IT was René who always carried my chair to the woods, resting the inverted seat on his flat cap. He was so constantly the farm-wife’s shadow and helper that I thought him the young son of the house until she explained he was only a “ p’tit domestique.”
His elder brother, a larger image of himself, went out to the fields, and was to be seen only with the other laborers. In past summers he had probably taken his turn as madame’s hand-boy, while Rend, too young for anything but a goose-herd, found employment nearer home. But René’s satisfaction in his present degree of advancement shone all over his face. I heard madame scolding him in the milk cellar, particularly when her cheek was swollen diagonally out of shape with the toothache. The notice her lodger took of this affliction was deferentially received, and replied to with the resigned plaint, "Je souf’ martyre.” At the little domestic, however, she let loose the distorted jaw. And René minded it not a bit. His wide smile was unfailing. He took his scoldings as part of his rearing, which madame, doubtless, avoiding sentiment and sticking to her duty, intended them to be. You never heard his thin treble raised in excuse or self-defense. René belonged to a class of children — never seen in our New World — who are brought up in wholesome subjection.
His sabots squeaked with a peculiar wooden sound. He had tow hair, and very blue eyes, and small white teeth which daily lowered the pail of baked pears. He had an enormous patch, which reached almost from shoulder to heel, on his high blue trousers. Altogether, René had the look of a blond brownie, and his chores were those which were once believed to fall to the brownie’s share.
Short conversations, chiefly on my side, occurred when we sallied out with chair and writing materials. René thumped along, grinning shyly with amiable desire to please ; but he was too well taught to open his mouth to his betters unless it became necessary to answer questions. Of himself he had nothing at all to tell. With pleased interest in the farm and his whole environment, though, he would tell me what caused the throbbing, rumbling noise in the stone stables : “ La batterie; on bat le gra’n.” The little fellow seemed keen for each day’s life as it grew out of the day’s life preceding it.
René and his brother were sons of the convent man-servant, who had seven children. It is the custom in Marne, when a peasant has a large family of boys, to hire some of them out for the six spring and summer months. Each boy gets his food and lodging and forty francs for the entire season of his service. He thus earns half his year’s living, and something to shoe and clothe himself with in winter, when he goes to school. Eight dollars might easily keep the most restless boy shod in wood and clad in coarse wool. In this way the overburdened father brings up good laborers ; and their religious education is assured. As for general knowledge, they may pick up what they can. The French are great newspaper readers. Everywhere the facteur distributes mail. In the very depths of the country, or at shop doors, or on waiting cabs, you see newspapers in all sorts of hands. The Petit Journal is read much in the north. In Paris it is Le Soleil and Figaro, while many others are widespread.
A lad very unlike René, probably a vineyard worker, brown and lean, once came up from the valley and crossed the path through my outdoor study. He paused with a rabbit’s questioning shyness as the parting boughs showed him a trespasser ; but lifting his cap with a muttered “ Bon jour,” he bolted through as if he were the culprit.
In the still heats of noon you could hear the cawing of crows. The sultriness which seems to melt human flesh under onr own skies can never have been known in France. For there the cooling rain is constantly at hide-and-seek with the sun. Once a black storm shrouded the west side of the prairie while farmhouse and valley basked in sunshine.
Blackberry brambles and tall wild flowers followed the line of woods like a hedge. Wherever you looked the land was beautiful, except at the fortress-like front of Les Buissons. Cows tramped past the door, and a favorite seratchingplace of chickens was the pear-strewn ground. The usual gush of bloom which adorns most French domiciles was missing here. Madame had her patch of inclosed garden where she raised salads and herbs. From my woods study I could see René or one of the men come out of the kitchen door and swing the wire salad basket, having been set by madame to wash and prepare lettuce for my dinner. But the only flowers about Les Buissons were volunteer ones in the hedges. I did not miss them when I sat outdoors, until there came days when they would have made brightness betwixt housed eyes and a lowering sky. Elsewhere in the-world it may be as bleak in early September; but I am certain nothing drives heat out of the blood like a stone house centuries old. It was at this time that madame and I engaged in our stubborn struggle about the chimney. She lighted no fire, but she brought in to me a little iron thing with a handle and open scrolled lid, which she called a “ couvert,” full of glowing coals and ashes. She set it on the table for my hands, and then on the floor for my feet. In a tightly shut room it might have thrown off some charcoal gas, but it retained heat a long time, and she constantly opened the door to nod her triumphant head at me and take credit to herself because I was so well warmed. Spurts of chill rain drove in lines against the window. The world was utterly a November world. The laborers were under shelter, and madame had a steaming kettle on her fire to regale them with hot soup, while I huddled over a covert.
