Part 4 out of 6
appeared to be also as perfect as their glances were insolent.
Into these vacant faces the languid countess was breathing the
inspiration of her smile. Enigmatic as was the latter, it was as simple
as an infant's compared to the occult character of her glance. A wealth
of complexities lay enfolded in the deep eyes, rimmed with their mystic
darkened circlet--that circle in which the Parisienne frames her
experience, and through which she pleads to have it enlarged!
A Frenchwoman and cosmetics! Is there any other combination on this
round earth more suggestive of the comedy of high life, of its elegance
and of its perfidy, of its finish and of its emptiness?
The men of the party wore costumes perilously suggestive of Opera
Bouffe models. Their fingers were richly begemmed; their watch-chains
were laden with seals and charms. Any one of the costumes was such as
might have been chosen by a tenor in which to warble effectively to a
_soubrette_ on the boards of a provincial theatre; and it was worn by
these fops of the Jockey Club with the air of its being the last word
in nautical fashions. Better than their costumes were their voices; for
what speech from human lips pearls itself off with such crispness and
finish as the delicate French idiom from a Parisian tongue?
I never quite knew how it came about that we were added to this gay
party of breakfasters. We found ourselves, however, after a high
skirmish of preliminary presentations, among the number to take our
places at the table.
In the Chambre des Marmousets, Monsieur Paul, we found, had set the
feast with the taste of an artist and the science of an archaeologist.
The table itself was long and narrow, a genuine fifteenth century
table. Down the centre ran a strip of antique altar-lace; the sides
were left bare, that the lustre of the dark wood might be seen. In the
centre was a deep old Caen bowl, with grapes and fuchsias to make a
mound of soft color. A pair of seventeenth-century candelabres twisted
and coiled their silver branches about their rich _repousse_ columns;
here and there on the yellow strip of lace were laid bunches of June
roses, those only of the rarer and older varieties having been chosen,
and each was tied with a Louis XV love-knot. Monsieur Paul was himself
an omniscient figure at the feast; he was by turns officiating as
butler, carving, or serving from the side-tables; or he was crossing
the court-yard with his careful, catlike tread, a bottle under each
arm. He was also constantly appealed to by Monsieur d'Agreste or the
count, to settle a dispute about the age of the china, or the original
home of the various old chests scattered about the room.
"Paul, your stained glass shows up well in this light," the count
called out, wiping his mustache over his soup-plate.
"Yes," answered Monsieur Paul, as he went on serving the sherry,
pausing for a moment at the count's glass. "They always look well in
full sunlight. It was a piece of pure luck, getting them. One can
always count on getting hold of tapestries and carvings, but old glass
is as rare as--"
"A pretty woman," interpolated the gay young widow, with the air of a
"Outside of Paris--you should have added," gallantly contributed the
count. Everyone went on eating after the light laughter had died away.
The countess had not assisted at this brief conversation; she was
devoting her attention to receiving the devotion of the two young
counts; one was on either side of her, and both gave every outward and
visible sign of wearing her chains, and of wearing them with
insistance. The real contest between them appeared to be, not so much
which should make the conquest of the languid countess, as which
should outflank the other in his compromising demeanor. The countess,
beneath her drooping lids, watched them with the indulgent indolence of
a lioness, too luxuriously lazy to spring.
The countess, clearly, was not made for sunlight. In the courtyard her
face had seemed chiefly remarkable as a triumph of cosmetic treatment;
here, under this rich glow, the purity and delicacy of the features
easily placed her among the beauties of the Parisian world. Her eyes,
now that the languor of the lids was disappearing with the advent of
the wines, were magnificent; her use of them was an open avowal of her
own knowledge of their splendor. The young widow across the table was
also using her eyes, but in a very different fashion. She had now
taken off her straw hat; the curly crop of a brown mane gave the
brilliant face an added accent of vigor. The _chien de race_ was the
dominant note now in the muscular, supple body, the keen-edged
nostrils, and the intent gaze of the liquid eyes. These latter were
fixed with the fixity of a savage on Charm. She was giving, in a sweet
sibilant murmur, the man seated next her--Monsieur d'Agreste, the man
who refused to bear his title--her views of the girl.
"Those Americans, the Americans of the best type, are a race apart, I
tell you; we have nothing like them; we condemn them because we don't
understand them. They understand us--they read us--"
"Oh, they read our books--the worst of them."
"Yes, but they read the best too; and the worst don't seem to hurt
them. I'll warrant that Mees Gay--that is her name, is it not?--has
read Zola, for instance; and yet, see how simple and innocent--yes--
innocent, she looks."
"Yes, the innocence of experience--which knows how to hide," said
Monsieur d'Agreste, with a slight shrug.
"Mees Gay!" the countess cried out across the table, suddenly waking
from her somnolence; she had overheard the baroness in spite of the low
tone in which the dialogue had been carried on; her voice was so
mellifluously sweet, one instinctively scented a touch of hidden poison
in it--"Mees Gay, there is a question being put at this side of the
table you alone can answer. Pray pardon the impertinence of a personal
question--but we hear that American young ladies read Zola; is it
"I am afraid that we do read him," was Charm's frank answer. "I have
read him--but my reading is all in the past tense now."
"Ah--you found him too highly seasoned?" one of the young counts asked,
eagerly, with his nose in the air, as if scenting an indiscretion.
"No, I did not go far enough to get a taste of his horrors; I stopped
at his first period."
"And what do you call his first period, dear mademoiselle?" The
countess's voice was still freighted with honey. Her husband coughed
and gave her a warning glance, and Renard was moving uneasily in his
"Oh," Charm answered lightly, "his best period--when he didn't sell."
Everyone laughed. The little widow cried beneath her breath:
"_Elle a de l'esprit, celle-la_---"
"_Elle en a de trop_," retorted the countess.
"Did you ever read Zola's 'Quatre Saisons?'" Renard asked, turning to
the count, at the other end of the table.
No, the count had not read it--but he could read the story of a
beautiful nature when he encountered one, and presently he allowed
Charm to see how absorbing he found its perusal.
"_Ah, bien--et tout de meme_--Zola, yes, he writes terrible books; but
he is a good man--a model husband and father," continued Monsieur
d'Agreste, addressing the table.
"And Daudet--he adores his wife and children," added the count, as if
with a determination to find only goodness in the world.
"I wonder how posterity will treat them? They'll judge their lives by
their books, I presume."
"Yes, as we judge Rabelais or Voltaire--"
"Or the English Shakespeare by his 'Hamlet.'"
"Ah! what would not Voltaire have done with Hamlet!" The countess was
beginning to wake again.
"And Moliere? What of _his_ 'Misanthrope?' There is a finished, a
human, a possible Hamlet! a Hamlet with flesh and blood," cried out the
younger count on her right. "Even Mounet-Sully could do nothing with
the English Hamlet."
"Ah, well, Mounet-Sully did all that was possible with the part. He
made Hamlet at least a lover!"
"Ah, love! as if, even on the stage, one believed in that absurdity any
longer!" was the countess's malicious comment.
"Then, if you have ceased to believe in love, why did you go so
religiously to Monsieur Caro's lectures?" cried the baroness.
"Oh, that dear Caro! He treated the passions so delicately, he handled
them as if they were curiosities. One went to hear his lecture on Love
as one might go to hear a treatise on the peculiarities of an extinct
species," was the countess's quiet rejoinder.
"One should believe in love, if only to prove one's unbelief in it,"
murmured the young count on her left.
"Ah, my dear comte, love, nowadays, like nature, should only be used
for decoration, as a bit of stage setting, or as stage scenery."
"A moonlight night can be made endurable, sometimes," whispered the
"A _clair de lune_ that ends in _lune de miel_, that is the true use to
which to put the charms of Diana." It was Monsieur d'Agreste's turn now
to murmur in the baroness's ear.
"Oh, honey, it becomes so cloying in time," interpolated the countess,
who had overheard; she overheard everything. She gave a wearied glance
at her husband, who was still talking vigorously to Charm and Renard.
She went on softly: "It's like trying to do good. All goodness, even
one's own, bores one in the end. At Basniege, for example, lovely as it
is, ideally feudal, and with all its towers as erect as you please, I
find this modern virtue, this craze for charity, as tiresome as all the
rest of it. Once you've seen that all the old women have woollen
stockings, and that each cottage has fagots enough for the winter, and
your _role_ of benefactress is at an end. In Paris, at least, charity
is sometimes picturesque; poverty there is tainted with vice. If one
believed in anything, it might be worth while to begin a mission; but
as it is--"
"The gospel of life, according to you, dear comtesse, is that in modern
life there is no real excitement except in studying the very best way
to be rid of it," cried out Renard, from the bottom of the table.
"True; but suicide is such a coarse weapon," the lady answered, quite
seriously; "so vulgar now, since the common people have begun to use
it. Besides, it puts your adversary, the world, in possession of your
secret of discontent. No, no. Suicide, the invention of the nineteenth
century, goes out with it. The only refined form of suicide is to bore
one's self to death," and she smiled sweetly into the young man's eyes
"Ah, comtesse, you should not have parted so early in life with all
your illusions," was Monsieur d'Agreste's protest across the table.
"And, Monsieur d'Agreste, it isn't given to us all to go to the ends of
the earth, as you do, in search of new ones! This friction of living
doesn't wear on you as it does on the rest of us."
"Ah, the ends of the earth, they are very much like the middle and the
beginning of things. Man is not so very different, wherever you find
him. The only real difference lies in the manner of approaching him.
The scientist, for example, finds him eternally fresh, novel,
inspiring; he is a mine only as yet half-worked." Monsieur d'Agreste
was beginning to wake up; his eyes, hitherto, alone had been alive; his
hands had been busy, crunching his bread; but his tongue had been
"Ah--h science! Science is only another anaesthetic--it merely helps to
kill time. It is a hobby, like any other," was the countess's
"Perhaps," courteously returned Monsieur d'Agreste, with perfect
sweetness of temper. "But at least, it is a hobby that kills no one
else. And if of a hobby you can make a principle--"
"A principle?" The countess contracted her brows, as if she had heard a
word that did not please her.
"Yes, dear lady; the wise man lays out his life as a gardener does a
garden, on the principle of selection, of order, and with a view to the
succession of the seasons. You all bemoan the dulness of life; you, in
Paris, the torpor of ennui stifles you, you cry. On the contrary, I
would wish the days were weeks, and the weeks months. And why? Simply
because I have discovered the philosopher's stone. I have grasped the
secret of my era. The comedy of rank is played out; the life of the
trifler is at an end; all that went out with the Bourbons.
Individualism is the new order. To-day a man exists simply by virtue of
his own effort--he stands on his own feet. It is the era of the
republican, of the individual--science is the true republic. For us who
are displaced from the elevation our rank gave us, work is the
watchword, and it is the only battle-cry left us now. He only is
strong, and therefore happy, who perceives this truth, and who
marches in step with the modern movement."
The serious turn given to the conversation had silenced all save the
baroness. She had listened even more intently than the others to her
friend's eloquence, nodding her head assentingly to all that he said.
His philosophic reflections produced as much effect on her vivacious
excitability as they might on a restless Skye-terrier.
"Yes, yes--he's entirely right, is Monsieur d'Agreste; he has got to
the bottom of things. One must keep in step with modernity--one must be
_fin de siecle_. Comtesse, you should hunt; there is nothing like a fox
or a boar to make life worth living. It's better, infinitely better,
than a pursuit of hearts; a boar's more troublesome than a man."
