Like the cats who continually move their young ones from place to place,
at the opening of the next school year my mother took me off to Monsieur
Dupuy, a native of Carpentras, who kept a school in Avignon near the
Pont-Troué. And here, in furtherance of my ambitions as a budding
Provençalist, I had indeed my “nozzle in the hay.”
Monsieur Dupuy was the brother of Charles Dupuy, a former Deputy of La
Drôme, and author of “Petit Papillons,” a delicate morsel of our modern
Provençal. Our Dupuy also tried his hand at Provençal poetry, but he did
not boast about it, and therein showed wisdom.
Shortly after my arrival, there came to the school a young professor
with a fine black beard, a native of Saint-Rémy, whose name was Joseph
Roumanille. As we were neighbours–Maillane and Saint-Rémy being in the
same canton–and our families, both of the farming class, had known each
other for years past, we were soon friends. Before long I found another
bond which drew us still closer, namely, that the young professor was
also interested in writing verses in the language of Provence.
On Sundays we went to Mass and vespers at the Carmelite church. Our
places were behind the High Altar, in the choir-stalls, and there our
young voices mingled with those of the choristers, among whom was Denis
Cassan, another Provençal poet, and one of the most popular at the
carousals of the students’ quarter. We saw him, however, clad in a
surplice, with a foolish phlegmatic air, as he intoned the responses and
psalms. The street where he lived now bears his name.
One Sunday during vespers, the idea came into my head to render in
Provençal verse the penitential psalms, so in the half-opened book I
began furtively to scribble down my version in pencil.
But Monsieur Roumanille, who was in charge, came behind me, and seizing
the paper I was writing, read it and then showed it to the headmaster,
Monsieur Dupuy. The latter, it seems, viewed the matter leniently; so
after vespers, during our walk round the ramparts, Roumanille called me
“So, my little Mistral, you amuse yourself by writing verses in
“Sometimes,” I admitted.
“Would you like me to repeat you some verses. Listen!” And then in his
deep sympathetic voice he recited to me one after another of his own
poems–“Les Deux Agneux,” “Le Petit Joseph,” “Paulon,” “Madeleine et
Louisette,” a veritable outburst of April flowers and meadow blooms,
heralds of the Félibrean spring time. Filled with delight, I listened,
feeling that here was the dawn for which my soul had been waiting to
awake to the light.
Up to that time I had only read a few stray scraps in the Provençal, and
it had always aggravated me to find that our language (Jasmin and the
Marquis de Lafare alone excepted) was usually used only in derision. But
here was Roumanille, with this splendid voice of his, expressing, in the
tongue of the people, with dignity and simplicity, all the noblest
sentiments of the heart.
Thus it came to pass that notwithstanding the difference of a dozen
years between our ages, for Roumanille was born in 1818, we clasped
hands, he happy to find a confidant quite prepared to understand his
muse, and I, trembling with joy at entering the sanctuary of my dreams;
and thus, as sons of the same God, we were united in
[Illustration: JOSEPH ROUMANILLE.]
the bonds of friendship under so happy a star that for half a century we
walked together, devoted to the same patriotic cause, without our
affection or our zeal ever knowing diminution.
Roumanille had sent his first verses to a Provençal journal,
_Boui-Abaisso_, which was published weekly at Marseilles by Joseph
Désanat, and which for the bards of the day was an admirable outlet. For
the language has never lacked exponents, and especially at the time of
the _Boui-Abaisso_ (1841-1846) there was a strong movement at Marseilles
in favour of the dialect, which, had it done nothing but promote writing
in Provençal, deserves our gratitude.
Also we must recognise that such popular poets as Désanat of Tarascon,
or Bellot Chailan, Bénédit and Gelu, pre-eminently Gelu, each of whom in
his way expressed the buoyant joyous spirit of southern Provence, have
never, in their particular line, been surpassed. Another, Camille
Reyband, a poet of Carpentras, a poet, too, of noble dimensions, in a
grand epistle he addressed to Roumanille, laments the fate of the
Provençal speech, neglected by idiots who, declares he, “Follow the
example of the gentlemen of the towns, and leave to the wise old
forefathers our unfortunate language while they render the French
tongue, which they fundamentally distort into the worst of _patois_.”
Reyband seemed to foretell the Renaissance which was then hatching when
he made this appeal to the editor of the _Boui-Abaisso_:
“Before we separate, my brothers, let us defend ourselves against
oblivion. Together let us build up a colossal edifice, some Tower of
Babel made from the bricks of Provence. At the summit, whilst singing,
engrave your names, for you, my friends, are worthy to be remembered. As
for me, whom a grain of praise intoxicates and overcomes, and who only
sings as does the cicada, and can but contribute towards your monument a
pinch of gravel and a little poor cement, I will dig for my Muse a tomb
in the sand, and when, having finished your imperishable work, you look
down, my brothers, from the height of your blue sky, you will no longer
be able to see me.”
All these gentlemen were, however, imbued with this erroneous idea that
the language of the people, good though they felt it to be, was only
suitable for common or droll subjects, and hence they took no pains
either to purify or to restore it.
Since the time of Louis XIV. the old traditions for the spelling of our
language had become almost obsolete. The poets of the meridian had,
partly through carelessness or ignorance, adopted the French spelling.
And this utterly false system cut at the root of our beautiful speech.
