Jest of Ambialet
by Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
He who has not seen Ambialet, in the Albigeois, has missed a wonder
of the world. The village rests in a saddle of crystalline rock between
two rushing streams, which are yet one and the same river; for the Tarn
(as it is called), pouring down from the Cevennes, is met and turned by
this harder ridge, and glances along one flank of Ambialet, to sweep
around a wooded promontory and double back on the other. So complete is
the loop that, while it measures a good two miles in circuit, across
the neck of it, where the houses cluster, you might fling a pebble over
their roofs from stream to stream.
High on the crupper of this saddle is perched a ruined castle, with
a church below it, and a cross and a graveyard on the cliff's edge;
high on the pommel you climb to another cross, beside a dilapidated
house of religion, the Priory of Notre Dame de l'Oder.
From the townfor Ambialet was once a town, and a flourishing
oneyou mount to the Priory by a Via Crucis, zigzagging by clusters of
purple marjoram and golden St. John's wort. Above these come broom and
heather and bracken, dwarf oaks and junipers, box-trees and stunted
chestnut-trees; and, yet above, on the summit, short turf and thyme,
which the wind keeps close-trimmed about the base of the cross.
The Priory, hard by, houses a number of lads whom Pere Philibert
does his best to train for the religious life; but its church has been
closed by order of the Government, and tall mulleins sprout between the
broad steps leading to the porch. Pere Philibert will tell you of a
time when these steps were worn by thousands of devout feet, and of the
cause which brought them.
A little below the summit you passed a railed box-tree, with an
image of the Virgin against it. Here a palmer, travelling homeward from
the Holy Land, planted his staff, which took root and threw out leaves
and flourished; and in time the plant, called oder in the
Languedoc, earned so much veneration that Our Lady of Ambialet changed
her title and became Our Lady of the Oder.
This should be Ambialet's chief pride. But the monks of the Priory
boast rather of Ambialet's natural marvelthe river looped round their
There is nothing like it, not in the whole of France!
Pere Philibert said it with a wave of the hand. Brother Marc
Antoine's pig, stretched at ease with her snout in the cool grass,
grunted, as who should say Bien entendu!
We were three in the orchard below the Priory; or four, counting the
pig who is a sow, by the way, and by name Zephirine. Brother Marc
Antoine looks after her; a gleeful old fellow of eighty, with a
twinkling eye, a scandalously dirty soutane, and a fund of anecdote not
always sedate. The Priory excuses him on the ground that his
intellectuals are not stronghe has spent most of his life in Africa,
and there taken a couple of sunstrokes. Zephirine follows him about
like a dog. The pair are mighty hunters of truffles, in the season.
Not in the whole of France! repeated Pere Philibert with
conviction, nodding from the dappled shade of the orchard-boughs
towards the river, where it ran sparkling far below, by grey willows
and a margin of mica-strewn sand; not 'apples of gold in a network of
silver,' but a landscape all silver seen through a frame of green
foliage starred with golden fruit.
The orchard-gate clicked behind us. Brother Marc Antoine, reclining
beside the sow with his back against an apple-tree bole, slewed himself
round for a look. Pere Philibert and I, turning together, saw a man and
a woman approaching, with hangdog looks, and a priest between themthe
Cure of Ambialetwho seemed to be exhorting them by turns to keep up
Pouf! said the Curd, letting out a big sigh as he came to a
standstill and mopped his brow. Had ever poor man such trouble with
his flock? and the thermometer at twenty-eight, too! Advance, my
childrenyou first, Maman Vacher; and Heaven grant the good father
here may compose your differences!
Here the Curehimself a peasantflung out both hands as if
resigning the case. Pere Philibert, finger on chin, eyed the two
disputants with an air of grave abstraction, waiting for one or the
other to begin. Brother Marc Antoine leaned back against the
apple-tree, and took snuff. His eyes twinkled. Clearly he expected good
sport, and I gathered that this was not the first of Ambialet's social
difficulties to be brought up to the Priory for solution.
But for the moment both disputants hung back. The womanan old
crone, with a face like a carved nutcrackerdropped an obeisance and
stood with her eyes fixed on the ground. The man shifted his weight
from foot to foot while he glanced furtively from one to the other of
us. I recognised him for Ambialet's only baker, a black-avised fellow
on the youthful side of forty. Clearly, the grave dignity of Pere
Philibert abashed them. Mais allez, donc! Allez! cried the
Curd, much as one starts a team of horses.
