Monday, 2 February 2015

III. Monsieur de Sozzi

A few stories about Thiébault's maternal great-uncle, Louis-François de Sozzi (1706-1780), whom Thiébault met in 1777. This, too, comes from the beginning of Tome I.
The poem featured is actually much longer in the original; I just cut to the essential because I did not want to bother trying to come up with proper rhymes and rhythm.

M. de Sozzi’s father, born into an old Tuscanian family, left Italy at a time of civil unrest and, collecting whatever he could of his wealth, he came to France with his two sons and his daughter. One of his sons took up the religious mantle and became the bishop of Cluny; his daughter married M. Dozzi, a jurisconsult, and died giving birth to my mother, whose father did not outlive his wife by much; lastly, M. de Sozzi devoted himself to literature and the law, and he soon made a reputation for himself in Paris as an eminent jurisconsult. As a consulting lawyer, he pleaded only a few cases, and he only did so out of friendship for the defendants; but since he won every case he took up, there was not a single one of them that did not add to his reputation. One of the most remarkable was the one that cost their wealth to the family of the Counts of Hautoy, which he won after eight or ten years of sustained work and effort, through sixteen or seventeen decrees obtained or wrestled from the authorities in Nancy, Paris and Versailles, notably struggling in the first of these cities against the influence of Lorraine nobility, against the courts’ partiality and against King Stanislas’ favour.
There is an anecdote about this case that paints M. de Sozzi’s character. Upon arriving in Nancy, he called on M. Mathieu, the other party’s lawyer, and told him that he never took up cases which he did not have enough power to settle amicably, he offered him to join their efforts and try to avoid a trial, which would bring much graver problems than just the fees.
“What,” the distinguished M. Mathieu replied, “you want me to lose an occasion to measure up against a man of your merit, a famous jurisconsult, a lawyer from Paris, when this has been my ambition for twenty years? Oh! Monsieur, I do not have that courage.”
M. de Sozzi rose with indignation and said:
“Very well, Sir, I accept your challenge, and I will teach you how badly you wanted to lose.”
Indeed, he won the case brilliantly and completely.
But while he was noticed in the courts for his eloquence, his deep culture, his sense of equity, his tact and his utmost dignity in all things, he was also a very learned man. He was a historian and a Hellenistic scholar, and his spirit rivalled his affability. Among his friend were many striking figures, and his closest were the Chevalier Deville and M. de Polignac, King Stanislas’ secretary of commandments.
He was a friend of the Chevalier d’Orléans, the grandmaster of the Grand Priory of France, and this prince’s desire to live with him, so to speak, gave him the rank of bailiff in this sort of city. The Temple was then an asylum where debtors were safe from any pursuit; only the bailiff could use this privilege, which he had to grant to misfortune and not to bad faith; but the price that the asylum seekers were ready to pay usually made the position of bailiff a very lucrative one. This was not how M. de Sozzi intended to occupy it; he accepted it as an actual magistracy, and what had served to enrich his predecessors for the sake of the highest bidders was only an occasion for sacrifices and generosity on his part. He had no need of the profits which he was not made to receive. However, one day, wanting to save the Chevalier Deville, he vouched for him, and since he had been deceived about the actual state of this man’s affairs, his kindness cost him 300,000 pounds, that is, more than half of his wealth.
This decided him to leave Paris and he ended his career in Lyons1. The desire of seeing him was what brought us to this town.
Although he was a magistrate, he had also been one of the handsome dancers of his time; he excelled at physical activity, but what surpassed all of his other merits was the graciousness and dignity of his manners.
