French For a Fortnight

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FRENCH FOR A FORTNIGHT

By H. C. Bunner

"Oh, dear!" said the Reverend Mr. Pentagon. "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!"

Then he tossed uneasily upon his neat white bed, and ground his broad shoulders into its snowy depths. He looked out of the window, and saw, through the pale green panes of flint glass a bough of darker green bob up and down, shaking off great drops of rain as the last gust of the summer rain-storm agitated it and gently subsided. Beyond, the gray sky, that had but now been weeping, was slowly growing blue; not smiling yet, but tearfully clearing up to tranquil brightness. To people not in an unpleasant frame of mind it might have suggested the face of a child coming out of a crying spell. To the Reverend Mr. Pentagon, who was in a very unpleasant frame of mind, it suggested nothing beyond the fact that he had to wait before he could walk out under the blue sky. He stared and tossed, and stared and tossed again, and once more he said, explosively:

"Oh, dear!"

If the Recording Angel sets down our words according to what they mean to our hearts rather than by their dictionary meaning, he credited the Reverend Mr. Pentagon's account with a right, good, healthy bit of profanity on the score of that last "Oh, dear!" And, indeed, if he had said some awful thing with "Damn" in it, he could not have meant anything worse. For the Reverend Mr. Pentagon was lying in bed and thinking of the days that had dropped out of his life during a long period of unconsciousness and delirium.

"Fifteen days," he said to himself. "Fifteen days! Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!"

The Reverend Mr. Pentagon was a clergyman of culture and understanding, who, writing and preaching from a small provincial city in Massachusetts, had made a name for himself all over the country, and indeed wherever the old Church of England points its spires toward the sky, or drops earthward the clangor of its square belfries. So great had grown his fame that when he gave up the charge he had held for fifteen years, being forced thereto by ill health, and, going into the Canada woods, was, in the course of one summer, recovered of fifteen years of dyspepsia, why, it so happened that this modest provincial parson found himself given to understand that if a certain series of sermons which he was invited to deliver in New York should please the congregation to whom they were addressed, he would in all probability be called to fill the pulpit of one of the great city's fashionable churches. It was a very old, a very rich, a very exclusive church. The old Rector was about to resign by reason of his age: not wholly to the regret of certain members of his congregation, who found that in the years of his stewardship the dear old gentleman had "slowly broadened down from precedent to precedent" until he was almost as broad and charitable as the New Testament itself. So, naturally, they wanted a man who, if he had to broaden down, would start from a higher plane of orthodoxy, and such a man they were sure they had found in the Reverend Mr. Pentagon.

So, too, Mr. Pentagon thought, and he came down from the Canada woods, and in a pretty little town among the rocks of the Maine coast set himself to write his series of sermons. There were to be six in the series, but I know the heads of only three of them. The first was "On the Reciprocal Duties of the Church and the Pastor." The second was "On the Duty of Church-going." The third was entitled, "On the Duty of a Strict Observance of the Sabbath."

It was while he was writing this sermon that the Reverend Mr. Pentagon chanced to ask himself whether it would not be well for the rector of a New York church to know something about New York. He had had enough acquaintance with Boston, which he considered a large city, to grasp the idea that large cities have ways of their own which they are not at all inclined to change at the pleasure of the casual stranger. Moreover, Mr. Pentagon was a man whose native habit of mind was liberal enough, and he happened to be free from the usual intolerant provincial hatred of big cities. And he made up his mind that he would go at once, all by himself, to see what New York was like. He had been in New York, of course, but only to stay for a few days at a boarding-house with a delegation of his own townspeople at the time of a great convention of the Church.

He knew that New York was almost intolerably hot in summer-time, and so he conceived for himself the notion of a resting-place in the suburbs, from whence he could make brief incursions into the body of the town, coming back at night to the green fields and fresh air. He consulted with his brother of the local church, a Portland man who had been in New York in 1874, who gave him just the address he wanted—a nice, quiet little place in Westchester County, on the Bronx River, where he could board most comfortably at next to nothing.

