Le Pique-Nique

DONALD MOFFAT, a veteran of both wars, fell in love with France when he was driving for the American Field Service in 1916. For a time between the wars he and his wife and their daughters resided in Senlis, Paris, and Pornic, an experience he has written of with charm and gaiety in his book The Mott Family in France. Last summer they went back againthe first time they had seen Paris since the Liberationand the reunion marked the beginning of a new series for the Atlantic. The first paper, “Anniversary in Paris,” appeared in July.



HIGH in the Auvergne, in the very heart of France, where the little road twists through a great beech forest far from the nearest village, the Kanes came upon a small roadside clearing, and in the clearing a bronze plaque, set in stone. Curious, Kane stopped the car. He and his wife got out, and read: —

150 mètres d’ici out été fusilés par les Allemands, le 2 juillet 1944, Jacques Paray, 17, et Maurice Biot, 19, héros des Maquis.

They had noticed many such memorials along the road from Paris during the past two days; but the loneliness and tranquillity of this high, remote sanctuary had an extraordinarily touching quality, as though it enshrined, symbolically, the very soul of France — of a France occupied, degraded, beaten down, and still unconquerable. Here two French boys, among many thousands like them, had said to themselves “Mais non!” and died for it.

The two foreigners stood a moment in the silence of the ancient sunny forest, then turned, and drove away. Kane thought: France lost her soul in 1940 — or mislaid it, rather. No great victorious armies to be commemorated by triumphal arches, no battles won, nothing but the secret victories of the Résistance, of the simple indomitable Frenchman, fighting in midnight bands.

His wife spoke Kane’s thoughts for him, as so often: “And at home they say France is through. It makes me mad!”

“Me too. Give ‘em time.”

The forest ended, and they drove out over a country of upland farms, like Vermont, except that here the houses were all of stone even to the roofs of flat fieldstones, pinned in place like shingles. The red cattle in the fields were smaller, nimbler than the great white herds of the rolling Bourbonnais through which they had passed the day before. Mrs. Kane felt a twinge of homesickness for New England’s June.

Their first day, motoring down the Route Nationale from Paris to Avallon, had been spent in getting the feel of their borrowed Peugeot-203, and in exultation over driving again along the straight, tree-bordered roads of France, under a French sky dotted with the friendly domesticated French clouds. Kane had already grown fond of the little car — a supple, sturdy piece of mechanism designed not for show but for a modest seven-horsepower purpose. It had character, Kane thought; not to mention a top that shoved back to let in the sun, comfortable bolt-upright seats, and an overdrive to slide into when the needle touched 80 k.p.h. and the car took wings and flew. He liked the way it held the road without a trace of sway or a whisper out of the tires.

It was nice, too, being alone together, far from family responsibilities, Kane thought, glancing at his wife beside him. On the whole duty of tourists they were in the tacit agreement which results from minds and tastes merging after many years of living together in happiness. Their tourist code was simple: never try to see more than one sight a day, no matter what you miss; your own chance discoveries are always more satisfying than the guidebook “musts”; read about it after visiting, never before; never spend more than one hour at a time in a museum, gallery, château, or cathedral — except Chartres, of course; when your eyes begin to glaze over and your mind goes numb, stop at once, wherever you are, and make for the nearest café. It won’t be far away.

The first night they had spent near Avallon, at a little inn Mrs. Kane had picked out of the Guide Michelin because its food was starred and because she had spotted the little red man in the rocking chair, symbolizing a hôtel tranquil et isolé. From the heights of Avallon a corkscrew road had dropped them, late in the afternoon, into the narrow little wooded valley of the Cousin where, after easing along for ten minutes beside the winding trout stream, they came upon the Hostellerie du Moulin des Ruats.

As experienced travelers, the Kanes knew from the minute they stopped the car in the verdant little courtyard that their luck was in: for instantly there appeared two blue-checked maids, smiling a cheerful welcome, to pick up their bags and carry them into the inn. The Kanes followed, to be greeted by Mme Bertier, the patronne, who also smiled with grave self-respect, and had them shown to a tiny, spotless room in the back, below whose window a mill wheel slowly turned with a whisper of rushing water.

