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LIFE IN THE COUNTRY
THE village I came to know best of those I visited in my earlier touring, was a little, old-fashioned place named La Chapelle, about twenty-five miles north of Paris. A friend had directed me to it, and I was charmed from the first with its rustic simplicity; and to a hotel, when, instead of going I succeeded in making arrangements to board and lodge in one of the village homes, I thought the situation could hardly be bettered. I was domiciled in what had been, forty or fifty years before, the house of a country doctor.
It was a large, two-story building, standing snug to the street, and joining walls with neighboring houses on either side. From the highway, its appearance was rather blank and forbidding, but as soon as I passed through it to the rear I found the lacking touch of homelikeness. From a vine-clad porch I looked out on a lawn, in which were several flower-beds and a cluster of trees. Slightly farther removed, was the garden, subdivided into many neat little plots of vegetables and small fruits, and beyond the garden were the open fields.
The house was flanked with ponderous wings that in size almost rivalled the main structure. One of these had formerly been the doctor’s barn, but now it was used for odds and ends of storage. The doctor had been something of a farmer, and the barn was broad and big and had an expansive roof of mossy tiles. Access to it from the street was had by an arched and paved passage that went straight through the main building.
In the wing opposite the barn, up one flight, I had my room — a room that, in its way, was rather imposing. It was large and high, and had a broad fireplace with a decorative mantel; and above the mantel was a mirror built into the wall and surrounded with elaborately panelled woodwork. Some of the furniture was handsomely solid and interestingly aged, but the room as a whole showed plainly by its barrenness, its cracked ceiling, and its stained and loosening wallpaper, that its aristocracy was of the far past. The pleasantest feature of the apartment was its one wide, high window. This window opened in halves inward, and it had a balustrade on which I liked to lean and look out on the grassy court and the dull-toned, wavy lines of the old tile roofs, and watch the people of the house, whose work often brought them into view down below.
The house had a number of tenants, all humble villagers, and I came to be very well acquainted with some of them. One of these was a man who always wore a blue apron, and whose only work seemed to be weeding and hoeing in the garden and doing other small jobs about the place. Another was a black-capped, hardy old woman, who, at our first meeting, took great pains to let me know her age. I did not comprehend her clearly until she stooped and wrote “81” with her finger in the dirt of the courtyard path where we were standing. Then she asked how old I was, and I scratched the figures in the path beside hers.
Naturally, the person I saw most was my landlady. She, too, was elderly and black-capped, but she was thin and bent, and did not carry her years as well as the other woman, and she had no pride in them to make her anxious I should know their exact number. She was a very painstaking body, and tried to do everything she could for my comfort. Indeed, she tried too hard. I was gradually picking up a French vocabulary, but my acquirements at that time did not go far when it came to carrying on an extended conversation. My landlady liked to talk, and, worst of all, she insisted daily on finding out in detail what I wanted to eat. I could not make her understand that I did not much care, and that she could bring what she chose. She must know about each individual thing — did I like it, or would I prefer something else? — and we always had a struggle with the language in making out my bill of fare.
Yet, in spite of all my blundering, I gained something of a reputation as a linguist, for I heard my landlady one day telling a companion that I knew French — I “was not just an ignorant foreigner, oh, no!” I think the reason for this undeserved honor lay in the fact that when my landlady was rattling along in her conversationals, I made it a point to agree with her as nearly as I could. Most of her remarks were quite inconsequential, and it did not matter much what I said. I confined my answers, as a rule, to “Oui” and “Non,” and made a guess at which was right. If my landlady stopped and looked surprised, I hastily changed to the other word, and she would go on satisfied.
She lived in the second story of the main part of the house, and she brought my meals thence in a basket. From my window I would see her, in her neat black cap, come plodding along the path across the yard to the passage that led from without up to my room, then hear her slowly mounting the stairs, and opening the creaking door. “Bon jour, monsieur,” she says, and then follows a patter of small talk, to which I contribute my occasional affirmatives and negatives.