Clergymen are wonderfully like sheep in many things. The Reverend Mr. Petagon packed a large old-fashioned travelling bag—of course—and set out for the nice place on the Bronx River. He found it readily enough, for there was only one other house within five miles. It had been an excellent house, but it was now getting along without doors or windows, in a sad and paintless old age. The family that had entertained his clerical friend so hospitably in the year 1874, had moved out in the year 1875, and the house had had no tenant since. This much he learned of the man of the other house, who was a fat and kindly French tavern-keeper, with the reddest of faces and the whitest of aprons, and an amount of politeness that made the Rev. Mr. Pentagon feel more awkward than he had felt since he was a little boy at school and got up on the platform to speak his little piece just as the four awful school inspectors dropped in on a sudden visit of inspection. On that occasion, he remembered, his little bare legs felt as if they had ten joints in each one of them, and he certainly had fourteen fingers on each hand.

As awkward as a child and as lonely as a lost child, the Reverend Mr. Pentagon stood in front of the house of Monsieur Perot and stared blankly at the inn and at the landlord until an idea slowly crept into his mind. The inn looked very clean and neat. It was an odd little old-fashioned structure with green palings and trellises stuck about it in various places, and it overhung the margin of the placid Bronx and mirrored its whitewashed front in the calm stream. The landlord's face inspired confidence, so, too, did a smell of crisp clean cooking that came from the kitchen of Madame Perot. Why might not the Reverend Mr. Pentagon take lodgings at the inn of Monsieur Perot? There was no reason why he might not and in the end he did.

Very comfortable he found himself, and very friendly were the famille Perot; and a multitudinous family they were. Mr. Pentagon never succeeded in taking the census of them all, which need not be wondered at when it is said that the eleventh infant of Monsieur and Madame Perot was exactly of the same age as the third child of their first married daughter. And all of them, of every age and size, were polite by birth and inheritance, and took a cheerful view of life.

The first day of his arrival, which was a Saturday, Mr. Pentagon took out his unfinished sermon, meaning to set to work. Then he read it over and it struck him that really it was so very strong, especially the passage in denunciation of the Continental Sabbath, that he really ought to wait until he found himself in just the proper spirit to go on with it. He had a feeling of chastened pride in the thought that he had denounced that sinful Continental Sabbath very aptly indeed for a man who had never seen it. So that day he went for a walk and saw some of the pretty places which are too near to New York for most New Yorkers to visit. The next day was Sunday, and he went into the City and worshiped at Trinity, and on his way home went out of his course to view the great church to which he expected to be called, and stood and looked at its closed doors; and his heart beat hard.

On Monday he went to New York again, and again on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday, and again on Thursday. Hither and thither he wandered, bewildered at first, then fascinated. The cosmopolitan variety of the life amazed and interested him. He had a slight book-knowledge of several languages, and in his ramblings he heard them all and many that he could not recognize. On Friday he stumbled on the Polish quarter in Attorney Street and thereabouts, and then, strolling aimlessly on, got into Mulberry Bend and was suddenly seized with a nervous fright at the swarming vastness of that mighty ant-hill. He gazed about him at the countless foreign faces that streamed this way and that through the narrow pass; he blinked at the marvellous street-stands with their wild confusion of reds and greens and whites; he looked up at the thin strip of blue sky between the tops of the towering tenements; and then his eye fell upon the huge form of the Irish policeman who sauntered grandly through all this bustle and turmoil of agile Italians, and he said to him:

"Do you think that any of these people would offer me violence if I were to proceed farther along this street?"

The policeman looked down at him kindly, but from an infinite height of scorn.

"An' ME here?" he said.

Mr. Pentagon went on unmolested, and before he had reached the end of the street he had some glimmering realization of the fact that it was not only the big policeman who was keeping order for him, but the spirit of good-natured, happy, all-expectant industry that is the salvation of the poor whose feet are on the road that may lead to prosperity if they will but keep to it. But not then, not till long, long afterward, did Mr. Pentagon learn the awful difference between the hopeful and the hopeless poor.

Friday found the Rev. Mr. Pentagon tired and footsore, with not one word added to the sermon "On the Duty of a Strict Observance of the Sabbath." Then, having lain on his lounge all day Friday, of course he needed a little exercise on Saturday. He thought he would take a row. He had rowed at college, and once or twice on the broad river that ran by the town that had been his home for fifteen years.

But he had never rowed on the Bronx, and the Bronx is a river that requires a special education for its navigation. It winds, it twists, it turns, it doubles upon itself, it spreads out into a pond, it contracts to a mere thread of water; in fact it is the most capricious and absurd little water-course on the face of the civilized globe.

