Issoudun, be it said without offence to Paris, is one of the oldest cities in France. In spite of the historical assumption which makes the emperor Probus the Noah of the Gauls, Caesar speaks of the excellent wine of Champ–Fort (“de Campo Forti”) still one of the best vintages of Issoudun. Rigord writes of this city in language which leaves no doubt as to its great population and its immense commerce. But these testimonies both assign a much lesser age to the city than its ancient antiquity demands. In fact, the excavations lately undertaken by a learned archaeologist of the place, Monsieur Armand Peremet, have brought to light, under the celebrated tower of Issoudun, a basilica of the fifth century, probably the only one in France. This church preserves, in its very materials, the sign-manual of an anterior civilization; for its stones came from a Roman temple which stood on the same site.
Issoudun, therefore, according to the researches of this antiquary, like other cities of France whose ancient or modern autonym ends in “Dun” (“dunum”) bears in its very name the certificate of an autochthonous existence. The word “Dun,” the appanage of all dignity consecrated by Druidical worship, proves a religious and military settlement of the Celts. Beneath the Dun of the Gauls must have lain the Roman temple to Isis. From that comes, according to Chaumon, the name of the city, Issous–Dun — “Is” being the abbreviation of “Isis.” Richard Coeur-delion undoubtedly built the famous tower (in which he coined money) above the basilica of the fifth century — the third monument of the third religion of this ancient town. He used the church as a necessary foundation, or stay, for the raising of the rampart; and he preserved it by covering it with feudal fortifications as with a mantle. Issoudun was at that time the seat of the ephemeral power of the Routiers and the Cottereaux, adventurers and free-lancers, whom Henry II. sent against his son Richard, at the time of his rebellion as Comte de Poitou.
The history of Aquitaine, which was not written by the Benedictines, will probably never be written, because there are no longer Benedictines: thus we are not able to light up these archaeological tenebrae in the history of our manners and customs on every occasion of their appearance. There is another testimony to the ancient importance of Issoudun in the conversion into a canal of the Tournemine, a little stream raised several feet above the level of the Theols which surrounds the town. This is undoubtedly the work of Roman genius. Moreover, the suburb which extends from the castle in a northerly direction is intersected by a street which for more than two thousand years has borne the name of the rue de Rome; and the inhabitants of this suburb, whose racial characteristics, blood, and physiognomy have a special stamp of their own, call themselves descendants of the Romans. They are nearly all vine-growers, and display a remarkable inflexibility of manners and customs, due, undoubtedly, to their origin — perhaps also to their victory over the Cottereaux and the Routiers, whom they exterminated on the plain of Charost in the twelfth century.
After the insurrection of 1830, France was too agitated to pay much attention to the rising of the vine-growers of Issoudun; a terrible affair, the facts of which have never been made public — for good reasons. In the first place, the bourgeois of Issoudun refused to allow the military to enter the town. They followed the use and wont of the bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages and declared themselves responsible for their own city. The government was obliged to yield to a sturdy people backed up by seven or eight thousand vine-growers, who had burned all the archives, also the offices of “indirect taxation,” and had dragged through the streets a customs officer, crying out at every street lantern, “Let us hang him here!” The poor man’s life was saved by the national guard, who took him to prison on pretext of drawing up his indictment. The general in command only entered the town by virtue of a compromise made with the vine-growers; and it needed some courage to go among them. At the moment when he showed himself at the hotel-deville, a man from the faubourg de Rome slung a “volant” round his neck (the “volant” is a huge pruning-hook fastened to a pole, with which they trim trees) crying out, “No more clerks, or there’s an end to compromise!” The fellow would have taken off that honored head, left untouched by sixteen years of war, had it not been for the hasty intervention of one of the leaders of the revolt, to whom a promise had been made that the chambers should be asked to suppress the excisemen.
In the fourteenth century, Issoudun still had sixteen or seventeen thousand inhabitants, remains of a population double that number in the time of Rigord. Charles VII. possessed a mansion which still exists, and was known, as late as the eighteenth century, as the Maison du Roi. This town, then a centre of the woollen trade, supplied that commodity to the greater part of Europe, and manufactured on a large scale blankets, hats, and the excellent Chevreautin gloves. Under Louis XIV., Issoudun, the birthplace of Baron and Bourdaloue, was always cited as a city of elegance and good society, where the language was correctly spoken. The curate Poupard, in his History of Sancerre, mentions the inhabitants of Issoudun as remarkable among the other Berrichons for subtlety and natural wit. To-day, the wit and the splendor have alike disappeared. Issoudun, whose great extent of ground bears witness to its ancient importance, has now barely twelve thousand inhabitants, including the vine-dressers of four enormous suburbs — those of Saint–Paterne, Vilatte, Rome, and Alouette, which are really small towns. The bourgeoisie, like that of Versailles, are spread over the length and breadth of the streets. Issoudun still holds the market for the fleeces of Berry; a commerce now threatened by improvements in the stock which are being introduced everywhere except in Berry.