"Unless you marry him," the countess interrupted, ending with a
thrush-like laugh. When she laughed she seemed to have a bird in her
"Oh, a man's heart, it's like the flag of a defenceless country--anyone
may capture it."
The countess smiled with ineffable grace into the vacant, amorous-eyed
faces on either side of her, rising as she smiled. We had reached
dessert now; the coffee was being handed round. Everyone rose; but the
countess made no move to pass out from the room. Both she and the
baroness took from their pockets dainty cigarette-cases.
"_Vous permettez?_" asked the baroness, leaning over coquettishly to
Monsieur d'Agreste's cigar. She accompanied her action with a charming
glance, one in which all the woman in her was uppermost, and one which
made Monsieur d'Agreste's pale cheeks flush like a boy's. He was a
philosopher and a scientist; but all his science and philosophy had not
saved him from the barbed shafts of a certain mischievous little god.
He, also, was visibly hugging his chains.
The party had settled themselves in the low divans and in the Henri IV
arm-chairs; a few here and there remained, still grouped about the
table, with the freedom of pose and in the comfort of attitude smoking
and coffee bring with them.
It was destined, however, that the hour was to be a short one. One of
the grooms obsequiously knocked at the door; he whispered in the
count's ear, who advanced quickly toward him, the news that the coach
was waiting; one of the leaders.
"Desolated, my dear ladies--but my man tells me the coach is in
readiness, and I have an impertinent leader who refuses to stand, when
he is waiting, on anything more solid than his hind legs. Fernande, my
dear, we must be on the move. Desolated, dear ladies--desolated--but
it's only _au revoir_. We must arrange a meeting later, in Paris--"
The scene in the court-yard was once again gay with life and bristling
with color. The coach and the dog-cart shone resplendent in the
slanting sun's rays. In the brighter sunlight, the added glow in the
eyes and the cheeks of the brilliantly costumed group, made both men
and women seem younger and fresher than when they had appeared, two
hours since. All were in high good humor--the wines and the talk had
warmed the quick French blood. There was a merry scramble for the top
coach-seats; the two young counts exchanged their seat in their
saddles for the privilege of holding, one the countess's vinaigrette,
and the other, her long-handled parasol. Renard was beside his friend
De Troisac; the horn rang out, the horses started as if stung, dashing
at their bits, and in another moment the great coach was being whirled
beneath the archway.
"_Au revoir--au revoir!_" was cried down to us from the throne-like
elevation. There was a pretty waving of hands--for even the countess's
dislike melted into sweetness as she bade us farewell. There were
answering cries from the shrieking cockatoos, from the peacocks who
trailed their tails sadly in the dust, from the cooks and the peasant
serving-women who had assembled to bid the distinguished guests adieu.
There was also a sweeping bow from Monsieur Paul, and a grunt of
contented dismissal from Madame Le Mois.
A moment after the departure of the coach the court yard was as still
as a convent cloister.
It was still enough to hear the click of madame's fingers, as she
tapped her snuff-box.
"The count doesn't see any better than he did--_toujours myope, lui_"
the old woman murmured to her son, with a pregnant wink, as she took
"_C'est sa facon de tout voir, au contraire, ma mere_," significantly
returned Monsieur Paul, with his knowing smile.
The mother's shrug answered the smile, as both mother and son walked in
different directions--across the sunlit court.
A LITTLE JOURNEY ALONG THE COAST.
CAEN, BAYEUX, ST. LO, COUTANCES.
A NIGHT IN A CAEN ATTIC.
I have always found the act of going away contagious. Who really enjoys
being left behind, to mope in a corner of the world others have
abandoned? The gay company atop of the coach, as they were whirled
beneath the old archway, had left discontent behind; the music of the
horn, like that played by the Pied Piper, had the magic of making the
feet ache to follow after.
Monsieur Paul was so used to see his world go and come--to greeting it
with civility, and to assist at its departure with smiling indifference
that the announcement of our own intention to desert the inn within a
day or so, was received with unflattering impassivity. We had decided
to take a flight along the coast--the month and the weather were at
their best as aids to such adventure. We hoped to see the Fete Dieu at
Caen. Why not push on to Coutances, where the Fete was still celebrated
with a mediaeval splendor? From thence to the great Mont, the Mont St.
Michel, it was but the distance of a good steed's galloping--we could
cover the stretch of country between in a day's driving, and catch, who
knows?--perhaps the June pilgrims climbing the Mont.
"Ah, mesdames! there are duller things in the world to endure than a
glimpse of the Normandy coast and the scent of June roses!
_Idylliquement belle, la cote a ce moment-ci!_"
This was all the regret that seasoned Monsieur Paul's otherwise
gracious and most graceful of farewells. Why cannot we all attain to an
innkeeper's altitude, as a point of view from which to look out upon
the world? Why not emulate his calm, when people who have done with us
turn their backs and stalk away? Why not, like him, count the pennies
as not all the payment received when a pleasure has come which cannot
be footed up in the bill? The entire company of the inn household was
assembled to see us start. Not a white mouse but was on duty. The
cockatoos performed the most perilous of their trapeze accomplishments
as a last tribute; the doves cooed mournfully; the monkeys ran like
frenzied spirits along their gratings to see the very last of us.
Madame Le Mois considerately carried the bantam to the archway, that
the lost joy of strutting might be replaced by the pride of preferment
above its fellows.
"_Au revoir_--you will return--_tout le monde revient_--Guillaume le
Conquerant, like Caesar, conquers once to hold forever--remember--"
[Illustration: CHATEAU FONTAINE LE HENRI, NEAR CAEN]
From Monsieur Paul, in quieter, richer tones, came his true farewell,
the one we had looked for:
"The evenings in the Marmousets will seem lonely when it rains--you
must give us the hope of a quick return. Hope is the food of those who
remain behind, as we Normans say!"
The archway darkened the sod for an instant; the next we had passed out
into the broad highway. Jean, in his blouse, with Suzette beside him,
both jolting along in the lumbering _char-a-banc_, stared out at us
with a vacant-eyed curiosity. We were only two travellers like
themselves, along a dusty roadway, on our way to Caen; we were of no
particular importance in the landscape, we and our rickety little
phaeton. Yet only a moment before, in the inn court-yard, we had felt
ourselves to be the pivotal centre of a world wholly peopled with
friends! This is what comes to all men who live under the modern
curse--the double curse of restlessness and that itching for novelty,
which made the old Greek longing for the unknown deity--which is also
the only honest prayer of so many _fin de siecle_ souls!
Besides the dust, there were other things abroad on the high-road. What
a lot of June had got into the air! The meadows and the orchards were
exuding perfumes; the hedge-rows were so many yards of roses and wild
grape-vines in blossom. The sea-smells, aromatic, pungent, floated
inland to be married, in hot haste, to a perfect harem of clover and
locust scents. The charm of the coast was enriched by the homely,
familiar scenes of farm-house life. All the country between Dives
and Caen seemed one vast farm, beautifully tilled, with its
meadow-lands dipping seaward. For several miles, perhaps, the
agricultural note alone would be the dominant one, with the fields full
of the old, the eternal surprise--the dawn of young summer rising over
them. Down the sides of the low hills, the polychrome grain waved
beneath the touch of the breeze like a moving sea. Many and vast
were the flat-lands; they were wide vistas of color: there were fields
that were scarlet with the pomp of poppies, others tinged to the yellow
of a Celestial by the feathery mustard; and still others blue as a
sapphire's heart from the dye of millions of bluets. A dozen small
rivers--or perhaps it was only one--coiled and twisted like a cobra in
sinuous action, in and out among the pasture and sea meadows.
As we passed the low, bushy banks, we heard the babel of the
washerwomen's voices as they gossiped and beat their clothes on the
stones. A fisherman or two gave one a hint that idling was understood
here, as elsewhere, as being a fine art for those who possess the
talent of never being pressed for time. A peasant had brought his horse
to the bank; the river, to both peasant and Percheron, was evidently
considered as a personal possession--as are all rivers to those who
live near them. There was a naturalness in all the life abroad in the
fields that gave this Normandy highroad an incomparable charm. An
Arcadian calm, a certain patriarchal simplicity reigned beneath the
trees. Children trudged to the river bank with pails and pitchers to be
filled; women, with rakes and scythes in hand, crept down from the
upper fields to season their mid-day meal with the cooling whiff of the
river and sea air. Children tugged at their skirts. In two feet of
human life, with kerchief tied under chin, the small hands carrying a
huge bunch of cornflowers, how much of great gravity there may be! One
such rustic sketch of the future peasant was seriously carrying its
bouquet to another small edition seated in a grove of poppies; it might
have been a votive offering. Both the children seated themselves, a
very earnest conversation ensuing. On the hill-top, near by, the father
and mother were also conversing, as they bent over their scythes.
Another picture was wheeling itself along the river bank; it was a
farmer behind a huge load of green grass; atop of the grasses two
moon-faced children had laps and hands crowded with field flowers.
Behind them the mother walked, with a rake slung over her shoulder, her
short skirts and scant draperies giving to her step a noble freedom.
The brush of Vollon or of Breton would have seized upon her to embody
the type of one of their rustic beauties, that type whose mingled
fierceness and grace make their peasants the rude goddesses of the
Even a rustic river wearies at last of wandering, as an occupation.
Miles back we had left the sea; even the hills had stopped a full hour
ago, as if they had no taste for the rivalry of cathedral spires.
Behold the river now, coursing as sedately as the high-road, between
two interminable lines of poplars. Far as the eye could reach stretched
a wide, great plain. It was flat as an old woman's palm; it was also as
fertile as the city sitting in the midst of its luxuriance has been
rich in history.
"_Ce pays est tres beau, et Caen la plus jolie ville, la plus avenante,
la plus gaie, la mieux situee, les plus belles rues, les plus beaux
batiments, les plus belles eglises_--"
There was no doubt, Charm added, as she repeated the lady's verdict, of
the opinion Madame de Sevigne had formed of the town. As we drove, some
two hundred years later, through the Caen streets, the charm we found
had been perpetuated, but alas! not all of the beauty. At first we were
entirely certain that Caen had retained its old loveliness; the
outskirts were tricked out with the bloom of gardens and with old
houses brave in their armor of vines. The meadows and the great trees
of the plain were partly to blame for this illusion; they yielded
their place grudgingly to the cobble-stoned streets and the height of
To come back to the world, even to a provincial world, after having
lived for a time in a corner, is certain to evoke a pleasurable feeling
of elation. The streets of Caen were by no means the liveliest we had
driven into; nor did the inhabitants, as at Villerville, turn out _en
masse_ to welcome us. The streets, to be quite truthful, were as
sedately quiet as any thoroughfares could well be, and proudly call
themselves boulevards. The stony-faced gray houses presented a
singularly chill front, considering their nationality. But neither
the pallor of the streets nor their aspect of provincial calm had power
to dampen the sense of our having returned to the world of cities. A
girl issuing from a doorway with a netted veil drawn tightly over her
rosy cheeks, and the curve of a Parisian bodice, immediately invested
Caen with a metropolitan importance.
