French Perspectives - Standards Of A Bourgeois Family
( Originally Published 1916 )
Plus me plaist le séjour qu'ont basty mes ayeux
MME. RAVIGNAC would be called in Maine "a plain family woman"; in Paris I have heard her labeled, by the more intellectual of her acquaintance, "the true type of a bourgeois housewife." For all that, when I received, a few days ago, a letter announcing that she had decided to sell the fine old house and garden above the Seine, and move to a flat where there would be no place for pensionnaires, the news came like an international calamity.
Who now, I wonder, will help American girls to catch a glimmer of the significance that a commonplace surface may conceal? By living out her busy, self-forgetful days before their eyes, Mme. Ravignac somehow invested simplicity and the dull domestic round with a new meaning and an unaccustomed charm. It was not merely that economy bloomed in her hands into a subtly creative art; more important was the sense which she unconsciously conveyed, that the roots of her average family were nourished, in this supposedly inconstant Paris, too, by the rich soil of a consistent and nobly serious theory of life. An impersonal theory, it seemed, which tested the passions and aims of mere individuals by their conformity to the established laws of a great civilized society. Yet it obviously yielded such deep personal satisfactions that the most empty-headed of pensionnaires, who began by pitying Mme. Ravignac's limitations, found herself, sooner or later, examining in their light the foundations and rewards of her own restless and uncharted activities.
What "theory" or system could possibly underlie the kaleidoscopic existence of the daughters of liberty to whom they have opened their doors so generously in the last few years has, I know, been a constant puzzle to the logical minds of the Ravignacs; and I fear that M. Ravignac, poor man, was summing up his final conclusions on the occasion of his characterizing the life of the American girl as one long and preposterous picnic. The moment was one of supreme exasperation, when logic will out, and it struck me at the time as portentous. Mme. Ravignac, though she thoroughly agreed with him, hastened to take the part of the picnickers. But indeed she always found excuses for them — they had not been taught as French girls are from early childhood, she used to tell her husband, to consider every day as a link to be carefully wrought into the chain of the years — and she spoiled them, dear Madame, quite too much.
How many times I have seen her mending the clothes of the heedless. "Why, it's just a stitch," she would defend herself, "and I can't let a good frock go to pieces." How many times I have heard her explain American customs to friends who dropped in on purpose to remark that Mlle. Smith seemed to be a charming girl, but what a pity she should go motoring alone with young men! The extravagant had only to express an intention of patronizing one of the Immortals on the rue de la Paix, and Madame bestirred her-self to secure a discount, by the influence, perhaps, of an acquaintance who had a cousin in the cloth business. "No use in spending more than you need, my dear," she would say, and sit down to write several notes. But she was even more ready to help the economical to bargain for a "model," or a bit of old lace, and summoned an infinite variety of petits fournisseurs to their service. At Mme. Ravignac's the belle always found a rose on her table when she was dining out; the invalid always had a special dish; the literary aspirant was taken to distinguished salons on Sunday afternoon. M. Ravignac himself not infrequently left his sculptor's studio to escort deputations of the "artistic" to private views, or to make a petit tour with them in the Louvre or the Cluny.
That none of these privileges were "nominated in the bond"—for on principle the Ravignacs merely offered a home to girls who were old enough to be learning their Paris independently—makes one regret the more that the picnickers have proved unworthy of them. It was not hard to read between the discreet lines of Mme. Ravignac's letter. "You may not be surprised," it ran, "though I know you will grieve with me about the change. Mais, que voulez-vous? My husband feels that not only the material but the spiritual education of our daughters demands a quiet place by ourselves. Their future and their dots will, moreover, be secured by the sacrifice of the house. This does not mean, however," the letter ended, "that there will not always be a room for our friends. How long it seems since you, chère amie, ceased to be a pensionnaire! We understood one another, I believe, from the moment when I found you in that triste place, and decided to make you our first guest."
"That triste place" — the words recall the in-voluntary exclamation wrung from Mme. Ravignac by the aspect of my sanitarium room. I can see her standing there in the middle of the floor, a slight figure in heavy mourning, holding the hand of a solemn small daughter, dressed likewise in black, and hear her cry, as her penetrating glance turned dubiously from the green calcimined blankness to the young American, "Mais—c'est lugubre!" Lugubrious—that single adjective was a final appraisement.