Every one began to carry out his own orthographical fancies, until it
reached such a point that the various dialects of the Oc language, owing
to this constant disfigurement in the writing, no longer bore any
resemblance one to another.
Roumanille, when reading the manuscripts of Saboly in the library at
Avignon, was struck by the good effect of our language when written in
the old style employed by the ancient troubadours. He wished, young as I
was, to have my help in restoring the true orthography, and in perfect
accord concerning the plan of reform, we boldly started in to moult, as
it were, and renew the skin of our language. Instinctively we felt that
for the unknown work which awaited us in the future we should need a
fine tool, a tool freshly ground. For the orthography was not all. Owing
to the imitative and middle-class spirit of prejudice, which
unfortunately is ever on the increase, many of the most gritty words of
the Provençal tongue had been discarded as vulgar, and in their place,
the poets who preceded the Félibres, even those of repute, had commonly
employed, without any critical sense, corrupt forms and bastard words
of uneducated French. Having thus determined, Roumanille and I, to write
our verses in the language of the people, we saw it was necessary to
bring out strongly the energy, freshness, and richness of expression
that characterised it, and to render the pureness of speech used in
districts untouched by extreme influences.
Even so the Roumanians, the poet Alexander tells us, when they wished to
elevate their national tongue which the _bourgeois_ class had lost or
corrupted, went to seek it out in the villages and mountains among the
In order to conform the written Provençal as much as possible to the
pronunciation in general use in Provence, we decided to suppress certain
letters or etymological finals fallen into disuse, such as the “s” of
the plural, the “t” of the particle, the “r” of the infinitive, and the
“ch” in certain words like “fach,” “dich,” “puech,” &c.
But let no one think that these innovations, though they concerned none
save a small circle of _patois_ poets, as we were then called, were
introduced into general usage without a severe struggle. From Avignon to
Marseilles, all those who wrote or rhymed in the language contested for
their routine or their fashion, and promptly took the field against the
reformers. A war of pamphlets containing envenomed articles between
these opponents and we young Avignons continued to rage for many years.
At Marseilles, the exponents of trivialities, the white-beard
rhymesters, the envious and the growlers assembled together of an
evening behind the old bookshop of the librarian Boy, there bitterly to
bewail the suppression of the “s” and sharpen their weapons against the
Roumanille the valiant, ever ready to stand in the breech, launched
against the adversaries the Greek fire we were all diligently employed
in preparing in the crucible of the Gai-Savoir. And because we had on
our side, not only a just and good cause, but faith, enthusiasm,
youth–and something else besides–it ended in our being, as I will show
you later, victors on the field of battle.
* * * * *
But to return to the school of Monsieur Dupuy.
One afternoon we were in the courtyard, playing at “Three jumps,” when
in our midst appeared a new pupil. He was tall and well made, with a
Henri IV. nose, a hat cocked to one side, and an air of maturity
heightened by the unlit cigar in his mouth. His hands thrust in the
pockets of his short coat, he came up just as if he were one of us.
“Well, what are you after?” said he. “Would you like me to see if I can
do these three jumps?”
And without more ado, light as a cat, he took a run and went three hands
beyond the highest jump that had been touched. We clapped him, and
demanded where he had sprung from.
“From Châteauneuf,” he answered–“the country where they grow good wine.
Perhaps you have never heard of Châteauneuf, Châteauneuf-du-Pape?”
“Yes, we have. And what is your name?”
“Anselme Mathieu,” he replied.
And with these words he plunged his two hands into his pockets and
brought out a store of old cigar-ends, which he offered round with a
courteous and smiling air.
We, who for the most part had never dared to smoke (unless, indeed, as
children the roots of the mulberry-tree), thereupon regarded with great
respect this hero, who did things in so grand a manner, and was
evidently accustomed to high life.
Thus it was that I first met Mathieu, the gentle author of the
“Farandole.” On one occasion, I told this story to our friend Daudet,
who loved Mathieu, and the idea of the old ends of cigars pleased him so
much that in his romance “Jack,” he makes use of it with his little
negro prince, who performs the same act of largess.
With Roumanille and Mathieu, we were thus a trio who formed the nucleus
of those who a little later were to found the Félibrige. The gallant
Mathieu–heaven knows how he contrived it–was never seen except at the
hours of food or recreation. On account of his already grown-up air,
though not more than sixteen, and certainly backward in his studies, he
had been allowed a room on the top story under the pretext that he could
thus work more freely, and there in his attic, the walls of which he had
decorated with pictures, nude figures and plaster casts of Pradier, all
day long he dreamed and smoked, made verses, and, a good part of the
time, leant out of the window, watching the people below, or the
sparrows carrying food to their young under the eaves. Then he would
joke, rather broadly, with Mariette the chamber-maid, ogle the master’s
daughter, and, when he descended from his heights, relate to us all
sorts of gossip.
But on one subject he always took himself seriously, and that was his
patent of nobility:
“My ancestors were marquises,” he told us gravely, “Marquises of
Montredon. At the time of the Revolution, my grandfather gave up his
title, and afterwards, finding himself ruined, he would not resume it
since he could not keep it up properly.”
There was always something romantic and elusive in the existence of
Mathieu. He would disappear at times like the cats who go to Rome.
In vain we would call him: “Mathieu!”
But no Mathieu would appear. Where was he? Up there among the tiles, and
over the house-tops he would make his way to the trysts he held, so he
told us, with a girl beautiful as the day.