The vineyards of Issoudun produce a wine which is drunk throughout the two departments, and which, if manufactured as Burgundy and Gascony manufacture theirs, would be one of the best wines in France. Alas, “to do as our fathers did,” with no innovations, is the law of the land. Accordingly, the vine-growers continue to leave the refuse of the grape in the juice during its fermentation, which makes the wine detestable, when it might be a source of ever-springing wealth, and an industry for the community. Thanks to the bitterness which the refuse infuses into the wine, and which, they say, lessens with age, a vintage will keep a century. This reason, given by the vine-grower in excuse for his obstinacy, is of sufficient importance to oenology to be made public here; Guillaume le Breton has also proclaimed it in some lines of his “Phillippide.”
The decline of Issoudun is explained by this spirit of sluggishness, sunken to actual torpor, which a single fact will illustrate. When the authorities were talking of a highroad between Paris and Toulouse, it was natural to think of taking it from Vierzon to Chateauroux by way of Issoudun. The distance was shorter than to make it, as the road now is, through Vatan, but the leading people of the neighborhood and the city council of Issoudun (whose discussion of the matter is said to be recorded), demanded that it should go by Vatan, on the ground that if the highroad went through their town, provisions would rise in price and they might be forced to pay thirty sous for a chicken. The only analogy to be found for this proceeding is in the wilder parts of Sardinia, a land once so rich and populous, now so deserted. When Charles Albert, with a praiseworthy intention of civilization, wished to unite Sassari, the second capital of the island, with Cagliari by a magnificent highway (the only one ever made in that wild waste by name Sardinia), the direct line lay through Bornova, a district inhabited by lawless people, all the more like our Arab tribes because they are descended from the Moors. Seeing that they were about to fall into the clutches of civilization, the savages of Bornova, without taking the trouble to discuss the matter, declared their opposition to the road. The government took no notice of it. The first engineer who came to survey it, got a ball through his head, and died on his level. No action was taken on this murder, but the road made a circuit which lengthened it by eight miles!
The continual lowering of the price of wines drunk in the neighborhood, though it may satisfy the desire of the bourgeoisie of Issoudun for cheap provisions, is leading the way to the ruin of the vine-growers, who are more and more burdened with the costs of cultivation and the taxes; just as the ruin of the woollen trade is the result of the non-improvement in the breeding of sheep. Country-folk have the deepest horror of change; even that which is most conducive to their interests. In the country, a Parisian meets a laborer who eats an enormous quantity of bread, cheese, and vegetables; he proves to him that if he would substitute for that diet a certain portion of meat, he would be better fed, at less cost; that he could work more, and would not use up his capital of health and strength so quickly. The Berrichon sees the correctness of the calculation, but he answers, “Think of the gossip, monsieur.” “Gossip, what do you mean?” “Well, yes, what would people say of me?” “He would be the talk of the neighborhood,” said the owner of the property on which this scene took place; “they would think him as rich as a tradesman. He is afraid of public opinion, afraid of being pointed at, afraid of seeming ill or feeble. That’s how we all are in this region.” Many of the bourgeoisie utter this phrase with feelings of inward pride.
While ignorance and custom are invincible in the country regions, where the peasants are left very much to themselves, the town of Issoudun itself has reached a state of complete social stagnation. Obliged to meet the decadence of fortunes by the practice of sordid economy, each family lives to itself. Moreover, society is permanently deprived of that distinction of classes which gives character to manners and customs. There is no opposition of social forces, such as that to which the cities of the Italian States in the Middle Ages owed their vitality. There are no longer any nobles in Issoudun. The Cottereaux, the Routiers, the Jacquerie, the religious wars and the Revolution did away with the nobility. The town is proud of that triumph. Issoudun has repeatedly refused to receive a garrison, always on the plea of cheap provisions. She has thus lost a means of intercourse with the age, and she has also lost the profits arising from the presence of troops. Before 1756, Issoudun was one of the most delightful of all the garrison towns. A judicial drama, which occupied for a time the attention of France, the feud of a lieutenant-general of the department with the Marquis de Chapt, whose son, an officer of dragoons, was put to death — justly perhaps, yet traitorously, for some affair of gallantry — deprived the town from that time forth of a garrison. The sojourn of the forty-fourth demi-brigade, imposed upon it during the civil war, was not of a nature to reconcile the inhabitants to the race of warriors.
Bourges, whose population is yearly decreasing, is a victim of the same social malady. Vitality is leaving these communities. Undoubtedly, the government is to blame. The duty of an administration is to discover the wounds upon the body-politic, and remedy them by sending men of energy to the diseased regions, with power to change the state of things. Alas, so far from that, it approves and encourages this ominous and fatal tranquillity. Besides, it may be asked, how could the government send new administrators and able magistrates? Who, of such men, is willing to bury himself in the arrondissements, where the good to be done is without glory? If, by chance, some ambitious stranger settles there, he soon falls into the inertia of the region, and tunes himself to the dreadful key of provincial life. Issoudun would have benumbed Napoleon.
