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My first experience of country life in France, about thirty years ago, was in a fine old château standing high in pretty, undulating, wooded country close to the forest of Villers-Cotterets, and overlooking the great plains of the Oise—big green fields stretching away to the sky-line, broken occasionally by little clumps of wood, with steeples rising out of the green, marking the villages and hamlets which, at intervals, are scattered over the plains, and in the distance the blue line of the forest. The château was a long, perfectly simple, white stone building. When I first saw it, one bright November afternoon, I said to my husband as we drove up, “What a charming old wooden house!” which remark so astonished him that he could hardly explain that it was all stone, and that no big houses (nor small, either) in France were built of wood. I, having been born in a large white wooden house in America, couldn’t understand why he was so horrified at my ignorance of French architecture. It was a fine old house, high in the centre, with a lower wing on each side. There were three drawing-rooms, a library, billiard-room, and dining-room on the ground floor. The large drawing-room, where we always sat, ran straight through the house, with glass doors opening out on the lawn on the entrance side and on the other into a long gallery which ran almost the whole length of the house. It was always filled with plants and flowers, open in summer, with awnings to keep out the sun; shut in winter with glass windows, and warmed by one of the three calorifères of the house. In front of the gallery the lawn sloped down to the wall, which separated the place from the highroad. A belt of fine trees marked the path along the wall and shut out the road completely, except in certain places where an opening had been made for the view.
We were a small party for such a big house: only the proprietor and his wife (old people), my husband and myself. The life was very simple, almost austere. The old people lived in the centre of the château, W. and I in one of the wings. It had been all fitted up for us, and was a charming little house. W. had the ground-floor—a bedroom, dressing-room, cabinet de travail, dining-room, and a small room, half reception-room, half library, where he had a large bookcase filled with books, which he gave away as prizes or to school libraries. The choice of the books always interested me. They were principally translations, English and American—Walter Scott, Marryat, Fenimore Cooper, etc. The bedroom and cabinet de travail had glass doors opening on the park. I had the same rooms upstairs, giving one to my maid, for I was nervous at being so far away from anyone. M. and Mme. A. and all the servants were at the other end of the house, and there were no bells in our wing (nor anywhere else in the house except in the dining-room). When I wanted a work-woman who was sewing in the lingerie I had to go up a steep little winding staircase, which connected our wing with the main building, and walk the whole length of the gallery to the lingerie, which was at the extreme end of the other wing. I was very fond of my rooms. The bedroom and sitting-room opened on a balcony with a lovely view over wood and park. When I sat there in the morning with my petit déjeuner—cup of tea and roll—I could see all that went on in the place. First the keeper would appear, a tall, handsome man, rather the northern type, with fair hair and blue eyes, his gun always over his shoulder, sacoche at his side, swinging along with the free, vigorous step of a man accustomed to walk all day. Then Hubert, the coachman, would come for orders, two little fox-terriers always accompanying him, playing and barking, and rolling about on the grass. Then the farmer’s wife, driving herself in her gig, and bringing cheese, butter, milk, and sometimes chickens when our bassecour was getting low. A little later another lot would appear, people from the village or canton, wanting to see their deputy and have all manner of grievances redressed. It was curious sometimes to make out, at the end of a long story, told in peasant dialect, with many digressions, what particular service notre député was expected to render. I was present sometimes at some of the conversations, and was astounded at W.’s patience and comprehension of what was wanted—I never understood half.
 W. here and throughout this volume refers to Mme. Waddington’s husband, M. William Waddington.
We generally had our day to ourselves. We rode almost every morning—long, delicious gallops in the woods, the horses going easily and lightly over the grass roads; and the days W. was away and couldn’t ride, I used to walk about the park and gardens. The kitchen garden was enormous—almost a park in itself—and in the season I eat pounds of white grapes, which ripened to a fine gold color on the walls in the sun. We rarely saw M. and Mme. A. until twelve-o’clock breakfast.
[Illustration: I loved to hear her play Beethoven and Handel.]
