France – A Marriage Of The Midi

Exasperated scandals of the “Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles” have a way of bobbing up unexpectedly in modern Burgundy. The free-for-all honeymoons of remote Bresse, where the gentle spirit of American charivari is carried to its ultimate development, are modified survivals of the matrimonial riots of the Middle Ages. The critical chorus that so frequently figures in marriages in the Lyonnais—a group generally composed of disgruntled admirers—has its prototype in the same interesting period. Should a bridegroom be kidnapped on his wedding eve he can console himself with the thought that his great-greatgreat-great-grandfather before him probably suffered the same indignity. Old customs, especially marriage customs, die hard in Burgundy. And why not’? Marriage itself is probably the oldest custom of civilization.

It was in Avignon in midsummer. White dust in the streets, flaming sunlight flowing down the white walls, white lattice curtains on the street-cars, white awnings over the store fronts. In the hotel it was cool enough. There was twilight in the stone court, and a cellar-like breeze from one of the vaulted recesses of the rambling old building that made the place tenable.

A green plush carpet had been laid in the courtway from the street to the wide stairs at the rear, and tropical plants covered the gray walls.

“We are to have a wedding,” the madame declared excitedly as I inquired the cause of the decorations. “A wed-ding of the Midi it is to be, and the monsieur is quite fortunate that he is to see it.”

I was mildly interested. A wedding with potted palms and a green carpet and a sidewalk canopy did not seem so far removed from the quaint customs of our own fair land. . . . The old Avignon is gone. One realized it the more as the little “tram,” drawn by three Spanish mules, rattled past the door on the way to Villeneuve.

“It is a pretty sentiment, their coming here,” pursued madame, without noticing my lack of interest. . . . I thought of bedrooms flavored with citronella, clammy walls, and haphazard food, and I smiled. . . . A pretty sentiment indeed!

“You see,” madame rambled on, “they are to have their wedding dejeuner in the old Salle des Templiers. The parents of both of them were married in that same old hall, and the parents of their fathers.

“They are of very old Provencal families, both of them. He owns vast lands in the Camargue. He is a Calmette of a line that can be traced back to Raymond of Toulouse, and she is a Courtin. On her mother’s side she is descended from the Lords of Baux. There is a legend that one of the princes of the Calmette family was a Knight Templar until Philippe le Bel suppressed them.

“Monsieur Calmette’s immediate family starts with that prince. . . .”

I drew up a chair and sat down beside her under one of the little orange-trees. The story-interest of the wedding was becoming more evident.

I had often seen the Salle des Templiers, a long Gothic chamber now part of the hotel by grace of a door cut through a six-foot wall on the second floor—a place of carved paneling with beams that had been blackened by the candle-smoke of a thousand conclaves. What an assemblage of ghosts must be up there now, waiting the arrival of the modern knight and his lady! Armored knights sworn to celibacy, stern men who frowned at love; then princes suddenly turned back into the world, princes who learned anew to wander through fragrant old gardens and relish the caresses of soft arms; then Calmettes who had forgotten the Templiers except once each generation when the first-born of the house led his bride to a ceremonial dinner in the ancient hall—all of these had stepped down the centuries to raise their ghostly glasses when the pair should drink together from the loving-cup at the opening of their wedding-feast. . . .

And then suddenly a clattering in the street, a rushing vision of color where the blazing highway disclosed itself beyond the arch of the dim court, a flash of metal, and a queer sound of piping instruments. A white-canopied barouche drew up at the curb, and there began a strange. procession.

Down the courtway came a formidable array of army and naval officers in full uniform bedecked with braid and medals. There was a thrill in that. The warrior knights of the long hall might greet these men as worthy brothers of the blade. The escort halted suddenly at the foot of the staircase and clashed swords to form an archway of steel. Then came the scion of Calmette with his lady on his arm.

He was lean as a whip, with the stamp of the army in his bearing. His face was brown and lean and aquiline, his lips thin, his eyes deep-set and keen. For the rest, he was not particularly striking in his conventional costume. But there was individuality in his carriage and the button of the Legion of Honor was in his lapel. I felt suddenly glad that I had been disappointed in him. This man could march up to the Salle des Templiers and laugh at his ancestors. He was as good a man as they.

