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Title: In and out of Three Normandy Inns
Author: Dodd, Anna Bowman, 1855-1929
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "In and out of Three Normandy Inns" ***

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IN AND OUT OF THREE NORMANDY INNS

BY

ANNA BOWMAN DODD



[Illustration: GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT-DIVES]


TO EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN.

_My Dear Mr. Stedman:

To this little company of Norman men and women, you will, I know,
extend a kindly greeting, if only because of their nationality. To your
courtesy, possibly, you will add the leaven of interest, when you
perceive--as you must--that their qualities are all their own, their
defects being due solely to my own imperfect presentment.

With sincere esteem_,

ANNA BOWMAN DODD.

_New York_.



CONTENTS.


VILLERVILLE.

I.      A LANDING ON THE COAST OF FRANCE II.     A SPRING DRIVE III.
FROM AN INN WINDOW IV.     OUT ON A MUSSEL-BED V.      THE VILLAGE VI.
A PAGAN COBBLER VII.    SOME NORMAN LANDLADIES VIII.   THE QUARTIER
LATIN ON THE BEACH IX.     A NORMAN HOUSEHOLD X.      ERNESTINE

ALONG AN OLD POST-ROAD.

XI.     TO AN OLD MANOIR XII.    A NORMAN CURE XIII.   HONFLEUR--NEW
AND OLD

DIVES.

XIV.    A COAST DRIVE XV.     GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT XVI.    THE GREEN
BENCH XVII.   THE WORLD THAT CAME TO DIVES XVIII.  THE CONVERSATION OF
PATRIOTS XIX.    IN LA CHAMBRE DES MARMOUSETS

TWO BANQUETS AT DIVES.

XX.     A SEVENTEENTH CENTURY REVIVAL XXI.    THE AFTER-DINNER TALK OF
THREE GREAT LADIES XXII.   A NINETEENTH CENTURY BREAKFAST

A LITTLE JOURNEY ALONG THE COAST.

XXIII.  A NIGHT IN A CAEN ATTIC XXIV.   A DAY AT BAYEUX AND ST. LO XXV.
A DINNER AT COUTANCES XXVI.   A SCENE IN A NORMAN COURT XXVII.  THE
FETE-DIEU--A JUNE CHRISTMAS XXVIII. BY LAND TO MONT ST. MICHEL

MONT ST. MICHEL.

XXIX.   BY SEA TO THE POULARD INN XXX.    THE PILGRIMS AND THE
SHRINE--AN HISTORICAL OMELETTE



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT--DIVES A VILLAGE STREET--VILLERVILLE ON THE
BEACH--VILLERVILLE A SALE OF MUSSELS--VILLERVILLE A VILLERVILLE
FISH-WIFE A DEPARTURE--VILLERVILLE THE INN AT
DIVES--GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLE--DIVES CHAMBRE DES
MARMOUSETS--DIVES MADAME DE SÉVIGNÉ CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLE--DIVES
CHATEAU FONTAINE LE HENRI, NEAR CAEN AN EXCITING MOMENT--A COUTANCES
INTERIOR A STREET IN COUTANCES--EGLISE SAINT-PIERRE MONT SAINT MICHEL
MONT SAINT MICHEL SNAIL-GATHERERS



VILLERVILLE.

AN INN BY THE SEA.



CHAPTER I.

A LANDING ON THE COAST OF FRANCE.


Narrow streets with sinuous curves; dwarfed houses with minute shops
protruding on inch-wide sidewalks; a tiny casino perched like a
bird-cage on a tiny scaffolding; bath-houses dumped on the beach;
fishing-smacks drawn up along the shore like so many Greek galleys;
and, fringing the cliffs--the encroachment of the nineteenth century--a
row of fantastic sea-side villas.

This was Villerville.

Over an arch of roses; across a broad line of olives, hawthorns,
laburnums, and syringas, straight out to sea--

This was the view from our windows.

Our inn was bounded by the sea on one side, and on the other by a
narrow village street. The distance between good and evil has been
known to be quite as short as that which lay between these two
thoroughfares. It was only a matter of a strip of land, an edge of
cliff, and a shed of a house bearing the proud title of Hôtel-sur-Mer.

Two nights before, our arrival had made quite a stir in the village
streets. The inn had given us a characteristic French welcome; its eye
had measured us before it had extended its hand. Before reaching the
inn and the village, however, we had already tasted of the flavor of a
genuine Norman welcome. Our experience in adventure had begun on the
Havre quays.

Our expedition could hardly be looked upon as perilous; yet it was one
that, from the first, evidently appealed to the French imagination;
half Havre was hanging over the stone wharves to see us start.

"_Dame_, only English women are up to that!"--for all the world is
English, in French eyes, when an adventurous folly is to be committed.

This was one view of our temerity; it was the comment of age and
experience of the world, of the cap with the short pipe in her mouth,
over which curved, downward, a bulbous, fiery-hued nose that met the
pipe.

"_C'est beau, tout de même_, when one is young--and rich." This was a
generous partisan, a girl with a miniature copy of her own round
face--a copy that was tied up in a shawl, very snug; it was a bundle
that could not possibly be in any one's way, even on a somewhat
prolonged tour of observation of Havre's shipping interests.

"And the blonde one--what do you think of her, _hein_?"

This was the blouse's query. The tassel of the cotton night-cap nodded,
interrogatively, toward the object on which the twinkling ex-mariner's
eye had fixed itself--on Charm's slender figure, and on the yellow
half-moon of hair framing her face. There was but one verdict
concerning the blonde beauty; she was a creature made to be stared at.
The staring was suspended only when the bargaining went on; for Havre,
clearly, was a sailor and merchant first; its knowledge of a woman's
good points was rated merely as its second-best talent.

Meanwhile, our bargaining for the sailboat was being conducted on the
principles peculiar to French traffic; it had all at once assumed the
aspect of dramatic complication. It had only been necessary for us to
stop on our lounging stroll along the stone wharves, diverting our gaze
for a moment from the grotesque assortment of old houses that, before
now, had looked down on so many naval engagements, and innocently to
ask a brief question of a nautical gentleman, picturesquely attired in
a blue shirt and a scarlet beret, for the quays immediately to swarm
with jerseys and red caps. Each beret was the owner of a boat; and each
jersey had a voice louder than his brother's. Presently the battle of
tongues was drowning all other sounds.

In point of fact, there were no other sounds to drown. All other
business along the quays was being temporarily suspended; the most
thrilling event of the day was centring in us and our treaty. Until
this bargain was closed, other matters could wait. For a Frenchman has
the true instinct of the dramatist; business he rightly considers as
only an _entr'acte_ in life; the serious thing is the _scene de
theatre_, wherever it takes place. Therefore it was that the black,
shaky-looking houses, leaning over the quays, were now populous with
frowsy heads and cotton nightcaps. The captains from the adjacent
sloops and tug-boats formed an outer circle about the closer ring made
by the competitors for our favors, while the loungers along the
parapets, and the owners of top seats on the shining quay steps, may be
said to have been in possession of orchestra stalls from the first
rising of the curtain.

A baker's boy and two fish-wives, trundling their carts, stopped to
witness the last act of the play. Even the dogs beneath the carts, as
they sank, panting, to the ground, followed, with red-rimmed eyes, the
closing scenes of the little drama.

"_Allons_, let us end this," cried a piratical-looking captain, in a
loud, masterful voice. And he named a price lower than the others had
bid. He would take us across--yes, us and our luggage, and land
us--yes, at Villerville, for that.

The baker's boy gave a long, slow whistle, with relish.

"_Dame!_" he ejaculated, between his teeth, as he turned away.

The rival captains at first had drawn back; they had looked at their
comrade darkly, beneath their berets, as they might at a deserter with
whom they meant to deal--later on. But at his last words they smiled a
smile of grim humor. Beneath the beards a whisper grew; whatever its
import, it had the power to move all the hard mouths to laughter. As
they also turned away, their shrugging shoulders and the scorn in their
light laughter seemed to hand us over to our fate.

In the teeth of this smile, our captain had swung his boat round and we
were stepping into her.

"_Au revoir--au revoir et à bientôt!_"

The group that was left to hang over the parapets and to wave us its
farewell, was a thin one. Only the professional loungers took part in
this last act of courtesy. There was a cluster of caps, dazzlingly
white against the blue of the sky; a collection of highly decorated
noses and of old hands ribboned with wrinkles, to nod and bob and wave
down the cracked-voiced "_bonjours_." But the audience that had
gathered to witness the closing of the bargain had melted away with the
moment of its conclusion. Long ere this moment of our embarkation the
wide stone street facing the water had become suddenly deserted. The
curious-eyed heads and the cotton nightcaps had been swallowed up in
the hollows of the dark, little windows. The baker's boy had long since
mounted his broad basket, as if it were an ornamental head-dress, and
whistling, had turned a sharp corner, swallowed up, he also, by the
sudden gloom that lay between the narrow streets. The sloop-owners had
linked arms with the defeated captains, and were walking off toward
their respective boats, whistling a gay little air.

  "_Colinette au bois s'en alla
  En sautillant par-ci, par-là;
  Trala deridera, trala, derid-er-a-a._"

One jersey-clad figure was singing lustily as he dropped with a spring
into his boat. He began to coil the loose ropes at once, as if the
disappointments in life were only a necessary interruption, to be
accepted philosophically, to this, the serious business of his days.

We were soon afloat, far out from the land of either shores. Between
the two, sea and river meet; is the river really trying to lose itself
in the sea, or is it hopelessly attempting to swallow the sea? The
green line that divides them will never give you the answer: it changes
hour by hour, day by day; now it is like a knife-cut, deep and
straight; and now like a ribbon that wavers and flutters, tying
together the blue of the great ocean and the silver of the Seine. Close
to the lips of the mighty mouth lie the two shores. In that fresh May
sunshine Havre glittered and bristled, was aglow with a thousand tints
and tones; but we sailed and sailed away from her, and behold, already
she had melted into her cliffs. Opposite, nearing with every dip of the
dun-colored sail into the blue seas, was the Calvados coast; in its
turn it glistened, and in its young spring verdure it had the lustre of
a rough-hewn emerald.

"_Que voulez-vous, mesdames?_ Who could have told that the wind would
play us such a trick?"

The voice was the voice of our captain. With much affluence of gesture
he was explaining--his treachery! Our nearness to the coast had made
the confession necessary. To the blandness of his smile, as he
proceeded in his unabashed recital, succeeded a pained expression. We
were not accepting the situation with the true phlegm of philosophers;
he felt that he had just cause for protest. What possible difference
could it make to us whether we were landed at Trouville or at
Villerville? But to him--to be accused of betraying two ladies--to
allow the whole of the Havre quays to behold in him a man disgraced,
dishonored!

His was a tragic figure as he stood up, erect on the poop, to clap
hands to a blue-clad breast, and to toss a black mane of hair in the
golden air.

"_Dame! Toujours été galant homme, moi!_ I am known on both shores as
the most gallant of men. But the most gallant of men cannot control the
caprice of the wind!" To which was added much abuse of the muddy
bottoms, the strength of the undertow, and other marine disadvantages
peculiar to Villerville.

It was a tragic figure, with gestures and voice to match. But it was
evident that the Captain had taken his own measure mistakenly. In him
the French stage had lost a comedian of the first magnitude. Much,
therefore, we felt, was to be condoned in one who doubtless felt so
great a talent itching for expression. When next he smiled, we had
revived to a keener appreciation of baffled genius ever on the scent
for the capture of that fickle goddess, opportunity.

The captain's smile was oiling a further word of explanation. "See,
mesdames, they come! they will soon land you on the beach!"

He was pointing to a boat smaller than our own, that now ran alongside.
There had been frequent signallings between the two boats, a running up
and down of a small yellow flag which we had thought amazingly becoming
to the marine landscape, until we learned the true relation of the flag
to the treachery aboard our own craft.

"You see, mesdames," smoothly continued our talented traitor, "you see
how the waves run up on the beach. We could never, with this great
sail, run in there. We should capsize. But behold, these are bathers,
accustomed to the water--they will carry you--but as if you were
feathers!" And he pointed to the four outstretched, firmly-muscled
arms, as if to warrant their powers of endurance. The two men had left
their boat; it was dancing on the water, at anchor. They were standing
immovable as pillars of stone, close to the gunwales of our craft. They
were holding out their arms to us.

Charm suddenly stood upright. She held out her hands like a child, to
the least impressionable boatman. In an instant she was clasping his
bronze throat.

"All my life I've prayed for adventure. And at last it has come!" This
she cried, as she was carried high above the waves.

"That's right, have no fear," answered her carrier as he plunged
onward, ploughing his way through the waters to the beach.

Beneath my own feet there was a sudden swish and a swirl of restless,
tumbling waters. The motion, as my carrier buried his bared legs in the
waves, was such as accompanies impossible flights described in dreams,
through some unknown medium. The surging waters seemed struggling to
submerge us both; the two thin, tanned legs of the fisherman about
whose neck I was clinging, appeared ridiculously inadequate to cleave a
successful path through a sea of such strength as was running shoreward.

"Madame does not appear to be used to this kind of travelling," puffed
out my carrier, his conversational instinct, apparently, not in the
least dampened by his strenuous plunging through the spirited sea. "It
happens every day--all the aristocrats land this way, when they come
over by the little boats. It distracts and amuses them, they say. It
helps to kill the ennui."

"I should think it might, my feet are soaking; sometimes wet feet--"

"Ah, that's a pity, you must get a better hold," sympathetically
interrupted my fisherman, as he proceeded to hoist me higher up on his
shoulder. I, or a sack of corn, or a basket of fish, they were all one
to this strong back and to these toughened sinews. When he had adjusted
his present load at a secure height, above the dashing of the spray, he
went on talking. "Yes, when the rich suffer a little it is not such a
bad thing, it makes a pleasant change--_cela leur distrait_. For
instance, there is the Princess de L----, there's her villa, close by,
with green blinds. She makes little excuses to go over to Havre, just
for this--to be carried in the arms like an infant. You should hear
her, she shouts and claps her hands! All the beach assembles to see her
land. When she is wet she cries for joy. It is so difficult to amuse
one's self, it appears, in the great world."

"But, _tiens_, here we are, I feel the dry sands." I was dropped as
lightly on them as if it had been indeed a bunch of feathers my
fisherman had been carrying.

And meanwhile, out yonder, across the billows, with airy gesture
dramatically executed, our treacherous captain was waving us a
theatrical salute. The infant mate was grinning like a gargoyle. They
were both delightfully unconscious, apparently, of any event having
transpired, during the afternoon's pleasuring, which could possibly
tinge the moment of parting with the hues of regret.

"_Pour les bagages, mesdames_--"

Two dripping, outstretched hands, two berets doffed, two picturesque
giants bowing low, with a Frenchman's grace--this, on the Trouville
sands, was the last act of this little comedy of our landing on the
coast of France.



CHAPTER II.

A SPRING DRIVE.


The Trouville beach was as empty as a desert. No other footfall, save
our own, echoed along the broad board walks; this Boulevard des
Italiens of the Normandy coast, under the sun of May was a shining
pavement that boasted only a company of jelly-fishes as loungers.

Down below was a village, a white cluster of little wooden houses; this
was the village of the bath houses. The hotels might have been
monasteries deserted and abandoned, in obedience to a nod from Rome or
from the home government. Not even a fisherman's net was spread
a-drying, to stay the appetite with a sense of past favors done by the
sea to mortals more fortunate than we. The whole face of nature was as
indifferent as a rich relation grown callous to the voice of entreaty.
There was no more hope of man apparently, than of nature, being moved
by our necessity; for man, to be moved, must primarily exist, and he
was as conspicuously absent on this occasion as Genesis proves him to
have been on the fourth day of creation.

Meanwhile we sat still, and took counsel together. The chief of the
council suddenly presented himself. It was a man in miniature. The
masculine shape, as it loomed up in the distance, gradually separating
itself from the background of villa roofs and casino terraces, resolved
itself into a figure stolid and sturdy, very brown of leg, and insolent
of demeanor--swaggering along as if conscious of there being a
full-grown man buttoned up within a boy's ragged coat. The swagger was
accompanied by a whistle, whose neat crispness announced habits of
leisure and a sense of the refined pleasures of life; for an artistic
rendering of an aria from "La Fille de Madame Angot" was cutting the
air with clear, high notes.

The whistle and the brown legs suddenly came to a dead stop. The round
blue eyes had caught sight of us:

"_Ouid-a-a!_" was this young Norman's salutation. There was very little
trouser left, and what there was of it was all pocket, apparently. Into
the pockets the boy's hands were stuffed, along with his amazement; for
his face, round and full though it was, could not hold the full measure
of his surprise.

"We came over by boat--from Havre," we murmured meekly; then, "Is there
a cake-shop near?" irrelevantly concluded Charm with an unmistakable
ring of distress in her tone. There was no need of any further
explanation. These two hearty young appetites understood each other;
for hunger is a universal language, and cake a countersign common among
the youth of all nations.

"Until you came, you see, we couldn't leave the luggage," she went on.

The blue eyes swept the line of our boxes as if the lad had taken his
afternoon stroll with no other purpose than to guard them. "There are
eight, and two umbrellas. _Soyez tranquille, je vous attendrai._"

It was the voice and accent of a man of the world, four feet high--a
pocket edition, so to speak, in shabby binding. The brown legs hung,
the next instant, over the tallest of the trunks. The skilful whistling
was resumed at once; our appearance and the boy's present occupation
were mere interludes, we were made to understand; his real business,
that afternoon, was to do justice to the Lecoq's entire opera, and to
keep his eye on the sea.

Only once did he break down; he left a high _C_ hanging perilously in
mid-air, to shout out "I like madeleines, I do!" We assured him he
should have a dozen.

"_Bien!_" and we saw him settling himself to await our return in
patience.

Up in the town the streets, as we entered them, were as empty as was
the beach. Trouville might have been a buried city of antiquity. Yet,
in spite of the desolation, it was French and foreign; it welcomed us
with an unmistakably friendly, companionable air. Why is it that one is
made to feel the companionable element, by instantaneous process, as it
were, in a Frenchman and in his towns? And by what magic also does a
French village or city, even at its least animated period, convey to
one the fact of its nationality? We made but ten steps progress through
these silent streets, fronting the beach, and yet, such was the subtle
enigma of charm with which these dumb villas and mute shops were
invested, that we walked along as if under the spell of fascination.
Perhaps the charm is a matter of sex, after all: towns are feminine, in
the wise French idiom, that idiom so delicate in discerning qualities
of sex in inanimate objects, as the Greeks before them were clever in
discovering sex distinctions in the moral qualities. Trouville was so
true a woman, that the coquette in her was alive and breathing even in
this her moment of suspended animation. The closed blinds and iron
shutters appeared to be winking at us, slyly, as if warning us not to
believe in this nightmare of desolation; she was only sleeping, she
wished us to understand; the touch of the first Parisian would wake her
into life. The features of her fashionable face, meanwhile, were
arranged with perfect composure; even in slumber she had preserved her
woman's instinct of orderly grace; not a sign was awry, not a
window-blind gave hint of rheumatic hinges, or of shattered vertebrae;
all the machinery was in order; the faintest pressure on the electrical
button, the button that connects this lady of the sea with the Paris
Bourse and the Boulevards, and how gayly, how agilely would this
Trouville of the villas and the beaches spring into life!

The listless glances of the few tailors and cobblers who, with
suspended thread, now looked after us, seemed dazed--as if they could
not believe in the reality of two early tourists. A woman's head, here
and there, leaned over to us from a high window; even these feminine
eyes, however, appeared to be glued with the long winter's lethargy of
dull sleep; they betrayed no edge of surprise or curiosity. The sun
alone, shining with spendthrift glory, flooding the narrow streets and
low houses with a late afternoon stream of color, was the sole
inhabitant who did not blink at us, bovinely, with dulled vision.

Half an hour later we were speeding along the roadway. Half an
hour--and Trouville might have been a thousand miles away. Inland, the
eye plunged over nests of clover, across the tops of the apple and
peach trees, frosted now with blossoms, to some farm interiors. The
familiar Normandy features could be quickly spelled out, one by one.

It was the milking-hour.

The fields were crowded with cattle and women; some of the cows were
standing immovable, and still others were slowly defiling, in
processional dignity, toward their homes. Broad-hipped, lean-busted
figures, in coarse gowns and worsted kerchiefs, toiled through the
fields, carrying full milk-jugs; brass _amphorae_ these latter might
have been, from their classical elegance of shape. Ploughmen appeared
and disappeared, they and their teams rising and sinking with the
varying heights and depressions of the more distant undulations. In the
nearer cottages the voices of children would occasionally fill the air
with a loud clamor of speech; then our steed's bell-collar would
jingle, and for the children's cries, a bird-throat, high above, from
the heights of a tall pine would pour forth, as if in uncontrollable
ecstasy, its rapture into the stillness of this radiant Normandy
garden. The song appeared to be heard by other ears than ours. We were
certain the dull-brained sheep were greatly affected by the strains of
that generous-organed songster--they were so very still under the pink
apple boughs. The cows are always good listeners; and now, relieved of
their milk, they lifted eyes swimming with appreciative content above
the grasses of their pasture. Two old peasants heard the very last of
the crisp trills, before the concert ended; they were leaning forth
from the narrow window-ledges of a straw-roofed cottage; the music gave
to their blinking old eyes the same dreamy look we had read in the
ruminating cattle orbs. For an aeronaut on his way to bed, I should
have felt, had I been in that blackbird's plumed corselet, that I had
had a gratifyingly full house.

Meanwhile, toward the west, a vast marine picture, like a panorama on
wheels, was accompanying us all the way. Sometimes at our feet, beneath
the seamy fissures of a hillside, or far removed by sweep of meadow,
lay the fluctuant mass we call the sea. It was all a glassy yellow
surface now; into the liquid mirror the polychrome sails sent down long
lines of color. The sun had sunk beyond the Havre hills, but the flame
of his mantle still swept the sky. And into this twilight there crept
up from the earth a subtle, delicious scent and smell--the smell and
perfume of spring--of the ardent, vigorous, unspent Normandy spring.

[Illustration: A VILLAGE STREET--VILLERVILLE]

Suddenly a belfry grew out of the grain-fields.

"_Nous voici_--here's Villerville!" cried lustily into the twilight our
coachman's thick peasant voice. With the butt-end of his whip he
pointed toward the hill that the belfry crowned. Below the little
hamlet church lay the village. A high, steep street plunged recklessly
downward toward the cliff; we as recklessly were following it. The
snapping of our driver's whip had brought every inhabitant of the
street upon the narrow sidewalks. A few old women and babies hung forth
from the windows, but the houses were so low, that even this portion of
the population, hampered somewhat by distance and comparative
isolation, had been enabled to join in the chorus of voices that filled
the street. Our progress down the steep, crowded street was marked by a
pomp and circumstance which commonly attend only a royal entrance into
a town; all of the inhabitants, to the last man and infant, apparently,
were assembled to assist at the ceremonial of our entry.

A chorus of comments arose from the shadowy groups filling the low
doorways and the window casements.

"_Tiens_--it begins to arrive--the season!"

"Two ladies--alone--like that!"

"_Dame! Anglaises, Américaines_--they go round the world thus, _à
deux_!"

"And why not, if they are young and can pay?"

"Bah! old or poor, it's all one--they're never still, those English!" A
chorus of croaking laughter rattled down the street along with the
rolling of our carriage-wheels.

Above, the great arch of sky had shrunk, all at once, into a narrow
scallop; with the fields and meadows the glow of twilight had been left
behind. We seemed to be pressing our way against a great curtain, the
curtain made by the rich dusk that filled the narrow thoroughfare.
Through the darkness the sinuous street and rickety houses wavered in
outline, as the bent shapes of the aged totter across dimly-lit
interiors. A fisherman's bare legs, lit by some dimly illumined
interior; a line of nets in the little yards; here and there a white
kerchief or cotton cap, dazzling in whiteness, thrown out against the
black facades, were spots of light here and there. There was a glimpse
of the village at its supper--in low-raftered interiors a group of
blouses and women in fishermen's rig were gathered about narrow tables,
the coarse-featured faces and the seamed foreheads lit up by the feeble
flame of candles that ended in long, thin lines of smoke.

"_Ohé--Mère Mouchard!--des voyageurs!_" cried forth our coachman into
the darkness. He had drawn up before a low, brightly-lit interior. In
response to the call a figure appeared on the threshold of the open
door. The figure stood there for a long instant, rubbing its hands, as
it peered out into the dusk of the night to take a good look at us. The
brown head was cocked on one side thoughtfully; it was an attitude that
expressed, with astonishingly clear emphasis, an unmistakable
professional conception of hospitality. It was the air and manner, in a
word, of one who had long since trimmed the measurement of its
graciousness to the price paid for the article.

"_Ces dames_ wished rooms, they desired lodgings and board--_ces dames_
were alone?" The voice finally asked, with reticent dignity. "From
Havre--from Trouville, _par p'tit bateau!_" called out lustily our
driver, as if to furnish us, _gratis_, with a passport to the
landlady's not too effusive cordiality.

What secret spell of magic may have lain hidden in our friendly
coachman's announcement we never knew. But the "p'tit bateau" worked
magically. The figure of Mère Mouchard materialized at once into such
zeal, such effusion, such a zest of welcome, that we, our bags, and our
coachman were on the instant toiling up a pair of spiral wooden stairs.
There was quite a little crowd to fill the all-too-narrow landing at
the top of the steep steps, a crowd that ended in a long line of
waiters and serving-maids, each grasping a remnant of luggage. Our
hostess, meanwhile, was fumbling at a door-lock--an obstinate door that
refused to be wrenched open.

"Augustine--run--I've taken the wrong key. _Cours, mon enfant_, it is
no farther away than the kitchen."

The long line pressed itself against the low walls. Augustine, a
blond-haired, neatly-garmented shape, sped down the rickety stairs with
the step of youth and a dancer; for only the nimble ankles of one
accomplished in waltzing could have tripped as dexterously downward as
did Augustine.

"How she lags! what an idiot of a child!" fumed Mère Mouchard as she
peered down into the round blackness about which the curving staircase
closed like an embrace. "One must have patience, it appears, with
people made like that. _Ah, tiens,_ here she comes. How could you keep
_ces dames_ waiting like this? It is shameful, shameful!" cried the
woman, as she half shook the panting girl, in anger. "If _ces dames_
will enter,"--her voice changing at once to a caressing falsetto, as
the door flew open, opened by Augustine's trembling fingers--"they will
find their rooms in readiness."

The rooms were as bare as a soldier's barrack, but they were spotlessly
clean. There was the pale flicker of a sickly candle to illumine the
shadowy recesses of the curtained beds and the dark little
dressing-rooms.

A few moments later we wound our way downward, spirally, to find
ourselves seated at a round table in a cosy, compact dining-room.
Directly opposite, across the corridor, was the kitchen, from which
issued a delightful combination of vinous, aromatic odors. The light of
a strong, bright lamp made it as brilliant as a ball-room; it was a
ball-room which for decoration had rows of shining brass and copper
kettles--each as burnished as a jewel--a mass of sunny porcelain, and
for carpet the satin of a wooden floor. There was much bustling to and
fro. Shapes were constantly passing and repassing across the lighted
interior. The Mère's broad-hipped figure was an omniscient presence: it
hovered at one instant over a steaming saucepan, and the next was
lifting a full milk-jug or opening a wine-bottle. Above the clatter of
the dishes and the stirring of spoons arose the thick Normandy voices,
deep alto tones, speaking in strange jargon of speech--a world of
patois removed from our duller comprehension. It was made somewhat too
plain in this country, we reflected, that a man's stomach is of far
more importance than the rest of his body. The kitchen yonder was by
far the most comfortable, the warmest, and altogether the prettiest
room in the whole house.

Augustine crossed the narrow entry just then with a smoking pot of
soup. She was followed, later, by Mère Mouchard, who bore a sole au vin
blanc, a bottle of white Burgundy, and a super-naturally ethereal
soufflé. And an hour after, even the curtainless, carpetless bed
chambers above were powerless to affect the luxurious character of our
dreams.



CHAPTER III.

FROM AN INN WINDOW.


One travels a long distance, sometimes, to make the astonishing
discovery that pleasure comes with the doing of very simple things. We
had come from over the seas to find the act of leaning on a window
casement as exciting as it was satisfying. It is true that from our two
inn windows there was a delightful variety of nature and of human
nature to look out upon. From the windows overlooking the garden there
was only the horizon to bound infinity. The Atlantic, beginning with
the beach at our feet, stopped at nothing till it met the sky. The sea,
literally, was at our door; it and the Seine were next-door neighbors.
Each hour of the day these neighbors presented a different face, were
arrayed in totally different raiment, were grave or gay, glowing with
color or shrouded in mists, according to the mood and temper of the
sun, the winds, and the tides.

[Illustration: ON THE BEACH--VILLERVILLE]

The width of the sky overhanging this space was immense; not a scrap,
apparently, was left over to cover, decently, the rest of the earth's
surface--of that one was quite certain in looking at this vast inverted
cup overflowing with ether. What there was of land was a very sketchy
performance. Opposite ran the red line of the Havre headlands.

Following the river, inland, there was a pretence of shore, just
sufficiently outlined, like a youth's beard, to give substance to one's
belief in its future growth and development. Beneath these windows the
water, hemmed in by this edge of shore, panted, like a child at play;
its sighs, liquid, lisping, were irresistible; one found oneself
listening for the sound of them as if they had issued from a human
throat. The humming of the bees in the garden, the cry of a fisherman
calling across the water, the shout of the children below on the beach,
or, at twilight, the chorusing birds, carolling at full concert pitch;
this, at most, was all the sound and fury the sea beach yielded.

The windows opening on the village street let in a noise as tumultuous
as the sea was silent. The hubbub of a perpetual babble, all the louder
for being compressed within narrow space, was always to be heard; it
ceased only when the village slept. There was an incessant clicking
accompaniment to this noisy street life; a music played from early dawn
to dusk over the pavement's rough cobbles--the click clack, click clack
of the countless wooden sabots.

Part of this clamor in the streets was due to the fact that the
village, as a village, appeared to be doing a tremendous business with
the sea.

Men and women were perpetually going to and coming from the beach.
Fishermen, sailors, women bearing nets, oars, masts, and sails,
children bending beneath the weight of baskets filled with kicking
fish; wheelbarrows stocked high with sea-food and warm clothing; all
this commerce with the sea made the life in these streets a more
animated performance than is commonly seen in French villages.

In time, the provincial mania began to work in our veins.

To watch our neighbors, to keep an eye on this life--this became, after
a few days, the chief occupation of our waking hours.

The windows of our rooms fronting on the street were peculiarly well
adapted for this unmannerly occupation. By merely opening the blinds,
we could keep an eye on the entire village. Not a cat could cross the
street without undergoing inspection. Augustine, for example, who, once
having turned her back on the inn windows, believed herself entirely
cut off from observation, was perilously exposed to our mercy. We knew
all the secrets of her thieving habits; we could count, to a second,
the time she stole from the Mere, her employer, to squander in smiles
and dimples at the corner creamery. There a tall Norman rained
admiration upon her through wide blue eyes, as he patted, caressingly,
the pots of blond butter, just the color of her hair, before laying
them, later, tenderly in her open palm. Soon, as our acquaintance with
our neighbors deepened into something like intimacy, we came to know
their habits of mind as we did their facial peculiarities; certain of
their actions made an event in our day. It became a serious matter of
conjecture as to whether Madame de Tours, the social swell of the town,
would or would not offer up her prayer to Deity, accompanied by
Friponne, her black poodle. If Friponne issued forth from the narrow
door, in company with her austere mistress, the shining black silk
gown, we knew, would not decorate the angular frame of this
aristocratic provincial; a sober beige was best fitted to resist the
dashes made by Friponne's sharply-trimmed nails. It was for this, to
don a silk gown in full sight of her neighbors; to set up as companion
a dog of the highest fashion, the very purest of _caniches_, that
twenty years of patient nursing a paralytic husband--who died all too
slowly--had been counted as nothing!

Once we were summoned to our outlook by the vigorous beating of a drum.
Madame Mouchard and Augustine were already at their own post of
observation--the open inn door. The rest of the village was in full
attendance, for it was not every day in the week that the "tambour,"
the town-crier, had business enough to render his appearance, in his
official capacity, necessary; as a mere townsman he was to be seen any
hour of the day, as drunk as a lord, at the sign of "L'Ami Fidèle." His
voice, as it rolled out the words of his cry, was as _staccato_ in
pitch as any organ can be whose practice is largely confined to
unceasing calls for potations. To the listening crowd, the thick voice
was shouting:

"_Madame Tricot--à la messe--dimanche--a--perdu une broche--or et
perles--avec cheveux--Madame Merle a perdu--sur la plage--un panier
avec--un chat noir--_"

We ourselves, to our astonishment, were drummed the very next morning.
Augustine had made the discovery of a missing shoulder-cape; she had
taken it upon herself to call in the drummer. So great was the
attendance of villagers, even the abstractors of the lost garment must,
we were certain, be among the crowd assembled to hear our names shouted
out on the still air. We were greatly affected by the publicity of the
occasion; but the village heard the announcement, both of our names and
of our loss, with the phlegm of indifference. "Vingt francs pour avoir
tambouriné mademoiselle!" This was an item which a week later, in
madame's little bill, was not confronted with indifference.

"It gives one the feeling of having had relations with a wandering
circus," remarked the young philosopher at my side.

"But it is really a great convenience, that system," she continued;
"I'm always mislaying things--and through the drummer there's a whole
village as aid to find a lost article. I shall, doubtless, always have
that, now, in my bills!" And Charm, with an air of serene confidence in
the village, adjusted her restored shoulder-cape.

Down below, in our neighbor's garden--the one adjoining our own and
facing the sea--a new and old world of fashion in capes and other
garments were a-flutter in the breeze, morning after morning. Who and
what was this neighbor, that he should have so curious and eccentric a
taste in clothes? No woman was to be seen in the garden-paths; a man,
in a butler's apron and a silk skullcap, came and went, his arms piled
high with gowns and scarves, and all manner of strange odds and ends.
Each morning some new assortment of garments met our wondering eyes.
Sometimes it was a collection of Empire embroidered costumes that were
hung out on the line; faded fleur-de-lis, sprigs of dainty lilies and
roses, gold-embossed Empire coats, strewn thick with seed-pearls on
satins softened by time into melting shades. When next we looked the
court of Napoleon had vanished, and the Bourbon period was, literally,
in full swing. A frou-frou of laces, coats with deep skirts, and
beribboned trousers would be fluttering airily in the soft May air.
Once, in fine contrast to these courtly splendors, was a wondrous
assortment of flannel petticoats. They were of every hue--red, yellow,
brown, pink, patched, darned, wide-skirted, plaited, ruffled--they
appeared to represent the taste and requirement of every climate and
country, if one could judge by the thickness of some and the gossamer
tissues of others; but even the smartest were obviously, unmistakably,
effrontedly, flannel petticoats.

It was a mystery that greatly intrigued us. One morning the mystery was
solved. A whiff of tobacco from an upper window came along with a puff
of wind. It was a heated whiff, in spite of the cooling breeze. It was
from a pipe, a short, black pipe, owned by some one in the Mansard
window next door. There was the round disk of a dark-blue beret
drooping over the pipe. "Good--" I said to myself--"I shall see now--at
last--this maniac with a taste for darned petticoats!"

The pipe smoked peacefully, steadily on. The beret was motionless.
Between the pipe and the cap was a man's profile; it was too much in
shadow to be clearly defined.

The next instant the man's face was in full sunlight. The face turned
toward me--with the quick instinct of knowing itself watched--and then--

"Pas--possible!"

"You--here!"

"Been here a year--but you, when did you arrive? What luck! What luck!"

It was John Renard, the artist; after the first salutations question
followed question.

"Are you alone?--"

"No."

"Is she--young?"

"Yes."

"Pretty?"

"Judge for yourself--that is she--in the garden yonder."

The beret dipped itself perilously out into the sky--to take a full
view.

"Hem--I'll come in at once."

It was as a trio that the conversation was continued later, in the
garden. But Renard was still chief questioner.

"Have you been out on the mussel-beds?"

"Not yet."

"We'll go this afternoon--Have you been to Honfleur? Not yet?--We'll go
to-morrow. The tide will be in to-day about four--I'll call for
you--wear heavy boots and old clothes. It's jolly dirty. Where do you
breakfast?"

The breakfast was eaten, as a trio, at our inn, an hour later. It was
so warm a day, it was served under one of the arbors. Augustine was
feeding and caressing the doves as we entered the inn garden. At sight
of Renard she dropped a quiet courtesy, smiles and roses struggling for
a supremacy on her round peasant face. She let the doves loose at once,
saying: "Allez, allez," as if they quite understood that with Monsieur
Renard's advent their hour of success was at an end.

Why does a man's presence always seem to communicate such surprising
animation to a woman--to any woman? Why does his appearance, for
instance, suddenly, miraculously stiffen the sauces, lure from the
cellar bottles incrusted with the gray of thick cobwebs, give an added
drop of the lemon to the mayonnaise, and make an omelette to swim in a
sea of butter? All these added touches to our commonly admirable
breakfast were conspicuous that day--it was a breakfast for a prince
and a gourmet.

"The Mère can cook--when she gives her mind to it," was Renard's meagre
masculine comment, as the last morsel of the golden omelette
disappeared behind his mustache.

It was a gay little breakfast, with the circling above of the birds and
the doves. There are duller forms of pleasure than to eat a repast in
the company of an artist. I know not why it is, but it has always
seemed to me that the man who lives only to copy life appears to get
far more out of it than those who make a point of seeing nothing in it
save themselves.

Renard, meanwhile, was taking pains to assure us that in less than a
month the Villerville beaches would be crowded; only the artists of the
brushes were here now; the artists of high life would scarcely be found
deserting the Avenue des Acacias before June.

"French people are always coming to the seashore, you know--or trying
to come. It's a part of their emotional religion to worship the sea.
'La mer! la mer!' they cry, with eyes all whites; then they go into
little swoons of rapture--I can see them now, attitudinizing in salons
and at tables-d'hôte!" To which comment we could find no more original
rejoinder than our laughter.

It was a day when laughter was good; it put one in closer relations
with the universal smiling. There are certain days when nature seems to
laugh aloud; in this hour of noon the entire universe, all we could see
of it, was on a broad grin. Everything moved, or danced, or sang; the
leaves were each alive, trembling, quivering, shaking; the insect hum
was like a Wagnerian chorus, deafening to the ear; there was a brisk,
light breeze stirring--a breeze that moved the higher branches of the
trees as if it had been an arm; that rippled the grass; that tossed the
wavelets of the sea into such foam that they seemed over-running with
laughter; and such was still its unspent energy that it sent the Seine
with a bound up through its shores, its waters clanging like a sheet of
mail armor worn by some lusty warrior. We were walking in the narrow
lane that edged the cliff; it was a lane that was guarded with a
sentinel row of osiers, syringas, and laburnums. This was the guard of
the cliffs. On the other side was the high garden wall, over which we
caught dissolving views of dormer-windows, of gabled roofs, vine-clad
walls, and a maze of peach and pear blossoms. This was not precisely
the kind of lane through which one hurried. One needed neither to be
sixteen nor even in love to find it a delectable path, very agreeable
to the eye, very suggestive to the imaginative faculty, exceedingly
satisfactory to the most fastidious of all the senses, to that
aristocrat of all the five, the sense of smell. Like all entirely
perfect experiences in life, the lane ended almost as soon as it began;
it ended in a steep pair of steps that dropped, precipitously, on the
pebbles of the beach.

For some reason best known to the day and the view, we all, with one
accord, proceeded to seat ourselves on the topmost step of this
stairway. We were waiting for the tide to fall, to go out to the
mussel-bed. Meanwhile the prospect to be seen from this improvised seat
was one made to be looked at. There is a certain innate compelling
quality in all great beauty. When nature or woman presents a really
grandiose appearance, they are singularly reposeful, if you notice;
they have the calm which comes with a consciousness of splendor. It is
only prettiness which is tormented with the itching for display; and
therefore this prospect, which rolled itself out beneath our feet,
curling in a half-moon of beach, broadening into meadows that dropped
to the river edge, lifting its beauty upward till the hills met the
sky. and the river was lost in the clasp of the shore--this aspect of
nature, in this moment of beauty, was as untroubled as if Chateaubriand
had not found her a lover, and had flattered man by persuading him that,

"La voix de l'univers, c'est mon intelligence."



CHAPTER IV.

OUT ON A MUSSEL-BED.


That same afternoon we were out on the mussel bed.

The tide was at its lowest. Before us, for an acre or more, there lay a
wide, wet, stretch of brown mud. Near the beach was a strip of yellow
sand; here and there it had contracted into narrow ridges, elsewhere it
had expanded into scroll-like patterns. The bed of mud and slime ran
out from this yellow sand strip--a surface diversified by puddles of
muddy water, by pools, clear, ribbed with wavelets, and by little heaps
of stones covered with lichens. The surface of the bed, whether pools
or puddles, or rock-heaps, or sea-weeds massed, was covered by
thousands and thousands of black, lozenge-shaped bivalves. These
bivalves were the mussels. Over this bed of shells and slime there
moved and toiled a whole villageful of old women. Where the sea met the
edges of the mud-flat the throng of women was thickest. The line of the
ever-receding shore was marked by the shapes of countless bent figures.
The heads of these stooping women were on a level with their feet, not
one stood upright. All that the eye could seize for outline was the
dome made by the bent hips, and the backs that closed against the knees
as a blade is clasped into a knife handle. The oblong masses that were
lifted now and then, from the level of the sabots, resolved themselves
into the outlines of women's heads and women's faces. These heads were
tied up in cotton kerchiefs or in cotton nightcaps; these being white,
together with the long, thick, aprons also white, were in startling
contrast to the blue of the sky and to the changing sea-tones.

Between these women and the incoming tide, twice daily, was fought a
persistent, unrelenting duel. It was a duel, on the part of the
fish-wives, against time, against the fate of the tides, against the
blind forces of nature. For this combat the women were armed to the
teeth, clad as they were in their skeleton muscular leanness; helmeted
with their heads of iron; visored in the bronze of their skin and in
wrinkles that laughed at the wind. In these sinewy, toughened bodies
there was a grim strength that appeared to know neither ache nor
fatigue nor satiety.

High, clear, strong, came their voices. The tones were the tones that
come from deep chests, and with a prolonged, sustained capacity for
enduring the toil of men. But the high-pitched laughter proved them
women, as did their loud and unceasing gossip. The battle of the voices
rose above the swash of the waves, above, also, another sound, as
incessant as the women's chatter and the swish of the water as it
hissed along the mud-flat's edges.

[Illustration: A SALE OF MUSSELS--VILLERVILLE]

This was the swift, sharp, saw-like cutting among the stones and the
slime, the scrape, scrape of the hundred of knives into the moist
earth. This ceaseless scraping, lunging, digging, made a new world of
sound--strange, sinister, uncanny. It was neither of the sea nor yet of
the land--it was a noise that seemed inseparable from this tongue of
mud, that also appeared to be neither of the heavens above nor of the
earth, from the bowels out of which it had sprung.

The mussels cling to their slime with extraordinary tenacity; only an
expert, who knows the exact point of attachment between the hard shell
and its soil, can remove a mussel with dexterity. These women, as they
dipped their knives into the thick mud, swept the diminutive black
bivalve with a trenchant movement, as a Moor might cleave a human head
with one turn of his moon-shaped sword. Into the bronzed, wrinkled old
hands the mussels then were slipped as if they had been so many dainty
sweets.

New and pungent smells were abroad on this strip of slime. Sea smells,
strong and salty; smells of the moist and damp soil, the bitter-sweet
of wetted weeds, the aromatic flavor that shell-life yields, and the
smells also of rotten and decaying fish--all these were inextricably
blended in the air, that was of the keenness of a frost-blight for
freshness, and yet was warm with the softness of a June sun.

Meanwhile the voices of the women were nearing. Some of the bent heads
were lifted as we approached. Here and there a coif, or cotton cap,
nodded, and the slit of a smile would gape between the nose and the
meeting chin. A high good humor appeared to reign among the groups; a
carnival of merriment laughed itself out in coarse, cracked laughter;
loud was the play of the jests, hoarse and guttural the gibes that were
abroad on the still air, from old mouths that uttered strong, deep
notes.

"Why should they all be old?" we queried. We were near enough to see
the women face to face now, since we were far out along the outer edges
of the bed; we were so near the sea that the tide was beginning to wash
us back, along with the fringe of the diggers.

"They're not--they only look old," replied Renard, stopping a moment to
sketch in a group directly in front. "This life makes old women of them
in no time. How old, for instance, should you think that girl was, over
there?"

The girl whom he designated was the only figure of youth we had seen on
the bed. She was working alone and remote from the others. She wore no
coif. Her masses of red, wavy hair shaded a face already deeply seamed
with lines of premature age. A moment later she passed close to us. She
was bent almost double beneath a huge, reeking basket, heaped with its
pile of wet mussels. She was carrying it to a distant pool. Once beside
the pool, with swift, dexterous movement the heavy basket was slipped
from the bent back, the load of mussels falling in a shower into the
miniature lake. The next instant she was stamping on the heap, to
plunge them with her sabot still further into the pool. She was washing
her load. Soon she shouldered the basket again, filling it with the
cleansed mussels. A moment later she joined the long, toiling line of
women that were perpetually forming and reforming on their way to the
carts. These latter were drawn up near the beach, their contents
guarded by boys and old men, who received the loads the women had dug,
dragging the whole, later, up the hill.

"She has the Venus de Milo lines, that girl," Renard continued,
critically, with his eyes on her, as she now repassed us. The figure
was drawn up at its full height. It had in truth a noble dignity of
outline. There was a Spartan vigor and severity in the lean, uncorseted
shape, with the bust thrown out against the sky--the bust of a young
warrior rather than a woman. There was a hardy, masculine freedom in
the pliable motion of her straight back, a ripple with muscles that
played easily beneath the close bodice, in her arms, and her finely
turned ankles and legs, that were bared below the knee. The very
simplicity of her costume helped to mark the Greek severity of her
figure. She wore a short skirt of some coarse hempen stuff, covered
with a thick apron made of sail-cloth, her feet thrust into black
sabots, while the upper part of her body was covered with an unbleached
chemise, widely open at the throat.

She had the Phidian breadth and the modern charm--that charm which
troubles and disturbs, haunting the mind with vague, unsatisfied
suggestions of something finer than is seen, something nobler than the
gross physical envelope reveals.

"I must have her--for my Salon picture," calmly remarked Renard, after
a long moment of scrutiny, his eyes following the lean, stately figure
in its grave walk across the weeds and slime. "Yes, I must have her."

"Won't she be hard to get? How can she be made to sit, a stiffened
image of clay, after this life of freedom, this athletic struggle out
here--with these winds and tides?"

One of us, at least, was stirred at Renard's calm assumption--the
assumption so common to artists, who, when they see a good thing at
once count on its possessorship, as if the whole world, indeed, were
eternally sitting, agape with impatience, awaiting the advent of some
painter to sketch in its portrait.

"Oh, it'll be easy enough. She makes two francs a day with her six
basketfuls. I'll offer her three, and she'll drop like a shot."

"I'll make it a red picture," he continued, dipping his brushes into a
little case of paints he held on his thumb; "the mussel-bed a reddish
violet, the sky red in the horizon, and the girl in the foreground,
with that torrent of hair as the high light. I've been hunting for that
hair all over Europe." And he began sketching her in at once.

"_Bonjour, mère_, how goes it?" He nodded as he sketched at a wrinkled,
bent figure, who was smiling out at him from beneath her load of
mussels.

"_Pas mal--e' vous, M'sieur Renard?_"

"All right--and the mortgage, how goes that?"

"Pas si mal--it'll be paid off next year."

"Who is she? One of your models?"

"Yes, last year's: she was my belle--the belle of the mussel-bed for
me, a year ago. Now there's a lesson in patience for you. She's
sixty-five, if she's a minute; she's been working here, on this
mussel-bed, for five years, to pay the mortgage off her farm; when that
is done, her daughter Augustine can marry; Augustine's _dot_ is the
farm."

"Augustine--at our inn?"

"The very same."

"And the blonde--the handsome man at the creamery, he is the future--?"

"I'm sorry to hear such things of Augustine," smiled Renard, as he
worked; "she must be indulging in an entr'acte. No, the gentleman of
Augustine's--well, perhaps not of her affections, but of her mother's
choice, is a peasant who works the farm; the creamery is only an
incidental diversion. Again, I'm sorry to hear such sad things of
Augustine--"

"Horrors!"

"Exactly. That's the way it's done--over here. Will you join me--over
there?" Renard blushed a little. "I mean I wish to follow that
girl--she's going to dig out yonder. Will you come?"

Meanwhile the light was changing, and so was the tide. The women were
coming inward, washed up to the shore along with the grasses and
seaweeds. A band of diggers suddenly started, with full basket loads,
toward a fishing boat that had dropped anchor close in to the shore; it
was a Honfleur craft, come to buy mussels for the Paris market. The
women trudged through the water, up to their waists; they clustered
about the boats like so many laden beasts. But their shrill bargaining
proved them women.

Meanwhile that gentle hissing along the level stretch of brown mud was
the tide. It was pushing the women upward, as if it had been a
hand--the hand of a relentless fate--instead of a little, liquid kiss.

The sun, as it dipped, made a glory of splendor out of this commonplace
bank. It soaked the mud in gold; it was in a royal mood, throwing its
largess with reckless abundance to this poor of earth--to the slime and
the mud. The long, yellow, lichen leaves massed on the rocks were dyed
as if lying in a yellow bath. The sands were richly colored; the ridges
were brown in the shadows and burnished at the tops. In the distance
the sea weeds were black, sable furs, covering the velvet robes of
earth. The sea out beyond was as rosy as a babe, and the sails were
dazzlingly white as they floated past, between the sky and the distant
purple line of the horizon.

Meanwhile the tide is coming in.

The procession of the women toward the carts grows in numbers. The
thick sabots plunge into the mud, the water squirts out of the wooden
shoes as the strong heels press into them. The straw, the universal
stocking of these women-diggers, is reeking with dirt. Volumes of slush
are splashed on the bared skinny ankles, on the wet skirts, wet to the
waists, and on the coarse sail-cloth aprons tied beneath the hanging
bosoms. The women are all drenched now in a bath of filth. The baskets
are reeking with filth also, they rain showers of dirt along the bent
backs. A long line of the bent figures has formed on their way to the
carts. There is, however, a thick fringe of diggers left who still
dispute their rights with the sea.

But the tide is pushing them inward, upward. And all the while the
light is getting more and more golden, shimmery, radiant. Under this
light, beneath this golden mantel of color, these creatures appear
still more terrible. As they bend over, their faces tirelessly held
downward on a level with their hands, they seem but gnomes; surely they
are huge, undeveloped embryos of women, with neither head nor trunk.
For this light is pitiless. It makes them even more a part of this
earth, out of which they seem to have sprung, a strange amorphous
growth. The bronzed skins are dyed in the gold as if to match with the
hue of the mud; the wet skirts are shreds, gray and brown tatters, not
so good in texture as the lichens, and the ragged jerseys seem only
bits of the more distant weeds woven into tissues to hide mercifully
the lean, sinewy backs.

The tide is almost in.

In the shallows the sunset is fading. Here and there are brilliant
little pools, each pool a mirror, and each mirror reflects a different
picture. Here is a second sky--faintly blue, with a trailing saffron
scarf of cloud; there, the inverted silhouettes of two fish-wives are
conical shapes, their coifs and wet skirts startlingly distinct in
tones; beyond, sails a fantastic fleet, with polychrome sails, each
spar, masthead, and wrinkled sail as sharply outlined as if chiselled
in relief. Presently these miniature pictures fade as the light fades.
Blacker grows the mud, and there is less and less of it; the
silhouetted shapes of the diggers are seen no more; they are following
the carts up the steep cliffs; even the sky loses its color and fades
also. And the little pools that have been a burning orange, then a
darkening violet, gay with pictured worlds, in turn pale to gray, and
die into the universal blackness.

The tide is in.

It is flowing, rich and full, crested with foam beneath the osier
hedges. We hear it break with a sudden dash and splutter against the
cliff parapets. And the mud-bank is no more.

Half an hour later, from our chamber windows we looked forth through
the dusk across at the mussel bed. The great mud-bank, all that black
acreage of slime and sea-weed, the eager, struggling band of toiling
fish wives, all was gone; it was all as if it had not been--would never
be again. The water hissed along the beach; it broke in rhythmic,
sonorous measure against the parapet. Surely there had never been any
beds, or any mussels, or any toiling fish-wives; or if there had, it
was all a world that the sea had washed up, and then as quietly, as
heedlessly, as pitilessly had obliterated.

It was the very epitome of life itself.



CHAPTER V.

THE VILLAGE.


Our visit to the mussel-bed, as we soon found, had been our formal
introduction to the village. Henceforth every door step held a friend;
not a coif or a blouse passed without a greeting. The village, as a
village, lived in the open street. Villerville had the true French
genius for society; the very houses were neighborly, crowding close
upon the narrow sidewalk. Conversation, to be carried on from a
dormer-window or from opposite sides of the street, had evidently been
the first architectural consideration in the mind of the builders;
doors and windows must be as open and accessible as the lives of the
inhabitants. The houses themselves appeared to be regarded in the light
of pockets, into which the old women and fishermen plunged to drag
forth a net or a knife; also as convenient, if rude, little caverns
into which the village crawled at night, to take its heavy slumber.

The door-step was the drawing-room, and the open street was the club of
this Villerville world.

The door-way, the yard, or the bit of garden tucked in between two high
walls--it was here, under the tent of sky rather than beneath the
stuffy roofs, that the village lived, talked, quarrelled, bargained,
worked, and more or less openly made love.

To the door-step everything was brought that was portable. There was
nothing, from the small boy to the brass kettle, that could not be more
satisfactorily polished off, in full view of one's world, than by one's
self, in seclusion and solitude. Justice, at least, appeared to gain by
this passion for open-air ministration, if one were to judge by the
frequency with which the Villerville boy was laid across the parental
knee. We were repeatedly called upon to coincide, at the very instant
of flagellation, with the verdict pronounced against the youthful
offender.

"_S'il est assez méchant, lui?_ Ah, mesdames, what do you think of one
who goes forth dry, with clean sabots, that I, myself, have washed, and
behold him returned, _après un tout p'tit quart d'heure_, stinking with
filth? Bah! it's he that will catch it when his father comes home!" And
meanwhile the mother's hand descends, lest justice should cool ere
night.

[Illustration: A VILLERVILLE FISH-WIFE]

There were other groups that crowded the doorsteps; there were young
mothers that sat there, with their babes clasped to the full breasts,
in whose eyes was to be read the satisfied passion of recent
motherhood; there were gay clusters of young Norman maidens, whose
glances, brilliant and restless, were pregnant with all the meaning of
unspent youth. The figures of the fishermen, toiling up the street with
bared legs and hairy breast, bending beneath their baskets alive with
fish, stopped to have a word or two, seasoned with a laugh, with these
latter groups. There were also knots of patient old men, wrecks that
the sea had tossed back to earth, to rot and die there, that came out
of the black little houses to rest their bones in the sun. And
everywhere there were groups of old women, or of women still young, to
whom the look of age had come long before its due time.

The village seemed peopled with women, sexless creatures for the most
part, whom toil and the life on the mussel-bed or in the field had
dried and hardened into mummy shapes. Only these, the old and the
useless, were left at home to rear the younger generation and to train
them to take up the same heavy burden of life. The coifs of these old
hags made dazzling spots of brightness against the gray of the walls
and the stuccoed houses; clustered together, the high caps that nodded
in unison to the chatter were in startling contrast to the bronzed
faces bending over the fish-nets, and to the blue-veined, leathery
hands that flew in and out of the coarse meshes with the fluent ease of
long practice.

With one of these old women we became friends. We had made her
acquaintance at a poetic moment, under romantic circumstances. We were
all three watching a sunset, under a pink sky; we were sitting far out
on the grasses of the cliff. Her house was in the midst of the grasses,
some little distance from the village, attached to it only as a ragged
fringe might edge a garment. It was a thatched hut; yet there were
circumstances in the life of the owner which had transformed the
interior into a luxurious apartment. The owner of the hut was herself
hanging on the edge of life; she was a toothless, bent, and withered
old remnant; but her vigor and vivacity were those of a witch. Her
hands and eyes were ceaselessly active; she was forever busy, fingering
a fish-net, or polishing her Normandy brasses, or stirring some dark
liquid in an iron pot over the dim fire.

At our first meeting, conversation had immediately engaged itself; it
had ended, as all right talk should, in friendship. On this morning of
our visit, many a gay one having preceded it, we found our friend
arrayed as if for an outing. She had mounted her best coif, and tied
across her shrivelled old breast was a vivid purple silk kerchief.

"_Tiens, mes enfants, soyez les bienvenues_," was her gay greeting,
seasoned with a high cackling laugh, as she waved us to two rickety
chairs. "No, I'm not going out, not yet; there is plenty of time,
plenty of time. It is you who are good, _si aimables_, to come out here
to see me. And tired, too, _hein_, with the long walk? _Tiens_, I had
nearly forgotten; there's a bottle of wine open below--you must take a
glass."

