Pebbles in the pocket

In the first fortnight of December, the Marquise d’Anguilhon, accompanied by Madame Villars, her mother, came to Paris to buy the thousand objects she needed for the gigantic Christmas tree that she gave each year to the children of Blonay.

She stayed at the Hotel Castiglione, as she often did, so as not to open her house. She liked to find herself in the apartment she had occupied as a young girl, where she had married: the American, who is not sentimental, nevertheless has the religion of remembrance. Annie was delighted to see her compatriots again; she invited them to come and spend the holidays in Blonay. Mademoiselle Carroll had an extravagant joy.

– And to think that we would have missed that, if we had returned to America!… What luck we have!

On December 20, Hélène and Dora, chaperoned by Miss Beauchamp and Madame Carroll, left for Bourbonnais. The sight of the castle of Blonay, one of the most beautiful in France, drew from them cries of admiration. They were amazed and amazed to see Annie si at home in this grandiose mansion.

Towards the middle of summer, the Marquise d’Anguilhon had had the triumph of giving her husband a second son. There was a radiance of satisfaction on her charming face. She proudly showed her friends the improvements she had decreed around her, the red brick cottages adorned with shrubs that were to bloom them in the spring, the assembly house with a library, a billiard table, where workers and peasants gathered. Instead of adding her compliments to those of Helene and Dora, Aunt Sophie pursed her lips and remained silent; then, as she still found it difficult to keep her thoughts silent, she ended by saying to Annie:

– It is all very beautiful, but you know that I am a patriot above all; I cannot help regretting that your activity, your charity (she had the tact not to add: “your money”), are lost for your country.

The young lady of the lady smiles:

– Well, since you are such a good patriot, you must be delighted with my marriage to M. d’Anguilhon.

– Why ?

– Because my husband’s great-great-uncle died for the independence of America. He was Lafayette’s close friend. He embarked with him and took part in the siege of York. It was even on his orders that the French grenadiers and chasseurs mounted the assault, and he was one of the first to be killed.

– Ah! it’s quite curious! said Mademoiselle Beauchamp, a little taken aback.

– I discovered this in the family archives; Jacques did not know. It seemed to me, then, that I had been charged by Providence to pay off this debt of my country.

– And you don’t look sorry! Dora said smiling.

– I am very happy, on the contrary!

Among the guests of the chateau were the Vicomte de Nozay and M. de Limeray.

“The Prince” was delighted to see again, in the privacy of the countryside, this American whose beauty alone was a pleasure to him and who interested him as a novelty of women. It was the first specimen of an intellectual that he approached. Like Sant’Anna, he was amazed at the little place that love and feeling seemed to occupy in Madame Ronald’s life. Although he was out of the question, he felt it as a sort of insult to his sex. And the young woman was absolutely sincere. Despite his beautiful coloring, his brilliant expression, his face was cold, even harsh. He lacked the soft, warm, living light that comes from the soul: the count regretted him as an artist and as a man. When he looked at Helene, he often said to himself, as if faced with a failed work: “What a pity! what a pity ! However, it was not long before he realized that she had a worry, a preoccupation; she was distracted sometimes. His gaiety did not seem so straightforward, his mind as free as when they first met. One day, telling M. de Limeray of the joys which she promised himself from her stay in Rome, she gradually allowed herself to confide to him the grievances she had against her husband. The count looked at her in astonishment.

– And, in good faith, you believe that it is Mr. Ronald who is in the wrong?

– In the best faith in the world!

– Well, excuse my frankness … It seems to me, on the contrary, that the wrongs are entirely on your side and that you are out of duty.

– Why ? If my husband was ill or needed my presence, I would be leaving that very evening; if there was a serious impediment to his leaving America, I would join him. But none of this exists and I consider myself perfectly free to stay in Europe for a few more months.

– And marital obedience, what do you do with it?

Madame Ronald gave a nice laugh:

– Conjugal obedience! It’s good for the harem or the tent. We are equal to our husbands. We can sell, buy, dispose of our wealth without their consent.

– So, by getting married, you do not promise obedience with love and fidelity?

– Oh ! the ancient oath is still found, it is true, in our marriage office, because it is that of the Anglican Church; but many clergymen suppress it, knowing full well that we would not keep it. Some young girls take the precaution of demanding that it be omitted. That even almost led to a breakup between a friend of mine and her fiancé. He ended up submitting… like the others.

– The good story! laughed M. de Limeray.

– A story?… But it’s the pure truth!…

– You’re not kidding?

– Not at all.

– So, in your area, women have abolished the oath of obedience?

