A Jest Of Ambialet by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

He who has not seen Ambialet, in the Albigeois, has missed a wonder of the world. The village rests in a saddle of crystalline rock between two rushing streams, which are yet one and the same river; for the Tarn (as it is called), pouring down from the Cevennes, is met and turned by this harder ridge, and glances along one flank of Ambialet, to sweep around a wooded promontory and double back on the other. So complete is the loop that, while it measures a good two miles in circuit, across the neck of it, where the houses cluster, you might fling a pebble over their roofs from stream to stream.

High on the crupper of this saddle is perched a ruined castle, with a church below it, and a cross and a graveyard on the cliff’s edge; high on the pommel you climb to another cross, beside a dilapidated house of religion, the Priory of Notre Dame de l’Oder.

From the town–for Ambialet was once a town, and a flourishing one–you mount to the Priory by a Via Crucis, zigzagging by clusters of purple marjoram and golden St. John’s wort. Above these come broom and heather and bracken, dwarf oaks and junipers, box-trees and stunted chestnut-trees; and, yet above, on the summit, short turf and thyme, which the wind keeps close-trimmed about the base of the cross.

The Priory, hard by, houses a number of lads whom Pere Philibert does his best to train for the religious life; but its church has been closed by order of the Government, and tall mulleins sprout between the broad steps leading to the porch. Pere Philibert will tell you of a time when these steps were worn by thousands of devout feet, and of the cause which brought them.

A little below the summit you passed a railed box-tree, with an image of the Virgin against it. Here a palmer, travelling homeward from the Holy Land, planted his staff, which took root and threw out leaves and flourished; and in time the plant, called oder in the Languedoc, earned so much veneration that Our Lady of Ambialet changed her title and became Our Lady of the Oder.

This should be Ambialet’s chief pride. But the monks of the Priory boast rather of Ambialet’s natural marvel–the river looped round their demesne.

“There is nothing like it, not in the whole of France!”

Pere Philibert said it with a wave of the hand. Brother Marc Antoine’s pig, stretched at ease with her snout in the cool grass, grunted, as who should say Bien entendu!

We were three in the orchard below the Priory; or four, counting the pig– who is a sow, by the way, and by name Zephirine. Brother Marc Antoine looks after her; a gleeful old fellow of eighty, with a twinkling eye, a scandalously dirty soutane, and a fund of anecdote not always sedate. The Priory excuses him on the ground that his intellectuals are not strong–he has spent most of his life in Africa, and there taken a couple of sunstrokes. Zephirine follows him about like a dog. The pair are mighty hunters of truffles, in the season.

“–Not in the whole of France!” repeated Pere Philibert with conviction, nodding from the dappled shade of the orchard-boughs towards the river, where it ran sparkling far below, by grey willows and a margin of mica-strewn sand; not ‘apples of gold in a network of silver,’ but a landscape all silver seen through a frame of green foliage starred with golden fruit.

The orchard-gate clicked behind us. Brother Marc Antoine, reclining beside the sow with his back against an apple-tree bole, slewed himself round for a look. Pere Philibert and I, turning together, saw a man and a woman approaching, with hangdog looks, and a priest between them–the Cure of Ambialet–who seemed to be exhorting them by turns to keep up their courage.

“Pouf!” said the Curd, letting out a big sigh as he came to a standstill and mopped his brow. “Had ever poor man such trouble with his flock?– and the thermometer at twenty-eight, too! Advance, my children–you first, Maman Vacher; and Heaven grant the good father here may compose your differences!”

Here the Cure–himself a peasant–flung out both hands as if resigning the case. Pere Philibert, finger on chin, eyed the two disputants with an air of grave abstraction, waiting for one or the other to begin. Brother Marc Antoine leaned back against the apple-tree, and took snuff. His eyes twinkled. Clearly he expected good sport, and I gathered that this was not the first of Ambialet’s social difficulties to be brought up to the Priory for solution.

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But for the moment both disputants hung back. The woman–an old crone, with a face like a carved nutcracker–dropped an obeisance and stood with her eyes fixed on the ground. The man shifted his weight from foot to foot while he glanced furtively from one to the other of us. I recognised him for Ambialet’s only baker, a black-avised fellow on the youthful side of forty. Clearly, the grave dignity of Pere Philibert abashed them. “Mais allez, donc! Allez!” cried the Curd, much as one starts a team of horses.

Pere Philibert turned slowly on his heel, and, waving a hand once more toward the river, continued his discourse as though it had not been interrupted.

