THE review of French novels in The Atlantic last August included two Swiss names, those of M. Cherbuliez and M. Rod, both Genevese, and both of the number of Swiss writers who have made Paris their literary home, and count as French, finding their material in French life, and their readers and reputation on Gallic soil, though doubtless obliged to hear often enough from the critics that their style will never acquire the true Parisian accent. Of Swiss writers other than these we in this country hear little or nothing, any more than we hear of the internal politics of the little republic to which we make our summer pilgrimages. But the life which, in spite of Tessin revolutions, goes on noiselessly to the ear of the outside world under the government of the Confederation does not pass unrecorded. Each Swiss city, Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel, Zürich, is a small literary centre ; each canton has its written existence in song or story. The words of the Vaudois poet, Juste Olivier, “ Vivons de notre vie,” have sunk into the heart of a number of writers who, under the eye of their own public alone, are cherishing and seeking to reproduce the life about them, — dwelling especially upon those local and traditional phases which they feel to be daily giving way before the march of progress and of universal sameness. The Swiss talent, like the American, turns naturally to the short story form. A catalogue of Swiss books presents a number of variations upon the same title, — Nouvelles Moutagnardes, Croquis Montagnards, Réeits Vaudois, Nouvelles Jurassiennes. M. Urbain Olivier, the brother of the poet, and M. Alfred Cérésole interpret the parlor Vaudois and the current Protestantism of that most Protestant canton. German Switzerland lost, last July, in Gottfried Kellar a writer known not only in his own country, but in Germany, where his work has been pronounced by some critics the best German prose since Goethe, naturalization being a less difficult matter in German than in French literature. French Switzerland also has just lost her strongest novelist, who was at the same time her military painter, Auguste Bachelin, who died on the 2d of August, a pupil in art of Couture, and the author of Jean-Louis, a book which has become a local classic, and is one of the most charming and truthful of peasant novels. It is to French literature that French Switzerland, la Suisse romande, as it calls itself, using the older family designation in preference to Française, looks for its language and its background, as we in America look to English literature ; but the English still regard ours with a remnant of that “ certain condescension,” and France, though it furnishes every year a larger percentage to the statistics of Swiss travel, is not likely for a long time to come to leave its decadents and its Maupassant to rusticate among Swiss novels. The mountains and Protestantism are fairly substantial barriers between the two countries. The novels furnished by Swiss writers for the home public would hardly impart any new excitement to the French palate, nor are they calculated to create abroad a revolution in technique. But they are not imitations of the milder French novels ; they are genuine and indigenous products, and, depicting as they do at first hand, a society in which decency is taken for granted, they are far pleasanter reading than the occasional shop - window displays of virtue and unreality which are crowned by the French Academy, read by the many, and by the wary let silently alone. We in America may find in the life which they describe many traits which have their analogy in our own, and in the tone and treatment much that is sympathetic and even suggestive to us, while a certain Old World pieturesqueness and poetry will remind us that they have their roots in a different soil, and can bring to ours a little perfume of strangeness.
In an article by the late Professor Émile Javelle, apropos of M. Cérésole, occurs a passage which the latter, with a naïveté in the interchange of courtesies not altogether foreign to the literary habits of Switzerland, has quoted in the preface to his Scènes Vaudoises, thus making it a declaration of his own literary faith. “ True art,” writes Professor Javelle, “ consists in knowing how to seize vividly a few traits of simple nature, in feeling them profoundly and rendering them with truth, although ” — there is a lapse in sequence here — “ it is not always suspected how much labor is required to be simple and true. . . . To determine thus the literary and moral physiognomy of a whole people at a given epoch is something as precious from the point of view of art as of science.” This is the statement of a truth which, if not novel, is undeniably wholesome, and of the first importance to a writer. The mode in which it is enunciated, the modesty of outlook which contents itself with the ambition of rendering certain features only of nature, and the insistence upon the literary and moral aspects are characteristically Swiss. The separation by the mountain ranges of populations near and akin to each other, which led to the formation of so many dialects, also favored the growth and long continuance of local customs and traditions, giving to each neighborhood a strongly marked individuality. In seeking to fix these local distinctions, to paint truly, if on a small canvas, the life immediately about them, the Swiss writers show the sureness of their literary instinct, and give the best promise of successful and valuable work. The present drawback to a larger success lies in the fact that the writers themselves suffer from the limitations of the life which they depict. If it be primarily essential for an author to know intimately and from within the society which he would reproduce, it is also necessary that he should be able to look at it from without. In Swiss society it is sometimes difficult to get far enough away from the object of study. The two leading intellectual interests of the people are Protestantism and education. The former, a source of pride in Swiss history, and a strong and precious element in the development of the national character, tends to absorb too large a share of the mental horizon, and, as is apt to be simultaneously the case, to become formal, level, and uninspiring. The latter is equally dangerous to literary interests, leading as it does to pedagogical standards and an undue regard for the inculcation of principles and theories. Many Swiss, and particularly Vaudois, stories tend too strongly to edification ; they are the overflow of the pulpit and class room couched in that language of familiar intercourse with Providence which is expressively termed by the irreverent le patois du Canaan. Society, too, in Switzerland, like Protestantism and education, has its standards, its Mode and Persian rule. In T. Combe’s novel Monique we find the little town of Launeuve divided into two strata, the old and tire new people. Some of the families belonging to the latter class had been established in the town for two hundred years, but they were still the new people. In town life a young girl is guarded almost as in France, with a little more freedom of social intercourse if she happen to belong to the newer stratum, but with perhaps an additional check in a training of the conscience similar to that of New England. If she be poor she is educated for a teacher, the result being that the proportion of qualified instructors to the square mile is as large as in New England. Young girls from French Switzerland are sent for a year or two to English or German schools, those of the German cantons receive their education in French cantons, and a regular interchange takes place of servants and farm laborers, who pass from one canton to another to learn the language, and are known as changes.
