We had just left Rouen and were galloping along the road to Jumieges. The light carriage flew along across the level country. Presently the horse slackened his pace to walk up the hill of Cantelen.
One sees there one of the most magnificent views in the world. Behind us lay Rouen, the city of churches, with its Gothic belfries, sculptured like ivory trinkets; before us Saint Sever, the manufacturing suburb, whose thousands of smoking chimneys rise amid the expanse of sky, opposite the thousand sacred steeples of the old city.
On the one hand the spire of the cathedral, the highest of human monuments, on the other the engine of the power-house, its rival, and almost as high, and a metre higher than the tallest pyramid in Egypt.
Before us wound the Seine, with its scattered islands and bordered by white banks, covered with a forest on the right and on the left immense meadows, bounded by another forest yonder in the distance.
Here and there large ships lay at anchor along the banks of the wide river. Three enormous steam boats were starting out, one behind the other, for Havre, and a chain of boats, a bark, two schooners and a brig, were going upstream to Rouen, drawn by a little tug that emitted a cloud of black smoke.
My companion, a native of the country, did not glance at this wonderful landscape, but he smiled continually; he seemed to be amused at his thoughts. Suddenly he cried:
“Ah, you will soon see something comical—Father Matthew’s chapel. That is a sweet morsel, my boy.”
I looked at him in surprise. He continued:
“I will give you a whiff of Normandy that will stay by you. Father Matthew is the handsomest Norman in the province and his chapel is one of the wonders of the world, nothing more nor less. But I will first give you a few words of explanation.
“Father Matthew, who is also called Father ‘La Boisson,’ is an old sergeant-major who has come back to his native land. He combines in admirable proportions, making a perfect whole, the humbug of the old soldier and the sly roguery of the Norman. On his return to Normandy, thanks to influence and incredible cleverness, he was made doorkeeper of a votive chapel, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin and frequented chiefly by young women who have gone astray…. He composed and had painted a special prayer to his ‘Good Virgin.’ This prayer is a masterpiece of unintentional irony, of Norman wit, in which jest is blended with fear of the saint and with the superstitious fear of the secret influence of something. He has not much faith in his protectress, but he believes in her a little through prudence, and he is considerate of her through policy.
“This is how this wonderful prayer begins:
“‘Our good Madame Virgin Mary, natural protectress of girl mothers in this land and all over the world, protect your servant who erred in a moment of forgetfulness…’
“It ends thus:
“‘Do not forget me, especially when you are with your holy spouse, and intercede with God the Father that he may grant me a good husband, like your own.’
“This prayer, which was suppressed by the clergy of the district, is sold by him privately, and is said to be very efficacious for those who recite it with unction.
“In fact he talks of the good Virgin as the valet de chambre of a redoubted prince might talk of his master who confided in him all his little private secrets. He knows a number of amusing anecdotes at his expense which he tells confidentially among friends as they sit over their glasses.
“But you will see for yourself.
“As the fees coming from the Virgin did not appear sufficient to him, he added to the main figure a little business in saints. He has them all, or nearly all. There was not room enough in the chapel, so he stored them in the wood-shed and brings them forth as soon as the faithful ask for them. He carved these little wooden statues himself—they are comical in the extreme—and painted them all bright green one year when they were painting his house. You know that saints cure diseases, but each saint has his specialty, and you must not confound them or make any blunders. They are as jealous of each other as mountebanks.
“In order that they may make no mistake, the old women come and consult Matthew.
“‘For diseases of the ear which saint is the best?’
“‘Why, Saint Osyme is good and Saint Pamphilius is not bad.’ But that is not all.
“As Matthew has some time to spare, he drinks; but he drinks like a professional, with conviction, so much so that he is intoxicated regularly every evening. He is drunk, but he is aware of it. He is so well aware of it that he notices each day his exact degree of intoxication. That is his chief occupation; the chapel is a secondary matter.
“And he has invented—listen and catch on—he has invented the ‘Saoulometre.’
“There is no such instrument, but Matthew’s observations are as precise as those of a mathematician. You may hear him repeating incessantly: ‘Since Monday I have had more than forty-five,’ or else ‘I was between fifty-two and fifty-eight,’ or else ‘I had at least sixty-six to seventy,’ or ‘Hullo, cheat, I thought I was in the fifties and here I find I had had seventy-five!’
“He never makes a mistake.
“He declares that he never reached his limit, but as he acknowledges that his observations cease to be exact when he has passed ninety, one cannot depend absolutely on the truth of that statement.
“When Matthew acknowledges that he has passed ninety, you may rest assured that he is blind drunk.
“On these occasions his wife, Melie, another marvel, flies into a fury. She waits for him at the door of the house, and as he enters she roars at him:
“‘So there you are, slut, hog, giggling sot!’
“Then Matthew, who is not laughing any longer, plants himself opposite her and says in a severe tone:
“‘Be still, Melie; this is no time to talk; wait till to-morrow.’