On one occasion, while we were all watching the procession of the
Fête-Dieu at Pont-Troué, Mathieu said to me:
“Frédéric, shall I show you my beloved?”
“Rather!” I replied promptly.
“Very well,” said he. “Now look, when the young choir-maidens pass,
shrouded in their white tulle veils, notice they will all wear a flower
pinned in the middle of their dress, but one, you will see, fair as a
thread of gold, she will wear her flower at the side…. See,” he cried
presently, “there she is!”
“Why, my dear fellow, she is a star!” I cried with enthusiasm. “How have
you managed to make a conquest of such a lovely girl?”
“I will tell you. She is the daughter of the confectioner at the
Carretterie. From time to time I went there to buy some peppermint
drops or pastry-fingers–in this way I arrived at making myself known to
the dear child, as the Marquis de Montredon, and one day when she was
alone in the shop, I said to her: ‘Beauteous maiden, if only I could
know that you are as foolish as I am, I would propose an excursion.’
“‘Where?’ she inquired.
“‘To the moon,’ I answered.
“She burst out laughing, but I continued: ‘This is how it could be done.
You, my darling, would mount to the terrace which runs along the top of
your house, just at any hour when you could or you would, and I, who lay
my heart and my fortune at your feet, would meet you, and there beneath
the sky I would cull for you the flowers of love.’
“And so it came to pass. At the top of my beloved one’s house, as in
many others, there is a platform where they dry the linen. I have
nothing to do but climb on the roof, and from gutter-spout to
gutter-spout I go to find my fair one, who there spreads or folds the
washing. Then, hand in hand, lip against lip, but always courteously as
between lady and cavalier, we are in Paradise.”
And thus it was that our Anselme, future Félibre of the Kisses, studied
his Breviary of Love, and passed his classes in gentle ease on the
house-tops of Avignon.
At the Royal College, where we attended the history classes, there was
never any question of modern politics. But Sergeant Monnier, one of our
masters, an enthusiastic Republican, could not resist taking upon
himself this instruction. During the recreation hour, he would walk up
and down the courtyard, a history of the Revolution in his hand, working
himself up as he read aloud, gesticulating, swearing, and shouting with
“Now this is fine! Listen to this! Oh, they were grand men! Camille
Desmoulins, Mirabeau, Bailly, Virgniaud, Danton, Saint-Just,
Boisset-d’Anglas! We are worms in this day, by all the gods! besides
those giants of the National Convention!”
“Oh, very grand indeed, your mock giants!” Roumanille would answer when
he happened to be there. “Cut-throats, over-throwers of the Crucifix,
unnatural monsters, ever devouring one another! Why, Bonaparte, when he
wanted them, brought them up like pigs in the market!”
And so they would attack each other until the easy-going Mathieu
appeared on the scene and made peace by causing both to join in a laugh
at some absurdity of his own.
About this time Roumanille, in order to supplement his little emolument,
had taken a post as reader in Sequin’s printing house, and, thanks to
this position, he was able to have his first volume of verses, “Les
Paquerettes,” printed there at small cost. While he corrected his
proofs, he would regale us with these poems, much to our delight.
Thus one day succeeded another in these simple and familiar
surroundings, till in the month of August 1847 I finished my studies,
and, happy as a foal released and turned out to grass, I bade farewell
to Monsieur Dupuy’s school and returned home to the farm.
* * * * *
But before leaving the pontifical city, I must say one word about the
religious pomps and shows which, in our young day, were celebrated in
high state at Avignon for a fortnight at a time. Notre Dame-de-Dom (the
cathedral), and the four parishes, Saint-Agricol, Saint-Pierre,
Saint-Didier, and Saint-Symphorien, rivalled each other in their
So soon as the sacristan, ringing his bell, had gone along the streets
proclaiming where the Host, borne beneath the daïs, was to pass, all the
town set to work sweeping, watering, strewing green boughs, and erected
decorations. From the balconies of the rich were hung tapestries of
embroidered silks and damasks, the poor from their windows hung out
coverings of patchwork, their rugs and quilts. At the Portail-Maillanais
and in the low quarters of the city, they covered the walls with white
sheets and adorned the pavements with a litter of boxwood. Street altars
were raised at intervals, high as pyramids, adorned with candelabrums
and vases of flowers. All the people, sitting outside their houses on
chairs, awaited the procession and ate little cakes.
The young men of the mercantile and artisan classes walked about,
swaggering and eyeing the young girls, or throwing them roses as they
sat beneath the awnings, while all along the streets the scent of
incense filled the air.
At last came the procession, headed by the beadle clad all in red, and
followed by a train of white-robed virgins, the confraternities, monks
and priests, choirs and musicians, threading their way slowly to the
beating of tambourines, and one heard as they passed the low murmur of
the devout reciting their rosaries.
Then, while an impressive silence reigned everywhere, all prostrated
themselves, and the officiating priest elevated the Host beneath a
shower of yellow broom.
But one of the most striking things was the procession of Penitents,
which began after sunset by the light of torches. And especially that of
the White Penitents, wearing their cowls and cloaks, and marching past
step by step, like ghosts, carrying, some of them, small tabernacles,
others reliquaries or bearded busts, others burning perfumes, or an
enormous eye in a triangle, or a serpent twisted round a tree–one might
have imagined them to be an Indian procession of Brahmins.