As a result of this particular characteristic, the arrondissement of Issoudun was governed, in 1822, by men who all belonged to Berry. The administration of power became either a nullity or a farce — except in certain cases, naturally very rare, which by their manifest importance compelled the authorities to act. The procureur du roi, Monsieur Mouilleron, was cousin to the entire community, and his substitute belonged to one of the families of the town. The judge of the court, before attaining that dignity, was made famous by one of those provincial sayings which put a cap and bells on a man’s head for the rest of his life. As he ended his summing-up of all the facts of an indictment, he looked at the accused and said: “My poor Pierre! the thing is as plain as day; your head will be cut off. Let this be a lesson to you.” The commissary of police, holding office since the Restoration, had relations throughout the arrondissement. Moreover, not only was the influence of religion null, but the curate himself was held in no esteem.
It was this bourgeoisie, radical, ignorant, and loving to annoy others, which now related tales, more or less comic, about the relations of Jean–Jacques Rouget with his servant-woman. The children of these people went none the less to Sunday-school, and were as scrupulously prepared for their communion: the schools were kept up all the same; mass was said; the taxes were paid (the sole thing that Paris extracts of the provinces), and the mayor passed resolutions. But all these acts of social existence were done as mere routine, and thus the laxity of the local government suited admirably with the moral and intellectual condition of the governed. The events of the following history will show the effects of this state of things, which is not as unusual in the provinces as might be supposed. Many towns in France, more particularly in the South, are like Issoudun. The condition to which the ascendency of the bourgeoisie has reduced that local capital is one which will spread over all France, and even to Paris, if the bourgeois continues to rule the exterior and interior policy of our country.
Now, one word of topography. Issoudun stretches north and south, along a hillside which rounds towards the highroad to Chateauroux. At the foot of the hill, a canal, now called the “Riviere forcee” whose waters are taken from the Theols, was constructed in former times, when the town was flourishing, for the use of manufactories or to flood the moats of the rampart. The “Riviere forcee” forms an artificial arm of a natural river, the Tournemine, which unites with several other streams beyond the suburb of Rome. These little threads of running water and the two rivers irrigate a tract of wide-spreading meadow-land, enclosed on all sides by little yellowish or white terraces dotted with black speckles; for such is the aspect of the vineyards of Issoudun during seven months of the year. The vine-growers cut the plants down yearly, leaving only an ugly stump, without support, sheltered by a barrel. The traveller arriving from Vierzon, Vatan, or Chateauroux, his eyes weary with monotonous plains, is agreeably surprised by the meadows of Issoudun — the oasis of this part of Berry, which supplies the inhabitants with vegetables throughout a region of thirty miles in circumference. Below the suburb of Rome, lies a vast tract entirely covered with kitchen-gardens, and divided into two sections, which bear the name of upper and lower Baltan. A long avenue of poplars leads from the town across the meadows to an ancient convent named Frapesle, whose English gardens, quite unique in that arrondissement, have received the ambitious name of Tivoli. Loving couples whisper their vows in its alleys of a Sunday.
Traces of the ancient grandeur of Issoudun of course reveal themselves to the eyes of a careful observer; and the most suggestive are the divisions of the town. The chateau, formerly almost a town itself with its walls and moats, is a distinct quarter which can only be entered, even at the present day, through its ancient gateways — by means of three bridges thrown across the arms of the two rivers — and has all the appearance of an ancient city. The ramparts show, in places, the formidable strata of their foundations, on which houses have now sprung up. Above the chateau, is the famous tower of Issoudun, once the citadel. The conqueror of the city, which lay around these two fortified points, had still to gain possession of the tower and the castle; and possession of the castle did not insure that of the tower, or citadel.
The suburb of Saint–Paterne, which lies in the shape of a palette beyond the tower, encroaching on the meadow-lands, is so considerable that in the very earliest ages it must have been part of the city itself. This opinion derived, in 1822, a sort of certainty from the then existence of the charming church of Saint–Paterne, recently pulled down by the heir of the individual who bought it of the nation. This church, one of the finest specimens of the Romanesque that France possessed, actually perished without a single drawing being made of the portal, which was in perfect preservation. The only voice raised to save this monument of a past art found no echo, either in the town itself or in the department. Though the castle of Issoudun has the appearance of an old town, with its narrow streets and its ancient mansions, the city itself, properly so called, which was captured and burned at different epochs, notably during the Fronde, when it was laid in ashes, has a modern air. Streets that are spacious in comparison with those of other towns, and well-built houses form a striking contrast to the aspect of the citadel — a contrast that has won for Issoudun, in certain geographies, the epithet of “pretty.”
In a town thus constituted, without the least activity, even business activity, without a taste for art, or for learned occupations, and where everybody stayed in the little round of his or her own home, it was likely to happen, and did happen under the Restoration in 1816 when the war was over, that many of the young men of the place had no career before them, and knew not where to turn for occupation until they could marry or inherit the property of their fathers. Bored in their own homes, these young fellows found little or no distraction elsewhere in the city; and as, in the language of that region, “youth must shed its cuticle” they sowed their wild oats at the expense of the town itself. It was difficult to carry on such operations in open day, lest the perpetrators should be recognized; for the cup of their misdemeanors once filled, they were liable to be arraigned at their next peccadillo before the police courts; and they therefore judiciously selected the night time for the performance of their mischievous pranks. Thus it was that among the traces of divers lost civilizations, a vestige of the spirit of drollery that characterized the manners of antiquity burst into a final flame.
