French Life, by Elizabeth Gaskell

II

Chartres, May 10th, 1862.

We were quite worn out with the ever increasing noise of Paris; or, perhaps, I should rather say, as the heat became greater, so our necessity for open windows by day and by night increased; and the masons opposite rose to their work with the early morning light. So we determined to go off to Britanny for our few remaining days, having a sort of happy mixture of the ideas of sea, heath, rocks, ferns, and Madame de Sévigné in our heads. The one and first destined point in our plans was to see the cathedral at Chartres.

We left Paris about three o’clock, and went past several stations, the names of which reminded us of Madame de Sévigné’s time — Rambouillet, perhaps, the most of all. The station is some distance from the town of Chartres, which, like so many French provincial towns, consists of a Place, and a few appendent streets. The magnificent cathedral stands a little aloof; we left it on one side as we came in an omnibus up to our hotel, which looked on to the Place. But alas for my hopes of a quiet night! The space before the house is filled with booths — dancing-booths, acting-booths, wild-beast shows, music-booths, each and all making their own separate and distinct noises; the “touter” to one booth sitting in front of it and blowing a trumpet as hard as any angel in the old pictures; the hero of the theatrical booth walking backwards and forwards in front of his stage, and ranting away in King Cambyses’ vein; the lions and tigers are raging with hunger, to judge from their roars; and the musicians are in the full burst of the overture to Guillaume Tell. Mary and Irene have gone out, in spite of it all, to have a. peep at the cathedral before it is too dark; and I have chosen our bed-rooms. If the lion only knew it, he could easily make a spring into our balcony; but I hope, as he is great, he will be stupid. I have rung the bell, and rung the bell, and gone cut in the corridor and called; and, at last, I shall have to go downstairs, to try and find some one to bring up the meal which I have promised the others they shall find ready on their return. I have been and found Madame, and laid my complaint before her. She says the servants are all gone out to see the shows in the Place, which is very wicked in them; but I suspect, from her breathless way of speaking, she has only just rushed in herself, to see that I am not running away with the house. I fancy I am the only person in it. She assures me, with true French volubility, that she will send up some coffee and bread directly, and will scold Jeanette well.

May 11th. — Mary and Irene returned from the cathedral last night before anything was ready, and were too full of the extraordinary architectural magnificence they had seen to care about my Martha-like troubles. But I had not seen the cathedral; and I was hungry if they were not. I went down again, and this time I found Madame in full tilt against an unfortunate woman, who looked as if she had been captured, vi et armis, out of the open-air gaiety and the pleasant company of friends in the Place. She brought us up our meal with sullen speed, giving me occasionally such scowls of anger that I almost grew afraid at the feeling I had provoked. Yet she refused to be soothed by our little expressions of admiration for the fair, and our questions as to what was to be seen. Her only attempt at an apology was a sort of grumbling soliloquy, to the effect that ladies who knew what was comme il faut would never have gone out so late in the evening of a jour de fête to walk about the town; and that, as Mary and Irene had done this improper thing, there was no knowing when, if ever, they would return. I wish she had let us try to comfort her, for I really was very sorry to have dragged a poor creature back from what was, perhaps, the great enjoyment of the year. After our coffee we went to bed; and I am not at all sure if we were not, for some hours, the only occupants of the hotel. But the lion did not take advantage of his opportunity, though we were obliged to leave the windows open for the heat. This morning we went to see the cathedral. It is so wonderfully beautiful that no words can describe it. I am thoroughly glad we came by Chartres.

May 12th. — Vitré. — We came on here yesterday afternoon. Irene, who is the most wide-awake person I know, sat upright in the railway-carriage, looking out of the window with eager, intelligent eyes, and noting all she saw. It was a féte day; and at all the little cabarets, with their wayside gardens, there were groups of peasants in their holiday dress, drinking what appeared to be cider, from its being in large stone bottles, and eating galette — a sort of fiat cake of puff-paste, dusted over with powdered sugar, with which we had become well acquainted in Paris. The eating and drinking seemed, however, to be rather an excuse for sitting round well-scoured tables in the open air, than an object in itself. I sank back in my seat in a lazy, unobservant frame of mind, when Irene called out, “Oh, look! there is a peasant in the goat-skin dress one reads about; we must be in Britanny now; look, look!” I had to sit up again and be on the alert; all the time thinking how bad for the brain it was to be straining one’s attention perpetually after the fast-flitting objects to be seen through a railway carriage window. This is a very good theory; but it did not quite hold water in practice. Irene was as bright as ever when we stopped at Vitré; I was tired and stupid. Perhaps the secret was, that I did unwillingly what she did with pleasure.