In the canton of Neuchâtel, the early development of the watchmaking industry gave rise to a population of what may be called rural townsmen in the place of agriculturists. There are few farms, the men even in the scattered houses being engaged in watchmaking. The closely built villages and small towns are settled almost entirely by watchmakers, who, though largely of peasant origin, form a class apart, having a sedentary occupation and one demanding delicate manipulation, with leisure for instruction, and leading a tranquil, monotonous existence. In these Jurassian towns the winter is long, and the isolation almost as great as in mountain villages. It is this life that T. Combe has depicted in a number of novelettes and short stories 1 which have been coming out during the last ten years, many of them having first appeared in the pages of the Bibliothèque Universelle et Revue Suisse, published at Lausanne. It is a pretty open secret that T. Combe is the pseudonym of Mademoiselle Adèle Huguenin, of Locle, in the canton of Neuchâtel, formerly a town of watchmakers, now the seat of those watchmaking factories which are taking the place of the old établis. It may be doubted whether the masculine look of the signature T. Combe, which does not, however, definitely announce itself as a masculine one, ever imposed upon the public of these stories as successfully as did that of Charles Egbert Craddock upon the readers and administration of the Atlantic Monthly; yet there is a report that in one instance the name served as a disguise, and that the circumstances recorded in Aglaé are drawn from the store of personal experience. Aglaé, a young and charming person living at Ferney, under the shadow of French propriety and of Genevan Protestantism, having written some stories and poems of a rustic character, conceives the idea of going to Paris to make her literary fortune. She asks of a gentleman in that city, known to her only by correspondence, the address of an inexpensive pension ; and he, assuming his correspondent, from the bold, masculine handwriting, to be a man, recommends a shabby, semi-Bohemian house as likely to be suited to the requirements of a literary youth from the country, to whom the saving of pence and seeing the world are presumably of equal importance. Take a Puritan maiden, country bred, of the best New England type, shy, delicate, and sensitive, a little Lady of the Aroostook, who does not, like Lydia, “ want to know,” but who speaks with perfect correctness a language which it has been part of her training to keep unspotted from the world ; put her down alone, in a strange city, in the midst of a noisy little crowd of people, not more eccentric, perhaps, than those of her native village, but of a different phase of eccentricity; watch her shrink quietly but unmistakably back into her shell, and you have Aglaé. Not that there is anything in her surroundings in the least shocking to the reader or dangerous to the modesty of the Ferney violet. The Hungarian lady who smokes cigarettes is a good soul; the old lady who nearly suffocates in a fit of hysterics at every meal would not hurt a flea; the flirtations of the young Greek are of a mild order; the Norwegian who seeks to discover a magnetic property in the soothing influence which the eyes of his prim little neighbor exercise upon his ruffled spirit has himself orbs of unimpeachable candor, though reinforced by a dubious amount of intelligence. The falsehoods of the landlady are venial and well bred, and the fact that Aglaé’s door has no handle, and that Miss Pellicott, the American art student who was its former occupant, has carried off the key, is a mere inconvenience, a hook being finally discovered which answers as well. But to Aglaé, with her inexperience, her Swiss uprightness, her classic dreams of Paris and unlooked-for but inevitable homesickness, it is a world upside down.
The literary doors do not open ; one by one her hopes are crushed, and at the end of a fortnight she is on the train for Ferney, taking back the rejected manuscript of her novel, Branche de Soule, and the little experience of Parisian life, which she is trying hard through her pain to see in a true and unexaggerated light. From the mere fact that a visit to Paris was made under similar circumstances by the author we should not presume to draw the conclusion, which indeed would be crude and unliterary, that Aglaé is literally true. Internal evidence points, however, to a basis of keenly felt experience, while the element of fiction in the book would appear to be of the slightest. It is the story of a literary venture, whether or not it be a literary confession. Here is the scene in which facts are brought home to Aglaé by M. Noël Poysson, a young man of literary occupations, who has opened the door of the room where the judges of literature sit, and has made friendly efforts to secure favorable reviews. They have met by chance on a rainy day, and are crossing the Luxembourg gardens.
