CHAPTER XIV

Visit to the district of Fontainebleau — Marlotte — The village — The open-air painters — The village inn — The panels in the salle à manger — Painting everywhere — The forest — The main street — Food at the hotel — The petit vin — The table d'hôte — The people one met — Cheery crowd — Billiards — "Le jeu au bouchon" — O de Penne celebrated painter of sporting pictures — His maitresse — Their marriage — His house and bedroom — Ciceri, the landscape painter — His knowledge of women — "Her old man's day" — The daily routine in Marlotte — A new arrival — A radiant vision — The chic Parisienne — A new acquaintance — L'Inconnue — The commencement of a love story — Delightful days — A shock — The end of the romance

MY My success at the Salon had aroused in me an enthusiastic desire to "go one better" the following year. I was perhaps a trifle over-ambitious, but that was more satisfactory than being down-hearted; it was, at any rate, a prerogative of youth to be buoyed up with hopes which, alas, were too often destined not to be realized.

The weather was splendid; in those days, as far as I can recollect, it was always summer weather during the summer months — not like now. But I mustn't start grumbling about the weather; it's doubtless I who have changed, not it. Well, to get on with my narrative, I decided to have an attempt at something sérieux en plein air. My excursions with Stott in the neighborhood of Paris had given me a predilection for this style of work, so I thought I would go and see Fontainebleau and the country around.

On mentioning my intention to some friends at the Rochefoucauld I found that one of them, a very distinguished painter of animal subjects, Monsieur O. de Penne, lived quite near to the forest, in a little village named Marlotte. He so extolled the beauty of the district and the simple life one lived there — and offered me, moreover, so genial a welcome at his place if I came down, that I decided one day to pack up my traps and go down and have a look round. Of course I took my sketching easel, paint-box, and some canvases with me, as in those days of enthusiasm one never went anywhere without one's working materials. Marlotte in those days was a very quaint little village, typically French, with practically only a single street. It was but a short distance from the railway station at Montigny — half a kilometer or thereabouts — so one put one's luggage in a cart and walked alongside.

My first impressions on arriving were that the whole place existed only for artists. One seemed to see them everywhere; as an American quaintly put it: "You couldn't expectorate without hitting one." Either painting or strolling about in the weirdest of garbs, they were ubiquitous. There was no mistaking them — no one could have taken these unkempt individuals for anything but artists. Accustomed as I was to the eccentricity of attire of students at the École, I was nevertheless amused at the grotesque appearance of many of these open-air painters. Whether this eccentricity was merely "pose" or part of the stock-in-trade of a landscape artist I was never able to really decide; but it struck me, I remember, as a curious fact that personal cleanliness, not to mention smartness of appearance, were not evidently considered as necessary attributes for a French painter when working in the country. Perhaps they found they could commune more easily with nature if unwashed. I am of course talking of many years ago; perhaps it is different nowadays. Still, very many of the worst-looking specimens were fine artists, so it didn't do to judge by appearances.

There was only one inn at Marlotte at the time; it was, however, quite worth a visit to Marlotte to spend a day or two in it even if one had not been a painter, for it was as quaint and ramshackle a place as could well be imagined, and almost picturesque in its way. Originally the "village pub," it had gradually — with the increasing clientèle of artists — become quite an important hostelry for so small a hamlet; and the raison d'être of this growth was visible all over it. It existed only for and by artists, so the whole building reflected this — primitive and cheaply constructed though it was. The salle à manger walls were fitted with movable panels of various sizes, to encourage the locataires to present specimens of their work to the proprietor; with the result that there was quite a collection of works of art of more or less merit adorning the room — several indeed by men who have since achieved fame. The effect was certainly very original, and compensated for its otherwise rough and unfinished appearance. Paint-boxes, easels, canvases, and other art paraphernalia littered the place, so this "hotel" was practically a sort of lumber-room of the great atelier outside — the forest of Fontainebleau; for there was nothing else to do at the place but paint.

