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French Perspectives - M. Le Curé's Lunch-Party

( Originally Published 1916 )

M. LE CURE'S lunch-party was the climax of my stay in the convent at Arles. The very memory of it, rejoicing as the Provençal sun, brings the glow of the spontaneous human kindness of the Midi into my heart. The day was one of those that have no obvious story to tell, and yet remain charged for all time with a sense of high festivity.

I remember that something in the very tone of Mère Justinienne's voice warned me, when she first proposed our expedition, that it would be worth the sacrifice of an antiquity or two. We were sitting in her little office, with its door open to the convent garden, sipping a delicious tisane, when she expressed the hope that I could spare time from my other excursions to drive with her to lunch with "an old friend of the Sisters," the curé of a certain country parish in the neighbor-hood of Arles.

"It would be an act of charity!" echoed Soeur Colombe, who had brought the tisane and was hovering solicitously about us. "M. le Curé cares so much for good society. And he is so much alone, poor man, in that quiet village since his mother's death — only an old bonne in the house!"

"A bonne devoted, indeed," explained the Superior, "and trained by his mother to serve him well. He lives," she added with a blandly reminiscent air, "more formally than most country priests. You will see. He tells me that his good Marie has orders to put the compote-dishes on the table even when there is nothing to fill them, that she may never forget how things are done in the world."

M. le Curé responded with the most amiable cordiality. A date was fixed — and then another, and another. At the last moment something al-ways happened to upset our plans. But the more it rained, the more duties parochial or conventual thwarted our hopes, the brighter grew the glamour. No other village in the sun-browned plain about Arles could equal M. le Curé's for flowery charm and verdant shadiness. Nowhere else, as the Sisters who had nursed in his parish could vouch, did coffee have the flavor which distinguished the steaming bowls so benevolently offered at the presbytère after early mass, — the kind man, said the Mother, actually realized how the Sisters must feel after a long night's vigil and a long walk! And M. le Curé, to cap the climax, had been born within sight of Mistral's garden wall. In a land where the blood of the troubadours still runs hot this privilege adds luster even to the aureole of an ecclesiastic.

I could hardly believe that legend was turning to truth when the sun rose cloudless on my last morning. Promptly at half-past ten Joseph's carriage was reported at the door. Soeur Colombe, shining with sympathy, tucked us in, arranged the Mother's shawl, and put a plump black bag in her lap. "Red mullet — beauties!" she whispered. Mère Justinienne frowned a little at the indiscreet words. The fact was — well, as this was Friday, and as a country market was sure to be poor in anything but the grosser varieties of fish, she was taking M. le Curé something fin, something delicately toothsome, which he would not feel humiliated to offer ladies.

When we had rattled down the steep, cobbled streets, past the ancient Theatre, into the Promenade des Lices, and turned southward, the Mother settled herself expectantly for an hour of bucolic delight. Nature has endowed this piece of level countryside, at the very edge of the barren Crau and the vines and tufted marshes of the Camargue, with a soft, smiling greenness more suggestive of Normandy than of Provence. It is a haying region, and on our late April morning the fields that bordered the road were warm with sunlight; daisies and buttercups made a bright glimmer across the tall grass; long, straight alleys, shaded thick with ancient horse-chestnut and plane trees led into comfortable farmhouses. Mère Justinienne knew the history of every one: this was the "campagne" of which Mlle. Roquette had been cheated by her cruel nephews; that, of a doubtful reputation, belonged to a wine-merchant from Marseilles. There were plenty of stories, and we bowled along at a smart pace under a row of spotted plane trees till at last houses began to edge the street, and an unpretending yellow stucco edifice with a tower came into sight the church! We drew up beside it, in front of the presbytère, which had a garden full of roses, and a parrot on the window ledge; and out dashed M. le Curé, rubbing his hands together and crying, in expansive welcoming tones: "Ah, ma sainte Supérieure, ah, ma sainte Demoiselle, enfin vous voilà! What a happiness, what a pleasure!"

To be greeted as a saint might have been rather disconcerting to a heretic, if M. le Curé's smile had not reinforced the cry of his heart. His great red countenance shone. All the world was "sainted" for him, I soon discovered; unction flowed from his lips, and everything about his person, from his full-blown cheeks to his swelling cassock, was smooth and rotund and generous. He was made on such a large scale that he quite dwarfed the humble presbytère as he stood there among the yellow rose bushes. I caught myself wondering how he would ever get through his own front door. But he ducked in after us, still ejaculating, "Ah, my sainted friends, what a pleasure!" and waved us into the study on the left.