“ ‘ So you have already found time to read me ? ’ said Aglaé, holding her umbrella a little to one side to look at Noël, who in turn bent his head to see under the dripping cupola a face rosier than was its wont.
“ ‘ Yes, I read you, — in part at least. I began with Branche de Soule; then I took the sonnets.’ . . .
“ Noël was vexed that Aglaé should have been in such haste to turn the conversation upon a disagreeable subject. It is never pleasant to have to play the part of Alceste : it is particularly difficult to say to a pretty woman, whom one knows to be very sensitive and timid, and who awaits one’s decree as if it were that of destiny : —
Et qui diantre vous pousse à vous fairs imprimer ?
Si l’on peut pardonner lessor d’un mauvais livre
Ce n’est qn’aux malheureux qui composent pour vivre.’
“ Moreover, his attention was divided between the conversation and his umbrella, which manifested at every instant a disposition to become a tulip.
“ ‘ What do you think of Branche de Soule, taking it for what it is, a rustic sketch ? ’ continued Aglaé shyly.
“‘ I think ... I think I have read much worse things; but it does not follow that your story is good.’ He had intended to soften the wording of this speech, but the wind made a rush for his hat, and he was just in time to seize it by the brim, finishing his sentence as he did so.
“ ‘I have too much esteem for you,’ he continued, alter a moment spent by both in reducing to order two umbrellas in open revolt, ‘ to believe you are unable to hear the truth. My opinion is that you are very intelligent, judiciously trained, that you have good sense, — nay, even esprit.’ (There ! another blunder, he said to himself, ‘ nay, even ’ ! These squalls blow the words out of one’s mouth before one has time to think.) ‘Not to speak of moral qualities, of your perfect candor, your sympathetic heart.’
“ ‘ Sympathetic will do,’ said Aglaé, with a touch of irony; ‘ I absolve you from the rest. Some one told me, the other day, that I had on a most sympathetic hat. I am charmed to have my heart match the hat.’
“ ‘ It is a much-abused word, but it does n’t follow that it always is out of place. I hold to it. You have fine qualities of mind and heart, but I do not believe that you have what can properly be called a literary talent. You have graceful ideas, but they are vague and you express them vaguely. You have too much taste.’
“ ‘ Too much taste ? ’ Aglaé repeated.
“ ‘ Yes, for your taste is that of a wellbred young girl brought up at the best boarding-schools, to whom every boldness is shocking. You would no more admit red and green on the same page than in the same costume. Your prose is gray, your verses are too proper; they walk along with docility, play no pranks, and arrived at the last line of the sonnet they make theri little courtesy.’
“ ‘ And what if I tell you,’ said Aglaé, ‘ that there is nothing in all you say that is new to me? I know that my style is colorless. From my childhood up I have been taught to repress rather than to express. But I see things, I feel them, and some day I shall succeed in saying them.’
“ ‘ No, no,’ said Noël, shaking his head, ‘ the temperament is not there. Let us take an instance. You must have passed yesterday by the Fontaine SaintMichel: did you notice that the municipal electors, who respect nothing, had covered it with their bulletins ? ‘
“ ‘ Yes, I think I remember.’
“ ‘ And what color were those bulletins ? ’
“ ‘ I have not the least idea.'
“ ‘ They were green. If you knew how to see, your eye would have instinctively noted this detail of color, and a picture would have been printed on your mind of a Fontaine Saint-Michel in patches of gray and green, which at my first allusion you would instantly have had before you.’
“ ‘ And yet,’ said Aglaé, ‘ all your novelists are not colorists. I know one whose descriptions are like architectural drawings, all line and tint.'
‘ I know whom you mean, but he, though inadequate on the artistic side, is incomparably delicate as a novelist, most penetrating as a psychologist. Another, who does not see the color of the posters any more than you do, is an admirable constructor of plots, in which everything holds together, and every incident, every word, is a nail and a bolt.’
“ ‘ Whereas my psychology is not better than my color, and ’ —
“ ‘ Please excuse my frankness,’ said Noel.”
Whatever hesitation he may have felt about assuming the rôle of Alceste, M. Poysson certainly proves himself equal to the part. It is true, he afterwards makes a practical attempt of the wildest impracticability to launch Aglaé, but nothing comes of it. A point worthy of note in the story is that the dénoûment which the novel-reader would instinctively look for is not there. M. Poysson can do no less than follow Aglaé to Ferney, but we have no hint of a literary success to confound the critic or dazzle the lover. The author of Branche de Soule makes her exit as demurely as she made her entrance; and even the story of her failure has not yet got into a volume, but remains between the covers of the review in which it appeared in 1888.
