The Memoirs of Isaac Mathieu Crommelin
The above unknown portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (whose birthplace also was Saint Quentin) seems to capture the mischievious glance we would expect in his contemporary, Isaac Mathieu Crommelin.
(Transcribed from pages digitally photographed at the Saint Quentin Public Library, France by Maryse Trannois and (roughly) translated by Milfred Crommelin, Canada with the aid of computer-translating programs, May-June 2002).
01 - I Accept a New Position in Guise
02 - Stuck in Quicksand
03 - Lost at Pont-Audemer
04 - My House Catches Fire
05 - Early Impressions of Guise
06 - How a Lt.-Colonel Became An Actor
07 - Stuck In A Mine Shaft
08 - Smuggling Tobacco
09 - I Avert A Crisis
10 - The Quirky Fermier-General
11 - A Delicate Duel
119 OEQUAM MEMENTO REBUS in arduis servare menteru
Hor. OdIII, liv has.
Preserve in misfortune the presence of your spirit.
I Accept a New Position in Guise
Jacques Necker (1732-1804)
Though Monsieur Necker was the dispenser of favours, and although I had known him when he was the associate of Mr. Thélusson, my reticence in having to ask him for a favour prevented me from bothering him. In the end I learned that he had the kindness to think of me and consider my desire to move closer to my family. I went to thank him and it is was madam, his wife, who introduced me. "The salt warehouse of Guise is vacant," he tells me. "This situation would be convenient for you. It pays better than what you are earning now and I advise you to take it while waiting for something better to come along". After expressing my gratitude I asked him to allow me to take one month to finish off all my business. - "I advise you to begin by taking possession; getting a temporary replacement; and then asking for a leave of absence." I followed his suggestion. My brother replaced me, and my wife dealt with the guarantee which was 15,000 francs in cash.
Salt Tax Map, 1789 (Click to enlarge.)
I had to go to Le Havre-de-grace to withdraw papers of an unsettling nature. I made the journey and in one morning I obtained the peace of mind that six months and twenty letters had not been able to give me.
While walking along the seashore (something which I have always enjoyed doing) I saw a fire in the distance and many people. Then I smelt a rather unpleasant odour and approached the scene. This was where an oil was manufactured that was used by blacksmiths and I discovered that the smoke came from a young whale which the poor fishermen had
found dead not far from shore. I was told that it had beached itself in the shallow water and then got crushed by a vessel. I did not verify the accident but I saw the debris which remained after the creature had been captured.
The day of my arrival at Le Havre was marked by a rather unusual incident. A rich financier arrived there accompanied by his family. They intended to eat whatever they found in the tide. His presence caused a sensation; it even caused a general rumour in this republic of gourmands. This man having fulfilled completely his objective, and undoubtedly his enormous belly too, returned very satisfied to Paris without even having seen the port. The name of this new Appicius, escapes my memory.
Stuck in Quicksand
I wanted to see Caen, my wife's hometown and the occasion was favorable. I crossed the mouth of the Seine and went down to Honfleur to the boss of the posts (post offices) known by travelers to be a very impertinent rascal. He was in a fight with a beggar from whom he had demanded 24 sols for allowing him to sleep in his stable and feeding him a few bread crusts. "Go easy on this wretch," he says to his wife, "take only 22 sols from him". - "Hold on, my friend. Here are 24 sols. Give two to the maidservant who made his bed!" And then I ordered my dinner.
This innkeeper then asked me if I was going to take the postal stage coach. "No, I want my own horse." - "You will have one... Perhaps monsieur is unaware that there are very dangerous quicksands in the area which can surprise those who are unfamiliar with this road". He was right, but since I didn't take his remarks too seriously I almost got killed. I was brought a very strong horse and began to ride along the water's edge. I really did begin to sink into the fluid-filled sands amongst which one who thrashes would never be able to extricate himself. However when the tide goes out, the hard sand is very dense and offers a pleasant road.
I saw a multitude of shells which looked like knife handles. I got off my horse to make a collection of these while night was about to fall. But the main road being nearby, I continued on my way along this road of sand.