“One might say almost the whole world cannot show its like! To be sure, the historian Herodotus tells us that, when Babylon stood in danger of the Medes, Queen Nitocris applied herself to dig new channels for the Euphrates to make it run crookedly. And in one place she made it wind so that travellers down the river came thrice to the same village on three successive days.”

Te-te!” interrupted Brother Marc Antoine, with a chuckle. “Wake up, Zephirine–wake up, old lady, and listen to this.” Zephirine, smitten affectionately on the ham, answered only with a short squeal like a bagpipe, and buried her snout deeper in the grass.

“I like that,” the old man went on. “To think of travelling down a river three days’ journey, and putting up each night at the same auberge! Vieux drole d’Herodote! But does he really pitch that yarn, my father?”

“The village, if I remember, was called Arderica, and doubtless its inhabitants were proud of it. Yet we of Ambialet have a better right to be proud, since the wonder that encircles us is not of man’s making but a miracle of God: although,”–and here Pere Philibert swung about and fixed his eyes on the baker–“our local pride in Ambialet and its history, and its institutions and its immemorial customs, are of no moment to M. Champollion, who comes, I think, from Rodez or thereabouts.”

In an instant the old woman had seized on this cue.

Te! Listen, then, to what the good father calls you!” she shrilled, advancing on the baker and snapping finger and thumb under his nose; “an interloper, a scoundrel from the Rouergue, where all are scoundrels! You with your yeast from Germany! It is such fellows as you that gave the Prussians our provinces, and now you must settle here, turning our stomachs upside down–honest stomachs of Ambialet.”

“Bah!” exclaimed Champollion defiantly. “You!–a sage femme–qui ne fonctionne pas, d’ailleurs!”

So the storm broke, and so for ten good minutes it raged. In the hurly-burly, from the clash and din of winged words, I disengaged something of the true quarrel. Champollion (it seemed) had bought a business and settled down as baker in Ambialet. Now, his predecessor had always bought yeast from the Widow Vacher, next door, who prepared it by an ancient family recipe; but this new-comer had introduced some new yeast of commerce–levure viennoise–and so deprived her of her small earnings. In revenge–so he asserted, and she did not deny it–she had bribed a travelling artist from Paris to decorate the bakery sign with certain scurrilities, and the whole village had conned next morning a list of the virtues of the Champollion yeast and of the things–mostly unmentionable–it was warranted a faire sauter. There were further charges and counter-charges–as that the widow’s Cochin-China cock had been found with its neck wrung; and that she, as sage femme, and the only one in Ambialet, had denied her services to Madame Champollion at a time when humanity should override all private squabbles. Brother Marc Antoine rubbed his hands and repeatedly smote Zephirine on the flank.

“The pity of it–the treat you are missing!”–but Zephirine snored on, contemptuous.

After this had lasted, as I say, some ten minutes, Pere Philibert held up a hand.

“I was about to tell you,” said he, “something of this Ambialet of which you two are citizens. It is a true tale; and if you can pierce to the instruction it holds for you both, you will go away determined to end this scandal of our town and live in amity. Shall I proceed?”

Champollion twirled his cap uneasily. The widow fell back a pace, panting from her onslaught. Neither broke the sudden peace that had fallen on the orchard.

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“Very well! You must know, then, to begin with, that this Ambialet–which you occupy with your petty broils–was once an important burg with its charters and liberties, its consul and council of prud’hommes and its own court of justice. It had its guilds, too–of midwives for instance, Maman Vacher, who were bound to obey any reasonable summons–“

“You, there, just listen to that!” put in the baker.

“And of bakers, M. Champollion, who sold bread at a price regulated by law, with a committee of five prohomes to see that they sold by just weight.”

“Eh? Eh? And I warrant the law allowed no yeast from Germany!”–This from the widow.

“Beyond doubt, my daughter, it would have countenanced no such invention; for the town held its charter from the Viscounts of Beziers and Albi, and might consume only such corn and wine as were grown in the Viscounty.”

Parbleu!”–the baker shrugged his shoulders–“in the matter of wine we should fare well nowadays under such a rule!”

“In these times Ambialet grew its own wine, and by the tun. Had you but used your eyes on the way hither they might have counted old vine-stocks by the score; they lie this way and that amid the heather on either side of the calvary. Many of the inhabitants yet alive can remember the phylloxera destroying them.”

“Which came, moreover, from the Rouergue!” snapped Maman Vacher.

