VI. CHRISTMAS IN THE VALOIS
Thursday morning we went early (ten o'clock) to St. Quentin and spent over two hours decorating the Tree, ticketing and arranging all the little garments. Every child in the neighbourhood was hanging around the school-house when we arrived, the entrance being strictly forbidden until after the service, when the Tree would be lighted. I expressed great surprise at seeing the children at the school on a holiday, and there were broad grins as they answered, "Madame Waddington nous a dit de venir." It had snowed all night, and the clouds were low and gray, and looked as if they were still full of snow. The going was extremely difficult; not that the snow was very deep, but there was enough to make the roads very slippery. We had the horses "ferres a glace," and even the donkey had nails on his shoes. The country looked beautiful - the poor little village quite picturesque, snow on all the dark roofs, and the church standing out splendidly from its carpet of snow - the tall pines not quite covered, and always the curtain of forest shutting in the valley.
We left the maids to breakfast with the keeper, and promised to be back at three o'clock punctually. Our coachman, Hubert, generally objects strongly to taking out his horses in bad weather on rough country roads and making three or four trips backward and forward; but to-day he was quite serene. He comes from that part of the neighbourhood and is related to half the village. Our progress was slow, as we stopped a good deal. It was a pretty sight as we got near St. Quentin: the church, brightly lighted, stood out well on the top of the hill against a background of tall trees, the branches just tipped with snow. The bell was ringing, the big doors wide open, sending out a glow of warmth and colour, and the carpet of white untrodden country snow was quite intact, except a little pathway made by the feet of the men who had brought up the harmonium. The red carpet and bright chrysanthemums made a fine effect of colour, and the little "niche" (it could hardly be called a chapel) of the Virgin was quite charming, all dressed with greens and white flowers, our tall Italian candles making a grand show.
The La Ferte contingent had arrived. They had much difficulty in getting the omnibus up to the church, as it was heavy with the harmonium on top; however, everybody got out and walked up the hill, and all went off well. The Abbe was robing, with his two choir children, in the minute sacristy, and the two good Sisters were standing at the gate with all their little flock - about ten girls, I should think. There were people in every direction, of all sizes and ages - some women carrying a baby in their arms and pushing one or two others in a cart, some wretched old people so bent and wrinkled one couldn't imagine how they could crawl from one room to another. A miserable old man bent double, really, leaning on a child and walking with two canes, was pointed out to me as the "pere Colin," who makes the "margottins" (bundles of little dry sticks used for making the fires) for the chateau. However, they were all streaming up the slippery hillside, quite unmindful of cold or fatigue. We walked up, too, and I went first to the school-house to see if our provisions had come. Food was also a vexed question, as tea and buns, which would seem natural to us, were unknown in these parts. After many consultations with the women about us - lessiveuses (washerwomen), keepers' wives, etc. - we decided upon hot wine and brioches. The Mayor undertook to supply the wine and the glasses, and we ordered the brioches from the Hotel du Sauvage at La Ferte; the son of the house is a very good patissier. It is a funny, old-fashioned little hotel, not very clean, but has an excellent cuisine, also a wonderful sign board - a bright red naked savage, with feathers in his hair and a club in his hand - rather like the primitive pictures of North American Indians in our school-books.
Everything was there, and the children just forming the procession to walk to the church. Some of the farmers' wives were also waiting for us at the school-house, so I only had a moment to go into the big class-room to see if the Tree looked all right. It was quite ready, and we agreed that the two big boys with the keeper should begin to light it as soon as the service was over. Madame Isidore (the school-mistress) was rather unhappy about the quantity of people. There were many more than thirty children, but Henrietta and Pauline had made up a bundle of extras, and I was sure there would be enough. She told us people had been on the way since nine in the morning - women and children arriving cold and wet and draggled, but determined to see everything. She showed me one woman from Chezy, the next village (some distance off, as our part of the country is very scantily populated; it is all great farms and forests; one can go miles without seeing a trace of habitation). She had arrived quite early with two children, a boy and a girl of seven and eight, and a small baby in her arms; and when Madame Isidore remonstrated, saying the fete was for her school only, not for the entire country-side, the woman answered that Madame always smiled and spoke so nicely to her when she passed on horseback that she was sure she would want her to come. The French peasants love to be spoken to, always answer civilly, and are interested in the horses, or the donkey, or the children - anything that passes.