And so it happened that Mr. Pentagon, coming around a turn with an unnecessarily powerful stroke, and with his head bent down, ran into a stone bridge, struck his forehead full on the spring of the arch, and went backward into his boat, unconscious of everything in this world, save a dim sense of grinding pain, and of alternate heat and chill.

After this came a long period when he had a certain fitful knowledge of things and people about him. He saw faces—the faces of the elder members of the Perot family, the red good-natured face of Monsieur Perot, the kindly withered face of his old wife, the sweet and pretty face of the married daughter; now and then wondering faces of children looking in at the doorway, and at certain regular intervals a mans face, grave and gentle, with searching eyes that were somehow connected in his mind with the word "Doctor."

Then came the time when he awoke to know that he had been sick nigh unto death, and out of his head, and out of this world more or less, for a period of days. When he asked how many, the Doctor answered him evasively, and he fretted over the evasion with all the futile insistence of a convalescent. He could learn nothing from Madame Perot, who could have made a professional cross-examiner change any given subject for any other one he did not want. But at last he caught Monsieur Perot and bullied him into an admission. Perot would not absolutely defy the Doctor's orders, but in the end, being in an agony of perspiration and trepidation, he told Mr. Pentagon that he might calculate the rest for himself; it was now fifteen days since the reverend gentleman had honored the house with his presence.

"Quinze jours," said the Reverend Mr. Pentagon to himself, "Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday" and he went on counting on his fingers. "Why, to-day must be Sunday!"

Even as he spoke a church bell tinkled faintly in the distance. It tinkled long enough to remind the Reverend Mr. Pentagon that instead of scolding at the week that lay before him, it behooved him to thank the Lord for his deliverance, and he accordingly did so, without the aid of his Book of Common Prayer: for his injury had somewhat endangered his eyesight, and he was absolutely forbidden to read.

Mr. Pentagon was a strong, healthy, temperate man; and he made a most rapid recovery. To be more exact it was soon to be seen that his case would have no sequelæ, as the good grave Doctor loved to call the secondary consequences of an ailment. Instead of a week, he was kept but a day longer in bed, and two days in his room, and after that he was allowed to wander the whole day long under Monsieur Perot's cherry-trees, or to sun himself on the little veranda overlooking the stream. He could not read, which tried him a little, but his young friends of the innumerable tribe of Perot made life bearable, in fact, delightful for him. His French, what there was of it, was of what might be called the passive sort; and he understood perhaps one word in three of what the elder Perots said to him. But the children, as is often the case with Franco-American youngsters, spoke two languages with equal fluency and incorrectness, and moreover combined the two as they saw fit. Thus Mr. Pentagon conversed with them in a sort of Pigeon-English, or lingua franca, after this fashion.

Mr. Pentagon.—Kee ay ploorong, Mahree?

Marie Angélique Eulalie Rose Étienne Perot (aged seven).—Mais, m'sieu, c'est Toto qui pleure, parce qu'il a tveesté la tail à la chatte, et puis papa lui a fetchée des gifles."

That's what the beautiful language of France comes to on the banks of the winding Bronx.

Mr. Pentagon had never married, he had no near kin, and he was not in the habit of keeping up close correspondence with even the best of his many friends. But when he awoke on the third morning of his convalescence as an externe, he reflected that he must very soon find some way of notifying those who cared for him of his present condition and whereabouts. He thought he would ask the Doctor, who still came to see him once a day, if he would not write the requisite letters for him. The Doctor was a serious man, his face was almost sad in its thoughtfulness, and he was chary of speech to the verge of taciturnity; but there was an earnest kindliness in his thoughtful eyes which made Mr. Pentagon feel sure that he would write the letters, and would write them well.

Much cheered by this conclusion he finished his dressing and was about to start down-stairs, when the door opened and he beheld Monsieur Perot, in gorgeous attire, with a large tri-colored bouquet in his buttonhole; Madame Perot in her very best dress with a marvellous and complicated white cap on her gray head, and the married daughter, with her husband, both costumed in the most advanced art of the Bowery. Behind them, like the incidental cherubs with which the Old Masters used to fill up the odd corners of their canvases, surged a selected group of small Perots, the girls all in white dresses with big sashes, and the boys all in white shirts with tri-colored neck-ties.