The young men amused themselves very much as Charles IX. amused himself with his courtiers, or Henry V. of England and his companions, or as in former times young men were wont to amuse themselves in the provinces. Having once banded together for purposes of mutual help, to defend each other and invent amusing tricks, there presently developed among them, through the clash of ideas, that spirit of malicious mischief which belongs to the period of youth and may even be observed among animals. The confederation, in itself, gave them the mimic delights of the mystery of an organized conspiracy. They called themselves the “Knights of Idleness.” During the day these young scamps were youthful saints; they all pretended to extreme quietness; and, in fact, they habitually slept late after the nights on which they had been playing their malicious pranks. The “Knights” began with mere commonplace tricks, such as unhooking and changing signs, ringing bells, flinging casks left before one house into the cellar of the next with a crash, rousing the occupants of the house by a noise that seemed to their frightened ears like the explosion of a mine. In Issoudun, as in many country towns, the cellar is entered by an opening near the door of the house, covered with a wooden scuttle, secured by strong iron hinges and a padlock.
In 1816, these modern Bad Boys had not altogether given up such tricks as these, perpetrated in the provinces by all young lads and gamins. But in 1817 the Order of Idleness acquired a Grand Master, and distinguished itself by mischief which, up to 1823, spread something like terror in Issoudun, or at least kept the artisans and the bourgeoisie perpetually uneasy.
This leader was a certain Maxence Gilet, commonly called Max, whose antecedents, no less than his youth and his vigor, predestined him for such a part. Maxence Gilet was supposed by all Issoudun to be the natural son of the sub-delegate Lousteau, that brother of Madame Hochon whose gallantries had left memories behind them, and who, as we have seen, drew down upon himself the hatred of old Doctor Rouget about the time of Agathe’s birth. But the friendship which bound the two men together before their quarrel was so close that, to use an expression of that region and that period, “they willingly walked the same road.” Some people said that Maxence was as likely to be the son of the doctor as of the sub-delegate; but in fact he belonged to neither the one nor the other — his father being a charming dragoon officer in garrison at Bourges. Nevertheless, as a result of their enmity, and very fortunately for the child, Rouget and Lousteau never ceased to claim his paternity.
Max’s mother, the wife of a poor sabot-maker in the Rome suburb, was possessed, for the perdition of her soul, of a surprising beauty, a Trasteverine beauty, the only property which she transmitted to her son. Madame Gilet, pregnant with Maxence in 1788, had long desired that blessing, which the town attributed to the gallantries of the two friends — probably in the hope of setting them against each other. Gilet, an old drunkard with a triple throat, treated his wife’s misconduct with a collusion that is not uncommon among the lower classes. To make sure of protectors for her son, Madame Gilet was careful not to enlighten his reputed fathers as to his parentage. In Paris, she would have turned out a millionaire; at Issoudun she lived sometimes at her ease, more often miserably, and, in the long run, despised. Madame Hochon, Lousteau’s sister, paid sixty francs a year for the lad’s schooling. This liberality, which Madame Hochon was quite unable to practise on her own account because of her husband’s stinginess, was naturally attributed to her brother, then living at Sancerre.
When Doctor Rouget, who certainly was not lucky in sons, observed Max’s beauty, he paid the board of the “young rogue,” as he called him, at the seminary, up to the year 1805. As Lousteau died in 1800, and the doctor apparently obeyed a feeling of vanity in paying the lad’s board until 1805, the question of the paternity was left forever undecided. Maxence Gilet, the butt of many jests, was soon forgotten, — and for this reason: In 1806, a year after Doctor Rouget’s death, the lad, who seemed to have been created for a venturesome life, and was moreover gifted with remarkable vigor and agility, got into a series of scrapes which more or less threatened his safety. He plotted with the grandsons of Monsieur Hochon to worry the grocers of the city; he gathered fruit before the owners could pick it, and made nothing of scaling walls. He had no equal at bodily exercises, he played base to perfection, and could have outrun a hare. With a keen eye worthy of Leather-stocking, he loved hunting passionately. His time was passed in firing at a mark, instead of studying; and he spent the money extracted from the old doctor in buying powder and ball for a wretched pistol that old Gilet, the sabot-maker, had given him. During the autumn of 1806, Maxence, then seventeen, committed an involuntary murder, by frightening in the dusk a young woman who was pregnant, and who came upon him suddenly while stealing fruit in her garden. Threatened with the guillotine by Gilet, who doubtless wanted to get rid of him, Max fled to Bourges, met a regiment then on its way to Egypt, and enlisted. Nothing came of the death of the young woman.