Sometimes when it was fine we would take a walk with the old people after breakfast, but we generally spent our days apart. M. and Mme. A. were charming people, intelligent, cultivated, reading everything and keeping quite in touch with all the literary and Protestant world, but they had lived for years entirely in the country, seeing few people, and living for each other. The first evenings at the château made a great impression upon me. We dined at 7:30, and always sat after dinner in the big drawing-room. There was one lamp on a round table in the middle of the room (all the corners shrouded in darkness). M. and Mme. A. sat in two arm-chairs opposite to each other, Mme. A. with a green shade in front of her. Her eyes were very bad; she could neither read nor work. She had been a beautiful musician, and still played occasionally, by heart, the classics. I loved to hear her play Beethoven and Handel, such a delicate, old-fashioned touch. Music was at once a bond of union. I often sang for her, and she liked everything I sang—Italian stornelli, old-fashioned American negro songs, and even the very light modern French chansonnette, when there was any melody in them. There were two other arm-chairs at the table, destined for W. and me. I will say W. never occupied his. He would sit for about half an hour with M. A. and talk politics or local matters with him, but after that he departed to his own quarters, and I remained with the old people. I felt very strange at first, it was so unlike anything I had ever seen, so different from my home life, where we were a happy, noisy family, always one of the party, generally two, at the piano, everybody laughing, talking, and enjoying life, and always a troop of visitors, cousins innumerable and friends.
It was a curious atmosphere. I can’t say dull exactly, for both M. and Mme. A. were clever, and the discussions over books, politics, and life generally, were interesting, but it was serious, no vitality, nothing gay, no power of enjoyment. They had had a great grief in their lives in the loss of an only daughter, which had left permanent traces. They were very kind and did their best to make me feel at home, and after the first few evenings I didn’t mind. M. A. had always been in the habit of reading aloud to his wife for an hour every evening after dinner—the paper, an article in one of the reviews, anything she liked. I liked that, too, and as I felt more at home used to discuss everything with M. A. He was quite horrified one evening when I said I didn’t like Molière, didn’t believe anybody did (particularly foreigners), unless they had been brought up to it.
 W.’s first wife.
It really rather worried him. He proposed to read aloud part of the principal plays, which he chose very carefully, and ended by making a regular cours de Molière. He read charmingly, with much spirit, bringing out every touch of humour and fancy, and I was obliged to say I found it most interesting. We read all sorts of things besides Molière—Lundis de Ste.-Beuve, Chateaubriand, some splendid pages on the French Revolution, Taine, Guizot, Mme. de Staël, Lamartine, etc., and sometimes rather light memoirs of the Régence and the light ladies of the eighteenth century, who apparently mixed up politics, religion, literature, and lovers in the most simple style. These last readings he always prepared beforehand, and I was often surprised at sudden transitions and unfinished conversations which meant that he had suppressed certain passages which he judged too improper for general reading.
He read, one evening, a charming feuilleton of George Sand. It began: “Le Baron avait causé politique toute la soirée,” which conversation apparently so exasperated the baronne and a young cousin that they wandered out into the village, which they immediately set by the ears. The cousin was an excellent mimic of all animals’ noises. He barked so loud and so viciously that he started all the dogs in the village, who went nearly mad with excitement, and frightened the inhabitants out of their wits. Every window was opened, the curé, the garde champêtre, the school-master, all peering out anxiously into the night, and asking what was happening. Was it tramps, or a travelling circus, or a bear escaped from his showman, or perhaps a wolf? I have wished sometimes since, when I have heard various barons talking politics, that I, too, could wander out into the night and seek distraction outside.
It was a serious life in the big château. There was no railway anywhere near, and very little traffic on the highroad. After nightfall a mantle of silence seemed to settle on the house and park that absolute silence of great spaces where you almost hear your own heart beat. W. went to Paris occasionally, and usually came back by the last train, getting to the château at midnight. I always waited for him upstairs in my little salon, and the silence was so oppressive that the most ordinary noise—a branch blowing across a window-pane, or a piece of charred wood falling on the hearth—sounded like a cannon shot echoing through the long corridor. It was a relief when I heard the trot of his big mare at the top of the hill, quite fifteen minutes before he turned into the park gates. He has often told me how long and still the evenings and nights were during the Franco-Prussian War. He remained at the château all through the war with the old people. After Sedan almost the whole Prussian army passed the château on their way to Versailles and Paris. The big white house was seen from a long distance, so, as soon as it was dark, all the wooden shutters on the side of the highroad were shut, heavy curtains drawn, and strict orders given to have as little light as possible. He was sitting in his library one evening about dusk, waiting for the man to bring his lamp and shut the shutters, having had a trying day with the peasants, who were all frightened and nervous at the approach of the Germans. He was quite absorbed in rather melancholy reflections when he suddenly felt that someone was looking in at the window (the library was on the ground-floor, with doors and windows opening on the park). He rose quickly, going to the window, as he thought one of the village people wanted to speak to him, and was confronted by a Pickelhaube and a round German face flattened against the window-pane. He opened the window at once, and the man poured forth a torrent of German, which W. fortunately understood. While he was talking W. saw forms, their muskets and helmets showing out quite distinctly in the half-light, crossing the lawn and coming up some of the broad paths. It was a disagreeable sight, which he was destined to see many times.