Pere Philibert turned slowly on his heel, and, waving a hand once
more toward the river, continued his discourse as though it had not
One might say almost the whole world cannot show its like! To be
sure, the historian Herodotus tells us that, when Babylon stood in
danger of the Medes, Queen Nitocris applied herself to dig new channels
for the Euphrates to make it run crookedly. And in one place she made
it wind so that travellers down the river came thrice to the same
village on three successive days.
Te-te! interrupted Brother Marc Antoine, with a chuckle.
Wake up, Zephirinewake up, old lady, and listen to this. Zephirine,
smitten affectionately on the ham, answered only with a short squeal
like a bagpipe, and buried her snout deeper in the grass.
I like that, the old man went on. To think of travelling down a
river three days' journey, and putting up each night at the same
auberge! Vieux drole d'Herodote! But does he really pitch
that yarn, my father?
The village, if I remember, was called Arderica, and doubtless its
inhabitants were proud of it. Yet we of Ambialet have a better right to
be proud, since the wonder that encircles us is not of man's making but
a miracle of God: although,and here Pere Philibert swung about and
fixed his eyes on the bakerour local pride in Ambialet and its
history, and its institutions and its immemorial customs, are of no
moment to M. Champollion, who comes, I think, from Rodez or
In an instant the old woman had seized on this cue.
Te! Listen, then, to what the good father calls you! she
shrilled, advancing on the baker and snapping finger and thumb under
his nose; an interloper, a scoundrel from the Rouergue, where all are
scoundrels! You with your yeast from Germany! It is such fellows as you
that gave the Prussians our provinces, and now you must settle here,
turning our stomachs upside downhonest stomachs of Ambialet.
Bah! exclaimed Champollion defiantly. You!a sage femmequi
ne fonctionne pas, d'ailleurs!
So the storm broke, and so for ten good minutes it raged. In the
hurly-burly, from the clash and din of winged words, I disengaged
something of the true quarrel. Champollion (it seemed) had bought a
business and settled down as baker in Ambialet. Now, his predecessor
had always bought yeast from the Widow Vacher, next door, who prepared
it by an ancient family recipe; but this new-comer had introduced some
new yeast of commercelevure viennoiseand so deprived her of
her small earnings. In revengeso he asserted, and she did not deny
itshe had bribed a travelling artist from Paris to decorate the
bakery sign with certain scurrilities, and the whole village had conned
next morning a list of the virtues of the Champollion yeast and of the
thingsmostly unmentionableit was warranted a faire sauter.
There were further charges and counter-chargesas that the widow's
Cochin-China cock had been found with its neck wrung; and that she, as
sage femme, and the only one in Ambialet, had denied her services
to Madame Champollion at a time when humanity should override all
private squabbles. Brother Marc Antoine rubbed his hands and repeatedly
smote Zephirine on the flank.
The pity of itthe treat you are missing!but Zephirine snored
After this had lasted, as I say, some ten minutes, Pere Philibert
held up a hand.
I was about to tell you, said he, something of this Ambialet of
which you two are citizens. It is a true tale; and if you can pierce to
the instruction it holds for you both, you will go away determined to
end this scandal of our town and live in amity. Shall I proceed?
Champollion twirled his cap uneasily. The widow fell back a pace,
panting from her onslaught. Neither broke the sudden peace that had
fallen on the orchard.
Very well! You must know, then, to begin with, that this
Ambialetwhich you occupy with your petty broilswas once an
important burg with its charters and liberties, its consul and council
of prud'hommes and its own court of justice. It had its guilds,
tooof midwives for instance, Maman Vacher, who were bound to obey any
You, there, just listen to that! put in the baker.
And of bakers, M. Champollion, who sold bread at a price regulated
by law, with a committee of five prohomes to see that they sold
by just weight.
Eh? Eh? And I warrant the law allowed no yeast from Germany!This
from the widow.
Beyond doubt, my daughter, it would have countenanced no such
invention; for the town held its charter from the Viscounts of Beziers
and Albi, and might consume only such corn and wine as were grown in
Parbleu!the baker shrugged his shouldersin the matter
of wine we should fare well nowadays under such a rule!
In these times Ambialet grew its own wine, and by the tun. Had you
but used your eyes on the way hither they might have counted old
vine-stocks by the score; they lie this way and that amid the heather
on either side of the calvary. Many of the inhabitants yet alive can
remember the phylloxera destroying them.
Which came, moreover, from the Rouergue! snapped Maman Vacher.