A young fellow of Max’s character was sure to distinguish himself, and in the course of three campaigns he did distinguish himself so highly that he rose to be a captain, his lack of education helping him strenuously. In Portugal, in 1809, he was left for dead in an English battery, into which his company had penetrated without being able to hold it. Max, taken prisoner by the English, was sent to the Spanish hulks at the island of Cabrera, the most horrible of all stations for prisoners of war. His friends begged that he might receive the cross of the Legion of honor and the rank of major; but the Emperor was then in Austria, and he reserved his favors for those who did brilliant deeds under his own eye: he did not like officers or men who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner, and he was, moreover, much dissatisfied with events in Portugal. Max was held at Cabrera from 1810 to 1814.1 During those years he became utterly demoralized, for the hulks were like galleys, minus crime and infamy. At the outset, to maintain his personal free will, and protect himself against the corruption which made that horrible prison unworthy of a civilized people, the handsome young captain killed in a duel (for duels were fought on those hulks in a space scarcely six feet square) seven bullies among his fellow-prisoners, thus ridding the island of their tyranny to the great joy of the other victims. After this, Max reigned supreme in his hulk, thanks to the wonderful ease and address with which he handled weapons, to his bodily strength, and also to his extreme cleverness.
1 The cruelty of the Spaniards to the French prisoners at Cabrera was very great. In the spring of 1811, H.M. brig “Minorca,” Captain Wormeley, was sent by Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, then commanding the Mediterranean fleet, to make a report of their condition. As she neared the island, the wretched prisoners swam out to meet her. They were reduced to skin and bone; many of them were naked; and their miserable condition so moved the seamen of the “Minorca” that they came aft to the quarter-deck, and asked permission to subscribe three days’ rations for the relief of the sufferers. Captain Wormeley carried away some of the prisoners, and his report to Sir Charles Cotton, being sent to the Admiralty, was made the basis of a remonstrance on the part of the British government with Spain on the subject of its cruelties. Sir Charles Cotton despatched Captain Wormeley a second time to Cabrera with a good many head of live cattle and a large supply of other provisions. — Tr.
But he, in turn, committed arbitrary acts; there were those who curried favor with him, and worked his will, and became his minions. In that school of misery, where bitter minds dreamed only of vengeance, where the sophistries hatched in such brains were laying up, inevitably, a store of evil thoughts, Max became utterly demoralized. He listened to the opinions of those who longed for fortune at any price, and did not shrink from the results of criminal actions, provided they were done without discovery. When peace was proclaimed, in April, 1814, he left the island, depraved though still innocent. On his return to Issoudun he found his father and mother dead. Like others who give way to their passions and make life, as they call it, short and sweet, the Gilets had died in the almshouse in the utmost poverty. Immediately after his return, the news of Napoleon’s landing at Cannes spread through France; Max could do no better than go to Paris and ask for his rank as major and for his cross. The marshal who was at that time minister of war remembered the brave conduct of Captain Gilet in Portugal. He put him in the Guard as captain, which gave him the grade of major in the infantry; but he could not get him the cross. “The Emperor says that you will know how to win it at the first chance,” said the marshal. In fact, the Emperor did put the brave captain on his list for decoration the evening after the fight at Fleurus, where Gilet distinguished himself.
After the battle of Waterloo Max retreated to the Loire. At the time of the disbandment, Marshal Feltre refused to recognize Max’s grade as major, or his claim to the cross. The soldier of Napoleon returned to Issoudun in a state of exasperation that may well be conceived; he declared that he would not serve without either rank or cross. The war-office considered these conditions presumptuous in a young man of twenty-five without a name, who might, if they were granted, become a colonel at thirty. Max accordingly sent in his resignation. The major — for among themselves Bonapartists recognized the grades obtained in 1815 — thus lost the pittance called half-pay which was allowed to the officers of the army of the Loire. But all Issoudun was roused at the sight of the brave young fellow left with only twenty napoleons in his possession; and the mayor gave him a place in his office with a salary of six hundred francs. Max kept it a few months, then gave it up of his own accord, and was replaced by a captain named Carpentier, who, like himself, had remained faithful to Napoleon.
By this time Gilet had become grand master of the Knights of Idleness, and was leading a life which lost him the good-will of the chief people of the town; who, however, did not openly make the fact known to him, for he was violent and much feared by all, even by the officers of the old army who, like himself, had refused to serve under the Bourbons, and had come home to plant their cabbages in Berry. The little affection felt for the Bourbons among the natives of Issoudun is not surprising when we recall the history which we have just given. In fact, considering its size and lack of importance, the little place contained more Bonapartists than any other town in France. These men became, as is well known, nearly all Liberals.
In Issoudun and its neighborhood there were a dozen officers in Max’s position. These men admired him and made him their leader — with the exception, however, of Carpentier, his successor, and a certain Monsieur Mignonnet, excaptain in the artillery of the Guard. Carpentier, a cavalry officer risen from the ranks, had married into one of the best families in the town — the Borniche–Herau. Mignonnet, brought up at the Ecole Polytechnique, had served in a corps which held itself superior to all others. In the Imperial armies there were two shades of distinction among the soldiers themselves. A majority of them felt a contempt for the bourgeois, the “civilian,” fully equal to the contempt of nobles for their serfs, or conquerors for the conquered. Such men did not always observe the laws of honor in their dealings with civilians; nor did they much blame those who rode rough-shod over the bourgeoisie. The others, and particularly the artillery, perhaps because of its republicanism, never adopted the doctrine of a military France and a civil France, the tendency of which was nothing less than to make two nations. So, although Major Potel and Captain Renard, two officers living in the Rome suburb, were friends to Maxence Gilet “through thick and thin,” Major Mignonnet and Captain Carpentier took sides with the bourgeoisie, and thought his conduct unworthy of a man of honor.
