Recollections of My Youth/My Uncle Pierre
My Uncle Pierre
Everything, therefore, predisposed me towards romanticism, not in form, for I was not long in understanding that this is a mistake, that though there may be two modes of feeling and thinking there can be but one form of expressing these feelings and thoughts--but towards romanticism of the mind and imagination, towards the pure ideal. I was an offshoot from the old idealist race of the most genuine growth. There is in the district of Goelo or of Avangour, on the Trieux, a place called the Ledano, because it is there that the Trieux opens out and forms a lagoon before running into the sea. Upon the shore of the Ledano there is a large farm called Keranbelec or Meskanbelec. This was the head quarters of the Renans, who came there from Cardigan about the year 480, under the leadership of Fragan. They led there for thirteen hundred years an obscure existence, storing up sensations and thoughts the capital of which has devolved upon me I can feel that I think for them and that they live again in me. Not one of them attempted to hoard, and the consequence was that they all remained poor. My absolute inability to be resentful or to appear so is inherited from them. The only two kinds of occupation which they knew anything of were to till the land or to steer a boat on the estuaries and archipelagos of rocks which the Trieux forms at its mouth. A short time previous to the Revolution, three of them rigged out a bark, and settled at Lezardrieux. They lived together on the bark, which was for the best part of her time laid up in a creek of the Ledano, and they sailed her when the fit took them. They could not be classed as bourgeois, for they were not jealous of the nobles: they were well-to-do sailors, independent of every one. My grandfather, one of the three, took another step towards town life; he came to live at Treguier. When the Revolution broke out, he showed himself to be a sincere but honourable patriot. He had some little money, but, unlike all others in the same position as himself, he would not buy any of the national property, holding that this property had been ill-gotten. He did not think it honourable to make large profits without labour. The events of 1814-15 drove him half mad.
Hegel had not as yet discovered that might implies right, and in any event he would have found it difficult to believe that France had been victorious at Waterloo. The privilege of these charming theories, of which by the way I have had rather too much, were reserved for me. On the evening of March 19th, 1815, he came to see my mother and told her to get up early the next morning and look at the tower. And surely enough he and several other patriots had during the night, upon the refusal of the clerk to give them the keys, clambered up the outside of the steeple at the risk of breaking their necks a dozen times over and hoisted the national flag. A few months later, when the opposite cause was triumphant, he literally lost his senses. He would go about in the street with an enormous tricolour cockade, exclaiming: "I should like to see any one come and take this away from me," and as he was a general favourite people used to answer: "Why, no one, Captain." My father shared the same sentiments. Taken by the English while serving under Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse, he passed several years on the pontoons. His great delight was to go each year, when the conscription was drawn, and humiliate the recruits by relating his experiences as a volunteer. Regarding with contempt those who were drawing lots, he would add: "We used not to act in this way," and he would shrug his shoulders over the degeneracy of the age.
It is from what I have seen of these excellent sailors, and from what I have read and heard about the peasants of Lithuania, and even of Poland, that I have derived my ideas as to the innate goodness of our races when they are organised after the type of the primitive clan. It is impossible to give an idea of how much goodness and even politeness and gentle manners there is in these ancient Celts. I saw the last traces of it some thirty years ago in the beautiful little island of Brehat, with its patriarchal ways which carried one back to the time of the Pheacians. The unselfishness and the practical incapacity of these good people were beyond conception. One proof of their nobility was that whenever they attempted to engage in any commercial business they were defrauded. Never in the world's history did people ruin themselves with a lighter or more careless heart, keeping up a running fire of paradox and quips. Never in the world were the laws of common sense and sound economy more joyously trodden under foot. I asked my mother, towards the close of her life, whether it was really the case that all the members of our family whom she had known were upon as bad terms with fortune as those whom I could remember.
"All as poor as Job," she answered me. "How could it be different? None of them were born rich, and none of them pillaged their neighbours. In those days the only rich people were the clergy and the nobles. There is, however, one exception, I mean A----, who became a millionaire. Oh! he is a very respectable person, very nearly a member of parliament, and quite likely to become one."
