salamander in the fireplace. Vigorously stirring the ashes, he asked the company if they saw anything. Only Jacques thought he saw the outlines of a beautiful woman in the smoke. The philosopher was much pleased with Jacques’s discernment.

When Monsieur d’Astarac, their strange visitor, learned that the Maitre Jerome could read Greek easily, he arranged to have the abbot and Jacques come to live with him.

At the ruined estate of the philosopher, the two friends were astonished by the rich library. In spite of crumbling walls and overgrown grounds, d’Astarac was evidently wealthy as well as learned. Maitre Jerome was set to work translating the ancient works of Zosimus the Panopolitan, with Jacques as his helper. According to d’Astarac, the only other inhabitant of the estate was Mosaide, a learned Jew over a hundred years old. The Jew lived mysteriously withdrawn in a separate cottage, where he worked on old Hebrew manuscripts.

After several tranquil months, Jacques went for an evening walk into Paris. Brother Ange came up and whispered that a lady was eagerly awaiting him in her carriage. At the rendezvous, Jacques found Catherine seated in an elegant coach. Astonished at her magnificence, Jacques learned that she was now the mistress of de la Gueritaude, a tax collector. Then they kissed fervently and made an appointment for later that night.

The house where Catherine lived was in disturbance when Jacques arrived. She, half-dressed, was shrieking at the door, and lackeys were pursuing Brother Ange with spears. De la Gueritaude had surprised her with her monk. Jacques comforted Catherine ardently, but when de la Gueritaude returned, he rudely shoved Jacques into the street and slammed the door.

Soon afterward, d’Astarac summoned Jacques to a private conference in a secret laboratory, where he told the young man that he would reveal some of the mysteries of philosophy. The spirit world consisted of sylphs, males who helped philosophers, and salamanders, beautiful females in search of human lovers. Since Jacques was well on his way to becoming a philosopher and since he had little to do with carnal women, d’Astarac would show him how to summon a salamander. Guiltily thinking of Catherine, Jacques agreed to try.

D’Astarac helped him open a crystal ball filled with stardust. Feeling overwhelmed, Jacques sank down and d’Astarac left him. After a few minutes, Jacques looked up to see a voluptuous, dark-haired woman in front of him. Although she resisted his advances for a time, she accepted him as her lover, and they spent the night together.

Jacques soon learned that she was no salamander; she was Jael, niece of Mosaide. The fierce old Jew kept her secluded, hiding her from Christian eyes, but Jael came frequently to his room, despite the uncle’s vigilance. One early morning, Maitre Jerome saw her leaving and traced her to Mosaide’s cottage. Although Jael slipped inside unseen, Mosaide saw the abbot from his window and cursed him in Hebrew and Spanish. Not to be outdone, Maitre Jerome cursed the Jew in French and Latin.

That evening, as Maitre Jerome and Jacques passed Catherine’s house, she greeted Jacques with great affection from her doorway. Someone inside slapped her sharply and pulled her inside. It was the noble d’Anquetil, Catherine’s new lover. He invited them in, pleased that he had Jacques for a rival instead of the begging Capuchin.

The four spent an agreeable evening at the card table. Maitre Jerome always won. Catherine sat snuggled close to d’Anquetil, and while vowing eternal fidelity to him, she pressed Jacques’s foot under the table. Suddenly, there was a thunderous rapping outside. De la Gueritaude had returned, furious at being locked out of the house he rented for Catherine.

The four revelers brawled with the tax collector, injuring him gravely and killing one of his lackeys. Jacques, Maitre Jerome, and d’Anquetil fled to d’Astarac’s estate for safety. Jacques put the nobleman in his own room and went to talk with the philosopher, although it was almost morning. Unfortunately, Jael came visiting, and before she could flee, d’Anquetil was smitten with her charms.

D’Anquetil, who had hired carriages so that they could flee the police, wanted to take Jael with him. To Jacques’s horror, Jael agreed after being promised a set of silver plate and a monthly income. In the morning, d’Anquetil and Jael set off in a closed coupe, followed by Maitre Jerome and a morose Jacques.

During the journey, Jacques reproached Jael for her easy switch of lovers, but she took a practical view of the matter. A set of silver plate could not be ignored. One night at an inn, Jael left d’Anquetil’s room to visit Jacques, who was thereafter somewhat more content.

From Jael, Jacques learned that Mosaide was not a hundred years old, but barely sixty years old; and instead of being a famous scholar, he was a banker who had fled Spain after killing a Christian. Furthermore, Mosaide was Jael’s lover.

Shocked by these disclosures, Jacques was uneasy at the sight of a mysterious carriage which followed them closely. His apprehensions were justified one night when they ran into a bridge and broke a wheel. Jacques, d’Anquetil, and Jael waited for repairs in a nearby dell, while Maitre Jerome searched the wreckage for bottles of wine.

In the darkness, Mosaide, who had been following the runaways, fell upon the abbot and wounded him mortally, for the jealous Jew thought that Maitre Jerome had stolen Jael. The monk died in a neighboring village, where he had been carried for medical aid. Mourning his tutor and friend, Jacques returned to his parents in Paris.

Later, Jacques went to pay a visit to d’Astarac. When he arrived, he saw the big house blazing fiercely. D’Astarac was burned to death in the fire, and Mosaide drowned in a swamp as he tried to run away. Gradually, the memory of Jael became less poignant and Jacques found his true vocation. He became a bookseller and supported his parents in dignity in their old age.

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