When she had finished spreading the cloth and putting on the dishes, she often groaned once or twice, but I do not know whether that was because she was unwell or exhausted. Quite likely the latter, as it was no small task to attend me, with all that carrying and stair climbing.
For my noonday and evening meals, which were served in courses, she had to make several journeys. First came soup, and then followed meat, vegetables, dessert, etc. Bread was supplied in the form of a loaf that very much resembled a stout walking-stick in length and slenderness. In the morning I had only a cup of chocolate and one lone roll that was crust clear to the heart. This made what the French call their “first breakfast,” and it is considered entirely sufficient until noon. Then they have their “second breakfast,” which is fairly substantial. But for a good, square meal, from the English and American point of view, you have to wait until “dinner” in the evening. Still, this regimen is not at all unsatisfactory after one gets used to it, and the food everywhere in France is almost unfailingly well cooked and well served.
The village of La Chapelle lay on what had been an important highway in the days anteceding the railroad, and the houses all gathered as close as they could to this old thoroughfare. The hamlet had no side streets worth mentioning, but extended in a single narrow line, and house crowded house as if each was intent on seeing all the passing traffic. There are no great coaches now, and no equestrians coming and going as in the old days — but there stand the houses just as they were built a century or more ago, elbowing each other in vain expectancy of the return of the ancient hurly-burly on the highway.
The village street was laid with rough paving-stones, over which the ponderous wheels of the loaded carts rumbled with a suggestion of thunder, and with a rude jolting that made the houses vibrate. The walks were as rudely paved as the street, and it was like doing penance to travel over them. You had no comfort till you left the village, when the roads became macadam, and the walks either disappeared or gave place to narrow paths of dirt.
My village of course had its church, and it also had an open square called a “place,” which seemed to be the more important of the two. The former was for religion, the latter for business and pleasure; and the French love recreation and buying and selling far more than sermons and devotions. They are Catholics almost universally, the exceptions being less than one in fifty; but I got the impression that the church was kept up more for the sake of ancestral custom than because the people cared for it. The adherence of many to the dominant faith is nominal rather than real, and most intelligent people dissent in private, at least, from many of the church doctrines. But interest in the matter is languid. They feel that the church — some church — is valuable and necessary, and their idea is that as long as the Catholic Church is not actually working mischief they might as well support it and say nothing.
The priests are nearly always the sons of farmers and tradespeople. They rarely are drawn from the more wealthy and cultured classes. Between the ages of twelve and twenty the boys who plan to go into the priesthood attend a clerical school. Then for a year they are obliged to serve in the army. The army influence has a tendency to counteract that of the period of schooling, and many retire from the ranks of the soldiery to become ordinary civilians. Those who go on and take priestly orders and enter on their life work, usually make their home with relatives. In case a priest has no convenient kinspeople, he is apt to live alone, save for the company of a single elderly servant, and if he is poor he takes care of his own garden. Few priests have an independent income, and the stipend from the government, in most instances, is not over twenty dollars a month, though to this must be added the proceeds of christenings, weddings, and burials. The priests visit the sick and needy, and, as a rule, are charitable and benevolent. They confine themselves pretty closely to Catholic reading; their sermons are made on ancient theological models, and they are very unprogressive as a class. To me they seemed an uncanny lot, in their broad hats and long black robes, and I could not but think that their lives were narrow, their intelligence limited, and that they were so bound to an antiquated past as to be less and less fitted for leaders of men in the enlightened present.
A HOME DOORWAY
The church at La Chapelle was a pleasing little stone building with a graceful spire, but it was crowded in among the houses and there was no churchyard about it set thick with graves and lichened stones. Except in Normandy and some others of the coast departments, the cemeteries are usually outside the villages, and this was the case with the burying ground at La Chapelle. It was a small square plot among the fields, inclosed by a high stonewall. Its iron gates were kept locked, and they were constructed to bar one’s seeing as well as entering. The only way I could get a glimpse in was by mounting a chance hummock by the wall and standing on tiptoe. The view was not beautiful. There were a few small trees, a path or two, some rows of unmarked mounds, and around the borders of the inclosure a number of gravestones decorated with bead wreaths. The place looked as if it was in a strait jacket, or as if it was a prison-yard from which it was feared the inmates might attempt to escape. I was told that the French authorities have no wish that the burial places should be visited. To them a cemetery is simply the lonely habitation of the dead — a repository of bodies, tombstones, and artificial mementos of beads and wire. You ask for the key — no, some damage will be done; not that they suspect you of evil intents, but without surveillance there is no knowing what might happen. In particular there is fear that the children who possibly may accompany you will hasten the destruction of the unearthly wreaths.