It was wonderful what exact information the Germans had. They knew all the roads, all the villages and little hamlets, the big châteaux, and most of the small mills and farms. There were still traces of the German occupation when I went to that part of the country; on some of the walls and houses marks in red paint—”4 Pferde, 12 Männer.” They generally wanted food and lodging, which they usually (not always) paid for. Wherever they found horses they took them, but M. A. and W. had sent all theirs away except one saddle-horse, which lived in a stable in the woods near the house. In Normandy, near Rouen, at my brother-in-law’s place, they had German officers and soldiers quartered for a long time. They instantly took possession of horses and carriages, and my sister-in-law, toiling up a steep hill, would be passed by her own carriage and horses filled with German officers. However, on the whole, W. said, the Germans, as a victorious invading army, behaved well, the officers always perfectly polite, and keeping their men in good order. They had all sorts and kinds at the château. They rarely remained long—used to appear at the gate in small bands of four or five, with a sous-officier, who always asked to see either the proprietor or someone in authority. He said how many men and horses he wanted lodged and fed, and announced the arrival, a little later, of several officers to dine and sleep. They were always received by M. A. or W., and the same conversation took place every time. They were told the servant would show them their rooms, and their dinner would be served at any hour they wished. They replied that they would have the honour of waiting upon the ladies of the family as soon as they had made a little toilette and removed the dust of the route, and that they would be very happy to dine with the family at their habitual hour. They were then told that the ladies didn’t receive, and that the family dined alone. They were always annoyed at that answer. As a rule they behaved well, but occasionally there would be some rough specimens among the officers.
W. was coming home one day from his usual round just before nightfall, when he heard loud voices and a great commotion in the hall—M. A. and one or two German officers. The old man very quiet and dignified, the Germans most insulting, with threats of taking him off to prison. W. interfered at once, and learned from the irate officers what was the cause of the quarrel. They had asked for champagne (with the usual idea of foreigners that champagne flowed through all French châteaux), and M. A. had said there was none in the house. They knew better, as some of their men had seen champagne bottles in the cellar. W. said there was certainly a mistake—there was none in the house. They again became most insolent and threatening—said they would take them both to prison. W. suggested, wouldn’t it be better to go down the cellar with him? Then they could see for themselves there was none. Accordingly they all adjourned to the cellar and W. saw at once what had misled them—a quantity of bottles of eau de Seidlitz, rather like champagne bottles in shape. They pointed triumphantly to these and asked what he meant by saying there was no champagne, and told their men to carry off the bottles. W. said again it was not champagne—he didn’t believe they would like it. They were quite sure they had found a prize, and all took copious draughts of the water—with disastrous results, as they heard afterward from the servants.
Later, during the armistice and Prussian occupation, there were soldiers quartered all around the château, and, of course, there were many distressing scenes. All our little village of Louvry, near our farm, had taken itself off to the woods. They were quite safe there, as the Prussians never came into the woods on account of the sharpshooters. W. said their camp was comfortable enough—they had all their household utensils, beds, blankets, donkeys, and goats, and could make fires in the clearing in the middle of the woods. They were mostly women and children, only a very few old men and young boys left. The poor things were terrified by the Germans and Bismarck, of whom they had made themselves an extraordinary picture. “Monsieur sait que Bismarck tue tous les enfants pour qu’il n’y ait plus de Français.” (Monsieur knows that Bismarck kills all the children so that there shall be no more French.) The boys kept W. in a fever. They had got some old guns, and were always hovering about on the edge of the wood, trying to have a shot at a German. He was very uncomfortable himself at one time during the armistice, for he was sending off parties of recruits to join one of the big corps d’armée in the neighbourhood, and they all passed at the château to get their money and feuille de route, which was signed by him. He sent them off in small bands of four or five, always through the woods, with a line to various keepers and farmers along the route, who could be trusted, and would help them to get on and find their way. Of course, if anyone of them had been taken with W.’s signature and recommendation on him, the Germans would have made short work of W., which he was quite aware of; so every night for weeks his big black Irish horse Paddy was saddled and tied to a certain tree in one of the narrow alleys of the big park—the branches so thick and low that it was difficult to pass in broad daylight, and at night impossible, except for him who knew every inch of the ground. With five minutes’ start, if the alarm had been given, he could have got away into his own woods, where he knew no one would follow him.
