Part 1 out of 6
John Roberts, Anne Soulard, Charles Franks, and the Online Distributed
IN AND OUT OF THREE NORMANDY INNS
ANNA BOWMAN DODD
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.
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
ALONG AN OLD POST-ROAD.
XI. TO AN OLD MANOIR
XII. A NORMAN CURE
XIII. HONFLEUR--NEW AND OLD
XIV. A COAST DRIVE
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.
A VILLAGE STREET--VILLERVILLE
ON THE BEACH--VILLERVILLE
A SALE OF MUSSELS--VILLERVILLE
A VILLERVILLE FISH-WIFE
THE INN AT DIVES--GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT
CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLE--DIVES
CHAMBRE DES MARMOUSETS--DIVES
MADAME DE SEVIGNE
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
AN INN BY THE SEA.
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 Hotel-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
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
"_C'est beau, tout de meme_, 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 a bientot!_"
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-la;
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,
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
"_Dame! Toujours ete 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
"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
"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.
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
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, Americaines_--they go round the world thus, _a
"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.
"_Ohe--Mere 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 Mere 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
"How she lags! what an idiot of a child!" fumed Mere 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
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 Mere'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 Mere Mouchard, who bore a sole au vin
blanc, a bottle of white Burgundy, and a super-naturally ethereal
souffle. And an hour after, even the curtainless, carpetless bed
chambers above were powerless to affect the luxurious character of our
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
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 Fidele." 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
"_Madame Tricot--a 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
tambourine 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
"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
"Are you alone?--"
"Judge for yourself--that is she--in the garden yonder."
The beret dipped itself perilously out into the sky--to take a full
"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?"
"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
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 Mere 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
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'hote!" 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."
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-
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
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
"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
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, mere_, how goes it?" He nodded as he sketched at a wrinkled,
bent figure, who was smiling out at him from beneath her load of
"_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
"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.
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
"_S'il est assez mechant, 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, _apres 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
[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
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
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
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 maniere de me dire qu'il faut vivre pour
longtemps! Ah, la chere 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 _bonbonniere_. 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
Elysee? 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 serieux, 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 mere's preference
for a life on the cliffs, alone in the midst of all her old peasant
"_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
"The village?" suddenly broke in the old mere. "_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 mere 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.
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
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! ca 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
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
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
"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.
"_Ohe, oui, c'est toi_," the echo bleated. The thin hands meekly folded
themselves across her apron. She stood quite still, as if awaiting more
"It is our good cure who wishes to pull it down once more," her
terrible husband went on, not heeding her quiet presence. "Do you know
our cure? 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 cure'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 cures
and cures, 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.
"_Mechant homme--lui_," he here whipped his thread, venomously, through
the leather he was sewing. "Figure to yourselves, mesdames, that
besides being wicked, our cure 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 cure 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 cure 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
freres 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-la_, 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!" the woman repeated, softly.
"They had the cure 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 cure 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 cure. And the cure 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
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
"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?"
"_Helas!_ 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
"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
We left them thus, hand in hand, with many promises to renew the
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.
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'imprevu,_
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 _role_ 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'anxiete"--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.
"_Voila, 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 _a 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
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