“Be silent, my daughter. Yes! these were thriving times for Ambialet before ever the heresy infected the Albigeois, and when every year brought the Great Pilgrimage and the Retreat. For three days before the Retreat, while yet the inns were filling, the whole town made merry under a president called the King of Youth–rex juventutis–who appointed his own officers, levied his own fines, and was for three days a greater man even than the Viscount of Beziers, from whom he derived his power by charter: ‘E volem e auctreiam quo lo Rei del Joven d’Ambilet puesco far sas fastas, tener ses senescals e sos jutges e sos sirvens. . .’ h’m, h’m.” Pere Philibert cast about to continue the quotation, but suddenly recollected that to his hearers its old French must be as good as Greek.

“–Well, as I was saying, this King of Youth held his merrymaking once in every year, at the time of the Great Pilgrimage. And on a certain year there came to Ambialet among the pilgrims one Tibbald, a merchant of Cahors, and a man (as you shall see) of unrighteous mind, in that he snatched at privy gain under cover of his soul’s benefit. This man, having arrived at Ambialet in the dusk, had no sooner sought out an inn than he inquired, ‘Who regulated this feast?’ The innkeeper directed him to the place, where he found the King of Youth setting up a maypole by torchlight; whom he plucked by the sleeve and drew aside for a secret talk.

“Now the fines and forfeits exacted by the King of Youth during his festival were always paid in wine–a pail of wine apiece from the newest married couple in the Viscounty, a pail of wine from anyone proved to have cut or plucked so much as a leaf from the great elm-tree in the place, a pail for damaging the Maypole, or stumbling in the dance, or hindering any of the processions. ‘We have granted this favour to our youth,’ says the charter, ‘because, having been witness of their merrymaking, we have taken great pleasure and satisfaction therein.’ You may guess, then, that in one way and another the King and his seneschals accumulated good store of wine by the end of the festival, when they shared it among the populace in a great carouse; nor were they held too strictly to account for the justice of particular fines by which the whole commonalty profited.

“This Tibbald, then, having drawn the King aside, began cautiously and anfractuously and per ambages to unfold his plan. He had brought with him (said he) on muleback twelve half-hogsheads of right excellent wine which he had picked up as a bargain in the Rhone Valley. The same he had smuggled into Ambialet after dusk, covering his mules’ panniers with cloths and skins of Damas and Alexandria, and it now lay stored in the stables at the back of his inn. This excellent wine (which in truth was an infamous tisane of the last pressings, and had never been nearer the Rhone than Caylus) he proposed to barter secretly for that collected during the feast, and to pay the King of Youth, moreover, a bribe of one livre in money on every hogshead exchanged. The populace (he promised) would be too well drunken to discover the trick; or, if they detected any difference in the wine would commend it as better and stronger than ordinary.

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“The King of Youth, perceiving that he had to deal with a knave, pretended to agree, but stipulated that he must first taste the wine; whereupon the merchant gave him to taste some true Rhone wine which he carried in a leather bottle at his belt. ‘If the cask answer to the sample,’ said the King, ‘Ambialet is well off.’ ‘By a good bargain,’ said Tibbald. ‘Nay, by a godsend,’ said the King; and, stepping back into the torchlight, he called to his officers to arrest the knave and hold him bound, while the seneschals went off to search the inn stables.

“The seneschals returned by and by, trundling the casks before them; and, a Court of Youth being then and there empanelled, the wretched merchant was condemned to be whipped three times around the Maypole, to have his goods confiscated, and to be driven out of the town cum ludibrio.

“Now, the knave was clever. Though terrified by the sentence, he kept his wits. The talk had been a private one without witnesses, and he began to shout and swear that the King of Youth had either heard amiss or was maliciously giving false evidence. He had proposed no bargain, nor hinted at one; he had come on a pilgrimage for his soul’s sake, bringing the wine as a propitiatory offering to Our Lady of the Oder for the use of her people. Here was one man’s oath against another’s. Moreover, and even if his sentence were legal (which he denied), it could be revised and quashed by the Viscount of Beziers, as feudal lord of Ambialet, and to him he appealed. Nevertheless they whipped him; and the casks they broached, and having tasted the stuff, let it spill about the marketplace.

“But when the whipping was done, the King of Youth stood up and said: ‘I have been considering, and I find that this fellow has some right on his side. No one overheard our talk, and he sets his oath against mine. Let him go, therefore, under guard, to the Viscount and lodge his complaint. For my part, I have my hands full just now, and after until the feast, and shall wait until my lord summon me. But I trust his judgment, knowing him to be a very Solomon.’ Then, turning to the culprit, ‘You know my lord’s chateau, of course? My guards will take you there.’ ‘The devil a furlong know I of this accursed spot,’ answered Tibbald viciously, ‘seeing that I arrived here a good hour after dark, and by a road as heathenish as yourselves.’

