IX. A NORMAN TOWN

VALOGNES, August.

I seem to have got into another world, almost another century, in this old town. I had always promised the Florians I would come and stay with them, and was curious to see their installation in one of the fine old hotels of the place. The journey was rather long - not particularly interesting. We passed near Caen, getting a very good view of the two great abbayes[13] with their towers and spires quite sharply outlined against the clear blue sky. The train was full. At almost every station family parties got in - crowds of children all armed with spades, pails, butterfly nets, and rackets, all the paraphernalia of happy, healthy childhood. For miles after Caen there were long stretches of green pasture-lands - hundreds of cows and horses, some of them the big Norman dray-horses resting a little before beginning again their hard work, and quantities of long-legged colts trotting close up alongside of their mothers, none of them apparently minding the train. We finally arrived at the quiet little station of Valognes. Countess de Florian was waiting for me, with their big omnibus, and we had a short drive all through the town to their hotel, which is quite at one end, a real country road running in front of their house. It is an old hotel standing back from the road and shut in with high iron gates. There is a large court-yard with a grass-plot in the middle, enormous flower-beds on each side, and a fine sweep of carriage road to the perron. A great double stone staircase runs straight up to the top of the house, and glass doors opposite the entrance lead into the garden. I had an impression of great space and height and floods of light. I went straight into the garden, where they gave me tea, which was most refreshing after the long hot day. They have no house party. The dowager countess, Florian's mother, is here, and there was a cousin, a naval officer, who went off to Cherbourg directly after dinner. The ground-floor is charming; on one side of the hall there are three or four salons, and a billiard-room running directly across the house from the garden to the court-yard; on the other, a good dining-room and two or three guests' rooms; the family all live upstairs.

  [13] Abbaye aux Hommes, Abbaye aux Dames.

It is a delightful house. My room is on the ground-floor, opening from the corridor, which is large and bright, paved with flagstones. My windows look out on the entrance court, so that I see all that goes on. As soon as my maid has opened the windows and brought in my petit dejeuner, I hear a tap at the door and the countess's maid appears to ask, with madame's compliments, if I have all I want, if I have had a good night, and to bring me the morning paper. The first person to move is the dowager countess, who goes to early mass every morning. She is a type of the old-fashioned French Faubourg St. Germain lady; a straight, slender figure, always dressed in black, devoted to her children and to all her own family, with the courteous, high-bred manner one always finds in French women of the old school. She doesn't take much interest in the outside world, nor in anything that goes on in other countries, but is too polite to show that when she talks to me, for instance, who have knocked about so much. She doesn't understand the modern life, so sans gene and agitated, and it is funny to hear her say when talking of people she doesn't quite approve of, "Ils ne sont pas de notre monde."