(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)
‘All Saints Day,’ said Papa, ‘I’m staying indoors.’
‘But why?’ I said.
‘Because it’s cold outside, and if I see Marseille’s miserable faces, my day will be ruined.’
I wish I had stayed indoors as well. Only a few minutes from home, under a street lantern, a shadowy figure looked at me and said, ‘You!’
Taking it as a bad omen, I turned and ran, dashing over the cobblestones into a dim lane. As the city’s grimy buildings bore down on me, the figure behind hurried around the corner and kept coming. The lane’s urine odour and horse manure usually defeated the authorities but not this one.
‘Stop,’ he yelled.
Damn him, I thought, his boots even louder than mine. If he insisted on chasing me down back streets, I knew a few more that would test his resolve. No others joined the chase so what chance did he have?
I’ll outrun him, and what is more take him into uncharted lanes where the law dare not step. I have friends near though I won’t endanger them.
My boots troubled me. They had no sole to speak of, and on the icy paving, if his shoes were better-made he just might catch me. There was no time to remove them, so I had to make-do. I could not run faster, or I’d –
Over I went, crashing into a barrel and slid over filthy refuse. I rolled and raised myself. But before I could run, heavy steps and even heavier breath bore down on me.
I cannot be caught.
I was grabbed by the scruff of my coat and punched to the ground. I turned around, ready to give struggle.
The figure had a face, and the news was not good.
In the weak gas lantern light of my corner was the very man who had dedicated himself to finding me: Blanchir, a fellow not much older than myself. The difference was …he had a pistol in his hand and it pointed at me.
Mon Dieu! He’s going to kill me.
No arrest required, just my carcass. It mattered not to him how he shot me, as my bounty came to any man who brought me to their cells dead or alive
All or nothing.
I threw my weight and all my strength at him, my left arm attacking his right. I had to disarm him. Even if he had a sword, it was sheathed, and not easily readied.
Blanchir fell back from the force of my lunge, too slow to fire shot. But in the darkness, I knew nothing of the weapon nor where it pointed. It could have fired into me, or the air. If it were the old flintlock, it would not fire without being cocked and aimed.
The gun fired. Somewhere.
He was down and cursing.
‘You. Stay where you are,’ he yelled.
Was he wounded or not? Did he still have the gun in hand? In that light, I did not know but wasn’t staying to find out.
I rose and ran, expecting shot in my back.
No shot. Just another curse. He’s bluffing.
So I turned back to him.
‘See you in Hell, Blanchir.’
Lectoure. On the hazy horizon, no more than a cathedral spire and walls on its hilltop. From my muddy path under faded skies, protected by bushes against stiff winds, I stared ahead, recalling father’s last words after my near-disaster: ‘Have guile.’
He and Mama had huddled around me, their faces illuminated by flickering candlelight. Given a mother’s kiss and Papa’s hug in our back alley, told ‘Bon journey’, Papa slipped a note in my coat pocket without Mama seeing.
Escaping to Toulouse by train, I bought a donkey in the market before following the Grand Canal and its towpaths on foot, west, resting in midday shade, dizzy from haste. Reopening the note, still expecting some heartfelt words of farewell and affection that would shore up a young man’s heart, the words were the same: ‘Simone Beaufort. Lectoure. Work.’
‘Simone’? Simon surely. ‘Lectoure’- a small town of the Paye Gers, a bare dot on my hand map. And ‘Work’. Always he talks of work, the overlapping words written in father’s grand scribble. He wanted me to go to Lectoure, find Simon Beaufort who would presumably give me work. Les optimiste.
Adrift in unfamiliar hills fringing the Garonne River, what opportunities did I have for a brilliant future? Traversing the vast countryside with my donkey, Victor, my saddlebags carried Spartan clothing, false papers, a few francs and my tools of trade. What choices did I have, wandering around pastoral idylls amongst dullards, provincials and thieves. It made me nervous.
In the market town of Moissac, I read the note again: ‘Simone Beaufort. Lectoure. Work.’
Perhaps it’s a promise. Papa must know this fellow. But how? The moon is closer to Marseilles than Lectoure.
‘Victor,’ I said, ‘we’ll follow the Grand Canal.’
It wasn’t long before we diverted southwest onto the old pilgrimage route to Santiago, journeying as one false pilgrim in search of redemption. Wearing a shell-necklace I found on my first night, we moved from hamlet to hamlet, nearly everyone accepting my ‘sacred’ purpose. Ha. On the roadside near Auvillar, this fellow who spied my shell tipped his head sideways and held out his tongue with two fingers. Such were the times.
As I feared cynics and their uncanny reading of the times, I left any reading matter behind lest it gave me away to suspicious Authorities. When others saw books, they imagined an owner’s wealth, but if they searched me, they’d have found only my Book of Logarithms. Having received my surveyor’s qualifications a few months earlier, I could convince anyone that I did not belong to Marseilles’ grimy streets and lanes. Anyway, my devotion to grand liberty did not require books.
‘Have guile,’ said Papa, as anyone holding liberty precious had a determination to protect their person. Papa had acquired false papers long before, mine saying I was ‘Robert Le Mott’, a twenty-eight-year-old, experienced surveyor with handsome testimonials from employers in Lyon, Montpellier and Marseilles. How lucky Monsieur Beaufort would be having Monsieur Le Mott’s services, and not a twenty-two-year-old, inexperienced Patrice Monier.
‘There’s Lectoure,’ I said to wayward Victor when we emerged to high pasture. ‘Not far now, my dullard.’
Looking down valley, there was my destination atop a hill, a walled city from ancient times, its cathedral spire visible even from that distance.
Taking a steep path downhill, we entered a shady forest, later joining light, wooded pastures beside a stream.
‘I should have named you Victoria,’ I said to my donkey, it was a few days before I realized that ‘he’ was a ‘she’. But I had Victor Hugo in mind.
Dragging the Contessa with the leather lead, I stepped into rippling waters, felt the rope tighten, strain and pull me backwards.
Crash! Into the water I fell.
‘Victor! You evil wart.’
The beast had baulked at entering the stream, and down I fell. Drenched. Looking up – the rogue, I lifted myself from the stream wet and annoyed, yanked the reins, and pledged to sharpen my wits. I could not afford to relax after last month’s events, nor see Victor flee into the forest with my precious possessions.
‘Coping with you, Victor, is quite enough.’
She must have been the worst donkey in the marketplace, giving me nothing but trouble since we’d left Toulouse. I had freed her from that city’s accumulated garbage, but when we came to crossing a stream she’d halted. You’d have thought she’d be grateful for country air, forest, springs and orchards found along the way. But no; she liked nothing more than lazing in village markets and city back streets hauling carts and putting her nose in refuse.
As the son of a struggling bookseller, I was unfamiliar with donkeys and their bad habits. Disinclined to haggle over its physical attributes, I had acquired her without fuss, brought my supplies and left the city and its throng. How could I know Victor was a ‘she’ and would refuse my weight on her back?
From the moment we left, she displayed a stubborn aversion to iron bridges and running water. Only later did a country yokel point out that most donkeys have a perverse fear of streams, rivers and iron bridges. Even after we crossed twenty streams, she had forgotten every previous success. So I held a carrot under her nose at every obstacle, pulling it away every time she stepped forward. And succeeded.
Ha, I thought, she must be dumb falling for that.
By Garry McDougall