Hubert, the old coachman, used often to talk to me about all that troubled time. When the weather was dark and stormy he used to stay himself half the night, starting at every sound, and there are so many sounds in the woods at night, all sorts of wild birds and little animals that one never hears in the daytime—sometimes a rabbit would dart out of a hole and whisk round a corner; sometimes a big buse (sort of eagle) would fly out of a tree with great flapping of wings; occasionally a wild-cat with bright-green eyes would come stealthily along and then make a flying leap over the bushes. His nerves were so unstrung that every noise seemed a danger, and he had visions of Germans lying in ambush in the woods, waiting to pounce upon W. if he should appear. He said Paddy was so wise, seemed to know that he must be perfectly quiet, never kicked nor snorted.
It was impossible to realise those dreadful days when we were riding and walking in the woods, so enchanting in the early summer, with thousands of lilies of the valley and periwinkles growing wild, and a beautiful blue flower, a sort of orchid. We used to turn all the village children into the woods, and they picked enormous bunches of lilies, which stood all over the château in china bowls. I loved the wood life at all seasons. I often made the round with W. and his keepers in the autumn when he was preparing a battue. The men were very keen about the game, knew the tracks of all the animals, showing me the long narrow rabbit tracks, running a long distance toward the quarries, which were full of rabbit holes, and the little delicate hoof-marks of the chevreuil (roe-deer) just where he had jumped across the road. The wild boar was easy to trace—little twigs broken, and ferns and leaves quite crushed, where he had passed. The wild boars and stags never stayed very long in our woods—went through merely to the forest of Villers-Cotterets—so it was most important to know the exact moment of their passage, and there was great pride and excitement when one was taken.
Another interesting moment was when the coupe de l’année was being made. Parts of the woods were cut down regularly every year, certain squares marked off. The first day’s work was the marking of the big trees along the alleys which were to remain—a broad red ring around the trunks being very conspicuous. Then came the thinning of the trees, cutting off the top branches, and that was really a curious sight. The men climbed high into the tree, and then hung on to the trunk with iron clamps on their feet, with points which stuck into the bark, and apparently gave them a perfectly secure hold, but it looked dangerous to see them swinging off from the trunk with a sort of axe in their hands, cutting off the branches with a swift, sharp stroke. When they finally attacked the big trees that were to come down it was a much longer affair, and they made slow progress. They knew their work well, the exact moment when the last blow had been given, and they must spring aside to get out of the way when the tree fell with a great crash.
There were usually two or three big battues in November for the neighbouring farmers and small proprietors. The breakfast always took place at the keeper’s house. We had arranged one room as a dining-room, and the keeper’s wife was a very good cook; her omelette au lard and civet de lièvre, classic dishes for a shooting breakfast, were excellent. The repast always ended with a galette aux amandes made by the chef of the château. I generally went down to the kennels at the end of the day, and it was a pretty sight when the party emerged from the woods, first the shooters, then a regiment of beaters (men who track the game), the game cart with a donkey bringing up the rear—the big game, chevreuil or boar, at the bottom of the cart, the hares and rabbits hanging from the sides. The sportsmen all came back to the keeper’s lodge to have a drink before starting off on their long drive home, and there was always a great discussion over the entries in the game book and the number of pièces each man had killed. It was a very difficult account to make, as every man counted many more rabbits than the trackers had found, so they were obliged to make an average of the game that had been brought in. When all the guests had departed it was killing to hear the old keeper’s criticisms.
[Illustration: There were all sorts and kinds.]
