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Jean Francois by Maurice Baring


Jean Francois was a vagabond by nature, a balladmonger by profession. Like many poets in many times, he found that the business of writing verse was more amusing than lucrative; and he was constrained to supplement the earnings of his pen and his guitar by other and more profitable work. He had run away from what had been his home at the age of seven (he was a foundling, and his adopted father was a shoe- maker), without having learnt a trade. When the necessity arose he decided to supplement the art of balladmongering by that of stealing. He was skilful in both arts: he wrote verse, sang ballads, picked pockets (in the city), and stole horses (in the country) with equal facility and success. Some of his verse has reached posterity, for instance the "Ballads du Paradis Peint," which he wrote on white vellum, and illustrated himself with illuminations in red, blue and gold, for the Dauphin. It ends thus in the English version of a Balliol scholar:--

  Prince, do not let your nose, your Royal nose,
  Your large Imperial nose get out of joint;
  Forbear to criticise my perfect prose--
  Painting on vellum is my weakest point.

Again, the ballade of which the "Envoi" runs:--

  Prince, when you light your pipe with radium spills,
  Especially invented for the King--
  Remember this, the worst of human ills:
  Life without matches is a dismal thing,

is, in reality, only a feeble adaptation of his "Priez pour feu le vrai tresor de vie."

But although Jean Francois was not unknown during his lifetime, and although, as his verse testifies, he knew his name would live among those of the enduring poets after his death, his life was one of rough hardship, brief pleasures, long anxieties, and constant uncertainty. Sometimes for a few days at a time he would live in riotous luxury, but these rare epochs would immediately be succeeded by periods of want bordering on starvation. Besides which he was nearly always in peril of his life; the shadow of the gallows darkened his merriment, and the thought of the wheel made bitter his joy. Yet in spite of this hazardous and harassing life, in spite of the sharp and sudden transitions in his career, in spite of the menace of doom, the hint of the wheel and the gallows, his fund of joy remained undiminished, and this we see in his verse, which reflects with equal vividness his alternate moods of infinite enjoyment and unmitigated despair. For instance, the only two triolets which have survived from his "Trente deux Triolets joyeux and tristes" are an example of his twofold temperament. They run thus in the literal and exact translations of them made by an eminent official:--

  I wish I was dead,
    And lay deep in the grave.
  I've a pain in my head,
  I wish I was dead.
  In a coffin of lead--
    With the Wise and the Brave--
  I wish I was dead,
    And lay deep in the grave.

This passionate utterance immediately preceded, in the original text, the following verses in which his buoyant spirits rise once more to the surface:--

  Thank God I'm alive
    In the light of the Sun!
  It's a quarter to five;
  Thank God I'm alive!
  Now the hum of the hive
    Of the world has begun,
  Thank God I'm alive
    In the light of the Sun!

A more plaintive, in fact a positively wistful note, which is almost incongruous amongst the definite and sharply defined moods of Jean Francois, is struck in the sonnet of which only the first line has reached us: "I wish I had a hundred thousand pounds." ("Voulentiers serais pauvre avec dix mille escus.") But in nearly all his verse, whether joyous as in the "Chant de vin et vie," or gloomy as in the "Ballade des Treize Pendus," there is a curious recurrent aspiration towards a warm fire, a sure and plentiful supper, a clean bed, and a long, long sleep. Whether Jean Francois moped or made merry, and in spite of the fact that he enjoyed his roving career and would not have exchanged it for the throne of an Emperor or the money-bags of Croesus, there is no doubt that he experienced the burden of an immense fatigue. He was never quite warm enough; always a little hungry; and never got as much sleep as he desired. A place where he could sleep his fill represented the highest joys of Heaven to him; and he looked forward to Death as a traveller looks forward to a warm inn where (its terrible threshold once passed), a man can sleep the clock round. Witness the sonnet which ends (the translation is mine):--

      For thou has never turned
  A stranger from thy gates or hast denied,
  O hospitable Death, a place to rest.

