The Nabob

Author: Alphonse Daudet

Memoirs of an Office Porter in the Antchamber

Great festivities last Saturday in the Place Vendome. In honour of his election, M. Bernard Jansoulet, the new deputy for Corsica, gave a magnificent evening party, with municipal guards at the door, illumination of the entire mansion, and two thousand invitations sent out to fashionable Paris.

I owed to the distinction of my manners, to the sonority of my vocal organ, which the chairman of the board had had occasion to notice at the meetings at the Territorial Bank, the opportunity of taking part in this sumptuous entertainment, at which, for three hours, standing in the vestibule, amid the flowers and hangings, clad in scarlet and gold, with that majesty peculiar to persons who are rather generously built, and with my calves exposed for the first time in my life, I launched, like a cannon-ball, through the five communicating drawingrooms, the name of each guest, which a glittering beadle saluted every time with the "/bing/" of his halberd on the floor.

How many the curious observations which that evening again I was able to make; how many the pleasant sallies, the high-toned jests exchanged among the servants upon all that world as it passed by! Not with the vine-dressers of Montbars in any case should I have heard such drolleries. I should remark that the worthy M. Barreau, to begin with, had caused to be served to us all in his pantry, filled to the ceiling with iced drinks and provisions, a solid lunch well washed down, which put each of us in a good humour that was maintained during the evening by the glasses of punch and champagne pilfered from the trays when dessert was served.

The masters, indeed, seemed in less joyous mood than we. So early as nine o’clock, when I arrived at my post, I was struck by the uneasy nervousness apparent on the face of the Nabob, whom I saw walking with M. de Gery through the lighted and empty drawing-rooms, talking quickly and making large gestures.

"I will kill him!" he said; "I will kill him!"

The other endeavoured to soothe him; then madame came in, and the subject of their conversation was changed.

A mighty fine woman, this Levantine, twice as stout as I am, dazzling to look at with her tiara of diamonds, the jewels with which her huge white shoulders were laden, her back as round as her bosom, her waist compressed within a cuirass of green gold, which was continued in long braids down the whole length of her stiff skirt. I have never seen anything so imposing, so rich. She suggested one of those beautiful white elephants that carry towers on their backs, of which we read in books of travel. When she walked, supporting herself with difficulty by means of clinging to the furniture, her whole body quivered, her ornaments clattered like a lot of old iron. Added to this, a small, very piercing voice, and a fine red face which a little negro boy kept cooling for her all the time with a white feather fan as big as a peacock’s tail.

It was the first time that this indolent and retiring person had showed herself to Parisian society, and M. Jansoulet seemed very happy and proud that she had been willing to preside over his party; which undertaking, for that matter, did not cost the lady much trouble, for, leaving her husband to receive the guests in the first drawing-room, she went and lay down on the divan of the small Japanese room, wedged between two piles of cushions, motionless, so that you could see her from a distance right in the background, looking like an idol, beneath the great fan which her negro waved regularly like a piece of clockwork. These foreign women possess an assurance!

All the same, the Nabob’s irritation had struck me, and seeing the /valet de chambre/ go by, descending the staircase four steps at a time, I caught him on the wing and whispered in his ear:

"What’s the matter, then, with your governor, M. Noel?"

"It is the article in the /Messenger/," was his reply, and I had to give up the idea of learning anything further for the moment, the loud ringing of a bell announcing that the first carriage had arrived, followed soon by a crowd of others.

Wholly absorbed in my occupation, careful to utter clearly the names which were given to me, and to make them echo from salon to salon, I had no longer a thought for anything besides. It is no easy business to announce in a proper manner persons who are always under the impression that their name must be known, whisper it under their breath as they pass, and then are surprised to hear you murder it with the finest accent, and are almost angry with you on account of those entrances which, missing fire and greeted with little smiles, follow upon an ill-made announcement. At M. Jansoulet’s, what made the work still more difficult for me was the number of foreigners—Turks, Egyptians, Persians, Tunisians. I say nothing of the Corsicans, who were very numerous that day, because during my four years at the Territorial I have become accustomed to the pronunciation of those high-sounding, interminable names, always followed by that of the locality: "Paganetti de Porto Vecchio, Bastelica di Bonifacio, Paianatchi de Barbicaglia."

It was always a pleasure to me to modulate these Italian syllables, to give them all their sonority, and I saw clearly, from the bewildered airs of these worthy islanders, how charmed and surprised they were to be introduced in such a manner into the high society of the Continent. But with the Turks, these pashas, beys, and effendis, I had much more trouble, and I must have happened often to fall on a wrong pronunciation; for M. Jansoulet, on two separate occasions, sent word to me to pay more attention to the names that were given to me, and especially to announce in a more natural manner. This remark, uttered aloud before the whole vestibule with a certain roughness, annoyed me greatly, and prevented me—shall I confess it?—from pitying this rich /parvenu/ when I learned, in the course of the evening, what cruel thorns lay concealed in his bed of roses.