She never forgot. The bottle of wine had always just been opened; the
cork was always also miraculously rebellious for a cork that had been
previously pulled. Although our ancient friend was a peasant, her
cellar was the cellar of a gourmet. Wonderful old wines were hers!
Port, Bordeaux, white wines, of vintages to make the heart warm; each
was produced in turn, a different vintage and wine on each one of our
visits, but no champagne. This was no wine for women--for the right
women. Champagne was a bad, fast wine, for fast, disreputable people.
"_C'est un vrai poison, qui vous infecte_," she had declared again and
again, and when she saw her daughter drinking it, it made her shudder;
she confessed to having a moment of doubt; had Paris, indeed, really
brought her child no harm? Then the old mere would shrug her bent
shoulders and rub her hands, and for a moment she would be lost in
thought. Presently the cracked old laugh would peal forth again, and,
as she threw back her head, she would shake it as if to dispel some
dark vision.

To-day she had dropped, almost as soon as we entered, into a narrow
trap-door, descending a flight of stone steps. We could hear a clicking
of bottles and a rustling of straw; and then, behold, a veritable fairy
issuing from the bowels of the earth, with flushes of red suffusing the
ribbed, bewrinkled face, as the old figure straightens its crookedness
to carry the dusty bottle securely, steadily, lest the cloudy settling
at the bottom should be disturbed. What a merry little feast then
began! We had learned where the glasses were kept; we had been busily
scouring them while our hostess was below. Then wine and glasses, along
with three chairs, were quickly placed on the pine table at the door of
the old house. Here, on the grass of the cliffs, we sat, sipping our
wine, enjoying the sea that lay at our feet, and above, the sunlit sky.
To our friend both sky and sea were familiar companions; but the fichu
was a new friend.

"Yes, it is very beautiful, as you say," she said, in answer to our
admiring comments. "It came from Paris, from my daughter. She sent it
to me; she is always making me gifts; she is one who remembers her old
mother! Figure to yourselves that last year, in midwinter, she sent me
no less than three gowns, all wool! What can I do with them? _C'est
pour me flatter, c'est sa manière de me dire qu'il faut vivre pour
longtemps! Ah, la chère folle!_ But she spoils me, the darling!"

This daughter had become the most mysterious of all our Villerville
discoveries. Our old friend was a peasant, the child of peasant
farmers. She would always remain a peasant; and yet her daughter was a
Parisian, and lived in a _bonbonnière_. She was also married; but that
only served to thicken the web of mystery enshrouding her. How could a
daughter of a peasant, brought up as a peasant, who had lived here, a
tiller of the fields till her nineteenth year, suddenly be transformed
into a woman of the Parisian world, gain the position of a banker's
wife, and be dancing, as the old mere kept telling us, at balls at the
Elysée? Her mother never answered this riddle for us; and, more amazing
still, neither could the village. The village would shrug its
shoulders, when we questioned it, with discretion, concerning this
enigma. "Ah, dame! It was she--the old mere--who had had chances in
life, to marry her daughter like that! Victorine was pretty--yes, there
was no gainsaying she was pretty--but not so beautiful as all that, to
entrap a banker, _un homme sérieux, qui vit de ses rentes!_ and who was
generous, too, for the old mere needn't work now, since she was always
receiving money." Gifts were perpetually pouring into the low
rooms--wines, and Parisian delicacies, and thick garments.

The tie between the two, between the mother and daughter, appeared to
be as strong and their relations as complete, as if one were not clad
in homespun and the other in Worth gowns. There was no shame, that was
easily seen, on either side; each apparently was full of pride in the
other; their living apart was entirely due to the old mère's preference
for a life on the cliffs, alone in the midst of all her old peasant
belongings.

"_C'est plus chez-soi, ici!_ Victorine feels that, too. She loves the
smell of the old wood, and of the peat burning there in the fireplace.
When she comes down to see me, I must shut fast all the doors and
windows; she wants the whole of the smell, _pour faire le vrai
bouquet_, as she says. If she had had children--ah!--I don't say but
what I might have consented; but as it is, I love my old fire, and my
view out there, and the village, best!"

At this point in the conversation, the old eyes, bright as they were,
turned dim and cloudy; the inward eye was doubtless seeing something
other than the view; it was resting on a youthful figure, clad in
Parisian draperies, and on a face rising above the draperies, that bent
lovingly over the deep-throated fireplace, basking in its warmth, and
revelling in its homely perfume. We were silent also, as the picture of
that transfigured daughter of the house flitted across our own mental
vision.

"The village?" suddenly broke in the old mère. "_Dieu de Dieu!_ that
reminds me. I must go, my children, I must go. Loisette is waiting; _la
pauvre enfant_--perhaps suffering too--how do I know? And here am I,
playing, like a lazy clout! Did you know she had had un _nini_ this
morning? The little angel came at dawn. That's a good sign! And what
news for Auguste! He was out last night--fishing; she was at her
washing when he left her. _Tiens_, there they are, looking for him!
They've brought the spy-glass."

The old mère shaded her eyes, as she looked out into the dazzling
sunlight. We followed her finger, that pointed to a projection on the
cliffs. Among the grasses, grouped on top of the highest rock, was a
family party. An old fish-wife was standing far out against the sky;
she also was shading her eyes. A child's round head, crowded into a
white knit cap, was etched against the wide blue; and, kneeling,
holding in both hands a seaman's long glass, was a girl, sweeping the
horizon with swift, skilful stretches of arm and hand. The sun
descended in a shower of light on the old grandam's seamy face, on the
red, bulging cheeks of the chubby child, and on the bent figure of the
girl, whose knees were firmly implanted in the deep, tall grasses.
Beyond the group there was nothing but sea and sky.

"Yes," the mere went on, garrulously, as she recorked the bottle of old
port, carrying table and glasses within doors. "Yes, they're looking
for him. It ought to be time, now; he's due about now. There's a man
for you--good--_bon comme le bon Dieu_. Sober, saving too--good
father--in love with Loisette as on the wedding night--_ah, mes
enfants!_--there are few like him, or this village would be a paradise!"

She shut the door of the little cabin. And then she gave us a broad
wink. The wink was entirely by way of explanation; it was to enlighten
us as to why a certain rare bottle of port--a fresh one--was being
secreted beneath her fichu. It was a wink that conveyed to us a really
valuable number of facts; chief among them being the very obvious fact
that the French Government was an idiot, and a tyrant into the bargain,
since it imposed stupid laws no one meant to carry out; least of all a
good Norman. What? pay two _sous octroi_ on a bottle of one's own wine,
that one had had in one's cellar for half a lifetime? To cheat the town
out of those twopence becomes, of course, the true Norman's chief
pleasure in life. What is his reputation worth, as a shrewd, sharp man
of business, if a little thing like cheating stops him? It is even
better fun than bargaining, to cheat thus one's own town, since nothing
is to be risked, and one is so certain of success.

The mere nodded to us gayly, in farewell, as we all three re-entered
the town. She disappeared all at once into a narrow door way, her arms
still clasping her old port, that lay in the folds of her shawl. On her
shrewd kindly old face came a light that touched it all at once with a
glow of divinity; the mother in her had sprung into life with sharp,
sweet suddenness; she had caught the wail of the new-born babe through
the open door.

The village itself seemed to have caught something of the same glow. It
was not only the splendor of the noon sun that made the faces of the
worn fish-wives and the younger women softer and kindlier than common;
the groups, as we passed them, were all talking of but one thing--of
this babe that had come in the night, of Auguste's absence, and of
Loisette's sharp pains and her cries, that had filled the street, so
that none could sleep.



CHAPTER VI.

A PAGAN COBBLER.


At dusk that evening the same subject, with variations, was the
universal topic of the conversational groups. Still Auguste had not
come; half the village was out watching for him on the cliffs. The
other half was crowding the streets and the doorsteps.

Twilight is the classic time, in all French towns and villages, for the
_al fresco_ lounge. The cool breath of the dusk is fresh, then, and
restful; after the heat and sweat of the long noon the air, as it
touches brow and lip, has the charm of a caress. So the door ways and
streets were always crowded at this hour, groups moved, separated,
formed and re formed, and lingered to exchange their budget of gossip,
to call out their "_Bonne nuit_," the girls to clasp hands, looking
longingly over their shoulders at the younger fishermen and farmers;
the latter to nod, carelessly, gayly back at them; and then--as men
will--to fling an arm about a comrade's shoulder as they, in their
turn, called out into the dusk,

"_Allons, mon brave; de l'absinthe, toi?_" as the cabaret swallowed
them up.

Great and mighty were the cries and the oaths that issued from the
cabaret's open doors and windows. The Villerville fisherman loved
Bacchus only, second to Neptune; when he was not out casting his net
into the Channel he was drinking up his spoils. It was during the
sobering process only that affairs of a purely domestic nature engaged
his attention. Some of the streets were permeated with noxious odors,
with the poison of absinthe and the fumes of cheap brandy. Noisy,
reeling groups came out of the tavern doors, to shout and sing, or to
fight their way homeward. One such figure was filling a narrow alley,
swaying from right to left, with a jeering crowd at his heels.

"_Est-il assez ridicule, lui?_ with his cap over his nose, and his
knees knocking at everyone's door? _Bah! ça pue! _" the group of lads
following him went on, shouting about the poor sot, as they pelted him
with their rain of pebbles and paper bullets.

"Ah--h, he will beat her, in his turn, poor soul; she always gets it
when he's full, as full as that--"

The voice was so close to our ears that we started. The words appeared
addressed to us; they were, in a way, since they were intended for the
street, as a street, and for the benefit of the groups that filled it.
The voice was gruff yet mellow; despite its gruffness it had the ring
of a latent kindliness in its deep tones. The man who owned it was
seated on a level with our elbows, at a cobbler's bench. We stopped to
let the crowd push on beyond us. The man had only lifted his head from
his work, but involuntarily one stopped to salute the power in it.

"_Bonsoir, mesdames_"--the head gravely bowed as the great frame of the
body below the head rose from the low seat. The room within seemed to
contain nothing else save this giant figure, now that it had risen and
was moving toward us. The half-door was courteously opened.

"Will not _ces dames_ give themselves the trouble of entering? The
streets are not gay at this hour."

We went in. A dog and a woman came forth from a smaller inner room to
greet us; of the two the dog was obviously the personage next in point
of intelligence and importance to the master. The woman had a
snuffed-out air, as of one whose life had died out of her years ago.
She blinked at us meekly as she dropped a timid courtesy; at a low word
of command she turned a pitifully patient back on us all. There were
years of obedience to orders written on its submissive curves; and she
bent it once more over her kettles; both she and the kettles were on
the bare floor. It was the poorest of all the Villerville interiors we
had as yet seen; the house was also, perhaps, the oldest in the
village. It and the old church had been opposite neighbors for several
centuries. The shop and the living-room were all in one; the low window
was a counter by day and a shutter by night. Within, the walls were
bare as were the floors. Three chairs with sunken leather covers, and a
bed with a mattress also sunken--a hollow in a pine frame, was the
equipment in furniture. The poverty was brutal; it was the naked,
unabashed poverty of the middle ages, with no hint of shame or effort
of concealment. The colossus whom the low roof covered was as
unconscious of the barrenness of his surroundings as were his own
walls. This hovel was his home; he had made us welcome with the manners
of a king.

Meanwhile the dog was sniffing at our skirts. After a tour of
observation and inspection he wagged his tail, gave a short bark, and
seated himself by Charm. The giant's eyes twinkled.

"You see, mesdames, it is a dog with a mind--he knows in an instant who
are the right sort. And eloquence, also--he is one who can make
speeches with his tail. A dog's tongue is in his tail, and this one
wags his like an orator!"

Some one else, as well as the dog, possessed the oratorical gift. The
cobbler's voice was the true speaker's voice--rich, vibrating,
sonorous, with a deep note of melody in it. Pose and gestures matched
with the voice; they were flexible and picturesquely suggestive.

"If you care for oratory--" Charm smiled out upon the huge but mobile
face--"you are well placed. The village lies before you. You can always
see the play going on, and hear the speeches--of the passers-by."

The large mouth smiled back. But at Charm's first sentence the keen
Norman eyes had fixed their twinkling glitter on the girl's face. They
seemed to be reading to the very bottom of her thought and being. The
scrutiny was not relaxed as he answered.

"Yes, yes, it is very amusing. One sees a little of everything here.
_Le monde qui passe_--it makes life more diverting; it helps to kill
the time. I look out from my perch, like a bird--a very old one, and
caged"--and he shook forth a great laugh from beneath the wide leather
apron.

The woman, hearing the laugh, came out into the room.

"_E'ben--et toi_--what do you want?"

The giant stopped laughing long enough to turn tyrant. The woman, at
the first of his growl, smiled feebly, going back with unresisting
meekness to her knees, to her pots, and her kettles. The dog growled in
imitation of his master; obviously the soul of the dog was in the wrong
body.

Meanwhile the master of the dog and the woman had forgotten both now;
he was continuing, in a masterful way, to enlighten us about the
peculiarities of his native village. The talk had now reached the
subject of the church.

"Oh, yes, it is fine, very, and old; it and this old house are the
oldest of all the inhabitants of this village. The church came first,
though, it was built by the English, when they came over, thinking to
conquer us with their Hundred Years' War. Little they knew France and
Frenchmen. The church was thoroughly French, although the English did
build it; on the ground many times, but up again, only waiting the hand
of the builder and the restorer."

Again the slim-waisted shape of the old wife ventured forth into the
room.

"Yes, as he says"--in a voice that was but an echo--"the church has
been down many times."

"_Tais-toi--c'est moi qui parle_," grumbled anew her husband, giving
the withered face a terrific scowl.

"_Ohé, oui, c'est toi_," the echo bleated. The thin hands meekly folded
themselves across her apron. She stood quite still, as if awaiting more
punishment.

"It is our good curé who wishes to pull it down once more," her
terrible husband went on, not heeding her quiet presence. "Do you know
our curé? Ah, ha, he's a fine one. It's he that rules us now--he's our
king--our emperor. Ugh, he's a bad one, he is."

"Ah, yes, he's a bad one, he is," his wife echoed, from the side wall.

"Well, and who asked you to talk?" cried her husband, with a face as
black as when the curé's name had first been mentioned. The echo shrank
into the wall. "As I was telling these ladies"--he resumed here his
boot work, clamping the last between his great knees--"as I was saying,
we have not been fortunate in cures, we of our parish. There are curés
and curés, as there are fagots and fagots--and ours is a bad lot. We've
had nothing but trouble since he came to rule over us. We get poorer
day by day, and he richer. There he is now, feeding his hens and his
doves--look, over there--with the ladies of his household gathered
about him--his mother, his aunt, and his niece--a perfect harem. Oh, he
keeps them all fat and sleek, like himself! Bah!"

The grunt of disgust the cobbler gave filled the room like a
thunder-clap. He was peering over his last, across the open counter, at
a little house adjoining the church green, with a great hatred in his
face. From one of the windows of the house there was leaning forth a
group of three heads; there was the tonsured head of a priest, round,
pink-tinted, and the figures of two women, one youthful, with a long,
sad-featured face, and the other ruddy and vigorous in outline. They
were watching the priest as he scattered corn to the hens and geese in
the garden below the window.

The cobbler was still eying them fiercely, as he continued to give vent
to his disgust.

"_Méchant homme--lui_," he here whipped his thread, venomously, through
the leather he was sewing. "Figure to yourselves, mesdames, that
besides being wicked, our curé is a very shrewd man; it is not for the
pure good of the parish he works, not he."

"Not he," the echo repeated, coming forth again from the wall. This
time the whisper passed unnoticed; her master's hatred of the curé was
greater than his passion for showing his own power.

"Religion--religion is a very good way of making money, better than
most, if one knows how to work the machine. The soul, it is a fine
instrument on which to play, if one is skilful. Our curé has a grand
touch on this instrument. You should see the good man take up a
collection, it is better than a comedy."

Here the cobbler turned actor; he rose, scattering his utensils right
and left; he assumed a grand air and a mincing, softly tread, the tread
of a priest. His flexible voice imitated admirably the rounded,
unctuous, autocratic tone peculiar to the graduates of St. Sulpice.

"You should hear him, when the collection does not suit him: '_Mes
frères et mes soeurs_, I see that _le bon Dieu_ isn't in your minds and
your hearts to-day; you are not listening to his voice; the Saviour is
then speaking in vain?' Then he prays--" the cobbler folded his hands
with a great parade of reference, lifting his eyes as he rolled his
lids heavenward hypocritically--"yes, he prays--and then he passes the
plate himself! He holds it before your very nose, there is no pushing
it aside; he would hold it there till you dropped--till Doomsday. Ah,
he's a hard crust, he is! There's a tyrant for you--_la monarchie
absolue_--that's what he believes in. He must have this, he must have
that. Now it is a new altar-cloth, or a fresh Virgin of the modern
make, from Paris, with a robe of real lace; the old one was black and
faded, too black to pray to. Now it is a _huissier_, forsooth, that we
must have, we, a parish of a few hundred souls, who know our seats in
the church as well as we know our own noses. One would think a 'suisse'
would have done; but we are swells now--_avec ce gaillard-là_, only the
tiptop is good enough. So, if you grace our poor old church with your
presence you will be shown to your bench by a very splendid gentleman
in black, in knee-breeches, with silver chains, with a three-cornered
hat, who strikes with his stick three times as he seats you. Bah!
ridiculous!"

"Ridiculous!" the woman repeated, softly.

"They had the curé once, though. One day in church he announced a
subscription to be taken up for restorations, from fifty centimes
to--to anything; he will take all you give him, avaricious that he is!
He believes in the greasing of the palm, he does. Well, think you the
subscription was for restorations, _mesdames_? It was for
demolition--that's what it was for--to make the church level with the
ground. To do this would cost a little matter of twenty thousand
francs, which would pass through his hands, you understand. Well, that
staggered the parish. Our mayor--a man _pas trop fin_, was terribly
upset. He went about saying the curé claimed the church as his; he
could do as he liked with it, he said, and he proposed to make it a
fine modern one. All the village was weeping. The church was the oldest
friend of the village, except for such as I, whom these things have
turned pagan. Well, one of our good citizens reminds the mayor that the
church, under the new laws, belongs to the commune. The mayor tells
this timidly to the curé. And the curé retorts, 'Ah, _bien_, at least
one-half belongs to me.' And the good citizen answers--he has gone with
the mayor to prop him up--'Which half will you take? The cemetery,
doubtless, since your charge is over the souls of the parish.' Ah! ah!
he pricked him well then! he pricked him well!"

The low room rang with the great shout of the cobbler's laughter. The
dog barked furiously in concert. Our own laughter was drowned in the
thunder of our host's loud guffaws. The poor old wife shook herself
with a laugh so much too vigorous for her frail frame, one feared its
after-effects.

The after-effects were a surprise. After the first of her husband's
spasms of glee the old woman spoke out, but in trembling tones no
longer.

"Ah, the cemetery, it is I who forgot to go there this week."

Her husband stopped, the laugh dying on his lip as he turned to her.

"_Ah, ma bonne_, how came that? You forgot?" His own tones trembled at
the last word.

"Yes, you had the cramps again, you remember, and there was no money
left for the bouquet."

"Yes, I remember," and the great chest heaved a deep sigh.

"You have children--you have lost someone?"

"_Hélas!_ no living children, mademoiselle. No, no--one daughter we
had, but she died twenty years ago. She lies over there--where we can
see her. She would have been thirty-eight years now--the fourteenth of
this very month!"

"Yes, this very month."

Then the old woman, for the first time, left her refuge along the wall;
she crept softly, quietly near to her husband to put her withered hand
in his. His large palm closed over it. Both of the old faces turned
toward the cemetery; and in the old eyes a film gathered, as they
looked toward all that was left of the hope that was buried away from
them.

We left them thus, hand in hand, with many promises to renew the
acquaintance.

The village was no longer abroad in the streets. During our talk in the
shop the night had fallen; it had cast its shadow, as trees cast
theirs, in a long, slow slant. Lights were trembling in the dim
interiors; the shrill cries of the children were stilled; only a
muffled murmur came through the open doors and windows. The villagers
were pattering across the rough floors, talking, as their sabots
clattered heavily over the wooden surface, as they washed the dishes,
as they covered their fires, shoving back the tables and chairs. As we
walked along, through the nearer windows came the sound of steps on the
creaking old stairs, then a rustling of straw and the heavy fall of
weary bodies, as the villagers flung themselves on the old oaken beds,
that groaned as they received their burden. Presently all was still.
Only our steps resounded through the streets. The stars filled the sky;
and beneath them the waves broke along the beach. In the closely packed
little streets the heavy breathing of the sleeping village broke also
in short, quick gasps.

Only we and the night were awake.



CHAPTER VII.

SOME NORMAN LANDLADIES.


Quite a number of changes came about with our annexation of an artist
and his garden. Chief among these changes was the surprising discovery
of finding ourselves, at the end of a week, in possession of a villa.

"It's next door," Renard remarked, in the casual way peculiar to
artists. "You are to have the whole house to yourselves, all but the
top floor; the people who own it keep that to live in. There's a garden
of the right sort, with espaliers, also rose trees, and a tea house;
quite the right sort of thing altogether."

The unforeseen, in its way, is excellent and admirable. _De l'imprévu,_
surely this is the dash of seasoning--the caviare we all crave in
life's somewhat too monotonous repasts. But as men have been known to
admire the still life in wifely character, and then repented their
choice, marrying peace only to court dissension, so we, incontinently
deserting our humble inn chambers to take possession of a grander
state, in the end found the capital of experience drained to pay for
our little infidelity.

[Illustration: A DEPARTURE--VILLERVILLE]

The owners of the villa Belle Etoile, our friend announced, he had
found greatly depressed; of this, their passing mood, he had taken such
advantage as only comes to the knowing. "They speak of themselves
drearily as 'deux pauvres malheureux' with this villa still on their
hands, and here they are almost 'touching June,' as they put it. They
also gave me to understand that only the finest flowers of the
aristocracy had had the honor of dwelling in this villa. They have been
able, I should say, more or less successfully to deflower this 'fine
fleur' of some of their gold. But they are very meek just now--they
were willing to listen to reason."

The "two poor unhappies" were looking surprisingly contented an hour
later, when we went in to inspect our possessions. They received us
with such suave courtesy, that I was quite certain Renard's skill in
transactions had not played its full gamut of capacity.

Civility is the Frenchman's mask; he wears it as he does his skin--as a
matter of habit. But courtesy is his costume de bal; he can only afford
to don his bravest attire of smiles and graciousness when his pocket is
in holiday mood. Madame Fouchet we found in full ball-room toilet; she
was wreathed in smiles. Would _ces dames_ give themselves the trouble
of entering? would they see the house or the garden first? would they
permit their trunks to be sent for? Monsieur Fouchet, meanwhile, was
making a brave second to his wife's bustling welcome; he was rubbing
his hands vigorously, a somewhat suspicious action in a Frenchman, I
have had occasion to notice, after the completion of a bargain. Nature
had cast this mild-eyed individual for the part of accompanyist in the
comedy we call life; a _rôle_ he sometimes varied as now, with the
office of _claqueur_, when an uncommonly clever proof of madame's
talent for business drew from him this noiseless tribute of applause.
His weak, fat contralto called after us, as we followed madame's quick
steps up the waxed stairway; he would be in readiness, he said, to show
us the garden, "once the chambers were visited."

"It wasn't a real stroke, mesdames, it was only a warning!" was the
explanation conveyed to us in loud tones, with no reserve of whispered
delicacy, when we expressed regret at monsieur's detention below
stairs; a partially paralyzed leg, dragged painfully after the latter's
flabby figure, being the obvious cause of this detention.

The stairway had the line of beauty, describing a pretty curve before
its glassy steps led us to a narrow entry; it had also the brevity
which is said to be the very soul, _l'anima viva_, of all true wit; but
it was quite long and straight enough to serve Madame Fouchet as a
stage for a prolonged monologue, enlivened with much affluence of
gesture. Fouchet's seizure, his illness, his convalescence, and present
physical condition--a condition which appeared to be bristling with the
tragedy of danger, "un vrai drame d'anxiété"--was graphically conveyed
to us. The horrors of the long winter also, so sad for a Parisian--"si
triste pour la Parisienne, ces hivers de province"--together with the
miseries of her own home life, between this paralytic of a husband
below stairs, and above, her mother, an old lady of eighty, nailed to
her sofa with gout. "You may thus figure to yourselves, mesdames, what
a melancholy season is the winter! And now, with this villa still on
our hands, and the season already announcing itself, ruin stares us in
the face, mesdames--ruin!"

It was a moving picture. Yet we remained strangely unaffected by this
tale of woe. Madame Fouchet herself, the woman, not the actress, was to
blame, I think, for our unfeelingness. Somehow, to connect woe, ruin,
sadness, melancholy, or distress, in a word, of any kind with our
landlady's opulent figure, we found a difficult acrobatic mental feat.
She presented to the eye outlines and features that could only be
likened, in point of prosperity, to a Dutch landscape. Like certain of
the mediaeval saints presented by the earlier delineators of the
martyrs as burning above a slow fire, while wearing smiles of purely
animal content, as if in full enjoyment of the temperature, this lady's
sufferings were doubtless an invisible discipline, the hair shirt which
her hardened cuticle felt only to be a pleasurable itching.

"_Voilà, mesdames!_" It was with a magnificent gesture that madame
opened doors and windows. The drama of her life was forgotten for the
moment in the conscious pride of presenting us with such a picture as
her gay little house offered.

Inside and out, summer and the sun were blooming and shining with
spendthrift luxuriance. The salon opened directly on the garden; it
would have been difficult to determine just where one began and the
domain of the other ended, with the pinks and geraniums that nodded in
response to the peach and pear blossoms in the garden. A bit of faded
Aubusson and a print representing Madame Geoffrin's salon in full
session, with a poet of the period transporting the half-moon grouped
listeners about him to the point of tears, were evidences of the
refined tastes of our landlady in the arts; only a sentimentalist would
have hung that picture in her salon. Other decorations further proved
her as belonging to both worlds. The chintzes gay with garlands of
roses, with which walls, beds, and chairs were covered, revealed the
mundane element, the woman of decorative tastes, possessed of a hidden
passion for effective backgrounds. Two or three wooden crucifixes, a
_prie-dieu_, and a couple of saints in plaster, went far to prove that
this excellent _bourgeoise_ had thriftily made her peace with Heaven.
It was a curious mixture of the sacred and the profane.

Down below, beneath the windows overlooking the sea, lay the garden.
All the houses fronting the cliff had similar little gardens, giving,
as the French idiom so prettily puts it, upon the sea. But compared to
these others, ours was as a rose of Sharon blooming in the midst of
little deserts. Renard had been entirely right about this particular
bit of earth attached to our villa. It was a gem of a garden. It was a
French garden, and therefore, entirely as a matter of course, it had
walls. It was as cut off from the rest of the world as if it had been a
prison or a fortification.

The Frenchman, above all others, appears to have the true sentiment of
seclusion, when the society of trees and flowers is to be enjoyed. Next
to woman, nature is his fetish. True to his national taste in dress, he
prefers that both should be costumed _à la Parisienne_; but as poet and
lover, it is his instinct to build a wall about his idol, that he may
enjoy his moments of expansion unseen and unmolested. This square of
earth, for instance, was not much larger than the space covered by the
chamber roof above us; and yet, with the high walls towering over the
rose-stalks, it was as secluded as a monk's cloister. We found it,
indeed, on later acquaintance, as poetic and delicately sensuous a
retreat as the romance-writers would wish us to believe did those
mediaeval connoisseurs of comfort, when, with sandalled feet, they
paced their own convent garden-walks. Fouchet was a broken-down
shopkeeper; but somewhere hidden within, there lurked the soul of a
Maecenas; he knew how to arrange a feast--of roses. The garden was a
bit of greensward, not much larger than a pocket handkerchief; but the
grass had the right emerald hue, and one's feet sank into the rich turf
as into the velvet of an oriental rug. Small as was the enclosure,
between the espaliers and the flower-beds serpentined minute paths of
glistening pebbles. Nothing which belonged to a garden had been
forgotten, not even a pine from the tropics, and a bench under the pine
that was just large enough for two. This latter was an ideal little
spot in which to bring a friend or a book. One could sit there and
gorge one's self with sweets; a dance was perpetually going on--the
gold-and-purple butterflies fluttering gayly from morning till night;
and the bees freighted the air with their buzzing. If one tired of
perfumes and dancing, there was always music to be enjoyed, from a full
orchestra. The sea, just the other side of the wall of osiers, was
always in voice, whether sighing or shouting. The larks and blackbirds
had a predilection for this nest of color, announcing their preference
loudly in a combat of trills. And once or twice, we were quite certain,
a nightingale with Patti notes had been trying its liquid scales in the
dark.

It was in this garden that our acquaintance with our landlord deepened
into something like friendship. Monsieur Fouchet was always to be found
there, tying up the rose-trees, or mending the paths, or shearing the
bit of turf.

_"Mon jardin, c'est un peu moi, vous savez_--it is my pride and my
consolation." At the latter word, Fouchet was certain to sigh.

Then we fell to wondering just what grief had befallen this amiable
person which required Horatian consolation. Horace had need of
rose-leaves to embalm his disappointments, for had he not cooled his
passions by plunging into the bath of literature? Besides, Horace was
bitten by the modern rabies: he was as restless as an American. When at
Rome was he not always sighing for his Sabine farm, and when at the
farm always regretting Rome? But this harmless, innocent-eyed,
benevolent-browed old man, with his passive brains tied up in a
foulard, o' morning's, and his _bourgeois_ feet adorned with carpet
slippers, what grief in the past had bitten his poor soul and left its
mark still sore?

"It isn't monsieur--it is madame who has made the past dark," was
Renard's comment, when we discussed our landlord's probable
acquaintance with regret--or remorse.

Whatever secret of the past may have hovered over the Fouchet
household, the evil bird had not made its nest in madame's breast, that
was clear; her smooth, white brow was the sign of a rose-leaf
conscience; that dark curtain of hair, looped madonna-wise over each
ear, framed a face as unruffled as her conscience.

She was entirely at peace with her world, and with heaven as well, that
was certain. Whatever her sins, the confessional had purged her. Like
others, doubtless, she had found a husband and the provinces excellent
remedies for a damaged reputation. She lived now in the very odor of
sanctity; the cure had a pipe in her kitchen, with something more
sustaining, on certain bright afternoons. Although she was daily
announcing to us her approaching dissolution--"I die, mesdames--I die
of ennui"--it seemed to me there were still signs, at times, of a
vigorous resuscitation. The cure's visits were wont to produce a deeper
red in the deep bloom of her cheek; the mayor and his wife, who drank
their Sunday coffee in the arbor, brought, as did Beatrix's advent to
Dante, _vita nuova_ to this homesick Parisian.

There were other pleasures in her small world, also, which made life
endurable. Bargaining, when one teems with talent, may be as exciting
as any other form of conquest. Madame's days were chiefly passed in
imitation of the occupation so dear to an earlier, hardier race, that
race kings have knighted for their powers in dealing mightily with
their weaker neighbors. Madame, it is true, was only a woman, and
Villerville was somewhat slimly populated. But in imitation of her
remote feudal lords, she also fell upon the passing stranger, demanding
tribute. When the stranger did not pass, she kept her arm in practice,
so to speak, by extracting the last _sou_ in a transaction from a
neighbor, or by indulging in a drama in which the comedy of insult was
matched by the tragedy of contempt.

One of these mortal combats it was my privilege to witness. The war
arose on our announcement to Mère Mouchard, the lady of the inn by the
sea, of our decision to move next door. To us Mère Mouchard presented
the unruffled plumage of a dove; her voice also was as the voice of the
same, mellowed by sucking. Ten minutes later the town was assembled to
lend its assistance at the encounter between our two landladies. Each
stood on their respective doorsteps with arms akimbo and head thrust
forward, as geese protrude head and tongue in moments of combat. And it
was thus, the mere hissed, that her boarders were stolen from
her--under her very nose--while her back was turned, with no more
thought of honesty or shame than a----. The word was never uttered. The
mère's insult was drowned in a storm of voices? for there came a loud
protest from the group of neighbors. Madame Fouchet, meanwhile, was
sustaining her own role with great dignity. Her attitude of
self-control could only have been learned in a school where insult was
an habitual weapon. She smiled, an infuriating, exasperating,
successful smile. She showed a set of defiant white teeth, and to her
proud white throat she gave a boastful curve. Was it her fault if _ces
dames_ knew what comfort and cleanliness were? if they preferred "_des
chambres garnies avec goût, vraiment artistiques_"--to rooms fit only
for peasants? _Ces dames_ had just come from Paris; doubtless, they
were not yet accustomed to provincial customs--_aux moeurs
provinciales_. Then there were exchanged certain melodious acerbities,
which proved that these ladies had entered the lists on previous
occasions, and that each was well practised in the other's methods of
warfare. Opportunely, Renard appeared on the scene; his announcement
that we proposed still to continue taking our repasts with the mere,
was as oil on the sea of trouble. A reconciliation was immediately
effected, and the street as immediately lost all interest in the play,
the audience melting away as speedily as did the wrath of the
disputants.

"_Le bon Dieu soit loué_," cried Madame Fouchet, puffing, as she
mounted the stairs a few moments later--"God be praised"--she hadn't
come here to the provinces to learn her rights--to be taught her
alphabet. Mère Mouchard, forsooth, who wanted a week's board as
indemnity for her loss of us! A week's board--for lodgings scorned by
peasants!

"Ah, these Normans! what a people, what a people! They would peel the
skin off your back! They would sell their children! They would cheat
the devil himself!"

"You, madame, I presume, are from Paris." Madame smiled as she
answered, a thin fine smile, richly seasoned with scorn. "Ah, mesdames!
All the world can't boast of Paris as a birthplace, unfortunately. I
also, I am a Norman, _mais je ne m'en fiche pas!_ Most of my life,
however, I've lived in Paris, thank God!" She lifted her head as she
spoke, and swept her hands about her waist to adjust the broad belt, an
action pregnant with suggestions. For it was thus conveyed to us,
delicately, that such a figure as hers was not bred on rustic diet;
also, that the Parisian glaze had not failed of its effect on the
coarser provincial clay.

Meanwhile, below in the garden, her husband was meekly tying up his
rose-trees.

Neither of the landladies' husbands had figured in the street-battle.
It had been a purely Amazonian encounter, bloodless but bitter. Both
the husbands of these two belligerent landladies appeared singularly
well trained. Mouchard, indeed, occupied a comparatively humble sphere
in his wife's _ménage_. He was perpetually to be seen in the
court-yard, at the back of the house, washing dogs, or dishes, in a
costume in which the greatest economy of cloth compatible with decency
had been triumphantly solved. His wife ran the house, and he ran the
errands, an arrangement which, apparently, worked greatly to the
satisfaction of both. But Mouchard was not the first or the second
French husband who, on the threshold of his connubial experience, had
doubtless had his role in life appointed to him, filling the same with
patient acquiescence to the very last of the lines.

There is something very touching in the subjection of French husbands.
In point of meekness they may well serve, I think, as models to their
kind. It is a meekness, however, which does not hint of humiliation;
for, after all, what humiliation can there be in being thoroughly
understood? The Frenchwoman, by virtue of centuries of activity, in the
world and in the field, has become an expert in the art of knowing her
man; she has not worked by his side, under the burn of the noon sun, or
in the cimmerian darkness of the shop-rear, counting the pennies, for
nothing. In exchanging her illusions for the bald front of fact, man
himself has had to pay the penalty of this mixed gain. She tests him by
purely professional standards, as man tests man, or as he has tested
her, when in the ante-matrimonial days he weighed her _dot_ in the
scale of his need. The Frenchwoman and Shakespeare are entirely of one
mind; they perceive the great truth of unity in the scheme of things:

  "Woman's test is man's taste."

This is the first among the great truths in the feminine grammar of
assent. French masculine taste, as its criterion, has established the
excellent doctrine of utilitarianism. With quick apprehension the
Frenchwoman has mastered this fact; she has cleverly taken a lesson
from ophidian habits--she can change her skin, quickly shedding the
sentimentalist, when it comes to serious action, to don the duller
raiment of utility. She has accepted her world, in other words, as she
finds it, with a philosopher's shrug. But the philosopher is lined with
the logician; for this system of life has accomplished the miracle of
making its women logical; they have grasped the subtleties of inductive
reasoning. Marriage, for example, they know is entered into solely on
the principle of mutual benefit; it is therefore a partnership, _bon_;
now, in partnerships sentiments and the emotions are out of place, they
only serve to dim the eye; those commodities, therefore, are best
conveyed to other markets than the matrimonial one; for in purely
commercial transactions one has need of perfect clearness of vision, if
only to keep one well practised in that simple game called looking out
for one's own interest. In Frenchwomen, the ratiocinationist is
extraordinarily developed; her logic penetrates to the core of things.

Hence it is that Mouchard washes dishes.

Monsieur Jourdain, in Molière's comedy, who expressed such surprise at
finding that he had been talking prose for forty years without knowing
it, was no more amazed than would Mère Mouchard have been had you
announced to her that she was a logician; or that her husband's daily
occupations in the bright little court-yard were the result of a
system. Yet both facts were true.

In that process we now know as the survival of the fittest, the mère's
capacity had snuffed out her weaker spouse's incompetency; she had
taken her place at the helm, because she belonged there by virtue of
natural fitness. There were no tender illusions which would suffer, in
seeing the husband allotted to her, probably by her parents and the
_dot_ system, relegated to the ignominy of passing his days washing
dishes--dishes which she cooked and served--dishes, it should be added,
which she was entirely conscious were cooked by the hand of genius, and
which she garnished with a sauce and served with a smile, such as only
issue from French kitchens.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE QUARTIER LATIN ON THE BEACH.


The beach, one morning, we found suddenly peopled with artists. It was
a little city of tents. Beneath striped awnings and white umbrellas a
multitude of flat-capped heads sat immovably still on their
three-legged stools, or darted hither and thither. Paris was evidently
beginning to empty its studios; the Normandy beaches now furnished the
better model.

One morning we were in luck. A certain blonde beard had counted early
in the day on having the beach to himself. He had posed his model in
the open daylight, that he might paint her in the sun. He had placed
her, seated on an edge of seawall; for a background there was the curve
of the yellow sands and the flat breadth of the sea, with the droop of
the sky meeting the sea miles away. The girl was a slim, fair shape,
with long, thin legs and delicately moulded arms; she was dressed in
the fillet and chiton of Greece. During her long poses she was as
immovable as an antique marble; her natural grace and prettiness were
transfigured into positive beauty by the flowing lines and the pink
draperies of her Attic costume. Seated thus, she was a breathing
embodiment of the best Greek period. When the rests came, her jump from
the wall landed her square on her feet and at the latter end of the
nineteenth century. Once free, she bounded from her perch on the high
sea-wall. In an instant she had tucked her tinted draperies within the
slender girdle; her sandalled feet must be untrammelled, she was about
to take her run on the beach. Soon she was pelting, irreverently, her
painter with a shower of loose pebbles. Next she had challenged him to
a race; when she reached the goal, her thin, bare arms were uplifted as
she clapped and shouted for glee; the Quartier Latin in her blood was
having its moment of high revelry in the morning sun.

This little grisette, running about free and unshackled in her loose
draperies, quite unabashed in her state of semi-nudity--gay, reckless,
wooing pleasure on the wing, surely she might have posed as the
embodied archetype of France itself. So has this pagan among modern
nations borrowed something of the antique spirit of wantonness. Along
with its theft of the Attic charm and grace, it has captured, also,
something of its sublime indifference; in the very teeth of the dull
modern world, France has laughed opinion to scorn.

At noon the tents were all deserted. It was at this hour that the inn
garden was full. The gayety and laughter overflowed the walls. Everyone
talked at once; the orders were like a rattle of artillery--painting
for hours in the open air gives a fine edge to appetite, and patience
is never the true twin of hunger. Everything but the _potage_ was
certain to be on time.

Colinette, released from her Greek draperies, with her Parisian bodice
had recovered the _blague_ of the studios.

"_Sacré nom de--on reste donc claquemuré ainsi toute la matinée!_ And
all for an _omelette_--a puny, good-for-nothing _omelette_. And
you--you've lost your tongue, it seems?" And a shrill voice pierced the
air as Colinette gave her painter the hint of her prodding elbow. With
the appearance of the _omelette_ the reign of good humor would return.
Everything then went as merrily as that marriage-bell which,
apparently, is the only one absent in Bohemia's gay chimes.

These arbors had obviously been built out of pure charity: they
appeared to have been constructed on the principle that since man,
painting man, is often forced to live alone, from economic necessity,
it is therefore only the commonest charity to provide him with the
proper surroundings for eating _à deux._ The little tables beneath the
kiosks were strictly _tête-à-tête_ tables; even the chairs, like the
visitors, appeared to come only in couples.

The Frenchman has been reproached with the sin of ingratitude; has been
convicted, indeed, as possessed of more of that pride that comes
late--the day after the gift of bounty has been given--than some other
of his fellow-mortals. Yet here were a company of Frenchmen--and
Frenchwomen--proving in no ordinary fashion their equipment in this
rare virtue. It was early in May; up yonder, where the Seine flows
beneath the Parisian bridges, the pulse of the gay Paris world was
beating in time to the spring in the air. Yet these artists had
deserted the asphalt of the boulevards for the cobbles of a village
street, the delights of the _café chantant_ had been exchanged for the
miracle of the moon rising over the sea, and for the song of the thrush
in the bush.

The Frenchman, more easily and with simpler art than any of his modern
brethren, can change the prose of our dull, practical life into poetry;
he can turn lyrical at a moment's notice. He possesses the power of
transmuting the commonplace into the idyllic, by merely clapping on his
cap and turning his back on the haunts of men. He has retained a
singular--an almost ideal sensitiveness, of mental cuticle--such
acuteness of sensation, that a journey to a field will oftentimes yield
him all the flavor of a long voyage, and a sudden introduction to a
forest, the rapture that commonly comes only with some unwonted aspect
of nature. Perhaps it is because of this natural poet indwelling in a
Frenchman, that makes him content to remain so much at home. Surely the
extraordinary is the costly necessity for barren minds; the
richly-endowed can see the beauty that lies the other side of their own
door-step.



CHAPTER IX.

A NORMAN HOUSEHOLD.


There were two paths in the village that were well worn. One was that
which led the village up into the fields. The other was the one that
led the tillers of the soil down into the village, to the door step of
the justice of the peace.

A good Norman is no Norman who has not a lawsuit on hand.

Anything will serve as a pretext for a quarrel No sum of money is so
small as not to warrant a breaking of the closest blood ties, if
thereby one's rights may be secured. Those beautiful stripes of rye,
barley, corn, and wheat up yonder in the fields, that melt into one
another like sea-tones--down here on the benches before the _juge de
paix_--what quarrels, what hatreds, what evil passions these few acres
of land have brought their owners, facing each other here like so many
demons, ready to spring at the others' throats! Brothers on these
benches forget they are brothers, and sisters that they have suckled
the same mother. Two more yards of the soil that should have been
Fillette's instead of Jeanne's, and the grave will enclose both before
the clenched fist of either is relaxed, and the last _sous_ in the
stocking will be spent before the war between their respective lawyers
will end.

Many and many were the tales told us of the domestic tragedies, born of
wills mal-administered, of the passions of hate, ambition, and despair
kept at a white heat because half the village owned, up in the fields,
what the other half coveted. Many, also, and fierce were the heated
faces we looked in upon at the justice's door, in the very throes of
the great moment of facing justice, and their adversary.

Our own way, by preference, took us up into the fields. Here, in the
broad open, the farms lay scattered like fortifications over a plain.
Doubtless, in the earlier warlike days they had served as such.

Once out of the narrow Villerville streets, and the pastoral was in
full swing.

The sea along this coast was not in the least insistant; it allowed the
shore to play its full gamut of power. There were no tortured shapes of
trees or plants, or barren wastes, to attest the fierce ways of the sea
with the land. Reminders of the sea and of the life that is lived in
ships were conspicuous features everywhere, in the pastoral scenes that
began as soon as the town ended. Women carrying sails and nets toiled
through the green aisles of the roads and lanes. Fishing-tackle hung in
company with tattered jerseys outside of huts hidden in grasses and
honeysuckle. The shepherdesses, as they followed the sheep inland into
the heart of the pasture land, were busy netting the coarse cages that
trap the finny tribe. Long-limbed, vigorous-faced, these shepherdesses
were Biblical figures. In their coarse homespun, with only a skirt and
a shirt, with their bare legs, half-open bosoms, and the fine poise of
their blond heads, theirs was a beauty that commanded the homage
accorded to a rude virginity.

In some of the fields, in one of our many walks, the grass was being
cut. In these fields the groups of men and women were thickest. The
long scythes were swung mightily by both; the voices, a gay treble of
human speech, rose above the metallic swish of the sharp blades cutting
into the succulent grasses.

The fat pasture lands rose and sank in undulations as rounded as the
nascent breasts of a young Greek maiden. A medley of color played its
charming variations over fields, over acres of poppies, over plains of
red clover, over the backs of spotted cattle, mixing, mingling,
blending a thousand twists and turns into one exquisite, harmonious
whole. There was no discordant note, not one harsh contrast; even the
hay-ricks seemed to have been modelled rather than pitched into shape;
their sloping sides and finely pointed apexes giving them the dignity
of structural intent.

Why should not a peasant, in blouse and sabots, with a grinning idiot
face, have put the picture out? But he did not. He was walking, or
rather waddling, toward us, between two green walls that rose to be
arched by elms that hid the blue of the sky. This lane was the kind of
lane one sees only in Devonshire and in Normandy. There are lanes and
lanes, as, to quote our friend the cobbler, there are cures and cures.
But only in these above-named countries can one count on walking
straight into the heart of an emerald, if one turns from the high-road
into a lane. The trees, in these Devonshire and Normandy by-paths, have
ways of their own of vaulting into space; the hedges are thicker,
sweeter, more vocal with insect and song notes than elsewhere; the
roadway itself is softer to the foot, and narrower--only two are
expected to walk therein.

It was through such a lane as this that the coarse, animal shape of a
peasant was walking toward us. His legs and body were horribly twisted;
the dangling arms and crooked limbs appeared as if caricaturing the
gnarled and tortured boughs and trunks of the apple-trees. The
peasant's blouse was filthy; his sabots were reeking with dirty straw;
his feet and ankles, bare, were blacker than the earth over which he
was painfully crawling; and on his face there was the vacuous, sensuous
deformity of the smile idiocy wears. Again I ask, why did he not
disfigure this fair scene, and put out something of the beauty of the
day? Is it because the French peasant seems now to be an inseparable
adjunct of the Frenchman's landscape? That even deformity has been so
handled by the realists as to make us see beauty in ugliness? Or is it
that, as moderns, we are all bitten by the rabies of the picturesque;
that all things serve and are acceptable so long as we have our
necessary note of contrast? Certain it is that it appears to be the
peasant's blouse that perpetuates the Salon, and perhaps--who
knows?--when over-emigration makes our own American farmer too poor to
wear a boiled shirt when he ploughs, we also may develop a school of
landscape, with figures.

Meanwhile the walk and the talk had made Charm thirsty. "Why should we
not go," she asked, "across the next field, into that farm house
yonder, and beg for a glass of milk?"

The farm-house might have been waiting for us, it was so still. Even
the grasses along its sloping roof nodded, as if in welcome. The house,
as we approached it, together with its out-buildings, assumed a more
imposing aspect than it had from the road. Its long, low facade, broken
here and there by a miniature window or a narrow doorway, appeared to
stretch out into interminable length beneath the towering beeches and
the snarl of the peach-tree boughs.

The stillness was ominous--it was so profound.

The only human in sight was a man in a distant field; he was raking the
ploughed ground. He was too far away to hear the sound of our voices.

"Perhaps the entire establishment is in the fields," said Charm, as we
neared the house.

Just then a succession of blows fell on our ear.

"Someone is beating a mattress within, we shall have our glass after
all."

We knocked. But no one answered our knock.

The beating continued; the sound of the blows fell as regularly as if
machine-impelled. Then a cry rose up; it was the cry of a young, strong
voice, and it was followed by a low wail of anguish.

The door stood half-open, and this is what we saw: A man--tall, strong,
powerful, with a face purple with passion--bending over the crouching
form of a girl, whose slender body was quivering, shrinking, and
writhing as the man's hand, armed with a short stick, fell, smiting her
defenceless back and limbs.

Her wail went on as each blow fell.

In a corner, crouched in a heap, sitting on her heels, was a woman. She
was clapping her hands. Her eyes were starting from her head; she
clapped as the blows came, and above the girl's wail her strong,
exultant voice arose--calling out:

"_Tue-la! Tue-la!_"

It was the voice of a triumphant fury.

The backs of all these people were turned upon us; they had not seen,
much less heard, our entrance.

Someone else had seen us, however. A man with a rake over his shoulder
rushed in through the open door; it was the peasant we had seen in the
field. He seized Charm by the arm, and then my own hand was grasped as
in a grip of iron. Before we had time for resistance he had pushed us
out before him into the entry, behind the outer door. This latter he
slammed. He put his broad back against it; then he dropped his rake and
began to mop his face, violently, with a filthy handkerchief he plucked
from beneath his blouse.

"_Que chance! Nom de Dieu, que chance! Je v'avions vue_, I saw you just
in time--just in time--"

"But, I must go in--I wish to go back!" But Charm might as well have
attempted to move a pillar of stone.

The peasant's coarse, good-humored face broke into a broad laugh.

"Pardon, mam'selle--_j'n bougeons pas. Not' maitre e encoléré; e' son
jour--faut pas l'irriter--aujou'hui."_

Meantime, during the noise of our forced exit and the ensuing dialogue,
the scene within had evidently changed in character, for the blows had
ceased. Steps could be heard crossing and recrossing the wooden floor.
A creaking sound succeeded to the beating--it was the creaking and
groaning of a wooden staircase bending beneath the weight of a human
figure. In an upper chamber there came the sound of a quiet, subdued
sobbing now. They were the sobs of the girl. She at least had been
released.

A face, cruel, pinched, hardened, with flaming agate eyes and an
insolent smile, stood looking out at us through the dulled, dusty
window-pane. It was the fury.

Meanwhile the peasant was still defending his post. A moment later the
tall frame of the farmer suddenly filled the open doorway. The peasant
well-nigh fell into his master's arms. The farmer's face was still
terrible to look upon, but the purple stain of passion was now turned
to red. There was a mocking insolence in his tone as he addressed us,
that matched with the woman's unconcealed glee.

"Will you not come in, mesdames? Will you not rest a while after your
long walk?" On the man's hard face there was still the shadow of a
sinister cruelty as he waved his hand toward the room within.

The peasant's good-humored, loutish smile, and his stupid, cow-like
eyes, by contrast, were the eyes and smile of a benevolent deity.

The smile told us we were right, as we slunk away toward the open road.
The head kept nodding approval as we vanished presently beneath the
shade of the protecting trees.

The fields, as we swept rapidly past them, were as bathed in peace as
when we had left them; there was even a more voluptuous content abroad:
for the twilight was wrapping about the landscape its poppied dusk of
gloom and shadow. Above, the birds were swirling in sweeping circles,
raining down the ecstasy of their night-song; still above, far beyond
them, across a zenith pure, transparent, ineffably pink, illumined
wisps of clouds were trailing their scarf-like shapes. It was a scene
of beatific peace. Across the fields came the sound of a distant bell.
It was the _Angelus_. The ploughmen stopped to doff their hats, the
women to bend their heads in prayer.

And in our ears, louder than the vibrations of the hamlet bell, louder
than the bird-notes and the tumult of the voluptuous insect whirr,
there rang the thud, thud of cruel blows falling on quivering human
flesh.

The curtain that hid the life of the peasant-farmer had indeed been
lifted.



CHAPTER X.

ERNESTINE.


"Ah, mesdames, what will you have? The French peasant is like that.
When he is in a rage nothing stops him--he beats anything, everything;
whatever his hand encounters must suffer when he is angry; his wife,
his child, his servant, his horse, they are all alike to him when he
sees red."

Monsieur Fouchet was tying up his rose-trees; we were watching him from
our seat on the green bench. Here in the garden, beneath the blue
vault, the roses were drooping from very heaviness of glory; they gave
forth a scent that made the head swim. It was a healthy, virile
intoxication, however, the salt in the air steadying one's nerves.

Nature, not being mortal and cursed with a conscience, had risen that
morning in a mood for carousal; at this hour of noon she had reached
the point of ecstatic stupor. No state of trance was ever so exquisite.
The air was swooning, but how delicate its gasps, as if it fell away
into calm! How adorably blue the sky in its debauch of sun-lit ether!
The sea, too, although it reeled slightly, unsteadily rising only to
fall away, what a radiance of color it maintained! Here in the garden
the drowsy air would lift a flower petal, as some dreamer sunk in
hasheesh slumber might touch a loved hand, only to let it slip away in
nerveless impotence. Never had the charm of this Normandy sea-coast
been as compelling; never had the divine softness of this air, this
harmonious marriage of earth-scents and sea-smells seemed as perfect;
never before had the delicacy of the foliage and color-gradations of
the sky as triumphantly proved that nowhere else, save in France, can
nature be at once sensuous and poetic.

We looked for something other than pure enjoyment from this golden
moment; we hoped its beauty would help us to soften our landlord. This
was the moment we had chosen to excite his sympathies, also to gain
counsel from him concerning the tragedy we had witnessed the day
before. He listened to our tale with evident interest, but there was a
disappointing coolness in his eye. As the narrative proceeded, the
brutality of the situation failed to sting him to even a mild form of
indignation. He went on tying his rose-trees, his ardor expending
itself in choice snippings of the stray stalks and rebellious tendrils.

"This Guichon," he said, after a brief moment, in the tone that goes
with the pursuance of an occupation that has become a passion. "This
Guichon--I know him. He is a hard man, but no harder than many others,
and he has had his losses, which don't always soften a man. '_Qui terre
a guerre a_,' Molière says, and Guichon has had many lawsuits, losing
them all. He has been twice married; that was his daughter by his first
wife he was touching up like that. He married only the other day Madame
Tier, a rich woman, a neighbor, their lands join. It was a great match
for him, and she, the wife, and his daughter don't hit it off, it
appears. There was some talk of a marriage for the girl lately; a good
match presented itself, but the girl will have none of it; perhaps that
accounts for the beating."

A rose, overblown with its fulness of splendor, dropped in a shower at
Fouchet's feet just then.

"_Tiens, elle est finie, celle-là_" he cried, with an accent of regret,
and he stooped over the fallen petals as if they had been the remains
of a friend. Then he sighed as he swept the mass into his broad palm.

"Come, let us leave him to the funeral of his roses; he hasn't the
sensibilities of an insect;" and Charm grasped my arm to lead me over
the turf, across the gravel paths, toward the tea-house.

This tottering structure had become one of our favorite retreats; in
the poetic _mise-en-scène_ of the garden it played the part of Ruin. It
was absurdly, ridiculously out of repair; its gaping beams and the
sunken, dejected floor could only be due to intentional neglect.
Fouchet evidently had grasped the secrets of the laws of contrast; the
deflected angle of the tumbling roof made the clean-cut garden beds
doubly true. Nature had had compassion on the aged little building,
however; the clustering, fragrant vines, in their hatred of nudity, had
invested the prose of a wreck with the poetry of drapery. The
tip-tilted settee beneath the odorous roof became, in time, our chosen
seat; from that perch we could overlook the garden-walls, the beach,
the curve of the shore, the grasses and hollyhocks in our neighbor's
garden, the latter startlingly distinct against the great arch of the
sky.

It was here Renard found us an hour later. To him, likewise, did Charm
narrate our extraordinary experience of yesterday, with much adjunct of
fiery comment, embellishment of gesture, and imitative pose.

"Ye gods, what a scene to paint! You were in luck--in luck; why wasn't
I there?" was Renard's tribute to human pity.

"Oh, you are all alike, all--nothing moves you--you haven't common
human sympathies--you haven't the rudiments of a heart! You are
terrible--all of you--terrible!" A moment after she had left us, as if
the narrowness of the little house stifled her. With long, swinging
steps she passed out, to air her indignation, apparently, beneath the
wall of the espaliers.

"Splendid creature, isn't she?" commented Renard, following the long
lines of the girl's fluttering muslin gown, as he plucked at his
mustache. "She should always wear white and gold--what is that
stuff?--and be lit up like that with a kind of goddess-like anger. She
is wrong, however," he went on, a moment later; "those of us who live
here aren't really barbarians, only we get used to things. It's the
peasants themselves that force us; they wouldn't stand interference. A
peasant is a kind of king on his own domain; he does anything he likes,
short of murder, and he doesn't always stop at that."

"But surely the Government--at least their Church, ought to teach
them--"

"Oh, their Church! they laugh at their curés--till they come to die.
He's a heathen, that's what the French peasant is--there's lots of the
middle ages abroad up there in the country. Along here, in the coast
villages, the nineteenth century has crept in a bit, humanizing them,
but the _fonds_ is always the same; they're by nature avaricious,
sordid, cruel; they'll do anything for money; there isn't anything
sacred for them except their pocket."