The station at Vitré is a little outside the town, and is smart and new and in apple-pie order, as a station on a line that has to make its character ought to he. The town, on the contrary, is ancient, picturesque, and deserted. There have been fortified walls all round it, but these are now broken down in many places, and small hovels have been built of the débris wherever this is the case, giving one the impression of a town stuffed too full, which has burst its confines and run over. Yet inside the walls there are many empty houses, and many grand fortified dwellings, with coats of arms emblazoned over the doorway, which are only half-occupied. All the little world of the town seemed to be at the railway-station, and everybody welcomed us with noise and advice. The inn down in our ten-years-old Murray no longer existed; so we were glad to be told of the “Hôtel Sévigné,” although we suspected it to be a mere trick of a name. Not at all. We are really veritably lodged in the very house she occupied, when she left Les Rochers to come and do the honours of Vitré to the Governor of Britanny — the Duc de Chaulnes. Our hotel is the “Tour de Sévigné” of her letters. On being told this, I asked for the tower itself. It had been pulled down only a year or two before, in order to make the great rambling mansion more compact as an hotel. As it was, they had changed the main entrance from hack to front; and to arrive at it, we had to go over a great piece of vacant irregular ground, the inequalities of which were caused by the débris of the tower.

The place belongs to the Marquis de Néthumières, a descendant of the de Sévignés, so our host said. At any rate, he lives at Les Rochers, and owns our hotel. It seems as though our landlord had not had capital enough to furnish the whole of this immense, far-stretching house, which is entered in the middle of the building with long corridors to the right and to the left, both upstairs and downstairs — corridors so wide and well-lighted by the numerous windows looking to the back (or town-side), that they are used as store-rooms and sculleries. Here there are great sacks of corn and unpacked boxes of possible groceries; there a girl sits and sings as she mends the house-linen by a window, apparently diligent enough, but perfectly aware, all the time, that the ostler in the yard below is trying to attract her attention; and there, again, a woman is standing, shoulders square, to an open window, “topping and tailing” a basket of gooseberries, and shouting out her part of a conversation with some one unseen in the yard below. Yet the great corridor looks empty and strangely deserted. Somehow, I suppose that as soon as I heard the name of “Tour de Sévigné,” I expected to see a fair, plump lady, in hanging sleeves and long light-brown ringlets, walking before me wherever I went, half-turning her pretty profile over her white shoulder to say something bright and playful; and, instead, we follow our rather spruce landlord into the bedrooms at the end of the corridor, and coolly order our dinner for this day of May, 1862.

The rooms in this house are not large, but so very lofty, that I suspect that the panelled partition walls are but later wooden divisions of large? rooms; and so, on tapping, we find to be the case. My window looks out on the country outside the town; Irene’s is just on the opposite side, and she sees roofs of deeply furrowed tiles — roofs of every possible angle and shape, but mostly high pitched; they are covered with golden and grey lichens which tone down the old original red. There are broad gutters round the verge of every one, regular cats’ Pall Malls. And see, there is an old black grimalkin coming round yonder corner, with meek and sleepy gait, of course entirely unconscious of the flock of pigeons towards which she is advancing with her velvet steps. They strut and pout and ruffle themselves up, turning their pretty soft plumage to the sun till they catch the rainbow tints; and whiff — they are all off in mid-air, and the hypocritical cat has to go on walking in the gutter, as if pigeons had been the last thing in her thoughts when she made that playful spring round the corner. How picturesque the old town looks beyond, though, to be sure, we see little besides roofs — the streets must be so narrow! Let us make haste and have our meal, and go out before the sun sets. Pigeons for dinner! Ah, Pussy, we begin to have a fellow-feeding for you.

May l3th. — We have had a busy day, but a very pleasant one. In the first place, we had a long talk with our landlord about the possibility of seeing Les Rochers. The Marquis was very strict about not letting it be shown without his permission, and he and Madame were known to be at Rennes; so we thought of giving it up. Then our landlord turned round in his opinions, and said that doubtless the Marquis and Madame would be very sorry for any foreigners to come so far on a bootless errand; and so — after a good many pro’s and con’s, we always following our landlord’s lead, and agreeing to all that he said, in hopes of getting to the end of the discussion — we made a bargain for a little conveyance, half Irish car, half market cart, which was to take us to Les Rochers, and to stay there as long as we liked. Who so merry as we this bright dewy May morning, cramped up in our jolting, rattling carriage, the fourth place occupied by sketch-books and drawing materials? First, we rattled along the narrow streets of Vitré; the first floors of the houses are propped up upon black beams of wood, making a rude sort of colonnade, under which people walk; something like Chester — and then we passed out of the old turretted gate of the town, into the full and pleasant light of early morning.