"How did A---- contrive to make such a large fortune while all his neighbours remained poor?"
"I cannot tell you that.... There are some people who are born to be rich, while there are others who never would be so. The former have claws, and do not scruple to help themselves first. That is just what we have never been able to do. When it comes to taking the best piece out of the dish which is handed round our natural politeness stands in our way. None of your ancestors could make money. They took nothing from the general mass, and would not impoverish their neighbours. Your grandfather would not buy any of the national property, as others did. Your father was like all other sailors, and the proof that he was born to be a sailor and to fight was that he had no head for business. When you were born we were in such a bad way that I took you on my knees and cried bitterly. You see that sailors are not like the rest of the world. I have known many who entered upon a term of service with a good round sum of money in their possession. They would heat the silver pieces in a frying-pan and throw them into the street, splitting their sides with laughter at the crowd which scrambled for them. This was meant to show that it was not for mercenary motives that they were ready to risk their lives, and that honour and duty cannot be posted in a ledger. And then there was your poor uncle Peter. I cannot tell you what trouble he used to give me."
"Tell me about him," I said, "for somehow or other I like him very much."
"You saw him once; he met us near the bridge, and he lifted his hat to you, but you were too much respected in the neighbourhood for him to venture to speak to you, though I did not like to tell you so. He was one of the best-natured creatures in existence, but he could never be got to apply himself to work. He was always lounging about, passing the best part of the day and night in taverns. He was honest and good-hearted withal, but there was no getting him to follow any trade. You have no idea how agreeable he was until the life he led had exhausted him. He was a universal favourite, and with his inexhaustible stock of tales, proverbs, and funny stories, he was welcome everywhere. He was very well read, too, and by no means devoid of learning. He was the oracle of the taverns, and was the life and soul of any party at which he might be present. He effected a regular literary revolution. Heretofore the only books which people cared for were the Quatre Fils d'Aymon and Renaud de Montauban. All these ancient characters were familiar to us, and each of us had his or her favourite hero, but Peter taught us more modern tales which he took from books, but which he remodelled to suit the local taste.
"We had at that time a pretty good library. When the mission fathers came to Treguier, during the reign of Charles X., the preacher delivered such an eloquent sermon against dangerous books that we all of us burnt any such volumes as we had. The missionary had told us that it was better to burn too many than too few, and that, for the matter of that, all books might under certain conditions be dangerous. I did like the rest of the people, but your father put several upon the top of the large wardrobe, saying that they were too handsome to be burnt; they were Don Quixotte, Gil Bias, and the Diable Boiteux. Peter found them there, and would read them to the common people and to the men employed in the port. And so the whole of our library disappeared. In this way he spent the modest little fortune which he possessed, and became a regular vagabond, though in spite of this he remained kind and generous, incapable of harming a worm."
"But," I rejoined, "why did not his friends send him to sea? that would have made him more regular in his ways."
"That could never have been, for he was so popular that all his friends would have run after him and fetched him back. You have no idea how full of fun he was. Poor Peter! with all his faults I could not help liking him, for he was charming at times. He could set you off into a fit of laughter with a word. He had a knack of his own for springing a joke upon you in the most unexpected way. I shall never forget the evening when they came to tell me that he had been found dead on the road to Langoat. I went and had him properly laid out. He was buried, and the priest spoke in consoling terms about the death of these poor waifs whose heart is not always so far from God as some people may imagine."
Poor Uncle Pierre! I have often thought of him. This tardy esteem will be his sole recompense. The metaphysical paradise would be no place for him. His lively imagination, his high spirits, and his keen sense of enjoyment constituted him for a distinct individualism in his own sphere. My father's character was just the opposite, for he was inclined to be sentimental and melancholy. It was when he was advanced in years and upon his return from a long voyage that he gave me birth. In the early dawn of my existence I felt, the cold sea mist, shivered under the cutting morning blast and passed my bitter and gloomy watch on the quarter-deck.