The most courteous of innkeepers was bending over our carriage-door. He
was desolated, but his inn was already full; it was crowded to
repletion with people; surely these ladies knew it was the week of the
races? Caen was as crowded as the inn; at night many made of the open
street their bed; his own court-yard was as filled with men as with
farm-wagons. It was altogether hopeless as a situation; as a welcome
into a strange city, I have experienced none more arctic. I had,
however, forgotten that I was travelling with a conqueror; that when
Charm smiled she did as she pleased with her world. The innkeeper was
only a man; and since Adam, when has any member of that sex been
known to say "No" to a pretty woman? This French Adam, when Charm
parted her lips, showing the snow of her teeth, found himself suddenly,
miraculously, endowed with a fragment of memory. _Tiens_, he had
forgotten! that very morning a corner of the attic--_un bout du
toit_--had been vacated. If these ladies did not mind mounting to a
_grenier_--an attic, comfortable, although still only an attic!
The one dormer window was on a level with the roof-tops. We had a whole
company of "belles voisines," a trick of neighborliness in windows the
quick French wit, years ago, was swift to name. These "neighbors" were
of every order and pattern. All the world and his mother-in-law were
gone to the races;--and yet every window was playing a different scene
in the comedy of this life in the sky. Who does not know and love a
French window, the higher up in the world of air the better? There are
certain to be plants, rows of them in pots, along the wide sill; one
can count on a bullfinch or a parrot, as one can on the bebes that
appear to be born on purpose to poke their fingers in the cages; there
is certain also to be another cage hanging above the flowers--one
filled with a fresh lettuce or a cabbage leaf. There is usually a snowy
curtain, fringed; just at the parting of the draperies an old woman is
always seated, with chin and nose-tip meeting, her bent figure rounding
over the square of her knitting-needles.
It was such a window as this that made us feel, before our bonnets were
laid aside, that Caen was glad to see us. The window directly opposite
was wide open. Instead of one there were half a dozen songsters aloft;
we were so near their cages that the cat-bird whistled, to call his
master and mistress to witness the intrusion of these strangers. The
master brought a hot iron along--he was a tailor and was just in the
act of pressing a seam. His wife was scraping carrots, and she tucked
her bowl between her knees as she came to stand and gaze across. A cry
rose up within the low room. Some one else wished to see the
newcomers. The tailor laid aside his iron to lift proudly, far out
beyond the cages, the fattest, rosiest offspring that ever was born in
an attic. The babe smote its hands for pure joy. We were better than a
broken doll--we were alive. The family as a family accepted us as one
among them. The man smiled, and so did his wife. Presently both nodded
graciously, as if, understanding the cause of our intrusion on their
aerial privacy, they wished to present us with the compliment of their
welcome. The manners among these garret-windows, we murmured, were
really uncommonly good.
"Bonjour, mesdames!" It was the third time the woman had passed, and we
were still at the window. Her husband left his seam to join her.
"Ces dames are not accustomed to such heights--_a ces hauteurs
The ladies in truth were not, unhappily, always so well lodged; from
this height at least one could hope to see a city.
"_Ah! ha! c'est gai par ici, n'est-ce pas?_ One has the sun all to one's
self, and air! Ah! for freshness one must climb to an attic in these
days, it appears."
It was impossible to be more contented on a height than was this family
of tailors; for when not cooking, or washing, or tossing the "bebe" to
the birds, the wife stitched and stitched all her husband cut, besides
taking a turn at the family socks. Part of this contentment came, no
doubt, from the variety of shows and amusements with which the family,
as a family, were perpetually supplied. For workers, there were really
too many social distractions abroad in the streets; it was almost
impossible for the two to meet all the demands on their time. Now it
was the jingle of a horse's bell-collar; the tailor, between two snips
at a collar, must see who was stopping at the hotel door. Later a horn
sounded; this was only the fish vender, the wife merely bent her head
over the flowers to be quite sure. Next a trumpet, clear and strong,
rang its notes up into the roof eaves; this was something _bebe_ must
see and hear--all three were bending at the first throbbing touch of
that music on the still air, to see whence it came. Thus you see, even
in the provinces, in a French street, something is quite certain to
happen; it all depends on the choice one makes in life of a window--of
being rightly placed--whether or not one finds life dull or amusing.
This tailor had the talent of knowing where to stand, at life's
corner--for him there was a ceaseless procession of excitements.
It may be that our neighbor's talent for seeing was catching. It is
certain that no city we had ever before looked out upon had seemed as
crowded with sights. The whole history of Caen was writ in stone
against the blue of the sky. Here, below us, sat the lovely old town,
seated in the grasses of her plain. Yonder was her canal, as an artery
to keep her pulse bounding in response to the sea; the ship-masts and
the drooping sails seemed strange companions for the great trees and
the old garden walls. Those other walls William built to cincture the
city, Froissart found three centuries later so amazingly "strong, full
of drapery and merchandise, rich citizens, noble dames, damsels, and
fine churches," for this girdle of the Conqueror's great bastions the
eye looks in vain. But William's vow still proclaims its fulfilment;
the spire of l'Abbaye aux Hommes, and the Romanesque towers of its
twin, l'Abbaye aux Dames, face each other, as did William and Mathilde
at the altar--that union that had to be expiated by the penance of
building these stones in the air.
Commend me to an attic window to put one in sympathetic relations with
cathedral spires! At this height we and they, for a part of their
flight upward, at least, were on a common level--and we all know what
confidences come about from the accident of propinquity. They seemed to
assure us as never before when sitting at their feet, the difficulties
they had overcome in climbing heavenward. Every stone that looked down
upon the city wore this look of triumph.
In the end it was this Caen in the air--it was this aerial city of
finials, of towers, of peaked spires, of carved chimneys, of tree-tops
over which the clouds rode; of a plain, melting--like a sea--into the
mists of the horizon; this high, bright region peopled with birds and
pigeons; of a sky tender, translucent, and as variable as human
emotions; of an air that was rapture to breathe, and of nights in which
the stars were so close they might almost be handled; it was this free,
hilly city of the roofs that is still the Caen I remember best.
There were other features of Caen that were good to see, I also
remember. Her street expression, on the whole, was very pleasing. It
was singularly calm and composed, even for a city in a plain. But the
quiet came, doubtless, from its population being away at the races. The
few townspeople who, for obvious reasons, were stay-at-homes, were
uncommonly civil; Caen had evidently preserved the tradition of good
manners. An army of cripples was in waiting to point the way to the
church doors; a regiment of beggars was within them, with nets cast
already for the catching of the small fry of our pennies. In the gay,
geranium-lit garden circling the side walls of St. Pierre there were
many legless soldiers; the old houses we went to see later on in the
high street seemed, by contrast, to have survived other wars, those of
the Directory and the Mountain, with a really scandalous degree of good
fortune. On our way to a still greater church than St. Pierre, to the
Abbaye aux Dames, that, like the queen who built her, sits on the
throne of a hill--on our way thither we passed innumerable other
ancient mansions. None of these were down in the guide books; they
were, therefore, invested with the deeper charm of personal discovery.
Once away from the little city of the shops, the real Caen came out to
greet us. It was now a gray, sad, walled town; behind the walls,
level-browed Francis I. windows looked gravely over the tufts of
verdure; here was an old gateway; there what might once have been a
portcullis, now only an arched wreath of vines; still beyond, a group
of severe-looking mansions with great iron bound windows presented the
front of miniature fortresses. And everywhere gardens and gardens.
Turn where you would, you would only turn to face verdure, foliage, and
masses of flowers. The high walls could neither keep back the odors nor
hide the luxuriance of these Caen gardens. These must have been the
streets that bewitched Madame de Sevigne. Through just such a maze of
foliage Charlotte Corday has also walked, again and again, with her
wonderful face aflame with her great purpose, before the purpose
ripened into the dagger thrust at Marat's bared breast--that avenging
Angel of Beauty stabbing the Beast in his bath. Auber, with his
Anacreontic ballads in his young head, would seem more fittingly
framed in this old Caen that runs up a hill-side. But women as
beautiful as Marie Stuart and the Corday can deal safely in the
business of assassination, the world will always continue to aureole
their pictures with a garland of roses.
The Abbaye on its hill was reached at last. All Caen lay below us; from
the hillside it flowed as a sea rolls away from a great ship's sides.
Down below, far below, as if buttressing the town that seemed rushing
away recklessly to the waste of the plains, stands the Abbaye's twin-
brother, the Aux Hommes. Plains, houses, roof-tops, spires, all were
swimming in a sea of golden light; nothing seemed quite real or solid,
so vast was the prospect and so ethereal was the medium through which
we saw it. Perhaps it was the great contrast between that shimmering,
unstable city below, that reeked and balanced itself like some human
creature whose dazzled vision had made its footing insecure--it may be
that it was this note of contrast which invested this vast structure
bestriding the hill, with such astonishing grandeur. I have known few,
if any, other churches produce so instantaneous an effect of a beauty
that was one with austerity. This great Norman is more Puritan than
French: it is Norman Gothic with a Puritan severity.
The sound of a deep sonorous music took us quickly within. It was as
mysterious a music as ever haunted a church aisle. The vast and snowy
interior was as deserted as a Presbyterian church on a week-day. Yet
the sound of the rich, strong voices filled all the place. There was no
sound of tingling accompaniment: there was no organ pipe, even, to add
its sensuous note of color. There was only the sound of the voices, as
they swelled, and broke, and began afresh.
The singing went on.
It was a slow "plain chant." Into the great arches the sonorous
chanting beat upon the ear with a rhythmic perfection that, even
without the lovely flavor of its sweetness, would have made a beauty of
its own. In this still and holy place, with the company of the stately
Norman arches soaring aloft--beneath the sombre glory of the giant
aisle--the austere simplicity of this chant made the heart beat, one
knew not why, and the eyes moisten, one also knew not why.
We had followed the voices. They came, we found, from within the choir.
A pattering of steps proclaimed we were to go no farther.
"Not there, my ladies--step this way, one only enters the choir by
going into the hospital."
The voice was low and sweet; the smile, a spark of divinity set in a
woman's face; and the whole was clothed in a nun's garb.
We followed the fluttering robes; we passed out once more into the
sunlit parvis. We spoke to the smile and it answered: yes, the choir
was reserved for the Sisters--they must be able to approach it from the
convent and the hospital; it had always, since the time of Mathilde,
been reserved for the nuns; would we pass this way? The way took us
into an open vaulted passage, past a grating where sat a white-capped
Sister, past a group of girls and boys carrying wreaths and
garlands--they were making ready for the _Fete-Dieu_, our nun
explained--past, at the last, a series of corridors through which,
faintly at first, and then sweeter and fuller, there struck once more
upon our ears the sounds of the deep and resonant chanting.
The black gown stopped all at once. The nun was standing in front of a
green curtain. She lifted it. This was what we saw. The semicircle of a
wide apse. Behind, rows upon rows of round arches. Below the arches, in
the choir stalls, a long half-circle of stately figures. The figures
were draped from head to foot. When they bent their heads not an inch
of flesh was visible, except a few hands here and there that had
escaped the long, wide sleeves. All these figures were motionless; they
were as immobile as statues; occasionally, at the end of a "Gloria,"
all turned to face the high altar. At the end of the "Amen" a cloud of
black veils swept the ground. Then for several measures of the chant
the figures were again as marble. In each of the low, round arches, a
stately woman, tall and nobly planned, draped like a goddess turned
saint, stood and chanted to her Lord. Had the Norman builders carved
these women, ages ago, standing about Mathilde's tomb, those ancient
sculptures could not have embodied, in more ideal image, the type of
womanly renunciation and of a saint's fervor of exaltation.