And then the bride passed. Madame half rose out of her chair and clasped her hands over her broad bosom.

“Oh, beautiful !” she exclaimed. “A lady of Provence like her mother was. . . . a lovely lady.”

A lovely lady she was, the proud Artemis of the Greek friezes, the Venus of Arles in the flesh. She had kindly eyes, this Venus—eyes that compensated for the somewhat too precise sculpturing of chin, nose, and forehead. Her complexion might have been that of Guiborg the Saracen, dark olive with a tint of rose in it. Her hair, woven through a wreath of little flowers and strands of her veil, was blue black and combed back in a simple coil. If the Rhone country never produced another like her, here was basis enough for its claim to distinction as the home of the world’s most beautiful women.

The bride and bridegroom passed under the swords, mounted the stairs, and stood on the balcony as the rest of the procession filed in. Paris gowns and stately ladies, more uniforms, more medals, more somber vistas of dignified black broadcloth. A hundred or more couples marched past the young couple, smiling and wishing them luck, a wonderful wedding-party, spontaneous as they always are in Provence, tastefully costumed and colorful.

But the principal feature of the celebration came as an unexpected climax. There was a sudden swirling of dust in the street, a clatter of hoofs and wild shouts, and then under the archway, bearing down over the new plush car-pet at full tilt, came a strange assemblage of horsemen. So quick was their appearance that they were difficult to catalogue. They wore broad-brimmed hats and silk shirts of a dozen flaming colors. About their waists were knotted gaudy Spanish scarfs. Velvet trousers, high-heeled shoes, and silver spurs with heavy rowels completed their costume. Above their heads in the mad dash they waved a weapon that the knights of the Salle des Templiers must have approved whole-heartedly. It was like a lance save for three gleaming points. Neptune’s trident remade to take its place in the equipment of centaurs.

And it was through this strange implement that I succeeded in identifying them. They were cowboys from the Camargue in holiday attire, come to pay picturesque tribute to the lady who had just been brought into their lives.

Their horsemanship was perfect. From a wild gallop to a halt was a matter of half-seconds. As one man they leaped from their saddles and stood waving their silver spears as they cheered the bride.

She came down to greet them, smiling, shook hands with each of them, and gave each a tiny rosebud from the wreath plaited in her hair. The cowboys then left their horses to browse on the potted palms in the carpeted courtway and followed her upstairs.

The Salle des Templiers somehow seemed no longer inappropriate as the setting for the festivities of such a marriage. There seemed to be something reminiscent of the days of private armies in the sudden mobilization of these riders from the Camargue. They had escorted the bride from her home to the church, they had escorted her to the hall of the Templars, and presently they would escort her to the Mairie for the performance of the civil marriage.

And after that they would ride at her bidding—support cold and discomfort and hunger for her without a murmur. All the glamour of the old chivalry is not gone yet.

There was to be a marriage in Fleville-en-Bresse. No need for any one in the hotel to be told about it. The bustle of preparation had brought the town to life shortly after daylight. A wedding is an important civic function in this part of Burgundy, a day of universal celebration and gaiety for every one except the bridegroom. Only the brave acquire the fair in those regions of Burgundy where the ancient rites have been continued.

Francois Parriel, the town simpleton, offered me his services as informant concerning the more interesting features of the wedding. After the manner of simpletons, he had acquired a fund of lore relating to such things, and he was pleased to have the opportunity to display his erudition.

The bride-to-be, he announced, was Margot the aubergekeeper’s daughter. She was about to espouse—with a lack of taste which he deemed it his duty to point out—Henri Duval, the necklace-maker. Francois’s observations on what sort of marriage the fair Margot might have made were interrupted by the appearance of the bridal procession in the street. It was as strange a parade as one might hope to see in Lhasa or the Forbidden City.

