As he stepped ashore, the fetid stench of raw sewerage accosted his nostrils. Jean Baptiste Scherer had hoped to see the green fields and forests of the England he had imagined. The blood, gore and conscription of Revolutionary France in 1792 was too much for his sensibilities; a musician, he looked down at his hands and sighed. His brother, General Bartholomy Louis Scherer had offered him a commission, but after an acrimonious argument, Jean had packed up his few possessions and become one of the many bourgeoisie émigrés to flee France and the guillotine to make a new life elsewhere.
Clutching his bag, he carefully picked his way along the harbour wall stepping over rotting debris and drunken sailors sprawled along the street.
“Ooi, Mister, spare a coin,” a toothless man with tarry stump called after him. Jean drew his cloak closer and shuddered in revulsion. The poor and bloodied were everywhere, not only in France.
He decided to start out straight away; he had the name of an old Huguenot family, in Woodford, Essex, outside of London whom he hoped could help him. They had escaped religious persecution earlier in the century. He set off to find transport and soon found a hostelry.
“Bonjour monsieur,” he greeted the head groom, as he went around to the stables.
The groom, looked at him through squinted eyes and spat at him.
“No ‘oss o’ mine’ll tak ya, Jacobin.”
Jean had not expected this vehement antagonism; he turned back to the inn to make enquiries there. A sullen silence fell on the company as he entered. He approached the innkeeper, his hands sweaty as hostile eyes bored into him. He swallowed hard.
“Bonjour monsieur, I am in need of transport to Woodford, do you know anyone who will take me?”
“Out! Out, no Jacobin in my inn,” the innkeeper hissed pointing to the door. Shouting and booing followed him as he blindly stumbled back out into the street. Emotions welled up, he was tired and hungry and now he was afraid. Doubts flooded his mind, whatever had made him think England would be better than France? The English had just lost the American colonies. Winning or losing, he was an idealist and hated war. Pictures of blood flowing in the streets, the smell of death, pillaging soldiers and hunger all floated through his mind.
He straightened his shoulders, gritted his teeth, checked his money bag and set off on the road to London. He walked alone trying to blend in with other travellers and as long as he did not open his mouth, no one could guess he was French, only occasionally would he ask for directions.
By night fall Jean was tired, hungry and thirsty and he wondered where he would sleep. He stopped alongside a stream to rest and drink some water. He nibbled on a stale crust he found in his pouch. Fear of being robbed and the hostility of locals made him reluctant to ask for accommodation.
Wearily he dragged himself along until he came to the edge of a forest. He decided to shelter amongst the trees. A fallen tree offered a bit of protection so he lay down and pulled his cloak tightly around him and drifted into a fitful sleep. He was woken early in the morning with dogs barking over him.
“What have we here?” rasped a rough voice. Jean stared in the eyes of a mongrel dog and two wild looking men with dead rabbits and pikes in their hands.
“Bonjour,” Jean immediately regretted opening his mouth and letting the men know he was French.
“Ah, French infection?” The man’s lips twisted in a horrible grin.
“Ere ‘and over your money,” the heavy accent of his companion threatened. They made a grab at Jean’s pouch, he had expected this and with stupendous effort and adrenaline rush, leapt over the tree trunk. He fled back along the track he had been following to London with the dog snapping at his heels. The men laughed and called the dog off, not before it had ripped his cloak.
Nauseous from hunger and shaking from his narrow escape he trudged another day along the road, keeping himself to himself. Jean drank from streams and foraged along the way to keep his hunger at bay.
After another night in the open sleeping under a hedge, Jean struggled to his feet. His bones ached, he felt feverish and unwell as he set off.
The church tower of Woodford came into view at nightfall. Jean dragged himself towards it, his eyes blurred, his throat burnt and he felt delirious. He just made it to the door of St Mary’s and collapsed unable to lift his head.
“Get up and move on,” the verger said roughly, as he came out to lock up and saw Jean lying at the bottom of the stairs like a bundle of rags. He kicked him to underline his words, Jean moaned. The verger inspected him more closely and saw he was ill and called the vicar, Rev Shephard.
“What is your name?” asked the vicar standing over him.
“Jean, Monsieur,” he croaked. Rev Shephard battled waves of emotion and indecision. His human nature wanted to leave the ’French infection’ to die on the steps of the church, but his conscience and Christian duty said he should help the man; compassion won the day and they helped Jean to his feet and half carried him to the vicar’s house at the back of the church.