It would require less literary acumen than is displayed by M. Noël Poysson to detect a lack of force and of color in the Croquis Montagnards of T. Combe. The incidents are of the simplest, and they are by no means handled with that mastery which makes the simplest things precious in literature. The washing and schooling of a neglected child, though a praiseworthy action, can hardly be said to rise to the height of climax outside of Sunday-school literature ; and though in the feeling awakened by a child in a lonely old man, which forms the theme of the story called Monsieur Vélo, there is material for a far deeper interest, the opportunity is neglected by the author in her adherence to a certain fidelity of outside detail. But M. Poysson’s criticism applied to the Croquis Montagnards does not take into account the possible development of this faculty of observation. It is not the quality of impressionism so highly and so justly valued in French literature. It is rather a feminine quickness to perceive the motives and details of every-day life, — a faculty, very slightly indicated at first, of making people move and talk naturally.
We have not the chronological data in reference to T. Combe’s writings which would enable us to follow with any certainty the development of her talent. The order in which the stories are reprinted does not always correspond to that in which they were written, or to that of their publication in periodicals. She does not, however, present an instance of careful, definite progress, in which every step is a notch, of continual advance in technique. Yet it is by no means a case of standing still, but rather of a number of attempts, more or less faulty, more or less excellent, resulting in the discovery of a certain line of work congenial and possible to her powers, and, with practice, a surer attainment within that line. The tone of these stories is from first to last wholly unassuming ; their aim clear and free from affectation, — it is to be true, to depict things as they are. The hesitation to admit red and green upon the same page is a drawback to any large handling of truth as well as to the production of any bold literary effects; but by keeping true to her at first timid and restricted perceptions, T. Combe has proved herself to be on the road towards a larger range of verities. If she does not see the posters on the Fontaine Saint-Michel, she has seen and felt many things in the canton of Neuchâtel which are well worth seeing and feeling; and she has gained in her later books a very telling picturesque turn of expression, — a phraseology which brings sayings and characters into a light, delicate relief, and is an effective adjunct to her demure, restrained perception of the ridiculous. She never calls her books novels ; the longer ones are novelettes. We would assert here that they are never so good as her short stories, if L’Etincelle, now in course of publication in the Bibliothèque Universelle et Revue Suisse, were not raising monthly a charming rustic voice in contradiction of such a statement. But the forte of T. Combe is the short story; and L’Etincelle is a short story which has somehow contrived to overgrow without awkwardness, and without losing its fresh, joyous, short-story character.
For purposes of criticism we can divide these stories of T. Combe’s into three groups. The first, the Branche de Soule group, includes a set of tales of peasant life, — Croquis Montagnards, Pauvre Marcel, Bons Voisins. The texture of these stories is slight, as we have already indicated ; they have the charm of the country in their faithfully noted rustic scenes, the monotony of the country in their even values and long delays of incident. They are tentative, pleasant rather than profound in tone, thoroughly likable. The gradual awakening of intelligence and conscious power in the peasant musician, Marcel, is very truly felt; and the cheerful, “chipper” old laborer, Papa Félix, in Bons Voisins, is a nice bit of portrait painting. The subjects are almost idyllic, but the treatment is not that of the idyl, which demands more harmony and suggestiveness, and a sense of the relation of the simple and local to the universal, and belongs, perhaps, rather to the masculine order of mind than to the feminine, which sees details positively and in relation to other details.
In the second group of stories, Jeune Angleterre, Monique, Le Mari de Jonquille, all novelettes, there is a closer adhesion to the lines of the novel. The author has not given the go-by to incident so completely as in the village stories, but the incidents are still inadequate, and are introduced hesitatingly, almost apologetically. “ I did not see that myself,” we read between the lines. The power of construction, the instinct for climax which perceives at once the right moment, and fits the action deftly and exactly into its place, is lacking in these books. There are traits which have a manifestly artificial air, but there is not artifice enough. In Le Mari de Jonquille occurs a scene which would be picturesque and effective if it had been managed as Craddock, for instance, would have managed it. Jonquille, to try the courage of the young smuggler, Manuel, feigns terror of a fierce dog ; after Manuel has grappled with the brute, and by sheer physical strength fastened it to its chain, she goes calmly up to it, loosens the chain, and lets the dog free. Any writer with the gift of picturesqueness would have saved till the last the revelation that Jonquille was not really afraid ; but T. Combe naively reassures the reader beforehand, so that he is left looking on at a scene of which he already knows the end.
