V. CEREMONIES AND FESTIVALS
To-day was the Premiere Communion at La Ferte, and I had promised the Abbe Devigne to go. I couldn't have the auto, as Francis was at a meeting of a Syndicat Agricole in quite another direction. So I took the train (about seven minutes), and I really believe I had the whole train to myself. No one travels in France, on Sunday, in the middle of the day. It is quite a long walk from the station to the church (the service was at Notre Dame, the church on the hill), with rather a steep climb at the end. The little town looked quite deserted - a few women standing at their doors and in all directions white figures of all ages were galloping up the hill. The bells were ringing and we were a little late. The big doors of the church were wide open, the organ playing, and a good many people standing about. The altar was bright with flowers and candles, and "oriflammes" of blue and pink gauze, worked with gold and silver lilies, were stretched across the church between the pillars. One or two banners with the head of the Virgin and flowers painted in bright colours were also hanging from the columns. Two or three priests, with handsome vestments - white embroidered in gold - were officiating, and the choir boys wore their red petticoats - soutanes trimmed with lace and red shoes and caps. The Suisse (beadle), with his cocked hat, silver embroidered coat and big cane, was hovering about, keeping order.
Just inside the chancel sat the "communiants" - fifty boys and girls. The girls - all in white from top to toe - white dresses, shoes, and gloves, and long white veils coming to the edge of the dress, and either a white cap (which looks very pretty and quaint on the little heads - rather like some of the old Dutch pictures) or a wreath of white flowers. With them sat about half a dozen smaller girls - also in white, with wreaths of white roses. They were too small to make their first communion, but they were to hold the cordons of the banner when the procession passed down the church. The boys were all in black, short jackets, white waistcoats, and white ribbon bows on their sleeves.
The church was very full - mostly women, a few men at the bottom. It was a pretty sight when the procession moved around the church. First came the "sacristain" in his black skirt and white soutane, then the banner held by two of the big girls; the group of little ones - some of them quite tiny and so pretty with the wreaths of white roses on their black hair - holding the cords and looking most pleased with their part of the function. Just behind them came the good old religieuse Soeur St. Antoine, hovering over her little flock and keeping them all in their places; then all the communiants, the smallest girls first, the boys behind, all carrying lighted tapers and singing a hymn to the accompaniment of the organ.
They went first to the font, stopped there, and one of the girls read a sort of prayer renewing their baptismal vows. Then they started again, in the same order, to the Chapelle de la Vierge, always singing their hymn, and knelt at the rails. Then the hymn stopped, and they recited, all together, a prayer to the Virgin. The little childish voices sounded quite distinctly in the old church - one heard every word. The congregation was much interested.
There wasn't a sound. I don't know if it was any sort of religious feeling - some dim recollection of their early days, or merely the love of a show of any kind that is inherent in all the Latin race, but they seemed much impressed. While the collection was being made there was music - very good local talent - two violin soli played by a young fellow, from one of the small neighbouring chateaux, whom we all knew well, and the "Panus Angelicus" of Cesar Franck, very well sung by the wife of the druggist. The cure of La Ferte, a very clever, cultivated man, with a charming voice and manner, made a very pretty, short address, quite suited to childish ears and understanding, with a few remarks at the end to the parents, telling them it was their fault if their children grew up hostile or indifferent to religion; that it was a perfectly false idea that to be patriotic and good citizens meant the abandonment of all religious principles.
We waited until the end of the service (Francis and his friends arrived in time to hear the cure's address), and watched the procession disappear down the steep path and gradually break up as each child was carried off by a host of friends and relations to its home. The cure was very pleased, said he had had a "belle fete" - people had sent flowers and ribbons and helped as much as they could to decorate the church. I asked him if he thought it made a lasting impression on the children. He thought it did on the girls, but the boys certainly not. Until their first communion he held them a little, could interest them in books and games after school hours, but after that great step in their lives they felt themselves men, and were impatient of any control.