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Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 13

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IX, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IX, 14

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 13
The Camp’s marketplace

London, April to September 1822.

Behind our camp a kind of marketplace was established. The country people brought small casks of white Moselle wine, which remained in the wagons: the horses once un-harnessed fed at one end of a cart while people drank at the other. Small fires burnt here and there. They fried sausages in pans, boiled corn flour in basins, flipped crepes on cast-iron plates, spread pancakes over baskets. They sold aniseed cakes, rye bread for a penny, wheat cakes, green apples, brown and white eggs, pipes and tobacco, under a tree from whose branches hung thick woollen hoods, haggled over by those passing. Villagers, astride portable stools, milked their animals, each one waiting their turn to offer their vessel to the cow. In front of the stoves lurked provision-sellers in smocks and soldiers in uniform. The cooks cried their wares in German and French. Some groups stood about, others sat at pine tables planted on levelled earth. One sheltered under a canvas awning perhaps or under branches cut from the forest, as at the start of Holy Week. I think there were weddings too in the covered wagons, in the style of the Frankish kings. The patriots could easily have captured the bride’s chariot, following Majorianus’ example: Rapit esseda victor, Nubentemque nurum. (Sidonius Apollinaris.) People sang, laughed and smoked. The scene at night was extremely lively, among the fires which lit up the earth and the stars which shone above.

When I was not on guard in the batteries, or on duty in the tents, I liked to have supper at the fair. There the stories of the camp were taken up; but animated by raw spirits, and a good meal, they sounded much finer.

One of our comrades, a brevet captain, whose name for me is lost beneath that of Dinarzade with which we endowed him, was celebrated for his tales; it would have been more correct to have called him Scheherazade, but we had not considered the matter quite so thoughtfully. As soon as we saw him, we rushed up to him, quarrelling about who would sit at his table. Short in height, with long legs, lugubrious face, drooping moustaches, eyes shaped like a comma at their outer edge, a hollow voice, a large sword in a coffee-coloured scabbard, the bearing of a soldier-poet, somewhere between a suicide and a jolly-good fellow, Dinazarde, the serious jester, never laughed, while one could never look at him without laughing. He was the necessary witness to all the duels, and in love with all the ‘tavern’ ladies. He treated everything he said as tragic, and never interrupted his story except to drink straight from the bottle, light his pipe, or swallow a sausage.

One rainy night, we made a circle round the tap of a barrel, tilted towards us on the edge of a cart, whose shafts were in the air. A candle stuck to a cask gave us light; a bit of cloth, stretched from the ends of the shafts to two posts, served us for a roof. – Dinazarde, his sword angled in the manner of Frederick II, standing between the wheel of the vehicle, and the rump of a horse, told a story to our great satisfaction. The cooks who had brought us our fare, stayed there with us to hear our Arab. The attentive crowd of Bacchantes and Sileni who formed the chorus, accompanied the recital with sounds of surprise, approval or disapproval.

‘Gentlemen,’ said the storyteller, ‘you all know about the Green Knight who lived at the time of King John?’ And everyone replied: ‘Yes, yes.’ Dinazarde, scalding himself, swallowed a rolled-up crepe.

‘This Green Knight, gentlemen, you must know, since you have read of him, was very handsome: when the wind blew his red hair about his helmet, it resembled a straggling mane round a green turban.’

The assembly: ‘Bravo!’

‘One night in May, he sounded his horn before the drawbridge of a castle in Picardy, or the Auvergne, it doesn’t matter which. In this castle lived the Lady of Noble Companies. She received the knight courteously, made him disarm, lead him off to bathe, and came to sit with him at a magnificent table; but she ate nothing, and the serving men were mute.’

The assembly: ‘Ah, hah!’

‘The lady, gentlemen, was tall, flat-chested, thin; and stooped like the major’s wife: though she was full of face and possessed a charming manner. When she laughed and showed her fine teeth beneath her snub nose, one no longer knew where one was. She became enamoured of the knight, and the knight became enamoured of the lady, though he was sore afraid.’

Dinazarde knocked the ash from his pipe out, on the rim of the wheel, and wanted to refill his briar, but we made him continue:

‘The Green Knight, utterly exhausted, resolved to quit the castle; but before going, he asked the chatelaine for the explanation of several strange things; at the same time he made her an honest proposal of marriage, if only she was not a sorceress.’

Dinarzade’s rapier was planted stiff and straight between his legs. Sitting there, leaning forward with our pipes, we scattered around him a wreath of sparks, like a ring of Saturn. Suddenly Dinarzade cried out, as if beside himself:

‘Yes, gentlemen: the Lady of the Noble Companies was Death!’

And the captain, breaking through the ring and crying out: ‘Death! Death!’ put the cooks to flight. The session was ended: the hubbub was great and the laughter prolonged. We had approached Thionville to the noise of cannon.