Relations with uncooked food are, in Versailles, distinguished by an unwonted intimacy. No one, however dignified his station or appearance, is ashamed of purchasing the materials for his dinner in the open market, or of carrying them home exposed to the view of the world through the transpicuous meshes of a string bag. The portly gentleman with the fur coat and waxed moustaches, who looks a general at least, and is probably a tram-car conductor, bears his bunch of turnips with an air that dignifies the office, just as the young sub-lieutenant in the light blue cloak and red cap and trousers carries his mother's apples and lettuces without a thought of shame.
In the street it was a common occurrence to encounter some non-commissioned officer who, entrusted with the catering for his mess, did his marketing accompanied by two underlings, who bore between them the great open basket destined to hold his purchases. Blue-bloused, with his stock of lavender or brown bandboxes strapped in a cardboard Tower of Pisa on his back, he parades along, his wares finding ready sale; for his visits are infrequent, and if one does not purchase at the moment, as does Madame, the opportunity is gone. The spirit of camaraderie is strong amongst the good folks of the market.
One morning the Artist had paused a moment to make a rough sketch of a plump, affable man who, shadowed by the green cotton awning of his stall, was selling segments of round flat cheeses of goat's milk; vile-smelling compounds that, judged from their outer coating of withered leaves, straw, and dirt, would appear to have been made in a stable and dried on a rubbish heap. The subject of the jotting, busy with his customers, was all unconscious; but an old crone who sat, her feet resting on a tiny charcoal stove, amidst a circle of decadent greens, detecting the Artist's action, became excited, and after eyeing him uneasily for a moment, confided her suspicions as to his ulterior motive to a round-faced young countryman who retailed flowers close by.
He, recognising us as customers—even then we were laden with his violets and mimosa—merely smiled at her concern. But his apathy only served to heighten Madame's agitation.
She was unwilling to leave her snug seat yet felt that her imperative duty lay in acquainting Monsieur du Fromage with the inexplicable behaviour of the inquisitive foreigner. But the nefarious deed was already accomplished, and as we moved away our last glimpse was of the little stove standing deserted, while Madame hastened across the street in her clattering sabots to warn her friend.
The bustle of the market is soon ended. By ten o'clock the piles of vegetables are sensibly diminished. By half-past ten the white-capped maid-servants have carried the heavy baskets home, and are busy preparing lunch. The clock points to eleven. The sun is high now. The vendors awaken to the consciousness of hunger, and Madame of the pommes frites stall, whose assistant dexterously cuts the peeled tubers into strips, is fully occupied in draining the crisp golden shreds from the boiling fat and handing them over, well sprinkled with salt and pepper, to avid customers, who devour them smoking hot, direct from their paper cornucopias.
Long before the first gloom of the early mid-winter dusk, all has been cleared away. The rickety stalls have been demolished; the unsold remainder of the goods disposed of; the worthy country folks, their pockets heavy with sous , are well on their journey homewards, and only a litter of straw, of cabbage leaves and leek tops remains as evidence of the lively market of the morning.
It was not a noble specimen of a Christmas-tree. Looked at with cold, unimaginative eyes, it might have been considered lopsided; undersized it undoubtedly was. Yet a pathetic familiarity in the desolate aspect of the little tree aroused our sympathy as no rare horticultural trophy ever could. Some Christmas fairy must have whispered to Grand'mere to grub up the tiny tree and to include it in the stock she was taking into Versailles on the market morning.
For there it was, its roots stuck securely into a big pot, looking like some forlorn forest bantling among the garden plants. Grand'mere Gomard had established herself in a cosy nook at the foot of one of the great leafless trees of the Avenue. Straw hurdles were cunningly arranged to form three sides of a square, in whose midst she was seated on a rush-bottomed chair, like a queen on a humble throne. Her head was bound by a gaily striped kerchief, and her feet rested snugly on a charcoal stove.
Her merchandise, which consisted of half a dozen pots of pink and white primulas, a few spotted or crimson cyclamen, sundry lettuce and cauliflower plants, and some roots of pansies and daisies, was grouped around her. The primulas and cyclamen, though their pots were shrouded in pinafores of white paper skilfully calculated to conceal any undue lankiness of stem, left us unmoved.
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But the sight of the starveling little fir tree reminded us that in the school hospital lay two sick boys whose roseate dreams of London and holidays had suddenly changed to the knowledge that weeks of isolation and imprisonment behind the window-blind with the red cross lay before them. If we could not give them the longed-for home Christmas, we could at least give them a Christmas-tree.
The sight of foreign customers for Grand'mere Gomard speedily collected a small group of interested spectators. A knot of children relinquished their tantalising occupation of hanging round the pan of charcoal over whose glow chestnuts were cracking appetisingly, and the stall of the lady who with amazing celerity fried pancakes on a hot plate, and sold them dotted with butter and sprinkled with sugar to the lucky possessors of a sou.
Even the sharp urchin who presided over the old red umbrella, which, reversed, with the ferule fixed in a cross-bar of wood, served as a receptacle for sheets of festive note-paper embellished with lace edges and further adorned with coloured scraps, temporarily entrusting a juvenile sister with his responsibilities, added his presence to our court. Christmas-trees seemed not to be greatly in demand in Versailles, and many were the whispered communings as to what les Anglais proposed doing with the tree after they had bought it.
When the transaction was completed and Grand'mere Gomard had exchanged the tree, with a sheet of La Patrie wrapped round its pot, for a franc and our thanks, the interest increased. We would require some one to carry our purchase, and each of the bright-eyed, short-cropped Jeans and Pierres was eager to offer himself.