Major Mignonnet, a lean little man, full of dignity, busied himself with the problems which the steam-engine requires us to solve, and lived in a modest way, taking his social intercourse with Monsieur and Madame Carpentier. His gentle manners and ways, and his scientific occupations won him the respect of the whole town; and it was frequently said of him and of Captain Carpentier that they were “quite another thing” from Major Potel and Captain Renard, Maxence, and other frequenters of the cafe Militaire, who retained the soldierly manners and the defective morals of the Empire.
At the time when Madame Bridau returned to Issoudun, Max was excluded from the society of the place. He showed, moreover, proper self-respect in never presenting himself at the club, and in never complaining of the severe reprobation that was shown him; although he was the handsomest, the most elegant, and the best dressed man in the place, spent a great deal of money, and kept a horse — a thing as amazing at Issoudun as the horse of Lord Byron at Venice. We are now to see how it was that Maxence, poor and without apparent means, was able to become the dandy of the town. The shameful conduct which earned him the contempt of all scrupulous or religious persons was connected with the interests which brought Agathe and Joseph to Issoudun.
Judging by the audacity of his bearing, and the expression of his face, Max cared little for public opinion; he expected, no doubt, to take his revenge some day, and to lord it over those who now condemned him. Moreover, if the bourgeoisie of Issoudun thought ill of him, the admiration he excited among the common people counterbalanced their opinion; his courage, his dashing appearance, his decision of character, could not fail to please the masses, to whom his degradations were, for the most part, unknown, and indeed the bourgeoisie themselves scarcely suspected its extent. Max played a role at Issoudun which was something like that of the blacksmith in the “Fair Maid of Perth”; he was the champion of Bonapartism and the Opposition; they counted upon him as the burghers of Perth counted upon Smith on great occasions. A single incident will put this hero and victim of the Hundred–Days into clear relief.
In 1819, a battalion commanded by royalist officers, young men just out of the Maison Rouge, passed through Issoudun on its way to go into garrison at Bourges. Not knowing what to do with themselves in so constitutional a place as Issoudun, these young gentlemen went to while away the time at the cafe Militaire. In every provincial town there is a military cafe. That of Issoudun, built on the place d’Armes at an angle of the rampart, and kept by the widow of an officer, was naturally the rendezvous of the Bonapartists, chiefly officers on half-pay, and others who shared Max’s opinions, to whom the politics of the town allowed free expression of their idolatry for the Emperor. Every year, dating from 1816, a banquet was given in Issoudun to commemorate the anniversary of his coronation. The three royalists who first entered asked for the newspapers, among others, for the “Quotidienne” and the “Drapeau Blanc.” The politics of Issoudun, especially those of the cafe Militaire, did not allow of such royalist journals. The establishment had none but the “Commerce,”— a name which the “Constitutionel” was compelled to adopt for several years after it was suppressed by the government. But as, in its first issue under the new name, the leading article began with these words, “Commerce is essentially constitutional,” people continued to call it the “Constitutionel,” the subscribers all understanding the sly play of words which begged them to pay no attention to the label, as the wine would be the same.
The fat landlady replied from her seat at the desk that she did not take those papers. “What papers do you take then?” asked one of the officers, a captain. The waiter, a little fellow in a blue cloth jacket, with an apron of coarse linen tied over it, brought the “Commerce.”
“Is that your paper? Have you no other?”
“No,” said the waiter, “that’s the only one.”
The captain tore it up, flung the pieces on the floor, and spat upon them, calling out —
In ten minutes the news of the insult offered to the Constitution Opposition and the Liberal party, in the supersacred person of its revered journal, which attacked priests with courage and the wit we all remember, spread throughout the town and into the houses like light itself; it was told and repeated from place to place. One phrase was on everybody’s lips —
“Let us tell Max!”
Max soon heard of it. The royalist officers were still at their game of dominos when that hero entered the cafe, accompanied by Major Potel and Captain Renard, and followed by at least thirty young men, curious to see the end of the affair, most of whom remained outside in the street. The room was soon full.
“Waiter, my newspaper,” said Max, in a quiet voice.
Then a little comedy was played. The fat hostess, with a timid and conciliatory air, said, “Captain, I have lent it!”
“Send for it,” cried one of Max’s friends.
“Can’t you do without it?” said the waiter; “we have not got it.”
The young royalists were laughing and casting sidelong glances at the new-comers.
“They have torn it up!” cried a youth of the town, looking at the feet of the young royalist captain.