A true miracle saved him at the celebrations held for Louis XVI’s marriage. Carried away by two young ladies’ solicitations, he had agreed on taking them to the Place Louis XV to see the fireworks. Having arrived in the Rue Royale, he guessed from the noise ahead of him that there were troubles, and he tried to turn back; but the crowd was too dense to allow it. Just then, the door of a nearby hôtel opened, and he rushed in, along with thirty or forty other persons. The owner of the hôtel, hearing the commotion, had everyone thrown out at once and he came in person to oversee the execution of his orders; all those who had entered were ruthlessly expelled; but when he reached M. de Sozzi, he was so struck by his noble and venerable figure that he said:
“Monsieur, this order cannot concern you.”
Those who had been thrown out were trampled; as for M. de Sozzi, he waited in the apartments of the owner—whose name I completely forgot—for the next sunrise, that is, for the end of this frightful brawl.
The most remarkable episode of his life involves Mme the Duchess of Orleans almost as much as M. de Sozzi himself. He had met the princess at the house of the Chevalier d’Orléans; soon afterwards, he had courted her in her own house, and since she soon opened her eyes to his merit, they soon became lovers. I do not know how long this affair lasted; nor do I know who wronged the other first, what was the nature of these wrongs and what graver wrongs they brought about; but anyway, a violent scene made their break-up an open secret. Either out of jealousy, either by revenge, or because M. de Sozzi knew things that this princess wanted to bury in eternal secrecy, it was rumoured that she wished for his death. Anyway, those are the facts as M. Sozzi told them and as my father and mother so often repeated them: one evening, as he came home around midnight, on foot to enjoy the good weather, he was shot almost at point-blank range at the cross between the Rue de Bercy and the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, near the Saint-Jean market. The bullet grazed him and did not wound him. But since he had fallen to his knees in surprise, he had the good idea of letting himself go entirely and play dead. Two men went to examine him at once. One of them lifted his arm and let it drop, saying:
“I think he’s dead.”
“Yes,” the other replied, “he’s dead all right.”
And they left in large strides. After some time, M. de Sozzi rose back to his feet and came home with the certitude that these assassins could only be emissaries.
Indeed, that “he’s dead all right” proved that he and no one else was the target; and what proved it beyond doubt was that the two men had left a beautiful diamond ring on the hand they had picked up, as well as his golden snuffbox, his purse, his two watches and their golden chains; whereas ordinary thieves would have searched him and robbed him.
But there was only one person who could so intently wish for his death; it was the Duchess of Orleans. Indeed, she had promised she would have her revenge; this ambush could only have been arranged on her orders. Since there could be a second attempt, he decided to leave at once; he sent for two post horses and an outrider, wrote a few business notes and rode away around three in the morning. But first, he wanted to obtain one last certitude from the effect his unexpected presence would have on the princess. He passed in front of the Palais-Royal, stopped, dismounted, and, using hidden stairs and passages, he boldly entered the Duchess’ bedroom. Woken up by the noise, she recognised him, thought it was a ghost and let out awful screams.
“Now I have the confirmation of what I sought to know,” M. de Sozzi said.
Once she recovered from her fright, she threatened to have him arrested.
“You have no time for that,” he replied, and while she called for her servants, he hurried back to his horse and left to Switzerland.
