CHAPTER XVI

A visit to Moret — Funny adventure on way to station — A good-natured Frenchman — Willing hands — Arrival at station — Amusement of bystanders — Lost belongings — Incident in carriage — Disagreeable passenger — No smoking — A whistling story — Another smoking story — The bully and the bantam — A curious military incident at the Gare St Lazare — Moret and its surroundings — Lolling as a fine art

MY visits to Fontainebleau and its neighborhood seemed somehow to be always fraught with incident for me. Shortly after the adventure I have just recounted, I received an invitation to go and spend a few days with a friend of mine whose mother had an estate at Moret, a delightful little village quite close to the forest. The chance of spending a little holiday en famille, and in such picturesque surroundings, was too good to be refused, so I gladly accepted, and arranged to go down with my friend one afternoon. When I came to pack my bag I discovered that it was in a very defective condition, and it was only after a deal of coaxing that I got it to close. However, this did not worry me much, as I knew I could take it in the carriage with me. Besides my bag, I took my paint-box, easel, and a couple of canvases, as of course I intended to do some painting whilst I was away.

The fact of all this would scarcely be worth mentioning were it not for a funny adventure that happened on the way to the station. My friend was late in calling for me, as he had had to make several purchases for his mother; so he had quite a miscellaneous collection of parcels in the cab he came to fetch me in. The Gare de Lyon is quite a distance from Montmartre, and we had no time to spare, so we told the cocher he would have something extra in the shape of a good tip if he got us there in time to catch our train. He was game, so was his horse, and we went off at a pace that would have got him run in for furious driving anywhere else but in Paris. The way he turned corners and dashed in and out of the traffic would have made our hair stand on end, had it not been that we were fully occupied in preventing the parcels from flying out.

We had got well on the way, and were just congratulating ourselves that we were safe to reach the station in time, when suddenly in turning a corner the fiacre skidded, and with a crash off came one of the back wheels, and over we went. We were both pitched out; luckily neither of us was hurt, but all our baggage was in the road — in seemingly inextricable confusion. I never saw such a mess of things in my life. My unfortunate bag had simply burst, and shirts and collars, clothes and boots, were in the mud. My paint-box had come open, and had shed its contents amongst the packages belonging to my friend; whilst out of one of the parcels a syrupy stream of yellow chartreuse was pouring over the wreckage. My canvases had been transfixed by the easel.

There are times when it is brought home to one forcibly that language is inadequate to express thought, and this was one of these occasions. My friend and I dusted ourselves down and surveyed the scene of desolation without uttering a word, for there were no words to cover the situation. The driver stood hat in hand scratching his head helplessly, and ejaculating at short intervals "Nom de D——, nom de D——! "

In less time than it takes to tell it a crowd had collected, and gathered round, grinning at our plight, for no doubt it was very funny to anyone not personally interested in it; but to us it meant losing our train as well as having our belongings spoilt. We looked round in despair. There was no sign of another conveyance, for the accident had happened in a by-street. Then suddenly a big man appeared on the scene and seemed to grasp the situation at a glance. He was one of those good-natured, officious sort of individuals who must have a say in everything.

"Going to catch a train, eh ? Bad luck this, but can't be helped. What time have you got to be at the station? Oh, you've got time still if we can find another cab."

We were like drowning men catching at a straw. We looked at our watches. "But how about our things? " we exclaimed.

"Oh, we'll soon put them together," and suiting the action to the words, he good-naturedly started picking up our belongings and stuffing them quickly into the broken bag. His example was contagiou ; other willing hands helped. But if it was difficult to pack the bag quietly at my rooms, it may be imagined what it was like trying to do it in the middle of the road with everything in hopeless confusion. Just at that moment a cart came along, and had to pull up as we were blocking the road. The driver looked on with an air of interest at our frantic endeavors. Our newly found friend called out to him with an air of authority — as if he knew all about him, "You are going towards the Gare de Lyon; won't you give these two artists a lift? You see what's happened, and they will miss their train unless you are a bon enfant, as you look."

"Certainly — with pleasure," the man replied. "Chuck your things in. How much have you got to pay me? Nothing of course. What do you take me for? I'm not a cabman. You'll sort them out afterwards."

The people who were helping gave up attempting to pack, and hastily tied up everything in the first thing handy — in shirts or anything that could be made up in a bundle. What wouldn't go into a bundle went into the cart loose. Then we scrambled in ourselves, and off we went full gallop, to the accompaniment of hearty cheers from the crowd, whilst the big man yelled "Bonne chance and bon voyage, mes amis."