Unexpectedly the tide had turned. Now I wanted to get over to the main road (which was hardly a rifle shot away and which I had not even lost sight of) but instead I found myself surrounded by a border of very black, wide mud some 7 to 8 toises wide. I dismounted but could see no end to it and since the tide was coming in I began to worry. At a distance of five or six hundred paces from the ditch of mud there was the house of a vintner who was signalling to me but I did not see him nor could I understand him. The situation had become desperate so I finally took a stand. After having taken some steps I re-mounted but I could see no more than the neck and the back of my horse. I lay down on my belly and I saw my companion in distress raising its two forelegs and kicking its hindquarters thus digging with me a sort of trench in a very thick dough.
Then four people arrived with ropes and boards. My poor horse couldn't move any more. Of course to get it out of this tight spot, I put a rope around its neck and legs, and around its belly. Thus we were able to help the horse which once again made its first movement and finally got it to dry sand. As long as the danger lasts, the soul has some energy; but when the danger is past then nature speaks. I was suddenly seized by an almost convulsive trembling. "You owe your life," says the wine merchant, "to a month of drought. This strait is usually a chasm of liquid mud, the depth of which nobody knows. Many travelers have died there. Come home; you will change your clothes and linen, and I believe that a good glass of Malaga wine will restore your forces." I did not dare to offer this fair man anything, but I paid his maidservant handsomely, and fed my horse some good oats. We were to sleep one league further on where I wrote to the mayor of Honfleur explaining what had happened to me. I asked him to have a warning sign posted there in future.
Lost at Pont-Audemer
After a stay of three or four days in Caen with my relatives, I returned to Paris via Rouen. Arriving a little late at Pont-Audemer I took a postal horse and inquired whether there would be any problem traversing a forest I had
to pass through. - I received the reply, "No, just leave the reins around the neck of the horse. He will lead you to where you have to stop." The night came on and probably, because I doubted his advice, I caused the horse to turn down a wrong path. At about eleven o'clock in the evening I entered a vault that was blacker than the night. Where am I? I dismounted and listened for any sound. Here I was lost in a wood, but what to do? The idea came to me to start barking like a dog (which is one of my talents). By doing that I might be able to detect some house in the neighborhood by getting some dog to bark back at me. This actually happened. Then while I tied up my horse, I smelled an odour so foul that I was obliged to hold my nose. Taking note of my direction with respect to the stars, I walked towards the sound of the barking dog and then a rather big animal approached me, sniffed me, and I patted him. Furthermore I noticed that its tail was wagging. So finally it led me up to an isolated shack. I knocked on the door but it did not open. - "I am a lost traveler." - "Too bad for you," came a reply from somewhere inside. - "I am going to drop an ecu on your doorstep. Open the door and you will find it. If you refuse to help me, it will be your loss because I am able to reward you." I intended to strike a match but then saw an old man appear with a lantern.
"I have come from Pont-Audemer and I'm on my way to Rouen. Darkness overtook me and somehow I got off the main road." - "You have deviated a league, but by taking a shortcut through the wood you will be able to cut the distance in half. I am going to guide you. Where is your horse?" - "I attached him in the vicinity of some carrion because I smelt an awful stench." - "Ha! Ha! Ha! I will show you the nature of this carrion that you mentioned." So then he led me over to a big tree, in the branches of which hung perhaps twenty corpses and my horse was tied up very close by. "After you have traversed the wood," the old man says to me, "follow this path. It will lead you back to the main road. Just bear to the right. It will be impossible to miss it and even to deviate from it."
Before arriving at Rouen I was stopped by a constable who questioned me intently. "Where did you come from? Where are you going? Who are you? Do you know anybody in Rouen?"
"My name is Crommelin, and I am a relative of Mr. Crommelin." - "I know him, but why are you on the road so late?" - "I planned to arrive at ten o'clock but got lost." During this questioning I sensed that the cavalier was checking out my attire undoubtedly to see if I was well dressed. - "Did you meet with anybody?" - "At the end of the day a man saw me and appeared to me when I deviated from the road. I last saw him entering a field." - "You may go, but say to the cavaliers who will stop you that you spoke with me earlier." This indeed happened a little further along.
