IN AND OUT OF THREE NORMANDY INNS
ANNA BOWMAN DODD
TO EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN.
_My Dear Mr. Stedman:
To this little company of Norman men and women, you will, I know, extend a kindly greeting, if only because of their nationality. To your courtesy, possibly, you will add the leaven of interest, when you perceive—as you must—that their qualities are all their own, their defects being due solely to my own imperfect presentment.
With sincere esteem_,
ANNA BOWMAN DODD.
I. A LANDING ON THE COAST OF FRANCE II. A SPRING DRIVE III. FROM AN INN WINDOW IV. OUT ON A MUSSEL-BED V. THE VILLAGE VI. A PAGAN COBBLER VII. SOME NORMAN LANDLADIES VIII. THE QUARTIER LATIN ON THE BEACH IX. A NORMAN HOUSEHOLD X. ERNESTINE
ALONG AN OLD POST-ROAD.
XI. TO AN OLD MANOIR XII. A NORMAN CURE XIII. HONFLEUR—NEW AND OLD
XIV. A COAST DRIVE XV. GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT XVI. THE GREEN BENCH XVII. THE WORLD THAT CAME TO DIVES XVIII. THE CONVERSATION OF PATRIOTS XIX. IN LA CHAMBRE DES MARMOUSETS
TWO BANQUETS AT DIVES.
XX. A SEVENTEENTH CENTURY REVIVAL XXI. THE AFTER-DINNER TALK OF THREE GREAT LADIES XXII. A NINETEENTH CENTURY BREAKFAST
A LITTLE JOURNEY ALONG THE COAST.
XXIII. A NIGHT IN A CAEN ATTIC XXIV. A DAY AT BAYEUX AND ST. LO XXV. A DINNER AT COUTANCES XXVI. A SCENE IN A NORMAN COURT XXVII. THE FETE-DIEU—A JUNE CHRISTMAS XXVIII. BY LAND TO MONT ST. MICHEL
MONT ST. MICHEL.
XXIX. BY SEA TO THE POULARD INN XXX. THE PILGRIMS AND THE SHRINE—AN HISTORICAL OMELETTE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT—DIVES A VILLAGE STREET—VILLERVILLE ON THE BEACH—VILLERVILLE A SALE OF MUSSELS—VILLERVILLE A VILLERVILLE FISH-WIFE A DEPARTURE—VILLERVILLE THE INN AT DIVES—GUILLAUME-LE-CONQUERANT CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLE—DIVES CHAMBRE DES MARMOUSETS—DIVES MADAME DE SEVIGNE CHAMBRE DE LA PUCELLE—DIVES CHATEAU FONTAINE LE HENRI, NEAR CAEN AN EXCITING MOMENT—A COUTANCES INTERIOR A STREET IN COUTANCES—EGLISE SAINT-PIERRE MONT SAINT MICHEL MONT SAINT MICHEL SNAIL-GATHERERS
AN INN BY THE SEA.
A LANDING ON THE COAST OF FRANCE.
Narrow streets with sinuous curves; dwarfed houses with minute shops protruding on inch-wide sidewalks; a tiny casino perched like a bird-cage on a tiny scaffolding; bath-houses dumped on the beach; fishing-smacks drawn up along the shore like so many Greek galleys; and, fringing the cliffs—the encroachment of the nineteenth century—a row of fantastic sea-side villas.
This was Villerville.
Over an arch of roses; across a broad line of olives, hawthorns, laburnums, and syringas, straight out to sea—
This was the view from our windows.
Our inn was bounded by the sea on one side, and on the other by a narrow village street. The distance between good and evil has been known to be quite as short as that which lay between these two thoroughfares. It was only a matter of a strip of land, an edge of cliff, and a shed of a house bearing the proud title of Hotel-sur-Mer.
Two nights before, our arrival had made quite a stir in the village streets. The inn had given us a characteristic French welcome; its eye had measured us before it had extended its hand. Before reaching the inn and the village, however, we had already tasted of the flavor of a genuine Norman welcome. Our experience in adventure had begun on the Havre quays.
Our expedition could hardly be looked upon as perilous; yet it was one that, from the first, evidently appealed to the French imagination; half Havre was hanging over the stone wharves to see us start.
"Dame, only English women are up to that!"—for all the world is English, in French eyes, when an adventurous folly is to be committed.
This was one view of our temerity; it was the comment of age and experience of the world, of the cap with the short pipe in her mouth, over which curved, downward, a bulbous, fiery-hued nose that met the pipe.
"C'est beau, tout de meme, when one is young—and rich." This was a generous partisan, a girl with a miniature copy of her own round face—a copy that was tied up in a shawl, very snug; it was a bundle that could not possibly be in any one's way, even on a somewhat prolonged tour of observation of Havre's shipping interests.
"And the blonde one—what do you think of her, hein?"
This was the blouse's query. The tassel of the cotton night-cap nodded, interrogatively, toward the object on which the twinkling ex-mariner's eye had fixed itself—on Charm's slender figure, and on the yellow half-moon of hair framing her face. There was but one verdict concerning the blonde beauty; she was a creature made to be stared at. The staring was suspended only when the bargaining went on; for Havre, clearly, was a sailor and merchant first; its knowledge of a woman's good points was rated merely as its second-best talent.
Meanwhile, our bargaining for the sailboat was being conducted on the principles peculiar to French traffic; it had all at once assumed the aspect of dramatic complication. It had only been necessary for us to stop on our lounging stroll along the stone wharves, diverting our gaze for a moment from the grotesque assortment of old houses that, before now, had looked down on so many naval engagements, and innocently to ask a brief question of a nautical gentleman, picturesquely attired in a blue shirt and a scarlet beret, for the quays immediately to swarm with jerseys and red caps. Each beret was the owner of a boat; and each jersey had a voice louder than his brother's. Presently the battle of tongues was drowning all other sounds.
In point of fact, there were no other sounds to drown. All other business along the quays was being temporarily suspended; the most thrilling event of the day was centring in us and our treaty. Until this bargain was closed, other matters could wait. For a Frenchman has the true instinct of the dramatist; business he rightly considers as only an entr'acte in life; the serious thing is the scene de theatre, wherever it takes place. Therefore it was that the black, shaky-looking houses, leaning over the quays, were now populous with frowsy heads and cotton nightcaps. The captains from the adjacent sloops and tug-boats formed an outer circle about the closer ring made by the competitors for our favors, while the loungers along the parapets, and the owners of top seats on the shining quay steps, may be said to have been in possession of orchestra stalls from the first rising of the curtain.
A baker's boy and two fish-wives, trundling their carts, stopped to witness the last act of the play. Even the dogs beneath the carts, as they sank, panting, to the ground, followed, with red-rimmed eyes, the closing scenes of the little drama.
"Allons, let us end this," cried a piratical-looking captain, in a loud, masterful voice. And he named a price lower than the others had bid. He would take us across—yes, us and our luggage, and land us—yes, at Villerville, for that.
The baker's boy gave a long, slow whistle, with relish.
"Dame!" he ejaculated, between his teeth, as he turned away.
The rival captains at first had drawn back; they had looked at their comrade darkly, beneath their berets, as they might at a deserter with whom they meant to deal—later on. But at his last words they smiled a smile of grim humor. Beneath the beards a whisper grew; whatever its import, it had the power to move all the hard mouths to laughter. As they also turned away, their shrugging shoulders and the scorn in their light laughter seemed to hand us over to our fate.
In the teeth of this smile, our captain had swung his boat round and we were stepping into her.
"Au revoir—au revoir et a bientot!"
The group that was left to hang over the parapets and to wave us its farewell, was a thin one. Only the professional loungers took part in this last act of courtesy. There was a cluster of caps, dazzlingly white against the blue of the sky; a collection of highly decorated noses and of old hands ribboned with wrinkles, to nod and bob and wave down the cracked-voiced "bonjours." But the audience that had gathered to witness the closing of the bargain had melted away with the moment of its conclusion. Long ere this moment of our embarkation the wide stone street facing the water had become suddenly deserted. The curious-eyed heads and the cotton nightcaps had been swallowed up in the hollows of the dark, little windows. The baker's boy had long since mounted his broad basket, as if it were an ornamental head-dress, and whistling, had turned a sharp corner, swallowed up, he also, by the sudden gloom that lay between the narrow streets. The sloop-owners had linked arms with the defeated captains, and were walking off toward their respective boats, whistling a gay little air.
"Colinette au bois s'en alla En sautillant par-ci, par-la; Trala deridera, trala, derid-er-a-a."
One jersey-clad figure was singing lustily as he dropped with a spring into his boat. He began to coil the loose ropes at once, as if the disappointments in life were only a necessary interruption, to be accepted philosophically, to this, the serious business of his days.
We were soon afloat, far out from the land of either shores. Between the two, sea and river meet; is the river really trying to lose itself in the sea, or is it hopelessly attempting to swallow the sea? The green line that divides them will never give you the answer: it changes hour by hour, day by day; now it is like a knife-cut, deep and straight; and now like a ribbon that wavers and flutters, tying together the blue of the great ocean and the silver of the Seine. Close to the lips of the mighty mouth lie the two shores. In that fresh May sunshine Havre glittered and bristled, was aglow with a thousand tints and tones; but we sailed and sailed away from her, and behold, already she had melted into her cliffs. Opposite, nearing with every dip of the dun-colored sail into the blue seas, was the Calvados coast; in its turn it glistened, and in its young spring verdure it had the lustre of a rough-hewn emerald.