To our dismayed surprise another black cassock loomed from a chair at the back of the room to salute us. "My old friend, M. l'Abbé ," explained our host affectionately, "who came all the way from Maillane to help me with my First Communion yesterday. We help one another out, as friends must, whenever we can." Mère Justinienne did not look at me, but I knew by the set of her coif that she, too, was combating a feeling of disappointment — here was an intruder upon our wonderful, our sacred day.

The stiff solemnity of M. l'Abbé's bow was far from reassuring. Tall, red-faced, and stoutly built like his friend — and like him, no doubt, descended from the fine old yeoman stock of the plain of Saint-Rémy —his stern features seemed hewn of rough granite instead of moulded and smoothed, and his iron-gray hair gave him a look of elderly solemnity that was the very antithesis of M. le Curé's exuberance.

"Voyons un peu, voyons un peu," began our host, in a relaxed, rejoicing voice that shed balm on our disquieted reflections. "Voyons un peu," and he glided monumentally about the room, establishing us in the most comfortable chairs, and producing a decanter and glasses. "Very mild," he urged, "and distilled by the hands of a sainted friend." How could Mère Justinienne politely refuse? Things began to seem more cheerful. We settled down to conversation. The ceremony of yesterday was first in everybody's thoughts. Were n't the gentlemen very tired?

"A little, a little," deprecated M. le Curé. "I talked all day. I give myself freely. I give all I can, it's true."

"I should say so, indeed," said. the Mother; "we all know your devotion."

"So one must," put in M. l'Abbé with sudden emphasis, in a peculiarly raucous tone which cut like the mistral, after the sunny warmth of M. le Curé's — "so one must spend one's self if the truth is to penetrate."

"Yes," went on M. le Curé, his excellent face folding into serious lines, "and my dear children responded; their eyes were like stars to me as I talked — the Sainte Vierge was helping me. The ladies of the pensionnat had decorated the church with infinite grace and taste, and there were five hundred people at vespers in that tiny church meant for two hundred, and not a sound, believe me, but the rustle of the wings of the guardian angels.... "

"Perhaps, Mademoiselle," said the Abbé, "you do not realize that in the Midi it is not always easy to exact silence in church if there is a crowd. There are women who, in their desire for seats, in their eagerness to see, push, shout—in short, forget themselves. What tongues, mon Dieu, what tongues!" His own southern accent twanged sharper as he spoke.

M. le curé settled with a chuckle into what he also would have called the coing of his easy chair. "The other day," he said, "I was in a tram-car at Marseilles, where an old fishwife was pouring out her life history at the top of her strident lungs. Such stories — the whole tram was silenced and listening. Suddenly, in a brief pause, out speaks a grim old tar next me — it's better in the Marseilles patois: `If she were a parrot, she'd bring five hundred francs."

The story set things going, and the abbé, gradually unbending, turned out to be, after all, an addition to the party. He had tales to tell of the Camargue, where, because of his "infirmity," he had long had a tiny parish.

"Mes amis de Dieu," said M. le Curé compassionately, "you must know that a great preacher was lost to the church by a bad larynx. For three years my poor friend could n't speak above a whisper. He had to give up his large town parish finally and take an inconsiderable one in that salt desert, where the flock was small enough for a hoarse voice to carry from the pulpit. Aïe — more mosquitoes than parishioners there! "

The abbé nodded grimly. Yet though the mosquitoes were bad the hunting was fabulously good, he said — quail, partridge, snipe, duck, goose — every wild bird that ever haunted a marsh' or a vineyard, — and with a flavor! His eloquence grew as he enumerated them, till they fluttered out from the tamarisk hedges before our very eyes; his face reddened as to the slap of sea-winds, and we saw marshes stretching wide under a wide sky, and striding off with powerful step toward a flat horizon a giant black figure, gun on shoulder, dog at heel.

M. le Curé chimed in with Horatian descriptions of game-dishes of which he had partaken at his friend's table. He had a sister, it appeared, who knew arts in cookery such as no Northerner could ever hope to rival.

M. l'Abbé modestly agreed. "I have always had my Mary and my Martha. Believe me, Mme. la Supérieure," — he was unbending, a little sententiously, in the Mother's approving smile, — "I had never to give a thought either to my house or my church. One took charge of the first, the other of the second. In that I have been much blessed by the bon Dieu. When my liver protested and the doctor forbade a game diet, I gave up my curacy — what use to hunt if you can't eat what you kill? — and we went back to the house of our fathers in Maillane. I cultivate our farm lands and make myself the apprentice of the furrow again. And there we are growing old together."