A few days later, in our friend the cobbler we found a more sympathetic
listener. "Dame! I also used to beat my wife," he said,
contemplatively, as he scratched his herculean head, "but that was when
I was a Christian, when I went to confession; for the confessional was
made for that, _c'est pour laver le linge sale des consciences, çà_"
(interjecting his epigram). "But now--now that I am a free-thinker, I
have ceased all that; I don't beat her," pointing to his old wife, "and
neither do I drink or swear."

"It's true, he's good--he is, now," the old wife nodded, with her slit
of a smile; "but," she added, quickly, as if even in her husband's
religious past there had been some days of glory, "he was always
just--even then--when he beat me."

"_C'est très femme, çà--hein, mademoiselle?_" And the cobbler cocked
his head in critical pose, with a philosopher's smile.

The result of the interview, however, although not entirely
satisfactory, was illuminating, besides this light which had been
thrown on the cobbler's reformation. For the cobbler was a cousin,
distant in point of kinship, but still a cousin, of the brutal farmer
and father. He knew all the points of the situation, the chief of which
was, as Fouchet had hinted, that the girl had refused to wed the _bon
parti_, who was a connection of the step-mother. As for the
step-mother's murderous outcry, "Kill her! kill her!" the cobbler
refused to take a dramatic view of this outburst.

"In such moments, you understand, one loses one's head; brutality
always intoxicates; she was a little drunk, you see."

When we proposed our modest little scheme, that of sending for the girl
and taking her, for a time at least, into our service, merely as a
change of scene, the cobbler had found nothing but admiration for the
project. "It will be perfect, mesdames. They, the parents, will ask
nothing better. To have the girl out at service, away, and yet not
disgracing them by taking a place with any other farmer; yes, they will
like that, for they are rich, you see, and wealth always respects
itself. Ah, yes, it's perfect; I'll arrange all that--all the details."

Two days later the result of the arrangement stood before us. She was
standing with her arms crossed, her fingers clasping her elbows--with
her very best peasant manner. She was neatly, and, for a peasant,
almost fashionably attired in her holiday dress--a short, black skirt,
white stockings, a flowery kerchief crossed over her broad bosom, and
on her pretty hair a richly tinted blue _foulard_. She was very well
dressed for a peasant, and, from the point of view of two travellers,
of about as much use as a plough.

"It's a beautiful scheme, and it's as dramatic as the fifth act of a
play; but what shall we do with her?"

"Oh." replied Charm, carelessly, "there isn't anything in particular
for her to do. I mean to buy her a lot of clothes, like those she has
on, and she can walk about in the garden or in the fields."

"Ah, I see; she's to be a kind of a perambulating figure-piece."

"Yes, that's about it. I dare say she will be very useful at sunset, in
a dim street; so few peasants wear anything approaching to costume
nowadays."

Ernestine herself, however, as we soon discovered, had an entirely
different conception of her vocation. She was a vigorous, active young
woman, with the sap of twenty summers in her lusty young veins. Her
energies soon found vent in a continuous round of domestic excitements.
There were windows and floors that cried aloud to Heaven to be
scrubbed; there were holes in the sheets to make mam'zelle's lying
between them _une honte, une vraie honte_. As for Madame Fouchet's
little weekly bill, _Dieu de Dieu_, it was filled with such extortions
as to make the very angels weep. Madame and Ernestine did valiant
battle over those bills thereafter. Ernestine was possessed of the
courage of a true martyr; she could suffer and submit to the scourge,
in the matter of personal persecution, for the religion of her own
convictions; but in the service of her rescuer, she could fight with
the fierceness of a common soldier.

"When Norman meets Norman--" Charm began one day, the sound of voices,
in a high treble of anger, coming in to us through the windows.

But Ernestine was knocking at the door, with a note in her hand.

"An answer is asked, mesdames," she said, in a voice of honey, as she
dropped her low courtesy.

This was the missive:


ALONG AN OLD POST-ROAD.

TO HONFLEUR AND TROUVILLE.



CHAPTER XI.

TO AN OLD MANOR.


"Will _ces dames_ join me in a marauding expedition? Like the poet
Villon, I am about to turn marauder, house breaker, thief. I shall hope
to end the excursion by one act, at least, of highway robbery. I shall
lose courage without the enlivening presence of _ces dames._ We will
start when the day is at its best, we will return when the moon smiles.
In case of finding none to rob, the coach of the desperadoes will be
garrisoned with provisions; Henri will accompany us as counsellor,
purveyor, and bearer of arms and costumes. The carriage for _ces dames_
will stop the way at the hour of eleven.

"I have the honor to sign myself their humble servant and
co-conspirator.

"John Renard."

"This, in plain English," was Charm's laconic translation of this note,
"means that he wishes us to be ready at eleven for the excursion to
P----, to spend the day, you may remember, at that old manor. He wants
to paint in a background, he said yesterday, while we stroll about and
look at the old place. What shall I wear?"

In an hour we were on the road.

A jaunty yellow cart, laden with a girl on the front seat; with a man,
tawny of mustache, broad of shoulder, and dark of eye, with face
shining to match the spring in the air and that fair face beside him;
laden also with another lady on the back seat, beside whom, upright and
stiff, with folded arms, sat Henri, costumer, valet, cook, and groom.
It was in the latter capacity that Henri was now posing. The role of
groom was uppermost in his orderly mind, although at intervals, when
his foot chanced to touch a huge luncheon-basket with which the cart
was also laden, there were betraying signs of anxiety; it was then that
the chef crept back to life. This spring in the air was all very well,
but how would it affect the sauces? This great question was written on
Henri's brow in a network of anxious wrinkles.

"Henri," I remarked, as we were wheeling down the roadway, "I am quite
certain you have put up enough luncheon for a regiment."

"Madame has said it, for a regiment; Monsieur Renard, when he works,
eats with the hunger of a wolf."

"Henri, did you get in all the rags?" This came from Renard on the
front seat, as he plied his steed with the whip.

"The costume of Monsieur le Marquis, and also of Madame la Marquise de
Pompadour, are beneath my feet in the valise, Monsieur Renard. I have
the sword between my legs," replied Henri, the costumer coming to the
surface long enough to readjust the sword.

"Capital fellow, Henri, never forgets anything," said Renard, in
English.

"Couldn't we offer a libation or something, on such a morning--"

"On such a morning," interrupted the painter, "one should be seated
next to a charming young lady who has the genius to wear Nile green and
white; even a painter with an Honorable Mention behind him and fame
still ahead, in spite of the Mention, is satisfied. You know a Greek
deity was nothing to a painter, modern, and of the French school, in
point of fastidiousness."

"Nonsense! it's the American woman who is fastidious, when it comes to
clothes."

Meanwhile, there was one of the party who was looking at the road; that
also was arrayed in Nile green and white; the tall trees also held
umbrellas above us, but these coverings were woven of leaves and sky.
This bit of roadway appeared to have slipped down from the upper
country, and to have carried much of the upper country with it. It was
highway posing as pure rustic. It had brought all its pastoral
paraphernalia along. Nothing had been forgotten: neither the hawthorn
and the osier hedges, nor the tree-trunks, suddenly grown modest at
sight of the sea, burying their nudity in nests of vines, nor the trick
which elms and beeches have, of growing arches in the sky. Timbered
farm-houses were here, also thatched huts, to make the next villa-gate
gain in stateliness; apple orchards were dotted about with such a
knowing air of wearing the long line of the Atlantic girdled about
their gnarled trunks, that one could not believe pure accident had
carried them to the edge of the sea. There were several miles of this
driving along beneath these green aisles. Through the screen of the
hedges and the crowded tree-trunks, picture succeeded picture; bits of
the sea were caught between slits of cliff; farmhouses, huts, and
villas lay smothered in blossoms; above were heights whereon poplars
seemed to shiver in the sun, as they wrapped about them their
shroud-like foliage; meadows slipped away from the heights, plunging
seaward, as if wearying for the ocean; and through the whole this line
of green roadway threaded its path with sinuous grace, serpentining,
coiling, braiding in land and sea in one harmonious, inextricable
blending of incomparable beauty. One could quite comprehend, after even
a short acquaintance with this road, that two gentlemen of Paris, as
difficult to please as Daubigny and Isabey, should have seen points of
excellence in it.

There are all sorts of ways of being a painter. Perhaps as good as any,
if one cares at all about a trifling matter like beauty, is to know a
good thing when one sees it. That poet of the brush, Daubigny, not only
was gifted with this very unusual talent in a painter, but a good thing
could actually be entrusted in his hands after its discovery. And
herein, it appears to me, lies all the difference between good and bad
painting; not only is an artist--any artist--to be judged by what he
sees, but also by what he does with a fact after he's acquired
it--whether he turns it into poetry or prose.

I might incautiously have sprung these views on the artist on the front
seat, had he not wisely forestalled my outburst by one of his own.

"By the way," he broke in; "by the way, I'm not doing my duty as
cicerone. There's a church near here--we're coming to it in a
moment--famous--eleventh or twelfth century, Romanesque
style--yes--that's right, although I'm somewhat shaky when it comes to
architecture--and an old manoir, museum now, with lots of old furniture
in it--in the manoir, I mean."

"There's the church now. Oh, let us stop!"

In point of fact there were two churches before us. There was one of
ivy: nave, roof, aisles, walls, and conic-shaped top, as perfectly
defined in green as if the beautiful mantle had been cut and fitted to
the hidden stone structure. Every few moments the mantle would be
lifted by the light breeze, as might a priest's vestment; it would move
and waver, as if the building were a human frame, changing its posture
to ease its long standing. Between this church of stone and this church
of vines there were signs of the fight that had gone on for ages
between them. The stones were obviously fighting decay, fighting ruin,
fighting annihilation; the vines were also struggling, but both time
and the sun were on their side. The stone edifice was now, it is true,
as Renard told us, protected by the Government--it was classed as a
"monument historique"--but the church of greens was protected by the
god of nature, and seemed to laugh aloud, as if with conscious gleeful
strength. This gay, triumphant laugh was reflected, as if to emphasize
its mockery of man's work, in the tranquil waters of a little pond,
lily-leaved, garlanded in bushes, that lay hidden beyond the roadway.
Through the interstices of the vines one solitary window from the
tower, like a sombre eye, looked down into the pond; it saw there,
reflected as in a mirror, the old, the eternal picture of a dead ruin
clasped by the arms of living beauty.

This Criqueboeuf church presents the ideal picturesque accessories. It
stands at the corner of two meeting roadways. It is set in an ideal
pastoral frame--a frame of sleeping fields, of waving tree-tops, of an
enchanting, indescribable snarl of bushes, vines, and wild flowers. In
the adjoining fields, beneath the tree-boughs, ran the long, low line
of the ancient manoir--now turned into a museum.

We glanced for a few brief moments at the collection of antiquities
assembled beneath the old roof--at the Henry II. chairs, at the
Pompadour-wreathed cabinets, at the long rows of panels on which are
presented the whole history of France--the latter an amazing record of
the industry of a certain Dr. Le Goupils.

"Criqueboeuf doesn't exactly hide its light under a bushel, you know,
although it doesn't crown a hill. No end of people know it; it sits for
its portrait, I should say at least twice a week regularly, on an
average, during the season. English water-colorists go mad over
it--they cross over on purpose to `do' it, and they do it extremely
badly, as a rule."

This was Renard's last comment of a biographical and critical nature,
concerning the "historical monument," as we reseated ourselves to
pursue our way to P----.

"Why don't you show them how it can be done?"

"Would," coolly returned Renard, "if it were worth while, but it isn't
in my line. Henri, did you bring any ice?"

Henri, I had noticed, when we had reseated ourselves in the cart, had
greeted us with an air of silent sadness; he clearly had not approved
of ruins that interfered with the business of the day.

"_Oui, monsieur_, I did bring some ice, but as monsieur can imagine to
himself--a two hours' sun--"

"Nonsense, this sun wouldn't melt a pat of butter; the ice is all
right, and so is the wine."

Then he continued in English: "Now, ladies, as I should begin if I were
a politician, or an auctioneer; now, ladies, the time for confession
has arrived; I can no longer conceal from you my burglarious scheme. In
the next turn that we shall make to the right, the park of the P----
manoir will disclose itself. But, between us and that Park, there is a
gate. That gate is locked. Now, gates, from the time of the Garden of
Eden, I take it, have been an invention of--of--the other fellow, to
keep people out. I know a way--but it's not the way you can follow.
Henri and I will break down a few bars, we'll cross a few fields over
yonder, and will present ourselves, with all the virtues written on our
faces, to you in the Park. Meanwhile you must enter, as queens
should--through the great gates. Behold, there is a curé yonder, a
great friend of mine. You will step along the roadway; you will ring a
door-bell; the curé will appear; you will ask him if it be true that
the manoir of P---- is to rent, you have heard that he has the keys; he
will present you the keys; you will open the big gate and find me."

"But--but, Mr. Renard, I really don't see how that scheme will work."

"Work! It will work to a charm. You will see. Henri, just help the
ladies, will you?"

Henri, with decisive gravity, was helping the ladies to alight; in
another instant he had regained his seat, and he and Renard were flying
down the roadway, out of sight.

"Really--it's the coolest proceeding," Charm began. Then we looked
through the bars of the park gate. The park was as green and as still
as a convent garden; a pink brick mansion, with closed window-blinds,
was standing, surrounded by a terrace on one side, and by glittering
parterres on the other.

"Where did he say the old curé was?" asked Charm, quite briskly, all at
once. Everything had turned out precisely as Renard had predicted.
Doubtless he had also counted on the efficacy of the old fable of the
Peri at the Gate--one look had been sufficient to turn us into arrant
conspirators; to gain an entrance into that tranquil paradise any ruse
would serve.

"Here's a church--he said nothing about a church, did he?"

Across the avenue, above the branches of a row of tall trees, rose the
ivied facade of a rude hamlet church; a flight of steep weedy steps led
up to its Norman doorway. The door was wide open; through the arched
aperture came the sounds of footfalls, of a heavy, vigorous tread;
Charm ran lightly up a few of the lower steps, to peer into the open
door.

"It's the curé dusting the altar--shall I go in?"

"No, we had best ring--this must be his house."

The clatter of the curé's sabots was the response that answered to the
bell we pulled, a bell attached to a diminutive brick house lying at
the foot of the churchyard. The tinkling of the cracked-voiced bell had
hardly ceased when the door opened.

But the curé had already taken his first glance at us over the garden
hedges.



CHAPTER XII.

A NORMAN CURE.


"Mesdames!"

The priest's massive frame filled the narrow door; the tones of his
mellow voice seemed also suddenly to fill the air, drowning all other
sounds. The grace of his manner, a grace that invested the simple act
of his uncovering and the holding of his _calotte_ in hand, with an air
of homage, made also our own errand the more difficult.

I had already begun to murmur the nature of our errand: we were
passing, we had seen the manoir opposite, we had heard it was to rent,
also that he, Monsieur le Curé, had the keys.

Yes, the keys were here. Then the velvet in Monsieur le Curé's eyes
turned to bronze, as they looked out at us from beneath the fine dome
of brow.

"I have the keys of the garden only, mesdames," he replied, with
perfect but somewhat distant courtesy; "the gardener, down the road
yonder, has the keys of the house. Do you really wish to rent the
house?"

He had seen through our ruse with quick Norman penetration. He had not,
from the first, been in the least deceived.

It became the more difficult to smooth the situation into shape. "We
had thought perhaps to rent a villa, we were in one now at Villerville.
If Monsieur le curé would let us look at the garden. Monsieur Renard,
whom perhaps he remembered--

"M. Renard! Oh ho! Oh ho! I see it all now," and a deep, mellow laugh
smote the air. The keenness in the fine eyes melted into mirth, a mirth
that laid the fine head back on the broad shoulders, that the laugh
that shook the powerful frame might have the fuller play.

"Ah, _mes enfants_, I see it all now--it is that scoundrel of a boy.
I'll warrant he's there, over yonder, already. He was here yesterday,
he was here the day before, and he is afraid, he is ashamed to ask
again for the keys. But come, _mes enfants_, come, let us go in search
of him." And the little door was closed with a slam. Down the broad
roadway the next instant fluttered the old curé's soutane. We followed,
but could scarcely keep pace with the brisk, vigorous strides. The
sabots ploughed into the dust. The cane stamped along in company with
the sabots, all three in a fury of impatience. The curé's step and his
manner might have been those of a boy, burning with haste to discover a
playmate in hiding. All the keenness and shrewdness on the fine, ruddy
face had melted into sweetness; an exuberance of mirth seemed to be the
sap that fed his rich nature. It was easy to see he had passed the
meridian of his existence in a realm of high spirits; an irrepressible
fountain within, the fountain of an unquenchable good-humor, bathed the
whole man with the hues of health. Ripe red lips curved generously over
superb teeth; the cheeks were glowing, as were the eyes, the crimson
below them deepening to splendor the velvet in the iris. The one severe
line in the face, the thin, straight nose, ended in wide nostrils in
the quivering, mobile nostrils of the humorist. The swell of the
gourmand's paunch beneath the soutane was proof that the curé was a
true Norman he had not passed a lifetime in these fertile gardens
forgetful of the fact that the fine art of good living is the one
indulgence the Church has left to its celibate sons.

Meanwhile, our guide was peering with quick, excited gaze, through the
thick foliage of the park; his fine black eyes were sweeping the
parterre and terrace.

"Ah-h!" his rich voice cried out, mockingly; and he stopped, suddenly,
to plant his cane in the ground with mock fierceness.

"_Tiens_, Monsieur le Curé!" cried Renard, from behind a tree, in a
beautiful voice. It was a voice that matched with his well-acted
surprise, when he appeared, confronting us, on the other side of the
tree-trunk.

The curé opened his arms.

"_Ah, mon enfant, viens, viens!_ how good it is to see thee once again!"

They were in each other's arms. The curé was pressing his lips to
Renard's cheek, in hearty French fashion. The priest, however,
administered his reproof before he released him. Renard's broad
shoulders received a series of pats, which turned to blows, dealt by
the curé's herculean hand.

"Why didn't you let me know you were here, yesterday, _Hein_? Answer me
that. How goes the picture? Is it set up yet? You see, mesdames,"
turning with a reddened cheek and gleaming eyes, "it is thus I punish
him--for he has no heart, no sensibilities--he only understands
severities! And he defrauded me yesterday, he cheated me. I didn't even
know of his being here till he had gone. And the picture, where is it?"

It was on an easel, sunning itself beneath the park trees. The old
priest clattered along the gravelly walk, to take a look at it.

"_Tiens_--it grows--the figures begin to move--they are almost alive.
There should be a trifle more shadow under the chin, what do you think?"

Henri raised his chin. Henri had undergone the process of
transformation in our absence. He was now M. le Marquis de
Pompadour--under the heart-shaped arch of the great trees, he was
standing, resplendent in laces, in glistening satins, leaning on a
rusty, dull-jewelled sword. Renard had mounted his palette; he was
dipping already into the mounds of color that dotted the palette-board,
with his long brushes. On the canvas, in colors laid on by the touch of
genius, this archway beneath which we were standing reared itself
aloft; the park trees were as tall and noble, transfixed in their image
of immutable calm, on that strip of linen, as they towered now above
us; even the yellow cloud of the laburnum blossoms made the sunshine of
the shaded grass, as it did here, where else no spot of sun might
enter, so dense was the night of shade. The life of another day and
time lived, however, beneath that shade; Charm and the curé, as they
drooped over the canvas, confronted a graceful, attenuated courtier,
sickening in a languor of adoration, and a sprightly coquette, whose
porcelain beauty was as finished as the feathery edges of her lacy
sleeves.

"_Très bien très bien_" said the curé, nodding his head in critical
commendation. "It will be a little masterpiece. And now," waving his
hand toward us, "what do you propose to do with these ladies while you
are painting?"

"Oh, they can wander about," Renard replied, abstractedly. He had
already reseated himself and had begun to ply his brushes; he now saw
only Henri and the hilt of the sword he was painting in.

"I knew it, I could have told you--a painter hasn't the manners of a
peasant when he's painting," cried the priest, lifting cane and hands
high in air, in mock horror. "But all the better, all the better, I
shall have you all to myself. Come, come with me. You can see the house
later. I'll send for the gardener. It's too fine a day to be indoors.
What a day, _hein_? _Le bon Dieu_ sends us such days now and then, to
make us ache for paradise. This way, this way--we'll go through the
little door--my little door; it was made for me, you know, when the
manoir was last inhabited. I and the children were too impatient--we
suffered from that malady--all of us--we never could wait for the great
gates yonder to be opened. So Monsieur de H---- built us this one." The
little door opened directly on the road, and on the curé's house. There
was a tangle of underbrush barring the way; but the curé pushed the
briars apart with his strong hands, beating them down with his cane.

When the door opened, we passed directly beyond the roadway, to the
steep steps leading to the church. The curé, before mounting the steps,
swept the road, upward and downward, with his keen glance. It was the
instinctive action of the provincial, scenting the chance of novelty.
Some distant object, in the meeting of two distant roadways, arrested
the darting eyes; this time, at least, he was to be rewarded for his
prudence in looking about him. The object slowly resolved itself into
two crutches between which hung the limp figure of a one-legged man.

"_Bonjour, Monsieur le curé_." The crutches came to a standstill; the
cripple's hand went up to doff a ragged worsted cap.

"Good-day, good-day, my friend; how goes it? Not quite so stiff,
_hein_--in such a bath of sunlight as this? Good-day, good-day."

The crutches and their burden passed on, kicking a little cloud of dust
about the lean figure.

"_Un peu cassé, le bonhomme_" he said, as he nodded to the cripple in a
tone of reflection, as if the breakage that bad befallen his humble
friend were a fresh incident in his experience. "Yes, he's a little
broken, the poor old man; but then," he added, quickly renewing his
tone of unquenchable high spirits--"one doesn't die of it. No, one
doesn't die, fortunately. Why, we're all more or less cracked, or
broken up here."

He shook another laugh out, as he preceded us up the stone steps. Then
he turned to stop for a moment to point his cane toward the small house
with whose chimneys we were now on a level. "There, mesdames, there is
the proof that more breaking doesn't signify in this matter of life and
death, _Tenez_, madame--" and with a charming gesture he laid his
richly-veined, strong old hand on my arm--a hand that ended in
beautiful fingers, each with its rim of moon-shaped dirt;
"_tenez_--figure to yourself, madame, that I myself have been here
twenty years, and I came for two! I bought out the _bonhomme_ who lived
over yonder.

"I bought him and his furniture out. I said to myself, 'I'll buy it for
eight hundred, and I'll sell it for four hundred, in a year.'" Here he
laid his finger on his nose--lengthwise, the Norman in him supplanting
the priest in his remembrance of a good bargain. "And now it is twenty
years since then. Everything creaks and cracks over there: all of us
creak and crack. You should hear my chairs, _elles se cassent les
reins_--they break their thighs continually. Ah! there goes another, I
cry out, as I sit down in one in winter and hear them groan. Poor old
things, they are of the Empire, no wonder they groan. You should see
us, when our brethren come to take a cup of soup with me. Such a
collection of antiquities as we are! I catch them, my brothers, looking
about, slyly peering into the secrets of my little ménage. 'From his
ancestors, doubtless, these old chairs and tables, say these good
frères, under their breath. And then I wink slyly at the chairs, and
they never let on."

Again the mellow laugh broke forth. He stopped again to puff and blow a
little, from his toil up the steep steps. Then all at once, as the
rough music of his clicking sabots and the playful taps of his cane
ceased, the laugh on his mobile lips melted into seriousness. He lifted
his cane, pointing to the cemetery just above us, and to the
gravestones looking down over the hillsides between a network of roses.

"We are old, madame--we are old, but, alas! we never die! It is
difficult to people, that cemetery. There are only sixty of us in the
parish, and we die--we die hard. For example, here is my old
servant"--and he covered a grave with a sweep of his cane--for we were
leisurely sauntering through the little cemetery now. The grave to
which he pointed was a garden; heliotrope, myosotis, hare-bells and
mignonette had made of the mound a bed of perfume--"see how quietly she
lies--and yet what a restless soul the flowers cover! She, too, died
hard. It took her years to make up her mind; finally _le bon Dieu_ had
to decide it for her, when she was eighty-four. She complained to the
last--she was poor, she was in my way, she was blind. '_Eh bien, tu
n'as pas besoin de me faire les beaux yeux, toi_'--I used to say to
her. Ah, the good soul that she was!" and the dark eye glistened with
moisture. A moment later the curé was blowing vigorously the note of
his grief, in trumpet-tones, through the organ that only a Frenchman
can render an effective adjunct to moments of emotion.

"You see, _mes enfants_, I am like that--I weep over my friends--when
they are gone! But see," he added quickly, recovering himself--"see,
over yonder there is my predecessor's grave. He lies well,
_hein?_--comfortable, too--looking his old church in the face and the
sun on his old bones all the blessed day. Soon, in a few years, he will
have company. I, too, am to lie there, I and a friend." The humorous
smile was again curving his lips, and the laughter-loving nostrils were
beginning to quiver. "When my friend and I lie there, we shall be a
little crowded, perhaps. I said to him, when he proposed it, proposed
to lie there with us, 'but we shall be crunching each other's bones!'
'No,' he replied, 'only falling into each other's arms!' So it was
settled. He comes over from Havre, every now and then, to talk our
tombstones over; we drink a glass of wine together, and take a pipe and
talk about our future--in eternity! Ah, how gay we are! It is so good
to be friends with God!"

The voice deepened into seriousness. He went on in a quieter key:

"But why am I always preaching and talking about death and eternity to
two such ladies--two such children? Ah--I know, I am really old--I only
deceive myself into pretending I'm young. You will do the same, both of
you, some day. But come and see my good works. You know everyone has
his little corner of conceit--I have mine. I like to do good, and then
to boast of it. You shall see--you shall see."

He was hurrying us along the narrow paths now, past the little company
of grave-stones, graves that were bearing their barbaric burdens of
mortuary wreaths, of beaded crosses, and the motley assemblage, common
to all French graveyards, of hideous shrines encasing tin saints and
madonnas in plaster.

Above the sunken graves and the tin effigies of the martyrs behind the
church, arose a fair and glittering marble tomb. It was strangely out
of keeping with the meagre and paltry surroundings of the peasant
grave-stones. As we approached the tomb it grew in imposingness. It was
a circular mortuary chapel, with carved pediment and iron-wrought
gateway.

"It's fine, _hein_, and beautiful, _hein?_ It is the Duke's!" The curé,
it was easy to see, considered the chapel in the light of a personal
possession. He stood before it, bare-headed, with a new earnestness on
his mobile face. "It is the Duke's. Yes, the Duke's. I saved his soul,
blessed be God! and he--he rebuilds my cellars for me: See"--and he
pointed to the fine new base of stone, freshly cemented, on which the
church rested--"see, I save his soul, and he preserves my buildings for
me. It's a fair deal, isn't it? How does it come about, that he is
converted? Ah, you see, although I am a man without science, without
knowledge, devoid of pretensions and learning, the good God sometimes
makes use of such humble instruments to work His will. It came about in
the usual way. The Duke came here carrying his religion lightly, as one
may say, not thinking of his soul. I--I dine with him. We talk, we
argue; he does, that is--I only preach from my Bible. And behold! one
day he is converted. He is devout. And from gratitude, he repairs my
crumbling old stones. And now see how solid, how strong is my church
cellar!"

Again the fountain of his irrepressible merriment bubbled forth. For
all the gayety, however, the severe line deepened as one grew to know
the face better; the line in profile running from the nose into the
firm upper lip and into the still more resolute chin, matched the
impress of authority marked on the noble brow. It was the face of one
who might have infinite charity and indulgence for a sin, and yet would
make no compromise with it.

We had resumed our walk. It led us at last into the interior of the
little church. The gloom and silence within, after the dazzling
brilliancy of the noon-day sun and the noisy insect hum, invested the
narrow nave and dim altar with an added charm. The old priest knelt for
the briefest instant in reverence to the altar. When he turned there
was surprise as well as a gentle reproach in the changeable eyes.

"And you, mesdames! How is this? You are not Catholics? And I was so
sure of it! Quite sure of it, you were so sympathetic, so full of
reverence. And you, my child"--turning to Charm--"you speak our tongue
so well, with the very accent of a good Catholic. What! you are
Protestant? La! La! What do I hear?" He shook his cane over the backs
of the straw-bottomed chairs; the sweet, mellow accents of his voice
melted into loving protest--a protest in which the fervor was not
quenched in spite of the merry key in which it was pitched.

"Protestants? Pouffe! pouffe! What is that? What is it to be a
Protestant? Heretics, heretics, that is what you are. So you are _deux
affreuses hérétiques_? Ah, la! la! Horrible! horrible! I must cure you
of all that. I must cure you!" He dropped his cane in the enthusiasm of
his attack; it fell with a clanging sound on the stone pavement. He let
it lie. He had assumed, unconsciously, the orator's, the preacher's
attitude. He crowded past the chairs, throwing back his head as he
advanced, striking into argumentative gesture:

"_Tenez_, listen, there is so little difference, after all. As I was
saying to M. le comte de Chermont the other day, no later than
Thursday--he has married an English wife, you know--can't understand
that either, how they can marry English wives. However, that's none of
my business--we have nothing to do with marrying, we priests, except as
a sacrament for others. I said to M. le comte, who, you know, shows
tendencies toward anglicism--astonishing the influence of women--I
said: 'But, my dear M. le comte, why change? You will only exchange
certainty for uncertainty, facts for doubts, truth for lies.' 'Yes,
yes,' the comte replied, 'but there are so many new truths introduced
now into our blessed religion--the infallibility of the pope--the--'
'_Ah, mon cher comte--ne m'en parlez pas_. If that is all that stands
in your way--_faites comme le bon Dieu! Lui--il ferme les yeux et tend
les bras._ That is all we ask--we his servants--to have you close your
eyes and open your arms.'"

The good curé was out of breath; he was panting. After a moment, in a
deeper tone, he went on:

"You, too, my children, that is what I say to you--you need only to
open your arms and to close your eyes. God is waiting for you."

For a long instant there was a great stillness--a silence during which
the narrow spaces of the dim aisles were vibrating with the echoes of
the rich voice.

The rustle of a light skirt sweeping the stone flooring broke the
moment's silence. Charm was crossing the aisles. She paused before a
little wooden box, nailed to the wall. There came suddenly on the ear
the sound of coin rattling down into the empty box; she had emptied
into it the contents of her purse.

"For your poor, monsieur le curé," she smiled up, a little tremulously,
into the burning, glowing eyes. The priest bent over the fair head,
laying his hand, as if in benediction, upon it.

"My poor need it sadly, my child, and I thank you for them. God will
bless you."

It was a touching little scene, and I preferred, for one, to look out
just then at Henri's figure advancing toward us, up the stone steps.

When the priest spoke again, it was in a husky tone, the gold in his
voice dusted with moisture; but the bantering spirits in him had
reappeared.

"What a pity, that you must burn! For you must, dreadful heretics that
you are! And this dear child, she seems to belong to us--I can never
sit by, now, in Paradise, happy and secure, and see her burn!" The
laugh that followed was a mingled caress and a blessing. Henri came in
for a part of the indulgence of the good curé's smile as he came up the
steps.

"Ah, Henri, you have come for these ladies?"

"_Oui_, monsieur le curé, luncheon is served."

Our friend followed us to the topmost step, and to the very edge of the
step. He stood there, talking down to us, as we continued to press him
to return with us.

"No, my children--no--no, I can't join you; don't urge me; I can't, I
must not. I must say my prayers instead; besides the children come
soon, for their catechism. No, don't beg me, I don't need to be
importuned; I know what that dear Renard's wine is. _Au revoir et a
bientôt_--and remember," and here he lifted his arms--cane and all,
high in the air--"all you need do is to close your eyes and to open
your arms. God himself is doing the same."

High up he stood, with uplifted hands, the smile irradiating a face
that glowed with a saint's simplicity. Behind the black lines of his
robe, the sunlight lay streaming in noon glory; it aureoled him as
never saint was aureoled by mortal brush. A moment only he lingered
there, to raise his cap in parting salute. Then he turned, the trail of
his gown sweeping the gravel paths, and presently the low church door
swallowed him up. Through the door, as we crossed the road, there came
out to us the click of sabots striking the rude flagging; and a moment
after, the murmuring echo of a deep, rich voice, saying the office of
the hour.



CHAPTER XIII.

HONFLEUR--NEW AND OLD.


The stillness of the park trees, as we passed beneath them, was like
the silence that comes after a blessing. The sun, flooding the
landscape with a deluge of light, lost something of its effulgence, by
contrast with the fulness of the priest's rich nature. This fair world
of beauty that lay the other side of the terrace wall, beneath which
our luncheon was spread, was fair and lovely still--but how unimportant
the landscape seemed compared to the varied scenery of the curé's
soul-lit character! Of all kinds of nature, human nature is assuredly
the best; it is at least the most perdurably interesting. When we tire
of it, when we weary of our fellow-man and turn the blasé cheek on the
fresh pillow of mother-earth, how quickly is the pillow deserted once
the mental frame is rested or renewed! The history of all human
relations has the same ending--we all of us only fall out of love with
man to fall as swiftly in again.

The remainder of the afternoon passed with the rapidity common to all
phases of enchantment.

How could one eat seriously, with vulgar, gluttonous hunger, of a feast
spread on the parapet of a terrace-wall? The white foam of napkins, the
mosaic of the _patties_, the white breasts of chicken, the salads in
their bath of dew--these spoke the language of a lost cause. For there
was an open-air concert going on in full swing, and the performance was
one that made the act of eating seem as gross as the munching of apples
at an oratorio--the music being, indeed, of a highly refined order of
perfection. One's ears needed to be highly attuned to hear the pricking
of the locusts in the leaves; even the breeze kept uncommonly still,
that the brushing of the humming-birds' and bees' wings against the
flower-petals might be the more distinctly heard.

I never knew which one of the party it was that decided we were to see
the day out and the night in; that we were to dine at the Cheval Blanc,
on the Honfleur quays, instead of sedately breaking bread at the Mère
Mouchard's. Even our steed needed very little urging to see the
advantages of such a scheme. Henri alone wore a grim air of
disapproval. His aspect was an epitome of rigid protest. As he took his
seat in the cart, he held the sword between his legs with the air of
one burning with a pent-up anguish of protest. His eye gloomed on the
day; his head was held aloft, reared on a column of bristling vertebra,
and on his brow was written the sign of mutiny.

"Henri--you think we should go back; you think going on to Honfleur a
mistake?"

"Madame has said it"--Henri was a fatalist--in his speech, at least, he
lived up to his creed. "Honfleur is far--Monsieur Renard has not the
good digestion when he is tired--he suffers. _Il passe des nuits
d'angoisse. Il souffre des fatigues de l'estomac. Il se fatigue
aujourd'hui!_" This, with an air of stern conviction, was accompanied
by a glance at his master in which compassion was not the most obvious
note to be read. He went on, remorselessly:

"And, as madame knows, the work but begins for me when we are at home.
There are the costumes to be dusted and put away, the paintbrushes to
clean, the dishes and lunch-basket to be attended to. As madame says,
monsieur is sometimes lacking in consideration. _Mais, que voulez-vous?
le génie, c'est fait comme ça._"

Madame had not expressed the feeblest echo of a criticism on the
composition of the genius in front; but the short dialogue had helped,
perceptibly, to lift the weight of Henri's gloom; he was beginning to
accept the fate of the day with a philosopher's phlegm. Already he had
readjusted a little difficulty between his feet and the lunch basket,
making his religious care of the latter compatible with the open sin of
improved personal comfort.

Meanwhile the two on the front seat were a thousand miles away. Neither
we, nor the day, nor the beauty of the drive had power to woo their
glances from coming back to the focal point of interest they had found
in each other. They were beginning to talk, not about each other but of
themselves--the danger-signal of all tête-à-tête adventures.

When two young people have got into the personal-pronoun stage of human
intercourse, there is but one thing left for the unfortunate third in
the party to do. Yes, now that I think of it, there are two roles to be
played. The usual conception of the part is to turn marplot--to spoil
and ruin the others' dialogue--to put an end to it, if possible, by
legitimate or illegitimate means; a very successful way, I have
observed, of prolonging, as a rule, such a duet indefinitely. The more
enlightened actor in any such little human comedy, if he be gifted with
insight, will collapse into the wings, and let the two young idiots
have the whole stage to themselves. As like as not they'll weary of the
play, and of themselves, if left alone. No harm will come of all the
sentimental strutting and the romantic attitudinizing, other than
viewing the scene, later, in perspective, as a rather amusing bit of
emotional farce.

Besides being in the very height of the spring fashion, in the matter
of the sentiments, these two were also busily treading, at just this
particular moment, the most alluring of all the paths leading to what
may be termed the outlying territorial domain of the emotions; they
were wandering through the land called Mutual Discovery. Now, this, I
have always held, is among the most delectable of all the roads of
life; for it may lead one--anywhere or nowhere.

Therefore it was from a purely generous impulse that I continued to
look at the view. The surroundings were, in truth, in conspiracy with
the sentimentalists on the front seat; the extreme beauty of the road
would have made any but sentimental egotists oblivious to all else. The
road was a continuation of the one we had followed in the morning's
drive. Again, all the greenness of field and grass was braided,
inextricably, into the blue of river and ocean. Above, as before, in
that earlier morning drive, towered the giant aisles of the beaches and
elms. Through those aisles the radiant Normandy landscape flowed again,
as music from rich organ-piped throats flows through cathedral arches.
Out yonder, on the Seine's wide mouth, the boats were balancing
themselves, as if they also were half divided between a doubt and a
longing; a freshening spurt of breeze filled their flapping sails, and
away they sped, skipping through the waters with all the gayety which
comes with the vigor of fresh resolutions. The light that fell over the
land and waters was dazzling, and yet of an astonishing limpidity; only
a sun about to drop and end his reign could be at once so brilliant and
so tender--the diffused light had the sparkle of gold made soft by
usage. Wherever the eye roved, it was fed as on a banquet of light and
color. Nothing could be more exquisite, for depth of green swimming in
a bath of shadow, than the meadows curled beneath the cliffs; nothing
more tempting, to the painter's brush, than the arabesque of blossoms
netted across the sky; and would you have the living eye of nature,
bristling with animation, alive with winged sails, and steeped in the
very soul of yellow sunshine, look out over the great sheet of the
waters, and steep the senses in such a breadth of aqueous splendor as
one sees only in one or two of the rare shows of earth.

Then, all at once, all too soon, the great picture seemed to shrink;
the quivering pulsation of light and color gave way to staid,
commonplace gardens. Instead of hawthorn hedges there was the stench of
river smells--we were driving over cobble-paved streets and beneath
rows of crooked, crumbling houses. A group of noisy street urchins
greeted us in derision. And then we had no doubt whatsoever that we
were already in Honfleur town.

"Honfleur is an evil-smelling place," I remarked.

"Oh, well, after all, the smells of antiquity are a part of the show;
we should refuse to believe in ancientness, all of us, I fancy, if
mustiness wasn't served along with it."

"How can any town have such a stench with all this river and water and
verdure to sweeten it?" I asked, with a woman's belief in the morality
of environment--a belief much cherished by wives and mothers, I have
noticed.

"Wait till you see the inhabitants--they'll enlighten you--the hags and
the nautical gentlemen along the basins and quays. They've discovered
the secret that if cleanliness is next to godliness, dirt and the devil
are likewise near neighbors. Awful set--those Honfleur sailors The
Havre and Seine people call them Chinamen, they are so unlike the rest
of France and Frenchmen."

"Why are they so unlike?" asked Charm.

"They're so low down, so hideously wicked; they're like the old houses,
a rotten, worm-eaten set--you'll see."

Charm stopped him then, with a gesture. She stopped the horse also; she
brought the whole establishment to a standstill; and then she nodded
her head briskly forward. We were in the midst of the Honfleur
streets--streets that were running away from a wide open space, in all
possible directions. In the centre of the square rose a curious, an
altogether astonishing structure. It was a tower, a belfry doubtless, a
house, a shop, and a warehouse, all in one; such a picturesque medley,
in fact, as only modern irreverence, in its lawless disregard of
original purpose and design, can produce. The low-timbered sub-base of
the structure was pierced by a lovely doorway with sculptured lintel,
and also with two impertinent modern windows, flaunting muslin
curtains, and coquettishly attired with rows of flowering carnations.
Beneath these windows was a shop. Above the whole rose, in beautiful
symmetrical lines, a wooden belfry, tapering from a square tower into a
delicately modelled spire. To complete and accentuate the note of the
picturesque, the superstructure was held in its place by rude modern
beams, propping the tower with a naive disregard of decorative
embellishment. We knew it at once as the quaint and famous Belfry of
St. Catherine.

As we were about to turn away to descend the high street, a Norman
maiden, with close-capped face, leaned over the carnations to look down
upon us.

"That's the daughter of the bell-ringer, doubtless. Economical idea
that," Renard remarked, taking his cap off to the smiling eyes.

"Economical?"

"Yes, can't you see? Bell-ringer sends pretty daughter to window, just
before vespers or service, and she rings in the worshippers; no need to
make the bells ring."

"What nonsense!"--but we laughed as flatteringly as if his speech had
been a genuine coin of wit.

A turn down the street, and the famous Honfleur of the wharves and
floating docks lay before us. About us, all at once, was the roar and
hubbub of an extraordinary bustle and excitement; all the life of the
town, apparently, was centred upon the quays. The latter were swarming
with a tattered, ragged, bare-footed, bare-legged assemblage of old
women, of gamins, and sailors. The collection, as a collection, was one
gifted with the talent of making itself heard. Everyone appeared to be
shrieking, or yelling, or crying aloud, if only to keep the others in
voice. Sailors lying on the flat parapets shouted hoarsely to their
fellows in the rigging of the ships that lay tossing in the docks;
fishermen's families tossed their farewells above the hubbub to the
captain-fathers launching their fishing-smacks; one shrieking infant
was being passed, gayly, from the poop of a distant deck, across the
closely lying shipping, to the quay's steps, to be hushed by the
generous opening of a peasant mother's bodice. One could hear the
straining of cordage, the creak of masts, the flap of the sails, all
the noises peculiar to shipping riding at anchor. The shriek of
steam-whistles broke out, ever and anon, above all the din and uproar.
Along the quay steps and the wharves there were constantly forming and
re-forming groups of wretched, tattered human beings; of men with
bloated faces and a dull, sodden look, strikingly in contrast with the
vivacity common among French people. Even the children and women had a
depraved, shameless appearance, as if vice had robbed them of the last
vestige of hope and ambition. Along the parapet a half-dozen drunkards
sprawled, asleep or dozing. At the legs of one a child was pulling,
crying:

"_Viens--mère t'battra, elle est soûle aussi._"

The sailors out yonder, busy in the rigging, and the men on the decks
of the smart brigs and steamships, whistled and shouted and sang, as
indifferent to this picture of human misery and degradation as if they
had no kinship with it.

As a frame to the picture, Honfleur town lay beneath the crown of its
hills; on the tops and sides of the latter, villa after villa shot
through the trees, a curve of roof-line, with rows of daintily draped
windows. At the right, close to the wharves, below the wooded heights,
there loomed out a quaint and curious gateway flanked by two
watchtowers, grim reminders of the Honfleur of the great days. And
above and about the whole, encompassing villa-crowded hills and closely
packed streets, and the forest of masts trembling against the sky,
there lay a heaven of spring and summer.

Renard had driven briskly up to a low, rambling facade parallel with
the quays. It was the "Cheval Blanc." A crowd assembled on the instant,
as if appearing according to command.

"_Allons--n'encombrez pas ces dames!_" cried a very smart individual,
in striking contrast to the down at-heel air of the hotel--a personage
who took high-handed possession of us and our traps. "Will _ces dames_
desire a salon--there is _un vrai petit bijou_ empty just now,"
murmured a voice in a purring soprano, through the iron opening of the
cashier's desk.

Another voice was crying out to us, as we wound our way upward in
pursuit of the jewel of a salon. "And the widow, _La Veuve_, shall she
be dry or sweet?"

When we entered the low dining-room, a little later, we found that the
artist as well as the epicure has been in active conspiracy to make the
dinner complete; the choice of the table proclaimed one accomplished in
massing effects. The table was parallel with the low window, and
through the latter was such a picture as one travels hundreds of miles
to look upon, only to miss seeing it, as a rule. There was a great
breadth of sky through the windows; against the sky rose the mastheads;
and some red and brown sails curtained the space, bringing into relief
the gray line of the sad-faced old houses fringing the shoreline.

"Couldn't have chosen better if we'd tried, could we? It's just the
right hour, and just the right kind of light. Those basins are
unendurable--sinks of iniquitous ugliness, unless the tide's in and
there's a sunset going on. Just look now! Who cares whether Honfleur
has been done to death by the tourist horde or not? and been painted
until one's art-stomach turns? I presume I ought to beg your pardon,
but I can't stand the abomination of modern repetitions; the hand-organ
business in art, I call it. But at this hour, at this time of the year,
before this rattle-trap of an inn is as packed with Baedeker
attachments as a Siberian prison is with Nihilists--to run out here and
look at these quays and basins, and old Honfleur lying here, beneath
her green cliffs--well, short of Cairo, I don't know any better bit of
color. Look out there, now! See those sails, dripping with color, and
that fellow up there, letting the sail down--there, splash it goes into
the water, I knew it would; now tell me where will you get better blues
or yellows or browns, with just the right purples in the shore line,
than you'll get here?"

Renard was fairly started; he had the bit of the born monologist
between his teeth; he stopped barely long enough to hear even an
echoing assent. We were quite content; we continued to sip our
champagne and to feast our eyes. Meanwhile Renard talked on.

"Guide-books--what's the use of guide-books? What do they teach you,
anyway? Open any one of the cursed clap-trap things. Yes, yes, I know I
oughtn't to use vigorous language."

"Do," bleated Charm, smiling sweetly up at him. "Do, it makes you seem
manly."

Even Renard had to take time to laugh.

"Thank you! I'm not above making use of any aids to create that
illusion. Well, as I was saying, what guide-book ever really helped
anyone to _see?_--that's what one travels for, I take it. Here, for
instance, Murray or Baedeker would give you this sort of thing:
'Honfleur, an ancient town, with pier, beaches, three floating docks,
and a good deal of trade in timber, cod, etc.; exports large quantities
of eggs to England.' Good heavens! it makes one boil! Do sane,
reasonable mortals travel three thousand miles to read ancient history
done up in modern binding, served up a la Murray, a la Baedeker?"

"Oh, you do them injustice, I think--the guides do go in for a little
more of the picturesque than that--"

"And how--how do they do it? This is the sort of thing they'll give
you: 'Church of St. Catherine is large and remarkable, entirely of
timber and plaster, the largest of its kind in France.' Ah! ha! that's
the picturesque with a vengeance. No, no, my friends, throw the
guide-books into the river, pitch them overboard through the port
holes, along with the flowers, and letters _to be read three days out_,
and the nasty novels people send you to make the crossing pleasant. And
when you travel, really travel, mind, never make a plan--just go--go
anywhere, whenever the impulse seizes you--and you may hope to get
there, in the right way, possibly."

Here Renard stopped to finish his glass, draining-the last drop of the
yellow liquid. Then he went on: "To travel! To start when an impulse
seizes one! To go--anywhere! Why not! It was for this, after all, that
all of us have come our three thousand miles." Perhaps it was the
restless tossing of the shipping out yonder in the basins that awoke an
answering impatience within, in response to Renard's outburst. Where
did they go, those ships, and, up beyond this mouth of the Seine, how
looked the shores, and what life lived itself out beneath the rustling
poplars? Is it the mission of all flowing water to create an unrest in
men's minds?

Meanwhile, though the talk was not done, the dinner was long since
eaten. We rose to take a glimpse of Honfleur and its famous old basin.
The quays and the floating docks, in front of which we had been dining,
are a part of the nineteenth century; the great ships ride in to them
from the sea. But here, in this inner quadrangular dock, beside which
we were soon standing, traced by Duquesne when Louis the Great
discovered the maritime importance of Honfleur, we found still
reminders of the old life. Here were the same old houses that, in the
seventeenth century, upright and brave in their brand new carvings, saw
the high-decked, picturesquely painted Spanish and Portuguese ships
ride in to dip their flag to the French fleur-de-lis. There are but few
of the old streets left to crowd about the shipping life that still
floats here, as in those bygone days of Honfleur pride;--when Havre was
but a yellow strip of sand; when the Honfleur merchants would have
laughed to scorn any prophet's cry of warning that one day that
sand-bar opposite, despised, disregarded, boasting only a chapel and a
tavern, would grow and grow, and would steal year by year and inch by
inch bustling Honfleur's traffic, till none was left.

In the old adventurous days, along with the Spanish ships came others,
French trading and fishing vessels, with the salty crustations of long
voyages on their hulls and masts. The wharves were alive then with
fish-wives, whom Evelyn will tell you wore "useful habits made of
goats' skin." The captains' daughters were in quaint Normandy costumes;
and the high-peaked coifs and the stiff woollen skirts, as well as the
goat-skin coats, trembled as the women darted hither and thither among
the sailors--whose high cries filled the air as they picked out mother
and wife. Then were bronzed beards buried in the deeply-wrinkled old
mères' faces, and young, strong arms clasped about maidens' waists. The
whole town rang with gayety and with the mad joy of reunion. On the
morrow, coiling its way up the steep hillsides, wound the long lines of
the grateful company, one composed chiefly of the crews of these
vessels happily come to port. The procession would mount up to the
little church of Notre Dame de Grâce perched on the hill overlooking
the harbor. Some even--so deep was their joy at deliverance from
shipwreck and so fervent their piety--crawled up, bare-footed, with
bared head, wives and children following, weeping for joy, as the rude
_ex-votos_ were laid by the sailors' trembling hands at the feet of the
Virgin Lady.

As reminders of this old life, what is left? Within the stone
quadrangle we found clustered a motley fleet of wrecks and
fishing-vessels; the nets, flung out to dry in the night air, hung like
shrouds from the mastheads; here and there a figure bestrode a deck, a
rough shape, that seemed endowed with a double gift of life, so still
and noiseless was the town. Around the silent dock, grouped in
mysterious medley and confusion, were tottering roof lines, projecting
eaves, narrow windows, all crazily tortured and out of shape. Here and
there, beneath the broad beams of support, a little interior, dimly
lighted, showed a knot of sailors gathered, drinking or lounging. Up
high beneath a chimney perilously overlooking a rude facade, a quaint
shape emerged, one as decrepit and forlorn of life and hope as the
decaying houses it overlooked. Silence, poverty, wretchedness, the
dregs of life, to this has Honfleur fallen. These old houses, in their
slow decay, hiding in their dark bosom the gaunt secrets of this
poverty and human misery, seemed to be dancing a dance of drunken
indifference. Some day the dance will end in a fall, and then the
Honfleur of the past will not even boast of a ghost, as reminder of its
days of splendor.

An artist quicker than anyone else, I think, can be trusted to take one
out of history and into the picturesque. Renard refused to see anything
but beauty in the decay about us; for him the houses were at just the
right drooping angle; the roof lines were delightful in their
irregularity; and the fluttering tremor of the nets, along the rigging,
was the very poetry of motion.

"We'll finish the evening on the pier," he exclaimed, suddenly; "the
moon will soon be up--we can sit it out there and see it begin to color
things."

The pier was more popular than the quaint old dock. It was crowded with
promenaders, who, doubtless, were taking a bite of the sea-air. Through
the dusk the tripping figures of gentlemen in white flannels and jaunty
caps brushed the provincial Honfleur swells. Some gentle English voices
told us some of the villa residents had come down to the pier, moved by
the beauty of the night. Groups of sailors, with tanned faces and
punctured ears hooped with gold rings, sat on the broad stone parapets,
talking unintelligible Breton _patois_. The pier ran far out, almost to
the Havre cliffs, it seemed to us, as we walked along in the dusk of
the young night. The sky was slowly losing its soft flame. A tender,
mellow half light was stealing over the waters, making the town a rich
mass of shade. Over the top of the low hills the moon shot out, a
large, globular mass of beaten gold. At first it was only a part and
portion of the universal lighting, of the still flushed sky, of the red
and crimson harbor lights, of the dim twinkling of lamps and candles in
the rude interiors along the shore. But slowly, triumphantly, the great
lamp swung up; it rose higher and higher into the soft summer sky, and
as it mounted, sky and earth began to pale and fade. Soon there was
only a silver world to look out upon--a wealth of quivering silver over
the breast of the waters, and a deeper, richer gray on cliffs and roof
tops. Out of this silver world came the sound of waters, lapping in
soft cadence against the pier; the rise and fall of sails, stirring in
the night wind; the tread of human footsteps moving in slow, measured
beat, in unison with the rhythm of the waters. Just when the stars were
scattering their gold on the bosom of the sea-river, a voice rang out,
a rich, full baritone. Quite near, two sailors were seated, with their
arms about each other's shoulders. They also were looking at the
moonlight, and one of them was singing to it:

  "_Te souviens-tu, Marie,
  De notre enfance aux champs?_

  "_Te souviens-tu?
  Le temps que je regrette
  C'est le temps qui n'est plus._"

[Illustration: THE INN AT DIVES--GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT]



DIVES: AN INN ON A HIGH-ROAD.



CHAPTER XIV.

A COAST DRIVE.


On our return to Villerville we found that the charm of the place, for
us, was a broken one. We had seen the world; the effect of that
experience was to produce the common result--there was a fine deposit
of discontent in the cup of our pleasure.

Madame Fouchet had made use of our absence to settle our destiny; she
had rented her villa. This was one of the bitter dregs. Another was to
find that the life of the village seemed to pass us by; it gave us to
understand, with unflattering frankness, that for strangers who made no
bargains for the season, it had little or no civility to squander. For
the Villerville beach, the inn, and the villas were crowded. Mere
Mouchard was tossing omelettes from morning till night; even Augustine
was far too hurried to pay her usual visit to the creamery. A
detachment of Parisian costumes and beribboned nursery maids was
crowding out the fish-wives and old hags from their stations on the low
door-steps and the grasses on the cliffs.

Even Fouchet was no longer a familiar figure in the foreground of his
garden; his roses were blooming now for the present owners of his
villa. He and madame had betaken themselves to a box of a hut on the
very outskirts of the village--a miserable little hovel with two rooms
and a bit of pasture land being the substitute, as a dwelling, for the
gay villa and its garden along the sea-cliffs. Pity, however, would
have been entirely wasted on the Fouchet household and their change of
habitation. Tucked in, cramped, and uncomfortable beneath the low eaves
of their cabin ceilings, they could now wear away the summer in
blissful contentment: Were they not living on nothing--on less than
nothing, in this dark pocket of a _chaumière_, while their fine house
yonder was paying for itself handsomely, week after week? The heart
beats high, in a Norman breast, when the pocket bulges; gold--that is
better than bread to feel in one's hand.

The whole village wore this triumphant expression--now that the season
was beginning. Paris had come down to them, at last, to be shorn of its
strength; angling for pennies in a Parisian pocket was better, far,
than casting nets into the sea. There was also more contentment in such
fishing--for true Norman wit.

Only once did the village change its look of triumph to one of polite
regret; for though it was Norman, it was also French. It remembered, on
the morning of our departure, that the civility of the farewell costs
nothing, and like bread prodigally scattered on the waters, may
perchance bring back a tenfold recompense.

Even the morning arose with a flattering pallor. It was a gray day. The
low houses were like so many rows of pale faces; the caps of the
fishwives, as they nodded a farewell, seemed to put the village in half
mourning.

"You will have a perfect day for your drive--there's nothing better
than these grays in the French landscape," Renard was saying, at our
carriage wheels; "they bring out every tone. And the sea is wonderful.
Pity you're going. Grand day for the mussel-bed. However, I shall see
you, I shall see you. Remember me to Monsieur Paul; tell him to save me
a bottle of his famous old wine. Good-by, good-by."

There was a shower of rose-leaves flung out upon us; a great sweep of
the now familiar beret; a sonorous "Hui!" from our driver, with an
accompaniment of vigorous whip-snapping, and we were off.

The grayness of the closely-packed houses was soon exchanged for the
farms lying beneath the elms. With the widening of the distance between
our carriage-wheels and Villerville, there was soon a great expanse of
mouse-colored sky and the breath of a silver sea. The fields and
foliage were softly brilliant; when the light wind stirred the grain,
the poppies and bluets were as vivid as flowers seen in dreams.

It is easy to understand, I think, why French painters are so enamoured
of their gray skies--such a background makes even the commonplace wear
an air of importance. All the tones of the landscape were astonishingly
serious; the features of the coast and the inland country were as
significant as if they were meditating an outbreak into speech. It was
the kind of day that bred reflection; one could put anything one liked
into the picture with a certainty of its fitting the frame. We were
putting a certain amount of regret into it; for though Villerville has
seen us depart with civilized indifference or the stolidity of the
barbarian--for they are one, we found our own attainments in the
science of unfeelingness deficient: to look down upon the village from
the next hill top was like facing a lost joy.

