This short story is taken from Alphonse Daudet’s Letters From My Mill, translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley (Boston: Little, Brown & co, 1901).
The Elixir of the Reverend Père Gaucher
‘Drink that, neighbour, and you will tell tales of it.’
And drop by drop, with the minute care of a lapidary counting pearls, the curé of Graveson poured me out a glassful of a green, gilded, warm, sparkling, exquisite liqueur. My stomach was all sunlit by it.
‘That is the elixir of Père Gaucher, the joy and health of our Provence,’ added the worthy man with a triumphant air. ‘It is made at the convent of the Premontres, two leagues from your mill. Isn’t it worth all the chartreuse in the world? If you only knew how amusing it is, the history of that elixir! Listen, and I will tell it to you.’
Then, very artlessly and without the slightest malice, sitting there in the dining-room of his parsonage, so innocent and so calm, surrounded by the Way of the Cross in little pictures and his white curtains starched like a surplice, the abbé told me the following rather sceptical and irreverent narrative after the style of a tale of Erasmus or d’Assoucy:—
Twenty years ago the Prémontres, or rather ‘the White Fathers’ as they are called in Provence, had fallen into great poverty. If you had seen their house in those days you would have grieved over it.
The great wall and the Pacôme tower, were disappearing in fragments. All around the cloister, overgrown with grass, the columns were splitting and the stone saints crumbling in their niches. Not a window left; not a door that closed. Through the yards, in the chapels, the Rhone wind blew as it does in Camargue, extinguishing the tapers, bending the lead of the sashes, driving the water from the holy basins. But, saddest of all, was the steeple of the convent, silent as an empty pigeon-house; and the fathers, for want of money to buy them a bell, were forced to ring for matins with wooden castanets.
Poor White Fathers! I can see them now in the procession of the Fête-Dieu, defiling sadly in their ragged cloaks, pale, thin, fed on pumpkins and water-melons; and behind them Monseigneur the abbot, coming along with his head down, ashamed to show in the sun his tarnished cross and his white woollen mitre, all moth-eaten. The ladies of the Confraternity wept for pity in the ranks, and the portly standard-bearers scoffed among themselves under their breaths as they pointed to those poor monks:
‘Starlings get thin when they live in flocks.’
The fact is, the unfortunate White Fathers had themselves begun to ask whether it were not better to break up the community, and each take his flight alone through the world in search of a living.
One day, when this grave question was being discussed by the Chapter, some one entered and announced to the prior that Frère Gaucher asked to be heard before the council. You must know, to guide you, that Frère Gaucher was the cattle-keeper of the convent; that is to say, he spent his days going from arcade to arcade of the cloisters, driving before him two emaciated cows to browse upon the grass in the cracks of the pavement. Brought up till he was twelve years old by an old crazy woman of the region, who was called Tante Bégon, received at that age into the convent, the luckless lad had never learned anything except how to drive his beasts and say his Pater-noster; and the latter he said in Provençal, for his brain and his mind were as hard and dull as a leaden dirk. Fervent Christian, however, though a little visionary; living with comfort in a hair shirt, and flagellating himself with robust conviction, and with such an arm!
When he was seen to enter the Chapter room, simple and stolid, bowing to the assembly with his leg behind him, prior, canons and bursar they all began to laugh. That was usually the effect produced, wherever seen, of that good, kind face with its grizzled goat’s-beard and its rather crazy eyes. Frère Gaucher himself was unmoved.
‘My Reverends,’ he said in his simple way, twisting his chaplet of olive-stones, ‘it is a true saying that empty casks hum loudest. Would you believe it, by dint of digging into my poor head, which was hollow enough already, I believe I have found a way to get us out of our difficulties. This is how: You all knew Tante Bégon, that worthy woman who took care of me when I was young (God rest her soul, the old slut! she used to sing villainous songs when drunk). I have to tell you, my reverend fathers, that Tante Bégon, in her lifetime, knew as much and more, about mountain herbs as a Corsican blackbird; so that in her last days she concocted an incomparable elixir by mixing together five or six species of simples which she and I used to go and gather on the Alpilles. That’s many fine years agone; but I think that with the help of Saint Augustine and the permission of our Father-abbot, I may be able, by careful search, to remember the composition of that mysterious elixir. If so, we should need only to put it in bottles and sell it rather dear to enrich the community gently, gently, like our brethren of La Trappe and the Grand—’
He was not allowed to finish. The prior rose and fell upon his neck. The canons grasped his hands. The bursar, more excited than even the others, kissed respectfully the ragged edge of his cassock. Then they all returned to their seats to deliberate; and before the session broke up the Chapter decided to entrust the cows to Frère Thrasybulus, in order to enable Frère Gaucher to give himself wholly to the making of his elixir.