"Dismal, indeed, my strange young lady from over the sea," repeated Bette, — though in silence, for even at three years old she was well disciplined to polite usage, — drinking in my strangeness from under the stiffly rolled brim of her patent-leather hat, whose shiny surface, broken only by a ribbon that hung straight down behind, struck me as mirroring inflexibly the general dreariness of my abode. Bette's great brown eyes were relentless mirrors too, and I re-member just how she looked, to the last detail of her plump red cheeks, her long black lashes, and the curls arranged with such glossy coquetry over her shoulders. But it is significant — since even now her mother's spirit is more vivid to me than her features — that I should have kept no such definite first impression of Mme. Ravignac beyond her general air of capacity and the light in her gray eyes. It was a soft light as well as a keen one that flashed at me from their oddly tilted corners, and an impulse of generous devotion, which I was soon to recognize as her dominant characteristic, sounded in her next words: —
"You may come tomorrow — do come tomorrow! I must, of course, speak with my husband first," — this phrase became as familiar as the unselfishness,— "but I am sure he will agree with me. Il faut s'arranger: one must take life as it comes. The house is too expensive for us with our small family; and besides, it is so vast, so solitary since my father's death. And I have so much the habit of illness that I can massage your knee myself, and give you a régime which will set you up at once. My poor father" — her narrow eyes grew misty — "was often tempted by my little dishes. You must tell your relatives," she concluded, with the smile at once caustic and tender in which one seemed to detect the perpetual struggle of her heart to modify the native dryness of her judgment, " that I shall take great care of you. Chez moi, let me say in passing, only the best materials are used. It is a home we offer, and the tradition of our food, inherited, of course, from my mother, cannot injure the most delicate stomach. Viens, ma fille," she said, turning to Bette, "tell Mademoiselle that she will be welcome in your parents' house."
The Ravignacs, looking facts in the face, had accepted in theory the necessity of pensionnaires, and my semi-invalidism went far to make the first practical application of the theory endurable to Mme. Ravignac. But neither I nor the two or three other American girls who soon made their appearance at the old house can have realized, at the time, the cost to a family of this type — a family of bourgeois and intellectual inheritance — of taking strangers into their midst. What is customary in Germany and not unknown in England and America, violates in France an intimacy prized above anything in life. But the Ravignacs' delicate hospitality, once their decision was made, gave no hint of intrusion. Madame made light of the criticism of her friends. "Cela m'est bien égal! How, pray, can I give up the house that my father built, the house where I was married, the house, too, where my own children were born? You will notice," she continued, as she showed me about, on the first day, through the four stately, high-celled apartments on the ground-floor, "that these rooms are all connected? It was for my sake, Mademoiselle. `It's for the day of your marriage, my child, that I have built the house thus,' my father used to say to me, when I was quite a little girl, `so that all our friends may celebrate with us the consummation of your happiness.' Ah, Mademoiselle, that was a beautiful day when it came — as yours will be," she added inevitably. "The studio had already been built, down there in the garden, for my husband was glad to help me not to desert papa."
We had been standing at a long window which opened on a narrow balcony. The front windows faced a quiet avenue where chestnut trees bloomed in the spring; but from those at the back, one looked far over the intimate enclosure of the garden and down upon the Seine, as it flowed under its arching bridges: the eye could follow its silver windings all the way from the close-built, towered region of the town's gray heart, on the one hand, to where, in the other distance, beyond pale reaches, the blurred outlines of wooded heights announced the park of Saint-Cloud. No pensionnaire could help blessing Madame's father for remaining campagnard de coeur, as she put it, in spite of his laboratory, and choosing such a site in memory of Burgundy. Everybody enjoyed the spacious rooms, with their solid, carved furniture, their hangings which Madame had herself embroidered in her jeune fille days, and their polished floors which reflected so brightly the gleam of the open fires.
