My name is Étienne Bertin, but I have always been called “Tiennon”. It was on a farm in the town of Agonges, very close to Bourbon-l’Archambault, that I was born in January 1823. My father was a sharecropper on this farm in the community with his elder brother, my uncle Antoine, known as “Toinot”. My father’s name was Gilbert and they called him “Bérot”, because it was the custom at that time to distort all names.
The two brothers did not get along very well. Uncle Toinot, a soldier under Napoleon, had campaigned in Russia and returned with frozen feet and pain all over his body. Sensitive to temperature changes despite the years that had passed, he often stopped working for several days. Moreover, even in good health, he preferred to go to fairs, or to carry the plowshares to the marshal, or to walk in the fields, his “gouyard” on the shoulder, under the color of repairing the breaches of the hedges, than to get down to business. His stay in the army, deporting him from work, had given him a taste for loitering and spending. With his glass of brandy when he wakes up, his clay pipe still lit, his inn fees,
If I tell these things, it is not that I had the knowledge to be able to appreciate them for myself, but I heard them very often brought back to us.
Decided to break up, my father took in sharecropping at Meillers, on the edge of the Gros-Bois forest, an area called Garibier — managed by a Bourbon farmer, M. Fauconnet.
At the time of the move, there were painful discussions about sharing tools, furniture, linens and household utensils. My grandmother coming with us, it made things even more complicated. My aunt argued over her right to take this or that, snatched sheets and tea towels from her hands. My father, of a very calm character, tried to avoid arguments. Mum, on the contrary, impetuous and lively, supported my grandmother constantly struggling with others. It scared me to see them screaming so loudly and raising their fists threateningly — as if about to strike themselves…
On Saint-Martin’s Day, I was hoisted for the trip to the top of a chariot drawn by two large dark red oxen, of the Salers or Mauriac breed, between a cage for drying the cheeses, for the moment furnished with chickens, and a wicker basket where crockery was piled up. The paths everywhere were bumpy and muddy, very bad. Scraps of sticky earth stuck to the wheels, which, rising a little in the spinning motion, fell to the ground with a dull noise.
As I crossed Bourbon, I opened my eyes wide to see the beautiful houses of the city, the tall gray towers of the old castle. And I took an interest in the work of a team of workers working on the graveling of the main road of Moulins which was in the process of being built. It was not without fatigue. Still, after a while, when our procession had returned to the countryside, I fell asleep without being noticed, leaning against the chicken coop and rocked by the continual rolling of the car. Only a too sudden jolt made overturn the cage which tumbled to the ground where, of course, I followed it quickly… The chickens started to squeal and I to cry. I had no pain — the patrol, soft, soft carpet, having cushioned my fall. But I took a long time to console, it seems, because of the surprise of this unpleasant awakening. And it got me to walk the rest of the way, minus a little session astride my brother Baptiste, who was my godfather.
On arrival, my mother made me lie down in a corner of the oven, on a pile of clothes, and in a new sleep, very peaceful this time, I found the real remedy for the emotions of the road.
A long time later, my sister Catherine came to fetch me to bring me into the large room. The furniture was all in place along the walls, and the clock struck twelve midnight. The neighboring herdsmen who had moved us, sat down there, conversing loudly, laughing and singing. My father offered them drinks insistently; the glasses, shocked loudly, clinked; there was wine spilled which soiled the whiteness of the tablecloth with red …
They served me to eat some leftover meat, some pancakes and brioche; then an unknown old man made me gallop on his knees: —so I shared in the general joy.
But the next day, I heard my mother say to my father, in a sorry tone, that it was very expensive to do Saint-Martin. And pressed him:
“I think so… Fortunately, it’s not something we do often.
My mother concludes:
-We would quickly be exhausted, if we had to start over often …
I was approaching five years old: these few episodes of the move are linked to my oldest memories.
Our farm had on the edge of the wood a whole virgin area still excavated in the araire where heathers, broom, brambles and ferns grew in profusion, and where large gray stones protruded from the ground in places. This part of the estate, called la Breure , was used as pasture for the sheep almost all year round. My sister Catherine was the shepherdess and I accompanied her very often. Also, Breure was soon familiar to me. We met all kinds of animals there; birds swarmed there like reptiles, and forest animals sometimes made appearances. So one day I saw a whole family of big black pigs galloping across the bottom of our pasture: – wild boars, according to my sister. Another time, it was a couple of deer busy grazing on the little green branches of the mouth, as our goats did; I ran in their direction and they scampered off.
 This term — a local twist of the word “heather” —applied to most wasteland.
The forest was also home to wolves. One of our lambs, towards the end of winter, disappeared without a trace. Catherine, alone that day, had noticed nothing. Rightly or wrongly, a wolf was accused of this mysterious kidnapping. My sister no longer wanted to go to La Breure alone because she was afraid at the idea of seeing the bad beast reappear. I was therefore constantly with her, and I must say that we were not more reassured than the other … However we did not have the opportunity to make the difference between a wolf in flesh and blood and the monster we imagined …
Rabbits were much less rare: we saw several scampering off every day. Often our dog Medor would go in pursuit of them and he sometimes seized one. But he did not dare to show it to us; he hid himself behind the mouth of a neighboring field, or in the mystery of the woods to feast on it without risk of being disturbed; then he came back sheepishly to find us, with hair and blood in his gray goatee; he lowered his head and wagged his tail, appearing to ask forgiveness.
Quite excusable, to tell the truth, the poor doggie, for being voracious when chance provided him with extra food. Now dogs are treated like people; we give them good soup and good bread. But at that time they were only allowed to splash around in the trough containing the pork mash — a mash that was still not very rich in flour. As a supplement, a supply of those acre little apples produced by wildlings of hedges and which are here called creeds were dried in the oven for them .
They were also considered capable of making a living from their hunting. When Medor, on his return from the fields, seemed hungry, when, at mealtime, he prowled around the table begging for scabs, my father would question Catherine:
– So Ol didn’t miss it?
“So he didn’t hunt rats?”
And on my sister’s negative answer:
– Dedicated a lazy: if ol had avoided being hungry, ol would have missed out… (He’s a lazy person: if he had been hungry, he would have missed it.)
And he continued:
– Finally don’t believe it.
Catherine, in the oven room adjoining the house, pulled one or two of these curled up little apples out of an old dusty lump and offered them to poor Médor, who was going to shred them in the courtyard, on the rush plants. where he used to sleep. At this rate, he was lanky and rough-haired, one might believe; it would have been easy to count all the ribs for him.
Our food was hardly more famous, indeed. We ate raw ground rye bread, sooty and gritty bread as if it contained a good dose of coarse river sand; it was considered more nourishing with all the bark …
The flour from the few measures of wheat that was ground was also reserved for the pastries, tourtons and pancakes that were cooked with the bread. However, we usually kneaded with this flour a ribate of pleasant smell — white crumb and golden crust — reserved for the soup of my little sister Marinette, and for my grandmother on the days when her stomach ailment made her. suffer too much. Sometimes my mother would cut me a little piece that I devoured with as much pleasure as I could have made the best cakes. A very rare treat, moreover, —for the poor woman showed herself stingy with her good loaf of wheat!
Soup was our main sustenance: onion soup in the morning and in the evening, and, in the day, potato, bean or pumpkin soup, with as big as nothing butter. With that, indigestible and pasty donuts from which the teeth were difficult to pull out, potatoes under the ashes and beans boiled in water, barely blanched with a little milk. We feasted on the baking days because of the tourton and the galette; but these appetizers did not last long. As for the bacon, it was reserved for the summer season, for special occasions… Ah! there was hardly any good stuff!