Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter II

Boulogne Sur Mer, July 15, 1763.

DEAR SIR — The custom-house officers at Boulogne, though as alert, are rather more civil than those on your side of the water. I brought no plate along with me, but a dozen and a half of spoons, and a dozen teaspoons: the first being found in one of our portmanteaus, when they were examined at the bureau, cost me seventeen livres entree; the others being luckily in my servant’s pocket, escaped duty free. All wrought silver imported into France, pays at the rate of so much per mark: therefore those who have any quantity of plate, will do well to leave it behind them, unless they can confide in the dexterity of the shipmasters; some of whom will undertake to land it without the ceremony of examination. The ordonnances of France are so unfavourable to strangers, that they oblige them to pay at the rate of five per cent. for all the bed and table linen which they bring into the kingdom, even though it has been used. When my trunks arrived in a ship from the river Thames, I underwent this ordeal: but what gives me more vexation, my books have been stopped at the bureau; and will be sent to Amiens at my expence, to be examined by the chambre syndicale; lest they should contain something prejudicial to the state, or to the religion of the country. This is a species of oppression which one would not expect to meet with in France, which piques itself on its politeness and hospitality: but the truth is, I know no country in which strangers are worse treated with respect to their essential concerns. If a foreigner dies in France, the king seizes all his effects, even though his heir should be upon the spot; and this tyranny is called the droit d’aubaine founded at first upon the supposition, that all the estate of foreigners residing in France was acquired in that kingdom, and that, therefore, it would be unjust to convey it to another country. If an English protestant goes to France for the benefit of his health, attended by his wife or his son, or both, and dies with effects in the house to the amount of a thousand guineas, the king seizes the whole, the family is left destitute, and the body of the deceased is denied christian burial. The Swiss, by capitulation, are exempted from this despotism, and so are the Scots, in consequence of an ancient alliance between the two nations. The same droit d’aubaine is exacted by some of the princes in Germany: but it is a great discouragement to commerce, and prejudices every country where it is exercised, to ten times the value of what it brings into the coffers of the sovereign.

I am exceedingly mortified at the detention of my books, which not only deprives me of an amusement which I can very ill dispense with; but, in all probability, will expose me to sundry other inconveniencies. I must be at the expence of sending them sixty miles to be examined, and run the risque of their being condemned; and, in the mean time, I may lose the opportunity of sending them with my heavy baggage by sea to Bourdeaux, to be sent up the Garonne to Tholouse, and from thence transmitted through the canal of Languedoc to Cette, which is a sea-port on the Mediterranean, about three or four leagues from Montpelier.

For the recovery of my books, I had recourse to the advice of my landlord, Mons. B—. He is a handsome young fellow, about twenty-five years of age, and keeps house with two maiden sisters, who are professed devotees. The brother is a little libertine, good natured and obliging; but a true Frenchman in vanity, which is undoubtedly the ruling passion of this volatile people. He has an inconsiderable place under the government, in consequence of which he is permitted to wear a sword, a privilege which he does not fail to use. He is likewise receiver of the tythes of the clergy in this district, an office that gives him a command of money, and he, moreover, deals in the wine trade. When I came to his house, he made a parade of all these advantages: he displayed his bags of money, and some old gold which his father had left him. He described his chateau in the country; dropped hints of the fortunes that were settled upon mademoiselles his sisters; boasted of his connexions at court; and assured me it was not for my money that he let his lodgings, but altogether with a view to enjoy the pleasure of my company. The truth, when stript of all embellishments, is this: the sieur B— is the son of an honest bourgeois lately dead, who left him the house, with some stock in trade, a little money, and a paltry farm: his sisters have about three thousand livres (not quite 140 L) apiece; the brother’s places are worth about fifty pounds a year, and his connexions at court are confined to a commis or clerk in the secretary’s office, with whom he corresponds by virtue of his employment. My landlord piques himself upon his gallantry and success with the fair-sex: he keeps a fille de joye, and makes no secret of his amours. He told miss C— the other day, in broken English, that, in the course of the last year, he had made six bastards. He owned, at the same time, he had sent them all to the hospital; but, now his father is dead, he would himself take care of his future productions. This, however, was no better than a gasconade. Yesterday the house was in a hot alarm, on account of a new windfall of this kind: the sisters were in tears; the brother was visited by the cure of the parish; the lady in the straw (a sempstress) sent him the bantling in a basket, and he transmitted it by the carriers to the Enfans trouves at Paris.

But to return from this digression: Mr. B— advised me to send a requete or petition to the chancellor of France, that I might obtain an order to have my books examined on the spot, by the president of Boulogne, or the procureur du roy, or the sub-delegate of the intendance. He recommended an advocat of his acquaintance to draw up the memoire, and introduced him accordingly; telling me at the same time, in private, that if he was not a drunkard, he would be at the head of his profession. He had indeed all the outward signs of a sot; a sleepy eye, a rubicund face, and carbuncled nose. He seemed to be a little out at elbows, had marvellous foul linen, and his breeches were not very sound: but he assumed an air of importance, was very courteous, and very solemn. I asked him if he did not sometimes divert himself with the muse: he smiled, and promised, in a whisper, to shew me some chansonettes de sa facon. Meanwhile he composed the requete in my name, which was very pompous, very tedious, and very abject. Such a stile might perhaps be necessary in a native of France; but I did not think it was at all suitable to a subject of Great-Britain. I thanked him for the trouble he had taken, as he would receive no other gratification; but when my landlord proposed to send the memoire to his correspondent at Paris, to be delivered to the chancellor, I told him I had changed my mind, and would apply to the English ambassador. I have accordingly taken the liberty to address myself to the earl of H—; and at the same time I have presumed to write to the duchess of D — who is now at Paris, to entreat her grace’s advice and interposition. What effect these applications may have, I know not: but the sieur B— shakes his head, and has told my servant, in confidence, that I am mistaken if I think the English ambassador is as great a man at Paris as the chancellor of France.

I ought to make an apology for troubling you with such an unentertaining detail, and consider that the detention of my books must be a matter of very little consequence to any body, but to — Your affectionate humble servant.

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