The Old Folks at Home

‘Is that a letter, Daddy Azan?’

‘Yes, sir, all the way from Paris.’

The patriarch regards everything coming from Paris with awe and wonder, so hands me the note with reverent care.

But I am disillusioned of the glamour of the capital, and looked upon a letter arriving so early in the morning as heralding a visitor, perhaps an infliction, for the day. I was mistaken. The note ran thus:

My Dear Daudet—You must shut up the Mill to-day and go on an errand for me to Eyguières. It is only about ten miles from the Mill, just a morning’s stroll for a young man [he says nothing about strolling home]. When you get there inquire for the Convent of the Orphans. Next door to the Convent is a small house with grey shutters and a garden plot behind. The door is always open, so go in without knocking. When inside, shout at the pitch of your voice, ‘Good-day, my friends, I’m a friend of Maurice.’ Then you will see two old, old antediluvian fossils buried in arm-chairs older than themselves. Hug them for me as if they were your own devoted ancestors. Then talk away, they will at once join in, and always on the one inexhaustible topic—Maurice. They will laud your scape-grace friend to the skies. They will never tire of extolling the peerless perfections of this flawless paragon. Another such a paragon never was, or will be. Mind, don’t give me away, never hesitate for an answer! Laugh! at the peril of your life! They are my grandparents, my life-long companions until ten years ago. Yes, it is ten years since I left them for Paris, and Paris holds me as in a vice. The frail old relics would fall to pieces on the road if they attempted the journey hither, so, my esteemed miller, do the grand filial for me and give them a vicarious hug. I have already painted your portrait for them at full length, every feature couleur de rose, etc.

Thus the letter ran.

Just my luck! This is a perfect day for staying at home and dreaming in a shady nook, and here I am dragged ten miles each way, the sun blazing overhead and the dust blowing in my eyes. But, anything to oblige a friend. I bang the door, turn the key, putting it through the cat’s hole, and stroll away with my pipe and stick.

I got to Eyguières a little before two. The village was deserted; everybody was working in the fields. Certainly a donkey was sunning himself in the municipal square, pigeons were flying round the church fountain, and grasshoppers, with as much vivacity as those in the wilderness of Oran, were chirping round the elms of the village green, white with dust. But I could see no living person to direct me to the Orphanage. Suddenly a good fairy came to my rescue. I espied an emaciated hag, crouching in a doorway. I asked her for directions, and, pointing with her withered finger, the convent came into view as by the stroke of a magician’s wand. It was a large, ugly, gloomy building, glorying in an old cross of red sandstone, with a Latin inscription over the doorway. Beside it was a small house with grey shutters and garden plot behind. This was my destination, and I entered without knocking.

The picture of that house is graven on my memory for ever. The spotless cleanliness, the hushed quiet of the long corridor, the rose-tinted walls, the vista of the garden flowers fluttering in the breeze behind the light-coloured blind, the wall panels decked with painted violins and flowers, now faded with age. I imagined myself in the house of one of the bailies of the time of Sedaine. I heard through a half-open door the tick-tack of a clock and a child’s voice reading aloud, word by word, syllable by syllable: ‘Then—Saint—I- rénée—cried—out—I—am—the—wheat—of—God—and I—must—be—ground—to—powder—by—the—teeth—of—these—beasts.’ I approached on tiptoe and looked in.

Amidst the stillness and veiled daylight I saw an old man, his mouth open, his hands on his knees, sound asleep in an armchair. His cheeks were rosy, his flesh wrinkled to the finger tips. At his feet sat a little girl, wearing a long blue shawl and small blue hood—the costume of the orphans. It was she who was spelling out the life of St. Irénée from a book almost as large as herself. The wondrous reading acted as

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