How did the good brother manage to recover the recipe of Tante Bégon? at the cost of what efforts? what vigils? History saith not. But what is certain is, that by the end of six months the liqueur of the White Fathers was already very popular. Throughout the Comtat, throughout the whole region of Aries, not a farm, not a granary that did not have in its storeroom, among bottles of boiled wine and jars of pickled olives, a little brown flask, sealed with the arms of Provence, and bearing the effigy on a silver ticket of a monk in ecstasy. Thanks to the vogue of its elixir, the convent of the Prémontrés grew rich very rapidly. The Pacôme tower was rebuilt; the prior had a new mitre, the church certain handsome painted windows; and within the delicate tracery of the steeple a whole company of bells alighted one fine Easter morning, carolling and tintinnabulating in joyful peals.
As for Frère Gaucher, that poor lay brother, whose rusticities had so long enlivened the Chapter, there was no thought of him any longer. Hence-forth he was known as the Reverend Père Gaucher, man of intellect and great learning, who lived completely apart from the petty and manifold occupations of the cloister, shut up all day in his laboratory, while thirty monks were roaming the hills in search of his odorous simples. This laboratory, into which no one, not even the prior, was allowed to enter, was an old abandoned chapel at the farther end of the canons’ garden. The simplicity of the good fathers made something mysterious and formidable out of it; and if, by way of adventure, an occasional little monk, bold and inquisitive, climbed among the vines to the rose-window of the portal, he slid down very hastily, terrified, on catching sight of Père Gaucher, with a necromantic beard, stooping over his boilers, hydrometer in hand, and, all around him, retorts of rose-marble, gigantic stills, coils of crystal pipe, a fantastic medley which flamed like witchcraft through the red glare of the painted window.
At close of day, while the last Angelus was ringing, the door of this place of mystery opened discreetly, and the Reverend took his way to the church for evening service. ‘Twas a sight to see the greeting he received as he crossed the monastery! The brethren lined up in hedges along his way, whispering:
‘Hush! he knows the secret!..’
The bursar followed and spoke to him with bowed head. In the midst of all this adulation the worthy father advanced, mopping his forehead, his three-cornered shovel hat tipped back around his head like a halo, while he himself looked complacently about him on the great courtyards now full of orange-trees, the blue slate roofs where the new vanes were twirling, and the cloister dazzlingly white between its elegant and floriated columns where the canons in their new gowns filed along, two and two with placid faces.
‘It is to me that they owe it all!’ thought the Reverend, and every time he did so, the thought sent puffs of pride into his heart.
The poor man was well punished for it. You shall see how.
Picture to yourself that one evening after the service had begun, he arrived at the church in a state of extraordinary agitation: red, out of breath, his hood awry, and so bewildered that in taking holy water he soaked his sleeves to the elbow. At first it was thought to be emotion at coming late to church; but when he was seen to bow low to the organ and to the stalls instead of doing reverence to the altar, to rush through the nave like a whirlwind and wander about the choir unable to find his stall, and then, once seated, to bow to right and left, smiling beatifically, a murmur of amazement ran through the aisles. From breviary to breviary the whisper flew:
‘What is the matter with Père Gaucher? What can be the matter with our Père Gaucher?’
Twice the prior, much annoyed, dropped the end of his crozier on the pavement to order silence. In the choir the psalms were going on all right, but the responses lacked vigour.
All of a sudden, in the middle of the Ave verum, behold Père Gaucher flinging himself back in his stall and singing out in a startling voice:
‘Dans Paris, il y a un Pre Blanc,
Patatin, patatan, tarabin, taraban...’
General consternation. Every one rose, shouting out:
‘Take him away! he’s possessed of the devil!’
The canons crossed themselves. Monseigneur’s crozier rapped furiously. But Père Gaucher saw nothing, heard nothing; and two vigorous monks were forced to drag him away through the little door of the choir fighting like a maniac and shouting louder than ever his patatin, taraban.
The next day, at dawn, the unhappy man was on his knees in the prior’s oratory, making his mea culpa with torrents of tears.
‘’Twas the elixir, Monseigneur; the elixir overcame me,’ he said, striking his breast. And seeing him so heart-broken, so repentant, the good prior himself was much moved.
‘Come, come, Père Gaucher, be calm; it will all dry up like dew in the sun. After all, the scandal was not as great as you think. It is true the song was a little hum! hum! But let us hope the novices didn’t understand it. And now, tell me, please, how the thing happened... In trying the elixir, was it? You must have had too heavy a hand... Yes, yes, I understand. Like Schwartz, inventor of gunpowder, you were the victim of your own invention. But tell me, my good friend, is it really necessary that you should try the elixir on yourself?’
‘Unfortunately, Monseigneur, though the gauge will give me the strength and degree of the alcohol, I can’t trust anything but my own palate for the taste, the velvet of the thing.’
‘Ah! very well... But listen to me. When you taste the elixir thus, from necessity, does it seem to you nice? Do you take pleasure in tasting it?’
‘Alas! yes, Monseigneur,’ cried the hapless father, turning scarlet. ‘For the last two nights it has had an aroma, a bouquet!.. I am certain it is the devil himself who has played me this vile trick. And that’s why I am fully determined to use nothing but the gauge henceforth. No matter if the liqueur is not as good... ‘
‘That will never do,’ interrupted the prior, eagerly. ‘We mustn’t expose ourselves to the discontent of customers. You must be careful, now that you are warned, to be upon your guard. Come, how much do you need for the test? Fifteen, or twenty drops? call it twenty. The devil will be pretty clever to catch you with twenty drops... Besides, to avoid all accidents, I exempt you from coming to church any more. You will say the evening service by yourself in the laboratory... And now, go in peace, my Reverend, but, above all, count your drops.’