"Que voulez-vous, mesdames? Who could have told that the wind would play us such a trick?"
The voice was the voice of our captain. With much affluence of gesture he was explaining—his treachery! Our nearness to the coast had made the confession necessary. To the blandness of his smile, as he proceeded in his unabashed recital, succeeded a pained expression. We were not accepting the situation with the true phlegm of philosophers; he felt that he had just cause for protest. What possible difference could it make to us whether we were landed at Trouville or at Villerville? But to him—to be accused of betraying two ladies—to allow the whole of the Havre quays to behold in him a man disgraced, dishonored!
His was a tragic figure as he stood up, erect on the poop, to clap hands to a blue-clad breast, and to toss a black mane of hair in the golden air.
"Dame! Toujours ete galant homme, moi! I am known on both shores as the most gallant of men. But the most gallant of men cannot control the caprice of the wind!" To which was added much abuse of the muddy bottoms, the strength of the undertow, and other marine disadvantages peculiar to Villerville.
It was a tragic figure, with gestures and voice to match. But it was evident that the Captain had taken his own measure mistakenly. In him the French stage had lost a comedian of the first magnitude. Much, therefore, we felt, was to be condoned in one who doubtless felt so great a talent itching for expression. When next he smiled, we had revived to a keener appreciation of baffled genius ever on the scent for the capture of that fickle goddess, opportunity.
The captain's smile was oiling a further word of explanation. "See, mesdames, they come! they will soon land you on the beach!"
He was pointing to a boat smaller than our own, that now ran alongside. There had been frequent signallings between the two boats, a running up and down of a small yellow flag which we had thought amazingly becoming to the marine landscape, until we learned the true relation of the flag to the treachery aboard our own craft.
"You see, mesdames," smoothly continued our talented traitor, "you see how the waves run up on the beach. We could never, with this great sail, run in there. We should capsize. But behold, these are bathers, accustomed to the water—they will carry you—but as if you were feathers!" And he pointed to the four outstretched, firmly-muscled arms, as if to warrant their powers of endurance. The two men had left their boat; it was dancing on the water, at anchor. They were standing immovable as pillars of stone, close to the gunwales of our craft. They were holding out their arms to us.
Charm suddenly stood upright. She held out her hands like a child, to the least impressionable boatman. In an instant she was clasping his bronze throat.
"All my life I've prayed for adventure. And at last it has come!" This she cried, as she was carried high above the waves.
"That's right, have no fear," answered her carrier as he plunged onward, ploughing his way through the waters to the beach.
Beneath my own feet there was a sudden swish and a swirl of restless, tumbling waters. The motion, as my carrier buried his bared legs in the waves, was such as accompanies impossible flights described in dreams, through some unknown medium. The surging waters seemed struggling to submerge us both; the two thin, tanned legs of the fisherman about whose neck I was clinging, appeared ridiculously inadequate to cleave a successful path through a sea of such strength as was running shoreward.
"Madame does not appear to be used to this kind of travelling," puffed out my carrier, his conversational instinct, apparently, not in the least dampened by his strenuous plunging through the spirited sea. "It happens every day—all the aristocrats land this way, when they come over by the little boats. It distracts and amuses them, they say. It helps to kill the ennui."
"I should think it might, my feet are soaking; sometimes wet feet—"
"Ah, that's a pity, you must get a better hold," sympathetically interrupted my fisherman, as he proceeded to hoist me higher up on his shoulder. I, or a sack of corn, or a basket of fish, they were all one to this strong back and to these toughened sinews. When he had adjusted his present load at a secure height, above the dashing of the spray, he went on talking. "Yes, when the rich suffer a little it is not such a bad thing, it makes a pleasant change—cela leur distrait. For instance, there is the Princess de L——, there's her villa, close by, with green blinds. She makes little excuses to go over to Havre, just for this—to be carried in the arms like an infant. You should hear her, she shouts and claps her hands! All the beach assembles to see her land. When she is wet she cries for joy. It is so difficult to amuse one's self, it appears, in the great world."
"But, tiens, here we are, I feel the dry sands." I was dropped as lightly on them as if it had been indeed a bunch of feathers my fisherman had been carrying.
And meanwhile, out yonder, across the billows, with airy gesture dramatically executed, our treacherous captain was waving us a theatrical salute. The infant mate was grinning like a gargoyle. They were both delightfully unconscious, apparently, of any event having transpired, during the afternoon's pleasuring, which could possibly tinge the moment of parting with the hues of regret.
"Pour les bagages, mesdames—"
Two dripping, outstretched hands, two berets doffed, two picturesque giants bowing low, with a Frenchman's grace—this, on the Trouville sands, was the last act of this little comedy of our landing on the coast of France.
A SPRING DRIVE.
The Trouville beach was as empty as a desert. No other footfall, save our own, echoed along the broad board walks; this Boulevard des Italiens of the Normandy coast, under the sun of May was a shining pavement that boasted only a company of jelly-fishes as loungers.
Down below was a village, a white cluster of little wooden houses; this was the village of the bath houses. The hotels might have been monasteries deserted and abandoned, in obedience to a nod from Rome or from the home government. Not even a fisherman's net was spread a-drying, to stay the appetite with a sense of past favors done by the sea to mortals more fortunate than we. The whole face of nature was as indifferent as a rich relation grown callous to the voice of entreaty. There was no more hope of man apparently, than of nature, being moved by our necessity; for man, to be moved, must primarily exist, and he was as conspicuously absent on this occasion as Genesis proves him to have been on the fourth day of creation.
Meanwhile we sat still, and took counsel together. The chief of the council suddenly presented himself. It was a man in miniature. The masculine shape, as it loomed up in the distance, gradually separating itself from the background of villa roofs and casino terraces, resolved itself into a figure stolid and sturdy, very brown of leg, and insolent of demeanor—swaggering along as if conscious of there being a full-grown man buttoned up within a boy's ragged coat. The swagger was accompanied by a whistle, whose neat crispness announced habits of leisure and a sense of the refined pleasures of life; for an artistic rendering of an aria from "La Fille de Madame Angot" was cutting the air with clear, high notes.
The whistle and the brown legs suddenly came to a dead stop. The round blue eyes had caught sight of us:
"Ouid-a-a!" was this young Norman's salutation. There was very little trouser left, and what there was of it was all pocket, apparently. Into the pockets the boy's hands were stuffed, along with his amazement; for his face, round and full though it was, could not hold the full measure of his surprise.
"We came over by boat—from Havre," we murmured meekly; then, "Is there a cake-shop near?" irrelevantly concluded Charm with an unmistakable ring of distress in her tone. There was no need of any further explanation. These two hearty young appetites understood each other; for hunger is a universal language, and cake a countersign common among the youth of all nations.
"Until you came, you see, we couldn't leave the luggage," she went on.
The blue eyes swept the line of our boxes as if the lad had taken his afternoon stroll with no other purpose than to guard them. "There are eight, and two umbrellas. Soyez tranquille, je vous attendrai."
It was the voice and accent of a man of the world, four feet high—a pocket edition, so to speak, in shabby binding. The brown legs hung, the next instant, over the tallest of the trunks. The skilful whistling was resumed at once; our appearance and the boy's present occupation were mere interludes, we were made to understand; his real business, that afternoon, was to do justice to the Lecoq's entire opera, and to keep his eye on the sea.
Only once did he break down; he left a high C hanging perilously in mid-air, to shout out "I like madeleines, I do!" We assured him he should have a dozen.
"Bien!" and we saw him settling himself to await our return in patience.
Up in the town the streets, as we entered them, were as empty as was the beach. Trouville might have been a buried city of antiquity. Yet, in spite of the desolation, it was French and foreign; it welcomed us with an unmistakably friendly, companionable air. Why is it that one is made to feel the companionable element, by instantaneous process, as it were, in a Frenchman and in his towns? And by what magic also does a French village or city, even at its least animated period, convey to one the fact of its nationality? We made but ten steps progress through these silent streets, fronting the beach, and yet, such was the subtle enigma of charm with which these dumb villas and mute shops were invested, that we walked along as if under the spell of fascination. Perhaps the charm is a matter of sex, after all: towns are feminine, in the wise French idiom, that idiom so delicate in discerning qualities of sex in inanimate objects, as the Greeks before them were clever in discovering sex distinctions in the moral qualities. Trouville was so true a woman, that the coquette in her was alive and breathing even in this her moment of suspended animation. The closed blinds and iron shutters appeared to be winking at us, slyly, as if warning us not to believe in this nightmare of desolation; she was only sleeping, she wished us to understand; the touch of the first Parisian would wake her into life. The features of her fashionable face, meanwhile, were arranged with perfect composure; even in slumber she had preserved her woman's instinct of orderly grace; not a sign was awry, not a window- blind gave hint of rheumatic hinges, or of shattered vertebrae; all the machinery was in order; the faintest pressure on the electrical button, the button that connects this lady of the sea with the Paris Bourse and the Boulevards, and how gayly, how agilely would this Trouville of the villas and the beaches spring into life!