"Either Painting Or
              Strolling...
It did not take long to fall into the habits and customs of the place, which consisted chiefly in discarding at once one's collar and the getting into one's oldest clothes — then with sketch-box slung over shoulder and pipe in mouth one started off immediately for the forêt. That was the magnet of the district — and instinctively one's footsteps led one thither. It was scarcely necessary to ask the way, for one had read so much about it and had seen it so often on canvas that it was almost like going to revisit one's old haunts. I remember I found my way the very first time to all the famous parts of the forest as easily as though I had been there many times before. Marlotte was very matutinal as everyone went out very early to start work, for the forest looked at its best before the sun was too high; so the village was as a rule deserted during the morning except by those artists who had discovered beauty in its primitive streets or the surrounding lanes, and who therefore had their subject close at hand — and the inhabitants are so accustomed to artists that there was no difficulty in getting models if one required them.

I remember also a notable feature of the place was that one could paint anywhere, even in the middle of the main street, without attracting any attention — even the children had lost all interest in so everyday an occurrence as a man seated under an umbrella in the broiling sun with a canvas before him. Would that it had been likewise with the flies, for their interest in one's work never flagged.

Déjeuner was at midday, and by that time the invigorating air of the forest had sufficiently sharpened one's appetite to enable anyone to do ample justice to the simple but wholesome meal we all sat down to. If I remember rightly we were charged six francs a day, which included our morning coffee and rolls and butter, table d'hôte lunch, and dinner — including vin à discretion. The food was really very good, and there was plenty of it; but the wine — even now it gives me a peculiar sensation in the jaws when I recall it. Not that it was bad — it was worse; but at the same time not at all harmful. It was a petit vin du pays — very new, and like drinking vinegar. Till one got used to it the results were somewhat unpleasant for several days; after one got accustomed to it one could drink with impunity. They did not stint you with it at meal times, and you could have quarts of it if you were thirsty enough; but at any other time they charged four sous for a small glass, a rather curious anomaly.

"Full Of His Own
                Conceit"

The people staying in the hotel were a curious, mixed-looking crowd, and one noticed this more particularly at lunch and dinner, as we all sat at one long table. There were all sorts and conditions — from the well-to-do French or English or American artist down to the young étudiant full of his own conceit. Of ladies there were generally a fair sprinkling, but as they were always attached and usually appeared to be in the various stages of honeymoon existence, they didn't offer much attraction to the lonely bachelor who was forced to be content with looking on. Still, it was usually a cheery gathering, as everyone soon got to know everyone else, and in the evening after dinner we managed to have some very amusing times; in the billiard-room especially, where we used to play what was known as "le jeu au bouchon." A cork was placed in the center of the table, and the game consisted in making as many cannons as possible without knocking it over. Every time it was hit the player had to place a sou on it — and the winner took the lot. All the ladies staying in the hotel, and many of the villagers, used to join in, as there was no limit to the number of players. Sunday evenings were especially lively, and the room would be crowded; so if one was at all adept at the game one had a most appreciative audience. It was Bohemia in the country, and it did not lose by the change of scene; the more especially as one got to bed early and got up early also.

My friend, De Penne, was as good as his word, and introduced me to everybody in the place worth knowing; so I felt I had struck a pleasant spot for work, and decided to put in a few weeks there. De Penne himself was quite a character — besides being a very distinguished and successful painter. Even down in this secluded village he retained the appearance of a boulevardier and vieux marcheur, and was quite the smartest-looking man for miles round; perhaps it was because he always painted hunting subjects and dogs that he had the look of a genial sportsman rather than an artist.

Although he lived en garçon in the village, he was very much the contrary in reality, as he had a mistress in Paris with whom he had lived on terms of the utmost comradeship, if one may use the words, for some years. I had often met her. She was a very charming and handsome woman — one of the habituées of the Café de la Rochefoucauld. She used to come down to Marlotte and stay at his house for weeks at a time as his ward, a feeble subterfuge which deceived no one but himself. Eventually they got married; not from any compunction on his part, but simply, as he put it, because she was continually worrying him to do it — for then, as she explained, she could receive her friends, who would not visit her unless she was married. As most of the "friends" had been originally the maîtresses of their husbands, it seemed somewhat exaggerated — the aloofness; but, as I have already remarked, there is no more strict a moralist than an ex-cocotte — as is well known.

At last, therefore, he gave in, and they got married; and when they returned to their flat from the church after the ceremony I am told that the concierge, who had known them for years, came out and congratulated them; but added, "Je ne vous souhaiterai pas le bonheur car vous I'avez déjà" — which was quite true, for she was really a good sort and they had been very happy together.

