Wednesday, 1 April 2015

X. Poisson d'avril !

Arthur John Butler was kind enough to translate part of what Thiébault has to say about his pal Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt (1769-1821), a possible son of Louis XV who's perhaps best known as Napoleon's pharmacist and the one who invented Lannes' awesome deathbed diatribe. Only he left out the best part.

Okay, only half of this actually has to do with an April Fool's joke, but the part about their law studies is worth reading too, I swear!
We studied law together; thanks to his perseverance in making me learn Justinian’s Institutes, stuffing my head full of Latin words and turning these odd scholarly sentences into familiar objects, I obtained my baccalaureate with some distinction, even though I was facing four extremely severe examiners, and, from noon to two o’clock, each of them interrogated me for a full thirty minutes. My father had sent fifty pounds of candles to the examiners; but they returned them, declaring that with my performance at the examination, I owed my diploma to no one but myself.
As for my thesis, I did not disclose the day I would defend it, for fear that my dear cousin the Abbé Gravier would debate with me over it; but it went quite well, in deep solitude and in a silence that was only broken by one or two formal arguments, which some old doctor made in a nasal voice, and I think he did not even listen to my answers. French law gave me much less trouble. At last, after two years, I left these schools, looking back at some scribbling on one of their walls: a tomb, with the caption:
Ci-gît le Droit. Ah ! qu’il est bien
Pour son repos et pour le mien !
[Here lies Law. Ah! What a good sign
For the sake of its rest and mine!]
Gassicourt, who then wanted to be a lawyer, found out about an old prosecutor, who hosted procedure classes; but he needed to have at least two students, and we decided to take the class together. This man had a clever method. We chose a grievance to present to the court, and the plaintiff wrote his reclamation. We appeared before a mock conciliatory court and we wrote the motives preventing each side from coming to an agreement. Then we started the procedure, and from the first sitting to the elaboration and execution of the final judgement, we each wrote all the documents relating to our side of the case. Thus we successively played the parts of prosecutors, bailiffs, notaries, lawyers and judges; we even imagined reluctant witnesses, missing files and every perfidious obstacle that can rise during a trial, ending up with huge piles of procedural documents. You can imagine how dry and off-putting all of this was, aside from the defence speeches that we liked to develop; but this was a very instructive method in all respects.
Among the vows we had made to each other in our passionate friendship, we had pledged to support each other, and if need be, to defend each other against the rest of the world; thus we signed all our letters with: Your friend and second. Until then, this sort of brotherhood in arms had only led to me being presented as a husband in a love affair, which by the way had excessively far-reaching consequences for Gassicourt, when, on 31 March 1788, as I came back from a dinner in the countryside, my father’s servant secretly told me that Gassicourt had come around nine o’clock, saying that he had a duel to fight on the next morning and that he was waiting for me at 5:30 sharp. I told the servant to wake me up at four; the fear of being forgotten kept me awake through the whole night; I left the house before five, and at a quarter past five, I was at the door of Gassicourt’s apartment with my sword in hand. I knocked; no one answered. I knocked again, without much success. I then went to his pharmacy; the assistant on duty opened; there I was in the shop, but this was not much of a progress. I did not dare ring M. Cadet’s bell, for fear of bothering him and committing an indiscretion; however, I did not want Gassicourt to miss the hour either. I ran up to the garrets where the servants slept; I woke up M. Cadet’s footman and asked him to open the door of Gassicourt’s apartment for me; inside, I found my friend in a deep sleep.
“What,” I exclaimed, shaking his arm, “are you still sleeping? It’s half past five!”
“Well, why wouldn’t want me to sleep at half past five?” he grumbled, only half-awake.
“What about your duel?”
“What duel?”
“The duel you have to fight this morning...”
“With who?”
“This I don’t know,” I replied, “besides, I shouldn’t be the one telling you all this, since you were the one who sent for me yesterday!”
He thought about it for a moment and said:
“My friend, today is the First of April, and you were fooled. Let’s be the first to laugh at this, and then we’ll spend the day together!”
Indeed, it was my mother who had come up with this prank; but in the end, she must not have laughed very much on that day, for I came home very late; I went to bed without speaking to anybody, and on the next day, I asserted that all of this was just a stale joke.

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