Le Mari de Jonquille is a Craddock subject, a tale of deeds done by the light of the moon. Across the Jura from Neuchâtel is France, with a market for Swiss productions, which would be a profitable one if it. were not for certain ceremonies in the way of getting at it. The Jurassian countryman is a free trader by conviction ; pending the conversion of the authorities to his way of thinking he shoulders his cheese, and makes a midnight excursion to dispose of it on the other side, and bring back his ration of tobacco. The watchmakers, too, sometimes find it convenient to send their wares by night express, and a considerable trade is carried on in this way ; the smugglers seeking to cross the mountains by routes dangerous enough to be unsuspected by the officers of the law, who exercise a surveillance at the summits of the passes. Jonquille, baptized Barnabée by M. le curé in honor of St. Barnabas, a name “ which hung on me like a blessed chaplet on a little imp,” rechristened by an artist from her preference for yellow neckerchiefs and her resemblance to a proud, upright wild flower, is the queen and directress of a band of smugglers, whom she rows across a mill pond at midnight, on their way to the mountain. Through all her pride of sovereignty, her delight in physical activity and danger, come doubts and dissatisfactions, a sense of deprivation in not being like other girls. A young watchmaker, chafing under the restrictions of a sedentary life and uncongenial work, joins the smugglers and marries Jonquille. But the new occupation fails to satisfy his longing, which is not for freedom, but for activity, —for a work equal to his energy and physical strength. The cultivation of their bit of ground is child’s play to him ; he feels himself made for a pioneer, and chafes under the constraint of the marriage tie, which has rendered emigration impossible for him; while Jonquille, unable to conceive of a masculine ambition which is not content with the excitements of smuggling, is unhappy in the consciousness that in her new rôle of housewife she has failed to make her husband’s happiness. This conflict between restraint and freedom ; this restiveness under the exigencies of a small country which demands of its subjects — artisans and agriculturists alike — a minute, patient, monotonous labor, is all truly Swiss, and might furnish themes for a stronger literature than Le Mari de Jonquille. We have spoken of the subject as a Craddock one, but the resemblance might be traced even farther, as the reader can see from the following passage, taken at random, in which, as in other places, we find landscape and talk sandwiched a little in the Tennessee Mountain fashion : —
“‘I will stay with you,’ Manuel said, in a firm voice. ‘ I like that better, on the whole, than leaving my country. I don’t see either crime or robbery in the matter. If the government does n’t like it, so much the worse for the government. There are some risks to be run, but I would rather have life short and sweet than drag it out for eighty years, to die of disgust at the end.’
“ He spoke resolutely, his head thrown back, his eyes shining with a proud energy. But, as he finished, his voice fell all at once. He seemed to himself to have pronounced his own sentence ; a sensation like physical pain, a strange presentiment, keen and chill as steel, went through his heart. He was silent, as if listening for the echo of his own words; it was too late to recall them. The ravine was now all in shadows ; behind the high rocks crowned with pines the sun sank down with Manuel’s last word, and the young man remained motionless, seized with a solemn, indefinable fear.”
There is a more masculine energy in the style and characters of The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, although we have all discovered, since we had the key given us, traits of feminine delicacy in the Craddock mountaineers. T. Combe does not claim to be considered “ servigrous.” She has no dialect, either, wherewith to fortify the utterances of her outlaws. The Neuchâtel patois has passed away almost entirely from the daily speech even of the peasant class. Bachelin, in his Jean-Louis, treating of a day in which it still existed, though even then not universally, gives a scene in the patois, with a French translation; but the rest of his book is in French, with many familiar locutions and local words inclosed in quotation marks, a usual custom with Swiss writers. T. Combe follows the same plan, but her French is a little too choice for rough work such as is required in a novel like Le Mari de Jonquille, while in the village society in which she is most at home it is perfectly in keeping; the French spoken by the horloger class having no marked peculiarity save in certain words and phrases, which, for the English reader particularly, are very conveniently ticketed by the little quotation marks.
From a scene like that of Le Mari de Jonquille to the social conditions of Monique would be a Sabbath-day’s journey in our country, but in Switzerland the two phases lie in the same nutshell. If Monique does not prove the novel to be the form most congenial to the powers of T. Combe, it points distinctly to a small town life as the field best suited to her range of observation. It has admirable touches of character, things which now and then recall Cranford. The position of a young girl, intelligent, eager, impatient, but conventional withal, amid the restrictions of a staid society, in which every act and movement has been regulated beforehand by the law of custom, is very well indicated; and the demeanor of her pompous suitor, M. Colomb, — we had almost written Collins, from a souvenir of Pride and Prejudice, — is entertaining throughout. In Jeune Angleterre, which bears evidence of being an earlier book reprinted late, the author indulges in a smile and a little sarcasm at the ways of the English ; taking the æsthetic craze for the theme of one novelette, and for another and more clever one the sovereignty of the advertisement. But though her quick eyes have made some little discoveries in watching the crowd in a London park, we like her best in the Jura, Chez Nous.