Another important function was a large breakfast to all the mayors, conseillers d’arrondissement, and rich farmers of W.’s canton. That always took place at the château, and Mme. A. and I appeared at table. There were all sorts and kinds—some men in dress coats and white gloves, some very rough specimens in corduroys and thick-nailed shoes, having begun life as garçons de ferme (ploughboys). They were all intelligent, well up in politics, and expressed themselves very well, but I think, on the whole, they were pleased when Mme. A. and I withdrew and they went into the gallery for their coffee and cigars. Mme. A. was extraordinarily easy—talked to them all. They came in exactly the same sort of equipage, a light, high, two-wheeled trap with a hood, except the Mayor of La Ferté, our big town, who came in his victoria.
I went often with W. to some of the big farms to see the sheep-shearing and the dairies, and cheese made. The farmer’s wife in France is a very capable, hard-working woman—up early, seeing to everything herself, and ruling all her carters and ploughboys with a heavy hand. Once a week, on market day, she takes her cheeses to the market town, driving herself in her high gig, and several times I have seen some of them coming home with a cow tied to their wagon behind, which they had bought at the market. They were always pleased to see us, delighted to show anything we wanted to see, offered us refreshment—bread and cheese, milk and wine—but never came to see me at the château. I made the round of all the châteaux with Mme. A. to make acquaintance with the neighbours. They were all rather far off, but I loved the long drives, almost always through the forest, which was quite beautiful in all seasons, changing like the sea. It was delightful in midsummer, the branches of the big trees almost meeting over our heads, making a perfect shade, and the long, straight, green alleys stretching away before us, as far as we could see. When the wood was a little less thick, the afternoon sun would make long zigzags of light through the trees and trace curious patterns upon the hard white road when we emerged occasionally for a few minutes from the depths of the forest at a cross-road. It was perfectly still, but summer stillness, when one hears the buzzing and fluttering wings of small birds and insects, and is conscious of life around one.
The most beautiful time for the forest is, of course, in the autumn. October and November are lovely months, with the changing foliage, the red and yellow almost as vivid as in America, and always a foreground of moss and brown ferns, which grow very thick and high all through the forest. We used to drive sometimes over a thick carpet of red and yellow leaves, hardly hearing the horses’ hoofs or the noise of the wheels, and when we turned our faces homeward toward the sunset there was really a glory of colour in wood and sky. It was always curiously lonely—we rarely met anything or anyone, occasionally a group of wood-cutters or boys exercising dogs and horses from the hunting-stables of Villers-Cotterets. At long intervals we would come to a keeper’s lodge, standing quite alone in the middle of the forest, generally near a carrefour where several roads met. There was always a small clearing—garden and kennels, and a perfectly comfortable house, but it must be a lonely life for the women when their husbands are off all day on their rounds. I asked one of them once, a pretty, smiling young woman who always came out when the carriage passed, with three or four children hanging to her skirts, if she was never afraid, being alone with small children and no possibility of help, if any drunkards or evilly disposed men came along. She said no—that tramps and vagabonds never came into the heart of the forest, and always kept clear of the keeper’s house, as they never knew where he and his gun might be. She said she had had one awful night with a sick child. She was alone in the house with two other small children, almost babies, while her husband had to walk several miles to get a doctor. The long wait was terrible. I got to know all the keepers’ wives on our side of the forest quite well, and it was always a great interest to them when we passed on horseback, so few women rode in that part of France in those days.
Sometimes, when we were in the heart of the forest, a stag with wide-spreading antlers would bound across the road; sometimes a pretty roebuck would come to the edge of the wood and gallop quickly back as we got near.
We had a nice couple at the lodge, an old cavalry soldier who had been for years coachman at the château and who had married a Scotchwoman, nurse of one of the children. It was curious to see the tall, gaunt figure of the Scotchwoman, always dressed in a short linsey skirt, loose jacket, and white cap, in the midst of the chattering, excitable women of the village. She looked so unlike them. Our peasant women wear, too, a short; thick skirt, loose jacket, and worsted or knit stockings, but they all wear sabots and on their heads a turban made of bright-coloured cotton; the older women, of course—the girls wear nothing on their heads. They become bent and wrinkled very soon—old women before their time—having worked always in the fields and carried heavy burdens on their backs. The Scotchwoman kept much to herself and rarely left the park. But all the women came to her with their troubles. Nearly always the same story—the men spending their earnings on drink and the poor mothers toiling and striving from dawn till dark to give the little ones enough to eat. She was a strict Protestant, very taciturn and reserved, quite the type of the old Calvinist race who fought so hard against the “Scarlet Woman” when the beautiful and unhappy Mary Stuart was reigning in Scotland and trying to rule her wild subjects. I often went to see her and she would tell me of her first days at the château, where everything was so different from what she was accustomed to.