"Is he not a lucky man, after all, my friends?" M. le Curé drew a sigh. "Two admirable sisters to care for him, and here am I alone. There, Mademoiselle, is my dear and sainted mother." The faded photograph of a sweet-faced woman in Provençal dress hung over his desk. "Even the sainte fille to whom she confided me when she died, even my good Marie, is now getting too old to work. I give her a pension and she comes to help the new bonne on great occasions like this one. You'll be tolerant? My poor Beatrice is ailing, too, and this, you know, is a fast-day. But we are simple, in any case, simple by necessity, simple by preference !"

Lunch had indeed the perfect simplicity which comes, in France, of much reasoned calculation. The cloth was threadbare, but the compotiers were lavishly filled, and the thoroughly Provençal meal was washed down with famous native wines from the cellars of M. le Curé's devoted friends. Even the ordinaire came from a slope that distilled an almost Burgundian richness. We drank it with the hors-d'oeuvre, salty olives from Le Paradou, thin slices of tomato garnished with chopped parsley, red radishes from the garden of the presbytère. Our host kept a solicitous eye on the kitchen door, and, when appetites were just sufficiently whetted, summoned the lobster, prepared with a sauce unknown a hundred miles from Marseilles. The spinach that followed was cunningly smoothed with the rich olive oil of the region; and with the red mullet came a salad for epicures. A bottle of fragrant old Ventoux kept us lingering here, but there were still piping hot patissons de Beaucaire, spicy little tarts, as mellow as the departed days of the great fair, and a custard which drew out a word of praise even from the deprecatory curé. "Not bad, ton flan," he called out to the old servant whom we could see bending an anxious wrinkled face over the kitchen hearth.

The crowning point of the feast was, however, reached with the dessert, when M. le Curé rose himself to fetch his most precious treasure, a much-reputed Muscat from the region of Montpellier. He bore in the dusty bottle like a sacrificial offering. "Frontignan of '62," he murmured reverently, as he tilted it so that I might see the brownish purple veil clinging to the in-side. We sipped our small glasses of the sweet, ineffable fluid in silence, drop by drop.

Conversation at lunch had had a marked culinary bias. The lobster had reminded M. l'Abbé of a dish known as homard a l'Américaine in the fish restaurants of Marseilles, and I had been challenged for lobster recipes at the point of the fork. By the time coffee was served in the study, however, the talk took a more æsthetic turn. We strolled up and down, examining M. le Curé's objets d'art. Besides the usual religious prints and mottoes which hung above the meager book-shelves, there was the château of Chillon, painted by a friend. To think that I had seen the original — what travelers these Americans were! Those oddly shaped and elegant vases were, underneath the gilding, egg-shells! the highly esteemed fabrication of a widowed parishioner. But what most took my eye was an illuminated square, rather like a coat of arms, framed in gold and standing on an easel in the corner.

"That, Mademoiselle, is M. le Curé's epitaph, so to speak," said the Mother. "You'll explain it, will you not, to Mademoiselle?"

M. le Curé joined me before the easel. His "voyons un peu" was rapturously concurrent. "You know," he said, "that every Provençal farmer's daughter raises silkworms ? Mireille herself, you'll remember, was picking the leaves of the mulberry tree when she first fell in love with Vincent; every mas has its mulberry trees. Well, then, on the shield in the middle of the picture you will observe a silkworm on a branch of mulberry; above the worm, the cocoon; above that a butterfly, unfolding under the rays of the sun. Below you'll read on a scroll these words" — and he translated from the Provençal: "`Grace of God, by thy ray, the silkworm becomes a butter-fly.' My name, my good young lady — this the fine point — means silkworm in Provençal. So this motto, happily found for me by my great fellow townsman himself — see, the artist has put it in the corner, `Mistral'! and artistically worked out by the same friend who painted the château of Chillon — has a symbolic meaning, and later will be carved on my tomb."

The curé crossed his hands over one of the round, vermicular folds of his soutane and beamed from head to foot. In no other land could such jovial charm radiate from so sepulchral a subject.

The afternoon was rounded off by a walk. The Mother had promised this, too, talked of a little brook beside a green lane, and an old park full of roses. The lane turns in between the pushy-tère and the church and passes the white-walled graveyard on its way to the haying fields beyond. At the cemetery gate our procession paused; the abbés bared their heads and stood for a moment in silence.

These sturdy country priests were very much at home in the fields. Their ancestry was written all over them; the two soutanes, black as they were, did not make a false note in the sweet spring landscape. M. le Curé moved lightly along at the Mother's side; there was almost a skip in his tread. Now turning his huge, benevolent countenance about to call my attention to the state of the hay crop, now bending an agile vastness of back to pick buttercups for his companion, he welcomed us to Dame Nature's bounty as if it were his own. The abbé moved along more heavily at my side, the bottom of his cassock scattering the heads of the daisies, his strong, severe face turned relentingly toward the sun. His spirit did not soar on joyous wings like his friend's, for he was no natural optimist; victory for him must have been won out of battle with the hosts of doubt and pain. But little by little, as we walked through the fragrant fields and past the white hawthorn hedges, the hard outer crust melted, and I was allowed to see the light of kindness and rectitude that burned deep below the surface.