But our selection was already made. The fact that it had met with approbation appeared to encourage the little tree. The change may have been imaginary, but from the moment it passed into our possession the branches seemed less despondent, the needles more erect. The tree secured, there began the comparatively difficult work of finding the customary ornaments of glass and glitter to deck it. A fruitless search had left us almost in despair, when, late on Monday afternoon, we joyed to discover miniature candles of red, yellow, and blue on the open-air stall in front of a toy-store.
A rummage in the interior of the shop procured candle clips, and a variety of glittering bagatelles. Laden with treasure, we hurried back to the hotel, and began the work of decoration in preparation for the morning. During its short stay in our room at the hotel, the erstwhile despised little tree met with an adulation that must have warmed the heart within its rough stem. This alien Christmas-tree had an element all its own. When we were searching for knick-knacks the shops were full of tiny Holy Babes lying cradled in waxen innocence in mangers of yellow corn.
One of these little effigies we had bought because they pleased us. It was late on Christmas Eve before our task was ended.
Then followed a hurried packing of the loose presents; and, a fiacre having been summoned, the tree which had entered the room in all humility passed out transmogrified beyond knowledge. Rosine, duster in hand, leant over the banisters of the upper landing to watch its descent. Karl saw it coming and flew to open the outer door for its better egress. Even the stout old driver of the red-wheeled cab creaked cumbrously round on his box to look upon its beauties.
The Market was busy in the square as we rattled through. From behind their battlemented wares the country mice waged wordy war with the town mice over the price of merchandise. The gewgaws clattered like castanets, as though in frantic expostulation, and the radiant spun-glass humming-birds quivered until we expected them to break from their elastic fetters and fly away.
The green and scarlet one with the gold-flecked wings fell on the floor and rolled under the seat just as the cab drew up at the great door of the school. The two Red-Cross prisoners who, now that the dominating heat of fever had faded, were thinking wistfully of the forbidden joys of home, had no suspicion of our intention, and we wished to surprise them.
So, burdened with our treasure, we slipped in quietly. From her lodge window the concierge nodded approval. And at the door of the hospital the good Soeur received us, a flush of pleasure glorifying her tranquil face. Perhaps it was the contrast to the meagre background of the tiny school-hospital room, with its two white beds and bare walls, but, placed in full view on the centre table, the tree was almost imposing.
Standing apart from Grand'mere's primulas and cyclamen as though, conscious of its own inferiority, it did not wish to obtrude, it had looked dejected, miserable.
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During its sojourn at the hotel the appreciation of its meanness had troubled us. But now, in the shabby little chamber, where there were no rival attractions to detract from its glory, we felt proud of it. It was just the right size for the surroundings. A two-franc tree, had Grand'mere possessed one, would have been Brobdignagian and pretentious. A donor who is handicapped by the knowledge that the gifts he selects must within a few weeks be destroyed by fire, is rarely lavish in his outlay.
Yet our presents, wrapped in white paper and tied with blue ribbons, when arranged round the flower-pot made a wonderful show, There were mounted Boers who, when you pressed the ball at the end of the air-tube, galloped in a wobbly, uncertain fashion. The invalids had good fun later trying races with them, and the Boy professed to find that his Boer gained an accelerated speed when he whispered "Bobs" to him.
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There were tales of adventure and flasks of eau-de-Cologne and smart virile pocket-books, one red morocco, the other blue. We regretted the pocket-books; but their possession made the recipients who, boylike, took no heed for the cleansing fires of the morrow, feel grown-up at once. And they yearned for the advent of the first day of the year, that they might begin writing in their new diaries. For the Sister there was a miniature gold consecrated medal.
It was a small tribute of our esteem, but one that pleased the devout recipient. Suspended among the purely ornamental trinkets of the tree hung tiny net bags of crystallised violets and many large chocolates rolled up in silver paper. The boys, who had subsisted for several days on nothing more exciting than boiled milk, openly rejoiced when they caught sight of the sweets. But to her patients' disgust, the Soeur, who had a pretty wit of her own, promptly frustrated their intentions by counting the dainties.
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They are good boys, wise boys, honest boys, and I have every confidence in them, but—I count the chocolates! As we passed back along the Rue de la Paroisse, worshippers were flocking in and out of Notre Dame, running the gauntlet of the unsavoury beggars who, loudly importunate, thronged the portals.
Before the quiet nook wherein, under a gold-bestarred canopy, was the tableau of the Infant Jesus in the stable, little children stood in wide-eyed adoration, and older people gazed with mute devotion. Some might deem the little spectacle theatrical, and there was a slight irrelevance in the pot-plants that were grouped along the foreground, but none could fail to be impressed by the silent reverence of the congregation. No service was in process, yet many believers knelt at prayer.
Here a pretty girl returned thanks for evident blessings received; there an old spinster, the narrowness of whose means forbade her expending a couple of sous on the hire of a chair, knelt on the chilly flags and murmured words of gratitude for benefits whereof her appearance bore no outward indication.
We had left the prisoners to the enjoyment of their newly acquired property in the morning. At gloaming we again mounted the time-worn outside stair leading to the chamber whose casement bore the ominous red cross. The closing days of had been unusually mild. Versailles townsfolk, watching the clear skies for sign of change, declared that it would be outside all precedent if Christmas week passed without snow. But, defiant of rule, sunshine continued, and the new century opened cloudless and bright.
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