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A Woman of Eminent Distinction

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975

At 10 o’clock in the morning of Tuesday, May 19, 1964, the ghost of Jeanne de Balzac, late wife of Claude d’Urfé, girded such powers as she possessed after long absence and accosted me in the château. Ever so gently, unhurried, she led me to the scullery of Bastie d’Urfé, where her tombstone, displaced from the grave it once marked, lay propped against the wall. Cleverly, she dispersed any surprise I may have had about the propriety of finding her memorial strayed to this unlikely place, and prompted me to read and record the last tribute to her excellence. Most extraordinary of all, she linked our communication to an aroma of morel, the wild mushroom so prized by gourmets.

This imaginative sally occurred on the day of St. Yves, patron saint of lawyers, almost 422 years after Jeanne’s death in or about the 15th century château in the Auvergne region of France. While she managed this spiritual engagement within its walls, Spring danced a bourrée outside around other relics of the d’Urfé. Great lindens and massively ancient chestnuts rustled a leafy commotion, attesting to the accurate horticultural reporting of Michelin’s “Green Guide” to the Auvergne.

Jeanne had chosen the right moment for our encounter. Had it been afternoon or evening I would not have been there. And she had me alone that morning, suitably receptive, more idler than tourist. Unexpectedly, the chill wafted in, not unpleasant after the sun-smitten field outside. Then she said, impossibly but convincingly, “Read me and remember, read me, write me. . . .” This resembled in no way a voice, it defied all reason; the spirit was and remains unknowable, ubiquitous, unique. I did as I was told; my stomach grumbled slightly. My eye, steadier, followed the bar of sunlight running past the ruined door to the first lines of her headstone:

“De Jeanne

“De Balzac, femme d’une éminente distinction. . . .”

*   *   *

Michelin’s note on Bastie d’Urfé is one of bland, almost accidental attention, implying that, for all its charm, it is not one of France’s great monuments. Which is accurate enough —the Bastie is only a provincial reminder that Francois Premier, “the young, handsome, chivalric and gallant” first Francis, cast a dominant shadow over all the 16th century France he ruled. For the Bastie incorporates the fashionable Italianisms of his time and helps explain the comment that Francis, unable as a young man to make Italy French, tried in his old age to make France Italian. Some d’Urfé, perhaps Pierre, Francis’ Master of the Royal Horse, or Claude, provincial governor of the Forez and husband of Jeanne de Balzac, followed the sovereign pattern in designing his house. But of that, more later.

As neither tourist nor student of medieval French history, I was at the Bastie that morning following a series of events which began with a telephone call in Vichy on May 18. It was from Michel, a business colleague of St. Etienne. We were to lunch together the following day. Having called my apartment in Paris to say he couldn’t keep our engagement, he’d been told I’d left for Vichy. Reaching me there, he apologized and proposed dinner instead for that evening of the 19th. I agreed, and before ringing off he remarked, “D’accord. Amuse yourself on the way down. Take your time, relax, see some of our sights of the Auvergne. Go to Feurs and have lunch.”

“Why Feurs?”

“Eh bien, why not? How many towns with a population of 6,000 can claim two, two-star restaurants? Imagine! Feurs—a nothing of a town where you can eat better than in Paris, and for much less.”

He then gave me the names of the restaurants, adding as a parting note, “Think of me while you eat.”

That morning drive of the 19th down the Loire was fine, but even rolling doucement, as Michel advised, I arrived in Feurs far too early for lunch. Getting the “Green Guide” out of the glove compartment, I skimmed to see what might rouse an appetite for grande cuisine. That is how I saw the small notice about Bastie d’Urfé which enlivened an otherwise dull trip to St. Etienne.

