Iʼll start to collect the bits and pieces I have posted from my Villon novel on this Longer Items page.
The old man sat hunched like a blind miser, hanging his head close over the desk in front of him. But no golden horde lay there, simply parchment, old, abused and much used and reused, barely scraped clean enough to accept the words he was painfully scratching by the dying light of this day in the one room he did not own. He wrote:
“I knew him, this Villon, whose roundelay, still sung these fifty years on, heard by me this morning in the market street, still lingers in my ears.”
He stopped. The song did indeed ring in his aged and enfeebled memory. His dark eyes, crystalline with glaucoma, did not focus on that corner as his nearly toothless mouth moved, lips writhing to the remembered words. He recollected most of them.
His attention turned back to the palimpsest. He shook his head about something and continued.
“Youngsters remember his name — they think, as a rogue and wild man. They are wrong. He wasn’t a rogue. He knew such men, associated with them, admired some, feared others, feared some he also respected or at least admired. He yearned almightily to be like most of them, to be wild, to live dangerously but free.
“But he could not. Legends flourish once the man is gone, but the truth remains like withered grass in the shade of a growing tree: the man was a coward.”
The wrinkled, dry lips hissed a long sigh as the final word was penned. In black — well, thinned as it was, really rather greenish — ink the word stood recorded. Recorded and therefore true?
Coward. François Villon, coward.
And it was true.
The blind eyes felt for a moment a glimpse of light, the smoky illumination of the yellow plaster walls of the Pomme de Pin, that Parisian dive so faraway, opposite the sacred walls of the Madeleine, on the corner of the Rue de Juiverie and the Rue de Lanterne. So far in time as well… Fifty years gone…
The illumination in the Pomme de Pin was never very trustworthy — a few flambeaux (two by the door, one by the barrels), a couple of candles on the “good” tables, sometimes a twist of oil-soaked grass stuck high in the back corner. The one big fireplace.
Essentially it was pretty dark, and by late evening fairly thick with smoke as well. Ventilation being a poor idea in the winter, holding warmth, even smoke, was an unpleasant necessity.
François as a youth had found this dive a racy exhilaration. He failed to perceive that it was a morass from which he would not escape.
A tangled route had brought François to this scummy table in this notorious tavern on this ill-fated winter night. No candle here, far from the dancing brightness of the roaring hearth. No rushlight near either.
All the better. Darkness suited his purpose on this dark night early in a dark year. He heard the rattle of bones in the cup at another table near the farther wall. François shuddered, drawing his narrow frame closer into the corner his table crowded, ignoring, mostly, the chill of the outdoor air permeating both walls. Coins clinked: bets placed.
“Ha.” One shout of pleasure amidst indrawn breaths and hisses of dismay. François sniffed in sympathy, willing the gambling sounds away and studiously not looking up at the other table.
The bones had brought him here tonight. The price of the last dark year, his tavern year — long, dark nights huddled around the table. Wine and more wine. The dice — yellow and flashing in the red light. And his coins swiped away, lost. Again and again. Wine and more wine. Losing and losing and losing…
The times he won were bright flashes in his memory. They were bright moments at the time, too. Treasured and warm in his heart and belly. The look of envy on Colin’s face. Others licking their lips, hiding their dismay with tankards, gulping wine. Flares of anger from Guy Tabarie, who lost oftener than François. Jehan looking sour and raking the dice back angrily. Faces to be savored.
Faces to be met tonight.
Winnings never lasted. Winning just meant François bought more wine. Wine and dice: money sliding through his fingers onto the wet planks of tavern tables and so seldom ringing any coins back. Requiring more money…
At first that need meant work, tedious time in addition to his tedious studies, copying text for other students, even making illegal copies on Rue de Saint-Jacques sometimes. The work instead of his studies, scraping daylong with his always dull pens, work requiring him to spend money — ink, parchment, pens. Worked extending into the evenings he yearned to be here, drinking wine and gambling. Work that was worse than studying. Work that rewarded his efforts too little and generally too late.
Work which seemed so light when he thought of peasants wrenching rocks from fields or his nakedpate, rackhack-coughing masters shivering in their overworn threadbare patched-on-patches gowns to lecture inattentive allasleep idiots who only arouse to debate insignificant issues of irrelevant side points just to piss the master off, or bone ugly befouled and dirty, pocky, gouty, blear-eyed whores — shivering in worse garments than any master had to suffer — struggling to flaunt their eons-vanished charms to those same self-absorbed, self-importantly witty undergraduates in dark streets, puke-scented, thoroughly and throughly designed to defeat lust and sin (coughing even more than the futile wasting masters).
Still each joint between the elbow and the fingertips snarled and nagged with achepain and in the morning could scarcely twist or bend to grasp a pen. Weary aches that made taking the dicecup or goblet pleasureless effort until more wine and wine made the bones forget…
But those other bones — so carefully enumerated — never remembered and left François stumbling home alone night after night, whoreless in his innocent poverty, striding through black ways unhindered by footpads only too aware of a loser’s stagger. Still he dreaded them, those cutthroats, those alleyway bandits — dreaming of beatings in skullthrobbing notslumber night after night.