We got to the station and found we had missed the fast train we had hoped to catch, but were just in time for the last one of the day, a slow one which would get us to our destination a couple of hours later. There was no help for it, so hastily thanking the driver of the cart for his kind assistance, we got a couple of porters, and, much to the amusement of the people in the station, between us we managed to carry our scattered belongings to the train, where we threw them into the first carriage we came to, and which happened to have only one occupant.

We were so thoroughly excited and out of breath that for a few minutes after the train started we did not move. Then we began putting our goods and chattels together — and now came the climax. We were both quite prepared to find a lot of damage done, but to our dismay we discovered that no end of things were missing. No doubt in the hurry in taking them out of the cart they had got overlooked, or, who knows, perhaps some of them had been annexed as souvenirs by the crowd. Anyhow, as far as I was concerned, I had come off worse than my friend, as I found I had lost one boot, my brush and comb, my palette, and nearly all the paints and brushes out of my box, amongst other items; and what wasn't lost was covered by dirt and sticky with yellow chartreuse. However, it was no use crying over it; the only thing was to make the best of it, and in a short time our youthful spirits returned, and we were laughing over the adventure. But more was to follow; it was to be an eventful journey.

I mentioned there was only one other occupant of the carriage — a sour-faced, middle-aged man, who glared on us when we made our unceremonious entrance, and still more so when the porters threw our scattered belongings in. Well, after regaining our composure we did the most natural thing under the circumstances. We pulled out our pipes and started to smoke. Suddenly there was a harsh voice from the other side of the carriage. "Je vous defends de fumer. This is not a smoking compartment."

We turned round in astonishment, as it is generally understood in France that, unless there are ladies in the carriage, one can smoke, provided, of course, the other occupants of the carriage don't object. We had omitted the formality of asking our fellow-traveler his permission.

So we hastened to apologize, and trusted he would not mind us continuing. For all reply he gruffly retorted, "I forbid you to smoke, and if you don't leave off at once I shall inform the guard at the first stopping-place, and have a proces verbal drawn up against you both."

There was no mistaking it — he intended to be nasty, and as he was in his right, we had no alternative but to give in. My friend and I looked at each other, and sat in silence for some minutes, for it was a bit of a shock. We had a long journey before us as we stopped at nearly every station, and with our luggage so damaged, it would be difficult to change our carriage easily. We were both inveterate smokers, so the prospect was not a pleasant one. I tried to think of a way to cause this surly individual as much annoyance as he had us. Suddenly a brilliant idea struck me, and without telling my friend what I intended doing, I asked him in a loud tone of voice if he had heard the funny story of the stuttering man who was cured of his infirmity by whistling.

"No," said he, guessing I was up to some mischief, "let's hear it."

The story, by the way, which is a very old one, is of a man who tells an inquisitive stranger, who has asked him why he speaks so curiously, that he once stuttered very much, but had been cured by a specialist, who had advised him, whenever he felt he was going to stutter, to draw in a long breath and whistle. He stuttered all the time he was saying this, and finished by saying in explanation of his peculiar way of speaking, " And n-n-ow (loud whistle) I'm com-com-plet-te-ly (whistle) c-cured, a-as y-you s-s-see" — louder whistle to finish up with. Of course I prolonged the story inordinately, and every time I whistled I noticed the man, who was reading, look round and squirm, but there is no rule against whistling in a railway carriage in France. My friend at once entered into the spirit of the joke, and insisted on my telling it several times, roared with laughter, said it was the best joke he had ever heard, and then pretended to try and tell it himself, with many attempts at the whistling part especially. How long we should have kept it up I don't know, but at last our neighbor turned sharply towards us and exclaimed abruptly: "I prefer your smoking to your whistling." We both bowed obsequiously, but we said nothing. I fancy he felt like laughing, but managed to keep his countenance. Then we again produced our pipes, and lit up and smoked to our heart's content. He got out shortly after, and we opened the door for him with a mock deference, which must have made him feel mad, but he said nothing.

Smoking in carriages not labeled "fumeurs" is likely to lead one into more unpleasantness in France than one would expect — considering what inveterate smokers the French are; and I recollect one occasion when it wasn't our fault there wasn't a row. A friend and I were coming back from Saint Germain one Sunday, and as the train was crowded, we jumped into the nearest carriage. It was a first-class compartment, and in it were already three passengers, two ladies accompanied by a middle-aged man. He was one of those big, heavy, unpleasant sort of fellows, who stretch out their legs, and want to occupy two seats. We were smoking cigarettes, and had jumped in so hurriedly that we had not noticed we were getting into a non-smoker.