The Cousin divided beside the inn, forming a small island, and here the Kanes presently sat at a table under trees, and drank a glass of vermouth, then dined in a rustic pavilion with a dozen other couples, and were served by a pretty little waitress who scampered each course over a bridge from the kitchens under the inn. The young maître d’hôtel helped them choose dinner, and told them that Mme Bertier had been running the place since her husband’s death in 1923, that her son was now the chef, that he himself was a son-in-law, and that the mill wheel veritably furnished electricity for the inn. Steeped in contentment, the Kanes dined on crevettes with sauce fumet and a half bottle of Meursault-Blagny; coq au vin and rice with a superb Gevrey-Chambertin, and a local cheese to finish up the wine; and ended on a cool note of fragrant raspberries.

In the morning Mrs. Kane had taken her coffee and brioches in bed, while Kane had his downstairs, and admired the roses and ferns in hanging pots, the blossoming shrubs of the sunny courtyard, and listened to the two little barelegged maids twittering like birds as they swabbed down the front steps with soap and hot water, all in the name of good hotelkeeping. And when they had thanked Mme Bertier and paid their bill, which included the customary 15 per cent service charge, they found further evidence of a hôtel sérieux in the fact that the same little maids who had carried down their bags smiled them on their way without so much as a finger out for an extra tip.

So up over the high plateaus of the Puy-de-Dome, the Auvergne, then west by little vicinaux ordinaires which twisted back and forth across the faces of the steep, wooded foothills in which the river Dordogne has its sources — lonely roads, free from all traffic but an occasional bicycle or camionnette.

Striking the Dordogne at Argentat, they turned downstream; and as they rolled along, there was hardly a river bend or limestone crag but revealed its miniature château féodale, charming little affairs of crumbling stone and delicate turrets, built to be lived in, not for show. Here, obviously, thought Mrs. Kane, was a land of country squires, nice and homey, all on a small friendly scale — but neglected and deserted now, she noticed, save where an occasional vegetable garden had been set out in a château park by a caretaker or village neighbor.

“We’re missing a lot of good places just south of here— Roc-Amadour for one,” said Kane. “What d’you say?”

“Let’s skip it.”

“Right!” he agreed happily. “Skip it, and the hell with everyone.”

Near Sarlat, driving into the afternoon sun, they left the river and cut across country to Los Eyzies on the Vézère, tributary of the Dordogne, where in the Hôtel Cro-Magnon they found another immaculate little inn. Easily entertained by small things, they took pleasure in overseeing the ceremony of the local train crossing the passage à niveau near the hotel terrace, where they sat in the twilight sipping their cognacs after an excellent dinner: first, three slow strokes of a warning gong, then the gardienne emerging unhurriedly from her garden to crank down the gates, superintended by three children, two dogs, and a priest on a bicycle; five peaceful minutes later, the shrill distant whistle of the approaching train, its rattle and roar growing louder till it passed and faded in the distance. The priest waited patiently, gossiping with the gardienne, till at length she cranked up the gates in a leisurely way, they shook hands, he mounted his bike and rode away, laughing. No hurry.


IN the morning, after the ritual of spreading maps on the bed and deciding things, they stopped in the narrow village street to lay in a picnic lunch of cheese, saucisson, a tin of local pâté, a crusty halfloaf of tough bread, a bottle of wine, and a basket of cherries from the tree in the grocer’s back yard. Even in the smallest of towns, such errands take you into a variety of shops, for so life is organized on the village level in France. Kane bought the wine, say - ing ten francs by turning in an empty bottle, while his wife shopped for the groceries; and when they met again at the car, she with her handful of parcels wrapped in newspaper instead of cellophane, she was still smiling with delight over a mother cat and kitten curled up asleep on a pink corset, chief display in the sunny window of the local dressmaker.

“I never saw anything so French,” she said. “I suppose they just live along in these dreamy little valleys and never know what’s going on in the world, so peaceful; then every so often along come the Germans and —”

“They know what’s going on all right,” Kane replied, turning the car. They were bound for the Grotte de Lascaux, near Montignac, only fifteen miles north. So they took their time, driving slowly along beside the shallow Vézère — the Dordogne in miniature, limestone cliffs honeycombed with caves, crumbling gray villages, turreted manoirs, and all. Even here they noticed that all the roadside signs were pierced with rusty bullet holes, wartime targets for the youthful Maquis.

It was a sunny windless day, and as they climbed in second gear up the new road from Montignac to the hilltop cave, the hot scent of the scrub pine filled their nostrils like burning tar. Leaving the Peugeot in the parking circle, they followed arrows up a path, soft with pine needles, to the cave entrance— a concrete bunker set in a small clearing, with steps leading down to a steel door — and, near by, the inevitable small rustic restaurant. Cave and café were both locked, deserted.