Be silent, my daughter. Yes! these were thriving times for Ambialet
before ever the heresy infected the Albigeois, and when every year
brought the Great Pilgrimage and the Retreat. For three days before the
Retreat, while yet the inns were filling, the whole town made merry
under a president called the King of Youthrex juventutiswho
appointed his own officers, levied his own fines, and was for three
days a greater man even than the Viscount of Beziers, from whom he
derived his power by charter: 'E volem e auctreiam quo lo Rei del
Joven d'Ambilet puesco far sas fastas, tener ses senescals e sos jutges
e sos sirvens . . .' h'm, h'm. Pere Philibert cast about to
continue the quotation, but suddenly recollected that to his hearers
its old French must be as good as Greek.
Well, as I was saying, this King of Youth held his merrymaking
once in every year, at the time of the Great Pilgrimage. And on a
certain year there came to Ambialet among the pilgrims one Tibbald, a
merchant of Cahors, and a man (as you shall see) of unrighteous mind,
in that he snatched at privy gain under cover of his soul's benefit.
This man, having arrived at Ambialet in the dusk, had no sooner sought
out an inn than he inquired, 'Who regulated this feast?' The innkeeper
directed him to the place, where he found the King of Youth setting up
a maypole by torchlight; whom he plucked by the sleeve and drew aside
for a secret talk.
Now the fines and forfeits exacted by the King of Youth during his
festival were always paid in winea pail of wine apiece from the
newest married couple in the Viscounty, a pail of wine from anyone
proved to have cut or plucked so much as a leaf from the great elm-tree
in the place, a pail for damaging the Maypole, or stumbling in the
dance, or hindering any of the processions. 'We have granted this
favour to our youth,' says the charter, 'because, having been witness
of their merrymaking, we have taken great pleasure and satisfaction
therein.' You may guess, then, that in one way and another the King and
his seneschals accumulated good store of wine by the end of the
festival, when they shared it among the populace in a great carouse;
nor were they held too strictly to account for the justice of
particular fines by which the whole commonalty profited.
This Tibbald, then, having drawn the King aside, began cautiously
and anfractuously and per ambages to unfold his plan. He had
brought with him (said he) on muleback twelve half-hogsheads of right
excellent wine which he had picked up as a bargain in the Rhone Valley.
The same he had smuggled into Ambialet after dusk, covering his mules'
panniers with cloths and skins of Damas and Alexandria, and it now lay
stored in the stables at the back of his inn. This excellent wine
(which in truth was an infamous tisane of the last pressings,
and had never been nearer the Rhone than Caylus) he proposed to barter
secretly for that collected during the feast, and to pay the King of
Youth, moreover, a bribe of one livre in money on every hogshead
exchanged. The populace (he promised) would be too well drunken to
discover the trick; or, if they detected any difference in the wine
would commend it as better and stronger than ordinary.
The King of Youth, perceiving that he had to deal with a knave,
pretended to agree, but stipulated that he must first taste the wine;
whereupon the merchant gave him to taste some true Rhone wine which he
carried in a leather bottle at his belt. 'If the cask answer to the
sample,' said the King, 'Ambialet is well off.' 'By a good bargain,'
said Tibbald. 'Nay, by a godsend,' said the King; and, stepping back
into the torchlight, he called to his officers to arrest the knave and
hold him bound, while the seneschals went off to search the inn
The seneschals returned by and by, trundling the casks before them;
and, a Court of Youth being then and there empanelled, the wretched
merchant was condemned to be whipped three times around the Maypole, to
have his goods confiscated, and to be driven out of the town cum
Now, the knave was clever. Though terrified by the sentence, he
kept his wits. The talk had been a private one without witnesses, and
he began to shout and swear that the King of Youth had either heard
amiss or was maliciously giving false evidence. He had proposed no
bargain, nor hinted at one; he had come on a pilgrimage for his soul's
sake, bringing the wine as a propitiatory offering to Our Lady of the
Oder for the use of her people. Here was one man's oath against
another's. Moreover, and even if his sentence were legal (which he
denied), it could be revised and quashed by the Viscount of Beziers, as
feudal lord of Ambialet, and to him he appealed. Nevertheless they
whipped him; and the casks they broached, and having tasted the stuff,
let it spill about the marketplace.
