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- When Valmond Came to Pontiac, Volume 1. - 1/9 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
WHEN VALMOND CAME TO PONTIAC
The Story of a Lost Napoleon
By Gilbert Parker
In one sense this book stands by itself. It is like nothing else I have written, and if one should seek to give it the name of a class, it might be called an historical fantasy.
It followed The Trail of the Sword and preceded The Seats of the Mighty, and appeared in the summer of 1895. The critics gave it a reception which was extremely gratifying, because, as it seemed to me, they realised what I was trying to do; and that is a great deal. One great journal said it read as though it had been written at a sitting; another called it a tour de force, and the grave Athenaeum lauded it in a key which was likely to make me nervous, since it seemed to set a standard which I should find it hard to preserve in the future. But in truth the newspaper was right which said that the book read as though it was written at a sitting, and that it was a tour de force. The facts are that the book was written, printed, revised, and ready for press in five weeks.
The manuscript of the book was complete within four weeks. It possessed me. I wrote night and day. There were times when I went to bed and, unable to sleep, I would get up at two o'clock or three o'clock in the morning and write till breakfast time. A couple of hours' walk after breakfast, and I would write again until nearly two o'clock. Then luncheon; afterwards a couple of hours in the open air, and I would again write till eight o'clock in the evening. The world was shut out. I moved in a dream. The book was begun at Hot Springs, in Virginia, in the annex to the old Hot Springs Hotel. I could not write in the hotel itself, so I went to the annex, and in the big building--in the early spring-time--I worked night and day. There was no one else in the place except the old negro caretaker and his wife. Four-fifths of the book was written in three weeks there. Then I went to New York, and at the Lotus Club, where I had a room, I finished it--but not quite. There were a few pages of the book to do when I went for my walk in Fifth Avenue one afternoon. I could not shake the thing off, the last pages demanded to be written. The sermon which the old Cure was preaching on Valmond's death was running in my head. I could not continue my walk. Then and there I stepped into the Windsor Hotel, which I was passing, and asked if there was a stenographer at liberty. There was. In the stenographer's office of the Windsor Hotel, with the life of a caravanserai buzzing around me, I dictated the last few pages of When Valmond Came to Pontiac. It was practically my only experience of dictation of fiction. I had never been able to do it, and have not been able to do it since, and I am glad that it is so, for I should have a fear of being led into mere rhetoric. It did not, however, seem to matter with this book. It wrote itself anywhere. The proofs of the first quarter of the book were in my hands before I had finished writing the last quarter.
It took me a long time to recover from the great effort of that five weeks, but I never regretted those consuming fires which burned up sleep and energy and ravaged the vitality of my imagination. The story was founded on the incident described in the first pages of the book, which was practically as I experienced it when I was a little child. The picture there drawn of Valmond was the memory of just such a man as stood at the four corners in front of the little hotel and scattered his hot pennies to the children of the village. Also, my father used to tell me as a child a story of Napoleon, whose history he knew as well as any man living, and something of that story may be found in the fifth chapter of the book where Valmond promotes Sergeant Lagroin from non-commissioned rank, first to be captain, then to be colonel, and then to be general, all in a moment, as it were.
I cannot tell the original story as my father told it to me here, but it was the tale of how a sergeant in the Old Guard, having shared his bivouac supper of roasted potatoes with the Emperor, was told by Napoleon that he should sup with his Emperor when they returned to Versailles. The old sergeant appeared at Versailles in course of time and demanded admittance to the Emperor, saying that he had been asked to supper. When Napoleon was informed, he had the veteran shown in and, recognising his comrade of the baked potatoes, said at once that the sergeant should sup with him. The sergeant's reply was: "Sire, how can a non-commissioned officer dine with a general?" It was then, Napoleon, delighted with the humour and the boldness of his grenadier, summoned the Old Guard, and had the sergeant promoted to the rank of captain on the spot.
It was these apparently incongruous things, together with legends that I had heard and read of Napoleon, which gave me the idea of Valmond. First, a sketch of about five thousand words was written, and it looked as though I were going to publish it as a short story; but one day, sitting in a drawing-room in front of a grand piano, on the back of which were a series of miniatures of the noted women who had played their part in Napoleon's life, the incident of the Countess of Carnstadt (I do not use the real name) at St. Helena associated itself with the picture in my memory of the philanthropist of the street corner. Thereupon the whole story of a son of Napoleon, ignorant of his own birth, but knowing that a son had been born to Napoleon at St. Helena, flitted through my imagination; and the story spread out before me all in an hour, like an army with banners.