“Of course,” remarked Kane, looking at his watch, “ c’est l’heure du déjeuner. I suppose they’ve gone home, no customers. Let’s go on up to the top and have our lunch, then come back around two. I really want to get into this place.”

“All right. Is this the one Bill Marshall told us about?”

“Yes. With the wall paintings.”

The pines stopped at a field with a farmhouse beyond, and here they spread a napkin on the grass and picnicked in the shade, a soft breeze cooling them, and looked out over miles of rolling checkerboard fields dotted with villages and woods; and the wine and cheese, pâté and bread, with the sharp, sweet little cherries, blended into the perfect picnic.

Mrs. Kane stretched out on the grass, her head on Kane’s jacket. “Tell me about your cave, I’ve sort of forgotten. Will there be water bugs?”

“I think you’ll like it,” Kane said. “In 1940 a couple of Montignac boys were poaching rabbits on this hill and their dog started digging at a hole and fell in. They could hear him barking way down inside somewhere, but of course they couldn’t reach him, so they went home for a rope and a light, enlarged the hole, shinnied down —”

“What kind of dog? Did they get him?”

“A rabbit hound and they did get him. It was a big cave, with paintings all over the walls. Next day they told their schoolmaster about it. He said the French for ‘Rubbish!’ — being a conservative, I guess. But after the war he wrote to an archaeological friend in Paris about it; the friend came hotfooting it down, and then and there confirmed the most exciting discovery of prehistoric paintings ever turned up. Some of them twenty thousand years old, and perfectly preserved. I want to see ‘em. So will you, bugs or no bugs. Bill said the two boys are now the official guides.”

“Imagine finding a cave at the top of a hill,” she said sleepily. “What time is it?”

“Almost two. Okay?”

They packed up the picnic basket and walked down to the cave, where two rather weedy young men were setting out picture postcards and souvenirs in the anteroom just inside the open steel doors. A French gentleman and his pretty wife, tourists like themselves, joined them just as one of the boys switched on the lights and began telling the story of their discovery.

The cave’s floor, stepped and ramped in concrete, sloped sharply for a hundred yards or so under a naturally vaulted ceiling, opening out at intervals in shallow chambers. The air felt cool and damp, the limestone greasy with moisture; a runnel of water trickled down the middle, and rudimentary stalactites hung from the overhead. Nearly every foot of the rough walls was covered with hunting scenes of superbly lifelike horses, bulls, deer, and bison, most of them in flight, some pierced by arrows and spears. A few were miniatures, etched in the soft stone, others life size, in red ochre — the pigment blown on, according to the guide, with a pipette. They were well lighted by small floods; and preserved, he said, by an air-conditioning unit.

They spent the best part of an hour in the cool underground, in the spell of ancient beauty; and when they climbed up into the light again, where a group of tourists was waiting, the sun struck like a furnace.

As they walked down the path towards the parking circle, suddenly out of a thicket appeared an old peasant woman, bent under a load of fagots. She looked at the Kanes with eyes bright as diamonds, and said in a startlingly deep, firm voice, “Bonjour, monsieur, madame. Vous êtes américains?”

Oui, madame,” replied Kane.

The old woman dropped her burden and straightened her back.

Alors,” she said, rubbing her hands as if in anticipation of a good gossip, “ comme américains, qu’est-ce que vous pensez de la situation?”

Quelle situation, madame?” Kane asked, puzzled.

“Maisla situation mondiale!” What other situations you got? he thought she almost added.

She explained, in simple, vivid language. And so it was that the Kanes first learned that the North Koreans had opened their attack, and that the President of the United States had announced that very morning the decision to resist. The old woman seemed almost radiant with relief and satisfaction as she congratulated them.

“Enfin!” she said. Her old face grew stern. “ Vous savez, madame: quand on attaque, il . . . faut . . . résister—tonjours! Comme nous français.”

“I take it all back, what I said this morning,” said Mrs. Kane, as they drove slowly down the hill towards the Vézère. “Imagine learning about it here, of all places.”

“Did you like the cave?”

“Well,” she answered, “that’s quite a jump, twenty thousand years right spang into the middle of Korea. I’m all out of breath.”

He smiled, and patted her knee.