And it is of his death and not of his life or works which I wish to tell, for it was singular. He died on Christmas Eve, 1432. The winter that year in the north of France was, as is well known, terrible for its severe cold. The rich stayed at home, the poor died, and the unfortunate third estate of gipsies, balladmongers, tinkers, tumblers, and thieves had no chance of displaying their dexterity. In fact, they starved. Ever since the 1st of December Jean Francois had been unable to make a silver penny either by his song or his sleight of hand. Christmas was drawing near, and he was starving; and this was especially bitter to him, as it was his custom (for he was not only a lover of good cheer, but a good Catholic and a strict observer of fasts and feasts) to keep the great day of Christendom fittingly. This year he had nothing to keep it with. Luck seemed to be against him; for three days before Christmas he met in a dark side street of the town the rich and stingy Sieur de Ranquet. He picked the pocket of that nobleman, but owing to the extreme cold his fingers faltered, and he was discovered. He ran like a hare and managed easily enough to outstrip the miser, and to conceal himself in a den where he was well known. But unfortunately the matter did not end there. The Sieur de Ranquet was influential at Court; he was implacable as well as avaricious, and his disposition positively forbade him to forgive any one who had nearly picked his pocket. Besides which he knew that Jean had often stolen his horses. He made a formal complaint at high quarters, and a warrant was issued against Jean, offering a large sum in silver coin to the man who should bring him, alive or dead, to justice.

Now the police were keenly anxious to make an end of Jean. They knew he was guilty of a hundred thefts, but such was his skill that they had never been able to convict him; he had often been put in prison, but he had always been released for want of evidence. This time no mistake was possible. So Jean, aware of the danger, fled from the city and sought a gipsy encampment in a neighbouring forest, where he had friends. These gipsy friends of his were robbers, outlaws, murderers and horse-stealers all of them, and hardened criminals; they called themselves gipsies, but it was merely a courtesy title.

On Christmas Eve--it was snowing hard--Jean was walking through the forest towards the town, ready for a desperate venture, for in the camp they were starving, and he was sick almost to death of his hunted, miserable life. As he plunged through the snow he heard a moan, and he saw a child sitting at the roots of a tall tree crying. He asked what was the matter. The child--it was a little boy about five years old--said that it had run away from home because its nurse had beaten it, and had lost its way.

"Where do you live?" asked Jean.

"My father is the Sieur de Ranquet," said the child.

At that moment Jean heard the shouts of his companions in the distance.

"I want to go home," said the little boy quietly. "You must take me home," and he put his hand into Jean's hand and looked up at him and smiled.

Jean thought for a moment. The boy was richly dressed; he had a large ruby cross hanging from a golden collar worth many hundred gold pieces. Jean knew well what would happen if his gipsy companions came across the child. They would kill it instantly.

"All right," said Jean, "climb on my back."

The little boy climbed on to his back, and Jean trudged through the snow. In an hour's time they reached the Sieur de Ranquet's castle; the place was alive with bustling men and flaring torches, for the Sieur's heir had been missed.

The Sieur looked at Jean and recognised him immediately. Jean was a public character, and especially well known to the Sieur de Ranquet. A few words were whispered. The child was sent to bed, and the archers civilly lead Jean to his dungeon. Jean was tired and sleepy. He fell asleep at once on the straw. They told him he would have to get up early the next morning, in time for a long, cold journey. The gallows, they added, would be ready.

But in the night Jean dreamed a dream: he saw a child in glittering clothes and with a shining face who came into the dungeon and broke the bars.

The child said: "I am little St. Nicholas, the children's friend, and I think you are tired, so I'm going to take you to a quiet place.

Jean followed the child, who led him by the hand till they came to a nice inn, very high up on the top of huge mountains. There was a blazing log fire in the room, a clean warm bed, and the windows opened on a range of snowy mountains, bright as diamonds. And the stars twinkled in the sky like the candles of a Christmas tree.

"You can go to bed here," said St. Nicholas, "nobody will disturb you, and when you do wake you will be quite happy and rested. Good-night, Jean." And he went away.

* * * * *

The next day in the dawn, when the archers came to fetch Jean, they found he was fast asleep. They thought it was almost a pity to wake him, because he looked so happy and contented in his sleep; but when they tried they found it was impossible.