His house and atelier, as became a prosperous man, were also very characteristic. I remember, in particular, his bedroom was designed and furnished in the period of Henry IV — with bed in alcove, rush mattress on the brick floor, huge tiled hearth, and peculiar old lamp; two huge boar hounds used always to sleep alongside his bed, and the effect of this old-world chamber when one first saw it was most impressive. There was another well-known painter also living at Marlotte —Ciceri, a very old man whose work was also much in demand at that time amongst the Paris marchands de tableaux.

He was a tiny little man and his physique quite out of proportion to his reputation at the time. A curious characteristic of his, so it was said, was his conviction that he thoroughly understood women and how to manage them — and as he had been married three times there would perhaps have been some strength in his assertion had it not been for an amusing incident that had happened shortly before I arrived in Marlotte. His femme en troisieme noces was a big brawny female quite twice his weight. To the surprise of the habitués of the billiard-room of the hotel, old Ciceri had not put in his usual appearance for a couple of days; so someone was delegated to go to his house to ascertain if illness was the cause of his absence. He was shown into the atelier and found the old man hard at work, but with his face disfigured by a couple of bad black eyes. The visitor commiserated with him on his misfortune, and eventually asked how it had come about; whereat Ciceri began to explain with much volubility that he had been moving some pictures and had struck his head against the corner of the armoire, and was proceeding to give further details when a door leading into an adjoining room opened slowly and a muscular arm and clenched fist were thrust forth —whilst at the same time a strident female voice vociferated, "Le voilà le coin de l'armoire."

Talking of old men reminds me of another rather funny story they used to tell about a certain very distinguished painter in Marlotte. I will not give his name as he is still alive. He was then about seventy-two years of age, but still fancied himself with the ladies. One night after dinner with two of his bachelor friends he said to them, "Come round and see my petite amie, she'll be delighted." When they got to the house there was a light in the window. "What a nuisance!" he exclaimed. "We shan't be able to go in; I quite forgot it's her old man's day!"

The first week of my stay in Marlotte was quite uneventful. The days passed by with nothing to specially mark one from another. One got into a methodical way of living: working all the morning — déjeuner, café, and a smoke in the garden — then perhaps, if it was too hot to go out immediately afterwards, a siesta under the trees for an hour — then work again till dinner. After dinner we would perhaps stroll as far as the railway bridge at Montigny and set one's watch by the express which passed at nine o'clock. It was a very tranquil existence indeed, and suited me after the strenuous life in Paris. Then two incidents occurred which broke the monotony. I will relate them in the order in which they happened.

One day when I got back for lunch I saw that there was a convert laid for a newcomer at the table d'hôte, and next to me. Who could it be, I wondered? Some artist doubtless. Lunch proceeded, and just as we were half-way through, a beautiful young woman in the daintiest of summer attire entered and took the vacant seat. All eyes were immediately focused on her, for she was indeed a radiant vision amongst all these unkempt men and dowdy females. There had not been anything so attractive in Marlotte for many a long day. She brought an aroma of chic Paris into the room. The unattached painters commenced to twirl their moustaches and smooth their hair, and I mentally congratulated myself on having shaved that morning. Her neighbors on the other side were a grey-bearded artist and his wife, who wore spectacles — very uninteresting persons who seldom spoke to anyone; so it immediately flashed through my mind that, at any rate, if there was a chance of an "aventure" I could not be better placed.

Her advent was as a signal for a silence of some moments; the women stared at her as only women can when they want to be rude. The men couldn't take their eyes off her. As she was seated next to me, I could not very well turn round without being ill-mannered; I could only give an occasional glance in her direction — but I noticed she had exquisite hands, and that she had wavy red hair and the loveliest little nose imaginable. Although she must have been aware of the attention she attracted, she apparently accepted it as homage she was but accustomed to, and her demeanor was quite calm and unruffled.

The meal proceeded as usual, and I was wondering whether, without appearing unduly presumptuous, I might venture to make some commonplace remark to her — for there was no formality about introduction at our table d'hôte, everyone spoke to everyone else if they felt inclined to. After a little while, whilst I was trying to think of something more original than the time-worn subject of the weather to start a conversation on, I heard her ask the maidservant, in a delightfully musical and Parisian voice, if there was any ice in the hotel — about the last thing one would have expected to find in Marlotte. Of course they had not any, and this gave me my opening — although it was only on the subject of the weather after all; but it certainly was exceptionally torrid that summer, and everyone was talking about it.