It was tradition again that gave us our polished floors. The family purse might be slim, but a meek little personage known as le frotteur never failed to glide in with his heavy brush on Saturday, to rub them into a state of waxed perfection over which high "American" heels must pick their way with care. If the heels, as the young ladies asserted, were "French" rather than "American," then America, Madame declared, was perpetuating the outworn absurdities of Queen Marie Antoinette, which the ancestors of her good shoemaker, down there on the quai, had discarded at the time of the Revolution. Mme. Ravignac had never displayed a heel above two inches high in her life, and obviously considered those of her pensionnaires unbecoming to the simplicity that nature and society demanded of young girls.
The theory of the jeune fille as a creature altogether innocent and obliterated was, however, far from being that of Mme. Ravignac. Her father, a good Catholic bourgeois citizen, turned scientist and professor, had married, as she said, "the sort of woman such a man chooses," so that conventions which prevail alike in less cultivated and in smarter circles had not narrowed her upbringing; she had read a great deal, and gone out alone, as a matter of course, after the age of eighteen. In her father's set greater "protection" would have seemed prudish affectation.
"You foreigners," she once exclaimed, "have indeed an odd conception of well-brought-up girlhood in France. I know what you say : `Poor little French girls, never allowed to amuse themselves, never free to make use of their own legs and eyes!' It's no more true of our friends than the mariage de convenance."
Mme. Ravignac herself, as she often told us, had made, rather late, a mariage d'amour, after having freely refused several unimpeachable partis, and this marriage was undoubtedly tending to emphasize more and more her temperamental bent toward an absorbed and circumscribed domesticity. For her children were exacting, her husband was not an "intellectual," and since her father's death there was little to bind her to his world of ideas but ties of long-established use and affection. Yet her liberal youth had revealed to her the meaning of intellectual curiosity and artistic ambition; she could under-stand very well what called young America to cross the sea. But for a nice girl of twenty to wear rustling silk linings, striking furs, a red coat, or pearl earrings — this was incomprehensible, this seemed to her almost disreputable.
"Ah, vous êtes belle, Mademoiselle, il ne faut pas faire tant de frais pour nous—you must not be so formal with us simple folk," was her greeting to Mlle. Jones, of New York, when that pretty young person appeared at dinner in a very elaborate evening gown. It was lightly and graciously spoken, but Mlle. Jones looked down, as with new eyes, on her frills, and from them to Madame's plain, tight-fitting black. And she was not long in discovering that in the authentic Paris, as the Ravignacs understood it, the boulevards and the café concerts were no less banal and factitious than the frills.
One of Madame's favorite stories, indeed, related how, at a scientific congress, an American professor of physics had asked her father to show him "Maxim's." "Pensez donc, mon ami," she would say to her husband across the table, laughing heartily for the thousandth time at the incomparable humor of the suggestion, " Just think, papa at Maxim's! Papa, who had to be dragged from his test-tubes to his meals, and even resented the time he gave to his lectures at the Collège de France!"
"But don't painters and poets go to the cafés, Monsieur?" asked one bold young woman.
"Not to those commercialized boulevard places, Mademoiselle, you may be sure," replied M. Ravignac with finality. "They have something better to do," he ended, proceeding to replenish Bette's plate, and mix her wine and water, and looking up, surprised, at the general laugh.
"You don't make much of a bohemian, my poor Jean," said Madame, happily accepting her spouse anew — his stout awkward figure, his square-cut black beard, his honest black eyes, which held no shadow of irony—with her smile of cherishing devotion.
M. Ravignac might be a sculptor, but family affection and bourgeois conviction were indeed written large on his every feature and attitude. Un brave homme — a fine sort, you would call him on sight: industrious and hard-working to the point of bustle, and fundamentally kind and good in spite of a hot temper. When one read his favorite journal, Le Temps, his very words seemed to repeat themselves down the page, and I doubt whether he would have admitted the validity of any political or social theory not summed up in those well-bred, conservative columns. If social-ism was abhorrent to his soul, so also was any revolutionary principle in art; he preferred the Français to the Théâtre Antoine, and, as regards the Salon, stood with the old Society against the new. Madame echoed his convictions with the intellectual submission that is entirely sincere in the French wife, even though her more flexible intelligence very evidently made her not only the practical administrator of her husband's daily life, but an infallible counsellor in his own province, as well.