We left them, with the rich chant still full upon their lips, with
heads bent low, calm as graven images. It was only the bloom on a
cheek, here and there, that made one certain of the youth entombed
within these nuns' garb.
"Happy, _mesdames? Oh, mais tres heureuses, toutes_--there are no women
so happy as we. See how they come to us, from all the country around.
_En voila une_--did you remark the pretty one, with the book, seated,
all in white? She is to be a full Sister in a month. She comes from a
noble family in the south. She was here one day, she saw the life of
the Sisters, of us all working here, among the poor soldiers--_elle a
vu ca, et pour tout de bon, s'est donnee a Dieu!"
The smile of our nun was rapturous. She was proving its source. Once
more we saw the young countess who had given herself to her God. An
hour later, when we had reached the hospital wards, her novice's robes
were trailing the ground. She was on her knees in the very middle of
the great bare room. She was repeating the office of the hour, aloud,
with clasped hands and uplifted head. On her lovely young face there
was the glow of a divine ecstasy. All the white faces from the long
rows of the white beds were bending toward her; to one even in all
fulness of strength and health that girlish figure, praying beside the
great vase of the snowy daisies, with the glow that irradiated the
sweet, pure face, might easily enough have seemed an angel's.
As companions for our tour of the grounds we had two young Englishmen.
Both eyed the nuns in the distance of the corridors and the gardens
with the sharpened glances all men level at the women who have
renounced them. It is a mystery no man ever satisfactorily fathoms.
"Queer notion, this, a lot of women shutting themselves up," remarked
the younger of the two. "In England, now, they'd all go in for being
old maids, drinking tea and coddling cats, you know."
"I wonder which are the happier, your countrywomen or these Sisters,
who, in renouncing the world devote their lives to serving it. See,
over yonder" and I nodded to a scene beneath the wide avenue of the
limes. Two tall Augustines were supporting a crippled old man; they
were showing him some fresh garden-beds. Beyond was a gayer group. Some
of the lay sisters were tugging at a huge basket of clothes, fresh from
the laundry. Running across the grass, with flying draperies, two nuns,
laughing as they ran, each striving to outfoot the other, were
hastening to their rescue.
"They keep their bloom, running about like that; only healthy nuns I
"That's because they have something better than cats to coddle."
"Ah, ha! that's not bad. It's a slow suicide, all the same. But here we
are, at the top; it's a fine outlook, is it not?"
The young man panted as he reached the top of the Maze, one of the
chief glories of the old Abbaye grounds. He had a fair and sensitive
face; a weak product on the whole, he seemed, compared with the
nobly-built, vigorous-bodied nuns crowding the choir-stalls yonder.
Instead of that long, slow suicide, surely these women should be doing
their greater work of reproducing a race. Even an open-air cell seems
to me out of place in our century. It will be entirely out of fashion
in time, doubtless, as the mediaeval cell has gone along with the old
castle life, whose princely mode of doing things made a nunnery the
only respectable hiding-place for the undowered daughters.
As we crept down into Caen, it was to find it thick with the dust of
twilight. The streets were dense with other things besides the
thickened light. The Caen world was crowding homeward; all the
boulevards and side streets were alive with a moving throng of dusty,
noisy, weary holidaymakers. The town was abroad in the streets to hear
the news of the horses, and to learn the history of the betting.
Although we had gone to church instead of doing the races, many of
those who had peopled the gay race-track came back to us. The table
d'hote, at our inn that night, was as noisy as a Parisian cafe. It was
scarcely as discreet, I should say. On our way to our attic that night,
the little corridors made us a really amazing number of confidences.
It was strange, but all the shoes appeared to have come in pairs of
twos. Never was there such a collection of boots in couples. Strange
it was, also, to see how many little secrets these rows of candid
shoe-leather disclosed. Here a pert, coquettish pair of ties were
having as little in common as possible with the stout, somewhat clumsy
walking-boots next them. In the two just beyond, at the next door, how
the delicate, slender buttoned kids leaned over, floppingly, to rest on
the coarse, yet strong, hobnailed clumpers!
Shabbier and shabbier grew the shoes, as we climbed upward. With each
pair of stairs we seemed to have left a rung in the ladder of fortune
behind. But even the very poorest in pocket had brought his little
extravagance with him to the races.
The only genuine family party had taken refuge, like ourselves, in the
At the very next door to our own, Monsieur, Madame, et Bebe proclaimed,
by the casting of their dusty shoes, that they also, like the rest of
the world, had come to Caen to see the horses run.
A DAY AT BAYEUX AND ST. LO.
Caen seated in its plain, wearing its crown of steeples--this was our
last glimpse of the beautiful city. Our way to Bayeux was strewn thick
with these Normandy jewels; with towns smaller than Caen; with Gothic
belfries; with ruined priories, and with castles, stately even when
tottering in decay. When the last castle was lost in a thicket, we
discovered that our iron horse was stopping in the very middle of a
field. If the guard had shouted out the name of any American city,
built overnight, on a Western prairie, we should have felt entirely at
home in this meadow; we should have known any clearing, with grass
and daisies, was a very finished evidence of civilization at high
But a lane as the beginning of a cathedral town!
Evidently Bayeux has had a Ruskinian dread of steam-whistles, for this
ancient seat of bishops has succeeded in retaining the charms of its
old rustic approaches, whatever else it may have sacrificed on the
altar of modernness.
An harangue, at the door of the quaint old Normandy omnibus, by the
driver of the same, was proof that the lesson of good oratory,
administered by generations of bishops, had not been lost on the Bayeux
inhabitants. Two rebellious English tourists furnished the text for the
driver's sermon; they were showing, with all the naive pride of
pedestrians, their intention of footing the distance between the
station and the cathedral. This was an independence of spirit no Norman
could endure to see. What? these gentlemen proposed to walk, in the
sun, through clouds of dust, when here was a carriage, with ladies for
companions, at their command? The coach had come down the hill on
purpose to conduct _Messieurs les voyageurs;_ how did these gentlemen
suppose _a pere de famille_ was to make his living if the fashion of
walking came in? And the rusty red vest was thumbed by the gnarled hand
of the father, who was also an orator; and a high-peaked hat swept the
ground before the hard-hearted gentlemen. All the tragedy of the
situation had come about from the fact that the tourists, also, had
gotten themselves up in costume. When two fine youths have risen early
in the day to put on checked stockings, leggings, russet walking-shoes,
and a plaited coat with a belt, such attire is one to be lived up to.
Once in knickerbockers and a man's getting into an omnibus is really
too ignominious! With such a road before two sets of such well-shaped
calves--a road all shaped and graded--this, indeed, would be flying in
the face of a veritable providence of bishop-builders intent on
maintaining pastoral effects.
The knickerbockers relentlessly strode onward; the driver had addressed
himself to hearts of stone. But he had not yet exhausted his quiver of
appeal. Englishmen walk, well! there's no accounting for the taste of
Britons who are also still half savages; but even a barbarian must eat.
Half-way up the hill, the rattle of the loose-jointed vehicle came to a
dead stop. With great gravity the guard descended from his seat; this
latter he lifted to take from the entrails of the old vehicle a handful
of hand-bills. He, the horse, the omnibus, and we, all waited for, what
do you suppose? To besprinkle the walking Englishmen as they came
within range with a shower of circulars announcing that at "_midi, chez
Nigaud, il y aura un dejeuner chaud_."
The driver turned to look in at the window--and to nod as he turned--he
felt so certain of our sympathy; had he not made sure of them at last?
A group of gossamer caps beneath a row of sad, gray-faced houses was
our Bayeux welcome. The faces beneath the caps watched our approach
with the same sobriety as did the old houses--they had the antique
Norman seriousness of aspect. The noise we made with the clatter and
rattle of our broken-down vehicle seemed an impertinence, in the face
of such severe countenances. We might have been entering a deserted
city, except for the presence of these motionless Normandy figures. The
cathedral met us at the threshold of the city: magnificent, majestic, a
huge gray mountain of stone, but severe in outline, as if the Norman
builders had carved on the vast surface of its facade an imprint of
their own grave earnestness.
We were somewhat early for the hot breakfast at Nigaud's. There was,
however, the appetizing smell of soup, with a flourishing pervasiveness
of onion in the pot, to sustain the vigor of an appetite whetted by a
start at dawn. The knickerbockers came in with the omelette. But one is
not a Briton on his travels for nothing; one does not leave one's own
island to be the dupe of French inn-keepers. The smell of the soup had
not departed with our empty plates, and the voice of the walkers was
not of the softest when they demanded their rights to be as odorous as
we. There is always a curiously agreeable sensation, to an American, in
seeing an Englishman angry; to get angry in public is one thing we
do badly; and in his cup of wrath our British brother is sublime--he is
so superbly unconscious--and so contemptuous--of the fact that the
world sometimes finds anger ridiculous.
At the other end of the long and narrow table two other travellers were
seated, a man and a woman. But food, to them, it was made manifestly
evident, was a matter of the most supreme indifference. They were at
that radiant moment of life when eating is altogether too gross a form
of indulgence. For these two were at the most interesting period of
French courtship--just _after_ the wedding ceremony, when, with the
priest's blessing, had come the consent of their world and of tradition
to their making the other's acquaintance. This provincial bride and her
husband of a day were beginning, as all rustic courting begins, by a
furtive holding of hands; this particular couple, in view of our
proximity and their own mutual embarrassment, had recourse to the
subterfuge of desperate lunges at the other's fingers, beneath the
table-cloth. The screen, as a screen, did not work. It deceived no
one--as the bride's pale-gray dress and her flowery bonnet also
deceived no one--save herself. This latter, in certain ranks of life,
is the bride's travelling costume, the world over. And the world
over, it is worn by the recently wedded with the profound conviction
that in donning it they have discovered the most complete of all
This bride and groom were obviously in the first rapture of mutual
discovery. The honey in their moon was not fresher than their views of
the other's tastes and predilections.
"Ah--ah--you like to travel quickly--to see everything, to take it all
in a gulp--so do I, and then to digest at one's leisure."
The bride was entirely of this mind. Only, she murmured, there were
other things one must not do too quickly--one must go slow in matters
of the heart--to make quite sure of all the stages.
But her husband was at her throat, that is, his eyes and lips were, as
he answered, so that all the table might partake of his emotion--"No,
no, the quicker the heart feels the quicker love comes. _Tiens,
voyons, mon amie, toi-meme, tu m'as confie_"--and the rest was lost in
the bride's ear.
Apparently we were to have them, these brides, for the rest of our
journey, in all stages and of all ages! Thus far none others had
appeared as determined as were these two honey-mooners, that all the
world should share their bliss. They were cracking filberts with their
disengaged fingers, the other two being closely interlocked, in quite
scandalous openness, when we left them.
That was the only form of excitement that greeted us in the quiet
Bayeux streets. The very street urchins invited repose; the few we saw
were seated sedately on the threshold of their own door-steps, frequent
sallies abroad into this quiet city having doubtless convinced them of
the futility of all sorties. The old houses were their carved facades
as old ladies wear rich lace--they had reached the age when the vanity
of personal adornment had ceased to inflate. The great cathedral,
towering above the tranquil town, wore a more conscious air; its
significance was too great a contrast to the quiet city asleep at its
feet. In these long, slow centuries the towers had grown to have the
air of protectors.