These Orders dated from the time of the League and the Western Schism,
and the heads and dignitaries of these confraternities were taken from
the noblest families in Avignon. Aubanel, one of our great Félibres, was
all his life a zealous White Penitent, and, at his death, was buried in
the habit of the brotherhood.
“Well now,” said my father, “have you finished?”
“I have finished, so far,” I replied, “only … I will now have to go to
Nîmes and take my bachelor’s degree–a step which gives me a certain
amount of apprehension.”
“Forward then–quick march! When I was a soldier, my son, we had harder
steps than that to take before the Siege of Figuières,” said my sire.
So I made my preparations forthwith for the journey to Nîmes, where at
that time the degrees were taken. My mother folded up my Sunday coat and
two white shirts in a big check handkerchief fastened together with four
pins. My father presented me with a small linen bag containing crowns to
the amount of £6, and added the caution:
“Take thou care neither to lose nor to squander them.”
My bundle under my arm, hat cocked over one ear, and a vine-stick in my
hand, I then departed.
Arrived at Nîmes, I met a crowd of other students from all the
neighbourhood, come up, like myself, to take their degrees. They were
for the most part accompanied by their parents, fine-looking ladies and
gentlemen with their pockets full of letters of introduction, one to the
Prefect, another to the Grand Vicar, and another to the head examiner.
These fortunate youths swaggered about with an air which said: “We are
cocksure of success.”
I who knew not a soul felt myself very small fry. All my hope lay in
Saint Baudile, the patron of Nîmes whose votive ribbon I had worn as a
child, and to whom I now addressed a fervent petition that he would
incline the hearts of the examiners towards me.
We were shut up in a big bare room of the Hôtel de Ville, and there an
old professor dictated to us in nasal tones some Latin verse. He
terminated with a pinch of snuff, and the announcement that we had an
hour in which to render the Latin into French.
Full of zeal we set to work. With the aid of the dictionary, the task
was accomplished, and at the termination of the hour our snuff-taker
collected the papers and dismissed us for the day.
The students dispersed all over the town and I found myself standing
there alone in the street, my small bundle under my arm and vine-stick
in hand. The first thing was to find a lodging, some inn not too ruinous
yet passably comfortable. As I had plenty of time on my hands, I made
the tour of Nîmes about ten times, scanning the hostelries and inns with
critical eye. But the hotels, with their black-coated flunkeys, who
looked me up and down long before I even approached them, and the airs
and graces of the fashionable folk of whom I saw passing glimpses, made
me coil up into my shell.
At last a sign-board caught my eye with the inscription, “Au
Petit-Saint-Jean.” Here was something familiar at last.
The name made me at once feel at home. Saint John was a special friend
with us, he it was who brought good harvests, also we grew the grass of
Saint John, ate the apples of Saint John, and celebrated his feast with
bonfires. I entered the little inn with confidence therefore, a
confidence which was amply justified.
In the courtyard were covered carts and trucks, while groups of
Provençales stood there laughing and gossiping. I stepped into the
dining-room and sat down at the table. The room was crowded and nearly
all the seats occupied by market-gardeners. They had come in from
Saint-Rémy, Château-Renard, Barbentane, for the weekly market, and were
all well acquainted. Their conversation related entirely to their
“Well, Benezet,” said one, “how much did your mad-apples fetch to-day?”
“Bad luck; the market was glutted–I had to give them away.”
“And the leek-seed?” asked another.
“There is a fair prospect of a sale–if the rumour of war turns out true
they will use it for making powder, so they say.”
“And the onions?”
“They went off at once.”
“And the pumpkins?”
“Had to give them to the pigs.”
For an hour I listened to this on all sides, eating steadily without
saying a word. Then my opposite neighbour addressed me:
“And you, young man? If it is not indiscreet, may I ask if you are in
the gardening line?”
“I replied modestly that I had come to Nîmes for another purpose,
namely, to pass as bachelor.”
The company turned round and gazed at me with interest.
“What did he say,” they asked each other; “Bachelor? He must have said
‘battery’ hazarded one–it is a conscript, any one can see, and he
wishes to get into the battery.”
I laughed and tried to explain my position and the ordeal before me when
the learned professors would put me through my paces in Latin, Greek,
mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, and every imaginable
branch of knowledge besides. “If we do well they allow us to become
lawyers, doctors, judges, even sub-prefects,” I concluded.
“And if you do badly?” inquired my audience eagerly.
“We are sent back to the asses’ bench,” I replied; “to-morrow I shall
know my fate.”
“Eh, but this is one of the right sort,” they cried in chorus. “Suppose
we all remain on another day to see whether he comes through all right
or whether he is left in the hole. Now, what are they going to ask you
to-morrow, for example?”
I told them it would be concerning all the battles that had ever been
fought since the world began, Jews, Romans, Saracens; and not only the
battles but the names of the generals who took part in them, the kings
and queens reigning at the time, together with their children and even
“But how then can the learned men occupy themselves with such trifles!”
cried my new friends. “It is very evident they have nothing better to
do. If they had to get up and hoe potatoes every morning they would not
waste time over the battles of the Saracens, who are dead and gone, or
the bastards of Herod. Well, what else do they ask you?”
I replied that I should be required also to know the names of all the
mountains and all the rivers in the world.