Michelin put the château seven kilometers east of Boensur-Lignon, midway on Route 89 to Feurs. One d’Urfé, veteran of the Italian wars, had built it in the 15th century; another had it remodeled in the 16th, probably by Italian artisans. As the guide said, “the approach” was made under lindens and chestnuts, followed by a “court of honor,” with a left wing for the seignorial bodyguard and an Italianate structure of superposed galleries with ramp and loggia to the right. A chapel occupied the ground floor of the Bastie’s oldest building at the far end of the court. Slowly, little by little, said Michelin, the château was being refurbished. The only association with human history was that Honoré d’Urfé, author of “the first French novel, “Astrée,” belonged to the family. Except for a note about being open to visitors every day, that was all about the château,

My watch said nine-fifteen. I checked the big red Michelin “France” that always goes with the car, turning to Feurs. There were Michel’s two restaurants: “Chapeau Rouge,” also a 12-room inn; specialties—grenouilles, mousseline de brochet, poulet grillé forézierme; wines—Pouilly-Fuissé, Chiroubles. The other, “Chalet Boule d’Or,” a 6-room inn, also provided frogs legs, but had other palate-teasers like ballotine de canard and morilles à la crème, all rendered edible with either Pouilly or a Fleurie.

None of these dainties perked my taste-buds. Poulet à la forézienne would have to be deciphered later. The “Green Guide” said Forez uranium deposits were now under exploitation, and somehow that didn’t go with chicken. I decided to drive out Route 89 and have a look at the Bastie, somewhat curious about Honoré, trailblazer of the French novel. Focusing on potholes, I almost passed the miniscule board pointing to a gravel path as the way to the château.

Down the overgrown lane, once arrived, I didn’t see it immediately. What impressed here was sylvan: everything was teeming with spring—wildflowers, birds, enormous trees, a Rousseau canvas jungle come alive. To indicate man’s association there was only a small yellow house, its door ajar. Standing before it, undecided, I saw a faded notice, pen-and-inked in French Spencerian and wedged between curtain and door-pane. “The château is closed for repairs,” it said to anyone who had cared to come that close. Past the sun-gilded cottage and the magnificent chestnuts heavy with white-bloomed pyramids, I saw the château, deserted, in a clearing beyond the high grass.

Over a stone-lintelled doorway rose an octagonal tower, crisply supported by a single buttress. Behind it ran the lower of the superposed galleries. A slate-blue, conical roof glistened over the tower, as a fairy-tale coping should. No workmen were around, and I remembered the guide note about things going “little by little.” Then, unexpected, a bright voice sang out the friendliest “Bonjour Monsieur!” I’d heard in France.

Half-hidden by the long lines of beanpoles, she came out to the unmown field, sloshing through the wet. A trowel went into her apron pocket. When she gave the hand, I saw she wore sabots over brown felt house slippers.

“As you see, I am working the vegetable garden.”

“May one visit the château?”

“And why not?” She laughed, as if after long palaver we had agreed to break a silly government regulation.

“But the repairs?”

“Oh, as you can see, the workmen are not here today. Either they are on strike, or fishing, or the government has run out of money for the repairs—again.”

And the entrée—one franc?”

“Eh bien, d’accord”

Forthright Auvergnat palm extended, she said, “You may pay the hundred francs if you like.”

Why would anyone mention one De Gaulle new franc when any sensible person knew it was really one hundred?

She was the caretaker’s wife, and he was off to the hospital getting kidneys mended. No, she was incapable of serving as guide— that was his work—but I might go anywhere I pleased. After shaking hands again, she retrieved her trowel and strode off through the meadow, boatlike sabots gliding over the drenched grass.

I walked to the scherzo of a moat, crossing by a stone footpath mortared into place long ago. Waterlilies broke an algaed surface, long-stemmed, thick buds ready to burst. Overhead, disparate, competing birdcalls fluted down to the court. It was easy to imagine a d’Urfé on horseback trotting up, home from Italy with a troubadour and lute in tow. But looking down at that unwarlike little ditch, it was harder to fancy the master engaged in siege or skewering Spaniards. But then, I thought, who can ever sweep time back for this or any old house, and put all the broken dolls together? And with this sententious thought, I found myself by the ramp. Wedged fancifully against the lower gallery, it ran quite practically up to a loggia overlooking the court. It reminded me of children’s toy blocks; actually it was a more serious plaything devised by grownup architects and romantic lords. Plainly, one d’Urfé returning from Italy had said, “And when I am home, by God and Mary, this horse will be ridden up to board and bedchamber!”

