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Seven Men of Gascony
By R.F. Delderfield
McBooks Press, Inc. Copyright © 1976 May Delderfield
All rights reserved.
The night Gabriel's aunt died he went into her little sitting-room behind the shop and ransacked the old lady's escritoire. The drawers were locked and none of the numerous keys she wore round her neck would fit them. So instead all had to be forced with a toasting-fork.
There was no one left in the house after the doctor had gone and so Gabriel was able to take his time. He went through a forty-year accumulation of receipts and statements of accounts before he found the letter; the old lady had placed it at the bottom of a handsome little workbox which, unfortunately, also required the attentions of the toasting-fork.
It seemed to Gabriel that his aunt had wanted to make everything as difficult as possible. There would have been no necessity for a letter at all if she had shown the slightest willingness to answer some very natural questions regarding his birth and parentage, but the old lady's mind had been a little unhinged by the scenes she witnessed during the Terror in Bordeaux and she had been generally recognized in Agen, the town to which she fled, as eccentric, though not sufficiently so to prevent her from building up a flourishing little business as a pastry cook and confectioner.
Gabriel had lived there alone with her ever since he could remember and, as he grew up, he had assisted with the business, the two of them managing to live quite comfortably on the proceeds of a contract with the two local inns and a limited private clientele.
Gabriel was an odd, dreamy young man, who had a local reputation for excessive amiability but seemed to lack ambition. Families in the Agen district, some of whom had sent two and three sons to the wars since the annual levies were accelerated in the first years of the Empire, could never understand how it was that Gabriel never received his papers. At the time of his aunt's death he was thought to be twenty years of age, and all the lads of eighteen had been called. One of them, Alphonse Briand, the shoemaker's son, was already back with an empty right sleeve and a distressing habit of dribbling.
By the winter of 1808–9, with the war in Spain more than a year old, young men were scarce about Agen, and several mothers with marriageable daughters went out of their way to be agreeable to Gabriel when he called with a basket of his aunt's confectionery. Few made any progress, for although Gabriel was polite and even mildly affectionate towards customers, his thoughts, if he had any, were elsewhere, perhaps with his canvas-covered sketchbook and a favourite grassy nook on the river bank where he could watch both the stream and the main road on the long summer evenings.
He was known to read a good deal and had been a promising pupil at the school of the ex-priest Crichot. He and Crichot still remained on terms of pleasant intimacy, and an excellent crayon sketch of the latter, done by Gabriel during school-hours, continued to hang over Crichot's chimney-piece long after Gabriel had been forgotten in the Agen district.
It would not have been difficult for Gabriel to have found a pretty wife without the help of possible mothers-in-law. He had a frank, pleasing face, intelligent and kindly grey eyes, and a mop of unruly dark-brown hair. His complexion was dark, even for a Gascon, and his high cheekbones and vivid colouring gave him something of an alien look. His hands were long and his fingers sensitive, with neat unblunted fingernails. He was of medium build, but his shoulders were broad. Although he looked, and indeed was, in perfect health, he was shy and his reserve communicated itself to his voice, which was soft but pleasantly modulated. His shyness had been accentuated by the circumstances of his life, spent mostly alone with the eccentric old woman who passed him off as her nephew. Nobody in Agen believed in this relationship; some suspected Gabriel of being the old lady's son, fruit of a solitary youthful romance in the mad days of the Revolution. Had the pair been less inoffensive Agen would have pondered the question more intensively. As it was, the two soon merged into the life of the little town and were accepted, principally on account of Gabriel's amiability and the old lady's undeniably expert cooking.
Having forced the workbox, Gabriel broke the seals of the letter and took out several carefully folded sheets. He noticed that his hands were trembling, but a glance at the contents gave him a sense of anticlimax. None of the papers were in his aunt's unformed handwriting. All were covered with the formal, angular hand of Agen's notary, a fat little man who, as Gabriel recalled, had died some years ago. He experienced a momentary disappointment. Without knowing why, he had always imagined that the contents of the letter would belong to the period when Aunt Marie was in full command of her faculties and, therefore, able to set down the facts herself.
The will was there, and Aunt Marie's estate had been valued at just over eight thousand francs. Gabriel was the sole beneficiary. The letter itself was a dry statement of facts compiled by the notary, presumably at Aunt Marie's dictation.
He began to read.