Here I was interrupted by a gardener from Saint-Rémy with a big guttural
voice, who inquired whether I knew where was the source of the Fountain
of Vaucluse, and if it were true that seven rivers, each of them big
enough to float a ship, sprang from that fountain. He had it on good
authority also–could I confirm it?–that a shepherd had let fall his
crook in the water at Vaucluse, and had found it again in a spring at
I had hardly time to think of a suitable and judicious answer before
another of the company posed me with the question as to why the sea was
Here I considered myself on safe ground, and was beginning to reel off
in airy fashion: “Because it contains sulphate of potassium, sulphate of
“No, no, that’s all wrong,” interrupted my questioner. “It was a
fisherman who told me–he was from Martigne and should know. The sea is
salt owing to the many ships carrying cargoes of salt which have been
wrecked during past years.”
I discreetly gave way before this authority and hastened to enumerate
other subjects on which I was about to be examined by the professors,
such as the cause of thunder, lightning, frost and wind.
“Allow me to interrupt you, young man,” broke in the first speaker
again. “You should be able then to tell us from whence comes the
mistral, that accursed mischievous wind of our country. I have always
heard that it issues from a hole in a certain great rock, and that if
one could only cork up the hole, there would be an end of the mistral.
Now that would be an invention worth the making!”
“The Government would oppose it,” said another; “if it were not for the
mistral, Provence would be the garden of France! Nothing would hold us
back–we should become too rich to please the rest.”
“Finally,” I continued, “we have to know all about the number, size, and
distance of the stars–how many miles our earth is from the sun, &c.”
“That passes everything,” cried a native of Noves. “Who is going up
there to measure the distance? Cannot you see, young man, that the
professors are laughing at you? A pretty science indeed to measure the
miles between the sun and the moon; they will be teaching you next that
pigeons are suckled! Now if you would tell me at what quarter of the
moon to sow celery or to cure the pig-disease, I would say, ‘Here we
have a real useful science’–but all this boy prates of is pure
The rest of the company, however, stood up for me loyally, declaring
that, however, questionable the subjects I had studied, it was certain I
must have a wonderful head to have stowed away such a lot inside.
Some of the girls whispered together, with kindly glances of sympathy in
my direction. “Poor little chap, how pale he is–one can see all that
reading has done him no good–if he had passed his time at the tail of
the plough he would have more colour in his cheeks–and what is the good
after all of knowing so much!”
“Well, comrades,” cried my first friend, “I vote we see him through to
the end, this lad from Maillane! If we were at a bull-fight we should
wait to see who got the prize, or at least the cockade.–Let us stay
over night that we may know if he passes as a bachelor, eh?”
“Good,” agreed the rest in chorus, “we will wait and see him through to
The following morning, with my heart in my mouth, I returned to the
Hôtel de Ville, together with the other candidates, many of whom I
noticed wore a far less confident air than the day before. In a big
hall, seated before a long table piled with papers and books, were five
great and learned professors come expressly from Montpellier arrayed in
their ermine-bordered capes and black caps. They were members of the
Faculty of Letters, and among them, curiously enough, was Monsieur
Saint-René Taillandier, who, a few years later, was to become the warm
supporter of the Félibre movement. But at this time we were, of course,
strangers to each other, and nothing would have more surprised the
illustrious professor than had he known that the country lad who stood
stammering before him was one day to be numbered among his best friends.
I was wild with joy–I had passed! I went off down into the town as
though borne along by angels. It was broiling hot, and I remember I was
thirsty. As I passed the cafés, swinging my little vine-stick high in
the air, I panted at the sight of the glasses of foaming beer, but I was
such a novice in the ways of the world that I had never yet set foot
inside a café, and I dared not go in.
So I continued my triumphal march round the town, wearing an air of such
radiant happiness and satisfaction that the very passers-by nudged one
another and observed: “He has evidently got his degree–that one!”
When at last I came upon a drinking-fountain and quenched my thirst in
the fresh cool water, I would not have changed places with the ‘King of
But the finest thing of all was on my return to the “Petit-Saint-Jean,”
where my friends the gardeners awaited me impatiently. On seeing me,
glowing with joy enough to disperse a fog, they shouted: “He has
Men, women, girls, came rushing out, and there followed a grand
handshaking and embracing all round. One would have said manna had
fallen from heaven.
Then my friend from Saint-Rémy took up the speech. His eyes were wet
“Maillanais!” he addressed me, “we are all pleased with you. You have
shown these little professor gentlemen that not only ants, but men, can
be born of the soil. Come, children, let us all have a turn at the
Then taking hands, there in the courtyard of the inn, we all farandoled
with a will. After that we dined with equal heartiness, eating, drinking
and singing, till the time came to start for home.
It is fifty-eight years ago. But I never visit Nîmes and see in the
distance the sign of the “Petit-Saint-Jean” without that scene of my
youth coming back to me fresh as yesterday, and a warm feeling arises in
my heart for those dear people who first made me experience the good
fellowship of my kind and the joys of popularity.
