Michel CHAPOUTIER
Marius by Michel CHAPOUTIER. France

1894, Solitude

Marie placed her hand on Marius’ knee. She was excited to think that the curtains would soon lift. Now playing: Molière, the Malade Imaginaire.
The audience was populated by beautiful people. Three piece suits, high heels, walking sticks, top hats and a few medals and decorations as well. All the important folk from the city of Lyon were in attendance. They were everywhere – just too many to take in! People ignored each other, or smiled widely, sincerely or not. Some had even faced each other in a dual without consequence or rancor. The chitchat created a humming sound that pervaded the theatre. A buzzing of socialites, punctuated by loud guffaws that one could hear from twenty metres away, dainty quotes and considerable shows of astonishment for no particular reason. The ladies often put their hands over their mouth; the men, on the contrary, put their hands behind their back, greeting each other with nods. Marie recognized a few of the faces and tried to listen in on some of the conversations. On the port side, people were discussing Russian Symbolists, Offenbach - stupendous! and Zola’s latest novel, Lourdes. On the starboard side, people were going on about Maxime Ducamp’s death, the Panama Canal and the anarchists’ attacks.

Marie was Marius’ mother. Since she had been widowed her son had done his best to entertain her, to take her mind off things. Once a year he would take her to Burgundy to visit some cousins, the Ginouzes, and from time to time he would take her to dinner in town, or to the opera or theatre. Marie was nearly sixty years old but still very beautiful; one could easily imagine how becoming she must have been in her youth. She had been a young seamstress from Tain when she seduced Polydore, or perhaps it had been the other way round. They went to school together and were the same age but for ten days. Their love story followed its natural course; Paule first, then Marius, were the children of this happy union. If fate had taken a different turn, Polydore and his lovely wife would have been celebrating their thirty first wedding anniversary in June 1894.

It was not so much about forgetting the loss but rather learning to live with it. Marius took it upon himself to keep his mother entertained. In this case, he had been successful. There would be something very special about the performance that day. Rumour, and it was little more than that, had it that Sadi-Carnot was going to attend, because he wanted to round off his day at the theatre while in Lyon. Marie Chapoutier, like Marius and the late Polydore, didn’t really follow politics, unlike their former partner, Passat, who appeared on the “conservative” ballot listing in the Tain elections. Polydore never got involved, apart from the one time in the late 1860’s when he supported his friend, Fernand Monier de la Sizeranne, who was the “Emperor’s candidate”. But that was a one-off and Marius was of the same vein. Nonetheless the appearance of Sadi Carnot was an important event for them. But of course presidents and their ilk do like to keep people waiting. The star, grandson of the revolutionary Lazar Carnot, was at a banquet where the entire republican court were, it seemed, somewhat dragging its feet…

9 pm had been and gone and people were getting impatient. Marius, dressed to the nines, was picking out and eyeing up the pretty ladies; and for some, imagining the shape of their bodies beneath their finery. Marie put her jacket over her shoulders; nightfall was gently cooling the early summer heat. Suddenly a tremendous din was heard. Marie Chapoutier thought she made out the words: “He’s been assassinated!” The entire audience stood up fearing the worst. The first report did the rounds - as the party was heading for the theatre, the President had been attacked by a man. The bewildered actors poked their noses through the curtains. The ladies waved their fans even more briskly to calm their anxiety. “It was completely unforeseen” according to the first witnesses. Carnot was in the first carriage being applauded by the public. He acknowledged the applause with his right hand and waved with his hat to his left. The atmosphere was all very friendly. The incident took place in front of the Palais de Commerce, in the rue de la République. Someone rushed up the carriage and, in a split second, onto the foot rung, to reach the president. The crowd swarmed around the individual but the deed had already been done. A punch from the Prefect sent the man flying to the ground…but too late. Carnot was lying flat in the carriage, his eyes closed, trembling and muttering incomprehensibly. They undid his jacket and untied his belt.

In the theatre, the latest updates were reaching the audience, each snippet of news contradicting the other. Standing on the fold-down seats, the boldest individuals urged everyone to stay calm. The body of the president was in the lobby of the theatre receiving first aid. “He’s dead!” others affirmed. Sharp screams chilled the atmosphere: “The president has been the victim of an assassination attempt! He’s been stabbed”. And the author of this heinous crime? One had to push through the crowd blocking the way. The town’s policemen finally managed to extricate the assassin from the hands of the angry mob quick to call for a public lynching. In the end no less than ten police officers, assisted by the mounted guards, managed to surround the guilty man to prevent him from being torn apart. In the streets, the cafés and in the theatre, people called for revenge. They shook their fists! Another Prussian plot! No a Royalist one, more like! Worse than that, a mad man!