There was a flood, a deluge, an explosion of French, and after Mr. Pentagon had struggled with it for some time, and had been helped out by the younger members of the delegation, he got it through his head that he was invited to join the Perot family at the Summer Festival of the French Society to which they belonged, this festival being a combined fête and pique-nique at Tomkinson's Summer-Garden Park, a paradise of unspeakable delights situated in the immediate neighborhood.

It would have been impossible for Mr. Pentagon to refuse, if he had wished to refuse, which he did not in the least.

"I ought to see about the letters," he reflected; "but then, this being Saturday, they could not go until Monday, and I need only miss a single mail. And really I must not lose this opportunity of seeing what a French Festival is like."

Three country stages of vast age and of unlimited capacity transported the Perot family through clouds of dust to Mr. Tompkinson's Garden, which was shut off from the rest of the world by a high yellow fence. Through a gateway decked with the fluttering flags of all nations and several defunct yacht-clubs, the party was whirled, in such a tumult of joyous shouting and shrieking as Mr. Pentagon had never in his life heard before. His head whirled with it, and it was with the sense of being in a dream that he found himself seated at a table under a tree, drinking a milky sweet stuff called orgeat, and by the aid of a spoon sharing his beverage with a warm and sticky little Perot, who had perched on his left knee. In front of them a company of eleven amateur soldiers, attired in uniforms that would have made Solomon in all his glory look like a Quaker, performed evolutions of a mysterious and rapid nature, looking extremely fierce all the while, and thumping the butts of their guns on the ground every now and then, with a snort of defiance. This done, they mopped their hot faces, accepted the congratulations of the Perot family with smiling satisfaction, took off their hats and bowed in the politest way, and went off somewhere else to do it again.

In every direction somebody was doing something. The "Park" was a poor bare place, with dusty trees, and dry and faded grass, and the little booths that lined its yellow walls were old and weatherbeaten, and their sparse decorations of red, white, and blue bunting were pitifully faded with sun and rain. But the people made it gay—the swarms of happy holidaying folk, some of them in quaint, old-world costumes, some of them in brilliant uniforms of designs that would have looked equally strange on either side of the water—all of them wearing hot and smiling faces. Mr. Pentagon opened his eyes wide to take in the unaccustomed scene. The women's caps were wonderful to him; so were the waist-coats of the men. As to the various sports and games, he had never dreamed that there were so many ways of amusing one's self in the world. There were shooting-galleries, and merry-go-rounds, and "Aunt Sallies," and the tiniest little switch-back railway, which was labelled in letters as big as itself, "Aux Montagues Russes." And in every little open space of the extensive grounds there was a club or a society, or a league, or a group, or some other aggregation of from six to a dozen young men, practising some athletic sports with infinite perspiration and ardor. The fencers fenced, the strong men lifted their heavy weights, the military companies drilled, the athletes tumbled and twisted, and climbed, and ran, and turned hand-springs; and the sportsmen and sharp-shooters shot, and shot, and shot, till their popping fairly peppered the general hum and buzz as if the place were undergoing a miniature bombardment.

And when nature needed refreshment or stimulus, one bottle of thin blue wine sufficed for the needs of any six of the participants; some of them, more ascetic, indeed, preferred lemonade, and shunned the wine-cup.

Before long Mr. Pentagon found himself in the very thick of it. He was introduced to everybody, and everybody made him welcome. As an American, he was regarded as a prime authority upon "le sport" and he was called upon to act as umpire and referee in all manner of contests, most of them wholly strange to him. His umpiring must have been fearful and wonderful; but as the wildest of his decisions gave perfect satisfaction to everybody concerned, he was none the wiser. Then he got so interested that he began to take a hand in some of the milder sports, and with his hat on the back of his head, and his clerical necktie twisted around under one ear, he showed what an able-bodied American clergyman can do when he puts his whole mind on the noble game of ringtoss. And when Madame Perot came to tell him it was time to go home, she found him hand in hand with a string of little Perots and their playmates, capering clumsily but cheerfully to the tune of

"Sur le pont d'Avignon.
Tout le monde y danse, danse,
Sur le pont d'Avignon.
Tout le monde y danse en rond."

As he approached the gate, weary but happy, he met the Doctor, who bore in his face a look more bright and more kindly (if that could be) than Mr. Pentagon had ever seen there before. The Doctor shook Mr. Pentagon warmly by the hand.