The winter of 1847-1848 began happily enough. The people settled down
quietly again to their business of making a tolerably good harvest, and
the hateful subject of politics was dropped, thank God. In our country
of Maillane we even started, for our amusement, some representations of
popular tragedies and comedies, into which I threw myself with all the
fervour of my seventeen years. Then in the month of February, suddenly
the Revolution burst upon us, and good-bye to all the gentle arts of
At the entrance of the village, in a small vine-clad cottage, there
dwelt at this time a worthy old body named Riquelle. She wore the
Arlesian dress of bygone days, her large white coife surmounted by a
broad-brimmed black felt hat, while a white band, passing under the
chin, framed her cheeks. By her distaff and the produce of her small
plot of ground she supported herself, but one saw from the care she took
of her person, as well as by her speech, that she had known better
My first recollection of Riquelle dated back to when, at about seven
years old, I was in the habit of passing her door on my way to school.
Seated on the little bench at her threshold, her fingers busy knitting,
she would call to me:
“Have you not some fine tomatoes on your farm, my little lad? Bring me
one next time you come along.”
Time after time she asked me this, and I, boy-like, invariably forgot
all about it, till one day I mentioned to my father that old Riquelle
never saw me without asking for tomatoes.
“The accursed old dame,” growled my father angrily; “tell her they are
not ripe, do you hear, neither have they ripened for many a long year.”
The next time I saw Riquelle I gave her this message, and she dropped
Many years later, the day after the Proclamation of the Revolution of
1848, coming to the village to inquire the latest news, the first person
I saw was Dame Riquelle standing there in her doorway, all alert and
animated, with a great topaz ring blazing on her finger.
“Hé, but the tomatoes have ripened this year,” she cried out to me.
“They are going to plant the ‘trees of liberty,’ and we shall all eat
of those good apples of Paradise…. Oh, Sainte-Marianne, I never
thought to live to see it again! Frédéric, my boy, become a Republican.”
I remarked on the fine ring she wore.
“Ha, yes, it is a fine ring,” she rejoined. “Fancy–I have not worn it
since the day Bonaparte quitted this country for the island of Elba! A
friend gave me this ring in the days–ah, what days those were–when we
all danced the ‘Carmagnole.’”
So saying she raised her skirt, and, making a step or two of the old
dance, entered her cottage chuckling softly at the recollection of those
But when I recounted the incident to my father his recollections were of
a graver kind.
“I also saw the Republic,” he said, “and it is to be hoped the atrocious
things which took place then will never be repeated. They killed the
King Louis XVI., and the beautiful Queen, his wife, besides princesses,
priests, and numberless good people of all sorts. Then foreign kings
combined and made war upon France. In order to defend the Republic,
there was a general conscription. All were called out, the lame, the
blind, the halt–not a man but had to enlist. I remember how we met a
regiment of Allobrogians on their way to Toulon. One of them seized my
young brother, and placing his naked sword across the boy’s neck–he
was but twelve years old–commanded him to cry out ‘Long live the
Republic,’ or he would finish him off. The boy did as he was told, but
the fright killed him. The nobles and the good priests, all were
suspected, and those who could emigrate did so, in order to escape the
guillotine. The Abbé Riousset, disguised as a shepherd, made his way to
Piedmont with the flocks of Monsieur de Lubières. We managed to save
Monsieur Victorin Cartier, whose lands we farmed. For three months we
hid him in a cave we dug out under the wine-casks, and whenever the
municipal officers or the police of the district came down upon us to
count the lambs we had in the fold, and the loaves of bread in the pans,
in accordance with the law, my poor mother would hasten to fry a big
omelette at the stove.
“When once they had eaten and drunk their fill, they would forget, or
pretend to do so, to take further perquisites, and off they would go,
carrying great branches of laurel with which to greet the victorious
armies of the Republic. The châteaux were pillaged, the very dove-cotes
demolished, the bells melted down, and the crosses broken. In the
churches they piled up great mounds of earth on which they planted
pine-trees, oaks and junipers. The church at Maillane was turned into a
club, and if you refused to go to their meetings you were at once
denounced and notified as ‘suspect.’ Our priest, who happened
unfortunately to be a coward and a traitor, announced one day from the
pulpit that all he had hitherto preached was a lie. He roused such
indignation that, had not every man lived in fear of his neighbour, they
would have stoned him. It was this same priest who another time wound up
his discourse with the injunction that any one who knew of or aided in
hiding a ‘suspect,’ would be held guilty of mortal sin unless he
denounced such a one at once to the Commune. Finally, they ended by
abolishing all observance of Sundays and feast-days, and instead, every
tenth day, in great pomp they adored the Goddess of Reason–and would
you know who was the goddess at Maillane? Why, none other than the old
We all exclaimed in surprise.
“Riquelle,” continued my father, “was at that time eighteen years old. A
handsome, well-grown girl, one of the most admired in all the country. I
was about the same age. Her father was Mayor of Maillane and by trade a
shoemaker–he made me a pair of shoes I remember wearing when I joined
the army. Well, imagine it–I saw this same Riquelle in the garments, or
rather the lack of garments, of a heathen goddess, a red cap on her
head, seated on the altar of the church.”
All this my father recounted at supper one evening about the year 1848.
Some eleven years after, I, finding myself in Paris just after the
publication of _Mireille_, was dining at the house of the hospitable
banker Milland, he who delighted to assemble every week at his board a
gathering of artists, savants, and men of letters. We were about fifty,
and I had the honour of sitting on one side of our charming hostess,
while Méry was on the other. Towards the end of dinner an old man very
simply attired addressed me in Provençal from the further end of the
table, inquiring if I came from Maillane. It was the father of my host,
and I rose and sat down beside him.