Maris heard, from policemen entering the theatre, that it had been the work of an anarchist. He could believe that. It was common knowledge that Carnot had refused to pardon Auguste Vaillant, the anarchist whose claim to fame had been to plant a bomb in parliament at the end of the previous year. On 5th of February of that year, Vaillant had apparently not suffered but merely felt a “slight breeze” as he was executed, if one were to believe the claims of the inventor, Joseph Guillotin. Since then, anarchists, communards and union members of all walks, had had Carnot in their sights!

Marie and her son heard that the author of the assassination attempt had pretended to hand the president a petition. The dagger was hidden inside the petition. At first, poor Carnot asked an officer to move aside so that he could meet and greet the public. The anarchist moved forward suddenly, feigning to shake Carnot’s hand with his left. Once he had his prey in his grasp, he stabbed him brutally using his other hand. The killer’s profile? A young man, around twenty years of age, stocky, clean-shaven and wearing a cap.

Carnot was indeed in the theatre lobby. Marius saw the victim agonizing. The president’s shirt was stained with blood at chest level near the decoration, and on the side. Carnot wasn’t dead; the festivities were over. Everyone out! Marius shielded his mother from the jostling crowd. The president was moved to the first floor. The mayor, the prefect and a general, with the help of ushers, lugged the supreme elected official of the people up the stairs. A doctor from the audience provided first aid then, every five minutes, a procession of doctors arrived, one after the other.

Marius took his mother to the hotel they were staying at. Marie was in shock. The officials dispersed the crowds into the Lyon night. In front of a small café, people were speculating about the assassin. He came from Milan…according to the identity papers found on his person, said one fellow speaking in broken French... a labourer, who had come in through “Cette”… others thought he was a baker….they cursed the Italians! The outbursts of bar goers would even echo up against the walls of the hotels, resonating right up to the room windows. The visitors from Tain and elsewhere, in town to watch the President’s parade, found it difficult to sleep.

In the early morning, Lyon was hung-over. Even an earthquake could not have had a greater impact. Expressions of sadness and disbelief were on people’s faces. In the Progrès Illustré, the Nouvelliste or the Salut Public newspapers, that Marius paged through on the café terrace, sensational, strident headlines proclaimed “The president assassinated”, “Carnot Knifed”, “Death of the President”… Marius had been up since 6am. Not because of his mother or Carnot, but because he had developed the habit of getting up very early with his father when they worked side by side. Polydore had left Marius a legacy of hard work, wine and friendship as if they all amounted to the same thing. What’s more, in an unconscious mimic, Marius had grown a beard that he kept impeccably trimmed. But his face, unlike Polydore’s jovial demeanour, always looked tired and drawn, revealing the pain he felt at his father’s sudden death.

It had been two years since Polydore had passed away, leaving emptiness and desolation in his wake. He had been such a big part of their lives, so kind-hearted….everything went to pieces. He had only been 55 years of age. No warning whatsoever. His disappearance shook the foundations of the Chapoutier clan. This kind, gentle giant’s funeral took place in dignity and honour, as if the demise was no more than a righteous slap by a father to a son. Nobody flinched. At Polydore’s posthumous request, as though the example of one’s life, one’s temperament and one’s behavior, acted ad vinam aeternam, one had to accept it and move on. The Chaplain of Tain saw to the book of condoleances. Religion bore the weight of the moment. Many people shared the family’s grief. Marius, who had been learning the language of Goethe, had had to rush back from Germany. In a torrential downpour on a March afternoon – how could it have been otherwise? - the coffin was transported from the church to the cemetery in complete silence. In the lead, wearing a black veil, Marie was propped up on either side by her two children, her son holding the umbrella. The funeral procession crunched over the gravel; on the right was the Jaboulet family tomb and a bit further along, hidden behind a cyprus tree, the Vogelgesand family’s imposing sepulture.


In the avenue surrounded by chapels, Marius, raising his head, noticed the Hermitage hills covered with vines. He privately promised his father up there, above the vineyards, that he would buy them one day. Then came the burial, the casket containing Polydore, was wedged in next to his father, Jean, by two town employees, a hasty sermon from the priest followed, and then it was over. “We are but nothing” muttered the mayor solemnly with tears in his eyes.


It had been hard to bear the kindness shown in the letters of condolence, as Marius came to realize even more just how well-loved Polydore had been. He responded promptly, relieving his mother of this additional, painful burden. Marie was more concerned about the family’s survival. What would become of them? Weakened by the suddenness of the death, without revenue, the widow Chapoutier would, four months later, sell the family’s shares in the company to André Passat, the partner, who knew how the company operated. Her children, Paule and Marius, followed suit. Having returned to Germany to complete his education, Marius had not been able to have his say in things; he was no match for the businessman. The absent party is always at fault. But to tell the truth, he cared very little for Passat. In any event, debts had to be paid to creditors who never mixed sentiment with business. Besides, as Polydore never liked paperwork, Marie did not know anything about the ins and outs of the partnership. Almost overnight the Chapoutier family was in disarray. They had asked for nothing. Marius would never forget the day he went to Passat’s office to pick up some wine that Passat gave him “as a gesture of kindness”. With his father’s former associate watching him impassively, he unclipped the newspaper article on phylloxera and slipped it into his jacket pocket.

