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The Salt Smugglers, Page 2

Gerard de Nerval

  It is in circumstances like these that one should admire the patience of the senior librarian, — the lower-level staff are often too young to have mastered this degree of paternal self-abnegation. Occasionally the people who turn up at the library are extraordinarily rude. Convinced that the mere fact of belonging to the reading public endows them with a privileged status, they address the librarians in the same peremptory tone one might use to get a waiter’s attention in a café. — And faced with this kind of treatment, the famous scholar or academician will respond with the benign resignation of a monk, suffering no end of indignities from the reading public from ten till two thirty sharp.

  Having taken pity on my plight, the staff had scoured the catalogues and had even gone so far as to explore the reserve collection and rummage through the unappetizing garbage heap of novels, — where the abbé de Bucquoy might have found himself classified by mistake; suddenly one of the assistant librarians shouted out: « We have it! In Dutch! » He read me the title out loud: « Jacques de Bucquoy, Incidents of the most remarkable sort ...”

  — Excuse me, I interrupted, but the book I was looking for is entitled “Incident of the rarest sort ...”

  — Let’s have another look then, perhaps there was a translation error: “... drawn from a sixteen-year voyage to the Indies, Harlem, 1744.”

  — That’s not it ... and yet the book dates from exactly the same period as the abbé de Bucquoy, whose first name was indeed Jacques. But what on earth could this fantastic abbé have been doing in the Indies? »

  Another assistant librarian appears on the scene: the name has been misspelled; it is not de Bucquoy, but rather Du Bucquoy, and since this may have also been spelled Dubucquoy, the search has to be started all over again, this time under the letter D.

  Damn these names with nobiliary particles! Dubucquoy, I said, would be a mere commoner ... whereas the title of the book refers to him as the count de Bucquoy.

  A paleographer who was working at a nearby table raised his head and said to me: « A particule in a name has never been proof of nobility; on the contrary, it often indicates that the name belongs to the landed gentry, that is, to those people who were originally known as franc-alleu folk. They took the name of their property and the various branches of a given family were often designated by the different endings of their names. The great families of French history are called Bouchard (Montmorency), Bozon (Périgord), Beaupoil (Saint-Aulaire), Capet (Bourbon), etc. The resultant de and du are often the product of sheer irregularity or outright usurpation. But this is not all: in Flanders and in Belgium, the de is the same article as the German der, meaning the. — Thus, de Muller means the miller, etc. — With the result that a good quarter of France is filled with bogus aristocrats. Béranger used to make light of the de in his name which merely indicated his Flemish origins. »

  One does not argue with a paleographer; one just lets him rattle on.

  All this not with standing, the various catalogues had yielded up absolutely nothing under the letter D.

  « What makes you so sure that his name is Du Bucquoy? I asked the assistant librarian who had been the last to arrive on the scene.

  — Because I located his name among the manuscripts catalogued in the police archives: 1709, that would be his period, wouldn’t it?

  — Absolutely; it’s the year that the count de Bucquoy made his third escape from prison.

  — Du Bucquoy! ... That’s the name he’s listed under in the catalogue of manuscripts. Just follow me upstairs, and you’ll be able to consult the material for yourself. »

  I soon saw myself in possession of large folio bound in red morocco and containing the files of various police reports of the year 1709. The second file in the volume bore the following names: « Le Pileur, François Bouchard, lady de Boulanvilliers, Jeanne Massé, — Count du Buquoy. »

  Now we’ve got the fox by the tail, — for indeed there’s something here about an escape from the Bastille, and here is what M. d’Argenson of the police writes in his report to the minister M. de Pontchartrain:

  « I have continued to search for the alleged count of Buquoy in all the locations you have been so kind as to indicate to me, but nothing has been learned of his whereabouts and I doubt he is in Paris. »

  The information contained in these few lines struck me as at once most reassuring and most depressing. — On the one hand, the count de Buquoy or de Bucquoy, about whom I previously possessed only vague or questionable evidence, takes on an incontrovertible historical existence thanks to this item. No court of law could now justifiably classify him as a hero of a serial novel.

  On the other hand, why does M. d’Argenson refer to him as the alleged count de Bucquoy?

  Are we dealing with a fake Bucquoy here, — who is trying to pass himself off for the real thing ... for reasons we have no way of fathoming today?

  Or are we dealing with the actual Bucquoy who may have hidden his real name behind a pseudonym?

  With only this piece of evidence to go on, the truth escapes me, — and I imagine the material existence of this individual could easily be challenged by any lawyer worth his salt!

  How to defend oneself against the prosecutor who would declare before the court that: « The count of Bucquoy is a fictional character, a figment of the novelistic imagination of his author! ... » and who would then go on to request a legal settlement involving, say, a million francs in fines! — with the sum going up every day a new installment was seized?