A small scene, a small canvas, detailed, careful workmanship, — these are the restrictions favorable to the moulding of her talent, and within these lines she has accomplished admirable results. We must read Neiges d Antan to know how people used to live in a Jurassian village ; we must read Chez Nous and L’Etincelle to know how they live now. T. Combe writes of her native canton with the fondness that Miss Jewett and Miss Wilkins have for New England; reproducing the little ways and customs, the types and individualities ; dwelling rather upon the typical and usual features than upon extravagant manifestations ; quick to perceive the humorous in act or motive, and indicating it by fine, gentle similes of phraseology. One must visit the region, nay, live in it, to know how exactly the people resemble the figures in these stories, but one need not travel thither to see how true the stories are to the life described; that fact is as visible from Concord meeting-house or North Bradshaw as from Locle or the Val de Travers. The characters make a series of clear, strongly modeled life sketches, each vivid and distinct in aspect as in speech. There is the grandfather of ninety-and-nine in L’Etincelle, with head bent forward and hands clutching the arms of his chair, listening with intent eagerness to the newspaper account of the celebration of the hundredth birthday of an old man in the next commune. “And what next ? . . . Was he able to answer in a becoming manner? It does not even say whether he thanked the people. Yes, yes, he must have lost his head. I can see just how he looked, confused and mumbling, poor old François ! Ah, old age must be a sad thing when one loses one’s faculties ! ” And Zoé, the delightful heroine of the book, with her hair braided over her ears, and her pretty face; Zoé, who has been brought up with no company save the old, in a loneliness which her cherished novels have only half dispelled, listening at last, with the sense of a new joy, to the bedtime conversation of a girl of her own age, — all about fashions and freckles. “ It was finer even than her dear Dumas.” There is Abdias, the farm servant in Chez Nous, loquacious and dictatorial, arguing daily with his mistress, Mademoiselle Caroline, about every detail of agronomy, and declaring that “ the time which a wise man spends in speech is not lost; it is a seed planted in the earth. The speech of woman is as the smoke which vanishes.” There is Jenny, the timid, receiving in trepidation the advances which M. Sully Arnaudin is astonished at himself for being courageous enough to make ; and Daline, the slow maid-of-all-work, who, incapable of doing two things at once, conscientiously and regularly puts off thinking till her work is done; and Mademoiselle Violande, — but we will speak of her later.
The life led by these people is a simple and quiet one, recalling our New England farm and village life of yesterday by certain traits, but with less social equality and less intellectual sophistication. The little republic of Switzerland is the seat of a whole ramification of class prejudices, rooted firmly and in ancient soil. We have spoken of the old and new people in Monique; into that upper circle the most brilliant political career, the highest personal distinction, is powerless to effect an entrance. Many less favored inclosures are hardly less inaccessible ; between the watchmaker and the tradesman is a gulf fixed. But we find in these stories certain lapses indicating more of a practical ease of intercourse in some directions. Master and servant in country regions are not so far apart. Caroline marries Abdias with no reserves save a stipulation that he shall buy no more black cows, shall allow her to use her favorite butter-print, and employ his utmost efforts to prevent the calves from devouring their bedding. If the reader would see, however, how one peasant may differ from another peasant in degree, and what a source of suffering there may be in the distinction, he should read the tale of Bachelin’s Jean-Louis and Louise. If he wish to see how noblesse oblige, and how a well-born lady of the olden time in Switzerland was an example and pattern to her sex, let him read of Mademoiselle Violande, the heroine of one of the four stories which form the volume called Neiges d’Antan. The obstacles which interrupt the course of her love are not, it is true, of a mountainous nature; but the evenness of Mademoiselle Violande’s existence is such that a small deviation from the level produces a visible and uncomfortable saliency.
“ Her name was Mademoiselle Violande Roberdagon. Her father had been justicier ; her brother was M. le gouverneur of the commune, and wore a sword. She was what they called in those days a demoiselle de la société ; she knew how to work samplers ; she was on visiting terms with the minister’s wife and the wife of the lieutenant, and she wore a black silk dress on communion Sundays. Mademoiselle Violande had black eyes, a brilliant complexion, and long dark braids fastened by a giraffe comb at the top of her head. . . . In society she passed for a handsome girl, but rather imperious.” She was twenty-five and still unmarried, but her heart was already in the keeping of M. Firmin Robin, who was “ blond, timid, and an architect by trade.” He had once kissed Mademoiselle Violande in a game of forfeits at a party; since then he had taken her out sleighing, and had presented her with a pair of gloves. Her brother, who wished to have his sister married and off his hands, looked with a favorable eye upon M. Robin; but just as the latter was about to present himself formally as a suitor his aunt died, and his demand had to be put off till the season of mourning was over. In the mean time he walked every day past the governor’s house, in the hope of seeing Mademoiselle Violande at the window. “ She was sometimes there in the afternoon, between the white curtains and the wall flower-pots, bending over her lace cushion. She worked assiduously, never turning her eyes to the street so long as her lover was there. Mademoiselle Violande was obliged by her position to set a good example to the women and girls of the commune. What would people have said if the sister of M. le gouverneur should commit such an indiscretion as to let her eyes wander towards the men’s gallery during the sermon, or turn her psalm-book upside down, in amorous distraction, as the drummer’s daughter had once done ! That was why Mademoiselle Violande systematically ignored M. Firmin’s existence throughout the period of his mourning; but even the sight of her high comb had a secret charm for this love-smitten architect.”