We began to climb a hill, the road winding round Vitré, till we peeped down upon the irregular roofs and stacks of chimneys pent in the circular walls; and we saw the remains of the old castle, inhabited by the Duc and Duchesse de Chaulnes, in the days when Madame de Sévigné came to stay at the “Tour”, and show hospitality to her Paris friends in that barbarous region. And now we were on a high level, driving along pretty wooded lanes, with here and there a country château or manor house, surrounded by orchards on either side of us. Towards one of these our driver pointed. It was low and gabled; I have seen a hundred such in England. “That is the old house of the De la Trémouilles,” said he. And then we began to think of a daughter of that house who had been transplanted by marriage into England, and was known in English history and romance as Charlotte, the heroic Countess of Derby. By this time we had made great friends with our driver, by admiring his brisk little Breton pony, and asking him various questions about Breton cows. Suddenly he turned into a field-road on our left; and in three minutes we were in full sight of Les Rochers. We got down, and looked about us. We were on the narrow side of an oblong of fine delicate grass; on our right were peaked-roof farm buildings, granaries, barns, stables, and cow-houses; opposite to us, a thick wood, showing dark in the sunlight; in the corner to our left was the house, with tourelles and towers, and bits of high-roof, and small irregular doors; a much larger and grander building than I had expected; very like the larger castles in Scotland. Then quite on our right was the low wall, and ha-ha of the gardens, and the bridge over the ha-ha, and the richly-worked iron gates. We turned round; we were at the edge of the rising ground which fell rather abruptly from this point into a rich smiling plain — the Bocage country, in fact. We could see far away for miles and miles, till it all melted into the blue haze of distance.

Our driver took out his horse, and went to make friends with the farm-servants, who had turned out with lazy curiosity to look at the strangers. We sat down on the ground; the turf was fine and delicate, and the little flowerets interspersed were all of such kinds as tell of a lime-soil and of pure air. There were larks up above, right in the depth of the blue sky, singing as if they would crack their throats for joy; the sort of open farm-yard before us was full of busy, prosperous poultry of all kinds — hens clucking up their large broods of chickens, cocks triumphantly summoning their wives to the feast before the barn-door, fussy turkeys strutting and gobbling, and flocks of pigeons, now basking on the roof, now fluttering down to the ground. There were dogs baying in the unseen background, to add to the various noises. I never saw a place so suggestive of the ideas of peace and plenty. There were cows, too, tethered in the dusky shadows of the open cow-houses, with heaps of cut green food before them.

Our plan was to sketch first, and then to try to see the house. Now and then a servant in rather clumsy livery, or a maid in the country dress of Britanny, went across the space, to have a little talk with the farm-servants, and a sidelong look at us. At last an old man in a blue blouse came out from the group near the barn door, and slowly approach mg, sat himself down on a hillock near. Of course we began to talk, seeing his sociable intentions; and he told us he was a De la Roux, and had relations “in London.” I fancied he might mean the De la Rues, but he corrected my mis-spelling with some indignation, and again asked me if I did not know his relations in London — the De la Roux. Ah yes! they were noble, he was noble; his ancestors had been as great as the ancestors of the Marquis yonder, but they had taken the wrong side in the wars; and here was he, their grandchild, obliged to work for his daily bread. We sighed out of sympathy with his sighs, and amplified the text, “Sic transit,” &c. Then he offered us a pinch of snuff, which we took, and sneezed accordingly; and this afforded our old friend much amusement. To wind up this little story all at once — when we were going away, we demurred as to whether we could venture to offer a De la Roux a couple of francs, or whether it would not seem like an insult to his noble blood. The wisdom of age carried the day against the romance of youth, and was justified in seeing the eager eyes in the worn sharp face watching the first initiatory sign of a forthcoming gift with trembling satisfaction. How pleasant the long quiet morning was! A cloud-shadow passing over us, a horse coming too near with its loud champing of the sweet herbage, our only disturbance; while before us the evident leisure for gossip, and signs of plenty to eat, filled up the idea of rural happiness. Then we went and saw the house, and the portraits, and passed out of the window into the garden — like all French gardens — with neglected grass, and stone-fountains, and cut yews and cypresses, and a profusion of lovely flowers, roses especially. We were all very sorry to come away.