And so he had, I mused, going up the ramp. Quite suddenly I stopped, and for no creditable reason turned and came down. I had started towards the chapel when something, a whistle perhaps, a birdlike whoosh or whisper, seemed to say, “Morilles, les morilles. . . .” I remember glancing at the four arched chapel windows where fresh black paint gleamed on intricate grills of vine-and-leaf. And I recalled the workmen were gone, that the caretaker’s wife was back tending her beans. I looked over my shoulder and saw the delapidated busts of two ancient knights, corselleted, perching dumbly on square columns set into the chapel wall, and I knew no word would ever come from those broken-nosed worthies. There was no sign of anyone by the yellow cottage. All the same, I was sure there had been something, . . . And then, as I stood there, the name of an old friend, known but unseen for years, suddenly popped to mind.

West-Virginia born, tactiturn Colonel Mac disliked small talk but would run garrulous about hunting and eating, especially so whenever someone spoke of wild mushrooms. He’d tell of gathering morels, or “merglers” as he called them, in the woods beyond Lewisburg, and rattle on about their convoluted, cerebral structure (“which is why some folks call them brain mushrooms”). An Air Force type, he would compare them to half-opened parachutes, roll his eyes about their “celestial flavor,” recall cooking them in butter with quail or pheasant. And always, warning that if they were delicious you still had to be careful—”especially of the so-called brain mushroom, which is actually a false mergler, edible for some folks and deadly for others.” And so on and on, with Latin names, recognizable characteristics, symptoms of distress and first-aid. This startling memory of an old friend and amateur of morels, les morilles, did not stimulate interest in the restaurants back at Feurs.

So I moved away, impelled as a child in blindman’s buff, from the chapel and its overseeing stone cavaliers, back to where the ramp began at court level. Turning left under the gallery, I sensed that daylight was fading as I went down a corridor below the loggia. More than the swiftly waning light or the deep stillness, I recall the pervasive scent of fungi as grains of sand and old cement crackled underfoot. Somewhere, unseen, pungent myriads of spawn were secreted in the walls.

At that moment the coolness intruded, astringent, freshening the air. Looking into the room, seeing the tombstone against the wall, responding to an incredible spirit, credulously I accepted that a presence rather than a stone stood there, akimbo, observing what I might do next. Curiosity steadies. With the thought conveyed that I now stood in what once had been the manor scullery, and that morels somehow were associated with the stance of this funeral piece, I did as told and read her epitaph:

“Of Jeanne
“de Balzac, woman of eminent distinction, wife
“Of Claude d’Urfé, knight, governor of Forez, gentleman
“of high nobility and outstanding merit.
“Pause only, passerby, and give heed.
“Thou shalt not repent for having stopped.
“But whose body lies here?
“It is the body of Jeanne de Balzac,
“Who, whilst she lived, shone with perfect beauty,
“And, to crown it all, was so divinely gifted.
“In herself alone she embodied all the virtue others have.
“Especially, she lacked nothing that makes a wife
“pleasing and dear to her husband.
“With these rare qualities of soul, she appeared divine
“and heavenly to all.
“So did she ease the cares of her husband,
“She enriched him with handsome children and other important
“And because of these and other numerous great talents she
“immortality, for her soul and her name as well.
“Know, therefore, that an immortal rests here, immortal
“for her soul’s renown and her virtue too.
“She died at the age of twenty-six years and three months,
  the sixth
“of May of the year of the Redemption one thousand fifteen
“and forty-two.      —     
“What I wanted you to know, passerby,
“You now have, in a few words.
“Make ready to go on your way.”

Now I felt a chill that was no longer pleasant. But, more intolerable, the fungus stench returned; I could taste it. Swallowing, hawking and coughing, my eyes tearing, I returned quickly to the courtyard, imagining morels swollen to man-size, lurching skyward through dank earth, carrying half-furled parasols. Still retching, feeling quite as brain-curled as these fantasies, I put away the copied inscription and glanced at my watch. Surprisingly, I had been in the scullery for almost an hour. I unslung my camera and took five shots of the tower, ramp and chapel. Looking at them now shows a sky turned leaden, all sparkle leached from the morning.

