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French Perspectives - Signs Of The Times

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE returning American is always deeply impressed by the inviolability of French family life. I remember being especially conscious of this quality the first evening I spent in Mme. Langeais's lamplit salon after my arrival from England. I remember realizing afresh, as I looked from one generation to another, — there were three, and how different, gathered about the table, — that no foreigner could so much as blunt the edges of a French household's essential integrity.

The precious center of our circle was a very, very old lady, some ninety-odd, indeed, whose beaked, fairy-godmother face, with its witty, fine-drawn wrinkles, scarcely reached the top of her stuffed chair-back. Opposite her sat her daughter, my hostess, who wears a distinguished name with a most distinguished grace. Then, each in her appointed place, fixed for the winter like stars in their orbits, Colette, the vigorous, dark daughter of the house, just on the edge of twenty-one; a plain, elderly governess; a young American or two. Le Temps was neatly folded in front of Madame, and at her mother's el-bow lay the Revue, — the salmon-colored one, I need hardly say, — but the ladies' hands were all engaged in some intricate needlework or lace-making. What reading was done in this salon had to be accomplished sans en avoir l'air, since a salon is a place where one converses.

The curtains toward the garden were drawn, every door was hermetically closed, the fire glowed red: in short, that atmosphere of polished domesticity known only to the upper bourgeoisie of France brooded over us, steeped us in peace. Conversation was quiet and discreet. Grand'-mère's mots on the subject of the latest play or novel, keyed so as to reach only the more sophisticated ears, dropped like diamonds into still water. Madame's needle moved silently in and out. Until the valet de chambre came in, at exactly ten o'clock, with the tray of camomile and pink sirop, nothing, I said to myself, not even a telephone call, could break the spell of our perfect serenity.

But suddenly, all traditions to the contrary, the door burst open, and noisily. One of the old family servants thrust in a head swathed in a black knit shawl, and in accents which she made no attempt to modulate called, "Quick, Mlle. Colette, la retraite!"

At the words Colette leaped to her feet, and tore out of the room without the usual questioning look to her mother, with no apology to her grandmother. Young America and the governess followed suit, and when I looked for my hostess, she too had vanished — Grand'mère and I were alone with the echo of retreating footsteps and the trail of scattered silk.

The grandmother's face — it was strange, considering her impatience of breaks in the established order - expressed no commentary. Her veined old hands continued to weave the filet border of the dining-room tablecloth, and I was free to go, or stay. So I stayed; for this old woman has a gift which even in France grows rare: that of making the seat next hers the warmest, the brightest, the most interesting, the most enviable spot in the world; the gift of bringing all life, like so much treasure-trove, into the circle of her lamp.

"La retraite aux flambeaux": the word of explanation came casually at last, but a little hovering smile rewarded me for my patience. After some years of Socialist quietus, military demonstrations - like the evening return of the soldiers to barracks with torches and brass bands — were again permitted in the street. Colette, said Grand'mère, had a weakness for soldiers. Her great-grandchildren likewise, the son and daughter of Colette's eldest sister.

I exclaimed incredulously, for their father had been one of the best-known "Tolstoïsants" of France.

"Yes," said Grand'mère. "If those children are in a 'bus and see soldiers passing, nothing will do but they must descend and stand on the sidewalk singing the `Marseillaise.' A generation of young patriots!" She spoke lightly, as always, but as the family continued to remain absent, her impatience grew. Enfin, this was no way to spend an evening. She dropped her needle and tapped the cane that rested against her knee.

"For my part," she said at last, on an impulse of sympathie which our lamplit solitude intensified, "I pray" — and her face contracted and her hand tightened on the handle of her cane — "that I may never see another war. It is enough to carry the memory of two revolutions to one's grave." She was a girl of eighteen in 1848, she told me,-and remembered as if it were yesterday the terror she felt for her father and brothers and — well — for another young man.

"I had already a certain sentiment for the man who was to become my husband," she explained, with a tender little laugh, "and when his mother described to me how he had come back to her, his face black with powder, his cockade shot clean off — yes, that settled it. His cap without a cockade — how I treasured it! I have it still."

During the siege of Paris, in 1870, she continued, thoroughly enjoying her reminiscences at last, her family had not suffered. They were well-to-do, and there was wood to burn, though most of it was gilded. Life went on normally — schools, even theaters — while the shells exploded in the street. Worse than German shells was the sense of moral gunpowder within the walls. On one occasion, when peaceful demonstrators were shot down by the Communards in the place Vendôme, she and her daughter had gone out to look for her son, then a boy of seventeen — "Te rappelles-tub" she asked Mme. Langeais, who had now returned to her chair. My hostess shook her head, her eyes fixed on her work; then, sharply, in a voice I had never heard, —

"Je t'en prie — I beg you not to continue this conversation. J'ai horreur de ces souvenirs-la," — I can't endure those memories, — she exclaimed, as Colette, who had known no wars, reappeared, followed by her glowing train. It had been a splendid retraite — they'd followed for blocks and blocks!