Early this evening, Mary and Irene went out to sketch, and planted themselves down in a street already occupied by picturesque booths and open-air shops for pottery, men’s clothes, and the really serviceable articles for country use. It seems it was the market-day at Vitré; and it was very pretty to watch the young housewives in their best attire, bargaining and hesitating over their purchases. Their dress was invariably a gown of some bright coloured cotton, a handkerchief of the same material, but a different colour, crossed over the breast à la Marie Antoinette, and a large apron, with a bib of a third hue almost covering the petticoat, and confining and defining the bust. They rung the changes on turkey-red, bright golden brown, and full dark blue. Indeed, the dark narrow streets, with their colonnades, black with the coming shadows, needed this relief of colour.

The little boys of Vitré, let loose from school, came clustering round about our sketchers. It was certainly a great temptation to the lads: but they came too close, and entirely, obstructed the view, and only laughed, at first shyly, afterwards a little rudely, at my remonstrances. I applied to a gendarme, slowly coming down the street, but he only shrugged his shoulders with the hopeless beginning of “Que voulez-vous, Madame! I am not here to impede the concourse of children,” and passed on. Just at this moment a stout woman selling men’s clothes in the open street close by, observed the dilemma, and came to the rescue. She wielded a pair of good strong fustian trousers, and scolded in right down earnest — and also in right-down good-humour, casting her weapon about her with considerable dexterity, so as to make it answer the purpose of a cat-o’-nine-tails. And thus she cleared a circle for us; and whenever she saw us too much crowded she came again; and the lads laughed, and we laughed, and we all ended capital friends. By-and-by she began to pack up her stock of clothes: she had a cart brought to her by her husband, and first she took down the poles of her booth, and then the awning, then the impromptu counter came to pieces, and lastly the coats and trousers, the blouses and jackets, were packed into great sacks. And she was on the point of departure — being, as we afterwards heard, a pedlaress who made the circuit of the markets in the district with her wares — when I thought that the only civility I could offer her was to show her the drawings that Mary and Irene had made, thanks to her well-timed interposition. She swore many a good round oath to enforce her admiration of the sketches, and called her little obedient husband to look at them; but, on his failing to recognise some object, she gave him a good cuff on the ear, apologising to us for his stupidity. I do not think he liked her a bit the less for this conduct.

May 4th. — We have decided to return to England to see the Exhibition. We are going by Fougères, Pont Orson, Mont St. Michel, Avranches, Caen, and Rouen; and by that time we shall have made an agreeable “loop” of a little journey full of objects of interest.

* * * * * * *

February 16th, 1863. — Again in Paris! and, as I remember a young English girl saying with great delight, “we need never be an evening at home!” But her visions were of balls; our possibilities are the very pleasant ones of being allowed to go in on certain evenings of the week to the houses of different friends, sure to find them at home ready to welcome any who may come in. Thus, on Mondays, Madame de Circourt receives; Tuesdays, Madame —; Wednesdays, Madame de M—; Thursdays, Monsieur G — and so on. There is no preparation of entertainment; a few more lights, perhaps a Baba, or cake savouring strongly of rum, and a little more tea is provided. Every one is welcome, and no one is expected. The visitors may come dressed just as they would be at home; or in full toilette, on their way to balls and other gaieties. They go without any formal farewell; whence, I suppose, our expression “French leave.”

Of course the agreeableness of these informal receptions depends on many varying circumstances, and I doubt if they would answer in England. A certain talent is required in the hostess; and this talent is not kindness of heart, or courtesy, or wit, or cleverness, but that wonderful union of all these qualities, with a dash of intuition besides, which we call tact. Madame Récamier had it in perfection. Her wit or cleverness was of the passive or receptive order; she appreciated much, and originated little. But she had the sixth sense, which taught her when to speak, and when to be silent. She drew out other people’s powers by her judicious interest in what they said; she came in with sweet words before the shadow of a coming discord was perceived. It could not have been all art; it certainly was not all nature. As I have said, invitations are not given for these evenings. Madame receives on Tuesdays. Any one may go. But there are temptations for special persons which can be skilfully thrown out. You may say in the hearing of one whom you wish to attract, “I expect M. Guizot will be with us on Tuesday; he is just come back to Paris,” — and the bait is pretty sure to take: and of course you can vary your fly with your fish. Yet, in spite of all experience and all chances, some houses are invariably dull. The people who would be dreary at home, go to be dreary there. The gay, bright spirits are always elsewhere; or perhaps come in, make their bows to the hostess, glance round the room, and quietly vanish. I cannot make out why this is; but so it is.