Lunch forgotten, I got into the car and drove straight to St. Etienne. It began to rain as if all the waters of the Massif Central were undammed. For me, St. Etienne has always been one of France’s unloveliest cities, but that day, with workers coming off shift in the thunderstorm, running past high factory walls to scrabble for places on trams, it looked Daumier-brutal. A traffic light stopped me. As I waited, a tram screeched to a halt alongside, taking on or putting off the wet, impatient and angry. When I got to the hotel, it was as drab as the streets outside. In the lobby only an enamelled sign existed to indicate “reception;” upstairs, confort moderne meant chrome-tubed furniture, a pull-chain privy and a mean bed with half-washed sheets. As planned, Michel and I went out for dinner that evening. The rain was distracting, we quickly became involved in business, and he forgot to ask if I’d had a two-star lunch. It seemed pointless to tell about the morning’s visit to Bastie d’Urfé.

Back in Paris to everyday routine, I forgot about Jeanne de Balzac, Claude d’Urfé, morilles, and the untried cuisine of Feurs. With friends, I returned to “collecting” restaurants, hearing old-timers lament the increasing scarcity of what Frenchmen call “serious” restaurants. On weekends we would sail my son’s boat at the Tuileries for my entertainment and see French cowboy movies afterward for his.

In May of the following year I had to go south on business again, and certain coincidences occurred. However, I was not alone this time, having proposed taking wife and son along after their apartment confinement of a long Parisian winter. Once again I stopped at my customary hotel in Vichy, expecting the family would enjoy it. In the back of my mind I knew very well that family travel is different: you plan, establish pauses at foreseen stops, project “entertainment” en route, and so on; but it never works like your own single schedule. Not unexpectedly, on this first day out of Paris, my wife did not like what she called “the pert attitude” of our chambermaid at the Vichy hotel. She found the spa dull and its waters dreadful. She indicted as well my favorite brasserie and its lush choucroute garnie (prepared in champagne and wonderfully unsuitable for liver crises) for being “noisy and full of the same family types as Sunday at ‘Hansi’s’ back in Paris.” The following morning of May 19—St. Achille’s day by the agenda—I thought we might made a detour from my ultimate destination of Toulon, look in at Feurs and Bastie d’Urfé, and spend the night at Nîmes. While wife sulked over what she called “the ungracious atmosphere of your hotel,” I made an effort to distract our son from his French comic books.

“I know how we might lunch at a two-star restaurant and visit a spooky old chateau while we’re on our way to Nîmes— just a little detour.”

Bored, half-listening as usual, he asked: “Does the restaurant deserve its two stars?”

Eight-year-old American kids in Paris get very blasé about restaurants. However, as ours has picnicked in Roman ruins since his first year on this planet, he does have a sense of people-history. Quickly looking up from the exploits of Astérix, he asked, “Is this a haunted château?”

I mentioned some of my experiences at Bastie d’Urfé in 1964.

“Why didn’t you try one of the Feurs restaurants?” my wife asked.

“Well, you know how it is to sit down to one of those grande cuisine things all by yourself,” I offered, saying nothing about morel spoor or how I’d felt while copying Jeanne’s epitaph.

Yet I owed some kind of story to the boy, and said maybe a spirit had entered the room where the tombstone lay. He loved this, put either “Astérix Légionnaire” or “Astérix le Gaullois” aside, and asked for more details. He liked the final part of the inscription, about how the traveler, having stopped to read about Jeanne, might prepare to go on his way.

“But Dad, you were the traveler, and you stopped, or she made you stop to feel the spooky ghost! And then you did go on your way!”

He grew a little excited. I confess my own skin crept a little, too. It seemed chilly in the Peugeot, and I rolled up my window.

“Let’s go find your lady ghost,” wife said, her sulks relaxing. “We may as well see if one of those restaurants deserves its two stars.”

American wives released from cooking will try anything.