A new conception of the relation of the sexes founded on a new definition of equality was, then, one of the ideas that took shape in the heads of the pensionnaires during-those long slow meals in the panelled dining-room, which proved their chief hours of illumination. Against this somber background, the changing shades of comment and criticism in Mme. Ravignac's pale, mobile face, the quick sure movements of her slender hands, became peculiarly impressive, and not one of her unrelenting analytical phrases missed fire, even if she seemed, when she let it fall, very much en-gaged with her youngest, the mischievous Jacque-line, whose high-chair touched her elbow. Her husband, on the other side of the table, was flanked by the high-chair of his adored Bette; and as this delicious plat succeeded that, under Ma-dame's watchful eye, and Monsieur, for his part, pressed red wine upon his guests — the wine, like the cherries in May, came from a rustic Burgundian estate of which one heard a great deal — there was much time for mutual understanding.
Too much! complained those of the young ladies who were above international comparisons, and did not relish the familiar flavor of these pleasant, leisurely occasions. Of course, the most interesting revelation, to some of us, was the one which proved the compatibility of economy and generosity. Dishes tempting and bountiful beyond the dreams of gourmands were here achieved, it was evident, by an art which took exact account of every cheese-paring, and calculated the value of a lettuce leaf; the lights were extinguished there during dinner, but the salon was always gay with fresh flowers; and though a white blouse might seem a luxury to our hostess, there was no doubt that she considered real lace a necessity.
The presence of the admirable Bette and her more vivid younger sister was a grievance to Mlle. Jones, who felt ill-used if they spilled wine on their bibs, and failed to understand that French manners are acquired, precisely, by a long familiarity with the uses of good society. Her nerves were upset by the constant jumping up and down; her sensibilities were shocked by the French habit of calling a spade a spade. And as for hearing over and over again that Madame's mother used only the best butter, or that her father preferred a cutlet to a steak, —"It's like living with ghosts," she grumbled.
When remarks of this sort were exchanged, under the breath, perhaps, and in a language which she was supposed not to understand, Mme. Ravignac made no comment whatever. The language of la politesse was to her the universal tongue, so she kept those narrow tilted eyes of hers firmly fixed on her plate, knowing full well that if her husband, fuming in his chair, caught the least response in them, he would more likely than not jump to his feet and order the young woman incontinently out of the house. But though the lines about her mouth tightened, Mme. Ravignac never lifted her eyes till the danger point was past.
Then, with the quaint smile which, because it brought out such tender sparkles of light in their opaque gray, seemed to defy one to find a hint of criticism there, she would begin to tell us still another anecdote of her dear ghosts. Most of us had a great affection, not only for hers, but for Monsieur's ghosts, too; we felt them as much our intimates as Madame's brother the witty journalist, or any other of the artistic and scientific familiars who were always dropping in to lunch. No wonder their friends liked to come to the Ray ignacs', for even if we were half-way through a meal, they were greeted with shrieks of joy from the little girls, Monsieur reinforced his exclamatory welcome by pumping their arms up and down, and Madame, after kissing them on both cheeks, would hurry off, enchanted, to make them another omelet with her own hands.
The cook was used to these frequent invasions of her domain. Mme. Ravignac could not be called an easy mistress; she would teach her servants to save their wages; or nurse them if they were ill; but they did not stay long under her roof unless they proved themselves as nimble and executive and self-forgetful as herself. Work, not idleness, was the end of life, so she told her household and her children. Bette, at a very early age, was trained to be a petite mere de famille. And as for Mme. Ravignac, she was never too tired to spend her whole being in generous service; the more she could do for you, the better she loved you, as I who have been ill under her roof have reason to know. Her heart and will responded to every new obligation as to a trumpet blast, although, between her household and social duties, and the lessons and pleasures of the pensionnaires, there was not a moment she could call her own from nine in the morning, when she started off so gayly to do her marketing, wheeling Jacqueline in the go-cart, with Bette trudging alongside under the patent-leather hat, till she came down to dinner at seven, an unusual color in her long pale face, her straight brown hair falling down a little over her eyes, after bathing her pair and tucking them up for the night.