Before these depressing autumn days, which drove me untimely away from the farm, I often came in and found René keeping house alone in the kitchen. If no task of scouring tinware had been set for him, he carved baked pears with a pocket knife and distended himself with them. When such dignified labor as churning was to be done, a grown man turned the crank of the barrel churn, and madame measured out a drink of brandy for the service. So gentle and harmless are the people of Marne, there was no terror in finding one’s self practically alone in a remote farmhouse. René, at such times, was deputed to fill the waterjug on my toilet-stand, which astonished madame by needing so many fillings, and to serve the déjeuner. He did it with conscientious cheerfulness, bringing the hot water for my tea, and standing by to serve. For galette, a kind of wheaten cake, split while hot, buttered, and eaten with cream, he had a yearning with which an American could hardly sympathize.
There were but two evident bedchambers in the house, the loft under the tiles being devoted to the storing of seed. René and his fellow-servants must have slept somewhere in the stables. The happy-go-lucky housing and feeding of peasants do not tend to divide man severely from his brethren the cattle. Whether the spring at the woods edge or the pit in the court furnished water for the ablutions of these people, it was impossible for a sojourner to determine. They had the clean look of the French, whom Heaven seems to excuse from much purifying of themselves. Englishmen have made their tubbing a byword, and Americans consider no house fit to live in which is not piped with an abundant water supply; while a Frenchman is said to warn all his friends ten days before he intends taking a bath, and to bid them farewell — and then to fail to take the bath. Yet he looks clean.
René’s mother once slipped over from the convent about dusk, with a friend to bear her company, on pretext of bringing me letters which the facteur had misdelivered. When her errand was discharged she talked much with the patron’s wife, perhaps adroitly creating good will for her lads, though she did not appear to seek them out to coddle them.
If René stabled with ploughman and shepherd, such neighbors did him no harm. Without doubt they had a crucifix hanging somewhere in sight, and such honest fellows would not set bad examples to a little boy not yet prepared for his first communion. He also had his brother to scuffle with, until the stamping of horses was lost on their sleepy ears.
The Marne peasant is a citizen of a republic, but he spends no time quarreling about politics. With a sense of social differences bred into his nature before America was discovered, he continues to respect his baron as much as an Englishman, and to be puzzled by the lack of titles in the New World.
“ De — what ? ” madame inquired carefully, when she set my name down at the head of her “ note ” of supplies.
Children care little for a beautiful landscape if they cannot fellowship with and make it a playground. René let himself out when he was down with the stone-breaker or off with the shepherd’s dog. Then he danced and flourished his arms, and a mighty barking and shouting would ring over the farm. An old woman, climbing a vineyard path leaning on her staff, once stopped to look at him and remember her childhood. She was bent half double, and the gnarled ugliness of her face expressed such suffering as seems the outgrowth of age and poverty in the Old World. It is as if centuries of pressure had distorted these old peasants to hideousness.
One fact which interested the little domestic in himself was that he had been born on St. Alpin’s fête-day. Therefore, in addition to the handful of names always generously poured on the head of a christened child in France, his saint’s name of St. Alpin was given him to finish the list. French children do not have their own birthdays regarded : their patron saints’ days are celebrated instead, with gifts and offerings.