From half past ten until midnight the bell was constantly ringing, carriages rolling up under the portico, guests succeeding one another, deputies, senators, councillors of state, municipal councillors, who looked much rather as though they were attending a meeting of shareholders than an evening-party of society people. What could account for this? I had not succeeded in finding an explanation, but a remark of the beadle Nicklauss opened my eyes.

"Do you notice, M. Passajon," said that worthy henchman, as he stood opposite me, halberd in hand, "do you notice how few ladies we have?"

That was it, egad! Nor were we the only two to observe the fact. As each new arrival made his entry I could hear the Nabob, who was standing near the door, exclaim, with consternation in his thick voice like that of a Marseillais with a cold in his head:

"What! all alone?"

The guest would murmur his excuses. "Mn-mn-mn—his wife a trifle indisposed. Certainly very sorry." Then another would arrive, and the same question call forth the same reply.

By its constant repetition this phrase "All alone?" had eventually become a jest in the vestibule; lackeys and footmen threw it at each other whenever there entered a new guest "all alone!" And we laughed and were put in good-humour by it. But M. Nicklauss, with his great experience of the world, deemed this almost general abstention of the fair sex unnatural.

"It must be the article in the /Messenger/," said he.

Everybody was talking about it, this rascally article, and before the mirror garlanded with flowers, at which each guest gave a finishing touch to his attire before entering, I surprised fragments of whispered conversation such as this:

"You have read it?"

"It is horrible!"

"Do you think the thing possible?"

"I have no idea. In any case, I preferred not to bring my wife."

"I have done the same. A man can go everywhere without compromising himself."

"Certainly. While a woman----"

Then they would go in, opera hat under arm, with that conquering air of married men when they are unaccompanied by their wives.

What, then, could there be in this newspaper, this terrible article, to menace to this degree the influence of so wealthy a man? Unfortunately, my duties took up the whole of my time. I could go down neither to the pantry nor to the cloak-room to obtain information, to chat with the coachmen and valets and lackeys whom I could see standing at the foot of the staircase, amusing themselves by jests upon the people who were going up. What will you? Masters give themselves great airs also. How not laugh to see go by with an insolent manner and an empty stomach the Marquis and the Marquise de Bois l’Hery, after all that we have been told about the traffickings of Monsieur and the toilettes of Madame? And the Jenkins couple, so tender, so united, the doctor carefully putting a lace shawl over his lady’s shoulders for fear she should take cold on the staircase; she herself smiling and in full dress, all in velvet, with a great long train, leaning on her husband’s arm with an air that seems to say, "How happy I am!" when I happened to know that, in fact, since the death of the Irishwoman, his real, legitimate wife, the doctor is thinking of getting rid of the old woman who clings to him, in order to be able to marry a chit of a girl, and that the old woman passes her nights in lamentation, and in spoiling with tears whatever beauty she has left.

The humorous thing is that not one of these people had the least suspicion of the rich jests and jeers that were spat over their backs as they passed, not a notion of the filth which those long trains drew after them as they crossed the carpet of the antechamber, and they all would look at you so disdainfully that it was enough to make you die of laughing.

The two ladies whom I have just named, the wife of the governor, a little Corsican, to whom her bushy eyebrows, her white teeth, and her shining cheeks, dark beneath the skin, give the appearance of a woman of Auvergne with a washed face, a good sort, for the rest, and laughing all the time except when her husband is looking at other women; in addition, a few Levantines with tiaras of gold or pearls, less perfect specimens of the type than our own, but still in a similar style, wives of upholsterers, jewellers, regular tradesmen of the establishment, with shoulders as large as shop-fronts, and expensive toilettes; finally, sundry ladies, wives of officials of the Territorial, in sorry, badly creased dresses; these constituted the sole representation of the fair sex in the assembly, some thirty ladies lost among a thousand black coats—that is to say, practically none at all. From time to time Cassagne, Laporte, Grandvarlet, who were serving the refreshments in trays, stopped to inform us of what was passing in the drawing-rooms.

"Ah, my boys, if you could see it! it has a gloom, a melancholy. The men don’t stir from the buffets. The ladies are all at the back, seated in a circle, fanning themselves and saying nothing. The fat old lady does not speak to a soul. I fancy she is sulking. You should see the look on Monsieur! Come, /pere/ Passajon, a glass of Chateau- Larose; it will pick you up a bit."