At last the proper interval has gone by. M. Firmin hastens to make his proposal. Mademoiselle Violande goes to pick plums with her maid, Esabeau, leaving matters of business to be properly conducted by her brother. She is joined in the orchard by M. Firmin, who does not venture to kiss her, but begs that his happiness, having been so long deferred, may be consummated as soon as possible. They are to be married in a year, provided an apartment is vacant in the village. If obliged to build, they will have to wait longer; it would not be healthy to live in a new house.
The engagement is duly announced to the social authorities of the village, who are pleased with the match, but a little scandalized at the indecorous haste with which the affair has been conducted. Such a thing as being married at the end of a single year’s engagement was never heard of. Madame la mairesse had been engaged four years, and had not had a minute too much time; but young people are in such a hurry nowadays. Mademoiselle Bégueline Sandol had heard a Bavarian prophet declare only last year that the sun would devour the moon after quatre semnines de mois, and that would be the end of all things. Four times seven months made two years and four months, which, deducting a year, would bring that catastrophe alarmingly near to Mademoiselle Violande’s wedding day. “ Instead of spending you bad better put by your money ; the end is near at hand.” This was Mademoiselle Bégueline’s provident advice.
The lovers saw each other officially on Thursdays and Sundays, a programme to which M. Firmin’s methodical devotion contrived to add an extra day of bliss, namely, Saturday. On that day he betook himself to the market-place, which was adorned with an imposing fountain of his own construction, and, after a thorough examination of its pipes, stationed himself on the pedestal formed by the three steps which led up to the fountain, from which elevated position he set himself to survey the horizon.
“ Soon Mademoiselle Violande appeared upon it, enveloped in a long redingote of maroon cloth which reached to the hem of her dress, and brought out all the elegance of her figure. She was followed by Esabeau, but she herself did not disdain to carry a large basket. The heart of M. Firmin overflowed with a joy which he struggled in vain to repress. Mademoiselle Violande went to an old market-woman whom she usually honored with her preference; she was careful never to turn her eyes in the direction of the fountain, but she lingered beside the good Reine Dumont, who understood all without appearing to know anything, till M. Firmin found courage to draw near. He bowed respectfully to Mademoiselle Violande, then he conversed a little with Reine.
“‘ What is your opinion of politics, Madame Dumont ? ’
“ ‘ Coton pears,’ she replied, ‘ are at six piècettes.'
“That expressed her entire knowledge of the state of Europe. As long as pears sold well, Napoleon might do what he would with his own.”
After a moment or two Mademoiselle Violande went on her way, and M. Firmin betook himself to another marketwoman, from whom he purchased a bouquet, which he hastened to deposit on the lamp-stand in the front hall of the governor’s house, before Mademoiselle Violande should return from her marketing. These were the excitements of Saturday, preferred by M. Firmin to the Sunday afternoon walk or the Thursday evening visit.
Fortune seems to favor the lover’s haste. An apartment is vacated in time by the death of its occupant. Mademoiselle Violande has forebodings about stepping into a dead man’s shoes. M. Firmin tries to argue them away, but ends, as he always does, by agreeing with her ; they will put it off. But she conquers her fears ; the apartment is engaged ; the wedding presents begin to arrive ; a porcelain service, the gift of the governor, stands on a new little centre table in the salon; there is a yellow velvet lounge; Mademoiselle Violande is making the curtains, trimming them with a ball fringe. The fiancés are not more demonstrative than at first; they are still " Monsieur ” and “ Mademoiselle ” to each other. " Mademoiselle Violande had no witnesses when, in a transport of domestic bliss, she had kissed the pretty pots of cherry jam which she was labeling, exclaiming as she did so, ‘ It is for my housekeeping, pour mon cher petit ménage !’ Shortly before the wedding day, the two, accompanied by the governor, make a visit of inspection to the new apartment, and there a catastrophe happens ; for Mademoiselle Violande, in stepping back to watch the effect of her new curtains, knocks over the centre table, and the whole porcelain service lies upon the floor. M. Firmin rushes to the rescue, and inquires if his beloved is hurt.
“' No, no,’ she murmured, without lifting her head, ‘ but the salt-cellar, — find the salt-cellar.' ”
It is found, but in splinters. “ ‘ Bah ! ’ says M. le gouverneur, ‘ worse things have happened. I will give you a new set, Violande.’
“ She was very pale ; her black eyes had a tragic expression. She moved towards the door, took the key from the keyhole, and handed it to M. Firmin. ‘ Take it,’ she said ; ‘I shall not need it any longer.’
“ He looked at her with a frightened air.
‘ This accident is a sign,’ she continued. ‘ I will not be mad enough to resist. We were wrong; we wanted to force time. Every one told us that a year’s engagement was too short.’
“ M. Firmin, stupefied, felt his organs of respiration slacken their speed. ‘ You have not the idea — you do not mean to say ’ — he said, his lips moving with difficulty.