First there was a brief introduction from the notary, informing him that his client, Mademoiselle Cléry, had issued instructions that the facts below were to be committed to paper and given to Gabriel after her death. The notary sounded somewhat apologetic. It was evident that Aunt Marie had given him a good deal of trouble. The information was set down in paragraph form, the first being the most important. Gabriel read:
Item One. Mademoiselle Cléry asks me to inform you that, in the first instance, you are not her nephew. Your mother's name was Guillame and, as far as Mademoiselle Cléry is aware, she came from somewhere in the Bayonne district. To the best of Mademoiselle Cléry's recollection your father was called Colonna and he was, for a time immediately preceding your birth, employed as a church decorator at Pauillac, in the Gironde. He was an Italian who had been engaged by the de Courcey family to carry out certain repairs to a chapel on the de Courcey estate, where your mother was then employed as a still-room maid.
At this point in the narrative there was a bracketed comment by the notary. It read:
(It would appear that Mademoiselle Cléry never met the party Colonna but only heard of him through your mother. He died, it seems, by falling from a scaffold inside the chapel, his death occurring some months before your birth. I feel it my duty to inform you that Mademoiselle Cléry appeared to be very confused upon this point.)
Item Two. Mademoiselle Cléry further states that at this time she was herself employed in the kitchens of the de Courcey family and that she was present at the time of your birth. Your mother, the party Guillame, died within three days of the event and left no estate. Mademoiselle Cléry took custody of the child and, at a later date, removed herself to Agen following the flight of the de Courcey family to England on the outbreak of the Revolution and the arrival in Bordeaux of the Committee of Public Safety.
Item number two was not entirely news to Gabriel. He had often heard Aunt Marie chatter, in her absent way, of her flight from Bordeaux, and to the end of her life the old lady had been convinced that the minions of Robespierre were still searching for her. Gabriel sometimes suspected that she had actually seen the guillotine at work when the Paris Committee came down to pacify the Gironde.
There were several other items about the business, and these clarified passages in the will.
The document concluded with a further comment from the notary, written, no doubt, to excuse the paucity of information contained in the earlier statement. Underneath Aunt Marie's shaky signature the notary had written:
I feel it my duty to remind you that the above information cannot be regarded as accurate. You are well aware of Mademoiselle Cléry's incoherency, and it was only with considerable difficulty that I was able to marshal the facts contained herein. I was quite unable to place the date of your birth, but my own opinion is that it took place a year or two before the Disturbances, say in 1787–8.
That was all. Gabriel folded the letter with a feeling of inadequacy. He did not even know his age. His mother had been a still-room maid from the Bayonne district, his father an Italian church decorator who might have been called Colonna. It seemed hardly worth waiting a lifetime to learn these facts. He wondered what would have become of him if Aunt Marie had not been employed in the de Courcey kitchens when the party Guillame presented a dead Italian with a token of her affection.
Gabriel felt that he needed advice, and the only place he could seek it was at the house of the ex-priest Crichot, his schoolmaster. He put the letter in his pocket, locked the bakery door and went out.
He found Crichot just sitting down to his supper. The old man was known as a republican who held the Empire and all its glitter in emphatic contempt. He was a man of violent theories but gentle disposition. He took great pains with promising scholars, and Gabriel had always been one of his favourites.
Crichot knew all about Aunt Marie's letter. He read the statement through twice without interrupting his meal while Gabriel watched him nervously.
Finally Crichot pushed both letter and plate aside and began to pick his teeth with an ivory toothpick.
"Well," he observed at last, "and what are you going to do now?" Gabriel said that he had no clear idea; continue the confectionery business, perhaps.
"Can you make cakes?"
Gabriel admitted that he could not. Aunt Marie had always been elaborately secretive about her recipes.
Crichot mused awhile. Presently he said:
"It's an odd thing, Gabriel. I've seen the ceiling paintings of the de Courcey chapel in Pauillac. If they were done by your father he was a man of considerable talent."
Gabriel observed that this was gratifying but thought it was more likely that Colonna had only been called in to restore existing work.
Crichot glanced at the sketch over the mantelshelf and then at Gabriel.
"Do you want to become a painter?" he asked.
As Crichot said this the younger man experienced an odd sensation. Until that moment he had always regarded painting and sketching as a pleasant pastime. It had never assumed much importance in his life but was merely a way of spending odd leisure hours when his duties as baker's roundsman were over for the day. But when the schoolmaster asked the question Gabriel was immediately conscious of an overwhelming desire to move away from Agen, to cross Europe, to cross the seas, to deepen an experience that suddenly seemed to him ridiculously shallow. He could not say why this was so. His entire outlook seemed to have been transformed in a matter of seconds. Before he could sort out his thoughts and answer the old man's question, the ex-priest asked him another which came as an even greater shock.
"Has it occurred to you why you have never been conscripted into the army, Gabriel?"
