II. COUNTRY VISITS

We didn't pay many visits; but sometimes, when the weather was fine and there was no hunting, and W. gone upon an expedition to some outlying village, Mme. A. and I would start off for one of the neighbouring chateaux. We went one day to the chateau de C, where there was a large family party assembled, four generations - the old grandmother, her son and daughter, both married, the daughter's daughter, also married, and her children. It was a pretty drive, about an hour all through the forest. The house is quite modern, not at all pretty, a square white building, with very few trees near it, the lawn and one or two flower-beds not particularly well kept. The grounds ran straight down to the Villers-Cotterets forest, where M. M. has good shooting. The gates were open, the concierge said the ladies were there. (They didn't have to be summoned by a bell. That is one of the habits of this part of the country. There is almost always a large bell at the stable or "communs," and when visitors arrive and the family are out in the grounds, not too far off, they are summoned by the bell. I was quite surprised one day at Bourneville, when we were in the woods at some little distance from the chateau, when we heard the bell, and my companion, a niece of Mme. A., instantly turned back, saying, "That means there are visits; we must go back.") We found all the ladies sitting working in a corner salon with big windows opening on the park. The old grandmother was knitting, but she was so straight and slight, with bright black eyes, that it wouldn't have seemed at all strange to see her bending over an embroidery frame like all the others. The other three ladies were each seated at an embroidery frame in the embrasures of the windows. I was much impressed, particularly with the large pieces of work that they were undertaking, a portiere, covers for the billiard-table, bed, etc. It quite recalled what one had always read of feudal France, when the seigneur would be off with his retainers hunting or fighting, and the chatelaine, left alone in the chateau, spent her time in her "bower" surrounded by her maidens, all working at the wonderful tapestries one sees still in some of the old churches and convents. I was never much given to work, but I made a mental resolve that I, too, would set up a frame in one of the drawing-rooms at home, and had visions of yards of pale-blue satin, all covered with wonderful flowers and animals, unrolling themselves under my skilful fingers - but I must confess that it remained a vision. I never got further than little crochet petticoats, which clothed every child in the village. To make the picture complete there should have been a page in velvet cap and doublet, stretched on the floor at the feet of his mistress, trying to distract her with songs and ballads. The master of the house, M. M., was there, having come in from shooting. He had been reading aloud to the ladies - Alfred de Musset, I think. That part of the picture I could never realize, as there is nothing W. loathes like reading aloud except, perhaps, being read to.

They were very friendly and easy, showed us the downstairs part of the house, and gave us gouter, not tea, wine and cake. The house looked comfortable enough, nothing picturesque; a large square hall with horns, whips, foxes' brushes, antlers, and all sorts of trophies of the chase on the walls. They are sporting people; all ride. The dining-room, a large bright room, was panelled with life-size portraits of the family: M. and Mme. M. in hunting dress, green coats, tricorne hats, on their horses; the daughter of the house and one of her brothers, rowing in a boat on a small lake; the eldest son in shooting dress, corduroys, his gun slung over his shoulder, his dog by his side. They were all very like.

We strolled about the garden a little, and saw lots of pheasants walking peacefully about at the edge of the woods. They made me promise to come back one day with W., he to shoot and I to walk about with the ladies. We saw the children of the fourth generation, and left with the impression of a happy, simple family party. M. M. was a conseiller general of the Aisne and a colleague of W.'s. They always stayed at the same hotel (de la Hure) in Laon at the time of the conseil general, and M. M. was much amused at first with W.'s baggage: a large bath-tub, towels (for in small French provincial hotels towels were microscopic and few in number), and a package of tea, which was almost an unknown commodity in those days. None of our visitors ever took any, and always excused themselves with the same phrase, "Merci, je vais bien," evidently looking upon it as some strange and hurtful medicine. That has all changed, like everything else. Now one finds tea not only at all the chateaux, with brioches and toast, but even in all the hotels, but I wouldn't guarantee what we get there as ever having seen China or Ceylon, and it is still wiser to take chocolate or coffee, which is almost always good. We had a lovely drive back. The forest was beautiful in the waning light. As usual, we didn't meet any vehicle of any kind, and were quite excited when we saw a carriage approaching in the distance - however, it proved to be W. in his dog-cart. We passed through one or two little villages quite lost in the forest - always the same thing, one long, straggling street, with nobody in it, a large farm at one end and very often the church at the other. As it was late, the farm gates were all open, the cattle inside, teams of white oxen drinking out of a large trough.