All from the dice and the wine. In the taverns. And low women and lower men, cockleshells and cuckoldry, murder and memory. All bringing him here. Tonight.
Strange that he could still recall being innocent of all this. His innocence seemed so distant, so long ago, yet still clear in memory. Sometimes, when he bothered to recall. And other times when recollection chided his present state. Memory as conscience. Had some philosopher considered that? Had he read it, heard it at lecture, or was it actually his own, true insight?
He didn’t know.
Right now, the wine had filled his head, and the tavern, even the table he crouched against, wavered a bit in the uncertain lack of light. Quite early for such a feeling, but tonight was unique, or at least original. And he drank down the rest of his cup. He would need this warmth tonight.
Memory as conscience. No guilt without recollection. One must remember in order to learn. A lesson, and experience forgotten is no benefit, no lesson at all.
Thoughts tumbled shapelessly.
What could he remember? What had François learned? How had his experiences shaped him, wet mud, dull clay, to become who he was at this critical moment on this unusual dark night?
Conscience? How could he in good conscience even be here? And what would conscience have to say tomorrow? Could he be about to kill conscience or rather prod it into hysteria? Whom or what could he blame for that which he was about to perform, what he was to become part in, who he was trembling to become? And what right had conscience to complain at all at this point? He had considered this and worse many times, as his fortunes waned and the dicecup drew him ever deeper under the shadow of his worst compatriots.
François realized he was staring across the smoky space at the flambeau nearest the door. The flames weaved and intermingled, gold and red yellow white orange, wavering and vanishing, trembling and soaring, diminishing. He felt his soul strangely drawn into the bright mystery of fire, chaotic beauty.
Until raucous laughter cackled from the dicers near him. The wine had begun to work long ago: their voices clamored too loud for this narrow space, echoing inane annoyances that apparently no one attended. Words themselves were lost in simple noise, their bellowing all vowels, the clarity of consonants mislaid — sharing the same weary jokes. Again.
The active flames seemed sweeter. He recognized the wine had worked on him as well. Did he wish to be too drunk to do the deeds this night intended?
Again he felt his heart quicken with cowardice.
Suddenly, across from the dicers, still intent on their gaming, loud as they were, a trio at a more distant table burst into song — an old melody — barking a rondeau in honor of wine, good friends and long revelrous nights.
Mine, thought François unselfconsciously. He had composed the lyrics years ago to amuse his companions — Guy impressively — early in his wastrel life. He’d heard it sung repeatedly, among others, since. Drinking songs, parody poems, caricatures of University figures and Parisian notables, and his first masterpiece — his Romance of the Devil’s Fart that Guy had so assiduously copied so many times, the florescence of his student days. Nights, rather.
And now, as Christmas and the year’s demise approached, he had made his choices. What advice, drink, sloth and violence had begun became fullblown crime tonight.
As if on cue, an actor in a mystery, Colin appeared at the tableside.
“Did you have to hide your self all the way back here? Get up, François. We are going. The rest are at the Mule.”
Making a face, François drew his lean body afoot and followed his friend (and master now) through a twisting path between tables to the door. And out into the cold toward robbery and betrayal.
The English haunted François’s childhood. English looting, English killing, English pillaging had driven his family from their native village to another and then to Paris, where baby François had been conceived and born. Four hundred kilometers afoot, his scrawny father sought work, found death.
François barely knew his progenitor. The little toddler was not yet three years old when the older man succumbed on a hot summer’s night to a long fever that lay him, trembling and bathed in sweat, abed for weeks — unable to work, not that work had been frequent for the journeyman thatcher turned day laborer. François did not remember the torment of that interminable terminal night, though he knew the story, told and retold in his mother’s hushed and breathy voice, growing ever more ragged, ever more sorrowful, slowed and soulful with the great weight of each passing year.
“It was English fever, François, brought by the big Goddams and spread to our own folk to weaken the fibre of France. It has been killing good Frenchman for these past hundred years, a scourge as heavy as the Black Death itself in the big cities, this Paris. In the old days in Loges, we knew so little of such terror, when I was a little girl and your Papa, boy, was a young man. I liked the way he walked, François, even then, a tot, I noticed him.
“I was clever enough to stay in my hay once they had all herded into the trees, and after a long time, well dark, he came, calling for the petite child — he hadn’t learned my name, though knew me by sight — pulling me out and taking me back to our house where my father lay dead in a great lake of his own blood, and Maman was dying across the dark room. Even so little as I in those days, I knew they were dead. He tried to get Maman to know I was there, but she was losing her own fight for breath, lapsing into darkness as we crouched there. So he took me home, François, to his family, and they raised me, and once I was past girlhood, we married. A good man, your Papa.”