At the second post house of Paris, he found only one coachman; this man was asleep, and in spite of everything M. de Sozzi said, he refused to get up. To put as many leagues as possible between him and the princess, M. de Sozzi put his saddle on the first horse he found, bridled it, mounted and tried to leave the house. But the coachman had jumped down from his horse and now blocked the way, armed with a pitchfork. In a quick and violent move, M. de Sozzi took one of his pistols, shot the coachman, threw him backwards, jumped over him and resumed his flight. His generous tips allowed him to find horses in every subsequent post house, and he left France, having only eaten soups, a few glasses of wine and biscuits on the road. His absence lasted eighteen months; after that time, he was assured of a safe return to Paris and came back in a post coach.
He had not forgotten about the coachman; but he hoped that the man had been more afraid than hurt, given that when he had examined his [fontes] upon reaching Geneva, he had found a bullet, which could have fallen from the pistol he had shot due to the horse’s movement. Coming back to the fateful house, he would have liked to ask for news of the man; but this would have been a confession of his guilt. He waited until he was on the road to start chatting with his coachman; and at some point, he asked him for how long he had been in that post house.
“Twenty-five years, Monsieur.”
“Gosh,” M. de Sozzi replied, “that makes quite a long time for such a hard trade.”
And the coachman only talked about general matters.
“At least, if it was only by day... but to risk being denied sleep when you’re tired, this is the worst.”
“And I am sure you must have to deal with harsh and violent travellers,” M. de Sozzi insisted.
“Ah! Sometimes, yes,” the coachman said; “indeed, barely eighteen months ago, it was a close shave. I was in the wrong, but by God, that one traveller wasn’t nice.”
There, he told the whole story. M. de Sozzi breathed in relief; at the next house, he gave the man one louis, saying:
“Here’s to comfort you after these misfortunes.”
I come back to my own life. While I had been struck by M. de Sozzi’s venerable figure, I was equally struck by his conversation. No one in the world talked more nobly and graciously, and he told stories with incomparable spirit, softness and charm. Although I was but a very young child, I listened, and I was often surprised, sometimes delighted, always interested. Among all the anecdotes he told us, there is one I never forgot. The names of those involved have faded from my memory; but M. de Sozzi knew the family of the unfortunate protagonist, and the story is undoubtedly true, although there must be no one besides me who knows about it today.
A young man destined for a legal career, who had a fine figure, all the gracefulness of his age and a brilliant spirit, was tempted to go to a masked ball at the Court. He managed to obtain an invitation and soon found himself the partner of a lovely princess. Both dancers were delighted with the contredanse, and they reunited a second time, then a third, after which the princess, who had tried and failed to guess with whom she was dancing, asked all of a sudden:
“Who are you, Monsieur?”
The young man tried to evade the question; but the princess insisted:
“Give me your name, Monsieur, or I will tell everyone to unmask.”
He had to confess that he was not of the Court, to give his name and ask for forgiveness; but he did so with so much spirit and charm; he had made the princess so inclined to indulgence; and the threat resulted from a motive so far removed from anger that she forgave him and promised to keep his secret, on condition that he came back to the next ball, for which she even gave him an invitation. This second meeting took place an was more typical than the first. They danced little but talked much. The disguises allowed for long hushed talks; there were even talks of absences; when the hour of separation rang at last, the young admirer felt emboldened by the feelings that the princess was no longer concealing, and he dared give her a poem that alluded to the fates of Ixion and Endymion. The princess wrote back on the next day, joining a few more verses to her letter:

Ne redoute pas d’Ixion
La funeste torture;
Ose espérer d’Endymion
La brillante aventure
Viens avec moi, voisin des dieux,
Au séjour du tonnerre:
Si tu ne peux monter aux cieux,
Je reste sur la terre.
[Do not fear Ixion’s deadly torture;
Dare to dream of Endymion’s brilliant adventure
Come with me, neighbour of the gods,
To the Thunder’s abode;
If you cannot ascend to the skies,
I shall remain on the land.]

What followed such tender inspirations is easy to guess; but such secrets do not remain hidden for long, not so near the seat of power which is so ruthless for a thousand reasons. This sweet affair ended on the death of the young man, who was assaulted by some assassins as he crossed the Pont Neuf, stabbed multiple times and thrown into the Seine.
M. de Sozzi’s stay in Paris also evokes an anecdote that almost cost my father his life. M. de Sozzi had a dog that he loved very much. This dog, a handsome Danish hound named Médor, was bitten in the Luxembourg by a very small dog, hard enough to make him bleed and howl. M. de Sozzi called out to the small dog’s master, shouting that those who had aggressive dogs should leave them at home.
“Well! Monsieur,” the man retorted, “your dog can defend itself, it’s ten times stronger than mine.”
But Médor fell ill, and on a Sunday, it escaped, bit several people in the Rue de Tournon, where M. de Sozzi lived, and disappeared. We did not see him for the rest of the day; but on the next evening, while we calculated that if he was rabid, he would soon come back, this dog, which the servants had orders not to let in, slipped by unnoticed and hid behind his master; he had a black eye and dirt in his maw. A few outsiders were there and ran away this instant. My mother and one of her cousins also fled, so that only my father and M. de Sozzi remained in the parlour.
The latter persisted in saying that his dog was not rabid and did not want him to be put down. However, he could not resist the insistence of the house’s owner, who lived there, and decided, in his name and that of the other tenants, that the dog would be shot; but a hunter of the Prince of Soubise could only come around eleven in the evening, and it was midnight past when my father left home, to the Rue Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois. The state of the Police in Paris at that time is well known, and so is the dreadful part played by the French Guards. Indeed, they were the ones hired to perform a great number of the murders committed in the capital; anyway, as he arrived at the level of a narrow street near the Saint-Germain fair, my father was at once surrounded by nine guards, all of them armed. He was doomed, but he remembered just in time the case of a doctor from Lorraine who had skilfully gotten himself out of an analogous ambush2, and, thinking that these soldiers were waiting for someone else, he said: “Good evening, gentlemen”, in the most natural tone; the nine soldiers let him go at once.
His presence of mind saved him on other occasions: as he came back from a supper in town with one of his friends, they stumbled over the corpse of a man who had just been murdered. The frightened friend wanted to stop. My father did not let him, and he did well to keep walking and talking as though nothing had happened; for, a few paces further, they passed by a squad of watchers lying in ambush, and pretended not to notice them. They could have paid a high price for interfering in a nocturnal execution.

1He bought for his wife, with whom he no longer lived, and for his last remaining daughter, an estate near Lyons, called le Musard. Having hopes of bringing my father and mother closer to him, and wanting them to settle near Mme de Sozzi and their daughter, he convinced them of investing my mother’s dowry into a country house named la Grivollière. This estate, located in the vicinity of Lyons, was therefore bought in January 1777 and inhabited by us at once. We did spend fifteen days there, where I remember picking up strawberries under the snow. M. de Sozzi’s projects fell down after his death. Left to the servants, la Grivollière, instead of becoming a source of income, became an object of spending, and my father soon sold it again with heavy losses. As for the Musard, which was then worth a hundred thousand francs, it ended up as the prey of an intriguer named Derieux. Indeed, this scoundrel had abused Mme de Sozzi’s progressive senility, and in 1793 and 1794, he made her certify that she had received in gold what he had paid in assignats, and he was the master of the house upon her death. All we received from the father’s and the daughter’s inheritance was M. de Sozzi’s library and a small painting depicting Mlle de Charolais dressed as a Cordelier, where Voltaire inscribed those four verses:
Frère Ange de Charolais,
Dis-nous par quelle aventure
Le cordon de Saint-François
Sert à Vénus de ceinture.
I do not know how this pretty little painting had come into M. de Sozzi’s possession, nor how, where and when it disappeared from my father’s house.
2M. Moureau, a man of merit, but above all a kind and charitable man, was, in a canton of the Vosges, the doctor of the wealthy because of his skill, and of the poor because of his benevolence. One night, as he rode through a vast forest on his small horse to perform house calls, he saw a man pointing a gun at him in the moonlight. At once he shouted: “Who goes there?” No one answered; he shouted again, in vain; the immobility of the man he saw and this silence aroused his suspicions; he came closer, and as it turned out, what he had mistaken for a man with a rifle was only a tree with a peculiarly placed branch. But his shouts had echoed through the forest and put him in actual danger. Indeed, after a few paces, he was assaulted by a man who jumped out of a bush and grabbed the horse’s reins, telling him to stand and deliver! Taken by surprise, absolutely defenceless against an armed man, he thought that his only option was to give his identity, and he took on a very calm and natural tone as he said: “Good evening, Sir.” At once, the man let go of the reins and came back into the woods, exclaiming: “Ah! It’s M. Moureau.” Two months ago, M. Moureau had saved his life, curing a grave illness for free.

No comments:

Post a Comment