The Bressan head-dress is almost Asiatic in contour. Unlike the official crown of Macon, which is a little flat lace hat placed on the head at a jaunty angle, the state coiffure of Bresse is large and awe-inspiring and expensive. For the wearing of this head-dress it is necessary that the hair be braided and rolled to something of a peak on top of the head. Over this is placed the chapeau, which to American eyes resembles an inverted lamp-shade. A wide disk of heavy felt covered with hand-made lace is its basis; from the center of it rises a conical pedestal to a height of about twenty centimeters. Lace veiling sweeps down from the pedestal over the felt brim. All native writers who describe this peculiar feature of the native costume comment on its high cost as compared to other sorts of hats to be found in the neighborhood. Originally it was adopted by the well-to-do as a badge of prosperity. Now every woman in Bresse has one. She is much more concerned over the acquiring of the official chapeau than the accumulation of a Every woman in our town took advantage of so excel-lent an occasion to appear in full regalia. The hats, though striking, were only part of a luminous general effect. Brilliant shawls and enameled jewels were crossed over tight bodices. Hand-made lace paneled full skirts of flaming silk. The lamp-shade hats, probably to give an effect of contrast, were generally black.

The bride herself was similarly decked save that her veil and high head-dress were white. The coiffure bobbed mincingly in time to her short steps, a mincing, vivacious, youthful, I ‘m-to-be-married-to-day sort of movement. The other tall lamp-shades swayed with the more leisurely, bored air of disillusionment and age. Voluminous petticoats rustled. Stiff shoes squeaked. The men-folk, in their black coats and silk hats or Savoyard jackets and broad-brimmed head-coverings of soft felt, marched with the women in obvious uneasiness and constraint. Only the bride was smiling, and her smile seemed likely to give way before tears at any moment.

It was destiny that she was to marry Henri Duval, my simpleton found time to tell me. On the night of the “welcome to March” she had dreamed of him, and she had known of course that they must be married within the year. It was perfectly obvious after that that she must frown on the suit of Jacques Simon, the prominent distiller, who was old enough to make her a good husband de-spite his objectionable temper.

What was the “welcome to March”? Monsieur must be an outlander indeed. It was an old, old custom in these parts, older than any one could remember. At midnight on the last night of February all the maidens of the village open their windows and peer out into the snow-filled streets.

“Good morning, March,” they call. “Show me as I sleep that which will be my lot when I awaken.” And, with that scant greeting to the new month, they close their windows and scurry back to ‘bed to dream the dream of March. Should a maid dream of a man, it is a sign that she is to marry within the year. It is destiny that she must marry the person shown her in this auspicious vision. Should she dream of a grave it is quite obvious that she is to die before the year is out. . . .

All of the town was in the church to see Margot kneel before the altar during a long and impressive ceremony. The old cure, who had known both of them since he had written their names on the baptismal records of the parish, gave them some short kindly advice on the duties of their new station in life.

Some old women wept quite audibly at this juncture, and all over the church the lamp-shades bobbed like black plants in a breeze. Margot’s day of days did not seem to be dawning very auspiciously. This might well have been her funeral instead of her wedding. And a pretty bride she was, a bit frightened by all this portentous solemnity, but smiling still. That she had regular features and a beautiful complexion was not so remarkable in these parts. That she was shapely and petite and graceful was something more worthy of note; and no Parisienne could have carried her-self with a prettier air.

Eventually the mass was ended, and Margot and Henri led their party out of the church, while the cracked choir sang a dolorous hymn of good cheer. And then, quite suddenly, the entire atmosphere changed. Henri picked up the little girl as they passed out through the portico, swung her clear of the threshold, and squeezed her in an embrace that took her breath and crushed most of her veiling. She kissed him, laughed, and slapped his face, while the mob behind them rushed forward cheering.

“It seems so foolish to celebrate now that they are married,” observed the simpleton. “They don’t care for any celebration, and a lot of uproar isn’t going to change their luck. You see they are married for ever now.”

But whatever the merit of this observation it did not seem to represent the theory of the majority in the town. In a mad carnival the staid owls who had marched lugubriously to the church now dashed along with her to the hotel, where the wedding-feast had been set. Margot, now radiant, raised her skirts to her knees with that scandalous assurance that only a matron may display, and outdistanced most of the company in the race to the feast. And so began the second phase of the wedding.

The feasting, which began about eleven o’clock, lasted until about seven o’clock that night. Then those who were able to dance cavorted through the lower halls of the hotel until well after midnight.

“This is only an ordinary wedding,” the simpleton confided, as he met me standing in the dining-room door. “Sometimes they last for two or three days, and there was one here once that lasted for a week. It was a very noble affair.”