Once on the highroad, however, the life along the shore gave us little
time for the futility of regret. Regret, at best, is a barren thing:
like the mule, it is incapable of perpetuating its own mistakes; it
appears to apologize, indeed, for its stupidity by making its exit as
speedily as possible. With the next turn of the road we were in fitting
condition to greet the wildest form of adventure.

Pedlars' carts and the lumbering Normandy farm wagons were, at first,
our chief companions along the roadway. Here and there a head would
peep forth from a villa window, or a hand be stretched out into the air
to see if any rain was falling from the moist sky. The farms were
quieter than usual; there was an air of patient waiting in the
courtyards, among the blouses and standing cattle, as though both man
and beast were there in attendance on the day and the weather, till the
latter could come to the point of a final decision in regard to the
rain.

Finally, as we were nearing Trouville, the big drops fell. The
grain-fields were soon bent double beneath the spasmodic shower. The
poppies were drenched, so were the cobble paved courtyards; only the
geese and the regiment of the ducks came abroad to revel in the
downpour. The villas were hermetically sealed now--their summer finery
was not made for a wetting. The landscape had no such reserves; it gave
itself up to the light summer shower as if it knew that its raiment,
like Rachel's, when dampened the better to take her plastic outlines,
only gained in tone and loveliness the closer it fitted the recumbent
figure of mother earth.

Our coachman could never have been mistaken for any other than a good
Norman. He was endowed with the gift of oratory peculiar to the
country; and his profanity was enriched with all the flavor of the
provincial's elation in the committing of sin. From the earliest moment
of our starting, the stream of his talk had been unending. His
vocabulary was such as to have excited the envy and despair of a French
realist, impassioned in the pursuit of "the word."

"_Hui!--b-r-r-r!_"--This was the most common of his salutations to his
horse. It was the Norman coachman's familiar apostrophe, impossible of
imitation; it was also one no Norman horse who respects himself moves
an inch without first hearing. Chat Noir was a horse of purest Norman
ancestry; his Percheron blood was as untainted as his intelligence was
unclouded by having no mixtures of tongues with which to deal. His
owner's "_Hui!_" lifted him with arrowy lightness to the top of a hill.
The deeper "_Bougre_" steadied his nerve for a good mile of unbroken
trotting. Any toil is pleasant in the gray of a cool morning, with a
friend holding the reins who is a gifted monologist; even imprecations,
rightly administered, are only lively punctuations to really talented
speech.

"Come, my beauty, take in thy breath--courage! The hill is before thee!
Curse thy withered legs, and is it thus thou stumbleth? On--up with
thee and that mountain of flesh thou carriest about with thee." And the
mountain of flesh would be lifted--it was carried as lightly by the
finely-feathered legs and the broad haunches as if the firm avoirdupois
were so much gossamer tissue. On and on the neat, strong hoofs rang
their metallic click, clack along the smooth macadam. They had carried
us past the farm-houses, the cliffs, the meadows, and the Norman roofed
manoirs buried in their apple-orchards. These same hoofs were now
carefully, dexterously picking their way down the steep hill that leads
directly into the city of the Trouville villas.

Presently, the hoofs came to a sudden halt, from sheer amazement. What
was this order, this command the quick Percheron hearing had overheard?
Not to go any farther into this summer city--not to go down to its
sand-beach--not to wander through the labyrinth of its gay little
streets?--Verily, it is the fate of a good horse, how often! to carry
fools, and the destiny of intelligence to serve those deficient in mind
and sense.

The criticism on our choice of direction was announced by the hoofs
turning resignedly, with the patient assent of the fatigue that is bred
of disgust, into one of the upper Trouville by-streets. Our coachman
contented himself with a commiserating shrug and a prolonged flow of
explanation. Perhaps _ces dames_, being strangers, did not know that
Trouville was now beginning its real season--its season of baths? The
Casino, in truth, was only opened a week since; but we could hear the
band even now playing above the noise of the waves. And behold, the
villas were filling; each day some _grande dame_ came down to take
possession of her house by the sea.

How could we hope to make a Frenchman comprehend an instinctive impulse
to turn our backs on the Trouville world? What, pray, had we just now
to do with fashion--with the purring accents of boudoirs, with all the
life we had run away from? Surely the romance--the charm of our present
experiences would be put to flight once we exchanged salutations with
the _beau monde_--with that world that is so sceptical of any pleasure
save that which blooms in its own hot-houses, and so disdainful of all
forms of life save those that are modelled on fashion's types. We had
fled from cities to escape all this; were we, forsooth, to be pushed
into the motley crowd of commonplace pleasure-seekers because of the
scorn of a human creature, and the mute criticism of a beast that was
hired to do the bidding of his betters? The world of fashion was one to
be looked out upon as a part of the general _mise-en-scène_--as a bit
of the universal decoration of this vast amphitheatre of the Normandy
beaches.

Chat noir had little reverence for philosophic reflections; he turned a
sharp corner just then; he stopped short, directly in front of the
broad windows of a confectioner's shop. This time he did not appeal in
vain to the strangers with a barbarian's contempt for the great world.
The brisk drive and the salt in the air were stimulants to appetite to
be respected; it is not every day the palate has so fine an edge.

"_Du thé, mesdames--à l'Anglaise?_" a neatly-corsetted shape, in black,
to set off a pair of dazzling pink cheeks, shone out behind rows of
apricot tarts. There was also a cap that conveyed to one, through the
medium of pink bows, the capacities of coquetry that lay in the depths
of the rich brown eyes beneath them. The attractive shape emerged at
once from behind the counter, to set chairs about the little table. We
were bidden to be seated with an air of smiling grace, one that
invested the act with the emphasis of genuine hospitality. Soon a great
clatter arose in the rear of the shop; opinions and counter-opinions
were being volubly exchanged in shrill French, as to whether the water
should or should not come to a boil; also as to whether the leaves of
oolong or of green should be chosen for our beverage. The cap fluttered
in several times to ask, with exquisite politeness--a politeness which
could not wholly veil the hidden anxiety--our own tastes and
preferences. When the cap returned to the battling forces behind the
screen, armed with the authority of our confessed prejudices, a new war
of tongues arose. The fate of nations, trembling on the turn of a
battle, might have been settled before that pot of water, so watched
and guarded over, was brought to a boil. When, finally, the little tea
service was brought in, every detail was perfect in taste and
appointment, except the tea; the action that had held out valiantly,
that the water should not boil, had prevailed, as the half-soaked
tea-leaves floating on top of our full cups triumphantly proclaimed.

We sipped the beverage, agreeing Balzac had well named it _ce boisson
fade et mélancolique_; the novelist's disdain being the better
understood as we reflected he had doubtless only tasted it as concocted
by French ineptitude. We were very merry over the liver-colored liquid,
as we sipped it and quoted Balzac. But not for a moment had our
merriment deceived the brown eyes and the fluttering cap-ribbons. A
little drama of remorse was soon played for our benefit. It was she,
her very self, the cap protested--as she pointed a tragic finger at the
swelling, rounded line of her firm bodice--it was she who had insisted
that the water should _not_ boil; there had been ladies--_des vraies
anglaises_--here, only last summer, who would not that the water should
boil, when their tea was made. And now, it appears that they were
wrong, "_c'etait probablement une fantaisie de la part de ces dames_."
Would we wait for another cup? It would take but an instant, it was a
little mistake, so easy to remedy. But this mistake, like many another,
like crime, for instance, could never be remedied, we smilingly told
her; a smile that changed her solicitous remorse to a humorist's view
of the situation.

Another humorist, one accustomed to view the world from heights known
as trapeze elevations, we met a little later on our way out of the
narrow upper streets; he was also looking down over Trouville. It was a
motley figure in a Pierrot garb, with a smaller striped body, both in
the stage pallor of their trade. These were somewhat startling objects
to confront on a Normandy high-road. For clowns, however, taken by
surprise, they were astonishingly civil. They passed their "_bonjour_"
to us and to the coachman as glibly as though accosting us from the
commoner circus distance.

"They have come to taste of the fresh air, they have," laconically
remarked our driver, as his round Norman eyes ran over the muscled
bodies of the two athletes. "I had a brother who was one--I had; he was
a famous one--he was; he broke his neck once, when the net had been
forgotten. They all do it--_ils se cassent le cou tous, tôt ou tard!
Allons toi t'as peur, toi?_" Chat noir's great back was quivering with
fear; he had no taste, himself, for shapes like these, spectral and wan
as ghosts, walking about in the sun. He took us as far away as
possible, and as quickly, from these reminders of the thing men call
pleasure.

We, meanwhile, were asking Pierre for a certain promised chateau, one
famous for its beauty, between Trouville and Cabourg.

"It is here, madame--the château," he said, at last.

Two lions couchant, seated on wide pedestals beneath a company of noble
trees, were the only visible inhabitants of the dwelling. There was a
sweep of gardens: terraces that picked their way daintily down the
cliffs toward the sea, a mansard roof that covered a large
mansion--these were the sole aspects of chateau life to keep the trees
company. In spite of Pierre's urgent insistence that the view was even
more beautiful than the one from the hill, we refused to exchange our
first experiences of the beauty of the prospect for a second which
would be certain to invite criticism; for it is ever the critic in us
that plays the part of Bluebeard to our many-wived illusions.

We passed between the hedgerows with not even a sigh of regret. We were
presently rewarded by something better than an illusion--by reality,
which, at its best, can afford to laugh at the spectral shadow of
itself. Near the château there lived on, the remnant of a hamlet. It
was a hamlet, apparently, that boasted only one farm-house; and the
farm-house could show but a single hayrick. Beneath the sloping roof,
modelled into shape by a pitchfork and whose symmetrical lines put
Mansard's clumsy creation yonder to the blush, sat an old couple--a man
and a woman. Both were old, with the rounded backs of the laborer; the
woman's hand was lying in the man's open palm, while his free arm was
clasped about her neck with all the tenderness of young love. Both of
the old heads were laid back on the pillow made by the freshly-piled
grasses. They had done a long day's work already, before the sun had
reached its meridian; they were weary and resting here before they went
back to their toil.

This was better than the view; it made life seem finer than nature; how
rich these two poor old things looked, with only their poverty about
them!

Meanwhile Pierre had quickly changed the rural _mise-en-scène_; instead
of pink hawthorn hedges we were in the midst of young forest trees. Why
is it that a forest is always a surprise in France? Is it that we have
such a respect for French thrift, that a real forest seems a waste of
timber? There are forests and forests; this one seemed almost a
stripling in its tentative delicacy, compared to the mature splendor of
Fontainebleau, for example. This forest had the virility of a young
savage; it was neither dense nor vast; yet, in contrast to the ribbony
grain fields, and to the finish of the villa parks, was as refreshing
to the eye as the right chord that strikes upon the ear after a
succession of trills.

In all this fair Normandy sea-coast, with its wonderful inland
contrasts, there was but one disappointing note. One looked in vain for
the old Normandy costumes. The blouse and the close white cap--this is
all that is left of the wondrous headgear, the short brilliant
petticoats, the embroidered stomacher, and the Caen and Rouen jewels,
abroad in the fields only a decade ago.

Pierre shrugged his shoulders when asked a question concerning these
now pre-historic costumes.

 "Ah! mademoiselle, you must see for yourself, that the peasant who
doesn't despise himself dresses now in the fields as he would in Paris."

As if in confirmation of Pierre's news of the fashions, there stepped
forth from an avenue of trees, fringing a near farm-house, a
wedding-party. The bride was in the traditional white of brides; the
little cortege following the trail of her white gown, was dressed in
costumes modelled on Bon Marché styles. The coarse peasant faces flamed
from bonnets more flowery than the fields into which they were passing.
The men seemed choked in their high collars; the agony of new boots was
written on faces not used to concealing such form of torture. Even the
groom was suffering; his bliss was something the gay little bride
hanging on his arm must take entirely for granted. It was enough
greatness for the moment to wear broadcloth and a white vest in the
face of men.

"_Laissez, laissez, Marguerite_, it is clean here; it will look fine on
the green!" cried the bride to an improvised train-bearer, who had been
holding up the white alpaca. Then the full splendor of the bridal skirt
trailed across the freshly mown grasses. An irrepressible murmur of
admiration welled up from the wedding guests; even Pierre made part of
the chorus. The bridegroom stopped to mop his face, and to look forth
proudly, through starting eyeballs, on the splendor of his possessions.

"Ah! Lizette, thou art pretty like that, thou knowest. _Faut
l'embrasser, tu sais_."

He gave her a kiss full on the lips. The little bride returned the kiss
with unabashed fervor. Then she burst into a loud fit of laughter.

"How silly you look, Jean, with your collar burst open."

The groom's enthusiasm had been too much for his toilet; the noon sun
and the excitements of the marriage service had dealt hardly with his
celluloid fastenings. All the wedding cortege rushed to the rescue.
Pins, shouts of advice, pieces of twine, rubber fastenings, even
knives, were offered to the now exploding bridegroom; everyone was
helping him repair the ravages of his moment of bliss; everyone
excepting the bride. She sat down upon her train and wept from pure
rapture of laughter.

Pierre shook his head gravely, as he whipped up his steed.

"Jean will repent it; he'll lose worse things than a button, with
Lizette. A woman who laughs like that on the threshold of marriage will
cry before the cradle is rocked, and will make others weep. However,
Jean won't be thinking of that--to-night."

"Where are they going--along the highroad?"

"Only a short distance. They turn in there," and he pointed with his
whip to a near lane; "they go to the farm-house now--for the wedding
dinner. Ah! there'll be some heavy heads to-morrow. For you know, a
Norman peasant only really eats and drinks well twice in his life--when
he marries himself and when his daughter marries. Lizette's father is
rich--the meat and the wines will be good to-night."

Our coachman sighed, as if the thought of the excellence of the coming
banquet had disturbed his own digestion.



CHAPTER XV.

GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT.


The wedding party was lost in a thicket. Pierre gave his whip so
resounding a snap, it was no surprise to find ourselves rolling over
the cobbles of a village street.

"This is Dives, mesdames, this is the inn!"

Pierre drew up, as he spoke, before a long, low facade.

Now, no one, I take it, in this world enjoys being duped. Surely
disappointment is only a civil term for the varying degrees of fraud
practised on the imagination. This inn, apparently, was to be classed
among such frauds. It did not in the least, externally at least, fulfil
Renard's promises. He had told us to expect the marvellous and the
mediaeval in their most approved period. Yet here we were, facing a
featureless exterior! The facade was built yesterday--that was writ
large, all over the low, rambling structure. One end, it is true, had a
gabled end; there was also an old shrine niched in glass beneath the
gable, and a low Norman gateway with rude letters carved over the arch.
June was in its glory, and the barrenness of the commonplace structure
was mercifully hidden by a wreath of pink and amber roses. But one
scarcely drives twenty miles in the sun to look upon a facade of roses!

Chat noir, meanwhile, was becoming restless. Pierre had managed to keep
his own patience well in hand. Now, however, he broke forth:

"Shall we enter, my ladies?"

Pierre drove us straight into paradise; for here, at last, within the
courtyard, was the inn we had come to seek.

A group of low-gabled buildings surrounded an open court. All of the
buildings were timbered, the diagonal beams of oak so old they were
black in the sun, and the snowy whiteness of fresh plaster made them
seem blacker still. The gabled roofs were of varying tones and tints;
some were red, some mossy green, some as gray as the skin of a mouse;
all were deeply, plentifully furrowed with the washings of countless
rains, and they were bearded with moss. There were outside galleries,
beginning somewhere and ending anywhere. There were open and covered
outer stairways so laden with vines they could scarce totter to the low
heights of the chamber doors on which they opened; and there were open
sheds where huge farm-wagons were rolled close to the most modern of
Parisian dog-carts. That not a note of contrast might be lacking,
across the courtyard, in one of the windows beneath a stairway, there
flashed the gleam of some rich stained glass, spots of color that were
repeated, with quite a different lustre, in the dappled haunches of
rows of sturdy Percherons munching their meal in the adjacent stalls.
Add to such an ensemble a vagrant multitude of rose, honeysuckle,
clematis, and wistaria vines, all blooming in full rivalry of perfume
and color; insert in some of the corners and beneath some of the older
casements archaic bits of sculpture--strange barbaric features with
beards of Assyrian correctness and forms clad in the rigid draperies of
the early Jumièges period of the sculptor's art; lance above the roof
ridges the quaint polychrome finials of the earlier Palissy models; and
crowd the rough cobble-paved courtyard with a rare and distinguished
assemblage of flamingoes, peacocks, herons, cockatoos swinging from
gabled windows, and game-cocks that strut about in company with pink
doves--and you have the famous inn of Guillaume le Conquérant!

Meanwhile an individual, with fine deep-gray eyes, and a face grave,
yet kindly, over which a smile was humorously breaking, was patiently
waiting at our carriage door. He could be no other than Monsieur Paul,
owner and inn-keeper, also artist, sculptor, carver, restorer, to whom,
in truth, this miracle of an inn owed its present perfection and
picturesqueness.

"We have been long expecting you, mesdames," Monsieur Paul's grave
voice was saying. "Monsieur Renard had written to announce your coming.
You took the trouble to drive along the coast this fine day? It is
idyllically lovely, is it not--under such a sun?"

Evidently the moment of enchantment was not to be broken by the worker
of the spell. Monsieur Paul and his inn were one; if one was a poem the
other was a poet. The poet was also lined with the man of the practical
moment. He had quickly summoned a host of serving-people to take charge
of us and our luggage.

"Lizette, show these ladies to the room of Madame de Sévigné. If they
desire a sitting-room--to the Marmousets."

The inn-keeper gave his commands in the quiet, well-bred tone of a man
of the world, to a woman in peasant's dress. She led us past the open
court to an inner one, where we were confronted with a building still
older, apparently, than those grouped about the outer quadrangle. The
peasant passed quickly beneath an overhanging gallery, draped in vines.
She was next preceding us up a spiral turret stairway; the adjacent
walls were hung here and there with faded bits of tapestry. Once more
she turned to lead us along an open gallery; on this several rooms
appeared to open. On each door a different sign was painted in rude
Gothic letters. The first was "Chambre de l'Officier;" the second,
"Chambre du Curé," and the next was flung widely open. It was the room
of the famous lady of the incomparable Letters. The room might have
been left--in the yesterday of two centuries--by the lady whose name it
bore. There was a beautiful Seventeenth century bedstead, a couple of
wide arm-chairs, with down pillows for seats, and a clothes press with
the carvings and brass work peculiar to the epoch of Louis XIV. The
chintz hangings and draperies were in keeping, being copies of the
brocades of that day. There were portraits in miniature of the
courtiers and the ladies of the Great Reign on the very ewers and
basins. On the flounced dressing-table, with its antique glass and a
diminutive patch-box, now the receptacle of Lubin's powder, a sprig of
the lovely Rose The was exhaling a faint, far-away century perfume. It
was surely a stage set for a real comedy; some of these high-coiffed
ladies, who knows? perhaps Madame de Sévigné herself would come to
life, and give to the room the only thing it lacked--the living
presence of that old world grace and speech.

Presently, we sallied forth on a further voyage of discovery. We had
reached the courtyard when Monsieur Paul crossed it; it was to ask if,
while waiting for the noon breakfast, we would care to see the kitchen;
it was, perhaps, different to those now commonly seen in modern taverns.

The kitchen which was thus modestly described as unlike those of our
own century might easily, except for the appetizing smell of the
cooking fowls and the meats, have been put under lock and key and
turned over to a care-taker as a full-fledged culinary museum of
antiquities. One entire side of the crowded but orderly little room was
taken up by a huge open fireplace. The logs resting on the great
andirons were the trunks of full-grown trees. On two of the spits were
long rows of fowl and legs of mutton roasting; the great chains were
being slowly turned by a _chef_ in the paper cap of his profession. In
deep burnished brass bowls lay water-cresses; in Caen dishes of an age
to make a bric-a-brac collector turn green with envy, a _Béarnaise_
sauce was being beaten by another gallic master-hand. Along the beams
hung old Rouen plates and platters; in the numberless carved Normandy
cupboards gleamed rare bits of Delft and Limoges; the walls may be said
to have been hung with Normandy brasses, each as burnished as a jewel.
The floor was sanded and the tables had attained that satiny finish
which comes only with long usage and tireless use of the brush. There
was also a shrine and a clock, the latter of antique Norman make and
design.

The smell of the roasting fowls and the herbs used by the maker of the
sauces, a hungry palate found even more exciting than this most
original of kitchens. There was a wine that went with the sauce; this
fact Monsieur Paul explained, on our sitting down to the noonday meal;
one which, in remembrance of Monsieur Renard's injunctions, he would
suggest our trying. He crossed the courtyard and disappeared into the
bowels of the earth, beneath one of the inn buildings, to bring forth a
bottle incrusted with layers of moist dirt. This Sauterne was by some,
Monsieur Paul smilingly explained, considered as among the real
treasures of the inn. Both it and the sauce, we were enabled to assure
him a moment later, had that golden softness which make French wines
and French sauces at their best the rapture of the palate.

In the courtyard, as our breakfast proceeded, a variety of incidents
was happening. We were facing the open archway; through it one looked
out upon the high-road. A wheelbarrow passed, trundled by a
peasant-girl; the barrow stopped, the girl leaving it for an instant to
cross the court.

"_Bonjour, mère--_"

"_Bonjour, ma fille_--it goes well?" a deep guttural voice responded,
just outside of the window.

"_Justement_--I came to tell you the mare has foaled and Jean will be
late to-night."

"_Bien._"

"And Barbarine is still angry--"

"Make up with her, my child--anger is an evil bird to take to one's
heart," the deep voice went on.

"It is my mother," explained Monsieur Paul. "It is her favorite seat,
out yonder, on the green bench in the courtyard. I call it her judge's
bench," he smiled, indulgently, as he went on. "She dispenses justice
with more authority than any other magistrate in town. I am Mayor, as
it happens, just now; but madame my mother is far above me, in real
power. She rules the town and the country about, for miles. Everyone
comes to her sooner or later for counsel and command. You will soon see
for yourselves."

A murmur of assent from all the table accompanied Monsieur Paul's
prophecy.

"_Femme vraiment remarquable_," hoarsely whispered a stout breakfaster,
behind his napkin, between two spoonsful of his soup.

"Not two in a century like her," said my neighbor.

"No--nor two in all France--_non plus_," retorted the stout man.

"She could rule a kingdom--hey, Paul?"

"She rules me--as you see--and a man is harder to govern than a
province, they say," smiled Monsieur Paul with a humorous relish,
obviously the offspring of experience. "In France, mesdames," he added,
a sweeter look of feeling coming into the deep eyes, "you see we are
always children--_toujours enfants_--as long as the mother lives. We
are never really old till she dies. May the good God preserve her!" and
he lifted his glass toward the green bench. The table drank the toast,
in silence.

[Illustration: CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLES--DIVES]



CHAPTER XVI.

THE GREEN BENCH.


In the course of the first few days we learned what all Dives had known
for the past fifty years or so--that the focal point of interest in the
inn was centred in Madame Le Mois. She drew us, as she had the country
around for miles, to circle close about her green bench.

The bench was placed at the best possible point for one who, between
dawn and darkness, made it the business of her life to keep her eye on
her world. Not the tiniest mouse nor the most spectral shade could
enter or slip away beneath the open archway without undergoing
inspection from that omniscient eye, that seemed never to blink nor to
grow weary. This same eye could keep its watch, also, over the entire
establishment, with no need of the huge body to which it was attached
moving a hair's-breadth. Was it Nitouche, the head-cook, who was
grumbling because the kitchen-wench had not scoured the brass saucepans
to the last point of mirrory brightness? Behold both Nitouche and the
trembling peasant-girl, together with the brasses as evidence, all
could be brought at an instant's call, into the open court. Were the
maids--were Marianne or Lizette neglecting their work to flirt with the
coachmen in the sheds yonder?

"_Allons, mes filles--doucement, là-bas--et vos lits? qui les fait--les
bons saints du paradis, peut-être?_" And Marianne and Lizette would
slink away to the waiting beds. Nothing escaped this eye. If the _poule
sultane_ was gone lame, limping in the inner quadrangle, madame's eye
saw the trouble--a thorn in the left claw, before the feathered cripple
had had time to reach her objective point, her mistress's capacious
lap, and the healing touch of her skilful surgeon's fingers. Neither
were the cockatoes nor the white parrots given license to make all the
noise in the court-yard. When madame had an unusually loquacious
moment, these more strictly professional conversationists were taught
their place.

"_E'ben, toi_--and thou wishest to proclaim to the world what a gymnast
thou art--swinging on thy perch? Quietly, quietly, there are also
others who wish to praise themselves! And now, my child, you were
telling me how good you had been to your old grandmother, and how she
scolded you. Well, and how about obedience to our parents, _hein_--how
about that?" This, as the old face bent to the maiden beside her.

There was one, assuredly, who had not failed in his duty to his
parents. Monsieur Paul's whole life, as we learned later, had been a
willing sacrifice to the unconscious tyranny of his mother's affection.
The son was gifted with those gifts which, in a Parisian atelier, would
easily have made him successful, if not famous. He had the artistic
endowment in an unusual degree; it was all one to him, whether he
modelled in clay, or carved in wood, or stone, or built a house, or
restored old bric-a-brac. He had inherited the old world roundness of
artistic ability--his was the plastic renascent touch that might have
developed into that of a Giotto or a Benvenuto.

It was such a sacrifice as this that he had lain at his mother's feet.

Think you for an instant the clever, witty, canny woman in Madame Le
Mois looked upon her son's renouncing the world of Paris, and holding
to the glories of Dives and their famous inn in the light of a
sacrifice? "_Parbleu!_" she would explode, when the subject was touched
on, "it was a lucky thing for him that Paul had had an old mother to
keep him from burning his fingers. Paris! What did the provinces want
with Paris? Paris had need enough of them, the great, idle, shiftless,
dissipated, cruel old city, that ground all their sons to powder, and
then scattered their ashes abroad like so many cinders. Oh, yes, Paris
couldn't get along without the provinces, to plunder and rob, to seduce
their sons away from living good, pure lives, and to suck these lives
as a pig would a trough of fresh water! But the provinces, if they
valued their souls, shunned Paris as they would the devil. And as for
artists--when it came to the young of the provinces, who thought they
could paint or model--

"_Tenez, madame_--this is what Paris does for our young. My neighbor
yonder," and she pointed, as only Frenchwomen point, sticking her thumb
into the air to designate a point back of her bench, "my neighbor had a
son like Paul. He too was always niggling at something. He niggled so
well a rich cousin sent him up to Paris. Well, in ten years he comes
back, famous, rich, too, with a wife and even a child. The
establishment is complete. Well, they come here to breakfast one fine
morning, with his mother, whom he put at a side table, with his
nurse--he is ashamed of his mother, you see. Well, then his wife talks
and I hear her. '_Mais, mon Charles, c'est toi qui est le plus
fameux--il n'y a que toi! Tu es un dieu, tu sais--il n'y a pas deux
comme toi!_' The famous one deigns to smile then, and to eat of his
breakfast. His digestion had gone wrong, it appears. The _Figaro_ had
placed his name second on a certain list, _after_ a rival's! He alone
must be great--there must not be another god of painting save him! He!
He! that's fine, that's greatness--to lose one's appetite because
another is praised, and to be ashamed of one's old mother!"

Madame Le Mois's face, for a moment, was terrible to look upon. Even in
her kindliest moments hers was a severe countenance, in spite of the
true Norman curves in mouth and nostril--the laughter-loving curves.
Presently, however, the fierceness of her severity melted; she had
caught sight of her son. He was passing her, now, with the wine bottles
for dinner piled up in his arms.

"You see," croaked the mother, in an exultant whisper, "I've saved him
from all that--he's happy, for he still works. In the winter he can
amuse himself, when he likes, with his carving and paintbrushes. Ah,
_tiens, du monde qui arrive!_" And the old woman seated herself, with
an air of great dignity, to receive the new-comers.

The world that came in under the low archway was of an altogether
different character from any we had as yet seen. In a satin-lined
victoria, amid the cushions, lay a young and lovely-eyed Anonyma.
Seated beside her was a weak-featured man, with a huge flower
decorating his coat lappel. This latter individual divided the seat
with an army of small dogs who leaped forth as the carriage stopped.

Madame Le Mois remained immovable on her bench. Her face was as
enigmatic as her voice, as it gave Suzette the order to show the lady
to the salon bleu. The high Louis XV. slipper, as it picked its way
carefully after Suzette, never seemed more distinctly astray than when
its fair wearer confided her safety to the insecure footing of the
rough, uneven cobbles. In a brief half-hour the frou-frou of her silken
skirts was once more sweeping the court-yard. She and her companion and
the dogs chose the open air and a tent of sky for their
banqueting-hall. Soon all were seated at one of the many tables placed
near the kitchen, beneath the rose-vines.

Madame gave the pair a keen, dissecting glance. Her verdict was
delivered more in the emphasis of her shrug and the humor of her broad
wink than in the loud-whispered "_Comme vous voyez, chère dame, de
toutes sortes ici, chez nous--mais--toujours bon genre!_"

The laughter of one who could not choose her world was stopped,
suddenly, by the dipping of the thick fingers into an old snuff-box.
That very afternoon the court-yard saw another arrival; this one was
treated in quite a different spirit.

A dog-cart was briskly driven into the yard by a gentleman who did not
appear to be in the best of humor. He drew his horse up with a sudden
fierceness; he as fiercely called out for the hostler. Monsieur Paul
bit his lip; but he composedly confronted the disturbed countenance
perched on the driver's seat. The gentleman wished.

"I want indemnity--that is what I want. Indemnity for my horse," cried
out a thick, coarse voice, with insolent authority.

"For your horse? I do not think I understand--"

"O--h, I presume not," retorted the man, still more insolently; "people
don't usually understand when they have to pay. I came here a week ago,
and stayed two days; and you starved my horse--and he died--that is
what happened--he died!"

The whole court-yard now rang with the cries of the assembled
household. The high, angry tones had called together the last
serving-man and scullery-maid; the cooks had come out from their
kitchens; they were brandishing their long-handled saucepans. The
peasant-women were shrieking in concert with the hostlers, who were
raising their arms to heaven in proof of their innocence. Dogs, cats,
cockatoes swinging on their perches, peacocks, parrots, pelicans, and
every one of the cocks swarmed from the barnyards and garden and
cellars, to add their shrill cries and shrieks to the universal babel.

Meanwhile, calm and unruffled as a Hindoo goddess, and strikingly
similar in general massiveness of structure and proportion to the
common reproduction of such deities, sat Madame Le Mois. She went on
with her usual occupation; she was dipping fresh-cut salad leaves into
great bowls of water as quietly as if only her own little family were
assembled before her. Once only she lifted her heavily-moulded,
sagacious eyebrow at the irate dog-cart driver, as if to measure his
pitiful strength. She allowed the fellow, however, to touch the point
of abuse before she crushed him.

Her first sentence reduced him to the ignominy of silence. All her
people were also silent. What, the deep sarcastic voice chanted on the
still air--what, this gentleman's horse had died--and yet he had waited
a whole week to tell them of the great news? He was, of a truth,
altogether too considerate. His own memory, perhaps, was also a short
one, since it told him nothing of the condition in which the poor beast
had arrived, dropping with fatigue, wet with sweat, his mouth all
blood, and an eye as of one who already was past the consciousness of
his suffering? Ah no, monsieur should go to those who also had short
memories.

"For we use our eyes--we do. We are used to deal with gentlemen--with
Christians" (the Hebrew nose of the owner of the dead horse, even more
plainly abused the privilege of its pedigree in proving its race, by
turning downward, at this onslaught of the mère's satire), "as I said,
with Christians," continued the mere, pitilessly. "And do those
gentlemen complain and put upon us the death of their horses? No, my
fine sir, they return--_ils reviennent, et sont revenus depuis la
Conquête!_"

With this fine climax madame announced the court as closed. She bowed
disdainfully, with a grand and magisterial air, to the defeated
claimant, who crept away, sulkily, through the low archway.

"That is the way to deal with such vermin, Paul; whip them, and they
turn tail." And the mere shook out a great laugh from her broad bosom,
as she regaled her wide nostrils with a fresh pinch of snuff. The
assembled household echoed the laugh, seasoning it with the glee of
scorn, as each went to his allotted place.



CHAPTER XVII.

THE WORLD THAT CAME TO DIVES.


It was a world of many mixtures, of various ranks and habits of life
that found its way under the old archway, and sat down at the table
d'hôte breakfasts and dinners. Madame and her gifted son were far too
clever to attempt to play the mistaken part of Providence; there was no
pointed assortment made of the sheep and the goats; at least, not in a
way to suggest the most remote intention of any such separation being
premeditated. Such separation as there was came about in the most
natural and in the pleasantest possible fashion. When Petitjean, the
pedler, and his wife drove in under the Gothic sign, the huge lumbering
vehicle was as quickly surrounded as when any of the neighboring
notabilities arrived in emblazoned chariots. Madame was the first to
waddle forward, nodding up toward the open hood as, with a short,
brisk, business "_Bonjour_," she welcomed the head of Petitjean and his
sharp-eyed spouse looking over the aprons.

The pedler is always popular with his world and Dives knew Petitjean to
be as honest as a pedler can ever hope to be in a world where small
pence are only made large by some one being sacrificed on the altar of
duplicity. Therefore it was that Petitjean's hearse-like cart was
always a welcome visitor;--one could at least be as sure of a just
return for one's money in trading with a pedler as from any other
source in this thieving world. In the end, one always got something
else besides the bargain to carry away with one. For Petitjean knew all
the gossip of the province; after dinner, when the stiff cider was
working in his veins, he would be certain to tell all one wanted to
know. Even Madame Le Mois, whose days were too busy in summer to
include the daily reading of her newspaper, had grown dependent, in
these her later years, on such sources of information as the peddler's
garrulous tongue supplied. In the end she had found his talent for
fiction quite as reliable as that of the journalists, besides being
infinitely more entertaining, abounding in personalities which were the
more racy, as the pedler felt himself to be exempt from that curse of
responsibility, which, in French journalism, is so often a barrier to
the full play of one's talent.

Therefore it was that Petitjean and his bright-eyed spouse were always
made welcome at Dives.

"It goes well, Madame Jean? Ah, there you are. Well, _hein_, also? It
is long since we saw you."

"Ah, madame, centuries, it is centuries since we were here. But what
will you have? with the bad season, the rains, the banks failing,
the--but you, madame, are well? And Monsieur Paul?" "_Ah, ça va tout
doucement_ Paul is well, the good God be praised, but I--I perish day
by day" At which the entire court-yard was certain to burst into
laughing protest. For the whole household of Guillaume le Conquérant
was quite sure to be assembled about the great wheels of the pedler's
wagon--only to look, not to buy, not yet. Petitjean, and his wife had
not dined yet, and a pedler's hunger is something to be respected--one
made money by waiting for the hour of digestion. The little crowd of
maids, hostlers, cooks, and scullery wenches, were only here to whet
their appetite, and to greet Petitjean. Nitouche, the head _chef_, put
a little extra garlic in his sauces that day. But in spite of this
compliment to their palate, the pedler and his wife dined in the
smaller room off the kitchen;--Madame was desolated, but the
_salle-à-manger_ was crowded just now. One was really suffocated in
there these days! Therefore it was that the two ate the herbaceous
sauces with an extra relish, as those conscious of having a larger
space for the play of vagrant elbows than their less fortunate
brethren. The gossip and trading came later. On the edge of the fading
daylight there was still time to see; the chosen articles could easily
be taken into the brightly lit kitchen to be passed before the lamps.
After the buying and bargaining came the talking. All the household
could find time to spend the evening on the old benches; these latter
lined the sidewalk just beneath the low kitchen casements. They had
been here for many a long year.

What a history of Dives these old benches could have told! What
troopers, and beggars, and cowled monks, and wayfarers had sat
there!--each sitter helping to wear away the wood till it had come to
have the depressions of a drinking-trough. Night after night in the
long centuries, as the darkness fell upon the hamlet--what tales and
confidences, and what murmured anguish of remorse, what cries for help,
what gay talk and light song must have welled up into the dome of sky!

Once, as we sat within the court-yard, under the stars, a young voice
sang out. It was so still and quiet every word the youth phrased was as
clear as his fresh young voice.

"_Tiens_--it is Mathieu--he is singing _Les Oreillers!_" cried Monsieur
Paul, with an accent of pride in his own tone.

The young voice sang on:

  "_J'arrive en ce pays
  De Basse Normandie,
  Vous dire une chanson,
  S'il plaît la compagnie!_"

"It is an old Norman bridal song," Monsieur Paul went on, lowering his
voice. "One I taught a lot of young boys and lads last winter--for a
wedding held here--in the inn."

Still the fresh notes filled the air:

  "_Les amours sont partis
  Dans un bateau de verre;
  Le bateau a cassé
  a cassé--
  Les amours sont parterre._"

"How the old women laughed--and cried--at once! It was years since they
had heard it--the old song. And when these boys--their sons and
grandsons--sang it, and I had trained them well--they wept for pure
delight."

Again the song went on:

  "_Ouvrez la porte, ouvrez!
  Nouvelle mariée,
  Car si vous ne l'ouvrez
  Vous serez accusée_"

"I dressed all the young girls in old costumes," our friend continued,
still in a whisper. "I ransacked all the old chests and closets about
here. I got the ladies of the chateaux near by to aid me; they were so
interested that many came down from Paris to see the wedding. It was a
pretty sight, each in a different dress! Every century since the
thirteenth was represented."

  "_Attendez à demain,
  La fraîche matinée,
  Quand mon oiseau privé
  Aura pris sa volée!_"

Clear, strong, free rang the young tenor's voice--and then it broke
into "_Comment--tu dis que Claire est là?_" whereat Monsieur Paul
smiled.

"That will be the next wedding--what shall I devise for that? That will
also be the ending of a long lawsuit. But he should have sung the last
verse--the prettiest of all. Mathieu!" Paul lifted his voice, calling
into the dark.

_"Oui, Monsieur Paul!"_

"Sing us the last verse--"

  "_Dans ce jardin du Roi
  A pris sa reposée,
  Cueillant le romarin
  La--vande--bouton--née--_"

The last notes were but faint vibrations, coming from a lengthening
distance.

"Ah!" and Monsieur Paul breathed a sigh. "They don't care about
singing. They are doing it all the time they are so much in love. The
fathers' lawsuit ended only last month. They've waited three
years--happy Claire--happy Mathieu!"



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE CONVERSATION OF PATRIOTS.


The world that found its way to the mayor's table at this early period
of the summer season was largely composed of the class that travels
chiefly to amuse others. The commercial gentlemen in France, however,
have the outward bearing of those who travel to amuse themselves. The
selling of other people's goods--it is surely as good an excuse as any
other for seeing the world! Such an occupation offers an orator, one
gifted in conversational talents--talents it would be a pity to see
buried in the domestic napkin--a fine arena for display.

The French commercial traveller is indeed a genus apart; he makes a
fetish of his trade; he preaches his propaganda. The fat and the lean,
the tall and the little, the well or meanly dressed representatives of
the great French houses who sat down to dine, as our neighbors or
_vis-à-vis_, night after night, were, on the whole, a great credit to
their country. Their manners might have been mistaken for those of a
higher rank; their gifts as talkers were of such an order as to make
listening the better part of discretion.

Dining is always a serious act in France. At this inn the sauces of the
_chef_, with their reputation behind them, and the proof of their real
excellence before one, the dinner-hour was elevated to the importance
of a ceremony. How the petty merchants and the commercial gentlemen
ate, at first in silence, as if respecting the appeal imposed by a
great hunger, and then warming into talk as the acid cider was passed
again and again! What crunching of the sturdy, dark-colored bread
between the great knuckles! What huge helps of the famous sauces! What
insatiable appetites! What nice appreciation of the right touch of the
tricksy garlic! What nodding of heads, clinking of glasses, and warmth
of friendship established over the wine-cups! At dessert everyone
talked at once. On one occasion the subject of Gambetta's death was
touched on; all the table, as one man, broke out into an effervescence
of political babble.

"What a loss! What a death-blow to France was his death!" exclaimed a
heavy young man in a pink cravat.

"If Gambetta had lived, Alsace and Lorraine would be ours now, without
the firing of a gun!" added an elderly merchant at the foot of the
table.

"Ah--h! without the firing of a gun they will come to us yet. I tell
you, without the firing of a gun--unless we insist on a battle,"
explosively rejoined a fiery-hued little man sitting next to Monsieur
Paul; "but you will see--we shall insist. There is between us and
Germany an inextinguishable hate--and we must kill, kill, right and
left!"

"_Allons--allons!_" protested the table, in chorus.

"Yes, yes, a general massacre, that is what we want; that is what we
must have. Men, women, and children--all must fall. I am a married
man--but not a woman or a child shall escape--when the time comes,"
continued the fiery-eyed man, getting more and more ferocious as he
warmed with the thought of his revenge.

"What a monster!" broke in Madame Le Mois, her deep base notes
unruffled by the spectacle of her bloodthirsty neighbor's violence;
"you--to bayonet a woman with a child in her arms!"

"I would--I would--"

"Then you would be more cruel than they were. They treated our women
with respect."

There was a murmur of assenting applause, at this sentiment of justice,
from the table. But the fiery-eyed man was not to be put down.

"Oh, yes, they were generous enough in '71, but I should remember their
insults of 1815!"

"_Ancienne histoire--çà_" said the mère, dismissing the subject, with a
humorous wink at the table.

"As you see," was Monsieur Paul's comment on the conversation, as we
were taking our after-dinner stroll in the garden--"as you see, that
sort of person is the bad element in our country--the dangerous
element--unreasoning, revengeful, and ignorant. It is such men as he
who still uphold hatreds and keep the flame alive. It is better to have
no talent at all for politics--to be harmless like me, for instance,
whose worst vice is to buy up old laces and carvings."

"And roses--"

"Yes--that is another of my vices--to perpetuate the old varieties.
They call me along our coast the millionnaire--of roses! Will you have
a 'Marie Louise,' mademoiselle?"

The garden was as complete in its old time aspect as the rest of the
inn belongings. Only the older, rarer varieties of flowers and rose
stalks had been chosen to bloom within the beautifully arranged
inclosure. _Citronnelle_, purple irises, fringed asters, sage,
lavender, _rose-pêche_, bachelor's-button, _the d'Horace_, and the
wonderful electric fraxinelle, these and many other shrubs and plants
of the older centuries were massed here with the taste of one difficult
to please in horticultural arrangements. Our after-dinner walks became
an event in our day. At that hour the press of the day's work was over,
and Madame Mère or Monsieur Paul were always ready to join us for a
stroll.

"For myself, I do not like large gardens," Monsieur Paul remarked,
during one of these after-dinner saunters. "The monks, in the old days,
knew just the right size a garden should be--small and sheltered, with
walls--like a strong arm about a pretty woman--to protect the shrubs
and flowers. One should enter the garden, also, by a gate which must
click as it closes--the click tickles the imagination--it is the sound
henceforth connected with silence, with perfumes and seclusion. How far
away we seem now, do we not?--from the bustle of the inn
court-yard--and yet I could throw a stone into it."

The only saunterers besides ourselves were the flamingo, who,
cautiously, timorously picked his way--as if he were conscious he was
only a bunch of feathers hoisted on stilts; the white parrot, who was
wabbling across the lawn to a favorite perch in the leaves of a
tropical palm; and the peacock, whose train had been spread with a due
regard to effect across a bed of purple irises, with a view to
annihilating the brilliancy of their rival hues.

The bit of sky framed by these four garden walls always seemed more
delicate in tone than that which covered the open court-yard. The birds
in the bushes had moments of melodious outbursts they did not,
apparently, indulge in along the high-road. And what with the fading
lights, the stars pricking their way among the palms, the scents of
flowers, and the talk of a poet, it is little wonder that this twilight
hour in the old garden was certain to be the most lyrical of the
twenty-four.



CHAPTER XIX.

IN LA CHAMBRE DES MARMOUSETS.


"It is the winters, mesdames, that are hard to bear. They are
long--they are dull. No one passes along the high-road. It is then,
when sometimes the snow is piled knee-deep in the court-yard, it is
then I try to amuse myself a little. Last year I did the Jumièges
sculptures; they fit in well, do they not?"

It was raining; and Monsieur Paul was paying us an evening call. A
great fire was burning in the beautiful Francois I. fireplace of our
sitting-room, the famous Chambre des Marmousets. We had not consented
that any of the lights should be lit, although the lovely little Louis
XIV. chandelier and the antique brass sconces were temptingly filled
with fresh candles. The flames of the great logs would suffer no rival
illuminations; if the trunks of full-grown trees could not suffice to
light up an old room, with low-raftered ceilings, and a mass of
bric-à-brac, what could a few thin waxen candles hope to do?

On many other occasions we had thought our marvellous sitting-room had
had exceptional moments of beauty. To turn in from the sunlit, open
court-yard; to pass beneath, the vine-hung gallery; to lift the great
latch of the low Gothic door and to enter the rich and sumptuous
interior, where the light came, as in cathedral aisles, only through
the jewels of fourteenth-century glass; to close the door; to sit
beneath the prismatic shower, ensconced in a nest of old tapestried
cushions, and to let the eye wander over the wealth of carvings, of
ceramics, of Spanish and Normandy trousseaux chests, on the collection
of antique chairs, Dutch porcelains, and priceless embroideries--all
the riches of a museum in a living-room--such a moment in the
Marmousets we had tested again and again with delectable results. At
twilight, also, when the garden was submerged in dew, this old
seigneurial chamber was a retreat fit for a sybarite or a modern
aesthete. The stillness, the soft luxurious cushions, the rich dusk
thickening in the corners, the complete isolation of the old room from
the noise and tumult of the inn life, its curious, its delightful
unmodernness, made this Marmouset room an ideal setting for any
mediaeval picture. Even a sentiment tinctured with modern cynicism
would, I think, have borrowed a little antique fervor, if, like the
photographic negative our nineteenth-century emotionalism somewhat too
closely resembles, in its colorless indefiniteness, the sentiment were
sufficiently exposed, in point of time and degree of sensitiveness, to
the charm of these old surroundings.

On this particular evening, however, the pattering of the rain without
on the cobbles and the great blaze of the fire within, made the old
room seem more beautiful than we had yet seen it. Perhaps the capture
of our host as a guest was the added treasure needed to complete our
collection. Monsieur Paul himself was in a mood of prodigal liberality;
he was, as he himself neatly termed the phrase, ripe for confession;
not a secret should escape revelation; all the inn mysteries should
yield up the fiction of their frauds; the full nakedness of fact should
be given to us.

"You see, _chères dames_, it is not so difficult to create the
beautiful, if one has a little taste and great patience. My inn--it has
become my hobby, my pride, my wife, my children. Some men marry their
art, I espoused my inn. I found her poor, tattered, broken-down, in
health, if you will; verily, as your Shakespeare says of some country
wench: 'a poor thing but mine own.'" Monsieur Paul's possession of the
English language was scarcely as complete as the storehouse of his
memory. He would have been surprised, doubtless, to learn he had called
poor Audrey, "a pure ting, buttaire my noon!"

"She was, however," he continued, securely, in his own richer Norman,
"though a wench, a beautiful one. And I vowed to make her glorious.
'She shall be famous,' I vowed, and--and--better than most men I have
kept my vow. All France now has heard of Guillaume le Conquérant!"

The pride Monsieur Paul took in his inn was indeed a fine thing to see.
The years of toil he had spent on its walls and in its embellishment
had brought him the recompense much giving always brings; it had
enriched him quite as much as the wealth of his taste and talent had
bequeathed to the inn. Latterly, he said, he had travelled much, his
collection of curios and antiquities having called him farther afield
than many Frenchmen care to wander. His love of Delft had taken him to
Holland; his passion for Spanish leather to the country of Velasquez;
he must have a Virgin, a genuine fifteenth-century Virgin, all his own;
behold her there, in her stiff wooden skirts, a Neapolitan captive. The
brass braziers yonder, at which the courtiers of the Henris had warmed
their feet, stamping the night out in cold ante chambers, had been
secured at Blois; and his collection of tapestries, of stained glass,
of Normandy brasses, and Breton carvings had made his own coast as
familiar as the Dives streets.

"The priests who sold me these, madame," he went on, as he picked up a
priest's chasuble, now doing duty as a table covering "would sell their
fathers and their mothers. It is all a question of price."

After a review of the curios came the history of the human collection
of antiquities who had peopled the inn and this old room.

Many and various had been the visitors who had slept and dined here and
gone forth on their travels along the high-road.

The inn had had a noble origin; it had been built by no less a
personage than the great William himself. He had deemed the spot a
fitting one in which to build his boats to start forth for his modest
project of conquering England. He could watch their construction in the
waters of Dives River--that flows still, out yonder, among the grasses
of the sea-meadows. For some years the Norman dukes held to the inn, in
memory of the success of that clever boat-building. Then for five
centuries the inn became a manoir--the seigneurial residence of a
certain Sieur de Sémilly. It was his arms we saw yonder, joined to
those of Savoy, in the door panel, one of the family having married
into a branch of that great house.

Of the famous ones of the world who had travelled along this Caen
post-road and stopped the night here, humanly tired, like any other
humble wayfarer, was a hurried visit from that king who loved his
trade--Louis XI. He and his suite crowded into the low rooms, grateful
for a bed and a fire, after the weary pilgrimage to the heights of Mont
St. Michel. Louis's piety, however, was not as lasting in its
physically exhaustive effects, as were the fleshly excesses of a
certain other king--one Henri IV., whose over-appreciation of the
oysters served him here, caused a royal attack of colic, as you may
read at your pleasure in the State Archives in Paris--since, quite
rightly, the royal secretary must write the court physician every
detail of so important an event. What with these kingly travellers and
such modern uncrowned kings as Puvis de Chavannes, Dumas, George Sand,
Daubigny, and Troyon, together with a goodly number of lesser great
ones, the famous little inn has had no reason to feel itself slighted
by the great of any century. Of all this motley company of notabilities
there were two whose visits seemed to have been indefinitely prolonged.
There was nothing, in this present flowery, picturesque assemblage of
buildings, to suggest a certain wild drama enacted here centuries ago.
Nothing either in yonder tender sky, nor in the silvery foliage on a
fair day, which should conjure up the image of William as he must have
stood again and again beside the little river; nor of the fury of his
impatience as the boats were building all too slowly for his hot hopes;
nor of the strange and motley crew he had summoned there from all
corners of Europe to cut the trees; to build and launch boats; to sail
them, finally, across the strip of water to that England he was to meet
at last, to grapple with, and overthrow, even as the English huscarles
in their turn bore down on that gay Minstrel Taillefer, who rode so
insolently forth to meet them, with a song in his throat, tossing his
sword in English eyes, still chanting the song of Roland as he fell.
None of the inn features were in the least informed with this great,
impressive picture of its past. Yet does William seem by far the most
realizable of all the personages who have inhabited the old house.

There was another visitor whose presence Monsieur Paul declared was as
entirely real as if she, also, had only just passed within the
court-yard.

"I know not why it is, but of all these great, _ces fameux_, Madame de
Sévigné seems to me the nearest, in point of time. Her visit appears to
have happened only yesterday. I never enter her room but I seem to see
her moving about, talking, laughing, speaking in epigrams. She mentions
the inn, you know, in her letters. She gives the details of her journey
in full."

I, also, knew not why; but, later, after Monsieur Paul had left us,
when he had shut himself out, along with the pattering raindrops, and
had closed us in with the warmth and the flickering fire-light, there
came, with astonishing clearness, a vision of that lady's visit here.
She and her company of friends might have been stopping, that very
instant, without, in the open court. I, also, seemed to hear the very
tones of their voices; their talk was as audible as the wind rustling
in the vines. In the growing stillness the vision grew and grew, till
this was what I saw and heard:



[Illustration: CHAMBRE DES MARMOUSETS--DIVES]



TWO BANQUETS AT DIVES.



CHAPTER XX.

A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY REVIVAL.


Outside the inn, some two hundred years ago, there was a great noise
and confusion; the cries of outriders, of mounted guardsmen and
halberdiers, made the quiet village as noisy as a camp. An imposing
cavalcade was being brought to a sharp stop; for the outriders had
suddenly perceived the open inn entrance, with its raised portcullis,
and they were shouting to the coachmen to turn in, beneath the archway,
to the paved court-yard within.

In an incredibly short space of time the open quadrangle presented a
brilliant picture; the dashing guardsmen were dismounting; the maids
and lackeys had quickly descended from their perches in the caleches
and coaches; and the gentlemen of the household were dusting their wide
hats and lace-trimmed coats. The halberdiers, ranging themselves in
line, made a prismatic grouping beneath the low eaves of the
picturesque old inn. In the very middle of the court-yard stood a
coach, resplendent in painted panels and emblazoned with ducal arms.
About this coach, as soon as the four horses which drew the vehicle
were brought to a standstill, cavaliers, footmen, and maids swarmed
with effusive zeal. One of the footmen made a rush for the door:
another let down the steps; one cavalier was already presenting an
outstretched, deferential hand, while still another held forth an arm,
as rigid as a post, for the use of the occupants of the ducal carriage.

Three ladies were seated within. Large and roomy as was the vehicle,
their voluminous draperies and the paraphernalia of their belongings
seemed completely to fill the wide, deep seats. The ladies were the
Duchesse de Chaulnes, Madame de Kerman, and Madame de Sévigné. The
faces of the Duchesse and of Madame de Kerman were invisible, being
still covered with their masks, which, both as a matter of habit and of
precaution against the sun's rays, they had religiously worn during the
long day's journey. But Madame de Sévigné had torn hers off; she was
holding it in her hand, as if glad to be relieved from its confinement.

All three ladies were in the highest possible spirits, Madame de
Sévigné obviously being the leader of the jests and the laughter.

They were in a mood to find everything amusing and delightful. Even
after they had left the coach and were carefully picking their way over
the rough stones--walking on their high-heeled "mules" at best, was
always a dangerous performance--their laughter and gayety continued in
undiminished exuberance. Madame de Sévigné's keen sense of humor found
so many things to ridicule. Could anything, for example, be more
comical than the spectacle they presented as they walked, in state,
with their long trains and high-heeled slippers, up these absurd little
turret steps, feeling their way as carefully as if they were each a
pickpocket or an assassin? The long line behind of maids carrying their
muffs, and of lackeys with the muff-dogs, and of pages holding their
trains, and the grinning innkeeper, bursting with pride and courtesying
as if he had St. Vitus's dance, all this crowd coiling round the rude
spiral stairway--it was enough to make one die of laughter. Such state
in such savage surroundings!--they and their patch-boxes, and towering
head-gears and trains, and dogs and fans, all crowded into a place fit
only for peasants!

When they reached their bedchambers the ridicule was turned into a
condescending admiration; they found their rooms unexpectedly clean and
airy. The furniture was all antique, of interesting design, and though
rude, really astonishingly comfortable. Beds and dressing-tables,
mostly of Henry III's time, were elaborately canopied in the hideous
crude draperies of that primitive epoch. How different were the elegant
shapes and brocades of their own time! Fortunately their women had
suitable hangings and draperies with them, as well, of course, as any
amount of linen and any number of mattresses. The settees and benches
would do very well, with the aid of their own hassocks and cushions,
and, after all, it was only for a night, they reminded the other.

The toilet, after the heat and exposure of the day, was necessarily a
long one. The Duchesse and Madame de Kerman had their faces to make
up--all the paint had run, and not a patch was in its place. Hair,
also, of this later de Maintenon period, with its elaborate artistic
ranges of curls, to say nothing of the care that must be given to the
coif and the "follette," these were matters that demanded the utmost
nicety of arrangement.

In an hour, however, the three ladies reassembled, in the panelled
lower room--in "la Chambre de la Pucelle." In spite of the care her two
companions had given to repairing the damages caused by their journey,
of the three, Madame de Sévigné looked by far the freshest and
youngest. She still wore her hair in the loosely flowing de Montespan
fashion; a style which, though now out of date, was one that exactly
suited her fair skin, her candid brow, and her brilliant eyes. These
latter, when one examined them closely, were found to be of different
colors; but this peculiarity, which might have been a serious defect in
any other countenance, in Madame de Sévigné's brilliant face was
perhaps one cause of its extraordinarily luminous quality. Not one
feature was perfect in that fascinatingly mobile face: the chin was a
trifle too long for a woman's chin; the lips, that broke into such
delicious curves when she laughed, when at rest betrayed the firmness
of her wit and the almost masculine quality of her reasoning judgment.
Even her arms and hands and her shoulders were "_mal taillés_" as her
contemporaries would have told you. But what a charm in those irregular
features! What a seductiveness in the ensemble of that not
too-well-proportioned figure! What an indescribable radiance seemed to
emanate from the entire personality of this most captivating of women!