I mentioned that La Chapelle had a little open reserve, or common, called a “place.” This was not like its English prototype, the village green, for it was not green at all, but a barren of trodden earth and rough paving. About half of it was shadowed by some rows of trees with tops clipped off at the height of ten or twelve feet. On the “place” the children played; there, in the shade, on warm afternoons, the old women loitered with their knitting; there travelling tinkers and pedlers often stopped with their carts, and there was held the annual village fête.
The La Chapelle fête was in progress at the time of my arrival, and on the first evening of my stay I went around to have a look at it. Several tents and wagons were stationed on the borders of the stumpy grove, lamps had been lit here and there, and the people, their day’s work done and their dinners eaten, were beginning to congregate from the village homes. The children were the most eager of the attendants, and they came prepared to spend all their treasure of pennies, which they held tight-clasped in their palms, or, for greater safety, carried in tin boxes where the coins rattled reassuringly until the last one was gone. Many bareheaded young women were present, a few white-capped matrons, all the lads and young men, and now and then an older man.
The merry-go-round, with its double row of little wooden horses, its gold and tinsel and gay colors, and its organ that belched forth music unceasingly, was the great attraction for the children. The organ was played by a man who looked as if turning a crank and eliciting harmony by main strength was hot, hard work. The motive power of the merry-go-round itself was furnished by a man and a boy, who walked around within the circle of wooden steeds and pushed on the braces. The clumsy mechanism of all this made the roundabout decidedly prosaic to me, but the riders had the gift of forgetting accessories, and to them the whirl on the hobby-horses was clearly airy and exhilarating.
A number of the adjoining tents were simple little booths devoted to the sale of fancy wares, crockery, and toys, but in one there was a shooting-gallery in charge of a young woman. She loaded the guns, and the men could shoot at bull’s-eyes, or at clay pipes stuck up in various positions for the purpose, or at some whirling effigies. The marksmen popped away very perseveringly, though I could not see that they were doing any great damage to either the bull’s-eyes or the other targets. One of the bull’s-eyes was reserved, and if you chose to try your skill on that you must pay an extra price. But, granting that you hazarded the amount charged and that your aim was true, you had the pleasure of having your prowess made known by a monkey, which, under the directions of the gallery-keeper, walked out from a cage behind the target and rang a bell. That duty attended to, he was pushed back behind the doors, and a fresh target set up.
Late in the evening, after the small fry went home, there was to be an open-air dance on the common, but there was no knowing at what hour it would begin, and I did not wait to see it. When I came away most of the crowd had gathered around a booth where a woman was allowing the people to draw cards with numbers on them from a tin can. This was a lottery, and as near as I could understand, one of the numbers on every card was a prize-winner. Your only difficulty was in selecting the lucky number. The most important drawing I saw made was a large doll. The woman who received it at once retired to the outskirts of the crowd and ran about among her friends, showing her prize with great glee. As a whole, lucky numbers seemed scarce, but there was no lack of eagerness on the part of the ticket-buyers.
A VILLAGE WARE-HOUSE
In all country communities this annual fête is the most notable merrymaking of the year. It continues through several summer days, always starting on Sunday afternoon. That is the only time in the week when the whole population of the region is at liberty and disposed for recreation, and at no other time would the fête start off so auspiciously. La Chapelle was too small for it to be seen there in all its glory, but on another occasion I was present in a larger village on the opening afternoon. In this case, the common was spacious and well grassed. Around its borders on every side were tents and booths, some for pleasure and some for the sale of food and drink, toys, cheap jewelry, and frail trinkets of all sorts. There were shooting-galleries, swings, and roundabouts, and a variety of lesser contrivances to induce the populace to exchange pennies for pleasure. In many ways the fête was like an American cattle show or circus. It had the same fakir adjuncts, and the similarity was farther emphasized by the presence of hawking pedlers moving about among the throng, and carrying their stock in trade along with them.