He was dragged into a low beamed room with a large fireplace. A fire flickered in the hearth, a table and chairs stood at one end, the rest of the room was in dark shadow. The vicar’s servant girl took his sodden clothes and hung them by the fire to dry and found a homespun blanket with which to cover himself and offered him a bowl of broth. Jean felt life seep back into his body. The girl made a rough pallet out of hay at the back of the kitchen where he could lie down, then left him to sleep in peace.
Sounds of scuffling and banging woke Jean from his fitful sleep, it was still dark but a candle stood on the kitchen table. The servant girl bent over to light the fire to heat water in copper kettles over the glowing coals. She began kneading dough and making gruel. She set the small loaves by the fire to rise. He was afraid to open his mouth in case he frightened the girl, but watched her as she worked.
She poured hot water into a basin and brought it to him with a rough piece of linen, she indicated a small alcove near the back door where he could get washed and dressed. She also brought him his clothes which had dried out overnight.
“Merci, Mademoiselle,” Jean said struggling to his feet. He still felt weak and unwell, but managed to get over to the alcove and clean himself up which made him feel a bit better. When he was finished the girl indicated he must sit at the table, she set a bowl of gruel before him. Jean smiled at her grateful for this kindness, but she merely shrugged and turned back to her duties. The vicar entered the room for his breakfast, the girl shooed Jean back to the pallet, so the vicar could sit alone.
“Good morning, Mr Jean,” said the Rev Shephard as he sat down to eat his breakfast. “I hope you are rested now. Tell me about yourself and why are you here?”
“Bonjour Monsieur, thank you for your hospitality, you have saved my life. I have travelled many miles from Lyons. I am looking for peace and a better life I am tired of war and the killing, but I see life is difficult in England too.”
“So you are an émigré?” said the vicar. “What can you do here to make a better life? War is expensive, England is nearly bankrupt and food is scarce. How can you improve it?”
Jean pointed to the church, signifying he wanted to go into the church. Doubtfully the vicar opened the door. Jean slowly made his way up to the organ loft and indicated the vicar should work the bellows. Jean sat down and played a few bars of music he had composed. The vicar’s eyebrows shot up, he stopped and looked closely at Jean and saw under his haggardness and uncombed hair he was a fine looking man.
“I am a musician,” said Jean. “I am looking for Rev Sydney Smith, his wife’s family were Huguenots and they might be able to help me. I have an address here in Woodford.” He handed a scrap of paper to the vicar.
“Rev Smith has moved, but perhaps I can arrange something for you,” he said slowly. They went back to the house and Jean lay back on his pallet and rested while the vicar went about his duties in the parish, the kitchen girl ignored him, but gave him water to drink and a slice of bread to eat which was the least she could do.
That evening, the vicar returned with a tall dark haired man and introduced him as Richard Noble.
“This is Jean, the émigré I told you about”. Mr Noble looked Jean over assessing him as he would a piece of furniture.
“Yes,” he said brusquely, “I will take him in.” He nodded to the vicar and intimated to Jean to pick up his things and follow him.
“Merci,” he said to the vicar and took a coin out of his pouch and pushed it into the vicar’s hand. Rev Shephard looked at it in surprise, but merely nodded a thank you as Jean followed Mr Noble out of the door.
Jean stepped into a well-kept kitchen, where a thickset older woman stirred a pot on the fire and a raven-haired young woman was shelling peas.
“Mary, this is Jean,” he said to the older woman and turning to Jean “My wife, Mary, and my daughter Sophie.” Mary looked up and smiled and Sophie peeped shyly through her lashes at him. Richard took Jean up a flight of stairs at the back of the house and showed him into a small room. It looked like some sort of workroom with bits of half-finished furniture, he was told to put his things in there. Downstairs in the back yard Richard showed him a water trough where he could wash, then told him to come into the kitchen.
Jean made himself presentable and although he still felt unwell, he could feel his strength coming back and hope fluttered in his heart. He entered the kitchen as the meal was being served and he sat down at the place indicated.
Mary Noble was able to speak a little French; she was Rev Sydney Smith’s sister-in-law from Huguenot descent and was able to interpret as Jean told his story.
“My brother, one of the Generals of the Revolution, offered me a commission to fight in the Armie de Italie, but I am an artist, a musician, not a soldier. My father, a surgeon, was disappointed and my brother angry with me but I must be true to myself, therefore I had to emigrate or be killed.”
Richard’s eyes lit up when he heard this, here was a good connection. His wood and carpentry business supplied the navy with wood and workers for their shipyard. Shipbuilders were in great demand as British ships of the line limped home after battle needing repairs or replacement. This gave him a constant supply of work. He had made his money out of war.