The famous tapestries we went to see later, might easily enough have
been worked yesterday, in any one of the old mediaeval houses; Mathilde
and her hand-maidens would find no more--not so much--to distract and
disturb them now in this still and tranquil town, with its sad gray
streets and its moss-grown door-steps, as they must in those earlier
bustling centuries of the Conqueror. Even then, when Normandy was only
beginning its career of importance among the great French provinces,
Bayeux was already old. She was far more Norse then than Norman; she
was Scandinavian to the core; even her nobles spoke in harsh Norse
syllables; they were as little French as it was possible to be, and yet
govern a people.
Mathilde, when she toiled over her frame, like all great writers, was
doubtless quite unconscious she was producing a masterpiece. She was,
however, in point of fact, the very first among the great French
realists. No other French writer has written as graphically as she did
with her needle, of the life and customs of their day. That long scroll
of tapestry, for truth and a naive perfection of sincerity--where will
you find it equalled or even approached? It is a rude Homeric epic; and
I am not quite certain that it ought not to rank higher than even some
of the more famous epics of the world--since Mathilde had to create
the mould of art into which she poured her story. For who had thought
before her of making women's stitches write or paint a great historical
event, crowded with homely details which now are dubbed archaeological
Bayeux and its tapestry; its grave company of antique houses; its
glorious cathedral dominating the whole--what a lovely old background
against which poses the eternal modernness of the young noon sun! The
history of Bayeux is commonly given in a paragraph. Our morning's walk
had proved to us it was the kind of town that does more to re-create
the historic past than all the pages of a Guizot or a Challamel.
The bells that were ringing out the hour of high-noon from the
cathedral towers at Bayeux were making the heights of St. Lo, two hours
later, as noisy as a village fair. The bells, for rivals, had the
clatter of women's tongues. I think I never, before or since, have
beheld so lively a company of washerwomen as were beating their clothes
in Vire River. The river bends prettily just below the St. Lo heights,
as if it had gone out of its way to courtesy to a hill. But even the
waters, in their haste to be polite, could not course beneath the great
bridge as swiftly as ran those women's tongues. There were a good
hundred of them at work beneath the washing-sheds. Now, these sheds,
anywhere in France, are really the open-air club room of the French
peasant woman; the whole dish of the village gossip is hung out to dry,
having previously been well soused and aired, along with the blouses
and the coarse chemises. The town of St. Lo had evidently furnished
these club members of the washing-stones with some fat dish of
gossip--the heads were as close as currants on a stem, as they bent in
groups over the bright waters. They had told it all to the stream; and
the stream rolled the volume of the talk along as it carried along also
the gay, sparkling reflections of the life and the toil that bent over
it--of the myriad reflections of those moving, bare-armed figures, of
the brilliant kerchiefs, of the wet blue and gray jerseys, and of the
long prismatic line of the damp, motley-hued clothes that were
fluttering in the wind.
The bells' clangor was an assurance that something was happening on top
of the hill. Just what happened was as altogether pleasing a spectacle,
after a long and arduous climb up a hillside, as it has often been my
good fortune to encounter.
The portals of the church of Notre Dame were wide open. Within, as we
looked over the shoulders of the townspeople who, like us, had come to
see what the bells meant by their ringing, within the church there was
a rich and sombre dusk; out of this dusk, indistinctly at first, lit
by the tremulous flicker of a myriad of candles, came a line of
white-veiled heads; then another of young boys, with faces as pale
as the nosegays adorning their brand-new black coats; next the
scarlet-robed choristers, singing, and behind them still others
swinging incense that thickened the dusk. Suddenly, like a vision, the
white veils passed out into the sunlight, and we saw that the faces
beneath the veils were young and comely. The faces were still
alternately lighted by the flare of the burning tapers and the glare of
the noon sun. The long procession ended at last in a straggling group
of old peasants with fine tremulous mouths, a-tremble with pride and
with feeling; for here they were walking in full sight of their town,
in their holiday coats, with their knees treacherously unsteady from
the thrill of the organ's thunder and the sweetness of the choir-boys'
Whether it was a pardon, or a _fete_, or a first communion, we never
knew. But the town of St. Lo is ever gloriously lighted, for us, with a
nimbus of young heads, such as encircled the earlier madonnas.
After such a goodly spectacle, the rest of the town was a tame morsel.
We took a parting sniff of the incense still left in the eastern end of
the church's nave; there was a bit of good glass in a window to reward
us. Outside the church, on the west from the Petite Place, was a wide
outlook over the lovely vale of the Vire, with St. Lo itself twisting
and turning in graceful postures down the hillside.
On the same prospect two kings have looked, and before the kings a
saint. St. Lo or St. Laudus himself, who gave his name to the town,
must, in the sixth century, have gazed on virgin forests stretching
away from the hill far as the eye could reach. Charlemagne, three
hundred years later, in his turn, found the site a goodly one, one to
tempt men to worship the Creator of such beauty, for here he founded
the great Abbey of St. Croix, long since gone with the monks who
peopled it. Louis XI, that mystic wearing the warrior's helmet, set his
seal of approval on the hill, by sending the famous glass yonder in the
cathedral, when the hill and the St. Lo people beat the Bretons who had
come to capture both.
Like saint, and kings, and monks, and warriors, we in our turn crept
down the hill. For we also were done with the town.
A DINNER AT COUTANCES.
The way from St. Lo to Coutances is a pleasant way. There is no map of
the country that will give you even a hint of its true character, any
more than from a photograph you can hope to gain an insight into the
moral qualities of a pretty woman.
Here, at last, was the ideal Normandy landscape. It was a country with
a savage look--a savage that had been trained to follow the plough.
Even in its color it had retained the true barbarians' instinct for a
good primary. Here were no melting-yellow mustard-fields, nor flame-lit
poppied meadows, nor blue-bells lifting their baby-blue eyes out of the
grain. All the land was green. Fields, meadows, forests, plains--all
were green, green, green. The features of the landscape had changed
with this change in coloring. The slim, fragile grace of slim trees and
fragile cliffs had been replaced by trees of heroic proportions,
and by outlines nobly rounded and full--like the breasts of a mother.
The whole country had an astonishing look of vigor--of the vigor which
comes with rude strength; and it had that charm which goes with all
untamed beauty--the power to sting one into a sense of agitated
Even the farm-houses had been suddenly transformed into fortresses.
Each one of the groups of the farm enclosures had its outer walls, its
miniature turrets, and here and there its rounded bastions. Each farm,
apparently, in the olden days had been a citadel unto itself. The
Breton had been a very troublesome neighbor for many a long century;
every ploughman, until a few hundred years ago, was quite likely to
turn soldier at a second's notice--every true Norman must look to his
own sword to defend his hearth-stone. Such is the story those stone
turrets that cap the farm walls tell you--each one of these turrets was
an open lid through which the farmer could keep his eye on Brittany.
Meanwhile, along the roads as we rushed swiftly by, a quieter life was
passing. The farm wagons were jogging peacefully along on a high-road
as smooth as a fine lady's palm--and as white. The horses were
harnessed one before the other, in interminable length of line.
Sometimes six, sometimes eight, even so many as ten, marched with great
gravity, and with that majestic dignity only possible to full-blooded
Percherons, one after the other. They each wore a saddle-cloth of
blue sheepskin. On their mottled haunches this bit of color made their
polished coats to gleam like unto a lizards' skin.
Meanwhile, also, we were nearing Coutances. The farm-houses were
fortresses no longer; the thatched roofs were one once more with the
green of the high roads; for even in the old days there was a great
walled city set up on a hill, to which refuge all the people about for
miles could turn for protection.
A city that is set on a hill! That for me is commonly recommendation
enough. Such a city, so set, promises at the very least the dual
distinction of looking up as well as looking down; it is the nearer
heaven, and just so much the farther removed from earth.
Coutances, for a city with its head in the air, was surprisingly
friendly. It went out of its way to make us at home. At the very
station, down below in the plain, it had sent the most loquacious of
coach-drivers to put us in immediate touch with its present interests.
All the city, as the coarse blue blouse, flourishing its whip, took
pains to explain, was abroad in the fields; the forests, _tiens_, down
yonder through the trees, we could see for ourselves how the young
people were making the woods as crowded as a ball-room. The city, as a
city, was stripping the land and the trees bare--it would be as bald as
a new-born babe by the morrow. But then, of a certainty, we also had
come for the _fete_--or, and here a puzzled look of doubt beclouded the
provincial's eyes--might we, perchance, instead, have come for the
trial? _Mais non, pas ca_, these ladies had never come for that, since
they did not even know the court was sitting, now, this very instant,
at Coutances. And--_sapristi!_ but there was a trial going on--one to
make the blood curdle; he himself had not slept, the rustic coachman
added, as he shivered beneath his blouse, all the night before--the
blood had run so cold in his veins.
The horse and the road were all the while going up the hill. The road
was easily one that might have been the path of warriors; the walls,
still lofty on the side nearest the town, bristled with a turret or a
bastion to remind us Coutances had not been set on a hill for mere
purposes of beauty. The ramparts of the old fortifications had been
turned into a broad promenade. Even as we jolted past, beneath the
great breadth of the trees' verdure we could see how gloriously the
prospect widened--the country below reaching out to the horizon like
the waters of a sea that end only in indefiniteness.
The city itself seemed to grow out of the walls and the trees. Here and
there a few scattered houses grouped themselves as if meaning to start
a street; but a maze of foliage made a straight line impossible.
Finally a large group of buildings, with severe stone faces, took a
more serious plunge away from the vines; they had shaken themselves
free and were soon soberly ranging themselves into the parallel lines
of narrow city streets.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that, for once, a Norman blouse had
told the truth; for here were the people of Coutances coming up from
the fields to prove it. In all these narrow streets a great multitude
of people were passing us; some were laden with vines, others with
young forest trees, and still others with rude garlands of flowers. The
peasant women's faces, as the bent figures staggered beneath a young
fir-tree, were purple, but their smiles were as gay as the wild flowers
with which the stones were thickly strewn. Their words also were as
"_Diantre--mais c'e lourd!_"
"_E-ben, e toi, tu n' bougeons point, toi!_"
And the nearest fir-tree carrier to our carriage wheels cracked a swift
blow over the head of a vine-bearer, who being but an infant of two,
could not make time with the swift foot of its mother.
The smell of the flowers was everywhere. Fir-trees perfumed the air.
Every doorstep was a garden. The courtyards were alive with the squat
figures of capped maidens, wreathing and twisting greens and garlands.
And in the streets there was such a noise as was never before heard in
a city on a hill-top.
For Coutances was to hold its great _fete_ on the morrow.
It was a relief to turn in from the noise and hubbub to the bright
courtyard of our inn. The brightness thereof, and of the entire
establishment, indeed, appeared to find its central source in the
brilliant eyes of our hostess. Never was an inn-keeper gifted with a
vision at once so omniscient and so effulgent. Those eyes were
everywhere; on us, on our bags, our bonnets, our boots; they divined
our wants, and answered beforehand our unuttered longings. We had come
far? the eyes asked, burning a hole through our gossamer evasions; from
Paris, perhaps--a glance at our bonnets proclaimed the eyes knew all;
we were here for the _fete_, to see the bishop on the morrow; that was
well; we were going on to the Mont; and the eyes scented the shortness
of our stay by a swift glance at our luggage.
