Supper in the Bois

DONALD MOFFAs’S affection for France goes back to 1916 when he was a young ambulance driver in the uniform of the American Field Service. In the serene days after the First World War, he, his wife, and his young daughters resided in Senlis,Paris, and Pornic, an experience which he wrote of with charm and gaiety in his book The Mott Family in France, But when Hitler began to strut. Mr. Moffat volunteered for the Navy, serving in the Atlantic: and twelve years elapsed before he and Mrs. Moffat could return to their beloved other country.



THE Strathcannon was just warping alongside the dock at Le Havre when Mr. and Mrs. Kane drove up, at seven s’clock in the morning, to meet Susan, their daughter, and Rose, her college roommate, arriving on their first visit to France; but it was a good hour later, after coffee and rolls in the great new gare maritime, before they saw the two girls wandering down the gangway, looking dazed. A soft misty rain was falling.

No hats! thought Mrs. Kane. And they look like a couple of pretty little sleepwalkers — and no wonder, she decided, as she kissed them and presently learned that they hadn’t been to bed at all the night before. “Oh — we had the most wonderful time!” were the words and music of the first half hour, waiting for their bags to come ashore. And as the Kanes pieced together the fragments of rapture, it seemed that the time had been so wonderful because they had spent most of it with the ship’s junior officers.

“But how did you make contact?” Kane asked, always curious about the mechanics of feminine stratagem.

“Well, there were these stairs,” said Susan seriously, “and we went up, and all of a sudden we were on the bridge.”

“ Innocently?” her father asked.

“Sort of. That was the second day out. And Gerald was there and he just spread out his arms and shooed us off.”

“But he was grinning,” Rose added, “so we knew it was all right really. And then we just sort of got to know the others, Bill and Cecil and Andy. We drank beer in their wardroom.”

“That’s all they could afford. Such fun! Mummy, ws’ve got to be at Southampton when they get in next trip. We promised!”

“Did you meet any of the passengers?” Mrs. Kane asked.

“A few,” Susan said indifferently.

“There was a grumpy old Frenchman.” added Rose. “He kept following us around. I think he was a Count or something.”

Both girls yawned, enormously.

“You can sleep in the Peugeot,” said Kane. “ Wait till you see it.”

When the baggage arrived the smart young douanier sized up the party and smilingly chalked the bags, with never a question. Thank goodness he didn’t open them, thought Mrs. Kane, noticing sundry streamers of lingerie at the edges. I suppose the girls just threw everything in and sat on the lids.

In the back seat of the Peugeot they slept most of the way across Normandy, a sheen of red hair mingling with one of brown. Kane and his wife were silent, too, their intimacy colored by the familiar tint of domesticity, of responsibility. Home had followed them — and very nice it was, Kane decided. He was used to the company of ladies.

Ladies! he mused. What a word, and how its connotation had changed in his lifetime! His mind flashed back to a youthful memory of traveling ladies, of attendant valets, couriers, and maids, of veils, petticoats, and parasols, of Baedeker and brassbound touring cars Like galleons. The Lightning Conductor, by C. N. and A. M. Williamson! Those were the days when you were foreigners, not tourists, and took your midday table s’hôte at country inns at one long table with the commis voyageurs, who tucked their napkins under their chins and picked iheir teeth. And now —“the ladies!” Much, much better off, in bare legs and cotton dresses and short, bright hair, unself-conscious, uncluttered. slender and lovely. Perhaps the human race is capable of progress! He felt tenderly proud of his ladies.

After dinner at Mont-Saint-Michel they climbed the deserted ramparts under a full moon, and found themselves alone in the Middle Ages. And to emphasize their golden mood they heard a girl’s voice, light as bells, singing a little village song to herself as she ironed clothes at a lighted window far below the bastion on which they stood. Next morning, when they “did” the Mount properly with a mob of visitors, fighting off the hotel barkers and souvenir merchants, illusion perished. The Kanes, hardened to the stigma of tourist, stuck close to the grave, intelligent guide; but the girls hung back, not yet ready to be identified as what they were.

Said Rose, as they drove away: “s’d like to do it some day when there’s nobody else there. Last night was so perfect !”

“Yos’d have quite a wait,” Kane warned her. “It has been like that for centuries — tourists, pilgrims, souvenirs, omelets, and all. Why not admit yos’re tourists?”

“Never!” said Susan and Rose.