To my delight she was not in the least averse to entering into a conversation; she seemed rather to welcome it, I thought, and in a very short time we were chatting away on all the subjects of interest in the neighborhood — the forest, the scenery, the village, the artists living in it, and so on; and after lunch we went and sat outside and had coffee together, and I fetched a pochade I had made that morning to show her. My work seemed to interest her, and she wanted to know all about myself. Then we started talking about Paris; but the Bohemian world was not hers — for I soon discovered she was quite ignorant of its curious ways. I felt I wanted to ask her about herself, and why she was in this out-of-the-way place alone; but there was a certain reserve in her manner which rather intimidated me. She was so different to any other woman I had hitherto met.

We spent an hour very pleasantly, and then she rose and said she must be going as she had friends in the neighborhood to visit. By this time I had already the deep conviction that with her as a companion life for a summer at Marlotte, or all the year round, would indeed be worth living; but I had the intuition to give no utterance to my thoughts. So beautiful a woman must, I realized, be accustomed to listening to such compliments; so anything I might say on that subject would only sound banal. I determined to stifle my feelings and try and be original — and I believe that for once I did the right thing. "Au revoir," she said as she left me.

She did not put in an appearance that evening at dinner, and I found myself aimlessly wandering in and out of the hotel afterwards in the hope of catching a glimpse of her, but in vain. "La dame qui est arrivée ce matin, Monsieur?" said the bonne in answer to my query. "Elle n'est pas rentrée depuis quelle est sortie cet apres-midi."

The following morning I was up betimes, but after having my coffee I still found myself unconsciously loitering about the place instead of getting off into the forest as usual. It was a lovely morning — just one of those days when one feels glad to be alive and well; so I had put on white flannel trousers and a collar and tie to live up to it, which was rather an exceptional occurrence at Marlotte, where we were not as I said in the habit of spending much time or thought over our appearance.

As I stood at the door irresolute as to whether I ought not to get off to my work, De Penne came along with his dogs.

"What, are you leaving us?" he said.

"No, why do you ask?" I replied.

"Because you look so smart this morning," he said with a laugh.

"I don't see anything very extraordinary in making myself look clean and tidy occasionally even in this outlandish place," I answered somewhat sharply, for I was hoping She would not come out whilst he was there; somehow, much as I liked him, I felt that his casual Montmartre manner with women would be quite out of place in this instance. Suddenly, as we were talking, he exclaimed, "Tiens mais, qui est cette dame qui
vient par ici?"

I looked round and beheld Her. She looked even more beautiful than on the previous day, as she came down the street in the brilliant morning sunshine. She was all in white — white dress, white shoes, white parasol; and as she was wearing no hat the effect of her gorgeous hair made a wonderful note of color.

"Excuse me, old fellow," I said hastily. "It's a friend of mine," and I hurried away towards her, without giving him time to reply. I was conceited enough to fancy that she seemed just a little bit pleased to meet me again. I blurted out a compliment in spite of my resolve to be original; but she looked so charming I could not resist it — besides which I really felt what I said. "You must let me paint you in that dress," I continued impetuously, "you look simply lovely in it."

"One of these days, perhaps," she replied with a laugh. "Though I'm afraid I shouldn't make a very patient sitter."

"Oh, I think you would, since you have the energy to get up and go out so early."

"And you?" she said, turning the conversation adroitly from herself. "How is it you are still in the village and not away working at your picture?"

"Well, to tell you the truth, I had an idle fit on me this morning," I replied, not wishing to let her know that to see her was the sole reason for my not being at work.

"It can't be helped — I shall be a great artist a day later I suppose," I added with one of my feeble attempts at wit — which however appeared to amuse her.

"Well, you are lucky to be able to do as you please. I wish I could, for nothing would suit me better than to stroll about this lovely weather; but unfortunately I have some letters to write and must get them off this morning or I shall miss the mail."

"Shall we meet at lunch?" I ventured to ask as she turned to go into the hotel.

"Yes, I think so," she replied, with a smile that left me more smitten than ever.