The biggest of all the erections on the common was a great tent, closed in the daytime, but open in the evening for dancing, which would continue to the accompaniment of cornets and fiddles till well toward daybreak. Admission to the tent was free to ladies. Men were charged ten cents to go in, and, in addition, had either to pay five cents every time they danced, or sixty cents to buy in one lump the privilege of engaging in as many dances as they chose.
I saw hardly anything in all the round of the common which had real charm. Some things were commonplace, many were gay or gaudy, and not a few, meant to be clever and humorous, were coarse and offensive. The attraction which drew and held the bulk of the crowd about it was one furnished free by the municipality, consisting of a troupe of acrobats, male and female, who went through a series of contortions and exhibitions of strength, skill, and clownishness for the delectation of the audience. They performed their antics to the music of a band on an open stage in the centre of the common.
The people were out in force, rich and poor, old and young, men, women, and children. Of all these, the person who made the most impression on me was a black-robed, elderly priest going about benignant and approving with fatherly bows and handshakes. Apart from its all being on Sunday, I wondered if he had no conscientious scruples about the lottery or about various other phases of this vanity fair, which, to say the least, were decidedly vulgar. The lottery in most villages is the main dependence for defraying the necessary expenses of the fête. It is under the management of the commune, and the ticket-selling is in charge of the constable, who, some time beforehand, informs every one what the prizes are to be, and conducts a house-to-house canvass. All public-spirited citizens are interested in making the fair a success, and many of the ladies sell tickets among friends living in other places. The drawing takes place in the big tent on the last day of the fête, at three o’clock in the afternoon, with the mayor and council presiding at the ceremonies. The chief prize at the fête I have been describing was a clock valued at twelve dollars; but much more expensive prizes are offered in some villages.
That the fête should begin on Sunday seems to the French perfectly natural, for with them the Sabbath is a nondescript day that is divided between work, play, and religion according to individual likings and impulses. Persons who are penurious, or whose crops are in special need of attention, work all day; others play all day; more work half and play half. In certain factory towns the mills close Monday instead of Sunday, and it is a very common custom to make Monday the day off for masons, carpenters, and mechanics. “Holy Monday” they call it; and they recuperate from their six days’ labor for some one else by doing one day’s work for themselves, or by going on a pleasure jaunt, or, not infrequently, by getting drunk.
The earlier hours of the country Sabbath, as I saw it in the vicinity of La Chapelle, had very much the ordinary week day aspect. There was ploughing, weeding, and hoeing in the outlying fields, the loaded wagons went and came, the anvil rang from the blacksmith’s shop, pedlers’ carts made their rounds from door to door, and the proprietors of the shops took off their shutters and bought and sold as usual. When the church bells called to service, a good many women and children would wend their way to mass, but the men who responded to the summons were few and far between.
As a rule, the Sunday workers desist at noon, and both they and the church attendants feel free to celebrate for the rest of the day. They go visiting, resort to the cafés, walk or ride, or engage in some sort of athletic sport. In many places, archery is a favorite form of Sunday amusement. Another thing which furnishes great entertainment, alike to those who take part and to those who look on, is a fire drill. A hand engine and a fire company is a very common village institution, and the Sunday afternoon drills are conducted with immense ardor and excitement. The first time I approached one, I thought a riot was in progress, there was such a babel of orders and counter orders, and such a hurry-scurrying about the field in which the crowd had gathered. The apparatus was simple — one or two pairs of wheels, a ladder in sections, some lengths of hose, and a tank into which water could be poured. On either side of the tank were handles, and two men were working these up and down as if for dear life. But I was informed that the participants were not practising for a fire — because they never have fires in the French country, or only at such long intervals that the matter of actual service only enters the minds of the fire-drill enthusiasts as a remote possibility. Frequent fires are an American habit, not European, and the main object which impels the men engaged in these drills to put forth their best efforts is the hope of carrying off the honors in the annual contests with the fire companies of neighboring villages.