Our color pictures taken that morning confirm it to have been a glory in sunshine. We are on the ramp, by the tower, alongside moat and chapel, and over us all there is not a trace of the Bastie’s lady spirit. Our son was enchanted by the ramp and the possibility of riding a horse up its slope. I remember his skinny legs scuttling up and down—until he remembered where I said Jeanne’s tombstone was, and then we all had to go down to the scullery. It was still in the same place, yet the room was sunnier that day and restoration was continuing at the “little by little” pace. But this time there was neither communicative spirit nor taint of fungi. Perhaps, I thought, Jeanne does not communicate with tourists, because that is what we were, like the solitary other carload of visitors there. I still like to think that she speaks only to errant single travelers who stray upon old houses and waste time reading dislocated memorials. And of course, in defiance of her epitaph, she may not be a family-loving creature.

The caretaker-guide was absent, but this time the chapel was open, partially restored but bereft of its boiserie, said to have been acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Perhaps traces of Jeanne’s discontent may have gone with the paneling and will turn up one day in the sullied glens of Central Park.) On May 19, 1965, no emanations, ectoplasmic, sonic or tactile, emerged while we roamed about the château. Towards noon we grew hungry. My wife said she looked forward to eating les morilles.

We went to Feurs. Unlike the previous year, this May day was a scorcher. I began to rethink our original itinerary, wondering how we would manage the 300-kilometer drive to Nîmes after a two-star, two-hour stuffing. And would our hotel hold the reservation if we, were late?

We chose Chapeau Rouge because it looked prettier, and we had our morilles. Everything about the restaurant was neat and trim, down to its presentation of the various menus, about four or five of them, all monogrammed with red tophats, ranging from a 25-franc “tourist” adventure with only four dishes or so to the 50-franc gourmet special with enough courses to trip a Les Halles meat-porter. Service was good if a little nonchalant, but we charged that to the day’s heat. And the chef really did himself proud with les morilles. Wife and I gorged, because son decided he really didn’t like mushrooms, especially those funny-looking ones, so we ate his as well. Around 3 o’clock we quit the stone-vaulted dining room for the iblazing town square where the car was parked. Its interior steamed as I opened the doors and stayed that way until our arrival in Nîmes, baked, wilted —crevé, as they say—around 9:30 that night. I will not enlarge upon all the detours encountered, the tons of limestone dust spewed forth by Gargantuan cement works along the way, or how many times I heard how nice it would be if we were back in our Paris apartment.

We didn’t feel very well. Late arrival didn’t help impressions. The charming little hotel I’d known as a 1954 bachelor now had a new annex. It had, along with the rest of Nîmes, been transformed when the pieds-noirs swarmed across from North Africa after Algerian independence. Apparently, salesmen and builders of retirement apartments all were competing with the repatriates for a quick new franc and had taken over the pretty old town like Attila’s hordes. The hotel management swore they’d held our room until 9 and then reluctantly given it to someone else. If we would wait, they’d do their best to “liberate” another. Stomachs and patience weakened, we waited, were offered a maid’s room converted from a broom-closet. I expect we looked pretty filthy from all the limestone coating acquired on the road; the management said we might use a public shower on the second floor. We accepted, awaiting room liberation. We exchanged comments on how awful our stomachs were acting. We were genuinely grateful when, about 11 o’clock, with beach-head established, a room was liberated over the main entrance. Although tire squeaks and passenger-cabby disputes were heard throughout the night, I do not know what we would have done without our own family cabinet, which functioned with a perfection lacking in other departments of that depressing inn.

Family digestions, dispositions and accommodations improved greatly the following day. We drove on to Aries and were in luck. Without reservations, we were able to check into that marvellous convent-become-hotel, the Jules César: one-star restaurant, interior gardens, absence of nunnish ghosts, and starched linen sheets on antique but unprolapsed beds. With wife relaxed and son quietly exploring the establishment, I put forth a suggestion that droll, Balzac-type nuns might once have cloistered there.

“You mean Honoré de Balzac, not Jeanne,” my wife said.

Clearly, we had forgotten the effects of eating morels on a beastly day.

Our next encounter with remnants of the d’Urfé occurred long after these visits to the Bastie. We were back in the States finally, unpacking long-forgotten cases that had been in storage.

