Stamps - A Philatelic Legend
( Originally Published 1893 )
THERE is a story, almost old enough to be called a tradition, which the stamp collectors of Paris are never tired of telling. Outside of Parisians, few of those to whom the name of that great French Philatelist, Lucius Fontaigne, is familiar, have ever heard the romantic tale which certain Philatelic veterans delight to rehearse to the younger collectors of to-day.
About the spring of 1856, the residents of the vicinity were surprised at the news that the old house at the corner of the Rue de Normandie and the Rue de Saintonge, tenantless for more than twenty years, was at last rented and occupied. The building was a quaint old structure, magnificent in its time, and even then retaining a certain dignity in its decay. It had been occupied by the Due d'Authon when that treacherous nobleman was at the height of his popularity, but since his death it had, for some reason, never found a tenant. Perhaps it was because Varkoff, the Russian ambassador, was believed to have been murdered there ; or perhaps because the neighbors told vague stories of the ghosts and goblins that were popularly believed to take possession of the deserted building after nightfall. At least the large handsome dwelling grew old and faded in solitude, and there was not a man, woman or child in that portion of the city who would have spent a night in the old house for a fortune.. It was, therefore, an interesting, as well as a startling event to the whole community, when the house was renovated and aired, furniture moved in, and a family actually took possession.
The family was not a large one ; only an oid man and a young girl of some ten or twelve years, probably his grand-daughter, besides a couple of servants. The man was• probably not as old as he appeared to be. His form seemed to indicate that he had aged more from weight of care than any other cause. His slight figure was still erect and his step was firm. Only his close shaven lace looked aged and wrinkled. It was some time before even his name was learned. Even then, there were few who believed that his real name was Vadeaux. It was that time there were many prominent men who found it prudent to live in retirement, and the neighborhood believed that he was one of these. Many were the wild guesses made as to his identity, and he was the great topic for gossip in the vicinity for years ; yet, if he knew it, it affected hint not. M. Vadeaux seldom left his house : his grand-daughter, Marie, almost never, and as far as knowledge of what went on inside was concerned, the neighborhood knew no more of it than they did when the ghosts were the sole occupants. The figure of the girl was often seen at the windows looking wistfully out at the children playing across the way. Her life must have been a dull one, shut up without companionship in the gloomy building ; but the old man seemed to desire seclusion from all human beings. Perhaps he had good reason for it. Even the servants were little wiser than total strangers concerning their master's affairs. They had their own part of the house and never left it, except when ordered. There was one room, M. Vadeaux's especial sanctum, that they were never allowed to enter on any pretext. This room was at the north-east corner of the house, in the top storey ; and there M. Vadeaux spent a large portion of his time. The fame of this mysterious room went abroad in the neighborhood (via the local gossips) ; sonic one dubbed it the " lion's den," and the neighborhood was quick to snatch at the name. Some one said that he was a magician and an alchymist, and all the inhabitants of that quarter trembled at the words. But M. Vadeaux went his way untroubled, apparently unconscious that the children avoided him, and that the parents looked at him askance.
I have said that the children,avoided him ; there were a few bold spirits who did not, and leader among these few was young Lucius Fontaigne. He was a sturdy lad. hold and venturous. He came of a line of soldiers, and perhaps that accounted for his bravery. At any rate he scorned to fear the harmless appearing old man, and laughed at the cowards who did. Whenever he passed M. Vadeaux he always saluted him, and in time Vadeaux began to return his salutations. Perhaps it was the contrast between his bearing and that of his companions that first aroused Vadeaux's interest in the boy, or it may have been his manly face and bright eyes. At least, Lucius was surprised, and. spite of his bravery, a little startled, when one day M. Vadeaux proposed to engage him as his valet. At first he was inclined to refuse the ofkr, but he was almost a young man now, and he knew that the money would be a great help to his widowed mother, who, poor woman, had hard work to support herself and son; so at last he consented. Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that the next day lie stood upon the threshold and lifted the old-fashioned knocker. For an instant, as he stood there looking at the gloomy old pile, a strong inclination to draw back almost mastered him, but the next moment the door was opened by Vadeaux himself, and he stepped boldly forward to meet his fate in more ways than one.