She didn’t tell me what Mme. A. did—that she was a very handsome girl and all the men of the establishment fell in love with her. There were dramas of jealousy when she finally decided to marry the coachman. Our chef had learned how to make various English cakes in London, and whenever he made buns or a plum-pudding we used to take some to her. She was a great reader, and we always kept the Times for her, and she and I sympathised with each other—two Anglo-Saxons married in France.
Some of the traditions of the château were quite charming. I was sitting in the lodge one day talking to Mme. Antoine, when the baker appeared with what seemed to me an extraordinary provision of bread. I said, “Does he leave the bread for the whole village with you?” “It is not for me, madame, it is for the traînards (tramps) who pass on the road,” and she explained that all the châteaux gave a piece of bread and two sous to any wayfarer who asked for food. She cut the bread into good thick slices, and showed me a wooden bowl on the chimney, filled with two-sous pieces. While I was there two men appeared at the big gates, which were always open in the day. They were strong young fellows carrying their bundles, and a sort of pitchfork slung over their shoulders. They looked weary and footsore, their shoes worn in holes. They asked for something to drink and some tobacco, didn’t care very much for the water, which was all that Mme. Antoine had to give them, but thanked her civilly enough for the bread and sous.
The park wall was a good vantage-ground to see all (and that wasn’t much) that went on on the highroad. The diligence to Meaux passed twice a day, with a fine rattle of old wheels and chains, and cracking of whips. It went down the steep hill well enough, but coming up was quite another affair. All the passengers and the driver got out always, and even then it was difficult to get the heavy, cumbersome vehicle up the hill, in winter particularly, when the roads were muddy and slippery. The driver knew us all well, and was much interested in all that went on at the château. He often brought parcels, and occasionally people from the village who wanted to see W.—sometimes a blind piano-tuner who came from Villers-Cotterets. He was very kind to the poor blind man, helped him down most carefully from the diligence, and always brought him through the park gates to the lodge, where he delivered him over to Antoine. It was curious to see the blind man at work. Once he had been led through the rooms, he was quite at home, found the pianos, fussed over the keys and the strings, exactly as if he saw everything. He tuned all the pianos in the country, and was much pleased to put his hands on one that wasn’t fifty years old. I had brought down my new Erard.
Sometimes a country wedding passed, and that was always a pretty sight. A marriage is always an important affair in France in every class of life. There are long discussions with all the members of the two families. The curé, the notary, the patron (if the young man is a workman), are all consulted, and there are as many negotiations and agreements in the most humble families as in the grand monde of the Faubourg St. Germain. Almost all French parents give a dot of some kind to their children, and whatever the sum is, either five hundred francs or two thousand, it is always scrupulously paid over to the notary. The wedding-day is a long one. After the religious ceremony in the church, all the wedding party—members of the two families and a certain number of friends—adjourn to the hotel of the little town for a breakfast, which is long and most abundant. Then comes the crowning glory of the day—a country walk along the dusty highroad to some wood or meadow where they can spend the whole afternoon. It is pretty to see the little procession trudging along—the bride in all her wedding garments, white dress, white shoes, wreath, and veil; the groom in a dress coat, top-hat, white cravat and waistcoat, with a white ribbon bow on his sleeve. Almost all the girls and young women are dressed in white or light colours; the mothers and grandmothers (the whole family turns out) in black with flowers in their bonnets. There is usually a fiddler walking ahead making most remarkable sounds on his old cracked instrument, and the younger members of the party take an occasional gallop along the road. They are generally very gay; there is much laughing, and from time to time a burst of song. It is always a mystery to me how the bride keeps her dress and petticoat so clean, but she does, with that extraordinary knack all Frenchwomen seem to have of holding up their skirts. They passed often under the wall of the château, for a favourite resting-place was in our woods at the entrance of the allée verte, where it widens out a little; the moss makes a beautiful soft carpet, and the big trees give perfect shade. We heard sounds of merriment one day when we were passing and we stopped to look on, from behind the bushes, where we couldn’t be seen. There was quite a party assembled. The fiddler was playing some sort of country-dance and all the company, except the very old people, were dancing and singing, some of the men indulging in most wonderful steps and capers. The children were playing and running under the trees. One stout man was asleep, stretched out full length on the side of the road. I fancy his piquette, as they call the ordinary white wine of the country, had been too much for him. The bride and groom were strolling about a little apart from the others, quite happy and lover-like, his arm around her waist, she blushing and giggling.
