IV. WINTER AT THE CHATEAU
It was a long time before I could get accustomed to seeing women work in the fields (which I had never seen in America). In the cold autumn days, when they were picking the betterave (a big beet root) that is used to make sugar in France, it made me quite miserable to see them. Bending all day over the long rows of beets, which required quite an effort to pull out of the hard earth, their hands red and chapped, sometimes a cold wind whistling over the fields that no warm garment could keep out, and they never had any really warm garment. We met an old woman one day quite far from any habitation, who was toiling home, dragging her feet, in wretched, half-worn shoes, over the muddy country roads, who stopped and asked us if we hadn't a warm petticoat to give her. She knew me, called me by name, and said she lived in the little hamlet near the chateau. She looked miserably cold and tired. I asked where she came from, and what she had been doing all day. "Scaring the crows in M. A.'s fields," was the answer. "What does your work consist of?" I asked. "Oh, I just sit there and make a noise - beat the top of an old tin kettle with sticks and shake a bit of red stuff in the air." Poor old woman, she looked half paralyzed with cold and fatigue, and I was really almost ashamed to be seated so warmly and comfortably in the carriage, well wrapped up in furs and rugs, and should have quite understood if she had poured out a torrent of abuse. It must rouse such bitter and angry feeling when these poor creatures, half frozen and half starved, see carriages rolling past with every appliance of wealth and luxury. I suppose what saves us is that they are so accustomed to their lives, the long days of hard work, the wretched, sordid homes, the insufficient meals, the quantities of children clamouring for food and warmth. Their parents and grandparents have lived the same lives, and anything else would seem as unattainable as the moon, or some fairy tale. There has been one enormous change in all the little cottages - the petroleum lamp. All have got one - petroleum is cheap and gives much more light and heat than the old-fashioned oil lamp. In the long winter afternoons, when one must have light for work of any kind, the petroleum lamp is a godsend. We often noticed the difference coming home late. The smallest hamlets looked quite cheerful with the bright lights shining through the cracks and windows. I can't speak much from personalexperience of the inside of the cottages - I was never much given to visiting among the poor. I suppose I did not take it in the right spirit, but I could never see the poetry, the beautiful, patient lives, the resignation to their humble lot. I only saw the dirt, and smelt all the bad smells, and heard how bad most of the young ones were to all the poor old people. "Cela mange comme quatre, et cela n'est plus bon a rien," I heard one woman remark casually to her poor old father sitting huddled up in a heap near the fire. I don't know, either, whether they liked to have us come. What suited them best was to send the children to the chateau. They always got a meal and a warm jacket and petticoat.