VI. CHRISTMAS IN THE VALOIS

It had been a cold December, quite recalling Christmas holidays at home - when we used to think Christmas without snow wasn't a real Christmas, and half the pleasure of getting the greens to dress the church was gone, if the children hadn't to walk up to their ankles in untrodden snow across the fields to get the long, trailing branches of ivy and bunches of pine. We were just warm enough in the big chateau. There were two caloriferes, and roaring wood fires (trees) in the chimneys; but even I must allow that the great stone staircase and long corridors were cold: and I couldn't protest when nearly all the members of the household - of all ages - wrapped themselves in woolen shawls and even fur capes at night when the procession mounted the big staircase. I had wanted for a long time to make a Christmas Tree in our lonely little village of St. Quentin, near Louvry, our farm, but I didn't get much support from my French friends and relations. W. was decidedly against it. The people wouldn't understand - had never seen such a thing; it was entirely a foreign importation, and just beginning to be understood in the upper classes of society. One of my friends, Madame Casimir-Perier,[4] who has a beautiful chateau at Pont-sur-Seine (of historic renown - "La Grande Mademoiselle" danced there - "A Pont j'ai fait venir les violons", she says in her memoirs), also disapproved. She gives away a great deal herself, and looks after all her village, but not in that way. She said I had much better spend the money it would cost, on good, sensible, warm clothes, blankets, "bons de pain," etc.; there was no use in giving them ideas of pleasure and refinement they had never had - and couldn't appreciate. Of course it was all perfectly logical and sensible, but I did so want to be unreasonable, and for once give these poor, wretched little children something that would be a delight to them for the whole year - one poor little ray of sunshine in their gray, dull lives.

  [4] Madame Casimir-Perier, widow of the well-known liberal statesman, 
  and mother of the ex-President of the Republic.

We had many discussions in the big drawing-room after dinner, when W. was smoking in the arm-chair and disposed to look at things less sternly than in bright daylight. However, he finally agreed to leave me a free hand, and I told him we should give a warm garment to every child, and to the very old men and women. I knew I should get plenty of help, as the Sisters and Pauline promised me dolls and "dragees." I am sorry he couldn't be here; the presence of the Ambassador would give more eclat to the fete, and I think in his heart he was rather curious as to what we could do, but he was obliged to go back to London for Christmas. His leave was up, and beside, he had various country and shooting engagements where he would certainly enjoy himself and see interesting people. I shall stay over Christmas and start for London about the 29th, so as to be ready to go to Knowsley[5] by the 30th, where we always spend the New Year's Day.

  [5] The Earl of Derby's fine palace near Liverpool.

We started off one morning after breakfast to interview the school-mistress and the Mayor - a most important personage. If you had ever seen St. Quentin you would hardly believe it could possess such an exalted functionary. The village consists of about twelve little, low gray houses, stretching up a steep hill, with a very rough road toward the woods of Borny behind. There are forty inhabitants, a church, and a school-house; but it is a "commune," and not the smallest in France (there is another still smaller somewhere in the South, toward the Alpes Maritimes). I always go and make a visit to the Mayor, who is a very small farmer and keeps the drinking shop[6] of the village. We shake hands and I sit a few minutes in a wooden chair in the one room (I don't take a drink, which is so much gained), and we talk about the wants and general behaviour of the population. The first time I went I was on horseback, so we dismounted and had our little talk. When we got up to go he hurriedly brought out a bench for me to mount from, and was quite bewildered when he saw W. lift me to the saddle from the ground.

  [6] Cabaret.

The church is a pretty, old gray building - standing very high, with the little graveyard on one side, and a grass terrace in front, from which one has the most lovely view down the valley, and over the green slopes to the woods - Borny and Villers-Cotterets on one side, Chezy the other. It is very worn and dilapidated inside, and is never open except on the day of St. Quentin,[7] when the cure of La Ferte-Milon comes over and has a service. The school-house is a nice modern little house, built by W. some years ago. It looks as if it had dropped down by mistake into this very old world little hamlet.

  [7] In August, I think.