“Do you happen to know the daughter of the once famous Mayor of
Maillane, Jacques Riquelle?” he inquired.
“Riquelle the goddess? Aye, indeed,” I answered; “we are right good
“Well, fifty years ago,” said the old man, “when I went to Maillane to
sell horses and mules—-”
“You gave her a topaz ring!” I cried with a sudden inspiration.
The old fellow shook his sides with laughter and answered, delighted:
“What, she told you about that? Ah, my dear sir—-”
But at this moment we were interrupted by the banker, who, in accordance
with his custom, after every meal came to pay his respects to his worthy
father, whereupon the latter, placing his hands patriarchal fashion on
his son’s head, bestowed on him his benediction.
But to return to my own story. In spite of the views held by my family,
this outburst of liberty and enterprise, which breaks down the old
fences when a revolution is rife, had found me already aflame and eager
to follow the onrush. At the first proclamation signed with the
illustrious name of Lamartine my muse awoke and burst forth into fiery
song, which the local papers of Arles and Avignon hastened to publish:
Réveillez-vous enfants de la Gironde,
Et tressaillez dans vos sepulcres froids;
La liberté va rajeunir le monde …
Guerre éternelle entre nous et les rois.
A mad enthusiasm seized me for all humanitarian and liberal ideas; and
my Republicanism, while it scandalised the Royalists of Maillane, who
regarded me as a turncoat, delighted the Republicans, who, being in the
minority, were enchanted at getting me to join them in shouting the
And here, in Provence, as elsewhere, all this brought in its train
broils and internal divisions. The Reds proclaimed their sentiments by
wearing a belt and scarf of scarlet, while the Whites wore green. The
former carried a buttonhole of thyme, emblem of the mountain, and the
latter a sprig of the royal lily. The Republicans planted the “trees of
liberty” at every corner, and by night the Royalists kicked them down.
Thereupon followed riots and knife-thrusts; till before long this good
people, these Provenceaux of the same race, who a month before had been
living in brotherly love and good fellowship, were all ready to make
mincemeat of one another for a party wrangle that led to nothing.
All students of the same year took sides and split into rival parties,
neither of which ever lost an opportunity of a skirmish. Every evening
we Reds, after washing down our omelettes with plenty of good wine,
issued from the inn according to the correct village fashion, in shirt
sleeves, with a napkin round our necks. Down the street we went to the
sound of the tambour, dancing the “Carmagnole” and singing at the pitch
of our voices the latest song in vogue.
We finished the evening usually by keeping high carnival, and yelling
“Long live Marianne,” as we waved high our red belts.
One fine day, as I appeared in the morning, none too early, after an
evening of this kind, I found my father awaiting me. “Come this way,
Frédéric,” he said in his most serious and impressive manner, “I wish to
speak to you.”
“You are in for it this time, Frédéric,” thought I to myself; “now all
the fat is in the fire!” Following him in silence, he led the way to a
quiet spot at the back of the farm, where he made me sit down on the
bank by his side.
“What is this they tell me?” he began. “That you, my son, have joined
these young scamps who go about yelling ‘Long live Marianne’–that you
dance the ‘Carmagnole,’ waving your red sash? Ah, Frédéric, you are
young–know you it was with that dance and those same cries the
Revolutionists set up the scaffold? Not content with having published in
all the papers a song in which you pour contempt on all kings—- But
what harm have they done you, may I ask, these unfortunate kings?”
I must confess I found this question somewhat difficult to answer, and
my sire continued:
“Monsieur Durand-Maillane, a learned man, since he it was who presided
at the famous Convention, and wise as he was learned, refused to sign
the death warrant of the King, and speaking one day to his nephew
Pélissier, also member of the Convention, he warned him: ‘Pélissier,’
said he, ‘thou art young and thou wilt surely see the day when the
people will have to pay with many thousands of heads for this death of
their King.’ A prophecy which was verified only too fully by twenty
years of ruthless war.”
“But,” I protested, “this Republic desires harm to no man. They have
just abolished capital punishment for political offenders. Some of the
first names in France figure in the provisionary Government–the
astronomer Arago, the great poet Lamartine; our ‘trees of liberty’
are blessed by the priests themselves. And, let me ask you, my father,”
I insisted, “is it not a fact that before 1789 the aristocrats oppressed
the people somewhat beyond endurance?”
“Well,” conceded my worthy sire, “I will not deny there were abuses,
great abuses–I can cite you an example. One day–I must have been
about fourteen years old–I was coming from Saint-Rémy with a waggon of
straw trusses. The mistral blew with such force I failed to hear a voice
behind calling to me to make way for a carriage to pass. The owner, who
was a priest of the nobility, Monsieur de Verclos, managed at last to
pass me, and as he did so gave me a lash with his whip across the face,
which covered me with blood. There were some peasants pasturing close
by, and their indignation was such at this action that they fell upon
the man of God, in spite of his Order being at that time held sacred,
and beat him without mercy. Ah, undoubtedly,” reflected my father,
“there were some bad specimens among them, and the Revolution just at
first attracted a good many of us. But gradually everything went wrong
and as usual the good paid for the bad.”
* * * * *
And so with the Revolution of 1848; all at first appeared to be on good
and straight lines. We Provenceaux were represented in the National
Assembly by such first-class men as Berryer, Lamartine, Lamennais,
Béranger, Lacordaire, Garnier-Pagès, Marie, and a poet of the people
named Astouin. But the party-spirited reactionaries soon poisoned
everything; the butcheries and massacres of June horrified the nation.