SAWING BOARDS BY HAND
So far as they can, the French live out of doors. They take their recreation, eat their meals, and do their work in the open air to an extent that is astonishing to an American. You see the women busied with housework of all kinds in home yards, or on the near street walks. There they sew, get ready the vegetables for dinner, and, in a small way, do their washing. Once I saw a little girl standing on a stool and busied up her mother’s hair in the public view quite unconcerned. Indeed, the family life among the peasantry all through my village was much more public than private in pleasant weather.
I early adopted the ways of the people, and though I did not go to the length of combing my hair on the street, I loitered in the open air almost as much as any of them. On the day of my arrival, Madame, the landlady, had set an easy-chair on the flagging by the porch, and indicated that it was for me, and all through my stay I often occupied it in the mild evenings, or in the heat of midday when it was too warm to be comfortable walking in the sun. It was very domestic there — the old woman, my housekeeper, and the other humble workers coming and going, and a cat or two wandering about, swallows soaring and occasionally dipping down and out of sight to their nests in the cavernous barn, songsters trilling in the trees, and sparrows scolding somewhere within hearing. At times the blue-aproned man appeared with a scythe and cut a few swaths of the grass, which was growing tall and rank and hiding the flower-beds. He found mowing sweltering work, and he only did a little every day, and a good share of what he cut, his wife carried off to the rabbit hutch at the rear of the premises.
Nearly every one in the village had a colony of rabbits in some dark nook about their homes. They were raised for eating, and many families kept them in preference to hens, because they were less trouble, and because they could be housed in more meagre quarters. They required little care, and thrived on the kitchen waste and on grass and weeds brought from the fields or the garden. Then, too, their skins were always salable to pedlers who went about with racks on their backs, or with pushcarts, from door to door, buying them at the rate of a cent or two apiece.
The village street was the most interesting place to see the local life, especially the shadowed side in the afternoon. Some of the villagers brought out chairs, some sat on doorsteps, or on the benches which every house had against the wall near the entrance. There were old women and quaint little white-capped babies, young women and middle-aged women, and there were small boys and girls of all sizes, running about or perhaps lying on the rough paving-stones near their elders. The children were most numerous after school hours. Then you saw them in and about every doorway, with their dolls and picture-books and other playthings, eating big pieces of bread, jumping ropes, and doing all the other thousand and one things that children delight in.
There was no end of visiting on the street. The people liked to gather in groups, and passers often paused for a word with friends. Doors were many of them open, and windows were conveniently low, with sashes swinging on hinges, and neighbors always found it easy to see and talk with each other, even when domestic duties kept some of them in the house. I rarely saw any of the adults reading. They found their intellectual stimulus in social intercourse; and they would sit by their house doors through the long June evenings and talk, talk endlessly, until the stars came out.
The toddlers whom I saw on the highway were often in charge of their grandmothers. One of these grandmotherly caretakers lived close by my stopping-place. Her charge was a sturdy, rebellious little youngster, whose notions about the dangers of the street differed from hers materially. They were always having contests, and the grandmother’s wrinkled, leathery face seemed sharpened by the anxiety of continual watching. She never looked in the youth’s direction without telling him to do or not to do something, and usually that seemed to rouse his determination to go just contrary to her commands. But what made him maddest was to have her catch him unawares and with her apron wipe his nose. That never failed to set him kicking and squirming in great disgust.
I think, as a rule, the French are very fond of their children and take excellent care of them. The only case of abuse I saw was one day when I met a thin, angular woman on the outskirts of the village, with a baby in her arms and in front of her a weeping little girl whom she was driving toward the hamlet. The woman was screaming in a perfect torrent of scolding, and she was cuffing the little girl about the head so hard as to almost knock the child off her feet. Even this was not enough, and the woman kicked the girl and threw sticks at her. The baby in the woman’s arms was crying loudly with fright, and the little girl was wailing too, as she staggered along, blinded by her tears and by her towsled hair, which had fallen over her face. They turned a corner and disappeared, but they left with me a distressing memory that lingered long and depressingly.