It was an eventful morning for Lucius when he was first summoned to attend M. Vadeaux at his study, known abroad has the " lion's den." He had been an inmate of the house for several weeks, and life there seemed to run along pleasantly and smoothly: his work was light and his position altogether a pleasant one. To Marie, his coming had been like a stream of sunshine, for he brightened the old house by his merry ways, and M. Vadeaux seemed pleased that Marie should have a companion to make the days lighter, and relieve the tedious monotony which the young girl had chafed under so long.
The summons to go to the study, which came so suddenly to Lucius that morning, recalled to his mind all the stories that had ever been current in the neighborhood about that same room. As he mounted the stairs leading to it, every story of magic and the black art which he had ever heard came back to him, and, after knocking at the door and being hidden to come in, it required all his courage to enter. He timidly turned the knob, stood for an instant on the threshold, and then, taking a step forward, actually found himself in the dreaded room.
A strange sight met his eyes. The room was a fair sized one, well lit up by one large window in the roof. It was nicely furnished, but it was not the furniture at which Lucius stared in wonder, for everywhere, on the desk at which M. Vadeaux was seated, on the two large tables that stood in the centre of the room side by side, on the walls in large frames, on the little stands and cabinets that occupied every available corner, even on the chairs, and here and there upon the uncarpeted floor, were scattered myriads of postage stamps in many sizes and colors. Postage stamps were everywhere in endless profusion and confusion. Lucius had never before heard of stamp collecting, yet in one instant all fear of the room was removed, and from that moment he was a stamp collector.
M. Vadeaux was gratified at the boy's evident interest in his treasures, and after that he and Lucius spent hours together every day studying and arranging the vast accumulation. M. Vadeaux, although he has been long since forgotten, was one of the very earliest to become interested in stamp collecting. During his exile it had been his main occupation to gather stamps from every quarter of the globe, and he had accumulated millions, many of them common, it is true, but also many of great rarity and value.
The best of his stamps were arranged in large blank books (stamp albums were unknown then), and there was one volume in particular, in which his very choicest specimens were placed, which Lucius was wont to regard with great reverence and which M. Vadeaux prized far more than anything else he possessed. The contents of the book were indeed valuable in monetary worth, for even in those early days, rarities were highly esteemed and highly priced. Many of the greatest rarities were to he found in this wonderful book, which they called the Silver Book, from the color of its binding, and it is no wonder that with such an inspiration Lucius was soon madly enthusiastic over the pursuit. He accompanied M. Vadeaux to the importers' warehouses, where many foreign stamps could be procured ; he went with him to the few stamp shops then in existence ; he helped him at home in the study and arrangement of the collection ; and it was not long before his place in the household came to be one of trust, more like a son's than a servant's.
A half dozen years went quickly by, and with each one Lucius rose higher in the old man's regard. Together they filled the Silver Book until the value of the stamps within it made it worth a thousand times its weight in gold. In those few years Lucius had grown into a young man of splendid promise, strong, active, and intelligent, and Marie was just blossoming into a beautiful womanhood ; yet M. Vadeaux, absorbed in his one hobby, had remained unconscious that in his own dwelling another chapter of the old, old story was being recorded. After his duties of the day were over, Lucius was always to be found with Marie. Shut up in the lonely house, the young people naturally sought each other's society ; they studied together ; they read together ; they grew up together ; and 'twas little wonder that in time they pledged to pass through life together. They were both of them a little fearful of M. Vadeaux. whose manner was always cold, even with Marie, although deep down in his heart he regarded her with pride and affection : but still it was hopefully and gladly that the young lovers went to the old man one morning, and, having told their story, petitioned his blessing and consent.
Perhaps it was from some of his own recollections of high rank of power and authority, or perhaps it was because Marie was really of noble lineage, that when he was thus rudely awakened from his blindness he was displeased. In fact, he was enraged at what he considered Lucius' audacity. It needed few words to emphasize his displeasure. One sentence was sufficient to peremptorily discharge Lucius from his employment. In another he forbade Marie to see or speak with him again, and then he turned coldly to his desk, hardened against the earnest, impetuous words of Lucius and the sobs and pleadings of Marie. At last, in despair, they left him, and then Lucius tried to persuade her to leave the old man and go with him, but she was too loyal to her grandfather for that, and though her love for Lucius was as strong as ever, and she felt as deep grief over their parting as did he, she refused to desert the old man, and Lucius, downcast and despairing, went out forever from the house that had been almost a home to him and began to fight the battle of life alone.