My House Catches Fire
I arrived at Paris and then returned to Autun to get my belongings and do an accounting with my successor. Finally, I left the good city of Autun, the ancient capital of the Gauls where I had spent the most pleasant moments of my life. Without bothering to linger I prepared to join my wife in the country and spend some time with her. Thanks to her foresight she had arranged a very convenient study for me.
But a glass window pane was found to be broken and while waiting for a glazier to come from the city, she replaced it with a pane that had a sort of magnifying glass in the centre of the window. This created a fierce heat and my study received the full sun at noon. I was downstairs looking out the window when I saw two servant ladies who were talking together suddenly give an exclamation of dismay at the same time. I ran outside to find out what the matter was and what do I see? A terrible flame had erupted through the window of my new office. Running inside I found my papers, the three volumes of the Encyclopedia I had written, the woodwork near the window, and a chair all on fire. I called for some water and two or three jars at most would have been enough. Local farmers started arriving with all the vases of the house filled with water. Without taking precautions they spoiled all my books, my open boxes,
my clothes, etc., which proves that a well-intentioned favour performed without intelligence can do a lot of damage.
One is curious, no doubt, to know what caused this fire in an isolated room without a fireplace and at the warmest time of the year. It seems unbelievable but the cause was most certainly the imperfect magnifying glass within the window-pane which focussed sunlight onto my papers. Coincidentally they lay at just the exact distance away to be burned by this effect.
Early Impressions of Guise
I then went to my new job in Guise. My new position was important and lucrative, requiring little actual work but a great deal of fiscal acumen because there was a controller-general and brigades to whom I reported with regard to losses and taxes, and the fines by which the division increased its profits.
I succeeded a respectable and rich old man who had lost his son and who now sought some tranquillity. This man heartily recommended his clerk to me: "He may not be too bright," he tells me, "but I trained him and he understands his task well. He is what you need". So, what was the error of this gentleman? He mistook the mask for the person. This clerk whom he had considered somewhat stupid, was only a deceitful drunkard. He was capable of the utmost debauchery, and a villain in the fullest sense of the word as we shall see later.
One may wonder why, with a reputation and eminent contacts, I did not bother to get out of the business of finance.
I shall reply:
1. with a quotation from Horace: "Duleis inexpertis, cultura potentis amicis experus metuit."
2. I entered late into this career;
3. The warehouse with which I began had kept me so isolated that I hardly thought of doing anywhere else.
4. I liked the arts and an obscure position with this portfolio was convenient for me.
5. I failed to assume the management of Saint Quentin which was now occupied by an unfit old man.
6. Having no children, my ambition had diminished. Moreover, I had missed my vocation in the only discipline which I had longed for: the diplomatic corps. All these reasons prompted me to refuse taking my place on the list of those who sought advancement.
I liked Guise a lot; the spirit was cultivated there; the company was good and not divided, although the women I did not particularly care for. Amusement was inexpensive.
A lady, a good musician, whose daughters sang very well often gave concerts, and I joined in as bass. There was usually dancing afterward and these inexpensive balls were all the more pleasant because they did not require formal endings or expense.
How a Lt.-Colonel Became An Actor
The officers of the garrison spread cheerfulness, and the feudal lords received perfectly all those who paid them visits, even holding comedies there. I was the one who gave the idea of setting up theaters in the morning using barrels, boards and decorations in the hedges.
When an old Lieutenant-Colonel dared to grumble over the fact that the young officers were engaged in this sort of frivolous amusement, I formulated a project in which he would play in the comedy without having to rehearse his role. I then presented my scheme to the officers, who all applauded. When the day arrived to execute this farce, we took care to put the main actor in a prominent position. On this day, while dining, the old officer had expressed his appreciation for my kindness in having him participate. The skit revolved around a flattering remark which a young officer was to make to the ladies. Here is the plan of the dialogue...
I was to be the prompter who would blow a trumpet. While the young officer searched for a complimentary word, I would blow the trumpet a little bit high. - He would say: "Blow lower, sir!" - "Gladly." I then blew it a second time - "Lower still, I say!"