The listless glances of the few tailors and cobblers who, with suspended thread, now looked after us, seemed dazed—as if they could not believe in the reality of two early tourists. A woman's head, here and there, leaned over to us from a high window; even these feminine eyes, however, appeared to be glued with the long winter's lethargy of dull sleep; they betrayed no edge of surprise or curiosity. The sun alone, shining with spendthrift glory, flooding the narrow streets and low houses with a late afternoon stream of color, was the sole inhabitant who did not blink at us, bovinely, with dulled vision.
Half an hour later we were speeding along the roadway. Half an hour—and Trouville might have been a thousand miles away. Inland, the eye plunged over nests of clover, across the tops of the apple and peach trees, frosted now with blossoms, to some farm interiors. The familiar Normandy features could be quickly spelled out, one by one.
It was the milking-hour.
The fields were crowded with cattle and women; some of the cows were standing immovable, and still others were slowly defiling, in processional dignity, toward their homes. Broad-hipped, lean-busted figures, in coarse gowns and worsted kerchiefs, toiled through the fields, carrying full milk-jugs; brass amphorae these latter might have been, from their classical elegance of shape. Ploughmen appeared and disappeared, they and their teams rising and sinking with the varying heights and depressions of the more distant undulations. In the nearer cottages the voices of children would occasionally fill the air with a loud clamor of speech; then our steed's bell-collar would jingle, and for the children's cries, a bird-throat, high above, from the heights of a tall pine would pour forth, as if in uncontrollable ecstasy, its rapture into the stillness of this radiant Normandy garden. The song appeared to be heard by other ears than ours. We were certain the dull-brained sheep were greatly affected by the strains of that generous-organed songster—they were so very still under the pink apple boughs. The cows are always good listeners; and now, relieved of their milk, they lifted eyes swimming with appreciative content above the grasses of their pasture. Two old peasants heard the very last of the crisp trills, before the concert ended; they were leaning forth from the narrow window-ledges of a straw-roofed cottage; the music gave to their blinking old eyes the same dreamy look we had read in the ruminating cattle orbs. For an aeronaut on his way to bed, I should have felt, had I been in that blackbird's plumed corselet, that I had had a gratifyingly full house.
Meanwhile, toward the west, a vast marine picture, like a panorama on wheels, was accompanying us all the way. Sometimes at our feet, beneath the seamy fissures of a hillside, or far removed by sweep of meadow, lay the fluctuant mass we call the sea. It was all a glassy yellow surface now; into the liquid mirror the polychrome sails sent down long lines of color. The sun had sunk beyond the Havre hills, but the flame of his mantle still swept the sky. And into this twilight there crept up from the earth a subtle, delicious scent and smell—the smell and perfume of spring—of the ardent, vigorous, unspent Normandy spring.
Suddenly a belfry grew out of the grain-fields.
"Nous voici—here's Villerville!" cried lustily into the twilight our coachman's thick peasant voice. With the butt-end of his whip he pointed toward the hill that the belfry crowned. Below the little hamlet church lay the village. A high, steep street plunged recklessly downward toward the cliff; we as recklessly were following it. The snapping of our driver's whip had brought every inhabitant of the street upon the narrow sidewalks. A few old women and babies hung forth from the windows, but the houses were so low, that even this portion of the population, hampered somewhat by distance and comparative isolation, had been enabled to join in the chorus of voices that filled the street. Our progress down the steep, crowded street was marked by a pomp and circumstance which commonly attend only a royal entrance into a town; all of the inhabitants, to the last man and infant, apparently, were assembled to assist at the ceremonial of our entry.
A chorus of comments arose from the shadowy groups filling the low doorways and the window casements.
"Tiens—it begins to arrive—the season!"
"Two ladies—alone—like that!"
"Dame! Anglaises, Americaines—they go round the world thus, a deux!"
"And why not, if they are young and can pay?"
"Bah! old or poor, it's all one—they're never still, those English!" A chorus of croaking laughter rattled down the street along with the rolling of our carriage-wheels.
Above, the great arch of sky had shrunk, all at once, into a narrow scallop; with the fields and meadows the glow of twilight had been left behind. We seemed to be pressing our way against a great curtain, the curtain made by the rich dusk that filled the narrow thoroughfare. Through the darkness the sinuous street and rickety houses wavered in outline, as the bent shapes of the aged totter across dimly-lit interiors. A fisherman's bare legs, lit by some dimly illumined interior; a line of nets in the little yards; here and there a white kerchief or cotton cap, dazzling in whiteness, thrown out against the black facades, were spots of light here and there. There was a glimpse of the village at its supper—in low-raftered interiors a group of blouses and women in fishermen's rig were gathered about narrow tables, the coarse-featured faces and the seamed foreheads lit up by the feeble flame of candles that ended in long, thin lines of smoke.
"Ohe—Mere Mouchard!—des voyageurs!" cried forth our coachman into the darkness. He had drawn up before a low, brightly-lit interior. In response to the call a figure appeared on the threshold of the open door. The figure stood there for a long instant, rubbing its hands, as it peered out into the dusk of the night to take a good look at us. The brown head was cocked on one side thoughtfully; it was an attitude that expressed, with astonishingly clear emphasis, an unmistakable professional conception of hospitality. It was the air and manner, in a word, of one who had long since trimmed the measurement of its graciousness to the price paid for the article.
"Ces dames wished rooms, they desired lodgings and board—ces dames were alone?" The voice finally asked, with reticent dignity. "From Havre—from Trouville, par p'tit bateau!" called out lustily our driver, as if to furnish us, gratis, with a passport to the landlady's not too effusive cordiality.
What secret spell of magic may have lain hidden in our friendly coachman's announcement we never knew. But the "p'tit bateau" worked magically. The figure of Mere Mouchard materialized at once into such zeal, such effusion, such a zest of welcome, that we, our bags, and our coachman were on the instant toiling up a pair of spiral wooden stairs. There was quite a little crowd to fill the all-too-narrow landing at the top of the steep steps, a crowd that ended in a long line of waiters and serving-maids, each grasping a remnant of luggage. Our hostess, meanwhile, was fumbling at a door-lock—an obstinate door that refused to be wrenched open.
"Augustine—run—I've taken the wrong key. Cours, mon enfant, it is no farther away than the kitchen."
The long line pressed itself against the low walls. Augustine, a blond- haired, neatly-garmented shape, sped down the rickety stairs with the step of youth and a dancer; for only the nimble ankles of one accomplished in waltzing could have tripped as dexterously downward as did Augustine.
"How she lags! what an idiot of a child!" fumed Mere Mouchard as she peered down into the round blackness about which the curving staircase closed like an embrace. "One must have patience, it appears, with people made like that. Ah, tiens, here she comes. How could you keep ces dames waiting like this? It is shameful, shameful!" cried the woman, as she half shook the panting girl, in anger. "If ces dames will enter,"—her voice changing at once to a caressing falsetto, as the door flew open, opened by Augustine's trembling fingers—"they will find their rooms in readiness."
The rooms were as bare as a soldier's barrack, but they were spotlessly clean. There was the pale flicker of a sickly candle to illumine the shadowy recesses of the curtained beds and the dark little dressing-rooms.
A few moments later we wound our way downward, spirally, to find ourselves seated at a round table in a cosy, compact dining-room. Directly opposite, across the corridor, was the kitchen, from which issued a delightful combination of vinous, aromatic odors. The light of a strong, bright lamp made it as brilliant as a ball-room; it was a ball-room which for decoration had rows of shining brass and copper kettles—each as burnished as a jewel—a mass of sunny porcelain, and for carpet the satin of a wooden floor. There was much bustling to and fro. Shapes were constantly passing and repassing across the lighted interior. The Mere's broad-hipped figure was an omniscient presence: it hovered at one instant over a steaming saucepan, and the next was lifting a full milk-jug or opening a wine-bottle. Above the clatter of the dishes and the stirring of spoons arose the thick Normandy voices, deep alto tones, speaking in strange jargon of speech—a world of patois removed from our duller comprehension. It was made somewhat too plain in this country, we reflected, that a man's stomach is of far more importance than the rest of his body. The kitchen yonder was by far the most comfortable, the warmest, and altogether the prettiest room in the whole house.
Augustine crossed the narrow entry just then with a smoking pot of soup. She was followed, later, by Mere Mouchard, who bore a sole au vin blanc, a bottle of white Burgundy, and a super-naturally ethereal souffle. And an hour after, even the curtainless, carpetless bed chambers above were powerless to affect the luxurious character of our dreams.
FROM AN INN WINDOW.
One travels a long distance, sometimes, to make the astonishing discovery that pleasure comes with the doing of very simple things. We had come from over the seas to find the act of leaning on a window casement as exciting as it was satisfying. It is true that from our two inn windows there was a delightful variety of nature and of human nature to look out upon. From the windows overlooking the garden there was only the horizon to bound infinity. The Atlantic, beginning with the beach at our feet, stopped at nothing till it met the sky. The sea, literally, was at our door; it and the Seine were next-door neighbors. Each hour of the day these neighbors presented a different face, were arrayed in totally different raiment, were grave or gay, glowing with color or shrouded in mists, according to the mood and temper of the sun, the winds, and the tides.
The width of the sky overhanging this space was immense; not a scrap, apparently, was left over to cover, decently, the rest of the earth's surface—of that one was quite certain in looking at this vast inverted cup overflowing with ether. What there was of land was a very sketchy performance. Opposite ran the red line of the Havre headlands.