  Although he can hardly pretend to wear the noble mantle of the scholar, every writer occasionally finds himself having to resort the scientific method; I therefore proceeded to scrutinize in detail the yellowed writing on the Holland paper of the report signed by d’Argenson. At the same level as the line that read: « I have continued to search for the alleged count ... » there were two words penciled into the margin, written in a swift and decisive hand: « Carry on. » Carry on what? — Carry on the search for the abbé de Bucquoi, no doubt ...

  I was entirely of the same opinion.

  All the same, when it comes to analyzing handwriting, there can be no certainty without comparison. On another page of the same report there was the following note:

  « The lanterns have been hung in the passageways of the Louvre in accordance with your instructions, and I shall see to it that they are lit every evening. »

  This is how the sentence ended in the handwriting of the secretary who had copied the report. Following the words « lit every evening », a less professional hand had added: « quite so. »

  And in the margin, evidently in the hand of the minister Pontchartrain, these same words again: « Carry on. »

  The same comment here as for the abbé de Bucquoy.

  But in all likelihood M. de Pontchartrain occasionally varied his pet phrases. Here is another example:

  « I have informed the merchants of the Saint-Germain fair that they must obey the orders of the King, namely, that it is forbidden to serve food during those hours which, according to the rules of the Church, are reserved for fasting. »

  In the margin next to this, there is but a single word in pencil: « Good. »

  Further on, there is something about an individual who was arrested for having murdered a nun from Évreux. A silver seal, some bloody underclothing, and a glove were found on his person. — The individual turns out to be an abbé (yet another abbé!); but the charges against him were dropped, according to M. d’Argenson, because the abbé had apparently merely come to Versailles to look after some business affairs that were doing rather poorly, the proof being that he was still quite indigent. «Thus, he concludes, I think he can safely be regarded as a mere visionary who should be sent back to his province rather than being allowed to stay on in Paris where he is certain to become a ward of the city.»

  The minister had penciled in the following comment : « Have a few words with him first. » A terrible phrase which may very well have changed the entire legal situation of the poor abbé.
  And what if this were the abbé de Bucquoy himself! — No name, just the designation: An individual. — Further on, there is something about a certain Lebeau woman, wife of a certain Cardinal and a known prostitute ... His Excellency Pasquier is interested in her case ...

  Penciled in the margin: « House of Detention. Give her six months. »

  I don’t know whether everybody would be as engrossed as I was by these horrific pages entitled Miscellaneous Police Files. This handful of facts paints the precise historical moment at which the elusive abbé walked the earth. And I who know this unlucky abbé, — perhaps better than any of my readers could, — I trembled as I turned the pages containing the merciless reports that changed hands between these two men, — d’Argenson and Pontchartrain.

  At one point, after having assured the latter of his eternal loyalty, the former had added:

  « I shall not waver in my devotion, no matter what rebukes and reprimands you care to honor me with ... »

  The minister replies in the third person, this time using a pen. « He shall not be so honored whensoever he pleases; and I would be most unhappy to have to put his loyalties into question, since I cannot do the same with his abilities. »

  There was another item in this file: « The Le Pileur Affair. » A dreadful drama unfolded under my eyes.

  Have no fear, — this is not a novel.

  The drama involves one of those terrible family scenes that take place at the bedside of someone who has just expired. At this very moment, so nicely seized by the popular stage of yore, — when the chief heir, now casting aside his mournful mask of sorrow and contrition, proudly pulls himself up to his full height and says to the members of the household: « The keys? »

  Here we have two heirs in the wake of the death of Binet de Villiers: the brother of the deceased and sole legatee, Binet de Basse-Maison, and the brother-in-law of the deceased, Le Pileur.

  Two attorneys, one representing the deceased, the other Le Pileur, were drawing up the inventory with the help of a notary and a clerk. Le Pileur complained that they had not inventoried a certain number of papers that Binet de Basse-Maison claimed were of no importance. The latter warned Le Pileur not to provoke an incident and said he should just abide by the opinion of his attorney Châtelain.

  But Le Pileur replied that he had absolutely no intention of consulting his attorney, that he knew what was afoot, and that as far as provoking an incident was concerned, he certainly was a great enough gentleman to know how to take things into his own hands.

  Basse-Maison, irritated by these comments, went up to Le Pileur and, taking hold of him by the two buttonholes of his jerkin, said to him that he would thwart any attempt of his to do so; — Le Pileur put his hand to his sword, Basse-Maison did likewise ...

  Observing a safe distance from each other, Basse-Maison and Le Pileur waved their swords around a bit. Le Pileur’s wife threw herself between her husband and her brother; then the others came to her assistance and managed to drag each of the combatants into separate rooms, which were then locked.

  A moment later there was the sound of a window opening; it was Le Pileur bellowing to his servants down in the courtyard: « Go fetch my nephews! »

  The attorneys were in the process of writing up a legal report about the scuffle when the two nephews burst into the room, sabers in hand. — They were both officers of the Royal Guard; — pushing the servants aside and presenting the points of their swords to the two attorneys and the notary, they asked where Basse-Maison was.