Alas! in vain did the poor Reverend count his drops; the demon had him fast and would not let him go.
The laboratory heard queer things!
In the daytime all went well. Père Gaucher was calm; he prepared his chafing-dishes, his distillers, sorted his herbs carefully all of them Provençal herbs, delicate, gray, dentelled, full of fragrance and sunshine. But at night, when the simples were infused, and the elixir was simmering in those great copper basins, the martyrdom of the poor man began.
‘Seventeen... eighteen... nineteen... twenty!..’
The drops fell one by one into the silver-gilt goblet. Those twenty, the Father swallowed at a gulp, almost without any pleasure. It was only the twenty-first which he coveted. Oh! that twenty-first drop!.. To escape temptation he went and knelt at the farther end of the laboratory and buried himself in his paternosters. But the warm liqueur still sent up a little steam laden with aromatic perfumes, which floated around and brought him, nolens volens, back to the pans... The liqueur was then of a beautiful golden green... Stooping over it, with flaring nostrils, Père Gaucher stirred it gently with his blowpipe and in the golden sparkles that rolled in that emerald stream he seemed to see the eyes of Tante Bégon, laughing and snapping out as she looked at him.
‘Come, take another drop!’
And from drop to drop, the luckless man ended by filling his goblet to the brim. Then, overcome at last, he let himself fall into a big arm-chair, and there, helpless in body, with eyelids half-closed, he sipped his sin slowly, saying to himself in whispered tones with delicious remorse:
‘Ah! I’ve damned myself! I’m damned.’
The worst of it was that at the bottom of that diabolical elixir he found, by I don’t know what witchcraft, all the vile songs of Tante Bégon, and among them, invariably, the famous rondo of the White Fathers: Patatin, patatan.
Imagine what confusion the next day when his cell neighbours would say, maliciously:
‘Hey! hey! Père Gaucher, you had grasshoppers in your head when you went to bed last night.’
Then followed tears, despair, fasts, hair-shirts, and flagellations. But nothing availed against the demon of that elixir. Every evening at the same hour the demoniacal possession was renewed.
During this time, orders rained on the monastery like a benediction. They came from NÃ®mes, Aix, Avignon, Marseille. Day by day the place assumed, more and more, the air of a manufactory. There were packing brothers, labelling brothers, corresponding brothers, and carting brothers. God’s service lost, this way and that, a good many strokes of the bell; but the poor of the region lost nothing at all, I can tell you that.
However, one fine Sunday morning, just as the bursar was reading to the assembled Chapter his account for the end of the year, and while all the good canons were listening with sparkling eyes and smiles upon their lips, Père Gaucher burst in upon the conference, crying out:
‘Enough, enough! I’ll do it no more! Give me back my cows.’
‘What’s the matter, Père Gaucher?’ asked the prior, who suspected what it was.
‘What’s the matter, Monseigneur? Why this: that I am on the road to a fine eternity of flames and pitchforks. The matter is that I drink, and drink like a wretch.’
‘But I told you to count your drops.’
‘Count my drops, indeed! It is goblets I count by now... Yes, my Reverends, I’ve come to that... Three flasks a night... You see for yourselves it can’t go on... Therefore, make the elixir by whom you will. May God’s fire burn me if I touch it again.’
The Chapter did not laugh this time.
‘But, unhappy man, you will ruin us,’ cried the bursar, flourishing his big book.
‘Do you prefer that I should damn myself?’
On that the prior rose.
‘My Reverends,’ he said, extending his handsome white hand on which shone the pastoral ring. ‘There is a way to arrange all this... It is in the evening, is it not, my dear son, that the demon tempts you?’
‘Yes, Monseigneur, regularly, every evening. So that now, when evening comes, I have, saving your presence, great sweats, like Capitou’s donkey when she sees her load.’
‘Well, be comforted. In future, every evening at service-time, we will recite on your behalf the orison of Saint Augustine, to which plenary indulgence is attached. With that, whatever happens, you are safe. It is absolution during the sin.’
‘Oh! if that is so, thank you, Monseigneur.’
And without another word Père Gaucher returned to his distillery as gay as a lark.
From that moment, every evening at the end of complines, the officiating priest never failed to say:
‘Let us pray for our poor Père Gaucher, who is sacrificing his soul for the interests of the community: Oremtts, Domine...’
And while over all the white hoods prostrate in the shadows of the nave Saint Augustine’s prayer passed quivering, like a little breeze over snow, on the other side of the convent, behind the glowing windows of the laboratory Père Gaucher could be heard singing at the top of his lungs:
‘Dans Paris il y a un Père Blanc,
Patatin, patatan, taraban, tarabin;
Dans Paris il y a un Père Blanc
Qui fait danser des moinettes,
Trin, trin, trin, dans un jardin
Qui fait danser des—’
Here the good father stopped, terrified. ‘Mercy upon me! suppose my parishioners were to overhear that!’