If the air of France inspires romance then that of Marlotte must be more particularly potent. We met every day after this, and our acquaintance rapidly developed into friendship; and then — but why tell more — let it suffice to mention that the Gorge aux Loups will always be associated in my memory with love-making rather than with painting. Although I really did sketch her, in the intervals; but the result did not satisfy me at all, and I felt disgusted at my poor efforts to reproduce her as she really appeared to me. What, however, impressed the whole delightful episode more particularly on my memory that even now after many years I can still recall every incident connected with it — was the mystery surrounding it. Curious as it may seem, I never got to know her real name — nor even who were her friends in the village. She had made it a sort of tacit condition of our amitié that I should not attempt to find out who she was or anything about her. And I was too happy in the feeling that I had all her love to desire to know anything more than she cared to tell me.

"My life is full of sorrow and unhappiness," she remarked suddenly, in a strained tone, to me one afternoon whilst we were sitting lovingly together in a secluded nook of the forest a few weeks later.

"Why do you say that just at this moment, dearest?" I asked, with a presentiment that I was about to receive bad tidings.

"Because I may have to go away at any moment now. I hate to have to tell you, mon chéri, but I had to sooner or later — that our amour must end when I leave Marlotte."

"End when you leave Marlotte!" I ejaculated; "but why — shall we not meet in Paris?"

"No, it cannot be," she replied with emotion, and nestling her head against my shoulder and placing her arm around my neck. "And I want to ask you to do something very, very serious for me — I want you to give me your promise that if ever we meet again anywhere you will not recognise me; from the moment I leave Marlotte you will forget we ever knew each other."

I remember as though it were yesterday how I sat in silence for some moments — I felt as though stunned. Everything suddenly seemed changed around me; it was as if a big void was before me — that something was going out of my life. She was the first to speak.

"You will do this for my sake, won't you?" she said earnestly.

In a husky voice that I recollect sounded as if it did not belong to me I promised to do what she asked. I had no other alternative.

She drew my face towards her and kissed me passionately — her eyes were full of tears.

"We have been very happy together, mon chéri bien aimé during these few weeks; and who knows — perhaps it is better for both of us, we might have got tired of each other if our love could have become a liaison."

I uttered a protest.

"Well, perhaps I should have got tired of you," she continued, attempting to laugh through her tears, "for I'm a very fickle person and want a lot of humoring."

My heart was too full for words — so all I could do was to clasp her tightly to me, with the thought that she was still mine for a few short hours longer.

As we walked back to the village I fancied she seemed to try and be even more tender and loving, as though to soothe the blow she had been obliged to inflict on me. The next days seemed to speed by on wings. I never remember time going so quickly; but the close of our romance was near at hand, as we both realized. She was now waiting for a letter or wire which would recall her — it might arrive at any moment. Never shall I forget those last hours we spent together. They passed as though in a dream. It was one long ecstasy of love. And then the end came, remorselessly as Fate, on our return to the hotel one morning.

"Il y a une dépêche pour Madame." It was the finish of the rhapsody.

A day after I received a tiny little note with the one word on it — "Adieu." It had been posted at the railway station at Montigny.

A few months later I had driven out to the Bois one Sunday afternoon with Monsieur and Madame Thomas, and we were seated at the Restaurant of the Cascade watching the smart crowd arriving and departing, when suddenly Madame Thomas remarked: "What a very beautiful woman that is; I wonder who she is."

I looked round and saw stepping out of a dainty victoria my lovely Inconnue of Marlotte. She was accompanied by a grey-haired elderly man old enough to be her father, but who was probably her husband. They had to pass close to where we were seated. Our eyes met. I fancied I saw her give a startled movement; but faithful to my promise I betrayed not the faintest sign of recognition. Her cloak lightly brushed my arm as she passed, and I felt a thrill go through me. That was the last time I ever saw her.

One evening I was sitting at the café reading a paper when I overheard the following conversation: "I hear that Mademoiselle de —— is getting married."

"As Though In A
                    Dream"

"Married?"

"Yes, and to a very rich old man."

"Fancy that. What will she do about her child, I wonder? Does her future husband know of it?"

"Why should he? Ever since it was born it has been en nourrice with some peasants right away down in the country somewhere, and even her own people don't know of the 'encumbrance.' The curious part of it, I'm told, is that she is quite devoted to the child, and every year manages to go down and spend a few weeks where it is."

"That doesn't surprise me, because she was always a real good sort."

I was listening without attaching much importance to the conversation when the thought suddenly struck me — might not a similar case explain my mystery of Marlotte?



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