IV. WINTER AT THE CHATEAU
We had a very cold winter one year - a great deal of snow, which froze as it fell and lay a long time on the hard ground. We woke up one morning in a perfectly still white world. It had snowed heavily during the night, and the house was surrounded by a glistening white carpet which stretched away to the "sapinette" at the top of the lawn without a speck or flaw. There was no trace of path or road, or little low shrubs, and even the branches of the big lime-trees were heavy with snow. It was a bright, beautiful day - blue sky and a not too pale winter sun. Not a vehicle of any kind had ventured out. In the middle of the road were footprints deep in the snow where evidently the keepers and some workmen had passed. Nothing and no one had arrived from outside, neither postman, butcher, nor baker. The chef was in a wild state; but I assured him we could get on with eggs and game, of which there was always a provision for one day at any rate.
About eleven, Pauline and I started out. We thought we would go as far as the lodge and see what was going on on the highroad. We put on thick boots, gaiters and very short skirts, and had imagined we could walk in the footsteps of the keepers; but, of course, we couldn't take their long stride, and we floundered about in the snow. In some places where it had drifted we went in over our knees.
There was nothing visible on the road - not a creature, absolute stillness; a line of footprints in the middle where some labourer had passed, and the long stretch of white fields, broken by lines of black poplars running straight away to the forest.
While we were standing at the gate talking to old Antoine, who was all muffled up with a woollen comforter tied over his cap, and socks over his shoes, we saw a small moving object in the distance. As it came nearer we made out it was the postman, also so muffled up as to be hardly recognizable. He too had woollen socks over his shoes, and said the going was something awful, the "Montagne de Marolles" a sheet of ice; he had fallen twice, in spite of his socks and pointed stick. He said neither butcher nor baker would come - that no horse could get up the hill.
We sent him into the kitchen to thaw, and have his breakfast. That was one also of the traditions of the chateau; the postman always breakfasted. On Sundays, when there was no second delivery, he brought his little girl and an accordion, and remained all the afternoon. He often got a lift back to La Ferte, when the carriage was going in to the station, or the chef to market in the donkey-cart. Now many of the postmen have bicycles.
We had a curious feeling of being quite cut off from the outside world. The children, Francis and Alice, were having a fine time in the stable-yard, where the men had made them two snow figures - man and woman (giants) - and they were pelting them with snowballs and tumbling headlong into the heaps of snow on each side of the gate, where a passage had been cleared for the horses.
We thought it would be a good opportunity to do a little coasting and inaugurate a sled we had had made with great difficulty the year before. It was rather a long operation. The wheelwright at Marolles had never seen anything of the kind, had no idea what we wanted. Fortunately Francis had a little sled which one of his cousins had sent him from America; and with that as a model, and many explanations, the wheelwright and the blacksmith produced really a very creditable sled - quite large, a seat for two in front, and one behind for the person who steered. Only when the sled was finished the snow had disappeared! It rarely lasts long in France.
We had the sled brought out - the runners needed a little repairing - and the next day made our first attempt. There was not much danger of meeting anything. A sort of passage had been cleared, and gravel sprinkled in the middle of the road; but very few vehicles had passed, and the snow was as hard as ice. All the establishment "assisted" at the first trial, and the stable-boy accompanied us with the donkey who was to pull the sled up the hill.
We had some little difficulty in starting, Pauline and I in front, Francis behind; but as soon as we got fairly on the slope the thing flew. Pauline was frightened to death, screaming, and wanted to get off; but I held her tight, and we landed in the ditch near the foot of the hill. Half-way down (the hill is steep but straight, one sees a great distance) Francis saw the diligence arriving; and as he was not quite sure of his steering-gear, he thought it was better to take no risks, and steered us straight into the ditch as hard as we could go. The sled upset; we all rolled off into the deep soft snow, lost our hats, and emerged quite white from head to foot.