At Les Buissons this day was called the fête of Villevenarde. Long custom had made it a season of family reunions, dancing, and general feasting. It was a movable festival, like Easter, falling sometimes on the first, sometimes on the second Sunday in September, but never on any day except Sunday.
It was less than two kilometres from Les Buissons past the hedges, across fields, through a wood, and down through the park to the abbey convent of the Assumption. It was much less than that from the convent, past the mill, along a level stretch of valley road, dipping through the abbey village of Andecy, and stretching around a wooded height to the old village of Baye. Long before Columbus, long before Alfred the Great, these stone houses were built on their winding street, and men drank wine and women washed, and the slow life of the provinces went on here. In such early days, if the château of Baye was not built in its hollow and hidden by a jungle of wood and walls as high as a fortress, the count or his prototype had some kind of castle, and rode clanking in chain mail or girt with leather thongs with his wild followers behind him.
St. Alpin was born at Baye, and he died there in the year A. D. 455. At that time the people of Gaul were not yet one united nation. Attila the Hun, with his fierce hordes, overran the country. The Roman Empire was not dead, and Romans and Visigoths joined with the inhabitants to drive out the enemy. What kind of men and women walked the winding unpaved lane of Baye in that fifth century, and how was the seed of a gentle sainthood dropped there? St. Alpin, we are told, was horn of rich parents; presumably of forbears who had enough to eat and to wear, a roof over them, a little grazing land and some forest, with geese and cattle. It is not said he came of any hereditary lord of Baye, or that anybody lorded it over Baye in the days of Attila. The presumption merely is that Alpin’s upbriugers were not ravening like wolves in hunger and misery, but had something to give to others in the hamlet; and he, instead of digging, or joining some band of pillagers, had opportunity to turn his mind to religion. From the first he was a good boy. His parents sent him to be educated by the Bishop of Troyes, where he "copied the virtues of his master.” Like a good shepherd, as he grew older, he went from village to village teaching the people. The gathering and restraining of barbarians in those times was no light task.
St. Alpin was elected Bishop of Chalons-sur-Marne against his own will, for he preferred to go humbly around among the scattered flocks. "Having seen the invaders, commanded by Attila, menace the plains of Chalons,” says the old record, “ he addressed Heaven with fervor, and obtained by his prayers the deliverance of his flock.” We know that the battle of Chalons broke the power of the Huns and drove them out of Gaul.
On his last round among the villages the bishop died at Baye, and was laid in the crypt of the little chapel there. The crypt remains to this day, and all the old chapel arches are preserved in the present church. The first outcry and wailing of bereavement over the good man passed to steady veneration of his coffined body. The crypt at Baye had two staircases, now walled up, down one of which the people could come to venerate his remains, and pass up again by the opposite staircase. The body lay under a long, low arch. There are yet three steps leading up to its resting-place, much worn by the knees which ascended them in those early centuries. Opposite, under a window, is an altar. The people passed between the altar and the relics of St. Alpin.
In 8G0 A. D. his bones were taken from Baye to Chalons, where they now rest in the cathedral “ dans une ’châsse d’argent,” with the exception of one bone of his head which is in a particular reliquary. They are much visited, and are guarded in a chapel behind the grand altar ; and on Pentecost Monday they are carried in procession.
It gives an American, whose saints are all in embryo yet, a peculiar sensation to wander around the birthplace of an actual miracle-worker, and feel his presence lingering in the customs of the inhabitants. All over that commune St. Alpin yet broods with loving care. A child who is frightened, a man who is in trouble, a woman burdened with grief, invokes the help of St. Alpin, certain that the good bishop is as open to their affairs as he was to the affairs of their ancestors fourteen hundred years ago.