"A little music," suggested Grand'mère, looking with disapproval at the excited red cheeks. "A sonata of Mozart's?"

"Grand'mère! Mozart to-night? Allons, les enfants, un petit air patriotique." She sat down at the piano and struck up a song by Botrel, that popular chansonnier, whom her grandmother considered " of a banality," and then with a mischievous smile passed to an old favorite which no Frenchwoman can resist, "En passant par la Lorraine".

This first blare of trumpets was vastly surprising. A military evening in a university family! My thoughts went back to my first winter in Paris when the daughters of professors were coming back from their lectures at the Sorbonne burning with humanitarian ardor. It was "L'Internationale" they hummed in those days; they bought the Socialistic l'Humanité, to the distress of their mothers, and Jaurès was their oracle.

Colette, whose oracle was M. de Mun in the Catholic Petit Parisien, had no less generosity, no less enthusiasm, but it was turned in another direction. Though her father, a great French scholar of the generation of Taine and Renan, had been a protagonist of Dreyfus, one of those who put the larger sense of justice before the narrow sense of patrie, she had absorbed nationalism, not internationalism, with her history and philosophy, ten years after his death. She had passed her baccalaureate brilliantly, and, as became his daughter, had begun to prepare her licence. Yet this year — here was another sign of the times — she had given up lectures in order to "do her Red Cross."

Early in the dark winter morning she started for her distant hospital, and sometimes did not get back to lunch. When this happened, her grandmother was all in a flutter. She had resigned herself with difficulty to an age which permitted girls to go out alone. In her day one brought up the jeune fille to be pretty and charming and intelligent, and it was compromising, even in your mother's company, to post a letter in a box. Lectures she did approve of, but for a clever girl to study nursing! — Colette admitted that she herself was not so keen for nursing. She missed the Sorbonne, and neglected her music — mais enfin!

"Enfin, one must follow the fashion," said Grand'mère wickedly, "whatever happens to Mozart."

But Mme. Langeais spoke out very decidedly in favor of the Red Cross training. It would be useful in their Norman village, where the peas-ants needed education in matters of diet and hygiene.

"Yes," agreed Colette, "and" — her eyes meeting the fine, resolute elder ones — "in case of war I shall be at the service of the State."

In spite of all this, I was scarcely prepared for the accent with which the word "Prussien" fell from the lips of the humanitarian son-in-law when he came to dinner with his wife and his elder son. The hiss of those sibilant ss's was unmistakable. Behind that bald, intellectual brow, in those deep-set idealist's eyes the possibility of a conflict was flickering as it had certainly not been two years before. War was a stupid and barbarous device, said the professor, but there were worse things than being shot for your country. It was a relief to feel, as every one did feel since the coup d'Agadir, that in case of need even the Socialists would march. A crisis would let loose a flood of patriotism which would carry before it all the miserable conflicts of the political arena. As to the proposed law for three years' military service, the necessity was lamentable: but what else was there to do?

"Ilfaut se défendre," said Mme. Langeais dryly.

"Exactly." The Germans had showed their hand in Morocco. Their purpose was to crush France. So long as they continued to increase armaments France must logically reply. Yes, there was no doubt of it — the pacifist professor had gone over to the side of the young patriots.

That evening in the salon was curiously different from usual, though the professor's wife, the elder representative of the third generation, sitting down with her Irish crochet, between her grandmother and her mother, fitted like a beautiful link into the chain. Her smile, the turn of her head, her quick, keen phrase, her competent activity, were obviously moulded by the same long, solid, distinguished past, and marriage had only defined, completed her rôle and her place in the world. As with all married women in France, that place might almost be expressed by a scientific formula. Now that she was present, Colette, who was still, in spite of her positive reactions, the nebulous jeune fine, retreated, so to speak, to join the fourth generation in the person of her nephew Jacques, a boy of fifteen, with whom she had the closest relation. In favor of the bond between them, the salon was enlarged to include a corner of the salle-a-manger, where their two narrow, dark heads were visible, bent eagerly over the same newspaper. Was this why the spirits of the company seemed no longer centered in the lamplit circle?

"What is your absorbing sheet, Colette?" I inquired at last, looking for another sign of the times.

"Mademoiselle, I am afraid it is not very literary, Jacques's favorite newspaper: l'Aéro ! We are trying to find the record of my brother Jean's new hydro."

"And," added Jacques, raising a voice already marked by professorial precision so as to reach the ears of his father, "computing the chances for Carpentier."

"Carpentier!" Up went the paternal hands to the paternal ears in the expected despairing gesture. The professor had not yet reached the point of accepting a champion prize-fighter as the hero of intellectual youth.

