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French Perspectives - The Merciers In Topsbridge

( Originally Published 1916 )

This is a bad summer for lovers of France. Watching her trial from across the Atlantic has to me seemed like watching a sick bed from a distance: the less I could do to help, the more I magnified the suffering and the symptoms. But thanks to a French bourgeois family, whom the war has marooned in Topsbridge, I have recovered my sense of proportion.

The Merciers are not plain bourgeois. They are bourgeois-bohemian, a species that looks very queer in New England, or any other Anglo-Saxon portion of our country. It is alien even in New York. M. Mercier is a musician, a 'cellist of international reputation, and you at once perceive in him the artist's passion and zest for life. His face, heavy and plebeian in outline, fairly flickers with humor: a spicy Rabelaisian humor, emphasized by a brush of tawny hair and a pair of start-ling bronze mustaches. Yet the most solid, and rural, and domestic, and endearing of the French bourgeois virtues stand out all over his protuberant person. He is built on a large plan, and when I meet him walking on our country roads, between Madame, his equally monumental wife, and Mademoiselle his daughter, it is literally impossible to believe in shells that fall like express trains into ancient Gothic towns; in heart-broken women dragging back from concentration camps with newborn babies wrapped in newspaper in their arms. This genial family group suggests the lesser cafés of the boulevards, the Concert Touche, the Bois on a Sunday. It suggests a little rose-arbor where, after a day spent in digging his ancestral acres, in counting the apples on the trees, and the bunches of grapes on the vines, a man may sit in his shirt-sleeves in the midst of his embroidering and admiring women-folk, drink sirop and contemplate the borders.

The country estate, where Mercier is accustomed to hasten every June to forget the trials of the American musical season, is now within five miles of the firing-line. The high, slate-roofed villa, the bees, the hens, the potager, the box-hedges, the autographed photographs of famous composers, the bound volumes of the classics, the linen sheets, and the carved walnut armoires that contain them, the trousseau of Mlle. Jeannette — two dozen of everything recently made and stored in the same cupboards — all these treasures may any day be plundered, trampled, battered into nothingness. Yet the French power of accepting the irrevocable is such that the Merciers do not behave as if Topsbridge were a place of anxious exile; never has the small white farmhouse where they have taken refuge looked so gay and so friendly as this summer.

Its minute front yard, lately a tangle of phlox and sweet-william, is planted with neat rows of lettuce and romaine. Why, asks Madame, sacrifice a good square yard of ground ? I saw three hens on the doorstep the other day, enmeshed in a string bag, such a bag as all the old French peas-ant women, with whom one has traveled in third-class railway carriages, nurse, stuffed with similar live-stock, on their alpaca knees. These hens are now being tenderly fattened by the 'cellist in a coop built of old window screens. He has a weakness for hens, his wife tells me, but nothing in his own manner hints that these are poor pickings after the three hundred he used to feed in the Picardy dawn. Monsieur himself, in the khaki knee-breeches and coat he affects, reminds one of a Rhode Island red rooster. The very pale, very round, very prominent blue eye he cocks at you over a long, beak-like nose confirms the illusion, and there is undoubtedly a dash of panache in the cockade of tawny hair. Yet Mercier is the simplest, the least self-conscious of men. When July nights grow intolerably hot, and Topsbridgites lie gasping in conventional flannels in their piazza chairs, the light of the French evening lamp reveals through the thin muslin curtains a figure in striped pajamas copying manuscript music with unabated energy. What is the country for, if not for industrious ease ? This is sound bourgeois-bohemian logic, and gives a summer evening call at the Merciers the atmosphere of a Balzac novel.

Madame, though she has even more reason to find it trying, makes light of the American summer weather. "Of course we are not used," she says, "but enfin, I have a good cel-laire, I take my book there and spend the day." Fortunately, the cellar does not often swallow her up. She sits instead on her side porch, beside an elderly bonne, — who has lately been rescued from the hypothetical mercies of les Boches, but must on no account faire des, relations in Topsbridge, — and salutes the passers-by with a smile through which glides the shadow of a fascinating past. Madame fits least of this family into the New England scene. She calls up for me a most definite picture: a hard, white, straight French road, a loop of shining river, a line of sentinel poplars, a gray arched bridge, and beside it a little open-air café with green iron tables. In every such café, a year ago, sat a lady exactly like Mme. Mercier: eminently respectable, yet with a dash of the histrionic about her; superabounding, yet seductive; wearing, as she does, an enormous black hat very much aslant on coils of blue-black hair dressed with yellow combs; and always carefully balanced on the edge of her chair. In Mme. Mercier's case, it is not a glass she looks down at over a blouse all zigzags and orange buttons, but a volume of Molière. She has a pupil in the French drama.

Classes, indeed, have sprung up as naturally from the family talents as salad from the flower-beds: here is another proof that bourgeois France is still alive. Securities are insecure; les Boches, however mythical, are real. So M. Mercier, with his reputation and his sensitive ear, teaches harmony to the tuneless, and takes an active and paternal share in Mademoiselle's gymnastic classes as well. Mlle. Jeannette, a handsome, red- cheeked, capable girl, whose eyes are firmly fixed on the concert stage, has brought back from Paris the latest thing in musical gymnastics. I doubt, though, if she gets as much satisfaction as her father does from watching a group of ladies in their bathing-suits spasmodically struggling for "rhythms." M. Mercier makes a gallant effort to keep his shoulders steady, sucks in his mustache, but has to bend his expressive face far over the piano to hide the wicked twinkle in his eyes.

"H'attention, hop!"cries Mademoiselle. "Now, Papa, they may do the chorus"; and the piano strikes up ----

"Au clair de la lune
Mon ami Pierrot —"

To hear Mercier's happy voice rolling out the old nursery song while Warsaw is falling is the most heartening thing in the world. It seems as if little girls with bare knees and fluffy skirts must still be skipping rope in the Luxembourg Gardens, and gamins in black aprons buying hot, sugared gauffres for one sou. Mme. Mercier's brother is in the trenches, near Rheims. Several cousins have been killed, her bonne has lost a son. Unspeakable things happened to the women and children half a dozen villages from theirs. But one hears nothing of atrocities. Nor does one see a sock or a bandage in their ladies' hands. In-deed, I fancy I detect a shade of veiled amusement when mornings of "relief work" are mentioned by the pupils. The Merciers have got beyond that. While we Americans invent palliatives, try even to delude ourselves into believing that the horrors of war cannot be, because they do not fit our vision of an ideal world, they are looking war full in the face. France is invaded: no fact could be more blasting. Yet why, runs the bourgeois adage, revolt against what happens in spite of you? Better accept it to-day, lest you have to do so tomorrow on less convenient terms.

The Merciers know, and so do I, when the family phalanx looms quaintly above my stone wall, that even if France were annihilated they would never become Americans. Topsbridge is only a makeshift; the State House dome is only the symbol of a livelihood. We look decidedly queerer to them than they do to us. In spite of their humanity and their sociability — and how they have brought Topsbridge together! — a barrier of perfect manners is definitely interposed between us and their vital emotions. That is the reason they cheer me so. There is an expectancy about their philosophy, their practical competence, their good-humored physical well-being, their secret detachment, which convinces me that the cafés on the boulevards will again be full of the old life; that red-roofed country villages will again be steeped in immemorial peace; that the bourgeois-bohemian will again look lovingly out from his quiet garden on the complex, civilized pattern of rural France.

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