About 1 A.M. Margot and Henri, skilfully directing the course of their dance toward the door, darted out into the street. One might have supposed that they would be allowed to escape. But it seems that in Bresse such a violation of custom would have been entirely unethical. The entire assemblage, including the string-band and a number of citizens who for hours had been nourishing their red wine against the wall, scampered out after them.

Another wild race led the populace toward the lower end of town, where Monsieur and Madame Duval were to live. I followed with the simpleton, who, being a simpleton, had failed in his attempt to be the first through the door. The celebrants halted in a mad melee about Duval’s new stone cottage. They stood by almost quietly while Henri picked up the girl and carried her across the threshold in deference to a superstition that appears to have a world-wide acceptance. It would be bad luck for a bride to trip on the threshold of her new home on her wedding night.

After that ceremonial most of the women entered the cottage en masse to assist the bride as maids-in-waiting. A hundred or more waiting-women would seem to be more than sufficient in a nuptial chamber anywhere in the world. The men remained outside to keep up the good cheer with raillery as good natured as it was pointed. Presently a loud shout announced the arrival of the youth who had served as best man at the wedding. I rubbed my eyes to discover that he was carrying a bowl of water. Later I discovered that the water was to be used in the ceremonial immersion of the young husband’s head. But any one versed in the medieval lore of Burgundy would have re-called as he saw Henri released, sputtering and half drowned from his ducking, that this bowl in the hands of the best man once had a different significance.

Henri, of course, came out of the house after the women entered. There was no room for him inside. He had lived in the neighborhood long enough to know what was about to happen to him, and it must be confessed that he took the jesting good-naturedly. On the edge of the group the critical choir, more vigorous than musical, struck up a vinous chorus. The traits of Henri that failed to meet the approval of his wife’s former admirers were described to him in ragged verse; his homeliness, his dull wit, his general lack of those physical endowments that might gain for him the admiration of his fellow-men, his poor handiwork in the manufacture of bead necklaces, his impecunious condition, and his improvidence. It appeared that he was about to be tried on a blanket indictment.

Nor was Margot spared. The choristers made vocal note of her coquetry, her sharp tongue, her evil temper, her poor taste in dress, her carefully itemized physical deficiencies, her voice, her dubious abilities as a housewife, her straggly hair, and her lack of good sense in the selection of a husband. All of which was quite likely pure libel.

Then came the climax of the evening’s entertainment.

Margot, pushed to the window in her nightcap by her multitudinous attendants, smiled, threw a kiss to the assemblage, and closed the shutters. Almost simultaneously Henri made a dash for the front door. But he was not quick enough. He was whisked off his feet and into a waiting cart. Willing assistants clambered in after him, the horse was lashed to a gallop, and the mob cheered the kidnappers out of sight.

The women, all but one or two, came out of the house after that, and the wedding-party departed by twos and threes. I sauntered back to the hotel, wondering a little at this high-handed procedure. Two or three of the ribald guests remained at the Maison Duval long enough to tie two pairs of shoes that once had belonged to the bride and groom to the topmost point of the chimney. Then they, too, departed.

From the simpleton I learned what was happening to the bridegroom. He was to be taken somewhere up in the hills and stored in a hut or tied to a tree. By morning his re-lease would be effected, and the entire town would turn out to welcome him home when he should return, foot-sore and hungry and probably peevish.

I thought of him as I opened my window preparatory to going to bed. The effervescent French temperament some-times works a bit of hardship on those temporarily unwilling to pay it toll. I pictured Margot, alone in her new house, weeping and worrying for the safety of her vanished bridegroom and fearful lest some similar indignity might be visited upon herself. I pictured Henri, tied to a tree up there in the hills, worrying about Margot and cutting his wrists in a vain effort to release himself. The honeymoon house, silent as death, stood in silhouette against the moon. I thought I could hear a woman sobbing. The wedding jest did not seem so humorous.

Then suddenly a light . . . a scream and a gale of laughter. A luminous rectangle appeared in the second story of the home of Henri Duval and at the window-sill Henri himself with his bride in his arms. The pair bowed in solemn mockery to the empty street, threw kisses to the breeze, and closed the shutter once more. Evidently the critical chorus had been wrong in its estimate of Henri’s physical prowess. By some miracle he had escaped the kidnappers. The light went out.