- "Sir, half of your orders seems to be about my blowing the trumpet a little too high. But the important thing is supposed to be your search for a complimentary word." Again he is stuck for a word and while his memory lapses I do not blow the trumpet. - "Well, go ahead, blow the thing!" - "But I blow badly." The young man then gets angry, kicks my foot and says to me: "Look, if you don't know how to blow a stupid trumpet, you shouldn't even be involved in this." - "Ah, but if you can't remember your lines, then you shouldn't be playing in a comedy either!"
Meanwhile the old lieutenant-colonel had been playing a pantomime in the background. When I slammed down my script and pretended to go away, he marched onto the stage and began to scold and rebuke the young officer who mocked him too, respectfully but with spirit. The humor then became apparent at this moment when we all started clapping enthusiastically and roundly complimented the lieutenant-colonel on his dramatic talents! Laughing, he made a threatening gesture and took the whole joke very well. The outcome was the deliverance of the nice young officer. He was to be disciplined for a light prank, and a delegation was here looking for him and to witness this spectacle. We all went dancing after it was over.
Stuck In A Mine Shaft
I received a letter from one of my friends in Burgundy who, upon examining a small map, had concluded that Guise and Valenciennes were rather close to each other. He requested in the name of our friendship, of his family, and of his fortune, to have me go and inspect a mine at Anzin, and to send him my assessment because he had found some coal in the ground and thought this could lead to some lucrative exploitation.
I went to the scene in January, in spite of the rigorous cold and a snowfall of extraordinary abundance. However, friendship knows no barriers. Presenting myself to go down into the mine, I was to be put into a basket used to bring up the coal. Undoubtedly there was nothing around that was more suitable. But the rope seemed to me rather worn out and even the pulley was in bad condition so my reasoning was simple: it was either a question of placing my life at risk or looking for some other way down. I did not hesitate in making my choice.
However I really did want to go down that hole. - "You are very big, sir," a miner says to me. "Few men of your size are as bold as you." - "I have a good foot, a good eye, and lots of strength. Lend me your hat, attach a candle to it and give me a miner's jacket. I shall pay you well." Appropriately attired I descended more than a hundred gauges on a perpendicular iron ladder and arrived underground at the heart of the mine. Everywhere I recorded my observations on the placement of pumps. I had a compass and examined the orientation of the windlasses, the machines, and the instruments. I questioned the workers about the excavation and saw how the frontline miners were being supported. I made drawings and took notes of everything with the most precise exactness and attention to detail. I do not believe I'm exaggerating when I say that there were at least five thousand wooden slats in this mine used for support and to form galleries.
The air inside was warm and heavy. As I went back up the shaft, the change in atmospheric pressure affected my head so that I felt very sick when I was half-way up the perpendicular ladder. One could hardly be in a more terrible predicament. I asked a man behind me to support me by the buttocks while I bound myself to the ladder with my tie. Believe me, miners are not very helpful people. - "Sacredié! Do you want to fall on me?!" - "No, in fact it is to avoid that very thing that I am going to tie myself to the ladder. You will be able to pass me easily on the double bolts, and then I ask that you go find somebody to come and help me. But first, how many more rungs is there to the first rest?" - "Forty rungs at most." - "OK, let's go on then, but be careful that my death does not bring about yours also."
I arrived at the rest level but, not being able to support myself, I prepared to fall down the opposite side of the shaft. - "Fetch some brandy." A man equipped with ropes returned rather quickly intending to remove me bodily if necessary. He also had a flask of brandy which restored my vigour somewhat. During his absence I had been drenched by perhaps
three buckets of water which shot from a jet of water out of the rock and fell to the reservoir of the pump below. I entered the lifting device with a raging fever and was later stripped of my clothes (it was necessary to rip my shirt off in fragments in order to remove it since it was stuck to my flesh, mixed with a cold sweat). Warmed up somewhat, I returned home without my shirt but well-covered with facts which did nothing to protect me from a violent cough that I kept for some eighteen months and which only went away after I had come down with another fever.
There had arisen a sudden thaw, and that over a very strong frost. Therefore the postal stage coach was not running, barriers were closed, and my only alternative was to traverse the fifteen leagues on foot, stopping to sleep at Cambrai. One walks very well when it is cold, and I made my eight leagues very slowly, stopping at every roadside cafe I came across in order to warm up.