There was one long walk in a piece of woods which ran from the valley far across the uplands, and once, when I lost myself in its windings and cross-tracks, I saw far ahead a garment appearing and disappearing, — cassock, or cloak, or woman’s dress, or peasant’s smock. You could not be sure of color or shape in those sylvan places, or of anything except a presence flying and not to be certainly fixed by the eye, so indiscernibly did the human figure melt amongst leaves and tree - boles. Maybe it was St. Alpin taking a century-old path through those ever-renewed woods down to Villevenarde. Why should not the guardian saint of a country sometimes betake himself again into his mortal guise and priestly cassock and his ancient paths ?
René knew Christmas only as a holy day in the church calendar. The Assumption of the Virgin is a summer-day festival all over France, especially at René’s native abbey, the country convent of the nuns of the Assumption. But a lad in that part of Marne could compare nothing else with the feast of St. Alpin.
René and I both looked forward to this fête of Villevenarde ; which, I was told, did not necessarily begin with going down to the village to mass. No ; madame had been recently confessed, and she would have enough to do on St. Alpin’s morning without troubling herself about the religion he had so zealously spread. For a week beforehand the oven was daily heated, and tub-shaped loaves came out of it, hard enough to daunt anybody but a peasant. Madame told me she had made two dozen prune pies, all having the crust of butter. One of these seductive tarts, tasting like leather and unripe persimmons, was served as sweets with my dinner ; and the slighting notice which such a rich preparation received madame probably credited to a palate depraved by coffee made with an egg. But the fête so deranged her affairs all the week that my food became a secondary consideration.
St. Alpin’s birthday was actually on Friday, the 7th of September. On Sunday, however, “tous mes parents” would arrive at the farm, the peasant told me, and his wife pictured the lively scene. Oh, assuredly, Leah would be there, and a houseful of relatives would meet, would eat, sing, dance, tell contes. Then, added madame, drolly affixing business to the pleasures of the day, at four o’clock they would pull the cows ; for was not that the hour every day “ pour tirer les vaches,” and could blessed St. Alpin have any desire to stop the order of nature ?
But it fell out that I never saw the fête of Villevenarde, a sudden and important journey to the north of France pushing it into the background. The day happened to be raw and wet. A storm tramped over Les Buissons and all that region. Even the white stone convent, which usually seemed to bask in the heart of sunshine, was chill as a white stone tomb as I drove away.
I hope the fête was kept in warmth and jollity before the kitchen fire at Les Buissons; that Leah and all the relations braved the weather and survived the pastry, danced, told contes, duly pulled the cows, and renewed all the ties of St. Alpin’s day.
René took my parting franc with a chastened zest which foresaw that his elders would add it to the eight for the purchase of his winter clothing. To be chair-bearer for a flitting American was the least interesting of his experiences at Les Buissons. Of this I am certain : if the blossom of René’s year was St. Alpin’s day, he did not fail in some way to pluck the blossom and enjoy it.
During my stay at Les Buissons I did not see the little domestic with a book in his hand. It is true there were no books in sight, except the veterinary treatises of the absent Charles. And René, no doubt, associated the task of reading with his winter schooldays, his study for confirmation, the priest’s reprimands and exhortations, and even with cuffs and tears.
His monotonous and simple life, so full of gladness for himself, so unimportant even to his father and mother, who had children to spare, is a type of provincial France. In a dozen years we shall see him hulking about Paris in the ill-fitting uniform of a soldier serving his time, or crowded in third-rate railway compartments, still with that widemouthed look of joy in everything the world offers for his diversion. I have seen grown-up Renés standing in the Luxembourg Gallery in a trance before some picture. They are undersized fellows; you would think the French nation had an army of boys ; and provincial is stamped on all their stolid faces. And a good thing for France it is that huge crops of them are constantly coming up in the provinces ; little domestics, learning slowly the life of the soil, learning surely the morality and traditions of centuries. They ballast a state. A Marne boy, when his military service ends, comes hack to Marne, and takes a wife and roots himself in the soil.
I think it likely that no picture will ever be finer to René than the valley behind Les Buissons, and no sight that Paris can offer him will quite equal the haystacks of Marne, thatched down to the eaves, under the projection of which he may measure his growth year by year.
Mary Hartwell Catherwood.