The moderates grew cold, the extremists became venomous, and all my
fair young visions of a platonic Republic were overcast with gloomy
doubt. Happily light from another quarter shed its beams on my soul.
Nature, revealing herself in the grand order, space and peace of the
rustic life, opened her arms to me; it was the triumph of Ceres.
In the present day, when machinery has almost obliterated agriculture,
the cultivation of the soil is losing more and more the noble aspect of
that sacred art and of its idyllic character. Now at harvest time the
plains are covered with a kind of monster spider and gigantic crab,
which scratch up the ground with their claws, and cut down the grain
with cutlasses, and bind the sheaves with wire; then follow other
monsters snorting steam, a sort of Tarascon dragon who seizes on the
fallen wheat, cuts the straw, sifts the grain, and shakes out the ears
of corn. All this is done in latest American style, a dull matter of
business, with never a song to make toil a gladness, amid a whirl of
noise, dust, and hideous smoke, and the constant dread, if you are not
constantly on the watch, that the monster will snap off one of your
limbs. This is Progress, the fatal Reaper, against whom it is useless to
contend, bitter result of science, that tree of knowledge whose fruit
is both good and evil.
But at the time of which I write, the old methods were still in use,
with all the picturesque apparatus of classic times.
So soon as the corn took on a shade of apricot, throughout the Commune
of Arles, a messenger went the round of the mountain villages blowing
his horn and crying: “This is to give notice that the corn in Arles is
Thereupon the mountaineers, in groups of threes and fours, with their
wives and daughters, their donkeys and mules, made ready to descend to
the plains for harvesting. A couple of harvesters, together with a boy
or young girl to stack the sheaves, made up a _solque_, and the men
hired themselves out in gangs of so many _solques_, who undertook the
field by contract. At the head of the group walked the chief, making a
pathway through the corn, while another, called the bailiff, organised
and directed the work.
As in the days of Cincinnatus, Cato and Virgil, we reaped with the
sickle, the fingers of the right hand protected by a shield of twisted
reeds or rushes.
At Arles, about the time of Saint John’s Day, thousands of these harvest
labourers might be seen assembled in the Place des Hommes, their
scythes slung on their backs, standing and lying about while waiting to
In the mountain districts a man who had never done his harvesting in the
plains of Arles found it hard, so they said, to get any girl to marry
him, and it was on this custom Félix Gras founded the story of his epic
poem “Les Charbonniers.”
On our own farm we hired from seven to eight of these groups every year
at harvest-time. It was a fine upset throughout the house when these
folk arrived. All sorts of special utensils were unearthed for the
occasion, barrels made of willow wood, enormous earthenware pans, big
pots and jugs for wine, a whole battery of the rough pottery made at
Apt. It was a time of constant feasting and gaiety, above all when we
lit the bonfires on Saint John’s Day and danced round them singing the
Every day at dawn the reapers ranged themselves in line, and so soon as
the chief had opened out a pathway through the cornfield all glistening
with morning dew, they swung their blades, and as they slowly advanced
down fell the golden corn. The sheaf-binders, most of whom were young
girls in the freshness of their youthful bloom, followed after, bending
low over the fallen grain, laughing and jesting with a gaiety it
rejoiced one’s heart to see. Then as the sun appeared bathing the sky
all rosy red and sending forth a glory of golden rays, the chief,
raising high in the air his scythe, would cry, “Hail to the new day,”
and all the scythes would follow suit. Having thus saluted the newly
risen sun, again they fell to work, the cornfield bowing down as they
advanced with rhythmic harmonious movement of their bare arms. From time
to time the bailiff cried out, mustering his troop for another turn. At
last, after four hours’ vigorous work, the chief would give the word for
all to rest. Whereupon, after washing the handles of their scythes in
the nearest stream, they would sit down on the sheaves in the middle of
the stubble, and take their first repast.
It was my work, with the aid of Babache, our old mule, to take round the
provisions in rope baskets.
The harvesters had five meals a day, beginning with the breakfast at
seven o’clock, which consisted of anchovies spread on bread steeped in
oil and vinegar, together with raw onions, an invariable accompaniment.
At ten o’clock they had the “big drink,” as it was called, with
hard-boiled eggs and cheese; at one o’clock dinner, soup and vegetables;
at four a large salad, with which were eaten crusts rubbed with garlic;
and finally the supper, consisting either of pork or mutton and
sometimes an omelette strongly flavoured with onion, a favourite
harvesting dish. In the field they drank by turns from a barrel taken
round by the chief and swung on a pole, which he balanced on the
shoulder of the one drinking. For their meals in the field they had one
plate between three, each one helping himself with a big wooden spoon.
When the reapers’ work was done, came the gleaners to gather the stray
ears left among the stubble. Troops of these women went the rounds of
the farms, sleeping at night under small tents, which served to protect
them from the mosquito. A third of their gleanings, according to the
usage in the country of Arles, went always to the hospital.
Such were the people, fine children of the soil, who were not only my
models but my teachers in the art of poetry. It was in this company, the
grand sun of Provence streaming down on me as I lay full length beneath
a willow-tree, that I learnt to pipe and sing such songs as “Les
Moissons” and others in “Les Iles d’Or.”