As she moved about the low room, dark with the trembling shadows of
light that flowed from the bunches of candles in the sconces, Madame de
Sévigné's clear complexion, and her unpowdered chestnut curls, seemed
to spot the room with light. Her companions, though dressed in the very
height of the fashion, were yet not half as catching to the eye.
Neither their minute waists, nor their elaborate underskirts and
trains, nor their tall coffered coifs (the duchesse's was not unlike a
bishop's mitre, studded as it was with ruby-headed pins), nor the
correctness of these ladies' carefully placed patches, nor yet their
painted necks and tinted eyebrows, could charm as did the unmodish
figure of Madame de Sévigné--a figure so indifferently clad, and yet
one so replete with its distinction of innate elegance and the subtle
charm of her individuality.

With the entrance of these ladies dinner was served at once. The talk
flowed on; it was, however, more or less restrained by the presence of
the always too curious lackeys, of the bustling innkeeper, and the
gentlemen of the household in attendance on the party. As a spectacle,
the little room had never boasted before of such an assemblage of
fashion and greatness. Never before had the air under the rafters been
so loaded with scents and perfumes--these ladies seeming, indeed, to
breathe out odors. Never before had there been grouped there such
splendor of toilet, nor had such courtly accents been heard, nor such
finished laughter. The fire and the candlelight were in competition
which should best light up the tall transparent caps, the lace fichus,
the brocade bodices, and the long trains. The little muff-dogs,
released from their prisons, since the muffs were laid aside at dinner
time, blinked at the fire, curling their minute bodies--clipped
lion-fashion--about the huge andirons, as they snored to kill time,
knowing their own dinner would come only when their mistresses had done.

After the dessert had been served the ladies withdrew; they were
preceded by the ever-bowing innkeeper, who assured them, in his most
reverential tones, that they would find the room opening on the other
court-yard even warmer and more comfortable than the one they were in.
In spite of the walk across the paved court-yard and the enormous
height of their heels, always a fact to be remembered, the ladies voted
to make the change, since by that means they could be assured the more
entire seclusion. Mild as was the May air, Madame de Kerman's
hand-glass hanging at her side was quickly lifted in the very middle of
the open court-yard; she had scarcely passed the door when she had felt
one of her patches blowing off.

"I caught it just in time, dear duchesse," she cried, as she stood
quite still, replacing it with a fresh one picked from her patch-box,
as the others passed her.

"The very best patch-maker I have found lives in the rue St. Denis, at
the sign of La Perle des Mouches; have you discovered him, dear
friend?" said the duchesse, as they walked on toward the low door
beneath the galleries.

"No, dear duchesse, I fear I have not even looked for him--the science
of patches I have always found so much harder than the science of
living!" gayly answered Madame de Sévigné.

Madame de Kerman had now re joined them, and all three passed into la
Chambre des Marmousets.



CHAPTER XXI.

THE AFTER-DINNER TALK OF THREE GREAT LADIES.


The three ladies grouped themselves about the fire, which they found
already lighted. The duchesse chose a Henry II. carved aim chair, one,
she laughingly remarked, quite large enough to have held both the King
and Diana. A lackey carrying the inevitable muff-dogs, their fans, and
scent-bottles, had followed the ladies; he placed a hassock at the
duchesse's feet, two beneath the slender feet of Madame de Kerman, and,
after having been bidden to open one of the casements, since it was
still so light without, withdrew, leaving the ladies alone.

Although Madame de Sévigné had comfortably ensconced herself in one of
the deep window seats, piling the cushions behind her, no sooner was
the window opened than with characteristic impetuosity she jumped up to
look out into the country that lay beyond the leaded glass. In spite of
the long day's drive in the open air, her appetite for blowing roses
and sweet earth smells had not been sated. Madame de Sévigné all her
life had been the victim of two loves and a passion; she adored society
and she loved nature; these were her lesser delights, that gave way
before the chief idolatry of her soul, her adoration for her daughter.

[Illustration: MADAME DE SÉVIGNÉ]

As she stood by the open window, her charming face, always a mirror of
her emotions, was suffused with a glow and a bloom that made it seem
young again. Her eyes grew to twice their common size under the
"wandering" eyelids, as her gaze roved over the meadows and across the
tall grasses to the sea. A part of her youth was being, indeed, vividly
brought back to her; the sight of this marine landscape recalled many
memories; and with the recollection her whole face and figure seemed to
irradiate something of the inward ardor that consumed her. She had
passed this very road, through this same country before, long ago, in
her youth, with her children. She half smiled at the remembrance of a
description given of the impression produced by her appearance on the
journey by her friend the Abbé Arnauld; he had ecstatically compared
her to Latona seated in an open coach, between a youthful Apollo and a
young Diana. In spite of the abbe's poetical extravagance, Madame de
Sévigné recognized, in this moment of retrospect, the truth of the
picture. That, indeed, had been a radiant moment! Her life at that time
had been so full, and the rapture so complete--the rapture of
possessing her children--that she could remember to have had the sense
of fairly evaporating happiness. And now, the sigh came, how scattered
was this gay group! her son in Brittany, her daughter in Provence, two
hundred leagues away! And she, an elderly Latona, mourning her Apollo
and her divine huntress, her incomparable Diana.

The inextinguishable name of youth was burning still, however, in
Madame de Sévigné's rich nature. This adventure, this amazing adventure
of three ladies of the court having to pass the night in a rude little
Normandy inn, she, for one, was finding richly seasoned with the spice
of the unforeseen; it would be something to talk of and write about for
a month hence at Chaulnes and at Paris. Their entire journey, in point
of fact, had been a series of the most delightful episodes. It was now
nearly a month since they had started from Picardy, from the castle of
Chaulnes, going into Normandy _via_ Rouen. They had been on a driving
tour, their destination being Rennes, which they would reach in a week
or so. They had been travelling in great state, with the very best
coach, the very best horses; and they had been guarded by a whole
regiment of cavaliers and halberdiers. Every possible precaution had
been taken \against their being disagreeably surprised on their route.
Their chief fear on the journey had been, of course, the cry common in
their day of "_Au voleur!_" and the meeting of brigands and assassins;
for, once outside of Paris and the police reforms of that dear Colbert,
and one must be prepared to take one's life in one's hand. Happily, no
such misadventures had befallen them. The roads, it is true, they had
found for the most part in a horrible condition; they had been pitched
about from one end of their coach to the other they might easily have
imagined themselves at sea. The dust also had nearly blinded them, in
spite of their masks. The other nuisances most difficult to put up with
had been the swarm of beggars that infested the roadsides; and worst of
all had been the army of crippled, deformed, and mangy soldiers. These
latter they had encountered everywhere; their whines and cries, their
armless, legless bodies, their hideous filth, and their insolent
importunities, they had found a veritable pest.

Another annoyance had been the over-zealous courtesy of some of the
upper middle-class. Only yesterday, in the very midst of the dust and
under the burning noon sun, they had all been forced to alight, to
receive the homage tendered the duchesse, of some thirty women and as
many men. Each one of the sixty must, of course, kiss the duchesse's
hand. It was really an outrage to have exposed them to such a form of
torture! Poor Madame de Kerman, the delicate one of the party, had
entirely collapsed after the ceremony. The duchesse also had been
prostrated; it had wearied her more than all the rest of the journey.
Madame de Sévigné alone had not suffered. She was possessed of a degree
of physical fortitude which made her equal to any demand. The other two
ladies, as well as she herself, were now experiencing the pleasant
exhilaration which comes with the hour of rest after an excellent
dinner. They were in a condition to remember nothing except the
agreeable. Madame de Sévigné was the first to break the silence.

She turned, with a brisk yet graceful abruptness, to the two ladies
still seated before the low fire. With a charming outburst of
enthusiasm she exclaimed aloud:

"What a beauty, and youth, and tenderness this spring has, has it not?"

"Yes," answered the duchesse, smiling graciously into Madame de
Sévigné's brilliantly lit face; "yes, the weather in truth has been
perfect."

"What an adorable journey we have had!" continued Madame de Sévigné, in
the same tone, her ardor undampened by the cooler accent of her
friend--she was used to having her enthusiasm greeted with
consideration rather than response. "What a journey!--only meeting with
the most agreeable of adventures; not the slightest inconvenience
anywhere; eating the very best of everything; and driving through the
heart of this enchanting springtime!"

Her listeners laughed quietly, with an accent of indulgence. It was the
habit of her world to find everything Madame de Sévigné did or said
charming. Even her frankness was forgiven her, her tact was so perfect;
and her spontaneity had always been accounted as her chief excellence;
in the stifled air of the court and the _ruelles_ it had been
frequently likened to the blowing in of a fresh May breeze. Her present
mood was one well known to both ladies.

"Always 'pretty pagan,' dear madame," smiled Madame de Kerman,
indulgently. "How well named--and what a happy hit of our friend
Arnauld d'Audilly! You are in truth a delicious--an adorable pagan! You
have such a sense of the joy of living! Why, even living in the country
has, it appears, no terrors for you. We hear of your walking about in
the moonlight-you make your very trees talk, they tell us, in
Italian--in Latin; you actually pass whole hours alone with the
hamadryads!" There was just a suspicion of irony in Madame de Kerman's
tone, in spite of its caressing softness; it was so impossible to
conceive of anyone really finding nature endurable, much less
pretending to discover in trees and flowers anything amusing or
suggestive of sentiment!

But Madame de Sévigné was quite impervious to her friend's raillery.
She responded, with perfect good humor:

"Why not?--why not try to discover beauties in nature? One can be so
happy in a wood! What a charming thing to hear a leaf sing! I know few
things more delightful than to watch the triumph of the month of May
when the nightingale, the cuckoo, and the lark open the spring in our
forests! And then, later, come those beautiful crystal days of
autumn--days that are neither warm, nor yet are they really cold! And
then the trees--how eloquent they can be made; with a little teaching
they may be made to converse so charmingly. _Bella cosa far aniente_,
says one of my trees; and another answers, _Amor odit inertes_. Ah,
when I had to bid farewell to all my leaves and trees; when my son had
to dispose of the forest of Buron, to pay for some of his follies, you
remember how I wept! It seemed to me I could actually feel the grief of
those dispossessed sylvans and of all those homeless dryads!"

"It is this, dear friend--this life you lead at Les Rochers--and your
enthusiasm, which keep you so young. Yes, I am sure of it. How
inconceivably young, for instance, you are looking this very evening!
You and the glow out yonder make youth seem no longer a legend."

The duchesse delivered her flattering little speech with a caressing
tone. She moved gently forward in her chair, as if to gain a better
view of the twilight and her friend. At the sound of the duchesse's
voice Madame de Sévigné again turned, with the same charming smile and
the quick impulsiveness of movement common to her. During her long
monologue she had remained standing; but she left the window now to
regain her seat amid the cushions of the window. There was something
better than the twilight and the spring in the air; here, within, were
two delightful friends-and listeners; there was before her, also, the
prospect of one of those endless conversations that were the chief
delight of her life.

She laughed as she seated herself--a gay, frank, hearty little
laugh--and she spread out her hands with the opening of her fan, as,
with her usual vivacious spontaneity, her mood changed.

"Fancy, dear duchesse, the punishment that comes to one who commits the
crime of looking young--younger than one ought! My son-in-law, M. de
Grignan, actually avows he is in daily terror lest I should give him a
father-in-law!"

All three ladies laughed gayly at this absurdity; the subject of Madame
de Sévigné's remarrying had come to be a venerable joke now. It had
been talked of at court and in society for nearly forty years; but such
was the conquering power of her charms that these two friends, her
listeners, saw nothing really extravagant in her son-in-law's fear; she
was one of those rare women who, even at sixty, continue to suggest the
altar rather than the grave. Madame de Kerman was the first to recover
her breath after the laughter.

"Dear friend, you might assure him that after a youth and the golden
meridian of your years passed in smiling indifference to the sighs of a
Prince de Conti, of a Turenne, of a Fouquet, of a Bussy de Rabutin, at
sixty it is scarcely likely that--"

"Ah, dear lady at sixty, when one has the complexion and the curls, to
say nothing of the eyes of our dear enchantress, a woman is as
dangerous as at thirty!" The duchesse's flattery was charmingly put,
with just enough vivacity of tone to save it from the charge of
insipidity. Madame de Sévigné bowed her curls to her waist.

"Ah, dear duchesse, it isn't age," she retorted, quickly, "that could
make me commit follies. It is the fact that that son-in-law of mine
actually surrounds me with spies--he keeps me in perpetual
surveillance. Such a state of captivity is capable of making me forget
everything; I am beginning to develop a positive rage for follies. You
know that has been my chief fault--always; discretion has been left out
of my composition. But I say now, as I have always said, that if I
could manage to live two hundred years, I should become the most
delightful person in the world!"

She herself was the first to lead in the laughter that followed her
outburst; and then the duchesse broke in:

"You talk of defects, dear friend; but reflect what a life yours has
been. So surrounded and courted, and yet you were always so guarded; so
free, and yet so wise! So gay, and yet so chaste!"

"If you rubbed out all those flattering colors, dear duchesse, and
wrote only, 'She worshipped her children, and preferred friends to
lovers,' the portrait would be far nearer to the truth. It is easy to
be chaste if one has only known one passion in one's life, and that the
maternal one!"

Again a change passed over Madame de Sévigné's mobile face; the
bantering tone was lost in a note of deep feeling. This gift of
sensibility had always been accounted as one of Madame de Sévigné's
chief charms; and now, at sixty, she was as completely the victim of
her moods as in her earlier youth.

"Where is your daughter, and how is she?" sympathetically queried the
duchesse.

"Oh, she is still at Grignan, as usual; she is well, thank God. But,
dear duchesse, after all these years of separation I suffer still,
cruelly." The tears sprang to Madame de Sévigné's eyes, as she added,
with passion and a force one would scarcely have expected in one whose
manners were so finished, "the truth is, dear friends, I cannot live
without her. I do not find I have made the least progress in that
career. But, even now, believe me, these tears are sweeter than all
else in life--more enrapturing than the most transporting joy!"

Madame de Kerman smiled tenderly into the rapturous mother's face; but
the duchesse moved, as if a little restless and uneasy under this
shower of maternal feeling. For thirty years her friends had had to
listen to Madame de Sévigné's rhapsodies over the perfections of her
incomparable daughter. Although sensibility was not the emotional
fashion of the day, maternity, in the person of Madame de Sévigné, had
been apotheosized into the queen of the passions, if only because of
its rarity; still, even this lady's most intimate friends sometimes
wearied of banqueting off the feast of Madame de Grignan's virtues.

"Have you heard from Madame de La Fayette recently?" asked the
duchesse, allowing just time enough to elapse, before putting the
question, for Madame de Sévigné's emotion to subside into composure.
The duchesse was too exquisitely bred to allow her impatience to take
the form of even the appearance of haste.

"Oh, yes," was Madame de Sévigné's quiet reply; the turn in the
conversation had been instantly understood, in spite of the delicacy of
the duchesse's methods. "Oh, yes--I have had a line--only a line. You
know how she detests writing, above all things. Her letters are all the
same--two lines to say that she has no time in which to say it!"

"Did she not once write you a pretty little series of epigrams about
not writing?"

"Oh, yes--some time ago, when I was with my daughter. I've quoted them
so often, they have become famous. 'You are in Provence, my beauty;
your hours are free, and your mind still more so. Your love for
corresponding with everyone still endures within you, it appears; as
for me, the desire to write to any human being has long since passed
away-forever; and if I had a lover who insisted on a letter every
morning, I should certainly break with him!'"

"What a curious compound she is! And how well her soubriquet becomes
her!"

"Yes, it is perfect--'_Le Brouillard_'--the fog. It is indeed a fog
that has always enveloped her, and what charming horizons are disclosed
once it is lifted!"

"And her sensibilities--of what an exquisite quality; and what a rare,
precious type, indeed, is the whole of her nature! Do you remember how
alarmed she would become when listening to music?"

"And yet, with all this sensibility and delicacy of organization there
was another side to her nature." Madame de Kerman paused a moment
before she went on; she was not quite sure how far she dared go in her
criticism; Madame de La Fayette was such an intimate friend of Madame
de Sévigné's.

"You mean," that lady broke out, with unhesitating candor, "that she is
also a very selfish person. You know that is my daughter's theory of
her--she is always telling me how Madame de La Fayette is making use of
me; that while her sensitiveness is such that she cannot sustain the
tragedy of a farewell visit--if I am going to Les Rochers or to
Provence, when I go to pay my last visit I must pretend it is only an
ordinary running-in; yet her delicacy does not prevent her from making
very indelicate proposals, to suit her own convenience. You remember
what one of her commands was, don't you?"

"No," answered the duchesse, for both herself and her companion. "Pray
tell us."

Madame de Sévigné went on to narrate that once, when at Les Rochers,
Madame de La Fayette was quite certain that she, Madame de Sévigné, was
losing her mind, for no one could live in the provinces and remain
sane, poring over stupid books and sitting over fires.

"She was certain I should sicken and die, besides losing the tone of my
mind," laughed Madame de Sévigné, as she called up the picture of her
dissolution and rapid disintegration; "and therefore it was necessary
at once that I should come up to Paris. This latter command was
delivered in the tone of a judge of the Supreme Court. The penalty of
my disobedience was to be her ceasing to love me. I was to come up to
Paris directly--on the minute; I was to live with you, dear duchesse; I
was not to buy any horses until spring; and, best of all, I was to find
on my arrival a purse of a thousand crowns which would be lent me
without interest! What a proposition, _mon Dieu_, what a proposition!
To have no house of my own, to be dependent, to have no carriage, and
to be in debt a thousand crowns!"

As Madame de Sévigné lifted her hands the laces of her sleeves were
fairly trembling with the force of her indignation. There were certain
things that always put her in a passion, and Madame de La Fayette's
peculiarities she had found at times unendurable. Her listeners had
followed her narration with the utmost intensity and absorption. When
she stopped, their eyes met in a look of assenting comment.

"It was perfectly characteristic, all of it! She judged you, doubtless,
by herself. She always seems to me, even now, to keep one eye on her
comfort and the other on her purse!"

"Ah, dear duchesse, how keen you are!" laughingly acquiesced Madame de
Sévigné, as with a shrug she accepted the verdict--her indignation
melting with the shrug. "And how right! No woman ever drives better
bargains, without moving a finger. From her invalid's chair she can
conduct a dozen lawsuits. She spends half her existence in courting
death; she caresses her maladies; she positively hugs them; but she can
always be miraculously resuscitated at the word money!"

"Yes," added with a certain relish Madame de Kerman. "And this is the
same woman who must be forever running away from Paris because she can
no longer endure the exertion of talking, or of replying, or of
listening; because she is wearied to extinction, as she herself admits,
of saying good-morning and good-evening. She must hide herself in some
pastoral retreat, where simply, as she says, 'to exist is enough;'
where she can remain, as it were, miraculously suspended between heaven
and earth!"

A ripple of amused laughter went round the little group; there was
nothing these ladies enjoyed so keenly as a delicate dish of gossip,
seasoned with wit, and stuffed with epigrams. This talk was exactly to
their taste. The silence and seclusion of their surroundings were an
added stimulus to confidence and to a freer interchange of opinions
about their world. Paris and Versailles seemed so very far away; it
would appear safe to say almost anything about one's dearest friends.
There was nothing to remind them of the restraints of levees, or the
penalty indiscretion must pay for folly breathed in that whispering
gallery--the _ruelle_. It was indeed a delightful hour; altogether an
ideal situation.

The fire had burned so low only a few embers were alive now, and the
candles were beginning to flicker and droop in the sconces. But the
three ladies refused to find the little room either cold or dark; their
talk was not half done yet, and their muffs would keep them warm. The
shadow of the deepening gloom they found delightfully provocative of
confidences.

After a short pause, while Madame de Kerman busied herself with the
tongs and the fagots, trying to reinvigorate the dying flames, the
duchesse asked, in a somewhat more intimate tone than she had used yet:

"And the duke--do you really think she loved the Duke de La
Rochefoucauld?"

"She reformed him, dear duchesse; at least she always proclaims his
reform as the justification of her love."

"You--you esteemed him yourself very highly, did you not?"

"Oh, I loved him tenderly; how could one help it? He was the best as
well as the most brilliant of men! I never knew a tenderer heart;
domestic joys and sorrows affected him in a way to render him
incomparable. I have seen him weep over the death of his mother, who
only died eight years before him, you know, with a depth of sincerity
that made me adore him."

"He must in truth have been a very sincere person."

"Sincere!" cried Madame de Sévigné, her eyes flaming. "Had you but seen
his deathbed! His bearing was sublime! Believe me, dear friend, it was
not in vain that M. de La Rochefoucauld had written philosophic
reflections all his life; he had already anticipated his last moments
in such a way that there was nothing either new or strange in death
when it came to him."

"Madame de La Fayette truly mourned him--don't you think so? You were
with her a great deal, were you not, after his death?"

"I never left her. It was the most pitiable sight to see her in her
loneliness and her misery. You see, their common ill-health and their
sedentary habits, had made them so necessary to each other! It was, as
it were, two souls in a single body. Nothing could exceed the
confidence and charm of their friendship; it was incomparable. To
Madame de La Fayette his loss came as her death-blow; life seems at an
end for her; for where, indeed, can she find another such friend, or
such intercourse, such sweetness and charm--such confidence and
consideration?"

There was a moment's silence after Madame de Sévigné's eloquent
outburst. The eyes of the three friends were lost for a moment in the
twinkling flames. The duchesse and Madame de Kerman exchanged meaning
glances.

"Since the duke's death her thoughts are more and more turned toward
religion. I hear she has been fortunate in her choice of directors, has
she not? Du Guet is said to be an ideal confessor for the authoress of
'La Princesse de Clèves.'" There was just a suspicion of malice in the
duchesse's tones.

"Oh, he was born to take her in hand. He knew just when to speak with
authority, and when to make use of the arts of persuasion. He wrote to
her once, you remember: 'You, who have passed your life in
dreaming--cease to dream! You, who have taken such pride unto yourself
for being so true in all things, were very far, indeed, from the
truth--you were only half true--falsely true. Your godless wisdom was
in reality purely a matter of good taste!'"

"What audacity! Bossuet himself could not have put the truth more
nakedly." The duchesse was one of those to whom truths were novelties,
and unpleasant ones.

"Bossuet, if I remember rightly, was with the Duke de La Rochefoucauld
at the last, was he not?"

"Yes," responded Madame de Sévigné; "he was with him; he administered
the supreme unction. The duke was in a beautiful state of grace. M,
Vinet, you remember, said of him that he died with 'perfect decorum.'"

"Speaking of dying reminds me"--cried suddenly Madame de Sévigné--"how
are the duke's hangings getting on?"

"They begin, the duke writes me, to hang again to-morrow," answered the
duchesse, with a certain air of disdain, the first appearance of this
weapon of the great now coming to the _grande dame's_ aid. Her husband,
the Duke de Chaulnes' trouble with his revolutionary citizens at Rennes
was a subject that never failed to arouse a feeling of angry contempt
in her. It was too preposterous, the idea of those insolent creatures
rising against him, their rightful duke and master!

The duchesse's feeling in the matter was fully shared by her friends.
In all the court there was but one opinion in the matter--hanging was
really far too good for the wretched creatures.

"Monsieur de Chaulnes," the duchesse went on, with ironical contempt in
her voice, "still goes on punishing Rennes!"

"This province and the duke's treatment of it will serve as a capital
example to all others. It will teach those rascals," Madame de Kerman
continued, in lower tones, "to respect their governors, and not to
throw stones into their gardens!"

"Fancy that--the audacity of throwing stones into their duke's garden!
Why, did you know, they actually--those insolent creatures actually
called him--called the duke--'_gros cochon?_'"

All three ladies gasped in horror at this unparalleled instance of
audacity; they threw up their hands, as they groaned over the picture,
in low tones of finished elegance.

"It is little wonder the duke hangs right and left! The dear duke--what
a model governor! How I should like to have seen him sack that street
at Rennes, with all the ridiculous old men, and the women in
childbirth, and the children, turned out pêle-mêle! And the hanging,
too--why, hanging now seems to me a positively refreshing performance!"
And Madame de Sévigné laughed with unstinted gayety as at an excellent
joke.

The picture of Rennes and the cruelty dealt its inhabitants was a
pleasant picture, in the contemplation of which these ladies evidently
found much delectation. They were quiet for a longer period of time
than usual; they continued silent, as they looked into the fire,
smiling; the flames there made them think of other flames as forms of
merited punishment.

"A curious people those Bas Bretons," finally ejaculated Madame de
Sévigné. "I never could understand how Bertrand Duguesclin made them
the best soldiers of his day in France!"

"You know Lower Brittany very well, do you not, dear friend?"

"Not so well as the coast. Les Rochers is in Upper Brittany, you know.
I know the south better still. Ah, what a charming journey I once took
along the Loire with my friend _Bien-Bon_, the Abbé de Coulanges. We
found it the most enchanting country in the world--the country of
feasts and of famine; feasts for us and famine for the people. I
remember we had to cross the river; our coach was placed on the barge,
and we were rowed along by stout peasants. Through the glass windows of
the coach we looked out at a series of changing pictures--the views
were charming. We sat, of course, entirely at our ease, on our soft
cushions. The country people, crowded together below, were--ugh!--like
pigs in straw."

"Was Bien-Bon with you when you made that little excursion to St.
Germain?" queried the duchesse.

"Ah, that was a gay night," joyously responded Madame de Sévigné. "How
well we amused ourselves on that little visit that we paid Madame de
Maintenon--when she was only Madame Scarron."

"Was she so handsome then as they say she was--at that time?"

"Very handsome; she was good, too, and amiable, and easy to talk to;
one talked well and readily with her. She was then only the governess
of the king's bastards, you know--of the children he had had by Madame
de Montespan. That was the first step toward governing the king. Well,
one night--the night to which you refer--I remember we were all supping
with Madame de La Fayette. We had been talking endlessly! Suddenly it
occurred to us it would be a most amusing adventure to take Madame
Scarron home, to the very last end of the Faubourg Saint Germain, far
beyond where Madame de La Fayette lived--near Vaugirard, out into the
Bois, in the country. The Abbé came too. It was midnight when we
started. The house, when at last we reached it, we found large and
beautiful, with large and fine rooms and a beautiful garden; for Madame
Scarron, as governess of the king's children, had a coach and a lot of
servants and horses. She herself dressed then modestly and yet
magnificently, as a woman should, who spent her life among people of
the highest rank. We had a merry outing, returning in high spirits,
blessed in having no end of lanterns, and thus assured against robbers."

"She and Madame de La Fayette were very close friends, I remember,
during that time," mused the duchesse, "when they were such near
neighbors."

"Yes," Madame de Sévigné went on, as unwearied now, although it was
nearly midnight, as in the beginning of the long evening. "Yes; I
always thought Madame de Maintenon's satirical little joke about Madame
de La Fayette's bed festooned with gold--'I might have fifty thousand
pounds income, and never should I live in the style of a great lady;
never should I have a bed festooned with gold like Madame de La
Fayette'--was the beginning of their rupture."

"All the same, Madame de La Fayette, lying on that bed, beneath the
gold hangings, was a much more simple person than ever was Madame de
Maintenon!"

"Your speaking of bed reminds me, dear ladies ours must be quite cold
by this time. How we have chatted! What a delightful gossip! But we
must not forget that our journey to-morrow is to be a long one!"

The duchesse rose, the other two ladies rising instantly, observing, in
spite of the intimate relations in which they stood toward the
duchesse, the deference due to her more exalted rank. The latter
clapped her hands; outside the door a shuffling and a low groan were
heard--the groan came from the sleepy lackey, roused from his deep
slumber, as he uncoiled himself from the close knot into which his legs
and body were knit in the curve of the narrow stairs.

The ladies, a few seconds later, were wending their way up the steep
turret steps. They were preceded by torches and followed by quite a
long train of maids and lackeys. For a long hour, at least, the little
inn resounded with the sound of hurrying feet, of doors closing and
shutting; with the echo of voices giving commands and of others purring
in sleepy accents of obedience. Then one by one the sounds died away;
the lights went out in the bedchambers; faint flickerings stole through
the chinks of doors and windows. The watchman cried out the hour, and
the gleam of a lantern flashed here and there, illuminating the open
court-yard. The cocks crowed shrilly into the night air. A halberdier
turned in his sleep where he lay, on some straw beneath the coach-shed,
his halberd rattling as it struck the cobbles. And over the whole--over
the gentle slumber of the great ladies and the sleep of beast and
man--there fell the peace and the stillness of the midnight--of that
midnight of long ago.

[Illustration: CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLE--DIVES]



CHAPTER XXII.

A NINETEENTH-CENTURY BREAKFAST.


The very next morning, after the rain, and the vision I had had of
Madame de Sévigné, conjured up by my surroundings and the reading of
her letters, Monsieur Paul paid us an early call. He came to beg the
loan of our sitting-room, he said. He had had a despatch from a
coaching-party from Trouville; they were to arrive for breakfast. The
whip and owner of the coach was a great friend of his, he proffered by
way of explanation--a certain count who had a genius for
friendship--one who also had an artist's talent for admiring the
beautiful. He was among those who were in a state of perpetual
adoration before the inn's perfections. He made yearly pilgrimages from
his chateau above Rouen to eat a noon breakfast in the Chambre des
Marmousets. Now, a breakfast served elsewhere than in this chamber
would be, from his point of view, to have journeyed to a shrine to find
the niche empty. The gift that was begged of us, therefore, was the
loan for a few hours of the famous little room.

In less than a half hour we were watching the entrance of the coach by
the side of Madame Le Mois. We were all three seated on the green bench.

Faintly at first, and presently gaining in distinctness, came the fall
of horses' hoofs and the rumble of wheels along the highway. A little
cavalcade was soon passing beneath the archway. First there dashed in
two horsemen, who had sprung to the ground almost as soon as their
steeds' hoofs struck the paved court-yard. Then there swept by a jaunty
dog cart, driven by a mannish figure radiantly robed in white. Swiftly
following came the dash and jingle of four coach-horses, bathed in
sweat, rolling the vehicle into the court as if its weight were a thing
of air. All save one among the gay party seated on the high seats, were
too busy with themselves and their chatter, to take heed of their
surroundings. A lady beneath her deep parasol was busily engaged in a
gay traffic of talk with the groups of men peopling the back seats of
the coach. One of the men, however, was craning his neck beyond the
heads of his companions; he was running his eye rapidly up and down the
long inn facade. Finally his glance rested on us; and then, with a
rush, a deep red mounted the man's cheek, as he tore off his derby to
wave it, as if in a triumph of discovery. Renard had been true to his
promise. He had come to see his friends and to test the famous
Sauterne. He flung himself down from his lofty perch to take his seat,
entirely as a matter of course, beside us on the green bench.

"What luck, hey?--greatest luck in the world, finding you in, like
this. I've been in no end of a tremble, fearing you'd gone to Caen, or
Falaise, or somewhere, and that I shouldn't see you after all. Well,
how are you? How goes it? What do you think of old Dives and Monsieur
Paul, and the rest of it? I see you're settled; you took the palace
chamber. Trust American women--they know the best, and get it."

"But these people, who are they, and how did you--?" We were
unfeignedly glad to see him, but curiosity is a passion not to be
trifled with--after a month in the provinces.

"Oh--the De Troisacs? Old friends of mine--known them years. Jolly lot.
Charming fellow, De Troisac--only good Frenchman I've ever known.
They're just off their yacht; saw them all yesterday at the Trouville
Casino. Said they were running down here for breakfast to-day, asked
me, and I came, of course." He laughed as he added: "I said I should
come, you remember, to get some of that Sauterne. A man will go any
distance for a good bottle of wine, you know."

Meanwhile, in the court-yard, the party on the coach, by means of
ladders and the helping of the grooms, were scrambling down from their
seats. Renard's friend, the Comte de Troisac, was easily picked out
from the group of men. He was the elder of the party--stoutish, with
frank eyes and a smiling mouth; he was bustling about from the gaunt
grooms to the ladder, and from ladder to the coach-seat, giving his
commands right and left, and executing most of them himself. A tall,
slim woman, with drooping eyelids, and an air of extreme elegance and
of cultivated fatigue, was also easily recognizable as the countess. It
took two grooms, two of the gentlemen guests, and her husband to assist
her to the ground. Her passage down the steps of the ladder had been
long enough, however, to enable her to display a series of pretty
poses, each one more effective than the others. When one has an instep
of ideal elevation, what is the use of being born a Frenchwoman, unless
one knows how to make use of opportunity?

From the dog-cart, that had rattled in across the cobbles with a dash
and a spurt, there came quite a different accent and pose. The whitish
personage, whom we had mistakenly supposed to be a man, wore
petticoats; the male attire only held as far as the waist of the lady.
The stiff white shirt-front, the knotted tie--a faultless male
knot--the loose driving-jacket, with its sprig of white geranium, and
the round straw-hat worn in mannish fashion, close to the level brows,
was a costume that would have deceived either sex. Below the jacket
flowed the straight lines of a straight skirt, that no further
conjectures should be rendered necessary. This lady had a highbred air
of singular distinction, accentuated by a tremendously knowing look.
She was at once elegant and rakish; the _gamin_ in her was obviously
the touch of _caviare_ to season the woman of fashion. The mixture made
an extraordinarily attractive ensemble. As she jumped to the ground,
throwing her reins to a groom, her jump was a master-stroke; it landed
her squarely on her feet; even as she struck the ground her hands were
thrust deeply into her pockets. The man seated beside her, who now
leaped out after her, seemed timid and awkward by contrast with her
alert precision. This couple moved at once toward the bench on which
madame was seated. With the coming in of the coach and the cart she had
risen, waddling forward to meet the party. Monsieur Paul was at the
coach-wheels before the grooms had shot themselves down; De Troisac,
with eager friendliness, stretched forth a hand from the top of his
seat, exclaiming, with gay heartiness, "Ah, mon bon--comment ça va?"

The mere was as eagerly greeted. Even the countess dismissed her
indifference for the moment, as she held out her hand to Madame Le Mois.

"Dear Madame Le Mois--and it goes well with you? And the gout and the
rheumatism, they have ceased to torment you? Quelle bonne nouvelle! And
here are the dear old cocks and the wounded bantam. The cockatoos--ah,
there they are, still swinging in the air! Comme c'est joli--et
frais--et que ça sent bon!"

Madame and Monsieur Paul were equally effusive in their inquiries and
exclamations--it was clearly a meeting of old friends. Madame Le Mois'
face was meanwhile a study. The huge surface was glistening with
pleasure; she was unfeignedly glad to see these Parisians:--but there
was no elation at this meeting on such easy terms with greatness. Her
shrewdness was as alive as ever; she was about to make money out of the
visit--they were to have of her best, but they must pay for it. Between
her rapid fire of questionings as to the countess's health and the
history of her travels, there was as rapid a shower of commands,
sometimes shouted out, above all the hubbub, to the cooks standing
gaping in the kitchen doorway, or whispered hoarsely to Ernestine and
Marianne, who were flying about like wild pigeons, a little drunk with
the novelty of this first breakfast of the season.

"_Allons, mon enfant--cours--cours_--get thy linen, my child, and the
silver candélabres. It is to be laid in the Marmousets, thou knowest.
Paul will come presently. And the salads, pluck them and bring them in
to me--_cours--cours_."

The great world was all very well, and it was well to be on friendly,
even intimate terms, with it; but, _Dieu!_ one's own bread is of
importance too! And the countess, for all her delicacy, was a _bonne
fourchette_.

The countess and her friend, after a moment of standing in the
court-yard, of patting the pelican, of trying their blandishments on
the flamingo, of catching up the bantam, and filling the air with their
purring, and caressing, and incessant chatter, passed beneath the low
door to the inner sanctum of madame. The two ladies were clearly bent
on a few moments of unreserved gossip and that repairing of the toilet
which is a religious act to women of fashion the world over.

In the court-yard the scene was still a brilliant one. The gayly
painted coach was now deserted. It stood, a chariot of state, as it
were, awaiting royalty; its yellow sides gleamed like topaz in the sun.
The grooms were unharnessing the leaders, that were still bathed in the
white of their sweat. The count's dove-colored flannels were a soft
mass against the snow of the _chef's_ apron and cap; the two were in
deep consultation at the kitchen door. Monsieur Paul was showing, with
all the absorption of the artist, his latest Jumièges carvings to the
taller, more awkward of the gentlemen, to the one driven in by the
mannish beauty.

The cockatoos had not ceased shrieking from the very beginning of the
hubbub; nor had the squirrels stopped running along the bars of their
cage, a-flutter with excitement. The peacocks trailed their trains
between the coach-wheels, announcing, squawkingly, their delight at the
advent of a larger audience. Above the cries of the fowls and the
shrieks of the cocks, the chatter of human tongues, the subdued murmur
of the ladies' voices coming through the open lattice, and the stamp of
horses' hoofs, there swept above it all the light June breeze, rustling
in the vines, shaking the thick branches against the wooden facades.

The two ladies soon made their appearance in the sunlit court-yard. The
murmur of their talk and their laughter reached us, along with the
froufrou of their silken petticoats.

"You were not bored, _chère enfant_, driving Monsieur d'Agreste all
that long distance?"

The countess was smiling tenderly into her companion's face. She had
stopped her to readjust the geranium sprig that was drooping in her
friend's cover-coat. The smile was the smile of a sympathizing angel,
but what a touch of hidden malice there was in the notes of her
caressing voice! As she repinned the _boutonnière_, she gave the
dancing eyes, that were brimming with the mirth of the coming retort,
the searching inquest of her glance.

"Bored! _Dieu, que non!_" The black little beauty threw back her
throat, laughing, as she rolled her great eyes. "Bored--with all the
tricks I was playing? Fernande! pity me, there was such a little time,
and so much to do!"

"So little time--only fourteen kilos!" The countess compressed her
lips; they were smiling no longer.

"Ah, but you see, I had so much to combat. You had a whole season, last
summer, in which to play your game, your solemn game." Here the gay
young widow rippled forth a pearly scale of treble laughter. "And I
have had only a week, thus far!"

"Yes, but what time you make!"

And this time both ladies laughed, although, still, only one laughed
well.

"Ah! those women--how they love each other," commented Renard, as he
sat on the bench, swinging his legs, with his eyes following the two
vanishing figures. "Only women who are intimate--Parisian
intimates--can cut to the bone like that, with a surgeon's dexterity."

He explained then that the handsome brunette was a widow, a certain
Baronne d'Autun, noted for her hunting and her conquests; the last on
the latter list was Monsieur d'Agreste, a former admirer of the
countess; he was somewhat famous as a scientist and socialist, so good
a socialist as to refuse to wear his title of duke. The other two
gentlemen of the party, who had joined them now, the two horsemen, were
the Comtes de Mirant and de Fonbriant. These latter were two typical
young swells of the Jockey Club model; their vacant, well-bred faces
wore the correct degree of fashionable pallor, and their manners
appeared to be also as perfect as their glances were insolent.

Into these vacant faces the languid countess was breathing the
inspiration of her smile. Enigmatic as was the latter, it was as simple
as an infant's compared to the occult character of her glance. A wealth
of complexities lay enfolded in the deep eyes, rimmed with their mystic
darkened circlet--that circle in which the Parisienne frames her
experience, and through which she pleads to have it enlarged!

A Frenchwoman and cosmetics! Is there any other combination on this
round earth more suggestive of the comedy of high life, of its elegance
and of its perfidy, of its finish and of its emptiness?

The men of the party wore costumes perilously suggestive of Opera
Bouffe models. Their fingers were richly begemmed; their watch-chains
were laden with seals and charms. Any one of the costumes was such as
might have been chosen by a tenor in which to warble effectively to a
_soubrette_ on the boards of a provincial theatre; and it was worn by
these fops of the Jockey Club with the air of its being the last word
in nautical fashions. Better than their costumes were their voices; for
what speech from human lips pearls itself off with such crispness and
finish as the delicate French idiom from a Parisian tongue?

I never quite knew how it came about that we were added to this gay
party of breakfasters. We found ourselves, however, after a high
skirmish of preliminary presentations, among the number to take our
places at the table.

In the Chambre des Marmousets, Monsieur Paul, we found, had set the
feast with the taste of an artist and the science of an archaeologist.
The table itself was long and narrow, a genuine fifteenth century
table. Down the centre ran a strip of antique altar-lace; the sides
were left bare, that the lustre of the dark wood might be seen. In the
centre was a deep old Caen bowl, with grapes and fuchsias to make a
mound of soft color. A pair of seventeenth-century candélabres twisted
and coiled their silver branches about their rich _repoussé_ columns;
here and there on the yellow strip of lace were laid bunches of June
roses, those only of the rarer and older varieties having been chosen,
and each was tied with a Louis XV love-knot. Monsieur Paul was himself
an omniscient figure at the feast; he was by turns officiating as
butler, carving, or serving from the side-tables; or he was crossing
the court-yard with his careful, catlike tread, a bottle under each
arm. He was also constantly appealed to by Monsieur d'Agreste or the
count, to settle a dispute about the age of the china, or the original
home of the various old chests scattered about the room.

"Paul, your stained glass shows up well in this light," the count
called out, wiping his mustache over his soup-plate.

"Yes," answered Monsieur Paul, as he went on serving the sherry,
pausing for a moment at the count's glass. "They always look well in
full sunlight. It was a piece of pure luck, getting them. One can
always count on getting hold of tapestries and carvings, but old glass
is as rare as--"

"A pretty woman," interpolated the gay young widow, with the air of a
connoisseur.

"Outside of Paris--you should have added," gallantly contributed the
count. Everyone went on eating after the light laughter had died away.

The countess had not assisted at this brief conversation; she was
devoting her attention to receiving the devotion of the two young
counts; one was on either side of her, and both gave every outward and
visible sign of wearing her chains, and of wearing them with
insistance. The real contest between them appeared to be, not so much
which should make the conquest of the languid countess, as which should
outflank the other in his compromising demeanor. The countess, beneath
her drooping lids, watched them with the indulgent indolence of a
lioness, too luxuriously lazy to spring.

The countess, clearly, was not made for sunlight. In the courtyard her
face had seemed chiefly remarkable as a triumph of cosmetic treatment;
here, under this rich glow, the purity and delicacy of the features
easily placed her among the beauties of the Parisian world. Her eyes,
now that the languor of the lids was disappearing with the advent of
the wines, were magnificent; her use of them was an open avowal of her
own knowledge of their splendor. The young widow across the table was
also using her eyes, but in a very different fashion. She had now taken
off her straw hat; the curly crop of a brown mane gave the brilliant
face an added accent of vigor. The _chien de race_ was the dominant
note now in the muscular, supple body, the keen-edged nostrils, and the
intent gaze of the liquid eyes. These latter were fixed with the fixity
of a savage on Charm. She was giving, in a sweet sibilant murmur, the
man seated next her--Monsieur d'Agreste, the man who refused to bear
his title--her views of the girl.

"Those Americans, the Americans of the best type, are a race apart, I
tell you; we have nothing like them; we condemn them because we don't
understand them. They understand us--they read us--"

"Oh, they read our books--the worst of them."

"Yes, but they read the best too; and the worst don't seem to hurt
them. I'll warrant that Mees Gay--that is her name, is it not?--has
read Zola, for instance; and yet, see how simple and
innocent--yes--innocent, she looks."

"Yes, the innocence of experience--which knows how to hide," said
Monsieur d'Agreste, with a slight shrug.

"Mees Gay!" the countess cried out across the table, suddenly waking
from her somnolence; she had overheard the baroness in spite of the low
tone in which the dialogue had been carried on; her voice was so
mellifluously sweet, one instinctively scented a touch of hidden poison
in it--"Mees Gay, there is a question being put at this side of the
table you alone can answer. Pray pardon the impertinence of a personal
question--but we hear that American young ladies read Zola; is it true?"

"I am afraid that we do read him," was Charm's frank answer. "I have
read him--but my reading is all in the past tense now."

"Ah--you found him too highly seasoned?" one of the young counts asked,
eagerly, with his nose in the air, as if scenting an indiscretion.

"No, I did not go far enough to get a taste of his horrors; I stopped
at his first period."

"And what do you call his first period, dear mademoiselle?" The
countess's voice was still freighted with honey. Her husband coughed
and gave her a warning glance, and Renard was moving uneasily in his
chair.

"Oh," Charm answered lightly, "his best period--when he didn't sell."

Everyone laughed. The little widow cried beneath her breath:

"_Elle a de l'esprit, celle-là_---"

"_Elle en a de trop_," retorted the countess.

"Did you ever read Zola's 'Quatre Saisons?'" Renard asked, turning to
the count, at the other end of the table.

No, the count had not read it--but he could read the story of a
beautiful nature when he encountered one, and presently he allowed
Charm to see how absorbing he found its perusal.

"_Ah, bien--et tout de même_--Zola, yes, he writes terrible books; but
he is a good man--a model husband and father," continued Monsieur
d'Agreste, addressing the table.

"And Daudet--he adores his wife and children," added the count, as if
with a determination to find only goodness in the world.

"I wonder how posterity will treat them? They'll judge their lives by
their books, I presume."

"Yes, as we judge Rabelais or Voltaire--"

"Or the English Shakespeare by his 'Hamlet.'"

"Ah! what would not Voltaire have done with Hamlet!" The countess was
beginning to wake again.

"And Molière? What of _his_ 'Misanthrope?' There is a finished, a
human, a possible Hamlet! a Hamlet with flesh and blood," cried out the
younger count on her right. "Even Mounet-Sully could do nothing with
the English Hamlet."

"Ah, well, Mounet-Sully did all that was possible with the part. He
made Hamlet at least a lover!"

"Ah, love! as if, even on the stage, one believed in that absurdity any
longer!" was the countess's malicious comment.

"Then, if you have ceased to believe in love, why did you go so
religiously to Monsieur Caro's lectures?" cried the baroness.

"Oh, that dear Caro! He treated the passions so delicately, he handled
them as if they were curiosities. One went to hear his lecture on Love
as one might go to hear a treatise on the peculiarities of an extinct
species," was the countess's quiet rejoinder.

"One should believe in love, if only to prove one's unbelief in it,"
murmured the young count on her left.

"Ah, my dear comte, love, nowadays, like nature, should only be used
for decoration, as a bit of stage setting, or as stage scenery."

"A moonlight night can be made endurable, sometimes," whispered the
count.

"A _clair de lune_ that ends in _lune de miel_, that is the true use to
which to put the charms of Diana." It was Monsieur d'Agreste's turn now
to murmur in the baroness's ear.

"Oh, honey, it becomes so cloying in time," interpolated the countess,
who had overheard; she overheard everything. She gave a wearied glance
at her husband, who was still talking vigorously to Charm and Renard.
She went on softly: "It's like trying to do good. All goodness, even
one's own, bores one in the end. At Basniège, for example, lovely as it
is, ideally feudal, and with all its towers as erect as you please, I
find this modern virtue, this craze for charity, as tiresome as all the
rest of it. Once you've seen that all the old women have woollen
stockings, and that each cottage has fagots enough for the winter, and
your _role_ of benefactress is at an end. In Paris, at least, charity
is sometimes picturesque; poverty there is tainted with vice. If one
believed in anything, it might be worth while to begin a mission; but
as it is--"

"The gospel of life, according to you, dear comtesse, is that in modern
life there is no real excitement except in studying the very best way
to be rid of it," cried out Renard, from the bottom of the table.

"True; but suicide is such a coarse weapon," the lady answered, quite
seriously; "so vulgar now, since the common people have begun to use
it. Besides, it puts your adversary, the world, in possession of your
secret of discontent. No, no. Suicide, the invention of the nineteenth
century, goes out with it. The only refined form of suicide is to bore
one's self to death," and she smiled sweetly into the young man's eyes
nearest her.

"Ah, comtesse, you should not have parted so early in life with all
your illusions," was Monsieur d'Agreste's protest across the table.

"And, Monsieur d'Agreste, it isn't given to us all to go to the ends of
the earth, as you do, in search of new ones! This friction of living
doesn't wear on you as it does on the rest of us."

"Ah, the ends of the earth, they are very much like the middle and the
beginning of things. Man is not so very different, wherever you find
him. The only real difference lies in the manner of approaching him.
The scientist, for example, finds him eternally fresh, novel,
inspiring; he is a mine only as yet half-worked." Monsieur d'Agreste
was beginning to wake up; his eyes, hitherto, alone had been alive; his
hands had been busy, crunching his bread; but his tongue had been
silent.

"Ah--h science! Science is only another anaesthetic--it merely helps to
kill time. It is a hobby, like any other," was the countess's rejoinder.

"Perhaps," courteously returned Monsieur d'Agreste, with perfect
sweetness of temper. "But at least, it is a hobby that kills no one
else. And if of a hobby you can make a principle--"

"A principle?" The countess contracted her brows, as if she had heard a
word that did not please her.

"Yes, dear lady; the wise man lays out his life as a gardener does a
garden, on the principle of selection, of order, and with a view to the
succession of the seasons. You all bemoan the dulness of life; you, in
Paris, the torpor of ennui stifles you, you cry. On the contrary, I
would wish the days were weeks, and the weeks months. And why? Simply
because I have discovered the philosopher's stone. I have grasped the
secret of my era. The comedy of rank is played out; the life of the
trifler is at an end; all that went out with the Bourbons.
Individualism is the new order. To-day a man exists simply by virtue of
his own effort--he stands on his own feet. It is the era of the
republican, of the individual--science is the true republic. For us who
are displaced from the elevation our rank gave us, work is the
watchword, and it is the only battle-cry left us now. He only is
strong, and therefore happy, who perceives this truth, and who marches
in step with the modern movement."

The serious turn given to the conversation had silenced all save the
baroness. She had listened even more intently than the others to her
friend's eloquence, nodding her head assentingly to all that he said.
His philosophic reflections produced as much effect on her vivacious
excitability as they might on a restless Skye-terrier.

"Yes, yes--he's entirely right, is Monsieur d'Agreste; he has got to
the bottom of things. One must keep in step with modernity--one must be
_fin de siècle_. Comtesse, you should hunt; there is nothing like a fox
or a boar to make life worth living. It's better, infinitely better,
than a pursuit of hearts; a boar's more troublesome than a man."

"Unless you marry him," the countess interrupted, ending with a
thrush-like laugh. When she laughed she seemed to have a bird in her
throat.

"Oh, a man's heart, it's like the flag of a defenceless country--anyone
may capture it."

The countess smiled with ineffable grace into the vacant, amorous-eyed
faces on either side of her, rising as she smiled. We had reached
dessert now; the coffee was being handed round. Everyone rose; but the
countess made no move to pass out from the room. Both she and the
baroness took from their pockets dainty cigarette-cases.

"_Vous permettez?_" asked the baroness, leaning over coquettishly to
Monsieur d'Agreste's cigar. She accompanied her action with a charming
glance, one in which all the woman in her was uppermost, and one which
made Monsieur d'Agreste's pale cheeks flush like a boy's. He was a
philosopher and a scientist; but all his science and philosophy had not
saved him from the barbed shafts of a certain mischievous little god.
He, also, was visibly hugging his chains.

The party had settled themselves in the low divans and in the Henri IV
arm-chairs; a few here and there remained, still grouped about the
table, with the freedom of pose and in the comfort of attitude smoking
and coffee bring with them.

It was destined, however, that the hour was to be a short one. One of
the grooms obsequiously knocked at the door; he whispered in the
count's ear, who advanced quickly toward him, the news that the coach
was waiting; one of the leaders.

"Desolated, my dear ladies--but my man tells me the coach is in
readiness, and I have an impertinent leader who refuses to stand, when
he is waiting, on anything more solid than his hind legs. Fernande, my
dear, we must be on the move. Desolated, dear ladies--desolated--but
it's only _au revoir_. We must arrange a meeting later, in Paris--"

The scene in the court-yard was once again gay with life and bristling
with color. The coach and the dog-cart shone resplendent in the
slanting sun's rays. In the brighter sunlight, the added glow in the
eyes and the cheeks of the brilliantly costumed group, made both men
and women seem younger and fresher than when they had appeared, two
hours since. All were in high good humor--the wines and the talk had
warmed the quick French blood. There was a merry scramble for the top
coach-seats; the two young counts exchanged their seat in their saddles
for the privilege of holding, one the countess's vinaigrette, and the
other, her long-handled parasol. Renard was beside his friend De
Troisac; the horn rang out, the horses started as if stung, dashing at
their bits, and in another moment the great coach was being whirled
beneath the archway.

"_Au revoir--au revoir!_" was cried down to us from the throne-like
elevation. There was a pretty waving of hands--for even the countess's
dislike melted into sweetness as she bade us farewell. There were
answering cries from the shrieking cockatoos, from the peacocks who
trailed their tails sadly in the dust, from the cooks and the peasant
serving-women who had assembled to bid the distinguished guests adieu.
There was also a sweeping bow from Monsieur Paul, and a grunt of
contented dismissal from Madame Le Mois.

A moment after the departure of the coach the court yard was as still
as a convent cloister.

It was still enough to hear the click of madame's fingers, as she
tapped her snuff-box.

"The count doesn't see any better than he did--_toujours myope, lui_"
the old woman murmured to her son, with a pregnant wink, as she took
her snuff.

"_C'est sa façon de tout voir, au contraire, ma mère_," significantly
returned Monsieur Paul, with his knowing smile.

The mother's shrug answered the smile, as both mother and son walked in
different directions--across the sunlit court.



A LITTLE JOURNEY ALONG THE COAST.

CAEN, BAYEUX, ST. LO, COUTANCES.



CHAPTER XXIII.

A NIGHT IN A CAEN ATTIC.


I have always found the act of going away contagious. Who really enjoys
being left behind, to mope in a corner of the world others have
abandoned? The gay company atop of the coach, as they were whirled
beneath the old archway, had left discontent behind; the music of the
horn, like that played by the Pied Piper, had the magic of making the
feet ache to follow after.

Monsieur Paul was so used to see his world go and come--to greeting it
with civility, and to assist at its departure with smiling indifference
that the announcement of our own intention to desert the inn within a
day or so, was received with unflattering impassivity. We had decided
to take a flight along the coast--the month and the weather were at
their best as aids to such adventure. We hoped to see the Fête Dieu at
Caen. Why not push on to Coutances, where the Fête was still celebrated
with a mediaeval splendor? From thence to the great Mont, the Mont St.
Michel, it was but the distance of a good steed's galloping--we could
cover the stretch of country between in a day's driving, and catch, who
knows?--perhaps the June pilgrims climbing the Mont.

"Ah, mesdames! there are duller things in the world to endure than a
glimpse of the Normandy coast and the scent of June roses!
_Idylliquement belle, la côte à ce moment-ci!_"

This was all the regret that seasoned Monsieur Paul's otherwise
gracious and most graceful of farewells. Why cannot we all attain to an
innkeeper's altitude, as a point of view from which to look out upon
the world? Why not emulate his calm, when people who have done with us
turn their backs and stalk away? Why not, like him, count the pennies
as not all the payment received when a pleasure has come which cannot
be footed up in the bill? The entire company of the inn household was
assembled to see us start. Not a white mouse but was on duty. The
cockatoos performed the most perilous of their trapeze accomplishments
as a last tribute; the doves cooed mournfully; the monkeys ran like
frenzied spirits along their gratings to see the very last of us.
Madame Le Mois considerately carried the bantam to the archway, that
the lost joy of strutting might be replaced by the pride of preferment
above its fellows.

"_Adieu_, mesdames."

"_Au revoir_--you will return--_tout le monde revient_--Guillaume le
Conquérant, like Caesar, conquers once to hold forever--remember--"

[Illustration: CHATEAU FONTAINE LE HENRI, NEAR CAEN]

From Monsieur Paul, in quieter, richer tones, came his true farewell,
the one we had looked for:

"The evenings in the Marmousets will seem lonely when it rains--you
must give us the hope of a quick return. Hope is the food of those who
remain behind, as we Normans say!"

The archway darkened the sod for an instant; the next we had passed out
into the broad highway. Jean, in his blouse, with Suzette beside him,
both jolting along in the lumbering _char-à-banc_, stared out at us
with a vacant-eyed curiosity. We were only two travellers like
themselves, along a dusty roadway, on our way to Caen; we were of no
particular importance in the landscape, we and our rickety little
phaeton. Yet only a moment before, in the inn court-yard, we had felt
ourselves to be the pivotal centre of a world wholly peopled with
friends! This is what comes to all men who live under the modern
curse--the double curse of restlessness and that itching for novelty,
which made the old Greek longing for the unknown deity--which is also
the only honest prayer of so many _fin de siècle_ souls!

Besides the dust, there were other things abroad on the high-road. What
a lot of June had got into the air! The meadows and the orchards were
exuding perfumes; the hedge-rows were so many yards of roses and wild
grape-vines in blossom. The sea-smells, aromatic, pungent, floated
inland to be married, in hot haste, to a perfect harem of clover and
locust scents. The charm of the coast was enriched by the homely,
familiar scenes of farm-house life. All the country between Dives and
Caen seemed one vast farm, beautifully tilled, with its meadow-lands
dipping seaward. For several miles, perhaps, the agricultural note
alone would be the dominant one, with the fields full of the old, the
eternal surprise--the dawn of young summer rising over them. Down the
sides of the low hills, the polychrome grain waved beneath the touch of
the breeze like a moving sea. Many and vast were the flat-lands; they
were wide vistas of color: there were fields that were scarlet with the
pomp of poppies, others tinged to the yellow of a Celestial by the
feathery mustard; and still others blue as a sapphire's heart from the
dye of millions of bluets. A dozen small rivers--or perhaps it was only
one--coiled and twisted like a cobra in sinuous action, in and out
among the pasture and sea meadows.

