A Hilltop on the Marne – Mildred Aldrich

Well, the deed is done. I have not wanted to talk with you much about it until I was here. I know all your objections. You remember that you did not spare me when, a year ago, I told you that this was my plan. I realize that you—more active, younger, more interested in life, less burdened with your past—feel that it is cowardly on my part to seek a quiet refuge and settle myself into it, to turn my face peacefully to the exit, feeling that the end is the most interesting event ahead of me—the one truly interesting experience left to me in this incarnation.

I am not proposing to ask you to see it from my point of view. You cannot, no matter how willing you are to try. No two people ever see life from the same angle. There is a law which decrees that two objects may not occupy the same place at the same time—result: two people cannot see things from the same point of view, and the slightest difference in angle changes the thing seen.

I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles. Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it. Some time you will see the new home, I hope, and then you will understand. I have lived more than sixty years. I have lived a fairly active life, and it has been, with all its hardships—and they have been many—interesting. But I have had enough of the city—even of Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. Nothing can take any of that away from me. It is treasured up in my memory. I am even prepared to own that there was a sort of arrogance in my persistence in choosing for so many years the most seductive city in the world, and saying, “Let others live where they will—here I propose to stay.” I lived there until I seemed to take it for my own—to know it on the surface and under it, and over it, and around it; until I had a sort of morbid jealousy when I found any one who knew it half as well as I did, or presumed to love it half as much, and dared to say so. You will please note that I have not gone far from it.

But I have come to feel the need of calm and quiet—perfect peace. I know again that there is a sort of arrogance in expecting it, but I am going to make a bold bid for it. I will agree, if you like, that it is cowardly to say that my work is done. I will even agree that we both know plenty of women who have cheerfully gone on struggling to a far greater age, and I do think it downright pretty of you to find me younger than my years. Yet you must forgive me if I say that none of us know one another, and, likewise, that appearances are often deceptive.

What you are pleased to call my “pride” has helped me a little. No one can decide for another the proper moment for striking one’s colors.

I am sure that you—or for that matter any other American—never heard of Huiry. Yet it is a little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris. It is in that district between Paris and Meaux little known to the ordinary traveler. It only consists of less than a dozen rude farm-houses, less than five miles, as a bird flies, from Meaux, which, with a fair cathedral, and a beautiful chestnut-shaded promenade on the banks of the Marne, spanned just there bylines of old mills whose water-wheels churn the river into foaming eddies, has never been popular with excursionists. There are people who go there to see where Bossuet wrote his funeral orations, in a little summer-house standing among pines and cedars on the wall of the garden of the Archbishop’s palace, now, since the “separation,” the property of the State, and soon to be a town museum. It is not a very attractive town. It has not even an out-of-doors restaurant to tempt the passing automobilist.

My house was, when I leased it, little more than a peasant’s hut. It is considerably over one hundred and fifty years old, with stables and outbuildings attached whimsically, and boasts six gables. Is it not a pity, for early association’s sake, that it has not one more?

I have, as Traddles used to say, “Oceans of room, Copperfield,” and no joking. I have on the ground floor of the main building a fair sized salon, into which the front door opens directly. Over that I have a long, narrow bed-room and dressing-room, and above that, in the eaves, a sort of attic work-shop. In an attached, one-story addition with a gable, at the west of the salon, I have a library lighted from both east and west. Behind the salon on the west side I have a double room which serves as dining and breakfast-room, with a guest-chamber above. The kitchen, at the north side of the salon, has its own gable, and there is an old stable extending forward at the north side, and an old grange extending west from the dining-room. It is a jumble of roofs and chimneys, and looks very much like the houses I used to combine from my Noah’s Ark box in the days of my babyhood.

All the rooms on the ground floor are paved in red tiles, and the staircase is built right in the salon. The ceilings are raftered. The cross-beam in the salon fills my soul with joy—it is over a foot wide and a foot and a half thick. The walls and the rafters are painted green,—my color,—and so good, by long trial, for my eyes and my nerves, and my disposition.

But much as I like all this, it was not this that attracted me here. That was the situation. The house stands in a small garden, separated from the road by an old gnarled hedge of hazel. It is almost on the crest of the hill on the south bank of the Marne,—the hill that is the water-shed between the Marne and the Grand Morin. Just here the Marne makes a wonderful loop, and is only fifteen minutes walk away from my gate, down the hill to the north.

From the lawn, on the north side of the house, I command a panorama which I have rarely seen equaled. To me it is more beautiful than that we have so often looked at together from the terrace at Saint-Germain. In the west the new part of Esbly climbs the hill, and from there to a hill at the northeast I have a wide view of the valley of the Marne, backed by a low line of hills which is the water-shed between the Marne and the Aisne. Low down in the valley, at the northwest, lies lie de Villenoy, like a toy town, where the big bridge spans the Marne to carry the railroad into Meaux. On the horizon line to the west the tall chimneys of Claye send lines of smoke into the air. In the foreground to the north, at the foot of the hill, are the roofs of two little hamlets,—Joncheroy and Voisins,—and beyond them the trees that border the canal.