We had barely sat down when the man in a loud, blustering tone called out to us, "You won't smoke here." He was evidently a bully, and thought he saw his chance of showing off. Of course we neither of us had the slightest intention of smoking if we were not in a smoking carriage, and he had but to inform us politely that such was the case, instead of which he spoke to us as he would have to dogs. I felt my back hair rising, and glanced at my companion to see how he had taken it, for I knew he had the temper of a very devil, and it took very little to rouse it. I shall never forget the look on his face. He was a smallish chap, but he was a rare fighter, as I knew very well, and had a heart like a lion. He looked the bully straight in the face, and said in a quiet voice, but which absolutely vibrated with passion:

"Is it to me you are addressing yourself, Monsieur?"

For all reply the man in an indescribably insolent tone said, "Oui, Monsieur."

"Bien, Monsieur," said my friend, " nous nous verrons après." Dropping his cigarette on the floor he crushed it with his foot. He then sank back, and fixed his eyes on the man opposite — with such a look that he must have realized that it was only the presence of the two ladies that saved him from having to fight then and there. This continued for some minutes. Then the man began to fidget and look uncomfortable; he had evidently realized that he was up against a tartar, for suddenly to my surprise he leaned forward, and in a tone which was in marked contrast to his former demeanor, he said to my friend in a half-whisper, so that his companions should not hear:

"I must apologize if I spoke somewhat brusquely. I don't object to smoking — in fact, could do with a cigar myself — but the ladies don't like it."

It was a big climb down, and proved him to be only a cur in spite of his size.

The mention of railway journeys and bullying recalls another incident which, although it has no connection with this particular trip to Moret, may be recounted here whilst it is in my memory. One Sunday morning several of us were going into the country for the day. Amongst the party was a young fellow doing his service militaire, and who was therefore in uniform. He was a private in a line regiment. We were late in arriving at the Gare St Lazare, and only had just about enough time to catch our train. The station was crowded with excursionists like ourselves, and we were rushing through the big hall towards the door leading to our platform, when suddenly we heard someone call out roughly:

"Militaire, hah!"

We looked round, not thinking for a moment that it concerned us, when we discovered the speaker was a fiery-looking captain of chasseurs à cheval — and that he was calling out to our soldier companion. Although we were, as I said, already late for our train, there was nothing for him to do but halt as he was told to do. The captain came up to him and said gruffly:

"Stand at attention. Why didn't you salute me as you passed just now?"

"I'm very sorry, mon capitaine," replied our friend humbly, "but I was in such a hurry that I didn't see you."

"In such a hurry that you didn't see me, was it?" retorted the officer. "Well, I'll give you time to do it now. You will right about turn, take a hundred paces, return, and salute me, allons. Marchez."

Everybody round about stopped to watch the curious and unusual scene. It was very amusing and interesting to them no doubt, but not so to us, as it meant that our day was spoilt. Of course our friend had absolutely no alternative but to obey. So we stood by whilst he mechanically did what he had been ordered to, as of course we would not leave him. And when he had finished, the officer, who had been watching him grimly to see that he did the movement correctly, said to him:

"This will teach you in future to keep your eyes open — however much you may be in a hurry."

Several people standing round expressed their opinion that, although he was undoubtedly in his right, from the point of view of military discipline, he had perhaps been a little too severe, and that it would not have hurt him to have taken no notice of so trivial a breach of it, considering the circumstances.

Needless to add, we missed our train.

But revenons à nos moutons — or rather to Moret. I spent a few delightful days there — as it is certainly one of the most picturesque spots in the neighborhood of Fontainebleau; the fact of its being overrun with artists is sufficient proof of this. My friend's house was very old and quaint. I well remember my delight in looking out of my bedroom window the first morning I was there. The view was magnificent, and quite unexpected, as when we had arrived it was late at night, and to all appearances, as far as one could make out in the dark, the house was quite an ordinary building, and level with the road. To my surprise I saw that it was built in the side of an extremely steep hill, with extensive gardens running down in terraces to the river, some distance away. The entrance-hall was, as it were, on the top floor, and one went downstairs to the principal rooms, which conveyed a most curious impression.

Owing to the unfortunate mishap on the way, and the loss of my palette and paints, I was not able to do any work, so contented myself with taking it easy, and as there was plenty to see, and both my friend and I were champion flâneurs, we managed to pass away the time very easily. It is curious how pleasant it is to loll idly over the parapet of an old bridge, and gaze at the running stream beneath you, especially on a warm sunny morning. The French word flâner describes this sort of occupation very succinctly, and it is curious how easily the habit is acquired. No previous experience, knowledge, or any mental effort are necessary. It comes quite naturally to one. All that is requisite for a full enjoyment of this gift is a bridge, or, failing that, any low wall — and both these adjuncts were to be found in the quaint old town of Moret, so it was a typical place to idle in.



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