As we passed the low, bushy banks, we heard the babel of the
washerwomen's voices as they gossiped and beat their clothes on the
stones. A fisherman or two gave one a hint that idling was understood
here, as elsewhere, as being a fine art for those who possess the
talent of never being pressed for time. A peasant had brought his horse
to the bank; the river, to both peasant and Percheron, was evidently
considered as a personal possession--as are all rivers to those who
live near them. There was a naturalness in all the life abroad in the
fields that gave this Normandy highroad an incomparable charm. An
Arcadian calm, a certain patriarchal simplicity reigned beneath the
trees. Children trudged to the river bank with pails and pitchers to be
filled; women, with rakes and scythes in hand, crept down from the
upper fields to season their mid-day meal with the cooling whiff of the
river and sea air. Children tugged at their skirts. In two feet of
human life, with kerchief tied under chin, the small hands carrying a
huge bunch of cornflowers, how much of great gravity there may be! One
such rustic sketch of the future peasant was seriously carrying its
bouquet to another small edition seated in a grove of poppies; it might
have been a votive offering. Both the children seated themselves, a
very earnest conversation ensuing. On the hill-top, near by, the father
and mother were also conversing, as they bent over their scythes.
Another picture was wheeling itself along the river bank; it was a
farmer behind a huge load of green grass; atop of the grasses two
moon-faced children had laps and hands crowded with field flowers.
Behind them the mother walked, with a rake slung over her shoulder, her
short skirts and scant draperies giving to her step a noble freedom.
The brush of Vollon or of Breton would have seized upon her to embody
the type of one of their rustic beauties, that type whose mingled
fierceness and grace make their peasants the rude goddesses of the
plough.

Even a rustic river wearies at last of wandering, as an occupation.
Miles back we had left the sea; even the hills had stopped a full hour
ago, as if they had no taste for the rivalry of cathedral spires.
Behold the river now, coursing as sedately as the high-road, between
two interminable lines of poplars. Far as the eye could reach stretched
a wide, great plain. It was flat as an old woman's palm; it was also as
fertile as the city sitting in the midst of its luxuriance has been
rich in history.

"_Ce pays est très beau, et Caen la plus jolie ville, la plus avenante,
la plus gaie, la mieux située, les plus belles rues, les plus beaux
bâtiments, les plus belles églises_--"

There was no doubt, Charm added, as she repeated the lady's verdict, of
the opinion Madame de Sévigné had formed of the town. As we drove, some
two hundred years later, through the Caen streets, the charm we found
had been perpetuated, but alas! not all of the beauty. At first we were
entirely certain that Caen had retained its old loveliness; the
outskirts were tricked out with the bloom of gardens and with old
houses brave in their armor of vines. The meadows and the great trees
of the plain were partly to blame for this illusion; they yielded their
place grudgingly to the cobble-stoned streets and the height of dormer
windows.

To come back to the world, even to a provincial world, after having
lived for a time in a corner, is certain to evoke a pleasurable feeling
of elation. The streets of Caen were by no means the liveliest we had
driven into; nor did the inhabitants, as at Villerville, turn out _en
masse_ to welcome us. The streets, to be quite truthful, were as
sedately quiet as any thoroughfares could well be, and proudly call
themselves boulevards. The stony-faced gray houses presented a
singularly chill front, considering their nationality. But neither the
pallor of the streets nor their aspect of provincial calm had power to
dampen the sense of our having returned to the world of cities. A girl
issuing from a doorway with a netted veil drawn tightly over her rosy
cheeks, and the curve of a Parisian bodice, immediately invested Caen
with a metropolitan importance.

The most courteous of innkeepers was bending over our carriage-door. He
was desolated, but his inn was already full; it was crowded to
repletion with people; surely these ladies knew it was the week of the
races? Caen was as crowded as the inn; at night many made of the open
street their bed; his own court-yard was as filled with men as with
farm-wagons. It was altogether hopeless as a situation; as a welcome
into a strange city, I have experienced none more arctic. I had,
however, forgotten that I was travelling with a conqueror; that when
Charm smiled she did as she pleased with her world. The innkeeper was
only a man; and since Adam, when has any member of that sex been known
to say "No" to a pretty woman? This French Adam, when Charm parted her
lips, showing the snow of her teeth, found himself suddenly,
miraculously, endowed with a fragment of memory. _Tiens_, he had
forgotten! that very morning a corner of the attic--_un bout du
toit_--had been vacated. If these ladies did not mind mounting to a
_grenier_--an attic, comfortable, although still only an attic!

The one dormer window was on a level with the roof-tops. We had a whole
company of "belles voisines," a trick of neighborliness in windows the
quick French wit, years ago, was swift to name. These "neighbors" were
of every order and pattern. All the world and his mother-in-law were
gone to the races;--and yet every window was playing a different scene
in the comedy of this life in the sky. Who does not know and love a
French window, the higher up in the world of air the better? There are
certain to be plants, rows of them in pots, along the wide sill; one
can count on a bullfinch or a parrot, as one can on the bébés that
appear to be born on purpose to poke their fingers in the cages; there
is certain also to be another cage hanging above the flowers--one
filled with a fresh lettuce or a cabbage leaf. There is usually a snowy
curtain, fringed; just at the parting of the draperies an old woman is
always seated, with chin and nose-tip meeting, her bent figure rounding
over the square of her knitting-needles.

It was such a window as this that made us feel, before our bonnets were
laid aside, that Caen was glad to see us. The window directly opposite
was wide open. Instead of one there were half a dozen songsters aloft;
we were so near their cages that the cat-bird whistled, to call his
master and mistress to witness the intrusion of these strangers. The
master brought a hot iron along--he was a tailor and was just in the
act of pressing a seam. His wife was scraping carrots, and she tucked
her bowl between her knees as she came to stand and gaze across. A cry
rose up within the low room. Some one else wished to see the newcomers.
The tailor laid aside his iron to lift proudly, far out beyond the
cages, the fattest, rosiest offspring that ever was born in an attic.
The babe smote its hands for pure joy. We were better than a broken
doll--we were alive. The family as a family accepted us as one among
them. The man smiled, and so did his wife. Presently both nodded
graciously, as if, understanding the cause of our intrusion on their
aerial privacy, they wished to present us with the compliment of their
welcome. The manners among these garret-windows, we murmured, were
really uncommonly good.

"Bonjour, mesdames!" It was the third time the woman had passed, and we
were still at the window. Her husband left his seam to join her.

"Ces dames are not accustomed to such heights--_à ces hauteurs
peut-être?_"

The ladies in truth were not, unhappily, always so well lodged; from
this height at least one could hope to see a city.

"_Ah! ha! c'est gai par ici, n'est-ce pas?_ One has the sun all to
one's self, and air! Ah! for freshness one must climb to an attic in
these days, it appears."

It was impossible to be more contented on a height than was this family
of tailors; for when not cooking, or washing, or tossing the "bébé" to
the birds, the wife stitched and stitched all her husband cut, besides
taking a turn at the family socks. Part of this contentment came, no
doubt, from the variety of shows and amusements with which the family,
as a family, were perpetually supplied. For workers, there were really
too many social distractions abroad in the streets; it was almost
impossible for the two to meet all the demands on their time. Now it
was the jingle of a horse's bell-collar; the tailor, between two snips
at a collar, must see who was stopping at the hotel door. Later a horn
sounded; this was only the fish vender, the wife merely bent her head
over the flowers to be quite sure. Next a trumpet, clear and strong,
rang its notes up into the roof eaves; this was something _bébé_ must
see and hear--all three were bending at the first throbbing touch of
that music on the still air, to see whence it came. Thus you see, even
in the provinces, in a French street, something is quite certain to
happen; it all depends on the choice one makes in life of a window--of
being rightly placed--whether or not one finds life dull or amusing.
This tailor had the talent of knowing where to stand, at life's
corner--for him there was a ceaseless procession of excitements.

It may be that our neighbor's talent for seeing was catching. It is
certain that no city we had ever before looked out upon had seemed as
crowded with sights. The whole history of Caen was writ in stone
against the blue of the sky. Here, below us, sat the lovely old town,
seated in the grasses of her plain. Yonder was her canal, as an artery
to keep her pulse bounding in response to the sea; the ship-masts and
the drooping sails seemed strange companions for the great trees and
the old garden walls. Those other walls William built to cincture the
city, Froissart found three centuries later so amazingly "strong, full
of drapery and merchandise, rich citizens, noble dames, damsels, and
fine churches," for this girdle of the Conqueror's great bastions the
eye looks in vain. But William's vow still proclaims its fulfilment;
the spire of l'Abbaye aux Hommes, and the Romanesque towers of its
twin, l'Abbaye aux Dames, face each other, as did William and Mathilde
at the altar--that union that had to be expiated by the penance of
building these stones in the air.

Commend me to an attic window to put one in sympathetic relations with
cathedral spires! At this height we and they, for a part of their
flight upward, at least, were on a common level--and we all know what
confidences come about from the accident of propinquity. They seemed to
assure us as never before when sitting at their feet, the difficulties
they had overcome in climbing heavenward. Every stone that looked down
upon the city wore this look of triumph.

In the end it was this Caen in the air--it was this aerial city of
finials, of towers, of peaked spires, of carved chimneys, of tree-tops
over which the clouds rode; of a plain, melting--like a sea--into the
mists of the horizon; this high, bright region peopled with birds and
pigeons; of a sky tender, translucent, and as variable as human
emotions; of an air that was rapture to breathe, and of nights in which
the stars were so close they might almost be handled; it was this free,
hilly city of the roofs that is still the Caen I remember best.

There were other features of Caen that were good to see, I also
remember. Her street expression, on the whole, was very pleasing. It
was singularly calm and composed, even for a city in a plain. But the
quiet came, doubtless, from its population being away at the races. The
few townspeople who, for obvious reasons, were stay-at-homes, were
uncommonly civil; Caen had evidently preserved the tradition of good
manners. An army of cripples was in waiting to point the way to the
church doors; a regiment of beggars was within them, with nets cast
already for the catching of the small fry of our pennies. In the gay,
geranium-lit garden circling the side walls of St. Pierre there were
many legless soldiers; the old houses we went to see later on in the
high street seemed, by contrast, to have survived other wars, those of
the Directory and the Mountain, with a really scandalous degree of good
fortune. On our way to a still greater church than St. Pierre, to the
Abbaye aux Dames, that, like the queen who built her, sits on the
throne of a hill--on our way thither we passed innumerable other
ancient mansions. None of these were down in the guide books; they
were, therefore, invested with the deeper charm of personal discovery.
Once away from the little city of the shops, the real Caen came out to
greet us. It was now a gray, sad, walled town; behind the walls,
level-browed Francis I. windows looked gravely over the tufts of
verdure; here was an old gateway; there what might once have been a
portcullis, now only an arched wreath of vines; still beyond, a group
of severe-looking mansions with great iron bound windows presented the
front of miniature fortresses. And everywhere gardens and gardens.

Turn where you would, you would only turn to face verdure, foliage, and
masses of flowers. The high walls could neither keep back the odors nor
hide the luxuriance of these Caen gardens. These must have been the
streets that bewitched Madame de Sévigné. Through just such a maze of
foliage Charlotte Corday has also walked, again and again, with her
wonderful face aflame with her great purpose, before the purpose
ripened into the dagger thrust at Marat's bared breast--that avenging
Angel of Beauty stabbing the Beast in his bath. Auber, with his
Anacreontic ballads in his young head, would seem more fittingly framed
in this old Caen that runs up a hill-side. But women as beautiful as
Marie Stuart and the Corday can deal safely in the business of
assassination, the world will always continue to aureole their pictures
with a garland of roses.

The Abbaye on its hill was reached at last. All Caen lay below us; from
the hillside it flowed as a sea rolls away from a great ship's sides.
Down below, far below, as if buttressing the town that seemed rushing
away recklessly to the waste of the plains, stands the Abbaye's
twin-brother, the Aux Hommes. Plains, houses, roof-tops, spires, all
were swimming in a sea of golden light; nothing seemed quite real or
solid, so vast was the prospect and so ethereal was the medium through
which we saw it. Perhaps it was the great contrast between that
shimmering, unstable city below, that reeked and balanced itself like
some human creature whose dazzled vision had made its footing
insecure--it may be that it was this note of contrast which invested
this vast structure bestriding the hill, with such astonishing
grandeur. I have known few, if any, other churches produce so
instantaneous an effect of a beauty that was one with austerity. This
great Norman is more Puritan than French: it is Norman Gothic with a
Puritan severity.

The sound of a deep sonorous music took us quickly within. It was as
mysterious a music as ever haunted a church aisle. The vast and snowy
interior was as deserted as a Presbyterian church on a week-day. Yet
the sound of the rich, strong voices filled all the place. There was no
sound of tingling accompaniment: there was no organ pipe, even, to add
its sensuous note of color. There was only the sound of the voices, as
they swelled, and broke, and began afresh.

The singing went on.

It was a slow "plain chant." Into the great arches the sonorous
chanting beat upon the ear with a rhythmic perfection that, even
without the lovely flavor of its sweetness, would have made a beauty of
its own. In this still and holy place, with the company of the stately
Norman arches soaring aloft--beneath the sombre glory of the giant
aisle--the austere simplicity of this chant made the heart beat, one
knew not why, and the eyes moisten, one also knew not why.

We had followed the voices. They came, we found, from within the choir.
A pattering of steps proclaimed we were to go no farther.

"Not there, my ladies--step this way, one only enters the choir by
going into the hospital."

The voice was low and sweet; the smile, a spark of divinity set in a
woman's face; and the whole was clothed in a nun's garb.

We followed the fluttering robes; we passed out once more into the
sunlit parvis. We spoke to the smile and it answered: yes, the choir
was reserved for the Sisters--they must be able to approach it from the
convent and the hospital; it had always, since the time of Mathilde,
been reserved for the nuns; would we pass this way? The way took us
into an open vaulted passage, past a grating where sat a white-capped
Sister, past a group of girls and boys carrying wreaths and
garlands--they were making ready for the _Fête-Dieu_, our nun
explained--past, at the last, a series of corridors through which,
faintly at first, and then sweeter and fuller, there struck once more
upon our ears the sounds of the deep and resonant chanting.

The black gown stopped all at once. The nun was standing in front of a
green curtain. She lifted it. This was what we saw. The semicircle of a
wide apse. Behind, rows upon rows of round arches. Below the arches, in
the choir stalls, a long half-circle of stately figures. The figures
were draped from head to foot. When they bent their heads not an inch
of flesh was visible, except a few hands here and there that had
escaped the long, wide sleeves. All these figures were motionless; they
were as immobile as statues; occasionally, at the end of a "Gloria,"
all turned to face the high altar. At the end of the "Amen" a cloud of
black veils swept the ground. Then for several measures of the chant
the figures were again as marble. In each of the low, round arches, a
stately woman, tall and nobly planned, draped like a goddess turned
saint, stood and chanted to her Lord. Had the Norman builders carved
these women, ages ago, standing about Mathilde's tomb, those ancient
sculptures could not have embodied, in more ideal image, the type of
womanly renunciation and of a saint's fervor of exaltation.

We left them, with the rich chant still full upon their lips, with
heads bent low, calm as graven images. It was only the bloom on a
cheek, here and there, that made one certain of the youth entombed
within these nuns' garb.

"Happy, _mesdames? Oh, mais très heureuses, toutes_--there are no women
so happy as we. See how they come to us, from all the country around.
_En voilà une_--did you remark the pretty one, with the book, seated,
all in white? She is to be a full Sister in a month. She comes from a
noble family in the south. She was here one day, she saw the life of
the Sisters, of us all working here, among the poor soldiers--_elle a
vu ça, et pour tout de bon, s'est donnée à Dieu!_"

The smile of our nun was rapturous. She was proving its source. Once
more we saw the young countess who had given herself to her God. An
hour later, when we had reached the hospital wards, her novice's robes
were trailing the ground. She was on her knees in the very middle of
the great bare room. She was repeating the office of the hour, aloud,
with clasped hands and uplifted head. On her lovely young face there
was the glow of a divine ecstasy. All the white faces from the long
rows of the white beds were bending toward her; to one even in all
fulness of strength and health that girlish figure, praying beside the
great vase of the snowy daisies, with the glow that irradiated the
sweet, pure face, might easily enough have seemed an angel's.

As companions for our tour of the grounds we had two young Englishmen.
Both eyed the nuns in the distance of the corridors and the gardens
with the sharpened glances all men level at the women who have
renounced them. It is a mystery no man ever satisfactorily fathoms.

"Queer notion, this, a lot of women shutting themselves up," remarked
the younger of the two. "In England, now, they'd all go in for being
old maids, drinking tea and coddling cats, you know."

"I wonder which are the happier, your countrywomen or these Sisters,
who, in renouncing the world devote their lives to serving it. See,
over yonder" and I nodded to a scene beneath the wide avenue of the
limes. Two tall Augustines were supporting a crippled old man; they
were showing him some fresh garden-beds. Beyond was a gayer group. Some
of the lay sisters were tugging at a huge basket of clothes, fresh from
the laundry. Running across the grass, with flying draperies, two nuns,
laughing as they ran, each striving to outfoot the other, were
hastening to their rescue.

"They keep their bloom, running about like that; only healthy nuns I
ever saw."

"That's because they have something better than cats to coddle."

"Ah, ha! that's not bad. It's a slow suicide, all the same. But here we
are, at the top; it's a fine outlook, is it not?"

The young man panted as he reached the top of the Maze, one of the
chief glories of the old Abbaye grounds. He had a fair and sensitive
face; a weak product on the whole, he seemed, compared with the
nobly-built, vigorous-bodied nuns crowding the choir-stalls yonder.
Instead of that long, slow suicide, surely these women should be doing
their greater work of reproducing a race. Even an open-air cell seems
to me out of place in our century. It will be entirely out of fashion
in time, doubtless, as the mediaeval cell has gone along with the old
castle life, whose princely mode of doing things made a nunnery the
only respectable hiding-place for the undowered daughters.

As we crept down into Caen, it was to find it thick with the dust of
twilight. The streets were dense with other things besides the
thickened light. The Caen world was crowding homeward; all the
boulevards and side streets were alive with a moving throng of dusty,
noisy, weary holidaymakers. The town was abroad in the streets to hear
the news of the horses, and to learn the history of the betting.

Although we had gone to church instead of doing the races, many of
those who had peopled the gay race-track came back to us. The table
d'hôte, at our inn that night, was as noisy as a Parisian cafe. It was
scarcely as discreet, I should say. On our way to our attic that night,
the little corridors made us a really amazing number of confidences.

It was strange, but all the shoes appeared to have come in pairs of
twos. Never was there such a collection of boots in couples. Strange it
was, also, to see how many little secrets these rows of candid
shoe-leather disclosed. Here a pert, coquettish pair of ties were
having as little in common as possible with the stout, somewhat clumsy
walking-boots next them. In the two just beyond, at the next door, how
the delicate, slender buttoned kids leaned over, floppingly, to rest on
the coarse, yet strong, hobnailed clumpers!

Shabbier and shabbier grew the shoes, as we climbed upward. With each
pair of stairs we seemed to have left a rung in the ladder of fortune
behind. But even the very poorest in pocket had brought his little
extravagance with him to the races.

The only genuine family party had taken refuge, like ourselves, in the
attic.

At the very next door to our own, Monsieur, Madame, et Bébé proclaimed,
by the casting of their dusty shoes, that they also, like the rest of
the world, had come to Caen to see the horses run.



CHAPTER XXIV.

A DAY AT BAYEUX AND ST. LO.


Caen seated in its plain, wearing its crown of steeples--this was our
last glimpse of the beautiful city. Our way to Bayeux was strewn thick
with these Normandy jewels; with towns smaller than Caen; with Gothic
belfries; with ruined priories, and with castles, stately even when
tottering in decay. When the last castle was lost in a thicket, we
discovered that our iron horse was stopping in the very middle of a
field. If the guard had shouted out the name of any American city,
built overnight, on a Western prairie, we should have felt entirely at
home in this meadow; we should have known any clearing, with grass and
daisies, was a very finished evidence of civilization at high pressure.

But a lane as the beginning of a cathedral town!

Evidently Bayeux has had a Ruskinian dread of steam-whistles, for this
ancient seat of bishops has succeeded in retaining the charms of its
old rustic approaches, whatever else it may have sacrificed on the
altar of modernness.

An harangue, at the door of the quaint old Normandy omnibus, by the
driver of the same, was proof that the lesson of good oratory,
administered by generations of bishops, had not been lost on the Bayeux
inhabitants. Two rebellious English tourists furnished the text for the
driver's sermon; they were showing, with all the naive pride of
pedestrians, their intention of footing the distance between the
station and the cathedral. This was an independence of spirit no Norman
could endure to see. What? these gentlemen proposed to walk, in the
sun, through clouds of dust, when here was a carriage, with ladies for
companions, at their command? The coach had come down the hill on
purpose to conduct _Messieurs les voyageurs;_ how did these gentlemen
suppose _a père de famille_ was to make his living if the fashion of
walking came in? And the rusty red vest was thumbed by the gnarled hand
of the father, who was also an orator; and a high-peaked hat swept the
ground before the hard-hearted gentlemen. All the tragedy of the
situation had come about from the fact that the tourists, also, had
gotten themselves up in costume. When two fine youths have risen early
in the day to put on checked stockings, leggings, russet walking-shoes,
and a plaited coat with a belt, such attire is one to be lived up to.
Once in knickerbockers and a man's getting into an omnibus is really
too ignominious! With such a road before two sets of such well-shaped
calves--a road all shaped and graded--this, indeed, would be flying in
the face of a veritable providence of bishop-builders intent on
maintaining pastoral effects.

The knickerbockers relentlessly strode onward; the driver had addressed
himself to hearts of stone. But he had not yet exhausted his quiver of
appeal. Englishmen walk, well! there's no accounting for the taste of
Britons who are also still half savages; but even a barbarian must eat.
Half-way up the hill, the rattle of the loose-jointed vehicle came to a
dead stop. With great gravity the guard descended from his seat; this
latter he lifted to take from the entrails of the old vehicle a handful
of hand-bills. He, the horse, the omnibus, and we, all waited for, what
do you suppose? To besprinkle the walking Englishmen as they came
within range with a shower of circulars announcing that at "_midi, chez
Nigaud, il y aura un dejeuner chaud_."

The driver turned to look in at the window--and to nod as he turned--he
felt so certain of our sympathy; had he not made sure of them at last?

A group of gossamer caps beneath a row of sad, gray-faced houses was
our Bayeux welcome. The faces beneath the caps watched our approach
with the same sobriety as did the old houses--they had the antique
Norman seriousness of aspect. The noise we made with the clatter and
rattle of our broken-down vehicle seemed an impertinence, in the face
of such severe countenances. We might have been entering a deserted
city, except for the presence of these motionless Normandy figures. The
cathedral met us at the threshold of the city: magnificent, majestic, a
huge gray mountain of stone, but severe in outline, as if the Norman
builders had carved on the vast surface of its facade an imprint of
their own grave earnestness.

We were somewhat early for the hot breakfast at Nigaud's. There was,
however, the appetizing smell of soup, with a flourishing pervasiveness
of onion in the pot, to sustain the vigor of an appetite whetted by a
start at dawn. The knickerbockers came in with the omelette. But one is
not a Briton on his travels for nothing; one does not leave one's own
island to be the dupe of French inn-keepers. The smell of the soup had
not departed with our empty plates, and the voice of the walkers was
not of the softest when they demanded their rights to be as odorous as
we. There is always a curiously agreeable sensation, to an American, in
seeing an Englishman angry; to get angry in public is one thing we do
badly; and in his cup of wrath our British brother is sublime--he is so
superbly unconscious--and so contemptuous--of the fact that the world
sometimes finds anger ridiculous.

At the other end of the long and narrow table two other travellers were
seated, a man and a woman. But food, to them, it was made manifestly
evident, was a matter of the most supreme indifference. They were at
that radiant moment of life when eating is altogether too gross a form
of indulgence. For these two were at the most interesting period of
French courtship--just _after_ the wedding ceremony, when, with the
priest's blessing, had come the consent of their world and of tradition
to their making the other's acquaintance. This provincial bride and her
husband of a day were beginning, as all rustic courting begins, by a
furtive holding of hands; this particular couple, in view of our
proximity and their own mutual embarrassment, had recourse to the
subterfuge of desperate lunges at the other's fingers, beneath the
table-cloth. The screen, as a screen, did not work. It deceived no
one--as the bride's pale-gray dress and her flowery bonnet also
deceived no one--save herself. This latter, in certain ranks of life,
is the bride's travelling costume, the world over. And the world over,
it is worn by the recently wedded with the profound conviction that in
donning it they have discovered the most complete of all disguises.

This bride and groom were obviously in the first rapture of mutual
discovery. The honey in their moon was not fresher than their views of
the other's tastes and predilections.

"Ah--ah--you like to travel quickly--to see everything, to take it all
in a gulp--so do I, and then to digest at one's leisure."

The bride was entirely of this mind. Only, she murmured, there were
other things one must not do too quickly--one must go slow in matters
of the heart--to make quite sure of all the stages.

But her husband was at her throat, that is, his eyes and lips were, as
he answered, so that all the table might partake of his emotion--"No,
no, the quicker the heart feels the quicker love comes. _Tiens, voyons,
mon amie, toi-même, tu m'as confié_"--and the rest was lost in the
bride's ear.

Apparently we were to have them, these brides, for the rest of our
journey, in all stages and of all ages! Thus far none others had
appeared as determined as were these two honey-mooners, that all the
world should share their bliss. They were cracking filberts with their
disengaged fingers, the other two being closely interlocked, in quite
scandalous openness, when we left them.

That was the only form of excitement that greeted us in the quiet
Bayeux streets. The very street urchins invited repose; the few we saw
were seated sedately on the threshold of their own door-steps, frequent
sallies abroad into this quiet city having doubtless convinced them of
the futility of all sorties. The old houses were their carved facades
as old ladies wear rich lace--they had reached the age when the vanity
of personal adornment had ceased to inflate. The great cathedral,
towering above the tranquil town, wore a more conscious air; its
significance was too great a contrast to the quiet city asleep at its
feet. In these long, slow centuries the towers had grown to have the
air of protectors.

The famous tapestries we went to see later, might easily enough have
been worked yesterday, in any one of the old mediaeval houses; Mathilde
and her hand-maidens would find no more--not so much--to distract and
disturb them now in this still and tranquil town, with its sad gray
streets and its moss-grown door-steps, as they must in those earlier
bustling centuries of the Conqueror. Even then, when Normandy was only
beginning its career of importance among the great French provinces,
Bayeux was already old. She was far more Norse then than Norman; she
was Scandinavian to the core; even her nobles spoke in harsh Norse
syllables; they were as little French as it was possible to be, and yet
govern a people.

Mathilde, when she toiled over her frame, like all great writers, was
doubtless quite unconscious she was producing a masterpiece. She was,
however, in point of fact, the very first among the great French
realists. No other French writer has written as graphically as she did
with her needle, of the life and customs of their day. That long scroll
of tapestry, for truth and a naive perfection of sincerity--where will
you find it equalled or even approached? It is a rude Homeric epic; and
I am not quite certain that it ought not to rank higher than even some
of the more famous epics of the world--since Mathilde had to create the
mould of art into which she poured her story. For who had thought
before her of making women's stitches write or paint a great historical
event, crowded with homely details which now are dubbed archaeological
veracities?

Bayeux and its tapestry; its grave company of antique houses; its
glorious cathedral dominating the whole--what a lovely old background
against which poses the eternal modernness of the young noon sun! The
history of Bayeux is commonly given in a paragraph. Our morning's walk
had proved to us it was the kind of town that does more to re-create
the historic past than all the pages of a Guizot or a Challamel.

The bells that were ringing out the hour of high-noon from the
cathedral towers at Bayeux were making the heights of St. Lo, two hours
later, as noisy as a village fair. The bells, for rivals, had the
clatter of women's tongues. I think I never, before or since, have
beheld so lively a company of washerwomen as were beating their clothes
in Vire River. The river bends prettily just below the St. Lo heights,
as if it had gone out of its way to courtesy to a hill. But even the
waters, in their haste to be polite, could not course beneath the great
bridge as swiftly as ran those women's tongues. There were a good
hundred of them at work beneath the washing-sheds. Now, these sheds,
anywhere in France, are really the open-air club room of the French
peasant woman; the whole dish of the village gossip is hung out to dry,
having previously been well soused and aired, along with the blouses
and the coarse chemises. The town of St. Lo had evidently furnished
these club members of the washing-stones with some fat dish of
gossip--the heads were as close as currants on a stem, as they bent in
groups over the bright waters. They had told it all to the stream; and
the stream rolled the volume of the talk along as it carried along also
the gay, sparkling reflections of the life and the toil that bent over
it--of the myriad reflections of those moving, bare-armed figures, of
the brilliant kerchiefs, of the wet blue and gray jerseys, and of the
long prismatic line of the damp, motley-hued clothes that were
fluttering in the wind.

The bells' clangor was an assurance that something was happening on top
of the hill. Just what happened was as altogether pleasing a spectacle,
after a long and arduous climb up a hillside, as it has often been my
good fortune to encounter.

The portals of the church of Notre Dame were wide open. Within, as we
looked over the shoulders of the townspeople who, like us, had come to
see what the bells meant by their ringing, within the church there was
a rich and sombre dusk; out of this dusk, indistinctly at first, lit by
the tremulous flicker of a myriad of candles, came a line of
white-veiled heads; then another of young boys, with faces as pale as
the nosegays adorning their brand-new black coats; next the
scarlet-robed choristers, singing, and behind them still others
swinging incense that thickened the dusk. Suddenly, like a vision, the
white veils passed out into the sunlight, and we saw that the faces
beneath the veils were young and comely. The faces were still
alternately lighted by the flare of the burning tapers and the glare of
the noon sun. The long procession ended at last in a straggling group
of old peasants with fine tremulous mouths, a-tremble with pride and
with feeling; for here they were walking in full sight of their town,
in their holiday coats, with their knees treacherously unsteady from
the thrill of the organ's thunder and the sweetness of the choir-boys'
singing.

Whether it was a pardon, or a _fête_, or a first communion, we never
knew. But the town of St. Lo is ever gloriously lighted, for us, with a
nimbus of young heads, such as encircled the earlier madonnas.

After such a goodly spectacle, the rest of the town was a tame morsel.
We took a parting sniff of the incense still left in the eastern end of
the church's nave; there was a bit of good glass in a window to reward
us. Outside the church, on the west from the Petite Place, was a wide
outlook over the lovely vale of the Vire, with St. Lo itself twisting
and turning in graceful postures down the hillside.

On the same prospect two kings have looked, and before the kings a
saint. St. Lo or St. Laudus himself, who gave his name to the town,
must, in the sixth century, have gazed on virgin forests stretching
away from the hill far as the eye could reach. Charlemagne, three
hundred years later, in his turn, found the site a goodly one, one to
tempt men to worship the Creator of such beauty, for here he founded
the great Abbey of St. Croix, long since gone with the monks who
peopled it. Louis XI, that mystic wearing the warrior's helmet, set his
seal of approval on the hill, by sending the famous glass yonder in the
cathedral, when the hill and the St. Lo people beat the Bretons who had
come to capture both.

Like saint, and kings, and monks, and warriors, we in our turn crept
down the hill. For we also were done with the town.



CHAPTER XXV.

A DINNER AT COUTANCES.


The way from St. Lo to Coutances is a pleasant way. There is no map of
the country that will give you even a hint of its true character, any
more than from a photograph you can hope to gain an insight into the
moral qualities of a pretty woman.

Here, at last, was the ideal Normandy landscape. It was a country with
a savage look--a savage that had been trained to follow the plough.
Even in its color it had retained the true barbarians' instinct for a
good primary. Here were no melting-yellow mustard-fields, nor flame-lit
poppied meadows, nor blue-bells lifting their baby-blue eyes out of the
grain. All the land was green. Fields, meadows, forests, plains--all
were green, green, green. The features of the landscape had changed
with this change in coloring. The slim, fragile grace of slim trees and
fragile cliffs had been replaced by trees of heroic proportions, and by
outlines nobly rounded and full--like the breasts of a mother. The
whole country had an astonishing look of vigor--of the vigor which
comes with rude strength; and it had that charm which goes with all
untamed beauty--the power to sting one into a sense of agitated
enjoyment.

Even the farm-houses had been suddenly transformed into fortresses.
Each one of the groups of the farm enclosures had its outer walls, its
miniature turrets, and here and there its rounded bastions. Each farm,
apparently, in the olden days had been a citadel unto itself. The
Breton had been a very troublesome neighbor for many a long century;
every ploughman, until a few hundred years ago, was quite likely to
turn soldier at a second's notice--every true Norman must look to his
own sword to defend his hearth-stone. Such is the story those stone
turrets that cap the farm walls tell you--each one of these turrets was
an open lid through which the farmer could keep his eye on Brittany.

Meanwhile, along the roads as we rushed swiftly by, a quieter life was
passing. The farm wagons were jogging peacefully along on a high-road
as smooth as a fine lady's palm--and as white. The horses were
harnessed one before the other, in interminable length of line.
Sometimes six, sometimes eight, even so many as ten, marched with great
gravity, and with that majestic dignity only possible to full-blooded
Percherons, one after the other. They each wore a saddle-cloth of blue
sheepskin. On their mottled haunches this bit of color made their
polished coats to gleam like unto a lizards' skin.

Meanwhile, also, we were nearing Coutances. The farm-houses were
fortresses no longer; the thatched roofs were one once more with the
green of the high roads; for even in the old days there was a great
walled city set up on a hill, to which refuge all the people about for
miles could turn for protection.

A city that is set on a hill! That for me is commonly recommendation
enough. Such a city, so set, promises at the very least the dual
distinction of looking up as well as looking down; it is the nearer
heaven, and just so much the farther removed from earth.

Coutances, for a city with its head in the air, was surprisingly
friendly. It went out of its way to make us at home. At the very
station, down below in the plain, it had sent the most loquacious of
coach-drivers to put us in immediate touch with its present interests.
All the city, as the coarse blue blouse, flourishing its whip, took
pains to explain, was abroad in the fields; the forests, _tiens_, down
yonder through the trees, we could see for ourselves how the young
people were making the woods as crowded as a ball-room. The city, as a
city, was stripping the land and the trees bare--it would be as bald as
a new-born babe by the morrow. But then, of a certainty, we also had
come for the _fête_--or, and here a puzzled look of doubt beclouded the
provincial's eyes--might we, perchance, instead, have come for the
trial? _Mais non, pas çà_, these ladies had never come for that, since
they did not even know the court was sitting, now, this very instant,
at Coutances. And--_sapristi!_ but there was a trial going on--one to
make the blood curdle; he himself had not slept, the rustic coachman
added, as he shivered beneath his blouse, all the night before--the
blood had run so cold in his veins.

The horse and the road were all the while going up the hill. The road
was easily one that might have been the path of warriors; the walls,
still lofty on the side nearest the town, bristled with a turret or a
bastion to remind us Coutances had not been set on a hill for mere
purposes of beauty. The ramparts of the old fortifications had been
turned into a broad promenade. Even as we jolted past, beneath the
great breadth of the trees' verdure we could see how gloriously the
prospect widened--the country below reaching out to the horizon like
the waters of a sea that end only in indefiniteness.

The city itself seemed to grow out of the walls and the trees. Here and
there a few scattered houses grouped themselves as if meaning to start
a street; but a maze of foliage made a straight line impossible.
Finally a large group of buildings, with severe stone faces, took a
more serious plunge away from the vines; they had shaken themselves
free and were soon soberly ranging themselves into the parallel lines
of narrow city streets.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that, for once, a Norman blouse had
told the truth; for here were the people of Coutances coming up from
the fields to prove it. In all these narrow streets a great multitude
of people were passing us; some were laden with vines, others with
young forest trees, and still others with rude garlands of flowers. The
peasant women's faces, as the bent figures staggered beneath a young
fir-tree, were purple, but their smiles were as gay as the wild flowers
with which the stones were thickly strewn. Their words also were as
rough:

"_Diantre--mais c'e lourd!_"

"_E-ben, e toi, tu n' bougeons point, toi!_"

And the nearest fir-tree carrier to our carriage wheels cracked a swift
blow over the head of a vine-bearer, who being but an infant of two,
could not make time with the swift foot of its mother.

The smell of the flowers was everywhere. Fir-trees perfumed the air.
Every doorstep was a garden. The courtyards were alive with the squat
figures of capped maidens, wreathing and twisting greens and garlands.
And in the streets there was such a noise as was never before heard in
a city on a hill-top.

For Coutances was to hold its great _fête_ on the morrow.

It was a relief to turn in from the noise and hubbub to the bright
courtyard of our inn. The brightness thereof, and of the entire
establishment, indeed, appeared to find its central source in the
brilliant eyes of our hostess. Never was an inn-keeper gifted with a
vision at once so omniscient and so effulgent. Those eyes were
everywhere; on us, on our bags, our bonnets, our boots; they divined
our wants, and answered beforehand our unuttered longings. We had come
far? the eyes asked, burning a hole through our gossamer evasions; from
Paris, perhaps--a glance at our bonnets proclaimed the eyes knew all;
we were here for the _fête_, to see the bishop on the morrow; that was
well; we were going on to the Mont; and the eyes scented the shortness
of our stay by a swift glance at our luggage.

"_Numéro quatre, au troisième!_"

There was no appeal possible. The eyes had penetrated the disguise of
our courtesy; we were but travellers of a night; the top story was
built for such as we.

But such a top story, and such a chamber therein! A great, wide, low
room; beams deep and black, with here and there a brass bit hanging;
waxed floors, polished to mirrory perfection; a great bed clad in snowy
draperies, with a snow-white _duvet_ of gigantic proportions. The walls
were gray with lovely bunches of faded rosebuds flung abroad on the
soft surface; and to give a quaint and antique note to the whole, over
the chimney was a bit of worn tapestry with formidable dungeon, a
Norman keep in the background, and well up in front, a stalwart young
master of the hounds, with dogs in leash, of the heavy Norman type of
bulging muscle and high cheekbones.

Altogether, there were worse fates in the world than to be travellers
of a night, with the destiny of such a room as part of the fate.

When we descended the steep, narrow spiral of steps to the dining-room,
it was to find the eyes of our hostess brighter than ever. The noise in
the streets had subsided. It was long after dusk, and Coutances was
evidently a good provincial. But in the gay little dining-room there
was an astonishing bustle and excitement.

The _fête_ and the court had brought a crowd of diners to the
inn-table; when we were all seated we made quite a company at the long,
narrow board. The candles and lamps lit up any number of Vandyke
pointed beards, of bald heads, of loosely-tied cravats, and a few
matronly bosoms straining at the buttons of silk holiday gowns. For the
_Fête-Dieu_ had brought visitors besides ourselves from all the country
round; and then "a first communion is like a marriage, all the
relatives must come, as doubtless we knew," was a baldhead's friendly
beginning of his soup and his talk, as we took our seats beside him.

With the appearance of the _potage_ conversation, like a battle between
foes eager for contest, had immediately engaged itself. The setting of
the table and the air of companionship pervading the establishment were
aiders and abettors to immediate intercourse. Nothing could be prettier
than the Caen bowls with their bunches of purple phlox and spiked
blossoms. Even a metropolitan table might have taken a lesson from the
perfection of the lighting of the long board. In order that her guests
should feel the more entirely at home, our brilliant-eyed hostess came
in with the soup; she took her place behind it at the head of the table.

It was evident the merchants from Cherbourg who had come as witnesses
to the trial, had had many a conversational bout before now with
madame's ready wit. So had two of the town lawyers. Even the commercial
gentlemen, for once, were experiencing a brief moment of armed
suspense, before they flung themselves into the arena of talk. At
first, or it would never have been in the provinces, this talk at the
long table, everyone broke into speech at once. There was a flood of
words; one's sense of hearing was stunned by the noise. Gradually, as
the cider and the thin red wine were passed, our neighbors gave
digestion a chance; the din became less thick with words; each listened
when the other talked. But, as the volume of speech lessened, the
interest thickened. It finally became concentrated, this interest, into
true French fervor when the question of the trial was touched on.

"They say D'Alençon is very clever. He pleads for Filon, the culprit,
to-night, does he not?"

"Yes, poor Filon--it will go hard with him. His crime is a black one."

"I should think it was--implicating _le petit_!"

"Dame! the judge doesn't seem to be of your mind."

"Ah--h!" cried a florid Vandyke-bearded man, the dynamite bomb of the
table, exploding with a roar of rage. "_Ah--h, cré nom de
Dieu!--Messieurs les presidents_ are all like that; they are always on
the side of the innocent--"

"Till they prove them guilty."

"Guilty! guilty!" the bomb exploded in earnest now. "How many times in
the annals of crime is a man guilty--really guilty? They should search
for the cause--and punish that. That is true justice. The instigator,
the instigator--he is the true culprit. Inheritances--_voilà les vrais
coupables_. But when are such things investigated? It is ever the
innocent who are punished. I know something of that--I do."

"_Allons--allons!_" cried the table, laughing at the beard's vehemence.
"When were you ever under sentence?"

"When I was doing my duty," the beard hurled back with both arms in the
air; "when I was doing my three years--I and my comrade; we were
convicted--punished--for an act of insubordination we never committed.
Without a trial, without a chance of defending ourselves, we were put
on two crumbs of bread and a glass of water for two months. And we were
innocent--as innocent as babes, I tell you."

The table was as still as death. The beard had proved himself worthy of
this compliment; his voice was the voice of drama, and his gestures
such as every Frenchman delights in beholding and executing. Every ear
was his, now.

"I have no rancor. I am, by nature, what God made me, a peaceable man,
but"--here the voice made a wild _crescendo_--"if I ever meet my
colonel--_gare à lui_! I told him so. I waited two years, two long
years, till I was released; then I walked up to him" (the beard rose
here, putting his hand to his forehead), "I saluted" (the hand made the
salute), "and I said to him, 'Mon colonel, you convicted me, on false
evidence, of a crime I never committed. You punished me. It is two
years since then. But I have never forgotten. Pray to God we may never
meet in civil life, for then yours would end!"

"_Allons, allons!_ A man after all must do his duty. A colonel--he
can't go into details!" remonstrated the hostess, with her knife in the
air.

"I would stick him, I tell you, as I would a pig--or a Prussian! I live
but for that!"

"_Monstre!_" cried the table in chorus, with a laugh, as it took its
wine. And each turned to his neighbor to prove the beard in the wrong.

"Of what crime is the defendant guilty--he who is to be tried
to-night?" Charm asked of a silent man, with sweet serious eyes and a
rough gray beard, seated next her. Of all the beards at the table, this
one alone had been content with listening.

"Of fraud--mademoiselle--of fraud and forgery." The man had a voice as
sweet as a church bell, and as deep. Every word he said rang out
slowly, sonorously. The attention of the table was fixed in an instant.
"It is the case of a Monsieur Filon, of Cherbourg. He is a cider
merchant. He has cheated the state, making false entries, etc. But his
worst crime is that he has used as his accomplice _un tout petit jeune
homme_--a lad of barely fifteen--"

"It is that that will make it go hard for him with the jury--"

"Hard!" cried the ex-soldier, getting red at once with the passion of
his protest--"hard--it ought to condemn him, to guillotine him. What
are juries for if they don't kill such rascals as he?"

"_Doucement, doucement, monsieur,_" interrupted the bell-note of the
merchant. "One doesn't condemn people without hearing both sides. There
may be extenuating circumstances!"

"Yes--there are. He is a merchant. All merchants are thieves. He does
as all others do--_only_ he was found out."

A protesting murmur now rose from the table, above which rang once
more, in clear vibrations, the deep notes of the merchant.

"_Ah--h, mais--tous voleurs--non_, not all are thieves. Commerce
conducted on such principles as that could not exist. Credit is not
founded on fraud, but on trust."

"_Très bien, très bien,_" assented the table. Some knives were thumped
to emphasize the assent.

"As for stealing"--the rich voice continued, with calm judicial
slowness--"I can understand a man's cheating the state once,
perhaps--yielding to an impulse of cupidity. But to do as _ce_ Monsieur
Filon has done--he must be a consummate master of his art--for his
processes are organized robbery."

"Ah--h, but robbery against the state isn't the same thing as robbing
an individual," cried the explosive, driven into a corner.

"It is quite the same--morally, only worse. For a man who robs the
state robs everyone--including himself."

"That's true--perfectly true--and very well put." All the heads about
the table nodded admiringly; their hostess had expressed the views of
them all. The company was looking now at the gray beard with glistening
eyes; he had proved himself master of the argument, and all were
desirous of proving their homage. Not one of the nice ethical points
touched on had been missed; even the women had been eagerly listening,
following, criticising. Here was a little company of people gathered
together from rustic France, meeting, perhaps, for the first time at
this board. And the conversation had, from the very beginning, been
such as one commonly expects to hear only among the upper ranks of
metropolitan circles. Who would have looked to see a company of Norman
provincials talking morality, and handling ethics with the skill of
rhetoricians?

Most of our fellow-diners, meanwhile, were taking their coffee in the
street. Little tables were ranged close to the house-wall. There was
just room for a bench beside the table, and then the sidewalk ended.

"Shall you be going to the trial to-night?" courteously asked the
merchant who had proven himself a master in debate, of Charm. He had
lifted his hat before he sat down, bowing to her as if he had been in a
ball-room.

"It will be fine to-night--it is the opening of the defence," he added,
as he placed carefully two lumps of sugar in his cup.

"It's always finer at night--what with the lights and the people,"
interpolated the landlady, from her perch on the door-sill. "If _ces
dames_ wish to go, I can show them the way to the galleries. Only," she
added, with a warning tone, her growing excitement obvious at the sense
of the coming pleasure, "it is like the theatre. The earlier we get
there the better the seat. I go to get my hat." And the door swallowed
her up.

"She is right--it is like a theatre," soliloquized the merchant--"and
so is life. Poor Filon!"

We should have been very content to remain where we were. The night had
fallen; the streets, as they lost themselves in dim turnings, in
mysterious alleyways, and arches that seemed grotesquely high in the
vague blur of things, were filled for us with the charm of a new and
lovely beauty. At one end the street ended in a towering mass of stone;
that doubtless was the cathedral. At the right, the narrow houses
dipped suddenly; their roof-lines were lost in vagueness. Between the
slit made by the street a deep, vast chasm opened; it was the night
filling the great width of sky, and the mists that shrouded the hill,
rising out of the sleeping earth. There was only one single line of
light; a long deep glow was banding the horizon; it was a bit of flame
the dusk held up, like a fading torch, to show where the sun had
reigned.

In and out of this dusk the townspeople came and went. Away from the
mellow lights, streaming past the open inn doors, the shapes were only
a part of the blur; they were vague, phantasmal masses, clad in coarse
draperies. As they passed into the circle of light, the faces showed
features we had grown to know--the high cheekbones, the ruddy tones,
the deep-set, serious eyes, and firm mouths, with lips close together.
The air on this hill-top must be of excellent quality; the life up here
could scarcely be so hard as in the field villages. For the women
looked less worn, and less hideously old, and in the men's eyes there
was not so hard and miserly a glittering.

Almost all, young or old, were bearing strange burdens. Some of the men
were carrying huge floral crosses; the women were laden with every
conceivable variety of object--with candlesticks, vases, urns, linen
sheets, rugs, with chairs even.

"They are helping to dress the reposoirs, they must all be in readiness
for the morning," answered our friend, still beside us, when we asked
the cause of this astonishing spectacle.

Everywhere garlands and firs, leaves, flowers, and wreaths; people
moving rapidly; the carriers of the crosses stopping to chat for an
instant with groups working at some mysterious scaffolding--all shapes
in darkness. Everywhere, also, there was the sweet, aromatic scent of
the greens and the pines abroad in the still, clear air of the summer
night.

This was the perfume and these the dim pictures that were our company
along the narrow Coutances streets.



CHAPTER XXVI.

A SCENE IN A NORMAN COURT.


The court-room was brightly lighted; the yellow radiance on the white
walls made the eyes blink. We had turned, following our guide, from the
gloom of the dim streets into the roomy corridors of the Prefecture.
Even the gardens about the building were swarming with townspeople and
peasants waiting for the court to open. When we entered it was to find
the hallways and stairs blocked with a struggling mass of people, all
eager to get seats. A voice that was softened to a purring note, the
voice that goes with the pursuit of the five franc piece, spoke to our
landlady. "The seats to be reserved in the tribune were for these
ladies?"

No time had been lost, you perceive. We were strangers; the courtesies
of the town were to be extended to us. We were to have of their best,
here in Coutances; and their best, just now, was this _mise en scène_
in their court room.

The stage was well set. The Frenchman's instinctive sense of fitness
was obvious in the arrangements. Long lines of blue drapery from the
tall windows brought the groups below into high relief; the scarlet of
the judges' robes was doubly impressive against this background. The
lawyers, in their flowing black gowns and white ties, gained added
dignity from the marine note behind them. The bluish pallor of the
walls made the accused and the group about him pathetically sombre.
Each one of this little group was in black. The accused himself, a
sharp, shrewd, too keen-eyed man of thirty or so, might have been
following a corpse--so black was his raiment. Even the youth beside
him, a dull, sodden-eyed lad, with an air of being here not on his own
account, but because he had been forced to come, was clad in deepest
mourning. By the side of the culprit sat the one really tragic figure
in all the court--the culprit's wife. She also was in black. In happier
times she must have been a fair, fresh-colored blonde. Now all the
color was gone from her cheek. She was as pale as death, and in her
sweet downcast eyes there were the tell-tale vigils of long nights of
weeping. Beside her sat an elderly man who bent over her, talking,
whispering, commenting as the trial went on.

Every eye in the tribune was fixed on the slim young figure. A passing
glance sufficed, as a rule, for the culprit and his accomplice; but it
was on the wife that all the quick French sympathy, that volubly spoke
itself out, was lavished. The blouses and peasants' caps, the tradesmen
and their wives crowded close about the railing to pass their comment.

"She looks far more guilty than he," muttered a wizened old man next to
us, very crooked on his three-legged stool.

"Yes," warmly added a stout capped peasant, with a basket once on her
arm, now serving as a pedestal to raise the higher above the others her
own curiosity. "Yes--she has her modesty--too--to speak for her--"

"Bah--all put on--to soften the jury." It was our fiery one of the
table d'hôte who had wedged his way toward us.

"And why not? A woman must make use of what weapons she has at hand--"

_"Silence! Silence! messieurs!"_ The _huissier_ brought down his staff
of office with a ring. The clatter of sabots over the wooden floor of
the tribune and the loud talking were disturbing the court.

This French court, as a court, sat in strange fashion, it seemed to us.
The bench was on wonderfully friendly terms with the table about which
the clerks sat, with the lawyers, with the foreman of the jury, with
even the _huissiers_. Monsieur le President was in his robes, but he
wore them as negligently as he did the dignity of his office. He and
the lawyer for the defence, a noted Coutances orator, openly wrangled;
the latter, indeed, took little or no pains to show him respect; now
they joked together, next a retort flashed forth which began a quarrel,
and the court and the trial looked on as both struggled for a mastery
in the art of personal abuse. The lawyer made nothing of raising his
finger, to shake it in open menace in the very teeth of the scarlet
robes. And the robes clad a purple-faced figure that retorted angrily,
like a fighting school-boy.

But to Coutances, this, it appears, was a proper way for a court to sit.

"_Ah, D'Alençon--il est fort, lui. C'est lui qui agace toujours
monsieur le président_--"

"He'll win--he'll make a great speech--he is never really fine unless
it's a question of life or death--" Such were the criticisms that were
poured out from the quick-speaking lips about us.

Presently a simultaneous movement on the part of the jury brought the
proceedings to confusion. A witness in the act of giving evidence
stopped short in his sentence; he twisted his head; looking upward, he
asked a question of the foreman, and the latter nodded, as if
assenting. The judge then looked up. All the court looked up. All the
heads were twisted. Something obviously was wrong. Then, presently the
_concierge_ appeared with a huge bunch of keys.

And all the court waited in perfect stillness while the windows were
being closed!

"_Il y avait un courant d'air_--there was a draught,"--gravely
announced the crooked man, as he rose to let the _concierge_ pass. This
latter had her views of a court so susceptible to whiffs of night air.

"_Ces messieurs_ are delicate--pity they have to be out at
night!"--whereat the tribune snickered.

All went on bravely for a good half-hour. More witnesses were called;
each answered with wonderful aptness, ease, and clearness; none were
confused or timid; these were not men to be the playthings of others
who made tortuous cross-questionings their trade. They, also, were
Frenchmen; they knew how to speak. The judge and the Coutances lawyer
continued their jokes and their squabblings. And still only the poor
wife hung her head.

Then all at once the judge began to mop his brow. The jury, to a man,
mopped theirs. The witnesses and lawyers each brought forth their big
silk handkerchiefs. All the court was wiping its brow.

"It's the heat," cried the judge. "_Huissier_, call the _concierge_;
tell her to open the windows."

The _concierge_ reappeared. Flushed this time, and with anger in her
eye. She pushed her way through the crowd; she took not the least pains
in the world to conceal her opinion of a court as variable as this one.

"_Ah mais_, this is too much! if the jury doesn't know its mind better
than this!"--and in the fury of her wrath she well-nigh upset the
crooked little old gentleman and his three-legged stool.

"That's right--that's right. I'm not a fine lady, tip me over. You open
and shut me as if I were a bureau drawer; _continuez_--_continuez_--"

The _concierge_ had reached the windows now. She was opening and
slamming them in the face of the judge, the jury, and _messieurs les
huissiers_, with unabashed violence. The court, except for that one
figure in sombre draperies, being men, suffered this violence as only
men bear with a woman in a temper. With the letting in of the fresh
air, fresh energy in the prosecution manifested itself. The witnesses
were being subjected to inquisitorial torture; their answers were still
glib, but the faces were studies of the passions held in the leash of
self-control. Not twenty minutes had ticked their beat of time when
once more the jury, to a man, showed signs of shivering. Half a dozen
gravely took out their pocket-handkerchiefs, and as gravely covered
their heads. Others knotted the square of linen, thus making a closer
head-gear. The judge turned uneasily in his own chair; he gave a
furtive glance at the still open windows; as he did so he caught sight
of his jury thus patiently suffering. The spectacle went to his heart;
these gentlemen were again in a draught? Where was the _concierge_?
Then the _huissier_ whispered in the judge's ear; no one heard, but
everyone divined the whisper. It was to remind monsieur le president
that the _concierge_ was in a temper; would it not be better for him,
the _huissier_, to close the windows? Without a smile the judge bent
his head, assenting. And once more all proceedings were at a
standstill; the court was patiently waiting, once more, for the windows
to be closed.

Now, in all this, no one, not even the wizened old man who was
obviously the humorist of the tribune, had seen anything farcical. To
be too hot--to be too cold! this is a serious matter in France. A jury
surely has a right to protect itself against cold, against _la
migraine_, and the devils of rheumatism and pleurisy. There is nothing
ridiculous in twelve men sitting in judgment on a fellow-man, with
their handkerchiefs covering their bare heads. Nor of a judge who
gallantly remembers the temper of a _concierge_. Nor of a whole court
sitting in silence, while the windows are opened and closed. There was
nothing in all this to tickle the play of French humor. But then, we
remembered, France is not the land of humorists, but of wits. Monsieur
d'Alençon down yonder, as he rises from his chair to address the judge
and jury, will prove to you and me, in the next two hours, how great an
orator a Frenchman can be, without trenching an inch on the humorist's
ground.

The court-room was so still now that you could have heard the fall of a
pin.

At last the great moment had come-the moment and the man. There is
nothing in life Frenchmen love better than a good speech--_un
discours_; and to have the same pitched in the dramatic key, with a
tragic result hanging on the effects of the pleading, this is the very
climax of enjoyment. To a Norman, oratory is not second, but first,
nature; all the men of this province have inherited the gift of a
facile eloquence. But this Monsieur d'Alençon, the crooked man
whispered, in hurried explanation, he was _un fameux_--even the Paris
courts had to send for him when they wanted a great orator.

The famous lawyer understood the alphabet of his calling. He knew the
value of effect. He threw himself at once into the orator's pose. His
gown took sculptural lines; his arms were waved majestically, as arms
that were conscious of having great sleeves to accentuate the lines of
gesture.

Then he began to speak. The voice was soft; at first one was chiefly
conscious of the music in its cadences. But as it warmed and grew with
the ardor of the words, the room was filled with such vibrations as
usually come only with the sounding of rich wind-instruments. With such
a voice a man could do anything. D'Alençon played with it as a man
plays with a power he has both trained and conquered. It was firmly
modulated, with no accent of sympathy when he opened his plea for his
client. It warmed slightly when he indignantly repelled the charges
brought against the latter. It took the cadence of a lover when he
pointed to the young wife's figure and asked if it were likely a
husband could be guilty of such crimes, year after year, with such a
woman as that beside him? It was tenderly explanatory as he went on
enlarging on the young wife's perfections, on her character, so well
known to them all here in Coutances, on the influence she had given the
home-life yonder in Cherbourg. Even the children were not forgotten, as
an aid to incidental testimony. Was it even conceivable a father of a
young family would lead an innocent lad into error, fraud, and theft?
"It is he who knows how to touch the heart!"