“‘You shall travel by boat, then,’ said the King, ‘since the road mislikes you. The chateau lies some two miles hence by water.’ This, you see, was no more than the truth, albeit the chateau stood close at the back of him while he spoke, on the rock just overhead, but Tibbald could not see it for the darkness.

“So–the townsfolk smoking the King’s jest–two stout servitors led the merchant down to the landing by the upper ferry, and there, having hoisted him aboard a boat, thrust off into the stream. The current soon swept them past the town; and for a while, as the boat spun downward and the dark woods slipped past him, and he felt the night-wind cold on his brow, Master Tibbald sat in a mortal fright. But by and by, his anger rising on top of his fear, he began to curse and threaten and promise what vengeance would fall on Ambialet when the Viscount had heard his story, to all of which the boatmen answered only that the Viscount was known to be a just lord, and would doubtless repay all as they deserved.

“And so the boat sped downstream past the woods, and was brought to shore at last under a cliff, with dim houses above it, and here and there a light shining. And this, of course, was Ambialet again; but the King of Youth had given orders to clear the streets, close the inns, and extinguish all flambeaux; so that as the guards marched Tibbald on the cliffway to the chateau, never a suspicion had he that this sleeping town was the same he had left in uproar.

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“Now, the Viscount, who meanwhile had been posted in the affair, sat in the great hall of the chateau, with a cup of wine beside him and, at his elbow, a flagon. He was a great lord, who dearly loved a jest; and, having given Master Tibbald audience, he listened to all his complaint, keeping a grave face.

“‘In truth,’ said he, ‘you have suffered scurvy treatment; yet what affects me is the waste of this wine which you intended for Our Lady of the Oder. As lord of Ambialet I am behoven to protect her offerings.’

“‘But the stripes, monseigneur!’ urged Tibbald. ‘The stripes were given me in her name. Listen, therefore, I pray you, to my suggestion: Let the burg pay me fair compensation for my wine. So she will miss her offering; her people will bleed in their purses; and I, being quits with both, will leave Ambialet the way I came.’

“‘You call that being quits, Master Tibbald?’ said the Viscount, musing. ‘Truly, you are not vindictive!’

“‘A merchant, my lord, has a merchant’s way of looking at such affairs,’ answered Tibbald.

“‘So truly I perceive,’ said the Viscount, ‘and, in faith, it sounds reasonable enough. But touching this compensation–my people are poor in coin. Shall it be wine for wine, then, or do you insist upon money?’ And here he poured out a cupful from the flagon at his elbow and offered it to the merchant, who drank and pulled a wry mouth, as well he might, for it had been saved from the spillings of his own tisane.

“‘The Viscount eyed him curiously. ‘What! Master Tibbald? Is our native wine so sour as all that?’ He drained his own cup, which held a very different liquor.

“‘Oh, monseigneur,’ began Tibbald, ‘you will pardon my saying it, but such stuff ill becomes the palate of one of your lordship’s quality. If, setting our little dispute aside for a moment, your lordship would entrust an honest merchant with the supply of your lordship’s cellar–‘ Here he unslung the bottle at his belt, and took leave to replenish the Viscount’s cup. ‘Will your lordship degustate, for example, this drop of the same divine liquor spilt to-night by your lordship’s vassals?’

“‘Why, this is nectar!’ cried the Viscount, having tasted. ‘And do you tell me that those ignorant louts poured six hogsheads of it to waste?’

“‘The gutters ran with it, monseigneur! Rhone wine, that even at four livres the hogshead could not be sold at a profit.’

“‘Pardieu!‘ The Viscount knitted his brow. ‘I am an enemy to waste, Master Tibbald, and against such destroyers of God’s good gifts my justice does not sleep. Retire you now; my servants will lead you to a chamber where you may take some brief repose; and before daybreak we will set forth together to my Council-house a few miles down the river, where the councillors will be met early, having to answer some demands of the Holy See upon our river-tolls conveyed to us through my lord of Leseure. There I will see your business expedited, the money paid, and receipt made out.’

“Tibbald thanked the Viscount and repaired to his room, whence, an hour or two later, the chamberlain summoned him with news that my lord was ready and desired his company. The night was dark yet, and down through Ambialet he was led to the self-same ferry-stage from which he had first put forth, my lord taking heed to approach it by another stairway. At the foot lay moored the Viscount’s state barge, into which they stepped and cast off downstream.