Richard turned to Jean and said, “We will help you, but you must speak English, you must become an Englishman to be accepted in this community.” Jean pressed his lips together and sighed, his French heart rebelled, but he saw the necessity of this after the treatment he had received from the locals.
Over the next months with Mary and Sophie’s help, Jean learned to speak English with just a slight French accent. He now called himself Joseph Cherer and once he had regained his health he was able to help out in the workshop with the finer details of finishing off and polishing furniture and fittings. Joseph played the organ at St Mary’s and so he took his place in the community.
Richard’s business grew as carpenters were in great demand building prisons as the war escalated. He received orders from London for his fine furniture so he took on more carpenters. He decided to open an office in London and suggested that Joseph move to Covent Garden to facilitate the receipt and dispatch of orders. This suited Joseph as he could start to live independently. He became a member of a Gentleman’s club where he made contacts and could read the latest news on the war with France. Everyone was grumbling about the heavy taxation being levied to pay for the war and as an alien, Joseph was taxed even more. The country was a melting pot with tensions between loyalists, reformers, politicians and the émigrés as well as an angry groundswell from the starving poor.
Joseph arranged a meeting with Richard.
“When the Aliens Act is made law in March 1793 this will increase the taxes that I will have to pay for the agency and it will make business more difficult for me as I will have no rights and cannot hold any office or vote.”
“Mary and I have discussed this, and we have decided on a plan that would secure the business in London in our name and give a position to Sophie. We propose that you marry Sophie,” Richard said.
Joseph drew in his breath and blinked back a tear.
“I could never have dreamed of a better solution, Sophie is a beautiful young girl. I am already fond of her, I promise I shall be a good husband and take care of her,” he said softly, breathing out slowly. The wedding was arranged in London in January 1793 at St Pauls in Covent Garden just months before the Aliens Act became law. Sophie the lovely young bride, gave herself fully to Joseph; she had secretly adored him and was determined to be an ideal wife.
After listening to the heated discussions over the war and politics at the Gentleman’s club and seeing people poring over newspapers to find out news of their families in war dispatches Joseph announced to Sophie one day.
“People are hungry for news of their families; we could open a postal agency to help people communicate directly with their families by post. It would also help me to find out what is going on in France with my family there.”
Joseph and Sophie settled down to a comfortable life in their rented property in Kensington. Joseph ran the postal agency as well as Mr Noble’s agency business. Sophie showed off her father’s furniture in their home showroom and entertained his clients, she also delivered food parcels to the poor. In due course little Charles was born, a sickly child who only lived a few months. The grieving parents were comforted by the arrival of a daughter the following year. Joseph was overwhelmed with longing for his homeland and family as he watched Mary cooing over the baby. Sophie’s parents were wonderful but he still felt like an outsider no matter how well he spoke English and acted like an Englishman. They named the baby Marianne after the icon of France, an allegory of liberty and reason. This helped Joseph keep his roots within the family, this dear little daughter whose blue eyes reminded him so much of his beloved mother whom he had not seen in many years.
News came in 1804 that his brother, the General was ill and had retired to his Chateau near Chauny and was asking to see him. With trepidation he travelled to France with the seven year old Marianne so she could meet her uncle, aunt and cousins Charles and Henriette. That first evening, Joseph put his head in his hands, his heart pained, his own flesh and blood especially his brother’s family made him feel like a traitor that had prostituted his French soul to become English.
The General gave Joseph his compass and said, “Jean, find your way but don’t ever forget you are French.” It was not many days before he closed his eyes for the last time. Joseph bent over his brother, with tears in his eyes he whispered goodbye and left a splinter of his soul in the graveyard in Chauny.
“Marianne, you must never forget your French origins, history has intervened. We are aliens in an alien land and culture and have to make the best of it.” On their journey back to London Joseph explained why he had left France and came to England and why he had called her Marianne.
The coach turned into their street in London. Sophie stood on the doorstep with her arms wide open to welcome them home, her smile radiated her love for him. Joseph took her in his arms, smelt the sweet perfume of her dark locks and the warmth of her body, at that moment he knew this was what he had been looking for, love and kindness for, not whether he was French or English but a place his heart could call home in this cruel world.
He pulled the compass from his pouch and gave it to Marianne. One day she must marry an Englishman and leave England so they could be free to pioneer a new family culture and identity for themselves in one of the colonies. Somewhere in the new world freedom from war waited.
An alien no longer Joseph knew his heart had come home.