“If she keeps on shouting at him, he goes up to her and says in a shaky voice:
“‘Don’t bawl any more. I have had about ninety; I am not counting any more. Look out, I am going to hit you!’
“Then Melie beats a retreat.
“If, on the following day, she reverts to the subject, he laughs in her face and says:
“‘Come, come! We have said enough. It is past. As long as I have not reached my limit there is no harm done. But if I go, past that I will allow you to correct me, my word on it!'”
We had reached the top of the hill. The road entered the delightful forest of Roumare.
Autumn, marvellous autumn, blended its gold and purple with the remaining traces of verdure. We passed through Duclair. Then, instead of going on to Jumieges, my friend turned to the left and, taking a crosscut, drove in among the trees.
And presently from the top of a high hill we saw again the magnificent valley of the Seine and the winding river beneath us.
At our right a very small slate-covered building, with a bell tower as large as a sunshade, adjoined a pretty house with green Venetian blinds, and all covered with honeysuckle and roses.
“Here are some friends!” cried a big voice, and Matthew appeared on the threshold. He was a man about sixty, thin and with a goatee and long, white mustache.
My friend shook him by the hand and introduced me, and Matthew took us into a clean kitchen, which served also as a dining-room. He said:
“I have no elegant apartment, monsieur. I do not like to get too far away from the food. The saucepans, you see, keep me company.” Then, turning to my friend:
“Why did you come on Thursday? You know quite well that this is the day I consult my Guardian Saint. I cannot go out this afternoon.”
And running to the door, he uttered a terrific roar: “Melie!” which must have startled the sailors in the ships along the stream in the valley below.
Melie did not reply.
Then Matthew winked his eye knowingly.
“She is not pleased with me, you see, because yesterday I was in the nineties.”
My friend began to laugh. “In the nineties, Matthew! How did you manage it?”
“I will tell you,” said Matthew. “Last year I found only twenty rasieres (an old dry measure) of apricots. There are no more, but those are the only things to make cider of. So I made some, and yesterday I tapped the barrel. Talk of nectar! That was nectar. You shall tell me what you think of it. Polyte was here, and we sat down and drank a glass and another without being satisfied (one could go on drinking it until to-morrow), and at last, with glass after glass, I felt a chill at my stomach. I said to Polyte: ‘Supposing we drink a glass of cognac to warm ourselves?’ He agreed. But this cognac, it sets you on fire, so that we had to go back to the cider. But by going from chills to heat and heat to chills, I saw that I was in the nineties. Polyte was not far from his limit.”
The door opened and Melie appeared. At once, before bidding us good-day, she cried:
“Great hog, you have both of you reached your limit!”
“Don’t say that, Melie; don’t say that,” said Matthew, getting angry. “I have never reached my limit.”
They gave us a delicious luncheon outside beneath two lime trees, beside the little chapel and overlooking the vast landscape. And Matthew told us, with a mixture of humor and unexpected credulity, incredible stories of miracles.
We had drunk a good deal of delicious cider, sparkling and sweet, fresh and intoxicating, which he preferred to all other drinks, and were smoking our pipes astride our chairs when two women appeared.
They were old, dried up and bent. After greeting us they asked for Saint Blanc. Matthew winked at us as he replied:
“I will get him for you.” And he disappeared in his wood shed. He remained there fully five minutes. Then he came back with an expression of consternation. He raised his hands.
“I don’t know where he is. I cannot find him. I am quite sure that I had him.” Then making a speaking trumpet of his hands, he roared once more:
“What’s the matter?” replied his wife from the end of the garden.
“Where’s Saint Blanc? I cannot find him in the wood shed.”
Then Melie explained it this way:
“Was not that the one you took last week to stop up a hole in the rabbit hutch?”
Matthew gave a start.
“By thunder, that may be!” Then turning to the women, he said:
They followed him. We did the same, almost choking with suppressed laughter.
Saint Blanc was indeed stuck into the earth like an ordinary stake, covered with mud and dirt, and forming a corner for the rabbit hutch.
As soon as they perceived him, the two women fell on their knees, crossed themselves and began to murmur an “Oremus.” But Matthew darted toward them.
“Wait,” he said, “you are in the mud; I will get you a bundle of straw.”
He went to fetch the straw and made them a priedieu. Then, looking at his muddy saint and doubtless afraid of bringing discredit on his business, he added:
“I will clean him off a little for you.”
He took a pail of water and a brush and began to scrub the wooden image vigorously, while the two old women kept on praying.
When he had finished he said:
“Now he is all right.” And he took us back to the house to drink another glass.
As he was carrying the glass to his lips he stopped and said in a rather confused manner:
“All the same, when I put Saint Blanc out with the rabbits I thought he would not make any more money. For two years no one had asked for him. But the saints, you see, they are never out of date.”