Following the river, inland, there was a pretence of shore, just sufficiently outlined, like a youth's beard, to give substance to one's belief in its future growth and development. Beneath these windows the water, hemmed in by this edge of shore, panted, like a child at play; its sighs, liquid, lisping, were irresistible; one found oneself listening for the sound of them as if they had issued from a human throat. The humming of the bees in the garden, the cry of a fisherman calling across the water, the shout of the children below on the beach, or, at twilight, the chorusing birds, carolling at full concert pitch; this, at most, was all the sound and fury the sea beach yielded.
The windows opening on the village street let in a noise as tumultuous as the sea was silent. The hubbub of a perpetual babble, all the louder for being compressed within narrow space, was always to be heard; it ceased only when the village slept. There was an incessant clicking accompaniment to this noisy street life; a music played from early dawn to dusk over the pavement's rough cobbles—the click clack, click clack of the countless wooden sabots.
Part of this clamor in the streets was due to the fact that the village, as a village, appeared to be doing a tremendous business with the sea.
Men and women were perpetually going to and coming from the beach. Fishermen, sailors, women bearing nets, oars, masts, and sails, children bending beneath the weight of baskets filled with kicking fish; wheelbarrows stocked high with sea-food and warm clothing; all this commerce with the sea made the life in these streets a more animated performance than is commonly seen in French villages.
In time, the provincial mania began to work in our veins.
To watch our neighbors, to keep an eye on this life—this became, after a few days, the chief occupation of our waking hours.
The windows of our rooms fronting on the street were peculiarly well adapted for this unmannerly occupation. By merely opening the blinds, we could keep an eye on the entire village. Not a cat could cross the street without undergoing inspection. Augustine, for example, who, once having turned her back on the inn windows, believed herself entirely cut off from observation, was perilously exposed to our mercy. We knew all the secrets of her thieving habits; we could count, to a second, the time she stole from the Mere, her employer, to squander in smiles and dimples at the corner creamery. There a tall Norman rained admiration upon her through wide blue eyes, as he patted, caressingly, the pots of blond butter, just the color of her hair, before laying them, later, tenderly in her open palm. Soon, as our acquaintance with our neighbors deepened into something like intimacy, we came to know their habits of mind as we did their facial peculiarities; certain of their actions made an event in our day. It became a serious matter of conjecture as to whether Madame de Tours, the social swell of the town, would or would not offer up her prayer to Deity, accompanied by Friponne, her black poodle. If Friponne issued forth from the narrow door, in company with her austere mistress, the shining black silk gown, we knew, would not decorate the angular frame of this aristocratic provincial; a sober beige was best fitted to resist the dashes made by Friponne's sharply-trimmed nails. It was for this, to don a silk gown in full sight of her neighbors; to set up as companion a dog of the highest fashion, the very purest of caniches, that twenty years of patient nursing a paralytic husband—who died all too slowly—had been counted as nothing!
Once we were summoned to our outlook by the vigorous beating of a drum. Madame Mouchard and Augustine were already at their own post of observation—the open inn door. The rest of the village was in full attendance, for it was not every day in the week that the "tambour," the town-crier, had business enough to render his appearance, in his official capacity, necessary; as a mere townsman he was to be seen any hour of the day, as drunk as a lord, at the sign of "L'Ami Fidele." His voice, as it rolled out the words of his cry, was as staccato in pitch as any organ can be whose practice is largely confined to unceasing calls for potations. To the listening crowd, the thick voice was shouting:
"Madame Tricot—a la messe—dimanche—a—perdu une broche—or et perles—avec cheveux—Madame Merle a perdu—sur la plage—un panier avec—un chat noir—"
We ourselves, to our astonishment, were drummed the very next morning. Augustine had made the discovery of a missing shoulder-cape; she had taken it upon herself to call in the drummer. So great was the attendance of villagers, even the abstractors of the lost garment must, we were certain, be among the crowd assembled to hear our names shouted out on the still air. We were greatly affected by the publicity of the occasion; but the village heard the announcement, both of our names and of our loss, with the phlegm of indifference. "Vingt francs pour avoir tambourine mademoiselle!" This was an item which a week later, in madame's little bill, was not confronted with indifference.
"It gives one the feeling of having had relations with a wandering circus," remarked the young philosopher at my side.
"But it is really a great convenience, that system," she continued; "I'm always mislaying things—and through the drummer there's a whole village as aid to find a lost article. I shall, doubtless, always have that, now, in my bills!" And Charm, with an air of serene confidence in the village, adjusted her restored shoulder-cape.
Down below, in our neighbor's garden—the one adjoining our own and facing the sea—a new and old world of fashion in capes and other garments were a-flutter in the breeze, morning after morning. Who and what was this neighbor, that he should have so curious and eccentric a taste in clothes? No woman was to be seen in the garden-paths; a man, in a butler's apron and a silk skullcap, came and went, his arms piled high with gowns and scarves, and all manner of strange odds and ends. Each morning some new assortment of garments met our wondering eyes. Sometimes it was a collection of Empire embroidered costumes that were hung out on the line; faded fleur-de-lis, sprigs of dainty lilies and roses, gold-embossed Empire coats, strewn thick with seed-pearls on satins softened by time into melting shades. When next we looked the court of Napoleon had vanished, and the Bourbon period was, literally, in full swing. A frou-frou of laces, coats with deep skirts, and beribboned trousers would be fluttering airily in the soft May air. Once, in fine contrast to these courtly splendors, was a wondrous assortment of flannel petticoats. They were of every hue—red, yellow, brown, pink, patched, darned, wide-skirted, plaited, ruffled—they appeared to represent the taste and requirement of every climate and country, if one could judge by the thickness of some and the gossamer tissues of others; but even the smartest were obviously, unmistakably, effrontedly, flannel petticoats.
It was a mystery that greatly intrigued us. One morning the mystery was solved. A whiff of tobacco from an upper window came along with a puff of wind. It was a heated whiff, in spite of the cooling breeze. It was from a pipe, a short, black pipe, owned by some one in the Mansard window next door. There was the round disk of a dark-blue beret drooping over the pipe. "Good—" I said to myself—"I shall see now—at last—this maniac with a taste for darned petticoats!"
The pipe smoked peacefully, steadily on. The beret was motionless. Between the pipe and the cap was a man's profile; it was too much in shadow to be clearly defined.
The next instant the man's face was in full sunlight. The face turned toward me—with the quick instinct of knowing itself watched—and then—
"Been here a year—but you, when did you arrive? What luck! What luck!"
It was John Renard, the artist; after the first salutations question followed question.
"Are you alone?—"
"Judge for yourself—that is she—in the garden yonder."
The beret dipped itself perilously out into the sky—to take a full view.
"Hem—I'll come in at once."
It was as a trio that the conversation was continued later, in the garden. But Renard was still chief questioner.
"Have you been out on the mussel-beds?"
"We'll go this afternoon—Have you been to Honfleur? Not yet?—We'll go to-morrow. The tide will be in to-day about four—I'll call for you—wear heavy boots and old clothes. It's jolly dirty. Where do you breakfast?"
The breakfast was eaten, as a trio, at our inn, an hour later. It was so warm a day, it was served under one of the arbors. Augustine was feeding and caressing the doves as we entered the inn garden. At sight of Renard she dropped a quiet courtesy, smiles and roses struggling for a supremacy on her round peasant face. She let the doves loose at once, saying: "Allez, allez," as if they quite understood that with Monsieur Renard's advent their hour of success was at an end.
Why does a man's presence always seem to communicate such surprising animation to a woman—to any woman? Why does his appearance, for instance, suddenly, miraculously stiffen the sauces, lure from the cellar bottles incrusted with the gray of thick cobwebs, give an added drop of the lemon to the mayonnaise, and make an omelette to swim in a sea of butter? All these added touches to our commonly admirable breakfast were conspicuous that day—it was a breakfast for a prince and a gourmet.
"The Mere can cook—when she gives her mind to it," was Renard's meagre masculine comment, as the last morsel of the golden omelette disappeared behind his mustache.
It was a gay little breakfast, with the circling above of the birds and the doves. There are duller forms of pleasure than to eat a repast in the company of an artist. I know not why it is, but it has always seemed to me that the man who lives only to copy life appears to get far more out of it than those who make a point of seeing nothing in it save themselves.
Renard, meanwhile, was taking pains to assure us that in less than a month the Villerville beaches would be crowded; only the artists of the brushes were here now; the artists of high life would scarcely be found deserting the Avenue des Acacias before June.
"French people are always coming to the seashore, you know—or trying to come. It's a part of their emotional religion to worship the sea. 'La mer! la mer!' they cry, with eyes all whites; then they go into little swoons of rapture—I can see them now, attitudinizing in salons and at tables-d'hote!" To which comment we could find no more original rejoinder than our laughter.
