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PAGE 3

A Mountain Town in France – A Fragment – 1879
by [?]

Again, this people is eager to proselytize; and the postmaster’s daughter used to argue with me by the half-hour about my heresy, until she grew quite flushed. I have heard the reverse process going on between a Scots-woman and a French girl; and the arguments in the two cases were identical. Each apostle based her claim on the superior virtue and attainments of her clergy, and clinched the business with a threat of hell-fire. “Pas bong pretres ici,” said the Presbyterian, “bong pretres en Ecosse.” And the postmaster’s daughter, taking up the same weapon, plied me, so to speak, with the butt of it instead of the bayonet. We are a hopeful race, it seems, and easily persuaded for our good. One cheerful circumstance I note in these guerrilla missions, that each side relies on hell, and Protestant and Catholic alike address themselves to a supposed misgiving in their adversary’s heart. And I call it cheerful, for faith is a more supporting quality than imagination.

Here, as in Scotland, many peasant families boast a son in holy orders. And here also, the young men have a tendency to emigrate. It is certainly not poverty that drives them to the great cities or across the seas, for many peasant families, I was told, have a fortune of at least 40,000 francs. The lads go forth pricked with the spirit of adventure and the desire to rise in life, and leave their homespun elders grumbling and wondering over the event. Once, at a village called Laussonne, I met one of these disappointed parents: a drake who had fathered a wild swan and seen it take wing and disappear. The wild swan in question was now an apothecary in Brazil. He had flown by way of Bordeaux, and first landed in America, bare-headed and barefoot, and with a single halfpenny in his pocket. And now he was an apothecary! Such a wonderful thing is an adventurous life! I thought he might as well have stayed at home; but you never can tell wherein a man’s life consists, nor in what he sets his pleasure: one to drink, another to marry, a third to write scurrilous articles and be repeatedly caned in public, and now this fourth, perhaps, to be an apothecary in Brazil. As for his old father, he could conceive no reason for the lad’s behaviour. “I had always bread for him,” he said; “he ran away to annoy me. He loved to annoy me. He had no gratitude.” But at heart he was swelling with pride over his travelled offspring, and he produced a letter out of his pocket, where, as he said, it was rotting, a mere lump of paper rags, and waved it gloriously in the air. “This comes from America,” he cried, “six thousand leagues away!” And the wine-shop audience looked upon it with a certain thrill.

I soon became a popular figure, and was known for miles in the country. Ou’st-ce que vous allez? was changed for me into Quoi, vous rentrez au Monastier ce soir? and in the town itself every urchin seemed to know my name, although no living creature could pronounce it. There was one particular group of lace-makers who brought out a chair for me whenever I went by, and detained me from my walk to gossip. They were filled with curiosity about England, its language, its religion, the dress of the women, and were never weary of seeing the Queen’s head on English postage-stamps, or seeking for French words in English Journals. The language, in particular, filled them with surprise.

“Do they speak patois in England?” I was once asked; and when I told them not, “Ah, then, French?” said they.

“No, no,” I said, “not French.”

“Then,” they concluded, “they speak patois.”

You must obviously either speak French or patois. Talk of the force of logic–here it was in all its weakness. I gave up the point, but proceeding to give illustrations of ray native jargon, I was met with a new mortification. Of all patois they declared that mine was the most preposterous and the most jocose in sound. At each new word there was a new explosion of laughter, and some of the younger ones were glad to rise from their chairs and stamp about the street in ecstasy; and I looked on upon their mirth in a faint and slightly disagreeable bewilderment. “Bread,” which sounds a commonplace, plain-sailing monosyllable in England, was the word that most delighted these good ladies of Monastier; it seemed to them frolicsome and racy, like a page of Pickwick; and they all got it carefully by heart, as a stand-by, I presume, for winter evenings. I have tried it since then with every sort of accent and inflection, but I seem to lack the sense of humour.