In the spectrum of booksellers in Marseille, Caldesaigues and Mossy occupied opposite extremes. Whereas Mossy epitomized the solid, upmarket sector of the trade, Caldesaigues started from nothing, built a small business, gambled recklessly, and lost everything. Although his dossier is relatively thin, it can be supplemented by enough material from other sources to illustrate the precarious character of life at the bottom of the retail trade.
Caldesaigues did not even appear among the booksellers listed in the trade almanac (Almanach de l’auteur et du libraire) of 1777, when he began to correspond with the STN. Having received a copy of its catalogue, he asked it to send a small assortment of books. Then, at the end of his letter, he indicated the kind of literature that interested him the most: “J’aurais besoin de livres philosophiques. Je ne sais si vous pourriez me les procurer.” If the STN could fill his order, he wanted the following:
Histoire de dom B….., portier des Chartreux……………..25 copies
La Pucelle d’Orléans………………………………………10
La Fille de joie……………………………………………..10
La Putain errante…………………………………………...10
Le Gazetier cuirassé………………………………………..10
Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry………………...10
Vénus dans le cloître……………………………………….10
Margot la ravaudeuse………………………………………10
L’An 2440…………………………………………………. 4
Mémoires de l’abbé Terray………………………………... 6
Traité des trois imposteurs………………………………… 6
La Nouvelle Académie des dames………………………… 6
Those titles—all of them standard, hard-core forbidden books—seemed destined for the stock of a business built around the illegal trade. Unlike Mossy, who used “livres philosophiques” as a kind of spice sprinkled lightly through his orders, Caldesaigues treated them as a main dish. He ordered other kinds of literature, too: story books for children, light novels, the popular judicial memoirs of Beaumarchais, even political theory by standard authors like Pufendorf, Burlamaqui, Vattel, and Mably. But he never drew a large supply from the STN, because it began to harbor doubts about his solidity soon after it sent its first shipment.
The shipment arrived on May 14, 1777 after nearly four months of fighting snags in the underground route through the Franche-Comté and the Rhône Valley. First it got stuck in Pontarlier—owing to the incompetence of the STN’s shipping agent rather than difficulties at the border—and then it was stalled in Lyon. Claudet, the Lyonnais agent of the STN, had great difficulty getting it past the inspector of the chambre syndicale, who was going through a distressingly rigorous phase in the performance of his duties. Claudet found it necessary to scramble the sheets in order to disguise the contents of the bale and to wait several weeks before finding the right moment to slip it past inspection. When he sent his bill to Caldesaigues—six livres per hundredweight in “assurance”—he thought he had earned every penny of it. But Caldesaigues complained bitterly to the STN. The smuggling service in Lyon was dreadful, he wrote—too sloppy, too slow, and too expensive. But he was delighted with the books themselves. He wanted more of them, and he had nothing but praise for the STN: “Vos lettres sont si obligeantes à mon égard qu’en vérité il serait à souhaiter qu’il n’y eût que vous autres chefs de la librairie.”
To an experienced ear, that might have sounded suspiciously ingratiating, especially as Caldesaigues failed to send the customary promissory note (“billet à ordre” or “lettre de change”) upon receipt of the goods. But he had an excuse. Booksellers often delayed payment until they had “verified” the state of a shipment by collating sheets. That job would take time, Caldesaigues explained, owing to the disorder in the bale. Couldn’t the STN accept two years instead of one as the maturation date of his note? The STN turned this request down flat. A solid bookseller might bargain for an extended period of payment before making a purchase, but he would not try to change the terms afterward. Caldesaigues seemed to accept the refusal with equanimity. His reply suggested that he fully appreciated the importance of sound finances. For that reason he was doing everything possible to avoid straining his credit, he reassured the STN, and therefore he would cancel an order that he was about to mail to Neuchâtel. As to the promissory note, he would dispatch it as soon as he received the books back from the binder, who had taken over the collating job. On September 1, four months after the arrival of the shipment, Caldesaigues finally sent a note for 468 livres and declared his account clear.
But would he honor the note when it became due? That question began to look urgent, because while Caldesaigues was sending reassurances from Marseille, Claudet was issuing warnings from Lyon. The most worrisome message came from one of Claudet’s contacts in Marseille, who described Caldesaigues as “une planche pourrie à laquelle nous ne conseillerons à personne de se fier” [Claudet to STN, April 4, 1777].