"_Numero quatre, au troisieme!_"
There was no appeal possible. The eyes had penetrated the disguise of
our courtesy; we were but travellers of a night; the top story was
built for such as we.
But such a top story, and such a chamber therein! A great, wide, low
room; beams deep and black, with here and there a brass bit hanging;
waxed floors, polished to mirrory perfection; a great bed clad in snowy
draperies, with a snow-white _duvet_ of gigantic proportions. The walls
were gray with lovely bunches of faded rosebuds flung abroad on the
soft surface; and to give a quaint and antique note to the whole, over
the chimney was a bit of worn tapestry with formidable dungeon, a
Norman keep in the background, and well up in front, a stalwart young
master of the hounds, with dogs in leash, of the heavy Norman type of
bulging muscle and high cheekbones.
Altogether, there were worse fates in the world than to be travellers
of a night, with the destiny of such a room as part of the fate.
When we descended the steep, narrow spiral of steps to the dining-room,
it was to find the eyes of our hostess brighter than ever. The noise in
the streets had subsided. It was long after dusk, and Coutances was
evidently a good provincial. But in the gay little dining-room there
was an astonishing bustle and excitement.
The _fete_ and the court had brought a crowd of diners to the inn-
table; when we were all seated we made quite a company at the long,
narrow board. The candles and lamps lit up any number of Vandyke
pointed beards, of bald heads, of loosely-tied cravats, and a few
matronly bosoms straining at the buttons of silk holiday gowns. For the
_Fete-Dieu_ had brought visitors besides ourselves from all the country
round; and then "a first communion is like a marriage, all the
relatives must come, as doubtless we knew," was a baldhead's friendly
beginning of his soup and his talk, as we took our seats beside him.
With the appearance of the _potage_ conversation, like a battle between
foes eager for contest, had immediately engaged itself. The setting of
the table and the air of companionship pervading the establishment were
aiders and abettors to immediate intercourse. Nothing could be prettier
than the Caen bowls with their bunches of purple phlox and spiked
blossoms. Even a metropolitan table might have taken a lesson from the
perfection of the lighting of the long board. In order that her guests
should feel the more entirely at home, our brilliant-eyed hostess came
in with the soup; she took her place behind it at the head of the
It was evident the merchants from Cherbourg who had come as witnesses
to the trial, had had many a conversational bout before now with
madame's ready wit. So had two of the town lawyers. Even the commercial
gentlemen, for once, were experiencing a brief moment of armed
suspense, before they flung themselves into the arena of talk. At
first, or it would never have been in the provinces, this talk at the
long table, everyone broke into speech at once. There was a flood of
words; one's sense of hearing was stunned by the noise. Gradually, as
the cider and the thin red wine were passed, our neighbors gave
digestion a chance; the din became less thick with words; each listened
when the other talked. But, as the volume of speech lessened, the
interest thickened. It finally became concentrated, this interest, into
true French fervor when the question of the trial was touched on.
"They say D'Alencon is very clever. He pleads for Filon, the culprit,
to-night, does he not?"
"Yes, poor Filon--it will go hard with him. His crime is a black one."
"I should think it was--implicating _le petit_!"
"Dame! the judge doesn't seem to be of your mind."
"Ah--h!" cried a florid Vandyke-bearded man, the dynamite bomb of
the table, exploding with a roar of rage. "_Ah--h, cre nom de
Dieu!--Messieurs les presidents_ are all like that; they are always
on the side of the innocent--"
"Till they prove them guilty."
"Guilty! guilty!" the bomb exploded in earnest now. "How many times in
the annals of crime is a man guilty--really guilty? They should search
for the cause--and punish that. That is true justice. The instigator,
the instigator--he is the true culprit. Inheritances--_voila les vrais
coupables_. But when are such things investigated? It is ever the
innocent who are punished. I know something of that--I do."
"_Allons--allons!_" cried the table, laughing at the beard's vehemence.
"When were you ever under sentence?"
"When I was doing my duty," the beard hurled back with both arms in the
air; "when I was doing my three years--I and my comrade; we were
convicted--punished--for an act of insubordination we never committed.
Without a trial, without a chance of defending ourselves, we were put
on two crumbs of bread and a glass of water for two months. And we were
innocent--as innocent as babes, I tell you."
The table was as still as death. The beard had proved himself worthy of
this compliment; his voice was the voice of drama, and his gestures
such as every Frenchman delights in beholding and executing. Every ear
was his, now.
"I have no rancor. I am, by nature, what God made me, a peaceable man,
but"--here the voice made a wild _crescendo_--"if I ever meet my
colonel--_gare a lui_! I told him so. I waited two years, two long
years, till I was released; then I walked up to him" (the beard rose
here, putting his hand to his forehead), "I saluted" (the hand made the
salute), "and I said to him, 'Mon colonel, you convicted me, on false
evidence, of a crime I never committed. You punished me. It is two
years since then. But I have never forgotten. Pray to God we may never
meet in civil life, for then yours would end!"
"_Allons, allons!_ A man after all must do his duty. A colonel--he
can't go into details!" remonstrated the hostess, with her knife in the
"I would stick him, I tell you, as I would a pig--or a Prussian! I live
but for that!"
"_Monstre!_" cried the table in chorus, with a laugh, as it took its
wine. And each turned to his neighbor to prove the beard in the wrong.
"Of what crime is the defendant guilty--he who is to be tried
to-night?" Charm asked of a silent man, with sweet serious eyes and a
rough gray beard, seated next her. Of all the beards at the table, this
one alone had been content with listening.
"Of fraud--mademoiselle--of fraud and forgery." The man had a voice as
sweet as a church bell, and as deep. Every word he said rang out
slowly, sonorously. The attention of the table was fixed in an instant.
"It is the case of a Monsieur Filon, of Cherbourg. He is a cider
merchant. He has cheated the state, making false entries, etc. But his
worst crime is that he has used as his accomplice _un tout petit jeune
homme_--a lad of barely fifteen--"
"It is that that will make it go hard for him with the jury--"
"Hard!" cried the ex-soldier, getting red at once with the passion of
his protest--"hard--it ought to condemn him, to guillotine him. What
are juries for if they don't kill such rascals as he?"
"_Doucement, doucement, monsieur,_" interrupted the bell-note of the
merchant. "One doesn't condemn people without hearing both sides. There
may be extenuating circumstances!"
"Yes--there are. He is a merchant. All merchants are thieves. He does
as all others do--_only_ he was found out."
A protesting murmur now rose from the table, above which rang once
more, in clear vibrations, the deep notes of the merchant.
"_Ah--h, mais--tous voleurs--non_, not all are thieves. Commerce
conducted on such principles as that could not exist. Credit is not
founded on fraud, but on trust."
"_Tres bien, tres bien,_" assented the table. Some knives were thumped
to emphasize the assent.
"As for stealing"--the rich voice continued, with calm judicial
slowness--"I can understand a man's cheating the state once,
perhaps--yielding to an impulse of cupidity. But to do as _ce_
Monsieur Filon has done--he must be a consummate master of his
art--for his processes are organized robbery."
"Ah--h, but robbery against the state isn't the same thing as robbing
an individual," cried the explosive, driven into a corner.
"It is quite the same--morally, only worse. For a man who robs the
state robs everyone--including himself."
"That's true--perfectly true--and very well put." All the heads about
the table nodded admiringly; their hostess had expressed the views of
them all. The company was looking now at the gray beard with glistening
eyes; he had proved himself master of the argument, and all were
desirous of proving their homage. Not one of the nice ethical points
touched on had been missed; even the women had been eagerly listening,
following, criticising. Here was a little company of people gathered
together from rustic France, meeting, perhaps, for the first time at
this board. And the conversation had, from the very beginning, been
such as one commonly expects to hear only among the upper ranks of
metropolitan circles. Who would have looked to see a company of Norman
provincials talking morality, and handling ethics with the skill of
Most of our fellow-diners, meanwhile, were taking their coffee in the
street. Little tables were ranged close to the house-wall. There was
just room for a bench beside the table, and then the sidewalk ended.
"Shall you be going to the trial to-night?" courteously asked the
merchant who had proven himself a master in debate, of Charm. He had
lifted his hat before he sat down, bowing to her as if he had been in a
"It will be fine to-night--it is the opening of the defence," he added,
as he placed carefully two lumps of sugar in his cup.
"It's always finer at night--what with the lights and the people,"
interpolated the landlady, from her perch on the door-sill. "If _ces
dames_ wish to go, I can show them the way to the galleries. Only," she
added, with a warning tone, her growing excitement obvious at the sense
of the coming pleasure, "it is like the theatre. The earlier we get
there the better the seat. I go to get my hat." And the door swallowed
"She is right--it is like a theatre," soliloquized the merchant--"and
so is life. Poor Filon!"
We should have been very content to remain where we were. The night had
fallen; the streets, as they lost themselves in dim turnings, in
mysterious alleyways, and arches that seemed grotesquely high in the
vague blur of things, were filled for us with the charm of a new and
lovely beauty. At one end the street ended in a towering mass of stone;
that doubtless was the cathedral. At the right, the narrow houses
dipped suddenly; their roof-lines were lost in vagueness. Between
the slit made by the street a deep, vast chasm opened; it was the night
filling the great width of sky, and the mists that shrouded the hill,
rising out of the sleeping earth. There was only one single line of
light; a long deep glow was banding the horizon; it was a bit of flame
the dusk held up, like a fading torch, to show where the sun had
In and out of this dusk the townspeople came and went. Away from the
mellow lights, streaming past the open inn doors, the shapes were only
a part of the blur; they were vague, phantasmal masses, clad in coarse
draperies. As they passed into the circle of light, the faces showed
features we had grown to know--the high cheekbones, the ruddy tones,
the deep-set, serious eyes, and firm mouths, with lips close together.
The air on this hill-top must be of excellent quality; the life up here
could scarcely be so hard as in the field villages. For the women
looked less worn, and less hideously old, and in the men's eyes
there was not so hard and miserly a glittering.
Almost all, young or old, were bearing strange burdens. Some of the men
were carrying huge floral crosses; the women were laden with every
conceivable variety of object--with candlesticks, vases, urns, linen
sheets, rugs, with chairs even.
"They are helping to dress the reposoirs, they must all be in readiness
for the morning," answered our friend, still beside us, when we asked
the cause of this astonishing spectacle.
Everywhere garlands and firs, leaves, flowers, and wreaths; people
moving rapidly; the carriers of the crosses stopping to chat for an
instant with groups working at some mysterious scaffolding--all shapes
in darkness. Everywhere, also, there was the sweet, aromatic scent of
the greens and the pines abroad in the still, clear air of the summer
This was the perfume and these the dim pictures that were our company
along the narrow Coutances streets.
A SCENE IN A NORMAN COURT.
The court-room was brightly lighted; the yellow radiance on the white
walls made the eyes blink. We had turned, following our guide, from the
gloom of the dim streets into the roomy corridors of the Prefecture.