One would not have supposed to look at him that there was an ounce of athleticism in Jacques's composition. His slight frame, his pipestem legs, his frail arms, and, most of all, his pale, clever, concentrated face, marked him as the studious descendant of a race of scholars. He was to be an historian, and already, though he was still in short trousers, the subject of his doctor's thesis had been chosen. His great-grandmother loved to tell, as an index of his native bent, how, at the age of four, he had burst into tears "chez Buffalo" at the sight of an Indian dragging a white man at his saddle-bow. "Ma-man, ça me rappelle trop la mort d'Hector" — it reminds me too much of the death of Hector. Yet here was Jacques a passionate advocate of sport. He played tennis in a determined effort to develop muscle, and got up at six in the morning to hear the result of Carpentier's boxing-matches.

Colette urged him on. Jacques was only following the normal movement of the age. She told me about one of his comrades, the son of a famous professor at the Sorbonne, who had been forbiden in childhood to read any "work of imagination," and had been nourished on the "History of France" in thirty-four volumes, — well this lad was now reading "Nick Carter" and "Arsène Lupin" in his father's study and determined to be an aviator. Carpentier, Colette assured us, was the chief subject of conversation at balls. Her grandmother, who made a great fête of the evenings when her darling started off in a simple white frock by the side of her beautiful mother, just as the camomile came in, became very irate on this subject.

"I assure you, Grand'mère, a girl who is not up on boxing has no chance of partners, like the girl who speaks no slang."

Slang! Where, asked Grand'mère, was elegance, where was delicacy, where was the rare French art of conversation, if girls — was n't it women who set all standards ? — used words like embêtant to their partners?

"Embêtant — embêtant is nothing," maintained Colette stoutly. "The Academy will accept it in a few years — has n't it just accepted épater? Do you want them, Grand'mère, to call me a prude ? Do you want them to say I ` talk like a book'? "

Her grandmother thought that a girl brought up under the shadow of the Collège de France might well be proud to talk like a book; but Colette stood firm. Slang, I gathered, was a sort of symbol; the symbol of a generation that wished to proclaim itself active, unintellectual, not too refined for the rough things of the world; ready for — well, for whatever came.

Colette's literary taste was, of course, impeccable, and, as I discovered when I went with her to the Théâtre Français, almost wholly classical in bias. Not that she followed the modern traditionalist revival so far as to condemn all the Romantics. On the contrary, she adored the panache of "Hernani" and could declaim "l'Aiglon" and "Cyrano" from one end to the other. But she was ten years too young for what is still called the "revolutionary" vers libre. She said modestly that it was probably lier fault that she could not enjoy these poets, of whom her brother-in-law thought so highly, but what could she do ? She had the alexandrine trop dans le sang. In fiction her tastes were similarly traditionalist. " Jean-Christophe," which her mother loved, to her taste seemed shapeless and muddled. More-over, the German hero was a little too sympathetically portrayed. Her favorite modern novels were "Colette Baudoche" and "Au Service de l'Allemagne" where Barrès, in a form that the classics themselves might envy, has restated the conflict between German "barbarism" and French "civilization," and sharpened in the breast of youth the old wound of Alsace-Lorraine.

In a family of this sort, republican, intellectual, and though Catholic by no means clerical, the vulgar sort of patriotism was unthinkable. The family tradition of broad, sober, disciplined culture was all against melodrama, against sentimentality, against any sort of emotional emphasis. Mme. Langeais liked to tell, for the benefit of young America, the story of an elderly count who, when his son kissed before the company the bride whom he brought for the first time to the family lunch-table, said in cold re-proof: "My son, I beg you to come down to-morrow tout embrassés" — already kissed. Public demonstrations in this household also were discouraged, and I remember as almost unique Colette's loud cry of joy when she read in the newspaper on New Year's Day that her brother Jean had been "decorated."

M. Jean was an inventor and manufacturer of aeroplanes. He was handsome and barely thirty, and his air of reserve and distinction was completely destructive to the hearts of young America. He had a slim, adoring, young wife, as tall and dark and mysterious as he was tall and clear-cut and fair, and the nights when "les Jean" came to dinner were gala occasions. The young wife had only three or four years ago sewed the sails of the first little miniature aeroplane that Jean designed. It was in the Normandy chateau, and the whole family — Grand'mère's talent for anecdote made the picture lively — had gathered anxiously under the gray walls to watch the trial. It sailed, it sailed! out of the window, over the fields, Margot and Jean tearing after like a pair of happy children. And now the army had ordered several of the latest model, and Jean had been admitted to the Legion of Honor. Colette went to the celebration at Rouen a few days later, and returned deeply thrilled. There had been a vin d'honneur offered by the municipality; soldiers lined up in the square; speeches by officers; and Jean was so handsome in his uniform!

"Uniform?" queried young America breathlessly.

"Certainly. Did n't you know? Jean is officier de réserve."

Officier de réserve: how the signs multiplied. Yet the pensionnaire, who took note of them with a sense of impending catastrophe, was still as far as the adoring young sister from really imagining that, a year and a half later, M. Jean would be "aiding" one of the great generals, through the battle of the Marne.

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