“Here’s something you might find interesting,” my wife said, unrolling an old engraving done on heavy, laid paper.

“If you look at No. 183,” she said, “you’ll find the d’Urfé arms.”

What she had was entitled Carte Du Blazon Ou La Science De La Noblesse Avec Des Instructions Pour Conduire A Cette Connaissance. Archaic spelling and all, it seemed to be a popular, 18th century guide to understanding French heraldry, and probably had been clipped from an old folio by some overstocked bookseller, for the right-hand margin said “Tom. 7 N° 39.” Along with an assortment of blazons, helmets and coronets of the nobility and 208 coats-of-arms, the d’Urfé crest appeared under No. 188.

“Where did you find this?” I asked.

“Oh, years ago, in Rome—before our marriage. You may have it,” she said in the tone used to bestow upon husbands the order of chastity, second-class.

My next course ran to the 13th edition of the “Britannica,” a 1926 parental endowment intended for complete ingestion before going on to high school. I wanted to know what the d’Urfé arms denoted, find any clews to the family that bore it.

The heraldry was simple enough. With the shield’s upper third shown as red (gueule or rouge), the remaining lower portion was devoted entirely to a single, alternating device of wine goblets without stems, one up, one down. This may have been good Rabelais, but it was bad heraldry. As a tyro to this “science,” I soon learned that the up-down goblets were vair, linguistically identical in French and English, and defined by Webster as “the bluish gray and white fur of a squirrel prized for ornament in medieval times.” Indeed, the old Carte du Blazon had described vair as a conventional representation in heraldry, usually argent or blanc and azur or bleu. And that was all I learned about the d’Urfé and their prized squirrels.

Other bits and pieces turned up in the local library or the “Britannica,” especially about Honoré, his book and his times, but nothing about Claude and the short-lived Jeanne. What I learned about the writer of pastoral love, born a quarter century after Jeanne had been laid to rest, only whetted curiosity about other d’Urfés.

There seemed to have been at least one woman of distinction in Honore’s life, a beauty named Diane. The author of “Astrée” was born at Marseilles on February 11, 1567 or 1568, depending on your source, a long way from Bastie d’Urfé. Honoré, Marquis de Valbromey, Comte de Châteauneuf, when not engaged in the production of novels and miscellany, appears as a roving soldier and fortune-hunter. In 1571, Honore’s brother Anne, Comte d’Urfé, married the beautiful Diane de Châteaumorand, an alliance that Pope Clement VIII annulled in 1598. Two years afterward, brother Honoré, now 32 or so, married Diane to avoid alienation of her money from the d’Urfé family. Brother Anne, released from Diane and her fortune, sought other consolations, was ordained to the priesthood in 1608 and finally became Dean of Montbrison in 1621.

Now Montbrison brought the trail closer to Bastie d’Urfé, being 20 kilometers or so south of the château, but the story of brother Honoré remained shadowy. For one thing, it was not clear why his marriage to Diane turned out to be unhappy, so that most of his remaining years were passed away from her, serving the Court of Savoy as chamberlain. Perhaps he was happier there; anyhow, he must have been an incurable romantic, for at age 40 he published the first of “Astrée’s” three parts ( 1607). And, apparently never willing to concede that he really was, for those times, an old buck, Honoré continued prancing around incontinently on his charger, quite like one of his . book characters. Such activity naturally got him into trouble and led to the ultimate alienation: on June 1, 1625, while engaged in slaying Spaniards, Honoré was thrown from his horse, and died.

Now all this was interesting enough, but Honoré and Diane remained as lifeless as Jeanne and Claude. Were there any tombstone clews to be found in “Astrée?” Honoré’s book, I discovered, recounted the 7th century love of shepherd Céladon for shepherdess Astrée, and it was set upon the banks of the Lignon (the same stream from which Boen, west of Peurs on today’s Route 89, takes its name). While today’s readers would regard it as a flimsy account of artificial and sentimental passion, the fact is that when it appeared “Astrée” was a tremendous success, rather the “Gone With the Wind” of its time. It went on to influence writers and readers for over a century, and countless imitations followed, all promoting an extravagant love of glory and panache throughout Europe. Even the church became involved in the after-effects of Honoré’s best-seller, accusing “Astrée” and its imitators of abetting licentious and pagan tendencies. A priest, one Camus de Pontcarré (literally, “Squarebridge”, an apt tag), went so far in counterattack as to write a “remedial” series of Christian pastorals to undo the damage of these pagan sexpot boilers.