“So once more Master Tibbald voyaged around the great loop of the river, and, arriving yet once again at Ambialet–which he deemed by this time to be some leagues behind him–was met at the lower stage by a company of halberdiers, who escorted him, with his protector, to the great lighted Hall, wherein sat a dozen grave men around a great oaken table, all deep in business.

“They rose together and made obeisance as the Viscount walked to his throne at the head of the table; and said he, seating himself–

“‘Messieurs, I regret to break in upon your consultations, but an outrage has been committed in my town of Ambialet, demanding full and instant punishment. This merchant came with six hogsheads of excellent Rhone wine, which the citizens, after afflicting him with stripes, spilt at large upon the market-place. What fine shall we decree?’

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“Then said the eldest prud’homme:–‘The answer, saving your lordship’s grace, is simple. By our laws the payment must equal the market price of the wine. As for the stripes–‘

“‘We need not consider them,’ the Viscount interposed. ‘Master Tibbald here will be satisfied with the fine, and engages–that being paid–to leave Ambialet by the way he came. Now, the wine, you say’–here he turned to Tibbald–‘was worth four livres the hogshead?’

“But here our merchant, perceiving his case to go so fairly, allowed the devil of avarice to tempt him.

“‘I said four livres to you, monseigneur, but the honest market price I could not set at less than five and a half.’

“‘Six times five and a half makes thirty-three. Very good, then, Master Tibbald: if you will pay the Council that sum, its secretary shall make you out a note of quittance.’

“‘But, my lord,’ stammered poor Tibbald; ‘my lord, I do not understand!’

“‘It is very simple,’ said the Viscount. ‘Our law requires that any man bringing alien wine into the Viscounty shall suffer its confiscation, and pay a fine equal to its market price.’

“The merchant flung himself upon his knees.

“‘My lord, my lord!’ he pleaded, ‘I am a poor man. I have not the money. I brought nothing save this wine to Ambialet.’

“‘The day is breaking,’ said the Viscount. ‘Take him to the window.’

“So to the window they led him.–And I leave you, my children, to guess if he rubbed his eyes as they looked out upon the market-place of Ambialet, and upon his own mules standing ready-caparisoned before the door of the Council-house, and, beyond them, upon the tall Maypole, and the King of Youth, with his officers, fitting their ribbons upon it in the morning sunlight.

“‘But here is witchcraft!’ cried he, spreading out both hands and groping with them, like a man in a fit. ‘Two good leagues at the least have I travelled downstream from Ambialet–‘

“His speech failed.

“‘And still art face to face with thy wickedness,’ the Viscount concluded for him. ‘Pay us speedily, Master Tibbald, lest Our Lady work more miracles upon thee.’

“‘My lord, I have not the money!’ wept Master Tibbald.

“‘Thou hast good silks and merchandise, and six good mules. We will commute thy fine for these, and even give one mule into the bargain, but upon conditions.’

“‘Nothing I gainsay, so that Our Lady lift this spell from me.’

“‘The agreement was to quit Ambialet in the way thou camest. Now, ’tis apparent thy coming here has been by two ways–by road and by water. Take thy choice of return–shall it be by water?’

“‘What! From a town that lieth three leagues downstream from itself! Nay, monseigneur, let it be by road, that at least I may keep my few wits remaining!’

“‘By road, then, it shall be, and on muleback. But the way thou camest was with a greedy face set towards Ambialet, and so will we send thee back.’

“As the Viscount promised so they did, my children; strapping Master Tibbald with his face to the mule’s rump, and with a merry crowd speeding him from the frontier.”

Brother Marc Antoine lay back against his apple-tree, laughing. Maman Vacher and the baker, seeing that the tale was done, continued to regard Pere Philibert each with a foolish grin.

Pere Philibert took snuff slowly.

“My children,” said he, tapping his box, “in this tale (which, by the way, is historical) there surely lurks a lesson for you both. You, Pierre Champollion, may read in it that he who, with an eye to his private profit, only runs counter to ancient custom in such a town as our Ambialet, may chance to knock his head upon stones. And you, Maman Vacher–What was the price of that chanticleer of yours?”

“Indeed, reverend father, I could not have asked less than six francs. A prize-winner, if you remember.”

“You valued it at twelve in your threats and outcries, and that after you had stewed his carcass down for a soup! . . . Tut, tut, my children! You have your lesson–take it and go in amity.”

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