The Friendly Baker

5th June 1901 Belloc walked from 12 miles out of Toul (Dommartin-les-Toul) to Thayon (Thaon-les-Vosges)

Yesterday, I noted that Belloc intended to walk at night and sleep by day. He now clarifies this by adding that he would ‘break these nights of marching by occasional repose’ (Belloc The Path to Rome Ignatius Press 2003, p.30). He continues,

… I had imagined that it was a light matter to sleep in the open. Indeed, I had so slept when I had been compelled to [while in the French army] but I had forgotten how essential was a rug of some kind, and what a difference a fire and comradeship could make.

The Path to Rome, p.31

From what I know of Belloc, this statement sums up his character very neatly – practical and communal, someone who lived intelligently and for (the company of) other people.

With that said, Belloc could also be very sarcastic and bitter sometimes and I am surprised he does not speak angrily of the man he saw smoking from a the window of a house that night, and who he asked for a bed. The man led him on somewhat by asking various questions only to conclude the interview by saying Belloc couldn’t sleep in the house – he only had one room and his family were sleeping in it. Finally, the man,

… assured me he had asked [his] questions out of sympathy and charity alone.’

The Path to Rome, p.33

If this happened to me, I would be pretty annoyed at having my time so wasted, but Belloc concludes, ‘Then he wished me good-night, honestly and kindly, and went in.’ (Ibid). I wonder if this is an example of Belloc, with his love of friendship, giving someone the benefit of the doubt in respect of their character and intentions.

Last night, then in 1901, Belloc was unable to find anyone who would give him a bed. As a result, he took his rest on some hay. He woke this morning just before sunrise. He lit his pipe and started walking; or, as Belloc puts it, ‘hobbled blindly along for miles under and towards the brightening east’ (The Path to Rome, p.36). This does not sound promising! And indeed, aches and pains were not far away for him.

As the sun rose, Belloc ‘found a signpost that told me I had walked thirty-two kilometres – which is twenty miles – from Toul’ (The Path to Rome, p.37). He was one kilometre from Flavigny, where,

… by a special providence, I found the entertainment and companionship whose lack had left me wrecked all these early hours.

The Path to Rome, p.37

Wrecked is a very strong choice of word. I have to admit, I don’t think Belloc’s account of the previous night really justifies it – not in terms of what the word ‘wrecked’ means for me. Could it have meant something different for him?

After several funny digressions, Belloc finally tells us about the companionship that he found in Flavigny: it was a nineteen year old baker who served him coffee, rum and fresh bread.

What commended the young man to Belloc was not so much his table, though that was good, but their conversation. Belloc’s national service came up in conversation. The baker’s brother was in the same regiment as Belloc had been and he himself intended to join the artillery. Dear reader, says Belloc (or would have done, were he Charlotte Bronte),

You know very little if you think I missed the opportunity of making the guns seem terrible and glorious in his eyes.

The Path to Rome, p.43

One thing Belloc didn’t do was tell tall tales of ‘great shells bursting under my horses and the teams shot down’ (The Path to Rome, p.43). Not because he didn’t want to hoodwink the baker but because he could tell by the young man’s expression that he wouldn’t be believed! A story teller must always be mindful of his audience. This slight lack of respect for the baker does not diminish Belloc’s regard for him. When the time came to pay for his meal, he says that he ‘asked this friend of mind how much there was to pay.’ (The Path to Rome, p.44).

Around midday, Belloc arrived in Charmes. There he ate. When he left the inn, the sun beat down mercilessly on him. Unable to endure it, he stopped and laid down in a thicket. He slept until the evening. That night, he passed his fortieth mile from Toul.

… and though the heat had gone, yet my dead slumber had raised a thousand evils. I had stiffened to lameness, and had fallen into the mood when a man desires companionship and the talk of travellers rather than the open plain.

The Path to Rome, p.58

Unfortunately, he could not go back to Flavigny. Instead, he hobbled on, eventually arriving in Thayon (Thaon-les-Vosges). There, he found people getting ready for Corpus Christi. He left the to it, ‘entered the inn, eat and drank, praised God, and lay down to sleep in a great bed’ (The Path to Rome, p.60).

Before I finish, I must note that this is the second night in a row that Belloc has felt his loneliest, or most desirous of company, at night. Will it become a constant refrain throughout the book? And what particular power did the night have over him that he could get by, alone, during the day but not after dark?

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