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
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
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
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
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.