"_Quel beau moment!_" cried the wizened man, in a transport.

"See--the jury weep!"

All the court was in tears, even monsieur le president sniffled, and
yet there was no draught. As for the peasant women and the shop
keepers, they could not have been more moved if the culprit had been a
blood relation. How they enjoyed their tears! What a delight it was to
thus thrill and shiver! The wife was sobbing now, with her head on her
uncle's shoulder. And the culprit was acting his part, also, to
perfection. He had been firmly stoical until now. But at this parade of
his wife's virtues he broke down, his head was bowed at last. It was
all the tribune could do to keep its applause from breaking forth. It
was such a perfect performance! it was as good as the theatre--far
better--for this was real--this play-with a man's whole future at stake!

Until midnight the lawyer held all in the town in a trance. He ended at
last with a Ciceronian, declamatory outburst. A great buzz of applause
welled up from the court. The tribune was in transports; such a
magnificent harangue he had not given them in years. It was one of his
greatest victories.

"And his victories, madame, they are the victories of all Coutances."

The crooked man almost stood upright in the excitement of his
enthusiasm. Great drops of sweat were on his wrinkled old brow. The
evening had been a great event in his life, as his twisted frame, all
a-tremble with pleasurable elation, exultingly proved. The women's caps
were closer together than ever; they were pressing in a solid mass
close to the railing of the tribune to gain one last look at the figure
of the wife.

"It is she who will not sleep--"

"Poor soul, are her children with her?"

"No--and no women either. There is only the uncle."

"He is a good man, he will comfort her!"

"_Faut prier le bon Dieu!_"

At the court-room door there was a last glimpse of the stricken figure.
She disappeared into the blackness of the night, bent and feeble,
leaning with pitiful attempt at dignity on the uncle's arm. With the
dawn she would learn her husband's fate. The jury would be out all
night.

"You see, madame, it is she who must really suffer in the end." We were
also walking into the night, through the bushes of the garden, to the
dark of the streets. Our landlady was guiding us, and talking volubly.
She was still under the influence of the past hour's excitement. Her
voice trembled audibly, and she was walking with brisk strides through
the dim streets.

"If Filon is condemned, what would happen to them?"

"Oh, he would pass a few years in prison--not many. The jury is always
easy on the rich. But his future is ruined. They--the family--would
have to go away. But even then, rumor would follow them. It travels far
nowadays--it has a thousand legs, as they say here. Wherever they go
they will be known. But Monsieur d'Alençon, what did you think of him,
_hein_? There's a great man--what an orator! One must go as far as
Paris--to the theatre; one must hear a great play--and even there, when
does an actor make you weep as he did? Henri, he was superb. I tell
you, superb! _d'une éloquence!_" And to her husband, when we reached
the inn door, our vivacious landlady was still narrating the chief
points of the speech as we crawled wearily up to our beds.

It was early the next morning when we descended into the inn
dining-room. The lawyer's eloquence had interfered with our rest.
Coffee and a bite of fresh air were best taken together, we agreed.
Before the coffee came the news of the culprit's fate. Most of the inn
establishment had been sent to court to learn the jury's verdict.
Madame confessed to a sleepless night. The thought of that poor wife
had haunted her pillow. She had deemed it best--but just to us all, in
a word, to despatch Auguste--the one inn waiter, to hear the verdict.
_Tiens_, there he was now, turning the street corner.

"_Il est acquitté!_" rang through the streets.

"He is acquitted--he is acquitted! _Le bon Dieu soit loué!_
Henri--Ernest--Monsieur Terier, he is acquitted--he is acquitted! I
tell you!"

The cry rang through the house. Our landlady was shouting the news out
of doors, through windows, to the passers-by, to the very dogs as they
ran. But the townspeople needed no summoning. The windows were crowded
full of eager heads, all asking the same question at once. A company of
peasants coming up from the fields for breakfast stopped to hear the
glad tidings. The shop-keepers all the length of the street gathered to
join them. Everyone was talking at once. Every shade of opinion was
aired in the morning sun. On one subject alone there was a universal
agreement.

"What good news for the poor wife!"

"And what a night she must have passed!"

All this sympathy and interest, be it remembered, was for one they
barely knew. To be the niece of a Coutances uncle--this was enough, it
appears, for the good people of this cathedral city, to insure the flow
of their tears and the gift of their prayers.



CHAPTER XXVII.

THE FETE-DIEU--A JUNE CHRISTMAS.


When we stepped forth into the streets, it was to find a flower strewn
city. The paving stones were covered with the needles of pines, with
fir boughs, with rose leaves, lily stocks, and with the petals of flock
and clematis. One's feet sank into the odorous carpet as in the thick
wool of an Oriental prayer rug. To tread upon this verdure was to crush
out perfume. Yet the fragrance had a solemn flavor. There was a touch
of consecration in the very aroma of the fir sap.

Never was there a town so given over to its festival. Everything
else--all trade, commerce, occupation, work, or pleasure even, was at a
dead standstill. In all the city there was but one thought, one object,
one end in view. This was the great day of the _Fête-Dieu_. To this
blessed feast of the Sacrament the townspeople had been looking forward
for weeks.

It is their June Christmas. The great day brings families together.

[Illustration: AN EXCITING MOMENT--A COUTANCES INTERIOR]

From all the country round the farm wagons had been climbing the hill
for hours. The peasants were in holiday dress. Gold crosses and amber
beads encircled leathery old necks; the gossamer caps, real Normandy
caps at last, crowned heads held erect today, with the pride of those
who had come to town clad in their best. Even the younger women were in
true peasant garb; there was a touch of a ribbon, brilliant red and
blue stockings, and the sparkle of silver shoe-buckles and gold
necklaces to prove they had donned their finery in honor of the _fête_.
The men wore their blue and purple blouses over their holiday suits;
but almost all had pinned a sprig of bright geranium or honeysuckle to
brighten up the shiny cotton of the preservative blouse. Even the
children carried bouquets; and thus many of the farm wagons were as gay
as the streets.

No, gay is not the word. Neither the city nor the streets were really
gay. The city, as a city, was too dead in earnest, too absorbed, too
intent, to indulge in gayety. It was the greatest of all the days of
the year in Coutances. In the climaxic moments of life, one is solemn,
not gay. It was not only the greatest, but the busiest, day of the year
for this cathedral town. Here was a whole city to deck; every street,
every alleyway must be as beautiful as a church on a feast-day. The
city, in truth, must be changed from a bustling, trading, commercial
entrepôt into an altar. And this altar must be beautiful--as beautiful,
as ingeniously picturesque as only the French instinct for beauty could
make it.

Think you, with such a task on hand, this city-ful of artists had time
for frivolous idling? Since dawn these artists had been scrubbing their
doors, washing windows, and sluicing the gutters. One is not a
provincial for nothing; one is honest in the provinces; one does not
drape finery over a filthy frame. The city was washed first, before it
was adorned.

Opposite, across from our inn door-sill, where we lingered a moment
before we began our journey through the streets, we could see for
ourselves how thorough was this cleansing. A shopkeeper and his wife
were each mounted on a step-ladder. One washed the inside and the other
the outside of the low shop-windows. They were in the greatest possible
haste, for they were late in their preparations. In two hours the
procession was to pass. Their neighbors stopped to cry up to them:

"_Tendez vous, aujourd'hui?_" It is the universal question, heard
everywhere.

"_Mais oui_," croaked out the man, his voice sounding like the croak of
a rook, from the height from which he spoke. "Only we are late, you
see."

It was his wife who was taking the question to heart. She saw in it
just cause for affront.

"Ah, those Espergnons, they're always on time, they are; they had their
hangings out a week ago, and now they are as filthy as wash-rags. No
wonder they have time to walk the streets!" and the indignant dame gave
her window-pane an extra polish.

"Here, Leon, catch hold, I'm ready now!"

The woman was holding out one end of a long, snowy sheet. Leon meekly
took his end; both hooked the stuff to some rings ready to secure the
hanging; the facade of the little house was soon hidden behind the
white fall of the family linen; and presently Leon and his wife began
very gravely to pin tiny sprigs of purple clematis across the white
surface. This latter decoration was performed with the sure touch of
artists. No mediaeval designer of tapestry could have chosen, with more
secure selection, the precise points of distance at which to place the
bouquets; nor could the tones and tints of the greens and purples, and
the velvet of the occasional heartsease, sparsely used, have been more
correctly combined. When the task was ended, the commonplace house was
a palace wall, hung with the sheen of fine linen, on which bloomed
geometric figures beautifully spaced.

All the city was thus draped. One walked through long walls of snow, in
which flowers grew. Sometimes the floral decorations expanded from the
more common sprig into wreaths and garlands. Here and there the
Coutances fancy worked itself out in _fleur-de-lis_ emblems or in
armorial bearings. But everywhere an astonishing, instinctive sense of
beauty, a knowledge of proportion, and a natural sense for color were
obvious. There was not, in all the town, a single offence committed
against taste. Is it any wonder, with such an heredity at their
fingers' ends, that the provinces feed Paris, and that Paris sets the
fashions in beauty for the rest of the world?

Come with us, and look upon this open-air chapel. It stands in the open
street, in front of an old house of imposing aspect. The two
commonplace-looking women who are putting--the finishing--touches to
this beautiful creation tell us it is the reposoir of Madame la
Baronne. They have been working on it since the day before. In the
night the miracle was finished--nearly--they were so weary they had
gone to bed at dawn. They do not tell you it is a miracle. They think
it fine, oh, yes--"c'est beau--Madame la Baronne always has the most
beautiful of all the reposoirs," but then they have decked these altars
since they were born; their grandmothers built them before ever they
saw the light. For always in Coutances "on la fête beaucoup;" this
feast of the Sacrament has been a great day in Coutances for centuries
past. But although they are so used to it, these natural architects
love the day. "It's so fine to see--_si beau à voir_ all the reposoirs,
and the children and the fine ladies walking--through the streets, and
then, all kneeling--when Monseigneur l'Archevêque prays. Ah yes, it is
a fine sight." They nod, and smile, and then they turn to light a
taper, and to consult about the placing of a certain vase from out of
which an Easter lily towers.

At the foot of these miniature altars trees had been planted. Gardens
had also been laid out; the parterres were as gravely watered as if
they were to remain in the middle of a bustling high street in
perpetuity. Steps lead up to the altar. These were covered with rugs
and carpets; for the feet of the bishop must tread only on velvet and
flowers. Candelabra, vases, banners, crosses, crucifixes, flowers, and
tall thin tapers--all the altars were crowded with such adornments.
Human vanity and the love of surpassing one's neighbors, these also
figured conspicuously among the things the fitfully shining sun looks
down upon. But what a charm there is in such a contest! Surely the
desire to beautify the spot on which the Blessed Sacrament rests this
is only another way of professing one's adoration.

As we passed through the streets a multitude of pictures crowded upon
the eyes. In an archway groups of young first communicants were
forming; they were on their way to the cathedral. Their white veils
against the gloom of the recessed archways were like sunlit clouds
caught in an abyss. Priests in gorgeous vestments were walking quickly
through the streets. All the peasants were going also toward the
cathedral. A group stopped, as did we, to turn into a side-street. For
there was a picture we should not see later on. Between some lovely old
turrets, down from convent walls a group of nuns fluttered tremulously;
they were putting the last touches to the reposoir of their own Sacré
Coeur. Some were carrying huge gilt crosses, staggering as they walked;
others were on tiptoe filling the tall vases; others were on their
knees, patting into perfect smoothness the turf laid about the altar
steps. There was an old curé among them and a young carpenter whom the
curé was directing. Everyone of the nuns had her black skirts tucked
up; their stout shoes must be free to fly over the ground with the
swiftness of hounds. How pretty the faces were, under the great caps,
in that moment of unwonted excitement! The cheeks, even of the older
nuns, were pink; it was a pink that made their habitual pallor have a
dazzling beauty. The eyes were lighted into a fresh flame of life, and
the lips were temptingly crimson; they were only women, after all,
these nuns, and once a year at least this feast of the Sacrament brings
all their feminine activities into play.

Still we moved on, for within the cathedral the procession had not yet
formed. There was still time to make a tour of the town.

To plunge into the side-streets away from the wide cathedral parvis,
was to be confronted with a strange calm. These narrow thoroughfares
had the stillness which broods over all ancient cities' by-ways. Here
was no festival bustle; all was grave and sad. The only dwellers left
in the antique fifteenth century houses were those who must remain at
home till a still smaller house holds them. We passed several aged
Coutançais couples. By twos they were seated at the low windows; they
had been dressed and then left; they were sitting here, in the pathetic
patience of old age; they were hoping something of the _fête_ might
come their way. Two women, in one of the low interiors, were more
philosophic than their neighbors; if their stiffened knees would not
carry them to the _fête_, at least their gnarled old hands could hold a
pack of cards. They were seated close to the open casement, facing each
other across a small round table; along the window-sill there were rows
of flower-pots; a pewter tankard was set between them; and out of the
shadowy interior came the topaz gleam of the Normandy brasses, the huge
bed, with its snowy draperies, the great chests, and the flowery
chintz-frill defining the width of the yawning fireplace. The two old
faces, with the strong features, deep wrinkles, sunken mouths, and bald
heads tied up in dazzling white coifs, were in full relief against the
dim background. They were as motionless as statues; neither looked up
as our footfall struck along the cobbles; it was an exciting moment in
the game.

[Illustration: A STREET IN COUTANCES--EGLISE SAINT-PIERRE]

Below these old houses stretched the public gardens. Here also there
was a great stillness. For us alone the rose gardens bloomed, the
tropical trees were shivering, and the palms were making a night of
shade for wide acres of turf. Rarely does a city boast of such a
garden. It was no surprise to learn, later, that these lovely paths and
noble terraces had been the slow achievement of a lover of landscape
gardening, one who, dying, had given this, his master-piece, to his
native town.

There is no better place from which to view the beautiful city. From
the horizontal lines of the broad terraces flows the great sweep of the
hillside; it takes a swift precipitous plunge, and rests below in wide
stretches of meadow. The garden itself seemed, by virtue of this
encompassing circle of green, to be only a more exquisitely cultivated
portion of the lovely outlying hills and wooded depths. The cows,
grazing below in the valleys, were whisking their tails, and from the
farm-yards came the crow of the chanticleer.

One turned to look upward--to follow heavenward the soaring glory of
the cathedral towers. From the plane of the streets their geometric
perfection had made their lines seem cold. Through this aerial
perspective the eye followed, enraptured, the perfect Gothic of the
spires and the lower central tower. The great nave roof and the choir
lifted themselves above the turrets and the tiled house-tops of the
city, as gray mountains of stone rise above the huts of pygmies.
Coutances does well to be proud of its cathedral.

The sound of a footstep, crunching the gravel of the garden-walk,
caused us to turn. It was to find, face to face, the hero of the night
before; the celebrated Coutances lawyer was also taking his
constitutional. But not alone, some friends were with him, come up to
town doubtless for the _fête_ or the trial. He was showing them his
city. He stretched a hand forth, with the same magisterial gesture of
the night before, to point out the glory of the prospect lying below
the terrace. He faced the cathedral towers, explaining the points of
their perfection. And then, for he was a Frenchman, he perceived the
presence of two ladies. In an instant his hat was raised, and as
quickly his eyes told us he had seen us before, in the courtroom. The
bow was the lower because of this recognition, and the salute was
accompanied by a grave smile.

Manners in the provinces are still good, you perceive--if only you are
far enough away from Paris.

Someone else also bestowed on us the courtesy of a passing greeting. It
was a curé who was saying his Ave, as he paced slowly, in the sun, up
and down the yew path. He was old; one leg was already tired of
life--it must be dragged painfully along, when one walked in the sun.
The curé himself was not in the least tired of life. His smile was as
warm as the sun as he lifted his _calotte_.

"Surely, mesdames, you will not miss the _fête_? It must be forming
now."

He had taken an old man's, and a priest's, privilege. We were all three
looking down into the valley, which lay below, a pool of freshness. He
had spoken, first of the beauty of the prospect, and then of the great
day. To be young and still strong, to be able to follow the procession
from street to street, and yet to be lingering here among the
roses!--this passed the simple curé's comprehension. The reproach in
his mild old eyes was quickly changed to approval, however; for upon
the announcement that the procession was already in motion we started,
bidding him a hurried adieu.

The huge cathedral portals yawned at the top of the hill; they were
like a gaping chasm. The great place of the cathedral square was half
filled; a part of the procession had passed already beyond the gloom of
the vast aisles into the frank openness of day. Winding in and out of
the white-hung streets a long line of figures was marching; part of the
line had reached the first reposoir and gradually the swaying of the
heads was slackening, as, by twos and twos, the figures stopped.

Still, from between the cathedral doors an unending multitude of people
kept pouring forth upon the cathedral square. Now it was an
interminable line of young girls, first communicants, in their white
veils and gowns; against the grays and browns of the cathedral facade
this mass of snow was of startling purity--a great white rose of light.
Closely following the dazzling line marched a grave company of nuns;
with their black robes sweeping the flower-strewn streets, the pallor
of their faces, and the white wings of their huge coifs, they might
have been so many marble statues moving with slow, automatic step,
repeating in life the statues in stone above their heads, incarnations
of meek renunciation. With the free and joyous step of a vigorous youth
not yet tamed to complete self-obliteration, next there stepped forth
into the sun a group of seminarists. In the lace and scarlet of their
bright robes they were like unto so many young kings. High in the
summer air they swung their golden censers; from huge baskets, heaped
with flowers, they scattered flowers as they swayed, in the grace of
their youth, from side to side, with priestly rhythmic motion.

In the days of Greece, under the Attic tent of sky, it was Jove that
was thus worshipped; here in Coutances, under the paler, less ardent
blue of France, it was the Christian God these youths were honoring. So
men have continued to scatter flowers; to swing incense; to bend the
knee; surely in all ages the long homage of men, like the procession
here before us, has been but this--the longing to worship the
Invisible, and to make the act one with beauty.

Is it Greek, is it Christian, this festival? If it be Catholic, it is
also pagan. It is as composite a union of religious ceremonials as man
is himself an aggregate of lost types, for there is a subtle law of
repetition which governs both men and ceremonials.

How pagan was the color! how Greek the sense of beauty that lies in
contrasts! how Jewish the splendor of the priestly vestments as the
gold and silver tissues gleamed in the sun! How mediaeval this survival
of an old miracle play! See this group of children, half-frightened,
half-proud, wandering from side to side as children unused to walking
soberly ever march. They were following the leadership of a huge
Suisse. This latter was magnificently apparelled. He carried a great
mace, and this he swung high in the air. The children, little John the
Baptist, Christ, Mary the Mother, and Magdalen, were magnetized by his
mighty skill. They were looking at the golden stick; they were thinking
only of how high he, this splendid giant who terrified them so, would
throw it the next time, and if he would always surely catch it. The
small Virgin, in her long brown robes, tripped as she walked. The
cherubic John the Baptist, with only his sheepskin and his cross,
shivered as he stumbled after her.

"At least they might have covered his arms, _le pauvre petit_," one
stout peasant among the bystanders was Christian enough to mutter,
"Poor little John!" Even in summer the sun is none too hot on this
hill-top; and a sheepskin is a garment one must be used to, it appears.
Christ, himself, was no better off. He was wearing his crown of thorns,
but he had only his night-dress, bound with a girdle, to keep his naked
little body warm. An angel, in gossamer wings and a huge rose-wreath,
being of the other sex, had her innate woman's love of finery to make
her oblivious to the light sting of the wind, as it passed through her
draperies. As this group in the procession moved slowly along, the city
took on a curiously antique aspect. In every lattice window a head was
framed. The lines of the townspeople pressed closer and closer; they
made a serried mass of blouses and caps, of shiny coats and bared
heads. The very houses seemed to recognize that a part of their own
youth was passing them by; these were the figures they had looked out
upon, time after time, in the old fourteenth and fifteenth century
days, when the great miracle plays drew the country around, for miles
and miles, to this Coutances square.

Across the square, in the long gray distance of the streets, the
archbishop's canopy was motionless. A sweet groaning murmur rippled
from lip to lip.

Then a swift and mighty rustling filled the air, for the bones of
thousands of knees were striking the stones of the street;--even
heretic knees were bent when the Host was lifted. It was the moment of
silent prayer. It was also, perhaps, the most beautiful, it was
assuredly the most consummately picturesque moment of the day. The bent
heads; the long vistas of kneeling figures; the lovely contrasts of the
flowing draperies; the trailing splendor of the priests' robes dying
into the black note made by the nuns' sombre skirts; the gossamer
brilliance of the hundreds of white veils, through which the young
rapture of religious awe on lips and brow made even commonplace
features beautiful; the choristers' scarlet petticoats; the culminating
note of splendor, the Archbishop, throned like some antique scriptural
king under the feathers and velvets of his crimson canopy; then the
long lines of the townspeople with the groups of peasants beside them,
whose well-sunned skins made even their complexion seem pale by the
side of cheeks that brought the burn of noon-suns in the valleys to
mind; and behind this wall of kneeling figures, those other walls, the
long white-hung house facades, with their pendent sprigs and wreaths
and garlands above which hung the frieze of human heads beneath the
carved cornices; surely this was indeed the culminating moment, both in
point of beauty and in impressiveness, of the great day's festival.

Thus was reposoir after reposoir visited. Again and again the multitude
was on its knees. Again and again the Host was lifted. And still we
followed. Sometimes all the line was in full light, a long perspective
of color and of prismatic radiance. And then the line would be lost;
some part of it was still in a side-street; and the rest were singing
along the edges of the city's ramparts, under the great branches of the
trees. Here, in the gray of the narrow streets, the choristers' gowns
were startling in their richness. Yonder, in full sunlight, the
brightness on the maidens' robes made the shadows in their white skirts
as blue as light caught in a grotto's depth.

Still they sang. In the dim streets or under the trees, where the gay
banners were still fluttering, and the white veils, like airy sails,
were bulging in the wind, the hymn went on. It was thin and
pathetically weak in the mouths of the babes that walked. It was clear,
as fresh and pure as a brooklet's ripple, from the mouths of the young
communicants. It was of firm contralto strength from the throats of the
grave nuns. The notes gained and gained in richness; the hymn was
almost a chant with the priests; and in the mouths of the people it was
as a ringing chorus. Together with the swelling music swung the incense
into high air; and to the Host the rose-leaves were flung.

Still we followed. Still the long line moved on from altar to altar.

Then, when the noon was long past, wearily we climbed upward to our inn.

In the high streets there was much going to and fro. The shop-keepers
already were taking down their linen. Pouffe! Pouffe! there was much
blowing through mouths and a great standing on tiptoes to reach the
tall tapers on the reposoirs.

Coutances was pious. Coutances was proud of its fête. But Coutances was
also a thrifty city. Once the cortege had passed, it was high time to
snuff out the tapers. Who could stand by and see good candles blowing
uselessly in the wind, and one's money going along with the dripping?



CHAPTER XXVIII.

BY LAND TO MONT ST. MICHEL.


Two hours later the usual collection of forces was assembled in our inn
courtyard; for a question of importance was to be decided. Madame was
there--chief of the council; her husband was also present, because he
might be useful in case any dispute as to madame's word came up;
Auguste, the one inn waiter, was an important figure of the group; for
he, of them all, was the really travelled one; he had seen the
world--he was to be counted on as to distances and routes; and above,
from the upper windows, the two ladies of the bed-chamber looked down,
to act as chorus to the brisk dialogue going on between madame and the
owner of a certain victoria for which we were in treaty.

"_Ces dames,_" madame said, with a shrug which was meant for the
coachman, and a smile which was her gift to us--"these ladies wish to
go to Mont St. Michel, to drive there. Have you your little victoria
and Poulette?"

Now, by the shrug madame had conveyed to the man and the assembled
household generally, her own great scorn of us, and of our plans. What
a whim this, of driving, forsooth, to the Mont! _Dieu sait_--French
people were not given to any such follies; they were serious-minded,
_always_, in matters of travel. To travel at all, was no light thing;
one made one's will and took an honest and tearful farewell of one's
family, when one went on a journey. But these English, these Americans,
there's no foretelling to what point their folly will make them tempt
fate! However, madame was one who knew on which side her bread was
buttered, if ever a woman did, and the continuance of these mad follies
helped to butter her own French roll. And so her shrug and wink
conveyed to the tall Norman just how much these particular lunatics
before them would be willing to pay for this their whim.

"Have you Poulette?"

"Yes--yes--Poulette is at home. I have made her repose herself all
day--hearing these ladies had spoken of driving to the Mont--"

Chorus from the upper window-sills. "The poor beast! it is _joliment
longue--la distance_."

"As these ladies observe," continued the owner of the doomed animal,
not raising his head, but quickly acting on the hint, "it is long, the
distance--one does not go for nothing." And though the man kept his
mouth from betraying him, his keen eyes glittered with avarice.

"And then--_ces dames_ must descend at Genets, to cross the _grève, tu
sais_" interpolated the waiter, excitedly changing his napkin, his wand
of office, from one armpit to the other. The thought of travel stirred
his blood. It was fine--to start off thus, without having to make the
necessary arrangements for a winter's service or a summer's season. And
to drive, that would be new--yes that would be a change indeed from the
stuffy third-class compartments. For Auguste, you see, approved of us
and of the foolishness of our plans. His sympathy being gratis, was
allied to the protective instinct--he would see the cheating was at
least as honestly done as was compatible with French methods.

"Another carriage--and why?" we meekly queried, warned by this friendly
hint. A chorus now arose from the entire audience.

"_Mais, madame!_--it is as much as five or six kilos over the sands to
the Mont from Genets!" was cried out in a tone of universal reproach.

"Through rivers, madame, through rivers as high as that!" and Auguste,
striking in after the chorus, measured himself off at the breast.

"Yes--the water comes to there, on the horse," added the driver,
sweeping an imaginary horse's head, with a fine gesture, in the air.

"Dame, that must be fine to see," cried down Léontine and Marie,
gasping with little sighs of envy.

"And so it is!" cried back Auguste, nodding upward with dramatic
gesture. "One can get as wet as a duck splashing through those rivers.
_Dieu! que c'est beau!_" And he clasped his hands as his eye, rolling
heavenward, caught the blue and the velvet of the four feminine orbs on
its upward way. Seeing which ecstasy, the courtyard visibly relented;
Auguste's rapture and his envy had worked the common human miracle of
turning contempt for a folly into belief in it.

This quick firing of French people to a pleasurable elation in others'
adventure is, I think we must all agree, one of the great charms of
this excitable race: anything will serve as a pretext for setting this
sympathetic vibration in motion. What they all crave as a nation is a
daily, hourly diet of the unusual, the unforeseen.

It is this passion for incident which makes a Frenchman's life not
unlike his soups, since in the case of both, how often does he make
something out of nothing!

An hour later we were picking our way through the city's streets.
Sweeter than the crushed flowers was the free air of the valley.

There is no way of looking back so agreeable, on the whole, I think, as
to look back upon a city.

From the near distance of the first turn in the road, Coutances and its
cathedral were at their very best. The hill on which both stood was
only one of the many hills we now saw growing out of the green valley;
among the dozen hill tops, this one we were leaving was only more
crowded than the others, and more gloriously crowned. In giant height
uprose, above the city's roofs and the lesser towers, the spires and
the lovely lantern tower. This vast mass of stone, pricked into lacy
apertures and with its mighty lines of grace-for how many a long
century has it been in the eye of the valley? Tancrède de Hauteville
saw it before William was born--before he, the Conqueror, rode in his
turn through the green lanes to consecrate the church to One greater
than he. From Tancrède to Boileau, what a succession of bishops, each
in their turn, have had their eye on the great cathedral. There was a
sort of viking bishop, one Geoffrey de Montbray, of the Conqueror's
day, who, having a greater taste for men's blood than their
purification, found Coutances a dull city; there was more war of the
kind his stout arm rejoiced in across the Channel; and so he travelled
a bit to do a little pleasant killing. From Geoffrey to Boileau and the
latter's lacy ruffles--how many a rude Norman epic was acted out, here
in the valley, beneath the soaring spires, before the Homeric combat
was turned into the verse of a _chanso de geste_, a _Roman de Rou_, or
a _Latrin!_

As Poulette rolled the wheels along, instead of visored bishop, or mail
rustling on strong breasts, there was the open face of the landscape,
and the tremble of the grasses beneath the touch of the wind. Coming
down the hill was a very peaceable company; doubtless, between wars in
those hot fighting centuries, just such travellers went up and down the
hill-road as unconcernedly as did these peasants. There was quite a
variety among the present groups: some were strictly family parties;
these talked little, giving their mind to stiff walking--the smell of
the soup in the farmyard kitchen was in their nostrils. The women's
ages were more legibly read in their caps than in their faces--the
older the women the prettier the caps. Among these groups, queens of
the party, were some first communicants. Their white kid slippers were
brown now, from the long walk in the city streets and the dust of the
highway. They held their veils with a maiden's awkwardness; with bent
heads they leaned gravely on their fathers' arms. In this, their first
supreme experience of self-consciousness, they had the self-absorption
of young brides. The trail of their muslin gowns and the light cloud of
their veils made dazzling spots of brightness in the delicate frame of
the June landscape. Each of these white-clad figures was followed by a
long train of friends and relatives. "_C'est joli à voir_--it's a
pretty sight, _hein_, my ladies? these young girls are beautiful like
that!" Our coachman took his eye off Poulette to turn in his seat,
looking backward at the groups as they followed in our wake. "Ah--it
was hard to leave my own--I had two like that, myself, in the
procession to-day." And the full Norman eye filled with a sudden
moisture. This was a more attractive glitter than the avarice of a
moment before.

"You see, mesdames," he went on, as if wishing to excuse the moistened
eyelids, "you see--it's a great day in the family when our children
take their first communion. It is the day the child dies and the man,
the woman is born. When our children kneel at our feet, before the
priest, before their comrades, and beg us to forgive them all the sin
they have done since they were born--it is too much--the heart grows so
big it is near to bursting. Ah--it is then we all weep!"

Charm settled herself in her seat with a satisfied smile. "We are in
luck--an emotional coachman who weeps and talks! The five hours will
fly," she murmured. Then aloud, to Jacques--as we learned the now
sniffling father was called--she presently asked, with the oil of
encouragement in her tone:

"You say your two were in the procession?"

"Two! there were five in all. Even the babies walked. Did you see Jésu
and the Magdalen? They were mine--_C'était à moi, çà!_ For the priests
will have them--as many as they can get."

"They are right. If the children didn't walk, how could the procession
be so fine?" "Fine--_beau--ca?_" And there was a deep scorn in
Jacques's voice. "You should have seen the _fête_ twenty years ago!
Now, its glory is as nothing. It's the priests themselves who are to
blame. They've spoiled it all. Years ago, the whole town walked.
_Dieu_--what a spectacle! The mayor, the mairie, all the firemen,
municipal officers--yes, even the soldiers walked. And as for the
singing--_dame_, all the young men were choristers then--we were
trained for months. When we walked and sang in the open streets the
singing filled all the town. It was like a great thunder."

"And the change--why has it come?" persisted Charm.

"Oh," Jacques replied, caressing Poulette's haunches with his
whip-lash. "It's the priests; they were too grasping. They are
avaricious, that's what they are. They want everything for themselves.
And a _fête--ça coule, vous savez_. Besides, the spirit of the times
has changed. People aren't so devout now. _Libres penseurs_--that's the
fashion now. _Holà_, Poulette!"

Poulette responded. She dashed into the valley, below us now, as if
this rolling along of a heavy victoria, a lot of luggage, and three
travellers, was an agreeable episode in her career of toil. But on the
mind of her owner, the spectre of the free-thinkers was still hovering
like an evil spirit. During the next hour he gave us a long and
exhaustive exposition of the changes wrought by _ces messieurs qui
nient le bon Dieu._ Among their crimes was to be numbered that of
having disintegrated the morale of the peasantry. They--the
peasants--no longer believed in miracles, and as for sorcery, for the
good old superstitions, bah: they were looked upon as old wives' tales.
Even here, in the heart of this rural country, you would have to walk
far before you could find _vne vraie sorcière_, one who, by looking
into a glass of water, for instance, could read the future as in a
book, or one who, if your cow dried up, could name the evil spirit, the
demon, who, among the peasants was exercising the curse. All this
science was lost. A peasant would now be ashamed to bring his cow to a
fortune-teller; all the village would laugh. Even the shepherds had
lost the power of communing with the planets at night; and all the
valley read the _Petit Journal_ instead of consulting the _vieilles
mères_. One must go as far as Brittany to see a real peasant with the
superstitions of a peasant. As for Normandy, it went in step with the
rest of the world, _que diable!_ And again the whip lash descended.
Poulette must suffer for Jacques's disgust.

If the Norman peasant was a modern, his country, at least, had retained
the charm of its ancient beauty. The road was as Norman a highway as
one could wish to see. It had the most capricious of natures, turning
and perversely twisting among the farms and uplands. The land was
ribboned with growing grain, and the June grass was being cut. The
farms stood close upon the roadway, as if longing for its
companionship; and then, having done so much toward the establishment
of neighborly gossip, promptly turned their backs upon it--true
Normans, all of them, with this their appearance of frankness and their
real reserves of secrecy.

For a last time we caught a distant glimpse of the great cathedral. As
we looked back across the bright-roofed villages, we saw the stately
pile, gray, glorious, superb, dominating the scene, the hills, river,
and fields, as in the old days the great city walls and the cathedral
towers had dominated all the human life that played helplessly about
them.

We were out once more among the green and yellow broadlands; between
our carriage-wheels and the horizon there was now spread a wide
amphitheatre of wooded hills. The windings of the poplar-lined road
serpentined in sinuous grace in and out of forests, meadows, hills, and
islands. The afternoon lights were deepening; the shadows on the
grain-fields cast by the oaks and beeches were a part of our company.
The blue bloom of the distant hills was strengthening into purple. As
the light was intensifying in color, the human life in the fields was
relaxing its tension; the bent backs were straightening, the ploughmen
were whipping their steeds toward the open road; for although it was
Sunday, and a _fête_ day, the farmer must work. The women were
gathering up some of the grasses, tying them into bundles, and tossing
them on their heads as they moved slowly across the blackening earth.

One field near us was peopled with a group of girls resting on their
scythes. One or two among them were mopping their faces with their
coarse blue aprons; the faces of all were aflame with the red of rude
health. As we came upon them, some had flung away their scythes, the
tallest among the group grasping a near companion, playfully, in the
pose of a wrestler. In an instant the company was turned into a group
of wrestlers. There was a great shout of laughter, as maiden after
maiden was tumbled over on her back or face amid the grasses. Sabots,
short skirts, kerchiefs, scarlet arms rose and fell to earth in the mad
whirl of their gayety.

"Stop, Jacques, I must see the end," cried Charm. "Will they fight or
dance, I wonder!"

"Oh, it is a pure Georgic--they'll dance." They were dancing already.
The line, with dishevelled hair, aprons and kerchiefs askew, had formed
into the square of a quadrille. A rude measure was tripped; a snatch of
song, shouted amid the laughter, gave rhythm to the measure, and then
the whole band, singing in chorus, linked arms and swept with a furious
dash beneath the thatched roof of a low farm-house.

"As you see, my ladies, sometimes the fields are gay--even now," was
Jacques's comment. "But they should be getting their grasses in--for
it'll rain before night. It's time to sing when the scythe sleeps--as
we say here."

To our eyes there were no signs of rain. The clouds rolling in the blue
sea above us were only gloriously lighted. But the birds and the
peasants knew their sky; there was a great fluttering of wings among
the branches; and the peasants, as we rattled in and out of the
hamlets, were pulling the _reposoirs_ to pieces in the haste that
predicts bad weather. They had been "celebrating" all along the road;
and besides the piety, the Norman thrift was abroad upon the highway.
Women were tearing sheets off the house facades; the lads and girls
were bearing crosses, china vases, and highly-colored Virgins from the
wooden altars into the low houses.

Presently the great drops fell; they beat upon the smooth roadway like
so many hard bits of coin. In less than two ticks of the clock, the
world was a wet world; there were masses of soft gray clouds that were
like so much cotton, dripping with moisture. The earth was as drenched
as if, half an hour ago, it had not been a jewel gleaming in the sun;
and the very farm-houses had quickly assumed an air of having been
caught out in the rain without an umbrella. The farm gardens alone
seemed to rejoice in the suddenness of the shower. Flowers have a way
of shining, when it rains, that proves flower-petals have a woman's
love of solitaires.

There were other dashes of color that made the gray landscape
astonishingly brilliant. Some of the peasants on their way to the
village _fêtes_ were also caught in the passing shower. They had opened
their wide blue and purple umbrellas; these latter made huge disks of
color reflected in the glass of the wet macadam. The women had turned
their black alpaca and cashmere skirts inside out, tucking the edges
about their stout hips; beneath the wide vivid circles of the dripping
umbrellas these brilliantly colored under-petticoats showed a liberal
revelation of scarlet hose and thick ankles sunk in the freshly
polished black sabots. The men's cobalt-blue blouses and their peaked
felt hats spotted the landscape with contrasting notes and outlines.

After the last peaked hat had disappeared into the farm enclosures, we
and the wet landscape had the rain to ourselves. The trees now were
spectral shapes; they could not be relied on as companions. Even the
gardens and grain lands were mysteriously veiled, so close rolled the
mists to our carriage-wheels. Beyond, at the farthest end of the road,
these mists had formed themselves into a solid, compact mass.

The clouds out yonder, far ahead, seemed to be enwrapping some part of
earth that had lanced itself into the sky.

After a little the eyes unconsciously watched those distant woolly
masses. There was a something beyond, faint, vague, impalpable as yet,
which the rolling mists begirt as sometimes they cincture an Alpine
needle. Even as the thought came, a sudden lifting--of the gray mass
showed the point of a high uplifted pinnacle. The point thereof pricked
the sky. Then the wind, like a strong hand, swept the clouds into a
mantle, and we saw the strange spectacle no more.

For several miles our way led us through a dim, phantasmal landscape.
All the outlines were blurred. Even the rain was a veil; it fell
between us and the nearest hedgerows as if it had been a curtain. The
jingling of Poulette's bell-collar and the gurgle of the water rushing
in the gulleys--these were the only sounds that fell upon the ear.

Still the clouds about that distant mass curled and rolled; they were
now breaking, now re-forming--as if some strange and wondrous thing
were hanging there--between heaven and earth.

It was still far out, the mass; even the lower mists were not resting
on any plain of earth. They also were moved by something that moved
beneath them, as a thick cloak takes the shape and motion of the body
it covers. Still we advanced, and still the great mountain of cloud
grew and grew. And then there came a little lisping, hissing sound. It
was the kiss of the sea as it met some unseen shore. And on our cheeks
the sea-wind blew, soft and salty to the lips.

The mass was taking shape and outline. The mists rolled along some
wide, broad base that rested beneath the sea, and skyward they clasped
the apexal point of a pyramid.

This pyramid in the sky was Mont St. Michel.

With its feet in the sea, and its head vanishing into infinity--here,
at last, was this rock of rocks, caught, phantom-like, up into the very
heavens above.

It loomed out of the spectral landscape--itself the superlative
spectre; it took its flight upward as might some genius of beauty
enrobed in a shroud of mystery.

Such has it been to generations of men. Beautiful, remote, mysterious!
With its altars and its shrines, its miracle of stone carved by man on
those other stones hewn by the wind and the tempest, Mont St. Michel
has ever been far more a part of heaven than a thing of earth.

Then, for us, the clouds suddenly lifted, as, for modern generations of
men, the mists of superstition have also rolled themselves away.



MONT ST. MICHEL:

AN INN ON A ROCK.

[Illustration: MONT SAINT MICHEL]



CHAPTER XXIX.

BY SEA TO THE POULARD INN.


We were being tossed in the air like so many balls. A Normandy _char a
banc_ was proving itself no respecter of nice distinctions in
conditions in life. It phlipped, dashed, and rolled us about with no
more concern than if it were taking us to market to be sold by the
pound. For we were on the _grève_. The promised rivers were before us.

So was the Mont, spectral no longer, but nearing with every plunge
forward of our sturdy young Percheron. Locomotion through any new or
untried medium is certain to bring with the experiment a dash of
elation. Now, driving through water appears to be no longer the fashion
in our fastidious century; someone might get a wetting, possibly, has
been the conclusion of the prudent. And thus a very innocent and
exciting bit of fun has been gradually relegated among the lost arts of
pleasure.

We were taking water as we had never taken it before, and liking the
method. We were as wet as ducks, but what cared we? We were being
deluged with spray; the spume of the sea was spurting in our faces with
the force of a strong wet breeze, and still we liked it. Besides,
driving thus into the white foam of the waters, over the sand ridges,
across the downs, into the wide plains of wet mud, this was the old
classical way of going up to the Mont. Surely, what had been found good
enough as a pathway for kings and saints and pilgrims should be good
enough for two lovers of old-time methods. The dike yonder was built
for those who believe in the devil of haste, and for those who also
serve him faithfully.

Someone else besides ourselves was enjoying our drive through the
waves. Our gay young Normandy driver seemed to find an exquisite relish
in the spectacle of our wet faces and unstable figures. He could not
keep his eyes off us; they fairly glistened with the dew of his
enjoyment. Two ladies pitched and rolled about, exactly as if they were
peasants, and laughing as if they were children--this was a spectacle
and a keen appreciation of a joke that brought joy to a rustic blouse.

"Ah--ah! mesdames!" he cried, exultingly, between the gasps of his own
laughter, as he tossed his own fine head in the air, sitting on his
rude bench, covered with sheepskin, as if it had been an armchair. "Ah,
ah! mesdames, you didn't expect this, _hein_? You hoped for a landau,
and feathers and cushions, perhaps? But soft feathers and springs are
not for the _grève_."

"Is it dangerous? are there deep holes?"

"Oh, the holes, they are as nothing. It is the quicksands we fear. But
it is only a little danger, and danger makes the charm of travel, is it
not so, my ladies? Adventure, that is what one travels for! _Hui!_ Fend
l'Air!"

It had occurred to us before that we had been uncommonly lucky in our
coachmen, as well as in the names of the horses, that had brightened
our journey. In spite of Juliet, whose disdain of the virtue or the
charm that lies in a name is no more worthy of respect than is any
lover's opinion when in the full-orbed foolishness of his lunacy, I
believe names to be a very effective adjunct to life's scenic setting.
Most of the horses we had had along these Normandy high-roads, had
answered to names that had helped to italicize the features of the
country. Could Poulette, the sturdy little mare, with whom only an hour
ago we had parted forever, have been given a better sobriquet by which
to have identified for us the fat landscape? And now here was Fend
l'Air proving good his talent for cleaving through space, whatever of
land or sea lay in his path.

"And he merits his name, my lady," his driver announced with grave
pride, as he looked at the huge haunches with a loving eye. "He can go,
oh, but as the wind! It is he who makes of the crossing but as if it
were nothing!"

The crossing! That was the key-note of the way the coast spoke of the
Mont. The rock out yonder was a country apart, a bit of land or stone
the shore claimed not, had no part in, felt to be as remote as if it
were a foreign province. At Genets the village spoke of the Mont as one
talks of a distant land. Even the journey over the sands was looked
upon with a certain seriousness. A starting forth was the signal for
the village to assemble about the _char-à-banc's_ wheels. Quite a large
company for a small village to muster was grouped about our own
vehicle, to look on gravely as we mounted to the rude seat within. The
villagers gave us their "_bonjours_" with as much fervor as if we were
starting forth on a sea voyage.

"You will have a good crossing!" cackled one of the old men, nodding
toward the peak in the sky.

"The sands may be wet, but they are firm already!" added a huge
peasant--the fattest man in all the canton, whisperingly confided the
landlady, as one proud of possessing a village curiosity.

"_Hui_, Fend l'Air! _attention, toi!_" Fend l'Air tossed his fine mane,
and struck out with a will over the cobbles. But his driver was only
posing for the assembled village. He was in no real haste; there was a
fresh voice singing yonder in his mother's tavern; the sentimentalist
in him was on edge to hear the end of the song.

"Do you hear that, mesdames? There's no such singing as that out of
Paris. One must go to a café--"

"_Allons, toi!_" shrieked his mother's voice, as her face darkened. "Do
you think these ladies want to spend the night on the _grève_?
_Depêches-toi, vaurien!_" And she gave the wheels a shove with her
strong hand, whereat all the village laughed. But the good-for-nothing
son made no haste as the song went on--

  "_Le bon vin me fait dormir,
  L'amour me réveil--_"

He continued to cock his head on one side and to let his eyes dream a
bit.

Within, a group of peasants was gathered about the inn table. There
were some young girls seated among the blouses; one of them, for the
hour that we had sat waiting for Fend l'Air to be captured and
harnessed, had been singing songs of questionable taste in a voice of
such contralto sweetness as to have touched the heart of a bishop.
"Some young girls from the factories at Avranches, mesdames, who come
here Sundays to get a bit of fresh air; _Dieu soit si elles en ont
besoin, pauvres enfants!_" was the landlady's charitable explanation.
It appeared to us that the young ladies from Avranches were more in
need of a moral than a climatic change. But then, we also charitably
reflected, it makes all the difference in the world, in these nice
questions of taste and morality, whether one has had as an inheritance
a past of Francis I. and a Rabelais, or of Calvin and a Puritan
conscience.

The geese on the green downs, just below the village, had clearly never
even heard of Calvin; they were luxuriating in a series of plunges into
the deep pools in a way to prove complete ignorance of nice sabbatarian
laws.

With our first toss upon the downs, a world of new and fresh
experiences began. Genets was quite right; the Mont over yonder was
another country; even at the very beginning of the journey we learned
so much. This breeze blowing in from the sea, that had swept the
ramparts of the famous rock, was a double extract of the sea essence;
it had all the salt of the sea and the aroma of firs and wild flowers;
its lips had not kissed a garden in high air without the perfume
lingering, if only to betray them. Even this strip of meadow marsh had
a character peculiar to itself; half of it belonged to earth and half
to the sea. You might have thought it an inland pasture, with its herds
of cattle, its flocks of sheep, and its colonies of geese--patrolled by
ragged urchins. But behold, somewhere out yonder the pasture was lost
in high sea-waves; ships with bulging sails replaced the curve of the
cattle's sides, and instead of bending necks of sheep, there were
seagulls swooping down upon the foamy waves.

As the incarnation of this dual life of sea and land, the rock stands.
It also is both of the sea and the land. Its feet are of the
waters--rocks and stones the sea-waves have used as playthings these
millions of years. But earth regains possession as the rocks pile
themselves into a mountain. Even from this distance, one can see the
moving arms of great trees, the masses of yellow flower-tips that dye
the sides of the stony hill, and the strips of green grass here and
there. So much has nature done for this wonderful pyramid in the sea.
Then man came and fashioned it to his liking. He piled the stones at
its base into titanic walls; he carved about its sides the rounded
breasts of bastions; he piled higher and higher up the dizzy heights a
medley of palaces, convents, abbeys, cloisters, to lay at the very top
the fitting crown of all, a jewelled Norman-Gothic cathedral.

Earth and man have thrown their gauntlet down to the sea--this rock is
theirs, they cry to the waves and the might of oceans. And the sea
laughs--as strong men laugh when boys are angry or insistent. She has
let them build and toil, and pray and fight; it is all one to her what
is done on the rock--whether men carve its stones into lace, or rot and
die in its dungeons; it is all the same to her whether each spring the
daffodils creep up within the crevices and the irises nod to them from
the gardens.

It is all one to her. For twice a day she recaptures the Mont. She
encircles it with the strong arm of her tides; with the might of her
waters she makes it once more a thing of the sea.

The tide was rising now.

The fringe of the downs had dabbled in the shoals till they had become
one. We had left behind the last of the shepherd lads, come out to the
edge of the land to search for a wandering kid. We were all at once
plunging into high water. Our road was sunk out of sight; we were
driving through waves as high as our cart-wheels. Fend l'Air was
shivering; he was as a-tremble as a woman. The height of the rivers was
not to his liking.

"_Sacré fainéant!_" yelled his owner, treating the tremor to a mighty
crack of the whip.

"Is he afraid?"

"Yes--when the water is as high as that, he is always afraid. Ah, there
he is--_diantre_, but he took his time!" he growled, but the growl was
set in the key of relief. He was pointing toward a figure that was
leaping toward us through the water. "It is the guide!" he added, in
explanation.

The guide was at Fend l'Air's shoulder. Very little of him was above
water, but that little was as brown as an Egyptian. He was puffing and
blowing like unto a porpoise. In one hand he held a huge pitchfork--the
trident of this watery Mercury.

"Shall I conduct you?" he asked, dipping the trident as if in salute,
into the water, as he still puffed and gasped.

"If you please," as gravely responded our driver. For though up to our
cart-wheels and breasts in deep water, the formalities were not to be
dispensed with, you understand. The guide placed himself at once in
front of Fend l'Air, whose shivers as quickly disappeared.

"You see, mesdames--the guide gives him courage--and he now knows no
fear," cried out with pride our whip on the outer bench. "And what
news, Victor--is there any?" It was of the Mont he was asking. And the
guide replied, taking an extra plunge into deep water:

"Oh, not much. There's to be a wedding tomorrow and a pilgrimage the
next day. Madame Poulard has only a handful as yet. _Ces dames_ descend
doubtless at Madame Poulard's--_celle qui fait les omelettes?_" The
ladies were ignorant as yet of the accomplishments of the said
landlady; they had only heard of her beauty.

"_C'est elle_," gravely chorussed the guide and the driver, both
nodding their heads as their eyes met. "_Fameuse, sa beauté, comme son
omelette_," as gravely added our driver.

The beauty of this lady and the fame of her omelette were very
sobering, apparently, in their effects on the mind; for neither guide
nor driver had another word to say.

Still the guide plunged into the rivers, and Fend l'Air followed him.
Our cart still pitched and tossed--we were still rocked about in our
rough cradle. But the sun, now freed from the banks of clouds, was
lighting our way with a great and sudden glory. And for the rest of our
watery journey we were conscious only of that lighting. Behind the
Mont, lay a vast sea of saffron. But it was in the sky; against it the
great rock was as black as if the night were upon it. Here and there,
through the curve of a flying buttress, or the apertures of a pierced
parapet, gay bits of this yellow world were caught and framed. The sea
lay beneath like a quiet carpet; and over this carpet ships and sloops
swam with easy gliding motion, with sails and cordage dipped in gold.
The smaller craft, moored close to shore, seemed transfigured as in a
fog of gold. And nearer still were the brown walls of the Mont making a
great shadow, and in the shadow the waters were as black as the skin of
an African. In the shoals there were lovely masses of turquoise and
palest green; for here and there a cloudlet passed, to mirror their
complexions in the translucent pools.

But Fend l'Air's hoofs had struck a familiar note. His iron shoes were
clicking along the macadam of the dike. There was a rapid dashing
beneath the great walls; a sudden night of darkness as we plunged
through an open archway into a narrow village street; a confused
impression of houses built into side-walls; of machicolated gateways;
of rocks and roof-tops tumbling about our ears; and within the street
was sounding the babel of a shrieking troop of men and women. Porters,
peasants, lads, and children were clamoring about our cart-wheels like
unto so many jackals. The bedlam did not cease as we stopped before a
wide, brightly-lit open doorway.

Then through the doorway there came a tall, finely-featured brunette.
She made her way through the yelling crowd as a duchess might cleave a
path through a rabble. She was at the side of the cart in an instant.
She gave us a bow and smile that were both a welcome and an act of
appropriation. She held out a firm, soft, brown hand. When it closed on
our own, we knew it to be the grasp of a friend, and the clasp of one
who knew how to hold her world. But when she spoke the words were all
of velvet, and her voice had the cadence of a caress.

"I have been watching you, _chères dames_--crossing the _grève_--but
how wet and weary you must be! Come in by the fire, it is ablaze now--I
have been feeding it for you!" And once more the beautifully curved
lips parted over the fine teeth, and the exceeding brightness of the
dark eyes smiled and glittered in our own. The caressing voice still
led us forward, into the great gay kitchen; the touch of skilful,
discreet fingers undid wet cloaks and wraps; the soft charm of a lovely
and gracious woman made even the penetrating warmth of the huge
fire-logs a secondary feature of our welcome. To those who have never
crossed a _grève_; who have had no jolting in a Normandy _char-à-banc_;
who, for hours, have not known the mixed pleasures and discomfort of
being a part of sea-rivers; and who have not been met at the threshold
of an Inn on a Rock by the smiling welcome of Madame Poulard--all such
have yet a pleasant page to read in the book of travelled experience.

Meanwhile somewhere, in an inner room, things sweet to the nostrils
were cooking. Maids were tripping up and down stairs with covered
dishes; there was the pleasant clicking in the ear of the lids of
things; dishes or pans or jars were being lifted. And more delicious to
the ear than even the promise to starving mouths of food, and of red
wine to the lip, was the continuing music of madame's voice, as she
stood over us purring with content at seeing her travellers drying and
being thoroughly warmed. "The dinner-bell must soon be rung, dear
ladies; I delayed it as long as I dared--I gauged your progress across
from the terrace--I have kept all my people waiting; for your first
dinner here must be hot! But now it rings! Shall I conduct you to your
rooms?"

I have no doubt that, even without this brunette beauty, with her olive
cheek and her comely figure as guides, we should have gone the way she
took us in a sort of daze. One cannot pass under machicolated gateways;
rustle between the walls of fourteenth century fortifications; climb a
stone stairway that begins in a watch-tower and ends in a rampart, with
a great sea view, and with the breadth of all the land shoreward; walk
calmly over the top of a king's gate, with the arms of a bishop and the
shrine of the Virgin beneath one's feet; and then, presently, begin to
climb the side of a rock in which rude stone steps have been cut, till
one lands on a miniature terrace, to find a preposterously
sturdy-looking house affixed to a ridiculous ledge of rock that has the
presumption to give shelter to a hundred or more travellers--ground
enough, also, for rows of plane-trees, for honeysuckles, and rose-vine,
with a full coquettish equipment of little tables and iron chairs--no
such journey as that up a rock was ever taken with entirely sober eyes.

Although her people were waiting below, and the dinner was on its way
to the cloth, Madame Poulard had plenty of time to give to the beauty
about her. How fine was the outlook from the top of the ramparts! What
a fresh sensation, this, of standing on a terrace in mid-air and
looking down on the sea, and across to the level shores! The
rose-vines--we found them sweet--_tiens_--one of the branches had
fallen--she had full time to re-adjust the loosened support. And
"Marianne, give these ladies their hot water, and see to their bags--"
even this order was given with courtesy. It was only when the supple,
agile figure had left us to fly down the steep rock-cut steps; when it
shot over the top of the gateway and slid with the grace of a lizard
into the street far below us, that we were made sensible of there
having been any especial need of madame's being in haste.

That night, some three hours later, a picturesque group was assembled
about this same supple figure. A pretty, and unlooked-for ceremony was
about to take place.

It was the ceremony of the lighting of the lanterns.

In the great kitchen, in the dance of the firelight and the glow of the
lamps, some seven or eight of us were being equipped with Chinese
lanterns. This of itself was an engaging sight. Madame Poulard was
always gay at this performance--for it meant much innocent merriment
among her guests, and with the lighting of the last lantern, her own
day was done. So the brilliant eyes flashed with a fresh fire, and the
olive cheek glowed anew. All the men and women laughed as children
sputter laughter, when they are both pleased and yet a little ashamed
to show their pleasure. It was so very ridiculous, this journey up a
rock with a Chinese lantern! But just because it was ridiculous, it was
also delightful. One--two--three--seven--eight--they were all lit. The
last male guest had touched his cap to madame, exchanging the "_bonne
nuit_" a man only gives to a pretty woman, and that which a woman
returns who feels that her beauty has received its just meed of homage;
madame's figure stood, still smiling, a radiant benedictory presence,
in the doorway, with the great glow of the firelight behind her; the
last laugh echoed down the street--and behold, darkness was upon us!
The street was as black as a cavern. The strip of sky and the stars
above seemed almost day, by contrast. The great arch of the Porte du
Roi engulphed us, and then, slowly groping our way, we toiled up the
steps to the open ramparts. Here the keen night air swept rudely
through our cloaks and garments; the sea tossed beneath the bastions
like some restless tethered creature, that showed now a gray and now a
purple coat, and the stars were gold balls that might drop at any
instant, so near they were. The men shivered and buttoned their coats,
and the women laughed, a trifle shrilly, as they grasped the floating
burnous closer about their faces and shoulders.

And the lanterns' beams danced a strange dance on the stone flagging.

Once more we were lost in darkness. We were passing through the old
guard-house. And then slowly, more slowly than ever, the lanterns were
climbing the steps cut in the rock. Hands groped in the blackness to
catch hold of the iron railing; the laughter had turned into little
shouts and gasps for help. And then one of the lanterns played a
treacherous trick; it showed the backs of two figures groping upward
together--about one of the girlish figures a man's arm was flung. As
suddenly the noise of the cries was stilled.