In the evening, if Mlle. Robinson did not have to be chaperoned to her dancing class, and there was nobody to dinner, Mme. Ravignac really had her husband to herself for an hour or so. And how she did count those hours! "C'est si gentil, le soir," she would say to me, "when we sit together in my father's study under the lamp, his books all about us, the children asleep in their beds in the next room, my husband reading Le Temps to me as I sew, and discussing his work and public affairs — ah, Mademoiselle, these are the rewards of marriage, these hours of intimate talk. My husband has the highest respect for my opinion, and you may guess what his wise guidance is to me." A husband was not a beau chevalier, who heaped roses in one's lap and spread a purple cloak for one's feet — that she made clear to romantic America. He was, rather, a constant weight, pressed close against one's heart, which now and then made this same heart bleed. But it was worth what suffering it brought, the marriage relation, and the things that hurt most were, after all, the non-essentials the childishness, the small stupidities of man. That was what men were like, especially the clever ones.
M. Ravignac's cleverness was one of the things that his wife loved to dwell upon. "On demandera ça a mon mari" was a phrase often on her lips. His sense for color — to take an instance — was impeccable. "Let's ask my husband; he'll know in a minute," she would suggest, when some girl was hesitating over the shade of a garniture. And Monsieur, the kind soul, would be summoned, all in his blouse, from his studio, a little bored to be disturbed, but on the whole rather flattered, and cast a critical eye on the costume before the long mirror. Monsieur liked pretty frocks as well as another of his race, and sometimes shook his head over his wife's hats in those later years when there came a little Jean, and finally a little Philippe to lessen her already faint interest in her own per-son, by adding to the duties as well as to the joys of life.
If Mme. Ravignac vaunted the "duties," it must not be thought that she did not also adore a certain sort of break in the domestic round. I am sure that I cannot be the only friend of the family who, on a fine Sunday morning in spring, wakes with a sigh for Paris, and — remembering that this is the day sacred to excursions — sees the dear things starting out of the front door, Madame deftly tying the last cap, Monsieur faithfully buttoning the last coat, both of them hurrying Bette and Jacqueline and Jean and Philippe down the steps of the "Métro," dumping them breath-less in their seats, and a little later lifting them out as breathlessly at some ugly station in a re-mote square. At the station door, I say to myself, their great friends, the painter Jolier and his wife, will be waiting impatiently with the tickets and the morning papers, and they will all run down the platform, excitedly chattering, climb into a compartment — possibly third class — and after a half-hour or so, alight at a little white village on a river bank. There will be, of course, poplars along this calm bank, and patient immovable figures holding fishing-lines, and, for the eye of the gentlemen, who never forget the approach of midi, an inn or two in the distance. One inn has a garden set with little tables — that looks a bit expensive, so why not try the other, which offers a more sociable long table, under an arbor?
Every detail of the meal comes back to me: the teasing humors of Liline, always naughty and spirituelle; the whispered reproofs of Bette, over whose serious maternal care for her sister and brothers the two ladies exchange a moved look; the bewilderment of the clumsy country waiter, jolted out of his week-long sleep, and tormented by the jokes and the demands of these Parisians. There are ruminative pauses, anecdotic interludes, and deep degustations. Over the coffee, the gentlemen, mindful of their professions, discuss the nuances of the view: how it has been "done"; how the present school is doing it; how it may be done in next year's Salon. Then there is the afternoon, with its adventurous essay of the stream in a row-boat, the long slow walk along a dusty ribbon of white road, Jean and Philippe trailing more and more behind till they are lifted to well-cushioned masculine shoulders; the drinking of mild pink sirop in another garden, full by this time of other family parties; and finally the return to Paris, after a day in which nothing intrinsically interesting has been said or done, with a conviction of high holiday and achievement.
Such diversions, be it clearly understood, have their established place, like marketing, or going to school, or making your first communion, in the scheme of bourgeois existence, and do not turn life itself into a picnic in the sense used by M. Ravignac at the meal which his wife's letter re-calls. By way of further elucidation of his dictum, and of the loss it brings, in my opinion, to the young Americans who should have been the future generations of pensionnaires, I must revert to the occasion in question.