  Nobody would tell them, whereupon Le Pileur shouted from his room: « Over here, my boys! »

  But the nephews had already battered down the door to the room at the left and were beating the hapless Binet de Basse-Maison, — who, according to the police file, was « hasthmatic », — with the flats of their sabers.

  The notary, whose name was Dionis, thinking that Le Pileur’s anger would have been appeased by this point and hoping that he would call off his nephews, decided to unlock him from his room while admonishing him to remain calm. Le Pileur lunged through the door, shouting: « Now you’ll see some fireworks! » He rushed over to where his nephews were still beating Basse-Maison and planted his sword in the latter’s belly.

  The police file relating these events is followed by a more detailed dossier containing the depositions of thirteen witnesses, — the most eminent of whom were the two attorneys and the notary.

  It should be observed that each of these thirteen witnesses seems to have flinched at the crucial moment. As a result, none is absolutely certain that Le Pileur stabbed Basse-Maison to death with his sword.

  The first attorney swears that he can only be sure of having heard the sound of saber blows in the distance.

  The second attorney agrees with his colleague.

  A manservant by the name of Barry is somewhat more forthcoming: — he saw the murder from a distant window; but he does not know whether it was Le Pileur or someone dressed in light gray who actually delivered the fatal blow to Basse-Maison’s belly. Louis Calot, another servant, more or less corroborates this deposition.

  The last of this courageous band and the least eminent of the thirteen, namely, the notary’s clerk, claims to have seen Le Pileur’s wife make off with some of the papers of the deceased. According to him, after the crime Le Pileur calmly went to the room where his wife was and « then went off in his carriage with her and the two men who had caused the ruckus. »

  The moral of this instructive tale, at least as concerns the mores of the period, seems to be lacking, — that is, until one comes across the following remarkable conclusion at the end of the report: « There are few examples of an act of violence so odious and so criminal ... But given the fact that the heirs of the two dead brothers are at the same time the brothers-in-law of the murderer, it is safe to assume that this murder shall go unpunished and shall have no consequence other than to render his lordship Le Pileur more agreeable to the various propositions emanating from his co-legatees in those matters touching upon their mutual interests. »

  It has been observed that during the grand siècle even the most minor clerk wrote in a style as florid as Bossuet’s. It is impossible not to admire the marvelous detachment of this police report which evinces the hope that the murderer will become more amenable to the resolution of his affairs ... As for the murder, the theft of the papers, the saber blows (some of which were probably also directed at the attorneys), they will all go unpunished because nobody inside or outside the family will ever press charges: — M. Le Pileur being too great a gentleman not to get away with this incident ...

  This is a noble remnant of those feudal manners which lingers on well into the final years of grand siècle under Mme de Maintenon’s reign.

  There is no further mention of this affair, — which has allowed me to forget my poor abbé for a moment; — but even though it lacks the embellishments of a novel, this police report nonetheless provides a number of historical silhouettes that could be cut out and used as background figures. Already everything is coming to life for me, reconstructed by my mind’s eye. I see d’Argenson in his office, Pontchartrain in his ministry, the Pontchartrain who (according to Saint-Simon) became an object of ridicule by calling himself de Pontchartrain and who, like many others, took his revenge against ridicule by inspiring terror.

  But to what avail is all this background preparation? Will they only allow me to set the scene for the events in the fashion of Froissart or Monstrelet? — They will probably claim that this is how Walter Scott goes about things, — and he is after all a novelist. I should probably just restrict myself to giving a straightforward synopsis of the history of the abbé de Bucquoy ... if and when I find it.

  I had reason to hope: M. R*** was going to take matters into his hands; — there were merely eight more days to wait. Besides, in the interim I still might be able to locate the book in some other public library.

  Unfortunately they were all closed, — except for the Mazarine. I theref
ore went off to disturb the silence of its magnificent and chilly halls. The library has a catalogue which is quite complete and which you are allowed to consult on your own; in ten minutes, it can help you solve any question whatsoever. But the staff on duty is so competent there is no need to bother the reference librarians or even to consult the catalogue. I addressed myself to one of them: somewhat taken aback, he turned my request over in his mind and replied, « We don’t have the book ... but I have a vague idea...»

  The curator is man well-known for his wit and encyclopedic erudition. He recognized me. « What do you need the abbé de Bucquoy for? For an opera libretto? I remember that charming opera you wrote ten years ago; the music was delightful. The second one was even more admirable. What a marvelous actress you had there ... But these days the censors would never allow you to do a play involving an abbé.

  — I need the book for something historical I’m working on. »

  He gave me a long, hard look, of the sort one might cast at someone requesting books on alchemy. « Oh I see, he said at last, it’s for an historical novel à la Dumas.

  — I have never written an historical novel, nor do I intend to: I have absolutely no desire to cost the newspapers for which I write four or five hundred francs a day in fines ... If I find I am incapable of writing straight history, I’ll just print the book as is. »

  He nodded his head and said, « We have it.

  — Oh?

  — I know where it is. It’s part of the collection of books that came to us from Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Which is why it is not yet catalogued ... It must be somewhere in the basement.