Charles Monselet, Cursed Money (part one)
The Quai des Augustins
Paris is the city of the world where heads are turned most often. On an April morning, in 1851, passersby on the quay of the Grands-Augustins spun with smiles, their eyes following an oddly dressed man.
He had on a vast blue coat, like those in which tradition buttons Goethe and Benjamin Constant; but the solemnity of this diplomatic livery was lessened by a mysterious black vest and cravat of the same color, that prohibited, between them, any trace of linen.
The man was tall and fat, his features open as a fairground. One could read intelligence there…but a disquieting intelligence. Too much activity was in the eyes, too much flare in the nostrils, too much pursing about the lips; in a word, everything was pushed to an extreme—
His hair too untamed, his sideburns too thick; and there escaped from his whole person an exaggeration of the grand manner, which touched on parody.
The chief eccentricity of this colossus consisted of a hat, plush, and royal blue. This headgear was enough to justify the curiosity and smiles of passersby, who took him, some, for a member of the Congress of Peace, others for a snake oil salesman.
The last were no doubt the better advised, for the man in the blue hat, who skimmed the shops on the quay without deigning to notice the books, the engravings, or the stuffed foxes, of which this district of Paris is the receptacle, stopped all at once before a sign, conceived thus:
Eau de cologne, cheap
“Oh! Oh!” he murmured. “That’s my business!”
This sign was hooked on a bookseller’s shop, which combined the sale of perfumes with literature; a shadowed place filled with dust, and punctuated by a spiral staircase having dual ends—or, to put it another way, a climb to the top of two stories cluttered with books, and a plunge to a cellar equally stocked.
The man with the blue hat examined these dispositions, while pretending to study through the glass a few venerable folios, their page-cuts showing red as roast beef. The store at this moment held no one but a young woman, confined behind a counter laden with books. She was sewing…but her distraction was apparent, and via the door that stood open, she looked again and again at the quay. One could with no great perspicacity discern that she waited the arrival of some expected person.
This theory was supported by the inquiring looks she addressed to a large silver watch, suspended above a fireplace, its face towards hers. After six minutes of deliberation, the man in the blue hat, having assured himself the young woman was alone, decided to enter. Disturbed, and deceived in her expectations, she made a movement of irritation, and without rising asked the sacramental question:
“What does monsieur wish?”
“Madame,” he said, executing a wave of greeting as one executes a dance step, “do you stock eau de cologne?”
“Authentic eau de cologne?”
“I will want a formidable quantity. Do you have it in barrels?”
The young woman had spoken only mechanically, while her eyes went as often to the quay, but at this question so unexpected she raised them, and thinking him a joker, gave a dry response:
“That’s a nuisance!”
“Our eau de cologne comes in a flacon, or a refill size for seventy-five centimes.”
“Be it so, mademoiselle (for I believe it is an unmarried woman I address), I will need this liquid in considerable quantity.”
The man uttered his phrases with such assurance that she had to suppose him serious. She took no pause over his eccentric costume. Wasn’t she used, every day, to seeing scholars in the oddest dress, to being chatted up by the most sordid idlers? At his repeated demand, she answered this time politely:
“I would think we could fill any special order, but you’d have to see my father. He’s just gone out… I don’t expect him back for an hour.”
“Ah! Very good. Then today I will take only a few samples.”
“As you please, monsieur.”
“I want fifty of the larger size.”
“Fifty make up one crate.”
“A crate, fine.”
“To what address will you have it sent?”
“But, to take such pains is needless, mademoiselle. I have a servant, there.”
At a signal from the man in the blue hat, entered an urchin. Despite this qualification of servant, we must declare he might have been taken for a common errand boy. The bookseller’s daughter handed him a white wooden crate she had searched out of a cupboard.
“Go, now!” said her singular customer to the errand boy. “You know where to wait for me?”
“Yes, monsieur, what you told me a while ago. It was…”
“Good, good. Begone!”
With infinite grace, he turned himself around, while the little servant carried away the crate.
“Would you be so kind as to send me the itemized bill, mademoiselle?”
She seized a pen. “Sold to whom?”
“To the house of Pomard, Issakoff, and Company, of Constantinople. I am their Paris representative.”
“And… Here, monsieur.”
“You are able to make change?” he said, while producing from a leather wallet—a vehicle bulky as a streetcar—a greasy tissue, covered in characters, and signatures indecipherable.
“I do not know this paper, monsieur,” she said, innocently.
“It is a note from the Bank of Constantinople.”
“Only a moneychanger will take that, monsieur.”
(1863, Charles Monselet, 2022, translation, Stephanie Foster)
Art for these posts, John La Farge, 1861, public domain