One evening I walked about a mile out from the village along a lonely road that led me past a reedy pond, where the frogs and other weird-voiced water-creatures were croaking, to a little grove in the borders of which a nightingale was thrilling the air with its varied melody. My road continued into the wood and came to an end in a quiet forest dell, where was a low, tile-roofed shed — the La Chapelle washhouse. It was vacant at that hour, but the door was open, and I went in. A long, shallow basin of cemented brickwork occupied the middle of the structure, and through this flowed a little stream. On either side was space for a dozen kneeling women.
It was a pretty spot and a cool interior, but it was a whole mile from the village, and all that distance the women have trundled their barrows of washing, winter and summer, from time immemorial. There was no stream nearer to the village, and for home use they depended on wells, whence they drew water in wooden buckets by pulling on a rope running over a wheel. A short time previous there had been a project for a system of waterworks, with pipes to every house in the village. The commune had money enough for the undertaking in its treasury, but when the measure was put to vote it was defeated. They always had gone to the wash-house in the grove, and why should they not continue to go? After all, it was only a mile; and they would not spend money on a change which would confer so slight benefit.
Not every village possesses a wash-house, either near or far, and the women do the work beside the streams and ponds, with no protection from wind or sun, save that given by the lay of the land or by near trees. The washing apparatus usually includes a box to kneel in and keep the worker out of the mud, a paddle, a scrubbing-brush, soap, and a bottle of ammonia to take out spots. In winter, a kettle of hot water is brought also, into which the worker now and then dips her numb hands to restore, in some degree, their warmth. The washing-place has very real charms for the peasantry, and they have no desire to betake themselves to individual wash-tubs in the seclusion of their homes. The attraction lies in its sociability. It is the village newspaper. There you hear all the local happenings, rumors, and opinions. Another reason for clinging to it is custom; for the woman who gets used to washing by the waterside thinks she can wash in no other manner.
At one house where I was visiting, the mistress had travelled and imbibed some foreign ideas, and she tried to get her maid to wash handkerchiefs and other little articles indoors, with a tub on a chair. But the maid declared it was impossible. Her mistress insisted she would not have the maid running all the time to the washing-place, and finally they compromised. The maid would do the washing at home, but she must take it out on the lawn back of the house and get down on her knees, or she was sure she could never do it at all. I remember seeing her, the day of my visit, carry out her little tub and kneel before it on the grass, and I heard her crooning a peasant ditty as she scrubbed, apparently quite contented.
Of the villages neighboring La Chapelle, I liked best one called Orry, hardly ten minutes’ walk distant. It did not lie on a main highway, and was built at random along crooked paths and lanes. For its public features there was a tile-roofed church, a common bounded with rows of squat trees, and a pool in the heart of the hamlet, about which the swallows liked to flit, making swift dips along its surface and sometimes alighting on its margin to get mud for nest-building. The water was stagnant and brown, and was the home of vast numbers of pollywogs, water-bugs, and wigglers. Yet it was the drinking-place of the village cows and horses, and the creatures seemed to like it. The cows would wade far in, and take deep draughts in evident enjoyment. The beverage was surely rich and soupy, but I had my doubts about its improving the flavor of the milk.
On the village borders, where two roads met, was a stone cross, shadowed by a cluster of poplars. Crosses are to be met with almost everywhere in France, but they are much more numerous in the remoter sections than near Paris. As far as I noticed, no one paid any attention to them, yet I was told that, while few besides the priests offered a conspicuous obeisance, all good Catholics made the sign of the cross when they passed one, though in so quiet a way — a wave of the hand, a touch over the heart — that you would not observe it unless you were watching closely.