She nearly always told it the same way, the words like communion wine in her mouth wafted her thoughts away to other times. Horrible, true. But the English were horrible. The devastation that brought her into his father’s family was followed in her teens by the complete holocaust of Loges. The English stormed in one morning and burnt the town, slaying as many residents as they could. Fortunately, many had some warning and had fled. His father’s family with both his parents, recently wed, marched out in the late-night, hours before dawn, expelled and in exile from disaster and nothingness. And drifted away, trying to find home in another village, or another until the family fragmented, François’s grandmother and maiden aunts dying along the road in different incidents. Eventually, on their own now, Papa and Mama had found work and a place to live for almost sixteen months in Montcorbier. Thus Papa had been Pierre de Montcorbier when they arrived, after another dawdling and demanding journey, unwillingly, in Paris.
The next year François received life, drawing his first breath on a winter morning after a long and weary labor for his heroic mother.
The night was cold. François shivering wished he were back in the tavern. But what good was that? Without money, as he was, he would be out on his ass in the cold again immediately. At least now, traipsing along with his companions, he had the prospect of cash — however ill-gotten.
If he could trust these fellows. He knew them all or if he were honest, knew of them. He had seen them many times, been introduced to each long before this night. Some were actual friends, for now. Not a large crew. François looked at them in the moonless night ahead, dark silhouettes nearly invisible, keeping to the shadows and the darkest side streets.
Four dark figures skulking fast in the cold air toward their destination. Four rogues, and he one of them. Five for a crime.
He was their key, for he knew where the scrivener Amboise des Rouges had his strongbox in his illsecured stall, so conveniently backed on a black alley. And he knew that tonight that box would be heavy with coin, he and Amboises’s two other clerks yesterday having finished the copies of a huge project for the Church of the Madeleine, complex legal documents for an immense bequest from a near-royal family. The priests and deacons had hovered like black flies as the convoluted Latin was assiduously copied four times — some fifty pages all carefully reproduced without blots or errors. And the nobles themselves, completely illiterate, also clustered, also pestered, abetted by servants who always thought each letter they saw inscribed was incorrect somehow. More flies, lice, to be brushed away. Fleas biting all day long.
But the documents were finished, the priests and majordomos satisfied. Amboise had formally presented the copies to both parties and received from both the stipulated munificent fees, early this morning at the church itself, and with François and his two fellow copyists, Jehan and Bertrand, both fellow students and much more industrious and scholarly than himself, effectively standing guard, marched the bags, heavy with coin, back to the scriptorial stall, from which François knew, no coins nor bags had reappeared all day. Therefore, the coins lay waiting in Amboise’s supposedly secret strongbox. QED.
As his right foot moved forward for his next step, François felt in the darkness a heart-stopping qualm that he had ever mentioned over the dice his accidental knowledge of the strongbox and its hideyhole. Nearly six months ago, as evening drew its long shades over one of the long, hot sweltering days of August, François in all innocence had started back from his high stool and table in the forechamber, the actual scriptorium where the parsimonious Amboise had calculated barely the necessary room to fit three such stations, to beg some more ink from his master. He had fingered back a corner of the leathern hanging that separated Amboise’s private area from the rest and stopped, astonished at the sight of the text merchant’s wide back and buttocks bent low over the floor. Just as the youth was wondering, “What is the old coot doing?” with a thunk of wood the master straightened and pushed at the straw that overlay the floorboards. “Something’s hidden there,” François realized, releasing his hold on the curtain and stepping back — so as not to be caught spying, which he was not, then coughing audibly and putting the curtain aside forcefully to reveal Amboise seated as always counting a few coins on his table. That evening, with Amboise at his supper and Bertrand carrying a completed document to a court attorney for payment, François finding himself alone — Jehan having departed for a few weeks to visit an ailing relative in Tours — felt the fangs of curiosity gnawing at his soul, fiercer and sharper with each passing minute until, almost too late, he had left his desk and gone back into the private alcove, brushing aside straw and filth with his foot first and then his hands, discovering easily the loosend plank that exposed the carefully created hole beneath the stall and the strongbox therein. Almost horrified at the realization, the youth had not even touched the box but replaced the board and recast the straw, returned to his seat and made six letters before Amboise unexpectedly returned early, well fed and unaware that another now knew his secret.
It was the end of September before François unwisely first hinted at his special knowledge late one night at the Pomme de Pin, his enriched companions mocking his urgent need to return to the House of the Red Door and silently sneak into his upstairs room for a few hours rest ere his kindly but (deservedly) concerned the guardian awakened his wayward ward before dawn to commence his studies.
They were free men, not boys to bestir themselves, shivering with fear of reprimands from a demanding stepfather. They would remain out, adrinking and wenching so long as they lordly pleased. Long, loud laughs sent him on his way home, and lewd remarks, suggestive of relationships other than paternal between the aging priest and François, greeted him two nights later when the boy returned for more wine and dice. And losing again over the cursed bones, François suggested he was not such a boy as they believed — not him, one who could if he wished lay his hands on enough cash to keep losing at dice for months. At first impressive, his boast gradually turned sour in his mouth as some newer acquaintances in October and November began to press for details on this cache of wealth. Was his guardian about to leave him a bequest? Had someone decided to pay for his rhymes? More sneering. Still no respect. And those new others gazed with interest but held silent.
So he told them, and those newer not-friends told some harder men whom François only knew slightly. One of whom he owed money, and that debt rose up to make all the young man’s hours hell. All leading up to this dark night.