They were charmingly kind to me, all these young people, and took a mischievous pleasure in doing me the honours of the cellar so often and so copiously, that my tongue commenced to become heavy, uncertain, and as the young folk said to me, in their somewhat free language. "Uncle, you are babbling." Happily the last of the effendis had just arrived, and there was nobody else to announce; for it was in vain that I sought to shake off the impression, every time I advanced between the curtains to send a name hurtling through the air at random, I saw the chandeliers of the drawing-rooms revolving with hundreds of dazzling lights, and the floors slipping away with sharp and perpendicular slopes like Russian mountains. I was bound to get my speech mixed, it is certain.

The cool night-air, sundry ablutions at the pump in the court-yard, quickly got the better of this small discomfort, and when I entered the cloak-room nothing of it was any longer apparent. I found a numerous and gay company collected round a /marquise au champagne/, of which all my nieces, wearing their best dresses, with their hair puffed out and cravats of pink ribbon, took their full share notwithstanding exclamations and bewitching little grimaces that deceived nobody. Naturally, the conversation turned on the famous article, an article by Moessard, it appears, full of frightful occupations which the Nabob was alleged to have followed fifteen or twenty years ago, at the time of his first sojourn in Paris.

It was the third attack of the kind which the /Messenger/ had published in the course of the last week, and that rogue of a Moessard had the spite to send the number each time done up in a packet to the Place Vendome.

M. Jansoulet received it in the morning with his chocolate; and at the same hour his friends and his enemies—for a man like the Nabob could be regarded with indifference by none—would be reading, commenting, tracing for themselves the relation to him a line of conduct designed to save them from becoming compromised. Today’s article must be supposed to have struck hard all the same; for Jansoulet, the coachman, recounted to us a few hours ago, in the Bois, his master had not exchanged ten greetings in the course of ten drives round the lake, while ordinarily his hat is as rarely on his head as a sovereign’s when he takes the air. Then, when they got back, there was another trouble. The three boys had just arrived at the house, all in tears and dismay, brought home from the College Bourdaloue by a worthy father in the interest of the poor little fellows themselves, who had received a temporary leave of absence in order to spare them from hearing in the parlour or the playground any unkind story or painful allusion. Thereupon the Nabob flew into a terrible passion, which caused him to destroy a service of porcelain, and it appears that, had it not been for M. de Gery, he would have rushed off at once to punch Moessard’s head.

"And he would have done very well," remarked M. Noel, entering at these last words, very much excited. "There is not a line of truth in that rascal’s article. My master had never been in Paris before last year. From Tunis to Marseilles, from Marseilles to Tunis, those were his only journeys. But this knave of a journalist is taking his revenge because we refused him twenty thousand francs."

"There you acted very unwisely," observed M. Francis upon this— Monpavon’s Francis, Monpavon the old beau whose solitary tooth shakes about in the centre of his mouth at every word he says, but whom the young ladies regard with a favourable eye all the same on account of his fine manners. "Yes, you were unwise. One must know how to conciliate people, so long as they are in a position to be useful to us or to injure us. Your Nabob has turned his back too quickly upon his friends after his success; and between you and me, /mon cher/, he is not sufficiently firmly established to be able to disregard attacks of this kind."

I thought myself able here to put in a word in my turn:

"That is true enough, M. Noel, your governor is no longer the same since his election. He has adopted a tone and manners which I can hardly but describe as reprehensible. The day before yesterday, at the Territorial, he raised a commotion which you can hardly imagine. He was heard to exclaim before the whole board: ’You have lied to me; you have robbed me, and made me a robber as much as yourselves. Show me your books, you set of rogues!’ If he has treated Moessard in the same sort of fashion, I am not surprised any longer that the latter should be taking his revenge in his newspaper."

"But what does this article say?" asked M. Barreau. "Who is present that has read it?"

Nobody answered. Several had tried to buy it, but in Paris scandal sells like bread. At ten o’clock in the morning there was not a single copy of the /Messenger/ left in the office. Then it occurred to one of my nieces—a sharp girl, if ever there was one—to look in the pocket of one of the numerous overcoats in the cloak-room, folded carefully in large pigeon-holes. At the first which she examined:

"Here it is!" exclaimed the charming child with an air of triumph, as she drew out a /Messenger/ crumpled in the folding like a paper that has just been read.

"Here is another!" cried Tom Bois l’Hery, who was making a search on his own account. A third overcoat, a third /Messenger/. And in every one the same thing: pushed down to the bottom of a pocket, or with its titlepage protruding, the newspaper was everywhere, just as its article must have been in every memory; and one could imagine the Nabob up above exchanging polite phrases with his guests, while they could have reeled off by heart the atrocious things that had been printed about him. We all laughed much at this idea; but we were anxious to make acquaintance in our own turn with this curious article.

"Come, /pere/ Passajon, read it aloud to us."

It was the general desire, and I assented.

