Ornans - Sketches In Tint
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Ornans — a cobbled straggling street, following the vagaries of a laughing river; houses, cornice to cornice, whispering vieillards; gray shadows under the damp, moldy portico of the seventeenth-century Hotel de Ville; Madame the Tobacconist knitting a red shawl in the door of her shop; Monsieur the Shoemaker carving sabots with a draw-knife, the shavings deep about his knees; the bronze figure of Courbet's fisher-boy with his spear uplifted in the fountain at the end of the park to-ward Avenue Wilson; Avenue Wilson and memories of the Great War; a wagon creaking, a smell of cherry-blossoms and pot-au-f eu.
Above the town, the river comes out of its crack in the cliff wall. Below, it winds into the softer curves of green hills. Left and right the cliffs rise through a snow-storm of white flowers to cumulus clouds of blue green where the pine-trees zone the crest. Beneath these walls the life of the town moves placidly in a time-grayed setting.
A bit like the old days, it is now. There is less and less black in the dresses of the women. Here and there a touch of color when the widows walk abroad. Bridal trains are marching to marriage under the dim gold arches of the church. Bright-eyed, blond-headed sprites who were little more than babies in 1914 will shortly have homes of their own, and sons of their own to carry bayonets in the next war.
Madame Beauvais stood by her stove, winding odd little strips of warm sponge-cake in spirals about a white stick. The heavily leaded windows shook, and there was a vague trembling through the house. From over the blue hills came an echo as of distant thunder.
"They are firing at Valdahon to-day, Monsieur."
No touch of sentiment in that—a correct diagnosis of the noise. In a far city the statesmen of the world were at-tempting to strengthen the anemic peace that had come out of the forest of Compiegne with Germany's surrender. But on the range at Valdahon the seventy-fives were keeping exercised. Madame dropped one of the spiral cakes into a dish and furtively wiped the corners of her eyes with her apron.
Firing at Valdahon . . . but madame was hearing the smash of the barrage at Verdun. She was seeing flares in the sky to the north. She was seeing two boys in bleu d'horizon dead in the wire at Avocourt.
If one had not seen her brush away the tears, one might not have noticed the vibrant quality in her voice when she spoke again.
"I am afraid the cakes will not be so light as they should be, monsieur. They should cool with a delicate crust but should be light and flaky inside. I do not do such things as well as I did once." Then, apropos of nothing:
"There was a month's mind mass for Monsieur Larousse yesterday. It was beautiful. It seemed to me that Monsieur Larousse must be so much happier than he was here where he was so lonely.
"There was no one to take care of him, the poor old man. He was quite wealthy but he never married. He never had sons."
The madame looked up and through the door toward the group picture on the wall of her little dining-room, the picture of the sons who had died at Verdun.
It seemed strange that she should be sympathizing with one who had never known the sorrow of parting or the shock of the message "mort au champ d'honneur," and she read in my eyes my lack of understanding. She smiled.
"I am not alone, monsieur," she said. "I have the memory of my sons. And my pride in them. No one can take that from me."
Typical of the country, that reply. Burgundy has al-ways been proud of her sons and, since first they started to make war on the continent of Europe, has always had plenty of dead sons to be proud of.
The population of this end of the Jura is a puzzle well worth study. It is with something of a shock that one notices little Margot, who lives across the street, as she steps forth in her calico dress with her school-books under her arm. Her hair, brushed from her forehead, hangs in pig-tails down her back. Her smock is the uniform of the school-child throughout France. But Margot appears to be anything but French. Her eyes are blue and mischievous, her nose a bit pert, her lips sensitive and always ready to curve in a funny little smile. And Margot is as pure an Irish type as one might find in a day's walk in Dublin.
There are names, too, over the Librarie near the hotel and across the door of a modiste in the Rue St. Laurent that have a strangely familiar look despite French accent-marks over the vowels: Maguire, pronounced "Margee" (with the "g" hard), and Sulivant, which needs no pronunciation, names whose racial origin seems to be a matter beyond debate.
Whence came this touch of Celtic to old Burgundy? From the same source, probably, that has given to the Jura its blond Teuton women and its Italian beauties. If Arles may take credit as the only place on earth where the blood of classic Greece may still be found, in no less truth may it be said that the Jura holds the female beauty of the rest of the world. Through here passed the frontiers of the old Burgundian kingdom. All about here were the battle-fields on which the fate of the uncrowned emperors was settled. And into these valleys came thousands of mercenaries from all over Europe, to fight occasionally, to desert occasionally, and on occasion to make ardent love to the fair women who lived there.
Many a swashbuckler settled down here to a peaceful existence, and new blood and racial characteristics were their legacy to the Jura. And atavism acts every now and then to keep green their memory.