“Who has dared to destroy that paper?” demanded Max, in a thundering voice, his eyes flashing as he rose with his arms crossed.
“And we spat upon it,” replied the three young officers, also rising, and looking at Max.
“You have insulted the whole town!” said Max, turning livid.
“Well, what of that?” asked the youngest officer.
With a dexterity, quickness, and audacity which the young men did not foresee, Max slapped the face of the officer nearest to him, saying —
“Do you understand French?”
They fought near by, in the allee de Frapesle, three against three; for Potel and Renard would not allow Max to deal with the officers alone. Max killed his man. Major Potel wounded his so severely, that the unfortunate young man, the son of a good family, died in the hospital the next day. As for the third, he got off with a sword cut, after wounding his adversary, Captain Renard. The battalion left for Bourges that night. This affair, which was noised throughout Berry, set Max up definitely as a hero.
The Knights of Idleness, who were all young, the eldest not more than twenty-five years old, admired Maxence. Some among them, far from sharing the prudery and strict notions of their families concerning his conduct, envied his present position and thought him fortunate. Under such a leader, the Order did great things. After the month of May, 1817, never a week passed that the town was not thrown into an uproar by some new piece of mischief. Max, as a matter of honor, imposed certain conditions upon the Knights. Statutes were drawn up. These young demons grew as vigilant as the pupils of Amoros — bold as hawks, agile at all exercises, clever and strong as criminals. They trained themselves in climbing roofs, scaling houses, jumping and walking noiselessly, mixing mortar, and walling up doors. They collected an arsenal of ropes, ladders, tools, and disguises. After a time the Knights of Idleness attained to the beau-ideal of malicious mischief, not only as to the accomplishment but, still more, in the invention of their pranks. They came at last to possess the genius for evil that Panurge so much delighted in; which provokes laughter, and covers its victims with such ridicule that they dare not complain. Naturally, these sons of good families of Issoudun possessed and obtained information in their households, which gave them the ways and means for the perpetration of their outrages.
Sometimes the young devils incarnate lay in ambush along the Grand’rue or the Basse rue, two streets which are, as it were, the arteries of the town, into which many little side streets open. Crouching, with their heads to the wind, in the angles of the wall and at the corners of the streets, at the hour when all the households were hushed in their first sleep, they called to each other in tones of terror from ambush to ambush along the whole length of the town: “What’s the matter?” “What is it?” till the repeated cries woke up the citizens, who appeared in their shirts and cotton night-caps, with lights in their hands, asking questions of one another, holding the strangest colloquies, and exhibiting the queerest faces.
A certain poor bookbinder, who was very old, believed in hobgoblins. Like most provincial artisans, he worked in a small basement shop. The Knights, disguised as devils, invaded the place in the middle of the night, put him into his own cutting-press, and left him shrieking to himself like the souls in hell. The poor man roused the neighbors, to whom he related the apparitions of Lucifer; and as they had no means of undeceiving him, he was driven nearly insane.
In the middle of a severe winter, the Knights took down the chimney of the collector of taxes, and built it up again in one night apparently as it was before, without making the slightest noise, or leaving the least trace of their work. But they so arranged the inside of the chimney as to send all the smoke into the house. The collector suffered for two months before he found out why his chimney, which had always drawn so well, and of which he had often boasted, played him such tricks; he was then obliged to build a new one.
At another time, they put three trusses of hay dusted with brimstone, and a quantity of oiled paper down the chimney of a pious old woman who was a friend of Madame Hochon. In the morning, when she came to light her fire, the poor creature, who was very gentle and kindly, imagined she had started a volcano. The fire-engines came, the whole population rushed to her assistance. Several Knights were among the firemen, and they deluged the old woman’s house, till they had frightened her with a flood, as much as they had terrified her with the fire. She was made ill with fear.
When they wished to make some one spend the night under arms and in mortal terror, they wrote an anonymous letter telling him that he was about to be robbed; then they stole softly, one by one, round the walls of his house, or under his windows, whistling as if to call each other.
One of their famous performances, which long amused the town, where in fact it is still related, was to write a letter to all the heirs of a miserly old lady who was likely to leave a large property, announcing her death, and requesting them to be promptly on hand when the seals were affixed. Eighty persons arrived from Vatan, Saint–Florent, Vierzon and the neighboring country, all in deep mourning — widows with sons, children with their fathers, some in carrioles, some in wicker gigs, others in dilapidated carts. Imagine the scene between the old woman’s servants and the first arrivals! and the consultations among the notaries! It created a sort of riot in Issoudun.