Claudet knew how to assess danger signals. As a seasoned smuggler, he dealt regularly with marginal booksellers who left publishers holding unredeemed notes for considerable sums. The STN extended credit too lightly, he warned, and to drive the point home, he transcribed a second letter from his friend in Marseille. It provided a full character sketch of Caldesaigues, which is worth quoting at length:
M. Caldesaigues a [sic] resté commis chez M. Jayne libraire pendant quatre à cinq ans. Il y trancha toujours du marquis, se faisant des amis par ses petites générosités et se trouvant de toutes les parties de plaisir. M. Jayne ne lui connaissant pas du bien de chez lui, le veilla de près et ne se fit pas de scrupule de lui dire qu’il lui était infidèle….Il s’est contenté de le mettre à la porte. Dès lors M. Caldesaigues prit la résolution de s’établir, et se fut ainsi là l’époque où il eut recours à la bourse de tous ses amis, chez les uns pour six louis, chez les autres pour quatre ou enfin pour ce qu’il pouvait en tirer. Nous nous laissâmes prendre pour 450 livres…dont avec toutes les peines possibles nous n’avons pu être payés qu’à la mi-février, c’est-à-dire quelques jours après son mariage avec une fille de tourneur dont la dot [de] 6,000 livres est déjà bien écornée. Le beau-père, sans être opulent, est fort commode, mais dans un besoin il ne l’aiderait pas. Il l’a juré, parce que ce mariage s’est fait contre son gré. Il résulte de ce que dessus que nous ne lui ferions pas crédit de six livres. [Claudet to STN, June 27, 1777]
By the end of the year, the STN knew what kind of customer it had on its hands. It stopped shipping books and concentrated on collecting bills, for it had received nothing but promises and promissory notes, all unredeemed. When Favarger arrived in Marseille in August 1778, he did everything possible to convert the notes to cash. They had matured long ago, but Caldesaigues found all kinds of pretexts to avoid payment and even to be absent from his shop whenever Favarger called. Tired of sparring with “le menteur le plus avéré” in all Marseille, Favarger finally enlisted an attorney and a local bill collector. Even then, he extracted only a down payment of 150 livres, and he had to leave town with yet another promissory note, this one for 400 livres, hanging in suspense. After venting his frustrations in his journal, he concluded, “C’est un véritable coquin que ce Caldesaigues à qui il ne faut plus rien avoir à faire.”
The STN never collected the 400 livres. In February 1779, it learned that Caldesaigues had disappeared, leaving behind his wife and a mountain of debt. A letter from one of his friends arrived in July with the beginning of an explanation: Caldesaigues had run off to Cadix, but now he wanted to return and resume his business. If his creditors would write off 85 percent of his debts, he would work hard to pay back the rest. He was young, industrious, and eager to start over again if given half a chance. [See De Veer, Bugnot et Cie. to STN, February 19, 1779; Claudet to STN, March 5, 1779; and Isoard to STN, July 15, 1779.]
Caldesaigues himself took up this theme in a letter to the STN written from an unnamed hiding place in November. He had panicked, he explained, as he watched his debts mount up. A loss of a 10,000 livre speculation made debtor’s prison look like an inevitable fate. Therefore, he decided to flee, taking two suits, twelve shirts, and four crates of books, which he planned to sell in Cadix. He had hoped his wife could continue the business, because he had left behind a storehouse with 19,000 livres’ worth of books, and he thought their creditors might write off half the accumulated debts. But upon his arrival in Cadix, he had received a letter from a friend saying that his wife had gone back to her father, who had had all their property seized in order to save what was left of her dowry. If Caldesaigues wanted to prevent all the goods from being auctioned off, he had better return by the first boat. He did so, but when he arrived the sale had taken place, and his father-in-law accused him of absconding with three-quarters of the estate. He could not dispute that accusation in the courts, “attendu que je n’ai point ma liberté.” But he could start all over again with the remnants of his old business. He asked only for some help in his distress—that is, the sacrifice of 85 percent of the STN’s debt. He knew it had received some unflattering reports about him, but they must be exaggerated: “C’est moins la dissipation et le libertinage qui ont causé mes malheurs que l’ambition….Je suis jeune; je travaillerai pour payer tous mes créanciers et me réhabiliter un jour, sans quoi vous me forcez à m’expatrier et aller mourir aux Isles. »
This appeal might have come straight from the heart, but Caldesaigues was careful not to attach a return address to it. He did not want to risk arrest for unpaid debts and a fraudulent bankruptcy. Therefore, he left the STN to subscribe to the proposed repayment plan through a friend of his named Isoard, who meanwhile had sent several letters testifying to Caldesaigues’s sincerity and to the fact that most of the other creditors had agreed to settle for the fifteen percent. After all, it was better than nothing. Caldesaigues returned to this theme in another letter, written two months later. Although he already had collected many agreements to his proposal, he claimed, he would offer the STN twenty-five percent “dans le plus grand secret.”
Debtors with their back to the wall sometimes struck a secret bargain with some creditors in order to get signatures on a refunding proposal that would win the agreement of others, who received less favorable terms. But the STN knew better than to be taken in by that maneuver. It had asked a merchant in Marseille to investigate, and he reported that Isoard could not produce a single signature on the proposed settlement. Caldesaigues’s plan therefore looked like “un nouveau moyen d’attraper ses créanciers, toute sa conduite jusqu’ici n’ayant que trop prouvé son peu d’honnêteté [De Veer, Bugnot et Cie. To STN, December 22, 1779].
This information did not make the STN inclined to give a favorable reception to Caldesaigues’s final letter, which arrived in January 1780. He needed an answer desperately, he wrote. He could hold out no longer. A yes or a no from the STN would determine his fate, because if he failed to win enough support from his creditors, he would have to flee, whatever the damage to his honor. “Je préfère ma liberté à tous les honneurs du monde, car si je fais ce pas-là j’aurai à dire que ce sont des créanciers acharnés contre moi qui m’y ont forcé. » The STN did not write back and never heard from him again.