A lady had asked me to bring her a pound of Makoubac, a sort of tobacco the taste of which she liked. This commission seemed a very delicate matter for a former tobacco warehouse keeper, because there was always the possibility of grave consequences for carrying contraband tobacco if one was stopped and searched. I had the tobacco with me.
Naturally I would not be challenged and searched at Saint Quentin, but I hadn't thought of Le Catelet, the constabulary of which was in the big road some two rifleshots from the village. I was wearing a woolen hat which covered my ears, a wide frock coat, and a big pair of farmers' gloves. Certainly I did not look like a man who could pass unchallenged, being on foot and alone. Indeed, I was stopped. - "Gentlemen, it is a delight to see you. This is an occasion for me to warm up. Please see fit that I enter your guardroom". I unbuttoned myself; I was wearing a striped costume, an embroidered jacket, velvet breeches, and I was allowed to sit by the fire.
- "Gentlemen, I would indeed drink a drop of brandy if somebody here would mind fetching a bottle. My faith! Thank you for your good fire. We shall all drink to it." This was done. - "Monsieur La Ville, your director wrote me saying that I would find his coach here. Did you happen to see it?" - "No, monsieur. You see that horses, even those shod for travelling on ice, could not possibly walk." - "Mmmm... I'm afraid I shall arrive too late to have dinner with him... Now, gentlemen, please carry out your duty. Here are my pockets." (My pound of Makoubac tobacco was in there). - "Ah! monsieur, we do not search people of your sort."
I Avert A Crisis
I finally arrived at Saint Quentin, very tired, and the next day I returned to my post. The city of Guise (as I said before) has a garrison of cavalry, and here is a remarkable event which occurred to me a few days after my return.
Twelve cavaliers out looking for some contraband tobacco fell into an ambush of our company's guards and were taken to a postal station where there was a struggle and an employee got wounded. The situation was extremely grave. These twelve men would be lost if they had left for the committee investigating this incident. I foresaw the consequences of this affair, namely war and death between the cavaliers and our company's guards, not only for this regiment but also for its successors.
The employees reported to me, and when the major arrived at my home I praised them in front of him lauding the zeal of our employees. I found their action to be absolutely brilliant and I fixed a meeting on the morning of the next day to dictate my report on these procedings outlining our grievances. Then I instructed them to take the accused to the chateau.
The officer said to me in a somber tone that he expected another kind of justice on my part and that the sacrifice of twelve good men made without so much as cold blood being shed contradicted the idea of fairness which he had of me. - "Well! On the contrary, monsieur. You are in error. I have done all this precisely to save them. You will note that I had them
sent to the chateau, and not to prison. Would you rather have seen me disapprove the actions of people who simply had carried out their duty? It is essential that we calm this affair down." - "We have come to offer you some money." - "How much?" - "One hundred louis." - "There is a wounded guard." - "We shall give him 120 francs." - "Remain calm, gentlemen, and do me the honour of coming tomorrow to have lunch with me. You will be satisfied unless I miss my guess." I left the post and went to Saint Quentin where I reported to the director. I painted the distressing consequences of this affair and how the offer of a hundred louis sweetened the situation. He saw things as I did and approved of the agreed restitution. But since the comptroller was absent, on the advice of his secretary he told me to be extra careful. I then demanded that one of his clerks come with me in order to be a witness of what would soon take place.
The guards had arrived, and taking the captain aside I took him into my confidence. He had a just spirit, and saw with sorrow the prospect of a war between a regiment (embittered by hatred) and the guards. He was pleased with my approach to the situation. "I am sure," I said to him, "that the company, so as not to be in conflict with the Ministry of War, will not disapprove of my actions. I have here a carte blanche to ease the situation and an intelligent witness on behalf of the management of our company, so nothing involves you personally. Let me make, and do not laugh, the joke which I have in mind because this matter is very serious."
I then read aloud to him my report: "The uniforms of the regiment were disheveled making positive identification uncertain. And sometimes raiders come to seize salt, while other times salt magically turns into tobacco. Besides we do not know if the cavaliers took the guards thinking it to be their duty, or whether the guards took the cavaliers..." My report was a total hodge-podge of nonsense and insanity, written well and laced with humour. I sent a copy to the company with a robust explanatory note. He neither approved me nor disapproved of me in writing, but on a day while dining at Monsieur Couturier's home with about five fermier-generals, he presented me saying, "Here is the man from Guise who dictated that report."