– Absolutely. Between equals there can be no question of submission.

– It’s just… This is progress that I did not know! I am no longer surprised if we see so many American women alone in Europe… I believe, however, that Mrs. Verga has done you a disservice by putting it in your head to spend the winter in Rome.

– Oh ! Mr. Ronald will eventually come and join me. He adores me.

– I understand that! said gallantly “the Prince”, looking at the young woman with admiration.

The Marquise d’Anguilhon was delighted to be able to give her compatriots the impression of this sweet old world Christmas which, in the provinces and in the countryside especially, has preserved the poetry of tradition and faith.

Madam Ronald and Mademoiselle Carroll helped him prepare the Christmas tree, unpack the boxes arriving from Paris, decorate the castle with mistletoe and holly. They set about it with contagious enthusiasm. Dora, dizzying with gaiety, tried out the trumpets, the drums, played with the dolls, pulled the strings of all the puppets, cried out at every moment “  What fun!” … How funny!… ”And, seeing her, no one would have imagined that she was one of the great socialites of New York. The good thing about the American is that she is never jaded; better still, it does not claim to be.

On Christmas Eve, the squire and their hosts, escorted by footmen carrying torches, descended the hill to go to the village church. There was no moon, but the night was splendidly starry. On all the paths of the valley, one saw advancing small moving lights, dark figures, a procession of human beings pushed by the same invisible force which guided the wise men, and led to the same worship. The old Romanesque church of Blonay had a special beauty that evening. The nave was dark, but the brightly lit choir put a sparkle of apotheosis around the manger where a gentle child Jesus stretched out his arms to the humble and believing crowd. The parish priest, inspired by solemnity, celebrated Mass with pathetic faith. In her beautiful deep voice,Gloria and the Creed . The sisters’ pupils sang the old hymns with naive words; an amateur played, finally, the triumphant Christmas of Adam. This touching ceremony in its simplicity deeply moved Madame Ronald and brought her thoughts back to the convent of the Assumption. It suddenly seemed to her that since then she had come a long way and that today she was different. As for Dora, Mademoiselle Beauchamp and Madame Carroll, this midnight mass astonished them by its strangeness, they lost nothing of it and judged that it alone would have been worth the trip to Europe; but they were not otherwise moved.

All the youth wanted to walk back to the castle and brought back a good appetite for New Year’s Eve.

The dining room was decorated with mistletoe and holly; these dark greenery harmonized well with the woodwork of old oak. The Yule log burned in the monumental fireplace, lit up here and there with joyful gleams, and mingled its hot flame with the reflections of silverware and crystals. The meal was most cheerful. There was a sweet joy on all faces. The Americans were quite astonished to find themselves in this foreign and aristocratic environment, and even more surprised to feel perfectly at ease there. The Marquis d’Anguilhon looked around him several times with an expression of tenderness, and ended by saying:

– After all, there is nothing good except New Years Eve preceded by midnight mass and eaten in the company of his family. Those that we make in the restaurant are stupid and leave you sad.

– Did you take all this time to recognize that? said the Comte de Froissy to his nephew.

– No, but I had never felt it so well this evening! replied Jacques, looking at his mother and his wife.

– And you, Mrs. Ronald, what do you think of our old customs? asked M. de Limeray.

– I find them very charming… Life in Europe has elements that do not yet exist with us, and that’s what attracts us and holds us back… You see, my other Christmases left me with no memory, but this one, I am sure that I will never forget it! …

The next day, in the afternoon, Annie and her mother-in-law received Blonay’s children; in the evening, there was a ball for the parents and for the servants of the castle. It was opened by Jacques and his wife. Dora was delighted. It seemed to him that he was living in the middle of a novel.

– How interesting it is! she said to Mrs. Ronald.

Then, in a low voice:

– Jack is lucky I didn’t come to Blonay sooner!

The four Americans took from their visit a most pleasant impression. Hardly in the train, Hélène exclaimed:

– Dody, you deserve a high grade. You had a perfect outfit. I would never have believed you capable of being so decent!

– Thank you !

– Admit it: it was the Dowager Marchioness who imposed on you.

– It’s true: for nothing in the world, I would not have wanted to shock this great lady so simple, so benevolent. Besides, I immediately felt that, in this environment, we had to put a damper on our modernity so as not to clash… And, by the way, I was very proud of Annie. My word of honor, I believe that a well-born, well-behaved American can rise to any situation. If you need a queen somewhere in Europe, you just have to come and ask for her here.

– Well, you are not modest, at least! said Mrs. Ronald, smiling.