The gendarmes passed also very regularly. They always stopped and talked, had a drink with Antoine, and gave all the local news—how many braconniers (poachers) had been caught, how long they were to stay in prison, how some of the farmers’ sheep had disappeared, no one knew how exactly—there were no more robbers. One day two of them passed, dragging a man between them who had evidently been struggling and fighting. His blouse was torn, and there was a great gash on his face. We were wildly excited, of course. They told us he was an old sinner, a poacher who had been in prison various times, but these last days, not contented with setting traps for the rabbits, he had set fire to some of the hay-stacks, and they had been hunting for him for some time. He looked a rough customer, had an ugly scowl on his face. One of the little hamlets near the château, on the canal, was a perfect nest of poachers, and I had continual struggles with the keepers when I gave clothes or blankets to the women and children. They said some of the women were as bad as the men, and that I ought not to encourage them to come up to the house and beg for food and clothing; that they sold all the little jackets and petticoats we gave them to the canal hands (also a bad lot) for brandy. I believe it was true in some cases, but in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground (we were hardly warm in the house with big fires everywhere), I couldn’t send away women with four or five children, all insufficiently clothed and fed, most of them in cotton frocks with an old worn knit shawl around their shoulders, legs and arms bare and chapped, half frozen. Some of them lived in caverns or great holes in the rocks, really like beasts. On the road to La Ferté there was a big hole (there is no other word for it) in the bank where a whole family lived. The man was always in prison for something, and his wife, a tall, gaunt figure, with wild hair and eyes, spent most of her time in the woods teaching her boys to set traps for the game. The curé told us that one of the children was ill, and that there was literally nothing in the house, so I took one of my cousins with me, and we climbed up the bank, leaving the carriage with Hubert, the coachman, expostulating seriously below. We came to a rickety old door which practically consisted of two rotten planks nailed together. It was ajar; clouds of black smoke poured out as we opened it, and it was some time before we could see anything. We finally made out a heap of filthy rags in one corner near a sort of fire made of charred pieces of black peat. Two children, one a boy about twelve years old, was lying on the heap of rags, coughing his heart out. He hardly raised his head when we came in. Another child, a girl, some two years younger, was lying beside him, both of them frightfully thin and white; one saw nothing but great dark eyes in their faces. The mother was crouched on the floor close to the children. She hardly moved at first, and was really a terrifying object when she got up; half savage, scarcely clothed—a short petticoat in holes and a ragged bodice gaping open over her bare skin, no shoes or stockings; big black eyes set deep in her head, and a quantity of unkempt black hair. She looked enormous when she stood up, her head nearly touching the roof. I didn’t feel very comfortable, but we were two, and the carriage and Hubert within call. The woman was civil enough when she saw I had not come empty-handed. We took her some soup, bread, and milk. The children pounced upon the bread like little wild animals. The mother didn’t touch anything while we were there—said she was glad to have the milk for the boy. I never saw human beings living in such utter filth and poverty. A crofter’s cottage in Scotland, or an Irish hovel with the pigs and children all living together, was a palace compared to that awful hole. I remonstrated vigorously with W. and the Mayor of La Ferté for allowing people to live in that way, like beasts, upon the highroad, close to a perfectly prosperous country town. However, they were vagrants, couldn’t live anywhere, for when we passed again, some days later, there was no one in the hole. The door had fallen down, there was no smoke coming out, and the neighbours told us the family had suddenly disappeared. The authorities then took up the matter—the holes were filled up, and no one was allowed to live in them. It really was too awful—like the dwellers in caves of primeval days.