But a delightful reception, which will never take place again — a more than charming hostess, whose virtues, which were the real source of her charms, have ere this “been planted in our Lord’s garden” — awaited us to-night. In this one case I must be allowed to chronicle a name — that of Madame de Circourt — so well known, so fondly loved, and so deeply respected. Of her accomplished husband, still among us, I will for that reason say nothing, excepting that it was, to all appearances, the most happy and congenial marriage I have ever seen. Madame de Circourt was a Russian by birth, and possessed that gift for languages which is almost a national possession. This was the immediate means of her obtaining the strong regard and steady friendship of so many distinguished men and women of different countries. You will find her mentioned as a dear and valued friend in several memoirs of the great men of the time. I have heard an observant Englishman, well qualified to speak, say she was the cleverest woman he ever knew. And I have also heard one, who is a saint for goodness, speak of Madame de Circourt’s piety and benevolence and tender kindness, as unequalled among any women she had ever known. I think it is Dekker who speaks of our Saviour as “the first true gentleman that ever lived.” We may choose to be shocked at the freedom of expression used by the old dramatist: but is it not true? Is not Christianity the very core of the heart of all gracious courtesy? I am sure it was so with Madame de Circourt. There never was a house where the weak and dull and humble got such kind and unobtrusive attention, or felt so happy and at home. There never was a place that I heard of, where learning and genius and worth were more truly appreciated, and felt more sure of being understood. I have said that I will not speak of the living; but of course every one must perceive that this state could not have existed without the realisation of the old epitaph —

They were so one, it never could be said

Which of them ruled, and which of them obeyed.

There was between them but this one dispute,

’Twas which the other’s will should execute.

In the prime of life, in the midst of her healthy relish for all social and intellectual pleasures, Madame de Circourt met with a terrible accident; her dress caught fire, she was fearfully burnt, lingered long and long on a sick-bed, and only arose from it with nerves and constitution shattered for life. Such a trial was enough, both mentally and physically, to cause that form of egotism which too often takes possession of chronic invalids, and which depresses not only their spirits, but the spirits of all who come near them. Madame de Circourt was none of these folks. Her sweet smile was perhaps a shade less bright; but it was quite as ready. She could not go about to serve those who needed her; but, unable to move without much assistance, she sat at her writing-table, thinking and working for others still. She could never again seek out the shy or the slow or the awkward; but, with a pretty beckoning movement of her hand, she could draw them near her, and make them happy with her gentle sensible words. She would no more be seen in gay brilliant society; but she had a very active sympathy with the young and the joyful who mingled in it; could plan their dresses for them; would take pains to obtain a supply of pleasant partners at a ball to which a young foreigner was going; and only two or three days before her unexpected death — for she had suffered patiently for so long that no one knew how near the end was — she took much pains to give a great pleasure to a young girl of whom she knew very little, but who, I trust, will never forget her.

I could not help interrupting the course of my diary to pay this tribute to Madame de Circourt’s memory. At the end of February, 1563, many were startled with a sudden pang of grief. “Have you heard? Madame de Circourt is dead!” “Dead! — why, we were at her house not a week ago!” “And I had a note from her only two days ago, about a poor woman,” &c. And then the cry was “Oh, her poor husband! who has lived but for her, who has watched over her so constantly!

We were at her house not a fortnight before, and met the pretty gay people all dressed out for a Carnival ball at the Russian Embassy. The whole thing looked unreal. They came and showed themselves in their brilliant costumes, exchanged a witticism or a compliment, and then flitted away to exhibit themselves elsewhere, and left the room to a few quiet, middle-aged, or quieter people. A lady was introduced to me, whose name I recognised, although I could not at the moment remember where I had heard it before. She looked, as she was, a French Marquise. I forget how much her dress was in full costume, but she had much the air of a picture of the date of Louis XV.

