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?

Belloc Leaves Toul

On the evening of 4th June 1901, Catholic journalist Hilaire Belloc set off from Toul, France on pilgrimage to Rome. He intended to arrive in the Italian capital on 29th June, the feast of SS Peter and Paul and after many adventures did just that. In 1905, he published his account of his journey in a book titled The Path to Rome.

For the last few years, I have read The Path to Rome between 4th and 29th June. The book isn’t divided up into chapters but with one or two exceptions, Belloc is very clear about when the days start and end so I have been able to read that day’s entry on the anniversary of it happening and arrive in Rome with him on the 29th.

Previously, I have followed his journey on Twitter; this time round, however, I will do so on the blog. As previously, I’ll use Google Earth to show (roughly) his location. This time round, I’d like to give the posts a little focus by noting the times that Belloc made friends or found friendship. So, without further ado, let’s begin.

After leaving Toul, Belloc’s pilgrimage got off to a quiet start. For that reason, we find him pausing when he should be walking and reminiscing about his time in the French army. As he does so, he recalls ‘the best companions in the world’ (Belloc The Path to Rome, p.17 (Ignatius edition 2003). Who deserved such a great title? No man, as it turns out, but 156 battery guns!

I wonder where you all are now? I suppose I shall not see you again; but you were the best companions in the world, my friends.

Ibid

As Belloc walked, he passed a flock of sheep and their shepherd,

… who gave me a good-night.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.23 (Ignatius edition 2003)

This friendly act, as brief as it was, helped induce in Belloc ‘the pleasant mood in which all books are conceived (but none written) (Ibid)!

It was twilight when Belloc passed through a village which he knew as St. Peter of the Quarries. There, the

… peasants sat outside their houses in the twilight accepting the cool air; every one spoke to me as I marched through, and I answered them all, nor was there in any of their salutations the omission of good fellowship or of the name of God.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.24 (Ignatius edition 2003)

One man, ‘a sergeant of artillery on leave’ (Ibid) invited Belloc to join him over a drink but Belloc declined – as the days were very hot, he intended to make his pilgrimage in the evening and overnight, so he had to keep moving.

As he left St. Pierre, though, Belloc admits that he ‘was not secure from loneliness’ (The Path to Rome, p.25). The night began to ‘oppress’ him. How much was Belloc affected by his loneliness? It’s hard to say but despite coming across to me through his books, and in books about him, as a strong man, there are one or two hints in The Path to Rome that mentally he did suffer as much as many of us do from a certain fragility. I take comfort from that.

That night, Belloc lit his pipe and began singing. Suddenly,

… I… heard, to my inexpressible joy, some way down the road, the sound of other voices. They were singing that old song of the French infantry which dates from Louis XIV., and is called “Auprès de ma blonde.” I answered their chorus, so that, by the time we met under the wood, we were already acquainted.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.28 (Ignatius edition 2003)

I love Belloc’s choice of words here. He wasn’t just happy to hear the soldiers’ singing, but felt an ‘inexpressible joy’. If this is how happy he could be at the sound of strangers singing, no wonder he could feel loneliness as well.

In the past, I have held the end of Belloc’s day to be midnight. I will try and keep to that in these blog posts, whether or not he is still walking. If he does keep walking, I’ll note it in the next day’s post.

The singing soldiers were the last people Belloc encountered at all, let alone under friendly circumstances, before midnight on 4th June 1901 so I will end this post here.