Even the gardens about the building were swarming with townspeople and
peasants waiting for the court to open. When we entered it was to find
the hallways and stairs blocked with a struggling mass of people, all
eager to get seats. A voice that was softened to a purring note, the
voice that goes with the pursuit of the five franc piece, spoke to our
landlady. "The seats to be reserved in the tribune were for these
No time had been lost, you perceive. We were strangers; the courtesies
of the town were to be extended to us. We were to have of their best,
here in Coutances; and their best, just now, was this _mise en scene_
in their court room.
The stage was well set. The Frenchman's instinctive sense of fitness
was obvious in the arrangements. Long lines of blue drapery from the
tall windows brought the groups below into high relief; the scarlet of
the judges' robes was doubly impressive against this background. The
lawyers, in their flowing black gowns and white ties, gained added
dignity from the marine note behind them. The bluish pallor of the
walls made the accused and the group about him pathetically sombre.
Each one of this little group was in black. The accused himself, a
sharp, shrewd, too keen-eyed man of thirty or so, might have been
following a corpse--so black was his raiment. Even the youth beside
him, a dull, sodden-eyed lad, with an air of being here not on his own
account, but because he had been forced to come, was clad in deepest
mourning. By the side of the culprit sat the one really tragic figure
in all the court--the culprit's wife. She also was in black. In happier
times she must have been a fair, fresh-colored blonde. Now all the
color was gone from her cheek. She was as pale as death, and in her
sweet downcast eyes there were the tell-tale vigils of long nights of
weeping. Beside her sat an elderly man who bent over her, talking,
whispering, commenting as the trial went on.
Every eye in the tribune was fixed on the slim young figure. A passing
glance sufficed, as a rule, for the culprit and his accomplice; but it
was on the wife that all the quick French sympathy, that volubly spoke
itself out, was lavished. The blouses and peasants' caps, the tradesmen
and their wives crowded close about the railing to pass their comment.
"She looks far more guilty than he," muttered a wizened old man next to
us, very crooked on his three-legged stool.
"Yes," warmly added a stout capped peasant, with a basket once on her
arm, now serving as a pedestal to raise the higher above the others her
own curiosity. "Yes--she has her modesty--too--to speak for her--"
"Bah--all put on--to soften the jury." It was our fiery one of the
table d'hote who had wedged his way toward us.
"And why not? A woman must make use of what weapons she has at hand--"
_"Silence! Silence! messieurs!"_ The _huissier_ brought down his staff
of office with a ring. The clatter of sabots over the wooden floor of
the tribune and the loud talking were disturbing the court.
This French court, as a court, sat in strange fashion, it seemed to us.
The bench was on wonderfully friendly terms with the table about which
the clerks sat, with the lawyers, with the foreman of the jury, with
even the _huissiers_. Monsieur le President was in his robes, but he
wore them as negligently as he did the dignity of his office. He and
the lawyer for the defence, a noted Coutances orator, openly wrangled;
the latter, indeed, took little or no pains to show him respect; now
they joked together, next a retort flashed forth which began a quarrel,
and the court and the trial looked on as both struggled for a mastery
in the art of personal abuse. The lawyer made nothing of raising his
finger, to shake it in open menace in the very teeth of the scarlet
robes. And the robes clad a purple-faced figure that retorted
angrily, like a fighting school-boy.
But to Coutances, this, it appears, was a proper way for a court to
"_Ah, D'Alencon--il est fort, lui. C'est lui qui agace toujours
monsieur le president_--"
"He'll win--he'll make a great speech--he is never really fine unless
it's a question of life or death--" Such were the criticisms that were
poured out from the quick-speaking lips about us.
Presently a simultaneous movement on the part of the jury brought the
proceedings to confusion. A witness in the act of giving evidence
stopped short in his sentence; he twisted his head; looking upward, he
asked a question of the foreman, and the latter nodded, as if
assenting. The judge then looked up. All the court looked up. All the
heads were twisted. Something obviously was wrong. Then, presently the
_concierge_ appeared with a huge bunch of keys.
And all the court waited in perfect stillness while the windows were
"_Il y avait un courant d'air_--there was a draught,"--gravely
announced the crooked man, as he rose to let the _concierge_ pass. This
latter had her views of a court so susceptible to whiffs of night air.
"_Ces messieurs_ are delicate--pity they have to be out at
night!"--whereat the tribune snickered.
All went on bravely for a good half-hour. More witnesses were called;
each answered with wonderful aptness, ease, and clearness; none were
confused or timid; these were not men to be the playthings of others
who made tortuous cross-questionings their trade. They, also, were
Frenchmen; they knew how to speak. The judge and the Coutances lawyer
continued their jokes and their squabblings. And still only the poor
wife hung her head.
Then all at once the judge began to mop his brow. The jury, to a man,
mopped theirs. The witnesses and lawyers each brought forth their big
silk handkerchiefs. All the court was wiping its brow.
"It's the heat," cried the judge. "_Huissier_, call the _concierge_;
tell her to open the windows."
The _concierge_ reappeared. Flushed this time, and with anger in her
eye. She pushed her way through the crowd; she took not the least pains
in the world to conceal her opinion of a court as variable as this one.
"_Ah mais_, this is too much! if the jury doesn't know its mind better
than this!"--and in the fury of her wrath she well-nigh upset the
crooked little old gentleman and his three-legged stool.
"That's right--that's right. I'm not a fine lady, tip me over. You open
and shut me as if I were a bureau drawer; _continuez_--_continuez_--"
The _concierge_ had reached the windows now. She was opening and
slamming them in the face of the judge, the jury, and _messieurs les
huissiers_, with unabashed violence. The court, except for that one
figure in sombre draperies, being men, suffered this violence as only
men bear with a woman in a temper. With the letting in of the fresh
air, fresh energy in the prosecution manifested itself. The witnesses
were being subjected to inquisitorial torture; their answers were still
glib, but the faces were studies of the passions held in the leash of
self-control. Not twenty minutes had ticked their beat of time when
once more the jury, to a man, showed signs of shivering. Half a dozen
gravely took out their pocket-handkerchiefs, and as gravely covered
their heads. Others knotted the square of linen, thus making a closer
head-gear. The judge turned uneasily in his own chair; he gave a
furtive glance at the still open windows; as he did so he caught sight
of his jury thus patiently suffering. The spectacle went to his heart;
these gentlemen were again in a draught? Where was the _concierge_?
Then the _huissier_ whispered in the judge's ear; no one heard, but
everyone divined the whisper. It was to remind monsieur le president
that the _concierge_ was in a temper; would it not be better for him,
the _huissier_, to close the windows? Without a smile the judge bent
his head, assenting. And once more all proceedings were at a
standstill; the court was patiently waiting, once more, for the
windows to be closed.
Now, in all this, no one, not even the wizened old man who was
obviously the humorist of the tribune, had seen anything farcical. To
be too hot--to be too cold! this is a serious matter in France. A jury
surely has a right to protect itself against cold, against _la
migraine_, and the devils of rheumatism and pleurisy. There is nothing
ridiculous in twelve men sitting in judgment on a fellow-man, with
their handkerchiefs covering their bare heads. Nor of a judge
who gallantly remembers the temper of a _concierge_. Nor of a whole
court sitting in silence, while the windows are opened and closed.
There was nothing in all this to tickle the play of French humor. But
then, we remembered, France is not the land of humorists, but of wits.
Monsieur d'Alencon down yonder, as he rises from his chair to address
the judge and jury, will prove to you and me, in the next two hours,
how great an orator a Frenchman can be, without trenching an
inch on the humorist's ground.
The court-room was so still now that you could have heard the fall of a
At last the great moment had come-the moment and the man. There is
nothing in life Frenchmen love better than a good speech--_un
discours_; and to have the same pitched in the dramatic key, with a
tragic result hanging on the effects of the pleading, this is the very
climax of enjoyment. To a Norman, oratory is not second, but first,
nature; all the men of this province have inherited the gift of a
facile eloquence. But this Monsieur d'Alencon, the crooked man
whispered, in hurried explanation, he was _un fameux_--even the
Paris courts had to send for him when they wanted a great orator.
The famous lawyer understood the alphabet of his calling. He knew the
value of effect. He threw himself at once into the orator's pose. His
gown took sculptural lines; his arms were waved majestically, as arms
that were conscious of having great sleeves to accentuate the lines of
Then he began to speak. The voice was soft; at first one was chiefly
conscious of the music in its cadences. But as it warmed and grew with
the ardor of the words, the room was filled with such vibrations as
usually come only with the sounding of rich wind-instruments. With such
a voice a man could do anything. D'Alencon played with it as a man
plays with a power he has both trained and conquered. It was firmly
modulated, with no accent of sympathy when he opened his plea for his
client. It warmed slightly when he indignantly repelled the charges
brought against the latter. It took the cadence of a lover when he
pointed to the young wife's figure and asked if it were likely a
husband could be guilty of such crimes, year after year, with such a
woman as that beside him? It was tenderly explanatory as he went on
enlarging on the young wife's perfections, on her character, so well
known to them all here in Coutances, on the influence she had given the
home-life yonder in Cherbourg. Even the children were not forgotten, as
an aid to incidental testimony. Was it even conceivable a father of a
young family would lead an innocent lad into error, fraud, and theft?
"It is he who knows how to touch the heart!"
"_Quel beau moment!_" cried the wizened man, in a transport.
"See--the jury weep!"
All the court was in tears, even monsieur le president sniffled, and
yet there was no draught. As for the peasant women and the shop
keepers, they could not have been more moved if the culprit had been a
blood relation. How they enjoyed their tears! What a delight it was to
thus thrill and shiver! The wife was sobbing now, with her head on her
uncle's shoulder. And the culprit was acting his part, also, to
perfection. He had been firmly stoical until now. But at this parade of
his wife's virtues he broke down, his head was bowed at last. It was
all the tribune could do to keep its applause from breaking forth. It
was such a perfect performance! it was as good as the theatre--far
better--for this was real--this play-with a man's whole future at
Until midnight the lawyer held all in the town in a trance. He ended at
last with a Ciceronian, declamatory outburst. A great buzz of applause
welled up from the court. The tribune was in transports; such a
magnificent harangue he had not given them in years. It was one of his
"And his victories, madame, they are the victories of all Coutances."
The crooked man almost stood upright in the excitement of his
enthusiasm. Great drops of sweat were on his wrinkled old brow. The
evening had been a great event in his life, as his twisted frame, all
a-tremble with pleasurable elation, exultingly proved. The women's caps
were closer together than ever; they were pressing in a solid mass
close to the railing of the tribune to gain one last look at the figure
of the wife.
"It is she who will not sleep--"
"Poor soul, are her children with her?"
"No--and no women either. There is only the uncle."
"He is a good man, he will comfort her!"
"_Faut prier le bon Dieu!_"
At the court-room door there was a last glimpse of the stricken figure.
She disappeared into the blackness of the night, bent and feeble,
leaning with pitiful attempt at dignity on the uncle's arm. With the
dawn she would learn her husband's fate. The jury would be out all
"You see, madame, it is she who must really suffer in the end." We were
also walking into the night, through the bushes of the garden, to the
dark of the streets. Our landlady was guiding us, and talking volubly.
She was still under the influence of the past hour's excitement. Her
voice trembled audibly, and she was walking with brisk strides through
the dim streets.
"If Filon is condemned, what would happen to them?"
