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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 6 page 15


The fraud lasted until autumn of 1862 when a money broker named John Healey passed some of the overdue notes to third parties, at which point the putative guarantors learned that their names had been forged.

Octave Crémazie took the ferry across the gray St. Lawrence to the Grand Trunk station in Lévis. He went probably to Montreal and thence to New York City. Next anyone knew, he was in Paris.

That was the natural place for him to disappear himself. He took a new name, Jules Fontaine, living in furnished mansards four or five floors up, his typical neighbors being clerks and tradesmen. He dropped poetry — out of self-contempt, it looks like. Even today some critics maintain the kid-glove tradition of calling Crémazie’s refuge in France an exile, as if he were the offended party, but clearly he was a fugitive.

The worst winter

By December of the siege, Crémazie was freezing. Given the sky-high cost of firewood, he could no longer heat his room. It was one of the most excruciatingly cold winters on record. Crémazie’s strategy was to stay under the bedcovers as much as possible. He also dropped in at the Collège de France and the Sorbonne, when classes were on, to hear courses in math, mechanics, Sanskrit, Chinese — anything, as long as the room was warm. He lingered till late at night in cafés, which seem to have been a real bargain: “For eight sous,” he said, you get “heat, light, a cup of excellent coffee, without counting the newspapers available there.”

On the whole, however, commerce was at a standstill. Many shops had closed down. According to Crémazie, the streets were filled with beggars and cripples. There were lots of drunkards, since wine was one commodity in plentiful supply. Food vendors, for their part, showed a certain inventiveness: lacking milk, eggs, and butter, they produced crêpes consisting of oil and horse grease. The smell was horrible, Crémazie said, and he refused to even taste the things.

December 16 was a bad-news day for the horses:

Today the government requisitioned all horses, donkeys and mules. This drastic measure assures us of 30,000 horses, which will give us meat up to February 15…. In a few days the omnibuses and cabs will cease to circulate. Horses for hire, horses of the rich, all will be eaten.

Then things got worse.