But when the whipping was done, the King of Youth stood up and
said: 'I have been considering, and I find that this fellow has some
right on his side. No one overheard our talk, and he sets his oath
against mine. Let him go, therefore, under guard, to the Viscount and
lodge his complaint. For my part, I have my hands full just now, and
after until the feast, and shall wait until my lord summon me. But I
trust his judgment, knowing him to be a very Solomon.' Then, turning to
the culprit, 'You know my lord's chateau, of course? My guards will
take you there.' 'The devil a furlong know I of this accursed spot,'
answered Tibbald viciously, 'seeing that I arrived here a good hour
after dark, and by a road as heathenish as yourselves.'
'You shall travel by boat, then,' said the King, 'since the road
mislikes you. The chateau lies some two miles hence by water.' This,
you see, was no more than the truth, albeit the chateau stood close at
the back of him while he spoke, on the rock just overhead, but Tibbald
could not see it for the darkness.
Sothe townsfolk smoking the King's jesttwo stout servitors led
the merchant down to the landing by the upper ferry, and there, having
hoisted him aboard a boat, thrust off into the stream. The current soon
swept them past the town; and for a while, as the boat spun downward
and the dark woods slipped past him, and he felt the night-wind cold on
his brow, Master Tibbald sat in a mortal fright. But by and by, his
anger rising on top of his fear, he began to curse and threaten and
promise what vengeance would fall on Ambialet when the Viscount had
heard his story, to all of which the boatmen answered only that the
Viscount was known to be a just lord, and would doubtless repay all as
And so the boat sped downstream past the woods, and was brought to
shore at last under a cliff, with dim houses above it, and here and
there a light shining. And this, of course, was Ambialet again; but the
King of Youth had given orders to clear the streets, close the inns,
and extinguish all flambeaux; so that as the guards marched Tibbald on
the cliffway to the chateau, never a suspicion had he that this
sleeping town was the same he had left in uproar.
Now, the Viscount, who meanwhile had been posted in the affair, sat
in the great hall of the chateau, with a cup of wine beside him and, at
his elbow, a flagon. He was a great lord, who dearly loved a jest; and,
having given Master Tibbald audience, he listened to all his complaint,
keeping a grave face.
'In truth,' said he, 'you have suffered scurvy treatment; yet what
affects me is the waste of this wine which you intended for Our Lady of
the Oder. As lord of Ambialet I am behoven to protect her offerings.'
'But the stripes, monseigneur!' urged Tibbald. 'The stripes were
given me in her name. Listen, therefore, I pray you, to my suggestion:
Let the burg pay me fair compensation for my wine. So she will miss her
offering; her people will bleed in their purses; and I, being quits
with both, will leave Ambialet the way I came.'
'You call that being quits, Master Tibbald?' said the Viscount,
musing. 'Truly, you are not vindictive!'
'A merchant, my lord, has a merchant's way of looking at such
affairs,' answered Tibbald.
'So truly I perceive,' said the Viscount, 'and, in faith, it sounds
reasonable enough. But touching this compensationmy people are poor
in coin. Shall it be wine for wine, then, or do you insist upon money?'
And here he poured out a cupful from the flagon at his elbow and
offered it to the merchant, who drank and pulled a wry mouth, as well
he might, for it had been saved from the spillings of his own tisane.
'The Viscount eyed him curiously. 'What! Master Tibbald? Is our
native wine so sour as all that?' He drained his own cup, which held a
very different liquor.
'Oh, monseigneur,' began Tibbald, 'you will pardon my saying it,
but such stuff ill becomes the palate of one of your lordship's
quality. If, setting our little dispute aside for a moment, your
lordship would entrust an honest merchant with the supply of your
lordship's cellar' Here he unslung the bottle at his belt, and took
leave to replenish the Viscount's cup. 'Will your lordship degustate,
for example, this drop of the same divine liquor spilt to-night by your
'Why, this is nectar!' cried the Viscount, having tasted. 'And do
you tell me that those ignorant louts poured six hogsheads of it to
'The gutters ran with it, monseigneur! Rhone wine, that even at
four livres the hogshead could not be sold at a profit.'
'Pardieu!' The Viscount knitted his brow. 'I am an enemy to
waste, Master Tibbald, and against such destroyers of God's good gifts
my justice does not sleep. Retire you now; my servants will lead you to
a chamber where you may take some brief repose; and before daybreak we
will set forth together to my Council-house a few miles down the river,
where the councillors will be met early, having to answer some demands
of the Holy See upon our river-tolls conveyed to us through my lord of
Leseure. There I will see your business expedited, the money paid, and
receipt made out.'