These gentlemen then told me that I had made them laugh a lot, and that my cautious approach had been appreciated as they had been at Autun in circumstances of a similar nature.
The officers of the regiment attended my invitation for lunch and brought with them the 105 louis agreed upon. In return I handed them my report which constituted the lawsuit which I had dictated. "Now," I said to them, "gentlemen, this will put an end to the matter." I had avoided a court case involving judges and all were grateful for my having saved twelve men. This was one of the beautiful moments of my life.
The Quirky Fermier-General
The chief comptroller dined sumptuously with the officers of the garrison and confirmed what I had written, adding his own reflections which were not the development of mine. This senior officer of the fermiers-general had a very peculiar mania, namely the habit of pretending to be poor while actually surrounded by abundance. His wife's head had become disoriented because of some affliction which led to her disastrous death. This crisis must have triggered something in his own head too. While unceasingly striving to collect more louis, he claimed that he didn't have a sol and made such a pathetic display of his financial straits that on occasion we offered him some help.
Shortly before he died, he demanded from my friendship that I pay him a visit when I was in the district. This I did. Then the man died and his brother arrived with a great deal of money to pay off his debts because he was overcome with letters in which his brother's financial distress was painted with lively colours, and in the most heart-rending tones.
Then when we opened the bureau of the dead man, we found a hundred twenty-five louis rolls of coins. Apparently when he had eighteen silver francs, he would borrow six more francs in order to convert it into a louis. Then when he lacked ten louis in order to complete his latest roller, he began to plead poverty and beg for money. I mention this character only because I consider his mania somewhat unique.
A Delicate Duel
At Guise I had my lodging near the wall or ramparts where there was also a very pleasant lawn. While sitting there I saw two cavaliers arrive who pulled out their swords in order to have a duel. A third one sneaked behind a wall and did not reveal himself. So I took a bottle of wine and advanced a few paces toward the combattants. - "My
friends, come and have a drink from this bottle with me. It is good wine and perhaps it will help you to reconcile your differences." The man who was hiding behind the wall (who hoped that his companion would accept because he was old) treated me very badly. - "Shut up, and don't get involved in this..." This rebuke did not deter me from continuing my invitation. Both fighters then approached each other with their swords pointed down and talked together without appearing to quarrel.
During this time the old man slowly raised the point of his sabre and then quickly plunged it (from bottom to top) through the belly of his adversary. The wounded person was for a moment stunned then threw away his sabre (which remained pointed to the ground) and put his elbow against the wall for support. - "Come, my friend. Come home with me. I shall give you help". He came with me and cleverly managed to mount my flight of steps, but then he fell and vomited. Then I noticed that his stomach had been badly damaged, indeed it had been thoroughly drilled. When the surgeon arrived, he said to me in a low voice, "He is a dead man." I helped transport him to the hospital where he died.
The next day monsieur Duke de Sulli, the colonel, and his staff came to my home. - "We know, sir, that you are an upright man. The object of our visit is to inquire what you saw. We know what you did and we are grateful for this. Your house is in an out-of-the-way place and we can sense your apphrehension and the reflections you have of this incident. However, what you will disclose will remain confidential between you and us. We only wish to know the truth." - "Monsieur Duke, I saw two men fighting on this lawn. I tried unsuccessfully to reconcile them." - "How did they fight?" - "With their swords." - "Did the fight seem fair to you?" - "I do not know the rules of fencing." - "We shall decide that if you will tell us how the blow was delivered." - "What I can tell you is that the one who received the blow was standing next to the one who gave it, and that this one was his opponent." Laughing at my evasive
reply, monsieur Duverdier, the major, says: "Mr. Crommelin knows that deaths are always wrong... I told you, monsieur Duke, that by coming here you would leave not knowing any more than when you arrived!" The officers knew the nature of my business and were grateful to me for not having spoken about the earlier incident involving the abortive raid and contraband tobacco. The truth is, my own security required that I keep silent.