Two days later, on their way back to Paris, they came to a country crossroad near Alcnçon where a squad of military police were shunting all traffic off the route nationale. Turning obediently onto a side road, they presently rounded a curve and found themselves in the middle of a war. Maneuvers! thought Kane. In the ditches crouched squads of khaki-uniformed men carrying rifles and bazookas, their helmets camouflaged with leaves, their faces streaming with sweat (for the day was hot), and looking, thought Kane, like serious boys playing cops-and-robbers. Soon the Peugeot was entangled in a mass of military traflic — command jeeps, halftracks, motorcycles, communications trucks, and dozens of huge green-canvas-covered camions filled with riflemen. As he drove slowly along, twisting from road to dirt road, Kane noticed with pleasure that Rose and Susan were visibly raising the morale of the French Army, especially that of a certain element riding in a camion (with a red heart on the tailboard for regimental insignia) which they had been following for several kilometers.

When the camion stopped at a fork, Kane drew alongside to ask directions. But the young officer sitting beside the driver admitted gaily that he was “com-plèt-e-ment perdu. On sait qs’on est toujours en France,mais à part de ça —!” His gesture, as he gave Susan and Rose the eye, expressed a charming indifference. The two girls burst into laughter. So did the Army. As they parted, by different forks, with cheers and more laughter (but no whistles, Mrs. Kane noticed gratefully), they heard the Army breaking into the old familiar song: —

“Ah, les fraises et les framboises,
Le bon vin qu’nous avons bu,
Et les belles villageoises —
Nous ne les verrons plus!”

They reached Paris that evening in time for dinner. It took the girls a few days to feel at home there, to reach the customary stage at which a jeune arrivée finds everything French wonderful, everything American unbearable by comparison. They did all the usual things, sometimes alone, sometimes with parents. Rose “discovered” the little Pare du Vert Galant, and spent a quiet half hour sitting on a bench, watching the river traffic and the little clots of French babies playing decorous little games, and a battered trio ol two tramps and an ancient dame cooking their lunch in a bucket, in the shadow of the Pont Neuf. At the Louvre, and at the Jeu de Paume. Mrs. Kane was pleased to find that Rose and Susan seemed to know more about pictures than she did and, at the Salle Pleyel, more about music. The girls were it little timid with the language at first, but soon learned their way about by Métro and bus, thus confirming the adage that language is no barrier to a woman, especially when she is young and pretty. Leaning against the river wall of the Quai Voltaire one sunny morning, gazing dreamily down on the Seine, Susan was pinched by a passing native in the traditional gesture of approval, and felt secretly flattered, as well as mad.

Whenever they returned, after an adventure, to their little Left Bank hotel, both girls instantly flopped on their beds, oblivious to t he frightful mess their room was always in, and fell instantly asleep — not wholly surprising, thought Kane, considering the speed with which they had made contact with sundry boys from home, who took them out on the tiles of Montparnasse and Montmartre every other night or so. Sometimes the Kanes went along too; but they were usually ready to call it off by midnight, and retire on their own memories of Zelli’s, the Jardin de Ma Sœur, the Bœuf Sur le Toit, the Théâtre des Dix Heures, and all the entrancing little boîtes in which they had looked and listened and loved so long ago. Nothing had changed except themselves, the tempo of the music, and the addresses. The words were the same, and the delight.

Kane had noticed quite soon how reluctant the girls were to have money spent on them for mere pleasure, and put it down, with applause, to the college influence. But however much he respected their feelings, he felt it his duty to enlighten them with an occasional flash of reality — to teach them, for example, the old lesson that pleasure is seldom sinful, and wrong only when indulged at another’s expense.

“Time you stopped worrying,” he lectured them one evening at dinner. “The wise man proves his wisdom by paying more for excellence —”


“—than in economizing by spending less for the second-rate. Don’t interrupt when s’m moralizing. Time you learned the principle of the fling — faire la bombe, the French call it. It has to be learned like everything else, and I’m going to teach you.”

The place he chose for his demonstration was the Pavillon d’Armenonville in the Bois de Boulogne. He and his wife hadn’t been there for years; but it was enough of an institution, he felt sure, to have remained unchanged in every essential. A robber’s roost, yes — but a roost with a certain style, where the robber gave you your money’s worth. He told the girls to entangle not more than four polite boys, and set the rendezvous for the following night.