"Oh, he would pass a few years in prison--not many. The jury is always
easy on the rich. But his future is ruined. They--the family--would
have to go away. But even then, rumor would follow them. It travels far
nowadays--it has a thousand legs, as they say here. Wherever they go
they will be known. But Monsieur d'Alencon, what did you think of him,
_hein_? There's a great man--what an orator! One must go as far as
Paris--to the theatre; one must hear a great play--and even there, when
does an actor make you weep as he did? Henri, he was superb. I tell
you, superb! _d'une eloquence!_" And to her husband, when we
reached the inn door, our vivacious landlady was still narrating the
chief points of the speech as we crawled wearily up to our beds.
It was early the next morning when we descended into the inn
dining-room. The lawyer's eloquence had interfered with our rest.
Coffee and a bite of fresh air were best taken together, we agreed.
Before the coffee came the news of the culprit's fate. Most of the inn
establishment had been sent to court to learn the jury's verdict.
Madame confessed to a sleepless night. The thought of that poor wife
had haunted her pillow. She had deemed it best--but just to us all, in
a word, to despatch Auguste--the one inn waiter, to hear the verdict.
_Tiens_, there he was now, turning the street corner.
"_Il est acquitte!_" rang through the streets.
"He is acquitted--he is acquitted! _Le bon Dieu soit loue!_
Henri--Ernest--Monsieur Terier, he is acquitted--he is acquitted!
I tell you!"
The cry rang through the house. Our landlady was shouting the news out
of doors, through windows, to the passers-by, to the very dogs as they
ran. But the townspeople needed no summoning. The windows were crowded
full of eager heads, all asking the same question at once. A company of
peasants coming up from the fields for breakfast stopped to hear the
glad tidings. The shop-keepers all the length of the street gathered to
join them. Everyone was talking at once. Every shade of opinion was
aired in the morning sun. On one subject alone there was a universal
"What good news for the poor wife!"
"And what a night she must have passed!"
All this sympathy and interest, be it remembered, was for one they
barely knew. To be the niece of a Coutances uncle--this was enough, it
appears, for the good people of this cathedral city, to insure the flow
of their tears and the gift of their prayers.
THE FETE-DIEU--A JUNE CHRISTMAS.
When we stepped forth into the streets, it was to find a flower strewn
city. The paving stones were covered with the needles of pines, with
fir boughs, with rose leaves, lily stocks, and with the petals of flock
and clematis. One's feet sank into the odorous carpet as in the thick
wool of an Oriental prayer rug. To tread upon this verdure was to crush
out perfume. Yet the fragrance had a solemn flavor. There was a touch
of consecration in the very aroma of the fir sap.
Never was there a town so given over to its festival. Everything
else--all trade, commerce, occupation, work, or pleasure even, was at a
dead standstill. In all the city there was but one thought, one object,
one end in view. This was the great day of the _Fete-Dieu_. To this
blessed feast of the Sacrament the townspeople had been looking forward
It is their June Christmas. The great day brings families together.
[Illustration: AN EXCITING MOMENT--A COUTANCES INTERIOR]
From all the country round the farm wagons had been climbing the hill
for hours. The peasants were in holiday dress. Gold crosses and amber
beads encircled leathery old necks; the gossamer caps, real Normandy
caps at last, crowned heads held erect today, with the pride of those
who had come to town clad in their best. Even the younger women were in
true peasant garb; there was a touch of a ribbon, brilliant red and
blue stockings, and the sparkle of silver shoe-buckles and gold
necklaces to prove they had donned their finery in honor of the
_fete_. The men wore their blue and purple blouses over their holiday
suits; but almost all had pinned a sprig of bright geranium or
honeysuckle to brighten up the shiny cotton of the preservative blouse.
Even the children carried bouquets; and thus many of the farm wagons
were as gay as the streets.
No, gay is not the word. Neither the city nor the streets were really
gay. The city, as a city, was too dead in earnest, too absorbed, too
intent, to indulge in gayety. It was the greatest of all the days of
the year in Coutances. In the climaxic moments of life, one is solemn,
not gay. It was not only the greatest, but the busiest, day of the year
for this cathedral town. Here was a whole city to deck; every street,
every alleyway must be as beautiful as a church on a feast-day. The
city, in truth, must be changed from a bustling, trading, commercial
entrepot into an altar. And this altar must be beautiful--as beautiful,
as ingeniously picturesque as only the French instinct for beauty
could make it.
Think you, with such a task on hand, this city-ful of artists had time
for frivolous idling? Since dawn these artists had been scrubbing their
doors, washing windows, and sluicing the gutters. One is not a
provincial for nothing; one is honest in the provinces; one does not
drape finery over a filthy frame. The city was washed first, before it
Opposite, across from our inn door-sill, where we lingered a moment
before we began our journey through the streets, we could see for
ourselves how thorough was this cleansing. A shopkeeper and his wife
were each mounted on a step-ladder. One washed the inside and the other
the outside of the low shop-windows. They were in the greatest possible
haste, for they were late in their preparations. In two hours the
procession was to pass. Their neighbors stopped to cry up to them:
"_Tendez vous, aujourd'hui?_" It is the universal question, heard
"_Mais oui_," croaked out the man, his voice sounding like the croak of
a rook, from the height from which he spoke. "Only we are late, you
It was his wife who was taking the question to heart. She saw in it
just cause for affront.
"Ah, those Espergnons, they're always on time, they are; they had their
hangings out a week ago, and now they are as filthy as wash-rags. No
wonder they have time to walk the streets!" and the indignant dame gave
her window-pane an extra polish.
"Here, Leon, catch hold, I'm ready now!"
The woman was holding out one end of a long, snowy sheet. Leon meekly
took his end; both hooked the stuff to some rings ready to secure the
hanging; the facade of the little house was soon hidden behind the
white fall of the family linen; and presently Leon and his wife began
very gravely to pin tiny sprigs of purple clematis across the white
surface. This latter decoration was performed with the sure touch of
artists. No mediaeval designer of tapestry could have chosen, with
more secure selection, the precise points of distance at which to place
the bouquets; nor could the tones and tints of the greens and purples,
and the velvet of the occasional heartsease, sparsely used, have been
more correctly combined. When the task was ended, the commonplace house
was a palace wall, hung with the sheen of fine linen, on which bloomed
geometric figures beautifully spaced.
All the city was thus draped. One walked through long walls of snow, in
which flowers grew. Sometimes the floral decorations expanded from the
more common sprig into wreaths and garlands. Here and there the
Coutances fancy worked itself out in _fleur-de-lis_ emblems or in
armorial bearings. But everywhere an astonishing, instinctive sense of
beauty, a knowledge of proportion, and a natural sense for color were
obvious. There was not, in all the town, a single offence committed
against taste. Is it any wonder, with such an heredity at their
fingers' ends, that the provinces feed Paris, and that Paris sets the
fashions in beauty for the rest of the world?
Come with us, and look upon this open-air chapel. It stands in the open
street, in front of an old house of imposing aspect. The two
commonplace-looking women who are putting--the finishing--touches to
this beautiful creation tell us it is the reposoir of Madame la
Baronne. They have been working on it since the day before. In the
night the miracle was finished--nearly--they were so weary they had
gone to bed at dawn. They do not tell you it is a miracle. They think
it fine, oh, yes--"c'est beau--Madame la Baronne always has the most
beautiful of all the reposoirs," but then they have decked these altars
since they were born; their grandmothers built them before ever they
saw the light. For always in Coutances "on la fete beaucoup;" this
feast of the Sacrament has been a great day in Coutances for centuries
past. But although they are so used to it, these natural architects
love the day. "It's so fine to see--_si beau a voir_ all the
reposoirs, and the children and the fine ladies walking--through the
streets, and then, all kneeling--when Monseigneur l'Archeveque prays.
Ah yes, it is a fine sight." They nod, and smile, and then they turn to
light a taper, and to consult about the placing of a certain vase from
out of which an Easter lily towers.
At the foot of these miniature altars trees had been planted. Gardens
had also been laid out; the parterres were as gravely watered as if
they were to remain in the middle of a bustling high street in
perpetuity. Steps lead up to the altar. These were covered with rugs
and carpets; for the feet of the bishop must tread only on velvet and
flowers. Candelabra, vases, banners, crosses, crucifixes, flowers, and
tall thin tapers--all the altars were crowded with such adornments.
Human vanity and the love of surpassing one's neighbors, these also
figured conspicuously among the things the fitfully shining sun looks
down upon. But what a charm there is in such a contest! Surely the
desire to beautify the spot on which the Blessed Sacrament rests this
is only another way of professing one's adoration.
As we passed through the streets a multitude of pictures crowded upon
the eyes. In an archway groups of young first communicants were
forming; they were on their way to the cathedral. Their white veils
against the gloom of the recessed archways were like sunlit clouds
caught in an abyss. Priests in gorgeous vestments were walking quickly
through the streets. All the peasants were going also toward the
cathedral. A group stopped, as did we, to turn into a side-street. For
there was a picture we should not see later on. Between some lovely
old turrets, down from convent walls a group of nuns fluttered
tremulously; they were putting the last touches to the reposoir of
their own Sacre Coeur. Some were carrying huge gilt crosses, staggering
as they walked; others were on tiptoe filling the tall vases; others
were on their knees, patting into perfect smoothness the turf laid
about the altar steps. There was an old cure among them and a young
carpenter whom the cure was directing. Everyone of the nuns had her
black skirts tucked up; their stout shoes must be free to fly over the
ground with the swiftness of hounds. How pretty the faces were, under
the great caps, in that moment of unwonted excitement! The cheeks, even
of the older nuns, were pink; it was a pink that made their habitual
pallor have a dazzling beauty. The eyes were lighted into a fresh flame
of life, and the lips were temptingly crimson; they were only women,
after all, these nuns, and once a year at least this feast of the
Sacrament brings all their feminine activities into play.
Still we moved on, for within the cathedral the procession had not yet
formed. There was still time to make a tour of the town.
To plunge into the side-streets away from the wide cathedral parvis,
was to be confronted with a strange calm. These narrow thoroughfares
had the stillness which broods over all ancient cities' by-ways. Here
was no festival bustle; all was grave and sad. The only dwellers left
in the antique fifteenth century houses were those who must remain at
home till a still smaller house holds them. We passed several aged
Coutancais couples. By twos they were seated at the low windows; they
had been dressed and then left; they were sitting here, in the
pathetic patience of old age; they were hoping something of the _fete_
might come their way. Two women, in one of the low interiors, were more
philosophic than their neighbors; if their stiffened knees would not
carry them to the _fete_, at least their gnarled old hands could hold a
pack of cards. They were seated close to the open casement, facing each
other across a small round table; along the window-sill there were rows
of flower-pots; a pewter tankard was set between them; and out of the
shadowy interior came the topaz gleam of the Normandy brasses, the huge
bed, with its snowy draperies, the great chests, and the flowery
chintz-frill defining the width of the yawning fireplace. The two old
faces, with the strong features, deep wrinkles, sunken mouths, and bald
heads tied up in dazzling white coifs, were in full relief against the
dim background. They were as motionless as statues; neither looked up
as our footfall struck along the cobbles; it was an exciting moment in
[Illustration: A STREET IN COUTANCES--EGLISE SAINT-PIERRE]
Below these old houses stretched the public gardens. Here also there
was a great stillness. For us alone the rose gardens bloomed, the
tropical trees were shivering, and the palms were making a night of
shade for wide acres of turf. Rarely does a city boast of such a