At last, one day the sub-prefect woke up to a sense that this state of things was all the more intolerable because it seemed impossible to find out who was at the bottom of it. Suspicion fell on several young men; but as the National Guard was a mere name in Issoudun, and there was no garrison, and the lieutenant of police had only eight gendarmes under him, so that there were no patrols, it was impossible to get any proof against them. The sub-prefect was immediately posted in the “order of the night,” and considered thenceforth fair game. This functionary made a practice of breakfasting on two fresh eggs. He kept chickens in his yard, and added to his mania for eating fresh eggs that of boiling them himself. Neither his wife nor his servant, in fact no one, according to him, knew how to boil an egg properly; he did it watch in hand, and boasted that he carried off the palm of egg-boiling from all the world. For two years he had boiled his eggs with a success which earned him many witticisms. But now, every night for a whole month, the eggs were taken from his hen-house, and hard-boiled eggs substituted. The sub-prefect was at his wits’ end, and lost his reputation as the “sous-prefet a l’oeuf.” Finally he was forced to breakfast on other things. Yet he never suspected the Knights of Idleness, whose trick had been cautiously played. After this, Max managed to grease the sub-prefect’s stoves every night with an oil which sent forth so fetid a smell that it was impossible for any one to stay in the house. Even that was not enough; his wife, going to mass one morning, found her shawl glued together on the inside with some tenacious substance, so that she was obliged to go without it. The sub-prefect finally asked for another appointment. The cowardly submissiveness of this officer had much to do with firmly establishing the weird and comic authority of the Knights of Idleness.
Beyond the rue des Minimes and the place Misere, a section of a quarter was at that time enclosed between an arm of the “Riviere forcee” on the lower side and the ramparts on the other, beginning at the place d’Armes and going as far as the pottery market. This irregular square is filled with poor-looking houses crowded one against the other, and divided here and there by streets so narrow that two persons cannot walk abreast. This section of the town, a sort of cour des Miracles, was occupied by poor people or persons working at trades that were little remunerative — a population living in hovels, and buildings called picturesquely by the familiar term of “blind houses.” From the earliest ages this has no doubt been an accursed quarter, the haunt of evil-doers; in fact one thoroughfare is named “the street of the Executioner.” For more than five centuries it has been customary for the executioner to have a red door at the entrance of his house. The assistant of the executioner of Chateauroux still lives there — if we are to believe public rumor, for the townspeople never see him: the vine-dressers alone maintain an intercourse with this mysterious being, who inherits from his predecessors the gift of curing wounds and fractures. In the days when Issoudun assumed the airs of a capital city the women of the town made this section of it the scene of their wanderings. Here came the second-hand sellers of things that look as if they never could find a purchaser, old-clothes dealers whose wares infected the air; in short, it was the rendezvous of that apocryphal population which is to be found in nearly all such portions of a city, where two or three Jews have gained an ascendency.
At the corner of one of these gloomy streets in the livelier half of the quarter, there existed from 1815 to 1823, and perhaps later, a public-house kept by a woman commonly called Mere Cognette. The house itself was tolerably well built, in courses of white stone, with the intermediary spaces filled in with ashlar and cement, one storey high with an attic above. Over the door was an enormous branch of pine, looking as though it were cast in Florentine bronze. As if this symbol were not explanatory enough, the eye was arrested by the blue of a poster which was pasted over the doorway, and on which appeared, above the words “Good Beer of Mars,” the picture of a soldier pouring out, in the direction of a very decolletee woman, a jet of foam which spurted in an arched line from the pitcher to the glass which she was holding towards him; the whole of a color to make Delacroix swoon.
The ground-floor was occupied by an immense hall serving both as kitchen and dining-room, from the beams of which hung, suspended by huge nails, the provisions needed for the custom of such a house. Behind this hall a winding staircase led to the upper storey; at the foot of the staircase a door led into a low, long room lighted from one of those little provincial courts, so narrow, dark, and sunken between tall houses, as to seem like the flue of a chimney. Hidden by a shed, and concealed from all eyes by walls, this low room was the place where the Bad Boys of Issoudun held their plenary court. Ostensibly, Pere Cognet boarded and lodged the country-people on market-days; secretly, he was landlord to the Knights of Idleness. This man, who was formerly a groom in a rich household, had ended by marrying La Cognette, a cook in a good family. The suburb of Rome still continues, like Italy and Poland, to follow the Latin custom of putting a feminine termination to the husband’s name and giving it to the wife.
By uniting their savings Pere Cognet and his spouse had managed to buy their present house. La Cognette, a woman of forty, tall and plump, with the nose of a Roxelane, a swarthy skin, jet-black hair, brown eyes that were round and lively, and a general air of mirth and intelligence, was selected by Maxence Gilet, on account of her character and her talent for cookery, as the Leonarde of the Order. Pere Cognet might be about fifty-six years old; he was thick-set, very much under his wife’s rule, and, according to a witticism which she was fond of repeating, he only saw things with a good eye — for he was blind of the other. In the course of seven years, that is, from 1816 to 1823, neither wife nor husband had betrayed what went on nightly at their house, or who they were that shared in the plot; they felt the liveliest regard for the Knights; their devotion was absolute. But this may seem less creditable if we remember that self-interest was the security of their affection and their silence. No matter at what hour of the night the Knights dropped in upon the tavern, the moment they knocked in a certain way Pere Cognet, recognizing the signal, got up, lit the fire and the candles, opened the door, and went to the cellar for a particular wine that was laid in expressly for the Order; while La Cognette cooked an excellent supper, eaten either before or after the expeditions, which were usually planned the previous evening or in the course of the preceding day.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47