Honoré’s 7th century dream world and the scullery tombstone seemed farther apart than ever, nor did his soldier-courtier life in the great d’Urfé tradition offer any clews. Probing further, I unearthed yet another d’Urfé in an account of medieval France, one Pierre, who had been Francis the First’s Master of the Royal Horse. Pierre had lived the Italian drama too, hacking away at lords and mercenaries in Milan and Ravenna, ever the king’s trusted and noble knight. But beyond Pierre’s equestrian responsibility I learned no more, being far from those medieval annals reposing within the Bibliothèque Nationale. That left me stranded somewhere between the banks of the Lignon and Dean Anne, religiously dedicated to the end in Montbrison. But what did all these d’Urfé lives signify together, and were there common threads that might one day unravel the mystery I now had come to regard as my very own?

For all my trouble, I had a small bag of “facts”: the d’Urfés were faithful servants of Francis I; the king rewarded his bravest veterans of the Italian campaigns; with France generally divided into an “aristocratic South” and “democratic North,” the king picked his provincial governors carefully for loyalty. Therefore, Claude d’Urfé, trustworthy as Pierre, Master of the Horse, would have been the king’s man in Forez. And there was the tombstone seal, testifying of Claude as a “gentleman of high nobility and outstanding merit.” In fact, he may have been all these things.

But who wrote Jeanne’s epitaph? Did Claude, bereaved, compose it or confide it to the hand of a priest-clerk? Was he more concerned with the hunt, a provincial assizes or the next Italian expedition? A hint of ingratiation spoiled the epitaph for me, equating Claude’s worth with Jeanne’s, intruding the waxy mark of church. I sensed a sycophant on the heels of death, became critical of the style that praised important chattels and soul’s renown in the same breath. It smelled of keeping money in the d’Urfé coffers, like Honoré’s marriage to Diane. And that furbelow about Jeanne’s “other great talents” may have pleased all the parish but it troubled me.

The truth was that many questions would remain unanswered. What caused her to die at the age of twenty-six years and three months, a surfeit of child-bearing or a flux in the bitter winter of 1541, when it seemed that Spring would never come? And when it did, and she was dead, what then? How did life at the Bastie go on for Claude? How did the monument to his paragon of châtelaines become displaced? (“Other chattels” probably claimed attention; for survivors they always do.) Jeanne’s mysteries would stay just that. During her life she had eased the governor’s cares with handsome children and those damnable other goods, but for all I know she may have proved a brainless, boring beauty, as may Diane de Châteaumorand. But I remain prejudiced in Jeanne’s favor, perhaps for charity, more likely because of her dulcet spirit on St. Yves morning, 1964. Gulled or not, I’d been led there, and all the rest is just conjecture. No, I believe Jeanne was lovelier, more talented than her epitaph tells, and more carnal, with that irresistible touch of evil that tombstones gloss, so that an elderly Claude d’Urfé found her more than he could manage. Having advanced the postulate of his debility, I move to an image of his anger on discovering that she’d been trifling (on the banks of the Lignon?) with that absurd troubadour, about whom nothing is recorded, his historical worth being inferior to other Renaissance objects—tower, ramp, loggia— strayed from Italy. Finally, I see an old d’Urfé, unwilling cuckold, victimized by pride, crudest of counselors, slipping a false mergler into those morilles à la crème that Jeanne loved so well. Ugliness succeeds romance, revenge spawns the bellyache, not unlike our two-starred experience, that brings Jeanne to an early grave.

And there it ends, with Claude as righteously shabby as those surviving knights atop the Bastie chapel columns. As for Jeanne, I only know that somehow, even before I’d proved the delight and perils of morels, she held my errant hand and unmistakably told me something before letting me go my way.


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