Though time had changed me from a pensionnaire to a friend with all the privileges of "dropping in," I realized when I arrived at the house that day and found the family, with Alice White, the tall American blonde of the moment, already assembled in the dining-room, that my hour had been ill-chosen. Something had gone wrong. Mme. Ravignac embraced me warmly, nevertheless, and said, as if she were not perturbed, and as if her husband were not obviously out of sorts, that it was delightful I had come, for my old friend, her brother Jacques, had arrived the night before from his journey in the East, and was stop-ping with her till his own flat should be prepared. They were waiting for him now; Liline had been sent to call him. "While we stifle the pangs of hunger," added Monsieur, sharply reproving the two little boys who sat opposite him, for shaking their yellow heads, wriggling in their chairs, and showing their bare knees above the table's edge. Bette, whose nine years and whose rôle of fille aînée now made her quite equal to any situation, tossed her curls over her shoulders and inquired, in a politely conversational tone, whether Mlle. Alice had enjoyed her morning's work. Madame was just poking her head down the dumb-waiter to summon the omelet anyhow, when Liline burst into the room.
"I think he has a toothache, poor Uncle Jacques," she began, in her monotonous childish treble, climbing into her chair, and backing around mechanically, so that her father might tie her bib, "I opened his door," — "You did n't knock?" exclaimed Madame, "will nothing teach this flyaway manners?"—"and he had a funny bandage over his mouth comme ça" — she seized two forks and held them against her thin cheeks with her most elf-like expression — "and he seemed very cross, and told me to say he was coming at once."
M. Ravignac took away the forks, and his faithful black eyes asked his wife a troubled question. The witty perceptions and volatile ways of his second daughter were a perpetual trial; Bette's calm good sense and her tact seemed to him a much safer feminine endowment. Madame raised her eyebrows in response. She did not understand the toothache either.
We were just finishing our omelet when the door opened and M. Jacques appeared, correct and ironical, a heavy lock of gray hair carefully arranged over his forehead, and his grizzled mustaches screwed into the sharpest of military points. Four pairs of childish eyes — for even Bette, the paragon, yielded to temptation — examined his cheeks for a possible swelling, as he shook hands all round, and made a polite apology.
"Mon oncle," began the irrepressible Jacque-line, "have n't you —" "Tais-toi, ma fille," interrupted Madame, conquering a smile. For she had at once related the bandage to those impeccable mustaches; a lovely American blonde was worth the trouble of a thorough metallic curling, it appeared.
"Eh bien, mon vieux," began M. Jacques easily — he had a gift of turning the tables — looking from M. Ravignac, who was pouring out the wine with an abstracted air, to his sister, as she skill-fully dissected the fowl — "well, you two, what is the matter? You look, both of you, my excel-lent brother and sister, as if you were of Gautier's opinion — is n't it Gautier? — about the futility of existence. `Rien ne serf a rien, et tout d'abord, il n'y a rien. Cependant tout arrive. Mais cela m'est bien indifferent,'" he quoted. "I, for one, can't agree with him, not when I am visiting my best friends and drinking their vin de bourgogne," and he sipped his wine with a pleasurable indrawing of the lips, tossed his gray lock, twisted his mustaches, and regarded me quizzically across the table.
"That's all very well for a successful journalist with no responsibilities," retorted Madame, helping herself to the last and least promising portion of the fowl, "but if you had four children to pro-vide for, a big house on your hands, and Mlle. Marsh, one of your two guests of the winter who has gone off in a huff —"
"And why," interrupted M. Ravignac, fiercely pulling his square black beard, "why, do you suppose? Because we won't allow her to spoil our children, our well-brought-up children!"
"Now, now, mon ami," corrected Madame gently, "you must remember that the poor woman is very much alone. My heart aches for the poor dear — no wonder she loved our four too well. Here she is, Jacques, sufficiently pretty, rich, well educated, but her parents are dead, her sisters are married, she has n't a single binding tie. She did n't marry, all because her father wanted to keep her at home, if you'll believe it! He was lonely, and said there should be one old maid in every family — ah, I must say I don't understand it."
"Papa, I shall marry at eighteen," announced Liline, with conscious virtue.
"Parents," continued M. Ravignac impatiently, "who don't look forward to the day when they will be no more are no parents at all, in my opinion. Young girls don't always think ahead, naturally, and it is therefore the parents' duty to point out, at the suitable time, the only road to happiness — What is it, Marie?"