On the other side of the Marne the undulating hill, with its wide stretch of fields, is dotted with little villages that peep out of the trees or are silhouetted against the sky-line,—Vignely, Trilbardou, Penchard, Monthyon, Neufmortier, Chauconin, and in the foreground to the north, in the valley, just halfway between me and Meaux, lies Mareuil-on-the-Marne, with its red roofs, gray walls, and church spire. With a glass I can find where Chambry and Barcy are, on the slope behind Meaux, even if the trees conceal them.

But these are all little villages of which you may never have heard. No guidebook celebrates them. No railroad approaches them. On clear days I can see the square tower of the cathedral at Meaux, and I have only to walk a short distance on the route nationale,—which runs from Paris, across the top of my hill a little to the east, and thence to Meaux and on to the frontier,—to get a profile view of it standing up above the town, quite detached, from foundation to clock-tower.

This is a rolling country of grain fields, orchards, masses of black-currant bushes, vegetable plots,—it is a great sugar-beet country,—and asparagus beds; for the Department of the Seine et Marne is one of the most productive in France, and every inch under cultivation. It is what the French call un paysage riant, and I assure you, it does more than smile these lovely June mornings. I am up every morning almost as soon as the sun, and I slip my feet into sabots, wrap myself in a big cloak, and run right on to the lawn to make sure that the panorama has not disappeared in the night. There always lie—too good almost to be true—miles and miles of laughing country, little white towns just smiling in the early light, a thin strip of river here and there, dimpling and dancing, stretches of fields of all colors—all so, peaceful and so gay, and so “chummy” that it gladdens the opening day, and makes me rejoice to have lived to see it. I never weary of it. It changes every hour, and I never can decide at which hour it is the loveliest. After all, it is a rather nice world.

Now get out your map and locate me.

You will not find Huiry. But you can find Esbly, my nearest station on the main line of the Eastern Railroad. Then you will find a little narrow-gauge road running from there to Crecy-la-Chapelle. Halfway between you will find Couilly-Saint-Germain. Well, I am right up the hill, about a third of the way between Couilly and Meaux.

It is a nice historic country. But for that matter so is all France. I am only fifteen miles northeast of Bondy, in whose forest the naughty Queen Fredegonde, beside whose tomb, in Saint-Denis, we have often stood together, had her husband killed, and nearer still to Chelles, where the Merovingian kings once had a palace stained with the blood of many crimes, about which you read, in many awful details, in Maurice Strauss’s “Tragique Histoire des Reines Brunhaut et Fredegonde,” which I remember to have sent you when it first came out. Of course no trace of those days of the Merovingian dynasty remains here or anywhere else. Chelles is now one of the fortified places in the outer belt of forts surrounding Paris.

So, if you will not accept all this as an explanation of what you are pleased to call my “desertion,” may I humbly and reluctantly put up a plea for my health, and hope for a sympathetic hearing?

If I am to live much longer,—and I am on the road down the hill, you know,—I demand of Life my physical well-being. I want a robust old age. I feel that I could never hope to have that much longer in town,—city-born and city-bred though I am. I used to think, and I continued to think for a long time, that I could not live if my feet did not press a city pavement. The fact that I have changed my mind seems to me, at my age, a sufficient excuse for, as frankly, changing my habits. It surely proves that I have not a sick will—yet. In the simple life I crave—digging in the earth, living out of doors—I expect to earn the strength of which city life and city habits were robbing me. I believe I can. Faith half wins a battle. No one ever dies up on this hill, I am told, except of hard drink. Judging by my experience with workmen here, not always of that. I never saw so many very old, very active, robust people in so small a space in all my life as I have seen here.

Are you answered?

Yet if, after all this expenditure of words, you still think I am shirking—well, I am sorry. It seems to me that, from another point of view, I am doing my duty, and giving the younger generation more room— getting out of the lime-light, so to speak, which, between you and me, was getting trying for my mental complexion. If I have blundered, the consequences be on my own head. My hair could hardly be whiter—that’s something. Besides, retreat is not cut off. I have sworn no eternal oath not to change my mind again.

In any case you have no occasion to worry about me: I’ve a head full of memories. I am going to classify them, as I do my books. Some of them I am going to forget, just as I reject books that have ceased to interest me. I know the latter is always a wrench. The former may be impossible. I shall not be lonely. No one who reads is ever that. I may miss talking. Perhaps that is a good thing. I may have talked too much. That does happen.

Remember one thing—I am not inaccessible. I may now and then get an opportunity to talk again, and in a new background. Who knows? I am counting on nothing but the facts about me. So come on, Future. I’ve my back against the past. Anyway, as you see, it is too late to argue. I’ve crossed the Rubicon, and can return only when I have built a new bridge.

 

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A Hilltop on the Marne by Mildred Aldrich, 1914

Image by Anna Yakimova

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