M. le Curé came to a halt at last at a gate in a high wall. He pointed out, in the distance, the new Communal school, spreading a resplendent façade along the village street. "There, my sainted young lady, is modern progress for you." His sigh was almost melancholy. "It represents an incredible number of thousands of francs, and the children don't know how to read and write."

M. l'Abbé, stern again, and with almost the only approach to ecclesiasticism we had during the day, said that the high percentage of illiteracy in France — proved by recent statistics — might be called God's punishment of the faithless. " Mais on reviendra, on reviendra — they '11 come back to the fold," he added with conviction.

The big park which we entered, when M. le Curé had unlocked the gate, was not for the two priests a much more encouraging sign of the times. M. le Curé still had his freedom of the place, but in the old days, when the great family lived in the house, he would have had his seat at the noble board — his couvert — twice a week, as regularly as the months sped by. Now the châtelaine was dead, the heir lived in Paris, the care-takers were letting everything go to seed; the alleys were unraked, the shrubs and flowers had grown into lovely neglected tangles. The roses had outrun all bounds; there were pale and deep pink ones under the hedges; pure white ones in the parterres; brilliant or sullen red ones climbing through the shrubs, twining in the very tree-tops.

The nightingales were whistling from secret places — it seemed an invitation to enjoy the bloom, and Mère Justinienne looked about her in ecstasy. May not a nun indulge a weakness for flowers, since she lays them all at the Virgin's feet? The abbés, on a simultaneous impulse, got out their jack-knives and began to vie with each other in despoiling the bushes. M. le Curé flew from one bed to another, and piled the Mother's arms high. Even the full-grown roses seemed to him worth picking. "They'll be gone to-morrow, but enjoy them to-night," he exclaimed. The abbé was more deliberate in his movements, searched conscientiously for buds, and reached up always toward the branches that grew high above his long reach. "The `bird's branch" said he, quoting from "Mireille": —

"Yet on that ravaged tree thou savest oft Some little branch inviolate aloft, Tender and airy up against the blue Which the rude spoiler cannot win unto: Only the birds shall come and banquet there ..."

Anecdotes of the divine fellow townsman beguiled our walk back to the presbytère. An occasional white-veiled little girl, or boy with white-beribboned arm gave a vaguely festival air to the village street; a breath of yesterday's incense still hung in the air. M. le Curé's affectionate encounters with the aunts and uncles and grandmothers who had come in from the country to celebrate the fêtes de famille which attend a First Communion showed the place he held in the hearts and lives of the region. Catholicism never wore a gentler, simpler, or more comforting face. One young peasant, just driving off in a two-wheeled cart with his wife and baby, jumped down from his high seat to be kissed on both cheeks and tell the latest news of the farm. "I baptized this fellow" — M. le Curé fondly introduced him — "and now see where he's got to — and never a moment's anxiety has he given me." A promise was made to visit the old mother next day. "I always visit the sick and the old, Mademoiselle, as Mme. la Supérieure will tell you. My parishioners have the habit of sending for me if they have so much as a cold. It gives us all pleasure, and they are prepared. . . ."

The copper pans that had cooked our rare lunch were set in the sunny kitchen window when we turned into the garden. The parrot squawked a greeting; the good old servants were watching at the door. Another smooth cordial, made by the hands of another sainte dame, had to be tasted before we were allowed to climb into Joseph's carriage with our roses. Even then the abbés continued to tower monumentally beside us. Their ruddy faces, all turned toward kindness and good cheer, showed a gratifying reluctance to let us go.

" You won't forget, ma sainte Demoiselle," urged M. le Curé, folding his plump hands on his well-cushioned chest — "you won't forget to include in your next Provençal journey a lunch with the poor little country curé?"

"And one at Maillane with the old abbé and his old sisters?" asked M. l'Abbé after his stiffer manner. "The Provençal sun will draw you back, willy-nilly," he added, his grim smile softening as he laid a hand on the cures shoulder: —

"Grand soulèu de la Prouvènço Gai coumpaire dóu mistrau ..."

Under cover of this last appropriate quotation from Mistral Joseph gave his horses a discreet flick. But, as we rolled away, M. le Curé's jocund voice followed us: "Great sun of Provence...."

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