After she was gone, I recollected where I had heard the name. She was the present lady of Les Rochers, whose ancient manor-house we had visited in Britanny the year before. Instead of a Parisian drawing-room, full of scented air, brilliant with light, through which the gay company of high-born revellers had just passed, the bluff of land overlooking the Bocage rose before me; the short sweet turf on which we lay fragrant with delicate flowers; the grey-turretted manor-house, with here and there a faint yellow splash of colour on the lichen-tinted walls; the pigeons wheeling in the air above the high dove-cot; the country-servants in their loosely-fitting, much-belaced liveries; and old De la Roux in his blouse, shambling around us, with his horn snuff-box and story of ancestral grandeur. I told M. de Circourt of our visit to Britanny, and in return he gave me the following curious anecdote:— An uncle of his was the General commanding the Western district of France in or about 1816. He had a Montmorenci for his aide-de-camp; and on one of his tours of inspection the General and aide were guests at Lee Rochers. They were to have left their hospitable quarters the next day; but in the morning the General said to M. de Montmorenci that their host had pressed him to remain there another night, which he found, on inquiry, would be perfectly convenient for his plans, and therefore he had determined to accept the invitation. M. de Montmorenci, however, to the General’s surprise, begged to be allowed to go and sleep at Vitré; and, on the General’s inquiring what ebuld be his reason for making such a request, he said that he had not been properly lodged; that the bedroom assigned to him was not one befitting a Moutmorenci. “How so?” said the General. “Did they put you in a garret? Bachelors have often to put up with rough quarters when a house is full of visitors.” “No, sir; I was on the ground-floor. My room was spacious and good enough; but it was that which had once belonged to Madame de Sévigné.”

M. de Montmorenci after he had said this, looked as though he had given a full explanation; but the General was rather more perplexed than before.

“Well! and why should you object to sleeping in the room which once belonged to Madame Sévigné? From all accounts she was a very pretty, charming woman: and certainly she wrote delightful letters.”

“Pardon me, sir; but it appears to me that you forget that Madame de Sévigné was a Jansenist, and that I am a Montmorenci, of the family of the first Baron of Christendom.”

The young man was afraid of the contamination of heresy that might be lingering in the air of the room. There are old rooms in certain houses shut up since the days of the Great Plague, which are not to be opened for the world. I hope that certain Fellows’ rooms in Balliol may be hermetically sealed, when their present occupants leave them, lest a worse thing than the plague may infect the place.

February 21st. — All this evening I have been listening to fragmentary recollections of the Reign of Terror, told us by two ladies of high distinction. One of them said that her remembrances of that time would have a peculiar value, as she was then only a child of five or six years of age; and could not have attempted at that age to join her fragments together by any theory, however wild and improbable. She could simply recall what struck on her senses as extraordinary and unprecedented. I think the first thing she named was her indignation at seeing her mother assume a servant’s dress, as she then thought. Evidently it had been considered advisable that Madame de — should set aside all outward sign of superior rank or riches, and put on the clothes of what we should now call a “working-woman.”

The next thing my friend remembered was the temporary absence of her father; who must have been arrested on suspicion, and, strange to say, in those days, released, but kept under strict surveillance. During his absence from home all the servants were dismissed, excepting the child’s bonne. They lived in an apartment in the Place Vendôme, and there was grass in the centre of the Place; what we, in England, should call a “green,” I should imagine. When her father returned home two men came with him. They were “citizens” told off to keep a watch upon M. de —’s movements. The little girl looked upon them as rude, vulgar men (she was a true little aristocrat, in fact), and wondered and chafed at her mother’s trembling civility to these two fellows. They sat in the drawing-room, lolled in the best satin-cushioned chairs, smoked their pipes; and the dainty mother never upbraided them! It was very inexplicable. Madame cooked the family dinner; and probably did not do it remarkably well, even though she was a Frenchwoman. One day, one of the two citizen-guards, finding the idleness of his life in the drawing-room wearisome, or seized with a fit of good-nature, offered to turn cook. I think it was imagined he had been a cook somewhere under the old régime. And, after he had found for himself this congenial appointment, his fellow-guard offered to knit stockings for the family, and to sit in the salle-à-manger, through which every one going in or out of the salon must pass. Either he or the cook left whatever they were about to accompany Monsieur le Suspect whenever he made any signs of wanting to go out. But altogether, and considering the office they held, they were not disobliging inmates, after the first jealousy of neglect was soothed.