Marius’ sister, five years his senior, was no longer involved in business. Wife of Louis Bermondès, Paule had found a good fellow, a registry receiver in Craponne, a little village near Lyon just before Tassin-la-Demi-Lune. This gentleman had a “bit of sod”, as Tournon country folk used to say. For Marius, it was a completely different story. Without really wishing it, the law course he had taken in Lyon before going off to Germany would assure him of a job. These studies had also brought him a mistress at the time, his extremely accommodating tutor…. But that was another story. Having returned to Tain to lay his father to rest, he found a job as a notary clerk with Mr. Névissac before taking another job with a bailiff. He took any job that he could get, saving every cent with the avowed goal of resurfacing one day in the wine trade, as a tribute to his father. This was the start of a long journey for Marius that had begun with a bitter taste in the mouth. Everyone has his cross to bear, he knew that. Thanks to Marius’ father and grand-father, The Chapoutiers were members of the bourgeoisie, having fought long and hard: They had to hold fast.


His friends helped him to forget about his circumstances. It was through his friends that he had gotten hold of the theatre seats. There were certain people he could count on, and these could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Firstly there was Amédée Guerby - whose father owned the Café National - with whom he had sown his wild oats from the cafés to the girls. Then there was François Lolagnier, Bourret, Monchal and that crazy Laréal! Good lads! With these friends, Marius had formed the exercise club known as the “Tain Avant Garde!” in 1893. Using a certain patriotic discourse, this sports club’s aim was to enable the French to regain their physical strength and motivation. These types of sporting associations were sprouting up everywhere in France following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Apparently the reason for this debacle was that the nation had been too stiff and lethargic against the muscular, athletic Prussians. In the ground floor room of the Tain town hall there was a strong desire to “destroy the pointy helmet”. Marius was the secretary of this very successful club. Men were jostling for membership. At its inception, a big balloon with the initials « TAG » was released into the sky – hoping, of course, that it might float off over Germany…. The association was about to mark its first anniversary but the death of Sadi-Carnot had put off that little celebration.

Marius, his friends and the members partook of exercise sessions, as well as French boxing, fencing and long distance running. They were somewhat proud of their accoutrement: white trousers, black socks, red belt, blue and white striped shirt, cap and white exercise shoes. When the weather was mild, the exercise sessions took place in the Place de Taurobole, in front of the young ladies who stopped to stare, giggling to hide their embarrassment. And Marius liked that. Winning back Alsace and Lorraine was of course all well and good, but winning over countless innocent, luscious young maidens had an altogether different diplomatic significance. Not unlike a permanent stimulant, a hard drug, his penchant for women had always raised his spirits. This hunger for “acrobatic sports” gave him quite a reputation. The ladies however, were by no means put off by it, on the contrary.

However, no-one was taken in by it, friends and women would not be able to heal the scars left by Polydore’s death and the hasty sale of the Chapoutier Company. Deep suffering lurked beneath the pleasure seeking. Above all, Marius had to protect his mother from his prevarications. He was basically on his own and dying to take revenge. Passat, not unlike Carnot for the anarchists, was the arch enemy!

On his terrace, slightly pensive, Marius unfolded the Progrès newspaper to scan the wine news in the back pages. He wasn’t about to relinquish the wine trade. Like an umbilical cord, he was firmly attached to it. French viticulture was slowly recovering from the phylloxera disaster, the Rhone valley merchants had to compete with their counterparts from the Languedoc who were flooding the market with North African wines, claimed the newspaper columns. An advertisement didn’t beat about the bush “Drink Mariani wine, the popular French tonic wine that fortifies and refreshes the body and spirit and restores health and vitality.” The insert featured a statuesque cabaret dancer scantily clad in yellow silk, pouring wine into a glass in an exquisite dance. Marius frowned. Each one of his movements and gestures was furtively observed on the café’s terrace. All unfamiliar faces were now suspicious. It was very lively at the bar counter and the lady owner looked flabbergasted: They were going over the assassination again.

Marius returned to the headline news. The ink had not yet dried; the printing presses had been running all night, reprinting all the newspapers to ensure they would be up to the minute when they came out. The director of the Progrès personally wrote that the wound had been 18 centimetres in length and twenty centimetres wide and that the President died from hemorrhaging. Up on the first floor of the theatre, Carnot had let out a few groans. The president passed away shortly after midnight. A bit further into the article, Marius read that some Italian café waiters had been knocked about later that night after the mob had discovered the assassin’s nationality and that the Italian consulate had been given police protection. The killer had told the police that his name was Caserio Guiovanni Santo.

Marius ran his fingers through his hair, brought the cup of coffee to his lips and sipped as he glanced across both sides of the street. He folded his newspaper and stood up. He put the June 25th edition into the back pocket of his trousers to keep it. The hotel where his mother was waiting for him was two streets away; his stride was slow but determined.


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