I don’t know if you are like me, but when I read aloud I gargle my throat with my voice; I introduce modulations and flourishes to such an extent that I understand nothing of what I am saying, like those singers to whom the sense of the words matters little, provided the notes be true. The thing was entitled "The Boat of Flowers"—a sufficiently complicated story, with Chinese names, about a very rich mandarin, who had at one time in the past kept a "boat of flowers" moored quite at the far end of the town near a barrier frequented by the soldiers. At the end of the article we were not farther on than at the beginning. We tried certainly to wink at each other, to pretend to be clever; but, frankly, we had no reason. A veritable puzzle without solution; and we should still be stuck fast at it if old Francis, a regular rascal who knows everything, had not explained to us that this meeting place of the soldiers must stand for the Military School, and that the "boat of flowers" did not bear so pretty a name as that in good French. And this name, he said it aloud notwithstanding the presence of the ladies. There was an explosion of cries, of "Ah’s!" and "Oh’s!" some saying, "I suspected it!" others, "It is impossible!"

"Pardon me," added Francis, formerly a trumpeter in the Ninth Lancers —the regiment of Mora and of Monpavon—"pardon me. Twenty years ago, during the last half year of my service, I was in barracks in the Military School, and I remember very well that near the fortifications there was a dirty dancing-hall known as the Jansoulet Rooms, with a little furnished flat above and bedrooms at twopence-halfpenny the hour, to which one could retire between two quadrilles."

"You are an infamous liar!" said M. Noel, beside himself with rage—"a thief and a liar like your master. Jansoulet has never been in Paris before now."

Francis was seated a little outside our circle engaged in sipping something sweet, because champagne has a bad effect on his nerves and because, too, it is not a sufficiently distinguished beverage for him. He rose gravely, without putting down his glass, and, advancing towards M. Noel, said to him very quietly:

"You are wanting in manners, /mon cher/. The other evening I found your tone coarse and unseemly. To insult people serves no good purpose, especially in this case, since I happen to have been an assistant to a fencing-master, and, if matters were carried further between us, could put a couple of inches of steel into whatever part of your body I might choose. But I am good-natured. Instead of a sword-thrust, I prefer to give you a piece of advice, which your master will do well to follow. This is what I should do in your place: I should go and find Moessard, and I should buy him, without quibbling about price. Hemerlingue has given him twenty thousand francs to speak; I would offer him thirty thousand to hold his tongue."

"Never! never!" vociferated M. Noel. "I should rather go and knock the rascally brigand’s head off."

"You will do nothing of the kind. Whether the calumny be true or false, you have seen the effect of it this evening. This is a sample of the pleasures in store for you. What can you expect, /mon cher/? You have thrown away your crutches too soon, and thought to walk by yourselves. That is all very well when one is well set up and firm on the legs; but when one had not a very solid footing, and has also the misfortune to feel Hemerlingue at his heels, it is a bad business. Besides, your master is beginning to be short of money; he has given notes of hand to old Schwalbach—and don’t talk to me of a Nabob who gives notes of hand. I know well that you have millions over yonder, but your election must be declared valid before you can touch them; a few more articles like to-day’s, and I answer for it that you will not secure that declaration. You set yourselves up to struggle against Paris, /mon bon/, but you are not big enough for such a match; you know nothing about it. Here we are not in the East, and if we do not wring the necks of people who displease us, if we do not throw them into the water in a sack, we have other methods of effecting their disappearance. Noel, let your master take care. One of these mornings Paris will swallow him as I swallow this plum, without spitting out either the stone or skin."

He was terrible, this old man, and notwithstanding the paint on his face, I felt a certain respect for him. While he was speaking, we could hear the music upstairs, and the horses of the municipal guards shaking their curb-chains in the square. From without, our festivities must have seemed very brilliant, all lighted up by their thousands of candles, and with the great portico illuminated. And when one reflected that ruin perhaps lay beneath it all! We sat there in the vestibule like rats that hold counsel with each other at the bottom of a ship’s hold, when the vessel is beginning to leak and before the crew has found it out, and I saw clearly that all the lackeys and chambermaids would not be long in decamping at the first note of alarm. Could such a catastrophe indeed be possible? And in that case what would become of me, and the Territorial, and the money I had advanced, and the arrears due to me?

That Francis has left me with a cold shudder down my back.


Related Resources

French Literature

Download Options

Title: The Nabob

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Nabob

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Alphonse Daudet, "Memoirs of an Office Porter in the Antchamber," The Nabob, ed. Burton, Isabel, Lady, 1831-1896 and trans. W. Blaydes in The Nabob Original Sources, accessed March 30, 2023,

MLA: Daudet, Alphonse. "Memoirs of an Office Porter in the Antchamber." The Nabob, edited by Burton, Isabel, Lady, 1831-1896, and translated by W. Blaydes, in The Nabob, Original Sources. 30 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Daudet, A, 'Memoirs of an Office Porter in the Antchamber' in The Nabob, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Nabob. Original Sources, retrieved 30 March 2023, from