One night, about a year after Lucius' dismissal, a gendarme pacing his lonely heat on the Rue de Saintonge noticed an unusually vivid glare lighting up one end of the avenue, and, rushing to the spot, found that the D'Anthon residence, in which that queer old recluse, Vadeaux, now lived, was on tire. Then that harsh, dreaded cry of " Fire" rose on the air, and almost in an instant the streets were all tumult and confusion. The inhabitants of the neighborhood rushed out half dressed and crowded together tremblingly near the burning building, watching the progress of the flames.
The fire had started at the back of the house, no one knew just how, and was working its way to the front so rapidly that little effort was made to save the building ; the only thing that could be done was to prevent the conflagration from spreading further. The hafts and stairways in front were already filling with smoke, and N. Vadeaux and Marie, aroused by the two servants who had been the first to hear the gendarme's warning cry, had reached the open air almost suffocated. They had saved nothing except the clothes they wore. There was little among the worn and faded furniture that they would have cared to save, but as \l. Vadeaux looked up at the windows of his study, around which the smoke was already curling in fantastic figures, he remembered his stamps with a pang, and his heart almost stood still as he thought of losing that wonderful Silver Book, which had been his study and companion for years. which a fortune could not replace, and which was a fortune in itself.
He started forward in sudden excitement, and would have rushed headlong into the burning building to save that precious volume, had not some of the bystanders held him back. He raged at them for restraining him, and pleaded to be released, and then realizing his helplessness, lie began to offer fabulous rewards to any daring spirit who would save the book. He turned to the crowd which filled the street, and pointing up to the study windows, briefly described the Silver Book and its location, and offered a thousand francs for its recovery. No one moved. A few shuddered. He offered two, then three, then five thousand, without avail, 'Twas risking life at great odds to venture there. The reward might have tempted some one had it not been for the universal fear of the dwelling; but even the boldest shrank back as the flames rose from the roof in a dozen places, and seemed every minute to draw nearer to the corner of the building on which all eyes had been directed, since M. Vadeaux had made his startling offer. There was just a small chance for success, and this chance was growing smaller every second.
M. Vadeaux looked on the crowd around him for a moment in despair, then in a last effort he cried, " Ten thousand ! Ten thousand francs to the man who brings the Silver Book safely to me."
The crowd was silent. Not a man moved, though it would have been a fortune to many. Did I say no one moved ? What, then, is that figure that has suddenly detached itself from the crowd and rushed swiftly for the doorway ? Can it be there is a man so daring, or is it one of the spirits that haunt the place ? Look ! He has gone out of sight up the staircase, up into the dark dense smoke, up into the jaws of death. Will he live to claim his reward? The mob, a minute before noisy and talkative, holds its breath in horror. Vadeaux stands like a statue, his eyes glued upon the doorway where the adventurous man has disappeared, apparently unconscious that Marie has fainted. What ails the old man ? Can it be that he knew that brave man who is venturing his life somewhere in the dark building ? Why does he, for an instant, cover his eyes as if to shut out the sight of the burning building, and then gaze on it again with tenfold more anxiety in his eye than before ? The brave heart in there must have per_ ished ere this, or he would have returned. See ! A great shaft of flame rises at the very edge of the roof. He's lost, indeed. Why ! What's that ?
A mighty cheer suddenly goes up, for there in the doorway stands the man, alive and safe. M. Vadeaux, his eyes almost starting from their sockets, starts forward.
Lucius ! Lucius!" he cries, " thank God," and Lucius, with one mighty effort, totters to the old man's side, and places in his hands the precious book, still sound, though badly singed and scorched, but not more scorched and burnt than he who saved it, and falls exhausted at his feet.
A few months afterward Lucius and Marie were married in the new house on the Rue de Saintonge that had risen from the ashes of the old, and M. Vadeaux. as a fitting gift, presented the happy couple with the Silver Book.