It was a day when laughter was good; it put one in closer relations with the universal smiling. There are certain days when nature seems to laugh aloud; in this hour of noon the entire universe, all we could see of it, was on a broad grin. Everything moved, or danced, or sang; the leaves were each alive, trembling, quivering, shaking; the insect hum was like a Wagnerian chorus, deafening to the ear; there was a brisk, light breeze stirring—a breeze that moved the higher branches of the trees as if it had been an arm; that rippled the grass; that tossed the wavelets of the sea into such foam that they seemed over-running with laughter; and such was still its unspent energy that it sent the Seine with a bound up through its shores, its waters clanging like a sheet of mail armor worn by some lusty warrior. We were walking in the narrow lane that edged the cliff; it was a lane that was guarded with a sentinel row of osiers, syringas, and laburnums. This was the guard of the cliffs. On the other side was the high garden wall, over which we caught dissolving views of dormer-windows, of gabled roofs, vine-clad walls, and a maze of peach and pear blossoms. This was not precisely the kind of lane through which one hurried. One needed neither to be sixteen nor even in love to find it a delectable path, very agreeable to the eye, very suggestive to the imaginative faculty, exceedingly satisfactory to the most fastidious of all the senses, to that aristocrat of all the five, the sense of smell. Like all entirely perfect experiences in life, the lane ended almost as soon as it began; it ended in a steep pair of steps that dropped, precipitously, on the pebbles of the beach.
For some reason best known to the day and the view, we all, with one accord, proceeded to seat ourselves on the topmost step of this stairway. We were waiting for the tide to fall, to go out to the mussel-bed. Meanwhile the prospect to be seen from this improvised seat was one made to be looked at. There is a certain innate compelling quality in all great beauty. When nature or woman presents a really grandiose appearance, they are singularly reposeful, if you notice; they have the calm which comes with a consciousness of splendor. It is only prettiness which is tormented with the itching for display; and therefore this prospect, which rolled itself out beneath our feet, curling in a half-moon of beach, broadening into meadows that dropped to the river edge, lifting its beauty upward till the hills met the sky. and the river was lost in the clasp of the shore—this aspect of nature, in this moment of beauty, was as untroubled as if Chateaubriand had not found her a lover, and had flattered man by persuading him that,
"La voix de l'univers, c'est mon intelligence."
OUT ON A MUSSEL-BED.
That same afternoon we were out on the mussel bed.
The tide was at its lowest. Before us, for an acre or more, there lay a wide, wet, stretch of brown mud. Near the beach was a strip of yellow sand; here and there it had contracted into narrow ridges, elsewhere it had expanded into scroll-like patterns. The bed of mud and slime ran out from this yellow sand strip—a surface diversified by puddles of muddy water, by pools, clear, ribbed with wavelets, and by little heaps of stones covered with lichens. The surface of the bed, whether pools or puddles, or rock-heaps, or sea-weeds massed, was covered by thousands and thousands of black, lozenge-shaped bivalves. These bivalves were the mussels. Over this bed of shells and slime there moved and toiled a whole villageful of old women. Where the sea met the edges of the mud-flat the throng of women was thickest. The line of the ever-receding shore was marked by the shapes of countless bent figures. The heads of these stooping women were on a level with their feet, not one stood upright. All that the eye could seize for outline was the dome made by the bent hips, and the backs that closed against the knees as a blade is clasped into a knife handle. The oblong masses that were lifted now and then, from the level of the sabots, resolved themselves into the outlines of women's heads and women's faces. These heads were tied up in cotton kerchiefs or in cotton nightcaps; these being white, together with the long, thick, aprons also white, were in startling contrast to the blue of the sky and to the changing sea- tones.
Between these women and the incoming tide, twice daily, was fought a persistent, unrelenting duel. It was a duel, on the part of the fish- wives, against time, against the fate of the tides, against the blind forces of nature. For this combat the women were armed to the teeth, clad as they were in their skeleton muscular leanness; helmeted with their heads of iron; visored in the bronze of their skin and in wrinkles that laughed at the wind. In these sinewy, toughened bodies there was a grim strength that appeared to know neither ache nor fatigue nor satiety.
High, clear, strong, came their voices. The tones were the tones that come from deep chests, and with a prolonged, sustained capacity for enduring the toil of men. But the high-pitched laughter proved them women, as did their loud and unceasing gossip. The battle of the voices rose above the swash of the waves, above, also, another sound, as incessant as the women's chatter and the swish of the water as it hissed along the mud-flat's edges.
This was the swift, sharp, saw-like cutting among the stones and the slime, the scrape, scrape of the hundred of knives into the moist earth. This ceaseless scraping, lunging, digging, made a new world of sound—strange, sinister, uncanny. It was neither of the sea nor yet of the land—it was a noise that seemed inseparable from this tongue of mud, that also appeared to be neither of the heavens above nor of the earth, from the bowels out of which it had sprung.
The mussels cling to their slime with extraordinary tenacity; only an expert, who knows the exact point of attachment between the hard shell and its soil, can remove a mussel with dexterity. These women, as they dipped their knives into the thick mud, swept the diminutive black bivalve with a trenchant movement, as a Moor might cleave a human head with one turn of his moon-shaped sword. Into the bronzed, wrinkled old hands the mussels then were slipped as if they had been so many dainty sweets.
New and pungent smells were abroad on this strip of slime. Sea smells, strong and salty; smells of the moist and damp soil, the bitter-sweet of wetted weeds, the aromatic flavor that shell-life yields, and the smells also of rotten and decaying fish—all these were inextricably blended in the air, that was of the keenness of a frost-blight for freshness, and yet was warm with the softness of a June sun.
Meanwhile the voices of the women were nearing. Some of the bent heads were lifted as we approached. Here and there a coif, or cotton cap, nodded, and the slit of a smile would gape between the nose and the meeting chin. A high good humor appeared to reign among the groups; a carnival of merriment laughed itself out in coarse, cracked laughter; loud was the play of the jests, hoarse and guttural the gibes that were abroad on the still air, from old mouths that uttered strong, deep notes.
"Why should they all be old?" we queried. We were near enough to see the women face to face now, since we were far out along the outer edges of the bed; we were so near the sea that the tide was beginning to wash us back, along with the fringe of the diggers.
"They're not—they only look old," replied Renard, stopping a moment to sketch in a group directly in front. "This life makes old women of them in no time. How old, for instance, should you think that girl was, over there?"
The girl whom he designated was the only figure of youth we had seen on the bed. She was working alone and remote from the others. She wore no coif. Her masses of red, wavy hair shaded a face already deeply seamed with lines of premature age. A moment later she passed close to us. She was bent almost double beneath a huge, reeking basket, heaped with its pile of wet mussels. She was carrying it to a distant pool. Once beside the pool, with swift, dexterous movement the heavy basket was slipped from the bent back, the load of mussels falling in a shower into the miniature lake. The next instant she was stamping on the heap, to plunge them with her sabot still further into the pool. She was washing her load. Soon she shouldered the basket again, filling it with the cleansed mussels. A moment later she joined the long, toiling line of women that were perpetually forming and reforming on their way to the carts. These latter were drawn up near the beach, their contents guarded by boys and old men, who received the loads the women had dug, dragging the whole, later, up the hill.
"She has the Venus de Milo lines, that girl," Renard continued, critically, with his eyes on her, as she now repassed us. The figure was drawn up at its full height. It had in truth a noble dignity of outline. There was a Spartan vigor and severity in the lean, uncorseted shape, with the bust thrown out against the sky—the bust of a young warrior rather than a woman. There was a hardy, masculine freedom in the pliable motion of her straight back, a ripple with muscles that played easily beneath the close bodice, in her arms, and her finely turned ankles and legs, that were bared below the knee. The very simplicity of her costume helped to mark the Greek severity of her figure. She wore a short skirt of some coarse hempen stuff, covered with a thick apron made of sail-cloth, her feet thrust into black sabots, while the upper part of her body was covered with an unbleached chemise, widely open at the throat.
She had the Phidian breadth and the modern charm—that charm which troubles and disturbs, haunting the mind with vague, unsatisfied suggestions of something finer than is seen, something nobler than the gross physical envelope reveals.
"I must have her—for my Salon picture," calmly remarked Renard, after a long moment of scrutiny, his eyes following the lean, stately figure in its grave walk across the weeds and slime. "Yes, I must have her."
"Won't she be hard to get? How can she be made to sit, a stiffened image of clay, after this life of freedom, this athletic struggle out here—with these winds and tides?"
One of us, at least, was stirred at Renard's calm assumption—the assumption so common to artists, who, when they see a good thing at once count on its possessorship, as if the whole world, indeed, were eternally sitting, agape with impatience, awaiting the advent of some painter to sketch in its portrait.
"Oh, it'll be easy enough. She makes two francs a day with her six basketfuls. I'll offer her three, and she'll drop like a shot."
"I'll make it a red picture," he continued, dipping his brushes into a little case of paints he held on his thumb; "the mussel-bed a reddish violet, the sky red in the horizon, and the girl in the foreground, with that torrent of hair as the high light. I've been hunting for that hair all over Europe." And he began sketching her in at once.
"Bonjour, mere, how goes it?" He nodded as he sketched at a wrinkled, bent figure, who was smiling out at him from beneath her load of mussels.
"Pas mal—e' vous, M'sieur Renard?"
"All right—and the mortgage, how goes that?"
"Pas si mal—it'll be paid off next year."
"Who is she? One of your models?"
"Yes, last year's: she was my belle—the belle of the mussel-bed for me, a year ago. Now there's a lesson in patience for you. She's sixty- five, if she's a minute; she's been working here, on this mussel-bed, for five years, to pay the mortgage off her farm; when that is done, her daughter Augustine can marry; Augustine's dot is the farm."
"Augustine—at our inn?"