Tibbald thanked the Viscount and repaired to his room, whence, an
hour or two later, the chamberlain summoned him with news that my lord
was ready and desired his company. The night was dark yet, and down
through Ambialet he was led to the self-same ferry-stage from which he
had first put forth, my lord taking heed to approach it by another
stairway. At the foot lay moored the Viscount's state barge, into which
they stepped and cast off downstream.
So once more Master Tibbald voyaged around the great loop of the
river, and, arriving yet once again at Ambialetwhich he deemed by
this time to be some leagues behind himwas met at the lower stage by
a company of halberdiers, who escorted him, with his protector, to the
great lighted Hall, wherein sat a dozen grave men around a great oaken
table, all deep in business.
They rose together and made obeisance as the Viscount walked to his
throne at the head of the table; and said he, seating himself
'Messieurs, I regret to break in upon your consultations, but an
outrage has been committed in my town of Ambialet, demanding full and
instant punishment. This merchant came with six hogsheads of excellent
Rhone wine, which the citizens, after afflicting him with stripes,
spilt at large upon the market-place. What fine shall we decree?'
Then said the eldest prud'homme:'The answer, saving your
lordship's grace, is simple. By our laws the payment must equal the
market price of the wine. As for the stripes'
'We need not consider them,' the Viscount interposed. 'Master
Tibbald here will be satisfied with the fine, and engagesthat being
paidto leave Ambialet by the way he came. Now, the wine, you
say'here he turned to Tibbald'was worth four livres the hogshead?'
But here our merchant, perceiving his case to go so fairly, allowed
the devil of avarice to tempt him.
'I said four livres to you, monseigneur, but the honest
market price I could not set at less than five and a half.'
'Six times five and a half makes thirty-three. Very good, then,
Master Tibbald: if you will pay the Council that sum, its secretary
shall make you out a note of quittance.'
'But, my lord,' stammered poor Tibbald; 'my lord, I do not
'It is very simple,' said the Viscount. 'Our law requires that any
man bringing alien wine into the Viscounty shall suffer its
confiscation, and pay a fine equal to its market price.'
The merchant flung himself upon his knees.
'My lord, my lord!' he pleaded, 'I am a poor man. I have not the
money. I brought nothing save this wine to Ambialet.'
'The day is breaking,' said the Viscount. 'Take him to the window.'
So to the window they led him.And I leave you, my children, to
guess if he rubbed his eyes as they looked out upon the market-place of
Ambialet, and upon his own mules standing ready-caparisoned before the
door of the Council-house, and, beyond them, upon the tall Maypole, and
the King of Youth, with his officers, fitting their ribbons upon it in
the morning sunlight.
'But here is witchcraft!' cried he, spreading out both hands and
groping with them, like a man in a fit. 'Two good leagues at the least
have I travelled downstream from Ambialet'
His speech failed.
'And still art face to face with thy wickedness,' the Viscount
concluded for him. 'Pay us speedily, Master Tibbald, lest Our Lady work
more miracles upon thee.'
'My lord, I have not the money!' wept Master Tibbald.
'Thou hast good silks and merchandise, and six good mules. We will
commute thy fine for these, and even give one mule into the bargain,
but upon conditions.'
'Nothing I gainsay, so that Our Lady lift this spell from me.'
'The agreement was to quit Ambialet in the way thou camest. Now,
'tis apparent thy coming here has been by two waysby road and by
water. Take thy choice of returnshall it be by water?'
'What! From a town that lieth three leagues downstream from itself!
Nay, monseigneur, let it be by road, that at least I may keep my few
'By road, then, it shall be, and on muleback. But the way thou
camest was with a greedy face set towards Ambialet, and so will we send
As the Viscount promised so they did, my children; strapping Master
Tibbald with his face to the mule's rump, and with a merry crowd
speeding him from the frontier.
Brother Marc Antoine lay back against his apple-tree, laughing.
Maman Vacher and the baker, seeing that the tale was done, continued to
regard Pere Philibert each with a foolish grin.
Pere Philibert took snuff slowly.
My children, said he, tapping his box, in this tale (which, by
the way, is historical) there surely lurks a lesson for you both. You,
Pierre Champollion, may read in it that he who, with an eye to his
private profit, only runs counter to ancient custom in such a town as
our Ambialet, may chance to knock his head upon stones. And you, Maman
VacherWhat was the price of that chanticleer of yours?
Indeed, reverend father, I could not have asked less than six
francs. A prize-winner, if you remember.
You valued it at twelve in your threats and outcries, and that
after you had stewed his carcass down for a soup! . . . Tut, tut, my
children! You have your lessontake it and go in amity.