We didn’t have many visits at the château, though we were so near Paris (only about an hour and a half by the express), but the old people had got accustomed to their quiet life, and visitors would have worried them. Sometimes a Protestant pasteur would come down for two days. We had a nice visit once from M. de Pressensé, father of the present deputy, one of the most charming, cultivated men one could imagine. He talked easily and naturally, using beautiful language. He was most interesting when he told us about the Commune, and all the horrors of that time in Paris. He was in the Tuileries when the mob sacked and burned the palace; saw the femmes de la halle sitting on the brocade and satin sofas, saying, “C’est nous les princesses maintenant”; saw the entrance of the troops from Versailles, and the quantity of innocent people shot who were merely standing looking on at the barricades, having never had a gun in their hands. The only thing I didn’t like was his long extempore (to me familiar) prayers at night. I believe it is a habit in some old-fashioned French Protestant families to pray for each member of the family by name. I thought it was bad enough when he prayed for the new ménage just beginning their married life (that was us), that they might be spiritually guided to do their best for each other and their respective families; but when he proceeded to name some others of the family who had strayed a little from the straight and narrow path, hoping they would be brought to see, by Divine grace, the error of their ways, I was horrified, and could hardly refrain from expressing my opinion to the old people. However, I was learning prudence, and when my opinion and judgment were diametrically opposed to those of my new family (which happened often) I kept them to myself. Sunday was strictly kept. There was no Protestant church anywhere near. We had a service in the morning in M. A.’s library. He read prayers and a short sermon, all the household appearing, as most of the servants were Swiss and Protestants. In the afternoon Mme. A. had all the village children at the château. She had a small organ in one of the rooms in the wing of the dining-room, taught them hymns and read them simple little stories. The curé was rather anxious at first, having his little flock under such a dangerous heretic influence, but he very soon realized what an excellent thing it was for the children, and both he and the mothers were much disappointed when anything happened to put off the lesson. They didn’t see much of the curé. He would pay one formal visit in the course of the year, but there was never any intimacy.
We lived much for ourselves, and for a few months in the year it was a rest and change from Paris, and the busy, agitated life, social and political, that one always led there. I liked the space, too, the great high, empty rooms, with no frivolous little tables and screens or stuff on the walls, no photograph stands nor fancy vases for flowers, no bibelot of any kind—large, heavy pieces of furniture which were always found every morning in exactly the same place. Once or twice, in later years, I tried to make a few changes, but it was absolutely useless to contend with a wonderful old servant called Ferdinand, who was over sixty years old, and had been brought up at the château, had always remained there with the various owners, and who knew every nook and corner of the house and everything that was in it. It was years before I succeeded in talking to him. I used to meet him sometimes on the stairs and corridors, always running, and carrying two or three pails and brooms. If he could, he dived into any open door when he saw me coming, and apparently never heard me when I spoke, for he never answered. He was a marvellous servant, cleaned the whole house, opened and shut all the windows night and morning (almost work enough for one man), lit the calorifères, scrubbed and swept and polished floors from early dawn until ten o’clock, when we left the salon. He never lived with the other servants, cooked his own food at his own hours in his room, and his only companion was a large black cat, which always followed him about. He did W.’s service, and W. said that they used to talk about all sorts of things, but I fancy master and servant were equally reticent and understood each other without many words.
I slipped one day on the very slippery wooden steps leading from W.’s little study to the passage. Baby did the same, and got a nasty fall on the stone flags, so I asked W. if he would ask Ferdinand to put a strip of carpet on the steps (there were only four). W. gave the order, but no carpet appeared. He repeated it rather curtly. The old Ferdinand made no answer, but grumbled to himself over his broom that it was perfectly foolish and useless to put down a piece of carpet, that for sixty years people and children, and babies, had walked down those steps and no one had ever thought of asking for carpets. W. had really rather to apologize and explain that his wife was nervous and unused to such highly polished floors. However, we became great friends afterward, Ferdinand and I, and when he understood how fond I was of the château, he didn’t mind my deranging the furniture a little. Two grand pianos were a great trial to him. I think he would have liked to put one on top of the other.
The library, quite at one end of the house, separated from the drawing-room we always sat in by a second large salon, was a delightful, quiet resort when any one wanted to read or write. There were quantities of books, French, English, and German—the classics in all three languages, and a fine collection of historical memoirs.
Categories: English Literature