The summer dinner hour in Paris has a way of starting later and later every year, so the Pavillon d’Armenonville was not yet crowded when they arrived in a couple of taxis at nine-thirty. The night was warm and still; the Bois in full summer leaf made a charming background for the Pavillon, twinkling with light like a glass-and-gold jewel box. The thing I’ve always liked about this place, thought Kane, is that it is gay without getting selfconscious about it, and that it makes no bones of being anything but ridiculously artificial. Anything that calls itself a pavilion ought to be light and unsubstantial as a piece of costume jewelry. Armenonville answered the challenge gracefully. There were lights everywhere — on the white and gold ceiling, on the glass walls, and hanging in the trees of the garden outside, soft yellow lights, in imitation of the era of golden gaslight, of bare shoulders and diamonds, white ties and tails, of chapeaux hauts de forme, of champagne drunk from ladies’ slippers.

From his determinedly lordly mood, Kane asked the headwaiter to use his discretion over dinner, and the entire staff was delighted — not only for the money, Kane knew: here was a chance to exercise their art in providing a perfect little supper. The supplement, he guessed, would be severe. He didn’t care. The Pavillon’s discretion took the form of melons from the Charente, a lobster bisque, a delicate concoction of chicken, rice, cream, and foie gras, then asparagus Hollandaise in generous supply, followed by little ices flavored with the fruit they were made of, and a tender champagne to set them dancing. The lively band alternated a jazzhot with a waltz, a fox trot with — for the numerous South Americans — a rhumba or a samba. Francis and Alec, Xavier and Billy, took turns with Susan, Rose, and Mrs. Kane; and Kane felt his old pride well up within him as each of the boys, after dancing with Mrs. Kane, said to him, “Golly, your wife is a wonderful dancer!”

“Of course!” he answered haughtily. “Don’t look so surprised!”

Dancing with Susan he said: “Look out into the garden! Don’t you expect to see Renoir in a floppy hat or Lautrec trailing his cane out there under the trees, with a couple of girls?”

“Yes — but why did his men always keep their hats on while dancing? s’ve always wondered. Fashion?”

“Or the dangerous night air. You know, nothing has really changed here in the years I’ve known it, and probably not ever. It’s never been really smart, in the vulgar sense.”

“What fun you and Mummy have always had! I love to watch you having it.”

“Don’t worry, you will too. Wait till you’re middle-aged!” He patted her shoulder, and liked it when she gave his hand a little squeeze.

He had a waltz with his wife (the Blue Danube, no less!), with the floor almost to themselves; and he knew, as he held her in his arms, that she was still the world’s most heavenly dancer. The girls couldn’t touch her in lightness and responsiveness. He remembered her at Susan’s age, when he had first brought her to Paris, and she had danced the tango with the gigolo at the Jardin de Ma Sœur — one exciting night when the young Prince of Wales was there with a party — while he watched in pride as she perfectly followed the man, though he knew shs’d never done the tango before in her life. And the time in Bucharest, years later, staying with Rumanian friends, when shs’d joined a peasant round dance in costume: a circle of men and girls, arms entwined, moving to a barbaric offbeat rhythm of guitar and drum; and shs’d never missed a step. And now she was hardly young, nor exactly slender, but still people watched her, even with his clumsy self for partner, and he felt proud, and happy.

“Thanks, my dear,” he said when the music stopped. “Did you know that everyone was looking at you? Or maybe your ankles?”

“Pooh!” she said.

Yes — a very successful evening. It was getting on for two in the morning when Kane caught the signal in his wife’s eye, and asked for the bill. He had expected a shock, and he got it. He furtively took out his wallet and counted up the contents. Damn!

He whispered to Rose, sitting beside him: “Sst! Can you let me have five thousand francs till tomorrow ? ”

Rose, flushed and pretty, gazed up at him delightedly, seized her bag from the table, and emptied the contents into her lap, while the maître s’hôtel, hovering, burst into very human, unhoadwaiterly laughter. Such a torrent of notes, lipstick, handkerchiefs, compacts, letters, change, pencils had never before, thought Kane, poured from a lady’s purse; nor had he ever seen a woman of any age look so charming as Rose, her bright hair tumbling over her face, her back bending like a supple colt’s, eyes shining, lips curved in a smile of feminine triumph. She segregated five of the crumpled wads and smoothed them on her knee before passing them to Kane, saying: “ I wish I could learn to think of these things as money.”

“Thank you, my dear,” he said, “yos’ve saved my honor. Now I can tip with splendor.