"The very same."
"And the blonde—the handsome man at the creamery, he is the future—?"
"I'm sorry to hear such things of Augustine," smiled Renard, as he worked; "she must be indulging in an entr'acte. No, the gentleman of Augustine's—well, perhaps not of her affections, but of her mother's choice, is a peasant who works the farm; the creamery is only an incidental diversion. Again, I'm sorry to hear such sad things of Augustine—"
"Exactly. That's the way it's done—over here. Will you join me—over there?" Renard blushed a little. "I mean I wish to follow that girl—she's going to dig out yonder. Will you come?"
Meanwhile the light was changing, and so was the tide. The women were coming inward, washed up to the shore along with the grasses and seaweeds. A band of diggers suddenly started, with full basket loads, toward a fishing boat that had dropped anchor close in to the shore; it was a Honfleur craft, come to buy mussels for the Paris market. The women trudged through the water, up to their waists; they clustered about the boats like so many laden beasts. But their shrill bargaining proved them women.
Meanwhile that gentle hissing along the level stretch of brown mud was the tide. It was pushing the women upward, as if it had been a hand—the hand of a relentless fate—instead of a little, liquid kiss.
The sun, as it dipped, made a glory of splendor out of this commonplace bank. It soaked the mud in gold; it was in a royal mood, throwing its largess with reckless abundance to this poor of earth—to the slime and the mud. The long, yellow, lichen leaves massed on the rocks were dyed as if lying in a yellow bath. The sands were richly colored; the ridges were brown in the shadows and burnished at the tops. In the distance the sea weeds were black, sable furs, covering the velvet robes of earth. The sea out beyond was as rosy as a babe, and the sails were dazzlingly white as they floated past, between the sky and the distant purple line of the horizon.
Meanwhile the tide is coming in.
The procession of the women toward the carts grows in numbers. The thick sabots plunge into the mud, the water squirts out of the wooden shoes as the strong heels press into them. The straw, the universal stocking of these women-diggers, is reeking with dirt. Volumes of slush are splashed on the bared skinny ankles, on the wet skirts, wet to the waists, and on the coarse sail-cloth aprons tied beneath the hanging bosoms. The women are all drenched now in a bath of filth. The baskets are reeking with filth also, they rain showers of dirt along the bent backs. A long line of the bent figures has formed on their way to the carts. There is, however, a thick fringe of diggers left who still dispute their rights with the sea.
But the tide is pushing them inward, upward. And all the while the light is getting more and more golden, shimmery, radiant. Under this light, beneath this golden mantel of color, these creatures appear still more terrible. As they bend over, their faces tirelessly held downward on a level with their hands, they seem but gnomes; surely they are huge, undeveloped embryos of women, with neither head nor trunk. For this light is pitiless. It makes them even more a part of this earth, out of which they seem to have sprung, a strange amorphous growth. The bronzed skins are dyed in the gold as if to match with the hue of the mud; the wet skirts are shreds, gray and brown tatters, not so good in texture as the lichens, and the ragged jerseys seem only bits of the more distant weeds woven into tissues to hide mercifully the lean, sinewy backs.
The tide is almost in.
In the shallows the sunset is fading. Here and there are brilliant little pools, each pool a mirror, and each mirror reflects a different picture. Here is a second sky—faintly blue, with a trailing saffron scarf of cloud; there, the inverted silhouettes of two fish-wives are conical shapes, their coifs and wet skirts startlingly distinct in tones; beyond, sails a fantastic fleet, with polychrome sails, each spar, masthead, and wrinkled sail as sharply outlined as if chiselled in relief. Presently these miniature pictures fade as the light fades. Blacker grows the mud, and there is less and less of it; the silhouetted shapes of the diggers are seen no more; they are following the carts up the steep cliffs; even the sky loses its color and fades also. And the little pools that have been a burning orange, then a darkening violet, gay with pictured worlds, in turn pale to gray, and die into the universal blackness.
The tide is in.
It is flowing, rich and full, crested with foam beneath the osier hedges. We hear it break with a sudden dash and splutter against the cliff parapets. And the mud-bank is no more.
Half an hour later, from our chamber windows we looked forth through the dusk across at the mussel bed. The great mud-bank, all that black acreage of slime and sea-weed, the eager, struggling band of toiling fish wives, all was gone; it was all as if it had not been—would never be again. The water hissed along the beach; it broke in rhythmic, sonorous measure against the parapet. Surely there had never been any beds, or any mussels, or any toiling fish-wives; or if there had, it was all a world that the sea had washed up, and then as quietly, as heedlessly, as pitilessly had obliterated.
It was the very epitome of life itself.
Our visit to the mussel-bed, as we soon found, had been our formal introduction to the village. Henceforth every door step held a friend; not a coif or a blouse passed without a greeting. The village, as a village, lived in the open street. Villerville had the true French genius for society; the very houses were neighborly, crowding close upon the narrow sidewalk. Conversation, to be carried on from a dormer-window or from opposite sides of the street, had evidently been the first architectural consideration in the mind of the builders; doors and windows must be as open and accessible as the lives of the inhabitants. The houses themselves appeared to be regarded in the light of pockets, into which the old women and fishermen plunged to drag forth a net or a knife; also as convenient, if rude, little caverns into which the village crawled at night, to take its heavy slumber.
The door-step was the drawing-room, and the open street was the club of this Villerville world.
The door-way, the yard, or the bit of garden tucked in between two high walls—it was here, under the tent of sky rather than beneath the stuffy roofs, that the village lived, talked, quarrelled, bargained, worked, and more or less openly made love.
To the door-step everything was brought that was portable. There was nothing, from the small boy to the brass kettle, that could not be more satisfactorily polished off, in full view of one's world, than by one's self, in seclusion and solitude. Justice, at least, appeared to gain by this passion for open-air ministration, if one were to judge by the frequency with which the Villerville boy was laid across the parental knee. We were repeatedly called upon to coincide, at the very instant of flagellation, with the verdict pronounced against the youthful offender.
"S'il est assez mechant, lui? Ah, mesdames, what do you think of one who goes forth dry, with clean sabots, that I, myself, have washed, and behold him returned, apres un tout p'tit quart d'heure, stinking with filth? Bah! it's he that will catch it when his father comes home!" And meanwhile the mother's hand descends, lest justice should cool ere night.
There were other groups that crowded the doorsteps; there were young mothers that sat there, with their babes clasped to the full breasts, in whose eyes was to be read the satisfied passion of recent motherhood; there were gay clusters of young Norman maidens, whose glances, brilliant and restless, were pregnant with all the meaning of unspent youth. The figures of the fishermen, toiling up the street with bared legs and hairy breast, bending beneath their baskets alive with fish, stopped to have a word or two, seasoned with a laugh, with these latter groups. There were also knots of patient old men, wrecks that the sea had tossed back to earth, to rot and die there, that came out of the black little houses to rest their bones in the sun. And everywhere there were groups of old women, or of women still young, to whom the look of age had come long before its due time.
The village seemed peopled with women, sexless creatures for the most part, whom toil and the life on the mussel-bed or in the field had dried and hardened into mummy shapes. Only these, the old and the useless, were left at home to rear the younger generation and to train them to take up the same heavy burden of life. The coifs of these old hags made dazzling spots of brightness against the gray of the walls and the stuccoed houses; clustered together, the high caps that nodded in unison to the chatter were in startling contrast to the bronzed faces bending over the fish-nets, and to the blue-veined, leathery hands that flew in and out of the coarse meshes with the fluent ease of long practice.
With one of these old women we became friends. We had made her acquaintance at a poetic moment, under romantic circumstances. We were all three watching a sunset, under a pink sky; we were sitting far out on the grasses of the cliff. Her house was in the midst of the grasses, some little distance from the village, attached to it only as a ragged fringe might edge a garment. It was a thatched hut; yet there were circumstances in the life of the owner which had transformed the interior into a luxurious apartment. The owner of the hut was herself hanging on the edge of life; she was a toothless, bent, and withered old remnant; but her vigor and vivacity were those of a witch. Her hands and eyes were ceaselessly active; she was forever busy, fingering a fish-net, or polishing her Normandy brasses, or stirring some dark liquid in an iron pot over the dim fire.
At our first meeting, conversation had immediately engaged itself; it had ended, as all right talk should, in friendship. On this morning of our visit, many a gay one having preceded it, we found our friend arrayed as if for an outing. She had mounted her best coif, and tied across her shrivelled old breast was a vivid purple silk kerchief.
"Tiens, mes enfants, soyez les bienvenues," was her gay greeting, seasoned with a high cackling laugh, as she waved us to two rickety chairs. "No, I'm not going out, not yet; there is plenty of time, plenty of time. It is you who are good, si aimables, to come out here to see me. And tired, too, hein, with the long walk? Tiens, I had nearly forgotten; there's a bottle of wine open below—you must take a glass."
She never forgot. The bottle of wine had always just been opened; the cork was always also miraculously rebellious for a cork that had been previously pulled. Although our ancient friend was a peasant, her cellar was the cellar of a gourmet. Wonderful old wines were hers! Port, Bordeaux, white wines, of vintages to make the heart warm; each was produced in turn, a different vintage and wine on each one of our visits, but no champagne. This was no wine for women—for the right women. Champagne was a bad, fast wine, for fast, disreputable people. "C'est un vrai poison, qui vous infecte," she had declared again and again, and when she saw her daughter drinking it, it made her shudder; she confessed to having a moment of doubt; had Paris, indeed, really brought her child no harm? Then the old mere would shrug her bent shoulders and rub her hands, and for a moment she would be lost in thought. Presently the cracked old laugh would peal forth again, and, as she threw back her head, she would shake it as if to dispel some dark vision.