Another circumstance which Madame de — had observed was her mother’s silence and depression of spirits at a particular hour. As sure as eleven o’clock drew near, the poor lady ceased talking to her little girl, and listened. Then by-and-by came a horrid heavy rumble in the distant streets; clearer and clearer it sounded, advancing slowly, then turning, and dying away into a sudden stop. This ominous noise was the more recognisable because of the general silence of Paris streets at that time. The carriage of the Prosecutor General, Fouquier-Tinville, was the only one that rolled about pretty much as it did in former years; any other was put down for fear lest it might be considered a mark of “aristocracy.” But the diurnal heavy sound, at which the poor lady grew pale and crossed herself and prayed, was the Charrette, with its daily tale of forty or fifty victims, going to the Place Louis XV. From the Place Vendôme a sort of lane between two dead walls led down to the gardens of the Tuileries. These walls bounded the respective gardens of the convents of the Feuillants, and the Jacobins, which gave their names to the different political parties that met in the deserted buildings. Indeed, the iron gate leading into the Tuileries Gardens opposite to the end of the Rue Castiglione is still called the Porte des Feuillants. Along this dreary walled-in lane Madame de — was taken by her bonne for a daily walk in the Palace Gardens. I asked her how it was that her parents, in sending their child for her exercise into these Gardens, did riot dread the chance of her being shocked by the sights and sounds in the adjoining Place Louis XV. She replied that in those days there was a row of irregular, unshapely buildings at the further end of the Gardens, completely shutting out the Place. Every one about the court who fancied that the erection of any edifice would add to his convenience ordered it to be built at the end of the Gardens, at the national expense; and thus there was a very sufficient screen between the Gardens and the Place. Besides, added her friend, Madame de St. A — it was terrible to think how soon people are familiarised with horror; terrible in one sense — merciful in another; for elsewise how could persons have kept their senses in those days? She said that her husband, M. de St. A — when a boy of ten or twelve, was only saved from being shut up with his parents and all the rest of his family in the Abbaye by the faithful courage of an old servant, who carried the little fellow off to his garret in the Faubourg St. Antoine. Of course this was done at the risk of the man’s life, harbouring a suspected aristocrat being almost as criminal as being an aristocrat yourself. The little lad pined in the necessary confinement of his refuge; the close air, the difference of food, the anxiety about his father and mother, all told upon his health; and the man, his protector, seeing this, began to cast about him for some amusement and relaxation for the boy. So once a week he took the boy, well disguised, out for a walk. Where to, do you think? To the Place Louis XV., to see the guillotine at work on the forty or fifty victims! The delicate little boy shrank and sickened at the sight; yet tried to conquer all signs of his terror and loathing, partly out of regard to the man who had run so much risk in saving him, partly out of an instinctive consciousness that in those times of excitement, and among that impulsive race, his very friend and protector might have a sudden irritation against him, if he saw the boy’s repugnance to the fearful exhibition, and might there and then denounce him as a little enemy to the public safety.

And again, and also to mark the apathy as to life, and the wild excitement which people took in witnessing the deadly terror and sufferings of others, Madame de St. A— went on to say that her husband’s family, to the number of six, were imprisoned in the Abbaye, and made part of that strange sad company who lived there, and resigned themselves to their fate by keeping up that mockery of the society they had enjoyed in happier days: visiting each other, carrying on amusements and etiquette with dignity and composure; and, when the day’s list of victims was read out by the gaoler, bidding farewell to those who still bided their time with quiet dignity and composure. One morning the gaoler’s daughter, a bonny, good-tempered girl of fourteen or fifteen, who was a favourite with all that sad company, came instead of her father to read out the list of those for whom at that very minute the tumbril was waiting outside the gate. Every one of the six members of the St. A— family were named. It was well; no one would remain in bitter solitude awaiting their day. One after another rose up, and bade the remaining company their solemn, quiet farewell, and followed the girl out of the door into the corridor, through another door, and then she stopped; she had not the key of the next. She turned round and laughed at those who were following her, with the glee of one who had performed a capital practical joke. “Have not you all been well taken in? Was it not a good trick? Look! it is only a blank sheet of paper. The list has not come yet. You may all go back again!” And their names, by some good fortune, were never placed on the lists; and the death of Robespierre set them free.