The next night--for this happened in New York--I went down to Hot Springs, Virginia, and began a piece of work which enthralled me as I had never before been enthralled, and as I have never been enthralled in the same way since; for it was perilous to health and mental peace.
Fantasy as it is, the book has pictures of French-Canadian life which are as true as though the story itself was all true. Characters are in it like Medallion, the little chemist, the avocat, Lajeunesse the blacksmith, and Madeleinette, his daughter, which were in some of the first sketches I ever wrote of French Canada, and subsequently appearing in the novelette entitled The Lane That Had No Turning. Indeed, 'When Valmond Came to Pontiac', historical fantasy as it is, has elements both of romance and realism.
Of all the books which I have written, perhaps because it cost me so much, because it demanded so much of me at the time of its writing, I care for it the most. It was as good work as I could do. This much may at least be said: that no one has done anything quite in the same way or used the same subject, or given it the same treatment. Also it may be said, as the Saturday Review remarked, that it contained one whole, new idea, and that was the pathetic--unutterably pathetic--incident of a man driven by the truth in his blood to impersonate himself.
"Oh, withered is the garland of the war, The Soldier's pole is fallen."
WHEN VALMOND CAME TO PONTIAC
On one corner stood the house of Monsieur Garon the avocat; on another, the shop of the Little Chemist; on another, the office of Medallion the auctioneer; and on the last, the Hotel Louis Quinze. The chief characteristics of Monsieur Garon's house were its brass door-knobs, and the verdant vines that climbed its sides; of the Little Chemist's shop, the perfect whiteness of the building, the rolls of sober wall- paper, and the bottles of coloured water in the shop windows; of Medallion's, the stoop that surrounded three sides of the building, and the notices of sales tacked up, pasted up, on the front; of the Hotel Louis Quinze, the deep dormer windows, the solid timbers, and the veranda that gave its front distinction--for this veranda had been the pride of several generations of landlords, and its heavy carving and bulky grace were worth even more admiration than Pontiac gave to it.
The square which the two roads and the four corners made was, on week- days, the rendezvous of Pontiac, and the whole parish; on Sunday mornings the rendezvous was shifted to the large church on the hill, beside which was the house of the Cure, Monsieur Fabre. Travelling towards the south, out of the silken haze of a mid-summer day, you would come in time to the hills of Maine; north, to the city of Quebec and the river St. Lawrence; east, to the ocean; and west, to the Great Lakes and the land of the English. Over this bright province Britain raised her flag, but only Medallion and a few others loved it for its own sake, or saluted it in the English tongue.
In the drab velvety dust of these four corners, were gathered, one night of July a generation ago, the children of the village and many of their elders. All the events of that epoch were dated from the evening of this particular day. Another day of note the parish cherished, but it was merely a grave fulfilment of the first.
Upon the veranda-stoop of the Louis Quinze stood a man of apparently about twenty-eight years of age. When you came to study him closely, some sense of time and experience in his look told you that he might be thirty-eight, though his few grey hairs seemed but to emphasise a certain youthfulness in him. His eye was full, singularly clear, almost benign, and yet at one moment it gave the impression of resolution, at another it suggested the wayward abstraction of the dreamer. He was well-figured, with a hand of peculiar whiteness, suggesting in its breadth more the man of action than of meditation. But it was a contradiction; for, as you saw it rise and fall, you were struck by its dramatic delicacy; as it rested on the railing of the veranda, by its latent power. You faced incongruity everywhere. His dress was bizarre, his face almost classical, the brow clear and strong, the profile good to the mouth, where there showed a combination of sensuousness and adventure. Yet in the face there was an illusive sadness, strangely out of keeping with the long linen coat, frilled shirt, flowered waistcoat, lavender trousers, boots of enamelled leather, and straw hat with white linen streamers. It was a whimsical picture.
At the moment that the Cure and Medallion the auctioneer came down the street together towards the Louis Quinze, talking amiably, this singular gentleman was throwing out hot pennies, with a large spoon, from a tray in his hand, calling on the children to gather them, in French which was not the French of Pontiac--or Quebec; and this refined accent the Cure
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