“ ‘ It is Providence which hinders us,’Violande resumed, with a growing excitement. ‘ Do you not know what a broken salt-cellar signifies ? It is the worst of all omens; it prophesies loss of money, illness, d— ‘ Mademoiselle Violande buried her face in her hands. She was trembling from head to foot. Her brother gave her his arm and led her home, while M. Firmin followed them, looking completely upset, and replying only by a shake of the head to the interrogatory glances of the people they met.”
The marriage is put off for a year. Mademoiselle Violande dare not, for her lover’s happiness more than for her own, disregard the omen; and he, relieved at not being sent away altogether, declares himself willing to wait for her as Jacob waited for Rachel, “ and longer if necessary.” During the year of waiting Mademoiselle Violande goes out very little, considering seclusion more becoming in her position, and M. Firmin is the most respectful, perfect, and devoted of lovers. The summer comes round, — a summer of intense heat. M. Firmin, working hard at the erection of some houses, unable to sleep for impatience of the coming bliss, has a sunstroke. He discovers all at once that the governor squints. He does not attribute any such defect to Mademoiselle Violande ; on the contrary, he commiserates tenderly her ignorance of her brother’s misfortune, but facts must be told. He is placed under medical treatment, and M. le gouverneur declares the match finally and absolutely broken off.
M. Firmin gets well, but is forbidden the door. Mademoiselle Violande alone is true to him. She corresponds with him, consigning letters to the flour bin. She even consents — ah, example to the commune! — to elope with him to France, where he has an uncle who has offered him a home. He writes to the uncle, and they are only waiting for the answer. It does not come. After long delay comes a communication from the uncle. He has not received the letter ; he announces that lie has given up his house, and is coming to live with his nephew. This news is imparted by M. Firmin to his beloved, who exclaims with resignation, “ Let us no longer brave these warnings. I will be your fiancée till my death, M. Firmin ; we will be married in a better world.”
But Fortune turns her wheel; the uncle is rich, the governor relents, and M, Firmin and Mademoiselle Violande, much to their surprise, are married here below, and sit side by side on the yellow sofa, which Madame Violande pronounces to have been the cause of all their misfortunes. “ ‘ We owed an example of simplicity to the commune, but we allowed ourselves to be carried away by the vanity of the age.’
“ ‘ It was my fault, — it was I who ordered the sofa,’ murmured M. Firmin. ‘ But let us forget the past, my Violande.’ ”
Not less charming than Mademoiselle Violande is Vieilles Silhouettes, which strikes a deeper note of feeling. The relation of the lonely, cultured French exile, who has become a village schoolmaster in Switzerland, with the simple, good women who befriend him is very delicately drawn, and the scene in which he tells them, in a few short poignant words, of the grief which lies beyond their hospitable firelight, in the darkness of his past, is a hit of keen pathos. Touching, too, and very pretty is the story of the conscientious little messagère of seventeen, acting as post and express between two villages, who, refusing in her honesty to be the bearer of a clandestine correspondence between two lovers, loses her heart in sheer sympathy to the man whom she has subjected to disappointment, and her place in consequence of her sympathy with the girl. A note of sadness, suggesting itself rather than expressed, runs through these stories of Neiges d’Antan, but it is never a heavy cloud ; it is too delicate, too close to the humorous, to be oppressive.
In L’Etincelle, on the other hand, and in Chez Nous the measure is blither and more joyous. The latter volume, like Neiges d’Antan, is made up of short stories, and is a holiday quarto, with illustrations by two of the author’s fellownovelists, Bachelin and Oscar Huguenin. Laquelle des Trois, which treats of the courtship of Abdias, is the most amusing of T. Combe’s stories, and is very deftly done. She has gained a surer touch, a stronger command of incident; and she has done so without repeating herself, without straining after effect or losing her unassuming truthfulness of tone.
When a writer experiences technical difficulties, he is apt to resort to purely extraneous means to overcome them. An experiment more interesting to watch is that of deepening the channels of observation and of truth, and this T. Combe seems to us to have been doing, in her modest, feminine, clear-sighted way, between the Croquis Montagnards and Neiges d’Antan.
- Croquis Montagnards. Trois Nouvelles. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne: Georges Bridel. 1882.↩
- Pauvre Marcel. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne : Georges Bridel. 1883.↩
- Bons Voisins. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne : Henri Mignot. 1886.↩
- Jeune Angleterre. Deux Nouvelles. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne: Henri Mignot. Paris: Librairie de la Snisse Française. 1887.↩
- Monique. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne : Henri Mignot. Paris: Librairie de la Suisse Française. 1887.↩
- Le Mari de Jonquille. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne: Henri Mignot. Paris: Librairie P. Monnerat. 1888.↩
- Neiges d’Antan. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne : Henri Mignot. Paris : Librairie P. Monnerat, 1889.↩
- Chez Nous. Nouvelles Jurassiennes. Par T. COMBE. Lausanne: Henri Mignot. 1890.↩
- Boston: Carl Schoenkof.↩