"A big bundle from the Bon Marché, for Mlle. White," replied the red-cheeked bonne, re-turning from one of her periodic journeys to answer the door; "fifty francs to pay."
"Don't disturb yourself, child," cried Mme. Ravignac. "I have the money in my pocket "; and she had hurried out before the young American had turned her pretty head.
"Are you getting the moral, Mademoiselle?" inquired M. Jacques mischievously of his vis-a-vis. Nothing really escaped her, but with an air of graceful and innocent detachment from mundane discussion she affected not to hear, and continued to dip the leaves of her artichoke in the thick yellow sauce.
"Thank you so much, dear Madame," she said very prettily to our returning hostess. "How do you always manage to have money on hand? I never have a sou! I am so enjoying this delicious sauce — was it a rule of your mother's? Will you give me the recipe? "
"Yes, indeed, ma chère petite," replied Madame. "I am too delighted to teach you any art I possess. Who knows but your husband will have a liking for French dishes? The most important thing for a sauce, as maman used to impress upon me, is to use the very best butter. Well, well, Marie, what is it this time?"
"A monsieur for Mlle. Alice" -- Marie's cheeks flamed as she fell to clearing the table — "he is waiting in the salon, but he said I was to whisper to Mademoiselle that the train goes soon."
Alice blushed a little, too, but explained, with great self-possession, in spite of a sort of solidifying of the family surface: "It's only my friend Jack Brown, Madame, and we are going sketching at Versailles "; and rising, she kissed Liline, smiled a general good-bye from her blue eyes, and swished nonchalantly through the door.
"Jolie fille ! " remarked M. Jacques, with appreciation.
"Yes, indeed," said his sister eagerly; "we are devoted to her, are n't we, Jean?"
But Monsieur muttered something about spoiled children, and there followed rather a dismal pause. It was not, indeed, until Madame had made the coffee over the gas-jet in the corner, and the children, replete with petits canards, had been sent upstairs, that conversation was resumed.
"Eh bien ? " asked M. Jacques, "now that we are by ourselves, what is it, really? This friend here," he added, turning to me, "your American interpreter; can't she clear up the difficulty?"
"Poor mademoiselle," agreed Madame; "we do consult her like a hand-book! But it's really nothing but the cantankerousness of Mlle. Marsh, which I have already described, and the admirers of Mlle. White, of whom you have just had a specimen."
"A charming creature, too." M. Jacques twisted his mustache.
"And obviously made for marriage," continued Mme. Ravignac. "She is lovely, clever, utterly adorable, enfin, and twenty-two years old — careless and unformed yet, but capable of the most beautiful development. This is evidently the time for her to be settling the lines of her life, but is she thinking seriously of matrimony? No, indeed, she's having far too good a time!"
"Seeing, even here in Paris," interjected her husband, "at least a dozen different young men. She enjoys them all, she tells us, each for a different reason —"
"Do not suppose," put in Madame a little anxiously, "that we question the propriety of her behavior. Her conduct is irreproachable, but all the same, and even though I have her mother's consent that she shall go out with them, it makes me uncomfortable, the neighbors and servants gossip, and, worst of all, it's exciting for the girl without leading anywhere."
"That is just what I maintain," M. Ravignac asserted, with an emphatic gesture. "Why should not Mlle. Alice's superfluity of gallants have the same result in the end as Mlle. Marsh's lack of opportunity? If she waits and waits for the knight of her dreams! Well, I declare I understand this American system less every year."
M. Jacques, the ironist, who liked nothing better than to stir up his matter-of-fact brother-in-law, said something about his sister's having married for love. But Mme. Ravignac did not allow any jokes on that subject, and pointed out that if her marriage had succeeded it was be-cause she had known how to adapt herself to its conditions, and had had a sound training in good housekeeping.
" Just so," agreed Monsieur, not to be distracted from his thesis. "There, on the contrary, is a girl who can't mend a stocking, and does n't know beef from pork."