The lanterns played their fitful light on still other objects. They
illumined now a vivid yellow shrub; they danced upon a roof-top; they
flooded, with a sudden circlet of brilliance, the awful depths below of
the swirling waters and of rocks that were black as a bottomless pit.

Then the terrace was reached. And the lanterns danced a last gay little
dance among the roses and the vines before, Pouffe! Pouffe! and behold!
they were all blown out.

Thus it was we went to bed on the Mont.



CHAPTER XXX.

AN HISTORICAL OMELETTE--THE PILGRIMS AND THE SHRINE.


To awake on a hill-top at sea. This was what morning brought.

Crowd this hill with houses plastered to the sides of rocks, with great
walls girdling it, with tiny gardens lodged in crevices, and with a
forest tumbling seaward. Let this hill yield you a town in which to
walk, with a street of many-storied houses; with other promenades along
ramparts as broad as church aisles; with dungeons, cloisters, halls,
guard-rooms, abbatial gateways, and a cathedral whose flying buttresses
seemed to spring from mid-air and to end in a cloud--such was the world
into which we awoke on the heights of Mont St. Michel.

The verdict of the shore on the hill had been a just one; this world on
a rock was a world apart. This hill in the sea had a detached air--as
if, though French, at heart a true Gaul, it had had from the beginning
of things a life of adventure peculiar to itself. The shore, at best,
had been only a foster-mother; the hill was the true child of the sea.
Since its birth it has had a more or less enforced separateness, in
experience, from the country to which it belonged. Whether temple or
fortress, whether forest-clad in virginal fierceness of aspect, or
subdued into beauty by the touch of man's chisel, its destiny has ever
been the same--to suffice unto itself--to be, in a word, a world in
miniature.

The Mont proved by its appearance its history in adventure; it had the
grim, grave, battered look that comes only to features, whether of rock
or of more plastic human mould--that have been carved by the rough
handling of experience.

It is the common habit of hills and mountains, as we all know, to turn
disdainful as they grow skyward; they only too eagerly drop, one by
one, the things by which man has marked the earth for his own. To stand
on a mountain top and to go down to your grave are alike, at least in
this--that you have left everything, except yourself, behind you. But
it is both the charm and the triumph of Mont St. Michel, that it
carries so much of man's handiwork up into the blue fields of air; this
achievement alone would mark it as unique among hills. It appears as if
for once man and nature had agreed to work in concert to produce a
masterpiece in stone. The hill and the architectural beauties it
carries aloft, are like a taunt flung out to sea and to the upper
heights of air; for centuries they appear to have been crying aloud,
"See what we can do, against your tempests and your futile tides--when
we try."

On that particular morning, the taunt seemed more like an
epithalamium--such marriage-lines did sea and sky appear to be reading
over the glistening face of the rock. June had pitched its tent of blue
across the seas; all the world was blue, except where the sun smote it
into gold. To eyes in love with beauty, what a world at one's feet!
Beneath that azure roof, toward the west, was the world of water,
curling, dimpling, like some human thing charged with the conscious joy
of dancing in the sun. Shoreward, the more stable earth was in the
Moslem's ideal posture--that of perpetual prostration. The Brittany
coast was a long, flat, green band; the rocks of Cancale were brown,
but scarcely higher in point of elevation than the sand-hills; the
Normandy forests and orchards were rippling lines that focussed into
the spiral of the Avranches cathedral spires: floating between the two
blues, hung the aerial shapes of the Chaunsey and the Channel Islands;
and nearer, along the coast-line, were the fringing edges of the shore,
broken with shoals and shallows--earth's fingers, as it were, touching
the sea--playing, as Coleridge's Abyssinian maid fingered the dulcimer,
that music that haunts the poet's ear.

We were seated at the little iron tables, on the terrace. We were
sipping our morning coffee, beneath the plane-trees. The terrace, a
foot beyond our coffee-cups, instantly began its true career as a
precipice. We, ourselves, seemed to have begun as suddenly our own
flight heavenward--on such astonishing terms of intimacy were we with
the sky. The clapping close to our ears of large-winged birds; the
swirling of the circling sea-gulls; the amazing nearness of the cloud
drapery--all this gave us the sense of being in a new world, and of its
being a strangely pleasant one.

Suddenly a cock's crow, shrill and clear, made us start from the
luxurious languor of our contentment; for we had scarcely looked to
find poultry on this Hill of Surprises. Turning in the direction of the
homely, familiar note, we beheld a garden. In this garden walked the
cock--a two-legged gentleman of gorgeous plumage. If abroad for purely
constitutional purposes, the crowing chanticleer must be forced to pass
the same objects many times in review. Of all infinitesimal,
microscopic gardens, this one, surely, was a model in minuteness. Yet
it was an entirely self-respecting little garden. It was not much
larger than a generous-sized pocket handkerchief; yet how much
talent--for growing--may be hidden in a yard of soil--if the soil have
the right virtue in it. Here were two rocks forming, with a fringe of
cliff, a triangle; in that tri-cornered bit of earth a lively crop of
growing vegetables was offering flattering signs of promise to the
owner's eye. Where all land runs aslant, as all land does on this Mont,
not an inch was to be wasted; up the rocks peach and pear-split trees
were made to climb--and why should they not, since everything
else--since man himself must climb from the moment he touches the base
of the hill?

Following the cock's call, came the droning sweetness of bees; the rose
and the honeysuckle vines were loading the morning air with the perfume
of their invitations. Then a human voice drowned the bees' whirring,
and a face as fresh and as smiling as the day stood beside us. It was
the voice and the face of Madame Poulard, on the round of her morning
inspections. Our table and the radiant world at her feet were included
in this, her line of observations.

"_Ah, mesdames, comme vous savez bien vous placer!_--how admirably you
understand how to place yourselves! Under such a sky as this--before
such a spectacle--one should be in the front row, as at a theatre!"

And that was the beginning of our deeds finding favor in the eyes of
Madame Poulard.

It was our happy fate to drink many a morning cup of coffee at those
little iron tables; to have many a prolonged chat with the charming
landlady of the famous inn; to become as familiar with the glories and
splendors of the historical hill as with the habits and customs of the
world that came up to view them.

For here our journey was to end.

The comedy of life, as it had played itself out in Normandy inns, was
here, in this Inn on a Rock, to give us a series of farewell
performances. On no other stage, we were agreed, could the versatile
French character have had as admirable and picturesque a setting; and
surely, on no other bit of French soil could such an astonishing and
amazing variety of types be assembled for a final appearance, as came
up, day after day, to make the tour of the Mont.

To the shore, and for the whole of the near-lying Breton and Norman
rustic world, the Mont is still the Hill of Delight. It is their Alp,
their shrine, the tenth wonder of the world, a prison, a palace, and a
temple still. In spite of Parisian changes in religious fashions, the
blouse is still devout; for curiosity is the true religion of the
provincial, and all love of adventure did not die out with the Crusades.

Therefore it is that rustic France along this coast still makes
pilgrimages to the shrine of the Archangel St. Michael. No marriage is
rightly arranged which does not include a wedding-journey across the
_grève_; no nuptial breakfast is aureoled with the true halo of romance
which is eaten elsewhere than on these heights in mid-air. The young
come to drink deep of wonders; the old, to refresh the depleted
fountains of memory; and the tourist, behold, he is as a plague of
locusts let loose upon the defenceless hill!

After a fortnight's sojourn, Charm and I held many a grave
consultation; close observation of this world that climbed the heights
had bred certain strange misgivings. What was it this world of
sight-seers came up to the Mont for to see? Was it to behold the great
glories thereof, or was it, oh, human eye of man! to look on the face
of a charming woman I It was impossible, after sojourning a certain
time upon the hill, not to concede that there were two equally strong
centres of attractions, that drew the world hither-ward. One remained,
indeed, gravely suspended between the doubt and the fear, as to which
of these potential units had the greater pull, in point of actual
attraction. The impartial historian, given to a just weighing of
evidence, would have been startled to find how invariably the scales
tipped; how lightly an historical Mont, born of a miracle, crowned by
the noblest buildings, a pious Mecca for saints and kings innumerable,
shot up like feathers in lightness when over-weighted by the modern
realities of a perfectly appointed inn, the cooking and eating of an
omelette of omelettes, and the all-conquering charms of Madame Poulard.
The fog of doubt thickened as, day after day, the same scenes were
enacted; when one beheld all sorts and conditions of men similarly
affected; when, again and again, the potentiality in the human magnet
was proved true. Doubt turned to conviction, at the last, that the holy
shrine of St. Michael had, in truth, been, violated; that the Mont had
been desecrated; that the latter exists now solely as a setting for a
pearl of an inn; and that within the shrine--it is Madame Poulard
herself who fills the niche!

The pilgrims come from darkest Africa and the sunlit Yosemite, but they
remain to pray at the Inn of the Omelette. Yonder, on the _grèves,_ as
we ourselves had proved, one crosses the far seas and one is wet to the
skin, only to hear the praises sung of madame's skill in the handling
of eggs in a pan; it is for this the lean guide strides before the
pilgrim tourist, and that he dippeth his trident in the waters. At the
great gates of the fortifications the pilgrim descends, and behold, a
howling chorus of serving-people take up the chant of: "_Chez Madame
Poulard, à gauche, à la renommée de l'omelette!_" The inner walls of
the town lend themselves to their last and best estate, that of
proclaiming the glory of "_L'Omelette_." Placards, rich in indicative
illustrations of hands all forefingers, point, with a directness never
vouchsafed the sinner eager to find the way to right and duty, to the
inn of "_L'Incomparable, la Fameuse Omelette!_" The pilgrims meekly
descend at that shrine. They bow low to the worker of the modern
miracle; they pass with eager, trembling foot, into the inner
sanctorum, to the kitchen, where the presiding deity receives them with
the grace of a queen and the simplicity of a saint.

Life on the Mont, as we soon found, resolved itself into this--into so
arranging one's day as to be on hand for the great, the eventful hour.
In point of fact there were two such hours in the Mont St. Michel day.
There was the hour of the cooking of the omelette. There was always the
other really more tragic hour, of the coming across the dike, of the
huge lumbering omnibuses. For you see, that although one may be
beautiful enough to compete successfully against dead-and-gone saints,
against worn out miracles, and wonders in stone, human nature, when it
is alive, is human nature still. It is the curse of success, the world
over, to arouse jealousy; and we all have lived long enough to know
that jealousy's evil-browed offspring are named Hate and Competition.
Up yonder, beyond the Porte du Roi, rivalry has set up a
counter-shrine, with a competing saint, with all the hateful
accessories of a pretty face, a younger figure, and a graceful if less
skilled aptitude in the making of omelettes in public.

The hour of the coming in of the coaches, was, therefore, a tragic hour.

On the arrival of the coaches Madame was at her post long before the
pilgrims came up to her door. Being entirely without personal
vanity--since she felt her beauty, her cleverness, her grace, and her
charm to be only a part of the capital of the inn trade--a higher order
of the stock in trade, as it were--she made it a point to look
handsomer on the arrival of coaches than at any other time. Her cheeks
were certain to be rosier; her bird's head was always carried a trifle
more takingly, perched coquettishly sideways, that the caressing smile
of welcome might be the more personal; and as the woman of business,
lining the saint, so to speak, was also present, into the deep pockets
of the blue-checked apron, the calculating fingers were thrust, that
the quick counting of the incoming guests might not be made too obvious
an action. After such a pose, to see a pilgrim escape! To see him pass
by, unmoved by that smile, turning his feelingless back on the true
shrine! It was enough to melt the stoutest heart. Madame's welcome of
the captured, after such an affront, was set in the minor key; and her
smile was the smile of a suffering angel.

"_Cours, mon enfant_, run, see if he descends or if he pushes on; tell
him _I_ am Madame Poulard!" This, a low command murmured between a
hundred orders, still in the minor key, would be purred to Clémentine,
a peasant in a cap, exceeding fleet of foot, and skilled in the capture
of wandering sheep.

And Clémentine would follow that stray pilgrim: she would attack him in
the open street; would even climb after him, if need be, up the steep
rock steps, till, proved to be following strange gods, he would be
brought triumphantly back to the kitchen-shrine, by Clémentine,
puffing, but exultant.

"Ah, monsieur, how could you pass us by?" madame's soft voice would
murmur reproachfully in the pilgrim's ear. And the pilgrim, abashed,
ashamed, would quickly make answer, if he were born of the right
parents: "_Chère_ madame, how was I to believe my eyes? It is ten years
since I was here, and you are younger, more beautiful than ever! I was
going in search of your mother!" at which needless truism all the
kitchen would laugh. Madame Poulard herself would find time for one of
her choicest smiles, although this was the great moment of the working
of the miracle. She was beginning to cook the omelette.

The head-cook was beating the eggs in a great yellow bowl. Madame had
already taken her stand at the yawning Louis XV. fireplace; she was
beginning gently to balance the huge _casserole_ over the glowing logs.
And all the pilgrims were standing about, watching the process. Now,
the group circling about the great fireplace was scarcely ever the
same; the pilgrims presented a different face and garb day after
day--but in point of hunger they were as one man; they were each and
all as unvaryingly hungry as only tourists could be, who, clamoring for
food, have the smell of it in their nostrils, with the added ache of
emptiness gnawing within. But besides hunger, each one of the pilgrims
had brought with him a pair of eyes; and what eyes of man can be pure
savage before the spectacle of a pretty woman cooking, _for him_,
before an open fire? Therefore it was that still another miracle was
wrought, that of turning a famished mob into a buzzing swarm of
admirers.

"_Mais si, monsieur_, in this pan I can cook an omelette large enough
for you all; you will see. Ah, madame, you are off already? Célestine!
Madame's bill, in the desk yonder. And you, monsieur, you too leave us?
_Deux cognacs?_ Victor--_deux cognacs et une demi-tasse pour monsieur!_"

These and a hundred other answers and questions and orders, were
uttered in a fluted voice or in a tone of sharp command, by the
miracle-worker, as the pan was kept gently turning, and the eggs were
poured in at just the right moment--not one of the pretty poses of head
and wrist being forgotten. Madame Poulard, like all clever women who
are also pretty, had two voices: one was dedicated solely to the
working of her charms; this one was soft, melodious, caressing, the
voice of dove when cooing; the other, used for strictly business
purposes, was set in the quick, metallic _staccato_ tones proper for
such occasions.

The dove's voice was trolling its sweetness, as she went on--

"Eggs, monsieur? How many I use? Ah, it is in the season that counting
the dozens becomes difficult--seventy dozen I used one day last year!"

"Seventy dozen!" the pilgrim-chorus ejaculated, their eyes growing the
wider as their lips moistened. For behold, the eggs were now cooked to
a turn; the long-handled pan was being lifted with the effortless skill
of long practice, the omelette was rolled out at just the right instant
of consistency, and was being as quickly turned into its great flat
dish.

There was a scurrying and scampering up the wide steps to the dining
room, and a hasty settling into the long rows of chairs. Presently
madame herself would appear, bearing the huge dish. And the
omelette--the omelette, unlike the pilgrims, would be found to be
always the same--melting, juicy, golden, luscious, and above all _hot!_

The noon-day table d'hôte was always a sight to see. Many of the
pilgrim-tourists came up to the Mont merely to pass the day, or to stop
the night; the midday meal was therefore certain to be the liveliest of
all the repasts.

The cloth was spread in a high, white, sunlit room. It was a trifle
bare, this room, in spite of the walls being covered with pictures, the
windows with pretty draperies, and the spotless linen that covered the
long table. But all temples, however richly adorned, have a more or
less unfurnished aspect; and this room served not only as the
dining-table, but also as a foreshadowing of the apotheosis of Madame
Poulard. Here were grouped together all the trophies and tributes of a
grateful world; there were portraits of her charming brunette face
signed by famous admirers; there were sonnets to her culinary skill and
her charms as hostess, framed; these alternated with gifts of horned
beasts that had been slain in her honor, and of stuffed birds who, in
life, had beguiled the long winters for her with their songs. About the
wide table, the snow of the linen reflected always the same picture;
there were rows of little palms in flower-pots, interspersed with fruit
dishes, with the butter pats, the almonds, and raisins, in their flat
plates.

The rows of faces above the cloth were more varied. The four corners of
the earth were sometimes to be seen gathered together about the
breakfast-table. Frenchmen of the Midi, with the skin of Spaniards and
the buzz of Tartarin's _ze ze_ in their speech; priests, lean and fat;
Germans who came to see a French stronghold as defenceless as a woman's
palm; the Italian, a rarer type, whose shoes, sufficiently pointed to
prick, and whose choice for décolleté collars betrayed his nationality
before his lisping French accent could place him indisputably beyond
the Alps; herds of English--of all types--from the aristocrat, whose
open-air life had colored his face with the hues of a butcher, to the
pale, ascetic clerk, off on a two weeks' holiday, whose bending at his
desk had given him the stoop of a scholar; with all these were mixed
hordes of French provincials, chiefly of the _bourgeois type,_ who
singly, or in family parties, or in the nuptial train of sons or
daughters, came up to the shrine of St. Michel.

To listen to the chatter of these tourists was to learn the last word
of the world's news. As in the days before men spoke to each other
across continents, and the medium of cold type had made the event of
to-day the history of to-morrow, so these pilgrims talked through the
one medium that alone can give a fact the real essence of
freshness--the ever young, the perdurably charming human voice. It was
as good as sitting out a play to watch the ever-recurring
characteristics, which made certain national traits as marked as the
noses on the faces of the tourists. The question, for example, on which
side the Channel a pilgrim was born, was settled five seconds after he
was seated at table. The way in which the butter was passed was one
test; the manner of the eating of the famous omelette was another. If
the tourist were a Frenchman, the neat glass butter-dish was turned
into a visiting-card--a letter of introduction, a pontoon-bridge, in a
word, hastily improvised to throw across the stream of conversation.
"_Madame_" (this to the lady at the tourist's left), "_me permet-elle
de lui offrir le beurre?_" Whereat madame bowed, smiled, accepted the
golden balls as if it were a bouquet, returning the gift, a few seconds
later, by the proffer of the gravy dish. Between the little ceremony of
the two bows and the smiling _mercis_, a tentative outbreak of speech
ensued, which at the end of a half-hour, had spread from _bourgeois_ to
countess, from curé to Parisian _boulevardier_, till the entire side of
the table was in a buzz of talk. These genial people of a genial land
finding themselves all in search of the same adventure, on top of a
hill, away from the petty world of conventionality, remembered that
speech was given to man to communicate with his fellows. And though
neighbors for a brief hour, how charming such an hour can be made when
into it are crowded the effervescence of personal experience, the witty
exchange of comment and observation, and the agreeable conflict of
thought and opinion!

On the opposite side of the table, what a contrast! There the English
were seated. There was the silence of the grave. All the rigid figures
sat as upright as posts. In front of these severe countenances, the
butter-plates remained as fixtures; the passing of them to a neighbor
would be a frightful breach of good form--besides being dangerous. Such
practices, in public places, had been known to lead to things--to
unspeakable things--to knowing the wrong people, to walks afterward
with cads one couldn't shake off, even to marriages with the
impossible! Therefore it was that the butter remained a fixture. Even
between those who formed the same tourist-party, there was rarely such
an act of self-forgetfulness committed as an indulgence in talk--in
public. The eye is the only active organ the Englishman carries abroad
with him; his talking is done by staring. What fierce scowls, what dark
looks of disapproval, contempt, and dislike were levelled at the
chattering Frenchmen opposite.

[Illustration: MONT SAINT MICHEL SNAIL-GATHERERS]

Across the table, the national hate perpetuated itself. It appears to
be a test of patriotism, this hatred between Frenchmen and Englishmen.
That strip of linen might easily have been the Channel itself; it could
scarcely more effectually have separated the two nations. A whole
comedy of bitterness, a drama of rivalry, and a five-act tragedy of
scorn were daily played between the Briton who sat facing the south,
and the Frenchman who faced north. Both, as they eyed their neighbor
over the foam of their napkins, had the Island in their eye!--the
Englishman to flaunt its might and glory in the teeth of the hated
Gaul, and the Frenchman to return his contempt for a nation of moist
barbarians.

Meanwhile, the omelette was going its rounds. It was being passed at
that moment to Monsieur le Curé. He had been watching its progress with
glistening eye and moistening lips. Madame Poulard, as she slipped the
melting morsel beneath his elbow, had suddenly assumed the role of the
penitent. Her tone was a reminder of the confessional, as of one who
passed her masterpiece apologetically. She, forsooth, a sinner, to have
the honor of ministering to the carnal needs of a son of the Church!

The son of the Church took two heaping spoonfuls. His eye gave her,
with his smile, the benediction of his gratitude, even before he had
tasted of the luscious compound.

"_Ah, chère madame! il n'y a que vous_--it is only you who can make the
ideal omelette! I have tried, but Suzette has no art in her fingers;
your receipt doesn't work away from the Mont!" And the good man sighed
as he chuckled forth his praises.

He had come up to the hill in company with the two excellent ladies
beside him, of his flock, to make a little visit to his brethren
yonder, to the priests who were still here, wrecks of the once former
flourishing monastery. He had come to see them, and also to gaze on La
Merveille. It was a good five years since he had looked upon its
dungeons and its lace-work. But after all, in his secret soul of souls,
he had longed to eat of the omelette. _Dieu!_ how often during those
slow, quiet years in the little hamlet yonder on the plain, had its
sweetness and lightness mocked his tongue with illusive tasting! Little
wonder, therefore, that the good curé's praises were sweet in madame's
ear, for they had the ring of truth--and of envy! And madame herself
was only mortal, for what woman lives but feels herself uplifted by the
sense of having found favor in the eyes of her priest?

The omelette next came to a halt between the two ladies of the curé's
flock. These were two _bourgeoises_ with the deprecating, mistrustful
air peculiar to commonplace the world over. The walk up the steep
stairs was still quickening their breath their compressed bosoms were
straining the hooks of their holiday woollen bodices--cut when they
were of slenderer build. Their bonnets proclaimed the antique fashions
of a past decade; but the edge of their tongues had the keenness that
comes with daily practice--than which none has been found surer than
adoration of one's pastor, and the invigorating gossip of small towns.

These ladies eyed the omelette with a chilled glance. Naturally, they
could not see as much to admire in Madame Poulard or in her dish as did
their curé. There was nothing so wonderful after all in the turning of
eggs over a hot fire. The omelette!--after all, an omelette is an
omelette! Some are better--some are worse; one has one's luck in
cooking as in anything else. They had come up to the Mont with their
good curé to see its wonders and for a day's outing; admiration of
other women had not been anticipated as a part of the programme.
_Tiens_--who was he talking to now? To that tall blonde--a foreigner, a
young girl--_tiens_--who knows?--possibly an American--those Americans
are terrible, they say--bold, immodest, irreverent. And the two ladies'
necks were screwed about their over-tight collars, to give Charm the
verdict of their disapproval.

"Monsieur le Curé, they are passing you the fish!" cried the stouter,
more aggressive parishioner, who boasted a truculent mustache.

"Monsieur le Curé, the roast is at your elbow!" interpolated the
second, with the more timid voice of a second in action; this protector
of the good curé had no mustache, but her face was mercifully protected
by nature from a too-disturbing combination of attractions, by being
plentifully punctuated with moles from which sprouted little tufts of
hair. The rain of these ladies' interruption was incessant; but the
curé was a man of firm mind; their efforts to recapture his attention
were futile. For the music of Charm's foreign voice was in his ear.
Worship of the cloth is not a national, it is a more or less universal
cult, I take it. It is in the blood of certain women. Opposite the two
fussy, jealous _bourgeoises_, were others as importunate and
aggressive. They were of fair, lean, lank English build, with the
shifting eyes and the persistent courage which come to certain maidens
in whose lives there is but one fixed and certain fact--that of having
missed the matrimonial market. The shrine of their devotions, and the
present citadel of their attack, was seated between them--he also being
lean, pale, high-arched of brow, high anglican by choice, and
noticeably weak of chin, in whose sable garments there was framed the
classical clerical tie.

To this curate Madame was now passing her dish. She still wore her fine
sweet smile, but there was always a discriminating reserve in its edge
when she touched the English elbow. The curate took his spoonful with
the indifference of a man who had never known the religion of good
eating. He put up his one eye-glass; it swept Madame's bending face,
its smile, and the yellow glory floating beneath both. "Ah-h--ya-as--an
omelette!" The glass was dropped; he took a meagre spoonful which he
cut, presently, with his knife. He turned then to his neighbors--to
both his neighbors! They had been talking of the parish church on the
hill.

"Ah-h-h, ya-as--lovely porch--isn't it?"

"Oh, lovely--lovely!" chorussed the two maidens, with assenting fervor.
"_Were_ you there this morning?" and they lifted eyes swimming with the
rapture of their admiration.

"Ya-as."

"Only fancy--our missing you! We were _both_ there!"

"Dear me! Really, were you?"

"_Could_ you go this afternoon? I do want so to hear your criticism of
my drawing--I'm working on the arch now."

"So sorry--can't--possibly. I promised what's his name to go over to
Tombelaine, don't you know!"

"Oh-h! We do so want to go to Tombelaine!"

"Ah-h--do you, really? One ought to start a little before the tide
drops--they tell me!" and the clerical eye, through its correctly
adjusted glass, looked into those four pleading eyes with no hint of
softening. The dish that was the masterpiece of the house, meanwhile,
had been despatched as if it were so much leather.

The omelette fared no better with the brides, as a rule, than with the
English curates. Such a variety of brides as came up to the Mont! You
could have your choice, at the midday meal, of almost any nationality,
age, or color. The attempt among these bridal couples to maintain the
distant air of a finished indifference only made their secret the more
open. The British phlegm, on such a journey, did not always serve as a
convenient mask; the flattering, timid glance, the ripple of the tender
whispers, and the furtive touching of fingers beneath the table, made
even these English couples a part of the great human marrying family;
their superiority to their fellows would return, doubtless, when the
honey had dried out of their moon. The best of our adventures into this
tender country were with the French bridal tourists; they were certain
to be delightfully human. As we had had occasion to remark before, they
were off, like ourselves, on a little voyage of discovery; they had
come to make acquaintance with the being to whom they were mated for
life. Various degrees of progress could be read in the air and manner
of the hearty young _bourgeoises_ and their paler or even ruddier
partners, as they crunched their bread or sipped their thin wine. Some
had only entered as yet upon the path of inquiry; others had already
passed the mile-stone of criticism; and still others had left the earth
and were floating in full azure of intoxication. Of the many wedding
parties that sat down to breakfast, we soon made the commonplace
discovery that the more plebeian the company, the more certain-orbed
appeared to be the promise of happiness.

Some of the peasant weddings were noisy, boisterous performances; but
how gay were the brides, and how bloated with joy the hardy,
knotty-handied grooms! These peasant wedding guests all bore a striking
family likeness; they might easily all have been brothers and sisters,
whether they had come from the fields near Pontorson, or Cancale, or
Dol, or St. Malo. The older the women, the prettier and the more
gossamer were the caps; but the younger maidens were always delightful
to look upon, such was the ripe vigor of their frames, and the liquid
softness of eyes that, like animals, were used to wide sunlit fields
and to great skies full of light. The bride, in her brand-new stuff
gown, with a bonnet that recalled the bridal wreath only just laid
aside, was also certain to be of a general universal type with the
broad hips, wide waist, muscular limbs, and the melting sweetness of
lips and eyes that only abundant health and a rich animalism of nature
bring to maidenhood.

Madame Poulard's air with this, her world, was as full of tact as with
the tourists. Many of the older women would give her the Norman kiss,
solemnly, as if the salute were a part of the ceremony attendant on the
eating of a wedding breakfast at Mont St. Michel. There would be a
three times' clapping of the wrinkled or the ruddy peasant cheeks
against the sides of Madame Poulard's daintier, more delicately
modelled face. Then all would take their seats noisily at table. It was
Madame Poulard who then would bring us news of the party; at the end of
a fortnight, Charm and I felt ourselves to be in possession of the
hidden and secret reasons for all the marrying that had been done along
the coast, that year. "_Tiens, ce n'est pas gai, la noce!_ I must learn
the reason!" Madame would then flutter over the bridal breakfasters as
a delicate plumaged bird hovers over a mass of stuff out of which it
hopes to make a respectable meal. She presently would return to murmur
in a whisper, "it is a _mariage de raison_. They, the bride and groom,
love elsewhere, but they are marrying to make a good partnership; they
are both hair-dressers at Caen. They have bought a new and fine shop
with their earnings." Or it would be, "Look, madame, at that _jolie
personne_; see how sad she looks. She is in love with her cousin who
sits opposite, but the groom is the old one. He has a large farm and a
hundred cows." To look on such a trio would only be to make the
acquaintance anew of Sidonie and Risler and of Froment Jeune. Such
brides always had the wandering gaze of those in search of fresh
horizons, or of those looking already for the chance of escape. For
such "unhappies," _ces malheureuses_, Madame's manner had an added
softness and tenderness; she passed the frosted bridal cake as if it
were a propitiatory offering to the God of Hymen. However melancholy
the bride, the cake and Madame's caressing smiles wrought ever the same
spell; for an instant, at least, the newly-made wife was in love with
matrimony and with the cake, accepting the latter with the pleased
surprise of one who realizes that, at least, on one's wedding day, one
is a person of importance; that even so far as Mont St. Michel the news
of their marriage had turned the ovens into a baking of wedding-cakes.
This was destined to be the first among the deceptions that greeted
such brides; for there were hundreds of such cakes, alas! kept
constantly on hand. They were the same--a glory of sugar-mouldings and
devices covering a mountain of richness--that were sent up yearly at
Christmas time to certain mansard studios in the Latin quarter, where
the artist recipients, like the brides, eat of the cake as did Adam
when partaking of the apple, believing all the woman told them!

There were other visitors who came up to the Mont, not as welcome as
were these tourist parties.

One morning, as we looked toward Pontorson, a small black cloud
appeared to be advancing across the bay. The day was windy; the sky was
crowded with huge white mountains--round, luminous clouds that moved in
stately sweeps. And the sea was the color one loves to see in an
earnest woman's eye, the dark-blue sapphire that turns to blue-gray.
This was a setting that made that particular cloud, making such slow
progress across from the shore, all the more conspicuous. Gradually, as
the black mass neared the dike, it began to break and separate; and we
saw plainly enough that the scattering particles were human beings.

It was, in point of fact, a band of pilgrims; a peasant pilgrimage was
coming up to the Mont. In wagons, in market carts, in _char-à-bancs_,
in donkey-carts, on the backs of monster Percherons--the pilgrimage
moved in slow processional dignity across the dike. Some of the younger
black gowns and blue blouses attempted to walk across over the sands;
we could see the girls sitting down on the edge of the shore, to take
off their shoes and stockings and to tuck up their thick skirts. When
they finally started they were like unto so many huge cheeses hoisted
on stilts. The bare legs plunged boldly forward, keeping ahead of the
slower-moving peasant-lads; the girls' bravery served them till they
reached the fringe of the incoming tide; not until their knees went
under water did they forego their venture. A higher wave came in,
deluging the ones farthest out; and then ensued a scampering toward the
dike and a climbing up of the stone embankment. The old route across
the sands, that had been the only one known to kings and barons, was
not good enough for a modern Norman peasant. The religion of personal
comfort has spread even as far as the fields.

At the entrance gate a tremendous hubbub and noise announced the
arrival of the pilgrimage. Wagons, carts, horses, and peasants were
crowded together as only such a throng is mixed in pilgrimages, wars,
and fairs. Women were taking down hoods, unharnessing the horses,
fitting slats into outsides of wagons, rolling up blankets, unpacking
from the _char-à-bancs_ cooking utensils, children, grain-bags, long
columns of bread, and hard-boiled eggs. For the women, darting hither
and thither in their blue petticoats, their pink and red kerchiefs, and
the stiff white Norman caps, were doing all the work. The men appeared
to be decorative adjuncts, plying the Norman's gift of tongue across
wagon-wheels and over the back of their vigorous wives and daughters.
For them the battle of the day was over; the hour of relaxation had
come. The bargains they had made along the route were now to be
rehearsed, seasoned with a joke.

"_Allons, toi, on ne fait pas de la monnaie blanche comme ca!_"

"_Je t'ai offert huit sous, tu sais, lapin!_"

"_Farceur, va-t'en--_"

"Come, are you never going to have done fooling?" cried a tan-colored,
wide-hipped peasant to her husband, who was lounging against the wagon
pole, sporting a sprig of gentian pinned to his blouse. He was fat and
handsome; and his eye proclaimed, as he was making it do heavy work at
long range at a cluster of girls descending from an antique gig, that
the knowledge of the same was known unto him.

"That's right, growl ahead, thou, _tes beaux jours sont passés_, but
for me _l'amour, l'amour--que c'est gai, que c'est frais!_" he half
sung, half shouted.

The moving mass of color, the Breton caps, and the Norman faces, the
gold crosses that fell from dented bead necklaces, the worn hooped
earrings, the clean bodices and home-spun skirts, streamed out past our
windows as we looked down upon them. How pretty were some of the faces,
of the younger women particularly! and with what gay spirits they were
beginning their day! It had begun the night before, almost; many of the
carts had been driven in from the forests beyond Avranches; some of the
Brittany groups had started the day before. But what can quench the
fountain of French vivacity? To see one's world, surely, there is
nothing in that to tire one; it only excites and exhilarates; and so a
fair or market day, and above all a pilgrimage, are better than balls,
since they come more regularly; they are the peasant's opera, his
Piccadilly and Broadway, club, drawing-room, Exchange, and parade, all
in one.

A half-hour after a landing of the pilgrims at the outer gates of the
fortifications, the hill was swarming with them. The single street of
the town was choked with the black gowns and the cobalt-blue blouses.
Before these latter took a turn at their devotions they did homage to
Bacchus. Crowds of peasants were to be seen seated about the long,
narrow inn-tables, lifting huge pewter tankards to bristling beards.
Some of these taverns were the same that had fed and sheltered bands of
pilgrims that are now mere handfuls of dust in country churchyards.
Those sixteenth century pilgrims, how many of them, had found this same
arched doorway of La Licorne as cool as the shade of great trees after
the long hot climb up to the hill! What a pleasant face has the
timbered facade of the Tête d'Or, and the Mouton Blanc, been to the
weary-limbed: and how sweet to the dead lips has been the first taste
of the acid cider!

Other aspects of the hill, on this day of the pilgrimage, made those
older dead-and-gone bands of pilgrims astonishingly real. On the tops
of bastions, in the clefts of the rocks, beneath the glorious walls of
La Merveille, or perilously lodged on the crumbling cornice of a
tourelle, numerous rude altars had been hastily erected. The crude
blues and scarlets of banners were fluttering, like so many pennants,
in the light breeze. Beneath the improvised altar-roofs--strips of gay
cloth stretched across poles stuck into the ground--were groups not
often seen in these less fervent centuries. High up, mounted on the
natural pulpit formed of a bit of rock, with the rude altar before him,
with its bit of scarlet cloth covered with cheap lace, stood or knelt
the priest. Against the wide blue of the open heaven his figure took on
an imposing splendor of mien and an unmodern impressiveness of action.
Beneath him knelt, with bowed heads, the groups of the
peasant-pilgrims; the women, with murmuring lips and clasped hands,
their strong, deeply-seamed faces outlined, with the precision of a
Francesco painting, against the gray background of a giant mass of
wall, or the amazing breadth of a vast sea-view; children, squat and
chubby, with bulging cheeks starting from the close-fitting French
_bonnet_; and the peasant-farmers, mostly of the older varieties, whose
stiffened or rheumatic knees and knotty hands made their kneeling real
acts of devotional zeal. There were a dozen such altars and groups
scattered over the perpendicular slant of the hill. The singing of the
choir-boys, rising like skylark notes into the clear space of heaven,
would be floating from one rocky-nested chapel, while below, in the one
beneath which we, for a moment, were resting, there would be the
groaning murmur of the peasant groups in prayer.

All day little processions were going up and down the steep stone steps
that lead from fortified rock to parish church, and from the town to
the abbatial gateway. The banners and the choir-boys, the priests in
their embroideries and lace, the peasants in cap and blouse, were
incessantly mounting and descending, standing on rock edges, caught for
an instant between a medley of perpendicular roofs, of giant gateways,
and a long perspective of fortified walls, only to be lost in the curve
of a bastion, or a flying buttress, that, in their turn, would be found
melting into a distant sea-view.

All the hours of a pilgrimage, we discovered, were not given to prayer;
nor yet is an incessant bowing at the shrine of St. Michel the sole
other diversion in a true pilgrim's round of pious devotions. Later on
in this eventful day, we stumbled on a somewhat startling variation to
the penitential order of the performances. In a side alley, beneath a
friendly overhanging rock and two protecting roof-eaves, an acrobat was
making her professional toilet. When she emerged to lay a worn strip of
carpet on the rough cobbles of the street, she presented a pathetic
figure in the gold of the afternoon sun. She was old and wrinkled; the
rouge would no longer stick to the sunken cheeks; the wrinkles were
become clefts; the shrunken but still muscular legs were clad in a pair
of tights, a very caricature of the silken webs that must once have
encased the poor old creature's limbs, for these were knitted of the
coarse thread the commonest peasant uses for the rough field stocking.
Over these obviously home-made coverings was a single skirt of azure
tarlatan, plentifully besprinkled with golden stars. The gossamer skirt
and its spangles turned, for their _début_, a somersault in the air,
and the knitted tights took strange leaps from the bars of a rude
trapeze. The groups of peasants were soon thicker about this spectacle
than they had gathered about the improvised altars. All the men who had
passed the day in the taverns came out at the sound of the hoarse
cracked voice of the aged acrobat. As she hurled her poor old twisted
shape from swinging bar to pole, she cried aloud, "_Ah, messieurs,
essayez ça seulement!_" The men's hands, when she had landed on her
feet after an uncommonly venturous whirl of the blue skirts in mid-air,
came out of their deep pockets; but they seasoned their applause with
coarse jokes which they flung, with a cruel relish, into the
pitifully-aged face. A cracked accordion and a jingling tambourine were
played by two hardened-looking ruffians, seated on their heels beneath
a window--a discordant music that could not drown the noise of the
peasants' derisive laughter. But the latter's pennies rattled a louder
jingle into the ancient acrobat's tin cup than it had into the priest's
green netted contribution box.

"No, madame, as for us, we do not care for pilgrimages," was Madame
Poulard's verdict on such survivals of past religious enthusiasms. And
she seasoned her comments with an enlightening shrug. "We see too well
how they end. The men go home dead drunk, the women are dropping with
fatigue, _et les enfants même se grisent de cidre!_ No; pilgrimages are
bad for everyone. The priests should not allow them."

This was at the end of the day, after the black and blue swarm had
passed, a weary, uncertain-footed throng, down the long street, to take
its departure along the dike. At the very end of the straggling
procession came the three acrobats; they had begged, or bought, a drive
across the dike from some of the pilgrims. The lady of the knitted
tights, in her conventional skirts and womanly fichu, was scarcely
distinguishable from the peasant women who eyed her askance; though
decently garbed now, they looked at her as if she were some plague or
vice walking in their midst.

The verdict of Madame Poulard seemed to be the verdict of all Mont St.
Michel. The whole town was abroad that evening, on its doorsteps and in
its garden beds, repairing the ravages committed by the band of the
pilgrims. Never had the town, as a town, been so dirty; never had the
street presented so shocking a collection of abominations; never had
flowers and shrubs been so mercilessly robbed and plundered--these were
the comments that flowed as freely as the water that was rained over
the dusty cobbles, thick with refuse of luncheon and the shreds of torn
skirts and of children's socks.

At any hour of the day, of even an ordinary, uneventful day, to take a
walk in the town is to encounter a surprise at every turning. Would you
call it a town--this one straggling street that begins in a King's
gateway and ends--ah, that is the point, just where does it end? I, for
one, was never once quite certain at just what precise point this one
single Mont St. Michel street stopped--lost itself, in a word, and
became something else. That was also true of so many other things on
the hill; all objects had such an astonishing way of suddenly becoming
something else. A house, for example, that you had passed on your
upward walk, had a beguiling air of sincerity. It had its cellar
beneath the street front like any other properly built house; it
continued its growth upward, showing the commonplace features of a
door, of so many windows--queerly spaced, and of an amazing variety of
shapes, but still unmistakably windows. Then, assured of so much
integrity of character, you looked to see the roof covering the house,
and instead-like the eggs in a Chinese juggler's fingers, that are
turned in a jiffy into a growing plant--behold the roof miraculously
transformed into a garden, or lost in a rampart, or, with quite
shameless effrontery, playing deserter, and serving as the basement of
another and still fairer dwelling. That was a sample of the way all
things played you the trick of surprise on this hill. Stairways began
on the cobbles of the streets, only to lose themselves in a side wall;
a turn on the ramparts would land you straight into the privacy of a
St. Michelese interior, with an entire household, perchance, at the
mercy of your eye, taken at the mean disadvantage of morning
dishabille. As for doors that flew open where you looked to find a
bastion; or a school--house that flung all the Michelese _voyous_ over
the tops of the ramparts at play-time; or of fishwives that sprung, as
full-armed in their kit as Minerva from her sire's brows, from the very
forehead of fortified places; or of beds and settees and wardrobes
(surely no Michelese has ever been able, successfully, to maintain in
secret the ghost of a family skeleton!) into which you were innocently
precipitated on your way to discover the minutest of all
cemeteries--these were all commonplace occurrences once your foot was
set on this Hill of Surprises.

There are two roads that lead one to the noble mass of buildings
crowning the hill. One may choose the narrow street with its moss-grown
steps, its curves, and turns; or one may have the broader path along
the ramparts, with its glorious outlook over land and sea. Whichever
approach one chooses, one passes at last beneath the great doors of the
Barbican.

Three times did the vision of St. Michel appear to Saint Aubert, in his
dream, commanding the latter to erect a church on the heights of Mont
St. Michel to his honor. How many a time must the modern pilgrim
traverse the stupendous mass that has grown out of that command before
he is quite certain that the splendor of Mont St. Michel is real, and
not a part of a dream! Whether one enters through the dark magnificence
of the great portals of the Châtelet; whether one mounts the fortified
stairway, passing into the Salle des Gardes, passing onward from
dungeon to fortified bridge, to gain the abbatial residence; whether
one leaves the vaulted splendor of oratories for aerial passage-ways,
only to emerge beneath the majestic roof of the Cathedral--that marvel
of the early Norman, ending in the Gothic choir of the fifteenth
century; or, as one penetrates into the gloom of the mighty dungeons
where heroes and the brothers of kings, and saints and scientists have
died their long death--as one gropes through the black night of the
Crypt, where a faint, mysterious glint of light falls aslant the
mystical face of the Black Virgin; as one climbs to the light beneath
the ogive arches of the Aumônerie, through the wide-lit aisles of the
Salle des Chevaliers, past the slender Gothic columns of the Refectory,
up at last to the crowning glory of all the glories of La Merveille, to
the exquisitely beautiful colonnades of the open Cloister the
impressions and emotions excited by these ecclesiastical and military
masterpieces are ever the same, however many times one may pass them in
review. A charm, indefinable, but replete with subtle attractions,
lurks in every one of these dungeons. The great halls have a power to
make one retraverse their space, I have yet to find under other vaulted
chambers. The grass that is set, like a green jewel, in the arabesques
of the Cloister, is a bit of greensward the feet press with a different
tread to that which skips lightly over other strips of turf. And the
world, that one looks out upon through prison bars, that is so
gloriously arched in the arm of a flying buttress, or that lies prone
at your feet from the dizzy heights of the rock clefts, is not the
world in which you, daily, do your petty stretch of toil, in which you
laugh and ache, sorrow, sigh, and go down to your grave in. The secret
of this deep attraction may lie in the fact of one's being in a world
that is built on a height. Much, doubtless, of the charm lies, also, in
the reminders of all the human life that, since the early dawn of
history, has peopled this hill. One has the sense of living at
tremendously high mental pressure; of impressions, emotions, sensations
crowding upon the mind; of one's whole meagre outfit of memory, of
poetic equipment, and of imaginative furnishing, being unequal to the
demand made by even the most hurried tour of the great buildings, or
the most flitting review of the noble massing of the clouds and the
hilly seas.

The very emptiness and desolation of all the buildings on the hill help
to accentuate their splendor. The stage is magnificently set; the
curtain, even, is lifted. One waits for the coming on of kingly shapes,
for the pomp of trumpets, for the pattering of a mighty host. But,
behold, all is still. And one sits and sees only a shadowy company pass
and repass across that glorious _mise-en-scène._ For, in a certain
sense, I know no other mediaeval mass of buildings as peopled as are
these. The dead shapes seem to fill the vast halls. The Salle des
Chevaliers is crowded, daily, with a brilliant gathering of knights,
who sweep the trains of their white damask mantles, edged with ermine,
over the dulled marble of the floor; two by two they enter the hall;
the golden shells on their mantles make the eyes blink, as the groups
gather about the great chimneys, or wander through the column-broken
space. Behind this dazzling _cortège_, up the steep steps of the narrow
street, swarm other groups--the mediaeval pilgrim host that rushes into
the cathedral aisles, and that climbs the ramparts to watch the stately
procession as it makes its way toward the church portals. There are
still other figures that fill every empty niche and deserted
watch-tower. Through the lancet windows of the abbatial gateways the
yeomanry of the vassal villages are peering; it is the weary time of
the Hundred Years' War, and all France is watching, through sentry
windows, for the approach of her dread enemy. On the shifting sands
below, as on brass, how indelibly fixed are the names of the hundred
and twenty-nine knights whose courage drove, step by step, over that
treacherous surface, the English invaders back to their island
strongholds. Will you have a less stormy and belligerent company to
people the hill? In the quieter days of the fourteenth century, on any
bright afternoon, you could have sat beside some friendly artist-monk,
and watched him color and embellish those wondrous missals that made
the manuscripts of the Brothers famous throughout France. Earlier yet,
in those naive centuries, Robert de Torigny, that "bouche des Papes,"
would doubtless have discoursed to you on any subject dear to this
"counsellor of kings"--on books, or architecture, or the science of
fortifications, or on the theology of Lanfranc; from the helmeted locks
of Rollon to the veiled tresses of the lovely Tiphaine Raguenel,
Duguesclin's wife; from the ghastly rat-eaten body of the Dutch
journalist, who offended that tyrant King, Louis XIV., to the
Revolutionary heroes, as pitilessly doomed to an odious death under the
gentle Louis Philippe--there is no shape or figure in French history
which cannot be summoned at will to refill either a dungeon or a palace
chamber at Mont St. Michel.

Even in these, our modern days, one finds strange relics of past
fashions in thought and opinion. The various political, religious, and
ethical forms of belief to be met with in a fortnight's sojourn on the
hill, give one a sense of having passed in review a very complete
gallery of ancient and modern portraits of men's minds. In time one
learns to traverse even a dozen or more centuries with ease. To be in
the dawn of the eleventh century in the morning; at high noon to be in
the flood-tide of the fifteenth; and, as the sun dipped, to hear the
last word of our own dying century--such were the flights across the
abysmal depths of time Charm and I took again and again.

One of our chosen haunts was in a certain watch-tower. From its top
wall, the loveliest prospect of Mont St. Michel was to be enjoyed. Day
after day and sunset after sunset, we sat out the hours there. Again
and again the world, as it passed, came and took its seat beside us.
Pilgrims of the devout and ardent type would stop, perchance, would
proffer a preliminary greeting, would next take their seat along the
parapet, and, quite unconsciously, would end by sitting for their
portrait. One such sitter, I remember, was clad in carmine crepe shawl;
she was bonneted in the shape of a long-ago decade. She had climbed the
hill in the morning before dawn, she said; she had knelt in prayer as
the sun rose. For hers was a pilgrimage made in fulfilment of a vow.
St. Michel had granted her wish, and she in return had brought her
prayers to his shrine.

"Ah, mesdames! how good is God! How greatly He rewards a little
self-sacrifice. Figure to yourselves the Mont in the early mists, with
the sun rising out of the sea and the hills. I was on my knees, up
there. I had eaten nothing since yesterday at noon. I was full of the
Holy Ghost. When the sun broke at last, it was God Himself in all His
glory come down to earth! The whole earth seemed to be
listening--_prêtait l'oreille_--and with the great stillness, and the
sea, and the light breaking everywhere, it was as if I were being taken
straight up into Paradise. Saint Michel himself must have been
supporting me."

The carmine crepe shawl covered a poet, you see, as well as a devotee.

Up yonder, in the little shops and stalls tucked away within the walls
of the Barbican, a lively traffic, for many a century now, has been
going on in relics and _plombs de pèlerinage_. Some of these mediaeval
impressions have been unearthed in strange localities, in the bed of
the Seine, as far away as Paris. Rude and archaic are many of these
early essays in the sculptor's art. But they preserve for us, in quaint
intensity, the fervor of adoration which possessed that earlier, more
devout time and period. On the mind of this nineteenth century pilgrim,
the same lovely old forms of belief and superstition were imprinted as
are still to be seen in some of those winged figures of St. Michel,
with feet securely set on the back of the terrible dragon, staring,
with triumphant gaze, through stony or leaden eyes.

On the evening of the pilgrimage our friend, the Parisian, joined us on
our high perch. The Mont seemed strangely quiet after the noise and
confusion the peasants had brought in their train. The Parisian, like
ourselves, had been glad to escape into the upper heights of the wide
air, after the bustle and hurry of the day at our inn.

"You permit me, mesdames?" He had lighted his after-dinner cigar; he
went on puffing, having gained our consent. He curled a leg comfortably
about the railings of a low bridge connecting a house that sprang out
of a rock, with the rampart. Below, there was a clean drop of a few
hundred feet, more or less. In spite of the glories of a spectacular
sunset, yielding ceaseless changes and transformations of cloud and sea
tones, the words of Madame Poulard alone had power to possess our
companion. She had uttered her protest against the pilgrimage, as she
had swept the Parisian's _pousse-café_ from his elbow. He took up the
conversation where it had been dropped.

"It is amusing to hear Madame Poulard talk of the priests stopping the
pilgrimages! The priests? Why, that's all they have left them to live
upon now. These peasants' are the only pockets in which they can fumble
nowadays."

"All the same, one can't help being grateful to those peasants,"
retorted Charm. "They are the only creatures who have made these things
seem to have any meaning. How dead it all seems! The abbey, the
cloisters, the old prisons, the fortifications, it is like wandering
through a splendid tomb!

"Yes, as the curé said yesterday, '_l'âme n'y est plus_,'--since the
priests have been dislodged, it is the house of the dead."

"The priests"--the Parisian snorted at the very sound of the
word--"they have only themselves to blame. They would have been here
still, if they had not so abused their power."

"How did they abuse it?" Charm asked.

"In every possible way. I am, myself, not of the country. But my
brother was stationed here for some years, when the Mont was
garrisoned. The priests were in full possession then, and they
conducted a lively commerce, mademoiselle. The Mont was turned into a
show--to see it or any part of it, everyone had to pay toll. On the
great fête-days, when St. Michel wore his crown, the gold ran like
water into the monks' treasury. It was still then a fashionable
religious fad to have a mass said for one's dead, out here among the
clouds and the sea. Well, try to imagine fifty masses all dumped on the
altar together; that is, one mass would be scrambled through, no names
would be mentioned, no one save _le bon Dieu_ himself knew for whom it
was being said; but fifty or more believed they had bought it, since
they had paid for it. And the priests laughed in their sleeves, and
then sat down, comfortably, to count the gold. Ah, mesdames, those
were, literally, the golden days of the priesthood! What with the
pilgrimages, and the sale of relics, and _les benefices_--together with
the charges for seeing the wonders of the Mont--what a trade they did!
It is only the Jews, who, in their turn, now own us, up in Paris, who
can equal the priests as commercial geniuses!" And our pessimistic
Parisian, during the next half-hour, gave us a prophetic picture of the
approaching ruin of France, brought about by the genius for plunder and
organization that is given to the sons of Moses.

Following the Parisian, a figure, bent and twisted, opened a door in a
side-wall, and took his seat beside us. One became used, in time, to
these sudden appearances; to vanish down a chimney, or to emerge from
the womb of a rock, or to come up from the bowels of what earth there
was to be found--all such exits and entrances became as commonplace as
all the other extraordinary phases of one's life on the hill. This
particular shape had emerged from a hut, carved, literally, out of the
side of the rock; but, for a hut, it was amazingly snug--as we could
see for ourselves; for the venerable shape hospitably opened the low
wooden door, that we might see how much of a home could be made out of
the side of a rock. Only, when one had been used to a guard-room, and
to great and little dungeons, and to a rattling of keys along dark
corridors, a hut, and the blaze of the noon sun, were trying things to
endure, as the shape, with a shrug, gave us to understand.

"You see, mesdames, I was jailor here, years ago, when all La Merveille
was a prison. Ah! those were great days for the Mont! There were
soldiers and officers who came up to look at the soldiers, and the
soldiers--it was their business to look after the prisoners. The
Emperor himself came here once--I saw him. What a sight!--Dieu! all the
monks and priests and nuns, and the archbishop himself were out. What
banners and crosses and flags! The cannon was like a great thunder--and
the grève was red with soldiers. Ah, those were days! Dieu--why
couldn't the republic have continued those glories--_ces gloires?
Aujourd'hui nous ne sommes que des morts_--instead of prisoners to
handle--to watch and work, like so many good machines there is only the
dike yonder to keep in repair! What changes--mon Dieu! what changes!"
And the shape wrung his hands. It was, in truth, a touching spectacle
of grief for a good old past.

An old priest, with equally saddened vision, once came to take his
seat, quite easily and naturally, beside us, on our favorite perch. He
was one of the little band of priests who had remained faithful to the
Mont after the government had dispersed his brothers--after the
monastery had been broken up. He and his four or five companions had
taken refuge in a small house, close by the cemetery; it was they who
conducted the services in the little parish church; who had gathered
the treasures still grouped together in that little interior--the
throne of St. Michel, with its blue draperies and the golden
fleur-de-lis, the floating banners and the shields of the Knights of
St. Michel, the relics, and wondrous bits of carving rescued from the
splendors of the cathedral.

"_Ah, mesdames--que voulez-vous?_" was the old priest's broken chant;
he was bewailing the woes that had come to his order, to religion, to
France. "What will you have? The history of nations repeats itself, as
we all know. We, of our day, are fallen on evil times; it is the reign
of image-breakers--nothing is sacred, except money."

"France has worn herself out. She is like an old man, the hero of many
battles, who cares only for his easy chair and his slippers. She does
not care about the children who are throwing stones at the windows. She
likes to snooze, in the sun, and count her money-bags. France is too
old to care about religion, or the future--she is thinking how best to
be comfortable--here in this world, when she has rheumatism and a cramp
in the stomach!" And the old priest wrapped his own _soutane_ about his
lean knees, suiting his gesture to his inward convictions.

Was the priest's summary the last word of truth about modern France? On
the sands that lay below at our feet, we read a different answer.

The skies were still brilliantly lighted. The actual twilight had not
come yet, with its long, deep glow, a passion of color that had a
longer life up here on the heights than when seen from a lower level.
This twilight hour was always a prolonged moment of transfiguration for
the Mont.

The very last evening of our stay, we chose this as the loveliest light
in which to see the last of the hill. On that evening, I remember, the
reds and saffrons in the sky were of an astonishing richness. The sea
wall, the bastions, the faces of the great rocks, the yellow broom that
sprang from the clefts therein, were dyed as in a carmine bath. In that
mighty glow of color, all things took on something of their old, their
stupendous splendor. The giant walls were paved with brightness. The
town, climbing the hill, assumed the proportions of a mighty citadel;
the forest tree-tops were prismatic, emerald balls flung beneath the
illumined Merveille; and the Cathedral was set in a daffodil frame; its
aerial _escalier de dentelle_, like Jacob's ladder, led one easily
heavenward. The circling birds, in the lace-work of the spiral finials,
sang their night songs, as the glow in the sky changed, softened,
deepened.

This was the world that was in the west.

Toward the east, on the flat surface of the sands, this world cast a
strange and wondrous shadow. Jagged rocks, a pyramidal city, a Gothic
cathedral in mid-air--behold the rugged outlines of Mont St. Michel
carving their giant features on the shifting, sensitive surface of the
mirroring sands.

In the little pools and the trickling rivers, the fishermen--from this
height, Liliputians grappling with Liliputian meshes--were setting
their nets for the night. Across the river-beds, peasant women and
fishwives, with bared legs and baskets clasped to their bending backs,
appeared and disappeared--shapes that emerged into the light only to
vanish into the gulf of the night.

In was in these pictures that we read our answer.

Like Mont St. Michel, so has France carried into the heights of history
her glory and her power. On every century, she, like this world in
miniature, has also cast her shadow, dwarfing some, illuminating
others. And, as on those distant sands the toiling shapes of the
fishermen are to be seen, early and late, in summer and winter, so can
France point to her people, whose industry and amazing talent for toil
have made her, and maintain her, great.

Some of these things we have learned, since, in Normandy Inns, we have
sat at meat with her peasants, and have grown to be friends with her
fishwives.





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