The conversation then turned upon the marvel it was now to think upon the immunity which Robespierre seemed to enjoy from all chances of assassination. There was no appearance of precaution in either his dress or his movements. His hours of going out and coming in were punctiliously regular; his methodical habits known to any one who cared to inquire. At a certain time of day he might be seen by crowds issuing forth from his house in the Rue St. Honoré, dressed with the utmost nicety, neither hurried in gait, nor casting any suspicious glances around him. His secretary, so said my friends, was alive not more than twenty years ago; living in an apartment in the Quartier Latin, which he seldom left for any purpose. He had managed to avoid all public notice at the time of his master’s death; and, long after most of those were dead who might have recognised him, the old man lived on in the seclusion of his rooms; maintaining to the few who cared to visit him his belief that Robespierre was a conscientious, if a mistaken, man. Then my friend Madame de — took up the tale of her childish remembrances, and told us that the next thing she remembered clearly was her terror when one day, being at the window, she saw a wild mob come dancing and raging, shouting, laughing, and yelling into the Place Vendôme, with red nightcaps on their heads, their shirtsleeves stripped up above the elbows, their hands and arms discoloured and red. Her mother, shuddering, drew the child away before she saw more; and the two cowered together in the farther corner of the room till the infernal din died away in the distance. The following summer, or so she thought it was — it was hot, bright weather at any rat — some order was given, or terrific hint whispered — she knew not which; but her parents and all the inhabitants of the houses in the Place had their tables spread in the open air, and took their meals al fresco, joined at pleasure by any of the Carmagnoles who chanced to be passing by, dressed much as those whom I have just mentioned as having so terrified the little girl and her mother. This enforced hospitality was considered a mark of good citizenship; and woe to those who shrank from such companionship at their board!

March 1st. — To-night, at home, the conversation turned upon English and French marriages. As several Frenchmen of note who had married English wives were present (and one especially, whose mother also was English, and who can use either tongue with equal eloquence), the discussion was based on tolerably correct knowledge. Most of those present objected strongly to the English way of bringing up the daughters of wealthy houses in all the luxurious habits of their fathers’ homes. Their riding-horses, their maids, their affluence of amusement; when, if the question of marriage arose — say to a young man of equal birth and education, but who had his way to make in the world — the father of the young lady could rarely pay any money down. It was even doubtful if he could make her an annual allowance; hardly ever one commensurate with the style in which she had been accustomed to live. In all probability a younger child’s portion would be hers when her father died; when either the two lovers had given up all thoughts of uniting their fates, or when perhaps they no longer needed it, having had force of character enough to face poverty together, and had won their way upwards to competence. The tardy five or ten thousand pounds would have been invaluable once, that comes too late to many a one; so they said. They added that the luxurious habits of English girls, and the want of due provision for them on the part of their fathers, made both children and parents anxious and worldly in the matter of wedlock. The girls knew that, as soon as their fathers died, they must quit their splendid houses, and give up many of those habits and ways which had become necessary to them; and their parents knew this likewise; and hence the unwomanly search for rich husbands on the part of the mothers and daughters, which, as they declared, existed in England.

Now, said our French friends, look at a household in our country; in every rank it is the custom to begin to put by a marriage portion for a girl as soon as she is born. A father would think he was neglecting a duty, if he failed to do this, just as much as if he starved the little creature. Our girls are brought up simply; luxury and extravagance with us belong to the married women. When his daughter is eighteen or twenty, a good father begins to look about him, and inquire the characters of the different young men of his acquaintance. He observes them, or his wife does so still more efficiently; and, when they have settled that such a youth will suit their daughter, they name the portion they can give their child to the young man’s father or to some common friend. In reply, they are possibly informed that Monsieur Alphonse’s education has cost so much; that he is now an avocat in a fair way to earn a considerable income, but at present unable to marry, unless the young lady can contribute her share, not merely her pin-money, but a bonâ-fide share, towards the joint expenses of housekeeping. Or he is a son of a man of property — property somewhat involved at present; but, could it he released from embarrassment by the payment of an immediate sum of money, his father would settle a certain present income upon the young people; and so on. My friends said that there was no doubt whatever that if, after these preliminary matters of business were arranged, either the young man or the girl did not entirely like each other on more intimate acquaintance, the proposed marriage would fall through in the majority of French families, and no undue influence would be employed to compel either party into what they disliked. But, in general, the girl has never been allowed to be on intimate terms with any one, till her parents’ choice steps forward and is allowed by them to court her notice. And as for the young fellow, it has been easy for him to see enough of the young lady to know whether he can fancy her or not, before it comes to the point when it is necessary that he should take any individually active steps in the affair.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/frenchlife/chapter2.html

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