"My dear sir," I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see you here. I am afraid I expected to find you literally and figuratively on the other side of the fence. I have never yet been able to convince any one of your cloth of the necessity of allowing to the working people confined in great cities a chance for innocent and wholesome recreation on the one day that they can call their own. The workman in this country, and especially in New York, works harder and has fewer holidays than any workman in civilization. What with the climate and his three meals of meat a day, he has a tremendous head of steam on, and the standard of work which he makes for himself is such as no European employer would dare set up for his operatives. To condemn such a man to absolute idleness and inactivity one day in seven; to take his beer from him on that one day; to shut him out of every place of innocent enjoyment in a city that is tropically hot in summer, and cold as Russia in winter, and that has only one narrow outlet to country walks, is cruel, my dear sir—positively cruel. And when you lend the sanction of your presence to Sunday amusements, so innocent and helpful as these, you are helping hundreds and thousands of stunted lives, and doing more good than your own eyes can see. Look around you! Is there drunkenness here? Is there dissolute conduct or disorder? Why, my dear sir, these people are not only good citizens, but devout members of their own church—it is not yours or mine, but it is theirs. They have been to early mass, and finished their devotions before you and I were out of bed, and——"

The Doctor was growing eloquent, and seemed to be but just started in his discourse. Somehow the Reverend Mr. Pentagon, limp, terrified, white of face, and weak as to his knees, slipped away and out, through the big gate on whose portals he saw for the first time two huge signs on which he read but two words "FÉTE" and "DIMANCHE."

The next day Mr. Pentagon went to New York, although he had neither supped nor slept the night before. He wanted to evade the Doctor's daily call, or at least to think things over with himself before he should meet that grave and thoughtful face. He was slowly and painfully walking down Fifth Avenue, his thoughts turned in upon himself, when he felt his hand grasped and warmly shaken. Lifting his eyes, he saw before him a face that gradually revealed itself to his memory as the face of the little vestryman, of the great church of his hopes, who had called upon him some months before to suggest the possibility of his coming to New York. The little man was beaming, and he flourished a newspaper.

"Good! good!" he said, shaking the clergyman's hand up and down, "you have done nobly, Mr. Pentagon! It was a daring thing, sir, very daring; but the very audacity of it has settled the business. The conservative element in our vestry is fairly frightened out of the field. Why, sir, Mr. McGlaisher, the leader of the Sabbatarian wing in our church, actually said that while he could not vote for you, he would not vote against you; and that he could not help respecting a man who had the courage of his convictions. You will be called, sir, you will be called; as sure as my name ain't McGlaisher."

And he bustled away, leaving the daily paper in Mr. Pentagon's hands; and Mr. Pentagon's weak and blinking eyes read:


NO BLUE LAWS FOR HIM!


THE REVEREND MR. PENTAGON ATTENDS A SUNDAY PICNIC.


AND DANCES WITH THE BABIES


WILL ST. PHYLACTERY'S CALL HIM NOW?

That evening the Reverend Mr. Pentagon made a confession to the Doctor—or rather two confessions: one of error, and one of conversion.

"But," said he, "will you tell me how it was possible for me to make such an error? The man certainly said fifteen days."

The Doctor's amused smile broadened.

"My dear sir," he said, "we Anglo-Saxons think we belong to the most logical race on the face of the earth, and yet the accurate little Frenchman can give us points three times out of four. With him a week is a week—seven days—with us it sometimes is, and sometimes is not. When you speak of something that happened 'a week ago this Monday,' you really speak of a period of eight days, or a week and the present Monday. The logical Frenchman does not even think of that space of time as a week; he calls it 'huit jours,' in the same way. On the third Wednesday of your stay here, which happened, by the way, to be a saint's day in the Catholic Church, Monsieur Perot very rightly told you that you had been here fifteen days. But with your habit of counting 'exclusively,' as we call our stupid fashion, you counted the days done and not the day you were in. You would not have done it if you had been calculating the date of payment of a note; it was simply illogical habit that counted for you. But you see," he concluded, with a little laugh, as he took up his hat, "you had been French for a fortnight."

"Ah, yes, I see," said the Reverend Mr. Pentagon.

And as he heard the Doctor close the front door behind him, he picked up his half-finished sermon "On the Duty of a Strict Observance of the Sabbath" and tore it into small pieces.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.