The sight that was to me most curious in Orry was two men in a lumber yard sawing out boards. They had a log poised up in the air on a slender framework, and one man stood on the log and the other on the ground below, each grasping the handles of a long saw which they pushed and pulled back and forth as it cut its slow way through the wood. I had the impression that sawing boards by hand was no longer a practice except in very out-of-the-way regions, but in France a great deal of lumber is still worked up by the hand-sawyers.
The region round about Orry and La Chapelle was characteristic French country — wide, cultivated plains with a frequent dotting of snug farm hamlets, each so environed by trees that, as viewed from the fields, it appeared to be built in a grove. On our side of the Atlantic villages are comparatively loose and straggling, and neighborless homes on the lonely country roads are to be found in every township. But such homes are exceptional abroad; and France is everywhere reminiscent of the days when, for mutual protection, the people were obliged to gather in close village groups if they were to exist at all.
The bare monotony of the plains in contrast with the village groves is suggestive of a desert broken by green oases. But the resemblance is not complete, for there are nearly always within the range of vision several poplar-lined roadways. The trees are planted and cared for by the government. They stand at uniform intervals, and the periodical trimming off of all the side branches makes their slender, tufted forms, when seen from a distance, seem like some mysterious arboreal troops marching in double columns across the country. Twenty years from the time of planting the trees reach maturity, and attain a value of four dollars each. After they are cut, other trees are set out in their places — sometimes poplars, but more often, at present, fruit trees, as the latter bring the government quicker and larger returns.
The roads which these tree-avenues lightly shadow are, I suppose, the finest in the world. They are often marvels of regularity — smooth as a floor, no loose stones, no gravel or depressions, and they are even curbed along the sides. They are as much better than American macadam as that is better than plain earth.
In the checkered fields about La Chapelle, the farm work was going forward all day, and practically every day, from early dawn to late evening. The men did the heavier work, such as ploughing and carting, while the women, at this season, were mostly engaged in planting, or in a warfare with the weeds. Sometimes the laborers worked in family groups, sometimes singly. In one field you might see a man ploughing or hoeing alone; in another, there might be father, mother, and children; in still another, you would find half a dozen women moving in a martial line through a wheat field and cutting out the thistles. If it was the right time of day, you would be pretty sure to come on some men cutting for fodder a load of crimson clover, luscious and heavy, and just reaching its prime of ruddy, deep-colored bloom. Here is a potato field, and a man and a boy busy planting. The man has a broad-tined hook which he jabs into the earth and opens a crack wide enough for the boy to toss in a potato. Then he drops the earth back into place and steps forward for another jab. The boy, with a big basket of potatoes suspended from his shoulder by a strap, walks backward, and the two do the work quite rapidly.
Asparagus was a favorite crop in this region, and there were sometimes acres in a single field. One such field I noticed was in the care of two young women. They spent their whole time there, Sundays and all, cutting the stalks for market and hoeing out the weeds. Their hoes were the most clumsy affairs imaginable. The handles were mere stubs, so short as to compel the workers to bend almost double; yet that was the sort of hoe used all over France. I sometimes tried to explain the virtues of our American hoes, but the farmers could not be convinced that their lightness and length of handle were desirable. They wanted something heavy and strong, and the handle must be short, else the laborers would be so far from the weeds that they would escape their eyesight, and the work not be half done.
The asparagus field in charge of the two young women showed no signs of having any crop on it, for they cut the sprouts as soon as the heads appeared above the earth. To get length of stalk they dug down ten or twelve inches into the ground. All except the tip is so bitter and tough as to be uneatable, but the stalks look very white and nice, which seems to be the main point with the French buyers. The asparagus girls, or rather one of them, often had the help of a young man from a neighboring field. She whom he assisted, however, did not begin to keep up with the other girl as long as he staid. The trouble seemed to be a mutual affection, with an accompaniment of fond looks and chatter and embraces, — and who ever knew lovers in one another’s company to make haste?
When the midday Angelus rang, all the field-workers left their tasks, either to tramp back to the village or to seek the nearest shade, and I saw nothing more idyllic in all my travels than some of the family groups — father, mother, and children, and perhaps grandparents, lunching together in the heat of the day, under the trees among the open fields.