Strangely enough, his escape had never puzzled him. It occurred to him now that he might have been overlooked on account of the fact that his birth was not officially recorded. He mentioned this to Crichot, but the schoolmaster shook his head.
"That might have answered for a year or so, but you must be more than twenty and the levies are already two years ahead of the legal periods. Your aunt must have bought you off."
"Is that possible?"
"Perfectly possible. I don't know what it costs. The sum probably depends on the state of the local mayor's finances. There was a scandal about it over in Toulouse a year ago, but it still goes on. I daresay the State winks at it — a few hundred francs are worth more than a sickly boy here and there. Why don't you go and talk to old Latrec, the Mayor? He's always in debt with that huge family of his. It wouldn't surprise me if he hadn't made the first approaches to your aunt. I wonder how much you cost her."
A vivid memory flashed through Gabriel's brain. He had been sitting in his riverside nook one golden evening the previous summer, when his ear had caught the creak of wagon wheels coming up the main road from the frontier. He had scrambled up the high bank and stood there for an hour or more, watching a convoy of wounded toil into the town ahead trailing its rolling clouds of dust. The wagons were packed tight with pallid, silent men, men with their uniforms in tatters and filthy bandages showing through their rags. There seemed to be no end of them, and after a while Gabriel had begun to sketch the tail of the dismal procession. The carts and their contents had provoked no pity in him, only a determination to capture the sharp angles of the bones that jutted from the heaving flanks of the half-starved mules, and the almost comic helplessness of a soldier's arm lolling from the tailboard of the last ambulance. He had remained there until the light faded, and the result had been the best watercolour he had ever done. It possessed some indefinable quality, the lack of which made all his other work flat and unsatisfying. He had shown the sketch to no one, not even to Crichot.
"Father," he said at last, "would you say that I was a good painter?"
"I would say that you could become one," replied Crichot, glancing once more at his own portrait above the chimney-piece.
"What is required to improve myself? Practice?"
"Practice, yes," said the old man, "but suffering too. Suffering is more important than practice."
The young man smiled.
"Then I will go!" he announced, rising.
"Go where? To sea, to the Americas, to the Orient to beg your bread?"
"To fight for it," said Gabriel.
Crichot stared at him for a long minute through half-closed eyes.
"As a young fool with an untrained paint-brush, you might do a good deal worse," he said.
To volunteer for service with the Grand Army when he might have purchased at least another year's respite was certainly a mistake on the part of Gabriel Cléry-Guillame-Colonna, judging by the standards of his day and those of his neighbours. But this action had a certain amount of personal justification. However shy and reserved a young man might be, he needed the companionship of other young men; and, if the Emperor's wars continued, as there seemed every likelihood of their doing, it would not be long before he was the only young man in the district apart from the cripples and idiots.
To gain the companionship of men his own age it was inevitable that he should be drawn to the army wherein all the young men of Europe were gathered at that time. Furthermore, if Gabriel was anxious to travel, he would have found it difficult and dangerous to do so as a civilian on a capital of a few thousand francs. It is doubtful whether he would have got out of the department without an inspection of papers leading to some form of detention or of observation by a horde of officials, beginning with Fouché's police agents and ending with agricultural inspectors. The seas were closed by the British blockade, and his land progress east, west, south or north would soon have been checked by war. Even if his papers had been in order, as they must have been to enable him to cross any frontier at all, the appearance of an able-bodied young Frenchman without some sort of uniform would automatically have been questioned. Sooner or later Gabriel might have found himself charged with desertion and sent to drag a shot with the galley-slaves at Brest or Toulon.
In such circumstances Gabriel's act of volunteering cannot be set down as an error. His actions, however, both immediately before and after presenting himself at the Bordeaux depot, were certainly errors. In the first place, he paid his fare by stagecoach into the city, when he might have travelled free on the carrier's cart and arrived almost as soon. In addition, on being questioned by the recruiting sergeant, he admitted to some previous experience with firearms, the old dragoon, Marcel, having taken him shooting in the woods almost every fine Sunday since he was old enough to carry a fowling-piece. The sergeant soon put him to the test and he scored eight hits out of ten at the first practice. Henceforward Gabriel was carefully segregated from the other conscripts (there were no other volunteers) and, after the briefest of training periods, was sent overland to join a company of voltigeurs, sharpshooters attached to the Eighty-seventh Regiment of the line, then on active service south of Vienna. His arrival was timely. The Eighty-seventh was just going into action.
Excerpted from Seven Men of Gascony by R.F. Delderfield. Copyright © 1976 May Delderfield. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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