To-day she had dropped, almost as soon as we entered, into a narrow trap-door, descending a flight of stone steps. We could hear a clicking of bottles and a rustling of straw; and then, behold, a veritable fairy issuing from the bowels of the earth, with flushes of red suffusing the ribbed, bewrinkled face, as the old figure straightens its crookedness to carry the dusty bottle securely, steadily, lest the cloudy settling at the bottom should be disturbed. What a merry little feast then began! We had learned where the glasses were kept; we had been busily scouring them while our hostess was below. Then wine and glasses, along with three chairs, were quickly placed on the pine table at the door of the old house. Here, on the grass of the cliffs, we sat, sipping our wine, enjoying the sea that lay at our feet, and above, the sunlit sky. To our friend both sky and sea were familiar companions; but the fichu was a new friend.
"Yes, it is very beautiful, as you say," she said, in answer to our admiring comments. "It came from Paris, from my daughter. She sent it to me; she is always making me gifts; she is one who remembers her old mother! Figure to yourselves that last year, in midwinter, she sent me no less than three gowns, all wool! What can I do with them? C'est pour me flatter, c'est sa maniere de me dire qu'il faut vivre pour longtemps! Ah, la chere folle! But she spoils me, the darling!"
This daughter had become the most mysterious of all our Villerville discoveries. Our old friend was a peasant, the child of peasant farmers. She would always remain a peasant; and yet her daughter was a Parisian, and lived in a bonbonniere. She was also married; but that only served to thicken the web of mystery enshrouding her. How could a daughter of a peasant, brought up as a peasant, who had lived here, a tiller of the fields till her nineteenth year, suddenly be transformed into a woman of the Parisian world, gain the position of a banker's wife, and be dancing, as the old mere kept telling us, at balls at the Elysee? Her mother never answered this riddle for us; and, more amazing still, neither could the village. The village would shrug its shoulders, when we questioned it, with discretion, concerning this enigma. "Ah, dame! It was she—the old mere—who had had chances in life, to marry her daughter like that! Victorine was pretty—yes, there was no gainsaying she was pretty—but not so beautiful as all that, to entrap a banker, un homme serieux, qui vit de ses rentes! and who was generous, too, for the old mere needn't work now, since she was always receiving money." Gifts were perpetually pouring into the low rooms—wines, and Parisian delicacies, and thick garments.
The tie between the two, between the mother and daughter, appeared to be as strong and their relations as complete, as if one were not clad in homespun and the other in Worth gowns. There was no shame, that was easily seen, on either side; each apparently was full of pride in the other; their living apart was entirely due to the old mere's preference for a life on the cliffs, alone in the midst of all her old peasant belongings.
"C'est plus chez-soi, ici! Victorine feels that, too. She loves the smell of the old wood, and of the peat burning there in the fireplace. When she comes down to see me, I must shut fast all the doors and windows; she wants the whole of the smell, pour faire le vrai bouquet, as she says. If she had had children—ah!—I don't say but what I might have consented; but as it is, I love my old fire, and my view out there, and the village, best!"
At this point in the conversation, the old eyes, bright as they were, turned dim and cloudy; the inward eye was doubtless seeing something other than the view; it was resting on a youthful figure, clad in Parisian draperies, and on a face rising above the draperies, that bent lovingly over the deep-throated fireplace, basking in its warmth, and revelling in its homely perfume. We were silent also, as the picture of that transfigured daughter of the house flitted across our own mental vision.
"The village?" suddenly broke in the old mere. "Dieu de Dieu! that reminds me. I must go, my children, I must go. Loisette is waiting; la pauvre enfant—perhaps suffering too—how do I know? And here am I, playing, like a lazy clout! Did you know she had had un nini this morning? The little angel came at dawn. That's a good sign! And what news for Auguste! He was out last night—fishing; she was at her washing when he left her. Tiens, there they are, looking for him! They've brought the spy-glass."
The old mere shaded her eyes, as she looked out into the dazzling sunlight. We followed her finger, that pointed to a projection on the cliffs. Among the grasses, grouped on top of the highest rock, was a family party. An old fish-wife was standing far out against the sky; she also was shading her eyes. A child's round head, crowded into a white knit cap, was etched against the wide blue; and, kneeling, holding in both hands a seaman's long glass, was a girl, sweeping the horizon with swift, skilful stretches of arm and hand. The sun descended in a shower of light on the old grandam's seamy face, on the red, bulging cheeks of the chubby child, and on the bent figure of the girl, whose knees were firmly implanted in the deep, tall grasses. Beyond the group there was nothing but sea and sky.
"Yes," the mere went on, garrulously, as she recorked the bottle of old port, carrying table and glasses within doors. "Yes, they're looking for him. It ought to be time, now; he's due about now. There's a man for you—good—bon comme le bon Dieu. Sober, saving too—good father—in love with Loisette as on the wedding night—ah, mes enfants!—there are few like him, or this village would be a paradise!"
She shut the door of the little cabin. And then she gave us a broad wink. The wink was entirely by way of explanation; it was to enlighten us as to why a certain rare bottle of port—a fresh one—was being secreted beneath her fichu. It was a wink that conveyed to us a really valuable number of facts; chief among them being the very obvious fact that the French Government was an idiot, and a tyrant into the bargain, since it imposed stupid laws no one meant to carry out; least of all a good Norman. What? pay two sous octroi on a bottle of one's own wine, that one had had in one's cellar for half a lifetime? To cheat the town out of those twopence becomes, of course, the true Norman's chief pleasure in life. What is his reputation worth, as a shrewd, sharp man of business, if a little thing like cheating stops him? It is even better fun than bargaining, to cheat thus one's own town, since nothing is to be risked, and one is so certain of success.
The mere nodded to us gayly, in farewell, as we all three re-entered the town. She disappeared all at once into a narrow door way, her arms still clasping her old port, that lay in the folds of her shawl. On her shrewd kindly old face came a light that touched it all at once with a glow of divinity; the mother in her had sprung into life with sharp, sweet suddenness; she had caught the wail of the new-born babe through the open door.
The village itself seemed to have caught something of the same glow. It was not only the splendor of the noon sun that made the faces of the worn fish-wives and the younger women softer and kindlier than common; the groups, as we passed them, were all talking of but one thing—of this babe that had come in the night, of Auguste's absence, and of Loisette's sharp pains and her cries, that had filled the street, so that none could sleep.
A PAGAN COBBLER.
At dusk that evening the same subject, with variations, was the universal topic of the conversational groups. Still Auguste had not come; half the village was out watching for him on the cliffs. The other half was crowding the streets and the doorsteps.
Twilight is the classic time, in all French towns and villages, for the al fresco lounge. The cool breath of the dusk is fresh, then, and restful; after the heat and sweat of the long noon the air, as it touches brow and lip, has the charm of a caress. So the door ways and streets were always crowded at this hour, groups moved, separated, formed and re formed, and lingered to exchange their budget of gossip, to call out their "Bonne nuit," the girls to clasp hands, looking longingly over their shoulders at the younger fishermen and farmers; the latter to nod, carelessly, gayly back at them; and then—as men will—to fling an arm about a comrade's shoulder as they, in their turn, called out into the dusk,
"Allons, mon brave; de l'absinthe, toi?" as the cabaret swallowed them up.
Great and mighty were the cries and the oaths that issued from the cabaret's open doors and windows. The Villerville fisherman loved Bacchus only, second to Neptune; when he was not out casting his net into the Channel he was drinking up his spoils. It was during the sobering process only that affairs of a purely domestic nature engaged his attention. Some of the streets were permeated with noxious odors, with the poison of absinthe and the fumes of cheap brandy. Noisy, reeling groups came out of the tavern doors, to shout and sing, or to fight their way homeward. One such figure was filling a narrow alley, swaying from right to left, with a jeering crowd at his heels.
"Est-il assez ridicule, lui? with his cap over his nose, and his knees knocking at everyone's door? Bah! ca pue! " the group of lads following him went on, shouting about the poor sot, as they pelted him with their rain of pebbles and paper bullets.
"Ah—h, he will beat her, in his turn, poor soul; she always gets it when he's full, as full as that—"
The voice was so close to our ears that we started. The words appeared addressed to us; they were, in a way, since they were intended for the street, as a street, and for the benefit of the groups that filled it. The voice was gruff yet mellow; despite its gruffness it had the ring of a latent kindliness in its deep tones. The man who owned it was seated on a level with our elbows, at a cobbler's bench. We stopped to let the crowd push on beyond us. The man had only lifted his head from his work, but involuntarily one stopped to salute the power in it.
"Bonsoir, mesdames"—the head gravely bowed as the great frame of the body below the head rose from the low seat. The room within seemed to contain nothing else save this giant figure, now that it had risen and was moving toward us. The half-door was courteously opened.
"Will not ces dames give themselves the trouble of entering? The streets are not gay at this hour."