"Ah, Jacques, it's pathetic!" cried Madame. "I take her to market, and explain how, when one pays a little more for the cutlet, one pays a little less for the fish; how, if one wants strawberries, one does n't buy early asparagus the same day, since the allotted amount for a meal must not be exceeded, and she is so interested! `If one keeps house this way,' she says, `there's some fun in it; it's a sort of game. We just order by telephone, you know, and father pays the monthly bills.' "
"Yes, indeed, ordering by telephone, that's typical!" M. Ravignac threw up his hands expressively. "And the poor child has no idea what she ought to spend, having, if you'll believe me, no knowledge of the family resources, one day reproached for extravagance, the next day called miserly."
"A contrast, indeed," remarked M. Jacques more seriously, "to our childish share in the financial responsibilities of the household. Do you remember, ma soeur," he said, with a reflective smile, "how enchanted we were to work out the possibility of a journey to the Cévennes, the year you made your début? After all, life is more amusing when lived with an eye on its central facts."
"Of course," ejaculated Monsieur, "with apologies to you, Mademoiselle," — hè turned to me, — for I know I can speak as I should to a friend of our nation; most of your country-women treat the universe as a playground. With their journeys, and their bookbinding, and their metal-working, and their frocks, and their sketching, and their lectures, and their `beaux'! Far be it from me to refuse woman a place in the arts, or even in the learned professions, if she has the requisite earnestness of purpose and a real talent — though, of course, for her nothing can take the place of marriage," he was constrained to add. "But I can't see that most of our young friends have any end in view but activity itself. And what permanent satisfaction, I ask you," he ended rhetorically, brushing the crumbs off his knees as he rose with flashing eyes from the table, "do they get out of an existence which is nothing but one long picnic ? A fine example for my daughters!"
This sounded ominous: yet the news of Alice White with which I was greeted several months later, on my arrival at la Sapinière — the estate so often vaunted in Paris for its homely sauvagerie on its hill-top above the rich vineyard land of Burgundy — was of a reassuring nature. Alice had written from America of her engagement to one of the admirers. "The young man who paints, a thoroughly nice fellow," Madame joyously announced.
It was Alice again who made the climax to the charming last afternoon of my visit. We had all been, as usual, for a long ramble on the montagne — the montagne was a rocky ridge that stretched back into wilder country behind the farm, and its furze-grown open spaces, and its adventurous herb-like tang always led us farther than we planned. When we turned back, at last, toward the plain and the sunset, the rich Burgundian scene again spread out for our eyes, a sense of wide peace was in the air. The children wandered off to hunt rabbits in brushy tangles marked "chasse réservée," and I, too, followed my own way. But as I finally emerged on the slope that led precipitously down to the walls which sheltered the white house and vines of la Sapinière, I came upon my host and hostess, sitting together on a flat rock, with the sunset light in their faces.
"We were talking of dear Alice and her happiness," said Mme. Ravignac in a moved voice, making room for me beside her.
"Ce n'est pas grand' chose, un mari, Mademoiselle," said Monsieur — his rare jokes were always a sign of emotion — "mais c'est, je crois, ce qu'on a trouvé de mieux jusqu'ici. A husband does n't amount to much, but he 's probably the best invention that's been made up to now."
"Alice declares," Mme. Ravignac hesitated, "that it is all my doing. Of course, that's non-sense, but if I've been able to show her what makes life worth living —" and she looked up toward her four, who were slowly ambling over the ridge in our direction, down toward the farm, ,and then again cherishingly to her husband, whose face held the same transfigured sense of mercies too deep for speech, yet counted to the utmost.
"Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
quoted M. Ravignac. But there he stopped, and the images of the unclassified activities and the still less classified admirers seemed to pass before his eyes. "`Plein d'usage et raison'? `Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son age'? " he queried. "I wonder, I wonder!"
"Come along, everybody," cried Madame gayly. "Dépêchez-vous donc, les petits," she called to the children. "Look, the chimney is smoking away. That means baths and bedtime, and I must hurry to see that Marie puts the chicken into the oven when she should."
M. Ravignac must neverthelsss have continued to "wonder" as he watched the bewildering activities of the picnickers, and the long and the short of his conclusions is that the idolized house which Madame's father built above the Seine must go. Bricks and mortar are transitory, after all. The real inheritance for grandchildren and children is a point of view and a standard; standards are worth the sacrifice of frail' personal attachments — the Ravignacs probably reasoned something after this fashion, and I believe that their act of allegiance to a transcendent "system" will raise them above idle regret.