We went in. A dog and a woman came forth from a smaller inner room to greet us; of the two the dog was obviously the personage next in point of intelligence and importance to the master. The woman had a snuffed- out air, as of one whose life had died out of her years ago. She blinked at us meekly as she dropped a timid courtesy; at a low word of command she turned a pitifully patient back on us all. There were years of obedience to orders written on its submissive curves; and she bent it once more over her kettles; both she and the kettles were on the bare floor. It was the poorest of all the Villerville interiors we had as yet seen; the house was also, perhaps, the oldest in the village. It and the old church had been opposite neighbors for several centuries. The shop and the living-room were all in one; the low window was a counter by day and a shutter by night. Within, the walls were bare as were the floors. Three chairs with sunken leather covers, and a bed with a mattress also sunken—a hollow in a pine frame, was the equipment in furniture. The poverty was brutal; it was the naked, unabashed poverty of the middle ages, with no hint of shame or effort of concealment. The colossus whom the low roof covered was as unconscious of the barrenness of his surroundings as were his own walls. This hovel was his home; he had made us welcome with the manners of a king.
Meanwhile the dog was sniffing at our skirts. After a tour of observation and inspection he wagged his tail, gave a short bark, and seated himself by Charm. The giant's eyes twinkled.
"You see, mesdames, it is a dog with a mind—he knows in an instant who are the right sort. And eloquence, also—he is one who can make speeches with his tail. A dog's tongue is in his tail, and this one wags his like an orator!"
Some one else, as well as the dog, possessed the oratorical gift. The cobbler's voice was the true speaker's voice—rich, vibrating, sonorous, with a deep note of melody in it. Pose and gestures matched with the voice; they were flexible and picturesquely suggestive.
"If you care for oratory—" Charm smiled out upon the huge but mobile face—"you are well placed. The village lies before you. You can always see the play going on, and hear the speeches—of the passers-by."
The large mouth smiled back. But at Charm's first sentence the keen Norman eyes had fixed their twinkling glitter on the girl's face. They seemed to be reading to the very bottom of her thought and being. The scrutiny was not relaxed as he answered.
"Yes, yes, it is very amusing. One sees a little of everything here. Le monde qui passe—it makes life more diverting; it helps to kill the time. I look out from my perch, like a bird—a very old one, and caged"—and he shook forth a great laugh from beneath the wide leather apron.
The woman, hearing the laugh, came out into the room.
"E'ben—et toi—what do you want?"
The giant stopped laughing long enough to turn tyrant. The woman, at the first of his growl, smiled feebly, going back with unresisting meekness to her knees, to her pots, and her kettles. The dog growled in imitation of his master; obviously the soul of the dog was in the wrong body.
Meanwhile the master of the dog and the woman had forgotten both now; he was continuing, in a masterful way, to enlighten us about the peculiarities of his native village. The talk had now reached the subject of the church.
"Oh, yes, it is fine, very, and old; it and this old house are the oldest of all the inhabitants of this village. The church came first, though, it was built by the English, when they came over, thinking to conquer us with their Hundred Years' War. Little they knew France and Frenchmen. The church was thoroughly French, although the English did build it; on the ground many times, but up again, only waiting the hand of the builder and the restorer."
Again the slim-waisted shape of the old wife ventured forth into the room.
"Yes, as he says"—in a voice that was but an echo—"the church has been down many times."
"Tais-toi—c'est moi qui parle," grumbled anew her husband, giving the withered face a terrific scowl.
"Ohe, oui, c'est toi," the echo bleated. The thin hands meekly folded themselves across her apron. She stood quite still, as if awaiting more punishment.
"It is our good cure who wishes to pull it down once more," her terrible husband went on, not heeding her quiet presence. "Do you know our cure? Ah, ha, he's a fine one. It's he that rules us now—he's our king—our emperor. Ugh, he's a bad one, he is."
"Ah, yes, he's a bad one, he is," his wife echoed, from the side wall.
"Well, and who asked you to talk?" cried her husband, with a face as black as when the cure's name had first been mentioned. The echo shrank into the wall. "As I was telling these ladies"—he resumed here his boot work, clamping the last between his great knees—"as I was saying, we have not been fortunate in cures, we of our parish. There are cures and cures, as there are fagots and fagots—and ours is a bad lot. We've had nothing but trouble since he came to rule over us. We get poorer day by day, and he richer. There he is now, feeding his hens and his doves—look, over there—with the ladies of his household gathered about him—his mother, his aunt, and his niece—a perfect harem. Oh, he keeps them all fat and sleek, like himself! Bah!"
The grunt of disgust the cobbler gave filled the room like a thunder-clap. He was peering over his last, across the open counter, at a little house adjoining the church green, with a great hatred in his face. From one of the windows of the house there was leaning forth a group of three heads; there was the tonsured head of a priest, round, pink-tinted, and the figures of two women, one youthful, with a long, sad-featured face, and the other ruddy and vigorous in outline. They were watching the priest as he scattered corn to the hens and geese in the garden below the window.
The cobbler was still eying them fiercely, as he continued to give vent to his disgust.
"Mechant homme—lui," he here whipped his thread, venomously, through the leather he was sewing. "Figure to yourselves, mesdames, that besides being wicked, our cure is a very shrewd man; it is not for the pure good of the parish he works, not he."
"Not he," the echo repeated, coming forth again from the wall. This time the whisper passed unnoticed; her master's hatred of the cure was greater than his passion for showing his own power.
"Religion—religion is a very good way of making money, better than most, if one knows how to work the machine. The soul, it is a fine instrument on which to play, if one is skilful. Our cure has a grand touch on this instrument. You should see the good man take up a collection, it is better than a comedy."
Here the cobbler turned actor; he rose, scattering his utensils right and left; he assumed a grand air and a mincing, softly tread, the tread of a priest. His flexible voice imitated admirably the rounded, unctuous, autocratic tone peculiar to the graduates of St. Sulpice.
"You should hear him, when the collection does not suit him: 'Mes freres et mes soeurs, I see that le bon Dieu isn't in your minds and your hearts to-day; you are not listening to his voice; the Saviour is then speaking in vain?' Then he prays—" the cobbler folded his hands with a great parade of reference, lifting his eyes as he rolled his lids heavenward hypocritically—"yes, he prays—and then he passes the plate himself! He holds it before your very nose, there is no pushing it aside; he would hold it there till you dropped—till Doomsday. Ah, he's a hard crust, he is! There's a tyrant for you—la monarchie absolue—that's what he believes in. He must have this, he must have that. Now it is a new altar-cloth, or a fresh Virgin of the modern make, from Paris, with a robe of real lace; the old one was black and faded, too black to pray to. Now it is a huissier, forsooth, that we must have, we, a parish of a few hundred souls, who know our seats in the church as well as we know our own noses. One would think a 'suisse' would have done; but we are swells now—avec ce gaillard-la, only the tiptop is good enough. So, if you grace our poor old church with your presence you will be shown to your bench by a very splendid gentleman in black, in knee-breeches, with silver chains, with a three-cornered hat, who strikes with his stick three times as he seats you. Bah! ridiculous!"
"Ridiculous!" the woman repeated, softly.
"They had the cure once, though. One day in church he announced a subscription to be taken up for restorations, from fifty centimes to—to anything; he will take all you give him, avaricious that he is! He believes in the greasing of the palm, he does. Well, think you the subscription was for restorations, mesdames? It was for demolition—that's what it was for—to make the church level with the ground. To do this would cost a little matter of twenty thousand francs, which would pass through his hands, you understand. Well, that staggered the parish. Our mayor—a man pas trop fin, was terribly upset. He went about saying the cure claimed the church as his; he could do as he liked with it, he said, and he proposed to make it a fine modern one. All the village was weeping. The church was the oldest friend of the village, except for such as I, whom these things have turned pagan. Well, one of our good citizens reminds the mayor that the church, under the new laws, belongs to the commune. The mayor tells this timidly to the cure. And the cure retorts, 'Ah, bien, at least one-half belongs to me.' And the good citizen answers—he has gone with the mayor to prop him up—'Which half will you take? The cemetery, doubtless, since your charge is over the souls of the parish.' Ah! ah! he pricked him well then! he pricked him well!"
The low room rang with the great shout of the cobbler's laughter. The dog barked furiously in concert. Our own laughter was drowned in the thunder of our host's loud guffaws. The poor old wife shook herself with a laugh so much too vigorous for her frail frame, one feared its after-effects.
The after-effects were a surprise. After the first of her husband's spasms of glee the old woman spoke out, but in trembling tones no longer.
"Ah, the cemetery, it is I who forgot to go there this week."
Her husband stopped, the laugh dying on his lip as he turned to her.
"Ah, ma bonne, how came that? You forgot?" His own tones trembled at the last word.
"Yes, you had the cramps again, you remember, and there was no money left for the bouquet."
"Yes, I remember," and the great chest heaved a deep sigh.
"You have children—you have lost someone?"
"Helas! no living children, mademoiselle. No, no—one daughter we had, but she died twenty years ago. She lies over there—where we can see her. She would have been thirty-eight years now—the fourteenth of this very month!"
"Yes, this very month."
Then the old woman, for the first time, left her refuge along the wall; she crept softly, quietly near to her husband to put her withered hand in his. His large palm closed over it. Both of the old faces turned toward the cemetery; and in the old eyes a film gathered, as they looked toward all that was left of the hope that was buried away from them.